A Brief History of Western Culture – Michael Peverett

Section 1. To 1588

Section 2: 1588-1790

Section 3. 1790-1870

Section 4. 1870-1945

Section 5. 1945-1975

Section 6. 1975-1984

Section 7. 1985-1997

Section 8. 1997-2004

Section 9. 2004-Now

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A BRIEF HISTORY OF WESTERN CULTURE

 

by Michael Peverett

 

Section 4. 1870-1945

 

 

 

Contents

 

Links marked with a * are separate HTML pages. Click on the link to go to it (you can't get to it just by scrolling down this page.)

 

The Castle of Neuschwanstein (a jigsaw puzzle)   power and tourism

Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891)           about driving a car

Benito Pérez Galdós: Trafalgar (1873)  

William Canton (1845 - 1926)      

Émile Zola: L'Assommoir (1876)      dead to the world

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)      formal grammar

Rev J. Jackson Wray: Simon Holmes, Carpenter  a dissenting novel

Anton Chekhov: The Shooting Party (1885)    virtuous narration

R.L. Stevenson: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886)     NEW

A.K. Gardner: The Conjugal Relationships as to Health   sexology and evasion

Frank Norris: The Octopus (1901)            New World Zola

Hjalmar Söderberg: Doktor Glas (1905)    

W.B. Yeats (1865-1939)           attached to the heart

Richard Strauss: An Alpine Symphony (1915)   the sun grows dark

Edward Thomas (1878-1917)       NEW

Handbook Encyclopedia of Engineering (1929)     

The Lyceum Book of Verse (1931)          ladies’ poetry

Famous Plays of 1931    NEW

Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)*      masterworks and dirt

Oliver Strange: The Marshal of Lawless (1933)   NEW

Victor Canning               talent and a place in society

H.A.L. Fisher: A History of Europe (1935)    

Harold P. Clunn: The Face of the Home Counties (1936)  

Karin Boye (1900-1941)              a classical oeuvre

The Oxford Book of Spy Stories         the world of the spy: this one

C.S. Lewis: The Problem of Pain (1940)           heaven and hell exist

Peter Yates                      a poet of the forties

E.B. Ford: Butterflies (1945)           the death sciences

 

 

 

 


The Castle of Neuschwanstein (a jigsaw puzzle)

 

 

“Oh what a brute you are!” said Mutti under her breath. “Oh, you brute!”

 

She held one of the 500 pieces in her hand, trying it this way and that. The puzzle (we did not call them “jigsaws”) was three-quarters finished, but there were big gaps in the sky and also in a shady tangle beside a wall.

 

“Got you.” The piece fitted neatly into place in an unobvious spot. “At last! What a fearful brute.”

 

We sat in bed with the tray across our knees. The handles were strung with dull green beads that reminded me of peas. In Eastbourne I was always aware of the sea. The night was never still. Behind the curtains there was a restful soughing; the noises of the town, of breeze and leaves; complaining seagulls. Mutti was a keen swimmer from April onwards, and I thought of her as standing beside the brilliant expanse of the beach, its keeper. Now she occupied the same position in relation to the gleaming oblong that we pored over: a thatched cottage gloriously hung with pink roses, or all the fun of the fair.

 

When I was still younger, we had always played patience. The puzzles began because of an exchange scheme up at Holy Trinity. Often we’d find a piece or two missing. Mutti slipped a note into the box (torn from a used envelope), and marked the place with an X on the lid. 

 

Forty years later, I am piecing together the castle of Neuschwanstein; for when you are doing a jigsaw you have an agreeable sense of constructing the objects themselves. After the edges and the snow-capped mountains the castle itself goes up quite easily, especially the upper part which looks white and sharp-edged in the sunlight. The shadowy parts are more tricky. I have to sort through the box picking out “gloomy architecture” and, eventually, “black architecture”. I am making up terms as I sit here, too absorbed to smoke. The next evening my attention shifts towards the September woods, a confusion of green and bronze leaf-canopies. After a frustrating tussle I make the discovery that the photograph is slightly sharper on the left, a touch more blurry on the right. The woods come together. Now I’m left only with the blue sky, which except near the horizon has not the faintest variation. I’m stuck; I’m going nowhere. I sort the pieces into groups which have something similar in the shape, beginning with the more eccentric ones. After a little while I begin to grasp that these eccentric shapes tend to fit together in vertical columns. Looking more closely still, I begin to see how the jigsaw was cut. There is more variation in the horizontal cutlines than in the vertical ones. I can’t always explain it, but I realize that before I have placed a piece I can usually sense which way round it goes. And the sky fills up, until I lay in the last three pieces and my journey is complete; now I have only a picture. 

 

On that journey I experienced the castle as part of nature, a thing of sun and shadows, its “architecture” inextricably mingled with the trees, its white turrets chiming with the snow-capped mountains. I never felt a compulsion to judge it. Like the arenas of other games, for example the golf-course and the cricket-pitch, the jigsaw is nature made comprehensible; it is structured. Here the structure is a levelling one. We have to focus on every inch of the picture, eventually, the straggly little tree by the rock just as much as the apex of the highest turret, ringed by battlements.

 

Work began on the castle in 1869. Ludwig II announced that he would rebuild the ruins that occupied this spot “in the genuine style of the old German Knightly fortresses ... the spot is one of the most beautiful that one could ever find.” The latter consideration, no doubt, suggests an un-Medieval attitude from the start. In the end the old ruins, known as Vorderhohenschwangau, were blasted away with dynamite. The new construction was designed by Christian Jank and Eduard Riedel, and made full use of modern technology.  Neuschwanstein, whatever Gothic – or rather, Romanesque (the style was changed at the design stage) - motifs it appropriates, is plainly the “old German Knightly” viewed through imaginative spectacles; the vision of a man besotted with Tannhäuser. Though this was actually the cheapest of Ludwig’s three new palaces, no expense was spared. The internal grotto, the singer’s hall, the bedroom on which (it is said) fourteen wood-carvers spent four and a half years, above all the throne-room, were conceived with a Wagnerian contempt for practicality. Ludwig funded his three palaces privately and on foreign credit, but in 1885 the banks threatened to seize his property. In 1886 the Bavarian government declared Ludwig insane. He was deposed, interned in the Berg Palace and died in the Starnbergersee the next day. In the last two years of his life he had spent a fair amount of time at the castle; the king’s apartments were habitable. But construction was barely half-finished when he died.

 

That should have been the end of this folly, but for an unexpected source of revenue.  A matter of weeks after Ludwig’s death, Neuschwanstein (as it now came to be known – Ludwig has called it the “Neue Burg Hohenschwangau”) was thrown open to tourists. Strangers had been forbidden in Ludwig’s lifetime – this palace in particular had been intended as a “holy and inaccessible” retreat. The construction was completed in 1892.

 

The castle did not, of course, have a military function. Ludwig had been defeated by the Kaiser in 1866, and foreign policy lay in Prussia’s control. The sheer limestone facings on all the more prominent parts are just a shell – the structural fabric is brick. Nevertheless, this fantasy proved to have political potential. “Sleeping Beauty’s castle”, in Disneyland, is a copy of it. As a secular “magnet” for tourists, Neuschwanstein focussed, for good or ill, some of the most powerful energies cementing western society.

 

Let’s hear some of the visitors:

 

I was in Germany two years ago and had the chance to go to Neuschwanstein. This place is unbelievable!! The tour they give is pretty good. Don't worry if you don't speak Dutch because they are translators for a lot of different languages. I am still obsessed with this castle because it is so amazing, and to say you have been there is pretty sweet too. I recommend this place to anybody who is going to Germany. If you don't go, you will miss out big time. (Scott Gordon (19), Santa Barbara, California)   

 

I visited the Neuschwanstein castle in April of 1988, when I was 16 years old.  The experience has stayed with me for a lifetime.  I have collected images of the castle over the past 12+ years, to the extent that I have had a castle printed on my wedding invitations (I am getting married to a "castle convert" in May 2001), and our cake topper is a crystal replica of the Neuschwanstein.  Many think I am crazy, but it is the "fairytale" castle to go with our fairy tale wedding.  Ah, to be a princess for just one day... If you are in Europe, visit this castle...it is one of the most amazing places on earth! (Amy (29), Indy, Indiana)

 

 In 1986 my husband and I visited this wonder.  It was a lovely fall day and the castle was enchanting.  We had wonderful tour guide through the services of the US military.  He told us all of the inside information about the castle, and the interesting King who built it.  Sometimes people are very misunderstood and it is documented that Ludwig led a very unusual life.  I personally do not belief he was mad, eccentric perhaps.  He had too many innovations built by his design into the castle (i.e.  running water, intercom system, a primitive form of air conditioning).  It disturbs me to always hear him referred to as mad.  Sometimes if we don't understand someone, we label them and this I believe is what happened to the good SMART king. (J Montgomery (40), Maryland)

 

This is one of several castles I visited when I was station as a Military Policeman serving between 74' to 77'in the good ole' U.S. Army. I was off duty and had a "leave of absence" saved up so I bought a train ticket and went to Garmisch stayed at one of the popular "military favorite" hotels and went with a tour guide in his Mercedes with several of my friends. Unfortunately I lost my wallet at one of the stops in Oberamergau at the Kloster Ettal and hitch-hiked to the "Linderhof and the guy that gave me the ride offered to pay for tour of the castle, so I went then when I finished the tour I hitch-hiked to Fussen and tried to sell my watch to go thru Neuschwanstein and the guy refused to take it but he gave me the money to go thru it and I was totally blown away by the foresight of this "Mad King". If that guy was crazy then there's no hope for the world of imagination, creativity, and genius. I wish I could have met this guy, he had something wonderful going on in his head but the idiots of time were so backward they couldn't see the forest for the trees! It has been brought to my attention that this castle alone brings millions of visitors each year to it and they spend well over a billion dollars a year while they're visiting. Now who is mad? I am because such a genius would be snuffed out simply because he spent 800 million in investment dollars to bring in almost 100 billion over the last 50 years. That is a guesstimate of course but there really is no telling how far reaching the fore site of this Mad King's genius has spread. We do know he was the first king to have hot and cold water plumbing, and a room that was actually a cave with colored stalagmites and stalactites. Even Walt Disney even recognized his genius when he designed his fairy tale castle after Neuschwanstein. If you get to go to this castle I think you'll love it. Don't forget to hike around and cross the Gorge Bridge and check out the waterfall and the lake at the foot of the mountain. Also check out Hohenschwangau his boyhood home (George R Wilson III (44), Campbellsville, Kentucky)

 

If all of this begins to evoke Michael Jackson and Neverland, it’s not altogether inappropriate.

 

The jigsaw puzzle craze, as an amusement for adults, began in the US at the beginning of the twentieth century. The first interlocking puzzles appeared in 1909, and the first cardboard puzzles in 1932. Jigsaws became even more popular during the Depression years; they have always been associated with unemployment.

 

Here is a keen puzzler (from Massachusetts):

 

Just wanted to pitch in my two cents regarding the large puzzles: the 12,000-piece Ravensburger "The Creation of Adam" puzzle has sat gathering dust on my bedroom floor, awaiting completion for more than two years. I finished the left and right panels, but the massive area of light-blue/white in the center is extremely difficult, probably the most monotonous stretch I've ever attempted. I'm planning to finish that part this fall, what with all these new puzzles coming out. Personally, I've completed some monsters: the 9,000-piece Tower of Babel, Clementoni's 13,200-piece "Sacred and Secular Love" (actually quite manageable: bagged in six table-sized sections), Educa's 8,000-piece Sistine Chapel Ceiling and The Surrender at Granada. I've framed most of them, and in a couple of years I'm planning a permanent installation at our local public library. I try to do two large ones a year, mostly around the winter holidays. As far as I'm concerned, the big puzzles of classic art are the best.

 

Mutti would not have countenanced this excess. She probably didn’t countenance jigsaw puzzles really – she never approved when I urged her to attempt a really large one. It was with great difficulty that her sons eventually persuaded her to have a television – she did not like admitting that she watched anything, it was all “terribly stupid”. 

 

 

 

(2003)

 

 


 

Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891)

 

 

I read Rimbaud’s Bateau ivre, in English of course, I think for the first time. Tremendous ---- verve? ----- momentum? Something, however, says: but what’s the point? Rimbaud’s poems are reviewable in the terms of a hot new album, or even the A-List in the Daily Mirror (Friday review of movies). “his language resembling a high-voltage electrical circuit” .... a phrase from the Introduction, improbably attributed to Iris Murdoch.  I suppose that Bateau ivre is really about driving a car.

 

 

 

(2001)

 

 

 


Benito Pérez Galdós: Trafalgar (1873)

 

This is the first of that stupendous series, the Episodios Nacionales. It eventually ran to 46 novels, covering the period 1805-1880; Galdós had intended to write 4 more novels (to complete the fifth series, which like the others was to consist of ten novels)  but he finally abandoned work on it in 1912 when he became blind.

 

Like its successors Trafalgar is a documentary-novel; one of its main aims is to provide an accurate narrative of historical events, and the details of the battle, e.g. of ships sunk, captured, or wrecked are reliable; the novel could be used, and was used, to inform the young in history classes. Galdós' researches were thorough and to some extent original; he sought out oral testimony.

 

Given the date of composition, one is at first struck by a certain old-fashionedness in the book; its fictional plots and characters do not seem to belong to the era of Zola; they rather recall Scott or 18th century fiction - Galdós had in fact recently translated The Pickwick Papers and his way of forming characters by comic mannerisms or catchphrases does recall the early Dickens. In the first half of the book, the detail of the debates is presented as comic pedantry, e.g. between Don Alonso and his indefatigably pacifist wife Doña Francisca. A long section deals with the hopeless love of the 14-year-old hero for his master's daughter; again, it looks a bit old-fashioned - we miss the social detail that would be automatic in serious English novelists of this date.

 

All the greater the shock when the battle finally begins. It is salutary to read of Trafalgar from the perspective of the losers. Their position is hopeless and the decimation of the Santisima Trinidad is bloody and prolonged. Things do not get any easier when the battle is over and in subsequent days we pass with the wounded from ship to ship in the terrible weather, and eventually to shipwreck. As this material takes over, the characters from the early part of the book - the hero, Don Alonso, Marcial and the Malespinas disappear into a turmoiled crowd, and when they emerge are transformed from the sedentary and garrulous comic characters of earlier pages into an insanity of combat. The effect of the eventual death of Marcial, after such heroic effort, is surprisingly powerful. 

 

Here are the hero and Marcial while the fighting is still going on:

 

Rendido el Bucentauro, todo el fuego enemigo se dirigió contra nuestro navío, cuya pérdido era ya segura. El entusiasmo de los primeros momentos se había apagado en mí, y mi corazón se llenó de un terror que me paralizaba, ahogando todas las funciones de mi espíritu, excepto la curiosidad. Esta era tan irresistible, que me obligó a salir a los sitios de mayor peligro. De poco servía ya mi escaso auxilio, pues ni aun se trasladaban los heridos a la bodega, por ser muchos, y las piezas exigían el servicio de cuantas conservaban un poco de fuerza. Entre éstos vi a Marcial, que se multiplicaba gritando y moviéndose conforme a su poca agilidad, y era a la vez contramaestre, marinero, artillero, carpintero y cuanto había que ser en tan terribles instantes. Nunca creí que desempeñara funciones correspondientes sino como la mitad de un cuerpo humano. Un astillazo le había herido en la cabeza, y la sangre, tiñéndole la cara, le daba horrible aspecto. Yo le vi agitar sus labios, bebiendo aquel líquido, y luego lo escupía con furia fuera del portalón, como si también quisiera herir a salivazos a nuestros enemigos.

 

Galdós' intent to combine accurate history with the trappings of a novel produces an effect that may strike us as un-integrated. The combination is not seamless; for example, we never quite understand on what basis Don Alonso, his boy-servant and his old seafaring friend have all been taken into service on the same ship; their duties appear no more clearly defined than to lend a hand and to serve their country. On the other hand it's already clear in this first volume that the method has potential; Galdós triumphantly delivers a panorama of the whole battle and its aftermath (bolstered by narratives of other encounters, when the wounded mix with people who were on other ships), and he does so from the point of view of mere participants, not strategists or politicians. It must have been immediately clear to his readers that a new kind of national epic was in the making.

 

(2007)


William Canton (1845 - 1926)

 

First published in Intercapillary Space.

 

What I've been reading is a 1925-ish pamphlet from the series The Augustan Books of Poetry Edited by Edward Thompson. William Canton's early poetry, written in the 1870s, gained attention (e.g. from Thomas Huxley) for its adoption of up-to-date materials from Darwinism, geology and archaeology. In later years Canton (1845 - 1926), editor and leader-writer for the Glasgow Weekly Herald, was mainly known for his children's books and popular Christian works (A Child's Book of Warriors, Dawn in Palestine, etc). Some of the poems here date from after the death of his beloved daughter Winifred Vida in 1901.

 

Canton's principal themes are A: huge vistas of time and B: children, about whom he writes very sweetly and warmly. This is the end of "A Philosopher":

 

Take them to bed, nurse; but before she goes

Daddy must toast his little woman's toes.

Strange that such feeble hands and feet as these

Have sped the lamp-race of the centuries!

 

That last couplet, combining his two themes, goes into my page-long anthology of the best of William Canton. Yes, it might have been written by any number of Victorian poets, but not all perfections are individual. Some shorthands, such as the word "sped" in that fragile moment before motoring, are achieved communally. (Indeed, as much as Rimbaud's Bateau ivre, Canton's lines are a sort of birth-pang of motoring, already envisaged in dreams before it was engineered.)

 

But my favourite poem is "The Haunted Bridge", partly because I have no logical explanation for the suggestive phrase "citron shadow". The ancient bridge, now cut adrift from roads, is haunted by a little lad, a Roman truant who has gone a-fishing

 

And, dangling sandalled feet, looks down

     To see the swift trout dart and gleam --

Or scarcely see them, hanging brown

     With heads against the clear brown stream.

 

It does not exactly suggest a  Roman scene, sandals or no, but that's what makes the poem interesting. A similar appropriation of the past occurs in my other favourite poem, "Woodland Windows" - these are "foliage-fretted lancets" through a line of elms, which Canton oddly calls woodland - but these pillared elms, now long gone from the English landscape, did not grow in woods but around field edges. Anyway, the poet, glimpsing first an old fisherman and then "two bright sunburnt tots at play", then meditates the past into the scene:

 

Within the woodland's pillared shade,

    I seem from some dim aisle to see

That shore by whose blue waters played

    The little lads of Zebedee.

 

(Those bright-coloured stained-glass narratives of Victorian churches are obviously a birth-pang of Technicolor, already envisaged etc...)

 

The major poem here is "Through the Ages", which is in three parts, the first a dramatic Stone Age tragedy featuring a sabre-tooth tiger. This section is fascinatingly crude;that is, it pre-dates a consensus about how to portray  prehistory in literature.

 

                 By the swamp in the forest

                      sings shrilly in glee

                 The stark forester's lass

                     plucking mast in a tree --

And hairy and brown as a squirrel is she! 

 

The second section is a grand processional covering vast expanses of time:

 

......

For lo! the shadowy centuries once more

With wind and fire, with rain and snow sweep by;

And where the forest stood, an empty sky

Arches with lonely blue and lonely land.

The great white stilted storks in silence stand

Far from each other, motionless as stone,

And melancholy leagues of marsh-reeds moan,

And dead tarns blacken 'neath the mournful blue.

 

These eras and sea-pictures are eventually populous and as we reach recorded history they even name some individuals - the last is Oliver Cromwell.

 

The third section is a comic schoolroom scene in which an eloquent but droning professor is gently ribbed by a lively class of girls, but then young Phemie suddenly awakens in her imagination the scene with which the poem began. The verse looks like this: -

 

           Monstrous bird stalk stilted by as

             She perceives the slab of Trias

Scrawled with hieroglyphic claw-tracks of the mesozoic days...

 

Not only the professor, but the whole poem, is reoriented through this mockery. The mixture of registers is piquant - the question underlying each of the poem's sections is: in what way are our lives altered by these unearthings of the past?  "Through the Ages" stands modestly at the head of a proud succession that  would include Doughty's The Dawn in Britain (1906), Kipling's "Puck's Song" and others, the first part of The Anathemata, Riley's Excavations, etc.

 

(Other readers may not value that modesty as I do. This was an age in which the poet's eagle eye, the colonialist's eagle eye, the ruling-class Englishman's eagle eye, the journalist's eagle eye, were omnipresent assumptions: all subsumed into the image of a border-guard of who sees beyond the petty campfires of the women and of lesser men. Surely Canton, scion of a family of colonial administrators, would assume that complacent patriarchal mantle? From what I can see in this pamphlet, it didn't occur to him.)

 

(2009)


 

Émile Zola: L’Assommoir (1877)

 

 

L’Assommoir is the seventh of the Rougon-Macquart sequence and the first that is still widely read, though Thérèse Raquin (1867) precedes all of them. Sometimes being a part of a larger sequence prevents due recognition. L'Assommoir is one of the supreme European novels and it really stands alone in Zola's work, despite such jaw-dropping successors as Germinal (1885) and La Terre (1887).

 

In English you have no choice but to read L’Assommoir through a haze of jerky interference, even in Leonard Tancock’s translation. That’s unfortunate if only because of Zola’s huge importance in the history of the British novel. If you have ever wondered why, around 1875, the amazing fertility of its own glory days, masterpiece after masterpiece, seems to yield incomprehensibly to a trifling loss of confidence, then this is why. Zola, above all, made our authors understand themselves as incapacitated (Ibsen was possibly the second most potent author in this respect – i.e the reproof was publically felt).

 

Thus in April 1866, Wilkie Collins wrote this, in his Foreword to Armadale:

 

Estimated by the Clap-Trap morality of the present day, this may be a very daring book. Judged by the Christian morality which is of all time, it is only a book that is daring enough to speak the truth.

 

Ten years later (January 1877), Zola’s Preface says:

 

L’Assommoir is without doubt the most moral of my books... It is a work of truth, the first novel about the common people which does not tell lies but has the authentic smell of the people.

 

In these combative prefaces the two novelists used almost the same language, but once Zola had done it you’d be laughed at if you spoke that way about books like Armadale.

 

There is thus a Zola-shaped recess in the English novel, and in the next generation it’s followed by a Zola-shaped idea of what a serious novel is, by now so ingrained and so coloured by the individuality of good authors (Conrad, Hardy, Joyce, Lawrence..) that we sometimes mistake it for their own idea. I’m sorry to say that they were, on the whole, very ungrateful.

 

Tancock sometimes succeeds brilliantly, but at such a long distance in time and place from the rue de la Goutte d’Or, he knew he had an impossible mission. At its worst the prose looks clunkily bolted together out of stock expressions that don’t quite fit, e.g.

 

she pitied her brother, that ninny whose wife deceived him up hill and down dale, and it was understood that the only reason why she still set foot in such a madhouse was for her poor old mother’s sake, who was obliged to live in the midst of all these abominations.

 

At least Zola’s text was speaking the same language as its characters – French, I mean. But then Zola’s project had intrinsic impossibilities of its own. He appropriated the speech of the streets, an essentially oral form, and tried to use it to make paragraphs in a novel, the wrong tool for the wrong job.     

 

“Up hill and down dale” is a phrase that you’ll never hear in real life except in some connection with transport, this being the only context where its powerful old image flames into life. There is a decorum in common speech that resists transferred usage, unless it is instantly seen to be natural (in which case it just as instantly ceases to be transferred usage, and becomes a part of the common inheritance in its own right). Extension of usage, the pressure of words placed in new contexts, is a literate practice intrinsically alien to the language of the Goutte d’Or and to any other common neighbourhood, where speech is a highly conservative medium and tiny deviations mark the outsider, the person who can never be “one of us”.

 

This ill-chosen phrase is presumably Tancock’s fault, but he’s not helped by having to slip these oral ready-mades into a syntactic framework that consists of essentially literary language like “deceived”, “it was understood”, “who was obliged to live”, expressions that are only used in educated settings. That has to be Zola’s responsibility, the basic contradiction in his method, which is something every novel needs to have. Fortunately for the world he had the necessary drive and insensitivity to carry it through. 

 

When it operates as a kind of continuous unattributable commentary the method does have a slippery potential. As the paragraph continues, we drift away from Mme Lorilleux’s thinking into wider seas:

 

The whole district fell upon Gervaise. She must have been the one to lead the hatter astray. You could see it in her eyes. Yes, in spite of the ugly stories, that artful dodger Lantier got away with it, because he went on with his gentlemanly airs in front of them all, strolling along the pavements reading the paper, full of gallant attentions to the ladies, always giving them sweets or flowers. After all, he was only behaving like a cock among hens, a man’s a man, and you can’t expect him to resist women who throw themselves at him, can you? But there was no excuse for her; she was a disgrace to the rue de la Goutte d’Or.

 

The commentary doesn’t speak with a single voice, since for the space of a brief shimmy it seems to admit the “artful dodger” Lantier’s culpability. We’ve seen what happened between Gervaise and Lantier, or we think we have, so this commentary about Gervaise we assume to be a cloud of commonplace-sexist prejudice and something that Zola doesn’t intend us to accept. At the same time it has its influence on us, because its pattern is at least comprehensible. We have not after all seen Gervaise’s eyes. She didn’t mean to trap Lantier, but then you can argue that Lantier, pace Virginie’s conspiratorial fantasies when he turns up, is a sponger and a drifter rather than a Macchiavelli. He wasn’t really responsible for Coupeau fouling the marriage bed with lakes of vomit. And didn’t Gervaise tacitly accept what was bound to happen from the moment Lantier moved in? Goujet thought so. The neighbourhood view, unlike the one that we take as bourgeois readers of a bourgeois form, at least acknowledges Gervaise’s rare moment of triumph, even if the neighbourhood condemns it. 

 

You need a pattern, even if it’s far from accurate, and in the next paragraph we see Gervaise working out her own changed circumstances on the basis of more or less accepting the neighbourhood myth. It’s like a communal thought-process.

 

Amid the general indignation Gervaise lived on, calm, indolent, half asleep. At first she had felt very guilty, very dirty and disgusted with herself. When she left Lantier’s room she washed her hands and then wetted a cloth and wiped her shoulders hard enough to take the skin off, as though to wash away her shame. If on such occasions Coupeau tried on any funny tricks with her she would fly into a temper and run off shivering to dress in the shop. Similarly she would not let Lantier touch her if her husband had embraced her. She would have liked to change skins when she changed men. But gradually she got used to it. It’s too tiring to have a bath every time! Her laziness melted away her scruples, and her longing to be happy made her get as much pleasure as she could out of her troubles. She was as indulgent towards herself as towards others, and was only anxious to arrange things so that nobody was too put out. After all, you see, so long as her husband and her lover were happy, and the home went on in its regular routine and everything in it was fun and games the livelong day, and everybody was nice and comfortable and pleased with life, there was nothing to complain about, was there? And besides, when all was said and done, what she was doing couldn’t be all that terrible, since it was all working out so well to everybody’s satisfaction, and you are generally punished if you do wrong. So her lack of shame had turned into a habit. It was now all as regular as mealtimes; whenever Coupeau came home drunk she popped over to Lantier’s bed, and that happened on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays at least. She shared out her nights, and had even taken to leaving her husband in the middle of his sleep when he snored too loud, so as to finish off her own sleep quietly on the lodger’s pillow. It wasn’t that she felt more attached to the hatter. No, it was simply that he seemed cleaner and she could sleep better in his room – she felt she was having a bath. In fact she was rather like a dainty cat who loves curling up on nice white linen.

 

The paragraph begins firmly and makes its way to the phrase about changing skins as one changes men. In the same way the end of the paragraph suddenly crystallizes into the picture of the dainty cat. Both of these are things that we see Gervaise thinking, and they act like searchlights into her mind with their common emphasis on cleanliness and bathing (by the end of the paragraph, this has ended up meaning being in Lantier’s bed).

 

But between these illuminations the central part of the paragraph is cloudy with parallel syntax and dithering qualifications like “after all, you see... and besides, when all was said and done...”. Coincidentally or not, “fun and games all the livelong day” is another judder of the Tancock/Zola phrase-bolting machine. One of the difficulties Zola makes for himself is that he hasn’t worked out a way of representing the silences of consciousness. His Gervaise is compelled by the methodology of the novel into a discursive and verbal awareness of her situation that is exactly how she wouldn’t think or choose to think, and this is compounded by her being made to employ the street-language designed for a different social context, which is bound to make her discursiveness seem silly. She is not a novelist or a debater, and Zola has to make her into one, even when she’s sick and starving in the twelfth chapter. Nevertheless his method does lead to a dreadful effect in the final pages, when Gervaise is wandering in her mind and the prose gradually withdraws from her consciousness, eventually objectifying her as a huddled body under the stairs in Bru’s kennel.

 

Where the method really catches fire it becomes a brilliant expression of excited awareness – this is when Zola is going with the strength of the street-talk and not trying to make it do things it was never intended to do. This is Gervaise giving way to the thrill of the pawnshop:

 

Gervaise would have gladly sold up the whole lot; she was seized with a frenzy for popping everything, and would have shaved her own head if they would have advanced something on her hair. It was all too easy; you couldn’t help going there for some money when you were longing for a four-pound loaf. The whole shoot went that way – linen, clothes, even tools and furniture. In the early days she took advantage of good weeks and got things out of pawn, only to pop them again the following week. But later she couldn’t be bothered about her belongings and just let them go and sold the pawn tickets. Only one thing broke her heart,....

 

The prose does wonderfully with this dire over-heating, and it is still doing it near the end, e.g. in Gervaise’s fascinated participation in Coupeau’s death:

 

Seeing the doctors laying their hands on her husband’s body, Gervaise wanted to touch him too. She went up timidly, put her hand on his shoulder, and kept it there a minute. Good God, whatever was going on inside there? The dance seemed to be going on right down deep in his flesh, the very bones must be jerking about. From some remote source tremors and waves were flowing along under the skin like a river. When she pressed a little harder she could sense, as it were, cries of pain coming from the very marrow of his bones. All you could see with the naked eye was wavelets hollowing out tiny dimples, as on a whirlpool, but beneath there must be frightful commotion. What a sinister job was going on down there, like a mole boring away! Old Colombe’s poison was wielding the pickaxe on that job. The whole body was soaked in it, so what the hell – the job had to be finished, crumbling Coupeau away in a general, non-stop shaking of his whole carcase.

 

At such moments Gervaise ceases to be a case, the barriers come down, commentary gets left behind; it’s me and you, hellbent.

 

The novel begins in 1850 and ends some twenty years later. Zola has seamed so far into previously unworked chambers that we can easily overlook his cop-outs, but there are one or two. Generally his over-arching scheme of the Rougon-Macquart families does no good to the novels. Here, it leads Zola into beginning his book by taking the familiar path of introducing an outsider, Gervaise from Plassans, into a new neighbourhood. This has the initial advantage that he can describe that neighbourhood through an outsider’s fresh eyes, but it also means that he largely fails to confront working-class experience as seen from within the structure of a family. Zola wishes to reserve Claude and Étienne for other books, with the odd effect that Gervaise appears to have no consciousness of her sons after they have been relocated. At the time of her lonely death, she has two sons (or, as he later decided, three sons) in the prime of manhood. These sons were born to her and Lantier before the novel begins. Its difficult to decide whether Gervaise’s lack of emphasis on her own motherhood is a novelist’s insight into the reality of dispersed families or whether it’s just a convenience that frees her up to play out her tragic decline on the stage that Zola has assigned to her. It’s a matter of observation that families near the foot of the social ladder are often divided by longstanding separations that no-one feels it’s possible to overcome – it only makes more trouble – so you learn with surprise of children or brothers who live in the next street but are totally out of contact. Many people lead such extremely circumscribed lives, maintaining them with such difficulty or lassitude, unable to accept even the most minimal derangement that any leg-up necessarily entails, that contact with relations soon founders. But these observations are misplaced; such family separations occur because of distress and Zola nowhere concerns himself with Gervaise’s feelings about her sons, distressed or otherwise; in the early pages they are quietly children, and then they disappear, but this ought to mean more in the book than it does. Gervaise also has a sister in Paris, whom she never contacts.

 

Nana is a different matter, and yet not altogether. Conflicts between Nana and her parents are dealt with at length, but in these striking pages there remains a sort of vacuum, at least to my eyes. Coupeau’s rages and his sentimentality are comprehensible expressions of drunken feeling, but there is a blankness where we look in vain for Gervaise, elsewhere so implausibly verbal, to show some awareness of herself as a mother and Nana as her daughter. It’s understandable that Nana should be experienced by Gervaise primarily as a trouble, but what’s odd is that she seems to be only the same kind of trouble that you might incur by taking in someone else’s teenage child. For whatever reason, the bond on which all animal society is founded seems to have gone missing from Zola’s novel. What I end up thinking is that the novel is falsifying its account by omitting daily hours in which Gervaise and Nana must have interacted in undramatic ways that would in fact have seriously complicated the catastrophic image that Zola is trying to project.      

 

But no matter. All reservations aside, L’Assommoir directly confronts the most concealed of society’s existences with an amplitude that even now few other novels have ever managed. For hundreds of pages, unbroken by the entrance of even a single educated person, it operates outside bourgeois limits in the nearest yet most intractable of territories. Now that we are not exactly bourgeois ourselves, and a clearer understanding of the world around us at last seems possible, it ought to be one of the dog-eared books we do more than read.

 

 

 

*

 

Arto Melleri (Finnish poet, b. 1956) “attacks Zola as a new-style writer of a media age, and invokes the poets of the past as alternative sources of insight and guides to truth.” (Contemporary Finnish Poetry, ed. Herbert Lomas)

 

La Débâcle (1892). Here the omniscient narrator shades into being a historian, and is then not omniscient, because he hasn't invented what he tells us about. However, we rarely dissent from him; he does not choose to put the principal political or military decision-makers on stage and does not claim an understanding of the motives of Macmahon or Thiers, only reports what was said about them. The battle of Sedan is seen from the perspective of troops and civilians who are generally bewildered by the apparent decisions of their leaders. On the other hand the brutal realities of war on the ground are exposed as perhaps in no previous novel. Since no individual can see much of the whole canvas there is quite a lot of the narrator, and even in the character's accounts and conversations he is often secretly present, this is certainly not naturalism in the sense of people only talking about what they could have seen in their own words. Consider e.g. Silvine's second-hand account of the Prussians passing through Beaumont. The characters are devices, sometimes viewpoints, sometimes broadly symbolic, coincidental meetings abound, and these fairly overt manoeuvres need not cause unease since all that really matters is that figures are ready to hand in order to build the terrifying pictures by which the book proceeds, the shambles of a hospital in Sedan, the starvation on the Iges peninsula, the boat-trip through a burning Paris. Ultimately what drives the narrative is not the characters but our desire to be shown exactly what happened, shown this admittedly in a Zola manner, but the emotive colouring does not seem exaggerated in view of the enormity of the events. A more subtle artistry does not seem required here, Zola had anyway sufficiently proved himself at that, and he is quite fluidly willing to employ devices of popular fiction to advance his story.

 

A little fall of plaster made him look up. It was a bullet that had chipped a bit off his house, one side of which he could see over the party wall. This annoyed him very much, and he fumed:

   'Are those bastards going to demolish it for me?'

Then he was startled by another little thud behind him. He looked round and saw a soldier, who had been shot through the heart, falling on his back. The legs made a few convulsive movements, the face stayed young and calm, suddenly still. This was the first man killed, and Weiss was particularly upset by the crash of his rifle as it fell on the cobbles of the yard.

 

The experience of the real beginning of the battle of Sedan is fascinating to Zola. Having built up to it so slowly all through Part 1, he replays the beginning three times in the first three chapters of Part 2. First we have Weiss and Delaherche at Bazeilles, as above. Then we have Jean Macquart's company on the plateau of Floing. Then in the third chapter we go right back to the middle of the night with Henriette inside the town of Sedan, and move forward again. There is a desperate poignancy in this last flashback, knowing as we already do what is so soon to come - Conrad learnt from this technique. The three sequences can all be synchronized with each other through the sudden outburst of sustained gunfire that takes place at exactly four in the morning.

 

The curious matter-of-factness with which, for each observer, the sundry events of existence, however uncomfortable or foreboding, suddenly transform into the full-on horror of a battle - this is what Zola is after. The misery and exhaustion of the campaign up to that point has been emphasized to the full, but only to point up that this, after all, is as nothing compared to the brutal frenzy of killing that is to follow. Brief, paradoxical lapses still interrupt the widening conflict. It is still strangely local. Delaherche, at serious risk of being killed on the way from Bazeilles, suddenly "made up his mind and ran all the way to Balan, whence he regained Sedan at last without too much trouble." Suddenly the fighting in Bazeilles seems unreal, something the mind finds hard to accept. Or  Maurice, just after witnessing this - "Just then a piece of shell smashed in the head of a soldier in the front rank. Not even a cry - a jet of blood and brains, that was all." - Just after witnessing this, "As he looked round he was very surprised to see down in a lonely valley, isolated by steep slopes, a peasant unhurriedly ploughing, guiding his plough behind a big white horse. Why lose a day's work?"

 

These chapters ought to make interesting reading for a new soldier. It's a paradox of La Débâcle that while it seems to provide all the material anyone would require for an utter repudiation of war in any shape, it also allowed its nation of readers a strong surge of indignant patriotism and the message that France ought to be better armed and better led, more ready for modern conflict.

 

                                                                   

 

(2005, 2009)

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

 

String Quartet in A minor, op. 51 no. 2 (1873)

 

..  But the date of composition is unclear, it may have begun as early as 1865.

I am sure this has been pointed out elsewhere, but a bar or two near the end of the finale briefly recalls the opening theme of the first movement, an idea that Brahms was to use more famously (and much more obviously) in the third symphony (op. 90, 1883).

 

Piano Concerto no. 2 in B flat, op. 83 (1881)

 

This is in one sense the most innovative of all Brahms’ concert works. (Whether Schoenberg had it in mind when he spoke of "Brahms the innovator" is a different matter.) Other composers were throwing overboard the traditional structures of symphony and concerto. Brahms tried to do something different, to make a slight change to the structure, but the consequences were drastic.

 

A hundred years before, when the classical forms were solidifying, the concerto (unlike the symphony or the quartet), ended up as a three-movement form. The reason, I would assume, is that the dance-movement (especially the scherzo) is intrinsically a showcase for ensemble playing; for bristling, angular rhythms and dramatic, but blocky, contrasts in tone-colour. A dance-movement without the dance itself does not develop and shifts its dynamism into our feet; as an art-piece it is essentially static, like a sculpture that you contemplate by holding in your mind and observing from all angles. This conception did not seem to offer opportunities for a soloist.

 

But Brahms had taken the concerto in a new and more complex direction, producing a much-changed relationship between soloist and orchestra, and the possibility of re-introducing the scherzo must have become apparent. It ended up in second position, and is said to have been originally planned for the violin concerto although hearing both works in their final forms this beggars belief.

 

Introducing the scherzo involved, for Brahms, a subtle re-weighting of all the other movements, including the finale, which surrenders all its usual fireworks to the scherzo and ends up being a wonderfully urbane and light-footed piece of supper-music. The scherzo itself is a passionate movement (some have used the term “romanze”), and thus the slow third movement develops in the direction of spaciousness, tranquility, and even idling; the piano finds itself among equals (notably a solo cello), like someone who has come home to recuperate in quiet and sympathetic society. The first movement pitches its intrinsic dramatic potential towards mystery and tension-building; it seems to be holding something back; what that is, the scherzo will show us. The whole work, therefore, can be seen as structured around the introduction of that extra movement.

 

 

(2004)
Rev. J. Jackson Wray: Simon Holmes, Carpenter

 

Chapter I begins with verse by Anna Letitia Barbauld and ends with Spenser. In between it's as the title says: GIVES THE READER A VIEW OF ASPENDALE AT SUNSET; AND A GLIMPSE OF THORPE ASPEN AFTER NIGHTFALL.  Wray is a skilful writer; but what catches my eye is how the popular English novel is such a strong form at this moment (I presume, some time in the 1880s) that it can convincingly support Wray's evangelical Christianity, which might seem fundamentally at odds with it - which does indeed lead certainly away from naturalism towards soul-adventure.

 

Of the titular hero Wray says: "I will at once avow that the quaint and intelligent old carpenter is a special favourite of mine, and ... I intend that he shall stand in the same relationship to my readers ..." At first this does not seem probable: Simon's incessant homilies, coupled with an unfairly-rigged record of guessing the future, provoke rebellion. But in the event we do grow fond of him. By the usual measures of drama he does not play a very active role in plots that concern younger actors; in Wray's evangelical conception, however, the real action takes place much more on the spiritual plane than on the visible one in which the younger folk are captured by Spanish bandits, cast adrift in an open boat on the Atlantic, etc. Interspersed with these high adventures and loves are low-life comedy with Peter Prout the miller, Tim Crouch the cobbler, and others; all very skilfully intermixed. Three marriages are triumphantly achieved, and the heroic Ethel Spofforth belatedly goes to her rest.

 

This night-scene will stand for the rest - the disgraced Alfred has returned incognito to his beloved village, and meets the drunk cobbler.

 

At one side of the road, in a recess of hedge and bank, there was a pump whose clear cold waters had been available for Thorpe Aspen from time immemorial. Alfred was inclined for a drink out of the well-remembered spout, and Tim seemed to have some views in the same direction. The cobbler laid hold of the pump handle and set to work with vigour to fill the trough with water. Then down he went on his knees, and doffing his battered hat he plunged his head into it, once, twice, thrice, and rose cool and sobered to his feet. He rubbed himself fairly dry with a big coloured pocket handkerchief from his pocket, put on his hat again, and turning to his companion said—

     "There! That's mah prescription for cheeatin' the ninepenny. Noo, Mr. Alfred, give us a grip o' your hand. Ah knoa yo', bud your seeacrit's as seeafe wi' me as if it were locked up i' the Bank o' England. If you'll cum' along o' me, oor Sally 'll gi' a corner an' a rasher o' bacon, an' jump at t' job. Ah reckon yo' deean't want to be knoan."

 

(On the following page, Alfred's brother Robert risks his life to rescue the lovely Ruth Hartgold from the burning house - a fire whose progress was interrupted ffor other chapters.)

 

Also, you will want to hear Simon Holmes in homiletic flight; to the pious, fading Ethel:

 

We knoa, as you say, an' you an' me'll just go on trustin' an' prayin' and waitin' on Him 'at says, 'Call on me in the day of trouble, an' I will deliver thee.' He either means it or He doesn't. If He doesn't, why there's nowt for it but just to shut up t' Bible an' drift doon i' the dark. But if He does, then He means it oot an' oot, an' t' biggest faith 'll fetch the biggest blessing from the throne of God. O Miss Ethel, Miss Ethel! Neither your prayers now mine can stop midway on the rooad te Heaven. They're winged wi' faith that's stranger than an eagle's wing, an' accordin' to oor faith it shall be done.

 

To the despondent widow Atheling:

 

Ivery thing's goin' on all right and reg'lar, an' sum o' theease days, it'll be a case o' 'lang leeaked for, come at last.' ... It seeams te me that this mornin' afoore t' posst com' in you were all drinkin' the watters o' Marah, bitter an' brackish beyond degree. Noo the good Lord's tossed a wonderful healin' tree intiv it, an' you've gotten a sweeter teeaste i' your mouths then you've had for monny and monny a dark an' cloody day. Surely you may ha' fayth te beleeave that God 'll go on te be gracious, an' that by-an'-by you'll sit amang the palm trees an' the wells of Elim, here in your oan ingle-nook wi' Mr. Robert an' Mr. Alfred at your side. The Wonder-worker that did this for yo' can do t' other.

 

It was interesting to me that the still-so-prevalent expression, a case of (as in "It's a case of wait-and-see") goes back as far as this. See how differently adjusted Holmes' dialect and expressions are to his different audiences.

 

Of Wray's own language, two things stood out:

 

"O Mr. Ravensworth!" she said, in soft and winsome tones, "you are sad. Dear friend! tell me what it is?"

As she spoke the dark eyes of this fair daughter of the South were filled with tears, and there was that in her tones which revealed a secret which was not as yet understood by herself, nor recognized by her own young and gentle heart.

-----

Just at that moment Ephraim Hartgold entered the little parlour , Ruth's own peculiar snuggery. Taking Inez by the hand and seating himself by her on the sofa, he drew her to him. There was a winsome gentleness in his tones and words as he said– "Where is thy father, Inez?– Where is Captain Lanyon?"

-----

There was that in the tone of Harold's voice that displayed how deep were his feelings on this subject.

-----

It was now Señor Bonanza's turn. Alfred thought he had never seen any nobler or more winsome features in living man than those that met his gaze when that gentleman rose from his place, pushed back from his brow his whitening hair, took Alfred's two hands in his, and said–

-----

"Speak freely, please," he said looking down upon her with those wondrously winsome eyes, and in a tone that might well encourage her, and did.

 

Winsome=cheerful, pleasant, attractive (according to my dictionary). This now-obsolete word I had mostly associated with descriptions of females; Wray uses it of old men, the engaging Ephraim and his friend Señor Bonanza, in celebration of kindly paternalism to young women (not actually their own daughters), a type of encounter that may now be almost extinct.

 

There was that in (the young person's face, tone, etc) - this expression hallows the solemn and dramatic moment of revealed feeling by placing it beyond the narrowness of words. The idea is that these feelings, formerly hidden in the youth as only potential, are now brought to light; now the owner is seen to have become - permanently - the person they will be from now on. In Wray the feelings are owed to God and love, simply; in later Imperialist novels they may also be connected with patriotism, public school, the finest clay, etc.

 

When you see such expressions here as "What in the name of all that's wonderful" and "he said fervently", you realize that the popular novel of the next fifty years has an input not from the Church of England but from the evangelical tradition.

 

[The Internet records little as yet about J. Jackson Wray. He was, I believe, Pastor of the Whitefield Tabernacle in Tottenham Court Road. He died in 1892. I imagine him to have been a popular evangelical preacher as well as a prolific author - homespun homilies and history of the dissenting tradition as well as novels like this. According to the numerous press notices advertising his other works, these novels were seen as particularly suitable for boys and girls, but not exclusively: "A capital book for all classes, old and young, lovers and married. A good story, told with much feeling. No one will read it without having their faith in God strengthened", says one of the encomia.]

 

(2008)
Anton Chekhov: The Shooting Party (1885)

 

[The Shooting Party is an early work, not re-published in Chekhov's lifetime. This, his only full-length novel, is no masterpiece, but if it's to be read at all it's essential to read it without knowing the ending, which I'm about to reveal. So make up your mind if you want to read on.]

 

*

 

"I felt suffocated," says the editor, supposedly Antosha Chekhonte himself, on the final page. We do, too.

 

The Shooting Party is a novel in a frame. The inner novel is narrated by, and purportedly written by, Sergey Petrovich Zinovyev, an investigating magistrate. The murders he describes (they come late in the book) are in fact committed by him; his novel itself does not confess this,  though, as Zinoviev remarks, "only a fool" would fail to observe the clues scattered through the later pages - especially as the editor underlines them.

 

When the identity of the murderer is finally established, a transformation occurs in our view of the narrative. We realize how much trust we put in a first-person narrator. Throughout the reading we have been continuously unsettled by the brutalities of the narrator (not the murders, but his other behaviour), and we have continuously sought ways to forgive them in order to carry on trusting him. Every time he admits something against himself, we add a minus to his moral ledger but we also chalk up a plus in his honesty ledger. We have accepted, as by convention, that he sees more sensitively into the motives and feelings of those around him than the other, relatively insensitive, characters. Now that his own character is finally seen to be psychopathic, we wonder how much else is unreliable about his narrative; for example, all those times when he reports other characters calling him "the best of men", or reports himself led astray by the moral turpitude of others, or reports women falling for his good looks and refined manners. There's actually no answer to these questions. The Chekhovian insight in the narrative implies a humane compassion that apparently doesn't square with Zinovyev's moral indifference to the fate of those his actions have ruined. The result is a suffocation that bears more than a slight resemblance to the effect of cheap genre fiction in general, but is in fact brought about by other means.

 

In hindsight, much of Zinovyev's insight appears as "poetic", a literary sentimentality. Try this:

 

Never before had Zorka borne me so zealously as on that morning after the burning of the banknotes. She, too, wanted to go home. The lake gently rolled its foamy waves: reflecting the rising sun, it was preparing for its daytime slumber. The woods and willows along the banks were motionless, as if at morning prayer. It is difficult to describe my state of mind at the time. Without going into too much detail, I shall merely say that I was delighted beyond words – and at the same time I was almost consumed with shame when, as I turned out of the Count's estate, I saw by the lakeside old Mikhey's saintly face, emaciated by honest toil and illness. Mikhey resembles a biblical fisherman. His hair is as white as snow, he has a large beard and he gazes contemplatively at the sky. When he stands motionless on the bank, following the racing clouds with his eyes, you might fancy he sees angels in the sky . . . I'm very fond of such faces!

 

When I saw him, I reined in Zorka and gave him my hand, as if wishing to cleanse myself through contact with his honest, calloused hand. He looked up at me with his small, sagacious eyes and smiled.

 

(transl. Ronald Wilks, 2004)

 

In such passages we discern another writer behind Zinovyev's clichés. This other writer is less idealistic and less flippant. It's that same distance from the actual words that Chekhov sought in his plays.

 

(2007)


Robert Louis Stevenson: The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886)

 

Stevenson was concerned that Zola's pronouncement "I insist upon the fall of the imagination" reduced fiction to a transcript of life. He thought the writer should "half-close his eyes against the dazzle and confusion of reality". Stevenson was wrong, but Zola overstated the case: his great works are triumphs of the imagination. Anyway, Stevenson could only be the writer he is. His best book is possibly In the South Seas, which is the most open-eyed. But half-closure did lead him to such incomparable things - in their way - as Treasure Island and Jekyll and Hyde, an amazingly prescient parable. I don't know if it influenced Freud directly, but it certainly looks that way.

 

Jekyll insists on distinguishing his own identity from Hyde's, but under stress before Lanyon, this breaks down to some extent - Jekyll's medical "we" comes through Hyde's voice. Hyde's taunting speech to Lanyon expresses Jekyll's scientific triumph over Lanyon. Perhaps what happens in the parable, i.e. the increasing ineffectiveness of the chemical switch, amounts to Jekyll's recognition that it is at last too much of a strain to keep up the pretence of Jekyll and Hyde being two distinct persons.

 

It is a world in which all the normal characters are slightly imperfect: sly (Jekyll), theatrical (Lanyon), dusty (Utterson), an idle socialite (Enfield) etc.

 

Utterson likes to think of Jekyll, Lanyon and himself as three old friends, but Lanyon has evidently long disliked Jekyll.

 

The battering down of the door compares to the body jumping in the road under Hyde's blows. Though Poole and Utterson don't know it, their own riotous act is killing Hyde (i.e. the certainty of discovery makes him take the poison).

 

The book's weather, fog, wine and leaping cockroaches suggest a London heavy with psychic tension seeking relief.

 

Hyde is of small stature. Jekyll has some rationalizing ideas about that, but we can look deeper into it:

 

Accounts of Hyde are beautifully varied depending on the implied consciousness of the observer. Lanyon's medical narrative is amusingly distinct - Poole's sentimental but sometimes powerful conceptions are very well worked out too. It is the maid who, we suppose, reports seeing Hyde belabour the old gentleman "with ape-like fury"; Poole speaks of "that masked thing like a monkey"; Jekyll himself of "the ape-like tricks that he would play me". This line of analogy might arise from a culture digesting Darwin. What is unspoken is that Hyde's small stature is also child-like. He has a fierce love of life, he is conscienceless but, accordingly, completely frank in his passions ("'Have you got it?' he cried. 'Have you got it?'"), he can be timid (the meeting with Utterson), he weeps. It is not only Jekyll who can feel, along with all the revulsion, a sense of pity for someone so unformed. And after all, Hyde is like a child in another respect: prior to Jekyll's draught, he has no former existence and no history.

 

Jekyll's analysis is not quite to be trusted. It is he who defines Hyde as all evil, other people as a mixture of good and evil - comfortably assuming that in his case the proportions are about 90 to 10. But the nature of his good, except as a way of repressing his evil, is not given concrete form. Perhaps one way of reading the parable is as disputing, not only his assessment of the proportions, but the adequacy of these terms good and evil.  

 

 

Kipling's bogey-tale "The Mark of the Beast" (1890) owes something to Jekyll and Hyde. Fleete's metamorphosis into a wolf-man, obviously, but it was particularly that beating down of the door by the righteous that stayed with Kipling: the horror that most excited him was the sober necessity, by the righteous, of tortures not to be printed (involving red-hot shotgun barrels), and the different give of leprous skin under a boot.    

 

 

(2010)
Augustus K. Gardner, MD: The Conjugal Relationships

as regards

Personal Health and Hereditary Well-Being

Practically Treated

 

 

 

Gardner was Professor of Clinical Midwifery in New York Medical College. This book was written some time in the last thirty years of the nineteenth century; my copy was the Eighth Edition (1918). It was widely popular, or at any rate widely distributed, no doubt in part because of recommendations like this, in Hall’s Journal of Health:

 

Such important information is given in this book in reference to the more healthful bringing up of our daughters, morally and physically, and the relation of the sexes, that no parent will fail of reading every line in the book with the most absorbing interest. It is a boon to womankind.

 

The title is, I feel, rather misleading. It is not a medical book but a polemical one which, like some later works of popular science, is chiefly concerned with stating conclusions whose bases cannot be examined. Gardner draws energetically but unspecifically on his own authority and that of his (male) fellows; on what “the history  of every day confirms”, on what is “undeniable”, what “should require but a moment’s consideration to convince any one”.

 

And these are his conclusions.

 

- that the pampered modern woman is in physical decline

- that excessive sex is debilitating

- that continence is not physically harmful

- that all other methods of avoiding procreation (except the safe period) are both sinful and unhealthy; for example conjugal onanism, the use of tegumentary contraception, etc.

- that it is shameful and dangerous for the old to have sexual relations

- that it is sinful and dangerous to indulge in “personal pollution”

- that abortion is murder of one’s own flesh and blood

- that the polka and all other fashionable habits of the modern young woman are exceedingly dangerous

- that tampering with natural procreation produces hereditary weaknesses in children.

 

In short, they fully support recent statements of Presbyterian and other clergymen, whom Gardner wholeheartedly admires.

 

These statements are no crude utterances of rhapsodists, thoughtless demagogues, or ambitious, charlatan sensationists. They are the carefully expressed opinions of thoughtful and conscientious men, aiming to repress wrong-doing, to promote virtue, to guard against “the sins which do so easily beset us”.

 

[To anyone who studies late nineteenth-century patriarchalism, the word “guard” is soon seen to carry an immense mythical weight. It evokes men on the outposts of the Roman Empire, perhaps Regulus on Hadrian’s Wall.]

 

Gardner is a poor writer, and his own natural wooliness is exacerbated by a deliberate policy of – well, let him say it:

 

Verbiage has been sometimes expressly selected instead of distinct statements, and a roundabout sentence has often been used as the substitute for an expression which might offend sensitive minds. Especial care, it will be observed, has been used not to admit anything which might administer to the depraved appetites of the prurient-minded, and, above all, not to make any statement of facts, with such details, as might be perverted from their intended purpose to serve unworthy or improper ends.

 

(This is in itself quite roundabout, but you get the point.) Accordingly, such passages as this one, near the end of the chapter on “Personal Pollution”, are open for anyone to interpret.

 

The sensuous intemperance is sufficiently to be reprobated when its aliment is drawn from vigour of physical energy, the heightened imagination, the mind pampered by the ordinary stimulation of the aesthetic as delineated in marble, spread out on the glowing canvas, where the great artist Guido portrays Io, with rapturous eye upturned, as if to meet halfway the king of the gods; or by the perusal of the lubricious writings of the day, whose foul impurity is too often gilded by genius – or by the public exposure of the cheap charms of the modern meretricious stage. But when even these coarse excitants for depraved minds – dead to all ordinary sensations – when these fail and recourse is had to super-stimulation of a more gross, mediate and materialistic character, when nature is set aside and imaginative bestialities are foully substituted – when woman degrades the nuptial couch by copying the foulness of the bagnio – then farewell to female purity, to virtue, to any thing worthy!

 

Gardner considers “delicacy” highly important, and of special value to women, as he explains in reference to the question of sex during menstruation (Gardner finds Moses a sensible guide on this matter, and quotes Leviticus at length).

 

In fact the woman when she has her periods takes the greatest care to conceal it from all eyes. She is affected instinctively, we will not say willingly, in her dignity. She considers her condition as a blot or an infirmity; and although her modesty – the most incendiary of the female virtues – has been spared by the omnipotence of her husband, she blushes to herself at the tribute she is compelled to pay to nature. To constrain her in this condition, to submit to conjugal caresses, is evidently to do violence to what is most respectable in her nature; it is to cast her down from her pedestal; it is to rob her of the prestige which the graces of her sex assure to her. Love has need of poetry, and accommodates itself illy to the gross realities of the animal life. Do not seek to contradict such legitimate repugnance. The first step in this path infallibly leads to ruptures the most to be regretted.

 

But it is not only at the menstrual epoch that the wife should conceal from the husband the details of the lower necessities to which she, as well as he, is subject; we would desire that she should endeavour never entirely to lay aside her natural charms of modesty and delicacy even in the intimacy of the bedchamber. She will gain more than she can think in constancy and love – the most cruel enemies of which come from the destruction of the illusions and from satiety.

 

More than one married woman will find in these lines, if she discovers all their meaning, an explanation of the inexplicable weariness of her husband...

 

To illustrate Gardner’s stately authoritativeness I take a couple of sentences from the remarks about contraception:

 

We have at our disposition numerous facts which rigorously prove the disastrous influence of abnormal coitus to the woman, but we think it useless to publish them. All practitioners have more or less observed them, and it will only be necessary for them to call upon their memories to supply what our silence leaves.

 

We may, we trust, be pardoned for remarking, upon the artifices imagined to prevent fecundation, that there is in them an immense danger, of incalculable limits. We do not fear to be contradicted or taxed with exaggeration in elevating them into the proportions of a true calamity.

 

Both “delicacy” and “forthrightness” may thus excuse the absence of evidence. (He does not use the word “contraception”, and perhaps it wasn’t yet current – sometimes the existence of a term implies social acceptance).

 

The function of the book is most clearly brought out in the chapter about abortion, which presents a sequence of stories of spiralling horror.

 

A lady who one November came to me “to get rid of a baby because her husband was going to Europe in the spring, and she wanted to go with him and couldn’t be bothered by a young one”, failing to enlist me in this nefarious scheme, finally found a – I was going to say, physician – a somebody... I was called to her some weeks afterwards, and she was almost exhausted with cellulitis and pyæmia. Her husband sailed for Liverpool in June without her, as she had not been able to sit up for nearly six months... she is a miserable invalid... She had then three children; her oldest son was accidentally drowned, and her two daughters died of scarlet fever while the family were spending a winter at Matanzas for the mother’s health ... the result of that disastrous inflammation is the disorganisation of both ovaries, and she is inevitably childless...

 

A lady determined not to have any more children, went to a professed abortionist, and he attempted to effect the desired end by violence. With a pointed instrument the attempt was again and again made, but without the looked-for result. So vigorously was the effort made, that, astonished at no result being obtained, the individual stated that there must be some mistake, that the lady could not be pregnant... in due process of time the woman was delivered of an infant, shockingly mutilated, with one eye entirely put out, and the brain so injured that this otherwise robust child was entirely wanting in ordinary sense.... Ten years, face to face with this poor idiot, whose imbecility was her direct work...

 

At the end of the chapter, Gardner appeals to the clergy of America, “because they are the great moral lever-power of the country ... I have endeavoured to put the physical argument in their hands ....” And such anecdotes have of course circulated ever since.

 

I don’t want to suggest that these terrible stories are folklore in the sense of being untrue, though the latter one seems all too like those nightmares in which we frenziedly try to kill someone who merely becomes more and more mutilated and alive. But Gardner, who was I suppose an immensely experienced, genuinely conscientious, and highly respected man of science, did carry a lot of folklore around in his head, unwittingly forming his judgments.

 

I might, if I had been inclined, have made different quotations that allow us a little more sense of fellow-feeling; as when he praises sunlight and physical exercise, or argues that women are by nature as strong as men. His intentions were good, but what he thought he saw was what he already credited. 

 

This is apparent in his comments on those listless, pasty, degenerate beings who have been onanists, or physically excessive, or used contraception; and he is also a firm believer in the inheritance of factors related to the time of conception.

 

[E]very one has been able to make the observation, a more or less considerable number of times, that children, the issue of old men, are habitually marked by a serious and sad air... As they grow up, their features take on more and more the senile character, so much so that every one remarks it, and the world regards it as a natural thing... Our attention has for many years been fixed on this point, and we can affirm that the greater part of the offspring are weak, torpid, lymphatic, if not scrofulous, and do not promise a long career.

 

[Was this folk-belief in Dickens’ mind when he wrote Dombey and Son?]

 

we do know, that children begotten by men of general good habits, who may be at this particular time much affected by intoxicating drink, do inherit marked evidences of its consequences in their dispositions....

 

The general enthusiasm attendant upon Jenny Lind’s musical tour in this country, did, to my own knowledge, markedly affect the children generated by parents full of the musical fervour of that period, and these children are now all over our country, developing a musical taste very uncommon before in this land.

 

So:

 

[Parents] should sedulously avoid connections during those periods when procreation is most likely, at times of physical debility when recovering from disease, worn by business cares, gloomy and despondent, oppressed by grief...

 

 

I would like to know – but I don’t – whether Gardner’s book would have been considered cranky and “Creationist” at the time it was written. I suspect that to nearly all its readers it would have looked like – and would therefore have been – science.

 

Note

 

Views on Gardner’s topics are always in a state of flux. In writing the above I made many assumptions about a liberal consensus that large parts of the world would reject. The idea that unrestrained sex tends to be debilitating and harmful to health becomes unexpectedly prominent in Germaine Greer’s work from Sex and Destiny onwards. (The same book demonstrates in vast detail how beliefs about human reproduction continue to be riddled with folklore, especially among experts. There may be something intrinsic about the miracle of new individuals coming into existence that strikes at our logical foundations; at any rate, it seems to turn the brains of intelligent people to mush.)  

 

(2003)

Frank Norris: The Octopus (1901)

 

 

 

There was a strenuous gaiety in the air; everybody was in the best of spirits. Notes of laughter continually interrupted the conversation on every hand. At every moment a group of men involved themselves in uproarious horseplay. They passed oblique jokes behind their hands to each other – grossly veiled double meanings meant for the women – and bellowed with laughter thereat, stamping on the ground. The relations between the sexes grew more intimate, the women and girls pushing the young fellows away from their sides with vigorous thrusts of their elbows.  (Book I, Chapter 6)

 

The recipe “New World Zola” describes The Octopus so well, both in strength and weakness, that one is left scratching around for something to add. (“New World” must be taken as referring not only to the locale of the novel but also to the writing when it expands into prosy mysticism.)

 

What isn’t Zolaesque is the map, which is recognizably Marlboro Country; all space, and scale, and mechanized straight lines. It’s a place in which isolation is inevitable, and The Octopus describes a fragmented society in which individuals rarely occupy the kind of shared mental space that we take for granted in a Victorian novel – say by Gaskell, Trollope or Eliot. When Norris gives us a communal set piece, as for example Annixter’s party (from which the opening quotation is taken), he emphasizes the centrifugal forces that pull people away from each other, so that the cohesion of this society is seen as something of an effort. When the railroad people break it up, the dispersal is alarmingly swift and final.

 

This is expressed most strongly in the chapter that switches pointedly between the helpless fragmentation of the Hooven family and Presley’s sumptuous dinner at the Gerards. We had been led to suppose that Presley and the Hoovens were, in Tulare County, something like comrades and equals; now Mrs Hooven starves to death, while Presley samples ortolan patties. (Like many another poet, Presley feels an empathy with the poor but is himself amply secured by well-off friends).  

 

There is, it’s true, a certain crudeness in the manipulation of this chapter’s contrasts. Perhaps too in the horrible image of the massed rabbits being killed (this comes just before the shooting of the ranchers, and implies a rhetorical point about the unhealthy foundations of the ranchers’ society).

 

But elsewhere, that point is made without so much contrivance; for example in the fifteen-page sequence that begins with Dyke’s waking at the start of “a busy day” and ends with our glimpse of him drinking steadily at Carraher’s, by now well aware that he has been ruined by the railroad (moral: don’t put your business partners in a position where they profit from your failure). The domesticity with which the sequence begins – Dyke’s riotous games with his little daughter – is misleading. We are told that “he was a bighearted, jovial man who spread an atmosphere of good humor wherever he went”. This man, so fully and happily integrated into the society of the home, must surely have an equally robust integration into the larger society of Tulare County. And indeed, Dyke is liked; he brings a pleasant atmosphere into a bar. Yet the assurance with which he speaks of his success as a hop-grower suggests, in hindsight, a certain blindness; an assumption that all around him partake in his happiness, and that his own life more or less is their life. In this large landscape one is often alone, and such a mistake is natural. But when his terrible rage and despair come over him, they are not really shared by his friends, and his problem, though it attracts intense interest, is in every sympathetic word more clearly placed: it’s his problem. Annixter, the best-hearted of them, articulates only fatalism; he already subsumes Dyke’s personal suffering into the vague contemplation of a group of people who appear marked for disaster.  What’s happened also touches off Carraher’s angry rhetoric, but he’s an automaton. Carraher’s repulsive “comradeship” is scarcely less illusory than the bottle, in whose company we leave Dyke – an image of final isolation.

 

This isolation means that the book breaks up into accounts of individual struggles that are important only to those individuals: Magnus and his corruption; Annixter’s involvement with Hilma; Presley worrying about his great poem; Vanamee and his obsession. The death of S. Behrman, trapped beneath a grain-chute, is highly unsatisfactory by the standard of nineteenth-century plotting; it is a meaningless accident; but possibly defensible in this saga where people’s lives are impermeably separate. In a Victorian novel we would learn who raped and destroyed Angéle; here we don’t: “the tragedy had suddenly leaped from out the shadow with the abruptness of an explosion... To Angéle’s mind – what there was left of it – the matter always remained a hideous blur, a blot, a vague, terrible confusion”.

 

There is no society. The nearest thing to it is the railroad people themselves, but they are something different, not a human community but a synergic operation - an institution.  [When the ruined Magnus says “I’ll turn railroad”, he makes a capitulation somewhat like Winston’s in 1984. ]

 

The book follows Vanamee and Presley in attempting to make a coherent sense of the world that depends not on human society but on more gigantic forces: WHEAT, FORCE, LIFE. This is highly inadequate, but a century later we are still struggling with the question. 

 

***

 

But as all I have said so far tends to emphasize (what is quite true) that The Octopus is over-written, I should like to make some redress.

 

I grew up reading Westerns and watching black-and-white Westerns on TV. I therefore considered the Western a natural sort of literary form, and I suppose always felt a vague, subconscious surprise that no work by “great” novelists ever seemed to contain mesquite, Lazy Y brands or Colt .45s.  

 

The Octopus comes closer than most, and among the longueurs of Hilma’s thick hair and the WHEAT and Vanamee’s sixth sense there are some really exciting scenes in which Norris puts all that aside. The train hold-up is one, all the better for being presented indirectly and, for the most part, in mercilessly anti-heroic contemplation of the passengers in Annixter’s wagon. Then there’s the pursuit and capture of Dyke, the shooting of the ranchers, and (no less brutal and upsetting) the last days of Mrs Hooven. It’s, at times, a very involving book.  

 

****

 

The conflict between ranching and railroad interests also forms a background to the social experiment (beginning in 1908) of homesteaders in Eastern Montana; a tragedy recounted in Jonathan Raban’s Bad Land: An American Romance (1996) – an absorbing book, the best of his that I’ve read. It also plays a part in Serge Leone’s film Once upon a Time in the West (1968), where one can perhaps see some of the European elements in Norris’s conception making a homeward journey.

 

Much the clearest explanation of farming that I have read is John Seymour’s The Countryside Explained (1977). “When I was young the child’s role in the harvest field was to chase the rabbits which bolted out of the shrinking square of standing corn left in the middle of the field and to kill them with sticks, for rabbits were a pest then and were also very good eating; but the arrival of myxomatosis, which killed nearly all the rabbits, also killed this.” It will be seen that this presents a very different view from the dysfunctional gigantism of Norris’s description, in which the squeamish Northern Europeans go off to picnic while the slaughter is performed by aroused, degraded Mexicans.

 

(2002)

 

 


Hjalmar Söderberg: Doktor Glas (1905)

 

Doktor Glas is a book that I thought about a lot after I'd finished reading it. Not because there seemed to be any problem with the reading that I needed to resolve. It was more that one needed to get away from the Doktor's own narration in order to gather one's thoughts; so insidiously had Söderberg led one into seeing things from Glas' point of view. Even so, it came as a shock to find that the Swedish introduction discussed whether there was a psykopatisk element to the narrator's character. That seemed wrong, but what shocked me was that until I saw the word no such idea had yet occurred to me.  

 

The comparison of Glas with the narrator of Chekhov's Shooting-Party (see earlier entry) is fascinating - by chance I read the novels successively. The contrast, too.

 

In Chekhov's book the transformation in our idea of the narrator (from bumptious to a little self-centred to brutish to) means that by the end we can barely credit anything of what we were told earlier; the whole narrative reveals itself as a journey into a diseased mind, its veracity entirely compromised.

 

Not so in Doktor Glas. In this book the transparent veracity of the narrator, inasmuch as he lyrically relates his personal impressions and the summer life of Stockholm - these pages (the bulk of the book), being a significant, perhaps the most significant, aspect of its great power ... well, Dr Glas as narrator remains almost, if not quite, untainted by our realization - we are apt to bury it, it's so inconvenient - that he has after all committed a murder. We continue to interpret the sentence "Nor do I tell the whole truth about myself, only what it pleases me to relate, but nothing that isn't true" as rather understating, if anything, the extreme honesty of the narrative. Whereas Chekhov's narrator (though perhaps ultimately intending a confession) fills his pages with subterfuge, Glas seems never to hesitate about confessing anything that he knows to confess.  

 

The question about truth arises, nevertheless. It becomes, in this case, not a matter of honesty but of whether Glas is capable of assessing other characters accurately. Generally his insights are strikingly keen, but no book makes it clearer that such keenness is never absolute, may indeed imply correspondingly exceptional blindnesses; above all our doubts concern Glas' view of Gregorius and his wife. Glas makes no bones about it; he finds Gregorius loathsome, and finds him loathsome long before Mrs Gregorius talks about the marriage. Glas is, one feels, ready to condemn Gregorius on any grounds whatever. As for Fru Gregorius, Söderberg's book is a pitiless examination of the illusions of love. Through the very transparency of Glas' own descriptions, we see that Fru Gregorius is not at all like the image of the loved one that overwhelms Glas' imagination. Pejoratively, you might say she is more shallow, more ordinary (Glas is definitely not ordinary). Glas in love completely ignores the commonsensical view that one might phrase in this way: After all, she has proven unfaithful, she has taken a lover... But the book is a moral minefield here. If Glas' own judgments are plainly skewed, he is also entirely successful in destroying our faith in such conventional social judgments. But what, for instance, do we make of this?

 

The very first time I ever saw her it struck me how unlike all others she is. She isn't like a woman of the world, or a middle-class wife, or a woman of the people. Mostly the last, perhaps; particularly as she sat there, just then, on the church steps, with her fair hair free and bared to the sun, for she had taken off her hat and laid it beside her. But a woman from a primitive folk, or one that never existed, where class distinctions had not yet begun, where "the people" still had not become the lower classes. A daughter of a free tribe.

 

Does this really say anything concrete about Helga, or is it just what Glas would think about any woman he fell in love with? Or isn't it merely the truth about every woman, the truth that only love discovers? Or does it reflect the situation in which Glas finds Helga - discontentedly not free -, which makes her seem paradoxically all the more kin to a freedom that should be her birthright?

 

In a way Glas' moral crusade seems to be terribly (yet somehow comically) misguided, the bubble of a perfervid imagination; yet who doubts that Fru Gregorius has a right to her own choices, to happiness and freedom? Glas is unable to give her happiness or her own choices, but he does give her freedom; because he doesn't tell her what he's done and doesn't seek to take advantage of her, there is indeed something heroic about what Glas does. It might even be that, after the book is ended, Helga might find a happiness - a bourgeois happiness that an unbesotted Glas would probably pour scorn on.

 

If the book continues in this way to revolve unendingly in one's thoughts, in another way this is satisfying; we perhaps don't need to make final judgments about characters that, the book shows us, we can never entirely know.

 

There's another way in which Söderberg reminds me of Chekhov, who commented on the difficulty of eliminating a pistol-shot from his plays. Aesthetically the novel seems to require its murder - really, such an implausible kind of murrder for anyone to commit - in order to be a complete image; that's an aspect of its era. A few years later Joyce and Proust would show how to do without this. Söderberg's era is characterized by this essential cheapness.

 

 

 

I actually read the book in Paul Britten Austin's 1963 translation, reissued in 2002.

 

Some translation notes:

 

July 2

 

What's the matter, I asked. The word "ovillkorligen" ("inevitably") has been omitted.

 

- Last night he raped me. As good as raped me.

- I natt tog han mig med våld. Så gott som med våld.

 (Literally, "took me by force, as good as by force" - but rape in Swedish is våldta.)

 

What does Fru Gregorius mean by her qualification? Gregorius seems to have mentally bullied her into submission with talk of duty and emotional blackmail about his salvation. So the most likely sense is that, though he did not actually use physical force, the effect was the same: she was bullied into doing something she did not want to do. It's significant that Glas never thinks of Helga refusing to comply, even with the excuse of her health - in this marriage, that is apparently not a possibility - Gregorius' power is absolute.

 

How reliable is Helga's account? She has a powerful motive for exaggerating the brutality of marital attentions that have become hateful to her. Yet it is certain that Gregorius at any rate begs for, and has, sex with his wife while believing that this seriously endangers her health; he effectively confirms this by his reaction later. My reading is that Helga does pour out the truth; that a doubt about her honesty here would make the novel less interesting, not more so. But she has not told her husband that she hates him, and he of course would utterly reject the imputation that he has raped her.  

 

But how would it look if the rich brought along artistically embellished silver cups and the poor, maybe, a brandy glass?

 

This is part of the comic report of Gregorius on the communion-question. The original has "ett brännvinsglas" - brännvin being a general term for strong spirits, typically a vodka flavoured with spices such as caraway.  "Vodka-glass" or "shot-glass" gives a better idea of the class-connotations in this imaginary sacrilege of the communion service. Though Gregorius is a conservative or at any rate prudently conventional priest, he is also a man of the world; there is something of gusto and of plain-speaking in this clerical chatter.  Gregorius comfortably conceives his doctor as a brother-professional. As a matter of fact Glas does lead, to outward appearance, the clubman's life of a male professional. It is only within that he sees himself so differently.

 

Impossible to decide, whether he's more fool or fox.

 

"mera får än räv" - more sheep than fox. It remains difficult to decide. Though Glas succeeds in duping Gregorius, though he may well associate Gregorius's despised views with a sheep-like stupidity, yet Gregorius' worldly success (like his sexual drive) do, we suspect, make Glas feel a little inferior - though this he does not know to confess. We come away from the book with very little solid idea of how Gregorius really thinks about anything. In certain social contexts he is, we imagine, very shrewd. Yet there is no clue that he has any conception of his wife's, or Glas', inner lives.      

 

 

*

A year after the publication of Doktor Glas, John Galsworthy's A Man of Property also turns on a marital rape, though Soames Forsyte, at least as troubled by his own act as Gregorius, doesn't of course call it that. Ibsen lies behind both novels. Galsworthy's novel is notable technically for limiting its points of view to members of the Forsyte clan - sometimes admittedly stretching credulity to achieve it. The points of view of Irene and Bosinney are excluded, and some have criticized this as preventing empathy with Irene's difficult situation. But the idea I suppose is to put the reader in the position of the family - and of Soames in particular: to experience to the full their frustrations and to recognize that such things as they do, we also have the potential to do.

 

(2008)

W. B. Yeats (1865-1939)

 

 

 

THE LOVER TELLS OF THE ROSE IN HIS HEART

 

 

All things uncomely and and broken, all things worn out and old,

The cry of a child by the roadway, the creak of a lumbering cart,

The heavy steps of the ploughman, splashing the wintry mould,

Are wronging your image that blossoms a rose in the deeps of my heart.

 

The wrong of unshapely things is a wrong too great to be told;

I hunger to build them anew and sit on a green knoll apart,

With the earth and the sky and the water, re-made, like a casket of gold

For my dreams of your image that blossoms a rose in the deeps of my heart.

 

                                                (from The Wind Among the Reeds, 1899)

 

 

All the lines are enriched alexandrines (that is to say with extra unstressed syllables), but the first three are a specific music because of the strong medial breaks visually indicated by commas. They more or less split, amoeba-like, into restless trimeters.

 

This will be the most spirited part of the poem for many readers, with many detonations. In particular, setting “The cry of the child” directly after the word “old” is a wonderfully intelligent piece of concision – it tells us everything about how we are to hear this cry (in stark contrast to what it might connote): hopeless, hungry, and trapped in the cold years. But after all, the first three lines are only an introduction; we don’t know where this is going yet.

 

The fourth line has a quite different music. It flows from end to end, maximizing the enrichment (six accents but eighteen syllables). But though the auditory image of a rippling, unimpeded stream is certainly present, there can be no doubt that the climax of the line is “a rose”, which emerges with quiet definition at the point where, because of the preceding lines, we have learnt to expect a pause. I suppose it does not need spelling out that “a rose” blossoms in mid-line as in “the deeps of my heart”. [It is odd how this last phrase marries “the creak of a lumbering cart”, denying the opposition between them. This offers a subsidiary hint at re-integrating the lover into his surroundings and accepting the “wronging” as a natural event] 

 

The rose in European poetry since the troubadours is a symbol that has drifted a long way from its floral source. I suppose you assume, as I do, that this rose is red, but this idea leads not towards horticulture but towards an idealized image incorporating other complex enclosures; hearts, vaginas and heavens. It’s an image that blends the desired with the desire, so you may say that here the rose means what the lover is experiencing, which is created at least as much by himself as by the person he is addressing. It is what he is dreaming about; but it is also his dream.  

 

We are now clear about the relation between the opening lines and the rose of the title; they “wrong” it. Do they wrong the lover or his beloved? Is he really a victim, a nurturer, or both at the same time, or in fact neither? What is certain is that the rose is now associated with weakness, and if we feel that it might be less self-regarding to address the weakness of the child’s ignorant wailing and the ploughman’s grinding poverty, rather than feeling annoyed by them, we may not have much sympathy with the lover’s torments.

 

This reflection keeps coming back as we pick our way though the second stanza, which repeats the rhyme-sounds of the first stanza but without its force.  A wrong “too great to be told” feels like an inadequate expression, and the potential energy of “build” – qualified as it already is by being only a hunger to build – is further undermined by “sit” and “apart”.

 

But these indications of feebleness do lead to a subtly surprising outcome. When the last line comes round again, it now appears against a different background, and gains a certain paradoxical strength. If the rose seemed a bit pallid at the end of Stanza 1, it seems to glow at the end of Stanza 2. You might express the effect in these words: Nonetheless, it still blossoms. Perhaps all the more perfectly in adversity.  

 

As it might be: someone who feels their belief (opinion, philosophy, religion, love) slighted and collapsing continues to assert: Nevertheless, there is something in it .... there are many things we don’t understand .... somewhere, there is a happy land ... so that it is on the verge of ceasing to be a belief and remains only as a dream; then the persistence of the dream and the fact of the past belief provide a sort of testimony (at least in one’s own mind) that underwrites the long-desired Maybe. Yeats would later write of “the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart”, but in those very words would cling on to the sentimental romanticism of earlier days. Maybe it had after all hidden the key to transforming the world, though he had not found it.          

 

*

 

Blood and the Moon

 

(from The Winding Stair and other poems, 1933)

 

A younger contemporary, I forget who, expressed his distaste for what he saw as a Fascistic temper to this poem (quoted in full below). Try it for yourself. It's possible to piece something Fascistic together -

 

a bloody, arrogant power

rose out of the race

 

Yeats is referring to ancient Ireland, and probably before Hitler came to power though not before Mussolini did. Perhaps the poem registers a kind of respect for the "bloody, arrogant power", which at least was not half-dead at the top; perhaps the stain of blood is identified with life itself in its fullness; perhaps the stain of blood is even in a way countenanced by the purity of the moon that cannot be stained by it. It's a possible reading, though extremely partial. But contemporary readers might pick up, as we never can, subtleties of tone or phrase that betrayed (like a class marker) very clearly where the author was coming from. Unfortunately they could also make mistakes sometimes, or read only the first four lines.

 

Identifying Fascism or other unacceptable things in giants of literature is a game played with great intensity by all of us, university students especially. At school we get fobbed off with literature that is impeccably right-hearted, The Crucible and The Handmaid’s Tale, then our horizons widen and we have to make our own sense of the problem that famous artworks may have an uncomfortably close association with views that we find evil or actions that we find upsetting. As it happens, this provides an educative device. Not everyone knows how to be a critic, still less a reader, but everyone can be a witch-finder. There’s an inspiritingly competitive aspect to the game of trying to free our own tastes from moral aspersion, and it’s an obviously relevant way of making a meaningful engagement with what would otherwise be just boring old lit. If anything, it seems that the aspersed authors receive an unfair amount of attention.

 

 

BLOOD AND THE MOON

 

                I

 

Blessed be this place,

More blessed still this tower;

A bloody, arrogant power

Rose out of the race

Uttering, mastering it,

Rose like these walls from these

Storm-beaten cottages —

In mockery I have set

A powerful emblem up,

And sing it rhyme upon rhyme

In mockery of a time

Half dead at the top.

 

                II

 

Alexandria’s was a beacon tower, and Babylon’s

An image of the moving heavens, a log-book of the sun’s journey and the moon’s;

And Shelley had his towers, thought’s crowned powers he called them once.

 

I declare this tower is my symbol; I declare

This winding, gyring, spiring treadmill of a stair is my ancestral stair;

That Goldsmith and the Dean, Berkeley and Burke have travelled there.

 

Swift beating on his breast in sibylline frenzy blind

Because the heart in his blood-sodden breast had dragged him down into mankind,

Goldsmith deliberately sipping at the honey-pot of his mind,

 

And haughtier-headed Burke that proved the State a tree,

That this unconquerable labyrinth of the birds, century after century,

Cast but dead leaves to mathematical equality;

 

And God-appointed Berkeley that proved all things a dream,

That this pragmatical, preposterous pig of a world, its farrow that so solid seem,

Must vanish on the instant if the mind but change its theme;

 

Saeva Indignatio and the labourer’s hire,

The strength that gives our blood and state magnanimity of its own desire;

Everything that is not God consumed with intellectual fire.

 

                III

 

The purity of the unclouded moon

Has flung its arrowy shaft upon the floor.

Seven centuries have passed and it is pure,

The blood of innocence has left no stain.

There, on blood-saturated ground, have stood

Soldier, assassin, executioner,

Whether for daily pittance or in blind fear

Or out of abstract hatred, and shed blood,

But could not cast a single jet thereon.

Odour of blood on the ancestral stair!

And we that have shed none must gather there

And clamour in drunken frenzy for the moon.

 

                IV

 

Upon the dusty, glittering windows cling,

And seem to cling upon the moonlit skies,

Tortoiseshell butterflies, peacock butterflies,

A couple of night-moths are on the wing.

Is every modern nation like the tower,

Half-dead at the top? No matter what I said,

For wisdom is the property of the dead,

A something incompatible with life; and power,

Like everything that has the stain of blood,

A property of the living; but no stain

Can come upon the visage of the moon

When it has looked in glory from a cloud.

 

 

(2004)

 


Richard Strauss: An Alpine Symphony (1915)

 

"The sun grows dark" is the name of one of the many sections in Richard Strauss' final symphonic poem, An Alpine Symphony (1915).

Adorno remarks about the opening:

"The poverty of the sunrise of Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony is caused not merely by banal sequences, but by its very splendor. For no sunrise, not even the one in the high mountains, is pompous, triumphal, stately, but each occurs faintly and diffidently, like the hope that everything may yet turn out well, and precisely in the inconspicuousness of the mightiest of all lights lies that which is so poignantly overwhelming." (Minima Moralia 72, 1945)

Someone on the Gramophone forum adds:

"As ever Adorno is so precise and insightful. The crass pomposity of Strauss' Alpine Symphony is, for me, quite the most superficial attempt to depict nature in all music. But then to quote Stravinsky 'I would like to admit Richard Strauss' music to whatever purgatory punishes triumphant banality'."

The Alpine Symphony had occupied a similar cultural role in Germany to, say, the Georgian poets in the UK. - A sort of whipping-boy, but perhaps with even greater animus. That the aged Strauss had not seen fit to exile himself from Germany during the Nazi era left bitter feelings. And as a Wagnerite he provided a convenient substitute - a subject on which to confirm one's moral high-mindedness - for those who found Wagner's own music too formidable to sacrifice. Then there was that Viennese chocolate-boxiness that was suddenly making everyone feel horribly unwell; and the alpen-worship, the homeland-soil-worship that had so easily been perverted, and programme music itself, which had long formed (with the usual glaring inconsistencies) a useful social fireside where wits could compete amicably in a spitting contest.

 

[What is perhaps as relevant - or probably a good deal more so - is Strauss' apparent reversal of his initially positive opinion of Schoenberg; this was from 1909 at which point Strauss' work is considered to take a more conservative turn...]

How variably the ear can hear things! I don't find the Alpine Symphony pompous - quite the contrary, I find it - breathtakingly - balanced. Where others hear second-rate musical ideas, I hear music doing things it had never done before ("The sun grows dark" being one good example). Where others hear superficiality I hear delicacy, where others hear crassness I hear originality. (- And I do consider myself fairly well-versed in the music of both crass pomposity and visionary nature-realization!) But never mind what I hear. What you might not expect from Adorno's words is that there are other ways of hearing this music. Straussians of course admire it; you'd expect that. More surprisingly there are others, like me, who admit to not really liking Strauss yet consider the Alpine Symphony something else altogether.

[- It is not adequately described as programmatic - long sections like the summit and the finale gradually dissipate their programmatic openings - they begin when you stop moving and your heart slowly stops its thumping, but then they transform into unapplied music.]

I feel embarrassed on Adorno's behalf, for this reason: the paltriness of the argument. Even supposing it true that Strauss's music is pompous and empty, even supposing it true that all sunrises are in some sense as diffident as Adorno claims, even supposing that all humans confronted with a sunrise register that diffidence and nothing else, even supposing that the human imagination had never conceived and never would conceive of sunrise as warmly triumphant - even so, can Adorno's argument be understood as anything more than the crudest naturalism? When the hidebound bourgeoisie filed through the Salon des Refusés laughing and poking each other in the ribs, Why, the sun was not green, the fields were not pink! .. - isn't that the intellectual level of Adorno's "precise insight"? Logically speaking.

But of course it's not about logic. What Adorno was writing about was triumph itself. Triumph, jackbooted at the Brandenberg Gate, Triumph that Prussian, Hitlerite, Roman old enemy had to be snuffed out altogether. Triumph was a deadly enemy, an obscene joke, Triumph must form no element at all in our conception of reality. When the empty rhetoric, the stale evil of Triumphalism was still heard on the concert-platform then one must make a demonstration. And one must.

When evil comes, artistic comprehension is one of the small things that gets ruined.

Yet Adorno, pupil of Berg, was a great music critic. Reading the passage again - by the way, the context in Minima Moralia doesn't help much - it begins to feel evident that Adorno's attack is pitched just where it is exactly because he does hear the splendour of that sunrise, and exactly because he does perfectly understand the relevance of Strauss' work to the country of the high mountains. He wants us to know that he knows what it's like on mountains. (25 years later, a mountain summit played a material part in Adorno's death.)

But can Adorno have been "wrong"? I don't think so. I believe the "banal sequences" that Adorno mentions without further specification were really there, though for me they are undiscoverable. It was like a tone of voice that grated - a tone whose meaning, far beyond anything so conscious as an intention on the composer's part, was then unmistakable. Contemporaries have a cultural hotline into the work of their time. Later the language of that moment gets lost.

 

*

 

Note 1. I also like the Metamorphosen for 23 strings, 1945. ...And the early Sonata for Violin and Piano, and Don Quixote....

 

Note 2. The "progress of a day" form was extremely popular. Below is an ongoing list of other works I've come across. Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony could be suggested as a predecessor, though this doesn't really cover a whole day. As in Strauss's tone poem, the Vaughan Williams and Holst pieces make capital of the resemblance, in certain respects, of the calm of dawn to the calm of dusk; they can arrive at a satisfying ending that recalls the beginning, and the whole work is both preceded by and followed by the silence of the night.

 

Frederick Delius, Paris - The Song of a Great City (Night Piece for Orchestra), 1899. Obviously this isn't dawn till dusk, but it still seems part of the tradition.

Vaughan Williams, Symphony No. 2 ("A London symphony"), first performed March 1914.

Eric Coates, From the Countryside, 1915 (this is really just a small suite, but like the others it shows that there was now a rich musical language for suggesting different times of the day)

Gustav Holst, Hammersmith, 1930 (for military band)

 

Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht (1899) should also be mentioned, though it does not really cover a whole night.

 

(2006)


Edward Thomas (1878-1917)

 

     Thaw

     Over the land freckled with snow half-thawed
     The speculating rooks at their nests cawed
     And saw from elm-tops, delicate as flower of grass,
     What we below could not see, Winter pass.


     Edward Thomas (1878-1917)

(The text as it's generally published, e.g. where I found it, in Country Verses, edited by Samuel Carr, 1979. Text is from 66 poems, except for the title and the hyphen in "elm-tops".)

     10 iii 16
     Going home

     Over the land freckled with snow half-thawed
     The speculating rooks at their nests cawed
     And saw from elm tops, delicate as flower of grass,
     What we below could not see, Winter pass.


(from Notebook containing drafts of 66 poems, 25th June 1915 - 24th December 1916. The capitalization of "Winter" is hesitant.)

     Thaw

     Over the land freckled with snow half-thawed
     The speculating rooks at their nests cawed,
     And saw from elm-tops delicate as flower of grass,
     What we below could not see, winter pass


(from Notebook containing drafts of 27 poems, 1916.)

     Thaw

     OVER the land half freckled with snow half-thawed
     The speculating rooks at their nests cawed,
     And saw from elm-tops, delicate as a flower of grass,
     What we below could not see, Winter pass.


(from http://www.theotherpages.org/poems/thomas01.html - internet representation, introducing caasual changes.) I do appreciate "half freckled" - it's more accurate than what Thomas wrote. Because if the snow is freckly in one part of the view you can bet there's others where it's either all snow or all clear. But in another way this modernizes the poem, because we now take for granted an English landscape that is much more open than it was in the days of the elms. Thomas' point was that, being down at ground-level, humans couldn't really see the bigger pattern in the way that the rooks could. Not that the "point" is really what makes the poem tick - the final line doesn't repay much reading, it's just an enabler. The force of the poem really lies elsewhere: "cawed / And saw" mysteriously evokes the scrambling activity of the rooks; "speculating", while partly evoking the comical appearance of the rook's face (from a distance) also emphasizes that comical solemnity (that term follows inevitably) is exactly inappropriate to their manner, that there is a total difference between animal experience and human experience, that their posited wisdom/superior vantage point is a wisdom beyond and quite unlike the wisdom of solemn old gazers in human society.

Thomas wrote this poem near Sevenoaks. He had already enlisted, but wasn't sent to France until November 1916 - he was killed in action soon after arriving at the front in April 1917.

As Thomas's poem confirms, up to the 1970s the rookery-tree of choice in southern England was usually an English Elm (Ulmus procera). This was because the elm was a hedgerow tree and it overlooked the rookery's feeding-grounds, which is what rooks want (the size of a rookery matches the acreage very precisely). Coincidentally or not, the upswept shape of the elm crown rather resembles the shape of the hybrid poplars that rooks favour these days. As for Thomas' image of "flower of grass" - though this comes in to the poem mainly for its unseasonable breath of midsummer - the distant edges of the winter elm-crown do have a tufty look that could vaguely suggest the panicles of meadow-grass or Yorkshire fog in their open state. I am basing that remark on photos. To see it today, you would pretty much have to go to the Brighton enclave, where the council chose, uniquely but successfully, to preserve their elms by watchfully cutting away diseased limbs whenever they appeared: a far-sighted decision that saved a lot of money as well as the traditional appearance of Brighton's streets.

 

(2010)

Handbook Encyclopedia of Engineering (1928)

 

1,240 pages, blackbound; a book for the trade, published New York (The Industrial Press, 1928) and London (The Machinery Publishing Company, Ltd, 1929). Editor, Franklin D. Jones. Inscribed by the original owner (in black ink italic capitals of mesmerizing regularity) E. G. CAMP. MARCH I929

 

Considering how central a part engineering performs in our civilization, it’s remarkable how few of its terms have entered common language. When we do use them, we’ve often misappropriated them. For instance, the “flash point” of oil is the temperature at which the volatile surface vapour will ignite, distinct from the “fire point” at which the oil itself will ignite.

 

Consulting this book as preparatory reading for the fine literature of its time (which perhaps was one of my secret motivations for getting it) is on the surface an unfruitful pursuit, since literary people never knowingly refer to these topics. But beneath the surface, the conditions of all their literature depends on them. And to “their”, you might as well add “my”.

 

Because of this utter separation between what I know about and the core interests of the encyclopedia, the most interesting reading often occurs at the frontiers. For example, jute, celluloid and cork are included only because of their occasional uses in engineering (respectively: cable filler, electrical insulation, friction clutches) but the description of their properties from these vantage-points feels enlightening. The book is also pleasingly comprehensible when outlining mathematical and chemical concepts, how chimneys work, varieties of carpentry joint (re patternmaking) and other topics that are not industrial engineering itself. On alloys, castings, gear-teeth and so on, the detail is dismaying, it condemns my ignorance:

 

CRANKSHAFT COLD SAW. The crankshaft cold saw cutting-off machine is arranged for carrying two saws upon a single arbor so that two cuts may be made simultaneously when sawing out the web of a crank.

 

Here, as mostly, we are reading about a machine that manufactures bits of another machine. Hence another of my motives, hoping to learn how a car engine works, was disappointed. Instead I’ve learnt how to manufacture one – but using the technology of 1928.

 

It’s refreshing to find that the entry on “File History” begins with the skin of the dogfish and has nothing to do with computer storage.

 

The first manufacturer of nuts and bolts was Micah Rugg in Marion,  Conn. in 1818 – very small-scale for the next 20 years. In England, the first factory was Thomas Oliver's, in Darlston, Staffs (1838).

 

There is no trace of humour and the main sources of the book's infrequent references to humanity are notable inventions (cotton gin, telegraph, telephone; often with heroic struggles over patent) and methods for calculating wages and regulating labour. The philosophy of labour is of the time-and-motion variety, chiefly concerned with graded penalties for slackness and absenteeism. The following entry might have been more accurately titled, Non-liability etc.

 

LIABILITY OF EMPLOYER. The liability of an employer for injuries sustained by an employe is based upon the well established law that an employer is not liable for the payment of damages for injuries sustained by an adult employe, if it is proved to the satisfaction of the Court that the workman was injured as a result of his own negligence. Where an employer knowingly hires a minor without his parent’s consent and requires him to do dangerous work, in the performance of which the minor is injured, the employer may be liable, even though the minor’s carelessness or negligence may have contributed to a great extent to the occurrence of the accident which caused the injury; but if it is shown to the satisfaction of the Court that the minor falsely stated his age and the employer believed he was of legal age, the employer may be relieved of liability for injuries sustained unless the injury was due to the employer’s neglect.

 

(2007)

The Lyceum Book of Verse ed Mollie Stanley-Wrench (1931)

 

The Lyceum was a literary society for ladies (I might miss some nuances, but that’s not too far away). The most interesting thing, probably, is what the poets have in common - a sociological interest, I suppose. The word sprang, the devotion... This seems like a very old book. Katharine Tynan’s meters might owe something to Yeats - other influences are Georgian, with a dash of Kipling, some ballads and a bit of Chinese exoticism. Florence Ayscough’s translations from Chinese are in fact the most valuable poems, by any normal modern standard. Rachel Swete Macnamara seems the best poet: a more engaged imagination than the rest, a more determined verse movement. With all the birds and flowers you can’t help wondering if this prettified, privileged poetry will ever be read without patronization (and was it really so privileged, to be Ethel Rolt-Wheeler or Lady Aimée Scott?) The poems on Blake and Beethoven show the ladies’ culture at its most vulnerable; it does not seem equipped. The birds, the grey twilight. Sybil Bristowe’s wide resources, “Arthur Hood”’s violence, and the single, achieved poem of M. Winifred Isitt (“A London Spring Song”). Now long out of the current of any competition or significance, I can look at it with some sadness and respect.

 

What is the word, O brother I may speak

                                          And hope

To reach your far white peak

           From my green slope?

 

(Rachel Swete Macnamara, “Box Hill to Mont Blanc”)

 

 

 

(2001)


Famous Plays of 1931

 

 

 

 

 

 

From a series of compilations published by Gollancz, beginning in 1929 with Famous Plays of Today, then continuing more or less annually until 1938-39 (and, anomalously, 1954).

 

1. The Barretts of Wimpole Street, by Rudolf Besier. The scene is the same throughout: as the author cutely says in the headnote, this drama took place in Elizabeth Barrett's room in 1845. It portrays her long-postponed meeting and romance with an irresistible Robert Browning, the recovery of her health and spirits, and in the end her escape from the chilling emotional blackmail of her ultra-disciplinarian father, an almost insane Victorian paterfamilias whose relationship with her mother is eventually implied to have declined into long-term marital rape (decendant of characters such as Soames Forsyte in The Man of Property (1906), and the Reverend Gregorius in Hjalmar Söderberg's Doktor Glas (1905)). It was Besier's only hit. Film adaptation in 1934. (Above, Basil Rathbone as Browning, in the 1933-34 tour of Katherine Cornell's US version, which converted the five-act structure into a more convenient three acts.)

 

2. The Improper Duchess, by J.B. Fagan. Set in Washington D.C, concerning oil negotiations with the imaginary kingdom of Poldavia during the "next" presidency. The sprightly and resourceful duchess, mistress of the king, uses her charm to overturn an attempt to invoke puritanical US laws in order to wreck the negotiations. (The King's hunting forest is sold as a valuable oil concession, apparently to the joy of all; a story-line that today can only prompt sombre reflections on Ecuador's unprecedented negotiations to try and preserve rainforest from the oil industry.) Film adaptation in 1936.

 

3. To See Ourselves, by E.M. Delafield. Caroline's marriage to Freddie, papermill owner in Devon, has gone stale; a visit by her sister and fiancé, themselves hoping to avoid the same dismal prospect, shakes it up. E.M Delafield was a prolific novelist who touched on social and feminist issues; upper-middle class, unconventional, entered a convent in her youth but eventually rebelled, still slightly remembered for "Diary of a Provincial Lady".

 

4. After All, by John van Druten. Play about the generation gap, in widely-spaced scenes covering a six-year period. Mr and Mrs Thomas have tried to bring up their son and daughter in a liberal and confiding spirit, but are distressed to find that each is stifled by the family home and intent on moving out. By the end of the play (the parents now dead), the younger generation are showing signs of reverting to respectability, at the same time as discovering that their parents had in their youth been forced to break free in a similar way to themselves. Anyone today who reads the first two acts would take it for granted that young Ralph, like John van Druten, was gay.

 

5. London Wall, also by John van Druten. Set in a lawyer's office, but focussed on the admin staff rather than the lawyers; in particular, registering the relative novelty of women in the workplace. The innocent, pretty Pat manages (just) to escape the sexually-predatory Brewer, the office manager. Meanwhile Miss Janus, after ten years in office-work, still unmarried and at the desperate age of 36, walks out to a life of freedom, insecurity and loneliness.

 

6. Autumn Crocus, by C.L. Anthony. Wistful Alpine romance in which for 24 hours Fanny, a lonely teacher in her mid-thirties, snatches at Life (in the form of the warm-hearted innkeeper Andreas, unfortunately already married) before reluctantly giving way to the sad compulsions of practicality, realism, respectability, etc. Sentimental, yes; yet perhaps I won't be the only reader to be reminded, just a little, of Káťa Kabanová. Light relief supplied by Alaric and Audrey, a hearty Kraft-Ebbing / Slade School couple who earnestly inform all the other guests about their non-marital relations. This was Dodie Smith's first play and it was a success; her pseudonym was soon cracked by journalists ("Shopgirl Writes Play!"). Film adapation in 1934. Like Fanny, Dodie Smith came from rainy Manchester. In later years she wrote (among other things) the fondly-remembered middlebrow novel I Capture the Castle (1949) and a children's story The Hundred and One Dalmatians (1956).

 

These six popular plays build a fascinating picture of a moment in history, perhaps even a unique moment. Every one of the plays, even Fagan's Duchess, reflects and contributes to society-wide debate about the role of women, emancipation, a new model of relationships, family and society. A subsidiary theme in most of the plays is registering a plea for LIFE from (or at any rate on behalf of) dreary, Life-starved existences - women's lives, principally. Well, I said a unique moment. One key date is probably this: in the UK, universal suffrage for all adults over 21 years of age was not achieved until 1928 (1918 introduced votes for women, but only those aged over thirty and with other restrictions). Another is the screening of Alfred Hitchcock's Blackmail in July 1929 - the first British talkie (though like most transitional films the sound was added later). There remained a timelag before the social impact of sound movies really started to erode areas recently occupied by theatre. But inexorably it happened. Today, the most direct line of descent from such plays as these, i.e. combining broad popularity with social debate, leads to TV soaps.

 

Chekhov complained about the difficulty of avoiding the pistol-shot. It's interesting that in these plays there is not a single death from any but natural or accidental causes. Detectives, policemen, mystery crimes, are entirely absent. That may be an unrepresentative curiosity of selection (perhaps Gollancz only went for relatively high-minded plays), but it's striking in contrast to our own cop-sated schedules.  

 

Speaking of Gollancz prompts another observation - these plays were evidently, in part, intended for reading, and were read. Descriptions of scenery are elaborate; the physical appearance of the characters is described; stage directions are often novelistic rather than functional, aimed at a reader not an actor. "C.L. Anthony" even suppresses the usual cast-list with its names and explanations of relationships - instead referring enigmatically to "The Lady in the button-up boots", etc - this seems to be for the reader's benefit, because the usual sort of cast-list would spoil the surprise. 

 

In contrast, movie screenplays have never sold particularly well in book form. I guess this is partly because it's easier to get to see a new film than a new play; Gollancz could expect a provincial market for these volumes. But the main reason is that moviemakers developed fluid narratorial styles that, compared to theatre, were not so dependent on language.

 

(2011)

 


 Oliver Strange: The Marshal of Lawless (1933)

 

This is the third novel in Oliver Strange's great series of westerns about James Green, also known as Sudden. I'm talking about the reading sequence, which is different from the dates of composition and publication (see note). 

 

The Marshal of Lawless finds Sudden in the south of Arizona, near to the border with Mexico. Race plays quite an important role in the plot; in romances of this era, it is an irresistible ingredient, colourful in every sense; behind the racist story-lines, both author and readers are secretly attracted to what repels them. One of the villains is a Mexican (Moraga, the self-styled El Diablo), and the other - the main one - is half-Commanche (Seth Raven, popularly known as The Vulture). On the other hand, the injun Black Feather, whom Sudden recues from being tortured by El Diablo, is devoted and honourable. El Diablo is naturally humiliated when Sudden invites Black Feather to give the Mexican a whipping in return. That overturns the natural order of things, from El Diablo's point of view. From Sudden's point of view Mexicans are far worse than Red Indians, inasmuch as they have pretensions to be white men. Worst of all, however, is miscegenation. Meeting Raven for the first time, Sudden runs an expert eye over his features:

 

"Injun an' Mex or bad white, like Durley said, reg'lar devil's brew," was Green's unvoiced criticism.

 

The book, naturally, supports the hero's view. We instantly scent villainous qualities in "the hooked nose, small, close-set eyes, thin lips, and lank, black hair". Yet though Sudden's race analysis is skilled, he is too honorable a man to condemn on racist grounds alone. Several chapters later, Seth Raven still puzzles him; "Apparently a public-spirited citizen..... With an innate feeling that the man was crooked, he had to admit that so far he was not justified in that belief."  

 

When El Diablo accosts the beautiful Tonia Sarel, she treats with contempt his claim to be a caballero of Old Spain: "Lay a finger on me, you yellow dog, and I'll thrash you." However, when Sudden has rescued her, the following dialogue takes place:

 

"Ride on a piece, Miss Sarel," he said. "I'll be along."

 

She divined the menace beneath the casual request. "What are you going to do?" she questioned.

 

"Kill a snake," he said coolly.

 

"No, no," she protested. "He's a Mexican and didn't understand. Please let him go."

 

At one level the book shows Tonia's cultural relativism to be mistaken - she is just being squeamish, Sudden yields against his own better judgment and El Diablo comes back to haunt both of them. But at a poetic level she's of course right. Though by then Sudden has equal motive for revenge, it's Black Feather who finally salves his honour by doing for El Diablo; Sudden merely puts the bandit out of his misery when impaled screaming on a clump of cactus half-way down a cliff. We understand that though it is honourable for Black Feather to exact revenge for personal injury, it would not be honourable for Sudden to do the same. Because he is the hero? Or because he is white? Racism and romance are so intertwined that it's hard to decide. Raven has already called this one. El Diablo being now in his bad books, Raven instructs the marshal as he sets off with the posse: "An' don't make no mistake this time. If yu don't wanta kill the damn yellow thief yoreself, let yore Injun do it." With the implication: make sure it's painful.

 

But I don't know as much as I should about the history of race stereotypes in early Westerns. In Oliver Strange, an English author, they seem to me to have a contemporary British character. Savage races are to some extent "let off" because of the prevalent idea of the noble savage. On the other hand the most venomous racism is reserved for the dubious category of "dirty whites", especially (for some reason) Portugooses, who are made scapegoats for all the brutalities of colonialism, which is to be airbrushed from the fine features of the British Empire and its agents. In an American context, Strange simply transfers that venom to the Mexicans.

 

The roots of the fear of miscegenation lie deeper, in folk-myths designed by elders to control the too-miscellaneous breeding tendencies of their juniors. Propaganda against mixed breeding goes back at least as far as the ancient Greeks with their disapproval of the foreigner and their mythical monsters (nearly always malign) produced by unlikely crossbreeding of species.   

 

A surprising thing happens when Seth Raven, the town's most prominent citizen, is finally cornered, his crimes made public beyond dispute. Perhaps not so surprising - the Merchant of Venice lies behind this quasi-courtroom scene. Anyway, the "half-breed" (sometimes referred to, even more contemptuously, as the "breed") finds this to say:

 

"Yo're a clever lot, ain't yu?" he sneered. "Superior race, salt o' the earth - scum would fit yu better. Me, I'm what yu called me. The Vulture, that damned Injun, the unwanted brat of a pore white an' his copper-coloured squaw, yet I've beaten an' fooled yu all - killed, robbed, an' had yu pattin' me on the back for a good fella. Bite on that! Why, if it hadn't bin for a stranger" - his gaze rested viciously on Green - "yu'd be eatin' outa my hand this minit like the dawgs yu are. Which of yu has the pluck an' savvy to plan an' do as I did? Not one o' yu."

 

The stinging, scornful voice lashed them like a whip and he had his moment.

 

The book is of course sunnily untroubled by the implications of Raven's speech; as are its audience, who (after the ensuing shoot-out) forget all about it. For them, the racist context in which Raven became the villain that society already marked him down as, is invisible.    

 

"Well, he's saved thisyer town the cost of a rope," Loder put in.

 

Which was the best that anyone could find to say of the late owner of the Red Ace.

 

But for Strange it is clear that racism, as well as races, is picturesque: it is itself a colourful ingredient of the tapestry that makes heroes and villains. (Later, in Sudden - Outlawed, Strange would decide that Sudden himself had been raised as a child by Injuns.)  

 

I now find the villains interesting and surprisingly varied: consider for instance the extremely conflicted, sometimes lucid, intelligent, ineffectual and eventually crazed Paul Lesurge of Sudden - Gold Seeker. But when I read these books as a child I didn't pay much attention to the villains: it was the magnificent hero who dominated my imagination, on his splendid black horse (I wasn't going to make a big deal of this, but the horse's name is Nigger*NOTE 3). Sudden, who gains the respect and affection of straight men, the respect and hatred of crooked ones; Sudden, who makes bantering jokes with the younger pal who invariably hero-worships him and at some point awkwardly blurts out his affection for Jim after the latter has returned from some near-death scrape; Sudden, unafraid of confrontation, always quickest on the draw (only Wild Bill Hickock ever matches him, but that's just a friendly trial), self-assured and decisive in the wilds, a brilliant tracker and seeker-out of clues, stoically philosophical in adversity, modestly embarrassed by the rich stores of praise that are showered on him by those who matter and with equal modesty resisting the darkness of an undeserved reputation as an outlaw, unobtrusively driven by a private quest and deeper feelings than those around him. To aspire to be Sudden, I understood, did not have to mean being a gunslinger.

 

Strange's strengths as a writer are crackling dialogue, lean and expert construction, a wide and curious vocabulary (George Eliot lies behind some of it, such as "anent"), and a descriptive power less opulent than Zane Grey's but more focussed on the needs of a pacy story. Here Sudden and his sidekick Barsay have hooked up with Andy Bordene's cattle drive, pitching camp in The Pocket under a threatening sky:

 

Arrangements for the night were well forward when they reached the camping-place, which they did at leisure. The herd had been watered and now, under the ministrations of half a dozen circling riders, was quietly settling down at the far end of the valley. At the near end the cook had a big fire going and the busy rattle of pots and pans sent a cheerful message to tired and hungry men. Having given their mounts a drink, and picketed them, without removing the saddles, the visitors joined the loungers by the fireside.

 

The customary baiting of the cook was proceeding in a promising manner when a distant rumble of thunder put a sudden end to it. Anxious eyes turned skywards, where an inky, rolling mass of cloud was wiping out the stars in a steady advance. Then came a spot or two of rain.

 

"She's a-comin', boys, shore as shootin'," Andy said. "Better be ready for anythin' that breaks loose."

 

Scrambling hurriedly to their feet, the men donned slickers...

 

*

 

NOTE 1:

 

In the reading sequence, which is not the sequence of publication, The Marshal of Lawless is preceded by Sudden - Outlawed (in which the youthful hero first takes an oath to seek revenge on the killers of his father, and gains his monicker), and also by Sudden (in which he is secretly employed by Governor Bleke as an agent for the forces of law and order).

 

These background matters remain constant in the novels that follow. Strange follows the plan of Spenser's Faerie Queene, with Sudden/Jim Green as Prince Arthur: actively involved in the free-standing adventure of each book but not (formally) its hero. It's Sudden's junior comrade who has the life-adventure, conquers his sea of troubles and winds up marrying the girl. Sudden rides off into the sunset, still intent on his larger quest.

 

That quest culminates, we are promised, in The Range Robbers. However, readers who patiently follow the saga through will be more than a little disappointed. The Range Robbers  was actually the first book Strange wrote, when already approaching retirement: he was an employee of the publishers, George Newnes, Ltd and he lived in Kew. It was an unexpected hit and he was urged to write some more westerns; however, it  was only after one sequel and a couple of prequels that the epic possibilities of Sudden's quest really came into focus, in the stand-out novels (Outlawed, Goldseeker, Trail...) that followed. The proposed climax of the series turns out to be just another adventure, unaware of the hefty significance its author subsequently invited us to place on it; in fact the hero of The Range Robbers isn't even called Jim Green but Jim Severn, in secret allusion to the author's origins: he was born in Worcester in 1871. (Likewise, the girl that Jim marries is called Noreen in allusion to Strange's wife Nora). 


The Range Robbers (1930) Reading Sequence: 9
The Law O' The Lariat (1931) Reading Sequence: 10
Sudden (1933) Reading Sequence: 2

The Marshal of Lawless  (1933) Reading Sequence: 3
Sudden - Outlawed (1935) Reading Sequence: 1
Sudden - Goldseeker (1937) Reading Sequence: 4
Sudden Rides Again (1938) Reading Sequence: 5
Sudden Takes the Trail (1940) Reading Sequence: 6
Sudden Makes War (1942) Reading Sequence: 7
Sudden Plays a Hand (1950) Reading Sequence: 8

 

Oliver Strange never visited America, though his books were as successful there as they were in Britain. Some years after his death Frederick Nolan (born in Liverpool in 1931) produced five more Sudden books under the pen-name of Frederick H. Christian. Nolan has gone on to write some 70 books in various genres and under various names. He was also an editor of Corgi books, who republished the original Sudden novels; these later reprints, Nolan says, were slightly abridged in deference to "the 160-page rule".  So while my Corgi copy of The Marshal of Lawless is 157 pages, the Geo Newnes volumes that I have are all about 250 pages (though there's slightly less text per page). Typically it amounts to about a 20% reduction, I'd estimate.   

 

NOTE 2:

Sudden - Outlawed is among other things an account of an eventually successful cattle drive along (or slightly off) the Chisholm Trail. It has so much in common with Red River that either it must be a source or else there's a common source. But if you didn't know the dates of publication, you'd probably suppose Red River to be the earlier one, because of its self-conscious primitivism. This is possibly the most elaborate Sudden novel; quite a lot of research has gone into it. Notable for the figure of Tyson, a "still-hunter" or Indian-killer; a friendly character that the novel is nevertheless unable to quite accept.

 

NOTE 3:

This wasn't an unusual name to give to animals. On the Terra Nova, the ship that was supposed to pick up Captain Scott in 1913, the black cat was called Nigger. I have been told about someone's neighbour's dog being called Nigger in the late 1950s.

 

(2010)

Victor Canning

 

 

We will yet save you from the glutine. The aples is better bruised first.

 

There was a moon, five days past the full, and striking sparks of quicksilver from the outcrops

 

the easeful sweep of his legs, and the feeling of hard ground under him, came like a balm after his cramped day in the pit

 

A great velvet moth burred into his face

 

Once from the pale sky a shooting star drew a curve of instant fire

 

a train rattling by, and as he opened his eyes he saw the brightly-lit windows swirl before him like a cinema-screen, saw nodding heads and faces that gaped through the glass

 

 

Victor Canning was a hard-working popular novelist of the mid-century. Forty-one books are listed and I expect they are all good; the kind a straightforward reader could not merely enjoy but love. I suppose the hardbacks went into lending libraries (perhaps they are still there) and the paperbacks onto railway bookstalls in the home counties. The titles may be quotations (His Bones are Coral), sporting tags (Doubled in Diamonds) or the sort of thing that Robert Ludlum later tried to trademark (The Scorpio Letters). 

 

I have only read two of them, and they are very different, though not as different as they can be made to sound. Mr Finchley discovers his England (1934) is a rumbustious tale of a balding bachelor’s holiday, which turns into a chain of delightful misadventures. Venetian Bird (1951) is a taut thriller whose hero is a self-disgusted private enquiry agent. But the later book is fundamentally warm-hearted, and the earlier one is not as sentimental as you’d expect. Both heroes “find themselves”, just the thing that the readers dreamt of (I think the readers would have been men), as they peered out from their ossified jobs and ossified leisure. 

 

I extracted the lines above from two pages of Mr Finchley. Canning had a marvellous gift for description on the run. But the dialogue in Mr Finchley  belongs to an age before the talkies, expansive and literary. Venetian Bird, on the other hand, is like this:

 

San Marco itself seemed cut out of metallic paper, livid golds and greens under the powerful lights, and the Campanile was a great raw finger scratching at the dark sky with its sharp nail.

 

Rosa was lying back in her chaise-longue listening to the radio when he arrived. She held up a hand to stop him from talking, nodded at the bottle on the low table and went on listening. Someone was reading poetry – a resonant, compelling voice. Mercer poured himself a drink, half-listening . . .

 

            “Sperai ch il tempo, e i duri casi, e queste

                        Rupi ch’io varco anelando . . .”

 

Rosa had always had a weakness for poetry. He lit a cigarette and watched her. Her eyes were shut and the large face was stupid in its contented collapse. Ten years ago and few men would have turned away from her bed if invited. Now . . .her feet stuck out from the bottom of the wrap and he saw the pink bulge of flesh over the curve of her slippers like over-stuffed sausages.

 

                        “. . . Amor fra l’ombre inferne

                        Seguirammi immortale, omnipotente.”

 

The voice stopped and she switched the radio off.

 

“Ugo Foscolo – one of my favourites.”

 

“I like his voice.”

 

“You’re a barbarian, dear boy. Foscolo’s dead. It was being read by another poet – Madeo Nervi. He’s coming to Venice soon for some Arts Festival. I shall go and listen to him. You can take me – if you’re here.”

 

“I will – if I’m here.”

 

She said: “Within the last hour someone’s cracked you on the forehead. The blood’s scarcely dry.”

 

“I ran into a wall.”

 

“In your job that happens sometimes.”

 

He got up and walked around the room with his glass in his hand. He stopped by the window, running one finger gently along the slats of the blind.

 

“Did you find anything about the girl Medova?”

 

“Not much.” She knew he wasn’t going to talk. She didn’t want to know anything for herself, but talking might help him. She’d made it her business to have a look at the girl and had been jealous – pleased in fact by her jealousy like someone coming into a cold room and finding a red ember waiting to be blown to warmth under the grey ashes.

 

(How easily, by the way, the author deals with everyone speaking Italian throughout the book. Mercer’s is very good, of course, but not up to engaging with a poem on the radio when it’s already half-way through. Instead, he fixes on the voice.)

 

 

 

(2004)

 


H.A.L. Fisher: A History of Europe (1935)

 

 

With a preface to the one-volume edition written in January 1936. The date is arresting, of course. Fisher’s 1,300 pages lead us, as it seems, right up to the threshold of a European catastrophe; yet the author, though plainly guessing much of what was to come, has no firm knowledge of what is constantly in our minds. This is how the book ends:

 

Europe, then, has now reached a point at which it would seem, as never so clearly in past history, that two alternative and sharply contrasted destinies await her. She may travel down the road to a new war or, overcoming passion, prejudice, and hysteria, work for a permanent organization of peace. In either case the human spirit is armed with material power. The developing miracle of science is at our disposal to use or abuse, to make or mar. With science we may lay civilization in ruins or enter into a period of plenty and well-being the like of which has never been experienced by mankind.

 

In the mean time the war has left us with an evil legacy. The moral unity of Europe is for the time being broken. Nordic paganism assails Christianity. An insane racialism threatens to rupture the seamless garment of civilization. May future generations close the rents, heal the wounds, and replace our squandered treasure of humanity, toleration, and good sense.

 

Both destinies, you might say, came to pass; first the ruins and then the plenty. By “the war” Fisher means of course what he calls the Great War and what we call the First World War. Part of the evil legacy, ironically, was that right-minded ideal of good people (as in Gladstone’s Midlothian Campaign of 1879, and embodied in the Treaty of Versailles), self-determination of the nation-state.

 

The sanctity of life in the hill villages of Afghanistan, among the winter snows, is as inviolable in the eyes of Almighty God as can be your own.

 

That was a remarkable and admirable thing to say for the prospective leader of a colonial Empire, but it was colonial thinking nevertheless. The idea of a single, unified native people was not even expressed, it was such a basic assumption. In Europe, the failure to clearly distinguish nation and ethnicity, national self-determination from ethnic self-determination, would be critical. For how could it work where peoples divided by religion, language, and culture inhabited the same ground? The break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, last of the imposed medieval (non-national) hereditary and religious unities, fuelled by well-meaning rhetoric about the right of national self-determination... it spelled trouble. Even more problematic is its applicability to parts of the world (in fact, the majority) where the concept of a national organism is itself a piece of alien culture that cuts right across the real affiliations that matter to its inhabitants; but that consideration takes us beyond Europe and right up to the present time...

 

A few lines earlier, Fisher meditates on Europe being no longer the unrivalled leader of industry. “It must take its stand on quality. It must live on its taste, its ingenuity, its good sense.” That seems like good prophecy too. Think of IKEA with its “Swedish design” all over the masthead and its actual production beneficently distributed through less favoured parts of the world.  There in miniscule is the economic reason why the myth of European superiority has been so energetically and subtly sustained; why the reputation for quality, above all, is a resource that must be allowed to others in a permanently graduated manner. If you have some, we must still have more.  

 

I seem to be writing about this backwards. The Epilogue begins:

 

After some twenty million years of life upon this planet the lot of the major part of humanity is still, as Hobbes once described it, “nasty, brutish and short.” Of its two thousand million inhabitants some hundred and fifty million are still living very close to the hunger limit.”

 

Seventy years later, the figures are 6.5 billion (total) and 850 million (undernourished).

 

In detail, naturally, Fisher is like every historian laid open to the ironies of hindsight. This is about Poland in 1933-34:

 

A second benefit conferred upon Poland by this remarkable man [Pilsudski] is a good foreign policy. Non-aggression pacts signed with Russia and Germany have brought a sense of security to a nation which dreads nothing so much as a renewal of war in Polish territory.

 

Similarly Fisher has hope for the other new states brought into existence by the treaty of Versailles, and invigorated by land redistribution:

 

 There were many who lamented the disappearance of the great country houses, which had played their part in the art, letters, and politics of the middle east [i.e. of Europe] for so many centuries. But one of the results of this wide agrarian revolution was that a strong cordon of peasant owners was drawn between Russian communism and central Europe.

 

How irrelevant that “strong cordon” was, events were to show. All these countries fell pitiful victims to the ensuing horrors; all, to some extent, played a part in perpetrating the horrors; peasant ownership might salve some wounds, but it inflamed others, e.g. the resentment of (traditionally non-landowning) Jewish communities.   

 

Surprisingly, the shape of Europe imposed by the Treaty of Versailles has to a large extent survived; of course, some of the nations have split into smaller units.  I don’t know if any Hungarians still resent the loss of Transylvania, or if Vienna is still far too large a capital city for the shrunken Austria. At some stage these things do get forgotten, or none of us in the present would ever be content.  

 

Many among the Allies hoped that the U.S would sign the Treaty and itself join the League of Nations. If it had done so, the guarantor of those vulnerable new nations would have had a lot more muscle: might the Second War itself have been avoided? (Uneasy speculation for those of us who think present US and British entanglement in the Middle East is wrong.) Anyhow, President Wilson’s nation was in Republican reaction against Europe’s troubles, and the Allies were disappointed on both counts.

 

*

 

High-level overviews work best when you are reading about something you don’t know much about. That’s how I feel, anyhow. Perhaps there are some informed people who have a real taste for masterly précis; the same kind of people, maybe, who admire a well-chosen anthology. But what I was struck by was what I knew especially little of: The Seven Years War, Napoleon’s campaigns, Bismarck. Diplomacy in general.   

 

I also found it interesting that the partition of Africa by European nations is first described as being motivated by a common desire to suppress the pan-African slave trade and to improve social conditions (p. 1126). The later page on British Imperialism suggests more acquisitive motives: “As usual they had secured the best places [Egypt, Uganda, Nigeria]... Yet the English were not content. Steadily during the sixties, seventies, and eighties they kept extending their tentacles... The climax was reached in 1889-91 when Cecil Rhodes, fortune-hunter and empire-builder, snatched Rhodesia” (p. 1159). – Yet this last act is seen as an affront to Germany, not Africa. I suppose the assumption is that the Africans had no nations, so could not be put out by what happened.

 

The chapter about slavery begins: “In the history of Europe so far as it is known to us there are two chapters marked by a special note of infamy.” These are, it emerges, the Roman slave trade centred around Delos in the second century BCE and the transatlantic slave trade of various European nations (of which Britain was the most successful and most inhumane) in the 17th-19th centuries. Fisher can say frankly that Britain was the most guilty because he is just about to say that at least abolition started in Britain too. The crucial steps to abolition were taken, as he admits, at a time that was in a way propitious: just after slave-owning America had been lost and just before industrial Lancashire had acquired a motive for defending slave-grown cotton. On the other hand, it took place in the middle of the naval war with France at a time when “every sailor from Nelson downwards declared that [the slave trade’s] abolition would be the ruin of the British Navy...”

 

However, the point is of course that Fisher’s opening sentence couldn’t have been written ten years later. That there could, on a scale of millions, be crimes against another people even more infamous than slavery, was yet unknown. Hitler intended to revive a form of slavery too. The Slav races, already slaves in name, were to be slaves in fact.

 

*

 

I want details. Let’s be a bit more probing about this. I’d recently read Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Reason Why (1953) – a brilliant double biography of Lords Cardigan and Lucan. The book leads up to that terrible hour at Balaclava, but deals with much more: one chapter is about Lucan’s experience as an Irish landlord during the potato famine and clearances. Fisher devotes a whole chapter to the Crimean War, but he gives only one sentence (and that a dull one) to the famine and clearances. That’s a disastrous slight on a book that purports to be about “Europe” (in actuality, the emphasis in the more recent centuries is overwhelmingly on France, Germany, and England).    

 

On the Crimean War Fisher’s account of diplomatic and military bungling is full of sharp lessons vaguely reminiscent of the classical historians; as if writing this kind of history is a behaviour that creates its own subjects. In its own terms this is good writing, and is for use: modern makers of foreign policy, attend!  Reading Woodham-Smith’s book, on the other hand, we are overwhelmed by something quite outside that classical range, that is by the differentness of Victorian society, the uniqueness of the disaster. Yet where does summary stop? It’s like the layers of the onion, and Woodham-Smith’s book too is surmise and generalities; however, it’s at a level of granularity that is more interesting to me. 

 

(2006)


Harold P. Clunn: The Face of the Home Counties (1936)

 

... Portrayed in a series of eighteen week-end drives from London. I am in fact looking at the New and Revised Edition, produced some twenty years later. It has new illustrations and a few references to e.g. the great flood of 1953 that devastated Canvey Island, and the burgeoning growth of Crawley, first of the post-war New Towns, but in essence the ethos of the book remains that of 1936.

 

Leisure motoring was then something dramatically new, and yet something very unlike what it connotes today. Clunn exulted: "the construction of the new arterial roads leading out of London, and the widening and reconstruction of the older roads, have made the Home Counties seem like one vast playground laid out almost at our doors". His eighteen intricate routes take us through every town and in some areas nearly every village in the south-eastern corner of England.

 

DRIVE SEVEN: From the West End to Colchester, Dedham, Ipswich, Felixstowe, Dovercourt, Walton-on-the-Naze, Clacton-on-Sea, and back by Brightlingsea, Tollesbury, Maldon, Danbury, Billericay, and Brentwood to the West End.

 

That sounds like a lot of driving, leaving little time for pausing at even the major stops (i.e. the ones that get named in this outline). Oddly, maps were not included. There was as yet no naming-system for major roads; Clunn did not seem to anticipate any difficulty in following his directions, though there would be difficulties now, and sat-nav would be hopeless at this. One begins to realize after a while that these drives are ideal conceptions, an elegant means of avoiding the tedium of a mere catalogue.

 

Still, I think the challenge of following each of Clunn's routes over eighteen successive week-ends would make a fine project for a retired person with plenty of time and spending-money.      

 

What transformed leisure motoring most of all is the motorway network, which began to emerge in 1958. Now a week-end away is usually about getting as far away as possible in a straight line, and then pootling about in exotic surroundings, getting a chance to relax a bit before shooting back down the motorway on a Sunday evening. "Touring" (the origin of "tourist") is almost an obsolete idea, except for owners of camper-vans.

 

The town of High Wycombe consists principally of a very long continuation of the main street extending all the way along the valley of the little River Wye from Loudwater almost to West Wycombe, a distance of five miles. (The Wye enters the Thames near Bourne End.) Thus, excepting in the centre of the town, which is old and dignified, High Wycombe bears the appearance of some large London suburb of little interest to the motorist.

 

That last phrase catches us up short. In our own time the motorist (except in officialese) is a person of very limited interests: chiefly, getting from A to B and the price of fuel. In Clunn's work, however, the motorist is interested in guildhalls, Norman churches, sea defences, the hotel balcony from which Disraeli made his first speech, and important local establishments such as the Royal Eastern Counties Institution for Mental Defectives (Colchester), the Masonic Girls' School (Rickmansworth), the Meltis Chocolate Company (Bedford), etc. Local manufacture is noted: High Wycombe is a centre of the chair and furniture trade; the industries of Bedford include agricultural implements, engineering, brick and iron works, and hand-made lace. Harlow New Town is worth a visit for its modern town planning. Clunn's idea of what touring the Home Counties means is to some extent still Victorian in spirit. His motorist is a moneyed professional whose "tours of inspection" are indeed not purely hedonistic, but still retain a sense of visiting and assessing the inheritance of Empire.

 

Clunn's prose style is, you will already have gathered, a little buttoned-up. He will not address the reader as "you", sometimes speaking of "the motorist" but most often of "we" (a doctor's we) : "About one mile west of Seal we come to the cross-roads for Sevenoaks and Farningham, and here we turn to our right..."  Views are "spacious", spires "lofty", hotels "stately" and "commodious". He betrays hardly any sense of humour, and his enthusiasm is more apparent in the thoroughness of the work than in ecstasies, though there are exceptions, as here, of "the largest and finest garden-city in the British Isles",

 

A week in Bournemouth affords pleasures and charms which can hardly be matched even by the most famous pleasure resorts on the Continent. Here there is something for everybody. To be able to choose between pine-woods, the sea-shore, and streets of the most elegant shops, all in a mild yet sunny climate - that is something rare. The very idea of anybody feeling depressed in a place like Bournemouth seems preposterous.

 

I don't know Bournemouth, but the generally pristine elegance of Clunn's seaside towns is impressive, comparing them with today, e.g. St Leonards, then adorned with a pier (demolished) to match that at Hastings (closed down), not to mention Warrior Square, "considered by many people to be the largest and finest square in England", now a neglected space of melancholy public gardens adorned with notices about antisocial behaviour, surrounded by cheap lets and buildings too dilapidated to let at all. Change creates new centres of attention. Clunn has little to say about Hastings Old Town, "a congeries of narrow medieval streets and fishermen's huts, though many of these are being demolished under a local slum-clearance scheme." Now the black-painted net-houses are the iconic image of the town. Here at Rockanore and around the Cafe on the Beach at Glyne Gap the excitatory centres are connected with wildlife and heritage: we are more inspired by a turnstone than a church. Though no-one ever looks twice at Warrior Square, they read the sign about Goat Ledge immediately below it on the sea-front, and dream of seeing dolphins.

 

Peacehaven already had the "by-word" reputation from which it has even now not quite recovered. Bad reputations take time. The pretty village of Hawkhurst (Kent) was already in Clunn's time only picturesquely associated with the notorious Hawkhurst gang. But the gruesome murders at the Crumbles (Eastbourne) (1920, 1924) were still too fresh: it would take another half century to quiet them sufficiently for people to flock uninhibitedly to the marina complex with its multi-screen cinema, chain restaurants, retail outlets and everything one could desire.   

 

Of smaller places along the way Clunn will at minimum give the population and tell us what the church is made of, its architectural style and the number of bells. He is also very interested in elevation, perhaps because steep roads were still something of an adventure, but also because he has a high appreciation of good air and of extensive views ("from which seven counties can be seen"). Thus Caterham and Hindhead are little Switzerlands, and in Ashdown Forest "the scenery is wild, the air most exhilarating, and the views over the undulating green forest-country delightful". But he shows no interest in wildlife, though he admires fine woodland from a distance.

 

Clunn's own routes may be an ideal to be admired rather than studiously followed, but motoring excursions were certainly popular, as reflected in the new roadhouses.

 

One and a half miles from Watford and situated on the beautiful by-pass road which skirts the town on the east side is the Spider's Web, a palatial roadhouse with a French restaurant, a swimming-pool, and a ballroom with a balcony leading out on to a delightful terrace.

 

Or, at Hook:

 

the new 'Ace of Spades Roadhouse and Swimming Pool' which has been erected on the north-west corner of the Kingston by-pass road. This is one of the pioneer roadhouses, and here meals can be obtained at any hour of the day or night. The 'Ace of Spades' is an informal sort of place much favoured by London motorists who come here to enjoy themselves. Dancing takes place every evening until 3 a.m. except on Mondays, and ample accommodation is provided for cars.

   

These roadhouses vied with the magnificent cinemas as the icons of democratized leisure.

 

*

 

Dagenham... a vast new garden suburb of London with 115,600 inhabitants... The population is almost a wholly artisan one, and there are no better-housed workers in any other great city in the world. 

 

(2009)


 

 

Karin Boye (1900-1941)

 

This header should really be removed. It seemed a matter of course that I would write about Karin Boye, since I'd spent quite a lot of time translating some Poems by Karin Boye, but this hasn't happened. The exercise of translating made me unwilling to be analytical.

 

Boye published four books of verse in her lifetime: Möln (Clouds, 1922), Gömda land (Hidden Lands, 1924), Härdarna (Hearths, 1927), and För trädets skull (For the Tree's Sake, 1935). A fifth volume appeared after her death: De sju dödssynderna och andre efterlämnade dikter (The Seven Deadly Sins and other posthumous poems, 1941). She also wrote a number of novels.

 

 

(2007)

 

 

 

 

The Oxford Book of Spy Stories ed. Michael Cox (1997)

 

 

 

This is a collection of short stories - which means that I’m not meeting the spy genre on its strongest ground. It’s obvious that the murky magnificence that was foreshadowed in Bleak House and The Secret Agent cannot be developed to any great extent in this brief medium.

 

In fact, this limitation of scope results in a ragbag. There are perhaps no “classic” short spy stories. Nevertheless, reading through the collection (once) is enjoyable. Perhaps it is a nutty sort of education. I never expect or desire to read much of Capt W.E. Johns or Ian Fleming, but at least I can feel I’ve read something.

 

The best stories are “Peiffer” (A.E.W. Mason), “Giulia Lazzari” (Somerset Maugham), “Judith” (C.E. Montague), “The Pigeon Man” (Valentine Williams), “The Army of the Shadows” (Eric Ambler), “Risico” (Ian Fleming), and “Paper Casualty” (Len Deighton). Some notable names (Buchan, Greene) are represented by second-rate work. Of the stories mentioned, Montague’s is Kiplingesque - an adjective that sufficiently suggests both its strengths and its limitations -, Ambler is sentimental but exciting, Fleming’s is his own curious genre done as well as it can be done, and Deighton’s is just there because it’s well-written - it’s not much of a story. Maugham’s is the only one that has significant literary qualities of a familiar kind - it deserves to be called a “criticism of life”.

 

Or to put it another way, it’s the only story that in a sense justifies the assertion (on the back cover) that “they form a wonderfully entertaining literary insight into a world of intrigue and deception”. In the more obvious sense, none of the stories achieve this insight and a little reflection suggests that they couldn’t hope to do so. The “world” as it is used in this sentence can only be an imaginary construct, a nebulous impression aroused in the mind of the reader. It isn’t possible to gain “insights” into that kind of conception, because it just doesn’t have any substance. Indeed you might argue that the whole point of espionage is that it doesn’t take place in its own “world” but in someone else’s.

 

What might reasonably be expected is some substantial information about, for example, the tools of a professional spy. But this proves oddly elusive. Perhaps because the writers don’t have the information - more likely because the information they do supply is not credited. Any device that can be publically discussed in this kind of way is plainly just the thing that a good spy should steer clear of. The spy must manipulate the world as it is. 

 

On the front cover is an arresting photograph of a man wearing a Homburg and lighting a cigarette. The stories don’t help us to understand him. Maugham is an exception. His characters are complicated and unlovely. In the contradictions I recognize human life - I didn’t expect to.  For him the word “insight” is just, but it isn’t an insight into espionage but into something broader, something that evades categories.

 

[Eric Ambler’s The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) is a powerful restorative. The story of the hapless Serbian clerk Bulić is but one of many that flourish in the book’s free-and-easy cheapness.  Ambler is admired for his evocation of the spirit of the thirties – and the book is (again, easily) conscious of this fact. This “spirit of the thirties” is, I think, a piece of hyperreality; one does not find it, for example, in Ronald Fraser’s Blood of Spain: An Oral History of the Spanish Civil War (1979). But hyperreal conceptions remain important.

 

I have since read another of Ambler's early novels, Uncommon Danger (1937, US title Background to Danger). This is good too. The hero Kenton is a cynical journalist who, short of funds, gets involved in smuggling some documents out of Nazi Germany. But then he finds his contact murdered... the book eventually resolves into one of those heartwarming unlikely-buddy novels - the buddy is a Soviet agent called Zaleshoff, minor romantic interest being supplied by his sister Tamara, who is an ace getaway driver. The best scene is the one in which the two buddies are being suffocated in the vulcanizing chamber of a deserted cable factory; but see also the earlier torture scene, the Linz coach trip and crossing the border into Czechoslovakia, etc. The book's politics are surprisingly upfront and Ambler seems to have solved technical problems of the spy genre that most later writers would continue to struggle with.

 

Ambler's later books are good too. In the The Night-Comers (1956) the narrator-hero is an English engineer caught up in a military coup in an imaginary SE Asian country. Ambler’s jaundiced account of realpolitik Sundanese-style is effortlessly absorbing: you’re aware that you’re really learning things, though they may not be completely true things. This is a literally post-colonialist situation; Ambler naturally distorts his account to favour the European colonialists, - we don't hear much about their atrocities - but by creating a situation where the colonialists are weak and terrified he exposes widely-held but now rarely-spoken beliefs about places on earth where life is cheap and culture is alien. Horribly exposed is what the narrator is, which is what makes the book exciting; perhaps the main thing he takes refuge in is his superior Western understanding and judgment of the unfolding events; but the challenges to this complacency, in the form of Suparto and Rosalie in particular, are strong and intelligent.]

 

 

 

 

 

 

(2002, 2003)

 

 


C.S.Lewis: The Problem of Pain (1940)

 

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) was a many-sided author. His earliest publications, up to 1930, were tentative attempts at establishing a career as a poet; but clearly he had (to put it kindly) the wrong sort of talent. In1929 he experienced a conversion, gave up his militant atheism and adopted a forthright Christianity. His academic career was by now in full swing. The 1930s saw his first scholarly books, Rehabilitations (a collection of separate essays) and the formidable Allegory of Love (1936), which was very well received and established him near the head of his field, which was medieval and renaissance literature. The creative urge had not left him and he also produced an allegory of his own conversion called The Pilgrim’s Regress; this was a poor book, but he was to make up for that later when he covered the same ground in Surprised by Joy.

 

His great run of popular Christian books began with The Problem of Pain (1940). Scholarly work continued, including the magnificent English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (1954 - the one book of his that I have never stopped reading, and probably never will)*. He also wrote a science fiction trilogy, and of course the popular Narnia books for children; and much else. All his work speaks in the same, instantly recognizable, voice; but there is some variation. During the war years, which also produced The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, and the Preface to ‘Paradise Lost, there is an enviable boldness, even stridency, which must have made instant converts of many and angered many more.

 

To speak personally, I don’t care anything for the science fiction books with their thinly-disguised religious themes, and I don’t care deeply for the hastily-written Narnia series – The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Silver Chair are the ones I like best. His other fictions are not outstanding either. The excellent Screwtape Letters is best regarded as a series of colourful sermons. Even Till we have faces (1956) only really pleases me because it is at the opposite extreme from the stridency of the early 1940s**. Lewis learnt from his own experiences in an oddly child-like and definite way, and his books from the mid-1950s onward are the work of a wiser and humbler man: Reflections on the Psalms, The Four Loves, A Grief Observed etc.

 

His writing remained anathema to many progressives, though; they were scarcely able to compete with the immense though lightly-carried learning of books such as Studies in Words and The Discarded Image, but they took infuriated exception to a tone that implied on almost every page an utterly different outlook from their own. The fury was all the greater because the fundamental simplicity of his views allied to an outstanding limpidity and graciousness of expression produced a dangerously populist cocktail. They knew he would be listened to, and it didn’t seem fair. It is said that Lewis failed badly in his debate with a professional philosopher following the publication of Miracles. The perception of those who said so was that his cocksure cleverness went with a complete failure to understand the point of any twentieth-century intellectual or artistic movement; he could only make snide populist remarks like a journalist writing for the Daily Mail. It remains a disturbing paradox, the more so because (having been so deeply influenced by Lewis during my late teens and early twenties, when I was both a medievalist and a born-again Christian) I am afraid that I share a good many of his blindnesses, and am in some fundamental way arrested in an imaginary Lewisian world of values even though my conscious opinions were never conservative and are not now religious. (I should add that, though Lewis has been anthologised in collections of Conservative thought, I do not remember him ever pronouncing on a party-political matter; he seems to have been perfectly sincere in his professed lack of interest in topics of that sort. At the same time there’s no doubt who would have been most upset by his assaults on e.g. modern educationalists***.)

 

The Problem of Pain, at its best, can be illustrated from this passage about guilt from the chapter entitled “Human Wickedness”:

 

A recovery of the old sense of sin is essential to Christianity.... [Without it,] the result is almost bound to be a certain resentment against God as to one who is always making impossible demands and always inexplicably angry.... Why not live and let live? What call has He, of all beings, to be “angry”? It’s easy for Him to be good!

 

Now at the moment when a man feels real guilt – moments too rare in our lives – all these blasphemies vanish away. Much, we may feel, can be excused to human infirmities: but not this – this incredibly mean and ugly action which none of our friends would have done, which even such a thorough-going little rotter as X would have been ashamed of, which we would not for the world allow to be published. At such a moment we really do know that our character, as revealed in this action, is, and ought to be, hateful to all good men, and, if there are powers above man, to them. A God who did not regard this with unappeasable distaste would not be a good being. We cannot even wish for such a God...

 

In short, the “grandfather in Heaven” picture of God appeals only to those who have no sense of a living God at all, like myself. This seems to me a completely persuasive argument. Of course you can say that when someone feels guilty it often makes them feel better to be particularly self-condemnatory, taking comfort in their inner high-mindedness. But this says nothing about the truth of the insight. A real God must be, whatever else, inexorable.

 

The chapters on Hell and Heaven carry the same conviction. Lewis was immediately criticized for defending the doctrine of Hell, which was presumably an embarrassment to other propagators of the faith, but this criticism amounts to nothing. Anyone can see that hell does indeed exist in many places on earth, and therefore its metaphysical dimension poses no new difficulty. The Christian story makes no sense if there is no hell. How can anyone be moved by Good News unless things are seen to be bad? Why would anyone busy themselves with saving sinners unless there is something to save them from? Why is there a church entrusted with a mission if it is impossible for anyone to turn away from God? It is true that hellfire preaching and hellfire parenting had repulsively abused one element in that story, and laid the whole Christian system open to the most violent objections, but for churchmen to just go quiet about it was a trifling evasion, which merely demonstrated what most people already sensed, that if you wanted to learn the truth about anything it was no good asking a priest.

 

Here are some sentences from the chapter on Heaven.

 

You may think that there is another reason for our silence about heaven – namely, that we do not really desire it... There have been times when I think that we do not desire heaven; but more often I find myself wondering whether, in our heart of hearts, we have ever desired anything else... Are not all lifelong friendships born at the moment when at last you meet another human being who has some inkling (but faint and uncertain even in the best) of that something you were born desiring, and which, beneath the flux of other desires and in all the momentary silences between the louder passions, night and day, year by year, from childhood to old age, you are looking for, watching for, listening for? You have never had it. ... The thing I am speaking of is not an experience. You have experienced only the want of it. ... Always it has summoned you out of yourself. And if you will not go out of yourself to follow it, if you sit down and brood on the desire and attempt to cherish it, the desire itself will evade you. “The door into life generally opens behind us” and “the only wisdom” for one “haunted with the scent of unseen roses, is work.” This secret fire goes out when you use the bellows: bank it down with what seems unlikely fuel of dogma and ethics, turn your back on it and attend to your duties, and then it will blaze. The world is like a picture with a golden background, and we the figures in that picture. Until you step off the plane of the picture into the large dimensions of death you cannot see the gold. But we have reminders of it. To change our metaphor, the black-out is not quite complete. There are chinks. At times the daily scene looks big with its secret.

 

If I call this a great piece of literary criticism (e.g. of George Macdonald, whose words are quoted) I may seem to be unfairly limiting the kind of writing that it is. I don’t intend that. We tend to have a mental picture of primary writing (“literature”) that is in some way directly engaged with life, and then

of secondary writing (“criticism”, “commentary”, “review”) that stands lower in the hierarchy and only addresses itself to details of primary writing, so that engagement with life has become flickering and indirect. Unfortunately the grey bulk of any university library tends to confirm that hierarchy. But “literary criticism” as I mean it here (and Lewis is a prime example), if it moves away from the original writer’s words, does not thereby move further from life, but only sideways to get a different angle, and though further from one aspect of life nearer to another. In the same sense I might want to say that Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is a great literary criticism of Plutarch.

 

But at the same time I do intend a limitation of my praise. Unquestionably the heaven suggested in this chapter is a heaven that can be believed in and can be wished for (its very definition, indeed, is that it is wished for). The limitation is that the kind of yearning evoked by Lewis is (I suspect rather than know) an experience that only a few people can instantly relate to. If it is, as one might immediately judge, really an inchoate desire to return to the womb, then that might make it more universal. But for it to seem like a possible hint of heaven one needs to conceive it in its developed manifestation. That what evokes the yearning in Lewis’ own examples (“the smell of cut wood in the workshop or the clap-clap of water against the boat’s side”) reflects Lewis’s own tastes and nationality and gender and interests is not an argument against it. But it appears to me that a yearning for the unrealizable is not an intrinsic part of human experience. I don’t know; I admit that, personally, I recognize what he’s talking about very well, but then, I share many of his backgrounds. Human experience is overwhelmingly various.

 

As an outline of Lewisian Christianity, then, the book seems to me a success. I shan’t bother much about local criticisms; the chapter on “Animal Pain” seems to me to depend on some quite extraordinary views about non-human life – one gathers that Lewis had no interest in nature****. But on the general subject that his book purports to treat, i.e. suffering, I think his success is very mediocre.

 

Lewis was writing when Europe was again at war. He had served in World War I, and had ample personal experience (not only in combat) of pain and suffering, but the book steers clear of evocation; as the quotations may show, it treats pain rather intellectually. If we are not religious philosophers, there is indeed something rather offensive about the expression, “The Problem of Pain”. You wouldn’t talk about “the problem of genocide”, or the “problem of starvation”, as if these things were all very well in their own way but posed one or two thorny issues for a believer. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a theological issue, but I think that Lewis, clearly unwilling to deal with instances in detail, has actually failed to confront it. He thinks he can reduce e.g. Ivan Karamazov’s terrible denunciation in Dostoyevsky’s novel to a few bare logical assertions. But perhaps suffering cannot be reduced in that way. There are, if you want to put it that way, at least two “problems of pain”, one for the sufferer and one for the witness. In fact there are a million problems – they will not be “boiled down” in the way that Lewis hopes.

 

The natural and right human reactions to suffering are, for a sufferer, to endure it if possible; for a witness, to alleviate it if possible, or else to lament it. Lewis’s book may well have cheered sufferers and helped them to endure – in fact I’m sure it did, though he disclaims both the intention and the skill. But his argument proves far too much, and really leaves no room for lamentation, grief, horror or shock. One must be appalled at Ivan Karamazov’s accounts of  children being tortured; but how can God’s world contain what one must be appalled by? And what redemptive salvation is imaginable that can ever right these wrongs? It is a fundamental challenge to the Christian story of a good God.

 

An instance of where I think Lewis’ book is at its weakest is his argument against the additiveness of pain. He argues, basically, that in a waiting-room where two people have toothache, no-one is experiencing “2 x toothache”; the pain threshold of one individual sufferer is all the pain there ever can be. He actually uses this example of toothache, and I think you’ll agree that it tends to  trivialize the matter. People do not question the benevolence of God because of toothache. They question it when whole communities are ruined, when villages are burnt, when countries starve, when cities are sacked or when people are herded into a forest to dig their own graves.

 

Therefore we ask, Monarch of all that lives,

Firm in your heavenly throne,

While the destroying Fury gives

Our homes to ashes and our flesh to worms –

We ask, and ask: What does this mean to You?

 

(Euripides, The Women of Troy trans. Philip Vellacott)

 

 

It's quite true that each individual can suffer no more than the worst a soul can suffer. But we are more than individuals; the wholesale destruction of communities, families, cultures, ways of life, invoke feelings that are different from those in which a single person suffers torment.

 

Lewis, I think, was not much of a community person. His books are almost entirely free of patriotism or a sense of nationhood, which is rather refreshing. He was not close to his parents (his mother died when he was nine) and he had no children. As a scholar he had risen untrammelled out of Ulster, the place of his childhood, and he lived and breathed the fellowship of his colleagues; an excellent but very anomalous kind of community. So perhaps it was not so hard for him to see all our attachments to local culture and local identity as things to be yielded up, being merely human and temporal constructs in the face of an overwhelming and universal vision of God.

 

Some of the shortcomings of his treatment of suffering must have become plain to him personally when, after the loss of his wife from cancer, he wrote A Grief Observed. The earlier book is in the end frivolous. In it he pretends to write about pain in order to give an athletic display of the strength and joyousness of his conviction. It was a calling-card.  

 

*

 

A C.S. Lewis sentence and its influence

 

There are several sentences in C.S. Lewis’ works that have influenced me deeply. This is one of them:

 

The truly wide taste in reading is that which enables a man to find something for his needs on the sixpenny tray outside the secondhand bookshop.

 

In fact, like other deeply influential sentences that became part of my everyday mental furniture, I didn’t remember it at all accurately. I remembered it, approximately, as “the real sign of a good reader is being able to find something to read on a railway station bookstall”. The variation isn’t really all that important, but it meant I elided the question of what is meant by “needs” in connection with reading. 

 

So far as this ideal of a good reader is concerned, the influence is pretty obvious, e.g. from the book you are reading now. I cultivated an interest in whatever books came to hand, and found after a while that I never really needed to go and buy new books; I preferred to loiter in the charity shops, since I was just as fulfilled by what I found there as by any imaginable alternative. (It also saved my purse and it appealed vaguely to ecological principles at the same time.)

 

This self-education in the books of the charity shop eventually provoked my notion of relativism. Since it was in fact possible, rather easily possible, to find something to read all the time, perhaps (I surmised) no book was really any better than any other; it was all about the reader. You could (I theorized) in principle drag the same fruit from a worthless detective pap novel or a book of recipes for the freezer that you could get from Julius Caesar and Leaves of Grass ­– after all, the whole of culture was encoded in the language and the moves made within those books. And what grounds have you to condemn what may seem dull or crude when you don’t know the full context, when you don’t write such books yourself and you aren’t part of their natural audience and you don’t even know what it’s like to write such books or read them in their intended context?

 

I don’t think Lewis would have approved that particular extension of his thought. He plainly believed in real values, and on his sixpenny tray he wasn’t envisaging recipe books. I think his example is tactically chosen, in fact because he really thought there was usually a lot more worth reading on the sixpenny tray (some Scott or Stevenson, probably) than in fashionably abstruse shelves full of the Bloomsburys and modernism and other things he didn’t feel interested in grasping, like Wittgenstein. But I didn’t understand that message or absorb it, at least not very deeply.

 

I didn’t remember the sentence accurately, and of course I didn’t remember its context either, at least not consciously. It comes from the chapter about “Affection” in The Four Loves (1960). Lewis remarks on the indiscriminate nature of affection and how (unlike the less humble loves) its objects are not selected; for their intelligence or sexiness, for example. We develop affection for someone because they just happen to be around. In that context he starts to talk about what it means to have a wide sympathy for other people; it isn’t demonstrated by having a large number of friends or lovers (for they are chosen) but by a ready sympathy with people that you probably wouldn’t choose. That’s when the analogy with reading comes along. 

 

The whole chapter is good, but this is about me and the sentence. Forgetting the original context, I have extended the message I took back out from the bookstall to other art-forms, nature, place, weather and people. It’s a seductive analogy but like all analogies it has falsity stitched into it. It all works very smoothly so long as you aren’t trying to accomplish anything. If things (or people) aren’t tools, why indeed should you get hung up about value? It sounds amiable, but is limited; of course the alternative sounds terrible – the way I’ve chosen to present it – people as tools! But reading books (and being with humans, too), these actvities are diminished if they are just contemplative idylls, just about the mild pleasure of watching the clouds race and not about making things happen. I know this, but my nature didn’t want all that trouble; shrugged aside the unattractive risks of accusation or confrontation. That’s why I find the sentence a good example of what influence, too often, amounts to. You seize the little moment that fits how you already feel inclined to live. This is waking life, but it works in much the same way that dreams get composed out of materials that cohere because of multiple, stray, happy accidents. I was really influenced, but I had reasons for welcoming the influence.  

 

But still, Lewis was a great reader, so long as “great” means being open to wonder. A colleague remembered him, shortly before his death, enthusing boyishly about Les liaisons dangereuses – not a book you might have expected him to take to. “Why has no-one told me about this before?” he demanded. 

 

 

*

 

 

 

 

 

Notes:

 

* I picked it up to check the date of publication – it happened to be already out of the shelves – and lost most of an evening reading the first chapter for the hundredth time. [Aside from its own merit, it also produced a fine pendant in the form of John Carey's essay "Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Prose", printed in English Poetry and Prose 1540-1674, ed. Christopher Ricks (Sphere History of Literature in the English Language, Vol. 2). Carey, and to some extent Ricks, are post-Lewis critics quite as much as they are post-Leavis critics, and Carey's essay consistently has Lewis in view; chiefly in his energetic assaults on works canonized by Lewis such as More's Dialogue of Comfort, Sidney's Arcadia and Hooker's Ecclesiastical Polity. Though Carey reaches quite opposite conclusions from his master, he reads these books in the same kind of way, as living repositories of values that must be earnestly proclaimed or torn down. When neither likes the book, they say merely the same things (Lyly's Euphuism), but Carey enjoys negative critique as much as Lewis did and he is prepared to sacrifice Bunyan altogether in order to spend a few pages ripping Walton's Lives to shreds; Carey on Bunyan would have taxed the author much more.]  

 

** It is fair to say that great swathes of Christian heartland do not agree with me. The impressive 140 reader reviews for Till We Have Faces on amazon.com speak of it as a life-changing discovery. (The largest number of reader reviews that I have come across is 267 for Raymond Feist’s Magician: Apprentice.)

 

*** What Lewis did proclaim, at least when he was at his most unworldly, was essentially the Augustinian argument of De Civitate Dei. The nature of earthly government did not matter; one should be law-abiding, but what really mattered was the heavenly city. In principle this view implies political quietism; it lends no support to the idea that one kind of government is better than another. But in practice this means lending no support to political change, and in particular denying the aspirations of Marxist belief. A more developed political view grew out of studying Hooker and others for the “OHEL”. But the word “conservative”, even without a capital letter, creates a false idea of the kind of writer Lewis was – he was not a follower of ideas but a creator of them. It’s true that he often presented his views as if he was revering some tradition or orthodoxy, but this only reflects his myth-making temperament. His ideas were really a new development building on romanticism and in particular some of its nineteenth century offshoots (e.g. George Macdonald). For Lewis the ideas of the past were not a vague cloud of worthy sentiments, as for a conservative, but a dynamic intellectual conflict in which he eagerly participated as if it were all still alive (there are no “dead issues” in Lewis’s world). Wholesale acceptance or rejection of the past would have meant nothing to him; he grasped too much of the detail.  He defended what he cared about, and tended to re-invent it as he did it.

 

**** But he did, some years later, write a very powerful anti-vivisection essay; the grounds were philosophical and humanist.

 

(2004)

 

  
Peter Yates

 

 

In the locale of “The Explorers” the hands on the clock don’t move, but the compass needle does.

 

Explorers moving through the vivid lands

Of moveless time: inebriated urge

Towards the dreamed Americas, the end

Where last magnetic rays of sunlight bend

Till vertical and horizontal merge

In final contact, touch of ungloved hands.

 

The axis in the mind projecting hope,

The folded mountains and the cobalt sea

Emerge; shadows of sunlight on the rock

Seduce the senses, wind the moveless clock,

Give birth to wishes, fears; the will to be

Immortal, and the twitching fingers grope.

 

The compass moves, glint of the Phoenix eye;

November and the melancholy wind,

Snow on the marbles tombs: elastic flesh

Expands, consumes; fakes with its fuse a flash –

The image, vivid, flickers in the mind,

The vibrant, beautiful, exciting lie.

 

These are the first three of twenty-nine stanzas. The stanza-form is, by Yates’ standards, simple; six five-stress lines rhyming abccba. There are only a few internal rhymes (tombs, consumes). There are harsh chatters of prolonged alliteration, like a burst of machine-gun fire. The “iambic” flow is a constant in all his poems. Each of these stanzas gathers a sense of purpose towards the middle, when the rhymes are closer together and we feel we’re “getting somewhere”, and then loses it, reaching its firm full stop with a feeling of dissatisfaction. The form makes each stanza seem self-contained and isolated from its fellows.  

 

Progression is by noun-phrases. Nouns are preceded by the definite article, though this is somewhat disguised by elision of particles (for example, in the first stanza we assume “the inebriated urge”, “the last magnetic rays”, “the touch of ungloved hands”). Nevertheless, the appears 155 times in “The Explorers”, and a/an just six times. What’s going on here? When we read “the vivid lands” our faces are held down, coerced by the poet’s imagination. But when we read (as above, in the third stanza) “a flash”, a familiar context is implied: we are referred to the world outside the poem in which we have seen other flashes; this is but one of them. Yates makes very sparing use of that context in his early poems. You might like to know that the next time we run across a, it is “a stifled cry”, and the next time “a shriek”. These three faint animal interjections are pitifully crushed by the engine of the poem.

 

“Snow on the marbles tombs” may be a misprint, but don’t be too sure; tombs may be a verb. Verbs have a tendency to seem like nouns in this moveless operation. Several stanzas (like the first) manage without any direct verb. But one verb – “move” – is insistent.

 

Again the compass moves; the visions pass

and burn like spectral fevers in the eye.

The thunder speaks, the fatal axis moves,

Recedes, slips off its safe and formal grooves

To where gigantic mirrors multiply

Only the total being of their glass.

 

O wanderers, betrayed by swamp and slime,

Receding from alacrity of youth

To move in lonely circuits of the brain

Down pensive passages, propelled by pain

In search of moments motionless with truth,

Adrift, lost in the wilderness of time.

 

Explorers moving through imagined space

Led by equator’s never ending line

In search of pyramids and plangent curves;

Creating new sensation with the nerves;

New instruments to heat the blood’s decline;

New formulas to hide the ego’s face.

 

Explorers sinking in bewildered blood

I watch you through my lenses, see you move

In search of final islands, and that place

Where lost and rigid parallels embrace

With kiss and crackle of electric love

The separate polarities of good.

 

Insensate time: clock without face or hands,

Revolting torso with the abstract eye

Made hideous by hate, I see you move

In moveless moments in which secret groove

Towards what formula or frozen lie

Only the lucid madman understands.      

 

                                                            (Stanzas 7-11)

 

What, then, moves? The explorers, the compass, the mind’s eye; the poet’s mind and the reader’s eye. 

 

They move through a dense thicket of repetitions, deterring progress. The poem does the opposite of providing a mimesis of journeying; it provides, instead, a non-progressing obstacle. There is nothing to drink; it is the explorer’s own need that inebriates.

 

But voyagers on gleaming parallels

Still reach towards the image in the mind... 

 

(Stanza 16)

 

“Gleaming” gives us a sense of relief. Like the “kiss and crackle of electric love”, it falsely suggests something drinkable, and also something speedy – the gleam, as it were, shoots ahead of the voyagers. But this is deceptive relief under a burning sun. Consider that arresting phrase in Stanza 2, “shadows of sunlight”.

 

“The Explorers” continues Yates’ long quarrel with thought, and is a toxic mindscape. Nothing is fixed there (we have already seen the November wind), and much else comes within its compass; including, with some reticence, war-time Britain.

 

            And in the towns, where death becomes an art... (St 21)

 

But Yates keeps his focus on the tangle of the self:

 

Where being is itself the subtle crime                              (St 25)

 

His own mind, no doubt one of the hungry explorers too, snags on non-progressive images of futility:

 

And speedboats with no destination move

Tracing their foaming circles of false love              (St 28)

 

So much for speed. Through much transmutation, Yates’ poems remain fixed on their object, and this idea is still lurking forty years later in the slow barge of the memorial to his wife:

 

Metaphor burns me with the edge of dreams.

Love holds in need, by net of names

The intricate and simple, grief and joy,

Green water rippled by a swan.

 

A hand, a shape, a scarf of hair -

Pure drunkenness of open air!

I follow where the dead have gone

The hidden path once printed with your name.

 

You wander in the dark

Beyond the comfort of my arms!

 

Through scalding tears of reverie

I watch the lion sun with blazing mane

Creep from his cloud, and slowly pace

The secret meadow where we used to lie –

He draws across your flickering lake

The Yew tree’s shadow like a sombre barge.

 

(In Memoriam E.Y.)

 

[Peter Yates was born in 1911. I hope it is fair to consider him (though such considerings always involve a falsifying diminution) as a poet of the forties. At any rate, his first two collections were published by Chatto in 1942 and 1943, and gained some attention. In many ways they will seem to be characteristic of the era (in Britain); “The Explorers” is from this period. One further collection appeared in 1951; he also published two verse plays, which were staged. Petal and Thorn, a low-key selection of old and new poems published by Peter Ward, appeared in 1983, and that’s what I’ve been reading. This is all I know about his career as a writer, but the inescapable impression is that he was talked about in the early forties as someone with “promise”, a “poet to watch” in the words of Stephen Spender. And then time went by and, gradually, he wasn’t. The blurbs carry less authority. If Graham Greene is only quoted as saying (of The Assassin) “in his minor characters and prose scenes Mr Yates shows himself a dramatist of great promise”, then one is bound to guess that Greene had serious reservations about the verse part of the play. The 1951 collection and the second verse play seem to have reaped nothing worth blurbing. The modest later poems were I imagine written for himself.]

 

 

 

(2004)

 

     
 

E.B. Ford: Butterflies (The New Naturalist, 1945)

 

 

 

In such places the Aurelian might not infrequently be seen with his surprising equipment.

 

Variety hunting had yet attained no considerable proportions, while the difficulties of studying geographical variation were great, nor was its interest appreciated; for Darwin had not yet come.

 

(of data labels...) What we did others could have done, and they were culpable for their negligence.

 

Their knowledge was largely empirical and died with them, but it was great; I rarely find their like today.

 

All these sentences are taken from the first chapter, a history of butterfly-collecting. The style is Latinate and poised, and to me the sentences are remarkable - we would labour to match their swift intelligence today. But Ford finds no use for this style in the rest of his book. Its suppleness is of use when the subject matter is human and social. When he buckles down to genetics, he writes a plain prose.

 

Ford was a scientist who began as a butterfly collector. A passage such as the following reveals the connection between acquisitiveness, violence and knowledge.

 

(The Monarch) “is the largest butterfly seen in Britain, though but few collectors have the pleasure of encountering it. Yet it was my good fortune to do so on the evening of August 30th, 1941, at Kynance Cove, Cornwall, within two miles of the most southerly point in Great Britain. Those who know that exquisite spot, now largely spoiled through having been popularised for tourists, will remember that the steep path up the cliff reaches a short piece of level ground just before the summit. Climbing from the cove, I arrived, net in hand, at this place at 6:20 p.m., double summer time, and glancing to the left saw a Monarch Butterfly about twenty feet away flying inland perhaps fifteen feet from the ground. It was slowly flapping and gliding and looked immense, and the honey-coloured underside of the hind-wings showed clearly. It quickly reached a small rocky hill and disappeared over the top. Now every collector knows that if one loses sight of a butterfly one rarely sees it again. It was with a sinking heart therefore that I gained the top of the hill and, turning to the left in the direction which the insect had taken when last seen, found my way barred by a steep rocky slope. I threw myself over, landing in a heap at the bottom and, on picking myself up, beheld with joy the Monarch about fifty yards away. It was hovering over a path, no more than a foot above the ground, and then slowly rose. By the time I arrived it must have been about two feet above the heather, and I caught it with a single stroke of the net. It proved to be a female in good condition, and is the specimen represented on Plate 27, Fig. 1.

 

“On this occasion I was much impressed by the resistance of this species to pressure and by its leathery consistency; a well-known characteristic of these protected insects, which allows a bird to peck them sufficiently to realise their disagreeable qualities without killing them. As this specimen was too large to go into my killing bottle or boxes, I kept it in the net and repeatedly pinched it. This would have cracked the thorax of a large Nymphalid and caused its immediate death, but after each pinch this insect would lie still for a few minutes and then revive apparently none the worse. A faint musky odour hung about it, and I was greatly tempted to bite into it to determine if it were unpalatable but, having regard to the interest of the specimen in other ways, I thought it well to restrain my curiosity in this respect.” (pp. 159-60)

 

(It seems that Ford’s interest in palatability was, however, indulged on larvae of the Large and Small Whites.)

 

It must be admitted that butterflies are elusive, often refusing to stay still even for a photo. If you are deterred from killing them, as I am, you aren’t likely to get to know them very well. But even the collector’s relationship to an insect in the wild is brief - that’s why he tells us how it flies two feet above the heather. As for us, we are wearily familiar with the migration of the Monarch on video, even in TV adverts for inkjet printers; Ford and his readers could not have imagined that; and in this book the colour photographs of living specimens are pointed out by the editors as a significant novelty. 

 

*

 

Note: The Collins "New Naturalists".

 

This is a series that I'm very fond of: I've read lots of them, though most have been sold on a long time ago. Though the series is still going, it's the earlier volumes that are more accessible (i.e. in second-hand bookshops)  - the later ones are expensive and no longer attract wide sales.

 

Insect Natural History, A.D. Imms, 1947

 

This is one of my favourites and I've read it lots of times. "On Wings and Flight", "Concerning Feeding Habits", etc, all wonderfully readable and informative. 

 

Birds and Men, E.M. Nicholson, 1951

 

"The late Sir Hugh Gladstone calculated on the basis of data given in the Book of Numbers that about the year B.C. 1580 the Children of Israel killed within thirty-six hours in April upwards of 9 million quail at the place afterwards called Kibroth-Hattaavah." Similar figures were regularly achieved in Southern Italy in the later nineteenth century: the main market was Britain.

 

Dartmoor, L.A. Harvey and D. St. Leger-Gordon, 1953

 

March 1947 produced the Great Ammil - a glazed frost of freezing rain atop two months of snowy work. "Every bush, tree, sprig of heather, bracken-frond or reed, every rail or post, each inanimate object, was sheathed in ice as though in a glass case. ... The grandeur of the scene was unsurpassable, but in this enchanted world no living thing had a place. ... 'I've been on the land for fifty years,' one local farmer remarked to me, 'but I never saw rabbits starved to death before.'..."

 

The authors argued strongly that "it is difficult to reconcile the minimum military demands for land on Dartmoor, in so far as these are known, with the idea of it as a National Park" and you must admit, they do have a point. Dartmoor had just become Britain's fourth national park (1951), but the anomaly of around a quarter of it being used as ranges has never been resolved. Military use began at the end of the 19th century, and expanded greatly especially during WWII. The military areas have reduced a little since their book was published, but not much. Comparing their map with today's, the whole area in the south around Legis Tor has been given up, and the ranges in the North have withdrawn in a few places, e.g. from Black-a-tor Copse and the neighbourhood of Postbridge. Access to the ranges (except sometimes Willsworthy) is possible on nearly all week-ends and throughout the month of August, as well as at other times (check it out at www.access.mod.uk) - so the situation compares quite favourably with e.g. the Imber Ranges on Salisbury Plain, which are permanently inaccessible. But in truth, such an extensive and genuine wilderness as Dartmoor Forest - right here in the S. of England - was too useful for the army to give up.      

 

(2002, 2009)

 

A Brief History of Western Culture – Michael Peverett

Section 1. To 1588

Section 2: 1588-1790

Section 3. 1790-1870

Section 4. 1870-1945

Section 5. 1945-1975

Section 6. 1975-1984

Section 7. 1985-1997

Section 8. 1997-2004

Section 9. 2004-Now

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