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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.

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Something Fresh, P.G. Wodehouse (1915)

Another book to remind you that only the mediocre are always at their best. At his best, Wodehouse is sublime, but it was impossible for such a prolific author to always be at his best. And particularly not when he was still learning his craft. This novel is the first devoted to Blandings Castle and its eccentric master Lord Emsworth, but the title promises something that isn’t delivered.

The style isn’t fresh: it’s clogged with Victorian facetiousness. Wodehouse hasn’t taken to the literary wing, as he would in the Ukridge and Mulliner stories. He hasn’t learnt how to mix simplicity with silliness and cerebrality, as he would in the Jeeves stories. Jeeves definitely isn’t my favourite Wodehouse character. I’d even say I dislike him, but some of the Jeeves stories are undoubtedly classics and they’re very enjoyable to read. Perhaps Wodehouse was at his best in a short story. I’ve certainly given up on some of his novels – this one, for example. Lord Emsworth is eccentric here but not amusing. When he carries off a valuable scarab by mistake from an American millionaire’s collection, it’s a plot-device, not something that seems natural.

And although the Efficient Baxter appears here too, he’s a shadow of his future and formidable self. The Empress of Blandings isn’t even a shadow. At least, I saw no hint of her presence in what I read and there was no mention of her on the back cover. Blandings without the Empress is like strawberries without cream. And this novel is like straw without berries. It’s dull, contrived and unamusing, Wodehouse at far below his best.

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Headlong Hall (1816) / Nightmare Abbey (1818)

Dubious disciple of Tarzan expresses proud ornithophilia (6,4,7)

I’m no good at cryptic crosswords. I’d like to think this is because I didn’t do them as a kid, but then I never felt any inclination to do them as a kid. Where there’s no inclination, there’s often no ability. Either way, it’s a pity, because cryptic crosswords can be great fun. The fun lies in playing with words and ideas in a light-hearted way.

Rather like reading the books of the writer this review is about. His name is concealed in the cryptic clue above. If you haven’t worked it out, don’t worry, because I wouldn’t have either if someone else had invented the clue. So let’s take it a step at a time. Who was a dubious disciple? Well, he was a bit more than a disciple, but “apostle” didn’t alliterate (among other things). My saying that should allow you to work out that the first word is THOMAS. Now, forget about the bit in the middle and concentrate on the bit on the end. “Ornithology” is bird-study, so “ornithophilia” must be bird-love. And it’s proud. But is that “proud love” or “proud bird”? My asking that should allow you to work out that the third word is PEACOCK. Now let’s try the bit in the middle. A disciple of Tarzan called Thomas is expressing his love for peacocks. How might he go about it? Well, how did Tarzan go about expressing the same emotion? Tarzan love Jane. My explaining that should allow you to work out that the full answer is THOMAS LOVE PEACOCK.

He sounds like a ’sixties psychedelic band, doesn’t he? Maybe he was – if he wasn’t, he should have been. First and foremost, though, he was a writer, born in 1785, died in 1866. In Weymouth and London, respectively. He was only a minor literary figure even in his day, but that’s part of what I like about him. That and his name. And his books.

Well, two of them, anyway. He wrote seven-and-a-bit: Headlong Hall (1816); Melincourt (1817); Nightmare Abbey (1818); Maid Marian (1822); The Misfortunes of Elphin (1829); Crotchet Castle (1831); Gryll Grange (1860); and Calidore (which he never completed). I’ve tried four of them, and given up with two. The two I gave up with were The Misfortunes of Elphin and Crotchet Castle. The two I didn’t give up with were Headlong Hall and Nightmare Abbey.

Those two are also his most famous books, which suggests that they’re his best. And his best is very good. Headlong Hall is a satire on, among other things and other people, the Romantic Movement and figures like Shelley and Byron; Nightmare Abbey takes a narrower view and satirizes the Romantic Movement through just Shelley and his hopeless love-affairs. For a flavor of the first, here is Mr Foster, the perfectibilist, who believes that the human race is getting better with every generation:

“In short,” said he, “everything we look on attests the progress of mankind in all the arts of life, and demonstrates their gradual advancement towards a state of unlimited perfection.”

Foster and his perfectibilism are adamantly and absolutely opposed by the deteriorationist Mr Escot, who believes that, on the contrary, the human race is getting worse with every generation:

“[T]hese improvements, as you call them, appear to me only so many links in the great chain of corruption, which will soon fetter the whole human race in irreparable slavery and incurable wretchedness: your improvements proceed in a simple ratio, while the factitious wants and unnatural appetites they engender proceed in a compound one; and thus one generation acquires fifty wants, and fifty means of supplying them are invented, which each in its turn engenders two new ones; so that the next generation has a hundred, the next two hundred, the next four hundred, till every human being becomes such a helpless compound of perverted inclinations, that he is altogether at the mercy of external circumstances, loses all independence and singleness of character, and degenerates so rapidly from the primitive dignity of his sylvan origin, that it is scarcely possible to indulge in any other expectation, than that the whole species must at length be exterminated by its own infinite imbecility and vileness.”

But Escot and Foster are opposed, or perhaps balanced, by Mr Jenkison, the statu-quo-ite, who believes that the balance of good and bad remains the same from generation to generation:

I have often debated the matter in my own mind, pro and con, and have at length arrived at this conclusion – that there is not in the human race a tendency either to moral perfectibility or deterioration; but that the quantities of each are so exactly balanced by their reciprocal results, that the species, with respect to the sum of good and evil, knowledge and ignorance, happiness and misery, remains exactly and perpetually in statu quo.

Throw in more philosophers and scholars attached with equal fervor to other, and odder, world-views, mix with absurd incidents, absurder love-affairs, and season with genuine learning and wit, and you have the recipe with which Thomas Love Peacock has appealed to a small but select audience ever since Headlong Hall was first published in 1816. Two years later, in 1818, he followed it with Nightmare Abbey, which is less a feast than a single dish, but no less delicious for that. Even better, you can buy both for a pound in the Wordsworth series at a bookshop near you now.

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Æsthete’s Foot — Quennell, Acton and Powell on Waugh, Oxford and Crowley

Coo’ on Wu — extracts about Evelyn Waugh from Diana Cooper’s letters to her son John Julius Norwich.

Pinal Chap — Max Beerbohm’s memoir of Swinburne

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A Clarificatory Conspectus for Core Comprehension of Key Counter-Culturality

A map describing the key components that feed into the use of 'in terms of' by keyly committed core components of the counter-cultural community

(Click for larger version)


Elsewhere other-engageable:

Ex-term-in-ate!
Maximal Metric
Keyly Committed Components

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The Water-Babies by Charles KingsleyThe Water-Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby, Charles Kingsley (1863)

When I first read this as a child, I didn’t realize that it was one of the strangest books ever written. I do now. And the strangeness was heightened by the old edition I’ve re-read it in, because it came as a double volume that started with Kingsley’s The Heroes, or Greek Fairy Tales (1856).

No-one reading The Heroes would guess what awaited them in the second half of the book. The prose plods, the imagery is strictly conventional – “Then Aietes’ rage rushed up like a whirlwind, and his eyes flashed fire” – and Kingsley makes interesting stories dull. I quickly gave up when I tried to read them.

Maybe I was anticipating The Water-Babies too much. It starts almost conventionally, but it has an unconventional hero: “a little chimney-sweep” called Tom. He’s unwashed, unlettered, untaught, and unfairly treated by his master in “a great town in the north country”. But he accepts the hardships of his life, finds fun where he can, and thinks of “the fine times coming, when he would be a man, and a master sweep, and sit in the public-house with a quart of beer and a long pipe, and play cards for silver money, and wear velveteens and ankle-jacks, and keep a white bull-dog with one grey ear, and carry her puppies in his pocket, just like a man.”

That first long paragraph of The Water-Babies is already richer and more vivid than the whole of The Heroes. And the book hasn’t got strange yet. It starts to do so when Tom is taken into the country to sweep the chimneys of Harthover House, the grand home of the squire Sir John Harthover:

[It] had been built at ninety different times, and in nineteen different styles, and looked as if somebody had built a whole street of houses of every imaginable shape, and then stirred them together with a spoon.

For the attics were Anglo-Saxon.

The third door Norman.

The second Cinque-cento.

The first-floor Elizabethan.

The right wing Pure Doric.

The centre Early English, with a huge portico copied from the Parthenon.

The left wing pure Boeotian, which the country folk admired most of all, became it was just like the new barracks in the town, only three times as big.

The grand staircase was copied from the Catacombs at Rome.

The back staircase from the Tajmahal at Agra. […]

The cellars were copied from the caves of Elephanta.

The offices from the Pavilion at Brighton.

And the rest from nothing in heaven, or earth, or under the earth. (The Water-Babies, ch. 1)

That’s an early taste of the eccentric lists and juggling of ideas to come. Tom begins to sweep the chimneys of Harthover House, but accidentally comes down in the bedroom of the squire’s daughter as she lies asleep in bed. She’s the “most beautiful little girl Tom had ever seen”. And she’s completely clean. Then Tom notices someone else in the room: “standing close to him, a little ugly, black, ragged figure, with bleared eyes and grinning white teeth.”

He turns on it angrily, then realizes it’s his own reflection in a “great mirror, the like of which [he] had never seen before.” For the first time in his life, he understands that he is dirty. The knowledge startles and shames him, so he tries to flee up the chimney. But he upsets the fire-irons and wakes the little girl. She screams, thinking he’s a thief; and Tom’s adventures begin. He leaves the little girl’s bedroom by the window, climbing down the magnolia tree outside, and runs off.

Soon the whole house and its staff are chasing him, but he tricks them off his trail, “as cunning as an old Exmoor stag”, and makes off through a wood, then onto the hills of a moor. After the grand catalogue of architectural styles, Kingsley’s descriptions become detailed and naturalistic: “[Tom] saw great spiders there, with crowns and crosses marked on their backs, who sat in the middle of their webs, and when they saw Tom coming, shook them so fast that they became invisible.” But when he disturbs a grouse washing itself in sand, it runs off and tells its wife about the end of the world. Like Tom, the reader has entered a new world where animals think and talk.

But the truly big transformation is still to come. The sun is very hot as Tom climbs the limestone hills and starts down the other side. He grows thirsty and begins to suffer from sun-stroke. When he seeks help at a dame-school, he’s given some milk and a place to rest, but his head is ringing and he wants to be clean. He walks to a stream in a nearby meadow and bathes in it. Then he falls asleep in it:

Ah, now comes the most wonderful part of this wonderful story. Tom, when he woke, for of course he woke — children always wake after they have slept exactly as long as is good for them — found himself swimming about in the stream, being about four inches, or — that I may be accurate — 3.87902 inches long and having round the parotid region of his fauces a set of external gills (I hope you understand all the big words) just like those of a sucking eft, which he mistook for a lace frill, till he pulled at them, found he hurt himself, and made up his mind that they were part of himself, and best left alone. (ch. II)

He’s now a Water-Baby and can begin his amphibious adventures. As the title suggests, water is central to this book: it’s a protean, ever-changing medium, with the power to transform, transport and cleanse. And it has a lot in common with language, which is also protean and transformative.

So Kingsley plays with language as he describes water and its inhabitants. I thought he was making fun of scientific terminology – “3.87902 inches long and having round the parotid region of his fauces a set of external gills” is just the start – but apparently he was a friend of Charles Darwin and accepted Evolution. A lot of that goes on in this book: physical, intellectual and moral. Tom evolves from boy to Water-Baby, but he has a lot of bad habits to unlearn as he travels down the stream and the river into which it evolves. As part of his education, he talks with all kind of animals:

And as the creature sat in the warm bright sun, a wonderful change came over it. It grew strong and firm; the most lovely colours began to show on its body, blue and yellow and black, spots and bars and rings; out of its back rose four great wings of bright brown gauze; and its eyes grew so large that they filled all its head, and shone like ten thousand diamonds.

“Oh, you beautiful creature!” said Tom; and he put out his hand to catch it.

But the thing whirred up into the air, and hung poised on its wings a moment, and then settled down again by Tom quite fearless.

“No!” it said, “you cannot catch me. I am a dragon-fly now, the king of all the flies; and I shall dance in the sunshine, and hawk over the river, and catch gnats, and have a beautiful wife like myself. I know what I shall do. Hurrah!” And he flew away into the air, and began catching gnats. (ch. III)

Tom also meets wicked otters and snobbish salmon. Then he reaches the sea, realm of the ever-changing god Proteus, and things get even stranger. He talks with hermit-crabs and lobsters as he searches for other Water-Babies. Words and ideas run and swirl through the story like currents, and so do emotions. Tom experiences both joy and sadness:

And then there came by a beautiful creature, like a ribbon of pure silver with a sharp head and very long teeth; but it seemed very sick and sad. Sometimes it rolled helpless on its side; and then it dashed away glittering like white fire; and then it lay sick again and motionless.

“Where do you come from?” asked Tom. “And why are you so sick and sad?”

“I come from the warm Carolinas, and the sandbanks fringed with pines; where the great owl-rays leap and flap, like giant bats, upon the tide. But I wandered north and north, upon the treacherous warm gulf-stream, till I met with the cold icebergs, afloat in the mid ocean. So I got tangled among the icebergs, and chilled with their frozen breath. But the water-babies helped me from among them, and set me free again. And now I am mending every day; but I am very sick and sad; and perhaps I shall never get home again to play with the owl-rays any more.” (ch. IV)

That’s a description of an oar-fish, I think. When Tom finds the Water-Babies of whom it spoke, he completes his moral education under the guidance of two mother-fairies, the ugly Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid and the beautiful Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby. But the ugly can become beautiful: Kingsley was a Christian and this is a moralistic story too. The dirt that Tom has to lose is spiritual, not just moral and physical: he saw a crucifix in the little girl’s bedroom and didn’t know what it was.

But there’s too much going on in The Water-Babies for any simple reading of Kingsley’s aims. Or perhaps I’m saying that because I’m not a Christian. Either way, the book certainly isn’t conventional in its Christianity. Like C.S. Lewis’s Narnia or J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Kingsley’s world is big enough for non-believers. But it isn’t as coherent as Narnia or Middle-earth, or as easy to enter as Wonderland. That’s part of why The Water-Babies isn’t as famous or as widely read today. Lewis Carroll played with both logic and language; Kingsley plays with both life and language.

That’s what I like about this book. You’ll find vivid little naturalistic touches like spiders shaking in their webs and words like “Necrobioneopalaeonthydrochthonanthropopithekology”. If Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll had collaborated on a book, it might have ended up something rather like The Water-Babies. And James Joyce would have been good as a collaborator too. I don’t know if he was influenced by The Water-Babies, but he could have been. He too was obsessed with language and water. Both of them are at the heart of this Fairy Tale for a Land Baby.

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war-of-the-worlds-by-h-g-wellsThe War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells (1898)

You don’t read some books: you live them. Treasure Island (1883) is like that; so is The War of the Worlds. Both books appeared before true cinema, but they have the vividness of films and more besides, because cinema can’t evoke scent, smell, taste and sensation as language can. Words create worlds in your head and the best writers, like Wells and Stevenson, can make the real world grow dim while you read. I first read both books as a child and both have stayed with me, so that every time I re-read them I can remember how it felt to read them that first time.

Or rather: I can remember how it felt to live them. I had heard the rustling feathers of Long John Silver’s parrot in Treasure Island; I had tasted the bitterness of the red Martian weed that smothers large parts of London in War of the Worlds. Both books are written in the first person and they’re both full of twists and surprises. That first person – the constant “I, Me, Mine”, as George Harrison put – helps explain why they’re so vivid, but it took much more than that. Stevenson and Wells were literary geniuses, masters of creating worlds from pure imagination.

After all, Stevenson had never lived in the eighteenth century and gone sailing on a treasure-hunt. Wells had never experienced an invasion by Martians. But you will if you read War of the Worlds. Wells captures the way it might have been with great skill and subtlety, from the mysterious lights and flashes seen by astronomers on Mars to the landing of the first cylinder containing Martians. Every time I re-read I know exactly what’s coming, but the narrator never does and I experience the story through him, so that it never fails to seem fresh and exciting.

Or horrifying. The Martians are like red octopuses, but they seem harmless and even pitiful at first, struggling to cope with the stronger gravity of Earth. Then suddenly they turn into death-dealing monsters, with a military technology far in advance of Victorian England’s and the will to use it without mercy. Or does “mercy” apply to creatures from another world? That’s one of the questions faced by the narrator when he sees the Martians at work, whether they’re slaughtering humans with their heat-rays and poison gas or capturing humans for food. The Martians aren’t men and our standards don’t apply. We matter to us, but why should we matter to them?

Because I’m living through the narrator, the ending of the story still seems surprising. Man was helpless, but Mother Nature wasn’t, as the narrator suddenly learns. Wells is good at shifts of perspective that make you see human beings and the world in a new way. Arthur C. Clarke learned that from him, but Wells was a greater and more grown-up writer. Today we know that Mars isn’t likely to invade, but The War of the Worlds remains an excellent adventure story and a continued warning about the “infinite complacency” with which men go “to and fro over this globe with their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter” (“The Coming of the Martians”).

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Anthony Burgess discusses Evelyn Waugh:


From Ninety-Nine Novels: The Best in English since 1939, A Personal Choice by Anthony Burgess (1984).

Brideshead Revisited [1945]

The creation of a television series based on this book (in 1981) was a pretext for the reappraisal of the book itself. The general consensus was that Brideshead Revisited was a sham and a snobbish sham. This referred as much to Waugh’s recension of the book in 1960 (he trimmed off the fat, meaning the gluttony appropriate to deprived wartime but reprehensible in peace) as to the self-indulgent first version. Everything in the novel would seem to be wrong — the implausible invention of a rich English aristocratic family haunted by the God of the Catholics; the Hound of Heaven pursuing the agnostic narrator-hero; the implication that only the upper class can be taken seriously. Charles Ryder, who narrates the story, is seduced by Brideshead Castle and its denizens: but this seduction is merely the prelude to his improbable seduction by God. The eschatological does not sit well with the sybaritic. And so on. And so on.

And yet. And yet. I have read Brideshead Revisited at least a dozen times and have never failed to be charmed and moved, even to tears. It is, appropriately, a seductive book. Even the overblown metaphors move and charm. The comedy is superb: Mr Samgrass, Ryder’s father, Anthony Blanche are wonderful portraits. And the evocation of pre-war Oxford and Venice, where Ryder “drowns in honey”, is of great brilliance. This is one of those disturbing novels in which the faults do not matter. (Increasingly one finds that the greatest works of literary art are those with the most flaws — Hamlet, for example.) Waugh’s regular Augustan stance, suitable for a comic writer, becomes confused with one romantic as a rose blown by moonlight, but it does not matter. Apart from its literary qualities, it breathes a theological certainty which, if a little too chic, is a world away from the confusions of Greeneland and the squalor of the Irish. It is a novel altogether readable and damnably magical.

Sword of Honour

Evelyn Waugh [1952-61]

This work was not originally planned as a trilogy. Men at Arms came out in 1952, to be followed by Officers and Gentlemen in 1955. The author considered then that he had said all he had to say about the experiences of his near-autobiographical Guy Crouchback in the Second World War, but he changed his mind later and completed the sequence with Unconditional Surrender in 1961 (published in the United States as The End of the Battle). In 1966 he pruned and revised and issued the trilogy as a single novel in one volume. Most readers prefer to take the items severally and in their unrevised form (compare Brideshead Revisited).

Guy Crouchback is a Catholic gentleman with a castello in Italy and a private income. His wife has left him to indulge in a series of marital adventures and his religion forbids divorce and remarriage. He is lonely, dim, dull, and has rejected the current of life. The coming of war fires him with a crusading zeal, but he is in his late thirties and the fighting machine does not want him. Eventually he joins the Halberdiers, trains, sees action in Dakar, Crete, finally Yugoslavia. Waugh does not push Crouchback too much into the foreground at first. There is a fine galaxy of comic characters — the magnificent Apthorpe, Brigadier Ritchie-Hook, the uniformed clubmen, as well as some more lovable than the satirist Waugh was previously able to give us — honest professional soldiers like Colonel Tickeridge, old Mr Crouchback with his firm and simple faith, eventually Uncle Peregrine, a universally dreaded bore who is not boring. But the pathos of Crouchback’s situation is woven strongly into the fine war reportage and the superb comic action. Virginia, his wife, divorced again, rejects his advances. His new bride, the army, is proving a slut. Disillusionment about the true nature of the war grows with the entry of the Russians into the conflict.

The age of the gentleman is disappearing. Men whom Crouchback admires prove treacherous or cowardly. There is a new type of hero emerging, summed up in the failed officer and imposter Trimmer, a former ship’s hairdresser. Trimmer sleeps with Virginia and begets a child on her. Crouchback and she reconsummate their marriage and ensure that a great Catholic family has an heir, though — by an irony appropriate to the new age — this child is really a proletarian by-blow. Crouchback survives the débâcle of Crete, is sickened by the “people’s war” in the Balkans, feels the death-urge, regrets the passing of an old order of chivalry and humanity but, with the stoicism of his kind, makes unconditional surrender to history. He had much in common with the hero of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End (a tetralogy of the First World War on which Waugh’s work seems to be modelled) — Christopher Tietjens, the incorrupt and traduced gentleman of Christian ideals. What Ford’s book did for one war, Waugh [sic] has done for the other. Sword of Honour is not merely the story of one man’s battles; it is the whole history of the European struggle itself, told with verve, humour, pathos and sharp accuracy.

Extracts from Little Wilson and Big God: Being the First Part of the Confessions of Anthony Burgess (1987).

The great English Catholics of the age of toleration, from Cardinal Newman to Graham Greene, have all been converts. A cradle Catholic finds it hard to take them seriously. They missed out on the suffering, never gave a drop of blood to the cause, and yielded not one rood of land to the Henrican expropriators. (Little Wilson and Big God: Being the First Part of the Confessions of Anthony Burgess (1987), pp. 7-8 of the 1988 Penguin paperback)

The converted Catholics of modern literature seem concerned with a different faith from the one I was nurtured in — naively romantic, pedantically scrupulous. Novels like The Heart of the Matter, The End of the Affair, Brideshead Revisited and Sword of Honour falsify the faith by over-dramatising it. Waugh’s fictional Catholicism is too snobbish to be true. It evidently hurt Waugh deeply that his typical fellow-worshipper should be an expatriated Irish labourer and that the typical minister of the Church should be a Maynooth priest with a brogue. [I disagree: I think he might have enjoyed this in a perverse way.] (pg. 8)

Jack Tollitt became, like Greene and Waugh, a fierce and pedantic Catholic, shame and example to us all. (pg. 53)

The situation presented in Evelyn Waugh’s Men at Arms applied to potential rank and file as well as to Oxford gentlemen like Guy Crouchback. What could be sickening about that novel, if the nausea were not mitigated by comic irony, is the assumption that a certain segment of British society was, on the grounds that it had an income from land, an Oxbridge education, and friends among the ruling classes, specially qualified to lead those with none of those irrelevant advantages. Kingsley Amis, reviewing Men at Arms, was right to ask what was wrong with Guy Crouchback’s enlisting as a private in the Pioneer Guards if he were so keen to do his duty. Hore-Belisha’s army reforms, which assumed that the gift of leadership was something to be learned by anyone who could learn it, and not a paracletic bestowal on gentlemen graduates, were considered to be Jewish impertinence. (pg. 222)

Evelyn Waugh was right, in his Put Out More Flags, to point to the peculiarly dreamlike nature of that first war winter. It was cosy. There was no shortage of Player’s cigarettes, real cream cakes and whiskey at twelve shillings and sixpence the bottle. There was a blackout, but this on moonless nights was a call to erotic adventure. (pg. 223)

Trevor Wilson, a Malayan Information Officer with whom I had dined in Kota Bharu, had given me some silk shirts to take back to his friend Graham Greene. Greene had an apartment in the Albany, no longer decorated with the miniature whisky bottles which he had been collecting and was to empty into the pages of Our Man in Havana. He was amiable and I signed a copy of Time for a Tiger [which I think is better than anything by Greene] for him. He took me to lunch at the Café Royal and, as it was Friday, we ate fish. Greene made it clear to me that he had achieved much and had reached a plateau where he could afford to take leisurely breath. He had not written the definitive Malayan novel which would match the definitive Vietnamese one entitled The Quiet American, and he did not seem to think I would write it either. I was comic, there was frivolity in my book. He praised the other great Catholic, Evelyn Waugh, and considered The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, which had just appeared, a masterpiece. My own Catholicism, being of the cradle variety, was suspect. I was evidently not to be taken seriously as a novelist, rather as a colonial civil servant who had had the luck to find excellent fictional material in the course of his duties. I was an amateur. This was pretty much my own view of myself. I shook hands with Greene, whom I was not to see again till we were both settled on the Côte D’Azur, and went to look for a job. (pg. 418)


Words on Waugh’s World

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Basteland coverBasteland: The Making of a Masterpiece, ed. Dr David M. Mitchell (Savoy Books 2015)

In rock music, there’s loud, there’s loud… and there’s My Bloody Valentine. In literature, there’s transgressive, there’s transgressive… and there’s Savoy Books.

But even by the standards of these Mancunian mavericks, one book stands out for terminal teraticity: David Britton’s Basted in the Broth of Billions (2008). This septic slab of cerebral psychosis is infamous among the counter-cultural cognoscenti for three things above all others: its extremity, its complexity and its incomprehensibility. No two reviewers have ever agreed what’s going on, what Britton is trying to say and even (in certain passages) what language the book is written in.

Seven years on, that hermeneutic fluidity is incisively interrogated in Basteland: The Making of a Masterpiece. It’s a detailed study of Basted overseen by Dr David M. Mitchell, the Post-Polymath Professor of Pantology at Port Talbot University. Convening a toxic team of psychotropic Savoyonauts, Mitchell first baited them to a frenzy, then unleashed them on their subject. He edited the resultant essays and monographs before penning an incendiary introduction of his own.

The interpretations he oversees are, as you’d expect, as varied as the contributors. In the closely reasoned analysis “Strength through Savoy”, transgressive textualist Will Self describes Basted as:

[A] rhizomatically rancid assault on the most helioseismically hallowed corner-stones of the modernist canon, jump-starting the cataclysmically creaking Colossus of On the R(h)o(a)d(es) with an extremophilically eldritch injection of synapse-stewing swamp-soup scooped from the atrabiliously atrociousest anus of the most mephitic myrmidon of Mephistopheles, whilst tipping its panache-packed Panama slyly – and wryly – to that rawest and wrenchingest of gut-grenades in Burroughs’ underground oeuvre: 1955’s never-surpassed Bulgaria on a Budget. (“Strength through Savoy: Notes towards a Vernichtungsliteratur of the Apocalypse”, pg. 46)

Sample pages #1

Sample pages #1


Elsewhere, veteran Savoyologist Polly Toynbee applies the techniques of the Kabbalah to unearth what she alleges to be a pastiche of Enid Blyton’s Five Go to Billycock Hill (1957) in chapters six, eight and nine of Basted, while committed counter-culturalist David Kerekes of Headpress Journal unfolds an intriguing theory about a core motif of Basted:

For countless readers, one of the edgiest and unsettlingest aspects of the book’s full-throttle aesthetic onslaught has to be the way in which, following each stomach-churningly detailed episode of brain-splattering, bowel-strewing slaughter, Lord Horror is inevitably described or depicted as opening and eating a packet of salt’n’vinegar crisps. He then often blows into the empty bag and bursts it. But why? In this essay I hope to explore this question and come up with some (tentative) conclusions as to the symbolism that is at work. (“Our Bite Macht Frei: The Symbolism of Salt-and-Vinegar Crisps in Britton’s Burroughsian Bildungsroman Basted in the Broth of Billions”, pg. 368)

Sample pages #2

Sample pages #2


Kerekes concludes that the crisp-eating episodes are, inter alia, allegories of the Stations of the Cross. He makes an excellent case, but who knows? Basted in the Broth of Billions defies both description and definition. Basteland: The Making of a Masterpiece will defy something else: your eyes. It’s the first book published by Savoy in what (to the exoteric observer) will appear to be entirely black type on entirely black paper. I’m not going to say how you can read the text, but I’ll give one hint: what Savoy do to English literature, this book does to the electro-magnetic spectrum…


Previously pre-posted on Papyrocentric Performativity:

Bulg’ Boy BoogieLiterary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs, Ted Morgan (1991)

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Lives in Writing by David LodgeLives in Writing, David Lodge (Vintage Books 2015)

I’ve never spent a wet Sunday in Hartlepool during a power-cut. Honest. You can probably say the same. However, there are various ways of approximating the experience in the comfort of your own home. You could watch some paint dry, for example. Or you could try reading this book.

In other words: Lives in Writing is deeply, will-to-live-drainingly dreary. David Lodge is a big literary name of the kind I’ve always instinctively avoided. But this is a collection of essays on writers, not one of his novels or books on literary theory, and I thought I could learn something from it. I was right: I did. I learnt that my instincts about Lodge were correct:

The name of Frank Kermode first impinged on my consciousness in 1954, when I was a second-year undergraduate reading English at University College London. In our Shakespeare course we had lectures from Winifred Nowottny, who in due course would be a colleague of Frank’s when he occupied the Lord Northcliffe chair at UCL. (“Frank Remembered – by a Kermodian”, pg. 153)

In 1961, aged twenty-six, I was in my second year as Assistant Lecturer in English Literature at Birmingham University when the Head of Department, Professor Terence Spencer, decided that we ought to have a specialist in American Literature, and accordingly advertised a post for one. (“Malcolm Bradbury: Friend and Writer”, pg. 165)

Can you detect any irony in the phrase “impinged on my consciousness”? Me neither. Does your heart quicken at a title like “Malcolm Bradbury: Friend and Writer”? I hope not. But prose like that is certainly inspirational. It inspired me to create a new verb: to plodge, meaning “to write ploddingly dreary prose in the manner of David Lodge”. I don’t think much of English Literature as an academic subject and Lodge helpfully confirms some of my keyest, corest prejudices. He’s a virtuso of ennui, able to be dreary both at length and in brief. Even the titles of his books shrink the horizon and lower the sky: Language of Fiction; Modes of Modern Writing; Working with Structuralism; After Bakhtin; Write On.

Would I rather read a Will Self novel than one of those? It’s frightening that the thought even occurs to me. But I’ll say this for Lodge: he’s not as bad as Terry Eagleton or Christopher Hitchens. Those two are gasbags bloated with self-importance and self-righteousness, spectacularly, sky-swallowingly bad writers. And Lodge himself might agree. After all, he tries to let a little gas out of Eagleton in his review of After Theory (2003):

There are sentences that should never have got past the first draft on his computer screen, let alone into print, like: ‘Much of the world as we know it, despite its solid, well-uphoulstered appearance, is of recent vintage.’ (In the next sentence this uphoulstered vintage is thrown up by tidal waves.) (“Terry Eagleton’s Goodbye to All That”, pg. 131)

But he praises Eagleton too and salutes the “brilliant generation of French intellectuals” – Barthes, Lacan, Althusser, Derrida, Foucault et al – who were “key figures” in the evolution of modern literary theory. So I’m pleased that he devotes a long essay to Graham Greene and mentions Evelyn Waugh only in passing. That’s the way I would have wanted it. There’s an essay about Kingsley Amis too, which is also good. Alas, William Burroughs doesn’t get plodged, but you can’t have everything. However, you can have a wet Sunday in Hartlepool, metaphorically speaking. Just try Lives in Writing.


Elsewhere other-posted:

Ink for Your PelfLiterary Theory: An Introduction, Terry Eagleton

Cigarettes and Al-QaedaHitch-22: A Memoir, Christopher Hitchens

Reds under the Thread – Younge, Eagleton et al

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