About Me

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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Thursday, 28 January 2016

"England, my England and other short stories" by D. H. Lawrence

In my writers' circle it is accepted that you try not to repeat yourself; that repetition, if you use it, should be employed to some effect.

Nobody told David Lawrence that!

In England, my England he repeats himself all the time. He hammers it. So when he wants to say that Winifred has a sense of duty he uses the phrase 'sense of duty' three times in a paragraph (and 'duty' appears three times more in the next two paragraphs). When her father has a "blind acrid faith as sap is blind and acrid" sap, and blind and acrid are prefigured and repeated. "To hold aloof" occurs three times in 15 words! The father is described as 'Ishmael' three times in two paragraphs and 'supple' three times in a single paragraph. Once you notice this technique it starts to grate. It becomes intrusive. It irks.

He also does a bit of exclaiming. Not just marvellous but "Ah, marvellous"; not just that he wanted her but "Ah, how he wanted her".

Egbert, a southerner with a bit of Viking in his eyes weds Winifred, a northerner. Two good Saxon names despite their apparently mixed heritages. Egbert is a bit of an amateur, a flaneur who doesn't work. They have three girls.  They have to rely on Winifred's father for money. One of the girls has an accident. Love dies but duty stays. The Great War calls. Egbert does his duty. Egbert dies. Umm.

The Horse Dealer's Daughter also uses repetition to hammer its images home. It starts with three brothers and a sister considering what they will do now that the business left them by their father has failed under the burden of his debts. Joe (who in the first paragraph feels safe but is later frightened) will "marry and go into harness"; he has a "glazed look of helplessness in his eyes"; his "glazed hopeless eyes", he is part of a "helpless" silence; Joe who will become a "subject animal" moves "in horsy fashion"; his knees stick out "in real horsy fashion". Get the picture?

Mabel, the daughter of the title, has not told anyone what she plans to do. She goes to a graveyard to attend to her mother's grave. This is a nice part of the story where her mundane cleaning of the headstone and trimming of the grass is contrasted with the "mystical element" of the "spell-bound" doctor who sees her. This moment, which he feels as a "powerful drug" is contrasted in the next paragraph by his everyday routine, filling bottles with "cheap drugs" and visiting the sick.

Now the town is presented as a burnt-out hell: deadened, deadening, cinder, ask and extinct are words used in this paragraph. As the doctor walks on his rounds he sees Mabel again and watches her as she wades into a pond and disappears. He runs to save her from the "dead water" which is "dead cold", "cold water" in the "dead cold" pond and, having gone under himself, at last he pulls her out and takers her back to her home where he strips her and puts her in a blanket by the fire.

And then she comes round and the story swings upon its pivot. "He stood still with fear" as she asks "Who undressed me". Suddenly we have a cosmic lurch: "'Do you love me then?' she asked." Wow! This is a crucial moment and the new direction comes twisting out of the blue.

And we are back in true Lawrence territory as they embrace and kiss and though he has "no intention of loving her" (4x) and "it was horrible", He was ... horrified", "He had a horror" and at the end she describes herself as "horrible (twice) and "awful" (5x) still his heart repeatedly melts at the sight of her shoulders (again and again) and her tears (at least six before she starts sobbing at the end).

Tickets please starts with a beautiful description of a tram that travels from a Midlands county town through villages and market-places and past collieries to "the cold little town that shivers on the edge of the wild, gloomy country beyond." Lawrence's descriptive powers are to the fore here (and shortly in his connected description of a fairground and its rides). A conductress, Annie, begins a romance with a tram inspector, John Thomas, but JT has his pick of the girls and he moves on from her. So she gathers a group of those jilted by JT and plots her revenge: he is lured into the conductress's staff room where they set upon him in a frenzy of violence reminiscent of the rites of the Maenads, the virgins from the hills, who lure King Pentheus to a remote place and there rip him apart in The Bacchae by Euripides. JT's clothes are ripped from him by the angry women. But this is the Midlands, so they only tear off his inspector's jacket. Then he is forced to choose one of the women as his bride; he chooses Annie and this immediately placates the other girls but Annie is left unsatisfied; the revenge turns sour for her.

This is a fascinating little story whose core seems to be borrowed from Euripides but whose ending is all DHL. It is a powerful ending. The man is humiliated, all the girls protest they don't want him (although each of them "hoped he would look at her. All except Annie, and something was broken in her.") But revenge has gone horribly wrong: "The girls were all anxious to be off. They were tidying themselves hurriedly, with mute, stupefied faces." Brilliant!

Monkey nuts is a strange tale of a romance between a private soldier and a land girl. She wants him but he is too shy (?) to meet her. He is positively rude to her. When she forces the issue he walks out with her every evening but returns every evening late. "He was sullen, taciturn and had a hang-dog look" This continues until his corporal quizzes him about what's wrong and he says "There'll be murder done one of these days." Shortly after, he is rude to the land girl and she never comes back. It is a very odd tale which leaves a lot of questions in the reader's mind.

The Wintry Peacock is narrated in the first person. 'I' meet a woman on a farm who asks 'me' to read a letter written in French to her husband. I realise it is a love letter and make up details about the baby that has been born, concealing the fact that this woman's soldier husband, due home soon, has fathered a French child. Later I meet the soldier. The wife has burnt the letter and he asks what it said. There is a feeling of male conspiracy in adultery.

The Blind Man lives with his wife since returning, sightless, from the war. Their love and his blindness has brought them extra intimacy and real depth to their passion; however, he still has days of deep and feral depression. Now she is pregnant and worried about the impact the child will have on their marriage.

A childhood friend of hers comes visiting. Before the war, her husband and her old friend didn't get on but the blind man recommends the visit. When the other man is there however, things are strained. The other man is a very reserved man, virginal, unable to drop his reserve long enough to let a woman close to him. On the visit the blind man goes out to the farming shed and, it being late, the visitor goes to look for him. The two of them talk and the blind man asks to feel his visitor's face and asks his visitor to feel his. This tactile communion makes the blind man feel that they have become friends but shatters the visitor. As the last line says: "He was like a mollusk whose shell is broken."

Matilda and Emmie are spinsters, living with their dying father. They expect to get £10,000 each when he dies and this means there expectations are rather too good for the craftsmen and labourers in the town. Their foster-brother, a charity boy who left them five years ago to go to Canada and has since served in the Great War, comes to the house. They fear that he is after a share in the will; he sits often with their dying father. One night, Matilda goes to her father's bedroom, forgetting that her father is sleeping downstairs, being sick, and that Hadrian, the charity boy, is sleeping in the father's room. She approaches the bed, asking if he is asleep, and touches the boy. She is horrified when she realises her mistake but he decides that he will marry her. He suggests this to the father who alters his will so that, unless Matilda marries Hadrian, Hadrian will get the entire fortune. She protests to Hadrian who says: "You Touched Me." Despite her reluctance, she is forced to marry him.

Part of the power of this writer is his keen observations. In Samson and Delilah a man returns to his abandoned wife after fifteen years. She persuades the soldiers billeted on her to tie him up and throw him out, but she leaves a door open for when he sneaks back in. In The Primrose Path a man returns from Australia; his abandoned wife is dying of consumption but he has another family now. And in Fanny and Annie, lady's maid Fanny comes home after a number of affairs to marry the craftsman who has waited (or at least stayed single) for her. In church a neighbour denounces him for getting her daughter pregnant so they are all naughty really. These stories are much of a muchness but it is the acuity of the observation that charms.

Firmly rooted in working life and especially the Midlands.

Powerful prose. He takes a few key words and repeats them to hammer the images home. Not exactly subtle and, once you start seeing the repetitions, rather distracting. But undeniably powerful.

Many of the characters behave in inexplicable and even paradoxical ways. It is as if Lawrence is saying that he is a writer of what real people actually do; I don't try to analyse or understand them. 

Some absolutely beautiful observations and very fresh descriptions.

A powerful writer with a very distinctive voice. January 2016; 190 pages

"Hothouse" by Brian Aldiss

This book was, according to wikipedia, originally assembled from five novellas and I think this shows. It starts exploring the predicament of a tribe of humans living on a branch of a giant banyan tree in a world where the sun is swelling preparatory to going nova and predatory plants are the dominant species. This is a fantastic concept and Aldiss devotes much imagination to cacti that shoot their needles, giant spider like plants that crawl on threads between the earth and the moon, monstrous venus fly traps and pitcher plants and the huge variety of ways that, in such an environment, vegetation could feed, escape becoming food, and reproduce.

The first section ends with the elders of the tribe travelling to the moon and mutating, leaving the squabbling youngsters behind. The rest of the book focuses on the fortunes of Gren, a rare (and reckless) man child, who becomes infected by a fungus and, in a symbiosis, develops intelligence.

But the problem with the book is that it is about things rather than people. Although the characters of Gren and his varying female companions are explored, the main interest in the book lies in how the characters overcome their hostile environment. There is quite a bit of explication as to the weird species Aldiss has explored but there is very little drama developed from the characters. I therefore found it rather boring.

Could have been brilliant. January 2016; 206 pages

Friday, 22 January 2016

"The Uncanny" by Nicholas Royle

For an academic book this is astonishingly readable and incredibly daring. The chapter on The Double is illustrated by comparing his own, unpublished novel with the writing of a published novelist who shares his name. His chapter on film consists of staccato paragraphs with pizzicato sentences. Each paragraph on the mole (both underground and blemishing the skin) is contained within parentheses.

This man can write. But what is he writing about?

Essentially, this book is a commentary upon and a footnote to, Freud's essay The Uncanny.

Each chapter heading excited me: The Sandman, The death drive, Buried alive, deja vu, The double, The private parts of Jesus Christ etc. I thought this was going to be an exploration of these themes within the genre of Gothic fiction and horror films. It was mostly about Freud. There was so much more that could have been done.

There were some fascinating bits. For example, he quotes from the famous Hamlet soliloquy the lines:
The undiscover'd country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns
noting the potential wordplay between bourn and born and asks what a 'bourn' is? He quotes the definition from the New Shorter OED: "a boundary (between fields, etc.); a frontier" as well as two definitions deriving from a misunderstanding of this line in Shakespeare. So a bourn is a threshold, a limin (which raised substantial interest for me since I am researching liminality within education). And this prompts him to ask: what are the limits of death? (p 233)

He points out that in The Rocking Horse Winner by DHLawrence the death drive is linked to telepathy.

He points out that as God has disappeared in the west so narrators in fiction are less likely to be omniscient (pp 258 - 259). Telepathy emerges as omniscience disappears (p 261) although there has been "sympathetic clairvoyance" before telepathy (p 260)

Also in Hamlet, Royle points out that the play starts with the guard wishing one another 'good night' three times in the first twenty lines; at the end of the play when Hamlet dies, Horatio says: "Good night, sweet prince". Neat symmetry!

These were some fascinating moments but I might have done better just to have read the Freud.


  • "Something comes back because in some sense it was never properly there in the first place." (p 84)
  • "The aim of all life is death." (p 84)
  • "If silence is golden there will have been something deadly about its glitter." (p 86)
  • "The death drive has to do with the figure of a woman" especially a silent woman as in Cordelia in Lear 'Love and be silent' Act 1 scene 1, 54

January 2016

Friday, 15 January 2016

"Dubliners" by James Joyce

Dubliners is a book of short stories written by the incomparable James Joyce, master of language, and published in 1914.

Cliffs Notes has a full glossary for Dubliners here:

The Sisters
This is narrated by a boy who lives with his uncle and aunt and concerns the death of an old priest who had taught the boy, of whom the boy was fond. He has expected the priest's death but hears the news from Old Cotter who hints that there was something wrong about his relationship with the priest. The next day he goes with his aunt to the house and meets Nannie and Eliza, the sisters of the title (and the sisters of the deceased priest), who talk about the events leading to the priest's death.

Joyce is brilliant at authentic dialogue. He uses no obvious markers for dialect but you can hear the Irish in phrases such as:

  • Education is all very fine and large
  • Ah, there's no friends like the old friends ... when all is said and done, no friends that a body can trust
  • So one night he was wanted for to go on a call

He is also a master of tantalising. In the third paragraph Old Cotter says that "there was something uncanny" about the priest but it is not till the end of the story we discover the incident that made Cotter think this. On the second page, the narrator remarks that "I knew that I was under observation" but he fails to say why.

He is also the master of description. The priest takes snuff but his hand trembles and he spills it. The narrator is distracted from prayer because he notices the old woman's clothing: "how clumsily her skirt was hooked at the back and how the heels of her cloth boots were trodden down all to one side."

He can also say things without saying them. Eliza tells how Father O'Rourke took charge of everything, including the insurance and when 'my aunt' says "wasn't that good of him" Eliza shakes her head and says:  "Ah, there's no friends like the old friends ... when all is said and done, no friends that a body can trust". Clearly Eliza doesn't trust Father O'Rourke!

And Joyce beautifully mixes modes. The news of the death, a spiritual passage, is delivered by a man puffing on his pipe to a boy eating his stirabout. His uncle's speech contrasts the physical (boxing, taking exercise, cold baths) with the spiritual (Rosicrucian, Education). And why does the narrator tiptoe into the room where the corpse lies, why does he worry that eating crackers might make too much noise, why, after Eliza has talked of her brother's breakdown, does she stop and listen, as if the corpse will make a comment?

In An Encounter two schoolboys play truant and encounter a strange man who talks of boys and sweethearts and of whipping bad boys and how he would like to whip a boy, "there was nothing in this world he would like so well as that."

Again, this isn't really a story, for nothing is resolved; it is more of a vignette. But Joyce sketches pictures so compellingly.

I liked the way he used adjectives: one only to a noun. Because he can only use one adjective it has to be exactly the right one. When each noun has its own perfect adjective, the paragraph is painted with the apparent minimum of artifice.

I loved the ending. The narrator has to make an excuse to get away from the weird man; he calls his friend who comes to him. "He ran as if to bring me aid. And I was penitent; for in my heart I had always despised him a little." At the end of a story about one thing, a single sentence opens up a new dimension to explore.

In Araby a young boy fancies a girl. She isn't allowed to go the Araby bazaar at the weekend so he promises he will go and bring something back for her. But his uncle (he lives with his uncle and aunt) forgets and returns home late and he can only get to the bazaar when it is closing. It isn't as magical as it seems, the man at the turnstile looks weary, many stalls are closed, the lights are going off, the lady who asks if he wants to buy anything is not encouraging. He buts nothing

This is a poignant story; we have all experienced the timidity of youth. But it is also about how are illusions about the world of adulthood are destroyed by the mundaneness of reality.

Ironically, Joyce turns the everyday into magic with his pitch-perfect descriptions. The girl he admires can make him tingle with excitement: "my body was like a harp and her gestures were like fingers running upon the wires." Streets flare, street-singers chant nasally, cold air stings and houses on either side of a street "gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces." The perfect adjective turns prose to poetry.

I know this feeling! In Eveline "she looked around the room, reviewing all its familiar objects which she had dusted once a week for so many years, wondering where on earth all the dust came from." In wonder if Joyce knew that it was mostly from her own dead skin cells, discarded and shed when they were no longer needed. That would be a story!

The woman considers leaving the house in which she grew up, leaving her job at the Stores, leaving her father who has always been angry since his wife died and who makes her life so hard, to run away with Frank, a sailor, on the boat to Buenos Aires. She gets as far as the barrier but, in the end, she cannot leave it all behind.

After the Race follows the fortune of Jimmy Doyle, a young Irishman, "too excited to be genuinely happy", who is honoured to be riding in the back of a French car in the race; his rich butcher father intends that he shall invest in the car salesroom that the driver intends to start. The young men (there are two others, and later and fifth and a sixth) celebrate the race and one thing leads to another and they drink and party and drink and row out to a yacht and drink and make speeches and have a little supper and drink and gamble. And of course Doyle loses.

This is Joyce being political. In the opening paragraph, the spectators "raised the cheer of the gratefully oppressed"; they cheer for their friends, the French. Doyle's father, when young, was "an advanced Nationalist" but "modified his views" in order to make money, including from police contracts. Doyle, while drunk, "made a speech, a long speech" which "must have been a good speech" because they clapped when he sat down and they together drink toasts to "Ireland, England, France, Hungary, the United States of America." But in the end the losers are the American and the Irishman. This is about how Ireland is gulled and cheated and taken advantage of.

In Two Gallants, Lenehan, a man with no obvious means of support who often sponges drinks in pubs, is admiring Corley who is boasting about a romantic conquest he has made, a tart who brings him presents. Corley meets her and Lenehan has to kill the time until he returns from his escapade. He is hungry so he goes into a working-man's cafe and, after enquiring the price, buys a plate of peas and a ginger beer. He wonders if Corley has transacted his business with the "slavey". He talks to other friends and wanders around until it is time to meet up with Corley again. He sees Corley with the woman and has a premonition that the mission has failed. At last he meets up with Corley to discover...

Another beautiful story told with perfect observation. The down at heel gentility of the men, desperate to try anything, is at perfect odds with the description of them as gallants. Their characters are beautifully described. The twist comes in the very last line and makes you reappraise the situation perfectly. But the magic of the prose is the perfect way in which he describes everything. This is a really thin story, as underfed as Lenehan, but each detail is perfectly placed. You can build your own story (which he destroys at the end) exactly because he has laid the foundations so carefully. My favourite moment is when Lenehan watches Corley and the unnamed girl returning and observes how "Corley's head ... turned at every moment towards the young woman's face like a big ball revolving on a pivot." This moment of exquisite observation puts Corley perfectly as the supplicant while offering a dehumanised analogy. Wonderful.

Mrs Mooney who runs The Boarding House watches as her daughter, Polly, flirts with Mr Doran. When she judges that he is in so deep that he must marry, she asks to see her. The best description in this relatively simple tale is of the breakfast table at the boarding house: "covered with plates on which lay yellow streaks of eggs with morsels of bacon-fat and bacon-rind"

A Little Cloud follows Little Chandler; he has met his old pal Ignatius Gallaher who is now a journalist in London back in Dublin for a few days to patronise his old mates. Chandler wishes he were like his old friend and is resentful; surely he could have done better for himself. He goes home to his wife and has to look after the baby while she pops out for a few groceries; the child cries and Chandler is angry at which point it starts to scream. She is accusing when she returns and he cries secret tears of remorse.

Surely only Joyce could write about posh women in "noisy dresses" who "caught up their dresses, when they touched earth, like alarmed Atlantas" thus mingling acute observation of human foibles with myth. Or write about slum housing as "a band of tramps, huddled together along the river-banks ... stupefied by the panorama of sunset."

Deoc an doruis is Irish Gaelic for 'a drink at the door' ie the last drink before parting.

"Stupefied by the panorama of sunset". What a phrase!

Counterparts. Farrington is a clerk in an office. He has failed to finish copying some correspondence and is hauled over the coals by his boss who is physically much smaller and weaker than him. When he returns to his place he needs a drink and sneaks out of the office; he is a little tipsy when he returns and cannot concentrate properly; he sends the paperwork up to his boss incomplete. Found out, he resorts too cheek and is forced to apologise. That evening he pawns his watch for some drinks. He has a good time but he is defeated by a younger man in arm wrestling.Drunk, angry and resentful he returns home to find his wife out and his son, one of five children, who is supposed to cook Farrington his dinner has let the fire go out. As he beats his son with his stick the boy cries: "I'll say a Hail Mary for you, pa, if you don't beat me ... I'll say a Hail Mary ..."

Pathetic. Empathy.

In Clay, Maria, who works at the laundry, has the evening off to see her family; it is not clear whether she is a sister, an aunt or a mother. She takes them plumcake but it is stolen from her by a man in a tram. Because it is Hallow Eve they play games: she is blindfolded and made to feel something squidgy but the room goes quiet and when she tries again she finds a prayer book. She sings a song and Joe, her brother, nephew or son, is moved to tears.

A Painful Case follows Mr James Duffy, a bank clerk who leads a quiet life with his work, his lunch, his dinner and his books. One day he meets a married woman with her daughter; over the next few months he meets the mother more and more and more until she betrays the idea that she wants something physical and he breaks it off. She is interested in his thought and his writing and asks why he doesn't publish and he tells her he would not "submit himself to the criticisms of an obtuse middle class which entrusted its morality to policemen and its fine arts to impresarios."

Four years later he reads in the paper of her death, run over by a train, possibly suicide. He walks in the Park and sees the recumbent bodies of lovers at the bottom of the slope "in the shadow of the wall". He realises that "he was an outcast from life's feast." He realises that he will die unmourned, unremembered. It ends when the feeling he has had that she is somehow with him ends. "He could not feel her near him in the darkness nor her voice touch his ear. He waited for some minutes listening. He could hear nothing: the night was perfectly silent. He listened again: perfectly silent. He felt that he was alone."

It's a wonderful end. When her spirit leaves him you feel that he might be at peace but then the final sentence condemns him to the hell of loneliness.

Ivy Day in the Committee Room starts with O'Connor warming himself by the fire which Old Jack, the steward, is struggling to keep going; O'Connor should be out canvassing for Tricky Dicky Tierney but it is cold and wet so he is skiving off, although he still has hopes of being paid. Old Jack is worried about his drunkard nineteen-year-old son. Hynes arrives and argues with Old Jack about the relative merits of Tierney, a publican, and Colgan, a "good, honest bricklayer". Colgan, Hynes opines, will not toady up to Edward Rex (Edward VII is to visit Dublin, setting the story before 1907). Now Henchy, another canvasser for Tierney, arrives; he is also worried about whether Tierney will pay. Hynes goes and Henchy wonders whether he is a "spy for the other camp". Father Keon comes in; he is very timid and looking for Fanning; when invited to come in or to sit down he says "no, no, no" and he is desperate to be of no trouble. He goes. Shortly some bottles of stout arrive. The men have to borrow a corkscrew to open them and when more fellows arrive after the corkscrew is sent back they open them by putting the bottles by the fire until the cork pops out. The men start to discuss politics and remember Parnell (they wear Ivy in their buttonholes; Ivy Day, 6th October, is in memory of Irish Nationalist MP Charles Stewart Parnell who led calls for Irish Home Rule as an MP in the House of Commons until 1890 when he lost the support of the RC Church following the exposure of his long adulterous affair with Kitty O'Shea; Parnell died in 1891). At the end of the story Hynes recites a poem he has written (in iambic tetrameters) in honour of Parnell.

This story demonstrates Joyce's mastery of dialogue. The shifting population of men discuss shifting topics. What they mean is not always clear from what they say but what they say reveals something of their inner thoughts. Many of the sentences are constructed so as to suggest their dialect:

  • "Fanning has such a loan of him"
  • "I'm greatly afraid our friend is not nineteen carat."
  • "Only I'm an old man now I'd change his tune for him."
  • "in all my vermin"

The secret is to add a word that is out of place or to tweak the word order of the sentence so that what might otherwise be a cliche becomes fresh and new and noticeable. He also does this with his descriptions, eg "Imminent little drops of rain hung at the brim of his hat". Another technique he enjoys is to conjoin two contradictory things: Old Jack has a bony, hairy face with moist eyes and a moist mouth. O'Connor speaks in a "husky falsetto". The apologetic priest "opened his very long mouth suddenly to express disappointment and at the same time opened wide his very bright blue eyes to express pleasure and surprise". The priest himself is enigmatic: as a representative of the Church who brought down Parnell and so split the Nationalists, he should be expected to be dominant rather than submissive; the men don't know what he stands for.

Mrs Kearney is A Mother. She is determined that her daughter should be paid the eight guineas agreed to accompany verious singers at the four Irish Revival concerts. But Mt Holohan and Mr Fitzpatrick are hopeless organisers and they simply haven't drawn in the customers. The first two concerts happens, feeless, and the third is cancelled but Mrs Kearney will not permit anyone onstage at the fourth concert until her daughter is paid. At last four pounds are produced but in the end the standoff backfires; it is doubted that Miss Kearney will ever get another booking in Dublin. So the incompetent flourish at the expense of the righteously indignant.

Mr Kearney is a shadowy figure but we learn, delightfully, that "his conversation, which was serious, took place at intervals in his great brown beard."

A man is found bleeding at the foot of some stairs in a bar. The barmen (Joyce calls the 'curates') help to revive him and he is put into a cab and taken home; it appears that his wife and children have been waiting for him to bring home some money. So his friends decide to persuade him to go back to church, hoping that he will then lead a better life. Most of this short story is taken up with them promoting their subterfuge at his bedside.

Wonderful phrases include:

  • "The ring of onlookers distended and closed again elastically" (at the moment when medical attention is required!
  • "His line of life had not been the shortest distance between two points." Whose is?
  • "M'Coy, who wanted to enter the conversation by any door, pretended that he had never heard the story." We've all done this!
  • "He took up the bottle and helped others to a little more, Mr M'Coy, seeing that there was not enough to go round, pleaded that he had not finished his first measure. The others accepted under protest." We all know someone like M'Coy.
The Dead starts with the sentence: "Lily, the caretaker's daughter, was literally run off her feet." which makes it an early misuse of the word 'literally'. It concerns a Christmas party where relatives and friends gather and relax and enjoy music, food, dancing and drink together. But there is always an undercurrent of tension. Freddy is drunk when he arrives and is only encouraged by the hard-drinking Mr Browne. Gabriel, the star of the party, quarrels with Miss Ivors who has decided political views; she leaves the party early. Lily the maid is bitter about men trying to take advantage of her although we never learn any details behind a moment's outburst. And Gabriel's wife, Gretta, whom he adores ("A sudden tide of joy went leaping out of his heart") is mourning for the love of her life, a young boy who loved her when she was a fresh maid; he died. It seems that Joyce is saying that we are all palimpsests: behind all that we say and do now are the memories of the people we have known and the people we have been.

Irish fiction reviewed in this blog:
  • Strumpet City by James Plunkett: a book about the poor in Dublin in the early 20th Century
  • Teacher Man by Frank McCourt: the sequel to Angela's Ashes: an Irish exile in New York
  • Dubliners by James Joyce: the classic short stories
  • Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgworth: a classic first published in 1800
  • Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle: a boy grows up in Ireland
  • The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan: set in the recession of the early 21st Century

Sunday, 10 January 2016

"What Maisie Knew" by Henry James

Henry James is so challenging to read: his sentences are so long, with so many commas, that, given the proliferation of clauses, not to mention sub-clauses, makes it difficult, sometimes nigh impossible, to read while ensuring that the sense of the sentiment, given the difficulty of remembering the start of the sentence as one approaches the end, is understood.

Delightfully, What Maisie Knew starts before chapter one as James describes the circumstances of the bitter divorce between Maisie's father and her mother which leads to Maisie, like Persephone (is this whole book a metaphor for the seasons?), spending six months with one followed by six months with the other. When Chapter One begins, it is told from Maisie's point of view.

Of course Maisie is a child so her understanding is imperfect and James is able to use this device for developing an increasing understanding in the reader of the characters. Thus we are early introduced to Maisie's nurse Moddle, who protests to her father: "You ought to blush, sir, for the way you go on!" We realise, though Maisie does not, that her father is a bit of a philanderer and this is confirmed when her mother's companion, Miss Overmore, meets Maisie's father in the park, subsequently defects to his household (protesting that she is doing this because she cannot bear to be parted from Maisie) and later marries Maisie's father. At which discovery we also discover that her mother, while abroad, has married a Sir Claude.

All of this is told with very little dialogue and long paragraphs of description. But then the first act of the story (25% of the way through) is complete.

At which point things become more exciting. As Maisie gets older she learns more about the actions (though not the motives) of the actors. She is very scared of having no one to look after her so she attaches herself to Sir Claude, her new step-father. At the same time her governess, Miss Wix, realises that without Maisie she will have no position and so begins to manoeuvre herself to end up with Maisie no matter what; Miss Wix also seems to fancy Sir Claude. But Sir Claude has met Mrs Beale (who was Miss Overmore) and possibly begins an affair with her. At the same time Maisie's father and mother, swiftly growing bored of their new spouses, spend more and more time away. This leaves Maisie more and more with Mrs Wix and Sir Claude; whilst with Sir Claude she meets one of her mother's transient lovers in Regent's Park; whilst at Earl's Court she meets the Countess, her father's latest squeeze (and funder).

There are parts of this novel when you really get a sense of Maisie as a poor little girl shunted from pillar to post between fickle adults, becoming a little precocious as a result. But then James spoils it all with another chapter of page-long paragraphs. And in the end, given that Maisie doesn't understand fully what is going on, and given that nobody states their position fully but only hints at improprieties, I found the intricacies too complex to appreciate. On page 166, Mrs Wix admits: "I hope then, he understood you. It's more than I do!" and I have added 'Me too.'

There are delightful moments. Maisie realised that Mrs Wix "had sidled and ducked her way through life" (p 51)(although she doesn't seem to appreciate what that means so that she can use that knowledge later; lower class is still lower class). She also realises "Mamma doesn't care for me" (p 57) and can usually use this knowledge to discern humbug in an adult. Mamma's neckline indicates urgency: "the lower the bosom was cut the more ... she was wanted elsewhere" (ie not with Maisie) (p 59) And Mamma has a delightful male friend whose eyebrows are so bushy that Maisie thinks they are moustaches! (p 61) The fact is that all the adults Maisie knows, even the adored Sir Claude, are weak and lie.

James understood the psychology of the unwanted child: she is desperate for love, is easily taken in by the protestations of love from adults, and is ready to accept that it is she who is at fault for being unloveable. The psychology of the adults who profess to adore Maisie is rather more difficult to understand, except for the real parents who view Maisie simply as a weapon to hurt their ex.

There were times when I really enjoyed the book but there were times when the complicated sentences swamped me. There were times when I saw it all from Maisie's point of view and there were times when I thought that no child could possibly say things and do things with this level of awareness.
Jury's out.

January 2016; 216 pages

Spurgin, 2006 (lecture published by The Great Courses; The Teaching Company) suggests that James is influenced by George Eliot (especially Middlemarch), Ivan Turgenev (Smoke; Fathers and SonsJames
"admired the sharpness of Turgenev's character studies, praising the author's minutely psychological attitude"; they both started with a character rather than a plot) and Gustave Flaubert (Madame Bovary). He thought that novelists should be (high brow) artists rather than entertainers or moralists. His final phase  "helped to pave the way for modernist novels" by Joyce, Woolf, and Faulkner.

Selected poems by Robert Browning

Browning is a lyrical poet who almost always employs a strict (and sometimes complex) metre and usually an even stricter rhyming pattern. This can sometimes lead to distortions in his verses where he chooses one word above another in order to fit. It can also lead to the rhythm running away with the sense; it is easy to get hypnotised by iambic pentameters especially when ploughing through some of the very long poems that Browning sometimes wrote.

Browning is quite distinctive in his love for narrative poems, especially told from a single person's point of view. These poems are almost like mini novels with an emphasis on exploring character. The best example is probably My Last Duchess, a short story with quite a twist.

Browning's third characteristic is his love of using poetry to explore philosophical and theological points as in Caliban on Setebos, Fra Lippo Lippi etc. There is very little in the nature of 'oh my gosh how beautiful that flower is' sort of poetry. From what I have read, he was a bit of a Epicurean, believing that it is natural and right to derive pleasure from such things as sex and alcohol etc, providing one does not over-indulge which causxes unpleasant consequences; he would have had little time for stiff-lipped Puritans.

Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister
This is a nice piece of dramatic verse; the protagonist is a monk who hates Brother Lawrence. It captures well the petty emnities and spites that must arise when a group of people live together for a long while in a confinded space, be they ever so holy.

Brother Lawrence is a gardener and never stops talking about it. The protagonist hints that he had committed one or two acts of sabotage: snapping a lily and 'close-nipping' buds to prevent fruit forming. He would sell his soul to Satan if he could blast a rose-acacia and get away with it (by ensuring redemption in the small print that Satan wouldn't bother to read).

The fourth verse hints that the narrator may slyly fancy "brown Dolores": he admires the hair she is washing but he ascribes the lustful feelings to an even slyer Brother Lawrence who, on the face of it, seems untouched by the woman's beauty.

It is written in verses of eight lines in length with an ABABCDCD rhyming pattern. Rhythmically the verses are divided into four pairs; the first of each pair being a trochaic tetrameter and the second of each pair a trochaic tetrameter with catalectic subtraction (the dropping of the unstressed last syllable); this is a sort of ballad form. I rather like the fifth line of the fifth verse "I the Trinity illustrate" where this rhythm is thrown out of the window, firstly for the important word Trinity and secondly for illustrate which would have the 'lust' stressed if the rhythm was followed; this seems a great way of hiding a deadly sin!

Love Among the Ruins
Shades of Ozymandias. The narrator stands among the ruins of a mighty empire, now a treeless waste; in these ruins a girl "with eager eyes" waits for him.

It is written in an interesting metre: each verse contains 6 pairs of lines which operate a little like a call-and-response. The first line of the pair is eleven syllables long, stressed on the 4th, 8th and 11th, thus: diddy dum di, diddy dum di, diddy dum. The second line of the pair echoes the end of the first line being three syllables: diddy dum. The second line often comments on the previous line:
When I do come, she will speak not, she will stand,
Either hand
On my shoulder, give her eyes the first embrace
Of my face,
Ere we rush, ere we extinguish sight and speech
Each on each.

The bits about the soldiers marching and the king commanding are a little like stock images from a MGM blockbuster but the bits about the girl and her anticipated love are beautiful.

A Toccata of Galuppi's has an unvarying metrical scheme of three line stanzas in which each line within the stanza rhymes and beats thus: diddy dum di, diddy dum di, diddy dum di, dum di dum.Addressed to a player of the clavichord, it considers the social butterflies in Venice dancing at their balls and making love. But death haunts them. And the narrator can still hear the ghostly toccatas of Galuppi:
In you come with your cold music till I creep thro' every nerve

On the face of it this is a spooky poem: classic Gothic with death stalking the dancers at the party. But Browning turns it into a social commentary. Are the dancers doomed? Are butterflies too superficial to have a soul:
What of soul was left, I wonder, when the kissing had to stop?

Because if you want to live forever you have to have a soul.
The soul, doubtless, is immortal - where a soul can be discerned

Wow. Just keeping that demanding rhythm and rhyme structure going demonstrates Browning's technical virtuosity. But also he uses perfectly selected words to prevent his structure becoming a strait jacket and suffocating the life out of the poem. And then he turns a beautifully described Gothic nightmare into a sneering commentary on superficiality. That is bloody brilliant.

Respectability has three stanzas, each of eight lines: the first seven lines are essentially iambic tetrameters, although there are some trochees at the start of the first verse, followed by a last line which is an iambic trimeter. It has an ABBACDDC rhyming scheme. In the first two stanzas the sixth line also has an internal rhyme.

The poem seems to be about respectability. Browning seems to say that he and his lover have wasted too much time conforming to societal expectations of respectable courtship rather than enjoying elemental passion:
How much of priceless life were spent ...
Ere we dare wander, nights like this, 
Thro' wind and rain, and watch the Seine,

I find the final verse difficult. It starts with the nice image: he is allowed to caress her lips with his finger ... providing he wears a glove. But then he talks about Guizot (according to wikipedia he was an important conservative politician under Louis Phillipe, rising to become Prime Minister of France) and Montalembert (presumably the French historian and politician) which mean absolutely nothing to me. The last line is terribly disappointing. Not only is it the worst rhyme in the poem (foot with Institute) which might be OK if it looked like a deliberate false rhyme but also it the rhyme, such as it is, is contrived by mangling the word order of the expression 'Put you best foot forward'. I hate it when poets change natural English just so they can achieve a rhyme.

Love in a Life has a complicated metrical structure and a rhyming pattern of ABCDDABC. There are only two verses.

The narrator is searching through a house for the signs his love has left behind: a breath of her perfume, the mirror which saw her feather. Is she dead? He talks of the two of them inhabiting the house in the present tense and yet he never seems to find her: "she goes out as I enter". But he sticks to his task: there is so much to search.

Life in a Love has an even more complicated structure. There are three very short lines at the start which rhyme with the three short lines at the end: ABCABC. In between there are three sets of four tetrameter lines with an ABBA rhyme structure.

It seems to be about a man chasing the woman he loves, who is not so keen to be caught. He suffers momentary self-doubt in the best section of the poem:
My life is a fault at last, I fear: 
It seems too much like a fate, indeed!
Though I do my best I shall scarce succeed.
But what if I fail of my purpose here?
But he ends with the certainty that even if he fails he will persevere.

Memorabilia is made of verses of 4 lines with an ABAB rhyming pattern. The metre is iambic tetrameter for the first three lines with a fourth iambic trimeter though there are a number of feminine endings and the third verse has anapests.

I hated the first line
Ah, did you once see Shelley plain
which mangles the standard 'did you plainly see Shelley' for the sake of the rhyming scheme.

The poem tells of a meeting with the great Shelley and how live seemed to revolve around that point. The narrator can't remember the moor he was walking across except for the moment he encountered greatness. Perhaps the moor with its aporiatic hint of wilderness is a metaphor for life.

My Last Duchess is one of Browning's best known (and perhaps best) poems. Written in heroic couplets, a Duke talks to a visitor about the portrait of his dead wife. It is a remarkable likeness:
Looking as if she were alive ...
As he talks we find that she enjoyed compliments and this aroused his jealousy (although he never says this directly; the especial charm of the poem is that he never says anything directly; we read between the lines). She was grateful to all for everything and he felt that she treated his gift of his title in the same way as any other gift, eg

The bough of cherries some officious fool

Broke in the orchard for her...
But what could he do? He feels that even to have protested or to have reprimanded her was beneath his dignity. So
...I gave commands
Then all smiles stopped together ...

This is immediately followed by a caesura, slicing the line in half:
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive ...
and the echo of the word alive from the start of the poem suddenly takes on a sinister meaning.

And immediately he turns to the business he has with his visitor whose master, the Count, has a daughter whom the narrator wishes to marry.

I as the reader want to shout out: go back to the Count and tell him to take his daughter as far away as possible and fast because this man has killed his last Duchess and may well kill again!

But no one has ever mentioned killing. The poem starts by celebrating how generous the Duchess was with her smiles. It is only our imagination that has created the scenario of jealousy and murder.

This is a wonderful poem.

Porphyria's Lover is constructed in iambic tetrameters with a five  line rhyming scheme ABABB though these do not really constitute verses for there is frequent enjambment between verses.

Porphyria  comes in out of the cold and makes the fire to warm the cottage up and then calls me, her lover. I don't reply. And she snuggles up to me, although she is
Too weak, for all her heart's endeavour,
To set its struggling passion free
From pride, and vainer ties dissever,
And give herself to me for ever.
But she has come tonight.
...at last I knew
Porphyria worshipped me; surprise
Made my heart swell, and still it grew
While I debated what to do.
So he strangles her with her hair.
Porphyria's love: she knew not how
Her darling one wish would be heard.
And thus we sit together now,
And all night long we have not stirred,
And yet God has not said a word!

So what happened. Was her lover waiting for her in the cold cottage? Why did he not speak when she called to him? I think her lover was her death, lying ready for her in the cold cottage, and she came there to seek her own death. I think being strangled by her own hair is a metaphor for hanging herself.

On the other hand, the lover may be some sort of invalid who cannot make up his (or her?) own fire or answer Porphyria when she calls to him (or her!). He (or she) may be a psychopath or a Schizophrenic (listening for God's voice inside his head in the final line) or a fetishist obsessed by Porphyria's hair. Madness is indicated by the title (which was originally just Porphyria); the disease porphyria was described shortly before Browning wrote the poem and one of its symptoms is acute photosensitivity which would explain why the lover was hiding in the cottage; sufferers from porphyria may suffer from mental delusions.

But I think she killed herself.

A Likeness
This poem is very free with the rhythm and the rhyming scheme is complex and chaotic.

Some people hang portraits up
In a room where they dine or sup
it starts, and from there Browning imagines conversations around the portrait and how people react to it.

Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came is written in 6-line verses of iambic pentameter with a rhyming scheme of ABBAAB.

It takes its immediate inspiration from Edgar in King Lear who, in the disguise as Tom o'Bedlam, sings:
Childe Rowland to the dark tower came,
His word was still: Fie, foh and fum,
I smell the blood of a British man.
which last bit is, of course, the cry of the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk. Moreover Rowland (also called Orlando) is the eponymous hero of The Song of Roland, the epic poem about the champion of Charlemagne who is killed fighting overwhelming odds at the Battle of Roncesvalles when he refuses to blow his horn to summon help until it is too late. So this is in Browning's poem too.

The Dark Tower seems to be a place both dreaded and desired so that the poem seems to describe a quest like that for the grail.

At the start, the narrator doubts that the man who told him the way to go spoke honestly; he thinks perhaps the "hoary cripple" was posted at the junction to mislead travellers and send them
Into the ominous tract which, all agree,
Hides the Dark Tower.
But the traveller is weary after years of travel and has come to prefer failure because hope has
Dwindled into a ghost not fit to cope
With that obstreperous joy success would bring

As soon as he goes on the path to the tower he looks behind (always fatal in myth, eg Orpheus and Eurydice and Lot's wife) and the road has vanished leaving just a "grey plain", a desert in which nothing grew. This sounds very like the blasted land of the Fisher King in the Grail romances:
As for the grass, it grew as scant as hair
In leprosy
and a horse, stiff and blind, not dead but might as well be dead
Thrust out past service from the devil's stud!
like the visual shorthand used in films for deserts in which everything will die.

Now the traveller things of his old comrades: disgraced Cuthbert and Giles, hanged as a traitor.

He comes across a river and he fords it, frightened of stepping on a drowned corpse. A little further and he comes across ruined tools which, he speculates, were used to kill:
that harrow fit to reel
Men's bodies out like silk
One of these engines is "Tophet's tool"; Tophet being the place near Jerusalem where the worshippers of Baal carried out child sacrifice.

He continues through the ruined landscape until he realises that there is nothing to aim for:
And just as far as ever from the end!
Nought in the distance but the evening, nought
To point my footsteps further!
This seems a despairing acknowledgement of the futility of life. And at this thought a devil's bird flaps past.

And suddenly the plain has turned into a mountainscape; there are mountains all around him and he realises that he is trapped.

Then he recognises that this is the place he has been searching for. The Tower:
The round squat turret, blind as the fool's heart,
Built of brown stone, without a counterpart
In the whole world.

And around him the hills are thronged with the lost companions of his quest.
There they stood, ranged along the hillsides, met
To view the last of me, a living frame
For one more picture! in a sheet of flame
I saw them and I knew them all. And yet
Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set,
And blew. 'Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came.'

Browning has mixed myth and dream to create a liminal landscape, He has used the details of the landscape to make the dreamscape seem more real, so that we accept the magic at the end. And from this nightmare he has fashioned a poem which seems to say that life is pointless and all we can do in the face of its futility and of the friends that we will lose is to blow our trumpets.

In How it Strikes a Contemporary a man wanders around the town observing everything, recording everything and reporting everything to the King. This makes this man more powerful than the governor. Yet he lives in a smart modern house playing cribbage with his maid. It is written, more or less, in unrhymed iambic pentameters.

Confessions is nine verses, each four lines long alternating tetrameter and trimeter with a rhyming scheme of ABAB in each verse. A man dying, annoyed by the "buzzing" of a priest, is reflecting on his life:
Do I view the world as a vale of tears?
Ah, reverend sir, not I!
His last memories are of a suburb lane and a girl he used to meet:
We loved sir, - used to meet:
How sad and bad and mad it was - 
But then, how it was sweet!
Love triumphs over religion.

In Apparent Failure, a poem of seven verses, each of nine lines rhyming ABABCDCDD, the narrator, a British tourist in Paris, goes to the Morgue where the bodies drowned in the Seine are exhibited. After looking at the spectators, he views the body of three male suicides and speculates on what made them kill themselves.
The three men who did most abhor 
Their life in Paris yesterday, 
So killed themselves; and now, enthroned, 
Each on his copper couch, they lay 
Fronting me, waiting to be owned.
I thought, and think, their sin's atoned.

Poor men, God made, and all for that!

One he thinks was a tramp
Who last night tenanted on earth, 
Some arch, where twelve such slept abreast
One he thinks was a revolutionary and one a womaniser and gambler.

Cue a fit of Victorian moralising. But Browning has too much empathy for that. He hopes
That what began best, can't end worst,
Nor what God blessed once, prove accurst.

It is a nice poem.

Fra Lippo Lippi is a long poem (14.5 columns in my book; that must be about 400 lines) of iambic pentameter. The eponymous narrator has been caught by the Florentine watch in a compromising situation near some young girls; this is bad because he is, of course, a priest. He explains how he entered the monastery when he was a little boy starving on the streets and entered his vows at the age of eight. And now he is a painter, not as celebrated as Fra Angelico perhaps, but one who is particularly good at rendering people so that they recognise themselves. Which isn't always what the monks want but he has a pagtron in the Medicis. The priests say:
Give us no more of the body than shows soul!
I always see the garden and God there
A-making man's wife: and, my lesson learned,
The value and significance of flesh
This is Browning praising real everyday human beings. Fra Lippo Lippi says to the watchman:
you've seen the world
- The beauty and the wonder and the power,
The shapes of things, their colours, lights and shades,
Changes, surprises, - and God made it all!
Fra Lippo Lippi is a gossipy poem from a garrulous old man but it encapsulates the philosophy that God made the world and so the world, and life, in all its naughtiness and sometimes its grief, is good.

Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp.
Or what's a heaven for?
asks Browning in the character of another painter, Andrea del Sarto. This puts him, of course, at loggerheads with Descartes and others who proved God by Anselm's Ontological argument: God is the greatest thing that can be imagined. Since something real is greater than something imaginary, if you can imagine God then there must be an even greater God in reality. Not sure I agree. Think I go with Andrea.

I am finding Browning's longer poems rather tedious; they are not so much poems as philosophical and theological treatises in (usually) unrhymed iambic pentameters. One of the problems is that the monotony of the rhythm hypnotises me and makes me less able to appreciate the argument than if it were an essay in philosophy (and they are hard enough!). Another problem  is that in order to get the rhythm going and to stay in character and creates what is essentially a monologue masquerading as a dialogue, Browning puts in paleologisms such as "thinketh" or interjections such as "Zooks!" Which is kinda cheating.

So I skipped Bishop Blougram's Apology.

Rabbi Ben Ezra has an AABCCB rhyming scheme and a rhythm structure which is trimeter, trimeter, pentameter. trimeter, trimeter, hexameter, all more or less iambic; the pentameter variation works beautifully but the final haxameter line really jars against the rhythm of the poem which makes that line stand out as a sort of summation of the argument of the verse. Unfortunately, such lines as:
Irks care the crop-full bird? Frets doubt the maw-crammed beast?
just make it stand out as: you what?

As for the unrhymed iambic pentameters of Caliban on Setebos, I found it very difficult to concentrate. Setebos is not the name of an island as I had assumed; it is the name of the deity which Caliban's mother, the witch Sycorax, worships in the Tempest. So this poem is Caliban musing about Setebos. This is theology. I noticed it particularly because Browning uses it to refutes St Anselms's ontological argument which states, in crude summary, that we can imagine a God; we, as lesser beings, could not imagine something greater than ourselves unless it existed; therefore there is a God. Browning points out that Caliban can make a reed pipe which can make sounds that Caliban himself cannot make. Therefore God can make "things worthier than himself". Actually this happens all the time. Groups of atoms make molecules which, if not exactly worthier, operate on a different level than the atoms can; molecules make up cells; cells make organs; organs make organisms; organisms make ecosystems: nature has a way in which groups of interacting units make an organisation which operates upon a different level. On this basis it is more likely that men made God than that God made man; the ontological argument is effectively back to front.

Wanting is - What?
This poem has a first section of four short lines with an ABBA rhyme pattern followed by a middle section of 6 longer lines in rhyming couplets followed by a last section which echoes the first except that the last two syllables of the last line are repeated in a final, fifteenth line. It seems to be saying that the world is pretty damn perfect and that wanting, desire, is an attempt to frame the picture or to gild the lily. But I might have got that all the wrong way round.

Friday, 8 January 2016

"Station Eleven" by Emily St John Mandel

A novel set mostly in a post-apocalyptic world.

Actor Arthur Leander dies of a heart attack on stage in Toronto on the day that Georgian flu reaches Canada. Civilization falls apart. Twenty years later, a caravan of actors and musicians tour the shores of Lake Michigan bringing culture to the scattered settlements of survivors. But a prophet-cult threatens to disturb the fragile stability of the new world.

It starts brilliantly as, on the very first page, King Lear dies at the wrong moment and a paramedic dashes on stage. Sudden death and its shocking consequences are beautifully described. Chapter two is a brilliant conversation at the bar between the stunned actors, all talking about the same event from different viewpoints, and wondering what happens next. This chapter end with a wonderful two-line paragraph: "Of them all there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city."

And then the flu strikes.

The book now jumbles different narratives. We hear, intermittently, what happens to Jeavon, the paramedic. Miranda, Arthur's first wife, once a graphic artist but now a shipping executive, remembers how she met him and how they split. There are extracts from letters that Arthur writes to V, his oldest friend, who never wrote back and has now published them. We leap forward twenty years to learn about the New Symphony, a travelling troupe of actors and musicians who are a lovely microcosm of society, full of squabbles, petty jealousies, affections, love affairs and betrayals; this is narrated by Kirsten who as an 8 year old child actress was on stage with the dying actor. Kirsten has two keepsakes of the time before the flu: a glass paperweight and two issues of a graphic novel set in a failing planet-sized space station called Station Eleven. And towards the end we hear from Clark, Arthur's best friend, who survives the flu because his plane was diverted to an airport and the passengers abandoned there.

There are moments when this is just another post-apocalyptic novel. The detritus of civilization reminds everyone of what they have lost: abandoned cars litter the highways. The forests are full of 'ferals'; banditry stalks the roads. Although a vast number of people have been wiped out by the flu (two estimates put it at an improbable 99% or more) a surprising number of the people associated with Arthur have survived: two of his wives, his son, his best friend, the child actress and the paramedic; their stories intertwine.

But the point of the book is that 'survival is insufficient' and that you need culture too, although as one character remarks, it is ironic that the quote actually comes from Star Trek. Therefore the actors and musicians playing the classics, therefore the museum that Clark starts in the airport.

And if, in true Shakespearean style, the plot is sometimes a little contrived, the author more than makes up for it by the quality of the writing. The characters a perfectly drawn and the juxtaposition of their new world with their memories of the old world  is tenderly handled. With all such things there are questions such as how can a world living hand to mouth afford actors? But the matter of fact way in which her utterly believable characters interact and the crystal clear descriptions of their environment make it easy to suspend disbelief.

An excellent read. January 2016; 333 pages

Sunday, 3 January 2016

"Blake" by Peter Ackroyd

Having enjoyed the Songs of Experience if not the Songs of Innocence by the poet William Blake I thought I would enjoy his biography. I did.

I have read a lot of Peter Ackroyd's work before. He specialises in this sort of period, he certainly specialises in London, and he writes brilliant fiction such as Hawksmoor and great biographies (such as Dickens, and Wilkie Collins) and other non-fiction. He is exceptionally knowledgeable and sometimes has a tendency to throw every piece of his knowledge at you which can be exhilarating as you wallow in erudition but can also be exhausting.

Blake was a poet and artist who had visions of God and his angels. He was politically radical and yet his poem Jerusalem is sung at right wing establishment events such as the Conservative Party conference and the Women's Institute.

He had issues in his childhood: he seems to have been at war with mother and father and he hated one of his siblings even though his parents mostly tolerated his oddness, buying him art equipment when it became clear he would never follow the family trade, apprenticing him to an engraver, even allowing him to skip school (allegedly because could not get on with authority; he later writes that he despises education; later he was to write "What is the price of Experience do men buy it for a song/ Or wisdom for a dance in the street?" but he recognised that "A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees."). So he seems a bit of a spoiled brat.

Potential influences
He may have had an acquaintance when a young man with Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, art critic and poisoner, who "provided Dickens and Wilde with suggestive plots" (p 33).

Another influence on Blake may have been freemasonry. He was apprenticed opposite Freemason's Hall and at the time that the next-door Freemason's Tavern was being built so he may have mingled with masons. Certainly his art contains masonic symbols. (p 38)

He learned to draw the classical foot which has the "second toe more prominent than the big toe" (p 42)

As an apprentice he was commissioned to make extensive drawings of the interior of Westminster Abbey and its tombs. Ackroyd comments: "His art and poetry are filled with the images of steep steps and ancient doorways, of cloisters and arches and crypts that suggest dissolution and decay but which are also often seen as harbingers of a spiritual world" (p 45). And very Gothic! Blake was born in 1757; English Gothic fiction was born in 1764 with the Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole.

He must also have had some understanding of mediaeval theology or at least the debate about transubstantiation since he wrote: "nothing new occurs in identical existence; Accident ever varies, Substance can never suffer change nor decay".

He read Spenser, Shakespeare, Jonson and Milton; he also enjoyed Ossian and Chatterton (both literary forgers supposedly of long lost manuscripts) and Percy's Reliques of English Poetry.

As a young man he was caught up in the 1780 Gordon riots (fictionalised in Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens) and saw Newgate prison attacked, set on fire and the prisoners freed. He was also young during the great period of political radicalism that surrounded the American War of Independence; Blake associated himself with the American 'Sons of Liberty'.

He wore the bonnet rouge to imitate the revolutionaries in Paris. (p 160)

 Whilst in Felpham he was charged with sedition following an altercation with a solider; he was eventually acquitted although it is clear that his political views were dodgy given the Napoleonic Wars.

The London of the times was also one of "open sexuality and public licentiousness" (p 76); Blake himself made erotic prints and espoused (thought there is no evidence that he practised) the idea of sharing his wife with others. He seems to have disliked the passivity and softness associated with femaleness but he feared female power and domination. He made drawings of "women with huge erect phalli, old and young men in erotic poses together" (p 8); the latter may suggest homosexuality but again there is no evidence that he ever practised it.

He also drew "hermaphroditic figures with huge phalli, a woman reaching to caress the large penis of a man while masturbating with a dildo, a small boy with an erection as he watches a scene of love-making; there are also sketches of anal penetration, fellatio, defecation and group sexuality." (p 296)

The Swedenborgians emphasised sexual magic (p 136): "'nakedness corresponds to innocence'" (p 158_

One friend called on Blake to find him with his wife in the garden summer-house "reciting passages from Paradise Lost, in character" (p 157) ie as Adam and Eve, naked.

"The Ranters were believed 'to preach stark naked many blasphemies', and the Adamites went naked in order to practise 'promiscuous sexual intercourse'. The Quakers went 'naked for a sign', in accordance with the twentieth chapter of Isaiah ... There was also the contemporary doctrine of Naresim ... which associated the practice of nudity with the liberation of female sexuality." (p 158)

Blake made an engraving showing the famous Portland Vase showing "controversial scenes" ... "It was not clear whether they depicted episodes from the life of Adonis , or the re-enactment of the Eleusinian mysteries" (p 136); he also engraved Erasmus Darwin's The Botanic Garden. (p 136)

His real artistic innovation involved the way he inked plates and also the way he linked text and picture. Most of his prophetic books of poetry were written onto illustrated engraving plates so that he could print them individually; Blake thus created individualised (rarely are two the same) picture books with remarkably small print runs (in some cases there are only two extant copies). Unfortunately, this didn't sell and he was obliged to spend most of his life doing engravings for the books of other people.

He lived in Soho, mostly around Golden Square, and in Lambeth and, for two years, in a cottage in Felpham near Bognor on the South coast.When he returned to Soho he held a one man exhibition: none of the paintings were sold and he received only one, unfavourable review.

He did a commission for William Owen Pughe, a rich bloke who was one of Joanna Southcott's Elders. The picture Blake did, The Ancient Britons, has since been lost. Very Southcottian! (p 305)

In this famous picture a naked Newton sits on a rock. But, because of the way Blake inked the plates before each pressing, there are different versions: in one "Newton seems to be sitting on the sea bed, the waters of materialism around him and above him" and in another  he "seems to be sitting in a cave, like that of Plato's in which only the shadows of the ideal world can be seen." (p 199)

The Tyger
On August 18th 1783 between about 21.15 and 21.30, Blake observed the 'great meteor'. "Some observers said that it resembled a spear being hurled across the heavens, and in this period the Perseid meteor showers were known as the 'tears of St Laurence' or his 'fiery tears'." (p 82). This may be related to 'The Tiger':
When the stars threw down their spears
And water'd heaven with their tears.

He wrote the first three stanzas, tried alternatives for the fourth (which later became the fifth verse), write what became verses 4 and 6, went back to the 5th finally writing five lines, reordered the lines in this verse so that the final two became the first two and line 2 was deleted and then numbered them all in the current order. (p 146)

"The powerful concentration of the poem radiates ... from Blake's repetition of 'night'/'bright' and all the associated phonemes of 'eye, 'thine', 'aspire', 'fire', and 'tyger' itself." (p 148)

Blake used his poetry to create  unique mythology using characters such as Luvah, the "principle of sexual energy" (p 117) In one poem, Los cries out: "I must Create a System, or be enslav'd by another Mans'"

He was born into a family of dissenters (Ackroyd does not know which precise sort so, true to form, he lists all the likeliest possibilities: Theosophy, Moravians, Muggletonians, Sandemanians, Hutchinsonians, Thraskites or Salmoists, Swedenborgians. Popular prophets of the time included Richard Brothers and Joanna Southcott (I am interested particularly in her because I live in Bedford where the Panacea Society, a cult based on the millenarian beliefs of Southcott, was formed as detailed in Jane Shaw's Octavia, Daughter of God).

He considered that the Greek God Apollo was the equivalent of Satan (p 340) (via Lucifer, son of light, perhaps, or via Apollyon which is Greek for 'the destroyer'?).  In Christian iconography, Apollo has sometimes been conflated with Christ.

At one time he said of Jesus that he was wrong to have let himself be crucified.

He dedicated an engraving of The Ghost of Abel to Lord Byron who had written a verse drama portraying Cain as "a type of the Romantic anti-hero who destroys that God has placed upon him and spurns the conventional inheritance of sin." (p 369)

Songs of Innocence
This was sold into a market that had already invented Goody Two Shoes and Mother Goose. It was printed as poems with illustrations and printed by himself using his own press in his own shop, so "no two copies ever contain the poems in the same order" (p 117). Blake himself believed that "Innocence dwells with Wisdom but never with Ignorance".

The Chimney Sweeper
Chimney Sweeper boys were sold onto apprenticeship for seven years starting at between 4 yo and 7 yo. They were from before dawn till midday after which they were turned loose on the streets, many turning to thievery or prostitution in the afternoon. Many died of suffocation, many were crippled, some suffered cancer of the scrotum.

The images engraved around the poem "are of the small chimney sweeps being awoken from their coffins by their saviour". (p 124)

The last line of the poem affirms "the placebos and aphorisms of ignorance". (p 125)

"Tom Dacre may be named after Lady Dacre's almshouses near James Street." (p 125)

"The plight of the chimney sweep becomes the plight of all humankind trapped in their mortal bodies and longing to be free." (p 125)

Songs of Experience
"The disenchanted solitary who observes 'Marks of weakness, marks of woe' is very different from the exultant questioner who asks 'Did  he who made the Lamb make thee?' These are not pure lyrics emanating from one voice but dramatisations of different mental states and attitudes." (p 142)

"He originally conceived Songs of Experience as direct satires of Songs of Innocence, poem for poem, but in the process he found more general possibilities of expression." (p 143); he even engraved some of the Songs of Experience on the reverse of the plates he had used to Songs of Innocence (p 143)

The first two lines originally said:
I wander thro each dirty street
Near where the dirty Thames does flow
but he replaced dirty with 'chartered' which "was one of the radical code words of the period that was directed at the oppression of the authorities." (p 162) and he changed 'german forged links' which referred to the "Hessian and Hanoverian mercenaries imported by the King to withstand a French invasion or (more likely) to maintain public order in the event of mob rule like that of the Wilkeite or Gordon Rioters a few years before." (p 161) to 'mind-forg'd manacles'

He wrote some famous lines. As well as Jerusalem he wrote
A Robin Red breast in a cage 
Puts all Heaven in a Rage
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

This is a wonderful biography which explains the details of Blake's life (although it is a bit short on the hallucinations and the madness) and thoroughly explains the provenance of his poetic and visual art. It is particularly good if you want to follow him around London and it places him firmly in the context of his times (although I would have liked some sort of chronology so that I could have better understood this). It is immensely thorough and at the same time it usually stays well on the right side of readability.

Books by Peter Ackroyd reviewed in this blog:
Historical fiction