Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Owl Service by Alan Garner

Alan Garner has just published Boneland, a sequel to The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and Moon of Gomrath, two children’s books he wrote in the 1960s. Boneland is an adult’s novel, tracking the child characters from the earlier books forty years later, in adult life. It’s a startling departure for a writer who is one of the greatest English authors of his generation. Don’t be fooled by the fact most of his work is classed as children’s fiction: Alan Garner is a serious author worthy of serious attention. The news of Boneland’s publication sent me in search of my copies of those early books, which have now been relegated to the annex where, to save space, everything is stored in piles flat on top of each other. I haven’t found Weirdstone or Gomrath yet, but I did come across another old favourite, The Owl Service.

The Owl Service, regarded by many as Garner's best work, is set in Wales rather than his customary Alderley Edge in Cheshire. It draws heavily on Welsh myth and Welsh rhythms and Welsh thought processes: notably, Garner spent four years teaching himself Welsh in order not to write stereotypical “Welshish” dialogue, the sort ending in “boyo” and “is it” and other such lazy imitations.

In particular, the novel is a retelling of a tale from the Mabinogion, the famous Welsh myth cycle, telling the story of Blodeuwedd, Lleu and Gronw. Blodeuwedd is a beautiful woman created from flowers. She is married to Lleu but cuckolds him with Gronw, whom she subsequently persuades to kill her husband. She is punished for this by being turned into an owl. The complex structure of The Owl Service essentially tells this same story three times over and, in so doing, we are introduced to mythological notions of time.

Time is an elusive element for Alan Garner. Time, age, myth, the tale and its telling, all are linked in most peculiar ways. Time is a fluid thing, not linear. It presses back on itself, it bulges, it pulses short and long, hard and soft, here and there, in and out. It cannot be understood by man, because we can have no conception of what comes before or after it, and so we invent myths with which to approach it.

Accordingly, his stories tend to operate at multiple levels simultaneously. His characters are, at once, real and archetypes, his plots literal and metaphorical. Things that happen happen once in the story, but what they represent is at the same time an eternal. Eric Voegelin, the German philosopher, adapting Plato, describes this as the time of the tale: the only way that the symbolisation of time and before-time and after-time can be understood is through the presentation of myth in which time is eternal and includes creation and transcendence, that is, what came before and comes after time itself. Within such myths, then, there is a time of the tale, which “combine[s] human, cosmic and divine elements into one story.”

What we have in The Owl Service, then, is the time of the tale, a time immanent to the story itself, such that the three narrative strands, each of which in strict temporal scales must have occurred at different times, happen simultaneously and severally. They present an everywhen, and the myth which bestrides them becomes so overwhelming it exists not as a single thread of history but as a revolving and recurring pattern of existence. This is the way myth works, from the dreamtime of aboriginal cultures of Australia through to the modern myth-making of Cormac McCarthy’s succession of blind prophets in his western novels. It tells a story, but it also, through the time of the tale, points to some greater truth. It forms an archetype, a universal way of living, as opposed to an individual life lived. Thus, it is not in the least unusual that, in The Owl Service, the myth of Blodeuwedd should replay itself through succeeding generations in the way it does. Alison, the central character, says at one point: 'Nothing's safe any more. I don't know where I am. "Yesterday", "today", "tomorrow" - they don't mean anything. I feel they're here at the same time: waiting.'

It can be seen, then, that there is a remarkably complex structure to the novel. Garner makes no allowances for his young audience because, he understands, they need none. However, this thematic complexity is, at once, the major strength and the major weakness of the novel.

It is a strength because it opens up a rich area of philosophical debate. For millennia, man has used the establishment of mythic figures and mythic events to find a way to understand the mysteries that surround our existence in this universe. Consequently, as it progresses the novel grows thematically denser. The philosophical tension expands relentlessly. It wraps itself around the reader and forces him to confront those issues of time and honour and love and betrayal and jealousy and guilt.

But, at the same time, in strictly literary terms, that is, in terms of plot development, the structure becomes problematic. Specifically, it becomes predictable. There is nowhere for the characters to go except an inevitable and pre-ordained denouement. So, in terms of literary tension, by the end it has become almost non-existent. For a story to work in dramatic terms, protagonists must be offered a series of choices and they must be forced to make those choices. This is where the tension comes from, this is where character development comes from, ultimately this is where theme comes from. The choices must be clear and they must be stark. They must be genuine choices, with genuine – and differing – consequences. As The Owl Service moves to its conclusion, however, those choices begin to disappear: the archetypal elements of the characters come to the fore and they can only respond in the way the myth dictates. Thus, while the philosophical tension is almost unbearable, the literary tension is all but lost. The ending becomes strangely flat.

Nonetheless, that Garner still manages to make the novel readable to the end is testament to his genius as a writer. Because the structure he has devised for himself is such a straightjacket it should be almost impossible to lift the narrative in story terms. But The Owl Service is and remains a towering work of fiction, something to cherish and something to return to over and again.

Monday, August 27, 2012

What's the quiz?

Hits on this blog have quatrupled today, and everyone is being directed here by search engine with this query:
Which character in Sylvia Plath's novel, The Bell Jar, said its opening line: "It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York" ?
I suppose it's just possible that there's been a spontaneous outbreak of interest in Sylvia Plath, but more likely this is a quiz question. Must be a big quiz... Anyone know which?

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Burning Bright by Ron Rash

This is a grippingly written collection of stories by a superb writer. Rash is a poet, and he has a wonderful ear for language, but more importantly he understands restraint. There is an understated power to his writing: at no stage does he ever give the impression of trying too hard, or even trying, in fact, so effortless is his prose. It flows. It is sinuous. It is simple but powerful. Ron Rash is a brilliant short story writer.

What is most impressive about these stories is that, although some fairly grotesque events unfold, Rash never tries to shock. He doesn't need to. He is not a writer given to excess or unnecessary verbiage. He shocks with his honesty, with the starkness of the descriptions, leaving the reader to imagine for himself what must be unfolding in the minds of these characters.

The stories deal with fairly typical southern material, but never in a stale way. We have family relationships and hardships, war, (in particular the Civil War), those unshakeable connections to myth and tradition, the ambivalent approach to education and so on. Together, they form a cohesive study of life on the margins, in adversity, dealing with emotional and physical trauma.

The collection’s opener, Hard Times, a story of an egg-thieving animal, includes an excruciatingly painful scene that lingers long in the memory.

Dead Confederates is a brilliant example of writing craft. Most beginning writers, having come up with this idea, would have ruined it by trying to turn it into a thriller and teasing the reader with a shock ending. Rash, realising it would have been more predictable than shocking, dispenses with any disappointment by more or less telling you the ending in the first paragraph. And this revelation, paradoxically, makes the story all the more tense. It is a great text to study for anyone learning their writing craft.

Dead Confederates links the Civil War to the present day. Return also counterpoints war and peace, in this case interweaving a man’s wartime memories with his post-war travails. Lincolnites, meanwhile, is set during the Civil War, reminding us of some of the horrors of that painful episode.

Falling Star takes on a standard southern idea, the dangers of a good education, and does a good job of inverting the usual trope. Two stories detail drug abuse and its effect on families. The first, Back of Beyond, is harrowing. The second, The Ascent, is also harrowing, but at the same time it is simply beautiful. Again, Rash’s control of the form is absolute. He paints a convincing picture of an adventurous eleven year old boy, one whom all of us will know someone like and, indeed, whom some of us might have been like when we were that age. But then the tenor shifts: we come to understand more about this boy, his secret pain, the difficulty which besets his young life, and his solitariness becomes unbearably sad. It makes the tragic end entirely convincing.

Burning Bright, the title story, is another tale of fractured families, in which a woman worries that her husband may be an arsonist. Waiting for the End of the World features a musician finding a passage through life, shunned by his family, lost in music, but not as lost as he might wish to be. Sometimes the pain of consciousness is a heavy burden. Myths and legends and ancient beliefs occur in a number of the stories. In particular, The Woman Who Believe in Jaguars tells another story of a damaged individual, clinging to beliefs about the old south. Into the Gorge, meanwhile, presents us with traditions through generations, in which memories of a long-dead grandmother resurface in a moment of current crisis, portending death. Portents of death, too, along with old ways and country traditions, provide a chilling backdrop to The Corpse Bird. There isn’t a dud in this collection. Some soar. For me, Dead Confederates and The Ascent are the stand-outs, but every story provides much to enjoy.

When things go wrong

You probably shouldn't laugh, but this is one of the funniest things I've seen in a long time:
Some poor Spanish woman took it into her head to do some amateur restoration on a fresco of Jesus, and created a picture of a baboon instead...

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Walden by Henry David Thoreau

Last week was the 158th anniversary of the publication of Walden. I love the precision of the anniversary date and even more I love the imprecision of my responding to it a week late. I feel the former would have helped stoke Henry David Thoreau’s impressive ego, and the latter would have afforded him some offence. Although not normally a confrontational sort of person, the idea of offending the seemingly priggish and self-obsessed Henry David Thoreau is rather appealing.

Walden is one of America’s classic books. It articulates something about the nature of the country and its people. The independence of mind, the self-reliance, the abounding confidence, all are distinctive aspects of the American psyche, the positives that make American people so successful and so interesting. At its best, then, Walden attests to the greatness of America.

In it, however, too often that greatness slips into something almost solipsistic, a self-regard which is stultifyingly dense. There is a lack of empathy. Robert Burns’s rational plea for a humanistic understanding of our fellow men (“Oh wad a gift the giftie gie us, to see oursels as ithers see us”) would have no place in Thoreau’s world. The very idea would simply not occur to him. There is, rather, a lack of generosity of spirit, whereby every action, every response is parcelled out in terms of worth, or efficacy, or value. There is something soulless about an existence that can only be valued in terms of physical progress.

Thoreau insists his soujourn on Walden Pond was only an experiment. It was a study of isolation, of what it means to be entirely self-reliant, of the ways in which an individual can master his circumstances. Making the most of one’s lot is an admirable trait, but when one takes this as far as Thoreau it is a philosophy that must result in harshness. It is a negative, nugatory belief system which will end in despair. Isolation leads to resentment; self-reliance bleaches into selfishness; community gives way to seclusion; the beauty of hope withers into a stunted faith, where the individual must take precedence and where the goal of life appears to be the manly demonstration of utility. It is but a short step from here to misanthropy.

Instead of engagement, Thoreau turns to an eastern meditative approach, looking inwards, seeking enlightenment through spiritual contemplation. It is the approach of the Elder Brother in The Glass Bead Game, the need to “know thyself.” Thoreau undertook his experiment because he “wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.” Fine, as long as the essential facts of life don’t include communion with others. And he argued that one should experience life for oneself. Again, no argument, but that doesn’t mean one may only experience life by oneself. The deliberate shunning of social structures is reductive and damaging.

In saying this, I am not hankering after some warm and cuddly world where everyone is nice and society exists only for the greater good and everything bad is banished: no-one who has read Blood Meridian as often as I have is going to believe in that. So I am not suggesting Thoreau’s isolationism is damaging because of a simple lack of consideration for others; I am suggesting it is damaging because it is destructive.

Take, as an alternative approach, another character versed in eastern thought, Lee Chong in John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. When, after he aquires the empty storage shed, he is approached by Mack and given the non-option of handing over the property to Mack and the boys, instead of refusing, which is his first inclination and which Thoreau would surely have done, he thinks things through. The consequence of refusal, he knows, will be that the property will be burned down. And so he offers a pragmatic solution, one which saves face for both parties and leaves everyone happy: he negotiates a rental for the property, over which he and Mack haggle for some time, both knowing that the rent will never, in fact, be paid. But the outcome is that Lee Chong is left with his property and the pretence of a rental income and with it the maintenance of his honour; Mack and the boys, meanwhile have somewhere to stay a place they turn into The Palace Flophouse and Grill; and, further, ever afterwards they show their gratitude Lee Chong by shopping in his store, and by not stealing from it, thereby ensuring that Lee does, in fact, gain pecuniary reward from the transaction. This is community at work. This is society functioning. Nowhere in Lee Chong’s common-sense approach is there the overweening self-regard we see in Thoreau.

None of this would matter – it is just a book written 158 years ago, after all – except that the logical consequence of Thoreau’s thought is not, as he might have surmised, some sage liberal nonconformism. Rather, it is something darker. In the casual smugness, the haughty self-regard, the conceited self-congratulation, it is easy to overlook the fact that others around you may not have the same facility, the same choices, the same fortune. Others may get lost. Others may lose the game.

Move forward 158 years. Consider Paul Ryan. How can you compare Henry David Thoreau and Paul Ryan, you may ask. But I believe you can, and I believe it’s a valid concern. The logical conclusion of civil disobedience and a refusal to observe the collective responsibilities of society (paying taxes, supporting those in need) is the wilful vapidity of the Tea Party, and the promotion to high political office of hardliners like Paul Ryan.

So I ask you, who wrote the following sentence, Henry David Thoreau or Paul Ryan?

There will never be a really free State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power.
The answer, of course, is Thoreau. While, undoubtedly, this can lead one down a path of nonviolence and honour, as espoused by Martin Luther King, for example, an alternative, and less appealing, consequence of this approach could well be Paul Ryan.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Life of Pi is one of those novels that is famous for being rejected (at least five times, apparently) before finally being published. It went on, of course, to win the Booker Prize. Contradictory though it may sound, neither fact is surprising. Life of Pi is a fairly extraordinary novel, extraordinary in both a good and a bad sense.

It is in three parts and these parts, although they are wildly different, are supposed to flow seamlessly, held together by the symbolism the author has created. This is a self-avowedly spiritual novel. “I have a story that will make you believe in God,” says a character, Mamaji, early in the novel. The novel as a whole isn’t so didactic – not quite – but it is certainly strongly suggesting to us that there is something unseen in the fabric of the universe. Barack Obama, for one, has fallen for it. The novel is, he told its author, “an elegant proof of God, and the power of storytelling”. It’s certainly the latter, but it goes no distance towards proving the former. Obama does hit on something, though: this conflation of storytelling and spirituality is a significant element of the novel, as we shall see later.

Part one tells the life in India of young Piscine Molitor Patel, Pi for short, the son of a zoo keeper and a quester, in the manner of someone from a Hermann Hesse novel, after truth. He becomes a Christian, a Muslim and a Hindu, all at once, much to the perplexity of his modern, atheist family and the range of gurus to whom he goes for spiritual succour. This is lightly and deftly told and, while the author clearly wants to plant some seeds in our minds, he nonetheless avoids didacticism, mainly because Pi himself is a pleasant, self-deprecating and hopelessly, unknowingly, naive narrator. Thus, although we know we’re being set up for an examination of spirituality we don’t, as we might in some of the less felicitous parts of Hesse’s oeuvre (the Elder Brother episode in The Glass Bead Game, for example), kick against it.

Pi goes on to study both zoology and theology, a pairing that might give coniption fits to some of the creationists out there but Martel slowly guides us towards the twin-track thematic impulses in the novel, nature and spirit, man and god, man and animal, life and transcendence, reason and belief.

Part one ends abruptly when the Patel family decide to emigrate to Canada. This proves a disastrous decision: their ship is shipwrecked and only Pi survives. Well, Pi, plus a giraffe with a broken leg, a hyena, an orangutan and a 450 pound Bengal tiger. All on the one lifeboat. Though not – nature being red in tooth and claw and, after a few days at sea, extremely hungry – for very long. The hyena quickly sees off the giraffe, then, with a little more difficulty, the orang-utan, before falling in the third round to the majestic tiger. Only beast and boy remain, adrift on the Pacific Ocean with no hope of rescue. What next?

What ensues is simply a masterclass in creative writing. Anyone serious about being a writer must read part two of Life of Pi. It is superb. In particular, study the way Martel manages the pace. The interludes become increasingly dramatic, but they are interspersed with moments of reflection and calm. Think about it. We have a story in which wild animals and a child are adrift on a boat. What happens is inevitable. The animals kill and eat each other. The boy will be next. And yet the reader is still enthralled. To be able to spin that storyline out over more than two hundred pages is masterful. What unfolds, of course, is wholly incredible, but such is Martel’s skill that we are totally drawn into his fantasy. "I will turn miracle into routine. The amazing will be seen every day," Pi tells us, neatly turning himself, like Joseph Knecht in The Glass Bead Game, into a mystic. We believe. We believe it when Pi slowly, very carefully, begins to tame the tiger, Richard Parker. We endure his endless searches for food from the ocean, share his revulsion at raw fish, and turtle blood, and the process of killing itself. We wince at his constipation. We exult in his trapping of precious rain. We feel the heat of the sun, the chafe of fabric on waterlogged skin. Always, we keep a wary eye on the menacing Richard Parker. We share Pi’s wonder at their continued co-existence. With him, we endure every one of the 227 days he is adrift in the Pacific. With him, we fall a little bit in love with Richard Parker.

The magic-realist fabulism of part two could not have worked without the earthy realism of part one. We can believe Pi’s understanding of the tiger’s nature, and his gradual battle for control over it, because in the first section we were treated to an expert analysis of animal and human natures, of battles for dominance, of the interrelationship between man and animal. We know that Pi, son of a zookeeper, would have sufficient knowledge to survive. It makes sense. What could be utterly unbelievable falls neatly within the compass of the fictive dream. It works.

It begins not to work when Pi and Richard Parker land on a mysterious island, peopled by tree-dwelling, continent-hopping meerkats, an island which exhibits an increasingly sinister mien. It is, we discover, not an island at all but a seething mass of carniverous algae. Hmm. The beautifully constructed fictional universe begins to unravel, and it is not immediately evident why Martel has done this. What is his purpose?

There is a strong metafictional element to Life of Pi, of course, and this is where Barack Obama’s analysis is spot on: because this novel is indeed in part about storytelling. It is about realism and magic-realism. James Woods sums it up neatly in his review:

Martel proves, by skilful example, that realism is narrative’s great master, that it schools even its own truants. He reminds us in fact that realism is already magical, an artifice-in-waiting.
Yes, indeed, I think that’s true, but where does the magic island come into it? All realism is blown away, the carefully constructed world is dismantled and replaced by something plastic and fantastically dull (in the literal sense of the phrase). To what end? We’ll come back to that question, but first we need to look a bit deeper at the philosophical basis of the novel.

Where the novel succeeds and fails is in the roles of the respective gurus who guide the questing Pi in his home in India. Here, Martel is treading on familiar territory. Think, for example of Joseph Knecht’s gurus in The Glass Bead Game, the wise and liberal, highly cultured man amongst men, Father Jacobus and the otherwordly mystic, the Elder Brother. Or, in Mann’s The Magic Mountain, young Hans Castorp is torn between the enlightened liberal Settembrini and the proto-fascist Naphta. As with art and science, good and evil, (man and God), we are being told that these gurus represent the polars of the spirit. They offer different approaches to knowledge; they are opposites, but attached. Or, as we might say back home, they are two cheeks of the same arse. And this is true of the gurus in Life of Pi to such an extent that one dialectical pair of them even shares the name of Kumar: one an atheist teacher who shocks and confronts the pious Pi (no coincidence in the name and his nature, of course), and the other a devout Muslim baker whose humility and humanity greatly impress the boy.

The trouble, it seems to me, is that Pi is not sufficiently immersed in their teaching to take on their wisdom (or otherwise). Thus, when we get to the crux of the matter, the yearning which accompanies Pi’s isolation and his loneliness and his growing understanding of the regal animal with which he shares the boat, it does not feel fully realised. What happens instead, as James Woods points out, is that God gradually disappears from Pi’s thoughts in the progress of his passage at sea. Nonetheless, while I think Woods may be right to an extent, I think he may be missing the main point. 227 days adrift on the Pacific might indeed give one pause to ponder the nature of God and reality but, as Florence Stratton reminds us in her excellent review, Pi was also greatly exercised by trying not to be eaten by a hungry Bengal tiger. Brute reality must always intervene. This is the message of a Jacobus as opposed to an ascetic Elder Brother or, in Life of Pi, of the teacher Kumar as opposed to the baker Kumar. There is a place for God, and belief in God, but so too is there a place for action. Pi, for all his pious thoughts (and much to his horror if he were ever to realise it) is precisely an exemplar of the rational approach of Settembrini and teacher Kumar and Father Jacobus.

Stratton’s conclusion is that Martel:

is not out to prove the existence of God, but rather to justify a belief in God’s existence. Martel’s position is a post-modernist one, from the perspective of which God’s existence has the same status in relation to truth and reality as Pi’s experience of shipwreck.
She continues:
Life of Pi is organized around a philosophical debate about the modern world’s privileging of reason over imagination, science over religion, materialism over idealism, fact over fiction or story.
I think she may be right. But rather than seeing this as a positive, this is where I start to worry. This is where, from Rousseau onwards into the present day (McCarthy, for example) writers begin to create monsters out of human beings and ascribe to them the source of any number of malaises. For these people, the Enlightenment is the nadir, the moment when mankind lost its connection to mystery and faith and the holy spirit, and instead began to worship itself as its own, immanent god. In this way, humanity is set as a straw man against itself, with exaggerated claims for the malignancy of man or the efficacy of faith. Binary oppositions are created with which to “prove” that mankind has lost its way and is heading into a godless abyss.

Martel, to his credit, does not take us this far. His novel is much more buoyant than this, with a far greater sense of hope, and decency, and a feeling that man may not have travelled all the way into abjection, as our more eccentric philosophers and writers (Eric Voegelin, say) may attest. Nonetheless, he does join the brigade against reason. For all his rationality, Pi is allowed to say, unchallenged:

“Reason is excellent for getting food, clothing and shelter. Reason is the very best tool kit. Nothing beats reason for keeping tigers away. But be excessively reasonable and you risk throwing out the universe with the bathwater”
This is the sort of simplistic nonsense one is accustomed to hearing from televangelists and Hoover Shoats-like corner-street con-preachers. As a philosophical basis on which to hook a novel it is trite. Now perhaps, of course, it is said ironically, and the fact that Pi’s actions do not correspond to his thoughts would certainly bear that out.

But we return to the episode on the carnivorous island. What does it mean? I asked the question earlier, without answering. That is because, as Stratton points out, it cannot be answered except retrospectively, after the second telling of the story of his shipwreck by Pi to the two Japanese investigators which is the crucial element of part three of the novel. Indeed, it is a crucial element of the whole novel. This is where Martel tries to pack his greatest punch, his principal observation about the triumph of reason over faith.

This part, in which two Japanese loss adjustors come to interview the survivor Pi, when he finally reaches land in Mexico, in order to discover the fate of the ship which sank, has echoes of the ending of McCarthy’s Cities of the Plain, or the heretic passage in his The Crossing. In each, we are given a metastory, a story behind the story, a radical retelling of what is going on in the main narrative. And, again, the purpose is metaphysical. Here is the mystery of man, McCarthy and Martel tell us, and here is the mystery of God. Each is the same and each is different. Each speaks of truth and each is false. Wonder, wonder about it all. Well, wonder indeed, but for me, I prefer Erik Satie’s rejoinder to “Wonder about yourself”.

The Japanese investigators simply do not believe Pi’s story – and who can blame them, of course, for it is truly unbelievable. But Pi then tells them another story, this time of a shipwreck without animals but with other human beings – Pi’s mother, an injured sailor and a French cook. This short passage quickly becomes horrific, a story of murder and cannibalism and the search for the meaning of evil. The story is, of course, the same as the story with animals – for the cook read the hyena, for Pi’s mother the orangutan, for the injured sailor the giraffe and so on. Which story do you prefer? Pi asks the two Japanese men. The story with animals, they conclude, and in so doing, in finally preferring what they had previously disbelieved, they find some sense of faith and spirit and adventure and free themselves, these rationalist men, from the curse of reason.

So back to the island. What is it? It is, of course, symbolic. In Stratton’s reading, which I find compelling, she suggests it is allegorically “taking direct aim at consumer capitalism as the most secular and materialist form of human existence.” There is no sense of the individual on the island, only a collective will to consume. The island is a spiritual vacuum, a nothingness, the blankness at the centre of our modernity. Stratton says:

The deconstructive project of Life of Pi is to replace the Enlightenment belief in the power of reason to liberate humanity with a belief in the transforming power of story.
But if this is so, Martel is establishing a false binary. This is the sort of connection made by people like Karen Armstrong, who correctly note the role of myth (which is, after all, the original storytelling) in the creation of religions and religious thought. So far so good, but next these critics try to suggest an opposition between this sense of storytelling and the power of reason. No such opposition exists. The world of reason can embrace, perfectly, the idea of storytelling. It can even accept it as a means of exploring rational ideas: what are fables and folk tales, if not rationalist examinations of the foibles of humanity? There is a place for storytelling and there is a place for reason, but they can also coexist perfectly harmoniously. Those who attempt to decry Enlightenment beliefs by asserting they must, somehow, imprison humanity in some reductive, emotionless shell, or carnivorous island, are ascribing to it something completely false and alien. And this, for me, is the problem with Martel’s island and, by extension, the message of his entire novel. To criticise reason for engendering a lack of belief, and to promote belief as an antidote to reason is simplistic. To blame the Enlightenment for the ills of the world is shallow. To shelter behind the power of storytelling is naive. Man is not, nor does he want to be, an immanent god, but he can still be a transformative power for good. I think Pi Patel believes this. I’m not entirely convinced that Yann Martel does.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Robert Hughes

So soon after the death of Gore Vidal, we have the death of another contrarian Robert Hughes. The Shock of the New was one of the first TV programmes that really struck a chord with me. So opinionated. So sure. So right. He was a brilliant broadcaster and writer.

Monday, August 06, 2012

The Old Drinker by Gabriel Metsu

This is one of my favourite paintings in the Reichsmuseum in Amsterdam. It's The Old Drinker by Gabriel Metsu and it is tiny, only 22 x 19.5cm. But the detail of the craftsmanship is wonderful, bringing this enigmatic old man to life.

It's a realistic portrayal of a drunken old man, unkempt and scruffy, unshaven, badly dressed, his hat askew. He is probably already drunk. But there's no moralising here. There is, about his expression, the way he holds our gaze, something entirely engaging. This man looks as though he is probably good fun, at least in small doses. He has had an interesting life, you feel, and he'll happily tell you about it, embellishments and inventions and all. It is a quietly powerful piece of painting.

And more, as a piece of storytelling it is exemplary. You look at this man and his life unfolds before you. To be able to conjure someone so realistic should be the aim of any creative writer.

Impressionism: Sensation and Inspiration

I've been in the Netherlands for a few days and we were delighted to find a major show of Impressionist paintings at the Hermitage Amsterdam, Impressionism: Sensation and Inspiration. It's an impressive show.

It presents paintings from the collection of The Hermitage in St Petersburg and attempts to place the impressionists in some sort of context. It's easy now, because we're so familiar with impressionists and the most famous works have become chocolate-box familiar, to forget exactly how revolutionary these paintings were. The exhibition reminds of this by including other paintings from the period, those which weren't shunned (and scorned) by the Salon, and which stuck rigidly to an iconography that, to our eyes, looks stilted and mannered. The impressionists were avant garde, for sure.

There's a lot of great stuff in the exhibition, but three paintings in particular caught my eye. Firstly, the one taken as the central image for the exhibition as a whole, Monet's Woman in a Garden from 1867. This is an early work, of course, five years before Impression, Sunrise, and the full impressionistic approach is still developing. The colours, too, feel slightly unlike Monet, in particular the red of the flowers. In colour and tone, the painting strongly reminds me of Vuillard. It's a lovely piece.

The second painting to catch my eye was another Monet, this time A Corner of the Garden at Montgeron, from 1876. This really has to be seen in the flesh to work: the illustration on here - and, indeed, pretty much any reproduction of it - cannot do thee justice painting. The sense of depth is astonishing. The effect is almost hologramatic, the way the plants in the foreground come towards you and the river and far bank recede into the distance. It is sheer genius. Where it is hung in the exhibition, there is a viewing gallery from the floor above which looks down on the painting, and the effect of viewing it from here is equally remarkable.

The third painting of note is Charles Hoffbauer In London (sometimes also known as In the Restaruant), painted in 1907. The year is important. It's the same year as Klimt produced Adele Bloch-Bauer I and The Kiss, and the exquisite central character in Hoffbauer's painting outKlimts even Klimt himself. Her silver dress is almost alive. The glass on the right of the table is so vivid you could reach out to grasp it. Everything about the painting is vital. If ever there was a painting inviting the viewer to walk inside and join the action, this is it.

The exhibition is on until January 2013. If you're Amsterdam way before then, I'd highly recommend it.

Gore Vidal

I've been in the Netherlands for a few days, and while I've been away Gore Vidal has died. He was a brilliant writer with a wonderful way with words, but it will be as a controversialist that he will probably best be remembered. He was a genius at it. I've said before on this blog that he was addicted to the headline phrase, and he was, but at least he made his points in an interesting way. Agree or disagree with him, you could only ever admire his eloquence and the force of his arguments.