Archive for the 'Writers/Their Writings' Category

an audience with JG Ballard

September 15, 2006

A. and I went to a JG Ballard reading and discussion evening yesterday. It was fun and entertaining, and I even got to ask him a question, which was a small but personal thrill.

JGB’s old and creaky and fat and deaf now but his reading was great (I don’t mean that description nastily but I was a bit taken aback by the obvious disparity between the most-used photographs of him and the reality). He had an engaging way, bizarrely reminscent of Richard Nixon, of acknowledging the audience’s applause by throwing out both his arms at about 60 degrees elevation and smiling winningly. Like Paul Auster, who I also saw reading at the Logan Hall, he read his own writing with great good humour, making it sound light and funny, which is not how I normally read Ballard. I always hear those didactic dialogues in an earnest and slightly drugged/crazed voice but he read them like a comedy routine.

He then discussed the new novel – Kingdom Come – with the literary editor of The Observer, Robert McCrum. This guy was a bit of a let down because he chose to re-tread the well-trodden ground of JGB’s Shanghai childhood, his war camp internment, his arrival in a foreign-feeling England, studying medicine at Cambridge etc. All the same old stories that journalists repeat every time a new JGB book comes out. It would have been much more interesting to discuss the new book in the light of its subject – the Britain of today. Ballard’s writing is all about enpresenting, about looking at the world around you today and how our human psychology is changing with and because of it. Hence the setting of this most recent novel in a shopping centre in an M25 town, where consumerism and boredom are the presiding religions. JGB was clearly physically uncomfortable during this discussion, needing to shift his weight around in the chair again and again, and flexing and massaging his knees. His ideas shone through the fidgeting and the weak questions, and he was enthralling, I thought, on the subject of Britain and humanity, and the madnesses that we pursue.

Asked about the start of his writing career, JGB told how in the 1950s he felt that British fiction was tired out from apeing the heroic modernism that came before and not really breaking new ground. And then he discovered sci-fi and had ‘a shock of recognition’ – this was a hidden literature that displayed the only vitality in British writing at the time. So my question was, in relation to this, where does he see this kind of vitality now, in what form of writing etc.? His answer, as I expected it would be, was ‘on the internet’, which he described as a shared landscape and a great democracy. Mine was the last question so it got a bit of a short answer. But it was fun to be able to ask one.

I used Ballard’s brilliant Cocaine Nights as the main text of my English Honours dissertation, and used the novel again as one of the texts for my Ricouerian readings that was my Masters’ thesis. Cocaine Nights was the first of four novels, the most recent being the fourth, that look at how our psychology is changed by the way we are plugged into readymade environments like holiday resorts, security villages, corporate parks, and shopping malls.

I had another question that I wanted to ask, had I been given the chance. If you examine the general output of Ballard fans on the internet – blogs, a flickr pool, etc. – it tends to focus on his urban stories and themes. People are drawn to, and reproduce, his symbols of urban decay and power, such as empty swimming pools and high rise apartment buildings. This makes sense, as many of JGB’s novels provide powerful symbols of the urban experience that so many of us are embroiled in. And yet, Ballard has also written novels that vividly depict jungle and tropical environments that present symbols of fertility, human isolation, and the brutal indifference of nature to human concerns. I wonder why people tend not to pick up on these symbols and images as much as the urban ones (beyond the obvious answer about people living in cities being the ones mostly creating internet content), and I wonder what JGB might think about this.

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shroud

September 11, 2006

John Banville’s Shroud is a companion novel to Eclipse. Cass Cleave, playing a different kind of daughter in each, appears as a character in both novels.

Where Eclipse was an ethereal and slightly hysterical novel, Shroud is grim, dangerous and bleak.

Nothing better illustrates this than the overarching theme of dead bodies that is signified by the title. The shroud of Turin, where most of the novel is set, supposedly shows a ghostly image of Christ’s dead body. It is a persistent image of the man, and the novel is about (amongst other things) how we maintain our image for others, and the lengths we go to to secure a persistent image of ourselves.

The male protagonist, Axel Vander, is half-blind and half-lame, but also powerful and insightful at the same time. Earlier in his life he used his insight to write towering academic edifices and built on them a solid and masterful career as Professor Vander. Now, near the end of his life, he sees visions, ghostly and gruesome.

He sees himself as a dead albatross hung around his own neck; a rotting dead-weight, from which the flesh falls:

Lately I have begun to feel that I am falling off myself, that my suety old flesh is melting off my skeleton and soon will all be gone. I shall not mind; I shall be glad; I shall rise up then, bared of inessentials, all gleaming bone and siinew smooth as candle wax, new, unknown, my real self at last. (p8)

And in his passionate desire to get close to her, he sees the female protagonist, Cass Cleave, in the following terms:

…as we climbed the stairs I saw myself in my imagination stop and turn and take her in my irresistible grasp and rip apart her clothes to press the length of myself against her. Even her nakedness would not be enough, I would open up her flesh itself like a coat, unzip her from instep to sternum and climb bodily into her, feel her shocked heart gulp and skip, her lungs shuddering, clasp her blood-wet bones in my hands. (p107)

I have been struck, whilst reading this book, by Banville’s great lyricism and, in this case, his almost terminal abstractedness. These two extracts are fine examples of Banville’s descriptive talent. And yet… and yet. Too often, it’s not entirely clear what the characters are talking about, where they are, or even who they are. And I find this difficult – too difficult for the District Line, at least. The story jumps from the sticky closeness of events in Turin, to a more lightly related past in Germany and London, and back into the mad (and maddening) visions of the two narrators. And ultimately, although you are generally aware of the subject of the novel, the story escapes you a bit. If nothing else, reading Banville is good for building your vocabulary.

Some Vander/Cleave words, given to either of the narrators:

  • nescience = lack of knowledge, ignorance
  • plosive = of, relating to, or being a speech sound produced by complete closure of the oral passage and subsequent release accompanied by a burst of air, as in the sound (p) in pit or (d) in dog
  • moll = prostitute
  • goughing = ?
  • preciosities = extreme meticulousness or overrefinement, as in language, taste, or style
  • ephebe = a young man
  • squinnying = squint
  • fissile = capable of being split or divided; cleavable [clever John Banville!]
  • ormolu = gold or gold powder prepared for use in gilding, also to imitate gold
  • estamint = ?
  • instauration = renewal; restoration; renovation; repair
  • apocatastasis = the state of being restored or reestablished; restitution; also, the doctrine that Satan and all sinners will ultimately be restored to God
  • termagant = a violent, turbulent, or brawling woman
  • netsuke = (in Japanese art) a small figure of ivory, wood, metal, or ceramic, originally used as a buttonlike fixture on a man’s sash, from which small personal belongings were hung
  • integument = covering, coating, enclosure
  • bibelot = a small object of beauty, curiosity, or rarity
  • colleen = an Irish girl
  • boreal = of or pertaining to the north, or north wind
  • flapdoodle = nonsense, bosh
  • pococurantish = uncaring, apathetic
  • peccant = violating a rule, principle, or established practice
  • gonadolescent = ? (although I can guess)
  • berylline = transparent, transluscent, glassy
  • freshet = a sudden rise in the level of a stream, or a flood, caused by heavy rains or the rapid melting of snow and ice
  • bombasine = mourning material, with a warp of silk and a weft of worsted
  • gallimaufry = a hodgepodge, a jumble, a confused medley

Saul Bellow, Augie March and me

August 16, 2006

Have finished reading Saul Bellow‘s 1953 novel, The Adventures of Augie March (TAOAM).

I have previously read the following novels by Saul Bellow, in this order:

  1. Seize the Day (1956)
  2. Humboldt’s Gift (1975)
  3. Herzog (1964)
  4. Henderson the Rain King (1959)
  5. More Die of Heartbreak (1987)
  6. Mr Sammler’s Planet (1970)
  7. Ravelstein (2000)

This list represents books read whilst they could be characterised as having been written by a living author. Saul Bellow is now dead (RIP), so TAOAM is the first Bellow novel I’ve read that represents a corpus of work that will not be added to. Ravelstein was written in 2000 and I think I read Seize the Day in about 2003, and I don’t know of any Bellow fiction being published after Ravelstein, so technically nothing changed between my reading that list of novels and reading TAOAM. But it is different.

I think it’s different because when you’re reading work by a living writer, you’re engaged with the writer’s project in progress. It’s the difference between partaking of the feast, and clearing up after it. Reading Philip Roth now is a good example of partaking of the feast – there’s a certain thrill in reading another energetic and angry book from the big PR, because you know, in his bare, spare NY apartment, he’s still scribbling with a pencil, studiously not admiring the view the better to concentrate. When he passes on, you’ll be reading a book that was written by a great writer around which and whom the dust has settled – there’s no more kicking the dirt up around your boots, in the writerly sense that Roth does this with each new book.

If you get me, great. If you don’t… well, you’re not the first. Moving on to Bellow’s big book:

TAOAM is a massive, varied and sprawling novel about all sorts of things. It’s a stab at the great American novel, for sure. It’s about nobility and squalor, wealth and poverty, women and men, sex and shopping, and everything in between. Augie, by his character and his situation, is drawn into one after another of the American myths of the hero* (and the self). He’s a thief, a rich kid, a lord, a hunter, a drunk etc.

Augie, when challenged with, “Well, come on, what are you trying to prove?”, replies:

I don’t want to prove a single thing, not a thing. Do you think I have this kind of ambition to stand out and prove something? Almost everybody I ever knew wanted to show in some way how he held the world together. This only comes from feeling the strain of holding yourself together, and it gets exaggerated into the whole world from the hard labour you put into it. But it doesn’t take hard labour. Or at least shouldn’t. You don’t do that. The world is held for you. So I don’t want to be representative or exemplary or head of my generation or any model of manhood. All I want is something of my own, and bethink myself. This is why I’m sounding off now and am excited.

And by his tender, failing heart and his light-headed love of fate, Augie’s a portrait of myths of man as well. He falls at women’s feet, and he is captured by their beauty, their vulnerability, and their craziness.

Meeting again, years after a night spent together on a cliff in Mexico, Augie falls for Stella:

My body, which is maybe all I am, this effortful creature, felt subject to currents and helpless. I wanted to go and hug her by the legs, but I thought I’d better wait. For why should I assume it would be right?

What I want to say most clearly about this novel is this: it’s big and difficult in places, but you will come to love Augie March.

I’m not sure if this is the Everyman effect that the blurb on the back cover refers to or not. It’s not so much that I identify with Augie, or with one of his myths; it’s more, as he says of another character, a difficult man named Einhorn, that I’m kinda in love with him.

Bellow is a very good writer. This has been said all over the place, and you feel it to be true with an early book like TAOAM (see JM Coetzee’s essay regarding Bellow’s first three novels in the NYRB). You know it to be true with later work like Herzog. And of course, for what it’s worth, he won the Nobel prize for literature.

So the man has skills. And he uses them to good effect in creating the character of Augie March. I want the best for him, and I worry that he gets himself into one scrape after another, either job-wise or lady-wise, or both. And the more Augie’s discourse turns to marriage, land ownership, children, and vocation, the more my heart swells and I long for him to sort his life out and settle into the patterns that most of us live in. Some people live in mansions and palaces, and some people live in the dirt; but most of us live in-between.

Grandma Lausch, an early figure in Augie’s shaping, will not read a book that’s not a roman. This book, The Adventures of Augie March, is a roman, in the lovely, resonant sense of that word: a book that sound romantic, that’s about growing up and living, that’s about loss and gain, life and death.

If you were to read only one Bellow novel, then it would have to be, in my opinion, Herzog (for reasons I hope to go into another time). But this one’s good too.

* John Barth, in a footnote (p309) in his autobiographical novel Once Upon a Time (1994), tells how he worked out the heroic dimensions of his character Ebenezer Cooke, poet laureate to Maryland, from his novel, The Sot-Weed Factor. Barth describes a list created by Lord Raglan used to measure the salient features of the mytho-heroic character pattern. Raglan lists, in chapter 16 of The Hero (1936), 22 features of the hero myth, including such things as the hero’s mother is a royal virgin, his father is a king, and he meets with a mysterious death, often at the top of a hill. Oedipus scores 21 points. Jesus would score 19, comparable to Theseus and King Arthur. Depending on how you score him – literally or allegorically – Augie scores either 2 (the everyman score) or about 15. (Of course, if you re-wrote the measures to characterise the American myth of the hero, the score would be different again. But I think you get the idea.)

everyman and the plot against america

August 9, 2006

Philip Roth’s two most recent publications, novel and novella, are quite different kinds of story, I think.

The Plot Against America was most absorbing in its front half, getting silly and incredible in its back half. It was good in the beginning because Roth created a detailed life of a child, Philip Roth, in an alternative history of America that was drawn broadly enough to be unworryingly credible. Charles Lindbergh winning the presidency from FDR was handled in a couple of brash, confident gestures of fictional history, and his seemingly benign figure was allowed to fly across Washington in the kind of silver-edged light of Fascist posters and those pressed-back trains that looked like they were speeding past when they were standing stock still.

Through the eyes of young Philip, old Philip unrolled the horrifying predicament of an ordinary Jewish family being suddenly suspended – like something dissolved – in an atmosphere of sanctioned anti-Semitism and right-wing politics. People close to him are trodden down, and others, by deceit and evil ways, are raised up. It’s all very involving until the chapter when old Roth delivers a hand grenade of silly alternative history into the narrative, blasting the story and the mood to smithereens. A real mistake.

So when I heard there was a new Roth novella, Everyman, I was not as excited as I might have been in the heady days of first reading Sabbath’s Theater and all the Zuckerman novels. I only arrived at Roth in 1999 and didn’t stop reading his books until I’d caught him up. Operation Shylock and The Counterlife are phenomenal books, in my opinion, and examples of true postmodernism. So, time passed, the small wound healed, and one day I found a cut price hardcopy of Everyman on ebay – click, click… and it was in the post.

And it’s faultless. It’s no Counterlife, mind, but it’s great. Stripped of the structural intrigue of his more challenging works, and stripped of the rage of his bright-burning books, it is nonetheless an intimate and involving story of a dead man. And it’s got some funny bits. Beginning with the funeral of this nameless character, this everyman, we are transported back in time, initially by the eulogies delivered, until the narrative device fades and the story takes over. The title comes from two sources, the reviewers tell me: it is the name the protagonists father paints above his jewellery store to ensure that he doesn’t narrow his market to the Jewish community only, and it is the name of a play. From the review in the Jewish Quarterly:

We are never told the protagonist’s name and the title of the novel derives not so much from his father’s business as from the fifteenth-century morality drama, The Summoning of Everyman, in which an allegorical representative of mankind finds himself suddenly required to give a ‘general reckoning’ or ‘account’ of his life so that he may be judged and sent accordingly to Heaven or Hell.

So this everyman gives his account. It’s a wonderful story with a soft challenge, I feel, almost imperceptible because one’s so accustomed to Philip Roth’s wrathful philippics (his pun, not mine). The challenge, I feel, is to tell your own story. To draw your life up against this everyman’s tale, and see how universal it really is (ambiguity intended).

I wasn’t going to write about this book but I was stimulated to by something I read on Critical Mass. One of the book critics they interviewed, Jennifer Reese, said:

Only once did I feel totally out-of-step and it was both fascinating and horrifying. The book was Philip Roth’s Plot Against America and with each new rapturous review I felt more and more isolated. Unfortunately, I had written my lukewarm review at the beginning of the tidal wave of praise and only later did I figure out with precision everything that infuriated me about the novel. I took heat for that review. Very unpleasant, very interesting experience. I’ve never thought harder about a book.

In that review, Jennifer Reese put her finger on what I agree is the failure of the novel. She wrote:

Roth has spun an unconvincing fantasy that falls far short of his finest work. While his depictions of the Roth family’s idyllic pre-Lindbergh existence (and Philip’s vibrant, eccentric inner life) are detailed and persuasive, he has set them against a cardboard backdrop of a fatally underimagined alternative America.

So what stimulated me to blog about these two novels is that I want to set the world to rights. Critics generally praised TPAA and they have general been a bit floppy membered about Everyman. I think it’s the other way around. TPAA is not a successful novel and poor by Roth’s standards; Everyman is a successful novel, and whilst not the most thrilling thing Roth has written, is pretty damn affecting.

So. There it is.

whipple-licious

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.
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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.

medici money

June 29, 2006

Having holidayed in Florence and seen the Medici palaces and treasures, MLW quickly read Tim Parks’ run down on the history of Medici banking and power in Florence. Then she handed it on to me.

Being a somewhat critical soul, I have some things to say about the book. My main gripes are that Parks adopts an arrogant tone, and that he constantly relates the banking and political history he’s recounting to contemporary homosexual figures. Usually with little relevance, and that’s my gripe. Write a book about Florentine banking, or one about Florentine homosexuality, but don’t force the two together.

Anyway, moving on to the interesting stuff… I wanted to highlight three things I’ve learned from the book so far.

The key thing about operating a bank in Catholic Italy in the 15th century was that usury (charging interest on money lent) was classed as a sin by the Church. So, one of the ways the bank made money was through exchanges across Europe. For example, 1000 florins borrowed in Florence to be paid out in England was lent at 40p to the florin (40 000p). It was then assumed that the period of lending was the accepted standard time it took to travel from Florence to England, three months. The merchant draws the pounds in England and uses them to buy wool. The banker in England then writes the replayment slip, assuming another three months until repayment in Florence, and the florins are now valued at 36p each. So, the merchant repays, in Florence, 40 000p/36 = 1111 florins. That’s 11% profit in six months for the Medici bank, and actually no money has physically moved between banks. Very neat. This system of exchanges was also part of how the bank as holding entity balanced its books between its various branches around Europe without having to physically move coin too often. The imbalance was created by so much money flowing into Rome as tithe, and so many goods flowing out of Italy into Northern Europe and netting cash when sold there.

The next thing I learned (and will give a sketchy recounting of here) is how the government of Florence was consitutited. This is actually quite complicated, and as with the exchange concept, Parks does a good job of leading one through it all and towards some dim light at the end of the tunnel. The most interesting thing to learn, though, I think, is that the governing council of Florence was drawn by lot (chits in leather bags representing the key guilds) every two months! So, every two months, you could be called to govern, which meant leaving your home and business and moving into the Palazzo del Signoria to wield absolute power for a short time. Crazy but brilliant, in its way. Of course, all sorts of machinations went on behind the scenes and the history of the Medici at this time is one of how they used their money made in banking to indirectly gain control of government.

Finally, this morning on the train I reached a point in the story where the second of five Medici’s Parks is interested in has lived his life and dies. He is Cosimo, son of Giovanni de Bicci, brother of Damiano (who died at birth), and father of Piero. He had built on the work of his father and the bank was flourishing, and he ruled Florence unofficially. Parks relates how Cosimo, who suffered from gout, spent most of his life expecting to die quite soon. This gave him great drive to see things completed before he expected to die, and because he kept not dying he completed a lot of things! But as he grew older the gout grew worse until he would weep when he had to be moved. Ruling a pan-European banking network that moved money and goods all over Europe, Cosimo struggled to move between rooms in his palazzo and had to be carried up stairs. He retreated to the windowless and frescoed chapel at the heart of his palazzo (which is like a fortress – we kept bumping into it in Florence), and dealt with the great men of his age in a dim religious light, the backdrop a fresco of the procession of the three Magi, featuring Cosimo and his son as two of them, with wild animals accompanying them. When he died, he was buried under the floor of San Lorenzo, the family church, in the very centre of the nave.