Monday, 1 December 2008

Writers' Rooms

One of the greatest pleasures meeting fellow academics is the chance to get into their rooms and have a look around at their books. I remember having terrible trouble concentrating during meetings with my supervisor(s) such was my curiosity to have a look around and enjoy the space. Sometimes, if I visit someone and I know them well enough, I simply excuse myself for fifteen minutes explaining that I'll be distracted unless I have a little newsy around. It's about admiration and enjoyment rather than wanting to know someone else's business.

It is perhaps for this reason that I so enjoy the Guardian's Writers' Room series, photographed by Eamonn McCabe. An exhibition collects these photographs together at the Madison Contemporary Art Gallery in London. A preview is available here. I realise that these photographs are about much more than the bookshelves (which often you cannot see that well). It's about the space, about an aura of creativity and a recognition of its mystery. This is especially the case when you find yourself saying "Oh I could never work there...". And the space itself has a kind of creativity, it is a negotiation, something that the occupant, the writer, chips away at over the years. The space is, in a way, another work by the writer. And it is this that I find so fascinating about these photographs.

above: Beryl Bainbridge's room.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Books Books Books

Help. I think that may be what I need. Help. I have gone a little insane on the old book buying front lately and this term have been adding significantly to the Biblioteca del Crazy Guy. Just before I moved over I found a lovely original copy, in two parts, of Rossetti's parallel text edition of Troilus and Criseyde (Chaucer's Troylus and Cryseyde (from the Harl. ms. 3943) compared with Boccaccio's Filostrato [London: Pub. for the Chaucer Society by N. Trübner & Co, 1873]). I also picked up some of those parallel texts transcriptions of Troilus MSS in the Chaucer Society series. Very pleasing. Still in Oxfam on St Giles, I found a (cheap-ish) copy of the Z-Text facsimile (Brewer, 1994), prepared by Brewer and Rigg. In BW's, I found a lovely discounted copy of Claire Donovan's The De Brailles Hours (BL, 1991) which I very much enjoyed reading.

I have also received some books in lieu, such as the excellent facsimile of Bodleian Library, MS Arch. Selden B. 24, intro. Boffey & Edwards (Brewer, 1997), and Butterfield's collection of essays in Chaucer and the City (Brewer, 2006), which is extremely good. I also got some interesting Palgrave books, such as The Palgrave Literary Dictionary of Chaucer (2006); Baldwin's A Guidebook to Piers Plowman (2007), which looks very good; Cooney's collection Writings on Love in the English Middle Ages (2006); Edwards' Chaucer and Boccaccio (2002), which of course I'd read by did not own; Patterson's Temporal Circumstances (2006), most of which I've read before, but with a few new things; Tison Pugh's Queering Medieval Genres (2004); Martha Rust's Imaginary Worlds in Medieval Books (2007), which I have not read yet but am looking forward to; and Elizabeth Scala's Absent Narratives (2002).

It was however, when I moved over that I discovered G. David, a rather well-known bookseller here in Cambridge. There I found some marvellous things, mainly Chaucer editions and criticism (about 15 items or so) but other stuff too, such as Philippa Tristram, Figures of Life and Death in Medieval English Literature (London: Paul Elek, 1976) which I did not know. These books belonged to the late and lamented Derek Brewer, which he'd sold off shortly before he passed away. I feel unworthy to have them, but glad too.

A visit to Oxford last weekend for a very enjoyable birthday party provided the opportunity to return to BW's where a distinguished don was selling his books after retirement. Gawd. I hardly knew where to look. What I'm particularly pleased with is Mary Wack's Lovesickness in the Middle Ages (UPenn, 1990); Smither's edition of Havelok (Oxford, 1987); and Vantuono's edition of Pearl (Garland, 1984), though sadly vol. 1 only. I'm not exactly sure how good it is, but it is rather full. Vol. 2 seems utterly irretrievable. Anyway, there was lots of Langland too, which I wanted, but I restricted myself to Justice & Kerby Fulton's Written Work (UPenn, 1997), and then Bloomfield's PP as a Fourteenth-Century Apocalypse and Robertson & Huppé's PP and Scriptural Tradition. Very pleased with that haul I must say.

By the way, I managed to find a paperback copy of Volume 1 Foster & Boyde's Dante's Lyric Poetry. Yes, a paperback was printed of the first volume only, which I had never seen. I'm still on the lookout for the whole thing in h/b, needless to say. But I'm getting there. I also picked up some volumes (1, 6 & 10) of Tutte le opere di Giovanni Boccaccio, ed. by Vittore Branca (in 10 volumes, published between 1964-1998), but am still missing vols 2, 3, 4, 5/1, and 9, which I despair of ever seeing in the flesh. I also found a copy of Judson Boyce Allen's Ethical Poetic of the Later Middle Ages (Toronto, 1982), which is very hard to find and looks now like it was printed during the war the paper is so yellowed (in every copy I've ever seen actually!).

I'm afraid that this is just a taster of what has been going on this term chez miglior acque but I admit I'll have to cool it for a while. I have now been banned from using my debit card or credit card for a number of months. I may also need a psychiatric evaluation before I'm allowed them back.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Breaking Down Barriers, 19-30 October 2009

Just received news of the Interdisciplinary Virtual Conference to be held between 19-30 October 2009 on the subject 'Breaking Down Barriers'. This from the website:

In these days of increasing fragmentation and hyper-specialisation in academia, Compass aims to foster connections amongst scholars. To further this cause, Wiley-Blackwell and the Compass Editors-in-Chief are organising this online conference to promote interdisciplinary approaches.

The first Compass conference aims to cut across academic boundaries - within and between disciplines, between theory and practice, approaches and methodologies by providing a space for multi- and cross-disciplinary review.

In particular, we welcome papers on the sub-themes of:

  • Paradigms
  • Borders
  • The Environment/Energy
  • Communication
  • Justice/Human Rights
Abstracts are invited for survey/review papers from the disciplines of History, Literature, Philosophy, Religion, Geography, Linguistics, Sociology, and Social Psychology. Preference will be given to papers which interest more than one discipline.

While the sub-themes reflect important intersections between these subjects, the overall theme of Breaking Down Barriers expresses the cross-period, cross-discipline remit of the Compass project. This conference represents our largest undertaking to date in the service of interdisciplinary collaboration.

The conference will be entirely virtual taking place online 19-30 October 2009. Participants can attend at any time during the conference, when it suits their schedule, to download keynote addresses, read and comment on papers, and take part in other activities. The conference will include all the sessions you would expect from a real conference including keynote speakers, workshops, question and answer sessions, and a book exhibit. Papers will be posted online along with commentaries for discussion and comment. Accepted papers will be published in special issues of the Compass journals.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Call for Papers: Play: Aspects and Approaches

Miglior acque is pleased to announce that the 2009 Oxford Medieval Aspects and Approaches Conference will take place on April 3-4, and that it will be on the subject of Play. For further information and updates click here.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Show Me The Money

I normally keep this blog fairly medieval and bookish in its interests but the past few weeks and the next couple of days are a little unusual for anyone who reads the newspapers and keeps up with what's going on. I am, of course, not eligible to vote in these elections and am reluctant to enter into any strongly politicized ramblings. I know who I'd vote for, but then, anyone who reads this probably would vote the same way. I am going to limit myself to a small observation.

It has been reported that Barack Obama's aunt is an illegal immigrant living in Boston. She appears to have had her application for political asylum, made in 2004, rejected by a federal immigration judge. The timing is suspect, needless to say. That such a leak might have come from a government official is certainly unethical and might even be illegal. Senator McCain has said that it is a family matter and out of bounds, though I think most grassroots and diehards will consider this yet another reason to believe that Senator Obama is not American.

This lady is 56, she lives in public housing, she has volunteered as a resident health advocate for the Boston Housing Authority, and has apparently recently stopped because she is recuperating after surgery on her back. It is clear the lady does not have much money, and according to the Obama campaign they have not been in contact for two years. She did attend his swearing-in ceremony as a Senator, but he was under the impression she had travelled from Kenya for that.

This is all a sad story of a woman in her mid-fifties, with no money, wanting to live in the US and getting sick there. Frightening, terrifying.

And what does she do: the Federal Election Commission lists a Zeituni Onyango in South Boston as making a series of contributions, totaling $265, to the Obama campaign, with the most recent contribution, $5, made on Sept. 19.

This lady's nephew is running for President of the United States of America, one of the most powerful and influential positions of political and social importance in the world, a man who is running with one of the richest war chests ever raised in a campaign that has seen some of the most extraordinary expenditure ever devised. She is just a few days away from potentially becoming a family member of the President. And what does she do? And she donates five dollars to his campaign.

Five dollars.

This lady gave five dollars for her nephew to become the President of the United States of America.

I am trembling with admiration for her and for him. I hope that she recovers from her surgery, and I hope that he becomes President.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

A Civic Education

Last evening saw the 2008 K G Sykes Lecture at Pembroke College Cambridge, delivered by Professors Lucy Riall and Marizio Viroli entitled 'The Religion of Liberty and Italian Antifascism (1922-1945)'. The discussion was lively and the speakers were excellent. There was a very stimulating and dynamic sense of exchange between both speakers and there was a great sincerity in their engagement with the problems. A good night had by all I rather think.

During dinner I learned about Viroli's new Master in Civic Education [pdf here], which he runs in Asti drawing on experts from his own university, Princeton, as well as elsewhere. It all takes place under the aegis of a non-profit organization called Ethica Forum and it is intended to bring a new way of integrating an ethics of exchange and learning. The Masters is intended develop a sense of civic responsibility, of creating a holistic engagement with ethics in work and life. I must say that I found it rather compelling and can only imagine how it must be looked upon with suspicion by the Academy in Italy. Here's the section on what's driving the project:
L’obiettivo educativo del Master è di offrire ai partecipanti l’opportunità di acquisire una consapevolezza matura e critica della coscienza civica e del suo significato morale, politico, storico mettendo in risalto le implicazioni che essa comporta per i cittadini d’oggi, così come emerge dalla ricerca dei migliori studiosi e delle più prestigiose istituzioni internazionali. Il Master è rivolto a studiosi, insegnanti, magistrati, avvocati, giovani professionisti, funzionari di enti pubblici, regionali, nazionali ed europei, ufficiali, manager pubblici e privati, persone impegnate nell’associazionismo laico e religioso. Il principio fondamentale al quale saranno ispirate le attività del Master è la certezza che l’educazione civica consista in una combinazione di responsabilità morale e saggezza che può essere insegnata solamente in un contesto che rispetti profondamente le diversità, la libertà morale ed intellettuale e che ripudi ogni forma di indottrinamento. In linea con questo principio, il Master presterà particolare attenzione affinché i docenti che terranno i corsi abbiano dimostrato di possedere, oltre alla competenza scientifica, una genuina passione per l’insegnamento ed un’impeccabile reputazione d’integrità etica. Essi inoltre saranno invitati a sottoporre all’attenzione dei partecipanti un’ampia gamma di opinioni in campo morale, religioso e politico. Nello specifico il Master dovrà fornire agli studenti una solida conoscenza in campo storico, politico ed etico con particolare attenzione alle teorie della cittadinanza, aiutarli a far propria una rigorosa consapevolezza di problemi e ragionamenti etici, insegnare loro a comprendere il mondo contemporaneo.
It was very depressing to hear Viroli speak with such sadness about the state of his country. The incredible system of corruption and patronage in the university sector is doing very bad things to the way that the future generations of scholars are being produced and nurtured. The brain drain is extraordinary and excruciating and it is difficult to see how it can be sustainable. Perhaps, I learned last evening, there is hope.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Derek Brewer (1923-2008)

The great Chaucerian scholar Derek Brewer passed away yesterday.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Dante In Our Time

Listen to Melvin Bragg's In Our Time talking about Dante's Inferno with guests Dr Margaret Kean (St Hilda's College, Oxford), Dr Caire Honess (Leeds) and Prof. John Took (UCL). Some very good discussion.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Prayer, by Alice Oswald

Alice Oswald's first collection of poetry, The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile was published by Oxford University Press in 1996 and she has followed this impressive debut with equally impressive collections Dart (2002) and Woods, etc. (2005). In 2007 Faber republished her first collection. She writes the kind of poems I would love to write, they are huge in their perspectives. She looks at her environment and she seems to see all that is important, like the world curving into the eye of an eagle. One of my favourite poems from this collection is called Prayer:

Here I work in the hollow of God's hand
with Time bent round into my reach. I touch
the circle of the earth, I throw and catch
the sun and moon by turns into my mind.
I sense the length of it from end to end,
I sway me gently in my flesh and each
point of the process changes as I watch;
the flowers come, the rain follows the wind.

And all I ask is this—and you can see
how far the soul, when it goes under flesh,
is not a soul, is small and creaturish—
that every day the sun comes silently
to set my hands to work and that the moon
turns and returns to meet me when it's done.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

On Allegory: Some Medieval Aspects and Approaches (Newcastle, 2008)

Miglior acque is proud to present: On Allegory: Some Medieval Aspects and Approaches, ed. by Mary Carr, K.P. Clarke, and Marco Nievergelt (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008), ISBN 1-84718-400-6. Pp. ix + 269. This volume of original essays took its inspiration from an Oxford graduate conference held in 2005 at Lincoln College.

Here is the Table of Contents:

E. G. Stanley, 'Allegory Through the Ages, As Read Mainly in England and As Seen Anywhere' (pp. 1-27); Meredith Bacola, 'The Persistence of Narrative: An Exploration of Hans Memling's The Seven Joys of the Virgin' (pp. 28-41); Kirsten Stirling, '“The Picture of Christ Crucified”: Luthern Influence on Donne's Religious Imagery' (pp. 42-55); Olga Malinovskaya, 'Personification and abstractio in Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy' (pp. 56-69); Darragh Greene, 'Sum newe thing: Autobiography, Allegory and Authority in the Kingis Quair' (70-86); Catherine A. M. Clarke, 'The Allegory of Landscape: Land Reclamation and Defence at Glastonbury Abbey' (pp. 87-103); Alice Spencer, 'Erotic Dialogue and the Meaning of Margaryte in Usk’s The Testament of Love' (pp. 104-132); Jane Griffiths, 'Truth and Prophecy in Stephen Hawes’ Conforte of Lovers' (pp. 133-155); William Rossiter, 'Translation of Allegory or Allegory of Translation? Petrarch’s Redressing of Boccaccio’s Griselda' (pp. 156-182); K. P. Clarke, 'Reading/Writing Griselda: A Fourteenth-Century Response (Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, MS Plut. 42,1)' (pp. 183-208); Crofton Black, 'Allegory, Cognition, and a Philosophical Controversy: Two Texts by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola' (pp. 209-230); Vincent Gillespie, 'Afterword: On Allegory, Allegoresis and the Erotics of Reading' (pp. 231-256). There is a list of Contributors, pp. 257-259 and an Index, pp. 260-269.


Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Camera Ready

Check out the New York Times College Issue article entitled: "The Camera-Friendly, Perfectly Pixelated, Easily Downloadable Celebrity Academic", by Virginia Heffernan, which test-drives five celebrity academics and their online lectures. Fascinating stuff and well worth a browse.

Read too the article on Barack Obama as a senior lecturer in law at the University of Chicago. Fascinating and compelling reading. And depressing, too, when one looks at the Republican presidential and vice-presidential candidates.

Monday, 29 September 2008

Jiminy Cricket! No Escaping This Grasshopper

My first stroll around Cambridge had me pass the Corpus Clock, just up the road, and it was a wonderful treat. This was something I'd anticipated, seeing articles about it on the BBC website, and elsewhere (here & here and see the video here). The enormous and ferocious grasshopper sitting on top of the clock is the clock's escapement, mechanism, a "grasshopper escapement" actually, a regulator developed by John Harrison and intended as an homage by the clock's inventor Dr John Taylor. What he has done is effectively to turn the clock inside out, so the escapement and escapement wheel become its major features. The grasshopper, exquisitely detailed, sits on top of the wheel eating away at time: the clock is called the "Chronophage". And an inscription on the outside ledge reads Mundus transit et concupiscentia eius (I John 2: 17). Time is not on our side.

The dial comprises a series of Vernier strips, beneath which are three discs which have a set of constantly lit LED lights. So the time telling is not digital but entirely mechanical.

But time is relative, too. So while Harrison's invention was an important step in the development of a clock that told the correct time (or rather a clock that told the correct time for a longer period of time), this clock is only correct once every five minutes. This is because it actually stops, speeds up, and slows down, making the viewer constantly aware of the passing of time. It does not just tell the time, it draws attention to time. It's a clever idea, and it is hard for me to express the discomfort felt when you actually see the clock stop. You almost hold your breath waiting for it to start again (like watching a patient flat-line!). The clock is supposed to remind us that tempus fugit, it confronts us with our own mortality.

As I start a research fellowship here in Cambridge, these are good and important things to have before me. Tempus fugit, so get on with it!

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Puccini in the Wild West, and Bacon at the Tate Britain

An magnificent production of Puccini's La fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West) is currently running at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. It was first performed in New York, at the Met, with Caruso and Destinn in the lead roles and was received with great aplomb. It has not has the same success in Europe, though there are some great recordings (I have the Nilsson/Matacic recording); it is being staged with greater frequency in recent years. This production boasts José Cura and Eva-Maria Westbroek, flawlessly conducted by Antonio Pappano. The opera is often described as less 'flashy' than some of Puccini's other works, and there are certainly fewer big arias. But I think that it benefits from this, in a way, in that there's a great narrative thrust to the story. The way the characters use English names for each other (Jack Rance, for example) creates (inadvertent?) comic moments. The set is beautifully designed and executed, the cast is extraordinary. This really is unmissable.

At the Tate Britain there is a powerful and at times disturbing Francis Bacon exhibition. His work intense enough as individual works, but ten rooms of works really do pack quite a punch. And you've been punched in the gut after this. They've tried to provide a broad chronological sweep, with the earliest work dating from 1933 and the latest to 1991. There is also a room of archival material, with a good deal of stuff from Dublin's Hugh Lane (now home to the Bacon Studio). The paintings and studies based on the famous Velázquez portrait of Innocent X are so familiar, iconic really. But seeing them together was tremendous. It is easy to not think about them, to consume them as trademarks. Standing in front of them, however, has the effect of stripping away all of your defences. The screaming mouths, gaping in horror, are directed right at you, and there's nowhere to go. The space, so carefully constructed and also produced by the figures, envelopes you despite its delimiting lines and the way the figures are boxed in.
I bought Deleuze's book on Bacon on the way home and will read it soon. Bacon compels and will compel when you go to this exhibition.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Love 2.0, Project Cube 18-20th September 2008

Love 2.0 comprises two plays, originally commissioned by the Abbey Theatre as part of the 20:Love season of new writing and now expanded into two discreet plays of 20 minutes each. They form part of the Dublin Fringe Festival 2008. The theme was "love", and both writers have explored it in different ways, with many intersections.

Two Houses, by Belinda McKeon, has siblings Maeve and Eamon in a confrontational situation late one night in their sitting room. She is in her fifth year at school, he (in his late twenties) is living at home after separating from his wife. The programme notes have McKeon say that she "wanted, with Two Houses, to put these characters in a place that is to them at once dully familiar and unnervingly volatile". This is exactly the tone, familiar and volatile. And it makes for a not always comfortable experience. Maeve wants to grow up fast, she has a friend on Bebo who is older than her, more Eamon's age. Eamon's outrage that she should be going near such a fella is much more personal than might at first be apparent and as the scene progresses, it becomes obvious that both siblings share in an understanding of the complexities of love and sex and their limits. Maeve's paralysis at the end of the play is perfectly judged, she cannot or does not want to reveal Eamon's secret, not just because she knows it will get him into trouble with the law, but also because she understands the impulses that got him there. It's a cerebral work that I think will be seen again.

Phillip McMahon's Investment Potential is an extremely enjoyable and troubling play about love in a modern, materialist Ireland. That's a little pat, I know, and does not do justice to what's going on. It is structurally more complex, having several scene changes and time-frame shifts. The depths of the character of Anne (Kathy Keira Clarke) are subtle and bring the audience from laughter to despair with hardly a moment's notice. Brendan (Brendan McCormack, who also plays Eamon, with great versatility), her boyfriend, is charming and lazy, and Anne's sinking ennui with the neighbours and friends who own their own apartments and houses is drawn out with some skill. Dragging herself home with her Marks and Spencers shopping, being mistakenly "recognized" by a lonely woman there, being insulted by the staff in the Spar downstairs, the increasing grimness almost imperceptibly mounts to a very sad end with a broad horizon. What is powerful about the play is the slow realization of just how destructive this angst really is, how it infects everything.

Phillip McMahon and Belinda McKeon make a powerful duo, and it should be said that McMahon is a co-founder of the production company thisispopbaby who produced the play in association with the Abbey. He generously refers to McKeon as an "obscenely talented writer" in the notes, and this is true. But I think his own work is beautiful too and not undeserving of such generosity. A thoroughly enjoyable evening.

Troilus and Criseyde, ed. Stephen Barney (Norton, 2006)

The publication of this volume is welcome for a number of reasons. It provides the standard critical text, that prepared by Barney for the Riverside Chaucer, in a handy portable format at an affordable price. More importantly, it presents a translation of the major source of the poem, Boccaccio's Filostrato, in a facing-text format. The translation is that of Robert P. apRoberts and Anna Bruni Seldis, published by Garland in 1986 and now impossible to find. It also presents one of the most extraordinary rewritings or continuations of the poem in English (or in this case Older Scots), Robert Henryson's The Testament of Cresseid. And lastly, it reprints a number of articles that have proved influential amongst Chaucerians in the last couple of decades, including those of Bloomfield, Donaldson, Delany, and Taylor, as well as the classic essay by C.S. Lewis, "What Chaucer Really Did to Il Filostrato".

I have been moved to write this review because I have just read a review of this edition by Jenny Adams (University of Massachusetts Amherst) in the rather excellent online journal Heliotropia, the official publication of the American Boccaccio Association. I feel that the Norton Troilus has been rather hard done by and I am more than a little uncomfortable with the review.

The reviewer admits to not having taught with the edition, nor having reason to go to the poem itself for her research. This is considered to provide a "critical distance", which saves her from a "weird attachment to the poem". This weirdness is something Barney presumably suffers from and Barney's assertion that the Troilus is the greatest work in English between Beowulf and The Faerie Qveene is one piece of evidence to suggest such attachment. The Troilus is not, furthermore, considered to be Chaucer's magnum opus. It would be fruitless for me to disagree; it might even be fruitless to cite the evidence that suggests Chaucer's contemporaries and immediate successors considered the poem to be his magnum opus. Fruitless because patent is the evidence of simply reading the poem itself, which ever ceases to amaze me for its extraordinary depths, its sophistication, its beauty and its difficulty.

The strength of the review, to be even handed, is that the facing-text format provides the reviewer with an opportunity to compare the Troilus and its source (apparently for the first time), a comparison considered to be "a powerful antidote to a common undergraduate assumption that medieval authors unthinkingly recycled material". Her comparison results in observing the complexity of Chaucer's treatment of the beginning of Book II, Pandarus awakening to hear the swallow "Proigne", a realization she delightfully calls a "clincher". I quite agree, and I wholeheartedly agree with her when she observes that similar "clinchers" multiply before your eyes when read as a facing-text.

The text is considered "not revolutionary", being a reprint of the Riverside, and in what amounts to damning by faint praise, the whole thing is considered "acceptable". The main criticisms centre on the choice of the essays included at the back of the edition. The main problem appears to be that only two essays treat of the changes made by Chaucer to Boccaccio, that of Lewis and Davis Taylor. Lewis is considered to be "barely teachable", and Taylor is a numerical list rather than actual analysis. Citation in Italian, and words like Frauendienst (Service of the Lady) and ὕβρις (hubris, over-weening pride or supercilliousness) are all deemed beyond students' abilities. The putative lack of good essays out there is finally suggested as an almost inadvertent benefit of this Norton edition, inspiring others to go out and do it.

While I sympathize with untranslated words, I do think that this should provide the lecturer/instructor with an opportunity to talk about these concepts; not understanding something is a moment when students need to consult dictionaries and encyclopediae. I don't think that it is a bad thing at all to have a bit of difficult material for students to work on, it encourages independent work. And there's no doubt that Lewis' essay is difficult, but it is far more difficult to ignore and is surely an important point of reference for all critics who subsequently wrote about Chaucer and Boccaccio. The other articles at the back of the Norton edition are intended to provide material for a much rounder and broader set of views on the Troilus rather than being solely an analysis of the changes to the Filostrato. The student would, in any case, need to consult carefully B.A. Windeatt's Troilus and Criseyde (London, 1984; 1990), whose introduction and notes would provide much of the necessary detail. This is one of the great strengths of the edition in that it can be used so efficiently with Windeatt's text (an admittedly specialist edition) to great effect. The assumption that medieval authors unthinkingly recycled material could easily be dealt with in reading Henryson's poem, also included in the Norton edition and not mentioned at all by the reviewer. This is a pity and a real missed opportunity to make observations on what the editor was saying by putting these texts together and how teaching the Troilus would be enriched and deepened by a reading of the Older Scots poem.

In sum, as a user of this edition for both my research and in my teaching, as a reader who has thought long and hard about both the texts in this edition and the critical essays at the back, I'd like to warmly recommend this volume as nothing short of indispensible.

Monday, 25 August 2008

An Ideal No Man's Land

Two wonderful productions are on show in Dublin at the moment and I've been to both recently. An Ideal Husband is at the Abbey Theatre, running until 27 September 2008, and is directed by Neil Bartlett. Wilde's Husband dates from 1895, though it was written in 1893. It was during its performance in the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, that Wilde was arrested for gross indecency and his association with the play was suppressed. It is very hard not to watch the play with this somehow in the background, and when Sir Robert Chiltern says to his wife that no man should be entirely jugdged by his past, it resonates. The play's poster has a simple picture of Wilde with a red strip just covering his eyes: "We all all have to pay for what we do". Bartlett has done a marvellous job, and he has rendered the play richly and subtly. He has also drawn some wonderful performances, in particular Derble Crotty's chilling Mrs Cheveley and Mark O'Halloran's Lord Goring, frivolous one moment, poignant, searing, honest, the next. The rest of the cast are quite marvellous, and the way that the scenes change with the domestic staff changing props is very enjoyable. There are startling moments too. While the play's stage directions call for Mrs Cheveley to curse ("A curse breaks from her") as she tries to take the bracelet off, Crotty's Cheveley shouts out "Fuck!". It works, kind of. Mrs Cheveley is no lady but passes judgment on the ladies of London and the difficulty of "the season". The contrast could not be sharper. This is a complex and troubling play and the Abbey production brings out its very great strengths.

The Gate production of Harold Pinter's No Man's Land (1975), was first staged in 1997 as part of the Pinter season. This production (running for just four weeks), directed by Rupert Goold, boasts an all-star cast, David Bradley, Nick Dunning, Michael Gambon and David Walliams. This "tragi-comedy", as it is often described, is full of mystery and menace and the laughter is of the nervous kind rather than the hilarious. There is such an enclosed and suffocating sense in this play, and Nick Dunning's Briggs is a gem of barely restrained menace and anger. I'm not sure that Walliam's Foster is quite right, though I think I see what he was doing. He is certainly, however, ingratiating and his time onstage is very uncomfortable. David Bradley and Michael Gambon as Spooner and Hirst are compelling presences onstage, both so suave, both failures, one with nothing to lose, the other, with everything to lose. And each in some place they both see as a no man's land.

Both productions are very much worth going to see. So go!

Egan's Gold

By Al Bello/Getty Images(L-R) Kenny Egan of Ireland kisses the gold medal of Zhang Xiaoping of China following the Men's Light Heavy (81kg) Final Bout held at the Workers' Indoor Arena during Day 16 of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games on August 24, 2008 in Beijing, China.

This wonderfully composed photograph is on the front page of the Irish Times today. It shows Ireland's boxer Kenny Egan kissing the gold medal of China's Zhang Xiaoping, the light-heavyweight champion, who won 11-7 in yesterday morning's final. I find this image very beautiful. There is such tenderness in the gesture, such respect. Not just for the Chinese boxer, and it is clearly a compliment to him, but to the medal itself, to the place of the gold medalist. There is such beauty in the way these two boxers, men who fight for a living, at the moment of highest emotion and greatest pride, express themselves with such poise and dignity, with a kiss. And Zhang Xiaoping's face is entirely reciprocal. I see no triumphalism in his expression. It is an expression of understanding, of having been there, and there is grace in it. There is something very moving, too, about the way that Egan's own silver medal is just peeping out from under his elbow, just an arm's length away. There were lots of memorable moments in these Games, but this is the one I'm most moved by, and, in a peculiar way, that for which I am most proud of Egan.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

The Dark Knight, dir. Christopher Nolan (2008)

Approaching this film was a matter of some trepidation for me considering the huge amount of of hype. How was one to appreciate the film and not be distracted? Some feel it is merited, others, not. That is a banal thing to say, but then a lot of what has been written has been to feed the beast, rather than to ruminate on the film. The death of Legder creates a pall; it was sudden and avoidable and very sad. His performance is quite simply extraordinary. He plays the Joker, and the picture of this insane and psychotic killer is drawn with disturbing lines. He goes places for this performance that I am sure are not happy.

Gotham City has a new Distict Attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Echkart) and he's been very successful in putting away criminals. The biggest challenge is going to be the capture of the Joker (Heath Ledger), a mysterious crazy killer who sets himself up (eventually) as an ally of the city's mob to kill Batman. Batman's job is to capture the Joker before he kills more innocent people, and Harvey Dent wants to capture the large amount of money belonging to the mob. This is all done with the help of James Gordon (Gary Oldman), the city's only good cop. Bruce Wayne wants to retire and settle down with Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the love of his life, but she has taken up with Harvey Dent. Things take a turn for the worse when the Joker sets his sights on Harvey and Rachel, and you know things are not going to turn out well.

I think that this film is very good. Excellent, even. What most moved me most was the exquisitely powerful meditation on Justice, at once most awesome and most brittle. The rule of Law, of Batman's sacrificial position as upholder of the law while also being outside the law, are delicately treated. And Fortune, fickleness herself, is another character, so vividly seen in Harvey Dent's two-face coin. He makes his own fortune (both sides of the coin are the same), but Fortune catches up with him, or rather he himself almost becomes the figure of Fortune. The Joker, too, has two faces, one hidden underneath the make-up, hiding and making manifest. All triangulating with Batman's two faces (I like how Bruce Wayne sports a rather beautiful Jaeger Le-Coultre Reverso, that is, a watch with two faces).

All the fortune stuff is foremost in my mind because at the moment I am reading the extraordinary Daniel Heller-Roazen, Fortune's Faces: The Roman de la Rose and the Poetics of Contingency (Batimore & London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003). It is exhilerating.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Tom Phillips, Dante's Inferno

In April of last year, the Bodleian Library announced that it had acquired an archive of material belonging to the artist Tom Phillips, mainly concerning his translation and set of lithographs of Dante's Inferno. Some of this material was displayed in the Three Crowns Exhibition (which I posted about here). Readers of the rather wonderful The Poet's Dante: Twentieth-Century Responses, ed. Peter S. Hawkins and Rachel Jacoff (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002) will recognize the above Phillips as their frontispiece. I have recently come into possession of the Thames & Hudson 'facsimile' of the amazing 1983 Talfourd Press livre d'artiste edition and have been immensely enjoying making my way through it. I would love to see the original (I don't even know where to look), but the facsimile is not bad at all and I think it would be very good to teach with. There is something very appropriate about Phillips's relationship with the book and his work on Dante coming together, being a kind of Limbourg Brothers working on what must be like a Book of Hours for many of us.

The book figures prominently in the Comedìa. The word 'libro' interestingly only appears twice, first in the great Inf V 137, 'Galeotto fu il libro e chi lo scrisse'; and again in Par XXIII 54. The word with a higher register and prestige value is volume and it is only used to refer to God's book, the Scriptures, or His created universe. It is for this reason that the single appearance of the work outside Paradiso is so interesting. In Inf I. 84 Dante, speaking to Virgil, talks about the 'lungo studio' and the 'grande amore | che m'ha fatto cercar lo tuo volume'. Here volume refers to the Aeneid. In Paradiso, the figure of the book appears eight times in all, though of course Dante uses the imagery of the book with other words, like quaderno or squadernare. In Pd II 76-8, 'sì come comparte | lo grasso e 'l magro un corpo, così questo | nel suo volume cangerebbe carte', where the moon is compared to a book whose pages are of varying thickness. In Pd XIII 121-3, 'Ben dico, chi cercasse a foglio a foglio | nostro volume, ancor troveria carta | u' leggerebbe "I' mi sono quel ch'i' soglio"', the volume refers to the Rule of St Francis, a big word for a small rule. In Pd XV 50-51 there is the 'magno volume | du' non si muta mai bianco né bruno', where the volume refers to God himself, or divine foreknowledge. This use of the figure of the book for a divine vision is repeated at the end of the Pd, at XXXIII 85-87: 'Nel suo profondo vidi che s'interna | legato con amore in un volume, | ciò che per l'universo si squaderna'. It all comes together in the end. The apocalyptic Book appears in Pd XIX 112-14, 'Che poran dir li Perse a' vostri regi, | come vedranno quel volume aperto | nel qual si scrivon tutti suoi dispregi?', where the echo is to Rev 20: 12, Et vidi mortuos magnos et pusillos stantes in conspectu throni; et libri aperti sunt, et alius liber apertus est, qui est vitae: et iudicati sunt mortui ex his quae scripta erant in libris secundum opera ipsorum' ['And I saw the dead, great and small, standing in the presence of the throne, and the books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged by those things which were written in the books, according to their works.']

There are occurrences of the word volume and volumi which are from the Lat. volvere, at Pd XXIII 112; XXVI 119; XXVIII 14.

For more, readers may wish to turn to: John Ahern, 'Binding the Book: Hermeneutics and Manuscript Production in Paradiso 33', Publications of the Modern Language Association, 97 (1982), 800-809; John Ahern, 'Singing the Book: Orality in the Reception of Dante's Comedy', in Dante: Contemporary Perspectives, ed. by Amilcare A. Iannucci, Major Italian Authors (Toronto; London: University of Toronto Press, 1997), pp. 214-239. Specifically on Dante see the article by Antonio Lanci, 'Volume' in Enc. dantesca 5: 1146. A simple search on the Dartmouth Dante Project will get lots of interesting material to chew over.

Monday, 28 July 2008

Books Are Alot Like

Books are an awful lot like the Irish. You just never know where they're going to turn up. I was down in Ennis visiting the in-laws at the weekend and I popped in to a small second-hand bookshop in The Market called Scéal Eile Books. The stock is pretty good quality actually, clearly someone who has a broad range of interests and can spot good books. As I was browsing through the books what did I find only Aubrey Attwater, Pembroke College Cambridge: A Short History, ed. with an intro. and a postscript by S. C. Roberts (Cambridge: At the University Press, 1936). I think that is mad, to find such a thing is a very small rural town in the west of Ireland. I had to buy it. It was meant to be bought by me. The other thing was T. P. Dunning, Piers Plowman: An Interpretation of The A Text, second edition, revised and edited by T. P. Dolan (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), with a nice dedicated on the inside flyleaf by the editor and a little memorial card inside for Fr Dunning. This was originally published in 1937 and for an analysis of the A-Text, it remains an important publication. I am very glad to have it. For lots of reasons.

At the moment I am reading Francis Stonor Saunders, Hawkwood: Diabolical Englishman (Faber, 2004). I am enjoying it, I suppose, but I do find it a little sensational. I know that there was lots of guts and gore and all the rest but, well, it sometimes feels in this book like there wasn't much else. And that is despite the fact that Saunders reflects on this and recognizes it. I am a little uncomfortable with the breezy way in which she talks about what Chaucer must have made of the Visconti wedding in 1368, and how he must have been closely watching the great Petrarch, who was also a guest at the wedding. There is a record of Chaucer 'passing at Dover' in 1368, and yes, he was granted enough expenses to get him to Italy. But we have no evidence of where he went. And I mean none. Modern scholars are generally rather cautious about saying Chaucer was in Italy at this time, and Saunders cited a single article, by Hutton in the Anglo-Italian Review in 1918 which probably led her to this. But there are many interesting things in the book and Hawkwood is a remarkable figure. I might read her book on the CIA, which got a few mentions in the Clash of the Titans session at the New Chaucer Society in Swansea.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

New Chaucer Society Demob

Got home late last evening from the New Chaucer Society in Swansea and it was good to sleep in my own bed. I did, however, have to leave before the Presidential address and the responses, and I was very disappointed about that. There were some great papers and I am still digesting them. I've also had a scout around for updates in the blogosphere and have not found many (ITM, and Stephanie Trigg).

Highlights for me were: Simon Horobin's marvellous paper on the scribe of Bodley 619 (a manuscript of the Treatise on the Astrolabe), in which he brought us through the approaches to the manuscript and its scribe, and with the timing of a surgeon, revealed the identity of the scribe and why that might be important. Indeed the quality of the manuscript studies papers was extremely high and it is clear that it is a sparkling and vibrant field of Chaucer studies right now. There was, what one medievalist (Myra Seaman) called during her paper, a sense of a new era of Celebrity Scribe Hunt, jokingly referred to again by Horobin. Christopher Baswell gave a stunning paper on disability in the middle ages. It was a paper during which you actually felt the watershed. Beautiful, rigorous, moving. An extraordinary paper by a remarkable scholar. Some wonderful papers too organized on variants, with a highlight from Dan Wakelin on manuscript corrections and ideas of a correct exemplar. And there was, too, the very enjoyable "Clash of the Titans" between Jill Mann and James Simpson, with Derek Pearsall looming (very) large in the background. [I actually just typed there the "Class of the Titans", which works rather well too]. I must admit that I found his response to James Simpson full of something sad, and the tone was tinged with some kind of resignation. It was very gracious too, some might even say too gracious.

Lots of interesting people there, got to catch up with old friends and made some new ones too. The conference was very well organized and the, shall we say aesthetic challenges of the campus were certainly mitigated by the beautiful beach directly in front of it. Wales is gorgeous. I am now missing the trip to Aberystwyth to see the Hengwrt manuscript, and as I sit now in my study I am jolly sorry I did not go.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Swansea Here I Come! or To Infinity and Beyond

Is that a song? Tomorrow I head off to the New Chaucer Society Congress from Thursday to Monday. I'm still debating whether I'll bother bringing my computer with me or not so I can blog the crazy goings on, but it's looking unlikely. Will update soon(ish) on views, highlights and lowlifes.

Image: OCCULTATION OF TYC 6356-01186-1 BY 2984 CHAUCER (2007 AUGUST 05) - for more, see here.

'2984 Chaucer' is a small main belt asteroid discovered by Edward L. G. Bowell in 1981 and it is named after our man Geoffrey. I wonder should I tell them about Swansea? NCS is usually good for a few occultations!! Geoffrey himself wasn't bad at occultation, when you think about it. Bowell must have been reading the House of Fame before he discovered this asteroid. It looks like Geoffrey has been stellyfyed after all!

Friday, 11 July 2008

You gave, but will not give again

Sligo has been much in my mind lately. Not only did we have lovely visitors from Sligo yesterday, but much of the Sebastian Barry novel The Secret Scripture is set in Sligo. And then I went to the Hugh Lane Gallery to see the exhibition celebrating the 100th anniversary of the opening of the gallery. The heart of the collection in 1908 was a set of 39 paintings owned by Hugh Lane, subsequently donated to the city. In the wrangle over finding a space for the paintings, Lane took them back and gave them to The Tate in London. After his appointment as the director of the National Gallery in Dublin, Lane wrote a codicil to his will giving the paintings back to Dublin, but this was never witnessed, and after his early death in 1915 a legal battle ensued over who actually owned the painting. There is now a mutual arrangement between Dublin and Lonon where the painting rotate. Quite startlingly, this is the first time that the original 39 paintings have hung together since 1908 and there is much merit in visiting this exhibition. Highlights include the marvellous Les Parapluies (1883) by Renoir.

With this in my mind, I went to the Yeats Exhibition in the National Library. This is a small exhibition around a set of themes, exploring various aspects of the life and work of W.B. Yeats. It uses manuscript material, books, and various short films featuring academics and scholars discussing the man himself. Particularly enjoyable is the exhibit going through various drafts of some important poems, especially 'Sailing to Byzantium'. There is something very compelling about making your way through the various drafts of the poem, watching Yeats at work on words, on phrasings. He often spoke about writing a poetry for the ear rather than for the eye (one reason that punctuation in Yeats can be notoriously tricky), and you can hear this happening through the drafts. But there is too a lot happening conceptually, intellectually in the rewrites and it is exhilarating and perhaps unsettling to realize that all drafts are not equal. A lot of this is available to view on the online exhibit, with all those wonderful 'Turn the Page' bits that have been presumably developed from the rather clever types in the British Library who do similar things with microchips and manuscripts.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Sebastian Barry, The Secret Scripture (Faber, 2008)

Sebastian Barry's new novel reinforces his position of one of the most beautiful, lyrical writers in Ireland. This needed little reinforcing. His previous novel, A Long Long Way (Faber, 2005) was an incredible delving into an Irish problem never openly described as such. It tells the story of Willie Dunne in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, his entry into the First World War, and the terrible beauty of 1916 in which he effectively becomes an enemy. This novel deeply affected me, and I shall say only this about it. There is a scene in which Willie thanks his father for writing to him while he was in the trenches. The father is flustered for a moment, with embarrassment almost, and says it was an honour to write to him. An honour. Imagine a father saying that to his son. Well, that is how I felt about reading this book. It was an honour for me.

The Secret Scripture is an impossibly delicate account of Rosemary Clear, Mrs McNulty, during the last days of the Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital. The prose is so delicate that I had to read it slowly in case I damaged it. She is over one hundred years old, though no-one knows exactly. Her psychiatrist, Dr Grene, has been given the task of assessing all the patients and deciding who is fit for release before the remaining patients are transferred to a new facility. The story is told in two interrelated narratives. One is by Rosemary herself, written in her private hours and hidden beneath the floorboards of her room. The other is from Dr Grene's 'Commonplace Book'. So both accounts are personal, biased, based on memory, on that most faulty and tricky faculty we depend on so much for what and who we are. What results is a miracle of past and present and future, private anecdotes and secret memoirs (from Maria Edgeworth's preface to Castle Rackrent). There is so much deep water in this book that it is hard to know where to begin and hard to know if I have even surfaced yet. Barry is interested in the birth pains of the new Ireland, how it incorporates its citizens and who it decides to exclude, to excommunicate [there is, by the way, an extraordinary description of childbirth in the book that will leave you stunned]. The Ireland of The Secret Scripture is struggling to establish itself, where power is concentrated in a few figures, a power that becomes abused and corrupted. Fr Gaunt is such a figure, perhaps one of the key movers of the narrative. It is he who decides to interpret Roseanne's actions in a certain way, an interpretation that leads to her extraordinary purgatorial existence before she is sent to the asylum, and indeed his interpretation of subsequent events is what leads to her incarceration in the asylum. There are many who are implicated and all, in the great struggle for respectibility, are only too happy to invest such power in the priest. The 'facts' of the story are presented from several perspectives, so that it is not possible to settle on what happened, only on what is remembered, on what is important to the individuals involved. Dr Grene has his own story to unravel and to follow, and it leads him to the most unexpected places. The surprise is that it was a journey he never thought he was actually undertaking, getting answers to questions he thought had nothing to do with him. There is great mystery in life, and great truth in mystery.

This is an important book. A very important book. And again, it was an honour to read it.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Impressions and Revelations

Today I went to the Impressionist Interiors exhibition at the National Gallery, running until 10 August 2008. It is a small exhibition, intimate, as its subject suggest but it loses nothing for this. When we think of the impressionists it is true to say that we are very used to exteriors, plein air techniques, effects of light on water, Waterloo Bridge by Monet, or the façade of Rouen cathedral. We do not immediately think of interiors, which is why this is a welcome opportunity to reflect. The exhibition is well curated, it is small (only 44 works), judiciously selected. Startling and strange is Gaughin's Interior of the Painter's House, rue Carcel; and the Morisot portraits are just marvellous, delicate and telling and sophisticated. While in the NGI, I took a quick whizz around the Revelation exhibition in the Print Gallery and it was excellent (runs until 28 September 2008). On display are twenty-nine commissioned works from the Graphic Studio alongside some other pieces in the print collection. It is small, possible to take in in a quick visit and well worth it. One of my favourites is Brian Lalor's Glendalough print.

With printing on the brain, I headed across town to the Chester Beatty Library to see Rembrandt: Etchings from the Rembrandthuis, Amsterdam. I was not disappointed. Rembrandt's prints have always fascinated me, and again this is one of those small and intimate exhibitions with not many pieces. This is just as well because once you start to look at them you get completely lost in the impossible lines and could spend the whole day there. Highlights include the famous Hundred Guilder Print, depicting Christ in a gesture of benediction, indicating to a woman and child to come forward. It is a dramatic composition, complex and rich. The figures on the left are brightly illuminated, over-illuminated really, and apparently it has been suggested that this part of the print was unfinished. However, Rembrandt sold the print as it is, so if it wasn't finished, he was happy with it. The title refers to the price of the print when it went on the market originally: it was highly prized by collectors immediately and apparently Rembrandt had to pay 100 guilders to buy a copy back. Fascinating too in this exhibition are all the prints that were subsequently tinkered with and 'improved', as well as the very interesting print work of Capt. William Baillie (1723-1810). Go.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Braund on the Aeneid on iTunes

I am listening to the fascinating lectures given by Susanna Braund on Virgil's Aeneid at Stanford and now available on iTunes U. The first is an introduction to the course and epic poetry, the rest then proceed through the poem in three-book blocks. I like the way that it is a real class in action, so you hear students asking questions, and she's interacting with them, trying to remember the dates of the publication of books, welcoming (very) late students into the class. She's a super scholar, and I've just seen (though not yet read) her Latin Literature (Routledge, 2001), and I intend to read it. I think that it will be a good introduction and it will certainly be an appropriate piece on a medieval reading list. Her recent translation of Juvenal and Persius for the Loeb Classical Library is very good, and I'm dying to see her new edition of Seneca's De clementia (OUP, 2008).

By the way, I just picked up a copy of Miriam Griffin's Seneca: A Philosopher in Politics (Clarendon Press, 1992 [1976]) in the Oxfam bookshop on Parliament Street (Dublin) and cannot wait to read it (and for the criminal price of €6 too, I almost felt guilty...). I checked out a couple of JRS and CP reviews and enjoyed their snippiness, calling her "Ms Griffin", when the book was based on a doctoral dissertation, and suggesting that she's a bit emotional. Men unused to women in the academy, I suspect.

I'm next going to read Sebastian Barry's new novel, The Secret Scripture and will post shortly on it.

Monday, 16 June 2008

Stephen Medcalf (ed), The Later Middle Ages (London, 1981)

When I was in Cambridge last week I picked up a couple of rather things, all for under five of these English pounds. The first was David Bevington's 1975 Houghton Mifflin anthology Medieval Drama; the second, wonderfully, was the 1983 third edition of Beryl Smalley's The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages. These are both marvellous and I'm heartily happy to have them. The third was something I'd been keeping a casual eye out for lately and was surprised and happy to see it: Stephen Medcalf (ed), The Later Middle Ages (London: Methuen, 1981). I am now happy to read it. I saw a good many references to it in the Hoccleve criticism, but this is not a book that gets cited much outside this criticism and I am very puzzled as to why. Then I got curious about him and did a bit of online snooping, only to discover that he died last September. And his obituaries have all been extraordinary: in the Guardian, by Josipovici, his colleague at Sussex; in the Independant, the Telegraph, the Times, and the Church Times. The descriptions of the chaos in which he lived are memorable and I particularly enjoyed his response to the question, could he find any volume in his library, "Within a foot or two". Gabriel Josipovici writes:
He would not have lasted long in the present academic climate, which is the poorer for turning its back on people like Medcalf and Dyson and a whole host of Oxbridge teachers of an earlier generation, who felt that what they were there for was to teach, to impart to their students the values they themselves had learned from their teachers and from the authors they admired.

There is far too much truth in these words, and the things that are being allowed to happen in the academy make me sad, sad for all that is being lost. I am, then, coming to the book with a slightly different dispositio, reading it as a memorial and knowing, in a small way, some of the things that made Medcalf tick. The volume makes sense in a slightly different way now, I think, than it did to its reviewers (Lois Ebin in Spec 58 [1983], 509-511; M.G.A. Vale, English Historical Review 99 [1984], 418-419).

The volume is collaborative, comprising five individually-authored chapters. The first, by Medcalf, is entitled 'On reading books from a half-alien culture', pp. 1-55; the second, by Marjorie Reeves and Stephen Medcalf, 'The ideal, the real and the quest for perfection', pp. 56-107; the third, by Medcalf, 'Inner and outer', pp. 108-171; the fourth, by Nicola Coldstream, 'Art and architecture in the late Middle Ages', pp. 172-224; and finally, the fifth, by David Starkey, 'The age of the household: politics, society and the arts c. 1350-c. 1550', pp. 225-290. An epilogue, by Mecalf, entitled 'From Troilus to Troilus' (pp. 291-305) closes the book. The final two chapters are very interesting, and extremely good introductions to the architectural history of the period, and the chapter on the household is fascinating - my reading nicely segueing with publication of Elliot Kendall's new study, Lordship and Literature: John Gower and the Politics of the Great Household. Medcalf's contributions are extremely good, I think. There is something of a mind wrestling about them, of a tough thinking through big big ideas. It's a broad-brush stroke study, so I can see how critics might want more micro detail. But I think that the zoomed out view is very compelling, and there are many points where it is clear that the water is running very deep. And then there are the startling little details, which I hope will give you a sense of the way that tiny details can get picked up across a wide wide range of reading and be brought together. Medcalf is comparing Hoccleve's Prologue to the Regiment of Princes and Wordsworth's 'Resolution and Independence' and 'The Leechgatherer':
"The poems have the same seven-line stanza, rhyming ababbcc (rhyme royal), except that Wordsworth lengthens the last line each stanza by two syllables. So, although Hoccleve's poem was not printed till after Wordsworth's death, the coincidences seem great enough to suggest that Wordsworth had seen one of the manuscripts, possibly that in his own college of St John's, Cambridge, attracted perhaps by reading in Warton's History of English Poetry about the portrait of Chaucer, and moved by the theme he puts in his poem of 'Mighty poets in their misery dead'. If so, Hoccleve's poem would have given form to an incident that certainly happened to Wordsworth" (p. 136).

Friday, 13 June 2008

Jed Rubenfeld, The Interpretation of Murder (Headline, 2006)

Jed Rubenfeld's The Interpretation of Murder made a bit of a splash here by getting itself chosen by Richard and Judy as the best read of the year, and last year it was read as the book of the week on BBC Radio4. I took the long road to Cambridge and back yesterday and spent the eight hours on the bus reading this.

The story runs two parallel storylines, one centring on Freud's 1909 visit to the USA, and the other, the murder of a young woman in a bizarre S&M scenario in an expensive block of apartments in a posh part of New York City. When a second girl is attacked and survives, Freud and the circle of psychoanalysts around him become involved to help the girl recover her memory and identify the killer.

There is a good deal of atmospheric description of the social scene in New York City, and the first half of the book sets up the mystery rather well, I think. The problem is that as the novel draws to a close there is considerable difficulty in wrapping things up. I think that what has happened is that one layer of story has been laid upon another, all individually good ideas, but it ends up too layered and tying it all together becomes unwieldy. I see what Rubenfeld was trying to do and it is ambitious. The way that so much turns on the very simple detail of the monogram impression on the dead girl's neck, left there by the murderer, might have worked had it not gone through so many unnecessary twists, and when that details is 'explained' at the end, I'm afraid that it leaves you a little at a loss. Again, the idea that the killer is someone you never expected is certainly a satisfying part of a good crime novel. However, the way that this killer's motives are set within the context of psychoanalysis leaves one a little cold, almost unconvinced.

All the Freud and Jung stuff is quite interesting, the tension and rivalry between them. There's also the very enjoyable hint that Jung might be the murderer, not one you're supposed to take very seriously, but it's a bit of a giggle. And Freud and Jung occupy a position that is slightly off centre in the book. So the analysis, the investigating, the direct contact with the murder and the amnesiac witness, are all done by Dr Younger and Det. Littlemore. I think this might have rendered the presence of Freud greater had it been handled better, but as it is, they remained characters badly in need of more fleshing out.

Having said all of this, I did keep reading, and the weaknesses of the book only become apparent in the final 40 or 50 pages. Bring it on holidays. You'll enjoy it.

Saturday, 7 June 2008

MS Chig. L. V. 176

Book buying has been proceeding apace over the last month or so. Was very lucky to pick up Dobson's Origins of the Ancrene Wisse and his edition of MS Cotton Cleopatra C. vi; paid too much for a pb of Spearing's Medieval Dream-Poetry (CUP, 1976), but it is very hard to find. And I keep finding nice things in Oxfam these days on Chaucer, such as Fisher's The Importance of Chaucer, Rowe's Through Nature to Eternity, and also a lovely little paperback of Ruggiers' translation of Barbi's Life of Dante.

What I am particularly pleased with, however, is the last two acquisitions. The first is Oskar Hecker's Boccaccio-Funde, and important early (1902) treatment of Boccaccio's manuscripts and the so-called parva libreria. It was a great price too, obviously someone did not love it. Much work has been done since, of course, and there are many points at which this study has been superseded. But it is surprising how often it is necessary to return to it. The second purchase was the surprise find: Il codice Chigiano L. V. 176 autografo di Giovanni Boccaccio, intro. Domenico de Robertis, Codices e Vaticanis Selecti, 37 (Rome; Florence: Alinari, 1975). Now I have seen this around, but usually for a large number of Euros. This required only forty-five of them, and it is in super condition.

This manuscript is very important. It contains: Boccaccio's Vita di Dante;* Dante's Vita nova; Cavalcanti's Donna me prega with Dino del Garbo's commentary; Boccaccio's Ytalie iam certus honos; fifteen of Dante's lyric poems; Petrarch's Canzoniere (the so-called 'forma Chigi'). De Robertis explains rather lucidly, in his introduction, that this manuscript is almost certainly to be linked with another in the Chigiano library, MS L. VI. 213. This manuscript contains Boccaccio's Breve raccoglimento of the Commedia and a copy of the Commedia itself. As de Robertis says of all of this: 'L'integrazione di Dante con Petrarca è dunque la vera novità della silloge boccaccesca' (p. 28). Much is not known about how or indeed why the manuscript was taken apart and rebound, but it might well have been Boccaccio himself. The Cavalcanti with del Garbo commentary looks like it belongs, chronologically, to a slightly different period in the history of the manuscript, and it has been suggested that it was a late addition by Boccaccio (this part is, too, in Boccaccio's hand). The Cavalcanti section occupies a part of the manuscript that has been thought to have originally comprised the Commedia. A recent and very interesting treatment of this manuscript is to be found in Martin George Eisner, 'Boccaccio Between Dante and Petrarch: The Chigiano Codex, Terza Rima Trilogy, and the Shaping of Italian Literary History' (unpublished PhD thesis, Columbia University, 2005), esp. chapter two. I very much hope this study is published since it deserves a wider audience.

*The image is a manuscript now in the Biblioteca Provinciale di Foggia, with the following online catalogue entry:


Cart.; mm. sec. XV (1475); mm. 145 x 220; ce. 29, ciascuna di 26 linee; numer. originale; scrittura umanistica; iniziali in rosso ed azzurro; ril. recente; dorso in pelle, con lettere e fregi in oro e n. di collocazione 139.

Prov.: Nicola Zingarelli, 1936.

A c. 29: «Qui finisce della origine vita et costumi et studii di dante aldighieri poeta clarissimo et delle opere composte dallui fatta da giovanni bocchacci addi XXIII di luglio ore XV MCCCCLXXV» sul verso del foglio di guardia anteriore note autografe a matita di Nicola Zingarelli: «Ms with text different from the first printed edition» e «Da questo ms. deve provenire direttamente il Laurenziano PI. LXV, n. 41, che ha lo stesso n. d'ordine che qui si vede da c. 16; invece il Magl. II, IV, 20, che è strettamente affine ad essi, non può derivare dal Laurenziano, come si afferma da Macrì Leone e da Rostagno, nè dal presente; questo ms. è il più antico della famiglia, come dimostra la grafia. N. Z.»

Thursday, 29 May 2008

(Sub)Standard Medievalists

Some silly girl called Charlotte (above) wrote a silly article for something called the Weekly Standard about Kalamazoo. Evidently the standards are falling. No, not those at the Zoo, rather those at the Weekly Standard. She's got quite a little rant going here and it is pretty much directed at everyone. I particularly enjoyed:

I'm told that the dances of today are no match in noise and lasciviousness for those of the mid-1990s, when flocks of leather-clad gays took to the floor to celebrate their academic coming-out in a congress session on "Queer Iberia." Still, I spent two hours there nursing a beer and mesmerized by the bobbing fauxhawks, the shaking bare flesh (and plenty of it), the hip-hopper in the Blondie T-shirt, the fellow in the full kilt and sporran who had been wandering through the congress as though in search of the set for Brigadoon, the nose-rings, the Birkenstocks, the Pashtun caps, the bare feet of the learned professors of the Middle Ages and their grad-student acolytes.
Nevermind the homophobia, the bitterness, the pinched tut-tutting: I am shocked and APPALLED that she nursed a beer for TWO HOURS. I'm sorry but she's certainly like no medievalist I've ever met. This completely unacceptable and quite irresponsible attitude to alcohol leaves me, well, frankly in need of a drink. For responses with long and funny comments, see this and this.

Monday, 26 May 2008

Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia: The Moment Art Changed Forever (Tate Modern, 2008)

I realize as a write this that the exhibition is now, in fact, over. Never mind. I got to this exhibition on Saturday and it was very enjoyable. The artist I did not know was Picabia, and his work was fascinating and extremely good. I particularly enjoyed the late stuff, when he was being accused of turning his back on Modernism. Actually, I found it rather stimulating, and doing quite a lot with his modernist credentials.

The Duchamp urinal was on show, which looks like it does in a photo. The very interesting Bride Stripped Bare by Her Batchelors, Even (The Large Glass) 1915-1923 was on display and a photo certainly does not do this justice. Duchamp became fascinated with working on glass and this is very much one of the big works of this phase. It is now too delicate to travel and has been reconstructed. So it is a reconstruction that we all stand around adoring. Very interesting phenomenon, and not the only example of such reconstructions in the exhibition. The urinal, for example, was originally exhibited in 1917, and the original object is now lost. This is a reconstruction made in 1964 with the artist's approval. It makes you think a lot about concepts of originality, and in many ways it is so in keeping with the spirit of modernism, the self-confidence in the joke, the tearing down of the old institutions. And yet we flock to see this stuff. Just like all the other 'more' institutional art. And it is funny how it does not seem to matter very much. The aura of authenticity does not seem to have anything to do with the message. I suppose that it is the flux of this that makes me uncomfortable, the sense of fleetingness and perhaps, too, of lightness. Not leggierezza, in the Calvino sense (or indeed in the Liszt sense). More that it doesn't matter. Maybe, that it really doesn't matter. That's an abyss I'm not ready to approach yet.

Next on the list in London is Cranach at the Royal Academy, so I'll blog on that when I get to it.


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