Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

Wilde about Algy: Oscar, Algernon, and Gilbert Too

If someone who gets the blame for what someone else did is a scapegoat, someone who gets the credit for what someone else said has to be a scapequote. And the greatest scapequote of them all has to be Oscar Wilde (1854-1900). It’s not surprising, though, because Wilde was a very clever and sharp-witted man. For example, you may well read that the painter James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), also reknowned for his wit, once jealously remarked of one of Wilde’s bon mots: “I wish I had said that.” To which Wilde replied, “You will, James, you will.”1

Pretty sharp, wasn’t it? The problem is that it was really the other way around: Wilde was jealous of something Whistler had said, and it was Whistler’s put-down. See what I mean about Wilde being the greatest scapequote of them all? And it isn’t just other people’s repartee Wilde gets the credit for:

Behind the fun of Gilbert’s lines stands the quite serious business of satire. Generally his targets are common human attitudes – hypocrisy, class distinction, and so forth; but with Patience he descended from the general to the particular and burlesqued the aesthetic movement of the time, typified by Oscar Wilde, Walter Pater, J.M. Whistler, and their self-professed disciples.2

He didn’t, you know. Gilbert is W.S. Gilbert (1836-1911), and Patience (1881) is one of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, but Gilbert did not write Patience about Oscar Wilde and the school of poetry Wilde typified: he wrote it about Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1903) and the school of poetry Swinburne typified. And I can’t believe anyone at the time thought otherwise: Swinburne was far more famous than Wilde and, as we shall see, is unmistakably caricatured in the hero of the opera. It’s Wilde’s fame since then that has caused history to be re-written – to the point, I was amused to discover, that one biographical dictionary credits him with even more than inspiring Patience :

WILDE, Oscar … (1854-1900), Irish playwright, novelist, essayist, poet and wit, born in Dublin … In 1881 his first volume of poetry was published, Patience, and the next year he embarked on a lecture tour of the USA …3

Wilde’s first volume of poetry was in fact called Poems, and is in fact a good piece of evidence that Patience wasn’t written about him, because it was published in July 1881 and Patience was first performed in April. Is it likely that the hero of Patience, who is a poet, was based on someone who hadn’t even published his first volume of poetry? Not very, and it becomes even less likely when we look first at the name of the hero, which is Reginald Bunthorne, and second at his precise classification, which is “Fleshly Poet”. Reginald Bunthorne is clearly meant to suggest Algernon Swinburne, and “Fleshly Poet” is clearly meant to be a reference to

Fleshly School of Poetry, The, the title of an article in the Contemporary Review (Oct. 1871), in which Robert Buchanan[,] under the pseudonym of “Thomas Maitland”, attacked the Pre-Raphaelites[,] especially D.G. Rossetti. This attack was the prelude to a long and bitter controversy.4

Conducted in part by Algernon Swinburne, who was closely associated with the Pre-Raphaelites and whose verse was one of the chief targets in Buchanan’s article, just as it is one of the chief targets in Gilbert’s libretto for Patience :

“OH, HOLLOW! HOLLOW! HOLLOW!”

What time the poet hath hymned

The writhing maid, lithe-limbed,

Quivering on amaranthine asphodel,

How can he paint her woes?,

Knowing, as well he knows,

That all can be set right with calomel?

When from the poet’s plinth

The amorous colocynth

Yearns for the aloe, faint with rapturous thrills,

How can he hymn their throes

Knowing, as well he knows,

That they are only uncompounded pills?

Is it, and can it be,

Nature hath this decree,

Nothing poetic in the world shall dwell?

Or that in all her works,

Something poetic lurks,

Even in colocynth and calomel,

I cannot tell.

[Exit BUNTHORNE.

ANG[ELA]. How purely fragrant!

SAPH[IR]. How earnestly precious!

PA[TIENCE]. Well, it seems to me to be nonsense.

The vocabulary and phrasing are characteristically Swinburnian: limbs are lithe in “Dolores”, for example:

Thou shalt blind his bright eyes though he wrestle,

Thou shalt chain his lithe limbs though he strive;

In his lips all thy serpents shall nestle,

In his hands all thy cruelties thrive. [lns. 201-4]

And Patience’s verdict on Bunthorne – “It seems to me to be nonsense” – echoes the verdict of many on Swinburne: for Tennyson he was “a reed through which all things blow into music”5 and for A.E. Housman a kind of poetic “sausage-machine”.6

But then Housman did admire Swinburne greatly in other ways, and Swinburne himself was well aware of his own prolixity and tendency to sacrifice sense to sound:

From the depth of the dreamy decline of the dawn through a notable nimbus of nebulous noonshine,

Pallid and pink as the palm of the flag-flower that flickers with fear of the flies as they float,

Are they looks of our lovers that lustrously lean from a marvel of mystic miraculous moonshine,

These that we feel in the blood of our blushes that thicken and threaten with throbs through the throat?

These are the first lines of “Nephelidia”, a self-parody published in The Heptalogia in 1880. Perhaps Swinburne heard that Gilbert was at work on a Swinburlesque, and decided to get in with his own first; in either case, he was already familiar with parodies on his verse. In 1866 he had published the first series of his Poems & Ballads, and had been condemned in very strong terms for the blasphemies and obscenities of poems like “Dolores”:

Cold eyelids that hide like a jewel

Hard eyes that grow soft for an hour;

The heavy white limbs. and the cruel

Red mouth like a venomous flower;

When these have gone by with their glories,

What shall rest of thee then, what remain,

O mystic and sombre Dolores,

Our Lady of Pain? [lns. 1-8]

O lips full of lust and of laughter,

Curled snakes that are fed from my breast,

Bite hard, lest remembrance come after

And press with new lips where you pressed!

For my heart too springs up at the pressure,

Mine eyelids too moisten and burn;

Ah! feed me and fill me with pleasure,

Ere pain come in turn. [lns. 25-32]

By the ravenous teeth that have smitten

Through the kisses that blossom and bud,

By the lips intertwisted and bitten

Till the foam has a savour of blood,

By the pulse as it rises and falters,

By the hands as they slacken and strain,

I adjure thee, respond from thine altars,

Our Lady of Pain. [lns. 113-120]

But by far the cleverest and most telling critique of Poems & Ballads, in general, and “Dolores”, in particular, was written by a Cambridge don called Arthur Clement Hilton (1851-77):
OCTOPUS

By Algernon Charles Sin-Burn

(Written at the Crystal Palace Aquarium)

Strange beauty, eight-limbed and eight-handed,

Whence camest to dazzle our eyes?

With thy bosom bespangled and banded

With the hues of the seas and the skies;

Is thy home European or Asian,

O mystical monster marine?

Part molluscous and partly crustacean,

Betwixt and between.

Wast thou born to the sound of sea-trumpets?

Hast thou eaten and drunk to excess

Of the sponges – thy muffins and crumpets,

Of the seaweeds – thy mustard and cress?

Wast thou nurtured in caverns of coral,

Remote from reproof or restraint?

Art thou innocent, art thou immoral,

Sinburnian or Saint?

Lithe limbs, curling free, as a creeper

That creeps in a desolate place,

To enrol and envelop the sleeper

In a silent and stealthy embrace,

Cruel beak craning forward to bite us,

Our juices to drain and to drink,

Or to whelm us in waves of Cocytus,

Indelible ink!

Ah breast, that ’twere rapture to writhe on!

O arms ’twere delicious to feel

Clinging close with the crush of the Python,

When she maketh her murderous meal!

In thy eight-fold embraces enfolden,

Let our empty existence escape;

Give us death that is glorious and golden,

Crushed all out of shape!

Ah! thy red lips, lascivious and luscious,

With death in their amorous kiss!

Cling round us, and clasp us, and crush us,

With bitings of agonized bliss;

We are sick of the poison of pleasure,

Dispense us the potion of pain;

Ope thy mouth to its uttermost measure

And bite us again!7

A good parody is worth a thousand moral condemnations – or a thousand literary criticisms. The best critical essay on Swinburne I have ever read is A.E. Housman’s “Swinburne”, whose “sausage-machine” verdict was quoted above, but even if the essay wasn’t rather sour and disdainful in tone it would still take a long time to read – particularly by comparison with these lines from G.K. Chesterton:

He was defeated in several battles by the celebrated Arnhold brothers – the three guerilla patriots to whom Swinburne wrote a poem, you remember:

‘Wolves with the hair of the ermine,

Crows that are crowned and kings–

These things be many as vermin,

Yet three shall abide these things.’8

And yes, anyone familiar with Swinburne’s political poetry would remember. Not those exact words, of course, because Chesterton has made them up, but the verbal dexterity and the passionate but naive anti-monarchism.

Chesterton wrote at least one more parody of Swinburne, and it’s another example both of how effective parodies can be as a method of literary criticism and of how enjoyable they are. A parody is a work of art in its own right, and instead of sniping at its target from the groves of Academe it’s fighting on the same ground and with the same weapons. Housman’s essay on Swinburne is very good, but would much better have been accompanied or even replaced by a parody of him – which Housman, unlike most literary critics, would have been well capable of supplying. The asperities of Housman’s judgments in prose would have been softened in a parody, conveyed by example rather than explication, and Swinburne addicts like me would have had another purified extract to inject. In some ways Hilton’s “Octopus” has the same advantage over “Dolores” itself as Chesterton’s lines have over Housman’s essay: it distils and concentrates an essence, and allows one to savour Swinburne’s pungencies and spices in twenty couplets and a minute rather than, as in the original, two-hundred-and-twenty and half-an-hour.

Mutatis mutandis, the same is true of Chesterton’s second Swinburne parody in “Old King Cole – Variants of an Air”:

In the time of old sin without sadness

And golden with wastage of gold

Like the gods that grow old in their gladness

Was the king that was glad, growing old;

And with sound of loud lyres from his palace

The voice of his oracles spoke,

And the lips that were red from his chalice

Were splendid with smoke.

When the weed was as flame for a token

And the wine was as blood for a sign;

And upheld in his hands and unbroken

The fountains of fire and of wine.

And a song without speech, without singer,

Stung the soul of a thousand in three

As the flesh of the earth has to sting her,

The soul of the sea.

And, with increasing silliness but also increasing affection, Mortimer Collins’ “Salad”:

O cool in the summer is salad,

And warm in the winter is love;

And a poet shall sing you a ballad

Delicious thereon and thereof.

A singer am I, if no sinner,

My muse has a marvellous wing,

And I willingly worship at dinner

The sirens of Spring.

Take endive… like love it is bitter;

Take beet… for like love it is red;

Crisp leaf of the lettuce shall glitter,

And cress from the rivulet’s bed;

Anchovies foam-born, like the Lady

Whose beauty has maddened this bard;

And olives, from groves that are shady;

And eggs – boil ’em hard.

And Barry Pain’s survey of “The Poets at Tea”:

3. Swinburne, who let it get cold

As the sin that was sweet in the sinning

Is foul in the ending thereof,

As the heat of the summer’s beginning

Is past in the winter of love:

O purity, painful and pleading!

O coldness, ineffably gray!

Oh, hear us, our handmaiden unheeding,

And take it away!

And, finally, Richard le Gallienne’s “A Melton Mowbray Pork Pie”:

Strange pie that is almost a passion,

O passion immoral for pie!

Unknown are the ways that they fashion,

Unknown and unseen of the eye.

The pie that is marbled and mottled,

The pie that digests with a sigh:

For all is not Bass that is bottled,

And all is not pork that is pie.9


APPENDIX 1: How did Wilde become so strongly associated with Patience?

Nihil novi sub sole, inquit Ecclesiastes. Nothing new under the sun, saith the preacher. I don’t actually believe that, not completely, anyway, but it’s certainly true that many things are not as new as we think they are. Marketing campaigns and advertising hype, for example. Very twentieth-century, aren’t they?

Well, yes. But they’re also very nineteenth-century. A name nearly as closely connected with Gilbert and Sullivan as they are with each other is D’Oyly Carte. As in the impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte (1844-1901) and the D’Oyly Carte Company he founded to produce Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas. And a company it was in both senses: the operas were produced to make money, and if you want to make money you also have to avoid losing it. Pirating of the operas in America lost D’Oyly Carte money, and he was always anxious about their reception there.

But the problem he felt Patience might have was not with piracy but simply with popularity. The opera satirized English institutions that the Americans would be unfamiliar with, and his apprehensions may have been increased by a verdict passed after the first British performance by the “critic of the Referee”, who

noticed that some of Gilbert’s shots went over the heads of the audience, perhaps because the fusillade was too rapid: this opera is packed with subtleties of humour – the very title Patience, or Bunthorne’s Bride is a joke, for Bunthorne is the only one who is not married off at the end.10

That last point is yet another piece of evidence for the thesis of the article: Swinburne was aged 44 in 1881 and still, remarkably, unmarried; but Swinburne could hardly be expected to help publicize an opera making fun of him and his art. An up-and-coming young poet with a hunger – craving, even – for fame might be expected to, however. Particularly one who would later write that “There is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about”.11

D’Oyly Carte worked also as an agent, and there was just such a young poet on his books: Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, who was aged 27 in 1881 and still, not very remarkably, unmarried. D’Oyle Carte arranged for Wilde to undertake a lecture tour of America with a profitably comprehensible Patience following in his wake: audiences who had seen Wilde posing and posturing on stage with a lily in his hand could now understand, and laugh at, Bunthorne doing the same.

In short, and in D’Oyle Carte’s own words of denial, Wilde was sent out as “a sandwich[-board] man for Patience”.12 To the Americans, familiar with Swinburne’s poetry but not with his person, Bunthorne became Wilde, and the misidentification – helped, perhaps, by changes in the opera – travelled back across the Atlantic to last to the present day. And it is likely to last, perhaps, for good: modern audiences are familiar neither with Swinburne’s poetry nor with his person, but Wilde, in Swinburne’s shadow at the beginning of his career, now looms larger than ever.

And so it is that the anomalies of Wilde-as-Bunthorne go ever more unnoticed: Swinburne’s surname, like Bunthorne’s, is disyllablic and a trochee:13 Wilde’s is neither; in real life Swinburne was, like Bunthorne on stage, short and bearded: Wilde was tall and clean-shaven; Swinburne, like Bunthorne, was an English aristocrat: Wilde was Irish and not particularly aristocratic; Swinburne was Bunthorne: Wilde was not.


APPENDIX 2: Lewis Carroll’s parody of “Dolores” in Sylvie & Bruno

‘Why, that are one of the Professor’s songs!’ cried Bruno. ‘I likes the little man; and I likes the way they spinned him–like a teetle-totle-tum.’ And he turned a loving look on the gentle old man who was sitting at the other side of his leaf-bed, and who instantly began to sing, accompanying himself on his Outlandish guitar, while the snail, on which he sat, waved its horns in time to the music.

In stature the Manlet was dwarfish–

No burly big Blunderbore he:

And he wearily gazed on the crawfish

His Wifelet had dressed for his tea.

‘Now reach me, sweet Atom, my gunlet,

And hurl the old shoelet for luck:

Let me hie to the bank of the runlet,

And shoot thee a Duck!’

She has reached him his minikin gunlet:

She has hurled the old shoelet for luck:

She is busily baking a bunlet,

To welcome him home with his Duck.

On he speeds, never wasting a wordlet,

Though thoughtlets cling, closely as wax,

To the spot where the beautiful birdlet

So quietly quacks.

Where the Lobsterlet lurks, and the Crablet

So slowly and sleepily crawls:

Where the Dolphin’s at home, and the Dablet

Pays long ceremonious calls:

Where the Grublet is sought by the Froglet:

Where the Frog is pursued by the Duck:

Where the Ducklet is chased by the Doglet–

So runs the world’s luck!

He has loaded with bullet and powder:

His footfall is noiseless as air:

But the Voices grow louder and louder,

And bellow, and bluster, and blare.

They bristle before him and after,

They flutter above and below,

Shrill shriekings of lubberly laughter,

Weird wailings of woe!

They echo without him, within him:

They thrill through his whiskers and beard:

Like a teetotum seeming to spin him,

With sneers never hitherto sneered.

‘Avengement,’ they cry, ‘on our Foelet!

Let the Manikin weep for our wrongs!

Let us drench him, from toplet to toelet,

With Nursery-Songs!

‘He shall muse upon “Hey! Diddle! Diddle!”

On the Cow that surmounted the Moon:

He shall rave of the Cat and the Fiddle,

And the Dish that eloped with the Spoon:

And his soul shall be sad for the Spider,

When Miss Muffet was sipping her whey,

That so tenderly sat down beside her,

And scared her away!

‘The music of Midsummer-madness

Shall sting him with many a bite,

Till, in rapture of rollicking sadness,

He shall groan with a gloomy delight:

He shall swathe him, like mists of the morning,

In platitudes luscious and limp,

Such as deck, with a deathless adorning,

The Song of the Shrimp!

‘When the Ducklet’s dark doom is decided,

We will trundle him home in a trice:

And the banquet, so plainly provided,

Shall round into rose-buds and rice:

In a blaze of pragmatic invention

He shall wrestle with Fate, and shall reign:

But he has not a friend fit to mention,

So hit him again!’

He has shot it, the delicate darling!

And the Voices have ceased from their strife:

Not a whisper of sneering or snarling,

As he carries it home to his wife:

Then, cheerily champing the bunlet

His spouse was so skilful to bake,

He hies him once more to the runlet,

To fetch her the Drake!


NOTES

[1]I did read this once, only the other party wasn’t described as being Whistler.

[2]Michael Hardwick, The Osprey Guide to Gilbert and Sullivan, Osprey, Reading, 1972, Patience, pg. 91

[3]Chambers Biographical Dictionary, ed. Magnus Magnusson, W & R Chambers, Edinburgh, 1990.

[4]The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Literature, ed. John Mulgan, Oxford, 1957.

[5]Algernon Charles Swinburne: Selected Poems, ed. L.M. Findlay, Carcanet, Manchester, 1982, introduction, pg. 2

[6]“Swinburne”, in A.E. Housman: Collected Poems & Selected Prose, ed. Christopher Ricks.

[7]Unauthorized Versions: Poems & their Parodies, ed. Kenneth Baker.

[8]From the story “The Fairy Tale of Father Brown”, in The Wisdom of Father Brown, pg. 306 of the 1983 The Penguin Complete Father Brown.

[9]These are taken from Imitations of Immortality: A Book of Literary Parodies, E.O. Parrott.

[10]Leslie Bailey, The Gilbert and Sullivan Book, Spring Books, London, 1966, “Patience: A Caricature of the Follies of the Age”, pp. 210-1

[11]“The Picture of Dorian Gray”, ch. 1

[12]Letter from D’Oyly Carte to Helen Lenoir, December, 1881, quoted in The Gilbert and Sullivan Book, pg. 212

[13]Other phonetic similarities between Swinburne and Bunthorne are too obvious to mention.


© Simon Whitechapel 2004

Read Full Post »

On the eve of the most important British general election in 2-3 generations (or more), Papyrocentric Performativity is positively pulsating with pride and passion to present a Keyly Kommitted Kore Kounter-Kultural Kwiz…

Readers’ advisory: Keyly Kommitted Kore Kounter-Kultural Kwiz contains explicit reference to genocide, necrophilia and Passionate Paprika Maverick Munch. Proceed at YOUR OWN RISK…

Core Counter-Cultural Quiz…

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

O mie nouă sute optzeci şi patru, George Orwell, translated by Mihnea Gafiţa (Biblioteca Polirom 2002)

During much of the twentieth century, it was much easier for Romanians to live Nineteen Eighty-Four than to read it. Romania had a real Big Brother in the form of the dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu (1918-89). And the ideology that once tyrannized the country might as well have been called RomSoc. The novel was (I assume) banned under Ceaușescu, but all things must pass and Ceaușescu was one of them. So Nineteen Eighty-Four is now available in Romanian in this attractive edition by Polirom.

I don’t like the image on the front cover, though. It doesn’t capture what happens inside but I suppose it would be interesting if the novel is new to you. I don’t know how good the translation is because I don’t know Romanian. But I can understand much more of this book than I could of the Polish edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four I’ve kind-of reviewed here. As the name suggests, Romanian is a Romance language, descended from Latin and related to Italian, French and Spanish. And if you have a good knowledge of Latin and Italian, you’ll be able to understand a lot of Romanian without ever studying it. The title of the book is mostly Romance, for example, though I didn’t see that at first. “Why have they chosen a new title?” I thought. Well, they hadn’t, I realized: mie must be related to mille, nouă to novem, optzeci to octoginta and patru to quattuor.

But Italian and Latin will only take you most of the way to mastering Romanian in quadruple-quick time. If you add Bulgarian or Russian to the mix, you’d really be flying, because Romanian has borrowed a lot from Slavonic languages. There’s an example of that borrowing in part of the book that any educated English-speaker should be able to understand:

RĂZBOIUL ESTE PACE
LIBERTATEA ESTE SCLAVIE
IGNORANŢA ESTE PUTERE

Compare an Italian translation:

LA GUERRA È PACE
LA LIBERTÀ È SCHIAVITÙ
L’IGNORANZA È FORZA

And a Spanish:

LA GUERRA ES LA PAZ
LA LIBERTAD ES LA ESCLAVITUD
LA IGNORANCIA ES LA FUERZA

And a French:

LA GUERRE C’EST LA PAIX
LA LIBERTÉ C’EST L’ESCLAVAGE
L’IGNORANCE C’EST LA FORCE

In Romanian, “RĂZBOIUL ESTE PACE” must mean “WAR IS PEACE”, but RĂZBOIUL doesn’t look Romance. It isn’t: it’s Slavonic. Elsewhere in the book you might spot this: Oceania se află în război cu Eurasia şi în alianţa cu Estasia – “Oceania was at war with Eurasia and in alliance with Eastasia.” The change from războiul to război might help you work out that, as in Swedish, definite articles go at the end of words in Romanian. Which is odd, but Romanian is the oddest language in the Romance family. By no coincidence, it’s also the easternmost. I’d like to learn it, but I can say that of many other languages. This book was a fascinating glimpse into another room in the vast mansion of human language. And that mansion is not a totalitarian monstrosity like Nicolae Ceaușescu’s huge and horrible House of the Republic in Bucharest (now called the Palace of the Parliament). Instead, it’s a beautiful and mysterious place full of hidden rooms, secret doors and forking corridors.

And speaking of Nicolae again, how does Romanian translate that most famous of all Orwellian phrases? Like this: FRATELE CEL MARE STĂ CU OCHII PE TINE. That looks as though it means something like “Big Brother is with eyes on you.” It’s snappier in Italian: IL GRANDE FRATELLO VI GUARDA. Snappy or otherwise, the phrase didn’t serve its purpose. Orwell warned us about mass surveillance in one of the most successful novels ever written, but it looks as though he was doomed to be a Cassandra. This Romanian edition is another example of how he succeeded hugely as a writer and failed miserably as a physician. You might say that Fratele has got us nowhere.

Read Full Post »

A Guide to Tolkien, David Day (Octopus 1993)

If someone is a famous writer, then it’s certain they’ll have biographers, critics and other analysts. And it’s likely that they’ll be better writers than those who write about them. Often much better. That’s certainly true of Lytton Strachey and Michael Holroyd or George Orwell and Robert Colls.

But it’s not true of J.R.R. Tolkien and David Day. Whatever his merits – and my readings of Lord of the Rings (1954-5) and The Hobbit (1937) reached double figures long ago – Tolkien just isn’t a very good writer. He’s clumsy, he’s hackneyed and his ambition far exceeded his abilities. And so it turns out that David Day, the author of this short but interesting guide to Tolkien’s world, is a better writer than Tolkien. You could almost say that Tolkien provides the rough gems before Day cuts and polishes them:

Galadhrim

The forest that in the Second Age of the Sun was first named Laurelindórenan, “land of the valley of singing gold”, and later Lothlórien, “land of blossoms dreaming”, and even by some Lórien, “dreamland”, was east of the Misty Mountains by the Silverlode, which flows into the Great River Anduin. It was the Gold Wood, where the tallest trees on Middle-earth grew. They were called the Mallorn trees and were the most beautiful of trees in Mortal Lands. Their bark was silver and grey, their blossoms golden and their leaves green and gold.

Within the forest was the concealed Elven kingdom of the Galadhrim, the “tree-people”, who made their homes on platforms called telain, or flets, high in the branches of the sheltering Mallorn.


Woses

In the War of the Ring a strange primitive folk called the Woses came to aid the Rohirrim and Dúnedain in breaking the Siege of Gondor. These wild woodland folk lived in the ancient Forest of Druadan, which was in Anórien, below the White Mountains. They knew woodcraft better than any other folk, for they lived as naked animals invisibly among the trees for many ages and cared not for the company of other peoples. They were weather-worn, short-legged, thick-armed and stumpy-bodied. […] In the First Age of the Sun, these were the people who lived in harmony with the Haladin in Beleriand, who called them Drûgs. To the Elves they were known as the Drúedain; to the Orcs they were the Oghor-hai and to the Rohirrim the Rógin.


Nazgûl

in the twenty-third century of the Third Age of the Sun, in Middle0earth there arose nine mighty wraiths who in the Black Speech of Orcs were named the Nazgûl, which is “Ringwraiths”. And of all the evil servants and generals of Sauron the Ring Lord, these proved to be the greatest.

David Day writes more crisply and effectively about Tolkien’s world than Tolkien does, but Tolkien’s flaws may be part of his appeal. He’s subtler than I and many others have sometimes given him credit for, but he wasn’t a genius. Instead, he was an intelligent, conscientious and highly knowledgeable scholar who had a penchant for what he himself called “sub-creation”. There is only one true Creator, God, and only one true Creation, the Universe and the creatures that inhabit it.

But some of those creatures have the power to sub-create, that is, arrange the materials granted them by God into patterns of their own. It might be a statue or it might be a story. Tolkien was a sub-creator of stories – and of sometimes powerful art to illustrate those stories. He would have said that he was sub-creating in honour of his Creator and of Catholicism. If so, he wasn’t very effective. The Lord of the Rings is not known for bringing its readers to Christianity, let alone to Catholicism, but it does many other things. This guide condenses its appeal and helps you better understand Tolkien the Sub-Creator. There’s everything here from Gods, gods and goblins to Witchkings, wizards and Woses.

Read Full Post »

George Orwell: English Rebel, Robert Colls (Oxford University Press 2013)

I didn’t find this a very well-written or coherent book, but I thought it had one big thing in its favour: it doesn’t treat Orwell like a saint. The world-famous author of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and Animal Farm (1945) was not an infallible prophet nor a flawless logician. He contradicted himself. He criticized people for saying things that he would later say himself. He often got things wrong.

But who didn’t, particularly before and during the Second World War? And the irreverence shown by Robert Colls towards his subject seemed to me to deepen into hostility at times. Does the South Shields lad Colls have a chip on his shoulder about the Old Etonian Orwell? I don’t know, but all biographies are also autobiographies. If an anti-hagiography is the opposite of a hagiography, then Colls seems at times to be writing one. That’s definitely what John Baxter was doing in his biography of J.G. Ballard, but English Rebel is a better and more interesting book than that.

It’s also much more eclectic. I like books that can quote from the Jacobin Committee of Public Safety at one moment (pg. 224) and from Richmal Crompton at another:

There’s four sorts of people tryin’ to get to be rulers. They all want to make things better, but they want to make ’em better in different ways. There’s Conservatives an’ they want to make things better by keepin’ ’em jus’ like what they are now. An’ there’s Lib’rals an’ they want to make things better by alterin’ ’em jus’ a bit, but not so anyone’d notice, and there’s Socialists, an’ they want to make things better by takin’ everyone’s money off ’em, an’ there’s Communists an’ they want to make things better by killin’ everyone but themselves. (ch. 3, “Eye Witness in Barcelona”, pg. 95, quoting “William’s friend Henry” in Crompton’s William the Bad, 1930)

As a summary of politics in the 1930s, that isn’t so far off the mark. It certainly captures the spirit of Communism at a time when many intelligent and educated people thought that Communism was the only and ethical hope for the human race. Orwell agreed with Crompton, not with the intellectuals. As Colls points out, he disliked and distrusted intellectuals while being one himself and moving in intellectual circles.

But there’s another connection between Orwell and Crompton: they were both very good writers, still delighting and diverting readers long after their deaths. Orwell was the greater and more serious of the two, but literary criticism can’t explain either of them. It can’t say why they were such good writers and such pleasures to read. All it can do is discuss their ideas, their influences, their culture and their life-histories. That’s not enough and although Colls is a cultural historian rather than a literary critic or (worse) a literary theorist, English Rebel fails to explain Orwell’s greatness just as surely as every previous biography and literary analysis.

And “Englishness” is not a very interesting topic. England and the English can be, but that’s partly because they’re so varied. You might also that Englishness is unconsciousness. The people who want to analyse it or feel the need to go in search of it are outsiders in some way. Orwell was born in British India, which made him an outsider in one way. He went to Eton on a scholarship, which made him an outsider in another. And he had French ancestry, which made him an outsider in yet another.

But I’ve never seen any critics or biographers of Orwell make much of his Frenchness. It’s there in his features and must have been there in his brain and psychology too, because genetics influences both of those. And that’s where Englishness can get interesting: at the genetic and biological level. You won’t find any of that here and bio-criticism isn’t a big subject anywhere yet. It will be, sooner or later, and that’s when Orwell will be better understood. In the meantime, books like this are here to speculate and make suggestions. And despite his irreverence and hostility, Colls does seem to appreciate the greatness and the moral stature of his subject: “Orwell spent his life fighting those who wanted to ‘control life’ and ‘entirely refashion people’ ‘with an absolute authority which penetrates into a man’s innermost being’.” (ch. , “Life after Death”, pg. 224)

That final quote is from the Jacobins and the Jacobins are still with us, using ever more advanced technology to satisfy some very primitive urges for power and domination. Orwell understood the urges and prophesied the technology. This book isn’t worthy of Orwell, but I’m not sure any biography or critique could be. It’s eclectic and interesting all the same. And it’s got a good index and some photos I’d never seen before.

Read Full Post »

The African Queen, C.S. Forester (1935)

Sometimes you read a book, like it a lot, and start hunting down more material by the same author. And sometimes you read a book, like it a lot, and don’t do that.

At least, that happens to me. I’ve liked The African Queen a lot every time I’ve read it, but I’ve never hunted down anything else by Forester. I think I came across one of his Hornblower books once, set on the high seas during the Napoleonic wars. But I didn’t like it, so I was confirmed in my disinclination to try anything else. I think I’m wrong, because I doubt that The African Queen is a one-off. It’s the excellent and engrossing story of two nobodies, a “Cockney engineer” called Charlie Allnutt and a missionary’s sister called Rose Sayer, who pull off an extraordinary feat by navigating an old steam launch down an unnavigable river in tropical Africa during the First World War.

The book takes its name from the launch. So did the film, a cinematic classic starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. I think the film may explain why I’ve never hunted down more of Forester’s work. It was entirely self-contained and I’m pretty sure I saw it before reading the book, so it might have influenced my idea of the book. But the book would have been sui generis anyway and it’s better than the film. Books usually are and in some ways they can’t be beaten. There’s a magic in mere words that is intensified when words become silent, sitting as static black ink on white paper. An ancient part of biology, the eyes, collaborates with an ancient piece of technology, the book, to create a world inside the head.

Film is superficial, literature is submarine. It dives beneath the surface, entering the inner worlds of its characters, exploring their psychology, motives and history in a way that film can’t. But action can be important in literature too and Forester, like H.G. Wells and Robert Louis Stevenson, can make the real world grow dim while you read. And this book dives beneath the surface in more ways than one. When the propeller and shaft of the launch are damaged in some dangerous rapids, Allnutt has to remove them for repairs:

The African Queen was moored in moderately still water in the eddy below the rock, but only a yard or two away there was a racing seven-knot current tearing downstream, and occasionally some whim of the water expressed itself in a fierce under-water swirl, which swung the launch about and usually turned Allnutt upsidedown, holding on like grim death in case the eddy should take him out into the main current from which there would be no escape alive. It was in one of these swirls that Allnutt dropped a screw, which was naturally irreplaceable and must be recovered – it took a good deal of groping among the rocks beneath the boat before he found it again. (ch. 8)

If he’d been by himself, he would never have attempted the job. He knows too much about machines, you see, and Rose knows too little: “He sighed with the difficulty of explaining mechanics to an unmechanical person.” But Rose’s ignorance gets them through. She’s the stronger character of the two and persuades Allnutt to try the repairs. To his surprise, he succeeds. Rose is an African Queen in her way and Forester is only partly ironic in naming her after England’s national flower, because she’s attractive in her way too.

But her attractions were fading, worn down by drudgery and subordination to her brother, when the war broke in on their remote African mission in a German colony. Her brother dies of fever, shattered when the German army requisitions goods and labour from the mission, so Rose wants to strike a blow for England in revenge. But how can she, a “weak, feeble woman”, do anything against the might of Germany? The arrival of the African Queen and Allnutt, “the Cockney engineer employed by the Belgian gold-mining company two hundred miles up the river”, gives her an idea. The two of them will take the launch downstream to “the Lake” and sink another African Queen, the “police steamer” Königin Luise that allows Germany to rule those inland waves.

Allnutt laughs at the idea of sailing down the river, but Rose persuades him to try and he agrees, thinking that he can easily sabotage the mission before it gets dangerous. But he’s caught up in the powerful current of Rose’s now unrepressed personality, and decides to do what she wants. He’ll do his best to get to the Lake. And here Forester becomes like one of his characters: he has “the difficulty of explaining mechanics to an unmechanical person.” It’s the mechanics of boating, navigation and hydrography. The African Queen is a quest-story, like the Lord of the Rings, and the best quest-stories read easy but feel tough. Forester has to write well to convey the hardships that his questing characters face: the rapids, the broken propeller, the ugly leeches that lurk beneath beautiful water-lilies, and the hot, stinking, malaria-ridden mangrove swamp that is the last and almost insurmountable obstacle before the Lake. Charlie and Rose have to pole and pull their way through the swamp.

Then they reach the Lake and the hardest part of the quest begins: sinking the Königin Luise. Forester has set up a grand finale and even threatens his characters with extinction, because the Queen will have to ram the Königin with high explosives in her bow. Charlie says that he’ll do it alone, but Rose refuses to leave him: “It all ended, as was inevitable, in their agreeing that they would both go. There was no denying that their best chance of success lay in having one person to steer and one to tend the engine” (ch. 14). And so they’ll both be close at hand when the high explosive goes off. In other words, they’ll both be killed. By then, that prospect will matter to you: you’ve suffered and sweated with Charlie and Rose, so you want them to succeed. The film brings you close to its characters too, but the film had to alter Forester’s ending. What works on cellulose doesn’t always work on celluloid. Literature is subtler, slyer, more sinuous, rather like a river.

And did Forester take the seed for this book from the sly and subtle W. Somerset Maugham? There’s a missionary’s sister, a working-class man, and a steam launch in Maugham’s short story “The Vessel of Wrath” (1931). And, just like Rose, the missionary’s sister in Maugham’s story is neurotically worried about rape, before she and the working-class man fall in love. The similarities are suggestive, but if Forester was influenced by Maugham’s story, he only took the seed from it. The African Queen has grander themes and is more exciting. And Maugham can’t write about action the way Forester can. Maugham was interested in psychology, not steam-launches. Forester was interested in both and a lot more beside. His wider interests make for richer reading and enhanced excitement.

And The African Queen is historically and sociologically interesting too. Forester was born in 1899 and his Victorian roots were still showing in 1935, when the African Queen was published. But he’s candid about sex in a way no respectable Victorian novelist could have been. There’s nothing explicit here, but his unmarried questers are lovers long before the climax of their quest. It all seems plausible: a novel is a kind of machine too and Forester was an excellent literary mechanic. If you’ve seen the film, try the book. It’s better and bigger and I really do need to hunt down more by Forester.

Read Full Post »

A Clockwork Orange: The Restored Edition, Anthony Burgess, edited and with an introduction by Andrew Biswell (Heinemann 2012)

Like a collection of H.P. Lovecraft stories, Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange should be read for the first time as a battered old paperback. That’s the best way to feel the power of the words, to experience black print on white paper conjuring a world of action, excitement and ideas. When you read A Clockwork Orange for the first time, it shouldn’t have a glossary, an introduction or any references to the film. It should fly in your mind unaided, fuelled on nothing but Burgess’s invention, imagination and jet-black humour.

That’s why this “Fiftieth Anniversary” edition is not the best way to read A Clockwork Orange for the first time. It’s an expensive hardback whose cover refers to the film straight away. There are many more references to the film in the “Essays, Articles and Reviews” included as an appendix inside, accompanied by a glossary, an introduction and notes by Burgess’s biographer Andrew Biswell, a foreword by Martin Amis, early reviews by Kingsley Amis, Malcolm Bradbury and Christopher Ricks, various pieces by Burgess himself exploring the roots of and reactions to his book, including discussion of his own musical version, and an afterword by Stanley Edgar Hyman from “the first American edition” in 1963. Not good, my bratties, for a first-time reader. Especially the glossary. As Burgess himself points out in one of the essays: part of the point of A Clockwork Orange is that it brainwashes its readers into learning an elementary Russian vocabulary, in a subtler and milder echo of the brainwashing that the book’s hero Alex undergoes as part of his rehabilitation.

I hadn’t seen that parallel before, so the essay was worth reading. So was everything else, apart from the glossary of Nadsat, the teen-speak created by Burgess for the anti-hero and his droogies. Okay, the glossary had to be there, as part of the full academic package, but if it had to be there it should have gone further, giving full etymologies for all the words. Stanley Edgar Hyman gets one of those etymologies wrong in the afterword, suggesting that rozz, meaning “police”, comes from Russian рожа, rozha, meaning “to grimace”. Not so. “Rozzer” was English slang for a policeman long before A Clockwork Orange was written. Nadsat both imported Russian and adapted English, and Burgess based the ultra-modern Alex on the Teddy Boys of the 1950s. British readers spotted those local ingredients easily for decades after the book’s first publication in 1962.

But it’s less easy now and this expanded edition makes one important point in both a literary and a literal way. A Clockwork Orange is bigger now than it was in 1962. It became a cult, it influenced many other writers, and it’s now Burgess’s most famous book by far. And it was also, of course, made into an iconic film by Stanley Kubrick. I’ve never seen the film and don’t want to. I think literature and language are much more interesting and important than film. So did Burgess and you can pick up some of his resentment about the film here. He called it “a highly coloured and explicit film” in 1982 (“A Last Word on Violence”, pg. 305). And he later expanded Nadsat by adding the word zubrick, meaning “penis”, apparently from Arabic, and rhyming with Kubrick. But I felt resentment towards Burgess himself, because he disappointed me in this book. I had assumed that he was taking the piss of the Guardian-reading community when he put a keyly core Guardianista phrase into the mouth of P.R. Deltoid, Alex’s “Post-Corrective Adviser”:

“Wrong?” he said, very skorry and sly, sort of hunched looking at me but still rocking away. Then he caught sight of an advert in the gazetta, which was on the table – a lovely smecking young ptitsa with her groodies hanging out to advertise, my brothers, the Glories of the Jugoslav Beaches. Then, after sort of eating her up in two swallows, he said: “Why should you think in terms of there being anything wrong? Have you been doing something you shouldn’t, yes?” (ch. 4)

That “in terms of” is pretentious and redundant, as Burgess must have been aware. But what is Burgess himself using in something he wrote for the Listener in 1972?

The fact remains, however, that the film sprang out of a book, and some of the controversy which has begun to attach to the film is controversy in which I, inevitably, feel myself involved. In terms of philosophy and even theology, the Kubrick Orange is a fruit from my tree. (“Clockwork Marmalade”, pg. 245, reprinted from the Listener, 17th February 1972)

That use of “in terms of” isn’t as bad as P.R. Deltoid’s, but Burgess would have been better writing “In philosophy and even theology” or “In its philosophy…” That would have been more vigorous and direct, and so more in keeping with the vigour and directness of A Clockwork Orange. It’s a very clever and funny book and although you should definitely not read it for the first time in this edition, reading it here for the fourth or fifth time would be good. Inter alia, you even get a reproduction of parts of Burgess’s “1961 typescript”, with doodles and alterations. For example, Burgess changed “the dimmest of us four” in chapter one to “the dimmest of we four”. It’s a small but significant change in one of the best books ever written, though not one of the greatest, in my opinion. I haven’t reviewed it properly above, but here’s a badly flawed review of mine from about 2005:


Clockwork Crock

A Clockwork Orange is the story, written in an invented slang of miscegenated Russian and Cockney, of a juvenile delinquent called Alex, who hands out beatings and rapes for kicks in between worshipping at the shrines of Ludwig V. and Wolfgang M. After many blood-stained adventures with his droogies, he is caught by the police and conditioned by government scientists to respond with nausea to the merest thought of violence. Unfortunately, because the films of concentration camps and Japanese atrocities with which they condition him are accompanied by classical music, he also responds with nausea to the merest snatch of Ludwig or Wolfgang.

The state then sees the error of its way and deconditions him, but although Alex is now free to continue his lawless – A-lex – ways, he discovers, in a closing scene cut from the first American edition, that he is growing up and just isn’t interested any more.

And with that, Burgess thought he had said something profound and important about free will and the dangers of the then-current behaviourist solutions to crime and deviance. He hadn’t. As a piece of experimental writing, this book is very clever and entertaining. As philosophy and ethics, it’s infantile. Burgess’s intent is summed up in what he said about the title: “I meant it to stand for the application of a mechanistic morality to a living organism oozing with juice and sweetness.”

The mechanistic morality is that of behaviourism, which regards men as living machines that can be conditioned by pain and pleasure to behave in appropriate ways: to avoid bad and seek good. But as the prison chaplain says to the imprisoned Alex:

“The question is whether such a technique can really make a man good. Goodness comes from within, 6655321. Goodness is something chosen. When a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man.”

Burgess doesn’t seem to have noticed what he had been writing in the rest of the book. Why did Alex stop choosing violence? Because the thought of it made him sick. But why did Alex, before then, carry on choosing violence? Because the thought, and the fact of it, gave him enormous pleasure. And why was that? Had Alex chosen to receive pleasure from violence? Burgess doesn’t say, and the question doesn’t seem to have occurred to him.

Nor does the related question of why Alex is a young man. If free will is indeed this mysterious metaphysical entity floating free of the mechanistic, electro-chemical morality of the behaviourists, why is Alex a young man? Why does it matter that, as he grows up, he starts to lose interest in violence and think about starting a family?

When I read that ending as a very young man myself, I thought it was ridiculous: it spoilt the book. Alex should have carried on as he was, lawlessly flouting the rules of the society that had treated him so brutally. But when I’d grown up a little myself and I read it again, I saw that it was perfectly realistic – and it’s an interesting commentary on the maturity of American society that it was cut for that first American edition. Violent young hooligans, like the Teddy Boys Burgess was inspired by, do grow up and stop being violent, because they stop being young. In other words, their brains change. Burgess is happy to accept Alex’s brain being changed by age, but not to accept it being changed by the state, presumably because one is natural and implicit and the other artificial and explicit.

But both are beyond the control of the autonomous individual Burgess supposes Alex to be. What Burgess should have written the book about is whether the state has the right to do to an individual what nature does. But the state alters individuals by putting them in prison, so Burgess’s objection seems to be that the scientists of A Clockwork Orange alter prisoners efficiently and speedily. It might be a valid objection, if it were based on something other than a defence of free will. The chaplain says this to Alex too:

“What does God want? Does God want goodness or the choice of goodness? Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed on him? Deep and hard questions, little 6655321.”

In fact, they’re neither deep nor hard, but they’re not answered by this book in either case and Burgess’s weak argument is not strengthened by hyperbole. Suppose that instead of nausea Alex had been conditioned to respond with boredom or indifference to the thought of violence. Suppose that classical music had not accompanied the films he was conditioned with. Unless Burgess is suggesting that beauty cannot exist without ugliness and pain, Alex’s before and after reactions to classical music are irrelevant.

Does he choose to listen to classical music as he chooses to be violent? But he listens to classical music because he gets pleasure from it, just as he commits violence because he gets pleasure from it. If he were indifferent to either he would not choose to indulge in it with the vigour and frequency that he does. In some very important ways we are machines, and Burgess’s title, like the book itself, is not the refutation of behaviourism that he supposes it is. Read it as fiction, not as philosophy, because as a thinker, Burgess was a very good writer.

Read Full Post »

Short Stories, Guy de Maupassant, translated by Marjorie Laurie (Everyman’s Library 1934)

Sympathy is an interesting word. It literally means “with-feeling”, that is, sharing someone else’s feelings, while the Latin compassio means “with-suffering”. But both of these words have weaker and wetter meanings in modern English. When I say that Maupassant was a compassionate writer who had sympathy for his characters, you need to read it in the older, stronger senses. He could feel with other human beings, victims and villains, the ordinary and the eccentric, and bring them to life on paper.

But he could do more than that: he had sympathy for, sympathy with, animals too and some of his most moving stories are about dogs, horses and donkeys. One, “Love”, is about a pair of wild birds and the hunters who shoot them. It’s included in this collection, which begins with “Boule de Suif” and ends with “The Horla”. “Boule de Suif”, or “Ball of Lard”, was Maupassant’s early great success. It combines three of his obsessions: prostitution, cruelty, and the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1. The title is actually the nickname of a plump, amiable prostitute who befriends but is then betrayed by the respectable folk who share a coach with her on a journey through occupied France. A Prussian officer wants to sleep with her, but she refuses. He won’t let the coach go on until she gives in. Her fellow travellers force her to do so, then salve their own consciences by treating her like “a thing useless and unclean” when their journey resumes.

It’s one of the longest stories here and also one of the most powerful, finely observed, closely and compassionately written. And it’s echoed by another story, “Mademoiselle Fifi”, which is also about prostitutes and the German occupation. But this time the title is the nickname of a Prussian officer, a sadistic dandy who treats the French with contempt but gets more than he bargains for when he mistreats a young prostitute called Rachel. That name is Hebrew for “Ewe” and Rachel is in fact Jewish, so the revenge in the story has even more resonance now. She stabs Mademoiselle Fifi to death and then successfully escapes. But the story is less successful than “Boule de Suif”. It’s too obviously a wish-fulfilment fantasy and the victim turns the table too neatly on the villain. And if Rachel’s name is intended to be ironic, it’s a literary touch that undermines Maupassant’s realism.

I think I’d read the story before in French, but it didn’t stay with me strongly. Other stories I’d read in French did stay with me strongly, like “Miss Harriet”, about a repressed English virgin who commits suicide far from home, and “The Devil”, about a peasant woman who’s given a fixed price to oversee the final hours of a dying woman. “Miss Harriet” is tragic, “The Devil” tragi-comic, and both are good examples of Maupassant’s sympathy for women and his ability to write about them convincingly. But “The Devil” is also a good example of his sympathy for peasants. As the Roman writer Terence said: Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto. – “I am human and I regard nothing human as alien to me.”

But many people can say that: Maupassant was one of the rare few who could translate his sympathy into powerful art, whether he was writing about an Italian widow avenging her only son in “Vendetta” or a French diplomat learning about the cruel fate of “the only woman I ever loved” in “Shali”. That story is actually expurgated: the French original, in 1884, went further than the English translation did in 1934. And Maupassant should be read in the original. As Gerald Gould says in the introduction: “It has been said by one rather acid French critic that one reason English people think so highly of Maupassant as a writer is because his French is so easy.”

That’s right: he writes with the utmost clarity and simplicity, but when I read him in French I have to concentrate, so the meaning blossoms more slowly and powerfully in my mind. That’s why I find myself unable to re-read some of his stories. They’re not extravagantly violent or cruel, but I find them too powerful and too unpleasant. “The Horla” isn’t one of those stories and although it is one of Maupassant’s best, some of its power comes from what you know about its background. Maupassant was beginning to go mad from syphilis when he wrote it. In “The Horla”, the human being he’s sympathizing with is himself. Not long afterwards, he was confined to an asylum. Then he was dead at the age of forty-two. No other writer has written so much so well in such a short life. Some of his best stories are here, but anyone who can should read him in French. He was a genius who combined simplicity with sympathy in a way that no other writer I’ve ever read has matched.

Read Full Post »

A Fall of Moondust, Arthur C. Clarke (1961)

Nothing dates faster than the future, which is why I think Arthur C. Clarke does indeed deserve to be called one of the greatest science-fiction writers. Despite his cardboard characters and his adolescent psychology, his futures are still plausible, still capable of suspending disbelief, decades after he created them. At his best and boldest, he was a kind of optimistic, neurosis-free Lovecraft: Rendezvous with Rama (1973) has gigantic themes and images, but with irony and understatement too.

Man’s first encounter with an alien civilization doesn’t work the way it should, but that adds to the interest and the fun. Clarke wrote with gusto and seems to have lived that way too. He might have moved to Sri Lanka partly to indulge his paederasty, but he also liked the sunshine and sea he found there. The sea is a frontier, something that challenges and sometimes punishes the men who want to explore and exploit it, and Clarke’s writing is always about frontiers. His characters are always explorers in some way, part of an effort to expand into the unknown. Where J.G. Ballard dove into the head and explored the endless possibilities of mind, Clarke dove out of it, away into the universe, and explored the endless possibilities of matter. A Fall of Moondust is about a very simple form of matter in a very strange setting:

No one could have told, merely by looking at it, whether the Sea [of Thirst] was liquid or solid. It was completely flat and featureless, quite free from the myriad cracks and fissures that scarred all the rest of this barren world. Not a single hillock, boulder, or pebble broke its monotonous uniformity. No sea on Earth – no millpond, even – was ever as calm as this.

It was a sea of dust, not of water, and therefore it was alien to all the experience of men; therefore, also, it fascinated and attracted them. Fine as talcum powder, drier in this vacuum than the parched sands of the Sahara, it flowed as easily and effortlessly as any liquid. A heavy object dropped into it would disappear instantly, without a splash, leaving no scar to mark its passage. Nothing could move upon its treacherous surface except the small, two-man dust-skis – and Selene herself, an improbable combination of sledge and bus, not unlike the Sno-cats that had opened up the Antarctic a lifetime ago. (ch. 1)

There you can see Clarke’s greatness as a science-fiction writer. He took his scientific knowledge and created something new but entirely plausible from it: a sea of dust where a ship called the Selene sails for the entertainment and edification of tourists. It’s a frontier, a new place for man to test his engineering and his ingenuity. And the test gets very big when Clarke arranges for the Selene to sink. I won’t describe how he does it, but again he’s creating something new but entirely plausible from his scientific knowledge. His stories often creak psychologically and sociologically, but they’re always technically solid.

And he can mix macrocosm and microcosm. When the Sea of Thirst gapes and gulps down the Selene, her captain Pat Harris is overwhelmed by a childhood memory:

He was a boy again, playing in the hot sand of a forgotten summer [back on Earth]. He had found a tiny pit, perfectly smooth and symmetrical, and there was something lurking in its depths – something completely buried except for its waiting jaws. The boy had watched, wondering, already conscious of the fact that this was the stage for some microscopic drama. He had seen an ant, mindlessly intent upon its mission, stumble at the edge of the crater and topple down the slope.

It would have escaped easily enough – but when the first grain of sand had rolled to the bottom of the pit, the waiting ogre had reared out of its lair. With its forelegs, it had hurled a fusillade of sand at the struggling insect, until the avalanche had overwhelmed it and brought it sliding down into the throat of the crater.

As Selene was sliding now. No ant lion had dug this pit on the surface of the Moon, but Pat felt as helpless now as that doomed insect he had watched so many years ago. Like it, he was struggling to reach the safety of the rim, while the moving ground swept him back into the depths where death was waiting. A swift death for the ant, a protracted one for him and his companions. (ch. 2)

Death will be protracted for the crew and passengers of the Selene because they survive submersion, but have no way of making contact with the outside world: the dust, “with its high metallic content, was an almost perfect shield” for radio waves. So nobody knows what has happened to them or where they are, and for a time it seems as though nobody ever will. Then a clever but socially clumsy scientist discovers a way to detect the Selene. Rescue gets under way above the dust while the social dynamics of living entombment work out below it. Clarke is much better with technology than he is with psychology and the social side of A Fall of Moondust isn’t what makes it worth reading. There’s some disturbing and even disgusting sexism: one of the passengers is a trouble-making “neurotic spinster”, for example – and yes, Clarke actually uses that phrase.

And the private technology of the novel, as opposed to the public, is no good. In fact, the private technology is non-existent. The trapped passengers ward off boredom by pooling their reading matter: “the total haul consisted of assorted lunar guides, including six copies of the official handbook; a current best seller, The Orange and the Apple, whose unlikely theme was a romance between Nell Gwyn and Sir Isaac Newton; a Harvard Press edition of Shane, with scholarly annotations by a professor of English; an introduction to the logical positivism of Auguste Comte; and a week-old copy of the New York Times, Earth edition.”

The story is set in about 2040, but Clarke didn’t anticipate iPads and Kindles, so A Fall of Moondust is a curious mixture of visionary and vapid. You could see it as a thought-experiment: what happens scientifically and psychologically when a ship is submerged in a sea of dust? His science works well, whether the Selene is overheating or suddenly and almost fatally settling deeper in the sea. And there’s a characteristically clever and concise Clarkean touch right at the end, when the Selene has been successfully evacuated:

“Is everyone out?” Lawrence asked anxiously.

“Yes,” said Pat. “I’m the last man.” Then he added, “I hope,” for he realized that in the darkness and confusion someone might have been left behind. Suppose Radley had decided not to face the music back in New Zealand…

No – he was here with the rest of them. Pat was just starting to do a count of heads when the plastic floor gave a sudden jump – and out of the open well shot a perfect smoke ring of dust. It hit the ceiling, rebounded, and disintegrated before anyone could move.

“What the devil was that?” said Lawrence. (ch. 30)

If you want to know what it was, you’ll have to read this book. And I can recommend it. Clarke was not a great psychologist or a subtle wordsmith, but he was a great science-fictioneer. This book published in 1961 still retains its scientific and technical interest more than half-a-century later. A Fall of Moondust isn’t his best work, but it’s impressive all the same.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »