Sunday, 17 June 2012

Swann in Love

There is now an interregnum in the narrator’s own account and this filled by the telling of the love affair between Swann and Odette de Crecy. We are told that Odette has a disreputable past and that she has little obvious appeal to Swann. She attends a salon comprised of people below Swann’s own social standing and lacking his refinement. Despite this and against his better judgment Swann finds himself falling in love and this leads to an obsession with her.  

Swann finds an emblem for his love in a phrase from a piece of music which he hears played at the salon attended by Odette: "...below the delicate line of the violin-part, slender but robust, compact and commanding, he had suddenly become aware of the mass of the piano-part beginning to emerge in a sort of liquid rippling of sound, multiform but indivisible, smooth yet restless, like the deep blue tumult of the sea, silvered and charmed into a minor key by the moonlight. But then at a certain moment, without being able to distinguish any clear outline, or to give a name to what was pleasing him, suddenly enraptured, he had tried to grasp the phrase or harmony-he did not know which-that had just been played and that had opened and expanded his soul, as the fragrance of certain roses, wafted upon the moist air of evening, has the power of dilating one's nostrils."

Swann learns that the composer of this phrase is called Vinteuil and he recalls a music teacher from Combray by that name:

“”Perhaps that’s the man” cried Mme Verdurin. 

“Oh no!” Swann burst out laughing. “If you had ever seen him for a moment you wouldn’t put the question.””

But it is the same man. Proust unpicks Swann’s pretension. Swann cannot conceive of such an unprepossessing man creating sublime art (this same Vinteuil has the daughter described in my post: The face of a young woman in tears. The daughter has a lesbian lover and after Vinteuil’s death the narrator spies on the two women as they abuse Vinteuil’s memory and spit on his photograph).

Swann becomes possessive, fixated on knowing what Odette is up to when she is not with him. This ultimately results in him stealing her mail and spying on her. He accuses her of prostitution and of having lesbian relationships, and she neither denies nor admits to this. Swann withdraws from his place in society and tries to identify his rivals for Odette’s affections. He finds himself supplanted in the respect of the salon by others and he becomes disparaging of them in turn.

Over time he attains a more realistic view of his relationship and of Odette, her “pallid complexion, her too thin cheeks, her drawn features, her tired eyes”. He achieves a higher degree of self-realisation.

“To think that I have wasted years of my life, that I have longed for death, that the greatest love that I have ever known has been for a woman who did not please me, who was not in my style”.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Basil Bunting Complete Poems

I wanted for years to read Briggflatts as it seemed to be an epic poem partially about Northumberland. But I was mistaken as it is more about its author, who described it as an autobiography. I did not get any particular sense of a Northumbrian sensibility from it apart from the use of “spuggies” in the epigraph, a spuggy being a Northumbrian word for a sparrow. Bunting compares a mason chipping away at marble to the poet scratching away at his verse, “litters his yard with flawed fragments” (Bunting seems often to reflect on his limitations as a poet).  

Bunting is a Modernist poet like Elliot and Pound. The Modernists use concrete images as the building blocks of their verse. So there is great trouble taken over the use of actual, quite specific locations and phrases from other languages as if the mere inclusion of a place name or phrase is sufficient to convey atmosphere. I may be mistaken but they seem to be reacting to the Romantic poets. Whereas the Romantics deal with sensibility and emotion and the higher things generally, the Modernists treat of cities and people and language and history. At its worst this results in Elliott’s footnotes on the Wasteland, feeling that he has to explain his own verse. Bunting resists this. It is possible to read his poems accompanied by Wikipedia to explain the references but he does not make it a condition. One does not need to know about the river Rawthey and Eric Bloodaxe in order to appreciate Briggflatts.

Of his other poems I enjoyed Chomei at Toyama which tells of disasters befalling a city in medieval Japan, The Complaint of the Morpethshire Farmer which reads like a traditional ballad, What the Chairman Told Tom which is nicely comical, and his Overdrafts which are supposedly translations of foreign poets but seem more like rewritings.

The artist whom Bunting most reminds me of is actually Captain Beefheart. Compositions such as Well or Orange Claw Hammer present a stream of images and statements, not all of them logical, which are designed to create an impression in the mind of the listener through sound and juxtaposition rather than through meaning. Another similarity is through their affinity with and deployment of music. Obviously in the case of Beefheart since he sings but Bunting in his introduction to his poems says “I have set down words as a musician pricks his score, not to be read in silence, but to trace in the air a pattern of sound”. He collects some of his poems under the title of Sonatas (interestingly he uses the term for a piece of music to be played rather than one to be sung (cantata) – he claims to be writing instrumentals). Beefheart’s imagery is drawn from the American South, working in the fields, nature, the American desert, childhood and the Blues. Bunting draws on his own experiences of living in Europe, old literature and Western classical music.

Bunting writes of Pound’s Cantos “These are the Alps. What else is to be said about them. They do not make sense.” Sense is not necessarily to be looked for in this verse but that is not to say that it lacks meaning. Briggflatts has a narrative going from early infatuation with a girl to wanderings through Europe and, fifty years later, to a return to home. “Then is diffused in Now”, despite his wanderings and experiences he still remembers the girl “she has been with me fifty years”. Isn’t that lovely.

Here is Bunting together with the girl in question more than fifty years on with Brigflatts in the background.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Hard Lines

This is a collection of poetry and prose and drawings by unpublished authors with an introduction by Ian Dury. Although there are no author's biographies, there are pictures of the contributors on the inside cover. They all look to be in their late teens/early twenties and this is reflected in many of the compiled pieces. They represent a look at life from a young person’s perspective. There is a lot of interest in sex and in relationships and less interest in wider society or in the macro-economic environment or in the nuts and bolts of the day to day world, like what are people’s jobs and how do the bills get paid.

Many of the pieces are interesting in what they are not about rather than what they do describe. Taking it as given that the authors could write about whatever they like in whatever style they like, there is a uniformity of a somewhat downbeat tone to the proceedings. There is not much of a whiff of a Jeeves and Wooster here, nor an Evelyn Waugh. The strain is more that of George Orwell or George Gissing or Alan Sillitoe.

The settings, where these are identified, for the pieces and pictures include the bedroom, the kitchen, the canal, the dance hall. There is a focus on the humdrum and the mundane with no room for grand sentiments.

Among the pieces that made the strongest impression on me are “Teenage Poems Crumpled at the Back of My Drawer”, the title of which gives the gist, and “Death at the Dog and Duck” which is a nice arrangement of short phrases spread over the page in separate columns.

I do not know what happened to all of the contributors. Andrew Darlington, Anne Clark and Claire Dowie I have heard of subsequently. I do know very well what happened to one of the contributors because it is me. My piece closes the book, like “The Dead” closes Dubliners. That is a flippant analogy but there is a very pronounced James Joyce influence in my piece. I do not know if the other contributors got to choose what could be included but mine was an extract from a longer set of pieces and not one I would have chosen myself given the chance.

My wife pointed out to me that this book is very much of its time (it was published in 1983, although my piece dates from at least a couple of years earlier). Think Thatcher, recession, unemployment, the music of Joy Division. That is the cultural background to these pieces.

What this book also represents is something that I feel is missing from today’s generations which is a desire to actively engage in the culture. The contributors, I believe, did not see themselves as passive consumers or as distant observers of the culture. They had the desire and the means (usually in the form of photocopied fanzines) to engage in the cultural conversation and this book is just the tip of the iceberg. When you add in non-fiction fanzines and the creation of music, this type of engagement was taking place on a massive scale.

It is as a reminder of times when young people saw themselves as the creators and the curators of the culture rather than its passive consumers that this book has (small) significance. Young people wanted to be involved directly either through the creation of the work or through a critique of the results rather than through a “Wow. Cool” type post on Twitter or Facebook. This could mean that sometimes the overall quality of the pieces created could be sacrificed for the sake of immediacy of impact or for the power of verisimilitude. “I want poetry that is real” writes Andrew Darlington in his poem Manifesto. Ultimately, this book is too true to be good.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Duality in Proust

I have reached the end of Combray, the first part of Swann's Way. I wonder whether Proust is setting up a system of duality in his novel. I have already written about how there are two walks the narrator's family like to take, the Guermantes way and the Meseglise way, and how the Meseglise way and its hawthorns become associated in the narrator's mind with the person of Mlle Swann. Later he describes seeing  her Mme de Guermantes in church and associating her person with the Guermantes walk. He juxtaposes one person with the other in how he considers Mlle Swann looks at him dissdainfully while considering that Mme de Guermantes looks at him with affection. He thinks about how the sights and smells on each of the walks set him in mind of his imagining of the personalities and qualities of the two ladies. Meanwhile the narrator is pondering a future literary career for himself (and produces a tentative early text) but worries that he has nothing of substance to write about:

"suddenly a roof, a gleam of sunlight reflected from a stone, the smell of a road would make me stop still, to enjoy the special pleasure that each of them gave me, and also because they appeared to be concealing beneath what my eyes could see, something which they invited me to approach and seize from them, but which despite all my effort, I never managed to discover."

I wonder whether this is to be the narrator's literary purpose, to unpick meaning behind sensation, or to assign meaning to sensation since for the author they will amount to the same thing.

" I would still seek to recover my sense of them by closing my eyes, I would concentrate upon recalling exactly the line of the roof, the colour of the stone, which, without my being able to understand why, had seemed to me to be teeming, ready to open, to yield up to me the secret treasure of which they were themselves no more than the outer coverings."

In the course of this first part of the novel the author has travelled from an imposition of his feelings upon sensation, as when the biscuit dipped in milk transports him, to sensation as the carrier, and the protector, as well as the delivery mechanism for the feelings. He has gone from feelings originating within himself transplanted onto sensation, to sensations originating from an external stimulus imposing feelings upon him, even if he is unaware of what these feelings are. This is obscure and I am not sure a correct reading but it is how it strikes me.

"It was certainly not any impression of this kind that could or would restore the hope that I had lost of succeeding one day in becoming an author and poet, for each of them was associated with some material object devoid of any intellectual value, and suggesting no abstract truth. But at least they gave me an unreasoning pleasure, the illusion of a sort of fecundity of mind; and in that way distracted me from the tedium, from the sense of my own impotence which I had felt whenever I had sought a philosophic theme for some great literary work. "

I wonder whether Proust is setting up his philosophic theme while detailing the narrator's struggles to identify one. This would be neat if it is indeed what he is doing.

Proust sums up by writing that the Meseglise and Guermantes 'ways' (and here he uses inverted commas around ways to make explicit the fact that they represent not just walks but types of being and types of experience) have combined in him groups of different impressions "for no reason but that they had made me feel several separate things at the same time". He foretells how this causes him problems in the future when he, for instance, wishes to re-esatablish an acquaintance without realising that the acquaintance reminds him of a hedge of hawthorns in blossom and it is the latter that he desires to experience.

"When, on a summer evening, the resounding sky growls like a tawny lion, and everyone is complaining of the storm, it is along the 'Meseglise way' that my fancy strays alone in ecstasy, inhaling, through the noise of falling rain, the odour of invisible and persistent lilac trees."

Saturday, 4 February 2012

In the Glassroom

This is a Roger McGough collection from 1976. The glassroom in the title refers to school. In the poem First Day at School a child wonders what school is like:
                    "What does a lessin look like?
                     Sounds small and slimy.
                     They keep them in glassrooms.
                     Whole rooms made out of glass. Imagine."
There are poems about lessons, violence, being the best looking girl, football and being a hooligan.The second half contains other poems that do not coalesce around a central theme and the book ends with the prose piece Kurt, BP, Mungo and Me,

The British Library cataloguing data describes this as children's poetry. Kids should be encouraged to read it, for sure, but I did not see it as children's literature. McGough deploys his customary range of stylistic devices (puns, unreliable narrators, pithy pay-off lines, playfulness in making the text make pictures) to subjects either set in a school or, mostly, using children as protagonists but I did not detect a different tone from that used in his other works with which I am familiar. I have got his collected poems but have not read it so might change this opinion later.    

 Although I always imagine McGough reading his poems aloud in his distinctive voice, my favourite works in this book are those that rely on being experienced on the page for their full effect. Spaced-out Summer Poem is just that - a poem about summer with big spaces between all the words. Autumn Poem is spread across the page in a flying V mirroring the classic migration formation of birds. Words...Poems has gaps in the text for the reader to insert his or her choice of words or poems.

 Rhyme fans will not find much to love. The poems are mostly in blank verse and when rhymes do occur they are fairly prosaic. Partly this is part of McGough's Poet of the People schtick similar to how he will suddenly reference somewhere like Stockport and partly it is dictated by the subject matter of the poems (and to be fair sometimes the narrative voice of the poems which are often of the uneducated and dispossesed) where the grandly florid style would be inappropriate and condescending.

 The concluding text piece is an enjoyable account of three lads on a spree but constantly let down by the failings of the author (the Me of the title). Owes an obvious debt to Tristram Shandy and At-Swim-Two-Birds but nicely carried off.

 All in all, it's not Summer With Monika but what is. Not bad for £1 from Grinny charity shop.