Friday, June 24, 2011

Tell me, my dear: is it good?

For one reason or another I'm still lying around reading and to stave off boredom I've been trawling my library, finding treasures I hardly remembered I had and, besides, buying a couple of eBooks.

I downloaded the Kindle app and found books on Amazon I'd not found on iBooks - not that really is of any significance. Interestingly, from both Kindle and iBooks I found I been given free books for signing up - Winnie the Pooh on one, and Aesop's Fables, Pride and Prejudice, and Treasure Island on the other. I cannot grasp quite what the marketing decision was behind those choices, but in the case of that insufferable bear and his dumbass cute friends I find I cannot delete the book from my digital library as I'd very much like to. Pride and Prejudice is a book I reread at least once a year so to have it on my iPad is a marvel, but it isn't likely I'll ever read Aesop's Fables again and as for Treasure Island ... well, I just wonder who makes these choices!

I thoroughly enjoyed William Shawcross' Queen Elizabeth, though it borders on hagiography and omits any real historical analysis - but, nonetheless, I found it heartwarming and humane and precisely what a very creaky grump needed whilst awaiting his niceness medication to put latent anti-monarchical tendencies in abeyance. It's not the book's most salient point, but who can't admire a woman who was £4,000,000 in the red at the bank and yet bought a castle - and come to think of it who couldn't admire the bank that could allow it? Needless to say, it is not my bank.

The next book at bedtime is about Queen Elizabeth's father-in-law's father, Edward VII, eldest son of Queen Victoria and a friend of the man who was David Hicks' wife's grandfather, and whose desk and leather cushion from his automobile Hicks had in his library. I'm tempted, a little, by Deborah Devonshire's Wait For Me because she writes about her favorite sister, Diana, about whose house, the Temple de la Gloire, I wrote a yet-to-be published post, but In Tearing Haste: Letters Between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor could be the better book for me. Dip in, dip out, as it were.

I reread both of Mark Hampton's books and relished again the civility and erudition of the man who, according to his daughter, called chartreuse "cat piss green." There are not many of the good and the great I would like to meet, but Mr Hampton was one of them. Not so with his erstwhile employer, David Hicks, yet his book David Hicks Living with Design which the Celt bought for me has provided many a moment of pleasure and an occasional raised eyebrow.

In one of his books, Mark Hampton mentions a room done by George Geffroy that led me to seek but not find it in Les réussites de la décoration française, 1950 - 1960, thence to Jansen, and eventually and circuitously to Edith Wharton, whose books - totally not to the point - are downloadable for free. Shamefacedly, I admit the only book of hers I've read is The Decoration of Houses. However, she's now on my list despite my aeons-long prejudice that Wharton was the American equivalent of Thomas Hardy, whose doom and gloomth scarred me deeply when in high school. If there's one literary device I don't like it's a sustained, slow seepage into ignominy and loneliness. Gives me the willies, this traipsing through a barren inner landscape, and being the armchair-socialist-with-centrist-leanings that I am, I prefer the slap and tickle of detective stories - an engrossing beginning, a rip-roaring middle and a proper ending with all loose ends tied up and justice done. Now, that's how to spend a few hours! However, discursive as I seem to be ... back to Edith Wharton and the reason why I'll now give myself another chance with her books.

The passage below I found quoted in part in Therese Craig's excellent book about Wharton, and it was reading that passage that sent me seeking the book, A Backward Glance, which I eventually found on Project Gutenberg Australia. Oh, and what riches I found!

"When I first knew it, the salon in question looked out on the mossy turf and trees of an eighteenth-century hôtel standing between court and garden in the Rue de Grenelle. A few years later it was transferred to a modern building in the Place des Invalides to which Madame de Fitz-James had moved her fine collection of eighteenth-century furniture and pictures at the suggestion of her old friends, the Comte and Comtesse d"Haussonville, who lived on the floor above. The Rue de Grenelle apartment, which had much character, faced north, and her Anglo-Saxon friends thought she had left in search of sunlight, and congratulated her on the change. But she looked suprised, and said: "Oh, no; I hate the sun; it's such a bore always having to keep the blinds down." To regard the sun as the housewife's enemy, fader of hangings and devourer of olds stuffs, is common on the continent, and Madame de Fitz-James cream-coloured silk blinds were lowered, even in winter, whenever the sun became intrusive. The three drawing rooms, which opened into one another, were as commonplace as rooms can be in which every piece of furniture, every picture and every ornament is in itself a beautiful thing, yet the whole reveals no trace of the owner's personality. In the first drawing room, a small room hung with red damask, Madame de Fitz-James, seated by the fire, her lame leg supported on a foot-rest, received her intimates. Beyond was the big drawing-room, with pictures by Ingres and David on the pale walls, and tapestry sofas and armchairs; it was there that the dinner guests assembled. Opening out of it was another small room, lined with ornate Louis XV bookcases in which rows of rare books in precious bindings stood in undisturbed order - for Madame de Fitz-James was a book collector not a reader. She made no secret of this - or indeed of any of her idiosyncrasies - for she was one of the most honest women I have ever known, and genuinely and unaffectedly modest. Her books were an ornament and an investment; she never pretended that they were anything else. If one of her guests was raised to Academic honours she bought his last work and tried to read it - usually with negative results; and her intimates were all familiar with the confidential question: "I've just read So-and-So's new book. TELL ME MY DEAR: IS IT GOOD?"

I mentioned above that I'd found treasures in Edith Wharton's memoir and certainly some that connect with what I had intended to write about today - Emilio Terry's silver melon - but that will be for another occasion.

The photograph of our library, my reading room, taken with the iPad, and the black-and-white images of Edith Wharton's library and reading room at Ste. Claire, credited to the Lilly Library, Indiana University, are from Edith Wharton, A House Full of Rooms: Architecture, Interiors, and Gardens, Theresa Graig, The Monacelli Press, Inc., New York 1996.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Did I really chose?

I'd like to say I'd spent a lot of time in my library over the last week but, given the fact that lying on the bed was, in the beginning, the required means of conducting my life, my library – thanks to the Celt, and much in the manner of his ancestors with the Forest of Dunsinane – came to me.

A supply of books on the bed, and an iPad to hand - what more could be wished for? Probably not much, and certainly not to quite the level of heaven that Sydney Smith enjoyed, though I do enjoy foie gras, but I'm afraid I slept through most of it. During my more lucid awake moments, having spent some time looking at interior design blogs and magazines, I have mixed feelings about what I saw.

A couple of weeks ago in my post Rapture and End-Times, I discussed what I see as the likely online present and future of magazines and books. In my last post I wrote that I would, because of its timely connection with what I had written, like to discuss this New York Times article about four online interior design magazines' thriving present.

The four are Lonny, Rue, High Gloss and Matchbook. That they are thriving is good news, and that they are positioned solely towards twenty-something females with little disposable income is, to my mind, undeniable. I question whether this positioning is entirely a good thing for only too soon will that group find itself the forty- or fifty-somethings and I wonder if the format, heavily reliant on advertorial and the worshipful prose of celebzines, is viable enough to grow or change with its targeted demographic? Or will there perhaps be new cohorts of twenty-somethings following behind to take their place? But perhaps that is not the point, for it occurs to me that such narrowly-targeted magazines may not be designed for the long-term - and are ephemeral, perhaps, as anything in the world of fashion.

That these magazines do not include me by gender, age, income, interest or scope is not a matter of particular concern. Their value to me, whether here today or gone tomorrow, is that I do not pay for them and I can dip in occasionally – very occasionally – without any thought of disposing of yet another pile of coated, printed, polluting paper.

On the subject of physical magazines: a couple of days ago I received a communication in which I was thanked for choosing to be part of a magazine's Continuous Service Renewal and as I'd recently been notified, my renewal has been processed and payment was now due. 

I'm not really sure I chose to be part of the Continuous Service Program and I'm pretty sure I did not receive any such renewal processing notification and, now I look for it, neither can I find a telephone number to call to ask a customer service representative precisely when my subscription actually ends. Over the last few months I've found this magazine increasingly uninteresting - pretty much the same reaction I have to the four online magazines mentioned above and generally speaking for the same reasons - and had decided not to renew and to find I've chosen, unbeknownst to me, to renew my subscription really does make me even more determined not to enclose my check and return it with the invoice in the pre-addressed envelope. 

So, back to where I began, in a library with the past and looking towards the future. A few days ago, I bought my first iBook, William Shawcross' Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother: The Official Biography – and I am totally sold on e-publication.  I fully expect my e-library to grow rapidly if there are enough e-books to satisfy my predilection for history and biography. Biography, by the way, is a genre I have come to appreciate only in recent years – and I'm still surprised that I do, given that I'm not overly interested in the inner lives of anyone, however salacious or celebrated. As I wrote that I glanced at my bookshelves and to my astonishment found many a biography - Billy Baldwin; Catherine of Aragon; Edmund White; John Adams; Elizabeth I; Louis XIV; Mrs Henry Parish; Brooke Astor; Alan Bennett; George, Nicholas and Wilhelm; David Hockney; Nigel Slater; Elizabeth David - to name but fifteen and to say nothing of the monographs about artists, architects and interior designers inhabiting the shelves. Ah well, such is self-delusion!

Real estate, or square footage, is not something one has to consider with e-publishing. Our household is long beyond the point at which we should have stopped buying books and I have considered buying an additional bookcase – a long, low one for the living room – but have yet to find anything that would, aesthetically speaking, fit. Not being one for stacks of books by chairs, under plant pots or vases, or even stacked as decoration on tables, I have decided to edit - take out and dispose of those books neither of us actually has any more interest in. I have begun with the vanity-publishing - decorator monographs of interchangeable interiors and egotism. Some of these are now for sale on Amazon Marketplace. We'll see how they fare.

The room above is Emilio Terry's library of books and musical scores for Jean de Polignac, photographed by Robert Doisneau for Les réussites de la décoration française, 1950 - 1960, Collection Maison et Jardin, Condé Nast S.A. Editions de Pont Royal, 1960

P.S. One of the more interesting aspects of looking at interiors is the art to be found in them - for example, the Edouard Vuillard portrait of Jean de Polignac - a subject for future posts, I'm certain.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Two finds and three discs

A very short post this week, more a placeholder, than an essay. I just want to show you two discoveries I made last week: one a Frank Brangwyn etching and the other a Tibetan, hand-carved, not-quite-one-and-a-half-inches-long, bewitchingly tactile and worryingly inconspicuous, luminous, rock-crystal dorje.

I would like to discuss this because it connects with this, but because there are three herniated discs demanding I get out of this chair, I shall wait until next week.

Have a good weekend.