Reading the Nobels


I have a placid, unruffled exterior:  I am bovine and try to look at least a little stupid.  But at heart, I am very competitive.  I’ve recently become aware of the world of “Book Challenges” and they excite me.   I am going to join a few and see how it works out.

For the Nobel Prize challenge, I would like to blog about Kipling (poetry), Yeats, Shaw, Mann, Sinclair Lewis, Galsworthy, Pirandello, O’Neill, TS Eliot, Faulkner, Nelly Sachs, Sohzhenitsyn, Bellow,  Brodsky, Toni Morrison, Seamus Heaney, Harold Pinter,  and perhaps Pasternak.

This preliminary plan excludes many superb authors but I am wary of being too ambitious.   But it seems to be an excellent challenge overall.  And YES, I know that the Nobels are quirky and have neglected some of the finest authors.  That call from Stockholm should have come to Nabokov and Joyce.  Why not select Tolstoy instead of Sully Prudhomme?   Or Mark Twain or Henry James or Edith Wharton?  What happened to Proust and Woolf?

It’s an imperfect list, but a challenge I cannot resist.

Nemo’s Almanac

Nemo’s Almanac

One of the things I miss in this century of instant information is the slow, patient, meticulous journey through Nemo’s Almanac I used to take. The recent results make it clear: many competitors are doing Nemo’s by quick internet searches and the quotations have become very obscure. No more loss leaders! No more jolly give-aways from Keats’s Odes or “Mariana” or Shakespeare’s sonnets! No, it’s moving towards a test of one’s computer skills. 2016 has fewer recognizable quotations than 2010 did.

I now have 47 copies of Nemo’s Almanac and I spent my younger years trying to really learn literature, both for its own sake, and for the sake of doing well at Nemo’s.

Each year 73 quotations, in the English language, are published in a slender booklet. Going through Nemo’s when I was young taught me a lot: I was able to learn how to make a distinction between Charles Cotton and Charles Churchill. It’s a heady feeling to be able to pick a snatch from Ralph Roister Doister out of a group of quotations. George Crabbe and John Gay are distinctive in their settings and subjects. Fishing for Erasmus Darwin gets easy with some experience.

I used to spend my lunch hours and many of my evenings and weekends sitting on the floor of the library stacks simply reading and reading. After a while, one gets a clear sense of which century anything might be from. Snaring a difficult quotation is an intoxicating experience. When I first encountered Nemo’s there was no named editor, just Sycamore Press. Then John Fuller took the mantle and really shaped the almanac so that each month had a very distinct and often witty theme. His superb work was carried on by Alan Hollinghurst, Gerard Benson, and now Nigel Forde. My 1970 edition cost 25p. The 2016 edition is up to 3 pounds.

I remember when I lusted after breaking the score of 500 and then I did and then I managed to break 600 and then 650! And now anyone with a computer can get a perfect score in just an hour or two!

John Fuller remarked in the 1985 issue that “There are three kinds of quotation: (a) the ones you know, or feel you ought to know, or suspect that everyone else knows; (b) the ones that you can pursue in the confidence that stylistic and historical detective work will pay off; and (c) those that you have come across before.”

April, 1984 is one of my favorite months: each quotation is prose written in verse, such as Lewis Carroll’s remarks that “Any fairly practiced writer, with the slightest ear for rhythm, could compose for hours together, in the easy running metre of “The Song of Hiawatha.”

The most difficult quotations were found by one or two keen eyes. I remember one that nobody got: a poem by John Ashbery (July, 1989). Alan Hollinghurst notes that one competitor was eloquent about his months of fruitless seaching for the Ashbery. And I just “googled” this quotation from 1989 and found it in less than 30 seconds!

After 125  years there seems to be no easy solution for Nemo’s: instead of it being a friendly competition for those with the best literary memories and widest scope of reading, it’s now a competition for those who have the fastest computers. And yet another “où sont les neiges d’antan” moment for me.

I spent my youth intoxicated by quotation-hunting; my drug of choice was Nemo’s and thanks to Nemo’s I have a lot of wonderful quotations stored in my head! But it now seems quaint to say earnestly to a partner, “You take the 17th century and I’ll read in the 18th century” or “You read through Chuzzlewit and I’ll read through Nickleby” to snare July’s fifth quotation.

Nemo’s has been my Yale College and my Harvard.  I still enjoy it.  I am introduced to new authors:  last year had Thomas Lisle, Maurice Lindsay, Gifford, Evan Lloyd, Sean Jennet.     Without Nemo’s I never would have encountered the excellent work of UA Fanthorpe, Alice Oswald, Gillian Clarke, Ian Duhig, for example.  But the number of active competitors has gone down from a few hundred to about 25.

Reading the classics

Reading the classics:

This is my application to become a member of the inspiring Classics Club:


My plan is not as precise as it might be.  It may have glaring omissions that have been caused by my recent reading.  I hope to read at least one novel by novelists and a significant number of poems by poets.  With people like George Meredith and Thomas Hardy, I plan to do some of each.  When I have not specified titles it is because I have read the books in the past and will do rereading.  I’ve read everything by Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, George Eliot, and Dickens.   Rereading is always in order but how to tell if on any particular day I long for Daniel Deronda or Adam Bede?   Books I have completed are indicated in purple text.  I am only indicating the books read from 2016 forward.


  1. Lewis, Sinclair:  a significant number of works. Our Mr. Wrenn; The Innocents, Main Street, Babbitt
  2. Marquand, John P:  The Late George Apley
  3. Stendahl:  The Charterhouse of Parma
  4. Arnold Bennett
  5. Barbara Pym Some Tame Gazelle, Excellent Women, Jane and Prudence
  6. Elizabeth Taylor Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont
  7. Willkie Collins
  8. John Galsworthy
  9. Thomas Hardy
  10. Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
  11. Daphne De Maurier
  12. Henry James
  13. Rose Macauley
  14. Somerset Maugham
  15. Herman Melville
  16. George Meredith
  17. Nancy Mitford
  18. Toni Morrison
  19. Iris Murdoch
  20. Vladimir Nabokov   Pnin
  21. VS Naipaul
  22. Edward Rutherfurd
  23. Carol Shields
  24. CP Snow
  25. Leo Tolstoy
  26. William Trevor
  27. Anthony Trollope The Last Chronicle of Barset
  28. Sarah Waters
  29. Thornton Wilder
  30. AN Wilson
  31. George Eliot
  32. Gibbon (excerpts)
  33. Thackeray
  34. Updike
  35. Roth
  36. Richard Yates
  37. Joyce, Ulysses
  38. Dickens
  39. Mann:  Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain
  40. Conrad
  41. Faulkner
  42. Hemingway
  43. Turgenev
  44. Pushkin
  45. Robert Penn Warren
  46. Dostoevsky
  47. Jane Austen
  48. John Cheever
  49. Peter Taylor
  50.  Pulitzer Prize winners—fiction and poetry and drama
  51. Man Booker winners and short list and long list selections



Katherine Mansfield

Jane Gardam


  1. Anthony Hecht, both early and late poems
  2. Wordsworth:  shorter poems and The Prelude
  3. Keats:  the Great Odes
  4. Robert Browning:  significant dramatic monologues
  5. Seamus Heaney
  6. Tennyson
  7. Robert Frost
  8. Yeats
  9. TS Eliot
  10. Wallace Stevens
  11. George Szirtes
  12. ee cummings
  13. WH Auden
  14. Elizabeth Bishop
  15. Philip Larkin
  16. Theodore Roethke
  17. John Berryman
  18. Shakespeare’s sonnets
  19. Thomas Hardy
  20. George Meredith
  21. Gerard Manley Hopkins
  22. Algernon Charles Swinburns
  23. Matthew Arnold
  24. DG & Christina Rossetti
  25. John Hollander





Pinter The Caretaker

Ben Jonson


Manifestations of cheese


I enjoy this sincere effusion-ode to cheese.  I am a cheese agnostic:  I should have been born in a better country for the love of cheese to race through my veins.  My taste is unadventurous and Hall’s poem makes me wish that I had the talent to embrace cheese in all of its splendour.  I have not the tongue to enjoy a streak of blue fracking through a block of cheese or the Italian cheese which presents itself as a riot of maggots—casu marzu.

How I love Hall’s exuberance!  It’s good to know that some cheeses are loyal and others are wise.

O Cheese
by Donald Hall

In the pantry the dear dense cheeses, Cheddars and harsh
Lancashires; Gorgonzola with its magnanimous manner;
the clipped speech of Roquefort; and a head of Stilton
that speaks in a sensuous riddling tongue like Druids.

O cheeses of gravity, cheeses of wistfulness, cheeses
that weep continually because they know they will die.
O cheeses of victory, cheeses wise in defeat, cheeses
fat as a cushion, lolling in bed until noon.

Liederkranz ebullient, jumping like a small dog, noisy;
Pont l’Évêque intellectual, and quite well informed; Emmentaler
decent and loyal, a little deaf in the right ear;
and Brie the revealing experience, instantaneous and profound.

O cheeses that dance in the moonlight, cheeses
that mingle with sausages, cheeses of Stonehenge.
O cheeses that are shy, that linger in the doorway,
eyes looking down, cheeses spectacular as fireworks.

Reblochon openly sexual; Caerphilly like pine trees, small
at the timberline; Port du Salut in love; Caprice des Dieux
eloquent, tactful, like a thousand-year-old hostess;
and Dolcelatte, always generous to a fault.

O village of cheeses, I make you this poem of cheeses,
O family of cheeses, living together in pantries,
O cheeses that keep to your own nature, like a lucky couple,
this solitude, this energy, these bodies slowly dying.

“O Cheese” by Donald Hall from Old and New Poems.

“The Fascination with What’s Difficult”


When I was six—as AA Milne would say—I read books.  As soon as I finished a book I turned right back and reread it.  And again.  And again.   I was a rereader and discovered that rereading was a source of endless delight.    When a book was too difficult, I would force myself to continue thinking in a vaguely Wordsworthian way that I was storing up great wealth for future years.

I unwittingly became an insufferable snob—or, to be kind, I developed good taste.  I wanted to experience what the adults did and started reading Proust, Joyce, and Virginia Woolf plus many poets by the time I was 13.  I knew that someday these books would become as transparent as Dick, Jane, and Sally.  I was wrong about that, but with each rereading comes greater pleasure.   This blog is dedicated to re-reading and re-re-reading.

I don’t have many people to speak with about books.  Mr. Gubbinal is great, but he’s extremely academic and often cannot remove himself from that arcane jargon of the pedant.  It seems as if there are millions of people writing poetry but few willing to read it.

I hope that this blog will become my friend and confidante.   It is to be my own private Henry Jamesian ‘ficelle’.  Now on to the hard part:  I think it will be more difficult to master tags and links than to try to explicate The Waste Land.



Initial thoughts

I have decided to very slowly creep back into an organized life: all has been chaos but I would like to impose some discipline.

Mustard Poultices

I have bustled — no, to be honest—slouched with padded foot and sullen mien—into retirement and have become obsessed with a Fitbit. I cling to my Fitbit and check my number of steps, my mileage, and my hours of sleep as if it is one and only amulet that I hold up to resist that demon Death. Could death really attack an elderly lady with a plum colored fitbit on her wrist?