Friday, November 28, 2008

Not a book or a movie, but a place

Today, I visited Aargh Ink, Jenny Crusie's blog, after a brief pause and found she had written about the wonders of maps, which are things that we very much love in this household too, which made me think of this place, which is definitely my favourite museum in Belgium, and is in my top five, along with John Soane's house and various art galleries.

You may not recognise, or even have heard of, the Plantin-Moretus museum, but it is the most wonderful place. Of course, I would say that, being a total bookaholic, because this was one of the first book-factories in Europe. Christophe Plantin was a Frenchman who came to Antwerp because it was a centre of humanism and translations of the Bible and music, and he set up a printing house. He had a daughter, and when she married, her husband and descendants carried on the business, and their name was Moretus.

There are wonderful things in this place - on the ground floor are the presses and the proof-reading rooms, the bookshop and a study reserved for Justus Lipsius, who used to come and stay and have great thoughts. Upstairs is a warren of staircases and panelled rooms with prints and maps and globes, the first recorded image of a potato and illustrations of polar voyages complete with Esquimaux and polar bears. There are wonderful family portraits and illuminated Bibles, and Plantin's own sonnet on worldly happiness:


Avoir une maison commode, propre et belle,
Un jardin tapissé d'espaliers odorans,
Des fruits, d'excellent vin, peu de train, peu d'enfans,
Posseder seul sans bruit une femme fidèle,

N'avoir dettes, amour, ni procès, ni querelle,
Ni de partage à faire avecque ses parens,
Se contenter de peu, n'espérer rien des Grands,
Régler tous ses desseins sur un juste modèle,

Vivre avecque franchise et sans ambition,
S'adonner sans scrupule à la dévotion,
Dompter ses passions, les rendre obéissantes,

Conserver l'esprit libre, et le jugement fort,
Dire son chapelet en cultivant ses entes,
C'est attendre chez soi bien doucement la mort.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A book to avoid

This was one of those books where I read the reviews and thought, hmmm, interesting, and then was looking for something meatily populist to round out my 3 for the price of 2 offer at Waterstones. So I picked up Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and here I am, several days later wondering why I finished it, why it had rave reviews and how on earth anyone, even an Aussie, could even conceive of a single positive sentence featuring both War and Peace and Dragon Tattoo.

It's mean to pick on an author who is tragically and relatively youthfully dead, but when the Swedes sorting through Stieg Larsson's stuff after his heart attack came across three thick fat and unpublished manuscripts, I think it would have been kinder to Larsson's memory and the world if they'd not taken them to a publisher desperate for something to fill the schedules until the next Wallender novel.

Spoilers henceforth:

Plot/Themes: usual sexual violence/abuse/rape serial killer stuff along with corporate shenanigans and neo-Nazism corrupting Sweden from within.
Characterisation: hero is placeholder for author (shaggy, somewhat fit financial journalist, serial shagger), heroine, a sort of Boho wet dream girl-woman with Aspergers and an unusual interest in the inner workings of the iBook.
Style: euruuuughghghghghg. Translator should be shot for mistmatched idioms and clunkiness of Mount Rushmore proportions. There's a whodunnit for you - who killed the translator....Unless he was just working with what he had, in which case, hoo boy, it was lame.
Form and structure: Dual plot-lines for hero and heroine until they meld uneasily about 2/3 of the way in.

I am not going to waste any more of your or my time on this book - just trust me, it doesn't live up to they hype.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Canto of Ulysses

Primo Levi's If This is a Man is a book that I read years ago and never forgot, but did not know until I started teaching it this term. This time, chapter 11, when Levi is asked by his fellow-prisoner Jean for some Italian lessons, is the chapter that suddenly stands out in stark relief to the previous chapters which record and reproduce the routines and systems that evolved in Auschwitz. Levi starts his first lesson with words, simple words for the simple things that their life has been reduced to but in the course of their walk across the camp, a walk of over an hour, Levi feels the desperate need to tell Jean the story of Canto 26 of Dante's Inferno, where in the 8th circle of hell, Dante encounters Ulysses. In an episode devised by Dante, Ulysses recounts to the poet his final journey, his passage past the pillars of Hercules and his speech to his men, exhorting them to keep faith and continue their voyage into oceans unknown, towards lands unexplored.

Dante tells his men:
118 Considerate la vostra semenza:
119 fatti non foste a viver come bruti,
120 ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza.

This is translated in by Stuart Woolf (Levi's English translator) as:

Think of your breed: for brutish ignorance
Your mettle was not made; you were made men,
To follow after knowledge and excellence.

Of course, in Auschwitz, this is a cry of incredible defiance. But where Dante's Ulysses is destroyed by Another, Levi is destroyed ultimately by the knowledge that in Auschwitz, the struggle was not between the demand for obedience to divine rule facing off against the freedom to find out knowledge and excellence, but between those who embraced brutish ignorance, seeking to extinguish all knowledge and excellence and the men, women and children who entered their inverted, perverse, enclosed empire. The empire where criminals became kings and the bulk of inmates became dispensable vassals.

Levi confronts a terrible paradox in The Canto of Ulysses: to remain a man, he must remember Dante, but the act of remembering and delivering and explaining to the Pikolo Jean, reawakens in the prisoner the terrible agony of remembering his home, his mountains, his life prior to entering the circles of hell that comprised Auschwitz. And yet, through Ulysses, Levi begins to grasp at some explanation for the inexplicable, 'a flash of intuition, perhaps the reason for our fate'. Then the mundane, sordid, banal reality of collecting their cabbage and turnip soup dispels the moment and Levi ends with the final line of the canto:

'and over our heads, the hollow seas closed up'.

Even though he is in the category of the saved and not the drowned, here, he is swallowed up.

We must do our utmost, in however small a way, to rescue our fellow men from the hollow seas, to remember that we were not made to live like brutes, but to pursue excellence and virtue, to protect those who are at risk of the terrible brutishness of which we can be guilty and to help those who seem to be sinking into savagery find safe passage into the light of the sun and other stars.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Motion's Keats

I remember all the hoopla about Andrew Motion's Keats biography when it was first published in 1997, but I just never got round to reading it - after teaching Keats a good deal in recent years, I was finally guiltified into thinking I really ought to know a little more about him, so I got the book over the summer and finally started it about 3 weeks ago.

The book is incredibly thorough. I'm not sure that I needed to know that Keats ate porridge on the morning he went to Mull or that the Maria Crowther which carried Keats to his Italian death was a two-masted brigantine, but these are things I do know now. What I really did enjoy about the biography were Motion's explorations of Keats's verse itself, which inspired me to go back and reread all the bits I read only at university as opposed to the regulars one would expect to dish up to school age students, e.g. Eve of St Agnes, Odes and Belle Dame Sans Merci.

I was surprised to find out, according to Motion, how negative Keats was about women, because of all the Romantic poets, he seems to me the most romantic, with the most interesting depictions of women, from the Belle Dame to Isabella and Psyche. They are there pretty much to be worshipped, I suppose, and sometimes to be reviled, they can be a bit passive like Isabella and Madeline, but women seem to be essential to his creative processes, and he certainly isn't a twisted cynic like Byron or a player like Shelley.

Another pleasure of the biography was being able to position Keats in terms of his period and his friends, his social status and his day to day lifestyle. As expected, the end is terribly sad, partly because it is always sad to read of a young man or woman dying before they should, also because he was so terribly conscious of how much he might have achieved but wouldn't, and finally because he was heartbroken by the realisation that he would not see his Fanny again.

Fanny seems opaque as ever - it is not clear at all what kind of girl/woman she was from Motion's biography, we never seem to catch more than glimpses of her, but what is clear is that while Keats loved her deeply, he was also terrified of loving her (or indeed anyone). He had, understandably, given his mother's abandonment of her family first through remarriage, then through her disappearance and finally through her death, issues with women and also seemed to believe that love and creativity were incompatible. But eventually, just as he realised how very sick he was, he also realised how very much he loved Fanny. It is heartbreaking. But I do wish that Severn had shown fewer scruples and chosen to open Fanny's last two letters to him instead of burying them with him.

Teaching Keats has made me love his poetry more than ever - he always my favourite of the Romantic poets. But reading this biography brought home to me how very much we did lose first through the wilfullness of his reviewers who discouraged him and slowed his rates of production down by depressing him, and secondly through his death. His preoccupations and artistic concerns are so universal, his ability to ravel them up into verse which resonated and resounded with ambiguity and layering and complexity was so rich and his vision so clear that I regret all that he might have achieved if he had lived even for another three or four years, or past thirty.

Now we will just have to wait until the release of Jane Campion's film Bright Star, with Ben Whishaw as Keats - out sometime next year, and I hope, sooner rather than later.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


This morning, I turned on the tv and was immediately thrilled by the little numbers in the corner of the screen - I think at that stage, Obama had 338 and McCain 120 votes in the electoral college, and Dimbleby had a surreal interview with Gore Vidal, who declared "I don't know who you are". Then at 6am Brussels time, Obama took the stage with his family, and spoke for 10-12 minutes, calm, sensible, sane and dignified as ever.

I was three or four when my parents moved to Washington DC, and I was conscious of race, if not racism, very early. Washington is a black city, except for the compressed quarter where the expats and rich guys hang out. I remember playing with Angie Tutt, and I have a vague recollection that it was ok for her to come over to my house, but I'd never go over to her house. It wasn't safe: or that's the impression I had. It was certainly in a part of Washington that we just never visited. I remember hearing songs like Go tell it on the mountain, Oh, Happy Day delivered by Etta James with a soaring gospel chorus in the background, What's Going On. I know there were riots and demonstrations, some against Vietnam, some race-related, stuff that adults discussed in low, horrified voices. And I remember visiting other friends who had black housekeepers, ample women who changed out of uniforms and shrugged on shabby coats before catching the bus back to some other part of town. My school ran a scholarship programme, and there was a funny, long, gawky boy, Quentin, whose show and tell was a praying mantis over a foot long that he kept in a box in the corner of the schoolroom.

I wonder where Angie and Quentin are today, and how they feel, and whether they got to college and had the opportunities they deserved and if they are sitting in comfortable homes in nice suburbs of Washington, proud that their generation was the one that was able to provide not just America with the possibility of hope and change, but the whole world.

Obama's victory is a victory of clarity over confusion, of calm reflection over chaotic impulse and of a blend of idealism, fundamental decency and common sense over fear, pure fundamentalism and cock-eyed rationales with little or no foundation in fact. I hope he's also brought McCain back from his bizarre brinkmanship with the more delusional and plain weird shores of the Republican party. Simply put, where I face-palmed and did my best to ignore, I now hope. Thank you America, for giving all of us something to smile about, something to feel good about. Because if anyone has the intellect and organisational, executive ability to get us out of our current mess, it is Barack Obama.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Let's hope they will...

What a shame it is that we in the rest of the world can't vote in today's election - it'd be an Obama landslide. But all we can do is hope that enough people in the USA have believed 'Yes, we can' and have, or are or will be doing it today, voting not for McCain whose final stump speech in Colorado was all about fighting - 'my friends, we must fight and fight and fight... and I will fight and fight and fight', but for That sane One in the other corner.

I've heard so many totally stupid things said about Obama, but the comments that struck me today were the ones which dissed McCain and Obama equally, calling them both undistinguished. While I'd have to agree that McCain is, for his 72 years, pretty undistinguished (855th out of 860 in his graduating year at Annapolis, crashing four planes in his years as a fighter pilot, only allowed to fly because his father and grandfather were admirals, screwing around on the wife who'd endured terrible pain and disfigurement in a car-crash before divorcing her so he could marry a very rich woman, unable to remember exactly how many houses he has), Obama is a different kettle of fish. The first black editor of the Harvard Law Review is a pretty distinguished way to start a career; an eloquent and elegant writer; a man who turned his back on the opportunity to rake in the millions as a lawyer, preferring to serve and help disadvantaged people; a phenomenal organiser with a real talent for finding and keeping excellent staff; a man who rarely loses his temper in public.

Obama is special. The Economist fingered him a little over four years ago as one to watch and they have been right. Personally, I wanted him to win the Democrat nomination because I suspected that he would be less divisive than Hillary. While I admire what Mrs Clinton has achieved as a Senator, the Clinton I'd rather see in the White House is Chelsea, who seems to have taken the best of both her parents and become, somehow, a decent and sensible and sane human being. So I got that wish. And the way Obama has conducted himself and led his party and led his campaigners and organisers, who all seem to follow him with a dedication that goes well beyond duty, show a man of intelligence and warmth, of humanity and dignity, who no doubt will see his integrity suffer as he strives to manage the position which I so hope he wins during the course of today, but who also gives me the impression of being a man wise enough to take his country forward in a direction that will give not just the US but all of us hope.

Wisdom, health, common sense, intelligence, genuine commitment to family and to the future - these are Obama's positive attributes, and in a time where very hard decisions must be taken, where very dangerous people must be contained and where compromises must be reached, they are the attributes that will ensure that this currently rickety world of ours is a little safer and a little saner.

Obama's victory will say so much to the rest of the world about America, and for those of us who know and love America, will give us instead of the volatile, the self-absorbed, the materialistic and power-hungry world of Republicanism, the altruistic, exciting, innovative, problem-solving world of the United States.

I'm not naive - the Democrats have their ties to corporate fatcats and their satanic agreements sewn up with lobbiests too. Obama's hands are by no means clean. But if you are a decent individual heading into the muddy swamps of politics, you can't expect to remain squeaky and pristine. I'd rather have someone who does know and understand the ropes, who has an inkling of how to yank them to achieve his goals rather than yelling swear words and pulling a McNasty. Let's hope a significant majority of the American public is thinking the same thing. I'll be crossing my fingers.