Some books i’ve read or been reading recently:

1. Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table. i was a big Ondaatje fan in my youth but lost interest after reading Anil’s Ghost and Divisadero. He’s a peculiar writer; his imagination works primarily through images, one reason The English Patient worked so well as a film. However, he’s not particularly interested in, or good at, plot or characterisation, so the conventional Anil’s Ghost bored me, and the fragmented Divisadero bored me for completely opposite reasons – the images just not interesting enough. i gave up on him, assuming he had lost the genius of In the Skin of a Lion and The English Patient. The Cat’s Table is surprisingly good, however. i was particularly bemused to find his characters fairly good – i had assumed he couldn’t do character after i noted that it was impossible to detect who was speaking in The English Patient, from the words alone; so Hanna, a 20-year-old French Canadian nurse speaks in exactly the same voice as Caravaggio, a 40-something Italian thief, and so on. By contrast, when i was writing my Tolkien thesis i came across one of my scrawled quotes, mistakenly thought it was Gandalf but could only maintain this error for a few seconds; the voice simply felt wrong, then i checked and found i was right, it was Aragorn. The Cat’s Table is the first Ondaatje book i’ve read where the speakers have their own voices. The characterisation is still faint, as if the characters are subsumed to the imagery; however, the imagery is powerful enough.

2. Gisli Sursson’s Saga, part of The Sagas of the Icelanders collection. By modern standards these are not literature, more like written down folk tales and local lore. But then critics like to create distinctions then pontificate about genre and high and low literature and puerile trash and airport fiction and other things; a bit like Aristotle writing about Sophocles in the Poetics, his limited judgements being taken for universal and god-given laws by playwrights like Racine. i’ve been watching Werner Herzog interviews and note he often cites ancient literature, e.g. Livy, the Eddas, the Bible. Here, he reads from Völuspá:

In one of his interviews, explaining why he only watches a handful of films a year, Herzog says, half-jokingly, that he doesn’t need to watch many films because he created cinema (he didn’t even know films existed until he was 11). Elsewhere, he notes that in his rural youth, in a small village near the Austrian border, he and his friends invented a weapon, for hurling objects, which he later learnt was used by human beings a good 20,000 years ago. To be genuinely inventive and not merely a fashionable artist, it is better to be closer to Livy or the 16th Century than one’s actual time & place. It’s not that the 16th Century was better or worse than ours; but it is sufficiently distant, that from there one can regard the present with the right mixture of disinterest and curiosity.

Gisli Sursson’s Saga is a typically disconcerting tale of massacres, vengeance, exile, cunning, disguise, and yet more massacres. Gisli is the kind of person you wouldn’t want in your life, an impulsive killer who spends most of the tale on the run from his enemies. The tale doesn’t side with him; nor does it side against him: the tone throughout is matter-of-fact, as if this is just how things are and it is worth writing down. In the end, Gisli is cornered and fights to the death against his enemy Eyjolf and various henchmen:

Then Eyjolf said to Helgi the Spy, ‘You would win great acclaim if you were the first to climb the ridge and attack Gisli – a deed of heroism that would long be remembered.’

‘I’ve often noticed,’ said Helgi, ‘that you usually want other people in front of you when there’s any danger. Since you urge me so profoundly, I’ll attempt it, but you must show enough courage to come with me and keep close behind – that is, if you’re not a completely toothless bitch.’

If the sagas ever take sides, it could be said they prize courage and manliness, regardless of the individual – so some brave, manly men are clearly sociopathic nutters; but at least there is usually some kind of logic to their slaughters, and they are true to their friends. Today, courage and manliness are still lauded in action films but generally in a cartoonish, Die Hard kind of way, as if this is the only possible way to be a manly man. The sagas were to some degree historical, so i imagine these things really did happen: hence the matter-of-fact tone:

A man named Svein was the first to attack Gisli, but Gisli struck at him, cleft him through the shoulder blades and threw him off the edge of the crag. The others began to wonder where this man’s capacity for slaughter was going to end.

3. i’ve begun re-reading Sir Gawain & the Green Knight. It was written sometime in the 14th Century in the Midlands so is almost impossible to understand; German helps a little, as some of the words are similar to modern German:

With all the wele of the worlde thay woned ther samen

(Modern German wohnen and zusammen).

It is a little strange to consider that one of the greatest geniuses in human history lived somewhere in the Midlands about 600-700 years ago and left no name or record, just Sir Gawain and maybe three other poems (Pearl, Cleanness, Patience). It is a profound and strange work, in many ways what we could call post-modern, but not in the look-at-me-I’m-so-clever way of the modern author. You could indeed read it without noticing the intertextual depths. It’s a startling and unplaceable poem, a work of (relatively) modern mythology; and so it’s fitting that we don’t know the author, just as we don’t know who wrote the Epic of Gilgamesh or if Homer really existed. Whereas Chaucer influenced Shakespeare (and i think Chaucer was influenced by Dante), it seems unlikely that anybody had even heard of this poem until the manuscript re-emerged in the 19th Century. i find this very pleasing.

As with Dante and Shakespeare, there are mysteries here in plain sight; they are protected by the pace and tone, so you could skim past them without really noticing, or dismiss them with a scholarly footnote. Here is the entry of the Green Knight:

Ther hales in at the halle dor an aghlich mayster,

On the most in the molde on mesure hyghe,

Fro the swyre to the swange so sware and so thik,

And his lyndes and his lymes so long and so grete,

Half etayn in erde I hope that he were;

Bot mon most I algate mynn hym to bene,

And that the myriest in his muckel that myght ride,

For of bak and of brest al were his bodi sturne,

Both his wombe and his wast were worthily smale,

And all his fetures folwande in forme that he hade, ful clene.

For wonder of his hwe men hade,

Set in his semblaunt sene;

He ferde as freke were fade,

And overal enker-grene.

(when there comes in at the hall door a fearsome lord, the very biggest in the world in his tall stature, from the neck to the waist so square and so thick-set, and his sides and his limbs so long and so large, that I believe he may have been half-giant indeed; but at any rate I consider him to be the biggest of men, and the handsomest of his size who might (ever) ride horse, for although in back and breast his body was strong, both his stomach and his waist were becomingly small, and all his parts (were) in keeping with his shape, without exception. Men wondered at his colour, plain to see in his face; he bore himself like a man of battle, and he was bright green all over.)

There’s a good article on the poem by Alan Garner here. i’ve skimmed through two modern English translations and found both unsatisfactory. The most one could do is translate it into sparse prose, as John Sinclair did with Dante. Over the last 15 years, i’ve read Gawain at least 6 times now and always in the original, flicking between the huge footnotes and the Middle English. It’s not merely that you lose tone and complexity in translation; it’s sufficiently close to modern English that you can read it with a glossary (i.e. the grammar is the same), and with mythological texts it pays to read them in the original, where practical. For reading, like many other things, is not merely the absorption of information to be used and then filed away or discarded; reading transforms you (as in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash). With most books this is a superficial and soon-forgotten influence; with works like Sir Gawain it is, or can be, much more thorough.