Archive for July, 2008

God, but that annoyed me: if he wanted someone educated all he had to do was marry Jeanne Beder, she’s got breasts like hunting horns but she knows five languages.

I felt a misled by the title of this book. Jean-Paul Sartre’s collection of existentialist short stories, Intimacy, is called Le Mur in french, or ‘The Wall’. The renaming of a work when translated always has the potential to go awry. Both titles are taken from one of the stories within, but as you can see, the ones chosen are not really interchangeable. Of course, such changes can be deliberate in drawing attention elsewhere. But I really feel that the french title is more telling. The stories deal with the crises that crop up in a life, such as problems in love, philosophy or politics, and each sufferer’s troubles are personally significant and difficult to surmount.

‘Intimacy’, as a title, seems to promise the elucidation and the minutiae of relationships between people, but this is not really the case. The title story does deal with a crisis point within the marriage of Lulu and Henri, and introduces Lulu’s various supports (a friend, the ripe Rirette; and a lover, Pierre, basically absent). By the first page, you’ve also got a quotable quote about intimacy: ‘when Lulu put it in the dirty laundry bag she couldn’t help noticing the bottoms were yellow from rubbing between his legs.’

The other stories are very different though, particularly two (‘Erostratus’ and ‘The Childhood of a Leader’) in which Sartre deals predominantly with the thoughts and actions of one individual. It would be easy enough to stretch the thematic aegis of the title to include intimacy with one’s self, though contrived. In that case, ‘Intimacy’ might be an appropriate title, but by no means is it an illuminating one. Intimacy is assumed, and necessary, with all of Sartre’s characters — he shows you their barest and most motivating thoughts. But what is viewed through that intimacy is far more interesting, and the salient lesson can be characterised as the cruelty of freedom and decisions; deciding how to die, deciding to kill — this book could as appropriately have been called ‘Death’.

Of commercial interest: this book is hard to get a hold of. There is only one used copy of this book at Amazon, and one new copy at Better World Books. None at Book Depository.

i knew there was a reason i am so drawn to novels– i am improving my social skills. without speaking to anyone! old news, but interesting: fiction readers have ‘exceptionally strong people skills’.

i am volunteering at the melbourne writers festival box office at fed square a couple of days over the next few weeks. come say hi!

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July 25, 2008

ramona has a lot articulate guests on the book show but i was totally enchanted by the lovely biographer hazel rowley. gracious, lilting voice. i’m not sure if you can still download the 3 july show where she spoke about richard wright, the black american writer, john reed club member, and friend of jean-paul sartre (another of rowley’s subjects) made crazy famous by a mail-order precursor of oprah’s book club. i have put a halt on acquiring new books for now, but a richard wright book is in the queue.

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the checklist for liking this novel:

  • do you like fairytales?
  • without irony?
  • really, come on?
  • have you ever been in love with a member of the academic staff at a tertiary education institution?
  • are you somewhat enthralled by the recondite?

please, i love me a little reductio ad absurdum.


I must confess to very little knowledge of the triumphs and vagaries of the Roman empire. I know the names of the gods, and their Greek predecessors; I know a couple of humdrum Latin words, but nothing that would impress the boys behind the bike shed. Yet if it were possible for the life of each emperor in those fifteen centuries to be beheld through the passionate and tender words of Marguerite Yourcenar, I would amortize the debt of my ignorance most gladly. Her Hadrian’s intelligence and ceremony seethe throughout Memoirs of Hadrian‘s sinuous grace, which also owes a debt to Yourcenar’s friend Grace Frick’s translation. It is not easy to do justice to the fullness, the coherency of a life; the discrete clues of history are not always amenable to an embrace that is two thousand years behind.

A background in classics is not necessary for the enjoyment of the fineness of Yourcenar’s (a pseudonym, an approximate anagram of her actual surname, Crayencour) portrait of Rome’s 14th emperor. Rich is the tapestry placed before our eyes, dripping are the names and places from the pen of the emperor, but not an otiose or jarring word is to be seen. Such treatment is evidence of the great respect possessed by the author for her subject. However wild the religious experiments, however ceaseless the conflicts of the expanding Empire, however lavish the commonplaces of Principate life, Hadrian as expressed here is a clear-headed sophisticate who resists excesses of pride and display of power. But like many of literature’s and history’s best beloved, he cannot resist excesses of love or guilt. Therein lies the heart of this story, which for the first hundred pages is elegant and systematic and useful, but static; a great amount of pain brings experience into minute focus, and the narrative thereafter vibrates with the humanity of pain.

A ten year labour of research and writing was necessary for the work to come about, a labour which, as detailed in an appendix of the author’s notes, lacked no dramatic moments of self-doubt and derailing. Such endurance and toil paid off, and with interest. Yourcenar’s grasp on the politics, the geography and the personages of the early years AD would be oppressive if it were not so radically germane to the novel’s success to capture the feel, the heat of that burgeoning period of progress. The possible scale of one man’s life was so different then (and the possible scale of a woman’s life, one might say, was not so different). Hadrian has, in place of avocations, cities; wars, instead of simple mistakes; but also philosophy in place of leisure; the ecstatic and divine, the mysterious rather than the mundane; and to magnify all this, perpetuity.

It might be difficult in theory to trust a man like Hadrian, trained to speak with persuasion and act with cunning. His legacy, as presented in Memoirs of Hadrian, is nevertheless to be honoured, and unreservedly. The life of one who can assess the gifts and grit of mankind with so little self-pity and so much lucidity has much to offer. The words of one speaking from a time when man stood alone strike a plangent note for the notice even of an audience at the opposite extremes of time and space.

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July 10, 2008

yesterday lauren and john picked me up in their new (old) beamer and drove us out to nunawading, ringwood, croydon and finally sassafras, where lindt hot chocolates were had by all (except john, who had a fruits-of-the-forest “loser” tea). i think i spent about $60 on books.

our first stop was the secondhand book shop opposite nunawading station. that shop is beyond belief. books tumble to your feet as you creep between the piles. it is a book jumbleyard. it is utterly indescribable. it is also pricey, with the copy of kierkegaard’s “either/or” and the freud dictionary i bought $10 a pop. still, it’s a good place to start a foraging expedition because it gives you the taste for treasure. lauren bought two or three of an amazing time-life nature series of hardbacks she is collecting for about $5 each, only to find the whole set (of 30!) down maroondah highway somewhere for $10. oh the trials and tribulations.

somewhere in croydon i found two in a series called “how it works: an encyclopaedia of machines”, which has many rad little diagrams in black and red showing how an aeroplane stays up, aka arthur weasley’s most treasured ambition. can’t wait. predictably, also some penguins and some “women’s short stories”, a marketing terminology i detest.

you’ll be seeing some of those guys later!