Sunday, September 18, 2016

Andrea Wulf – ‘The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science’

After all that Nazism in the last two books, I thought this might be good to read next, being about a German (actually a Prussian) hero. To Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Charles Darwin and Ernst Haekel, all of whom acknowledged their debt to him; but not to a contemporary Anglophone audience, hence Andrea Wulf’s book, an attempt to redress the balance. Wulf puts Humboldt’s obscurity in the UK and US partly down to ‘anti-German sentiment’ following the two world wars of the twentieth century. She mentions in a footnote that Haekel found himself accused of ‘providing the Nazis with the intellectual foundation for their racial programmes’ because of his ‘stem-trees’ showing a ‘progressive path from “savage” to “civilised” races’, which separated Jews from Caucasians, but placed them on an equal footing (though there is a hierarchy, with some other extant races lower down). Perhaps Humboldt was tarred with this brush, though the argument doesn’t seem to have much to do with him. His work was more to do with what we now think of as ecology (a word coined by Haekel):
Humboldt was the first to explain the fundamental functions of the forest for the ecosystem and climate: the trees’ ability to store water and to enrich the atmosphere with moisture, their protection of the soil, and their cooling effect. He also talked about the impact of trees on the climate through their release of oxygen. The effects of the human species’ intervention were already ‘incalculable’, Humboldt insisted, and could become catastrophic if they continued to disturb the world so ‘brutally’.
The Invention of Nature is quite a long way from being a typical biography. This is partly because the events of its subject’s life were so unevenly spaced (expeditions in his thirties and sixties, writing in between), and partly because it is about the ideas and the legacy as much as it is about the man. A third concern is the context of the time, which is given in some detail (there’s quite a bit about the revolutions in South America in the years after Humboldt’s visit, Napoleon, and development of the USA following the Louisiana Purchase). It’s the kind of mix which doesn’t feed very neatly into a review trying to sum it all up, but for the common reader, who doesn’t bring any great amount of context to the table (for my part, I know a little about John Muir, and have forgotten a lot about Napoleon), it’s all interesting and relevant if you don’t enquire too closely what it is supposed to be relevant to. This engaging, scattershot approach does have one drawback, which is that although the energy and achievements of Humboldt are conveyed clearly, one is left a little cold about the man himself. But perhaps that is a fair response. Darwin, meeting his hero in old age, was disappointed by his incessant chatter, and as a younger man he was, if impressive, scarcely someone you’d want to sit next to at dinner:
Others feared his sharp tongue so much that they did not want to leave a party before Humboldt departed, worried that once they had gone they would be the object of his snide comments. Some thought Humboldt was like a meteor that whizzed through the room. At dinners he held court, jumping from one subject to another. One moment he was talking about shrunken heads, one acquaintance remarked, but by the time a dinner guest, who had asked his neighbour quietly for some salt, had returned to the conversation, Humboldt was lecturing on Assyrian cuneiform script. Humboldt was electrifying, some said, his mind was sharp and his thoughts free of prejudice.
Humbolt’s life’s work was mostly based on an expedition to South America between 1799-1804, spent climbing mountains, crossing plains, observing volcanic eruptions and one enormous earthquake in the first year. For many years after his return to Europe he tried to arrange a similar trip to the Himalayas, but the East India Company wouldn’t grant him permission to go. In 1829 he travelled instead to Russia, through the Urals and (in an unauthorised 3000-mile detour) on to the Altai mountains and back along the Chinese border. While travelling he would measure incessantly, like a good scientist, and came to important conclusions about the effect of climate, and altitude, on vegetation in different areas of the world (not just vegetation – he most impressed the Russians by predicting, correctly, where they would find diamonds in their own soil). The crucial thing was the wide scope of his enquiry, which was in sympathy with (and inspired) the English Romantic poets:
Coleridge [lamented] the loss of what he called the ‘connective powers of the understanding’. They lived in an ‘epoch of division and separation’, of fragmentation and the loss of unity. The problem, he insisted, lay with philosophers and scientists such as René Descartes or Carl Linnaeus, who had turned the understanding of nature into a narrow practice of collecting, classification or mathematical abstraction.
Humboldt did his share of collecting, as Byron noted:
Lord Byron immortalized Humboldt in Don Juan, ridiculing his cynometer, the instrument with which Humboldt had measured the blueness of the sky.
Humboldt, ‘the first of travellers,’ but not
The last, if late accounts be accurate,
Invented, by some name I have forgot,
As well as the sublime discovery’s date,
An airy instrument, with which he sought
To ascertain the atmospheric state,
By measuring ‘the intensity of blue’:
O, Lady Daphne! let me measure you!
However, classification wasn’t what he was interested in. ‘Individual phenomena were only important “in their relation to the whole”’. He wanted to show how things worked together: he ‘“read” plants as others did books – and to him they revealed a global force behind nature, the movements of civilisations as well as landmass.’ Expressing this lyrically was part of his method, branching out into artistic expression as a way of broadening his scientific perspective (Wulf recommends Views of Nature as a good place to start reading Humboldt). Beginning to understand how this global force worked led to an understanding of how plantations and monoculture disrupted it, and he was in favour, along with American president Thomas Jefferson, of subsistence farming, as a way of maintaining diversity. We know that didn’t happen. And we know that Humboldt was right.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

One More Time With Feeling

It opened with a talking head in a taxi, a 3D black-and-white talking head, Warren Ellis with his 3D beard sticking out at you, saying how awkward he felt talking about it as he never usually does in interviews, never usually does at all, and before he could get to his subject the right-hand 3D frame went out of focus and the film crew in the taxi stopped filming but the audio continued over a black screen as the scene disintegrated into technical talk and exasperation. Then another messy, behind-the-scenes scene with Cave in a dressing room, preening in front of a mirror, so the 3D was mostly depth rather than protrusion. The camera captured his entrance, and lingered as he combed his hair with deft flicks. The director asked if they could do another take. Why, what was wrong with that one? There was a degree of protest, as there would be, or it would not be Nick Cave being filmed, his vanity and privacy in conflict. Nothing was wrong, everything you did was great, we’d just really appreciate another go at it.

This is a film which does a lot of lingering, and has a lot of interviews full of uncertainty and pregnant pauses. It verges on shapeless and it holds off almost its entire length from addressing its own subject (its only subject, as director Andrew Dominik says in this interview). This works because we all know, as it was in the news, and no-one watching it will not know. I suppose if you didn’t know, you’d wonder what everyone was tip-toeing around, and it would hook you that way. Nick talks in voice-over about going, for example, into a baker’s to buy, say, a loaf of bread, and one of the other customers in the queue says something to him that he doesn’t catch, so he says ‘What?’ too loudly and angrily, and the other customer says ‘We’re all with you, man,’ and he looks around and the whole queue is looking at him in sympathy and he thinks what nice people, ‘but when did I become an object of pity?’ Told not in recollection, but as a speculative scene that no doubt echoed many real ones. Narrative tricks to keep us on our toes. Listening to Skeleton Tree the following day I noticed two references to hanging around in supermarkets and wondered if the bakery had been an invention, an upgrade. I wondered if the place used in the film as the Cave house is the Cave house in real life, but I think it must be: Dominik talks about filming there, and the shutters are the same as the ones on the cover of Push The Sky Away. It’s a beautiful town house, spacious, white.

Why the speculative mode, the ‘for example’, the ‘say’? Why not tell us about an actual visit to a bakery or supermarket? Isn’t this a documentary? It is and it isn’t. Imagination and storytelling must come into play. Those are the things Nick Cave does, the things that broaden lived experience into work that can have relevance for his audience. He surprised me by saying that this actually matters to him: of course it must, but to acknowledge it is a change from the Cave of the ’80s and ’90s, who would never have been so humble. He talked, too, about the shift away from narrative in his writing. He said he doesn’t believe in stories so much now, he’d rather layer things than have the beginning, middle and end of a single thread. Ah, so that’s why the film is so loose. He said that trauma leaves no space for imagination and creativity, still not saying what the trauma was. His wife Susie found the opposite, that throwing herself into her creative work (dress design) helped, gave her something other than trauma to focus on. Nick said he had to forget his previous perfectionism and let lines in that he would normally have discarded, so the looseness is presumably there in the record too. On first listen, the thing that struck me is how much of it consists of Warren’s soundscapes, with only a few songs, nearer the end, having full band arrangements, as though it starts at the bottom of a murky pool and by its end arrives at the surface, just as the film begins with mess and out-takes and gradually accumulates structure, eventually arriving where a more conventional documentary would have started, at a deserted cliff edge.

It’s funny, too. Near the beginning, Nick’s scathing reference to ‘the 3D black-and-white camera’ which is dogging his steps, or objecting later on that Susie is being filmed emerging from the toilet (‘could you at least get the bowl out of shot?’); Warren’s reassurances to Nick that ‘Your hair looks great!’ or ‘Your hair is even better than it was before!’ This is a film about people getting on with things under the saddest of circumstances, and it goes to some lengths to focus on the getting on rather than the sad circumstances. The scene in which Susie shows and talks about a drawing Arthur did of the cliff where he died, years earlier (aged around 5), is not typical, and is more moving because of it. Nick sits at her side, silent for most of this scene. The most profound reflection, I think, was Nick’s description of the trauma as a fenced-off area to which they, his family, are bound by elastic, and they can carry on with life, but they will always be snapped back (here he snapped his fists together). The one doesn’t invalidate the other, but it colours it, changes it forever. There are some things from which one doesn’t, and doesn’t want to, recover.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Laurent Binet – ‘HHhH’

Let’s look at that last quotation from Look Who’s Back again. Hitler confronts nationalist party leader Holger Apfel: ‘A true German does not wriggle around in legal formulations; he talks straight! The racial idea is the fundament for the preservation of the German Volk.’ ‘He talks straight’ is a common defence of right-wing leaders against reasoned argument (see also: ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’), and yet the irony is that Hitler did not talk straight: he didn’t say he was planning to exterminate all the Jews in Europe, because he knew that world opinion would be against him. HHhH looks at the way this plan came into being, not ideologically, but practically. There is a mass grave at Babi Yar near Kiev, containing over 100,000 bodies. Chapter 111 describes how the victims, all Jews, were herded towards it, and directed by a ‘crammer’ to lie ‘facedown, naked and alive, on top of naked corpses’, before another guard ‘put a bullet in the back of the neck’. It was eventually realised that this was ‘too distressing for the soldiers who must carry it out’, and Reinhard Heydrich, head of the SD (‘SD: Sicherheitsdienst, the security service’), is put in charge of refining the process, which he does first with mobile gas chambers, mentioning ‘better solutions, more advanced and productive’ to the field officers of the SS in chapter 194. Chapter 252, just a short paragraph, tells us that ‘The most appropriate tribute paid by the Nazis to Heydrich’s memory’ was the naming of Aktion Reinhard, ‘the programme to exterminate all Poland’s Jews’, for which the first concentration camps (at Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka) were set up. With such subject matter, it seems a little weak to ask the question: what makes this book a novel?
Everyone finds it normal, fudging reality to make a screenplay more dramatic, or adding coherence to the narrative of a character whose real path probably included too many random ups and downs, insufficiently loaded with significance. It’s because of people like that, forever messing with historical truth just to sell their stories, that an old friend, familiar with all these fictional genres and therefore fatally accustomed to these processes of glib falsification, can say to me in innocent surprise: ‘Oh, really, it’s not invented?’
        No, it’s not invented! What would be the point of ‘inventing’ Nazism?
Fair point, but if you want to write about Nazism without inventing anything, why not write a history book? There are several answers to this, I think. One is defamiliarisation: you don’t expect everything in a novel to be literally true, so you spend more time questioning what you’re reading, which makes you more involved. As do the author’s chatty, playful interjections, which point out the limitations of recorded facts when telling a story, and bridge that gap with an account of his own changing relationship with them. He’s obsessed, he gathers far too much material, he minds too much that he can’t establish whether Heydrich’s car was black or green, he lies to us about whether or not he spent a stupid amount of money on a copy of Lina Heydrich’s memoir Leben mit einem Kriegsverbrecher, his girlfriend Natacha features as a long-suffering, sometimes critical presence (‘What do you mean, “The blood rises to his cheeks and he feels his brain swell inside his skull”? You’re making it up!’), and their relationship doesn’t survive the writing of the book. Most movingly, he can’t bring himself to rush the climactic scene, when the heroes are holed up in a church, besieged by the SS. He gives each new paragraph a date in the present (i.e. 2008, when the book was written), indicating that he is drawing out the writing to delay the inevitable end, because he can’t bear it. He admits that he can’t begin to imagine their situation, but the point is broader: no-one today could possibly do so, and this is another reason for not attempting fictionalisation.

The heroes? Oh yes. I haven’t mentioned that the main plot here is variously the ‘assassination’ or ‘assassination attempt’ (Binet tries to maintain a little suspense by alternating the terms) of / upon Heydrich in Prague on 27th May 1942, arranged by Czechoslovakia president-in-exile Edvard Beneš, and carried out by Jozef Gabčík (Slovak) and Jan Kubiš (Czech). They are parachuted in to the country near Prague in chapter 147, which is, in its entirety: ‘So, to cut a long story short, they jumped.’ They are hidden away by the resistance movement, find girlfriends in the daughters of one landlady, and basically sit around for a few months while Binet fills us in on the back story, making us hate Heydrich as much as possible. He has more than enough material for this, and laments that he has so little on the parachutists themselves (‘I’d like to spend my days with the parachutists in the crypt’). They do come into focus during the later scenes, of the assassination attempt and the siege. The attempt is bungled, in that Gabčík’s Sten sub-machine gun jams when he is standing in front of Heydrich’s car. He doesn’t think to fire his pistol, instead running off as Heydrich shoots at him. Meanwhile Kubiš has time to come up behind the car and throw his bomb. Heydrich is injured, and survives, but there are complications arising from the surgery (his spleen was removed), and he dies, on 4th June, with septicaemia the suspected cause.

This is where Hitler’s cunning plan not to announce the Final Solution to the world falls apart somewhat. The reprisals he unleashes after Heydrich’s death are, again, unimaginably awful, but they are seen by the wider world to reveal the true nature of his regime and, in Binet’s account, had the effect of hardening the resolve of the USSR and the USA to defeat him. This is the victory of Gabčík and Kubiš, who saw only the immediate repercussions of the assassination, and didn’t live long enough to see the tide turn. Following a false clue relating to some other parachutists, before discovering the real assassins in the church, the Schupo (police) rather than the SS massacre the inhabitants of the village of Lidice, and destroy all of its physical structures: the ‘cemetery is desecrated, the orchards destroyed, all the buildings burned, and salt thrown over the earth to make sure that nothing can ever grow here.’ It’s too much, too blatant, even though the number of dead (hundreds rather than thousands) pales in comparison with Babi Yar. A reminder that stories usually matter more than bald facts.
In Washington, D.C., the naval secretary declares: ‘If future generations ask us what we were fighting for, we shall tell them the story of Lidice.’ The name of the martyred village is scrawled on the bombs dropped by the Allies on German cities, while in the East, Soviet soldiers do the same on the gun turrets of their T34s. By reacting like the crude psychopath that he is (rather than the head of state that he also is), Hitler will suffer his most devastating defeat in a domain he once mastered: by the end of the month the international propaganda war will be irredeemably lost.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Timur Vermes – ‘Look Who’s Back’

Conditions here were similar to those in the Weimar era, after my release from prison. Here, too, I needed to begin from the very bottom, with the difference that the influence and mores of the effete bourgeoisie had eaten more deeply into the proletariat – in order to establish a certain level of trust Uncle Wolf had to attire himself in the sheep’s clothing of the bourgeoisie even more so than in the past. And in the mornings, as I partook of my müsli and orange juice with linseeds, I could palpably sense an acknowledgement of my past achievements in the looks people afforded me. I was just debating whether to get up and fetch another apple when I heard the Valkyries galloping on their steeds. With a confident movement I had seen performed by a number of young businessmen, I brought out the telephone and raised it to my ear.
        ‘Hitler!’ I said in a commendably discreet voice.
Hitler’s ringtone made me laugh several times, and it may be the best joke here, in this light comedy about the man who brought about the Second World War and the Holocaust. In case you don’t know, the idea is that Hitler finds himself alive, lying in the street, aged 56, in modern-day Berlin. He didn’t shoot himself in April 1945; instead, he time-travelled to 2011. Because it’s impossible that he can actually be Hitler, people assume that he is an actor with an uncanny resemblance (possibly assisted by plastic surgery) who never comes out of character. He attracts the attention of production company Flashlight, who give him a slot on a TV show hosted by Ali Gagmez, apparently based on Ali G, although it doesn’t quite sound like it from his material: ‘Gagmez introduced a few film snippets in which he appeared as a Pole or a Turk and translated their various shortcomings into stage routines’. Ali G was never so straightforward, surely? In any case, Hitler calls Gagmez’s bluff in the speech which follows:
My fellow Germans!
What I,
what we
have just seen
in numerous routines,
is perfectly true.
It is true
that the Turk has no creative genius
and nor
will he ever have.
Gagmez is furious that Hitler agrees with his portrayal of Turks, and takes showrunner Madame Bellini to task: ‘You said he’d disagree with me. He’d get all uptight about Turks on the telly and that sort of shit!’ It’s an interesting moment. For Gagmez, it’s OK to portray Turks as inferior, or to dress up as Hitler and demand that they be taken off the air, but for Hitler to interpret what he’s doing as critical (which it is) and agree with it is not OK at all. He’s one of the few people to get caught out like this: more often the joke is that people get to the brink of agreeing with Hitler, have a think, and back away from it.

Look Who’s Back is much more about the present than the past: it’s a satire on the way we live now, from the ubiquity and amplification of everything that was already famous before the internet (hence Hitler is the ultimate, ahem, Trump card – and I’m reminded that Trump was Patrick Bateman’s hero, way back when), to the dangerous slippages in meaning which can occur when everything is mediated through algorithms based on popularity. Content may be king online, but what about the content of that content? Hitler embarrasses Gagmez and shows him up as a bigot, which translates to huge numbers of hits on YouTube. The more hits it gets, the more the public is invested in it being satire, because otherwise they would be supporting Hitler’s far-right views for real. Is watching a video the same as endorsing it? Not for an individual. But for 10,000 people? 100,000? 1,000,000?* That has to mean something, and nobody has to say what it is. More slippage.

Of course, there was slippage in the Nazi era too, which is reflected in another running joke here: ‘We’re all agreed that the Jews are no laughing matter,’ says Madame Bellini, warning Hitler not to take things too far. His response: ‘“You’re absolutely right,” I concurred, almost relieved. At last here was someone who knew what she was talking about.’ She believes he agrees with her, and vice versa – but he knows not to be too specific about his views in this area, just as during the Second World War the extermination programme was not made public, though its rationale was. Hitler’s most significant encounter in the book is with Holger Apfel, then the leader of the far-right National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD). I don’t know if the libel laws are different in Germany, or whether the calculation was that any publicity attendant on pursuing them would be counter-productive in this case (‘NPD SUES HITLER’ headlines and so forth), but he doesn’t come off well, babbling about disputing the legitimacy of treaties in response to a question about Lebensraum, and here, on race:
        ‘Where,’ I said icily, ‘in your “brochures” is there any mention of the racial idea? The idea of German blood and racial purity?’ […]
        ‘O.K. then. Having a German passport doesn’t make you a German; you’re German by birth, that’s what it says in our—’
        ‘A true German does not wriggle around in legal formulations; he talks straight! The racial idea is the fundament for the preservation of the German Volk. If this is not impressed on the Volk time and again, in fifty years we will no longer have an army, but a bunch of layabouts like the Habsburg Empire.’
The rules are different now. Leaders of extreme parties can’t claim racial purity as a goal, precisely because of the Holocaust. They have to frame their argument in economic terms. But then, that’s what everyone else does too.


* The trailer for the film has 1,422,074 hits at the moment.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Han Kang – ‘The Vegetarian’

The ebook edition of The Vegetarian has two covers: one which appears at first glance to be a tranquil image of flowers, but which contains hidden-in-plain-sight elements relating to the book’s concerns (a tongue, a steak, fingers, a fly, and – I think – a feeding tube). This cover is only visible within the book; the one you see online (and on the paperback) has a cleanly severed bird’s wing overlaid on a purple-veined salad leaf, which conveys something of the pain that Yeong-hye, the protagonist, relates to meat, including the damage done to her own veins over many months of intravenous feeding in hospital, and her identification with vegetation (‘I wanted flowers to bloom from my crotch so I spread my legs; I spread them wide’). This is a book about pain, mental illness, anorexia; about constraints, within society, within relationships, within families; and it is a book about abuse of women by men. It is not really about the abuse of animals by meat-eaters, in much the same way that ‘The Metamorphosis’ is not a story about how badly people treat insects. Split into three sections, told from three perspectives (husband, brother-in-law, sister), we rarely hear from Yeong-hye herself, which makes sense as the story follows her descent into unknowability. Nevertheless, the pacing, which is the really stunning thing about this novel, follows a trajectory that mirrors her mental state, from withdrawal, through abandon, to collapse.

The section narrated by Mr Cheong, Yeong-hye’s husband, is almost a comedy of manners, in which rigid South Korean social rules are challenged by her refusal to eat meat, and the withdrawal from wifely duties which follows. They attend a dinner with Mr Cheong’s colleagues and boss, in which her social ineptitude (not wearing a bra, refusing to eat and barely speaking) is a serious embarrassment to him. He tries taking what he wants, raping her in a shockingly casual way, then eventually leaves when it becomes clear that she is not going to return to the role society expects and that he demands. This section is a very spare, pure narrative, following through the single idea that she has renounced meat, seeing where it leads. It’s like Herman Melville’s ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’, which takes the phrase ‘I would prefer not to’, and sees what happens.

The second section, ‘Mongolian Mark’, also unwinds from a single idea (that Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law finds that she has a blue Mongolian mark on her behind, and becomes obsessed with it), but it feels far less constricted by social rules – deliberately transgresses them, in fact. It’s interesting because you can interpret it differently depending on the third section, in which Yeong-hye sinks into mental illness. The brother-in-law, a video artist (who I don’t think is named) dreams of painting her body with flowers, centring on the Mongolian mark. The idea consumes him and he produces sketch after sketch of this, before finally approaching her to do it for real. She agrees, and he does make a beautiful video, before carrying the idea too far and trying to get her to have sex on camera with one of the other artists he shares a space with, who is similarly painted. It is the man who refuses, and the brother-in-law then (after a quick paint job) steps in… It’s all much stranger than the rape in section one, which is perfunctory and small-minded. The flower sex is deeply erotic and blurs all sorts of boundaries, but it is set up to be suspect: the brother-in-law is not only committing adultery with his wife’s sister, he is also neglecting his son, who he was supposed to be looking after on the night it happens. Yeong-hye is more herself during this section of the novel than before or afterwards, but she’s still a relatively blank presence, who is being taken advantage of by a family member. Which is what it all comes back to:
Yeong-hye had been the only victim of their father’s beatings. Such violence wouldn’t have bothered their brother Yeong-ho so much, a boy who went around doling out his own rough justice to the village children. As the eldest daughter, In-hye had been the one who took over from their exhausted mother and made a broth for her father to wash the liquor down, and so he’d always taken a certain care in his dealings with her. Only Yeong-hye, docile and naive, had been unable to deflect their father’s temper or put up any form of resistance.
If you want an explanation, that’s it. But the book doesn’t dwell on it, the point is more in the possibilities and restrictions of each situation: the conventional married couple’s home, the artist’s space, the psychiatric hospital. Behind the first two, male ego. Beyond all three, the mind, which, pushed sufficiently far, can let go its ballast and lift itself out of reach. Of course, losing your mind is not freedom (though losing your life certainly means an end to constraint), but In-hye, left behind in sanity, ends the book jealous of her poor sister:
She’d been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner. And before Yeong-hye had broken those bars, she’d never even known they were there.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Agatha Christie – ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’ / John Bude – ‘The Cornish Coast Murder’ / Margery Allingham – ‘Sweet Danger’

It’s the referendum’s fault. I was reading a long, digressive novel about England in the 1830s when it happened, and felt so sickened by everything English that I switched to Proust instead. And then… I don’t know, a twitch upon the thread? These books are nothing if not English. It’s partly to do with Alistair Fitchett’s ‘beverage and a book’ photos on Facebook, which show some of the beautiful book covers modern editions of golden age detective fiction books are treated to (particularly by British Library Crime Classics) next to a tempting-looking cup of coffee. Dripping quietly into the consciousness. It’s partly S.’s enthusiasm too: we went to the Ironbridge Bookshop recently, which has the most amazing selection of old colour-coded Penguin paperbacks (pictured on their cover photo), and she declared her intention to one day have a library of these old crime books, like the one she remembers in her house aged 12, inherited from a great-aunt. It was M. who suggested Margery Allingham, whose detective novels, he said, have a bit more about them than detection, plus the unusual feature of a central character who ages for as long as the books continue, from 1929-65. We couldn’t think of another fictional character who does that.

The Cornish Coast Murder is the most conventional of these books, with a murder at the end of the opening chapter, a police investigation aided by an amateur-sleuth vicar (Reverend Dodd), which potters around methodically, making for an alarming sag in the middle of the book until inspiration strikes the vicar and things finally start moving (this is the kind of thing Conan Doyle inserted gangster novellas into his Sherlock Holmes novels to avoid). The opening chapter is nicely metafictional, with Dodd and his doctor friend Pendrill enthusing over detective fiction before a phone call interrupts their evening with the news that Dodd’s neighbour Julius Tregarthan has been shot. Shot in his own sitting room, through the French windows:
Three shots had starred the glass – one high up in the right-hand fixed window; one about six feet from the base of the door; and the third midway in the left-hand fixed window.
The curtains are open, though it is dark. Beyond the windows is a garden, a wall, a path, a 15-foot cliff and then the sea. Some gravel from the other side of the house lies under the windows. The only footprints found belong to Tregarthan’s niece, Ruth, going away from and then coming back to the house’s side door. Did she shoot him? Did her boyfriend, Ronald Hardy, seen in the vicinity at the time but now missing? Did the gardener, Cowper, creep along the wall from his room next to the sitting room and do it? This stuff goes on for too long, and it is not until Chapter 16 that anyone thinks to [SPOILER ALERT OF SORTS] relate the bullet holes in the wall to the holes in the glass, which rules out all of the theories which have been proposed up to that point. They definitely should have got Scotland Yard in. Also: the class-ism (servants are stupid), sexism and Christianity are all a bit stomach-turning.

By comparison, The Mysterious Affair at Styles is as light as a soufflé, and any stupidity is intentional:
‘Mr Hastings – you are always so kind, and you know such a lot.’ It struck me at this moment that Cynthia was really a very charming girl! Much more charming than Mary, who never said things of that kind.
Agatha Christie’s misdirection is on another level to John Bude’s, as one might expect, and involves Hastings blundering along drawing obviously incorrect conclusions from Poirot’s enigmatic pronouncements because one of the suspects for the poisoning of Mrs Inglethorp, John Cavendish, is his friend. The one thing you can guarantee is that the opposite conclusion to the one which Hastings draws is not going to be correct.

Sweet Danger is a much stranger proposition. For example:
        Amanda regarded him coldly. ‘You admitted the car looked very well outside the house,’ she said with dignity. ‘You’re probably one of those people like Hal who don’t believe in appearances. But I do. Appearances matter an awful lot.’
        ‘Oh, rather,’ said Mr Campion. ‘I knew a man once who carried it to excess, though. His name was Gosling, you see, so he always dressed in grey and yellow, and occasionally wore a great false beak. People remembered his name, of course. But his wife didn’t like it. Of course, he had perfectly ordinary children – not eggs – and that was a blow to him. And finally he moved into a wooden house with just slats in front instead of windows, and you opened the front door with a pulley on the roof. It had a natty little letter box on the front gate with “The Coop” painted on it. Soon after, his wife left him and the Borough Council stepped in. But I see you don’t believe me.’
        ‘Oh, but I do,’ said Amanda. ‘I was his wife. Come and see the mill.’
Unlike The Cornish Coast Murder, Sweet Danger doesn’t hang about exploring things methodically. Unlike The Mysterious Affair at Styles there isn’t even a murder (yes!), only a fiendish conspiracy which Campion is out to foil, to do with the inheritance of an estate which is almost impossible to prove, and which Big Business (not the bull from Cold Comfort Farm, but ultra-rich Brett Savanake and his henchmen) are determined to cream off, defrauding the worthy, impoverished family. While the plot does rest on the old fashioned and conservative assumption that hereditary wealth and status must be preserved, it at least does so in an interesting way, and there is more than a whiff of asset stripping about Brett Savanake’s plans, which feels contemporary. As does the way in which Amanda Fitton and her two siblings make money from the mill which is the only part of their legacy remaining before Campion’s arrival. They use it to run a dynamo, and charge radio batteries for the neighbourhood. They also run their own electric car (‘electric brougham’ is how it is described, and such a thing did exist), which – then as now – has issues with range: ‘you can’t go more than five miles in it’. And… witchcraft. All within a plot with a smooth momentum which never even dreams of sagging, keeping the reader agreeably perplexed, not just at the mechanics of who might have done what, but at the porous boundaries that this particular detective novel has allowed itself. An unlocked-room mystery would seem to be the best kind.

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.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Muriel Spark – ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’

In 1982, Geraldine McEwan put in a relentlessly ball busting performance as Mrs Proudie in the BBC’s The Barchester Chronicles, a perfectly cast adaptation of Trollope’s The Warden and Barchester Towers, in which even against the apoplectic indignation of Nigel Hawthorne’s Dr Grantly, she was the one who came across as the force of nature. In 1978, she played Miss Brodie in an ITV adaptation of this novel, giving a subtler performance, but still in many ways domineering. Watching the TV series in the wake of McEwan’s death last January, I felt as though it was setting me a puzzle. She was – as in the novel – a maverick primary teacher at Marcia Blaine school for girls in Edinburgh, in the early 1930s. A dull school in the main, she was its ‘leaven in the lump’, wilfully disregarding the expectations of Miss Mackay, the headmistress; in fact disregarding every reasonable expectation that a teacher should teach the subjects set. She would put a long division sum on the blackboard in case of intruders, and then hold forth about her holidays in Italy, or about ‘Il Duce’ (Mussolini, her hero). She held that culture, and particularly art, are paramount, and taught these to the complete exclusion of anything mathematical or scientific. She tried to encourage – no, demanded – a passion for the arts, weaving her own life story into her lessons (a love lost in the Great War), to show that life and art are inseparable. She wanted her pupils to build successful lives on this foundation, rather than on one of learned dates and times tables. I mean, that’s great, isn’t it? All apart from the bit about Mussolini.

That was the puzzle, and it was never adequately explained. The series ended abruptly, having done the rounds of the Brodie set, which was all very entertaining, but didn’t explain this fascistic streak in a character otherwise, on balance, just about sympathetic. The novel is darker, though it’s possible to hold on to the benign Miss Brodie for quite a while, if you’re determined. You can even feel sorry for her:
Miss Brodie had a hard fight of it during the first few months when the Senior school had captivated her set, displaying as did the set that capacity for enthusiasm which she herself had implanted. (p. 83)
Talking to Sandy and Rose of an upcoming confrontation with her boss (‘I am summoned to see the headmistress’), she gives an attractive explanation of her philosophy:
The word ‘education’ comes from the root e from ex, out, and duco, I lead. It means a leading out. To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul. To Miss Mackay it is a putting in of something that is not there, and that is not what I call education, I call it intrusion, from the Latin root prefix in meaning in and the stem trudo, I thrust.’ (p. 36)
Sandy in particular doesn’t buy this, and sees the danger in Miss Brodie’s magnetic personality and iron will. What if she isn’t drawing out what is latent, but is carrying along these young, impressionable girls in a torrent of her own making? That is akin to what Mussolini and Hitler did. ‘Hitler was rather naughty’ (p. 122) she remarks to Sandy after the Second World War, in the last year of her life (she dies at 56 – strikingly close to Mrs Proudie’s 57, as though these forceful characters McEwan played were bound to blow themselves out before their time). The danger Sandy senses in Miss Brodie’s influence is borne out when she encourages a troubled pupil called Joyce Emily to run away to the Spanish Civil War – to fight for Franco. There is also an increasingly creepy love nonagon between Miss Brodie, art master Teddy Lloyd, music teacher Gordon Lowther, and the six girls of her set. Lloyd is married, so Miss Brodie renounces him, and he takes to inviting the girls round and painting them, with the resulting portraits all resembling Miss Brodie. She has an affair with Lowther, and invites the girls in pairs to his house, pumping them for information about Mr Lloyd, and trying to push Rose into an affair with him. This is unsuccessful, but Sandy takes Rose’s place (the girls are now 18), surrendering her will to the monstrous situation that Miss Brodie, losing control, sinking from her prime, has caused. And yet she eventually comes to acknowledge that there was something worthwhile in her after all:
It was twenty-five years before Sandy had so far recovered from a creeping vision of disorder that she could look back and recognise that Miss Brodie’s defective sense of self-criticism had not been without its beneficent and enlarging effects; by which time Sandy had already betrayed Miss Brodie and Miss Brodie was laid in her grave. (p. 86)
A puzzle.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Anthony Trollope – ‘The Last Chronicle of Barset’

Jael & Sisera, who feature in a sub plot.
There’s nothing quite like the winding down of a big Victorian novel: the hard part is done, for writer and reader, and all that remains is a series of farewells and tyings up of loose ends, maybe a sneaked glimpse into the future to make sure that the happy part of the ending really is happy. In a sense, The Last Chronicle of Barset is a victory marathon, recycling plots and characters from the five preceding novels, adding little; but that little is precious, because it’s the end. There are more simultaneous and more loosely connected plots here than previously (the Trollope Society site refers to the strands as ‘congeries’), but the main one concerns a stolen cheque for twenty pounds. Lord Lufton’s man of business, Mr Soames, last saw it at Mr Crawley’s house, and a few months later Mr Crawley, the impoverished perpetual curate of Hogglestock, had it cashed. ‘How Did He Get It?’ is the opening chapter’s title, and it’s six hundred odd pages before anything further is revealed on the subject. As a plot device, it’s a bit of a MacGuffin, lacking the pull of Mark Robarts’ spiralling debt in Framley Parsonage, partly because of its static nature. Robarts makes various bad choices in the former book, but Crawley is passive: misfortune falls upon him, first the accusation, then the progression from magistrate’s court to the prospect of a full trial at the next assizes, not to mention a clerical commission investigating his fitness to continue church duties, contrived by Mrs Proudie and ordered by her long-suffering husband the bishop. When he feels that the public believe in his innocence, he stands up to the misfortune, refusing to give up his parish while awaiting trial; but when they start to doubt it, and he starts to doubt it himself (not thinking he has deliberately stolen, but that he has inadvertently taken up the cheque), he relents, and almost relishes the act of giving up his parish unconditionally, before the trial can take place.

Mr Crawley is something of a masochist. This was already apparent in Framley Parsonage, when he refused his friend Mr Arabin’s help at a time of dire need for his family. In The Last Chronicle his character is expanded, but not altered. If Lily Dale was the refusenik of The Small House at Allington (refusing to marry Johnny Eames after Crosbie’s desertion), Crawley fulfils that role in this novel – and he does it much better:
He pitied himself with a commiseration that was sickly in spite of its truth. It was the fault of the man that he was imbued too strongly with self-consciousness. He could do a great thing or two. He could keep up his courage in positions which would wash all courage out of most men. He could tell the truth though the truth should ruin him. He could sacrifice all that he had to duty. He could do justice though the heaven should fall. But he could not forget to pay a tribute to himself for the greatness of his actions; nor, when accepting with an effort of meekness the small payment made by the world to him, in return for his great works, could he forget the great payments made to others for small work. It was not sufficient for him to remember that he knew Hebrew, but he must remember also that the dean did not. (pp. 532-3)
Which makes me think of this:
You know I’ve been wondering
You know all the way home
Whether the world will see
I’m a better man than others by far
        (The Sundays, ‘Skin & Bones’)
Who hasn’t listened to that and thought, ‘It definitely won’t!’ with a certain sense of pride? Not me, certainly. Mr Crawley is made to be the comical hero of anyone who was ever so foolish as to believe that thinking or working, rather than schmoozing, is what gets you on in life. In this he is the opposite of Archdeacon Grantly (who I still see as Nigel Hawthorne, though the series he was in didn’t make it past Barchester Towers), who is as in love with wealth and society as a clergyman can be – that is to say, as much in love with it as any lay person. The coming together of these two personalities through the engagement of their children is one of the great struggles of the book. These are his reasons for opposing the match of his son Henry with Grace Crawley:
One of his children had married a marquis. Another might probably become a bishop, – perhaps an archbishop. The third might be a county squire, – high among county squires. But he could only so become by walking warily; – and now he was bent on marrying the penniless daughter of an impoverished half-mad county curate, who was about to be tried for stealing twenty pounds! (p. 484)
This clash of father and son is strongly reminiscent of Lady Lufton’s opposition to her son’s marriage to Lucy Robarts in Framley Parsonage, and she does her best to soften his attitude because of her own experience. Another great clash is Mr Crawley vs. Mrs Proudie (who is forever Geraldine McEwan, even more than Archdeacon Grantly is Nigel Hawthorne); yet another is Mrs Proudie vs. Bishop Proudie, which has two surprising outcomes, the one I shall mention here being the bishop almost catatonic with depression after she too-obviously directs his official actions in front of outsiders, destroying his self-respect: ‘You have brought on me such disgrace that I cannot hold up my head. You have ruined me. I wish I were dead; and it is all through you that I am driven to wish it.’ (p. 577). He, like Lily Dale and Mr Crawley, finds his greatest strength is to refuse. Everywhere in this story are Bartlebys, declaring ‘I would prefer not to’.

There are also a few instances of young men – John Eames and the artist Conway Dalrymple – getting dangerously close to committing themselves to young women (Miss Demolines and Mrs Dobbs Broughton respectively), before finally finding a way to say ‘I would prefer not to’. To a greater or lesser extent, the women are trying to entrap them. Eames here is no improvement on the Small House at Allington edition: he is just as besotted with Lily Dale and just as likely to flirt with other women to distract himself. Trollope attempts an intervention against this interpretation of his character, but he is ultimately trivial: ‘light of heart’, as Lily puts it. The London scenes generally do not match up to the Barsetshire ones, but the whole I found more satisfying than The Small House at Allington, and it brings everything nicely to a close. It was good, too, to say goodbye to Mr Harding, the sweetest of the Barsetshire characters, and an important presence here, in his declining years. He even coaxes from his creator a half-decent grand-daughter (children are not Trollope’s strong suit), Posy, with whom he plays cat’s cradle as long as his strength allows.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

BAMS 2015: Were we even at the same year?

Now, I definitely wasn’t going to do a list of favourite records this year, because I hadn’t put in the legwork (earwork?) as usual, etc., etc. I apologised to Mike, and he said ‘oh go on’, so I did after all, hoping to bolster The Chills into a good position as I knew he loved Silver Bullets too. And do you know what? It wasn’t enough. In fact, nothing in my list made it into their list at all. Theirs is over there, with lots more on Twitter too; and here are the lovely seeds I cast upon their cold hard ground:
  1. Max Richter – Sleep
  2. The Chills – Silver Bullets
  3. Robert Forster – Songs To Play
  4. Four Tet – Morning / Evening
  5. Ela Orleans – Upper Hell
  6. Rozi Plain – Friend
  7. This Is The Kit – Bashed Out
  8. Twerps – Range Anxiety
  9. Mdou Moctar – Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai OST
  10. Flying Saucer Attack – Instrumentals 2015

Saturday, January 16, 2016

David Bowie

Monday morning, the day before my fortieth birthday, I went into the shower and switched on the radio. Nick Robinson was sort-of apologising for cutting an interview short, saying excitedly that they were pressed for time because of ‘the extraordinary news about David Bowie’. He was much too excited, actually, without seeming to give a damn for anything but the News Event side of it (mental note: stop listening to his programme). It seemed impossible news, three days after Bowie’s new album came out on his birthday. That’s not what happened the last time an album came out on his birthday. We know the drill now: he’s back, but he doesn’t want to talk. He’ll put out records that try to be David Bowie records again, and we’ll love him for it, even if they don’t quite manage to be. Maybe they even will, and he’ll close in on Scott Walker in terms of an accelerated late blossoming. ★ sounded good on Saturday, kept its tone better than The Next Day, I thought. He’s cleared the cobwebs, we’re ready for the off. I’m sure he won’t mind that I never bothered with Heathen, Reality, ‘Hours…’ or Earthling. He certainly won’t now, although looking online for Jon Wilde’s Melody Maker review of Tin Machine II, I found the aftermath: ‘Bowie’s PR later told me that Bowie read it and cried when he got to the last line. I’m not proud of that.’ The last line, from memory: ‘Sit down man, you’re a bloody disgrace’. He did care about the battering his reputation took, and the music press, in those days, could be as vicious as the tabloid press still is now. Wilde’s review set out the good against the bad, and contained a list of songs (‘Win’, ‘TVC 15’, ‘Heroes’, ‘Ashes to Ashes’) which served as a handy guide to the recent reissues of all those great ’70s albums. It was archetypal: don’t even think of listening to anything outside the Space Oddity-to-Scary Monsters window. That was the drill then. And now? It’s too late to be hateful. That’s a liberating thing.

Friday morning, 23rd January 1976. Eleven days old, I precociously set Station to Station on the turntable… well maybe not. But in 1991, I lapped up those re-issues. Ziggy Stardust makes me think of a nursery called Tiggywinkles at which I did work experience, and snuck in a first listen on the walk there from school, having borrowed it from Wolverhampton Central Library at lunchtime. Low makes me think of Florida, where you’re supposed to go to enjoy theme parks, but I still found a record shop and bought that. Back home, I got a non-re-issue of Aladdin Sane from Time Machine records, which someone had presumably sold in order to upgrade. “Heroes” was in Esso’s Tiger Tokens catalogue, and Dad kindly came through there. I don’t remember where I got Hunky Dory from, which probably means it was HMV. At university, my friend and flatmate Brian had a good line of argument about how dark Hunky Dory is. ‘And don’t give me that about “Fill Your Heart”, it’s a cover’. He listened to Bowie and Marvin Gaye non-stop, and I must admit this over-exposure over several years put me off a bit. He was more in love with the musicianship of the records than I was: another argument we had was about Bowie’s voice, which I said wasn’t that great, and he immediately walked off down a side street. He was right there, but what I was getting at was something to do with artifice and lack of warmth (Brian Wilson was my counter-argument). Momus’ beautiful tribute blog post has a riposte to that, playing with the idea that his death is a hoax:
He’d vicariously lap up the tributes, relish the tears, laughing at our sentimentality about someone we stereotyped, sometimes, as cocaine-cold, when in fact he was a histrionic volcano of emotion.
Poor Momus. Poor Brian. I hope they’re OK. I hope the explosion of affection there has been for Bowie on social media (which Brian probably hates) continues for a good while yet. It feels deserved, and Bowie’s exit feels like a riposte, itself, to the ’90s-and-onwards music press narrative. He’s outsmarted them all, with a move at once Pop and inarguably authentic. He has shown us that there is no such divide. Jon Wilde complained in 1991 that he couldn’t (or didn’t) do breathtaking anymore. With the last breath in his body, he has taken ours one last time. It’s not too late to be grateful.

Friday, January 01, 2016


My nephew (2¾) is going through a Rapunzel phase at the moment. I think it originated with Tangled, but it takes in every version of the story he can get, not to mention every tower, and every ribbon or rope he can make believe is Rapunzel’s hair. Visiting over Christmas, I read several versions of the story, and found some interesting differences. There is some censorship going on, I think, but also some Chinese whispers. At the beginning of the story, a woman looks from a window at her neighbour’s garden, and is overcome with a desire to eat something she sees growing there: either salad, lettuce, or rampion, depending on the version. The word ‘rampion’ is related to ‘rapunzel’, so it would make sense for that to be the right one. My dictionary traces both words back to ‘rapum’ (turnip) in Latin, and defines it as ‘A kind of bellflower, Campanula rapunculus, of which the white tuberous roots are sometimes used as a salad.’ has this:
The larger roots are reserved for boiling, sometimes the young roots are eaten raw with vinegar and pepper, and occasionally the leaves, as well as the roots, are eaten as a winter salad.
If the leaves of the plant are only occasionally used, it could be that there has been a misunderstanding of ‘salad’ with some of the translations and re-tellings, equating it with lettuce. The version of the story S. remembers has radishes as the tempting vegetable, which opens an intriguing link to The Tale of Peter Rabbit, another of my nephew’s favourites, also about stealing produce from a garden.

The husband steals the salad leaves, lettuce or rampion, and when he goes back for more the next day, gets caught by the owner of the garden, a witch. She demands his wife’s baby – if she has one – in payment for the stolen goods. In the old Ladybird version, there is no hint that the wife is pregnant at this point (she is described as thin), so the husband’s agreement to these terms comes over as a gamble that she will not conceive. This version makes little sense: if she’s starving, lettuce won’t help much, and in all the other versions it is the pregnancy which explains the unusual craving. To have the husband give up a baby he knows is coming makes for a better story, and makes clear the strength of the desire behind the craving. A different Ladybird version (two pages of which are available online) removes another of the story’s edges, having the witch steal the baby, rather than the parents handing her over.

Rapunzel meets a prince, who visits her by night, climbing up her hair as the witch does during the day, bringing her material from which to make a rope (he couldn’t just bring her a ready-made rope?) All versions agree that she gives the game away by telling the witch in an unguarded moment that she is heavier than the prince. None of them mention that she gets pregnant herself during one of the prince’s visits until later, and the more modern versions leave this out completely. When the witch surprises the prince and he falls and blinds himself in a thorn bush, I think of Rochester in Jane Eyre; in fact, that kind of symbolic event works much better in a fairy tale than a realist novel. Symbolic of what, though? The mystery and power of the story (and of many fairy tales) lies partly in the fact that it is not an allegory, I think. There is a point being made about the danger of desire – for rapunzel the plant, Rapunzel the baby, Rapunzel the woman, and (from her perspective) for the prince. It’s not exactly a warning, more an actuating force, driving events through contortions that only really come to make sense through repeated readings, when they become inevitable, but never quite lose their weird fascination. ‘No door,’ my nephew will explain, given half a chance. ‘Long, long hair’.


‘Rapunzel’ at Adelaide Ebooks.
More illustrations.

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