Friday, December 27, 2013

Curious search terms

Every year I summarise some of the more interesting search engine queries which brought people to this blog. There aren’t as many as in previous years because increasingly the specific query is no longer listed. I suspect this may be the last time I’ll be able to present this summary, which is a shame.

Perhaps it says something about my own reviewing style that a significant number of queries display a definitely categorical stance. These searchers are looking for something which reinforces their preconceptions and, one suspects, no alternative view will be tolarated. Poor James Fenimore Cooper comes in for stick. At completely different times, and from different places, there was:

last of the mohicans terrible book
last of the mohicans awful book
More modern writers also cop for criticism:
i disagree with william golding
why yann martel is a bad writer
Not everyone is so dogmatic, although their prejudices still manage to shine through:
bored with thus spake zarathustra
anybody not love gilead
At least the first searcher used "bored with" rather than the now ubiquitous "bored of". As usual, there are some searchers who are probably writing essays. In the second example here, the specific question the searcher has been set is obvious:
explain boneland by alan garner
what would be a symbol for the blindness by jose saramago
One feels for the poor student frantically skimming The Great Gatsby for the following quote. This would be one instance when it would be best if they had worked backwards:
when does it say nobody came in the great gatsby
And again there is a worrying lack of knowledge of their subject coming through. One fears for the grades of students who make the following searches:
outer darkness cormac mccormack
gilead/marilynne williamson
books that john steinbeck wrote
reviews the old service alan garner
At a certain period after their deaths, all writers tend to suffer a dip in popularity. In the case of Walker Percy, it may be happening now:
lancelon walker percy
is lancelon by walker percy second person point of view
It’s curious that two identical mis-spellings of Lancelot should occur. Again, these were at different times and from different locations. And Lancelon seems a lot less obvious than the actual title. You'd have thought it would be easier to get it right. Next we have this splendidly framed question, wrong in just about every respect and demonstrating perfectly the concept of the question for which the answer is unequivocally no:
was bartleby a conformists?
The lack of knowledge of the subject matter searchers are researching isn’t restricted to literature. Since Donald is a hero of mine, I particularly liked this one:
who plays Donald duck
As ever, sex provided a number of entry points (oo er missus) to the blog. Mostly, I am utterly perplexed why Google should send such enquirers towards my wholly dull and sexless blog:
debona ir blog .com/hom mad sex
girls naked fighting each other
I suspect this one may refer to the famous Bates and Reed wrestling scene from Women in Love, but I’m fairly sure I’ve never mentioned either actor or the film itself on here, so why the searcher was sent here is baffling:
two naked men fight for a woman
At least this searcher seems to have a slightly higher-brow approach to the subject, judging by the invocation of the German philosopher. Or maybe he just confuses the letter u with the letter a...
kant sex
And it’s good to see that modern-day students have the same conscientious approach to both study and recreation that they did in my day:
literature related chat up lines
In this case, I do know why they were directed to my blog, because I have a series of great chat-up lines from Dostoevsky. I do hope the searcher didn’t use any of them, though, because they’re examples of how not to chat up a woman, like this example from The Gambler:
"Why or how I have come to love you I do not know. It may be that you are not altogether fair to look upon. Do you know, I am ignorant even as to what your face is like. In all probability, too, your heart is not comely, and it is possible that your mind is wholly ignoble."
Some searchers have at least raised their sights higher. This one is commendably specific:
blog do government censor spoleto festival art in charleston sc
While this one is a bit too generalised:
enlightenment hubris
If that searcher was looking for something to reinforce that concept they would be sorely disappointed by this blog, since I spend most of my time on here refuting that particularly stupid piece of anti-human prejudice. Those who espouse that sort of rubbish conveniently refer to our creation of weapons of mass destruction without ever mentioning that, in the same period of time, we also found cures for disease and invented technologies to improve the lot of the whole of humankind. But this returns us to where we began: so often people seem to search for material that reinforces rather than challenges their beliefs. And that is sad.

Finally, the influence of predictive texting made its presence known with this offering:

briefing on a descent i to he'll review
It will be a shame if there aren’t sufficient specific queries next year to produce another round-up like this. I always enjoy these. I hope you do too.

Anyway, Hogmanay is nearly upon us, so stock up on your black bun and your lumps of coal and your hip flasks of whisky and get ready to indulge in a fine pagan festival of community and solidarity. A guid new year ain and a'.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Junky by William S. Burroughs

I’ve read William S. Burroughs’ debut novel Junky (1952) and Queer (1985) back-to-back because, despite the long period between their respective publications, they were written at more or less the same time and cover broadly the same period of Burroughs’s life. A review of Queer will follow – unfinished and massively flawed and arguably not in a complete enough state to warrant publication, it is still more interesting, from a literary point of view, than Junky. While I’m a big fan of Burroughs and think some of his prose is electrifying, I have to be honest and say I found Junky hard going. I’ve said before, in a review of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, that the trouble with stories about drugs is that you really have to have been there on the trip for it to be interesting – someone else’s second-hand stoner experiences are just too boring for words. I used to have to put up with a lot of it when I lived in Aberdeen and regularly took the Friday evening train south, along with all the oil rig workers who were fast-tracking themselves to oblivion before they got home to wife and family after a fortnight offshore. It hardened me against any so-called romance around getting yourself off your face on a regular basis.

We have Allen Ginsberg to blame for Junky seeing the light of day. Ginsberg was Burroughs’s unofficial editor at the time and managed to find a publisher for a novel which, because of its unflinching – and illegal – subject matter was pretty much considered unpublishable. Indeed, for the first edition, Burroughs even used the pseudonym William Lee.

And in fact it is actually surprising that the novel was published in 1952 at all. Those were, after all, dark times in America, when a deeply conservative tone had overtaken state affairs. The big bad Soviet Union would take on the role of the enemy without very comfortably, but there were, too, the enemies within, and junk heads would certainly qualify as that. We’re fortunate, then, to have Junky as a historical record. As that, it is certainly interesting: what Orwell was to British poverty in the 30s, Burroughs was to US narcotics in the 40s, a kind of Junked and Out in Mexico and New Orleans. A social record it is, then, but is it a novel or, more accurately, is it a good novel?

Will Self, in his introduction to the 2002 edition, writes:

By all of which you can take it as stated that in a very important sense I view Burroughs’s ‘Junky’ not to be a book about heroin addiction at all, anymore that I perceive Camus’s ‘The Fall’ (1956) to be about the legal profession, or Sartre’s ‘Nausea’ (1938) to be concerned with the problems of historical research. All three are works in which an alienated protagonist grapples with a world perceived as irretrievably external and irredeemably meaningless.
I see his point, and I can accept it. Nonetheless, he goes on: “The meat of the text of ‘Junky’ is as close as Burroughs could get to a factual account of his own experience of heroin.” And that is the difference, I think. Sartre’s and Camus’s works are undoubtedly fictions, their existential insights premised on an invented narrative in order to permit the investigation of universal truths. Junky examines in uncompromising detail the recent history of the author and that is where its focus truly lies – on that narrow ground of autobiography. Any extrapolation has to be done by the reader, using the reader’s knowledge and intuition and pyschological insight.

That is the case for any fiction, you may argue, and I would accept that, but I would also say that there is not as much insightful material in Junky from which the reader might reasonably make such leaps of imagination. Self concludes: “‘Junky’ is not a novel at all, it is a memoir”. I agree. Self avoids any contradiction between that statement and his comparison of the novel with the greats of existentialist fiction by suggesting it is Burroughs’s “janus-like” ability to turn fact into fiction that makes it simultaneously a memoir and a work of fiction: “For Burroughs, with his increasingly fluid view of reality, the confabulation of fact and fiction was inevitable, the separation of life and work impossible.”

Well, it’s a neat theory, and it sounds plausible at first, but does that really hold water? The more one reads that, the more it sounds like something cobbled together to tie together a theory. The bulk of the narrative of Junky doesn’t really work as fiction. The narrative framework as a whole doesn’t work. What we do see, however, are occasional glimpses of the genius in Burroughs that would emerge in future works: the sexuality, the curious obsession with different lifeforms and bodies being “taken over”, the slide into dystopian visions. Those glimpses never develop into anything meaty in Junky: they would, of course, in later works, and for that we must be very grateful.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The greatest American novelist


This series is back. This is inspired lunacy. It's the Guardian's attempt to pair off the greats of American literature, one against the other, in a series of head-to-head clashes until we have the last giant standing, the greatest American novelist. I love it because it's such a daft idea.

What I love about it most is that I can almost hear the fusty-breathed fulmination of the champions of academia about how impossible it is to compare one writer against another in this manner. And of course they're right. In this round we have Saul Bellow against Raymond Chandler. How can you begin to compare them? And if you think that's bad, in the next round we have Nabokov against my hero Kurt V. with his Breakfast of Champions (not my favourite, but who's gonna quibble with Kilgore Trout?) Vlad and Kurt just can't be compared. Which is why the whole thing is such fun.

And then again, maybe you can begin to compare them. Weren't Bellow and Chandler, in their own - massively different - ways superb psychoanalysers of their characters? Think of Pop and Woody in Bellow's "A Silver Dish", or Chandler's Philip Marlowe, or the hapless Moose Malloy, his amazing character from Farewell, My Lovely. And don't Nabokov and Vonnegut both force us to look at seemingly unarguable facts from a different, somewhat painful perspective?

Look hard enough and connections can always be found.

And meanwhile, enjoy the ride. However, if my own favourite, Carson McCullers, fails to beat Thomas Pynchon in the next round, I reserve the right to take my bat home and sulk. Especially since they've selected the wrong McCullers novel. The Member of the Wedding is a great novel, but it's not as great as The Heart is a Lonely Hunter which can make you cry and laugh and applaud and scold all at the same time.

Happenstance and the luck of incompetence

The picture I use of the dancing skeletons for the top of my blog is a drawing I drew a long time ago, back in the late eighties, I'd guess.

It's a copy of the Ars Moriendi, the Dance of Death, from the Nuremberg Chronicles, which I studied for my BA dissertation on incunabula and illuminated manuscripts. I'm no artist, however, and when I got to the feet of the chap on the left I realised I'd run out of paper...

Rather than start again, like any self-respecting copyist, I improvised and shifted his left leg up and to the right, and his right leg likewise. Remarkably, I think the effect is to make my version better: it really does look like they're moving. It was a total fluke, fashioned by my incompetence at draughtsmanship, but I've always been rather fond of it.

And this is the original, from the magnificent Nuremberg Chronicles of 1493. It's a very important work, not least because it is essentially the first travel guide ever published. It included block illustrations of real-life scenes from Nuremberg and elsewhere. Until then, illustrations had largely been inventions, but the Nuremberg Chronicles give us the chance to see cityscapes as they really were.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Word inflation

As a local government bureaucrat in my day job, I'm well used to people using fancy language to dress up their reports and make them look more important than they are. Things are never done, they are facilitated. Tools are never used, they are utilised. Organisations we work with are strategic partners. And so on. I have lots of fun writing the most inconsequential rubbish in the most over-the-top language.

But I take my hat off to this item which I saw in Mountain Warehouse today, a hydration system.

It looks a lot like a water bottle to me....

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

William Burroughs and the place of the author in his own work

I’ve debated a fair bit of late about the role of the writer once he or she has completed their work. I’m of the opinion that the writer thereafter becomes an irrelevance, as does what that writer initially intended in their writing. What matters is the compact between reader and text.

William Burrough’s second novel, chronologically, was Queer, written (though unfinished) in 1952, almost simultaneously with his first novel, Junky. However, it wasn’t published until 1985, some 33 years later. As part of the introduction to that version, Burroughs wrote:

When I started to write [a] companion text to Queer, I was paralyzed with a heavy reluctance, a writer’s block like a straitjacket ... The reason for this reluctance becomes clearer as I force myself to look: the book is motivated and formed by an event which is never mentioned, in fact is carefully avoided: the accidental shooting death of my wife, Joan, in September 1951.
The accident happened when, in a drunken state, Burroughs shot his wife through the head while trying to shoot a whiskey glass from it. In making this statement, then, Burroughs appears to be deliberately placing him and his history into the narrative. He continues: “I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death”.

Does all of this, then, negate my argument? Burroughs makes the clear, unambiguous connection between himself, his intent and the final text. And so the question arises: does that incident truly inform the narrative? In terms of the readers, and their experience of the text, does that make any difference? Would that reading experience be substantively different depending on whether or not the reader knew the background to the story?

In my opinion it makes no difference what Burroughs thinks. Indeed, what Burroughs thinks may be open to interpretation anyway. He declares that the accident is the unspoken hook for the novel, but is that truly the case? In his introduction to the revised text for the fiftieth anniversary publication of Queer, Oliver Harris casts some doubt on this. While, he argues, Burroughs’ introduction “framed the text with such a sensational context that it all but obscured both the fiction itself and any other reality behind it”, he nonetheless feels it is both “possible and necessary” to separate the truth from the fiction.

He suggests that there is a sense that Burroughs “muddles up the written with the circumstances of writing”. What is in the text is not necessarily what happened, or at least how it happened, or when it happened. He quotes Burroughs’ own explanation for the difference in tone between Queer and Junky, written only shortly before and featuring the same characters: “Part one [Junky] is on the junk, part two [Queer] is off.” But this is not strictly true, says Harris: Burroughs was, in fact, on the junk when he wrote Queer. Thus, author and character are not interchangeable in the way that Burroughs would like to suggest. As for the shooting of Joan being intrinsic to the writing of the text, Harris casts doubt on this, too. But for Burroughs’ own contention that this was the case, few if any would have made such a connection. Moreover, the linking of Joan’s death to the real life events portrayed in the novel does not work: Joan died in late summer of 1951, while the events recreated in the novel did not occur until 1952.

Thus, although the author seeks to present a real-life frame for the work, it does not, in truth, bear close scrutiny. Whatever Burroughs' motivations for writing Queer, they make no difference to the reader. The text stands on its own.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Man in the Dark by Paul Auster

James Wood once wrote of Paul Auster:
What Auster often [writes] … is the worst of both worlds: fake realism and shallow skepticism. The two weaknesses are related. Auster is a compelling storyteller, but his stories are assertions rather than persuasions. They declare themselves; they hound the next revelation. Because nothing is persuasively assembled, the inevitable postmodern disassembly leaves one largely untouched.
There is a great deal of truth in this. Although Auster is a dazzling writer, there is often something unfulfilling about his work, a sense of “so what”? Don DeLillo occasionally falls into the same territory, as did Donald Barthelme before them. The tricksiness of the postmodern posturing can overwhelm the narrative so that any pathos that might have been generated is dissipated. At least, that’s what I would normally say in a critique of Paul Auster. But not about Man in the Dark, his 2008 novel responding to American involvement in the Iraq war. Certainly, what we have here is classic Auster postmodernism but, where the tricks usually detract from the emotional resonance, here they work to wonderful effect. This is a sad novel which is moving and thought-provoking in equal measure.

We are in a “house of grieving wounded souls”. The narrator, 72 year old reviewer August Brill, is still mourning the death from cancer of his wife, Sonia. He has also suffered a shattered leg in a recent car crash and is bed bound. His 47 year old daughter, Miriam, has divorced and is chronically unhappy, having “slept alone for five years”. His granddaughter, Katya, 23, has suffered the traumatic loss of her boyfriend, a contractor in Iraq during the war who was abducted by terrorists and decapitated, this appalling act being recorded and posted on the internet. To lose loved ones to such insanity is bad enough: to be forced to watch it happen is unbearable. The family has fallen into, if not dysfunction, then certainly a profound melancholy. Insomnia oppresses both Brill and his granddaughter, and they compensate by watching films together, dozens of them, one after the other, three or four at a time. Sleeplessness is the family’s unhappy default. It is a desperate, painful situation.

Auster embarks on a typical foray into the postmodern, as the miserable and sleep-deprived Brill fills those dark, empty hours by inventing an alternative world in which America has descended into Civil War, the global war on terror made frighteningly local. California has ceded from the Union; so have fifteen other states. The Twin Towers are intact, but cities across America huddle beneath warfare between the newly federated states and the rump of the old USA. 80,000 people have died. Everything is fractured. Into this dystopia is thrust Brill’s character, Owen Brick. This unfortunate children’s entertainer goes to sleep in the America we know today, and wakes up in a hole in the ground in the other America, and finds himself part of a hideous, Hitchcockian plot. The war, he is told, has been invented by a single man, identified as August Brill, who is sitting in his home in Vermont and creating all this carnage. All the deaths are his responsibility, the bombing, the devastation. If Brick can kill him, then the horror that has befallen this version of America will cease. That, then, is his job: to assassinate Brill. But Brill, of course, in this postmodern flight of fancy, is Brick’s own creator. How can one kill the person who is manipulating you all along? Can the puppet turn on the puppet-master? We therefore find ourselves in a typically Austerian maze of impossibilities and fights with logic. All of this is designed to force us to consider the nature of truth and responsibility.

It is here that, so often in postmodernism, the story loses touch with the theme that presumably provoked the author to write it in the first place. The trick becomes everything; the words and the plot become self-serving, solipsistic, ultimately shallow. The reader ends up not caring: neither about the characters nor the situation nor the theme. In Man in the Dark, however, Auster avoids this descent into the banality of mere inventiveness. He does it by the most direct means possible, by returning us to the immediacy of the family crisis that originally provoked all of this carnage. Brill recounts to his granddaughter a moment when he came upon his wife unexpectedly and found her praying. He hadn’t known she had any belief, and she was embarrassed about it. But he relates her explanation:

She was walking down the street one afternoon... when all of a sudden a feeling of joy rose up inside her, an inexplicable, overwhelming joy. It was as if the entire universe were rushing into her body, she said, and in that instant she understood that everything was connected to everything else, that everyone in the world was connected to everyone else in the world, and this binding force, this power that held everything and everyone together, was God. That was the only word she could think of. God. Not a Jewish or Christian God, not the God of any religion, but God as the presence that animates all life.
Later, with all that happens to the family, she loses her faith in God the entity but the notion of a combined human spirit remained with her, and it remains in this novel, and it informs its beautiful final thirty pages or so. This godness that she experiences is undoubtedly Feuerbachian, and it is probably akin to the idea of, in Rudolf Otto’s phrase, the numinosum, the numinous spirit that pervades all human activity. There is, after all, something beautiful and utterly mysterious in life. And so, at the climax of the novel, the numinosum takes us out of postmodern imaginative flights of fancy into the corrosive confines of grief. It hurts. It bites. It lingers. We feel for Brick, a hack writer with no feel for plot or character, and we understand that his ordeal is oppressive, unceasing, and that his silly dystopian plot can never help assauge the pain that binds this family so tightly together. All of the action in this short novel takes place in a long, horrible, horrifying night. We feel it, we understand it. A fragile piece of humanity reaches out in search of companionship, succour, support. The reader wants to respond. The compact is made. It is beautiful.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela has died.

I always refuse to say how the deaths of famous people make me feel, because I didn't know them and I can't presume to feel anything like real grief at their passing. But with Nelson Mandela I feel like I ought to make an exception.

This was the most remarkable person who has ever or will ever live in my lifetime. He was beautiful. The transition he oversaw in South Africa was miraculous. The lack of bitterness, rancour, need for revenge, they all speak of a magnificent human being. I aspire to such decency.

What a man.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Pulp! The Classics

Here's a great idea.

I was in Waterstone's today (rounding off a great trip out) and laughed out loud when I saw some of these on the shelves. What a fantastic idea - they're really funny and may just persuade people to buy the books. Far better than the fusty old portraits you usually get on classic book covers. I hope the publishers have lots of success with these.

You can check out the rest in the series here....

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Hallucinating Foucault by Patricia Duncker

In my review of Madame Bovary below, I state that the link between reader and text becomes paramount, more so even than the link between reader and writer: once the writer has done his or her job and completed the text, their work is done. Patricia Duncker's brilliant Hallucinating Foucault attempts to present an alternative view, proposing an explicit connection between reader and writer, fashioned by the text, which acts as some form of conduit for that passage of intellectual interaction.

Hallucinating Foucault is a remarkable text, postmodern in the sense that it plays with perceptions of narrative yet operating within a wholly realist framework. It focuses on a fictional French author, Paul Michel, and his relationship with the genuine French philosopher, Michel Foucault. Sanity/insanity, community/isolation, love/loss, sex/death: these are the binary opposites which this novel explores. Add the tension between writer and reader and we have an extraordinary novel, a mere 178 pages which manages to present an astonishing amount of thought-provoking matter without ever losing the narrative drive one might expect from a more straightforward thriller. Given the title of the novel, the subject matter I describe above should not come as a surprise: Michel Foucault once said: “Madness, death, sexuality, crime; these are the subjects that attract most of my attention.” Although he never actually appears in Hallucinating Foucault, he is nonetheless a principal character in it, and indeed he is the pivot around which the whole narrative swings. While madness suffuses Hallucinating Foucault, for Foucault himself it was relative. Indeed, he saw it as a social construct and thus subject to differing diagnoses according to the prevailing orthodoxy of the time. We should expect, then, a nuanced analysis of insanity in any novel bearing his name, and this is indeed what we get in Hallucinating Foucault.

The unnamed narrator is a postgraduate student from Cambridge University whose doctoral thesis is on the fiction of Paul Michel. Initially, he takes the same view as me, that the author is irrelevant and everything is in the text. For that reason, his PhD subject is to be a study of the novels, not the novelist. Indeed, when he finally meets the novelist in person he makes this point to him forcibly, even as his actions are beginning to give the lie to his words.

Michel, we are told, was previously susceptible to unprovoked violent outburts and finally succumbed to a paranoid schizophrenic breakdown in 1968 whereafter he had been secured in a variety of mental institutions. As the novel begins, the narrator meets a young woman, The Germanist, whose doctoral research area is Schiller but who appears to have a detailed knowledge of Michel, too. Together, the pair grow more interested in the fate of the mysterious author and The Germanist persuades the narrator to travel to France to track him down. Thus begins the main element of the narrative. What follows is a beautiful and painful meditation on truth and narrative and love and loss.

Once in France, the narrator begins in Michel’s archive, where he uncovers a series of letters to Foucault which seem to indicate some strong relationship between the two. Ultimately, however, the narrator realises that these letters were never sent. He tracks Michel down to a mental hospital in Clermont-Ferrand and visits him. After a tricky start, the two become increasingly close, to the extent that, after a few weeks, the authorities agree that Michel can be released from the hospital on licence for two months. They travel to Nice, where they begin a homosexual relationship and the story develops towards its climax.

It gradually becomes a study of alienation and isolation and disconnection. At one point, discussing loneliness, Michel tells the narrator of: “the loneliness of seeing a different world from that of the people around you. Their lives remain remote from yours. You can see the gulf and they can't. You live among them. They walk on earth. You walk on glass. They reassure themselves with conformity, with carefully constructed resemblances. You are masked, aware of your absolute difference.” As such, Michel refuses to conform in any way. Even his homosexuality must be manifested in the way of an outsider: not for him the jeans and white tee-shirt uniform of the bar-room gays. He "didn't give a shit what other people thought", we are told, and he would promenade on the beach with his arm round the narrator or kiss him as the mood took him. James Purdy, that old curmudgeon of American letters, would have been proud of him.

So we have madness, love, isolation, truth: all of this could become a bit of a mess unless there is something to hold it together So what does? As I have said, Foucault is the pivot of the novel and, in particular, one might usefully turn to his approach to the concept of parrhesia, “frankness” or “free speech”. This was a central notion in Foucault’s understanding of the mechanics of power and social inter-relationships. Two forms of parrhesia may be said to exist, and it is the second which is of particular interest in this novel. The first, political parrhesia, can be seen in the novel in Foucault’s and Michel’s participation in the riotous events of 1968, in which they spoke out against the prevailing culture and for the counter-culture. But it is the second form, philosophical parrhesia, which dominates the novel. In any analysis of power, there must be frank discourse. As Edward McGushin explains in his superb analysis of Foucault:

Ethical/philosophical parrhesia is a form of discourse that takes place in the context of care of the self. Ethical parrhesia is poetic in the sense that its purpose is to transform individuals – both those who speak it and those who listen to it. But the notion of parrhesia, especially in its philosophical form, challenges us to rethink the concept of truth.
And this is what we see in the relationships in this novel – the Germanist and the narrator, the narrator and Michel, Michel and Foucault and so on. There is truth-telling and there is concealment. True parrhesia will not allow concealment and so these relationships, however loving, are compromised. Nonetheless, they are borne of courage and there is something noble and beautiful about them. Foucault himself might have approved.

As well as this, the narrative is a vehicle for an exploration of the bond between writer and reader. For Paul Michel, that reader is personified by Michel Foucault, to whom he writes those unsent letters. “You ask me what I fear most,” he says in one of the letters, and explains that it is “the loss of my reader, the man for whom I write.” Later, we discover that there was another, equally important and this time genuine reader, “his English reader”. These are the people to whom Michel addresses his fiction. The message he relates is difficult. His prose is described by the narrator as emotionally detached. It contrasts with his true nature, he chides, which is much more open and friendly: “you’re the most passionate man I’ve ever met. And you’re nothing like what you write.” The pellucid nature of his prose is neatly mirrored by Duncker’s own, the novel being narrated in an unadorned and unaffected way. What emerges is a love story that transgresses the norms of society and is all the deeper for that.

In the end, though, I still hold to my view that the author is irrelevant. Talking of her novel, Duncker says: “I wanted it to be a love story... to explain the love between readers and writers. My life has been radically changed through the books I’ve read and I wanted to describe that.” The second sentence is undeniably true and I can empathise with it: Tess of the d’Urbervilles, The Tin Drum, One Hundred Years of Solitude, those novels changed my life. But that sentiment doesn’t logically follow from her first sentence: the love is between readers and texts, not writers. I have no interest in Hardy, Grass or Marquez; something compelled them to write works of literature which resonate with me very powerfully, but it is the text, not the impulsion within the writer that connects with me. In Hallucinating Foucault, Duncker tries very hard to draw the writer into the narrative. It is beautifully done. It is indeed a fine love story. It resonates, it will linger long in the mind. But, in the end, that is the point: Hallucinating Foucault will linger in my mind. Not Patricia Duncker.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell

When I was a boy I had a George Orwell fixation. I read his novels and his collected journalism and letters obsessively. For a while, every composition I wrote at school was based on Down and Out in Paris and London, tales of poverty and homelessness and the brutality of the casual ward. I remember getting a new English teacher who hadn’t heard the term casual ward and underlined it in one of my stories with “casualty ward?” suggested above it in red. I was scandalised that someone wouldn’t know what a casual ward was. I was furious, with all the sanctimonious rage that only a fifteen year old boy can muster. I learned much of my basic humanism from Orwell, as well as my left-leaning political outlook. It’s something of a surprise, then, to read Keep the Aspidistra Flying thirty years later and be surprised and disappointed by the sentiments espoused in it.

Literary modernism has a fraught relationship with humanity. There is a tendency to concentrate on the negative aspects of modernity, at the expense of the great advances we have made. In this formulation, the twentieth century was the century of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, not the double helix and antiobiotics. In 1920 Georg Lukacs described the novel as “the epic of a world that has been abandoned by God”; George Orwell, meanwhile, wrote of Joyce’s Ulysses, “here is life without God. Just look at it!”.

Near the end of Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Gordon Comstock, wandering the streets of London while pondering what to do about his pregnant girlfriend, thinks:

He looked up and down the graceless street. Yes, war is coming soon. You can’t doubt it when you see the Bovex ads. The electric drills in our streets presage the rattle of the machine-guns. Only a little while before the aeroplanes come. Zoom — bang! A few tons of T.N.T. to send our civilization back to hell where it belongs.
The novel was published in 1936 and set in 1935, but both author and character are already clear that war is coming. Gordon reflects on this: “A curious thought had struck him. He did not any longer want that war to happen. It was the first time in months — years, perhaps — that he had thought of it and not wanted it.” This ambivalence about the nature of modernity and the future of humanity is instructive, suggestive of a deepening concern about our progress.

This, then, is the backdrop to a particularly sour novel. Although class remains to this day an issue in the UK – the Eton elite running their old boys’ network in government demonstrate that eloquently – it is impossible to comprehend the extent to which it dominated ordinary life in the 1930s. Gordon’s world is narrow and bigoted and wholly unpleasant and it informs his beliefs to a high degree. He is obsessed with the evil “Money God” which “dominates all aspects of life” and consequently dominates every aspect of this novel, too. We are told:

What he 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.
So we are back in the godless world Orwell identified in Joyce but as well as godless it appears soulless. The result is unedifying. Symbolic of the brutality of modern life is the aspidistra:
It was about this time that he came across The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and read about the starving carpenter who pawns everything but sticks to his aspidistra. The aspidistra became a sort of symbol for Gordon after that. The aspidistra, the flower of England! It ought to be on our coat of arms instead of the lion and the unicorn. There will be no revolution in England while there are aspidistras in the windows.
Money and class and decency thus become inextricably linked, and Gordon’s obsession grows to an unhealthy degree. He tells his girlfriend, Rosemary: "Don't you see that a man's whole personality is bound up with his income? His personality is his income. How can you be attractive to a girl when you've got no money?"

He refuses to conform. He “declares war” on money and refuses to allow it to rule his life the way it does everyone else’s. For this reason he gives up a good job in an advertising agency and instead works in a lowly paid bookshop. He is always profoundly short of money, counting out the pennies and the cigarettes until pay day, but he absolutely refuses to accept charity, other than borrowing from his long-suffering sister, Julia. This stubborness reaches its nadir during a day out with his girlfriend, Rosemary. He has very little money but Rosemary wants to go into the countryside for the day so they take a train out to Burnham Beaches. Unable to find a country pub in which to have lunch, they end up in an upmarket and expensive hotel and, because Gordon cannot bring himself to ask for something cheap, they end up buying from the ruinously expensive menu. This wipes out all of Gordon’s money and, because he refuses to allow Rosemary to pay for anything, they have no money for the return rail fare.

When Gordon does come into money, after one of his poems is bought by an American journal, it leads to disaster. His obsessions overwhelms him and he ends up blowing the whole £10 (two or three months’ wages) in one ghastly evening, getting outrageously drunk, attacking Rosemary, going with a prostitute and getting arrested for assaulting a policeman. His subsequent conviction results in him losing his job and his life spirals further downwards into squalor and penury.

All of this is told with a brutal inevitability and it causes a significant weakness in the novel. Gordon is such an unpleasant and self-obsessed person it is impossible to believe that Rosemary, an intelligent and self-assured woman, would remain with him. His behaviour is appalling. Indeed, in the aftermath of the disastrous night out he sexually assaults her. Yet, this is never even alluded to again. Instead, Orwell must continue with his plot in order to conclude his deliberations on money and the abject nature of modernity. It is overplayed. There is a didacticism about it which becomes unconvicing. The characters behave according to type, and their actions feel designed to force the narrative rather than deriving from any sense of realism.

Orwell apparently disliked this novel (although I am always wary of accepting writers’ opinions of their own works – Faulkner famously dismissed Sanctuary as a “terrible” potboiler, for example, although he knew perfectly well it was anything but). Indeed, Orwell professed to be “ashamed” of Keep the Aspidistra Flying because it was written purely because he was “desperate for money”. I think it is genuinely flawed because its thematic concerns become excessively laboured. It is almost the reverse of Steinbeck: Steinbeck is generally accused of sentimentality in his projections of human nature; in this novel, Orwell takes the opposite extreme. Somewhere between the two one might reach a genuine understanding of human nature and modernity. The result will not be wholly positive, but nor will it be as bleak as modern novelists have a tendency to suggest, and as we are presented with in Keep the Aspidistra Flying.