Saturday, March 11, 2023

More on Cormac McCarthy

 Aaron Gwyn, Twitter, images of Cormac McCarthy's letter to his editor Albert Erskine about stylistic nuances of colons, commas, hyphens in his his first novel, The Orchard Keeper.  (Gwyn describes these as stylistic quirks, which seems odd to me given the substantive arguments given for his choices.)  Doesn't seem kosher to help myself to these images and post them here, but you can see what McCarthy had to say here

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

mute inglorious Nabokovs

[This was originally posted back in 2009, I think, but was depublished by Blogger for violating Community Guidelines. Not sure what was wrong, but went in and cleaned up a few things, now it has been reinstated as a recent post.]

Went to a meeting / dinner at Golden Parachutes, a gallery in Kreuzberg run by Jesi Khadivi and Paul Tyree-Francis. Paul and Jesi are planning to open the space to anyone who is interested in offering a course, seminar or other event; the idea was to talk about some possibilities. 

 This coincided, as it happens, with Obama's speech on education and also with a piece in the Guardian on the severe decline in British universities of degrees in modern languages, following the removal of the language requirement at GCSE. I write in that context. 

One of my ideas is to offer a two-hour (well, maybe three) class called Mute Inglorious Nabokovs. Nabokov was taught English and French from an early age; this early exposure to languages other than his mother tongue seems to have been important in his formation as a writer. In Speak, Memory he talks about the entertainment offered by working through a little grammar book, in which the student started on simple sentences, could look forward to ever more exciting grammatical features, and at the end was able to read a simple story. He remembers sitting inside while a servant swept the gravel walk outside; he wonders whether she might not have been happier sweeping the walk than driving a tractor in later years under the Soviets. 

This passage always makes me think: But perhaps she was a mute inglorious Nabokov. Perhaps the servant, too, had gifts which would have benefited from reading an introduction to English culminating in an adventure for little Ned. One thing that's certain, anyway, is that most schoolchildren do not get this kind of chance at an early age. More generally, it seems to me, there is never a point at which people are encouraged to try a range of languages, and in particular to see what it is like to read a short passage in each by a great writer. It seemed to me that one could try something like this: introduce three languages of increasing difficulty,* beginning with the simple challenges presented by reading, then working through a short text. 

So, for instance, one might start with 1. Italian. (A good starting point for the many people whose first second language was Spanish or French.) One introduces the principles of Italian orthography, so that the reader, looking at a text, knows how it shd be pronounced; one then goes through a short passage from Calvino's Invisible Cities, providing relevant grammar and vocabulary. 

One would then go on to 2. Ancient Greek. Alphabet not dissimilar to ours; the student still starts with a big advantage. The object is to work through the first 7 lines of the Iliad. One points out that the Greek alphabet can be divided into true friends, false friends and aliens. There are letters that look familiar and do, in fact, represent roughly the sounds represented by their modern lookalikes (α β δ ε ι κ ο τ υ ς Α Β Ε Ι Κ Μ Ν Ο Τ Ζ); letters that look familiar but represent different sounds (γ η ν ρ χ ω Η Ρ Χ Υ); exciting letters no longer in use outside mathematics (ζ θ λ μ π σ φ ψ ξ Γ Δ Θ Λ Π Ξ Φ Ψ Ω). One starts the student off with exercises spelling English words in Greek letters, moves on to introduce Greek pronunciation and some Greek words, and then goes through the first 7 lines of the Iliad. (One does not need all these letters for Iliad 1-7.) (Sceptics may think starting with Homeric Greek is really jumping in at the deep end, but it is only 7 lines. ) 

One would then go on to, as it might be 3. Arabic. Totally different script, with many letters representing sounds not found in English. Also, a Semitic language! (How lovely!) But this, too, is less difficult than it looks; one starts on the script, using a version of the method described above, introduces the new sounds, and then works through a short passage - I was thinking, maybe, a few lines from Ibn Rushd on tragedy. On reflection 2 hours seems wildly optimistic and even 3 somewhat optimistic. Seems as though explaining how a Semitic language works would not be the work of a couple of minutes. 

Luckily, though, I can now use Jesi as a guinea pig and try to achieve a more realistic sense of how it is all to be done. Once the materials have been properly worked out they can be posted online and also, I suppose, published in book form (though it wd need an accompanying CD). Just the sort of book one wants on a long flight. The sort of book one could give to a child who has been dragged to the beach on vacation because younger siblings are not too old for the beach.  I'm thinking primarily, obviously, of anglophone readers, also German readers since we are sending up a trial balloon in Berlin. PS Hello visitors from Guardian Books Blog! If you'd like to be sent pages from the beta release as they're developed, do drop me a line!


Update (2023): I'm sorry to say that this project has made virtually no progress (there have been many, many disruptions), and Jesi has long since closed her place in Berlin and moved on to other things. Meanwhile Blogger has flagged the post for violating community guidelines; not sure what the problem was, but since I'm revisiting I've tried to clean it up a bit.

Thursday, August 18, 2022

Undervaluation of women artists

 BBC radio segment on undervaluation of women artists (roughly, selling at 10% of what male artists sell for) here

For those who recoil from audio, as I normally do, there's also a summary in the Guardian here

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Berlin (notes for writers)

 How to get a Kitagutschein on All About Berlin blog

Randall Collins has a blog, how could I not know

 Collins published The Credential Society in 1979, when his publishers took so tepid an interest in the book they refused to publish a paperback edition.  It's now a classic, took on new life with increased concern over escalating costs of university education and student debt in the US.

Turns out, he has a blog, The Sociological Eye - a blog I know I will never find again if I bookmark it.  So I link to it here.

Rejection of Proust by Gallimard

 Short segment on Radio France on Proust's rejection by Gallimard, account of the many revisions Proust made to the MS once accepted for publication and typeset (he apparently made significant changes to FIVE galleys).  The text originally submitted to Gallimard was a "dactylograph" which did not have the now famous first line (Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heur.) - instead there was a rather long and not very interesting sentence setting the scene. It sounds as though the famous line did appear, but was written in as an interlinear note on the dactylograph.

The whole thing here.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Lives of Astronomers

In summer 1997 I went to Oxford to do research on a character I thought should be an astronomer.  I went to the Radcliffe Science Library and began reading journals, increasingly aware of how ill-equipped I was to create a fictional astronomer: I should probably spend several months getting a better understanding of the kind of research he might do.

My agent, Stephanie Cabot, had said in June 1996 that with 6 chapters she could get me money to finish the book; somewhere along the line she seemed to have forgotten this, so it was not easy to know how to do justice to this astronomer.  In the meantime I went on looking at journals in the few days I had managed to take off work.  I came upon the Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics, which includes a splendid feature: each issue included a brief autobiography by a distinguished astronomer or astrophysicist.

I don't think any of these were used in the book, but I offer a couple of examples, mainly as a reminder of how much better it would be if all academic journals offered this kind of feature: