The Silver Eel

"A gape-jawed serpentine shape of pale metal crested with soot hung high for a sign."

Wednesday, March 08, 2006


I used to rent a room in a house which had an honest-to-God wine cellar. It was still being used for its intended purpose by a former tenant, who had literally thousands of pounds worth of vino there. He'd turn up, say hello, and amble down to the cellar, from which he'd emerge an hour or two later with, as often as not, a couple of bottles to sample and share with whoever happened to be there at the time. Yeah, it wasn't exactly the toughest place I've ever lived. But what does he do when he's down there, I asked my landlady. Well, she said vaguely, you know...spends time with the wine...

The practice of laying down is something which can be done profitably with books, and it's something I've been doing more of over the past few years. There is a low and disgraceful element of hoarding in it, I'll admit, something of the mania which George Orwell wrote about in his essay on bookselling, but frequently I'll cast an eye over something and just make a mental note of it, or buy it and set it to one side, thinking, yes, but not yet. Let it sit. When it's ready, or when I am, then it'll be time. The accumulated gain is personal, not financial - I've no time for profiteering from first editions and suchlike (though I like the sense of connection with the past you get with a physically old book).

I was the surprised beneficiary of my own practice recently. Came across an old Penguin paperback of Selected Essays by D. H. Lawrence in a five year-old storage box at my parents' while rooting around for something else. God knows what had made me hang onto it, since I knew nothing about Lawrence at the time and had no interest in pursuing him - the hoarding instinct, most likely, which I doubtless justified on the excuse that I might be interested in it one day. Turns out I was right.

From a sample of four essays so far, Lawrence is a scrappy writer when his interest is only partially engaged, or when he simply doesn't have that much to say. Lots of repetition, not all of it effective. Untidy prose. And sentences which seem broken, like this. But even when there's no grace and seemingly no structure in the essay as a whole, the perception he shows in some of the fragments is extremely interesting:

"The main motive, the gross vision of all the nineteenth-century literature, is what we may call the emotional-democratic vision or motive [It is? Oh, okay...]. It seems to me that since 1860 or even 1830, the Italians have always borrowed their ideals of democracy from the northern nations, and poured great emotion into them without ever being really grafted by them. Some of the most wonderful martyrs for democracy have been Neapolitan men of birth and breeding. But none the less, it seems a mistake: an attempt to live by someone else's lights."

I imagine many a contemporary Italian could read this and nod sadly, particularly over the part about the graft not taking hold, though from recent news it would seem they've grown tired of this one-way traffic and have decided to turn it around, commencing an export trade in corruption.

A little later in the same essay (on Giovanni Verga), he writes:

"In most books of the period - even in Madame Bovary, to say nothing of Balzac's earlier Lys dans la Vallee - one has to take off about twenty per cent of the tragedy. One does it in Dickens, one does it in Hawthorne, one does it all the time, with all the great writers. Then why not with Verga? Just knock off about twenty percent of the tragedy in I Malavoglia, and see what a great book remains. Most books that live, live in spite of the author's laying it on thick. Think of Wuthering Heights. It is quite as impossible to an Italian as even I Malavoglia is to us. But it is a great book."

Not a bad technique, and worth applying, and a sad reminder that most fiction of length is in some respect disappointing. To come across the real good stuff, that makes your mouth tingle like a divvy's at a car boot sale, is a rare pleasure.

At the beginning of the essay:

"A hundred years ago, when Manzoni's I Promessi Sposi [The Betrothed] came out, it met with European applause. Along with Sir Walter Scott and Byron, Manzoni stood for 'Romance' to all Europe. Yet where is Manzoni now, even compared to Scott and Byron? Actually, I mean. Nominally, I Promessi Sposi is a classic, in fact, it is usually considered the classic Italian novel. It is set in all 'literature courses' [those quotes are interesting - presumably 'literature' was a relatively new field of study, and still regarded as not quite the real thing as far as an education was concerned, unlike Latin and Greek]. But who reads it? Even in Italy, who reads it? And yet, to my thinking, it is one of the best and most interesting novels ever written: surely a greater book than Ivanhoe or Paul et Virginie or Werther. Why then does nobody read it?"

He goes on to pose the same question regarding Verga. I was delighted to read this about Manzoni, because I keep coming across semi-totemic references to him and The Betrothed, and think, who the hell is he? Now, as in Lawrence's day - nearly another hundred years ago! - a great unread writer, apparently. I had a conversation on a train recently with an Italian who spoke virtually no English but who was not letting that hold him back. I had just begun reading The Leopard and showed it to him, and he nodded offhandedly and said something about Gattopardo (which is leopard), and then I Promessi Sposi, so there was another flag. I tried running Sciascia's name past him but he didn't bite - maybe Sciascia is still too near the knuckle. It was an odd conversation. We'd made all the progress we were going to make inside about fifteen seconds, and frankly I was quite keen to get back to my book, but he kept on. Whenever I responded with a little more effort, a little more active interest, he would suddenly look away, very proud and aloof. Well, okay, I thought, and I'd let the silence return. Then he'd start up again, as eagerly as before. It was weird.

The Betrothed is in print as a Penguin classic, but at £12.99 and 720 pages I can't see many takers, although the summary on the Penguin website sounds pretty enticing.


Very sad to see that both Granite Island by Dorothy Carrington and The Mechanical Turk by Tom Standage have gone out of print. Granite Island is a simply superb book, with terrific descriptive passages, so good you feel you're actually there, fine reportage, personal reflections, and loads of interesting history and anthropology which provide the ballast without ever slowing it down. It is very slightly marred in a few places by what comes across as wishful thinking, a flaw which becomes more obvious in her later, terrifying The Dream Hunters of Corsica, but this is a quibble. It's an outstanding book, the achievement of a lifetime's work and commitment, and for it to become unavailable is an insult to civilisation. I'll admit to not having read The Mechanical Turk, but Joe did and was still waxing lyrical about it two years later (and most probably will again, if you give him a prod).

When we bitch about the decline of the midlist, this is what we're talking about, and everyone loses, whether they know it or not.


At 14 March 2006 at 21:54 , Blogger Joe said...

I will refrain from rabitting on about the Mechanical Turk again, although when I checked the review I posted of it on the Alien Online I was taken aback to realise it went up almost four years ago! and the related Living Dolls book was also back in 2002: How time flies.

Of course, I still have them in my hoard - totally agree on hoarding books but for pleasure but not for profit. I've got a large number of signed first editions, but the thought of keeping them to sell years later would never occur to me. There is indeed a nice extra layer of connection when you pick up a first edition you've had for a while.

Second hand books have that quality too I find, especially those with names and dates of previous owners still written on them - Tessa Ranford expressed this perfectly in her poem The Book Rediscovered in the Future. I once found a box with a few old books in it hidden away in my parents home. Looking through them several had book plates inside which revealed them to be school prizes, including some for my father's father when he was a child in the early 1900s. Another had an inscription from a girl to a great uncle I never knew dated in the 1920s. A letter fell out from the pages and turned out to be from the same girl who had given me relative the book and discussed their shared time in some sort of sanitorium, presumably for TB.

My dad didn't knew almost nothing of this uncle, his dad's brother and his older sister could only recall tiny bits because he died young - no idea if it was due to the same condition that had in the sanitorium mentioned in the letter. But suddenly here was this 80 year old book, with that lovely musty smell of old literature, with my uncle's name on it and a letter that struck a match on a tiny part of family history we didn't know about. Who needs the vulgar treasure of rubies and diamonds when you have books passed through the decades?

At 19 March 2006 at 21:42 , Blogger The Silver Eel said...

Now there is a good anecdote.

Agree about 2nd hand - and increasingly, if you want to explore away from the ever-more-narrow promoted path, 2nd hand is where we're all going to have to go.

At 19 March 2006 at 21:43 , Blogger The Silver Eel said...


We're all [raises eyebrows] doooooomed!

At 29 March 2006 at 21:48 , Blogger Yvonne said...

Oh so that's why the unspeakable Cecil says "I promessi sposi" in Room with a view.

I love books, and I agree about hoarding them. I have a similar experience. I have a vague and nebulous list of several titles that I want. Sometimes when I'm passing a bookshop, I can hear a faint calling to me from within, and then I know there's a book I want in there. This has happened several times.

I have a mixed relationship with DH Lawrence - I hate it when he witters on about the earth beating in the blood of a man and all that, but when he stops, he can really write. I have a book of his travel writings, Etruscan Places and Mornings in Mexico, which are really very evocative.

At 29 March 2006 at 21:49 , Blogger Yvonne said...

Oh yes, and I read that Living Dolls book too - it was fascinating. I'll add The Mechanical Turk to my special list...

At 30 March 2006 at 23:06 , Blogger The Silver Eel said...

Yeah, there's a book of his on Sardinia which I'd really like to get around to. I wasn't aware he'd been in New Mexico until I listened to the first audio volume of Letter from America; Alistair Cooke admired him a lot. As someone said recently on Front Row, you can't find an author more unfashionable at the moment than D H Lawrence. It may be that his influence will last, uncredited, far longer than his writing. (I'd suggest a comparison with John Ruskin if I knew anything about John Ruskin.)


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