Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Library Book

The Library Book is a smallish anthology published in the UK in 2012 to support and celebrate public libraries, which are threatened all over the world by various governmental bean counters who (obviously) have never used libraries or ever cared for them.  The twenty four contributions range from essays to fiction and memoirs.  Of the fiction, there is an except from Un Lun Dun by China Mieville, and a short story by Kate Mosse. The best contributions in the book were, for me, the historical essay "The Library of Babylon" by Tom Holland, and a bookish memoir "A Corner of St. James" by Susan Hill. Many of the essays contain nuggets of wisdom.  I'll copy a handful below.

"Being a reader turned me into a writer. It fed my imagination and revealed worlds far beyond my own experience."  Val McDermid "Going to the Dogs"

"When you've bought a book, you feel obligated to finish it, just to get your money's worth. But when I borrow the adult equivalent of that Curious George trove, I'm free to start a disappointing novel and discard it. Paying nothing for the book itself, I can place a higher premium on my time."  Lionel Shriver "I Libraries"

" 'If someone suggested the idea of public libraries now, they'd be considered insane,' says Peter Collins, Library Services Manager in Worksop.'Because libraries are based on trust. I mean, if you said you were going to take a little bit of money from every taxpayer, but a whole lot of books and music and games, stick them on a shelf and tell everyone, "These are yours to borrow and all you've got to do is bring them back," they'd be laughed out of government.' "  Bella Bathurst "The Secret Life of Libraries"

" 'Reading is a much more alien concept for a lot of kids,' says Collins, 'The pace of life is different now, and people expect art to happen to them. Music and film do that, a CD will do that, but you have to make a book happen to you."  Bella Bathurst "The Secret Life of Libraries"

"Reading is not just an escape. It is access ot a better way of life." Karin Slaughter "Fight for Libraries as You Do Freedom"

Monday, August 29, 2016

More on "Shon ap Shenkin" / "Sion ap Siencyn"

I recently happened upon not one but two unrelated references to the traditional Welsh fairy story of "Shon ap Shenkin" (or "Sion ap Siencyn") that Kenneth Morris retold (see here).  The first is an illustration for the tale, by Ifor Owen (1915-2007), a Welsh artist and educator who published Hwyl (1949), the first children's comic in the Welsh language.  In The Good People: New Fairylore Essays (1991), edited by Peter Narváez, there is an an essay on "Fairylore: Memorates and Legends from Welsh Oral Tradition" by Robin Gwyndaf, who mentions the "Sion ap Siencyn" tale, but more interestingly reproduces Ifor Owen's illustration for the tale.  It doesn't say when Owen made the illustration, or whether he had encountered Kenneth Morris's version of the tale, but it is of such quality that it is worth sharing here. 

The second reference is in an old book, British Goblins: Welsh Folklore, Fairy Mythology, Legends and Traditions (1880) by Wirt Sikes, in a discussion of the legend of the Birds of Rhiannon in the Mabinogion (“Branwen, Daughter of Llyr”). This represents the only pre-Kenneth Morris appearance in print of the Sion story that I have so far found. I copy the passage (and its one illustration, depicting the rather macabre ending that Morris did not use) below.  Note that Wirt Sikes sets the locale of the story as Carmarthenshire, which is where Kenneth Morris was born in 1879, and where he lived as a young boy, until the age of six or seven. 

This enchanting fancy reappears in the local story of Shon ap Shenkin, which was related to me by a farmer’s wife near the reputed scene of the legend. Pant Shon Shenkin has already been mentioned as a famous centre for Carmarthenshire fairies. The story of Taffy ap Sion and this of Shon ap Shenkin were probably one and the same at some period in their career, although they are now distinct. Shon ap Shenkin was a young man who lived hard by Pant Shon Shenkin. As he was going afield early one fine summer’s morning he heard a little bird singing, in a most enchanting strain, on a tree close by his path. Allured by the melody he sat down under the tree until the music ceased, when he arose and looked about him. What was his surprise at observing that the tree, which was green and full of life when he sat down, was now withered and barkless! Filled with astonishment he returned to the farmhouse which he had left, as he supposed, a few minutes before; but it also was changed, grown older, and covered with ivy. In the doorway stood an old man whom he had never seen; he at once asked the old man what he wanted there. “What do I want here?” ejaculated the old man, reddening angrily; “that’s a pretty question! Who are you that dare to insult me in my own house?” “In your own house? How is this? where’s my father and mother, whom I left here a few minutes since, whilst I have been listening to the charming music under yon tree, which, when I rose, was withered and leafless?” “Under the tree!—music! what’s your name?” “Shon ap Shenkin.”  “Alas, poor Shon, and is this indeed you!” cried the old man. “I often heard my grandfather, your father, speak of you, and long did he bewail your absence. Fruitless inquiries were made for you; but old Catti Maddock of Brechfa said you were under the power of the fairies, and would not be released until the last sap of that sycamore tree would be dried up. Embrace me, my dear uncle, for you are my uncle—embrace your nephew.”  With this the old man extended his arms, but before the two men could embrace, poor Shon ap Shenkin crumbled into dust on the doorstep.   (pp. 92-94)

Friday, August 26, 2016

Alan Garner on Writing

I recently watched the DVDs of the 1969-70 Granada series The Owl Service, scripted by Alan Garner himself.  I can't say that I enjoyed it any more than the book, which I found rather a muddle of interesting ingredients and annoying characters. One of the points for me to watch the series was that most of it was filmed at Poulton Hall, the home of Roger Lancelyn Green (1918-1987), the friend and biographer of C.S. Lewis, and the author of many books for children and about children's writers. Still, in the end, I think I would have preferred a documentary about Poulton Hall to the rather incoherent and (it must be admitted) silly story-line of The Owl Service.

Included in the DVDs with the series is another 25 minute program, Celebration: Alan GarnerThe Edge of the Ceiling (1980), which is a documentary about, and starring, Garner himself.  This was far more interesting than The Owl Service.  It makes you realize just how personally absorbed Garner is, and why his newer books have progressively retreated from accessibility for the last forty-odd years. Garner had some quite interesting observations, a few of which I jotted down and share here:

"I use mythology and folklorewhen I use itnot to deflect the attention away from reality but to focus the attention of the reader on the reality behind apparent reality, the reality behind the three dimensional world. Because it was that reality that was real for me in childhood."

"And so I don't make any excuses whatsoever for drawing on fantastic materials to make comments seriously about modern life."

"For me, a writer is somebody who lives in their own life, their own investigation of what it's all about. They are their own scientist in their own laboratory, and that laboratory is themself. The writer is his own laboratory." 

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Perspectives of Creators

I recently discovered a recording of George Gershwin (1898-1937) playing a version for piano of his own composition Rhapsody in Blue, which was originally written in 1924 for piano and orchestra.  What a delight to hear the composer himself render some passages in very different ways than they are usually conducted--showing some humor here, and uptempo transitions there.  Of course it does not make for a definitive rendering of the piece, but it's always good to hear the creator's perspective, be it in music, or literature, or art. 

Monday, May 9, 2016

Matters of Perspective: Dunsany and Yeats

In 1934 Lord Dunsany was presented the Harmsworth Prize from the Irish Academy of Letters for his novel The Curse of the Wise Woman (1933).  Dunsany (left), at 6 foot 4 inches tall, towers over F.R. Higgins (seated), who was on the board of the Abbey Theatre, and poet William Butler Yeats (right), looking small and parrot-like.  (Was Yeats really as short as he looks here?)

In his third volume of autobiography, The Sirens Wake (1945), Dunsany wrote:
Yeats had invented the Irish Academy of Letters [in 1932] and had omitted me, which was no surprise; though his reason for doing so was surprising, which was that I did not write about Ireland. I told one or two Irish writers that I too was going to start an Academy, an academy to honour the names of writers of the fourteenth century in Italy; for I said that, since writers work for posterity, it was not a bit too late to honour fourteenth-century writers now. Who, I asked, would they suggest?  Dante of course was suggested; but I was shocked. "Most certainly not," I said, stroking my hair as Yeats used to stroke his. "Dante did not write about Italy, but of a very different place. Most unsuitable!" 
Dunsany then admits that this "may have been the trifling sting that stimulated my energies" and he started writing his Irish novel, The Curse of the Wise Woman, on February 12th, 1933, and finished it three and a half months later, on May 27th.

When Dunsany was finally admitted to the Irish Academy, Oliver St. John Gogarty joked at the dinner:

Since this Academy was founded to keep Dunsany out we ought to dissolve it, now that he's admitted.

The details underneath this story are a bit more complicated.  Yeats initially proposed Dunsany to be an associate (but not regular) member, clearly a secondary status, and he apparently never sent Dunsany any invitation at all.  Dunsany only heard about it through press accounts, so naturally he was miffed.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Intensive Research

A quote for the day:

“Intensive research, even by the most competent researcher, is wasted, unless the results are put together and printed. It would have been better to have written two or three solid monographs on one of the many scores of topics on which the accumulator had been pondering, than to have collected in one’s brain countless lights on all manner of historical subjects, whose correlation perishes when the brain is gone. Perhaps some later researcher may have to put it all together again.”         
Charles Oman, On the Writing of History (1939)

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Dunsany and Machen on Their Publishers

For some years now, I have had in my head the idea that when Dunsany was approached in 1946 by August Derleth about Arkham House publishing an omnibus of some of Dunsany's earlier books* (published in the United State by John W. Luce & Company), Dunsany wrote back to Derleth, saying that he hadn't heard anything from Luce in over a quarter of a century, and he directed Derleth to "rob Luce without mercy." 

Except that's not correct.  What Dunsany actually wrote to Derleth, on the 11th of September 1946, is less tart:  "Luce has sent me no payment, or even a letter, for over a quarter of a century, and I do not imagine that any rights he may have had can survive that.  So you may ignore Luce." 

Why did that more deserving phrase carve its way into my memory so strongly?  The answer is that I have read it in a slightly different form elsewhere, and my memory had intermingled the details. 

Here is Arthur Machen, writing to Vincent Starrett on August 23rd, 1921, about some of his books not then published in the United States, including The House of Souls, published in London by Grant Richards:  "If you have the chance, rob Grant Richards without mercy. He has robbed me, so slay and spare not." 

The sentiments are pretty much the same in the letters of both writers, but Machen's phrasing is clearly more memorable. 

I'm glad now to get the wordings and attributions corrected. 

*Nothing came of this.