September 29, 2010

Unfamiliar Quotations - Leonora Carrington

Back in Lancashire I got an attack of claustrophobia and tried to convince Mother to let me go and study painting in London. She thought this was a very idle and silly idea and gave me a lecture about artists. “There is nothing wrong about painting,” she told me. “I paint boxes myself for jumble sales. There is a difference though in being artistic and in actually being an artist. Your aunt Edgeworth wrote novels and was very friendly with Sir Walter Scott but she would never have called herself ‘an artist.’ It wouldn’t have been nice. Artists are immoral they live together in attics, you could never get used to an attic after all the luxury and comfort you have here. Besides what is there to prevent you painting at home, there are all sorts of picturesque nooks which would be delightful to paint.”
“I want to paint nude models,” I said. “You can’t get nude models here.”
“Why not?” replied mother with a flash of logic. “People are nude everywhere if they haven’t got any clothes on.” Finally I did go to London to study art and had a love affair with an Egyptian. A pity I never actually got to Egypt but thanks to mother I did see most of Europe during my youth.

René Magritte. The Portrait. Brussels 1935.
Art in London didn’t seem quite modern enough and I began to want to study in Paris where the Surrealists were in full cry. Surrealism is no longer considered modern today and almost every village rectory and girl’s school have surrealist pictures hanging on their walls. Even Buckingham Palace has a large reproduction of Magritte’s famous slice of ham with an eye peering out. It hangs, I believe, in the throne room. Times do change indeed. The Royal Academy recently gave a retrospective exhibition of Dada art and they decorated the gallery like a public lavatory. In my day people in London would have been shocked. Today the Lord Mayor opened the exhibition with a long speech about twentieth-century masters and the Queen Mother hung a wreath of gladiola on a piece of sculpture called “Navel” by Hans Arp.

The Hearing Trumpet, Leonora Carrington, 1974.

September 23, 2010

Paper Trails

In a recent New York Times article Elif Bautman offers a pretty good summation of the Kafka papers affair as it currently stands. The obligatory and almost offhanded statement that "most experts agree that the estate is unlikely to contain any unknown major work by Kafka," which has been attached to pretty much every report on the matter, has failed to calm anyone. This article is probably the first I have encountered that attempts to address the question of why there is such a frenzy to obtain the original manuscripts, and why this is also an ultimately pointless venture:
“With Kafka, people go crazy about getting the original manuscript — not a photocopy, not a facsimile,” Meir Heller [attorney for Israel's National Library] once remarked to me. “With most writers, once there’s a copy, nobody cares.” We fetishize the original manuscripts, because they seem to offer some access to a definitive Kafka — a Kafka beyond Brod. But this, too, is an illusion. The manuscripts aren’t definitive, because definitiveness, for better or worse, is the product of deadlines and editors and publishers: things Kafka either went out of his way not to have or ended up not having because of bad luck, tuberculosis and the First World War. When Kafka did prepare manuscripts for publication, he spent much time correcting mistakes and decoding his own abbreviations, sometimes even enlisting Brod’s help; one critic thus speculates that “Brod’s version might, in the end, look more like what Kafka would have published” than the most meticulous German scholarly editions. Maybe there is no Kafka beyond Brod.
Illustration by Carin Goldberg.
And, at the polar opposite of archiving a deceased author's papers, is the story of how David Markson's annotated books ended up at The Strand bookstore.

Addendum: I'll admit it, since I live in Tel Aviv, I did ride my bike up to Spinoza Street this evening to take a look at the house where the manuscripts were supposedly held. The lights were off and it's a pretty dark street so I couldn't see much of anything, but there were certainly a lot of cats around and it kind of smelled like a litter box.

September 21, 2010

What I've Been Reading - Going Through the Lists

There are a few reasons why I haven't written about my recent readings in a while. First, I've been reading a lot of different things at once (which I usually try to avoid since it tends to dilute the effect of each individual work) and have been sort of universally stuck on the less interesting parts of each book for a while. Second, most of the books I've managed to finish failed to leave much of an impression on me. Nonetheless, now that enough of them have accumulated I might be able to cobble together some sort of blog post.

French Poetry

After reading and enjoying Baudelaire's works (Paris Spleen, and, to a slightly lesser extent, Flowers of Evil) I decided to explore some more 19th century French poetry, particularly the works of Arthur Rimbaud and Stéphane Mallarmé (both in the Oxford World's Classics editions of their complete works) but in both cases I found myself in the same position I often find myself when reading poetry - confused and slightly bored. It was quite disappointing to find that the works of Rimbaud, the great romantic figure, the restless enfant terrible, did not strike me as anything extraordinary, and that the works of Mallarmé, who is considered such a influential innovator, seemed so run-of-the-mill and uninspired to me. Both lacked the passion and wit I found in Baudelaire (it's possible the translations are partially to blame; Mallarmé is notoriously hard to translate, but however he's translated many of his poems are still just drawn-out descriptions, or semi-witty dedications inscribed on fans).

Sometimes I think I should just cut my losses and give up on poetry altogether - I never write it, I rarely enjoy reading it, and I suspect that I often simply don't get it. Plus, there are so many novels, stories, and plays that I want to read, it'll hardly register on my ever-expanding "to read" list. But then I think of the poetry I've read and enjoyed (e.g. T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land and Prufrock, Carver's collection All of Us, Ginsberg's Howl and Kaddish, some Coleridge and some Borges) and how meaningful those works have been for me, and inevitably pick up another collection (and of course, once I pick up a book I must finish it; it's a sickness, really). Next on my poetry list - Yeats, Mayakovsky, and Milosz. Wish me luck.

Lewis Carroll

I don't expect you to recall my longish post about the latest Alice adaptation, but one of the points I made there was that Lewis Carroll's two Alice books don't really work as novels, and are only interesting for their idiosyncratic components, not the overarching plot which tends to be rather pedestrian. Given this I was somewhat optimistic when approaching Carroll's short works, hoping to find the same wit and whimsy there, and while I certainly didn't suffer in their reading (a compliment I cannot give some of Mallarmé's longer prose-poems) I still came away mildly disappointed. excluding the poems which constitute parts of the Alice books (like "Jabberwocky" and "The Walrus and the Carpenter") , Lewis Carroll wrote two more longish nonsense poems - "The Hunting of the Snark" and "Phantasmagoria" - and 30 other short poems, half of them whimsical and half of them serious.

"The Hunting of the Snark," which occasionally borrows from "Jabberwocky," is a fun short read, though not as inventive as the Alice books, while "Phantasmagoria" is a bit meandering and pointless (but not in the fun way, a bit too thinly spread). The other humorous poems usually hold a single idea each (e.g. "A Sea Dirge" expresses dislike for the beach, "Hiawatha's Photographing" presents a family's disastrous photo session) which are basically hit or miss, and the "serious" poems are rather typical romantic Victorian love poems,and thus pretty uninteresting. This basically leaves the two volumes of Sylvie and Bruno on my Carroll to-read list, and though it's not a top priority I'm sure my completist tendencies (a sickness, as admitted above) will lead me to them sooner rather than later.

Hebrew Literature

And while we're on the subject of my obsessive reading lists, I can revisit and revise the list of Hebrew literature I came up with for Hebrew Book Week a few months ago. After reading two of Yoel Hoffmann's books (Curriculum Vitae and The Heart is Katmandu) I can safely say that he is not my cup of tea - and "cup of tea" is a pretty good metaphor for his writing, it's very much like a dainty little porcelain cup of tea whose meaning lies not in content but in form, meant to convey culture, refinement and, above all, preciousness. If  I wished to be a little less gentle in my review I could borrow the infamous title given to a 2005 Pitchfork review of indie pop - Twee as Fuck.

Encounter, Brief Encounter, a collection of short stories by Amalia Kahana-Carmon did not impress me much either, which is a disappointment because that leaves Orly Castel-Bloom as the only woman writer on my list. I have, however, been hearing good things about Ronit Matalon, so there's always hope.

Classics (?)

The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford, number 30 on the Modern Library's 100 best novels of the 20th century, is one of the dullest books I've ever read. It's kind of like a Henry James story - entirely concerned with the relationships between two wealthy and deceptive couples - as told by an unsympathetic and obtuse narrator. The characters are mostly annoying, the pacing lethargic, and the revelations unrevelatory. So once again I have to question my goal of reading the complete list of "best novels" as chosen by the Modern Library - of the 30 I've read so far 4 have been outright disappointments and 5 have been overrated, which I guess isn't that bad statistically, but the bad ones were really bad, and often placed in ridiculously high places (The Good Soldier appears in the list ahead of A Clockwork Orange, Portnoy's Complaint, Pale Fire, and anything by Hemingway)

Finally, Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, number 8 on David Pringle's list of the 100 best Science Fiction novels (which I only mention since this whole post seems to gravitate towards lists) is a pretty good book which suffers a little from strict adherence to its genre. As with most dystopian novels, the ideas are more interesting than the execution - firemen employed at burning books, secret groups memorizing whole books to preserve them, pervasive interactive media used to sedate the masses (including an early version of reality TV) are all interesting ideas which are not explored fully.
I think the main problem is that we don't get a clear idea of why all of this is going on - what goal are all these disparate elements working towards? Unlike George Orwell's 1984, where all the horrific elements are logical expressions of the oppressive regime, here they all seem cobbled together somewhat haphazardly, which may be more realistic, but also dilutes the overall message of the text. There's a long chase scene towards the end of the novel which I found a little too pulpy, as if Bradbury had to inject some typical sci-fi action into the narrative - which made me think of the terrible slasher movie ending tacked on to Danny Boyle's otherwise interesting movie Sunshine - but thankfully the book goes on to explore more aspects of the world Bradbury created and has a far more satisfying ending.

September 5, 2010

I Think It Was His Eye

Here's something I meant to post a while ago - a short animated film version of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" narrated by James Mason. This film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film (but lost to a didactic Disney film about Musical instruments) and was the first cartoon to be rated X by the British Board of Film Censors. I suggest you watch with the lights off.