Sad ending

Like many others, I’m sure, I raced through The Third Policeman in the sixth form. I’ve read it a few times since, and recently found the nerve to tackle At Swim-Two-Birds, fearful of its reputation. I shouldn’t have waited so long. Very funny-haha as well as very funny-peculiar, though I’ll have to re-read it again before I could tell you what it was all about.

flann-o-brien-books

I know very little about Flann O’Brien, though. Maybe that’s for the best. According to this collection of his letters and correspondence, drink turned him into quite an unpleasant and angry man in his later years.

Yours severely: the collected letters of Flann O’Brien
In a book full of crackpottery, one of the strangest moments comes in 1965, when O’Brien suggests that the French edition of At Swim-Two-Birds be translated back into English by a serving French Foreign Legionnaire and used to replace O’Brien’s original text, which he had come to detest. In its daft way, the suggestion is a perfect example of O’Brien’s estranged relationship with language – language in general but also the language of his artistic prime, as surveyed from the wreckage of his final years.

[…]

Might a non-drinking O’Brien have been a happier and more savoury human being? Almost certainly. Might a happier and better-adjusted O’Brien have ever written anything? Impossible to say. As it is, our reaction to the unhappy soul captured in these letters will probably be, in the words of a 1965 letter, ‘halfway between a guffaw and a puke’.

By the way, At Swim-Two-Birds was very nearly a film, if you can imagine that.

Brendan Gleeson secures funds for Flann O’Brien film
Actor Brendan Gleeson has secured funding to make a film of Irish writer Flann O’Brien’s masterpiece At Swim Two Birds. Gabriel Byrne, Colin Farrell and Cillian Murphy have all been linked to the new film.

Though that now seems doubtful.

Gleeson’s doubts over Two Birds
Domhnall Gleeson has revealed his doubts over the At Swim Two Birds film. His father Brendan Gleeson is planning to make his directorial debut with the big-screen adaptation of Flann O’Brien’s novel, which Colin Farrell, Gabriel Byrne and Cillian Murphy have been attached to. It was originally set for release in 2010, with 14 drafts of the script already written by the actor, but has yet to start shooting.

 I think I will re-read the book, though, just in case.

Reading room

Another great find from Futility Closet, something you won’t see in Waterstones travel section, for sure.

New lands
Confined to his bedroom for 42 days as a punishment for dueling, Xavier de Maistre wrote A Journey Round My Room (1794), a parody of travel journals in which he heroically explores his surroundings and rhapsodizes on his discoveries.

And there’s a copy of it on the Internet Archive too. All that remains is to find a comfy spot in my room to read it.

Nothing is impossible

A little history of a great line I first heard in a trailer for a new Christopher Robin film.

People say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day
In conclusion, this joke was in circulation by 1906 when it was printed in a humor book authored by “Theodor Rosyfelt”. The phraseology changed as it was transmitted across decades. In modern times it has been connected to two iconic figures: Alfred E. Neuman and Winnie-the-Pooh. QI has not found any substantive evidence that A.A. Milne used the expression.

It remains a very Winnie-the-Pooh thing to say, though. Except in East Germany.

Mind your manners

A couple of polite reviews of In Pursuit of Civility by Keith Thomas. I love the first reviewer’s breakdown of the passive-aggressive phrase “Polite Notice”.

In praise of (occasional) bad manners
There are some funny moments here. One involves Keith Thomas’s lunchtime encounter with Norbert Elias, “world authority on the history of table manners,” when Thomas apparently knocked a jug of water all over the table. Elias’s response is not recorded; perhaps it was unprintable. It would have been good to learn more about comparable embarrassments in the early modern period—tales such as that reported by John Aubrey involving the Earl of Oxford (1550-1604), who, “making of his low obeisance to Queen Elizabeth, happened to let a Fart, at which he was so abashed and ashamed that he went to Travel [for] seven years. On his return the Queen welcomed him home, and said, ‘My Lord, I had forgot the Fart.’”

How manners made man
In his final chapter, Thomas reflects on today’s world, in which civility means the recognition of equality, the right to self-expression, and the tolerance of difference. The new barbarians, in my view, are those who conduct phone conversations on trains and take selfies outside Auschwitz. But these actions are not, insists Thomas, signs of a “decivilising process”, because they do not threaten the internal order. I disagree, but then civility, to quote Barack Obama, is about disagreeing without being disagreeable.

Explaining anxiety

TLS reviews On Edge by Andrea Petersen and Hi, Anxiety by Kat Kinsman; books that document the authors’ battles with anxiety and their attempts to better understand the disorder.

Tunnel of silk: trying to explain the condition of anxiety
Though her writing is sometimes dry compared with Kinsman’s, Petersen poses some pertinent questions about anxiety in society. “Why do the rates of anxiety disorders seem to be rising among young people?” she asks, noting that “Between 2008 and 2016, the number of college students diagnosed with or treated for anxiety problems jumped from 10 to 17 per cent”. There are no firm answers to this question yet. But by balancing research and interviews with personal anecdotes, Petersen manages to fuse the typical memoir’s self-preoccupation with journalism’s broader ambition.

Dante’s Divine Comedy: the book was too long, the video too short

This article from BBC Culture reviews the enormous contribution Dante made with his Divine Comedy, not just in terms of literature and religion but the development and adoption of the Italian language too. It does include this irreverent passage though:

Dante and The Divine Comedy: He took us on a tour of Hell
… Right there that suggests this view of the afterlife is coloured by authorial wish-fulfillment: Dante gets a personal tour from his father-figure of a literary hero and the woman on whom he had a crush. In the parlance of contemporary genre writing, Dante’s version of himself in The Divine Comedy is a Mary Sue, a character written to be who the author wishes he could be, having experiences he wishes he could have. Sandra Newman, author of How Not to Write a Novel, has said that “The Divine Comedy is really a typical science fiction trilogy. Book one, a classic. Book two, less exciting version of book one. Book three, totally bonkers, unwanted insights into author’s sexuality, Mary Sue’s mask slipping in every scene.”

I guess I must agree. I want to say I read The Divine Comedy as a sixth former, but it’s more accurate to say I read Inferno and just briefly skimmed the rest, like everyone else.

And I loved Peter Greenaway’s video version, A TV Dante, though it was frustratingly too short, only covering the first eight cantos of the first book.

Dante_El Infierno, “A_T.V. Dante” ( Peter greenaway & Tom phillips_1993) subtitulado en español

The illustrations that tend to go along with the books are wonderful, and I’m sure they have contributed to the ongoing appeal of this massive Medieval poem.

A digital archive of the earliest illustrated editions of Dante’s Divine Comedy
These images, from Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, represent a 1497 woodcut edition, at the top, with a number of hand-colored pages; an edition from 1544, above, with almost 90 circular and traditionally-composed scenes, all of them probably hand-colored in the 19th century; and a 1568 edition with three engraved maps, one for each book.

As evocative and helpful as they are, that typical cone shape never really worked for me, though, as it doesn’t feel underground-y enough. In this version below, it looks like a vast plain or the map of a pleasant stroll through the North York Moors.

a-wide-open-hell

It needs more ceilings, like in As Above, So Below, a film dealing with similar geography, but with added claustrophobia.

as-above-so-below-ceiling

(I must admit I haven’t seen this film, however. Rather than having to sit through all these kinds of films, I get all I need from the FoundFlix YouTube channel these days. Much quicker.)

Great books gone but not forgotten

I’ve posted before about unread books and those that were never finished, but what of those that were written but subsequently lost or destroyed.

Here’s a fascinating but wistful review of In Search of Lost Books, by Giorgio van Straten. There are some great stories here: as well as the vast numbers of lost plays and books from the ancient Library of Alexandria, there are books from Byron, diaries from Plath and short stories from Hemingway, amongst others, to lament.

The fleeting tale of great lost books, now gone forever
… And fire too (perhaps) destroyed the papers Walter Benjamin is said to have carried with him in a black suitcase on his failed flight from France to Spain, escaping Nazi persecution. The novelist Bruno Arpaia, thinking wishfully in The Angel of History, imagines that Benjamin gave the suitcase to a Spanish partisan to carry across the border. Van Straten suggests, rather, that Benjamin might have used his papers to light a bonfire to keep him and his fellow exiles warm in the cold night of the Pyrenees. Or, he asks, almost as an afterthought, “is it too much to hope that sooner or later – by chance, scholarship or passion – someone will discover those pages and enable us to read them at last?”

Hong Kong librarian has had enough of your tardiness

Librarian Gone Rogue: Impatient bibliophile accused of accessing library members’ accounts to quicken book returns
Patrons were checking out books that she wanted to read, and the woman was just not having it, according to Apple Daily.

The librarian, a 25-year-old contract employee at the Tseung Kwan O Public Library between 2015 and 2018, reported their cards as lost and changed their account passwords so they had to return their books immediately, according to the report.

Well, that’s one way of dealing with overdue library books.

Remarkable, beautiful and completely meaningless

Another great find on Brain Pickings.

Reality, representation, and the search for meaning: Argentine artist Mirtha Dermisache’s invented graphic languages
A century after Nietzsche, the Argentine artist Mirtha Dermisache (February 21, 1940–January 5, 2012) set out to probe the limits and possibilities of language by filling countless notebooks, letters, and postcards with text. None of it was legible.

In the 1970s, Dermisache invented an array of graphic languages, each with a distinct syntactic texture and a visual rhythm that inclines toward meaning, or the longing for meaning. The lines she composed in them — so purposeful, so fluid, evocative of a script in a foreign tongue or a cardiograph or birdsong notation — become a Rorschach test, beckoning the mind to wrest from them a message, a meaning, a representation of some private reality of thought and feeling.

And from the Mirtha Dermisache: Selected Writings Amazon page:

Her work, which she created while living under the junta in Argentina, is lasting and subversive even though she barely penned a legible word…In our current environment, it is difficult to look at her work and not think about the impossibility of discourse, the primacy of self-expression, and the fallacy of a shared objective language, not to think of this art as both radically political and necessary today.–Will Fenstermaker “The Paris Review “

remarkable-meaningless-1

Very poetic. A little spooky? Teeline? What would the graphologists make of them, I wonder.

remarkable-meaningless-2

A book 20 years in the writing

A great piece by Craig Mod about kottke.org, a website I’ve been following for many years now.

If kottke.org were a book
There are so few websites that have been around for twenty years. Certainly so few that are not explicitly commercial in intent, built on a singular voice and point of view. Because of that, sites like kottke.org have a special emotional resonance not often found online. For those of us who have not just used the web but built on the web for decades, a place like kottke.org becomes almost physical in its emotional resonance.

The web’s been slowly turning to crap over recent years, with all the fun melting away like dropped ice cream, but kottke.org has been one of the few fixed points. Long may it continue.