Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Quote from Jorge Luis Borges

Like every writer, he measured the virtues of other writers by their performance, and asked that they measure him by what he conjectured or planned.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

From the Goncourt Journal

Friday, 10 January 1890

At last Wednesday's dinner, the Princess, talking literature and turning to me, asked me ingenuously: 'But why do you always want to break new ground?' To which I replied: 'Because literature renews itself like everything in this world and it is only the people who are at the head of those renovations that survive.... Because, without suspecting it, you yourself admire only the literary revolutions of the past.... Because—let's take an example—Racine, the great, illustrious Racine, was hissed and booed by Pradon's admirers, by the supporters of the old-fashioned theatre, and because that Racine whom critics use to attack modern dramatists was just as much a revolutionary in his own time as certain authors are today'.

There's a tension here – de Goncourt appears to be expressing a timeless truth, and indeed there's one sense in which what he said to the Princess seems to me absolutely true. But notice the date: he's talking in, and speaking for, a particular era, when, for example the avant-garde was taking shape (Pound's 'Make it new' is a later manifestation of de Goncourt's idea, and Eliot's argument in 'Tradition and the Individual Talent' expresses it more conservatively – for the English domestic context, perhaps, as opposed to the European modernist one). This passage needs to be read in context – in fact it expresses an important part of the context in which we read late 19th/early 20th century literature and art.

But just as the term 'avant garde' becomes problematic when divorced from its historical context (or, as it were, extended out of it), so de Goncourt's claim about revolutionary literature becomes problematic if we seek to apply it to our own era, one in which talk of 'revolution' is no longer so clearly linked to contemporary political practice, and in which the idea of 'renewal' might connote something very different – for example it might draw on late twentieth-century notions of nature and identity. When contemporary poets talk about poetic revolutions, do they consider that they are transferring idiom from the realm of serious political discourse, or of pop culture, television news and advertising?

Still, I would not like to say that de Goncourt was wrong. It just goes to show that we adopt others' critical vocabularies at our peril: the safest, though also the hardest course would be to invent our own.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Two wronged husbands

Just back from a week in Languedoc, where in between cheese, wine and the sea I read two books. By coincidence both contained husbands whose wives betray them to a greater or lesser degree, and both in their despair express the bitter thought, 'If only she'd died instead' – no scandal that way. Ah, the nineteenth century!

The first was Conrad's The Return, one of those shorter and less well known pieces by major authors which Hesperus Press specialises in. It concerns one night in the house and mind of a well-to-do London gentleman whose wife leaves him for another man, but comes back again.

In his foreword Colm Toibin writes that 'The Return is Conrad at his most exotic territory: a house in London, not a boat in sight, utterly free of the Orient.' While this is true enough, I think it is based on Conrad's life experiences – what Alvan Hervey goes through psychologically is recognisably similar to what, for example, the narrator of 'Youth' goes through on his ship. The Return isn't spuriously exotic like The Secret Agent, where not only the setting but also the experiences which the characters undergo seem appropriated from outside Conrad's own knowledge.

It's also chock-a-block with Conrad's outrageously over-multiplied and -modified abstractions (a flaw which approaches the status of a winning trademark, and perhaps even a flaw which makes possible something greater, but a flaw nevertheless); for example: 'It was anguish naked and unashamed, the bare pain of existence let loose upon the world in the fleeting unreserve of a look that had in it an immensity of fatigue, the scornful sincerity, the black impudence of an extorted confession.' What would one say to a fellow writer or student who produced that sentence? 'Think you can narrow it down, Joe? And maybe find a way to show all that?' (I'm quoting selectively of course, and the context earns a lot of it – but still...)

The other book was Stendhal's The Red and the Black, which I'll have more to say about in the next day or so.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Siriol Troup, Beneath the Rime

Siriol Troup's second collection Beneath the Rime is published by Shearsman. I like it a lot – the poems are strange, alive and interested in history.

Siriol Troup comes from a Welsh family but was born in Hong Kong and spent most of her childhood and teenage years abroad, in Africa, Germany, Holland and Iran. She read Modern Languages (French and German) at St Hugh's College, Oxford and later returned there to teach 19th and 20th century French Literature.

Her pamphlet, Moss, won the Poetry Monthly Open Booklet competition in 2002 and her first full-length collection, Drowning up the Blue End, was published by Bluechrome in 2004. She teaches and lectures on poetry and is currently poet in residence for the Twickenham River Centre Project.

Siriol was kind enough to answer some questions I put to her about the work:

Why Beneath the Rime?

I’m hopeless with titles. Most of mine are really boring – ‘Floe’, ‘Detachment’, ‘Fall’ … My working title for the book was actually The Proper Viewing Distance, taken from one of the Infanta poems in the final section, but Tony Frazer at Shearsman, quite rightly, wasn’t keen. I finally settled on Beneath the Rime because I liked the idea of scratching beneath the surface of the poems and their rhymes, which seemed to fit well with the snow, frost and ice which feature in a number of the poems.

Could you explain, or comment on, your fascination with animals?

I find animals fascinating not because I like them particularly, but because I find them quite frightening. Though I often write about dogs, for instance, I’m actually terrified of them: their physical presence, their barking, their unpredictable behaviour. I suppose writing about them is a way of confronting my fears on a safe white page rather than in the park!

The first and second sections of the book are quite distinct, although there are continuities between them too. Can you say something about the poems' groupings, and about how you arrived at them?

You’re right – there are overlaps between the first and second sections, probably because, from the start, I was trying to write about how different ‘viewing distances’ can change our understanding of what we’re looking at, whether it’s a photo of Auden, snowfall in April, or a work of art. In the first section I tried to group poems which, even though they might be about animals, gave some insight into the human position; in the second, I was more interested in the small adjustments that can suddenly alter perspective – which seemed a good lead-in to the Infanta poems at the end of the book.

The third section of the book is a sequence about Velázquez painting the Infanta Maria Teresa. Do you identify more with the Infanta or with Velázquez?

Definitely more with the Infanta, whose destiny seemed to me to have been shaped, at least to some extent, by Velázquez’s paintbrush. He was a bit like a 17th century spin doctor tailoring the Infanta’s heavy Habsburg features to appeal to the court and, more importantly, to potential suitors. The fact that, as Chamberlain of the Royal Palace, he was also directly responsible for planning her wedding to Louis XIV, made the power-play between artist and sitter even more intriguing. While I was doing the background research, I couldn’t help feeling the extreme vulnerability of the Infanta’s situation as an adolescent suddenly thrown onto the marriage market, and later, when Velázquez died immediately after her wedding, having to cope with Louis’s infidelities, the death in childhood of five of her six children, and the French who hated her.

Can you comment on the experience of writing a second collection? Did you find it more difficult than writing the first? Easier? Did you start with a conception of the whole book or did it take shape through the accumulation of individual poems?

I certainly found it harder putting together the second book than the first. I was much more self-conscious this time! Partly it’s an accumulation of individual poems, several of which had already been published in poetry journals, but once I’d written the Infanta poems, it was easier to see where I was heading and how the rest of the book could take shape.

And finally, what next? What are you working on now?

I’ve been translating from German for a while – Goethe at the moment – though I’m wary of becoming too involved with translation because it’s so fascinating and addictive I might never get back to my own work!

Friday, September 04, 2009

Don Paterson as Andrew Marvell

Andrew Shields has posted a short consideration of 'Two Trees', from Don Paterson's new collection Rain. He rightly points out the oddity of the poem's close, where Paterson refuses the extended metaphors he has available (the whole poem is in Andrew's post):

They were trees, and trees don't weep or ache or shout.
And trees are all this poem is about

Not that it quite resolves that oddity, but I'm also struck by the metaphysical flavour of the poem; in particular, how Marvellian it is. This is partly a matter of the rhyming couplets, handled (apparently) loosely and skating over a series of rhythmical glitches; but it's also partly a matter of the argumentative play. The poem's slightly terrifying dead-end close underlines this: it's the poetic equivalent of when a cartoon car goes over a cliff and drops away, leaving the driver in mid-air. This reminds me somehow of Marvell – how even his best work seems slightly careless, dashed off; and this quality, of seeming to have been written by someone who knew it didn't matter, is both charming and dreadful.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Hitchens on Naipaul

It's hardly of the moment, but this review by Christopher Hitchens of VS Naipaul's authorised biography makes interesting reading, addressing the tensions and contaminations between life and work.

Knut Hamsun

Just a quick post to say how much I'm enjoying Growth of the Soil, by the Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun, whom I had hitherto known nothing of. It won him the Novel Prize. It reminds me a bit of Halldor Laxness, though it's less whimsical. I haven't finished it yet, but I can see how Hamsun's interest in land, authenticity and belonging might be related to his far-right sympathies. But mainly it's just a moving and sympathetic story.