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  • The Paradise of Poets
    Posted on Jun 1, 2020
    In Graham Henderson’s recent blog, we see Marcel Proust travel to the Bois de Boulogne, at the end of ‘Swann in Love’, where he cherishes his recollections of that well-known Parisian landmark. Many a Parisian child’s memories of this pandemic will no doubt include the relative freedom afforded by this large park. Proust is both the disillusioned adult and the enchanted child, in other words, a divided soul in search of something too ephemeral to be certain, or, at least, retrievable. The reference to the Bois de Boulogne brought to mind an anecdote about Verlaine in Phil Baker’s The Book of A…
  • Translating Voyelles
    Posted on May 28, 2020
    Rimbaud was a poet of meteoric brilliance, quickly burnt out. I must get to know him better! I have translated a thousand poems, mostly rhymed and rhyming: a great many are sonnets, including all the 154 sonnets of Shakespeare, which I rewrote without using letter E; but only one is a sonnet by Rimbaud; inevitably this one is his celebrated poem ‘Vowels’ (Voyelles). Inevitably too, I translated Voyelles without using the letter E. The result is what is called a Lipogram – a piece of writing where one or several letters are deliberately avoided. It is an experimental way of writing pioneered b…
  • Germaine Tailleferre’s Piano Concerto (1924)
    Posted on May 25, 2020
    If Germaine Tailleferre (1892-1983) is known at all today, it is because she was the only female member of the Paris-based group of composers Les Six, alongside Francis Poulenc, Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger and Darius Milhaud. They were promoted by Jean Cocteau who, although not himself a musician, set himself up as the spokesman for avant-garde composers in his tract Le coq et l’arlequin (1918). The cockerel, a symbol of France, is here contrasted with the harlequin, representing eclectic foreign influence. In this short book, Erik Satie (who was in fact half-Scottish) was prai…
  • A Detour Around Rimbaud's Omega
    Posted on May 21, 2020
    Of the many riddles contained in Rimbaud’s famous ‘Vowels’ sonnet, scholarship has largely set itself the task of solving only the most obvious one: explaining why Rimbaud assigns each vowel its particular colour.  The poet’s reason for inverting the order of the O and U in the first line must seem, by contrast, too straightforward to merit more than passing mention. Rimbaud has clearly placed the O at the end of the vowel sequence so that it can be identified in the last line with the Omega, the last letter of Greek alphabet, which has in turn been set up by the closing allusion to the trump…
  • On walking in the Bois de Boulogne and being disillusioned
    Posted on May 18, 2020
    Living under lockdown because of COVID-19 my daily exercise has been taking the form of a brisk walk around some rather featureless former playing fields next to the River Crane in London, which now functions more like a storm drain than a free-flowing natural stream. These daily constitutionals inevitably conjure up images of other less constrained and socially distanced walks in the past. Marcel Proust concludes the first part of his great novel In Search of Lost Time with an account of a walk in a rather different and much larger park, albeit one that I have visited, the Bois de Boulogne in…
  • Poetry in extremis – Apollinaire’s Case d’armons
    Posted on May 13, 2020
    Musing on the pandemic, I’ve been reminded of how great artists can produce extraordinary work in the most extreme circumstances. You need only think of Stalin’s Russia, where Shostakovich continued to compose music and Akhmatova to write verse under daily threat of imprisonment and execution. Even so, few volumes of poetry can have been conceived and printed in conditions quite like those in which Guillaume Apollinaire found himself when his collection Case d’armons appeared in mid-June 1915. Like many other artists and writers Apollinaire, although legally a foreign national, volunteered to…
  • In Search of the Vinteuil Sonata
    Posted on May 11, 2020
    Vinteuil belongs to a series of imaginary artists in Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. He joins company with Bergotte the imaginary writer and Elstir the imaginary painter. Vinteuil, for his part, is a composer, although he also teaches piano (including to the protagonist’s great-aunts) and is the village organist. As a character he does not survive long in Proust’s novel. By the end of only the first part of the first volume he is already dead. Vinteuil’s music, however, lives on. For a long time, his only surviving composition is thought to be his sonata for piano and violin in F sh…
  • On the road to Tabor?
    Posted on May 7, 2020
    In the September 2019 I spent a blissful two-week holiday cycling in the Czech Republic. In my pannier I carried my holiday reading matter, ‘A History of the Hussite Revolution’ by Howard Kaminsky, which was first published in 1967. On the face of it this hefty tome, about the ideological and theological schism that resulted in devastating sectarian warfare across the Czech lands between 1410-1450, would seem to have little to say of contemporary relevance, but that assumption would be quite wrong… It is puzzling to me that the Hussite revolution is not more widely known about and discussed a…
  • The Republican across the Water – Victor Hugo in the Channel Islands
    Posted on May 3, 2020
    Sitting at home, with many volumes of Victor Hugo’s poetry staring at me from my bookshelves (several of which, I have to admit, have never been read in their entirety), I’ve been reflecting on the author’s time in ‘self-isolation’ from Napoleon III’s Second Empire. As always with Hugo, it turned out to be a period of immense invention and productivity. The poet landed in St Peter Port, Guernsey on the morning of 31 October 1855, accompanied by his son, François-Victor, and discreetly followed off the boat by a Mrs. Drouell, in reality Hugo’s faithful mistress, companion and secretary, Juliet…
  • 'Michael Field'
    Posted on Apr 29, 2020
    Queer icons Michael Field—the lesbian niece-aunt writing duo who self-identified as ‘poets and lovers’—were for a time a little fannish about Paul Verlaine. I want to be clear that I don’t use the word ‘fannish’ in any derogatory way. Rather, I want to convey the enthusiasm, thoroughness, and voraciousness with which they pursued their French contemporary’s works and anything they could find written about him, even when such works were few and far between, published only in another language, and had to be ordered from abroad. Fannish, too, was the way they sought to share their enthusiasm with…
  • Huysmans the art critic
    Posted on Apr 27, 2020
    During the nineteenth century it became almost a rite of passage for any serious writer to review the annual Salon des Beaux Arts in Paris. The Salon was the most important institution in the French art world, the means by which artists acquired their reputations and received commissions for their work. Stendhal, Baudelaire, Gautier, the Goncourts, Zola, all, at various stages in their careers, turned their hand to reviewing the Paris Salon. Although he is more widely known as a novelist than an art critic, J.-K. Huysmans (1848-1907) was no exception. In the 1870s and early 1880s, when he was …
  • Are we not drawn onward to new erA
    Posted on Apr 23, 2020
    In his essay entitled ‘The Enigma of Parsifal’ the French philosopher Alain Badiou argues that the real subject of Wagner’s opera is the question of whether a modern ceremony is possible. At best, he suggests, modern ceremony results in the parodies of the stadium Rock concert, at worst in the performative histrionics of the Nuremberg rally. However, at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2019, I experienced a new work by a Belgian company (a work with the palindromic title above) which creates a sacralised ceremonial art in a way that I believe is breathtakingly new and contemporary… Badiou is …