Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Review: Casanova by Andrew Miller

My next Andrew Miller book is his second, ‘Casanova’ (or ‘Casanova in Love’ in some countries). It is a novel about Casanova’s time in London, particularly his romance of Marie Charpillon. It was not a successful romance and Casanova was not the same since.

I’ve read some Casanova, though I’ve not reached his adventures in London, but the Casanova in this book is really not the same person as the one he writes about. Casanova’s ‘History of my Life’ was written when he was an old man, with far more experience and far more misadventures then those times in middle age when he was in London. Despite this extra experience, Casanova seems to view his younger self with such affection and amusement that the world-weary, tired-of-life element of this book doesn’t really ring true. It’s also not much fun.

Casanova is so dour in this. Viewing London in the eighteenth century as little more then a purgatory in which he is condemned to live out the whole of his life following the same dull patterns. Actually, it’s more like Tartarus, where Tantalus finds all his pleasures pulling away from him at the last minute.

Throughout the course of the book, Casanova tries to seduce Miss Charpillon, but she plays him repeatedly, driving Casanova half-mad. In public she fusses over him, leading everyone around to feel that she and he are together, but when he gets her alone, she closes up physically and emotionally - which he can’t cope with at all. He starts to question how easy and enjoyable such intrigues used to be and questions the paths he has taken that has led him to where he is now.

In reality, Casanova did act in extreme ways; threatening her with a fruit knife, buying lead shot to drown himself in the Thames and training a parrot to describe her as a whore. It is extreme, but Casanova (in one of his less famous romances) stole locks of a woman’s hair and turned them into special sweets. Casanova dug up a corpse as a prank against someone who got his coat dirty. He always let his feelings and actions to go too far, this romance seems business as usual as far as Casanova is concerned.

In the novel, he does threaten her, he does buy the lead shot and he does train the parrot - to say ‘je t’aime’, watering down Casanova’s fantastic bitchiness. Other things added to the novel include a completely confusing section (which begins without warning) where Casanova and his manservant swap clothes with poor people and live as penniless builders for a few weeks. Why they do this is never explained, it makes no sense from Casanova’s point of view and has no real point. I have the feeling that it is trying to make a point about something, but I’m not sure what.

A relationship is created between Casanova and Samuel Johnson. It’s a great idea; one represents Venetian impulsiveness, lasciviousness and luxury and the other represents English common sense, plain wholesomeness and solidity. However, Johnson is flat - as is Casanova. In this pair, we have two of the finest raconteurs and conversationalists in history, but the dialogue is plain. Though I did like Johnson as a secret lech. 

Something that did work, was the inflation of a massive storm that grows to a Biblical flood, engulfing London up to the roofs, causing people to row around it, tying their boats to the steeples of churches. It’s a lovely image, with Casanova finally able to feel home after years of exile. It is, however, a very fairytale image which doesn’t really sit well with what is often a grounded and somber book, which again feel like it’s making a point I don’t quite understand.

It’s written by Andrew Miller, and so very well written. I particularly enjoyed the description of the ticking of a clock being the sound of time’s hammers chipping away slowly at an hour and also the description of a young woman’s lips looking as succulent as new prawns. He has a wonderful way of putting things and I don’t think I could ever not enjoy one of his books - but this one was very difficult to find out what he was actually trying to say. I just didn’t get it.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Johnson's Reading Circle: Trip to Oxford

29th of July 2017: Marylebone Station. 

Among the people swirling around the station, running to a train or cursing the lines closed for weekend maintenance, stood the Dr Johnson’s House Reading Circle. Slightly shocked at the crowds, some bright spark figures out which platform the next Oxford train will be on and we bundle to the front, managing to seat ourselves comfortably.

We peeled off into little groups on the train; I heard hair-raising stories of exotic travels, featuring sultry beauties, tomb-raiders and dodgy contacts before pitting wits against a cryptic crossword. Never having done one before, it was like stepping into a whole world of weirdness, where the following sentence is supposed to make sense: ‘Heavenly body mostly struck that woman as alluring (4-6)’ 

Finally arriving in Oxford, we bobbed and weaved our way through the crowds - following local knowledge and arriving up at our key Johnsonian attraction, Pembroke College where Boswell says he lived ‘upon the second floor over the gateway’ and ‘the enthusiast of learning will ever contemplate it with veneration’. So we did. 

Indeed, we did more than that. We were met by the bursar, a librarian and a professor of the History of English and an author on Johnson and dictionaries. This A Team split us in two groups, one to tour the college and one to explore the library.

The tour was conducted by the bursar and so we received many little behind the scenes tit-bits about how Pembroke was moving into the 21st Century, and how the college had grown out since Johnson’s day onto what had previously been a public street and also into (and over) Oxford’s medieval walls. 

We explored the dining hall, the chapel (built during the time Johnson was a member) and up the creaking wooden stairs to Johnson’s room. I reckon it’d have been a decent little place to live as a student. Nowadays it is the office for the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon, once held by JRR Tolkien.

We were then taken to the library where the librarian and lecturer showed us various items, including some of Johnson’s letters, his private prayers and meditation and some of his university essays. he had neater writing as a student, perhaps he was trying to impress. We also saw the library records which show a library book still overdue and the battle books, written in an undeciphered squiggly code. The numbers at the end show Johnson living at steady expense, not altering as his expenses begin to dry up. We chatted about the heavy editing of the prayers and how Oxford’s best text-detectives had been unable to scan or read those excised parts and we speculated what might be in them.

Then we had all the sandwiches we could eat and those other Reading Circle staples, wine or elderflower fizz, before thanking everyone and heading back into the crowds of Oxford.

Round Christ Church, through the huge queue in, down the Cherwell, glancing across Christ Church fields and thinking of the film Shadowlands, we then went to Magdalen College. 

A larger college, with Alumni such as Oscar Wilde, William Tyndale and Edward Gibbon, we split up to cover more ground. The cloistered quads with white hydrangeas and statues led to secret gardens, a deer park and a building called The New Building built in 1773. The highlight was probably the chapel, built in 1474 with sepia stained glass windows that make the stone roof look like a trompe l’oeil.

Wrestling through the crowds, we got to the Ashmolean, where we split up, some to go home, some for a cup of tea and some to explore more. 

One of the frequent topics of conversation was our various reflections on our own university and young-adult experiences. When asked if she’d enjoyed university years, one gave the reply, ‘I thought I was at the time.’ Similarly, Johnson and Boswell had a similar conversation.

“Dr. ADAMS told me that Johnson, while he was at Pembroke College, “was caressed and loved by all about him, was a gay and frolicksome fellow, and passed there the happiest part of his life.” But this is a striking proof of the fallacy of appearances, and how little any of us know of the real internal state even of those whom we see most frequently; for the truth is, that he was then depressed by poverty, and irritated by disease. When I mentioned to him this account as given me by Dr. ADAMS, he said, “Ah, Sir, I was mad and violent. It was bitterness which they mistook for frolick. I was miserably poor, and I thought to fight my way by my literature and my wit; so I disregarded all power and all authority.”

Not that I take Johnson at his word, he revisited Oxford many times since and complained about it in that way that confirms an affection for the place. As for me, I had never been to Oxford before and enjoyed myself a great time. 

Session for the reading circle start on the 26th of September with another Boswell chunk. Following that we should be joined by the authors for Jacqueline Riding’s Jacobites and Kate Chisholm’s Wit’s and Wives, about Johnson’s relations with women.

So, another great year discussing eighteenth century ‘stuff’ and another great year to come. Can’t wait.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Review: Ingenious Pain by Andrew Miller

We live in a world that tells us we should strive towards happiness and avoid pain at all costs.

This is quite a new notion and could probably have never have been conceived for most of the eighteenth century. We read Boswell’s journal, William Hicks or other reporters of life and pain was ubiquitous in the eighteenth century. In an era when alcohol was the closest to a painkiller and a good surgeon was one who could quickly, a life without pain might be desirable but not in the slightest bit achievable. These days, we can dull mental and physical anguish and although we are some way off living completely painless, we are far closer to it then our forebears. But what if that pain was vital?

That’s the question posed by Andrew Miller’s 1997 debut ‘Ingenious Pain’. It’s the story of James Dyer, a man who cannot feel pain and the kind of person and life this leads him to. It’s set in the eighteenth century, full of lots of period detail but it is not a completely realist novel, his lack of pain extends to all feelings both emotional and physical - it’s clearly a symbolic numbness working in the story. It reminds me a lot of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille’s lack of odour in ‘Perfume’. 

As a result of his numbness (though referred to as coldness in the book) he becomes a brilliant and adept doctor and saver of lives but a harsh and unpleasant man. He is all thought and talent but no feeling. This makes the book a little slow at first, it’s hard to care about the machinations of a plot on a character who can’t really feel one way or another about his situation. This is helped a little by the eventual introduction of other characters we can feel for and in changes in Dyer’s own circumstances.

Miller seems to be a novelist who favours ideas and set-pieces over tight plotting. Dyer is thrown into lots of situations, from toad-eater at a mountebank medical show, to ship’s surgeon to society doctor in order for the novel to show how useful it may be not feel but how limiting, concluding that it is pain that unites humanity and allows us to share with each other. There is also an underlying battle between the coldness of science and rationality and it’s opposite, an instinctive, irrationality.

This book is best at scenes than as a whole story. There is an autopsy that shares in the same horror as Hogarth’s autopsy in ‘Reward for cruelty’. There is a visceral description of smallpox, describing the skin boiling like milk before scabbing over and killing its victim. There are scenes on a man-of-war, scenes of surgery, including a stomach-churningly unsuccessful operation to separate conjoined twins. Near the end of the book there is an oddly sweet sequence about ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ being put on in Bedlam.

The writing is clear, gripping and interesting but without being distracting and it manages to adopt eighteenth century phrasing and vocabulary without being quaint. 

I very much enjoyed this book and I look forward to reading his other eighteenth-century set books, one about Casanova and the other being the Costa-winning, ‘Pure’.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Under the Glass... Seven: The Dignity of the Human Mind

I adore Johnson’s ‘Rambler’ essays. Even as they were written, they were parodied as well as praised (though never particularly bought until gathered in book form). They are Johnson at his Johnsonist, he called them his ‘pure wine’. Yes, they can be wordy, with long run-on sentences that don’t appeal to modern taste and a fancy for Latinate words - he was writing a dictionary at the same time - but I find more in a ‘Rambler’ essay than I do in whole other books.

On the 20th of September 2016, I felt awful. I had started working with my new class and I was concerned that I wasn’t going to be able to spend a year with them without losing all my patience and mind. A number of them had wound me up to a point of insensibility and it weighed on me. I walked home with a scowl wedged upon my face, staring at people, daring at them to insult me so I could hurt them. 

When I got home, I picked up my copy of ‘The Rambler’ and turned to essay number 185. It was about revenge, which appealed as I wanted to revenge myself on all those who had sniffed at me, or looked down on me. What was amazing is that something published  on Christmas Eve 1751 started to calm me down nearly 267 years later.

It successfully and persuasively mocked the anger born from an injured pride and made the strength of my anger seem ridiculous. It also raised the nobler feelings in me, my instincts to help, my confidence in the choices and values. By the time I reached the following quote, I was smiling:

“Nothing which reason condemns can be suitable to the dignity of the human mind. To be driven by external motives from the path in which our heart approves; to give way to anything but conviction; to suffer the opinion of others to rule our choice or overpower out resolves; is to submit tamely to the lowest and most ignominious slavery, and to resign the right of directing our lives.”

It’s now the end of that school year with that class. I’m going to miss them. There were some very good times, though there were also tough times. Times when I wanted to quit, to swear and tell them painful home-truths I’m not sure I believe. Over the year I have been sworn at, kicked at, had missiles thrown at me and ignored - it has not been an easy year. 

Yet, I have had that quote near my side and a quick peek at it has re-enforced my wish to do well for the children; to help them and to show by my actions, the power of reason, of the dignity of the human mind and to walk the peaceful path that my heart approves than be a slave to their aggression. 

That quote has helped me this year in seeing the strength of peace, even when it can sometimes feel like a weakness. It has made me a better person. (Though yesterday, I did yell at a kid for asking me the same question for the eighth time…I’m not perfect).

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Review: The Hermit in the Garden by Gordon Campbell

I’ve been interested in ornamental hermits since I picked up Dame Edith Sitwell’s ‘English Eccentrics’. Out of all the people discussed (some of whom seemed to have far more serious issues than mere eccentricity) those garden dwelling loners appealed to me the most.

So, imagine my pleasure when I discovered that Oxford University Press had released a book called ‘The Hermit in the Garden’. It is the one-and-only book about this fascinating piece of history and I couldn’t wait to give it a go.

The book starts with a general history of hermits, hermitages and their role in early Christianity – particularly as precursors to the monastic lifestyle. The next chapter is about the various ideas and traditions that led to something as strange as housing a contemplative man as decoration for the back garden. It explores the Christian tradition of the hermit but also the Celtic tradition, such as the legendary Myrddin. Combine with this, the late eighteenth century cult of Sensibility, Rousseau’s notion of the nobility of living with nature and the stretch for the sublime and such buildings as follies, temples and hermitages started to appear in gardens in Britain and around Europe. These hermitages then progenerated hermits like beetles from stagnant water.

The next chapter was my favourite, and deals with the ornamental hermits themselves. When it comes to ornamental hermits, it is by far the ornamental part of the phrase that interests more than the hermit part. There have always been hermits, people who have taken themselves ‘off-grid’ (as they put it now) to live in contemplation with nature. It’s the truly peculiar nature of having one for only ornamental reasons that capture my imagination. 

It certainly seems that there were a few ornamental hermits and that, for a time at least, some rich folk had successfully advertised and paid for live-in garden gnomes. It seems that the ornamental hermit became something of a joke, or at least viewed in an ironic manner, pretty quickly. How else could there have been stuffed manikin hermits, automata hermits and hermits living in pasteboard grottoes?

The rest of the book is dedicated to the architecture of the hermitages rather than the hermits themselves. This means that for nearly one hundred pages, the reader and author go on a tour of as many hermitages as possible and have each of them all sequentially described, one by one. In my notes for the book, there was one large, desperate cry for help; ‘Not another lamb bone mosaic floor!’ A phrase that comes up at least once a page in this section, if not more. For those more interested in the architecture then me (and those who are getting into lamb-bone decorations) this part of the book might fly by, for me it was a little bit of a slog.

Other than the bibliography and index, the book finishes with an extensive (of course) list of hermitages around the world and what state they are in. A truly cracked person could go on a hermitage tour of Europe. 

Despite the fact that half the book is a repetitive ‘through the keyhole’ of hermitages, I still recommend it as a meticulous, comprehensive look at a fascinating phenomenon. I like a book that tells you more then you need to know – and this fulfils that admirably.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Dr Johnson's House and the new 'Collecting Johnson' Exhibit

It’s strange, the amount of times I have talked about Samuel Johnson and attended events at Dr Johnson's House but never talked about it on here. 

The house, in Gough Square, is the one Johnson rented and lived in as he compiled his Dictionary and wrote his Rambler essays. Shortly after the completion of the dictionary, Johnson had to move out but the house remained and, even in the constantly changing face of London, managed to still stand.

In 1911 it was bought by liberal MP, Cecil Harmsworth and dedicated to the memory of Samuel Johnson, intending it to feel like a warm home rather than an uptight museum. During WWII, the house was used as a canteen and social club for the firemen who fought against the firestorms of the Blitz. The house was hit a number of times but luckily, never burnt down.

Now, it is open to the public, runs a number of interesting events and is where I go every couple of months to talk about the eighteenth century. Each of the rooms tells a different aspect of Johnson’s life and there are many portraits and prints around the walls to introduce various people in Johnson’s life. The house also has a copy of his will, various items belonging to friends and a fully stocked library with some of Johnson’s own books and a facsimile copy of his dictionary always open to look at.

One of the real joys of the house is the fact that you can feel it as a working house. The rooms feel homely, the various domestic partitions and clever little hideaways add to the feeling that people lived there. A large corkscrew device by the front door still stands as a deterrent against thieves and bailiffs and the central stairs still remain the hub of the house, taking us to Johnson’s bedroom or up the ‘four-pair’ to the wonderfully atmospheric Dictionary Garret.

But I mention this because of the new exhibition, ‘Collecting Johnson’. If it’s somewhere you’ve been putting off visiting, this is the time to go.

Included in the entrance ticket, ‘Collecting Johnson’ has a number of objects and works never before seen in public, borrowed from collectors across the world. There’s a letter from Johnson to Hester Thrale, addressed in warm and familiar terms; there are rare copies of works by and owned by friends such as Sheridan and Goldsmith, there’s a copy of a very early biography which Johnson wrote for the Gentleman’s Magazine, of which only three others exist.. there’s a lot more.

My personal favourites included the book by Bow-Street Runner, Saunders Welch (though probably actually written by Johnson), a bound copy of Johnson’s plan for his dictionary and a hand-written subscription card for his edition of Shakespeare, which came out nine years later after Johnson had lost his list of subscribers.

As well as all of this, there’s a never-before-seen x-ray of a portrait of Johnson’s and a very impractical looking snuff-box owned by Boswell. Chatting to the curator about it, she said that when she placed the lid on and ‘jiggled it about’ (technical term) it held together surprisingly well.

I’m sure it’s pretty obvious that I love Dr Johnson’s House and I loved the exhibition, but toddling along in the next few months is highly recommended because of that extra Johnsonian bang for your buck - and if you went a few years ago, go again as there are things there that will never be available again. 

Oh - and don't forget to say hello to Hodge, Johnson's cat.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

All About: Ornamental Hermits

A lovely video about a topic we've discussed here before... ornamental hermits.