Art and Entertainment

Yet in many cultural loci these days we are asked to read and write easier, more naively, less rigorously. We are asked to understand by not taking the time and energy to understand. One difference between art and entertainment has to do with the speed of perception. Art deliberately slows and complicates reading, hearing, and/or viewing so that we are challenged to re-think and re-feel form and experience. Entertainment deliberately accelerates and simplifies them so we don’t have to think about or feel very much of anything at all, except, maybe, the adrenalin rush before spectacle.

Lance Olsen, Architectures of Possibility. Guide Dog Books, 2012

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Literary Couplings

The sun is calm and bright, but it isn’t yet quite warm enough to idle outside with Denton Welch’s I Left My Grandfather’s House. So observant Welch’s eye for details of character and architecture, his voice so tender after the cool elegance of Ágota Kristóf’s prose, though the latter’s autobiographical The Illiterate inevitably presents a warmer, more personal note than the novels.

It’s pleasing to tack between Welch and Kristóf, a shot of elegant, slightly oily brandy to accompany a bittersweet, zippy espresso. Now, perhaps back to Kristóf, having tracked down a copy of Yesterday.

Last week, I also read Simon Critchley’s experimental Memory Theatre, a somewhat curious yet thought provoking work. Critchley  as mystic recalls Yeats’ essay on magic, in which he writes, “whatever the passions of men have gathered about becomes a symbol in the Great Memory, and in the hands of him who has the secret it is a worker of wonders, a caller-up of angels or of devils.”

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Leave All Rhetoric Out

It’s been a hard winter, but summer is here and the fields want us to walk upright. Every man is unimpeded, but careful, as when you stand up in a small boat. I remember a day in Africa: on the banks of the Chari, there were many boats, an atmosphere positively friendly, the men almost blue-black in colour with three parallel scars on each cheek (meaning the Sara tribe). I am welcomed on a boat-it’s a canoe hollowed from a dark tree. The canoe is incredibly wobbly, even when you sit on your heels. A balancing act. If you have the heart on the left side you have to lean a bit to the right, nothing in the pockets, no big arms movements, please, all rhetoric has to be left behind. Precisely, rhetoric is impossible here. The canoe glides out over the water.

Tomas Tranströmer, Standing Up. The Half-Finished Heaven, Trans. Robert Bly, Graywolf Press, 2001

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Futuristic Howling

Woodcut from A 1564 edition of La Divina Comedia from Arévalo, Spain

Woodcut from A 1564 edition of La Divina Comedia from Arévalo, Spain

If the halls of the Hermitage would suddenly go mad, if the paintings of all schools and masters should suddenly break loose from the nails, should fuse, intermingle, and fill the air of the rooms with futuristic howling and colours in violent agitation, the result then would be something like Dante’s Commedia.

Osip Mandelstam, A Conversation with Dante, as quoted in Alberto Manguel’s Curiosity, Yale University Press, 2015

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Ágota Kristóf’s Trilogy

Each book of Ágota Kristóf’s trilogy is entwined on a smaller scale in each of the books, echoing back the whole of the trilogy. Each successive book unbalances its predecessor to the point that its instability opens up an unbounded dialogism. As I read each book back to back I cannot imagine reading first The Notebook, The Proof two years later, and finally waiting a further three years to read The Third Lie. My aesthetic response would be somewhat muted.

By starting the trilogy with the simple, direct language of childhood, Kristóf disrupts our familiar frames of reference, so when the shocks arrive they have the power of a slap in the face, the visceral response precedes the intellectual. Although the language remains clear throughout the three books, its complexity increases as the protagonists mature and the paradoxes become evident. Picasso said, “Art is a lie that makes us realise the truth.”

The nature of evil is less absurdly simple than history or psychology suggests. The torturer can also be a loving grandfather. Compassion and immorality can exist side by side, as they do with Kristóf’s protagonists.

As is often the case, Michelle’s post led me to the trilogy, which sat on my shelves for some years. Although I read an edition from Grove Press, I suggest these from CB editions. Though the translators are the same, the Grove Press edition of The Notebook Americanises the language: so and so write one another, and the two protagonists are at one point called ‘you two punks.’  Tim Parks writes so well about the inflexibility of American editors. It jars the reading to the point I almost abandoned the book.

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Cold Passion

We answer: ‘We don’t want to work for you, madam. We don’t want to eat your soup or your bread. We are not hungry.’
She asks: ‘Then why are you begging?’
‘To find out what effect it has and to observe people’s reactions.’
She walks off, shouting: ‘Dirty little hooligans! And impertinent too!’
On our way home, we throw the apples, the biscuits, the chocolate, and the coins in the tall grass by the roadside.
It is impossible to throw away the stroking on our hair.

Ágota Kristóf, The Notebook. Grove Press, 1997.

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Time, Gin, Denton and Dorothy Sayers

Given the multitude of people on social media confused by the instigation of this year’s British Summer time, we ought be thankful that William Willett’s original proposal to move the clocks forward by 80 minutes, in 20-minute weekly steps on Sundays in April and by the reverse procedure in September, was altered to the deceptively simple alternative of an hour forward in March, then reversed in October.

Mark, a reader of Time’s Flow Stemmed, kindly reminded me that Maurice Denton Welch was born on 29 March 2015. To mark Denton’s centenary I drank two gin and limes, a drink, with gin and French, that he frequently mentions in his Journals.

Like Max Sebald, Denton’s written texts comprise a seamless body of work in which he repeatedly returns to the same themes, experimenting with different forms. The Journals are a delight, patchy as any journals, but with moments of such radiance. Mark suggests that Denton’s short stories bridge the apparent leap in expressive quality between his first two novels and A Voice Through a Cloud. 

While I await delivery of a couple of collections of Denton Welch’s short stories, I’ll read an unusual book I came across in a second-hand bookshop in Cecil Court. The Passionate Intellect by Barbara Reynolds is a full-length study of novelist Dorothy L. Sayers’s fourteen year obsession with reading and translating Dante’s Divine Comedy. I’ve never Dorothy Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels, but share her fascination with Divine Comedy. 

Reynolds bases much of the book on the remarkable correspondence that Sayers exchanged with Charles Williams, at the time a much esteemed poet, essayist and critic. Sayers became absorbed with Divine Comedy after reading Williams’s The Figure of Beatrice, which I ought also to read sometime soon. Dorothy Sayers starting reading Divine Comedy in August 1944, a period Denton Welch writes of brilliantly in his Journals, when almost ten thousand buzz bombs or V-1s were fired at south-east England. Sayers writes of the hold that Divine Comedy took on her imagination:

The plain fact is that I bolted my meals, neglected my sleep, work and correspondence, drove my friends crazy, and paid only a distracted attention to the doodle-bugs, which happened to be investing the neighbourhood at the time, until I had panted my way through the Three Realms of the dead from top to bottom and from bottom to top.

I’ve never read any of Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey novels. Should I? How about Jill Paton Walsh’s continuation of the series: ghastly or noteworthy?

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The Saddhu Of Couva

When sunset, a brass gong,
vibrate through Couva,
is then I see my soul, swiftly unsheathed,
like a white cattle bird growing more small
over the ocean of the evening canes,
and I sit quiet, waiting for it to return
like a hog-cattle blistered with mud,
because, for my spirit, India is too far.
And to that gong
sometimes bald clouds in saffron robes assemble
sacred to the evening,
sacred even to Ramlochan,
singing Indian hits from his jute hammock
while evening strokes the flanks
and silver horns of his maroon taxi,
as the mosquitoes whine their evening mantras,
my friend Anopheles, on the sitar,
and the fireflies making every dusk Divali.

I knot my head with a cloud,
my white mustache bristle like horns,
my hands are brittle as the pages of Ramayana.
Once the sacred monkeys multiplied like branches
in the ancient temples: I did not miss them,
because these fields sang of Bengal,
behind Ramlochan Repairs there was Uttar Pradesh;
but time roars in my ears like a river,
old age is a conflagration
as fierce as the cane fires of crop time.
I will pass through these people like a cloud,
they will see a white bird beating the evening sea
of the canes behind Couva,
and who will point it as my soul unsheathed?
Naither the bridegroom in beads,
nor the bride in her veils,
their sacred language on the cinema hoardings.

I talked too damn much on the Couva Village Council.
I talked too softly, I was always drowned
by the loudspeakers in front of the stores
or the loudspeakers with the greatest pictures.
I am best suited to stalk like a white cattle bird
on legs like sticks, with sticking to the Path
between the canes on a district road at dusk.
Playing the Elder. There are no more elders.
Is only old people.

My friends spit on the government.
I do not think is just the government.
Suppose all the gods too old,
Suppose they dead and they burning them,
supposing when some cane cutter
start chopping up snakes with a cutlass
he is severing the snake-armed god,
and suppose some hunter has caught
Hanuman in his mischief in a monkey cage.
Suppose all the gods were killed by electric light?
Sunset, a bonfire, roars in my ears;
embers of brown swallows dart and cry,
like women distracted,
around its cremation.
I ascend to my bed of sweet sandalwood.

Derek Walcott

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An Eternal Moment

I thought again of our snug place in the leaves under the fallen tree, looking out on to the rising hill with the smoky curtain of rain falling into the stiff still green bracken, and the curiously high squeaking of some solitary wood pigeons and then their gurgling coo. An eternal moment always dissolving which will yet re-occur a thousand, thousand times to a thousand, thousand other people when we are dead, who will look out in the same way through the windows in their heads and see the falling rain, the bracken, the pattern of the oak bark, and wonder, and go on wondering for years.

Denton Welch, The Journals of Denton Welch, Allison and Busby (1984)

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A Balloon of Emptiness

It seems astonishing to me the leap that Denton Welch makes in A Voice Through a Cloud. His two earlier novels show a way of observing the world that often provokes and startles.

The leap Welch makes in A Voice Through a Cloud is in the clarity of access it offers, or simulates, into the mental world of his narrator. It is impossible not to be drawn deeper and deeper into the place where Denton’s perceptivity meets the characters and objects that surround his narrator. This sense of deep intersubjectivity recalls Mann’s The Magic Mountain.

I’ve just reread Welch’s rendering of the scene in which his invalid narrator meets a couple of other invalids from another care home in a blowy, seaside town. It is exquisitely described, the loneliness and isolation of long-term illness that draws these strangers together for the briefest of moments.

They both said ‘Hullo'; I was made to shake hands; there was a little sad heartiness, then nothing. We stood in a circle round a balloon of emptiness which was swelling all the time, forcing us farther and farther apart.

A page or two further, Welch’s narrator is awake in the night and hears a barking dog.

I would imagine his cry coming across the fields, the brimming icy ditches and the bare hedges glittering with black drops of water. Perhaps it came from some lonely farm where he was chained up in a cobbled yard. The chain would grate and clink like a ghost’s as he ran from side to side, barking and waiting for the answer which never came. At last his tail would curve down through his legs and he would huddle back into the dank straw in his barrel.

That balloon of emptiness and that dog’s bark waiting for the answer that never came have sufficient texture to last me for days.

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