Friday, January 29, 2010

Who will denounce that criminal, Rhyme? - the ridiculous Bysshe Vanolis

Or "Ô qui dira les torts de la Rime?", which is a line from Paul Verlaine's "Art Poétique" (1884).*

Emily of Evening All Afternoon found The City of Dreadful Night maybe just a little bit ridiculous.  The rhyme grated on her.  Plus, the poem is ridiculous.

One reason I reread the poem so quickly was that I had a similar reaction, especially when I had just started it.  It took a certain adjustment in my angle of attack to really incorporate or absorb the rhyme.  Tennyson's In Memoriam (1850) required a similar little twist.  Serious subjects treated at length demand, in English, blank verse, right?  Or free verse.  Not rhyme.

Is this just Modernist or Miltonic prejudice?  I think not.  Rather, it's the penetrating effect of ridicule and parody.  It's "On a log \ Expiring frog" and the "Ode to Stephen Dowling Bots, Deceased," the reaction to a certain cloying Victorian sensibility.  Rhyme + serious subject = doggerel.  Even in Tennyson or Vanolis, even after my mental adjustment, there were rhyming pairs that really clanked together, rhymes that seemed lazy or in questionable taste: "mountains \ fountains," "casement \ basement," to pick a couple from early in The City of Dreadful Night.

Thomson's use of rhyme is pretty sharp, generally, and his use of form is varied.  The parodic response to Dante I mentioned a couple days ago is actually in rhyming triplets, a parody of Dante's terza rima.  Canto IV, a journey through a terrifying wasteland, is in a strange nine-line stanza that I don't recognize.  Maybe it's a parody, too, of Spenser?  It's also like a ballad, with the extra first line and the closing couplet repeated in every stanza:

As I came through the desert thus it was,
As I came through the desert: All was black,
In heaven no single star, on earth no track;
A brooding hush without a stir or note,
The air so thick it clotted in my throat;
And thus for hours; then some enormous things
Swooped past with savage cries and clanking wings:
                   But I strode on austere
                   No hope could have no fear.

Like a good ballad, the emotional effect builds with every repetition.

Any work, fiction or verse, that attempts the sublime risks the ridiculous.  Often, they are one and the same - the sublime sometimes requires the ridiculous.  I'm thinking of Thomson's predecessor, the death-soaked Thomas Lovell-Beddoes, or Thomas Bernhard's novels, or John Webster's plays.  Since we don't really live in those worlds, most of us, I hope, they can seem absurd.  Bracing, but absurd.  One reason I wanted to mention Thomson's letters to George Eliot is that they indicate that the poet had some self-awareness of his ludicrousness.  Maybe not a lot, but some.

I should point out that Paul Verlaine's attack on rhyme is just a gag.  Verlaine, like Baudelaire, always rhymes.  I can say, with the confidence of ignorance, that he must be among the deftest rhymers in French poetry.  He makes it all look so natural, like it's just a heightened version of ordinary writing, like the rhyme words just happen to have fallen in the right spots.  Verlaine has his own fair share of poems of anguish and despair, all rhyming.

* Translation courtesy of Martin Sorrell, in Paul Verlaine, Selected Poems, Oxford World's Classics, 1999.  Norman Shapiro, in One Hundred and One Poems by Paul Verlaine, University of Chicago Press, 1999, has "Rhyme! Who will its infamies revile?"

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The truth of midnight does not exclude the truth of noonday - George Eliot does her best for Bysshe Vanolis

James Thomson sent George Eliot a copy of The City of Dreadful Night.  He sent it to Carlyle, too.  M. E. Lewes, as she signed the letter, was a big figure at this time, with Middlemarch three year behind her.

Eliot admires the poem's "distinct vision and grand utterance" but hopes that Vanolis will produce something with "a wider embrace of human fellowship."  Eliot concluded what I concluded yesterday, that the quality of the poem vitiated its message:

To accept life and write much fine poetry, is to take a very large share in the quantum of human good, and seems to draw with it necessarily some recognition, affectionate and even joyful, of the manifold willing labours which have made such a lot possible.  (May 30, 1874, p. 53)

Thomson's replies (two to the same letter) are hilarious, or perhaps sad, or both.  He tells Eliot that he has "no Byronic quarrel with my fellows" but sees "all alike crushed under the iron yoke of Fate."  He says he admires a physician who saves a life, even though it were better if the patient had died.  "But it is not for me to introduce such thoughts to you."  Good one, Bysshe.

Thomson writes that he sent his poem to Eliot because her works suggest to him a "character and intellectual destiny akin to those of that grand and awful Melancholy of Albrecht Dürer."  I have no idea what he means by that.

Two days later, Thomson decided his bizarre "no, I really mean it" letter to Eliot was either too weird or not weird enough, because he sent a short followup, saying that:

the poem in question was the outcome of much sleepless hypochondria.  I am aware that the truth of midnight does not exclude the truth of noonday, though one's nature may lead him to dwell in the former rather than in the latter.

For some reason, Eliot did not reply to these letters.  You become a famous writer, this is what you get to deal with.

Thomson's letters are from June 18 and 20, 1874, pp. 60-1.

All references are to Haight, Gordon S., ed., The George Eliot Letters: Volume VI 1874-1877, 1955.  Yale University Press.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Writing a great work with patient plan - Bysshe Vanolis and the poetic quotation

His pen name should have been the first clue.  Bysshe Vanolis - Shelley and Novalis.  This might be a poet awash in poetry, a poet of poets.  The City of Dreadful Night has three epigrams, one from Dante and two from Leopardi.  The first two lines are:

Lo, thus, as prostrate, 'In the dust I write
   My heart's deep languor and my soul's sad tears.'

The quotation is, it turns out, from Act III of Titus Andronicus.  Vanolis can't write five words without referring to another poet.

Yesterday I described an entire canto that is basically a bizarre riff on Dante's "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here."  In a list of meaningless activities, Vanolis includes "writing a great work with patient plan \ To justify the works of God to man"  (XII  45-6)  Sorry, Milton!  Canto XIV has some tigers burning "with beauty and with might," surely a nod to a fellow visionary poet.

I'm actually not very good at this.  These are the obvious ones, but they were enough for me to realize that the poem must be packed with more, and may very well be constructed out of lines from other poets.  Is that bit from Shelley?  Could that be Richard Crashaw?  Is there any way to even identify a Leopardi or Novalis reference?  Hopeless.  Canto IV contains a journey through a horrific desert landscape, and feels much like "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came," but rereading Browning I didn't pick up anything specific.  Who knows.

The City of Dreadful Night climaxes with a vision of Albrecht Dürer's Melencolia I, precisely described, with the winged woman in the engraving looming over London "in bronze sublimity."  Citizens gaze upon her for "confirmation of the old despair."

Hey, wait a minute.  This, I have seen before.  Visionary poet Gérard de Nerval (click for a look at the engraving) invoked Melencolia I in both a poem in The Chimeras (1854) and his account of his mental breakdowns, Aurélia (1855).  Meanwhile, the conceit of The City of Dreadful Night, the London flaneur, strongly suggests the presence of Baudelaire.  The two secondary studies I have consulted have no interest in French poets whatsoever, but they're wrong.

I am describing one of many reasons The City of Dreadful Night reminds me so strongly of The Waste Land.  Parts of Eliot's poem are also mosaics of poetic quotations.  The climax is little more than a succession of quotations, Nerval among them, "These fragments I have shored against my ruins." 

But why does Vanolis use so many poetic references?  Why, given his pessimism, his despair, does he write poetry at all?  Well, he answers that question in the Proem:  "To show the bitter old and wrinkled truth" and so on.  Fine.  But then why do it so well?  For me, the aesthetic quality of The City of Dreadful Night actually destroys its central idea.  This, sir, was worth doing.  And if this, then perhaps other things, too.

Now, I came up with that myself, but it turns out that someone else had the same idea.  Tomorrow:  George Eliot vs Bysshe Vanolis.  They corresponded.  It is A. Scream.

Postscript:  Has anyone, by any chance, read After London (1885), a novel by the English nature writer Richard Jefferies?  My understanding is that Jefferies hated London so much that he wrote a novel destroying it. The city's sewers explode, rendering London a poisonous, uninhabitable swamp, killing all who enter it.  Is this novel insane and good, or merely insane?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

This insufferable inane - the originality of Bysshe Vanolis

A couple of scenes from The City of Dreadful Night, scenes that seem quite original to me.  Let me know if I'm wrong!

In Canto II, the narrator, flaneuring about doomed London, encounters - well, I'm not sure who.  A "shadowlike and frail" figure who acts as a sort of tour guide.  Just the highlights:  the graveyard where Faith died, "poisoned by this charnel air," the villa where Love died, "stabbed by its own worshipped pair," and so on.  The narrator asks "Can Life still live?  By what doth it proceed?" and gets this answer:

As whom his one intense thought overpowers,
   He answered coldly, Take a watch, erase
The signs and figures of the circling hours,
   Detach the hands, remove the dial-face;
The works proceed until run down; although
Bereft of purpose, void of use, still go.  (II 31-36)

The image of the distant Divine Clockmaker of the rationalists is simply demolished here.  The Surrealists are fifty years in the future.  What an image.  By the way, see what you think reading this aloud, treating it, from "Take a watch" on, as dialogue.  The pauses are just superb.

"Then turning to the right" the figure begins the dismal circuit again, like the useless watch, pausing to point out where Faith died and so on.  The narrator abandons him.
In Canto VI, the poet overhears two "bodiless voices in my waking dream," one of them just returned from the entrance to Hell, the Hell of Dante:  

I reached the portal common spirits fear,
And read the words above it, dark yet clear,
'Leave hope behind, all ye who enter here:'
And would have passed in, gratified to gain
That positive eternity of pain,
Instead of this insufferable inane.  (VI  19-24)

But he's not allowed in Hell, because he has no hope to abandon!  He, and his companion, who have already succumbed to total despair, are instead stuck in dreadful London.  The two spirits resolve to persevere, to "grope" through London, searching for "some minute lost hope," which will allow them to finally enter Hell!  This is wonderfully, brilliantly cracked, a literalization of a famous Dante line pushed to the breaking point.  I can give it one more twist, too - by hoping to find hope, they have already found it, but don't realize it.  Or perhaps not.  Who knows what the rules are in The City of Dreadful Night.
This is a most quotable poem.  Some fragments I enjoy, among many:  

The phantoms have no reticence at all:
The nudity of flesh will blush though tameless,
The extreme nudity of bone grins shameless,
The unsexed skeleton mocks shroud and pall.  (VII 11-14)
Which creeps blindwormlike round the earth and ocean,  (XIII 19)
She clasped the corpse-like me, and they were borne
Away, and this vile me was left forlorn;  (IV  100-101)

 If you think this is something - I sure do - I'll just warn that it's not all this good.

Monday, January 25, 2010

I ponder these thoughts and they comfort me - The City of Dreadful Night - my first official Scottish Literature Challenge post

The response to the Scottish Literature Challenge has been great, just fantastic.  So now I'm going to keep the momentum going by spending the week, or a good part of it, with the greatest pessimist in, apparently, English literary history.  You want a dour Scot, take a look at James Thomson, better known as Bysshe Vanolis, author of The City of Dreadful Night (1874).  By "keep the momentum going," I mean "kill it dead and drive everyone away."  As Vanolis says:

He gazed and whispered with a cold despair,
Here Hope died, starved out in its utmost lair. (II 23-24)

I first read this poem a few days ago, all twenty-nine pages of it, and then immediately read it again, meaning that I am now in a flush of enthusiasm that no one else is likely to share.  The City of Dreadful Night is about nothing but death, decay, futility, suicide, and the pointlessness of all things, set in a sometimes recognizable gaslight London.  It's The Victorian Waste Land. If taken entirely seriously, it has to be among the most depressing poems ever written.   T. S. Eliot is Groucho Marx in comparison.

As an example, the narrator, who mostly wanders around the city cataloguing its horrors, joins a congregation in what I think is supposed to be St. Paul's Cathedral.  A congregant asks the minister for comfort ("What can console me for the loss supreme?" and so on), and gets this reply from the "pulpit speaker":

My Brother, my poor Brothers, it is thus;
This life itself holds nothing good for us,
   But it ends soon and nevermore can be;
And we knew nothing of it ere our birth,
And shall know nothing when consigned to earth:
   I ponder these thoughts and they comfort me.  (XVI 49-54)

The last line scans a little oddly - dactyls, right? - which helps separate the thought from the rest of the stanza.  That should give a good feel for the sound and sense of the poem.

The City of Dreadful Night is proto-modern, yet very much a Victorian poem.  Some of its imagery is highly original, and, another link to The Waste Land, the poem is infused with quotations: Dante, Milton, Shakespeare, Blake, and presumably many more I do not recognize.  It in fact may be more of a pastiche than I realize.  It continually suggests other poems.  I'll see if I can write about some of this.

The perverse thing is that I am so happy to discover this poem of absolute despair.  I read it with the thrill of encountering a great poem.  It's not written for me - Vanolis specifically says so:

Surely I write not for the hopeful young,
   Or those who deem their happiness of worth,
Or such as pasture and grow fat among
   The shows of life, and feel not doubt or dearth,
Or pious spirits with a God above them
To sanctify and glorify and love them,
   Or sages who foresee a heaven on earth. (Proem 15-21)

I am in at least one of those categories.  I'll spend some time trying to get at why Vanolis might be wrong, why this poem might be for me after all.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Pirates and fairies, Mr. Toad and Sherlock Holmes

I've been having good fun reading through Robert Louis Stevenson.  Major fictional works include:

New Arabian Nights (1882) - short stories, including some interconnected adventure stories which get cleverer as they go along.
Treasure Island (1883) - I saw six copies of this book, four in French, in a tiny bookstore in Morocco.
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886)
Kidnapped (1886)
The Black Arrow (1888) - is this good? Penguin Classics has it in print.
The Master of Ballantrae (1889)
Catriona (1893) - sequel to Kidnapped
South Sea Tales (1893) - more stories
Weir of Hermiston (1896) - sadly, unfinished - it promised to be excellent.

Stevenson was also an accomplished essayist and travel writer.  About his poetry, I know little.  I wonder if I read The Child's Garden of Verse when I was a tot?

George MacDonald wrote mostly Christian fiction, I guess, but it's his fairy stories, for adults and children, that have survived (update: now I'm pretty sure that's not true):

Phantastes (1858) - I just read this.  It is plenty weird.
At the Back of the North Wind (1871)
The Princess and the Goblin (1872) - this and the last one are children's books.
Lilith (1895)

Bysshe Vanolis, dig that name, is known for one poem, a sort of dark fantasy about London, The City of Dreadful Night (1874).  I just read it - it's The Victorian Waste Land. I had no idea, he said in amazement.

One author I do not like including is Arthur Conan Doyle.  Does anyone really need encouragement to read Doyle?  Nevertheless, here he is.  Six Sherlock Holmes books make the 1914 cutoff, as does one Professor Challenger novel (The Lost World, 1912) and The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard (1896 and on).  I'm most curious about that last one, actually.

For a brief period, there existed a genre of sentimentally Scotch novels known as the "kailyard school." MacDonald wrote some, as did J. M. Barrie and various non-entities.  No one wants to read them now, surely.  They were demolished by a hack writer named George Douglas Brown in The House with the Green Shutters (1901). The author's description of his novel: "brutal and bloody."

Speaking of J. M. Barrie, why were so many of the children's classics of the period written by Scots?  The play Peter Pan is from 1904; the novel Peter and Wendy from 1911.  Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows was published 1908.  Andrew Lang's Blue Fairy Book is from 1889.

I've never read Margaret Oliphant, a hack writer (87 novels!) who outdid herself sometimes.  Rohan Maitzen has written positively about Miss Marjoribanks (1866) and Hester (1883).  Salem Chapel (1863), the supernatural A Beleaguered City (1880), and the 1899 Autobiography sound interesting, too.

I'm probaby missing a dozen worthwhile travel and nature writers.  John Muir was a Scot.  Anyone want to try My Summer in the Sierra (1911) or Our National Parks (1901) or his dog story, Stickeen (1909)?

What should you read?  I have no idea.  I mean, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, if you've never read it, I know that.  This is where I'm going to be spending my time, whether or not anyone else wants to play along, reading lots of Stevenson and MacDonald, and so forth.  I think I'll write about Vanolis next week. So even if no one else wants to read them now, you might read about these books in the coming months.  At some point - August, I predict - I'll be heartily sick of Scottish literature and drift on to something else.

All right.  Let's read.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Golden Age of Scottish fiction - Scott, Galt, Hogg, and Ferrier, plus Carlyle

Robert Crawford, in Scotland’s Books: A History of Scottish Literature, calls Walter Scott “the single most influential writer there has ever been in the global history of the novel” (p. 396).  This statement is precisely written - it is exactly right.  If only Scott were better!  Well, I can attest that he's good enough.

Here are the Walter Scott books that are or were recently in print from either Penguin Classics or Oxford World’s Classics. I have read six of them:

Waverley (1814) - the novel read 'round the world.
Guy Mannering (1815)
The Antiquary (1816) - "its longwindedness is unbelievable"*
The Tale of Old Mortality (1816)
Rob Roy (1817)
The Heart of Midlothian (1818)
The Bride of Lammermoor (1818)
Ivanhoe (1819)
Kenilworth (1821)
Redgauntlet (1824)
Chronicles of the Canongate (1827)

There are many, many, many more, plus poems.

The Scottish Challenge is another chance for me to recommend the grossly underrated John Galt. Please try, among his half dozen best novels, one of these two:

The Provost (1822) – narrow but sharp, brilliantly so.
The Entail (1822) – Aside from Austen, the best English novel between Tristram Shandy and The Pickwick Papers.

James Hogg was known, once upon a time, primarily as a naïve poet, but only his one fine novel is now read.  The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) is a sinister tale of Calvinism gone wrong, and, like Scott’s and Galt’s best books, a brilliant experiment with the form of the novel, an expansion of what the novel could do.

Quite a period for the Scottish novel! Numerous other authors, inspired by Scott, worked the Scottish vein at this time.  One I haven’t read who sounds quite good is Susan Ferrier, whose 1818 Marriage sounds like a feminist anti-Scott, or a Highland Jane Austen.

I’m going to slide Thomas Carlyle, England's greatest crank, in here, although he’s of the next generation.  Carlyle’s best books - and his best books are something else - are, I assert:

Sartor Resartus (1833, more or less) – Sterne’s only English disciple.
The French Revolution (1837) – a terrible introduction to the subject, but a great introduction to Carlyle.
On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History (1841) – lectures on Great Men, featuring some of Carlyle’s best ideas, and some of his worst.
Past and Present (1843) – The Condition of England is not good. A revelatory book, a fundamental Victorian text.
And I'm curious about the gossipy Reminiscences (1881).

Robert Crawford would like me to stuff in Lord Byron as well, which doesn’t seem right. Still, I’m game if you are.

What should you read? Here’s how I would rank the above novels (just the novels, so only one Carlyle book), the ones I have read (so not Ferrier or half of the Scott), by artistic quality:

1. The Entail, Galt
2. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Hogg
3. The Provost, Galt
4. Sartor Resartus, Carlyle
5. The Tale of Old Mortality and The Heart of Midlothian, Scott
6. Redgauntlet, Scott – although this is best read as a sequel to Waverley
7. Waverley, Scott
8. More Galt
9. More Scott

But the most important novel is unquestionably Waverley.  This is a matter of literary history, not something that is evident in the book itself, which is not uncommon for a "first X novel."  I haven't read a Scott novel that did not require an extra measure of patience.  Read one and we can talk about that.

* Ford Madox Ford, The March of Literature (1938), p. 711.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Ha! Where ye gaun, ye crowlan ferlie! - Scotch literature from Burns and before

My Scottish reading lists are not meant to include every Scottish writer who ever lived, or every book by the writers I have mentioned, but only those books that I think someone might actually want to read.  My judgment on that subject could be quite wrong.  Corrections very welcome.  Scotland’s Books: A History of Scottish Literature (2009, Oxford University Press) by Robert Crawford has been most helpful.

I have read exactly one pre-18th century Scottish writer, the great early modern poet William Dunbar (c. 1460- c. 1513).  His “Lament for the Makaris” is a landmark poem.  The one with the flying machine is a hoot.  Dunbar's language is like Chaucer's, but Scottish, so rather more challenging.

Thomas Urquhart's translation of the first two books of Gargantua and Pantagruel (1653) is most tempting.  The excerpts I have seen are just wild.

The Scottish ballad tradition is rich, but I don’t know much about it.  Pick out an anthology for me.

I count three major 18th century novelists and poets.  Tobias Smollett was, with Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding, one of the first important English novelists.  Smollett was a disciple of Fielding, and of Cervantes.  He is great fun.  The three most famous novels are:

Roderick Random (1748) – a true Spanish-style picaresque, with some classic naval scenes.
Peregrine Pickle (1751) – this one is by far the longest.
Humphrey Clinker (1771) – the cleverest epistolary novel of its age.  See bibliographing for samples.

James Boswell should not have been a major writer, but, somehow, he wrote one of the best books in the English language, and left behind a lengthy journal that is itself a delight.  Some highlights:

The London Journal , published 1950, but covering 1762-63.  Twelve additional volumes follow.  The best title is Boswell in Search of a Wife, 1766-1769.
A Journal of a Tour of the Hebrides (1785).  Read Samuel Johnson’s A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland first, then Boswell's rather different account of the same trip.  They’re typically published together now.
The Life of Johnson (1791). A monument, a masterpiece. Enormously long.

The quintessential Scotch author is Robert Burns. You want a nice, thick Selected Poems, like the Penguin Classics edition. Don’t skimp. Much of his best work was composed in a shocking six months of unmatched creativity in 1786.  This post's title is from "To a Louse: On Seeing One on a Lady's Bonnet at Church."

There were plenty of other Scottish poets – anyone up for Allan Ramsay? – but no one close to Burns in quality. One, James Macpherson aka Ossian, I refuse to read. You can tell me about him, if you like.

David Hume and Adam Smith and other Scottish Enlightenment figures seem like fair game, although I’m not sure how literary they are.  Enjoy the "Digression on Silver"!

If I were more serious about the 18th century, I would have already read the long poem The Seasons (1726+) by James Thomson, and the novels The Man of Feeling (1771) by Henry Mackenzie and The Female Quixote (1752) by Charlotte Lennox. Meh. Well, you can change my mind.

A couple of great travel books.  Mungo Park’s Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa (1799) is a classic of Scotch persistence, a high-spirited solo journey through present-day Senegal and Mali.  He ends the trip with nothing but rags and his enormous hat, stuffed with his notes.  I have actually crossed paths with Park’s disastrous second expedition.

Alexander Mackenzie and his companions were the first men to cross the breadth of the North American continent.  His canoe trip into and across the Rockies (as well as an earlier trip to the Arctic sea) is described in Journal of the Voyage to the Pacific (1801).  These explorers were all a little nuts.

What should you read?  Burns, if you haven’t.  And Humphrey Clinker, certainly.  But I want to really plug Boswell.  The bulky Life of Johnson is a challenge all its own, so set that aside for a moment.  Instead, I want to advocate for Boswell’s journals.  The first volume, The London Journal, is one of the great books of the century, really.  Boswell is such a rich character, vain, weak-willed, ambitious, self-pitying, and foolish, but somehow so amazingly alive.  I’ve read all twelve volumes of the journal, and would love to read them again.  The account of the Scottish trip with Dr. Johnson is another fine way to get to know Boswell at his best without committing to the entire Life of Johnson.  Having said that, yes, Life of Johnson, absolutely!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Wuthering Expectations Scottish Literature Reading Challenge and Clishmaclaver - If it's not Scottish...

Here it is, the long-promised, anti-climatic announcement of the Scottish Reading Challenge.  A Treasure Island button is on the left, a Peter Pan button below, if buttons (or pirates) are your thing.

I'm not exactly convinced that there is such a thing as Scottish literature, as distinct from English literature, at least not since the Middle Ages.  A number of the most famous Scottish authors barely seem Scottish at all - Arthur Conan Doyle, for instance - while others are steeped in their dialect and their landscape.  John Galt remarked to his publisher that the Scottish writer had a distinct advantage over the English writer - he possessed all of the English words, plus the wonderful Scots words like "clishmaclaver."  In the hands of a master like Galt, the case is very strong, but in fact few of the great Scottish writers use dialect as much more than color.

Well, let's read some books and see what's there.

The Rules: Part I.  During 2010, read one (1) literary work published in or before 1914 written by a Scottish author.  The reader interested in Muriel Spark or Gerry Cambridge should read them, by all means, but they don't count for the challenge.  You'll see in Part II why some limit is necessary.  For the next three days, I am going to post reading lists, which are not meant to be comprehensive.  You tell me.

Part II.  The host (me), will:

i)  Read the book you are reading, unless
ii) I have already read it, although I'll reread it if I like.

Part III.  Write something.

I don't want to guarantee exactly when I will read your book, and I do have to be able to acquire it.  But  there will be conversation, he threatened.

That reminds me, Reading Challenges have prizes.  So the first prize is a CD of Scottish bagpipe music.  The second prize is two CDs of bagpipe music.  Ha ha ha ha!  No, there are no prizes.  My point is, that if one would like to read Treasure Island but decline my generous offer of reading over your shoulder, that is fine, and perhaps wise.

Logistics:  Lets play this by ear.  No Mr. Linky, no need to sign up now.  When you start a book, or plan to start it, let me know, in the comments here or at  I'll get to it soon.  Readers without blogs can guest post here.  The process should be active, engaged.  We'll figure it out.

Is this the most selfish reading challenge in the history of the internet?  What it really is, besides another opportunity to encourage the reading of the great John Galt, is a repeat of last year's rampage through Yiddish literature.  This time, though, I'm inviting readers along, and letting them guide me more directly.  Maybe it's not that selfish.

As a side note, see here for the brand new Welsh Reading Challenge.  Now we just need an Irish challenge, and a Jersey and Guernsey challenge, a Cornish challenge, an East Anglian challenge, etc., etc.

The Suggested Reading Lists: The beginning to Burns (through the 18th century).
The Golden Age of Scottish fiction - Scott, Galt, Hogg (and Ferrier and Carlyle).
Pirates and Fairies, Sherlock Holmes and Mr. Toad - Stevenson, Doyle, and so on.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Why on earth do I think it's a good idea to host a challenge?

When I started Wuthering Expectations, I participated in a single challenge, subject: Russian literature. Read four Russian books, you bet. Lermontov, Gogol, early Dostoevsky. This challenge was actually mentioned in Newsweek.  The challenge as such, aside from reading the books, which I would have read anyway, was entirely unsatisfying.

A couple of dozen people read entirely different, unrelated books, and had nothing to say to each other.  Nothing resembling a conversation developed, and how could it?  I got, and get, so much more out of anything posted at Lizok's Bookshelf.  And I hated writing for the Challenge weblog.  I had no idea for whom I was writing.  Every so-called "review" was a constricted botch.

So I turned against challenges a bit.  My reading is plenty organized as it is.  But over the last year I have paid more attention and have changed my mind.  Dolce Bellezza's Japanese Literature Challenge, soon to enter it's fourth year, was instrumental.  As of this writing, 227 books have been read in the past year for the challenge, many of which would not have been read without prodding.  The enthusiatic, insightful response of Mel U at A Reading Life has been especially impressive.  He has developed his own conversation with modern Japanese literature, and he lets me listen in.

So simply pointing the way does have some value, even though the review format is deadly and readers will have a hard time really engaging with each other.  I wholeheartedly endorse the Clover, Bee, and Reverie, challenge which wants to encourage the reading of poetry (read 2+ poetry books during the year).  I'm not participating, though - I read 30 books of poetry last year, write about poetry often, and do not exactly need the encouragement.  I don't see how any discussion can develop, either, but the pointing and nudging has its own value.

So what if everyone reads the same book?  The Woolf in Winter readalong (Mrs. Dalloway all linked together here) seems to be working well, although it's interesting to see the delicacy with with commenters treat each other.  Better than the other extreme, that's fer sher.  Rebecca Reid's Classics Circuit, in which readers concentrate on authors or movements rather than single books (Gaskell, Collins, now Wharton), has gotten a good response, too.  I'm going to participate in the Harlem Renaissance edition next month, with a post about Charles Chesnutt's The Conjure Women (1899), although, I pray I'll come up with something better than a review for an unknown audience.

Maybe readalongs are the way to go.  But one wants people to be free in their reading - we want many readers and many books in the conversation.  How do we square the circle?  I've come up with a possible solution, one that is just slightly nuts.  Tomorrow, I officially launch the Wuthering Expectations Scottish Literature Reading Challenge and Caber Toss.  You may not, you are thinking to yourself, give a tinker's dam about Scottish literature.  Me neither!  Nevertheles, peruse the rules, and wish me luck.  We'll see.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Back from Morocco

I'm back from Morocco, if not well-rested than at least well-fed.  First the holiday meals, then two weeks of feasting in Fez and Marrakech.  We're now full and plump, full of snail soup and mint tea, ready for the new semester.  As usual, we came home just as we were beginning to figure a few things out.

On the left, we see a bookshop in the Fez medina.  That's it, the whole store.  The proprietor is presumably chatting with a neighbor who has filled an identical space with tennis shoes or brass lamps or dried fruit.  The books are all in Arabic, as far as I could tell, and are presumably religious or educational.

Ma femme and I went into a Borders today, looking for a calendar.  The selection was dismal, even embarassing.  The puppies and lingerie models I expected, but who wants a World of Warcraft calendar, or one with actors from "The Tudors"?  But I remembered that bookshop in the medina and thought "Long live Borders."  A Borders is a treasure house.  Not for calendars, though.

A bit more rest.  Then, next week, "Scots, wha hae" and all of that nonsense.