Yesterday, a superb day, though already unpleasantly warm. For the second time I go to the Bonnard exhibition. This morning I found my notebook entry from 14 February 1998 about the last Bonnard exposition in London. I was more easily satisfied then. I find pleasure in the high-key broken colour palette, but unlike twenty years ago, it is now the gracefully decomposing still-lives I find most mesmerising.
Looking through my photographs of Maria Gabriela Llansol’s Lisbon library I spotted Stefan Zweig’s Balzac, Dickens, Dostoevsky book. I’ve read little of Zweig, deterred mostly by the scale of his oeuvre. Being a completist I have an irrational nervousness about being drawn to writers with monstrous bodies of work, also an idea that if he wrote so much, a lot of it must be mediocre. Surely? I read enough of the Balzac, Dickens, Dostoevsky book online to be compelled to reread Le Père Goriot (Dr. Krailsheimer’s ‘generally accurate’ translation) until 4:00 A.M. Devoted to Balzac in my twenties, and on my fourth or fifth reading of Goriot, it fascinates me how my reading of Balzac has changed since my youth; how much more real his creations seem now I’ve met such ambitious, venal people outside of literature.
Film music should be subliminal, but in rare cases it rises above the film to a level that is distracting. Every time I’ve watched the part of The Shawshank Redemption underscored by Thomas Newman’s Brooks was here, I’ve leaned into the music and missed the scene. It is sublimely sad, simple and economical in the way that is typical of Newman’s music.
That isn’t to say I dislike the scene or the film, which teeters on that edge between hopelessness and hope. But the music is the greater thing. Thomas Newman is a mystical, almost metaphysical composer of film music.
I’m reading Balzac’s Le Père Goriot, A. J. Krailsheimer’s translation, distinguished by its lively dialogue and closeness to the original. It is a terribly sad and harrowing story. Newman’s score came to mind when I read, “The capacity of emotions to distil a kind of energy is quite remarkable”. His music is all about emotion and mood, also Balzac’s supreme talent.
Much as I like Dickens, his characters are caricatures, for comic or pathetic effect. They convey mood but I never believe in their existence. Balzac’s characters live and breathe and have a life long beyond the completion of the story.
“Père Goriot was sublime. Eugène had never before had the chance of seeing him transfigured by the ardour of paternal love. The capacity of emotions to distil a kind of energy is quite remarkable. As soon as he begins to express a strong and genuine emotion the most brutish of men gives off a special fluid which alters his features, animates his gestures, modulates his voice. Often under the stress of passion the dullest human being attains the highest degree of eloquence in concepts, if not in actual words, and seems to move in a realm of luminous brightness. At the moment that old man’s voice and gestures communicated his feelings with all the intensity that marks out the great actor. But are not our finer feelings the poetry of the will?”
“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’
Lampedusa’s The Leopard
David Gilmour’s The Last Leopard: A Life of Giuseppe di Lampedusa
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.
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.
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.
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.
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