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“Wear these bright jewels, belovèd Beowulf; Enjoy them”*…

 

The first page of the Beowulf manuscript

Beowulf, the oldest surviving epic in British literature, exists in only one manuscript– a copy that survived both the wholesale destruction of religious artifacts during the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII and a disastrous fire which destroyed the library of Sir Robert Bruce Cotton (1571-1631). The 3182-line poem, now housed in the British Library, still bears the scars of the fire, visible at the upper left corner of the photograph above. 

Beowulf was written in Old English (or Anglo-Saxon) between 650 and 1000 in what we now know as England.  It recalls a golden age of valor and martial prowess via the adventures of a great Swedish warrior of the sixth century- Beowulf– who comes to the aid of the beleaguered Danes, saving them from the ravages of the monster Grendel and his mother.  In old age, and after many years of rule in his own country, Beowulf dies in the processof heroically slaying a dragon.

A great many translations are available, in both poetry and prose.  In his A Critical Companion to Beowulf, Andy Orchard lists 33 “representative” translations in his bibliography; it has been translated into at least 23 other languages.  Probably the best-known (and best-loved) current version is Seamus Heaney’s verse translation.  But surely the most-anticipated version is the translation completed in 1926– but never published– by J.R.R. Tolkein.

Tolkien’s academic work on the epic was second to none in its day; his 1936 paper “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” is still well worth reading, not only as an introduction to the poem, but also because it decisively changed the direction and emphasis of Beowulf scholarship.

Up to that point it had been used as a quarry of linguistic, historical and archaeological detail, as it is thought to preserve the oral traditions passed down through generations by the Anglo-Saxon bards who sang in halls such as the one at Rendlesham in Suffolk, now argued to be the home of the king buried at Sutton Hoo.Beowulf gives a rich picture of life as lived by the warrior and royal classes in the Anglo-Saxon era in England and, because it is set in Sweden and Denmark, also in the period before the Angles, Saxons and Jutes arrived on these shores. And, on top of the story of Beowulf and his battles, it carries fragments of even older stories, now lost. But in order to study all these details, academics dismissed as childish nonsense the fantastical elements such as Grendel the monster of the fens, his even more monstrous mother and the dragon that fatally wounds him at the end.

Likening the poem to a tower that watched the sea, and comparing its previous critics to demolition workers interested only in the raw stone, Tolkien pushed the monsters to the forefront. He argued that they represent the impermanence of human life, the mortal enemy that can strike at the heart of everything we hold dear, the force against which we need to muster all our strength – even if ultimately we may lose the fight. Without the monsters, the peculiarly northern courage of Beowulf and his men is meaningless. Tolkien, veteran of the Somme, knew that it was not. “Even today (despite the critics) you may find men not ignorant of tragic legend and history, who have heard of heroes and indeed seen them,” he wrote in his lecture in the middle of the disenchanted 1930s…

Read more of John Garth’s appreciation– and explore the influence of Beowulf on Middle Earth– in “JRR Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf: bring on the monsters.”

And pre-order the translation (with a bonus story by Tolkein), available late next month, here.

* Beowulf

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As we grapple with our Grendels, we might recall that it was on this date in 1958 that Ezra Pound should no longer be held at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the criminally insane in Washington, D.C.  Pound has been imprisoned for 13 years, following his arrest in Italy during World War II on charges of treason.

Pound, a poet who was a major figure of the early modernist movement, was the developer of the “Imagist” school, and the “godfather” of a number of now-well-known contemporaries– among them,  T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Robert Frost and Ernest Hemingway.  He was responsible for the 1915 publication of Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and the serialization from 1918 of Joyce’s Ulysses.

Deeply troubled by the carnage of World War I, Pound moved to Paris, then to Italy, and embraced the fascism of Benito Mussolini, whose policies he vocally supported; he was arrested by American forces in Italy in 1945.  While in custody in Italy, he had begun work on sections of The Cantos that became known as The Pisan Cantos (1948), for which he was awarded the Bollingen Prize in 1949 by the Library of Congress… setting off an enormous controversy.

His release in 1958 was the result of a campaign by writers including Archibald MacLeish, William Carlos Williams, and Hemingway.  Pound, who was believed to be suffering dementia, returned to Italy.

The best of Pound’s writing – and it is in the Cantos – will last as long as there is any literature.

-Ernest Hemingway

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Written by LW

April 18, 2014 at 1:01 am

“Your library is your paradise”*…

 

From the classical…

Originally opened in 1602, the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library certainly isn’t short on history. And after four centuries’ worth of expansions, the principal library and its satellite buildings now hold some 11 million printed items. One of those buildings, the Radcliffe Camera, is a neoclassical circular structure designed by James Gibbs in 1749 that has become an icon of Oxford’s campus.

… to the modern…

When it opened in 2004, the Seattle Public Library’s Central Library changed everything. The 21st-century library shouldn’t only celebrate the book, argued Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas of OMA, but “redefine [it] as an information store where all potent forms of media, new and old, are presented equally and legibly.” That thinking led to a reshuffling of the library’s functional components, generating a striking 363,000-square-foot structure with a glassy faceted shell.

Architectural Digest‘s “The Most Spectacular Libraries Around the World.”

* Desiderius Erasmus

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As we hold it down, we might recall that today is the first day of National Library Week!

 

Written by LW

April 13, 2014 at 1:01 am

“Ideologies do not map the complete living processes of a World”*…

 

We expect maps to tell us the truth. That is their eternal promise. But maps can’t help lying to us. That is their original sin. To be more precise: the map’s lie (or sin) is one of omission. They show us just one version of the truth, carefully edited by the cartographer.

This map does one better: it gives us not one but two versions of reality. Both are contained within the same frame, staged on a single world, denoted by an identical set of shading. All you need to do is tilt the image a quarter turn, and the cartographic form reveals an alternate version of the truth, while remaining entirely commensurate with the first one.

Clever and simple, as most brilliant things are.

The map shows you the world as it is in Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell’s political parable of a dystopian future (he wrote it in 1948) in which the world is dominated by three totalitarian superstates.

The book is set in Airstrip One, “once called England or Britain”, a province of Oceania. This superstate covers North and South America, Australia and New Zealand, southern Africa and large parts of middle and western Africa.

The second superstate is Eurasia, which covers continental Europe, Russia all the way to the Bering Strait, a small sliver of North Africa and a big chunk of the Middle East and Central Asia. The smallest superpower, at least in area, is Eastasia, essentially China, Japan, Korea and the northern half of the Indian subcontinent.

These three superstates are engaged in a war for global dominance. The battle is fought in two contested zones: the Polar Front, covering the North Pole plus northern Greenland and bits northern Canada and Siberia; and the Equatorial Front, a zone stretching from North Africa via the Arabian peninsula and the southern half of the Indian subcontinent all the way to New Guinea.

No single superstate is strong enough to win a victory on its own. So one superstate allies itself with another against the third. But no single superstate is weak enough to be defeated by the other two. With alliances shifting over time according to perceived strategic advantages, this is an eternal war…

Winston Smith, Nineteen Eighty-Four‘s protagonist, works at the Ministry of Truth, where his job is to eradicate newly inconvenient truths from photos, newspaper archives and encyclopaedia entries. All evidence of what was previously self-evident and true must be destroyed by throwing it in the Memory Hole.

This map, by pointing out the before and after simultaneously, would have been tantamount to blasphemy. But, by pointing out the similarities between two opposites, it hints at the frightening ease with which an audience preconditioned to Doublethink can process cognitive dissonance in accordance with the ruling ideology.

Or, as David Kendall, who found this map here on The Visual Telling of Stories, puts it rather more straightforwardly: “You tell me that isn’t the most clever use of shading, orthography, and legend placement to ever grace the printed page.”

Read the whole story at “Orwellian Cartography 101: How to Tell Two Truths with One Map“… and remember: the map is not the territory.

* William Irwin Thompson

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As we toe the line, we might spare a thought for Orwell’s critical antagonist, Evelyn Waugh; he died on this date in 1966.  A prolific journalist and writer of non-fiction, Waugh is best remembered as a novelist (e.g., Decline and Fall,  A Handful of DustBrideshead Revisited, and his trilogy of Second World War novels, Sword of Honour.  Waugh was a “difficult” man; writer James Lees-Milne judged him “the nastiest-tempered man in England.”  Indeed, when asked by Nancy Mitford how he reconciled his often objectionable conduct with being a Christian, he replied that “were he not a Christian he would be even more horrible.”   On his passing, long-time acquaintance and photographer-to-the-stars Cecil Beaton reckoned that Waugh “died of snobbery,” observing  that “his abiding complex and the source of much of his misery was that he was not a six-foot tall, extremely handsome & rich duke.”

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Written by LW

April 10, 2014 at 1:01 am

“Judging books by their covers is seriously underrated”*…

 

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How to Poo on a Date has won the 36th annual Diagram Prize for Oddest Book Title of the Year.

The book, by Mats & Enzo, published by Prion Press, topped a public vote to find the oddest title, in one of the closest contests in prize history. In the end, How to Poo on a Date: The Lovers’ Guide to Toilet Etiquette, took home the title with 30% of the vote, beating into second place Are Trout South African? by Duncan Brown (Pan South Africa) andThe Origin of Feces by David Waltner-Toews (ECW Press), which both captured 23% of voters.

The rest of the shortlist [pictured above] was made up of early frontrunner Working Class Cats: The Bodega Cats of New York City by Chris Balsiger ands Erin Canning (One Peace Books), with 14%; Pie-ography: Where Pie Meets Biography by Jo Packham (Quarry) with 6%; and How to Pray When You’re Pissed at God by Ian Punnett (Harmony Books), with 4% of the votes…

Previous titles from Mats & Enzo, How to Poo on HolidayHow to Poo at Work and How to Bonk at Work, were all previously nominated for the prize. Tom Tivnan, features and  insight editor at The Bookseller, and Diagram Prize administrator, said: “The two were in danger of becoming perpetual Diagram bridesmaids, like Beryl Bainbridge and the Booker.”

He added: “In recent years, Diagram Prize voters have showed their catholic tastes by selecting rarefied food science titles (The 2009–2014 World Outlook for 60-milligram Containers of Fromage Frais, 2008), zoological studies (Bombproof Your Horse, 2004), and highbrow experimental literature (The Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories, 2003). Yet after Mats and Enzo’s win this year, with The Origin of Feces on the shortlist, and Saiyuud Diwong’s Cooking with Poo taking the crown in 2011, an all too-clear trend emerges. Diagram devotees have spoken, and spoken in no uncertain terms: poo wins prizes.”

No prize other than the honour of the win is traditionally given to the winner of the Diagram, which was founded as a way of relieving boredom at the Frankfurt Book Fair by Diagram Group co-founders Trevor Boundford and Bruce Robertson in 1978.

Readers can read the full release at The Bookseller, and can follow (Roughy) Daily’s coverage of earlier year’s competitions here and here.

* Amy Smith, All Roads Lead to Austen: A Yearlong Journey with Jane

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As we load up our Kindles, we might send fabulous birthday greetings to Hans Christian Andersen; he was born on this date in 1805.  A prolific writer of plays, travelogues, novels, and poems, he is best remembered for his (often curiously-titled) fairy tales.  Those tales– which include “The Princess and the Pea,” “The Ugly Duckling,” “Thumbelina,” “The Little Mermaid,” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes”– have inspired plays, ballets, and both live-action and animated films.

In Andersen’s honor this date– his birthday– is celebrated as International Children’s Book Day.

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“I confess, I do not believe in time”*…

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The automatic analysis of sentiment in text is fast changing the way we interpret and interact with words. On Twitter, for example, researchers have begun to gauge the mood of entire nations by analysing the emotional content of the tweets people generate.

In the same way, other researchers have started to measure the “emotional temperature” of novels by counting the density of words associated with the eight basic emotions of anticipation, anger, joy, fear, disgust, sadness, surprise and trust.

All this automation is possible thanks to new databases that rate words according to their emotional value.

Now Hannah Davis at New York University and Saif Mohammad at the National Research Council Canada have gone a step further. These guys have used the same kind of analysis to measure the way the emotional temperature changes throughout a novels and then automatically generated music that reflects these moods and how they evolve throughout the book.

They say their new algorithm, TransProse, will change the way we interact with information. “The work has applications in information visualization, in creating audio-visual e-books, and in developing music apps,” they say…

Judge for yourself:  read on at “The Music Composed By An Algorithm Analysing The World’s Best Novels“; check out the research at arXiv.org; and then listen to The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Lord of the Flies, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and A Clockwork Orange.

* Vladimir Nabokov, novelist and noted “sufferer” of synaesthesia

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As we hum along, we might recall that it was on this date in 1928 that D.H. Lawrence, writing to Aldous Huxley, judged prolific non-fiction author and novelist Arnold Bennett “a pig in clover.”  Exactly three years later, on this date in 1931, Bennett died of typhoid at age 64, after drinking water in a Paris hotel to demonstrate to companions that it was safe.

The next night Virginia Woolf noted in her diary, “Queer how one regrets the dispersal of anybody…who had direct contact with life — for he abused me; & yet I rather wished him to go on abusing me; & me abusing him.”

Arnold Bennett

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Written by LW

March 27, 2014 at 1:01 am

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