Monday, September 29, 2008


The light reading round-up for the last few weeks of September...

I am less interested in cycling than I am in the other components of triathlon, but I must say that Joe Parkin's A Dog in a Hat: An American Bike Racer's Story of Mud, Drugs, Blood, Betrayal, and Beauty in Belgium is quite excellent. The subtitle does the book a slight disservice - the main title captures its off-beat charm much better. It really is a very well-written and enjoyable book, I whole-heartedly recommend it.

John Jerome's Staying With It: Becoming an Athlete is less about swimming than it's about the quest to fend off the onset of middle age by embracing the magic of the training effect. Parts are wonderful, parts are a little too meditative and metaphysical for me - I do recommend it, but I found myself slightly wishing it had been more of a mash-up with the other swimming-related book I read recently, Hodding Carter's Off the Deep End. Jerome's book is the deeper and more memorable of the two - Carter's reads slightly as though it has been pasted together from magazine articles, and the persona he adopts (or maybe he's just like this!) is incredibly annoying. Even just as a reader, I was irked by his self-defeating decisions about his training and racing! But parts of it are very funny and vividly written - his subtitle is "The Probably Insane Idea That I Could Swim My Way Through a Midlife Crisis - And Qualify for the Olympics," and it is a fair enough description of the project and the book. Interesting stuff - keep the swim lit recs coming, please....

Miscellaneous young-adult (middle-grade?) books by authors I like but who are perhaps in this case not at their best, though I will honestly read any book by any of these three with delight: Eva Ibbotson's The Dragonfly Pool (appealing, but a thinner reimagining of a story very similar to the one told more richly in her adult novel A Song for Summer); Diana Wynne Jones, A House of Many Ways (DWJ is in my book an absolute genius, but she writes so many books that some of them are inevitably, to use the same terminology, fuller and more richly imagined than others, and this is one of the minor ones); Robin McKinley's Chalice (I enjoyed it, but it feels more like one of her long stories or novellas than like Sunshine, a novel that I have reread about five times because it so much corresponded to my notion of the ideal book to read).

Cosmological vertigo

Nicholas Wroe interviews Richard Holmes at the Guardian about his new book, which sounds utterly delightful (additional coverage here and here). The whole profile is well worth reading, but I will excerpt just this lovely bit at the end:
"My own first experience with a big telescope, the 'Old Northumberland' at Cambridge Observatory, an 11-inch refractor built in 1839, left me stunned. We observed a globular star cluster in Hercules, a blue-gold double star, Beta Cygni, and a gas cloud nebula (whose name I forgot to record, since it appeared to me so beautiful and malignant, according to my shaky notes like an 'enormous blue jellyfish rising out of a bottomless black ocean'). I think I suffered from a kind of cosmological vertigo, the strange sensation that I might fall down the telescope tube into the night and be drowned. Eventually this passed."

This is from a footnote to a section about Herschel looking through a telescope. Footnotes are a wonderful part of the armoury of a biographer. In this book the structure is like a series of sliding panels that go back and forth, but I wanted a sense of a chronological narrative, so I used footnotes to step outside the story. Also in this note are two of Thomas Hardy's characters in the late 19th century, terrified at realising how small they were in the universe, and Edwin Hubble in the 1930s. It's important to me that the reader is imaginatively held by the characters to the extent that they really do hope something for them and really do dread something for them. Breaking the chronology works against this, but there are still other interesting things I want to tell them, one of which can be my own personal response to the things I'm describing. So the footnote provides a bridge to the reader which allows me to break the chronology but not, I hope, the mood of the main story.
I have been in love with Holmes's writing for a long time now. I remember reading Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer (on Simon Schama's recommendation, probably c. fall of 1992) and being altogether blown away by its charms and peculiar excellence, and then during my first few years of graduate school I devoured his literary biographies. I love the Coleridge one also, and am often recommending the Johnson-Savage bio, but the one that most fully transported me - it reads as though it were written in a kind of frenzy or fury, and though it is a long book I think I read it over only one or two sittings, it is simply impossible to put down - is the Shelley biography, which has been recently reissued by the New York Review of Books.

Two kilograms

At the TLS, Graham Robb on Julie Rose's new translation of Les Miserables:
Norman Denny, whose translation of Les Misérables was published by Penguin Classics in 1980, and which is probably the translation that most English readers know, did so much smoothing that, even including the two sections on convents and slang that he turned into appendices, his version is still 100,000 words shorter than Rose’s.

“It is now generally recognized”, wrote Denny, “that the translator’s first concern must be with his author’s intention, not with the words he uses or with the way he uses them”. Most of his elisions are surreptitious – confusing images, eccentric aphorisms, strings of apparently superfluous adjectives. He does, however, confess to pruning Hugo’s dizzyingly detailed chapter, “L'Année 1817”, in which the “physiognomy” of the period is constructed out of a hundred or so seemingly miscellaneous facts: imperial Ns were scratched off the face of the Louvre; a steamboat sailed up the Seine and left Parisians unimpressed; little boys were made to wear enormous leather caps with earflaps; Chateaubriand cleaned his teeth at the window of 27 rue Saint-Dominique every morning while dictating La Monarchie selon la Charte; and so on. According to Denny, nearly all the apparently unrelated facts that make up the chapter are “of no great importance”. Evidently, their interrelatedness escaped him, and he chose to ignore Hugo’s concluding remark, which provides a clue to his megalomaniac ambition as a novelist: “History neglects almost all these little details, and cannot do otherwise: it would be engulfed by the infinite” (“l’infini l'envahirait”). Preferring a more conventional and consoling notion, Denny translates the last phrase as “the larger scenes absorbs them”, which is not at all the same thing.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

"Man swimmeth by nature"

From Nicholas Orme, Early British Swimming, 55 BC - AD 1719, With the First Swimming Treatise in English, 1595:
The fishes in the sea, whose continual life is spent in the water, in them doth no man deny swimming to be the only gift which nature hath bestowed upon them. And shall we think it then artificial in a man, which in it doth by many degrees excel them - as diving down to the bottoms of the deepest waters and fetching from thence whatsoever is there sunk down, transporting things to and fro at his pleasure, sitting, tumbling, leaping, walking - and at his ease performeth many fine feats in the water which far exceeds the natural gifts bestowed on fishes? Nay, so fit is the constitution of man's body that whoso doth but with himself thoroughly consider of it cannot but accord with me in this, that a man of all creatures under the circumference of heaven naturally excelleth in swimming.

As for example, a shaft shot in the water, when it riseth again hangeth perpendicularly downward with the head, and the upper parts and feathers swim above the water. Even so is it with man, who although the lower parts of his body be earthly and heavy, yet above is the life of lives, the vital spirits, the external and internal senses. To be short, the life spirits of every man exceedeth the lives of all beasts, for that they only retain the vegetable and sensual powers, the one whereby they grow and increase and the other whereby they hear, feel, see, smell and taste. But in man is all these, whose least part exceedeth the greatest quantity of the other in the highest degree: a reasonable soul. So that he hath not only in great measure the other helps which nature hath provided for this purpose, but he hath wisdom by art to perfect that in himself which by nature is left imperfect. And having plain rules of art how by motion to keep up the heavy parts of his body, which by reason of their heaviness are naturally carried down, it cannot otherwise be but that swimming must naturally come to a man, and in swimming he must excel all creatures whatsoever.
The illustration and the quotation are both from A Short Introduction for to Learn to Swim, translated by Christopher Middleton from Digby's De Arte Natandi. (Thanks to Caleb for sending me an announcement about this talk, which I could not attend but which led me (as so many good things do!) to the library.)

The abysmal depths

At The Futurist, speculation on ocean habitation. (Via Bookforum.)

The zoo's first Chinese panda

I've had a browser tab open for a week or more on Rosemary Hill's LRB piece on Penelope Fitzgerald's letters. I've linked to a few other reviews already, but each one offers up some new gems!
In the earliest letters, written to her friend Hugh Lee in 1939 when she was working at Punch, her laconic colleague, the ‘subeditor from Lowestoft’ with his pipe, his ‘permanent flush’ and his passion for gadgets (he ‘has made a penknife and magnifying glass combined’), turns over the course of three or four letters into ‘Lowestoft’, a poignant creation whose frugal life of cheese sandwiches and Fleet Street digs conceal a longing for travel to the South Seas.

For all their intrinsic humour nothing in Fitzgerald’s novels suggests the talent for comedy revealed in her letters. Staying in Rye with Alec Vidler, former dean of King’s College, Cambridge, who was helping her with research for The Knox Brothers, she described the house party to her daughter:
a trendy cleric, his dull wife, a long-skirted daughter, going up to read English at Hertford, who evidently hadn’t wanted to come, and Henry James’s manservant (still living in Rye, but with a deaf-aid which had to be plugged into the skirting ) . . . contributing in a loud, shrill voice remarks like ‘Mr Henry was a heavy man – nearly 16 stone – it was a job for him to push his bicycle uphill’ – in the middle of all the other conversation wh: he couldn’t hear.

"Better safe than sorry"

Exploding sausages in my hometown. Simpsonesque!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


At the New York Sun, Alberto Manguel has a nice piece about a new book on the mathematics of Borges's Library of Babel:
In 1967, Borges told the French critic Georges Charbonnier that he had kept two ideas in mind when writing "The Library of Babel." The first was a commonplace, an exposition of the combinatory art that has enthralled mathematicians from Archimedes onward, and a conceit amusingly described by Lewis Carroll in "Sylvie and Bruno": that since the number of words in any given language is finite, their possible combinations — i.e., books — are finite also, and that therefore, in the near future, writers will no longer ask, "What book shall I write?" but, "Which book shall I write?"

Borges confessed that, beyond this abstract idea, he was also describing the troubling feeling of being lost in the universe, and of not being able to understand it. "In my story," he told Charbonnier, "there is an intellectual component, and another, of greater importance, I think, that has to do with my sense of loneliness, anguish, uselessness, and of the mysterious nature of the universe, of time, and more importantly, of ourselves. Or rather, of myself."

Musical alignments

Judith Dobrzynski profiles Oliver Sacks at the WSJ. (Thanks to Dave Lull for the link.)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A drawer of umlauts

A nice obituary at the Economist for a man who loved typewriters (link courtesy of Our Girl in Chicago):
Each typewriter was, to him, an individual. Its soul, he reminded Mr Frazier, did not come through a cable in the wall, but lay within. It also had distinguishing marks—that dimple on the platen, that sluggishness in the typebars, that particular wear on the “G”, or the “t”—that would be left, like a fingerprint, on paper. Much of Mr Tytell’s work over the years was to examine typewritten documents for the FBI and the police. Once shown a letter, he could find the culprit machine.

It was therefore ironic that his most famous achievement was to build a typewriter at the request of the defence lawyers for Alger Hiss, who was accused in 1948 of spying for the Soviet Union. His lawyers wanted to prove that typewriters could be made exactly alike, in order to frame someone. Mr Tytell spent two years on the job, replicating, down to the merest spot and flaw, the Hiss Woodstock N230099. In effect, he made a perfect clone of it. But it was no help to Hiss’s appeal; for Mr Tytell still could not account for his typewriter’s politics, or its dreams.
Also, a post with pictures at my neglected Explosionist blog (nothing to do with typewriters, except that there is an important typewriter scene in the novel - I love the word "platen"!)...


A suspect procedure. (Via GeekPress.)

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Vegetable beaux

From Jonathan Swift, A tale of a tub. Written for the universal improvement of mankind. To which is added, an account of a battel between the antient and modern books ... The fourth edition corrected (1705):

Friday, September 19, 2008

Gray brainspill

Alasdair Gray on the perils of being Boswellized.

Also at the Guardian, Ian Sansom reviews Rodge Glass's biography of Gray:
"When Alasdair has been concentrating on work," remarks Glass, "and is given a good opportunity to speak about it, listening to him is like opening up his brain and watching the contents spill gloriously on the table." The book includes plenty of glorious Gray brainspill in the form of reported conversation, letters and miscellaneous remarks. "I've found your life to be a lot of fun," says Glass. "The point is ..." replies Gray, "IT DIDN'T SEEM LIKE MUCH FUN AT THE TIME!"

"A mazurka is a Polish Dance"

At the Independent, Janice Galloway has a lovely 'book of a lifetime' piece:
When I was 11, the family, against every calculable odd, acquired a second-hand upright piano. It was a nice piece of furniture, but my mother saw the main drawback within minutes: somebody would want to play it. And that means money for lessons. The somebody, of course, was me. I'd seen Liberace on TV and I wanted, passionately, to play.

Miss Hughes, who lived in the sheltered flats at Guthrie Brae, was too old to take on pupils but, presumably in need of the money, took me on anyway. And that was when we acquired it: the John W Schaum Piano Course, Book A (The Red Book) Leading to Mastery of the Instrument in Easy Steps. Despite the seven bob (35p) price-tag, my mother bought it.

The book had a red baby grand on the cover; its first page was blank with an instruction to draw around your own hands and number the fingers, one to five. A flick through the rest showed tests, tips and interesting facts ("A mazurka is a Polish Dance") and – joy! – little drawings with each eight-bar tune to colour in, once the piece had been learned. I remember in particular the welcome page from Mr Schaum, an American stranger, wishing me, some anonymous Scottish nobody, "Good Luck and years of happy playing!" because it moved me to tears.

Thursday, September 18, 2008


Cintra Wilson on misspending one's youth in a vampire costume.


I cannot remember where I first heard about Splash: Great Writing About Swimming (edited by Laurel Blossom), but as soon as I did, I had to go and request it from my beloved BorrowDirect. And since I was looking at an electronic catalog, I could not then resist requesting the appealingly adjacent Splash! A History of Swimwear. (More properly it is a history of 20th-century fashion photography with a swimwear focus, but an interesting book nonetheless.)

Forthwith, Maxine Kumin's "400-Meter Freestyle" and a bit of the illustrated chronology at the back of the swimwear volume:

Death and the maiden

A Journey Round My Skull posts a lovely image of death and links to a longer post, with stunning illustrations, at Adventures in the Print Trade.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Reading in Philadelphia

I'll be reading from The Explosionist at Philadelphia's Big Blue Marble Bookstore this Sunday at 12:30 as part of the Mt. Airy Village Fair. Come by and say hello if you live in the area!

The pull of the sea

Death of the shark-hunter behind "Jaws":
As it turns out, Mr. Mundus did not think much of “Jaws.”

“It was the funniest and the stupidest movie I’ve ever seen, because too many stupid things happened in it,” his Web site says. “For instance, no shark can pull a boat backwards at a fast speed with a light line and stern cleats that are only held in there by two bolts.”

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Jaunty tableaux

Just finished reading a very lovely novel, Catherine O'Flynn's What Was Lost. It's got a bit of the feel of Kate Atkinson and a bit of Jonathan Coe's rotters club sensibility (but a decade later), but most of all the opening chapters made me feel I was reading about an alternate-universe fictional version of the child I was myself.

Here's an early paragraph I especially liked:
Next to Eric and Mavis was Mr. Watkin, the butcher. Mr. Watkin was an old man; Kate estimated he was probably seventy-eight. He was a nice man with a nice wife, but very few people bought their meat from him anymore. Kate thought this possibly had something to do with the way Mr. Watkin stood in his shop window, swatting flies against the sides of meat with a large palette knife. It was also perhaps a self-perpetuating situation, in that the fewer customers Mr. Watkin had, the less meat he stocked; and the less meat he had, the less he looked like a butcher and the more he looked like a crazy old man who collected and displayed bits of flesh in his front window. The previous week when Kate passed by the window had contained only a single rabbit (and Kate was sure the only person alive who still ate rabbit was in fact Mr. Watkin himself), some kidneys, a chicken, a side of pork, and a string of sausages. This in itself was nothing too remarkable for Mr. Watkin, but what caused Kate to stop and stare was an apparent new marketing initiative. Evidently the butcher had become a little embarrassed by the minimal nature of his window displays and so, perhaps in order to make them seem less odd (and this is where Kate felt he'd really miscalculated), he had arranged the items in a jaunty tableau. Thus it appeared that the chicken was taking the rabbit for a walk by its lead of sausages, over a hillock of pork under a dark red kidney sun. Kate looked up from the grisly scene to see Mr. Watkin nodding at her in amazement from inside the shop, thumbs aloft, as if taken aback by his own flair.
Miscellaneous light reading around the edges: Poppy Z. Brite's Antediluvian Tales; Ken Bruen's Cross. Most satisfactory...

Tupperware men and Melamine women

At the Independent, Will Self has a very good piece on the delights of riding a Brompton bicycle:
A folding bike! It conjured up memories of those Bickerton bikes you saw in the 1970s and Eighties, the sort of thing men who drove Robin Reliants and carried Thermos flasks and Tupperware boxes of cheese sandwiches cleave to.

But any anxieties I had were dispelled when I got my Brompton: everything the Wandsworth Road zealot had said was true – after a 10-minute tutorial I could assemble the Brompton in 30 seconds. The ride was so good that in the first month of owning one I'd done a 50-mile run in a day on it. The versatility of the machine meant that I began leaving home with it quite casually for four- and five-day mini-tours, during which I'd cycle a bit, hop on a train or bus, then cycle some more. Most of all, it liberated me from the ghastly feeling of disorientation I got when I was doing tours to promote my books, and would travel to a new town every day. Having the Brompton forced me to orient myself – to know where I was. Cities such as Birmingham that I'd been visiting for years suddenly became legible – and I was fitter, too.

During the first few years I had the Brompton it was still an object of either curiosity or risibility. In the sticks small kids would shout and run after me, while the Tupperware men – and Melamine women – would stop me for a nerdy chat. But as Brompton have sold more bikes (sales have more than doubled in the past six years), the sight of full-sized people pedalling about on tiny wheels has become less worthy of comment.


Mongoose-robot team trained to detect land mines.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

British delights

Courtesy of Nico, Mark Smith's announcement at the Guardian:
The world-famous Black Pudding Throwing Championship, September 14, Ramsbottom: The annual blood-fest sees competitors trying to knock as many Yorkshire puddings as possible off a 20ft golden grid platform with three throws of a black pudding.

Taking place from 11am to 4pm at the Royal Oak in Bridge Street, it commemorates those who repelled raiding parties from Yorkshire during the Wars of the Roses. The ancient Golden Grid makes its journey from Stubbins by steam train on the East Lancs Railway to Ramsbottom station, and is carried through the streets.


At the Beinecke Library blog, some lovely images from an early nineteenth-century manual about how to trap game....

Scale models

At the TLS, Sean O'Brien considers the latest installment of Edward Mendelson's edition of the prose of W. H. Auden:
Displayed to good effect throughout his first prose book, The Enchafèd Flood (1950), or The Romantic Iconography of the Sea (1949), and elsewhere here, Auden’s liking for lists and taxonomies and subheadings suggests, as does his prose in general, that he had a natural talent for teaching. He likes to provide a relief map of a mass of information with the major features pointed out and distinctions boldly drawn.

There is also (and this too suits the schoolmaster’s role) at times something eerie and even slightly mad in the tenor of the reprinted lectures which make up The Enchafèd Flood. It is as though the process of model-building itself, with its binarisms and special cases, is the real object of Auden’s interest. He engages in a form of secondary world-making analogous to collecting complete sets of tea-cards or, as in his own case, the scrutiny of books on mining and engineering. Something in Auden that was precocious in childhood comes to seem childlike in adulthood. The desire for reason and order is equalled by a belief that these properties in themselves are resonant with magic of divine provenance. (Is this a gendered condition? Many women seem baffled or irritated by men’s attachment to information or facts for their own sake.)
Mildly annoying generalization at the end there, eh? My answer is "No"!

Monday, September 08, 2008

Strange matter

Various folks aptly and irritably point out that the Large Hadron Collider is not really going to destroy the universe and save us all from impending unmeetable book deadlines...

NB: I hear the phrase 27 kilometres and I think - hmmmm, is that tunnel wide enough to hold a race in?!?

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Lotteries of life

At the Telegraph, Noel Malcolm gives a favorable review to Alexander Waugh's book about the Wittgensteins:
Paul, the closest sibling in age to Ludwig, had some of his younger brother's qualities: asceticism, an iron will, an inability to dissemble, and a sometimes comical unawareness of how the world worked.

(Once, in New York, he complained to a friend that his shoes were hurting, and that the replacement pair he had asked the Wittgenstein staff in Vienna to send him had not arrived. 'Why don't you buy a pair here?' asked the friend. He looked at her in astonishment: 'What a wonderful idea. I never thought of that.')

He gave his debut concert in Vienna in December 1913. Eight months later, during his first week on the Eastern Front, he was hit in the right elbow by a Russian bullet; surgeons at a field hospital amputated most of his right arm, and he was taken off to Siberia as a prisoner of war, eventually returning to Vienna after more than a year of atrocious ill-treatment.

But during that year he had made up his mind to continue his career as a pianist; and that is what, with his Wittgensteinian iron will, he proceeded to do.

The Wittgensteinian money also helped. Realising that the repertoire for the left hand was extremely limited, he commissioned concertos and other pieces from a number of leading composers, including Strauss, Hindemith, Prokofiev, Ravel and, later, Benjamin Britten.

The fees he offered were huge, but the composers soon discovered that he believed himself to have thereby bought their music in a truly comprehensive way: he wanted not only exclusive performance rights, but also the right to engage in large-scale tinkering with the score.
Also of interest: Maya Jaggi interviews Tom Stoppard at the Guardian.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Thursday, September 04, 2008

What I have been doing this week

NB Peter Holland's essay "Hearing the Dead Speak," in Players, Playwrights, Playhouses, is one of the most magical critical essays I have ever read - I heard it first as a talk a couple years ago, and have not been able to stop telling people about it ever since...

Studies in Eighteenth-Century Literature
Shakespeare in the Eighteenth Century

Five plays by Shakespeare, alongside their bizarre and often highly revealing reimaginings by eighteenth-century British theatrical adapters and a host of other evocative materials. We’ll work in a number of different modes: at times, we’ll be delving very deeply into Shakespeare’s own language and dramatic choices, but we’ll also explore questions of literature in relation to more broadly cultural trends, the nature and interpretive utility of popular theatrical adaptations and updatings, the cultural work performed by Shakespeare editions in eighteenth-century Britain and so forth.

9/2 Introduction

9/9 Shakespeare, King Lear

9/16 Nahum Tate, The History of King Lear (1681)

Michael Dobson, from The Making of the National Poet: Shakespeare, Adaptation, and Authorship, 1660-1769

Jean Marsden, from The Re-Imagined Text: Shakespeare, Adaptation, and Eighteenth-Century Literary Theory

Catherine M. S. Alexander, “Shakespeare and the Eighteenth Century: Criticism and Research” (optional)

9/23 Shakespeare, Richard III

9/30 Colley Cibber, The Tragical History of King Richard III (1700)

David Wheeler, “Eighteenth-Century Adaptations of Shakespeare and the Example of John Dennis”

Assignment #1 due Friday 10/4

10/7 Shakespeare, Midsummer Night’s Dream and adaptations

Michael Dobson, “Shakespeare exposed: outdoor performance and ideology, 1880-1940”

10/14 Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale and adaptations

10/21 Samuel Johnson, “Preface” (1765)

Charlotte Lennox, Shakespear Illustrated (1753-54), excerpts

Susan Green, “A Cultural Reading of Charlotte Lennox’s Shakespear Illustrated

Assignment #2 due Friday 10/24

10/28 David Garrick, The Jubilee

Jack Lynch, “Worshipping Shakespeare,” from Becoming Shakespeare

Michael Dobson, “Embodying the Author,” from The Making of the National Poet

Jonathan Bate, “Shakespeare,” from Shakespearean Constitutions: Politics, Theatre, Criticism, 1730-1830

11/4 Election holiday – no class

11/11 Marcus Walsh, “Eighteenth-Century Editing, ‘Appropriation’, and Interpretation”; “Making Sense of Shakespeare,” from Shakespeare, Milton, and Eighteenth-Century Literary Editing: The Beginnings of Interpretative Scholarship

Excerpts from Peter Martin, Edmond Malone, Shakespearean Scholar: A Literary Biography

Simon Jarvis, “Textual Criticism and Enlightenment,” from Scholars and Gentlemen

Assignment #3 due Friday 11/15

11/18 Shakespeare, Hamlet

11/25 Hamlet adaptations and eighteenth-century commentary, plus excerpts from Margreta de Grazia, Hamlet without Hamlet and Alexander Welsh, Strong Representations

Maurice Morgann, An Essay on the Dramatic Character of Sir John Falstaff (1777)

12/2 Peter Holland, “Hearing the Dead: The Sound of David Garrick”; “On the gravy train: Shakespeare, memory and forgetting”

Gary Taylor, “Singularity,” from Reinventing Shakespeare

Final assignment due Thursday, Dec. 11

Wednesday, September 03, 2008


At the LRB, Jenny Turner on Helen DeWitt and Ilya Gridneff's Your Name Here.

Elective affinities

I can't quite explain why this paragraph in Biancamaria Fontana's TLS review of a new joint biography of Benjamin Constant and Germaine de Stael should have cracked me up, but it did:
There is enough evidence to suggest that they were from the start emotionally and sexually unsuited to one another. For one thing, neither was the other’s type: she liked grand aristocrats with virile, military looks and stylish manners; he favoured simpering sentimental beauties or, failing that, compliant young prostitutes. She loved company and managed to produce an impressive volume of publications while leading an exhaustingly busy social life. He needed calm and solitude to concentrate on his never-completed works, and longed for domestic peace and country retreats. He found her possessive, excessively demanding and sexually uninteresting; she accused him of being disloyal and ungrateful. They were only united in their shared taste for dramatic scenes, rivalling each other in the display of floods of tears, hysterics, fainting fits and suicide threats.

A nursery of snails

At the New York Sun, Caleb Crain has a truly delightful piece about Henry Hitchings' Secret Life of Words.


Two bits I especially liked from Barbara Sjoholm's The Palace of the Snow Queen: Winter Travels in Lapland.

On a earlier precursor of the Ice Hotel:
The winter of 1740 was bitterly cold—one of the coldest in European history. Rivers froze to record depths, birds dropped like meteors from the sky. On the River Neva in St. Petersburg, not far from the Winter Palace where Empress Anna Ivanovna reigned, a three-room Palladian villa in ice went up, the marvel of all who saw it. Carved ice plates froze to an ice table in the formal dining room. Two ice pilllows and two ice nightcaps sat on the turned-down ice sheets of the ice bed. The dressing table was jumbled with carved boxes and bottles; over it hung a mirror of ice. From outside, the ice palace was just as remarkable, surrounded as it was by twenty-nine trees, with birds and a fountain, all of ice. From ice cannons shot ice balls fired with gunpowder. The ice came from the Neva and was transparent blue, an enchantment.
On Norwegian Christmas:
Ragnhild loved to make all the special Christmas dishes—pork ribs, halibut, and creamed potatoes—and, as Christmas Day approached, we spent more and more time at the groaning table. Breakfast, too, was enormous—four kinds of herring, six types of cheese, and jams, jellies, and fresh butter with the julekake, a holiday bread studded with candied fruit, smelling of cardamom. When we visited Ragnhild and Øystein’s friends or when friends visited them, plates of almond-studded butter cookies came out, along with fluted cones filled with cream, and kransekake, the tall almond-flavored cake made of rounded rings arranged in a pyramid, was passed around with the marzipan, chocolates, and strong black coffee.

Three sandwiches

From Abraham Pais's contribution to Paul Dirac: The Man and His Work:
Throughout his life, Dirac maintained a minimal, sparse (not terse), precise, and apoetically elegant style of speech and writing. Sample: his comment on the novel Crime and Punishment: 'It is nice, but in one of the chapters the author made a mistake. He describes the sun as rising twice on the same day.' Once when Oppenheimer offered Dirac some books to read, he politely refused, saying that reading books interfered with thought.
... [At the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton] we would often have lunch together. It was on one of those occasions that I had my first exposure to the Dirac style of exhaustive inquiry. Because of a large appetite and a Dutch background, I would regularly eat three sandwiches at that time. One day, Dirac queried me. (Between each answer and the next question there was a half minute's pause.) D. Do you always eat three sandwiches for lunch? P. Yes. D. Do you always eat the same three sandwiches for lunch? P. No, it depends on my taste of the day. D. Do you eat your sandwiches in some fixed order? P. No. Some months later, when a young man named Salam visited me at the Institute, he said: I have regards for you from Professor Dirac in Cambridge. He wants to know if you still eat three sandwiches for lunch. Dirac and I often lunched together when he came back to the Institute for the academic year 1947-8. On an early occasion, Dirac looked at my plate and noted, triumphantly: 'Now you only eat two sandwiches for lunch.'


Roslyn Sulcas has an interesting piece in the NYT on the new adaptation of Noel Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes. (Link courtesy of Alice.) As a child, I read all the Streatfield novels I could lay my hands on again and again, but I do think that one is her best...

On a related note, also at the Times, Alastair Macaulay considers the question of what Degas's paintings show about the styles of ballet prevalent in turn-of-the-century Paris. (NB I saw the play mentioned in the third paragraph, and it is not recommended - I felt the fact that I know nothing about ballet was the only reason I was not as irked by the poor dance-related skills of the supposed dancers as I was by the frequent use of very poorly pronounced and embarrassingly clumsily inserted French words and phrases in the dialogue!)