The New Life

Orhan Pamuk. I found this pretty slow going, especially in the first half. It’s about a young man whose life is changed by a book, and by unrequited love, and who spends months of his life randomly boarding old and dangerous buses, searching for a mysterious angel. He’s in several bus crashes, which I have a feeling are or were pretty common in Turkey, and it is in these brushes with death that he feels closest to the angel. There’s an undercurrent of encounter between East and West, and a nostalgia for the old Turkish goods which are being replaced by new imports from the West. The one product that survives the transition is clocks:

‘For our people, the ticking of clocks is not just a means of apprising the mundane, but the resonance that brings us in line with our inner world, like the sound of splashing water in the fountains of the mosques,’ Dr Fine said. ‘We pray five times a day; then in Ramadan, we have the time for iftar, the breaking of fast at sundown, and the time for sahur, the meal taken just before sunup. Our timetables and timepieces are our vehicles to reach God, not the means of rushing to keep up with the world as they are in the west. There was never a nation on earth as devoted to timepieces as we have been’ we were the greatest patrons of European clock makers. Timepieces are the only product of theirs that has been acceptable to our souls.’

This process of exchange and transformation is quite interesting, really. I won’t be in a hurry to read more of his books, but you never know.


May 2, 2008 at 8:32 am Leave a comment

The Penguin Book of Norse Myths

All I have to say about this is it’s absolutely awesome. The myths are told lightly, with restraint, but with enough poetic details to keep me interested. In the past I’ve ploughed through the originals in the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda, and this was much more fun. I was so impressed that I looked up Kevin Crossley-Holland, who wrote these versions, and it seems he’s an utter legend. I fully intend to get my hands on his children’s books, his collection of English stories, and his poetry.

April 26, 2008 at 9:06 pm 1 comment

Why you should read Francis Webb (with a medievalist interlude)

Because he’s different from anything you’ve ever read, or ever will read. Because he fools you into thinking he’s naive or obtuse before you realise he’s something else altogether. Because he knits his stanzas together with rhyme schemes so cleverly that you don’t even know they’re there. Because – just sometimes – his words make your breath stop and your heart beat faster. He takes you to strange places that you recognise.

Take ‘On First Hearing a Cuckoo’, for example. Here I’m going to take a medievalist detour and talk about a different poem first – a very famous thirteenth century poem which he most likely would have been aware of:

Sumer is icumen in
Sing, cuccu, nu. Sing, cuccu.
Sing cuccu. Sing, cuccu, nu.

Sumer is icumen in –
Lhude sing, cuccu.
Groweth sed and bloweth med
And springeth the wude nu –
Sing cuccu.

Awe bleteth after lomb,
Lhouth after calve cu,
Bulluc sterteth, bucke verteth,
Murie sing, cuccu.
Cuccu, cuccu,
Well singes thu, cuccu –
Ne swik thu naver nu!

I first came across this poem in a small leather-bound anthology of English poetry with bible-thin pages, given to me by my Grandma. I remember sitting down in her spare room in summer and deciding to read all of it. I didn’t get very far. This was the first poem. What a strange little thing, I remember thinking.

More recently, I discussed this poem with my students. We talked about how the ‘u’ sound holds it all together, and makes it wierd and wonderful. And about the internal rhyme in the 6th and 11th lines. My students loved ‘icumen’. And one of them pointed out that the bucks are being a bit rude (read ‘f’ for ‘v’ in line 11 and you might work it out). The last line means: ‘don’t you ever stop’, or ‘don’t you ever deceive’. ‘Nu’ means ‘now’. Cuckoos, of course, deceive by nature, and the English summer sadly never lasts long. In the lecture, my supervisor pointed out that when it says ‘cuccu’, you can never be sure if it means the bird itself or the sound it makes. This poem is memorable because it is small, simple, secretly ambiguous, joyful, naughty, rueful, fun. And it has been claimed as quintessentially English – English enough to open a serious looking anthology.

Cross to an Australian poet in England in the 1960s. He’s never heard a cuckoo before:

It was never more than two unchanging words
Heard in the first coming green of daybreak,
The sleepier green than sleep, with a sheer white
Between this yawning advancing green and the colour
Of all lights out. Not consciousness, the awakening early green:
For that was steep curtain, immediate
Structure of pain and learning, familiar rattlings.

In a Webb poem, there’s usually a few phrases you don’t understand on a first reading. What’s this ‘sheer white’ doing, and why is he using the odd phrase ‘all lights out’? But the image of the green dawn and the sound of the cuckoo is gentle and haunting. I love ‘the sleepier green than sleep’, and the idea of an awareness and a feeling of peace beneath a more frightened and confused ‘consciousness’ trying to come to grips with the surroundings and the self rationally. The poem goes on to twist around this image of green, and the ‘two words’ of the cuckoo, which enter through the window:

With this taut white wariness two words
Involved themselves, formed and changeless, cool and haunting.
. . .
. . . But they were quite apart,
So freely entering, so at home,
Not softening, not disturbing, but making distant.
Old-story-devious green, all shapes and sizes
Of illusion, turned right out of doors:
Two words, always the same words, freely entering.

It’s so hard not to quote the whole poem. It continues through a single day. The speaker hears the cuckoo again whilst ‘playing cricket at eleven’, at dinner, and at nightfall. ‘Voyaging green’, ‘robust green’ and ‘sleek green’ give way to the ‘dissolute green’ of evening, and all the while the cuckoo speaks ‘two level and small words/Never at odds with self, never with green’. Night approaches:

. . . Then the changeless words
Unelectric among the going green and the advancing
Colour of lights out and the nagging strands
Of an anger. And cool before the cavernous
Green of sleep which could alone lose them.

And you start to realise that the whole poem is about the triumph of colour and light against darkness and confusion. The words of the cuckoo, which embody colour and light, cut through the confusion of the self and the ‘nagging strands/Of an anger’. They also cut through darkness. The poem never names darkness, it’s called ‘lights out’ – a phrase that is repeated three times. Electric lights fail against the darkness because they are switched off. The cuckoo’s words, however, are ‘unelectric/Against lights out’, which gives them their calm, persistent power. The poem ends:

What in themselves? Twelve hours shaken away,
Not the abandoned green remained, not self,
Not spring, not Surrey, no, nor merely
A dead word-haunted man. Two words remained –
The language foreign, childish perhaps, or pitiable –
Heedless of enmity, again and again coming
To a taut candour, to a loose warbling green.

Curiously enough, the last three lines could easily be describing ‘sumer is icumen in’. The poem is edged by feelings of unease and displacement – England’s excessive greenness is strange to Australian eyes and almost threatening. But the cadence of the cuckoo’s words overcomes this, even if, like the thirteenth century poem, their language is ‘foreign, childish perhaps, or pitiable’. ‘Ne swik thu naver nu!’

April 26, 2008 at 9:01 pm Leave a comment

The Secret River

Kate Grenville. I finished this a while back and it completely blew me away. So much so that I didn’t really know what to say about it. I started reading it in September last year, when I was leaving Norway for months and months and needed something to distract me. It was The Secret River or a medieval crime novel my friend kindly lent me. I thought I’d be in the mood for genre fiction. But – Grenville’s prose was utterly captivating. It’s hard to describe. As I’m back in Norway now and the book’s in England, I can’t quote you any. It’s not jarring at all. It lets you in. It somehow captures the tonality of nineteenth century London – Dicken’s London – while at the same time feeling like nothing you’ve ever read before. Strangely immediate. Strangely new. But comfortable all the same.

It tells the story of Will and Sal’s childhood and young adulthood in London, before Will is sentenced to exportation to Australia. Sal and their children go too. I hadn’t known that happened (families accompanying convicts, I mean), but I think Grenville has done some pretty substantial research. So it becomes a novel of the early settlement in Australia, and encounters with the Aboriginals.

I finished three quarters of the novel and then put it down for several months. I couldn’t bear to keep reading. I knew something horrible would happen. When I finally picked it up again, of course it did. It was hard to read but I am glad that it is written. What impressed me most about the novel is the incredible way she captures the way Will feels about his new land – both alienation and belonging, and the difficulties and necessity of building a future around an unspeakable past.

March 28, 2008 at 7:21 pm Leave a comment

The Black Prince

Iris Murdoch. I couldn’t go to sleep last night till I’d finished it. But all in all I’d say it’s a pretty creepy book. And tedious at times. This is all part of the point, as the main character is creepy and tedious, and the plot outlines his literary and sexual fantasies. Still. Despite this, you get the sense when reading it that you’re in the hands of a near genius. Sometimes the text flashes like a mirror or flicks around like a snake and bites you.

February 20, 2008 at 11:59 pm 2 comments

The Green Knight

Illustration from the manuscript of the fourteenth-century poem. Sourced here. I love this manuscript, and have seen it with my very eyes!

Iris Murdoch. I finished this a couple of weeks back. It was my read-on-the-plane/bus/train book as I came back from Norway, and I was hooked straight away. On the cover it says it’s a romance, and it reminds me a bit of Possession in this way (one of my all-time favourite books). Lots of characters and colour and mystery and happy endings. I’ve been meaning to read this for absolutely ages because I adore Gawain and the Green Knight, and this is obviously some kind of variation on the story.

I thought the way she alluded to the story was mysterious and convincing – she doesn’t present an exact allegory, but rather captures some of the horror and strangeness and vitality of the original. There were a lot of characters and it was completely charming, in a very English penniless upper middle class sort of way. And that’s all my brain can manage I’m afraid! I liked it so much that as soon as I finished it I bought a copy of Murdoch’s The Black Prince. I chose this one because of the medieval connotations of the title. I’ve nearly finished it – it’s not as light and playful but rather clever all the same… I’m not enjoying it as much, though I do admire it, and have a feeling that something spectacular might happen at the end. If any Murdoch fans chance upon here, any recommendations?

February 19, 2008 at 10:30 pm Leave a comment


I taught Beowulf this week. It was so much fun reading it again – apart from reveling in the shiny, heavy language, I kept making all sort of new connections. (New for me, anyway.) I thought it was so interesting the way fratricide is emphasised in the narrative, and how Grendel’s descent from Cain (specifically, from Cain’s murder of Abel) is played against this. He is a monster – an enemy of God, and of the people of the story, but the people of the story commit the same sin which made him a monster in the first place. One of my students asked if this was another example of the Christian author of the poem distancing the Christian audience from the pagan practices of the past. An interesting thought…

I also asked them to read Tolkien’s ‘The Monsters and the Critics’, but I told them it was optional – a mistake I will not be making again (none of them read it). I enjoyed rereading that, though, too. When I was an undergraduate, I missed out on the Early Middle Ages module, but I made a point of reading Beowulf and that essay. Beowulf didn’t do a lot for me the first time I read it, but the essay made me shiver with delight. The way he talks about dragons! (I have a fondness for dragons.) This time I couldn’t help noticing how both universalism and nationalism frame his interpretation of the poem. He says it is a poem about man confronting the darkness of impending doom and inevitable death. He says this quite poetically. But – it’s not just that. The poem isn’t just about universal ‘man’. It is about a very specific society, which it goes to great pains to construct. The monsters don’t threaten humanity, but the Scandinavians. Hence my theory about Grendel, which I outlined above…

Anyway. The students weren’t quite as excited about it as I was, but it is a difficult poem and I think they did pretty well. Next week, the sagas….

February 16, 2008 at 10:37 pm Leave a comment

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