Saturday, 31 January 2009

British Library

The end of a comically awful week, leavened by a few highpoints. It's been a week in which I have missed every train, tube or bus I've tried to get on by five to ten seconds - consistently - been crapped on by a pigeon, and lost or broken various essentials, including my phone and glasses. Mercury must be retrograde.

Aside from having to pay an enormous bill unexpectedly - over half my monthly salary - the chief lowlight of the week has been my encounter with our national treasure house of accumulated wisdom, The British Library.

I went down from Cambridge to King's Cross on Tuesday, after teaching Scéla Muicce Meic Dathó in the morning, and presented myself at Reader Registration with a bill and my passport. The bill was a formal statement of my college account at 'Porterhouse', clearly showing that I was a Fellow of the college, resident therein, with my address and college phone number clearly stated on official paper. (As I live in, I don't have any recent utility bills.)

I queued up, and eventually came face to face with the greasy man on the front desk. As so often with officials of any stripe, he used the sing-song, MIS-stressed proNUNCiations characteristic of British Rail platform announcements, and presided over the queuing would-be readers with obvious distaste, as though they were an scraggly assemblage of Margate dole-scammers and junkies.

- [sizing me up] 'And why do you want to use the British Library?'
- 'Well, um, I'm an academic researcher at Cambridge, and there's a particular 16th century Welsh MS held here that I need to examine to complete a book I'm writing.'
- [sceptical look and pitying smile] 'And have you checked in the catalogue that we DO actually have that particular MS, here at the British Library?'

At this point I wish I'd said something like: 'No. I believe it's actually held in the enfer of the Bibliothèque nationale, but I simply assumed that you had a dear little choo-choo train that goes under the Channel and which would bring it straight to my desk.'

What I actually said was, 'Yes. Of course I did', in a puzzled tone, because the idea that a professional scholar (as my documentation clearly showed me to be) might just troll down to ask for an unusual manuscript simply on the off-chance that the BL would have a copy was so bizarre.

Greasy man then huffed a bit, glanced at my papers, and announced in a condescending tone that they were unacceptable, because I had brought an invoice rather than a bill, and I was kicked to the kerb. Silently screaming, I left, counted to fifty, then queued up again to ask whether bank-statements were acceptable. I really, really needed to see that MS that day.

I reached the front of the queue again, and saw a different official. Greasy bald man saw me speaking to said official and hollered over the room to his colleague: 'I've already said no to that one.' No, print-offs from a branch were not acceptable.

Duly depersonalised in this fashion ('that one'), I left the BL and remonstrated down the phone with various friends whilst standing in the piazza. ('Piazza can be slippery', announced signs. 'Can she?', I thought. 'Not half so slippery as her colleagues.')

I then went up to Oxford and delivered a not very good seminar to the postgrads the next day, which was embarrassing as I'd been asked to speak by my former supervisor. Having to spin the material I'd planned to use up in half an hour to an hour's length was unpleasant, and I made at least one glaring translation error because I was tired and annoyed.

And, reader, can you guess the coda to this story?

Yesterday, I went back to the BL. I took bank-statements, but also exactly the same documents that I had brought along on Tuesday. The greasy jobsworth was not there, and the bank-statements proved unnecessary, as I had suspected they would be. After I had demonstrated that I was a research fellow at Cambridge, with proof of address and academic status, and with ID, I was set up within ten minutes with a three year renewable pass and told I could order up my precious MS as soon as I liked.

By which time, of course, it was too late.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Daphne into Laurel

I had an awful sequence of violent dreams last night, ending with one where I was being hunted by a pack of hounds through a lushly wooded pastoral landscape, and ended up cowering in a cleft in the ground by a river. This, I fear, is what happens if one reads too much Ovid; or perhaps my Unconscious was taking my blog title too literally.

I can see the landscape of the dream with absolute clarity in my mind, and have just gone to google it - before realising that you can't (yet) google images that are solely inside your head. Imagine putting an electric hairnet on and being able to get a search engine to bring up the images from last night's dreams!

Talking of Ovid, I am reminded of how I was awed as a child by Bernini's fantastically cinematic Apollo and Daphne in the Galleria Borghese, with its astonishing tension between sudden rootedness and sweeping, propulsively fluid energy:

As though caught in freezeframe, Daphne becomes the figurehead of a ship's prow which is also herself, breasting a wave of metamorphosis. A visual paradox: she is never going to move again, but she looks at this final moment as though she is about to take off into the air. She seems most in movement just before being stilled forever. I was fascinated by the way the delicate leaves burst from her fingers, and how Bernini manages to depict her enclosing within a slippery, organic sheath of bark. A sculptor who could believably depict the texture of bark covering over human skin could have done anything. She shrieks in fear and ecstasy as she becomes something else, something non-human, from the inside out and from the ground up. How different it is from Pollaiulo's painting of the same scene, done 150 years or so previously:

Apollo, here in the guise of a modish young Florentine, looks like he's going to run smack into her trunk and break his nose. The image of course has enormous charm - who could resist Daphne's smug smile? - but those two absurd arm-branches make her look like an arboreal cheerleader, and the painting's still-medieval flatness constrasts poorly with the dramatic helical swirl of Bernini's figures.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Olson...and on....and on...

I am not, normally, an impatient reader; the ever-expanding nature of my book-pile is motivated by the quaint piety that all those books which people tell you are worth reading probably are. But sometimes a particular volume weighs heavily upon the reader, in both the physical and the literal senses, and The Collected Poems of Charles Olson , at 675 pages in hardback, is one such. Excluding Olson's greatest work, the unfinished Maximus Poems (published separately in a volume of similar heft), The Collected Poems form nearly 700 pages of - strange paradox - iridescent dullness.

I'd not heard of Olson (1910-1970) until I'd finished my English degree. In literary terms, he was the last of the great first-wave American modernist poets that included Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, and his work forms a link between the impenetrable tedium of Pound's Cantos and the tedious impenetrability of Ashberry's Flow Chart. He was fearsomely learned, a chronic alcoholic, and, at 6'7", nearly a giant (but not, as the Los Angeles Times hilariously assures us, 'literally...a behemoth'.) At Olson's funeral, Alan Ginsberg trod on the coffin-lowering pedal accidentally whilst saying kaddish for him, and the poet's coffin lurched and got jammed half in, half out of the grave. (What a way to go. The man knew how to make an exit.)

Olson is acknowledged to have produced one 'great' poem, 'The Kingfishers', with its Heraclitean opening line 'What does not change / is the will to change.' It bored me rigid. However, over the years, I've learned the art of stepping back from my own snap-judgements about poems and poets; my undergraduate English essays, on the other hand, were usually just exercises in articulating those instinctive snap-judgements with precision and justifying them with a bit of well-placed explication de texte. However, only occasionally have I completely changed my mind.

Olson is fond of the usual Poundian topoi: shoehorning bits of foreign languages into the lines, fragmentation, classical allusion and bricolage, a certain hermetic or ideogrammatic obscurity. Take this section from 'The Kingfishers':

that other conqueror we more naturally recognise
he so resembles ourselves

But the E
cut so rudely on that oldest stone
sounded otherwise,
was differently heard

as, in another time, were treasures used:

(and, later, much later, a fine ear thought
a scarlet coat)

- and so on. Guy Davenport made a brave attempt at interpreting this kind of thing in his essay 'Olson' in the excellent The Geography of the Imagination, part of which amounts to a section-by-section commentary on the poem. That rudely-cut E turns out to be a mysterious incised letter on the omphalos or navel-stone at Delphi, about which Plutarch wrote in the Moralia. (I should have read Sir Thomas Browne more carefully, it seems.)

Allusions to Mao, the meeting of east and west in pre-Conquest Mexico, the nest-building habits of the kingfisher of the title, cybernetics, Pound's conception of history - all are deftly unpicked by Davenport from the poem's elusive textures. The 'ideogram' of the kingfisher, looked at one way, is an emblem of culture and its cyclical triumphs and horrors; turned another way, it is a symbol of non-human nature. Davenport writes:

Men (and history), then, are both discrete and continuous; the kingfisher's history, for instance, is continuous (and eventless), evolution being a process by which all advantageous feedback is built henceforth into the design. Human culture is discrete, discontinuous: this is the subject of Pound's Cantos and the concern of most historians after Vico and Michelet. Nature phasing out the Brontosaurus was adjusting a totality of ecological design; the fall of Alexander's empire was tragedy.

Fine. Davenport then reduces the poem to some cogent ponderables: 'Does meaning drain from art, for instance, 'when the attentions change?' Is Mayan culture lost to us forever, like the meaning of the E on the Delphic navel stone? Is there really a feedback operative in history, so that men learn from history?' He goes on to say, alarmingly, that this tricky, allusive, and windy poem, which at moments glitters with flashes of lyric beauty and at others knuckles along with all the charm of a piece of Windows software documentation, is 'rich material for classes in schools'. If 'schools' has the American sense 'Universities', yes, I can see that, but if not, then I would have liked to have watched Davenport introducing truculent teenagers to modern poetry using 'The Kingsfishers'. If anyone could have done it, he could.

Olson produced a number of good little lyrics, some veering oddly between the delicate pre-Raphaelite voice of HD and a Ginsbergian beat laxity. Compare two poems on facing pages. First:

the dogwood comes out yellow
& then flares white
it is so, with each spring
of my soul, the body first
and then, the flare
my body is my soul as
dogwood is yellow
& then white

and then:

right in my eye the west sun zing saying
level glance dig man I'm setting what are you
doing today

I don't think either of these are especially good, but the first I think is better, and would not seem out of place were it by Seferis. Some are playfully clever, like this weird fusing of Blake and Freud in the voice of an uncanny, larval infant (no typo involved, by the way):

Sut Lovingood

papa eats bread
mama eats danderlions
and the worm
am at the end of it

The poem and the line are erratic in Olson, but he can do a great three words. 'The Kingfishers' ends, in Eliotic fashion:

        I pose you your question:

shall you uncover honey / where maggots are?

        I hunt among stones.

This is good, dense stuff: the image of course is of the bougonia, the idea (referred to by Greek authors such as Philetas and Nicander, and, famously, by Virgil in the fourth Georgic) that a swarm of bees could be induced to grow from nothing in the flesh of a pulped ox. (A related idea occurs in Judges 14, in which Samson finds a swarm of bees in the carcass of a lion.) But we moderns know, of course, that the legend must have arisen from the phenomenon of animal corpses blown with flies, whose buzzing might have been mistaken for that of bees. Ancient and modern, legend and fact, are encapsulated in a riddle, reminiscent of the one posed by Samson in the same chapter of Judges about his find of honey. Davenport, as it happens, sees these lines as a riposte to Pound's Canto LXXIV, in which the 'dead bullock' eaten by maggots is Mussolini's corpse, strung up by the heels at Milan. Thus - can anything be reclaimed from the morass of history, from the wreckage of a war-sapped world? Can spiritual and aesthetic renewal be found, and sweetness come forth from strength? Olson hunts the stone fragments of the archaic past for stones that may also be bones, or eggs, or cells, or gems.

I sense about the Collected Poems a kind of fetishisation of his own work on Olson's part - but this may be to do with George Butterick's editing. (If ever a poet would be better served by a 'Selected' rather than a 'Collected', it would be Olson). The sheer heft of the book gives the misleading impression of a body of work that is uniform in all directions, that presents as undifferentiated a texture when read through from front to back as it would if you sawed through it horizontally with a breadknife. The size means that much of what the casual reader comes across is simply not much good. Take this self-contained poem on p. 494, for example:

All pink from the bath she slept
while he ate from the second joint of turkey
with pretzels and grapejuice in the

We could all find something to say about this if we really had to, but it's what I think of as celery-poetry, in which, as supposedly with the calorific content of celery, the effort required to get any nourishment out is more than the eventual return one gets from said nourishment. I'm reminded of something Camille Paglia said about scouring contemporary poetry for her recent Break, Blow, Burn, along the lines that, these days, the overall body of work of a particular poet is sometimes impressive, but that the strong, stand-alone individual poem is hard to find. Quite so. The impression that Olson's Collected Poems leaves me with is one of a curious inarticulacy: an odd thing for a poet. The focus is too close: it gives the reader eye-strain. Much of it is too like the stuff one scribbles on the back of a beer-mat when inspiration strikes. (I woke up recently to find I had written on the bedside pad:

      below the tonguestone
      milk burrs bolted
copses latched with rot

among cresses
      and worts


root for the frost


Which was drivel I wrote in my sleep but is frankly indistinguishable from much of Olson's oeuvre.)

On the other hand, sometimes we find the pleasingly-pharaonic likes of this little personal pyramid text:

King of the Wood
King of the Dead

die in the grain
waste away
in the water

come over
the horizon
to come forth
from the earth

a ramp
is trodden for you
to Orion where he lies
with his eyes out

Davenport concludes that Olson is a poet who wanted us to pay attention; a kind of Antiwhitman, 'a prophet bard crying bad weather ahead'. Maybe. But I felt, reading through a large chunk of these Collected Poems, that these were works which were dragging their potential parodies behind them, like a cat guiltily drags a dead rabbit in through the catflap. I always feel the same about Frank O'Hara (a better poet than Olson): it would be easy to write a pastiche that could be slotted neatly into the poet's oeuvre and never be found in the least out of place. Too easy, perhaps, to really consider the poet's voice strong.

To contrast an American poet with an English one, Geoffrey Hill has said on numerous occasions that he does not consider his poetry to be 'difficult', and that he assumes the reader's alert intelligence. Olson, in contrast, seemed to assume the reader's endless forbearance. But in truth it must be said that there are very few poets who can manage to command consistent interest in the reader over nearly 1400 pages (if one counts the Maximus Poems as well), and Charles Olson, alas, is not, for this reader at least, among their number.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

This Mortal Coil

Liz Frazer of the Cocteau Twins sings Tim Buckley's 'Song to the Siren', as part of the 'gothic dream-pop collective' This Mortal Coil. It's absolutely beautiful, and her characteristically blurred diction actually (I think) adds an effective, mysterious, hazy quality. Every third word sounds like it's in Norwegian.

And here is Lisa Gerrard, also as part of This Mortal Coil, in a song called 'Waves Become Wings'; the video starts with a tracking shot of some extraordinary bejewelled mosque. Then we have the Ganges, St Peter's, and an orthodox monastery. This inside of my head sounds a bit like this.

Aetates Mundi

I'm teaching Ovid this week. I sent my students off with the start of the Metamorphoses in Latin, in Golding's 1567 translation ('The xv. Bookes of P. Ouidius Naso, entytuled Metamorphosis, translated oute of Latin into English meeter ') and in the version from Ted Hughes' Tales from Ovid. 'What' (I intoned) 'kind of beginnings do these make?' We shall see what they come up with.

It occurred to me in passing that there is no 'canonical' translation of the Metamorphoses in the same way that Dryden's Aeneid and Pope and Chapman's respective Homers are masterpieces of English literature in their own right. I suppose Golding's translation is the nearest we have: it was the English Ovid known by Spenser and Shakespeare, and its jolly, ballad-like fourteeners give it a certain propulsive, ironic energy which fits Ovid fairly well:

Of shapes transformde to bodies straunge, I purpose to entreate,
Ye gods vouchsafe (for you are they ywrought this wondrous feate)
To further this mine enterprise. And from the world begunne,
Graunt that my verse may to my time, his course directly runne
Before the Sea and Lande were made, and Heaven that all doth hide,
In all the worlde one onely face of nature did abide,
Which Chaos hight, a huge rude heape, and nothing else but even
A heavie lump and clottred clod of seedes togither driven,
Of things at strife among themselves, for want of order due.
No sunne as yet with lightsome beames the shapelesse world did vew,
No Moone in growing did repayre hir hornes with borowed light.
Nor yet the earth amiddes the ayre did hang by wondrous slight
Just peysed by hir proper weight. Nor winding in and out
Did Amphitrytee with hir armes embrace the earth about.
For where was earth, was sea and ayre, so was the earth unstable,
The ayre all darke, the sea likewise to beare a ship unable.

The 'rattling fourteener' is of course a meter with a notoriously unstable relationship with poetic seriousness, as Shakespeare knew well when he cast the rude mechanicals' play in A Midsummer Night's Dream - a story out of Ovid in one of Shakespeare's most Ovid-suffused plays - in them.

I wondered also whether we might be able to classify cultural periods by dominant epics: The English 1590s strike me as a very distinctly Ovidian time, as does the present. Virgil came much more strongly into focus in the second half of the 1600s, as he did in the first half of the last century also (Eliot's championing of the Aeneid in 'Virgil and the Christian World' (1951), Hermann Broch's Der Tod des Vergils), whereas Romanticism was yoked to Homer's star. One of the prime characteristics of the epic genre is the idea that the heroic poem sums up and enfolds an entire national culture: Mycenaean Greece (Homer), Augustan Rome (Virgil), the Iberian voyages of discovery (Camões), and - outside the main tradition - Iron Age heroic culture in Ireland (the Táin Bó Cúailnge), the mythic world of the Finns (the Kalevala), and so on.

This is easy enough to maintain when one focuses only on the mainsprings of the genre, but it ignores the sheer quantity of epic poetry that was churned out in antiquity. From the 5th century BC there were epics praising living individuals, epics of recent history, and didactic epics on philosophical or scientific subjects; the Middle Ages and Renaissance also produced a vast number of works that could lay claim to the title (Prudentius' Psychomachia, Petrarch's Africa, Walter of Chatillon's Alexandreis.)

If there's any key to the epic genre, it has to be Virgil: for the simple reason that in the Aeneid Virgil drew in some wise upon almost everything that had gone before him since Homer, and no one after Virgil could ignore the Aeneid. The poem is a kind of pinch in the generic hourglass, into which everything which went before poured, and from which everything which came after flowed. I proffer Virgil as the key figure here rather than Homer, because 'Homer' (whoever he, she or they were) was shadowed by his contemporary Hesiod, whose Theogony, Works and Days, and the misattributed Eoiae or 'Catalogue of Women', acted as a kind of alternative source of tradition to later epic poets. (Hesiod was taken as something of a poetic father by the poets of the Alexandrian school, especially Callimachus, who were attracted to the example he provided of shorter, discontinuous and didactic hexameter poems.) So the epic tradition was from the beginning bifurcated.

By suggesting the idea of ages named after the dominant epics, I don't necessarily mean that each period should feature a literal revival of interest in a particular poet (though, as I see it, this often occurs), but that the character of each age might be seen to fit with one better than the others.

Ovidian: bewildering multiplicity, variegation, polyphony and interlace, a taste for the play of shifting surfaces, ironic disjunctions, distancing and coolness, self-delighting urbane wit, the erotic, the lurid, the bizarre and grotesque, liquefaction and the dissolution of form, a certain religious scepticism

Virgilian: stately grandeur, unity, a sense of cultural belatedness held in tension with increasing cultural self-confidence, a certain melancholy, a consciousness of the oppressive weights of past and future, a growing centralised imperial power, the megalopolis, a sense of higher destiny operative behind politics, 'the West' as a given good, vast shapes glimpsed obscurely through shadows and twilight, Christianity, Rome rather than Greece

: a return to the beginning, periods of cultural self-refreshment and the exploration of archaic origins, periods of dissatisfaction with modernity and 'the City', the individual, bright light and clear sightlines, 'the shining now', dubiousness about excessive cultural polish, a taste for primitivism and an idealised paganism, Greece rather than Rome

It's quite fun turning historical periods over in one's mind and trying to decide which category they fall under: perhaps the truth is that all three modes are always operative at once, and that the dominance of one necessarily constellates the others to challenge and balanced it. It might also be worth asking whether the 'Homeric' needs to be split into Iliadic and Odyssean modes (after all, the Greeks saw the two poems are the ultimate templates and origins of tragedy and comedy, respectively), and whether Lucan's silver Latin counter-epic the Pharsalia is important enough to warrant a separate 'Lucanian' (but not, heavens help us, 'Lacanian') category.

Monday, 12 January 2009

'A festering mass of unnameable putrescence...'

Having finished my yearly New Year reread of M. R. James and friends, I looked restlessly for something else a little bit creepy for those chilly evenings in. And before I knew it, I found myself in that unholy aisle of Borders that contains the Stephen Kings, etc. - the kind of books that have the author's name embossed on them in metallic colours, as my friend Ian would note witheringly. Feeling like Father Ted trapped in the department store lingerie section, or like a middle-aged man about to be caught looking at pornography, I realised I just had to get something and get the hell out of there.

Reader, I ended up with H. P. Lovecraft.

That night, I lay in the bath and entered 'a nightmare world of hellish horror.' No, nothing to do with the crawling, tentacled monstrosities or the suppurating corpses Lovecraft litters about the place, but the prose, oh God in heaven, the prose! It was like stepping into a twilight zone in which there exists a verb 'to night' ('the nighted city'), where one can not only say 'audient' for 'listening', but in which one can actually write phrases like 'the cosmic majesty of this dripping Babylon of elder daemons!' It was, as my old tutor at Oxford would have said, 'A. Vertiiiiginous. Mise. En. Abîme.' Frequently Lovecraft - who was a child prodigy - seems either not to know or not to care about what the words he uses actually mean. Take this wholly-representative sample from 'The Call of Cthulhu':

The aperture was black with a darkness almost material. That tenebrousness ['tenebrousness'! - I ask you] was indeed a positive quality; for it obscured such parts of the inner walls as ought to have been revealed, and actually burst forth like smoke from its aeon-long imprisonment, visibly darkening the sun as it slunk away into the shrunken and gibbous sky on flapping membranous wings. The odour arising from the newly opened depths was intolerable, and at length the quick-eared Hawkins thought he heard a nasty, slopping sound down there. Everyone listened, and everyone was listening still when It lumbered slobberingly into sight and gropingly squeezed Its gelatinous green immensity through the black doorway into the tainted outside air of that poison city of madness.

There's a kind of genius in being able to write this badly, to be so utterly hag-ridden by one's own literary tics. The misuse of words engenders precisely that niggling irritation one experiences on trying to read a laptop instruction manual translated from the original Korean by a Japanese rice-husker. The sky, for example, cannot be 'gibbous' ('characterised by convexity, protuberant') - Lovecraft means 'wan' or 'nearly half in shadow', and has clearly misunderstood the phrase 'a gibbous moon'. Deliciously, 'gibbous' in the sense of 'swelling, protuberant' is very close to being the antonym of the other adjective Lovecraft foists upon the sky, namely 'shrunken'. The whole passage is a study in mixed metaphor - is the darkness escaping from the doorway physical or not? In the first sentence it's only 'almost material', but a few lines later, it has absurdly developed 'membranous wings', like a horde of bats. Can someone be 'quick-eared' by analogy with being 'quick-witted', as opposed to natural English 'sharp-eared'? (And how different from Herbert's exquisite, delicate, 'quick-ey'd Love'). Why capitalise the pronouns referring to the monstrous being?! Given the context, it can't be to evoke a kind of Jehovah-esque ineffability. One senses that Lovecraft feels obscurely, like a five year old, that things which are very big deserve capital letters. Finally, why say 'slobberingly' and 'gropingly' instead of 'slobbering' and 'groping'? He means 'to lumber whilst slobbering', etc, which requires a present participle, not 'to lumber in a slobbering manner', which is difficult to imagine. And as for the 'poison city of madness', words simply fail me.

One could be generous, and say that Lovecraft here is deforming the vocabulary and syntax of the English language, warping it with paradoxical half-meanings, in order to convey mind-deranging horror. Or, alternatively, we could just acknowledge that this is lurid hackery, designed for the anthologies of 'Weird Tales' which so pleased adolescents of the 20s and 30s.

After having read about five of the stories, I could take no more of their squeaking, febrile hysteria, and turned for refreshment to Angela Carter's criticism. (Oh, to have been an English PhD student back before the vultures got to Carter! She is a sinister jewel.) In 1975, Carter wrote a hilarious dissection (a very Lovecraftian word, there) of Cthulhu and his ilk - which she terms 'a bizarre cosmogony full of ambivalent deities with names that look like typing errors.' The article is called 'The Hidden Child' - am I right to detect a whiff of Dostoyevsky's dreadful scapegoat psychomyth in The Brothers Karamazov? - and is both acute and radiantly merry, as women often are when confronted with the mucky-mindedness of men. ('He loses control of himself completely when confronted with a charnel house.') Carter notes his omnipresent racism, his pashes on Hitler and Mussolini, and brilliantly observes that evil for Lovecraft is an aesthetic quality; not for him Arendt's banality of evil. Evil is rather 'a visible ghastliness', something that is, not something that is done. Hence his hybrid, entrail-faced monstrosities, his unspeakable slimes, the obsessional necrophagy of his stories, going on literally ad nauseam. Brilliantly (because Carter was not one to hide her light under bushels of any kind) she overgoes his efforts, and proffers a Lovecraftian tale of her own:

One could write a very Lovecrafty tale about the arrival at his door late, very late, one night of a (preferably) demented student clutching in his hand an actual copy of the dreaded Necronomicon of the mad Arab, Abdul Alhazred, bound in human skin, stolen from the enfer of the Bibliothèque Nationale and brought triumphantly to the Maestro of the Twisted Nerve, who has so often mentioned it.

Shocked horror of the master, who never thought the vile thing existed. Has he
thought the vile abomination into existence? Or did it always exist, has he always been unconsciously quoting it? Opening the pages with trembling fingers, he discovers cryptic marginalia on time-stained pages, penned centuries ago in what fearful city, yet, unmistakably, in his own handwriting.

Game, set and match to Carter, who has here demonstrated casually in the course of a brief review that had she set out to be H. P. Lovecraft, she would have done a much better job of it than Lovecraft himself. It may be said that this scenario is very Borgesian, and indeed Carter proposes an 'odd stylistic resemblance' between the two which I otherwise quite fail to see.

Carter ends her review with a spectacularly insightful analysis of the Horrid in literature as essentially rooted in childhood, 'with its polymorphously perverse imaginings; its wild, inconsolable fears; its terror of darkness, of loneliness; its hatred of strangers...Its ability to contruct elaborate mythologies out of the cracks in the crazy paving or the pattern on the wallpaper. Fear of cold. Weakness. Clawing, screaming temper-tantrums. Self-abuse, old wives' tales. A Hobbesian and terrible place.'

Quite so. My only objection to Carter's magnificently throwaway piece would be that having read it misled me into picking up one of Lovecraft's wretched volumes in that aisle in Borders. Her own sparkling self-delight underplays Lovecraft's essential, unavoidable...crapness. He might indeed have been reciting poetry at the age of two, and have read the whole of The Arabian Nights by five; but three pages of Angela Carter at her witty best are better than anything Lovecraft came up with in a lifetime.

* * *

A. Carter, 'The Hidden Child', Shaking a Leg: Collected Journalism and Writings (London, 1997), pp. 443-7.
H. P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu and Other Stories (Harmondsworth, 2002).

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

The Game of Liff: Things to Make and Do

In The Meaning of Liff, John Lloyd and the late Douglas Adams came up with the delightful idea of taking placenames and defining them as though they were ordinary lexical items. The fun of it is that the names and the definitions have to fit, to feel right. For example:

The marks left on your bottom or thighs after sunbathing on a wickerwork chair.

A margate is a particular kind of commissionaire who sees you every day and is on cheerful Christian-name terms with you, then one day refuses to let you in because you've forgotten your identify card.

The infinite smugness of one who knows they are entitled to a place in a nuclear bunker.

There's also the striking FARDUCKMANTON (n. archaic), or 'An ancient edict, mysteriously omitted from the Doomsday Book, requiring that the feeding of fowl on village ponds should be carried out equitably', and the delightful HARBOTTLE (n.), 'A particular kind of fly which lives inside double glazing.'

The definitions, available online here, are so brilliant because behind their authoritative, pastiche-dictionary tone, you can sense the drunken, studenty, 20-30 something lifestyle the authors were living at the time breaking through. Why else would they need words like AASLEAGH (n.), 'A liqueur made only for drinking at the end of a revoltingly long bottle party when all the drinkable drink has been drunk.' (Reader, I have drunk such. I can assure you that Chinese lychee liqueur is the aasleagh par excellance.) Ditto a HAGNABY (n.), that is, 'Someone who looked a lot more attractive in the disco than they do in your bed the next morning.'

Ranging from the wistful to the risqué via the cod-antiquarian, The Meaning of Liff is ideal reading for the lav. It also provides an excellently useful game for long car journeys, with extra marks available if you can forge a literary quotation showing how the word is used:

Driver: 'Right, I've just seen a sign for the village of Idstone.'
You: 'Ahem. 'IDSTONE (n, medical): A crystalline body formed in the liver traditionally associated with persons of a choleric disposition. ''The Archdeacon is in one of his fiery rages again', said Mrs Willoughton. 'Bless me, but he will surely suffer from a recurrence of the idstones that did so torment him last Shrovetide, the poor soul!'' (Trollope, The Dean's Small Bequest)

So, here are some to try:

Stoke Ferry

Have a go!

Friday, 2 January 2009


-- The Woman in Black

Sorry to keep giving you recommendations for things to watch, but nip over to the BBC iPlayer site for Mark Gatiss' Crooked House, a bloody terrifying - and very amusing - Christmas homage to M. R. James and Hammer Horror. It's also only available for another 24 hours.

The blurb tells us:

When schoolteacher Ben unearths an old door-knocker in the garden of his new home, the curator suggests it may come from the now-demolished house, reputed to be haunted.

Ben prompts the curator to tell him stories about the house's past: a corrupt Georgian businessman finds something unexpected in the woodwork of his new home, while a 1920s young couple's happy engagement party is spoiled by the spectre of a ghostly bride.

Back in the present, Ben finds himself in dark and dangerous waters.

I watched it alone, in the dark, and as a result passed a somewhat fretful night, so be warned if you are of a nervous disposition.

* * *

I'm a great fan of the so-called 'English Ghost Story' - I'm sure hundreds of PhDs have been written on the tradition, but it might be something for a slim volume at some point in the future. I'm especially interested in the fact that, like the detective novel, the classic ghost story is a strange paradox: it depends on surprise, the unexpected, and yet its conventions are highly specific. Indeed, quite often one can see the outline of the story snaking out in front of you from the first line, which provides a great deal of the delicious pleasure of following the plot to its ambiguous conclusion.

I'm of the opinion that M. R. James's superb ghost stories in particular provide very practical career advice for the prim, timid Oxbridge don. For example, if looking over unusual papers in, say, the library of a provincial cathedral, be sure to get home before it gets dark, and if you should glimpse glowing red eyes or hear eldritch howling by the Chapterhouse, go the other way. A working knowledge of the more sinister parts of the Bible is to be recommended, especially the bits about lamiae, satyrs, Lilith, that kind of affair. Avoid Felixstowe, and the East Anglian coast in general. Do not under any circumstances buy unusual manuscripts from continental gentlemen, especially if the seller seems anxious to get rid of them and/or insists that you accept a crucifix with your new purchase. Furthermore, never touch the disturbingly-carved snuffbox/binoculars/fob-watch of your host, the country squire with a reputation for necromantic experiments; and if your homely auberge near Toulon features loathsome stenches, sudden chills or whiffs of brimstone, then scarper, pronto. Given that I am a prim, timid Oxbridge don, I have taken this advice to heart. I have no desire, you see, to be sitting at high table, white-haired at 35 and trembling when I pass the port, whilst the Regius Professor of Greek scoffingly asks me to recount the story of my encounter with the hideous ghoul of Wittenham Clumps. So there.

James famously set himself a rigid list of qualities to aim for - for example, the ghost must be malevolent, never friendly or funny, and sex must be kept firmly out of the story. As the opening to his 'A School Story' shows, he could conjure up a creepy atmosphere with extreme economy:

Two men in a smoking-room were talking of their private-school days. 'At our school,' said A., 'we had a ghost's footmark on the staircase. What was it like? Oh, very unconvincing. Just the shape of a shoe, with a square toe, if I remember right. The staircase was a stone one. I never heard any story about the thing. That seems odd, when you come to think of it. Why didn't somebody invent one, I wonder?'

'You never can tell with little boys. They have a mythology of their own. There's a subject for you, by the way--"The Folklore of Private Schools".'

'Yes; the crop is rather scanty, though. I imagine, if you were to investigate the cycle of ghost stories, for instance, which the boys at private schools tell each other, they would all turn out to be highly-compressed versions of stories out of books.'

'Nowadays the Strand and Pearson's, and so on, would be extensively drawn upon.'

'No doubt: they weren't born or thought of in my time. Let's see. I wonder if I can remember the staple ones that I was told. First, there was the house with a room in which a series of people insisted on passing a night; and each of them in the morning was found kneeling in a corner, and had just time to say, "I've seen it," and died.'

'Wasn't that the house in Berkeley Square?'

'I dare say it was. Then there was the man who heard a noise in the passage at night, opened his door, and saw someone crawling towards him on all fours with his eye hanging out on his cheek. There was besides, let me think--Yes! the room where a man was found dead in bed with a horseshoe mark on his forehead, and the floor under the bed was covered with marks of horseshoes also; I don't know why. Also there was the lady who, on locking her bedroom door in a strange house, heard a thin voice among the bed-curtains say, "Now we're shut in for the night." None of those had any explanation or sequel. I wonder if they go on still, those stories.'

'Oh, likely enough--with additions from the magazines, as I said. You never heard, did you, of a real ghost at a private school? I thought not; nobody has that ever I came across.'

'From the way in which you said that, I gather that you have.'

'I really don't know; but this is what was in my mind. It happened at my private school thirty odd years ago, and I haven't any explanation of it.

The brisk forward movement of plot is essential to the supernatural tale - which is why the short story form is very suitable - and this must not be overwhelmed by the literary equivalent of dry ice machines fogging the place up with too much atmosphere. Susan Hill's The Man in the Painting of last year fell into this trap, despite her superlative 1983 novel The Woman in Black. Hill flung in every convention of the genre - winding Cambridge streets and amiable old dons with terrible secrets, cathedral precincts of a foggy midnight, and sinister country houses - and rather forgot about the plot, which turns on the idea of a man-eating painting. As L. P. Hartley said, the ghost story is 'certainly the most exacting form of literary art, and perhaps the only one in which there is no intermediary step between success and failure. Either it comes off or it is a flop.' The Man in the Painting is a flop, alas.

But here is an example of what the BBC used to do really well: Christopher Lee playing M. R. James himself, just reciting a story to a collection of undergraduates. It was obviously dirt cheap to make, and yet it is sumptuous and frightening: sinister choral music, guttering candles, blood-red port being poured into glasses, Lee's fatherly but faintly sepulchral tones. The Beeb did a number of these in the mid 70's - Lee just reading James's 'Number 13' was a good deal creepier than the recent pathetic live-action version with Greg Wise, which was hopelessly patronising to the viewer and buggered about with James's perfect plot.

Alas that my rooms are not like that: I've got quite a yen on to sit in a velvet smoking jacket, steepling my fingers and drinking madeira by candlelight whilst frightening undergraduates half to death.
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