Archive for the 'Literature' Category

Pangrams

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

How quickly daft jumping zebras vex!

The five boxing wizards jump quickly.

Sphinx of black quartz, judge my vow.




Three Potters

Surfing idly, I encounter a reference to one Andrew Onderdonk, an international lawyer who visited with George Santayana (1863-1952) in the 1920s. The question that immediately entered my mind is the one I am sure occurs to you too: Is this man a descendant of the second Protestant Episcopal Bishop of Pennsylvania? That was Henry Onderdonk (1789-1858), who was supposedly replaced as Bishop due to a problem with alcohol. Bishop Henry’s successor, the third Episcopal Bishop of Pennsylvania, was a mathematician and philosopher named Alonzo Potter (1800-1865), whose grandson Warwick Potter (31 October 1870-11 October 1893) was a student and close friend of Santayana’s at Harvard. Santayana wrote a very moving quartet of sonnets to him, following his early death. One sonnet is here, and posts on Santayana here. Warwick Potter would be completely forgotten now if not for Santayan’s consoling poems.

It seems that Andrew Joseph Onderdonk (1889- ?) had also been a student of Santayana’s at Harvard, and was still alive in the mid-1960s, when he offered to sell Santayana’s writing chair to journalist Joseph Epstein.

Warwick Potter’s father was Major General Robert Brown Potter (1829-1887), a Civil War general on the Union side and subject of a famous photo, taken around 1864.  The photo (below) is mainly well-known because the photographer, Mathew Brady (1822-1896), included himself in it. One would be tempted to call this action post-modernist, if painters from the renaissance onwards had not done the same. Brady’s louche posture against a tree on the right of the picture contrasts with the formality of comportment of the General, standing hatless at the centre of his behatted men, who all face him while he faces us.

Warwick Potter had three brothers and a half-sister: Robert Burnside Potter, Abby Potter, Austin Potter and Frances Tileston Potter. He was born on 1870-10-31 in Lemington, near Newcastle-upon-Tyne and died on 1893-10-11  in Brest, Brittany.  I find it most consoling that I am able to place Warwick Potter in his family, with both his father and paternal grandfather being identified.




Some of the people, all of the time

Writer Colm Toibin has an article in praise of Henry James’ novel The Ambassadors, here.

Did Toibin not notice the words of the text as he read it? That novel is appallingly badly written. James’ long, rambling, discursive sentences reflect not subtlety and nuance, but long, rambling, muddled thought. The prose is often hard to comprehend, due to this muddle. An irritating widespread quirk of his style are sentences containing multiple pronouns, each pointing to different people – or perhaps to the same people. There is no consistency. Sometimes a pronoun in one sentence refers to the subject of the previous sentence, and sometimes to the object. Sometimes, indeed, one pronoun in a sentence may refer to the subject in an earlier sentence, while another pronoun refers to the object in another sentence. I lost count of the number of times I encountered this deictic ambiguity: eventually I concluded that either James was deliberately aiming to make it impossible for the reader to parse his text, or else it was he himself who was muddled, following no consistent rule in his pronoun assignments; in either case, I should feel no shame at abandoning such poor prose. James is justly neglected, and long may he remain so.




Why read?

Why do we read? Many people seem to assume that the only reason for reading is to obtain information about the world. With this view, reading fiction is perhaps hard to justify. But if one only reads to learn new facts, then one’s life is impoverished and Gradgrindian. Indeed, this reason strikes me as like learning to play the trumpet in order to have a means to practice circular breathing.

In fact, we read for many other reasons than just this one. One could say we primarily read novels for the pleasure that reading them provides:

  • the pleasure of reading poetic text (as in the novels of Hardy, Joyce or Faulkner, for instance)
  • the pleasure of reading elegant, finely-crafted prose (eg, Burney, Doris Lessing, Perec, Brautigan)
  • the pleasure of engaging in deductive reasoning (any detective or espionage novel)
  • the pleasure of imagining alternative societal futures (scifi), presents (political thrillers, espionage novels), or pasts (historical fiction)
  • the pleasure of being scared (crime thrillers, horror stories)
  • or the pleasure of parsing an intricate narrative structure (eg, Calvino, Fowles, Murnane, Pynchon).

These various pleasures are very distinct, and are orthogonal to the desire to gain information about the world. And some of these pleasures may also be gained from reading non-fiction, for example the finely-honed journalism of AJ Liebling or Christopher Hitchens, or the writing of Oliver Sacks, who passed on today.




Charles Burney

This post is a history of the family of Charles Burney FRS (1726-1814), musician and musicologist, and his ancestors and descendants.

Sir MacBurney was one of the 60 Knights who participated in a jousting tournament, supervised by Geoffrey Chaucer on the orders of Richard II, held at Smithfield in London in 1390.

One James Macburney is said to have come south to London from Scotland with King James I and VI in 1603.   His descendant (likely a grandson), also James Macburney, was born around 1653 and had a house in Whitehall.   His son, also called James Macburney (1678-1749), was born in Great Hanwood, Shropshire, around 1678, and attended Westminster School in London.   In 1697, he eloped with Rebecca Ellis, against his father’s wishes. As a consequence, the younger James was not left anything when his father died.  The  younger man’s stepbrother, Joseph Macburney (born of a second wife) was left the entire estate of their father.

This younger James Macburney (1678-1749) was a dancer, violinist and painter, and was supposedly a wit and bon viveur.  He and Rebecca Ellis had 15 children over 20 years, of whom 9 survived into adulthood.   By 1720, he had moved to Shrewsbury,  and Rebecca had died.  He married again, to Ann Cooper, who apparently brought money to the union which helped her somewhat feckless husband. This second marriage produced 5 further children, among whom were Richard Burney (1723-1792) (christened “Berney”).  The last two children were twins, Charles Burney (1726-1814) and Susanna (1726-1734?), who died at the age of 8.  Their father James had apparently dropped the prefix “Mac” around the time of the birth of the  twins.

One of Charles’ half-brothers was James Burney (1710-1789), who was organist at St. Mary’s Church, Shrewsbury, for 54 years, from 1732 to 1786. Charles Burney worked as his assistant from 1742 until 1744.

For a period, Charles Burney and his family lived in Isaac Newton’s former house at 35 St Martin’s Street, Leicester Square, London.  Among Charles’ children were:

  • Esther Burney (1749-1832), harpsichordist, who married her cousin Charles Rousseau Burney (1747-1819), also a keyboardist and violinist.
  • Rear Admiral James Burney RN FRS (1750-1821), naval historian and sailor, who twice sailed around the world with Captain James Cook RN.
  • Fanny Burney, later Madame d’Arblay (1752-1840), novelist and playwright.
  • Rev. Charles Burney FRS (1757-1817), classical scholar.
  • Charlotte Ann Burney, later Mrs Broome (1761-1838), novelist.
  • Sarah Harriet Burney (1772-1844), novelist.

Charles’ nephew, Edward Francisco Burney (1760-1848), artist and violinist, was a brother to Charles Rousseau Burney, both sons of Richard Burney (1723-1792), Charles’s elder brother.  This is a self-portrait of Edward Francisco Burney (Creative Commons License from National Portrait Gallery, London):

image

In 1793, Fanny Burney married Alexandre-Jean-Baptiste Piochard D’Arblay (1754-1818), an emigre French aristocrat and soldier, and adjutant-general to Lafayette. Their son, Alexander d’Arblay (1794-1837), was a poet and keen chess-player, and was 10th wrangler in the Mathematics Tripos at Cambridge in 1818, where he was a friend of fellow-student Charles Babbage.  He was also a member of Babbage’s Analytical Society (forerunner of the Cambridge Philosophical Society), which sought to introduce modern analysis, including Leibnizian notation for the differential calculus, into mathematics teaching at Cambridge. d’Arblay was ordained and served as founding minister of Camden Town Chapel (later the Greek Orthodox All Saints Camden) from 1824-1837, and then served briefly at Ely Chapel in High Holborn, London. The founding organist at Camden Town Chapel was Samuel Wesley (1766-1837).

Not everyone was a fan of clan Burney. Here is William Hazlitt:

“There are whole families who are born classical, and are entered in the heralds’ college of reputation by the right of consanguinity. Literature, like nobility, runs in the blood. There is the Burney family. There is no end of it or its pretensions. It produces wits, scholars, novelists, musicians, artists in ‘numbers numberless.’ The name is alone a passport to the Temple of Fame. Those who bear it are free of Parnassus by birthright. The founder of it was himself an historian and a musician, but more of a courtier and man of the world than either. The secret of his success may perhaps be discovered in the following passage, where, in alluding to three eminent performers on different instruments, he says: ‘These three illustrious personages were introduced at the Emperor’s court,’ etc.; speaking of them as if they were foreign ambassadors or princes of the blood, and thus magnifying himself and his profession. This overshadowing manner carries nearly everything before it, and mystifies a great many. There is nothing like putting the best face upon things, and leaving others to find out the difference. He who could call three musicians ‘personages’ would himself play a personage through life, and succeed in his leading object. Sir Joshua Reynolds, remarking on this passage, said: ‘No one had a greater respect than he had for his profession, but that he should never think of applying to it epithets that were appropriated merely to external rank and distinction.’ Madame d’Arblay, it must be owned, had cleverness enough to stock a whole family, and to set up her cousin-germans, male and female, for wits and virtuosos to the third and fourth generation. The rest have done nothing, that I know of, but keep up the name.” (On the Aristocracy of Letters, 1822).

References:

ODNB

K. S. Grant: ” Charles Burney”, Grove Music Online. (Accessed 2006-12-10.)

POST MOST RECENTLY UPDATED:  2014-08-30.




Recent Reading 11

The latest in a sequence of lists of recently-read books.

Francis King [1970]:  A Domestic Animal. Faber Finds, 2014.  A well-written account of unrequited love that becomes an obsession.  Both the plot and the dialogue are, at times, unbelievable, although the obsession and the emotions it provokes in holder and object are very credible.

Continue reading ‘Recent Reading 11’




The Beats: Australian responses

Hughes Robert 1959

An excerpt from a 1959 Australian Broadcasting Commission TV programme on the Beats, featuring interviews with Sydney University students, Clive James and Robert Hughes (pictured, image from ABC).




Preaching, advising, rebuking, reviling

Henry James on literary criticism (in a letter to Charles Eliot Norton, March 1873):

I do  . . . believe in criticism, more than that hyperbolical speech of mine would seem to suggest.   What I meant to express was my sense of its being, latterly, vastly over-done.  There is such a flood of precepts, and so few examples – so much preaching, advising, rebuking & reviling, & so little doing: so many gentlemen sitting down to dispose in half an hour of what a few have spent months & years in producing. A single positive attempt, even with great faults, is worth generally most of the comments and amendments on it.”




Go West, young man

BlueHighways

I was headed out down a long bone-white road, straight as a string and smooth as glass and glittering and wavering in the heat and humming under the tires like a plucked nerve. I was doing seventy-five but I never seemed to catch up with the pool that seemed to be over the road just this side of the horizon. Then, after a while, the sun was in my eyes, for I was driving west. So I pulled the sun screen down and squinted and put the throttle to the floor. And kept on moving west. For West is where we all plan to go someday. It is where you go when the land gives out and the old-field pines encroach. It is where you go when you get the letter saying: ‘Flee, all is discovered.’ It is where you go when you look down at the blade in your hand and see the blood on it. It is where you go when you are told that you are a bubble on the tide of empire. It is where you go to grow up with the country. It is where you go to spend your old age. Or it is just where you go.

It was just where I went.”

Robert Penn Warren [1946]: All the King’s Men.  Harcourt, Brace and Company.




Recent Reading 10

The latest in a sequence of lists of recently-read books.

David Eagleman [2010]: Sum: Tales from the Afterlives.  (London, UK:  Canongate).  A superb collection of very short stories, each premised on the assumption that something (our bodies, our souls, our names, our molecules, etc) lives beyond death. Superbly fascinating.  One will blow your mind!  (HT: WPN).

A. C. Grayling [2013]:  Friendship.  (New Haven, CT and London, UK:  Yale University Press).

Andrew Sullivan [1998]:  Love Undetectable:  Reflections on Friendship, Sex and Survival.  (London, UK: Vintage, 1999).

Michael Blakemore [2013]: Stage Blood. (London, UK: Faber & Faber).  A riveting account of Blakemore’s time at the National Theatre in London.

William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac [1945/2008]:  And the Hippos were Boiled in their Tanks. (London, UK:  Penguin Classics).   Mostly writing alternate chapters, this is a fictional account of events based on the death of David Kammerer at the hands of Lucien Carr.

Jack Kerouac [1968]:  Vanity of Duluoz.   (London:  Penguin Modern Classics, 2001).

Charles McCarry [1974]:  The Tears of Autumn. (London, UK:  Duckworth Overlook, 2009).   The assassination of JFK as a conspiracy organized by the family of the Diem brothers, involving Cuban military officials, the KGB, and the Mafia.

John Williams [1965]:  Stoner. (London, UK: Vintage, 2012).  Alerted by the enthusiasm of the late Norman Geras, and reinforced by the praise of Julian Barnes,  I starting reading this book with keen anticipation.  I should have known better:  someone who liked the books of Philip Roth clearly had a literary taste to be wary of.     Stoner was a great disappointment, and certainly does not belong in any collection of Great American Novels.

Is the book great literature?  Well, frankly, no.  It is well-written, no question, but not well enough.  We are told the main character William Stoner has no friends while an undergraduate, but nothing in the thin preceeding pages would explain why.   We are told he switches from studying agriculture to literature after an epiphany in a compulsory literature class, but this paragraph (and it is just a paragraph) is very thin indeed.   Why did he have this epiphany?  Where did it come from?  Nothing beforehand (in the book) would justify this event, and the event itself is only barely described.   Do people make such a switch so often, that no explanation is needed?  Not in my experience.

I can see that members of the literati – for instance, Julian Barnes – would like to read about people who come to love literature and who then devote their life to its teaching.  But Williams merely states these attributes of William Stoner as facts, without providing any compelling justification – not psychological, nor social, nor familial, nor cultural, nor literary, not spiritual, nor nothing – for these facts.     Indeed, there is hardly any justification at all, let alone a compelling one.

The narration is by a third-person narrator, and he or she seems to know what is inside Dr Stoner’s head.  Moreover, every other character is a cypher to the narrator, as (presumably) they are to Stoner himself.  One is therefore tempted to read the narration as being in the first-person.  But then, some of it is too vague for either a knowledgeable first-person or an omniscient third:  on pager 109, for instance, we read that Stoner disposed of his $2000 inheritance by giving “a few hundred dollars” to his parents’ black farm worker.    A few hundred?  Surely, Stoner knew at the time exactly how much he gave.  Likewise, surely, an omniscient narrator would also know the amount.   This is sloppy writing, and it undermines the case for the narrator being either first- or an omniscient third-person.

Similarly, we are told several times that Stoner had a deep friendship with Dave Masters, who is killed in the Great War.   But although this friendship is mentioned, it is not described in any depth.  It is certainly not invoked, nor is an invocation even attempted.  So, again, we come away thinking the narrator barely knows about which he speaks.   Just how credible, then, is anything the narrator says?    The book undermines its own case.

Why has the book proven popular?   Well it is more popular in Europe than in America.  I believe the answer to this disparity goes to something the former British Labour MP, Bryan Gould, once said when comparing political life in Europe with that in Australia, New Zealand, or North America:  In the New World, anyone upset by a social problem tries to fix it.  In the Old World, anyone upset by a social problem tries to live with it.   Stoner is a book about a man who lives with every major problem of his life, accommodating himself to an unhappy marriage, to a wife who appears on the edge of madness, to the end of his only happy relationship, to an alcoholic daughter, to not seeing his only grandchild, to an unsatisfying and tedious job, to an unfair assignment of work duties, to no promotions, to a lack of close friendships, to public gossip and innuendo about his marriage and relationships, to the death of his parents and his one apparently-close friend, while only ever once, it seems, standing up for himself.  And the counter-attack he launches is in such a small and picayune way, hurting the very students he is supposed to care for, that it can hardly be worthy of any emulation.

Certainly such people exist (indeed, the Old World is full of them),  but this novel never presents a compelling case that this particular man, William Stoner, should behave in this way.   Indeed, it hardly presents any case at all – the writing is all tell, and no show.    The power of showing is demonstrated by the one scene where the author does invoke the events, rather than merely mentioning them: the PhD upgrade viva of Charles Walker, where we can read the dialog for ourselves, and draw our own conclusions.    If only the author had done this more often, the book would have been much better.