Seven Random Things

At the wonderfully named Dada doesn’t catch flies, one of my favourite bloggers has challenged me to share seven things things about myself. I normally shy away from such invitations but reluctantly accept the proposition, perhaps it will be therapeutic.

  1. A highly nomadic childhood and commuting long distance to various boarding schools meant accruing a lot of air miles. At eleven years of age I became the youngest recipient of the Cathay Pacific 100,000 miles flown certificate.
  2. Near my boarding school was a communist bookshop. Every Saturday for at least two years I stole a book, the first being Mao’s Little Red Book. Sometimes I fool myself that the owner knew and let me get away with my crimes. I still feel guilty. Sorry.
  3. The first author that inspired me to read his complete oeuvre was Robert Heinlein, followed closely by J. P. Donleavy.
  4. Inspired by J. P. Donleavy’s tales of his home country, I spent three months in Ireland, hitching north to south and east to west.
  5. For reasons I can no longer recall, as a teenager I was drawn to the Middle East. Setting out with three hundred pounds, I spent nine months hitching through Spain, to Morocco, and then through Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, then to Cyprus and Greece. The current turmoil has resuscitated my fascination for the region.
  6. After returning from this supposed ‘gap year’, for all sorts of reasons that made complete sense at the time, I did not go back to university. I have regretted this at leisure. It is the source of my autodidacticism.
  7. My talisman book, that I have read so many times that, in a sense, I am always reading it, or thinking it, is Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea.

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

I am a serendipitous reader, allowing chance references to lead me meanderingly from book to book, author to author. The timing of my discovery of Rebecca’s Classics Circuit was impeccable, hard on the discovery of William Faulkner’s influence on Beauvoir. Sartre said, “The technique of Simone de Beauvoir, also, was inspired by Faulkner. Without him she never would have conceived the idea, used in Le Sang des Autres, of cutting the chronological order of the story and substituting instead a more subtle order, half logical, half intuitive.”

Describing Faulkner and, in particular of As I Lay Dying, Beauvoir wrote:

Not only did he show great skill in deploying and harmonising multiple viewpoints, but he got inside each individual mind, setting forth its knowledge and ignorance, its moments of insincerity, its fantasies, the words it formed and the silences it kept. As a result the narrative was bathed in a chiaroscuro, which gave each event the greatest possible highlight and shadow.

The contrasts in As I Lay Dying are intriguing, foremost the language: the vernacular coexistent with the poetic. Whilst reading the viewpoint of confused child Vardaman, after a period of rambling thought interspersed with dialogue, the narrative offers:

It is as though the dark were resolving him out of his integrity, into an unrelated scattering of components-snuffings and stampings; smells of cooling flesh and ammoniac hair; an illusion of a coordinated whole of splotched hide and strong bones within which, detached and secret and familiar, an is different from my is.

Faulkner is, I surmise, not expecting the reader to concede this as part of Vardaman’s stream of consciousness. So who narrates here, and on similar occasions elsewhere? I know little of Faulkner and his reading of psychology, but took it to be the voice of the unconscious, ‘it, the Id, that never shuts up’ that, ‘talks even when it is silent’.

The fifteen fragmentary viewpoints on offer in As I Lay Dying include the departed mother; not too much of a stretch that the Id has a voice. The technique is intriguing but somehow works to give us precisely that chiaroscuro of deep contrasts, between speech, thought and action.

Beauvoir finds the dark comedy in As I Lay Dying. Though disturbing, there is a surreal humour in the rag-tag Bundren family traipsing across the county to bury the decomposing, odiferous corpse of the lady of the house. We expect the set pieces, like the coffin almost being borne away on the river , before they occur, but find agony and a smidgen of humour in that inevitability. Beauvoir adds, “If objects or habits were presented to the reader in a preposterous light, the reason was that misery and want not only change man’s attitude to things but transform the very appearance of things.”

The World is a Book

A few days ago I asked, “What are your favourite literary travel books?” Thank you for your suggestions, added to mine below to compile a quintessential shelf of travel literature:

  1. Flaubert in Egypt: A Sensibility on Tour – Gustave Flaubert
  2. Rings of Saturn – W. G. Sebald
  3. Travels with Herodotus – Ryszard Kapuściński
  4. The Air-Conditioned NightmareHenry Miller
  5. Songlines – Bruce Chatwin
  6. The Motorcycle Diaries – Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara
  7. On the RoadJack Kerouac
  8. In Patagonia – Bruce Chatwin
  9. Pictures from Italy - Charles Dickens
  10. Collected Travel Writings: The Continent and Great Britain and America - Henry James
  11. The Roads to Sata – Alan Booth
  12. The Way of the WorldNicolas Bouvier
  13. Into the Heart of BorneoRedmond O’Hanlon
  14. A Time of GiftsPatrick Leigh Fermor
  15. Hokkaido Highway Blues – Will Ferguson
  16. Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It - Geoff Dyer
  17. Falling off the Map: Some Lonely Places of the World – Pico Iyer
  18. Riding the Iron Rooster – Paul Theroux
  19. To Noto: Or London to Sicily in a Ford – Duncan Fallowell
  20. Angry White Pyjamas – Robert Twigger
  21. Arabian SandsWilfred Thesiger
  22. This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland – Gretel Ehrlich
I’ve added the new suggestions to my wish list and anticipate reading them with genuine pleasure.

Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville

Not what I expected, Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener. I presumed the story to be revolutionary in tone, a fictional refusal to work sympathetic with Paul Lafargue’s The Right to be Lazy:

The Greeks in their era of greatness had only contempt for work: their slaves alone were permitted to labour: the free man knew only exercises for the body and mind. . .

Bartleby though is not an Idler, but more disquieting. At the beginning of his employment as a scrivener, or document copyist, he did an ‘extraordinary quantity of writing.’ At one request he utters the words, “I would prefer not to.” Thereafter his eccentricity becomes unsettling. Aside from Bartleby, Melville conjures up the memorable trio of more consistent copyists: Turkey, Nippers and Ginger Nut.

Part of Melville House’s wonderful The Art of the Novella series, Melville crams a lot of story into these 64 pages.

Literature of Travel

Yesterday I wrote of Sartre the traveller, whom BHL esteemed above all for his literature of travel:

And I am convinced, be it said in passing, that the day when the ideology of tourism is finally brought to a discourse and a practice which, on the pretext of the right to exoticism and difference, offer a paltry folklore which diminishes at one and the same time the traveller and his or her host, and offers, in place of those original situations which were the passion of real travellers, landscapes whose picture-postcard aspect has a novelty value of zero – I am convinced that Sartre, the homing pigeon, will on that day be recognised as a master. People will speculate about his Queen Albermarle which Simone de Beauvoir said was to be, if he ever finished it, the Nausea of his maturity, and which he himself thought would draw a line under the modern literature of travel . . .

These days, increasingly, we travel to places that resemble an exotic version of home: the same Starbucks, Body Shop etc., as Robert Dessaix wrote:

But I’d seen it all before. At a certain point in life, like Stendhal and Chateaubriand, one has. Everything feels repackaged. The crêpe and ice-cream wagons, the miniature train, the hoopla stall, the Africans selling belts and fake Louis Vuitton handbags – even the gangs of teenagers in T-shirts emblazoned with jaunty slogans in English (I Love Beer, Fuck Work and so on) – I’d seen and heard and smelled it all before hundreds of times. It felt like the umpteenth performance of a circus act I’d thrilled to when I was five. Would nothing transformingly beautiful ever happen again?

Seeing the world through another’s eyes can invigorate our experience of travel. BHL writes of Sartre:

Sartre, a man reputedly incapable of seeing a thing, an absolutely cerebral presence who claimed coquettishly, that he had to wait until Simone de Beauvoir had described things for him before he could see them for himself.

Though I love to read great travel literature, I suspect that those worth reading would not fill a small shelf. A top ten of literary travel books, for me, would look something like this:

  1. Into the Heart of BorneoRedmond O’Hanlon
  2. A Time of GiftsPatrick Leigh Fermor
  3. Hokkaido Highway Blues – Will Ferguson
  4. Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It - Geoff Dyer
  5. Falling off the Map: Some Lonely Places of the World – Pico Iyer
  6. Riding the Iron Rooster – Paul Theroux
  7. To Noto: Or London to Sicily in a Ford – Duncan Fallowell
  8. Angry White Pyjamas – Robert Twigger
  9. Arabian SandsWilfred Thesiger
  10. This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland – Gretel Ehrlich
Several other Paul Theroux books could have made the cut, but Iron Rooster is the one that stands foremost in my memory. Missing from my list, because I haven’t read them, are renowned travel essays or books by Voltaire and Stendhal. I also chose not to include Kafka’s travel writing as it forms part of his diaries.
Now over to you, what are your favourite literary travel books?

An Absence in my Library

Philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, so prominent (and frequently ridiculed) in France that he is simply referred to as BHL, is credited with encouraging Sarkozy’s support for anti-Gaddafi forces in Libya. His website’s subtitle is ‘The Art of Philosophy is Only Worthwhile if it is an Art of War.’ Who better then to write Sartre: The Philosopher of the Twentieth Century?

This is not a dry academic study, nor an exhaustive immersion into the seven ages of Sartre. In truth, I am unsure exactly what sort of book it is, but I am enjoying it mightily. So far it is gossipy, a little bawdy, intensely personal, fiercely intellectual and bracingly frank, all of which sums up Sartre and his Café de Flore clique adequately.

There is so much in the book. What I want to share here is Lévy’s writing of ‘Sartre the traveller’, and the hole in my library now left by the never completed Queen Albermarle (though fragments are published).

I like Sartre the traveller. He was sometimes wrong, of course. But he had an extraordinary eye. He could describe like no one else the ‘real life’ of Venice, the ‘enormous carnivorous existence’ of Naples, the ‘watery sun’ of Rome, the ‘moving’ aspects of Peking, that city ‘too strange for one just to like it’, or again, in Hurricane across the Sugar Fields (believe it or not) the ‘night’ which, in Cuba, ‘rustles until daybreak’, its ‘strange and continual buzz’ of ‘insects’ and ‘transparent wings’, the ‘croaking of a buffalo-toad’ that ‘rises from the marshes’. And I am convinced, be it said in passing, that the day when the ideology of tourism is finally brought to a discourse and a practice which, on the pretext of the right to exoticism and difference, offer a paltry folklore which diminishes at one and the same time the traveller and his or her host, and offers, in place of those original situations which were the passion of real travellers, landscapes whose picture-postcard aspect has a novelty value of zero – I am convinced that Sartre, the homing pigeon, will on that day be recognised as a master. People will speculate about his Queen Albermarle which Simone de Beauvoir said was to be, if he ever finished it, the Nausea of his maturity, and which he himself thought would draw a line under the modern literature of travel . . .

One Thing Lead to Another

In between Simone de Beauvoir and William Faulkner, I read Stephen Fry’s Incomplete and Utter History of Classical Music as told to Tim Lihorean. The book served my purpose, which was to provide a contextual structure for the major composers, who influenced who, etc. The content was exceptional, but the tone of the book I found excruciating. It depends on whether you enjoy Stephen Fry’s schtick. I don’t.

The subject continues to fascinate me, and like the dangers of shandy or marijuana, Stephen Fry lead to harder stuff, in the form of the wonderful The Oxford History of Western Music by controversial musicologist Richard Taruskin.

The Prime of Life by Simone de Beauvoir

Halfway into The Prime of Life, Simone de Beauvoir signals to the reader of her autobiography that:

I still believe to this day in the theory of the ‘transcendental ego.’ The self (moi) has only a probable objectivity, and anyone saying ‘I’ only grasps the outer edge of it; an outsider can get a clearer and more accurate picture. Let me repeat that this personal account is not offered in any sense as an ‘explanation.’ Indeed, one of my main reasons for undertaking it is my realisation that self-knowledge is impossible, and the best one can hope for is self-revelation.

With this in mind, it is thrilling to share in her exploration of how a conscious mind examines its acts. In this volume, Simone de Beauvoir relives the achievement of her literary apprenticeship, life with Sartre and the years of Paris’s occupation by the Nazis.

The stimulation of this brilliant book comes from reading yourself into the mind of a fiercely intelligent woman attempting to interpret her earlier life with unremitting honesty. The ‘I’ that gives testimony in this autobiography clearly possesses a knowledge denied to the ‘I’ who lived through these events. As in the first volume of her autobiography Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, de Beauvoir places her younger self under the microscope with the cool rationality that only the perspective of time allows.

In my reading of Memoirs and her diary of the same period, the diary offered a more emotive reading. The same insight is available in The Prime of Life from the extracts of diaries de Beauvoir provides as narrative of the early years of the war.

It is inconceivable that The Prime of Life is out of print in an English translation. It is superior to Memoirs, a first-rate autobiography in its own right. My intention is to read the remaining volumes, but not for a while. My immersion under the skin of de Beauvoir has been all-consuming.

The Weekend

Last night’s opera was unfamiliar. I commend the Royal Opera House’s commissioning of new opera. They should do it more frequently. The life of Anna Nicole Smith was vaguely familiar to me, but made a suitably dramatic and tragic subject for an opera production. Unfortunately, though the libretto was fine, the music (composer: Mark-Anthony Turnage) was unimaginative, even tedious. The younger demographic of the audience is sufficient proof of the value of commissioning fresh, new operas. Opera is foremost about the music; at times Anna Nicole felt like an overwrought Lloyd-Webber production.

This afternoon, a visit to the National Gallery, not for the compelling Jan Gossaert that will have to wait until next week, but a rare opportunity to see a small selection of the work of the Ashcan school. The Big Dory by prominent Ashcan painter was the most striking work of the exhibition.