“Good” by RS Thomas

The old man comes out on the hill

and looks down to recall earlier days

in the valley. He see the stream shine,

the church stand, hears the litter of children’s voices. A chill in the flesh

tells him that death is not far off

now: it is the shadow under the great boughs

of life. His garden has herbs growing.

The kestrel goes by with fresh prey

in its claws. The wind scatters the scent of wild beans.

The tractor operates on the earth’s body. His grandson is there

ploughing: his young wife fetches him

cakes and tea and a dark smile. It is well.

(Note: I’ve always liked this poem, just as I’ve always admired RS Thomas for his clarity and his strength. I first encountered this poem years ago, when one of my teachers invited me to take part in a reading of poems on the theme of Autumn. Now Autumn is almost over for the year, this poem came to mind the other day. Looking at it closely again, though, I think that in literal terms it makes more sense for me to read it as taking place in late summer, or at least that period of slow wind-down as summer blends into autumn. Either way, I think we’re invited into the world of a man who in symbolic terms has personally reached the season of winter, which strengthens the poem’s juxtaposition of life and growth in the outer world with the man’s inner feeling that his life is soon to be over. The wisdom of this poem for me, however, is that it isn’t seen as a cause for panic or overwhelming sadness. Instead it’s presented as part of the general pattern of things.  “To every thing there is a season” as the Good Book says, something Thomas perhaps referred to in his sermons over the years.)

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Primo Levi- A Brief Introduction.

I’m currently reading Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table which has in turn made me want to find out more about his life and also chemistry. Here’s a lovely video I wanted to share which deals with both topics.  Being filmed in Levi’s alma mater in Turin adds to the atmosphere.

Last words from ‘The Leopard’.

Giuseppe-di-Lampedusa-in--006

Lampedusa, London, 1930’s: Publication and fame were still a long way off, but he demonstrated his ‘monster’ talent even then.

As I wrote the other day here the fact that Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa published only one full length novel is not grounds for too much sadness, since he did leave other literary remains behind.

The real Lampedusa fanatic will want to hunt down his various notes on literature. In the early 50’s he agreed to give informal lectures on writing and writers to a few select young acquaintances. Lampedusa was formidably well read and loved English literature most of all, and his lecture notes are the fruits of much of this reading. I don’t go out of my way to read literary criticism, but I enjoyed reading this and find it refreshing to get a non-english perspective on writers and writing we think we know so well based on our own received opinions and assumptions. If you can track them down it’s also worth reading Lampedusa’s perceptive notes on Stendhal, which I guarantee will make you want to look (or look again) into the Frenchman’s work.

If you want something a little less specialised, in recent years his Letters from London and Europe have been published. Between 1925 and 1930, long before The Leopard was even conceived of, Lampedusa travelled a little and wrote letters to his cousins back home in Sicily. Their nickname for him was the ‘monster’, and this is the term he uses to refer to himself throughout these letters. Most of them detail his travels around London and the rest of the UK.  Despite being a Southern European by birth, Lampedusa was an ardent anglophile. He loved our literature and our language, and these letters demonstrate how much he was fascinated by our country. Despite his status of published author lying a long way off in the future, even around the time he was writing the letters Lampedusa shows he was a born writer, with the power to engage his readers and bring what he describes alive. Just as well, then, because the Britain of the 20’s and 30’s was a radically different place. So not only do these letters reveal more about their author, but they also give glimpses of how life was in a very different time.

Anyone who loves Lampedusa’s work has to have a look at Ian Gilmour’s The Last Leopard, which is a fabulous book and first-rate biography. It combines a narrative of Lampedusa’s life with pithy commentary on his literary works, and relevant comments on the social and historical context. What I think truly makes Gilmour’s book a cut above is his seemingly total understanding of Italy, Sicily and Lampedusa’s works. Written with full access to Lampedusa’s archive (including items retrieved by the author himself from the bombed out shell of Lampedusa’s former Palermo home, some forty years after the US air raid that put paid to things) Gilmour gets right under the skin of this incredible writer. Coming in at just over 200 pages, this book has the additional virtue of being short (itself perhaps a reflection of the fact that Lampedusa’s day to day life was rather monotonous and his literary output pretty small). However, what Gilmour has to say he says with insight and authority and does full justice the man and his masterpiece. This being a shorter biography it gives you plenty of energy left to go straight back into The Leopard and other works. Lampedusa could have written more, but into his one novel he poured the experience and insight of a lifetime. His other works may be the literary equivalent of left-overs, but take everything together and you’ve got a whole banquet of words.

And  that’s that, surely?

Well thankfully. It seems the cupboard is note entirely bare just yet and I understand that Lampedusa’s letters to his wife are soon to be (perhaps even have been) published in his native Italy. Let’s  hope an english translation quickly follows.

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa- What can you read once you’ve read “The Leopard”?

 A round-up of some of the Italian author’s less well-known work.

Italian author Giuseppe Tomassi di Lampedusa remains justly renowned for his 1950’s masterpiece “The Leopard”. Since the book’s publication in the late fifties, a short while after the author’s death from lung cancer, it has won him a level of renown and respect that he never knew when alive. Sadly it is his only finished long work, one which demonstrates that this literary late starter had finally found his voice.  Readers who fall in love with that book (and we are legion) and who want to read more by him are therefore faced with a dilemma.  Luckily, he left behind other works, and what little else there is repays the effort for the devotee.  

For english-speaking readers there are quite a lot of editions of Lampedusa’s works around. Some of these are not in print, but most can be tracked down second hand. A very good place to start after “The Leopard” is any edition of his works that includes the autobiographical sketches usually translated under the title of “Places of my Infancy”. According to Ian Gilmour’s biography (see below) Lampedusa worked on these sketches while in the middle of writing The Leopard. The novel is based in large part on his own family’s history, so it seems that the necessary imaginative engagement with the past brought a significant number of memories to the fore. The sketches are pieces that see Lampedusa  reminiscing about the Sicily he knew in the very early twentieth century when he was a small boy.  The Leopard therefore opens a window on the world of Sicily and one of its aristocratic families in the mid- to-late nineteenth century, while the “Sketches” act as  a companion piece,  shedding light on the early influences of one particular Sicilian aristocrat. Before really getting to know Lampedusa’s work I was virtually ignorant about Sicily, having little to go on but a few cultural cliches (most of them I’m ashamed to say concerning the Mafia). While the Sketches aren’t as gory or gripping as “The Godfather Part II” perhaps, it is at least refreshing to learn that there was a part of Sicily that stood at as far and as genteel remove as it’s possible to get, while Lampedusa’s descriptions of the Sicilian landscape come close to the quality of description he attained in The Leopard. 

The short story “The Professor and the Siren” is often published together with the Sketches, and remains the other well know minor work. It’s one of my favourite short stories, and is set in Turin in the 1930s. It charts the odd friendship of a world-weary younger man and an older professor of the Classics. The Professor tells his new friend the story of a remarkable romance which occurred when he was a very young man back in Sicily, an entanglement which changed his life and influenced him even to the end of his days. As the story’s title suggests, the object of his affections was not entirely human and was a figure from Sicily’s ancient Greek past.  , The author harks back to the classical vein of storytelling, which saw gods and other immortals interact with men. It can be read as a fable, but it is just as easily read at face value as a tale of memory, love, loss, ageing, and passion. It’s quite different to The Leopard and indicates that Lampedusa was not just a one trick pony.

Less good is “The Blind Kittens”. This has been in print for years, and isn’t exactly a short story (though it can just about be read as one). It is in fact the remaining draft for the opening chapter for his next novel, which he was working on at his death. It was intended to deal with Sicilian society some decades on from The Leopard, but it doesn’t have the grace and ease of the earlier work. However, we must remember that Lampedusa was an ill man when working on it. It’s not a bad piece of work. It just suffers by comparison with a greater one. However, it continues in the vein of the author commenting on his fellow Sicilians, and echoes some of the previous novel’s wry and resigned descriptions of Sicilians and the national character.

HP Lovecraft: bigger, badder, weirder.

Review of The Whisperer in Darkness: Collected Stories Volume 1, published by Wordsworth Editions. 

 

I have been aware of Lovecraft’s name for a long time but had never properly got round to reading any of his stories. Then I came across his story “The Call of Cthulhu” in an anthology of classic American supernatural fiction and I was hooked. The trouble is, there are quite a lot of Lovecraft editions out there, so where to begin?

A central aspect of his work is the “Cthulhu Mythos”, and in this volume Wordsworth Editions get right down to brass tacks by collecting together the main stories that fall into this category.

Downsides to this edition? Well if you like Lovecraft, after reading this you’ll probably render the book redundant as you’ll want to get the collected work. But Wordsworth books cost far less than the price of a packet of cigarettes or even a pint in some places, so this is hardly money wasted. There’s also the fact that the earliest stories in this volume are also among Lovecraft’s earliest work, so they’re not perfect and rehash certain narrative ideas and imagery.

A lot of what I’ve read by Lovecraft so far calls to my mind other writers. These are purely personal associations. I’m not accusing him of plagiarism, and I don’t even know if he read all of these writers. However, Poe is one who seems to loom large over a lot of Lovecraft’s work. He’s even mentioned in “At the Mountains of Madness”. But even simply in terms of being a writer who was unafraid to pitch things at the same high, nerve-wracking level, Lovecraft seems to have seen Poe as someone who threw down the gauntlet.  Little wonder Lovecraft’s work inhabits the same emotional landscape, and then gores even further.

MR James is someone else I like a lot, and who comes to mind when I read Lovecraft. Like James’s, many of Lovecraft’s characters have a scholarly background. “The Whisperer in Darkness” and “The Dunwich Horror” share the (M.R.) Jamesian device of scholars and other seekers of arcane knowledge go too far in their pursuits, thereby unleashing terrible forces. Like James as well, Lovecraft seems convinced that it is only the learned and well-versed who are truly capable enough to either a) solve the problem at hand (as in Dunwich) or b) at least make sense of it and to therefore warn others ( as in those ‘mad’ mountains).
H.G. Wells seems somewhere in the mix too, since the ultimate fate of the OLd Ones at the hand of their former slaves, in “At the Mountains of Madness”, has echoes of the future as foretold in “The Time Machine”. Then there’s the whole concept of malevolent forces arriving uncontrollably from outer space, a concept which exploded into the popular consciousness with “The War of the Worlds”.
I’m not at all trying to bring Lovecraft down a peg or two by highlighting what I find similar in the work of others. On the contrary. Whether he consciously borrowed from these men or not is by the by. What I’m trying to illustrate is how he took what already existed in horror/ supernatural fiction before him, and built massively built on those foundations. If Poe ramped up the horror and tension, Lovecraft proved he could go even further up the scale. In like manner, M.R. James’s gentlemen protagonists always seem to be scholars of independent means. If they are full-time academics their alma mater is barely alluded to (though the implicit assumption must be that they are Cambridge men). Lovecraft, however, went one better and created an entirely fictional educational institution, the wonderfully named
Miskatonic University, itself based on Brown University.
Also like James’s characters, Lovecraft’s are often well read and steeped in all manner of arcane lore, but the American weriter again adds a whole new extra dimension to this in his stories. This is by means of consistent reference to the secrets that many characters have learned by reading the dread book The Necronomicon by that “mad arab” Abdul Alhazred, printed in Spain in the sixteenth century, and now only found carefully guarded in a few select libraries. I love everything about this fictional book. There’s the idea f it being written by a demented oriental scholar,and the implicit pun in his name. (If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, total knowledge will drive you mad, it seems to imply.) There’s the book’s contents, which are so terrible that Lovecraft’s narrators can barely even allude to them. Then there’s the notion that the book was printed0 blasphemously so to use a key Lovecraft adverb- in a hostile place at a hostile time, Spain during the era of the inquisition. Then there’s the implication that those brave enough to dare its pages have their minds altered by its contents forever, such are the terrible secrets it tells of…
Great stuff, and just the kind of reading for a cold winter evening.
The supposed existence of The Necronomicon  gives greater weight to the whole cosmology of Lovecraft’s work, the macabre backdrop of the ‘Old Ones’ who were on Earth millions of years before mankind, and who wait patiently for a chance to re-enter our dimension to reclaim and dominate what is rightfully theirs. Such a massive fictional canvas makes ‘The War of the Worlds” in its way look like a little local skirmish.
If there’s a potential downside to all this for me, then it’s the fact that it’s on such a vast scale that it can seem overblown and silly. Yet that’s only if I cease to suspend my disbelief, and if I do that when reading this kind of stuff it’s fatal. I read these things for the thrill, and because ultimately it’s great entertainment. Besides, there’s the whole aspect of adventure and scale to his work. Take “The Call of the Cthulu”. If ther’s one short story that could claim to be epic in theme and setting that’s it.
By entering the gloriously mad fictional world of HP Lovecraft and suspending my disbelief, all I can do is cling on as best I can.