Month: August 2014

Enrique Lihn: El arte de la palabra [The Way of Speaking]


The latest addition to my website is Enrique Lihn‘s El arte de la palabra [The Way of Speaking]. Lihn was primarily a poet but he wrote five novels of which this is the best known. It concerns a literary conference on the fictional island of Miranda, which has been described as a cross between Chile and Cuba. It is separated by a river from the mainland though it is called an island. It is not entirely clear where it is, even to those who visit it. It has an exotic flora and fauna and seems to rain heavily most of the time. Lihn mocks both the political nature of the island (and hence the politics of Chile and Cuba) but also mocks literary conferences and the second-rate writers he sees who attend these conferences. Gerardo de Pompier is the main writer we meet and we see him through his letters and diaries. He has not actually written a book at all and, when he writes a poem on the theft of his shoes from the hotel, it is firmly rejected by a local literary magazine. According to him, his basis for fame is his silence. Many of the participants behave fairly badly, two spending their time getting drunk and visiting prostitutes and the Paraguayan poet, Urbana Concha de de Andrade (yes, the de de is correct) chasing de Pompier and being chased by his friend, the writer and geologist Roberto Albornoz. There is a former prisoner of first the Nazis and then the Soviets, called Otto Federico Hitler, as well as the writer who has been a promising young Argentinian writer for the past thirty years. The paper they produce, El arte de la palabra [The Way of Speaking], is a mishmash of Saussurean linguistics and says nothing new and all the participants are roundly condemned by the Protector, the local dictator. It is great fun, as Lihn mocks everyone and everything. Sadly, it has not been translated into any other language.

North of England


We spent the past week in the North of England, partially for family reasons but we also made a few literary jaunts. I have always wanted to visit Newstead Abbey so we stopped off there on the way up. Newstead Abbey was never an abbey but a priory. Following the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, it was sold to Sir John Byron. It was later the home of the poet Lord Byron, a descendant of Sir John. The poet inherited it from his father, who was known as Mad Jack Byron. Mad Jack was very good at spending money and had left his wife and children encumbered with debts. The Abbey was in a state of disrepair so the family did not live there much. Byron himself was not good with money – he refused to accept royalties for his poetry, as it was beneath the dignity of a lord to do so, though his poetry sold in quantities that contemporary poets can only dream of. As a result, he eventually had to sell Newstead Abbey to help pay his debts


The Abbey was eventually sold to a schoolfriend of his, Thomas Wildman. He in turn, sold it to William Webb. Webb was a friend of the explorer David Livingstone, and he stayed at Newstead Abbey for several months after his wife died and wrote his Narrative of an Expedition to the Zambesi and Its Tributaries there. Webb had five daughters but refused to allow any of them to marry. When the eldest, Augusta, did marry, she was put last on the list of inheritors of the Abbey. However, as she survived all her siblings, who did not have children, she did eventually inherit and her son sold it to Sir Julien Cahn, who gave it to the City of Nottingham, who still own it. They have found it expensive to run and even thought of closing it. The grounds are open every day but the house is only open at weekends.


Up North, our main activity was family but we did manage to visit Barter Books in Alnwick. Barter Books is located in the former, large Alnwick railway station, and has a lot of books. Most were fairly ordinary but round the walls they had cabinets containing rare books. I was tempted by the second edition of the Poems of Action, Currer and Ellis Bell (later to use their own names of Anne, Charlotte and Emily Brontë) but, at a price of over £4000 I resisted.


However, we did go to Top Withens. Top Withens has been believed to be the inspiration for Emily Brontë’s Wuthering heights, though there is no evidence for this. The structure of the (now ruined) farmhouse is very different from that of Wuthering Heights and there is no documentary evidence for any association between the two. It is possible, however, that Emily Brontë used the location as an inspiration for her novel. It is about two and a half miles up the moor from the road to Top Withens, via the Brontë Waterfall. I last visited nearly twenty years ago and, on both occasions, the weather was fine at the beginning of the walk but, by the time we reached the ruin, it was very windy and pouring with rain, this time, apparently, the remnants of Hurricane Bertha. Apparently the Japanese are very keen on the Brontës. One of the earliest Brontë websites was and is Japanese. The signposts leading to the Brontë Waterfall and Top Withens are in English and Japanese. When we approached the top, suitably clothed in hooded anoraks, waterproof trousers and walking boots, we saw a Japanese man wearing only a light cotton T-shirt, though he did have an umbrella. We later saw him in the village, looking somewhat bedraggled. He would undoubtedly go home and write a Ph. D. thesis on the effects of the local weather on the Brontë novels.


One of our reasons for going up North, apart from family, was to see a couple of performances at the Gilbert and Sullivan Festival. We are not dyed in the wool G & S fans but do enjoy a good G & S and Harrogate, where it was held this year, is a lovely town. One of the performances we saw was Enagged, a play written by Gilbert before his collaboration with Sullivan. It was an amusing farce, about a man who falls in love with every woman he meets, telling her that she is the tree on which the fruit of his heart will grow. He manages to get engaged to three women and possibly marries one (whether they are married is one of the plot twists). Interestingly, barely a month before the Scottish Independence vote, it was quite anti-Scottish, painting the Scots as venial, greedy and corrupt. Gilbert did use two interesting techniques. At the beginning, when the three Scottish characters are talking, they realise they are in a theatre and speaking Scottish dialect and stop in order to interpret what they are saying for the Sassenachs (i.e. English) in the audience. One of the characters, the jilted Major, spends the entire second act, sitting at the front of the stage munching what seemed to be real wedding cake and commenting by gestures and facial expressions on the action.

 Rushton Triangular Lodge

Rushton Triangular Lodge

Those of you who live in the UK, may have recently seen on TV James Fox’s superb A Very British Renaissance. Fox’s thesis was that, while the Italians had their well-known Renaissance, Britain also had a renaissance. As the blurb says He tells the story of the painters, sculptors, poets, playwrights, composers, inventors, explorers, craftsmen and scientists who revolutionised the way we saw the world. I suspect it was not shown elsewhere and is not available on DVD but, of course, you can see it on YouTube. One segment that appealed to us was about Sir Thomas Tresham. Sir Thomas was a Catholic at a time, during the reign of Elizabeth I, when it was not a good idea to be a Catholic. He was heavily fined for his Catholic activities. However, he remained devoted to his faith. The photo above right shows Rushton Triangular Lodge, which is replete with Catholic symbolism. The three sides, of course, represent the Trinity. It was used for masses and other Catholic ceremonies. As that was entirely illegal at that time, it was concealed behind a high wall and Sir Thomas told the authorities that the area was a rabbit warren. As rabbit breeding was an important rural industry at that time, no-one checked on the real use of the Lodge. The land was sold soon after his death and subsequently the lands were owned by a farmer called Payne. He presented the Lodge to the Department of Works which eventually became English Heritage, which now owns it. The Hall, where the Tresham family lived, used to be a school for the blind, but is now a hotel, spa and conference centre.


Lyveden New Bield

Sir Thomas, despite his financial problems, was an extravagant man and planned to build a lodge, now known as Lyveden New Bield, where he could entertain his guests. This lodge also had some Catholic symbolism but the symbolism here was more subtle. It was intended that his guests would walk up (or ride up) from Rushton Hall, through magnificent gardens, to the lodge, which would be surrounded by a moat. Sadly, Sir Thomas died after two years, before the lodge was finished, and his son, Francis, was in the Tower of London for his role in the Gunpowder Plot. With all the debts that the family had, the lodge was never finished which, ironically, may have helped preserve it. It, too, was sold off but the local people bought it in 1922 and eventually gave it to the National Trust, the current owners. Though very much incomplete, you can still see what a fine building it would have been. Interestingly, the Tudor gardens were revealed by a picture taken by the Luftwaffe in 1944, though only discovered in 2010.

Jun’ichiro Tanizaki: 細雪 (The Makioka Sisters)


The latest addition to my website is Jun’ichiro Tanizaki‘s The Makioka Sisters, one of the great Japanese novels. I have now read this novel three times and seen the film and it continues to give me great pleasure. It tells the story of four sisters, daughters of an old family, whose father had had considerable success in business. However, though two of the sisters have married, the youngest two have not and this is a cause of concern for the family. The third, sister, Yukiko, has had numerous suitors but all have been rejected either by her or the family (or both) and, as a result, offers are drying up, particularly as she is now in her thirties. We follow several proposals during the course of the book and quite a few look promising but, for various reasons, do not work out. The youngest sister, Taeko, cannot get married, by tradition, till her older sister is married, so she eloped with her boyfriend but both families managed to intervene before anything happened. Taeko is indicative of the changes that are taking place in Japan, which the Makiokas do not seem to be in tune with. Taeko gets a job, first of all making dolls, which sell to department stores, and then sewing. The Makiokas do not consider a woman working seemly for a Makioka, nor do they approve of her choice of boyfriends. However, they find it difficult to rein her in. Tanizaki tells a superb story of a family that does not adapt to changes, both in its own declining status and the general changes in Japanese society. The novel ends just before Pearl Harbour, which will, of course, lead to far greater changes in the country.

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