29 January 2013

Marguerite Duras: Un barrage contre le Pacifique / The Sea Wall (1950)

Marguerite Duras's Un barrage contre le Pacifique (A Sea Wall) is set in Indochina in the early 1930s. Duras herself was born in Saigon in 1914 and this novel is partly autobiographical. It is also a bitter criticism of French colonialism.

Some analogies have been drawn between this novel and the poor white world of the novels of Erskine Caldwell. Largely set in rural Indochina, the book centers on the hardscrabble life of a widow – who is simply known as 'the mother' – and her two children Suzanne (17) and Joseph (20). They live in a bungalow near the coast, on the plain of Ram, on a concession the mother has bought. But the land is useless for growing rice because tides (from the Chinese Sea, but mentally magnified as the Pacific by the mother) and dwarf crabs destroy the crop every July. The family's diet mainly consists of wading birds. The mother's attempts to build a wall against the tides are fruitless. She writes a number of letters to the land registry about their plight (notably a long one towards the end, which aggressively reveals the extent of her anger), but they are ignored.

Life is even harder for the indigenous population, which is often forced to prostitute its women. Many children die of hunger. Corruption is rife. The mother sees a possible salvation from increasing misery in M. Jo, a young but inept and ugly man in his mid-twenties who has become rich through his father's callous business tactics rather than his own skill, and who lusts after Suzanne. M. Jo lavishes drink on the family but manages to extract no more than a glimpse of Suzanne's naked body in return for a phonograph. She refuses to prostitute herself, and the diamond ring he gives her – regardlessly – signals the end of the first part of the book.

The second and concluding part of the novel begins in the town, where the mother discovers that the diamond has a defect and is only worth half of what it should fetch. She persists, but is only given the price she wants by Lina, the older and relatively affluent girlfriend that Joseph meets in a cinema in town, falls in love with, and steals away from her husband. The mother, after paying back her debts, finds that she has little left of the money from the ring. She continues a decline from which she will not recover.

In the end the mother dies and Joseph leaves with Lina and Suzanne, who has gained some wisdom from her first relationship (with Agosti, whom she leaves behind): there is no choice for them, as there is no life for them on the plain. Joseph leaves his rifles to the people who remain, and explains what to do with the bodies and the belongings of the men who come to reclaim the concession: 'If you do it, do it well.'

This grim novel of French colonial life was Duras's third, but it was the first to bring the attention of a wide public to her.

28 January 2013

André Blavier #6: Jules Allix

Jules Allix (1818–97) was a militant socialist and a committed feminist, but he earns a place in Blavier's Les Fous littéraires for his long article in two October 1850 issues of La Presse, which he called 'Communication universelle et instantanée de la pensée, à quelque distance que ce soit' ('Universal and instantaneous communication of thought, from any distance whatsoever'). This article gave details of the 'boussole pasilalinique sympathique ou plus communément les escargots sympathiques' ('The pasilalinic-sympathetic compass, more commonly known as 'sympathetic snails'), or as many have named it: the snail telegraph.

The discovery, made by Jacques Toussaint Benoît and Biat-Chrétien, was that snails have the ability to maintain long-distance contact with each other after having sex. They release a kind of animal magnetism, an electric fluid for which the earth acts as a kind of conductor, developing and unravelling, Allix said, like a spider's or a silkworm's thread, but which never breaks and can continue indefinitely. This 'sympathetic escargotic fluid' is completely invisible and has immediate effect.

With this revolutionary discovery in mind, Benoît and Biat-Chrétien invented a message-conveying machine, a kind of ship's compass which involved the 25 letters of the French alphabet and unfortunate snails stuck to basins. Exactly how it was supposed to work remains obscure to my unscientific mind, but then of course it didn't work anyway: Benoît (who was mentally disturbed) was just stringing his financial backer along, and disappeared when things got too hot.* His 'colleague' Biat-Chrétien, who was supposed to be collaborating with him in America, did not in fact exist outside Benoît's imagination.


But the press made fun of the project for years: one cartoon, for instance, shows snails with quill pens at work at a post office desk.

* Allix too was mentally disturbed, and was an inmate in Charenton on several occasions. He published Curation de l'aliénation mentale: Introduction in 1867: a link to the text is here. His brother was Léon-Émile Allix, one of Victor Hugo's doctors.


Links to my other posts on André Blavier's Les Fous littéraires are below:

–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
André Blavier #1: Jean-Pierre Brisset, Paulin Gagne
André Blavier #2: Alexandre Ansaldi, G. Clair/Rupin Schkoff, Camarasa
André Blavier #3: Hyacinthe Dans
André Blavier #4: Ernest de Garay, aka Karl-des-Monts
André Blavier #5: Francisque Tapon-Fougas

27 January 2013

Arthur Mee in Stapleford, Nottinghamshire

 
'ARTHUR HENRY MEE
1875–1943
Journalist and prolific author
Originator and editor of
The Children's Encyclopedia,
The Children's Newspaper and
The King's England
Born in Stapleford and
attended school here'

Mee was the son of a railway fireman whose family moved from Stapleford to Woodborough Road, Nottingham in 1889. The same year, at the age of fourteen, he began working as a copy holder for the Nottingham Evening Post, and later worked for the Nottingham Daily Express. By 1896 he had moved to London.

Arthur Cossons in Beeston, Nottinghamshire

 
'ARTHUR COSSONS
1893–1963
Distinguished historian and author
Headmaster at Church Street
Junior Boys School
on this site
1932–1958'
 
Cossons was born in Somerset and came to Beeston in 1922. He wrote several books on turnpike roads and was a regular contributor to the Nottingham Journal.
 
 
 'VILLAGE CROSS
The shaft of Beeston's 14th century cross
originally at the village centre cross-roads
near the Manor House
Found by historian Arthur Cossons
and re-erected here in 1929'

25 January 2013

Frédéric Beigbeder: 99 Francs (2000)

The importance of 99 Francs (which was the original price of the book, but now the title is the same as its price in euros, and of course it changes accordingly in translations) is in its satire. Octave is a 'child of the millennium': he's in advertising, or 'novelty terrorism' as he terms it, and he's the central character in this novel, which begins as a professional suicide note so he can get the sack ('I don't have the balls to resign') and claim unemployment insurance. He hates his life and hates himself.

Octave is overpaid and lives in a world where coke snorting is the norm, and when you ditch your chick you go to a high-class hooker – everyone and everything can be bought, we are all prostitutes: 'Don't look at the straw in your brother's nostril but the beam in your own pants':

'I'm in advertising: oh yeah, I pollute the universe. I'm the guy who sells you shit. Who makes you dream of things you'll never have. Sky always blue, babes never ugly, perfect happiness, makeover by PhotoShop. [...] I'm three fashions in front, and I'll always make sure you're frustrated. [...] In my profession no one wants you to be happy, because happy people don't consume.'

His firm has a saying: 'Don't treat people like twats, but don't forget that they are twats.' The logos have replaced the Logos. And it's taken 2000 years to get there. To emphasize his point, Beigbeder even introduces mock adverts between the sections of the book, (which are each narrated in different personal pronouns). Example: three Jamaicans are lying beneath a coconut palm after smoking enormous spliffs: smashed out of their skulls. A huge black woman tells them to get back to work. They don't move. She screams at them to get back to work. They don't move. In desperation she waves a tub of Danette chocolate cream dessert at them, and they spring awake singing Bob Marley's 'Get Up Stand Up', dancing around the beach 'tasting the product'.

I started out wanting to hate this book, expecting general emptiness, style triumphing over substance, verbal fireworks without meaning, one joke lasting the whole 282 pages, but it's hard to deny the central premise: advertising is the new terrorism, and consuming is the new colonialism, the new God.

However, it is much too long for what it's trying to say, the excursions to Senegal, Miami and Cannes are tedious, and the senseless murder and the embezzlement sub-plot (ending on Ghost Island) merely add to the distractions rather than enhance the anti-advertising message.

Some of the internet jokes are distinctly unfunny too:

'Allez, e-ciao.
– bye-bye.com!'

Nevertheless this is clever stuff, and Beigbeder can also be very funny, although his writing is far too unruly for its own good.

Below are links to other Beigbeder book reviews I wrote:
–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
Frédéric Beigbeder: Mémoires d'un Jeune Homme Dérangé

Frédéric Beigbeder: Premier bilan après l'apocalypse
Frédéric Beigbeder: Un roman français
Frédéric Beigbeder: L'Amour dure trois ans | Love Lasts Three Years
Frédéric Beigbeder: Vacances dans le coma

24 January 2013

Elizabeth Hooton in Skegby, Nottinghamshire

 
The snowy photo above is of the village of Skegby near Sutton in Ashfield, Nottinghamshire from Emily Manners's Elizabeth Hooton: First Quaker Woman Preacher (1600–1672) (London: Headley Brothers, 1914). Hooton (née Carrier) married Oliver Hooten in Ollerton and moved to Skegby. She was a Baptist in 1647 when she met the young George Fox, but was to become a prominent, and radical, figure in the Quaker movement.

Hooten's preaching and accusations of corruption in the church and the magistrates led to her being imprisoned several times, which in turn led to her protesting about prison conditions.

In her manuscripts Hooton writes about her various oversea journeys preaching, and of the violent persecution she and others Friends received in the neighbourhood of Boston, Massachusetts.

In 1671 she made her final journey when she went with George Fox and others to Barbados and Jamaica, where she died of unknown causes the following year.

Along with mentioning many manuscripts, Manners lists the following printed works by Hooton:

False Prophets and False Teachers Described [1652].
To the King and Both Houses of Parliament [1670].
A Short Relation Concerning William Simpson (1671).

There are about ten pages of Hooton's writings in this relatively recent publication: Autobiographical Writings by Early Quaker Women, by David Booy (Aldershot : Ashgate, c. 2004).

Above: The Quaker House in Skegby, taken by me in about 1996.

Below is a link to the complete text of Emily Manners's biography of the remarkable Elizabeth Hooton:

–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
Elizabeth Hooton, by Emily Manners

23 January 2013

Anne Tyler: The Beginner's Goodbye (2012)

This is Anne Tyler's latest novel, and it will probably be several years before she publishes another. It's her nineteenth, and like almost all of her others is set in Baltimore, Maryland, this one again specifically in or near Roland Park, where Tyler has lived for decades. She has a knack of writing about essentially similar subjects with similar characters, and yet each of her works remains distinctly memorable, none of them confusing itself with another. This is quite an achievement.
 
I don't think this is one of her strongest novels, though. It's shorter than most of the others, without anything like the same number of characters, and a certain depth is missing. But although the basic story – a man in a family publishing business who lost the use of his right arm and leg as a young child marries the doctor Dorothy, and after several years she is killed by a tree falling on their house but then returns from the dead to visit him – stretches crediblity almost to the limit, we must remember that this is Tyler and she somehow manages to carry it off.
 
The man (whom we've met in several different guises before) is Aaron Woolcott, who is only too pleased to escape his smothering mother and unmarried elder sister Nandina for a life with his non-domestic, hardworking wife while he half-pretends to edit tedious vanity publications, and also publishes 'Beginner's' books, a more upmarket version of Dummies.
 
His world collapses at the same time as the tree collapses on his wife, who collapses under the weight of the upset television. As the house has collapsed too, he must soon bow to the inevitable and take refuge in his sister's house. His bereavement has to take its course, and to smooth him through the process his dead wife makes several appearances. No one else can see her, although she usually talks to him but disappears when anyone else appears: there's not any suggestion that Aaron's going mad, rather this is shown as something the reader just has to, well, accept.
 
As builder Gil gets to work on the damaged house, his relationship with Nandina grows and he starts staying over: Aaron feels de trop and goes back to his almost repaired house. Soon, his wife's appearances cease and Aaron takes it in his stride. From the time of Aaron's wife's death to near the end of the novel we gradually learn that the marriage had been far from perfect:
 
'What I do remember is that familiar, weary, helpless feeling, the feeling that we were confined in some kind of rodent cage, wrestling together doggedly, neither one of us ever winning.'
 
This is almost the claustrophobic marital/familial battle context that many of Tyler's protagonists find themselves in, although by Dorothy's final appearance there seems to be a kind of resolution.
 
I'm not certain that the happy ending of Aaron's second marriage and fatherhood is one that I'd particularly have wished for though: it's a bit too neat.

My other Anne Tyler reviews are below:
 
–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
Anne Tyler: If Morning Ever Comes (1964)
Anne Tyler: The Tin Can Tree (1965)
Anne Tyler: The Clock Winder (1972)
Anne Tyler: Celestial Navigation (1974)
Anne Tyler: Earthly Possessions (1977)
Anne Tyler: Morgan's Passing (1980)
Anne Tyler: Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982)
Anne Tyler: The Accidental Tourist (1985)
Anne Tyler: Breathing Lessons (1988)
Anne Tyler: Ladder of Years (1995)
Anne Tyler: A Patchwork Planet (1998)
Anne Tyler: Back When We Were Grownups (2001)
Anne Tyler: The Amateur Marriage (2004)
Anne Tyler: Digging to America (2006)
Anne Tyler: Noah's Compass (2009)
Anne Tyler: A Spool of Blue Thread (2015)

21 January 2013

Tamara Jenkins's The Savages (2007)

There are three main characters in Tamara Jenkins's The Savages: 80-year-old father Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco), his 39-year-old daughter Wendy (Laura Linney), and his 42-year-old son Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

Lenny lives in the retirement community of Sun City, Arizona, with his partner. He is developing dementia.

Wendy works as a temp but aspires to be a successful playwright ('inspired by the work of Jean Genet, the cartoons of Lynda Barry and the family dramas of Eugene O’Neill') and frequently applies for grants. She is in an unsatisfying relationship with Larry, a married man thirteen years her senior. She lives in a tiny appartment in New York City and appears to be mildly addicted to prescription drugs. She is hungry for human contact, and finds consolation in lying: her cervical smear test is clear, but she tells Larry that there are irregularities; and she is turned down for a Guggenheim Trust award but tells Jon she was successful.

Jon is a professor at a university in Buffalo, upstate New York, where he teaches drama. He has been in a relationship with the Polish Kasia, but she has to leave as her visa has expired and he can't see his way to marrying her, and unfortunately he can only cry when eggs are cooked. He specializes in Brecht, and has for some time been writing a critical work on him. Brecht is very appropriate: Brecht's emphasis on emotional detachment has a parallel with Jon's emotional detachment; and at the end, we learn that he is to read a paper called 'No Laughing Matter: Dark ['Black' in the original filmscript] Comedy in the Plays of Bertolt Brecht' – 'dark comedy' would be an accurate description of this movie.

The three Savages have not exactly got on well in the past – there are various references to their father's abuse, particularly of Jon: tellingly (and of course humorously), Wendy explains to her befuddled father that Jon is not a medical doctor but a PhD, a drama professor, 'like..."Theatre of Social Unrest"'. But now that Lenny's mind is going, added to which his partner has died and he is effectively homeless and must be found somewhere appropriate to live, it is time for Wendy and Jon to try and forget the sibling rivalry and take a reality check in terms of their late developing maturity.

Near the end of the film, after Lenny had been dead some months, Jon and Wendy seem to have forgotten their differences and to be happier in themselves. They both watch the rehearsal of  Wendy's play, 'Wake Me When It's Over', in which she's fictionalized some autobiographical elements, such as Jon's father beating him up. There are no frying eggs around, but Jon actually cries: there has obviously been some development in him, and shortly after he reveals that he's reading his paper in Poland so he'll be seeing Kasia. It appears that Wendy has (wisely) split with Larry, although she's equipped Marley – his dog he was going to put down – with a mechanical contraption instead of her useless hind legs. Wendy always did seem to get on better with animals than with humans.

This is an intelligent movie about intelligent, flawed people.

20 January 2013

André Blavier #5: Francisque Tapon-Fougas

Francisque Tapon-Fougas (1810–93) was re-discovered in the 20th century by Raymond Queneau and André Blavier, his writing guaranteeing him a prominent place in the pantheon of fous littéraires, or outsider writers. He wrote many plays (often using the name of the Greek philosopher Thalès de Milet), and many poems (considering himself the 'Lamartine of the Auvergne'), and was convinced that he was a great writer, although none of his plays was performed. Characters in his plays (particularly writers) suffer from persecution, and Blavier speaks of Tapon-Fougas's paranoia, his synaesthetic hallucinations, his delusions of literary grandeur, and his constant changes of address as a defence strategy.

In Sur la mort d'Eugène Sue [1857] Tapon-Fougas speaks of a widespread persecution system using electricity, galvanism, and chemistry, organized by powerful men as an attack on human freedom by paralysing thinking and writing. Blavier notes a distinct evolution in Tapon-Fougas's writing between Sur la mort d'Eugène Sue and Les Antimisérables (1862), which is a huge attack on Victor Hugo. From 1862, there is no more mention of electro-galvanic batteries or Jesuitic-ammoniacal fumes – instead he concentrates on the jealous literary people who are persecuting him. Indeed, the 19th century encyclopedist Gustave Vapereau (ironically) notes that Tapon-Fougas, in Les Désespérés (1864), denounces Hugolatry and Janinocracy (after the drama critic Jules Janin) as the two plagues of the century: they have prevented his plays from being performed, prevented Tapon-Fougas from regenerating the theatre.

From 1871, Tapon-Fougas stood as candidate in all of the regional elections in his three favourite départements: Loire, Puy-de-Dôme, and Rhône – simultaneously. He was also a prolific pamphleteer, and distributed leaflets saying that the electorate had nothing to lose and perhaps a great deal to gain by electing a man who had written forty volumes of poetry and prose. His exhortations fell on deaf ears.

Links to my other posts on André Blavier's Les Fous littéraires are below:

–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
André Blavier #1: Jean-Pierre Brisset, Paulin Gagne
André Blavier #2: Alexandre Ansaldi, G. Clair/Rupin Schkoff, Camarasa
André Blavier #3: Hyacinthe Dans
André Blavier #4: Ernest de Garay, aka Karl-des-Monts
André Blavier #6: Jules Allix

19 January 2013

Ann Hatton (1921–2013)

Earlier this week I learned the sad news of Ann Hatton's death on 11 January this year. It was Ann who had enthusiastically and very helpfully provided me with so much information about the artist Karl Salsbury Wood, particularly from family photos, postcards, and watercolours: Ann's mother Nellie (née Radford) was Wood's cousin, with whom he kept in regular contact.

Ann's father Colan Harrison had moved to Canada before World War I and worked as a logger and a cook before joining the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. He returned to England with the Canadian Regiment and guarded German prisoners of war, and while visiting his sister he met Nellie, married her in 1919, and left for a new life with his wife, sister and mother to a farm in Bowden, Alberta, where Ann was born one very cold November day in 1921. There was no school nearby, so Ann and her siblings were taught by their aunt; it was a very harsh life with poor facilities and the family decided to return to England in 1930.

Karl Wood's representation of Abbey Farm, Renhold, Bedfordshire, where Ann and her siblings were brought up

Ann qualified as an SRN during World War II, and in the course of her work met Igor, whom she married in December 1945. She was a relief matron at Uppingham School sanatorium for eighteen years, and a number of the pupils there maintained contact with her for many years. She also spent nineteen years delivering 'meals on wheels', and was active in fund raising for the church and for charities.

It was only by a series of fortunate coincidences in the mid-nineties that I met Ann: I'd been researching Karl Wood's life with a view to publishing a biography, but there were some missing links during his youth. The local paper made a few column inches out of my appeal for information, and I was quite surprised to receive a phone call from Alan Guest, who by chance had bought a few linocuts of Wood's from the Usher Art Gallery in Lincoln, and who knew Marc Oxley (the owner of a fine art business in Uppingham, Rutland), who knew Ann and was aware that she was a relative of Karl Wood's.

So shortly after learning this I found myself in Uppingham one fine summer's day sitting in front of a table with a host of Wood's postcards, photos and sketches on the patio of Ann's home, recording her wonderfully informative conversation: the missing pieces of the biographical jigsaw were slowly forming a fuller picture, and there were now images of a kilted Wood in his Seaforth Highlanders uniform, or in Nellie's garden with cap, cane and bowtie, etc. And Ann (who had a great affection for Karl) told me to take the relevant postcards and photos home to photograph at my leisure and send back to her, which I thought showed a lovely trusting spirit.

Karl Wood in Nellie's garden, date unknown

My brief book was therefore greatly enhanced by the images that Ann supplied, and it was also enhanced by the knowledge of Wood's activities in his teenage years and during World War I which I gleaned from the postcards. And I'm pleased that Ann was able to make it to Gainsborough for the exhibition of Wood's local paintings put on by the Gainsborough and District Heritage Society.

Still on the subject of art, but a different artist, it seems scarcely credible now that I'd never heard of Louis Wain until Ann showed me a few reproductions of his cats.

It is a great pleasure to have known Ann Hatton, and I shall always remember her warmth of spirit, her keen intelligence, and her (slightly mischievous) sense of humour.

(My thanks to Ann's son John for supplying the biographical information and photo.)



The link below is to my online biography of Karl Salsbury Wood:

Windmill Wood

17 January 2013

Jean-Philippe Toussaint: Fuir | Running Away (2005)

I was reminded of movie director Alan J. Pakula's films when reading Jean-Philippe Toussaint's Fuir (2005), or Running Away, but only because of the importance of the telephone: far from Pakula's realism, this novel is obviously Nouveau Roman inspired, with an (unnamed) unreliable narrator.

Chronologically, Fuir occupies the mid-position in Toussaint's three 'Marie' cycle novels, between Faire l'amour (2002), or Making Love, and the as yet untranslated La Vérité sur Marie, (2009), which will presumably be titled The Truth about Marie.

The novel's first sentence, Serait-ce jamais fini avec Marie? (lit. 'Would it ever be finished with Marie?'), is spoken by the narrator, and immediately we know there's a relationship problem, but that comes in later. Marie has sent the narrator to Shanghai to hand a $25,000 money packet to Zhang Xiangzhi, his slightly reluctant host. At an exhibition he meets Li Qi, a woman who seems to promise sex, and she invites him to take the train to Beijing with her, so he readily agrees to meet her at the train station, but is surprised to discover that Zhang Xiangzhi is going with them too. On the train, while most people are sleeping, the narrator is on the point of having sex in the toilet with Li Qi when the Pakula moment comes: it's Marie on the phone to say that her father has died at his home in Elba. This changes everything, and the narrator's sexual enthusiasm for Li Qi moves into detumescent mode. End of the first of three parts.

Now they're in Beijing, it seems that Zhang Xiangzhi could be in a relationship with Li Qi, but the narrator is no longer concerned: Marie's phone call has had a big effect: there's a difference between the world that's under his nose and the way he perceives it; the real is distorted, there's a separation, a kind of fracture, in fact he's in a state of permanent jetlag.


Zhang Xiangzhi shows him a little of Beijing in a half-hearted way, then gets a motor bike and rides them both to a bowling alley, where Li Qi later turns up with a package that the narrator guesses contains drugs that Zhang Xiangzhi has spent the twenty-five grand on. Then there's another earth-shattering phone call (although we never really find out why), this time from an unknown person to Zhang Xiangzhi, and the trio all hop on the motor bike followed by the cops, and the novel briefly turns into a kind of silent movie comedy: there's virtually no dialogue in the whole book anyway. In this way, a phone call again leads to the end of the section.

So will the common grief of Marie's father's death bring the couple together again? Well, it's not as simple as that. The narrator flies back to Paris and on to Elba to attend the funeral, but instead he just phones Marie and decides to play hide and seek for several hours. Marie finds him and they try a little sex but it doesn't work so they decide to go for a swim but he stays on the shore while Marie takes to the water.


Her father had a heart attack swimming here, but surely Marie hasn't? Has she? It seems not, so we'll rely on the narrator at the end...won't we? Nathalie Sarraute spoke of l’ère du soupçon, or 'the era of suspicion' which the Nouveau Roman heralded, and with the, er, Nouveau Nouveau Roman, it's still wise to be suspicious of the truth of what the narrator tells us.

(There's a link to a very interesting article on Jean-Philippe Toussaint in the London Review of Books by Tom McCarthy, which at the same time also tells us something about McCarthy.)

–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
'Stabbing the Olive', by Tom McCarthy

My other posts on Jean-Philippe Toussaint:

––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
Jean-Philippe Toussaint: Faire l'amour | Making Love
Jean-Philippe Toussaint: Nue

Jean-Philippe Toussaint: La Vérité sur Marie | The Truth about Marie

Charles Portis: The Dog of the South (1979; repr. 2005)

Charles Portis is a Southern writer whose work has developed something of a cult status. He's reasonably well known for one of his five novels, True Grit (1968) – filmed by Henry Hathaway in 1969 and the Coen brothers in 2010 – but his others remain far more obscure. The Dog of the South was published some eleven years after True Grit, and also concerns a chase, this time from Little Rock, Arkansas, through Mexico to Belize. Ray Midge is the narrator, and his wife Norma has run off with her her ex-husband Guy Dupree (who is skipping bail after threatening the president), and they have taken with them Midge's credit card and his well-kept Ford Torino. Dupree has left behind his battered Buick with a hole in the driver's floor, and rather than call the cops Midge decides to follow them in it to Mexico.
 
On the way Midge picks up the con-man and struck-off doctor, Reo Symes, who has been living in a former school bus called 'The Dog of the South'. Symes wants to see his mother in Belize, as he has plans to turn a small island she owns into a hugely profitable business venture, but then Symes is full of these kinds of enthusiastic projects that the reader knows will come to nothing.
 
Ron Rosenbaum, who's been one of Portis's greatest champions, says in 'Of Gnats and Men: A New Reading of Portis' in the New York Observer that the novel  – which contains an epigraph by Sir Thomas Browne about the 'restlesse motions' of primitive life forms – is in essence about the 'tortile twists of the stream of consciousness', and I think a simple but useful illustration of this is the uncertain way the narrator sometimes describes things, doubletakes by correcting himself or hedging his bets, as when he gets a cab to pick up Dupree's car at the garage:
 
'The cabdriver let me out in front of a filthy café called Nub's or Dub's that was next door to the garage. Nub – or anyway some man in an apron – was standing behind the screen door and he looked at me.'
 
Many people find Portis a funny writer because he uses odd words, eccentric expressions. He writes about the insignificant, about everyday neuroses or fastidiousness that probably most people suffer from. Midge, for instance, anchors down his paper napkin by dipping his finger in the beer and wetting the corners because he doesn't want to look stupid carrying the napkin up to his mouth with the glass. And he drinks from the mug as a left-hander would because that side of the glass is less used. The interesting thing here, of course, is that Portis writes about things authors don't usually write about: inconsequential things. A friend of my aunt's once told her that he wouldn't lend her neighbor a book she wanted to borrow from him as she looked like the kind of person who licked her fingers before turning the pages – this is the kind of world that Portis's characters inhabit, talking about things that writers normally leave off the radar.
 
Conversations spring up as if from nowhere, and lead nowhere, although they're the kind of conversations people have in 'real life': 'real' people talk just the way Portis's characters talk. The apparent surrealism is the surrealism of everyday life. Leave a recording device in a room where a few people are, and on playback you might well hear such inconsequentialities, non sequiturs, repetitions, charades, interrogations, mindless insistencies, digressions, etc.
 
The Dog of the South is a good name, although we hear nothing more of it when Symes leaves the bus early on in the novel. And in fact for much of the novel, after Midge arrives in Belize with Symes, Symes largely disappears into the background, and we don't know what becomes of him in the end. Midge finds the sick Norma in hospital, nurses her to health and takes her back to Little Rock, but she soon leaves him to go to Memphis, and although it's not far away Midge doesn't follow her again: this is not a novel where things are tied up neatly at all. Which is fine.
 
If I agree with Rosenbaum that Portis is the States' 'least-known great writer' is another matter though. I shall have to read some more of his novels, and although I didn't like True Grit, I think I'm beginning to see what the attraction is.
 
ADDENDUM: A thought just came to me about Southern literature, and it's only a thought, but... Admittedly there is the traditional weirdness of Southern Gothic, but generally speaking Southern literature isn't seen as 'experimental', by which I essentially mean moving us well away from the constraints of 19th century literary practices. There's William Faulkner of course, Frances Newman, Barry Hannah, T. R. Pearson, and more recently there have been Padgett Powell and Selah Saterstrom but that appears to be all, although it seems to me that Charles Portis should be included in this category too.

14 January 2013

Jethro Tinker and John Bradbury in Millbrook, Stalybridge

At the entrance to Stalybridge Country Park, Millbrook, are two plaques remembering local men of note:

'Jethro Tinker
1788–1871
 
An ardent naturalist who recorded much
of Stalybridge's flora. Born at North
Britain Farm, The Brushes.
 
Unveiled by Councillor
George Hatton
16th November
1995.'
 
Tinker, the son of a weaver who later also became village schoolteacher in Mottram in Longdendale, spent all his life in the Stalybridge area. He first worked as a shepherd around Hollingworth, but later became a weaver in Stalybridge, where he progressed to manager of Cheetham Mill. He made many local journeys collecting natural history specimens and became an amateur authority on the subject. He died at 82 and a memorial (vandalized in 1997) was erected in Stamford Park. N. Dennis and Elaine R. Bullard wrote the article 'Jethro Tinker (1788-1871): Field Naturalist', which was published in the Naturalist in 1981.
 
'John Bradbury
1768–1825
 
A botanist and explorer of repute.
Born at Sourface Fold, Stalybridge.
 
Unveiled by Councillor
George Hatton
16th November
1995.'
 
Bradbury is most noted for his travels in the USA, particularly in the Midwest and the West, where he documented species of plants and sent seeds back to his son in England. He published Travels in the Interior of America, in the years 1809, 1810, and 1811; including a description of Upper Louisiana, together with the states of Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, and Tennessee, with the Illinois and Western territories [etc.] (1817).

13 January 2013

Jack Judge in Stalybridge

 
 This statue in Stalybridge intrigues me.
 
'JACK JUDGE
accompanied by a WWI soldier
 
Inspired to compose the famous marching song
"It's a Long Way to Tipperary"
He was the first to sing it publicly in 1912
at the Grand Theatre in Stalybridge,
the town of its conception.
 
Unveiled 16th December 2005
by Councillor Frank Robinson'

'It's a long way to Tipperary' was certainly a 'marching song' in that World War I soldiers used it while marching, although I'm aware of no evidence that it was conceived as such, so the existence of the soldier apparently 'helping' Judge to compose the song is very fanciful.
 
The truth seems to be that the army simply adopted a completely non-military song to sing as they marched. Judge is said to have claimed that he made a five-shilling (25 pence) bet at the New Market Inn*, Corporation Street, Stalybridge, that he couldn't write an original song in 24 hours. On his way home he was inspired by a drunk he passed, and the result was that he wrote a song about an Irishman homesick in London. It appears that one or more of Judge's relatives came from Tipperary.
 
* The pub no longer exists.

The First General Strike of 1842, and Joseph Rayner Stephens, Stalybridge

This is the portico of Stalybridge Town Hall, all that remains of the original structure. It bears two interesting plaques:
 
'THE FIRST GENERAL STRIKE, 1842
 
Originated in this area, beginning as a movement
of resistants to the imposition of wage cuts
in the mills, also known as the "Plug Riots"
it spread to involve nearly half a million
workers throughout Britain and represented
the biggest single exercise
of working class strength
in nineteenth century
Britain.'
 
'JOSEPH RAYNER STEPHENS
1805–1879
Trained in the Ministry, Joseph Rayner Stephens
came to Ashton in 1832. He became an important
Chartist Leader who campaigned against
the Poor Law and for factory reform.
His greatness was in his instinctive reaction
to human distress and social injustice.
In later life he lived in Stalybridge
where he established a People's
School and is buried in
St John's Church,
Dukenfield.'

Stalybridge Station Buffet Bar, and no Q for another pub

This is a timewarp very far removed from St Pancras. They have a good selection of cask beers, but as I was driving I had a coffee, which was large and came on a tray with a jug of milk: a bargain at £1.50.
 
'This Victorian Buffet Bar is unique
and is authentic in detail since
being rebuilt in 1885.
 
Unveiled by Councillor Eileen Shorrock
on 16th July 1994.'
 
One of the four rooms.
 
And a few yards down the road is another pub with a blue plaque.
 
'The Q Inn
The public house with the shortest name
in the United Kingdom.
Certified by the
Guiness Book of Records 1995
 
Unveiled by Councillor
J. Alan Whitehead
Mayor of Tameside
30th May 1995'
 
Unfortunately, the pub has now closed down.

Beatrix Potter's Relatives in Gee Cross and Stalybridge, Greater Manchester

In the churchyard of Hyde Chapel, Gee Cross, Greater Manchester, is the family grave of the Potter family – Beatrix Potter's parents and paternal grandparents.

'In loving memory of
EDMUND POTTER
DIED 26TH OCTOBER 1883
AGED 81 YEARS.'

Also of JESSY POTTER [née Crompton]
WIDOW OF EDMUND POTTER
DIED 9TH SEPTEMBER 1891
AGED 90 YEARS.

[...]

also of RUPERT POTTER
2ND SON OF THE ABOVE EDMUND POTTER
DIED 8TH MAY 1914 AGED 81 YEARS.
ALSO OF HELEN POTTER [née Leech], WIFE OF THE ABOVE
RUPERT POTTER
DIED DECEMBER 20TH 1932 AGED 93 YEARS.'

And in Stalybridge:

'BEATRIX POTTER
(1866–1943)

Renowned children's story writer author
and artist of the famous Peter Rabbit book.

Beatrix's maternal grandparents John and Jane [née Ashton] Leech
bought the Gorse Hall Estate after their marriage and
built the Gorse Hall Mansion which was demolished in 1910.

Born in London, Beatrix in later life made several visits
to her grand parents and recorded her fond memories
of the place.

Unveiled by John Heelis OBE, great nephew
of Beatrix Potter's husband, William Heelis
on 23rd November 1999.'

Beatrix  Potter's mother Helen Leech was born at Gorse Hall. In 1909 George Harry Storrs of Gorse Hall was stabbed to death there by an attacker who remains unknown. His wife Maggie had the building demolished the following year and the hilly grounds now serve as an area for walks.

André Blavier #4: Ernest de Garay, aka Karl-des-Monts

Little is known of Ernest de Garay. He wrote several books, such as Les Légendes des Pyrénées (1857), in which he concentrated on the legends of the Basque country. He was also a lawyer for the imperial court of Paris, but for political reasons for imprisoned in an insane asylum in Pau, from which he wrote his most noted work under the pseudonym of Karl-des-Monts; this is Un martyre dans une maison de fous ('A Martyr in a Madhouse'), and Blavier's excerpts from it contain Garay's definition of madness and several of his prison letters, especially to Octavie, whom he addresses in loving terms.

He rails against the director for many different things: his missing or rotten teeth, his idiotic smile, his dirty beard, his corpse-like smell, attempting to draw an accurate picture of a 'manufacturer of madness'; and he rails against the madhouse itself for being a Père Lachaise des intelligences where he sleeps on a straw bed under a horse blanket. The conditions, the awful cloaical smells, are appalling, but it is surely his graphic description of a man killed by scalding water from a boiler whose tap was negligently left on that horrifies the reader the most.
 
Un martyre dans une maison de fous was re-published recently.

Links to my other posts on André Blavier's Les Fous littéraires are below:

–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
André Blavier #1: Jean-Pierre Brisset, Paulin Gagne
André Blavier #2: Alexandre Ansaldi, G. Clair/Rupin Schkoff, Camarasa
André Blavier #3: Hyacinthe Dans
André Blavier #5: Francisque Tapon-Fougas
André Blavier #6: Jules Allix

12 January 2013

Lawrence Earnshaw in Mottram in Longdendale, Tameside

On the wall of the Court House, Market Place, Mottram in Longdendale:
 
'Lawrence Earnshaw
1707–1767
Ingenious inventor born in Mottram.
He created an elaborate astronomical clock.
A modest man who did not seek fame.
This building houses a clock bearing his
name and a monument to him stands
in Mottram Churchyard.'
 
Lawrence Earnshaw's monument at Mottram. There are four different inscriptions around the base:
 
'LAWRENCE EARNSHAW
MOTTRAM
DIED MAY 12TH 1767
AND WAS BURIED IN THE
ADJOINING CHURCHYARD.'
 
'A SELF-TAUGHT GENIUS AND
OF HUMBLE BIRTH HIS TALENTS
AS AN INVENTOR ANITCIPATED
BY MANY YEAR THE DISCOVERIES
OF OTHER EMINENT MEN.'
 
'BY HIS SKILL IN GEOMETRY
AND
ACQUIREMENTS AS A MECHANICIAN
HE DESIGNED AND CONSTRUCTED
AN ASTRONOMICAL CLOCK
REGISTERING THE REVOLUTIONS
OF THE HEAVENLY BODIES AND
THE FLOW OF THE TIDES.'
  
'A CENTURY AFTER HIS DECEASE
THE ADMIRERS OF HIS GENIUS
AND WORTH
ERECTED THIS MEMORIAL.
A. D. 1867.'
 
'JOHN EATON
ASHTON'
 
The Hyde poet James Leigh mentions Earnshaw's memorial in this verse from one his dialect poems in Glimpses of Sunlight and Other Poems:
 
'Bu' come, we'll have a look through t' yard
Th' owd ancient burial-greaund
Wheer Mottram's dead for ages
Ha'n slept so snug an' seaund;
We'll visit Earnshaw's Monument
(Neglected in his day
This cenotaph ne'er mark'd his worth
Till years had pass'd away).'
 
Below is a link to an online article on Earnshaw in the Tameside Citizen, with several more verses from Leigh's poem:
 
 –––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
'A Tribute to Lawrence Earnshaw'

10 January 2013

André Blavier #3: Hyacinthe Dans

From February 1924 to November 1925 the bookseller Hyacinthe Dans in Liège was in charge of the (now, as it was his) scandalous rag Nanesse, which earned him two years' imprisonment for blackmail. Before his sentence could be carried out, though, he'd fled to Paris with his girlfriend Armande Comtat, whom he forced into prostitution to prevent himself from starving.
 
When she declared she was leaving him, he struck her on the head with a hammer and slit her throat, then killed his own mother (although why is unclear). Terrified of receiving the death sentence in France, he fled back to Liège, where he murdered a Jesuit priest whom he had known from Saint-Gervais college: but again, the reason is unclear, although insanity is a distinct possibility. He received life imprisonment, and became editor-in-chief of Journal des prisons belges under the pseudonym Tristan Chevreuse.

Georges Simenon had been familiar with Dans from the 1920s when they were regulars at the highly disreputable café La Cagne (which, for the record, means 'herring barrel'), and had worked on Dans's magazine. Simenon perpetuated Dans's name in his partly autobiographical first-person book Les Trois Crimes de mes amis (1928).
 
Links to my other posts on André Blavier's Les Fous littéraires are below:
 
–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
André Blavier #1: Jean-Pierre Brisset, Paulin Gagne

André Blavier #2: Alexandre Ansaldi, G. Clair/Rupin Schkoff, Camarasa
André Blavier #4: Ernest de Garay, aka Karl-des-Monts
André Blavier #5: Francisque Tapon-Fougas
André Blavier #6: Jules Allix

9 January 2013

André Blavier: Les Fous littéraires (1982) #2

I mentioned André Blavier's Les Fous littéraires (1982)1 a short time ago (see link below), and have now bought a copy. This is the first edition (pub. Henri Veyrier), which contains 924 pages with details about – and examples of the writings of – many hundreds of authors who have received no or very little recognition for their (often self-published) work.2
 
The Introduction contains an epigraph by Latis (or Emmanuel Peillet), one of the founder members of Oulipo, stating that brevity is a positive thing, with the exception of prefaces: the Introduction is 90 pages long. After the first heading, 'Première émission ('First Programme'), there's a footnote with an explanatory note saying that the Introduction was originally conceived as a series of radio programmes that were never broadcast, and was later copiously annotated. On the second line, a second footnote explains that the expression boule de neige (lit. 'snowball') is not used here in the Oulipian sense.3 (It's used figuratively here to refer to a growing number of questions.)

As we might imagine, the influence of Queneau is very evident, so this is no conventional introduction simply explaining the rationale behind the book, but then this probably isn't a book you would read from cover to cover in any logical way. At the moment I'm getting distracted all the time, dipping into some of the characters in this colossal work. I'll give just a few examples at the moment:

– I was aware (but didn't mention it in my first post) that Paulin Gagne – who is given 26 pages here – had written a carrot culture Marseillaise (Allons enfants de la carotte, etc), but I now notice that Alexandre Ansaldi also wrote a book called La Marseillaise nouvelle in 1971: the song is on the back cover, and the text inside calls the traditional song 'imbecilic and grotesque', and 'bombastic and violent'. When Blavier was writing he knew nothing of another song titled La Marseillaise électrique (by G. Clair and Rupin Schkoff), although it's now online: it's a 'war song' for electricians, begins Allons enfants de la batt'rie ! / Le jour de voir est arrivé !, and the rest is here.4

– Antoine Madrolle wrote a theology of railways.
 
– Camarasa wrote a Receuil ou collection de notes, de croquis, de dessins, de schémas, pour un traité historique, théorique, pratique, philosophique, philologique, poétique, sportif, acrobatique, touristique, artistique et pittoresque de la brouette ('Book or collection of notes, sketches, designs, schemes, for a historical, theoretical, practical, philosophical, philological, poetical, athletic, acrobatic, touristic, artistic, and picturesque treatise on the wheelbarrow'.) It was printed in Madrid several times between 1915 and 1925, contained 539 pages and 993 illustrations, and was dedicated to Queen Christina.

Blavier's book is really remarkable.

––––––––––––––––––
1 Interestingly, the current English Wikipedia entry for Jean-Pierre Brisset (who is included in Blavier) has a number of similarities to the current French Wikipédia entry, and translates Fou littéraire as 'outsider writer'. In my previous post, I suggested that this is a good translation of the expression, and is one I shall continue to use about Blavier's writers: I shall be adding posts about this book when I come across interesting examples.

2 The second edition (pub. in 2000 Les Éditions des Cendres) has 1147 pages.


3 Boule de neige in the Oulipian sense refers to a poem which begins with a one-letter word for the first line, continues with a two-letter word for the second, then a three-letter for the third, etc. A boule de neige fondante (melting snowball) is a poem that begins with a word containing a certain number of letters in the first line, and then shrinks by a letter each following line.

4 Funny this undoubtedly is, although it would be a mistake to forget the gently subversive element: original words from the French national anthem –  patrie ('country') and gloire ('glory') – are changed to batt'rie ('battery') and voir ('seeing'): the song no longer glorifies the French nation, but the humble electrical workers.

Links to my other posts on André Blavier's Les Fous littéraires are below:

–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
André Blavier #1: Jean-Pierre Brissett, Paulin Gagne
André Blavier #3: Hyacinthe Dans
André Blavier #4: Ernest de Garay, aka Karl-des-Monts
André Blavier #5: Francisque Tapon-Fougas
André Blavier #6: Jules Allix