Chaucer, Amis, Heaney, more

The British Library has posted on a website the full 748-page text of the first and second editions of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, believed to have been printed in 1476 and 1483. According to the Guardian, “a scribbled remark on the first edition shows that one of its earliest readers found the poem sensational.” (No surprise there. It was sensational for the boys in my 12th grade A.P. English class, too. That and Dr. Who were the closest they got to real action.)

Charles Foran compares Martin Amis to Jonathan Swift, because of the satirist’s fall from grace in the 1720’s, when he “was at both the height of his creative powers and the end of his tether.” Says Foran:

Of late … England’s chosen literary son [Amis] has come under heavy fire for indulgence and waywardness. Recent books, especially Koba the Dread, his 2002 study of Stalinism, have found few admirers, and Yellow Dog, his ninth novel, has already been greeted by more hawks than doves in his homeland.

For those who believe Amis to be one of a handful of essential writers presently working the English language, this is perplexing. Yellow Dog shows him to be once again operating his craft at the level of his 1980s work, Money and London Fields. The problem may be that the craft in question is literary satire of the variety still dubbed “Swiftian.” It is a form fewer and fewer recognize, let alone appreciate.

The first chapter of Saira Shah’s The Storyteller’s Daughter is available online.

Twenty years ago, Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes collaborated on a poetry anthology. They resumed their collaboration before Hughes’ death. Heaney writes about the anthology:

What matters most in the end is the value that attaches to a few poems intimately experienced and well remembered. If at the end of each year spent in school, students have been marked by even one poem that is going to stay with them, that will be a considerable achievement. Such a poem can come to feel like a pre-natal possession, a guarantee of inwardness and a link to origin. It can become the eye of a verbal needle through which the growing person can pass again and again until it is known by heart, and becomes a path between heart and mind, a path by which the individual can enter, repeatedly, into the kingdom of rightness.

I saw Heaney read once, in Gainesville. I’d admired many of his poems, but lines from “A Dream of Jealousy,” in which the speaker dreams that he and his lover are walking in the woods with a female companion, stayed with me for days. The three sit and talk of desire, of jealousy, and then the speaker says:

“Show me”, I said to our companion, “what
I have much coveted, your breast’s mauve star.”
And she consented. O neither these verses
Nor my prudence, love, can heal your wounded stare.

Nick Webb’s biography of Douglas Adams disappoints reviewer David Smith:

While he turns up some new anecdotes and psychological insights, Webb pulls his punches at the critical moments as if not daring to affront his friend’s memory.

Martha Gellhorn, a journalist who was also Ernest Hemingway’s third wife, is the subject of a new Moorehead biography. A tantalizing bit of summary from the review:

Hemingway cabled her plaintively, “Are you a war correspondent or wife in my bed?” He got his answer on D-Day, June 6, 1944, when she stowed away on a hospital ship and landed on Omaha Beach soon after the invasion.

Hemingway was furious that she scooped him. The marriage was over in 1945, and any subsequent interviewer who uttered the “H” word swiftly regretted it. The main memory she retained of their lovemaking was “the invention of excuses” and “the hope it would soon be over.”


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