‘To Autumn’ by William Blake

When I think of Blake, I generally think of madness and intensity and gothic splendour.

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Blake’s ‘Ancient of Days’ illustration of the biblical book of Daniel

I tend to forget he also wrote poems of innocence and some really charming verses about the simple pleasures of nature.  Of course, one of the joys of keeping a blog is that all my literary resolutions can be recorded – this year, I want to remember some of the happiness in Blake as well as his awe inspiring oddness.  Just take his poem ‘To Autumn’

O Autumn, laden with fruit, and stained
With the blood of the grape, pass not, but sit
Beneath my shady roof; there thou mayst rest,
And tune thy jolly voice to my fresh pipe,
And all the daughters of the year shall dance!
Sing now the lusty song of fruits and flowers.

“The narrow bud opens her beauties to
The sun, and love runs in her thrilling veins;
Blossoms hang round the brows of Morning, and
Flourish down the bright cheek of modest Eve,
Till clust’ring Summer breaks forth into singing,
And feather’d clouds strew flowers round her head.

“The spirits of the air live on the smells
Of fruit; and Joy, with pinions light, roves round
The gardens, or sits singing in the trees.”
Thus sang the jolly Autumn as he sat;
Then rose, girded himself, and o’er the bleak
Hills fled from our sight; but left his golden load.

I’m currently in the middle of the third section of Powell’s ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ so the image of the ‘daughters of the year’ in the first section fits right in to my seasonal mood, but more than that, I really wanted to share this joyful poem that so cheerfully subverts the dour symbolic treatment afforded autumn in too much of my reading.

For Blake, the season might be ‘stained’ at the start, but only with the wine used to celebrate its hurried glory.  Autumn here is, rightly, not a melancholy companion slouching after spring and summer, but their boisterous more-than-equal. Spring begins as ‘modest‘, before the world ‘breaks forth into singing‘ during the warmer months; it is autumn that speaks for them all, fulfilling the year’s promise.

With the wind gusting outside, I think I can really appreciate the way autumn is the season of joyful sounds.  I do love the way Blake’s poem shows me a vision of the year so rarely seen in literature.  Take the noise and liveliness of the poem for example, the number of references to autumn singing in the poem far supersede those of the quieter times of the year, indeed half the poem is put into the mouth of its protagonist.  Autumn is also referred to as ‘jolly’ not once, but twice, bracketing the poem with a bonhomie I usually associate with personifications of Christmas rather than of Halloween.

Ah autumn. Maybe if I was more reflective I could have chosen today to write about Keats’ ‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ but instead I’m going to enjoy Blake’s far more lively version of this golden time of year.

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A Fin de Siècle Fantasy: ‘Psyche’ by Louis Couperus

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“My gentle Psyche!” Said he.  “My child and my wife and my tender princess! Kneel not to me.  In love it is sweet to give and to suffer.  Love gives, and love suffers”

Oh, there’s nothing like a good, overblown, Freudian-inflected fairy tale.  What with quests, trials and a naked girl who falls in love with a winged horse (see the beautiful Jan Toorop cover above) ‘Psyche’ luxuriates in exaggerated emotions, settings and symbolism.  It is inspired by the classical story of Cupid and Psyche, and it was delightful to find Robert Graves’ translation of the original myth included in my rather wonderful Puskin edition.  Couperus clearly felt that there was no need to simply rehash a traditional tale though, he may have loved the name and a few of the themes, but his ‘Psyche’ is absolutely a stand alone work.

‘Psyche’ begins with the three daughters of the King of the Past.  The oldest is of surpassing beauty and pride, the second ‘possessed all the wisdom of the earth‘.  Meanwhile, the youngest has the privilege of nakedness (seriously) and makes friends with flowers, birds and butterflies.  Her joys, sorrows, loves and tribulations will take her to the ends of the earth and it is an indication of the magic of Couperus’ prose that while my 21st century brain wanted nothing better than to poke fun at the whole misogynistic mess, I couldn’t help but be enthralled by Psyche’s story.

The book is made up of dreams and nightmares, with every fantastical setting so precisely and beautifully written my cynicism melted away.  While images of butterflies might seem clichéd, the repeated symbols of stones and fire felt new and original as they get used in ever more frightening scenarios.  Even the naked girl and winged horse moments become staggering set pieces evoking fear, danger, love and loss.  As a fan of the Gothic, I’m no stranger to literary descents into hell, but I think Couperus may have given me a new favourite towards the end of this novel.

Couperus is most famous for his novel Eline Vere, which I haven’t yet read but am determined to get my hands on.  Meanwhile, if you want an English translation of ‘Pysche’ you’re in luck.  I read a paperback edition translated by B. S Berrington and have since learned that this version is in the public domain and can be found online at https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Psyche_(Couperus).  We can’t all escape reality on the back of a mystical flying horse, but I can think of no better way to delve into a magical world than through Couperus’ enthralling fairy tale.

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A Classic Western: ‘Lonesome Dove’ by Larry McMurtry

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I never would have called myself a fan of Westerns.  As a bookish woman who loves living in London, I felt that even the premise of epic escapism would not be enough to make me want to spend imaginary time in the Wild West.  It was reading ‘The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones‘ and ‘Close Range: Wyoming Stories‘ earlier this year that made me realise I was missing something.  It is true, I would never actually want to experience the harsh, cruel lives depicted in such novels, but I that didn’t mean I couldn’t thoroughly enjoy hours spent in the company of these fictional cowboys and outlaws as they stoically faced all kinds of adversity.

‘Lonesome Dove’ takes its name from a tired corner of Texas, home to a couple of retired rangers, and their ragged band of employees.   The two pass their time lazing (Augustus) and working (Call) and seem to spend their lives bickering.  A sample cause of contention gives an wonderful indication of the tenor of their days:

There was not even a respectable shade tree within twenty or thirty miles; in fact, the actual location of the nearest decent shade was a matter of vigorous debate in the offices – if you wanted to call a roofless barn and a couple of patched up corrals offices – of the Hat Creek Cattle Company, half of which Augustus owned.
His stubborn partner, Captain W. F. Call, maintained that there was excellent shade as close as Pickles Gap, only twelve miles away, but Augustus wouldn’t allow it.  Pickles Gap was if anything a more worthless community than Lonesome Dove…

Personally, I would have happily spent the whole of the close-to-850-page of the novel at Lonesome Dove, along with Gus, Call, the cook Bolivar and the hands Pea Eye, Deets and Newt.  I and the characters however were all shaken out of the heat induced stupor when an old acquaintance rides up with news of opportunities up North.  It seems like no time at all before the men have packed up the ranch and acquired hundreds of cattle and a motley array of sought and unsought human companions to start a monumental trek up to the fertile highlands of Montana.

Friends, lovers and enemies are found and lost as they all take part in their individual quests across America.  Along with those who survive the deadly conditions (the variety and number of deaths is quite staggering) I fell in love with the landscape and scale of the American wilderness.  As its characters make their way across the country, ‘Lonesome Dove’ engages with complex notions of identity, ownership, liberty and power, providing escapism without any sugar coated fantasy.  Whether you’re considered trying out Western fiction, or are simply on the look out for a hearty and satisfying autumn read, I recommend settling down, in shade or sun, with this (officially) Great American Novel.

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A Classic Class War Novel: ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ by Robert Tressell

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‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ was first published in 1914 and is written in the spirit of the age, depicting suffering and injustice and foretelling great conflict in the near future.  Tressell is not interested in the World War he did not live to see however, but in the struggle against an abusive society in which the masses were systematically oppressed by the few.

If that description seems a bit stark and lacking subtlety, it’s because I’m attempting to get into the spirit of the novel, in which all messages are made boldly and with as much satirical detail as possible.  No opportunity to labour the point is missed and, for fans of nineteenth and twentieth century literature, there is a lot of incidental enjoyment from seeing Tressell make use of standard literary tropes to drive home his agenda.  Thus we have Dickensian villains as the owners of the means of production (their names include Grinder, Didlum, Starver, Slumprent and D’Encloseland).  Bravely inhabiting the opposite side of the scales are a handful of socialist workers, whose ability to spout pages and pages of erudite, sophisticated and grammatically perfect English stands in stark contrast to the genuinely believable characters who are harangued by each side in turn.

To my mind, it is these characters who shine through as the heroes of the book.  They certainly provide its title, and we’re told how ‘all through the summer the crowd of ragged-trousered philanthropists continued to toil and sweat at their noble and unselfish task of making money for Mr Rushton.’  The book is set within Mudtown and, with few digressions, takes us through a year of back-breaking work and poverty-stricken unemployment.  If the names of the evil capitalists and the diction of the good socialists seem dated, the realism of the ‘philanthropists’ themselves has endured in an inescapably powerful presentation of endemic social inequality.  While the heroic Owen’s lectures can be hard to wade through, the responses of his audience, the fellow workers who support the status quo while suffering terribly from it, are frighteningly plausible.  We see how those who have most to lose from anti-welfare policies are the most fervent defenders of an unequal society and how temporary labourers at daily risk of unemployment still passionately believe that those without work are lazy and have chosen to scrounge.

‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ is a classic for its presentation of working life in the early years of the twentieth century.  It is admirable for its attempts to fit a socialists political polemic into the bourgeois confines of a traditional novel.  Sadly, it is frighteningly relevant to anyone trying to make sense of inequalities and bigotry that still surround us.  Personally, it made me both value the way society has changed over the last century and fear for what lies ahead; I found it a powerful novel with importance messages about the past, the present and the future.

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Secrets and surprises: ‘The Key’ by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki

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From Adrian Mole to Zamyatin’s ‘We’, from ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ to Bridget Jones, very few things beat a good diary entry novel.  And if a single diary wasn’t powerful enough, the run-away success of Flynn’s ‘Gone Girl’ shows how much fun it is to explore the potential twists and turns when a second voice is added to the mix.  In Tanizaki’s ‘The Key’ we begin with a middle aged man’s provocative New Year’s entry:

This Year I intend to begin writing freely about a topic which, in the past, I have hesitated even to mention here.  I have always avoided commenting on my sexual relations with Ikuko, for fear that she might surreptitiously read my diary and be offended.  I dare say she knows exactly where to find it.  But I have decided not to worry about that anymore.

The next chapter in the book is dated the fourth of January.  In it, Ikuko records in her own journal how she came across the key to her husband’s diary when cleaning his room.  The discovery is treated with suspicion:

Why should he have dropped the key in a place like that?  Has he changed his mind and decided he wants me to read it?  Perhaps he realises I’d refuse if he asked me to, so he’s telling me: ‘You can read it in private – here’s the key.’  Does that mean he thinks I haven’t found it?  No, isn’t he saying rather: From now on I acknowledge that you’re reading it, but I’ll keep on pretending you’re not?’
Well, never mind.  Whatever he thinks, I shall never read it.

Later on, her own diary will be discovered under similarly ambiguous circumstances.  Anyone who’s read ‘Gone Girl’ recently will be familiar with the thrill of unpicking the same story through the different perceptions of its two protagonists.  In ‘The Key’ however, the suspense created is far more claustrophobic and the power relations considerably more complex.  We know both our narrators are devious and manipulative, sexual and naive.  Their interactions with the other two characters in the tightly woven drama (the daughter and her potential suitor) show them to also be selfish and even cruel.  The ideas of sacrifice and morality are cooly explored, along with more traditional shared-diary themes of voyeurism and truth.

I’m worried about spoilers so I don’t want to say too much about the plot (I found it chilling, unexpected and extremely satisfying).  As for the writing style, my edition was translated by Howard Hibbett, whom I have previously praised for his excellent translation of Tanizaki’s Quicksand.  Given the strict economy of this 160 page novel, the writing has to both subtle and simple for the story and characters to work; I can’t imaging any other translation succeeding quite so well.

‘The Key’ disturbed me and enthralled me.  Just re-reading and typing out the quotations in this post felt like standing on the edge of an abyss, about to fall back into the mess of illusion, understanding, secrecy and exposure that make up the central marriage.  Highly recommended as an introduction to one of the greatest Japanese writers of the last century, or as a reminder of his versatility and talent if you’re already a Tanizaki fan.

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Mourning the end of August: ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ (part 2 – summer) by Anthony Powell

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The first volume of Powell’s ‘A Dance to the Music of Time‘ brought much joy to my spring reading.  I love long books that give the luxury of total immersion in a luxurious setting and the aristocratic, privileged world of Powell’s sophisticated characters fit the bill perfectly.

It’s sad to think that I’m already half way through the sequence.  It’s also quite hard to believe.  Frankly, the characters’ chaotic lives seem, if anything, even less settled than they did hundreds of pages earlier.  Even the most ambitious or determined have not yet reached their goals; Widmerpool is neither Prime Minister nor, completely, a captain of industry while Stringham has not yet succeeded in drinking himself into an early grave.  Leaving aside death and taxes, nearly all characters busy themselves with falling in and out of love and marriage.  The idea of dance is fully brought to life as characters move in and out of relationships in almost choreographed moves.  Even our generally featureless narrator has his role, managing to get and stay married in between witnessing his contemporaries’ fraught romances.

As with the ‘Spring’ novels, each of the summer books comes with a brilliantly evocative title and its own new developments to the characters’ live as they make their way through the early decades of the twentieth century:

Volume 4: ‘At Lady Molly’s’, continues the story exactly where I had hoped.  In it, Widmerpool gets engaged to an eccentric, older and significantly more experienced woman.  The ensuring gut-wrenching embarrassment of the situation should be evident, but the plot twists still manage to surprise.

Volume 5: ‘Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant’ has possibly my favourite title of the whole series.  This is partly for personal reasons (I’m a fan of Casanova’s writings, and at least equally fond of Chinese food) but also for the wider connotations of the name, spelled out in Powell’s inimitable prose:

The name Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant offered one of those unequivocal blendings of disparate elements of the imagination which suggest a whole new state of mind or way of life.  The idea of Casanova giving his name to a Chinese restaurant linked not only the East with the West, the present with the past, but also, more parochially, suggested by its own incongruity an immensely suitable place for all of us to have dinner that night.

The volume has its own ‘blending of East and West’ or at the very least of parochially exotic incongruities.  New characters are introduced, not much happens, and I enjoyed all of it.

Volume 6: ‘The Kindly Ones’.  This title is a euphemism for the Furies and the book leads up to the Second World War.  Indeed, the coming conflict overshadows the whole volume, bringing a sense that summer inescapably bleeds into the death and decay of autumn.

I am looking forward to getting started on the next part of the series, but I am also a little concerned about the bleakness that lies ahead.  The year-long cycle of the sequence suggests that the best is over and that the decline will be slow and painful.  The historical period covered could easily follow this pattern – so I’m afraid I’ll be left with only the comforting constant of Widmerpool’s awfulness and Powell’s subtly satirical prose.  And the fact that volume 10 is entitled ‘Books do furnish a Room’.  I’m looking forward to that one!

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An Italian Classic ‘The Betrothed’ by Alessandro Manzoni

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‘The Betrothed’ starts with a cowardly cleric being threaten with unnamed reprisals if he performs a marriage ceremony for a peasant couple against the wishes of the evil Don Rodrigo.  The fearful priest resolves to obey these commands, cursing his misfortune at being caught between his religious duty (he has already promised to perform the wedding ceremony) and the inescapable power of the bullying baron.

Thus begins a epic story of tyranny and love. The peasant couple are of appropriately heroic stock – poor but honest, she is of surpassing beauty, modesty and virtue.  He is slightly more human, but equally impotent against the vicissitudes of fortune.  And what vicissitudes there are.  Apart from ‘bravos’, essentially gang enforcers roving the countryside unopposed, the book will cover blackmail, abduction, riots, war, famine and plague; it’s a historical novel that depicts the best of seventeenth century chaos through the refined lens of nineteenth century melodrama.

Most enjoyable from my perspective, were the moments when the book was most reminiscent of contemporary Gothic fiction.  ‘The Monk’ by Lewis was published in 1796 and Radcliffe’s ‘The Italian’ came out a year later.  I hope it’s not too much of a stretch to look for similarities between these enjoyable pieces of Gothic silliness and Manzoni’s Italian classic, first published in 1827.  I certainly got my  beautiful and virtuous heroine, my dastardly aristocratic villains and the decadence and corruption of religious orders (Diderot’s ‘The Nun’ was also published in 1796).  The fact that this book is Italian and so not written with a Protestant or secular world view added a twist to the familiar themes.  While hypocrites are under attack, the Catholic Church remains a force for good in the novel.  Indeed, when a key character makes a sacred oath to forsake marriage and take holy orders, none of my previous reading could prepare me for how the plot would deal with this potentially insurmountable barrier to a final happy ending.

As you can tell, I really enjoyed the story and characters in ‘The Betrothed.’  All that prevents me from wholeheartedly recommending it to others is the thorny issue of translation.  I alternated between a heavy paperback edition of the book (trans by Archibald Colquhoun) and a weird Kindle version from project Gutenberg (which claims to be written by a Count O’Mahony).  I can’t imagine either do justice to the Italian original and only hope one of the many wonderful publishers currently specialising in literature in translation will be bringing out a more readable English edition of this classic soon.  If anyone has read a good translation please do let me know, in its absence I’m going to work on remembering the exaggerated events of the novel while trying to forget the distorted sentences of the translations.

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