Saturday, 30 November 2013

Week Forty-Five - Jeanette

The Picture Of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1891)
Recommended by Nicky


Not the words of Oscar Wilde, funnily enough, but the tagline to the 2009 flop Dorian Gray, starring Ben ‘Who?’ Chaplin.

I’ve been trying to source my Two Readers books from Sheffield libraries as far as possible. That’s why I read a large-print The End Of Mr. Y and lugged around the Rabbit Angstrom Tetralogy. We must borrow from them: it is one way of standing up to the cultural desecration this government is wreaking. Fuck them and their assault on free and accessible books for everyone.

So that's why I'm holding up the already-dated film book jacket version of The Picture Of Dorian Gray. Always makes one look serious about classic literature. Still, in my case it felt appropriate. My introduction to The Picture Of Dorian Gray came at age 13. The 1945 film version (starring Hurd ‘Who?’ Hatfield) was the afternoon ITV matinee.

That film blew my tweenage mind. I knew of Oscar Wilde – Morrissey went on about him, and he was always the answer to quote questions on Going For Gold – but I didn’t know much of The Picture Of Dorian Gray. I found the story beguiling, and the one-liners killer; plus the film itself seemed very inventive. It was in black and white, but whenever it showed Dorian’s portrait, it switched to fantastic technicolour. When I saw the final, degenerate painting, I gasped in horror. (It’s here, but for the full effect I’d recommend not peeping and seeking out the movie instead).

I read the book shortly afterwards. Not much can compare with experiencing Oscar Wilde at that age. Wow. Who were these waspish sophisticates with an aphorism for every mood? I really thought I might become Lord Henry Wotton as an adult. Never mind that I was in some crap area of Norwich, and my day involved thinking up excuses to get out of cross-country running rather than flirting with duchesses and renaming orchids. I was in the gutter but, yes, I was looking at the stars.

He was amazed at the sudden impression that his words had produced, and, remembering a book that he had read when he was sixteen, a book which had revealed to him much that he had not known before, he wondered whether Dorian Gray was passing through a similar experience.

Nicky said that The Picture Of Dorian Gray meant a lot to him when he was growing up. I think it’s one of those special texts: key in forming a persona, or at least key in forming an ideal of what we’d like our persona to be. And, in Nicky, I can definitely see its influence.

Exhibit one: wit. Every advent Nicky counts down his ‘sexy boys’ chart. His type isn’t really my type (Jedward got in there!) but his commentaries make me cry with laughter. Last year, when talking about some actor no-one’s heard of (Ben Chaplin? Hurd Hatfield?), he wrote ‘He always seems to get in the lower reaches of the chart. Much like All About Eve singles in the late 80s.’

Exhibit two: sociability. An absolute joy to be around. We’ve started a semi-regular cinema club!

Exhibit three: disinhibition. Open and honest about all sorts of stuff – from sexual behaviour to Eurovision fan politics – he’s prompted me to think about relationships, sex, identity, and celebrity, in myriad different ways.

He’s far more Lord Henry’s heir than I am. Damn it.

                          ‘Believe me, no civilised man ever regrets a pleasure.’

It’s interesting to (re)read a book whose plot is so well-known in popular culture. The shorthand – vain pretty boy makes a Faustian pact that his portrait, not he, will age, and then goes on a massive debauchery binge – is pretty much what happens. But, as with any distillation, it conceals as much as it reveals.

Reading The Picture Of Dorian Gray as an adult, I found it to be a very sad novel. It is as much of an unapologetic ode to hedonism as Crime And Punishment is a sanction for the cracking wheeze of murder. Dorian is a paradoxical character. He is, at once, amoral and virtuous; a manipulator and a naïf; an anti-intellectual and a nerd. The lovely young Dorian, at the start of the book, is somewhat laconic and petulant, but absolutely magnetic. Hell, anyone would fall in love with him.

He does not stay so pure after he meets Lord Henry. Henry is an endlessly quotable bon vivant, and Dorian seeks to be both what he thinks Henry will desire (a young and beautiful man) and what he thinks Henry is (a pleasure-seeking wit). The pair enter into a Henry Higgins-Eliza Doolittle relationship, the key dynamic of the book; and it is Henry’s speech on how youth is the only thing worth possessing that prompts Dorian to strike his fateful bargain.

Henry gives Dorian a present.

It was a novel without a plot, and with only one character, being indeed, simply a psychological study of a certain young Parisian, who spent his life trying to realise in the nineteenth century all the passions and modes of thought that belonged to every century except his own.

Ah! That’s bloody well À Rebours! I can’t believe how that book has followed me around this year. Although Wilde never names it, it’s such a unique work and once read, it’s easy to recognise any allusion to it. Chapter Eleven is almost completely given over to a parody (or an homage) to the narrative style of À Rebours, as Dorian meditates on his possessions and what they represent.

The King of Ceilan rode through the city with a large ruby in his hand, at the ceremony of his coronation. The gates of the palace of John The Priest were ‘made of sardius, with the horn of the horned snake inwrought.’

So yet another reason why I’m glad to have read À Rebours; I’m sure I would have found this chapter entirely head-scratching if not. Let’s have another picture of it, with its English title, to remind you to read this incredible work.

As the Henry-Dorian relationship progresses, its initial teacher-pupil aspect becomes far less straightforward. Although he wants to emulate Henry, Dorian is simply unable to do so. People love and indulge Henry, and when he is outrageous, it only serves to enhance his standing. Dorian, though, is different; he can beguile like no other, but once his initial charm impact wears off, he is seldom a popular presence in a gathering. He doesn’t have the élan of Henry – he’s too brooding, too conflicted, and his secret picture drags after him like a beached whale.

What is left to Dorian? Drugs. Sex. Material goods. Cruelty for the sake of feeling momentarily powerful. Looking into the mirror at his never-changing appearance. And all this makes society dislike him further. I found it fascinating how Dorian’s behaviour becomes more delinquent the older he gets: the amoralist, manipulator, and anti-intellectual win out, but in a very joyless way. In life, this is rarely spoken of, but it rings true. While younger, we may be afraid of consequence: age brings a new fuck-it-ness. Plus, if we do something exhilarating once (perhaps without exactly intending to) then we learn we can, and are far more likely to do it again. Yet, with each repetition, our tolerance grows, and the taste of transgression becomes blander.

Dorian and Henry are the headline acts in this novel, and I could see why each was so enticing to me at a younger age. But, reading now, it is the portrait-painter, Basil Hallward, whose tragedy struck me the most. In love with Dorian from the very start of the book, Basil watches his beloved muse get sucked in to a new life, and you can feel every jagged shard of his broken heart.

He drove off by himself, as had been arranged, and watched the flashing lights of the little brougham in front of him. He felt that Dorian Gray would never again be to him all that he had been in the past. Life had come between them… His eyes darkened, and the crowded, flaring streets became blurred to his eyes. When the cab drew up at the theatre, it seemed to him that he had grown years older.
It is Basil Hallward who is really Dorian’s picture. He is the one who bears the scars – as it says above, even grows older – as a result of Dorian’s behaviour.

And that’s why I found this book so poignant. Basil Hallward’s suffering is what happens in reality. When we’re cold-blooded or thoughtless, deliberately nasty or uncaringly selfish, the distorted mirror held up to ourselves is not a grotesque self-portrait. Rather, it is painted on the flesh, on the memory, on the very soul, of each person that we hurt.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Week Forty-Four - Jeanette

The Diary Of Vaslav Nijinsky by Vaslav Nijinsky (1919)
Recommended by Michael

Oh, Michael Tanner! Dorset’s foremost Renaissance Man.

He was really important to me in the early days of writing Seasons They Change. Not only was it so cool to know him for the music that he made, and the stuff he loved, and the books he read, and just plain who he was, he took me along to meet Shirley Collins. Shirley Collins! The interviewee whose words opened and closed Seasons They Change, and whose exploratory attitude made much of the music I wrote about in my book even possible.

When I first spoke to Michael Tanner (he’s one of those people that you somehow need to call by their full name), he was fresh from recording this piece of brilliance.

I loved and love this album for its melancholy, its grace, its subtle tragedy. He sent me MP3s and I listened a lot, but I was a lucky lady: for, at the time, Music For Smalls Lighthouse was largely unheard, unfairly stuck in label limbo. But now, two deluxe and sensitive issues later (2010 CD on Second Language, 2013 vinyl on Clay Pipe), it has found the audience it so richly deserves. It’s even making those best end-of-year lists.

Michael Tanner isn’t only Plinth; he’s been in The A. Lords, Tyneham House, Cloisters, United Bible Studies, loads I've probably forgotten, and even, sometimes, just Michael Tanner.

I was very keen to read The Diary Of Vaslav Nijinsky. Over the past few years, I’ve become incredibly taken with autobiography, correspondence and memoir: fascinated by self-representation, by unwitting testimony, by how recollection erodes and then rebuilds truth.

This diary adds another layer to all that. It is unique in the annals of memoir, since Nijinsky wrote it when he was entering a psychotic state. Shortly afterwards, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

I want to write this book because I want to explain what feeling is. I know many people will say that this is my own opinion about feeling, but I know that this is not true, because this opinion emanates from God’s commands. I am a man like Christ who fulfils God’s commands.

By ‘feeling’ he means unselfish and luminous instinct, derived from God’s grace and the fundamental decency of humankind. He saw ‘thinking’ as feeling’s opposite: thinking is conscious, human-derived and ultimately corrupt and corrupting. Choosing thinking above feeling leads to personal unhappiness and wider social ills.

It’s difficult not to parallel Nijinsky’s elevation of feeling over thinking to his chosen career. Surely, dance is that most intuitive of art forms: nimble feet are nimble feet, and ‘thinking’ won’t make leaden ones featherlight. But Nijinsky was not only (or, by 1919, even primarily) a dancer. He was a choreographer. His works, such as Afternoon Of A Faun and Jeux, were hated and loved in equal measure for their modernist approach. Nijinsky was fresh from a disastrous tour of America as he wrote the Diary: perhaps he saw the hostile reception from audiences as their failure to ‘feel’ his work, that they were too caught up in ‘thinking’ about it. Nijinsky claims to far prefer performing for poor people, believing them to have a connection with his work that critics and learned audiences do not. Of course, Brian Molko from Placebo also spews out that kind of self-protecting junk whenever the music press slam his latest ‘opus’. But I suspect time won’t prove Brian Molko's critics wrong.

And this is where The Diary Of Vaslav Nijinsky becomes an essential part of a legend. We have not one scrap of surviving footage to judge his dance and choreography genius for ourselves. Nijinsky must be one of the last performers to occupy this position, so alien in our modern age, when seemingly every gig is marred by some twat videoing the lot on a mobile phone. Our hunger to know what Nijinsky was actually like has even led to a painstaking reconstruction of Afternoon Of A Faun, designed and shot to make us feel as far as possible that we are watching authentic film stock.

That is why this edition of the Diary, the unexpurgated one (which Michael Tanner insisted on) is so important to read, rather than the one that is more freely and cheaply available. Romola Nijinsky, his wife, was the diary’s original editor (in 1936). Not only did she snip out all the unflattering references to herself (she was a ‘thinker’: enough said) and the passages about ‘pricks’ and defecation, she also performed a more insidious form of censorship. She rearranged Nijinsky’s words, effectively making his madness seem dark-eyed and Byronic. An overspill of too much talent. Twenty years had passed since anyone had seen Nijinsky dance, and the world was comfortable with cinema, newsreels, and a seeing-is-believing approach to history. In the absence of any of this direct evidence, Romola ramped up the circumstantial case for Nijinsky’s genius.

In this new translation, all Nijinsky’s experiences are restored. And, yes, sometimes he is in dramatic despair.

I am sitting at an empty table. In the drawer of my table there are many paints. All the paints have dried up because I do not paint anymore. I used to paint a lot, and I made good progress. I want to paint, but not here, because I feel death.

But, often, his mental illness manifests in far more mundane ways. He loves having a passive-aggressive pop at people, like when he relates how Serge Diaghilev (his former Svengali and lover) dyes his hair, and when he gossips about his sister-in-law’s drunken benders. He’ll go on about his vegetarian diet for several centuries, and writes pages and pages about the inadequacy of modern fountain pens. All these are well within the realm of the usual mental health social worker chats, rather than fitting Romola’s image of splendid cape-swinging insanity.

However, sometimes, Nijinsky will provide a glimpse of how difficult Romola’s everyday life must have been.

I have told my wife that I have invented a pen that will bring me a lot of money, but she does not believe it, because she thinks that I do not understand what I am doing. I showed her a pen and a pencil in order to explain to her the pen I have just invented.

So, perhaps Romola Nijinsky did not only rejig the Diary to stoke her husband’s reputation. It was to provide dignity to the experience of watching the man she married change from a fulfilled and acclaimed artist into someone who relentlessly spouted preposterous and often hurtful statements.

There is so much in this book. Nijinsky’s devotion to the Tolstoyist religious sect (a form of anarchist Christianity, focusing on Jesus’s pacifist and classless teachings, renouncing fleshy, sensory and culinary pleasure) is a crucial thread, as is his struggle to understand the Great War and its immediate aftermath. Nijinsky was also keyed in to environmentalism, and was cognisant of the economic damage caused by unregulated stock markets, long before many gave a damn about either of those causes.

I do not know how to plow, but I know that the earth glows. Without its warmth there would be no bread.

I want to have millions in order to make the Stock Exchange crash. I want to ruin the Stock Exchange. I hate the Stock Exchange. […] The Stock Exchange robs poor people, who bring all the money they have in order to increase it, in the hope of achieving their goals in life.

Then there is the language itself: circular, rhythmic, full of unusual bridges between concepts that give the whole thing an inner logic (albeit one whose heuristic key is known only to Nijinsky himself). At points, particularly in the final ‘Fourth Notebook’, it becomes so infected with invented words and repetition that it is virtually unreadable. Even the translator gives up.

           Pa pi pa ti pa pi ti
           Ci ci ci ci ci ci ci

Nijinsky did not see this work as a private journal. Rather, he wanted it published and distributed for free; he didn’t even want it typed, but sought reproduction of his own handwriting. Thus, the text itself would not need any ‘thinking’, because in and of itself, it embodied ‘feeling’.

I adored The Diary Of Vaslav Nijinsky. I had not read its bizarrely sorrowful like before, and I suspect I shall never read anything comparable again. And, perhaps, even though it was important to read the unexpurgated edition, Romola Nijinsky was right. We want Vaslav Nijinsky to embody a romantic, tortured genius, and it is those passages of deep distress that are the ones that linger.

I am not a dying man. I am alive, and therefore I suffer. My tears rarely flow. I weep in my heart.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Week Forty-Three - Jeanette

Rabbit, Run by John Updike (1960)
Recommended by Dan

So tall, he seems an unlikely rabbit, but the breadth of the white face, the pallor of his blue irises, and a nervous flutter under his brief nose as he stabs a cigarette into his mouth partially explain the nickname.

As I type, I’m on the sofa at the house Dan shares with Jude. I purposefully wanted to read Rabbit, Run this week; having liberated myself from the project’s alphabetical order, I thought it would be fitting to experience John Updike’s work while hanging out with the man whose favourite book it is.

I’ve been staying with Jude and Dan for a week. Here I am with Poppy, who lives with them (she’s my favourite cat! Any excuse for a photo).

As it turned out, Dan and I didn’t get much of a chance to talk on it. At the start of the week, and at the start of my reading, I told him that it was brilliantly written, and that I found it very unforgiving. (‘But that’s okay,’ I added).

I’ve known Dan for a long time, and how I’ve related to him has evolved a lot. In my late teens, he was the friend of a boyfriend; in my twenties, part of the ‘North London set’ of people in bands who were always at the pub; from my later twenties onwards, Jude’s partner and then husband. It’s strange, but until recently I’d seen Dan primarily through the lens of other people. That's changed over the last couple of years. Satisfying, now, to be clear-eyed, and to have my own unique friendship with him.

Dan is a fantastic musician and, like Dave, is in the awesome The Drink; he was also in Fighting Kites, Michaelmas and, many years ago, Adekola Sound. I feel I have a lot to learn from him about experimental music, minimalism, and modern classical. As I’ve pointed out before, I tend to generalise the whole thing as an impenetrable slab of cold marble, yet this week he played me Oren Ambarchi’s ‘Grapes From The Estate’ and the emotional appeal of it was plain as day to me. Maybe next time I look after Poppy I’ll turn off the internet, needle-drop Dan’s records, and binge on the impressive pile of The Wire magazines.

Rabbit, Run seems to be one of the Two Readers books that quite a lot of friends have already read, and most not only had an opinion on it but an opinion on how I might receive it. Most thought I’d admire it, but that I might not like it too much.

Hard-hearted: the word seems to clatter after them as they climb the stairs to the second floor.

Indeed, the word seems to clatter after the whole of the novel. Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom is an unpleasant man who, in his lack of compassion for others, borders on the sociopathic. In the most famous line of the novel, Rabbit declares that if you have the guts to be yourself, other people will pay your price.

Guts to be yourself. Guts. That word in itself asserts what I found so incredibly impressive in Rabbit, Run's characterisation. Rabbit believes that ‘being yourself’ (in his definition, indulging your own drives and damning the consequences) stems from an inner honesty and not from selfishness. He sees the world as rabbit-eat-rabbit, and if others aren’t prepared to cannibalise or be cannibalised, then it’s their own lookout. He has nothing but contempt for them.

            ‘Forgive me. I’m in a very depressed mood.’
There’s nothing exactly wrong with his saying this, but it rubs Harry’s inner hair the wrong way. It kind of clings. It says, Pity me. Love me.

Why is he like this? The psychology in Rabbit, Run is subtly explored. Rabbit was, once, a basketball prodigy, of whom great things were expected. Now he’s demonstrating a kitchen mod-con called the MagiPeel. There comes a point in all our lives where we stop having ‘potential’ and have to actually deliver on it. If we don’t, the feeling is excruciating. Rabbit isn’t one for lengthy oh-poor-me soliloquies; instead, he expresses his frustration at underachievement in a far less sympathetic way. The book is called Rabbit, Run because that’s what he does. Nothing – not a job, friends, home, marriage, fatherhood – is for life. Rabbit is never able to withdraw his foot from its default position, that of wedging open the escape hatch.

Janice, his pregnant wife, is a constant reminder to Rabbit of how he isn’t living the life he wants. She is an alcoholic and a sloth, but with a sadness that is clear to the reader. Rabbit ignores, is ignorant of, or is simply uncaring about the reasons that may underlay Janice’s behaviour. At the start of the book, he leaves her.

            ‘I’m not that interested in her. I was, but I’m not.’

Ouch. When long-term relationships break down, whether we are the dumper, dumpee, or at some more mutual point on the spectrum, we’d like to believe it nobler than the simple dulling effect of monotony. How many of us just think, ‘I’m sick of looking at your face each morning, because all it does it get older and tireder and less attractive?’ Far, far, far more of us than would ever admit it, I’d wager.

And what do we do when we think this? Often, like Rabbit, we run, run to someone new, even if it’s only in our heads. Rabbit runs to Ruth, a more obviously sexual being than Janice. He doesn’t change his behaviour very much.

He repeats, ‘Did I?’ and pinches her arm, hard. He hadn’t meant to do it so hard; something angered him at the touch of her skin. The sullen way it yielded.
                              ‘Ow. You son of a bitch.’
Still she lies there, paying more attention to the sun than him. He gets up on an elbow and looks across her dead body to the lighter figures of two sixteen-year-olds standing sipping orange crush from cardboard cones.

I didn’t like Rabbit (but then I doubt you’re meant to). But I didn’t hate him, either. I both admired and detested his unbridled id and part of me, a very small but very honest part, recognises in him something of my own questionable past behaviour. But, right there, that’s the difference between Rabbit and I: I am, at least, a little bit ashamed of it.

A criticism levelled at Updike is that he was an unapologetic misogynist (this Guardian piece is fairly typical of the arguments). Updike’s treatment of women reminded me of my favourite laugh-a-minute playwright, August Strindberg, who was also frequently labelled as a big ol’ sexist. In Rabbit, Run, as in (e.g.) Miss Julie, women are equally complex and shitty as men, although patriarchal society moulds them into a different complexity and shittiness. This includes affecting the pose of victim, which both Ruth and Janice do, at points. Depressing, yes, sexist… I didn’t experience it as such. It was perfectly in line with Updike’s angry critique of interpersonal relationships and his brutal frankness about how people take advantage of the power handed to them. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the book’s disturbing scene of sexual coercion. I consider Rabbit, Run a depiction of misogyny, while not being misogynist in itself.

The final section of the book was a rather different beast to all this, and absolutely magnificent. If you want to avoid a spoiler, stop reading now, but I feel I can’t discuss Rabbit, Run without revealing and praising the treatment of this plot point. Janice and Rabbit’s baby daughter dies as a result of parental neglect. The guilt, blame, shock, grief, and community response that follows her death drips with profound desolation, while never once threatening melodrama.

The coffin, with handles of painted gold, rests on a platform draped with a deep purple curtain; he thinks the curtain might draw apart and reveal, like a magician’s trick, the living baby underneath.

I would have, I’m sure, applauded Rabbit, Run even had it not taken this very intense turn. However, it is this that really does push it into the realm of great achievement. It is an unflinching, uncensorious, unkind, undeniable, masterpiece.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Week Forty-Two - Jeanette

The End Of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas (2006)
Recommended by Ian

My friend George was at something called a ‘Meaning Conference’ this week. She tweeted and blogged about it. I was rather taken with her thoughts and briefly entered the debate:

Yes, it’s been a very introspective month. I’ve pulled apart my innards in search of meaning within our flawed web of knowledge and, more specifically, my meaning within its strands. This isn’t a bad thing to do, per se, but usually one only does it when not feeling exactly euphoric. Thus, it’s hardly a surprise that such painstaking pondering is tinged with sadness or futility.

The heartbreakingly ironic thing is that this quest for meaning comes because we’re looking to be happy; this (for me at least) is usually an instinctive and unpredictable process, so the pursuit of it in itself brings me the absolute fucking opposite. It would have been Albert Camus’s one hundrenth birthday this week; read (from the fabulous Brainpickings site) what he has to say about happiness, sorrow, and principles. He speaks a lot of sense.

I told somebody this year that I thought the easiest path in life was the hardest in the end. Like Evelyn Waugh’s miserable depiction of relationships last week, what I saw as happening with the easy way in life was a simulacrum of happiness. How far we convince ourselves that this illusion is reality depends on our own capacity for self-deception.

Yet, during this latest bout of reflection, I’ve doubted my belief in those words. Look the part, be the part: perhaps the illusion needs to be there first, to enable the reality to quietly slink in behind it. At the same time, I’ve found that what I believe I am really feeling can be itself chimerical, no more than a forgotten scrap of paper, and perhaps especially so when that said ‘real’ feeling is concealed. When the front presented to the world doesn’t exist, the reality therefore has no reason for being at all.

If I can’t tell the difference between my own fake and real feelings, how can I expect to divine truth and lie in anyone else?

Does that even matter if I get the end result that I desire?

And is it always a physical result, with tangiable proof, that I desire?

Like I said, an introspective month. And it was with this head on that I read The End Of Mr. Y, a novel that’s Alice In Wonderland meets The Matrix meets Poststructuralism For Beginners.

It is only in the logos of metaphora that we are to find the protasis of the past, that glorious illusion which we call memory, that curtain of destiny, drawn tightly over the conscious mind but present in every fibre of being, from sea creature to man, from pebble to ocean, as Lamarck and E. Darwin have maintained. Can this place be real? Perhaps not. For this reason, it is only as fiction that I wish this work to be considered.

The End Of Mr. Y is not only a book by Scarlett Thomas. The passage above is from The End Of Mr. Y by Thomas E. Lumas, a extremely rare and supposedly cursed Victorian novel. In it, the narrator relates his discovery of the ‘Troposhere’: a semi-psychic state where minds can be read, others’ experiences understood, and the impossibilities of time and space compressed.

I confess that I almost became lost in this new world, for, given access to another man’s thoughts, who would not roam endlessly within them?

Quite. The Lumas passages in this book are very good; it was an interesting and convincingly Victorian story that began with a sideshow entertainment and ended in Mr Y’s complete capitulation to the Troposphere. Thomas, when she wrote as Dumas, also showed great attention to detail – down to hyphening ‘fair-ground’ and ‘make-shift’ – and I really liked it.

Ariel Manto, PhD student specializing in the works of Dumas and historic thought experiments, mysteriously finds a copy of The End Of Mr. Y and reads it, all the while metaphorically looking over her shoulder for the curse that supposedly dogs this book. Eventually she finds out why the book is considered so dangerous, because it contains the recipe to enter the Troposphere.

                        Make the tincture in the following way:-
Combine one part Carbo Vegetabilis, that is, vegetable charcoal, in the 1,000th centesima; homeopathic potency, with 99 parts holy water in a glass retort or flask and succuss the mixture ten times.

Carbo Vegetabilis actually exists and so Ariel makes up the drink. Who wouldn’t? I did vaguely consider doing it myself for this post, and if it had been my favourite author or even simply that the required potency had been easily available from Holland & Barratt, I would have done it in a shot. I have, after all, said Candyman five times in the mirror and would so watch the Ring video.

Ariel enters the Troposphere and hilarity doesn’t ensue. For me, and rather unfortunately since it is ninety per cent of the book, Thomas is not half as good a writer of her own story as when she’s pretending to be Dumas. It’s overlong, Ariel is an irritating protagonist, and the dialogue is, at points, very stilted. There are pages and pages of Ariel and her colleagues debating Creationism and the Theory of Relativity. Thomas often introduces fairly complicated philosophical ideas and then, lacking the courage of her convictions, tries to dumb down or clunkily explain them to the reader. There’s also a dated virtual reality feel to the story that I didn’t like.

This is a big shame because when Thomas uses ideas in a subtler and more exploratory way, the book really worked. For instance, there’s a religious undercurrent to The End Of Mr. Y, specifically dealing with prayer.

‘If they pray, I survive. If not, I go to sleep. It’s not death, exactly, but I can’t do anything impressive.’

Thomas explored this within Christian and Pagan contexts, and it really connected with my own thoughts about meaning and purpose (in a secular context). Sola Fide – ‘faith alone’ – is the Lutheran doctrine whereby a human doesn’t have to prove he or she is ‘saved’ through good works. Belief in, and acceptance of, Jesus Christ is the key thing, not external proof. Luther got a lot of stick for this – critics assumed that sola fide offered carte blanche to do whatever the fuck you wanted and still enter the Kingdom of Heaven – but Luther didn’t mean that. He meant that, if you have faith, it doesn’t need evidence for the benefit of others. Jesus Christ knows, and he is the only one that needs to. Thus, I think Luther was saying, it is the ostensible proof itself - the good deeds we may do - that are the illusions. The reality of faith can never be proved, yet it is is entirely knowable by the only force that matters in a Christian sphere.

I love Martin Luther. He was a very logical debater, a fiery-tempered tortured soul, and he nailed tracts to doors. Go to this Luther insult generator and marvel at his caustic tongue.

The other interesting idea in The End Of Mr. Y was drug use and dependence. Ariel’s tincture is not chemically addictive but she’s hooked on the experience it offers, and begins to hate being in the real world; this is, surely, a drug narrative. The real hardcore Class As like heroin and crack are killers of reality; as Renton put it so succinctly in Trainspotting, when you’re not on smack you have to worry about some football team that always fucking loses. Ariel’s trips to the Troposphere become increasingly despondent and dangerous: heroin, after all, screws you up.

This was a frustrating read, overall. So much good stuff, but it needed far more ruthlessness at the editing stage. On the other hand, perhaps it was its very laxity that allowed my mind to wander so. The book certainly gave me more fodder for rumination rather than providing an escape from it: I never would have made the sola fide analogy without it.

Blimey, this is a long post. I guess it’s been brewing for a while. But before I let you go, you have to hear about Ian. Or Crackers (to give him his full title). We met on a record nerd forum before real life, but he soon became one of my most treasured Sheffield friends. He has a very sympathetic ear and an even more sympathetic tone of voice. I love shooting the breeze with him over dark ale and lazy Sunday afternoons. Plus, like James Brown, he’s the hardest-working man in (Sheffield) showbusiness. He’s always got a night on – at the moment it’s the fabulous Jive Juice – and he is a bloody good DJ with an absolutely blinding record collection. I’ve ‘spun’ alongside him and it’s a joy (it’s also faintly embarrassing, as his skills show mine up as pure amateur hour). He has bought and passed on to me numerous awesome records. Including a disco version of Romeo and Juliet.

I’m not sure he and I have talked much about books, because it tends to be records and life. He was the final person to submit his recommendation. Classic Crackers. (In fact, he was so late that I’d devised a Plan B: to ask this really cute guy I’d seen around for a recommendation, as an in to talk to him. It was probably a good idea that Crackers came through. It might have all gone a bit Love Actually.)

Ian, I’m sorry I didn’t like this book very much. But I liked writing about it very, very much. And I liked writing about you very, very, very much.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Week Forty-One - Jeanette

A Handful Of Dust by Evelyn Waugh (1934)
Recommended by Rebecca

You know those people who carry themselves so assuredly? Those people where everything they like is spot on? Those people who never suffer from l’esprit de l’escalier – the French term for thinking of a wonderful comeback way after the moment has passed?

True, these people are useful for talking to about the latest Josephine Foster album, but overall one gives their perfect arse a wide berth. BUT NOT OUR BECK! She has all of the above – no-one, but no-one, is cooler than she – but it’s all dwarfed by her sincerity and kindness. She is a true pleasurable presence in my life.

And I get to talk to her about the latest Josephine Foster album. Bonus.

Given how exemplary Beck’s taste is (and that I’ve wanted to read Evelyn Waugh for some considerable time), I was very much looking forward to this.

            ‘I’m afraid I’ve rather bitched your evening.’

A Handful Of Dust is chockablock with these memorable expressions. In one sense, it is a black satire on the British landed gentry coming to terms with their role in a modern world that doesn’t really know what to do with them. In another sense, it’s a black satire on the British attitude to marriage, especially when divorce offers a beguiling getaway from it.

But, in yet another sense, it’s a black, but non-satirical and deeply affecting, story of how, when we take life-altering decisions, we expect to be (at least psychologically) rewarded for them. We very seldom are.

Brenda and Tony Last, married with one young son, live in the crumbling country manor Hetton Abbey.

In order to make an appearance of coffered wood, moulded slats had been nailed in a chequer across the plaster. The squares between were decorated alternatively with Tudor roses and fleurs-de-lis. But damp had penetrated into one corner, leaving a large patch where the gilt had tarnished and the colour flaked away; in another place the wooden laths had become warped and separated from the plaster.

Tony loves his family home, and that’s just as well, since the thing takes up virtually all his capital. Brenda is less enamoured, insisting on a ‘modern bed’ and seeing the whole thing as an anachronistic money pit. The Lasts have rather aimless lives: visiting people, parties, gossiping, getting out of things they don’t want to do. The depiction of this particular strata of society reminded me of Jean Renoir's 1939 film La Regle Du Jeuthere’s money, but there’s no purpose, and an impending sense that the whole class is moribund.

Brenda, uninterested in Hetton, makes frequent trips to London and eventually takes a flat there. How things haven’t changed, from then till now, in the capital’s private rented sector.

It was in a large, featureless house, typical of the district. […] After the first flight the staircase changed from a marble to a faded carpet.

Brenda uses the glorified bedsit as a base to conduct an affair with the charmless freeloader John Beaver. The relationship between John and Brenda, and how it is received in society, is where Waugh is at his spikiest.

Opinion was greatly in favour of Brenda’s adventure. The morning telephone buzzed with news of her; even people with whom she had the barest acquaintance were delighted to relate that they had seen her and Beaver the evening before at a restaurant or cinema. It had been an autumn of very sparse and meagre romance; only the most obvious people had parted or come together.

Brenda isn’t in love with John, nor he with her; they don’t even seem to be having much fun. The overriding motivation for their dalliance is boredom. But the affair doesn’t even chase that away. Rather, their relationship becomes just another thing for them to get bored of. 

As for the cuckolded Tony, even before he fully admits it, he knows his marriage is on tilt and that he is losing Brenda. But he is also powerless to stop it. Tony feels no anger towards John; he realises that, if not him, it would be someone else. Waugh, with merciless and brilliant prose, depicts a state where love has been so debased that it becomes a mockery of itself. No-one quite knows what or how to feel anymore; all that’s left are the motions to go through, which the characters do with mechanical ennui.

Fitting in with the overall cynical tone of A Handful Of Dust, divorce is the thing that’s romanticised. It’s always there within a marriage, offering an escape route, a path to carefree freedom. When Brenda initiates proceedings against Tony, the whole thing becomes a very dark farce.

            ‘How’s the old boy taking it?’
            ‘Not so well. It makes me feel rather a beast,’ said Brenda. ‘I’m afraid he minds a lot.’
            ‘Well, you wouldn’t like it if he didn’t,’ said Polly to console her.
            ‘No, I suppose not.’

Yet in the second half of the book, and especially towards the very end, Waugh does inject far more humanity. He is especially sympathetic to Tony, but even Brenda is portrayed with a measure of compassion (although Beaver remains an absolute arsehole). Divorce is not the romantic adventure one would hope for, but yet another unhappy state from which people must look to break away from. Probably back into marriage, and so the whole despairing dance sets off once again.

A cheerful read, then. As befits the cheerful Evelyn Waugh.

Fellow writer James Lees-Milne called Waugh ‘the nastiest-tempered man in England’. Waugh believed that class divisions were natural and hated any attempt to rectify inequalities. He sent a bottle of champagne to someone he’d just sued the living shit out of. He was a Christian but struggled with his faith, chiefly because it meant he was supposed to be nice to his fellow man. ‘If I weren’t a Christian,’ he once told Nancy Mitford, ‘I would be even more horrible.’

A Handful Of Dust felt like a significant book for me to read at this stage of my life, an experience beyond simply enjoying a brilliantly observed and gripping story. It made me measure my own pessimism. First achievement: I am far less cynical than Evelyn Waugh. Second, and more noteworthy, achievement: I am far less cynical than I feared myself to be.