Monday, 28 November 2011

Don Delillo, Point Omega (2010)


Oh, and you think the title's poynt OHmega, but actually it's pwanto MAYgar ('because now comes the introversion. Father Teilhard knew this, the omega point. A leap out of our biology.' 52). And as it goes, the novel is a riff upon Douglas Gordon’s video installation artwork 24 Hour Psycho (originally screened in 1993 in Berlin and Glasgow; now in New York’s MOMA), in which Hitchcock’s famous film is projected at a speed such that it takes 24 hours to run its course. The novel opens and closes with scenes describing this installation, the eerie slowness of it. The middle bit is a three-actor set-up: the old man (Richard Elster) who had a job advising government, at the highest level, on matters of war, rendition and torture, and who has retreated to a hut he owns in the middle of the American desert; the young man, Jim Finley, who wants to make a sort of avant-garde film interview/documentary about the old man; the old man’s daughter Jessica, who visits. The three pose around the shack in a series of wearyingly ‘meaningful’ unspoken constellations of desire and disappointment. The film is not made, no connections are established. Then Jessie disappears. Has she been abducted by a stalker-ish old boyfriend? Has she wandered off into the desert to commit suicide? The police find a knife. Allusions to Psycho are sounded, gong-like, throughout the book.  Here Jim spies on Jessica.  Here he pulls back a shower curtain sharply. Here -- a knife.

The prose is how might you say? The prose is the standard repetitious, offkilter Delilloese. It bears the same relationship to Delillo’s earlier brilliance that strenuous, autopastiche late Pinter has to early Pinter’s exquisite, studied inarticulacy. I missed the extraordinary comedy of White Noise. The prose is ponderous and weak.

I quite like the last paragraph, mind.

This feels like a worn out book, in a good and a bad way. It is worn out because it is about the end of empire, about things running down, about a nation coughing up a palmful of green phlegm and then staring hypnotised at what is in its hand. It is about people sailing past moral and social engagement, past their fullest human-ness, at an oblique angle. Delillo has been here before. He has been here before, and he adds nothing by coming here again. It is brief, but drags. It is a short story. It feels too long.

Let me tell you, Psycho, at whatever speed, is a poor way of conceptualising the American response to 9-11, war, rendition and horror. Really.

But then I’m increasingly a stick-in-the-mud. The mud, that’s where I’m stuck. Me, I might like a writer of trustworthy and rigorous prose (‘Delillo is the most trustworthy and rigorous prose writer of our age’, John Burnside) to know what the words he uses actually mean—to know, for instance, the difference between ‘enormousness’ and ‘enormity’ [‘it was hard to think clearly. The enormity of it, all that empty country’, 76]. It might be nice for a novel named after Teilhard de Chardin’s ‘omega point’, which references Chardin, and has characters discussing the concept at length, actually to understand it, and not to confuse it with Freud's thanatos (‘back now to inorganic matter. This is what we want. We want to be stones in a field’ 53). This is what we want: Delillo to write better books again. Not the same books, not this book. Better. Better than this. That's the point.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Cave, Neverendless (2011)


So there's a new album from Cave, the Chicago-based psychedelic drone band: more kraut- and space-rock, I’d say, than drone, but I wouldn't want to split hairs. I was alerted to the existence of this album on account of it including a track called 'Adam Roberts'—about me, or some other Adam Roberts—so I bought it. You can, too, here. Very good, it is. No lyrics (the only exception is the band chanting 'on the rise' during the track called, er, 'On The Rise'), and with genuine drive and variety, an expert sense of how far to take the build-up of repetitive musical riffs. Pitchfork think the band has been 'studying up on krautrock for a long time', and praise the 'motorik drive, bass grooves, and Neu!-reminiscent synths.'  That's about right.
They don't settle on one sound: They quiet down, increase the volume, add subtle licks, string airy synths above their guttural guitars, and all the while, establish a few central hooks.
According to that Pitchfork review, the track ‘Adam Roberts’ is the worst on the album. It’s not likely that I’d agree with such a judgement, of course (I like its grinding/driving sound and it's perky little round-and-round organ riff, like an early 90s Julian Cope B-side)—and in fact I’d say ‘O.J.’ is the least attractive, endless in a way that starts to approach interminability, with its perky-annoying little 60s electronic organ riff. It’s jolly, though; it just lacks the splendid drive and build of the opening track ‘W.U.J.’ (which builds very neatly, until lifting off the ground at 2:52). ‘This Is The Best’ is a beautifully, hypnotically worked piece; even the use of a dumb little up-and-down truncated arpeggio in the first section, like the sound emitted by a truck when backing up, doesn’t spoil the mood. The drumming is particularly good throughout. It pleases me that my name, assuming it is my name, has not been taken in vain.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

W B Yeats, The Tower (1928)


Chancing upon a box-set of Penguin 'first edition' volumes in a charity shop I was moved to do something I haven't done since I was an undergraduate: to read through Yeats's The Tower from first to last. (Indeed, I didn't even do that as an undergraduate, confining myself to reading the Yeats poems were were assigned from the Big Green Book of Complete Yeats we were all instructed to buy). And the Penguin 'first edition' reprint of The Tower is a lovely little thing: beautiful cover image (up there) good quality paper, nice typeface and no distracting editorial matter or notes.

So I read the whole collection in one go -- on a train journey, actually: it's 58 pages, easily manageable. Of course, much of the poetry here is just magnificent: thrilling, haunting, powerful, fully deserving its reputation. But at the same time, in large doses the idiom does start to feel a bit creaky, a bit too-deliberately-stilted. And the Homes & Gardens architecture of the collection as a whole -- all these Byzantine palaces, gold mosaics, towers and stately homes with peacocks trailing over their lawns -- is rather cloying. It's not the privilege that sticks in my craw so much as the incipient naffness: the way the tower is modishly decaying, like an eighteenth-century folly; the fact that there's so much Gothic-y moonlight, hooting owls, death and mystery, 'glittering swords in the east' and so on. More, the collection as a whole can't make up its mind whether its main theme is the tragic grandeur of national life filtered through magical and mythic lens, or a lot of grumbling at the fact that Yeats himself is not as young as once he was. Is the pathos of 'Meditations in Time of Civil War' a new-born country tearing itself apart, or is it Yeats's advancing age and receding hairline?

That's not fair, of course. And actually my point isn't ad hominem. Indeed, I wonder if the power and the majesty here is in an intriguing way complicit with the naffness -- the magical unicorns, the rhyming 'barrel' with 'star, all' [you'll find those two on pp. 7 and 16 respectively].  As if the two actually exist (transcendence/bathos) in a functioning dialectic, aesthetically speaking, the function being 'the numinous', 'the sacred', 'the ascent'.

One thing that hadn't occurred to me about the title poem (for instance) is that Yeats's 'tower' is not really a structure, or building, so much as it is a mechanism for ascent. 'Being dead, we rise' he insists; and the poem's reiterated insistence upon going upwards ('climbing the mountainside'; 'up Ben Bulben's back'; 'climbed the narrow stairs') is about the dream of swan-flight, or reaching the moon, or in other ways getting a better perspective on things. All the circles (man, this volume is full of circles) start to get on one's nerves, symptoms of a stare-eyed idée fixe. And reading 'Leda and the Swan' in this context slightly diminishes the poem, I think -- though you'd hardly think that possible with a poem of such power. But there are so many swans in this slim volume, and such an undercurrent of mystic fascination with the force of overpowering, that the light in which the bird's rapist power/knowledge combo is presented comes over as more suspect than it might otherwise do. But 'Sailing To Byzantium' is still one of the single greatest poems ever written in the English language, so there's still that.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Lewis Carroll, The Hunting of the Snark. Illustrated by Mahendra Singh (2011)


My Monday book recommendation is this extraordinary rendering of Carroll's Snark into an illustrated volume of great beauty and delight, by my friend the Canadian illustrator Mahendra Singh (not the cricketer). You can get a sense of Singh's visual style, part Henry Holiday, part Ernst-y or Dali-y, part his own unique thing, from his blog, where many of the images were first posted. It strikes me as brilliantly suited to the source material: a forkish and hopeful visual idiom. But great though the blog is, you'll want to own the book itself, in all its large-format loveliness; and there's a list of ways you can buy it, here.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Connie Wllis, All Clear (2011)


My review of the second 50% of Connie Willis's Hugo-winning megatron of a book is in today's Guardian. Or you can read it online here, and marvel at the handsome phizog of, oh, wait, is that supposed to be me?

Students of professional copyediting may like to compare the Guardian's version with what I initially sent them (or the last two paragraphs thereof):
The Hugos are voted for by fans, so Willis’s win reflects her popularity in the genre. That said, some fans have shown themselves undelighted. UK commentators in particular have complained about faults in Willis’s research: errors about the 1940s London Tube layout, and the like. These errors are certainly present, but I can’t say they bothered me—for absolute accuracy is a chimera in fiction, and the presence of (to pick an example out of the air) chiming clocks in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar shows that even the most clanging anachronisms need not interfere with the suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader. And Willis overall aim is a commendable one. Despite walk-on parts by General Patton, Agatha Christie and Alan Turing the bulk of the characters in All Clear are ordinary people getting on with their ordinary lives. It’s rare to find any novel nowadays happy to pootle gently along as Willis’s does here. Since civilian life, even in wartime, is more gentle pootle than crash-bang, this might be thought a commendable aesthetic strategy. But the problem is that All Clear lapses too often into actual dullness: hundreds of pages in which characters worry that so-and-so hasn’t phoned, or that St Paul’s Cathedral might have suffered slightly worse bomb-damage than was actually the case. The comedy is weak, and sometimes actively wincing; the tragedy oddly creaky and unconvincing. Nor are Willis’s ‘ordinary’ characters particularly well drawn. In particular her cheeky cockney urchin ‘Alf’ is so dreadfully conceived and rendered that I grimaced with displeasure whenever he appeared.

So why did this slab of Blitz pudding and time-travel custard win the Hugo? It presumably has something to do with the fact that Willis herself, well-liked in SF fandom, has written many other good novels (including previous Hugo winners Fire Watch (1982) and Domesday Book (1993), both about the same time-travelling institute, the former also concerned with the fire-bombing of St Pauls). And it can’t be denied that the subject here, the heroism of ordinary people in testing times, is worthy and honourable. Conceivably Hugo voters thought that giving this novel the prize (or half of it) was a way of registering their respect for the collective sacrifice of wartime Londoners. Which is fair enough; although perhaps a better way of honouring them might have been to write a tighter, less self-indulgent novel in the first place.
Oh the pressures of space! Particularly in a confined location like, er, the Guardian website.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (2011)


Here are some lines from Hawking and Mlodinow's 'new answers to the ultimate questions of life' book:
Philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science. [13]
Oh.
A law of nature is a rule that is based upon an observed regularity and provides predictions that go beyond the immediate situations upon which it is based. For example, we might notice that the sun has risen in the east every morning of our lives, and postulate the law, "The sun always rises in the east." This is a generalization that goes beyond our limited observations of the rising sun and makes testable predictions about the future. On the other hand, a statement such as, "The computers in this office are black" is not a law of nature because it relates only to the computers within the office and makes no predictios such as , "If my office purchases a new computer it will be black". [39-40]
This is wrongheaded. Saying 'the sun rises in the east' has exactly the same truth-status as saying 'the computers in this office are black'; viz., a localised one. The sun does not rise in the east on Venus, after all. Just as the 'law' about the colour of the computers is falsified by going to an office with white computers; the 'law' about the sun rising in the east is falsified by going to Venus. Indeed, this Popperian notion of 'falsification' is weirdly absent from the book's discussion of what constitutes 'scientific law'.  Really, not a single mention of Popper in the entire book.
One of [Aristotle's] predictions was that heavier objects should fall faster because their purpose is to fall. Nobody seemed to have thought that it was important to test this until Galileo. [69]
Lucretius and Democritus both disagreed with Aristotle about the nature of weight; Democritus probably and Lucretius certainly thought that unequal weights would fall with the same finite speed in a vacuum; and Simon Stevin showed that two objects of different weight fall down with exactly the same acceleration in 1586, long before Galileo.
The idea that the universe is expanding involves a bit of subtlety. For example we don't mean the universe is expanding in the manner that, say, one might expand one's house, by knocking out a wall and positioning a new bathroom. [159]
No shit, Sherlock.
Eddington visualised the universe as he surface of an expanding baloon, and all the galaxies as points on its surface ... if at some point two galaxies were 1 inch apart, an hour later they would be 2 inches apart. [160]
OK.
It is important to realize that the expansion of space does not affect the size of material objects held together by some kind of force. For example, if we circled a cluster of galaxies on the balloon, that circle would not expand as the balloon expanded. [160]
But you've just a few lines earlier said that the distance between galaxiesthis circleis expanding! There's a problem here. Hawking and Mlodinow want to insist upon this point, because 'we can detect expansion only if our measuring instruments have fixed sizes. If everything were free to expand, then we, our yardsticks, our laboratories, and so on would all expand proportionately and we would not notice any difference' [161]. But the point of the balloon analogy is that spacetime itself is expanding (not, for instance, that the big bang happened in the middle of a cavernous empty space, filling it with matter; but that the big bang created the space as it expanded). If spacetime is expanding, then matter that is coordinated in spacetime would expand too. That gravity and atomic bonds set up a counterforce plays a part here, although there is nothing in the book at all on either dark matter or, more crucially, dark energy.

The boast at the beginning of this book is that it will explain 'not only how the universe behaves, but why'; and more specifically that it will answer the three-part 'ultimate question', viz:
Why is there something rather than nothing?
Why do we exist?
Why this particular set of laws and not some other? [19]
But the answers Hawking and Mlodinow provide are weak. They dismiss theological answers on the (reasonable) grounds that answering 'how created the cosmos?' with 'God' only shuffles the question along to a new term ('so who created God?'). But then they do the same thing with their questions. For example, their answer to 'Why is there something rather than nothing?' is that though 'the total energy in the universe must always remain zero' it is possible to balance 'the positive energy of matter' and 'the negative energy of gravity': 'and so there is no restriction on the creation of whole universes' [227]. But this doesn't explain why there is a balance of energy in the first place, or why the cosmos was pushed into this positive/negative state rather than the default nothingness. They answer their second question by invoking Conway's game of life, which shows that complex forms can emerge without a designer, but says nothing about the why. And they answer their third question by gesturing, rather vaguely, towards the anthropic principle. Bah.

To go back to:
Philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science. [13]
Dudes! You need to read more widely in contemporary philosophy.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Robert Van Kampen, The Fourth Reich (2000)


Well, this is terrible; but you'd expect me to say so. The painfully pious Van Kampen works his personal interpretation of St John's Revelation into a cloggy future 'thriller'. In the afterword, he insists upon the precision and truthfulness of everything in the book: 'I have tried to be as precise as to what will happen, when it will happen, and the order in which it will happen, following the timing and sequence of events outlined in scripture' [444]. Accordingly he sticks closely to the passage in Revelation 23:7-20 in which a genetically altered egg containing DNA extracted from skull fragments tagged "Berlin 4 May 1945" is implanted in the wife of a high-placed Russian official; the child, once born, being removed and his mother told that her son has died.

So, yes, Adolf Hitler is Boys-from-Brazilled back to life, and sweeps to power in Russia inaugurating the end times. Nobody notices that he looks like Hitler to begin with, on account of him having a beard -- a brilliant strategy (we have to wonder why the historical Hitler didn't think of it himself: growing a big beard in 1945, and sneaking out of the bunker). Hitler reports directly to Satan, and goes by the name 'Nikolai Bulgakov' (cle-ver!) until about halfway through, when he comes out and reveals that he is actually Adolf Hitler. This doesn't seem to harm his political career. It's all precisely and truthfully terrible:
Defense against the flying creatures proved almost impossible, and the following weeks the insects continued to find a way around all but the most sophisticated barriers. Ordinary citizens in the Reich had little protection. Hitler's promise that no one would die brought little comfort to the millions who suffered the excruciatng pain of the poison stings. [336]
I half-wonder whether the author is playing with the derivation of the word 'excruciating' here; but no, he's not. His style is soggy and clichéd throughout; the story prodigiously dull and dreary.  In the afterword, Van Kampen says that when it comes to decoding the identity of 'the Beast' in Revelation, 'I think Hitler is as good a choice as Nero.'  They both strike me as equally likely to come to a position of global power in the next ten years, certainly.

My personal view is that the antichrist, when he comes, will either be called 'Mr Beast' or else 'Viv I. Vi'. I'm presently working on my screenplay for the latter eventuality: Vivien: Omen 6.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Walter Holland, Falsehoods, Concerns (2011)


Compromised though the recommendation is by my friendship with the author, I nevertheless recommend this title: you can buy it, hardcopy, for $12 (I'm not sure what the e-book status is). More to the point, you can see whether this is the sort of thing that would interest you by browsing le blog hollandais on which many of these pieces first appeared. The fact that you can see for yourself what kind of a writer Holland is, by clicking through to his blog, renders my summing-up of his style mostly redundant, of course; but in respect of the cover blurb, up there, and the 'wanna buy a book?' page to which I just linked, I'll say that the book itself has a slightly lower quotient of goofy than they might imply. There's some goofy, true; and a touch more Foster-Wallaceishness; but Holland's voice is his own, unlike anybody else I can think of. Stylistically and formally there is a flavour of the riff about the way he writes; but it's not as freeform or sprawling as that description, perhaps, makes it sound. Say rather, perhaps, that his writing has the more structured sense of Phishian improvisation (there's quite a lot in here about Phish; some of which is perhaps a little over-specific and fannish) -- I mean, the working through of a tight set of particular fascinations (childhood and the making of children; love and hate; remembering and belonging; the new and the old) in ways that deliberately resist a too-polished articulation, a commitment to using a considerable technical accomplishment as a springboard to something a little less constrained by technique.

The falsehoods are experiments in writing fiction (fragments thereof, mostly); the concerns are wide-ranging -- music, politics, cinema and TV, gaming, religion, art. What he's particularly good on is the relationship between truth-telling and gaucheness, a fruitful worrying away at the limits of originality -- how 'original' can any writer be, today? -- and a genuinely complex relationship, in what he does, between the urge to splurge everything, no matter how embarrassing, and the urge to autoprotect, to mask-up, to hide behind affectations and styles and ironies and obscurities. If Holland committed wholeheartedly to either route, he'd be a less interesting writer. The standouts for me, here, are: the piece on pregnancy and possibility; the essay on atheism (I'm writing a book on religion at the moment, and plan on quoting this); the classroom essay. I liked plenty more -- the 'fixing you' stuff, for instance, which Holland himself dismisses, in the book, as 'dumb'. Some I disagreed with quite strongly (the love/hate piece, for instance) -- a state of affairs which is, in case I'm not being clear, commendable and praiseworthy rather than anything else. You'll have other stand-outs. The whole is stimulating. There are some typos; but -- hey.

One more thing: I don't believe, whatever he says, that Holland's Dad ('from the north of England') was 'a snappy soccer player'. He was a football player, is what he was. There. I've said it.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Dennis Wheatley, Star of Ill-Omen (1952)


Wheatley was huge, once-upon-a-time; a global bestseller who wrote thrillers in a variety of genres. By the 1970s though,when I was at school, his star had waned to the point where he was associated only with naff horror gubbins like The Devil Rides Out; prolix, oddly genteel bodice-rippers about Satanism that were (amongst my peer group, in those days, at any rate) strictly for those without the stomach for James Herbert. So my knowledge of his oeuvre is small. The Devil Reads Not in fact. Earlier this year I read Robert Hanks’ elegant skewering of Wheatley as the worst writer to become globally successful since Marie Corelli (sadly, the article itself is behind a paywall; but it’s worth checking out); which did not inspire me to search out his backlist. But then I chanced upon a charity-shop edition of  Star of Ill-Omen, one of Wheatley’s SF novels—no, I had no idea that he wrote SF (he did though, and quite a lot); yes I bought this one (first edition incl. dust jacket good condition, £4); yes I read it; no it’s not any good. Interesting though.

It starts out as a cold war thriller. Argentina (under General Peron) is trying to start a nuclear programme; and our hero, the sub-Bond ‘Kem Lincoln’, is on a mission to steal the plans to the reactor from Colonel Esté Van Escobar’s safe, which he manages in part by seducing the Colonel’s wife, Carmen. Here’s the opening sentence, which gives some flavour of Wheatley’s prose-style, something to which the descriptor ‘good’ cannot, I think, truthfully be applied:
Kem Lincoln slid back the chamber of his automatic to make certain that it was working freely, snapped home a clip of bullets and repouched the weapon in his shoulder holster.
‘Repouched’ is a splendidly 'good show sir' stylistic touch. And, indeed, this sort of kangarooese flavours the writing all through; and despite having a name that sounds like an unaerodynamic model of 1950s US automobile, Kem Lincoln is plucky and resourceful. There're some fisticuffs and running around on the Argentine pampas, until the story takes an abrupt left-turn: ‘In the centre of the clearing, only forty feet away from him, reposed a Flying Saucer’ [76] ‘Reposed’. Yes. So, Kem, Carmen and the Colonel are abducted, and whisked away into outer space. What do the aliens look like?
They were twenty feet high, broad in proportion, and, from what he could make out in the starlight, naked … neither of the giants had beards or moustaches; instead they had great tufts of stiff hair fanning out from their nostrils and ears. Apart from that and their size they differed in no obvious way from human beings. Both were males, their hair on both their bodies was red, and both of them were completely bald. [80]
They spend quite a long time imprisoned on the saucer, flying through space. To pass the time, Escobar displays his surprising amount of cosmological knowledge (‘The universe is estimated to contain 300,000 million stars … there are at least 200 stars for every man, woman and child living on Earth.’ ‘Everyone knows that the universe is a pretty big affair,’ replies Kem, ‘but I had no idea that it was quite so colossal as that!’ [84]); and luckily for the three of them the saucer is supplied with ‘a large-mouthed fixed funnel leading down to a pipe about a foot wide, at the bottom of which daylight could be seen. It was clearly a lavatory on the same principle as those installed in railway trains, but lacking any form of trap, or, as far as could be seen, sluicing apparatus’ [88]. The abductees speculate about how the craft is powered. ‘I understand enough about Einstein’s Unified Field Theory to give you some conception of it,’ says Escobar, breezily:
’It has been proved by means of the tenescope that there are 1,257 magnetic lines of force in every square centimeter of matter. If a way could be found to cross two or more of those lines, the power so generated could be used to propel matter in any desired direction at speeds hitherto regarded as outside the bounds of possibility; and Einstein contends that by these means matter could be made to travel at the speed of light. [94]
Does he? Does he, really?
‘Jupiter; the big boy of the Solar family … he is ice all over, and ice miles deep at that.’[106]
Anyway, eventually the saucer takes our heroes to a Lowellian Mars, canals and all. They’re taken off the vessel inside giant bags and depouched (if I may) into a subterranean cinema, where they are shown a black-and-white film of Earth’s development, from the Chaldeans to nuclear power stations, for reasons that escape me. We discover the pink humanoid giants are actually in the service of some giant bee-beetles (‘incredible as it at first appeared, the fact was inescapable. These bee-beetles must be the masters of all life on Mars!’ 158). The three of them escape into the Martian desert where they meet Nickolai [that’s how Wheatley spells it] Zadovitch ‘the M.V.D. man’ and Anna ‘the pretty Russian who looked like a “good-time” girl but could be deadly with a pistol’ (dedicated Communists both, who had been abducted from Siberia the previous year) together with Harsbach, an old Nazi rocket scientist. It seems the bee-beetles are hoping to utilise the secrets of atomic power by kidnapping Earthly atomic scientists, though why they need it when they are able to build and fly the flying saucers isn’t explained. We also discover that Phobos and Deimos are not moons, but giant saucers. I think we can all agree that makes a lot more sense, astronomically speaking. The team pool their expertise to build a rudimentary atom bomb, in the hope of using it to hijack a saucer and get home.  Kem, naturally, sleeps with the Russian: ‘in everything but the sexual urge they were poles apart, but for the time being it dominated them both utterly. Straining their muscles, they kissed and kissed until their lips were bruised and sore’ [235]. Sexy! Wheatley has a low opinion of Communists in general of course, and a particularly low opinion of this one (‘Love, according to Western standards, played no part in her life. Like a young heifer, she merely had preferences for males who by a combination of strength and cunning could overcome their rivals’). The team builds the bomb; the Colonel and Zadovitch die along the way; and when the bee-beetles take them and it up in a saucer to test it, the remaining Earthlings seize control of the craft, in a splendidly bathetic struggle:
Thrusting out his free hand, [Kem] pushed the lever back, but only just in time to prevent the Saucer turning over. The insect threw its weight against another lever. [295]
‘The insect threw its weight against another lever.’ Now that’s a sentence worth savouring. Anyway, the victorious humans fly the saucer back to Earth—but, oh no! Harsbach plans to drop the atom bomb they made onto London ‘to revenge himself for the way we smashed Hitler!’ [315]. In one of the oddest endings I can remember reading for a long time, Kem and Carmen (who has forgiven him for sleeping with the heartless Russian heifer) secretly remove the innards from the bomb and hide themselves inside, such that when the evil Nazi and his evil female Communist colleague drop the bomb onto Tower Bridge—from, I might add, a height of 2000 feet—it does not explode. ‘Both Lincoln and Madame Escobar’ the novel relates at the end, ‘are suffering from bad bruising. But the doctors report that they should be fully recovered in a few days time.’ Of course they will. Of course they will.

---

Since I mention the incomparableGood Show Sir up there, I'll end with a few of other examples of Star of Ill-Omen covers. They're not good.

That is a scene from the book, sort-of; doesn't make it any less ridiculous as a cover. Then there's this one:


Hair-gel-tastic! Or this one:


'Must Earth be destroyed? Must it? Really?' This one, however, I quite like:

Friday, 4 November 2011

Eliza Parsons, The Convict (1807)

Edward Copeland's Women Writing about Money: Women's Fiction in England, 1790-1820 (Cambridge University Press, 2004) notes how Eliza Parsons’ husband’s financial collapse forced her onto a punishing literary treadmill. To quote Parsons herself: ‘I was compelled by dire necessity to become an Author, and in the course of 12 years have written 65 vols of Novels under every disadvantage of Sickness, Indigence, never ceasing Anxiety, and as many repeated misfortunes as human sufferance could well support’ [in Copeland, 43]. Even if we assume, as perhaps we may, that ’65 vols’ means, strictly, volumes (most of Parson’s output consisted of 4-vol novels; she also produced 5- and 6-vol translations and other things) that’s a pretty steep workrate. She was so prolific, indeed, that even experts don’t really know how much she published.  Here’s Copeland again:
In spite of Parsons pious insistence in her last novel, Murray House (1804) that Anna Sydney, the heroine, must, as the whole duty of woman, obey the demands of her feckless father and her philandering husband, she draws a devastating picture of a male-controlled economy. [46]
Ah, but 1804’s Murray House was not her last novel. For example, here’s 1807’s The Convict, or Navy Lieutenant.

Henry Thompson, a curate’s son, is a navy lieutenant on the HMS Vengeance. He takes pity on an orphan girl, but his duties at sea mean he can't care for her directly, so he pays some friends, Mr and Mrs Barton, to look after her. Barton loves the child, but comes to hate his wife (‘her cruelty to little Fanny was beyond endurance; it so indisputably proved the baseness of her soul, that no consideration on earth could induce him to remain domesticated with a woman so devoid of feeling and humanity’ 1:124). So Barton separates from his spouse, obtaining a warrant as first mate to a ship’s surgeon and making alternate arrangements for the girl. We discover the orphan’s girl’s mother was a convicted criminal, whose written testimony Thompson reads (‘Oh!’ it says ‘that this horrid tale may impress an awful lesson on the minds of the young and inexperienced female!’ 1:141). Seduced and abandoned by the Right Honourable Lord C—, she was driven to attempted murder.

Fanny, the orphan girl, goes to stay with Mrs. Fitzwilliam and her posh relatives who live at a house called Malvern Abbey. This is the point during my reading where I started to think: ‘hmm, this has a certain Mansfield Park-ishness about it'—(or I suppose it would be more accurate to say that, Mansfield Park (1814) has a certain The Convict-ishness about it, Parsons' being the prior text): the stately home; the virtuous, diffident young girl called Fanny surrounded by various well-bred people who treat her indifferently; the West Indian connection (for Thompson and Barton are both posted to the Windies). The 'naval officers' angle perhaps recalls Persuasion (1817), too; and there are occasional moments of Sense-and-Sensibilityness too: as when Mrs Fitzgerald dies, leaving a will: ‘All my landed estates, independent of Malvern Abbey which was settled on his father and his heirs, with ten thousand pounds from my landed property, to be my nephew Meredith’s … Ten thousand pounds to each of my two nieces, daughters of my sister Bruce, now resident with me. … To Fanny Thompson, whom I have taken under my protection, I give forty-five pounds a year, for clothes and education, for seven years from the date of this my intended will. At the expiration of the said seven years, the further sum of three hundred pounds to place her in some line that may enable her to procure her own subsistence.’ [3:25-6] Fanny’s legacy is small enough, but still provokes envy:
The young ladies, who were present at the reading, were at first much elated by their legacy of ten thousand pounds. But when a little cooled, and they reflected on the great property, thrown into the hands of their cousin, with the bequests to poor Fanny, envy and rancor took possession of their bosoms; … So blind is envy to its true interest. [3:23]
So Fanny ends up with nothing. All this lacks Austen’s expert ironic touch, of course; but its outlines are familiar: ‘The poor girl often felt the consequences of her apparent degradation from others, by the haughty impertinence of some ill-bred and bad tempered misses, whose chief merit lay in their high birth, or their riches; and who, while they affected the utmost contempt for the poor orphan Fanny, were not a little mortified in seeing themselves excelled by her in many points’ [3:117].

Meanwhile Lieutenant Thompson is unjustly dismissed from the Vengeance, and becomes Captain of the Britannia, ‘a country ship’ (that is to say, a ship that trades with the ports of the East) owned by a certain Mr Selwyn. Unfortunately the Britannia is ‘wrecked on the Malabar coast’, such that ‘it was feared Captain Thompson and his people all perished, or had been carried off prisoners by the native Indians’ [3:81]. Selwyn adopts Fanny, who is moved to another country house called Ringwood Park, to live with the kindly Mrs. Wharton (‘there was a very good library in the house, and there Fanny passed most of the hours’ 3:134) and afterwards becomes the companion of Lady Overton in London. This latter ‘had been initiated into the vortex of fashion by a set of despicable interested beings, who sought their own gratification by her destruction. Her fortune was the lure to the unprincipled and avaricious, her beauty the meteor which attracted the eyes and hearts of the gallant, gay Lotahrios of that age ‘[4:62].  Overton is married, but ‘her husband’s unhappy debility of body and intellect left her sole mistress of her own actions’—a situation which Parsons straightforwardly deplores. Anyway, living with Overton, Fanny comes into contact with a fast set of London aristos.  The wicked Lord Presville attempts to seduce her (‘you must, you shall be mine!’ 4:147) and is unimpressed by her virtuous rejection: ‘ridiculous! You have already seen enough of the world to know that virtue, as you call it, claims but very little pre-eminence in the fashionable circles’ [4:149]. But just as she is about to be raped, Fanny is rescued by a mysterious stranger who knocks the lord down with his walking stick. This turns out to be Thompson himself, not dead in India after all—‘yes reader,’ says Parsons, with studied vagueness, ‘it was the identical Lieutenant Thompson…—Thompson, who after four years residence among the Indians had wonderfully effected his escape’ [4:171]. Yes, yes! That part of the story doesn't sound in the least bit interesting! You're quite right, Eliza, to hurry past it, in order to concentrate on your interminable London polite-society stuff.

Anyway, Fanny befriends a family called Lascelles, and their son William falls in love with her. Then, after various longeurs, the novel suddenly jerks to life for a stompingly melodramatic ending.  Fanny’s mother, it transpires, is not dead; and Fanny is reunited with her (a mysterious invalid called Ellen Lumley, preserved from the hangman's noose by an unlikely last-minute royal pardon.). She also learns that her would-be rapist Lord Preswick is her father ... ‘our readers are now informed that Lord Presville was the infamous, unprincipled man who, under the fictitious initials of Lord C— and Lord M— in the Convict’s narrative, seduced, deceived and abandoned that unhappy young woman’ [4:251]. When all this comes out, Presville has an unlikely change of heart and (very belatedly) proposes marriage to Ellen. But she rebukes him, and later dies ‘serene to the last moment’ [4:330] Fanny marries William Lascelles, and the various, numerous other characters are shuffled off with indecent haste (‘of the other characters introduced into this work,’ Parsons says, ‘we have but little to say', 4:340). The book concludes on a clanging note of moralizing: ‘the errors and wrongs of Ellen exemplify how wide spreading is vice, how dreadful its progress, and how awful in its termination! [4:350]. So that’s us told.

The Austen flavour is most evident in vol. 3, it must be said; and overall there’s little actual merit in the novel. Despite the nautical theme, Parsons is wholly uninterested in actual scenes at sea. There are a few less-than-convincing bits of naval slang right at the beginning (‘dash my buttons!’, 1:3 ‘Avast take care how you steer!’1: 35; ‘Young woman, you are upon a slippery fore-castle!’ 1:37), but the book swiftly becomes bored with all that and throws it over. Almost all the action has to do with the conversations, courtship and intrigue of polite society. But Parsons’ melodramatic instincts keep intruding, and dragging the novel down into absurdity. Still, it is at least possible that Austen read this novel, and that bits and pieces of it fed into her own imaginative creative life. Which seems to me a mildly interesting thing.

(PS: What does Parsons’ Fanny look like? ‘She was a clear brunette, an animated complexion, expressive dark grey eyes with long dark eye-lashes; an oval face, good teeth and fine hair … her nose might, by some, be thought rather too large, and her mouth not exactly a model of perfection, therefore, though every one who saw her, would pronounce her a very pretty genteel girl, she was not a beauty;—she was attractive, but not dazzling. [3:152] We might compare Austen’s Fanny: ‘she was small of her age, with no glow of complexion, nor any other striking beauty; exceedingly timid and shy, and shrinking from notice; but her air, though awkward, was not vulgar, her voice was sweet, and when she spoke her countenance was pretty’). Moral? Broadly sentimental: viz ‘misfortunes humanize the mind, and teach us to feel for others’ [3:264])

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Eliza Parsons, The Mysterious Warning (1796)


My second Parsons, and this is a little better than the later Peasant of the Ardenne Forest (1801)—still rubbish, basically, but with more going on. And actually there are enough similarities between the two novels to suggest that Parsons writes variations upon basically the same yarn: a virtuous hero traversing Europe and encountering various people made miserable by vice, with a particular emphasis upon a sexually depraved femme fatale who ends up stabbing herself. We might want to peg The Mysterious Warning as more actually Gothic, in the sense that it opens with an actual supernatural element. But it is otherwise the same mess of lubricious cod-morality and saggy, overheated goings-on.

The novel starts, strikingly, with old Count Renaud’s death. Here’s the first, characteristically ill-disciplined, sentence:
No sooner had the struggling soul escaped from the clay-cold body of Count Renaud, than his eldest son, Count Rhodophil, hastened to the library, and opened the secret cabinet, where his late father usually deposited his papers of consequence, after a strict examination of the contents, returned to the anti-chamber, on the floor of which lay extending his brother, the deeply-afflicted Ferdinand, just recovering from a fainting fit, and overwhelmed with inexpressible anguish.
In the spirit of W C Fields’ claim that nobody who hates children and animals can be all bad, I'm tempted to suggest that nobody capable of writing such a bad sentence can be beyond the pale, critically speaking. The people who compete to win the Bulwer Lytton prize by specifically inventing terrible opening sentences can hardly do better than this genuine example of 18th-century prose. Indeed, Parsons’ pile-em-on attitude to clauses in her sentence construction is revealing, I think, of a larger aesthetic flabbiness and, indeed, flappiness. Here’s the novel’s second sentence:
“Brother!” said Rhodophil, in an accent of grief and tenderness, “Brother! here is my father’s will, and I have little doubt but that you will find he was your father also, and that, however severely his resentment was expressed in his life-time, he has not extended it beyond the grave, nor forgotten, in the disposal of his effects, that he had a younger son, and a grandchild.”
That approach to prose, heaping clause on clause in an agglomerative fashion punctuated occasionally by the insertion of ‘oh, I forgot to mention...’ elements, is also Parsons’ approach to plot. So Count Renaud disinherited his son Ferdinand because he married without his permission. Rhodophil inherits all, and promises to look after his younger brother. Ferdinand accepts this promise gratefully, and launches himself into a brilliant military career, leaving his wife Claudina and kids in Rhodophil’s care. But returning on leave and eager to embrace Claudina, he hears a mysterious voice warning him “Fly, fly from her arms, as you would avoid sin and death!” [51]. In the event it is Claudina herself who runs away, absolving Ferdinand of his marriage vows on account of her ‘shame’ (though without going into specifics) and insisting ‘no clue will be found ... to trace me; I have taken measures too securely for any possibility of discovery.’ Ferdinand greets this news with: ‘I intend to ramble, I neither know nor care where, chance shall be my guide’ [60]. And ramble he does, as does the novel as a whole. Whichever army it was in which Ferdinand served evidently takes a pleasantly lackadaisical view of discipline, for nobody makes any fuss when he simply walks off.

Thereafter he visits a nunnery near the family castle in which Claudina, having taken measures too securely for any possibility of discovery, is immediately discovered, but from which she refuses to emerge (it later turns out that this is a case of mistaken identity). He also visits a ruined castle in which lives a gloomy aristocratic hermit, Baron S***, a name I found impossible not to read as ‘Baron Shit’. The Baron conveniently dies whilst Ferdinand is staying with him, and our young hero discovers the Baron’s wife Eugenia and her lover Count M*** locked in his dungeons. Eugenia had been forced into marriage with the Baron by her father, Count Zimchaw, but finding life with him intolerable had run off with her true love. But Baron Shit caught up with them, locked them away and murdered their servants to keep the secret safe. Eugenia is worn out by her long imprisonment—‘she appeared,’ Parsons prolixly says, ‘like a fine statue that had long been exposed to the injuries of time, and lost the beautiful polish that first adorned it; a most elegant form reduced to that delicate thinness which the slightest blast of air might dissolve;—a face, the contour of which was inexpressibly beautiful; but the roses and the lilies that once adorned it were all fled; the eyes hollow and sunk in the head, a sickly hue over the countenance, and a solemnity in every feature’ [144]. Off she goes, to a convent. The novel then lumps in a couple of other back-stories, separated by, as it were, narrative commas; after which Ferdinand accompanies the disappointed Count M*** (Ming? Mojo? Mongo?) to his castle in Suabia.

There's a great deal of rather clogging sub-plotting here, characters tangling emotionally with other characters, backstories, moralising and the like. Things pick up when Ferdinand and Count M*** are captured by Turks, imprisoned, freed, betrayed, ransomed, freed again and befriended by a chap named Heli. Heli's wife (I think she is) is called Fatima, and she turns out to be Ferdinand's half-sister, the product of an illicit relationship his father had undertaken a few years before Ferdinand's birth.  Fatima runs off with a group of bandits and takes Heli's jewels with her. Ferninand later catches up with her, but she brazens it out and escapes, leaving her half-brother gobsmacked. '"Good heavens!" he exclaimed, "is it possible that woman, so soft, so lovely, so interesting in her gentleness, can, by vice and profligacy of manners, attain to such a degree of boldness and impudent bravery, as would shame the most hardened of mankind!' [316-17]. Apparently so. Vol 4 is a rather confusing tangle of plotlines, to be honest; although a burst of action near the end picks the pace up. Ferdinand gets a letter from his brother ('Life is ebbing fast; all hopes are over; if you ever wish to see me more, lose no time; set off directly; I have things of consequence to impart' 327). He sets off, gets shot on the way, yes, I said shot, is nursed to health by a hermit, and finally arrives back home. Then, with massive bathos, we discover that the mysterious warning was uttered not from beyond the grave, but by Ernest, Ferdinand's servant, who had eavesdropped on Rhodophil and Claudia's quasi-incestuous adultery and chose this way, rather than just, oh-I-don't-know telling Ferdinand directly about it, to communicate his misgivings. Rhodophil then dies, with some splendidly inadvertent comedy:
"Heaven have mercy on me!!!" Those were the last words he spoke. -- Violent convulsive hiccups soon came on, which drove the Countess and Ferdinand to their respective apartments, and in less than a quarter of an hour, the latter was informed the dreadful scene had closed!!! [364]
No such thing as too many exclamation marks in my book. Anyway, after Rhodophil has hiccoughed himself to death the shameless Fatima pops up again, insists her mother was legally married to Count Renaud, making her the rightful heir; but when this is disproved she 'snatched a dagger from her side' and 'plunged it into her own bosom' [386]. With the haste of a writer tired of her over complicated plotting, Parsons then ties-up all remaining loose ends in a handful of pages, marrying Ferdinand to Theresa (Claudia meanwhile having conveniently died in her nunnery) and various other characters to various others. Then, only too evidently heading out the door on her way somewhere more interesting, Parsons closes the novel with 'from the characters of Rhodophil and Fatima, we may trace the progression of vice, and its fatal termination! "Vice to be hated needs but to be seen." FINIS' The last bit, there, is a truncated couplet from Pope's Essay on Man ('Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,/As, to be hated, needs but to be seen'). Well, indeed.

***

Here's the page from Austen's Northanger Abbey (1817) in which Isabella Thorpe tells Catherine Morland that she absolutely must read 'horrid' Gothic novels:


Check the paragraph beginning 'I will read you their names...' You can see Mysterious Warning (incorrectly titled) nestling in the middle of that list, there; just after another Parsons title, Castle of Wolfenbach (1793). This throwaway mention ('but are they all horrid? are you sure they are all horrid?' 'Yes, quite sure') has rather overdetermined the reception of this novel, I fear. That's a pity, in a way, because horridness, even in the grander sense of 'liable to evoke a quasi-sublime emotion of horror' really isn't what makes Mysterious Warning interesting. The only supernatural element, the voice that appears at first to be Ferdinand's father speaking beyond the grave, turns out to have been Scooby Doo's janitor after all, who would have gotten away with too if it hadn't been for you meddling etc etc. More, Parsons goes out of her way to stress that Ferdinand has no truck with the occult ('Ferdinand ... had no fears of supernatural beings', 346). This is not a novel interested in ghosts and ghouls; but it is obsessive-compulsively fascinated by questions of parental authority and the right way for offspring to balance their personal desires and their familial duty.

The chief problematic (if it doesn’t overly dignify novel putting in those terms) that the text works through is sexual. More specifically, The Mysterious Warning is a novel absolutely crammed with bigamy and the threat of bigamy. The novel’s primal scene, as it were, is the love of two brothers for the same woman: Claudina marries Ferdinand, but when he is away in the army she has an affair with Ferninand’s brother Rhodophil. This dynamic is then repeated in the various interpolated tales: Eugenia married wicked Baron S***, but is also married to her true love, Count M***. Another nobleman Count Wolfram is engaged to Theresa, but has already secretly married Theresa’s schoolfriend Louisa, and thereafter marries a lady of means called Theodosia; this same Theodosia leaves Wolfram and, after sojourning in a convent for a while, goes off to marry a gentleman called Reiberg. Ferdinand himself is married to Claudina, is ‘released’ from his marriage vows by his wife on account of her own shame, and later marries Theresa. It’s all a bit hard to follow, but more than that, its bramble-tangle formally embodies the blockage as a nexus of illicit desire and intra-familial obsession that is the novel's real theme.

What's really going on here, I suspect, is Parsons working through, in more or less coherent ideological fashion, the anxieties of Revolution. The novel opens (or so it seems) with a conscious imitation of Hamlet, the father's ghost booming from beyond the grave ('swear!') and warning of the ruin necessarily attendant on the illicit passion of one brother for another brother's wife. This in turn revolves (of course) on the very grounds of the English Reformation itself, Henry VIII's decision to marry his brother's wife, and his subsequent desire to undo that, as he later saw it, sinful action. This led to the establishment of the Church of England, the ground of Parson's egregiously preachy moral code -- in this novel, as in Peasant there's a deal of stuff about wicked nuns and abbots -- and also one of the discursive vectors along which contemporary English reactions to the French Revolution were oriented. In its clumsy way, Mysterious Warning is asking far-reaching questions about the nature of social and political authority, and how far the power of parents should determine the life-choices of their offspring. Revolution is one way in which a society can break away from the (bad) authority of parents; but Parsons can't endorse anything so radical. Here, on the novel's penultimate page, is a rather hurried attempt at moral summing-up, with Parson's characteristic herky-jerky punctuation:
Generally speaking, those marriages, contracted contrary to the wishes of parents, influenced chiefly by transient personal charms, and hurried on by rash tumultuous passions, seldom fail to be productive of sorrow, regret and reproach -- perhaps of punishment and shame. -- We have only to add, that in less than three years after the marriage of Ferdinand, the once unfortunate, but then happy Eugenia, was translated from a state of resignation and piety, to a life of blessed immortality: -- From her melancholy story may be deduced two observations of equal importance to society: when a parent exercises an undue authority over his child, and compels her to give a reluctant hand without a heart; by giving his sanction in the outset to deception and perjury; he has little to expect but that the consequences will be fatal to her honour and happiness. [392]
It's stating the obvious to say that this is flatly contradictory (and that Parsons seems to forget the second of the 'two observations' she promises); more interesting is the way that this confusion is exactly the current of the novel as a whole. Thwarting to the authority of the (bad) older generation leads to sorrow, regret and reproach -- perhaps to punishment and shame. But so does submitting to that (bad) authority. Parsons' novel can't think itself out of this ideological double-bind. That's what's so fascinating about it.

And tomorrow? Tomorrow we unlock 1807's The Convict.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Eliza Parsons, The Peasant of Ardenne Forest (1801)

Going off the beaten-track here, no question. For work-related reasons I've been reading a couple of Eliza Parsons' late 18th/early-19th-century Gothic or quasi-Gothic tales. Snap judgment: they're awful, but in quite interesting ways. (I might add: it'll be all Parsons here, for the rest of this week, so if the prospect of that bores you, you may wish to report back later)

Here's one: The Peasant of the Ardenne Forest (1801), available on Googlebooks for free at the other end of that link. Our eponymous hero, Lewis, is a humble Ardennes woodcutter. 'Nature,' we're told,
had been most truly bountiful to him in her gifts which were not simply confined to his person, for she had enriched his mind with a good understanding, a retentive memory, a genius that soared above the humble state of his birth and fortunes,--and with a heart, where honour, integrity, and every social virtue glowed with as much ardour as if he had been born a prince, and inherited nobility of sentiment from a long list of noble ancestors' [1:11]
This little passage is characteristic, embodying both the novel's larger theme (the staggering notion that individual virtue doesn't inevitably coincide with aristocratic lineage) and the novel's flabby, prolix style. The plot certainly takes a long time to unwind: Lewis gives shelter to an elderly man and his beautiful young daughter, Hermine; both of them noble though in distressed circumstances. To be honest, I couldn't work out if 'Hermine' is an actual name, or a Young Visiters-style spelling of 'Hermione'. Reading Parsons generally, I could certainly believe her capable of the latter incompetence.  Anyway, Hermine's father quickly dies of old age (I think), and since she does not disclose her surname, and carries about with her a trunk of papers, there's some mild mystery associated with her.  A local Abbess offers her shelter, although for purely mercenary reasons, believing her to be wealthy.  Indeed much of vol. 1 is given over to not-unrepresentative 'nunneries are full of wickedness' narrative boilerplate typical of English Protestant writers of the nineteenth-century (go browse The Little Professor's blog if you doubt me: this post is a good starting point):
"The Lady Abbess will answer your insolent interrogatories," replied the enraged nun, "and to her you may refer yourself." Then seizing the arm of the trembling, shrinking novice she almost dragged her thro' the cloysters; -- and left Hermine surprised, provoked and excessively grieved. [1:221]
In vol 2 almost nothing happens. Well, Hermine befriends a young English girl called Fidelia, born out of wedlock and abandoned in the nunnery by her father, the well-to-do Mr Douglas; but the father turns up and reclaims her, and then takes on Lewis as a companion for his son Frederic. This youth, however, has 'corrupt principles', the result of 'a dissipated preceptor to whose care he had unfortunately been confided by a weak father' who had encouraged 'the ruin of the youth's morals and health, by a criminal indulgence of his irregularities' [2:136]. In what may be my favourite bit of the whole flabby novel, Fred makes a pass at Hermine, who rebukes him thus: 'with a cool bow she quitted the parlour, and left him to chew the cud of vexation' [2:147]. Ah, the cud of vexation! One of the staple diets of my own adolescent years. One interesting thing: Fidelia's mother, the dissipated Mrs Douglas, has been paralysed down one side as a consequence of indulging what Parsons coyly describes as 'those so-called pleasures'. But she gets better, and this is how:
Thus humbled by disease and neglect her temper grew every day more irritable and capricious ... But very soon after Mr Douglas left England she had been persuaded to try electricity, to which she had constantly objected, and had really found much benefit by it -- returning warmth had reanimated her side, and she could use her hand. [2:187]
The reanimating potential of electricity: interesting stuff in a pre-Frankenstein novel. It's part of contemporary therapuric discourse, of course, rather than SF; but still.

Anyhow, not to beat around the bush: Lewis accompanies young Douglas and another wicked fellow called De Preux to Florence, where his natural peasant vartue is tested by a number of temptations. There's a great deal of narratorial moralising  -- 'how vitiated, depraved, and contemptible is the mind of man when once he gives himself up to dissipation, and becomes the slave of a vicious woman!' [2:264] and the like. By now we've reached vol 3, and still almost nothing is happening.  Lewis sees through the evil De Preux, who stabs him with a stiletto, though not fatally. Young Douglas falls ill, and is redeemed from his evil ways.  Lewis meets Hermine's aunt, Lady Somerset, and learns her back story. There's some patriotic reinforcement of the natural superiority of the English ("Brave, sincere, liberal and munificent!" "Such I believe is their reputation in most countries, and I would have respect and esteem for the British character be impressed upon your mind." 3:151), and Parsons iterates and reiterates at tedious length her main point, viz. the innate virtue of Lewis: '"I am really astonished," said her Ladyship, "at the manners and understanding of that young man. -- Nature has done more for him than high birth and a finished education with many of our modern young men of fashion."' [3:188] The scene shifts to London. The beautiful but wicked Countess Eleanora kidnaps Lewis with a view to depraving him, but he resists her blandishments -- somewhat after the manner of Joseph Andrews, though without Fielding's humour or irony or, you know, ability actually to write:
Mean time the ci-devant Countess whose passions, naturally violent, had risen almost to the degree of frenzy, who, for the first time in her life, had conceived a most fervent attachment for Lewis and had flattered herself that the seducing charms of her person, the fortune she possessed and the blanishments of love, would, altogether, allure the affections and gratify the vanity of a low born, obscure young man, [was] maddened by her disappointment. [4:24]
When reading passages like this I like to imagine that Lewis looks exactly like Lewis from the Inspector Morse TV series. But, really, Vols 3 and 4 drag dreadfully. Then there's a flurry of action a little before the end: Eleanora tries to shoot Hermine, assuming (erroneously) her to be a rival  for Lewis's affections ('"Seize her!--seize her this moment!" cried Lord Somerset ... Fidelia shrieked and fainted. "No, no," said Lewis, in an agony. "O! for Heaven's sake keep behind me -- let me receive the ball!" [4:257]). Eleanora is disarmed, and various characters preach at her for many pages ('shameless woman, a disgrace to your sex, I wave all delicacy with such a wretch!'). Eleanora stabs herself in the chest, receives medical treatment, has fits, and after 60 pages of padding it out, dies. Finally Lewis marries Fidelia -- a middle-class female being more appropriate bridal material for him than the upper class Hermine I suppose, despite his passion for her, and despite Parsons' inerminable stress upon his actual virtues.  But Hermine buys him an estate, and effectively raises him in rank. So that's alright then.

---

I called this novel bad but interesting. In what does the interest, then, lie? Not in the overheated, poorly managed frantic intriguing love-storying, silver-forkish travel narrative, or the occasional flurries of what Parsons fondly imagines are 'excting action.'  Rather it is the way Parsons sets herself an explicit moral about class and then cannot live up to it.

The novel opens with ‘a very tempestuous day, followed by a violent story, for several hours during the night’. Lewis reports that ‘“The Abbey and Convent,” said he, “ingulphed as they are in the bosom of a thick wood, have little to fear from the violence of the tempest ... But I fear the remaining part of the old Castle is entirely demolished; its battlements are doubtless thrown down’ [1:4]. This suggests the novel will establish vaguely liberal post-French Revolution bona fides; religion will survive ‘the storm’, but the castle will not—the old oppressions of class will be swept away, but the Rousseauian nobility of the common man (in this French forest) will stem the destructive potential of terror. So Lewis goes to see what has happened to the Castle—and the storm has left it untouched (‘great was his surprise when he beheld at a distance the turrets of the castle peeping over the trees’, 1:5). This odd little narrative cul-de-sac is actually symbolic of the novel’s larger ideological knot: for this is a text that asserts, repeatedly and tediously, that the humble Ardennes peasant Lewis has the honourable nature of a prince; but nevertheless it cannot let go of the idea that honour is actually a function of nobility and breeding. Lewis’s homely virtue is talismanic as he travels around Europe, but almost all the other characters are noble. Aristocratic vice is largely a matter of sexual delinquency, the larger system is fine as it is, and Lewis’s is rewarded after the manner of a lower-rent Richardsonian Pamela by being elevated by marriage and an aristocratic gift of land, to the respectable classes. To say that the book lacks the courage of its convictions would be to suggest that it has convictions.  The truth is that Parson’s one idea—a member of the proletariat may be virtuous—is swamped by the larger infatuation with the structures of money, status and class. In this respect it seems to me superbly revealing of a specifically British, or perhaps English, response to the French Revolution—less politically reaction than Burke and his tribe, but very far from being able to sympathise with the levelling principles behind the undertaking.

Tomorrow: The Mysterious Warning. Oo-er!

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Anthony Burgess, ABBA ABBA (1977)


English Keats dies in Rome, over 80 densely vivid pages. Then, over forty more (what a shame it couldn't have been sixty), we encounter a clutch of sonnets by Roman poet Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli.

The second volume of Burgess's autobiography, You've Had Your Time, includes an account of Keatsian quasi-haunting (Burgess himself calls it 'psychic'). Burgess was asked to read aloud from Keats's poems inside the Rome building where the poet died: 'Reciting the odes, I became aware of a kind of astral wind, a malevolent chill, of a soul chained to the place where the body died, of a silent malignant laughter that mocked not my reading but the poems themselves.' On another occasion, working on a programme for Canadian TV, Burgess returned to the steps outside that house and read out Keats's sonnet "When I Have Fears That I May Cease To Be." He insists that during the course of this brief reading the weather changed completely from a clear sunny sky to a thundrous, stormy downpour that drowned out the words. By way of explanation, Burgess claims not to be "imputing a demonic vindictiveness" to Keats's soul, although doesn't repudiate the idea that the young poet's 'fierce creative energy', thwarted by death, in some sense haunts the house where he died. But it occurs to me that we need not take this sort of thing any more literally than any of the other things in Burgess's unreliable memoirs; but it pinpoints two useful things -- one, that there is something haunting, something hard to rid oneself of, about Keats's poetry (we could go further and suggest that that something, as in this novella, has to do with the uncanny superposition of sexual desire and death); and two, that this haunting is not benign.

ABBA ABBA strikes me as a characteristically good, though small-scale Burgessian achievement. The historical recreation is surprisingly lively, in the sense of avoiding musty cardboardness in the way it disposes of its research into living prose. Keats and Belli feel real, as are some of the characters who cluster around them: Keats's friends Joseph Severn and Lieutenant Elton; Pauline Napoleon, the deposed Emperor's sister. But there's also a fictional character, Giovanni Gulielmi ('John Wilson', Burgess's real name, of course), who translates Keats's sonnets into bad prosaic Italian, and who introduces Belli to Keats in the novel. In real life the two poets almost certainly never met, which is to say that Giovanni Gulielmi performs, in the logic of the novel -- bringing Keats and Belli together -- the same task that 'John Wilson' performs by actually writing the novel. There's also an element of 'what-if?' about the imagining -- like Andrew Motion's 2003 novella The Invention of Dr Cake (which parses the 'what if Keats never died?' question), this short novel  flirts with alternate history, particularly in the second section, where Gulielmi's family tree diverts into an alt-Anthony-Burgess, born one year before the real one, having a roughly parallel though less literarily productive life (including a stinging run-in with the critic Geoffrey Grigson, a real life enemy of Burgess and here rather coyly referred to as 'G--y G--n') and a death in New York at the hands of muggers.

The title, as countless reviewers and critics (including Burgess himself, both in his autobiography and, oh, in this very novel itself, p.81) is (a) the rhyme scheme of the octave of the Petrarchan sonnet, and (b) the Aramaic for 'father father', which is to say, the words Christ yelled on the cross. It's also, of course, Burgess's initials, set out, then reversed (as if in recognition of the more Scroogey element in Wilson's own makeup) twice. "Abba Abba" is also the epitaph on Burgess's marble memorial stone, behind which the vessel with his remains is kept, in Monte Carlo. One problem with the 'father, father' conceit is that there are no fathers in the novel, either actual or Papal (designedly, I suppose: Burgess brings forward Belli's appointment as Roman censor for dramatic purposes, he could just as well have brought forward the 1824 birth of Belli's son). Father, we intuit, is not worked-through here in familial or biological ways, but it rather a formal and textual quantity, the crucifiction cry rendered, bathetically, into the chant of a theatre audience 'author! author!' Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say: form itself becomes the father of art, and the actual subject of this narrow, carefully worked text. Here's A S Byatt, from her introduction to a 2000 reprint of the novel:
In an essay published in 1967, in a collection entitled The God I Want, Burgess typically conducted his argument as a dialogue between two speakers, in this case "Anthony" and "Burgess". "Anthony", the sceptical voice, interviews "Burgess" who confesses to believing in a God whom he compares to mathematics, to grammar, and to the score of a symphony. Not, he says, the composer. The score, the notation, the form itself of the symphony, the potential experience of coherence and beauty. Like, he might have added, the sonnet form. Elsewhere, he said that his God did exist, but was like a Beethoven symphony eternally playing itself to itself, unconcerned with human plights.
The danger, I suppose, is that this works out in practice as a kind of watery Platonism. Here's Burgess's dying Keats:
He had one dream or vision that shocked him at first with a sense of blasphemy, though it must be a sense borrowed from Severn, since he who did not believe could not well blaspheme. Christ pendebat from his cross and cried ABBA ABBA. Now John knew that this was the Aramaic for father father, but he knew better that it was the rhyme scheme of a Petrarchan sonnet octave. It came to him thus that the sonnet form might subsist above language, but he did not see how this was possible. Language itself was perhaps only a ghost of the things in the outer world to which it adhered, and a ghost of a ghost was a notion untenable totally. And yet it seemed that two men, of language mutually unintelligible, might in a sense achieve communication through recognition of what a sonnet was. Belli and himself, for instance. Then breathing became a craft to be craftily learnt again, a matter of catching the gods of unbreathing off their guard.
The shift from a vague sense of the mystical ultimate formal reality of art to an emphasis on translation perhaps saves this.  In the novel Guliemi translates Keats, Keats translates Belli, Belli translates 'official' Italian into Roman dialect, and (of course) Anthony Burgess translates a clutch of actual Belli sonnets. And the way the novel captures the sense of Keats's actual death as a process of relentless diminution that is both well written and moving:
St Valentine's Day came, and with it Valentino Llanos to announce he would go to England soon. Then a week passed and two more days, and John knew his dying day had come, yet to achieve death might be a day's hard labour. Severn held him, as it were carrying him to the gate, but he could not bear Severn's laboured breathing, for it struck like ice. To put off the world outside – the children's cries, snatches of song, a cheeping sparrow, the walls and the wallpaper and the chairs that thought they would outlast him but would not, the sunlight streaking the door – was not over-difficult. A bigger problem was to separate himself from his body – the hand worn to nothing, the lock of hair that fell into his eye, even the brain that scurried with thoughts and words and images. It took long hours to die.

"I'm. Sorry. Severn. My weight. "

"Nothing, it's nothing, rest now. "

He tried to give up breathing, to yield to the breathless gods, but his body, worn out as it was, would not have that. It pumped in its feeble eggspoons of Roman air, motes in the sun and all, but there seemed to be nothing in his body to engage the air. The afternoon wore on to evening and his brain was fuddled and he groped for the essence he had called I. It fell through his fingers.

"John. John. "

There was nothing there to make any answer. Severn dropped the body to the bed and the body gave out some teaspoons of fluid and a final sigh.

The quiet house became busy. The apartment was stripped of everything, and the children gaped at the carts outside in the piazza, on to which furniture, rugs, rolls of stripped off wallpaper were piled, to be taken off for the burning. Signora Angeletti presented a bill. "I have money enough, fear not, madam, " Severn said. "Only enough, but enough. " The plates and cups they had used, these he smashed with his cane, smashed and smashed while Signora Angeletti cried, "Accidenti."
This latter word is unobtrustive enough in its double referent, the Aristotelian/Catholic hint that only Keats's somatic accidents have died, that his spiritual substance continues, not to be clanging. And the thinness of the dying poet is parleyed into the slenderness of this novel.

Enough for now: at some future point I'll engage with Colin Burrow's interesting, kind-of perceptive and yet, I feel, somehow massively point-missing LRB essay on Burgess. It's about time Burgess's bright star began to wax again.