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Tuesday, 20 September 2011

David Foster Wallace: Reading as a Writer

Foster Wallace's marginalia is fascinating and characterful - almost as if he turns the book he is reading into one that he might write.
As reported in The New Yorker, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas announced their acquisition of the David Foster Wallace archive. Along with many manuscripts, notebooks and juvenilia

There are also some two hundred books from Wallace’s own library. “Virtually all of the books are annotated, many are heavily annotated,” Schwartzburg said, and noted that Wallace was especially fond of taking notes and compiling vocabulary lists on the inner cover. The collection, heavy on contemporary fiction, contains nearly all of Wallace’s friend Don DeLillo’s novels, including some pre-publication typescripts. Other titles include Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink,” and “The Tipping Point,” and Jonathan Franzen’s “Strong Motion.” “Unfortunately,” Schwartzburg said, “there does not appear to be a copy of ‘The Corrections.’ ”

There is, however, a paperback copy of Mary Higgins Clark’s pulpy suspense novel “Where are the Children?” “I have no context for it, but it looked like he was doing a rhetorical analysis of how gender relationships were playing out over the course of the novel,” Schwartzburg told me. “He appeared to really engage with her and looked carefully at how she structured her narrative. Clearly, he read very widely.” There’s even a marked-up edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, in which Wallace circled words like “witenagemot.”

For Wallace scholars, the real jewel in the crown might be a battered, taped-together copy of Pam Cook’s “The Cinema Book,” used as research for “Infinite Jest.” His handwritten notes include multiple references to “IJ” and, according to a blog post by Scwartzburg, display a “particular interest in sections on the idea of the auteur, the technology of deep focus cinematography, new wave cinema, the Hollywood star system, and most film genres (with the notable exception of the ‘gangster/crime film’).”


Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Further Enthusings: Adam Thirlwell on Muriel Spark

This, from Arete, is the best piece I have read on Muriel - and by Adam Thirlwell. It captures what is tricky and goddessy about Muriel Spark and, amongst other things, is an elegant riposte to those who think 'Show, Don't tell' is a commandment, and not simply a useful strategy for writers who need to animate and dramatise character and action - and it's also an instruction that a great writer can spurn.

Between 1959 and 1961 Muriel Spark published four novels: Memento Mori, The Ballad of Peckham Rye, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means. These novels are great novels; they develop the technique of the novel as a form. And yet they do not seem like great novels. Instead they seem more delicate, less revolutionary, solid with competence. These novels are clean shaven, irreproachable, undiscussable – like lawn.

She is a great novelist who looks like a quieter novelist. An essay on Muriel Spark must be correspondingly loud.

So this, loudly, is the quiet shift at the centre of Muriel Spark’s writing.
She inverts the norms of the implicit and explicit in fiction. Her novels are reversed out, like negatives. Factual detail is given bluntly, authorially, directly. This means that she seems old-fashioned. Psychological detail – feeling, motivation – is withheld, or occluded, or only partly explained. This means that she seems avant-garde.
But she is neither old-fashioned or avant-garde. She is original.
* * * * *
Following Henry James, it was seen as a mark of skill in the serious novelist that factual information should be presented indirectly. This information should be dramatised, leaking out from the plot, as if the book had been merely overheard, not invented by the author.
The technical name for this – not used by James, but by his disciple, Percy Lubbock – was showing, which was superior to telling.
In an interview with the Listener, 7 February 1974, Kingsley Amis offers a wonderful rebuke to the forced stringencies of this tradition, talking about the cherished influence of W Somerset Maugham: ‘What I did learn – not consciously of course – was that there was really no need for shock tactics, obvious originality, experiments in style. One learns a great deal simply from, for instance, the fact that one of his Far East stories begins: “Jim Grange was a rubber planter.” It’s wonderful to think that one could get away with saying “that’s what he was” instead of saying: “The noon heat beat down on his back” – and you don’t find out what his name is for a page and a half. He did, I think, help to restore one’s confidence in traditional forms of writing.’
Sometimes, Muriel Spark is in this pre-Modernist tradition. Characters are introduced with dense factual sentences, clipped and informative – nutritious as protein shakes: ‘Joanna Childe was a daughter of a country rector. She had a good intelligence and strong obscure emotions. She was training to be a teacher of elocution and, while attending a school of drama, already had pupils of her own.’ Or there are these trim introductions in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie: ‘Rose Stanley was famous for sex. Her hat was placed quite unobtrusively on her blonde short hair, but she dented in the crown on either side. Eunice Gardiner, small, neat, and famous for her spritely gymnastics and glamorous swimming, had the brim of her hat turned up at the front and down at the back.’
When Muriel Spark uses an unsubtle method, however, she uses it with subtlety; she thinks it through. There is a latent preciousness to the Jamesian method of indirection. The Jamesian imperative to dramatise all the narrative material – fulfilled only intermittently in the novels themselves – is motivated by an embarrassment at the contrivance of fiction. It is a way of trying to pretend that this is not a novel at all. In this respect, the blunt simplicity of Somerset Maugham is, quite rightly, to be emulated. It is truer to the materials.
Think of Lars von Trier, who, in an interview with Stig Björkman, remembered his days at film school.
‘If something took place in Vienna, 1934, our teacher wanted us to…Under no circumstances begin with a caption which read ‘Vienna, 1934’. We weren’t allowed to. I remember Zanussi paid us a visit. He said, ‘Yes, well’. He didn’t want to. Instead of writing ‘Vienna, 1934’ – he wanted to take a close-up of a fly crawling over some ink – making smudges on a cheque, and on the top of it was ‘Vienna, 1934’. After everything I learnt from various teachers, I was convinced – that in my film at any rate, there’d be a caption with ‘Vienna, 1934’. Why waste people’s time with a fly wandering over a cheque – when you can do it very simply?’
* * * * *
There are, naturally, two chronologies to a novel – the chronology of the events depicted in a story and the chronology of the order in which these events are told. There is no need for the two chronologies to match.
The great master of the possible disjunctions is Proust and his A la recherche. When she won the Observer’s short story competition in 1951, spark bought a complete set of Proust with her prize money. In an interview with Robert Hosmer – to be published in Salmagundi January 2005 – Spark analyses this technique: ‘my sense of construction in the novel was greatly assisted by [Proust’s] examples. In the matter of construction take for instance the chapter of A la recherche where Swann ends by deciding Odette was not, after all, his style. Next page, new chapter: Swann has already been married to Odette for some years.’ The past, in a novel, can occur after its future. It is a game displayed in one of the first ever novels – Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, with its throwaway ostentatious gags, jamming the past and the future together – ‘a cow broke in (tomorrow morning).’
In a conventional novel, however, the telling of the story follows the chronology of the story itself. In this way, the reader follows the subjective experience of the main characters, and experiences the denouement at the same moment as the characters. It is a method designed to facilitate suspense.
Thus, although flashback is allowable – since it may be necessary to explain the plot – flash-forward, or prolepsis, is not. It is taken as giving up on suspense.
Muriel Spark, bravely and cleverly, uses prolepsis. She states the character’s futures; she states the ends of her plots. All her plots are, in some way, stories about how things end. They are about last things.
Within paragraphs, she uses prolepsis on a small-scale, a constant prefiguring that shadows the characters – as in The Girls of Slender Means: ‘She opened Jane’s door without knocking and put in her head. “Got any sopayjo?”[soap] It was some months before she was to put her head round Jane’s door and announce, “Filthy luck. I’m preggers. Come to the wedding”.’ Or in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, where the characters’ futures interrupt the present, sadly, irrefutably:
‘Mary Macgregor walked with Sandy because Jenny had gone home. Monica Douglas, later famous for being able to do real mathematics in her head, and for her anger, walked behind them with her dark red face, broad nose and dark pigtails falling from her black hat and her legs already shaped like pegs in their black wool stocking…. Behind Miss Brodie, last in the group, little Eunice Gardiner who, twenty-eight years later, said of Miss Brodie, ‘I must visit her grave’, gave a skip between each of her walking steps as if she might even break into pirouettes on the pavement…’
But the technique is broader than this. She gives away not only the character’s ends, but also the plot’s ending. Early in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie we know that it is Sandy who has betrayed Miss Brodie, though we do not know why. On page seven of The Girls of Slender Means we know that Nicholas Farringdon – a poet, convert and missionary – has died in Haiti. And on page 60, we know this, the central moment in the novel, that will occur 60 pages later.
‘Meantime, Nicholas touched lightly on the imagination of the girls of slender means and they on his. He had not yet slept on the roof with Selina on the hot summer nights – he gaining access from the American-occupied attic of the hotel next door, and she through the slit window – and he had not yet witnessed that action of savagery so extreme that it forced him involuntarily to make an entirely unaccustomed gesture, the signing of the cross upon himself.’
The crucial thing is this. Prolepsis does not destroy suspense; it creates a new type of suspense. Because knowing the end is not an explanation or a solution. Rather than wondering how the story will end, the reader is forced to wonder how the story could have ended up at its end. And this is a complicated pleasure.
‘I think suspense is often heightened if the author “gives away” the plot from the very beginning,’ Spark told Hosmer. ‘The reader is then all the more anxious to find out how the conclusion came about.’
Compare this with the opening of Gabriel García Márquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude – ‘Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice’ – magical, engrossing. But it is the sentence’s start that lingers. The ice is discovered fifteen pages later. It is the firing squad that the reader waits for.
* * * * *
This rendering explicit of what is normally implicit – facts, plots – represents a refusal to lie about the novel as a form. There is a refusal to take up Henry James’s imperative: ‘Dramatise, dramatise!’ There is a refusal to get hung up on showing, rather than telling.
In this, Spark is being very clever and careful about what we mean by mimesis in a novel.
The only thing that can truly be imitated, shown in a novel, is language – and this means dialogue, or billboards. Even thought is not linguistic. Everything else has to be told, described. (‘The famous monologue at the end of Ulysses,’ writes T S Eliot, correctly, in his essay on Charles Whibley, ‘is not the way in which persons of either sex actually think: it is a very skilful attempt by a master of language to give the illusion of mental process by a different medium, that of written words.’)
But there are some things that, perhaps, cannot be described, or not described accurately. These things are feelings. Feelings, for Muriel Spark, can only be shown. The conventional descriptions are only inaccurate.
Her most audacious experiment in showing is The Ballad of Peckham Rye. In this book, there are no expressed feelings or thoughts. This does not mean the characters do not have feelings; it means that they are implied from their actions, from their words.
Compare this with Eliot again, in his essay on Philip Massinger – ‘What the creator of character needs is not so much knowledge of motives as keen sensibility; the dramatist need not understand people; but he must be exceptionally aware of them.’
It is important to see how radical Spark’s reversal of the norms of showing and telling is: external facts which were once shown are now told; internal facts which were once told are now shown.
* * * * *
One of the clever things that Muriel Spark has done has been to vary her influences. There is Somerset Maugham. But there is also Robbe-Grillet, and the tradition of the French nouveau roman, as Spark told Hosmer:
I was very much impressed with Robbe-Grillet, not by the effect of what he did, I wasn’t carried away by his novels, but I was very, very interested in his methods. He got away from the novel of descriptions of people’s feelings: ‘he felt’, ‘he thought’ and ‘he said’. ‘He said’ is a fact, actually an outward fact, but ‘he felt’ and ‘he thought’ are interpolations by the author.
In his collection of essays Pour un nouveau roman, published in 1961, Robbe-Grillet tried to explain what he was up to. He was stripping the novel of baggage it could no longer sustain. In his essay ‘A path for the novel of the future’ – first published in 1956 – he stated the roots of his perceived problem with the contemporary novel: ‘One could easily go back as far as Madame de La Fayette. Sacrosanct psychological analysis constituted, already at this time, the basis of all prose: it was that which governed the conception of the book, the description of the characters, the unfolding of the plot.’ In place of this psychological analysis, Robbe-Grillet offered flatness, literalism: ‘There is now, in effect, a new element, which separates us this time radically from Balzac, as from Gide and Madame de La Fayette: it is the destitution of the old myths of “depth”.’ Robbe-Grillet was no longer sure that we understood the world, that the novelist could presume to understand the psychology of a character. All that was left for the novelist was the description of externals: ‘the optical, descriptive adjective, that which is content to measure, to situate, to limit, to define, probably shows the difficult path to a new art of the novel.’
It was one part of Muriel Spark’s genius that she could read Robbe-Grillet’s anxious, tendentious novels and essays, and make them her own.
* * * * *
The art of Muriel Spark is an art of concision. It operates on a more reduced scale than most novels. But that is not very helpful. We need to understand what is at stake in this concision.
Take the refusal to give extraneous detail. This is nothing new. There is the dry opening to Diderot’s novel Jacques le fataliste et son maître, written in the 1770s, unimpressed by novelistic scene-setting: ‘How did they meet? By chance, like everyone. What were they called? What does it matter to you? Where did they come from? From the next town. Where were they going? Does anyone know where they’re going?’
And it is there, a 100 years later, in Chekhov, too. Writing to Alexander Kuprin, 1 November 1902, Chekhov says: ‘Your first chapter is taken up with descriptions of people’s appearances – again an old-fashioned device; you could easily do without these descriptions. Describing in detail how five people look overburdens the reader’s span of attention, and ultimately loses all value. Clean-shaven actors resemble one another like Catholic priests, and they’ll go on resembling one another no matter how much effort you put into describing them.’
This concision of extraneous detail is there in another of Muriel Spark’s techniques. She does not observe the normal hierarchies of facts to be depicted in a novel. She does not elaborate where she might be expected to elaborate. Instead, she is constantly interested in sentences which are flatly laid beside each other – even if the information in each sentence is not conventionally of the same order of magnitude. Zeugma is central to her comic method. So, in The Girls of Slender Means, ‘Dorothy could emit, at any hour of the day or night, a waterfall of debutante chatter, which rightly gave the impression that on any occasion between talking, eating and sleeping, she did not think, except in terms of these phrase-ripples of hers: “Filthy lunch.” ‘The most gorgeous wedding.” “He actually raped her, she was amazed.” “Ghastly film.” “I’m desperately well, thanks, how are you?”’
This deadpan lack of explanation or emotion can scare some critics. It has scared Christopher Ricks. In an essay in the New York Review of Books, in 1968, Christopher Ricks made the case against Muriel Spark as cruelly seeking to expose her characters’ frailties: ‘human beings cannot but be opaque…so ought our artistic ideal be, above all, to see through them?’
In her great novel Memento Mori, Spark offers this conversation, in a nursing home – an implicit anticipatory rebuke to critics like Ricks.
‘And yet,’ said Charmian, smiling up at the sky through the window, ‘when I was half-way through writing a novel I always got into a muddle and didn’t know where it was leading me.’ Guy thought: She is going to say – dear Charmian – she is going to say ‘The characters seemed to take on a life of their own.’ ‘The characters,’ said Charmian, ‘seemed to take on a life of their own.’
It is a form of literary sentimentality to believe, as Ricks does, that a character can be opaque to his or her author – though, in one crucial respect, Spark’s characters are opaque. When they behave evilly, they behave out of character. Their psychology, psychology in general, will not help us understand them. But this is not the opacity Ricks means.
The reason for Muriel Spark’s concision is this – character is much less complicated than we like to think. Everyone is so much simpler.
In Memento Mori, there is this send-up of the novel’s pretensions to psychological depth: ‘About your novels,’ he said. ‘The plots are so well laid. For instance in The Seventh Child, although of course one feels that Edna will never marry Gridsworthy, you have this tension between Anthony Garland and Colonel Yeoville, and until of course their relationships to Gabrielle are revealed, there is every likelihood that Edna will marry one or the other. And yet, of course, all along one is aware of a kind of secret life within Edna, especially at that moment when she is alone in the garden at Neuflette, and then comes unexpectedly upon Karl and Gabrielle. And then one feels sure she will marry Gridsworthy after all, merely for his kindness. And really, right up to the last page one does not know Karl’s true feelings. Or rather, one knows them – but does he know them?’
* * * * *
In her novels, Muriel Spark rethinks novelistic psychology.
Normally, novels believe in explanations. So a novel about a bad character will be a novel which attempts to explain why a character acts badly. It will attempt to describe a psychology – a set of motivations. Spark is not impressed by this – because it is easy enough, detecting people’s motivations; they are rarely unusual.
Psychology, for Spark, is not an explanation; it is a way of avoiding an explanation. It is a way of offering an explanation, when the crueller truth is that none is commensurate with the facts.
Compare her to D H Lawrence. In a letter to Edward Garnett, 5 June 1914, D H Lawrence tried to explain what he was up to: ‘You mustn’t look in my novel for the old stable ego of the character. There is another ego, according to whose action the individual is unrecognisable, and passes through, as it were, allotropic states which it needs a deeper sense than any we’ve been used to exercise, to discover are states of the same single radically unchanged element.’ This description is very close to Spark’s novels. She does not describe egos, she describes the allotropic states a character can go through – the sudden slippages of a seemingly stable character.
She describes the behaviour of a character which is not explained by a character’s psychology. This is one reason why all her books are not just stories about last things. They are stories about evil.
The subject of all Muriel Spark’s novels is Original Sin. And this is not an original subject, not in itself. Spark avoids the danger of dullness simply by the force of her precision, and by her economy. She offers no explanation. She offers no lesson. She simply describes how people behave. Spark’s great achievement is to show how accurate religious descriptions of psychology are – how congruent they are with the facts.
Before Hannah Arendt, Spark knew about the banality of evil. But Spark goes further. Evil is not just banal, evil is opaque too – flat, simply there. ‘I am not sure about the devil as a personification,’ said Spark. ‘But the Devil is a very useful personification of what we really do see in the world. Evil exists. Evil is in the world and we know it because we are born with a knowledge of good and evil.’
Spark is not a doctrinal novelist. She does not assert conclusions; instead she invents provocations.
The Girls of Slender Means is exemplary.
The boarding house – where the girls of slender means live – is burning down. Nicholas Farringdon has helped some girls, including his thin and graceful girlfriend Selina, to escape through the narrow bathroom window. Some girls still remain inside – too large to squeeze through the minuscule window. One of these is Joanna Childe, the rector’s daughter and elocution teacher – a devout and gentle Christian. All the girls are saved, except for Joanna, who is too late climbing the ladder to safety. She dies reciting the psalms. Another girl, Selina, re-enters the boarding house – apparently to rescue someone:
Nicholas then saw, through the door of the wash-room, Selina approaching along the smoky passage. She was carrying something fairly long and limp and evidently light in weight, enfolding it carefully in her arms. He thought it was a body…She climbed up on the lavatory seat and slid through the window, skillfully and quickly pulling her object behind her. Nicholas held up his hand to catch her. When she landed on the roof-top she said, ‘Is it safe out here?’ and at the same time was inspecting the condition of her salvaged item. Poise is perfect balance. It was the Schiaparelli dress. The coat-hanger dangled from the dress like a headless neck and shoulders.
Sixty pages earlier, Spark had noted the effect on Nicholas of an ‘action of savagery so extreme that it forced him involuntarily to make an entirely unaccustomed gesture, the signing of the cross upon himself.’ This action turns out to be Selina’s saving of a Schiaparelli dress. After which, the house collapses.
The Girls of Slender Means presents, bluntly, deftly, the problem of all theodicy. A gentle, moral girl dies, unsavable – while Selina saves a Schiaparelli dress. The good things of the world, the permanent things, are unsavable.
In the novel, there are three reactions to the catastrophe. Nicholas, who is converted, becomes a missionary, and dies in Haiti. Selina goes mad. And there is another chaarcter, Jane, who had introduced Nicholas to the girls of slender means in their boarding house. Jane is simply stoical. The novel ends on VJ day:
Jane mumbled, ‘Well, I wouldn’t have missed it, really.’ She had halted to pin up her straggling hair, and had a hair-pin in her mouth as she said it. Nicholas marvelled at her stamina, recalling her in this image years later in the country of his death – how she stood, sturdy and bare-legged on the dark grass, occupied with her hair – as if this was an image of all the May of Teck establishment in its meek, unselfconscious attitudes of poverty, long ago in 1945.
The novel doesn’t ask which of these three reactions is right. The novel is only concerned with putting the question, the problem. Nowhere is safe. The novel opens on the day of the first armistice in 1945, and it ends on the day of the second armistice, in 1946. Because the war is never over. There is no end to evil.
* * * * *
In Spark there is a connection between the precision of the form, and the insoluble discrepancies in morality that are described so precisely.
We cannot explain ourselves to ourselves.
Spark shows us this by telling us, tells us this by showing us.


Arthur Rimbaud

Certain writers have to be read at a certain age, and in Rimbaud's case it feels as if that age might best be the same age as Rimbaud when he wrote his poems. This biographical piece by Daniel Mendelsohn will both introduce the poet to those yet to discover him and remind others why Rimbaud had such an impact on them. His silence, to me, is more fascinating and bewildering than the poems, but I suspect we should attend to both. Here's the opening to Mendelsohn's New Yorker article.

On a winter day in 1883, aboard a steamer that was returning him from Marseilles to the Arabian port city of Aden, a French coffee trader named Alfred Bardey struck up a conversation with a countryman he’d met on board, a young journalist named Paul Bourde. As Bardey chatted about his trading operation, which was based in Aden, he happened to mention the name of one of his employees—a “tall, pleasant young man who speaks little,” as he later described him. To his surprise, Bourde reacted to the name with amazement. This wasn’t so much because, by a bizarre coincidence, he had gone to school with the employee; it was, rather, that, like many Frenchmen who kept up with contemporary literature, he had assumed that the young man was dead. To an astonished Bardey, Bourde explained that, twelve years earlier, his taciturn employee had made a “stupefying and precocious” literary début in Paris, only to disappear soon after. Until that moment, for all Bardey or anyone else in his circle knew, this man was simply a clever trader who kept neat books. Today, many think of him as a founder of modern European poetry. His name was Arthur Rimbaud.

What Bardey learned about Rimbaud that day is still what most people know about Rimbaud. There was, on the one hand, the dazzling, remarkably short-lived career: all of Rimbaud’s significant works were most likely composed between 1870, when he was not quite sixteen, and 1874, when he turned twenty. On the other hand, there was the abrupt abandonment of literature in favor of a vagabond life that eventually took him to Aden and then to East Africa, where he remained until just before his death, trading coffee, feathers, and, finally, guns, and making a tidy bundle in the process. The great mystery that continues to haunt and dismay Rimbaud fans is this “act of renunciation,” as Henry Miller put it in his rather loopy 1946 study of Rimbaud, “The Time of the Assassins,” which “one is tempted to compare . . . with the release of the atomic bomb.” The over-the-top comparison might well have pleased Rimbaud, who clearly wanted to vaporize his poetic past. When Alfred Bardey got back to Aden, bursting with his discovery, he found to his dismay that the former wunderkind refused to talk about his work, dismissing it as “absurd, ridiculous, disgusting.”

That Rimbaud’s repudiation of poetry was as furious as the outpouring of his talent had once been was typical of a man whose life and work were characterized by violent contradictions. He was a docile, prize-winning schoolboy who wrote “Shit on God” on walls in his home town; a teen-age rebel who mocked small-town conventionality, only to run back to his mother’s farm after each emotional crisis; a would-be anarchist who in one poem called for the downfall of “Emperors / Regiments, colonizers, peoples!” and yet spent his adult life as an energetic capitalist operating out of colonial Africa; a poet who liberated French lyric verse from the late nineteenth century’s starched themes and corseted forms—from, as Paul Valéry put it, “the language of common sense”—and yet who, in his most revolutionary work, admitted to a love of “maudlin pictures, . . . fairytales, children’s storybooks, old operas, inane refrains and artless rhythms.”

These paradoxes, and the extraordinarily conflicted feelings of admiration and dismay that Rimbaud’s story can evoke, are at the center of a powerful mystique that has seduced readers from Marcel Proust to Patti Smith. It had already begun to fascinate people by the time the poet died, in 1891. (He succumbed, at thirty-seven, to a cancer of the leg, after returning to his mama’s farm one last time.) To judge from the steady stream of Rimbaldiana that has appeared over the past decade—which includes, most recently, a new translation of “Illuminations,” by the distinguished American poet John Ashbery, and a substantial novel that wrestles with the great question of why Rimbaud stopped writing—the allure shows no sign of fading.

Tired Old Queen at the Movies

Irresistible and essential, the Tired Old Queen at the Movies - No 83: a witty, benign enthusiast, fautlessly researched and wicked fun. Watch them all.

Philip Larkin - The Novelist's Poet

Robert Browning is most often thought of as the Novelist's Poet - Hardy, being successfully both, somehow doesn't qualify - but Martin Amis makes a powerful - even moving - argument for Philip Larkin taking this role:

Particularly in his longer poems, which resemble Victorian narrative paintings, Larkin is a scene-setting phrasemaker of the first echelon. What novelist, reading ‘Show Saturday’, could fail to covet ‘mugfaced middleaged wives/Glaring at jellies’ and ‘husbands on leave from the garden/Watchful as weasels’ and ‘car-tuning curt-haired sons’? In ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ the fathers of the brides ‘had never known/Success so huge and wholly farcical’; in ‘To the Sea’, immersed in the ‘miniature gaiety’ of the English littoral, we hear ‘The distant bathers’ weak protesting trebles’ and ‘The small hushed waves’ repeated fresh collapse ... ‘

Many poems, many individual stanzas, read like distilled short stories, as if quickened by the pressure of a larger story, a larger life. The funny and terrrifying ‘Mr Bleaney’ (a 28-line poem about the veteran inhabitant of a bedsit) has the amplitude of a novella. And Larkin’s gift for encapsulation is phenomenal. Admire this evocation, in ‘Livings, III’, of the erudite triviality of high-table talk in, as it might be, All Souls, Oxford – and Larkin does it in rhyme:

Which advowson looks the fairest,

What the wood from Snape will fetch,

Names for pudendum mulieris,

Why is Judas like Jack Ketch?

‘Livings, I’ begins: ‘I deal with farmers, things like dips and feed.’ And after a single pentameter the reader is lucidly present in another life.

Larkin began his career as an exceptionally precocious writer of fiction: he had two pale, promising (and actually very constricted) novels behind him, Jill and A Girl in Winter, by the age of 25. Twenty-five, and two novels. The reason he gave for abandoning his third (to be called A New World Symphony) is, in my view, dumbfoundingly alien. Which brings us to the more fugitive and subliminal component of the fascination Larkin excites in all novelists and in all students of human nature. The poems are transparent (they need no mediation), yet they tantalise the reader with glimpses of an impenetrable self: so much yearning, so much debility; an eros that self-thwarts and self-finesses. This is what rivets us: the mystery story of Larkin’s soul.

You can read the rest of the article here

Philip Roth - Nemeses

Stumbled upon the excellent Quarterly Conversations (and it will not be my last visit) via a link to Ben Jeffrey's thoughtful essay on the late - or latest - works from Philip Roth. The Nemeses quartet of books are often met with consternation and dissatisfaction, it seems, but Jeffries take on them, while not overly sympathetic, is both bracing and and embracing.

Here's an extract:
  • The Nemeses are weak stories, although that isn’t exactly the same as saying they’re badly written. In particular, The Humbling is an intellectual puzzle-box you could spend a lot of time with if you wishedbut it’s also not much of a novel. Consider one of the stock critical responses to a bad book by a famous author—that it’s like someone “doing a bad impression.” Axler’s story is infected with the idea of being a bad copy, a zombie-version of what you used to be. It courts the suspicion that The Humbling is itself is a deliberately poor imitation of a Philip Roth book. A great deal of the novel’s art is expended in what could be interpreted as apologies for its failings, with a result that’s an odd mixture of craft and lack of craft. Subtle allusions are cast to players trapped in roles (besides Prospero and Macbeth, there’s James Tyrone in O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night and an almost-too-obvious nod to Chekov’s dictum about the gun seen in the First Act having to go off by the Third), and once you start parsing the various motifs of role-play, rehearsal, and façade you begin to appreciate how many interesting lines could be drawn between Axler, his author, and Roth’s back-catalog. Yet in spite of the evident skill in design, The Humbling also has a narrative that is no better than skeletal, featuring characters waved into place and barely filled. Axler’s solution to his crisis is an affair with a 40-year-old ex-lesbian, Pegeen, the daughter of old friends of his. Their relationship is intensely erotic, but Axler realizes long in advance that it will end sooner or later, and that this will destroy him. “Pegeen’s history was unmalleable and Pegeen unattainable and… he was bringing a new misfortune down on his head”. So it transpires. Pegeen cheats on Axler and then abandons him. She is written out to be capricious, inscrutable, an agent of destruction as unmanageable as chance, but also—so we’re told—an insignificant weakling. “She’s not at all beautiful. She’s not that intelligent. And she’s not that grown up,” complains one of Pegeen’s former lovers to Axler. “It’s we who endow her with the power to wreck. Pegeen’s nobody”.
  • Is The Humbling plausible? In one sense, yes: terribly so. The notion that an ageing man, in failing health and stripped of his self-assurance, would throw himself into an affair with a younger woman—would then desperately cling to it though fully aware that it will rip him apart—is certainly believable. That someone could suffer from senseless bad luck or be made into the plaything of his own desires is nothing if not plausible. But The Humbling defies reason, too. As a character, Pegeen is incoherent. Her sex-life with Axler is (quite literally) beyond belief, featuring effortlessly arranged threesomes and green strap-on dildos. Sub-plots and minor players arise but then come to nothing. The rest of the Nemeses have similar failings. Partly, the trouble is technical. None of the books are long enough to properly identify with. The main characters haven’t got enough in them to be genuinely likeable or dislikeable; they never earn the reader’s total engagement. Even the production—with extremely generous margins and a very low word-to-page ratio—makes the stories feel somehow flimsy, like novellas artificially extended into novels. More seriously, except in expiring flashes, the Nemeses simply lack the magnetism of their predecessors. Everything is thinner, flatter, purged of scenery; lacking a third dimension. Yet this also gives the books their strangely compelling (and appropriate) quality. The Nemeses are largely unconvincing and vigorless stories about how unconvincingly feeble any story seems when set against blind fate. If the telling was too good—as in Roth’s earlier work, say—the very bleak and unengaging point would be more easily missed. In one of The Humbling’s other significant references, we’re told Pegeen is named after a character from Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, a play about how people would rather let themselves be entertained by a story than think about what it means.
  • Is that to say that these late novels of Roth’s are actually good instead of bad, not beautiful but somehow “serious”? It’s a genuine question, one that cuts straight down to elemental issues about what we really mean when we describe a piece of fiction (by definition, something untrue) as convincing. In Exit Ghost Zuckerman occupies himself writing a stilted erotic play about a young woman he meets in New York. The infatuation is even less reasonable than most, since prostrate surgery has left Zuckerman hopelessly impotent. His play, alongside the passages describing the exploits of Everyman’s “cunthound” hero and the chunks of porn-fiction in The Humbling are where Roth comes the closest to self-parody. (Sample dialogue: “Wait’ll the police see you in just that top and those shorts. They won’t leave either. You’ve got the prettiest cunt and the basest instincts.”) In Christopher Hitchens’s unimproveably blunt phrase, the suspicion begins to nag that Roth might really just be writing these scenes “to give himself something to masturbate about”. The Nemeses make it hard to avoid the thought that a dirty mind ages especially badly. But at the same time, Roth could scarcely fail to be aware of the grotesque impression he is making. The inability to escape desire’s humiliatingly relentless pressure (even as you become less and less able to satisfy it) is one of his tested subjects—most explicitly via David Kepesh in The Dying Animal, another short, late novel, although one that stands up rather better than the Nemeses thanks to Kepesh’s magnetically repulsive voice. “No matter how much you know, no matter how much you think, no matter how much you plot and you connive and you plan, you’re not superior to sex,” he declares. “Every last vanity will come back to mock you.”
The rest of the article can be read here