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Flaubert, Du Camp, early photography in Egypt, Nubia, Palestine and Syria

Saturday, September 2nd, 2006

old photograph Maxime Du CampIf you’ve read Flaubert in Egypt or Geoffrey Wall’s magnificent biography Flaubert, you’ll remember Gustave’s travel companion, Maxime Du Camp.

Before they headed to Egypt, Du Camp studied for six months with a professional photographer. No disposable or point-and-shoot digital in those days! You practically had to be a chemist. And the amount of luggage it generated was incredible: bottles and bottles of delicate chemicals, crates of glass plates plus all the peripheral equipment and finally, the camera itself. It was a major undertaking.

geoffrey wall flaubertAnd Du Camp, if memory serves, was the first to take photos in Egypt. The first to capture the pyramids, the desert, the ancient monuments. I remember reading somewhere (where?) that Flaubert was horrified — no one would ever see these things for themselves first, through their own eyes. From then on, everyone would see these wonders through layers of previously seen photographs.

Well, it’s far too late to us, drenched as we are in images. So enjoy flipping through some lovely early photos of Egypt and North Africa and here’s a complete NYPL scan of the book of photos that Du Camp published when he returned.

And just for fun, here’s an excerpt from Wall’s bio.

Flaubert made conscientious efforts to imitate the bizarre cry of the camel. “I hope to perfect it before we leave, but it is quite difficult because of the particular gurgling sound that quivers somewhere beneath the screech…” […and a little later…] Suppressing the urge to put a bullet through his friend’s head, Du camp sent Flaubert away to ride ahead at a safe distance.

the sphinx still buried in sand
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Growth of the Soil by Knut Hamsun

Sunday, August 20th, 2006

Growth of the Soil by Knut Hamsun

Beware the distractions of the internet! I sat down two hours ago to write this review and promptly discovered Pandora which is an impressive tool from the Music Genome Project. It’s downright eerie how well it guesses what I’ll like. Sadly, they don’t have any classical or “world” music and I was just about to give up when started finding some great old jazz. Hurray! Adding Leonard Cohen and Josh Ritter has produced some interesting results and I’ve actually discovered some great new music. This thing really works!

Then, I happened upon this entertaining article in the Globe called “No books? The terrorists have won” ( Need a password ? )

Then, I started rooting around in one of my favorite sources for fabulous articles: mirabilis. There went another hour spent in wonderfully interesting reads.

Okay, I’m back and I will write this.

I seem to have a bit of a thing for Norwegian writers and now I can add Hamsun to the list. I read this on vacation, which I heartily recommend. It’s not a book I could read dashing between jobs on public transit. And that, to me, is only right: the book draws you into a world so utterly different from ours. There are a lot of differences, but the biggest is how people move through time. This is a slow, thoughtful, eerily beautiful book that you can’t stop reading.

Details of Knut Hamsun’s life are variously reported. The Encyclop√¶dia Britannica claims he began writing “at the age of 19, when he was a shoemaker’s apprentice”. Other sources (i.e.: the Nobel Prize people!) say he was “an apprentice to a ropemaker” which I admit I prefer — talk about a lost art! And of course, the internet has its share of gossip, claiming that “Following a meeting with Joseph Goebbels in 1943, he [Hamsun] sent Goebbels his Nobel Prize medal as a gift.” Britannica is ominously silent on this one and I don’t have access to a library, so I can’t tell you if there’s anything to it. But it’s the old argument of the artist vs. the man. So, on to the artist.

Here’s an excerpt from an article of his:

“Language must resound with all the harmonies of music. The writer must always, at all times, find the tremulous word which captures the thing and is able to draw a sob from my soul by its very rightness. A word can be transformed into a colour, light, a smell. It is the writer’s task to use it in such a way that it serves, never fails, can never be ignored. The writer must be able to revel and roll in the abundance of words. He must know not only the direct but also the secret power of a word. There are overtones and undertones to a word, and lateral echoes, too.”

I wish I could read him in the original, but his writing comes through as utterly unique even in translation. If you want to read more about him, here’s an excellent article from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

I’m certainly looking forward to reading more by him.

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The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

Thursday, August 10th, 2006

Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles - review[I read this back in May, but was too busy to post then, so here’s a mini-review.]

I came to this one with a really bad attitude. I was convinced I wasn’t going to like it. The people who recommeded it to me or said they liked it were usually trendy, pretentious types who only read cool (i.e.: trendy & pretentious) books. Yeesh. No thanks!

Well, you can’t always judge a book by the people who like it.

I wasn’t very far into it before I realized it was just plain magnificent. A real masterpeice of beautifully chosen, perfectly described detail that bit by bit comes together to create not only an atmosphere of place, but an immersion into the worldview of the characters.

I was going to say more and give a few quotations, but I don’t want to ruin the pleasure of discovery. Dash out and find a copy now!

(P.S. Here’s the official Paul Bowles website.)

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Moby-Dick or The Whale by Herman Melville

Tuesday, November 1st, 2005

Oh, this was brilliant!

I’m tempted to just stop there. It’s like trying to tell you about being alive. Where do you start? What can you say that won’t just sound limp? This book is funny and terrifying, beautiful and nauseating. The whole world is stuffed inside it. I was shocked at how moved I was by it.

I suppose the most important thing is to encourage you to forget the hype, the reputation, the capital letters that everyone uses when talking about MOBY-DICK. All that stuff. Open the window and shove it out. (And just pray no one is standing underneath!) Really, it drives me crazy when people turn things into Classics (whether this title is deserved or not. Often not.) Immediately a good portion of the population suddenly assumes the book is inpenetrable, painfully dull, and about as thrilling and personally relevant as a moth in a coma. The worst is when people are intimidated. No, no, no. Out the window with that one too.

Okay, now that you’ve got a blank slate, let me give you a few excerpts to get you excited:

“For the height of this sort of deliciousness is to have nothing but the blanket between you and your snugness and the cold of the outer air.”

“The three mast-heads are kept manned from sun-rise to sun-set; the seamen taking their regular turns (as at the helm), and relieving each other every two hours. In the serene weather of the tropics it is exceedingly pleasant the mast-head; nay, to a dreamy meditative man it is delightful. There you stand, a hundred feet above the silent decks, striding along the deep, as if the masts were gigantic stilts, while beneath you and between your legs, as it were, swim the hugest monsters of the sea, even as ships once sailed between the boots of the famous Colossus at old Rhodes. There you stand, lost in the infinite series of the sea, with nothing ruffled but the waves. The tranced ship indolently rolls; the drowsy trade winds blow; everything resolves you into languor. For the most part, in this tropic whaling life, a sublime uneventfulness invests you; you hear no news; read no gazettes; extras with startling accounts of commonplaces never delude you into unnecessary excitements; you hear of no domestic afflictions; bankrupt securities; fall of stocks; are never troubled with the thought of what you shall have for dinner — for all your meals for three years and more are snugly stowed in casks, and your bill of fare is immutable.”

“…lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him…”

“He sleeps with clenched hands; and wakes with his own bloody nails in his palms.”

“Now then, I thought, unconsciously rolling up the sleeves…here goes for a cool, collected dive at death and destruction…”

from the chapter The Whiteness of the Whale : [about the color white and its associations: purity and beauty, and at the same time ] “…yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood.”

“for whatever is truly wonderous and fearful in man, never yet was put into words or books.”

That may be, but this book comes closer than most.

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