A Fortnightly Review.
By ANTHONY HOWELL.
by Michael Hampton.
The Serpent Coiled in Naples
by Marius Kociejowski.
COMPENDIA, COLLECTANEA, EXHAUSTIVE accounts. Since the invention of the paperback it has been customary to think of a “good read” as a page-turner. Ever since learning about Alice and her adventures, we have absorbed the mantra, “Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end, then stop.”
But can all books be reduced to the model of the whodunnit? Not for me. One of the books I most treasure is The Duchess of Pembroke’s Arcadia by Sir Philip Sydney: 500 pages of glorious sentences, describing knights and princes doing battle, often in drag, so as to gain more intimate access to their beloveds. Jousts, struggles with Saracens and with lions, each knight’s ‘furniture’ described in detail, how caparisoned, how betokened, how visored, how impassioned.
But then Amphialus forgat all ceremonies, and with cruell blowes made more of his blood succeed the rest; till his hand being staied by his eare, his eare filled with a pitifull crie, the crie guided his sight to an excellent faire ladie, who came running as fast as she could not as fast as she would, she sent her lamentable voice before her: and being come, and being knowne to them both, to be the beautiful Parthenia, (who had that night dreamed shee sawe her husbande in such estate, as she then founde him, which made her make such haste thither) they both marvailed.
One sentence, and a sentence to savour, as is true of countless other sentences in this work. It’s the sort of work Don Quixote would have appreciated. But, whereas I recommend reading Don Quixote parts 1 and 2 from beginning to end, since Cervantes’ tale unfolds so readably, and since part 2 is such a wonderful example of sixteenth-century post-modernism – in which, due to the success with the reading public of part 1, the eccentric hero has become a celeb – I see no reason to read The Arcadia in the manner approved by the King when instructing the White Rabbit how to read a book. The Arcadia can be opened anywhere, just as a swimming pool can be plunged into from any side. The music of its sentences can be absorbed from any random entry-point, and the same is true of the major work of Sir Philip’s niece – The Countess of Montgomeries Urania by Lady Mary Wroth (659 pages).
For being young, and full of joy, inriched with the treasure of his affection, I fell into a snare, closely covered, and so more dangerous, being caught by the craft of one, whose wit was too strong for me, being as plentifull in wickedness, as excesse could make, or execution demonstrate in fulnesse.
So books can be paths, and twisted, as in some policier, but they can also be pools to immerse oneself in for a while – as you might immerse yourself in John Ashbery’s Flow Chart for an afternoon or an evening or ponder the garden of forking paths that a library may conjure up in the mind of a writer such as Borges. For these plum-pudding books you can stick your thumb or your eye into anywhere are often the work of writers inclined to bookishness. Such books may work as labyrinths. Others may be arranged alphabetically, under headings, as with Gwendolyn Leick’s Gertrude, Mabel, May – which brings anecdotes about Gertrude Stein and her loves to light, with intriguing entries such as ‘Aunts’, ‘Busts’ and ‘Hair’. There are writers and there are bibliophiles, and sometimes they combine, drawing inspiration from catalogues, ancient dictionaries, books of days.
ONE SUCH BOOK is Against Decorum (IAM, 2022) by Michael Hampton which studies “inscription in the expanded field” and, as the introduction by Craig Dworkin points out, “revels in the afterlife of books for further marking: abrasion, tear, crease, dismemberment, notation, vandalism et cetera.” The book is a paean to bibliographic unorthodoxy – concerned with how books have been tampered with; abused, if you will. It is a perverse endeavour, as if an Egyptologist were to list all the noses missing from a catalogue of otherwise extant effigies of the pharoahs.
Hampton draws on the vocabulary of the book-seller: chipping, foxing, staining, cracking, soiling, corroding. It’s an area I remember well, from working in Bernard Stone’s legendary Turret Bookshop. I first learnt to appreciate this bizarre terminology through a delightfully illustrated volume – Slightly Foxed – but still desirable – Ronald Searle’s wicked world of Book Collecting. Just the titles to Searle’s illustrations in this book give you an idea: a little dog-eared but still acceptable… extremities rubbed… worn and dusty…
Finding his own delight in the jargon of abstruse curatorial definition, Hampton quotes Ulf Karl Olov Nilsson – “It is no longer necessary to invent poetry, instead it’s a matter of locating it.” And diligently enough, the author mines many a lyrical seam in this esoteric vocabulary:
Sepia (annotations); (faded) by 18th century washing; small (hole) in lower margin of 3D4; text (soiled) with some marginal tears; (repairs) to paper; slight (restoration) to head and tail of spine; (wear) to extremities; slight (foxing) to prelims; occasional light (browning and spotting); (lacking) half-title; some (wear) to joints…
This might be an acquired taste, but nevertheless it is one that aspires with some justification to the condition of poetry.
CERTAIN BOOKS MAY be likened to monuments. Just such a one is The Serpent Coiled in Naples (Armchair Traveller, Haus Publishing, UK 2022) by Marius Kociejowski. This covers Naples as the tendrils of wisteria may spread over the nooks and crannies of some stately home. Here the vocabulary is that of the teeming city the book celebrates. What Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair have done for London and its environs, Kociejowski does for what used to be the apotheosis of the grand tour, where the mildness and pastoral poetry of the lake district, for instance, was radically challenged by the presence of volcanoes and noxious lakes, together with a volatile people as corrupted by crime as made legendary by a Greek civilization a Roman consciousness was grafted onto. Naples has always inspired awe in equal doses to its charm, and, in the romantic era, it came to epitomise the sublime condition at its apex.
So, at close to 500 pages, this is a significant read, dedicated to a city. The author’s approach is to include everything he can possibly discover about its slums, its music, its culinary ways, its environs. Naples may be compared to a coiled serpent, as you never know when violence may strike. He also describes how its districts are continually evolving. Today’s Camorra seems less dominated by shadowy mafia bosses – instead, the young people run things, if they can be said to run, and the deaths that accumulate remind me of the estate block rivalry we now experience among London’s hooligan gangs. The author is a lover of detail who has worked in the book trade, and he takes a bibliophile’s delight in the vocabulary of Naples, from its slang to its sayings; picking up conversations with a wide cast of commedia del arte characters who are nearly caricatures of themselves. We get the sense that Naples is a layer-cake of its pasts – for each of its emblems is explored – the fork of fortune as well as those masterpieces of verismo cinema which have managed to crystallise its dilemmas and dramas. It can be dipped into: there’s a chapter on the Phlegrean fields and the bradyseism that slowly moves its surrounding landscape around, as if stirring a cauldron. There’s a chapter on its street music, and on its oracles, its heroes and its palaces, as well as on its darkest secrets. Naples has more than its fair share of mythological entities. The author shows how figures in a more ancient religion, such as the Sibyl at nearby Cumae, were taken over by early Christianity:
And what an incredible bit of religious appropriation, a wondrous instance of career change, that the Sibyl of old with her wild hair, heaving breast and foaming mouth should have become a Christian figure. Her wild trance was explained away by the Augustinian monk and humanist Giles of Viterbo when he visited Cumae in 1499 as having been brought on by sulphurous fumes.
Divinae Institutiones (AD 250) was the first introduction in Latin to the Christian faith and in order to prove the supremacy of the new religion its author, Lactantius, drew heavily on classical Greek and Roman writers. He was the first to say in print that Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue was a prophecy of the coming of Christ. It made perfect sense to Dante that Virgil should be his guide. And who actually voices that prophecy? Why, it’s the Sibyl.
Marius Kociejowski’s book is multi-referential, in a way which makes its sentences as tasty as those of Lawrence Durrell in his brilliant adaptation of Pope Joan – a novel by the nineteenth-century Greek author Emmanuel Royidis. A Serpent coiled in Naples makes for excellent armchair travelling. And it may well tempt one to visit this effervescent if dangerous hive of the South of Italy.
ANTHONY HOWELL, a former dancer with the Royal Ballet, was founder of The Theatre of Mistakes and performed solo at the Hayward Gallery and at the Sydney Biennale. His articles on visual art, dance, performance, and poetry have appeared in many publications including Art Monthly, The London Magazine, Harpers & Queen, The Times Literary Supplement. He is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. In 2001 he received a LADA bursary to study the tango in Buenos Aires and now teaches the dance at his studio/gallery The Room in Tottenham Hale. He is the author of a seminal textbook, The Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to Its Theory and Practice. Details about his collaborative project, Grey Suit Online, are here. In 2019, his exploration of psychic chaos, Multilation (with Consciouness), was published by the Fortnightly’s imprint, Odd Volumes. His latest collection is From Inside (The High Window).