Useful Words: Hiraeth

Mount Snowdon in North Wales

I ran across the word in a review in the Times Literary Supplement (TLS). Hiraeth is a Welsh term meaning a longing for something that can’t be recovered. Like, for instance, one’s youth; the ten-year-old ball point pen I lost at the Los Angeles Central Library; my friends who have passed on; my 1997 Nissan Pathfinder that was declared totaled by the insurance company for a damaged passenger door; and my first love.

There is something inexpressibly lyrical about certain terms in the Welsh and Anglo-Saxon languages. The following snippet comes from a lament for Hywel ab Owein, a prince of North Wales:

Since Hywel is gone, who bore battle gladly, by whom we used to stand, we are all avowedly lost, and the host of Heaven is the fairer.

Come what may of wealth from land domain, yet this world is a deceptive dwelling-place; with a spear Hywel the Tall, the hawk of war, was pierced.

Fate Wields a Lead Pipe

A Random Sample of P. G. Wodehouse Novels

If you are ever feeling blue, the thing to do is pick up a P. G. Wodehouse novel. Within minutes, you will be in the hands of a master who can turn your frown upside down. I am currently most of the way through his The Girl in Blue. As I found myself laughing at Wodehouse’s mastery of the language, I thought I would share some of the funniest passages from his novels with you in this post.

Looking for a good place to start with Wodehouse’s books? I would recommend any of the Jeeves novels (particularly The Code of the Woosters) or the ones featuring Blandings Castle (such as Full Moon). You can find an extensive bibliography here.

In the meantime, here’s a sample of some of Wodehouse’s most penetrating observations:

A certain critic—for such men, I regret to say, do exist—made the nasty remark about my last novel that it contained ‘all the old Wodehouse characters under different names.’ He has probably by now been eaten by bears, like the children who made mock of the prophet Elisha: but if he still survives he will not be able to make a similar charge against Summer Lightning. With my superior intelligence, I have out-generalled the man this time by putting in all the old Wodehouse characters under the same names. Pretty silly it will make him feel, I rather fancy.

He had just about enough intelligence to open his mouth when he wanted to eat, but certainly no more.

He had the look of one who had drunk the cup of life and found a dead beetle at the bottom.

At the age of eleven or thereabouts women acquire a poise and an ability to handle difficult situations which a man, if he is lucky, manages to achieve somewhere in the later seventies.

“What ho!” I said.
“What ho!” said Motty.
“What ho! What ho!”
“What ho! What ho! What ho!”
After that it seemed rather difficult to go on with the conversation.

Freddie experienced the sort of abysmal soul-sadness which afflicts one of Tolstoy’s Russian peasants when, after putting in a heavy day’s work strangling his father, beating his wife, and dropping the baby into the city’s reservoir, he turns to the cupboards, only to find the vodka bottle empty.

I’m not absolutely certain of the facts, but I rather fancy it‘s Shakespeare who says that it‘s always just when a fellow is feeling particularly braced with things in general that Fate sneaks up behind him with the bit of lead piping.

A melancholy-looking man, he had the appearance of one who has searched for the leak in life’s gas-pipe with a lighted candle.

Mike nodded. A sombre nod. The nod Napoleon might have given if somebody had met him in 1812 and said, “So, you’re back from Moscow, eh?”

“Oh, Jeeves,” I said; “about that check suit.”
“Yes, sir?”
“Is it really a frost?”
“A trifle too bizarre, sir, in my opinion.”
“But lots of fellows have asked me who my tailor is.”
“Doubtless in order to avoid him, sir.”
“He’s supposed to be one of the best men in London.”
“I am saying nothing against his moral character, sir.”

She looked away. Her attitude seemed to suggest that she had finished with him, and would be obliged if somebody would come and sweep him up.

Love is a delicate plant that needs constant tending and nurturing, and this cannot be done by snorting at the adored object like a gas explosion and calling her friends lice.

Chumps always make the best husbands. When you marry, Sally, grab a chump. Tap his head first, and if it rings solid, don’t hesitate. All the unhappy marriages come from husbands having brains. What good are brains to a man? They only unsettle him.


George Jetson’s Neighborhood

If any writer alive today has a handle on the future—what it is likely to be—that writer is William Gibson, the author of Neuromancer and the inventor of the term cyberspace. I have just finished reading his book of essays, entitled Distrust That Particular Flavor. In a talk delivered o the Book Expo America in 2010, he wrote:

But I really think [that pundits are] talking about the capital-F Future, which in my lifetime has been a cult, if not a religion. People my age are products of the capital-F Future. The younger you are, the less you are a product of that, If you’re fifteen or so, today, I suspect you inhabit a sort of endless digital Now, a state of atemporality enabled by our increasingly efficient prosthetic memory. I also suspect that you don’t know it, because, as anthropologists tell us, one cannot know one’s own culture.

The Future, capital-F, be it crystalline city on a hill or radioactive postnuclear wasteland, is gone. Ahead of us, there is merely … more stuff. Events. Some tending to the crystalline, some to the wasteland-y. Stuff: the mixed bag of the quotidia.

I think of Gibson’s capital-F Future as being more along the line of the old The Jetsons animated television program or the novels of H. G. Wells or Isaac Asimov. The future presented in those works is more a reflection of their creators’ times, and not our own.

William Gibson

I think that, because of his belief regarding the future, Gibson’s more recent novels have been less science fiction-y. Books such as Zero History are set in what appears, on one hand, to be the present—but instead are set in some not-too-distant future with multiple hooks to our present.

In a number of essays, Gibson examines our strange atemporal present, with fascinating essays on Tokyo (“My Own Private Tokyo”) and Singapore (“Disneyland with the Death Penalty”).

The Snowcapped Mountains of L.A.

The San Gabriel Mountains Seen from Altadena

This has been the coldest winter I can remember since I first moved to Southern California in 1966. It has been wet, too—but not quite the wettest. That honor belongs to several winters in the 1970s and early 1980s, and most particularly the winter of 2004-2005.

As I drove to the Original Farmers Market at 3rd and Fairfax, I saw the peaks of the San Gabriel Mountains covered with a heavy mantle of snow. The mercury stood in the low 50s Fahrenheit (or low teens Celsius).

Southern California winters usually consist of periods of cold interspersed with several warm spells, where the temperature can go as high as the 80s and 90s Fahrenheit (or 30s Celsius). For the last few months, however, I have been wearing long-sleeves shirts, a wool vest or sweater, and a windbreaker. In December, my gas bill topped $365.00—a new record!

I feel sorry for tourists who come to L.A. to bask in the sunshine and spend some time tanning at the beach. They will likely encounter icy winds and blowing sand.

Fool’s Mate

The Fastest Checkmate on the Board—By the Black Pieces, No Less!

I first learned how to play chess at the age of nine, thanks to the husband of my mother’s best friend. Ever since then, I was hooked. Central and Eastern Europeans have always had a special affinity for the game. My parents respected my love of the game even when they were annoyed by my being a bookworm: It was considered acceptable to Hungarians to go gaga over the game.

Mind you, I don’t consider myself to be a particularly strong player. My main weakness is my game to too undynamic, frequently bypassing attacking sacrifices and, what is worse, not paying close attention when attacking sacrifices are played against me.

On the other hand, I have taught over thirty people how to play the game. Some of them went on to beat me, the ungrateful pups!

In my retirement, I frequently play six or more games a day against the computers at Chess.Com. Shamefully, I take moves back when I have made an obvious mistake. And I tend to play weaker automated opponents. When I do play human opponents using Chess.Com, I find myself rated as a middling player, verging on (but never quite reaching) advanced status.

It is still possible to love the game when one is just what chess players refer to as a patzer.


Twee Shoppes on Santa Monica’s Montana Avenue

Today was a brief respite from a week of heavy rain, so I decided to take a walk. I had read an article in last week’s Los Angeles Times about a new bookstore in Santa Monica. Now typically, my walks involve stopping at a bookstore en route and usually buying one or more books.

Not today, however. The City of Santa Monica used to have some good bookstores, such as Martindale’s and A Change of Hobbit (dedicated to sci-fi). Now it has what could only be described as a froufrou book shoppe featuring current works of interest to a young upper middle class demographic which is interested only in perpetrating a shallow somewhat feminized lifestyle.

Not My Cup of Tea

Virtually everything on the shelves was published within the last five years. Absent were almost anything that could be described as a classic.

I guess that’s what you get when an influencer opens a bookstore. I myself have never been influenced by a so-called influencer, and I rather doubt that my blog has seriously influenced anyone. My posts are as much of a compulsion as anything else. There isn’t any money being made here, and there are no thousands of readers extracting their credit cards the moment I open my lips.

My short walk on Montana Avenue dissatisfied me so much that I drove down to Marina Del Rey to the nearest Barnes & Noble. There were a lot of the same recently published bumph, but I found a John Le Carré that I didn’t have. As long as there are a sufficient number of kernels of grain among the chaff, I am satisfied.

Pants On Fire

According to the Baltimore Catechism in which we Catholic schoolkids were drilled in religion class, there are seven types of capital sin. They are:

  • Pride
  • Covetousness
  • Lust
  • Anger
  • Gluttony
  • Envy
  • Sloth

Conspicuously missing from the list is lying, which seems to me to be the prime sin of the 21st Century. According to the Washington Post, our former president told 30,573 lies during his four years in office. Now we have George Santos (R-NY), who seems unable or unwilling to tell the truth about anything. And it’s not just a Republican vice, though it seems most prevalent in the political world.

I can deal with violations of any of the above mentioned capital sins, but I find myself revulsed by someone who lies to me. None of the seven capital sins affects me as much as lying, which is an offense I feel is directed at me, to deliberately mislead me.

Desire’s Dog

There is something in the voice of American Indian writers that is worth listening to. I have just finished reading Louise Erdrich’s Tracks, and now I have come across this delightful poem by Joy Harjo, a Muscogee Creek who was poet-laureate of the United States:

Desire’s Dog

I was desire’s dog.
I ate when I was fed. I did what I was told.
I knew how to sit, stand and roll over on command.
When I was petted, I was made whole.
Even when I dreamed, I dreamed a chain around my neck.

Desire is a bone with traces of fat.
It’s the wag smell of a bitch in heat.
It’s that pinched hit at the end of a beat.
It’s a stick thrown into a rabbit chase.

I lay at the feet of desire for years.

Then I heard this song, calling me.
It was a woman in a red dress,
It was a man with a gun in his hand.
It was a table filled with fruit and flowers.
It was a fox of fire, a bird of stone.

Then, it was gone.

What was left disintegrated by rain and wind.

I had followed desire, to the end.


Poet and Novelist Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)

I was looking for information on the Internet about Thomas Hardy when I came upon an interesting article on the Paris Review website. The opening paragraphs captured my attention:

Are you enjoying yourself at the moment? Please stop. It’s Thomas Hardy’s birthday, and he will wipe the smile right off your smug, contented, life-affirming face. You’re dealing with a man who knew how to deploy the word Niflheim, defined by the OED as “the region of eternal darkness, mist, and cold inhabited by those who died from old age or illness.” Hardy uses it to dispirited perfection in The Woodlanders, relating a kind of failure to connect: “But he continued motionless and silent in that gloomy Niflheim or fog-land which involved him, and she proceeded on her way.” Actually, The Woodlanders is full of an evocative, despondent murkiness. It extends even to the tiny twigs on the ground, which Hardy takes care to describe as they’re destroyed by a passing carriage: “they drove on out of the grove, their wheels silently crushing delicate-patterned mosses, hyacinths, primroses, lords-and-ladies, and other strange and common plants, and cracking up little sticks that lay across the track.”

Hardy wrote with a special zeal for death, and his sense of the morbid often lapsed into tone deafness. He witnessed two executions when he was a boy—maybe that had something to do with it. One of them was the hanging of Elizabeth Martha Brown, who was convicted of murdering her husband. By his own account, Hardy, then only sixteen, stood close enough to the gallows to hear her gown rustling; the hanging left an indelible mark on him such that seventy years later, in 1926, he could render it vividly in a letter to Lady Pinney, casting Brown’s final seconds in an unmistakably erotic light:

I am ashamed to say I saw her hanged, my only excuse being that I was but a youth and had to be in the town at that time for other reasons … I remember what a fine figure she showed against the sky as she hung in the misty rain, and how the tight black silk gown set off her shape as she wheeled half-round and back.

He added later:

The hanging itself did not move me at all. But I sat on after the others went away, not thinking, but looking at the figure … turning slowly round on the rope. And then it began to rain, and then I saw—they had put a cloth over the face—how as the cloth got wet, her features came through it. That was extraordinary. A boy had climbed up into a tree nearby, and when she dropped he came down in a faint like an apple dropping from a tree. It was curious the two dropping together.

A Garden in the Desert

Jael Hoffmann’s “Topography of Belief”

No, it’s not a garden of plants, but rather a sculpture garden, right near one of the turnoffs from U.S. 395 to Panamint Springs and Death Valley. It’s off the side of the road on the left as one heads north on the highway. I’ve noticed it several times on my trips to and through the Owens Valley as I passed through the town of Olancha, just south of Lone Pine.

As soon as Martine’s broken wrist heals, I hope to spend a little time studying the metal sculptures of Jael Hoffmann and photographing them. Unlike most modern sculptures, which leave me cold, I find that Jael’s work sets off little explosions in my head. Really great art does that: It makes you a different person than the what you were a few minutes earlier.

There is an excellent video on YouTube in which the artist is interviewed and discusses several of her sculptures—including most especially the one illustrated above. It is called “Internal Scapes,” which is an accurate description of how they affect me.

An Interview with Jael Hoffmann

Below is one of her sculptures entitled “Give and Take”: It urges you to donate something in the can marked “Give” and take something from the can marked “Take.” As you examine both cans, your face is reflected in a mirror. Perhaps it will make you feel guilty if you take something without giving.

Jael Hoffmann’s “Give and Take”

Finally, there is another work I like which its creator calls “The Hitchhiker.” All three sculptures shown in this post are discussed in the YouTube video referred to earlier.

Jael Hoffmann’s “The Hitchhiker”

To see more of her work, I suggest you check out Jael’s website at