Crambe repetita (22)
The whole scene is raucous, everyone shouts, from the long-haired water-bearer to the tall Tartar selling used clothes. People pour from shops and chapels on to the sidewalks. Little old women sell Crimean apples smooth as gall-nuts. A bearded constable leans on his long sabre. Everywhere underfoot are chestnut burrs and the crisp cupules of tiny, black ashberries. A fine dust of horse-dung falls in a drizzle like the flakes of russet gold in a liqueur. […] Two days later snow falls. Everything is hidden, subdued. All sounds are muffled. The sleighs pass silently. It snows. It snows feathers of down and the roofs are puffs of white smoke. The houses retire into themselves. The towers, the churches are eclipsed. The bells ring underground, with a wooden knell. The restless multitudes have found a new tempo, their steps are short and hurried, they rush along. Every passer-by is a clockwork toy. The cold is like a resinous glaze. It lubricates. It fills your mouth with turpentine. Your lungs are greased and you feel a tremendous hunger. In every house the tables groan under the weight of food; golden fragrant cabbage pies, lemon bouillons with sour cream; appetizers of every shape, for every taste; smoked fish; roast meats; grouse with a sweet-sour jelly; game meats; fruit; bottles of spirits; black bread, soldier’s bread, and kalatch, that pure flower of wheat.
– Blaise Cendrars
(Moravagine, p. 59f.)
hope against hope (1)
… it is never safe to classify the souls of one’s neighbors; one is apt, in the long run, to be proved a fool. You should regard each meeting with a friend as a sitting he is unwittingly giving you for a portrait – a portrait that, probably, when you or he die, will still be unfinished. And, though this is an absorbing pursuit, nevertheless some painters are apt to end pessimists. For however handsome and merry may be the face, however rich may be the background, in the first rough sketch of each portrait, yet with every added stroke of the brush, with every tiny readjustment of the ‘values’, with every modification of the chiaroscuro, the eyes looking out at you grow more disquieting. And, finally, it is your own face that you are staring at in terror, as in a mirror by candle-light, when all the house is still.
– Hope Mirrlees
(Lud-in-the-Mist, p. 15)2
There’s a reason I chose the picture of Hope Mirrlees – one where you can’t really see, where she isn’t distinguished from the crowd – instead of the usual dewy portrait (usually captioned ‘Jane Ellen Harrison and her friend Hope Mirrlees’ – or vice versa). I didn’t like Hope Mirrlees when I first met her, and I’m not sure I like her now.3 She sucked the life out of Jane Ellen Harrison’s Memoirs of a Student’s Life, bringing only bears, Russians, and sentimentality. She seemed the inverse of the bear cub in the story, who gets licked into shape from a gobbet of bear-ness; she dissipated Harrison’s personality into amorphous schmaltz.4 She showed up, ‘pathologically possessive’5 in biographies as Harrison’s, shall we say, protégée.6 Virginia Woolf wrote some catty things about her.7 Now it seems she was a modernist marvel, unjustly forgotten.8
In short, I am prejudiced against her and it would take a particularly appealing masterpiece to overcome a decade of ill-will. We shall see.
- One of the snapshots in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery. [↩]
- This quotation is not meant to be especially resonant or meaningful; I just liked it. [↩]
- I’m using meet and like in the broadest possible way. This is one of the problems with books – one becomes acquainted with so many personalities without knowing any people. In any case, I was interested in Greek religion, not people. Hence reading about J.E.H. herself. [↩]
- But perhaps time would have done the same anyhow. [↩]
- See James Holoka’s review of Robinson’s biography. [↩]
- Harrison’s biographers are, actually, more open to the possibility that Harrison and Mirrlees were lovers than Swanick’s gushing biographical essay of Mirrlees; perhaps Sandeep Parmar’s forthcoming biography will clarify things (or perhaps not). In any case, it really doesn’t matter to anybody but the two of them – and nosy readers. [↩]
- As she did about almost everyone, so I guess that isn’t a negative character witness. Said remarks were quoted in Hermione Lee’s biography, which I’ve set aside and so can’t give a reference for; if you are curious, I would suggest consulting the index. [↩]
- Interestingly, Prof. Beard seems have a great sympathy for the unearthing of forgotten treasures (make your jokes about academics and archaeologists if you like). Only a few years ago she was a bit grumpy about Harrison, who blocked the lustre of the rather dull Eugénie Strong (née Sellers); now Harrison is her hero. Make of that what you will. [↩]
- An excerpt is available; see also a paper on Mirrlees’ long poem, Paris. [↩]
- I will consider them later, when the copy I ordered arrives. [↩]
Yet it is impossible not to have a sneaking respect and liking for this hieratic mandarin language with all its euphuistic artificialities and its archaic syntax. Katharévousa has even been used now and then (a feat of unnatural virtuosity) as a medium for poetry; some of the poems of Calvos have a curious fabricated beauty, and there are elements of Katharévousa in Cavafy: cunningly placed bits of whalebone in the more sinuous demotic. It is elaborate and forbidding, but it is precise: indispensable, its champions say (which its opponents bitterly deny), for legal, scientific or mathematical definition. Katharévousa is an expensive faded leather case stamped with a tarnished monogram, holding a set of geometrical instruments: stiff jointed dividers and compasses neatly slotted into their plush beds. Dimotiki is an everyday instrument – a spade, an adze or a sickle – the edge thinned and keen with honing and bright from the whetstone; and the wooden shaft, mellow with sweat and smooth with the patina of generations of handling, lies in the palm with an easy balance. Partisanship for the two idioms has led to rioting in the Athens streets, to bloodshed and even death.
– Patrick Leigh Fermor
(Roumeli, p. 112)1
- Roumeli and Mani, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s books on Greece, are among the best travel books I have read; indeed, they transcend the boundaries of genre – it is almost an insult to refer to them as ‘travel books ’ because they contain so much more: anthropology, history, linguistics, memoir, etc. Best of all, they wear their learning lightly; not like the braggart or pedant who natters on because he is proud of what he knows, but like the true scholar, who tells you things you never imagined possible because he imagines (rightly) that you might be interested. [↩]