Thursday, 26 February 2015

The Kellogg Brothers: Flakes

Today we mark the birthday (in 1852) of John Harvey Kellogg, one of the supreme cranks of a golden age of cranks. Kellogg, it seems, never met a crackpot idea he didn't like. He was a Seventh Day Adventist (though he flirted with pantheism), a convinced vegetarian, vehemently against alcohol and tobacco, a tireless enemy of sex in all its forms - but especially the 'solitary vice', the root of all the world's evil - and a keen advocate of frequent and copious enemas, also (inevitably) of eugenics and racial segregation. His Wikipedia entry alone is quite eye-watering stuff...
 Where Kellogg differs from other golden age cranks is that he left an enduring legacy - in the form of his ubiquitous Corn Flakes. With his equally crackpot brother, Will Keith, J.H. Kellogg made the chance discovery that if you mashed up corn into a pulp, left it lying around till it was stale, then ran it through a mangle, you'd end up with flakes, which could be toasted and passed off as food. John Harvey and Will Keith fell out massively, and indulged in a mighty, family-splitting feud, over whether sugar should be added to these flakes - but somehow corn flakes caught on and, more than a century later, they are still with us. So it is to the Kellogg brothers that we owe the decidedly cranky habit of eating processed cereals with cow's milk and calling it breakfast.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Henry James at the Pacific

I was delighted to come across this typically elegant sonnet by Donald Justice (an English sonnet, though the rhymes are scarcely noticeable), as it doesn't seem to be in my bedside Collected Poems. In Henry James at the Pacific, The Master has extended his American travels further West than he did in actuality and arrived at the blank immensity of the Pacific, where he muses on America and his art, and finds himself pining after all for the 'mild, dear light of Lamb House'.

Henry James at the Pacific

In a hotel room by the sea, the Master
Sits brooding on the continent he has crossed.
Not that he foresees immediate disaster,
Only a sort of freshness being lost -- 
Or should he go on calling it Innocence?
The sad-faced monsters of the plains are gone;
Wall Street controls the wilderness. There's an immense
Novel in all this waiting to be done.
But not, not -- sadly enough -- by him. His talents,
Such as they may be, want a different theme,
Rather more civilized than this, on balance.
For him now always the recurring dream
Is just the mild, dear light of Lamb House falling
Beautifully down the pages of his calling.

There's a long in-depth analysis of this poem here. The author, William Logan, traces a deep affinity between Justice's sonnet and Keats's On First Looking into Chapman's Homer. The piece has a rather wonderful final paragraph [Spoiler Alert]:
'I once asked Donald Justice whether he had recognized the odd, subterranean links between "Chapman's Homer" and "Henry James by the Pacific." He seemed surprised, then gratified. After thinking for a moment, he said, "Not at all." 

Bayko Alert

I see my thoughts on Bayko have surfaced on The Dabbler today...

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Homer's Blackboard

It's time for a painting - and this one is Blackboard (1877), a watercolour by Winslow Homer, who was born on this day in 1836. Homer worked in so many styles, genres and media that he is quite hard to pin down, though it was perhaps in his breezy coastal and maritime scenes that he was most himself. Blackboard has something of the reposeful feel of a Chardin, with its muted palette, cool light, strong composition and air of being at once domestically familiar and faintly mysterious. The composition is boldly geometrical, from the dark rectangle of the blackboard and the grey dado below to the check pattern of the young teacher's pinafore and the straight line of her pointer - not to mention those geometrical shapes so carefully chalked on the board. What are they? It's now believed that they relate not to a geometry lesson but to a lesson in drawing, which in the 1870s often began with instruction in the drawing of such rectilinear shapes. Homer has crudely signed his name in a corner of the board, as if in chalk, placing himself at the heart of his own painting. It is, I think, a very beautiful picture.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Patrick Modiano

So I thought I'd have a look at Patrick Modiano. This was not because he won the most recent Nobel Prize for Literature (no guarantor of literary worth, as a look at the list of winners - beginning with a French windbag called Sully Prudhomme - clearly demonstrates). Rather it was because a couple of people of sound judgment had mentioned Modiano (also French but no windbag) to me as perhaps worth a look. And so he has proved, on the evidence on the volume I've just read, Suspended Sentences - a collection of three short-novella-length pieces, in a highly praised translation by Mark Pollizzotti.
  It is clear from these pieces that Modiano is a writer who deals in indirection, in a gauzy world of enigmatic characters who come and go without ever coming fully into view, whose mysteries are never quite solved, while Modiano - or his fictional surrogate - stands always at a slight distance, at an oblique angle. It is also clear that these works are all variations of a few key themes and events, all of which are very close to the facts of Modiano's own life, in particular his early years. The most mysterious and most central figure - who keeps reappearing in various guises - is Modiano's father, who led a shady existence among the criminal gangs of wartime Paris, was finally rounded up for deportation as a Jew, but was rescued in mysterious circumstances by a leading gangster. Then there is the absent mother (an actress) and the various friends of hers who looked after young Patoche (Patrick) and his brother. And there is the death of that brother, a fact that colours everything.
 Those are the human presences, variously shadowy and enigmatic - and then there are the locations, the obscure corners of a Paris that has now disappeared (much of it under the peripherique). These are described with a precision of detail - including lists of names, a Modiano speciality - that is in marked contrast to the wraith-like humans who pass through them. I am quite sure I would have enjoyed reading this book more if I had a more detailed knowledge of the topography of Paris - and if my French was up to reading it in the original. Modiano's prose style is much praised, critics talking in terms of an elusive but specific flavour, even a 'signature scent'. Something of this comes across in translation, but I fancy Modiano is the kind of writer who doesn't travel terribly well. Reading him, I was strongly reminded of W.G. Sebald, another author whose works are peopled by mysterious and elusive characters (and another who relishes documentation and the mingling of fictional and actual worlds) - but Modiano doesn't (on this evidence anyway) achieve the allusive density and momentum of Sebald. He seems to be working in watercolour - delicate, elusive, enigmatic - while Sebald works with stronger, denser, darker pigments.
 I should add that I found the experience of reading Modiano enjoyable. These are intriguing stories with an atmosphere all their own, and they keep you reading. That 'signature scent' is attractive - but I have a suspicion that, like many scents, it fades fast.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Darkness and Sleep

In the comments under Wolf Hall on TV (below), Brit mentions the oppressive darkness - a darkness that has drawn a few complaints (and a little critical birdshot). These are quite unmerited - unlike the 'moody', 'atmospheric' darkness of many a modern police/forensic procedural, Wolf Hall's is not a contrivance but a pretty accurate representation of living by candlelight. The producers went to a lot of trouble, too, to get the 'right kind' of candlelight, eventually opting for church candles with a high beeswax content, giving a relatively strong white light.
Anyway, this reminded me of something I'd read on - of all the unlikely places - the BBC News website, about sleeping patterns in premodern times. A psychiatrist had conducted an experiment in which a group of volunteers were plunged into darkness for 14 hours of every 24 and their sleeping habits observed over a month. What happened was that they settled into a sleep pattern of two four-hour spells of sleep with a waking interval of one or two hours in between. And this, all the evidence suggests, is exactly how people slept (and woke) in the long dark nights before electric light, street lighting and the demands of a clock-timed working life. The 'first sleep' would begin a couple of hours after dusk and last around four hours. Then there would be a waking period of one or two hours, followed by the 'second sleep'. This waking period would be spent in praying, sometimes in reading or writing, often in talking with bedfellows and, of course, having sex (this period was recommended as the best time for it). Then it was back to the Land of Nod for another four hours... This way of sleeping apparently began to die out in the late 17th century among the better-off, and gradually, over the years, in the rest of society.
 All this, and much else, is dealt with in a book by Roger Ekirch, At Day's Close: Night in Times Past. This sounds so interesting that I've ordered it on Abebooks. It's extraordinary how little interest we take in that half of our lives we spend abed, sleeping, dreaming, withdrawing into a timeless world...


My review of Peder Balke at the National Gallery is up on The Dabbler, with bigger and better pictures.