Monday, November 17, 2014

Blast-beruffled plumes

I’ve returned to Minnesota to find it transformed into a Brueghel painting.

Our hunters are gone north or even south, wherever there are more deer. This has been a bad year for deer, threatened by the cold of last year’s polar vortex and the high population of coyotes, which now carry a bounty on their heads.

So, while it’s still autumn in England (I’ve been assured), winter has come. The nights are long, the wreaths are out. I’ve been reading restlessly – Robert Walser and GB Shaw. But some nights, Thomas Hardy feels just right for November melancholia. Here’s ‘A Darkling Thrush’:

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land's sharp features seemed to be
The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.

I will leave Frost for December.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Short Story Season I

The New Yorker Fiction podcast, which I’ve now gobbled up in its entirety, has recently been a lifeline while I’ve been travelling from house to house, city to city. It’s been responsible for kick-starting my renewed interest in the short story – more to come – and for introducing me to writers I’ve long known by name but never read: like Elizabeth Taylor.

Paul Theroux read Taylor’s ‘The Letter Writers’ this past January for the podcast and the story remains one of her best, alongside (and forgive the list) stories such as ‘Taking Mother Out’, ‘Swan-Moving’, ‘A Sad Garden’, ‘The Ambush’, ‘The True Primitive’, ‘The Little Girl’, ‘Hare Park’, ‘The Prerogative of Love’, and ‘The Thames Spread Out’. Travelling with the hefty paperback on planes, trains, and automobiles, I feel I’ve dragged round my little plot of England to keep me company.

(A quick note on editions: an NYRB edition of her stories has just been published but it is a selection, rather than Virago’s Complete Stories. Forgo the glamorous selection and cart around the lunker.)

My tutor S. has compared Taylor to John Cheever, saying both are accomplished stylists. This is undoubtedly true, but Taylor submerges her style in composition, humour, and compassion. With Cheever, I always feel like I’m drinking a glass of wine and am drunk before I’ve come to the end. Taylor is sherry or port rather than champagne. Several of her stories do follow the masterful shape of the short story’s ideal, where you respond to the cleverness, the justness, of it. Others are portraits or studies of an era, of a certain kind of Englishness, of character. The way one might travel to a long-romanticized place; the way one might respond to unfamiliar children; how a West Indian immigrant might experience life in London: thought-experiments of feeling. To read her is to become aware of how people subtly disappoint each other. The stories reveal a writer intrigued – not repulsed – by human failings. I don’t think it’s necessary to like your characters – last year the novelist Claire Messud was involved in a national discussion about female writers and their characters’ likeability, and I’m personally quite put off by the whole question – but to read Taylor is to see what kind of revelations come from sympathy. David Baddiel’s likening of Taylor to Jane Austen is just. Both display moral curiosity, and are never sentimental so as to miss having a laugh at someone who deserves it.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Eastern promises II

James Wood may not practice the sexy theoretical criticism of the academy, but for all his critical conservatism, he’s an animal which may soon become extinct: a Critic. Unafraid to draw attention to an emperor’s nudity (his review of David Mitchell’s Bone Clocks in the New Yorker a few weeks ago was laudatory but notably cool), he offers a critical opinion I’m inclined to trust. Wood has become a barometer, as the best critics are, rather than a salesman. Thanks to Wood, I’ve been put onto Jenny Offill (Dept of Speculation), and Wood’s essay on Lázsló Kraznahorkai in 2011 alerted me to the Hungarian writer’s work. I’ve finally read Kraznahoraki’s first novel, Sátántango, first published in 1985 and translated by the British-Hungarian poet George Szirtes in 2012.

A still from Bela Tarr's 1994 adaptation of Kraznahorkai's novel

Sátántango is a maniac’s rain-sodden rant: powerful and nightmarish and dull. Beckett meets Kafka: difficult and alienating, mythic and vague. A dead cat you hug. In the novel, a group of individuals living on a run-down Hungarian estate barely survive the dripping continuity of their sordid, decaying lives. The news that two men long thought dead have been resurrected stirs them up. Irimiás, one of the two men, however, has plans for the villagers.

The whole novel is the scribblings of an obese, alcoholic, obsessive doctor. The fictional instinct is one that proceeds out of terminal solitude and disease: fiction happens when there is no one to observe but the itch to record continues.

When the novel is over, you are glad to be rid of it. Then again, by the time you have read it through, you get the sneaking suspicion that it should be read from the beginning again. The novel itself demands it.

One could write essays on Sátántango. (I imagine someone has/will.) But for the moment, I’m going to chew on its grimy apocalypse before committing myself. Revelation comes with rereading.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Gazing as a form of love

George Saunders has been on my shelf since I picked up his latest collection, Tenth of December, in a small thrift shop in Grand Marais on the north shore this last January during the Polar Vortex. Tenth of December is my first introduction to Saunders who, while ubiquitously praised by critics and literary journals, is largely unknown in Britain.

Saunders is David Foster Wallace’s older, wiser, mellower relation. While Saunders replaces DFW’s frenetic braininess with wryness, both share an excellent ear for American vernacular and a fiction which confronts banality with a largely humane satire. (‘Deeply humane’ is Jennifer Egan’s phrase on the cover jacket. A future project in this blog may be a close reading of jacket puffery in general).

In the ten stories of the collection, Saunders takes the flat, cheery-hollow prose of American speech and, by an effective use of ellipsis, turns it into style. This is particularly notable in my favourite story in the collection, ‘The Semplica Girl Diaries’, in which a forty-year old husband and father of three writes about a life which – for all his American dreaming – can’t help getting worse:

‘Stood looking up at house, sad. Thought: Why sad? Don’t be sad. If sad, will make everyone sad. Went in happy, not mentioning bumper, squirrel/mouse smudge, maggots, then gave Eva extra ice cream due to I had spoken harshly to her.’

Saunders imagination is not restricted to the middle-aged man, however. In the first story in the collection, ‘Victory Lap’, Alison Pope has just turned fifteen and prances around at the top of the stairs:

‘Say the staircase was marble. Say she descended and all heads turned. Where was {special one}? Approaching now, bowing slightly, he exclaimed, How can so much grace be contained in one small package? Oops. Had he said small package? And just stood there? Broad princelike face totally bland of expression? Poor thing! Sorry, no way, down he went, he was definitely not {special one}.'

He uncovers the manipulative pressure built inside of American nice. His story ‘Exhortation’ takes the form of a managerial memo, and begins:

‘I would not like to characterize this as a plea, although it may start to sound like one (!).The fact is, we have a job to do, we have tacitly agreed to do it (did you cash your latest paycheck, I know I did, ha ha ha.)'

The rest of the story is an exercise in the oppression superficially polite language forces on those whose economic circumstances require them to be subservient to it. Saunders is utterly aware of the coercive power of punctuation. His use of exclamation marks and parenthesis is razor-sharp.

This collection presents a society in which products and processes are strange – dystopic chemical experiments or third world immigrants rented as luxury goods – but the motivations of the people who suffer or use them and the superstructure which allows for these to become normalized are entirely familiar. Saunders has found the contours and significance of first world banality: longsuffering status envy, petty rivalries, the fantasies which enable the average man or woman or child to continue living. This is not without humour. Tenth of December prompts both laughter and twinges of discomfort.

Saunders’s June interview for Page-Turner, the New Yorker's books blog, disclosed two critical observations which illuminate his fiction. First, criticizing the idea that compassion is always tender, Saunders suggests that satire is ‘a sort of bait-and-switch. You decide to satirize something, so you gaze at it hard enough and long enough to be able to say something true and funny and maybe angry or critical—but you first had to gaze at it for a long time. I mean, gazing is a form of love, right?...In either case, it’s attention.’

For Saunders, seriousness and comedy aren't mutually exclusive. ‘Comic, for me,’ says Saunders, ‘means that there is always a shortfall between what we think of ourselves and what we are.’

You can find the whole interview here:

Friday, August 29, 2014

Why Keep a Good Woman Down?

Why is ‘women’s writing’ a category? Does it have any purchase? Should it? I’ve been arguing with myself about this (again) this week.

After catching the last dramatizations of Elizabeth Jane Howard's Cazalet Chronicles on Radio 4, I’ve been looking for the books in charity shops ever since. Finding the first three books this week (The Light Years, Marking Time, Confusion) has meant that I’ve finally been able to give them a go.

Her books have been celebrated by Julian Barnes and Sybil Bedford. Martin Amis credits Howard, who was married to his father Kingsley Amis for over twenty years, with forming his literary education. But by calling her ‘the most interesting woman writer of her generation’, Amis’ praise is double-edged.

For a woman who constantly battled against being pigeon-holed as a writer only for women – and thus secondary – the books are horribly designed. No man will pick up a book with melancholy empty chairs and girly cursive and a large sticker saying ‘As heard on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour’ on the cover. (I am largely convinced that the existence of Woman’s Hour is outdated at best and, at worst, reinforces gender essentialism.)

The Cazalet Chronicles’ jacket design is a great pity, because while Howard writes domestic fiction, her work is hardly chick lit. In creating the Cazalet clan, Howard is interested in all her characters – male, female, aged, young – catching their thoughts and motivations with largely unsentimental directness. They prevaricate, evade, weaken. Admittedly, the books’ setting between 1937 and 1946 is a recipe for nostalgia along the Keep Calm & Carry On line. Still, no truly nostalgic novel so far has disclosed the answers to critical questions like What Did Women Use Before Tampons and How?

The books are unrepentantly middlebrow. The Cazalets have money and there’s an almost incredulously large number of aspiring artists for a single family. It’s the world we became familiar with in McEwan’s Atonement. If Howard’s creation is less demonic than McEwan’s, it’s because her comprehension of plot is more pedestrian. (This is not a drawback.)

The Cazalet clan centres around Home Place, the family home in Sussex, presided over by the Brig and the Duchy. Their sons Hugh and Edward, who fought in the Great War, work for the family timber firm, Rupert is a painter, and their daughter Rachel is unmarried and stays at home. We meet the wives – Sybil, Villy, Zoë – and the children. Louise wants to be an actress; Clary wants to be a writer; the boys, Simon and Teddy, are at boarding school; and the younger ones, Neville and Lydia, bring comic relief. In the second book, Marking Time, Neville and Lydia meet evacuees, one of whom warns the two to ‘Never trust a man. They’re only after one thing.’

‘One thing?’ Neville said as they trudged home later for their tea… ‘What one thing? I want to know, because when I’m grown up I suppose I’ll be after it too. And if I don’t like the sound of it, I’ll think of some other thing to go after.’
‘I can go after things just as much as you.’
‘She didn’t say ladies went after it.’

Howard’s writing is sharp, her observations of character keen, and one could argue that, while the Cazalet books are not demonstrably experimental and Howard’s writerly instincts are primarily conservative, she experiments with the range and durability of domestic fiction. If a definition of art is that which puts itself on trial, Howard may be cross-examining the genre to test whether domestic can be weighty, as it was with Austen. She is trying to dismantle the ‘Women Only’ sign that her publishers have plastered on her covers. Let’s pray she gets the chance.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Then & Now

This is the last evening, and I am on the road tomorrow. In a little while I’ll go out and stand on the Fen near Laundress Green.

It’s been a small shock to recognise for all the movement of the city – its growth, development, its domination by chains and high street shops – Cambridge is still the city Sylvia Plath lived in and tried to absorb. This is from January 10, 1957:

‘Brilliant clear blue invigorating day. To heart of town. Sun pale warm orange on buildings of Newnham Village. Fens clear green, rooks nests bared in trees, wet dew standing transparent on every branch, across white-painted wooden bridges. Wind rattling dry rushes. Ducks dipping on river in front of Garden House Hotel, shiny green heads of mallards and speckled brown dames. Wetness on tarred sidewalk reflecting blue glaze from pale sky. Water whipped white by mill raise. Noise of continuous rushing. Pale blue-painted Anchor. Orangy plaster of Mill pub….’

The Garden House Hotel has changed names, and the Anchor and the Mill are no longer those colours. But it is the same scene. Now, in summer, minus the brown cows that cool themselves mid-leg in the dirty Cam. Still ‘Some students in black gowns drinking beer on the stone bridge by the pale blue Anchor over the rush of the mill race…’ (March 4)

If you walk the other way from Newnham towards the village of Grantchester over Grantchester meadows you come across 55 Eltisley Road, the first house Plath and Hughes lived after they were married in 1956. This house in unmarked by blue plaque. England resists too much Plath. This is the house of which Hughes writes aptly

Our first home has forgotten us.
I saw when I drove past it
How slight our lives have been
To have left not a trace.

There is no poetic aura left. It gives off a feeling of being uninhabited. That house ‘our first camp, our first winter’ contains no ghosts, bears no ill will.

Then onto the green meadows of Grantchester, where Plath once – as the myth goes – recited the opening of the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales to a rapt bovine audience. I know from experience that cows – of the Irish persuasion at least – are similarly open to Wilde. As my elegant friend G. observes, quoting Hughes, ‘A dramaturgy of whim/ That was our education’. Au revoir, Cambridge.

Monday, July 28, 2014

'[Q]uietly, as the hour of prayer'

It’s not often that I take someone’s book recommendation so seriously as to immediately try to lay my hands on a copy. One always has a personal list, a long never-ending catalogue of the books one should read and the order they should be read. Usually this list is not followed; it’s an aspiration. But Jon Michaud’s essay on the collected stories of the hilariously named Breece D’J Pancake sent me scurrying to make sure I found it. I didn’t think it very likely that I’d come across a used copy of a little-known American writer whose single collection of twelve stories was published three years after his death in 1979. Although, last week I noticed that W.H. Smith has been carrying the Vintage (Random House) edition of Pancake's collection.Grab a copy.

I read the collection over Easter, in small chunks, when I was A.’s house in Reading. The quietness of this year’s Easter in the suburbs of a mid-size southern English town, the sporadic showers, and the wavering light, was the perfect setting.

The title of this post comes from the last story in the collection, 'First Day of Winter'. Pancake’s language is direct; comparisons with Hemingway are just, but he is more open to exploring feeling in language, as opposed to leaving it between the silences. His characters are isolated, failures, workers, dreamers, desperate, violent, eerie, living in the beautiful but impoverished South (West Virginia, Ohio): people one might call white trash, with rich lives, or at least, lives indistinguishable from his rich language.

From ‘Trilobites’: ‘Far off, somebody chops wood, and the ax-bites echo back to me. The hillsides are baked here and have heat ghosts.’

I thoroughly recommend Pancake to anyone interested in localised fiction. It’s a tragedy that Pancake’s suicide robbed American letters of hearing his voice mature, of having more than a single collection, as substantial as it is.

Here’s the essay that got me started.

Sunday, July 27, 2014


It’s post-graduation again, and my last week in Cambridge. After spending several weeks at an internship in London, I’ve been able to start reading again. For fun and in earnest. It’s time to return to our irregularly scheduled broadcast.

I’d never heard of Kyril Bonfiglioli until coming across his Mortdecai series recently quite by accident. In good time too, before the film comes out in Depp/Paltrow/McGregor film comes out in 2015. The New Yorker describes the Mortdecai books as ‘The result of an unholy collaboration between P.G. Wodehouse and Ian Fleming’. One would be hard-pressed to find a better description, aside from adding Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male as a third collaborator.

The Hon. Charlie Mortdecai is a dashingly verbose crooked art dealer with a thuggish manservant, Jock (Mortdecai’s ‘anti-Jeeves’). In the first novel, Don’t Point That Thing at Me, the plot – a stolen Goya, a governmental cover-up, a naughty photograph, a flight to the wide routes of America – is incidental. Tone is all. Bonfiglioni’s isn’t perfect but it comes pretty close, dirtying up Wodehousian charm. There are buckets of camp, a desperately un-politically correct attitude to buxom women and immigrants, and gobbets of poetry waving the flag of an Oxford undergraduate’s utilitarian (that is to say, publically demonstrative) approach to reading.

‘This is not an autobiographical novel,’ writes Bonfiglioli in the prefacing note, ‘it is about some other portly, dissolute, immoral and middle-aged dealer.’ It is this sort of charming, slack knowingness – delivered, one imagines, through curtains of cigarette smoke – that will win you over to Mortdecai’s decadent, shambolic den.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

I haven’t read Eliot for a while, but yesterday while reading Four Quartets, I realised how much of Eliot Joanna Newsom must have read before writing her tone-poems. The ‘Garlic and sapphires in the mud’ clotting the ‘axle-tree’ of ‘Burnt Norton’ (1935) uncles the music of ‘Emily’ (Ys, 2006).

Here’s Eliot:

Will the sunflower turn to us, will the clematis
Stray down, bend to us; tendril and spray
Clutch and cling?
Fingers of yew be curled
Down on us? After the kingfisher’s wing
Has answered light to light, and is silent…

And Newsom:

Say, say, say, in the lee of the bay
don’t be bothered.
Leave your troubles here,
where the tugboats shear the water from the water
(flanked by furrows, curling back, like a match held up to a newspaper).

Let us go! Though we know it’s a hopeless endeavor.
The ties that bind, they are barbed and spined, and hold us close forever.

Newsom is drunken where Eliot is desiccated, but they both have pronounced habits of consonance, internal rhymes, pleasing echoes running across the lines. Their images are Saxon, but there is seductive curl at the corners. Both can be read aloud or sung with pleasure.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

eastern promises

After analysing literature for three and a half years, after learning how not to talk about literature – trying to replace feelings, intuitions, and sensations with critical distance and particularities about how language is working – I feel myself at a loss. Reading the short stories of W. Somerset Maugham, I feel the same hazy intoxication that I felt when I first read The Painted Veil seven years ago, in one long, now seemingly sun-drenched summer in Oxford. I read it in the upper reading room of the Radcliffe Camera, under the white dome with its echoing scratches of pigeon wings. Maugham is a relentlessly visual writer, and when I think about The Painted Veil, when I think about that summer, I’m left with the hot room in which the novel opens, the Chinese screens, the word ‘tiffin’, Charlie’s hat.

The short stories, at least those in the fourth volume of the collected stories, are similarly evocative. These dramas are all set against a setting empire, the last days of the imperial civil service, staffed by the old boys club, the administrators with their petty vendettas, their nostalgia for an England which is already extinct, who float around eastern jungles with ease, fond of their natives, taking women and opium, wary of feuds and fierce eruptions of feeling. It’s a world ripe with what is now political incorrectness, and it’s a dramatic universe that seems to be fuelled by adultery.

By the time Maugham came to write the preface to the volume, he stated flatly that the world which formed the background to his stories – from which he drew his characters – no longer existed. The narrative voice is generally first person, couched in the comfort of being possessed by a writer, who travels, and coaxes the men and women into telling him their stories. This writerly first person authenticates the story, and also approximates the reader, since the writer is interested in the human condition, and is always on the lookout for a good story.

‘People who live so desperately alone, in the remote places of the earth, find it a relief to tell someone whom in all probability they will never meet again the story that has burdened perhaps for years their waking thoughts and their dreams at night. And I have an inkling that the fact of your being a writer attracts their confidence. They feel that what they tell you will excited your interest in any impersonal way that makes it easier for them to discharge their souls.’

The reader – at least this reader – wishes Maugham’s words were true. His stories set one afire with the desire to travel, to meet strangers, to collect their stories. The preface ends with a writer’s modus operandi:

‘I write stories about people who have some singularity of character which suggests to me that they may be capable of behaving in such a way as to give me an idea that I can make use of, or about people who by some accident or another, accident of temperament, accident of environment, have been involved in unusual contingencies.’

This is cold-blooded stuff: Greene's ice around the heart. It appeals to anyone who suspects the writer is also a cannibal, anyone who habitually eavesdrops, and looks in windows as they walk past houses. Maugham’s short stories are old-fashioned; at least, they are drawn to the formula with a climax and a denouement. They are factual, calm, and realist in manner. There is very little metaphor, and no experimentation. But they have a magnetic inner life: one can read story after story like his unfortunate characters take their opium, drawn to the writer’s calm voice, and the vanished – perhaps never-existent – twilight world he paints.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

grantchester in march

If there was ever a day to be in Cambridge and to walk out to Grantchester meadows, it was this one. I ran out towards the fields before 8. The sky was already Wedgewood blue and the sun Greek. As I ran – slowly; I’m not much of a runner – Vaughn Williams Lark Ascending came up on my ipod. A synthesizing of music and mood and landscape that fit like light jazz and a New York skyline, or blues and the South. I crouched down to the grass when I got to the village and saw the sunlight on the grassblades' unevaporated coating. In the distance, the river ran quiet and deep through monochromatic fields, and the single swan swimming its sole worshipper. The hedges and thickets were blooming: not all together but every odd bush exploded into flower. Plump doves and crows sat high on bare branches, and the tits and robins darted in the hedges. The lichens and mosses around the tree stumps are electric green. The pheasants and grouse call in mulish strangled squawks. I saw what the American naturalist William Bartam might call a ‘bomble bee’. It was the sort of Sunday that only is real in a nostalgic haze. I remember a day like this on Port Meadow, when I’d just arrived, and the quote from Waugh: “ was a day of peculiar splendour, such as our climate affords once or twice a year, when leaf and flower and bird and sun-lit stone and shadow seem all to proclaim the glory of God…”