Sunday, May 20, 2012

Wanted: new book to become distracted from

After avoiding reading Sterne's Tristram Shandy for a series of days which turned into a series of weeks which turned into a series of months which became a period of about half a year, one evening on the train, all of a sudden, I finished the same novel, which came as quite a shock. It's said that many men have a mid-life crisis, a point at which they ask of themselves, 'where do I go from here?'. Well it's certainly true that avoiding reading a book over a period of days weeks months half years gives you almost unlimited scope for distraction. When you're me, that distraction entails reading other books, writing a goodly hundred-odd blog posts, finishing off two zines, and starting on a third. Now I've actually finished the damn book I'm not sure what to do with my life. Where do I go from here? Maybe they should ban reading on the trains.

Stuck at a loose end the other night, I picked up a Wordsworth Classics edition of Tales from King Arthur, a version of Andrew Lang's 19th century classic Book of Romance. It's the first lot of Arthurian tales I've read for a while, but of course by now I know all the characters so well, having encountered and re-encountered them through umpteen books - from T. H. White's The Once and Future King through to Edmund Spencer's Faerie Queen. I haven't read the Thomas Malory (that's another book I've been avoiding finishing for about a decade now - my excuse is that I have only the last half. It's easier to start something you can't finish than finish something you can't start, evidently).

Lang's main achievement seems to have been to translate the courtly manners of the original Arthurian stories into contemporary language. This seems to throw up occasional oddities of phrase, though -
While the King was wondering what sort of a beast this could be, a Knight rode by, who, seeing a man lying under a tree, stopped and said to him: 'Knight full of thought and sleepy, tell me if a strange beast has passed this way?'
The old narrative devices can seem very creaky. We learn in opening one story that 'it was the King's custom that he would eat no food on the day of Pentecost, which we call Whit Sunday, until he had heard or seen some great marvel.' For the story to proceed the marvel has to happen, and so 'Sir Gawaine was looking from the window a little before noon when he espied three men on horseback, and with them a dwarf on foot, who held their horses when they alighted.' Some visitors including a person not confined to the conventional height paradigm is a very meagre marvel indeed. Funnily enough, though, this turns out to be one of the best stand-alone stories, with one of the best illustrations:
Lang seems a little embarrassed by the Grail story, starting it with a little essay about the history of the Arthurian myths. There's a lot of obvious concatenation of the various knight's tales that goes on; he uses the phrase 'and they had many adventures' or 'and many more adventures happened to them' an inordinate amount of times during the saga. He doesn't do a bad job, all up, of giving a shortened version of the tales, but he does end up leaving out some of the best parts - for instance, the wholly incidental but very beautiful story of the wounded king, restored to good health by the grail.

We do learn a good deal about the knights and their various imperfections, especially Lancelot, which is all quite interesting given his dalliances with Queen Guenevere. (Lang doesn't go into much detail there, either - he generally seems to proceed by omission, following the opposite approach to, say, John Boorman in his film Excalibur, where he tells as many stories as possible by making everything happen to a few central characters. In Excalibur, Arthur is the wounded king, for instance.)

I quote enjoyed it, on the whole. Trouble is, I've finished it now, and I'm left asking again, er, where do I go from here? Probably should do some work or something. Damn reading on the trains! It only leads to trouble!


livebird said...

I hear your lament, the woeful condition that is a nightstand devoid of bookular prospects. I am presently reading, and can recommend, Cold Comfort Farm, Is That a Fish in your Ear by David Bellos, Mr Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder by Lawrence Weschler. I'm also reading The Tin Drum but I'm not quite ready to recommend that yet. It's taking a while to draw me in.

TimT said...

Finishing of a book of essays by Les Murray at the moment. After all, all it really takes to get a new book to read in this house is just reaching up to the bookshelf and plucking something off... Have read Cold Comfort Farm, 'tis hilarious.

Email: timhtrain - at -

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