Sunday, June 05, 2016

Brian Sewell – ‘Outsider: Almost Always: Never Quite’

One somehow feels one ought to apologise for, or at least explain, a fondness for public figures with obviously upper class accents, and few accents – few demeanours – were quite as ostentatiously elevated as Brian Sewell’s. I was fond of him (or his on-screen persona), and sad to hear news of his death last year, aged 84; yet I never read him, and though I knew he was an opinionated and divisive figure, I never really knew what the opinions were. Except for one. In the mid-nineties, he appeared on a panel show on BBC 2 to discuss Picasso, around about the time of a Tate exhibition called Sculptor / Painter, which I’d decided to base an essay around for school. Another panellist made the mistake of pretending to apologise for putting words in Brian’s mouth, and he protested that he wouldn’t allow him to put anything in his mouth. Speaking for himself, he acknowledged that the first Cubist still life was an achievement of sorts, but was as nothing to the first still life. ‘Good point,’ I thought, and also: ‘Ha ha!’ How could any self-loathing / respecting sixteen-year-old resist such a combination of scurrilousness and (secular) righteousness?

Outsider is a linear biography which takes the reader through its subject’s childhood, school days, higher education, national service, higher education again and then career, in the order in which they happened. In doing this, and in leaving the Anthony Blunt exposé of 1979 to volume two, it does lose momentum a little from 1958 when Sewell joined Christie’s auction house to work on sales of drawings and paintings (researching, cataloguing, and sometimes searching for works to be sold – much of it drudgery compared to his academic career). He makes the point that he was defined by the institutions he attended: Haberdashers’ school, the army, the Courtauld Institute, and then Christie’s. Parallel narratives are sex and religion: there is lots of the former at school, and then a long period of celibacy tied in with an intention to join the Church, renounced with glee in the late chapter ‘Abandoning God’, in which his long-delayed (homo)sexual education is the point, rather than any theological niceties. He is raped in the army, and makes very little of it: ‘what had I lost? – not my virginity’. Of his army experience as a whole, he is enthusiastic:
for decades I believed that my two years of National Service had done me far more good than my three as an undergraduate, my eight at school and twenty on my knees in church. National Service revealed depths and darknesses in my soul that I was grudgingly glad to know were there; if I am now capable or making worthwhile moral judgements it is because I was for two brief years a soldier of sorts, not because I am an art historian, a lapsed Conservative, an agnostic Christian.
If this seems self-abnegating, there is another side to Brian which is proudly queer:
When, to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of our leaving school an old boy invited me to dine with a dozen or so of my contemporaries, they were all contented married fathers, whose prinked, perfumed and appalling wives spoke of nothing but their university ambitions for their brats, most of them at Haberdashers’. When conversation turned, by chance, to homosexuality, the condemnations of the husbands were as shrill and vituperative as those of their wives, and, the hypocrisy intolerable, in one of those hushed moments when mutual outrage has exhausted company, I heard myself say, my voice perhaps rather too intentionally audible, ‘There is not a man at this table with whom I did not have sex when we were boys,’ and left the house. It has always puzzled me that heterosexual men have the ability to haul down the shutters on their adolescent sexual experiences and utterly deny them; to me they were unforgettable adventures in revelation, instruction and self-knowledge, too important ever to be denied.
There is a lovely BBC interview on the subject of Outsider II, in which, when asked about his role in protecting Anthony Blunt in 1979 and the ensuing unpopularity, he says: ‘I’m not popular as a critic: it’s why the book is called Outsider’ (his voice approaching Joan Greenwood’s in its amused drawl). This volume ends before he becomes a critic, but the same downtrodden feeling pervades the Christie’s years (to 1966), in which he never quite gets to do the academically rigorous work which he feels would bolster the company’s reputation. There are many anecdotes about how bad Christie’s was as an auction house: the power struggles, the ignorant bosses, the poor handling of items for sale, the forgeries which should have been spotted. You could get a good work-based-drama out of this material. For example, Burne-Jones’ painting The Sleep of Arthur at Avalon, unframed, six metres by three, is hung like a tapestry for viewing (Brian’s idea) and collapses on top of Peter Chance, the Christie’s director, who then, ‘instead of standing still, he panicked, fought his way out of the belly of this whale’, leaving heaps of paint flaked on the floor. Brian and restorer Joan Seddon had only a few days to get it in shape for the sale, and were obliged to paint in sections which were unrestorable. 45 years later it came to the Tate for a year and Brian was ‘appalled by the crude quality of the irises, bluebells and forget-me-nots in which I had a hand’. Anyone else would probably have left that out of their autobiography, but for Sewell this is half the fun: he was a mischievous soul.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Claire Harman – ‘Charlotte Brontë: A Life’

Claire Harman’s new biography of Charlotte Brontë, published to coincide with its subject’s bicentenary, is unblinking and concise. It accentuates the awkward and the painful, making for a gripping but harrowing read that has the relentless downward trajectory of a Tess of the D’Urbervilles or a Breaking the Waves. Her version of Charlotte is small and plain, with missing teeth and an unconvincing hair-piece. She’s painfully shy, socially inept, and absolutely aware of it:
I flee the world because I do not have the qualities needed to shine in it. Vivacity, grace and liveliness I lack. The taciturn man is always a burden on society… hence he loves solitude because he is at ease in it, a base and contemptible motive that comes from selfishness and indolence. (p. 172, from an ‘essay – or story – called “Le But de la Vie” (“The Aim of Life”)’, written in Brussels in 1843)
She fights against this taciturnity as best she can with the written word, but an unbridgeable gap remains. She can’t achieve the closeness she wants with Constantine Heger or George Smith, so moulds their characters into those of M. Paul Emanuel and Dr John in Villette, her masterpiece, a book that shows the damage unrequited love can do like no other. In writing it, you’d have thought she’d have earned peace on earth, especially when she recognised in her father’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls, feelings for her just as strong as hers had been for Heger:
one ordinarily so statue-like – thus trembling, stirred and overcome […] Mr. N is one of those who attach themselves to very few, whose sensations are close and deep – like an underground stream, running strong but in a narrow channel. (pp. 319-20)
As though in a particularly cruel fairy tale, Charlotte’s comeuppance for expressing her yearning so powerfully, was to die as a result of hyperemesis gravidarum, an ‘extreme reaction to the hormones of pregnancy’ (p. 346), within a year of their marriage.

Harman sees Brontë as ‘essentially a poet of suffering’ (p. 227), which is true, but it is not the whole truth. The book divides into two around the deaths of Branwell, Emily and Anne Brontë in 1848-9, events which robbed the world of a sequel to Wuthering Heights, and Charlotte of her first and best context. I’d thought there was a glimpse of this in Villette with the interplay between Polly, a young girl, and Graham (as Dr John is known early on), an older boy who teases her mercilessly and charmingly; but it turns out that the young Polly is modelled on one of Elizabeth Gaskell’s daughters. That interplay is one of my favourite parts of the novel: it seems as true and affectionate as anything Brontë wrote, and is nothing to do with pain at all – or even awkwardness. There is a perfect understanding between Graham and Polly which is outside society: they flee the world together and shine in their own little bubble. The Brontë siblings did the same – Branwell included until his addictions to opium and alcohol overtook him. Harman speculates about whether Charlotte too took opium, pointing to texts she composed while ostensibly teaching at Roe Head school, which were written with her eyes shut, as she tried to blot out her pupils and return to the ‘world beneath’ (p. 95) – the fantasy world of Angria. It sounds as though she wasn’t much of a teacher at that point.

Her father, Patrick, comes across a little like Josiah Crawley from Framley Parsonage and The Last Chronicle of Barset:
On one side, Patrick Brontë’s experience had encouraged him to think that anything was possible when natural abilities, hard work and the will of God combined; on the other, his meteoric rise had left him with many social anxieties intact and much of his innate conservatism strengthened. (p. 78)
A man with, if anything, fewer social skills than Crawley (who at least gets on with the poor), Patrick is a curious figure, mostly unsympathetic because of his lack of engagement with the outside world, and his tendency to neediness. One mustn’t be too hard on a man who survived his entire family (a wife and six children), but his attempts to re-marry and later to prevent Charlotte from doing so for fear of losing his carer were crass in the extreme. There is something of this naïvety in Charlotte’s inability to hold back in her letters to Constantine Heger, the married teacher with whom she fell in love in Brussels: her tone is abject, and heartbreaking, but how can she not have known that she was driving him away? Later, a much smaller demand for constancy likewise pushes George Smith, her publisher, towards indifference. You want to reach in and shake her: ‘Charlotte! Be cool!’ Easier said than done, though.

Harman is good on Brontë’s achievements, for instance the innovation of telling the first part of Jane Eyre from a child’s perspective, apparently the first novel to do so, and an influence on the second, David Copperfield (Dickens didn’t read Jane Eyre, but had an account of it from John Forster). Here, from a discussion of The Professor, she extrapolates a kind of general law of her fiction:
The convention of not answering back allows able women a scornful superiority, flashing out in looks, in suppression of comment, withheld speed; quellingly disdainful, devastatingly critical, but always held in check. This pent-up power, secretly triumphant because unrealised, is the incendiary device at the heart of Jane Eyre, and of all Charlotte Brontë’s works. And through its identification and her precise observation of it, she presented something completely revolutionary. (p. 202)
Villette innovated too:
Villette, forged from such personal and painful material, reached psychological depths never attempted in fiction before and became, unwittingly, a landmark in the depiction of states of mind and self-perception, a thoroughly, peculiarly and disturbingly Modernist novel. (p. 314)

Monday, April 25, 2016

Marilynne Robinson – ‘Housekeeping’

In October 2014, Bill Forsyth was interviewed by Brian Hoyle at Dundee University about his 1987 film of Housekeeping, which was introduced as vastly underrated, and as his masterpiece. He told the troubled story of the making of the film, including the casting of Diane Keaton as Sylvie, followed by her withdrawal from the project and the subsequent loss of funding. He saw this as a blessing, ultimately, though it can’t have seemed so at the time. ‘Transience is part of the American soul,’ he said, in a talk which mostly focused on practicalities and the negative qualities of avoiding narrative or any kind of pinning down. But he said it, he gave us that clue; going on to say that he saw this transience as an effect of migration, that Americans hadn’t quite settled (you could say of Gregory’s Girl: adolescents haven’t quite settled). Someone in the audience referred to the film as ‘Homecoming’ during the Q & A at the end, which is the very last thing it could have been called. Bill refused to be annoyed by this, pretending not to know what the questioner was talking about. He was very insistent that everyone should read the book, so here we are.
Loneliness bothers lots of people. I knew a woman once who was so lonely she married an old man with a limp and had four children in five years, and none of it helped at all. (p. 66)
This is Sylvie, aunt of Ruth (the narrator) and Lucille, whose mother Helen abandons them at her mother’s house in the small lakeside town of Fingerbone (based, Bill said, on Sandpoint, Idaho, where Marilynne Robinson comes from), before driving away and, a little later, off a cliff into the lake. Sylvie is the pair’s fourth surrogate-parent, after the grandmother dies of old age and her sisters-in-law Nona and Lily prove incapable. The lake’s presence in the book is hard to characterise, but it is strong and threatening, if not actually malevolent. It is the final resting place not only of Helen, but of her father, whose train mysteriously came off the rails one dark night on the long bridge. I found this part of the story a bit unsatisfactory: how could a train come off the rails on a bridge and leave no trace of which side it had fallen? Perhaps I’ve been in Dundee too long: I wanted the bridge to collapse. Or for buckled rails, or something.

Sylvie is unused to houses, and her care of Ruth and Sylvie is, at best, idiosyncratic. Concerned neighbours bring food and disapproval:
The visitors glanced at the cans and papers as if they thought Sylvie must consider such things appropriate to a parlor. That was ridiculous. We had simply ceased to consider that a room a parlor, since, until we had attracted the attention of these ladies, no one ever came to call. Who would think of dusting or sweeping the cobwebs down in a room used for the storage of cans and newspapers – things utterly without value? Sylvie only kept them, I think, because she considered accumulation to be the essence of housekeeping. (p. 180)
Gradually the two girls’ opinions polarise. Ruth is quiet, gangly, un-social, and more re-assured than otherwise by Sylvie’s odd behaviour, because she knows it means she’s comfortable and more likely to stick around. After a summer spent bunking off school together, ranging over the countryside around the lake, Lucille begins to pull away from her odd sister and odder aunt, and re-joins the local community, by moving out and adopting Home Economics teacher Miss Royce as a guardian. She rejects Sylvie’s trashy princess aesthetic precisely for its transience:
Lucille saw in everything its potential for invidious change. She wanted worsted mittens, brown oxfords, red rubber boots. Ruffles wilted, sequins fall, satin was impossible to clean. (p. 93)
Doesn’t Lucille sound dull? There’s no way Bill Forsyth would want to make a film about her. And while she is off recovering her position on the social league table, Ruth’s loneliness becomes painful:
I ate lunch wherever I could find enough space to seat myself without appearing to wish to insinuate myself into a group, or a conversation, and I read while I ate. Lunches were terrible. I could scarcely swallow. It seemed as if I were trying to eat a peanut butter sandwich while hanging by the neck. It was a relief to go to Latin class, where I had a familiar place in a human group, alphabetically assigned. (p. 136)
There is no spite here, only crippling self-awareness. Ruth comes closer to criticism of the un-social non-group of ‘transients’ (i.e. tramps) she finds herself falling towards, acknowledging that to do so is to court oblivion:
Like the dead, we could consider their histories complete, and we wondered only what had brought them to transiency, to drifting, since their lives as drifters were like pacings and broodings and skirmishings among ghosts who cannot pay their way across the Styx. (p. 179)
The action which triggers the sympathy of the women who sit in the parlor wondering what to say is a trip Sylvie takes Ruth on one Monday, when she should have been in school. Sylvie steals a rowing boat from an angry man (‘“It must be his boat,” I suggested. Sylvie shrugged. “Or he might be just some sort of lunatic,” she said. “I’m certainly not going to go back and find out.” (p. 147)) and takes Ruth out on to the lake, to look at a collapsed house in a frosty valley that she has found in her wanderings. Sylvie abandons Ruth for hours, and then they stay out all night on the water in the boat, experiencing the rumble of a train from below the bridge, finally landing opposite Fingerbone and catching a boxcar back. The chapter shifts from the humour of stealing the boat to the cold despair of abandonment, to a meditation on abandoned homes and the displaced and the dead, who appear almost as ghosts to Ruth as she waits for Sylvie to return. It is possible that the ghosts of the dispossessed form a truer community than the Christians and officials of Fingerbone, but we’re left in no doubt that it will be a hard road Ruth has to travel to find out.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Patricia Highsmith – ‘Strangers on a Train’

Bruno waited boredly smiling, looking up at the ferris wheel’s arc of lights and the tiny people swinging in benches up there in the black sky. Far off through the trees, he saw lights twinkling on water. It was quite a park. He wanted to ride the ferris wheel. He felt wonderful. He was taking it easy, not getting excited. The merry-go-round played ‘Casey would waltz with the strawberry blonde…’ Grinning, he turned to Miriam’s red hair, and their eyes met, but hers moved on and he was sure she hadn’t noticed him, but he mustn’t do that again. A rush of anxiety made him snicker. Miriam didn’t look at all smart, he decided, which amused him, too. He could see why Guy would loathe her. He loathed her, too, with all his guts! Maybe she was lying to Guy about having a baby. And Guy was so honest himself, he believed her. Bitch! (p. 75)
Reminiscent for an instant of Harry Lime’s speech in The Third Man, looking down from the Prater Wheel, Charles Bruno is a much less shrewd psychopath. In this scene he stalks Miriam Haines, whom he has taken it into his head to kill, following an encounter with her estranged husband Guy on a train from New York. Guy, an architect, wants a divorce, but has in prospect a big contract to design a country club in Palm Beach, which is likely to make him rich and famous, and Miriam likely to set more financially demanding terms if she finds out about it. As Bruno’s thoughts suggest, she is not in his league intellectually or socially, but the snobbery is not all one way: Guy reflects that he is nothing like her type, which is ‘tall and dark, with a long face’ (p. 38), and believes she would never have had a child with him. The estrangement is well established, they both have new partners, and thoughts of re-marrying. There really is no need for her to die: it would just make Guy’s upward mobility smoother, that’s all. Bruno, meanwhile, is at odds with his father for keeping back an allowance he believes he is entitled to, for reasons which seem pretty obvious: ‘Harvard. Busted out sophomore year. Drinking and gambling. […] Okay, I’m a bum, so what?’ (p. 17). He’s hardly cut off without a dime, though: he goes to his mother for money instead, which she gives him willingly enough. The double murder Bruno proposes is out of proportion to the motives he and Guy have, but he finds the idea of it so elegant: ‘A pure murder, without personal motives!’ (p. 60). If Bruno were to kill Miriam, it would be untraceable because he has no motive, and the same applies to Guy and Samuel Bruno. Just as long as no-one thinks to connect Guy and Bruno to each other.

The impossibility of Guy and Bruno keeping apart is what gives the novel much of its tension. Whenever the narrative comes from Bruno’s point of view, it is slippery in the extreme: there are gaps in his own memory, because he is drunk a lot of the time, but also, he is constantly tempted to sabotage his own careful plotting, either by maintaining contact with Guy or by blurting out clues, with more glee than guilt. It’s reminiscent of Eucrid Eucrow or Bunny Munro from Nick Cave’s novels; or Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Wise Blood or Crime and Punishment. Minds set on rails no-one can see. When it comes to his father’s murder, Bruno sends plans of his house to Guy, down to the level of which stairs creak (he invents a rhyme to help Guy remember), and he does it repeatedly, obsessively, varying and honing, almost merging with Guy in drawing up plans as detailed as an architect’s. For his part, when he arrives to commit the murder of Samuel Bruno, Guy pauses to critique the house:
As he had suspected from Bruno’s drawings, the house was too small for its ten double gables, obviously built because the client wanted gables and that was that. (p. 149)
A theme of doubling is developed, as Guy gets closer to the loopiness of Bruno. Anyone can murder: the setup of Bruno as dissolute and Guy as respectable is deliberately false. Bruno tries to explain to Anne, Guy’s second wife:
People, feelings, everything! Double! Two people in each person. There’s also a person exactly the opposite of you, like the unseen part of you, somewhere in the world, and he waits in ambush. (p. 250)
There are hints that Bruno is sexually attracted to Guy, conveyed mostly by the abjection which alternates with blackmail threats, and by his lack of enthusiasm for sex with women (‘Once, one terrible time, he had started giggling.’ (p. 207)). There is a fraught scene in a restaurant late on which has tender moments, and an indication later still that Guy without Bruno is bereft, so there is some reciprocation of affection. Almost as an antidote to this, Guy returns to thinking about Miriam at the end of the book, about who her death has hurt. He can’t find anyone.

Saturday, April 02, 2016

Hilary Mantel – ‘Wolf Hall’ / Georges Simenon – ‘The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien’

At school, I took Early Modern History for A‑level, and did extraordinarily badly at it. My English teacher knew exactly why I could do his subject but not the other: History is hard work; you can’t skim along on intuition. Now, all I can remember is the date of the Battle of Bosworth (1485), and that some king or other (a Richard? an Edward?) died after gorging on apples. I don’t remember if we covered Henry VIII, but a vague recollection of the teacher talking about Cardinal Wolsey suggests so. I was as bored by the whole thing as Miss Brodie would have been, unless perhaps she had seen in Henry’s ruthlessness some of the good social sense she had divined in fascism. It’s not impossible: his reforms of the Church (piggybacking on Martin Luther’s) had the consequence that the Bible was printed, legally, in English, taking away much of the clergy’s power and mystery. It would have done nothing for the employment rate she was so fond of, though: the liberation was of the soul and the intellect, for those with the leisure to exercise them. And, of course, of the Church’s assets, into Henry’s hands, but I don’t expect there was much in the way of trickle-down wealth.

Mantel stares down my history-is-boring prejudice by placing an extremely prosaic character at the centre of her drama. Thomas Cromwell, aide first to Wolsey and later to Henry, is a practical man, whose reveries – though they may claim otherwise – are not the stuff of poetry:
The page of an accounts book is there for your use, like a love poem. It’s not there for you to nod and then dismiss it; it’s there to open your heart to possibility. It’s like the scriptures: it’s there for you to think about, and initiate action. Love your neighbour. Study the market. Increase the spend of benevolence. Bring in better figures next year. (p. 365)
Almost every other character is more excitable than Cromwell, and this is what he relies upon. Connected to trade by birth and by the activities of his youth, when he ran away from his abusive blacksmith father to Europe, he understands what the dukes do not: that money is what matters, and that money comes from trade. He acts as a supremely efficient man of business, focusing always on the how over the why of what he sets in motion. He does have his own loyalties, but the early death of his wife and two daughters cuts him adrift personally, so that his career becomes all-important.

The problem, for me, was that I didn’t care enough about the bigger picture. Going back to the book for brief periods, the prose was never less than crisp and efficient, and it wasn’t dry in itself, but the apparatus it was trying to shift along was too cumbersome. Over longer stretches my attention wandered; I forgot who characters were, to which faction they belonged. I even read a Maigret novel as refreshment before the final push – which, to my consternation, didn’t even get us to Wolf Hall. Once, I opened the book at S.’s bookmark by mistake, and read this great passage, in which Cromwell demolishes Harry Percy, out of sequence:
How can he explain to him? The world is not run from where he thinks. Not from his border fortresses, not even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbon, from where the ships with sales of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun. Not from castle walls, but from counting houses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot. (p. 378)
The narrative concludes with the death of Thomas More, who is almost as dry as Cromwell, but just passionate enough in his dry religious beliefs for a trap to be set. Another point of comparison with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie: sympathy is pushed in a direction it can’t follow, when so much regret is expressed (by the unsympathetic Duke of Norfolk, but also by Cromwell) at the necessity of executing More, essentially for his stubbornness in refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy. More’s torture and execution of Reformation sympathisers and campaigners means that few can have deserved execution more than he did. Cromwell’s position here is interesting, because he never forgets about More’s cruelty and sadism; rather, he realises that it would not be seemly for a man who was so recently Lord Chancellor to be hung, drawn and quartered, especially following the persecution of the previous Lord Chancellor, Wolsey (in the event, Henry is merciful and More is merely beheaded). He was the facilitator of most of the reforms which sprung from Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, and the consequent break with the Catholic church, but he wanted the effort to be invisible.

And Maigret? There are certain similarities between him and Cromwell:
Maigret was tall and wide, particularly broad-shouldered, solidly built, and his run-of-the-mill clothes emphasized his peasant stockiness. His features were coarse, and his eyes could seem as still and dull as a cow’s. In this he resembled certain figures out of children’s nightmares, those monstrously big blank-faced creatures that bear down upon sleepers as if to crush them. There was something implacable and inhuman about him that suggested a pachyderm plodding inexorably towards its goal.

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