e a m harris

Roaming the byways of literature

Archive for the month “July, 2012”

Literary Olympics

Since the Olympics are now going full blast and getting comments from all over, I thought I’d add my two pence worth and look around the web to see if there are any literary associations worth noting.

It didn’t surprise me to learn that the ancient Greeks paid poets to write in praise of their sporting events. It did surprise me that from 1912 to 1952 there was a poetry competition alongside the sporting. Details can be found on one of the Library of Congress blogs. Other arts were also included.

East Tennessee State University apparently has a course on the Olympics and gives a reading list of books and films.

There’s a website called Poetry Olympics. It doesn’t seem to have much to do with sport, but using the name ‘Olympics’ indicates that they are aiming to be the best of the best.

In relation to the current Games, there has been an online poetry game at Getset, and there has been a poetry competition for the young.

Amazon has a page devoted to Olympic books, including fiction, but none of the titles meant anything to me. I think the most famous semi-fictional treatment of the Games is probably the film Chariots of Fire – and the musical score is at least as famous as the script.

The Hare with Amber Eyes

Earlier this year I read this beautifully written and illustrated book by Edmund de Waal. When the author inherited a collection of netsuke from a great uncle, he felt he had to know the history of the collection in his family. So this book combines family history with an examination of changing taste and art appreciation.

From it I’ve learned new ways of looking at and thinking about three dimensional art. I would never have thought to look at a pot or building and work out how much of the world it displaces, nor to look for

… the play between discretion and opulence, a sort of breathing in and breathing out of invisibility and visibility.

The language is rich and the descriptions, instead of flat statements, relate the items or rooms to their owners – as in describing a renaissance bed owned by Charles Ephrussi, a cousin of the author’s great-grandfather and the original purchaser of the netsuke.

… a lit de parade also hung with broderies. A high canopy with putti embowered in intricate patterns … a bed from which to rule a city state. What kind of young man would buy a bed like that?

Thus we learn a great deal about Charles’ character as a youth.

I love the descriptions of scholarship:

… a mad expense of days unspooling in the dimness of Periodicals.

and later in another library

… my stack of Gazettes builds around me, a tower of new questions …

The chapter about the rich dropping in on a series of salons on their way to purchase more pictures, furniture or bibelots for their collections reminded me of teenagers checking Twitter or Facebook before setting off on a shopping trip. Social networks on the web may not be much of a replacement for erudite conversation in a fashionable salon, but they probably fulfill much the same function.

From fashionable 19th century Paris the netsuke and their vitrine (a glass-panelled display case) travelled to fashionable Vienna as a wedding present to Charles’ cousin, Viktor von Ephrussi and his bride Emmy. Here too is a life of luxury and the best society.

The nesukes’ successive owners are not aristocracy. They are bankers and work hard to earn their luxuries.

But they are Jewish bankers and in the 20th century tragedy, fuelled by racism, awaits them and their lifestyle. The first world war and the following collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire costs them money. The second costs them everything. Fortunately many of the author’s relatives escape to Britain or America where they rebuild their lives on a more modest scale.

The netsuke returned, temporarily, to Japan with Great Uncle Ignace, before arriving in their current home in Britain. They have outlasted generations of owners, the collapse of empires, changes in fashion and several long journeys. They are still together, amusing, beautiful and full of variety.

A reblog from someone who is holding out a helping hand

I so agree with helping indie writers. It’s a lot of struggle just to get a piece of work finished. Then it has to be presented to the world and the world has to be told about it. By recommending his fellow writers, Jason Alan is doing his bit to help the process along.

Giving What I Can.

High flying

Stanway House fountainI haven’t posted for the past few days because I’ve been out and about doing, visiting etc. One of the places I visited was Stanway House in Gloucestershire – a beautiful old house and garden, with wide lawns and a variety of magnificent trees.

The house is built of a kind of stone called guilting yellow. It really is yellow, so it looks as if the sun is shining there even when it isn’t. The gardens are simple and peaceful – a real retreat from busyness. The picture is of the highest gravity fed fountain in the world.

Around the house the air was full of swallows. I couldn’t possibly have photographed them, they move so fast, but the did help me form a haiku.

A patch of sky.

Across it, the swallow’s flight

leaves no contrail.

Hay-on-Wye and Timbuktu

While browsing the web trying to find an answer to the question:

Why does the small, Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye have so many bookshops?

I came across the information that it is twinned with Timbuktu.

The reason is not hard to find – Timbuktu is also famous for books, this time in libraries. These libraries contain diverse and important collections of Islamic manuscripts.

There have been recent instances of extremist rebels damaging shrines and monuments in the area. So far the libraries are safe but they are still very vulnerable. To make them safer the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project has been studying and digitising their contents, but with so much material this is a long process.

In addition to important works of Islamic scholarship, these collections also form a major source for the study of African history. Even in apparently purely religious texts there are often little notes in the margins giving local details. This is part of the charm of old books – other readers have been here before and left their mark. For a modern version of this take a look at Bundle of Books for 9 July.

My question:

Why does Timbuktu have so many libraries?

is quite easily answered. It was a major trading settlement that grew into an important city on a meeting point of desert and river valley, with a mixed and intellectually active population. From different parts of the Islamic world people came (and still come) to study and contribute to the scholarship in the city.

I still haven’t found the answer to my first question. The nearest I can get is that  Hay-on-Wye sits on a meeting point – this time of England and Wales – and is full of enterprising and intellectually active people. Through its festivals it has numerous visitors from the world of readers and writers.

Hay Festivals

What do Hay-on-Wye and Beirut have in common? I would have said ‘not much’ until I came across a mention of Hay Festival Beirut on the British Council website.

Checking further I found that the Hay Festivals are international with events as far apart as Xalapa, Mexico and Nairobi, Kenya. Fabulous – peoples of the world united through a love of literature.

Of course, I’ve long known of the Hay Festival, and long intended to go. Now I can really pig out on festivals everywhere. Around the world in 80 bookfests. Yummy.

A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks

Faulks is a well-known and highly regarded writer and I’m not sure how I failed to read any of his books before. This book didn’t put me off him, but also didn’t make me rush out to buy more.

He uses the device of a set period (a week) to tell a complex tale of interacting lives. At first glance his large cast have little or nothing in common – how can a tube-train driver, a teenage wannabe terrorist, a hedge fund manager and an immigrant chutney manufacturer, among others, relate to each other? But they are related in the kind of nebulous social network modern cities foster: A knows B who is suing C who has invited D to E’s dinner party and so on.

Some of the interactions are funny – several of the men have a habit of visiting a soft porn website and ogling pictures of beautiful Olya. They are somewhat confused when she turns up at the dinner party with her footballer boyfriend.

Other relationships are scary. If the terrorist plans succeed not only will several, very vulnerable, people be killed, but a host of so far successful lives will be ruined. The most scary is the hedge fund manager’s plot, which runs as one of the strongest threads through the whole story.

London, the setting for the book, is almost a character in its own right, providing the cast with the semi-public stage they are happy to act on.

Each of these people has their own agenda and storyline, and all of them end in a satisfactory way, but they themselves remain largely ignorant of the effect the week has had on their destinies.

The book is supposed to be a satire on today’s world, and indeed it examines a good deal of modernity. Not only soft porn, but drug taking, high finance, online fantasy worlds, fundamentalism and social insecurity all get a look in.

I personally felt that the satire was fairly superficial and confined itself to a small portion of the population. I preferred to view it as a novel about people whose problems and behaviour wouldn’t be all that different in another time or place. The characters are rounded people whose actions make sense. Their progress through the week and the places they arrive at by the end of it are realistic, and we care what will happen to them.

A quote and a pun

Nothing is impossible. The word itself says ‘I’m possible’!

I thank LifestylebyPS for this quote. I’m not good at punning myself, but always willing to appreciate others’ efforts.

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