Monthly Archives: July 2009

Richard Holmes’s Coleridge

Richard Holmes’s Coleridge: Early Visions is a fantastic book. I found myself enthralled by the story the whole way though. This is only the first volume and I haven’t had a chance to begin the second one yet, but I’m eager to get to it when I can. I don’t usually enjoy biographies quite this much; I like reading them now and then, but when I’m in the middle of them they can sometimes feel the tiniest bit like a chore, especially when they are long. I’m not particularly good at retaining facts, so I sometimes read biographies wondering how much of them I will forget very shortly. But Holmes does such a good job here those uncertainties didn’t bother me.

In his preface Holmes discusses one of his techniques that makes his biography stand out: he has:

attempted, from the very start, to set Coleridge talking, to tell his story through his own magnificent — and constantly humorous — flights of phrase and metaphor. I have tried to make his voice sound steadily through the narrative, and indeed in the end to dominate it.

And this is exactly what he does, using quotations from poems, letters, journals, and essays liberally throughout. It helps to create a rich picture of who Coleridge was and what he must have been like to know.

But Holmes was helped by having such a wonderfully interesting subject to write about. Coleridge was a great poet, but he was also a great personality and managed to wrap nearly everyone he met around his finger, at least for a while. Holmes tells the story of Hazlitt’s obsession with Coleridge, a story that illustrates what seems to have been a common dynamic: Hazlitt met Coleridge when he was a young, very awkward boy and was immediately overawed by Coleridge’s colorful personality. As he got older, though, he changed his mind, deciding that Coleridge’s mystical and metaphysical turn of mind was just a lot of balderdash and becoming thoroughly disillusioned and bitter. Coleridge had a history of very close, very intense friendships that eventually went awry, with Hazlitt, but even more famously with Robert Southey and William Wordsworth.

Coleridge was a great talker, both in private conversation and in his popular, if politically controversial, public lectures. He also had a flair for political journalism, for literary criticism, for letter-writing, and for private journal-keeping. Holmes greatly admires his poetry, but praises his prose style almost as highly. He also was one for big schemes and plans, including one called Pantisocracy that would have taken him and his family and a small group of friends over to America to found a utopian society on the banks of the Susquehanna. It didn’t work out, but Coleridge never lost his idealism and Holmes argues that Pantisocratic ideals shape Coleridge’s thinking for the rest of his life.

He was a genius, Holmes makes clear, at coming up with brilliant ideas and plans, but rarely did he follow through on them; in fact, he became notorious for his lists of ideas and dreams that remained unaccomplished. He held so much potential, so much of it unrealized, although Holmes emphasizes the brilliance of the things he was able to accomplish and argues that his ability to dream is in and of itself worthy of admiration.

This first volume takes us through the first 32 years of Coleridge’s life, from 1772 to 1804. The second volume is ominously subtitled “Darker Reflections,” although we can already see the beginnings of the darker part of Coleridge’s life in the first volume. He began taking opium in the first volume, the habit that will shape the second half of his life in dramatic ways. He also struggled with unhappiness in his marriage, uncertainty about his career path, and uncertain finances, although he did receive financial support from patrons who had great faith in his abilities.

I also admired Holmes for doing an excellent job of placing Coleridge in his intellectual context, describing his contributions to the literary and philosophical trends of the time. Coleridge knew so many important people and was good friends with many of them, so learning about Coleridge is a great way of learning about the time period itself.

So when I can, I’ll be on to volume 2, and I’ll have to prepare myself for some difficult times.

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Recent Acquisitions

I don’t have nearly enough books, so Hobgoblin and I checked out a library sale yesterday evening, and I came home with five new novels. It’s a good thing I don’t hear about all the library sales in my area, because there must be dozens of them, and if we knew about them, we’d visit them, and then … well, then we’d be in trouble.

Here’s what I got. It was an evening for women’s fiction:

  • Barbara Pym, An Unsuitable Attachment
  • Barbara Pym, A Glass of Blessings
  • Elizabeth Von Arnim, The Enchanted April
  • Monica Dickens, Joy and Josephine
  • Anita Brookner, A Family Romance

But that’s not it. From Bookmooch I recently got or will soon receive these:

  • Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited
  • Jessie Fauset, There is Confusion
  • George Gissing, New Grub Street
  • Elizabeth George, Payment in Blood

I didn’t particularly enjoy the first Elizabeth George book I read, but enough people said the series gets better and enough people I respect have enjoyed her books that I thought I’d give her another try.

But that’s still not it. Oneworld Classics sent me a copy of Victor Hugo’s The Last Day of a Condemned Man, and I bought Chandra Prasad’s On Borrowed Wings (based on Danielle’s post) and Dawn Powell’s Dance Night (for the Slaves of Golconda) at local bookstores.

Oh, dear. I’m probably going to Manhattan with Hobgoblin this weekend, where we will probably venture into some bookshops, and I’m going on vacation starting next Thursday, during which I will probably visit some bookshops, and then there are a couple more library sales coming up, which I will almost certainly visit. Time to buy some more book shelves?

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Sunflowers

I had a lovely time yesterday spending the afternoon with Hobgoblin and two blogger friends, Suitcase of Courage and She Knits By the Seashore. We took our bikes out to eastern Connecticut to go visit Buttonwood Farm, famous for its sunflowers. They have been planting and selling sunflowers for several years now, and all proceeds go to the Make-a-Wish foundation.

It’s a gorgeous place in the countryside with gently rolling hills, farms, and fields, and it was a lovely place to ride. We parked our cars a couple miles from the farm and took a back road to the farm itself, where we gazed at the flowers and took some photos:

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Isn’t that gorgeous? Here’s another shot:

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And now for a close-up:

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And a close-up of Hobgoblin’s bike (I didn’t think of getting one of mine):

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And, what the hell, the first-ever picture of me I’ve posted on this blog (where I’m showing my face that is). I’m in the white and She Knits is in pink:

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After getting our fill of the flowers, we rode up and down some hills for a while, and eventually made our way back to the farm, where they sell ice cream. I had what I think is called chocolate brownie batter or something like that. Yum. It doesn’t get much better than a bike ride with friends through beautiful countryside with ice cream as a reward.

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Maurice

14757842 E.M. Forster’s novel Maurice is an intriguing read, largely because of the time period it was written in and the way it treats its subject matter, homosexual love. Forster wrote it in 1913 and 1914, but he resisted publishing it, and it didn’t appear in print until 1971 after he died. He was worried that people would have a hard time accepting what turns out to be a vexed but positive portrayal of homosexuality.

I’ve also read Forster’s Howards End and Passage to India, and if I’m remembering correctly what those novels were like, this one is more psychological and emotional in its focus. The other novels are psychological as well, but this one emphasizes interior worlds even more than the others, capturing the mind and emotions of a young man as he struggles to figure out the world and his place in it. Maurice is more abstract, taking less time with context and setting, and spending more time describing emotional states.

It tells the story of Maurice Hall, a schoolboy at the beginning of the novel, whose teacher introduces him to sex by drawing pictures in the sand during their last conversation together before Maurice heads off to public school. He dreams two highly symbolic dreams, and finds himself unexpectedly emotional when he learns one of their servants, a young man named George, has left their service. These early experiences haunt him as he moves through public school and then university, trying to understand his complex reactions to his classmates. His most significant relationship at university is with Clive, a young man much more worldly and more intelligent than he is, but one who returns his interest and, soon enough, his love. The novel charts their relationship as the two make their way through Cambridge and then move out into the larger world. The Cambridge scenes are particularly enjoyable to read, as campus life is endlessly interesting, for me at least. Once the characters leave university, their lives become broader, but also much more uncertain, and Maurice is finally made to take stock of who he is and to act upon that knowledge.

I was interested in the way the novel keeps a certain amount of critical distance from Maurice. He is largely a sympathetic character, but at the same time, we see the limits of his intelligence; Clive can talk circles around him, and Maurice is not the best abstract thinker out there. He is also unpleasantly obsessed with class and uncertain about his own status. Here is Forster’s description of him:

In Maurice I tried to create a character who was completely unlike myself or what I supposed myself to be: someone handsome, healthy, bodily attractive, mentally torpid, not a bad businessman and rather a snob. Into this mixture I dropped an ingredient that puzzles him, wakes him up, and finally saves him.

I like the fact that Forster makes his protagonist so obviously flawed, while at the same time showing so much compassion and understanding. It would be easy in a book that explores such a vexed and complicated subject as sexuality, particularly homosexuality in the early part of the twentieth century, to make the protagonist more admirable and heroic and pioneering than this one is. Instead, Maurice is just an average person, flawed in perfectly normal ways and no more heroic than most of us are.

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Categories of reading

So I’ve been feeling a little … frustrated might be too strong a word, but something along those lines, maybe more like overwhelmed … at the fact that there are so many different types of books I’d like to read right now, and I can’t do it, even though I’ve got more reading time than usual at the moment. I’m not even talking about individual books; I’m talking about categories, within which there are dozens if not hundreds of individual books I want to read.

This is partly an issue of feeling pulled between reading widely and reading deeply, both of which I’d like to do, of course. But if I read widely, I will only read occasionally within each category, and if I read deeply, a lot of categories will get ignored. So what do I do?

I thought I’d compile a list of the categories that interest me at the moment, just for fun. This list might look entirely different on another day though. I won’t even try to make these categories mutually exclusive.

  • Eighteenth-century and Romantic novels, such as the Mary Brunton one I read recently, and also Maria Edgeworth, Charlotte Smith, and Elizabeth Inchbald, plus earlier novelists like Eliza Haywood and Sarah Fielding;
  • Victorian novelists — more Trollope, Eliot, and Gaskell, plus Harriet Martineau, Margaret Oliphant and late Victorians such as Galsworthy and Gissing;
  • Contemporary fiction of all sorts, whatever strikes my fancy;
  • Lesser-known modernists, particularly modernist women of the sort discussed here (especially Stein, Larsen, Mansfield, and Smith);
  • Persephone and Virago books, such as Elizabeth Taylor, Antonia White, Radclyffe Hall, plus tons more;
  • Mysteries — for my book group, but also just for myself, including finding good series and reading them all the way through;
  • Random classics I’ve missed, such as Russians like Oblomov, Turgenev and more Chekhov, French writers such as Balzac and Zola;
  • Okay, nonfiction. Good literary criticism, especially of the novel. More books like Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature, critical essays by people like D. H. Lawrence or Forster, and more contemporary criticism by people like Nancy Armstrong or Michael McKeon, also more philosophical stuff by people like Elaine Scarry;
  • Essays and more essays — Montaigne, Bacon, Lamb, Hazlitt, Woolf, Orwell, McCarthy, Wallace, etc. etc.;
  • Books on theology and spirituality, particularly ones that look at the subject from a comparative perspective;
  • Science books — Brian Greene, Lisa Randall, and others;
  • Biographies, particularly of writers, and most especially those by great biographers such as Richard Holmes and Claire Tomalin;
  • Quirky, unclassifiable nonfiction, such as the kind of thing Geoff Dyer and Jenny Diski write;
  • Poetry — Romantic and Victorian poets among the older things I’d like to read, and also contemporary poetry by writers such as Louise Gluck and Mary Oliver.

What would your own list look like?

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The Trick of It

I enjoyed reading Michael Frayn’s novel The Trick of It quite a lot, although ultimately I’d say that it’s clever rather than really brilliant. But there’s nothing wrong with clever at all, particularly when it’s laugh-out-loud funny. It’s an academic novel, which is another reason I liked it. I can’t seem to get my fill of novels about professors and campuses and scholarly pursuits.

Another point in its favor is that it’s an epistolary novel, although the letters come from only one person and we don’t get any replies. But Frayn has a whole lot of fun with these one-sided letters, as the letter writer, a literary critic in an English university who is writing to a friend in Australia, spends a lot of time imagining what this friend might say or how he might look as he is reading. He creates whole imaginary conversations between the two of them, refuting arguments his friend hasn’t yet made and in some cases, telling lies and then admitting to the lies he just told and apologizing profusely for them. I’ve never come across a more playful and amusing letter writer in an epistolary novel before.

But it’s what the letter-writer is writing about that makes the novel particularly interesting: he describes meeting and then falling in love with the woman whose novels he has built a career on studying. It all begins when he convinces this writer to come visit campus to talk with his students, and the novel opens with the narrator’s uncertainties about whether this was such a good idea or not. Perhaps it would have been better to keep his distance? What will it be like to actually lay eyes on the person he has thought so much about and whom he knows quite well, in his distanced literary-critic kind of way?

These questions get much more complicated and fraught once he finally admits to his friend that he slept with this author. The round-about way he tells this story is very funny, and even funnier are the stories about how he pursues her to her London flat and makes a fool of himself as he tries to keep her attention and gain her love. The narrator is incredibly good at making a fool of himself, which must have endeared him to the novelist, because eventually he succeeds and they begin a relationship in earnest.

From their very first meeting, the narrator is preoccupied with questions about the nature of fiction and of the people who produce it — he is fascinated with the way the novelist transforms her rather dull life into exciting fiction. He is also preoccupied with the relationship of fiction and criticism. How much can he know about this woman and her writing, even once he marries her? Can knowing her in person make him a better critic? Because he has spent so long studying her fiction, is he in a good position to give her advice on what to write? Their relationship becomes a way to explore how mysterious fiction and the writing process are; the narrator is so obsessed with the object of his studies that he marries her, and yet she always remains distant and mysterious. The critical, academic impulse, Frayn is saying, is to work toward total and complete understanding, but this is impossible, nothing but a fantasy.

The book is short, under 200 pages, which I think was a wise choice on Frayn’s part, because the device of the letter-writing narrator would be difficult to sustain in a believable way for much longer. But as it is, the book works very well as a funny, amsuing, and very smart meditation on writing and writers.

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Thoughts for Friday

I just got back from a lovely yoga class and am feeling all … relaxed. This class was a great follow-up to a book group meeting this morning where instead of discussing a book, we watched the documentary What the Bleep Do We Know, a film about quantum physics, spirituality, emotions, the brain, and changing one’s way of thinking. If those things sound at all interesting to you, I recommend the film highly. It really can change the way you think, if you are in the right frame of mind for it, which, at this point, I am.

It also got me interested in reading more books on science, such as Brian Greene’s Fabric of the Cosmos and Lisa Randall’s Warped Passages and a book by one of the scientists in the film, Joseph Dispenza, called Evolve Your Brain. To be honest, I’m not sure I’ll actually pick up one of these books very soon, but the film was a good reminder that I do want to read them at some point.

Today was a good day for another reason entirely: I received six beautiful volumes of poetry in the mail. I was incredibly lucky and won a contest over at Nonsuch Book to receive these books published by Faber in celebration of their 80th anniversary.

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The volumes are by W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and John Betjeman, and each one is gorgeous.  I haven’t read any poetry in a while, and I think it may be time to start again soon. I think I will begin with Ted Hughes.

In other bookish news, I have two books to review, although time is slipping away from me, and it is taking me forever to get to them: Michael Frayn’s The Trick of It, and E.M. Forester’s Maurice. I enjoyed both of them, and we’ll see if I can manage to gather my thoughts to write reviews.

The deeper I get into summer, the harder I’m finding it to do anything much at all. However, I did ride 80 miles on my bike yesterday, a ride which started inauspiciously with a downpour that didn’t last long but which left me feeling damp for the rest of the ride. But once that passed, I had a great time riding around the back roads of Litchfield County, seeing some farms and some cows and a few small towns. It left me feeling a little beat today, but pleasantly so.

I now have a bit of catching up in Infinite Jest to do, but only a little, and the other book I’m reading is Richard Holmes’s biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, which I’m loving. Holmes is such an excellent storyteller, Coleridge is such an interesting person, and he lived in such interesting times, that there is no way I’m not going to like this book. I love the way that Holmes quotes liberally from Coleridge’s letters and lectures and poetry so we can really hear his voice, and I love how Holmes does such a good job of situating Coleridge in his context, so I get a sense of what it was like to live in England at that time. The biography is two volumes long, and I expecting to enjoy both of them fully.

I have picked up Gertrude Stein’s novel Three Lives, and it’s interesting, although the truth is, I’m not entirely sure this is the best time to read it. But the truth is also that my opinions change rapidly from day to day, so all I have to do is wait a while, and it will be a good time to read it. I’m not giving up just yet.

I hope you all enjoy your weekend!

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