Monday, January 30, 2006

The Great Cycling Novel

“On a bike, your consciousness is small”: a review of The Rider.

Meyrueis, Lozère, June 26, 1977. Hot and overcast. I take my gear out of the car and put my bike together. Tourists and locals are watching from sidewalk cafés. Non-racers. The emptiness of those lives shocks me.”

That’s the opening paragraph of Tim Krabbé’s novel, De Renner (1978), translated out of the Dutch by Sam Garrett for a 2002 Bloomsbury paperback, The Rider (0-7475-5941-4; £6.99). Instantly, we are at the beginning of the action: the novel will follow, kilometre by kilometre, a top amateur race in the Gorges du Tarn region of France. And we are thrown just as decisively into the protagonist’s state of mind – the monomania of the racing cyclist, who scorns everyone but those who, among his own kind, race in the way he recognises and esteems.

A friend lent me a copy of this novel late last year. It is a book that should be read within the duration of the race it describes. As the kilometres and the cols go by, the narrator (Tim Krabbé indulgently re-imagined by himself as a real contender) is in the breakaway group that must produce the race winner. With him, finally, are a fellow spirit, Kléber (‘He lives to ride’), an immensely strong veteran, Lebusque, and a wheelsucker ominously impervious to all admonitions, the youthful Reilhan. Around Krabbé, a wraith-like peloton of the great riders travel along with the hero, as their examples, their adages, and his fantasies of emulation goad and sustain him. The rhythm of the book in part captures the growing exhaustion of the hero, as his reveries become increasingly prominent as he rides to his physical limit. As only the best stories can bring about, the reader is in conflict between taking the time to enjoy sufficiently the insightfulness of every page, and the urge to rush ahead to reach the finish – will he get it, the big win that his choice in life has led him to and now brought him in sight of, the win he deserves?

The Rider is immensely convincing: this race had to have happened, and had to have been ridden out exactly as told. About half way through my reading, I decided that I had to follow the narrative on a map as well, and only when I found that I could exactly follow the race in the Michelin road atlas of France, and see the kilometerage of the race coming exactly off the page, did I think that I was actually looking at an imaginative writer’s research. Further research of my own into the author himself revealed that he had indeed been intensely fascinated with cycling, but in his prime was just too bulky a rider to have been ‘de Renner’ of the novel.

‘The rider’, whose body is a subject as deeply fascinating to him as his mind. He describes training harder and harder, and says of his body as it adapts to carry out his will, ‘I was touched by its loyalty’. He attacks in the race, and says this (and this is typical of Krabbé’s vividity) - ‘The decision catches me off guard. The way you can mull endlessly over getting up in the morning – and suddenly find yourself standing next to the bed. Your body got up, and you were in it’. ‘Why do I do it?’ he asks himself, over and over, amid the epic suffering that an 85 mile race over long climbs can inflict. And he allows himself an unrestrained expression of bike sentiment by way of answer: ‘after the finish all the suffering turns to memories of pleasure, and the greater the suffering, the greater the pleasure. That is Nature’s pay-back to riders for the homage they pay her by suffering.’ People in general, he reflects ‘still have bodies that can walk for five days and four nights through a desert of snow, without food, but they accept praise for having taken a one-hour bicycle ride…’ And isn’t it true, that many people go through life just ignorant of what their bodies can do, while the bike, in our otherwise over-comfortable lives, informs us exactly about what we might achieve in a proper ordeal?

‘I am a hero, you see’, reflects our hero: the novel admits us to that private confession. Does the novel know about a cost in this solipsistic self-realisation? Krabbé’s other novels are The Vanishing and The Cave. As a professional academic, I’d never let a small detail like never having read either of them stop me forming a surmise about them. What you remember from the former novel (in film form) is that the hero, so as to know, consents to have the abductor of his girlfriend repeat on him whatever it was that happened: and he wakes up from a sedative drug buried alive in a coffin. You choose to enter a cave, a cave doesn’t just happen to you: the hero of de Grot is an academic who descends into drug smuggling, loses his moral bearings in pursuit of money to fund an excavation. Krabbé has to be interested in the self-knowledge found among decisions made against normal inclination, and a kind of liberation amid vanishing options. The rider traverses an immense landscape, but is the prisoner of his own obsession: at one point, the alienation expressed in that opening paragraph flashes out in sexual form, in his sudden hatred of a pretty girl whose encouraging shout interrupts his reverie, and draws his bilious attention. His chosen form of fulfilment may or may not arrive at the end of 137 kilometres.

The author’s main fame is as a chess expert, who has assembled a collection of the most amazing chess moves of all time. The Rider makes some explicit analogies, in its attention to the fluctuations of a race: a racer, like a chess player, can always make a sacrificial move. We see move countering move, the attempts to make the opponent make the wrong play, the disbelief when a great position evaporates. Always, Krabbé writes brilliantly about the opacities of decision-making. The hero cites Henri Pélissier’s impossible imperative: ‘Always attack as late as you can, but before the others do’.

You will all know that the Dutch love their cycling, and also, being an intelligent people, they love the literature in their language. This, charmingly, has precipitated the fictional ‘Tour de Mont Aiguoal’ into reality. The race that Krabbé invented now exists, at least as a cyclo-sportive, when hundreds of Dutch enthusiasts enact on the real roads the pages they read (details at - it will be promoted on June 9th in 2006). Krabbé himself apparently had the salutary experience of realising that he was simply too overweight (at its first running) to attempt to ride the route on which he had imagined himself contesting a race win. He has since, as you see from his photograph below, got into good enough shape to participate in his own dream. This is nice, but in the end, has to be an instance of the reality being somehow more fictional than the utterly authentic fiction that inspired it: Krabbé’s brilliance dooms him to having been more of a road racer when writing a book than he could ever be when riding the roads in actuality.

The picture seems to be Tim Krabbé with a few accomplices recreating the finish in Meyrueis - in a way. This is the author's own website
It is in both Dutch and English. No more cycling fictions, unfortunately - but he had written the book.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Save the Donne, says Germaine

The famous image of John Donne as a melancholy lover, which the National Portrait Gallery has launched an appeal to buy for the nation:

Germaine Greer has clearly been asked to crank something out about this business: her thoughts are in The Guardian, and in the on-line Guardian at,,1696447,00.html
Now, I have a lot of time and respect for Germaine Greer as a scholar. Her 'Sex and Destiny' book is the one I learned most from, and her art history is important. As a friend to Donne, she is a very valuable person to have on-side. Far too much scholarship on Donne involves the academic carefully positioning herself, or himself, as most especially sensitive to gender politics. In a case like that of Stevie Davies, who did a monograph on Donne for the British Council, the effects can be sad (her account might as well have been titled, 'Why I hate John Donne and all that he stands for'). A contrarian in Dr Greer makes her reluctant to cite Donne only as a negative example. Elegy 19, 'To his Mistress: Going to Bed', usually hauled out these days from its cell to be arraigned for its deplorable attitudes, she saw freshly enough to pitch as a matrimonial poem, in Michael Hattaway's big Blackwell's anthology on Renaissance Literature.
Her present piece on the Donne portrait has the same 'but MY opinion is' type of argument: no, it's not about love melancholy, but this: "I think it relates to the beginning of the long and painful journey that took the poet far from the faith of his childhood, the faith his brother died for, into the strenuous realm of revolutionary Protestantism." The sort of fresh opinion she can be counted upon to give. At issue here is the "Illumina tenebr[as] nostras domina" legend on the picture, usually taken as a fine example of Donne's witty-blasphemous manner: not, 'Lord, lighten our darkness', but 'Lady, lighten our (with 'my' understood) darkness' - redeem me from misery by having (sexual) mercy on me. The Guardian piece leaves the status of the legend floating. An early witness who saw 'Domine' not 'Domina' is cited. Thomas Morton saw only what he expected to see, and saw wrong, as Greer says. 'Domina', then, 'Lady' - well, a Catholic Donne might well have asked the Virgin Mary to show him the light, but that was a request hardly likely to end up with him becoming a Protestant. And (as Greer does register), you could hardly think that even the B.V.M. would be safe in the company of this man.
No, not enough following up on the consequences of her opinion to convince this time around. Donne, who collected pictures, displayed a remarkable control over his own image, from the minature at 18, and on through the portraits of himself as baroque preacher, and up to his famously being sketched posed in his shroud. No, I think Donne, not short of ego, had a gallery of himself. It would have been arranged as a 'Seven Ages of Me' - a lost drawing of JD as infant, Donne at 18, Donne as lover, Donne in early and later middle age, elderly Donne, and Donne (finally) as cadaver.
Of course the NPG should have them all, especially this, the most appealing of them all, 'my picture taken in the shadows'- I will put in my tenner!

1001 **** you must **** before you die

I just hauled a fat '1001 things you must see before you die' book back to the library. Yes, looking at pictures again, while trying not to consider the assymetry building up between places seen and years remaining. There on the shelves was '1001 Golf Holes You Must Play Before You Die'. Now there's an imperative I can happily ignore. '1001 Films to See'? '1001 Albums You Must Listen to'? (Hang on, I'm still working through the films) '1001 Books You Must Read'? (I know, I will watch the film, while listening to the album, with the book on my knee). The formula seems to be tenacious. My '1001 things you must see' tome seems to be one publisher trumping another's mere '1000 places' effort. Other efforts in the crowded field seem to have been written by what seem to be, in this area of frantic exhortation, innate pessimists: Can 'Ten Fun Things To Do Before You Die' really sell well?
has this commendably sober volume, and a few of its more blissed out competitors.
I haven't yet seen the parodies that surely cry out for publication, of the '1001 Things You Must Die Before You Do' kind: '1001 Narcotics, etc'. Actually, the Golf Holes Book might be the first. '1001 Shopping Malls You Must Visit'? (No, won't do: no trace of irony could survive publication, far too good a real world idea). '1001 Insurance Salesmen You Must Meet (etc)'? '1001 Things You Must Muddle Through As Best You Can Before You Die'? Well, yes, tell it like it is. The happy thought is that someone, somewhere, has to be grubbing together the sex-related '1001' volume even now...

O Rare Will Davenant!

I was putting on a fake rant a couple of days ago to provoke one of my postgraduate students (“Davenant is really the wet rot in middle 17th century literature: stopped in one place, he’d just re-appear in another, making form after form artistically uninhabitable: risible tragedies, piffling epic, disjointed masques, leaden comedy. As poet laureate, he set the standard, and they all slid down-hill with him.”) My favourite piece of Davenant is what he did to Macbeth in about 1664. He was a theatre manager in the Restoration period, so he had to boost up the roles of that terrific new addition to the theatre, the professional actress. So, he set about giving the play a few softer, feminine touches. Mr. Macbeth sends his letter about the prophecy to Mrs. Macbeth, and we find her in possession of the letter, but also in dialogue with Mrs. Macduff. This scene starts politely:

Lady Macbeth.
Madam, I have observ’d since you came hither,
You have been still disconsolate. Pray tell me,
Are you in perfect health?

But having got Lady Macduff on stage for this 17th century rendering of ‘Desperate Housewives’ (for she is frightfully worried about all this horrid fighting the menfolk are up to), Davenant must get her off again, as Lady Macbeth has to read the letter alone. She confides this to the audience:

(Her presence hinders me; I must divert her.)
If you are ill, repose may do you good;
Y’had best retire; and try if you can sleep.

There, you go and have a little lie down, love. Besides a whole lot more of the Macduff’s, Davenant reckoned that Shakespeare just didn’t give enough to the actress playing Lady Macbeth. So in his version, she is troubled by visions of Duncan’s ghost (“Macbeth. ‘How does my gentle Love?’ Lady Macbeth.Duncan is dead.’”). Davenant makes her – as a sentimentalized version of herself – into a moral being, who reproaches Macbeth for the murder. His Macbeth responds to this with, I suppose, a sharp intake of breath:

Can you think that a Crime, which you did once
Provoke me to commit? Had not your breath
Blown my Ambition up into a Flame
Duncan had yet been living.

But there is no stopping her, she has an answer for that:

Lady Macbeth.
You were a man,
And by the Charter of your Sex you shou'd
Have govern’d me, there was more crime in you
When you obey’d my Councels, then I contracted
By my giving it. Resign your Kingdom now,
And with your Crown put off your guilt.

Davenant then pretends that he hasn’t written the lead-in to a fantastic marital row; Macbeth merely goes off to consult the witches, whom he probably finds more reasonable and understanding.

It would be interesting to have a production, say on April Fools’ Day, smuggle the Davenant scenes into a modern Macbeth, just to see how long it was before people noticed.

Davenant's chief fame is as English literature's notorious victim of the pox. As Thomas Randolph was then famous for losing his finger, Davenant was famous for losing his nose. Doubtless the portrait (above) flattered what remained to him. He seems to have recovered, and had nine children by his third wife - even in those rather haphazard times, it is hard to imagine so large a family if the children were all born ill with the disease, like in an Ibsen play. I understood that mercury treatment only suppressed symptoms of syphilis, rather than curing it. Maybe Davenant suffered some fever in which a pyrogenetic response by the body finished off his major ailment.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Thalassa, thalassa!

The Sea! The Sea! The new contemplative me increasingly finds books with words in them too taxing... this was my favourite image in a 'Cube Book', called simply, The Sea, 700+ pages of photographs of the sea, its creatures, seasides, islands, sea-peoples. White Star Publishers put it out (£13.95). The photographers were largely Italian, the text is minimal, and so yes, it is a gift book which will have been marketed across Europe, while the deliberate attempt to make the over-fat book as much like a literal cube as possible means that the spine will not hold out forever. But it is full of vivid images, like a set of National Geographic magazines stripped of frenetic text. I've traduced the image above, by crudely cloning out the binding seam that runs up the opening, and the camera has played a trick, magnifying even a whale shark. A fisheye lens and refraction conspired together, but you will never see better captured that 'You never know what is down there' sensation even the calmest sea provokes. Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Birds Britannica

I am reading, with astonished interest, Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey's masterpiece. No, I have never 'twitched', but I am always happy to sight a bird. Uncommitted and half interested people like myself will have had bird guides in their hands, with their dutiful box ticking of range, plumage, song and the rest. This transcendent book is a cultural history of every bird that has been sighted in the British Isles, from Albert the Albatross to the commonest avian. The folklore, economics, rise or decline, taste when eaten: every facet of the interaction between a species and the British is recorded, along with anecdotes from particularly remarkable sightings: the birdwatcher whose captivity in a prisoner of war camp was alleviated by the chance for sustained observation of a pair of redstarts perhaps best sums up the loving attention birds have been given. Coming at the book from my 16th century specialism, that sense you get from Elizabethan literature of nature's lost plenitude is abundantly confirmed, with accounts of the numbers of now rare birds that could be trapped in previous centuries. What could England have been like, its rivers full of fish, and birds, ubiquitous, in a variety that compelled knowledge? Because of lecturing on Keats, the one bird I really felt I could test the book on was the nightingale. Everything is there, except for the fact that Beatrice Harrison is playing 'Danny Boy' to the nightingale's counter-song, in the famous first ever BBC outside broadcast - hear it on
Anyway, at £21 from Amazon, this is a fantastically enriching book.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Dr Roy: pedals through life in an armoured car
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Cornelis de Man's whale painting

Continuing with thoughts on whales, this is a Dutch painting of 1639, of whales being flensed and reduced to whale oil in Spitzbergen. It is in the Rijksmuseum. Not the kind of thing you expect to see in an oil painting, but Dutch art had adapted itself so flexibly to recording realities, that, on second thoughts, it appears inevitable that such a subject would be executed. These would be 'Right' or bowhead whales. It seems that the fishery (mammalery?) was effective in the usual unthinking way of these things. According to the History of Whaling on the Wikipedia site
Spitzbergen and Jan Mayen Island were fished (or mammaled) out by 1645. I mean to check if Keith Thomas's Man and the Natural World, 1500-1800 has anything about whales in it - I do not recall any, but this wonderful book explains the ideology behind such reckless exploitation.
I'd come across the painter before, using his 'The Chess Players' in a lecture I give on Thomas Middleton's Women beware Women which has a chess-playing scene (see the painting at ). This is quite a sharp painting of a formalised battle between the sexes - the girl looks back at the viewer, and gestures to the male opponent she has just outwitted. A prominently belled cat makes a further point about the male as failed predator. But how de Man ended up painting a scene from the artic circle no-one explains. Did he voyage up there, or work from sketches brought back?
The Web Gallery of Art locates this scene (in their information pane on the painting) on Jan Mayen Island. But the setting is definitely 'Smeerenburg' ('Blubber-Town') in Spitzbergen ('Sharp Mountains'), with the very distinctive 'Devil's Thumb' mountain showing. 'Blubber-Town' was occupied just in three summer months.

True and wonderful relations of whales

The tagging of last week's stranded whale, SW2006/40, made me think of earlier examples of whales that got into the Thames. On June 3rd, 1658, a genuinely large whale was sighted at Blackwall, near Greenwich. The brief pamphlet published about this unfortunate animal reveals large changes in the response of Londoners. Just as they did last week, people streamed out on foot, also by coach, and, very characteristically for London transport of the 17th century, by boat. But they travelled (at least, the pamphlet gives this impression), not to see the animal, but to see it being killed.

As the title page shows, it was instantly assailed, with all means to hand, and the pamphlet commends the "vigellency, care and industry" of the watermen, who finally killed it after a six hour struggle. This was not a stranded whale, but one that thrashed, leaped, and hauled the boats that had been used to fire improvised harpoons at it.

If you look at the wider field of references to whales in early modern literature, they are seen as, at the least, prophetic of storms to follow. A wider metaphysical dread attaches itself to them, here "this whale (coming thus contray to custom) is some sign or token of heavens displeasure" and "a sign of some dangers approach". As a "monstrous fish", the animal's natural bulk makes it, for them, unnatural, tainted by a fear both of itself, and what it portended. Hence their eagerness to see it killed.

Klaus Barthelmess, in his web-posted essay, 'Stranded Whales in the Culture and Economy of Medieval and Early Modern Europe'
(I don't think that we should necessarily judge a man by the company he keeps, but, really, Klaus) produces a word I'd not come across before, hierozoika a word for animals sanctified by being mentioned in the Bible. However, Jonah and the whale was not a story that conduced to helping the whale's image: yes, it was a Biblical animal, but typological readings associated Jonah in the whale with Christ descending into the tomb: the whale became deathly, and got itself associated via its vast mouth with the mouth of hell.

The Jonah story turns up in almost surreal form in another early english whale pamphlet, the one at the head of this post, with the not easily credited account of the dead Catholic priest being found in the carcass of a whale. In this passage from Ben Jonson's Volpone, the credulous Sir Politic Would-Be readily belives that a whale just has to be connected to some anti-English conspiracy:

The verie day
(Let me be sure) that I put forth from London,
There was a whale discover'd, in the river,
As high as Woolwich, that had waited there
(Few know how manie mon'ths) for the subversion
Of the Stode-Fleet.

Sir Politic Would-Be.
It's possible? Believe it,
'Twas either sent from Spaine, or the Arch-dukes!
Spinola's whale, upon my life, my credit!
Will they not leave these projects?

Shakespeare has one very famous whale reference (the cloud that is "very like a whale") in Hamlet, but the really odd allusion in 2Henry IV, IV iv, is perhaps more remarkable, when King Henry IV advises Prince Hal's younger brother on how to cope. The elder prince is seen as dangerous, of a strength that cannot be countered, just allowed to play itself out, like a stranded whale's:

 Chide him for faults, and do it reverently,
When thou perceive his blood inclined to mirth;
But, being moody, give him line and scope,
Till that his passions, like a whale on ground,
Confound themselves with working.

In The Merry Wives of Windsor, the enormous Falstaff has turned up in Windsor, and this prodigy strikes Mistress Ford as equivalent to a whale getting as far up the Thames as to Windsor itself (Falstaff will end up thrown into the river, among other humiliations):

 What tempest, I trow,
threw this whale, with so many tuns of oil in his
belly, ashore at Windsor?

Let's round this off with a couple more early whales in the Thames references. These lines from the satirist Thomas Oldham, translating and adapting Juvenal, explain themselves:
A man of Faith and Uprightness is grown
So strange a Creature both in Court and Town,
That he with Elephants may well be shewn.
A Monster, more uncommon than a HitWhale
At Bridge, the last great Comet, or the Hail,
Than Thames his double Tide, or should he run
With Streams of Milk, or Bloud to Gravesend down.

(Oldham, John, 1653-1683: THE THIRTEENTH SATYR OF JUVENAL)

In the parodies published in 1673 as Ovidius Exulans,
the fate of whales caught in the Thames is reveealed: showmen buy up the body parts:
Or that great Whale was come up tumbling,
Through Br. with fearful noise & rumbling
To show himself with jaws so wide
In Booth at fair next
Klaus Barthelmess gives other examples of whale carcasses being exhibited. A student of Rubens undertook a less smelly mode of preserving the record, painting a minke whale at life size, a painting that still survives in the German Maritime Museum at Bremerhaven.