Friday, April 29, 2011

Roy Flatt

I've mentioned on here a few times that I became a librarian because when I was a boy my local librarian sometimes wore a kilt and wellies at work, and I wanted a job where I could do that. There was more to it than that, of course. I distinctly remember being greatly impressed when I asked him for books on ancient Egypt and he took me directly to the appropriate shelves. And the way he could rifle through the old Browne tickets and find my reader's card was memorable.

That librarian's name was Roy Flatt, and I'm saddened to read that he has recently died. I never did get round to emulating his sartorial approach, but I may just appropriate his answer for preferred leadership style.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Best of Beryl


Tonight, Man Booker will award the Best of Beryl award for the best of the five novels that Beryl Bainbridge had nominated for the Booker Prize. To the competition's shame, she never won it. In either an act of atonement or a shameless marketing gimmick, they are selecting from her five nominations for a special award to mark the oeuvre of this singularly English writer.

Actually, I think it would be much more funny if, say, Margaret Drabble won it and poor old Beryl came second again. I think that would have made her roar with laughter too...

If I had to choose, it'd be The Bottle Factory Outing, though I think An Awfully Big Adventure will win.

Update: Master Georgie wins. It was beaten in the original Booker by McEwan's Amsterdam, so I am fairly happy with that. It's a better book than Amsterdam.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Children and Indians in McCarthy and James Fenimore Cooper

The fate of children in the novels of Cormac McCarthy is not generally advantageous. They seldom survive. In Outer Dark, the offspring of Rinthy and Culla is killed by Harmon and the Triune. Suttree’s son dies. Blood Meridian is awash with the blood of slaughtered children. In The Road one is eaten. The common thread is the lack of sentimentality with which McCarthy describes their fates. He doesn’t labour to describe the brutality or the unique horror of such a crime. He doesn’t attempt to explain the impact on the other characters. All of this increases the power of the passages. By not describing, he forces the reader to picture the scene.

It is interesting to compare McCarthy’s technique with James Fenimore Cooper in The Last of the Mohicans. Consider this scene:

The savages now fell back, and seemed content to let their enemies advance without further molestation. But, as the female crowd approached them, the gaudy colors of a shawl attracted the eyes of a wild and untutored Huron. He advanced to seize it without the least hesitation. The woman, more in terror than through love of the ornament, wrapped her child in the coveted article, and folded both more closely to her bosom. Cora was in the act of speaking, with an intent to advise the woman to abandon the trifle, when the savage relinquished his hold of the shawl, and tore the screaming infant from her arms. Abandoning everything to the greedy grasp of those around her, the mother darted, with distraction in her mien, to reclaim her child. The Indian smiled grimly, and extended one hand, in sign of a willingness to exchange, while, with the other, he flourished the babe over his head, holding it by the feet as if to enhance the value of the ransom.

"Here -- here -- there -- all -- any -- everything"! exclaimed the breathless woman, tearing the lighter articles of dress from her person with ill-directed and trembling fingers; "take all, but give me my babe"!

The savage spurned the worthless rags, and perceiving that the shawl had already become a prize to another, his bantering but sullen smile changing to a gleam of ferocity, he dashed the head of the infant against a rock, and cast its quivering remains to her very feet. For an instant the mother stood, like a statue of despair, looking wildly down at the unseemly object, which had so lately nestled in her bosom and smiled in her face; and then she raised her eyes and countenance toward heaven, as if calling on God to curse the perpetrator of the foul deed. She was spared the sin of such a prayer for, maddened at his disappointment, and excited at the sight of blood, the Huron mercifully drove his tomahawk into her own brain. The mother sank under the blow, and fell, grasping at her child, in death, with the same engrossing love that had caused her to cherish it when living.

Horrible, to be sure, but for me the drama of the scene is diluted by the excursion into analysis of the woman’s sensibilities. The invocation of God as witness removes the immediacy of the moment, and the love that the woman feels for her child, as strong in death as it was in life, would be more powerfully felt if it was left unsaid. What is happening is that Cooper is lifting the reader out of the immediate narrative by an omniscience which is unnecessary and intrusive. The true horror is felt when the reader feels as though he is there observing. Something of that connection is lost when the woman’s thoughts, which the reader-observer cannot know, are brought into the narrative.

There then follows a massacre, as the Indians go on the rampage. Again, it is instructive to compare McCarthy and Cooper. This is the attack on the camp in Last of the Mohicans:

At that dangerous moment, Magua placed his hands to his mouth, and raised the fatal and appalling whoop. The scattered Indians started at the well-known cry, as coursers bound at the signal to quit the goal; and directly there arose such a yell along the plain, and through the arches of the wood, as seldom burst from human lips before. They who heard it listened with a curdling horror at the heart, little inferior to that dread which may be expected to attend the blasts of the final summons.

More than two thousand raving savages broke from the forest at the signal, and threw themselves across the fatal plain with instinctive alacrity. We shall not dwell on the revolting horrors that succeeded. Death was everywhere, and in his most terrific and disgusting aspects. Resistance only served to inflame the murderers, who inflicted their furious blows long after their victims were beyond the power of their resentment. The flow of blood might be likened to the outbreaking of a torrent; and as the natives became heated and maddened by the sight, many among them even kneeled to the earth, and drank freely, exultingly, hellishly, of the crimson tide.

And this is Blood Meridian:

Already you could see through the dust on the ponies’ hides the painted chevrons and the hands and rising suns and birds and fish of every device like the shade of old work through sizing on a canvas and now too you could hear above the pounding of unshod hooves the piping of the quena, flutes made from human bones, and some among the company had begun to saw back on their mounts and some to mill in confusion when up from the offside of those ponies there rose a fabled horde of mounted lancers and archers bearing shields bedight with bits of broken mirrorglass that cast a thousand unpieced suns against the eyes of their enemies. A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of unifrom still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained weddingveil and some in headgear of cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeontailed coat work backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armor of a spanish conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or sabre done in another country by men whose very bones were dust and many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses’ ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse’s whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen’s faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.

Oh my god, said the sergeant.

The tendency to judge is strong in the Cooper. Magua’s whoop is “appalling”, the yells of the Indians are like nothing human, they are “raving savages” who “hellishly” drink the blood of their vanquished. There is no doubt here where the poles of right and wrong reside. And again, as with the appeal to God in the previous scene, there is a precise correlation with Christian judgement, with the horrific sounds bearing comparison with the Last Trump at Armageddon. The same can be seen in the McCarthy, but to a lesser extent. Again, the Indians’ yells are barbarous. But, while Cooper is at pains to describe their godlessness, McCarthy’s Indians are instead grotesques. The scene is “death hilarious” and the Indians are even compared to clowns: this juxtaposition of terror and childish entertainment is particularly chilling. Where Cooper described the Indians’ screams invoking terror “little inferior” to the Last Judgement, McCarthy goes even further, describing the sight of the Indians as “more horrible” than the Christian hell. But in this description, McCarthy is not being judgemental in the way that Cooper is. In Last of the Mohicans, we are being directed by Cooper to view the scene in a particular way. There is nothing of this proselytising in Blood Meridian. The action is described as it happens and the only response we are invited to share is the sergeant’s helpless “Oh my god.”

There is nothing the reader can do but agree.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Special edition of Hyperion on James Purdy

Many thanks to Rainer, who left a comment on one of my reviews of a James Purdy novel, alerting to me the special edition of Hyperion Writers' Journal dedicated to Purdy. This is a fantastic resource. I've only dipped into some of the papers included, and I'm looking forward to reading them all in detail.

The more I think about Purdy (and I do, frequently, his writing keeps coming back to me), the more I think he is a neglected genius. When I'm done with my PhD I aim to make a fuller study of his work, and I'm really pleased that the Nietzsche Circle, publishers of Hyperion, have produced this special edition.

It is also a wonderful website, and as an amateur dabbler in Nietzsche, I'm much looking forward to browsing further.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

But encouraging news on censorship

The top ten books most challenged in American libraries is the troubling story in my previous post, but here's good news to counter it:

Only 13$ of Americans in a new poll have said they supported a bowdlerised version of Huckleberry Finn in which Twain's use of "nigger" is replaced by "slave" and "injun" is also expunged.

It baffles me how people can accuse Huck Finn of being racist. Presumably the claim is being made by people who haven't actually read it, but just know that the "n" word is used and immediately jump to conclusions.

But 87% have rejected this ridiculous pandering to witless criticism.

America's Most Challenged Books

Once again, the American Library Association has produced a list of the books most frequently challenged in US libraries by people seeking to have them banned.

The top ten is:

1. "And Tango Makes Three" by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson
Reasons: Homosexuality, Religious Viewpoint, Unsuited to Age Group

2. "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" by Sherman Alexie
Reasons: Offensive language, Racism, Sex Education, Sexually Explicit, Unsuited to Age Group, Violence

3. "Brave New World" by Aldous Huxley
Reasons: Insensitivity, Offensive Language, Racism, Sexually Explicit

4. "Crank" by Ellen Hopkins
Reasons: Drugs, Offensive Language, Sexually Explicit

5. "The Hunger Games" by Suzanne Collins
Reasons: Sexually Explicit, Unsuited to Age Group, Violence

6. "Lush" by Natasha Friend
Reasons: Drugs, Offensive Language, Sexually Explicit, Unsuited to Age Group

7. "What My Mother Doesn’t Know" by Sonya Sones
Reasons: Sexism, Sexually Explicit, Unsuited to Age Group

8. "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America" by Barbara Ehrenreich
Reasons: Drugs, Inaccurate, Offensive Language, Political Viewpoint, Religious Viewpoint

9. "Revolutionary Voices" edited by Amy Sonnie
Reasons: Homosexuality, Sexually Explicit

10. "Twilight" by Stephenie Meyer
Reasons: Religious Viewpoint, Violence


Brave New World? You couldn't make it up, could you? Wanting to ban a book in which books are banned. Why not add Fahrenheit 451 to the list as well?

As ever, it would be good if American readers of the blog visited their local libraries and requested some of these titles, to ensure they get bought and circulated.

Librarians are not censors. It is one of the most fundamental aspects of our profession.

Idealism in The Glass Bead Game

This is from Robert Galbreath's analysis of Herman Hesse and the politics of detachment:
But there is also an agonized optimism to his thought and a devotion to the ideals of peace and humanity which demand to be related to real life. Although many readers misinterpreted his novels, the books yield innumerable examples of Hesse's emphatic rejection of escapism in all forms: escape into pure instinct, into childhood innocence, into utopianism and aestheticism, into ivory-tower academicism, and action for its own sake.


I find this an interesting quote because I may have been (may still be) one of those who is thus misinterpreting Hesse. ‘Agonised optimism’ is an elegant and accurate phrase. I can think of no better way of summarising the conclusion of Demian, for example, or of the death of Knecht in The Glass Bead Game. I find that optimism refreshing. It is so rudely absent in much modern literature, which appears to revel in the gnostic travails of humanity and the encroaching destruction of civilisation. Hesse and Thomas Mann are beacons of hope amid so much darkness of spirit.

But a rejection of escapism? I find that more difficult to accommodate, given Hesse’s work. The key here, for me, might be a comparison of the roles in Joseph Knecht's life of Father Jacobus and the Elder Brother. Father Jacobus is a man of the world, a spiritual man – a Benedictine monk – who nonetheless understands how to engage in politics and how important politics is in everyday discourse. Despite his faith, he is Thomas Mann's Settembrini without the naivety, a liberal man of culture and cunning. The Elder Brother, however, is steeped in Chinese philosophy and is set on a hermit’s life of mystical search for self-revelation. This, of course, is touched on in far greater detail in Hesse’s earlier work Siddhartha.

Which of these two, Father Jacobus or the Elder Brother, is predominant in shaping the thoughts and beliefs of Knecht? It is an important question because, if Knecht is the spiritual centre of The Glass Bead Game, then the route he takes towards his own moment of self-knowledge is therefore one of the most significant messages of the novel. Is he guided by outward, embracing, political and social discourse, as exemplified by Jacobus, or by inward, almost solipsistic self-reference, as with the Elder Brother? I know I am crudely caricaturing their positions, particularly the Elder Brother, but I do so for a purpose. And the answer to my question is, inevitably, both, to varying degrees. But it is the degree which bothers me. Too much of the Elder Brother, and what I see is, indeed, a retreat into escapism. We see it, too, in Siddhartha. We see it, to a qualified degree, in Demian.

While I can certainly see that The Glass Bead Game, in particular, can be read as a rejection of escapism – utopianism, aestheticism, ivory-tower academicism – I’m not sure Hesse’s oeuvre as a whole can be read quite so straightforwardly anti-escapist. That may be my ambivalence about eastern-style medidative contemplation, but the more Knecht bends towards the teachings of the Elder Brother, the less anchored in reality and the more escapist I see the novel. This is mirrored, too, in the non-Castalian sections of the novel, in which the key message seems to be removal of the self from the day-do-day worries of the world as the sole means of achieving understanding.

I cannot accept this position. It is suggesting that the outside world is fine as long as it does not impinge on the inner world of the contemplative mind. This is a refined variation of solipsism. It is something which does - and should - appeal to younger people, still setting out in life and moulding their views, but should it form a template for human interaction? Indeed, how can it, since it appears to eschew interaction?

So, I'm curious, am I, as Galbreath suggests many do, misreading The Glass Bead Game?

Monday, April 11, 2011

3-D Movies


I've never seen one. Never thought I'd be bothered, either.

I expect Pina won't show in any cinema within a hundred miles of me, but if it does I'll aim to get to it. I know absolutely nothing about dance, modern or otherwise, and as a rule have little interest, but I've always made an exception for Pina Bausch, whose work I've always found simply extraordinary. She died last year, far too young, just when Wenders was about to begin filming Pina. Because of her death, he had to change his plan completely. This is the result, and I think it will be brilliant.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse


In his contemporaneous review of The Glass Bead Game, Werner Vortriede suggested that, because of its length and because of Hesse’s age, it might be considered his last will. If it is not quite that, it certainly seems reasonable to reflect that it is a summation of Hesse’s life and thought. The Glass Bead Game is a humanist commitment to the vitality of everyday existence, a plea that learning and knowledge do not become ends in themselves but are harnessed to the furtherance of human society. Hesse describes the vision as encompassing ‘wise men and poets and scholars harmoniously building the valued and vaulted cathedral of Mind.’ A cathedral, then, something to be venerated, but a cathedral to enterprise, functional, reflecting the currents of human endeavour.

The Glass Bead Game of the novel’s title is, it initially appears, the ultimate achievement of human culture. The novel takes place some four or five hundred years in the future, in a world that has passed beyond what is described as the feuilletonistic age (that is, our own current society) in which war and conflict have predominated, and in which culture is trivialised and coarsened. The action is set in the broadly mid-European country of Waldzell, a secular state enjoying peace and prosperity. In particular, it focuses on Castalia, a pedagogical province where the academic pursuit of pure knowledge has become an aesthetic discipline, personified most significantly by the Glass Bead Game. This, although its precise nature is never fully explained, is a philosophical game in which glass beads are used to demonstrate the progress of the players through the days during which a game may take place. The goal is to find interconnectedness in the realms of arts and knowledge – the precise mathematical notation of a Bach fugue or Chinese influences in music and literature and so on. It calls for remarkable and wide-ranging cultural knowledge and an ability to make and demonstrate subtle connections. Essentially, it is an attempt to discover a grand unified theory. Games are played according to strictly prescribed rules, and are comprehensible only to a limited number of trained experts. These players are revered for their erudition and remain cloistered within the community of Castalia like medieval monks in a monastery, under the leadership of the Magister Ludi, the Master of the game. This pursuit of cultural perfection, then, has become a secular religion. And in all of this, it is music which is pre-eminent, the masterful art form from which everything else takes shape and meaning. Thus, our first introduction to Joseph Knecht, the hero of the novel, a young man who will rise through Castilian society to become Magister Ludi, is as a child learning from the Music Master and showing, from this early age, a remarkable aptitude and sympathy for music.

If all is peace and tranquility in the post-feuilletonistic age, and if the elite of human society is free to ruminate on the creation of aesthetic perfection through the Glass Bead Game, one might assume that the future vision being created by Hesse is therefore one of utopia. It is, though, far from that. Castalia is a state in decline and it remains, moreover, largely ignorant of the fact, even denying it when confronted with the truth in Joseph Knecht’s letter of resignation. Castalia, then, is reduced to stasis, a state going nowhere, achieving nothing. Perhaps, an idealist might argue, such a state of affairs is sufficient if it ensures contentment, wealth, peace for the inhabitants, some Benthamite idyll of the greatest good for the greatest number. But how does one judge what represents the greatest good for the greatest number? Do we mean those people living in the here and now? Or those to come? If what you are doing now, while creating an environment of stately comfort for the majority, will nonetheless undoubtedly lead to decay and downfall at some stage in the near future, can this action still be categorised as the greatest good for the greatest number? Hesse’s novel firmly answers in the negative.

Castalia may have overcome the Feuilletonistic age, but to what end? It has become a dry, sterile, solipsistic world, inward and devoted only to the glorification of art, dismissive of history, politics or anything of practical value. This is not, surely, something to be aspired to? And, furthermore, let us examine its approach to the arts, because it reveals a decidely unartistic, uncreative approach. Invention is deprecated, innovation is a foible only of the young and naive. True art, for the Castalian, does not involve creation as we would understand it: it is merely a form of intellectual exegesis, making connections, drawing parallels, using one form to shed light on another. But nothing is created as a result, only a game, mimesis. It is knowledge for the sake of knowledge, with no end product and no aspiration. That is not art, that is not culture, that is not the free enunciation of the human spirit. Further, this husk of creativity is presided over by a self-selecting elite, far removed from the interference of non-Castalians. That is nothing short of cultural despotism: Castalia, then, is a future-world fascist state in which all creative thought is restricted and channeled into official forms. It is a mirror of the Fascist world Hesse inhabited while he wrote The Glass Bead Game, in which the Nazi weltanschauung and its glorification of myth is replaced by the pointless glorification of art: a mirror, but the reflection is equally vile.

In the novel, then, we follow Joseph Knecht from being a frightened but hopeful child falling under the spell of the Music Master through to his assumption of the great office of Magister Ludi, the culmination of his aspirations. His journey is not straightforward and, along the way, he encounters wise and able men who will greatly inform his future career. Doubts settle in his mind. While still a young student he confronts Plinio Designori, the son of a wealthy industrialist who, because of his family’s standing, is being educated in Castalia. An outsider, he is highly critical of Castalian ways and the two boys engage in lengthy philosophical debates and finally, through their confrontations, become friends. Later, Knecht makes a pilgrimage to visit the Elder Brother, a mystical hermit steeped in Chinese philosophy, from whom Knecht begins to learn self-knowledge and transcendence. On an ambassadorial trip to the Benedictine monastery in Mariafels, Knecht encounters Father Jacobus and is confronted by the narrowness of Castalian vision, the shortcomings of their renunciation of history as any meaningful field of study, their insularity and consequent na├»ve vulnerability to the machinations of the rude world beyond. His doubts increase.

The Music Master and the Elder Brother are, in complementary ways, Knecht’s guides to spiritual peace and understanding; Plinio Designori is his link to the real world; Thomas van der Trave, Knecht’s predecessor as Magister Ludi, is his guide to the ways of Castalia and the dignified performance of civic duty. By comparison Fritz Tegularius, the wayward Nietzschean outsider, shows Knecht that there is an alternative to the stultified, tradition-bound ways of Castalia, a free-thinking but highly dangerous, possibly mad, approach to life and order. While those in Castalia deprecate such activity, Knecht accepts, even encourages it. He is of Castalia, but not wholly subsumed by it. And this sets the template for all of his relationships, while making inevitable his eventual renunciation of high office and retreat into real life.

Thus, Knecht stands at the centre of a series of binaries – Castalia and the world, the Glass Bead Game and realpolitik, secular reason and religious observance, pedagogy and pragmatic action, teachers and students, servitude and mastery, self and others, inwardness and outwardness, yin and yang, the vita activa and the vita contemplativa. Castalian – and western – society tends to exaggerate these binaries, forcing them to stand in opposition to one another. This is the way to dogma, Hesse warns. In the case of Castalia it will lead, as Knecht comes to realise, to its inevitable decline, divorced as it is from reality. For the real world, brute forces – military or economic – stand isolated from the culture that can be derived through an understanding of aesthetic beauty. Secularity loses an element of grace, while monastic life underestimates the importance of the human. Individuation at the expense of connection with society leads, as with the Elder Brother, in his remote hermitage, to meaningless isolation. Knecht, placed between these binary opposites, cognisant of the strengths and weaknesses of each, comes to understand how a path may be established which avoids their extremes and instead achieves a state of harmony.

It is Father Jacobus, however, who is the key to the novel. The knowledge which
permits Knecht’s ultimate leap in understanding is initially latent, undeveloped. It is through Father Jacobus that Knecht truly comes to understand that the rarefied study of aesthetics and art, divorced from realpolitik, can only end in terminal decline, while pragmatism is the key to understanding how true harmony must be achieved by the synthesis of the discrete world views offered by Castalia, the monastery, the world and the searchers for self-knowledge. Without Father Jacobus, it is likely that Knecht would have remained a successful Magister Ludi for the rest of his days, presiding unknowingly over the decline of the organisation he loved. Instead, he renounces his magistracy and, in so doing, saves both Castalia and himself.

Essentially then, the novel revolves around the need to ‘know thyself’, the continuous, often painful, always difficult process of attaining self-awareness. This can only be achieved, Hesse argues, through disicplined discipleship under sages who can teach the way to enlightenment, and through consequent renunciation of all but the intellectual pursuit of self-knowledge. It is an ascetic life, to be sure. Thus, Knecht believes himself to be following his calling throughout his career, devoting himself first to the Music Master, learning at the feet of the Elder Brother, Father Jacobus, the Magister Ludi and so on, all the while progressing seamlessly through the echelons of Castalian society. But this, he finds, is not his destiny, this is not his road to self-awareness. On the contrary, all the trappings of office, the strictures of rigid Castalian life, they serve only to obscure from Knecht his true purpose. And that, he realises finally, is to teach, to pass on the harmonious understanding of life and existence to a new generation, to boys as yet untouched by formal learning and discipline. It is now that Knecht finally reaches some accommodation with his own self and reaches a degree of serenity. In the process, his demeanour changes from polite servility into equally polite assurance. He outgrows Castalia, the Glass Bead Game, the cloistered life of aesthetic reason.

In the end, Knecht gives up the sterility of Castalia as, one feels from the outset, this free-thinking man would inevitably have had to do. He does not turn, however, to the world of the religious order in Mariafels and to the implicit suggestion of politicking that underlies organised religion. Instead, he decides to leave for the real world and do something useful, worthwhile, but still in keeping with his temperament, training and background. He agrees to act at personal tutor to the troublesome son of his old friend Designori. Thus, this, the main section of the novel ends with another master-pupil relationship, this time with Knecht as the master. Or is he?

The novel is in five parts, of which the first is the longest and most important. The style of this first part is a challenge, but one which Hesse manages superbly. It is written in a deliberately dry manner, mimicking academic prose and thus always remaining objective and restricting itself entirely to facts. Given this approach, it is inevitable that a certain distancing must be effected between the reader and the protagonist and, it is true, Joseph Knecht, although evidently a good man, does not endear himself to the reader. There is, in his asceticism, something remote about Knecht. And yet, by the end of the Knecht section, Hesse has managed to bring out his essential humanity to the extent that we feel comfortable in the presence of Joseph Knecht. It is an impressive feat of writing.

The remainder of the novel is given over to “writings” by Knecht himself, in which he imagines himself to be a character from a different age and society. In this way, the novel tells four stories relating four reincarnated lives of the same man, Joseph Knecht. In each, what is most important to the human soul and human destiny is the transference of knowledge, understanding and wisdom from person to person, generation to generation. Knowledge can only come from within, but that knowledge can only be released from without.

In truth, these latter stories have nothing of the power of the main narrative, and there is a sense of repetition in them, the feeling that we are being unnecessarily lectured by an author who has already eloquently made his point. But the first part of The Glass Bead Game is an astonishing piece of literature.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Voice in Last of the Mohicans

I'm reading Last of the Mohicans at the moment and finding it a bit heavy-going. It was published in 1826 and the prose is ponderous. I don't mean long and convoluted - I like that, and I'm prone to it myself, if I'm honest - but rather it's so flatly descriptive, emotionless.

It struck me, while I was reading it, how much influence the modernist movement has had - much more than we probably realise day-to-day. At one point, when they first hear the sounds of approaching Indians, the two women are described thus:

Cora set the example of compliance, with a steadiness that taught the more timid Alice the necessity of obedience.


It's hard to imagine a more bloodless way of describing two young women trying to remain composed in the presence of looming danger. But that's to our modern ears. We're used to getting into the heads of characters, even in omniscient narration, and even if sensationalism is not being called for.

And partly, perhaps, this is because we have become so used to the Uncle Charles principle in fiction, in which we're taken into the head and thoughts of the character through the omniscient narration adopting the tone and mood of the character in question. In the original Uncle Charles example, from Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, we are told that Uncle Charles "repaired" to the outhouse. The pompous and overblown verb "repair" gives a sense of the character and so we view what's happening partly from his point of view.

In Cooper's prose, that cannot happen. We are told absolutely from the outside, from the objective view of someone who wasn't there. That feels almost alien in today's literature, where we would expect, without falling into didacticism or sensationalism, to nonetheless be given an impression of the reaction of the characters.

The flatness of the style takes some getting into.