Sunday, 30 December 2007

A Suitcase

From Nobody’s Home
Essays by Dubravka Ugresic

A Suitcase
‘There are authors who have penned marvellous pages on exile. They unwittingly polish the subject, and in doing so give exile the glow of a romantic rebellion against the demands of everyday life, a rejection of home and homeland for the thrill of personal freedom. The people who have written these pages overlook the banalities; Walter Benjamin killed himself because he wasn't able to get his papers stamped; everything might have turned out differently had that anonymous clerk stamped Benjamin's passport. But in myths, including ones about exile, everyone is inclined to forget the anonymous bureaucrats. And this is how the bold face of clerkish triviality, shored up by both the author’s, and the reader's, romantic expectations, becomes the face of cruel Destiny.’

‘Literature tends to show the romantic side of exile. In reality, people live in exile submerged in trauma. The image of exile suggests a rebellious fragmentation, but also a servile obedience to the process of acquiring a new home. The only way those in exile are able to leave it behind is not to leave it behind at all, but to live it as a permanent state, to turn their waiting room into a cheery ideology of life, and to embrace the schizophrenia of exile as the norm of normalcy, revering only one god: the suitcase!’

‘The most intimate side of exile is tied to luggage. As I write these lines I am surrounded by a dozen kinds: bags, suitcases (with and without wheels), costly valises, cheap duffels, all purchased in various cities. I look at them fondly: they are my only true companions, witnesses to my wanderings. The suitcases travel, go across borders, move in and move out with me……..’

Saturday, 8 December 2007

Gorse

'When gorse be out of bloom, love be out of season.' Cornish folk saying.

Gorse in bloom on Maryport Sea Brows 6th December 2007

Thursday, 29 November 2007

Raymond Roussel and the Republic of Dreams

Raymond Roussel (1877–1933)

Raymond Roussel and the Republic of Dreams by Mark Ford.

French poet, novelist, playwright, musician, chess-player, neurasthenic and drug addict. In addition, he was immensely wealthy, although most of his wealth was dissipated in trying to bring attention to his writing.

Little known today, yet Roussel's novels, poems and plays profoundly influenced certain groups within C20th French literature, including the Surrealists and Oulipo. In the 1950s his work excited the interest of young American poets such as John Ashbery (who had lived in Paris for over five years where he was known as ‘that crazy American who’s interested in Roussel') and Kenneth Koch. His influence is apparent in some of the poems of Ashbery and Koch written in the mid-1950s. In the 1970s I was using one of Koch's books, Rose, Where did You get that Rose, while teaching English to 'less able' adolescents. It was a gift to a teacher and a winner with the kids every time. Now I understand better how Koch came to write in the way that he did.

Ashbery has written the Introduction to Mark Ford’s book, outlining the processes by which Roussel’s work became more widely known in the 1960s. Michel Foucault’s first book, published in 1963, was a study of Roussel. Alain Robbe Grillet and Michel Butor, creators of the nouvel roman, acknowledged their debt to him.

The following quotes on the subject of Raymond Roussel will give some indication of his standing and influence among his contemporaries and some who came later:

"A formidable poetic apparatus" -Marcel Proust


"Raymond Roussel belongs to the most important French literature of the beginning of the century" -Alain Robbe-Grillet


"Genius in its pure state" - Jean Cocteau


"Creator of authentic myths - Michel Leiris


"A great poet" - Marcel Duchamp


"The President of the Republic of Dreams" - Louis Aragon


"The greatest mesmerist of modern times" - André Breton


"The plays are among the strangest and most enchanting in modern literature"- John Ashbery


"My fame will outshine that of Victor Hugo or Napoleon"- Raymond Roussel

The only words written by Roussel that I have read are those quoted in Mark Ford's book but I was so intrigued by him that I'm inspired to track some of his books down to read. There's plenty of information about Roussel on Websites, for example:

http://www.centerforbookculture.org/context/no10/winkfield.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raymond_Roussel

Thursday, 27 September 2007

Arts and Crafts of Islam

Islamic Arts and Crafts
A World of Inspiration


By Way of Explanation

Artists and craftsmen, from modest hobbyists to textile artists and fine artists, seek and find inspiration all around them. They look to the past as well as to the present; to the natural world and to traditional design sources as well as to their own experiences and perceptions. The talk I give to fellow-quilters and needleworkers grew from my love affair with the inexhaustible treasury of patterns and designs found on the architecture and artefacts of the Islamic world. They range from the miraculous complexity of the patterns seen, for example, in the decoration of the Alhambra in Granada, to the richness and variety of the carpets of the Middle East. They encompass delicately patterned ceramics, glasswork, intricately woven textiles, leather work, as well as the calligraphy and arabesque decorative style which were developed to art forms of themselves. What follows offers no more than the briefest outline of the background to the phenomenon which is Islamic art.

'The Very Summit of Perfection

'Islamic art derives from the marriage of wisdom and craftsmanship'- Owen Jones

'The Alhambra is at the very summit of perfection of Moorish art; every principle which we can derive from the study of the ornamental art of any other people is not only ever present here, but was by the Moors more universally and truly obeyed. We find in the Alhambra the speaking art of the Egyptians, the natural grace and refinement of the Greeks, the geometrical combinations of the Romans, the Byzantines and the Arabs. The Moorish ornament wanted but one charm, which was the peculiar feature of the Egyptian ornament: symbolism.' So says
Owen Jones in his classic book The Grammar of Ornament.

In his Forward to Titus Burkhardt's book Art of Islam. Language and Meaning. Sayyed Hossein Nadr, says this: 'Islamic art was at last revealed to be what it really is, namely the earthly crystallisation of the spirit of the Islamic revelation as well as a reflection on the heavenly realities of earth…….. with the help of which of the Moslem makes his journey through the terrestrial environment and beyond……………..'

It helps to understand a little about the history of the spread of Islam, which began early in the seventh century. One of the great achievements of the Prophet Mahommed, the founder of Islam, was to convert and unite diverse Arab tribes and inspire them, in their turn, to convert surrounding peoples. The early converts were essentially nomadic, desert-dwelling peoples, yet so successful were they that by 641 Egypt had been converted, after which the 'Moors' as they came to be known swept, across North Africa and Spain. The geographical limit of their conquests was Tours in France, which they reached in 732. The Moorish architecture which survives in these places, of which the Alhambra in Grenada is the outstanding example, are monuments to the great days of the mighty Islamic empire. It is very largely these buildings and the elaborate, stylised decoration seen on them, which have inspired and influenced Western artists ever since.

A Sense of Unity

Quoting, again, from Sayyed Hossein Nadr's Forward to Titus Burkhardt's book, he says that [Islamic art] 'contains a unique unity of form which maintains itself over centuries'. Thus, the many patterns and designs which to Western eyes are characteristically Islamic occur in a bewildering number of places and forms and yet are still identifiably Islamic in style. How has it come about that we see and recognise this style all over such a vast geographical area, and in places like France and Spain which today are predominantly Christian countries? This is because Islamic art is unique in being at once complex and various, and at the same time having an underlying unity which makes it instantly recognisable in style and content.

This sense of unity stems from the fact that very early in the history of Islamic art a distinct architectural style and a complete set of motifs became associated with the ideas and faith which generated them. By contrast, diversity rather than uniformity was characteristic of the art of Christendom, each of its various stages being distinct, so that Carolingian, Byzantine and Renaissance styles are all quite different. Islamic art on the other hand, is characterised by uniformity both in time and space. Islamic artists did not seek innovation in the way that, say, the Renaissance artists did. They remained faithful to time honoured models and conventions, exploring ways of further enriching and reinventing the art through subtle variations and adaptations.

This is not, of course, to suggest that there are no discernible variations and trends in Islamic art forms. Contact with the vast range of established cultures which were assimilated as the Islamic empire expanded had a profound effect on the buildings and artefacts created after the conquest. Nonetheless, despite the fact that the Islamic world was spread over vast geographical areas and that its converts were drawn from the great diversity of the races of man, from very early on a remarkable uniformity is evident; the differences are of nuance and emphasis rather than being fundamental; they are variations on unchanging themes.

The most compelling reason for this is that Islamic art is essentially and always, sacred art, an expression of a deeply spiritual sensibility. Indeed, it is often argued that the universal appeal of this art derives precisely from its religious roots. There are elaborate theories about the spiritual significance of just about every manifestation of Islamic art, including studies of the cosmological significance of the geometrical properties of buildings and decorative patterns. If, while marvelling both at the technical skill and the aesthetic beauty of this art, we remember this, we may perhaps come a little closer to an understanding of the phenomenon of Islamic art and its creators.

There are three distinct strands to Islamic decorative art and design: the formal geometrical patterns, exemplifying the mathematical genius of the Arabs, and graceful, flowing stylisation of objects from the natural world - what has come to be called 'arabesque' style. However, more important than either of these is the calligraphy which, while it can be viewed as an expression of the arabesque style, was elevated to an art form in itself. As well as reflecting the aesthetic genius of the Arabs, their unique script was also an important influence in the establishment of the early Islamic empire. David Rice, in his book, Islamic Art, maintains that the adoption of the Arabic script was the main factor which made the art of the Islamic world into a distinctive style.

The Spirit of Geometry
'The circle, and its centre, are the point at which all Islamic geometric patterns begin. The circle symbolically represents one God, eternity, without beginning and without end. The circle is the most beautiful parent of all polygons, both containing and underlying them. '
Interlacement is a familiar element in the decorative art of many cultures - the Celts, Romans and Greeks all used it extensively. But the awesome mathematical complexity characteristic of Islamic art excels all and has fascinated and beguiled artists and craftsmen of all creeds and all cultures down the ages. Many theories have been advanced to explain these inspiring manifestations of Islamic decorative art, including the idea that Moorish artists and decorators were led to develop elaborate geometrical designs because, dating from about 690, representational paintings and decorations were banned in mosques. However, the history and practise of representational art is not so simple. Strictly speaking, the ban applied only to the image of the divinity because such images could become objects of idolatry. Also, God was inimitable and human figures could be seen as an attempt to represent God. The ban was, and is, interpreted differently by different ethnic groups, some branches of Islam applying the ban more rigidly than others: the Sunni Arabs, for example, frowned on representation of ANY living being.

Whatever the impetus for the development of this unique, mathematically-based decoration, it has been described as ‘the most intellectually satisfying form of surface decoration for it is an extremely direct expression of the Divine Unity underlying the inexhaustible variety of the world.’ Interlacement, generally constituted from a single, unbroken line which turns endlessy back on itself, reflects the unity underlying all things. So although the Arab conquerors would no doubt have seen and perhaps assimilated previous examples of this decorative device, for example in pavement mosaics in temples and churches, they applied to it their own particular mathematical genius to produce altogether more sophisticated and complex creations. As for the liturgical purpose of this geometrical art, it has been suggested that it reflects no IDEAS but enhances a quality of contemplative emptiness which frees the mind from mental ‘fixations’. It has, in other words, a sort of spiritual economy and could, perhaps, be related to yoga practises, where the idea is to still the mind and body.


Post Script

In applying some of the patterns to needlework, I’ve focused on designs and patterns from those elements of Islamic design which readily lend themselves to translation into pieced patterns, such as stars and other polygons appearing on decorative tiles, screens, stonework and carpets. Examples of the arabesque style have of course often been interpreted in appliqué work, embroidery and quilting.

Bibliography


Titus Burkhardt: The Art of Islam. Language and Meaning
A.F.Calvert. The Alhambra. 1904
Keith Critchlow:Islamic Patterns 1976
David Rice. Islamic Art 1965

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Going Down South

On a trip down to Cheshire, to talk to Cranford Quilters, I found I was staying overnight within spitting distance of the famous Jodrell Bank observatory. It makes an excitingly space-age impact as it looms out of the autumnal landscape, at first appearing strange and obtrusive. But after a few hours, walking in the surrounding lanes, viewing it from different angles, it acquires a mysterious elegance and, eventually, comes to seem a completely appropriate part of the scene.

This part of rural Cheshire is very much Manchester commuting country - going on foot in the lanes is hazardous as high-spec cars race along at speed bearing the well-heeled business persons home to their newly-built country mansions.

But not all the local residents are like this: I was staying with people who live in an eighteenth century farmhouse with surrounding fields which are run as a smalholding - they produce all their own meat (from pigs, lambs, a few beef cattle) fruit and vegetables. Being offered this sort of food reminds me of what we miss most of the time, unless we go to a local farmers' market.

Cranford Quilters is a very friendly and active group and we had a stimulating evening, with some good Show and Tell and me giving my Islamic Arts and Crafts talk and showing quilts inspired by the Moorish patterns I'm so fascinated by. Altogether, despite the hair-raising drive down the M6 - unrelenting torrential rain, bumper-to-bumper commercial traffic, road works causing tail-backs three miles long - I had a great time and felt that the visit more than justified the journey. Anyway, by contrast, the return drive was a doddle, with the Motorway behaving as it should in fine, dry conditions.

Friday, 21 September 2007

Francis Ponge (1899-1988)

Francis Ponge French essayist/poet, who often combined the two forms to create a sort of prose poetry.

Quoting from Wikipaedia:
‘In his most famous work, Le parti pris des choses (Often translated The Voice of Things), he meticulously described common things such as oranges, potatoes and cigarettes in a poetic voice, but with a personal style and paragraph form (prose poem) much like an essay. These poems owe much to the work of the French Renaissance poet Remy Belleau. Ponge avoided appeals to emotion and symbolism, and instead sought to minutely recreate the world of experience of everyday objects. His work is often associated with the philosophy of Phenomenology.
He described his own works as "a description-definition-literary artwork" which avoided both the drabness of a dictionary and the inadequacy of poetry.’

Only one of his works could be discovered on the shelves here: Le Grand Recueil (subtitle Pieces). It is the original Gallimard edition of 1961 and has a soft, foxed paper cover. It is printed on equally soft, thick pages, some of which remain uncut. Sorry to say, my rusty French is no longer up to translating without recourse to a dictionary. Even worse, the On-line French dictionary claims that many of the words in the following ‘Symphonie Pastorale’ do not exist!

Symphonie Pastorale
Aux deux tiers de la hauteur du volet gauche de la fenetre, un nid de chants d’oiseaux, une pelote de cris d’oiseaux, une pelote de pepiments, une glande gargouillante cridoisogene,
Tandis qu’un lamellibranche la barre en tracers,
(Le tout envelope du floconnement adipeux d’un ciel nuageux)
Et que la borborygme des crapauds fait le bruit des entrailles,
Le coucou bat regulierement comme le bruit du coeur dans le lointoin.

Fortunately, http://www.kalin.lm.com/ponge.html has some examples of Ponge’s writings in translation:

Rhetoric
I assume we are talking about saving a few young men from suicide. I have in mind those who commit suicide out of disgust, because they find that others own too large a share of them. To them one should say: at least let the minority within you have the right to speak. Be poets. They will answer: but it is especially there, it is always there that I feel others within me; when I try to express myself, I am unable to do so. Words are readymade and express themselves: they do not express me. Once again I find myself suffocating. At that moment, teaching the art of resisting words becomes useful, the art of saying only what one wants to say, the art of doing them violence, of forcing them to submit. In short... Found a rhetoric, or rather, teach everyone the art of founding his own rhetoric. This saves those few, those rare individuals who must be saved: those who are aware, and who are troubled and disgusted by the others within the, those individuals who make the mind progress, and who are, strictly speaking, capable of changing the reality of things.

the pleasures of the door
Kings do not touch doors.
They do not know that happiness: to push before them with kindness or rudeness one of these great familiar panels, to turn around towards it to put it back in place - to hold it in one's arms.
... The happiness of grabbing by the porcelain knot of its belly one of these huge single obstacles; this quick grappling by which, for a moment, progress is hindered, as the eye opens and the entire body fits into its new environment.
With a friendly hand he holds it a while longer before pushing it back decidedly thus shutting himself in - of which, he, by the click of the powerful and well-oiled spring, is pleasantly assured.

On the above website I also find some words of Ponge translated by Peter Riley. http://www.kalin.lm.com/water.html

Friday, 14 September 2007

The Poetry of William Bronk (1918 - 1999)


Some stanzas from The Force of Desire by William Bronk. (1979)
The slow, slow light in the winter sky
this very early morning assures us the world
is not the actual world. Never was.

The longing for God, in its intensity,
shares and suggests the power and intensity
of God's longing. And it is - but not for us.

The morning door is open to the outer world;
the pleasure of edges, clear shapes and names.
Its air is the sharp pain of your seperateness.

In human nature we look not for ourselves
But for what is there. We may be a clue
Though it is not certain. We know about false leads.

Truth has many forms which are not its form
if it has one. What has a form of its own
or, having, is only it? There is truth.

If our day-lives mattered at all, no
matter that we dream; but they don’t and the dream
is the life as if it mattered, as we dream it may.

There are some writings about Bronk's poetry here:
http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/a_f/bronk/poetry.htm

Saturday, 1 September 2007

Vol.I The Unknown Matisse/ Vol II Matisse. The Master.



The Unknown Matisse, Volume I of Hilary Spurling's biography covers his early years, from his birth in 1869 to 1908. When it was published in 1998, fellow biographer Michael Holroyd declared that she had done for Matisse 'what George Painter famously did for Proust in the 1950s.' The comprehensive way in which Spurling places Matisse in the context of his contemporaries makes this a book for art historians as much as for the general reader. Despite that, it's also a real 'page-turner', since the story of his life is told in such a lively and engaging manner that it's very hard to put down.
Matisse. The Master,Volume II, describes his life once he became recognised. It is significant that the book is dedicated to Matisse's wife, Amélie, whose own life would make a fascinating study for its own sake. She was his mainstay and helpmeet through the early years of struggle and poverty; once he became famous, and affluent, her role was taken over by others and she went into the sort of 'decline' in which she was constantly ill with unspecified problems - very reminiscent of what happened to, say, Alice James, the sister of the more famous Henry and William. It was not an uncommon fate for gifted and intelligent women in the C19 who could find way to break outof the stereotypical view of their roles in life as wives, mothers or, as often was the case, spinsterhood which trapped them in the parental home as carers.








Thursday, 30 August 2007

The Libraries of Thought and Imagination

An anthology of books and bookshelves. Edited by Alec Finlay, who says this in his Introduction:It is the use we make of them, not only in reading but in the reassuring and inpsiring presence that they have, that books discover their full meaning.'
The topics covered in the short pieces which make up the content of this book are so eclectic that it would be impossible to make anything approaching a summary. They are a celebration and an exploration of everything books can mean and be, both as physical objects and as sources of information and inspiration.
It is a book to live with, to dip into, to ponder, to return to time and again, always finding something which strikes you anew. What's more, each article, poem or chapter ends with a Bibliography, thus pointing the reader to yet more possibilities. If you just followed up on a small percentage of the references, you'd be kept in reading matter for years.

Like all the books in the Pocketbook series, the book itself is compact, stylish and beautifully produced with a sturdy card cover - and illustrated throughout with atmospheric photographs.

Published by Pocketbooks, Morning Star Publications, Polygon. 2001Available fromhttp://www.splshop.org.uk/index.cfm?cfid=999017&cftoken=15790270

Monday, 27 August 2007

Der Abschied from Das Lied von der Erde by Gustav Mahler

A poem for Billo, who has gone away

The Farewell

Farewell in the Mountain
Bid each other farewell in the mountain
Closing wooden gate at dusk
Spring grass green again next year
Will the honoured friend return?
Wang Wei

Friday, 24 August 2007

Bren's progress

Bren's registered kennel name, Skelrah Eid, was chosen by the breeders; apparently they spent a holiday in Norway last year and decided to call all the puppies in the litter after Norwegian waterfalls! Six day in, and Bren is doing fine. He's a remarkably calm and phlegmatic little beast, although he enjoys a romp with Sam and is very sociable with people and dogs he meets when out and about. I keep trying to get a good picture of him, but he's so densely black that it's hard to see his features - unlike Sam, who is delightfully photogenic! So much so, that as soon as I produce the camera he goes into 'posing' mode, waiting patiently until he hears a click.
In the second photo, Bren has nabbed the chew and Sam is waiting until he gets bored and drops it - Sam, of course, has his own chew, but the point of the game is to compete for possession of the SAME chew. Whereas Bren's tactic is to jump up and try to snatch it from Sam, Sam prefers the waiting game.

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Introducing Skelrah Eid (Aka Bren (Brendon)

The newest addition to the family, Bren, is ten weeks old. He's distantly related to Sam and was bred at a farm in the south of Cumbria. Although he only arrived yesterday, he's settled in amazingly well and is already Sam's new best friend. Puppies leaving their mums and siblings for the first time usually tend to protest loudly on their first night away; Bren took it all in his stride and not a sound was heard all night - actually, he was probably too exhausted by the day's excitement to protest. He has made his first appearance on the Sea Brows, to general admiration.

Friday, 17 August 2007

The Age of Illusion

The Age of Illusion. England in the Twenties and Thirties, by Ronald Blythe (1963). Another recent find in a second-hand book-shop, from the author most famously known as the writer of Akenfield, Portrait of an English Village (1969), a portrait of agricultural life in Suffolk from the turn of the century to the 1960s.

Did you know (I didn’t) the whole story of how the Unknown Soldier came to be laid to rest in Westminster Abbey? Or the amorous adventures of the Vicar of Stiffkey? (I’d heard of him, vaguely, but didn’t know the story – fascinating stuff worthy of space in any red-top….) Or exactly how the Jarrow march came into existence and what happened to it? (My father had told me about seeing the marchers arrive in London – he was, apparently, one of a not particularly welcoming, or large, crowd of onlookers who watched as the marchers wearily trooped to the soup kitchen arranged for them in Garrick Street.) By selecting fifteen topics, people and events, and giving the personal stories AND the politics behind each one, Blythe conveys the atmosphere of the times he’s writing about and gives a more convincing feeling of what it was like to be there, of what really happened, than many a more academic and objective account. There are chapters on, among other things, T.E.Lawrence, Mrs. Wallis, Amy Johnson, The Brighton Trunk Murders.
I particularly enjoyed an absolutely riveting account of the great body-line bowling controversy which began in Adelaide on Saturday, 13th January, 1933, at the third Test between the MCCV and Australia. The controversy spread to ‘every anglicized acre of the world’, and was ‘compulsory conversation wherever the English met’, but Blythe ends this chapter by quietly reminding us that, during what he calls this ‘three weeks’ wonder’, Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of the Reich and Captain Goring took control of the police in Berlin, and over more than half of Germany besides. As he says, the public obsession with the body-line bowling controversy could be compared to Drake’s game of bowls……..

Blythe’s style is jaunty, even racy, and carries the reader along at a great pace. Altogether, he’s entertaining as well as being informative. Call it ‘history lite’, if you will, but I enjoyed every word of it – I’m re-reading some of the chapters and savouring them all the more.
(The picture shows Ronald Blythe with Rex Pyke. In Peter Hall's 1974 film Akenfield, the director used the residents of East Anglian villages to act in stories of rural life. Thirty years after the release of this unusual film, a 2006 documentary saw the original producer/editor gather together crew, including Sir Peter Hall, author Ronald Blythe and members of the local 'cast' to see how life has changed for those featured and to recall the making of the production. )

Saturday, 4 August 2007

Monday, 30 July 2007

The Curtain


The Curtain by Milan Kundera (2005)

‘…human life as such is a defeat. All we can do in the face of that ineluctable defeat called life is to try to understand it. That – that is the raison d’etre of the art of the novel.’

Described as An Essay in Seven Parts, this book is Kundera’s personal view of the history and value of the novel in Western civilization. ‘The curtain’ is the ready-made perception of the world which we all inherit – a pre-interpreted world. It is the function of the novelist to tear down this curtain to reveal to us something which we didn’t know. For anyone who reads as many novels as I do this book is salutary.

A novel which glorifies the conventional or the hackneyed ‘excludes itself from the history of the novel.’ Only by tearing through the curtain of pre-interpretation can a novel be worthy of its name – ‘It is the identifying sign of the art of the novel.’

‘For life is short, reading is long, and literature is in the process of killing itself off through an insane proliferation. Every novelist, starting with his own work, should eliminate whatever is secondary, lay out for himself and everyone else the ethic of the essential.’

‘It [the novel] refuses to exist as an illustration of a historical era, as description of society, as defense of an ideology, and instead puts itself exclusively at the service of what only the novel can say.’

Monday, 23 July 2007

Darkness and Day (1951)



Darkness and Day by Ivy Compton Burnett. (1884-1969)
Reading Ivy Compton Burnett is not easy. This is the first of her books which I’ve actually succeeded in getting right through. But persistence paid off and, finally, I think I see the point of ICB. There is no other writer remotely like her, either in style or in content. The ‘story’, in so far as there is one, is conveyed almost entirely through dialogue, and you have to read very carefully to pick up the multifarious threads and cross-currents of conversation. Once you get rid of the idea that this is meant to represent ‘real life’ in any literal sense, you begin to appreciate the razor-like skill with which she conveys the ghastly entanglements of bourgeois family life, at the same time revealing its inherent humour and melodrama.

The New York Herald Tribune said: "Her specialty is a kind of surgical operation upon family life. Through her, we see it startlingly stripped of its more amiable pretensions. Parents and children, servants and masters, engage in a queer kind of verbal warfare bristling with innuendo and even with a candor that slashes to the quick. Her revelation of character ... [is] built upon a searching yet serene anlysis of the egotisms, envies, irascibilities that are part of domestic intercourse. By reason of her accurate avoidance of all pretense or idealism, her people actually become ... almost heroic, and vividly if bitterly funny."

Raymond Mortimer, reviewing Darkness and Day in the Sunday Times, wrote:
"Everyone in it [Darkness and Day] is either protecting himself from the truth or unearthing it. 'What we ought to be is not what we are.' If all the characters blaze with wit, this is in order to illuminate the most unlovely recesses of the human heart; in none of the fashionable prophets of despair do we find a blacker view of human nature. Yet here the reader is exhilarated — by the author's iron courage and by her austere diction, which can rise to poetic grandeur ..."

Opinion on Ivy Compton Burnett’s work has been divided, some claiming that she is a literary genius, others that she is unreadably pretentious.

"The most original novelist now writing in English", said V.S Pritchett, and Philip Toynbee commented: "Miss Compton-Burnett is totally unlike any other novelist. Wit and melodrama have never been so combined before, and the combination is a brilliant success.... She is a unique figure in modern English literature."

On the other hand, John o' London's Weekly, reviewing More Women Than Men described it as: "Pompous falsity ... a pinnacle of unreality", and reviewing Men and Wives, the New Statesman said:
"There is something rather cruel, rather horrible in Miss Burnett's talent."

There’s a wealth of information about ICB on the Internet – you could start with Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ivy_Compton-Burnett


Sunday, 22 July 2007

Slightly Foxed

The problem I have with Slightly Foxed, 'The Real Reader's Quarterly', is that I want to read ALL the books reviewed therein because all the writers make their book selections sound unmissable. Visit the Slightly Foxed website for full details: p://www.foxedquarterly.com/?page=home
In this issue, I particularly enjoyed Sue Gee's piece about Kathleen Hale, one of my favourite children's authors. The review of James Hamilton-Paterson's Griefwork (see my previous Blog on this book) by Tim Longville was as lively in tone and as original and perceptive in comment as I'd expect from him.












Saturday, 30 June 2007

The Twilight of American Culture

The Twilight of American Culture by Morris Berman. (2000)

Reviews of Berman's books, including this one, have not been unconditionally favourable. But it got me thinking and I'll follow by reading its sequel, published in 2006, Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire.
Quote: ' ‘One of the things I hope to demonstrate in the pages that follow is that our much-vaunted American energy is …..shadow rather than substance. It is not merely that the swirl of activity masks a core of emptiness, but that we are playing out a new version of cultural decline as described by Oswald Spengler in his 1918-22 The Decline of the West. Every civilization has its twilight period, says Spengler, during which it hardens into a classical phase, preserving the form of its central Idea, but losing the content, the essential spirit. Hence, Egypticism, Byzanticism, Mandarinism. In the American case, this phase has been aptly labelled (by political scientist Benjamin Barber) “McWorld” – commercial corporate consumerism for its own sake.’

Berman is, of course, writing specifically about America, but his argument has universal relevance.
If you're interested in knowing more, I recommend looking at this Blog for Morris Berman:

Saturday, 23 June 2007

Barbara Kingsolver



Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver. Another member of my library reading group gave me this book, by a writer I'd never heard of. But I'm very glad she did - it's a remarkable book, combining Kingsolver's experience as a scientist, and her very obvious passion for the natural world, with an engaging narrative style.

Here’s a Synopsis and comment, taken from an on-line review: ‘Prodigal Summer weaves together three stories of human love within a larger tapestry of lives inhabiting the forested mountains and struggling small farms of southern Appalachia. At the heart of these intertwined narratives is a den of coyotes that have recently migrated into the region. Deanna Wolfe, a reclusive wildlife biologist, watches the forest from her outpost in an isolated mountain cabin where she is caught off-guard by Eddie Bondo, a young hunter who comes to invade her most private spaces and confound her self-assured, solitary life. On a farm several miles down the mountain, another web of lives unfolds as Lusa Maluf Landowski, a bookish city girl turned farmer's wife, finds herself unexpectedly marooned in a strange place where she must declare or lose her attachment to the land. And a few more miles down the road, a pair of elderly, feuding neighbors tend their respective farms and wrangle about God, pesticides, and the complexities of a world neither of them expected.

Kingsolver writes as well, and as convincingly, about the human characters in her narrative as she does about the natural world and the creatures who inhabit it. Her theme is the interconnectedness, both of the humans and natural world they inhabit.Over the course of one humid summer, as the urge to procreate overtakes a green and profligate countryside, these characters find connections to one another and to the flora and fauna with which they necessarily share a place. Their discoveries are embedded inside countless intimate lessons of biology, the realities of small farming, and the final, urgent truth that humans are only one part of life on earth.’






Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Foxglove Days


For every elemental power
Is kindred to our hearts, and once
Acknowledged, once embraced,
Once taken to the unfetterd sense,
Once claspt into the naked life,
The union is eternal.
George Meredith
When I take Sam out in the late afternoon, the Sea Brows are deserted. I stroll quietly on a maze of paths, past disused sandstone quarries where the crows wheel in their clumsy flight and rabbits make speedy exits as we pass. These narrow paths are lined with grasses and wild flowers, this year as rich and profuse as I can remember in the twenty years I've walked them. Seas of dog-roses have colonised every ditch and every dip in the land, while stands of campion and hogweed make a pink and white patchwork, occasionally accented by blue vetch, all the way.

On the steep banks, which in May were awash with the cerulean haze of bluebells, bracken has taken over and is aggressively unfurling its fronds day by day. But the dense green of the bracken is punctuated by majestic spires of purple foxgloves, growing more profusely and richly than I can ever remember.

The paths come out on to open grassland beside the sea, where there are clumps of sea-pinks and kidney vetch. It is very quiet here. The heat has brought out the strong, pungent smell of plants and sandy soil. All you hear, at full tide, on a calm, sultry afternoon, is the sound of the sea lapping rhymthically against the sea-walls. Even the oyster-catchers and seagulls seem to have been lulled.

Monday, 18 June 2007

The Spell of the Sensuous


The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram (1996) Subtilted: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human-World.

In his book (his only book as far as I can find out) Abram, a philospher and accomplished sleight-of-hand magician, describes the intimate relations between traditional magicians of many cultures, and the natural world which surrounds them. He then explores language and its power to 'enhance or stifle the spontaneous life of the senses.'

In the Preface he argues that 'Today we participate almost exclusively with other humans and our own human-made technologies. It is a precarious situation, given our age-old reciprocity with the many-voiced landscape. We still NEED that which is other than ourselves and our own creations.'

It is not his premise that we should renounce our modern technologies, but rather that we 'must renew our acquaintance with the sensuous world in which our techniques and technologies are rooted.'

Anyone who has lived long enough to remember a time when in our daily lives we still recognised our dependence on the natural world will be touched, and troubled, by Abram's message that 'Direct sensuous reality, in all its more-than-human mystery, remains the sole solid touchstone for an experiential world now inundated with electronically-generated vistas; only in regular contact with the tangible ground and sky can we learn how to orient and to navigate in the multiple dimensions that now claim us.'

Reading that, I was reminded of a recent survey undertaken with kids, which revealed that many of them didn't know that there was any connection between cows and milk, or that carrots grew in the earth!

Friday, 15 June 2007

Invisible Cities


From Invisible Cities (1972) by Italo Calvino:

Kublai Khan says: I do not know when you have had time to visit all the countries you describe. It seems to me you have never moved from this garden.
Marco Polo replies thus: Everything I see and do assumes meaning in a mental space where the same calm reigns as here, the same penumbra, the same silence streaked by the rustling of leaves. At the moment when I concentrate and reflect, I find myself again, always, in this garden, at this hour of evening, in your august presence, though I continue without a moments pause, moving up a river green with crocodiles or counting the barrels of salted fish being lowered into the hold.

You could consider Invisible Cities in several ways: as a series of linked stories on a single theme, or as a sort of prose poem, or even as a continuous narrative. One reviewer suggests that this book was designed to be dipped into rather than read through, also that it is perhaps not the best of Calvino’s books to start with. I was at a disadvantage on both counts. I read it straight through at 3 in the morning about two weeks ago and have been slightly troubled, indeed haunted, by it ever since.

Gore Vidal, writing in The New York Review of Books commented: "Of all tasks, describing the contents of a book is the most difficult and in the case of a marvelous invention like Invisible Cities, perfectly irrelevant."

I fear this is true, but will try nonetheless to give sufficient of a flavour to (maybe) entice some more readers to give it a go.

Invisible Cities describes imaginary conversations between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. The Great Khan wishes to hear reports about his vast empires, which it is beyond his ability to visit himself. Marco Polo describes his visits to a series of surreal cities in the Khan's domain, each city being characterized by a unique quality or concept and each one given a name which is evocatively feminine. Cities are categorized under headings as, for example, Cities and Memory, Cities and Signs, Cities and Names, Cities and the Dead….It is for the reader (along with Kublai Khan!) to read significance into Marco Polo's fragmented tales, to puzzle over the metaphorical sense of each narrative.

The Great Khan is old and weary but still, despite his scepticism, wants the youthful Polo to enchant and amaze him with accounts of his own domains. When even the ever-inventive Polo finally tires and says that he has told him of all the cities he knows, Kublai Khan says:
“There is one city of which you never speak.”
Marco Polo bowed his head.
“Venice” the Khan said.
Marco smiled. “What else do you believe I have been talking to you about?”

When pressed to speak directly about Venice, Marco says this:
“Memory’s images are fixed in words, are erased. Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it. Or perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little.”






Wednesday, 13 June 2007

The Brown House Garden - 2



Hostas enjoy the cool, north-facing Well-yard, at the back of the house - and slugs and snails are foiled by growing them in pots and chimney-pots. The Early Purple Orchids in the trough seeded themselves in and have mutiplied over the years with no human intervention.
Cardiocrinum giganteum is certainly an exotic inhabitant of The Brown House Garden. It's waxy cream trumpets give off a heady perfume which fills the Well-yard on warm summer evenings. We had one plant, a few years since, which reached 9 feet, but this year it's flowering at only about four feet. The plants die after flowering, but leave off-set bulbils which, given time, will themselves flower.

The Brown House Garden - June


Looking eastward, the wall is lower than on the other sides of the garden, where they are all about 18 feet high. Living up to her name, Maigold is a reliable May-flowerer here and goes on looking fresh and vigorous for weeks and weeks. Growing alongside is an old Rosa rugosa, skirted by catmint. All these plants do remarkably well, considering the amount of shade they get in the morning from a vast sycamore.

Here is Echium pininana 'Pink Fountain', also known as Tower of Jewels and Pride of Teneriffe. This was its first flowering here, after succumbing to winter weather for several years. A real show-stopper for visitors to the garden this year!

Earlier in the season, when it became clear that the echium really was, finally, going to flower, Tim explained some of its botanical properties to Sam, who was most interested.

Sunday, 3 June 2007

Holiday Reading 4: William Sansom

In 1951 Graham Greene’s lover and muse, Catherine Walston, gave him a copy of The Face of Innocence by William Sansom (1912 –1976) "because there is nothing else to give you". Not sure what to make of that remark. Sansom is a writer whom I’d not come across before, and so picking this book up at random I had no idea what to expect. Later, I discovered that there is very little about him on the Internet, although in his day he was highly regarded by other writers such as Eudora Welty, Henry Green and Graham Greene himself. I think he’s what it described as ‘a writers’ writer’, with a very conscious use of language, sometimes a little too clever and self-regarding, which can be a distraction to the reader. His obvious enjoyment of language leads him sometimes to make up his own verbs, which makes him quite fun to read.

The plot revolves round the relationship of two men with a woman called, portentously, Eve. She marries and deceives one of them, while using the other one, who is infatuated with her, as her confident. The big question implied in the ironical title is: whose is the face of innocence? Not Eve, surely, who is highly manipulative and whose motives ultimately remain dark. In fact, her character, central to the whole narrative, is problematical – I was never really convinced by her.

During World War II, Sansom, like Henry Green, was a fireman with the National Fire Service, combatting infernos created by German bombing attacks on England – in fact he may have been a colleague in the service. This experience became one of the major themes of his early works, such as Fireman Flower, and Other Stories. His descriptions of London and London life, in novels and stories set there, became one of the hallmarks of his work.

There’s a good review here:
http://myweb.tiscali.co.uk/christopherpriest/sanrev.htm




Saturday, 2 June 2007

Holiday Reading 3: Heinrich Herrer.



Seven Years In Tibet by Heinrich Harrer is a fascinating read.
(There's a 1997 film which received mixed reviews. ) The book tells the story of how Austrians Heinrich Harrer and Peter Aufschnaiter were imprisoned as enemy aliens by the British while part of a German expedition to Nanga Parat in the Himalayas, in present-day Pakistan, in summer 1939. Harrer and Aufschnaiter escaped and made it across the border into Tibet in 1944, crossing the treacherous high plateau, surviving conditions of the utmost severity. Shortly after arriving in Tibet, they were ordered to return to India but were able to disguise themselves, and make their way to Lhasa. Harrer became a tutor and close friend of the Dalai Lama, who was then still a boy of fourteen. The first part of the book, recounting the perilous journey across Tibet, is an adventure story to thrill any would-be explorer, while Harrer's observation of Lhasa at that time, seen from his Westerner's viewpoint, is a unique record of life in the Forbidden City before the Chinese Communist invasion of 1950.
For an excellent review of the book see http://theopencritic.com/?p=3
Harrer, who remained friends with the Dalai Lama for the rest of his life, died aged 93 in 2006.
For a succinct account of Harrer's life, see the Guardian obituary:

Holiday Reading 2:Rumer Godden

Why, I wondered, had I never read Kingfishers Catch Fire? Still it was good to have such a treat in reserve. The other books of Godden's which I've read - and she wrote 60 all told - are The River and Black Narcissus, both of which were made into films. (I saw the latter when it came out in 1947, when I was ten years old - taken to the cinema by my father - and can remember the colours and atmosphere of it to this day.)
Kingfishers Catch Fire, published in 1953, is a fictionalised acount of the period she spent living frugally in a cottage in Kashmir; she depicts herself as a free spirit who for various reasons is hard up, but in real life she was grimly trying to write to earn money in order to repay the debts which accrued in the collapse of her marriage.

The story gives a convincing picture of the way of life and characters of a particular place and time, without in any way glamourising them or presenting an 'idyll' - although only a Kashmiri would be able to tell us how 'true' it is!

During her time in Kashmir, as well as writing books, Godden set up, and taught in, a school and practised herbal medicine. The family survived an apparent poisoning attempt by two servants, all of which is incorporated into the novel.

Holiday Reading I: Helen Waddell


Every room in the holiday cottage was lined with book-cases containing the over-flow, from his own house, of the owner's book collection. As retired teacher of history, there was a huge selection of books about history and historical figures. But literature was also, obviously, a major interest and so browsing the shelves passed a considerable amount of the time spent 'on holiday'. There were lot of book I'd read in the past - some long forgotten and re-discovered with great pleasure:HelenWaddell's Peter Abelard, which enjoyed considerable success when it was published in 1933, was one such.

As soon as I laid eyes on it, I remembered that it had been given to me to read by my father when I was 16 – perhaps, in his oblique way, he was trying to help me to understand some of the complexities of love and sex which are so puzzling to the young! Re-reading it now, at a distance of 53 years, the thing which most impressed me was how skilfulfully Waddell, scholar and academic that she was, incorporates into the story its theological and political ramifications. I seem to recall, though, that in my first reading of the book, for understandable reasons, this aspect of it impinged much less than the doomed love between Abelard and Heloise.

The following, to be added to my List of Books I Must Read, is a selection from many books dealing with Abelard himself and with Abelard and Heloise’s love story.

Michael T. Clanchy Abelard: A Medieval Life, Blackwell Pub., 1997 Marenbon, The Philosophy of Peter Abelard, Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Constant J. Mews, The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard. Perceptions of Dialogue in Twelfth-Century France, St. Martin Press, 1999 (paperback, Palgrave, 2001).
Constant J. Mews, Abelard and Heloise, Oxford University Press (Great Medieval Thinkers), 2005.
There's also a good summary of the story of Heloise and Abelard here:

Monday, 14 May 2007

Margaret Ogilvy by Her Son, J.M. Barrie


This little book, picked up in a local second-hand bookshop, is Barrie's adulatory account of his mother's life and his relationship with her, published after her death in 1896. It's a fairly maudlin read, but tells us much about Barrie's early emotional life. J. M. Barrie was born in the village of Kirriemuir, in Forfarshire (now Angus), the son of a handloom weaver. His mother, Margaret Ogilvy was the daughter of a stonemason. The couple had ten children, of whom Barrie was the ninth. Jamie, as he was called, heard tales of pirates from his mother, who read her children adventure stories in the evenings. Barrie's father Barrie rarely makes any appearance in his autobiographical works, and in this book is only mentioned at the very end.

Before her marriage, Margaret Ogilvy belonged to a religious sect called the Auld Lichts, or Old Lights, and many of the stories concerning it inspired Barrie's later work. When Barrie was seven, his brother David died in a skating accident. David had been the mother's favourite child, and his death plunged her into the depression from which she never fully recovered. Apparently, her only comfort was in the thought that David would never grow up and leave her and it is suggested by some that this thinking may have inspired Barrie's creation of Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up. Barrie tried to comfort his mother and gain her affection by dressing up in the dead boy's clothes, but for a period after David's death she took little interest in him or anything else.
This book memorialises the obsessive relationship which over time grew up between them, a relationship which remained a strong influence throughout Barrie's life.

Being Blonde


This is posted by special request of one who doubts my blondness! This is me with my maternal grandfather in 1939, in the garden of 32, Burnell Avenue, Welling, Kent.

Friday, 11 May 2007

A Secret Place


A small corner of West Cumbria is a secret wilderness. At a guess, it's no more than about ten square acres of woodland lying between the villages of Broughton Moor in the north and Flimby in the south. Despite being bounded on two sides by villages from which there is easy access, very few people seem to use it and you can go there most times of day and never meet a soul, except, maybe, the odd dog-walker. The woodland belongs to the Lowther Estate, based in Penrith, and until a couple of years ago little notice appeared to have been taken of it for years. What remained of the old paths were wildly overgrown and the plantings of conifers had become dense and impenetrable. A recent programme of clearing and felling has left tracts of open land, encouraging the growth of many plants which appreciate a little more light.
An early morning walk in Flimby Woods on a fine early summer morning is a glimpse of all that is most wonderful - and threatened - in the English countryside. The wood is a haven to many woodland plants, to red squirrels and deer. But this idyllic scene has a secret: here be ghosts. For hundreds of years, this woodland was part of the great mining area of the West Cumbria coast, with big centres at Maryport, Workington and Maryport. The relics and ruins of its undustrial past are all around:the great blackened walls of the engine house which once pulled rail trucks up and down to the coastal depot; the mine-shafts, only recently fenced in; the little gravel quarries which provided the gravel for the rail tracks.

Flimby Woods hold twenty years-worth of memories for me: Bruno the yellow labrador flinging himself into every muddy pond and pool, including the big one still known as 'Bruie's Pool'; the Springer spaniels racing through the undergrowth in pursuit of rabbits - or anything that moved; Charlie, the elder Springer, wagging frantically as he proudly 'retrieved' a duck's egg, carried so gently in his mouth - then dropping it; the German pointer, Hunter, pointing out to me, very quietly and discreetly, the baby owl trapped by a wing in some undergrowth and needing rescue; Hunter pulling me over on an icy Christmas morning when I broke my wrist and was lucky to be rescued by a fellow-dog-walker; looking for primroses every spring in remote places.

The pictures show the woods on 9th May 2007. Sam is the latest in a long line of dogs enjoying the freedom and fun of a little wilderness - as do I.

Sunday, 6 May 2007

Taking Life Easy


Sam couchant on a clump of Campanula portenschlagiana. It's a stury plant, which happily spreads and self-seeds; it'll have cerulean blue flowers soon - IF we can get a look at them!

The Brown House Garden, May Day 2007



Gravelled paths make a winding walk between raised beds bounded by low sandstone walls. There are few brightly-coloured flowers in The Brown House Garden, although in June some of the roses will make quite a show. There are only 'old' roses - i.e. those dating from before about 1920. They are usually not long-lasting, and flower only once, but their beauty and scent far outweigh these disavantages.
The picture on the right shows the bright chrome-yellow heads of Euphorbia polychroma, which is quite unusually brilliant in the context of this garden. Behind it is a clump of almost black-flowered hellebores which until last week, when the hellebores faded, made the most remarkable colour combination. Mostly, it's the contrast between multifarious greens and the variety of textures and shapes which make the biggest impact in this small walled garden.

Saturday, 5 May 2007

The Re-enchantment of Art

Suzi Gablik's book Has Modernism Failed (1984) described an enervated contemporary art scene. She depicted the post-modernist art world as one in which the revolutionary impetus of modern art had degenerated into a market-driven form of parody and calculated indifference.
In The Re-Enchantment of Art (1991) she puts forward the more optimistic idea that there is indeed hope for the future, but it depends on the spiritual and ethical renewal of our culture, including 'a revitalized sense of community, an enlarged ecological perspective, and greater access to the mythic and archetypal underpinnings of spiritual life. '
Re-reading this in 2007, one has to wonder how much progress has been made towards this 'spiritual and ethical renewal of our culture.'

Monday, 23 April 2007

Brocklebank Banchor


After the death of our German Pointer, Hunter, just over two weeks ago, the plan was to wait until later in the year before acquiring another dog. HOWEVER - last week an advertisement appeared in the local rag: Yellow labrador, 7 months old, needs re-homing (for good reasons.) Tim went to look and was impressed. (I'd say 'smitten' actually.) Sam, as he's known familiarly, has a very superior pedigree. (For labrador officianados, he's from the Drakeshead line of champion working dogs.)
He'd had a somewhat checkered career in his brief life, having been sold on by the initial owners to the people we bought him from. They, apparently, wanted to use him as a stud dog eventually, then changed their minds and decided to sell him. Thankfully, he seems not to have been too traumatised. He's friendly and eager to please - a little timid but clearly extremely happy to be here. One picture shows him in the indoor 'kennel' he has selected for himself - the knee-hole of Tim's desk, clutching the chew which is SUPPOSED to discourage him from chewing anything else! It's not the most convenient place from Tim's point of view, but he's managing. Note that the other picture proves that, once again, I've failed in my attempts to keep dogs off quilts. (Labs like to be comfortable.)
Later this year, another dog will probably join Sam as company for him - if another one as delightful, and as delightfully easy to live with, as Sam can be found.

Love in the Time of Cholera

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Is love a sickness? Certainly, in the case of Florentino Ariza, it is: a morbid, life-long sickness. The vast sweep of this book, in both temporal and psychological terms, makes it difficult to summarise in any meaningful way. The narrative begins with what is in effect a long introduction, culminating in the death of one of the main characters. We are then taken back over the preceding fifty-year-long story of the convoluted relations between Dr. Juvenal Urbino, his wife Fermina Daza and the complex and enigmatic Florentino Ariza.

Thomas Pynchonheads his review of this book The Heart's Eternal Vow, which is as good a summation of Florentino's situation as any. (http://www.themodernword.com/pynchon/pynchon_essays_cholera.html)
But his is not the only heart, or the only eternal vow, which Marquez scrutinizes.

Pynchon begins: ‘….love is strange. As we grow older it gets stranger, until at some point mortality has come well within the frame of our attention, and there we are, suddenly caught between terminal dates while still talking a game of eternity.’

Love in the Time of Cholera has been described as ‘an anatomy’ of love. Underlying the whole narrative is the unspoken question ‘What is love?’; possible answers come in a bewildering variety, but always elusive, tentative. It is this Proustian exploration of complexity, of acceptance of the impossibility of saying the last word, which makes the book so satisfying (to me, at least!) Pynchon summarises it by saying that ‘it could be argued that this is the only honest way to write about love, that without the darkness and the finitude there might be romance, erotica, social comedy, soap opera -- all genres, by the way, that are well represented in this novel -- but not the Big L.’

The whole context of the story is one of wars and pestilence, played out in the steamy climate of a post-colonial Carribbean city.

Dr. Urbino and Fermina Daza are married in an initially loveless marriage, contracted because she was of the age when it was expected that girls of her class would marry and he was ‘a good catch’; and, on his side, because he sought the stability and confirmation of social standing which marriage brought, and she was beautiful and accomplished. But mutual dependence, the need for security, grows into one of the many forms of love which are described throughout the narrative, although not without cost to Fermina; all the various limitations and frustrations of her life come pouring out one day, when she shouts at her husband: “You don’t know how unhappy I am” , to which his response is to ‘burden her with the weight of his unbearable wisdom’, saying: “Always remember the most important thing in a good marriage is not happiness, but stability.”

Many years later, when the eminently respectable and morally upright Doctor is forced to confess to her an adulterous involvement with another woman, she leaves him in a fury of rage and jealousy, until, eventually, he comes to fetch her home. Still haughty and ‘determined to make him pay with her silence for the bitter suffering that had ended her life’, she nonetheless returns because the love which has grown between them over their years of shared, everyday intimacy, the ‘stability’ of the life she has with him, has become more important than her hurt pride.

The third person in what proves, indeed, to be an ‘eternal triangle’ is the love-lorn Florentino Ariza, who remains dedicated to the idea that he is in love with Fermina for over fifty years. His is the obsessive, slightly paranoid face of love; it is Proust’s Swan and his obsessive love for Odette, Charley Summers in Henry Green’s Back, refusing to accept the fact of love’s end even faced with the objective reality of death.

An important element in Florentino’s story is the way in which, over the years he spends in waiting for her, he uses sex as an antidote, a way of assuaging the heart-ache of his unrequited love for Fermina. After his first sexual encounter, he realises that ‘At the height of pleasure he had experienced a revelation that he could not believe, that he even refused to admit, which was that his illusory love for Fermina Daza could be replaced by an earthly passion.’ Thereafter, while convincing himself that he remains viriginally untouched and faithful to his idealised love, he lives a hectic erotic life, relentlessly pursuing sexual conquests with a vast number of women in many different situations, some of whom are much more to him than uncomplicated sexual pairings. More of love's many-faceted aspects are revealed to us in these relationships.

In old age, Florentino and Fermina are finally united and although it could be said that love has conquered all - time, age, bereavement - their happiness in each other is set against a background of irreparable loss and decay, not only that of their own physical decline into decrepitude but of the world around them. The final irony is that they can only stay together by sailing the rivers under the yellow cholera flag to protect their privacy and to enable them to remain undisturbed in their mutual obsession.

Saturday, 7 April 2007

Wednesday, 4 April 2007

The Priest's Garden, 4th April

The priest lives at The Priory, on the opposite side of the big, cobbled square from The Brown House. The garden was once tended by a priest who loved and took great pride in it. When he retired, maybe six or seven years ago, it was left to get wild and overgrown. The 'new' priest is supportive and encouraging, although not a gardener. Two years ago, Tim dig some clearing and planting but had to give it up - no time. Now, with the (occasional) help of some members of the congregation, I try to keep it at least weeded and will do some more planting this year.

But this north-facing bed against the church was a depressing sight when I began to think about getting back into the garden this week - most of what I put in last year seems not to have survived. The garden is mostly, resolutely, east-facing and very exposed to winter winds so that's not surprising. Also, the soil is poor and exhausted now as no fertisliser has been used for years - apart from the buckets of stable manure I spread about this morning! In fact, adding fertiliser is my main project this spring.

The other, east-facing, bed was planted densely with things like balotta, rosemary and hebes and looks much better. The up-side to the exposure problem is that this bed gets lots of summer sun. The best, south-facing bed is entirely overgrown with weeds and brambles which I'll try to kill before they get mature.