Monday 25 November 2013

Beckett reading Watt

Another Beckett blog - you'll be wanting your money back. I have no idea how or where or when it was made (perhaps in 1965), but as far as I know it's the only known recording of the author reading from his great novel Watt, written in Rousillon during the Occupation and published in 1953. It may be the only known recording of Beckett reading his own work full stop.

It's a real find. Listen here.

Below are the first two pages of the first of the Watt notebooks, signed and marked 'Watt I,' with the following note: 'Watt was written in France during the war 1940-45 and published in 1953 by the Olympia Press.' On an inserted sheet, Beckett has written, 'Begun evening of Tuesday 11/2/41'.

When will a bright publisher consider a volume of Beckett's doodles?

Here's an extract from the novel, perfect for a Monday morning:

The Tuesday scowls, the Wednesday growls, the Thursday curses, the Friday howls, the Saturday snores, the Sunday yawns, the Monday morns, the Monday morns. The whacks, the moans, the cracks, the groans, the welts, the squeaks, the belts, the shrieks, the pricks, the prayers, the kicks, the tears, the skelps, and the yelps. 

Perhaps this week's blogs should all be about Beckettt. We shall see.

Extracts © The Estate of Samuel Beckett

Sunday 24 November 2013

Steph Knowles, artist

Here are some recent paintings by Steph Knowles, all acrylic on paper. I'm afraid the reproductions don't do them justice.

I have a large charcoal drawing by her - a virtuoso piece which, given the humble and intractable medium is little short of miraculous in its structurally complex and rhythmic patterns of light and shade. It's non-representational although not quite wholly abstract - she's clearly looked long and hard at modern and especially brutalist buildings - the pattern of fenestration and the relation of solid architectonic mass to space. She is also, as the pictures below confirm, a sensationally gifted colourist These images would, I think, make wonderful fabric designs - as printed silks, for instance, they would be enhanced by the movement of folds and pleats. (In the 1940s Henry Moore made several dozen designs for David Whitehead Fabrics which are little known but very striking and vibrant, one of which used barbed wire motifs.)

And here's something new to me - a shape not often seen (although Jackson Polloick comes to mind), like a 70mm VistaVision screen, the format favoured by Hitchcock in his American years. They have tremendous scale (which doesn't mean they're big).

I like and admire her work very much because it's quietly tough and expert, cool and accomplished. It's good to see an artist who combines the warm and the cerebral, the diligent and the modest, and who knows a lot about form and colour; the texture, if you like, of representation. Her works are (as I wrote once elsewhere) modest records of their own creation - the overlaid mesh-like application of layers of paint, the dip and weave of horizontal and vertical quantities (like, it strikes me, stills from an elaborate Len Lye-like animation, which would take thousands of years to film). Knowles's work is painstaking yet fresh.

A recent piece by Kevin Brazil in The Oxonian describes (Salvete favourite) Eimear McBride's writing as 'a new continent of expression', and that's a phrase that could apply equally to Steph Knowles's painting. In a culture dominated by incontinent expression - the rowdy, the gormless, the aggressively confessional, we need her skills.

Steph Knowles has no website so I can't direct you to more of her work. In fact she has barely a mention on the internet, so perhaps this blog will prompt interest. 

Here are some more pictures:

Saturday 16 November 2013

Norman Wisdom, Hattie Jacques

Watch this. Norman Wisdom and Hattie Jacques. Makes me laugh like nobody's business.

Wisdom is an underrated performer (except, one is cheered to learn, in Albania, where he was idolised and where his death was widely mourned). He made me laugh when I was a child and his films appeared regularly on television on Saturday mornings. Hattie Jacques (who was always described as a 'roly-poly funny lady' in the pages of the Radio Times) was in a class of her own.

Friday 15 November 2013

Miriam Elia

Here's the wonderfully talented conceptual artist, performer and writer Miriam Elia. She needs your money more than you do. What she'll do with it is up to her, but it will be really good, and you can be a part of it, and brag about it to your friends, who will admire you. Go on. 

Tuesday 12 November 2013

James Wood - beat poet

The literary critic James Wood seems to publish a collection of essays every four years, so I suppose the next book is out in 2016. Plenty of time to catch up - and all of his books repay close reading, and re-reading. He's an exemplary critic - thorough, discriminating, cultivated and balanced. He writes extremely well in disarmingly plain English and appears to have read everything. Everything. A good place to start is his first book, which includes a brilliant memoir about growing up in an Evangelical Christian household in Durham. He considers how the loss of faith leads a literate adolescent into a search for something to fill the God-shaped hole, and how this search necessarily involves the highest and most scrupulous standards - there's no time for trash or the second-rate because the stakes are too high.

Four books so far:

The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief (Modern Library, 2000) 
The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004)
How Fiction Works (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008)
The Fun Stuff (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012) 

Saturday 9 November 2013

Wochenend Und Sonnenschein

Prompted by yesterday's blog I've been thinking about The Comedian Harmonists, Germany's most popular musical act in the 1930s. Disbanded by the nazis (as several members were Jewish, although happily they all outlived the war), they specialised in lovely close harmony recordings, many in English. Click on the name to hear them sing a familiar tune with an unfamiliar title: Wochenend Und Sonnenschein. Good, this.

The Comedian Harmonists were: Ari Leschnikoff (1897–1978) first tenor; Erich A. Collin (1899–1961) second tenor; Harry Frommermann (1906–1975) Tenor buffo; Roman Cycowski (1901–1998) baritone; Robert Biberti (1902–1985) bass and Erwin Bootz (1907–1982) pianist.

Friday 8 November 2013


Apologies for the dreadful canned laughter - a noise that turns mild indifference to one's fellow man into murderous loathing. But this short clip is worth it: Spike Milligan and John Bluthal take on Wagner. Apologies also for the brief and intrusive advertising that appears to be tacked on willy-nilly to everything these days.

I saw Milligan live on stage just once - on New Year's Day in a West End theatre. I forget which, but perhaps the Duke of York, and it was in the early 1980s. He was on sensational form, appearing to ad-lib most of the show, which was ramshackle, unrehearsed and mostly brilliant. One routine I remember vividly was about a family waking up in the middle of the night and realising with horror that all the food in their fridge is about to go off ('sell by dates' were a new thing in supermarket packaging). The family is herded by a panicking father to the chilly kitchen and wordlessly bolt down all they can, as fast as they can. The dog has to eat a jelly. All seems to be going well. "Then! On the stroke of midnight!" (and I can hear him say it) "a snot-covered sausage-roll comes leaping out of the fridge and has him . . .  by the throat". He mimed the life-or-death struggle. The band on stage were all helpless with laughter - a reliable confirmation that something is new, and perhaps unique. 

Thursday 7 November 2013

English literature

The format of examinations in Britain is to be overhauled, says the Education Minister Michael Gove.  In English literature candidates will be expected to read whole texts (gasp!) including a Shakespeare play, Romantic poetry and modern verse, a 19th century novel and 20th century fiction. Exams will ask candidates to evaluate seen and unseen texts. English language examinations will require extended writing to explain, argue and describe events and 20 per cent of marks will be awarded for spelling, punctuation and grammar, compared with 12 per cent at present. So it's back to the old days, it seems. Or is it?

I remember, quite vividly, the books we had to read in the Sixth Form at school: Jane Austen's Persuasion (which instilled in me an aversion to all things Austen that has lasted to this day); A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (which, equally happily, led to a lifelong enthusiasm for Joyce); The Nightrunners of Bengal by John Masters (preposterous racist trash). Have things changed much in the past four decades?

The examination board OCR (formerly and respectively the Oxford and Cambridge Syndicates and the Royal Society of Arts) offers AS/A Level GCE English Literature (H071, H471). I looked at their website. The preamble, listing the qualifications' 'unique selling points' is written in the costive form of English favoured by examination boards:

     Diverse texts ranging from work first published and performed from 1300 to post-1990.
     A strong focus on critical literary skills, contexts and interpretations by other 'readers'.
     A four unit format equally split between external and internal assessment. 
     Following feedback, set text choice has been refreshed and assessment simplified.

And what are these 'diverse texts'?

'Poetry and Prose 1800-1945' consists of  poetry by Robert Browning, Emily Dickinson, W. B. Yeats and Edward Thomas

Novels for the same period are Frankenstein, Jane Eyre, The Turn of the ScrewThe Picture of Dorian Gray, The Secret Agent and Mrs Dalloway

Post-1945 there appears to be no poetry (perhaps just as well) and the following very mixed bag of novels: Oranges are not the Only Fruit, The Remains of the Day and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, The Child in Time, A Handful of Dust and Jane Austen's Persuasion (and no, I don't know why this blasted book appears here). I think the Waugh is the most misjudged choice, as it's the least funny. Why not Wodehouse? Grahame Greene? Anthony Burgess? And (speaking of poetry) where the fuck is Auden?

Very few of these books seem to me suitable for young readers. I've always been baffled by the longstanding inclusion of The Waste Land on our A level syllabus - some gifts are surely best reserved for age, to misquote Eliot.) Some things should be kept back. 

But - and I've made this point before - why examine literature? Why can it not be the one thing on a national curriculum that is compulsory but unexamined? Why can't it be taught and enjoyed for its own sake? Why?

Wednesday 6 November 2013

Sensationeller Kunstschatz!

More than 1500 modern artworks, including pieces by Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, Nolde, Franz Marc, Beckmann, Klee, Kokoschka, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Max Liebermann have come to light in 'a shabby Munich apartment', according to the German magazine  FOCUS. And there's a Guardian piece here.  This is a huge hoard of what the nazis vilified as entartete Kunst or degenerate art.

It's an extraordinary find and opens up a can of worms. Who owns this stuff? How was it acquired? If, as seems likely, the paintings were either sold for a pittance by Jewish owners (and presumably non-Jewish ones as well) desperate to liquidate their assets and flee the country or simply confiscated by the thugs in charge at the time, then they should rightly and with the minimum of fuss be returned to the owners, or their heirs.

But something I've never been clear about is why the process of reparation applies to artworks (as of course it should) but not, it seems, to anything else. Why should art collectors alone be the beneficiaries of such acts of restitution and not, say, those who lost things other than artworks? Or, come to that, what of Londoners and countless others who suffered loss of property (and much worse) in the Blitz? How come an Egon Schiele worth a king's ransom can be restored to its original owner's heirs (and, I repeat, rightly) and then sold at auction while the  . . . oh, to hell with it.

Tuesday 5 November 2013

Verlaine translated

An insomniac night, so here's a Verlaine translation made (appropriately) during a rainstorm. Am reading his collection Sagesse at the moment, verses he wrote following his release from Mons prison where he served 18 months for shooting and wounding his lover Rimbaud.

He came to England in March 1875 and found employment teaching French, Latin and drawing at a village school in a Lincolnshire backwater called Stickney. He moved after a year to another school in cosmopolitan Bournemouth, returning to Paris in 1877, there to be lionised to death. I'm currently researching Verlaine's two years in England because while his hectic three months' residence with Rimbaud in Camden Town is well-known, the later period in Stickney and Bournemouth is not, although it saw him write some of his best poetry. Here's a sample, with my translation:

Il pleure dans mon coeur
Comme il pleut sur la ville.
Quelle est cette langueur
Qui pénêtre mon coeur ?

O bruit doux de la pluie
Par terre et sur les toits !
Pour un coeur qui s’ennuie,
O le chant de la pluie !

Il pleure sans raison
Dans ce coeur qui s’écoeure.
Quoi ! nulle trahison ?
Ce deuil est sans raison.

C’est bien la pire peine
De ne savoir pourquoi,
Sans amour et sans haine,
Mon coeur a tant de peine.

It rains in my heart
As it rains on the town,
What is this languor
That so soaks my heart?

Oh sweet sound of rain
On earth and on roof.
For my dumb heart again,
This song of the rain.

Rain for no reason
In a heart lacking heart.
What? Without treason?
This grief without reason.

By far the worst pain,
That I cannot explain
Without love, without hate,
That my heart is all pain.

Monday 4 November 2013

On Wreck-it Ralph

Have you seen the Disney-Pixar film Wreck-it Ralph?

It's rich in literary references - to Joseph Conrad, Lewis Carroll, P. G. Wodehouse and others - and even richer in filmic references, particularly to the Wizard of Oz. Above all it brilliantly exploits the whole brief history of video games, from that elementary paddle-board ping-pong contest of the 1970s to today's densely pixilated shoot-em ups. 

The eponymous Ralph is one of the two main characters featuring in a thirty-year-old arcade game - his job involves demolishing an apartment building which is then restored by Fix-it Felix, a rather effeminate builder with a golden hammer. The graphics are engagingly fuzzy, the action corny.

When the arcade closes at the end of each day the characters check out and some, including Ralph, attend counselling sessions. Ralph is a blue-collar working stiff. He's had enough of playing the bad guy and wants to seek new horizons, so he decides to break the law and 'go Turbo', a phrase which is not explained until much later in the film. He quits his game and takes the subway to Game Central, based visually on New York's Grand Central Station but populated entirely by characters (and objects) from video games past and present, some of whom have fallen on hard times and are homeless pan-handlers. An unlikely but plausible chain of events involves Ralph joining another, far more advanced game - a state-of-the-art, fully-immersive interactive nightmare, a combination of Ridley Scott's Alien and Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers. Ralph is out of his element.

But thinsg get worse and he next finds himself in the candy-coloured world of Sugar Rush, a go-kart racing game aimed at young girls. There he befriends a character named Vanellope von Schweetz, who is also a technical glitch in the programme and therefore an outsider. They eventually team up.

Meanwhile in Ralph's absence his own video game is deemed out of order and its resident characters doomed, so Fix-it Felix sets out on a quest to find Ralph and persuade him to return home. This leads to no end of confusion.

Visually compelling (the lighting and rendered textures are by turns dazzling and ravishing), structurally robust and with nuanced characters, terse dialogue and brilliant vocal performances (especially Ralph, the platoon commander, Vanellope and the ditzy Candy King) - there's so much to admire. I suppose most of the clever stuff is way above the intended core audience (I took a seven-year-old boy, who "only quite liked it") but it's a wonderful creative achievement. It confirms the dispiriting view that the real creative innovation in American culture can be found in animation, in computer games, in graphic novels and nowhere else - certainly not in the novel. I'd trade the opening ten minutes of Wreck-it Ralph against the entire career, past and future of - oh, let's say Lionel Shriver?

Sunday 3 November 2013

On F. R. Leavis

In a recent issue of the London Review of Books, Paul Evans describes an episode involving the critic F. R. Leavis (1895-1978):

At some point during my time at Cambridge I attended a guest lecture by Leavis with the title ‘T. S. Eliot Thirty Years On’. It soon became clear that the thirty years referred to the last time Leavis had passed public judgment on Eliot. Towards the end of the hour, he suddenly stopped, seemingly in mid-paragraph. He looked up, announced that he had left the last page of his lecture in his briefcase, and apologised. He descended from the stage, made a painfully slow journey to the back of the hall surrounded by silence, picked up a battered briefcase, extracted a single sheet of paper, returned once more to the stage, placed the sheet on the lectern, straightened it and looked up. ‘Therefore,’ he announced, ‘I see no reason to change my view of T. S. Eliot.’ He said nothing further.

Leavis was a giant of literary criticism in the days when being and doing such a thing was both respectable and worthwhile. In his view it was an urgent moral imperative to have the highest standards against which to judge the real value of writing, based on a hierarchy of values that contrasted violently with the imported continental apparatus that swept through university English departments in the early 1980s (and which I narrowly avoided). Leavis embodies everything I most admire in academic life (and, of course, represents everything most loathed and feared by his midget detractors) - a commitment to seriousness.

I was too young to be directly influenced by Leavis and the type of critical writing gathered in his high-minded journal Scrutiny. Our schoolmasters (always 'masters', never 'teachers') were for the most part ex-army officers, close to retirement age and rather chilly. They had no truck with long-haired namby-pamby poetry types.

When I finally caught up with the 'Two Cultures' debate (in which Leavis locked horns with the novelist and technocrat C. P. Snow) I knew where my loyalties lay because I'd read and loathed a couple of C. P. Snow's atrocious novels as an undergraduate. Clive James was pitch-perfect when he suggested a typical Snow novel would include Part Two: A Decision is Taken, Chapter One: the Lighting of a Cigarette.

There's another amusing Leavis anecdote from in the LRB. The distinguished historian (and homosexual) A.L. Rowse invited Leavis to dinner at All Souls. Asked afterwards what he made of him, Rowse replied: ‘I cannot understand why they call him Queenie!’