Saturday, January 31, 2015

Befriending the Dalai Lama

Today marks the centenary of the birth of Thomas Merton, a monk, a mystic and a prolific writer on religious and spiritual issues. Indeed, he is considered by some to be one of the most important and influential American writers on Catholicism in the 20th century. He also published books of poetry, and he documented his own life in journals and through autobiographies such as The Seven Storey Mountain.

Merton was born in Prades, France, on 31 January 1915, though his father came from New Zealand and his mother from the US, the two having met at art school in Paris. After the family moved to the US, Thomas’s mother bore a second son, but then she died when Thomas was only six. Thereafter, he was moved around a lot during his childhood (the US, France and the UK), and was often separated from his father. 
He did some travelling in his late teens before entering Clare College, Cambridge, but left after only one year. He then moved to the US, to study at Columbia University, where he converted to Roman Catholicism. In 1941, he entered the Abbey of Gethsemani, Kentucky, a community of Trappists monks, and remained part of the community for the rest of his life.

Abbot Frederic Dunne encouraged the young Frater Louis, as he was known in the monastery, to translate works from the Cistercian tradition and to write historical biographies to make the order better known. He also urged him to write his autobiography, published in 1948 as The Seven Storey Mountain. This became a best-seller and remains a classic of the genre.

In the 1960s, Merton became increasingly political and a strong supporter of the civil rights movement. His writings on the subject triggered frequent criticism, especially from other Catholics. He also became interested in Zen Buddhism, and in promoting East-West dialogue. This led to him being praised by the Dalai Lama, and then to meeting him on a tour to Asia in 1968. Tragically, Merton died during that journey - as a result of an accidental electrocution. Further information can be found from Wikipedia, the Abbey of Gethsemani, The Thomas Merton Center, New Directions, or Catholic Answers.

Merton kept a diary for much of his life, especially after entering the Abbey of Gethsemani. However, he did not publish a first selection of diary entries until 1953, when Harcourt, Brace and Co. brought out The Sign of Jonas. The diary extracts were written between 1946 and 1952, and the book’s purpose was to introduce readers to the daily life of a monk. A further selection from Merton’s diary - pre-Gethsemani and before he was a Catholic or a monk - followed in 1959, published by Dell Publishing, entitled The Secular Journal of Thomas Merton. No further diaries were published in his lifetime (although Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander in 1966 was composed from notebook jottings), and it would not be until the 1990s that all his diaries were put into a print, in a seven volume series. This started with Run to the Mountain - The Journals of Thomas Merton, Volume One 1939-1941, and concluded with The Other Side of the Mountain, The Journals of Thomas Merton, Volume Seven 1967-1968. Both books can be previewed at Amazon (one and seven).

However, the very last diary Merton kept, during his fatal trip to Asia, was published by New Directions, as a stand alone volume, much earlier, in 1973 - 
The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton. And, in 1988, New Directions also brought out Thomas Merton in Alaska, which included a selection of his journals from a trip he made to Alaska on his way to Asia.

The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton was edited by Naomi Burton, Brother Patrick Hart and James Laughlin, from three separate notebooks kept by Merton. Much of the book can be read online at Googlebooks, and a detailed review can be found at The Healing Project. In his ‘Editor’s Notes’, Laughlin explains how Merton kept a ‘public’ journal which he intended for publication, a ‘private’ journal, largely duplicating the first but with occasional intimate notes and spiritual self-analyses, and a small ‘pocket notebook’ in which he jotted quick and immediate notes. According to instructions left behind by Merton, only the first - the public journal - was to be published, and no one other than his authorised biographer was to have access to the private journal.

The editors also explain how editing Merton’s diary was a complicated business, since he wrote quickly, guessing at spelling, using other languages, and missing out many verbs and connecting words. Taking as their guide the journals published in his own lifetime, however, they polished and edited the text into sentences: ‘Readers will judge for themselves our degree of success or failure in this effort to identify and produce a known style by comparison with such earlier journals as The Sign of Jonas or Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.’ The book concludes with a generous spread of appendices - lectures and letters to friends - and a long glossary, a detailed bibliography and an index.

24 September 1968
‘At the far end of a long blue arm of water, full of islands. The bush pilot flies low over the post office thinking it to be the Catholic Church - to alert the priest we are arriving.

The old town of Valdez, wrecked by earthquake, tidal wave. Still some buildings leaning into shallow salt water. Others, with windows smashed by a local drunkard. I think I have lost the roll of film I took in Valdez & the mountains (from the place).

Most impressive mountains I have seen in Alaska: Drum & Wrangell & the third great massive one whose name I forget, rising out of the vast birchy plain of Copper Valley. They are sacred & majestic mountains, ominous, enormous, noble, stirring. You want to attend to them. I could not keep my eyes off them. Beauty & terror of the Chugach. Dangerous valleys. Points. Saws. Snowy nails.’

19 October 1968
‘The situation of the tourist becomes ludicrous and impossible in a place like Calcutta. How does one take pictures of these streets with the faces, the eyes, of such people, and the cows roaming among them on the sidewalks and buzzards by the score circling over the main streets in the “best” section? Yet the people are beautiful. But the routine of the beggars is heart-rending. The little girl who suddenly appeared at the window of my taxi, the utterly lovely smile with which she stretched out her hand, and then the extinguishing of the light when she drew it back empty. I had no Indian money yet. She fell away from the taxi as if she were sinking in water and drowning, and I wanted to die. I couldn’t get her out of my mind. Yet when you give money to one, a dozen half kill themselves running after your cab. This morning one little kid hung on to the door and ran whining beside the cab in traffic while the driver turned around and made gestures as if to beat him away. [. . .] Calcutta is shocking because it is all of a sudden a totally different kind of madness, the reverse of that other madness, the mad rationality of affluence and overpopulation. America seems to make sense, and is hung up in its madness, now really exploding. Calcutta has the lucidity of despair, of absolute confusion, of vitality helpless to cope with itself. Yet undefeatable, expanding without and beyond reason but with nowhere to go. [. . .]

A sign in Calcutta: “Are you worried? Refresh yourself with cigars.” ’

24 October 1968
‘A visit to the Narendrapur-Ramakrishna Mission Ashram. College, agricultural school, poultry farm, school for the blind, and orphanage. Ponds, palms, a water tower in a curious style, a monastic building, and guesthouse. Small tomato and cucumber sandwiches, flowers, tea. We drove around in a a dark green Scout. Villages. Three big, blue buffaloes lying in a patch of purple, eating the flowers. Communists arguing under a shelter. Bengali inscriptions on every wall; they have an extraordinary visual quality. Large and small cows. Goats, calves, millions of children.

The Temple of Understanding Conference has been well organised considering the problems which developed. It could not be held in Darjeeling, as planned, because of the floods. Instead it has been put on at the Birla Academy in South Calcutta. It is more than half finished now. I spoke yesterday morning, but did not actually follow my prepared text. There were good papers by two rabbis, one from New York and one from Jerusalem, and by Dr. Wei Tat, on the I Ching. Also by Sufis, Jains and others.’

8 November 1968, Dharamsala
‘My third interview with the Dalai Lama was in some ways the best. He asked a lot of questions about Western monastic life, particularly the vows, the rule of silence, the ascetic way, etc. But what concerned him most was: 1) Did the “vows” have any connection with a spiritual transmission or initiation? 2) Having made vows, did the monks continue to progress along a spiritual way, toward and eventual illumination, and what were the degrees of that progress? And supposing a monk died without having attained to perfect illumination? What ascetic methods were used to help purify the mind of passions? He was interested in the “mystical life,” rather than in external observance. [. . .]

I asked him about the question of Marxism and monasticism, which is to be the topic of my Bangkok lecture. He said that from a certain point of view it was impossible for monks and Communists to get along, but that perhaps it should not be entirely impossible if Marxism meant only the establishment of an equitable economic and social structure. Also there was perhaps some truth in Marx’s critique of religion in view of the fact that religious leaders had so consistently been hand in glove with secular power. Still, on the other hand, militant atheism did in fact strive to suppress all forms of religion, good or bad.

Finally, we got into a rather technical discussion of mind, whether as consciousness, prajna and dhyana, and the relation of prajna to sunyata. [. . .]

It was a very warm and cordial discussion and at the end I felt we had become very good friends and were somehow quite close to one another.’

1 December 1968, Kandy
‘It is hardly like any December or Advent I have ever known! A clear, hot sky. Flowering trees. A day coming. I woke at the sound of many crows fighting in the air. Then the booming drum at the Temple of Buddha’s Tooth. Now, the traffic of buses and a cool breeze sways the curtains. The jungle is very near, it comes right to the top of the city and is visible a bare hundred yards from this window. Yet I am on a very noisy corner as far as traffic is concerned!’

The Diary Junction

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Lodge’s diary playback

David Lodge - happy 80th birthday! A British author of modern-day classics such as Small World and Nice Work, and their TV adaptations, Lodge is also well known for his literary criticism and for books on the subject of writing itself. I have no idea whether or not he keeps a personal diary, but, inspired by Simon Gray’s diaries, he did keep a journal while involved with the production of his first stage play, and this was published in one of his books on the writing process.

Lodge was born in southeast London on 28 January 1935. His father was a musician, playing with a cinema orchestra. During the war, he and his mother were evacuated to Surrey and Cornwall. Lodge was schooled at St Joseph’s Academy, Blackheath, and, in 1952, he entered University College, London. After a two-year stint in the Royal Armored Corps, and two years teaching for the British Council, he was appointed a lecturer at the University of Birmingham. In 1959, he married Mary Frances Jacob, whom he had met while at University College, and they had three children.

Lodge published his first novels - The Picturegoers and Ginger You’re Barmy - in the early 1960s, and his first volume of academic criticism, Language of Fiction, in 1966. He spent some time, with his family, in the US, thanks to a Harkness scholarship (like J. G. Farrell - see Catch some of my life below), but, from 1967, and for two decades, he continued an academic career at Birmingham university (from the mid-1970s he was Professor of English Literature). During this time, he continued to publish novels, roughly one every five years, including Changing Places in 1975 and Small World in 1984. He retired from academia in 1987, to become a full-time writer. Nice Work appeared a year later, with a television adaptation soon after.

Since 1987, Lodge has published half a dozen more novels and a similar number of books about writing, as well as three stage plays. Presumably to coincide with his 80th birthday, he has brought out an autobiography, Quite a Good Time To Be Born: a Memoir, 1935-75 (Harvill Secker, 2015). Further biographical information can be found at Wikipedia, the British Council, or The Cadbury Research Library website. There are also plenty of online reviews of the new autobiography, for example, at The Telegraph (‘less wit than his novels’), The Guardian (‘a sociologist’s paradise’) or The Independent (‘lacks [. . .] fireworks’).

There’s no obvious signs that Lodge has ever kept a personal diary. However, apparently inspired by Simon Gray’s diaries (see Smoking, heroin and opium), he has tried out the form once, while producing his first play, The Writing Game. Subsequently, he included extracts in one of his books The Practice of Writing, (Martin Secker & Warburg, 1996; reprinted by Vintage Books, 2011).

The Practice of Writing (which can be previewed online at Googlebooks) is a collection of occasional prose pieces about literary fiction, drama and television adaptation - mostly written after 1987. The last piece in the book, dated to February 1996, is entitled Playback: Extracts from a Writer’s Diary, and concerns the play Lodge wrote in 1985, originally called The Pressure Cooker but which became The Writing Game. In Playback, Lodge starts with a brief summary of the plot, and then recounts the somewhat tortuous route by which the play came to be produced, for the first time, by the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in 1990.

The diary starts on 21 March 1990, and finds Lodge bemoaning the fact that, although rehearsals are due to start in two or three weeks, not a single part has been cast. I am told, he writes, that this is by no means unusual in provincial theatre, ‘but I find it rather nerve-racking’.

The first diary entry continues thus: ‘I have decided to keep an occasional diary as the play is cast and goes into rehearsal. Since time is limited, I will dictate the narrative into a tape recorder, have it transcribed, and polish it later on the word processor. This project, I must acknowledge, was suggested by Simon Gray’s highly entertaining and instructive books about the trials and tribulations of mounting productions of his play, The Common Pursuit, in England and America, entitled An Unnatural Pursuit and How’s That for Telling ‘Em, Fat Lady? respectively. Although I cannot hope to emulate the wonderfully comic paranoia of Gray’s authorial persona, I shall try to be as candid as he seems to have been. If this narrative proves to have a more than private interest and value, it will be as the history of a play’s gestation, development and performance, seen from the point of view of an author to whom the whole process is largely unfamiliar.’

The entries continue until 26 June 1990, some of them are quite long, running to four or five pages. Here’s a few cut-down extracts.

17 April 1990
’Today we met for the first read-through, arranged for 2 p.m. to allow the actors time to travel up from London this morning. We assembled in the Boardroom at the top of the Repertory Theatre, with most of the heads of the various departments present. First, the General Manager, Bill Hughes, welcomed the cast, introduced the various people present, and gave out practical information to do with pay, Green Room facilities, concessions, etc. Then all departed except for the cast, John [Adams], myself, designer Robin Butlin and the ASM, Philippa Smith. John then gave a little chat designed to make the cast feel relaxed and at home, sketching out how he proposed to proceed, and indicating what the schedule of rehearsals was likely to be. The actors sat on each side of the Boardroom table. John sat at one end near them. I sat with Roger Butlin at the other end. This, although not pre-arranged, proved a rather useful seating plan, since John and I were able to look directly along the table and silently indicate whether we were happy or unhappy with something in the actors’ delivery, though we did not actually begin to exploit this mode of communication until later on in the day. [. . .]

We broke for tea and the actors went down to the Green Room. John came over to me and said: “Sometimes with a read-through you think immediately, well, we’ve got the right cast and they’ve got hold of the play and all we need to do really is to refine and polish this reading; and with other read-throughs you think, Hmmm.” And, he said, this is one where you think, Hmmm. In other words, there is quite a bit of work to be done. Both Roger and I agreed with this assessment.’

23 April 1990
‘This week I have agreed to stay away from rehearsals, as the actors will be mainly concerned with trying to learn their lines. I called the Rep this morning to arrange for a taxi to collect the rewrites that I’d done over the weekend, and Wiff told me that Timothy West has agreed to do the voice of Henry. That’s good news.’

10 May 1990
‘I’ve been so busy over the last few days that I haven’t had time to record any notes until now. On Monday, the British May Day holiday, I flew to Frankfurt to appear with Malcolm Bradbury in a kind of festival of contemporary British writing organised by the British Council. We have done this double act so often that we are in danger of becoming the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore of modern English letters. It was a long and tiring day and evening - an almost continuous sequence of interviews, meetings and socialising. [. . .] The next morning, after a leisurely breakfast and a short stroll around Frankfurt with Malcolm, I flew back to Birmingham, arriving at 1 p.m. I drove home, changed and went out immediately to the rehearsal rooms for the run-through. This went quite well and Lou [Hirsch] got through all his major speeches except one without a fluff. He and Sue [Penhaligon] still however tend to make small, but to me troubling, verbal errors.’

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Catch some of my life

James Gordon Farrell, who might have reached eighty today had he not died young in a storm accident, would have become one of the really great novelists writing in the English language today - according to a claim by Salman Rushdie widely quoted on internet sites. The editor of a collection of Farrell’s letters and ‘diary fragments’, published a few years ago by Cork University Press, argues that her book reveals Farrell’s ‘lost autobiographical voice.’ In a first entry, Farrell writes of using the diary to ‘catch some of my life’, and in another he catches a moment of inspiration, one that will lead to his best book.

Farrell was born in Liverpool on 25 January 1935 into an Anglo-Irish family. Although his family moved to County Dublin after the war, he was enrolled at Rossall boarding school in Lancashire from the age of 12, spending holidays in Ireland. After Rossall, he taught in Dublin, and also worked at a radar station in the Canadian Arctic. He entered Brasenose College, Oxford, in 1956, but contracted polio which left him partially crippled. On leaving Oxford with a low class degree, he went to live and teach in France, the setting for his first novel A Man from Elsewhere.

Thereafter, Farrell led a peripatetic life, variously in Paris, Morocco, Dublin and London. In 1966, he won a Harkness Fellowship to visit the US, and although this did not lead him, as he hoped, to study at Yale Drama School, it did provide him with the stimulus to write Troubles (about Ireland’s struggle for independence), the book that would bring him literary fame. It won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, and with the proceeds he went to India, the setting for his next novel on colonial power, The Siege of Krishnapur. This won the UK’s Booker Prize in 1973. A third, thematically similar, novel followed - The Singapore Grip.

In 1979, Farrell decided to move from London (where he had been based since around 1970) to the southwest of Ireland. A few months later, he was found dead, after being swept from rocks in a storm while fishing (see a Sunday Times report of his death). He never married, though he had affairs, and a wide circle of literary friends. Further information can be found at Wikipedia, which quotes Salmon Rushdie as saying, in 2008, that had Farrell not died so young,‘he would today be one of the really major novelists of the English language.’ There are various other articles online about Farrell, some reporting on how Troubles won, in 2010, the Lost Booker Prize for 1970 - at The GuardianThe Daily Telegraph, and BBC(‘Lost’ because books published in that year missed out on being considered thanks to a rule change.) A chapter on Farrell in Writing Liverpool: Essays and Interviews can be read at Googlebooks.

Farrell does not appear to have been a committed diarist, but, in 2009, Cork University Press published J. G. Farrell in his Own Words - Selected Letters and Diaries, as edited by Lavinia Greacen. Most of the book is taken up with letters, and Graecen, herself, refers to the rest as ‘diary fragments’. Reviews can be found online at The Spectator and Estudios Irlandeses websites.

Although the name J. G. Farrell tends to come with an austerely confident ring to it, Greacen says the ‘lost autobiographical voice’ in this book reveals him to be warm and sometimes full of self doubt. In a very short foreword, John Banville explains that he met Farrell once, a few days before he won the Booker Prize for The Siege of Krishnapur. He notes, however, that Farrell himself thought Troubles was a better book.

Here are two extracts from
J. G. Farrell in his Own Words - Selected Letters and Diaries. I’ve chosen the first because it explains Farrell’s motivations for starting a diary; and the second for it records a pivotal moment in the genesis of Troubles. However, I have also chosen the second because of a link with my own life: the very same Surf Hotel on Block Island, mentioned by Farrell, was where I was taken having been expelled from my father’s island house - I never saw or spoke to him again (see my diaries).

22 December 1966
‘This is addressed to an absent third party . . . in all respects like me, but not me. Alright then, the idea of this diary is to help me to get control of my talent for writing. I hope that it will help me in the following ways:
1) That I shall bring myself face to face with things that I normally discard through sheer mental laziness.
2) That I shall be able to remember things people say that make an impression on me as well as things I read.
3) Get in the habit of discussing problems with myself.
4) Catch some of my life before I forget it. I’m appalled to think how little I can remember of my first trip to America, even though it was only ten years ago. However, avoid being garrulous or it will become a chore. Avoid self-pity and sentimentality. Avoid haranguing myself uselessly like this.

On Monday I had lunch with Mike Roemer. He was busy and somewhat harassed; I noticed for the first time how he tends to talk too loud, as if afraid that he won’t be able to assert himself if he doesn’t. He had been to see Polanski’s Cul de Sac and hadn’t liked it. I was unable to understand his reasons for not liking it. He said he thought it was badly written; that it hadn’t gone far enough if it was supposed to be black humour etc. Well, perhaps I do partly see what he means. For all that, he couldn’t convince me (he didn’t try) that it was a bad film. I still find parts of it sublime: the kitchen scene at the beginning and the visit of friends [. . .] Roemer told me had once dined with E. M. Forster and been very impressed with his modesty and simplicity. F. had only wanted to talk about films. In the course of lunch R. repeated his theory that writers use up their experience when young, then go through a middle period of hard work before they can learn to invent their own material. In return I talked to him of intuitive writers, citing Edna O’Brien as one who had gone off the rails once she had begun to think about it. [. . .] I don’t think either of us were particularly convinced by this. Nothing, anyway, will convince R. that writing is not a field in which one only succeeds by hard and ruthless work. With deep misgivings I gave him a copy of The Lung.

Reading Virginia Woolf’s diary in the train to N. Caroline to spend Christmas with Bob. Odd and curious flashes of contempt for the lower classes appear every now and then that seem sadly out of date (these are the only things that seem unusual for a person like V. W. by today’s standards).’

11 May 1967
‘Over a month since my last entry - an interval in which things went downhill at a fairly brisk pace, with the roaches multiplying in my room at the Belvedere faster than I could control them . . . In this time I took out Anita Gross a couple of times. She’s attractive, sure. But there’s something slightly wrong somewhere [. . .]

A week ago I came to Block Island to stay at the Surf Hotel under the aegis of Mr and Mrs Sears. He is a fat, genial chap and she is somewhat severe with elegantly rolled white hair that makes her look like an immigrant from Versailles. [. . .] At first I found myself eating with an English couple called Porter: she is a psychiatrist, he described himself as a ‘poet’ but I didn’t question him about this and he didn’t volunteer any further information. [. . .]

I’ve covered most of the island on foot in the past week and feel much healthier for it. The weather has been a mixture of terrible storms and sunny, windy days. Last weekend the ferry was unable to make the return trip because of a storm. Now the rain has returned I think I shall return to NY tomorrow.

While here I have made yet another ‘fresh start’ on my book - partly inspired by the charred remains of the Ocean View Hotel which stands, or stood, on a cliff overlooking the old harbour where the ferry comes in. It burned down a year or so ago. “A place with a thousand rooms,” Mr Porter (the poet) said. “200 to 300” said his wife. This morning I went up to look at the remains while the sun was still shining. Old bedsprings twisted with heat; puddles of molten glass; washbowls that had fallen through to the foundations; a flight of stone steps leading up to thin air; twisted pipes; lots of nails lying everywhere and a few charred beams. I think the way the glass had collected like candlegreas under the windows impressed me most. When you picked it up it was inclined to flake away into smaller pieces in your hand. I must remember to ask someone how many storeys it had. Anyway this gave me an idea, which seems to me a good one, for the dwelling place of the family.’ [Ocean View Hotel did, in fact, provide the catalyst for the Majestic Hotel in Troubles, and give him the structure for the novel.]

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Ampère falling in love

André-Marie Ampère, dubbed the father of electrodynamics, was born 240 years ago today. A child of the enlightenment and Rousseau’s education principles, he became a great scientist without formal training. He left behind one youthful diary, a naive and charming account of his love and courtship of the woman who became his wife, but then died just four years later.

Ampère was born in Lyon, France, on 20 January 1775. His father was a prosperous businessman who admired the teachings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau so much that, in line with Rousseau’s education ideas, he left his son to educate himself at the family home - with a well-stocked library - at Poleymieux-au-Mont-d'Or near Lyon. Although his father came to be called into public service by the new revolutionary government, he was guillotined in 1793 as part of the so-called Jacobin purges. Ampère, himself, found regular work as a maths teacher in 1799, which gave him enough income to marry his sweetheart, Julie Carron.

In 1802, Ampère was appointed a professor of physics and chemistry at the École Centrale in Bourg-en-Bresse, which meant leaving Julie, by then a sick woman, and his son in Lyon. In Bourg, he produced his first treatise on mathematical probability - Considerations on the Mathematical Theory of Games, which he sent to the Paris Academy of Sciences. Following the death of Julie, he moved to the capital and began teaching at the new École Polytechnique, where, in 1809, he was appointed professor of mathematics.

As well as holding positions at the École Polytechnique through to 1828, Ampère also taught philosophy and astronomy at the University of Paris for a while, and in 1824 was elected to the chair in experimental physics at the Collège de France. He engaged in all kinds of scientific enquiry, but, from 1820, when hearing of a Danish discovery which showed how a magnetic needle can be deflected by an electric current, he began developing theories to understand the relationship between electricity and magnetism.

It is for his work in understanding electromagnetism that Ampère is best remembered. He developed a physical account of electromagnetic phenomena, empirically demonstrable and mathematically predictive, and in 1827 published his major work, Memoir on the Mathematical Theory of Electrodynamic Phenomena, Uniquely Deduced from Experience. This work coined the name of a new science, electrodynamics, while Ampère also gave his name, in time, to Ampère’s Law, and the SI unit of electric current, the ampere, often shortened to amp. He died in 1836. Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia, NNBD, University of St Andrews’s MacTutor website or ITER. James R. Hofmann’s biography - André-Marie Ampère: Enlightenment an Electrodynamics - can also be previewed at Googlebooks.

Although Ampère is not known as a diarist, he did leave behind one published diary, a record of his courtship with his future wife. This was first published, in French, in 1869, as Journal et Correspondance de André-Marie Ampère (freely available in French at Internet Archive or this website which is dedicated to ‘Ampère et l’histoire de l’électricité’). An 1875 English review of the book can be found in The North American Review (Vol. 121, No. 249, Oct., 1875), viewable online at JSTOR. The reviewer, T. S. Perry, says the volume is ‘idyllic’ and ‘charming’, and though Ampère was ‘far from being a fool, he certainly shows how foolish an intelligent man can be in the privacy of his diary’. And Perry adds: ‘Although Ampère’s letters and diary lack the historical value of Pepys’s they have a far higher interest in the light they throw upon the private life and character of a great and good man.’ High praise indeed.

An English translation was published by R. Bentley & Son, a few years later, in 1873, with the title The Story of his Love: being the journal and early correspondence of of André-Marie Ampère with his family circle during the First Republic, 1793-1804. The print run must have been fairly limited since I can find no second hand copies readily available (through Abebooks, for example); and, unusually, Internet Archive has no scanned copy. However, the full text of the English version can be read online thanks to the West Bengal Public Library Network (from which the following extracts have been copied).

10 April 1796
‘I saw her for the first time.’

10 August 1796
‘I went to her house, and they lent me ‘Le Nouvelle Morali di Soave’.’

3 September 1796
‘M. Coupier had left the day before. I went to return ‘Le Nouvelle’ and they allowed me to select a volume from the library. I took Mme. Deshoulières. I was a few moments alone with her.’

4 September 1796
‘I accompanied the two sisters after mass. I brought away the first volume of Benardin. She told me that she should be alone, as her mother and sister were leaving on Wednesday.’

9 September 1796
‘I went there, and only Elise.’

14 September 1796
‘I returned the second volume of Bernardin, and had some conversation both her and Jenny. I promised to bring some comedies on the following day.’

17 September 1796
‘I took them, and began to open my heart.’

27 January 1797
‘At length she has arrived from Lyons; her mother did not come into the room at once. Apparently for the sake of looking at some vignettes, I knelt by her side; her mother came in and made me sit down by her.’

9 June 1797
‘I was prevented from giving a lesson on account my cough; I went away rather early, taking with Gresset, and the third volume of the Histoire de France. Julie shows me the trick of solitaire, which I had guessed the evening before; I seated myself near Julie, and remained by her till the end.

Incidentally, referring to some airs and songs, I left C’est en vain que la nature on the table. I ate a cherry she had let fall, and kissed a rose which she had smelt; in the walk I twice gave her my hand to get over a stile, her mother made room for me on the seat between herself and Julia; in returning I told her that it was long since I had passed so happy a day, but that it was the contemplation of nature which had charmed me the most; she spoke to me the whole day with much kindness.’

21 May 1803
‘Walk in the garden. Julie very ill.’

9 July 1803
‘Julie very ill in the morning. I begged M. Mollet to take my place at the Lyceum. M. Pelotin continued the same treatment, in spite of the new symptom.’

Giddy and joyful

Ermest Chausson, a little known French romantic composer, was born 160 years ago today. He died relatively young, after a bicycle accident, leaving behind but 40 or so significant compositions. Although he kept a diary, it has never been published in English, nor are there any English biographies of the composer. Nevertheless, a few extracts of the diary in English - showing the extent of his purposefulness - can be found on classical music websites.

Chausson was born in Paris on 20 January 1855, the son of a rich building contractor. He studied law, and was appointed a barrister for the Court of Appeals, though he soon found himself drawn to the artistic world. He dabbled in writing and drawing before deciding more seriously on music. He was taught by Jules Massenet at the Paris Conservatoire, and by César Franck who became a close friend.

In 1982, Chausson travelled with another composer, Vincent d’Indy to Bayreuth where they attended the premiere of Richard Wagner’s Parsifal. The following year, he married Jeanne Escudier, and went with her to Bayreuth again. The couple would have five children.

Biographers identify Chausson’s early work as being influenced by Massenet, after which it became more dramatic, technically influenced by Wagner’s music. ‘In general,’ Wikipedia’s biography says, ‘Chausson’s compositional idiom bridges the gap between the ripe Romanticism of Massenet and Franck and the more introverted Impressionism of Debussy.’

Chausson attracted a wide circle of writers, musicians and artists to his Paris home, and he also gathered an important collection of paintings. In 1886, he was appointed secretary of the Société Nationale de Musique, a post he held until his death (due to a bicycle accident) in 1899. He was buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, and his funeral was attended by many leading figures of the arts. He left behind only 39 Opus-numbered pieces of work. Further information is available from Wikipedia, or the websites of Naxos and Hyperion Records.

As far as I can tell, there are no published English-language biographies of Chausson, but French biographies refer to his diaries  - parts of which were published in Écrits inédits: journaux intimes, roman de jeunesse, correspondance (Editions du Rocher, 1999) - and some extracts have been translated and used on English-language websites. Naxos, for example, which sells a recording of Chausson’s Concert for Violin, Piano and String Quartet (Op 21), offers a description of it on its website, in which can be found this: ‘Inevitably, biographers focus on a passage Chausson jotted into his diary at the age of twenty: “I have the premonition that my life will be short. I’m far from complaining about it, but I should not want to die before having done something”.’

Further on, in the same text, Naxos says: ‘As his letters make clear, Chausson was exasperated at how slowly he finished [Op 21]; but its première in Brussels, on 26 February 1892, was one of the most decisive triumphs of his career. [. . .] Chausson remarked in his diary: “I must believe that my music is made for Belgians above all, for never have I enjoyed such a success. . . I feel giddy and joyful, such as I have not managed to feel for a long time . . . It seems to me that I shall work with greater confidence in future”.’

The Hyperion website also focuses its text about Chausson on the same diary entry, but with more analysis (and a different translation): ‘ “Never have I had such a success! I can’t get over it. Everyone seems to love the Concert. Very well played, with wonderful moments, and so artistically executed! I feel light and joyful, something I haven’t been for a long time. It’s done me good and has given me courage. I believe I’ll work with more confidence in the future.” This is Chausson’s entry in his diary (as yet unpublished) for 26 February 1892. Each phrase is telling; the reception which the audience in Brussels had given his opus 21 had made him “feel light and joyful” and had given him “courage” to continue with his work. As we all know, a sense of well-being can be very uplifting. Reading this diary, one can sense his enthusiasm and his desire to create. But this real triumph, which his modesty prevented him from broadcasting, was his first. Although he was already thirty-seven, with a sizeable catalogue of works to his name, he was practically unknown. Why?’

One answer to this question, the Hyperion article goes on to suggest, is that Chausson was not a product of the Conservatoire: ‘But there is undoubtedly another much more subtle reason why his compositions were so little-known: although not as well-off as has often been presumed, he was reasonably comfortable and thus shielded from financial insecurity. In fact his diary and letters, whether from friends or business acquaintances, reveal that he was constantly being asked to help out discreetly various impecunious colleagues, or (and one can quite see why!) to become Treasurer of the renowned National Society of Music. Add to these his abhorrence of being taken for an amateur, with his lofty artistic and spiritual aims - “I understand only that work, constant effort in all things, is always directed towards the same goal” (letter to Paul Poujaud in the summer of 1888) - and, in an earlier diary, his entry for 20 February 1892: “To attain self-belief is a life’s work.” Given all this, one can understand exactly how triumphant he felt when, for once, a new composition received unanimous praise. The audience had been captivated by the exceptional quality of the writing and the strength of the ideas, the work’s remarkable construction and development, and its instantly memorable tunes.’

Monday, January 12, 2015

Diary briefs

Unknown sailor’s diary at Bankfield Museum - Calderdale Council, Halifax Courier

Army chaplain account of Christmas Day 1914 - The Irish Times

Diary of a Perestroika kid - Russia beyond the headlines, Fiction Advocate

Kilkenny Voices from the Western Front 1914-1918 - The Irish Times

Mary Berg papers discovered - Washington Times

West Virginia grouse hunting diaries -, Maclain Printing

Diary of screenwriter Charles Brackett - Columbia University Press, LA Times

Personal view of wartime Ontario - Inside Halton

Diary reveals Lodz ghetto atrocities - Jewish World

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Dipped into Bacon’s essays

Thomas Green, a man of leisure and a self-professed lover of literature, died 190 years ago today. He kept a diary for much of his life, but one focused almost exclusively on his thoughts and opinions on books he was reading. According to this diary, he was often to be found ‘dipping into’ some great work of non-fiction or other, such as Bacon’s essays.

Green was born at Monmouth in 1769. His grandfather was a wealthy Suffolk soap-boiler, who had made a fortune during the reign of Queen Anne, and his father was a man of letters, a pamphleteer, and a champion of the Church of England. Green was partly educated privately, and partly at the free grammar school in Ispwich, and was admitted to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. However, illness prevented him from taking up his university studies. Instead, he was called to the bar, and travelled the Norfolk Circuit. He married Catherine Hartcup, and they had one son.

Aged 25, Green inherited the family estate, and he set about a life of leisure and reading literature. He lived at Ipswich, visiting the continent and different parts of England from time to time. Occasionally, he wrote and published political pamphlets, and provided contributions to The Gentleman’s Magazine. He died on 6 January 1825. Further biographical information is available from an 1834 edition of The Gentleman’s Magazine, Dictionary of National Biography 1895-1900, or Edmund Gosse’s Gossip in a Library.

Green kept a diary for most of his adult life, and is mostly remembered because of a quirky book, based on this diary, that he published in 1810: Extracts from The Diary of a Lover of Literature (freely available at Internet Archive). It records his thoughts, and lengthy opinions, on the books he was reading, most of which were worthy, non-fiction classics. Although his selection of diary extracts in this book are confined to a five year period (1796-1800), his friend John Mitford published further extracts in The Gentleman’s Magazine between 1834 and 1843 (here and here for example).

Here are several extracts from Green’s book, starting with much of his elaborately self-effacing and wittily apologetic preface.

‘At length, after much hesitation, and in an evil hour perhaps, I am induced to submit to the indulgence of the Public, the idlest Work, probably, that ever was composed; but, I could wish to hope, not absolutely the most unentertaining or unprofitable.

For the errors and defects naturally incident to a composition successively exhibiting the impressions of the moment in the language which the moment prompted, and which must derive any interest it may possess from the ease and freedom with which these impressions are communicated, it would be fruitless and absurd to attempt an apology. [. . .] For faults of every other description; and for more than a due proportion of these, I feel that I am strictly accountable ; and present myself before the Audience whose attention I have presumed to engage with my babble, under an appalling sense of the responsibility which my rashness has incurred.

To the objector, who should fiercely demand, why I obtruded on the Public at all, matter confessedly so crude and so peccant, I have really little to allege which is quite satisfactory to my own mind, or which I could reasonably hope, therefore, would prove so to his: but to an offended spirit of a gentler nature, I might perhaps be allowed to intimate, that, whatever my faults may be, I have not attempted to decoy unwary Readers by an imposing Title, nor to tax their curiosity with the costly splendours of fashionable typography. It has been my earnest wish, at least, to obviate disappointment, by accommodating, as much as possible, my appearance to my pretensions. These are simple, and of easy statement. To furnish occupation, in a vacant hour, to minds imbued with a relish for literary pursuits, by suggesting topics for reflection and incentives to research, partly from an exhibition of whatever struck me as most interesting in the thoughts of others, during a miscellaneous course of reading, and partly, too, from a free and unreserved communication of the thoughts they gave rise to in my own mind - this is all that I venture to propose to the Reader as my aim in the publication of the following Extracts. [. . .]

With respect to my success in this adventure, if I am not generally very sanguine, there are certain moments - under the encouraging influence of a balmy air, bright sky, and vigorous digestion - in which I am not altogether without hope. When I advert, it is true, to the numerous faults that deform the following pages, all crowding in hideous succession before me - when I reflect on the various improvements of which the whole would be susceptible, even under my own mature revisal - above all, when I compute what brighter talents and ampler attainments might have achieved in a similar career - my heart, oppressed with the load of my infirmities, sinks in despondency within me: but when I consider, on the other hand, the wretched trash with which the Public is sometimes apparently content to be amused, my spirits, in a slight degree, revive; I cannot disguise, from myself, that I am at least entitled to equal indulgence with some of these candidates for public favour; and in the momentary elation of this ignoble triumph, am tempted to anticipate a reception, which however moderate and subdued for an illusion of the fancy, may perhaps prove ridiculously flattering compared with the actual doom that awaits me. [. . .]

The following Sheets are, of course, only a sample, though a pretty large one, of a more considerable Work: but the Purchaser of the present Volume (I hasten to add) need not be alarmed. I cannot flatter myself that the materials for a future selection, are eminently better than those from which I have thus far drawn; and with the present Extracts I am so little satisfied, on a review of them in print, that unless they should experience the most unequivocal symptoms of public favour, they are the last that will appear. An idle experiment, however unsuccessful, may be good-naturedly excused; but to persist in a piece of folly of this kind, after a fair warning that it is such, would betray an unpardonable disregard of what is due, on the occasion, both to public feeling and my own character.’

29 September 1796
‘Read the 9th Chapter of Roscoe’s Lorenzo de Medici; in which the rise (or renovation) and progress of the arts of painting, statuary, engraving, and sculpture upon gems, with the merits of the respective artists in each department, are happily delineated. The account of Michael Angelo - his giant powers - and the concussion with which his advent shook the world of genius and taste - is even sublime. Roscoe is not always exact in the choice of his expressions: for instance, he uses “instigate” in a good sense; which, where we have another appropriate term, is unpardonable: “compromise”, which properly means, the adjustment of differences by reciprocal concession, he employs, by what authority I know not, to express, the putting to hazard by implication. A catalogue of synonymes, executed with philological skill and philosophical discrimination, would be a valuable accession to English Literature.

Read, after a long interval, with much delight, the first two Books of Caesar’s Commentaries. The States of Gaul are represented as far more advanced in government and manners, than I should have expected him to find them; and it would puzzle the Directory of France, at this moment, to frame a manifesto, so neatly conceived, and so forcibly yet chastely expressed, as the reply of Ariovistus, a barbaric chief from the wilds off Germany, to the embassy of Caesar. It is interesting to trace the route of this great commander (and the similitude of names will sometimes fix it with precision) on a modern map. Nothing can exceed the ease, perspicuity, and spirit, with which this incomparable narrative is conducted.

Dipped into Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Boswell, from his open, communicative, good-humoured vanity, which leads him to display events and feelings that other men, of more judgment, though slighter pretensions, would have studiously concealed, has depressed himself below his just level in public estimation. His information is extensive; his talents far from despicable; and he seems so exactly adapted, even by his very foibles, that we might almost suppose him purposely created, to be the Chronicler of Johnson. A pleasing and instructive packet-companion might be formed, by a judicious selection from his copious repertory of Johnson’s talk.’

5 October 1796
‘Pursued Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Johnson’s coarse censure of Lord Chesterfield, “that he taught the morals of a whore, and the manners of a dancing master”, is as unjust as it is harsh. Indeed I have always thought the noble author of Letters to his Son, hardly dealt with by the Public; though to public opinion I have the highest deference. How stands the case? Having bred up his son to a youth of learning and virtue, and consigned him to a tutor well adapted to cultivate these qualities, he naturally wishes to render him an accomplished gentleman; and, for this purpose, undertakes, in person, a task for which none surely was so well qualified as himself. I follow the order he assigns, and that which his Letters testify he pursued. Well! but he insists eternally on such frivolous points - the graces - the graces! Because they were wanting, and the only thing wanting. Other qualities were attained, or presumed to be attained: to correct those slovenly, shy, reserved, and uncouth habits in the son, which as he advanced in life grew more conspicuous; and threatened to thwart all the parent’s fondest prospects in his child, was felt, and justly felt, by the father, to have become an imperious and urgent duty; and he accordingly labours at it with parental assiduity, an assiduity, which none but a father would have bestowed upon the subject. Had his Lordship published these Letters; as a regular System of Education, the common objection to their contents would have, had unanswerable force: viewing them however in their true light, as written privately and confidentially by a parent to his child - inculcating, as he naturally would, with the greatest earnestness, not what was the most important, but most requisite - it must surely be confessed, there never was a popular exception more unfounded. But he - I admit it: he touches upon certain topics, which, a sentiment of delicacy suggests, between a father and son had better been forborne: yet those who might hesitate to give the advice, if they are conversant with the world, and advert to circumstances, will not be disposed to think the advice itself injudicious.’

11 October 1796
‘Read Hawkesworth’s Life of Swift; of whose character and conduct but an imperfect idea is given by the narrative of Johnson. Hawkesworth is much more communicative and interesting; and the minuteness and simplicity with which he details the few, but deplorable, incidents of the four last years of Swift’s life, are highly affecting. The circumstance of his struggling to express himself, after a silence broken but once for more than a year; and, finding all his efforts ineffectual, heaving a deep sigh, quite cleaves the heart.’

12 September 1798
‘Dipped into Bacon’s Essays; so pregnant with just, original, and striking observations on every topic which is touched, that I cannot select what pleases me most. For reach of thought, variety and extent of view, sheer solid and powerful sense, and admirable sagacity, what works of man can be placed in competition with these wonderful effusions.’

6 May 1800
‘Read Gildon’s Essay, prefixed to Shakespear’s Poems; in which he largely discusses Dramatic Poetry. Poetry, he considers as an art; and he is a grand stickler for the rules of this art, which he regards, rather as the original suggestions of right reason, instructing us how to please, than the mere conclusions of experience from what has pleased: a preposterous piece of folly, nearly akin to that which attempts to solve the phaenomena of nature from the chimaeras of the fancy, instead of collecting the materials for this solution from a patient investigation of the laws by which nature is really governed in all her operations; but as a practical piece of folly, leading to consequences still more absurd. According to Gildon, all excellence flows from the observance of the rules of composition, and all deformity from their violation: to such a taste, Shakespear’s Dramas must have a most untoward aspect; yet his “wood-notes wild” occasionally extort, even from this sturdy champion of the summum jus in critical jurisprudence, an approving nod, with - “this is very well”. At the close of his Remarks on Shakespear’s Plays, he observes, that “verisimilitude in the Drama, is more essential than truth, because fact itself is sometimes so barely possible that it is almost incredible”. Hurd has caught this idea: and it is not the only instance in which I fancy I have detected him poaching on this antient and neglected manor.’

The Diary Junction