Thursday, December 30, 2010

Frank O'Connor v Elizabeth Bowen

I've already written about the Guardian's short story podcasts, how much I am enjoying them and how they throw up some fascinating juxtapositions. I've just listened to two more, back-to-back, and how instructive it's been. They are both stories of childhood and growing up, told from the young person's point of view. One is superb, the other very good but flawed.

Firstly Elizabeth Bowen's The Jungle, an absolutely stunning depiction of growing up in the class-ridden world of just after the First World War. Rachel and Elise are students in a public school who discover a secret place, The Jungle. It is a brilliantly portrayed world, told mostly from Rachel's point of view and demonstrating her coming of age. Elise is different, an outsider from a lower social class and self-contained in a way that Rachel, straight-laced and conformist, cannot ever be. The two girls become confidantes, fall out, come together again. That's about it. But it is wonderfully realised. There is an extraordinary erotic charge running through the story, not least because there is positively no sexual contact or even discussion in the story. It is all implied. It is a masterclass in writing theme, and not letting the theme write the story. And the visions of these two girls are wholly convincing. It is flawless.

My Oedipus Complex, by Frank O'Connor, on the other hand, is definitely flawed. It is the humorous story of a young boy, only six or so, in rural Ireland in the immediate aftermath of the war. For the duration of the war, with his father safely away fighting, Larry has been the sole object of his mother's attention. The jealousy he feels when his father returns from the war and takes his place in his mother's bed, becomes the centre of attention, is humorously realised. It is a funny story, for sure. But it fails in terms of point of view.

The story is told in the first person, through Larry's eyes. This is always a difficult trick to pull off: it requires the artlessness of a child allied to the eye of a writer; things have to be relayed from the perspective of an innocent while we, the knowing readers, can see what the narrator does not. At times, it works beautifully, such as when his Mother tells Larry that babies cost seventeen and six to buy and therefore they can't afford a baby brother or sister for him until Daddy comes home from the war. "That showed how simple she was," Larry tells us. "The Geneys up the road had a baby, and everyone knew they couldn't afford seventeen and six."

This is great. It's a funny intrusion into the straightforward mind of a six year old child. But at other times it doesn't work. Larry is afforded knowledge or nuance that he simply couldn't have. He tells us at one point 'Father had an extraordinary capacity for amiable inattention.' That cannot possibly be construed as the thoughts of a six-year-old. No, you might argue, it's the point of view of the adult Larry writing his thoughts later. But that doesn't work, because if that is the case why were we given the seventeen and six thought verbatim from the six-year-old consciousness? It's a clear contradiction. The point of view has to be one or the other. It cannot mix the two.

Other examples:

'Dawn was just breaking, with a guilty air tha made me feel I had caught it in the act.' This is a great line, but it feels utterly out of place in this story of innocence.

And when Larry's misbehaviour finally provokes his father to rage, causing him to threaten to smack Larry's bottom, there is this exchange, showing the worst and best of the story:

All his previous shouting was nothing to these obscene words referring to my person. They really made my blood boil.

"Smack your own!" I screamed hysterically. "Smack your own! Shut up! Shut up!"

"Smack your own" is wonderfully funny, exactly the sort of sensible nonsense children come out with. But preceding it is this haughty, adult high dudgeon. The exclamation would have been borne of incomprehending fury, not hurt dignity.

Reading and writing

This blog first came about as a way of talking about my writing progress. At the time I was writing a great deal, getting a few publications, winning some competitions. Over the past couple of years, however, I've been concentrating almost exclusively on working towards my PhD. Since this centres on American literature it requires constant reading, and therefore leaves little time for writing. 2010 was a barren year, writing-wise. Only one story, and I'm not happy with that.

And yet I may look back on it and decide it was the most important year of all for my writing.

Why do I want to be a writer? The answer is simple and difficult. I've always wanted to be a writer, it's just in-built. But why? I don't know. Perhaps I'm asking the wrong question.

What do I want to write? This is the correct question. This is the crux of the matter. Finding the answer to this is the thing that distinguishes great writers from the rest of us. What do I want to write? I don't know. Not quite, not exactly. But it's coming.

I recently re-read all of my fiction, for the first time in over a year. It was a fascinating experience. In that year I had become unfamiliar with the content so I was able to read it with more objectivity than previously. I could spot immediately where the stories broke down - and why. I could also see an insistent thread running through them. I was aware of this before, of course. The work in question is a series of interlinked stories, so the fact they are connected has always been a given, but I think the connection is somewhat different, considerably deeper, than I had previously thought. You write, my former writing tutor, Alex Keegan, always says, to discover the answers to the questions that are buried within you, guarded by the sentinels who try to stop you from exploring the difficult territory that may lie beyond those questions. All of my writing has been gnawing away at something, trying to uncover, to understand, to reconcile. I know vaguely that it's about disconnection and love, and I know that there are symbols running through my fiction - the number of caged birds in my stories is quite extraordinary, I had no idea, while melancholy walks along deserted beaches are almost unavoidable - but the reason the stories don't work at present is that I'm not clear exactly what I'm trying to say. I think I've needed to take time away from it, reading other writers, working ideas through, to start to make any sense of it.

And reading other writers is, I think, key to it. I have always been of the opinion that most aspiring writers simply do not read enough. The more I do read, the more I understand the truth of that. It's not enough to get by on half a dozen or so books a year. It's not enough to simply read the novelists you like. If you want to be a writer you have to live writing, but if the only writing you are exposed to is your own it becomes a kind of mental masturbation, satisfying enough but incapable of germinating into something great.

I'm not talking about imitating the masters. I don't want to write like Gunther Grass or William Faulkner. But I do want to grasp their understanding of the form, appreciate the way they use it, manipulate it to their own ends, make it something special. These writers know what they want to say, and because they know it they do not feel the need to force it into their work; they let it flow from their work. That is where my writing currently breaks down: you can see the points where I have stopped and thought 'here is where I have to elaborate my theme, here is the important bit.' They stand out crudely. And the reason for that is because I don't understand fully what I'm trying to say. It's as though I'm trying to explain it to myself as I go along, and the result is something simplistic and shallow. Meanwhile, William Faulkner knows exactly what his theme is. It is something basic but impossibly complex - love - and he lets an examination of its paradoxes and pains infest his work. This is the moment when writing becomes great.

Increasingly, I'm getting the urge to write again. I need to rewrite what I've already done. I need to write new things. The past year of thought and study has been illuminating, possibly far more illuminating than I even realise.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010


I watched the film version of this the other night. I remember first watching it many years ago when it was the Sunday night film, which I was allowed to stay up and watch as long as it wasn't too unsuitable, and I was terrified by Queeqeg and his tattooed face.

I'm surprised just how good a version of it the film is. I suppose I shouldn't be, since it was directed by John Huston and the screenplay was by Ray Bradbury, but having read the novel for the first time last year, I'd have said it was pretty much unfilmable. As an aspiring writer, I have to say I'm astonished by how much of the original Bradbury manages to weave into the two hours of film. It's a masterclass in condensing without losing meaning.

I'm reading a biography of Melville at the moment. A fascinating man, given to extremes of emotion. This passage, by his close friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, gives a good indication of the man:

[he] informed me that he had ‘pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated’; but still he does not seem to rest in that anticipation, and, I think, will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief. It is strange how he persists – and has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before – in wandering to and fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sandhills amid which we were sitting. He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other. If he were a religious man, he would be one of the most truly religious and reverential; he has a very high and noble nature and is better worth immortality than most of us.

So much of this doubt comes across in Moby-Dick. As with McCarthy, who is of course a great admirer of Melville, there is a strong sense that the author's uncertainties are being played out on paper and the twists and turns of the characters reflect the state of confusion in the mind of the author.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

And more time

And this is William H. Gass:

It is a suggestion, I think, of Schopenhauer ... that what we remember of our own past depends very largely on what of it we’ve put or tongue to telling and retelling. It’s our words, roughly, we remember; oblivion claims the rest – forgetfulness. Historians make more history than the men they write about, and because we render our experience in universals, experience becomes repetitious (for if events do not repeat, accounts do), and time doubles back in confusion like a hound which has lost the scent.


One of my abiding interests is the flow of time. I've discussed it on here on several occasions. Here's an interesting passage, in a letter from Herman Melville to Nathaniel Hawthorne:

This is a long letter, but you are not at all bound to answer it. Possibly, if you do answer it, and direct it to Herman Melville, you will missend it – for the very fingers that now guide this pen are not precisely the same that just took it up and put it on this paper. Lord, when shall we be done changing? Ah! It’s a long stage, and no inn in sight, and night coming, and the body cold.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Sanctuary by William Faulkner

The first thing that everyone knows about Sanctuary is that it is a ‘potboiler’, a crass piece of commercial exploitation. After all, didn’t Faulkner himself dismiss it as a ‘cheap idea’ and ‘terrible’? Well, no, he didn’t actually. Not exactly. Faulkner was a difficult character, at times a truculent interviewee, and what he says is often not at all what he means. It pays not to take him literally. And so he did, indeed, call the basic plot of Sanctuary a ‘cheap idea’ but this is at some remove from calling it a cheap novel. He also claimed to have written it in three weeks, while research into the original holographs suggests a much longer and more painstaking gestation. He even paid to make revisions to the galleys.

So the question remains, is this really only a potboiler, driven by commercialism and lacking in literary merit? I would suggest not. While the plot is undoubtedly sensational, it is not sensationalistic: Faulkner may stretch for impact – shock was a regular tactic of his – but one does not feel that this is gratuitous. And the principal reason for that, the factor which, for me, singles this out as a work of fine literature and not schlock, is the strength of characterisation which is revealed through the admittedly lurid plot. The plot of a potboiler merely drives the action to an inevitable conclusion in the most dramatic way possible; the plot of Sanctuary places the souls of its collection of characters, in the words of the Faulkneresque Cormac McCarthy, ‘at hazard’.

Andre Malraux makes a similar point in his contemporaneous ‘Preface for Faulkner’s Sanctuary’ when he states: ‘The plot is important in that it is the most efficient way of revealing an ethical or poetic fact in its greatest intensity. The worth of the plot is in what it engenders.’ I’m not sure I agree with Malraux’s definition of what, exactly, is engendered in Sanctuary – ‘destiny’, it feels to me, is too glib, too easy an explanation of the whirl of emotions and events that engulfs the characters in Faulkner’s fiction (although I do like Malraux’s identification of Faulkner’s insistent and consistent analysis of ‘the irreparable’) – but his initial point is well made.

The basic plot unfolds from an ill-starred date between Gowan Stevens and little rich girl Temple Drake. Gowan gets hopelessly drunk and abandons Temple to the clutches of a group of bootleggers and gangsters. Temple undergoes a night of terror, and flees, with the help of the simple-minded Tommy, to a corn-crib to hide. The impotent gangster, Popeye, finds them, kills Tommy and rapes Temple with a corn cob. He abducts her and places her in a brothel where she falls under his spell and has sex with another gangster, Red, while Popeye gains vicariously voyeuristic pleasure from watching them. Meanwhile, another bootlegger, Lee Goodwin, is accused of Tommy’s murder and placed on trial. Horace Benbow, an idealistic young lawyer, takes on the case and even tries to find accommodation for Goodwin’s lover and their ill daughter, despite their ostracism by the community. Events career to a bloody and terrible climax, and it is Temple, whose perjurious testimony in Goodwin’s trial seals his fate, who is at the centre of it and is therefore at the crux of the novel’s message.

Everything revolves around Temple, and this in itself reveals the astonishing depth of Faulkner’s writing. Temple is young, na├»ve, intellectually and emotionally unformed, and yet she is the pivot on which the entire novel swings. Men’s lives are altered irrevocably, and not only Goodwin’s. Firstly, less seriously, Gowan Stevens, the young man who takes Temple on the ill-fated date and who falls prey to hubris, becoming overcome with drink while trying to show off to the bootleggers how well he could handle it, and finally fleeing in shame, leaving Temple to her fate. Then Tommy, simple, decent, but still prey to the failings of men, whose desire to be with Temple (to do good, or to do bad, or to do both? We don’t know) leads to his death. Red, the one person with whom Temple appears to enjoy anything resembling a happy relationship, who is killed by Popeye in a moment of jealousy. And Popeye himself, the least convincing, perhaps, of the characters in the novel, at least until the unexpected coda which fills in his backstory and makes him appear more human. Here is a man, probably, whose life was fated to be violent and short, and so it proves. And finally Horace, a weak-willed man who has goodness in his heart but not the wherewithal to exploit it. Horace is an intellectual and and idealist who believes he can ensure that good will prevail but he is quickly overcome by the forces of evil – both outside and inside him – he so blithely underestimates.

And so each of these men is presented to us in all their flaws, and it is through their interaction with Temple that these flaws are progressively revealed. Does this mean, then, that Temple is a catalyst for evil? Some critics have indeed portrayed her in such a light, and she has not received a good press over the years, but this is not entirely fair. She is only seventeen, the daughter of a judge, a student at ‘Ole Miss’ and, therefore, likely to have had a sheltered, privileged upbringing. She rebels. How familiar is that story? Every single reader of this blog will be able, quickly, to identify someone who, as a youth, ‘went to the bad’. Most return at some stage, when maturity and responsibility wears us down. Temple does not, because she is not able to. She is thrust into a world she cannot understand, where passions override morality and strength counters argument. Those who can, take. Those who submit, provide. It is Darwinism shorn of any semblance of a restraining social order.

Seventeen-year-old Temple, a plastic coquette, is wholly out of her depth. She is a tragic figure, a child-woman abandoned in the harsh world of men, precocious enough to adopt the symbols of louche womanhood – dress, lipstick, pose – but guileless in their application, an innocent set unerringly on the path to destruction. It would be harsh in the extreme to point to her perjury, no matter how ruinous it is, or to her selfishness or apparent wantonness, and to dismiss her as an unredeemable character. Of these offences she is undoubtedly guilty, but could she be anything other? Could the path she takes, abandoned by Gowan, corrupted by Popeye, lusted after by Goodwin, used by Red, subjected to indifference or incomprehension by all around her except the halfwit Tommy (and even his motives are not straightforward), have led anywhere else? It is important to remember that Temple is guileless, barely more than a child, impressionable and riven by fear. That she has terrible taste in men is hardly a unique failing, and that she credulously believes the self-serving responses of those to whom she attaches herself is emblematic, not of complicity, but of naivete. Temple reappears in Faulkner’s later novel, Requiem for a Nun, and declares she ‘like[s] evil”, but just as it well serves a critic not to read Faulkner’s own words too literally, so it does for his characters. The spiritual sister of Tess Durbeyfield, Temple is more in need of love than revilement. But then, love – isn’t that just William Faulkner reduced to a single word? Love. Or perhaps, here, two words. Love abandoned.

And love reappears in the character of Horace Benbow, the ineffectual lawyer, but here too it is a stunted love, compromised, ultimately ruined. Again, Horace is a remarkably complex character. He it is who insists on representing Goodwin, in the full knowledge that he is unable to pay him for the service. He it is who continues to help Goodwin’s lover and her child in the face of ugly public opprobrium. Here, surely, is a decent man, another Atticus Finch battling on the side of decency against the grim forces of prejudice and Calvinist judgement? But no, Horace is a deeply flawed man, riven by doubts. He is a 'shrimp' before his large, domineering wife, whom he leaves in the course of the novel, only to return in humiliation at its end. And, more crucially, he is tormented by incestuous attraction to his own daughter, Little Belle.

Joseph R. Urgo makes a compelling connection between Horace’s reaction to Temple’s revelation of her rape and his own feelings for Little Belle: each is eroticised in his mind, and the linkage of his daughter to eroticised renditions of rape appalls him. He discovers, as Urgo explains, ‘a potentiality within himself which places him in collusion with a rapist.’ This revelation, Urgo further argues, explains Horace’s silence in court when Temple perjures herself and condemns Horace’s client: faced with the woman whose experience embodies his own mental guilt, he is ‘self-condemned’. At the last, he fails to provide any support for Goodwin, and from that moment his fate is sealed.

The final message is chilling. A taxi driver turns to Horace after the trial and subsequent murder of Goodwin and tells him, “We got to protect our girls. Might need them ourselves.” So there we have it: the taint runs deep, each of us has cause to question our motivations in life. It is a difficult message, but a serious one. And not the sort of impression your average potboiler would seek to leave you with.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Snow art

This was the office block across from mine today, after a couple of blocks of snow had slid from the roof. It looks just like a pig to me, complete with curly tail. A few minutes later another slide left it looking like a buffalo, but I was about three seconds too late in capturing that one and a vital part of it slid into oblivion.

Ah, the joys of winter...