One of the people I’m teaching at the moment is writing a dissertation on nonsense literature. Of course, it’s surprisingly difficult to get a handle on it: it’s not satire, it’s not purely humorous, it’s sometimes an element of something larger than itself. It can be the Vikings singing about Spam, but Monty Python isn’t entirely nonsense. It can be a part of ‘perhaps the greatest anonymous poem in English’, but no one would read Tom O’Bedlam’s song and think it was entirely nonsense ,either. Lewis Carroll isn’t nonsense; Edward Lear is: is that right? It can be Spike Milligan, who makes his own kind of comic sense, or the art-school pranks of Vivian Stanshall and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, all goggly-eyed policemen and semi-ironic recorders. Speaking of Stanshall, Sir Henry at Rawlinson End is nonsense, but it’s also satire, and something queer all of its own at the same time. How much of a shared background of knowledge and sensibility does nonsense call for? Is it nonsense if it makes you laugh, if it’s trying to make you laugh? Is it nonsense if it scares the willies out of you?
It’s been an odd week, an odd couple of weeks. I started a new job, and am still settling into whatever it might turn out to be. I mean, I know what I’m employed to do, it’s not like I’ve been blindfolded and taken across the border into the East, forever to make movies at the whim of a mad king. But how what I’m employed to do will manifest itself is still up for grabs. Everyone else is being very helpful. But even so, that doesn’t stop me from feeling a little lost.
Thank goodness for my other job, the one where I know what I’m meant to do. I was at the Creative Writing MSt in Oxford this weekend, teaching a couple of workshops on writing poetry. In the first year of the MSt, everyone has to try every genre, and so I was teaching 29 people, only eleven of whom stated that poetry was something they were interested in. A difficult one to pitch.
One exercise we did, and which seemed to work well, was one I’d picked up from Alastair Brotchie’s A Book of Surrealist Games. The students write a question on a piece of paper, which they then fold in half. The questions are handed in and shuffled. They are then dealt out to the group again, and on the outside of the paper, the students each write an answer. The poem has to link the question and the answer. Nothing as great, or as unarguable, as what came up when I was playing this with a friend of mine once: ‘What is love?’ ‘A hedgehog’.
My son’s making me do a lot of gluing and sticking at the moment (or rather, support him as he glues and sticks). Which reminds me, I really should go to the Klimt/Schiele exhibition at the RA before it closes.
Self-aggrandising photograph in Paris. Image © Maria Turgieva 2018
Yes, posting has been light this year: nothing since May, which is a bit terrible of me. But I deleted one of my social media accounts last month, and hopefully the time that frees up can be better spent making slightly longer and slightly more durable posts here.
There have been a lot of changes this year: the big one is in my work. I’ve had a job since October as a Bye-Fellow in Spanish at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge (a Bye-Fellow is basically someone who is a part of a college and who does teaching for them on an hourly basis but at a slightly higher than usual rate, but who isn’t a full Fellow with voting rights and a say in how the college is run). This has been fun: I’ve also been teaching a bit of English and Russian for the University as well. I am going to carry on with this for the rest of the academic year, and beyond, if they’ll have me, but I am also going to be starting another job in two weeks’ time, as ADTIS Teaching Officer at the Language Centre in Cambridge University: this is a full-time job that provides teaching for international students on how best to understand and cope with the demands of their courses. I will have to be very organised this year.
As far as writing is concerned, I have not written much, but what I have written has (take my word for it) been true, beautiful, dynamic, relatable etc. The non-writing but book-related highlight was probably a whirlwind trip to a grey and on-edge Paris when the gilets jaunes protests were just getting started to read in Shakespeare & Company. I thought it went well, though what the metrics are for judging this I don’t know: number of thoughtful intakes of breath at the end of a particularly moving passage; quantity and volume of wry chuckles … No one walked out and no one punched me. I also did a couple of events in Cambridge and in London connected to the work of Batyr Berdyev and Annasoltan Kekilova, two poets from Turkmenistan whose work I am translating. These were worthwhile and maybe useful, I think.
And, death of the planet and of the UK notwithstanding, there are things to look forward to: I’m going to go to Scotland in March for a writing retreat at Hawthornden Castle. One of the reasons I haven’t written much these last few months is that I have a plan for a book-length poem in mind, and am mostly taking notes for it at the moment: hopefully these will all come together when I have a few weeks of dedicated writing time to get my head straight.
The perennial New Year’s resolution. As I said above, I will try to put more of what I do on this platform: not so much because I think anyone out there will necessarily be interested, but it will be a good exercise for me to write in a format that encourages posts of longer than (say) 280 characters.
Anyhow, books. I have read 180 books this year, at a total cost of £865. More books and more money than last year: this is partly the effect of being back in an English-speaking environment (the first six months of 2017 were spent in Spain), where books are easier to come by—e.g. the bookstalls on the Cambridge market are still reliably surprising—and partly the effect of having more money. It’s still too much to spend on pleasure, really, and I should curb it a bit more, but I don’t drive a car and I don’t collect expensive electronic gadgets, so it’s not like I’m bleeding money in other parts of my life. (This last sentence is pure self-justification.) My five favourite books of 2018 are:
Richard Lloyd Parry, People Who Eat Darkness: Love, Grief and A Journey into Japan’s Shadows. On the basis of an amazing, hair-raising article, ‘Ghosts of the Tsunami‘, in the London Review of Books in early 2014, I had been keen to read Lloyd Parry’s book of the same title about the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and its aftereffects. I was given it for Christmas 2017, and read it in a rush (it’s a very, very good book), and then went out to find everything else that I could by Lloyd Parry. This was even better than Ghosts of the Tsunami: it starts off as being about the disappearance and murder of Lucie Blackman in Japan in 2000, and then transforms into a discussion of the organisation of a whole society and its laws, with the amoral and seemingly untouchable figure of the murderer and rapist Joji Obara at the centre of the story. It’s not a prurient book, but one that displays very clearly how things that we sometimes think of as being fixed (in particular basic ideas of morality) are endlessly flexible and always shifting. It scared the willies out of me.
Gustave Flaubert, Selected Letters, translated by Geoffrey Wall. I had a copy of this book when I was about sixteen, and pretentious, and I never read it and then I sold it. I ordered it up on a whim in the middle of the Beast from the East, and sat in the Cambridge University Library with my leg pressed against a radiator pipe and my shoulder against a cold glass window and read it and baked and froze and looked out at the snow and felt extremely glad that I hadn’t read it before. I really know very little about Flaubert: he’s the sort of writer that when I was sixteen I would try to read and pretend to have read, but never really get anywhere with. (I’d list the books of his I haven’t read, but it would only embarrass all of us.) But you can open this book at random and be guaranteed that what you read will be interesting and funny and human.
I’ll do it now: the sortes Flaubertianae gives me this:
‘At the moment I am reading Madame d’Aulnoy’s children’s stories, in an old edition in which I coloured the pictures when I was six or seven years old. The dragons are pink and the trees are blue; there is one picture where everything is painted red, even the sea. I find them most entertaining, these stories. You know it is one of my cherished dreams to write a tale of chivalry. I think that such a thing is feasible, even after Ariosto, by introducing an element of terror and a poetic grandeur which it lacks. But what is there hat I do not have an ambition to write? When will my quill ever stop this voluptuous itching! Farewell, be of good cheer; I am coming to see you at the end of July; in another six weeks; until then, work well, hundreds of little kisses all over, particularly on the soul.’
Everything’s there, even in a random selection: Flaubert must have had the best eyes of any writer.
Brief anecdotal interlude: So, I read the Selected Letters and loved it, and tried to find a copy online for myself, but the only one I could find of this edition cost something weird like sixty quid, so I wrote Professor Wall a fan letter at York University and he sent me one for free. What a mensch.
Robert Sheckley, Store of the Worlds, edited by Alex Abramovich and Jonathan Lethem. I read a couple of the stories in this book while browsing and was hooked enough to buy the whole thing. They’re wonderful, very funny, very sly science fiction stories. They remind me a lot of John Collier, which is about as much praise as I can give anything. (Speaking of Collier, go and read ‘The Touch of Nutmeg Makes It’ right now. The text is here, first story in the book, and even in that slightly grotesque online format it’ll make your hair curl.)
Robert Carver, The Accursed Mountains. Mongolia and Albania are the two countries I’m a little bit obsessed by. I started Mongolian lessons this year, which is a pretty serious step to take on a whim. With Albania, at least, I’m still only on the reading and fantasising stage. This is another very funny book (apart from the Lloyd Parry, all the books I’ve liked best this year have been largely funny: geopolitics must really be getting me down): a narrative of a tour of Albania. A certain faux-naïve, clear-eyed way of describing a society that seems almost unreadably alien in some ways. Other Albania-related books I read this year—told you, little bit obsessed—are Edith Durham’s High Albania (now she had balls) and Luljeta Lleshanaku’s Negative Space, which is probably the best book of poetry I read in 2018.
Elsa Lanchester, Herself. The photo above isn’t the cover of the edition I read it in, but it’s a much more accurate one than the pinkish 1980s version I had: there’s a review of the book online with the title ‘Elsa Lanchester Was Born To Defy Heteronormativity‘, which is a slightly po-faced way of stating the case, but it’s certainly true that—like the Bride of Frankenstein imagery—the book is very much about appearing slightly other, inhabiting the gaps that people might not wish to acknowledge. That makes it sound serious, and it is serious, I suppose, but it’s also very well-written and very funny. Here, again at random: She’s a very good writer: apparently she’s got some albums of songs as well. My first project for 2019 is clear.
I found out before Christmas that my collection of Mayakovsky versions, ‘Vladimir Mayakovsky’ And Other Poems, was longlisted for the 2018 Read Russia Prize, given to promote translations of Russian books. I then found out yesterday that it was not shortlisted. (The shortlisted books all look great: I am about halfway through Yuri Machkasov’s translation of Maryam Petrosyan’s The Gray House at the moment, and it is amazing). I was sad for about five minutes, until I got an email to tell me that my second collection of poems, On Trust: A Book of Lies, has been longlisted for the 2018 International Dylan Thomas Prize. I don’t know what to think: it’s an honour to have been considered, of course, and I don’t really have any illusions about making it even to the shortlisting stage. But to dream of fame and glory and (especially) money is nice every now and then.
I read 160 books last year, at a total cost of £747. This number does not record how much I spent on books, as my to-read shelves will attest, but it does make me mildly happy to see that I read more books this year than last year, and that the books I read cost less in total. I am now living in a town with a good lending library, and an excellent research library, so I hope the slight trend downwards will continue over 2018. If we are spared.
My five favourite books of 2017 were these:
Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars (c.119 AD, trans. Robert Graves 1957). It seemed on one level ridiculous and on another scary to be reading these accounts of megalomania and petty murder in 2017 and wanting to quote bits that seemed apt from almost every page. That’s partly an obvious effect of the Trump vortex (just as Eliot wrote that ‘What happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art that preceded it’, it now seems that all books are about America even when they are not), but also, and more refreshingly, an indication that these worries have a long history and people were upset by them then as now. Even if they could only do as little, or as much, as we can in 2017.
Camilo José Cela, Journey to the Alcarria (1948, trans. Frances M. López-Morillas, 1964). This is a short book (I read most of it in one sitting, in a doctor’s waiting room), and it’s not really a travel book, even though it is about taking a walk from Madrid to the space between Madrid and Zaragoza, by the edge of Cuenca. And it’s not really about Spain, or politics, or the Civil War, or anything much on the surface, but it’s the only book I’ve ever read by Cela that made me think he might actually be a decent person. And I read it at a time of disillusion with Spain and it made me rethink to some extent the coordinates of my annoyance and upset. It cleared my head.
Manuel Vilas, Calor (2009). This was the year I think I really got Manuel Vilas. He’s a writer I had read a few books by, novels and collections of short stories that seemed to me to be too surreal, too far off their own particular axis to be anything other than confusing. But I had his poetry recommended to me by a friend of mine, and Calor, and later El cielo, really knocked my socks off. You have to calm down and go with the flow, but Vilas is able to do things in poems that I haven’t seen anyone else do as well as him: his command of rhythm, of bouldering sentences that go on and on, of humour, of anger, of surreal juxtapositions, of voice… All brilliant, all loveable.
Silvio Micheli, Mongolia: In Search of Marco Polo & Other Adventures (1964, trans. Bruce Penman 1967). Another travel book, this one more overtly about travelling: a man who decides to travel through Soviet Mongolia and spends most of his time arguing with his official guides, going to places he shouldn’t, trying to pay as little as possible for valuable antiques. And in the second half of the book he falls in love, or at least in lust, with a beautiful Mongolian woman whom he then abandons. It’s a good entry in the caddish Italian traveller genre (Alberto Denti di Pirajno, A Cure for Serpents is the C.20th source text): very funny, very unashamed, a happy book.
Muriel Rukeyser, Elegies (1949). I don’t think I’d knowingly read anything by Muriel Rukeyser before last year. This is my fault: I think she’s one of those people that you expect to know and then think you do know. But this was wonderful: almost the last book I read this year and it made me feel hopeful even in the midst of all its mourning.
You who seeking yourself arrive at these lines,
look once, and you see the world,
look twice, and you see your self.
The book I think I have enjoyed the most this year, and carry on enjoying, is Geoffrey Wall’s translation of Flaubert’s letters. But I haven’t finished that yet, so it’s on next year’s list. If we are spared.
So, I was in the Amnesty International Bookshop yesterday, and found, stuffed and crinkled round the back of some other books, a pamphlet with a plain brown manilla cover. Recollections of My Fellow Poets by Count Potocki de Montalk. I only knew the name Potocki from Manuscript Found At Saragossa (1815), an astonishing novel which indirectly saved my marriage (but this is not the time or place to talk about that). However, even that tiny shiver of a coincidence was enough to make me pick the pamphlet up and start reading. The first paragraph of the first recollection, the first words I read by Potocki de Montalk, were these:
‘The poets born in New Zealand in approximately my generation were decidedly better, more interesting and more genuine as poets, than any born in England (as opposed to Ireland etc.) in modern times. The so-called Georgian poets may perhaps have been Georgian, but they were not poets. They were a collective fraud. Each of them in the “first fine careless rapture” of youth wrote about one and a half fairly good poems, and traded on this initial success most effectively for the rest of their lives, both financially and socially. Even now at this very moment, we have a Poet Laureate who is a dreadful poetaster—and look at that insufferable rubbish which T.S. Eliot did about cats. Though he indeed was not an Englishman, but a remarkably efficient imitation.’
I was, to say the least, intrigued. The pamphlet cost a steep £8.00, and the Bohemian continuation to this story would have me slipping it into the waistband of my trousers and sidling out the door of the bookshop. But I have a conscience, and the Amnesty International Bookshop has CCTV. So, this afternoon, I slid over to the University Library and found the following books:
Count Potocki de Montalk, Recollections of My Fellow Poets
Count Potocki de Montalk, Whited Sepulchres: Being An Account of My Trial And Imprisonment for a Parody of Verlaine and Some Other Verses
Count Potocki de Montalk, Surprising Songs
Stephanie de Montalk, Unquiet World: The Life of Count Geoffrey Potocki de Montalk
There’s a rather uncomfortable nexus to be found in some English writing of the 1930s, where patriotism bleeds into jingoism bleeds into fascism (the blood and soil rhetoric that sounds so strange to me, reads as insincere however sincerely it is meant): I’m thinking of Roy Campbell and Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton and the shonky bits of Pound and Henry Williamson and his otter. Potocki de Montalk fits into this rough group quite neatly; he was the founder of The Right Review, which aimed to provide an intellectual background to an extreme right-wing worldview (and ended up being a private press to publish Potocki de Montalk’s own work). Potocki de Montalk is also, obviously and visibly in his writings, an eccentric, though I’m not sure if he’s a crazy-as-a-fox eccentric or a real one. This makes him quite funny: the degree of spleen which he manages to display, his command of an anecdote, mean that it is pleasant to spend a couple of hours in a library with him, in a miasma of obscure threats and joyous obscenity:
‘His Majesty’s Police at the time of my arrest were, owing to the villainies of a certain person who shall be nameless till I print in France, under some grave misapprehensions, which probably had more to do with the proceedings against me, than the actual matter of my obscene poems.’
‘Here Lies John Penis
buried in the Mount of Venus.
He died in tranquil faith
that having vanquished death
HE SHALL RISE up again
and in Joy’s Kingdom reign.’
‘There were some amusing incidents in Brixton. The night of our “reception” we were put through a questionnaire, together with a number of other prisoners. When it came to my turn, and the officer asked: “What’s your religion?” I truthfully replied: “Pagan”. The officer began to write it down, and spelt it out wrongly. “P-A-G-A-N” I explained. Next came Mr. Glass. “What’s your religion?” “Pagan.” This was duly written down. After us came an unfortunate Cockney debtor in a bowler hat, a sort of petty Micawber, a hopeless and resigned recidivist where debts were concerned. He was of shortish stature, a little bent; and moderately cheerful in the best tragical Cockney manner. He was about forty-five, and characteristically kept his hat on his head. “What’s your religion?” asked the officer. “Pagan,” said the Cockney proudly. Everyone looked up and smiled, including the officer. A ray of Apollo’s brightness had penetrated “Reception”. But all the same the officer would not allow mere Cockneys to arrogate to themselves the religious luxuries claimed by literary prisoners or aristocrats. Mr. Glass, being with me, was allowed to be a Pagan, but to the debtor the officer said with humorous severity: “You were Church of England last time. Religion, Church of England,” he repeated as he wrote it down.’
Is he any good? Not really. He’s a good example of the minor poet who clearly embodies the trends of his time: unlike the true innovators, he’s using the themes that others have discovered without making anything new of them. I found several lines in Surprising Songs I quite liked (maybe liked enough to steal them for myself), but not a whole poem. He also suffers from existing at this 1920s cusp of wanting to write about sex but still being trammelled by not having a legally permitted or emotionally secure vocabulary to do so.
All the same it was good to feel your colder western will
flooding against mine like volts of light
in disastrous, sacramental fight—
cold against cold, heat against heat, like volts flooding on steel.
I was not made for rivalry or battle—I am no warrior,
old fighting blood has turned in me to peace,
the earl’s crown is woven with laurel leaves—
but your blonde hostility was good, made the sky starrier.
All the olympian fights of earth are waged on this wise
and one may not wear armour nor shed tears.
The soul is sculptured on the tips of spears
into beauty; and at our pain is sorrow in the skies.’
And here’s another one to finish with, but you see how it falls apart in the final few lines.
‘I hope, surely, that some day I shall write
poetry like Skryabin’s music or like a zoned
American skyscraper in the modern style.
Meanwhile I offer this: and though this is
not in the manner “dernière mode” nor quite
the latest in sophistically-toned
verse, these songs may hold the drawbridge while
I think up something much more like Ulysses.
The cleverest modern mental machinery
working on the gold of English words, will not
manufacture with all its expert skill
in micrometric measurements of time,
a single book of real poetry.
Besides, shrewd critics, poetry is what
a poet writes, and therefore we are still
unchallenged princes in the realms of rime.’
I spent most of the time I was reading him thinking that he was the kind of author who, if I had discovered him when I was a teenager, might have been a cult for me and anyone else who I was talking about books with. But I am too old for cults, and have no one to talk to.
There’s a documentary about him on YouTube (posted by someone with the username ‘Gaelic neoreactionary’, which seems about right): I’m going to go and watch it now.