Tuesday, 29 March 2016

A Book at Bedtime

That was the title of a BBC programme on, I think, Radio 3. They had decided that 11 p.m. was the correct bedtime for decent God-fearing people, and so for fifteen minutes each evening someone would read the next chapter of the current book.

For myself, I have deliberately made my bedside bookshelf short, so as to avoid teetering piles of half-read books. Current contents are:

1) ‘Music in the Castle of Heaven’ by John Eliot Gardiner. This has to be the best general overview of Bach’s life and works ever published. Gardiner conducts performances of Bach that are about as ‘authentic’ (given that of course we have no actual contemporary recordings) as they could be, thus enabling us to hear the works with almost the freshness and surprise with which people heard their first performances. Unlike so many ‘serious’ books about music, which proclaim with pride their ‘freedom’ from ‘technical jargon’, this book is not afraid to use some; it assumes the reader has some knowledge of music and wants to learn more.

2) ‘The Motive for Metaphor’ by Henry Seiden. This is a collection of very brief — two or three pages each — essays on individual poems or poets written from the point of view of a psychoanalyst. Ever since Freud himself, psychoanalysts have acknowledged that many of their insights have been anticipated by poetry. It is a much less demanding book than that description might suggest; indeed I’d have preferred something a bit deeper.

3) Η Μενεξεδένια Πολιτεία (The Purple City) by Άγγελος Τερζάκης. A novel, set mostly in Athens, about an unsuccessful lawyer and his family. It was a present from a friend, but recommended by another friend, whose other recommendations I have not usually liked. But reading it is of course good for my Greek, and I am less than half-way through; let us hope it improves.

4) The Summer 2015 issue of ‘In Other Words’, the journal for literary translators. My delay in reading it is not entirely due to it lateness in reaching me; I read the thing more out of duty than for pleasure. An unwieldy parasitic superstructure of ‘theory’ has been erected on top of the real business of literary translation by people who write dull articles and who (most of them) can’t translate for toffee. There is usually little of interest or use to actual translators, but there are sometimes exceptions, not least on the rare occasions they deign to publish something of mine.

5) ‘An Introduction to Music’ by David Boyden. This is the textbook we used when I was training to be a school music teacher. A general history of so-called ‘Classical’ music from the middle ages to the early twentieth century, with some theory and consideration of things like sonata form. Not quite as superficial as the title suggests.

6) Marianne Moore’s Complete Poems. There are about 250 of them and, poetry being the single malt of literature, I am reading them at the rate of just one a day. Eliot thought highly of her, but I find her pretty impenetrable, mainly because her poems seem to rely on special knowledge, usually something she has read. The notes sometimes give details of this reading, but poems really have to grab you before you look at the notes. I shall persevere; she’s supposed to be good and it’s probably my fault I don’t much like her stuff.

7) ‘My Teaching’ by Jacques Lacan, translated into English by David Macey. This is supposed to be Lacan’s most accessible work, which doesn’t bode well for his others. I’m never sure about Lacan: most of the time he seems to be, like so many other 20th century French intellectuals, a pretentious bullshit artist. But reading him one has the suspicion there might be something there. At his best, he seems to be saying opaquely and gnomically (perhaps poetically?) exactly the same things that Freud said with admirable clarity a hundred years ago.

Oh, and then there’s my Kobo, which is an Amazon-free version of the Kindle. I keep putting more and more stuff in it, mostly downloaded free from Project Gutenberg. Among other things I’m reading Rebecca West’s novel ‘The Judge’: her analysis of the thoughts and behaviour of her characters is almost as detailed (and sometimes almost as tedious) as Proust’s.

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