Thursday, March 26, 2009

Books Received: Odes and Elegies by Friedrich Hölderlin

My main question concerning this new translation (which has been highly praised by Harold Bloom, no less) was: can it be any better than Michael Hamburger's excellent Selected Poems and Fragments (Penguin Classics, 1998)?

Comparing the two translations side by side, it seems to me that sometimes Hamburger has the better approach and sometimes Hoff. As is often the case, I found myself wanting a little bit from each translator -- a line here, a line there -- my own remix.

To show you what I mean here's a brief example from Hyperions Schiksaalslied (Hyperion's Song of Fate), the final lines -- which, incidentally, are inexactly quoted in the original German at the end of Samuel Beckett's Watt (Beckett read Hölderlin very carefully):


But we are fated
To find no foothold, no rest,
And suffering mortals
Dwindle and fall
Headlong from one
Hour to the next,
Hurled like water
From ledge to ledge
Downward for years to the vague abyss.


Yet it's our lot
To wander homeless;
Suffering men fade away,
Fall blindly
From one hour to the next,
Like water thrown
Year after year,
From rock to rock,
Down into the great unknown.

Hamburger is a little arch, but "Downward for years to the vague abyss" is a more striking conclusion than "Down into the great unknown". On the other hand, Hoff's "Suffering men fade away" is wonderful. I would suggest we need both translations -- the consciously "poetic" Hamburger and the more modern and spare Hoff -- if we are to get any closer to this important but difficult poet.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Return of History and the End of Dreams by Robert Kagan

Look at the booming economies of China, Russia, India and Japan, and despair, thunders Robert Kagan in this studiedly alarmist tract. Francis Fukuyama's declaration of the end of history proved to be post-cold war wishful thinking, he says, and we are now on the verge of a new showdown between rival nation states. Unfortunately for Kagan, the economic engine driving his whole argument has stalled. Every country he identifies as a threat to US dominance has been crippled by the economic crisis, as has America. In fact, many western economists are counting on China's stymied but relatively strong (and less debt-ridden) economy to help kickstart a global recovery. This is very much a pre-crunch, pre-Obama book. Yet for all Kagan's neocon scaremongering, his message that the world's democracies must organise and work together rings true. Market capitalism may be a busted flush, but keeping our hopes for democracy alive - not only in Russia and China, but closer to home - is more important than ever.

Human Smoke : The Beginnnings of World War II, The End of Civilization by Nicholson Baker

All history is selective, but Nicholson Baker's novel (and novelistic) method takes the art of selective quotation to new levels. We are offered chronological vignettes, a paragraph or two, surrounded by white space. It's an indirect way of getting one's argument across, but the episodic nature of this provocative book is cumulatively more powerful than any conventional narrative, as Baker weaves together a mass of quotations from speeches, newspapers, diaries and other sources. Trust a novelist to invent a new way of writing history. Human Smoke is dedicated to those American and British pacifists and humanitarians who failed to prevent what Baker regards as a wholly avoidable war. With the luxury of hindsight, the allies are presented as only marginally less monstrous than the Axis Powers. Baker is not wrong to agree with Hitler's assessment of Churchill as a warmonger, but he is naive to take at face value Hitler's publicly stated desire not to continue the war in July 1940. As Chamberlain discovered to his cost, word and deed rarely coincided where Hitler was concerned.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Shaping the Day : A History of Timekeeping in England and Wales 1300-1800 by Paul Glennie and Nigel Thrift

Mechanical clocks have ruined our lives. In medieval Europe the first mechanical clocks appeared around 1270; they were not widely available until the 17th century, when an explosion in clock and watch ownership - the so-called horological revolution - changed for ever our perception of time. The remorseless ticking of those treasured timepieces transformed the way we worked, ushering in a new era of rigorous time-discipline and synchronised, soulless routine, almost totally obliterating the seasonal rhythms of a more humane, pre-industrial age. From that moment on we laboured under the tyranny of clock time.

The argument that clock time was the harbinger of industrialisation - enabling the creation of factory production lines and destroying the culture of working life in 18th-century England - was convincingly set out by the historian EP Thompson in his influential paper "Time, Work-discipline and Industrial Capitalism" (1968). But as Paul Glennie and Nigel Thrift explain in this scrupulously researched study, Thompson was wrong.

Glennie and Thrift refuse to blame mechanical clocks for all the ills of the industrial age. The horological revolution was significant, they admit, but a working knowledge of clock time was a routine part of daily life for ordinary people long before industrialisation. Thompson, they say, seriously underestimates "the publicness of clock time" in late-medieval England, where public clocks loudly emitted their distinctive "time signals" or "soundmarks" throughout the day, telling people to go to work or school or market or church or to attend a public meeting. And at night the curfew bell (9pm in winter, 10pm in summer) told everyone to drink up and go home.

The earliest clocks were alarm clocks, designed to wake monks for nocturnal prayer. Medieval monks used water or mercury clocks at first, but many monasteries had mechanical clocks as early as the 13th century. The counting of hours in a monastery began at dawn, but although this time-discipline was all about God rather than money, it was as standardised and coordinated as in any factory.

Rural communities - so easily idealised - were just as disciplined. There were set times for harvesting, grazing, gleaning and moving livestock, as well as ancient bylaws and regulations using natural markers such as sunrise, noon, sunset and various subtle distinctions of daylight. There was also a well-established working week: 6am to 6pm, Tuesday to Saturday (Sunday and Monday were the weekend). Another Thompsonian myth busted by Glennie and Thrift is that clock time was a masculine preserve and women had little grasp of it. Women were just as clued up about time as men, generally getting up earlier and going to bed later.

This impressive volume is a massive undertaking - 12 years in the making - examining the entire "temporal infrastructure" of a broad historical period. Glennie and Thrift have delved into the archives, studying timekeeping in diaries, court and inquest records, ocean navigation and a host of other sources to gain a fuller understanding of what time meant to the pre-industrialised masses. Thompson deserves respect as a pioneer in his day, but the wealth of information uncovered by Glennie and Thrift makes his paper look narrow and presumptuous.

The underlying moral of this book would seem to be: don't patronise the past. We should never underestimate our forebears. As well as taking Thompson to task, the authors devote a whole chapter to showing how Dava Sobel, in Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, exaggerated the intellectual isolation of the clockmaker John Harrison, who played such a key role in chronometry. Harrison's Lincolnshire was not an almost clock-free environment, as Sobel suggests, and Harrison was in touch with a vast network of horological debate and discovery. The idea of the untrained outsider served Sobel's uses well, argue Glennie and Thrift, but at the risk of ruining a good story it is far from historically accurate.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Kit-Cat Club by Ophelia Field

The importance of pies in English culture can never be overestimated, for without pies there would have been no Kit-Cat Club. Publisher Jacob Tonson founded the club in the 1690s, inviting authors and rich patrons to dine on mutton pies at the Cat and Fiddle tavern, owned by pie-maker Christopher "Kit" Cat. As Ophelia Field reveals in this brilliant account of the club's 20-year history, the chit-chat at the Kit-Cat was far from idle. When they weren't toasting beauties, carousing and drinking to excess, the club's members skilfully monopolised literary patronage, while in politics they were instrumental in shifting power away from the monarch and towards parliament. Concentrating on a "literary quintet" that includes Congreve, Addison and Steele, Field shows how the Tatler and the Spectator ridiculed the Tories and successfully promoted a Whig version of Englishness. She also shows how, without Tonson's efforts, Milton's Paradise Lost might never have been accepted into the literary canon.

Metrostop Paris : History From the City's Heart by Gregor Dallas

This is an intelligent travel guide that's determined to go its own way, easily transcending its self-imposed limitation of taking the metro everywhere. The chapter on the Trocadéro, for instance, soon becomes an extended essay on the sexual exploits of Anaïs Nin, Henry Miller et al. Readers expecting a standard introduction to one of the prettiest parts of Paris will find instead all the queasy details of Nin's late abortion. Similarly unexpected is the chapter on Saint-Germain-des-Prés, which is informed by a close reading of Jean-Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness. Seated on the Paris metro, Gregor Dallas tells us, Sartre regarded the commuters around him as object lessons in the other-as-object. (On the London tube, by contrast, TS Eliot encountered only "mental emptiness" in the faces around him.) In the end, Metrostop Paris is actually an entertaining history of ideas masquerading as a travel guide and, as if parodying the genre, Dallas tells us not only which streets to go down and where to have lunch, but which waitress to fall in love with.