Monday, 29 February 2016

Cross Cultural Studies

In Brussels at the moment, I keep meeting people - well-meaning Swedes and earnest Germans, cheerful Italians and concerned Luxembourgeois - who express themselves surprised, a little hurt and above all mystified by the British and their apparent lack of total infatuation with "the project" (that is, the whole set of bureaucratic contraptions that are the engine of the Brussels economy - and contribute fairly generously to that of Strasbourg as well).

Generally speaking, when these kinds of foreigners find the inhabitants of the British Isles puzzling, they turn for guidance to a book called Watching the English, by Kate Fox.  However, if any of them asks me for a good handbook to Anglo-Saxon attitudes, I recommend Lost Worlds by Michael Bywater instead. Apart from anything else, it is so much more amusing than Watching the English. Actually it is one of my very favourite books.

To give just one example of what it offers, here, in a mere two or three paragraphs, while explaining the use of the phrase "old chap", Bywater provides so much insight into the English (British?  Oh lord, let's not even think about plunging into that) character:

"Chap, Old

An oddity, Old Chap; a curiously English construction, suggesting intimacy without actually suggesting intimacy. You can see why the English would need such an honorific.

To call a man 'old chap' was shorthand for what would otherwise take far too long to express. But we can try. What it, at least in part, meant was:

'What I am about to say presumes upon our acquaintance to the extent that to address you as Mister whatever-it-is would be unbecomingly stuffy. Yet I do not wish to embarrass you with a self-conscious use of your first name. The matter that I am about to raise also temporarily (it may even be permanently, but I do not want to assume that) obliterates any fine gradations of rank or differences in income between us, yet although I am addressing you as what might, to Johnny Foreigner, appear to be an equal, I am nevertheless retaining the upper hand in the conversation which is to follow. I am probably going to give you some advice, which you may find unpalatable; alternatively, I may be about to make light of something which you find serious to the point of being unbearable; or it may be that I am about to give you bad news and my old-chappery is an indication that, while I am obviously sympathetic to your plight, I most certainly do not feel your pain, and I would be frightfully obliged if you could at least give the impression of not feeling it either, or we may face the possibility of embarrassment."

I suppose it is worth pointing out, in case anyone is in any doubt, that embarrassment is an English person's very greatest fear.

Anyway, Bywater goes on to bemoan the decline of "old chap" in common usage, thus:

"How the hell can we say that, now that 'old chap' has been forever lost? We can't. And so we don't. Instead we go in for all sorts of un-Englishness - first names, sharing, emotional honesty, hugging, stuff bordering on intimacy - and then we wonder why Johnny Foreigner no longer looks up to us and the world is going to hell. Bad show. Blame the women. And that dashed Viennese fellow, said everyone wanted to have a pop at his mother, you know the fellow, trick cyclist, jabber jabber, dreams, cigars, face dropped off, won't do, old chap; won't do at all. Thin end of the wedge. Do you know what I think, old chap ... hello? Hello? Are you there? Hello ...?"

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Battered Penguins - One of the Wattle Birds by Jessica Anderson

I enjoyed this short book which tells the story of Cecily, a young woman whose mother has died and who, partly as a consequence, partly because she is growing up and the closeknit friendships of youth are beginning to dissolve, finds herself feeling increasingly alone.

Cecily is studying for university exams. The text she is studying is Morte d'Arthur by Malory. I have never read it, but I suspect it may tell of a quest and thus mirror the quest of Cecily to try to find an explanation for her mother's behaviour towards her in the months before she - the mother - died

The story is set in Sydney and there are many passages in the book that made me homesick for that lovely city. For instance, at one point Crcily is carried pillion on a motorcycle up one of those steep streets around Coogee:

"...he roared up in an absolutely straight and glorious burst, while alongside us raced an exploding strip of sun and ocean and green or rocky headland."

As well as bringing back that milieu vividly to my mind's eye, this kind of description reminds me somehow of Helen Garner's style. One might call it Australian heightened realism - except it isn't really the style that is heightened; the truth is the experience of being in Australia - something to do with the height of the sky, the size and emptiness of the country and, more than anything, the light - is itself heightened. Life there is more vivid than elsewhere, brighter, sharper - or so it seems to me ( and in answer to potential objections about excessive nationalism, I should point out that, while I miss this aspect of life often, it isn't necessarily an absolute positive; living in a heightened, brighter reality can be rather wearing after all).

I also enjoyed purely Australian touches such as describing someone as having "little hands curled over, like a kangaroo."

Actually, hands are something of a preoccupation with Cecily. As well as those kangaroo like ones,  she observes those of her Aunt Gail, (a brilliantly sketched monster of self-centredness, a person who imagines herself more successful than she really is at disguising her true nature beneath a veneer of charm):

"I look at the helpless white hands on the big wheel, at the rings on her pointed fingers."

and those of her cousin, applying hand cream, (I love this description):

"I watch Hilary's slender little hands lovingly administer to each other."

Whether this has anything to do with the identification of "high handedness" as an important force in Cecily's mother later in the story, I don't really know.

The story itself is slight. Cecily does attain her quest's object, to some extent. What holds the attention though is not the plot so much as the characterisation - most particularly Cecily, who won my affection almost instantly. - and the small vignettes along the way, such as the little scene between the surfers Shane and John, which is entirely incidental but peculiarly touching.

I remain puzzled by the role of Wil, Cecily's boyfriend, in the book. He is much admired (by Aunt Gail and the world in general), but unempathetic, not obviously imaginative or, really, sympathetic in any way that I could see.  Cecily never betrays a critical thought about him, but does have an increasingly long list of things that she has decided not to tell him. "I foresee no end to the things I won't tell Wil", she declares at the end of the book, although apparently this is not a concern to her. Her mother has stipulated in her will that Cecily can only come into part of her inheritance if she marries, which, naturally, complicates their relationship.

At one point, struck by grief suddenly, Cecily tells us:

"I want to stop under a tree and cry out that this time last year I had so much, and ask why I have been left with so little. But I can't do this, not to Wil, not only because it would be insulting, but because it would make me see myself, reflected in the mirror of Wil's principles, as disgracefully self-indulgent in view of the various deprivations around me, to say nothing of the sorrow, terror, famine, and the clash of ignorant armies in the terrible world outside. Will wants to live his life in full consciousness of that world, he genuinely does, and so would I perhaps, but whatever I do, my concerns remain narrow, and I often forget all about it."

Someone who thinks it is possible to subjugate grief about your own individual loss by remembering the misery suffered by anonymous crowds in far off countries is a clod, in my view. In any case, Wil's casual announcement that Cecily can no longer come grape picking with him and that he will be leaving her alone over the summer suggests to me that before long he will be sliding out of this relationship permanently.

It is a great achievement on the part of Anderson that she has made me believe in these characters so much that I am prepared to speculate on their future actions beyond the confines of the book in this manner - Wil, of course, won't be doing anything, because Will doesn't actually exist.  An even greater achievement is the way in which, by including tantalising glimpses of Cecily's mother, allowing her to appear very briefly and then vanish before we are ready to let her go, she creates in us a similar longing to that which burdens Cecily. The nterlude in which she talks to her father also, for me at least, very delicately and beautifully portrays the absolutely unique bond that is the one between a father and a daughter. If there is any kind of conclusion, perhaps it is contained in Cecily's father's observation during this conversation that, "You'll never know the simple verbal truth. Yet you may arrive at an answer", and in Cecily's subsequent statement, "Casually but completely, I put my trust in time."

Friday, 26 February 2016

I Robot

While my husband was out for a couple of evenings last week, I watched Shoah. Possibly not something best done on one's own.

I haven't finished yet. I'm only five and a half hours in. But the things I've learnt so far aren't quite as straightforward as I'd imagined.

In fact, I haven't exactly learnt anything. Rather, I've found myself up against questions I can't answer about moral responsibility - and I'm also growing increasingly doubtful about Edmund Burke's assertion that "the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." I think Burke grossly underestimated the force that is bad men.

Not that it is always easy to define who exactly is bad.

Before watching the film, I would probably have said that all the many individuals who contributed in one way or another to the workings of Treblinka, Auschwitz et cetera were each unequivocally evil. After all, they had allowed evil to triumph by, essentially, doing nothing. Yet, if many of them - including, most troublingly, those inmates who were spared, provided they did appalling work within the system - had struggled against the powers in charge of the camps, what difference would it actually have made? Those individuals were not faced with the chance of saving someone else by sacrificing themselves. If they had refused to cooperate, all that would have happened is that they would have gone to their deaths and others would have been drafted in to replace them. Good men would have done something, been killed, and more good men would then have been drafted in - until some of those good men thought, "What's the point?"

I don't think cooperating allowed the triumph of evil, since not cooperating stopped nothing and resulted in extra death.

To begin with, though, I did imagine that it might be possible to differentiate between the moral responsibility of the person who wrote the detailed report that is read out at one point - a report specifying exactly what modifications were needed to increase the efficiency of the trucks that were used as killing chambers early on in the war - and the moral responsibility of the person who drove the engine that took the trucks into Treblinka. The report writer, it seemed to me, was in no real danger and was coldly, calmly applying their intelligence to how to improve the killing capabilities of machinery; the engine driver, by contrast, was in immediate danger -  should he refuse to drive his engine, he would be killed and someone else would be dragged in to do the driving instead.

His refusal would prevent nothing, whereas the report writer could have deliberately made recommendations that made the machines function in such a way that they didn't work at all. But actually, as I write, I begin to have my doubts about whether even the report writer had a real choice. Almost everyone had become trapped within a depraved structure of violence. It was the architects who created that structure - (those who, using violent intimidation, imposed violent methods on an entire nation) -  who were to blame. The report writer may have been one of these willing architects - or merely a frightened cog inside the death-dealing machine.

And so the only conclusion I can reach with certainty is that it is absolutely vital to ensure that you never ever allow your country's government to fall into the hands of people who consider violence a useful tool - or, worse still, actually get satisfaction or pleasure from violence.

But, as the lesson of history seems to be that that is virtually impossible, an alternative presents itself - one that has never until now been available. If humanity is not capable of ruling itself over a sustained period without resorting to violence - and this does seem to be clear from everything that has occurred in our history thus far - then perhaps what we need to do is put non-humans in charge. If we can manage to create a generation of robots that are programmed to have as their priority never ever allowing any kind of violence, then surely they will provide us with an ideal government. At a time when politicians seem to be held in lower esteem than ever before, could my gentle robots possibly make things worse?

But then I remember that other great phenomenon so unavoidable in human affairs. It is known as the law of unintended consequences. I withdraw all further proposals. While personally I think this 1750 French mannequin might make a fine President of the United States, I cannot guarantee it. I suppose it depends on what the alternatives turn out to be:

Tuesday, 16 February 2016


I like trivia quizzes, although I rarely get the opportunity to go to them. They seem to me a really fun way to spend an evening with people you don't necessarily know particularly well or have that much in common with. You become a team, you bond - although sometimes you fall out (there's someone in Canberra who still holds a grudge against me from pre-Internet days; my sin was to to supply what  was judged to be the wrong answer on the height of Mount Ainslie [even though it was later demonstrated that the fault was not mine; the night's judges were in possession of inaccurate figures]).

Anyway, I have recently acquired two useful bits of trivia that I am going to shore up here for future use.

The first is the original name of Donetzk, the capital of the Donbas region in Ukraine. Believe it or not, it is Hughesovska. The place was named after an Irish miner called John Hughes who set up iron-smelting works there in the 1870s

My second piece of trivia is possibly not as widely intriguing as my initial one. However, I spend a bit of time in Chagford in Devon and I like Evelyn Waugh, so it interests me, which is why I'm recording it - it is that Evelyn Waugh was staying at the Easton Court Hotel, Devon in the third week of Setember, 1931.

I got that last fact from an LRB review written by Terry Eagleton about a book by DJTaylor called The Prose Factory. The piece also contains a reference to:

"a wonderful description by a friend of Virginia Woolf's who arrived at her flat to find Woolf and Edith Sitwell, between whom relations were somewhat strained, sitting on the sofa together, 'like two praying mantises putting out delicate antennae to each other.'"

A letter writer in the same issue recalls Margery Allingham's description in The Longer View of the area of London in which the LRB has its offices:

"the web of little streets which floats out like a dusty cape around the neck of the Museum."

How nice to be reminded of Allingham's gifts. Now I'm going off in search of A Longer View.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Strained Similes, Heroism and Wonderful DC George

What a huge relief it is to receive from George this memorandum written by other Proust readers - there is great comfort in the discovery that there are others in the world who find almost as little to recommend in the 'great work' as I do, (thus far):

Crawling Up Everest

Russell Baker

On July 18 the two of us set out together to read Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust. We have been reading it fairly steadily ever since, thanks to our stocked kits of smelling salts, and are determined to keep on reading until we either finish or die in the attempt.

Our first diary entries--of a Shackleton's expedition in literature--are presented below because this is a moment that cries out for public examples of heroism to remind us again of the greatness of which Americans are capable.

Few deeds can be more heroic than an attempt to read Remembrance of Things Past from beginning to end. Some persons will quarrel with this. Some will argue that true heroism lies in sitting through all of Wagner's Die Valkyrie. Others will hold that it consists in enduring a festival of Andy Hardy films. Every man has his Everest. None is so formidable as Remembrance of Things Past.

Remembrance of Things Past is longer than Everest is tall. When all seven volumes are piled together the stack is more than six miles tall. This great length is due not only to the incredible number of strained similes contained in the novel's seven voluimes, but also to the dense layers of tedium packed into almost every paragraph.

Reading it is a feat to test Hercules, Washington, Lindbergh, John Glenn or John Wayne. "Life is too short and Proust is too long," Anatole French is said to have explained when asked why he had not read it. Perhaps so.

To help in the struggle I have retained a Sherpa reader who is highly praised among his countrymen for his ability to read anything. His name is Tenzing. Once Tenzing read the inaugural address of Warren G. Harding in its entirety, and, to show that this was not a fluke, went on to read The Last of the Mohicans almost halfway through.

To protect ourselves against the temptation to cheat by skipping several volumes, we are reading aloud, every last word. The opening diary entries follow:

July 18: Would anyone believe 12,000 words about a man who had a hard time going to sleep when he was a boy? We read twenty-two pages of this before Tenzing gets ugles and say I have betrayed him by not telling him that this is a plot to bore him to death. Fortunately, I am asleep by this time and cannot take offense.

July19: Another twenty pages today. The narrator--Proust, I suppose--still couldn't get to sleep. In a sudden flurry of narrative action Proust drinks a cup of tea and eats a cookie, which remind him of his boyhood, especially an aunt and a church he associates with that age, and an inability to go to sleep.

July 20: Only six pages tonight. Proust remembers the church again and, in a plot complication, recalls a stained glass window. Tenzing revives my heartbeat with brandy after seven hours of reading the paragraph on pages forty-nine, fifty, and fifty-one. Our medical team pleads with us to turn back.

July 22: Our first crisis tonight. Lifting the book to begin, I was seized with acute indolence, which the doctors say is common in the tertiary stage of tedium gravis. It was brought on by my conviction that Proust was going to remember the church's steeple while my life ebbed away.

Recovered enough tonight to read again. Proust tells absolutely everything about a meal that was prepared when he was a boy--asparagus, chicken, potatoes, marrow, spinach, apricots, roast leg of mutton, biscuits, preserves, coffee, cream, pepper and salt, bread, butter, knives, forks, spoons, table cloth ... Tenzing says I must get a grip on myself.

July 23: Tonight we read for three weeks and finish nine pages. Proust reads in his garden and remembers veal.

July 24: Hurrah! Seventeen pages in just thirty-two hours tonight! Proust thinks of an invalid aunt and a musician who rather thinks he would like to play for some guests but is too shy to mention it.

July 25: Tenzing is in a deep depression. "That rotten Proust is going to think of the church again," he predicts at dinner. "Compared to Proust," he tells me, "Uncas, Chingachgook and Warren Harding are as much fun as Mae West." I take Tenzing to see an old Terry Thomas movie, which reminds both of us of brussels sprouts.

July 26: Refreshed by our night off, we plunge through twenty-seven pages about Proust's boyhood passion for hawthorn blossoms. Tenzing collapses in hysteria, cursing hawthorn blossoms, spinach, church steeple and stained glass windows.

Our medical team order us to take a week off. With 60,000 words behind us we have barely dented the book, but we feel heroic and American. Next week, says Tenzing, who has peeked ahead, the plot will thicken. He believes Proust is about to take a walk in the country. I already begin to look forward to it. Or is it merely anticpation of the ticker tape parade up Broadway?

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Plodding on with Proust

Inspired by this post at The Millions blog, I returned to my attempt to listen to the whole of Proust in French. I have now reached the end of Combray, which is not very good going, considering I've been at it, on and off, (mostly off, admittedly), since 2014.

What is wrong with me? I am not falling under the Proustian spell. I think he has some interesting things to reveal about memory, about individual perception, about the evanescent richness of each moment. I recognise that his attempt to articulate the whole of one individual's consciousness is, in a way, heroic, even though, or perhaps partly because, it is doomed. I presume, perhaps inspired by moving pictures, he is after what he refers to as:

la conquête de la vérité.

the conquest of truth

I recognise that he has rather bleak but not uninteresting views about the loneliness of individual existence:

On cherche à retrouver dans les choses, devenues par là précieuses, le reflet que notre âme a projeté sur elles ; on est déçu en constatant qu’elles semblent dépourvues dans la nature du charme qu’elles devaient, dans notre pensée, au voisinage de certaines idées ; parfois on convertit toutes les forces de cette âme en habileté, en splendeur pour agir sur des êtres dont nous sentons bien qu’ils sont situés en dehors de nous et que nous ne les atteindrons jamais.

We try to discover in things, endeared to us on that account, the spiritual glamour which we ourselves have cast upon them; we are disillusioned, and learn that they are in themselves barren and devoid of the charm which they owed, in our minds, to the association of certain ideas; sometimes we mobilise all our spiritual forces in a glittering array so as to influence and subjugate other human beings who, as we very well know, are situated outside ourselves, where we can never reach them.

I find an intriguing link with the modern fad of mindfulness in his conclusion that the senses are a pleasure in themselves:

... en continuant à suivre du dedans au dehors les états simultanément juxtaposés dans ma conscience, et avant d’arriver jusqu’à l’horizon réel qui les enveloppait, je trouve des plaisirs d’un autre genre, celui d’être bien assis, de sentir la bonne odeur de l’air

... I continue to trace the outward course of these impressions from their close-packed intimate source in my consciousness, and before I come to the horizon of reality which envelops them, I discover pleasures of another kind, those of being comfortably seated, of tasting the good scent on the air,

All the same, as I've complained before, he does goes on so. Also, I find him cloying. 

It is a matter of taste, of course, and perhaps I am misguided to find so much of the book overblown. Nevertheless, a writer who refers to beams of light having "golden wings" may not be my kind of writer:

un reflet de jour avait pourtant trouvé moyen de faire passer ses ailes jaunes, 

a reflection of the sunlight had contrived to slip in on its golden wings, 

If this were an isolated incident, I might be able to overlook it but the next two passages, also Proust, also from Swann's Way are for me among the most revoltingly cloying passages I have ever had to read, (or listen to) - and they are only two examples from among many:

mon ravissement était devant les asperges, trempées d’outre-mer et de rose et dont l’épi, finement pignoché de mauve et d’azur, se dégrade insensiblement jusqu’au pied — encore souillé pourtant du sol de leur plant — par des irisations qui ne sont pas de la terre. Il me semblait que ces nuances célestes trahissaient les délicieuses créatures qui s’étaient amusées à se métamorphoser en légumes et qui, à travers le déguisement de leur chair comestible et ferme, laissaient apercevoir en ces couleurs naissantes d’aurore, en ces ébauches d’arc-en-ciel, en cette extinction de soirs bleus, cette essence précieuse que je reconnaissais encore quand, toute la nuit qui suivait un dîner où j’en avais mangé, elles jouaient, dans leur farces poétiques et grossières comme une féerie de Shakespeare, à changer mon pot de chambre en un vase de parfum.

... what fascinated me would be the asparagus, tinged with ultramarine and rosy pink which ran from their heads, finely stippled in mauve and azure, through a series of imperceptible changes to their white feet, still stained a little by the soil of their garden-bed: a rainbow-loveliness that was not of this world. I felt that these celestial hues indicated the presence of exquisite creatures who had been pleased to assume vegetable form, who, through the disguise which covered their firm and edible flesh, allowed me to discern in this radiance of earliest dawn, these hinted rainbows, these blue evening shades, that precious quality which I should recognise again when, all night long after a dinner at which I had partaken of them, they played (lyrical and coarse in their jesting as the fairies in Shakespeare's Dream) at transforming my humble chamber into a bower of aromatic perfume.

Hélas, c’était en vain que j’implorais le donjon de Roussainville, que je lui demandais de faire venir auprès de moi quelque enfant de son village, comme au seul confident que j’avais eu de mes premiers désirs, quand au haut de notre maison de Combray, dans le petit cabinet sentant l’iris, je ne voyais que sa tour au milieu du carreau de la fenêtre entr’ouverte, pendant qu’avec les hésitations héroïques du voyageur qui entreprend une exploration ou du désespéré qui se suicide, défaillant, je me frayais en moi-même une route inconnue et que je croyais mortelle, jusqu’au moment où une trace naturelle comme celle d’un colimaçon s’ajoutait aux feuilles du cassis sauvage qui se penchaient jusqu’à moi. En vain je suppliais maintenant. 

Alas, it was in vain that I implored the dungeon-keep of Roussainville, that I begged it to send out to meet me some daughter of its village, appealing to it as to the sole confidant to whom I had disclosed my earliest desire when, from the top floor of our house at Combray, from the little room that smelt of orris-root, I had peered out and seen nothing but its tower, framed in the square of the half-opened window, while, with the heroic scruples of a traveller setting forth for unknown climes, or of a desperate wretch hesitating on the verge of self-destruction, faint with emotion, I explored, across the bounds of my own experience, an untrodden path which, I believed, might lead me to my death, even—until passion spent itself and left me shuddering among the sprays of flowering currant which, creeping in through the window, tumbled all about my body. In vain I called upon it now.

I would like to think the asparagus passage is actually a kind of joke. Proust is capable of being vaguely amusing, as when describing his grandmother's attitude towards sea air:

Ma grand’mère ... trouvait qu’aux bains de mer il faut être du matin au soir sur la plage à humer le sel et qu’on n’y doit connaître personne, parce que les visites, les promenades sont autant de pris sur l’air marin

My grandmother ... held that, when one went to the seaside, one ought to be on the beach from morning to night, to taste the salt breezes, and that one should not know anyone in the place, because calls and parties and excursions were so much time stolen from what belonged, by rights, to the sea-air.

Another problem for me is that I do not find Proust's apercus particularly revealing. In fact, they often puzzle me. For instance, is he right in what he says about very good people:

Quand, plus tard, j’ai eu l’occasion de rencontrer, au cours de ma vie, dans des couvents par exemple, des incarnations vraiment saintes de la charité active, elles avaient généralement un air allègre, positif, indifférent et brusque de chirurgien pressé, ce visage où ne se lit aucune commisération, aucun attendrissement devant la souffrance humaine, aucune crainte de la heurter, et qui est le visage sans douceur, le visage antipathique et sublime de la vraie bonté.

Later on, when, in the course of my life, I have had occasion to meet with, in convents for instance, literally saintly examples of practical charity, they have generally had the brisk, decided, undisturbed, and slightly brutal air of a busy surgeon, the face in which one can discern no commiseration, no tenderness at the sight of suffering humanity, and no fear of hurting it, the face devoid of gentleness or sympathy, the sublime face of true goodness.

Similarly, is it true that:

nous ne connaissons jamais que les passions des autres

it is only with the passions of others that we are ever really familiar

And, even when I do recognise that Proust has a point - the idea of flies as a kind of chamber music of summer appeals to me here for instance - I end up exasperated, because he labours his point until it is flogged to death:

... les mouches qui exécutaient devant moi, dans leur petit concert, comme la musique de chambre de l’été : elle ne l’évoque pas à la façon d’un air de musique humaine, qui, entendu par hasard à la belle saison, vous la rappelle ensuite ; elle est unie à l’été par un lien plus nécessaire : née des beaux jours, ne renaissant qu’avec eux, contenant un peu de leur essence, elle n’en réveille pas seulement l’image dans notre mémoire, elle en certifie le retour, la présence effective, ambiante, immédiatement accessible.

... the flies who performed for my benefit, in their small concert, as it might be the chamber music of summer; evoking heat and light quite differently from an air of human music which, if you happen to have heard it during a fine summer, will always bring that summer back to your mind, the flies' music is bound to the season by a closer, a more vital tie—born of sunny days, and not to be reborn but with them, containing something of their essential nature, it not merely calls up their image in our memory, but gives us a guarantee that they do really exist, that they are close around us, immediately accessible.

In addition, Proust is capable of statements that sound quite good but, when you grapple with them, reveal very little meaning. For instance, at one point he says:

...ainsi notre cœur change, dans la vie, et c’est la pire douleur 

 ...the heart changes, and that is our worst misfortune

What does he mean by heart and why is it the worst pain, (or misfortune as the translator, interestingly, has chosen to give it in English).

Despite all this, I am strangely protective of Proust's legacy. Thus, when I read in the New York Times recently the claim that David Foster Wallace had been the first writer to observe reality and note it down in intense detail, I couldn't help feeling that Proust was being pushed out of his rightful place:

Here is one of the great Wallace innovations: the revelatory power of freakishly thorough noticing, of corralling and controlling detail. Most great prose writers make the real world seem realer — it’s why we read great prose writers. But Wallace does something weirder, something more astounding: Even when you’re not reading him, he trains you to study the real world through the lens of his prose. 

I think to an extent it may have been Proust's intention and purpose to help the reader towards a more intense observation of their own existence and thus the title of literary innovator in this respect belongs to him. Sadly, he was also inclined to an overblown windy romanticism, a sentimentality that I cannot warm to - yet, at least. The concept of In Search of Lost Time was, of course, hugely original - although being original is not necessarily always a positive; if a trail has not been blazed, it might be because others have rejected it as dull or a dead end. I am not yet convinced that the execution of the concept was successful, but I will keep trying. Perhaps I should call my next post on the subject, "In search of enjoyment in the Search for Lost Time".

Friday, 5 February 2016

Four Tops Back in Vogue

'Reaching out' was the most recent of the many ghastly afflictions visited on the English language, but it seems to have been overtaken by 'journey', used to describe an experience and 'experience', used to dress up a perfectly ordinary event or state of affairs.

These things creep up. If one isn't vigilant, they even creep into one's speech and writing. It must not happen. We must always be alert to the danger.

On a lighter note, here are the Four Tops, in their heyday, using 'reach out' in a perfectly acceptable manner - that is, via the medium of song:

To take my mind off the modern world and its abuse of language - not to mention tales of banal indignity like this one:

(What will those three children feel, when they are old enough to consider the manner of their father's death, I wonder) - I have been catching up on old copies of The London Review of Books. I learned from the one dated 21 January, 2016:

1. That the question most frequently asked by visitors, according to the guards in the Prado, is:

"Was Velasquez married?"

This cheers me up so much, as it is just the kind of idiotic, irrelevant thing that I would want to know.

2. O. Henry is reported, when nearing death, to have been lying so still that nobody could be sure if he was still alive. Some bright spark in the room then said, "I know - touch his feet. No-one ever died with warm feet", at which point O.Henry is reported to have slowly raised his head and replied, "Joan of Arc did." The storyteller claims that he then died immediately, but this is apparently untrue. It doesn't mean the incident didn't happen though.

Meanwhile in a review of a book about crying in the LRB of 15 December 2015, Ferdinand Mount provides evidence for those still unconvinced that Freudian psychology is not entirely to be trusted:

"Phyllis Greenacre, an influential American Freudian, argued in the 1940s that weeping was a displacement of urination. In women, she said, it was a hangover from infantile penis envy: fits of female weeping were attempts to emulate the glories of male pissing. Breuer and Freud thought that tears could be a healthy channel for flushing out repressed memories."

I mean to say.

Or rather, someone should reach out to Phyllis. But it won't be me. 

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

2016 - Month One

The months fly by and suddenly a year has disappeared, and then another. Therefore, in an effort to get some kind of grip, in 2016 I'm going to round up each month for myself, before it completely vanishes from sight.

Back at home for a bit in Australia, I made the acquaintance of my daughter's cat, and now I wish he'd been able to come back with me to Brussels:

 He's highly intellectual, don't you know:

 I also reacquainted myself with my favourite mountain walk:
 and received a lovely bunch of flowers from a clever friend's garden:
But then I had to come back to the town of rain and bureaucrats and chips. To cheer myself up - and to give both daughters lifts to where they needed to be, I immediately leapt into my car and headed for the Eurotunnel and England.

Once there, I went to the Royal Academy and saw an exhibition of pictures by a man called Liotard. I liked his drawings best. As no pictures were allowed, I'll have to make do with this publicity one, which is of a very young Marie Antoinette: .

 Pastels were Liotard's speciality. Rather too many of his sitters seemed to have chosen clothes that were made of material dyed a dirty turqoise. Perhaps it was the fashion of the time. I became intrigued by a patron of Liotard called Lord Fawkener, who I think I will do some research on, with the view to a blog post at a later date, (if I don't forget).

I also dropped in at the National Portrait Gallery, where this caught my eye, because I hadn't thought about the men in the picture for years, (what a relief):
 Perhaps as a result, Cecil Parkinson promptly died.

I particularly liked this picture which, it turned out, was painted by an Australian, (Ozzie, Ozzie, Ozzie, Oi, Oi, Oi). His name was Henry Lamb and I think he was really only 'Australian born', but that's good enough for me:

 I did not like the look of this sandwich creation, on offer at Bristol Airport, (after Eurotunnel, I also went back again, but this time by plane, to Bristol):

Back in Brussels, where blue skies are at a premium, I went to BRAFA, a kind of Belgian sub-Frieze Masters art and antiques fair. I saw a few things I quite liked, including these:

Adrieaen van Ostade, Harlem 1610-1685, Tavern Scene, Oil on Panel

I got a taste for painted wood reliefs in Warsaw in the summer - one day I'll post my pictures from the museum there of all the ones I saw. This, together with the next picture, is called: Two Writing Bishops, it is oak, 50cm high, 34 cm wide, and is from the Antwerp School, early 16th century 

David Teniers the Younger, Farmer Family picnicking during the Harvest, Oil on Canvas, Teniers was born in Antwerp in 1610 and died in Brussels in 1690

I think this is sheep dipping, just like they do at home, all these centuries later

I love the way Teniers does not idealise people, making me feel such a bond with these figures from the past

I love the ghostly quality to this landscape background

James Ensor intrigues me - he lived most of his life in Ostend

We went down there a while back to go to his museum

The museum was closed by the time we got there, because we got sidetracked by the wonderful unchanged cafe, where Joseph Roth and Stefan Zweig used to while away their time

I'm going to go back to Ostend and go to the museum and that lovely cafe. Another blog post may or may not emerge from the trip, depending on my organisational skills

This grisly sequence gives us five of the deadly sins, 'dominated by death'

The ones on sale were Laziness, Anger, Pride, Greed, Envy and one that I can't quite think how to translate: La Luxure - oh, looked it up: Lust, of course

This really is most unappetising. One reason I find Ensor intriguing is that his work predates the First World War. These were all made in 1904. I'd always thought his horrific vision had been provoked by the disastrous early years of the 20th century, but it is almost as if he prefigured what was to happen. The obsession with death and the lack of respect for humanity was typical of artists who came later - and fully understandable in a Europe ruined by WWI, but Ensor seems to have sensed something coming - or simply been a misanthrope.

This is the Rue du Bon Secours in Brussels. I must go to see if I can find it. I wonder if some EU grandee had the whole thing knocked down so that Jacque Delors House could be built - or Willy Brandt conference hall or whatever, eurgh

Typical Ensor - 'Skeletons Trying to Get Warm', 1895, signed and dated in pencil, the caption helpfully tells us in English, but only gives the medium in French: 'eau-forte', which, it turns out is 'etching'

This is 'The Soldiers', and so is the next one. Both are etchings, both made in 1888. I was intrigued by being able to make a comparisonbetween the black one and the hand-coloured one

This and the next two are of a building in a street called Anspacht in Brussels. I think it is a big hotel on the corner of what is at the moment, courtesy of the Green Party, a pedestrianised street. Ths is dry point engraving, made in 1888, and again I was interested by the varying colour treatments

This is titled simply The Cathedral and was made in 1886. It is startlingly detailed. Ensor must have had a very steady hand, if a rather peculiar imagination. It is very strange that these, which remind me of George Grosz a bit, were made so much earlier than his things. 

 I also went to a concert at Flagey. It was one of those rare concerts where they don't make you swallow something awful, like musical medicine, before you're allowed to hear the things you love. Instead, we had Haydn, followed by Mendelssohn and ending with Beethoven. We did have to endure the conductor explaining everything to us beforehand, but they did give us, amazingly, food and drink at interval - which, given the tickets were 26 Euro, was extremely good value, and meant I didn't have to cook a meal when we got home:
What an exciting month that was. These are, of course, but a few highlights - and I haven't even got on to films and plays and things. Enough, though, I think, is enough, for now.

Monday, 1 February 2016

Egg and Ajax

If I say I was more upset to hear that Terry Wogan had died than to hear that David Bowie had, I suppose I will lose any shred of street cred I may ever have had, (as I never had any anyway, that doesn't really matter, of course)*.

But Wogan appealed to me more. I think that was probably because he was funny. Humour is never as highly valued as it should be - if it were, Peter Cook and Shelley Berman might have shared a Nobel Prize.

Anyway, for some reason the broadcast I always remember from Terry Wogan was nothing especially outstanding, just one episode in a running sequence in which male listeners' shared their tips for coping with life whenever the wife went away and they had to fend for themselves, (and, in describing this set up, I am struck by the loss of innocence that has come about since - where was the outrage at the assumptions built into that scenario: assumptions about wives, about gender and  cooking arangements, and, indeed, about gender and marriage [and on and on and on, swing wide the floodgates, let the rage begin]).

Anyway, the anecdotes weren't all that funny, but it was the way they were told -  the tone of Wogan's voice, the inflection and rhythm he gave to the sentences and so forth - that made them appealing. Thanks to these qualities, I've never forgotten how one gentleman claimed that he always mixed in a bit of ajax to the scrambled egg mixture so as to make the horrible job of scouring the saucepan easier at the end of the cooking process, (no, I don't think he really did this either, but there was a nice absurd illogical logic to the proposition), while another, who had one of those ovens they used to make that had a grill section above the stove top, would put the toast into the griller and then a saucepan containing milk for his cup of coffee on top of the griller. The milk would warm up there, as the top of the griller always got hot because of the flame on its underside. Anyway, the listener claimed he did this because, when, as inevitably happened, he forgot the toast and it began to burn and then burst into flame, at the same moment the milk would boil over and dowse the fire.

No, it doesn't actually sound all that funny. It wasn't, on the face of it. But that just goes to show how gifted Wogan was.

There was something very comforting in Wogan's wry and seemingly unaggressive attitude to the world. He was definitely comical - I like the way he clowns falling over here, (not to mention the idiotic hat):

and, judging by appearances at least, he was a most likeable man. Sadly, the likeable do not necessarily last the longest. What a very great shame.

*I should add, by the way, that I am not at all happy that David Bowie died - in fact, annoyingly, it is his death that has led me to look at some videos about him and realise, too late, that he was a pretty interesting man.