Saturday, 29 August 2009

More books

I Served the King of England by Bohumil Hrabal
Quite good, but somehow disappointing, given its high reputation. Apparently the Czechs says it's untranslatable, and I'm not sure this has persuaded me otherwise. Hmmm.

A Fragment of the Whole by Steve Toltz
I enjoyed this very much. It has unexpected bits in it. I liked when the narrator's father is planning his ideal house: "inside I think two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a living room, a kitchen, and a dark room, not to develop photos, just so we can sit in the dark". I think this sounds very appealing, but unfortunately it is actually a symptom of his mental decline.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks
Interesting. Overly mannered in places. Also, not without its "isn't that normal?" moments.

Kept by D. J. Taylor
This is quite good, a pastiche of many Victorian authors, including a mistress in a house in St John's Wood. I'm not sure I'm likely to reread it ever, but it's quite good train journey material.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Life's rich pageant

I love these people who promise to care for your pets after the rapture. Perhaps I should write a best-selling novel series about the dogs who are Left Behind. (Although as a business model it does seem a bit stupid. If you believe in the rapture why on earth would you trust anyone to make a special effort to find and care for your animals while all the post-rapture horror is going down? Have they not read the book of Revelation?)

Also this happy lime has caused grief to a protective father. "He said: 'I demanded to see the shop manager and, during a heated exchange, my wife became quite distressed and had to sit down in the car park.'"

This Life of Elizabeth Chudleigh from ODNB's Life of the Week is pretty good.

In other news, no one can write like Dostoevsky.

I read some books

I keep reading things and meaning to blog about them, and then reading some more, so that the list of things to blog about gets longer and longer. I think I will do them a few at a time instead.

The Blackest Streets by Sarah Wise

Very interesting but startling book about a particular slum in London in the nineteenth century. It contains some extraordinary testimony given in the 70s by an old man who grew up there as a child. He lived with his parents, three older siblings, and later one younger as well, in a twelve-foot by ten-foot room in which they also carried on the family trade of breeding and training terriers. They paid three shillings a week for the room. His father sometimes got casual work at a local pub where he was paid two shillings for an eighteen-hour day. The poverty line for a family with three children was reckoned at the time to be eighteen to twenty-one shillings per week. This man's older sister was in charge of cooking the family's meals and doing other housework from the age of six, so that his mother was not interrupted in her home piece-work of making matchboxes for Bryant and May. The main emphasis of the book is on the various well-meaning but doomed attempts of people to sort all this out. It's interesting to see how different interpretations of Darwin's writings led to hugely different attitudes to the slum dwellers. In the end it was all knocked down, and the evictees couldn't afford the new, nicer housing built there.

The Rain Before It Falls by Jonathan Coe
I love all Jonathan Coe's books. His What a Carve Up! must be the defining book of the Britain I grew up in. This one is very different from the others, being basically about mother-daughter relationships. It quite blew me away, for two reasons 1) it's seriously good 2) it has all the ingredients of a Richard and Judy success, without compromising being seriously good. Why wasn't it more famous? A book with that sort of honest emotional core, but extremely well written, is a very rare thing indeed. Why wasn't it unavoidable, like Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture (than which it is certainly better)? Odd. I was sat on a packed train to Devon with a box of rats on my knee when I finished it, sat next to a woman who works as a an editor for Penguin. We had quite an interesting conversation about it. (You tend to end up talking to strangers more when you're in a packed train to the West Country with a box of rats on your knee.)

The Savage Detectives by Roberto BolaƱo
Sometimes while I was reading this I thought wow this is very good. At other times I just thought it was very long. It's about a school of young Mexican poets who call themselves the visceral realists. I think it's a very good book but I am oddly uncertain about that. It was a bit like eating something with a flavour so delicate that a lot of the time you just miss it. Anyway, it might well be one of those books which you find yourself thinking about long after the event, so that a year or two later you reread it and get more from it. I suppose the best bits were the descriptions of things actually happening, which at times were viscerally real. I think the author was a very clever man who may have done this on purpose.

Anyway because I've been having trouble finding reliably good stuff to read I have decided to do some rereading. I had one of those great anti-FML moments last night: at half past eight in the evening I decided I wanted to buy a copy of The Brothers Karamazov, mine being lost in packing; before nine pm I was sat reading the book with one rat dozing on my lap while two more chased around my feet. Hurray! Good books and rats are the secret to happiness.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Sweet flowers of learning

I bought a wax tablet -- a diptych, hinged together with leather strips, made in authentic Anglo-Saxon style. It smells so sweet I keep opening it up just to sniff it. Given that wax tablets were used to learn letters and to gather notes I wonder if that's why the medievals were so keen on the metaphor of learning as honey gathered by bees from flowers in a meadow.

Here's the king of the tortuous metaphor, Aldhelm, really going with the topos. I had to be able to translate this for my Part I exams. That was some time ago.
...ast tamen solertissimae apis industriam praedictis exemplorum formulis coaptari posse uberrima rerum experimenta liquido declarant, quae roscido facessante crepusculo et exorto limpidissimi solis iubare densos extemplo tripudiantium turmarum exercitus per patentes campos gregatim diffundunt, modo melligeris caltarum frondibus seu purpureis maluarum floribus incubantes mulsa nectaris stillicidia guttatim rostro decerpunt et uelut lento carenae defruto, quod regalibus ferculis conficitur, auida uiscerum receptacula certatim implere contendunt, modo flauescentes saliculas et crocata genestarum cacumina circumuallantes fertilem praedam numerosis crurum et coxarum oneribus aduehunt, quibus cerea castra conficiunt, modo teretes hederarum corimbos et leuissimos florentis tiliae surculos constipantes multiformem fauorum machinam angulosis et opertis cellulis construunt, cuius artis molimen egregius poeta metrica facundia fretus catalectico uersu creditur cecinisse, cum diceret Cerea gemmatis flauescunt mella canistris...

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Excellent pop

Annie, Songs Remind Me of You

Lucky in my teachers

I had a meeting with my PhD supervisor; it was the first time we have discussed my work since I was actually doing my PhD, and we didn't meet up that often then. It was very kind of him to make time to talk to me about it, but it was utterly emotionally draining. I had forgotten how good he is at making me feel stupid, though I don't know that he does it on purpose. The problem is that he's very very intelligent, and at the same time he has a habit of being dismissive of other people's work, work that I rate, in a way which makes me profoundly uneasy. I suppose as a PhD student I was always trying to get his approval, which is a bit pathetic, but also entirely natural; I never worked out whether or not I had it. He tends to be nicest to me when I was doing badly at life, and least nice when other people are being pleasant to me. His rudeness about other people's work is usually directed against his peers, or at least the well-established. I have heardly ever heard him being rude about the young or unestablished. The big exception to this is young men who go out with his pupils (who are almost without exception female). Not a straightforward man, but academically brilliant.

He was very rude about a forthcoming book I'm involved in, saying it will be a joke. Has he forgotten that I'm contributing to it? Maybe. Maybe not, since the reason I was asked to contribute was that he was sacked from it (he refused to cut down an article that was four times over length).

Anyway, the best bit was when we were discussing a manuscript I'm writing something about. It has extensive glosses mostly from Cassiodorus on the Psalms. He was saying that it should be in the later medieval library catalogue of Canterbury if it was there at the time. I argued that it could have been in someone's private possession because the gloss would be quite a useful thing for someone wanting to do some serious reading on the Psalms, and added that I had read Cassiodorus on the Psalms over Lent. He shook his head and muttered loudly "Bloody Christians". This made me perversely happy. I can imagine any one of the other three intellectual giants who taught me saying exactly the same thing.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Accuracy and assessing accuracy

I've just finished Mary Beard's Pompeii, which I enjoyed very much. Somehow she pulls off the trick of being accurate without being dull. At least, I don't know enough about it to know whether or not she's being accurate, but she certainly gives the impression of examining the evidence carefully, and is prepared on many occasions to say that we just can't tell. Maybe it helps that the material she's dealing with is very rich indeed, and has been examined in a lot of detail which she can draw on and assess. But still, I think it's an impressive feat to be careful and leave questions open without sounding dull, and in fact to promote the unanswerable questions as part of the interest of whole thing. I've tried to write for a general audience without over-simplifying, or betraying my academic training, and it's not easy. I've also been involved in giving public tours both at the BL and where I am now. (And I spend more time than I'd like listening to someone give such tours who doesn't really seem to put much premium on accuracy.) I may reread some bits of Pompeii more closely to see if I can work out how Beard does it; it would be a great skill to have.

On the question of assessing authority, here is one of my favourite ever quotations about education, from More Christmas Crackers by John Julius Norwich:

John Alexander Smith, Waynflete Professor of Moral and Metaphysical Philosophy at Oxford, began a course of lectures in 1914 with the following words:
Gentlemen, you are now about to embark upon a course of studies which will occupy you for two years. Together, they form a noble adventure. But I would like to remind you of an important point. Some of you, when you go down from the University, will go into the Church, or to the Bar, or to the House of Commons, or to the Home Civil Service, or the Indian or Colonial Services, or into various professions. Some may go into the Army, some into industry or commerce; some may become country gentlemen. A few -- I hope a very few -- will become teachers or dons. Let me make this clear to you. Except for those in the last category, nothing that you will learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in after life -- save only this -- that if you work hard and intelligently you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot, and that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole, purpose of education.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

It's getting worse and worse

Isn't the Guardian revolting?

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Guilt; accents

Today I am feeling guilty because people keep being nice to me. A friend of mine wants to abolish guilt. He would replace it with very limited amounts of regret.

This map of dialects and accents looks interesting. I wish they had included Wales, though.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Challenge the rock

I find this strangely consoling. I think it's because it's Shatner with just a hint of Ray Mears.