Category Archives: Fiction

‘Drifting’ (À vau-l’eau) by Joris-Karl Huysmans

À vau-l’eau was originally published in 1882, two years before Huysmans’ more famous novel À rebours (Against Nature). This translation, by Brendan King, was published by Dedalus Books in 2017. This work has been previously translated as Downstream and With the Flow but Brendan King chose Drifting to ‘encapsulate both the literal and metaphorical senses of the phrase’ and is a title that is appropriate as the main character, Jean Folantin, leads an aimless, drifting existence. Google translates the phrase, ‘À vau-l’eau as ‘To the water’ but I’m guessing the phrase means more than just that. I wondered if ‘All at Sea’ might have been a good alternative; however I think Drifting is probably the best title.

Drifting is a short novella of about sixty pages and its subject is the relatively low-paid civil-servant, Jean Folantin. Although he is slightly better off than he was, his wages allow him just enough to pay the rent on his room and enough for his basic meals, but little else. As a bachelor his days are mostly taken up with finding his next meal. There are other worries, such as getting his washing done and heating his room but it is the quest to find some edible food at a reasonable price in Paris that is his main concern. Now this may sound like a miserable little book but it really isn’t. Folantin is at heart quite optimistic but it’s his situation that has beaten him down. We discover that he was born into a poor Parisian family and although he grows up to be intelligent he has low expectations from life.

The fact is that Jean Folantin was born in disastrous circumstances; the day his mother’s lying-in came to an end, his father possessed nothing but a handful of coppers. An aunt, who though not a midwife was expert in that kind of work, helped bring forth the child, cleaning his face with butter and, to save money, powdering his thighs with some flour scraped from a crust of bread in lieu of talcum. “So you see, my boy, you come from humble stock,” his Aunt Eudore would say, acquainting him of these petty details, and from an early age Jean didn’t dare hope for any kind of good fortune in the future.

Folantin has no living relatives and all of his friends have either died, or worse, got married; he can look back on happier days, such as when he was in his early twenties, but even then it is tinged with sadness or regret. Although he now has a bit more money he finds he lacks the enthusiasm for much of life, especially sex.

Happy days! And to think that now he was a little richer, now that he could afford to graze in better pastures and wear himself out in cleaner beds, he no longer felt any desire. The money had come too late, now that no pleasure could seduce him.

Although Folantin makes the occasional effort to be more sociable he usually finds himself being irritated by other people. One of the more amusing episodes in the book is when Folantin strikes up a friendship with M. Martinet whom he had got to know whilst searching for some good food. Martinet persuades Folantin to go to a table d’hôte, a more communal eating experience than Folantin is used to; needless to say it is a disaster as the place is heaving with people, it is thick with tobacco smoke, they have to wait for ages for a table, which is covered with left-over food from the previous customers, and the food is terrible.

The food and the wine were certainly wretched enough, but what was even more wretched than the food and more wretched than the wine, was the company in the midst of which you were consuming it; there were the emaciated waitresses who brought the dishes, wizened women with unfriendly eyes and features that were sharp and severe. A feeling of complete powerlessness came over you as you looked at them; you felt conscious of being watched and you ate uneasily, with circumspection, not daring to leave gristle or skin for fear of a reprimand, and apprehensive about taking a second helping beneath those eyes that sized up your appetite, forcing it back into the depths of your belly.

Martinet then drags poor Folantin to the theatre which irritates him further. When Martinet suggests they meet up on a regular basis Folantin is almost rude in rejecting his offer of companionship. These experiences do, however, make Folantin appreciate being alone.

In another episode Folantin discovers a local place that offers a meal delivery service. He takes up the offer, all at a reasonable price, and gets so excited that he decides, as he will now be spending more time at home, to re-decorate his room. At first he is pleased with his meals and the service but it soon deteriorates to such a degree that he gives up on it.

Folantin is hard to please, he’s bored with the world and things that had once brought him pleasure no longer satisfy him. It’s difficult to determine whether he is just incredibly fussy or whether he is justified with his criticisms. If Folantin sounds similar to Huysmans’ more well-known literary creation, Des Esseintes, from À rebours, then you are not alone as Huysmans noted, in an introductory piece in a later edition of À rebours that he saw Des Esseintes as a richer, more refined counterpart to Folantin. It has been a while since I read Against Nature but I much prefer the character of Folantin to Des Esseintes, as Folantin’s situation lends itself more to humour and empathy. From what I can remember, Des Esseintes mostly annoyed me—though I would like to re-read it somewhen to see if I appreciate it more on a second-reading.

I found Drifting both charming and funny, but it is a dark humour that probably won’t appeal to some readers. In the excellent introduction to the book it is mentioned that the book was largely dismissed by contemporary critics as being grim and pessimistic which rather surprised Huysmans who described his own work as humour noir.

I recently read The Damned (Là-Bas) which is about a writer who is working on a biography of Gilles de Rais and who gets drawn in to a satanic cult—it’s not as shocking as it sounds or as the brilliant Penguin cover suggests. I enjoyed the book and meant to write a post on it but time ran away from me. I found the parts on Gille de Rais more interesting than the satanic cult side of the novel which plodded on quite a bit. Huysmans’ books certainly interest me and as Brendan King has translated many of them for Dedalus Books I may well try some more soon.

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Filed under Fiction, Huysmans, Joris-Karl

Flaubert’s ‘Dictionary of Received Ideas’

It is thought that Flaubert had intended a second-volume of Bouvard and Pécuchet which was to consist of the collected writings of its titular characters. It may well have included his Dictionary of Received Ideas (Le Dictionnaire des idées reçues) which wasn’t published until 1911-13. This satirical dictionary was added to the end of my Penguin copy of Bouvard and Pécuchet and I thought it would be fun to share a few of my favourite entries.

AUTHORS  One should ‘know a few authors’: no need to know their names.
BEETHOVEN  Don’t pronounce Beatoven. Be sure to swoon when one of his works is being played.
BLONDES  Hotter than brunettes (See BRUNETTES)
BOOK  Always too long, whatever the subject.
BREAD  Nobody knows what filth goes into it.
BRUNETTES  Hotter than blondes. (See BLONDES)
CELEBRITIES  Find out the smallest details of their private lives, so that you can run them down.
CRUCIFIX  Looks well above a bed—or on the scaffold.
DEICIDE  Wax indignant over it, even though the crime is somewhat infrequent.
EARLY RISING  A sign of morality. If one goes to bed at four in the morning and rises at eight, one is lazy; but if one goes to bed at nine in the evening and gets up the next day at five, one is an active type.
ENGLISHMEN  All are rich.
ENGLISHWOMEN  Express surprise that they can have pretty children.
FEUDALISM  No need to have any clear idea what it was, but thunder against it.
GIBBERISH  Foreigners’ way of talking. Always make fun of the foreigner who speaks your language badly.
GODFATHER  Always the godchild’s real father.
HEALTH  Excess of health causes illness.
HERNIA  Everybody has one without knowing it.
IDEALS  Perfectly useless.
IDIOTS  Those who think differently from you.
IDLERS  All Parisians are idlers, although nine out of ten Parisians come from the provinces. In Paris nobody works.
JAPAN  Everything there is made of china.
LAW (THE)  Nobody knows what it is.
LITERATURE  Occupation of idlers.
MEDICINE  When in good health, make fun of it.
NEIGHBOURS  Try to get them to do you favours without its costing you anything.
OPTIMIST  Synonym for idiot.
PROPERTY  One of the foundations of society. More sacred than religion.
RABBIT PIE  Always made of cat.
SERIALS  The cause of our present demoralization. Argue about the way the story will end. Write to the author suggesting ideas. Fly into a rage when you find that one of the characters bears your name.
SPELLING  Like mathematics. Not necessary if you have style.
TOYS  Should always be educational.
UNPOLISHED  Whatever is antique is unpolished, and whatever is unpolished is antique. Remember this when buying antiques.
WEALTH  Substitute for everything, even reputation.
WORKMAN  Always honest, unless he is rioting.

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‘Bouvard and Pécuchet’ by Gustave Flaubert

Of all of Flaubert’s works the one that most appealed to me was Bouvard and Pécuchet, a story about two clerks who embark on a mission to understand everything. It was published posthumously in 1881; it was an unfinished work even though Flaubert had been working on it for nearly ten years. An earlier draft from 1863 exists which has what I feel is a better title, The Two Woodlice (Les Deux Cloportes). The two woodlice, Bouvard and Pécuchet, are single, middle-aged clerks who happen to meet and strike up a friendship one day in 1838. The meeting takes place on the first page of the book and has a Beckettian feel to it.

Two men appeared.
One came from the Bastille, the other from the Jardin des Plantes. The taller of the two, in a linen costume, walked with his hat pushed back, waistcoat undone and cravat in hand. The smaller one, whose body was enveloped in a brown frock-coat, had a peaked cap on his bent head.
When they came to the middle of the boulevard they both sat down at the same moment on the same seat.
Each took off his hat to mop his brow and put it beside him; and the smaller man noticed, written inside his neighbour’s hat, Bouvard; while the latter easily made out the word Pécuchet, in the cap belonging to the individual in the frock-coat.
‘Well, well,’ he said, ‘we both had the same idea, writing our names inside our headgear.’
‘My word, yes! Someone might take mine at the office.’
‘The same with me, I work in an office too.’
Then they studied each other.

They quickly become good friends, meeting each other at lunch or after work to go for a walk, sharing meals and conversation. They are, however, quite different: Bouvard is a widower, he has curly hair, he is rotund and is quite sociable; whereas Pécuchet is a bachelor, has black hair and is rather morose. One day Bouvard is notified that he has inherited his uncle’s fortune—this uncle is actually Bouvard’s natural father. Bouvard decides to wait until his retirement before moving to the country at Chavignolles. There is no question of Pécuchet being left behind and he is invited to share Bouvard’s good fortune.

This all happens in the first chapter. In the second chapter Bouvard and Pécuchet get used to their new surroundings and try to find out how to survive in the country. Although those around them offer advice both men dive into books and magazines to determine the best way to run their farm. They take up every hare-brained scheme that they come across, which often involves paying a lot of money for equipment, and ignore the advice of others. This sets the pattern of the whole book whereby Bouvard and Pécuchet decide they need to know about something, they then do some research and try to put in practice whatever they come across, fail, then move on to their next obsession. For example, Bouvard has read that bleeding his bullocks will fatten them up, they end up dying from it; he decides to make beer from germander (mint family) leaves which cause intestinal problems of those that try it; they decide to have a pear orchard but all the trees die. They try making jam, pickling vegetables and making bread, but fail. They then get a still and try to produce liqueurs, but after narrowly escaping death when the still explodes, Pécuchet says ‘Perhaps it is because we don’t know any chemistry!’ And so chapter three is about their attempts to understand chemistry then anatomy, medicine etc. Each subsequent chapter is taken up with their search for knowledge on a variety of subjects, always with the same lack of success. Initially Bouvard and Pécuchet are optimists, always convinced that they will be successful but by the time they get to study philosophy in chapter eight they have finally had enough and decide to commit suicide on Christmas Day but then upon seeing a midnight mass procession they turn to God. The book doesn’t end there as they end up adopting two children and then try to find the best way to educate them. Although the book is unfinished Flaubert left a plan which indicates that they end up getting a double-sided desk made so that they can go back to their original work as copyists.

Bouvard and Pécuchet is certainly a strange book and one that takes a bit of getting used to as there is no real narrative just the cycle of attempt and failure. Flaubert tries to connect the chapters to give it some overall structure but this can be rather tenuous. Although a lot of the episodes were humorous I felt that Flaubert was holding back on the humour. I wondered about his aims in writing such a book and most of what I read about it suggests that he was trying to show how pointless most knowledge is. But for me the problem is with Bouvard’s and Pécuchet’s approach to knowledge; they seem to be uncritical consumers of all knowledge regardless of its source, they seem unable to learn from their mistakes, they are merely dabblers and dilettantes and seem unwilling to listen to others’ advice. For example the fact that they can’t grow pear trees is not because the knowledge to do so is not there but it is because they are fools who are incapable of processing the information. After all, it is possible to grow pear trees. That there is a lot of useless, wrong or dangerous information around is apparent to the modern-day internet user and the ability to sift out all this crap from the relevant and useful information is a daily task that we all have to perform—sadly there are still many modern-day Bouvards and Pécuchets around.

However, all this reading had disturbed their brains.

I had a quick look in Frederick Brown’s biography of Flaubert, Flaubert: A Life, to see if I could uncover a bit more about Flaubert’s intentions in writing this book and what exactly drove him to continue with it for so long. It was interesting to find that Turgenev warned him from making it too heavy and suggested the story lent itself to a satire. Flaubert ignored Turgenev’s advice. In a letter to his sister, dated 6th June 1877, he wrote ‘At times, the immense scope of this book stuns me. What will come of it? I only hope I’m not deceiving myself into writing something goofy rather than sublime. No, I think not! Something tells me I’m on the right path! But it will be one or the other.’ I think it is more goofy than sublime, but I don’t see that as a negative criticism as I believe that Flaubert should have played up the ‘goofiness’ even more.

In the end the main problem with it is that it’s a bit too repetitive. I felt that the last couple of chapters became a bit more focused as their route from philosophy to religion then to education had more of a narrative drive than the earlier progression through literature, drama, politics and love. It was quite a fun book to read and it was a shame Flaubert didn’t finish it but I feel that he should have paid more attention to Turgenev’s advice.

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‘From a View to a Death’ by Anthony Powell

From a View to a Death, which was published in 1933, is another one of Anthony Powell’s pre-war, pre-Dance novels. I’m hoping to read more of his non-Dance novels as the ones I’ve read so far have been enjoyable. In From a View to a Death Powell takes us outside of London to an unnamed town in the country; the characters are typical Powellian characters—artists, misfits, lesser gentry, retired Majors, unmarried young women etc. The main character is a young artist called Arthur Zouch who has been invited to stay at the country house of the Passengers. He has been invited by Mary Passenger who is trying to decide whether she likes him or not and to see how well he fits in with her family. Zouch feels that he is above all this as he sees himself as a Nietzschian Übermensch who does not need to obey the rules that others have to. He also has a beard. This is a bit of a running joke throughout the book as everyone comments on his beard and everyone, except Zouch, thinks it looks silly or strange.

Zouch was a superman. A fair English equivalent of the Teutonic ideal of the Übermensch. No one knew this yet except himself. That was because he had not been one long enough for people to find out. They would learn all in good time; and to their cost.

As with Powell’s other novels we get to meet loads of characters and we eavesdrop on lots of witty dialogue. Powell flits between the characters with ease and we get to discover what they’re thinking as well as what they’re saying and doing. I like this way of dealing with characters where we get to feel that nothing is held back or hidden from us.

Zouch is immediately pressed into appearing in a pageant that is being organised—even a Superman can’t get out of that. To give him something to do during his stay he embarks on painting a portrait of Mary as well as her young, chatty niece, Bianca. Meanwhile Mary’s father, Vernon Passenger, is trying to resolve an ongoing dispute over some land with one of his tenants, Major Fosdick. Major Fosdick is a typical retired Major; he’s full of bluster, he’s used to getting his own way and he loves his guns.

Major Fosdick was cleaning his guns in the drawing-room because it was the most comfortable room in the house. While he did this he brooded. He enjoyed cleaning his guns and he enjoyed brooding so that the afternoon was passing pleasantly enough and its charm was disturbed only by the presence of his wife, who sat opposite him, mending a flannel undergarment and making disjointed conversation about subjects in which he was not interested.

And there is nothing that he finds more relaxing after lunch than slipping in to a black sequin evening dress and wearing a large picture-hat whilst smoking his pipe—hence the book cover.

One of the Major’s sons, Torquil, whom everyone thinks is odd, is besotted with Joanna Brandon. Joanna however does not particularly like Torquil. She lives with her mother, a woman who never leaves the house. When Zouch meets Joanna he decides to make a conquest of her. As always with Powell we get some wonderful dialogue. Here we have a delightfully vague conversation between Mary and Zouch about Torquil.

   “Torquil Fosdick is a funny boy, isn’t he?”
   “He certainly is.”
   “I should think he was—well, at least I mean, you know—at least I should think anyone would think so, wouldn’t you?”
   “Oh yes, I should think so. If they took the trouble to think about him, I mean.”

There are many more minor characters in the book such as the Orphans, three buskers that seem to be everywhere; Mrs Brandon’s housekeeper, Mrs Dadds, who likes to talk about her chilblains and a group of hikers headed by Fischbein who ‘had a grey face, full of folds and swellings of loose flesh, like a piece of bad realistic sculpture.’

For me the real fun comes from the characters, the witty descriptive writing and dialogue but Powell doesn’t completely forget the plot and he wraps the book up neatly within a few pages; this may annoy some readers but I quite liked it. I won’t reveal how the novel ends other than to say that Zouch turns out to be less of a Superman than he thought. Everything seems to work in Vernon Passenger’s favour by the end, partly from his own initiative but mostly from luck.

As this was such a fun read I shall continue to read more of Powell’s books; I am in luck as most of them are available from my library; Venusberg will probably be my next one.

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‘Fluke’ by James Herbert (1977 Club)

James Herbert is a famous British horror writer; his first novel Rats quickly became a bestseller, as did many of his subsequent books. I got in to Herbert’s books, along with other horror and gothic writers, when I was in my teens in the 1980s. I read a fair amount of his books that had been published at the time, including Fluke. Although he became famous with the ‘Rat’ books (there were two sequels to RatsThe Lair and Domain) and other gory horror books he didn’t totally restrict himself to this sub-genre; although most of his books would be classed as horror some were more supernatural stories, ghost stories or thrillers. Fluke is one of the more untypical books by Herbert as it is the story of a dog from the dog’s viewpoint—well, the dog is actually a man that’s been reincarnated as a dog. I originally read this nearly thirty years ago and I vaguely remember not liking it as much as his other books but I felt like including it in my reading for the ‘1977 Club’ as I wondered what I’d make of it today. I also felt like reading something a little less highbrow than a lot of my current reading so it ticked all the boxes.

The novel begins with Fluke being born, or reborn, as a dog. His first memories are of the warmth and comfort of his mother and siblings and also of being handled by humans. As Fluke is adopted by his new owner we get to see the world from Fluke’s point of view. The taste of human skin is particularly delightful but the noise and smells of a London street take some getting used to, especially the huge metal monsters that race about at incredible speeds. Fluke’s experience with his first owners doesn’t work out and he finds himself back in a dog’s home where he feels unloved and becomes a bit of a troublemaker by howling and snarling a lot and tormenting some of the other dogs. But it is during this period that Fluke begins to have dreams or memories of a previous life as a human; as a husband and a father.

   Reborn.
   I screamed and the scream woke me.
   My head felt as if it would explode with the new knowledge. I wasn’t a dog; I was a man. I had existed before as a man and somehow I had become trapped inside an animal’s body. A dog’s body. How? And why? Mercifully the answers evaded me; if they hadn’t, if they had come roaring through at that point, I think I should have become insane.

Overhearing two workers talking about him having to be put down Fluke decides to escape and ends up roaming the streets of London. Fluke’s experiences with humans is mixed but he never manages to settle into a happy co-existence with them though he is always drawn back to them. Fluke’s experiences are sometimes brutal but there is also kindness and joy; as Fluke often tells us—dogs are optimistic creatures.

Things change when he meets another dog, Rumbo, with whom Fluke can communicate. Rumbo takes Fluke under his wing and shows him how to survive in the city by both begging and stealing. Fluke is also accepted by Rumbo’s owner, a scrap-metal merchant, who only feeds them occasionally so they have to fend for themselves most of the time. We follow the two dogs as they steal meat from butchers shops, play in the parks, catch rats and get to know each other. Fluke is inquisitive about their ability to communicate with each other and when he tries to talk about his previous life as a human Rumbo refuses to discuss it. It’s not until later in the novel that he is able to discuss this aspect of his existence with a wise badger. Events mean that Fluke has to leave the scrap-metal yard and the urge to find out about his previous life becomes overpowering so he tries to find the town where he used to live, however, he only has vague memories of his life as a human.

Although there are some violent scenes in this book, such as a fight between Rumbo and a large rat, there are also many comical passages. In one chapter Fluke arrives in a town, hungry as usual, and endears himself with a little old lady, called Miss Birdle, who makes a big fuss of him. She takes him home and pampers him. But she also owns a cat, a spiteful, vicious thing called Victoria, who tries her best to get Fluke into trouble with their owner. There are chases and fights between cat and dog that end up with all the crockery getting broken, Victoria making her escape through a glass window and Fluke doing the same in another instance. On top of this Miss Birdle has a bit of a viscious streak and occasionally metes out a swift kick at Fluke for no apparent reason or locks him in a room for days.

Round and round that kitchen we ran, knocking chairs over, crashing against cupboards, shouting and screaming at each other, too far gone with animal rage to concern ourselves with the noise we were making and the damage we were doing.

After another similar incident Miss Birdle deliberately sets the fire going after Victoria has raced up the chimney; soot and a smoking cat end up coming down and Victoria escapes for good. Fluke tries to carry on living there after Victoria has gone but after further incidents he decides it’s just not worth it as the woman is clearly nuts.

I won’t reveal what happens at the end but Fluke now is determined to complete his odyssey back to his human family even though the badger he meets tries to dissuade him from doing so. Herbert manages to wrap everything up neatly leaving nothing ambiguous at the end, although it’s pretty clear what is going to happen Herbert does have a little twist at the end. I wonder if this was Herbert’s response to that other anthropomorphic novel from the seventies, Watership Down.

I shall end with an amusing quote that appears near the end of the book where Fluke is looking back on his life as a dog.

I’ve talked with, eaten with, and played with so many different species my head aches trying to remember them all. I’ve been amazed at and chuckled over the neuroses in the animal world: I’ve met a pig who thought he was a horse; a cow who stuttered; a bull who was bullied by a shrew he shared a field with; a duckling who thought he was ugly (and he was); a goat who thought he was Jesus; a woodpigeon who was afraid of flying (he preferred to walk everywhere); a toad who could croak Shakespeare sonnets (and little else); an adder who kept trying to stand up; a fox who was vegetarian; and a grouse who never stopped.

This was read as part of Karen’s and Simon’s ‘1977 Club’.

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‘A Flat Man’ by Ivor Cutler (1977 Club)

When I started to look for some books to choose for the ‘1977 Club’ I was pleased to see that Ivor Cutler had a book published that year. Unfortunately I didn’t have a copy even though I had several of his other books, records and CDs. When I began to look for copies the prices were very high, too high for me. But in the end I found an ex-library copy at about the price of a new book. What luck!

If you have never heard of Ivor Cutler then the Wikipedia entry describes him as ‘a Scottish poet, songwriter and humorist’ which is a fair description. I discovered him through John Peel’s radio show where Cutler’s poems and stories would often be incongruously placed between the likes of The Fall and Napalm Death. Many of us fell in love with his whimsical, surreal and sometimes just completely baffling poems, songs and stories. His poems were often set in a domestic or natural environment and often involve talking birds, cows or even bacteria—Ivor used to hand out stickers that said ‘befriend a bacterium’. His style is often childish or naive but will sometimes take a turn towards the dark side. He also wrote short stories mostly about his early life growing up in a poor Glaswegian neighbourhood in the 1920s/30s; these have been collected in books and records as Life in a Scotch Sitting Room, Vol. 2 and Glasgow Dreamer. He also wrote several children’s books.

A main part of the appeal of Cutler’s work, at least it is for me, is in his delivery; he is quietly spoken, has a soft Scottish accent and is usually accompanied with his harmonium which gives his readings a dreamy quality. Many of the poems in this little book are also included on the CD, released in 1998, which is also called A Flat Man. I would have included audio files from that CD in this post but I would have to upgrade my WordPress account to do so, so we shall have to make do with just the text. Anyone who is familiar with Ivor Cutler will no doubt be able to imagine him reading these poems. If you have never heard Cutler here’s a YouTube link to an episode of Life in a Scotch Sitting Room.

Let’s kick off with a couple of the more whimsical poems.

I Ate a Lady’s Bun

I got taken to gaol.
I ate a lady’s bun.
On her head.
She got a fright.
It was a surprise.
Do not worry I said.
I am eating your bun.
I am hungry for a bun.
Police she cried a good
neighbour heard her
and phoned the
police.

You must not eat a lady’s bun even
if you are hungry.
And I am in jail.

Irk

Hello Mr Robinson.
Hello Mr Cutler
have a cup of tea
then
we’ll look at Mrs Robinson
who’s lying dead
next door.

(the next day)

Hello Mrs Robinson.
Hello Mr Cutler
have a cup of tea —
sorry about yesterday.

I don’t know why Cutler uses ‘gaol’ and then ‘jail’ in the same poem, maybe it was just for the hell of it. Irk, for some strange reason, isn’t included on the CD version; I don’t know why as it’s one of my favourites in the book. It’s Cutler at his silliest best. Next up is one of the longer poems from the book. I can only imagine that this really happened.

Birdswing

Got a letter
from a thrush.
Come and see
me compose.
So I went.
She stuck
her beak
into the ink
and sputtered
on to the manuscript.
Then sang it.
Tra la la
tweet tweet
warble warble
ptui ptui.
When she finished
I was asked
for an opinion.
With a grave look
I opined:
Well
it’s very good.
Regular thrush music
good range
plenty of variety
nice timbre.
Look Cutler
said thrush
do you think
it’s worth
making a demodisc
or a tape
and
going round the agents?
I think
it’s chart material.
Look thrush
I replied
it could only succeed
as a gimmick.
Yea, I suppose,
she tweeted
and flew
into a stump.

Ok, here are a few of his shorter pieces.

Fistyman

A man with a hand
like a hammer
was hanging
a portrait
of his wife.

The Long Way

Do not walk
through a tree.
Walk round
without losing
face.

And pity
those whose
security
is
superior
physical strength.

Unexpected Join

The
earth
meets the
sky over
the
hill.

I was
told
by
a sparrow with
a lump on
its head.

I can’t resist including another one so here’s some wise advice from Mr Cutler.

5 Wise Saws

1. Do not kick a grocer
on the leg.

2. If you kick a grocer
on the leg, make sure
it’s not a green grocer.

3. If you throw a ball,
it moves in the air.

4. You can not erase a
love letter with a
nipple, no matter how
rubbery.

5. If you empty your bowels
at night, a shepherd
will have a red face
in the morning.

Ok, that’s enough for now. Hopefully, you’ve enjoyed entering the wacky world of Ivor Cutler. By the way, I was lucky enough to see Ivor Cutler perform live at the Hackney Empire back in the late ’80s or early ’90s (I can’t remember the actual date) which was a wonderful experience.

This was read as part of Karen’s and Simon’s ‘1977 Club’.

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Filed under Cutler, Ivor

‘Baudolino’ by Umberto Eco (Italian Lit Month)

I’m not entirely sure now why I chose to read Baudolino: It’s true that I’d read and loved Eco’s more famous works, The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum and I was looking for something else to read from my TBR pile, possibly an Italian one so I could include it in Stu’s Italian Lit Month, but then I wasn’t in the mood for anything remotely fantastic, I was more in the mood for straightforward modern realism. So, I was only partially prepared for Eco’s story of Baudolino, an adopted son of the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, and his tales of intrigue, deception and journeys to mythological places. Although I nearly abandoned the book at least twice I felt that it was an enjoyable read and the craziness of it won me over in the end. I think I would have enjoyed it much more if I had been more in the mood for it. But Eco, although loquacious, is still an entertaining writer and one who is remarkably easy to read even if we get lost in some of the twists and turns of the plot. Part of the attraction of Eco’s works is that he mixes real historical people and events with his own fictional accounts filling in missing details with whatever he feels like.

Baudolino tells Niketas Choniates, a Byzantine scholar, the story of his life and how he has ended up in Constantinople whilst it’s being ransacked by Western troops during the Fourth Crusade. Baudolino, the son of a peasant, has a natural skill for languages, being able to work out a language just from hearing people speak together. A chance meeting with Frederick I results in him being sold to and adopted by the emperor. Before long Frederick takes a new wife, Beatrice of Burgundy, whom Baudolino finds so beautiful that he can barely speak in her presence. Meanwhile Baudolino gets used to court life and is then sent to study in Paris. Many of the characters he meets in Paris play a significant part in the rest of the novel, such as The Poet, a man who aspires to be a poet even though he hasn’t ever written a poem in his life, or Abdul, a red-headed Moor who has access to his uncle’s prodigious library.

Frederick is in constant conflict with different Italian cities and values Baudolino’s honest advice even if he doesn’t always follow it. When Frederick besieges Baudolino’s old birthplace, Alessandria, now a fledgling city, he is sent to try to broker an agreement but instead gets mixed up in all sorts of shenaningans. During the ransacking of Milan Baudolino comes across the purported bodies of the Magi and manages to smuggle them out. He is then involved in trying to concoct a story that can be used to validate the Magi. Baudolino suggests that they could have come from a mythical land to the east ruled by Prester John.

   “Baudolino,” he [Rainald, Frederick’s chancellor] said at once, “I’ll deal with the Magi now; you must think about Prester John. From what you tell me, for the moment we have only rumours, and that’s not enough. We need a document that will attest to his existence, that says who he is, where he is, how he lives.”
   “And where will I find that?”
   “If you can’t find it, make it. The emperor has allowed you to study, and this is the moment to put your talents to use.”

And this is what Baudolino does, eventually; he writes a letter, purportedly from Prester John, offering the Holy Grail (or Grasal) to Frederick. But circumstances change and the letter is not used, not until he is tricked by a monk, called Zosimos, to show it to him and he somehow makes a copy of it whilst Baudolino is in a drunken stupor.

If you are planning to read Baudolino then it may be best to stop reading at this point

And then things get even more crazy. During the Third Crusade Baudolino bumps into Zosimos in Constantinople, Zosimos claims to have a map showing the way to Prester John and Baudolino fabricates the Grasal from an old wooden bowl—events have changed as they are now going to take the Grasal to Prester John as a gift. Frederick dies whilst in a locked room during a visit in a castle. It looks like it could have been murder and then it’s discovered that both Zosimos and the Grasal have disappeared. They assume he’s heading towards the lands of Prester John and so they aim for the same destination, even though they haven’t a clue where they are going. They venture on further east and end up in Pndapetzim, a land populated with many mythological creatures such as skiapods, blemmyae, ponces, pygmies, giants, panotians, nubians, satyrs and hypatias. At Pndapetzim the road to Prester John is still about a year’s march away and is guarded by a group of eunuchs.

As the novel became more fantastical I almost grew to like it more, possibly because I’d realised that it was going to get stranger as it progressed and I thought I’d just go with the flow. A lot of the reviews that I read suggests that many readers disliked this change of direction of the novel into the mythical. Eco certainly seems to enjoy pulling the reader one way and then another. My favourite part of this novel was during this period where Baudolino and his comrades were training all these strange creatures how to fight in a war, something they hadn’t had to do until then but had to now that there was an imminent threat from an invasion of White Huns. After all their effort their attempt at warfare is a complete shambles and they are overrun by the Huns. Baudolino flees and eventually gets back to Constantinople….on a roc, a large mythical bird of prey.

So, my experience of Baudolino was mixed: at times I found it a bit annoying, a bit too long, but then I enjoyed the playfulness of it and would probably have enjoyed it more if I had been in the right mood for it when I started it. I liked the mix of fact and fiction and often found myself checking things on Wikipedia or elsewhere and was surprised how much was either true or had existed as stories or mythologies. Eco did a great job of weaving them all into an incredible story and I found myself laughing quite often at the absurdity of the tale.

I read this as part of Stu’s Italian Literature Month.

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Filed under Eco, Umberto, Fiction