Friday, 28 September 2012

On Resuming University Life and Wordsworth's "After-Thought"

This is the river that inspired much of Machado's poetry. This also partly explains the
lecturer's digression on Wordsworth - regarding a mention of a river - that I mention in this post.
Image from

Sorry I haven't been blogging much. Anyone with anxiety - and other mental health issues - will understand how challenging university can be. I started term on Monday, and since then it has been quite stressful. However, I'm still alive, which I guess is what matters. I've made myself attend all my lectures and seminars, no matter how much anxiety that entails, and I've made some arrangements to make things easier. I'm having "mentoring" sessions every week with a lovely American, all my tutors are aware that I have some issues, and I've resumed therapy. I did end up having a panic attack in the therapy session, and I cried for almost the whole hour, but I'll ignore that. I've also told one of the people I live with about (some of) my problems. As PTSD therapy can be quite traumatic, I thought it would be polite to warn her. Even the preparation for it earlier in the year brought up nasty emotions and memories, making me very unsociable and reclusive.

My literature module this term is called "Desire and Power", covering texts from the Renaissance. The first week's reading was A Midsummer Night's Dream, which was nice to start with. Our seminar covered the structure of the play alongside the political aspects of it, particularly the links to Queen Elizabeth I. I've started The Faerie Queene for next week's study: that's a little more challenging to read and analyse! To prepare for the seminar, I have to consider how gender is represented, how allegory is used, and how poetry and power are linked.

My Spanish culture module is entitled "The Generation of 1898". Although I've only had two introductory lectures so far, I'm really enjoying it. It covers Campos de Castilla by Antonio Machado and Castilla by Azorín, neither of which I've studied before. Perhaps I'll write about these in detail when I've read them (yes, I've been a lazy student!), but in this post I'll mention a Wordsworth poem that is essentially completely irrelevant to my course. However, the lecturer likes to digress, and today he quoted a few lines from After-Thought. He also managed to mention Keats's death and Thomas Hardy. It's not too much of a surprise to know that he studied English & Spanish at Oxford.

After-Thought was not a poem that I've read before, but I'm glad the lecturer introduced me to it. The emboldened lines indicate the passage he referred to:

I thought of Thee, my partner and my guide,
As being past away.--Vain sympathies!
For, backward, Duddon! as I cast my eyes,
I see what was, and is, and will abide;
Still glides the Stream, and shall for ever glide;
The Form remains, the Function never dies;

While we, the brave, the mighty, and the wise,
We Men, who in our morn of youth defied
The elements, must vanish;--be it so!
Enough, if something from our hands have power
To live, and act, and serve the future hour;
And if, as toward the silent tomb we go,
Through love, through hope, and faith's transcendent dower,
We feel that we are greater than we know.

William Wordsworth

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Michel de Montaigne: Self-Esteem and the Quotes on his Ceiling

The loveable philosopher himself.
Michel de Montaigne knew a lot about low self-esteem. He realised how the achievements of others can make us feel less worthy, despite being a lawyer, twice mayor of Bordeaux and a friend of the King of France.

He understood what makes us feel bad about ourselves, largely: bodily worries, the feeling of being judged by others, and intellectual inadequacy.

Montaigne was also convinced that we are are surrounded by the wrong role models, people who aren't at all like ourselves. This was spoken by a man born in 1533, but it is so applicable today. Because we can't relate to the people we're meant to look up to and aspire to be like, feelings of inadequacy are inevitable.

Although philosophers often see reason as the solution to problems, Montaigne perceived problems as being caused by our reason and over-thinking of issues.

As the body is so rarely mentioned in public, we're led to think of it as shameful. Montaigne knew a woman who ate behind a curtain for fear of being seen chewing, and a man who requested to be buried in his underpants to retain his privacy.

Montaigne's Prescription for Low Self-Esteem

We must accept the ordinary in ourselves.

We need to accept how akin we are to animals. In fact, Montaigne felt that the animals on his chateau farm surpassed humans in many ways. They're not shy, nor do they bother themselves with needless worry and anxiety. We should accept our bodies with good grace and a touch of humour.

We must open our eyes to all that counters our cultural status-quo. Travel physically or simply in your mind, and greet the diversity of the world. Socrates declared himself to be a citizen of the world, not merely Athens, and we should tell ourselves (and others if you choose to be vocal) the same.

Montaigne felt that most university graduates were "blockheads". Teach yourself and develop the skills that really matter in life: how to live well, deal with death, end a relationship, and confront anxieties (among so many others). Work on your humility and modesty, and accept your intellectual limitations. If you do this, you have no reason to feel intellectually inadequate. After all, outward symbols of intelligence are often incredibly different to reality.

Some Words of Wisdom

In his study, surrounded by a thousand books and space to pace, Montaigne had a ceiling covered in inscriptions of essential wisdom. Some of which are below, amongst other sayings of Montaigne.

"The most terrible and violent of our own afflictions is to despise our own beings"

"On the highest throne, we are seated, still, upon our arses"

"Everything is too complicated for men to understand"

"The man who thinks he knows something does not know yet what knowing is"

"Why torment yourself with worries that are outside your self control?"

Montaigne's ceiling of quotations. Image from Flickr.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Thoughts on How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton

“Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.”
I admit that I've never read anything by Proust, which makes this book an unusual choice. I've also never read anything by Alain de Botton, the famous Swiss philosopher. Despite all of these lapses in my literary knowledge, I really did enjoy reading How Proust Can Change Your Life, probably because I love reading about how literature can impact living.

Marcel Proust (seated), Robert de Flers (left) and Lucien
Daudet (right), ca. 1894.
It's an easy book to read as a starter to Proust and Alain de Botton. The author gives an illustration of Proust's character, and goes on to make some psychological and philosophical queries. Proust had an excessively close relationship with his mother; until her death it was always a relationship of mother and young boy. De Botton describes how Proust felt he could only enjoy his mother's affection when he was ill, leading me to consider two possibilities.

Firstly, did this relationship influence Marcel's hypochondria? It may be said that he was truly ill, however. For one, he doesn't strike me as a person who gained satisfaction from illness, rather that he felt it was expected of him in order to gain the human warmth he valued so highly.

Secondly, does his mother's preoccupation with his health point towards Münchausen syndrome? She sounds very much like my aunt, who is always convinced that herself and her children have health issues. I was surprised how different Marcel's brother (Robert) was to him: de Botton describes him as "indestructible", a doctor who survived falling from a bicycle under a coal wagon, working as a doctor in horrendous conditions during World War I, and a grave car crash. Shortly after each of these events, Robert Proust would be back on the road to an active life. I wonder if Robert grew up more distanced from his mother than Marcel.

A novelist that I've been reading a lot recently, Elizabeth von Arnim, places great importance on fresh air, something that Proust certain lacked as a result of his asthma. He's famed for spending the last three years of his life mostly confined to his bedroom, sleeping during the day and working at night to complete In Search of Lost Time.

One of my favourite elements of de Botton's text is his retelling of Proust's meeting with James Joyce. Perhaps "meeting" is an inaccurate word due to the brevity of the encounter, however. The pair met at a party in Paris, seventy-one years before the day of my birthday in 1922. The conversation they had seemed to consist entirely of "non" answers, yet somehow Joyce ended up travelling in the same taxi as Proust afterwards. Joyce began smoking,which was terrible news for Proust's asthma, but Marcel still instructed the taxi driver to drop Joyce home after him. De Botton speculates how fascinating it could have been if Proust had read Ulysses, or formed common ground with Joyce, but the original meeting nonetheless interests me. It seems so... spectacularly awkward. I'd have to say that I'd prefer meeting Joyce to Proust.

I best enjoy novels that help me reflect on, and make sense of, life. Perhaps this means that In Search of Lost Time is the novel - a very large one at that - for me to read next. It's a work that keeps popping up in Book III of 1Q84, which I still haven't finished! As I've read and enjoyed almighty works such as War and Peace and Ulysses, hopefully I can manage Proust's pièce de résistance, despite how much the prospect scares me.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

A Review of Elizabeth and her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim

Elizabeth and Her German Garden, a wonderful
novel about escaping into nature.
Although Elizabeth and Her German Garden is designed to be the prequel to The Solitary Summer, I read them in reverse. As expected, Elizabeth von Arnim's writing is refreshing and light, and is the perfect accompaniment to my holiday. However, I do think I prefer The Solitary Summer to German Garden. In Elizabeth and Her German Garden the narrator seems quite trapped by guests and socialising, with only snippets of her time spent in nature. I prefer the freedom that she finds during her solitary summer.

Nonetheless, there's plenty to discuss about German Garden; probably more than The Solitary Summer in fact. There's a greater political sphere to the novel, particularly in relation to the position of women in society. This was a text written in 1898, and the female marginalisation of the time is all too apparent. However, the fact that Arnim questions the situation is proof of growing modernity. The novel's protagonist, Elizabeth, challenges the stereotype of a woman at home: she doesn't cook, doesn't enjoy cleaning, and classes herself, like others do, as eccentric. By spending so much time writing and reading, she lives a life that appears more contemporarily masculine than feminine. In one episode, the three female characters - Elizabeth, Irais and Minora - challenge the Man of Wrath's view that "women, children and idiots" should be classed collectively. Was Germany more reactionary than Britain at this time, perhaps?

It's worth mentioning that Elizabeth and Irais mock Minora for being a female writer, and imply that she is not a "true" woman because of it. I imagine that Arnim is recapturing the attitudes of others towards herself as a writer. Also, Minora discusses the possibility of using a pseudonym for her writing, just as Arnim did.

I'm so glad that I discovered Elizabeth von Arnim at the beginning of the year. I'd have to choose The Solitary Summer as my favourite novel by her, although I'm sure that I'd like to re-read Elizabeth and Her German Garden and The Enchanted April too.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Thoughts on Elizabeth von Arnim's "The Solitary Summer"

"I want to be alone for a whole summer, and get to the very dregs of life. I want to be as idle as I can, so that my soul may have time to grow. Nobody shall be invited to stay with me, and if anyone calls they will be told that I am out, or away, or sick . . . Wouldn't a whole lovely summer, quite alone, be delightful?'
This delightful companion to the famous Elizabeth and her German Garden is a witty, lyrical account of a rejuvenating, solitary summer filled with books and Elizabeth's reflections on her beloved garden. Descriptions of magnificent larkspurs and burning nasturtiums give way to those of cooling forest walks. Yet the months aren't as solitary as she'd planned: there's still her husband to pacify and the April, May and June babies to amuse."

It’s rare for me to read the introduction to classics. However, occasionally after enjoying a book I find it refreshing to return to preliminary notes and reflections. This was the case with my reading of The Solitary Summer by Elizabeth von Arnim, which I’ve just finished.

Learning about the author has added so much to my reading experience. I could relate to the book in many ways before, but now I realise that Elizabeth von Arnim and myself are even more alike. We are both avid readers, for instance. Well, she was. My favourite part of The Solitary Summer must have been the elegy to her favourite authors in the May 15 entry.

Arnim begins with a mention of Thoreau, which appealed to me. I’ve recently struggled reading Walden, despite enjoying the beginning and its premise so much. However, Arnim explains the reason behind my difficulties with remarkable precision: “[Thoreau] is a person who loves the open air, and will refuse to give you much pleasure if you try to read him amid the pomp and circumstance of upholstery; but out in the sun, and especially by this pond, he is delightful.” This beautifully written explanation makes so much sense.

I find Arnim ideally suited to spring, but The Solitary Summer is perfect to read here in Italy. Not to make you jealous, but the sun is beaming down, the Bay of Naples is on the horizon, and nature is flourishing with yellows and purples. The terrace on which I am sitting isn’t far from utopian.

It may seem slightly selfish to read a book about a solitary summer whilst on holiday with my boyfriend, but he doesn’t seem to mind. Being here with him is a nice escape from the world, and it’s solitary enough for me at the moment. In Arnim’s novel, Elizabeth isn’t entirely alone either: she sees her husband morning and evening, and a regiment is billeted to their home (which according to the introduction is a hefty estate – the narrator, like the author, is rather modest).

I wasn’t won over by the protagonist’s encounters with the lieutenant towards the novel’s end; it seemed to me cluttered and out of place, although it does serve to show her distaste upon her peace being disturbed. The ending, nonetheless, was beautiful, proving that she does love her “Man of Wrath” dearly, and isn’t happy with a life of complete social isolation. Introverts, like Elizabeth and myself, need copious solitary hours, but also social contact in between to our taste.

The Solitary Summer provides an escape into nature, away from frantic ordinary life and into inner reflection. The novel regards slowing down into the present and simplicity as highly as, if not more than, solitude, and it is a truly wonderful text to read.  

Monday, 17 September 2012

Back home!

I arrived in Manchester on Friday evening, but finally arrived back home last night after spending some time at my boyfriend's home. I'm working today and tomorrow, and returning to university on Wednesday morning, but I'll make sure to find some time to blog (and to pack!)

Posts in the pipeline include: How Proust Can Change Your Life (Alain de Botton), The Solitary Summer and Elizabeth and her German Garden (Elizabeth von Arnim), and my thoughts on the new Anna Karenina production alongside the Tate Turner Monet Twombly gallery.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog and Tolstoy

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, a novel
with great references to Leo Tolstoy.

I was pleasantly surprised by The Elegance of the HedgehogI imagine that many have described it as being narrated pretentiously - the text is heavily detailed and elaborated. This also means that more concentration is required to read it than with most novels. Here's how the novel begins:
"'Marx has completely changed the way I view the world', declared the Pallières boy this morning, although ordinarily he says nary a word to me. Antoine Pallières, prosperous heir to an old industrial dynasty, is the son of one of my eight employers. There he stood, the most recent eructation of the ruling corporate elite - a class that reproduces itself solely by means of virtuous and proper hiccups - beaming at his discovery, sharing it with me without thinking or ever dreaming for a moment that I might actually understand what he was referring to. How could the labouring classes understand Marx?"
I do appreciate the various snippets of information that Barbery includes, particularly those pertaining to Tolstoy. In fact, one of the two protagonists - Renée Michel - has a cat called Leo, and two other feline characters with Tolstoyan names emerge. I did wonder why there were so many cats in the novel - do all French people have them?!

I would never have predicted the ending. It's a sad twist in the plot, and you can't help but wonder if the tramp's involvement is used symbolically. Throughout the novel Barbery contrasts and equally combines high and low society, and the ending brings this to a close. Does Barbery mean to imply that meddling with the status-quo has nasty consequences?

Despite all of her questionably suicidal tendencies, I related well to Paloma (the second leading character). I generally feel the same way that she does towards noise and modern youth culture, and we both clash with our sisters! However, I'm not convinced that a person her age could be so smart. I also found myself questioning the difference between genuine and superficial intelligence whilst reading this novel. It's a hard line to define, and I'm not sure which applies to Paloma. I wonder if she would have friends if she didn't regard intellectual improvement as so important. I wonder the same about myself too.

I'm going away tomorrow, and probably won't be blogging for a week. I hope everyone reading this is well and enjoying the last few dregs of summer.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Translation of Lorca's Romance de la luna, luna

The moon last night was incredible: nearly full, and almost orange. I love nights like that, especially if the stars are clear too. As I live in the countryside, they usually are. Unfortunately I couldn't get a very good photo; the above is the best that I could achieve.

I was reminded of the poem "Romance de la luna, luna" by Lorca, included in the Romancero Gitano (or Gypsy Ballads) collection. A translation - that isn't mine - is below:

Romance of the Moon, Moon - Federico García Lorca
Translation by Helen Gunn, CSU San Marcos

The moon came to the forge
with her skirt of white, fragrant flowers.
The young boy watches her, watches.
The boy is watching her.

In the electrified air
the moon moves her arms
and points out, lecherous and pure,
her breasts of hard tin.

Flee, moon, moon, moon.
If the gypsies were to come,
they would make with your heart
white necklaces and rings.

Young boy, leave me to dance.
When they come, the gypsies
will find you upon the anvil
with closed eyes.

Flee, moon, moon, moon.
Already I sit astride horses.
Young boy, leave me, don’t step on
my starched whiteness.

The horse rider approaches
beating the drum of the plain.
Within the forge the young man
has closed eyes.

Through the olive grove they come,
the gypsies – bronze and dreaming,
heads lifted
and eyes half closed.

Hark, hear the night bird –
how it sings in the tree.
Across the sky moves the moon,
holding the young boy by the hand.

Within the forge the gypsies cry,
are crying out.
The air watches over her, watches.
The air is watching over her.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Currently Reading and Recently Read: 1Q84 Book II, The Elegance of the Hedgehog

I apologise about my lack of book blogging recently; I've had what must be classed as reading block.  I've also been quite busy, spending this weekend in Manchester for an athletics competition my brother competed in. This brief trip north was enjoyable: we all travelled in two coaches, and stayed in a decent hotel overnight. The breakfast call at 7am was challenging for some, but I appreciate an early start.

My brother got two personal bests in 200m and 80m hurdles, despite missing out on medals. I'm sure that the guys he competes against are lying about their age; there's no way that boys under fifteen can be so broad and tall. His team won overall, which meant that there were plenty of smiling faces on the coach home.

I brought with me to Manchester The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. I did only read the first fifty pages or so, but it was a suitable choice. I'll cover it in a full blog post when I've finished it and gathered my thoughts. One of the parents on the trip was reading The Man Who Lost His Wife by Julian Symons. She also had the mandatory reading material for mothers, Fifty Shades (the third one, if for some reason you're curious). She was enjoying Symons's novel, and had good things to say about his other work. She did add that she was rather bored of reading "filth".

I was quite slow reading the second 1Q84 book, and I've found that it's not very easy to blog about. I'm sure that I will write about it after finishing the third book. I am enjoying the series, despite finding it so different to Murakami's other work. In some ways I find that it has more of a plot, but in other ways it seems extra obscure.

I'm working in the bookshop tomorrow, then I'm travelling to Liverpool to stay with my boyfriend before our holiday. Before we leave, I need to do some urgent holiday shopping. I'd also like to see the Tate Turner Monet Twombly exhibition. We're away from September 7, which is coincidentally the day that Anna Karenina is first shown in cinemas. The boyfriend has promised that he'll take me when we're back. I was planning to re-read the novel before seeing the film, but I'm not sure that I'll have time. Also, I'm not sure that Anna Karenina fits the holiday-reading category. The Elizabeth von Arnim that I've packed seems much more appropriate.