Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Alan Bennett - 'Writing Home'

Why read Writing Home? It is intended, I suppose, for people who already know Alan Bennett through his plays and TV scripts, through the various formats of his 'The Lady in the Van' story. I almost feel I know the latter, though I've never read it before. Bennett defines a classic book as something one feels one has read, and for anyone who listens to Radio 4 for even the odd half hour, it is hard not to absorb the story of Miss Shepherd, the woman who lived in a van in his garden for almost the whole of the seventies and eighties. Or maybe you're a fan of Beyond the Fringe, the names Bennett and Miller all tied in with the iconic Cook and Moore. Perhaps you just like national institutions. But why is Bennett so loved? What has he done, exactly? It's a question you wouldn't ask of a novelist (look, there it is, X's achievement: half a shelf, and a near-posthumous KBE), but plays evaporate after they close, early BBC footage is notoriously slippery, and what we have here, in Writing Home, is the stuff that's left over, the husk. The kernel, what Bennett thinks of as his proper writing, is all elsewhere.

Except that he doesn't seem to think of himself as 'proper' at all. On the first page of the introduction he claims that book reviewing isn't really his thing, demanding 'a breadth of reading and reference that I generally do not have and which writing plays seldom requires' (p. ix) - i.e. perhaps his playwriting's a bit slipshod too. On location with the crew making his TV plays, he comments that the shoot itself gets him out into the places he has been writing about, and he finds out how little he knew of his subject. Self deprecation is almost as common here as the deprecation of others. This in its turn is not particularly mean, or at least there's no sense that Bennett wishes things were other than they are. To Miss Shepherd he's never unreservedly kind (nor unreservedly nasty), he just accepts her continued presence as something that has happened, and with which he has to get along. By the end of the 'Diaries' section I was sure no word summed up Bennett better than 'curmudgeon'. Happy being disgruntled, adopting the morals and aesthetics of a generation earlier than his own in order to have a position to take up against the present. But surely such a man wouldn't choose to live in Camden? Nor take frequent trips to New York.

By and by it occurs to the reader that something worthwhile has been accumulating. Bennett's very amateurishness, of course, is essential to his art: what could be worse than a writer (especially a playwrite) who knew in advance what he was going to write? What would be the point, then, in writing it? You might as well be a politician. But when the opposite is true, when everything you see comes as a slightly absurd surprise, and every written expression of it takes you in unexpected directions, then you are getting somewhere. Where this 'somewhere' might be came across most strongly in the 'Books and Writers' section (despite the earlier protest at not being much of a book reviewer). The long review of Andrew Motion's Larkin biography gets lost in its subject in a way that few other pieces here do, and it is apparent that in contrast to the ambivalence its author shows for decisiveness in real life, here are the rock solid values upon which he rests. The names which people this and other sections - Auden, Proust, Kafka, Larkin himself - are what Alan Bennett stands for. His defence of the Book of Common Prayer is based upon the importance of good writing, and of a shared frame of reference. In other words, it is not good enough for quality to remain the preserve of the elite, and Christianity, whatever its flaws, at least provided powerful words to the masses. This is the kind of argument which can get circular very quickly (i.e. do the public get Big Brother because it's what they want, or do they want it because they can't avoid it?), but as long as it hasn't been lost, there is room for a popular voice like Bennett's, sticking up for seriousness.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Yukio Mishima - ‘The Decay of the Angel’

from http://www.flickr.com/photos/ektopia/231952282/The ending’s a puzzle. Look away if you don’t want to read about it. The set-up is this: at the end of Spring Snow, Kiyoake Matsugae walks with the last of his strength to ‘the Gesshūji’, a nunnery situated on a mountain near Obitoké. His love Satoko is inside, and has taken orders. He wants her back, but she refuses to see him. Kiyoaki’s friend Honda accompanies him on this journey, which he makes several times, exacerbating the pneumonia which he knows will kill him. Sixty years and three novels later, Honda, his own death approaching, goes back to visit Satoko, by now abbess at the Gesshūji. She recognises him, but claims never to have heard of Kiyoaki.

How to interpret this? It’s part ‘and then I woke up’, but let’s ignore that. The denial in the final pages isn’t enough to completely overturn the preceding four novels (besides, Satoko may be lying, or making a point, or have lost her marbles), but it does make it unavoidable to ask: just what is going on here? A question I’d have been quite happy to contemplate at the end of Runaway Horses, but which The Temple of Dawn made me lose interest in almost entirely. The Decay of the Angel is a big improvement on its predecessor, but it doesn’t make up all the lost ground.

In my entry on The Temple of Dawn, I wondered what it was that its protagonist Ying Chan added to the series. The Decay of the Angel has an answer, of sorts. Here’s Keiko talking to Tōru, whom Honda supposes is Ying Chan reincarnated:

Kiyoake Matsugae was caught by unpredictable love, Isao Ilumina by destiny, Ying Chan by the flesh. And you? By a baseless sense of being different, perhaps? (p. 206)

She is making the same complaint about Tōru that I made about Ying Chan: what are you here for? Of his predecessors he most closely resembles Isao, for his extraordinarily confident sense of self, but he entirely lacks the other’s purpose. He is frequently described as ‘evil’ (Keiko’s contemptuous phrase is ‘a legal sort of evil’ (p. 205)), but it is a very localised evil. Adopted by Honda, who spots his three moles on a chance visit to the shipping look-out post where he works in almost total isolation, Tōru at first plays along with the plans for his education. He learns from Honda how to eat soup, how to speak in polite society. His first exercise of power is to have his tutor Furusawa dismissed for being a political radical, his second (a deliberate upping of the stakes) to pull a similar trick on fiancée Momoko. Finally he takes over Honda’s house, beating the old man and filling all the servants’ positions with women he can sleep with. There is even a rota.

Tōru is a nasty piece of work, but there is an unreality about him which is worth considering. Over the course of The Sea of Fertility, Honda has become corrupted, not in his professional life as a lawyer, but in his personal life as a peeping tom. Tōru becomes the portrait to Honda’s Dorian Gray, his worst phase coming as a result of Honda’s manipulations (which are hardly benign: he wants power over his protégé, wants to crush his spirit, and to watch him die). Could the reincarnated protagonists all be reflections of the stages Honda goes through? Kiyoake, pure and innocent; Isao, pure and political; Ying Chan, lustful after sex; Tōru, lustful after souls. A gradual and a total degradation.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Simon Reynolds - 'Blissed Out'

Compare The Smiths with Throwing Muses. Both Morrissey and Kristin Hersh work within the flux of adolescence - the vacillation between agoraphobia and claustrophobia, possibility and constraint; the feeling that one’s body, and the cultural meanings attached to it, are a cage.

Morrissey represents that flux, turns it into couplets, quips, aphorisms, insights, a wisdom we can draw comfort from. Hersh reproduces that flux, her voice is flux. [...] The difference is between commentary and embodying. It’s the reason why The Smiths are more powerful as a pop institution, and why Throwing Muses are more powerful as art. (p. 32)

Flicking through Blissed Out, this is the passage which stood out, which sold it for me. It’s at once exactly right, and not the kind of thing you expect to read, given the commercial disproportion between Throwing Muses and The Smiths. The latter are fixed in the pop canon, will be available 100 years hence in a ‘20th Century Classics’ series of mp3s, or aacs, or whichever new and unimaginable format rules the day. The Muses have their place in the American alt. rock canon, of course, and are fondly remembered by many. But it’s a different order of magnitude. Money was the reason they called it quits in 1997, a sobering thought for those who loved them.

Blissed Out isn’t your average book of rock criticism. It isn’t interested in saying simply: ‘These records are brilliant, listen to them’, nor even ‘These records grew out of such and such a historical tradition’. Instead it tries to apply to rock arguments of cultural theory more commonly associated with literature. I never had much time for cultural theory: it always seemed so obsessed with undermining its objects that it forgot to mine the objects themselves. So you could say that Blissed Out isn’t my sort of book, though it does deal with the music which more or less formed me (the Muses, The Smiths, My Bloody Valentine), and its author wrote for Melody Maker, my Bible for the first half of the 1990s. A few days after finishing it, I tried to work out what it is that Simon actually says. I boiled it down to the following.

  • That noise annoys.
  • That rock feeds on this transgression, absorbing it back into itself. Aside from the odd moment of genuine danger, mostly the transgression is aesthetic, unreal. Rock and roll hasn’t been the taboo-busting wild man for decades. If it makes horrible noises now, they will only be heard by the few who seek it out.
  • That noise is beyond language, which makes it ideal for breaking down the boundaries in our own heads. This is its primary function, now that it can no longer break down cultural boundaries.
  • That the whole shebang is dependent upon the loosening up of society in the 1960s.
  • That ’80s pop is retrogressive, overly reverent towards ’60s soul.
  • That this doesn’t include Prince, because he doesn’t know what a boundary is, and splurges across dikes like a sticky purple tidal wave.
  • That the desired state of being, boundaries gone, colours ultra-vivid, is like a temporary excursion into the hyper-reality of schizophrenia. This ‘temporary’ part is important, because obviously actual schizophrenia is unbearable.
  • That chaos always emerges from and always returns to order: this is the only way it can make sense. Society provides cultural boundaries, bound up in language, and rock / noise’s function is to allow people to escape these for a while, but not to bring them down.
Here’s Simon on noise:

If music is like a language, if it communicates some kind of emotional or spiritual message, then noise is best defined as interference, something which blocks transmission, jams the code, prevents sense being made. [...] Noise [...] occurs when language breaks down. Noise is a wordless state in which the very constitution of ourselves is in jeopardy. The pleasure of noise lies in the fact that the obliteration of meaning and identity is ecstasy (literally, being out-of-oneself). [...] The problem is that, to speak of noise, to give it attributes, to claim things for it, is immediately to shackle it with meaning again, to make it part of culture. (pp. 57-8)
I have several problems with this, though the idea is seductive (and flattering for anyone who listens to anything a bit noisy). Isn’t noise in rock ‘shackled with meaning’ just by being created? It’s deliberate, it’s there to express something. Why separate ‘music’ and ‘noise’? Music can incorporate noise perfectly well. If one were to accept the separation, then it’s still a bit odd that, having established that writing about noise harms our enjoyment of it, Reynolds persists in doing so. But again, I think this is doing the music itself a disservice: it becomes part of culture when people listen to it, not when critics pin it down (reviews have an impact of course, but an imprecise one).

Written in 1990, Blissed Out grapples with the state of contemporary indie rock, seeing it as a reaction to the horrid slick soul of mainstream ’80s pop. He doesn’t mention the concurrent C86 bands, from which the burgeoning of 1987 - 90 grew, probably because he doesn’t much like them (nonetheless, the mature MBV are recognisable in their earlier, twee-er records, which are C86 to a ‘t’). The slick soul is lambasted, again quite rightly, as being a bloodless throwback to the ’60s, Aretha and Stax, a short cut to authenticity. Given that no-one in the world listens to The Christians today, and that music itself has changed to the detriment of the monolithic (Stock, Aitken and Waterman couldn’t happen now, because the singles chart no longer means anything), this seems quaint and overcooked. How could anything bad have occupied his attention so much? Why didn’t he go and listen to something else? Are the 21st century responses to this.

The reasons Blissed Out irritates me are the same reasons Melody Maker enthralled me when I came in as a reader at the tail end of this, in about 1991. It was so righteous. Far from the death of the author, its own authors told you what to think, in no uncertain terms. My Bloody Valentine, The Smiths, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Throwing Muses, Thin White Rope, Sebadoh, Loop, A. R. Kane, Mary Margaret O’Hara. And on and on. It was a great time for music, and MM wrote about it with a passion and a scrappy seriousness which I loved, and which I still miss. In isolation though, the prose of Blissed Out simply isn’t very readable, however interesting the whole may be as a time capsule. By the time of Rip it up and Start Again, 15 years later, Reynolds had left the dryness of theory behind, and had the sense to write his post punk history from the deep wells of his own enthusiasm, forming a fractured narrative far more involving than the discussion of rock’s fractured narrative found here. Stories win in the end. This is the storm before the harvest.

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