Sunday, November 19, 2006

Zadie Smith – ‘On Beauty’

You’ve got to be careful, modelling a new work on an old one. Who liked Gus Van Sant’s Psycho? Who liked Brian Wilson’s re-made Smile? There’s Ulysses, of course, but surely Greek myths are a special case (so old, so well known)? And perhaps that only proves the point: to compete with something which has already endured, you’ve got to create something on a par with the original. You put yourself at an immediate disadvantage attempting it: the first cubist still life was nothing to the first still life (think Brian Sewell said that). As I remarked the other week, Zadie Smith was always going to have a hell of a job keeping step with E. M. Forster’s Howards End. Which is far and away the best book I’ve read since starting this blog, so it’s really no surprise that she doesn’t manage it. What she does manage is a lively, insightful account of the life of academic Howard Belsey and his family. The life, and how it falls apart. The way his wife and kids’ lives intermingle with (or stray from) his own; the way academia prolongs adolescence in its worst sense as well as its best; the way it fails to really connect with anyone outside its own scope (and by scope I mean payroll).

The main problem here is: academia doesn’t equal an artistic sensibility, even if you’re a professor of Art. On Beauty (which shares with Howards End a narrator whose presence is perceptible but who rarely intervenes) is quite aware of this. Again and again Howard is accused of being anti-everything, of having argued himself into a position wherein he can’t like any art (anything representational is right out, yet his research area is Rembrandt). Victoria, the daughter of his rival Monty Kipps (the transplanted Henry Wilcox), characterises the classes at Wellington:

It’s our shorthand for when we say, like, Professor Simeon’s class is ‘the tomato’s nature versus the tomato’s nurture’, and Jane Colman’s class is ‘To properly understand the tomato you must first uncover the tomato’s suppressed Herstory’ – she’s such a silly bitch that woman – [...] But your class – your class is a cult classic. I love your class. Your class is all about never ever saying I like the tomato. (p. 312)

This may be a valid point about academia, but it has little to do with the kind of sensibility needed to appreciate art. Which is what Howards End is all about, and any book which picks up this dialogue really has to take it on: how do life and art work together? And, what does money have to do with this? This tension is what makes it great: the contrast between the Schlegels (who have money and sensibility), the Wilcoxes (money only) and Leonard Bast (sensibility crippled by poverty). The question, so rarely asked, ‘What does it mean to have art in one’s life?’ On Beauty is good on life, but largely forgets about art. It mentions enough of it (an author’s note at the end lists all the paintings and poems mentioned in the text), but never really engages, substituting a soap opera involving academics, which isn’t quite the same thing. Howards End mentions almost no art by name (Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony being the exception), and never goes near a university, but captures exactly the importance of an inquisitiveness about art, and the disconnect this can bring about with more practical minds (or just other minds – it can be an isolating thing).

The two actual artists featured in On Beauty – Carl Thomas (the Leonard Bast character), a rapper, and Claire Thomas, a poet who also teaches creative writing at Wellington – are both given a short opportunity to strut their stuff, on stage and on the page respectively, but again this skirts around the issue: how did they get to the point of performing / writing? How did they live their lives and bring about the song and the poem? We get a little background on Claire, given as she rushes to a lecture, and learn that her early poems (the ones which brought her recognition) were raunchy, and that, now in her 50s, she prefers to write about nature. Carl’s background is murky to say the least, and he lacks Leonard’s crucial lacks: there is no culturally unsympathetic woman holding him back, and although he is poor, this is not a disadvantage for a rapper in the same way that it is for someone who sees culture as something inextricably tied to upper class money. On the contrary, it gives him something to write about: his Mrs Bast appears only in his lyrics, from which we gather that (without Carl’s consent) she had an abortion, and moved on. Up in literary purgatory, Leonard must be kicking himself.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Evelyn Waugh - 'The Loved One'

My idea of Evelyn Waugh (and this is probably typical) is of a '30s dandy: cynical, frivolous, with perfect manners and atrocious behaviour. His early books define him (Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, Scoop), and lead to that engaging anomaly Brideshead Revisited, which strips the business of declining and falling of its laughs, and binds it to a misunderstood Catholicism. My idea of E. M. Forster is similar: a clutch of brilliant books written while young, which tripped from the tongue and fly from the page; then a gap, when middle age approaches and writing quickly and brilliantly is no longer automatic (nor, therefore, possible); finally a more serious return to the fray, lengthier, more considered, with A Passage to India and Brideshead Revisited.

This is my idea, but I find myself mistaken when it comes to Waugh. With him, there is no big gap between the two styles: Scoop was written as late as 1938 and, if my 1977 Penguin edition of The Loved One is to be believed, Put Out More Flags (1942) is in the same, earlier vein. Of course WWII goes a long way towards explaining the serious and regretful tones of Brideshead (1945). There's still plenty of fun to be had in that book, but I've long assumed that it was the tail end: that the Sword of Honour trilogy (1952 - 61) marked the end of the fun in Waugh. Not having read it, I can't say for sure, but The Loved One (1948) throws a few spanners in the works of this theory.

A novella set in Los Angeles on the periphery of the film industry, The Loved One shares its action between the Happier Hunting Ground (a pet crematorium) and the Whispering Glades (a preposterously over-wrought human one). Which is enough to tell you that this is a satire on America. In itself this is interesting: all Waugh's previous books are about England and the colonies (very much as colonies), so why this shift of scene? Post war, of course, the British Empire began to crumble, and it had been proved that Britain was no longer in the first rank of international powers, and so for the first time Waugh was writing in a world in which America must be acknowledged (which is not the same thing as taking it seriously). He was also no longer young (again for the first time - Scoop came out when he was 35; The Loved One ten years later. Brideshead has a foot in each camp).

And so, the scene shifted from London to Hollywood, the new capital of the world. But where '30s London was evoked in earlier books through character (characters at parties, characters shut out from parties), '40s Los Angeles comes to the reader via the medium of institutions. This is beautifully done: the Whispering Glades are vividly realised as a theme park of remembrance, with lavish and hideous gardens, numerous stone carvings, imported churches, and various suites in the main building in which embalmed, made-up Loved Ones can entertain one last time. The Happier Hunting Ground, meanwhile, can only dream of such grandeur: most of its customers won't even buy a casket for their departed pets. The characters which inhabit these institutions are weak in comparison. The strongest is Mr Joyboy (a supporting character at best), the embalmer who communicates his affection for cosmetician Aimee through the facial expressions of the corpses he sends in to her.

What, though, is all this grotesqueness for? Much of it smells of sour grapes: America is young and bustling, as England appeared to be when the author was himself young. In Waugh's America, all the young women look the same, all the young men struggle for money and money alone, and middle aged men end up alcoholic. Phoney respectability is big business, which is surely the main point of the Whispering Glades. The signs of respectability all come from Britain: the churches in its grounds, the lovers' seat with the Burns poem inscribed. Ambrose Abercrombie (Waugh hasn't lost his knack for comic names, at least) spends most of his energy attempting to prevent Hollywood's ex-pats from going native, not from any moral sense, but because it will devalue Englishness in the estimation of the studio bosses. Literally devalue: they won't pay so much for English writers or actors if they become too common, or if they fail to set themselves sufficiently apart from Americans. This isn't in itself too radical a vision of Hollywood: as frivolous, constituted of surfaces and borrowed effects. Who doesn't think this? From Evelyn Waugh though, who championed these qualities in the lives of his bright young things, it is a bit rich.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

E. M. Forster – ‘Howards End’

Howards End is about the artistic temperament, and how it fits into a society of practical but unimaginative men. It’s about the conflict between art and society, and between art and life. It’s about personal morality and personal relations, and the difference between alert, alive relations and tired, inhibited ones. It says: some people are better than others. It says: practicality has some value, having built us our civilisation; impracticality more, because it knows (or can sense) how to live. It’s about the way people speak, and the things they unconsciously give away as they do so. It’s at once insubstantial, because it turns on events and situations which the outer world would not even recognise as such, and the stuff of life itself: its principal characters, the sisters Margaret and Helen Schlegel, are sustained through the buffeting of the life’s events (romantic entanglements, death, illness, the loss of their home) by the kind of inner life familiar to anyone who ever got past arguing with their siblings.

Anyone? Perhaps not. Howard’s End is nothing if not particular. It may generalise, and suggest extrapolations from its own depictions (Leonard Bast especially is more sign than character, with his poverty and aspirations, standing ‘at the extreme verge of gentility’ (p.31)), but it creates its own types to generalise about. It takes on what might be termed the morality of art, or of imagination, or of spirituality. A morality which does not say, it is wrong to smack a child and right to give to charity, but rather: it is wrong to grow up entirely, and right to contemplate. Margaret, for instance, feels the importance of houses (the book is named after the one she has the most affinity for), the space they give and the permanence. At a crisis point near the end of the book, Margaret and Helen, at Howards End, surrounded by furniture which has been moved from their old house at Wickham Place, and not knowing when they will see one another again nor how things exactly stand between them, silently decide to rearrange the chairs, and a healing process begins. The action signals a shared past and a shared sensibility. A similar but broader view is expressed in this passage:

The feudal ownership of land did bring dignity, whereas the modern ownership of movables is reducing us again to a nomadic horde. We are reverting to the civilization of luggage, and historians of the future will note how the middle classes accreted possessions without taking root in the earth, and may find in this the secret of their imaginative poverty. (p. 107)

Howards End stands at the threshold of a new age, remarkably similar to the one at which we find ourselves 96 years on. Margaret’s – and the narrator’s – concerns about the loss of what makes life worthwhile (but which is impossible to tie down to a formula) chime perfectly with the internet age. One of them (I can’t find the exact quote) complains that London can stimulate but not sustain. Elsewhere the narrator says of her:

It is impossible to see modern life steadily and see it whole, and she had chosen to see it whole. (p. 115)

What has changed? The internet promotes content, the idea that all of human creation is at our fingertips. A click and a jiffy bag away. And so it is, but this at once precludes the possibility of seeing anything steadily, unless one is either extremely blinkered or has an iron will. How to find a calm island when all is flux? How to get to your own two individual feet when the ground won’t stay still? There’s no place like home anymore.

The Leonard Bast portion of the story felt at times like a slap in the face to this blog. Leonard is poor, and tries to educate himself by reading, and going to classical concerts. Only, he is too tired out by his work as an insurance clerk to give art the attention it needs – unlike the independently wealthy set with which most of the narrative is concerned. What am I doing here, if not ploughing through books in order to ward off the ill effects of a drudge job? It’s frustrating when tiredness gets the upper hand, but what are you going to do? Watch TV, go to the cinema, get your fiction compressed, is the 20th Century’s answer. Hopefully I don’t make Leonard’s mistake of thinking books are the be-all and end-all. In another passage I can’t find he is criticised for missing the point that books are intended to illuminate life, they’re not, by and large, stone tablets to be taken seriously, unquestioningly, swallowed whole after meals.

I don’t know if I’ve got across how much I love this book. It was a surprise. I’m not new to Forster, but seem to have come to him the wrong way about: first with A Passage to India and Where Angels Fear to Tread, then after a gap of some years The Longest Journey and A Room with a View, after Zadie Smith wrote about him in The Guardian while she was writing On Beauty. It’s because that book’s on my shelf that I read this one now. Where the others were (increasingly in the order I read them) immaculate, pained, English, Howards End was, within about 30 pages, one of my favourite books. That slightly farcical opening reminded me of Wodehouse, more so than any of the daft situations people get into in the other books (e.g. Miss Quested’s cave escapade in A Passage to India). About all of them it could be said: great backgrounds, silly story. This is not a flaw, as Forster’s subject is the minutiae of English manners (especially with regard to flirting), and the terrible personal consequences which can spring from politeness and propriety. Howards End plays the silliness for laughs much more successfully than Forster manages elsewhere. His authorial voice is stronger, it makes sense for On Beauty (which is going to have a tough time measuring up to this) to be titled as though an essay, because Forster is arguing a point here. He is arguing for what he believes, about modern life, about inner life, about friendship, family, class, commerce, property. And it is an argument which, whilst beautifully made, is not going to win anybody over who was not already of a similar mind. It’s too individual, too unquantifiable. But if you want to know how to be happy, there are worse places to go for advice than Howards End.

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