Tag Archives: Nonfiction

Chinoiserie and Invidia: My Unwritten Books by George Steiner

Each of the seven chapters in this book is an essay about a book that George Steiner did not write.  The first two chapters, “Chinoiserie” and “Invidia” are dedicated to Joseph Needham and Cecco d’Ascoli, authors whose works were just too large of a scope for Steiner to tackle.  But, in usual Steiner fashion, he uses the writings of Needham and d’Ascoli as a starting point to explore other ideas.  At times the level of erudition in his essays is astounding.

Joseph Needham (1900-1995) was a British scientist, historian and sinologist whose body of writing, even to someone as erudite as George Steiner, is overwhelming:

So far as I am aware, there is no definitive bibliography of Needham’s opera omnia.  The catalogue of lectures, articles, monographs and books extends well beyond three hundred.  Their range is awesome.  It comprises technical publications in biochemistry, in biology and comparative morphology, in crystallography by one of the ranking members of the Royal Society.  There are voluminous studies, both monographic and summarizing, on the history of the natural sciences, theoretical and applied, on instrumentation and technology, from antiquity to present.

In addition, Needham published historical novels that dealt with the Cromwellian period.  And Needham’s largest work, begun in 1937 and carried on until his death in 1995,  is Science and Civilization in China.  Steiner discusses and tries to grapple with Needham’s difficult-to-categorize, massive work on Chinese science and culture:

By 1948, Needham had outlined seven volumes.  These were to range from Chinese contributions to physics and mechanical engineering all the way to Chinese medical botany, navigation and physiological alchemy.  Before long, the proposals for SCC, as it became known internationally, ran to ten monumental parts (some in double volumes).  Soon even this manifold blueprint was overtaken by the plethora of new materials and queries.  The eighteen volumes which Needham intended to write himself—several installments being simultaneously in the pipeline—would require an estimated sixty years of unbroken labor plus the immense task of preliminary research and bibliography.  Literally hundreds of sources, many recondite and difficult to locate, would have to be combed.

Needham would have had to live to the age of one-hundred and seven to finish SCC according to this schedule.  It is said that he worked on it up until two days before his death at the ripe, old age of ninety-four.  Steiner compares the literary style and scope of the SCC to a number of authors whose work is equally as erudite, comprehensive and voluminous as Needham’s magnum opus.  Pieces of A.E. Housman’s body of work, Nabokov’s four volume translation and commentary of Eugene Onegin, Proust’s Recherché and Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy  are all discussed in relation to the SCC.  But none of these other narratives in their entirety, however, is exactly like the SCC.  Steiner concludes, “SCC, however, belongs to a more special genre.  One that has not, so far as I can tell, been properly identified, let alone elucidated.”  It is no wonder why this project defeated Steiner.

The other author whose writing that Steiner felt was too daunting a task to analyze is Francesco degli Stabili (Cecco d’Ascoli) (1257-1327).  The only pieces of d’Ascoli’s writing that has survived is an incomplete epic entitled l’Acerba, two astrological treaties, and a handful of sonnets.  Steiner says of d’Ascoli’s literary reputation: “During the sixteenth century, the theme which surfaces is that of Cecco’s intellectual boldness, of an unyielding proto-scientific integrity which makes of him a true predecessor to Giordano Bruno and Galileo.” In later centuries De Sanctis, Carducci, Petrarch and Goethe all praise Cecco’s intellectual and literary merits.  So why, then, was Cecco burned at the stake along with all of his writings in 1327 and why has he not obtained the same level of fame as Dante, his literary contemporary?

Steiner speculates that invidia (envy) was at the core of Cecco’s failures and he uses Cecco’s life as a starting point for a fascinating discussion of invidia as it has been portrayed in mythology and literature.  Steiner argues that Cecco’s fate, when matched up against Dante’s, was doomed from the start:

What is it like to be an epic poet with philosophic aspirations when Dante, as it were, in the neighborhood?  To be a contemporary playwright when Shakespeare is out to lunch?  ‘How can I be if another is’ asks Goethe.  Outside my door at the Institute for Advanced study in Princeton I heard J. Robert Oppenheimer fling at a junior physicist the demand, ‘You are so young and already have done so little.’ After which, the logical option is suicide.  Themes of rivalry, of jealousy, of envy have been perennially cited and dramatized.  They are as ancient as Saul’s rage of David’s meteoric ascent and the venomous derisions spat out by Homer’s Thersites.

Steiner ends his essay on Cecco’s life and the theme of invidia on a personal note and gives us the reason for not writing this book: “I did not write the study of Cecco d’Ascoli.  It might have been of some interest.  But it came too near the bone.”

I’ve only highlighted the first two essays in this collection; Steiner’s level of knowledge and scholarship is astounding.  My favorite passages are those in which he inserts personal anecdotes.  His chapter on sex, eros, and language are intriguing, to say the least.  I have to gather my thoughts first and process his writing if I am going to write about that chapter…

 

Leave a comment

Filed under British Literature, Essay, Nonfiction

Ruins in Motion: My Essay for the 2017-2018 Seagull Books Catalogue

Every year Naveen Kishore and the talented staff at Seagull Books craft and publish a catalogue filled with original pieces of literature, art and translations from around the world.  This year they have truly outdone themselves.  Each of the 1500 catalogues has an different and individual cover.  I have included some photos of my copy, Naveen’s provocation for this publication and my response which is included in the catalogue.

Naveen’s Provocation:

It begins slowly. Always in slow motion. With just the right pink and gold that the light designer ordered for the occasion. The script as perfect as can be. The director’s genius about to be rewarded. The performance about to, yes, begin. The curtain to rise. An audience seated. Resigned to what they know will unfold. Without change. Like having seen it happen before. Not here. Not at this particular venue. Or at this play. In their lives. They know the drama. The realism. The script. The dance. The moves. They know. Everything.

Drop a bomb. Set off a device. Blow to smithereens. Unless you do. The image that springs to mind when you see a ruin is gentle. Floating into the mind. Sideways. Almost horizontal. A sense of having fallen into something slowly. Over time. Perhaps what you labeled love. Like leaves. The kind that autumn sheds. Those. Very. Leaves. I guess things fall into gentle ruin. They do. That is the phrase I seek. The familiarity of the tragic. The kind that is foretold in every gesture you create. For yes. It is creative. This ruination. How else would it ever have got to the stage it has. One of utter helplessness. Descending into an aesthetically designed. Even overwhelming. Futility.

Embraces like coagulated clots growing. Thickening. Clinging walls. Solidifying layers settling. In an intense and congealed setting for decay to blossom. Into? Dare I say it? Decay. Decay yet to be born so unborn decay. The kind that waits. Waiting to grow. Flourish. Thrive. Open. Unfolding decay. One that matures into full blown decay. Without containment or known boundaries. Therefore spreading. This decay. Decay as epidemic. A decay of ruination. Utter and complete. Defeated decay. Gnawing at the foundations. Of what? Of what once. Was. Eroding decay. Relentless and unceasing. And yes. A committed decay.

A twilight turned yellow.

My Response:

Ruins. From the Latin noun Ruina—meaning a forward, uncontrollable movement, a headlong rush; a headlong fall, a downward plunge; a collapse. Derived from the Latin verb ruo—to move swiftly, to hurry on. Ruins are in motion, moving forward, taking on new shapes and forms. The story of Dido and Aeneas in Vergil’s Aeneid comes to mind as I think about ruins in motion.

Dido and Aeneas are both refugees—Latin profugus, to have a forward flight, also a word in motion— attempting to escape the ruins of their respective cities and their former lives. My favorite character in Vergil’s Aeneid, even going as far back as my first attempt at translation of this epic in high school, has always been Dido. The love of her life, her husband Sychaeus, was murdered by her brother Pygmalion in order to steal Sychaeus’s fortune. Pygmalion’s greed and violence forces Dido to flee Tyre and abandon her former, happy life. Similar to the boatloads of homeless Syrians we see today also escaping the Levant, Dido travels across the Mediterranean to the shores of North Africa where she attempts to build a new home, a new kingdom in Carthage.

In the midst of trying to put her life and her city back together Aeneas, a refuge himself from Troy, lands on her shores after his fleet encounters a violent storm at sea. Interestingly, Vergil describes this storm as caeli ruina, “the ruin of the sky.” The poet’s first mention of ruina comes at the very moment when fate drives Aeneas towards Dido and the Carthaginian shores. But we know that as soon as the curtain opens on this epic, that the fate of Dido is not a happy one; her encounter with Aeneas, though at first passionate and mutual, will be the source of her final and tragic ruin. Vergil poignantly, repeatedly and sympathetically calls Dido infelix, “unlucky.”

At first, Dido’s story shows us that ruins can be a good thing, an excuse or an impetus for a new start. When Aeneas arrives on the shores of Carthage he witnesses a new city being built under the careful guidance of Dido. Vergil is a master at juxtaposing` the old and the new, destruction and rebuilding, ruins and rebirth. Aeneas eagerly surveys the building of Dido’s new city—the harbor, walls, a theater and a temple are all works in progress that draw the Trojan’s amazement and wonder. Vergil compares the workers, the builders of this city to a hive of bees, filling the cells of their hives with honey and getting the necessary materials for their work. Fervent opus, redolentque thymo fragrantia mella. “Their work glows; the fragrant honey is scented with thyme.” This is Dido’s second chance, her spring, her twilight. Or is it?

Amidst the construction of her new city, Vergil inserts an opposing image of ruins in the form of a fresco in the temple at Carthage. As Aeneas tours this temple he views some of the most horrific scenes from the fall of Troy: the allotment of the Trojan women, the body of dead Hector being dragged around the walls by Achilles and the murder of Priam in the midst of his own palace. Aeneas weeps openly at the sight of these reminders of his ruined city.

Dido, the very symbol of these opposing themes—ruins and rebuilding– is standing at the center of this temple and it is significant that this is the first place where she encounters Aeneas. The frescoes of Troy become not only a reminder of the ruins Aeneas has fled, but they also serve as a foreshadowing of the destruction that Dido will inevitably suffer as a result of her encounter with Aeneas. Ruins in the Aeneid are always in motion.

In her kindness, compassion and empathy Dido opens up her home as a place of solace. She and Aeneas share the miserable fate of refugees escaping ruins and searching for a better place to put back together their lives: Non ignara mali miseris succurrere disco. (Not ignorant myself of misfortune, I know how to help those who are also miserable.) Dido runs to help Aeneas—the verb succurrere in Latin literally translates as “running to help”— thereby setting her ruin in motion; her expeditious offer of succor is paid for with her destruction. Aeneas and Dido engage in a physical relationship and settle into a “marriage” of sorts that is fittingly blessed by the goddess of marriage, Juno, and the goddess of love, Venus.

Jupiter, however, the Paterfamilias of the universe and the god who represents fate sends an urgent reminder to Aeneas of his mission to found and build a new Troy. And so Aeneas readies his men and his fleet to leave Carthange and set sail for Italy which act of utter abandonment has a devastating effect on Dido. Vergil’s description of Aeneas flight from Troy is striking; he hurries the preparations for his journey like a man on fire: Idem omnes simul ardor habet; rapiuntque ruuntque: /Litora deseruere; latet sub classibus aequor. (The same fervor grabbed hold of all the men at the same time; they rushed and they carried themselves away, and they deserted the shores; the sea lie hidden under so many ships setting sail.)As Aeneas is rushing away (ruunt, verb form of ruina) from Carthage, Dido sits atop her own funeral pyre, plunging herself headlong into Aeneas’s sword and into her final destruction.

As early as Book I, Vergil alludes to the difficulty of founding a new city in the wake of the utter destruction of Troy: tantae molis erat Romanam condere gentem (It was such a monumental task to found Roman.) Molis here is another building word in Latin also meaning “rocks, a pile of materials.” Troy had to fall, many hardships had to be suffered and Dido had to be left behind and abandoned in order for Rome to be built; the ruins of Troy rise again in the form of the greatness and splendor of Rome.

Vergil’s message not only applies to the ruins from which the grandeur of Rome came about, but also to the circumstances under which human life and fate operate. Something bigger and grander and stronger have the potential to emerge out of the ruins that befall us in life; and Vergil reminds us that, yes, there have to be sacrifices, ruina (ruins) like the death of Dido, that are strewn along the roads that lead to something better.

Anthony from Time’s Flow Stemmed has also written a beautiful and profound response:

A Contribution to Seagull Books’s Annual Catalogue

Joe from Roughghosts has written a deeply personal and poetic response:

The cost of words: My submission to the 2017-2018 Seagull Books catalogue

13 Comments

Filed under Nonfiction, Seagull Books

Review: Down Below by Leonora Carrington

When I gave birth to my daughter eleven years ago I suffered from a severe bout of post-partum depression.  About two weeks after she was born it was as if a cloud or a thick fog had descended over me and I no longer felt like myself.  I could barely move except to do the most essential tasks to take care of my newborn and was silent for most of the day.  I also felt a deep sense of embarrassment over experiencing this depression because what should have been one of the happiest times of my life was one of the saddest.  Talking about one’s physical health seemed far more socially acceptable than discussing ones struggle with mental health.  The New York Review of books reissuing of Down Below helps to ease this stigma and to begin much needed conversations about the importance of mental health.

While reading Down Below, Leonora Carrington’s autobiographical account of her nervous breakdown during World War II and her resulting admission into a sanitarium in Spain I couldn’t help but think about my own bout with mental illness.  There were two themes throughout her account with which I particularly identified: her fear of a relapse and her determined and constant struggle against her demons.  The mental health issues I experienced with post-partum were no where near the severity of the nervous breakdown that Leonora Carrington suffered in 1940.  But the fear of lapsing back into that fog of depression, a fear that is not uncommon to anyone with an illness,  has always haunted me.  Carrington’s recollection of these harrowing events felt to me like they were her attempt at catharsis to rid herself of the fear that she would someday, once again, lose her grip on reality.  She writes, “I am in terrible anguish, yet I cannot continue living alone with such a memory…I know that once I have written it down, I shall be delivered.”

Carrington originally wrote out this short memoir herself a few years after the breakdown but the original manuscript was lost.  She then dictated in French this version we have now to the wife of a friend in 1943 which was translated into English and published in 1944.  As she speaks about these events to her friend’s wife it becomes evident that her motive for bringing forth these horrible memories is to cleanse her mind of these awful events, to unburden herself and to allow her friends to know the full story so they can help her stay whole.  She begins her dictation of this period in her life with:

I must live through that experience all over again, because, by doing so, I believe that I may be of use to you, just as I believe that you will be of help in my journey beyond that frontier by keeping me lucid and by enabling me to put on and to take off at will the mask which will be my shield against the hostility of Conformism.

As she gets deeper into the more disturbing events of her commitment to an asylum Carrington never pities herself or asks her audience to pity her.  She is able to recall the broken and fractured thoughts of a tormented mind with the detached style of writing that seems more fitting for a journalist.  But her lack of emotional response, I felt, was due to the fact that if she stopped and allowed herself to become awash in her feelings, she would never have been able to make it through her entire story.  She continues to stave off her fear as she gets farther into her memoir:

I have been writing for three days, though I had expected to deliver myself in a few hours; this is painful, because I am living this period all over again and sleeping badly, troubled and anxious as I am about the usefulness of what I am doing.  However, I must go on with my story in order to come out of my anguish.  My ancestors, malevolent and smug, are trying to frighten me.

The cover that the New York Review of Books chose for this reissue of Down Below evokes the thoughts in these lines.  It features the center image of Carrington’s painting Crookhey Hall, which was also the name of her childhood home in Britain, with a ghost-like figure dressed in white fleeing other ghostly images that surround a gothic style house.   This painting can be viewed as Carrington’s representation of her escape from her childhood home in Britain and the grip of her wealthy, industrialist family; but it is also a fitting image to portray her never ending struggle to keep her mental demons which describes in Down Below at bay.

The other theme that appears on every page of Down Below is Carrington’s struggle against her illness.  There were many times throughout her experience where it would have been easier for her to give up and succumb to her disease but she never allows this to happen.  Carrington’s breakdown begins when Max Ernst, the surrealist painter with whom she was living in France, was captured by the Germans and brought to a concentration camp.  Even at the very beginning of this episode she fights against the sadness and anxiety that threatens to overwhelm her:  She describes the first few hours after which Max was taken away,

I wept for several hours down in the village; then I went up again to my house where, for twenty-four hours, I indulged in voluntary vomitings induced by drinking orange blossom water and interrupted by a short nap.  I hoped that my sorrow would be diminished by these spasms, which tore at my stomach like earthquakes.

An old friend from England arrives in France to help her escape to Spain where the symptoms of her illness become more severe.  Carrington is committed to Dr. Morales’s sanatorium in Santander, Spain which she believes at the time was a “god-send” because of her increasingly disturbing thoughts and behavior.  Once at the asylum she is tied down to her bed because her fighting against the doctors, which is described as animalistic, is constant.  “I learned later that I entered that place fighting like a tigress,” she says.  The descriptions of her restraints and her injections with the drug Cardiazol, a common treatment for mental disorders at the time, are especially difficult to read.  The indignities she suffers at Santander, instead of mitigating her disease, only add to her trauma:

I don’t know how long I remained bound and naked.  Several days and nights, lying in my own excrement, urine and sweat, tortured by mosquitoes whose stings made my body hideous—I believed that they were the spirits of all the crushed Spaniards who blamed me for my internment, my lack of intelligence and my submissiveness.

Carrington’s delusions are numerous while she is confined to Santander; she believes that Dr. Morales is the supreme commander of the Universe, that she is part of the Holy Trinity, and that there is a paradise at the sanatorium the she calls “Down Below.”  She feels that gaining admission into what she believes is the paradise of “Down Below” will help her to heal and she constantly struggles to make it to this magical place.  When she is injected with Cardiazol which induces painful episodes of epileptic seizures she still continues with her fight to make it through this illness.  She recalls her second injection of this awful drug: “Keeping my eyes closed enabled me to endure the second Cardiazol ordeal much less badly, and I got up very quickly, saying to Frau Aseguardo, ‘Dress me, I must go to Jerusalem to tell them what I have learned.'”

Carrington’s delusions gradually subside to the point where she is able to be released from Santander.  Her parents decide that they want to send her far away to another asylum in South Africa.  But as her last act of defiance in this memoir, she escapes to the Mexican embassy where she eventually meets Renato Leduc who marries her and brings her to Mexico.  She knows that she cannot endure another stay at an asylum that would undoubtedly use the same harsh treatments that she received in Spain.  She decides she has had enough and her last act of struggle, of fighting is what most likely saves her sanity.

After her marriage of convenience with Leduc falls apart, Carrington goes on to marry Imre Weisz with whom she had two sons.  She lives with her family very happily in Mexico for the rest of her 94 years and has a successful career as a Surrealist painter and an author.  Carrington’s memoir not only serves as a testament to her strong will but it also provides us with a brave example of the ability to overcome the struggle with mental illness and the resulting fear of relapse.

This month was the 100th year of Leonora Carrington’s birth and many commemorative articles have been written about her life, her writing and her art.  I have collected a few of these links here:

An article in the Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/apr/06/leonora-carrington-from-high-society-to-surrealism-in-praise-of-100-years-on

A review of her short stories from NPR News: http://www.npr.org/2017/04/08/521959754/rediscovering-surrealist-leonora-carringtons-delights-and-disturbances

An article written by author Joanna Walsh for the Verso Blog: http://www.versobooks.com/blogs/2275-i-have-no-delusions-i-am-playing-leonora-carrington-s-madness-and-art

 

 

 

16 Comments

Filed under Classics, New York Review of Books, Nonfiction

Sacrificed on the Altar of Truth: My Review of American Philosophy—A Love Story by John Kaag

laocoon_and_his_sons_vatican

Laocoon and His Sons, Vatican Museum

In Book 2 of Vergil’s Aeneid, the poet relates the story of the Trojan Horse and the sack of Troy in vivid and horrifying detail.  The Trojans are standing on the beach which was recently deserted by the Greeks and debating whether or not to bring the massive wooden horse they find into their city.  Laocoön, a priest of Apollo, warns the Trojans about accepting any gift from the Greeks and utters one of Vergil’s most famous lines:

equo ne credite, Teucri.
Quidquid id est, timeo Danaos et dona ferentis.

Do not put your trust in the horse, Trojans.
Whatever it is, I fear Greeks even when they are bearing gifts.*

After Laocoön warns the Trojans about the dangers of the horse and launches his spear at the monstrous structure, two deadly serpents slither out of the sea and grab not only Laocoön but also his two sons that are standing nearby.  The Trojans assume that Laocoön is being punished by the Gods for defiling the horse.  But the opposite is true: Laocoön is right in his fears about the horse and the gods are trying to silence him with this horrific punishment. The Trojans stand on the beach in terror as they watch Laocoön and his sons being swallowed up by the sea serpents:

Tum vero tremefacta novus per pectora cunctis
insinuat pavor, et scelus expendisse merentem
Laocoonta ferunt, sacrum qui cuspide robur
laeserit et tergo sceleratam intorserit hastam.

Then indeed a new terror made the hearts of all the Trojans
tremble and they say that Laocoon had paid the price for
his deserved crime, Laocoon who struck the sacred wood
with his spear and hurled his wicked weapon against
the horse’s back.

John Kaag, author of the book American Philosophy: A Love Story stumbles upon the library of Ernest Hocking in New Hampshire, a priceless collection of over 10,000 books, many of which are rare first editions.  When Kaag finds Hocking’s library, he is in the midst of a personal crisis as his first marriage is crumbling and has been for many years.  As Kaag takes on the task of attempting to catalog and to save some of Hocking’s most valuable books, he finds a large bronze bust in Hocking’s library that was a replica of the famous Laocoön and His Sons statue from the Vatican Museum.  Kaag reflects on the story of  Laocoön and the tragedy of being punished for attempting to do the right thing:

This is what happens to people who have the bad luck of being painfully honest.  Maybe being less honest and alive was better than being self-righteously dead, I thought.  My recent experiment with honesty had been rather brutal.  I’d harbored secret doubts about my marriage for years, but as I edged toward thirty, it had become harder and harder to remain silent.

Days before his birthday Kaag sold his wedding ring and this resulted in an epic fight during his birthday party which their families and friends witnessed.  Kaag remarks that in the end he didn’t die, but there were many occasions during the dissolution of his marriage that he wished he had died..

Kaag concludes about the Laocoön story: “Being punished for telling a lie made sense, but being sacrificed on the altar of truth seemed cruel.”

To learn more about Kaag’s journey from hell to redemption in his personal life, his discovery and cataloguing of Hocking’s collection, and his reflection on American philosophy read my full review in the December issue of Numero Cinq.

*All translations of Latin in this post are my own. My translation style is very literal which can be viewed by some as awkward and clunky, but that’s how I roll with my Latin.

american-philosophy-a-love-story-book-cover

5 Comments

Filed under Nonfiction, Philosophy, Uncategorized

Review- Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village by Ronald Blythe

I received and advanced review copy of this title from the New York Review of Books.

My Review:
AkenfieldThis book is a history of the British village of Akenfield in Suffolk, England as told through the stories and narratives of its own citizens.  Blythe interviewed 49 different people from all types of social backgrounds and occupations and recorded their words for this social history.   In 1967, the year in which the villagers are interviewed, the way of life in this small village is changing from one of manual labor to mechanization. Each person from Akenfield that is interviewed by the author highlights different aspects of his or her life in a forthright, honest and stream-of-consciousness narrative.  Blythe groups the book into twenty different sections of the people, some of which include “God,” “The Craftsmen,” “The School,” and “The Law.”

One group in the book that made a particular impression on me were the craftsmen such as the wheelwright, the  blacksmith and the thatcher.  It would seem that with the invention of cars that there would no longer be a need for such talents because of the shrinking reliance on horses and wagons for transportation.  It was inspiring that these hardworking men decide to change with the times and find other uses for their crafts.  The blacksmith, Francis Lambert age twenty-five, is a very talented craftsman and now that there are no longer horses to shoe in order to sustain his business he has diversified by making weather-vanes, gates and fire-screens.  Francis is so talented that he is even sent to Germany to represent England at an international craft festival.  Francis loves his job which is evident by the fact that he usually puts in sixty hours of work per week and he takes a great deal of pride in his masterpieces.

As one would expect, hopes of escaping the village are expressed from some of the residents, but for the most part they seem content to stay in their small part of England.  Several of them mention that their families have resided within the boundaries of Akenfield for generations.  But there are also a fair number of voices we hear from people who, even though that have lived in Akenfield for many years, will always be considered “outsiders” because they were born elsewhere.  Hugh Hambling age thirty who is a schoolmaster tells us that he was born on Norfolk.  He and his wife move to Akenfield when he was twenty because he found a charming cottage that the newly married couple could afford.  Hugh feels that the villagers are very private people and although he tries to engage them in discussions, he only ever is able to talk to them about cursory things like football or the weather.

In the section on the school, Blythe includes the administrative records from the teachers and headmasters which date back to 1875.  One problem, in particular, that teachers have to deal with is poor attendance by the children of farm owners.  There are certain times of the year when even the young ones are needed to be out in the fields helping with the crop and later when a truancy law is passed these guidelines for school attendance are still not enforced.  Outbreaks of health issues such as ringworm, diphtheria and scarlet fever are also recorded and must have certainly worsened the poor attendance issues.

Many of the details that the residents of Akenfield provide are like no other that one would find in any ordinary history book.  The orchard worker, for instance, gives us a detailed accounts of different apples that are best grown in the English climate and what the prime picking time is for each breed.  The thatcher provides a lengthy description of the best way to thatch a roof and which are the best materials to use.  I found the section on the bell-ringers particularly fascinating; these young men are in a way considered talented musicians and go around to village and neighborhood churches in order to practice their craft of bell-ringing.  I had no idea before reading this history that there is such a fine art form to the ringing of church bells.

This is a charming, interesting, candid glimpse into the pulse and essence of an English village in the middle of the 20th century.  If you have any interest in British history, oral history or social history then this latest edition to the New York Review of Books classic titles is a must read.

About The Author:
Ronald Blythe is an English writer, essayist and editor, best known for his work Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village (1969), an account of agricultural life in Suffolk from the turn of the century to the 1960s. He writes a long-running and considerably praised weekly column in the Church Times entitled Word from Wormingford.

 

10 Comments

Filed under British Literature, Classics, New York Review of Books, Nonfiction