Category Archive 'Books'
11 Dec 2019

Meeting Norman Maclean

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Rebecca McCarthy, as teen-age girl, got to meet and talk with the great Norman Maclean, author of A River Runs Through It.

John and I were riding around Seeley Lake when we turned down the narrow driveway to Norman’s cabin. John made a habit of checking on the older summer people, and today was Norman’s day.

The cabin was on a knoll overlooking the water. There were tamaracks all around it. As we approached the door, I could hear someone inside humming. Before John could knock, Norman opened the door, smiling, inviting us in. He stepped into the kitchen, took the lid off a Crock-Pot, and stirred whatever he was cooking, releasing a delicious, meaty aroma. He herded us onto the screened porch, then disappeared, humming as he walked. A few minutes later, he returned with two tumblers half full of something brown, handed one to John and one to me, then went back inside for his glass. He sat down in a chair near me and began to talk.

“Rebecca, this is Scotch on the rocks. Before dinner, you can drink Scotch or bourbon, with ice or water or club soda. With a twist of lemon in the Scotch if you like. Or you can have a glass of sherry.
“A Tom Collins, a gin and tonic, those are drinks for you and your boyfriend after a game of tennis. Not before a meal. With food, you can have wine. And after a meal, you can have another glass of Scotch or bourbon. Or a sherry. Or a cordial, maybe brandy. That’s it, darling, those are your choices.”

I looked at the Scotch in my glass. I was 16, and I had never had a real drink. The Scotch smelled and tasted like lighter fluid, but I managed to swallow a little without choking. It went straight up my nose, setting my nasal passages on fire. Norman was complaining to John about some clear-cutting bastard who needed his testicles removed. From my brother’s response, I realized that the bastard was the ranger who lived next door to us, who I had thought was a nice man. I looked around the porch. There were two beds against one wall and a few chairs and tables. I drank some more Scotch and closed my eyes, then opened them and gulped down the rest of the drink.

“Rebecca, darling, I’ll get that,” Norman said as he took my glass away. He soon returned with more Scotch. I made it about halfway through the second drink before getting up and lying down on one of the beds.

RTWT

11 Dec 2019

A Different California

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Aris Janigian admiringly reviews a new book profiling two iconic figures from his own part of the Golden State.

DECEMBER 2, 2019

I WAS BORN AND RAISED a farmer’s son in Fresno and currently live here, working seasonally in the wine industry. But Los Angeles was home for most of my life, and whenever I learned that friends were heading to San Francisco, I’d suggest they take Highway 99 through the San Joaquin Valley instead of Interstate 5, which skirts the valley to the west. The 99 is a little longer route but so much more colorful (which isn’t necessarily to say “scenic”).

No one ever took me up on my suggestion, and they didn’t have to explain why not. After all, their impression of the middle of the state, de rigueur for Angelenos, is that gun-owning, pro-Trump types live there in dusty, beat-up towns with ugly names — Arvin, Alpaugh, Delano — that reek of cow dung. The valley’s fields are green but also monotonously endless, and none of its vineyards are rolling and soft on the eyes. Sure, it’s part of California, but not really “of it.” These scoffers know, in the abstract, that this is where the huge majority of Californians, and a good portion of the entire country, gets its food, but aren’t all those mega-farmers in the middle of the state also stealing precious water from salmon and smelts? The scoffers would much rather chat about their local farmers’ market, urban garden, or at least Whole Foods.

In fact, those mega-farmers are, for the most part, simply proprietors of small farms that, over a generation or two, have grown big. And, true, we’re talking about thousands of tons of tomatoes or almonds, and wells several hundred feet deep, and chemicals siphoned out of 250-gallon totes to keep mold and an array of devastating and exceedingly perseverant insects down; but if it weren’t for the sheer scale and efficiency of farming in the San Joaquin Valley, only the rich in this state could afford a melon or a peach.

Neither, for an office party, would we have the option of picking up a case of Charles Shaw wine — which is precisely where Frank Bergon’s storytelling begins in his new book, Two-Buck Chuck & The Marlboro Man. As it turns out, Fred Franzia, founder of said winery (a.k.a. “Two-Buck Chuck,”), went to school with Bergon in Madera, a city about 20 miles north of Fresno. Now, decades later, they’re at a coffee shop, it’s midmorning, and the writer is trying to tease out of the winemaker the explanation for his mind-boggling success.
Read the rest of this entry »

26 Oct 2019

Robert Johnson’s Grave

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Mt. Zion MB could make as fair a case as any. Conveniently, the church is located just off of Highway 7, so its memorial can winkingly quote Johnson’s “Me and the Devil Blues,” in which he sang, “You may bury my body / Down by the highway side.”

Atlas Obscura argues that the new biographer of Robert Johnson has solved the long-argued mystery of the Blues giant’s burial place.

For blues fans around the world, the name Robert Johnson has grown synonymous with mystery, even sorcery. Throughout his short life, he moved around between Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee, and didn’t leave much of a trail. His entire body of recorded work consists of just 29 songs (plus 13 alternate takes), recorded during two sessions in Texas. Those songs, however, include some of the most canonical in all the blues—such as “Sweet Home Chicago,” “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,” and, of course, “Cross Road Blues.”

For more than half a century, fans and researchers have rhapsodized and hypothesized about Johnson’s itinerant lifestyle, untimely death, and iconic songbook. The mythology that swirls around this one man from Hazlehurst, Mississippi, has created its own “cottage industry” of publishing and tourism, says Bruce Conforth, coauthor with Gayle Dean Wardlow of the new biography Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson. As Johnson’s life story seems more elusive, his place in blues history seems more secure.

The most famous myth surrounding Johnson concerns his alleged “deal with the Devil” at a Mississippi crossroads, where it’s said he traded his soul for guitar virtuosity. The Devil legend entered popular consciousness in the 1960s (long after Johnson died, in 1938), and is in many ways the wellspring of rock ‘n’ roll’s satanic motifs—from the Rolling Stones through Iron Maiden and beyond. The story’s obviously not true, but that’s hardly the point. The point is that the Devil is in rock music’s DNA, and the stories around Johnson helped put it there.

Steven Johnson, Robert’s grandson and vice president of the Robert Johnson Blues Foundation, says he first became aware of some of his grandfather’s mythology when he was a teenager. He found the stories neither scary nor particularly alluring, but he always felt, he says, that they were concealing or misleading, “that there was truth that hadn’t been told.”

Some decades later, a new yarn was spun—not about Johnson’s life, but his afterlife. No one seemed to know exactly where his mortal remains were buried, and the idea took hold that there were at least three possible gravesites. Though the actual mystery has been cleared up over the years, the myth rolls on. The New York Times boosted it in September 2019, the National Park Service still provides an outdated account, and the rumor continues to travel easily among tourists and blues pilgrims. It just seems to fit: Robert Johnson, that perfectly unknowable spirit of the blues, can’t find eternal rest.

Whatever Robert Johnson’s life lacked in actual magic, it certainly made up for in pure human drama. According to Up Jumped the Devil, Johnson died from poisoning. He was having an affair with Beatrice Davis, a married woman whose jealous husband, Ralph, dosed Johnson’s whiskey with naphthalin—likely without the intention to kill. (The drug was commonly used to subdue rowdy patrons at bars.) What Ralph didn’t know was that Johnson had recently been diagnosed with an ulcer, and the spiked drink proved too much for him in his weakened state. As with all things Johnson, it’s not so simple, since his death certificate names syphilis as the cause of death. Conforth and Wardlow think it’s likelier that the disease was listed to obscure the foul play.

That death certificate—discovered by Wardlow in 1968—states that Johnson was buried at “Zion Church” in Leflore County, Mississippi. But it provides no more information than that, and actually just raises more questions. Was it Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Morgan City, Mississippi? Little Zion Church in Greenwood? The other Mt. Zion Church, which is also in Greenwood? Leflore County is small, but there was a world of possibilities within it—any one of those places, or somewhere else entirely. For decades, the true gravesite was an open question, with scattered anecdotes in place of answers. All that anyone knew for sure was that Johnson was buried in an unmarked grave—just like most African Americans from his region and era.

RTWT

18 Oct 2019

Interview with Lee Child

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Crime Reads interviews Lee Child on sequels and ghost writer successors.

I knew it was serious when he offered to pour me a mug of black coffee. We wandered into the kitchen and he refilled the coffee machine.

‘For the first time, I’m actually worried.’

‘About?’

‘Sales, obviously. We’ve got the new Stieg and the new Franzen coming out at the same time. It’s going to be tough.’

Lee had written a very fair and balanced review of The Girl in the Spider’s Web (by David Lagercrantz)—the Stieg Larsson sequel—for the New York Times (and kindly sent me a preview). Thoughtful. Shrewd. Pros and cons. ‘I thought your review was very fair and balanced,’ I said.

‘What I really wanted to do was to kill it. Stomp on it. Like a cockroach. It’s competition. I had to grit my teeth not to trash it totally.’

I sort of wondered what he thought of Jonathan Franzen. His name came up from time to time but I realized I didn’t know what he thought of his writing as opposed to the myth and the hype. And I wasn’t about to find out either.

RTWT

I suspect Lee Child does not read Jonathan Franzen.

Blue Moon, the next Reacher novel comes out October 29th.

I read the Reacher books. They’re obviously not great art. I’d say they are not even really great thrillers. The plotting is often creaky. The conspiracies are not terribly plausible. And Reacher’s “I-want-to-wander-the-land-owning-nothing” shtick is absurd. But the fights are good, Reacher is a satisfying action hero, and they mostly satisfactorily entertain. I’m the kind of person who will read just about everything, and I find Lee Child’s books worth picking up.

Better Lee Child than that pretentious ass Franzen.

09 Sep 2019

Remembering Françoise Sagan, 1935-2004, I

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Today is Françoise Sagan Day at Never Yet Melted.

In the New Yorker recently, on the basis of no particular occasion, Rachel Cusk remembered Françoise Sagan, the French teenage gamin who produced a short novel that meteorically became an international best-seller in the late 1950s.

The obituaries that followed Françoise Sagan’s death, in 2004, were full of the sense of… failure. She had become, we were told, a tragic figure: destitute, isolated, tainted by scandal and alcoholism. She had, of course, produced many books, but none as successful and hence as troubling to history as her first, which was published when she was just nineteen. In that book, “Bonjour Tristesse,” she described the hedonism and amorality of youth, the hedonism and amorality of well-heeled French intellectuals, the hedonism and amorality of postwar Europe on the cusp of the sixties. Not surprisingly, it was the hedonism and amorality of her life that interested the obituary writers. For there it was, her fetter, her fate: from this slender, misunderstood novel, and from its young heroine, Cécile, Françoise Sagan never escaped. “Bonjour Tristesse” concludes with a fatal car accident, and three years after its publication Sagan, whose love of dangerous driving forms part of the legend of her life, sustained severe head injuries when her Aston Martin crashed at high speed. The disappointment among the obituary writers that the author did not submit then and there to her fictional destiny was palpable.

The hedonism and amorality of “Bonjour Tristesse” is of a most artistically proper kind. Morality, and its absence, is the novel’s defining theme: in this sense, Sagan is far more of a classicist than others of her existentialist brethren, such as Sartre and Camus. Certainly, she concerns herself with the twentieth-century problem of personal reality, of the self and its interaction with behavioral norms, but in “Bonjour Tristesse” those norms are as much psychic as they are societal. Cécile, a motherless seventeen-year-old whose permissive, feckless father has provided the only yardstick for her personal conduct, offers Sagan a particularly naked example of the human sensibility taking shape. Cécile’s encounters with questions of right and wrong, and with the way those questions cut across her physical and emotional desires, constitute an interrogation of morality that is difficult to credit as the work of an eighteen-year-old author. What is the moral sense? Where does it come from? Is it intrinsic? If not, does that discredit morality itself? These are the questions that lie at the heart of Sagan’s brief and disturbing novel.

RTWT

I read “Bonjour Tristesse” when I was young and remember it with affection for delivering a glimpse, startling and alarming to straight-laced, petite bourgeois, provincial Americans like myself, into a far more glamorous and sophisticated upper class French world of hyper-refined sensibilities and sin.

The New Yorker’s unexpected blast from the past brought back such memories that I had to blog it, and when I went looking for a suitable image, I found both a long article (in French) on Sagan’s passion for automotive speed and her delightfully colorful Telegraph obituary, both of which demanded quotation. So the irresistible Françoise Sagan is getting three blog postings, not one.

What can I say? She was indubitably the sort of girl that Conrad’s Marlow would describe as “one of us.”

31 Aug 2019

“Books Do Furnish a Room”

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Gwyneth Paltrow’s home library in Los Angeles curated by Thatcher Wine.

Ben Sixsmith, at the Spectator, is bemused by Town and Country reporting that Gwyneth Paltrow had her home library “curated” by a fellow named “Thatcher Wine.”

‘Books do furnish a room’ is the thesis Thatcher Wine has built his career around (yes, that is his name, not the special vintage of some kind of hideous Young Tory club.) Wine is Gwyneth Paltrow’s ‘book curator’, as an interview in Town & Country Magazine describes. …

    ‘…there was a delightful, if unexpected, realization. Book lovers remembered that books aren’t just for reading, they can also be beautiful objects in and of themselves.’

Well, sure. You don’t have to tell me about the romance of the musty old doorstopper and the well-thumbed paperback. But where does the curiously named Mr Wine come in? His ‘philosophy’, he claims:

    ‘…is that the books we keep on our shelves reflect who we are.’

What a weltanschauung. But what does this mean in practice? Well, for example, Mr Wine creates custom book jackets to ensure that books fit the décor of a room:

    ‘People have invested in how their home looks: They chose the cabinets, the carpets, the paint, and the window coverings. Why settle for books that a publisher designed?’

You know, I’ve been thinking that my dog might not suit my living room’s color scheme. Could I spray paint her a darker brown? Why settle for the dogs that nature designed.

Mr Wine is asked what books are fashionable currently. ‘The Stoic philosophers are having a moment now,’ he says. Great to hear that stoicism is having a moment. This year’s top trends: velvet capes, Billie Eilish and Zeno of Citium.

Wine is fascinating on the subject of the curation he has done for Ms Paltrow:

    ‘In the family room we integrated the books into her existing collection so that it felt very light, inviting, and easy to grab off the shelves. In the dining room, we stuck to a more rigid color palette of black, white, and gray since it was less of a space where one might hang out and read.’

———-

More:

Ok, give us the details: What is on Gwyneth’s bookshelf?

Gwyneth remodeled her L.A. home a few years ago and when she moved in she realized she needed about five or six hundred more books to complete the shelves. I looked at books she already owned, which focused on fashion, art, culture, photography, and architecture, as well as books that her kids liked. We expanded on those topics, and for the kids, we included a selection of classics that we thought they might like as they got older.

In the family room we integrated the books into her existing collection so that it felt very light, inviting, and easy to grab off the shelves. In the dining room, we stuck to a more rigid color palette of black, white, and gray since it was less of a space where one might hang out and read.

What are three things a person can do to curate their own home library?

First, think about what you are trying to accomplish. Is there a story you are trying to tell? A color palette you want to achieve? Then think about how that might work within the context of your home and available space. Second, acquire the books. Depending on how important the style and binding of the cover is to you, buy them intentionally either at your local bookstore or through online listings. Third, arrange your books in a way that makes you feel comfortable and looks inviting. It may take a few hours to get it just right.

Or you could just sort them by category and author, or leave them in large, disorderly piles everywhere the way I do.

29 Aug 2019

New Book on the Crisis at the Universities by Former Dean of Yale Law School

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Power-line’s Steve Hayward has an important new book recommendation.

This week’s mail brought me Anthony Kronman’s new book, The Assault on American Excellence, which begins with a chronicle of the follies of Yale University, where Kronman teaches and once served as dean of Yale Law. … I got to meet Prof. Kronman at a terrific colloquium about Max Weber last year at UCLA, where he told me some about his new book, which arose out of his rising disgust with identity politics and what it is doing to higher education. In one sentence, it is bringing “higher education” quite low.

Kronman is significant because, like Columbia’s Mark Lilla, he considers himself to be a liberal/progressive in his general political views. As such, he represents perhaps a last gasp of an older liberalism what was generally liberal. And sure enough, like Mark Lilla, Kronman has drawn some early attacks for the book, such as this disgraceful review in the Washington Post by Wesleyan University president Michael Roth, who I thought might be part of the resistance to the nihilism of identity politics, but turns out instead now to be a fraud.

I suspect Kronman is going to get a frosty reception in the Yale faculty lounges and faculty meetings. But all hope is not lost. Last summer we reported on the campaign of journalist Jamie Kirchick to be elected as the Alumni Fellow to the board of the Yale Corporation, with the intentions of trying to argue at the board level about Yale’s moral and intellectual dereliction. To be a candidate in the board election requires a lot of Yale alumni signatures within a short window of time, and Kirchick’s drive fell short.

This year Nicholas Quinn Rosencranz, a Yale Law grad and currently professor of law at Georgetown, is running an insurgent campaign. (The Rosencranz family has been very generous to Yale over the years; there’s a building named for them.) See this statement of the Alumni for Excellence at Yale about the myriad reasons for his candidacy, but most important, if you are a Yale alum (undergraduate or graduate school), scroll to the bottom and click on the button to sign Nick’s petition to be put on the board ballot. He needs to get 4,266 alumni signatures by October 1, at which point a full-fledged campaign can begin to win the alumni vote.

27 Jul 2019

“Anna Delvey” Conned Members of the NY Community of Fashion Out of $275,000

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Left: Rachel DeLoache Williams; right: “Anna Delvey,” really Anna Sorokin in Marrakech.

She posed as a German heiress planning to lease for her own foundation a Manhattan building for a visual-arts center dedicated to contemporary art, which would also house a lounge, bar, art galleries, studio space, restaurants, and a members-only club.

She met fashionable young New York professionals at chic restaurants and bars where, Ooops! her phone failed to work when trying to charge the check, and she hadn’t bothered carrying a credit card. So her new friends obliging picked up the tab this time.

She took the dazzled Rachel DeLoache Williams, who worked at Vanity Fair, on a little outing to a [£5,485 a night] villa she’d booked at Marrakech. But it did not work quite the way Rachel was expecting.

Stylist:

On the morning we were supposed to leave, she asked for my help booking the flights because there was a problem with her card. I didn’t think too much of it; this was just the way she was: disorganised. I’d seen her book things last minute so many times and I knew she would reimburse me.

From there, it was a trickle effect. At the airport, Anna ‘accidentally’ checked her wallet, which meant I had to pay for everyone’s dinner (she brought a photographer and her personal trainer, too). Her card still wasn’t working for the rest of the trip, so I began adding things to a tab (dinners, kaftans). I had presumed our villa was pre-paid, but at some point the hotel manager began asking to speak with Anna.
The penny drops

On the third day of the trip, I walked into our villa and the hotel managers were standing in the doorway. Anna was sitting with her phone on the table in front of her, like she was waiting for something. A call, apparently. One of the managers turned to me and asked if I had a credit card. They were firm. I looked to Anna and she said ‘use it for now’. My stomach sank. It would have felt weirdly ungrateful to show my annoyance, so I gave it to them. I was told the charge was only temporary – it wasn’t – and I left the next morning, a day before she did.

This is when everything started to unravel. Every day I asked her for the money back and every day she promised it would arrive. I thought she was just doing a characteristically bad job of following through with logistical things. It was $62,000 [about £48,800] in total.

This went on for an excruciatingly long time – two months – and my life started falling apart. I was having panic attacks constantly, not sleeping. It took me a strikingly long time to even ask myself the question: what if she never pays you back? Because that would mean I’d have to look at how that would impact my life, and I knew if I did that, I would’ve lost it. I already wasn’t saving any money – New York is expensive, and I was barely breaking even – so to be set back 60-something thousand dollars? It felt like, ‘I am never going to get out of this hole. This is where it ends for me. I’m not going to get to buy a house, I’m not going to get to be a real adult, I’m never going to have kids.’

——————-

More book excerpts at Crime Reads.

But, cheer up, Rachel wrote up the story of her misfortunes as a book, My Friend Anna: The True Story of a Fake Heiress, and she will probably come out ahead in the end.

09 Jun 2019

Book Thief

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Stanislas Gosse, a low-paid teacher from a Strasburg engineering school, successfully removed the most valuable treasures from the collection of the Abbey of Sainte Odile over a period of years. He didn’t try selling them. He was just a connoisseur of books.

Pocket Worthy:

On May 19, near 7 p.m., Stanislas Gosse drove his Citroën to Mont Sainte-Odile. He brought ropes, three suitcases, gray plastic bags and a flashlight. Once inside the main courtyard, he headed straight to the second floor of the Sainte-Odile aisle of the guesthouse. He walked down a corridor, opened a door using a key pinched during a previous trip, and found himself in the church’s bell tower.

He tied the ropes to a wooden beam above a trapdoor in the floor and climbed down into a dark, windowless room of about 10 feet by 10 feet with a short 7-foot ceiling. Through an opening in the wall, he slipped into a second, narrow room. A dim light filtered through cracks in the lower part of a wall. The thief gently slid two wooden panels open, revealing rows of neatly lined up books on two shelves inside a cupboard. He took the books off, then one shelf, before sneaking inside the library. At the library in Strasbourg, he had found what he had been looking for in an article from a local history journal that mentioned a secret passage, unknown to anyone currently working at the abbey, except Dietrich, the janitor. It had probably once been used as a hiding place for the monks or as an ossuary — a place to store bones.

Gosse selected a few books, wrapped them in plastic bags, then crawled back inside the cupboard. In the second room, he flipped a wooden crate, climbed on it and hauled the bags through the hatch onto the attic. He climbed up the rope, moved the books to a nearby table to clear the hatch, and climbed back down. He repeated the operation eight times throughout the evening. By the time he was done, more than a hundred books were stacked up in the attic. Around 2 a.m., he stuffed the suitcases with books and left them behind, planning to pick them up later.

RTWT

13 Apr 2019

The Lost Library of the Son of Columbus in Summary

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The Guardian reports on the discovery of a bibliophilic treasure house.

[A] huge volume containing thousands of summaries of books from 500 years ago, many of which no longer exist… has been found in Copenhagen, where it has lain untouched for more than 350 years.

The Libro de los Epítomes manuscript, which is more than a foot thick, contains more than 2,000 pages and summaries from the library of Hernando Colón, the illegitimate son of Christopher Columbus who made it his life’s work to create the biggest library the world had ever known in the early part of the 16th century. Running to around 15,000 volumes, the library was put together during Colón’s extensive travels. Today, only around a quarter of the books in the collection survive and have been housed in Seville Cathedral since 1552.

The discovery in the Arnamagnæan Collection in Copenhagen is “extraordinary”, and a window into a “lost world of 16th-century books”, said Cambridge academic Dr Edward Wilson-Lee, author of the recent biography of Colón, The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books.

“It’s a discovery of immense importance, not only because it contains so much information about how people read 500 years ago, but also, because it contains summaries of books that no longer exist, lost in every other form than these summaries,” said Wilson-Lee. “The idea that this object which was so central to this extraordinary early 16th-century project and which one always thought of with this great sense of loss, of what could have been if this had been preserved, for it then to just show up in Copenhagen perfectly preserved, at least 350 years after its last mention in Spain …”

The manuscript was found in the collection of Árni Magnússon, an Icelandic scholar born in 1663, who donated his books to the University of Copenhagen on his death in 1730. The majority of the some 3,000 items are in Icelandic or Scandinavian languages, with only around 20 Spanish manuscripts, which is probably why the Libro de los Epítomes went unnoticed for hundreds of years…

After amassing his collection, Colón employed a team of writers to read every book in the library and distill each into a little summary in Libro de los Epítomes, ranging from a couple of lines long for very short texts to about 30 pages for the complete works of Plato…

Because Colón collected everything he could lay his hands on, the catalogue is a real record of what people were reading 500 years ago, rather than just the classics. “The important part of Hernando’s library is it’s not just Plato and Cortez, he’s summarising everything from almanacs to news pamphlets. This is really giving us a window into the entirety of early print, much of which has gone missing, and how people read it – a world that is largely lost to us,” said Wilson-Lee.

Wilson-Lee and Pérez Fernández are currently working on a comprehensive account of the library, which will be published in 2020.

RTWT

HT: Karen L. Myers.

10 Apr 2019

Books Do Furnish a Room

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Perigold has very nice, and quite expensive lamps, and it also sells books for entirely decorative purposes, grouped by color and style of binding.

Above we see 50 book (five linear feet of them) in green. You can get red and blue and beige and even colorful dust jacketed books! Perfect for morons who do not read.

04 Feb 2019

13th-Century Tale of Merlin and Arthur, Found Reused as Bookbinding

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Merlin’s name appears in recently discovered MSS. text.

Atlas Obscura:

Medieval fragments of Arthurian legend have been sitting in the Bristol Central Library for hundreds of years and no one noticed—until now. The newly discovered text—hidden in a later book—tells of a battle in which Merlin leads a charge using a dragon banner that actually breathes fire.

The 13th-century manuscript pages were tucked away in the binding of a later, printed book, a four-volume set of the works of Jean Gerson, a French scholar and theologian. The Gerson text was printed in Strasbourg, on the French-German border, sometime between 1494 and 1502, before making its way to England. ”The [Gerson] text would have come to England unbound, without covers—it’s lighter and easier to travel that way,” explains Leah Tether, a librarian and president of the British branch of the International Arthurian Society. “In England, whoever ordered them would then have taken them to a local bookbinder, and he would have added the covers.” That’s where the much earlier Arthurian pages came into play.

Paper-making and bookbinding weren’t yet codified crafts in 16th-century England, and piecing together fragments of old manuscripts to hide unsightly binding features of new books was a trick of the bookbinding trade. Vellum pages like those of the Arthurian fragments were written on painstakingly prepared calfskin. Too precious to be thrown out, vellum, regardless of what was already on it, would have been kept in a workshop to be used again in a pinch. In this case, they had been repurposed as pastedowns, or the endpapers covering the boards of the Gerson book’s inside cover.

Then, sometime in the 19th century, a Bristol book conservator carefully lifted these pages off the hard inside cover of the book and rebound them as flyleaves, those extra blank pages at the beginnings and ends of books. “Sometimes things that don’t have value to one person might have some value to someone else,” says Tether. “Maybe they thought, ‘Let’s turn them into flyleaves so someone who wants to can read them one day.’” …

The Arthurian manuscript is written in Old French, the first language in which the tales were recorded. “We can tell immediately by the handwriting style that it’s from the 13th century,” says Tether. While library scientists are still working to pinpoint its age, they believe it dates from some time between 1250 and 1270. The earliest known Arthurian texts are from 1220, so this is a remarkably early version. Tales of King Arthur were passed along orally long before they were written down. It would still be at least a hundred years from this French text’s time before they were written down in English.

The librarians have determined that the newly discovered pages tell the story of the Battle of Trèbes, in which Merlin, King Arthur’s advisor, exhorts Arthur and his worn-out troops to persist in their fight against King Claudas, after which he leads the charge with the fire-breathing magical banner. There are some minor differences between how the battle is described in these pages and the version commonly accepted today. For instance, the story usually states that King Claudas suffered a thigh wound in this battle, considered a metaphor for castration or impotence. In the newly discovered version, the type of wound isn’t specified. These early details may change our understanding of the familiar tale, and tell us more about how the story changed as it went from oral renderings to French to English—and to modern versions.

RTWT

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