Monday, March 05, 2007

attica-ruth magazine 15

Journal Jottings

In the news recently:
Bottoms up!
Young pandas at feeding time.

By Zeus!
photo by S. Eshwar in Deccan Herald
Hmm.......... I think........ I know it!
Barn owls feature in the local news, Bangalore. An owl is the bird of Athene, who sprang fully formed from the brow of Zeus.

Operatic exchange?
TO-MAH-TO, TO-MAH-TO! Po-tah-to, Po-tah-to!

photo: Deccan Herald
Stray dog attacks in Bangalore are no laughing matter, however.

scribendi cacoethes


Amber is a translucent yellow fossil resin, which frequently includes perfectly preserved specimens of insect and plant life, embalmed by the honey-gold droplets slipping down a tree trunk. Sometimes one has experiences that the mind inexplicably sets in amber, as it were, preserving them for ever – the ‘forever’ of the human psyche.

On a day when mood and circumstance decide on it, an amber memory floats to the surface, and one turns it over fondly, like a fingering piece. A fingering piece? “Once upon a time”, before their lacquered world was smashed to atoms, Chinese noblemen were apt to conceal in their ample silken sleeves some small specially prized object, most often a piece of carved jade. At intervals, such a lordly one would withdraw his treasure from concealment and caress it obsessively. Jade, like amber, was believed to have magical properties, so that the fingering of such a piece brought luck or healing.
A very special amber memory is also very old: a gracious mansion, high-ceilinged, dark, but splashed with light from tall windows. The furniture is dark, too, carved and enormous, but not frightening. (Oh, furniture can affright a small child.) There is glass in most of the towering cabinets, armoires and court-cupboards; spotless mirrors and arching glass panes with more glass behind them, red and green crystal on clear stems, and enchanting bubbly cups with matching saucers.

both photos from Inside/Outside, March 2000; but both printed in reverse - a serious fault in editing from so prestigious a magazine

Once, on a sea-voyage along the west coast, the ship rounded a headland beyond which, in the grey-green of dusk a deep-set cove could be glimpsed through the palm trees. Riding at anchor in it, all in a row, were three ships, sails furled, black in the fading light. There was not a soul in sight; they might well be ghostly galleons instead of smugglers’ dhows. The lines of those vessels and their hide-away were straight out of the Chronicles of Captain Blood, that first taste of Sabatini, and in itself another piece of amber.
Some amber memories still carry a frisson. Night descends on two cars stranded in the stony bed of a river whose waters slumber far beneath a thick cover of sand. On a journey between Rajasthan and Gujarat the travellers have missed the road and run out of fuel for man and for machine. The menacing, shadow-filled scrubland is bandit terrain, but in that faraway time it is leopards the adults fear more than men. Then lantern-light approaches, swung in the hands of turbaned villagers offering shelter and whatever else they can give, especially steaming smelly cups of fresh drawn goat’s milk, which the ungrateful children who are persuaded to sample it spew forth with cries of rage.
Another time, another journey, another piece of amber: as the travellers sped away from Belgaum on the last leg of a three day journey from dusty dry Ahmedabad to leafy, rain-washed Bangalore, a big red egg-yolk sun heaved its bulk over the top of the hills on their left. More journeys, more memories: three children reading aloud historical tales out of Collier’s Junior Classics, turn and turn about, The Lance of Kanana, Leonidas, The Devil and Daniel Webster, and tantalising episodes from Master Skylark, Emmeline, Johnny Tremain, The Pool of Stars, Silent Scot…. (What incredulous joy one felt on finding two of those coveted sources – Master Skylark and Johnny Tremain - in second-hand bookshops many years into adulthood!)
The reading was necessary to divert the mind from mile upon mile of parched, featureless interior Saurashtra until the first salt smell of the sea announced the proximity of Veraval. And then a sun-dazzled day on a trawler marvelling at the diverse catch of creatures, beautiful, grotesque, good to eat, poisonous, harmless, lethal, varied beyond the limits of our piscatory knowledge. Through all that journey over land and over sea, a white rabbit named Peter sat in his cardboard box munching green coriander with supreme indifference to baking interior of car and salt-sprayed galley of trawler.
Close, but.... Peter

fishing fleet in Veraval harbour

It is imprudent to finger all the amber pieces at once. The wise old Greeks knew that amber briskly rubbed produces static: elektron was their name for the rare substance. Better to merely contemplate the tumbled heap, taking flashes of reflected light as they come, seeking no pattern, indulging no sentiment. Pieces of amber, more precious than gold.


Introduction to Rafael Sabatini (1875-1950) and to his short stories
Rafael Sabatini was surely destined to be a purveyor of romances, given his parentage, the sad mystery of his illegitimacy, and the unusual education he received. Destined or not, he became a fine teller of spellbinding tales, whose memory – dimmed by some of history’s quirks – should be revived, that he may make new friends and be given his due.
The union of Anna Trafford (real surname Jelley), English pianist and singer from Liverpool and Vincenzo Sabatini, Italian operatic tenor and – later on – singing teacher, resulted in the birth on 29 April 1875 of their only child, Rafael, in Jesi, a small town near the Adriatic port of Ancona. Thus far no reason has been found for his parents’ not being married before his birth, and most probably not after it either. The fact of his illegitimacy is plain from the parish register which recorded his baptism, and it was a fact he found painful, as one can deduce from a recurring theme in his works of fiction.
Rafael acquired languages, five with fluency and two – Latin and Greek – as an integral part of a good education. It was inevitable that he should become multilingual as his home and school moved around Europe. When very little he learned English in his maternal grandparents’ home outside Liverpool; from his father he learned Italian; fluency in Portuguese and Spanish came from the years when he was at school in Porto, Portugal; German and French were necessary acquisitions during his time at the academy in Zoug, Switzerland to which he was sent for a final polish.
The soon-to-be writer had from the first an insatiable appetite for reading. He read much, and widely, and as is not unusual for one circumstanced as he was, he read when young books meant for much older readers. History, biography, and above all, tales of adventure and romance, soon became his favourite reading. This preference would influence his writing, too. And Rafael began to write when quite young. This man, jealous of his privacy almost to the point of being secretive, occasionally volunteered information about himself and thus one learns that his earliest writing was done in French, while at the academy in Zoug. But in his opinion all the best stories were written in English.
Not yet grown to be a man, the 17 year old Rafael, at his father’s direction left the school in Switzerland and sailed to Liverpool, where he was employed by a trading firm as a translator and letter writer. Here he practised his by now rusty English for a while before venturing to write stories again. When he did begin it was in English that he wrote first and last.
By 1895 or 96 he was certainly writing short stories and his first published stories appeared in some Liverpool newspaper or periodical but as nothing earlier than 1898 has been traced so far no more can be said about these earliest efforts. From 1898 onwards Rafael Sabatini’s short stories began to appear in some of the best British magazines. The earliest found until the present is:

THE RED MASK ~ The Ludgate, December 1898
The narrative of The Red Mask is in the first person, a mode much favoured by Sabatini in his early years as a writer. Events are recounted by one De Cavaignac, captain of the Cardinal’s Guards, a good-hearted but simple-minded soldier. He tells of a conspiracy against Cardinal Mazarin and of what transpired.
The story is slight and a bit predictable, but mercifully it has no more than a single ‘tis and ‘twas occurs twice; there is no meseems (ugh!) at all, nor any methought, only the one methinks. (Alas, Achilles had a vulnerable heel and Sabatini’s was a tendency to sprinkle tales not set in his own time with these tis-anes and me-grims, sometimes with a very heavy hand!)
The Red Mask is obviously the work of a very young Sabatini, full of spirit but somewhat short of discipline, whence the following niggles. Louis XIII died in 1643, a year after Mazarin had succeeded Richelieu as Prime Minister. Louis XIV was then not yet five, and Cardinal Mazarin was indispensable to the regent, Queen Anne of Austria. In 1654 Louis was crowned and attained his majority a few years later, so that Mazarin’s “reign” could then be said to have ended. However, he continued to be Prime Minister and his “reign” only ended with his death in 1661, at which time the young monarch was twenty-three years old.
With these facts in mind, the period in which The Red Mask is set becomes somewhat problematical. If the story is set in 1660, the last year of Mazarin’s “reign”, then Louis XIII could hardly be the “late’ king, having been dead seventeen years. If it is set in 1642, the last year of Louis XIII’s reign, that might make sense were it not for the reference to Mazarin’s “long pointed beard which he still wore, after the fashion of his late Majesty, Louis XIII”. I have not seen very many portraits of Mazarin but in those that I have seen it would be difficult to describe his beard as “long”, or his person as “tall, lean”. That description is better suited to Cardinal Richelieu.
On the other hand, what makes The Red Mask interesting is that it already manifests one of the characteristic charms of Sabatini’s story-telling, his dramatic use of direct speech. His characters acquire life through their speech – and it is no surprise that Sabatini wrote plays, loved the theatre and had many friends from the theatrical world. Clearly it did no harm to have both parents opera singers. Young Rafael must have had his ears filled with dialogue, sung dialogue no doubt but dialogue nonetheless. Perhaps his fondness for dramatic (some would say overly dramatic) utterance and richly coloured language is traceable to his heritage and upbringing.
The Red Mask may be no more than a trifle with which to launch a career as a writer, but it pleases.
Characters: Cardinal Mazarin; De Cavaignac; the Comte de St Augère “creature of the Prince de Condé
domino - the mask is separate
[to be continued]
Anyone interested in Rafael Sabatini could not do better than to visit, unless it be to apply for admission to the Sabatini List. For the latter there are a few conditions, simple and reasonable. A member should be sufficiently prudent to avoid infection by computer viruses which must then infect the List mail and thereby cause much disgust or worse. A member should be polite and considerate in the expression of views, especially when expressing opinions contrary to some already put forward by fellow members. A member should not attempt to use the List mail as a market-place, adding to the many such fora already available on the internet.
So mistresses, masters, gentles all, will ye not try a courtly measure with Master Knight or Mistress rimfire, to the tunes of Rafaello?
Ye shall thereby know much pleasure and know not any pain;
Ye have naught to lose but your ignorance, and much of int’rest to gain.

Ruth Heredia is the originator and holds the copyright to all material on this blog unless credited to some source. Please do not use it or pass it off as your own work. That is theft. If you wish to link it, quote it, or reprint in whole or in part, please be courteous enough to seek my permission.

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