‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Saturday 23 June 2018

Around the World: Favourite Novels

I started this exercise curious to see, really, how large is the gap in my knowledge of world literature. It turns out: it's pretty huge. The majority of nation-states listed below are followed by I have never read any fiction from that country. I am, of course, limiting myself to novels written by citizens of the countries concerned (which is to say, I am not counting fiction merely set in that country, or by people born elsewhere who lived in those countries for a while); and I could mumble something here about the unavailability of translations, the need to pay literary translators more and commission them to do more work. But that's a torn and shabby sort of Get Out Of Jail Free Card. The fact is I am lamentably under-read in non-anglophone literatures and need to do better. K through M is particularly dire, isn't it?

In my own defence, I have read a lot—and I mean: a lot—of British and American fiction, and a fair whack of fiction from some (but, evidently, not all) European nations too, plus unevenly distributed chunks from Commonwealth and other countries. But the overall picture, for me, is: bleh.

Afghanistan – I have never read any Afghan fiction.
Albania – Ismail Kadare, The Palace of Dreams (Pallati i ëndrrave, 1981). This counts as my favourite Albanian novel by virtue of being the only Albanian novel I have ever read.
Algeria – Apuleius, Golden Ass (Asinus Aureus, c. AD 180)
Andorra – I have never read any Andorran fiction.
Angola – I have never read any Angolan fiction.
Antigua and Barbuda – Jamaica Kincaid's Mr Potter (2002). But see: Albania
Argentina – Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones (1944/56). Not a novel, I know, but: bite me. It's Borges.
Armenia – I have never read any Armenian fiction.
Australia – Les Murray, Fredy Neptune (1999)
Austria – Franz Kafka, Der Process (‘The Trial’, 1925)
Azerbaijan – I have never read any Azerbaijani fiction.

Bahamas – I have never read any Bahamian fiction.
Bahrain – I have never read any Bahraini fiction.
Bangladesh – I have never read any Bangladeshi fiction.
Barbados – I have never read any Barbadian fiction.
Belarus – I have never read any Belarusian fiction.
Belgium – Hergé, Les Bijoux de la Castafiore (1962)
Belize – I have never read any Belizean fiction.
Benin – I have never read any Beninese fiction.
Bhutan – I have never read any Bhutanese fiction.
Bolivia – I have never read any Bolivian fiction.
Bosnia and Herzegovina – Aleksandar Hemon, Nowhere Man (2002), but: see Albania.
Botswana – I have never read any Batwana fiction.
Brazil – I am surprised to discover that, so far as I can see, the only Brazilian writer I have read is Paulo Coelho. I have to say: I draw the line at listing The Alchemist as in any sense a favourite.
Brunei – I have never read any Bruneian fiction.
Bulgaria – I have never read any Bulgarian fiction.
Burkina Faso – I have never read any Burkinabé fiction.
Burundi – I have never read any Burundi fiction.

Cambodia – I have never read any Cambodian fiction.
Cameroon – I have never read any Cameroonian fiction.
Canada – Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin (2000).
Central African Republic – I have never read any CAR fiction.
Chad – I have never read any Chadian fiction.
Chile – Roberto Bolaño, 2666 (2004)
China – Cao Xueqin, The Story of the Stone (18th century)
Colombia – Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (Cien años de soledad 1967).
Congo – I have never read any Congolese fiction.
Costa Rica – I have never read any Costa Rican fiction.
Côte d'Ivoire – I have never read any Ivoirean fiction.
Croatia – I have never read any Croatian fiction.
Cuba – I have never read any Cuban fiction.
Cyprus – I have never read any Cypriot fiction, Greek or Turkish, a fact which surprised me.
Czech Republic – Karel Čapek, War with the Newts (Válka s mloky, 1936)

Denmark – Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or (Enten–Eller, 1843). Don't @ me.
Djibouti – I have never read any Djibouti fiction.
Dominica – I have never read any Dominican fiction.

Ecuador – I have never read any Ecuadorian fiction.
Egypt – Naguib Mahfouz, Palace Walk (بين القصرين 1956)
El Salvador – I have never read any El Salvadorian fiction.
England – Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1853).
Equatorial Guinea – I have never read any Equatoguinean fiction.
Eritrea – I have never read any Eritrean fiction.
Estonia – I have never read any Estonian fiction.
Ethiopia – I have never read any Ethiopian fiction.

Fiji – I have never read any Fijian fiction.
Finland – Tove Jansson, Comet in Moominland (Mumintrollet på kometjakt, 1946)
France – Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (1922-31)

Gabon – I have never read any Gabonese fiction.
Gambia, The – I have never read any Gambian fiction.
Germany – Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain (Der Zauberberg, 1924). Sigh.
Ghana – I have never read any Ghanese fiction.
Greece – Homer's Iliad (7thC BC)
Grenada – I have never read any Grenadan fiction.
Guatemala – I have never read any Guatemalan fiction.
Guyana – I have never read any Guyanese fiction.

Haiti – I have never read any Haitian fiction.
Honduras – I have never read any Honduran fiction.
Hungary – Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon (1940)

IcelandNjáls Saga (c. 1280)
India – Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children (1981)
Indonesia – I have never read any Indonesian fiction.
Iran – Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis (2003)
Iraq – Ahmed Saadawi, Frankenstein in Baghdad (2014 فرانكشتاين في بغداد‎). But: see Albania.
Ireland – James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)
Israel – Lavie Tidhar, A Man Lies Dreaming (2014). Don't tell him I said so.
Italy – Vergil's Aeneid (4 BC)

Jamaica – Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014)
Japan - Shūsaku Endō, Silence (沈黙 Chinmoku 1966)
Jordan – I have never read any Jordanian fiction.

Kazakhstan – I have never read any Kazakhstani fiction.
Kenya – I have never read any Kenyan fiction.
Korea – I have never read any Korean fiction.
Kuwait – I have never read any Kuwaiti fiction.
Kyrgyzstan – I have never read any Kyrgyz fiction.

Laos – I have never read any Laotian fiction.
Latvia – I have never read any Latvian fiction.
Lebanon – I have never read any Lebanese fiction.
Lesotho – I have never read any Mosotho fiction.
Liberia – I have never read any Liberian fiction.
Libya – I have never read any Libyan fiction.
Liechtenstein – I have never read any Liechtensteinian fiction.
Lithuania – I have never read any Lithuanian fiction.
Luxembourg – I have never read any Luxembourgian fiction.

Macedonia – I have never read any Macedonian fiction.
Malawi – I have never read any Malawian fiction.
Malaysia – I have never read any Malay fiction.
Maldives – I have never read any Maldivian fiction.
Malta – I have never read any Maltese fiction (I don't count Anthony Burgess).
Mauritania – I have never read any Mauritanian fiction.
Mauritius – I have never read any Mauritian fiction.
Mexico – Carlos Fuentes, The Death of Artemio Cruz (La muerte de Artemio Cruz, 1962) Micronesia – I have never read any Micronesian fiction.
Moldova – I have never read any Moldovan fiction.
Monaco – I have never read any Monégasque fiction (I don't count Anthony Burgess).
Mongolia – I have never read any Mongolian fiction.
Montenegro – I have never read any Montenegrin fiction.
Morocco – I have never read any Moroccan fiction.
Mozambique – I have never read any Mozambican fiction.
Myanmar – I have never read any Burmese fiction.

Namibia – – I have never read any Namibian fiction.
Nepal – I have never read any Nepalese fiction.
Netherlands – I'm astonished to discover I appear not to have read any Dutch fiction at all. How can that be?
New Zealand – Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries (2013)
Nicaragua – I have never read any Nicaraguan fiction.
Niger – I have never read any Nigerien fiction.
Nigeria – Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (1958). I think about this novel all the time.
Northern Ireland – Bernard MacLaverty, Grace Notes (1997)
Norway – Knut Hamsun, Hunger (1890)

Oman – I have never read any Omani fiction.

Palestine – – I have never read any Palestinian fiction.
Pakistan – Mohsin Hamid, Exit West (2017)
Panama – I have never read any Panamanian fiction.
Papua New Guinea – I have never read any Papua New Guinean fiction.
Paraguay – I have never read any Paraguayan fiction.
Peru – Mario Vargas Llosa, The War of the End of the World (La guerra del fin del mundo, 1981). But: see Albania.
Philippines – I have never read any Filipino fiction.
Poland – Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim (1900). A toss up between him and Lem.
Portugal – José Saramago, Blindness (Ensaio sobre a Cegueira, 1995)

Qatar – I have never read any Qatari fiction.

Romania – Emil Cioran, On the Heights of Despair (Pe culmile disperării, 1934). Yes, I'm bracketing this as fiction.
Russia – Tolstoy, War and Peace (Война и мир 1869)
Rwanda – I have never read any Rwandan fiction.

Saint Lucia – Derek Walcott, Omeros (1990)
Samoa – I have never read any Samoan fiction.
Saudi Arabia – I have never read any Saudi fiction.
Scotland – Walter Scott, The Heart of Midlothian (1818).
Senegal – I have never read any Senegalese fiction.
Serbia – Milorad Pavić, Dictionary of the Khazars (Хазарски речник, 1984). But: see Albania.
Seychelles – I have never read any Seychellois fiction.
Sierra Leone – I have never read any Sierra Leonean fiction.
Singapore – I have never read any Singaporese fiction.
Slovakia – I have never read any Slovak fiction.
Slovenia – I have never read any Slovene fiction. I refuse to recruit Žižek into this category.
Somalia – I have never read any Somali fiction.
South Africa – J. M. Coetzee, Disgrace (1999)
Spain – Cervantes, Don Quijote (1612)
Sudan – Tayib Salih, Season of Migration to the North (Mawsim al-Hijra ila al-Shamal, 1967). But: see Albania.
Suriname – I have never read any Surinamese fiction.
Swaziland – I have never read any Swazi fiction.
Sweden – Astrid Lindgren, Pippi Longstocking (Pippi Långstrump, 1945)
Switzerland – Jean-Jaques Rousseau, Emile (Émile, ou de l'éducation, 1762)
Syria – I have never read any Syrian fiction.

Taiwan – I have never read any Taiwanese fiction.
Tajikistan – I have never read any Tajikistani fiction.
Tanzania – I have never read any Tanzanian fiction.
Thailand – I have never read any Thai fiction.
Togo – I have never read any Togolese fiction.
Tonga – I have never read any Tongan fiction.
Trinidad – V S Naipaul, A House for Mr Biswas (1961)
Tunisia – I have never read any Tunisian fiction.
Turkey – Yaşar Kemal, Memed, My Hawk (İnce Memed, 1955)

Uganda – I have never read any Ugandan fiction.
Ukraine – I have never read any Ukrainian fiction.
United Arab Emirates – I have never read any UAE fiction.
United States – Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire (1962) [If VN is not allowable as a US author, then I suppose Ursula Le Guin's The Farthest Shore (1972), or maybe Updike's Rabbit is Rich (1981)]
Uruguay – I have never read any UAE fiction.
Uzbekistan – I have never read any Uzbek fiction.

Venezuela – I have never read any Venezuelan fiction.
Vietnam – I have never read any Vietnamese fiction.

Wales – The Mabinogion (12th-Century)

Yemen – I have never read any Yemeni fiction.

Zambia – I have never read any Zambian fiction.
Zimbabwe – I have never read any Zimbabwean fiction.

Rebecca West, "The Harsh Voice" (1935)

I'm reading West only in part because she's a major if neglected 20th-century author (though she certainly is) and more, if I'm honest, because I have to write this H G Wells biography thing and West loomed so large in Bertie's middle life. To that end I've previously blogged about her first novel The Return of the Soldier (1918) and also had some things to say about her semi-autobiographical novel The Fountain Overflows (1957). And now here's The Harsh Voice (1935), a collection of four novellas.

The first, ‘Life Sentence’, is about a marriage that fails. Sam Hartley is engaged to the beautiful Josephine Houblon, but right at the start of the story he tells her ‘Josephine you'll think me just the dirtiest skunk in the whole world but I can't help it: I've got to tell you. Josie, I can't marry you’ [12]. Josephine however proves disinclined to release him from his promise and so they do get married after all, and both make a material success of life (Sam in business, Josephine by investing in real estate) and have three children, two girls and a boy. But the marriage never really works, and by the halfway point in the story they are divorced. Josephine marries young Jack Lambert (to Sam's disgust: ‘that college boy? You don't want a husband. You want a cheer-leader’ he sneers [39]) and Sam finds contentment in marrying a young girl the story doesn't even name (‘she was the prettiest girl in town and she had a nice steady temper’ [43]). But though Sam and Josephine genuinely dislike one another neither can quite purge the other from their lives. The story's denoument happens after the 1929 crash when they agree to travel to the neutral ground of a Chicago hotel for a meet-up. Sam thinks Jospehine has lost all her money in the crash and resolves to help her financially, telling himself it's for the sake of their kids; but it turns out she thinks exactly the same thing about him. And on that misunderstanding, and the open-ended suggestion that this is not the end for them as a couple, the story closes.

The longest tale here, ‘There Is No Conversation’, is also the best. It starts when our narrator bumps into her old aquaintance, the vain, ageing Marquis de Sevenac on the streets of Paris. He invites her up to his apartment to view his art collection—for the last time, he says, since his personal fortune, all tied-up in US Railway stocks and shares, has just been wiped out. Hélas! But how? He spends thirty pages telling our narrator the circumstances. It all has to do with an affair he recently conducted with a visiting American woman: Nancy Sarle, plain and middle-aged, but with piercing blue eyes. This was a love affair the Marquis entered into partly through pity, partly because it flattered his vanity to be able to show her around his city, and partly on mere whim. When he first wooed her he had no idea who she was, and realised only belatedly that she happened herself to be an immensely wealthy railway magnate. But the Marquis doesn't care about that, since he is himself so well-off. But then, she falls in love with him and things become tiresome. He has a new belle now and so he breaks things off with l'Américaine quite ruthlessly. Later he discovers Sarle has used her position on the stock market to destroy the value of his shares, and that he is ruined. The narrator dislikes de Sevenac for his self-centredness, his desperate clinging to his long-vanished youth, but indulges his complaining narrative. When she later finds herself in New York she tracks down Nancy Sarle, befriends her and eventually hears her side of the story from Sarle's own mouth.

Sarle is an interesting piece of characterisation, actually, especially for 1935: a highly successful businesswoman, plain-talking and no-nonsense, entirely unillusioned about her own lack of pulchritrude (‘I wasn't dolled-up like the women he went with, I never had as much looks as a street car’). She assumes at first that he's after her for her money, and is content to play along while she's enjoying herself; but when she discovers he is, himself, very wealthy her self-possession takes a knock. If he's not after her for her money, then why is he with her? Might it be that his professions of undying love were not just amorous convention, but actually heartfelt? And when this idea occurs to her it creates the equal-and-opposite reaction: what if she's in love with him? The story's subplot has to do with Sarle's complicated Wall Street strategy to ruin the value of one of her American rival's stock, something she's been planning for years. But this strategy is suddenly threatened: because these are the shares upon which Etienne de Sevenac's wealth depends, and she doesn't want to ruin the man she is in love with. There are two twists at the end: one, when Sevanac angrily insists he never had feelings for her it makes her abruptly and unexpectedly happy: it clarifies the situation and means she can go ahead with her stock-market play. The second twist has to do with the narrator, and I won't spoil it here.

The complex ironies of this story don't only have to do with its portrait of two people talking, as per the title, at such profound cross-purposes that they're not really talking at all. There's also a compelling account of the radical opacity of erotic motivation: not just the, at the end, unanswered question as to why Sevenac was ever attracted to the unalluring Sarle, but also what both Sarle and (we discover) the narrator ever saw in the preening, egotistical and melodramatically-posturing Sevenac.

The other two novellas in this volume aren't, I think, quite up to the standard of these first two.‘The Salt of the Earth’ is a pen-portrait of Alice Pemberton, a sensible, middle-class, middle-aged Englishwoman, self-declared salt of the earth, who interferes with the lives of those around her for, she thinks, the best reasons, but who—spoiler—dies, having been handed a fatally poisoned cup of hot chocolate by those very friends (‘nobody likes having salt rubbed into their wounds,’ one of them tells her, ‘even if it is the salt of the earth’ [171]). The mix of ordinariness and melodrama, here, is only intermittently successful. Then there's ‘The Abiding Vision’ the story of Sam Hartley, a successful businessman, who loves his wife Lulah in a rather distant way, gets something more immediate from his relationship different out of his relationship with his mistress Lily, and who eventually cracks under the pressure of it all. It's a good piece of writing, although perhaps lacks the expressively oblquity of the first two in the collection.

There are a few places where the writing wobbles. Here's West's description of a character called Judy Mandeville:
A girl of twenty-one who had come to them to rest up after her first divorce. a slender creature who has the bright colour and the air of being coated with syrupy juices characteristic of canned fruit. [33]
Er ... what? And here's Josephine—a regular, indeed a beautiful, woman, and not as you might think from this description a scoliolis-blighted cripple:
Jospehine was standing in the doorway. There was always a suggestion of something spiral about her, as if under her clothes and her flesh there coiled up a spring, and the long dress she was wearing made this seem more so than ever. [49]
I think moments like these (and, in amongst some very finely written passages, there are various examples throughout the book) bother me more than they might otherwise because West is trying for a series of quite precise effects, and indeed affects. There's still a sense, here, that her instrument isn't calibrated to quite the Nabokovian exactness her larger themes need. Still a very memorable and powerful collection of stories, though.