Friday, December 28, 2012

Constellation of Genius

 The footnotes - and there are plenty of them - in Kevin Jackson's brilliant account of Modernism in 1922 are printed in a fetching purplish shade. I wondered, as I read, enthralled, whether this was a subliminal allusion to Eliot's phrase from The Waste Land,  when Tiresias observes the assault by the  clerk on the young typist:
At the violet hour, when the eyes and back
Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits
Like a taxi throbbing waiting...

Even if that isn't the intention, it's very effective - as well as being pleasing on the eye, it makes  a welcome visual distinction between the main text and the supporting apparatus. Given the extensive nature of some of the notes, in which Jackson offers contextual and biographical information on his extensive cast of characters, separating the notes visually makes sense.

[digression: when a cocktail bar called The Violet Hour opened near us, I thought someone must be an Eliot fan, but the quotation on their menu was not one I was familiar with. It turns out that someone called Bernard deVoto wrote what he risibly called a "cocktail manifesto" in which the following description of the cocktail hour occurs:
 “This is the violet hour, the hour of hush and wonder, when the affections grow and valor is reborn.”
It doesn't have the menace of the Eliot line, but presumably Mr DeVoto pinched it from Tom, and that's fair enough, considering how much Tom pinched from others.]

Constellation of Genius is one of those brilliantly simple ideas that seem so obvious once someone else has come up with it: it's an almanac of the peak year of Modernism, 1922, the year of The Waste Land and Ulysses. The year is reported chronologically,  arranged in twelve (obviously) chapters, with an introductory scene-setting account of the state of play at the start of the year, and a fascinating 'Aftermath' section which deals with the post-1922 careers of the main players, and many of the minor ones too. Each month chronicles the events in the lives of the artists, writers,  composers, film-makers, and others who might loosely be said to have formed the avant-garde of the time. Although the focus is mainly on the Anglo-American modernists, with Joyce and Eliot dominating, the scope is very broad, with datelines (also in violet) ranging from New York to Prague, Moscow to Cairo, Tokyo to Granada. Across this global stage strut a dazzling array of characters, vividly portrayed by Jackson: just a few of the figures covered are Eliot, Pound, Joyce, Woolf, Lawrence, Lorca, Hemingway, Forster, Proust in literature; Chaplin, Fairbanks, Eisenstein, Murnau, von Stroheim, Lang in film; Wittgenstein,  Russell, Bateson  in philosophy; Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Gershwin, Louis Armstrong in music; Dali, Breton, Picasso, Matisse, Man Ray in art; an astonishingly diverse supporting cast, as well as cameos from the major political figures of the time, from Lloyd George to Mussolini, with peripheral appearances by Ho Chi Minh, Lenin, Stalin and Hitler.

The ambition of this book is to be commended, and Kevin Jackson has fulfilled that ambition brilliantly, producing a narrative that really manages to convey the flavour of that extraordinary year. The diary format works to his advantage, allowing the reader to discover the development of a particular event in stages, such as Eliot's efforts to launch the Criterion,  juxtaposed with often completely contrasting threads, but all of which contribute to the accumulated sense of an incredibly rich artistic milieu. What really struck me, though, was the domestic detail, often about money - Pound's efforts to get people to subscribe to a fund to support Eliot, Woolf hoping she could sell her copy of Ulysses for £4.10s, Hemingway marvelling at how luxuriously he could live in Paris because of the exchange rate after the war, Joyce forever seeking patronage. The interconnections between the artists are mapped meticulously, often giving rise to some highly entertaining accounts of chance encounters - Proust and Joyce failing to agree about truffles, or Forster trying to prevent Hardy doing his "Grand Old Man of English Letters" shtick. One method used repeatedly is to give very precise details of the whereabouts of the participants - Woolf isn't bitching about Katherine Mansfield in Bloomsbury, she's in a bed that's been moved to the lounge at Hogarth House; Cocteau isn't holding court at a Paris night club, he's at Le Boeuf sur le Toit.

Reading this book reminded me of reading Clive James's Cultural Amnesia - the same breadth of interest, the same verve in the language, the same eye for the telling detail, and a few overlapping figures. And like the James book, this one leaves me with much more to explore. I do have some quibbles: illustrations would be a great improvement in a second edition (surely there'll be one?), as would some attention to the dates of Hardy, who's granted eighteen extra years, and Wells, who's docked ten. And I'd have liked a mention for May Sinclair's The Life and Death of Harriett Frean. But these are really very minor matters, and must not detract from a really excellent piece of work, which should be devoured by anyone with an interest in twentieth century culture.

Maybe that new edition will have another item in the bibliography: serendipitously, as I sat down to write this,  I noticed a reference to a new book on Modernism - At the Violet Hour. Looks interesting!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

City of Ravens

To Cromford, in the Peak district, largely to visit the excellent Scarthin Books, a rambling, old-fashioned second-hand bookshop, crammed with bibliographic treasure, and a very pleasant café to boot. Acting on instructions from 'er indoors, and taking account of the overcrowded bookcases Chez Topsy, we emerged with just one book - City of Ravens by Boria Sax. This Sax cove is well-represented in the home library, since his books are usually about the representation of animals in literature, particularly European, an area of scholarly interest to she-who-must-be-obeyed. Isn't Boria Sax a great name for a scholar? It exudes a kind of mittel-Europa or Bohemian sensibility, I think. I wonder if he is a relative of the inventor of what Homer Simpson calls the Saxomophone?

This little book is a fascinating account of the ways in which birds of the corvidae family are associated with omens, prophecies and other dark doings. Sax's account  of the legend of the ravens of the Tower of London, which forms a kind of centrepiece in this short book, is fascinating. I - and you, I suspect, dear reader - always assumed that the legend that England would fall if the ravens disappeared from the tower was one steeped in antiquity. Sax, however, puzzled that he could find no reference to the ravens in medieval or seventeenth-century literature, and maintaining a scholarly scepticism to the non-footnoted official guide, discovered that the birds were actually introduced in the late nineteenth century, and that the "legend" dates from as recently as the Second World War, when, in the Blitz, England might well have fallen.

This startling nugget is one of many in a volume that ranges from Anglo-Saxon to the present day, referring one moment to The Mabinogion and the next to James Joyce, by way of Harrison Ainsworth and Claude Lévi-Strauss. The book is academic, in that there is an extensive bibliography, and it is clearly a work of painstaking scholarship, but it is not dry; Sax is happy to add a personal touch, and to write in an accessible and sometimes humorous way. His career has not been that of a conventional academic, as his quirky website confirms, but his books on the area of animals in literature and mythology are authoritative. This lovely little book is a great addition to his canon.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Make it New

Slack blogging around here of late, but I haven't been completely idle. There was a blog for my Modernism students, which is still current, and available here. New posts to follow shortly.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Thunder Demons

Back in November last year,  my birthday weekend was spent in Amsterdam. We chose Amsterdam because we'd never been there, and because my friend Dipika Mukherjee was hosting the European launch of her novel Thunder Demons there. Dipika is professor of linguistics at Chicago and Shanghai universities, an affiliated Fellow at the International Institute of Asian Studies in the Netherlands, and also writes poetry and fiction. I suspect she doesn't sleep.
Thunder Demons is a fast-paced thriller whose initial premise is based on an actual event, the mysterious murder of a Mongolian model in Malaysia. Although the work is clearly fiction, the use of a similar murder as the starting point for the action allows Dipika to explore the murky world of Malaysian politics in the context of a swiftly-unfolding story that centres on the intertwined lives of an airport worker, Agni, and an expatriate researcher, Jay Ghosh, who is returning to Malaysia at the prompting of the sinister Colonel S. Although the novel is set in contemporary Malaysia, and the action takes place over the course of a week, the plot delves back into Malaysia's colonial past for some of its key details.
At one level, this is a love story, but at another it's a discomforting examination of the state of the nation fifty-odd years after independence. Dipika, who is originally from India, and is married to a Malaysian national, writes tellingly about the tensions that lie beneath the surface of the "truly Asia" Malaysia of the tourist brochures. This is ultimately a dark, occasionally shocking story of political chicanery, casual brutality and racial tension. The thriller aspect makes it a page-turner, but the deeper themes remain long in the mind after the dramatic conclusion.
The novel isn't available in the UK, but can be had from Amazon US and the usual online sites.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Mayer Hersh

Yesterday was graduation day at Edge Hill for students in my department. It was great to see them all together, in their academic robes, and to be part of the ceremony.  This year's ceremony was different to most, in that we awarded an honorary degree to Mayer Hersh. As a survivor of Auschwitz, he would be remarkable by any standards. That he has dedicated the latter half of his life to educating people about the Holocaust, particularly through the Holocaust Educational Trust. makes him even more so. My colleague Prof Kevern Verney made the presentation, and Mr Hersh then made a very moving and and thought-provoking response, in which he recounted his experiences.The ceremony can be viewed here, and an interview is available here.
To be in his presence as he recounted how his life changed irrevocably when Germany invaded Poland the day after his thirteenth birthday, was a privilege. Many in the audience were moved to tears by his speech, at the end of which he received a standing ovation, something I've never witnessed at a graduation ceremony.
Too often, universities give honorary degrees to people because they are celebrities. In this case, we honoured a truly worthy figure, who, in the face of unimaginable cruelty, had dedicated his life to fighting prejudice. Never forget.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Ways of Seeing

To the Burgess to see Kathleen Jamie talk about her new book of essays, Sightlines. I have long admired Jamie's poetry, but in the essay form, I think she has found her true métier. The previous volume of short prose pieces, Findings, was a delight from start to finish: Sightlines is better. Both titles give a clue as to what is contained within - these are essays of observation and reflection, mostly, but not completely, of the natural world. What strikes the reader is the originality of the observations, particularly of the relatively mundane. She has a knack of seeing things from a startlingly original perspective, and she is able to communicate that vision in clear, sinuous language that delights and entertains.
The launch event was well-attended, and was set up, rather awkwardly I thought, as an interview with readings. Early on, though, Kathleen Jamie took control, and the questions became more like prompts for the next passage to be read. The scope of this, as with the previous volume, is wide. As well as the treatment of landscape, particularly of her native Scotland, the book chronicles Jamie's investigation into the strange landscapes of cell biology seen through a hospital microscope, the Aurora Borealis, and the sight of a group of killer whales on the hunt.
She announced before the first reading that her journey to Greenland, detailed in the first essay in the book, was occasioned by a carpe diem realisation that she had reached middle age without seeing an iceberg. Her account of the journey takes in both the natural beauty of the land- and seascape, as well as the trials of a rough sea voyage. She reads with great clarity - not always the case when authors read their own work - and evokes the scenes she describes effortlessly.
The final reading was the dramatic account of the sight of killer whales off the coast of Rona, the island forty miles of the coast of Scotland, once inhabited, but now deserted, like St Kilda. In this essay, Jamie moves seamlessly from the ominous description of the whales' arrival to the almost slapstick scene where the members of the groups she is with run around the headland chasing the whales as they hug the coastline below in search of prey.
The book is a delight, the photographs complementing the vivid writing. Each essay leaves the reader feeling that something has been illuminated in a rare and poetic way. This will sit on my shelf next to George Mackay Brown, than which I have no higher praise.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Silver Seas

 It's already March, and I haven't posted this year. I haven't been completely in hibernation, though - in fact, I've quite a lot to report on, so I will start by offering some thoughts on a gig attended last night, and I'll try to pick out some highlights from the last few months in subsequent posts.
To the Ruby Lounge with 'er indoors to see and hear Nashville's Silver Seas. A Twitter comment by Danny Baker, whom God preserve, led me to check this group out, and their work has had, as they say, heavy rotation chez Topsyturvydom since. The line-up for this tour is the core members Daniel Tashian as the front man and guitarist and Jason Lehning on keyboards, with a rhythm section of the impressively bearded Lex Price on bass, and David Gehrke on drums. And they can play! In the awkward space of the Ruby lounge, they soon had a an audience of, shall we say, largely mature people bouncing around and singing out as they ran through a selection of songs mainly from the Chateau Revenge album.
The music is bright, intelligent pop. There's nothing particularly demanding about it, but Tashian certainly knows how to construct a memorable song, with lyrics that are by turns urbane and wistful. The music is characterised by driving guitars, often ethereal keyboard sounds, and occasional Beach Boy-esque harmonies. The songs have melodies, hooks, and rarely last more than three minutes or so - perfect pop songs, in other words.
Half way through the gig, Tashian announced they had worked up a cover version, and launched into an upbeat rendition of Daydream Believer, accompanied lustily by the audience, in commemoration of the Mancunian Davy Jones. A perfect choice.
My friend Knappsterino often films at venues like this down in Bristol. I noticed several people doing just that, so doubtless the results will be up on YouTube soon. Meanwhile, someone posted a bit of Daydream Believer from the Glasgow gig:
Update: Here's "Kid" from the Ruby Lounge gig, complete with irritating tossers talking through it: