September 30, 2005

The Songloving Lyre

Posted in Uncategorized at 12:48 am by falstaff

Article in the New York Review of Books by Anne Carson, about a ‘new’ Sappho poem – essentially a reconstruction of a poem earlier labelled fragment 58. Carson’s translation:

You, children, be zealous for the beautiful gifts of the violetlapped Muses
and for the clear songloving lyre.

But my skin once soft is now taken by old age,
my hair turns white from black.

And my heart is weighed down and my knees do not lift,
that once were light to dance as fawns.

I groan for this. But what can I do?
A human being without old age is not a possibility.

There is the story of Tithonos, loved by Dawn with her arms of roses
and she carried him off to the ends of the earth

when he was beautiful and young. Even so was he gripped
by white old age. He still has his deathless wife.

– Sappho.

Carson writes a beautiful little piece to go with this (available only to subscribers I’m afraid). Writes for instance:

“Sappho’s is a naked dress. She simply inserts us into a problem of life and then opens it, on a single mythic turn, to time. Time, as metrical pattern, holds the poem perfectly and eternally in place.”

I personally didn’t think that much of the translation – though not having read the original it’s hard to tell. Still, some of it just feels wrong.

I am reminded of three things. The first, obviously, is Tennyson’s incredible Tithonus:

The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,
Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan.

The second is from Teasdale, a poem called Erinna, where Teasdale, through the voice of her narrator, confronts Sappho:

Your words will live forever, men will say
‘She was the perfect lover’ – I shall die,
I loved too much to live. Go Sappho, go –
I hate your hands that beat so full of life,
Go, lest my hatred hurt you. I shall die,
But you will live to love and love again.

The third is Plath:

Empty, I echo to the least footfall,
Museum without statues, grand with pillars, porticoes, rotundas.
In my courtyard a fountain leaps and sinks back into itself,
Nun-hearted and blind to the world. Marble lilies
Exhale their pallor like scent.

In other news, it seems Mahfouz is back with a book called the Dreams, and there’s a glorious article by John Leonard about Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, which Uma has blogged about (the book, not the NYR article) here (link to Guardian site).


September 29, 2005

The Bard

Posted in Uncategorized at 10:50 pm by falstaff

Do you ever have one of those days when you end up just tripping on Shakespeare?

Combination of mail from a friend of mine who’s in Bard overdrive and a meme doing the rounds requiring that you put a quote from Shakespeare on your blog asap meant that this one was inevitable:

Alas! ’tis true, I have gone here and there,
And made my self a motley to the view,
Gored mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear,
Made old offences of affections new;
Most true it is, that I have looked on truth
Askance and strangely; but, by all above,
These blenches gave my heart another youth,
And worse essays proved thee my best of love.

– William Shakespeare, ‘Sonnet No. CX’

Crossing the bar

Posted in Uncategorized at 1:25 am by falstaff

Remember Oedipus at Thebes? How’s this for a pantocratic riddle[1]:

What has only one face but inspires first deceit, then resentment and then joy?

Answer: A photo id.

I got carded today. I walked into a bar to get a drink and someone actually stopped me and wanted to see some ID to make sure I was twenty-one.

There was a time, not long ago, when this would have upset me. I would have puffed up my chest and muttered indignant curses about people who didn’t know a grown up when they saw one. I would have told myself (and, after a few drinks, anyone else in a four table radius) that it’s not personal, that they do it with everyone, that the system is designed to be mindless.

Now I’m just grateful. I can’t believe that anyone would seriously consider the possibility that I might be less than 21 (a couple of years ago I tried getting people to guess my age just based on the way I look – I stopped doing it when the median age turned out to be 30.). I mean okay, so it probably is just mechanical, but at least they still feel that they have to ask. They actually think there’s a risk that I might be underage. This is thrilling news. And the fact that my designated sphinx was barely legal herself and was kind of restful to the eyes didn’t hurt either. Now I can spend the next six months crowing about this and telling everyone I know (what do you think this post is about) that I’ve been known to pass for 21.

(I should say that some jealous audiences have suggested that the only reason she wanted to see my ID was because she was curious to know what licenses looked like back in the days they still had horse carriages, but this is mere persiflage and not worth discussing)

This is particularly gratifying since the general trend seems to be the other way – even when I actually wave my ID under someone’s nose to prove I’m over age, they’ll usually wave me on without looking at it, often with an amused look on their face that says ‘look how quaint and paranoid these old men are – as if we could have any doubts about him being ancient’.

This is about as insulting as not getting pulled out of line for a special search at airports – I know it’s supposed to be a random selection, but I always think I don’t get picked because I don’t look fit enough to be a terrorist or because I look too weak-willed to hurt a fly. I could be a deadly assassin trained in the essential arts of hand-to-hand combat. I could have great quantities of lethal explosives on my person and still be walking by nonchalantly. I could wear a gaberdine suit and have a camera for a bow tie. Hell, I even said boo to a goose once (after I recovered from the scare it gave me, of course). But no, they’ll stop 80 year old grandmothers with walkers and wave me on with a smile because they look more credible as terrorists than I do.

Now if only I could get them to stop me from walking into an X-rated film because I look too innocent and impressionable. That would be the day!

[1] See Auden, ‘Under Sirius’

September 28, 2005


Posted in Uncategorized at 1:25 am by falstaff

Great religions are the

Poets the life

Every sane person I know has jumped

That is good for business
Isn’t it


There’s something very seductive about really good Sufi poetry. It’s the combination of passion, humour, precision, philosophy and wit – the sense of something that is heartfelt and deeply meaningful, but that it is also laughing and playful. “Teach us to care and not to care” Eliot writes – but it is the sufis who have really mastered that art.

In one of his most beautiful poems, Hafiz writes: “I vote for you to be God”. That one line conjurs up so many emotions. On the one hand, it surprises you and makes you laugh. On the other, it makes you think about the nature of God’s authority and what it would mean to choose our own Gods. At the same time it is a deeply moving line, a beautiful idea for a love poem.

It is this ability to walk the tightrope between the human and the divine that makes Hafiz special to me. His unique voice is the embodiment of an attitude I have always aspired to; a rich yet easy wisdom that he shares with the other great Sufi / Bhakti poets (witness Kabir). His lines are often taut with meaning, but they are also heartbreakingly simple and display a clarity of thought that rivals the best work of the great Chinese poets (Li Po, Tu Fu).



Makes the universe admit a


“I am

Really just a tambourine,

Grab hold,

Play me

Against your warm


September 27, 2005

Constant Stranger

Posted in Uncategorized at 12:14 am by falstaff

Stepping out of Penn station, the skyscrapers return like memories. The sky is blue with forgetting. I arrive in a crowd, in a tributary of haste that slides effortlessly into the great river of passersby that is Manhattan. The urgency of this city can break your heart. I walk up 7th Avenue, scanning the faces of people walking past. I am not looking for anyone I know. Rather, I am searching for the perfect stranger, that one impossible person who is always with us but who cannot be known or spoken to. There is one for everyone. I am sure of it.

Yet everywhere I turn the faces are familiar. Hidden away in each glance there is something – a line of the mouth, a turn of the head – that conjures up the face of someone else. Someone I know. Someone I am trying to escape. My guilt is written clearly in these faces – my part in the great conspiracy of being human – but these are clues that only I can read.

I stand on the corner and wait for the loneliness to come, like a crosstown bus. When it finally arrives, I climb in eagerly. There is plenty of room. I sit there, eyeing my fellow-passengers from the corner of my eye, never daring to speak to them. There are many like me – impatient spirits trying to make their way over to the other side, blind to the colours of feeling that seep into everything, stain everything, even our hands – but each one of us is alone.

I have come to New York looking for the perfect stranger. But how shall I know when I have found him? I cannot recognise him, of course, that is the whole point. If I got to know him at all, even through something as negligible as a handshake (as simple and as faithless as a smile or a shake of the hand; the words come to mind unbidden) then he (or she) wouldn’t be a stranger anymore, and I would have to start again. The truth is that they could all be the perfect stranger, or any one of them could be. I may have crossed him a dozen times already, and I wouldn’t know.

Or perhaps it is the city itself that is the Stranger. Distant, aloof, unknowable. Perhaps it is the city who I have come looking for, perhaps it is the city who I just miss meeting, every time I turn the corner.

I stop in front of a shop window and there he is. The stranger. Staring back at me from behind the polished surface of the glass. In that instant of non-recognition, I realise I have nothing to say to him. The sky has turned gray now. It is starting to rain. I move on.

September 26, 2005

For Starters

Posted in Uncategorized at 2:40 pm by falstaff

Writing this morning’s post, I was sorely tempted to include a list of my other favourite openings, but finally decided to leave well enough alone. Except that now Veena has suggested posting favourite openings, and I can’t resist. So here goes – some familiar classics, some not so much:

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice:

“It is a fact universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a large fortune must be in want of a wife.”

T. S. Eliot’s Wasteland:

“April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.”

Albert Camus’ L’etranger

“Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know. I had a telegram from home: ‘Mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Yours sincerely.’ That doesn’t mean anything. It may have happened yesterday.”

Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” (note: translations of this line vary, but this is the one that I like the best)

Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”

George Orwell’s 1984

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen”

Ernest Hemingway’s Old man and the Sea

“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish”

And that hoariest old chestnut of all:

Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents–except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

Plus a few personal favourites:

The entire first chapter of Philip Roth’s Deception.

Carson McCullers’ Clock without hands

“Death is always the same, but every man dies in his own way. For J.T. Malone, it began in such a simple ordinary way that for a time he confused the end of life with the beginning of a new season.”

Dostovevsky’s Notes from Underground

“I am a sick man. I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man.”

Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier

“This is the saddest story I have ever heard.”

And finally, as Ozymandiaz mentions in the the comment to the last post:

Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.”

“Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.”



It was love at first sight

Posted in Uncategorized at 1:09 am by falstaff

Do you believe in love at first sight?

I believe in love.
I do not believe in our ability to see.

– from ‘Interview’, September 2004.

I do believe in love at first sight. I’ve lived through it.

The most authentic experience of being instantly attracted to something I’ve ever had was with The Catcher in the Rye. Remember that glorious opening paragraph:

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them. They’re quite touchy about anything like that, especially my father. They’re nice and all-I’m not saying that-but they’re also touchy as hell. Besides, I’m not going to tell you my whole goddam autobiography or anything.”

The first time I read that it grabbed me by the throat and took my breath away. I knew immediately that this was a book I couldn’t help falling in love with, and that even though with time my fervour for it would lose some of its intensity, it was a book I was never going to be able to get over.

So it is possible. To judge. To know. To fall. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.[2]

Just not with people.


[1] The title of this post is, of course, another of my favourite opening lines.

[2] 1 Corinthians 15:52.

September 25, 2005

Words for the day

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:28 pm by falstaff

New words I learnt today (I hate Banville. Every time I read a book of his [1] he makes me feel illiterate):

Gallimaufry n. A heterogeneous mixture, a confused jumble, a ridiculous medley

Pococurante a. adj. Caring little; careless, indifferent, nonchalant. b. n. A careless or indifferent person; one who shows little interest or concern.

Also, a wonderful word that I suspect Banville just made up – gonadolescent. As in “I was as gone on her as any gonadolescent on his girl”. What a splendid term – so physical, so scornful.

[1] The Shroud. See my review here

Something missing

Posted in Uncategorized at 10:42 am by falstaff

One of the things I hate about big modern bookstores (sheesh! that makes me sound like I’m 60 years old, doesn’t it) is how well stocked and organised there are. I know this is supposed to be a good thing. I know I’m the same person who used to complain bitterly about how you could never find more than a few books by any given author at the bookstore – so you’d think I’d be pleased with a store where you could get pretty much everything a particular writer had ever written, all arranged in neat alphabetic order.

The trouble is that a large part of what made book shopping fun for me was the thrill of discovery that came from being in a tiny bookstore and having to hunt about for a particular author / book (see my earlier post about pavement book sellers in Bombay here). You could spend hours searching for a book that you wanted (or any book that you wanted) and there was a curious sense of elation at finding something worthwhile, precisely because the probability of this was so low. In these large modern book stores, you’re pretty certain to find what you’re looking for, so there’s really little difference between shopping at your local Barnes and Noble and just browsing for books on Amazon (except that Amazon’s usually a lot cheaper; and you don’t have people talking loudly on their cellphones all around you)

The other thing that irritates me about big book stores is the sheer mindlessness that goes into arranging their book collections, the absence of discernment, the complete lack of personality. Because these stores are soulless automatons, you’ll end up with Paulo Coelho next to J M Coetzee and Pamela Andersen on the same rack (heh) as Amis, Austen and Atwood. It’s not just that I find this annoying (because it makes the whole collection seems like a steeple chase, with me jumping over row after row like a frenzied horse) it’s also something that I find actively insulting – a blow to intelligent reading everywhere. After all, this is the same store that has a seperate section for sci-fi cartoons, so why would they club all this stuff under the general rubric of literature and fiction? They’ll put Asimov and Camus in different sections, but put Sartre and Danielle Steele in the same rack?

My response to all this is what I call negative browsing. I no longer spend time in book stores looking for books they have – I spend my time searching anxiously for the books they don’t. This means that I will trawl through their shelves, looking for a) authors they don’t have, b) books they don’t have from authors they do or c) books that are in the wrong place. It’s childish, I know, but there’s a sense of great satisfaction I get from being able to outthink these big corporate behemoths, in being able to find fault with them.

So, for instance, here are the five things that are missing from the Barnes and Noble on 66th and Broadway (I mention only the most glaring omissions. I’m not going to talk about how they had Byatt under S, for instance):

1) Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education
2) Henrich Heine’s poetry
3) William Golding’s Rites of Passage
4) Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico Philosophicus
5) Carson McCuller’s Reflections in a Golden Eye

Instead, what they do have is a book called Harry Potter and Philosophy: If Aristotle ran Hogwarts. Is nothing sacred anymore? Surely one should be able to browse the Philosophy section without having to be assaulted by J K Rowling and her ilk (Harry Potter forsooth!).

I love being pedantic.

September 24, 2005

I have a dream

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:50 am by falstaff

Is it just me, or do other people’s dreams seem cinematic as well? Maybe it’s just that the movies have completely taken over my visual imagination, but it seems like every time I have a dream I can remember, it comes complete with camera angles and backlighting. I mean I know Steven Spielberg is gradually trying to take over everything, but couldn’t he at least have left my dreams alone? (isn’t there a line in The Catcher in the Rye about this? Something about how the movies just slay you? It’s somewhere in the middle – he imagines this shooting scene – I HATE not having all my books with me!).

Take last night. I have this big dream about some sort of revolutionary war. As I remember it, there was a coherent plot to the whole thing, complete with passionate discussions on important moral issues as well as a sub-plot of treason and intrigue, but I can’t for the life of me remember anything about this. (It’s one of the things that bugs me while reading Homer – how all these characters are always waking up saying how this or that God appeared to them in a dream disguised as someone else. I can’t even remember who was in my dreams, let alone list their various aliases. If Pallas Athene ever showed up in my dream I’d probably end up confusing her with Paris Hilton. Not that I would ever dream about Paris Hilton of course. Further digression: have you seen Klimt’s glorious portrait of Pallas Athene? It’s awesome).

Anyway, what I do remember of the dream are two scenes:

Scene 1

Afternoon. Paratroopers wearing caps with long flappy ears (don’t ask) are dropping into a crowded town square (the scene is vaguely reminiscent of The Longest Day, except that it’s bright daylight). They hit the ground on their feet, firing, then their chutes close over them and they fold away into the earth, disappearing, never to rise again.

Suddenly the camera switches to an aerial shot from the perspective of a paratrooper. I can see my feet stretching away and the ground far beneath me, covered with scurrying people. Only it’s not really me – I’m sitting still – it’s the camera that’s falling. As I go lower I lift up my gun, start firing, trying to correct for the angle. I know I have only a few precious seconds before the chute billows orange over me. I fire and fire and then the darkness closes in.

Scene 2

A soldier, running, out of breath. As I watch the camera zooms out, widens, until the figure of the running man is an afterthought against a misty horizon, a tiny squiggle in the left corner of the shot. The scene is a beautiful prairie, ankle high grass stirring softly in the wind, the sky a miraculous blue in the foreground, dissolving into a neutral haze that devours both it and the earth. The camera pans right, deserting the running soldier (he is carrying a very important message to the high command – I can’t remember what), and lingering lovingly over the landscape.

Then suddenly, from somewhere in the distance, shells come streaking past, missiles of some sort, hissing like snakes, their flat, white arcs burned across my vision. Tracer bullets follow them, skipping lightly over the meadow as delicate as butterflies. There is no sound to the shot, the shells and bullets stream by in perfect silence, barely disturbing the serenity of the scene. The enemy remains invisible. The camera turns with the flying shells, seeking their destination. And there it is – in the shadow of a great mountain, a cluster of small huts, amid which the shells explode with the flash of a tourist’s camera. Surely bullets cannot travel so far, I think, even in my dream. It doesn’t matter, the barrage is natural, the landscape almost demands it, the entire shot has the artistic inevitability of a ballet. The town is burning now. The runner (yes, he is in the shot again – a tiny figure, high up on an overlook into the valley) has stopped to look.

Sigh. Where’s Freud when you need him?

Note: If you’re wondering why I’m rambling on about my dreams all of a sudden, blame Salvador Dali (whose painting – the Invention of Monsters – appears in this post). I figured this idea of using your dreams as material to get creative with might be interesting. Now all I need to do is start eating butterflies.

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