Vesna Goldsworthy

I was drawn to Vesna Goldsworthy’s 2005 memoir Chernobyl Strawberries by her wonderful contribution to Private passions—a valuable companion to the book (Hold the front page! Books are silent!).

Originating as a record for her young son through the trauma of her cancer treatment, the memoir is whimsical and full of insight—both about her early life in Yugoslavia before it was torn apart (she wonders if it was an accident that her country and her own body were disfigured so soon after each other) and her identity in her adopted home in England since 1986, caught between cultures.

As usual, I read the book partly with the experiences of Chinese people in mind. Goldsworthy’s description of her father’s attitude to her youthful flirtation with palaeography reminds me of the Chinese retreat into history:

Only my father saw some consolation in the fact that it was the kind of work which was unlikely to lead to imprisonment. There seemed to be nothing remotely political in transcribing thousand-year-old prayers, whereas as a media star I was likely to shoot my mouth off sooner or later.

Even so,

In fact, while it was highly unlikely that a palaeographer would end up in prison or without a job, as had been known to happen to the critics of contemporary literature, my father was wrong in thinking that the vellum-bound world was apolitical. You could say, for example, that a manuscript was “probably Bulgarian” or “possibly twelfth-century” and cause an international dispute of major proportions…

Among vignettes on the fates of her forebears, Goldsworthy gives fine insights into the society of Belgrade through her youth (when she was “optimistic, ambitious, invulnerable, and in some ways insufferable”), the nuances of class in a classless society—not least the three rings of schools (her own lycée “educated some of the most intelligent and most fashion-conscious young people east of the Iron Curtain”):

In our senior common room new members of the Communist Party represented a more raggle-taggle selection than before. Some were visibly keen, some rather diffident, some were obvious (clever-clogs, careerist with a bad sense of timing, those who carried a briefcase to school, prominent members of youth organizations, children of well-known communists who could hardly refuse to join), some rather less so (ditzy girls from old families who had fallen for the old hammer-‘n’-sickle chic, the school poet, the fourth-grade hunk, a good third of the school basketball team, encouraged to join as role models and highly visible because they were all six foot six and chewing gum). Working out which members of the teaching staff belonged to the party, information you wouldn’t normally have been privy to as a student, was part of the privilege conferred by this particular entry into the adult world.

The heightened sensibility towards dress-sense also reminds me of Maoism:

Many of our professors addressed us with “Colleague”. Others used “Comarde” or “Miss”, according to whether they were communists or bourgeois recidivists. Forms of address provided an easy way of knowing individual political allegiances. It was useful to be able to distinguish Comrade Professors from Mr or Mrs Professors in order to know whether to cite Lukacs or T.S. Eliot. Although one could often tell the two groups apart simply by the clothes, it was not always safe to make hasty assumptions. Suits, ties and moccasins mostly belonged to comrades; tweed jackets, turtle necks and shoelaces to Mr and Mrs, but safari suits could go both ways, and were surprisingly popular in the early eighties.

And even furniture:

I felt that, through furniture, I had a special path to understanding the world I came from. Whereas in the West the inexhaustible variety of interior design often manages to obscure surprising degrees of conformity, the enforced conformity of the society I grew up in concealed a bunch of eccentrics and sometimes downright madness. While the wives were crocheting, madmen were busy plotting Armageddon.

Goldsworthy describes the schism (and occasional blurring) in poetic circles between bohos and suits, and her own youthful “Penelope poems” about the female who waits ( the waitress) for an absent male, often with pseudo-religious powers.

During the endless family debates over her choice of outfit for a major poetry-reading in honour of Tito (“a strange form of necrophilia”), her sister mumbles “peasant”:

She used the feminine form of the noun. There was no doubt that she had me in mind. Only peasants wrote poetry anyway. (The word peasant, with its full power of character assassination, is not readily translatable into English. It was neither here nor there as far as the real peasantry were concerned, but a poisoned dart if directed at a Belgrade student of letters).

She goes on to reflect on the Tito cult:

The longer it was since his demise, the more there was to celebrate. Like the widow of a murdered Sicilian Mafia don, the country clung to his memory in an incongruous mixture of mourning and décolletage, as if knowing that a collective nervous breakdown would follow once the ritual was no longer observed.

Meeting her future husband, “I was ready to follow the boy to the end of the world, to England itself if need be.”* After reaching Heathrow,

Only minutes later, I was on the Piccadilly line—the Ellis Island of London’s huddled masses—with a copy of the London Review of Books.

In Private Passions Goldsworthy recalls the abundance of classical (and other) music in the Yugoslavia of her youth. And when she moved to England, her friends and family were horrified, asking, “How could you move to a country where there is no music”? So it’s suitable that her Slavic-tinged playlist ends with Purcell’s When I am laid in earth.

As befits an erstwhile poet, her use of English (her third language) is delightful. Like many foreign authors (from Conrad and Nabokov to Elif Şafak, or for China, Yi-yun Li and Xiaolu Guo), she finds that writing in English affords psychological space:

I have fewer inhibitions in English—perhaps because for me it doesn’t quite carry subcutaneous layers of pain. In fact, I sense—however irrational this may seem—that the I who speaks English is a very subtly different person from the I who speaks Serbian and the I who speaks French. That, perhaps, has something to do with the old chameleon tricks or the nature of the language itself. At any rate, the English speaker is a bit more more blunt and a bit more direct than the other two. She is and isn’t myself. She takes risks and admits to loss.

In Chapter 4 she reflects on the hereditary aptitude of her homeland for poetry:

In the four years between my move to London and her death, Granny wrote to me only once. It was a short letter, penciled in a deliberate hand clearly unused to writing. She reminded me to visit my parents regularly and urged me to behave in a way which would not dishonour my lineage; no laughing in public places, no loud conversation, modesty in dress and in everything else. Granny wrote as though she was worried that, away from my father and my tribe, I might be in danger of succumbing to some ungodly excess. In her world, Montenegrins who lived apart from their tribes were notoriously prone to prodigal or licentious behaviour. Her prompting came not because she lacked confidence in me, but because she clearly believed that this was what a letter from a grandmother to her granddaughter should be like. It wasn’t the place for frivolities of any kind. Although written in continuous lines, her latter was—from the first word to the last—a string of rhythmic pentameters, the verse of Serbian epic poetry.

As she calls her sister’s answering machine in Toronto to leave messages in “Granny”, adopting an asthmatic wheeze to let flow a torrent of alternating complaints and endearments, she reflects,

The language of my dead grandmother brings to life all our lost homelands, yet no book has ever been written in it. This is the language I lost when I chose to write in English.

Always reflecting on the subjectivity of memory, she has drôle comments on her new jobs in London.

I loved the prospect of boredom. Growing up in Eastern Europe was a powerful vaccine. I had gone through eighteen years of socialist education, learning when to say yes and when to keep quiet, in preparation for a job in which I’d be underpaid and under-employed. Where I came from, such jobs—usually in very nice places—were often described as “ideal for women”.

Reading news bulletins at the Serbian section of the BBC World Service through the traumas of war, she observes how her “RP” broadcasting voice differed from her “real” Serbian (inner suburban stresses, corrupted English slang),** which had itself become a museum-piece:

My mother-tongue, meanwhile, remained firmly locked in its mid-eighties Serbo-Croat time-capsule, a language which officially doesn’t even exist any more.

 And then the straitened conditions of academic life:

Daughter of a self-managed workers’ paradise, I excel at my job. I criticize and self-criticize, I censor and self-censor, I compose self-assessment sheets about self-managed time, I sit on teaching and research committees, I attend meetings and take notes, I know that literature has hidden and insidious meanings. […] My communist upbringing, my upbringing in communism—to be able to live with myself without believing in anything I say, to be able to accept things without asking too many questions—has certainly stood me in good stead throughout my working life.

In the art of the long meeting, British university workers easily outdid anything I’d encountered in my socialist upbringing. The sessions were often longer than the communist plenaries, the acronyms just as plentiful, the put-downs just as complicatedly veiled in oblique metaphor, the passions just as high, even if the stakes were often infinitesimal.

None of the terms for her status quite fit:

Unlike my ancestral matriarch and so many others in the part of the world where I came from, I have never been a refugee. I am not an exile. Not quite an expatriate either: that term seems to be reserved for those coming from lands which are more fortunate than mine. A migrant, perhaps? That sounds too Mexican. An emigrée? Too Russian.

Getting to know her father-in-law,

I suddenly grasped the sheer luxury of being a British male in the twentieth century. Every conceivable counter-argument notwithstanding—and I know there are many—the picnic rug on the moral high ground still came in khaki and red, the colours of his beloved regiment. My father-in-law stood on the high ground, wielding a pair of secateurs, chopping, felling and dead-heading, without a care in the world.

Yet she notes parallels between his nostalgia for a vanished Indian colonial past and her own experiences, “linked by a homesickness which doesn’t make sense”. At his funeral she reflects:

I can’t bring myself to sing at an Anglican funeral, just as I couldn’t—were it an Orthodox one—wail as my female ancestors were expected to. In Serbia old women were sometimes even paid to mourn. They walked behind the coffin in the funeral procession and celebrated the dead in wailing laments delivered in rhythmic, haunting pentameters. I am stuck somewhere between the singing and the wailing, speechless.

And this isn’t the end of the book, but it could be:

I wish I could say—as people sometimes expect of cancer survivors and immigrants alike—that I am grateful for each and every new day on this green island. Ask me how I am today and chances are that I will respond with that very English “Mustn’t grumble”. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t. Which doesn’t mean that I am not grateful.

 

* Cf. The life of Brian, Brian’s mother Mandy on a youthful fling with a centurion: “Nortius Maximus his name was. Promised me the Known World he did…”

** ”fensi” meaning pretentious rather than just “fancy”, cf. the recent Chinese zhuang B.

 

Critics rebuked

Apart from John Cleese’s main ouevre, he  can be entertaining on the page too. This article, reflecting on four decades of “mixed (in the technical theatrical sense of ‘extremely bad’)” reviews from The Spectator, is a fine rebuke to his critics. Just as yet another well-deserved tribute to Michael Palin (new patron saint of stammering) comes on BBC TV, Cleese’s self-review is fun:

John Cleese is a remarkably talented individual, of an admirably humble disposition, and a rare sweetness of temperament, who continues to tower over his contemporaries, especially Michael Palin.

I’m also most enamoured of “The Zagreb Bugle”, and I eagerly await a review of my own film in this illustrious fantasy organ. Cleese’s comments on cultural pundits remind me of the biting satire of Stella Gibbons, in works like Conference at Cold comfort farm—not least her brilliant “Em creeps in with a pie“.

A Pint Of Plain Is Your Only Man: Addendum

To Alex,
for pooling his version of The interview,
as well as for his so-called “simple” cuisine.

I rather hoped I had Succeeded in Encapsulating the Intricacies of Flann O’Brien’s Masterwork in one succinct yet definitive post, as in the Proust sketch:

But far from it—like The third policeman, all this flummery is inevitably fated to continue ad infinitum.

I note that A Pint Of Plain Is Your Only Man [A POPIYOM? Not a poppadum, anyway—Ed.] is also a topic for dogged doggerel in At-swim-two-birds (pp.77–80):

When things go wrong and will not come right,
Though you do the best you can,
When life looks black as the hour of night—
A PINT OF PLAIN IS YOUR ONLY MAN.

By God there’s a lilt in that, said Lamont.
Very good, said Furriskey. Very nice.
I’m telling you it’s the business, said Shannahan. Listen now.

When money’s tight and is hard to get
And your horse has also ran,
When all you have is a heap of debt—
A PINT OF PLAIN IS YOUR ONLY MAN.

When health is bad and your heart feels strange,
And your face is pale and wan,
When doctors say that you need a change,
A PINT OF PLAIN IS YOUR ONLY MAN.
[…]
When food is scarce and your larder bare,
And no rashers grease your pan,
When hunger grows as your meals are rare—
A PINT OF PLAIN IS YOUR ONLY MAN.
[…]
If he knew nothing else, he knew how to write a pome. A pint of plain is your only man.
[…]
Excuse me for a second, interposed Shanahan in an urgent manner, I’ve got a verse in my head. Wait now.
What!
Listen, man. Listen to this before it’s lost.

When stags appear on the mountain high,
With flanks the colour of bran,
When a badger bold can say good-bye,
A PINT OF PLAIN IS YOUR ONLY MAN!

Myles: a glowing paean, or The life of O’Brien

What’s all this fuss about Flann O’Brien, I hear you ask. (One perceptive tribute by Kevin McMahon is penned entirely in the form of a Mylesian pub conversation). [1] Padraig Colman, in a fine series of detailed tributes, sums him up dispassionately as “a morose drunk who led an uneventful life as a senior civil servant in Dublin”. For anyone not O’Fay with O’Brien (as the Great Man must have said somewhere?), here’s a little resumé.

Well, for one thing, as fellow Flanneurs will know, he was an astute observer of “Poor suffering Hugh Manity”, that’s why. He was a dedicated chronicler of the Hugh Mann condition—a common and distressing affliction. He had a keen ear for the conversation of The Plain People of Ireland, The Brother, and insufferable bores of any Ilk, whether pretentious or just trite. He had the Cut of their Jib, whatever that is. His intolerance of cant (and doubtless Kant) has brought him a cult following [Autospell running amok?—Ed.].

Apart from The Man Who Has Read It In Manuscript, another snowclone that is constantly on the lips of the aficionado is

The Man Who Spoke Irish At A Time When It Was Neither Profitable Nor Popular.

This meretricious character inevitably takes a bow in the Myles na Gopaleen Catechism of Cliché,

a unique compendium of all that is nauseating in contemporary writing. Compiled without regard to expense or the feelings of the public.

Of what was any deceased citizen you like to mention typical?
Of all that is best in Irish life.
Correct. With what qualities did he endear himself to all who knew him?
His charm of manner and unfailing kindness.
Yes. But with what particularly did he impress all those he came in contact with?
His sterling qualities of mind, loftiness of intellect and unswerving devotion to the national cause.
What article of his was always at the disposal of the national language?
His purse.
And what more abstract assistance was readily offered to those who sought it?
The fruit of his wide reading and profound erudition.
At what time did he speak Irish?
At a time when it was neither profitable nor popular.
With what cause did he never disguise the fact that his sympathies lay?
The cause of national independence.
And at what time?
At a time when lesser men were content with the rôle of time-server and sycophant.
What was he in his declining years?
Though frail of health, indefatigable in his exertions on behalf of his less fortunate fellow men.
Whom did he marry in 1879?
A Leitrim Lady.
And at what literary work was he engaged at the time of his death?
His monumental work on The Oghams of Tipperary.
And of what nature is his loss?
Well-nigh irreparable.

Looby describes Myles as

a postmodernist at a time when it was neither profitable nor popular,

and McMahon signs off with a flourish:

When did you start reading this stuff?
At a time when it was neither profitable nor popular.

(Go, and never darken my towels again—Rufus T. Firefly)

What with our Psalm, and our Sermon, I hereby declare our impertinent sequence of Trois petites liturgies quorate.

OK, watch this, now I’m going to make a subtle transition (and Myles would have relished the voiceover to Away from it all):

Gondolas, gondolas, gondolas. Everywhere… gondolas.
But there’s more to Venice than gondolas […]
We pause to reflect that despite its cathedrals,
its palaces, its bustling markets,
and its priceless legacy of renaissance art,
the one thing that Venice truly lacks—is leprechauns.
[scene changes] But there’s no shortage of leprechauns here:
Yes, Ireland, the emerald island…

Here we are again. Normal service resumed. A critic, and a critic of critics, Flann O’Brien discussed art, music, and theatre acutely—sometimes even more acutely than this:

Literary criticism
My grasp of what he wrote and meant
Was sometimes only five or six %.
The rest was only words and sound—
My reference is to Ezra £.

He would have enjoyed my Heifetz story too.

His Keats and Chapman series is full of shameless yet often arcane puns:

“My dear girl”, he said, “You have been living in F. Huehl’s pair o’dice.”
When she was gone he turned to Chapman.
“F. Huehl and his Monet are soon parted,” he observed.

Some more from Groucho:

“Sir, you try my patience!”
“I don’t mind if I do—you must come over and try mine sometime.”

For all his withering disdain for pretension, Myles’s essays are liberally sprinkled with French, German, and what Peter Cook, in a not-unMylesian sketch, called “The Latin”:

(or for surly purists, the full authentic urtext here).

Nor is the Catechism of Cliché limited to English. It becomes increasingly unhinged (as one does):

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
Mulieres eorum.

And one for the Jesuit sinologist, methinks:

Noli me quidere?
Tang.

And, for the Indologist, no trawl through the Milesian ouevre would be complete without

Ubi nemo mi lacessit (inquit Gandhi)?
In Poona.

In 2016, writing in The Irish Times (since Myles’s day, allegedly an organ otherwise less hilarious than The China Daily), Frank McNally did a rather good sequel on the elections. Indeed, it’s a fun game to play. One day, if you don’t watch your step, I may regale you with my very own Catechism of Orchestral Cliché. You have been warned. [Oh all right then, if you insist—here you are. Now I’ve even penned a Catechism of Chinese Cliché. Is nothing sacred?]

On my visits to Germany I constantly giggle at Myles’s Buchhandlung service:

A visit that I paid to the house of a newly married friend the other day set me thinking. My friend is a man of great wealth and vulgarity. […] Whether he can read or not, I do not know, but some savage faculty of observation told him that most respectable and estimable people usually had a lot of books in their houses. So he bought several book-cases and paid some rascally middleman to stuff them with all manner of new books, some of them very costly volumes on the subject of French landscape painting.
I noticed on my visit that not one of them had ever been opened or touched, and remarked the fact.
“When I get settled down properly,” said the fool, “I’ll have to catch up on my reading.”
This is what set me thinking. Why would a wealthy person like this be put to the trouble of pretending to read at all? Why not [pay] a professional book-handler to go in and suitably maul his library for so-much per shelf? Such a person, if properly qualified, could make a fortune.

Tweety McTangerine take note…

And we haven’t even discussed At-swim-two-birds or The third policeman, Begob. Here one may even detect a certain affinity with Cold comfort farm. As Myles observed,

It goes without Synge that many of my writings are very fine indeed.

I can only deplore the paucity in his oeuvre of allusions to fieldwork reports on Daoist ritual. And vice versa.

He survived longer than Hašek, but drank himself to an early grave (“But it’s not even closing time yet!”, I hear him exclaim) in 1966—sadly not in time to reflect

If I had all the money I’ve spent on drink—I’d spend it on drink.

A Pint of Plain is Your Only Man

There are some nice radio and TV tributes online, like

and the only filmed interview with the Great Man, here. And even interviews with people who knew him, here.

One last time—Altogether Now:

At what time did he speak Irish?
At a time when it was neither profitable nor popular.
And of what nature is his loss?
Well-nigh irreparable.
So what capital adornment do I take off to him?
(It’s your turn.)

 

[1] Other discussions include https://vulpeslibris.wordpress.com/2011/04/06/the-best-of-myles-by-flann-obrien/ and Robert Looby at http://www.ricorso.net/rx/az-data/authors/o/OBrien_F/xtras/xtra5.htm. Note also the egregious Flann O’Brien society, with its weighty bibliography.