Friday, 15 December 2017

Dubin's Lives

I've been reading another Bernard Malamud novel – Dubin's Lives this time. Originally published in 1979, it's very much of its time, being a tale of marital infidelity and male mid-life crisis – well, rather beyond mid-life in Dubin's case, as he's 58 years old. William Dubin, who is of course Jewish, is a successful biographer who seems to have spent his working life writing biographies in an unsuccessful attempt to learn how to live, being constitutionally unable to inhabit his own life with much conviction.
 As his latest project is to write a biography of D.H. Lawrence, Dubin is clearly heading for trouble – and it finds him in the form of 23-year-old Fanny, the flaky but voluptuous young woman his wife has hired as a house cleaner. Though Dubin rejects her initial (extremely direct) advance, he can't stay away and it's not long before he's taking her on an illicit trip to Venice (addressing her all the while as if giving a lecture – which is apparently what turns her on). The romance collapses ignominiously in Venice, but that is by no means the end of the story; Dubin is not going to get over Fanny, and his life is about to get very complicated...
  What makes Dubin's Lives so much better and more interesting than it might have been is the skill with which Malamud plays out the action as at once farcically comic and emotionally tragic, and succeeds in making us genuinely care about the deplorable, myopic and self-absorbed Dubin. He is extraordinary compelling, even addictive company (though one might not wish to know him in real life) and it's actually a wrench to part from him at the end of the novel. Apart from Dubin, the stand-out character is his long-suffering wife Kitty, who knows her husband so well, yet misses so much. You can see how she and Dubin were drawn together by their interlocking weaknesses, why they fit so well together and yet are so unhappy. As the portrait of a marriage, it's painfully convincing.
 The novel is set in upstate (and upmarket) New York, and Malamud describes the rural setting and the movements of the seasons with a sharp, even lyrical eye for nature, making landscape and weather major elements in the story. The verstatile Malamud, it seems, was not only an urban novelist.
 Dubin's Lives has its faults – including an abrupt and rather unsatisfying ending – and is probably a little too long. It's certainly not the masterpiece The Assistant is, but it's immensely readable, quite often laugh-aloud funny, and totally involving. The foolish, self-alienated William Dubin is a character who lingers in the mind.
 There are also some good Jewish jokes along the way, including the one about the rabbi who heard his sexton praying aloud, 'Dear God, you are everything, I am nothing' and remarked 'Look who says he's nothing!'

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

A Word for It...

Earlier today I was enjoying a morning of sparkling frost, deep blue sky and dazzling low sun. It was bitter cold, but the sun was warm on my face – a sensation I've always relished on days like these. There should be a word for it...
And there is, as I discovered at lunchtime, when the nature writer Robert Macfarlane had a spot on Radio 4's The World at One to talk about the rich store of winter words. (As author of the recent Lost Words, he's the go-to guy for this sort of thing.) And there it was – the word for the sensation of warm sun on the face on a cold winter day: apricity.
 There's a related verb, to apricate, meaning to bask in the sun (from the Latin apricus, sunny). I must remember that for my next beach holiday: 'I'm going down to the beach to apricate; I may be some time.' Meanwhile I look forward to my next experience of apricity.

Ignorance of History

'Our ignorance of history causes us to slander our own times. The ordinary person today lives better than a king did a century ago, but is ungrateful!'
 So wrote Gustave Flaubert (born on this day in 1821) to George Sand in 1871. The words were true enough then, and very much more so today, when living standards for most are beyond the wildest dreams of their grandparents, and yet are taken for granted as a mere minimum. But the widespread ignorance of history that has taken hold in this generation has other, potentially more dangerous effects.
 Not only do many take today's sky-high living standards for granted; they also take for granted our freedoms and the democracy that sustains them. Lacking historical perspective, they seem to believe – or act as if – these freedoms represent the default condition of human society, not something historically rare, fragile and vulnerable that must be vigilantly protected and, if necessary, fought for.
They understood these matters better in 1946 (see previous post).

Sunday, 10 December 2017

'There, intact, were various objects all familiar...'

'The need of our time is for wisdom rather than cleverness, intelligence rather than intellectualism, understanding as well as knowledge. Where there is no vision the people perish.
 Our aim is to assist in publicising those liberal and humanistic values whose continued existence is seriously threatened at the present time in our own country as well as elsewhere.'

  How's that for a publisher's mission statement? The words are those of Christopher Johnson Publishers Limited of Great Russell Street, London WC1, and I found them on the tattered dust wrapper of a slim volume published in 1946, Keats, Shelley and Rome, An Illustrated Miscellany, compiled by Neville Rogers. It's a collection of essays (and a poem) about the two poets and the house that memorialises them and in which one of them died – the Keats-Shelley Memorial that overlooks the Spanish Steps and the Piazza di Spagna in Rome.
 What gives the book its special flavour is the time in which it was written, in the immediate aftermath of the war in which the Eternal City had suffered under both Mussolini and Hitler (and from the activities of partisans). The house on the Spanish Steps had been lucky to survive largely unscathed – and especially lucky in having a formidable Italian woman, Vera Signorelli Cacciatore, as its fiercely protective Curator. The book includes the Signora's vivid eye-witness account of the long-awaited June day in 1944 when the Allied troops finally arrived, so worn out that they immediately lay down to sleep:
'Within five minutes of the order to halt the Piazza was covered with recumbent figures. There in the moonlight slept the soldiers: on the pavements, in the dried-up fountain, on the Scalinata of Santa Trinita dei Monti, propped against the obelisk; pillowed on a haversack, a kerbstone, a doorstep or a comrade...'
 These memories – and the related sense of the perilous fragility of civilisation – were still fresh when this little book was published. The first essay is a New York Times correspondent's (A.C. Sedgwick) account of his arrival in Rome with the Allied troops on the day of liberation. With an English Major, he made his way straight to the Keats-Shelley House, climbed the stairs, and was welcomed by Signora Cacciatore. He and the Major were her first welcome visitors in four years.
'There, intact,' writes Sedgwick, 'were various objects all familiar.... There was the smell – more of England than of Italy, or so one thinks – of leather bindings that bewitched Henry James. There was quiet, peace, pause in our lives in which to think, reflect and be thankful that such a haven had been spared, it would appear, by a miracle. Outside – it seemed very far away – we heard the clatter of our mechanised cavalry.'
  Keats, Shelley and Rome is dedicated 'To Young Englishmen who Died in Italy'.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Some Reasons

Some of the reasons why this country was never going to make a fit with political 'Europe' in any of its various forms, from Common Market to EU:
1. English common law (bottom-up as against top-down).
2. A long history of stable democracy and secure borders, free of foreign occupation or conquest.
3. A preference for pragmatic empiricism and inductive reasoning, and a deep distrust of Big Ideas.
4. A unique place in the wider world, the legacy of a long maritime history and a relatively benign, uniquely wide-ranging empire.
5. A national character in which modesty, decency, emotional restraint, fair play and a sense of humour are (or were) prominent features.
6. A natural understanding of, and talent for, popular music. The English equivalent of today's lavish obsequies for Johnny Hallyday would be a state funeral for Shakin' Stevens.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

UK City of Larkin 2

So the next UK City of Culture will be Coventry (and why not?). The accolade has now followed Philip Larkin from his workplace (Hull) to his birthplace. It only remains to fill in the gaps with Leicester (Larkin 1946-50) and Belfast (1950-55) and that will be UK culture firmly nailed to the CV of one of its finest poets. And why not?


Sixty-eight today: me and Tom Waits. Birthdays haven't been the same since Edmundo Ros (7 December 1910 - 21 October 2011) went to join the celestial rumba band. And of course the NigeCorp silver band has long been mothballed.
I guess I'm now a soixante-huitard, but in an entirely English sense...