Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

No, I don’t wish to contribute much more to the tonnage of comment on the works of W. H. Auden. I just want to add this feather.

Here’s a poem Auden wrote, I have no idea why. It’s from The Sea and The Mirror, and takes up themes from Shakespeare’s the Tempest…but I don’t care.

Warm are the still and lucky miles,
White shores of longing stretch away,
A light of recognition fills
The whole great day, and bright
The tiny world of lovers’ arms.

Silence invades the breathing wood
Where drowsy limbs a treasure keep,
Now greenly falls the learned shade
Across the sleeping brows
And stirs their secret to a smile.

Restored! Returned! The lost are borne
On seas of shipwreck home at last:
See! In a fire of praising burns
The dry dumb past, and we
Our life-day long shall part no more.


Read the above, and you presume you’ve been reading rhymed verse. But look hard. No rhymes!


Then look harder again. Or hear harder.

The first stressed word of the third line in each stanza rhymes with the last of the fourth.

The first and third lines end in consonant rhyme: it’s delicate, but perceptible.

Even more devilish is the way the second line rhymes fully with the front half of the fourth. (In tricky Auden fashion, there’s no caesura in “Across the sleeping brows”, but the ear still picks up the rhyme because of the quantity of the rhyming syllable, sleep-, and the weakness of the surrounding syllables.)

As if that’s not enough, check out the quasi-rhymes of the middle of the first lines and the ends of the third lines. And the fainter consonant rhymes at the end of each caesura in the first line of each stanza: still-miles, invades-wood, returned-borne. Subtle but audible – and he meant to do it.

All very deliberate…and all quite wonderful. And there’s more deliberate music, beyond those half-buried rhymes and assonances. There are metrical intricacies, too, and much attention to syllabic quantity. Note the slight bump in the metre at the penultimate line, with an alliteration right on the bump.

So clever. So pretty. Why does nobody talk about these things?


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In discussing a certain French author, there’s a temptation to illustrate with fluffy and sensuous impressionist pieces evoking his era and favourite locations: pictures by Manet and Renoir depicting the delights of late 19th century Paris, the Seine on weekends, and so forth. But see here:

Above are pictures by the academy painter, Meissonier. Still eclipsed by the ongoing fad for impressionism, he was nonetheless one of the great professionals, specialising in war and mess.

Meissonier makes an unlikely and comical appearance as a character in Guy de Maupassant’s Sundays of a Paris Bourgeois; and if anything serves to illustrate Maupassant, it is the grim clarity of this underrated master, who was probably an acquaintance of the writer.

See here:

Napoleon rides through dirty snow from a defeat on French soil: a defeat by Blücher after Moscow and before Waterloo. No impressions here. Meissonier’s definition and balance make a clear statement of pessimism matched by grand persistence.

That picture – not the emperor – is Maupassant. A godless clarity. An alluring desolation. Guy de Maupassant really is unforgivable…

…yet we forgive. Why?

Some of the answer lies in that for which he is most often and justly praised. Style. Maupassant’s style goes far beyond the clarity already mentioned. He treats his readers as royal guests, and in this he stands supreme: consciousness of the other, the reader.

No misanthrope was ever so compulsively courteous.


Les Dimanches d’un Bourgeois de Paris, Sundays of a Paris Bourgeois, fell to hand (or, I should say, to mouse) at a time when I was reading distractedly and without relish. It was short, episodic, and broken by illustrations, something that usually appeals. Though I’ve read and re-read much of Maupassant over the years, this one was new to me.

Maupassant encountered Flaubert through family ties, and it was Flaubert who encouraged him to write never elaborately, but always laboriously; to seek out the right phrase, to put it in the perfect spot within its sentence, to relate sentence to paragraph so that the reader digests all with gusto and ease. The point is always made, the character or place is sketched unforgettably…yet the labour is for the writer, never for the reader.

And Maupassant surpassed his teacher, as we see in the case of Les Dimanches.

A loose series of sketches, the book describes the late-life aspirations of a narrow, unmarried Paris bureaucrat, M. Patissot, his attempts to widen his horizons after the age of fifty. It’s funny, sharpish, and full of those situations that we all recognise from our own attempts to “break out” and “widen horizons” and so on. So typically of Maupassant, while pretending to be about very little, it burrows to our secret, embarrassing cores.

Patissot’s purchase of outdoor equipment has a particularly contemporary feel. Even today, in Paris it’s a hideously complicated and expensive affair. The customer of a single business may be obliged to walk to a different street for each different item, and to pay up to five times the price of a good internet outlet. The French are the biggest suckers for the famous présentation franςaise.

The account of the protagonist’s first weekend outing with his new equipment is full of a gentle mockery that, in Maupassant’s earlier and happier period, stayed within bounds. A fall, a broken wine bottle and wet lunch, getting lost, a chance romantic hookup that comes to nothing…little happens, yet how we feel for this man! And for ourselves?

To this day, a Paris bureaucrat is a creature of fear and habit. Yet the book, while taking the protagonist from one mild failure to another, does not end with him scampering back to his office and old ways. Maupassant does not betray his character. While M. Patissot’s romantic fumblings, his excruciating encounters with Zola and Meissonier, his miserable efforts at fishing etc all come to nothing, he shows a surprising curiosity and capacity for friendship.

At the very end, he meets yet another chance acquaintance – a skeptic at at a radical feminist symposium! – and drifts off for a drink and a chat.

The worst of this book, like the worst of Maupassant, are the vulgar and “suggestive” episodes, the useless dross that excited Victorian readers and earned Maupassant his “reputation” in the Anglosphere. God knows what the purpose of that was. Sales? The French are bad at that sort of thing, and none worse than Maupassant, a normand, orthodox and conservative to the bone. The sleaze was such a bad fit, and got worse as his mental health declined and syphilis set in.

But the famous and boring immoralité is not today’s subject.

Les Dimanches is a great book because we start by disliking Patissot as a bluffing mediocrity, as we hate our own bluff and mediocrity. We finish by enjoying his wholesome aspirations to know more and do more, however futile; we admire his obtuse curiosity, and belated discovery of his fellow man, if only on weekends. Unlike many reading types, and unlike me, Patissot is a startlingly tolerant fellow. We wish him many more silly and adventurous Sundays.


Because of his background and insight into petty livelihoods, one might imagine Maupassant as an inadequate bookish type who, like Patissot with his fishing, ventured into short fiction, only with luck.


Guy de Maupassant was able to use his early impoverished experiences to shape his stories of muddlers and mediocrities. The man himself was dynamic with, obviously, a stupendous capacity for work. He was also a competitive athlete, and, if you peer behind the 19th century face-hair, a heartthrob. Frenetic sex cost him his life and sanity, yet, as with Liszt, the sex usually came to him.

He did venture into long fiction: one of his novels, Bel Ami, was a blockbuster and another, Une Vie, one of the great novels of the century. Maupassant the non-novelist is a myth, perhaps caused by the great popularity of his shorter pieces. The mindless repetition of the myth is entirely mysterious, since Bel Ami and Une Vie are known and available everywhere.

But  he was not one of his own mediocre characters. Syphilis aside, Maupassant’s tragedy was maybe spiritual. Pascalian. Misère de l’homme sans dieu, and so on. But let that rest. It’s another subject.

Examine just the first paragraph of Les Dimanches. It fairly shimmers on the page, inviting you in. It is simple, funny, masterful. Four lines, and so much is achieved…for the reader. All is for the reader, something that should not be rare, but is very rare.

I haven’t found this particular book online in English, but I haven’t looked hard. Plenty of English translations of Guy’s tales here for free online reading.


To write as he did, Maupassant must have loved us a little bit. God is in that style, somewhere.

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Walk about my yard, and you’ll find plenty of these:

Banksia cones have attracted special attention since Joseph Banks lent his name to the trees and shrubs that bear them. We could talk a long time about the huge variety of banksias, the beauty of the flowers, the bizarre sculptures formed by trunk and leaf. Yet it’s the cones of the banksia that have ignited juvenile imaginations…and the imagination of May Gibbs.

The adventures of ultra-cute gumnut babies, Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, would have been rather dull without the terrifying presence of those Banksia Men. Yet when you examine the wonderful illustration above, you’ll surely notice that May has not attempted to create a sensation or distraction. More importance is placed on harmony, grain, intricacy and pattern. Was she merely being tasteful, in a repressed, post-Victorian way? Or did she really know her business?

Well, May Gibbs and her scary Banksia Men are bigger than ever, among both adults and kids. And that’s because she understood how the imagination works: namely, it’s active. Illustration, therefore, needs to be somewhat passive. The imagination wants to go toward things.

When I was young, I could lose myself in the pattern of a bathroom floor while I sat on the toilet. A vermiculite ceiling in a bedroom could become a desert landscape with tiny but definite variations. As for a dimly lit room with an unmade bed or old furniture – that could be a glimpse of hell with all its dark folds and nameless half-shapes. Light, shade, shape, pattern: kids have an inborn need to find and absorb these things through the eyes and manipulate them in the mind. And I doubt we’re suppose to lose that all together. (Some see these idle, imaginative states as a  “relaxation response”, critical to neutralising the physical effects of our “fight or flight” response.)

When literacy became general in the last couple of centuries, written entertainment “got big”, as we now say. Walter Scott was probably the grand-daddy of mass consumption novelists, and, in the decades that followed, authors like Dumas the Elder and Jules Verne achieved such fame and financial worth that, in their careers and train-de-vie, they are best compared with the movie moguls and celebrities who came after them, rather than those big name literary figures, such as Fielding, who preceded them.

And part of the show was illustration.

It might be thought that the type of illustration used was dictated by technology available. Yet everyone should savour one of these works with the original illustrations to experience their effect. Whether one is talking about the engravings in a Verne adventure, or the pen-and-ink work of May Gibbs, you are looking at something that is absorptive. Even the most dramatic scenes draw the eye rather than saturate it. The details and very grain of an illustration like the one above demand concentration even while the reader is allowed to rest from reading – at a good pitch of relaxed attention. It’s not like TV, where no loitering is allowed. Here you’re meant to loiter.

Another effect is anticipation. Once the reader is caught up in a text, it’s natural to browse forward and check out the pics of what’s to come. In the best instances, curiosity is aroused without loss of tension. One is not swamped with colour, no single shape dominates. There is no competition with the text, nor over-interpretation. The tease is just right.


Much as young men used to get their sex, as Jack Benny said, through the African pages of the National Geographic…so a young man might be introduced to the works of Dante Alighieri by the illustrations in an ancient library book. Literary education, like sex education, can come graphically, especially if the work is in an unknown language. But unlike sex, it’s the Inferno rather than the Paradiso that attracts:

Gustave Doré was a nineteenth century illustrator who was often called to adorn famous works of previous centuries, though he also worked on contemporary publications. Sex, gore and sleaze made their way into much of his work, as did the sentimental and grotesque when the theme was more “general exhibition”. Whether Doré was a great artist or not  – I doubt he was – he was a very handy one.

This is not a fatiguing splatter-fest. Working ingeniously with shadow and suggestion, Doré brought the Inferno to life for generations of anglophones whose access to Dante was through prose cribs or the blank verse of Cary and Longfellow. If your ears couldn’t ring with Dante’s terza rima, you could smell some sulphur. That first important task of enjoying the Commedia was achieved: you were transported, you were taken there.

“Darkness made visible”. Worked for me at age fifteen.

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When things flower madly around here it doesn’t mean it’s spring. It just means: pollinate me.  These beauties won’t have much trouble finding pollinators.

smaller grev

Moso bamboo knows it’s not time too send up shoots yet. In fact, after an ideal cool season, there’s now the chance of a dry spring and summer. That can mean later and fewer shoots. To take one’s mind off the frustrations of El Nino…what about some book talk?

Stefan Zweig was a depressive, Jewish, middle-European intellectual who wrote psychological studies of…Whoa! I’m losing you, aren’t I?


But stay with me. Zweig was an entertainer. His studies of European historical figures don’t pretend to be either history or biography. Rather, he selects a character who can’t fail to interest and lets you see the times through that character. The result can read a little like a novel and Zweig is not above the odd Hollywood flourish to keep a bit of juice in the mix. Yet for all his narrative vibrancy, he was a scholar and respected interpreter of history. The style is clear, like Orwell’s, and, like Orwell, his emphasis on character and human nature gives his work appeal to readers of all political colours.

I’d heard that his study of Fouche was a great read, but didn’t get round to it till now. Yes, it’s a great read. And what a subject! (He’s Foo-shay, by the way. There’s supposed to be an acute accent over the “e” in Fouche, but I have trouble with  tech stuff.)


I’ll avoid spoilers – but was there ever such a brilliant, twisty, amoral survivor as this guy? Starting his career as a prig, a demagogue and mass-murderer in the French Revolution, he took more shapes and turns than seems possible for one man. Still loathed by nearly all to this day, Fouche was nonetheless recognised by Balzac as a genius, and Zweig, while harbouring no illusions on the character of his subject, exhibits that genius. One is even tempted to think that France and Europe were better off for his unlikely, unwanted influence over such titanic figures as Robespierre and Napoleon. Probably more lived than died because of the unloveable Joseph Fouche.

As you read the book, you find yourself shrieking: “How is Fouche going to make the next switch? Surely, he’s washed up this time!” It’s not unlike watching Indiana Jones.

A possible lesson. A guy who can walk into a room and have everyone like the way he looks and talks can make great career strides quickly. But a man who struggles from birth against a general and spontaneous dislike of his person might well develop psychic muscles others know nothing about.

Another lesson. If a screaming demagogue comes round to your house one morning, seizes your property, publicly condemns everything you stand for, then publicly shoots you into little pieces with a big cannon…Don’t worry! He probably doesn’t mean it. He’ll probably feel completely different about things by afternoon. Such was Joseph Fouche, Duke of Otranto.

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