Friday, December 21, 2007

Home for Christmastime

It’s been a few years, but this time I’m going home for Christmas. Mumbled at the station counter so the train tickets were for the wrong day, but S. noticed and fixed it. So we’re off tomorrow, for a week of family and food, cold walks, catching up. It should be lovely. What makes it lovelier still is that Anne Bacheley has obligingly put out a single about it, called ‘Home for Christmastime’. You’re an adult, well past the point at which childhood was a recent memory, but there’s this one place, for one week a year, where you can go and where your brothers and sisters and parents will be too, and it’s almost as though you’re ten years old again. The situation isn’t a universal one, of course, or anything like it, but for anyone it does apply to, there’s this song to have in your head as you set off. As warm and affectionate as the secular carol it is. One two three four, ‘I’m going, going / Home for Christmastime...’.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Jorge Luis Borges – ‘Fictions’

This is one of those books that is so acutely self aware that there hardly seems to be any point in writing about it. Or rather, you could use it as a starting point to spiral off into infinity debating the nature of reality, but you would inevitably end up being less impressive on the subject than Borges is at an angle to it. Reigning in is his great talent. My comfort read at the moment is The Complete Yes, Minister, and one of Bernard’s pedantic admonitions to Jim Hacker is along the lines of, ‘Excuse me, Minister, but you can’t actually stop something before it starts’ (they’re trying to stop a press release going out). In his stories, Borges does exactly that. If a typical Charlotte Brontë plot begins by hiding everything, and ends by revealing the last piece of the jigsaw, Borges will start with a bibliography, and end with a jigsaw piece. Maybe two. There is much to expand upon, but you’d feel like a vandal doing it, unpicking all that careful concealment, breaking in upon the mystery.

As to what they are like to read: the stories are brief, averaging about ten pages. Some are told in the language of literary criticism; others in that of the detective story. There is always an underlying concept: what would it be like if a man could remember everything? (‘Funes, His Memory’) What if everyone in society swapped roles, periodically and at random? (‘The Lottery in Babylon’) What would literature which took account of all possible variations of plot be like? (‘The Garden of Forking Paths’, ‘A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain’). One argues, convincingly, that in Christianity Judas rather than Jesus should be considered the son of God, because he sacrificed not just his body but also his soul:

God, argues Nils Runeberg, stooped to become man for the redemption of the human race; we might well then presume that the sacrifice effected by Him was perfect, not invalidated or attenuated by omissions. To limit His suffering to the agony of one afternoon on the cross is blasphemous. (pp. 135-6, from ‘Three Versions of Judas’.)
The big theme, though, is the crossover between fiction and life, and the ultimate indivisibility of the two. Hence in ‘Tlôn, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, an invented, hoax society, made with nothing more than strategically placed stories, comes to replace the ‘real’ (I should say the pre-existing) society. In ‘The Circular Ruins’ a man spends all his time and strength dreaming up another man, only to discover that he has himself been dreamt into existence. In ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’ the author of the title attempts to write certain chapters of Don Quixote – not merely to copy them out, but actually to write them. At first he attempts this by imagining himself in Cervantes’ position, but then, when this seems too easy, he tries to do it as himself: to end up with the same chapters, word for word, the only difference being that they arose not out of Cervantes’ skill, situation and temperament, but those of Pierre Menard. In ‘The Circular Ruins’ the protagonist wants to break from thought into physical reality; in ‘...the Quixote’ Menard wants to go the other way: from living breathing man to a collection of words.

Without a doubt, the stories of Fictions are told with the intention of surprising their audience, and their effects are often dazzling. But the effects are a means as well as an end: they are not there to take the reader out of reality, but to defamiliarise it for us, the better to understand its flaws. In his section of The Paris Review Interviews, Borges says:
Conrad thought that when one wrote, even in a realistic way, about the world, one was writing a fantastic story because the world itself is fantastic and unfathomable and mysterious. (The Paris Review Interviews, p. 140).

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Charlotte Brontë – ‘Tales of Angria’

It must have been the summer of 1996, because I still have the essay I handed in the following November. It was some way into that year’s long vacation from university, and Villette was on the reading list for the forthcoming Victorian module. I read the opening chapters on a family picnic while others paddled in the stream or sunbathed or read too. The first thing I noticed was that the prose was awkward, the phrasing all backwards (from the first page: ‘When I was a girl I went to Bretton about twice a year, and well I liked the visit’). The second thing was the prickly but endearing friendship between Polly, a precocious little girl of six, and Graham, a ‘faithless-looking youth of sixteen’. Graham condescends to play with Polly when un-distracted by his peers, and she takes to him more than is quite good for her. Although the friendship is dependent on Graham’s whim, it is beautifully depicted, and immediately involving. There is a dynamic of affection expressed through insult which exists between Polly and Graham. I would be surprised if something similar had not existed between Charlotte and Branwell – in fact, it is here in Tales of Angria, every time she addresses the ‘reader’ (she is writing mostly for him, as he does for her), and when she satirises his high flown militaristic style.

This was point one in favour of Villette; point two was the chapter ‘The Long Vacation’, which captured perfectly the dreadful isolation and ennui I never had the wit to dispel during long holidays. Point three was narrator Lucy Snowe’s hopeless (and convincingly hopeless) infatuation with Graham when she met him again a decade on – and which I aped, blow for dull aching blow, that same summer. Point four was Lucy’s far more genuine love for the unglamorous – in fact, the downright objectionable M. Paul Emmanuel, the squat authoritarian fellow school teacher with whom… Well, let’s not spoil the whole thing for anyone who’s dropped by and has yet to read it. If you take anything from this blog at all though, I would urge you to do just that. If your heart ever trembles, if its warmth is ever undersold by shyness or reticence, if you need someone to tell you every danger is far away… It won’t do that, but it’ll chime just marvellously with your romantic foreboding.

Tales of Angria is far removed from Villette; it contains the final five instalments – on Charlotte’s side, at least – of the saga she wrote with Branwell between 1832-9, about a kingdom supposedly situated in Africa (only there are moors, and it is suspiciously wet and Yorkshire-like), and about the struggle for power therein. The two giants in the struggle are the Duke of Zamorna, the popular ruler who is in power throughout this volume, and the Earl of Northangerland, his ageing arch rival, recently and decisively conquered as the first story, ‘Mina Laury’, begins. Relations between the two are convoluted: Zamorna is married to Northangerland’s daughter Mary, and Northangerland to Zamorna’s old flame Zenobia. Northangerland’s illegitimate daughter Caroline is Zamorna’s ward. It gets tricky to follow, especially as the narrator hardly ever lets you know everything that’s going on in any given scene. Usually even the identities of those present are concealed for several pages – there will be hints, and eventually one of editor Heather Glen’s notes will take pity and say, ‘Oh for God’s sake it’s Zamorna’, or whoever it might be. Initially these highly secretive practices reminded me of The Count of Monte Cristo (the last book for which I had to write down the plot in order to understand it), and the intention is the same: both books want to dazzle the reader with surprising twists and turns. Concealment creates suspense, and dark hints as to what is about to be revealed are a good way of getting a reader to consider how awful it is going to be in advance. The principle is that, if things are going to seem better in the morning, if they never turn out as badly as you fear they might; then let’s prolong the night almost indefinitely, let’s hold the readership in fear until they can’t stand it any more. Dumas frequently does this brilliantly; Brontë less well, on the whole, but she has her moments – the end of ‘Caroline Vernon’, for example.

Concealment in Brontë (unlike in Dumas) has its roots in her own temperament, and it doesn’t disappear once she moves on to less gung-ho fiction. Jane Eyre’s plot revolves around Rochester’s concealment of his first wife in his own attic, and Jane’s concealment of where it is she has run off to once she becomes aware of this. It is only in Villette that Brontë manages to combine concealment as a plot device with the painful and involuntary tendency towards concealment which is the product of her shyness. There is a fleeting hint of this in ‘Henry Hastings’, in the feelings of Henry’s sister Elizabeth, who is (guess what?) a self-sufficient and hardworking teacher:

She never wished to attract [respect] for a moment, and still, somehow, it always came to her. She was always burning for warmer, closer attachment. She couldn’t live without it. But the feeling never awoke, and never was reciprocated. (p. 288)

‘Henry Hastings’ is my favourite of the five tales here, because it gives over describing the choleric anger of near-indistinguishable warlords and their dastardly deeds, and concentrates for a time on the two things Brontë was born to write about: the absolute affection that can exist between siblings (or close friends), and sexual love. That Elizabeth is Charlotte is clear from the Duchess of Zamorna’s appraisal of her: ‘…not very pleasing […] She’s odd, abrupt’ (p. 266) – as are Lucy Snowe and Jane Eyre. That she loves her brother is in the wonderful phrase – conveyed by a look only – ‘Your faults and yourself are separate existences in my mind.’ (p. 233); this is Polly’s attitude to Graham in Villette, too.

Equally moving is the walk Elizabeth takes with suitor William Percy, whose heart is described as ‘a tenacious soil’ (p. 285) – it needs to be, of course, because Elizabeth’s reserve prevents her from flirting with him. When she does start to respond to his cautious advances, it is telling that she does so with an insult:

‘But if I wanted a sixpence, you would be the last person I should ask for it,’ said Miss Hastings, looking up at him with an arch expression very natural to her eyes, but which seldom indeed was allowed to shine there. (p. 295)

Insults are good in Charlotte Brontë (see also M. Paul Emmanuel in Villette), because they indicate familiarity, concern and a shared sensibility. They indicate that the hard work of ice breaking is over. Charlotte’s ghost will hopefully understand, then, when I say that this relatively short passage of quite a large book (Chapter III of ‘Henry Hastings’, about 20 pages) is its only moving section. Elsewhere she succeeds at other, lesser things – Charles Townsend coming in out of the rain at the beginning of ‘Stancliffe’s Hotel’, for example, is a good vivid scene; the building horror of ‘Caroline Vernon’ is effective; Lord Hartford is truly gruesome. The ‘Roe Head Journal Fragments’ given at the end of the book testify to how absorbed in Angria Brontë felt (and how frustrated that her job prevented her from spending more hours conjuring it up), but time and again, when she comes to describe a character who is different from herself, she does it in negative terms, as though skirting around her real subject:

She does not know human nature, she does not penetrate into the minds of those about her; she does not fix her heart fervently on some point which it would be death to take it from; she has none of that strange refinement of the senses which makes some temperaments thrill with undefined emotion at changes or chances in the skies or the earth, a softness in the clouds, a trembling of moonlight in water, an old and vast tree, the tone of a passing wind at night, or any other little accident of nature which contains in it more botheration than sense. Well, and what of that? Genius and enthusiasm may go and be hanged. (p. 243, from ‘Henry Hastings’; William Percy soliloquizing about Jane Moore)

Only when the lack she describes above had been turned inside out, and placed at the centre of a narrative, would Brontë really hit her stride.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Sons & Daughters, Fat Sam’s, Dundee, 3rd December

It’s nice to have a gig on your doorstep once in a while. Not sure I’d have gone any great distance to see this, but that was good too: low expectations, all set to be quashed. Which they were. I had Sons & Daughters down as a tuneless and static bunch, more Scots pretending they were from Tennessee, tied to their two-to-the-floor beat and not adding a great deal to it. This was based largely on a not very attentive few listens to Love the Cup and seeing two minutes of their set when they supported Morrissey last year. They wouldn’t allow drinks in the auditorium – and they expected people to watch the support band?! Anyway. I was wrong, Sons & Daughters are a whole lot of fun live. They do think they’re from Tennessee (check the guitarist’s gelled-up-and-back hairdo), and they do go one TWO one TWO fast and frequently in the beat dept., but these turned out not to be bad things after all. It reminded me of the lone new song Vic Godard played when I saw him in June, the epic and clattering ‘That Train’ – the energy of it compressed into two beats instead of four. Making Dee Dee’s ‘One! Two! Three! Four!’ look prog.

The energy was what Sons & Daughters were about too. One song was announced as their ‘suicide song’, but they didn’t slow down to take on darkness. They didn’t even slow down to incorporate ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ into ‘Johnny Cash’ (prompting a flashback to a Spectrum show when ‘When Tomorrow Hits’ got wheeled out – it does the same thing, of course). ‘We started doing this on tour with The Stooges,’ they told us. ‘They didn’t like it.’ Annoying The Stooges being more of a boast than impressing them, possibly. You can see why they might have objected – there is nothing of their slow burn to Sons & Daughters. Singer Adele did swagger though. There’s a knack to knowing how to move on stage. Support band Victorian English Gentlemens Club shared this with them, or at least the drummer did: in a black-on-white polka dot dress, she stood for the first song, imposingly tall on stage + drum riser (in the lobby afterwards I was surprised to see that she’s actually quite diminutive), lifting her arms in triumph at the end. She sat down for the next few but then got bored and spent one song wandering the stage hitting just anything. This is how drumming should be. A fun night amongst the beat combos.

(It’s maybe a bit pointless banging on about a song no-one can hear, so I hope nobody objects if I post Vic’s ‘That Train’ here.)

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