Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Pound Era : Introduction



When the French literary frontmen, Pierre Boncenne and Bernard Pivot shoved a collection of the 2500 most important literary works into their cleverly imagined Bibliotheque Idéale (1988), they reserved a full shelf for literary criticism. 

They tagged that shelf "Le livre comme miroir", the book as a mirror, or in other words books reflecting on themselves. Literary criticism they stated had earned its shelves in any ideal library for the works presented were of such interest and wit that these books should not be reserved only for a secluded Academic environment, but offered to the common reader too. 

Browsing through the tomes on that shelf, the interested reader would find Aristoteles’ Poetica and Auerbach’s Mimesis, Bakhtin of course and Barthes, Borges with his book of introductions, Broch, Calvino and Eco, Sartre, Nabokov and Musil. Not surprisingly French authors would fill the biggest part of the shelf, Proust for instance with his Contre Saint-Beuve, Alain with his Propos, Gourmont with his Promenades...

Still, Northrop Frye’s The Great Code received a spot but Harold Bloom and Frank Kermode were missing or had already tumbled from the shelves. For Bloom, who in 1988 hadn’t dropped his canonical bomb yet, fifteen minutes of evanescing fame should not have come as a surprise for he knew like no other that books on literary criticism had a very short shelf-life. 

The infernal academic cadence op publishing and the competitiveness of literary critics then as today were constantly jostling erudite works from the shelf and away from the reader’s attention. The tragedy being that for every new unproven masterpiece presented, a proven one was dumped. 

A book that is certainly missing in any ideal library of literary criticism is Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era (1971).

It so happened that while reading Guy Davenport, another critic on the bank of the Lethe, I was made aware of Kenner's book. Davenport's appreciation of his friend’s work was so positive as to be nearly suspicious : “The Pound Era is a book to be read and reread and studied. For the student of modern letters it is a treasure, for the general reader it is one of the most interesting books he will ever pick-up in a lifetime of reading”. 

Hugh Kenner (1923 – 2003), a Canadian scholar, critic and professor and one of the great literary critics of the 20th century (now forgotten), wrote his masterpiece, a seminal text on the poet Ezra Pound in 1971 after numerous meetings and interviews with the Master himself and with the last witnesses of the Modernist era. 

As a literary text, The Pound Era is one of a kind. It is an extremely well written blend of  biography, intellectual history and literary analysis. Kenner succeeded with this work in raising Ezra Pound's profile among critics and readers of poetry. His work on the Modernists is so important that his archives are, exceptionally for a literary critic, kept at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center in Austin Texas.

Guy Davenport said that the Pound Era, more than just a book, was a library in which one, in the words of Bernard Bergonsi, could endlessly dip in…

I too was mesmerized by Kenner’s Pound Era, the kind of book that rather than passing information, recreates and opens a world. I took up the challenge of making this world my own. It was a feat that without the help of modern research possibilities would have been impossible, Kenner wrote his book in a world as far distanced from mine, as was Toronto of the sixties separated from the Londen of the interbellum. 

As I proceed, I’ll post reviews of each chapter as I understand them.



Expect this to be a long voyage…

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Bertrand chiado


Stop !

This lousy picture (not worth of this blog anyway) depicts partially (very partially) a building façade made of beautiful blue glazed tiles. Imagine this building three stories high, a few buildings wide and completely covered this way. Now look closer, could this building be a library? In the windows books are presented left and right. The white arrow on the blue sign points to the name of the shop. Horizontally you can imagine a name written in a handsome letter type whose only aim is to be unreadable : Livraria Bertrand. 

Now read vertically on the corner piece: fundado em 1732. Seventeen hundred thirty-two, that makes this library 284 years old!

It is indeed a lousy picture of the oldest, Guiness - certified, still operating library in the world, Bertrand Chiado, Rua Garrett, 73-75 –Lisboa, visited on 17 July.

On the other side of the street is the life-size statue of Fernando Pessoa having his coffee. An ideal place to muse one's photographic talents.

Mateus osé

The archetype of a beautiful private library

Mateus is famous for its world -renowned rosé wine. The solar of Mateus, a magnificent 18th century baroque mansion, depicted on the label of the bottle, seems therefore to be a compulsory stop when on a wine-tour in Portugal. Especially when they also advertise wine tasting and purchase possibilities.

Well it is a tourist trap if you come for the wine.

I should have been warned when the young man at the entrance (who spoke English well enough) did not seem to understand what I meant when I asked if the 15 € (!) ticket included the wine tasting and a visit of the vineyards and cellars. I paid the whopping entrance fee nevertheless, booked the 12 o’clock visit-slot and in the meantime visited the sumptuous gardens, alleyways and the tiny vineyard in the back garden.

The visit of the superb mansion is worthwhile if you are interested in that kind of things, but it is basically the house of a very rich family that made their fortune in Brazil in the 18th century. At the end of the tour, I asked when we would see the wine cellars or the wine production or the tasting of the rosé.

There was none, the visit was over. The guide explained that the only link between the house and the famous rosé wine nowadays is the fact that the winery which is situated elsewhere, has bought the permission to use the picture of the Manor on their labels. There is no wine making at the Solar of Mateus since many years…

This clarified, I must then conclude that the library in the house, boasting 6000 volumes, is the main attraction for any book-lover. Not only is it a beautiful room, but it is also crammed with readable stuff, Dickens for instance and Alexandre Dumas and many other classic writers which are still read nowadays, all bound in magnificent unique, hard cover leather editions.

How I would have enjoyed lingering in that library for a few hours all by myself. There must be more treasures hidden on the bookshelves beside the Os Lusiadas by one-eyed Camoes.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

A bookshop with a vengeance

Lello & Irmão 07/07/2017


Lello & Irmão on the rua das Carmelitas in the city of Porto is arguably the most beautiful bookshop in the world. Or second most beautiful…or third, whatever. A confirmation of its status as a cultural landmark is that the bookshop is even mentioned in Hachette's famous blue guide.

It is without doubt a compulsory place to visit and mentioned on the bucket list of many bibliophile.

The bookstore is easy to find with its conspicuous build-up and nice neo-gothic façade, but imagine my surprise to see that my entrance is prohibited without ticket and without my turn at the back of a long line of people waiting on the sidewalk to enter the famous bookshop. A bouncer at the door, disguised as a I don’t know who, with round glasses, black tophat and coat, regulates the entrances and exits. The entrance fee is 4 euro and tickets should be bought at a booth a few houses further on, where another queue is standing in line to purchase an entrance ticket.

 ….to enter a bookshop ?

There was no way, I would stand in line for something as ridicule as that. I cut my losses and decided frustrated and fuming to visit other more worthwile sites in Porto, like the world – heritage church of Saint Franciscus ( no queue there ) and Palace da Bolsa which tourists do not seem so eager to see as Lello & Irmao.

By the end of our day, my wife suspecting a life – time frustration ushers us back to Lello & Irmão, where wonder oh wonder, there is no queue anymore in front of the shop. I rush to the ticket shop, stand in line a few minutes with one of my sons to buy our entrance -voucher and then rush into the shop…to find it crammed with picture taking tourists.

The explanation of all this circus is that J.K. Rowling, who lived ten years in Porto, got her inspiration at Lello & Irmão for a few of the props and scenes used in her Harry Potter industry : the library, the bookcases and the uniforms of the students.( The university is nearby ).

Lello & Irmão has since been overcrowded by tourists seeking to make a snapshot of the interior, but without buying any books. A nuisance, we can imagine, for the regular book-buyer.

It is then understandable that they charge their 4 euro, which they discount when you buy a book, in an act of self-protection. It is a fair deal. A very fair deal especially, if you see that the books that are on display cater to all tastes : The Potters ofcourse, but also Ivanka Trump’s “women who work”, a book about the Go Pro camera, guru books and “Economia com todos”.

Lello is not forcefeeding Literature or Portugese writers to the hordes of visitors. They should. Bookish people and especially Portugese bookish people are way to kind.


So I bought two books of José Saramago to make my point, claimed my discount and a stamp on the title page to proof that yeah, ...

I was here too.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Summer reading 2017


Another year has flown by. Time for trolleys and tickets, backpack and boots, sunscreen and shades. Holiday time. Roth’s Radetzky March will join the swimming trunks as well as Grass’s Tin Drum, Ajtmatov's Dzjamilja and Mann's Holy Sinner. A bit of Elena Ferante on the other side of the towel completes the packing.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Du mußt es dreimal sagen : Faust, Faust, Faust


When in Weimar, visiting the house on the Frauenplan, I could not resist buying a cute micro-edition of the Faust.

I have now three mismatched copies on the shelf : The very large Folio Society edition of 2005, the one with the illustrations by Delacroix; an 1867 English translation of Goethe's dramatic works ( Faust, Iphigenia in Tauris, Torquato tasso, Egmont and Goetz Von Berlichingen - the last one in a translation by Sir Walter Scott ), Bell and Daldy, London and now this tiny tome ( Miniaturbuchverlag Leipzig ).

What lengths we go to please ourselves !



Faust: Es klopft? Herein! Wer will mich wieder plagen?
Mephistopheles: Ich bin's.
Faust: Herein!
Mephistopheles: Du mußt es dreimal sagen.
Faust: Herein denn!
Mephistopheles: So gefällst du mir.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

A visit to Weimar and Leipzig ( 5 and 6 June )

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor Goethe Frauenplan
Goethehaus, Frauenplan, Weimar


A sloppy travel plan and an unconfirmed cancellation of expensive hotelrooms were the reasons I rushed to Weimar and Leipzig for a blitz – visit over a weekend. Rather drive 1200 km than waste 200 euro of good travel money. My wife and I arrived in Weimar in the late morning, bought immediately our entrance tickets to the Goethe house for the afternoon visit and went then for a short lunch of pastries and geback. The weather was splendid.

Weimar is a cosy town, with cobbled streets and those typical façades which could be an excellent backdrop for any reenaction of a dark Grimm or Hoffman tale. Goethe’s house is a large three story building where the famous writer lived for more than 50 years. `

The entrance of the house, passes over a series of “magical” stairs. They are only half as high as normal steps and very deep and wide and stepping on them gives an exhilarating feeling as one climbs effortless towards the front door. An idea Goethe got in Rome, the guide explains, and designed as to instill in the visitor a feeling of hospitalty up to the front door with the “Salve” ( welcome ! ) words laid in the wood in the floor.

Inside the house, each pastel – painted room has a magnificent dark and creaking wooden floor. The rooms are decorated with copies of classical statues, paintings and other artworks Goethe hoarded during his long life.

As you walk through the different rooms of the house, you get a good impression of Goethe and his life. Much more so, I would say than Safransky’s biography of Goethe, which I could not finish.

For some reason, his large book collection is guarded behind bars.

Goethe’s sleeping room contains his small bed and the cosy seat in which he died…of old age, closing his eyes after a last glimpse at all the beautiful things he collected. Even the classy decency of his passing away makes one jealous. The window at which he looked as he asked for more light gives out on a splendid garden.

After the Goethe house we tried to grab a visit of the Anna Amalia library and its sumptuous rococo room, but the visits were sold out for the next weeks.

Leipzig is a less Romantic place than Weimar, but it was here in the fifteenth century Auerbach Keller at the Mädlerpassage, Goethe’s favorite when he was a student in Leipzig, that the famous man got his idea for a Faust novel. We had our dinner there and marveled at the wall paintings describing several scenes of the Faust legend.

We finished our blitz – trip the next day with a short visit to the Thomaskirche where Bach was Kapellmeister for many years and where his remains, after being moved around the town for a while, were finally laid to rest.

A great two days !