Saturday, November 29, 2008

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry – ‘Wind, Sand and Stars’

As I mentioned a while back, my sister and I once wrote a song called ‘Wind Sand and Stars’ because this book was on a shelf nearby when we were trying to come up with ideas. We liked the title, though neither of us had read it. The first thing that struck me coming to it now was that the French title is Terre des hommes, which is clearly nothing like Wind, Sand and Stars. It seems a harder title, prouder, more (literally) grounded. Wind, Sand and Stars is more awe-struck, and is appropriate in different ways. It seems to say that the physical world is beautiful, wild and immense, whereas Terre des hommes, assuming this, stakes humanity’s claim to it – if not to controlling it, at least to appreciating it. And appreciating nature, and nature’s wildness, is something Saint-Exupéry sees as essential for... what? Certainly for his own happiness. When he tries to argue out from this point, that it is essential for mankind that some of its number take on storms and deserts – not for the practical benefits this can bring, but for its own well-being (almost its spiritual well-being), he loses me somewhat. But watching him get there is pretty inspirational, and it is both a tougher and a more ornate book than I was expecting.

The aeroplane is central. Wind, Sand and Stars is an autobiographical account of the early days of aviation, and underlying Saint-Exupéry’s high flown prose is the commercial imperative to open new mail routes. Here he describes the pilot Mermoz’s flight, ‘the first seaplane crossing of the South Atlantic’, when he encounters some tornados:

Waterspouts stood in apparently motionless ranks like the pillars of a temple. On their swollen capitals rested the dark and lowering arch of the storm, but blades of light sliced down through the cracks in the arch, and between the pillars the full moon gleamed on the cold stone tiles of the sea. (p. 13)

What excites him is that the aeroplane allows mankind to see and to take on nature in ways which were never possible before. The scale of the ground is altered forever once it has been seen from the air. Today we are used to this, and people make coffee table books on the subject, but what Saint-Exupéry captures is the amazement that was felt when the experience was new. He is sensitive, though, to the charge that he is merely a thrill-seeker:

It isn’t a matter of living dangerously. Such a pretentious phrase. Toreadors don’t thrill me. Danger is not what I love. I know what I love. It is life. (p. 98)

Spectacle, like crime, is not interesting. Or at least not for very long. So what does endure?

In my own childhood, my sisters gave marks to guests who were honouring our table for the first time. And when conversation lapsed, a cry of ‘eleven!’ would ring out in the silence, and only my sisters and I would appreciate its charm. (p. 45)

I love this passage. It has nothing to do with aeroplanes, except that he is reminiscing during a visit on his wide ranging travels to a family he has never met before (who live in a ramshackle house with an uneven floor, and vipers who nest under the dining table), and wondering what they make of him. He continues:

But the day comes when the woman awakes within the girl, with the dream of awarding a ‘nineteen’ at last. That nineteen is a burden on the heart. Then some fool presents himself. For the first time those sharp eyes deceive themselves, and light him in beautiful colours. If the fool speaks in verse, he is taken for a poet. Surely he understands the pitted floor, surely he loves mongooses, surely he is gratified by the intimacy of the viper swaying around his legs beneath the table. He receives a heart which is a wild garden, he who only loves trim parklands. And the fool takes the princess away into slavery. (p. 46)

This is great too, a fine description of the anxiety one can feel as a child that adult life can only intrude and make things worse. But what is the connection with flying? Consciousness and inspiration seem to be Saint-Exupéry’s true subjects, and it is almost incidental that the thing which inspires him and heightens his own consciousness is flight. Several times he tries to forge a link by saying that this or that spectacle is as nothing to the imagination of a little girl. That he can’t bear to be grounded for any length of time suggests that he is being disingenuous when he says ‘it isn’t a matter of living dangerously.’ In his introduction William Rees says of Louisa de Vilmon’s attitude to the author when they were lovers: ‘She found him impossibly intense and demanding’ (p. xi). To some extent this is how I found his book, but its vitality makes it an engaging read.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Christopher Isherwood – ‘All the Conspirators’

Do you work in an office? Have you ever felt something like this?

And then, look at it in another way. This is a whole-time job. A whole-life job. Well, put aside everything I’ve said so far. Imagine it absolutely perfect. It’s still a job for somebody who’s got nothing else they want to do. I have. I want to paint and write. Of course, I see now that Mother would never allow me to do that and nothing else. But if only I had some work which gave me time for other things as well, I’d be quite contented. I do think I ought to be allowed that. (p. 171)

I don’t want to paint, particularly, but I wouldn’t mind singing a bit more than I do, and writing things to sing. But somehow it just doesn’t come together when I’m working full time – evenings and weekends aren’t enough. Elsewhere in All the Conspirators, Philip’s mother suggests that they should be quite sufficient for his purposes, as though his writing and painting are hobbies: pastimes to fill an idle hour, rather than work in their own right. Because he doesn’t get all creative the moment he arrives home he she thinks he can’t possibly be serious about it. But there are two things which could be happening here: he could be lazy, or it could be that the things he wants to do require more alertness, concentration and time than is left over at the end of the working week. Philip is certainly convinced that he has the talent, but he also caves in rather easily, leaving off his writing just so he can show Mother that this is what employment does to him. Maybe if he could blog, that would be an acceptable compromise – but, it being the 1920s, he can’t.

Cyril Connolly’s introduction says that the book is ‘a study in weakness’, and reveals that ‘Behind the ending “a decrescendo of anti-climaxes” is the ghost of that other ending, with Victor murdered and Allen hanged or married’. It’s Bernard Shaw’s point again: ‘Crime, like disease, is not interesting’. Or the gradual diminution of melodrama through Chekhov’s plays, the gun shot off stage in the final scene remaining until The Cherry Orchard, which manages to do without it. With the crime, All the Conspirators would have been a weaker book – as it is, it is courageously spineless. The reader’s sympathy is with Philip and his sister Joan, but neither really merits more than pity. Her misfortune is to be engaged to Victor, who is decent enough, but a sportsman with all of the sensitivity of Mr Brisk from ‘Moomin’s Winter Follies’. An early put-down comes when Victor, on finding that Philip writes as well as paints, compliments him: ‘You seem to be a regular all-round man.’ Philip is not impressed: ‘Imagine feeling flattered at his ridiculous sporting terms. One might think, to hear him talk, that one was useful in the slips.’ (p. 33). It is Victor who comes up with the idea of sending Philip off to a Kenyan coffee plantation as a way of providing him with a better work / life balance (or employment / work balance), a move which infuriates Joan. Victor can’t see the problem: ‘Philip said he wanted fresh air, time to write, an outdoor job, and so forth.’ (p. 194). The situation is funny, but it is not played for laughs. Much of the book is like this: the tragedy is light, little more than discontent, quiet desperation. It can be amusing, at a slight distance. It only becomes serious when Philip runs away near the end, becoming ill from the soaking he receives. And the, er, dirty sheets at the squalid lodgings he ends up in (it really isn’t high tragedy: one night in a poor person’s bed – gosh!)

What is really disturbing through all of this is that the Wrong People are in charge: it is Victor, his father, and Mrs Lindsay (Philip and Joan’s mother) who cause all of the events in the book. The likeable characters – Philip, Joan, Allen, Currants – are totally ineffectual, and ultimately Philip’s art descends to the level of kitsch that is the limit of his mother’s comprehension. Maybe All the Conspirators is a greater tragedy than it seems.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Tove Jansson – ‘Moomin: the Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strip’ (Vols. 1 & 2)

Sorry, I was miles away. Googling ‘Moomin’, finding a whole franchise of which I’d only been dimly aware until recently. Brought about largely by the garish Japanese cartoon from 1990, which triggered what Wikipedia alarmingly calls ‘The Moomin Boom’. Poor Moomin! To suffer commercialisation, to find himself modelled in plastic, printed on t-shirts, emblazoned on the side of Finnish aeroplanes. Surely all of that would only embarrass him? There has also been a counter-boom, bringing him back down to size. There is a 2003 album of songs which ‘became the core for Moomin music in the 1950s and 60s on the theater stage’ (what did the music accompany? The website doesn’t say). There are these Drawn and Quarterly reprints of Moomin as a daily newspaper strip in the 1950s, which I found through Anne Bacheley’s infectiously enthusiastic blog posts about their French translations. Also worth mentioning is the pre-boom Polish stop-animation TV series which I can just about remember from its second UK screening in 1986, though I didn’t like it much then, probably because it wasn’t Battle of the Planets or Knight Rider. Watching it now, it actually is rather lovely, like The Clangers on a bigger and greener planet.

The comic strips ran in The Evening News between 1953-9, until, as Alisia Grace Chase’s afterword says, Jansson ‘realised that the gruelling schedule of a daily and being creative on demand did not suit her meandering attitude towards life’. You wouldn’t guess it from reading them. The daily comic strip is usually quite a constrained medium: its three or four panels make it suitable for short gags, and though its regularity makes continuity possible, you can never be quite sure that your reader saw yesterday’s strip, so each episode also has to make sense in isolation. Maybe there are other examples, but it’s the first time I’ve seen entire stories told in this way (both of these books contain four). They are picaresque tales, loose and episodic, and... the trouble with writing about them like this is that for one thing I’ll only end up boxing them in when they should be free to fly, and for another, it avoids the main thing I want to say, which is that these are the best comic strips I have seen since Douglas so magnificently responded to my request that he find me something jangly to read by producing some extremely rare volumes of Krazy Kat in about 1998.

Almost instantly I fell in love with Krazy’s – well, with his / her meandering attitude towards life (to the extent of not even having a fixed gender), the dumb wordplay, the great gaggles of characters in the 1920s Sunday strips, the lunatic (non)sense it all made. Reading Moomin now is as thrilling as that. There are similar gaggles (stranger here, as Jansson’s creatures are invented, and often cross – I particularly like her authority figures), but otherwise the drawing styles are quite different, Herriman’s lines scratchy where Jansson’s are smooth as she emphasises shape over texture. Or sometimes even design over drawing: there is a lot of detail in some of these strips, the hotel interiors in ‘Moomin on the Riviera’ are beautiful. It is a comic strip of rare good sense, which can remind you how ridiculous society’s expectations are, and how little you need to be bound by them. In ‘Moomin and Family Life’, Moomin reports that ‘Father and Mother have been lost in the spring cleaning!’ and Sniff advises him, ‘There you are, never tidy up,’ but Snufkin sees the truth of it: ‘Have you never wanted to run away from home? Even parents need a change sometimes...’

In the second volume the life lessons are more explicit: ‘Moomin’s Winter Follies’ has Snorkmaiden and Mymble swooning over Mr Brisk, a skiing nut. Which is shocking, because Snorkmaiden is supposed to be Moomin’s girlfriend (except that it isn’t, because she’s always doing this kind of thing). Mymble over-does her attempts to impress Mr Brisk by beating him in a ski jump competition. He gets depressed and sits desolate on a cliff edge, from which Moomin nearly rams him into the abyss until he realises, ‘I can’t. He’s down already.’ In ‘Moomin Begins a New Life’ the inhabitants of Moominvalley are entranced by the Prophet, who teaches them that ‘You’re tied down by traditions and narrow ideas! Do only what you want to do instead!’ Once he has gone Moominmamma wonders, ‘Do you do what you want to do?’ and Moominpappa responds, ‘I don’t know... I’ve never thought about it...’. After he has thought about it, he climbs into a tree with a basket of food and an Agatha Christie novel, and he won’t come down again: ‘No dear, the prophet says we must be free.’

What links these two stories is the satire on the idea of achievement which Mr Brisk and the Prophet share. Mr Brisk is too absorbed in sport to notice the people he impresses whilst doing it (or anyone at all, except competitors who beat him), so what good can it really do him? The Prophet takes an idea, freedom, and wants to see it quantified. It’s as though he’s a government inspector, checking up to see that everyone is sufficiently free – which, as Moominpappa’s justification for staying up his tree implies, is a nonsensical view of freedom. Moominpappa has many nonsensical views. He is the least self-aware character, the most endearing, and the funniest too (I laughed for days at his insistence during ‘Moomin on the Riviera’ that his family refer to themselves as the De Moomins). Taken on his own he is just as flawed as Mr Brisk or the Prophet, but the point about him is that he isn’t on his own, he is part of a family and a community which wouldn’t work nearly so well without him. This is the great thing about the Moomin stories: they draw you in to the fond family circle, but they do it lightly, there’s no obligation. Relax, don’t do what you want to do, be where you feel at home.

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