If Books Could Kill

I don’t know, those book piles look awfully menacing, and I think the Duchess of Death knows it.

Agatha Christie and some of her books.

I saw this pic at 35 Things To Do With All Those Books, which is definitely worth a look. Number 5 is the only reason I’m able to keep all of my books. Number 35 scares me a little.

“Jane’s Fame” by Claire Harman

Jane's Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World by Claire HarmanJane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World
Claire Harman
Henry Holt and Co.
304 pp.

While I was tidying up the list of books I read in 2011 I noticed that I began the year with a short biography of Jane Austen, read the wonderful A Jane Austen Education in the summer, and finished the year with Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World. Add to that a re-reading of Persuasion (my favourite) and much munching of popcorn in front of various film adaptations and the enjoyable Lost in Austen spinoff. This all happened without even trying, which just goes to show how ubiquitous Jane Austen has become. Jane’s Fame traces the development of Jane Austen’s popularity, which was by no means a sure thing in the beginning. She was nearly forgotten after her death in 1817, but a biography published by her nephew in 1869 revived interest in her, which prompted the reprinting of her books, and her renown steadily grew from there to today’s all-Austen-all-the-time proportions.

I found it interesting that for a long time the most ardent Janeites were male scholars. No doubt it only seems that way because they had the floor, but in any case her books were certainly not considered to be particularly for women until recently. She was also much-loved by soldiers in World War I, who read and discussed her books in the trenches to escape the hell they were going through. Austen was also prescribed to wounded and shell-shocked soldiers for comfort and solace in their convalescence or their last days.

Claire Harman points out that one of the reasons Austen is so easily appropriated by generation after generation of readers is that her books lack details of time and place that would make it seem dated or foreign to future readers. Apparently she did this quite deliberately and mentions it in her letters. Though some criticized her books for failing to mention the great events of the time, such as the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars, in retrospect she made the right choice if she wanted her works to be enduringly accessible. Two centuries later, references to contemporary issues and obsolete facts of life would only get in the way of the stories. Today’s writers might do well to question the conventional wisdom about describing the setting of a novel in vivid detail. People are people, whether they communicate by text message or penny post.

Jane’s Fame is quite a thorough examination of the reception of Austen’s books, and even describes the huge success of the recent film adaptations (including a discussion of the wet shirt), and mentions the most popular Austen blogs and web communities. Nothing is left out, as far as I can tell, though it is understandably UK-centric. If you want to know what people have thought about Jane Austen and her books over the last 200 years, this book will tell you. The tone is scholarly but with enough Austen-like wry humour to make it enjoyable.

After reading this book I realize that I have been remiss in not reading Austen’s unfinished novels, now called Sanditon and The Watsons, as well as the story Lady Susan. I even have a Penguin edition of them sitting on my bookshelf so I have no excuse. I believe that will be my first new book of 2012!

2666: The Forest of Minor Works

“…I was a writer, I was a writer, but my indolent, voracious brain gnawed at my own entrails. Vulture of my Prometheus self or Prometheus of my vulture self, on day I understood that I might go so far as to publish excellent articles in magazines and newspapers, and even books that weren’t unworthy of the paper on which they were printed. But I also understood that I would never manage to create anything like a masterpiece. You may say that literature doesn’t consist solely of masterpieces, but rather is populated by so-called minor works. I believed that, too. Literature is a vast forest and the masterpieces are the lakes, the towering trees or strange trees, the lovely, eloquent flowers, the hidden caves, but a forest is also made up of ordinary trees, patches of grass, puddles, clinging vines, mushrooms, and the little wildflowers. I was wrong. There’s actually no such thing as a minor work. I mean: the author of the minor work isn’t Mr. X or Mr. Y. Mr. X and Mr. Y do exist, there’s no question about that, and they struggle and toil and publish in newspapers and magazines and sometimes they even come out with a book that isn’t unworthy of the paper it’s printed on, but those books or articles, of you pay close attention, are not written by them.

“Every minor work has a secret author and every secret author is, by definition, a writer of masterpieces. Who writes the minor work? A minor writer, or so it appears. The poor man’s wife can testify to that, she’s seen him sitting at the table, bent over the blank pages, restless in his chair, his pen racing over the paper. The evidence would seem to be incontrovertible. But what she’s seen is only the outside. The shell of literature. A semblance,” said the old man to Archimboldi and Archimboldi thought of Ansky. “The person who really writes the minor work is a secret writer who accepts only the dictates of a masterpiece.

“Our good craftsman writes. He’s absorbed in what takes shape well or badly on the page. His wife, though he doesn’t know it, is watching him. It really is he who’s writing. But if his wife had X-ray vision she would see that instead of being present at an exercise of literary creation, she’s witnessing a session of hypnosis. There’s nothing inside the man who sits there writing. Nothing of himself, I mean. How much better off the poor man would be if he devoted himself to reading. Reading is pleasure and happiness to be alive or sadness to be alive and above all it’s knowledge and questions. Writing, meanwhile, is almost always empty. There’s nothing in the guts of the man who sits there writing. Nothing, I mean to say, that is wife, at a given moment, might recognize. He writes like someone taking dictation. His novel or book of poems, decent, adequate, arises not from an exercise of style or will, as the poor unfortunate believes, but as the result of an exercise of concealment. There must be many books, many lovely pines, to shield from hungry eyes the book that really matters, the wretched cave of our misfortune, the magic flower of winter!

“Excuse the metaphors. Sometimes, in my excitement, I wax romantic. But listen. Every work that isn’t a masterpiece is, in a sense, a part of a vast camouflage. You’ve been a soldier, I imagine, and you know what I mean. Every book that isn’t a masterpiece is cannon fodder, a slogging foot soldier, a piece to be sacrificed, since in multiple ways it mimics the design of the masterpiece. When I came to this realization, I gave up writing. Still, my mind didn’t stop working. In fact, it worked better when I wasn’t writing. I asked myself: why does a masterpiece need to be hidden? what strange forces wreath it in secrecy and mystery?

“By now I knew that it was pointless to write. Or that it was worth it only if one was prepared to write a masterpiece. Most writers are deluded or playing….

“Play and delusion are the blindfold and spur of minor writers. Also: the promise of future happiness. A forest that grows at a vertiginous rate, a forest no one can fence in, not even the academies, in fact, the academies make sure it flourishes unhindered, as do boosters and universities (breeding grounds for the shameless) and government institutions and patrons and cultural associations and declaimers of poetry—all aid the forest to grow and hide what must be hidden, all aid the forest to reproduce what must be reproduced, since the process is inevitable, though no one ever sees what exactly is being reproduced, what is being tamely mirrored back.

“Plagiarism, you say? Yes, plagiarism, in the sense that all minor works, all works from the pen of a minor writer, can be nothing but plagiarism of some masterpiece. the small difference is that here we’re talking about sanctioned plagiarism. Plagiarism as camouflage as some wood and canvas scenery as a charade that leads us, like as not, into the void.

“Jesus is the masterpiece. The thieves are minor works. Why are they there? Not to frame the crucifixion, as some innocent souls believe, but to hide it.”

—Roberto Bolaño, 2666

Thomas Merton in the Book Vault

[Merton] was under orders to keep writing. The abbot had given him the key to the book vault, a chamber full of rare books and manuscripts, to use as a workspace. He wore the giant key on a cord around his waist, a token of his secret life.

—Paul Elie, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage

I’m really taken with this image of the writer imprisoned by his talent, even though he himself holds the key. Merton’s was a voluntary imprisonment, as he voluntarily entered the monastery and pledged his obedience to the Abbot who was now forcing him to write, but it was not as wonderful as it looks on the surface. Fame and overwork were detrimental to Merton’s contemplative life, which was what he entered the monastery for, so his was not a situation to be envied. Nevertheless I find the idea having exclusive access to a writing room filled with old books quite appealing in itself.

Medieval Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves

I found a great little book at the thrift store last week: The Medieval Woman: an illuminated Book of Days. It’s a hardcover datebook packed with vibrant illuminations of women doing all sorts of work. This includes traditional occupations such as textile work (from cultivating silk worms to tailoring), farm work, cooking, nursing, and midwifery, to nontraditional work such as trade (often alongside their husbands), painting, sculpture, musical performance, and even masonry, smithing, mining, and castle defense. I’ve scanned a few of the more bookish women to present here.

Medieval Woman
Christine de Pisan, Writing

Collected Works of Christine de Pisan,
MS. Harley 4431, f. 4

French, fifteenth century
British Library, London

Medieval Woman

Giovanni Boccacio. Le livre des femmes nobles et renommées.
MS. Fr. 598, f. 43r

French, fifteenth century
Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

Medieval Woman
Woman Teaching

Giovanni Boccaccio. Le livre des femmes nobles et renommées.
MS. Fr. 598, f. 71v

French, fifteenth century
Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

I particularly enjoy the scholar with her multiple book stands. Perhaps if she were working today she’d have multiple monitors. I also must find out more about Christine de Pisan. According to the book she is the earliest known French female author. There is one illustration in the book of two fine ladies building a city wall from a work called “Cité des Dames” by Christine de Pisan. Could it be a fifteenth century feminist utopia? I must find out!

What is Stephen Harper reading?

Last year the Canada Council for the Arts celebrated its 50th year of supporting Canadian artists, and as part of the celebration they invited 50 of those artists to Parliament Hill to be recognized by the House of Commons. Yann Martel, author of The Life of Pi, was one of those Canada Council artists, and describes the experience thus:

The Honourable Bev Oda, Minister for Canadian Heritage, whose seat on the government benches is as far away from the Prime Minister’s as is possible for a member of the cabinet, rose to her feet, acknowledged our presence and began to speak. We stood up, not for ourselves but for the Canada Council. Her speech was short. There was a flutter of applause. Then Minister Oda sat down, our business was over, MPs instantly turned to other things, and we were still standing. That was it. Fifty years of building Canada’s dazzling and varied culture, done with in less than five minutes.

We should have been prepared. How many Members of Parliament do you think showed up at a reception the previous day on Parliament Hill meant to be a grand occasion on which the representatives of Canada’s people would meet the representatives of Canada’s artists? By my count, twenty, twenty-five—out of 306—with only one cabinet minister, the one who absolutely had to be there, Bev Oda. There we fifty stood around, for two hours, waiting, each one of us a symbol for one year of the Canada Council’s fifty. I, for example, was 1991, the year I received a Canada Council B grant that allowed me to write my first novel. I was 27 years old and the money was manna from heaven. I made those $18,000 last a year and a half (and compared to the income tax I have paid since then, an exponential return on Canadian taxpayers’ investment, I assure you). By comparison, the equivalent celebration of a major cultural institution in, say, France would have been a classy, flashy, year-long, exhibition-filled affair with President Chirac trying to hog as much of the limelight as possible. No need to go into further details. We all know how the Europeans do culture. It’s sexy and important to them. The world visits Europe because it is so culturally resplendent. Instead, we stood around, drank our drinks, and then petered away in small groups.

So we should have been prepared for this perfunctory salute in the House of Commons. Nonetheless, I was surprised. Even embarrassed. Not for myself. I mean for all artists, from Jean-Louis Roux, great man of theatre, electrifying doyen of the fifty celebratory artists, to Tracee Smith, a young aboriginal hip-hop dancer and choreographer, recipient this year of her first Canada Council grant, to unknown emerging artists throughout this country. Do we count for nothing, you philistines, I felt like shouting down at the House. Don’t you know that Canadians love their books and songs and paintings? Do you really think we’re just parasites feeding off the honest, hard work of our fellow citizens? Truly I say to you, there are only two sets of tools with which the rich soil of life can be worked: the religious and the artistic. Everything else is illusion that crumbles before the onslaught of time. If you die having prayed to no god, any god, one expressed above an altar or one painted with a brush, then you risk wasting the soul you were given. Repent! Repent!

To help the government repent, Martel decided to go straight to the top and to use what he knows, literature. He has vowed to send Prime Minister Stephen Harper a book every two weeks, along with a letter explaining why he should read it, until Harper leaves office (which could be many years, as things stand now). Here is what he has sent so far:

The Death of Ivan Ilych, by Leo Tolstoy
Animal Farm, by George Orwell
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, by Agatha Christie
By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, by Elizabeth Smart
The Bhagavad Gita
Bonjour Tristesse, by Françoise Sagan
Candide, by Voltaire
Short and Sweet: 101 very short poems, edited by Simon Armitage
Chronicle of a Death Foretold, by Gabriel García Márquez
Miss Julia, by August Strindberg
The Watsons, by Jane Austen
Maus, by Art Spiegelman
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
Le Petit Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, by Jeanette Winterson
Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke
The Island Means Minago, by Milton Acorn
Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka
The Brothers Lionheart, by Astrid Lindgren
Imagine A Day, by Sarah L. Thomson and Rob Gonsalves
The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, by Chris Van Allsburg
The Educated Imagination, by Northrop Frye
The Cellist of Sarajevo, by Steven Galloway
Meditations, by Marcus Aurellius

Martel’s covering letters are conversational and personal, and seek to point out not just the books' artistic merits, but their broader, philosophical, political, or psychological merits, all part of the quest to demonstrate to our Prime Minister the incalculable value of art. To read the letters, visit What is Stephen Harper reading? Maybe we should all start sending art to our elected officials. What would you send?

via Rogueclassicism

Gabo Turns Eighty

Gabo80 Gabriel García Márquez was honoured at the International Spanish Language Congress in Cartagena, Colombia over the weekend in honour of his 80th birthday. Kings, Presidents, and thousands of adoring fans showered him with admiration for his work, particularly Cien Años de Soledad (100 Years of Solitude), which was called the most important novel in Spanish since Don Quixote. The Real Academia Española presented Gabo with a new annotated 40th anniversary edition of Cien Años. (The only other book they’ve published in this way is, you guessed it,  Don Quixote).

You can read his address here, that is, if you can read Spanish. Since this is also the 25th anniversary of his Nobel Prize, Anglophones may enjoy reading his address at that august occasion. There are also photos of the festivities in Cartagena, and may I say, I hope I am in that kind of shape at 80!

via Latin Americanist

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that Amazon has the Real Academia Española editions of Don Quijote de la Mancha and Cien Años de Soledad at insanely low prices. When was the last time you got a 1300 page hardcover critical edition for ten (US) bucks? Even with my shaky Spanish it’s too good to pass up.