30 December 2012

Linda Lê: Lettre morte (1999)

Lettre morte, which translates as 'Dead Letter', is a powerful book written in a single paragraph by a narrator whose Vietnamese father has just died. There are a number of parallels with Linda Lê herself, such as her mother leaving Vietnam for France with her daughters while her husband remained in Vietnam, the death of her father, the importance of the letters he wrote to her, etc.

The narrative is written to her friend Sirius, about whom we learn almost nothing: the important characters are the narrator's father and her lover Morgue (a word which also signifies pride), and the unnamed narrator herself.

The writing on the back cover, taken from the beginning of the book, is worth quoting:

'Les morts ne nous lâchent pas, dis-je à mon ami Sirius en rangeant les lettres de mon père dans un tiroir. C'est le supplice de Mézence que j'endure, attachée à un mort, main contre main, bouche contre bouche, dans un triste embrassement. Les lettres ont cessé d'arriver du pays de mon enfance. Celui qui les écrivait est mort d'une mort solitaire et enterré au bord d'un cours d'eau. Mais il est là, sa peau touche ma peau, mon haleine donne vie à ses lèvres. Il est là, dis-je à Sirius, quand je te parle, quand je mange, quand je dors, quand je me promène. Il me semble que je suis morte, tandis que mon père, ce mort qui ne me laisse pas en paix, déborde de vie. Il me possède, me suce le sang, me ronge les os, se nourrit de mes pensées.'

My translation:

'"The dead don't let us go", I told my friend Sirius while putting my father's letters into a drawer. "I'm going through the torment of Mezentius, tied to a dead man, hand to hand, mouth to mouth, in a painful embrace.* The letters stopped coming from my childhood home. The man who wrote them died a lonely death and is buried by a river. But he's here, his skin touching my skin, his breath giving life to my lips." I told Sirius: "He is there when I speak to you, when I eat, when I sleep, when I go for a walk. I feel dead, whereas my father, this dead man who will not leave me in peace, is brimming with life. He owns me, sucks my blood, eats into my bones, feeds on my thoughts."'

The narrator has intense feelings of guilt for not replying to her father's letters, for not going to see her father before he died. She describes her life with him, how her mother came to hate him, how he turned to drink, and how she used to fetch him alcohol as a child. Madness was around her, particularly from her uncle (her mother's brother) who frequently used to stay with the family before being sent to a psychiatric hospital, where he has periods of sanity and looks after the hospital library and goes around town on a moped. With the family, he used to sit on a car outside and bless people, and used to piss in bottles that he kept in the fridge and called it holy water.

In France the narrator has been in a destructive relationship (which she very recently terminated) with the married Morgue, who treated her very badly, but to whom she has been tied by an odd bond: he is abusive, a complete Philistine, and yet she has been unable to sever her relationship with him, which can perhaps only be understood in terms of her urge towards self-destruction.

Finally, after unremitting psychological pain and self-torture, the narrator decides to leave her flat and its terrible memories of Morgue, and tells Sirius to open the window and let the coolness of dawn enter.

*Mezentius is a king in Roman mythology who is particularly noted for his cruelty. Virgil's Aeneid mentions his method of torture: permanently tying a dead body to a person, which was, as Virgil called it: 'a slow death in a horrifying embrace'. The expression 'le supplice de Mézence' is evidently much more common than the English 'torment of Mezentius', and that appears to be the only English translation for it.

Below are links to other books of Lê's that I've reviewed:


Linda Lê: Les Évangiles du crime (1992)
Linda Lê: Voix: une crise (1998)
Linda Lê: A l'enfant que je n'aurai pas (2011)
Linda Lê: Lame de fond
Linda Lê: Lettre morte

29 December 2012

Anton Corbijn's Control (2007)

Control is the first feature film by Anton Corbijn, and focuses on the life of Ian Curtis (played by Sam Riley), the lead singer and songwriter in the band Joy Division, between 1973 and 1980. As suited to the rather bleak content of the film, it is shot in black and white. We first see him – with books such as Allen Ginsberg's Howl and J. G. Ballard's Crash, and listening to David Bowie – in his parents home, although at the age of nineteen he married Deborah (Samantha Morton), who co-produced the film which is based on her book Touching from a Distance (1995). The rest of the band – 'Hooky', or Peter Hook (Joe Anderson), Bernard Sumner (James Anthony Pearson), and Stephen Morris (Harry Treadaway) – play relatively minor roles.

There were just three years between the band's first gig (before Morris joined as drummer, and when they were – briefly – known as Warsaw) and its abrupt demise on the eve of their American tour. During this time a great deal happened: Curtis – who had witnessed a girl have an epileptic fit and wrote the song 'She's Lost Control' as a reaction – had himself been diagnosed as epileptic; his relationship with Deborah deteriorated considerably; he began a relationship with Belgian Annik Honoré during a European tour; and he was suffering from depression.

On 18 May 1980 Ian Curtis hanged himself with a clothesline in the kitchen of his home in Barton Street, Macclesfield.

Corbijn's film is intense and compelling, the bleakness of it lessened by scatological humour from manager Rob Gretton (Toby Kebbell), and John Cooper Clarke reciting 'Evidently Chicken Town'.

At the end we see smoke coming from Macclesfield Crematorium, where Curtis was cremated, and where an increasing number of followers of the rock legend come to see his kerbstone. Below is a link to an amateur video clip from the 30th anniverary of Curtis's death at the cemetery, plus my other Curtis-related posts:

Ian Curtis, Macclesfield Cemetery
Mick Middles & Lindsay Reade: Torn Apart
Ian Curtis in Macclesfield, Cheshire

27 December 2012

Elizabeth Stuckey-French: The First Paper Girl in Red Oak, Iowa (2000)

In 'Leufredus', one of the short stories in Elizabeth Stuckey-French's The First Paper Girl in Red Oak, Iowa, the narrator is working as a rehab counselor because, she says: 'I thought it would expose me to fascinating pathologies while at the same time reassuring me that I was normal, sort of an innoculation.' She is wrong, of course, although Stuckey-French's stories have that effect on me: they plunge us into a world of such eccentricity that we can only walk away with the feeling that at least we must be normal.
There are a number of dualities in these stories: truth versus fiction, reality versus fantasy, youth versus adulthood/old age, the spoken versus the unspoken, although there can be many stages between those dualities, there are times when they merge or become the opposites of themselves, such as the young being more mature than their parents, the unspoken more eloquent than the spoken, etc. Automatic verbal responses can hurt, but so can thinking too much before you speak.

The absurd lurks, such as when, in 'Scavenger Hunt', Francine Brick (divorced, living alone) finds a cigarette lighter (Peter the Pelican) in her kitchen, and goes to various places sleuthing down the reason for it, even inventing a name for herself as she piles fantasy on fantasy to emerge at the prosaic truth: her prodigal son (who's nothing like as rogueish as she thinks, or really as she would prefer) has visited and left it there. And another example of absurdity is (the thirtysomething?) Cherry paying for the 19-year-old Nick (who is in some ways the older person) to keep her company and join her and her children in a car journey to her husband at Virginia Beach, although on the way (after a little flirting) thinks they should push further, to Florida: impulse is a common trait in Stuckey-French's world.

And families are crucial to this world, which is peopled by mothers and fathers and their children in frequent conflict with each other. In the end, in general the young appear to come off as better people in this fictional world, slicing through the egotism, the self-deception and the arrogance of the grownup world. They may not be too diplomatic, and sometimes they're rude, but they have an honesty and a frankness that triumphs, such as when Jane, in 'Famous Poets', insults Miss X, a self-obsessed, self-defined 'famous poet', at the dinner table.

In 'Electric Wizard' the narrator says: 'Our conversation had become completely unmoored.' That seems to sum up The First Paper Girl in Red Oak, Iowa quite well.

Quirky, human, slightly insane, delightful. And that title isn't really significant, or rather, its just a fine title, so therein lies the significance.

25 December 2012

Chris Noonan's Miss Potter (2006)

After watching this movie yesterday, the lasting images in my memory are of the animated cartoons, which is by no means a good thing because they are one of the negative features of it.

Beatrix Potter was a naturalist, an artist, and a conservationist of note, and yet – in spite of director Chris Noonan's claims that he initially shyed away from this fimscript in horror of thoughts of cutesiness – 'cutesy' springs to mind here, as the film plays far too much on Potter's anthropomorphic characters as opposed to her other work.

The movie begins in 1902, when Potter (Renée Zellweger) secured a publisher (Frederick Warne & Co.) for her children's book The Tale of Peter Rabbit, the first true edition of which she in fact self-published the year before (although the movie misleads the audience on this issue).

There are a few flashbacks to Potter's youth, but the essence of the story is the publication of Potter's children's work, her conflict with her parents and her developing romance with Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor) which ends in his death before the marriage, and a little detail near the end about Potter saving land in the Lake District from the developers – she left much of the land she bought to the National Trust.

Noonan was aware that Potter, as an independently minded woman, was somewhat out of step with the prevailing Victorian ethos (which of course prevailed even after the event), but it's a pity that the movie makes so many omissions and includes so much extraneous matter.

Beatrix Potter is worthy of far more than this.

24 December 2012

James Mangold's Girl, Interrupted (1999)

Girl, Interrupted is largely set in a psychiatric hospital, which automatically makes the viewer think of comparisons with other movies set in such institutions, such as Samuel Fuller's Shock Corridor (1963), where a man posing as mad in the end becomes mad; Ken Loach's Family Life (1971), which is a fierce Laingian criticism of conventional psychiatry; Miloš Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), based on Ken Kesey's countercultural 1962 novel of the same name, which is by extension a savage indictment of many aspects of society in general; and the central section of Jane Campion's An Angel at My Table (1990), which is based on Janet Frame's 1984 book of the same name.
The movie Girl, Interrupted is based on Susanna Kaysen's (rather less linear) book of the same name which was published in 1993, and is an autobiographical account of Kaysen's experiences in McLean Hospital, Belmont, Boston, Massachusetts, in 1967 at the age of eighteen. She followed a number of other very notable writers who had been there as patients, such as Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton.
Kaysen was diagnosed as having borderline behavioral disorder, and the film charts the progress of her character (played by Winona Ryder) from ODing on aspirins, to being admitted to the fictional Claymoore Hospital, through befriending inmates with illnesses of very various seriousness and undergoing different traumas with them, to emerging more healthy and ready to face both the world and herself.
Unlike some movies mentioned above (notably Family Life and Cuckoo's Nest), this film is not as much a criticism of the psychiatric profession as a kind of mental coming of age, but it is nevertheless intensely powerful and relevant.

23 December 2012

Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

Sean Durkin (as T. Sean Durkin) directed a 13-minute short in 2010 titled Mary Last Seen, which involves a young guy driving a girl to a place he's says will be wonderful. They briefly make their way through a wood to get there, and he leaves the very dubious (probably frightened) girl in a clearing with a building and some unknown people. It could well be the beginning of Martha Marcy May Marlene.

The feature is beautifully played by the unknown Elizabeth Olsen as Martha, who has escaped from a violent, sex-obsessed, Charles Manson-like cult in the Catskills, New York State (where she is known as Marcy May) to a lakeshore house in Connecticut to rejoin her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law (Hugh Dancy). But we only discover the backstory in flashbacks or dream sequences, which are not necessarily reliable.

All Martha  has told her sister is that she has been with a boyfriend, and nothing else, although it appears that for two years she has been in a sinister cult, that she has been raped by the leader (played by John Hawkes), been taught to use a gun under very disturbing circumstances, and has witnessed an act of apparently gratuitous murder of an outsider by a cult member. And although she says nothing about her experiences, it is clear from her bizarre behavior – from the relatively innocuous skinny-dipping in the public lake, through joining her sister and brother-in-law while they're having sex, to kicking her brother-in-law down the stairs for no reason – that she is a deeply disturbed person.

The movie tantalizingly reveals Martha's story bit by bit, but in the end there are probably not enough bits to make a whole. It grips, but then lets go a little too soon.

Anita Diamant: The Last Days of Dogtown (2005)

The blurb on the back cover of Anita Diamant's The Last Days of Dogtown gives a useful introduction to this novel, which is set in Dogtown near the fishing town of Gloucester, Cape Ann, Massachusetts:

'[T]he village of Dogtown is peopled by widows, orphans, spinsters, scoundrels, whores, free Africans, and "witches." Among the inhabitants of this hamlet are Black Ruth, who dresses as a man and works as a stonemason; Mrs. Stanley, an imperious madam whose grandson, Sammy, comes of age in her brothel; Oliver Younger, who survives a miserable childhood at the hands of his aunt; and Cornelius Finson, a freed slave. At the center of it all is Judy Rhines, a fiercely independent soul, deeply lonely, who nonetheless builds a life for herself against all imaginable odds.'

The 'real' Dogtown is now a deserted village remembered mainly for the inspirational boulders Roger Ward Babson paid workers to carve there (see link below), but Diamant's fictional construction, as the book title suggests, fictionally reconstructs the final years of Dogtown as an inhabited village.

The story begins in 1814 and continues over a number of years, and as the blurb suggests, Dogtown is depicted as a community of outsiders where (by 19th century values at least) social transgression is rife: Mrs Stanley's sex workers Sally and Molly have a happy (but hidden) lesbian relationship while her grandson seems to be asexual; the sexual relationship between the white Judy and the black Cornelius is to shock Cape Ann and drive Judy to Cambridge in the end; and the alcoholic Stanwood manifests distinctly psychotic tendencies: in parts, the reader can almost imagine, say, Jack Torrance, the character played by Jack Nicholson in The Shining.

The Last Days in Dogtown moves through a series of tableaux concerning one or two people as opposed to a strictly chronological sequence, and it follows from this that there is no central character. Nor is the style consistent: pages of cartoonish humor (Tammy Younger and her gruesome teeth extractions, Stanwood's brief (and very unconvincing) conversion) are counterpointed by pathos, by the triumph of different kinds of love over the material, making this a very moving – if slightly uneven – read.

The Babson Boulders

21 December 2012

André Blavier: Les Fous littéraires (1982; repr. 2000) #1

It was while reading an article on Raymond Queneau that I discovered André Blavier (1922–2001), whose huge book Les Fous littéraires* was first published in 1982; this contained 924 pages, but additions in the 2000 edition increase it to 1147 pages. The title isn't at all easy to translate: literally it means 'Literary Madmen', but that entraps us in a gender specificity that's to some extent built into Latin-derived languages, although opting for the more politically correct 'Literary Mad People' is just ugly. And then there's the problem with the word 'mad': clearly, it frequently has pejorative connotations, but Blavier didn't intend any, so I think that – on an analogy with the expression 'outsider artists' – the term 'outsider writers' is the best to use here.

Blavier was a Belgian librarian of working-class origin from Verviers, whose life was overturned – indeed saved, as he was on the verge of suicide – by reading Queneau, who in the 1930s had unsuccessfully attempted to write a book about outsider writers, adding to Nodier's list of 'génies méconnus' ('little known geniuses'). He failed to publish, though, but salvaged his researches by incorporating some of his subjects into a novel read by Blavier: Les Enfants du limon (1938) (Children of Clay). Blavier later got to know Queneau and in 1961 became Oulipo's foreign correspondent.

From Blavier's huge collection of eccentric people has emerged what can perhaps be described as a canon of outsider writers, of whom I mention just two here:

Jean-Pierre Brisset (1837–1919), who wrote, among a number of books, La Natation ou l’art de nager appris seul en moins d’une heure (1870) ('Swimming or the Art of Swimming Self-Taught in Under an Hour'). He developed the theory that humans evolved from frogs.

Paulin Gagne (1808–76) wrote L'Unitéide, ou la Femme-Messie ('Woman Messiah') (1857), which is a poem of 726 pages said to contain some of the most fantastic names and strangest words ever written. In L'Histoire des Miracles he tells of the time he sub-let his salon to spritualists who were followers of Allan Kardec. Bearing a crucifix, he went into one of their sessions:

'[...] je suis allé seul dans la salle où se faisaient les évocations infernales ; ô miracle étonnant et épouvantable ! à l'instant, un mouvement de rotation irrésistible s'est emparé de moi ; je tournais comme une toupie autour de la table satanique, que je couvris de crachats et de bave, et d'où s'échappaient les esprits démoniaques par la présence du crucifix que je tenais toujours à la main : Satan et Dieu se disputaient mon corps et mon âme !!'

(My translation: 'Alone, I went into the room, from which hellish apparitions were coming; oh, astounding and dreadful miracle: suddenly, an irresistible rotary movement took hold of me; I spun like a top around the satanic table, which I covered with spit and dribble, and from which demonic spirits were escaping because of the presence of the crucifix I was holding: Satan and God were arguing over my body and soul!!').

After this bizarre event, Gagne was taken to a maison de santé to recover for several days.
Paulin Gagne, artist unknown.

*The expression originates from a book by Charles Nodier (1780–1844): Bibliographe de fous: de quelques livres excentriques (Paris: Techener, 1835).

My André Blavier/Fous littéraires posts:
André Blavier: Les Fous littéraires #1
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
André Blavier #6: Jules Allix
André Blavier #7: Alexandre-Vincent-Charles Berbiguier

20 December 2012

Jean Giono: L' Homme qui plantait des arbres (1953)

In 1953 the Readers' Digest asked Jean Giono (1895–1970) to write a short account about the most extraordinary person he'd ever met, and the product was L'Homme qui aimait les arbres, which I believe has been translated using several different titles in English, but the most literal one is 'The Man Who Planted Trees'.

L'Homme qui plantait des arbres is set in the harsh climate of the French Alps, where Giono's books expressed his deep concern about the depopulation of the villages. Giono – who fought in World War I and whose experiences of it led to him becoming a staunch pacifist – was born and died in Manosque, the largest town in Alpes-de-Haute-Provence (04). In Giono's account, the young unnamed narrator is hiking in the area and is in need of water. He meets the much older Elzéard Bouffier, a shepherd who gives him a drink and puts him up for two nights. During this time, the narrator discovers that over three years Elzéard has planted 100,000 acorns in this austere and severely underpopulated land, expects them to yield about 10,000 trees after wastage, and has plans for growing silver birch, beech and ash. No one knows that he's doing it, and he is not seeking financial gain.

The narrator leaves for the war and finds on his return to Elzéard (who has now turned to bee-keeping) that the planting has yielded a forest whose trees are already taller than the two men. Over the years the narrator regularly returns to see Elzéard, the mushrooming forests, and the fresh growth of a happy community until the old man dies peacefully in Banon.

It was a few years before Giono confessed that this is just a story, that there'd never been an Elzéard Bouffier, but that is of no importance. Essentially, L'Homme qui plantait des arbres is a kind of parable about the regeneration of an area – without the use of any complicated technology – by the work of just one selfless man, a man living in harmony with the natural world. The ecological message is clear, as is the anti-war one.

My Jean Giono posts:
Sylvie Giono: Jean Giono à Manosque
Jean Giono: L' Homme qui plantait des arbres
Jean Giono: Le Hussard sur le toit
Jean Giono: Colline | Hill of Destiny
Jean Giono: Un de Baumugnes | Lovers Are Never Losers
Jean Giono in Manosque
Jean Giono: Notes sur l'affaire Dominici
Jean Giono's grave, Manosque, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence
Pierre Citron: Jean Giono 1895–1970
Jean Giono: Regain | Second Harvest
Jean Giono: Que ma joie demeure
Jean Giono: Pour saluer Melville
Jean Giono et al, Le Contadour

18 December 2012

Wine Court Office in Fleet Street: London #57

On the wall of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub, a rather eccentric sign:
'"SIR" said Dr Johnson "If you wish to have a just notion of the magnitude of this great City you must not be satisfied with seeing its great streets and squares but must survey the innumerable little lanes and courts........................................................................................................

This Court takes it's [sic] name from the Excise Office which was here up to 1665. VOLTAIRE came and, says tradition, CONGREVE and POPE, Dr. Johnson lived in Gough Square (End of the Court on the left), and finished his Great Dictionary there in 1755. OLIVER GOLDSMITH lived at No.6, where he wrote "The Vicar of Wakefield"
and Johnson saved him from eviction by selling the book for him..............................................................................
Here came Johnson's friends, REYNOLDS, GIBBON, GARRICK, Dr. BURNEY, BOSWELL and others of his circle. In the 19th C. Came CARLYLE, MACAULEY, TENNYSON, DICKENS, (who mentions the Court in "A Tale of Two Cities") FORSTER, HOOD, THACKERAY, CRUIKSHANK, LEECH and WILKIE COLLINS. More recently came MARK TWAIN, THEODORE ROOSEVELT, CONAN DOYLE, BEERBOHM, CHESTERTON, DOWSON, LE GALEIENE [sic] SYMONS YEATS – and a host of others in search of Dr Johnson, or "The Cheese"'.

Percy Bysshe Shelley and the Soho Mural: London #56

lived here
in 1811'.
This plaque is on the wall of 15 Poland Street, Soho. Shelley moved here after being expelled from Oxford University for publishing – with Thomas Jefferson Hogg – The Necessity of Atheism. In the same year he eloped to Scotland with the 16-year-old Harriet Westbrook. Round the corner on Noel Street is a mural:
'Ode to the West Wind'
Louise Vines for
01 737 4948'
'Ode to the West Wind' is part of Prometheus Unbound (1820), and Shelley wrote a two-paragraph introduction to it:
'This poem was conceived and chiefly written in a wood that skirts the Arno, near Florence, and on a day when that tempestuous wind, whose temperature is at once mild and animating, was collecting the vapours which pour down the autumnal rains. They began, as I foresaw, at sunset with a violent tempest of hail and rain, attended by that magnificent thunder and lightning peculiar to the Cisalpine regions.

'The phenomenon alluded to at the conclusion of the third stanza is well known to naturalists. The vegetation at the bottom of the sea, of rivers, and of lakes, sympathizes with that of the land in the change of seasons, and is consequently influenced by the winds which announce it.'

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow

Her clarion o'er the dreaming earth, and fill
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
With living hues and odours plain and hill:

Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh, hear!


Thou on whose stream, mid the steep sky's commotion,
Loose clouds like earth's decaying leaves are shed,
Shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean,

Angels of rain and lightning: there are spread
On the blue surface of thine aery surge,
Like the bright hair uplifted from the head

Of some fierce Maenad, even from the dim verge
Of the horizon to the zenith's height,
The locks of the approaching storm. Thou dirge

Of the dying year, to which this closing night
Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre,
Vaulted with all thy congregated might
Of vapours, from whose solid atmosphere
Black rain, and fire, and hail will burst: oh, hear!


Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams
The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,
Lulled by the coil of his crystalline streams,

Beside a pumice isle in Baiae's bay,
And saw in sleep old palaces and towers
Quivering within the wave's intenser day,

All overgrown with azure moss and flowers
So sweet, the sense faints picturing them! Thou
For whose path the Atlantic's level powers

Cleave themselves into chasms, while far below
The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear
The sapless foliage of the ocean, know

Thy voice, and suddenly grow gray with fear,
And tremble and despoil themselves: oh, hear!


If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;
If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;
A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share

The impulse of thy strength, only less free
Than thou, O uncontrollable! If even
I were as in my boyhood, and could be

The comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven,
As then, when to outstrip thy skiey speed
Scarce seemed a vision; I would ne'er have striven

As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.
Oh, lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!

A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed
One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.


Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawakened earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O, Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

17 December 2012

Dositey Obradovich in the City: London #55

27 Clement's Lane.
[Dositej Dimitrije Obradović]
Eminent Serbian man of letters
First Minister of Education
in Serbia.'
Obradovich was the founder of Serbian literature and the translator of Aesop's Fables into Serbian.

John Bunyan in Holborn: London #54

The statue of John Bunyan by John Garbe, Baptist Church House, on the corner of Catton Street and Southampton Row.
                          D.D. LITT. D.
1875–6 AND 1901–2
'As I walk'd through the wilderness of this
world, I lighted on a certain place, where
was a Denn; & I laid me down in that place to
sleep: And as I slept I dreamed a dream.'
Obviously, this is a quotation from Pilgrim's Progress.
The link below is to a long, image-filled post I made on John Bunyan:

John Bunyan in Bedfordshire

Oscar Wilde in Charing Cross: London #53

1854 ~ 1900'
Derek Jarman wanted to see a statue of Oscar Wilde in London, although he died four years before this came about: Maggi Hambling's sculpture, A Conversation with Oscar Wilde, wasn't installed in Adelaide Street, Charing Cross, until 1998.
'We are all
in the gutter,
but some of us
are looking at
the stars.'
This famous quotation from Lady Windermere's Fan (1893) faces the head of Wilde at the base of the statue.
And Wilde rises from his sarcophagus, cigarette (unfortunately stolen again) poised in hand, to converse with anyone who wishes to take a seat.

Sir Walter Raleigh in Greenwich: London #52

This statue of the writer and explorer Sir Walter Raleigh, by William McMillan, once stood in Whitehall, but is now in the grounds of the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich.

16 December 2012

Anne Tyler: Morgan's Passing (1980)

A major theme of Anne Tyler's Morgan's Passing is the gulf between appearance and reality, which runs everywhere in the book, but especially in the protagonist Morgan Gower, who regularly looks at his fancy dress wardrobe and tries to decide who he's going to be that particular day: a soldier, a sailor, a river boat gambler, a whaling ship harpooner? Morgan lives in chaos – largely the chaos of his own identity – with wife Bonny and his seven daughters.

There are many interesting sentences and phrases here, such as in this description of Morgan's everyday reality: 'He felt he was riding something choppy and violent, fighting to keep his balance, smiling beatifically and trying not to blink'. Generically, he seems to come from the same cast as Jeremy Pauling in Celestial Navigation, only instead of suffering from geographical dyslexia he has what might be described as existential dyslexia. When Kate, his youngest, plucks his hat off, is she removing the guise and allowing him to see himself in a truer aspect, are the real father and real daughter meeting each other briefly? If so, maybe that's why he fleetingly thinks of having yet another baby, perpetuating the chaos but paradoxically holding things together more: is that wallowing in turmoil, or fending off an unknown enemy, or both at the same time? And some people – Tyler included – see her work as milk and cookies? I really don't understand.

Then there are Tyler's usual social dysfunctions, like Morgan's father killed himself during Morgan's adolescence for no apparent reason; Morgan's sister Brindel (who is autistic, perhaps) lives with them because she split up from her husband, and although she later leaves the family for an earlier lover, she leaves him too to re-join the Gowers as the former lover is only in love with her former self: how she seemed then. It's no accident that after Morgan sees a movie it doesn't seem realistic because 'Everyone had been so sure of what everyone else was going to do [...]. Didn't B ever happen instead of A, in these people's lives?'.

Morgan (who somehow gets away with not seeming to be as spooky as he at first appears) stalks Emily and her husband Leon, who seem to live an antithetical existence to his, their lives seeming to be mapped out, although their happy marriage is not as happy as it appears.

The Gower family, it perhaps goes without saying, are bad drivers, and there is the occasional hint of absurdity on the surface, which on reflection isn't as absurd as it seems:

'"Do you like Tolstoy?"
"Oh yes, we have it in leather."'.

Eventually, Morgan gets Emily – a girl who's old enough to be his daughter – pregnant, and in so doing splits up both of the families. And the title comes from a personal notice in the local paper that Bonny rather disturbingly inserts, about the death of Morgan, only in reality she knows he's very much alive.

This is one of the funniest (and at the same time one of the most disturbing) novels of Tyler's I've read so far, making it my fourteenth and still counting.

The links below are to Anne Tyler novels I've written posts on:

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: 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: The Beginner's Goodbye (2012)
Anne Tyler: A Spool of Blue Thread (2015)

Henry David Thoreau: Cape Cod (1865)

I've only just discovered that Henry David Thoreau wrote a book about Cape Cod, which is very interesting, amusing, and begins with Thoreau as an ambulance chaser – arriving in Boston and finding difficulties catching the boat to Provincetown, he makes for a shipwreck off the coast of Cohasset.
There is a link to the text below, plus a link to an earlier post I made about Thoreau in more familiar territory – Walden Pond just outside Concord:
Henry David Thoreau: Cape Cod (1865)
Henry David Thoreau's Walden Pond, Concord

12 December 2012

The Battle of Cable Street Mural, East End: London #51

There's no point in me paraphrasing the eloquent words at the side of this beautiful mural, so I'm just copying them word for word in the knowledge that no one can possibly raise an objection to that: the story needs to be told over and over, so here it is:

'The Battle of Cable Street Mural

'On 4th October 1936 the people of the East End halted a march by fascists in what has gone down in history as "The Battle of Cable Street."
'People from the Jewish community, communists, trade unionists, Labour Party members, Irish dockers and labourers joined forces to oppose the march through Stepney planned by Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists (BUF) and thousands of his followers, known as 'Blackshirts'. Their uniforms echoed those used by their counterparts in Italy and Germany and the arm-raised salute was used as a symbol of their political allegiances.

'The planned route was through an impoverished area with a high concentration of Jewish residents and was seen as a deliberate provocation. The government of the day refused the request by Jewish, local and community groups to ban the march and on the day over 250,000 East Londoners took to the streets to bar the way to British fascism. The Spanish Civil War had begun a few months earlier and opposition to Mosley's Blackshirts was seen as the same struggle as that being fought by the Spanish Republicans against Franco's German and Italian backed Nationalists. The slogan being used by the Republicans in the defense of Madrid was adopted at the barricades in Cable Street – They Shall Not Pass (No Pasaran).

'The ensuing action ensured that Mosley's marchers were turned back and political history was made. One resulting legacy was The Public Order Act of 1936, banning the wearing of political uniforms in public. More importantly, on the day itself, the fascists "did not pass" and the people of the East End played a crucial role in the defeat of organised British fascism for decades to come.

'The mural on the west wall of St George's Town Hall was commissioned to commemorate the events of 1936. Work was started in 1976 by artist Dave Binnington whose designs were partly inspired by the famous mural artists David Alfaro Siquerios and Diego Rivera. There were setbacks with several acts of vandalism on the work in progress and Dave was unable to complete the project. The work was taken up by artists Paul Butler, Ray Walker and Desmond Rochfort, who brought their own skills, designs and ideas to the project whilst achieving a stylistic unity. The mural was finally completed in 1983. The finished work measures approximately 17 x 18 metres and has become an important pictorial document with both historic and artistic significance.
'Since its completion particular areas of the mural have required attention but by 2011 it was in need of major restoration, including repairs to the render on which it sits. As guardians of the mural, Tower Hamlets Council commissioned the necessary works with funds secured through a Planning Contribution from property developers Ballymore.

'Hirst Conservation were appointed to do the restoration along with Paul Butler, one of the original artists, who carried out the necessary painting.

'This epic mural serves to remind us of what can be achieved when communities join together against those who seek to divide them.

'The restored Cable Street Mural was unveiled by Mayor Luther Rahman on 1st October 2011.'

Mark Gertler's Merry-Go-Round in Spitalfields: London #50

This roundel, or coal hole cover, is in front of Mark Gertler's former house at 32 Elder Street, Spitalfields, and is one of 25 different ones made for Spitalfields by Keith Bowler in 1995. It depicts a detail of Gertler's painting Merry-Go-Round (1916), which clearly shows Gertler's perception of war as absurd and horrific.

Below is an earlier link to another post I made about Gertler:

Mark Gertler in Spitalfields

Isaac Rosenberg in Whitechapel: London #49

The Whitechapel Gallery, formerly the Passmore Edwards Library (clearly visible in relief), 77 High Street. The plaque below was unveiled by Emanuel Litvinoff.

Poet and Painter
lived in the East End
and studied here'.

George Lansbury in Bow: London #48

1903    –   1940
1919–20 & 1936–37

Minnie Lansbury was George's daughter-in-law.

11 December 2012

Literary Associations in Chelsea: London #47

Chelsea is steeped in literary history and literary associations, and the images below represent just some choice ones, but are by no means meant to be fully comprehensive.

104 Cheyne Walk:
Poet, essayist
and historian
lived here
Paulton's House, Paulton's Square, where this plaque was unveiled at around the same time as the Elizabeth Bowen plaque in Clarendon Terrace, Regents Park in March 2012:
lived here
[with her literary agent]
in Flat 22
28 Mallord Street:
'This house
was built for
13 Mallord Street:
'A. A.
lived here'
53 Old Church Street. I half expected to find a blue plaque saying John Betjeman had lived here, but things seem to have taken over.
24 Cheyne Row, now owned by the National Trust:
LIVED AT 24 CHEYNE ROW 1834–1881
This house was originally No 5. The plaque was sculpted by Benjamin Creswick in 1885 after a design by C. F. A Voysey.
 22 Upper Cheyne Row:
Essayist & Poet
Lived Here'
On, then, to Dr John Samuel Phene, who published a few obscure books: On Prehistoric Traditions and Customs in Connection with Sun and Serpent Worship, and On an Age of Colossi. The British Library has several manuscripts that he wrote to the Committee of the Literary Fund under the (more correct) surname John S. Phené.
I also find it interesting that the Bibliothèque nationale de France has a five-page paper of his about the behaviour of cave men in western Europe:

'Auteur(s) : Phené, John S. (Dr)
Titre(s) : Association française pour l'avancement des sciences. Le Dr John S. Phené,... Sur les coutumes des hommes des cavernes dans l'Europe occidentale. Séance du 21 août 1875 [Texte imprimé]
Publication : Paris : au Secrétariat de l'Association, 1875
Description matérielle : In-8° , 5 p.'
Dr Phene built a house on the corner of Oakley Street and Upper Cheyne Row apparently modelled on his French family's home, the Chateau de Savenay. The front of the building is said to have had 'writhing' gods and godesses, busts of royalty, etc, and was painted red and yellow with bits of gold. Parts of that description (but not the colours) can, I think, be seen in photos here, although unless there's some joke I don't understand, I think Dickens's Miss Havisham has been confused with a Miss Faversham in the link here:  The Library Time Machine.
Sad to say, Dr Phene's house was bulldozed away long ago, although the pub he built, the Phene Arms, is preserved.
33 Oakley Gardens is diagonally opposite the Phene:
lived here
87 Oakley Street:
Poet and Essayist
lived here
In Chelsea Embankment Gardens, in front of his home at 16 Cheyne Walk where he lived from 1862 until his death in 1882, is the Rossetti Fountain: designed by John Pollard Seddon, sculpted by Ford Maddox Brown, and unveiled by William Holman Hunt.
His hands rest on his Dante and his Circle and Ballads and Sonnets.
4 Cheyne Walk:
died here'
34 Tite Street:
wit and
lived here'
And this seems like the right time to include this image. I'm thinking, of course, of the famous occasion when Wilde said he wished he'd said something James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) had said, and Whistler replied 'You will, Oscar, you will.'
Whistler's statue is on Cheyne Walk, on the corner of Battersea Bridge Road, and although intended to commemorate the centenary of his death, wasn't in fact erected here until 2005.
23 Tedworth Square:
American Writer
lived here in