Archive for July, 2006


July 19, 2006

Equiano (MLW educated me as to the origin of this moniker) recently recommended a book to me by Dorothy Whipple called Someone at a Distance (her last, originally published in 1953).

I’ve not previously read any Dorothy Whipple. In fact, I’ve not previously heard of Dorothy Whipple.

Apparently, she was a popular author in her time, but our time has forgotten her. But her time was the 40s and 50s – not that long ago. So how is it that she’s not read anymore?

Equiano recommends the book as intelligent, subtle and involving.


more pepys

July 18, 2006

I recently finished reading Claire Tomalin’s excellent biography of Samuel Pepys.

I’ve subsequently stumbled on a quite brilliant site that enables you to read the Diary on a daily basis, via your browser or, if you’re really smart, via a feed.

The site is here: The Diary of Samuel Pepys

In yet another of those coincidences of art and life, I realised that the man who created the site, Phil Gyford, happened to be working in the same office as me (about 5 metres away) off and on over the last few months, and I had no idea he had done such a wondrous things as putting Pepys’s Diary online in such a clever way.

more beckett

July 16, 2006

I continue to chip away at Anthony Cronin’s excellent biography of Samuel Beckett. I am 236 pages in, and Sam has completed the manuscript of Murphy and it has begun what Cronin describes as its long journey of rejection.

I decided on this Beckett biography, rather than another released at a similar time, based on this review of both in the NYRB by John Banville, which is sadly not freely available on the NYRB site anymore (here is the full text provided by another site).

On completing university, Beckett was encouraged to pursue a career in academia, and a first step towards this was to take up an exchange lectureship in Paris for a year.

In Paris Beckett met James Joyce and the two men developed a friendship, much in the model of master and apprentice.

When Beckett and Joyce were alone together, however, mutual silences were often one of their principal methods of communication – silences, as Beckett put it, ‘directed towards each other’. Joyce usually sat in the attitude familiar from photographs, legs crossed, the toe of the crossed-over foot pointing downwards in its tight, patent leather shoe, or twined round (sic) the calf of the other leg. Beckett adopted a similar posture, the faithfulness and humility of the imitation being emphasised by the fact that he has also begun to wear similar footwear, even though such natty shoes did not suit his feet and he suffered accordingly. (p100)

Joyce’s daughter, Lucia, formed a romantic attachment to Beckett that would become most awkward in the years when her eventual madness was developing but she was not yet institutionalised. Lucia is a sad character and I intend to read more about her in due course; she seems to have been a figure with the same sort of genius as her father but with a madness as well.

Cronin handles the similarities and differences of these two Irish literary masters very well in exploring their early relationship. One of the things he points to is the fate they both suffered, of their writings being taken more seriously than they had perhaps intended:

[Beckett] also remembered the master saying he thought that Ulysses was perhaps ‘over constructed’. But Joyce was also puzzled that even sympathetic critics had missed the humour of the book. ‘Why does nobody ever say how funny it is?’ he asked. (p101)

Cronin is sensitive to the emotional tax involved in moving between home and another place, and on the person who experiences a kind of happiness away from home that cannot be had at home. In Beckett’s case, his home is Ireland, but as I read I find myself relating some passages back to the experience of leaving home in South Africa. Leaving also involves returning:

In the Irish lexicon there ought to be a word for the despair of returning, particularly in youth (returning later on can be a different experience). And if it were a compound word it should include an indication of the particular despair of a forced return for economic reasons, with perhaps a longer word again for the even more acute malaise of a return because of economic and familial reasons. As the years go by and Ireland becomes a more liberal and pleasant place, both in itself and by comparison with the rest of the world, people perhaps feel this less; but between the 1920s and 1950s a return to the old, obsessive, dull, puritanical, provincial Ireland often created a special sickness in the returning heart. (p124)

Now I’m *not* suggesting a direct analogy with the experience of some South Africans of my generation. What I am suggesting is that the feelings of departure and return could be likewise entered into a South African lexicon. Word 1: that one leaves to seek that proverbial broader horizon, each with your own private-public motivation. Word 2: and that one stays away for reasons known best to each person. Word 3: that returning, for however long, has its complications and compromises. Longer word 2 and 3: loving people and things about both places but needing to choose one. Word 4: that this cycle plays itself out again and again because it’s hard to know what’s best.
Like many many young South Africans today, Beckett came to London and lived for a while in a bedsit. Cronin’s description of Beckett’s bedsit living highlights the personality that is developing in Sam by p207 of the biography; a man who holds himself apart, watches and is silent, enjoys isolation but needs human interaction; a man who has talent and the desire to be a writer but has not found his subject or his voice yet; is breaking out of an undisciplined self.

Number 34 Gertrude Street was owned by a Mr and Mrs Frost, who, like many proprietors of boarding houses or houses with rooms to let, were retired servants, he having been a chauffeur and she a ladies’ maid. Mrs Frost was called Queeney and she came from Ireland, from Athlone. He thought she was like a mother on whom you could draw as a barman pulled beer – you pulled on the lever and tea, Sanatogen, hot water and various other manifestations of mothering came out. She was not at all dismayed when he presented her with some Lapsang Souchong, saying he preferred it to the Liptons tea she normally made.

He also like Mr Frost and Fred Frost junior, a dental mechanic who had a great deal of mechanical aptitude and fixed him up a reading lamp. He ate most of his meals in the kitchen, which he found preferable to cooking on a gas ring in his room, and while he found the Frost’s company reassuring, they soon grew used to his silences. At night he could hear Mr Frost snoring next door. Upstairs were a young couple, he a waiter in the Cadogan Hotel and she a maid in an aristocratic house in Hans Crescent. They made nocturnal noises too, occasionally waking up for a bit of quick love-making. He did not object to these evidences of human presence, finding them indeed, like the time he spent in the kitchen, a defence against panic… His own room was large, with linoleum a but like a Braque seen from far away and plenty of room to pace up and down while he was writing. To add to the human and circumstantial advantages of 34 Gertrude Street there was a piano in the front drawing room. Some notes on this were silent, but he liked to play it all the same. (p207-8).

One final South African connection (more factual than imagined this time), that I’d not known about, is that in 1937 Beckett applied for an Italian lectureship in Cape Town. He didn’t get, or, seemingly, want, the post, applying only because of pressure from his mother and brother to get a job. What an intriguing idea though – Samuel Beckett meets Athol Fugard on a Sunday afternoon, somewhere near Paarl. How would literature have been different?

Cleave words

July 6, 2006

Words from John Banville’s Eclipse, with protagonist Alexander Cleave. As ever, a simple/short definition is given:

  • blastomere = divided cells from fertilised ovum
  • anaglypta = ornament carved in low relief; picture with two slightly different perspectives on the same subject
  • mnemosyne = Titan goddess of memory
  • lupins = plant with compound leaves with flowers grouped in spikes
  • matutinal = of, related to, occuring in the early morning
  • miscegenous = marry a person of another race
  • Cathay = medieval name for China (usually refers to the area north of the Yangtze)
  • satrap = ruler/governor of province in ancient Persia
  • fetor = offensive odour or stench
  • scutch = separate the valuable fibres (e.g. of flax) from the woody ones by beatings
  • odalisque – concubine woman or slave in a harem
  • pishogues = black magic, sorcery, evil spell, incantation
  • farrago = assortment or medley
  • caries = decay of bone or tooth
  • cicatrice = scar
  • caduceus = doctor’s herald
  • virescent = becoming, or somewhat, green

Maskell words

July 2, 2006

Words from John Banville’s The Untouchable. As ever, a simple/short definition is given:

  • pellucid = transparent
  • bourn = small stream, a brook
  • perfidy = act or instance of treachery
  • barquentine = kind of sailing ship
  • supererogatory = performed or observed beyond the required or expected degree
  • hellion = unruly person
  • plumbeous = resembling lead; dull, heavy, stupid
  • bellicose = warlike, pugnacious
  • embonpoint = plump, stout
  • recrudescence = come into renewed activity
  • casuist = person whose reasoning is subtle and specious
  • melodeon = small harmonium
  • glair = egg white (or substance resembling)
  • flocculent = wooly
  • oneiric = of, relating to, suggestive of dreams
  • brumous = fog or mist
  • simony = buying or selling of ecclesiastical pardons, offices or emoluments
  • chary = very cautious, wary
  • quondam = former, that once was
  • phthisic – illness of lungs or throat
  • incunabula = book printed before 1501
  • shoon = plural of shoe
  • crepitation = crackling or popping sound
  • blenched = shy away
  • reticule = drawstring purse

What I like about these lists of words drawn from a novel is that they give you a flavour for the narrative voice and the concerns of the text.

Flocculent, by the way, is a word John Banville uses quite often.

Lady Komachi

July 2, 2006

A description of an historical geisha named Lady Komachi, from Geisha by Lesley Downer:

…raven tresses that cascaded to the floor, a face like a blossom and eyebrows painted into perfect crescent moons. She would glide through the cedar-scented halls in her multi-layered gauze and damask robes, oblivious to the thousands of love letters which lay discarded about her chamber. At night she slept in a room bright with tortoise shell, where golden flowers decorated the walls and strings of crystal beads hang in the doorway. When she passed the cup at banquets, people said it was as if the moon lay on her trailing sleeve. (p315)