Saturday, 12 July 2014

Compton Mackenzie: Carnival

Jenny Pearl, born Jenny Raeburn, is a dancer on the stage. She is beautiful and talented, but otherwise a rather ordinary girl, sharp-tongued, unsentimental but far from insensitive in her relations with men, fond of, but often at odds with, her unartistic family. Her problem ultimately is the discrepancy between her gifts of beauty and grace, and her impoverished cockney background and all that goes with it. Like a chorus-girl in a P.G. Wodehouse story, Jenny has no shortage of suitors from a different social class. Realistic as she is, she nevertheless falls hard for one of them. Like her, Maurice Avery is separated from his natural milieu by artistic interests; he is playing at the bohemian life with his intellectual friends. For a while, this provides enough common ground for a relationship, though one that she won't allow to lead to sex and he won't allow to lead to marriage. It will end badly; Maurice is too weak a character to flout convention for long, and when he lets her down, Jenny makes the most disastrous decision of her life. She marries another suitor, the sinister religious bigot Zachary Trewhella, and goes to live with him in his farm in Cornwall: a beautiful place, beautifully evoked in Mackenzie's rich prose, but one which provides the backdrop for a final tragedy.

I was led to Carnival by my enjoyment of another Compton Mackenzie novel, The Monarch of the Glen. You may remember the BBC series, part comedy, part soap opera, which was quite enjoyable until the Richard Briers character got killed off. The novel is completely different, set in the 1930s and depicting the struggles of a hidebound Scottish laird against the forces of modernity: hikers in shorts, rich Americans and left-wing poets. In fact, one of the few things I knew about Mackenzie is that he was active in Scottish Nationalist politics and had a bitter feud with that greatest of Scottish left-wing poets, Hugh MacDiarmid. Another thing I knew about him was that his novel Whisky Galore was the basis of an Ealing comedy film; that was the next book of his I read, finding it slightly disappointing after the very funny Monarch. Then came Carnival, which was a big surprise in all sorts of ways.

For a start, where was the Scottishness? I'd pictured Mackenzie as a Highland laird like his own Hector MacDonald. Here, on the other hand, was a novel steeped in London life, above all working-class Islington and the West End. It turns out that, like so many nationalists, he was only tenuously connected to the place he was nationalist about, having been born in Durham to a theatrical family and educated in London and Oxford. There's a density and realism to his depiction of London that's far more impressive than the Celtic trappings of the later novels. His ear for dialogue, above all, is wonderful. Jenny has a little clutch of catchphrases that include 'Oh no, it's only a rumour!' (sarcastically, to imply that she sees through an obvious attempt to deceive), 'you date!' (a soppy man - 'soppy' is another favourite word), 'he'll spring it on you' (seduce you) and 'thanks for those few nuts' (rebuffing a compliment), as well as the more obvious 'Oo-er! and 'Hark at him!'

There's also, despite the liveliness and unsentimentality of the dialogue, an intensity, seriousness and ambition that are quite unexpected. This is a long and detailed novel that starts right at the beginning with a chapter describing Jenny's birth, then takes us all through her childhood before getting on to her theatrical career. Mackenzie is undaunted by the challenge of writing about a character of a different gender and class; telling us about other people's lives is his business and he is very, very good at it. At the same time, we never lose sight of the difference between the language and sensibility of the narrator and his presumed readers and those of the heroine and her family. The mismatch between the two, flowery description and dispassionate analysis on the one hand, earthy characters and dialogue on the other, is fundamental to his writing:

Jenny lay awake in a fury that night. One after another, man in his various types passed across the screen of her mind. She saw them all. The crimson-jointed, fishy-eyed Glasgow youths winked at her once more. The complacent subalterns of Dublin dangled their presents and waited to be given her thanks and kisses. Old men, from the recess of childish memories, rose up again and leered at her. Her own father, small and weak and contemptible, pottered across the line of her mental vision. Bert Harding was there, his black boot-button eyes glittering from a crowd of dirty rotters. And to that her sister had surrendered herself, to be pawed and mauled about and boasted of. Ugh! Suddenly in the middle of her disgust Jenny thought she heard a sound under the bed.
  'Oo-er, May!' she called out, 'May!'
  'Whatever is it, you noisy thing?'
  'Oo-er, there's a man under the bed! Oh, May, wake up, else we shall be murdered!'
  'Whatever next?' said May. 'Go to sleep.'
  And just then the Raeburns' big cat, tired of his mouse-hole, came out from underneath the bed and walked slowly across the room.

The result is mock-heroic, or, in the central metaphor of the book, a Commedia dell' Arte perfomance with Jenny as Columbine and Maurice as Harlequin.

Carnival was published in 1912. For us, that's the age of Conrad and Lawrence (another of my few snippets of prior knowledge about Mackenzie was that he was lampooned in Lawrence's short story 'The Man Who Loved Islands'); in the next few years the novel would be shaken even more profoundly by Joyce and Woolf, Hemingway and Faulkner. Like most of his literary contemporaries, he was travelling a different route, one that now seems to us a dead-end. I'm sure if you had asked this brilliant young writer whose work he was modelling himself on, he would have said Dickens. (The same answer would have been given by Patrick Hamilton, another writer I've dealt with in this blog.) There's the London setting, the wide canvas, the epic scale, the range of tone from comic to tragic. And the twentieth century, in hindsight, was not the right era for the Dickensian novel. He must have realized it himself, turning in later life to those less ambitious books he is remembered for. (He also wrote a sequel to Carnival called Coral, which is worth reading, but not in the same class.) Still, the book works: a little overwritten in places, it is nevertheless rich, involving, and a tour de force of fictional realism. It doesn't deserve to be forgotten.

Next time, the mostly spooky short stories of a Georgian poet whose fiction has been unjustly neglected.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Richard Beard: Damascus

It is the first of November 1993, a significant date in Britain's history: we have just become part of the European Union. On this day, in a trope reminiscent of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, a boy and a girl are born to rather different but not untypical families. We are to follow their lives as they grow up, meet, drift apart and eventually become lovers. It's a state-of-the-nation novel, then, but if that genre suggests a tiresome earnestness, let me assure you that Beard's interpretation of it is every bit as unexpected as Rushdie's.

For a start, where is all this happening?

It is the first of November 1993 and somewhere in the Kingdom, in Quarndon or Northampton or Newry or York, in Kircaldy or Yeovil or Lincoln or Neath, a baby girl is born.
The phrase keeps coming back, a refrain which is never repeated as the place names change all the time: "in Harlow or Widnes or Swansea or Ayr, in Reading or Glentoran or Nantwich or Hull". Beard seems to be taking the idea of the state of the nation literally: this novel is so "typical" that the action happens all over the country simultaneously. The whole point of realist fiction, of course, is to depict lives that give the impression of being individual, but which map in some way on to everyone else's, but surely, not since the medieval morality play Everyman has a writer been so upfront about it.

If what Beard does to fictional place seems bizarre, his treatment of fictional time is stranger still. Hazel Burns and Spencer Kelly are, as we have seen, born simultaneously, on the first of November, 1993. We see them meet as children, becoming, first friends, then telephone friends. We see them struggling with school, puberty and first romantic encounters, with a tragedy in each of their families, and with the onset of adulthood, all the time keeping in touch by phone without actually meeting. In a parallel thread, we see them in their twenties, on the morning after their first night together, as they try to decide what future, if any, their relationship now has. And it is still the first of November, 1993. Throughout all these changes, Britain has just joined the EU, the Great Britain Rugby League team has just beaten New Zealand, Federico Fellini and River Phoenix have just died, and it is National Library Week.

It's hard to explain the dreamlike effect of this simple, but, as far as I know, unique device. Most of the time, surprisingly, we don't notice it at all. After all, we're used to the action of a novel taking place in a different historical period, and precise dates seldom play much of a part in a fictional plot anyway. Novelists sometimes commit accidental anachronisms, like Jane Austen describing apple blossom in July (Emma), and usually get away with it, because we're much more interested in other aspects of their story. But Beard's calculated, nonchalant defiance of chronology keeps coming back, like his place-name refrain, slapping us in the face. The death of the heart-throb River Phoenix becomes a running joke, reacted to in different ways according to the ages of the characters; it is always Hazel's and Spencer's birthdays, as well as the anniversary of the family tragedy each of them has suffered; they meet for the first time on the beach and the incongruity of taking a British seaside holiday in November becomes another joke; there is a flashback to the earlier life of an elderly man, and, yes, even all those years ago, it was still the first of November 1993; and the future of the nation on this momentous but somehow rather obscure historical occasion is meditated on by a varied cast of characters from all over the country, many of whom are the same two people at different ages.

A note following the end of the novel gives us an insight into this chronological structure:

All except twelve of the nouns in Damascus can also be found in The Times of 1 November 1993.
This method, which one would never have guessed without the note, was clearly influenced by OuLiPo, the avant-garde group whose members included Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec and Italo Calvino, and which is associated with the idea of constraint as an aid to creativity: the classic example is Perec's La Disparition, translated into English by Gilbert Adair as A Void, an entire novel written without the letter E. Beard's constraint has been to take The Times for that particular day and generate his novel out of it, and the frozen chronology, though not a necessary consequence of that method, is a marker of it, the only such marker visible in the text. It is reminiscent of another Perec novel, La Vie Mode d'Emploi (Life A User's Manual), the action of which takes place simultaneously in various rooms of a Paris apartment building.

There seems to be quite a lot of interest in OuLiPo at the moment, and I've experimented with some of their methods myself, so I'm partisan. The obvious critique is that they're "artificial" (OuLiPo's adherents would ask how any art could avoid that), and make for brittle, superficial writing with no vision and no heart. Beard's novel refutes that view. I've had to spend so long explaining its oddities that I haven't given a sufficient idea of how joyfully funny it is; it is also, in places, very moving and, to use an unfashionable word that one does not normally associate with avant-garde literature, very wise. Ultimately, this is not so much a state-of-the-nation novel as a coming-of-age one, using its experimental techniques to bring freshness to the perennial themes of growing up and discovering love.

It's been a while since I wrote a blog entry about a contemporary British writer - in fact, I see now, Robert Irwin is the only one I have covered previously. Richard Beard has a website here; he is the author of five novels and several non-fiction books. Damascus was his second novel; the first, X20, the only other one I've read, is also excellent, and I've heard great things about his latest, Lazarus is Dead, which I really want to read. Meanwhile, why is a book as richly pleasurable as Damascus allowed to go out of print, when other, much duller novels are still in the shops? Like all the books I review on this site, it should be much better known.

Next time, an epic novel of theatrical life before the First World War, by a prolific writer now only remembered for two comic novels that received screen adaptations.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Hope Mirrlees: Lud-in-the-Mist

Lud-in-the-Mist is the capital of the free state of Dorimare, "scattered about the banks of two rivers, the Dapple and the Dawl":

The Dawl was the biggest river of Dorimare, and it became so broad at Lud-in-the-Mist as to give that town, twenty miles inland though it was, all the advantages of a port; while the actual seaport town itself was little more than a fishing village. The Dapple, however, which had its source in Fairyland (from a salt inland sea, the geographers held) and flowed subterraneously under the Debatable Hills, was a humble little stream and played no part in the commercial life of the town. But an old maxim of Dorimare bade one never forget that The Dapple flows into the Dawl.

We are in a Fantasyland, then, and an almost excessively charming one, whose inhabitants drink wild thyme gin and flower-in-amber, eat Moongrass cheese and smoked ham with pickled cowslips, and swear oaths like "Busty Bridget!" and "By My Great-Aunt's Rump". It's a kind of domestic Merrie England, not all that far from Tolkien's The Shire in its atmosphere, and with a touch of Shakespearean comedy, too. The hero, Nathaniel Chanticleer, a man of fifty, "rotund, rubicund, red-haired", has just been elected Mayor of this thoroughly bourgeois polis where the men are called Master, the married women Dame, everyone has an exaggerated respect for the Law, and the worst crime imaginable is to eat fairy fruit.

For, as the passage quoted above makes clear, this fantastic world has its dark side, the Fairyland where the River Dapple originates, on the other side of the Debatable Hills and the Elfin Marches. There was once commerce between the two, in the days of the legendary autocratic hunchback Duke Aubrey, whose sinister presence still haunts the psyches of the townspeople long after his mysterious disappearance: like the fairies themselves and their fruit, he embodies a chaotic force they dare not accommodate in their sunny lives. But it can't be suppressed for long. Mayor Nathaniel has a hidden neurosis, his obsession with a plangent note he once heard from an old lute, and this element of his personality seems to have been transferred to his son Ranulph, who is behaving strangely and claims to have eaten the fairy fruit. The respectable young ladies of Miss Primrose Crabapple's Academy go on the rampage; blood is seen leaking from a coffin; Nathaniel finds evidence of an old murder; and eventually he must journey to Fairyland itself in search of his missing son.

The central image of the book must owe something to Christina Rosetti's Goblin Market. More generally, it's in a tradition of fantasy that seeks to free the folklore of fairies from its sentimental trappings and recapture some of its old terror. In my last entry, on Robert Aickman, I mentioned Diane Purkiss's superb study of fairy stories; like Purkiss, Mirrlees understands the association of fairies with death. Her Fairyland is a land of the dead, and in order to be fully ourselves we have to reopen the borders and resume our relations with them, frightening as this is. If Lud-in-the-Mist seems cloying occasionally, the writing too pretty and whimsical, that's perhaps a consequence of Mirrlees's vision: for all the quaint comedy, the people of her world are suffering from a sickness, their failure to accept mortality and the violence, chaos and creative energy she sees as linked to it. They are meant to seem a little too good to be true.

Mirrlees was the author of a couple of other novels and what sounds like a very interesting modernist long poem called Paris. She lived with her former Cambridge tutor, the distinguished Classical scholar Jane Ellen Harrison, and was a respected figure in the intellectual scene of the early twentieth century, admired by Virginia Woolf for her elegance and erudition. Recently, Lud, first published in 1926, has been championed by Neil Gaiman, and reissued in Gollancz's Fantasy Masterworks series. (Sophie Toulouse's brilliant cover illustration, shown here - if you think it's a mis-shapen pineapple, look again - gives a slightly misleading impression of a book more erotic than it is.) There is also a biography of Mirrlees by Michael Swanwick, and a website devoted to her, maintained by Erin Kissane. Like Aickman, Mirrlees seems poised for a long-delayed breakthrough, and with equally good reason. While she can overwrite (and I wish she wouldn't use speech tags like "she dimpled") her prose in general has the imaginative precision you'd expect from a poet-novelist: the sun shining on the brick Guildhall makes it look "like a rotten apricot", doves "with the bloom of plums on their breasts" waddle "on their coral legs", and the city has "little open squares where comic baroque statues of dead citizens [hold] levees attended by birds and lovers and insects and children". Beneath the comedy is a deep intellectual seriousness. Lud-in-the-Mist, part fairy story, part whodunnit (you can tell it was written in the Golden Age of the English detective story) part existential allegory, is a true cult classic.

Next time, a contemporary British comic novel that draws on the experimental techniques of the OuLiPo group.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Robert Aickman: Cold Hand in Mine

The book that has prompted the revival of this blog is a collection of short stories called Cold Hand in Mine by Robert Aickman.

I first heard of Aickman from a gifted student with an interest in the fantastic: he was in the tradition of M.R James, my student said, but his books were practically impossible to get hold of. I'm always annoyed when people claim to know authors too obscure even for me, and to prove a point I dug around in my ghost-story anthologies and found a couple of Aickman stories. In comparison with James, whose work I've loved since my teens, and who may one day feature in this blog himself (though his cult status is dubious), I found them a bit disappointing, with inconclusive plots and a vaguely spooky atmosphere that didn't quite precipitate into genuine manifestations. But then, as tends to happen, the name kept cropping up - in fact, as we shall see, he's developing quite a presence on the web. And Faber and Faber, who publish my poetry, brought out three volumes of his stories in their print-on-demand series Faber Finds (hence the generic-looking cover in the image shown here).

I now realize I was reading those other stories with the wrong expectations. Aickman isn't really a ghost-story writer, and his writing seems more a reaction against James's work than a development of it. Take 'The Swords', which opens the volume - the opening sentence, in fact: "My first experience?" the narrator asks. Yes, he is talking about sex, a subject James scrupulously avoided. He's looking back on his early life as a travelling salesman, staying in squalid lodgings in postwar provincial towns. James's protagonists were often displaced, too, but their lodgings, though bleak, were usually picturesque with it: the East Anglian settings of 'O Whistle and I'll Come to You,My Lad' and 'A Warning to the Curious' are far removed from... Wolverhampton.

Not knowing the town at all, I had drifted into the rundown area up by the old canal. The main streets were quite wide, but they had been laid out for daytime traffic to the different works and railway yards, and were now quiet and empty, except for the occasional lorry and the boys and girls playing around at some of the corners. The narrow streets running off contained lines of small houses, but a lot of the hosues were empty, with windows broken, or boarded up, and holes in the roof. I should have turned back. but for the sound made by the fair; not pop songs on the amplifiers, and not the poundings of the old steam organs, but more a sort of high tinkling, which somehow fitted in with the warm evening and the rosy twilight.

The protagonist goes to the fair and is admitted to a tent where an all-male audience is watching, and taking part in a bizarre show, egged on by a rough-looking impressario. I'd call it indescribable except that Aickmann describes it in vivid detail: the girl in green face-powder and revealing, if tatty, costume, sprawled in a canvas chair on the stage, the pile of swords, 'stacked criss-cross, like cheese straws' with which the men are invited to stab her, without, apparently, any ill-effect. The narrator flees before his turn comes round, but later meets the impresario and the girl in a cafe, and is coaxed into making a private arrangement.

'The Swords' doesn't try to hide its Freudian symbolism, or the sexual nature of the narrator's fascination with the girl and her act. You could describe it as an allegorical account of a young man losing his virginity to a prostitute, but such a label would nothing to dispel its strangeness or the shocking nature of its ending. Sex and death are combined in a totally unexpected way. It's one of the most disturbing stories I've ever read, and, for me, the best in the book, though some of the others run it close. 'The Hospice' tells of a man who loses his way while driving and ends up having to stay the night in a very unhomely hotel / institution; it has a typical Aickman open ending, though in this case I have my own theory as to what is going on. An example of his anti-Jamesianism is the way the temperature, here and in some other stories, is unnaturally hot instead of unnaturally cold as one might expect - he likes to make you sweat rather than shiver. 'The Same Dog' is a great modern fairy story; as Diane Purkiss points out in her excellent book Fairies and Fairy Stories: A History, fairies and ghosts are almost indistinguishable in some folk tales. Finally, 'The Clock-Watcher', the second of two stories with a strong German influence, uses the uncanny imagery of clocks to brilliant effect, and has a superbly handled unreliable narrator, making the conclusion, once again, highly elusive. I should add that Aickman is a writer every bit as sophisticated as any of his literary-fiction contemporaries, in style, technique and characterization.

I am a bit slow catching on to the Aickman cult. You can find a lot about him on the web, including a bibliographical database and a recent radio programme on him by the writer Jeremy Dyson on BBC iPlayer. He lived from 1914-1981, was a key figure in the conservation of Britain's inland waterways, and wrote forty-eight stories as well as a novel, The Late Breakfasters and a novella The Model: A Novel of the Fantastic. From one of the sites I learn that his mother left home when he was in his teens and his father left not long afterwards, leaving the boy to look after himself in the family home: it's the kind of grim eccentricity you might find in his own stories. His Collected Stories are out of print and can only be obtained second-hand at exorbitant prices. Faber are doing a tremendous service by making these three volumes available; my first reaction on finishing Cold Hand in Mine was to order the other two, The Unsettled Dust and The Wine-Dark Sea.

Next time, I'll be writing about a dark and very original adult fairy-tale by a little-known modernist poet.

White Threshold Reopens

In my last posting, in March 2012, I announced the temporary closure of White Threshold and hinted that I might have some exciting news soon. Then nothing till now, nearly two years later. What had happened was that I had received an offer to move the blog to The Guardian's website, where I would receive a small fee for writing it and, more significantly, could expect many more readers. Over the next couple of months, I emailed my contact at The Guardian several times asking for further details, but received no reply. It became clear that nothing was going to come of the idea, and I gave up. I later found out that my contact had left the paper and my chance had gone. I didn't resume White Threshold, partly because the initial enthusiasm had died away, but mostly because I was finding it very time-consuming. Many of the books I reviewed were ones I hadn't read for some time, and I was feeling compelled to reread them specially, which was not easy to fit in with my academic work, which requires a great deal of reading of different material.

Since then,I have occasionally thought of resuming the blog, particularly when, as has just happened, I find myself reading a book that seems perfect for it. Also, there are still quite a few writers I originally intended to cover but didn't get round to, as well as, eventually, some other books by writers I've already covered. Maybe the answer is to resume White Threshold but ignore the standard blogging advice that insists you have to update at regular intervals or risk losing your readers. An occasional update is surely better than no updates at all.