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Showing posts from 2022

Italo Calvino and the Person from Porlock

  Inspired to re-read Italo Calvino, I am at present in ‘Invisible Cities’ (1972). It’s a fantasy dialogue between two 13 th -century contemporaries, Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, in which accounts of exotic cities leave one wondering if they existed, or are all in the mind of Italo Calvino. Remarks by a critic on the jacket are a spoiler: “Calvino is describing only one city in this book. Venice, that decaying heap of incomparable splendour…” It is true Marco Polo was a Venetian, that he travelled to Shangdu, and that on page 86 he says, “Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.” But this is too literal an explanation, too final, as if the author’s intentions could be summarised. Each city described by Polo, or in Kublai’s dreams, is one of childlike impressions grounded in adult experience. The cities enjoy an existence that is only spoken about, that may have been like that then, but may not be now. Their precariousness is as valuable a quality as their beauty,

Tolstoy's war

This article was first published in Eureka Street online, on Thursday the 3 rd of March 2022  here:  One of the most memorable scenes in Russian literature relates the thoughts of a man lying on the ground staring at the sky in the middle of a major European battle. Prince Andrei Bolkonsky is wounded. He is placed in a situation where, instead of running, fighting, and thinking every moment might be his last, he is suddenly met with silence, grandeur, tranquillity. Instead of everything being horror, deception, and emptiness, he sees only peace and infinity, and for this he is grateful. His desire for life is affirmed.   Nor does he forget his experience when caught in a place of extreme vulnerability on a battlefield. Later, when Prince Andrei as it happens encounters the architect of Austerlitz in person, he finds Napoleon wanting, “so petty did his hero with his paltry vanity and delight in victory appear, compared to that

Dr Skogg’s Bloomsday: Martin Johnston and James Joyce

Martin Johnston’s novel ‘Cicada Gambit’ (1983) is probably the earliest work of fiction to use Bloomsday (the 16 th of June) as an essential element of the story. Set in Sydney, it is an integral part of the history of Bloomsday celebration in Australia.   The first mention of ‘Ulysses’ in the story is at page 41. It is a surprise appearance. The narrator talks about “narrative thread” and “Greek ideas and associations” before saying “I still cannot tell for certain whether James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ had any part to play.” Then proceeds to talk about something else, though he does speak of “the second of these episodes”, which hints at least at the idea that the book deals in episodes, just as in Joyce’s novel. The reference occurs in the second chapter, as though Johnston is starting to drop clues. We are henceforth on the lookout for Joycean cues.   Bloomsday itself is introduced two-thirds of the way through the story, at Chapter 16, ’Control of the Centre’, continuing across Chap

Some thoughts while reading ‘The Age of Disenchantments’, Aaron Shulman’s biography of the Panero family

  The debt that Aaron Shulman owes to the writings, published and unpublished, of Felicidad Blanc increases with each chapter. His adoption of the thoughts and feelings of each member of the Panero family is especially prevalent in her case, prompting the reader to ask: where did he get this emotional inside knowledge? The answer is simple: from her own writings, published and unpublished, listed in the book’s bibliographies. Shulman nowhere acknowledges that that’s what he is doing, an act of appropriation of her words that leaves one with an uneasy feeling. On the one hand, he is forthcoming about Felicidad’s own literary ambitions, while on the other he plays his own game of storyteller by using her primary source material for his own ends. This results in a literary history that at times tips into novelistic imaginings of each main character, and notably Felicidad herself. Although he ponders from time-to-time why these people behave in such truly crazy ways, it is not hard to see

The Launch of Ulysses and the First Bloomsday

  A slightly edited version of this presentation was given by Philip Harvey on the 2 nd of February 2022 via zoom for Bloomsday in Melbourne’s online commemoration of the 100 th anniversary of the publication of ‘Ulysses’ in Paris.   The Launch of Ulysses   And now, rejoycing in the prosp’rous gales, With beating heart Ulysses spreads his sails, Plac’d at the helm he sate, and mark’d the skies, Nor clos’d in sleep his ever-watchful eyes. There viewed the Pleiads, and the northern Team, And great Orion’s more refulgent beam, To which, around the axle of the sky The Bear revolving, points his golden eye; Who shines exalted on th’etherial plain, Nor bathes his blazing forehead in the main. Far on the left those radiant fires to keep The Nymph directed, as he sail’d the deep. Full sev’nteen nights he cut the foamy way; The distant land appear’d the following day; Then swell’d to sight Phaeacia’s dusky coast, And woody mountains, half in vapours lost; T