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All the Pretty Horses

Friday, 9 February, 2018 0 Comments

“That night he dreamt of horses in a field on a high plain where the spring rains had brought up the grass and the wildflowers out of the ground and the flowers ran all blue and yellow far as the eye could see and in the dream he was among the horses running and in the dream he himself could run with the horses and they coursed the young mares and fillies over the plain where their rich bay and their rich chestnut colors shone in the sun and the young colts ran with their dams and trampled down the flowers in a haze of pollen that hung in the sun like powdered gold and they ran he and the horses out along the high mesas where the ground resounded under their running hooves and they flowed and changed and ran and their manes and tails blew off of them like spume and there was nothing else at all in that high world and they moved all of them in a resonance that was like a music among them and they were none of them afraid neither horse nor colt nor mare and they ran in that resonance which is the world itself and which cannot be spoken but only praised.” — Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses

Limerick horses

New Year’s reading: Motherfoclóir

Thursday, 4 January, 2018 0 Comments

We’re dedicating time this week to the books that were the presents of Christmas past. On Monday, it was The Best of A.A. Gill, a gift from Noel Donnelly, Tuesday it was Five Escape Brexit Island, put in the Rainy Day Xmas stocking by Ian McMaster, and yesterday it was the turn of Change Agent, given to this blogger from himself. Today, it’s Motherfoclóir by Darach O’Seaghdha, which was put under the tree in Clontarf by Brian.

The full title is Motherfoclóir: Dispatches from a not so dead language and there’s a lot in that first word there. For instance, the Irish Gaelic word foclóir means “dictionary” and its pronunciation is similar to a well-known, common and vulgar English four-letter word. So, Motherfoclóir takes a cheeky, punny look at the Irish language and the author fills the pages with stories about his own experiences with the Irish language and its role in his life. The chapters have titles like, “Irish Names or, ‘How’s That, Like, Pronounced?'” and “Ní Thuigim (I Don’t Understand), and each is peopled with tales and remarks about Ireland and the Irish and the Irish language. Snippet:

“The Irish for colour-blind is dathdhall. While some people are indeed colour-blind, others are just a bit subjective when it comes to describing what is in front of them — one person’s beige is another person’s taupe (or, if you like paint catalogues, Irish cream/hen egg/bare brick/pine nut). Such disagreements are a frequent occurrence with colours in translation.

The Irish term for a black man, fear gorm, translates literally as blue man. Just to add to the confusion, bluegrass is gormfhéar. One of the theories to explain this is that fear dubh (literally black man) was an existing term for the devil in the centuries before Irish speakers had contact with back people, and gorm was offered as compromise. An Orangeman is Fear Buí — literally, a yellow man.”


To keep up with the stories that have inspired Motherfoclóir, follow @theirishfor.

New Year’s reading: Brexit

Tuesday, 2 January, 2018 0 Comments

We’re spending some time this week with the books that were the presents of Christmas past. Yesterday, it was The Best of A.A. Gill, a gift from the famously generous Noel Donnelly, and today’s it the turn of Five Escape Brexit Island, which was put in the Rainy Day Xmas stocking by that well-travelled editor, Ian McMaster.

The former bookseller Bruno Vincent has a very nice little earner going now with the “Enid Blyton for Grown-Ups” series and popular titles include, Five Go Gluten Free, Five Get on the Property Ladder and Five Get Beach Body Ready. Older readers might recall that the “original” Enid Blyton was a phenomenally successful writer of children’s books and the characters of Julian, Dick, Anne, George and Timmy the dog became household names in post-War II Britain. In the new, “Grown-Ups” series, Julian, Dick, Anne, George and Timmy confront such challenges as getting a good gluten-free cream tea and escaping beastly Brexit for the safety of mainland Europe. We join them, and a fellow refugee, Wally, on their make-shift raft off the coast of Dorset:

‘It is a treacherous business, trying to negotiate the high seas in nothing but a humble craft, and, at last, I understand why discipline had to be right in the old British navy. All it takes is for one person to despair and it spreads to all the others.

‘The poor, benighted, weak-spirited folk with whom I share my craft are sure to crack under the pressure any moment. I can feel the madness spreading among my crew, here on the MSS Gillian Anderson, and am watching these feeble creatures for any signs of murderous intent.’

‘Julian, would you mind not saying all that shit out loud?’ asked George. ‘It’s not really helpful.’

‘My pencil’s broken, hasn’t it?’ So I’m trying to memorize the captain’s log.’

‘Just think it then. If you must,’ said George.

‘And we’d rather you didn’t think it, either,’ said Anne.

‘Also, we didn’t agree to the ship being called the HMS Gillian Anderson,’ said Dick.

‘It’s a perfectly reasonable name. She was born in London and is one of our greatest exports. And, after Brexit, strong exports are exactly what we will need. What would you rather call it?

‘Just the Raft,’ said George. ‘Stop worrying about it.’

‘Nobody suggest the Theresa May — even in jest,’ Julian said. ‘One use of the phrase ‘strong and stable’ and we’ll be under the waves in seconds.’ Seeing Wally’s confusion, Julian explained that Theresa may was the prime minister.

‘There’s a WOMAN prime minister?’ Wally screamed.

‘You’ve got a lot to catch up on, mate,’ said Julian.

Dick squinted against the sun. ‘It’s very odd. We haven’t seen land for hours, but we keep being dragged on this current that moves like lightening. We could be hundreds of miles from where we started by now.’

‘Shut up,’ said George. ‘At some point in the next twenty-four hours, we’re obviously going to get run down by a bloody ferry, if we don’t actually sink first.’

‘What if we drift to Ireland?’ asked Dick. ‘That would be good; the Guinness is better over there, and we can fix ourselves up with EU passports — Grandad was born in Dublin, you know. Think how useful that would be.’

And on and on and on and on until the inevitable end: ‘Woof!’ said Timmy.

Five Escape Brexit Island

Monday, 16 October, 2017 0 Comments

Professor Robert Langdon is at the wheel of a Tesla Model X P9OD that Elon Musk “allegedly hand-delivered” to the Elon-Musk-like genius in Dan Brown’s latest novel, Origin. Sitting beside him is the very beautiful Ambra Vidal, who happens to be engaged to the future King of Spain. Well, it is a Dan Brown novel.

Anyway, they’re doing 120 kph on the outskirts of Barcelona when Winston, a superior version of Siri, points out that the Musk-like character had helped create a video about the architecture of Antonio Gaudi’s Casa Milà. “It’s worth seeing,” says Winston.

“The video is actually quite impressive,” Ambra agreed, leaning forward and touching the browser screen. A keyboard appeared, and she typed: “You should watch this.”

“I’m kind of driving,” Langdon replied.

At which point Ambra puts the car on autopilot and they watch the video together, as people do in a Dan Brown novel when a Telsa Model X P9OD is on autopilot.

Javier Marías for the Nobel Prize in Literature

Thursday, 5 October, 2017 0 Comments

“He’ll be a minister in Spain some day, or, at the very least, ambassador to Washington, he’s exactly the kind of pretentious fool with just a thin veneer of cordiality that the Right produces by the dozen and which the Left reproduces and imitates whenever they’re in power, as if they were the victims of some form of contagion.” — Javier Marías, Tu Rostro Mañana: 1 Fiebre Y Lanza

They’re awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature today up in Scandinavia. The betting is that it’ll go to a writer, but that’s not a sure thing anymore. “For having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,” the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2016 was awarded to Bob Dylan. Very few saw that coming.

Today, we’ll see a return to the norm, such as it is in the world of letters. Haruki Murakami? Margaret Atwood? Ngugi wa Thiong’o? Amos Oz? Worthy candidates all, but our money is on Javier Marías, the Spanish novelist, short story writer and translator. He’s a superb writer and because the Spanish establishment could do with some good news at the moment, the Nobel committee might be inclined to lend a hand.

Memorials outlast memories

Monday, 28 August, 2017 0 Comments

In Robert Goddard’s mathematical thriller, Out of the Sun, the hero, Harry Barnett, visits Kensal Green Cemetery and muses upon the erasure that death accomplishes: “The broken pillars still stood, the hollow helmets still echoed. But the thousands of names — and thousands of people they had once been — vanished sooner or later, beneath the lichen of utter forgetfulness. The memorials outlasted the memories. They alone remained, in this petrified forest of ceremonied mortality.”


Gems of brilliance

Saturday, 26 August, 2017 0 Comments

Although it’s a decade old now, Cultural Amnesia by Clive James remains a magisterial work. Each of its 856 pages is studded with germs. Here’s one about Gatsby:

“Fitzgerald’s prose style can be called ravishing because it brings anguish with its enchantment. He always wrote that way, even when, by his own standards, he could as yet hardly write at all. He could still write that way when death was at his shoulder. He wrote that way because he was that way: the style was the man.” (page 219)

And with that, we end this year’s re-reading of The Great Gatsby, a novel that shines more brilliantly with each passing year. Here’s to August 2018 and the next re-reading.

It would be a pity to leave Cultural Amnesia without adding a few more of those Jamesian gems. Here, then, are three for the road to East Egg:

Russian Marxism: “Bukharin counted as a thinker among the old Bolsheviks because he could make a general statement about the connection of music to economics: nobody would be able to play the piano, he pointed out, if there were no pianos.” (page 355)

Chinese Marxism: “Mao had so organized his colossal abattoir of a state that information rarely travelled further than a scream could be heard. But that was inside China. Outside China, the story went everywhere, and there was never any excuse for not hearing it. The idea that there was is part of the lie — the part fated, it seems, to last longest.” (page 459)

Finally, the great man himself: “It has to be remembered that the typical Polish writer was Bruno Schulz. But for that to be remembered, Bruno Schulz has to be remembered, and the main reason he was so easily forgotten is that a Gestapo officer blew his brains out.” — Clive James

“We got Gatsby, that old son of a bitch.”

Friday, 25 August, 2017 0 Comments

The annual re-reading of The Great Gatsby is happening side-by-side with a reading of Camino Island by John Grisham, which centres on the theft of the Gatsby manuscript from the Firestone Library at Princeton University and the hunt for those behind the heist. It also delves into the criminal business of the literary black market. Snippet:

Inside the vault, the work was indeed slow, but determined. The first four opened drawers revealed more old manuscripts, some handwritten, some typed, all by important writers who didn’t matter at the moment. They finally struck gold in the fifth drawer when Denny removed an archival storage box identical to the others. He carefully opened it. A reference page inserted by the library read, “Original Handwritten Manuscript of The Beautiful and Damned — F. Scott Fitzgerald.”

Camino Island “Bingo,” Denny said calmly. He removed two identical boxes from the fifth drawer, delicately placed them on the narrow table, and opened them. Inside were original manuscripts of Tender Is the Night and The Last Tycoon.

Ahmed, still glued to his laptop and now drinking a highly caffeinated energy drink, heard the beautiful words: “Okay, boys, we have three out of five. Gatsby’s here somewhere, along with Paradise.”

As Jerry and Mark flipped up their goggles and moved their lights closer to the table, Denny gently opened the archival storage box. Its reference sheet read, “Original Handwritten Manuscript of The Great Gatsby — F. Scott Fitzgerald.”

“Bingo,” he said calmly. “We got Gatsby, that old son of a bitch.”

“Whoopee,” Mark said, though their excitement was thoroughly contained. Jerry lifted out the only other box in the drawer. It was the manuscript for This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald’s first novel, published in 1920.

“We have all five,” Denny said calmly. “Let’s get outta here.”

The hare and the limousine and the verb

Thursday, 24 August, 2017 0 Comments

“All fine prose is based on the verbs carrying the sentences… A line like ‘The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass,’ is so alive that you race through it, scarcely noticing it, yet it has colored the whole poem with its movement — the limping, trembling and freezing is going on before your eyes.” So wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald to his daughter Scottie in 1938 and you can find the exchange in F. Scott Fitzgerald On Writing.

The image of a hare limping through frozen grass is found in the writing of one of the major influence on Fitzgerald’s work, the Romantic poet John Keats. It’s in the first verse of his great, 42-stanza poem, “Eve of Saint Agnes“, and Fitzgerald was so taken by it that he began a magazine story titled “Love in the Night”, that was published on 14 March 1925 in The Saturday Evening Post, thus: “The limousine crawled crackling down the pebbled drive.”

St. Agnes’ Eve — Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
The hare limp’d trembling through the frozen grass,
And silent was the flock in woolly fold:
Numb were the Beadsman’s fingers, while he told
His rosary, and while his frosted breath,
Like pious incense from a censer old,
Seem’d taking flight for heaven, without a death,
Past the sweet Virgin’s picture, while his prayer he saith.

By the way, the evening before the feast of Saint Agnes (St. Agnes’ Eve) falls on 20 January.

Grisham and Gatsby

Wednesday, 23 August, 2017 0 Comments

The annual re-reading of The Great Gatsby is being accompanied by a reading of Camino Island by John Grisham, which features the stolen manuscript of Gatsby and the criminal ways of the literary black market. Snippet:

Camino Island F. Scott Fitzgerald enrolled in Princeton in the fall of 1913 at the age of sixteen, he was dreaming of writing the great American novel, and had indeed begun working on an early version of This Side of Paradise. He dropped out four years later to join the Army and go to war, but it ended before he was deployed. His classic, The Great Gatsby, was published in 1925 but did not become popular until after his death. He struggled financially throughout his career, and by 1940 was working in Hollywood, cranking out bad screenplays, failing physically and creatively. On December 21, he died of a heart attack, brought on by years of severe alcoholism.

In 1950, Scottie, his daughter and only child, gave his original manuscripts, notes, and letters — “papers” —to the Firestone Library at Princeton. His five novels were handwritten on inexpensive paper that did not age well. The library quickly realized that it would be unwise to allow researchers to physically handle them. High-quality copies were made, and the originals were locked away in a secured basement vault where the air, light, and temperature were carefully controlled. Over the years, they had been removed only a handful of times.

At the enchanted metropolitan twilight

Tuesday, 22 August, 2017 0 Comments

The annual re-reading of The Great Gatsby is underway and the glow from the beautiful metaphysics of Fitzgerald’s prose lights up the drawing-in evenings. A paragraph:

I began to like New York, the racy, adventurous feel of it at night and the satisfaction that the constant flicker of men and women and machines gives to the restless eye. I liked to walk up Fifth Avenue and pick out romantic women from the crowd and imagine that in a few minutes I was going to enter into their lives, and no one would ever know or disapprove. Sometimes, in my mind, I followed them to their apartments on the corners of hidden streets, and they turned and smiled back at me before they faded through a door into warm darkness. At the enchanted metropolitan twilight I felt a haunting loneliness sometimes, and felt it in others — poor young clerks who loitered in front of windows waiting until it was time for a solitary restaurant dinner — young clerks in the dusk, wasting the most poignant moments of night and life.

To his great credit, Jay McInerney has spent his life trying to emulate this and it’s not his fault that he has never matched it. But who has? With Gatsby, published 92 years ago, Fitzgerald achieved the miracle of sounding contemporary while appealing to an audience that had grown up reading Henry James. His genius is that the book continues to sound contemporary.

Fitzgerald wrote in the shadow of evil and no one who reads The Great Gatsby can put it down without feeling a sense of dread. Not just for those who would lose their fortunes in 1929, but for those who would be dragged into war in 1939. And as we get ready to mark the annual anniversary of the slaughter of 3,000 men and women in New York City by the 9/11 jihadists, his observation about “the most poignant moments of night and life” rings true across the decades.