Today is the 150th birthday of M. R. (Montague Rhodes) James. If you haven’t already done so, go to this University of Adelaide website and read at least one of his ghost stories.
Wednesday: August 1, 2012
Monday: June 18, 2012
I’d been thinking of tackling some long novel I’d never read over the summer break, and having trouble deciding which of the many such books to begin with, when I noticed that today is Ivan Goncharov’s 200th birthday. That settled it. Here are some of the bits that caught my eye in the first three chapters of Oblomov (Everyman edition, translated by Natalie Duddington):
1. I had thought that this famous passage was the opening of the novel, but it actually comes on the second page (4):
“Lying down was not for Ilya Ilyitch either a necessity as it is for a sick or a sleepy man, or an occasional need as it is for a person who is tired, or a pleasure as it is for a sluggard:it was his normal state. When he was at home - and he was almost always at home - he was lying down, and invariably in the same room, the one in which we have found him and which served him as bedroom, study, and reception-room.”
3. Just a little further on, after mentioning the dirty plate left (as always) from last night’s dinner (5):
“If it had not been for this plate and for a freshly smoked pipe by the bed, and for the owner himself lying in it, one might have thought that the room was uninhabited - everything was so dusty and faded and devoid of all traces of human presence. It is true that there were two or three open books and a newspaper on the chiffoniers, an inkstand and pens on the bureau; but the open pages had turned yellow and were covered with dust - evidently they had been left so for weeks; the newspaper dated from last year, and if one dipped a pen into the inkstand a startled fly might perhaps come buzzing out of it.”
3. Nice work if you can get it - Oblomov’s friend Volkov (28):
“I have a post that doesn’t oblige me to go the office, thank goodness; I only go twice a week to see the general and have dinner with him.”
There is much more on the banal horrors of bureaucracy - too much to quote here. I’m surprised that LanguageHat, with his love for Russian literature, has not mentioned the anniversary.
Tuesday: June 14, 2011
Two more author anniversaries today, and again authors best known for their short stories. It is the 75th anniversary of the death of G. K. Chesterton, and the 25th anniversary of the death of Jorge Luis Borges. Here’s a bit from Chesterton’s ‘lost’ Father Brown story (collected here), “Father Brown and the Donnington Affair” (1914):
“Human troubles are mostly of two kinds. There is an accidental kind, that you can’t see because they are so close you fall over as you do over a hassock. And there is the other kind of evil, the real kind. And that a man will go to seek however far off it is - down, down, into the lost abyss.”
Sunday: June 12, 2011
Today is the 75th anniversary of the death of M. R. James, author of Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904) and three other collections. There is a very readable webtext here. Here is a classical bit from “Count Magnus”:
“Like many solitary men, I have a habit of talking to myself aloud; and, unlike some of the Greek and Latin particles, I do not expect an answer.”
The subject’s habit of talking to himself aloud turns out to be very bad for his health.
Saturday: January 22, 2011
Ada Spelvexit was one of those naturally stagnant souls who take infinite pleasure in what are called “movements”. “Most of the really great lessons I have learned have been taught me by the Poor”, was one of her favourite statements. The one great lesson that the Poor in general would have liked to have taught her, that their kitchens and sickrooms were not unreservedly at her disposal as private lecture halls, she had never been able to assimilate. She was ready to give them unlimited advice as to how they should keep the wolf from their doors, but in return she claimed and enforced for herself the penetrating powers of an east wind or a dust storm. Her visits among her wealthier acquaintances were equally extensive and enterprising, and hardly more welcome; in country-house parties, while partaking to the fullest extent of the hospitality offered her, she made a practice of unburdening herself of homilies on the evils of leisure and luxury, which did not particularly endear her to her fellow guests. Hostesses regarded her philosophically as a form of social measles which everyone had to have once.
(Saki, The Unbearable Bassington, VII)
Monday: December 20, 2010
“The period of the winter solstice had been always a great festival with the northern nations, the commencement of the lengthening of the days being, indeed, of all points in the circle of the year, that in which the inhabitants of cold countries have most cause to rejoice. This great festival was anciently called Yule; whether derived from the Gothic Iola, to make merry; or from the Celtic Hiaul, the sun; or from the Danish and Swedish Hiul, signifying wheel or revolution, December being Hiul-month, or the month of return; or from the Cimbric word Ol, which has the important signification of ALE, is too knotty a controversy to be settled here: but Yule had been long a great festival, with both Celts and Saxons; and, with the change of religion, became the great festival of Christmas, retaining most of its ancient characteristics while England was Merry England; a phrase which must be a mirifical puzzle to any one who looks for the first time on its present most lugubrious inhabitants.
“The mistletoe of the oak was gathered by the Druids with great ceremonies, as a symbol of the season. The mistletoe continued to be so gathered, and to be suspended in halls and kitchens, if not in temples, implying an unlimited privilege of kissing; which circumstance, probably, led a learned antiquary to opine that it was the forbidden fruit.
“The Druids, at this festival, made, in a capacious cauldron, a mystical brewage of carefully-selected ingredients, full of occult virtues, which they kept from the profane, and which was typical of the new year and of the transmigration of the soul. The profane, in humble imitation, brewed a bowl of spiced ale, or wine, throwing therein roasted crabs; the hissing of which, as they plunged, piping hot, into the liquor, was heard with much unction at midwinter, as typical of the conjunct benignant influences of fire and strong drink. The Saxons called this the Wassail-bowl, and the brewage of it is reported to have been one of the charms with which Rowena fascinated Vortigern.”
(Thomas Love Peacock, The Misfortunes of Elphin, Chapter XII)
The “roasted crabs” of the third paragraph are surely crab-apples rather than crustaceans.
Wednesday: May 5, 2010
I just read Animal Farm for the first time in 40+ years. I don’t often laugh out loud while reading books (as opposed to blogs), but half of one sentence made me ‘LOL’. In Chapter II, the victorious animals inspect the human house, and Orwell notes: “Some hams hanging in the kitchen were taken out for burial, . . .”
Tuesday: February 2, 2010
Last year, Dr. Esquirol compiled a table of statistics concerning insanity. It reads as follows: “Driven mad by love: two men, sixty women. Driven mad by religion: six men, twenty women. Driven mad by politics: forty-eight men, three women. Driven mad by financial loss: twenty-seven men, twenty-four women. Driven mad by cause or causes unknown: one man, no women.” The last statistic represents our poor friend.
(Theophile Gautier, “The Painter”, in My Fantoms, translated by Richard Holmes)
“Our poor friend” is the painter of the title, the unfortunately named Onuphrius Wphly. Have the proportions changed much in the last 178 years? I doubt it.
Sunday: November 8, 2009
There nearly always is method in madness. It’s what drives men mad, being methodical.
(G. K. Chesterton, The Man Who Knew Too Much, VI. “The Fad of the Fisherman”)
Monday: November 2, 2009
Harold March was the sort of man who knows everything about politics; and nothing about politicians. He also knew a good deal about art, letters, philosophy and general culture; about almost everything, indeed, except the world he was living in.
(G. K. Chesterton, The Man Who Knew Too Much, I. “The Face in the Target”)
Monday: September 28, 2009
“I don’t like men that are always eating cake.”
(Gertrude Wentworth, in Henry James, The Europeans, I)
Saturday: July 18, 2009
“Children need religion. They can always give it up later.”
(Le Plaisir, 1952)
Friday: June 19, 2009
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell twice quotes a song popular among the proles of his imagined future, “composed without any human intervention whatever on an instrument known as a versificator”. He calls it “dreadful rubbish” and a “driveling song”, but it seems to me that it would fit right in to the Great American Songbook. Of course, we cannot judge the music, but I have certainly heard worse words. Here are the lyrics, with the proletarian (Cockney) mispronunciations edited out:
It was only a hopeless fancy,
It passed like an April day,
But a look and a word and the dreams they stirred
They have stolen my heart away!
They say that time heals all things,
They say you can always forget;
But the smiles and the tears across the years
They twist my heartstrings yet!
(George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, II.iv and II.x)
It is not deep, but other than the awkward rhythm of the fifth line, I don’t see anything embarrassingly wrong with it. Do I need a taste-bud transplant?
Saturday: March 21, 2009
An incompetent small-town Australian police chief (Royle) visits the lodgings of a headmaster suspected of murder (Doncaster):
“It was a gentleman-scholar’s room: photographs of cricket teams, school groups, and a smart army photograph with a rather artificially grim expression. On the wall a college shield, and a cricket bat signed by one of the school’s dimmest past students, who had gone on to play for the state and become a Country Party politician. The bookshelves were full of books, old, dirty, and looking very thumbed. Royle idly wondered whether the thumbs that had thumbed them had been Doncaster’s thumbs, or if they had been picked up cheap in a second-hand bookshop. He’d never actually seen Doncaster reading, and unless he actually saw people reading, Royle was inclined to suspect that they never did, since he had no time whatsoever for the occupation himself.”
(Robert Barnard, Death of an Old Goat, 1979, XI)
Thursday: March 19, 2009
“I had made the discovery that if you put people in a comic light they became more likable — if you spoke of someone as a gross, belching, wall-eyed human pike you got along much better with him thereafter, partly because you were aware that you were the sadist who took away his human attributes. Also, having done him some metaphorical violence, you owed him special consideration.”
(Saul Bellow, Ravelstein, p. 152)
The text puts the comma before ‘thereafter’, but that can’t be right, can it?
Wednesday: March 18, 2009
“. . . a thought-murder a day keeps the psychiatrist away.”
(Saul Bellow, Ravelstein, p. 95)
Inelegantly expressed, but the thought is interesting.
Friday: January 2, 2009
Another British policeman (Pumphrey) interrogates the headmaster (Crumwallis) of a worse than mediocre private school:
‘Hmmmm’, said Pumphrey. ‘You seem to do a lot of classics.’
It was not the remark Mr. Crumwallis had been expecting, but he perked up, as he frequently did in interviews with parents, when an opportunity for fraudulent self-congratulation presented itself.
‘Yes, indeed’, he said. ‘We lay great stress on them. So sad to see their decline — their so rapid decline — in other schools, elsewhere. But if the private schools will not be custodians of the great classical tradition, who will be?’
Mike Pumphrey did not feel called upon to reply. He wondered whether, in view of the decline of classics elsewhere, classics teachers might not be in a state of glut upon the market, and therefore to be had cheap. He rather thought they might be. He looked cynically at Mr. Crumwallis, swelling with spurious pride.
(Robert Barnard, School for Murder, 1983, ch. 9)
Thursday: January 1, 2009
A British policeman is looking for a millionaire at a posh hotel in Bradford:
It was called the Royal Edward, and for once it lived up to its name. The foyer was all white and gold and plush pink, with spotty mirrors in gilt frames; scattered around were pink and gold velvet sofas, on which one could imagine Royal Edward perching his ample frame, perhaps placing his hand on a not-unwilling knee the while, or pinching a bebustled bottom while whispering an assignation. Through the door to the left I caught a glimpse of an oak-panelled dining-room, where one could imagine him eating one of his piggish meals. It was all rather daunting — as if I’d strayed on to the set of one of those BBC historical serials for television.
(Robert Barnard, The Case of the Missing Brontë, 1983, ch. 8)
Was ‘bebustled’ an attempt to make it into the next revision of the OED?
Monday: September 29, 2008
Today is the 100th anniversary of the death of Machado de Assis. A few months ago I read his second and third novels (the first has not been translated into English), The Hand and the Glove and Helena, and yesterday started Dom Casmurro: more on them when I gather my thoughts. As for his short stories, I have a perverse fondness for the gruesome and Swiftian ‘Alexandrian Tale’, which features crooked philosophers at the Museum of Alexandria and human vivisection performed by Herophilus himself. A characteristic sentence: “Be patient, be patient. One does not acquire a vice in the same way one sews a pair of sandals.”
Sunday: August 31, 2008
Basil Grant and I were talking one day in what is perhaps the most perfect place for talking on earth–the top of a tolerably deserted tramcar. To talk on the top of a hill is superb, but to talk on the top of a flying hill is a fairy tale.
The vast blank space of North London was flying by; the very pace gave us a sense of its immensity and its meanness. It was, as it were, a base infinitude, a squalid eternity, and we felt the real horror of the poor parts of London, the horror that is so totally missed and misrepresented by the sensational novelists who depict it as being a matter of narrow streets, filthy houses, criminals and maniacs, and dens of vice. In a narrow street, in a den of vice, you do not expect civilization, you do not expect order. But the horror of this was the fact that there was civilization, that there was order, but that civilisation only showed its morbidity, and order only its monotony. No one would say, in going through a criminal slum, “I see no statues. I notice no cathedrals.” But here there were public buildings; only they were mostly lunatic asylums. Here there were statues; only they were mostly statues of railway engineers and philanthropists–two dingy classes of men united by their common contempt for the people. Here there were churches; only they were the churches of dim and erratic sects, Agapemonites or Irvingites. Here, above all, there were broad roads and vast crossings and tramway lines and hospitals and all the real marks of civilization. But though one never knew, in one sense, what one would see next, there was one thing we knew we should not see–anything really great, central, of the first class, anything that humanity had adored. And with revulsion indescribable our emotions returned, I think, to those really close and crooked entries, to those really mean streets, to those genuine slums which lie round the Thames and the City, in which nevertheless a real possibility remains that at any chance corner the great cross of the great cathedral of Wren may strike down the street like a thunderbolt.
“But you must always remember also,” said Grant to me, in his heavy abstracted way, when I had urged this view, “that the very vileness of the life of these ordered plebeian places bears witness to the victory of the human soul. I agree with you. I agree that they have to live in something worse than barbarism. They have to live in a fourth-rate civilization. But yet I am practically certain that the majority of people here are good people. And being good is an adventure far more violent and daring than sailing round the world. Besides–”
“Go on,” I said.
No answer came.
(G. K. Chesterton, The Club of Queer Trades, 1905, Chapter 2, “The Painfull Fall of a Great Reputation”)