Sunday, July 31, 2016

Sunday Poetry - Amy Lowell

I can't really complain of a laggard Spring as my daffodils have been blooming for a couple of weeks now. I'm more concerned about a premature Spring! Anyway, this is Amy Lowell's (photo from here) poem, To an Early Daffodil. I was looking for a daffodil poem that wasn't Wordsworth & I do find daffs cheerful so this is quite appropriate. I just wish they weren't blossoming in what I still think is the middle of winter.

Thou yellow trumpeter of laggard Spring!
Thou herald of rich Summer's myriad flowers!
The climbing sun with new recovered powers
Does warm thee into being, through the ring
Of rich, brown earth he woos thee, makes thee fling
Thy green shoots up, inheriting the dowers
Of bending sky and sudden, sweeping showers,
Till ripe and blossoming thou art a thing
To make all nature glad, thou art so gay;
To fill the lonely with a joy untold;
Nodding at every gust of wind to-day,
To-morrow jewelled with raindrops. Always bold
To stand erect, full in the dazzling play
Of April's sun, for thou hast caught his gold.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Tale of Genji - Murasaki Shikibu

It's so difficult to write about a book like Genji. I've been reading it over the last six weeks & it's been a wonderful experience. Written around 1000 at the Heian Court of Japan by an author whose name we don't know (Murasaki is the name of one of the main characters & may have become a nickname of the author), this is the earliest novel to be widely read today in competing translations that all have their admirers.

The story is in two parts. Two thirds of the book tell the story of Genji, the son of the Emperor by one of his Intimates. Genji's mother came from a nondescript family & her position at Court relied solely on the Emperor's love for her. He favoured Genji above his legitimately born son but politics would not allow him to make Genji his heir. Instead, after the early death of Genji's mother, the Emperor gave Genji the surname Minamoto which enables him, as a commoner, to have more freedom than a member of the Imperial family could have. Genji will be fabulously wealthy & also play an important role at Court, rising up the hierarchy to eventually be giving the honorary title of Retired Emperor. Genji is also devastatingly handsome, exuding a wonderful perfume, charming & skilled at the courtly arts of painting & poetry. As he grows up, his relationships with women will dominate the narrative.

Whoever chanced to lay eyes on Genji was smitten by him. After one glimpse of the radiance that attended him, men of every degree (for the crudest woodcutter may yet aspire to pause in his labors beneath a blossoming tree) wished to offer him a beloved daughter, while the least menial with a sister he thought worthy entertained the ambition to place her in Genji's service. It was therefore all but impossible for a cultivated woman like Chūjō , one who had had occasion to receive poems from him and to bask in the warmth of his beauty, not to be drawn to him.She, too, must have regretted that he did not come more often.

Genji's actions are not always noble or chivalrous but they reflect the dominant role of men in Japanese society. He marries a well-connected young woman, Aoi, a few years older than himself. The marriage is not particularly successful, Aoi resents the match to a younger, illegitimate son of the Emperor, but they have a son, Yūgiri, before Aoi dies. Genji, meanwhile, has fallen in love with his father's young wife, Fujitsubo, & their affair results in the birth of a son who will eventually succeed to the throne, his origins kept secret. When Genji is just a young man, he spends an evening with his friends as they discuss the different kinds of women & the different kinds of love. In some ways, he spends the rest of the novel investigating these kinds of love. Eventually he will build a palace, his Rokujō estate, where he will install a lover in each of the four wings.

Genji's most important & lasting relationship will be with Murasaki, Fujitsubo's niece, who he meets when she is a child of twelve. He takes her into his house & brings her up, eventually seducing her. She becomes the mistress of the east wing at Rokujō and, although they have no children together, Murasaki brings up several other children, & their relationship is close & loving. After his father's death, Genji is sent into exile as a result of the machinations of the new Emperor's mother.
During this period of exile, he meets another of his loves, known as the lady from Akashi. She has a daughter & Genji brings them both to live at Rokujō when he returns in triumph.

Genji agrees to marry the favourite daughter of his half-brother the Emperor who wishes to retire from the world. This is a mistake as the girl is a very ordinary young woman with no talents to attract Genji. He feels obliged to go through with the marriage & is horrified when she is seduced by another man. The boy, Kaoru, is assumed to be Genji's child & his mother is installed in yet another wing of Rokujō. At the same time, Murasaki's health is failing & Genji spends all his time with her. Her death devastates him & although he often declares that he wishes to leave the world & become a monk, he doesn't do this but dies soon after.

The last third of the novel takes place some years later & introduces a younger generation. Kaoru & his friend, Genji's grandson, Niou. These chapters are much more of a piece, telling one tragic story. The two young men become rivals for the attentions of the daughters of a Prince who has retired from the world to live at Uji. The elder daughter, Ōigimi, is courted by Kaoru but he is also attracted to her sister, Naka no Kimi, who is eventually seduced by Niou. Niou installs Naka no Kimi in his palace where she is made unhappy by his philandering. Meanwhile, Kaoru, a serious young man, hesitates to pursue his suit & Ōigimi, distressed by her father's death & her sister's fate, starves herself to death. Kaoru is grief stricken but is intrigued when a young woman appears who is the unrecognised illegitimate daughter of the Uji Prince. This young woman, Ukifune's, story is the most tragic of all as she is pursued by both Kaoru & Niou.

This is a very basic description of the plot which ranges far & wide over the 1100 pages of the book. The style of the narrative is allusive, with most characters referred to by their titles which keep changing. I found it confusing but decided to just keep reading & hope that I would remember who was who. I found that if I didn't read it for a few days (usually because I was at work & couldn't carry the book around with me), it took me a while to get back into the story again. There are hundreds of characters &, as well as the tragedy, many very funny scenes. The narrator also looks at Genji's behaviour, especially his ready recourse to tears, with a satirical eye & by no means approves of his seductions & the pain he causes Murasaki.

Many ladies lived this way under his protection.He looked in on them all, fondly assuring each that despite his long silence he was always thinking of her. "My only care is the parting that no one evades. 'I know not what life remains...'" he would say, and so on. He loved them all, each according to her station. At his rank he might deservedly have swelled with pride, and yet he seldom advertised himself, treating all instead with tact and kindness as place or degree required, so that just this much from him sustained many through the years.

The setting of the story, in Imperial Japan, is so different from anything I've ever read before, that I felt I was learning about the culture as well as reading an involving story. Everything about the period & the country was strange to me. The houses, the rituals, the pastimes. The courtly emphasis on poetry was fascinating. There are over 700 short poems in the text which illuminate behaviour & feelings. They also illuminate character as the ability to compose a suitable poem at any moment is a prized accomplishment. The detailed descriptions of clothes, furnishings, entertainments create this world that is involving yet so removed from the world outside the Court & the privileged classes. There's little mention of politics or war; the pursuit of happiness & the entanglements of his relationships are all that matter to Genji & his circle.

I was also interested in the social rituals. Women's lives were so circumscribed. Men could not approach a woman directly. He would not even see her but speak through intermediaries. If he was in the same room, she would be seated behind a curtain. There are many scenes where men peer through cracks in walls or take advantage of the wind blowing aside a curtain to catch a glimpse of a lady. Men had all the power as is seen in many of the stories in Genji. If a man forced his way into a woman's presence, she was compromised. The men & women in the novel are never alone - solitude seems to be a foreign concept - yet determined young men are able to seduce or rape women almost at will as the servants count for less than nothing in this world of privilege. Even Kaoru, who is more sensitive than his wilful friend, Niou, is capable of causing pain through selfishness when Ōigimi is ill,

He sat near her as usual, and the wind blew the curtains about so much that her sister retired farther back into the room. When the disreputable-looking creatures went to hide from him in embarrassment, he moved closer still. "How do you feel?" he asked through his tears. "I have prayed for you in every way I know, but none of it has done any good, and you will not even let me hear your voice. It is so painful! I shall never forgive you for leaving me this way."

I loved this final section of the book. At around 300pp it's the length of a novel on its own & the narrative is more coherent with just one storyline. It's full of interest & tragedy from the fate of the Uji sisters to the contrast between Kaoru & Niou.

Religion is also an important factor. Characters often long to leave the world & enter the religious life & many do so. The supernatural in the form of evil spirits & possession is ever-present & there are several exorcisms where the evil spirits speak to the monks who are trying to remove them. I also loved the descriptions of the countryside & the weather. The details of dress, the correct colours to wear for mourning or at different times of the year, were all fascinating. The book creates a complete world that it was a real delight to disappear into for hours at a time. I read the Penguin Deluxe edition translated by Royall Tyler & the notes & line drawings were a real help in visualising Genji's world & understanding the allusions in the text. I can definitely imagine rereading Genji & next time I'll try a different translation.

My only problem now is what to read next! I often feel this way after reading a long book that was as absorbing as this one. I'm still listening to The Romanovs & reading Leon Roch with the 19th century group but I need something else. I've been picking books up & putting them down for a few days now but nothing has really grabbed me. Maybe some short stories? Something completely different is called for although that won't be difficult as there's nothing else quite like The Tale of Genji.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Sunday Poetry - John Clare

The UK seems to be experiencing a hot summer this year & many people are enjoying the heat. It's the middle of winter here & I'm loving the cold & the rain but, each to their own!
I thought I would celebrate the warmth of summer for those of you in the North with this poem, Summer Tints, by John Clare.

How sweet I've wander'd bosom-deep in grain,
When Summer's mellowing pencil sweeps his shade
Of ripening tinges o'er the checquer'd plain:
Light tawny oat-lands with a yellow blade;
And bearded corn, like armies on parade;
Beans lightly scorch'd, that still preserve their green;
And nodding lands of wheat in bleachy brown;
And streaking banks, where many a maid and clown
Contrast a sweetness to the rural scene,--
Forming the little haycocks up and down:
While o'er the face of nature softly swept
The ling'ring wind, mixing the brown and green
So sweet, that shepherds from their bowers have crept,
And stood delighted musing o'er the scene
.

For those of us in the South or for anyone not enjoying the hot weather, here's Emmonsail's Heath in Winter.

I love to see the old heath's withered brake
Mingle its crimpled leaves with furze and ling,
While the old heron from the lonely lake
Starts slow and flaps its melancholy wing,
An oddling crow in idle motion swing
On the half-rotten ash-tree's topmost twig,
Beside whose trunk the gypsy makes his bed.
Up flies the bouncing woodcock from the brig
Where a black quagmire quakes beneath the tread;
The fieldfares chatter in the whistling thorn
And for the haw round fields and closen rove,
And coy bumbarrels, twenty in a drove,
Flit down the hedgerows in the frozen plain
And hang on little twigs and start again.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Literary Ramblings

More bits & bobs of news about reprints & books in general. Scott has announced the third author to be reprinted later this year with his new imprint, Furrowed Middlebrow Books, & I'm very excited. Frances Faviell's A Chelsea Concerto is Scott's favourite WWII memoir & I've wanted to read it for ages. It's mentioned or quoted in many books about the Home Front & I love a Home Front memoir so this will be a real treat, especially with an Introduction by Virginia Nicholson, author of Millions Like Us. Scott will also be reprinting Faviell's other memoir about life in Berlin after the War, The Dancing Bear, as well as her three novels.

It's sad that a reappraisal of an author's work often has to wait until after their death. Anita Brookner has always been appreciated by a discerning audience (I have a friend who has read them all) but her reputation had declined a little. I think only her most famous novel, the Booker Prize winning Hotel du Lac, was in print when she died in March. Penguin had announced plans to reprint all her books & have now brought the program forward so all her books will be back in print in the UK by the end of the year. The covers are just gorgeous, so elegant, very Anita Brookner, I think. Here is a lovely tribute to Brookner by Julian Barnes & if you'd like to know which Brookner to read first, Thomas at Hogglestock, currently rereading all her novels, will guide you.

Fans of the British Library reprints of the novels of J Jefferson Farjeon will be pleased to hear that Harper Collins are planning to reprint his Ben the Tramp novels later this year. I think it's encouraging that other publishers are jumping on the Golden Age bandwagon & resurrecting more writers of that era.

In October, Random House are publishing Georgette Heyer's short stories in Snowdrift and other stories. This is a reprint of the collection Pistols for Two with the addition of three newly discovered stories. As I haven't read any of Heyer's short stories, I'm looking forward to this.

Finally, Kathryn Hughes has inspired me to think that George Eliot's novel, Felix Holt, might be a fascinating read after all! I love Eliot & Middlemarch is one of my favourite books but Felix & Romola have never appealed to me very much. I have this ancient copy on the tbr shelves so I may read it this year to celebrate the 150th anniversary of its publication.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Sunday Poetry - Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin

I'm listening to Simon Sebag Montefiore's new book The Romanovs (read by Simon Russell Beale) & two books I ordered by sea mail from Canada arrived last week so I'm in the mood for Russian poetry this week. I took the chance of a sale at Royal Russia to pick up copies of two memoirs I've always wanted to read, The Real Romanovs by Gleb Botkin, son of the last Tsar's doctor who was murdered with the family at Ekaterinburg & The Life and Tragedy of Alexandra Feodorovna by Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden, the Tsarina's lady-in-waiting. Interestingly Botkin believed the claims of Anna Anderson that she was the Grand Duchess Anastasia so I'll be fascinated to read what he has to say.

Pushkin's (photo from here) grandfather was Hannibal, an African at the Court of Peter the Great, so having read about the grandfather in The Romanovs, I've chosen one of the grandson's poems. I have this lovely Folio Society edition of Pushkin's stories & I must get around to reading it soon.

This lovely poem is To Natasha.

The crimson summer now grows pale;
Clear, bright days now soar away;
Hazy mist spreads through the vale,
As the sleeping night turns gray;
The barren cornfields lose their gold;
The lively stream has now turned cold;
The curly woods are gray and stark,
And the heavens have grown dark.

Where are you, my light, Natasha?
No one's seen you, - I lament.
Don't you want to share the passion
Of this moment with a friend?
You have not yet met with me
By the pond, or by our tree,
Though the season has turned late,
We have not yet had a date.

Winter’s cold will soon arrive
Fields will freeze with frost, so bitter.
In the smoky shack, a light,
Soon enough, will shine and glitter.
I won't see my love, - I'll rage
Like a finch, inside a cage,
And at home, depressed and dazed,
I’ll recall Natasha's grace.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Sandlands - Rosy Thornton

It can be difficult to write about short stories. It's not easy to discuss plot without giving too much information. In this case, however, it's easier because Rosy Thornton's impressive new volume of stories, Sandlands, share many common elements. Place is the most obvious as all the stories are set in the Suffolk fenlands & often share the same locations - the Ship Inn, Willett's Farm, a WWII airfield now turned into a museum, the village of Blaxhall. There are also common themes - nature, remembrance, the past reaching into the present. I enjoyed the literary echoes too, of Dorothy L Sayers' The Nine Tailors in Ringing Night, a story featuring bell ringers & of Edward Thomas's poem As the Team's Head Brass in Stone the Crows, where a WWII Spitfire pilot looks back on his war service from his nursing home to a scene that became as familiar during WWII as it had been thirty years before.

Nothing in that evening landscape moved to give it life and substance - until suddenly, beyond my left wingtip, a miniature figure swung into view, straddling the midline of a field where it changed from the dull grey-brown of stubble, to a deeper richer russet, ridged in black. At first I had no sense that the figure was in motion, so slowly did it creep along the line of the last furrow, edging forward no faster than a sluggish beetle, dazed by the sun. I took another turn, dropping my height a little, to gaze down until I could make out the broad backs of a pair of chestnut horses, the glinting Y-shape of the plough and, behind it, just visible, the dot of a man's head.

Sometimes the literary inspiration is more overt as in A Curiosity of Warnings, when a man follows in the footsteps of the protagonist of one of M R James' ghost stories with unintended consequences. Other stories with supernatural touches include The Witch Bottle, where Kathy's new home holds the memory of a long-ago tragedy that threatens the present; The White Doe, where Fran experiences the mythical or mystical visitations of the doe while coming to terms with the death of her mother & The Watcher of Souls, where a barn owl's nest hides a cache of love letters from long ago.

One of my favourite stories was Whispers. Dr Theodore Whybrow has been working on the definitive biography of Regency poet Wiliam Colstone for years. He's almost paralysed by the pressure that comes with writing a book so long-awaited. On impulse, he buys a Martello tower on the coast, a remnant of the Napoleonic Wars that he knew as a boy, & as he spends more time there, he feels the closeness of the past & the inspiration that he needs.

It had been a calm night outside, overcast and starless, the sea as close to a millpond as he had known it. But the tower was never silent. Even on the most breathlessly still of nights, there were whisperings in the bricks. He sometimes wondered if it was really the sea - some subterranean echo or vibration, rippling up through the walls from the shingle on which they stood. Or perhaps an illusion, a trick of the mind, like the echo of the waves heard in a seashell. Yet, for all that, there was a paradoxical realness and solidity about the voices here, an immediacy - yes, that was the word for it: immediate, unmediated - which recalled with a sudden sharp pang the early days of his scholarship, that quickening of the blood he had thought to have lost. A connection thought severed, rejoined.

Many of the stories are about the links between generations, of the same family or of the people who have lived in a house or a place. In All the Flowers Gone, three generations of women are connected to an airfield. Lilian works at the airfield during WWII & falls in love with a pilot. Her daughter, Rosa, protests against nuclear weapons at the base in the 1980s. Rosa's daughter, Poppy, is a botanist, searching for a rare flower that has been sighted near the old runway. I loved the way that the women were linked not only by blood but by cycling with its connotations of freedom & the way that the place played a significant role in the lives of Lilian, Rosa & Poppy.

It was a perfect morning for cycling. The temperature must have fallen during a clear night and a dawn mist had formed over the fields.As Poppy bowled along Tunstall Lane it rose in layers, which seemed to lift and peel away without losing any of their density, and hung just clear of the barley so that sunlight filtered through underneath, tingeing them from below with watery gold. Once through Tunstall village and out on the road that stretched straight ahead into Rendlesham Forest, she rose on her pedals in her battered trainers, pushing down harder with each stroke, enjoying the stretch in her calves and the rush of cool air in her lungs, until the dark trees on either side were no more than a blur.

In Nightingale's Return, the son of an Italian POW travels back to the farm where his father worked during the War & we travel back to Salvatore's time at Nightingale Farm while his son makes the journey in the present day.

I loved the humour in many of the stories. I think my favourite story was The Interregnum. The rector of St Peter's Blaxhall goes on maternity leave & her replacement is Ivy Paskall. Ivy is a lay reader studying for the ministry rather than a member of the clergy but secretary of the PCC, Dorothy Brundish, is sure that the parish will manage. That is until Ivy's plans for bonfires at Epiphany & a women's feast at Candlemas, the Christian equivalent of Imbolc, begin to cause some uneasiness. Ivy's explanations seem very reasonable but are her ideas maybe a little pagan for the congregation of St Peter's?  In High House, a woman cleans for Mr Napish, a retired engineer whose obsession with theories about tides & flooding feed into his unusual hobby.

I enjoyed this collection of stories very much. The book is beautifully produced by Sandstone Press & the cover image is incredibly striking, evoking the themes of nature & unease in the stories. I've read all Rosy's novels & reviewed several of them here (see Ninepins, The Tapestry of Love, More than Love Letters). Rosy was the first author to contact me back in 2010 when I started blogging & ask if I would like to review her book which was such a thrill. Luckily I've enjoyed her books so reading them has been a much-anticipated treat.

Rosy Thornton kindly sent me a review copy of Sandlands.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Sunday Poetry - Christina Rossetti

This is one of the poems from Rossetti's sonnet sequence Monna Innominata, which she modeled on Elizabeth Barrett Browning's famous Sonnets from the Portuguese. I love all the poems in this set but I don't think I've featured this one before.

Many in aftertimes will say of you
‘He loved her’ – while of me what will they say?
Not that I loved you more than just in play,
For fashion’s sake as idle women do.
Even let them prate; who know not what we knew
Of love and parting in exceeding pain.
Of parting hopeless here to meet again,
Hopeless on earth, and heaven is out of view.
But by my heart of love laid bare to you.
My love that you can make not void nor vain,
Love that foregoes you but to claim anew
Beyond this passage of the gate of death,
I charge you at the Judgment make it plain
My love of you was life and not a breath.