Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Rebel Angels by Robertson Davies

Robertson Davies’s The Rebel Angels is a witty, though ultimately muddled, philosophical novel which attempts to explore the nature and meaning of history, our story, the passing on of understanding and knowledge through generations, the development of religious sensibilities, the nature of good and evil. As you would expect from Davies, it is character rich and full of humorous set pieces. It also contains some longeurs and, in the end, doesn’t wholly convince.

Gnosticism sits at the heart of the novel although it is not, ultimately, a gnostic text. The rebel angels of the title are two middle-aged academics at the College of St. John and the Holy Ghost, a small college in a Canadian university. The rebel angels of gnostic theology after which they are named, come from a gnostic apocrypha. Maria, the central character in the novel, explains:

They were real angels, Samahazai and Azazel, and they betrayed the secrets of Heaven to King Solomon, and God threw them out of Heaven. There weren’t soreheaded egoists like Lucifer. Instead they gave mankind another push up the ladder, they came to earth and taught tongues, and healing and laws and hygiene – taught everything...
This begins to tell us many of the central thematic concerns of the novel. We are exploring knowledge, plus the duality of good and bad and the relationship between mundane man and transcendental truth, whatever form that may take.

There are two narrators in the novel, with a slight disjunction in time between their narrative strands. The first is one of the rebel angels, Simon Darcourt, a college pastor, a good and honest man and someone apparently comfortable in his role as bachelor for life until he falls under the spell of the second narrator, Maria Magdalena Theotoky. She is a PhD candidate wrestling with the duality of her highly rationalist, evidence-based academic career and her gypsy family history, with its traditional gypsy appeal to ancient knowledge and traditions and ways of thinking. As we shall see, this dualism is a thread that runs through the novel. Maria’s tutor is Professor Clement Hollier, who is described as a paleopsychologist. This is defined as someone who investigates past ways of thinking, and so once again we are returned to the duality of modern rationalist thought and earlier, faith-based (in the broadest sense) beliefs. Hollier, too, is smitten by Maria and, indeed, on one occasion they consummated their desires on his couch. Much to Maria’s frustrations, Hollier never mentions this episode again, nor is it repeated. Hollier is the second of the rebel angels and another force for good.

Ranged against these angels of light are the forces of dark, in the shape of the two sources of negative energy in the novel, the “evil” monk Parlabane and the devious Renaissance scholar Urquhart McVarish. Together, this quintet form the principal characters in the novel, along with two members of the Cornish clan after whom the trilogy of which The Rebel Angels forms the first part is named. Francis Cornish is a recently deceased academic, whose exceptional and highly valuable estate is being overseen by trustees McVarish, Hollier and Darcourt. His nephew Arthur Cornish brings some much-needed business acumen to the proceedings. The McGuffin around which Davies builds his plot is an item of Cornish’s estate which both Hollier and McVarish recognise to be unique and priceless – letters by Francois Rabelais to Paracelsus which indicate his involvement in aspects of cabala – a Jewish mystic sect with similarities to gnosticism. This is stolen by McVarish, leaving a distraught Hollier, whose special area of literary expertise this is, and who wants the documents to provide the backbone for the PhD of his star student, feeling murderously inclined.

But plot, although it is rich and diverse and humorous enough, is secondary in this novel. Rather, it is a philosophical exploration of ideas. I have referred to duality more than once in this review and that is intentional, because the novel is a study in dualism. Gnosticism, of course, was a radically dualist religion, in that it opposed equal forces of good and bad. Gnostic theology, then, saw a dualism of light and dark, knowledge and ignorance, mundane and transcendent, good and evil. And this is what we see throughout this novel, with the rebel angels ranged against the bad angels in a fight for ascendancy

We see it also in Maria. Even her name gives a sense of dualism: Mary is the Christian mother of Christ, while Theotoky, from the Greek, is a gypsy name which means bringer of Christ. Meanwhile Darcourt, one of the rebel angels, calls Maria his “Sophia”: in gnostic theology, Sophia, the bringer of wisdom, was paired alongside Christ in the succession of divine beings beneath God.

But the dualism portrayed in the novel is not merely gnostic. Rather, it moves beyond purely theological grounds into a more Jungian analysis of the nature of myth and history. In this, it becomes much more interesting. Thus, as we have already discussed, Maria battles her genes and her education, superstition and progress, lore and learning. This then becomes a key dualistic battleground in the novel. Hollier, the professor who investigates the thoughts of previous generations, explains:

“We tend to think human knowledge as progressive; because we know more and more, our parents and grandparents are back numbers. But a contrary theory is possible - that we simply recognize different things at different times and in different ways.”
This, of course, is very Jungian, suggestive of our collective unconscious. It recalls ancient thought systems such as the Aboriginal dreamtime, an innate knowledge that is buried deep inside us like the gnostic pneuma or divine spark. There is no doubt that, through the millennia, knowledge that might be of use to us today has been lost, while in many cases the sources of our understanding of aspects of the world have long since disappeared. Jung is often thought of as gnostic, unsurprisingly since he wrote on the subject so positively, but he was not: while, ontologically, he might have accepted a dualism of mind and matter, in terms of theology he was surely a monist. As such, he would have been greatly at home with the rebel angels of this novel, dancing as they do to the beat of a dualist battle of wills, overseen by the biggest rebel angel of them all.

The Rebel Angels is a lot of fun. It is far from a great novel. Maria’s mother, the larger-than-life gypsy mother-from-hell slides into caricature. All of the characters (even, ridiculously, the said mother-from-hell) speak with identical voices. There are long passages of didactic theorising and slice-of-life glimpses into academia which may amuse those who are in academia but leave cold those of us who aren’t. But overall the novel rises above these inconveniences. Simply, it is too much fun to be po-faced about. As the first of a trilogy, it certainly makes me want to read the rest. I already have the second on order from Amazon...

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Every now and again I get an email about a post on this blog which gives my interpretation of a Shane McGowan song. These emails are generally intemperate, often furious, sometimes hilariously so. The rage which afflicts these people is remarkable. How dare I offer my own opinion on the meaning of St Shane’s song? How can I have the effrontery to try to interpret the words of the genius McGowan? I’m not going to deny Shane’s genius – A Pair of Brown Eyes is one of the most stunning anti-war songs I’ve ever heard – but to suggest that, once it has been written, no interpretation of a piece of literature is possible other than the writer’s own is simply nonsense. Once any work of art is in the public domain it is fair game. Shane McGowan wrote the song; everyone else is free to interpret it. There is no right or wrong to these things, only different interpretations based, to varying degrees, on textual evidence. It’s not Nietzsche’s fault, for example, that the Nazis cherry-picked his ideas and bastardised the bits they liked to fit their skewed worldview, while ignoring those inconvenient passages where he extols Jewishness and castigates the German character. Detailed textual analysis, in that instance, easily counters those banal and lazy Nazi interpretations.

But critical interpretations of literature must also be based, to an extent, on the knowledge and opinions and emotions and lifestyle of the individual interpreter. It is simply not conceivable to remove oneself from one’s own opinions: true objectivity is impossible. My reaction to a work like Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, for example, will be fundamentally different from someone else’s because I have lived with an alcoholic and I therefore respond to the pernicious hold of alcoholism in a particular way. The point is that literature must always be a two-way communication between text and reader. The role – and even the original intention – of the writer becomes secondary.

I was reminded of these email exchanges when reading Madame Bovary. This was published in 1856 and was hugely controversial in its time. Its author, Gustave Flaubert, was tried for “outrage to public and religious morals and to morality” (although he was subsequently acquitted). The novel was an affront to decency and a danger to the moral fibre of the nation. This scarlet woman, Emma Bovary, whose outrageous behaviour is not criticised, even implicitly, by the scrupulously neutral narrator, would surely corrupt decent society? It is impossible, now, to be able to enter the mindset of French mid-nineteenth century bourgeois society and fully comprehend the horror they must have felt at the assault on their lives they considered this novel to represent. We know what they felt, but we can never really know how they felt. And it is important to remember this when analysing the character of Emma Bovary.

The truth is that we can never understand what Emma must have felt, enduring the tiresome existence forced on her by the conventions of the society of the day. It seems to me that a great deal of criticism of her character is unfair because it imposes anachronistic constraints upon her. It seems like a line has been taken by the history of literary criticism regarding Emma Bovary and, by and large, critics stick to it. She is a vapid and egotistical woman. AS Byatt, for example, says:

But if Emma Bovary - who is small-minded and confused and selfish - is tragic, it is not in a romantic way, and not because her readers share her feelings or sympathise with her. Our sympathy for her is like our sympathy for a bird the cat has brought in and maimed. It flutters, and it will die.
That is true to an extent, but it is not the whole story, not any longer. On the contrary, I believe, from the perspective of the twenty-first century, it is possible – indeed essential – to feel sympathy for Emma Bovary, a sympathy that goes beyond the pitying that Byatt describes here. Emma is undoubtedly small-minded and confused and selfish, and that does lead to tragedy – for herself, her husband and her daughter. On that basis, one might argue against a sympathetic response but I maintain this is unfair on Emma: for all her failings, and they are considerable, she is nonetheless a victim of circumstance.

Byatt does begin to get to the nub of this in her impressive analysis. She explains:

[Emma’s] name, and the title of the novel, define her as a person who is expected to behave in certain ways, fitting her station and function. She loses what individual identity she had.
This is the truth of it, and this is why she is deserving of more than our pity. Madame Bovary, remember, examines the excruciating boredom of bourgeois life in a provincial town in 1830s and 1840s France. Flaubert describes boredom like no other writer: to be able to convey such stultifying tedium without being boring oneself is a feat indeed. Coleridge once suggested: “it is not possible to imitate truly a dull and garrulous discourser, without repeating the effects of dullness and garrulity”. Flaubert gives the lie to this with his characterisation in Madame Bovary and, in particular, with his creation of the deathly dull Monsieur Homais, of whom more later. The atmosphere of provincial Yonville and Toste was deadly, the sense of propriety overwhelming, the formality unbending. Conversation largely comprised the endless recapitulation of cliché (Flaubert’s famous idées reçues). Meanwhile, Emma’s notions of romantic love, indeed her understanding of almost every aspect of ordinary life, are culled from the romantic fiction she read in the convent as a child. We are told at one point: "she remembered the heroines of books she had read, and that lyrical legion of adulteresses began to sing in her memory with sisterly voices that enchanted her”. With role models like these, what chance did Emma have? Emma is seduced, then, not so much by Rodolphe as by her naivete. But naivete is not a crime, and Emma should not be traduced because of it. AS Byatt notes of Henry James’s interpretation of the novel:
[he] expressed a recurrent unease which he said was experienced by the 'alien reader' and persisted. 'Our complaint is that Emma Bovary, in spite of the nature of her consciousness and in spite of her reflecting so much that of her creator, is really too small an affair.'
This is unfair. This is unfeeling. This smacks of the sentiments that would have been espoused by those – all men – around Emma who made her life so unbearable. It turns the character of Emma into a cliché where, more accurately, it is the role in society which she was forced to play that was clichéd. And Emma reacted against it, refused to conform to the cliché. For that reason hers is absolutely not a “small affair”: far from it. Byatt, too, disagrees with James, calling Emma “a type of Everywoman”, and she is correct in this. It may be going too far to say there is a nobility about Emma Bovary, but she is still more wronged than wrong. She is a sister to Edna Pontellier. From our twenty-first century vantage point it may not be too much of a stretch to suggest she is a sister to dear Tess Durbeyfield, a pure woman and my first true love. Flaubert, however, would not have intended his reader to make such an identification with his heroine.

Critics rightly observe that a principal object of Flaubert’s attention in the novel is romanticism. As we have seen, Emma is seduced from an early age by romantic notions, through her uncritical acceptance of the sentiments of her romantic novels. She is incapable of translating such notions into the brute reality of life and falls into ruinous decline as a result. However, as Jacqueline Merriam Paskow points out, unlike other nineteenth century adulteresses, there is a degree of authorial ambivalence concerning the outcome for Emma Bovary:

The eponymous heroines of Effie Briest (Fontane) and Anna Karenina (Tolstoy) are punished for their marital trespasses by their husbands' vindictiveness, by society's scorn, and by their own feelings of guilt. And they suffer terrible consequences. Effie spends the rest of her life a virtual prisoner in her parents' house, excluded from society and deprived of the right to see her daughter. Anna commits suicide to end a life made unbearable by her husband's punitive behaviour and by her tortured conscience. But Emma, by far the most wayward of these three fictional adulteresses, is not repudiated by her husband. Nor is she ostracized as a fallen woman by those citizens of Yonville who know of her affairs. Nor, even, does she show signs of remorse for being an unfaithful wife, a negligent mother, an undisciplined housekeeper, or for lying, stealing, and behaving profligately.
Thus, while Madame Bovary undoubtedly offers a negative criticism of Romanticism, one should not overplay this. And nor should one infer that there is some concomitant advocacy of Enlightenment sensibilities. The fate of Emma Bovary certainly represents Flaubert’s rejection of Romanticism and its careless idealism, but Enlightenment thought is not unequivocably asserted in the novel either.

On the contrary, the entry relating to the Enlightenment in the Gustave Flaubert Encyclopedia notes that, while Flaubert adopted rationalist sensibilities, he diverged from Enlightenment thought because, for him, “Education ... is not always the key to self-understanding.” This can be seen most strongly in Flaubert’s final, unfinished work, Bouvard and Pecuchet, but it is also very evident in Madame Bovary, particularly in the character of Monsieur Homais, the town pharmacist and an unutterable bore, a character whose atheistic and rationalist outpourings are somewhat crudely – though always interestingly – overplayed in order to highlight Flaubert’s concerns on the matter. In this, it feels at times as though Flaubert is in direct dialogue with one of the most important early Enlightenment thinkers, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and, like the Savoyard Vicar himself, Flaubert’s views are at times curiously contradictory.

M. Homais is depicted as a bore and a boor, trotting out his canards oblivious of the effect they are having on his audience. In this, he is an exemplification of the Rousseauian notion that that study of the arts and sciences ultimately binds us to blind conformity. Indeed, to reinforce the point, at one stage Homais even quotes from Rousseau’s Emile:

"It's my opinion that children ought to be taught by their mothers. It's an idea of Rousseau's, still a bit new, perhaps, but one that's bound to prevail in the end, like mother's milk and vaccination”.
Here, as before, it is clear that M. Homais is churning out well-rehearsed but little understood nuggets of knowledge. To an extent, Rousseau might have agreed with Flaubert’s characterisation of the pharmacist. In his Discourse on the Arts and Sciences he claimed:
our minds have been corrupted in proportion as the arts and sciences have improved. Will it be said, that this is a misfortune peculiar to the present age? No, gentlemen, the evils resulting from our vain curiosity are as old as the world.
M. Homais is the manifestation of that corruption of mind. He is, as Christopher Prendergast suggests, “the supreme incarnation of the endoxal”, that is he exemplifies the way a community or society clings to its orthodoxies and received wisdom in order to form its central beliefs. If Emma Bovary represents Flaubert’s dismissal of romanticism, then M. Homais undoubtedly performs the same function in relation to rationalism.

And this is an important point because, if there is a villain in Madame Bovary, then it is assuredly not Rodolphe or Léon, the men who seduced Emma, but M. Homais. His influence can be traced to every malign event in the novel, including Emma’s ability to procure the arsenic with which she ends her own life. And the novel does not conclude with Emma’s death, or even Charles’s grief and subsequent death. Why? Priscilla Meyer explains:

the villain of his novel is [Flaubert’s] bete noir, the idee reçue, the cliché, the unexamined view, and all the damage it can do. Madame Bovary ends not when Emma dies, but after the chemist of Yonville, Monsieur Homais, has received the Legion d'honneur.
So this, then, is Flaubert’s ultimate target: the small-minded individual, wedded to the pursuit of knowledge but understanding little, the rationalist who believes himself and humanity in general, as champions of all they survey. But this is a false target. In the same way Enlightenment thought was caricatured by its critics as mere positivism and thereby dismissed as shallow, Flaubert here adapts Rousseau’s critique in his Discourse and suggests that learning inevitably degenerates into the recycling of cliché. Thus, he ascribes to rationalism specific flaws in order to be able to point out those flaws and make the general inference that the concept itself must therefore be flawed. This is a straw man argument. Because there are some Monsieur Homaises in the world, it does not follow that all people of learning share his shallowness.

George Orwell adopts a similar technique in a novel which is worth examining in relation to Madame Bovary, Keep the Aspidistra Flying. This was written in 1936, eighty years after Madame Bovary and 77 years before our present day, and it therefore acts as a midpoint between Flaubert’s world and ours. On that basis, it is instructive to examine the fate of women in these novels and in the present day.

Orwell’s point in the novel is to examine the malign nature of modernity and the way that modern life, with its emphasis on wealth and greed, corrupts personal aspirations. While one can acknowledge some validity in his point, it is ludicrously overplayed in the novel. In the central character, Gordon Comstock, Orwell creatures another straw man. Comstock is a person with virtually no redeeming features. When confronted with a decision one knows immediately he will choose the destructive option. He is incapable of positive action. He is bound from the novel’s opening scenes to the fate that befalls him at the end. It’s well enough written but, as with all straw men, it is entirely predictable.

And in the middle of this we have Gordon’s docile, much put-upon girlfriend, Rosemary Waterlow. The great weakness of this novel is that there is no convincing reason why Rosemary would want to stay with this boorish, solipsistic, selfish oaf. One sees this a lot in fiction, characters who put up with, even indulge other characters from whom, in real life, they would undoubtedly untangle themselves sooner rather than later. You might argue, for example, that Rose might genuinely have become infatuated with Pinkie (another straw man) in Brighton Rock despite him showing her positively no affection during their relationship because she was such a naïve, impressionable, almost child-like personality: it is conceivable that she could perhaps fall under the spell of such a man. But in Keep the Aspidistra Flying Rosemary is an intelligent, independent, confident woman of thirty. Why she would allow herself to be used in such a manner is beyond credibility.

We have seen the impossibility of Emma Bovary’s position within French bourgeois society. She had practically no opportunity to project her personality other than through her adulterous affairs. Was life any different in Britain eighty years later? Rosemary, the central female character in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, would no doubt argue she had greater opportunities and freedom than Emma Bovary but she is written in such a way that it is clear society has not progressed very far in those eighty years. Ostensibly, the principal theme of the novel is the fall of capitalism and the destruction that greed can wreak before that glorious event. Money, or the lack of it, is everywhere:

What Gordon realised, and more clearly as time went on, was that money-worship has been elevated into a religion. Perhaps it is the only real religion-the only felt religion-that is left to us. Money is what God used to be. Good and evil have no meaning any longer except failure and success. Hence the profoundly significant phrase, to make good.
But from our present-day vantage point something else intrudes. The treatment of the novel’s women – Rosemary plus Gordon’s sister Julia – is cavalierly high-handed. This is not some ironic statement about the battle of the sexes, either, let us be clear about that. Rosemary, the poor sap, is Gordon’s girl, and she is expected to act accordingly, becoming his trollop on a day in the country, acceding to his every wish. The whole mood of patriarchal ownership of the fair sex suffuses this novel, overwhelmingly so. When she notices that Gordon, arriving for one of their meetings, is unkempt and unshaved, we are told: “Her heart softened instantly, and yet she frowned. Why WON'T he take care of himself? was the thought in her mind.” What a good little lady she is, worrying after the welfare of her man. Because, “From Gordon, whom she adored, she put up with almost anything.” Well, that’s okay then. Which is just as well because later, in a drunken rage, he sexually assaults her in a darkened alley. But never mind, because when he’s truly down on his luck, and gets her pregnant into the bargain, she does what a little lady ought to do and stands by her man, marrying him reader. All of this makes you want to weep, most importantly because this deplorable state of affairs is not what Orwell was seeking to criticise in his novel. This is just incidental, because that’s the way it is.

One is left to wonder, then, which of these characters, Emma Bovary or Rosemary Waterlow, would be best equipped to exist in the modern world. For me the answer is clear: it is Emma Bovary, a thoroughly modern woman. One can imagine her adapting to modern sensibilities. One can imagine her thriving. Her petty need for niceties and property and “things” would, perhaps, be tempered by the fact they were more readily available. Her naivete would be mitigated by experience. Her adventurous temperament would be given room to breathe, would thrive in our modern world of opportunity.

Poor Rosemary, however, an essentially unreal and unbelievable character, would probably be exactly the same: one can see her in the same dead-end relationship, making the same mistakes, avoiding making the same obvious decisions. Wallflowers are wallflowers, whatever the era in which they exist, especially when they are created without without a consciousness of their own, designed solely to act as a foil to someone else.

And this is why Emma Bovary’s is not a small affair. And this is why she is deserving of sympathy. And this is why we must read her character in a way radically different from that intended by her creator, Gustave Flaubert. We know what they did not know, and we can predict that a transplanted Emma Bovary, living in twenty-first century England, would be a formidable and seductive prospect indeed.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013


Araucaria has died. John Graham was the best crossword compiler of them all. His puzzles in The Guardian, particularly the Saturday specials, were an absolute delight, cunning and clever and witty and erudite.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Hornsea, One Day

Brumous sky over Hornsea beach, low and heavy, dark and dreich.
Rock in the cliff face soft as soap: nothing is forever.
Beneath us sand dense as rock,
turning black as it extends into the distance,
grooved by the tide.

Heavy all around us, this air, this day, this moment, this us.
And we walk.
We walk hand-in-hand in the grey of the morning;
it surrounds us, engulfs us, gives shape to our dreaming.

And the kiss, when it comes
is like no other before, like none ever to be.
In its moment none else can exist,
no beach, no sky, no sea, no you:
just us, just us. Yes.

From touch to release, from taste to breath
is the intensity of relief, of expectation fulfilled.
World’s wonder in a brief embrace,
lifetime’s sunshine in an instant:
this, my dear, is forever.

Thursday, November 21, 2013


It may have just been happenstance, but it was an apt coincidence that on the day Hull was named City of Culture for 2017, I attended a performance of Cabaret at the city’s New Theatre. Cabaret has long been one of my favourite films – and I speak as someone who generally detests musicals – so I was intrigued by this production. I was going to go when it was in London, starring Will Young and Michelle Ryan but, typically, waited too long to try to get tickets. So when I heard it was coming to Hull, still starring Will Young but with Siobhan Dillon in the role of Sally Bowles, I had to make sure I went. I’ve been looking forward to it for ages and, happily, it didn’t disappoint.

What I hadn’t realised was that the stage musical and the film version are significantly different. In the film, Brian is English and Sally American; in the play, the nationalities are reversed (and Brian is called Cliff). The play features a strong narrative strand involving Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz which doesn’t appear in the film, and nor do a number of their songs. Bob Fosse changed the focus of the film to concentrate on Sally Bowles as the central character and this was undoubtedly an inspired decision. The songs between Fraulein Schneider and Schultz are fine enough, but far less interesting than the Kit Kat Klub-based songs that comprise the film soundtrack.

I was curious – and dubious – about how they would manage to convey the terrifying sentiment of Tomorrow Belongs to Me. In the film version, this is one of the most chilling moments ever on celluloid, as the camera pans away to reveal the Nazi insignia on the angelic-looking boy’s sleeve.

How could they replicate that? The answer is: superbly. I won’t give it away in case people want to go and see it but it was brilliantly done and left me with a shiver down my spine as it brought the first act to a conclusion. The reprise, early in the second act, was equally impressive.

And, indeed, that is an important point about the production for me. In the first act, I thought it was a marvellous spectacle and I thought that Will Young, as the emcee, was excellent. Nonetheless, I did feel that he was concentrating on the comic aspects of the role to the detriment of the darker aspects of the emcee’s character that Joel Grey developed so brilliantly. However, as the second act unfolds the mood grows progressively grimmer, tracking the Nazis' inexorable rise to power, and Young responds accordingly. The emcee changes. The fun dissipates. Danger engulfs us. And if the end of act one was impressive, the end of act two is terrifying, as the Nazis win and the “degenerates” of the Kit Kat Klub, and anyone else deemed unGerman, are disposed of.

This is the glory of Cabaret for me, both the film and the play. Yes, we see the darkness of humanity, the depths to which it can descend. But that darkness is transient. Hitler’s thousand year Reich lasted barely twelve years. Humanity was restored. Love, humour, lust, companionship will survive, will revive, will reassert themselves. For all the apparent lowness of the lives of the dancers and regulars of the Kit Kat Klub, they represent humanity, glorious, unpredictable, bawdy humanity. And they will win. Always.

This production of Cabaret was terrific. The finest compliment I can give is that I wish I was there again tonight when they start tonight’s performance in about five minutes.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing has died. I haven't read enough of her fiction. I was put off when I was young because it was being taught in my English class as propaganda and I reacted against it, but there is a true humanity to her writing which is intense and impressive. I intend to read more of her work.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Spire by William Golding

William Golding’s The Spire begins dramatically: “He was laughing, chin up, and shaking his head. God the Father was exploding in his face with a glory of sunlight through painted glass...” This explosion is not literal, then, but effected by a burst of light shining through the cathedral window. All the same, the idea of a godly explosion portends what is to come, and what unfolds in the novel is the inevitable destruction of a mind consumed by God and all his certainties without any concomitant mechanism for exploring God and his mysteries.

There is, in Christian theology, and in particular in Roman Catholic theology, an essential binary of faith and reason. However, this is not a binary opposition: rather, both are essential to a true religious sensibility and it can never be an either/or principle. Faith is about maintaining belief, reason about questioning the suppositions behind that belief. St Augustine referred to credo ut intelligam – I believe that I may understand – while Peter Abelard, a rationalist before his time, suggested instead intelligo ut credam – I understand that I may believe. Abelard also used a form of the Socratic dialogue to pursue arguments, with his sic et non – yes and no. For Abelard, reason took precedence, but faith was nonetheless essential. Augustine, too, saw the power of reason. Indeed, the quote I just mentioned more rightly continues thus (although one seldom sees it in this form): "I believe that I may understand; and I understand, the better to believe". With this, Augustine is establishing a clear relationship between these two poles of understanding. Nonetheless, he cannot accept that reason, alone, can bring harmony with God. “If you comprehend it, it is not God,” he says. Thus, faith and reason must co-exist. Pope John-Paul II explained this when he noted:

"Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth--in a word, to know Himself--so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves."
His successor, Pope Benedict, also considered the duality of faith and reason to be central to the human experience, suggesting their relationship was “a subject not only for believers but for every person who seeks the truth, a central theme for the balance and destiny of all men."

Although I'm a non-believer, I can nonetheless accept Benedict’s contention here. Faith, however, undoubtedly was a key component of William Golding’s make up and the duality of faith and reason runs unmistakably through this, his sixth novel. The Spire takes a real building – the 404-foot spire of Salisbury Cathedral – but invents the man who created it – the fictional Dean Jocelin and the course of events that comprised its troubled construction. Thus, it is both true and not true, and we can both believe and disbelieve it. As we shall see, this duality is central to the novel.

Jocelin believes absolutely. The spire is being added to a cathedral which is built on insufficient – even, perhaps, almost non-existent – foundations, and Jocelin’s principal builder, Roger Mason, repeatedly warns him it is unsustainable. Indeed, Mason is so concerned he asks to be released from his agreement to build the spire but Jocelin refuses. It is a matter of faith. Jocelin believes he has been chosen by God and this is the act he has been chosen to complete. His belief is total, unswerving. It cannot be questioned, it cannot be tested. Ultimately, it overtakes all reason and he loses his sanity. As a result everything collapses around him – as, of course, symbolically we expect the spire must at the end. Obsessed by his mission, Jocelin neglects his duties. The cathedral falls into disrepair, even disuse, as services are removed elsewhere because of the noise and disruption. Around him, his relationships wither. Ultimately, a Church commission arrives to quiz him on his actions and he is found wanting and is stripped of his office. By now, too, he has succumbed to “consumption of the back and spine”, or tuberculosis, and by the novel’s end he is a much diminished man. Still, it seems, his obsession remains. His faith is total. Reason is not privileged. But by any measure – whether Roman Catholic or secular – his life ends in failure.

Roger Mason, meanwhile, is a man of reason who lacks faith. Early in their project, Jocelin would call out to his master builder, “What! Still no faith my son?” to which Mason would offer no reply. And so we can see that this duality between the two men truly is a binary opposition, as forces in conflict, and not, as the Catholic faith would contend, in harmony. The result is tragedy.

Is The Spire theerefore simply a debate about the nature – and need – for both faith and reason? It is undoubtedly that, and it debates those questions superbly. But it is more than that. Golding, of course, although he was much concerned with theological questions, resided among humanity, and he knew humanity, knew its strengths and great weaknesses. Thus, while the theological aspect of The Spire is undoubtedly central, profane themes run through the novel, too. There is adultery, perhaps even murder. There is a strong – and dangerous – strand of paganism running alongside the pious engineering for God. There are the manifold foibles of humanity.

And, for all his blind faith in his project, Jocelin is as flawed a human being as any of us. In particular, he is beset by sexual desire, most notably for Goody Pangall, the wife of the crippled and much maligned cathedral worker, Pangall. Jocelin is greatly distraught when he discovers Goody, whom he has idolised as a child of God, is having an affair with Roger Mason. Mason, meanwhile, overcome by his own problems, not least the impossibility of building the spire, succumbs to alcohol and ends the novel a drunken, suicidal wretch. The novel, then, is a combination of sacred and profane, known and unknown, true and untrue, good and bad. And all of this is premised on the twin facts of faith and reason.

There is and there must always be a mystery in human existence. This is not merely a matter of theology, although it is undoubtedly that. It is also an inescapable truth that we do not and cannot know what happens in Hamlet’s “undiscovered country”, the realm of the beyond, what is the true nature of death. Those who have only faith and who never seek to question that faith miss something essential in their lives. It is, after all, the nature of human beings to question things; it is how we progress as a species. And equally, people of a religious temperament would suggest, those who live by rationality alone miss something of the numinous beauty of existence. I would certainly agree that there is a mystery, but I do not privilege it in the way Roman Catholics, in particular, seem to do. In The Spire, there is no mystery for Jocelin, only the certainty of his endeavour. For the reader, however, there is mystery and ambiguity aplenty, as Golding seeks to confront us with the uncertainty of existence. His characteristic stream-of-consciousness style renders meaning opaque: thus, is Jocelin’s angel a real manifestation of his piety or a symptom of his tubercolosis? We do not definitively find out. Does the spire fall? We do not find out. Mystery. Mystery surrounds us because we cannot know everything. This is a useful corrective, perhaps, for hubristic notions of man’s superiority, although such notions are greatly overplayed in my estimation. And it may be that Golding, sceptic though he was, agrees. The greatest mystery, in the end, may not be the sacred one, but the profane.

I suggest this may be the case because, ultimately, the greatest mystery in The Spire is revealed to be Joceln’s own motivations. Throughout the novel we have been assured the building of the spire is a tribute to his faith and to the glory of God. In his final delirium, though, we understand that his motivations were more secular, a response to the sexual urges he has tried, with decreasing levels of success, to repress. Or do we? Or is this, too, a mis-speaking? We do not know. Mystery remains, as it must.

Golding himself accepts that point. Speaking of this novel, he suggests: “The writer is aware of that whole spectrum [of possible meanings or interpretations], but he doesn’t choose between them. What does the right choice matter, so long as the spectrum is there?”

The Spire is an astonishing novel. This review comes nowhere close to mining the seam of symbolism which it contains. It is a novel that needs to be read and re-read and possibly re-re-read in quick succession in order to begin to comprehend the nuances of meaning it contains. It is a work of utter genius.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter

It’s a weird world Angela Carter creates in The Passion of New Eve: weird, unsettling and painful (especially if you’re a man). It’s a nightmare world unhinged from our reality but nonetheless revealing something about us in the process. We’re in a future-world, a dystopia in which America has fallen into civil war and California is ceding from the union and death and decay is everywhere around. The resulting satire circles round questions of race and sexuality and, primarily, gender, and analyses the relationship between history and myth, the passage of time, matters of historicity.

It begins with Evelyn, a male English professor moving to New York to take up an academic post. He is obsessed by a silent movie star, Tristessa de St Ange and, on his final night in England, he is fellated in a cinema while watching one of her films. He is not an enlightened man. His views on women appear to be antediluvian. From very early on, then, it is clear we are going to have a feminist satire and the normal narrative arc of such works would entail him enduring a painful learning experience. And so it turns out, although there is nothing normal or predictable about this novel. Rather, it is an intriguing examination of myths and men, if you'll pardon the literary pun.

Once in America, the story lurches into the bizarre, as the civil war unfolds in horrifying detail. Giant rats feed on the helpless. Depravity abounds. Death is everywhere. The triumph of western civilisation is at an end: “The age of reason is over,” a character tells Evelyn early on. Evelyn’s job falls through and he is thrust into the middle of the degradation around him. His only friend, an alchemist, is killed by a faction of rebels. He becomes embroiled with a black stripper and engages in a lusty, but emotionless affair with her. When she becomes pregnant she succumbs to a horrifyingly botched abortion and, as she lies in hospital requiring money for treatment, Evelyn abandons her. Written like this, the plot may sound a touch melodramatic but don’t be deterred because there is nothing predictable or even naturalistic about this novel. Perhaps its nearest relative may be the surreal fiction of Nathanael West and, like Balso Snell or A Cool Million, it all unfolds like a hideous, dreamlike trance. And it is now that Evelyn’s problems truly begin.

Out in the American desert, he falls into the clutches of a female cult based in the city of Beulah and led by the mysterious and troubling Mother. Here, the mysogynistic Evelyn is forced to confront his beliefs in the starkest way possible: Mother is a surgeon and, over the course of weeks, she turns Evelyn into Eve. “I am the Great Parricide, I am the Castratrix of the Phallocentric Universe, I am Mama, Mama, Mama!” she declares. Eve is divested of his male sexual organs and given female ones; he is feminised and made beautiful. He becomes a she. Ultimately, Mother's aim is to impregnate him with his own sperm, already harvested, to create "the Messiah of the Antithesis" and usher in "the feminisation of Father Time".

Eve, as she is now exclusively referred to in the narrative, escapes, but falls into the clutches of a lunatic, one-eyed poet, Zero and is added to his harem of wives, being repeatedly raped and used and treated as a sub-human possession: the patriarchy lives on, then. The novel continues in similar vein, Eve rebounding from one disastrous situation to another. She learns to harness emotion. She learns love. She learns compassion. She learns to live.

Frankly, all of this could be tedious. It could easily become a heavy-handed essay in didacticism pointing out the feminine merits and masculine demerits. It was, after all, published in 1977, at something of a high point in militant feminism. But this novel is too clever for that, and Angela Carter is too good a novelist. For sure, there is a feminist message in the novel, and it is cleverly advanced, but there is considerably more to The Passion of New Eve than that. Any great novel must have a central theme, but there must also be undercurrents at play, too. And here there are undoubtedly undercurrents.

The novel explores the relationship between myth and history, and history and historicity, particularly in the United States, that country which appropriated and invented its own myths and established its own, wildly accelerated history. Carter writes at one point: “Historicity in America goes more quickly, jigs to a more ragged rhythm than the elegaic measures of the old world...” This is true, of course, and it shapes much of the American psyche and American discourse. The myth of the west, the notion of manifest destiny, the pursuit of American exceptionalism, they have all combined to help fashion the USA into what it is today. And, of course, there is a great deal of ambivalence about this in some quarters, and that very ambivalence feeds into the developing mythical structures that continue to underpin the country. As a European, I find this endlessly fascinating. I think, simultaneously, that Americans are far too hard on themselves and nowhere near hard enough. This contradiction, of course, lies at the heart of the giants of American literature, like Faulkner and, in a different way, Updike and, different again, Philip Roth. And it is absolutely crucial, too, to any understanding of Cormac McCarthy. Indeed, McCarthy may be the absolute master of this particular discourse: after all, is it not at the heart of virtually every pronouncement by judge Holden?

In The Passion of New Eve we see absolute chaos, such as there must have been in the American frontier of the 1840s and before. But here, of course, unlike the American west, there are women. And the women bring order; this may not be a bountiful or harmonious order – certainly for men, especially for Evelyn/Eve, and Mother is a monster on a par with the great albino judge himself – but order it is, all the same. The myths may never be conquered, then, never tamed, but they can be approached, and this is what happens here.

Further, these myths are universal ones. The first great myth in most myth cycles is, of course, the creation myth and that is represented here by the character of Eve. We have the virgin mother and the virgin birth. Mother is a conflation of any number of female deities. The Freudian sexual politics of Oedipus complex and Penis envy are played out in reverse, bringing freshness to a debate which can become dulled by overfamiliarity and oversimplification. In this way, the novel mines a rich mythical seam and explores depths of human psychology and history.

It isn’t an easy read, and I doubt it would make many people’s lists of their top ten books, but it has a power and fury and impulsion of its own.

Monday, November 04, 2013

The Gardener's Son

In my review of The Counselor below I mention Cormac McCarthy's screenplay for The Gardener's Son, which appeared on PBS in 1977. I now discover you can watch the whole programme on YouTube:

Friday, November 01, 2013

The Counselor: a Screenplay by Cormac McCarthy

This is a review of Cormac McCarthy’s screenplay for the movie The Counselor, not the movie itself, which hasn’t opened in the UK yet and which I haven’t yet seen. With luck, the film may be better than the screenplay, although I’m not confident.

McCarthy has form when it comes to screenplay. Unfortunately, most of it is relegation form. There is The Gardener’s Son, of course, a PBS TV production from 1977 which is regarded by many as a quiet masterpiece, although to my mind it is desperately slow. Admittedly, I watched it in a freezing cold room in Texas which may have coloured my view somewhat. McCarthy has tried to produce film scripts before, too, with very little success. Both Cities of the Plain and No Country for Old Men began life as screenplays, and very poor ones at that. In the latter, Sheriff Bell and Llewelyn Moss, who never meet in the final novel (or the Coens’ subsequent Oscar-winning screenplay) triumph over a prototype Chigurh in a ridiculous shoot-'em-up ending. And then there’s "Whales and Men", an outpouring of didactic gloop about the cruelty of man and the inherency of evil and the doomed state of the planet. It is truly awful and, for that reason, has never been published.

The Counselor is not truly awful. It’s just poor. Earlier in the year, a pirated draft of it circulated and it caused heated debate in McCarthy circles. Was it genuine? Was it good? A great many knowledgeable Cormackians pronounced it must be fake because it was so bad. It was a fake, they felt, but a pretty good one, with many trademark McCarthy stock phrases and tropes evidencing someone who knew a great deal of the man’s oeuvre. Well, it subsequently emerged, it really was someone who knew a lot about his oeuvre, because it was genuine McCarthy. And now we find that the final published screenplay is little different from the earlier pirated version. So the debate continues: is it any good?

I have to say this offering would suggest the definite waning of a talent. There is little here that is interesting. There is even less that is original. Increasingly over his career McCarthy has shown himself incapable of moving on from his central preoccupations: the tendency of man to evil, the turning of fate, the slow, hideous inevitability of events once a course of actions has been set in train. Judge Holden intoned on these ideas memorably in Blood Meridian. And after a more secular sojourn in All the Pretty Horses, the subject was revisited ad nauseam in The Crossing, with the succession of identikit mystics all saying exactly the same thing in exactly the same voice. The road is the road. The destination is what it shall be. We are all but actors in a drama outside our understanding. Cities of the Plain continued in the same vein and then, in No Country, we had the interminable debate on fate and chance and the terrible, terrible coin toss of existence. In The Road we saw where that inevitable fate would lead us: perdition, the loss of it all, the apocalypse. McCarthy simply cannot move on. He is stuck in the same metaphysical impasse he first confronted nearly fifty years ago: “He wondered why a road should come to such a place.” The Counselor rehashes the same old ground and ends up on the same old road. It is McCarthy-lite, covering the same territory he has throughout his career, but without the gravitas.

None of this might matter if it was well written but, in terms of writing craft, it is difficult to argue for that. The plot is entirely predictable. It is well worn stuff. From the moment one of the central characters describes a particularly gruesome method of execution, for example, it is only a matter of time before he endures the same fate. Now, fair enough, this is only an extension of the Chekhov notion that if a pistol appears in Act 1 it must be fired in Act 3, but the hamfistedness of its delivery here is unacceptable. McCarthy got away with this predictability in No Country, because the relentless, malignant pursuit of Moss by Chigurh has a fascination of its own, but you can’t pull off the same trick twice and essentially that is what McCarthy has tried to do here.

In terms of dialogue, too, the screenplay suffers badly. There has always been a disjunction in McCarthy’s fiction between the highly natural, dialect-driven dialogue of ordinary characters and the high-flown oratorical style of the succession of prophets who walk among them. In the novels this just about works, with the exception of The Crossing, where it is simply over the top, and the epilogue of Cities of the Plain where McCarthy falls over completely into self-parody. Without the grandeur of the narrative which surrounds the dialogue in the novels, in this screenplay the high register language of the dialogue merely sounds bogus. We have, for example, a jeweler who, for no discernible reason turns metaphysical while describing the facets of a diamond and says:

What was meant to be a union remains forever untrue and we see a troubling truth in that the forms of our undertakings are complete at their beginnings. For good or for ill.
It is entirely understandable why many McCarthy critics initially read this as a fake. The sad truth is that this reads like bad Cormac McCarthy, a parody that’s relatively acute but somehow not quite on the mark. However, the jeweler continues by talking about the treatment of Jewish people through the ages:
The heart of any culture is to be found in the nature of the hero. Who is that man who is revered. In the classical world it is the warrior. But in the western world it is the man of God. From Moses to Christ. The prophet. The penitent. Such a figure is unknown to the Greeks. Unheard of. Unimaginable. Because you can only have a man of god, not a man of gods. And this God is the God of the jewish people. There is no other God....
And on it goes, laboured and didactic and deadly, deadly dull. Again,it sounds like a hoax. The idea of “the hero”, in the Joseph Campbell interpretation of myth cycles relating to the heroic legends of different cultures, has been so much debated in McCarthy circles it has almost become a cliche, and here is McCarthy himself, at the fag-end of his career, apparently latching on to it. The monologue then goes on to matters theological. McCarthy’s play, The Stonemason, features similarly didactic pronouncements on the nature of religion, but interestingly some of the earlier drafts of that work (some of those, too, in screenplay form) are afflicted far worse by this blight. At least, then, McCarthy edited the worst excesses out. He did the same in The Road, the drafts of which are peppered with similarly leaden pronouncements on religion which fail to make the final cut. In The Counselor, this lack of restraint is damaging to the text.

The jeweler then goes on to conflate another two great McCarthian tropes, the stones of the ancients and the act of witness:

The stones themselves have their own view of things. Perhaps they are not so silent as you think. They were piped out of the earth in a time before any witness was, but here they are. Now who shall be their witness? We. We two. Here.... This is a cautionary stone.
Honestly, that is meaningless. It’s bad McCarthy. It’s nonsense, a weak parody of countless similar pronouncements elsewhere in McCarthy’s oeuvre. Other characters display similarly improbable speech patterns. Westray tells the Counselor at one point:
I think about my life. What have I ever done for the hapless, the hopless, the horsefucked? And I’m pretty skeptical about the goodness of the good. I think that if you ransacked the archives of the redeemed you would uncover tales of moral squalor quite beyond the merely appalling. I’ve pretty much seen it all, Counselor. And it’s all shit.
You may argue that this is a cogent critique of modernity and perhaps it is, to a particular, conservative way of thinking. But we’ve read this so often before in McCarthy there is nothing new to take from it. We seem to be listening to a perpetual jeremiad about the godlessness of modernity and the dangerous uncoupling of modern man from his spiritual roots. This is good material, for sure, but eventually a writer has to move onto something else. McCarthy never does. Westray continues for him:
But time is not going to stop, Counselor. It’s forever. And everything that exists will one day vanish. Forever. And it will take with it every explanation of it that was ever contrived. From Newton and Einstein to Homer and Shakespeare and Michelangelo. Every timeless creation. Your art and your poetry and your science are not even composed of smoke.
Once again, the hubris of humanity is laid bare: “Beware gentle knight. There is no greater monster than reason.” We may aspire to the genius of science and the arts, philosophy, knowledge, but all of human ingenuity is but a fleeting instant in eternity, to be forever obliterated. “Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.”

And then, of course, we come to the jefe. You always know you’re in for some cod-philosophising when a jefe turns up in McCarthy, some Mexican mysticism which reveals the horrors of the world. And so it turns out. The Counselor, who turns to him for help, asks if there is someone he can see. No, there isn’t, the jefe says:

I am afraid that there is no longer such a person. That is a thing of the past. I am afraid that there is no one to see.
The portentousness of this is almost laughable. It’s almost bathetic. It gets worse. Describing the violence in which they have become submerged, the jefe says:
Where the bodies are buried in the desert is a certain world, Counselor. Where they are simply left in the street is another. That is a country heretofore unknown to me. But it must have always been here, must it not?
Heretofore? Must it not? Only characters in a Cormac McCarthy novel speak like this. Again, one can see why people thought it was a fake. The jefe continues:
People are waiting. For what? At some point you must acknowledge that this new world is at last the world itself. There is not some other world.
This is straight from The Crossing and Cities of the Plain. Can one be derivative of oneself? McCarthy certainly seems to be. And, as you would expect, the jefe isn’t finished: McCarthy’s prophets seldom keep quiet for long:
It is not for me to say what you should have done. Or not done. I only know that the world in which you seek to undo your mistakes is not the world in which they were made. You are at a cross in the road and here you think to choose. But here there is no choosing. There is only accepting. The choosing was done a long time ago.
Honestly. I’ve been living and breathing this stuff for the past five years. I’ve memorised chunks of text, and all of them say the same as this, only better. It is a tired rehash of exactly the same material that has obsessed McCarthy since Blood Meridian. Sadly, it appears that the author has run out of ideas and he has run out of ways of expressing them. For a long time I have harboured great hopes for McCarthy’s next novel, The Passenger. It’s set in New Orleans, we’re told, it’s long and sprawling. I’d hoped it might be a return to the style and preoccupations of Suttree, away from the ponderous religiosity of the western novels. On reading The Counselor, I am less confident about this but I maintain my hope that, unlike this screenplay, The Passenger will offer us something new.