Jul. 10, 2013

Midsummer Night

by Carol Ann Duffy

Not there to see midsummer's midnight rose
open and bloom, me,
or there when the river dressed in turquoise
under the moon, you;
not there when stones softened, opened, showed
the fossils they held
or there, us, when the dark sky fell to the earth
to gather its smell.

Not there when a strange bird sang on a branch
over our heads, you
and me, or there when a starlit fruit ripened
itself on a tree.
Not there to lie on the grass of our graves, both,
alive alive oh,
or there for Shakespeare's shooting star,
or for who we are,

but elsewhere, far. Not there for the magic hour
when time becomes love
or there for light's pale hand to slip, slender,
from darkness's glove.
Not there when our young ghosts called to us
from the other side
or there where the heron's rags were a silver gown,
by grace of the light.

Not there to be right, to find our souls, we,
dropped silks on the ground,
or there to be found again by ourselves, you, me,
mirrored in water.
Not there to see constellations spell themselves on the sky
and black rhyme with white
or there to see petals fold on a rose like a kiss
on midsummer night.

"Midsummer Night" by Carol Ann Duffy, from Rapture. © Faber and Faber, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of a man whose entire reputation is built on one novel that is more than 3,000 pages long: Marcel Proust (books by this author), born in Auteuil, France (1871). His parents were well off — his father had been a respected doctor. Marcel was a sickly child, prone to asthma attacks, and he was in and out of school. He studied law and philosophy, but he was most interested in writing and in his own social ambitions.

He published stories and essays in literary magazines, and he started work on a long novel, but after writing several thousand pages he was frustrated and gave it up.

He continued to live with his parents and brother in their apartment. Finally, his father insisted that he get a job, so he found work as a volunteer and almost immediately applied for sick leave, and never went back to work.

But then, within a couple of years, his brother got married and moved away from home, and both his parents died. After his mother's death, he spent awhile recovering in a sanatorium. When he got out, he started to write again — supported by a large inheritance left him by his mother — and he spent the rest of his life working on The Remembrance of Things Past, which is sometimes titled In Search of Lost Time, a more accurate translation of the French.

In one of the most famous scenes in the novel, the narrator, Marcel, tastes some cake with tea, which releases a flood of memory: "I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory — this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could, no, indeed, be of the same nature. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?"

It's the birthday of the short-story writer Alice Munro (books by this author), born in Wingham, Ontario (1931). She grew up on a farm, and she said, "Reading was an indulgence that you didn't go in for if there was physical work to be done." Women were only supposed to read on Sundays, because on every other day of the week they had no excuse to be reading when they could be knitting instead.

She went to college, hoping to become a writer, but she dropped out to get married and have three children. She got divorced and went back to her hometown to take care of her sick father, and she was amazed at how much material there was there. She said, "What I wanted was every last thing, every layer of speech and thought, stroke of light on bark or walls, every smell, pothole, pain, crack, delusion, held still and held together — radiant, everlasting." And she took those things and turned them into short stories.

She said: "It's not possible to advise a young writer because every young writer is so different. You might say, 'Read,' but a writer can read too much and be paralyzed. Or, 'Don't read, don't think, just write,' and the result could be a mountain of drivel. If you're going to be a writer you'll probably take a lot of wrong turns and then one day just end up writing something you have to write, then getting it better and better just because you want it to be better, and even when you get old and think 'There must be something else people do,' you won't quite be able to quit."

It's the birthday of British writer Edmund Clerihew Bentley (books by this author), born in London, England (1875). He first achieved fame for his 1913 mystery novel, Trent's Last Case, which he wrote as a reaction against the prevailing conventions of detective fiction. Unlike the infallible Sherlock Holmes, Bentley's detective, Philip Trent, bungles his cases and comes up with ingenious solutions that turn out to be completely wrong. Bentley also became known as the inventor of a new form of verse, the "clerihew," which he introduced in his 1905 book, Biography for Beginners. A clerihew is made up of two rhyming couplets, the first rhyme provided by the name of a famous person. For example:

      George the Third
      Ought never to have occurred.
      One can only wonder
      At so grotesque a blunder.

It's the birthday of theologian John Calvin (books by this author), a leader of the Protestant Reformation, born in Noyon, France (1509). His teachings form the basis of the Presbyterian and Reformed Churches. He studied for the priesthood, but as Martin Luther's ideas spread to France, Calvin became uneasy about his Catholicism. When he was 22, he experienced a "conversion," in which he felt that God had called him to forsake the Catholic Church. He went to Switzerland and wrote Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536), and it became a rallying point for Protestants all over Europe.

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