Archive for March, 2014

I’ve never been so insulted in all my life

My attention was recently drawn to a website where, on submission of a sample of your writing, you will be told which author’s style your writing most resembles. Naturally, I was intrigued. Being an unashamed narcissist, I was hoping that my writing may possess the elegance of Austen, or the clarity of Stevenson, or even perhaps – who knows? – the meticulous perfection of Flaubert, or the extravagant flamboyance of Dickens, or the epic splendour of Lawrence at his finest.

So I submitted the entire text of an earlier post from this blog, and you know which writer their programme thought my writing most resembled? Dan Brown. Yes, Dan Bloody Brown.

Now, I think I could reconcile myself to possessing Mr Brown’s literary talents if I were to be compensated with Mr Brown’s literary wealth, but to possess the former without the latter is really the worst of all possible worlds.

I feel emotionally shattered.

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Reflections on a Facebook meme

Those of us who have Facebook accounts may have seen a meme currently doing the rounds that asks:

The BBC believes that most people will have read only 6 of the 100 books below. How many have you read?

Those of us with more time on our hands than sense to know how best to use it may even have completed the questionnaire, ticking off those titles we have read and checking our score against those of our Facebook friends. I know I have.

There is no indication of what, if anything, this list is intended to indicate. If it is intended as a measure of how well-read or badly-read we are, it does seem, to be sure, an odd selection of titles. Is there really anyone who has read, for instance, both Ulysses and The Da Vinci Code? Or would want to? It seems highly unlikely to me. After all, the former can only be enjoyed by readers who love language and delight in its usage, while the latter can only be enjoyed by those who do not care much if anything at all about language: it is hard to see where the two may intersect.  So what can a list containing both these titles possibly indicate? What could all these titles possibly have in common?

This is the point where I should have shrugged my shoulders, thought no more about such nonsense, and gone off to spend my time more wisely by … oh, I don’t know … by reading a good book, I suppose. But good sense never was among my strong points: I went to the BBC site to find the source of this list. I couldn’t find it.

The list contained in this Facebook meme seems remarkably similar to the results of the BBC Big Readers poll from some eleven years ago: I haven’t  made a detailed comparison between the two – I’m not that obsessed! – but it seems fair to infer that whoever put together that later list had based it on the earlier. In the Big Read poll, the BBC had asked the British public to nominate their favourite book. I cannot after all these years remember whether they had stipulated that the book nominated must be a work of prose fiction, but certainly, neither non-fiction, nor poetry, nor drama featured in the final results. The poll was quite a big thing at the time; and in case anyone should think celebrating books is elitist – a vile and unpardonable thing to be, of course, either then or now – an article in BBC’s in-house listings magazine, Radio Times, helpfully informed us, as I remember, that this poll was intended to discover what we really liked, rather than what critics tell us we should like. And thus the BBC’s democratic credentials remained unscathed.

Not that I look down on something like the Big Read. Far from it. Literature, as we all know or should know, isn’t a competitive sport, but most people realised, I think, that this poll was really no more than a bit of fun, and took it in that spirit. As a beneficial side effect, it spawned on the BBC site a discussion board, which very soon became a lively place with all sorts of people talking about whatever book they wanted to talk about, and at whatever level they were happy with: both inverted snobbery and right-way-up snobbery were conspicuous mainly by their absence. I made some very good friends on that board, many of whom remain friends still, long after the BBC decided, for reasons not entirely clear, to pull the plug on the board.

As for the poll itself – all those books we really like rather than the ones critics tell us we should like – it ended up a rather predictable mish-mash: mainly modern and contemporary novels, with a sprinkling of a number of titles from the nineteenth century and the earlier twentieth century that we think of as “classics”; many books we have grown up with, and continue to hold in affection; a few highbrow titles (which presumably we do really like), and, to get it right up the critics, a few lowbrow ones also; but most, it seems to me, unexceptionably from the middle range. As one might expect, I guess. Nothing really to complain about – except for their ascribing The Alchemist to some chappie called Paulo Coelho when everyone knows it was written by Ben Jonson – but, perhaps, nothing really to get too excited about either.

While this list is a reasonable measure of the reading tastes of the reading public, I’m not sure that counting up from that list the number of books we have read tells us much about how well-read we are. Perhaps, to get a representative list of books one should read in order to be considered “well-read” – a representative list, since a comprehensive list of this nature would be too vast even to contemplate – we should have asked the critics after all: for sometimes, even in our democratic age, it is no bad thing to be told what we should like by people who have spent much time and effort developing their understanding and their discernment. One may, of course, end up disagreeing with their choices, but such disagreement only carries weight when one can disagree from a comparable level of understanding and discernment. Otherwise, it’s rather meaningless.

What sort of list would we have had, I wonder, if we had asked the critics? There are many titles in the Big Read list as it is that could very easily have made this hypothetical List of the Cognoscenti: few, I imagine, would quarrel with the inclusion of Pride and Prejudice, say, or of War and Peace, or of Great Expectations, or of Ulysses, in any list of great books. But wouldn’t it have been good to have had a list which, rather than confirm back to us what we already know and like, encouraged us to try out, maybe, The Scarlet Letter? Or Clarissa? Or Fathers and Sons? Or The House of Mirth? Or, if we expanded the remit beyond prose fiction, to, say, The Oresteia? Or The Odyssey? Or Njal’s Saga? Or Paradise Lost? Or, if we expanded the remit even further to include works of non-fiction, to, say, the Dialogues of Plato? Or The Histories of Herodotus or The Peloponnesian War of Thucydides? Or the essays of Montaigne or the Ethics of Spinoza?

It’ll never happen, of course. It is not so much that we resent the idea of critics as such:  after all, in this age of the internet, we are all, myself included, quite happy to become critics ourselves. What we find ourselves resenting is the idea that certain people, by virtue of their having spent time and effort applying their intelligence and their analytic skills to the study of literature, have developed keener discernment and understanding than the rest of us.

And so, we end up merely repeating the same handful of titles over and over again, and we determine how well-read we are on the basis of how many of those titles in the list we may tick off. And we know – or, at least, I know – that the next time another such Facebook meme comes along, we’ll be falling for it all over again.

Oh, and by the way, I got 52/100 in that Facebook meme. Made me feel thoroughly inadequate when I looked at the score of some of my Facebook friends. Oh well … back to my Chaucer …

Concert in Egham on the Ides of March

I tend not to use this site for advertising, but since it’s my site, I guess I am free to break my own rules. For most of you, it won’t matter anyway: this post is aimed solely at those who live within reasonable travelling distance of Egham in Surrey, and who are free on the evening of Saturday the 15th – the Ides of March.

For on that evening, the Egham and District Music Club, of which I am currently chairman, will host the distinguished pianist James Lisney in a concert featuring the three final sonatas of Haydn, Beethoven, and Schubert. The concert will be held in the United Church of Egham, on Egham High Street. You may find here  details of the concert here.

The piece by Haydn, I must confess, I am not familiar with. The Beethoven sonata is nothing short of visionary: that long variation movement with which the movement closes – and a discussion which forms one of the most memorable passages in Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus – takes us into regions of sound and of feeling that had not till then been imagined.

And that final Schubert sonata – the last of the three he composed merely weeks before his untimely death – is simply a miracle. If I were given to gushing, I would describe it as balm for the soul. But since I’m not, I won’t. (How about that for a bit of paralipsis?)

You may see here Mr Lisney’s website, and the various concerts he has in his future itinerary. May I just say that our hall is a relatively small one, and it isn’t often one gets to hear a musician of such quality playing music of such quality from such close quarters.

Have I sold this to you enough? No? All right then, if, during the evening you come up to me and mention this post, I promise to buy you a raffle ticket. Now, I can’t say fairer than that!

(You may buy tickets in advance here.)

“The Rainbow” by D. H. Lawrence

Some time ago, I wrote a post describing my reactions to The Rainbow when I was some half way through it. I finished the novel a few weeks ago, and frankly confess that I find it difficult to write about. But, for anyone interested, this is the best I could do to record my impressions of this very difficult and elusive, but ultimately rewarding, novel.

In the latter part of The Rainbow, the image of a widening circle assumes particular significance. That Lawrence should give such importance to that term – using it not once but twice as chapter heading – should perhaps cause us to ponder the significance he attached to it.

In one sense, this image of a widening circle seems obvious enough: the latter half of The Rainbow is, in effect, a bildungsroman, and, as the protagonist grows up, “the widening circle” is an apt term to describe the inevitable broadening of the protagonist’s horizons. The horizons are many: social, psychological, moral. However, this particular bildungsroman is but part of a larger structure, and if we consider what the “widening circle” may betoken in terms of this larger structure, we move, I think, beyond the conventions of the traditional bildungsroman.  For Ursula, the protagonist of the latter half of the novel, is of the third generation of characters depicted: in each of the two earlier generations, Lawrence had shown couples engaged in struggles of the spirit – first, Tom Brangwen with the Polish lady Lydia; and then, Anna Lensky, Lydia’s daughter from her first marriage, with Will. Now it is the turn of Ursula to open her consciousness to, and engage with, this dreadful but vital business of living. And her world is one broader than those the previous generations had inhabited: the circle widens not merely for the growing Ursula: it widens also from generation to generation.

With Tom and Lydia, after initial impasse, there had come an understanding. This understanding comes in a remarkable moment: Lydia takes her husband by surprise first of all by intuiting that he does not wish to be in her company; and then, by asking seriously and without rancour, as if she weren’t married to him at all, whether he wants another woman.

Suddenly, in a flash, he saw she might be lonely, isolated, unsure. She had seemed to him utterly certain, satisfied, absolute, excluding him. Could she need anything?

This new understanding that it was she, and not he, who was the more insecure, the more uncertain, the more frightened, opens a new stage in their relationship. And Anna, Lydia’s daughter and favourite of her adopted father, perceives this:

Anna’s soul was put at peace between them. She looked from one to the other, and she saw them established to her safety, and she was free. She played between the pillar of fire and the pillar of cloud in confidence, having the assurance on her right hand and the assurance on her left. She was no longer called upon to uphold with her childish might the broken end of the arch. Her father and her mother now met to the span of the heavens, and she, the child, was free to play in the space beneath, between.

It is often debated whether fiction has ever depicted a happy marriage: perhaps commentators ought to consider the relationship that develops between Tom and Lydia, the consummation of their spirits celebrated under the arch of the rainbow, that ancient symbol of God’s covenant with mankind.

But for future generations, things are different: with each succeeding generation, the circle widens. Anna and Tom, almost from the start, find themselves locked in the most dreadful conflict. There have been novels before depicting marital conflict: indeed, given that each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, novelists have found no end of rich material in this theme. But Lawrence, in his depiction of this difficult marriage takes us into new and, I think, hitherto uncharted regions. And Lawrence knew it. During the writing of The Rainbow, he wrote to Edward Garnett:

It’s all crude as yet … but I think it’s great – so new, so really a stratum deeper than I think anybody has ever gone in a novel.

It was a bold claim to make. Compared to drama or to poetry, the novel was still a relatively new form, but already its achievements were considerable: nineteenth century novels, especially those of England and France, had anatomised society and human consciousness to quite extraordinary depth, while Russian novels, appearing then in Constance Garnett’s translations, must have seemed to open up entire new vistas. And yet, Lawrence was confident that he was delving “a stratum deeper”: it’s an interesting image to employ. He was delving beyond the consciousness itself. And he knew it. He was depicting those forces that operate beneath our consciousness, those forces that are so very elusive and nebulous in their nature, the ebb and flow of which are so fleeting and so intangible as to seem scarcely intelligible. Indeed, the reader may choose to question the very existence of these subterraneous forces. But in Lawrence’s world, they exist: here, heaven and earth are teeming about us.

If Middlemarch is permeated with moral concerns, The Rainbow, in contrast, is more religious than moral in feel. Not, perhaps, religious in a conventional sense – although Lawrence has no compunction in using such words as “God” or “soul”; but religious in that it is aware of presences both in the heaven and the earth that is teeming about these characters, and also in their own selves. In the chapter entitled “The Cathedral”, Anna and Will, locked seemingly in a mortal combat the terms of which are never clear, even or perhaps especially to themselves, visit Lincoln Cathedral. Will, deeply attached emotionally to certain values of an ordered spirituality that is represented by the cathedral, is excited, and, indeed, moved. But Anna, realising that the cathedral and what it represents have a special significance for her husband, but without being able to specify precisely what that significance is, rebels precisely against those very values: all she takes delight in is a carved face, a “plump, sly, malicious little face carved in stone”, which she insists must have been the sculptor’s wife:

“You hate to think he put his wife in your cathedral, don’t you?” she mocked, with a tinkle of profane laughter. And she laughed with malicious triumph.

She had got free from the cathedral, she had even destroyed the passion he had. She was glad. He was bitterly angry. Strive as he would, he could not keep the cathedral wonderful to him. He was disillusioned. That which had been his absolute, containing all heaven and earth, was become to him as to her, a shapely heap of dead matter – but dead, dead.

The conflict between the two is terrible, and the language used to describe it is intense, extreme. Some readers may even find embarrassing language of such passionate intensity, and find it over-written; or they may recoil from such scenes as that in which the pregnant Anna dances naked in her room to her unseen gods; but for Lawrence, those dark regions beneath our everyday consciousness could not be depicted any other way. The conflict between Anna and Will, unlike that between Lydia and Tom of the previous generation, cannot be resolved: but eventually, they learn to live with that conflict remaining unresolved. As the previous generation passes away, Anna and Will produce children, become old. And though their conflict remains unresolved, its rawness diminishes, and they discover, possibly to their own surprise, a strange sort of respect for each other:

Anna was not publicly proud of him. But very soon she learned to be indifferent to public life. He was not what is called a manly man: he did not drink or smoke or arrogate importance. But he was her man, and his very indifference to all claims of manliness set her supreme in her own world with him. Physically, she loved him and he satisfied her. He went alone and subsidiary always. At first it had irritated her, the outer world existed so little to him. Looking at him with outside eyes, she was inclined to sneer at him. But her sneer changed to a sort of respect. She respected him, that he could serve her so simply and completely.

Not for them God’s covenant of the rainbow, but “a sort of respect” nonetheless. And that’s something. Soon, the narrative focus moves on to the third generation – to the growing consciousness of Ursula.

Lawrence is often accused of misogyny. I am generally not very interested in the writer’s biography, although, from what little I know of Lawrence the man, I doubt he ever held consistently the various views frequently ascribed to him. But the writing is all that matters, as it is, after all, all that is left of him; and I doubt I have read quite so sensitive rendering, even by female writers, of the awakening and the early development of a woman’s mind. There is one chapter in which Lawrence appears, for a while at least, to return to the concerns of a more traditional realist novel: in this chapter, Ursula, still herself a teenager, takes a step that women in previous generations had not even considered for themselves – she takes a job, teaching at the local state school. And in this job, she has to face the hostility not only of the children, but also of the rest of the staff, and, particularly, of the head teacher who has taken a dislike to her. Eventually, she establishes herself by thrashing a particularly recalcitrant boy – a boy who, she later learns, has a heart condition. She achieves a material victory by doing so, but is aware that somewhere underneath, something valuable has been lost. It is a wonderful chapter, and could have made a superb free-standing short story; but somehow, one can’t help feeling that this shift in focus, even for a single chapter, on to the surface of things rather than on the dark depths below, is, in the wider context, a little out of place.

But Lawrence soon returns to the “deeper stratum”: he is now depicting the third generation, and the circle is ever widening:

That which she was, positively, was dark and unrevealed, it could not come forth. It was like a seed buried in dry ash. This world in which she lived was like a circle lighted by a lamp. This lighted area, lit up by man’s completest consciousness, she thought was all the world: that here all was disclosed for ever. Yet all the time, within the darkness she had been aware of points of light, like the eyes of wild beasts, gleaming, penetrating, vanishing. And her soul had acknowledged in a great heave of terror only the outer darkness. This inner circle of light in which she lived and moved, wherein the trains rushed and the factories ground out their machine-produce and the plants and the animals worked by the light of science and knowledge, suddenly it seemed like the area under an arc-lamp, wherein the moths and children played in the security of blinding light, not even knowing there was any darkness, because they stayed in the light.

Ursula’s consciousness too is a widening circle, widening from the security of regions well-lit into the areas of darkness. And Lawrence, who, we know from Sons and Lovers, was a writer of prose of the highest order, here stretches the language, twists it into new shapes, bends it till it strains and stresses and approaches breaking point, in order to force it to express what it is not normally capable of expressing. Sometimes, it doesn’t work, but the attempt to express is as important as the expression itself. And the point, in any case, is not to pin something down, but, rather, to give a sense of something that cannot be pinned down, a sense of its ceaseless flow. Whatever it is, of course.

The final part of the novel deals with Ursula’s relationship with the young officer, Anton Skrebensky.  Ursula herself is unsure of a future with Anton: his powerful sense of will, his strictly empirical rationality, do not allow even for an acknowledgement of anything beyond the immediate circle of light. When she first rejects him, he, despite his manliness, weeps. But they come together again, and the climactic point of the novel is reached in a sexual encounter on the dunes in which the seemingly inexpressible is expressed in terms so vivid and startling as to defy paraphrase. It is in this encounter that Anton senses that Ursula’s consciousness has widened into circles of darkness that are beyond his ken: his conception of his very self is threatened, and he, who had wept when she had first rejected him, now retreats from her in fear. The first couple depicted in the novel, Tom and Lydia, had reached a harmony under an overarching rainbow; the second couple, Anna and Will, had been locked in conflict, but had reached, nonetheless, an accommodation; but with Ursula and Anton, the circle has widened to its utmost extent and has broken: there can be no future together for them.

The closing lines are magnificent in their visionary splendour. Ursula, now alone, sees the ugly little dwelling of miners scarring the earth, and the miners themselves, “their stiffened bodies … which seemed already enclosed in a coffin”, their eyes “the eyes of those who are buried alive”. But then:

… in the blowing clouds, she saw a band of faint iridescence colouring in faint colours a portion of the hill. And forgetting, startled, she looked for the hovering colour and saw a rainbow forming itself. In one place it gleamed fiercely, and, her heart anguished with hope, she sought the shadow of iris where the bow should be. Steadily the colour gathered, mysteriously, from nowhere, it took presence upon itself, there was a faint, vast rainbow. The arc bended and strengthened itself till it arched indomitable, making great architecture of light and colour and the space of heaven, its pedestals luminous in the corruption of new houses on the low hill, its arch the top of heaven.

Lawrence isn’t finished:

And the rainbow stood upon the earth.

There are certain things I find in books that, for reasons I cannot begin even to analyse, thrill. This is one of them. Were I a better critic than I often pretend to be, I’d be able to analyse why this seemingly simple line makes on me so powerful an impact: but I cannot. So let us leave it there.

A short visit to Vienna

As regular readers of this blog may have noticed – and I flatter myself there are a few regular readers – I haven’t been around much lately: I’ve been enjoying a few days in Vienna. And no – I won’t put up my holiday snaps: they aren’t, frankly, very good, and if you really want a flavor of what Vienna looks like, a quick browse through Google Images will give you a far better impression than any snaps taken with my cheap digital camera.

Oh, very well then – I admit it: I forgot to pack my camera. But really, there’s no harm done. Enjoyment of a place is by no means enhanced merely by pointing a camera and snapping. Indeed, one may argue – as I certainly did, very vehemently, when my wife reprimanded for not having packed the camera – that enjoyment of a moment is intensified rather than otherwise by our awareness of its transience; and that, as Louis MacNeice put it,

We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold

Not even, MacNeice may have added, with a cheap digital camera.

In many ways, Vienna is an endless celebration of kitsch. One knew that right away as the plane landed at Vienna Airport with the Blue Danube waltz piping out to the passengers. It’s all Viennese waltzes and Viennese whirls, chocolate cakes and apple strudels. And, like any major European city, tacky souvenir shops.

I have a fascination with tackiness: I love browsing through cheap and tasteless souvenirs. The souvenir shops in Vienna are dominated by Mozart: Mozart coffee mugs, Mozart fridge magnets, Mozart mouse-mats, Mozart t-shirts, Mozart ties and scarves – anything at all you may care to imagine, but with a picture of Mozart on it. Why this unremitting focus on Mozart I wonder? After all, Beethoven was equally a resident of Vienna, and was no lesser a composer. There are also Haydn, Schubert, Brahms, and many, many others. Had any of these other composers been immortalised in tacky souvenirs, I would have been tempted: if I had seen, say, a Gustav Mahler coffee mug, or an Alban Berg baseball cap, I’d have had my wallet out right away. But these, I admit, I viewed and passed on.

Of course, I had to make a pilgrimage to the Big Ferris Wheel at the Prater. I may not look or sound like Orson Welles, but I’ve seen The Third Man so many times over the years that I know Harry Lime’s dialogue by heart. I was going to recite the Cuckoo Clock speech at the foot of the big wheel, but at the last moment, decided I’d look something of a fool if I did, and chickened out. Perhaps I should have gone ahead with it: a few minutes of looking a fool is, after all, a fair price to pay for having been Harry Lime – if only for just those few minutes.

And then, there was the Wiener Staatsoper, where I had cheapish seats for Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty. I was never was much of a ballet fan, to be honest, but I do love Tchaikovsky’s score, and, as far as I was concerned, hearing this music played so beautifully was worth the admission price on its own. So the restricted view didn’t really bother me much. However, when I stood up (I was at the back of a box with no-one behind me), I did get a pretty good view of them all prancing round to the music. And pretty damn good they were too.

And then, the art galleries. Vienna’s most famous artist, Gustav KlimtI have never really liked: I have no idea how to define “kitsch” or “schmaltz”, but whatever they mean, that’s what I see in Klimt. And seeing his works face to face did not, I’m afraid, change my perception. Egon Schiele I found far more interesting. But – cultural conservative that I no doubt am – the greatest pleasure was a whole day spent at the Kunsthistorischesmuseum, which has one of the most wonderful collections of any gallery –  Bruegel, Dürer, Holbein, Titian, Velazquez, etc. etc. And three splendid late Rembrandt self-portraits. And Vermeer’s extraordinary The Art of Painting. And some paintings by Caravaggio – most notably the Madonna of the Rosary – that fair took my breath away: I had seen this in reproduction before, but nothing quite prepares you for the experience of seeing this monumental work in the flesh, as it were.

Madonna of the Rosary by Caravaggio, courtesy of Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Vienna

Madonna of the Rosary by Caravaggio, courtesy of Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Vienna

And speaking of flesh, there was Rubens. Lots and lots of Rubens. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – he who is tired of large naked ladies in fur wraps is tired of life itself.

So I’ll leave you with one of the old boy’s most seductive works. (And hopefully, I’ll be back soon to writing about books.)

"The Fur Wrap" by Rubens, courtesy of Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Vienna

“The Fur Wrap” by Rubens, courtesy of Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Vienna