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.


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