Copernique Marshall's Essays

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No. 021 to 030

(From October 29, 2012 to March 11, 2013)

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030 - 2013-03-11 - Plays and plays

See : Ten Plays.

029 - 2013-02-25 - And for my next act, I shall set myself on fire...

See : Ten paintings

028 - 2013-02-11 - On lists...

See : Ten films.

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027 - 2013-01-28 - Ten best...

See : Ten Books.

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026- 2013-01-14 - Good books, bad books

Who's my favorite author ? I'll tell you in a moment but, if you were standing in front of me, right now, I would probably answer James Joyce, or John le Carré, or Oscar Wilde, or anybody as famous and as well admired. Why ? To avoid having to explain myself because I have what-you-would-call an attitude when it comes to books. Particularly novels or what passes for «good books». - I mentioned this two weeks ago or said words to that effect. - Matter of facts, I have the same attitude when it comes to my favorite actors or actresses, my favorite films or music or even my favorite paintings.

I know : I shouldn't even think about it. «Tous les goûts sont dans la nature», I heard again, lately («All tastes are in nature») and one shouldn't be allowed to criticize other people's choices. - My argument against that is simple : if one's sexual taste consist in seducing five year old kids, one should not be allowed to do so. See what I mean ?

I'm sorry, Mary, but there are good books and bad books. A poorly written novel with a lousy theme, inconsistent characters, full of grammatical errors, anachronisms and improperly used words is a bad novel and I don't care if someone found it interesting or it became a best seller, : it remains a bad book. - I can understand that you might prefer Faulkner to Hemingway : that is a matter of taste. But to come back to my favorite writer, I'll explain why I like him and then you can either read him or not. Just let me say that he is a top-notch prose writer albeit a bit (considerably, I should say) dépassé in today's modern way of saying things.

First of all, he wrote very well  ; «wrote» because you might as well know he died several decades ago. -  He thought «out of the box» when thinking «out of the box» wasn't everyone's cup of tea. And he has continously challenged my intelligence or my understanding of the shoes and ships, and cabages and kings, teaching me, along the way, things I couldn't have fanthomed in my imagination.

Let me tell you something he did one day :

Invited to give his opinion on a building that was about to be built in Bradford (Yorkshire), he started his conference by saying he didn't give a damn about it, that he didn't like it and that most likely all who were in attendance probably didn't like it either. Then he went on talking about architecture as a whole stressing, amongst various facts, that he couldn't understand why, at the end of the nineteeth century, people were building churches and public building in a Gothic style while their houses and factories were not. - Sort of a James Burke («The Day the Universe Changed», «Connections», etc.) before James Burke.

Trotsky said that he had become a communist because he had found in him the reason why. Proust translated two of his books. Some of his writings were published in over a hundred thousand copies...

That said, I wouldn't even dare suggesting that you go out and buy anything that he wrote : some of the stuff, particularly on art and architecture are difficult to digest but you might find what he wrote on work, labour, economy, the ruling class and common workers quite fascinating, revolutionary to a point. - And, ho !, you know what he said about war ? That, instead of killing people, one should invade a country to build bridges, houses and roads, just like the Romans did...

His name ? John Ruskin. His entire work can be found on the WEB (28 volumes and a bit more) - 99 cents - that's 0,99 US $ -. Various formats : pdf, e-PUB, even .txt.

Can't say that's expensive.

His biography can be found at : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Ruskin.

Copernique

P.-S. : I should add that he is one of my favorite authors. I have many.

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025 - 2012-12-31 - Humbug !

Do you have a book on your desk that you've been planning to read and, for all sorts of reasons, never did  ? I have such a book. It manages to appear at arm's length every year at about this time. Its title ? A Christmas Carol by, I suppose, you know who - As a kid, I must have heard, saw, listened to, even dreamt about Ebenezer Scrooge and his famous "humbug" many times but, somehow, never got around to read what is not even a novel, not even a novella, perhaps just a simple short story. It fits in my e-reader in 54 pages. I could get through it in a half hour, probably less.

Of the books written by Dickens, I must have read the The Pickwick Papers and Great Expectations at least four times each. - I like re-reading stuff, or look at certain movies several times. - Same thing with recordings : always something new to discover. - Great Expectations I must have seen 12 times, if not more, in its 1946 film version (David Lean's). Great film. Opening sequence scared the hell out of me when I first saw it. - David Copperfield, I was "forced" to read in high school ; which is perhaps why it ain't my favourite Dickens although, I'm told it is his masterpiece.

But speaking of novels :

I don't know why but I keep getting involved into useless discussions every other day. Three weeks ago it was about films, the week after that, it was about popular music and last week, I got involved into a heated debate about... novels. Maybe it has something to do with that nasty habit of mine of not being able to hear people say things about stuff they know very little. Because everybody and their mother-in-law seem to have an opinion on everything nowadays.

If I told you that novels is a literary form that is on its way out, would you argue with me ? Of course you wouldn't. You'd only have to point out the quantity of novels published every year - continuously on the increase - to proove that I have no clue what I'm talking about. - Well, quantity is not everything. What I should be saying is that novelists are on their way out. Henry James said the same thing over a hundred years ago (*). And that was before James Joyce or Louis-Ferdinand Céline ! - But then what do I know ? I've stopped reading novels a long time ago. With a couple of exceptions : John Le Carré and Georges Perec who have taken the time to tell stories using new twists, rekindling the fire, so to speak, of that great furnace where treatment and subject (la forme et le fond) are one and the same.

I can't imagine reading a book written, say in the last twenty years, that uses the same narrative technique that was totally used up by the likes of Balzac, Zola, Maupassant, Dickens and even Henry James himself.

Authors, please, if you have to tell stories, make them, if not interesting, at least interestingly written which is why I like Le Carré so much.

I was looking at the filmed version of his Thinker, Taylor, the other day (followed by Smiley's People), that great British series with Alec Guiness as Smiley (1982). Great work. And wasn't Richard Burton extraordinary in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold ? - They are amongst my favourite films. That and some stuff made by Jean-Pierre Melville. - Are the films better than the novels ? I'll let you be the judge of that.

And what about A Christmas Carol ? - Perhaps next year.

In the meantime, humbug !

Copernique

P.-S. : «Taste for any books or music is not a moral quality, but taste for good books or music is and I don't mean by "good", clever  - or learned - or difficult in the the doing.  - I am adamant on this subject because there are good and bad books.» (John Ruskin)

(*) The Future of the Novel - International Library of Famous Literature - Volume XIV - The Standard - 1899.

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024 - 2012-12-10 - On [French] poetry

Oh, when I was in love with you   
Then I was clean and brave,
And miles around the wonder grew
How well did I behave.       

And now the fancy passes by         
  And nothing will remain,
And miles around they'll say that I
Am quite myself again.  

I've been reading A. E. Housman lately (1859-1936) (1) and remembered him asking André Gide why French poetry didn’t exist. “After all, he said, England has its poetry, Germany has its poetry and so does Italy. Why not France ?(2)

Got me thinking about French literature as a whole and, by golly, Housman was right ! Oh, I can’t deny that Ruteboeuf, Villon, Ronsard, Malherbe, Lamartine, Baudelaire, Verlaine and even Victor Hugo did exist. Matter of facts, two of my favourite poets are French : Marceline Desbordes-Valmore and Arthur Rimbaud, but, when I want to read poetry, I immediately pick up a book by, say, Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950)  or Anne Sexton (1928-1974), even John Donne (1572-1631). I can’t explain why and, to contradict myself, I’m willing to admit that Lafontaine was one of the greatest versifier (“versificateur”) of all times. Better than Virgil who was no left-handed poet when it came to writing verses.

Something missing, I guess. Lyricism ? Don’t know. Matter of facts I couldn’t describe what is lyricism is, even if my life depended on it. Maybe it has something to do with “I” as opposed to “Listen folks, let me tell you about this or that”. I’ll grant you that Villon, Baudelaire, Verlaine and others - including Hugo (3) -, are, at times, very personal but writing “De la musique avant toutes choses(4) isn’t my idea of writing from the heart.

So what do I read in French ? Simple : mainly prose.

Gide who, in my mind, was the greatest stylist of them all. Nobody – and that includes everybody who ever wrote a word in French – had better control of words, sentences, grammar and syntax. – What he wrote about, well… a bit boring at times, unlike :

Julien Green. Never read a single novel of his but when it comes to his diary, I’m an unconditional fan.

Proust ? A genius. Forget the language, the length of his sentences, his mixed-up characters, the incessant interruptions : his art lies in the shape (la forme par rapport au fond because la forme is le fond) of his  “ À la recherche du Temps perdu (5).

Racine. At times, better than Shakespeare and that’s something.

I’m also partial to Saint-Simon, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Rabelais and… well, ok, I’ll admit it : Verlaine who probably wrote the best poems I’ve ever read.

Copernique

P.-S. : I’ve just been told that the next Castor will be published on the 31st of this month and not on the the 24th. I know that, on the following day, it’ll be my father’s 79th birthday. That’s in the afternoon. Guess what I’ll be listening to in the morning ? Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. – Try it. It starts the day on the right foot.

  1. The poem above is taken from his “Shropshire Lad”.
  2. André Gide mentions this in his “Anthologie de la poésie française”.
  3.  I think it was Gide who, when asked about the greatest of all French poets, replied “Hugo… hélas !” (“Hugo… unfortunately !”).
  4.  “Music before everything” (Verlaine)
  5.  “Remembrance of Things Past” as translated by C. K. Moncrieff, Stephen Hudson and Terence Kilmartin, a translation worth reading even if you read it in its original French.

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023 - 2012-11-26 - Prolific, you said ?

Always loved Monty Python's Cheese Shop sketch, not because of the number of cheeses that are mentioned in it (45) but for these two sentences (which I've combined into one), said by John Cleese at the very beginning, when he enters into Wensleydale's (Michael Palin) shop : "I was, uh, sitting in the public library on Thurmon Street just now, skimming through Rogue Herrys by Hugh Walpole, and I suddenly came over all peckish [...] so, I curtailed my Walpoling activites, sallied forth, and infiltrated your place of purveyance to negotiate the vending of some cheesy comestibles."

Like all Monty Python's sketches, this one - with its unusual introduction - contained all sorts of bizarre references, like, who today, ever heard of Hugh Walpole (1884 – 1941) ? Reminds me of another author I mentioned recently : Anthony Trollope (1815 – 1882). - Both were prolific writers and extremely popular. Prolific ? Walpole wrote something like 50 novels plus assorted short stories and various essays. As for Troloppe : 35 novels, 12 books of short stories, 12 others on two (or is it three ?) sets of chronicles, 19 non-fiction other books including an autobiography and 2 plays. And then there was one of my favorite author, John Ruskin (1819-1900). I got tired the other day trying to count the number of books he had published during his lifetime : on architecture, painting, arts, social reforms and other subject to which I would have had to add an autobiography and two books of poems. Did I mention that he also made hundreds of drawings ? - Nothing to compare, though, to Isaac Azimov (1920-2012) who wrote over 200 books, the subject of which made him the only author who has works in every section of the Dewey classification system (10 times 10 or 100 categories).

You think that's bad ?

Try Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870) whose total output has been estimated at over 100 000 pages or Georges Simenon : 200 novels, more than 150 novellas (of which 102 novels or novellas concerned le commissaire Maigret), several autobiographical works, numerous articles and scores of pulp novels written under more than two dozen pseudonyms. - And then, before all of them, there was Sophocles (circa 496 BC – 406 or 405 BC) with his 123 plays (only 7 of which survived to this day). - Serious writers, no ? -  How about the Japanese writer, Kyokutei Bakin (1767 – 1848), who wrote a 106 volumes novel entitled "The Eight Dog Chronicles"... Sorry folks : he became blind before finishing it.

Yesterday, I was looking at Proust's correspondence : 21 volumes. And people are afraid of Voltaire's 12 volumes ! A mere amateur. - Question is : when did they find the time ?

I can't remember exactly - I believe it was French Canadian writer and Minister, Lise Payette - who said that writing was a muscle that only needed exercise. Guess she was right but a friend of mine added to that comment that, first of all, you had to have a muscle ! And some talent I guess.

Speaking of muscle and talent, did you know that our chief editor - yes : Herméningilde Pérec - wrote over 500 chronicles on the Professor in something like two years ? - That was before the Internet. - I wish they eventually become available again.

And now, back to my Ruskian activity.

Copernique

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022 - 2012-12-11 - Speaking of...

Ever heard of Ossian, the writer-narrator of a series of epic gaelic poems published by James MacPherson a.k.a. MacMhuirich or Mac a' Phearsai (sic), in the mid-to-late 18th century ? - Good for you because he never existed and the poems that MacPherson said to have collected word-of-mouth throughout Scotland were actually fakes. Unfortunately, except for a few critics, everyone believed them to be authentic to the point that they were translated in all literary European languages which lead to the so-called Gaelic revival and... the Romantic movement which is still very active, albeit under various other names, and to top it all, throughout the world.

Simply stated, it is a theory by which the world should pay more attention to sentiments or "feelings" than logic, science or knowledge.

It was echoed ironically in the first act of The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde :

ALGERNON (having just finished playing piano) :
Did you hear what I was playing, Lane?

LANE (his butler) :
I didn't think it polite to listen, sir.

ALGERNON :
I'm sorry for that, for your sake. I don't play accurately - any one can play accurately - but I play with wonderful expression. As far as the piano is concerned, sentiment is my forte. I keep science for Life.

The reason I'm mentioning Ossian this morning is that I was thinking of a conversation I had with a student not too long ago on what was Art (with a capital "A").

Indulge me :

I agree wholeheartidly that music, literature and other forms of Art is first to be listened to or read or looked at using one's heart and soul but then I disagree with anyone who claims that Art shouldn't be analyzed. I guess it's all right to trust one's "feelings" listening, for example, to a piece of music for the first time, but to complete one's experience, I am a firm believer than one should try to understand why hearing that particular piece of music brought either enjoyment or displeasure ; reason for this is the fundamental need to understand one's nature and if that isn't clear enough, think of enjoying or avoiding similar music. Which brings me to criticisims and universally recognized grande musique :

Tell me this :

If 1 000 music experts told you that, say, Beethoven's 14th string quartet is a masterpiece, wouldn't you be curious to find out why ? And why you either enjoyed (or not) listening to it ? - Now I'm not advocating that you should follow all the advices of all these so-called experts : you're free to do as you like but somehow, I, for one, wouldn't be at ease ignoring them or, just because a certain song brings back certain memories, I wouldn't think of saying that it is "one of the greatest ever" (needless to say that I'm not an Elvis or a Beatles absolute fan).

There is something as good music just as there are good books. What are they ? Those that appeal to connaisseurs of different backgrounds over a long period of time. Make that 50 years or so.

You understand why I hesitate a lot to read contemporary novels or listen to so-called 20 year old genius guitar players. Particularly air-guitarists (real sweathearts they are).

Ossian's Dream (1813)
by
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres
(1780-1867)

Don't read too much and don't believe everything you read. Particularly if it hasn't been in print for less than fifty years...

Copernique

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021 - 2012-10-29 - Grumpy, me ?

I have to admit that I agree with a lot of things Mr. Popp says about shoes and ships (*). I believe that, eventually, I'll be grumpier than he is (because, I promise you, he is not ; in person, that is). Which is probably why I like reading obscure writers. That's what I like about them : they're obscure, ergo : most likely uninteresting. I don't expect much and that suits me fine. No big surprise (well occasionally some rarely). Total blandness : style, contents and all.

Take the later part of the nineteeth or the early part of the twentieth century. Do you realize that Anthony Trollope was considered a better writer than Dickens or that Anatole France way surpassed Proust (both in terms of sales and respect)  ? Bet you forgot that the first Nobel literary prize went to Sully Prud'homme.

See what I mean ? - Sully Prud'homme for God's sake !

If there is any problem with contemporary stuff, that is it. Very nice, maybe. Very entertaining but if you're looking for real thoughts, real something to grind your teeth on, well you better start looking somewhere else.

I understand that, in Québec alone, some 365 novels are published every year. Of these novels, how many do you think will be read in ten, twenty years ?

My case rests.

On a similar subject, years ago, I had a friend who was into sailing like a a marathoner is into running. Every weekend he rushed down to le Lac Champlain (about an hour, even less, south of Napierville) and sailed for two days, occasionally three, and then would come back and talked  the rest of the week about sloops, mainsails, head-sails, masts, booms, spars... and of course, fresh air. Insisted for two years that I joined him "one of those three-day weekends " because, of course, I would fall in love with sailing the minute I'd set foot on his boat. - I guess I don't have to tell you I never went but I found a way to get rid of his invitations : I told him one day that Pelléas and Mélisande (Debussy's) was about to be produced by the Montréal Opera Company and that if he'd care to accompany me there, I'd be glad to join him on his bleeding boat the next weekend.

That's the last time I heard about sailing.

Here's another trick :

If somebody wants you to read one of his or her books, offer him or her an exchange : "I'll read yours, if you read one of mine." Now don't be cruel : chose a nice book. I mean a good book, a readable one but not something he's gonna fall in love with. - My suggestion ? James Joyce's Dubliners or would you care for Proust's Un amour de Swann ?

Works like a charm.

Copernique

(*) ... as well as sealing wax, cabbages and kings.

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