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Archive for March, 2019

Early RiserDecline and Fall, Evelyn Waugh (1928)

The Future is FascistFuturism, Richard Humphreys (1999 Tate Publishing)

Mystery and MeaningDictionary of Plant Names, Allen J. Coombes (1985)

Noshing on NoxiousnessNekro-Noxious: Toxic Tales of True Transgression in Miami Municipal Mortuary, Norberto Fetidescu (TransVisceral Books 2018)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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Decline and Fall, Evelyn Waugh (1928)

If Waugh had died after completing Decline and Fall, just as if Swinburne had died after completing Atalanta in Calydon (1865) or Poems & Ballads (1866), his reputation in English literature would still be secure, I think. Swinburne’s reputation in fact would be higher and though Waugh’s wouldn’t – he never lessened the impact of his early genius with much hack-work in old age – Decline and Fall remains an astonishing achievement not just as a first novel but as a novel full stop.

Though to be strictly accurate it wasn’t a first novel: that honour had gone to The Temple at Thatch, “about madness and magic”, which Waugh burnt in manuscript after his friend Harold Acton was unenthusiastic about it. The “magic” in question was black magic, so perhaps there is something Pagini-esque about Decline and Fall. Did Waugh sell his soul to the Devil in return for the supreme skill as a novelist that he would go on to confirm with books like Black Mischief (1932) and Scoop (1938)?

It’s certainly plausible: Decline and Fall is not only extremely well-written in a deceptively simple style à la Hemmingway, but also extremely witty in a way Hemmingway never was. It tells the tale of Paul Pennyfeather, who is blown hither and thither by the winds of vicissitude but is ultimately weighty enough to settle into a sheltered niche. At the beginning of the novel, he is set upon and debagged by upper-class hooligans while studying theology at Oxford. With gross injustice, the college authorities promptly send him down for indecent behaviour, so he’s forced to take up school-mastering to earn a living. His first and, as it happens, only employer, Dr Fagan of Llanabba Castle School in Wales, is not shocked to learn the true reason for Paul’s expulsion from Oxford. “[T]rue to his training”, Paul confesses all:

“I was sent down, sir, for indecent behaviour.”

“Indeed, indeed? Well, I shall not ask for details. I have been in the teaching profession long enough to know that nobody enters it unless he has some very good reason which he is anxious to conceal. …”

But Dr Fagan is not sufficiently blasé to forget to force a reduction in salary out of Paul because of his misbehaviour. It’s a compounding of the original injustice that will happen again and again as the novel proceeds. At Llanabba Paul meets Captain Grimes, whose single appearance in this book was sufficient to secure him a permanent place in English comic writing, and begins teaching the son of the woman he will eventually marry.

But I won’t quote more and give more details of the plot, because that would spoil the book for those who haven’t read it. I’ll just say that Paul sees the idiocies of education from the inside, then resigns to marry and suffer more grotesque injustice. Decline and Fall should be read by anyone who loves prose and wit for their own sake. Imagine a Wodehousian farce written by a more cynical and sophisticated Wodehouse who was an even greater master of prose. Decline and Fall is perhaps the best first – or first-published – novel ever written in the English language. Or any language. High praise? Read it and see if I’m not right.

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Futurism, Richard Humphreys (1999 Tate Publishing)

The future of Futurism has come and gone, and in some ways it was exactly what Futurists wanted. They demanded speed, noise, and violence, after all, and the twentieth century provided enormous amounts of all three. And when I say “demanded”, that is exactly what I mean: like a political party, the Futurists had a manifesto, penned by Filippo Marinetti. Clause nine was this:

We want to glorify war – the only cure for the world – militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman.

And if you’re thinking that sounds rather, well, fascist, you’re right, because Futurism, despite being an avant-garde, fetishistically modern movement, was closely allied with Italian fascism. If that news comes as a surprise when you open this book, prepare for another surprise as you leaf through it, because Futurist art, at least from masters like Umberto Boccioni or Giacomo Balla, is actually interesting, even, whisper it, skilful. Sometimes attractive too.

What it isn’t, however, is particularly distinctive: much of the art reproduced in this book could have appeared in other books in the series, which covers movements in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth-century avant-garde like Cubism, Minimalism, and Surrealism. No, what makes Futurism distinctive is its bombast, its manifestos, and its political allegiances. They’re all described here, and refreshingly they’re not described in the usual stale bourgeois academese of most modern criticism in the arts.

That’s not to say all the text is worth reading: for me, analysing a picture is like analysing a joke: it destroys any spontaneous enjoyment. Art is about images and intuition; analysis is about words and logic. They take place in different parts of the brain and they shouldn’t be mixed. Perhaps that’s why it’s easier to take Futurist paintings seriously than it is to take Futurist prose:

We want to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and rashness. The essential elements of our poetry will be courage, audacity and revolt.

Perhaps the most appropriate response to Futurism in theory was Evelyn Waugh’s vignette in Brideshead Revisited (1945) of Futurism in action:

We were joined by a Belgian Futurist, who lived under the, I think, assumed name of Jean de Brissac la Motte, and claimed the right to bear arms in any battle anywhere against the lower classes. (Part II, 3)

The battle in this instance was against the lower classes of Britain during the General Strike, and the attempt to join it ended like this:

Jean, who joined another company, had a pot of ferns dropped on his head by an elderly widow in Camden Town and was in hospital for a week.

But the embers of Futurism are glowing yet, and this book is a good short survey of the pre-war fires of energy and excitement that created them.

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Dictionary of Plant Names, Allen J. Coombes (1985)

Rich and fascinating in their own right, scientific names add greatly to the pleasure of natural history, commemorating both its roots in ancient history and the scientists who have laboured to systematize and classify the living world. So you can move from Achillea millefolium, “the thousand-leafed (medicinal) plant of Achilles” to Lonicera hildebrandiana, “Hildebrand’s plant of Lonitzer”. Achilles will need no introduction; Adam Lonitzer (1528-86) was a German naturalist and A.H. Hildebrand (1852-1918) a British plant-collector. I was disappointed at first to learn where Lonicera came from, because it’s an attractive name that I thought would have some suitably attractive meaning in Latin or Greek. After all, the most famous member of the genus is L. periclymenum, or honeysuckle.

But beauty from banality is appropriate enough for plants, and there are countless beautiful meanings elsewhere. Strange ones too, like Lycopersicum esculentum, “tasty wolf-peach”, a.k.a the tomato, and Dranunculus muscivorus, “fly-eating little dragon”. That last plant reveals one of the book’s minor flaws, however, because it’s also listed under its alternative name of Helicidiceros muscivorus. But the listing refers you straight to D. muscivorus and you’ll have to go outside this book to find out what Helicidiceros means (“the helical plant with two horns”, apparently).

That apart, Dictionary of Plant Names should fascinate and delight any serious gardener or plant-lover and almost all of the names vanish into mystery in the end, because even the ones that have millennia of written history in Latin or Greek go back into many more millennia of prehistory.

The man ultimately responsible for this feast of mystery and meaning, beauty and strangeness, was the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707-78), who invented the binomial system — generic name with initial capital (Achillea) plus specific name in lowercase (millefolium) — and who commemorated himself in his favourite plant, the delicately beautiful Linnaea borealis, “the northern Linnean”, whose common name is “twin flower”. It was a humble choice for the greatest of all systemizers and classifiers, but humility is a Christian virtue (albeit a little-practised one) and Linnaeus was a staunch Protestant.

That isn’t a coincidence: Protestantism was one of the foundation-stones of modern science and though that wasn’t necessarily good either for Protestantism itself or for the wider world, it may reflect the more introverted psychology of northern Europeans. As God and our relation to Him slowly slid off-stage, the natural world slid on and we eventually discovered that we were part of it. The staunchly Protestant Linnaeus led to the agnostic Darwin, the agnostic Darwin to the staunchly atheist Dawkins. Orbis redit in orbem — “the cycle ever repeats” — but science can still offer quiet aesthetic pleasures as it marches us back towards fanaticism and worse, and you can find some of them in books like this.

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