Monday, March 15, 2010

Famam Librosque Cano

Today, we take a break from book reviews and look at an early poem of Ezra Pound. Its title translates to “I sing of fame and books”: the opening line of the Aeneid (“armam virumque cano”) translates to “I sing of arms and a man”.

Famam Librosque Cano *
by Ezra Pound

Your song?
Oh! The little mothers
Will sing them in the twilight
And when the night
Shrinketh the kiss of the dawn
That loves and kills,
What times the swallow fills
Her note, the little rabbit folk
That some call children,
Such as are up and wide,
Will laugh your verses to each other,
Pulling on their shoes for the day’s business,
Serious child business that the world
Laughs at, and grows stale;
Such is the tale
- Part of it - of thy song-life.


A book is known by them that read
That same. Thy public in my screed
Is listened. Well! Some score years hence
Behold mine audience,
As we had seem him yesterday.

Scrawny, be-spectacled, out at heels,
Such an one as the world feels
As sort of curse against its guzzling
And its age-lasting wallow for red greed
And yet; full speed
Though it should run for its own getting,
Will turn aside to sneer at
’Cause he hath
No coin, no will to snatch the aftermath
Of Mammon
Such an one as women draw away from
For the tobacco ashes scattered on his coat
And sit his throat
Shows razor’s unfamiliarity
And three days’ beard;

Such an one picking a ragged
Backless copy from the stall,
Too cheap for cataloguing,

‘Ah-eh! the strange rare name …
Ah-eh He must be rare if even I have not …’
And lost mid-page
Such age
As his pardons the habit,
He analyses form and thought to see
How I ’scaped immortality.

The first verse is a scoff at cradlesongs and forgettable, entertaining verses that, no doubt, brought their writers ephemeral fame and fortune. Then “behold mine audience” - clearly the audience of weightier poems. In the later verses, the poet is describing his discovery and rehabilitation in future times by his target audience - impecunious, unkempt yet rapt readers of poems (e.g. a penniless student/starving writer living in the Latin Quarter of Paris, like Rimbaud, but only anachronistically).

Without analyzing the irregular rate of rhyming, I particularly like the line “And its age-lasting wallow for red greed // And yet; full speed” (speaking of the world that scoffs at the poor reader in passing as it turns).

(* this poem is from Umbra on Internet Archive.)

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Arcadia, Part I

Arcadia, Tom Stoppard


The set, a 19th century school room in an English manor overlooking a grand park, is shared by 2 sets of characters, living in 1809-1812 and "present day" (presumably 1993, when this play was first published. In 1809, Thomasina Coverly is a precocious genius of 13 being tutored by Cambridge-educated, gentlemanly, Byronic Septimus Hodge, who happens to be friends with Byron. The idealized landscape in which "right amount of sheep are tastefully arranged" is about to be converted into a Gothic, Romantic park with the right amount of failed obelisks and ruins tastefully arranged, against the wishes of Lady Croom, Thomasina's archly witty mother.

In present day, Hannah Jarvis is researching the transformation of the garden and reading through Lady Croom's garden books. Obnoxious researcher Bernard Nightingale is convinced that he has discovered which Byron left English abruptly in 1809-1810. They discuss their passion for researching the "trivial" remembrances of time lost and the "trivial" details of the universe in heated discussions and span topic including the second law of thermodynamics and wikipedia versions of chaos theory and fractals.

After watching this play being performed, I enjoyed it so much that I read the play and was amazed at how engaging and interesting it is. In fact, I thought so much about it that my reflections will have to be divided into (at least) 3 blog posts. Today we will discuss Lady Croom.

Lady Croom:

If there is anything to complain about in this play, it would be that the play is overloaded with overly clever characters. Lady Croom should be, in her own right, a very clever characters, and yet a great deal of the jokes at her expense. Perhaps this is done to emphasize how precocious and brilliant her daughter is. The main laughs comes from the dialogue wherein the title of the play is expressed.

Arcadia is a place is Greece - in Peloponnese - which poetry over the years has turned into an idyllic, pastoral paradise. There is a famous painting by Nicholas Poussin, which I had included here thanks to wikipedia. Several shepherd in a pastoral wonderland have come across a tomb with the inscription "et in Arcadia ego". In Latin, as in Chinese, one of the accepted poetical devices is elision - leaving out a important parts of phrases or sentences, yet with the implicit suggestion that it is there. In this case, the word "sum" has been dropped of the end and the phrase translates literally as "and in Arcadia I am" or, in a more accepted version, "Even in Arcadia, there I am", where the speaker is personified Death. Momento mori (a sort of remember-that-you-will-die type deal).

In protesting the changes to the park that her husband is determined to make, Lady Croom describes her park as being a perfect pastoral scene and correct in sheep distribution. Her translation of the phrase is "here I am in Arcadia" where she means that she is in her garden and her garden is pastoral perfection - Arcadia. Some doubt over Lady Croom's taste, translation and, mainly, her geography are expressed and a page or so later, the accepted translation is given.

But really, Lady Croom is not like any Regency mother I've ever read of - certainly not like one of Jane Austen's mothers. Of course, this play is historical fiction, written from a modern perspective, but it is still surprising to find Lady Croom to be so witty. She is an over-privileged, bored, noblewoman who has enough education to be witty but not enough to be intellectual (and whether she regrets it or not, I'll leave the reader to judge for themselves) and she is given some of the best lines of the play. Whereas Bernard the academic can only say of a botanist who described a dwarf dahlia that he "died in the forests of the West Indies, lost to history like the monkey that bit him", Lady Croom says he "exchanged beds with my dahlia, and an English summer for ever lasting night in the Indies."

Saturday, February 27, 2010

21: The Odd Women

The Odd Women, George Gissing

The Odd Women is acutely aware of misery.

The title refers to unmarried women in Victorian society, when women outnumbered men and had virtually no way of earning a dignified living, aside from making a suitable marriage. Being brought up to be a lady and educated to be a lady, an odd woman could only obtain work as a governess or a companion - both unhappy position. The Bronte sisters wrote volumes on the indignity of being a governess (particularly the whiny one, Anne) and Jane Fairfax's unbearable fate in Emma, which she evades by marrying, is that of a governess.

In the vein of Jane Fairfax and Anne Bronte comes the Madden sisters. Daughters of a doctor who died before purchasing life insurance, they were educated to be ladies. They were taught to read poetry, pour tea, stitch cushions - all in line with the lives of well-to-do ladies. With the death of their father and the end of comfortable income, the girls are packed off to their destinations, based on their abilities. Their numbers are sadly diminished by half through the course of a few years and the remaining ones are Alice, Virginia and pretty Monica. The poor girls try to make their way in life through marriage, alcohol and acute unhappiness.

In contrast to the Maddens girls, the very independent and capable Rhoda Nunn advocates independence of women. She would rather that all girls be equipped for some profession and not be groomed solely for marriage.

I liked this book for the Gissing's social commentaries on the times. He must have sisters because he seems to sympathize with the plight of the girls.

This blog has been sadly neglected for some time. I will try to remedy that with a series of short-ish reviews, starting with this one.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

20: Clara Callan

Clara Callan, Richard B. Wright

I once read a satirical website that boasted a recipe for the composition award-winning literature. It had dictums like "thou shalt sneer at conflict" and "thou shalt commit no plot". I thought it was hilarious, sinister, at the time, distant. Now that I have wasted hours of my life - gone, irretrievably gone like the wind - reading Clara Callan, winner of the Giller Prize and the Governor General's Award for Fiction, I now find new bitter meaning in "suckitudinous" fiction.

Clara Callan has no real plot. The titular character lives in rural Ontario in the 1930s. She is a school teacher living along, unmarried. An odd woman (incidentally have also recently read The Odd Women, a much better read) she loses her belief in religion, is victim to a random, senseless act of violence by a tramp, goes to New York (where sister Nora resides) to get an abortion and returns to Ontario to become more and more eccentric until she meets the man of her dream: a Catholic, married man who regularly cheats on his wife with the odd women - unmarried women who have given up on finding marital bliss, trapped in a mundane experience, alone, unprotected and perfect for him to stalk and meet in movie theatres.

The book is told through letters of Clara to her sister Nora and her friend Evelyn and her diary entries. Sister Nora is a radio actress in New York, a minor celebrity, and is very Sister Carrie. My problem is that it was absolutely dull. Certainly things happen, but there's no connecting theme. Does Clara change at all? I think not. There's no evolution of character. In the beginning, she sees the town drunk wearing her deceased father's donated coat and delights in the sight. In the end, she attends his funeral; distinctly out of place amongst the poor, lewd man's rough, unkempt acquaintances. Even after all that's happened to her, she is still the same and sees things around her the same way. No forward motion. No development.

And all the references to the 1930s (this book was a piece of historical fiction published in 2006) are corny. Old King George died, handsome King Edward abdicated for that crass American woman, that book Gone with the Wind was published and filmed - it was so tacky. I'm reading the volume of Anais Nin from the same period and the way she references things that we now consider to be historically important is altogether different. The feeling I get when I find familiar things that Anais encounters at the time (Otto Rank for example) is vastly different from the same type of thing in Clara's letters - it is not forced or ostentatious or jarring.

And honestly, people with interesting lives don't give vague summaries of current affairs and weather updates in their diaries. In fact, interesting people living dull, sequestered lives don't write about mundane drivel either - like Emily Dickinson, for example. This establishes that Clara Callan has the prize-winning combination of being an uninteresting person living an uninteresting life.

I believe the quote on the back is a good representative of the faults of this book:

"On a winter afternoon when we turn the lights on early, or perhaps a summer day of leaves and sky, I will begin by conjugating the elemental verb. I am. You are. It is."

("Boring," I dare to tag on.)

It's trying so hard to be literary and poetic. It's trying for simplicity (all such simple words) by has no sense of minimalism (why "on a winter afternoon ..." or "summer day of leaves and ..."? Pointless. Just pointless. The extra fragment doesn't all anything; those two things give exactly the same feeling and giving the same feeling twice doesn't make it better. Just more exasperating). Its only real poetic device is the elision of the object: she will begin what by conjugating? Life? Doubting? Writing?

Like this snippet, Clara also tries too hard to be literary and poetic and its only device is the omission of defining moments, character, plot, and meaning. How very suckitudinous.

(By the way, am finally back to blogging after a nice break followed by a deluge of things to do. Will post at least once a week from now on.)

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

19: Remarkable Creatures

Remarkable Creatures, Tracy Chevalier

Elizabeth Philpot and her sister are eccentric spinsters in the early 1800's - back when mothers spent most of their energy marrying off daughters and the rest solving the menage problem (how to seat large dinner parties so that so married couples sit next to each other). When their brother prepares to get married, the sisters are exiled to Lyme Regis to lived as country gentry, as opposed to degraded gentry in London.

Lyme Regis in the 1800's is where Louisa Musgrove jumped the steps on the Cobb to tragic (or not so tragic, all things considered) results. The Cobb is a stony walk along the beach - where Sarah Woodruff haunts. In fact, Charles Smithson even had a passing interest in fossils and paleontology and even went to look for interesting fossils, just like Mary Anning, the other protagonist of Remarkable Creatures. If my memory serves me correctly, in one scene, Sarah Woodruff even found fossils to give to Charles. Lyme must be a hot spot for women combing the shores for fossils.

The book is told, alternating, from Elizabeth Philpot's view and that of Mary Anning. It is historically attested that Mary Anning was struck by lightening as a baby and her contemporaries often attributed her later curiosity and spark to that extraordinary incident. The book is a charming story of two friends as they hunt for fossils on the beaches of Lyme. In 1800, the society of England is dominated by men and as are the lives of Philpot and Anning - except the part where they are combing the beaches of Lyme, looking for bones of ancient monsters. They deal with men, squabble over men, and fight against them. Only in finding lost creatures on the beach are they free from the tyranny of men.

I don't usually enjoy historical fiction. The characters (who are often speaking in first person, like in this book) are supposed to be from ancient Rome or Jane Austen's Lyme, but they speak in such a modern tone and the modernity filters to their thoughts.

In Girl with the Pearl Earring, Griet likens everyone's voice to something metaphoric; she likened her mother's voice to a bubbling pot. That is the introductory device in Chapter 1 of Girl with the Pearl Earring. The introductory device here in Remarkable Creatures is Elizabeth Philpot describing characters by what feature they lead with: she herself leads with her jaw, Mary Anning leads with her eyes. Chock-full of significance, foreshadowing, etc. But it all feels so modern. (And also a bit formulaic, this book has similar feel to Girl with the Pearl Earring, with respects to tone and organization of the story.)

The narration fixes on the aspects of life in the 1800's that are different from now, which is only natural for someone reflecting on history - but the narration is from the point of view of characters who live in that time only and do not have knowledge of later days, when evolution is accepted and women own property and can hold self-respecting jobs. The narrators not only long for a time of less male dominance, but come across as expecting it. It makes perfect sense for someone from this century stuck into 1800's Lyme, but it doesn't make much sense for someone from the 1800's.

And the tone is so modern. I feel that Mary Anning, not having received much of a formal education, should speak in a quaint style, like Elizabeth Jane, who said "fay" instead of "succeed" and "dumbledore" instead of "bumblebee". The modernness in the tone of the narration and in the thinking of the characters pulled me out of the book at times.

But perhaps, I'm a little overly critical; it was a good book, nesting somewhere comfortably between literary fiction and chick-lit.

On a side note, I got this book as an advanced reading copy - complete with spelling mistakes and everything - as a result of LibraryThings Advanced Reviewers draw. It was really exciting to read a book before it's out in stores.

On a second side note, happy holidays to all my readers and a special happy holidays wish goes out to my friend Mary, if you're still reading. No pun - contextual or biblical - intended.

Monday, November 30, 2009

18: The Original of Laura

Vladimir Nabokov, The Original of Laura

A fragmentary review:

"Dear Mummy and Hummy," wrote Lolita, once upon another Nabokov book. Flora might have written something of the sort, but her mother's tenant is named "Hubert Hubert".

There is a lovely, nearly-complete scene wherein Flora is sitting on a bench at a train station and is accosted by an old friend, who presses her to read a book called Laura. She says "it is, of course, fictionalized and all that but you'll come face to face with yourself at every other corner. And there's your wonderful death. Let me show your your wonderful death. [...] You'll scream with laughter. It's the craziest death in the world."

You know, it's easier to write a fragmentary review than a coherent one. It's also easy to call a half-written, incoherent manuscript, which probably should have been burnt like Nabokov asked, a "novel in fragments" to excuse its lack of plot and cohesion.

Hubert Hubert sees his dead child Daisy in young Flora and his dead wife in Flora's mother.

Philip Wild sees his dead childhood sweetheart Aurora Lee in his young wife Flora.

Humbert Humbert sees his dead childhood sweetheart Annabel Leigh in prepubescent girls.

Naively: doesn't anyone like anybody in and of themselves? Why so strapped to the past?

In conclusion, there might actually be a novel here; there's a strong theme of being strapped to the past inherent in the characters and even in the fact that Nabokov's previous works are referenced and reminisced over. Philip Wild tries to erase his body parts by some kind of autohypnotism - the act of erasure is somehow in conflict with the bonds of the past. But I don't think one can actually find the story/concept, whatever Nabokov was aiming for, in this book, which includes photographs of Nabokov's original index cards that make up the "manuscript" of The Original of Laura.

There's only enough here for a coffee table book that says "I'm literary, yes I am, and a fan of manuscripts rescued from the fire".

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Why I hate Jane Eyre

I thought I would hate Twilight. From listening to friends and reading reviews, I'd already noticed its similarities to Jane Eyre and I read it, hoping for a bash-fest of a comparison between it and my all-time-least-favourite book. But I was wrong. It's only Jane Eyre that I hate.

Twilight is really not all that bad. It's a seductive, little fantasy about obsessive love on the dark side of mortality. The reader is swept (clumsily, of course) into Bella's shoes because Bella has no character unless you give her your own. There's a dangerous, handsome, gentlemanly boy who's dangerous and standoffish to everyone else but you because you're oh-so-special. It's the perfect rock-a-bye for a large percentage of the female population; a dark knight in sparkly armour (chastely) tapping Miss Insecure, Lady Fantasizing and Little Girl Goth - who all just want to be understood and held. It is what it is; it's not trying to be Tess of the D'Urbervilles or Lolita. And it's too dull to lull me.

The writing is as bland as my cooking. That's saying a lot, coming from the girl who burnt fish she was trying to steam by forgetting to put water in the pan - guess how my memory is with salt and seasoning ... But, really, who am I to lampoon a phenomenon that's brought manic highs to the heaving chests of girls of all ages?

On libraryThing, I found tons of reviews by well-meaning, well-read people, detailing (and mocking) all the ways in which Twilight's relation with Miss Insecure/Lady Fantasizing/Little Girl Goth becomes a bit rough (and not the nice kind of "rough" like in the sound of Bruno von Falk's voice that evokes a kiss that ends with a bite) and their recommendations to read more substantial works. Like Jane Eyre. Which I do have a hate-on for.

Let's review the ugly facts of Jane Eyre:
  1. The men are pigs.
    Rochester tries to fool poor, penniless Jane into marrying him even though he is already married. If he had succeeded, she would have been ruined - the society of Jane's England would have branded a letter more scarlet that Hester's Prynne's "A" into her forehead, making her unfit for any mode of life, except as Rochester's kept woman. How gentlemanly of him.
    Then, we are treated to St John Rivers. He wants to drag poor frail Jane to some hot, uncivilized country where she'd probably succumb to the elements faster than stout Englishman Rawdon Crawley. It's all very noble, this saving the souls of savages, but ... seriously? What about Jane?
  2. In order for Jane to be on equal footing with him, Rochester has to be disfigured and thrust into misery and Jane's fortunes have to be elevated by a hitherto unheard-of uncle. She was really that much below him who tried to commit bigamy with her?
  3. In the scene where Jane hears "Grace Poole's laugh", she stands on the roof and yearns for faraway lands. Why on earth does content, humble Jane need to wish for bigger things and distant dreams? She doesn't. Charlotte Bronte did. To paraphrase Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Bronte wrote herself when she should have written of her characters. It's why Jane's humility is so pronounced; Charlotte Bronte disliked how she was treated as a servant. It must have been comforting to seek refuge from constantly having to swallow one's pride in Jane's steely humility. C.B.'s projections of her own frustration bring Jane out of character. It's an example of inferior, amateurish writing. Virginia Woolf said so.
Despite all these ugly things, both times that I read Jane Eyre, at ages 11 and 22, I was entirely held by the first few chapters of the book. The 1st person voice is so personal and the portrayal of Jane's trials at school is moving and real. There are brilliant nuances in Bronte's telling and the events she chose to bring to the surface - Jane having to stand in from of the school and be branded a liar, Helen Burns always being punished by a stern teacher - breathes a vivid air on everything. Makes me think of the rapid, fervid breathing of some little thing - a bird - grounded, as the cat prowls closer and closer.

All this ... and then Charlotte Bronte unleashes her deep-seated fantasy for a reformed playboy with a crazy wife in the attic and a man so good that he's cruel.

Do the good things redeem the book of all its problems? Yes. Unfortunately, they do.

Jane Eyre can have all the lulling, poisonous things that Twilight has and get away with it. Jane can be like Bella and fit into the role of a battered woman; Rochester paraded his rich, beautiful almost-fiancee in from of Jane and forced her to watch as her employer. Jane can be like Bella and constantly go for men more liable to hurt her than love her. The book can be a blatant fantasy of dangerous men and attainment of desired traits: the Cullens are beautiful, rich, intelligent, good - everything a middle-aged woman with three kids would find desirable - and Jane is morally strong and humble - everything that C.B. wanted so badly to be. There are many people calling Twilight out on its deficiencies, from its lack of character development to typos. But Jane Eyre's strengths (remember the fluttering bird) do make up for its faults and, thus, I haven't found many people detailing the wrongs of Jane Eyre. Despite having enough ugliness to be reviled, it's still made every must-read reading list under Google's eye. Therein lies my dislike for Jane Eyre.