Appreciating the preposterous

Frontispiece by Philippe Jullian

Nursery Rhymes. An essay
by V Sackville-West.
Illustrated by Philippe Jullian.
Michael Joseph, 1950 (1947).

“Coleridge had a proper appreciation of the preposterous, astounding, yet entirely acceptable propositions which go to make up the thaumaturgy of the nursery. No one lacking that appreciation is advised to read any further in this essay.”

p 7

Well, I’m one of those who, like Coleridge, appreciate the preposterous thaumaturgy of nursery rhymes, so Vita Sackville-West’s enthusiastic paddling in the shoreless pool of childhood lore naturally appealed to me. That she does it with humour yet without condescension was a bonus, and that there were unexpected delights hiding under various rocks she turns over satisfied my abiding curiosity.

Surprisingly, for what now counts as a period piece, she’s prepared to be critical of antiquarian ‘explanations’ concerning the origins of these rhymes and what they supposedly signified, but her mockery is gentle and she’s even prepared to admit to her own mistakes, as first appeared in an earlier limited edition.

The whole is embellished by Philippe Jullian’s whimsical drawings all printed in plum-coloured ink, their style very much conforming to contemporary adult attitudes regarding nursery lore – genteel and aloof but maybe not absolutely reflecting their historical origins.

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Pearls of every kind

From The Meadows of Gold
by Al-Masʿūdī,
translated by Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone.
Penguin Great Journeys No 2,
Penguin Classics 2007 (947)

The author of this book compares himself to a man who, having found pearls of every kind and every shade scattered here and there, gathers them into a necklace and makes them a precious piece of jewellery…

’80. The author addresses his readers’

Born in Baghdad at the tail end of the ninth century CE, Masʿūdī or Al-Masʿūdī was intensely curious about the world around him, becoming an indefatigable traveller, researching and interviewing informants before authoring several original works.

Though only a couple of these books have survived the intervening millennium enough remains for Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone to have chosen and translated several chapters from a multi-volume work entitled The Meadows of Gold and Mines of Precious Gems, plus a few from The Book of Admonition and Revision. Taken as a whole their selection gives a good general impression of Al-Masʿūdī’s approach and the scope of his vision.

From this we can gather that he seems to have travelled extensively in the Middle East, perhaps in the role of a merchant trader, along the coast of the Indian subcontinent and very possibly through the East Indies, past Indochina and up to Guangzhou or Canton (here called Khānfū). What comes through are the very well-established trade and cultural connections right across the Old World, from Europe to Korea, connections which later writers such as Marco Polo and Sir John Mandeville were also to take full advantage of.

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A moralising purpose

Engraving by Thomas Bewick

Jane Austen and the Clergy
by Irene Collins.
The Hambledon Press 2002 (1994).

There’s a neat correspondence between a study examining Jane Austen’s models for fictional clergy, notably the snobby Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice, and the fact that such a study was undertaken by a scholar by the name of Collins. But this work is more than just a discussion of Mr Collins, Mr Tilney, Mr Elton, Dr Grant, Mr Bennet and others: it underlines how important Jane’s own clerical background was in forming the bedrock of not only her fiction but also her life.

Originally published in 1994, Jane Austen and the Clergy appeared just in time for the reignition of Austen mania brought about by the adaptation of Pride and Prejudice for television in 1995, making the late Irene Collins (she died in 2015) a bit of a celebrity for Austen fans. Ever since I began reading Austen for myself I’ve been delving into this volume bit by bit till I now feel able to make some assessment of its undoubted worth.

In fact this study feels like a labour of love for the author. At times it’s unclear whom it’s aimed at: is it other literary scholars, the general public, Austen fans, or church historians? But, approached with care and attention by the reasonably intelligent reader it is undoubtedly enlightening on all fronts and an excellent commentary for those embarking on a reread of Jane’s published oeuvres.

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The apotheosis of artifice

Giambattista Piranesi, Carcere XIV (‘The Gothic Arch’)

The Narrative of Trajan’s Column
by Italo Calvino,
translated by Martin McLaughlin.
Penguin Great Ideas 115,
Penguin Classics 2020

Just the titles of so many of these pieces are mouthwateringly attractive — ‘The Museum of Wax Monsters’, ‘The Adventures of Three Clockmakers and Three Automata’, ‘The Sculptures and the Nomads’ — and their contents don’t disappoint either. Martin McLaughlin has done a great job on the translation as far as I can tell because the sentences feel newly minted, as though directly from the hand of the author to the reader.

Except there are clues that these are not recent writings: references are made to a time before the Iranian Revolution and to a few other events that locate them firmly to a time before the author’s premature death in 1985 — he was only in his 63rd year.

But it is Calvino’s gimlet observations, marshalling of details, and philosophical reflections that render his comments eternal and paradoxically contemporary, meaning that these dozen pieces will be for me a joy to revisit at some future date.

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