Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Merry Tales of Skelton

For though my ryme be ragged,
Tattered and jagged,
Rudely rayne beaten,
Rusty and moughte eaten,
It hath in it some pyth.
I think I first encountered John Skelton via a side-reference in Siegfried Sassoon's Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930), his fictionalised account of life on the Western Front in the First World War. Sassoon describes his fellow-officer 'David Cromlech' [= Robert Graves] as follows:
He made short work of most books which I had hitherto venerated, for David was a person who consumed his enthusiasms quickly, and he once fairly took my breath away by pooh-poohing Paradise Lost as ‘that moribund academic concoction’. I hadn’t realized that it was possible to speak disrespectfully about Milton. Anyhow, John Milton was consigned to perdition, and John Skelton was put forward as ‘one of the few really good poets.’ But somehow I could never quite accept his supremacy over Milton as an established fact.
John Skelton? Who he? My passionate interest in any and everything to do with Robert Graves soon led me to the latter's early poem "John Skelton", included in the wartime collection Fairies and Fusiliers (1917) but not reprinted in any of the various editions of his Collected Poems:
... angrily, wittily,
Tenderly, prettily,
Laughingly, learnedly,
Sadly, madly,
Helter-skelter John
Rhymes serenely on,
As English poets should.
Old John, you do me good!
I was therefore immensely excited to find an old edition of the Shakespearean scholar Alexander Dyce's 19th century edition of Skelton in a second-hand shop sometime in the 1970s. Unfortunately, it was only the first of two volumes, but it contained all the text - though without any of Dyce's detailed explanatory notes.

Alexander Dyce, ed. The Poetical Works of John Skelton (1843)

But who was this man John Skelton, anyway?

Probably his principal claim to fame in the eyes of posterity is the fact that he acted as Henry VIII's tutor in the late 1490s, and wrote a book of advice (now lost) for the young prince in the genre generally classified as Speculum Principis [Mirror for Princes].

He was immensely proud of having been crowned as a "laureate" at Oxford university, and subsequently at Cambridge, then Leuven in Flanders. The term didn't mean then what it does now, though. It signified high attainment in rhetoric, rather than official appointment as a court poet.

Even so, Skelton wrote an outrageously exaggerated poem called The Garland of Laurel to celebrate this event, deliberately blurring its significance in order to milk the maximum mileage out of the distinction. He also signed himself 'Skelton, Laureat' ever afterwards.

After a brief period of imprisonment for unknown reasons in the early 1500s, Skelton retired from regular attendance at court, composing another long poem entitled The Bowge of Court to satirise the terrible corruption and greed he found there under the (so-called) Accountant King, Henry VII.

Instead, he took up the role of rector of Diss in Norfolk, where he is said to have caused a good deal of scandal with his unorthodox behaviour and views:
his parishioners ... thought him more fit for the stage than the pew or the pulpit. He was secretly married to a woman who lived in his house, and earned the hatred of the Dominican friars by his fierce satire. He consequently came under the formal censure of Richard Nix, the bishop of the diocese, and appears to have been temporarily suspended. After his death a collection of farcical tales, no doubt chiefly, if not entirely, apocryphal, gathered round his name — The Merie Tales of Skelton.
- Wikipedia: John Skelton

William Hazlitt, ed. Merie Tales of Skelton (1856)

One of the most valuable features of Dyce's edition of Skelton is the inclusion, in an appendix, of the entire text of this ridiculous book of fifteenth-century 'humour'. Most of the gags tend to hinge on someone being beaten within an inch of their lives, or otherwise bested by the arch-joker Skelton. The extract below will give you some idea of the kind of thing it is:

So what was it that Graves, and others, saw in this rather absurd sounding figure? Well, for a start, between the death of Geoffrey Chaucer in 1400 and the introduction of Italianate verse forms such as the sonnet into England in the 1530s and 40s by Sir Thomas Wyatt and the Earl of Surrey, there isn't really a lot to celebrate in English poetry.

Most of the serious action was taking place north of the border in Scotland, where poets such as Gavin Douglas, William Dunbar, and Robert Henryson were continuing - and extending - the tradition of Chaucerian narrative verse.

And what did England have to offer in response? Well, there's Skelton's poem 'Against the Scots,' his sensitive account of the tragic Battle of Flodden:
Lo, these fond sots
And trattling Scots,
How they are blind
In their own mind,
And will not know
Their overthrow
At Brankston Moor!
They are so stour,
So frantic mad,
They say they had
And won the field
With spear and shield:
That is as true
As black is blue
And green is grey.
Whatever they say,
Jemmy is dead
And closed in lead,
That was their own king:
Fie on that winning!
It puts one rather in mind of Tennyson's 'Charge of the Light Brigade', doesn't it?

That's probably the least attractive aspect of Skelton. He did have a gift for lyric verse, though, witness the portraits of court ladies included in his Garland of Laurel:
Merry Margaret,
As midsummer flower,
Gentle as a falcon
Or hawk of the tower:
With solace and gladness,
Much mirth and no madness,
All good and no badness;
So joyously,
So maidenly,
So womanly
Her demeaning
In every thing,
Far, far passing
That I can indite,
Or suffice to write
Of Merry Margaret
As midsummer flower,
Gentle as falcon
Or hawk of the tower.
As patient and still
And as full of good will
As fair Isaphill,
Sweet pomander,
Good Cassander,
Steadfast of thought,
Well made, well wrought,
Far may be sought
Ere that ye can find
So courteous, so kind
As Merry Margaret,
This midsummer flower,
Gentle as falcon
Or hawk of the tower.
You can certainly see his influence not just on Robert Graves, but also on other early twentieth-century poets such as Edith Sitwell and W. H. Auden.

Here's the former's 'Aubade', included in some versions of her 'instrumental entertainment' Façade (1923):

Roger Fry: Edith Sitwell in 1912 (1918)

Jane, Jane,
Tall as a crane,
The morning light creaks down again;
Comb your cockscomb-ragged hair,
Jane, Jane, come down the stair.

Each dull blunt wooden stalactite
Of rain creaks, hardened by the light,

Sounding like an overtone
From some lonely world unknown.

But the creaking empty light
Will never harden into sight,

Will never penetrate your brain
With overtones like the blunt rain.

The light would show (if it could harden)
Eternities of kitchen garden,

Cockscomb flowers that none will pluck,
And wooden flowers that 'gin to cluck.

In the kitchen you must light
Flames as staring, red and white,

As carrots or as turnips shining
Where the cold dawn light lies whining.

Cockscomb hair on the cold wind
Hangs limp, turns the milk's weak mind . . .
Jane, Jane,
Tall as a crane,
The morning light creaks down again!

W. H. Auden (1907-1973)

And here's the latter's 1930 poem 'This Lunar Beauty':
This lunar beauty
Has no history
Is complete and early,
If beauty later
Bear any feature
It had a lover
And is another.

This like a dream
Keeps other time
And daytime is
The loss of this,
For time is inches
And the heart's changes
Where ghost has haunted
Lost and wanted.

But this was never
A ghost's endeavor
Nor finished this,
Was ghost at ease,
And till it pass
Love shall not near
The sweetness here
Nor sorrow take
His endless look.

So how to sum up the longterm influence of John Skelton? The lack of a readily available modern edition of his poems - or the ones in English, at any rate - was addressed, first, by Philip Henderson's frequently reprinted Dent edition of 1931.

Some of the textual deficiencies in Henderson's version have now been corrected by Skelton-biographer John Scattergood's Complete English Poems (1983) in the Penguin English Poets series.

Is he worth reading? A lot of his work is, admittedly, probably only of interest to medievalists and literary scholars, but there's a good deal of vivid satire and storytelling there which does go some way towards justifying Robert Graves' favourable verdict.

For the rest, I should probably leave you with probably the most celebrated of those 'Merie Tales of Skelton' which at least did something to carry his name down to posterity:
Tale vii:
How Skelton, when he came from the bishop, made a sermon.

Skelton the next Sunday after went into the pulpit to preach, and said, "Vos estis, vos estis, that is to say, You be, you be. And what be you?" said Skelton: "I say, that you be a sort of knaves, yea, and a man might say worse than knaves; and why, I shall show you. You have complained of me to the bishop that I do keep a fair wench in my house: I do tell you, if you had any fair wives, it were some what to help me at need; I am a man as you be: you have foul wives, and I have a fair wench, of the which I have begotten a fair boy, as I do think, and as you all shall see. Thou wife," said Skelton, "that hast my child, be not afraid; bring me hither my child to me:" the which was done. And he, showing his child naked to all the parish, said, "How say you, neighbours all? is not this child as fair as is the best of all yours? It hath nose, eyes, hands, and feet, as well as any of your: it is not like a pig, nor a calf, nor like no fowl nor no monstrous beast. If I had," said Skelton, "brought forth this child without arms or legs, or that it were deformed, being a monstrous thing, I would never have blamed you to have complained to the bishop of me; but to complain without a cause, I say, as I said before in my antetheme, vos estis, you be, and have be, and will and shall be knaves, to complain of me without a cause reasonable. For you be presumptuous, and do exalt yourselves, and therefore you shall be made low: as I shall show you a familiar example of a parish priest, the which did make a sermon in Rome. And he did take that for his antetheme, the which of late days is named a theme, and said, Qui se exaltat humiliabitur, et qui see humiliat exaltabitur, that is to say, he that doth exalt himself or doth extol himself shall be made meek, and he that doth humble himself or is meek, shall be exalted, extolled, or elevated, or sublimated, or such like; and that I will show you by this my cap. This cap was first my hood, when that I was student in Jucalico, and then it was so proud that it would not be contented, but it would slip and fall from my shoulders. I perceiving this that he was proud, what then did I? shortly to conclude, I did make of him a pair of breeches to my hose, to bring him low. And when that I did see, know, or perceive that he was in that case, and allmost worn clean out, what did I then to extol him up again? you all may see that this my cap was made of it that was my breeches. Therefore, said Skelton, vos estis, therefore you be, as I did say before: if that you exalt yourself, and cannot be contented that I have my wench still, some of you shall wear horns; and therefore vos estis: and so farewell." It is merry in the hall, when beards wag all.
So there you go. It is indeed merry in the hall, when beards wag all.

John Skelton

John Skelton

  1. The Poetical Works of Skelton and Donne with a Memoir of Each. Ed. Alexander Dyce. 1843. 4 Vols in 2. Riverside Edition. 1855. Cambridge: The Riverside Press / Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1881.

  2. Skelton, John. The Complete Poems of John Skelton, Laureate: 1460-1529. Ed. Philip Henderson. 1931. Everyman’s Library. London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd. / New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. Inc., 1966.

  3. Skelton, John. The Complete English Poems. Ed. John Scattergood. Penguin English Poets. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983.

  4. John Skelton: The Complete English Poems (1983)

  5. Pollet, Maurice. John Skelton: Poet of Tudor England. 1962. Trans. John Warrington. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1970.

Maurice Pollet: John Skelton: Poet of Tudor England (1962 / 1971)

Thursday, February 03, 2022

Retirement gift

Unity Books
[photograph: Bronwyn Lloyd (31/1/2022)]

My colleagues at Massey University were kind enough to have a bit of a whip-round when I left the building (or rather the zoom-room) a couple of weeks ago now. Friday, 14th January was my official last day, if you're curious.

I have to say that I was impressed by their intuition that what would suit me best is a book-token, and their choice of locations - Unity Books in High Street - was also right on target. Where else can you go in Auckland to find "brainy stuff"? (Believe it or not, that's the label above one of the bookcases in the shop).

I won't be rude enough to reveal how much the book-token was for, but suffice it to say that it covered the four brand-new books above. They are (in alphabetical order):
Nasrullah Munshi. Kalila and Dimna. Trans. Wheeler M. Thackston. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2019.

Vladimir Nabokov. Think, Write, Speak: Uncollected Essays, Reviews, Interviews, and Letters to the Editor. Ed. Brian Boyd & Anastasia Tolstoy. 2019. Penguin Modern Classics. London: Penguin Random House UK, 2020.

Pablo Neruda. The Complete Memoirs: Expanded Edition. 2017. Trans. Hardie St. Martin & Adrian Nathan West. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021.

Carol Angier. Speak, Silence: In Search of W. G. Sebald. London: Bloomsbury Circus, 2021.
I guess that the nice thing about them was that - either by coincidence, or through the serendipities of personal psychology - each one of them encapsulates a strong area of interest for me:

Nasrullah Munshi: Kalila and Dimna (2019)

The first, for instance, a new translation of a classic set of Arabic fables, adapted and transmuted from their Sanskrit originals, falls into the class of books related to the Arabian Nights, a work which fascinates me so much that not only do I maintain a website devoted to the subject, but I've also devised - and taught - an entire fiction writing course centred on the collection.

Bidpai, the Indian sage who tells the stories - hence their alternative title The Fables of Bidpai (or 'Pilpay' in French) - focussed them around two ambitious jackals, Kalila and Dimna, employed as servants by the King (a Lion). They consist of a series of intertwined beast fables designed to illustrate the pitfalls in the way of just and effective rule.

Their immediate predecessor was the Sanskrit collection The Panchatantra, also available in a variety of recensions and forms. Behind that lie the Buddhist Jātaka Tales, the Kathāsaritsāgara [Ocean of Streams of Story], and The Hitopadesha. In its turn, Kalila and Dimna would go on to influence the numerous beast fables included in the Thousand and One Nights itself.

Kalila Upbraiding Dimna (16th century)

Kalīla wa-Dimna
(c.8th century)

    The Panchatantra [Pañcatantra] (c.3rd century BCE)

  1. Ryder, Arthur W., trans. The Panchatantra. 1925. Chicago: Phoenix Books, 1964.
  2. Edgerton, Franklin, trans. The Panchatantra. London: Allen & Unwin, 1965.
  3. Visnu Sarma. The Pancatantra. Trans. Chandra Rajan. 1993. London: Penguin, 1995.
  4. Olivelle, Patrick, trans. The Pañcatantra: The Book of India’s Folk Wisdom. The World’s Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

  5. The Jātaka Tales (c.5th century)

  6. Rhys Davids, T. W. trans. Buddhist Birth-Stories (Jātaka Tales): The Commentarial Introduction Entitled Nidāna-Kathā, The Story of the Lineage. 1880. Broadway Translations. London & New York: Routledge & Dutton, 1925.
  7. Cowell, E. B., ed. The Jātaka, or Stories of the Buddha’s Former Births. Trans. R. Chambers, W. H. D. Rouse, H. T. Francis & R. A. Neil, W. H. D. Rouse, H. T. Francis, E. B. Cowell & W. H. D. Rouse. 6 vols in 3. 1895-1907. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1990.

  8. Kalīla wa-Dimna (c.8th century)

  9. Benalmocaffa, Abdalá. Calila y Dimna. Introducción, traducción y notas de Marcelino Villegas. Libro de Bolsillo: Clásicos 1512. Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1991.
  10. Kalila and Dimna: Selected Fables of Bidpai. Retold by Ramsay Wood. Introduction by Doris Lessing. 1980. London: Granada, 1982.
  11. Munshi, Nasrullah. Kalila and Dimna. Trans. Wheeler M. Thackston. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2019.

  12. Somadeva (c.11th century)

  13. Penzer, N. M., ed. The Ocean of Story: Being C. H. Tawney’s Translation of Somadeva’s Kathā Sarit Sāgara (or Ocean of Streams of Story). 1880-87. 10 vols. London: Privately Printed for Subscribers Only by Chas. J. Sawyer Ltd., Grafton House, W.1., 1924-1928.
  14. Penzer, N. M., ed. The Ocean of Story: Being C. H. Tawney’s Translation of Somadeva’s Kathā Sarit Sāgara (or Ocean of Streams of Story). 1880-87. 10 vols. 1924-28. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1968.
  15. Somadeva. Tales from the Kathāsaritsāgara. Trans. Arshia Sattar. Foreword by Wendy Doniger. 1994. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1996.
  16. Somadeva. Océan des rivières de contes. Ed. Nalini Balbir, with Mildrède Besnard, Lucien Billoux, Sylvain Brocquet, Colette Caillat, Christine Chojnacki, Jean Fezas & Jean-Pierre Osier. Traduction des ‘Contes du Vampire’ par Louis & Marie-Simone Renou, 1963. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 438. Paris: Gallimard, 1997.

  17. Narayana (c.12th century)

  18. Chandiramani, G. L., trans. The Hitopadesha: An Ancient Fabled Classic. 1995. Mumbai: Jaico Publishing House, 1999.

Vladimir Nabokov: Think, Write, Speak (2019)

Shortly before I went to High School in the 1970s, the revisionist teachers at Rangitoto College decided to replace the more traditional Latin and French with Russian and Indonesian - more practical choices, or so they thought, for the contemporary world.

I never studied Indonesian, but I did learn Russian - along with French, which had fortunately survived their cull. I wouldn't say that I learnt it well, but I can follow it a bit, and I can certainly manage Cyrillic letters, which are actually the easiest part of the whole business. The complexity of Russian grammar was certainly challenging, but probably no more so than Latin would have been.

The abiding result of all that is a fascination with Russian literature and culture, which has manifested itself in endless porings over such 'Silver Age' writers as Mandel'stam and Pasternak, as well as the more obvious Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Gogol, and Tolstoy. Nabokov has never been one of my main heroes, but his brilliance as a bilingual commentator as well as a writer makes him an inevitable subject of interest for me.

Brian Boyd's numerous books on the subject have (I suspect) all made their way into my collection by now. His two-volume biography is, of course, paramount, and - while it did come as a bit of a surprise to discover just how new material remained to be collected in the book above - I certainly welcome this new addition.

Giuseppe Pino: Vladimir Nabokov (1960s)

Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov


  1. The Portable Nabokov. 1968. Ed. Page Stegner. Viking Compass Edition. New York: The Viking Press, Inc., 1971.
  2. Novels and Memoirs 1941-1951: The Real Life of Sebastian Knight / Bend Sinister / Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited. 1941, 1947, 1951. Ed. Brian Boyd. The Library of America, 87. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 1996.
  3. Novels 1955-1962: Lolita / Pnin / Pale Fire / Lolita: A Screenplay. 1955, 1957, 1962, 1974. Ed. Brian Boyd. The Library of America, 88. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 1996.
  4. Novels 1969-1974: Ada, or Ardor: a Family Chronicle / Transparent Things / Look at the Harlequins!. 1969, 1972, 1974. Ed. Brian Boyd. The Library of America, 89. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 1996.

  5. Novels:

  6. Mary: A Novel. [‘Машенька’, 1926]. Trans. Michael Glenny in collaboration with the Author. 1970. A Fawcett Crest Book. Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett Publications, Inc., 1971.
  7. King, Queen, Knave. [‘Король, дама, валет’, 1928]. Trans. Dmitri Nabokov in collaboration with the Author. 1968. London: Panther Books, 1970.
  8. The Defence. [‘Защита Лужина’, 1930]. Trans. Michael Scammell in collaboration with the Author. 1964. Panther Books Ltd. Frogmore, St Albans, Herts: Granada Publishing Limited, 1973.
  9. Glory. [‘Подвиг’, 1932]. Trans. Dmitri Nabokov. 1971. Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974.
  10. The Eye. [‘Соглядатай’, 1932]. Trans. by the Author. 1965. London: Panther Books Ltd., 1968.
  11. Laughter in the Dark. [‘Камера Обскура’, 1933]. Trans. by the Author. 1938. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969.
  12. Despair. [‘Отчаяние’, 1934]. Trans. by the Author. 1937 & 1965. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981.
  13. Invitation to a Beheading. [‘Приглашение на казнь’, 1936]. Trans. Dmitri Nabokov in collaboration with the Author. 1959. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969.
  14. The Gift. [‘Дар’, 1938]. Trans. Michael Scammell with the collaboration of the Author. 1963. London: Panther Books Ltd., 1966.
  15. The Enchanter. [‘Волшебник’, 1939]. Trans. Dmitri Nabokov. 1985. Picador. London: Pan Books Ltd., 1986.
  16. The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. 1941. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1971.
  17. Bend Sinister. 1947. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1974.
  18. Lolita. 1955. A Corgi Book. London: Transworld Publishers Ltd., 1965.
  19. The Annotated Lolita. 1955. Ed. Alfred Appel, Jr. 1970. Rev. ed. 1991. Vintage Books. New York: Random House, Inc., 1991.
  20. Pnin. 1957. Penguin Books 1491. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1960.
  21. Pale Fire. 1962. A Corgi Book. London: Transworld Publishers Ltd., 1964.
  22. Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle. 1969. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1971.
  23. The Original of Laura (Dying is Fun). Ed. Dmitri Nabokov. 2009. Penguin Classics. London: Penguin, 2009.

  24. Stories:

  25. Nabokov's Dozen: Thirteen Stories. 1958. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1959.
  26. Nabokov's Quartet. 1966. London: Panther Books, 1969.
  27. A Russian Beauty and Other Stories. 1973. Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975.
  28. Tyrants Destroyed and Other Stories. 1975. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981.
  29. Details of a Sunset and Other Stories. 1976. Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1994.
  30. The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov. 1995. Vintage International. New York: Random House, Inc., 1997.

  31. Plays:

  32. The Waltz Invention: A Play in Three Acts. [‘Izobretenie Val'sa’, 1938]. Trans. 1966. A Pocket Cardinal Edition. New York: Pocket Books, 1967.
  33. The Man from the USSR and Other Plays. With Two Essays on the Drama. Trans. Dmitri Nabokov. Bruccoli Clark. San Diego & New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1984.

  34. Poetry & Translation:

  35. Aleksandr Pushkin. Eugene Onegin: A Novel in Verse, Translated from the Russian, with a Commentary. Revised Edition. Trans. Vladimir Nabokov. 1964 & 1975. Bollingen Series LXXII. 4 vols. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975.
    1. Translator's Introduction / Eugene Onegin: The Translation
    2. Commentary on Preliminaries and Chapters One to Five
    3. Commentary on Chapters Six to Eight, "Onegin's Journey, " and "Chapter Ten" / Appendixes
    4. Index / Evgeniy Onegin: Reproduction of the 1837 Edition
  36. Aleksandr Pushkin. Eugene Onegin: A Novel in Verse, Translated from the Russian, with a Commentary. Revised Edition. Trans. Vladimir Nabokov. 1964 & 1975. Paperback Edition in Two Volumes. 1981. Bollingen Series LXXII. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990.
    1. Translator’s Introduction / Eugene Onegin: The Translation
    2. Commentary and Index
  37. Poems and Problems. 1970. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1972.
  38. Verses and Versions: Three Centuries of Russian Poetry. Ed. Brian Boyd & Stanislav Shvabrin. Introduction by Brian Boyd. Harcourt, Inc. Orlando, Florida: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2008.
  39. Collected Poems. Ed. Thomas Karshan. Trans. Dmitri Nabokov. 2012. London: Penguin, 2013.

  40. Non-fiction:

  41. Nikolai Gogol. 1944. Oxford Lives. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.
  42. Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited. 1967. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969.
  43. Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited. 1951, 1967, 1998. Introduction by Brian Boyd. Everyman's Library, 188. London: David Campbell Publishers Limited, 1999.
  44. Strong Opinions. 1973. Vintage International. New York: Vintage Books, A Division of Random House, Inc., 1990.
  45. Lectures on Literature. Ed. Fredson Bowers. Introduction by John Updike. 1980. Picador. London: Pan Books Ltd., 1983.
  46. Lectures on Russian Literature. Ed. Fredson Bowers. 1981. Picador. London: Pan Books Ltd., 1983.
  47. Lectures on Don Quixote. Ed. Fredson Bowers. Foreword by Guy Davenport. 1983. A Harvest / HBJ Book. Bruccoli Clark. San Diego, New York & London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1984.
  48. Nabokov's Butterflies: Unpublished and Uncollected Writings. Ed. Brian Boyd & Robert Michael Pyle. Trans. Dmitri Nabokov. Allen Lane. London: The Penguin Press, 2000.
  49. Think, Write, Speak: Uncollected Essays, Reviews, Interviews, and Letters to the Editor. Ed. Brian Boyd & Anastasia Tolstoy. 2019. Penguin Modern Classics. London: Penguin Random House UK, 2020.

  50. Letters:

  51. The Nabokov-Wilson Letters: Correspondence between Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson, 1940-1971. Ed. Simon Karlinsky. 1979. Harper Colophon Books. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1980.
  52. Selected Letters, 1940-1977. Ed. Dmitri Nabokov & Matthew J. Bruccoli. 1989. London: Vintage, 1991.

  53. Secondary:

  54. Boyd, Brian. Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years. 1990. London: Chatto & Windus, 1990.
  55. Boyd, Brian. Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years. 1991. London: Chatto & Windus, 1992.
  56. Boyd, Brian. Stalking Nabokov: Selected Essays. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.
  57. Field, Andrew. Nabokov: His Life in Part. 1977. London: Hamish Hamilton Ltd., 1977.
  58. Field, Andrew. VN: The Life and Art of Vladimir Nabokov. 1967, 1977 & 1986. A Queen Anne Press Book. London: Macdonald & Co. (Publishers) Ltd., 1987.
  59. Quennell, Peter, ed. Vladimir Nabokov: A Tribute. His Life, His Work, His World. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson Ltd., 1979.
  60. Schiff, Stacy. Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov). 1999. Picador. London: Macmillan Pubishers Ltd., 2000.

Pablo Neruda: The Complete Memoirs (2021)

The third book on the list takes me back to a vital part of my life: the four years I spent at Edinburgh University, working on my Doctorate on Versions of South America in English Literature from Aphra Behn to the Present Day.

Catchy title, huh? Agonising over the precise wording of the subtitle, the selection of authors, and (of course) of so curious a choice of subject-matter in the first place, were all the part of the general atmosphere of tension which accompanied my years in Graduate School.

Not that I didn't have fun, too. Edinburgh is a delightful city to live in, and it's a cultural treat just to walk around its streets. I got to know it pretty well - or so I thought - during those years. Even now I could navigate it blindfold.

As far as my studies go, I guess that the residue they've left behind is mostly just a love for Latin American literature in general. I picked up a reading knowledge of Spanish while I was there - enough for a nodding acquaintance with the likes of Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Octavio Paz. Pablo Neruda, too. I was blown away by parts of his epic Canto General (1950).

This new edition of his memoirs probably adds little to the picture given by the posthumous Confieso que he vivido (1974), but then you never know: in any case, for a completist such as myself, it was a necessary purchase.

Pablo Neruda (1963)

Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto ['Pablo Neruda']


  1. Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. [‘20 Poemas de amor y una Canción desesperada’, 1924]. Trans. W. S. Merwin. 1969. Cape Editions. London: Jonathan Cape, 1971.
  2. Residencia en la tierra. 1933, 1935. Ed. Hernán Loyola. Letras Hispanicas, 254. Madrid: Ediciones Cátedra, 1987.
  3. Residence on Earth. [‘Residencia en la tierra’: I, 1933; II, 1935; III, 1947]. Trans. Donald D. Walsh. New York: New Directions Press, 1973.
  4. Canto General. 1950. Biblioteca de Bolsillo. Barcelona; Editorial Seix-Barral, 1983.
  5. Let the Rail Splitter Awake and Other Poems. 1947. Trans. 1950. Introduction by Christopher Perriam. Illustrated by José Venturelli. London: The Journeyman Press Ltd., 1988.
  6. Canto General: Fiftieth Anniversary Edition. [‘Canto General’, 1950]. Trans. Jack Schmitt. Introduction by Roberto González Echevarría. Latin American Literature and culture, 7. 1991. A Centennial Book. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000.
  7. Extravagaria: A Bilingual Edition. 1958. Trans. Alastair Reid. Cape Poetry Paperbacks. London: Jonathan Cape, 1972.
  8. 100 Love Sonnets. [‘Cien sonetos de amor’, 1960]. Trans. Stephen Tapscott. Texas Pan American Series. 1986. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995.
  9. Fully Empowered: A Bilingual Edition. [‘Plenos poderes’, 1962]. Trans. Alastair Reid. A Condor Book. London: Souvenir Press, 1976.
  10. Isla Negra: A Notebook. A Bilingual Edition. [‘Memorial de Isla Negra’, 1964]. Afterword by Enrico Mario Santí. Trans. Alastair Reid. 1981. A Condor Book. London: Souvenir Press, 1982.
  11. Selected Poems of Pablo Neruda. Ed. & trans. Ben Belitt. Introduction by Luis Monguió. 1961. An Evergreen Book. New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1963.
  12. Selected Poems: A Bi-lingual Edition. Ed. Nathaniel Tarn. Trans. Anthony Kerrigan, W. S. Merwin, Alastair Reid, & Nathaniel Tarn. 1970. Introduction by Jean Franco. Penguin Poets. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975.
  13. The Book of Questions. [‘El libro de las preguntas’, 1974]. Trans. William O'Daly. 1991. A Kage-An Book. Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 2001.
  14. A Basic Anthology. Ed. Robert Pring-Mill. Dolphin Books. Oxford: The Dolphin Book Co. Ltd., 1975.
  15. The Poetry of Pablo Neruda. Ed. Ilan Stavans. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.

  16. Plays:

  17. Splendor and Death of Joaquín Murieta. [‘Fulgor y Muerte de Joaquín Murieta’, 1966]. Trans. Ben Belitt. 1972. Noonday Press. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973.

  18. Prose:

  19. Hacia la Ciudad Espléndida / Toward the Splendid City: Nobel Lecture. 1972. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1974.
  20. Memoirs. [‘Confieso que he vivido: Memorias’, 1974]. Trans. Hardie St. Martin. 1977. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981.
  21. Passions and Impressions. [‘Para nacer he nacido’, 1978]. Ed. Matilde Neruda & Miguel Otero Silva. Trans. Margaret Sayers Peden. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc., 1983.
  22. The Complete Memoirs: Expanded Edition. 2017. Trans. Hardie St. Martin & Adrian Nathan West. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021.

Which brings us to the last (though certainly not least) of these books: a recent biography of German writer W. G. Sebald by Carol Angier, author of equally impressive lives of Primo Levi and Jean Rhys.

Recently I had the experience of co-supervising a Doctoral student who was working on Sebald's novel Austerlitz, and it was very interesting to revisit it in detail, and to realise how large an influence it had had on my thinking, even though I'd only read it once, many years before.

When the Sikh writer Jaspreet Singh was staying with us a few years ago, too, I recall that the word 'Sebaldian' was a frequent feature of his conversation. He was trying to accomplish a shift to a similarly half-scholarly, half-personal mode of narration, and while his ostensible subject was the German minimalist Robert Walser, it was Sebald alone who seemed to offer a way forward.

My interest in German writing goes back long before I ever actually studied the language. In fact, a good deal of the motivation to do so came from my desire to get closer to authors such as Kafka or Rilke (or, later, Paul Celan) whom I could only dimly make out through the dark glass of overlapping translations. The bilingual Sebald probably got as close as a German-born writer could to assimilation into English culture, but even that apparent closeness can be misleading. He may have spent most of his adult life in Essex, but his themes remained profoundly German to the end.

W. G. Sebald

Winfried Georg Sebald


  1. After Nature. 1988. Trans. Michael Hamburger. 2002. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2003.
  2. For Years Now. Images by Tess Jaray. London: Short Books, 2001.
  3. [with Jan Peter Tripp] Unrecounted: 33 Texts and 33 Etchings. 2003. Trans. Michael Hamburger. Hamish Hamilton. London: Penguin, 2004.
  4. Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems 1964-2001. 2008. Trans. Iain Galbraith. Hamish Hamilton. London: Penguin, 2011.

  5. Prose:

  6. Vertigo. 1990. Trans. Michael Hulse. London: Harvill Press, 1999.
  7. The Emigrants. 1992. Trans. Michael Hulse. 1996. London: Vintage, 2002.
  8. The Rings of Saturn. 1995. Trans. Michael Hulse. 1998. London: Vintage, 2002.
  9. A Place in the Country: On Gottfried Keller, Johann Peter Hebel, Robert Walser and Others. 1998. Trans. Jo Catling. 2013. London: Penguin, 2014.
  10. On the Natural History of Destruction: With Essays on Alfred Andersch, Jean Améry and Peter Weiss. 1999. Trans. Anthea Bell. 2003. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2004.
  11. Austerlitz. 2001. Trans. Anthea Bell. 2001. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2002.
  12. Campo Santo. Ed. Sven Meyer. 2003. Trans. Anthea Bell. 2005. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2006.

W. G. Sebald: A Place in the Country (2013)

So there you go. That's my roll call of volumes. I suppose that it'll do no harm to reveal that I also bought another book - with my own money - while I was in the shop. I hope it shows no disrespect to my colleagues to admit that alongside all these impressive-sounding 'show books', I also picked up a copy of the latest Neil Gaiman collection.

Strangely enough, that seems to be the one I find myself reaching for most often in the long summer afternoons: