Shakespeare, pastries and holy water

April 23, 2016

There’s John Falstaff, a comical fellow
And that envious Moor called Othello
But the star of the folio
Is surely Malvolio
In cross-gartered stockings of yellow

The above is my humble contribution to mark the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s shuffling off of his brief candle.

Relatedly, this is what I recall of the dream I had last Sunday night:

I met J at an unspecified event. She was sitting in some communal room, like the Green Room at Gonville and Caius but a bit swisher. She had a bowl of water and was aspersing people. I said ‘Asperges me hyssopo’ and she chucked a bit of water at me.

Then we had a good-natured chat about Shakespeare in which I surprised myself at my knowledge of the plays. I certainly mentioned Florizel and Perdita, and we discussed Twelfth Night, which I said was my favourite. I suppose knowledge grows by accretion without one realising it.

I took a pastry at her prompting, which appeared to be a loosely coiled croissant, then walked with her as I ate. It uncoiled into a kind of baguette, much more substantial than it had seemed, the end dragging on the ground, the other still in my mouth. I was glad to see her looking so well.


The 1938 Club: Barren Lives / Graciliano Ramos

April 14, 2016

The 1938 Club

I suppose I’d have got around to Three Guineas eventually, but the joy of any reading challenge like the 1938 Club is that it leads you to explore unfamiliar byways. I wouldn’t have lit upon Barren Lives (Vidas secas) by the Brazilian writer Graciliano Ramos otherwise. The copy I read was one I catalogued myself several years ago – evidently this is a book frequently prescribed to undergraduate students of Portuguese. My own Portuguese is somewhat deficient, so I read an English translation by Ralph Edward Dimmick, with sweet accompanying illustrations by Charles Umlauf.

Dimmick’s introduction observes that Graciliano Ramos ‘is concerned much less with telling a story than with studying an individual in a particular situation.’ That’s the case here. The protagonists are a poor family: parents Fabiano and Vitória, two young sons, and a dog. A portrait of the family, as individuals and as a unit, is built up through vignettes covering a period of about a year. They find an uninhabited farmhouse and settle in, Fabiano has a disagreement with a policeman and spends the night in prison, they go to town to celebrate Christmas, the birds drink the water supply for their animals and they have to move on.

A farming family in direst poverty seeking a better life – it sounds very Grapes of Wrath, doesn’t it, and the two books are of a similar vintage; but the book I found myself thinking of most often as I read Barren Lives, to my surprise, was William Maxwell’s small masterpiece So Long, See You Tomorrow. It’s many years since I read that book and my memories of it are slight, which isn’t surprising given that, like Barren Lives, so much of the action is internal. But I do remember vividly a section late in the book where the narrative viewpoint is granted to a dog, Trixie, whose partial understanding of the tragic events of the book is unspeakably poignant. When a writer endows any animal with near-human emotions it can so easily come across as cheap and manipulative, but that is not the case with either Maxwell or Ramos. They share a gift for communicating what it is like to be small, to be a spectator, to lack control of your life; and even the most prominent character in Barren Lives, the patriarch Fabiano, is a small man in his way, perpetually conscious of his weaknesses and his inferiority.

In moments of madness, Fabiano tried to imitate [Tomás the miller]. He mouthed big words, which he got all wrong, and tried to convince himself he was improving. This was nonsense. It was perfectly obvious that a fellow like him was never intended to talk properly.

Early in the book reference is made to Vitória having killed the family’s parrot for food; here the dog mourns the parrot:

With no sign of food in the vicinity, hunger had been too much for the drought-sufferers. The dog had eaten the head, feet, and bones of her friend and had no more recollection of the matter. Now, standing there waiting, she looked over the family belongings and was surprised not to see on top of the tin trunk the little cage in which the bird had struggled to keep a balance.


Communication is a big deal in this book, or the lack of it. The members of the family are taciturn in the extreme – the book’s dialogue wouldn’t fill a page – and a beautifully observed detail is that the parrot who has recently joined the choir invisible had only a tiny vocabulary itself, having failed to pick up any phrases from its owners. The boys themselves presumably have names, but the reader isn’t told what they are.

Later on, language becomes a weapon. The older boy hears Hell mentioned in conversation and asks what it means. Vitória, convinced he is being impudent, beats him, and he finds consolation in the dog. The boys, like Fabiano, relate more easily to animals than they do to other humans. (Meanwhile the dog is dreaming of meat.) And yet the older boy, crippled though he is by his lack of language, has a curiosity about the world that is poetical, mystical at times. He will look at the skies and think to himself, ‘How could there be stars on the earth?’ During the family’s trip to town he marvels at the church and the shops.

The older boy hesitated. He looked at the stores, at the stands with their lights, and at the girls in their pretty dresses. He shrugged his shoulders. Perhaps it had all been made by people. Then a new problem presented itself to his mind and he whispered it in his brother’s ear: In all probability those things had names. The younger boy looked at him questioningly. Yes, surely all the precious things exhibited on the altars and on the shelves in the stores had names.

The younger boy, less curious about the wider world, worships his unworthy father. In a rare comic episode he tries to emulate Fabiano’s breaking in of a mare by mounting a billy goat, ending up on the ground (‘He was vaguely conscious that he had escaped from his adventure without honor’). He dreams of growing up to be just like Fabiano, while Fabiano despairs of the same thing, the inevitability of his boys turning into him, indigent farmers all. He and Vitória dream of a better life (she, more specifically, of a better bed), aware of being at the mercy of fate but periodically convincing themselves that change must be possible. The depiction of their marriage, filtered mostly through Fabiano’s perspective, is touching. He’s not proud of himself, knows that he isn’t good with words or numbers and has a short temper that gets him in trouble, but he acknowledges and is proud of his wife’s superior intelligence. Neither of them thinks they would be better off without the other, and they give each other the encouragement to carry on.

His was a bad lot, but Fabiano was determined to struggle against it and felt strong enough to come out the winner. He didn’t want to die. He was hidden in the brush like an armadillo – as hard and as clumsy as an armadillo. Some day, though, he would come out of his hiding place and walk with his head up, his own boss.

That this book isn’t a joyless trudge (far from it, in fact) is probably down to Ramos’ understanding of his characters. They are drawn with respect, neither patronised nor glorified but depicted straight and unadorned. These are his people. In spite of the lack of dialogue, I’m not surprised to find that a film version was made in 1963. At the time of writing it’s available for viewing here. I’ll watch it soon.

The 1938 Club: Three Guineas / Virginia Woolf

April 11, 2016

The 1938 Club

I’m very glad to be taking part in the 1938 Club, curated by Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. 1938 was a fascinating year for literature and also for the world in general. I’m a bit of an amateur historian, and I know that it’s the year before the Second World War started, so there’s that.

By 1938 war was very much on both the cards and the mind of Virginia Woolf, whose Three Guineas was published that year. In it she responds to three letters she has received: the first from a barrister who asks for her opinion on the best means to prevent war and for a donation to support his society; the second from the treasurer of a women’s college, asking for a donation towards its rebuilding fund; the third soliciting money for a society promoting the entry of women into the professions. These matters, superficially disparate, are in fact bound up together, and Woolf explores the common ground they share.

Three Guineas

Three Guineas is now thought of as a companion piece to Woolf’s brilliant extended essay A Room of One’s Own, which I read a couple of years ago. I was sitting engrossed in the book while waiting for a performance of Ibsen’s Ghosts to begin, and feeling more self-consciously studenty than ever before (though I hadn’t been a student for some years), when the respectable middle-aged lady beside me asked what I was reading. I showed her the cover, and I must have looked terribly earnest because she offered an encouraging ‘Nearly there.’ For a moment I was an honorary woman.

And yet Three Guineas feels like a poor relation, not nearly as widely read as its predecessor. Why? Morag Shiach, in her introduction to the Oxford edition I read, suggests it has something to do with the ‘radicalism’ of Woolf’s conclusion, which equates the oppression of women in Britain with the fascism she is being invited to combat in the first letter. She gives her correspondent the donation he asks for, but declines to join his society.

[Since] we are different, our help must be different … [The] answer to your question must be that we can best help you to prevent war not by repeating your words and following your methods but by finding new words and creating new methods. We can best help you to prevent war not by joining your society but by remaining outside your society but in cooperation with its aim.


From the very moment of its publication readers responded to the text as an aberration, and expressed disappointment that Woolf had apparently moved away from the ambiguity and fluidity which they so valued in her prose. Woolf was impatient of such criticisms, writing to Vita Sackville-West, ‘how sick I get of all this talk about “lovely prose” and charm when all I wanted was to state a very intricate case as plainly … as I could.’

It’s hard, though, to write about Woolf without observing the elegance of her writing and her thought, which seems as much in evidence here as in her other works. I don’t like to cherry-pick sentences here and there because shorn of context they don’t have the same effect, but I seem to be doing it anyway. Take her opening gambit:

But one does not like to leave so remarkable a letter as yours – a letter perhaps unique in the history of human correspondence, since when before has an educated man asked a woman how in her opinion war can be prevented? – unanswered.

A thing I really admire about Woolf’s tone, here and throughout, is its calmness, its detachment – its ‘disinterest’, to use a word that recurs in the book. You don’t have to do much reading between the lines to see how passionately Woolf feels about the cause of equality, but she invariably refers to women in the third person, remaining above the fray, gently anticipating and preempting the objections of her correspondents. If I were a polemicist, this is the approach I would adopt. Other books I have read recently – Julia Serano’s Excluded, for instance, and Kate Bornstein’s Gender Outlaw – advise that the best way to effect change is to shun anger. Bornstein:

I think anger and activism mix about as well as drinking and driving. When I’m angry, I don’t have the judgment to select a correct target to hit out against. I do believe that anger is healthy, that it can lead to a recognition of the need for action, but activism itself is best accomplished by level heads who can help steer others’ anger toward correct targets.

Anger alienates your allies and gives your opponents ammunition to discredit you, and so nothing changes. Theodore Roosevelt’s maxim also comes to mind:

Speak softly, and carry a big stick.

Well, I don’t really approve of the stick, and in any case Woolf doesn’t have one, only a pen, but she understands the virtue of quietness, and treats her subject with a sort of moderate amusement, though she has a lot to get angry about. Cambridge, for example, supposedly a place of enlightened thought, where in 1921 undergraduates bashed down the gates of Newnham College following a vote about allowing female students to receive degrees (bringing back memories for me of this brilliant book). Or the shutting out of women from certain professions, notably the forces and the clergy.

They’ve caught up now, of course. A short fifty-six years after the publication of this book, the Church of England began ordaining women, one of whom was one of my childhood priests. I don’t recall what I felt at the time, aged ten or eleven. I suspect a certain bewilderment that her gender should be such a big deal, though clearly it was. The current vicar’s a Forward in Faith wingnut. It’s a good thing I moved.

Last month I rewatched a favourite film of mine, Anthony Asquith’s adaptation of Pygmalion starring Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller. It came out in 1938, a few months after Three Guineas. Here’s Liza Doolittle:

You see, really and truly, apart from the things anyone can pick up (the dressing and the proper way of speaking, and so on), the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she’s treated. I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins, because he always treats me as a flower girl, and always will; but I know I can be a lady to you, because you always treat me as a lady, and always will.

Books of the Men-are-from-Mars type are so keen to fit people into boxes (I imagine; I’ve not read it) that they fail to notice that our similarities to people unlike ourselves are as striking as our differences from them. What Liza says applies to gender as well: the great difference between different genders may be not innate, but to do with social attitudes. This feels germane to Woolf’s arguments.

If this post has been rather sprawling, it’s probably the result of my not feeling I have anything of value to say about the book itself. What I’ve written above represents the meanderings of my mind after having read it. Apologies for the preponderance of quotations. Montaigne:

I quote others only in order the better to express myself.

At base, I suspect Three Guineas represents a meditation on how to live, something none of us has figured out. I recognised my own concerns in this paragraph, where Woolf addresses her first correspondent:

Let us concentrate upon the practical suggestions which you bring forward for our consideration. There are three of them. The first is to sign a letter to the newspapers; the second is to join a certain society; the third is to subscribe to its funds. Nothing on the face of it could sound simpler. To scribble a name on a sheet of paper is easy; to attend a meeting where pacific opinions are more or less rhetorically reiterated to people who already believe in them is also easy; and to write a cheque in support of those vaguely acceptable opinions, though not so easy, is a cheap way of quieting what may conveniently be called one’s conscience.

Not enough, though, is it? I want to change the world, I want to do something, I just don’t know what or how. Perhaps if I keep thinking about it, perhaps if I keep reading Virginia Woolf, something will occur to me.

Diary excerpts 2

April 1, 2016

10 February
Resenting David Copperfield, the boring little fucker going on about his love for Dora, who I’m sure will turn out to be a twat.

18 February
I’ve no time for a man who can’t forward an email sent three weeks ago.

23 February
I do draw the line at cheese with fruit in.

3 March
L came into the library, dressed as one of the Cambridge Tracts in Mathematics.

5 March
Bizarre dream about being ushered into a doctor’s office with two other people, everyone apparently under the impression I was one of three consultant experts on setting limbs in plaster. There was an elderly patient about whose case I was invited to give my opinion. I protested early on that they’d got me mixed up with someone else, and it was fine. Still, the message seems clear enough: fear of being found out.

17 March
I tried to find a book today using the flank-pat system and it didn’t work.

20 March
I don’t want to go to the pub, really, but I do want some alcohol very much, and for someone else to buy it for me.

26 March
More imaginary conversations with R in which I’m Kristin Scott Thomas. Weird.


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