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Showing posts from 2014

Some thoughts on François de La Rochefoucauld and Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve

Sainte-Beuve writes: “There comes a moment in life when L. pleases us, and in which we think him more true than perhaps he really is.” He is true for the person, the circumstance, the hurt, the special experience or recollection of the experience which inspired the maxim. He is true for a particularity, that particularlity (whatever it is) being something that we have known or had in our own case. Sainte-Beuve writes: “We cherish the secret insult; we suck the bitterness with pleasure. But this very excess has something reassuring. Enthusiasm for those thoughts is a sign that already we are passing beyond them and beginning a cure.” If we cannot escape amour-propre (self-regard), if self-interest is not only a given but a necessary of all human conduct, then we treat L. as an equal before we begin. But can we ever “pass beyond” in this way, can we ever “begin a cure”? L. gives no answer, he has no philosophy, and no philosophical guide to life – this is not his business.

Some thoughts on the Letters of Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, marquise de Sévigné

Reading the letters of Madame de Sévigné. The anthologies of mother-daughter correspondence that come out today seem precious and strained beside her enormous expressions of love. She can hardly control herself in her excitement to get everything out, while her developed, delightful skill of entertaining exacts a complete control. She can gossip and even get bitchy, but she is never small-minded or cruel. But this is only the start. Madame de Sévigné’s view of the court world is broad. Her Catholicism is devout and needful. Her honesty about her own talents, especially as reflected in that of her very fortunate daughter, endears her increasingly. Her confession that she does not understand some of M. La Rochefoucauld’s new maxims is an almost perfect example of her civilization: she obviously comprehends the rest of them. Her self-analysis, as when she fears that her love for her daughter is idolatry, has about it the sudden back cut of Christina Stead. But it is her spirit – the t

Some thoughts on ‘Last Poems’ by Vincent Buckley

The major concerns of Buckley at the end in this collection. Dying. Looking at one life from the point near death. Memory. Honour. Inevitability. Place. Mood and sensuality of place. Australian cities. Sense of moving into or away from a place. And especially Ireland. The creation of poetry. How the voice speaks and sounds. The Irish voice (but, notice, not the Australian voice much). And then, music. Politics of all kinds. Literary politics (his game). Irish politics. War. Family life. The ancestors. The present generation. What the future holds. Relationships within the family. The fears of women. Privacy. Civilization. Human interaction. Human respect. The public domain. Ethical questions, discussed with careful passion or with satire or with irony. Physicality. Uncomfortableness. The restlessness of the body. The coming to terms with materials. Meaning. Finding “some place in a story.” The personal concerns. Notice the voice is nearly always his

Some thoughts on ‘The Star Chernobyl’ by Julia Voznesenskaya

Like Thomas Merton’s nuclear weapon poems composed entirely of newspaper quotes, the book works by accretion and irrefutability of the media evidence. The story of the three sisters is helpful – more helpful for non-Russians, who desire to know what the Russians really think (and how) of the Chernobyl accident – yet the story does not tell us anything deeper. How deep do we want to go? Recognisable types, individuals, caught off-guard by the disaster everyone has secretly known was “a matter of time” and which, when it happened, would be “a sign of the times.” The story is there to help the reader reassess the large segments of Pravda &c. quotes set between each chapter, and it is those which anyone literate in the disaster will find more disturbing than the story itself. The dialogue is shoddy (the translator?) yet the force of circumstance around which it revolves gives it an excuse. The conversation at the expense of the Party sounds like a genre unique to the modern Russian

Some thoughts on ‘Under the Eye of the Clock’ by Christopher Nolan

New research shows that cerebral palsy sufferers have stopped development at the point of learning how to turn over, stand up, &c. Many years later they cannot perform certain actions because their mind has restricted them: they can go back into a fetal position. It does not affect their intelligence or growth in other areas. Nolan’s favourite words – casting, crested, cradled – reveal someone limited by a body that cannot obey the wishes of the mind. The compacting of his sentences is not simply the result of his method of composing with the ‘unicorn’ – dropping the articles, inventing new words, rearranging traditional order; it comes from a great rush to get things said, an intense urgency governed by his disability and by the strains of time (the eye and the clock) to get it all out. So what if his mother edited or added? It seems almost inevitable, considering the method. What is at the core – in the beauty of the descriptions of friendships, family and happiness, and in t

Some thoughts on ‘Life A User’s Manual’ by Georges Perec

Do the lists always work? Isn’t there an emptiness behind pages of detail? It is a work of immense care and attention, yet are the rooms of the house full of scrappiness? As a fan of inventories this book is a wonder to read – yet the reader is left too often with a disjunction, between the objects of the room and the person, that cannot be solved, cannot be soldered. One imagines the rapidity of the puns, the verbal play, the suggestiveness of styles in the French, which in translation cannot achieve the same effect. Perhaps, as in ‘Ulysses’ or Rabelais, listing and listing has its own momentum and thrill, the only way to say “there is more” is to say more and more. The curiosity of the curiosity shop, the curiosity of the plan Perec set himself in writing each chapter along such restricted lines of play – these things keep the fascination long after the objects and their connotations have started to wear out. Again though, what delight to have someone who makes us aware in a nove

Ten Favourite Novels (2)

Mention of ‘The Magic Pudding’ in List 1 prompted thought about ten influential children’s books, books that had an impact at the time, and still do. Alice in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass (Lewis Carroll): The main character is pure reason meeting the absurdity of the social world, making them adult books written to amuse, but usually confuse, children. We are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy (Maurice Sendak): All of his books are a gift, but I especially like this one because it dares to deal head-on with homelessness and the mistreatment of children, and how when we learn compassion things change. The Wind in the Willows (Kenneth Grahame): A microcosm of Edwardian England, though I have wanted to write in heroic couplets a sequel where they all end up on the Western Front: Toad as an irresponsible idiot general, Ratty as a poetry-spouting captain, Mole as the private who goes ‘over the top’, and Badger as the army chaplain, epitome of English conscien

Ten Favourite Novels (1)

A recent local Facebook thread invites us to list ten favourite novels. Novels are not my main reading and I have no system for how to read novels. However, here are ten novels I have read at times in my life when they made a significant impact. Each has a one sentence comment. The list does not even begin to describe my passion for Italian literature, let alone what has come out of say England or the United States since Samuel Johnson. I will return for a second or third list anon. Australia The Magic Pudding (Norman Lindsay): My grandmother gave me this book when I was six, its rumbustious Ballarat-types fighting over a scrumptious possession as though someone (boat people?) would take it from them. The Vivisector (Patrick White): Sometimes we find the book that meets a need, as in my 20s I read this sprawling story of a Sydney painter, which spoke in infinite and caring detail of my own country. Russia Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy): From the opening scenes at the ice

How Ulysses Teaches us How to Read Ulysses

Turning Over Idly Signatures of All Things I am Here to Read : How Ulysses Teaches us How to Read Ulysses Paper on how to read Ulysses given by Philip Harvey at Bayside Arts and Cultural Centre in Brighton on the 16 th of June 2014 as part of Bloomsday in Melbourne. I Nobody wished to claim my first copy of Ulysses. It was on a shelf in the lost-and-found at my school, incongruous amidst misplaced football jumpers and unnamed biology textbooks. It was a worn-out Penguin edition. No-one explained how it got there. Maybe it was a teacher’s guilty secret. Maybe someone left it in a classroom when they couldn’t find the dirty bits. I knew about James Joyce from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but everything about Ulysses was different from any book I had ever seen. Like many a novice, I gave up trying to understand the Latin on page one and flipped to the back . I hate having a long wrangle in bed or else if its not that its some little bitch or other he got in with

James Joyce, the Church and the State As usual around June, I take down Ulysses for some more good-humoured updates on what happens on Bloomsday. This year my reading coincides with news of the latest church scandal from Ireland, the gruesome revelations about the remains of nearly 800 children found in a disused sewage tank in Tuam, County Galway. The children died between 1925 and 1961 while under the care of the Bon Secours nuns. Other graves are also being uncovered. One is forced to make connections of meaning between what James Joyce is saying in Ulysses and the stories coming out about Magdalen laundries, child sexual abuse, and now these mass graves. The iron power of the Catholic Church in Ireland is object of his continuous satire in Ulysses, a power that only became entrenched after the Civil War. At times the satire goes on too long, Joyce seems unable to restrain himself from questioning the Chu

George Barker

George Barker George Barker writes at length On sperm and roses and death. What I am really trying to say is George Barker writes at length On sperm and roses and death. Once or twice he offers the world To his four-year-old daughter in verse Or addresses a well-suited art critic In whimsical words that stand unsanded And heavy-handed, but most times George Barker writes at length On sperm and roses and death. His wives and mistresses And fifteen children are, I imagine, His most insightful critics As he writes at length about loneliness And the appreciable pains of hell.


  Here are my contributions to a seminar on Dante’s Divina Commedia conducted with Dr William Johnston on Thursday the 27 th of March 2014 at the Institute for Spiritual Studies, St Peter’s Church, Eastern Hill, Melbourne. Will’s papers and other material from the seminar are available on the parish website. I. HOW POETS TODAY REWORK DANTE Peter Steele, of blessed memory, Melbourne poet and Jesuit, cites the American Ralph Waldo Emerson: the Commedia is “autobiography in colossal cipher”. By which he means, Dante’s life is written large through the code of his poem. Steele embellishes on that idea by adding that the Commedia “might also be called metaphor in colossal suspense.” Which I take to mean, Dante’s poem keeps us hanging on even as it goes on talking about ultimate questions. In literary terms generally today, this is a central issue because while some writers strive to find through their words ways of describing and explaining everything knowable in human terms,