Saturday, July 7, 2012

Spufford, Auden, Iceland, Food

I just discovered that Francis Spufford had written a "Letter to Wystan Auden" (pastiching L. to L. Byron). I guess I knew about the influence of Auden on Spufford -- Auden's fingerprints are all over the fairytale parts of The Child that Books Built, and Spufford even casually uses the phrase "the sexy airs of summer" somewhere -- but I am still delighted by the fact of the existence of this poem, it is the sort of object the universe might have concocted specifically for my sake. Unfortunately, the poem itself -- though it "adumbrates" various themes that resurface in the ice book and the books book -- is a little blah; rhyme royal doesn't go well with a villainous looseness of numbers. But here is the bit where he talks about the genesis of the ice book -- it rings very true; these are exactly the sorts of reasons why I've found the idea of novel-writing impossibly daunting:
I’m sure that if I tried to write a novel
    The cast party I held would be a flop.
I’d be the wallflower, or I’d simply grovel,
    And all the characters would never stop
    Gesticulating. An aged peer would try to hop;
A dour divine would Charleston; close to tears,
The strong and silent one would play on others’ fears.

A catastrophic prospect. Wiser, you will agree,
    To first try something rather smaller,
Requiring of these skills a less complete degree.
    That way my judgment may grow slowly taller,
    And I’ll learn how to entertain a caller –
Not one that I invented – someone real and dead
Whose passions need to be interpreted.

[...] I’d like to say that searching for my subject
    Was an exhausting task that lasted years;
I’d like to say that weary, pure and abject
    I brought myself close to the brink of tears,
    Burdened by severe stylistic cares.
It’s unfortunate for me that from my crib
I’ve not been capable of such a fib.

The truth’s just this: I knew exactly what
    I hoped to do to educate my heart.
I’ve been fascinated by each human jot
    Of POLAR EXPLORATION from the start,
    And wondered how on earth to tease apart
The knots their souls are tied in (reef or bowline)
Who think the good life’s found above the snowline.

The classic polar expedition’s personnel
    Were capable, Edwardian and intense;
Good sports; good diary-keepers; fit as hell;
    Trained by their education to think tents
    Were the natural sites for virtuous events.
Yet these solid types made journeys that involved
Odder qualities than toughness or resolve.

I see them walking, always in a line,
    Pursuing an abstraction through the snow;
Above (thanks to refraction) six suns shine
    And wrap them round in whiteness as they go,
    Skin blackened, feet wrecked, agonisedly slow.
But it isn’t meteorology, or nature’s wild trompe l’oeil,
That can explain their journal entries, indicating joy.

If I’m to understand at all, I need a way
    Of obtaining for my book a steady fix
On emotions that you don’t meet every day –
    The atavistic ones, the muscly ethics
    You tried to grasp yourself, ascending F6.
It’s especially hard to find out what they mean
Because the censorship of laughter intervenes:

(It might also be worthwhile to compare this with Donald Davie's "Remembering the Thirties.")

While I'm on this topic let me quote a bit from Letters from Iceland that I rediscovered today:
Dried fish is a staple food in Iceland. This should be shredded with the fingers and eaten with butter. It varies in toughness. The tougher kind tastes like toenails, and the softer kind like the skin off the soles of one's feet.

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