The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

As promised here are close-ups of the miniature reproductions Sylvia sent me. They are quite lovely.

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And as a bonus here is a picture showing a part of one of my book shelves located over my bed. You can see the beginnings of a “smile” in the wood; I occasionally wonder if a tumble of books will terrorise me out of sleep one night.

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Here is my small pile of NYRB classics.

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Last week I won a copy of Penguin Classics Jane Eyre at the Classical Bookworm. I am happy to report that it came in the mail with the most wonderful surprises!

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There were little cards featuring women throughout centuries of art (most appearing to be from the 18th C (at earliest) to early 20th) reading, in groups or in solitude, books or letters, indoors or out. As I tore through all the careful packaging and unwound protective material one or two cards would fall out at a time, provoking joyous gasps and exclamations.

Here I am, early in the morning, ready to eat my literary breakfast.

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Thanks so much, Sylvia!

I’ve come across some interesting pieces on writing recently. Zadie Smith’s two-part piece on “Failing Better” in reading and writing in the Guardian provoked much discussion. Many seemed to think that her first piece was little more than a bad effort at huckstering the high value of her novels as she lay the charge of intellectual laziness at her detractors. I don’t see any evidence of this in the article. Basically her reading philosophy is one of active participation and an (questionable) equal partnership with the writer in realising the potential of the novel. No where do I spy her giving authors an easy way out of the “two-way” street analogy by placing all of a novel’s failure on readers. (They aren’t even mentioned until near the end.) I can only surmise that the (apparent) media fixation with Zadie Smith in England has hopelessly tainted any reception of her literary comment.

I agree wholeheartedly with the idea that readers can fail novels. A day or so ago I read a blogger’s post on Lolita in which she nonsensically advised that it must be read for pure emotion because her previous attempts at an analytical approach had failed. (Why this artificial separation of emotion and intellect? Why was she trying to ‘dissect’ the novel in the first place, why didn’t she just read the damn thing?) Then she contradicted herself by engaging in some clumsy reasoning of Lolita’s moral culpability in her abusive relationship with Humbert because at 15 she (the blogger) used to tease truck drivers. (That is what happens when you read for “pure emotional value”.)

Anyone who takes a utilitarian approach to fiction has already failed the novel, as far as I’m concerned. Smith pinned this when describing those readers who “want a novel to be the “last word” on what it is to be a young Muslim, or an American soldier, or a mother. We want them to be wholly sufficient systems of ideas. We want one man to symbolise a nation. We want a novel to speak for a community or answer some vital question of the day. Like good system-makers, we want a view from nowhere, a panopticon, hovering above the whole scene, taking it in, telling us “how it is”.” Orpheus, in a comment on his blog, mentioned that many people don’t consider Pamuk to be “representative” of Turkey or Turkish literature. I think that’s excellent. It’s not his duty to represent anything but himself and his ideas. It would be impossible for any writer’s country to not influence his art to varying extents and, that being the case, is enough for me. This is what I was trying to express in Brother Man I because it seems as if any kind of West Indian literature is immediately placed into the post-colonial box and every word is filtered through it; the work’s quality is judged through how well it expresses and supports Caribbean (black) ideals. So, you know, Derek Walcott isn’t all that because he writes in English too much (the White Man’s language!) and borrows their Greek epic forms–what does have to do with us? (Those limiting, oppressive boxes.) The danger of this, of course, is that once the artist is deemed politically “irrelevant” he is tossed to the side which is, apparently what happened to Roger Mais.

Readers can fail literature. We’re human, imperfect, the conclusion seems obvious.

So I don’t find much fault with most of Smith’s reasoning but there were things here and there that niggled. The implication that universities are responsible for the “system readers”, as she describes them, seems misplaced. Yes, literature is covered in theory at that stage, but do professors actually teach people to approach general reading by first thinking of which category it falls under? If the student is nothing but a sponge with no urge to actively do some close reading on his own, to formulate his own ideas, based on his readings is that largely the professor’s fault? It seems as if more and more of the burden for teaching basic critical thinking skills and close reading, all that high school stuff, is being pushed into the tertiary sphere. The general passivity of the public at large to engage critically with…well anything from the news, to credit card applications, to Kite Runner is part of a long-time trend, one not special to or rooted in theory robots trumping down the halls of academe.

I also thought that her tone in the second piece, “Read Better”, was more didactic and therefore vaguely off-putting. No longer was she an author stimulating a discussion but a moral teacher come to tell the flock what they must do to improve themselves and the literary fraternity. Eh. She tried to do a switch near the end by making it all “personal” and “just me” but it didn’t work. For all that it was still worth the read.

“You yourself told me how Sheikh Muhammad the Master of Isfahan burned down the great library containing the paintings he had renounced, and how he also immolated himself in a fit of bad conscience,” he said. “Now let me tell you another story related to that legend that you don’t know. It’s true, he’d spent the last thirty years of his life hunting down his own works. However, in the books he perused, he increasingly discovered imitations inspired by him rather than his original work. In later years, he came to realise that two generations of artists had adopted as models of form the illustrations he himself had renounced, that they’d ingrained his pictures in their minds–or more accurately, had made them a part of their souls. As Sheikh Muhammad attempted to find his own pictures and destroy them, he discovered that young miniaturists had, with reverence, produced them in countless books, had relied on them in illustrating other stories, had caused them to be memorised by all and had spread them over the world. Over long years, as we gaze at book after book and illustration after illustration, we come to learn the following: A great painter does not content himself by affecting us with masterpieces; ultimately, he succeeds in changing the landscape of our minds. Once a miniaturist’s artistry enters our souls this way, it becomes the criterion for the beauty of our world. At the end of his life, as the Master of Isfahan burned his own art, he not only witnessed the fact that his work, instead of disappearing, actually proliferated and increased; he understood that everybody now saw the world the way he had seen it.”

From “My Name is Red” by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Erdaq M. Guknar

I could not leave that cantankerous rant as the first post to greet visitors on such a lovely day. And it is and has been lovely. It’s not very white with temperatures at a balmy 5 C–yes, compared to typical December temperatures this is balmy–but the sun shone brightly and everyone was out with family or close ones shopping, goggling at llamas at the park, jogging on the trail, taking the dog out for a walk or finding that last-minute gift. I was grinning the minute I stepped outside with friends and am now in a much better mood.I do not have any of my books nearby or I would quote a chilling excerpt from Other Electricities by Ander Monson. It is the winter book to own, if you didn’t know. The only winter poems I really love are Snow by Archibald Lampman and Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening (which I got on my ‘O’ level exams and almost squealed with delight) but they feel a bit too familiar, done and comfortable. So, I went searching for some art.

Christmas — Santa Reading Mail by Norman Rockwell

(1935)

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Isn’t it something? I think I’ve found my new favourite image of Santa. In this painting more than anything else he really does look a loving grandpa who would give you the warmest hug you ever had and the best gifts and a lot of love. The halo adds rather than detracts from this. I love it, which is odd, because I’ve never seen a Rockwell work that I’ve liked before.

Another one that radiates the same cheer and reminds me of the Scrooge with Alistair Sim is Merrie Christmas Couple Dancing under the Mistletoe.

A Christmas Carol by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

(1857)

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I picked this one both because the colours are bright, full and gorgeous, really glowing, very festive and also because it’s a puzzle. I notice the little settings of the nativity scene beneath her harpsichord (?) but what’s the idea behind that? And what kinds of plants are those hanging from them? Are they going to put all those things on the shelf in and on her hair and why? What about that repeating pattern on the tapestry (of sorts)…grrrrr I don’t suppose any of the professors would appreciate if I called their houses on Christmas eve to decode the painting for me. I have no time to google it all now (if that would even work) so for now, simply enjoy “A Christmas Carol’s” beauty.

A Medieval Christmas — The Procession by Albert B. Wenzell

(1898)

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My word. This one is marvellous. It is all pomp and circumstance, elaborate excess and gravity with everyone showing the utmost reverance for the ritual pageantry. It’s rather startling to see the altar boy’s gown being more or less the same as the ones altar boys in Catholic churches are wearing all over the world still. I think that aristocrat at the back is trying very hard not to smile. This painting is imparting so much which reminds me one of the major reasons I love paintings.

Christmas Eve, Swiftwater, New Hampshire by Aldro Thompson Hibbard

Here is the last. This is what a proper northern Christmas should look like: heaps and heaps of snow, sleigh rides and mountains lurking in the distance. I am enjoying this Christmas a lot more with a painting of such a scene as opposed to actually living it. Happy, Happy Christmas!

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All images are taken from the Art Renewal Centre. Click on images to get bigger scans.

The Good Fairies of New York by Martin Millar

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by M.T. Anderson, NBA winner 2006

Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife by Sam Savage, LBC Autumn 2006 Pick

Vintage Nabokov

It feels good to know and care for people so wonderfully receptive to heavily placed hints.

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The Economist may have convinced me to acquire Messud’s The Emperor Children (from the library, if it’s there). It is more likely I have been subliminally coerced by the universal adulation. Or I was in a good mood.

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There is a good review of The Immoralist by Andre Gide at Conversational Reading. I love reading good reviews because they take me to literary places undiscovered or overlooked. A lot of people’s disdain for critics stem from the unwarranted, unjustified, egotistical idea that their experience is the only one that matters.

Stacey’s visual representation of her experience with Evensong by Gail Godwin is not to be missed. Too funny.

You must visit Japonisme. Lotusgreen presents a lot of intriguing, impressive Japanese or Japanese-influenced art with informed commentary.  It is my new favourite site.


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