Monday, 30 April 2012

Mea Culpa

When I was young, I used to object to my schoolmates' predilection for the song 'What Shall We Do with the Drunken Sailor'. Decades later, thanks to my friend Denis Wright, who sent me this You Tube clip, I realise I was wrong. Drunken Sailors are absolutely delightful:

Sunday, 29 April 2012

The Cost of Careless Comma Use

I noticed the other day that the shortlist for the Orange Prize for Fiction had been announced. Looking at the books that had been selected, I saw that two of them featured Romania in their plots. I'm interested in that part of the world, and so I decided to get the Kindle excerpts of the two books from Amazon, to see if I wanted to buy one - or both.

Curiously, when I opened the pair of them, I found their covers were surprisingly similar. Both showed windows hung with delicate curtains, which were, in each case, parted slightly, to reveal a glimpse of the scene beyond - a scene, in both instances, that was definitely urban and quite possibly European:

Sadly, there the resemblance ended.

But why do I say 'sadly'? Surely, one would not want the two books to be too much the same.

True. The problem here, however, is that one book is readable and the other, thanks to poor editing, is rather maddening. One is written by a master of prose; the other is written by someone who could be a very good writer, if only an editor had persuaded her to use a few more commas and concentrate on the construction of her sentences.

Take this first paragraph from Georgina Harding as an example:

"Though he has seen photographs of cities he has never been in one before. In the dusk as the train came in it looked monochrome as the photos: black smears of road, grey walls, grey buildings angled across the sides of hills. The buildings appeared singly at first then massed, most of them solid but some hollow so that he could see through them to the sky as it darkened. Between the buildings there were the bare outlines of trees - still there were trees - but the forest was gone. He had been sitting with his back to the engine so he had had a sense of the landscape receding rather than of the city approaching. He had seen the land become forest, and then the forest became city, and then he closed his eyes. That way he could keep the land with him for longer. He held the memory of that land in his mind and he pictured himself disappearing into it, vertically, not moving his limbs but only standing like a post, sinking down into some long brown fold between the tracks and the wide horizon."

Personally, I would like a comma between "cities" and "he has never" in the first sentence, but that is a matter of taste. I also think there's some ambiguity about whether he's never been in a city or never been in a photograph of a city, but I don't think it really leaps out at you in the way the ambiguity in the next sentence does. In that sentence, the train is the only subject mentioned, so presumably it looked monochrome, (and where is the 'as' before 'monochrome' by the way) - or is it the place that looks monochrome, in which case why not write, 'In the dusk, as the train came in, the place looked as monochrome as the photos [had/he'd seen]'? That way the reader's attention doesn't get hijacked, racing off on wild goose chases, wondering how trains can have black smears of road and grey walls and grey buildings, (and perhaps I'm just dense but I find 'angled across the sides of hills' a pretty hard concept to grasp, even though I expect the writer thought it was rather a wonderful little turn of phrase). 

I will leave the next sentence, although I do actually find it a bit inelegant, but I can't fuss over everything ,(well, I can, but I will try to do it privately and only highlight the most glaring distractions in the prose). In the sentence after that, beginning, 'Between the buildings ...', am I the only reader to be brought up short by 'still there were trees'? Does that mean 'still, at least there were trees' or does it mean, 'there were still trees' or possibly, in a glimpse of the anonymous character's internal monologue, 'so there were still trees'?

Again I'll - reluctantly - skip a sentence in order to look at the one after it that starts, 'He had seen ...' What is going on with the tenses there? Why do we set out with what I think may be a pluperfect but then switch to what I regard as the historic past, (although that may be a term used only in French)? Why doesn't the sentence read, 'He saw the land become forest, and then the forest became city, and then he closed his eyes'? I can't concentrate on the matter in hand, because I don't understand this use of grammar. I'm vexed already. If this were a paper book, I'd hurl it across the room.

So, thanks to a few missing commas, (plus a lack of careful thought about grammar), Georgina Harding has missed out on my money. It's a pity because I think she might have a good story to tell; the trouble is I know I'll never finish reading it, because I will be chafing too much at the odd tenses and punctuation. 

Cynthia Ozick, meanwhile, doesn't put a foot wrong - or misplace a comma. Her prose is flawless. It carries the reader along with skill and grace:

There's been talk, since Ozick's nomination, about the fact that she's in her 80s - and, in reply, some people have demanded to know why her age is being raised as a factor of any relevance. At first I was among those who wondered why age was being mentioned; now though I'm wondering if, in fact, it is an important element of her success. It may be precisely Ozick's age that explains her wonderful understanding of language. Is it possible that her command of punctuation and grammar is a result of her having been educated at a time when such things were still considered important?  Who knows. All I can say is that it's thanks to her commas that Ozick is the one who will get my cash.

Friday, 27 April 2012

It's That Time Again

How did that happen? Surely it's not a whole year since this? But, yes, in fact the days have flown by just like they do in old black and white films where pages get ripped from calendars and hurled into a gale force wind while an orchestra plays frenziedly just off camera. And so, once again, it is my older daughter's birthday - and a year on she's still drawing beautifully (although now she's living back in Bristol [where you can find her, should you want to commission a portrait, say, or some other kind of picture, in her studio at Jamaica Street - or else get in touch with her agent or go to her Etsy shop]).

Happy Birthday, Anna, have a great day.

What I Did on My Holidays VIII

On returning from the United States to the United Kingdom, I opened my suitcase and found everything all scrunchled up and muddled inside it. I am not neat about most things (although I aspire to be). However, when it comes to packing I make sure everything is folded and beautiful - a case is a nice enclosed kind of space, where things don't get out of hand and I can successfully keep everything under control.

I was therefore irritated to find this on top of the mess that had replaced my neatly folded stacks of shirts and jumpers:

Why couldn't they just have put things back as they found them? Then they would never have needed to tell me they'd been in there. It would have taken too much effort, I'm guessing - lazy swine.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Words and Phrases that Annoy Me

Today's phrase is one I've noticed so often lately that I think it's becoming a cliche, even though it really makes no sense - at least not yet. It is 'late capitalism' or 'late capitalist' - as used in this griping Overland piece. Perhaps I've just been reading the wrong kinds of articles, but the phrase seems suddenly to be everywhere I look (well, no, admittedly, not in the catalogue of this week's specials from the supermarket, fair point).

Despite their ubiquity, however, 'late capitalism' and 'late capitalist' strike me as equally silly terms, given that we have no idea how long capitalism will last and therefore cannot tell whether this moment is actually 'late'. We can talk about the works Mozart wrote when he was 31 as late works, because we know now that he died while still in his thirties. Capitalism, however, may go on for two or three thousand more years in the West, (stop blubbing up the back there - I'll send you to North Korea for a couple of days and then you'll really have something to cry about) for all we know. If Frank Zappa ("people like to own stuff") was right about human nature, it may even last forever. And, if it does, or even if it only endures for a very long time into the future, this period will not be classifiable as part of 'late capitalism'. Furthermore, until capitalism ends we won't know which period will be entitled to call itself late capitalist.

For my part, I wish I could call this period the age of late twaddle, but sadly I don't know when the twaddle will end either. No time soon, I fear.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Anzac Day

A few days ago I once again broke my hard and fast and utterly unobserved rule to buy no more books and bought a volume called The Best Australian Essays - a 10-Year Collection, published by Black Inc. So far I have read Kevin Brophy's account of living with appalling neighbours and trying to make sense of the experience through the medium of Slavoj Zizek's reflections on violence (my sympathies in this enterprise lie with Brophy's wife, who responds to his musings by saying 'Zizek is playing games with the word "violence". She is not impressed by his dexterity with ideas"); Frank Devine's excellent piece on Bradman; and Thomas Keneally's wonderful account of how he first came across the story of Oskar Schindler.

This morning though, I opened the book at random and began to read something by David Malouf. It turned out, coincidentally, to be a very perceptive essay on the meaning of Anzac Day, written in 2003 but equally relevant today (although we no longer have any First World War veterans, what Malouf says about our attitude to them can now be equally well said about our attitude to the remaining Second World War veterans, I believe). Here are some extracts I particularly liked:

"Anzac belongs now to a period - the early part of the last century - that is just beginning to pass out of first-hand human experience and witness, and, like all of what we know from back there, it has begun to develop the romantic glow of a reality softened, relieved of the sharper details and rich contradiction through which personal experience challenges and contradicts received views. It begins to have about it an aura of mystery we cannot penetrate and which, precisely for that reason, has a strong pull on our imagination and on our feelings.

Hence the cult - and I use the word with no suggestion at all of slight or condescension - of our remaining First World War veterans, old men now, most of them well over a hundred, who are, I suspect, rather bemused, that in these last years of a life of ordinary works and days that till now went unnoticed, as most lives do, to find themselves the subject of national interest and large and general affection. For some of them, there is embarrassment in the fact that their actual deeds in the war were undistinguished. They feel, some of them, that the aura they have acquired belongs to other and braver men. Their achievement is survival itself.

And in fact that is the point. That is the source of our interest in them and awed affection for them. That they survived the battles, but also the more ordinary dangers of war - flu and fevers and all the other accidents that young men of spirit are prone to. That they survived the years after the war; the bitterness of betrayal that so many returned men felt- the Soldier's Resettlement schemes that went bung, the Depression. Australians generally have begun to have a clearer sense of how hard the first part of the twentieth century was for their parents and grandparents. The tribute we now pay to these few survivors is in some ways a tribute to all those men and women who lived through that rough patch in our history - the way, I mean, of recognising history itself, as a lived and accumulated experience; of recognising that we have a history and that it is of this lived and personal kind; that the time behind us as Australians is not short but begins to be long, and that our roots in it are deep, not shallow.

That the lives of these old fellows we see on television, and whose names we now know, go back more than a century, touches us - and it may add to the power they project for us that they are not especially heroic and do not represent themselves that way. That they do not posture or make use of any of the rhetorical cliches, but are modest survivors of the ordinary circumstances and perils of living. And that on television, where glamorisation is almost a given, so that any claim they might once have had to youthful beauty is simply irrelevant. Very young people, I suspect, who find themselves living in a dangerous and chaotic world, and with their own lives fearfully before them, feel a special affection for these old fellows who have indestructibily battled through - and even a small sense of reassurance ...

Gallipoli ... has become a place of pilgrimage, one of our sacred sites - and we owe something to Aboriginal consciousness in our sense, now, that a place may belong to us spiritually when we have no legal or other claim upon it. All this represents the way that Anzac Day as an idea has expanded, become more inclusive, as it has passed out of the hands of the original owners and custodians, the Diggers, the RSL, into general ownership, where we have remade it in our own terms, according to present understanding and present affiliations and needs.

So what does Anzac day mean now? What does it commemorate that so many Australians, and especially so many young Australians feel that it is ours, that it is theirs? ...

There is, first of all, the strong sense of the tragic - of the waste, the loss, of young lives: 62,000 in that First War, in a population of just on four million. What that must have meant to particular towns and families and workplaces is staggering to think of. A society that does not recognise and mark with awe the presence of death, that has no sense of the tragic, is a poor one. Dying is a solemn fact of life; it is something we all understand and must come to. There is for all of us a close and personal mystery in it that touches us darkly - even the young feel that. And the death of a young person, the brutal fact of a life cut short, brings the possibility and the tragedy poignantly home; and this is especially so if the death happens in the chosen and public context of service ...

But ... why, at a time when so many people feel strongly about war and the casualties of war, so that even the death of an enemy combatant is no longer acceptable, why, in such a context, [does] this essentially military occasions - men marching, carrying the regimental flags and wearing medals - [have] so wide an appeal[?]

The fact is that Anzac Day has never been in any way triumphalist. The march is a civilian march, by men in suits. The keynote is comradeliness, and a sorrowful awareness as men walk in their platoons and battalions of the missing in the gaps. What is more, it has increasingly, as part of its growing inclusiveness, become a family affair, with small children marching with their grandfather or marching alone and carrying a grandfather's photograph, or young men and young women, who, marching in place of an older relative who can no longer manage it, wear his medals. This reminds us that the losses were always losses to family as well as to the ranks and, as so many war memorials up and down the country remind us, to community."

The full essay can be found in The Best Australian Essays - a 10-Year Collection, published by Black Inc, ISBN: 9781863955232.

Meanwhile, on the Western Front the fight is growing fiercer for my grandfather and his brother.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

What I Did on My Holidays VII

Wondered just how low an absurdity threshold you would need to possess, if you had to go out into the world each morning and introduce yourself as 'CEO, Tootsie Roll Industries, Inc':

Thursday, 19 April 2012

The Sky's the Limit

Years and years and years (and years and years and years and - I could go on like this forever) ago, I was staying with some friends in Melbourne and we went to visit someone who was living in a hall of residence at La Trobe University. It was the usual basic 70s sort of place, made of those big concrete bricks we used to call Besser bricks (was that the manufacturer's name, perhaps) that the architect had decided to leave bare and exposed on interior walls, ostensibly for stylistic reasons but really, I suspect (like so many decisions taken in the name of post-1960s architecture) to reduce costs.

Anyway, we sat in the shared living area, drinking mugs of tea or instant coffee (we used to drink a lot of that back then - worse still, it was usually International Roast, [the cheapest, for good reason]) when a tall red headed man joined us from one of the adjacent rooms. It turned out he was a postgraduate student from England and he was homesick. 'It's the skies here', he said, 'they're too enormous.'

I sort of know what he means, (although I don't feel the same way he did). The sky here is wider and higher, somehow, than in Europe, and the horizons seem bigger too. The fact is, there is so much space in this country that nowhere can really be described as cosy. Losing an awareness of your own tininess and the vastness of the universe is all but impossible.

This can be alarming. It is, after all, a bit daunting to be confronted by your own insignificance, especially if you're used to the tamed landscapes of Europe - neatly parcelled into hedgerowed fields, punctuated with church steeples and country inns - where it's quite easy to forget that man is not actually creation's master. Here, especially in the country - and that doesn't mean anywhere remote, just somewhere beyond the reach of nextdoor neighbours - you can sit on a verandah watching the last of the sunlight drain from the horizon and all of a sudden you are lost in an awareness of the mightiness of infinite space.

However, while at first this may seem overwhelming, it can, once you get used to it, be a liberating experience too. After you stop believing you're on a stage, where your performance is making any kind of difference, you are free to do anything. Mistakes don't really matter. Perhaps that is why Australians are often so prepared to give anything a go, to try their hand at stuff that they might not be much good at, just to see. Abroad, I think we may often seem rather loud and loose, but that's just because we're not used to confined spaces. We think we can shout and no-one will notice. Our sky's not a limit so much as a benign indifference and that frees us - we know that no-one's looking.

It's a pity I can't take a picture of the night sky here. Provided it's not cloudy, it's absolutely marvellous, splashed with so many brilliant stars. I always miss it after I've been away a week or more. Still, even the skies of day time are wonderful and my camera can manage those at least. Here are a few from the last few days to show you what I mean:

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

What I Did on My Holidays VI

It's embarrassing to admit that, rather than constantly roaming the streets of foreign cities in search of new cultural experience, I did occasionally stay in of an evening and watch the television. And one thing I saw was this:

"Did individuals have to qualify in any way at all?", 'No, not at all", 'Did you do well?", "Not at all well". Until I saw this interview, I'd believed that Peter Cook had been working entirely from his own imagination when he created this character:

but now I realise he was merely embroidering on the truth:

I suppose it's just nostalgia, but I like the sound of George Robertson's 'happy-go-lucky' Olympics, where you could represent your country in lawn tennis, even if the only sport you were any good at was throwing a hammer.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Battered Penguins XIX

I went to university in Australia where the system is - at least in the Arts faculties, (if any still exist) - that you start off with four subjects in your first year and then go on to do three each year after that, ideally making those three into majors, (that is, consecutive units of the same subject), or even double majors, leading to a degree on its own or to a fourth honours year, in which you write a thesis.

Unfortunately, the first year I started university, I arrived late, because I'd been travelling and lost track of the time. As a result, I wasn't allowed to study the languages I wanted to study, because I'd already missed too many lessons to ever catch up, so instead I enrolled in English 1A and 1B and Latin and something else I've forgotten. English 1A covered late 19th century and early 20th century literature - lots of DH Lawrence, James Joyce, Yeats, Auden, TS Eliot, JM Synge, George Bernard Shaw, Joseph Conrad and a mass of American stuff, (2A, the subject you would take in the subsequent year, should you decide to continue with English, went backwards to the 18th century and 3A back again to the 16th and 17th century - don't ask me why). English 1B started with a book I thought I remembered was called The Medieval English Lyric but I think may actually have been The Oxford Book of Medieval English Verse and, concomitantly, Piers Plowman (the B text?).

Sadly, English 1B was my downfall. If languages were going to be hard to catch up on then English 1B was impossible. On my fourth or fifth day, I was faced with the task of writing an essay on the medieval English lyric and I was stuck. I realise, looking at them now, that I was being idiotic. They are actually rather beautiful and I could probably think of lots of things to write in an essay about them if I had to today, but at the time I struggled to think of anything at all to say, apart from pointing out the obvious fact that all the anonymous writers of the form seemed to be very, very fond of alliteration. So I filled up several pages with this observation, articulated in a variety of ways, and interspersed my dreary text with the dazzling additional perception - rhyme was something they seemed pretty keen on as well.

A week or two later, I, along with the seven or so other students who had elected to take English 1B, (probably for equally uninspired reasons as my own), shuffled into our weekly tutorial on the subject. The tubby man who had been given the task of bringing the good news about the medieval English lyric to the heathen of the ACT bounded in after us, his plastic leather jacket creaking, his black ribbed poloneck straining across his well-fed form, his extra chins, inadequately disguised by his sparse beard, spilling over the top.

'Could we have a chat about your essay after class', he muttered to me as he hurried by me. I nodded and crumpled into a chair at the back of the room. My thoughts roared about in more of a disorganised frenzy than ever - and they are not particularly orderly even at the best of times. I'd never failed at anything before. I'd never been asked for a discreet chat after any class. I couldn't bear the thought of being alone with that horrid man, discussing my manifold inadequacies.

I came to an instant decision. 'Excuse me', I said, putting up my hand, (I was not long out of school at the time and hadn't quite rid myself of such habits), 'I have to leave.' Then I got up and hurried from the room. I made my way from there straight to the Dean's office where I withdrew from the university. Then I went home, packed and went to the railway station, where I caught a train to Sydney (something that would be impossible today). I had an old friend who was living in Bondi. I moved into her place - taking no notice of the fact that she hadn't invited me and didn't much want me sleeping on her sofa. The next day I hunted through the classified ads in the Sydney Morning Herald and before you could say knife I had found a job as a motorbike courier (there's actually a longer story there, with a few twists and turns, but none of us have got all day, so I'll save those for some other time.)

As it turned out motorbike couriering was rather a pleasant way to spend one's life - and not badly paid either. All was going well and I was beginning to envisage a two-wheeled lifetime career stretching out before me. However, just as the beginning of the academic year came round again, unprecedented storms hit Sydney. All of a sudden, the job transformed into something really rather horrible, involving an awful lot of wading about in Pitt Street dragging a conked out motorbike through knee deep tropical rainwater. Viewed from that perspective, the prospect of sitting around reading books in warm,dry university libraries began to look rather appealing. Once again, I acted quickly. Before you could unfurl an umbrella, in fact, I was back at the university. But this time I didn't enrol in English 1B.

I did enrol in English 1A though. And, despite the fact that the professor of the department gave precisely the same opening lecture - word for word - on Yeats as he had done at the beginning of the year before, I stuck it out until the end of the year. I then dropped English and continued on with the subjects I really wanted to do.

Which brings me (at last) to the subject of this post - William Faulkner. He was one of the major figures on the English 1A syllabus. As part of the course, we were supposed to read The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying and Light in August. This was in addition to numerous other novels, plays, wads of poetry and so forth by numerous other authors. Which should be a cue for me to bewail the state of current Australian university first year courses, where a large number of videos are shown and excerpts from one or other of the Norton Anthologies of English Literature are usually as much the students are expected to actually read.

It would be a cue, were it not for the fact that I somehow managed to get through English 1A, presumably answering exam questions, (and the fact that I can't even remember what I did answer questions on is pretty damning in itself), on Faulkner, without ever getting past page five of The Sound and the Fury and not even getting that far with the others. So I don't think I can really start crying foul about dropping standards - possibly the students of today, if they actually get right through their relevant Norton Anthology, are rather better read than I was - I mean, it's not really enough just to have various texts sitting on one's shelf.

And I have had the Faulkners sitting on my various shelves ever since my first year of university. And what is more I have at last read The Sound and the Fury. It's taken about 35 years but I have finally got around to it, which just goes to show that you should never throw things out - particularly books.

Of course, after such a long wait, one would expect that the thing would have to be an anti-climax. But one would expect wrong. The Sound and the Fury is absolutely great. I loved it. It is brilliant. It is a major work of art - but you don't need me to tell you that. What particularly pleases me is that I think it's probably a good thing I left it so long. I very much doubt that I would have appreciated it when I was 17. In fact, I know I wouldn't have, because that is the reason I gave up on it. I was in the midst of invulnerable youth. Somehow, the very idea of a mentally defective narrator seemed peculiarly depressing when one was hail and hearty and happy and young, whereas once one is decrepit somehow one can put up with anything.

Mind you the book is only told to begin with by an idiot (to use his younger brother Jason's description of him). The idiot, who is called Benjy, has an older brother who gives us the second part, and a younger brother, (the aforementioned Jason), who gives us the third. The final part is told more or less from the point of view of the old servant, Dilsey, but not in her voice. Each section gives us the narrative of a different day in the life of a Southern family, (although, due to Benjy's odd sense of time, the first section drifts about in time a lot), who have black servants, who they do not really recognise as humans, (Jason, in fact, refers to them routinely as 'niggers'), despite the fact that one of them at least - Dilsey - is by far the finest human being in the book.

I cannot say that I completely understood the book, but this is, oddly, not a criticism, (at least, not of the book). The stream of consciousness Faulkner employs in the first two sections does not provide a clear story thread, but it does create a vivid glimpse of chaotic individual reality, which I found more interesting and affecting than a conventional plot-driven tale. In addition, the lack of clarity in the narrative stream is mirrored by the fact that the figure of Caddie, who stands at the centre of all the characters' lives, barely appears within the narrative and remains an almost total enigma. Caddie is beloved by two of her brothers, Benjy and Quentin and hated by her other brother, Jason - but then he hates almost the entire world.

One of the major aspects that sustains the reader's interest is the fact that Faulkner writes extraordinarily lyrically. I know that 'lyrical' is often a polite way of saying that someone's writing is mannered, mincing, dull, ghastly and pretentious, but, in fact, the prose in this book really is quite breathtakingly beautiful, (and why is it that I feel embarrassed to be so gushingly positive, as if the Pseuds' Corner police will be down on me any minute like the proverbial ton of bricks?) To illustrate the kind of thing I mean, I find upon opening the book at random this lovely phrase - "Trees leaned over the wall, sprayed with sunlight" - which demonstrates Faulkner's gift for choosing the single word that transfoms, (in this case, 'sprayed'). Moving a few pages further on, I find this sentence in which Faulkner describes a defeated Jason 'sitting quietly behind the wheel of a small car, with his invisible life ravelled out about him like a wornout sock.'

Strikingly though, it is the very aspect that put me off all those years ago, the figure of Benjy, that I now regard as one of the finest elements of this very fine book. Faulkner draws Benjy with enormous compassion but without any sentimentality, leading us to feel real fondness for this poor unloved soul and even endowing him with a kind of dignity in his steadfast mourning of his long gone sister. Apart from her, only Dilsey shows him any affection - but even she cannot reach him. Only reminders of his sister seem to bring him any real emotional sustenance. He hangs around the golf course that has been built on the piece of land near the house that was sold to pay for Caddie's wedding and his brother's Harvard education, in order to hear his sister's name spoken when the players call out 'Caddy'. When really upset the only thing that can calm him is a shoe that belonged to Caddie,  'a white satin slipper. It was yellow now, and cracked and soiled, and when they placed it into Ben's hand he hushed for a while.' It is Benjy that Faulkner chooses to close the book with, picturing him sitting in the back of a cart, on his way to visit the cemetery, "... his eyes ... empty and blue and serene again, as cornice and facade flowed smoothly once more from left to right; post and tree, window and doorway, and signboard, each in its ordered place.'

(In some editions, a later appendix by Faulkner has been attached to the text. While it does spell out for the reader pretty much exactly what has been going on, I think it does nothing to enhance the novel. In this context, a quotation from Harold Bloom that I came across the other day, while reading an article on US military reading lists, seems relevant. Supposedly, Bloom, in The Western Canon described the culture's seminal books as possessing "strangeness, a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange" - Faulkner's work, I think, has that strangeness and unassimilable originality that Bloom refers to and his attempt to make his text less strange through his appendix is, if anything, counter-productive.)

Saturday, 14 April 2012

What I Did on My Holidays IV

I discovered a whole lot of Vermeers, quite a few of which I didn't even know existed, (I had the idea that only about 30-35 existed anywhere), lurking in the Metropolitan in New York:

 (I think this chair appears in Washington as well, see below)

 Here's what the Met has to say about this painting:
 (oddly in an auction catalogue list from only 40-odd years after it was painted, the picture is actually described, rather unfairly I think, as 'A drunken sleeping maid at a table' - and it appears to have sold for a mere 62 gelders).

Here's what the Met have to say about this one:

 I don't know why I didn't record what the Met had to say about the girl in the picture before this, but this was the wisdom on the wall for this:

and in the National Gallery in Washington:

The Girl with the Red Hat, oil on panel, 1665

Girl with a Flute, attributed to Vermeer

 (I'm sure I've seen this carving on furniture in other Vermeer paintings, including the Woman in the Red Hat just preceding this one - and yes, it turns out that the Wikipedia article on the artist quotes a Time-Life book called The World of Vermeer, by Hans Koning, thus: "Almost all his paintings are apparently set in two smallish rooms in his house in Delft; they show the same furniture and decorations in various arrangements and they often portray the same people, mostly women" - I think at last I understand the comment by Gogol or Gorky or Chekhov that I read long ago, [so long ago, I cannot remember who actually made the comment], that the whole of life can be described simply by describing the room you are sitting in.)

A Lady Writing, oil on canvas, 1665

 (if you're interested in a scholar's speculations on Vermeer's fondness for painting people writing, here is an interesting link)

I suppose everybody else already knew this, but I was astonished by how modern some of these paintings by Vermeer were - that red hat one in particular - and also by how much Bonnard must have been influenced by the artist - see, particularly that one of the dozing girl at a table, from the Metropolitan Museum. I am straying, however, into another of my shameful confessions of a visual illiterate, in which I display my 'I don't know much but I know what I like' ignorance, so at this point I'll shut up, but not before pointing anyone who might be interested towards a copy of a document showing what a bargain a Vermeer might be, were it only possible to time travel - it is to be found here - and also towards a discussion of his work that, possibly stating the bleeding obvious a bit, pinpoints Vermeer's talent for 'infusing scenes of daily life with timelessness and profundity' and comments that 'few artists can claim the consistent level of excellence that Vermeer maintained' (van Eyck, Durer and Holbein spring to mind immediately as other examples of artists who achieve something transcendent through the pursuit of intense technical excellence, and others crowd after them, but still).

(I should also mention that 'Woman Holding a Balance' was also in Washington, but it was not new to me, which is why I didn't include it here - I am fairly sure that anyone looking at this blog will be familiar enough with the image not to want to look at my second-rate pictures of it and I'd already had a good look at it last year in Munich, where it was on a summer holiday [at least, I think it was the same painting).

PS I forgot to include this Vermeer, also in the Metropolitan: