Sunday, February 27, 2011

Bigger Trees Near Warter

I went to one of the more unusual art exhibitions today, David Hockney's Bigger Trees Near Warter, at York Art Gallery. It's stupendous.

There is only one exhibit on display, but what an exhibit. It's enormous. Think of the largest painting you've ever seen - The Night Watch, say - and quadruple it. It's a painting of a stand of trees in late winter/early spring, and it's more or less life size. Yes, really.

It's composed of fifty separate canvases, which Hockney painted en plein air over a period of six weeks. Technically, it's astonishing. It is remarkable how he managed to keep control of the painting, even allowing for the fact he kept track of the total work by photographing each canvas as he worked on them.

Warter, of course, is very close to where I live, and what made the exhibition even more special was that to get to York we drove through the same landscape at more or less the same time of year as the painting is set. We passed a number of stands of trees just like it.

The painting is on display in York now, and then moves to the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull, where I shall go to see it again. It'll then return to its home at the Tate Gallery.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad and Fyodor Dostoevsky are at one in their abhorrence of anarchists and social revolutionaries. In them, they see a nihilism which ends only in the self-fulfilment of Silenus’s words of wisdom – existence itself is tainted, and the best thing to be done with it is to be done with it. Thus, the conclusion of Conrad’s The Secret Agent takes place in a beer-hall called, ironically, the Silenus. The world those revolutionaries Ossipon and The Professor are seeking to transform is itself already sordid – late nineteenth century London, down among the lower orders, wallowing in the murkiness of espionage and paid agents provocateur – and therefore, it seems, whatever the outcome of their anarchistic endeavours, be they successful or otherwise, the world will be no less and no more sordid, only different.

Mr Verloc, the central character of The Secret Agent, is someone engulfed by indolence. He has the air of ‘having wallowed, fully dressed, all day on an unmade bed.’ He is an agent provocateur, what we would nowadays call a sleeper, in the pay of a foreign power and providing information, waiting to act as required but, in fact, doing an absolute minimum to earn his pay. A change in personnel at the embassy forces his hand: he is impelled by his new boss, Mr Vladimir, to engineer a terrorist outrage, a meaningless explosion at the Greenwich Observatory – an attack on the first meridian, that potent symbol of science and progress. Mr Verloc is unhappy with his assignment, but he has no option but to obey. Tragedy ensues.

In his time in England, Mr Verloc has inveigled himself into English (lower order) society. He is married to Winnie and shares her house with Winnie’s mother, a frail and fading woman, and Winnie’s brother, the slow-witted Stevie. Ostensibly, he is the proprietor of a shop which has a reputation for dealing in unusual and illicit, probably pornographic material smuggled in from the continent. It is a comfortable living, requiring no great effort on Mr Verloc’s part, and this forms part of his irritation at being forced to act on behalf of his paymasters. Thus, the character of Mr Verloc comes under Conrad’s critical gaze twice over: as a reckless anarchist and as a laggard whose indolence results in moral apathy. His response to the tragedy he provokes is one of vexation, momentary shock, fleeting regret, but his overriding impression is that it was inconvenient, and not his fault, and something that had happened which simply had to be overcome. His inability to comprehend the emotions of his wife are symptomatic of a morally casual, reprehenisble nature. Mr Verloc is found wanting, in almost every respect. But he is not an evil man, he is merely banal; and through him, and those like him, Conrad argues, evil is allowed to flourish.

Around Verloc is a small congregation of fellow anarchists and revolutionaries – Michaelis, Yunt, Comrade Ossipon – who share his outlook and demeanour. They are not an attractive group of people. Future society would not be safe in the hands of such immoral louts, one must suppose. And what is the alternative? Conrad offers little hope in the figures of authority who are ranged against the anarchists. Mr Vladimir, Verloc’s master at the Embassy, is a calculating, manipulative man, callously indifferent to anything but the cause. The police investigation is hampered by protocol and hierarchy and suspicion. Verloc, we discover, as well as being an agent of a foreign power, is also a double agent providing information to the police, who are happy to use him and turn a blind eye to the illicit wares he peddles. These are two sides of a single coin, then, Conrad suggests.

And Mrs Verloc is little better. She is resolute in her refusal to see anything that is happening around her, to probe for questions or meanings, to wonder at any events which may unfold. She deliberately encases herself in a cocoon of ignorance, as though she can somehow remove herself from the mortal fray. As the novel proceeds, both she and we learn the futility of such an approach. Another individual found wanting, then. Indeed one of the few moments of genuine altruism in the novel arises when Winnie’s mother decides to move out of the family home into an almshouse, in the hope that this will make life easier for Winnie and, in particular, Stevie. We are left in little doubt that this will not be a happy retirement for the old woman – their progress as they take a cab through the streets of London towards the almshouse on the day of her departure is described almost in terms of a descensus. It is a low point for the family, but one wrought by goodness. Thus, there is an almost unbearable poignancy later in the novel when the family sinks even lower, towards its nadir, this time not as a result of failed goodness, but of Verloc’s moral vacuity.

And this gets to the heart of The Secret Agent, what makes it a great novel. Yes, it is an insightful analysis of terrorism, as has been much discussed in the years since 9/11. Yes, it offers a perspective on anarchism and revolutionary socialism which, however caricatured, does present a cogent critique of modern thought. One may or may not agree with Conrad’s analysis – for me it is overly pessimistic – but it is undoubtedly brilliantly written.

But what makes the novel great is the way he melds the political with the personal, the public with the private. Because the events which Verloc unleashes as a result of his terrorist act undoubtedly have their public repercussions, but no act can ever be played out purely in the public arena: there must always be a private dimension. In 9/11 or 7/7 there was the political reality of those terrorist acts, certainly, and they will not be forgotten in our generation, but there were also hundreds of private tragedies, families torn apart, lovers lost, families bereaved. For them, for those who survived, there was no 9/11 or 7/7 as such, only the moment that their darling died and their lives changed. Their understanding of what those events mean is inherently different from the understanding of those of us not directly affected. And this is what we see powerfully in The Secret Agent. Verloc is not only an agent provocateur, he is a husband. He not only works as a terrorist but as a shop owner, with his family around him. And that family life is irrevocably violated. In a harrowing episode, Mrs Verloc overhears the terrible truth of what has happened. The moment circles around her and we are taken on a dizzying swoop around her emotions:

In that shop of shady wares fitted with deal shelves painted a dull brown, which seemed to devour the sheen of the light, the gold circlet of the wedding ring on Mrs Verloc's left hand glittered exceedingly with the untarnished glory of a piece from some splendid treasure of jewels, dropped in a dust-bin.

From that moment, the symbol of their marriage consigned to a dustbin, there is no hope for the Verlocs. The personal has been devastated. There is, then, little cheer in The Secret Agent. Throughout, it reveals a world of grim failure, a society hurtling towards a nihilistic end. And this is symbolised most effectively by the final scene, with Ossipon and The Professor leaving the Silenus. Ossipon walks blindly, ‘feeling no fatigue, feeling nothing, seeing nothing’, while The Professor averts his eyes from the ‘odious multitude of mankind.’ He has, we are told, ‘no future.’ The obvious question that Joseph Conrad is posing, of course, is ‘do we?’

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

American Purgatorio by John Haskell

The introduction to John Haskell’s American Purgatorio may sound familiar. A man goes into a filling station to buy refreshments and when he returns outside his wife and his car have disappeared. This is also the start of George Sluizer’s brilliant 1988 Dutch movie, The Vanishing (and also his witless 1993 Hollywood remake). But there the similarities end. American Purgatorio is a curiosity indeed, like Percival Everett’s American Desert rewritten by Robert M. Pirsig. This is a philosophical novel of ideas, a meditation on existence and love and hope and despair. It has a lot of humour along the way but, ultimately, this is a serious piece of fiction.

It is clear early on that all is not as it seems. There is an ethereality about everything that happens to the man, Jack, in the immediate aftermath of his wife's disappeance. Everything seems out of sync. As he stares out of his window the glass appears to become fluid; there is a lag in the steering of his car so that it doesn’t corner until moments after he has turned the wheel; a kid working in a gas station supplies him with power steering fluid despite apparently not having heard Jack ask for it because he was wearing headphones. The world is a strange place, and Jack feels increasingly disconnected from it.

He leaves his home behind and sets off in his car to find his wife. He has discovered a map in her study with a number of places – Lexington, Kentucky, Boulder, Colorado, San Diego, circled on it and highways marked. With only these clues he sets off in pursuit of his wife, having convinced himself that, because he wants to find her, he will find her. The novel becomes a roadtrip as he traverses America, like Phaedrus on his chautauqua in Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance, but all the while his experiences and encounters grow increasingly strange. The America he is finding, one feels, is not precisely the America that we know. Each of the chapter headings is taken from Dante’s Seven Deadly Sins, and the people he meets, the moments that elapse, grow ever more troublesome. He feels an overwhelming sense of failure, caused by a ‘disconnect betwen the world [he] wanted and the world as it was.’ He descends deeper into an America that becomes increasingly like its own mythologised past and as he does so he begins to slough off his possessions, giving away his tapes, his books, his mandolin, finally even his car.

In turn, the strange characters he encounters seem to be trying to draw him out of himself – the enigmatic Linda who appears at the start and at the end of his adventures, a couple of hippies with whom he has a sexual encounter, some native Americans who rescue him when his car breaks down, a priapic car driver who offers him a lift, a ‘snowy-haired girl’ who would have been very comfortable in a Haruki Murakami novel – but as Jack’s journey towards purgatory progresses he seems to become increasingly insubstantial. Finally, he is reduced to begging and living on the beach. The dreams he has had for his life have grown ‘smaller and smaller, shrinking and cracking’. The point of his life, he acknowledges, was to be loved, but by now ‘it was enough to simply exist.’ And one begins to suspect that even that basic urge may finally be beyond him, although as he approaches his nadir he does exclaim ‘Wanting life is life, and I’m not quite ready to give it up.’ Ready or not, though, one fears for Jack.

The novel’s conclusion is a curious affair. Whether it works largely depends on whether or not the reader has already guessed it: if he has then it works; if he hasn’t, it is likely to evince some groans. They would be unjustified. This is not a trick ending or a sudden descent into genre: it is clearly foreshadowed by the narrative (and even the title), and it provides a serious existentialist exploration of human motivation. American Purgatorio is a satisfying, beautifully controlled novel, the sort of thing Paul Auster used to be able to do. John Haskell has produced a fine debut novel.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

I suspect if I’d read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter twenty-five years ago I’d have become the bore in the corner telling everyone how they just have to read this book. Perhaps I’ll make up for lost time now. There are very few books I’ve finished and immediately wanted to start reading all over again. Tess of the D’Urbervilles was the first. The Tin Drum was second. One Hundred Years of Solitude next. That may be about it. And now The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Carson McCullers was twenty-three when she wrote this book. I don’t know how she did it. At twenty-three I had come nowhere close to understanding myself, let alone the rest of humanity. At twenty-three McCullers created a living world of living people, lonely and sad human beings, disconnected, wanting, longing, failing, falling prey to a world for which they were ill-equipped. Human beings who failed and were failed.

The novel focuses on five central characters, essentially archetypes who represent humanity and its problems. In Dr Copeland we have the embodiment of the civil rights movement and the struggle against racism; in Mick, a thirteen-year-old girl, we see the travails of young (especially poor) women growing up in a male-dominated world; in Jake we have the communist conscience, the struggle of the worker against the system; Singer, the deaf-mute, is the eternal outsider, searching for companionship; and Biff, keeping his cafe open throughout the night even though it is uneconomic to do so, because he can think of nothing else to do and because nobody else is doing it, is slowly ageing, watching his life disappear into sameness and disappointment. If this sounds contrived, writing by numbers, a character for every ‘issue’, then don’t be fooled. This may be the basic structure of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, but it is far from rigid, and the episodic plot, in which each of the characters interact in turn, falling in and out of the action, feels beautifully organic. It is a masterclass in marshalling your resources.

In particular, a significant strength of the novel is the way that McCullers uses voice to develop character. The narrative is presented in third person but takes the perspective of each of the major characters in turn. Thus, we see the development of the five principals from each other’s perspective. For example, when we begin to discern the otherworldliness of Singer, it is Biff who tells us that Jake and Mick have both turned him into a ‘sort of home-made God’ because his muteness allows them to project their idealised visions of goodness onto him. Or, of Doctor Copeland, we learn from his daughter, Portia, that he ‘done lost God and turned his back to religion’ and all his troubles stem from that loss. Explaining her approach, McCullers wrote:

There are five different styles of writing - one for each of the main characters who is treated subjectively and an objective, legendary style for the mute. The object of each of these methods of writing is to come as close as possible to the inner psychic rhythms of the character from whose point of view it is written.

This explanation also reveals another of the great strengths of the novel, the way it melds realism and mythicism. Ihab Hassan sees this as a problem with the text, suggesting that McCullers fails to successfully integrate ‘social man’ and ‘individual man’, that is, outer reality (history) and inner reality (psychology). I cannot agree. The structure of the novel is controlled perfectly and there is a clear progression from the characters and their internal preoccupations to the dangers of the wider world (the novel is set in 1939, in the lead-up to the Second World War, and culminates in a race riot). The key to this structural cohesion is the character of Singer, the mute. He is both real and unreal, occupying an important place in the lives of the other characters but existing, himself, in a kind of alternative reality where he and his mute friend, Antonapoulos, consigned early in the novel to an asylum, can continue to live in harmony. The ‘home-made God’, as Biff describes him, is much treasured by the other characters, though he himself is completely unaware of this. And in the novel’s final part, after Singer’s death, their reactions to that death help to solidify their beliefs. Each of them acts, makes a statement in the real world, sees their interaction with that real world develop. Thus, a strong element of realism in the novel is manifested through the subtle use of McCullers’ ‘legendary style’.

Oliver Evans, writing in 1962, notes that ‘[i]t is impossible to understand Mrs. McCullers' work unless one realizes that she conceives of fiction chiefly as parable. The reader who concerns himself exclusively with the realistic level of her stories will never fully appreciate them.’ Evans goes on to suggest that narrative is always secondary to allegory in McCullers’ work, describing her as a ‘didactic writer’ whose goal is to teach truths about human nature rather than to entertain. Again, I disagree. There are moments when the novel does slip into didacticism, such as when the Jewish boy, Harry Minowitz lectures Mick on Nazi Germany or some of Jake’s more laboured political pronouncements, but to describe the overall allegorical tone as didactic does McCullers a disservice. Evans is correct, however, to stress that a literal reading of McCullers in realist vein is unlikely to be rewarding.

Such an approach – and this is where I think Hassan’s analysis falls down, underestimates the depth of the central theme. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a novel about human love. It is about our aspirations and our needs, the concomitants of fruitful, fulfilled lives, the potential for happiness, the danger of despair. It is, therefore, intensely personal: the novel explores these individuals’ lives, what it is that makes them who they are. Yet it does so against a realist backdrop in which Dr Copeland suffers vicious racism; in which, surrounded by friends, Singer fails to find friendship; in which Jake rails helplessly at the downtrodden workers who cannot or will not help themselves; where Mick finds her dreams tempered by harsh economic reality; and where Biff, that lonely seeker of companionship, continues his fruitless quest. People close to these characters die; others are abused horribly. The world turns and history proceeds in violence. And these people, these poor symbols of humanity, are inextricably bound to it. Alienation and isolation afflict them. Through it all, their preoccupation is to find love.

All of this may sound as though the novel presents a hopeless world, but far from it. There is much despair for the characters here, but their plight shows a path for us. Connection, communication, this is the key. Thus, the tragedy of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is demonstrated by each of the characters’ desperate search for communication, human empathy. They all want somebody to know. But ultimately each is incapable of knowing anyone else. Each is sloughed in their own travails and, when opportunties arise, they fail to take them. Thus, Dr Copeland and Jake come close to agreement on the need for action against the increasing racist tendency, but end up repelling one another and parting acrimoniously. Earlier, Copeland even manages to alienate his own family, from whom he is already largely estranged but who, through his daughter, Portia, attempt a reconciliation with him; it fails because Copeland proves quite incapable of hiding his disappointment at his children’s meek acceptance of racism. Meanwhile, Singer remains oblivious of the wellspring of goodwill that surrounds him. Mick’s attempts to help her young brother backfire. On the only occasion when all five main characters are present together, in Singer’s room, there is only an awkward silence. They all want to communicate, to express themselves, to share the human experience with others, but they lack the wherewithal to achieve it. How may they - we - attain fulfillment?

McCullers’ remedy, one suspects, is religious, and there are strong religious resonances throughout The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. However, whether one takes a religious or secular view, the predicament remains as she describes it – the disconnection of the individual from society, the difficulty of achieving community.

In this vein, many critics have argued that Singer is a Christ-figure. Jan Whitt, for example, suggest that the remaining characters ‘seek to work out their own salvation’ through communicating with the mute Singer who becomes, as a result, a ‘paralyzed Christ figure, so restricted by the expectations of others that he is fictionalized by them.’ There is certainly a strong argument for Singer-as-Christ. People are drawn to him, they see in him whatever it is that they aspire to in the name of goodness. They see him as a conduit to fulfillment. And this is the great irony of the novel. It is the mute man who can show the others how to communicate, how to achieve their aspirations. But, of course, they fail. They sit in silence, mistrusting one another, resentful that they cannot be alone with Singer. And this, it seems to me, is a powerful message: communication with one’s saviour, whoever or whatever that may be, should not come at the expense of your fellow humanity. For a so-called religious novel that seems to me a radical call to humanist faith.

Therefore, it seems too simplistic to consider this to be a religious novel. It is certainly spiritual, in as much as it presents a quest for understanding, but too much remains unresolved for it to seriously be claimed by those of a religious persuasion to be a religious novel. In this, it appears to mirror McCullers’ own relationship with religion. Much like Herman Melville, she was drawn to religion and aspired to belief, but found such belief troublesome. Writing about The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, McCullers described its themes as a ‘unifying principle or God.’ Note that this is a principle or God, not of God. A search for godness is not the same thing as a search for God. And godness, in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, will ultimately be found in humanity.

Christ – goodness – is in each of us and all of us, humanity as a collective, and it is our failing that we cannot see it. We fail to reach out to one another and, in so doing, we fail ourselves and we fail each other. This is what The Heart is a Lonely Hunter reminds us.

Now, you just have to read this book...

Friday, February 18, 2011

Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl by Gert Hofmann

Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl has been sitting on my to-read pile for over a year, and now that I’ve finally got round to reading it I can’t recall what attracted me to it in the first place. Lichtenberg, of course, is a real person, an eighteenth-century German, very much a man of reason, a multi-faceted scientist and intellectual typical of the period. Today, he is best known for his witty aphorisms, but he was a fascinating character. He was a hunchback and dwarf, given to massive hypochondria, and well enough connected to be invited from Germany to England to stay in the court of King George (another German, of course).

Gert Hofmann’s last novel (he died in 1993, shortly after completing it) is a fictionalised account of Lichtenberg’s relationship with a very young girl, thirteen when they first met and when her parents agree for her to move in with him. At the time, Lichtenberg is thirty-five (though vanity impels him to claim he is thirty-three). He begins a slow courtship of this child, too young even to have breasts worth speaking of. Thus, we have what, on the face of it, seems to be unpromising territory, certainly in modern Britain where hysteria about child sex abuse has reached such a pitch paediatricians get beaten up by mobs who confuse the job title with the term paedophile. But this is a beautiful book, quiet and tender, very funny and desperately sad. The Lichtenberg who emerges from these pages is a tortuted, sensitive soul in search of love and companionship. And, improbably though it may sound, in Maria Stechard, whom he calls affectionately the Stechardess, he finds it.

Much of the success of this novel is derived from the wonderful voice. It is one part Nabokov (of course, given the subject matter), one part Nietzsche (those exclamation marks!), one part Rousseau (my ailments, my woe!), one part Flannery O’Connor (some things are so serious they can only be conveyed through humour) and several parts Torgny Lindgren (the beautiful, dreamlike directness of the prose, its poetic simplicity). There is virtually no description, no backstory, no scene-setting, no pausing to wonder or hint at the motivations or the feelings of the character. What we have is story, a quiet love story unfolded in achingly lovely prose. What we have are two people who fall into one another’s companionship and seem blissfully happy to reside there. In the novel, there is much clucking and wondering from friends and neighbours about the nature of the relationship (though far less than there would be these days) but Lichtenberg remains largely oblivious. He has his books, his experiments and his little Stechardess. He is happy. And in return he gives happiness.

This is certainly an odd book. It’s no surprise that it hasn’t been picked up by a major publisher – the subject matter is too contentious in the current age. But Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl is the opposite of prurient. There is nothing titillating here, nor is there anything objectionable. It’s as eccentric a read as you’re likely to find in a long time, a stylistic delight and an absolute masterclass in the use of a daring and original voice to drive the narrative.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Norwegian Wood

A trailer for the new film adaption of Murakami's Norwegian Wood can be seen here.

Until Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Norwegian Wood was Murakami's most acclaimed novel back in his native Japan. For a long time I thought it was one of his lesser works, but I'm coming to change my opinions on Murakami, and I think this might be the one that lasts. Murakami does melancholy better than almost anyone else.

Awful writing

As you can tell from my review below of David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, I enjoyed it very much. However, there was one passage in it that was so dreadful I couldn't believe what I was reading.

Orito, the heroine, has been imprisoned in a 'nunnery' which is, in fact, far from a spiritual establishment. I will not reveal the fate of Orito and the other unfortunates captured there, but it is imperative for her well-being that she escapes. This she attempts to do (following hints from a seemingly magic cat, an unnecessary throwback to earlier novels when the influence of Haruki Murakami was significant). She gets lost and finds herself outside a room at the gatehouse.

There, she overhears two guards talking. Talking about her. Talking about how she came to be trapped in the nunnery in the first place. Relating the whole terrible story so that she and we can know what happened. How convenient that they just happened to be having that conversation at precisely that moment. How unbelievable. It's the worst example of info-dumping - using dialogue to fill in story - I've read in a published book in a very long time. It's absolutely terrible.

I know there is a strong element of pastiche in the novel, and Mitchell is playing with conventions. But, seriously, if you want to write a pastiche of old-fashioned adventure stories, you don't do it by taking their worst failings and making them even worse.

Strange Fruit

I came across this terrific piece yesterday about Billy Holiday's Strange Fruit. It was an apt piece of timing because I'm currently reading Carson McCullers' The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, a novel written and set in 1939, the year Billie Holiday unleashed this song on the world, and dealing, like the song, with racist violence and murder.

I remember the first time I heard Strange Fruit. I'd been told about it, knew what it was about, knew what to expect, and it still shocked me into silence at the end. Dorian Lynskey makes the point that it is stunning because it is both a protest song and a work of art: it is brilliant on both levels simultaneously, and that is what gives it such immense power.

One can only imagine the impact it must have had on contemporary audiences, at a time when the civil rights movement was barely making any inroads into American society.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

David Mitchell clearly has an affinity for eastern, specifically Japanese philosophy. We have seen it before, in earlier works like Ghostwritten and number9dream. Those were breathtaking early novels, inventive and exciting in a way that is entirely refreshing when compared to much of what is produced in Great Britain at the moment. We are far from a golden age of British fiction, but Mitchell is undoubtedly a lasting talent. Those early novels did, nonetheless, owe a large debt to Haruki Murakami (even number9dream, in taking its title from a John Lennon song borrows its trope from Murakami’s most famous novel, named after The Beatles’ Norwegian Wood). By the time he reached Cloud Atlas, though, Mitchell was establishing his own voice. After a curious interlude with the atypical Black Swan Green, his most recent work once more establishes himself as one of our most important writers.

In The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Mitchell revisits his earlier interest in Japanese thought, but melds it with an analysis of the western philosophical outlook. Set in the closed environment of Japan at the very end of the eighteenth century, when it was trading with, but cautious and disdainful of the west, it focuses on the artificial island of Dejima in Nagasaki harbour on which the Dutch East India Company have set up a trading post. The Japanese remain resolutely insular: foreigners are forbidden to learn Japanese, possession of any symbols of Christianity is punishable by death, no Japanese person is permitted to leave the country’s shores. It trades with the voracious Dutch in a mutually distrustful but beneficial relationship, economic symbiosis. Japanese negotiations are strictly structured around precedent and protocol; the Dutch operation is riddled with corruption. Neither side really understands the motivations of the other.

Thus, Mitchell presents us with a classic clash of civilisations. This clash, though, is much more textured than anything imagined by Samuel P. Huntingdon or his two-dimensional apologists, or indeed by those Cassandras who have been predicting the downfall of western culture almost since the dawn of the Enlightenment itself. The tendency of the former is to see other cultures as shady, untrustworthy, even evil, while the latter enjoy a masochistic self-loathing of our venal western ways. Mitchell points to the occasional truths revealed in these caricatures, but offers, too, a more reasoned and balanced view of the respective strengths and weaknesses of the two traditions.

Jacob de Zoet, the novel’s hero, is almost priggishly upstanding, a product of Calvinist Amsterdam who is employed as a junior clerk and sent to Dejima to investigate irregularities in the Dutch East India Company accounts which might suggest corruption. Almost obsessively preoccupied with rectitude, his only aberration is to smuggle the family bible onto the island in defiance of the strict ban on Christian symbols. Thus, de Zoet’s character is clearly established, Calvinism personified: only the moral law of God may transcend the civil law of man. If this sounds unpromising, de Zoet becomes an enterprising and engaging lead character: his pompous rectitude leads him inexorably into trouble and grief, while at the same time his helpless and hopeless attraction to Orito, a beautiful but physically scarred Japanese woman opens up in him a human vulnerability which softens what could have been an austere character. He paints her image on a fan and presents it to her. He is warned that any liaison between a Japanese woman and a westerner is impossible but he perseveres with dogged, good-natured zeal. He attempts to write to her and woo her, asking his translator, Uzaemon, to pass a letter to her through the intermediary of a servant. Uzaemon, an essentially good man, is also enamoured of Orito, but nonetheless accedes to his unknowing rival’s request. Unfortunately, this act of altruism brings down tragedy.

At this point, such is the multi-stranded nature of the narrative, it is difficult to summarise accurately the fast-moving plot. It covers corruption, romance, humour, derring-do and a horrifying account of Shinto ritual grotesquely exploited by a cruel Samurai lord, the Abbot of Enomoto. It is, at once, a love story, a thriller, historical novel, philosophical study and, most of all, perhaps, a study in psychology, because Mitchell understands that in seeking to understand the philosophy of civilisations it is not the civilisations themselves which must be studied, but the individuals who comprise them. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is set at the fading of the Dutch empire and at a moment of juncture for Japan. Ways are changing, things are happening, the world is shifting. Jacob and Orito, respectively a sober but ambitious clerk and a driven and talented midwife, are unlikely deliverers of a new age, but the complex and frightening set of circumstances which throw them together turn them into just such symbols of change.

Because, in the end, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is not an analysis of east versus west, or good versus bad, or any such trite binary opposition. This is why, for the central intellectual characer, Dr Marinus, a close cousin of Settembrini in Mann’s The Magic Mountain, and someone who embodies decency, there is no opposite character to represent evil. You might argue that Lord Abbot Enomoto fulfils that role, but in truth his function is different. He in no way represents Japan, or the east, or any opposition to western enlightenment. To be Marinus’s opposite, in the way that Naphta opposes Settembrini, he would need to espouse something more substantial than the superstitious nonsense that drives his lust for power. No, instead of Enomoto (or evil) as nemesis, the opposition to Marinus comes instead from history, from progress, specifically from the arrival of the British to claim Japan for their empire.

This allows Mitchell to provide a more sophisticated analysis of this clash of civilisations. It is not a simple battle between good and evil, progress or tradition. There are good men on both sides, greatly outnumbered by bad men. There is evil and corruption abounding. But there is, too, decency and hope and honour and respect and, ultimately, it is these quiet attributes which prevail. Good will always find its outlets, whatever the difficulties. In The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, those outlets are Jacob and Dr Marinus, Orito and Uzaemon. Not all of them survive the novel, and those deaths are keenly felt, but some of them do, and goodness prevails, and it is this which is the final, uplifting message of this very fine novel.

Big skies

You change as you get older. When I was younger, my favourite time of year was autumn. I loved the sight and smell and texture of abundance slowly turning to decay, everything coming to an end. There was something almost voluptuous about it.

As the years go by that annual ending becomes less metaphorical and more portentous. And, accordingly, with every passing year I enjoy spring more, especially where we are now, at the end of winter and the first fumblings of a new year. Snowdrops are out. Daffodils are coming. Catkins on the trees, a few incipient buds.

We've had a tough winter. It may not even be over yet. We've had slow later than this each year since I've lived in Yorkshire. But it feels like the start of something new. It feels different outside, somehow.

This is Burton Agnes, where we go every year to look at the snowdrops. Normally there is a vast sea of them, but it's been rough this winter and they're a bit ravaged, outposts here and there with plain grass deserts in between. But it's the skies I love here, anyway. We do big skies in this part of Yorkshire, in the Wolds. They were rather grey yesterday, but majestic all the same.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Pacing and poignancy in The Secret Agent

I'm in the middle of reading The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad, and enjoying it, but stylistically it is very different from contemporary writing - to the extent that the impatient modern reader might - mistakenly - say it is overwritten.

One passage, in particular, exemplifies this. Things are unravelling for the central character, Mr Verloc, the secret agent of the title. Against his will, he has been forced to act as an agent provocateur and the resulting escapade has gone badly wrong. At this stage, we don't realise how badly wrong, but it is clear that Mr Verloc is in some distress. He returns to his wife in agitation and talks of fleeing for the continent.

At this point in modern novels we would expect a ratcheting of pace. There is a climax coming, and we expect the action to speed up accordingly. Here it doesn't. If anything, Conrad slows it down. Verloc's wife talks to him quietly and gently. Then we have this scene:

She glanced all round the parlour, from the corner cupboard to the good fire in the grate. Ensconced cosily behind the shop of doubtful wares, with the mysteriously dim window, and its door suspiciously ajar in the obscure and narrow street, it was in all essentials of domestic propriety and domestic comfort a respectable home. Her devoted affection missed out of it her brother Stevie, now enjoying a damp villegiature in the Kentish lanes under the care of Mr Michaelis. She missed him poignantly, with all the force of her protecting passion. This was the boy's home, too--the roof, the cupboard, the stoked grate. On this thought Mrs Verloc rose, and walking to the other end of the table, said in the fullness of her heart:

"And you are not tired of me."

Mr Verloc made no sound. Winnie leaned on his shoulder from behind, and pressed her lips to his forehead. Thus she lingered. Not a whisper reached them from the outside world. The sound of footsteps on the pavement died out in the discreet dimness of the shop. Only the gas-jet above the table went on purring equably in the brooding silence of the parlour.

That single scene, of Mrs Verloc leaning over and kissing her husband's forehead, is breathtakingly poignant. It is beautiful, a perfect snapshot of a turning point in these people's lives. It is of just such tender moments that great art is made. It is, for example, immediately reminiscent of paintings by Vermeer or Hammershoi, small, domestic interludes which reveal the universal glory of human passion through the entirely personal. In one respect, of course, this scene is different from anything in Vermeer, a Dutchman bound by seventeenth century conventions, or Hammershoi, similarly constrained by late nineteenth century Danish conservatism: Mrs Verloc is brave enough, in love enough, melancholy enough, to breach those unwritten barriers of etiquette and actually make contact with her husband. Love in a kiss, silent, unambiguous, total.

That kiss is essential. It is what gives the scene its power. It is far removed fromt the typical Victorian melodrama we would associate with the period in which The Secret Agent is set. It is real. It makes Mrs Verloc real.

Such poignancy would be utterly impossible without the lengthy set-up established by Conrad, the slow unfurling of this couple's moment of crisis. It is an example of genius.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

A Cry of Absence by Madison Jones

A Cry of Absence was published in 1972 but is set in the south in 1957, the start of the civil rights movement. Its central character, Hester Glenn, is an old school southerner, the descendent of slave owners, still living in her great-grandfather’s house. She is a Presbyterian, rigidly conservative, proud of her heritage, comfortable in her old-fashioned town and devoted to her two sons, especially Cam, the talented baseball pitcher. Hester, herself, might have expected her life to proceed with quiet dignity, but suddenly it is disrupted by the violent murder of a black boy, Otis Stevens. Cam’s brother, Ames, comes to suspect that Cam is implicated in the murder and tells his mother of his concerns. Hester dismisses them, telling Ames she knows her sons well enough to know such a thing would be impossible. Doubts remain, however, and the novel proceeds with a horrible inevitability.

Although this is a novel about race, to some extent it is incidental. A Cry of Absence is more a psychological study of a family riven apart by its deadly secrets. Racism and entrenched reactionary attitudes play a major role in the narrative, but it is the unfolding fate of the three central characters which is truly engrossing. In his contemporary review, Monroe Spears called it ‘an authentic, pure, and deeply moving tragedy’, while Allen Tate called it a ‘masterpiece of fictional art’. While it is, indeed, a fine novel, it is, to be honest, somewhat dated and the characters are close to stock, especially Cam and the Snopesian Hollis Handley, a piece of white trash who tries to take advantage of Hester at the height of her tragedy. Nonetheless, it is a gripping read, beautifully written and superbly controlled.

The novel explores the classic southern dilemma of a conservative hankering for a past which never truly was and which contains unpalatable truths. Hester believes absolutely in the old ways and has brought her children up to think likewise. In the case of Cam, however, her preaching of the old values reveals the dangers inherent in them: it is confirmed that he is, indeed, a racist murderer. Faced with the dissolution of all that she thought immutable, Hester disintegrates, and the family tragedy escalates. A Cry of Absence is quietly powerful. It offers no easy answers. It contains no saintly characters to provide glib reassurance. It simply reveals a tragedy and follows it to its conclusion.

Friday, February 04, 2011

John Gray on science

John Gray is much given to reactionary soundbites ('liberalism is a neo-Christian cult', for example). He also has an obsession with spouting faux-Voegelinian nonsense about modern political religions - 'the religion of humanity' - taking the place of genuine religion in our collectives psyches. He is much given to fallacious arguments to 'prove' his points. For example, this argumentum ad ignorantiam:

It is a commonplace that science has replaced religion. What is less noted is that science has become a vehicle for needs that are indisputably religious. Like religions in the past, though less effectively, science offers meaning and hope. In politics, improvement is fragmentary and reversible; in science, the growth of knowledge is cumulative and now seemingly unstoppable. Science gives a sensation of progress that politics cannot power.

Yes, I would accept that science offers hope. Meaning? Possibly, though I'm not sure about that, and certainly not in any metaphysical way. Just the opposite, I'd have thought. But Gray makes his assertion, with no proof whatever, and immediately, as all good fallacious arguers do, sets about demolishing the false position he has established. In this way, he establishes a completely bogus binary opposition, and attacks science from a base which it does not profess to hold.

Gass on writers and philosophers

William H. Gass:

The concepts of the philosopher speak, the words of the novelist are mute; the philosopher invites us to pass through his words to his subject: man, God, nature, moral law; while the novelist, if he is any good, will keep us kindly imprisoned in his language – there is literally nothing beyond.

That is simply nonsense. Gass tries to establish a fundamental difference between philosophers and writers and, in some senses, he may be right. But here he goes too far. A philosopher, if he is any good, will indeed invite us to pass through his words to his subject. But so too, will a writer. Is Moby-Dick a mute example of wordplay, or is it an exercise in the understanding of humanity and human nature? Are Flannery O'Connor's tortured souls, Tarwater and Haze Motes, mutely imprisoning us in a cage of beautiful words, or are they beckoning us to the vision that O'Connor wants us to apprehend? Of course there is something beyond the words on the page. Otherwise there would be no point in either writing or reading them.