Words, Words, Words

“Mr Pickwick belongs to the sacred figures of the world’s history. Do not, please, claim that he has never existed: the same thing happens to most of the world’s sacred figures, and they have been living presences to a vast number of consoled wretches. So, if a mystic can claim a personal acquaintance and clear vision of Christ, a human man can claim personal acquaintance and a clear vision of Mr Pickwick.”

Fernando Pessoa, Charles Dickens

“He would have sacrificed ten years of his life, he once remarked, for the privilege of spending an hour with Sir John Falstaff.”

“He never left his house, recalled Licy, ‘without a copy of Shakespeare in his bag, with which he would console himself when he saw something disagreeable’; at his bedside he kept The Pickwick Papers to comfort him during sleepless nights.”

David Gilmour, Introduction to Lampedusa’s The Leopard

“Many men with no great claim even to mere wit could have made most of Shakespeare’s jokes, as jokes. It is in the creation of the figures who make those jokes that genius underlies wit; not what Falstaff says but what Falstaff is is great. The genius made the figure; the wit made it speak.”

Fernando Pessoa, ‘Erostratus’

  1. Lampedusa’s The Leopard
  2. David Gilmour’s The Last Leopard: A Life of Giuseppe di Lampedusa
  3. The Pickwick Papers
  4. Both parts of Henry IV
  5. Pessoa’s poems and prose

The Long Life by Helen Small

Youth and Old Age – Antonio Ciccone (1960)

Plato thought 50 an appropriate age to begin the study of philosophy. The Long Life is Helen Small’s pre-emptive (she admits to 42 at the time of writing her book) appraisal of old age in Western philosophy and literature.

Each of the chapters begins from a philosophical perspective – Platonic epistemology, Aristotelian and neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics, narrative theories of lives, rational arguments about life-planning and distributive justice, Parfit’s ‘Reductionist View’ of persons, one (far from standard) account of metaphysics, and recent arguments through a consideration of literary texts (Death in Venice, King Lear, Le Père Goriot, The Old Curiosity Shop, Endgame, poems by Philip Larkin and Stevie Smith, more recent novels by Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, J. M. Coetzee, Margaret Drabble, Michael Ignatieff).

Taking Beauvoir’s La Vieillese (1970) as her starting point, Helen Small, a professor of English Literature,  attempts to “show what might be required if we are to become more seriously philosophical about old age”. Small’s close-reading of both philosophical and literary texts is frequently enlightening. Some chapters work better than others; her analysis, in particular, of Adorno’s late lectures on metaphysics, read against Dickens and Beckett, is vividly brilliant. The comparative reading of Parfit and Balzac yielded less. Her parallel reading of Coetzee and Roth is a remarkable work of literary criticism. It is an erudite and rewarding book.

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle

Echoes. A convict on the moors. Inevitable memories of a better story: Great Expectations. But the location of The Hound of the Baskervilles is infinitely more haunted than the marshes of London and Kent. I have walked across Dartmoor, one of my favourite places, unchanged since Doyle placed his hound there. It is not hard to conjure a fire-breathing hound, or places where prisoners of malicious intent could hide for ever.

I grew away from Doyle’s absurd Sherlock Holmes stories, and their improbable coincidences, whilst still in my pre-nage years, but it is easy to get sucked in. Enjoyable yarns, of a sort best read aloud on a winter’s night, by fireside. No plot summary is needed for The Hound of the Baskervilles, the story is known to all, regardless of whether we have read the story, or seen one of the many film adaptations. It is Dartmoor that is the true hero of Doyle’s tale.

Echoes:

H: ‘It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but you are a conductor of light. Some people without posessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it.’
He had never said as much before, and I must admit that his words gave me keen pleasure.
H: ‘I am afraid, my dear W. that most of your conclusions were erroneous.’

My own adaptation of the Holmes-Watson banter, but reminiscent of Lars Iyer’s book, Spurious.

[Read as part of Frances’s and Melville House’s The Art of the Novella Reading Challenge.]

A Kafka Character

Only a poet could have written Auden’s The I Without a Self. His essay on Kafka displays a mastery of concision.

Yesterday I wrote of the importance of being in the right mood to read Kafka, and Plath. Emily and Michelle suggested that Woolf and Houellebecq need the same cautious approach.

Another of Auden’s notions played on my mind today: the creation of character.

Sometimes in real life one meets a character and thinks, “This man comes straight out of Shakespeare or Dickens,” but nobody ever met a Kafka character. On the other hand, one can have experiences which one recognises as Kafkaesque, while one would never call and experience of one’s own Dickensian or Shakespearian.

At a tangent, this also suggests Iris Murdoch’s contention, essentially correct, that she never created a memorable character.

Influential Books

List time: books that influenced me. Influence is defined as either life-changing or transformative in reading patterns (which equates to the same thing). These are roughly in time order. Later I may explain what changed as a consequence. Here’s the list:

  • Wyss’s Swiss Family Robinson
  • Dicken’s Great Expectations
  • Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice
  • Kem Nunn’s Tapping the Source
  • Winston Graham’s Angell, Pearl and Little God
  • Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London
  • Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment
  • Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums
  • J. P. Donleavy’s The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman
  • Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land
  • Bruce Sterling’s Artificial Kid
  • Sartre’s Nausea and Being and Nothingness
  • Kierkegaard’s Either/Or
  • Proust’s Rememberance of Things Past
  • Roger Deakin’s Wildwood
  • Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night
  • Mann’s The Magic Mountain
  • Woolf’s The Lighthouse
  • Joyce’s Ulysses
  • Josipovici’s Whatever Happened to Modernism?

15 London Books in 15 Minutes

Kate’s Book Blog offered a challenge I thought fun:

Rules: Don’t take too long to think about it. Fifteen books you’ve read that will always stick with you. First fifteen you can recall in no more than 15 minutes.

I’ve adapted the meme to London, rather than Kate’s Toronto.

  1. Iain Sinclair – London Orbital
  2. Iain Sinclair – Lights Out for the Territory
  3. Peter Ackroyd – London: The Biography
  4. Patrick Hamilton – Hangover Square
  5. Martin Amis – London Fields
  6. Zadie Smith – White Teeth
  7. Robert Louis Stevenson – Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
  8. Julian Barnes – Metroland
  9. Ian McEwan – Saturday
  10. Charles Dickens – Oliver Twist
  11. Will Self – Gray Area
  12. Neil Gaiman – Neverwhere
  13. Jules Verne – Around the World in Eighty Days
  14. Arthur Conan Doyle – The Adventures of Conan Doyle
  15. William Gibson – Pattern Recognition

Is it cheating to include two Iain Sinclair books? It would have been easy to fill half the list with Sinclair’s books. My edition of Lights Out for the Territory, with the enigmatic photography of Marc Atkins, is somewhat reminiscent of Sebald.