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.

Friday, 23 May 2008

Francesco Petrarca, Canzoniere Rerum vulgarium fragmenta, ed & comm. Rosanna Bettarini (Turin, 2005)

Rosanna Bettarini's marvellous commented edition of the Canzoniere has just become mine! Mwha mwha. I've wanted this for a good while but just bit the bullet last month. It is beautiful. I remember reading Boitani's review of it in Il Sole 24 Ore, back when it came out, and I decided to buy it because volumes in this series, the Nuova raccolta di classici italiani annotati go out of print rather quickly and then become impossible to find (a good example is Gorni's edition of the Vita nova, or De Robertis' edition of Cavalcanti's Rime). This commentary is extraordinarily rich, with an enormous bibliography. It also has a short introduction (Bettarini has published a monograph on Petrarch). She writes beautifully in this introduction about the study of Petrarch being a study of books, the books he wrote, collected, annotated:
Cosí la poco scrivibile storia di Petrarca è essenzialmente una storia di libri, strappati alla fuga temporis: quelli suoi, che crescono intrecciati e che vengono avanti l'uno dopo l'altro «in tam parva vite area» (Fam. XIX 16, 5), coltivati come giardini, ortulos e libellos del pari piantati con le sue mani (Fam. XI 12, 11), tutti, con avvolgente metafora, bisognosi dell'assiduità del buon coltivatore: «nec coluisse semel sufficit, sed semper insistere oportet qui singularem aliquem vel agri vel animi fructum cupit» (Fam. XIII 12, 7-8, del 1352); di quei libri che il peregrinus ubique porta sempre con sé, per terra, per mare e sul monte Ventoso, come le Confessioni di sant'Agostino, che sono la rivelazione (paolina) dell'acutezza degli occhi interiori, occhi del cuore o invisibiles oculi («Tunc vero montem satis vidisse contentus, in me ipsum interiores oculos reflexi», Fam. IV 1, 29, in particolare sintonia con le agostiniane Enarrationes in Psalmos, XLI 2) e dell'autoanalisi, sostenente i motivi del Secretum e ancor piú del Canzoniere, in quel misto di umbra montis e di umbra mortis che è la cifra della grande canzone di nostalgia Di pensier in pensier (CXXIX); di quei libri fisicamente non cercati in gioventú, le rime di Dante, la Commedia, come testimoniato in una famosa lettera al Boccaccio (Fam. XXI 15), sui quali grava un eccesso di memoria e un igienico distacco, comprovante che non c'è niente di piú filiale e amorevole che uccidere il padre; di quei libri perduti e riconquistati, decorati con ogni possibile segno di tenerezza, come il Virgilio Ambrosiano allestito dal padre ser Petracco, «michi subreptus» nel 1326 e «deinde restitutus» nel 1338 apud Avinionem (sottoscrizione autografa del foglio di guardia del codice Ambr. A 79 inf.), reso splendido e commovente da una miniatura di Simone Martini (su progetto iconofrafico dello stesso Petrarca) e dalla nota che registra la data di morte di molti amici, dell'unica amata (Avignone 6 aprile 1348), e poi, volando il tempo, del figlio Giovanni (1361); di quei vecchissimi volumi scovati nelle Biblioteche («inque bibliothecam ... velut in arcem fugio», Fam. XIX 16, 20), come le lettere di Cicerone ad Attico, a Bruto e al fratello Quinto (Capitolar di Verona, tarda primavera del 1345), che stanno a fondamento delle Familiares (appunto ciceronianamente Rerum familiarum libri), ma con l'impertinente novità di rivolgersi non a uno solo, come anche Seneca a Lucilio, ma a innumerevoli amici, moltiplicando se stesso nell'immagine di molti, selezionati «non sine suspirio» in quel rituale falò di carte che è descritto in testa alla raccolta: «omnis generis sparsa poemata seu familiares epystolas ... Vulcano corrigendas tradidi» (Fam. I 1, 9), sulla scorta di Ovidio che nei Tristia affida al fuoco la correzione del passato: «Multa quidem scripsi, sed, quae vitiosa putavi, | emendaturus ignibus ipse dedi» (IV X 61-62)' (Introduzione, pp. xii-xiii).

I was then reminded of A.C. de la Mare's remark about Petrarch's manuscripts: 'Over the years Petrarch must have acquired several hundred manuscripts and, to judge only from those so far identified, his collection must have been one of the largest and most important in private hands at any time before or since' (The Handwriting of Italian Humanists, Vol. 1, fasc. 1 [Oxford: Printed at the University Press for the Association Internationale de Bibliophilie, 1973], p. 5). There is something about this that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand on end.

I enjoyed too the nod to E.H. Wilkins, the amicus transatlanticus, and wondered about how condescending that tag is. I know that Bettarini is simply following how he was recorded in the Petrarch Society, I know that she is repeating it out of great and evident respect, and I know too that Wilkins considered it a great honour. And it was. But it is funny how the Italians are very territorial about their medieval literature, and more precisely about its criticism. I was trying to think whether you'd get an Irish scholar praising Richard Ellmann as an amicus transatlanticus for his Joyce criticism. I'm not at all sure you would.

Bettarini's commentary is magisterial and I am deeply glad every time I open its pages and get lost in it.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Doing The OED

I promised I'd blog the photo taken today on our visit to the Oxford English Dictionary. I was crouching so the Shorter OED display could be seen. All in all I think a very enjoyable visit.

Monday, 12 May 2008

Thios i Lar an Ghleanna

Nuala O'Faolain (1942-2008)

On Saturday, Nuala O'Faolain died. I've only just seen it as I looked this morning through the Irish Times online. Right now I am listening to her stunningly poignant interview with Marion Finucane, broadcast on April 12. Her talking about her room, saying goodbye to it, her books, her curtains, will break your heart in two. It has mine.

Read obits here here here & here. Then read Are You Somebody? (New Island Books, 1996).

For the rest of today I'm going to listen to Schubert's Die schöne Müllerin, and then to Thíos i Lár an Ghleanna, the words of which I leave you with:

Thíos i lár an ghleanna, tráthnóna beag aréir
Agus a' drúcht 'na dheora geala 'na luí ar bharr an fhéir,
'Sea casadh domhsa an ainnir ab áille gnúis 'gus pearsa,
'Sí a sheol mo stuaim 'un seachráin, tráthnóna beag aréir.

Agus a Rí, nár lách ár n-ealaín 'gabháil síos an gleann aréir,
Ag éalú fríd an chanach agus ciúnas ins an spéir,
Órú, a rún mo chléibh, nár mhilis ár súgradh croí 's nár ghairid,
Agus a Rí na glóire gile, tabhair ar ais an oíche aréir.

Do chiabhfholt fáinneach frasach, do mhalaí bhán', do dhéad,
Do chaolchoim álainn mhaiseach agus glórthaí caoin' do bhéil,
Do bhráid mar chlúmh na heala, do shúil mar réalt' na maidine
'Gus faraor gur dhual dúinn scaradh, tráthnóna beag aréir.

Dá bhfaighinnse arís cead pilleadh 'gus labhairt le stór mo chléibh,
Nó dá bhfaighinnse buaidh ar an chinniúint, char mhiste liom fán tsaol,
Shiúlfainn leat fríd chanach, fríd mhéilte ar chiumhais na mara,
'Gus dúiche Dé dá gcaillfinn, go bpógfainnse do bhéal.

Sunday, 11 May 2008

CJ Sansom, Revelation (London: Macmillan, 2008)

CJ Sansom has a doctorate in history from the University of Birmingham and is making jolly good use of it. He writes historical crime fiction. His detective is a lawyer called Matthew Shardlake who is working during the reign of Henry VIII. Revelation has just been published, the fourth in his a series of mysteries featuring the hunchback sleuth. I really enjoy this series and find these novels rather gripping. The plots are extremely good and Sansom sets up his stories within the wonderfully claustrophobic reign of Henry, where each wife is being beheaded one by one, and allegiances are shifting constantly. This creates a dynamic of mistrust and disquiet throughout that serves constantly to keep the tension levels high.

Revelation is the longest of the novels in the Shardlake series. In this novel Sansom is doing something a little different in that it is a crime with a distinctly modern edge. An old and trusted friend of Shardlake is horrifically murdered right at the heart of Lincoln's Inn. His widow asks Shardlake to help and he presents himself at the inquest to find out what happened. When the inquest is hushed up with indecent haste, it becomes obvious that greater powers are at work and he is duly brought before Cranmer who tells him that it appears not to be an isolated murder. Shardlake and Barak are taken into the confidence of the Archbishop. Their nervousness revolves around the king's recent interest in the widow Lady Latimer, Catherine Parr. These murders have a reformist edge and might be intended to throw an unfavourable light on her followers. But how can this be? The murders escalate quickly and a pattern begins to develop. It seems, in sum, that a serial killer is on the loose and he is constantly a step ahead of their every move. Can they act quickly enough to stop the escalation, and how can this be kept from the king. Not only is the novel fascinating for the usual historical, contextual detail, but they way that Shardlake and Dr Malton try to get inside the mind of the killer is also wonderful. They are proto-profilers, on the one hand trying to understand the killer and on the other trying to help a young man who has become paralyzed with guilt and remorse and in danger of getting himself burned at the stake for unauthorized preaching. Can they bring him round in time?

Dissolution (2003) is the first in the series of Shardlake mysteries. We are introduced to a hunchback lawyer who has been charged with a delicate matter. Thomas Cromwell is attempting to get the monasteries to accept the King as head of the church. Most are complying, but the political connections some of the monasteries have are, too, posing problems. So when the monastery of Scarnsee, on the Sussex coast proves difficult, a commissioner is dispatched to put some pressure on the abbot. Things begin to go very wrong when the commissioner ends up murdered, actually, beheaded, and the high altar has been desecrated with a sacrificed rooster. Cromwell needs to know what's going on, who killed the commissioner, and most importantly, he needs the abbot to sign papers relinquishing the monastery. So far so good. Shouldn't be too difficult to find out who did this. It is, after all, a closed-room mystery, more or less. And there aren't that many monks. But Shardlake gets a fright when people start to die around him, and he looks himself to be a target. With pressure mounting from Cromwell and a killer getting closer and closer to killing him, Shardlake desperately does not know who to trust.

Dark Fire (2004) is the second in the series and sees Shardlake return after having been left in peace for three years. A strange case comes to his attention. A young woman has been accused of murdering her young cousin, throwing him down a well. She has refused to say anything, and will soon be put under peine forte et dure in order to confess, to innocence or otherwise. But there's something odd about her silence that puzzles Matthew. The case is hopeless. She will die under the torture and the case will amount to nothing. Until, that is, Cromwell intervenes. He needs Matthew, known for his acumen and discretion, to investigate something. And he has put pressure on the judge to give him ten days grace to do so. The book proceeds, then, with the two stories running parallel (a common thread through Sansom's plotlines). Cromwell has been given to believe that some ancient formula for dark fire has been rediscovered in the cellar of St Bart's in London. He has even been given a demonstration of how it works. And he's convinced. Finding himself increasingly out of favour with the king, he sees this as his chance to become a trusted member of the inner circle again. Shardlake's mission is to find out how progress goes on Dark Fire and to get ready for the demonstration before the king the following week. Straightforward enough. Except, the very first people they interview, the makers of this dark fire, have been brutally murdered just moments before they arrive. And Shardlake, along with Cromwell's assistant Barak, must find out whether there is any substance to the claims for Dark Fire and just who is behind these brutal murders? The brutality of the killings, and the fact that Shardlake himself gets closer and closer to becoming his next victim, keeps the pace up, and all the while political chaos is gradually unfolding. Cromwell's grip is giving way and his impending downfall provides a brilliant backdrop for the denouement.

Sovereign (2006) is the third in the Shardlake series. The action is set in the Autumn of 1541 and the Progress to the North, culminating in the submission of the rebels in York. Shardlake has been entrusted with a secret mission to keep an eye on a prisoner with sensitive information. He must be kept alive long enough for questioning in the Tower and what information he has must be extracted from him (without killing him). When a glazier has a fall and makes some enigmatic remarks to Shardlake just before he dies, things begin rapidly to get out of control. The murders become more numerous and the King is ever approaching York. Can he work fast enough to find out what is going on and get to the bottom of these killings, and how does this prisoner fit in to the puzzle? This, combined with the intense interest in the snippets of information from the highest men in the realm all leads one to feel that there might be a lot more than is at first evident. A mysterious package of documents containing astonishing information is at the heart of the matter. Can he recover these cursed documents, and worst of all, what will happen if he ever finds out what is really in them? Sovereign is marvellous for the way it sets up some very implausible claims at the beginning of the novel that gradually become less and less so, until the truth is so shocking and the consequences so terrible, perhaps it is better to know nothing. A nice problem for a lawyer.

I've greatly enjoyed reading these novels and highly recommend them.


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