Thursday, 18 December 2014

My Brother's Keeper by Stanislaus Joyce.

My Brother's Keeper is no ordinary biography: it is, of course, the biography of James Joyce and was written by his younger brother Stanislaus Joyce. It was first published in 1958, and sadly Stanislaus died before he completed it. 

James Joyce
by Gisèle Freund.
James Augustine Aloysius Joyce is one of those fascinating authors who, despite being relatively under-read, still remains one of the most important and talked about writers of the 20th Century. He was born just over a week after Virginia Woolf on 2nd February 1882 in Dublin, Ireland, and like Woolf was one of the early proponents of Modernism, but though notoriously tricky, Woolf remains accessible. Joyce on the other hand has produced some of the most difficult novels in the English language (on finishing Ulysses Woolf wrote in a letter, "My martyrdom is over. I hope to sell it for £4.10."). Ulysses does make frequent appearances on "most difficult books" list along with Finnegans Wake, his almost unreadable novel. Here are some (not all) of his works:

Chamber Music (1907)
Dubliners (1914)
Portait of an Artist as a Young Man (1916)
Exiles (1918)
Ulysses (1922)
Pomes Penyeach (1927)
Collected Poems (1936)
Finnegans Wake (1939)
Stephen Hero (1944)
Giacomo Joyce (1968)
The Cat and the Devil (1981)
The Cats of Copenhagen (2012)
In the Preface of My Brother's Keeper, T. S. Eliot writes,
Curiosity about the private life of a public man may be of three kinds: the useful, the harmless, and the impertinent. It is useful, when the subject is a statesman, if the study of his private life contributes towards the understanding of his public actions; it is useful, when the subject is a man of letters, if the study throws light upon his published works. The line between curiosity which is legitimate and that which is merely harmless, and between that which is merely harmless and that which is vulgarly impertinent, can never be precisely drawn.
As I said, My Brother's Keeper is no ordinary biography. It was written by a man who had more knowledge and understanding of James Joyce than any biographer could hope to ever get. We learn of Jame's childhood and early manhood from his own brother who witnessed his growth (of all kinds) not only first hand, but on many accounts experienced it himself. It is both of their lives. Stanislaus does keep a kind of objectivity (he was a Professor, so presumably able to step back a little to recount and explain details), yet his love and affection for James is also evident. It is both academic and highly personal, with more than a touch of humour (one of my favourite parts is when young Stanislaus goes to the library for James with a list James has given him. Confused about the handwriting, he asks the librarian for "Jude the Obscene").

Stanislaus Joyce.
So where does T. S. Eliot's thoughts fit in? Is reading My Brother's Keeper useful, harmless, or vulgarly impertinent? As "harmless" suggests an idle but not ultimately fruitful interest, I would exclude that immediately. Ultimately, I think reading this biography is useful, but before I go on I should admit to something - for me, it was also impertinent, possibly vulgarly so. I am interested in the lives of authors and artists and I can't always pretend it's an academic interest. Yes, I'm afraid I like to see the baby pictures, the childhood snaps, or indeed portraits, and though it may have no bearing upon the novels of my favourite authors, I do like to know what books they like, whether or not they write in the morning or at night, when they take their tea, and whether or not they enjoy afternoon walks. It is no business of mine, but I excuse it on the grounds that surely it is only human nature to be curious about the 'greats'. Harmless it is, but a touch impertinent.

Back to Joyce: this biography is useful. We learn of James's favourite authors and influences - Henrick Ibsen, Daniel Defoe, William Blake, and Dante ("His gods were Blake and Dante"). We read of the influence of Catholicism on James, that his father was the model for Simon Dedalus of Ulysses and the many episodes, real and dreams, that served to fuel his imagination for his novels and poetry. It's useful and greatly insightful, but this personal touch to it makes it all the more accessible. My Brother's Keeper is not an academic work as such (though it was written by an academic), and this closeness gives a sense of intimacy and ease for the reader. I think it's a great help to anyone intending to tackle James Joyce's works, but it's also a curiosity, and this 'casual learning' (after all I read this simply to enjoy, not to study) is invaluable. It cannot be stressed enough how intensely difficult James Joyce's novels are, and this biography at the very least seems to simplify some matters.

There is, it is clear, a lot of the man in the writing, and so an interest in James Joyce himself is not impertinent - it is desirable (even useful) to shed light on it. And that is precisely what this biography does. Sadly it does not make Finnegans Wake seem like a doddle, or make me want to rush to read Ulysses, but it does demystify it all even if only slightly.

Sadly, as I've said, this is an unfinished work. It comprises of five parts - 'The Soil', 'The Bud', 'Raw Spring', 'Ripening', and 'First Blossom' and takes us from James Joyce's birth to the twenty-two year old in Trieste. Stanislaus died on 16th June 1955, Bloomsday - the day when Joyce fans re-enact the journey and events around Dublin on the day on which Ulysses is set.

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Further Reading

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

The Mabinogion.

The Mabinogion (Y Mabinogion) is a collection of eleven stories from different, unknown authors which were assembled from medieval Welsh texts in the 14th Century under the titles White Book of Rhydderch (1300-1325) and Red Book of Hergest (1375 - 1425). The stories themselves are much older: some are believed to be written in the mid-11th Century, and some older still. Furthermore, like The Iliad and The Odyssey, they come from the oral tradition - finding the very root of them is a very complex business.

In the 19th Century Lady Charlotte Guest translated the tales from White Book of Rhydderch and Red Book of Hegest and titled them The Mabinogion, believed to be the plural of 'Mabinogi', which refers to youthful experience. As Jeffrey Gantz writes in his introduction to the Penguin edition, this title was based on misunderstanding, and a proper title would perhaps be 'Tales from the White Book of Rhydderch'.

These eleven stories tell the myths, legends, folklore, history, and pseudo-history of pre-Christian Wales, England, and Ireland including tales of King Arthur who first appears in 'How Culhwch Won Olwen', or 'Culhwch and Olwen': this is, I've read, the earliest tale of King Arthur in any language. 

Wallia Principatus vulgo Wales, by Joan Blaeu (1662).
The eleven stories may be divided into two parts: The Four Branches of the Mabinogi (Pedeir Ceinc y Mabinogi) and The Romances (Y Rhamantau), though some divide them into three: The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, The Native Tales (Cynhenid Chwedl), and The Three Arthurian Romances (Y Tair Rhamant). The tales are:
  1. Pwyll Lord of Dyfed (Pwyll Pendefig Dyfed
  2. Branwen Daughter of Llyr (Branwen ferch Llŷr)
  3. Manawyddan son of Llyr (Manawyddan fab Llŷr
  4. Math son of Mathonwy (Math fab Mathonwy
  5. The Dream of Maxen (Breuddwyd yr Ymherawdwr Macsen
  6. Lludd and Lleuelys (Antur Lludd a Llefelys
  7. Culhwch and Olwen (Culhwch ac Olwen)  
  8. The Dream of Rhonabwy (Breuddwyd Rhonabwy)  
  9. The Lady of the Lake (Chwedl Iarlles y Ffynon)  
  10. Peredur Son of Evrawg (Hanes Peredur fab Efrawg)
  11. The Tale of Gereint and Enid (Chwedl Gereint vab Erbin
These stories are full of gods and goddesses, of supernatural beings and events - in 'Peredur Son of Evrawg' we have the tree, one vertical half alive and green representing beauty and life, and the other half in flames representing the unknown 'other-world'. Then, in 'Math son of Mathonwy' there is Blodeuwedd, a woman made of flowers who later turns into an owl. There are sheep that change from black to white (giving the name of the term 'Mabinogion Sheep Problem' - this is not something I can fathom so click here for that), giants, talking severed heads, disappearing forts, dream-visions, and even dragons. 

The Mabinogion is essential not only for the insights they offer into Ancient Wales, but also the cultural and even sociological insights into Medieval Wales, the time period when they were assembled. And, of course, these tales will fascinate those learning about King Arthur. For the casual reader, like myself, they were gloriously enchanting: such magical imagery! And I enjoyed reading Welsh Literature, especially this Medieval Welsh. As I read Chaucer I'm becoming more interested in the 14th Century, particularly, of course, literature, so this was a pleasure to read for that alone. I think this will be a book I'll revisit to delve in a little deeper. 

For now, some illustrations: these come from The Boy's Mabinogion edited by Sidney Lanier (1881) with illustrations by Alfred Fredericks. 


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Further Reading

Monday, 15 December 2014

New Grub Street by George Gissing | George Gissing by Virginia Woolf.

New Grub Street was, I believe, George Gissing's ninth novel and was published in three volumes in 1891. I discovered Gissing by chance - I found an old copy of The Nether World (1889) in Barter Books and it had been described by the publisher as "Zola-esque", so naturally I bought it. I'm yet to get round to reading it, though: something's made me hesitant about Gissing, and it took the Classic Club Spin to finally push me to read something by him. He was the 23rd new-author-to-me of the year, and I think it was quite possibly one of the more unsuccessful endeavours. 

The title refers to Grub Street in London, which in 1830 became a part of Milton Street. It was poor area, known for it's bohemian collection of aspiring and sensationalist writers and artists, hack journalists, publishers and booksellers, and a variety of coffee houses and brothels. Perhaps one of its most famous inhabitants was Samuel Johnson, who wrote in his Dictionary (1755) of Grub Street:


["Gay" refers to John Gay, who was quoted in an earlier edition as saying "I'd sooner ballads write, and grubstreet lays"]

By the time George Gissing wrote his novel, Grub Street had not existed for sixty years, but the title New Grub Street invokes these images of cheap, sensationalist novels and writers. Gissing writes of the literary scene and of being a writer in Victorian England as Charles Dickens did in David Copperfield (1850), Henry James in The Tragic Muse (1890) and Émile Zola in L'Œuvre (The Masterpiece, 1885). It came not long after Anthony Trollope's An Autobiography (1883), which some deemed rather shocking for his - as John Goode writes in the introduction of the Oxford University Press edition of New Grub Street "tradesmanlike attitude to writing fiction". Using his own experiences, Gissing writes of Edward Reardon, a moderately talented and impoverished writer who is unwilling to 'sell out' and produce sensationalist novels. He is essentially a victim, caught between his ideals and modernity, mass culture, and capitalism, which is represented by Jasper Milvain, "an alarmingly modern young man" who writes for money and fame whilst despising his readership.

It is a Realist novel based on the conflicts of the literary scene; this dichotomy of art and lowbrow sensationalist mass culture,. It also documents this age of transition as well as writing about the lower classes of Victorian London. As I write this, I wonder why I didn't love it - I think the plot is compelling, and this subject is fascinating: these social novels tend to be my favourites, yet I really didn't care for New Grub Street.

Having read it, I turned to Virginia Woolf's The Common Reader. In the 'Second Series' she wrote an essay on Gissing (simply titled "George Gissing", and it would seem she shared some of my feeling. It is important to note that New Grub Street is heavily inspired by Gissing's own life. Woolf writes,
Partly because he reverenced facts and had no faculty it seems (his language is meagre and unmetaphorical) for impressions, it is doubtful whether his choice of a novelist's career was a happy one.
She goes on,
... whereupon he stands forth as the champion of life as it is, and proclaims that ugliness is truth, truth ugliness, and that is all we know and all we need to know. But there are signs that the novel resents such treatment. To use a burning consciousness of one’s own misery, of the shackles that cut one’s own limbs, to quicken one’s sense of life in general, as Dickens did, to shape out of the murk which has surrounded one’s childhood some resplendent figure such as Micawber or Mrs. Gamp, is admirable: but to use personal suffering to rivet the reader’s sympathy and curiosity upon your private case is disastrous. Imagination is at its freest when it is most generalized; it loses something of its sweep and power, it becomes petty and personal, when it is limited to the consideration of a particular case calling for sympathy.
This turns into a temptation, she warns, of playing everyone's favourite game - literary cluedo. She writes of comparing Gissing with his hero Reardon and feeling "a little glow of satisfaction.... as if novel-reading were a game of skill in which the puzzle set us is to find the face of the writer". 

Woolf is not completely damning of Gissing however, and recognises the importance of his work, that this is not a typical novel of falling in or out of love, and it shows suffering of this nature, this grimness, is a much a part of reality and ought to be included in novels as many other of the familiar themes and topics. She credits him with always thinking, always changing, and trying to document the changing world around him leading her to conclude "an imperfect novelist, but a highly educated man". 

It is, there's no doubt, an interesting book, but for me I've more enjoyed reading about it than actually reading it. The characters weren't real enough to care about, and Gissing doesn't have the force of Zola to convey that message as powerfully. About half way through the novel I mentally gave up and suffered the rest. I don't hate it, and I'm still looking forward to trying The Nether World and The Odd Women, and I know that there are books by authors I love that I dislike: Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf was lost on me, and if I had have read The Joy of Life by Émile Zola first I doubt I would have gone on to read the Rougon Macquart series. All the same, I wish, for my introduction to Gissing, that it had have gone a little better!

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Further Reading

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Reading Challenges for 2015 (II).

I must admit when I reviewed by Reading Challenges for 2015 I was slightly alarmed at how much I had signed up for! But I feel that this year I haven't really pushed myself, and when I saw these two final challenges (and these have to be the final ones) I couldn't resist. So here they are, the two final challenges for 2015:

Back to the Classics Challenge: all the rules are here, and here are my ideas:

  1. A 19th Century Classic: Daniel Deronda by George Eliot.
  2. A 20th Century Classic: Parade's End by Ford Maddox Ford.
  3. A Classic by a Woman AuthorJacob's Room by Virginia Woolf.
  4. A Classic in Translation: Ninety-Three by Victor Hugo. 
  5. A Very Long Classic Novel: Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope.
  6. A Classic Novella: The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan.
  7. A Classic with a Person's Name in the Title: Esther Waters by George Moore.
  8. A Humorous or Satirical Classic: Thank You, Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse.
  9. A Forgotten Classic: Claude's Confession by Émile Zola. 
  10. A Nonfiction Classic: Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey.
  11. A Classic Children's Book: A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett.
  12. A Classic Play: Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov.
The Pre-Printing Press Challenge: These books must have been written before 1440 (all the rules are here). I'm going for the second level: 4 - 6 books. 
  1. Troilus and Criseyde by Geoffrey Chaucer.
  2. The House of Fame by Geoffrey Chaucer.
  3. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.
  4. Daphnis and Cloe by Longus.
  5. The Nibelungenlied.
  6. Piers the Ploughman by William Langland.
And that is it. I can't sign up for any more challenges!

So that's 2015 all mapped out. For December what I really want to do is catch up on everything, do all the things that need to be done so 2015 can start with a clean slate, more or less. Blog-wise, I'm aiming to catch up on my backlog of reviews: I hope to write something on New Grub Street by George Gissing, The Mabinogion, Good Wives by Louisa May Alcott, My Brother's Keeper by Stanislaus Joyce, and Chaucer by Ackroyd. I'm about a third of the way through The Conquest of Plassans by Émile Zola, which I'll want to write about, and the same with A Christmas Carol and Chaucer's The Romaunt of the Rose (though I may not get to it this month). In short, no television for me until 2015! 

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

The Divine Comedy by Dante.


The Divine Comedy (Divina Commedia) is an epic poem by Dante written in the early 14th Century (somewhere, it is estimated, between 1308 and 1321). It is divided into three parts or canticles: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso.

La commedia illumina Firenze
by Domenico di Michelino (15th Century)
It's hard to overestimate the importance of The Divine Comedy on the Western Canon. It inspired Chaucer's House of Fame, John Milton's Lycidas, and Balzac's La Comédie Humaine as well as the works of T. S. Eliot,  C. S. Lewis, Ezra Pound, and Samuel Beckett. Jorge Luis Borges said Divine Comedy was "the best book literature has achieved", and Stanislaus Joyce said of his brother James, "His gods were Blake and Dante". And, as if any other evidence was needed, "Abandon all hope all ye who enter here" (from Inferno Canto III line 9) is one of the most famous quotes in literature.

Reading Dante, therefore, is a serious business and blogging about Dante is rather daunting. Since re-reading it in October I've been meaning to write about it, but when it comes to the likes of Dante it feels sacrilegious to approach reading and subsequent writing so casually as I did when I picked up my book and read Inferno in the space of a single evening. I would like, perhaps even intend to, one of these days, write a review of The Divine Comedy where I go through it and summarise it canto by canto. It is important enough to put such an effort it. But there is a danger, I think, of making the reading of The Divine Comedy a terrifying experience. Many people list it as an "intimidating read", but though a masterpiece, and though densely packed with allegorical, theological, and literary allusions that in the 21st Century we may not appreciate, it is not a terrifying read. The very heart and soul of The Divine Comedy is beautiful and inspiring. It is important enough to want to put a great deal of effort into approaching it, and such efforts will be rewarding, but not doing so will not hamper your enjoyment.

Dante and Beatrice by Henry Holiday (1884).
For one thing, the basic story is enough. That is, in The Divine Comedy Dante describes himself travelling through hell, purgatory, and heaven with his guides Virgil (The Aeneid) and Beatrice (Beatrice Portinari, a girl he met when he was nine, who after her death would become his muse). He begins a sinner in a dark forest, half way through his life, on the eve of Good Friday:
Half way along the road we have to go,
I found myself obscured in a great forest,
Bewildered, and I knew I had lost the way. 
It is hard to say just what the forest was like,
How wild and rough it was, how overpowering;
Even to remember it makes me afraid.
He is rescued by Virgil, the author of The Aeneid (19 BC. The Divine Comedy has been referred to as the 'Danteid', incidentally) who takes him on this epic journey through the nine circles of hell and into the very centre where he meets Satan, the two ante-purgatories (where the ex-communicates and late-repenters dwell) and the seven terraces of purgatory, then finally the nine spheres of heaven climaxing with the Empyrean: the presence of God.

The Abyss of Hell by Sandro Botticelli (1480).
Purgatorio di Dante by Buttazon (19th Century).

'Dante and Beatrice gaze upon the highest Heaven' by Gustave Doré.
On the way Dante meets a vast array of characters and historical figures: Homer, Ovid, and Horace, Virgil of course, Satan, God, Cleopatra, Cassius, Jason, Judas Iscariot, even the Montagues and Capulets. There are so many characters, possibly hundreds, but Dante guides us through it. Though a deeply complex work, there is no sense at all that Dante wishes the reader to work hard for enjoyment, in fact Dante explains each part, each layer, terrace, and sphere, making the reader a part of this journey. Such is the greatness of Dante, the reader is involved, immersed in each and every canto. This is not something we merely observe.

It is true that The Divine Comedy was a product of its time, but it also transcends time, which is why we still read it. There is great attention to theology, science, and culture, but as we see in Paradiso, Dante was aware of this. He wrote, in Paradiso XVII lines 115 - 120:
And afterwards, through heaven from light to light,
I have learned things which, if I repeat them,
Will have a bitter taste for many people; 
And if I am a timid friend to truth,
I fear to lose the life I may have among those
Who will call the present time, ancient times.
The Divine Comedy is a poem to be enjoyed, to be savoured, and to be kept close to our hearts, that is, if we do enjoy it. I don't know how many books, articles, or reviews have been written about this work but I've no doubt it's in the thousands if not tens of thousands! But there is such a danger of being put off Dante. It's intimidating because it's unfamiliar, but reading it, simply reading it, is a joy. I think it frequently inspires people to explore it as much as they can, and I do intend to re-read it again and again and one day I will write in more detail about each canticle. For now, all I want to say is that Dante is not a poet who intends to confuse or belittle us. Not knowing the ins and outs of the popular history and culture of Florence and Italy, or having prior knowledge of theologians and scientists of the medieval period will not diminish the greatness of his work. Making a study of Dante would be illuminating and very worthwhile, but it is not essential. As with the very greatest of classics, the themes are universal, I think we can all identify or recognise many parts of The Divine Comedy.

So consider this a Part I review. Next year, or maybe the year after, I'll return to Dante again and delve deeper. It's an exciting task; Dante should not be an author one dreads. 

Finally, some illustrations by William Blake: