The tenacity of disreputable avenues

The New York Stories of Elizabeth Hardwick (NYRB Classics, paperback, 2010)

It’s a new academic term and I’m teaching several new courses. They all need researching and preparation, so my time for blogging is even more constrained than usual. My posts will probably be sporadic for a while. But I’d like to keep some sort of record going of highlights of what I’ve been reading and doing now that autumn is here.

I mentioned recently that I’d not enjoyed Patrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter as much as other things of his that I’ve read. Then I had a negative experience with William Gerhardie’s Of Mortal Love.

Since then I’ve whizzed rapidly through the new William Boyd novel, Sweet Caress, but considered it, like the Gale, too plot-centred and episodic. Like Any Human Heart it traces the whole life experience of its central character – a photographer named Amory Clay, but unlike the story of Logan Mountstuart (who is said to have been based on Gerhardie) this novel failed to engage me. The reviewer in the Guardian was much more impressed: link here.

E Hardwick NY StoriesNext I read The New York Stories of Elizabeth Hardwick, a typically handsome edition by the reliable NYRB Classics people. In Feb. last year I wrote about her autobiographical novel, Sleepless Nights, a fragmentary, structurally audacious work that was both challenging and rewarding (they reminded me of Renata Adler’s Speedboat, published just three years earlier). These stories are also well written: the quality and style is varied, but on the whole I enjoyed them immensely.

There’s an informative and interesting Introduction by Darryl Pinckney, who points out that Hardwick (1916-2007) struggled to produce long forms of fiction, and published very few shorter works – partly because of her obsessive perfectionism in her language (the Flaubertian insistence on the ‘mot juste’), and a tendency to feel that she was better suited to non-fiction. The stories originally appeared in prestigious publications like The New Yorker and Partisan Review.

The earliest stories, dating from 1946-56, reflect the themes of exile and flight from her small-town Kentucky youth from which she came to feel alienated (she writes of ‘the family demons’ and the brutal ‘hostilities’ of the familial in the story ‘Evenings At Home’), and of escape to the big city – where I sense she also never felt fully at ease or at home. Nevertheless she is intrigued by the buzz and dynamic energy of metropolitan life, and portrays it in shrewdly observant, often sensuously textured prose that is poetic in its cadences, but tends towards a detachment that can sometimes chill.

Later stories begin to show the avant-garde style and narrative fluidity that I posted about in my piece on Sleepless Nights. They often concern women whose lives’ central concerns were the men with whom they became romantically involved, and who generally disappointed them or caused as much emotional turmoil as fulfilment. Maybe this is at least partially a consequence of her turbulent marriage (1949-72) to the mercurial Robert Lowell. There’s this wonderfully witty aphorism in the story ‘Yes And No’:

Nothing so easily unbalances the sense of proportion in a woman of artistic ambitions as the dazed love and respect of an ordinary man.

At the story’s end she reflects caustically on the man who is eternally ‘not quite good enough’.

Later pieces become more impressionistic and start to adopt a skewed first-person narrative voice, offering verbal portraits of people in the urban setting that she inhabits and shares with them, but which she anatomises at times with clinical scrupulousness and curiosity, but with with an artist’s perception. There are frequent flashes of deceptively unflashy wit and weird obliqueness that are reminiscent of some of Robert Walser’s work (like his sketches in Berlin Stories, also published by NYRB).

Let me try to give a flavour of Hardwick through some quotations from across the collection: I’d be interested to hear what your thoughts were if you’ve read it.

There are some deftly Jamesian touches, for example, in ‘The Classless Society’: the character called Dodo had hunted for an aristocratic English husband in Florence, where she’d lived ‘in an inexpensive pensione’ for several years without finding a suitable candidate, or even ‘an attractive, penniless Italian of noble birth.’ As the literary-academic characters around her vie with each other to appear witty and intellectual, Dodo struggles:

“Who are you?” Dodo suddenly said to [Clarence]. “Are you terribly brilliant, and all that?”

 “Yes, I must confess I am,” Clarence replied, with an elaborate flourish of self-mockery. “I am very frightening with my great brilliance.”

 Dodo did not laugh. She was as free of irony as a doll. A mind like that, Clarence thought giddily, lives by sheer superstition.

 I like the subtle shifts of register and viewpoint here: it’s a technique (focalization) handled almost as skilfully here as anything in Austen. There’s the omniscient narrator’s presentation for us of the slightly dim, ingenuous Dodo, but it’s the cruel arrogance of Clarence that Hardwick is more interested in, hence the shift to free indirect thought, but all is tempered by the narrator’s deft insertion of the stiletto-like adverb ‘giddily’.

That passage also has a characteristically acerbic simile that reveals and dissects the character; here are two more – one slightly cliched, the other working harder, in ‘The Purchase’: Frazier is a young Turk ‘action’ painter, trying to goad an older, more conservative but also more established artist called Palmer, whose star is fading, into buying one of his canvases.

“So?” Thomas Frazier said, with a negligent, burly composure that neither assented nor disagreed. A profound and bullying impudence emanated from Frazier, like steam escaping from a hot valve…Whatever the merit of the two men’s work, they faced each other in a condition of tribal hostility, like the appropriate antagonism of the Army and Navy teams on the football field.

These extracts so far indicate the largely conventional narrative technique in Hardwick’s stories. Here are some examples of the later, more innovative style.

This, from ‘The Bookseller’, is what I’d call transitional – the first person narrator shows an inclination to veer off into omniscient mode, and stranger imagery:

Roger does not drink, but he eats quite a lot of apples, pizzas, and hamburgers, and makes many cups of coffee in his electric pot…He is one of those brought up by well-to-do parents sent to good schools, to France for a summer – who, on their own, show no more memory of physical comforts than a prairie dog.

Soon after there’s this about Roger the bookseller:

No matter – the patrician in him is not entirely erased and lingers on in an amiable displacement, remaining in his contentment to keep pace with just where he is…

Shades again, perhaps, of mid-to-late period Henry James (as well, perhaps, as a hint once more of Austen’s ironically percipient narrators; ‘an amiable displacement’ is perfect).

‘Back Issues’ is one of the later, more impressionistic pieces; here’s a delightful and typically multifaceted passage from it (which loses much of its impact by being detached from the equally well crafted sentences that precede and follow it):

And the cafeterias with chopped liver, tuna fish and egg salad brought in at dawn from some sinister kitchen? Yes, the tenacity of disreputable avenues; and yet all is possible and the necessary conditions may arrive and bottles and pencils, hats and condoms will go to their grave.

 Here can be seen Hardwick’s audacious, polyphonic blending of ostensibly mundane lists of concrete things which are transformed into something transcendent by that mysterious interrogative punctuation and gear-shift from concrete noun monosyllables to polysyllabic abstraction. Like jazz improvisation, it startles and delights with those jarring juxtapositions and contrasts of register (‘the tenacity of disreputable avenues’ is beautifully highlighted by the brash banality of the inventory either side of it). That rising, confident, poetic tone of finality and stately certainty is brilliantly counterpointed by the expression of the theme of mutability (the bathetic ‘hats and condoms’) at the close. This is prose as densely packed and meticulously modulated as an Imagist or pre-1923 TS Eliot poem (what exactly might those ‘necessary conditions’ be, and why is there uncertainty about their ‘arrival’?)

And there I’d better stop.



William Gerhardie, ‘Of Mortal Love’

There are bad or badly flawed women in post-1900 literature who annoy (even repel) but also interest us as readers, charm us or the men they encounter (and usually hurt): there are any number in the hardbitten crime novels that inspired the Film Noir femmes fatales, for example. Then there’s Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (a character I have never managed to find attractive, despite the radiant beauty and cinematic presence of Audrey Hepburn in her portrayal of her).

Often treacherous or unfaithful, promiscuous or superficial, in the hands of a gifted writer they can still intrigue us, or else there’s some redeeming feature – a sense of sadness or regret, perhaps, or else the men who love them counterpoint their selfishness with a weary resignation or high-minded tolerance of the suffering they cause – I’m thinking of poor Guy Crouchback’s serially unfaithful wife in the Sword of Honour trilogy, or the similar betrayals by Sylvia of her stoically faithful husband Christopher Tietjens in Ford Madox Brown’s modernist tetralogy Parade’s End (broadcast with partial success and some outstanding performances on Britain’s BBC 2 in 2012).

And of course there’s Evelyn Waugh, who in many (especially earlier) novels delighted in portraying scheming vixens (the amoral Brenda Last in A Handful of Dust is an example), offset by male victims usually too stupid, spineless or unimaginative to inspire much sympathy. The socialites and dandies in Brideshead Revisited are drawn with layers of complexity and nuance, and an often ironic witty ambivalence, that enable us to see beneath the characters’ apparent superficiality and place them in a socio-historical context that resonates.

Gerhardie, Of Mortal Love

My Penguin Modern Classics edition was published in 1982

I find William Gerhardie’s 1936 novel Of Mortal Love a pale imitation or reflection of Waugh’s satirical acerbity, with a touch of Wildean (or would-be Wildean) epigrammatic humour; its depiction of foppish bohemians and glittering but vacuous debs and artistic types lacks Waugh’s or Wilde’s exuberant edge and mordant wit. Gerhardie is too in love with the very characters who inspire in me a sense of repulsion and distaste. I’m conscious of the fatuity of disliking a novel because one dislikes the central characters, but hope my rather rambling introduction to this post indicates that I’m capable of enjoying a good, well-written novel about nasty characters. This is a bad, often well-written novel about nasty characters. I’ll try to substantiate this claim.

The protagonist is a composer called Walter, a penniless Londoner whose initial success in the concert hall has not been consolidated by his subsequent work. Although he’s an indefatigable womaniser, he falls in love with Dinah Fry – a woman who we’re frequently told is the most beautiful in London. The fact that she’s married doesn’t deter either of them from starting an affair. Her justification is that her husband is dull and doesn’t pay her anywhere near enough attention, whereas Walter makes an effort to make her feel wanted.

When his attentiveness falls away, because he’s immersed in composing a new opera, she simply goes back to the boring spouse, who has realised he wants the fickle Dinah after all. She also keeps a fop called Eric on hold in case circumstances change.

That’s the plot, pretty much. There’s some rather horrible anti-semitism and casual racism – inexcusable even for the historical period (the rise of fascism is noted with chilling insouciance by these amoral egotists).

Gerhardie has Dinah gush nonsense and baby-talk with Walter in some hair-curlingly awful scenes (‘kissy-kissy’, ‘drinky-drinky’), and her egocentricity is matched only by her lack of empathy with anyone. Even with Walter she’s really just defining herself through his adulation: ‘concentrate on me’ is her mantra. The opening section of the novel is called Woman is not Meant to Live Alone, which is Dinah’s sole rationale for her promiscuity and infidelity.

Here’s the opening of Ch. 4, which should give a fuller indication of her nature:

Dinah was like a plant, who had been starved of sun and rain, and after a shower and a warm day had blossomed out. Walter attributed to his own ministrations the welcome change. He saw before him a young woman who had been starved of love and was now blooming and content. [Dinah meets his mother and this passage continues:] Dinah, when Walter next saw her, never mentioned his mother to him. She was completely uninterested. Walter discovered that though Dinah could be charming to people while she was with them, she contained in herself a supply of attention and concentration for two people only – herself and Walter.

Despite the superficial gloss of the prose in this free indirect discourse, in which form the whole novel is narrated, this is poor, clichéd and fatuous. Although Gerhardie presumably intends a certain satiric irony (Walter is hardly the most reliable of narrators), he surely expects us to find Dinah, as Walter does, disarmingly ingénue and attractive; she has the opposite effect on me. When she’s out walking with Walter, for example,

she held him by one finger like a dog on a leash. If Walter lagged, she tugged at his finger and – ‘Walky-walky,’ she said, prompting him like a child.

As their affair cools, Dinah’s importuning and petulant jealousy of any woman Walter might possibly encounter (‘Be nice to me’ she simpers) unsurprisingly begin to grate even on him.

I’m afraid I found Gerhardie’s misogynistic portrayal of women poorly disguised in the attitude of the Wildean character of Walter’s roué: the world-weary artistic self-proclaimed genius cannot commit, but Dinah’s childish self-centredness is so egregious it’s unbelievable that he could even contemplate a lasting relationship with her, so incapable is she of any kind of mature emotional engagement. When he tells her how heartbroken she has made him by abandoning him for the pedestrian husband, Dinah is genuinely astonished:

Walter [near the novel’s end] remembered how at one time when he had been cold and selfish in love she had finally demanded a less one-sided arrangement: ‘I want tenderness, and I’m damn well going to have it.’ 

She had had that, too. She had had everything, it seemed, and she would not have you think otherwise.

 The final section is intended to tug at our heartstrings; instead I couldn’t wait for the novel to end. It was the last unread book I had with me on holiday in Europe this summer; there was nothing else to read, otherwise I’d have abandoned it unfinished.


A parrot called Elvis

Something different today, as I’m on a train en route for Berlin, and didn’t much care for the last book I read – Patrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter. It’s ok as a light read while travelling, but the plot was a little plodding, I found: a man in early 20C England, well to do, discovers he’s gay, is disgraced and sets off to become a farmer in the dominion of Canada. He ends up at the eponymous pioneer town, guided by a sinister Dane called Troels, whose villainous character becomes ever more that of a pantomime baddie by the end. There’s a touching love affair and a lot of tragic death along the way.

So instead I thought I’d pass part of the journey (we passed into Germany from Holland just now – always seems odd that the border is crossed without any official checks) with an account of the journey. From England we took the Eurostar train from St Pancras to Brussels, where we stayed two days, and loved the city.

Levi's parrotFrom there on by Thalys train to Amsterdam – the same day that a man was tackled on the corresponding train back from Brussels to Paris by four fellow passengers before he could presumably carry out a massacre. Sobering.
After five days in hedonistic, beautiful Amsterdam we settled into the sumptuous café for breakfast at the Centraal station. In the former international waiting room there’s a magnificent polished wood bar, ornate wall coverings and stucco – and a white parrot called Elvis.

The toilets are equally impressive: the wc pan is made of blue and white delft ware, with a pattern of … parrots.

Just as well we had a delicious omelette there: there’s no buffet or restaurant car on this intercity train – a journey of five hours if we stayed on it all the way to Berln. We’ve opted to change at Hanover to pick up the ICE train, about which we’re very excited. Must send pictures to the grandson, who’s very envious. Maybe we’ll be able to get something decent to drink then, even to eat.

I’ve started reading William Gerhardie’s 1936 novel Of Mortal Love, in an attractive Penguin Modern Classics edition that I’ve owned for ages but never got round to reading. Maybe that will be the subject of my next post.

Meanwhile we’re just pulling in to a place called Rheine. The squally weather we left behind in Amsterdam has changed: the sky is blue and the sun is shining.

Flat Dutch polders and farmland have been replaced by flat, verdant German pastures. Can’t help imagining the foraging armies that will have marched over the centuries across the parts we’ve been travelling through – especially the blood-soaked fields of Flanders.

Giacomo Leopardi, ‘Zibaldone’, Kerouac and Jackson Pollock


Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone

My copy

My copy

One of the 19C’s most radical and challenging thinkers and poets (his Canti and moral works influenced Walter Benjamin and Beckett), Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) for most of his writing career kept adding entries to an immense notebook, whose Italian title translates as ‘hodgepodge’, miscellany or commonplace book – in previous posts I’ve considered similar ‘Florilegia’ and Chrestomathies (by the likes of Chamfort). Here he recorded his thoughts, impressions, philosophical musings and aphoristic responses to his reading (not just in Italian, but Latin, Greek, Hebrew and other European languages) initially in his isolated house in a village in the Marche, and subsequently elsewhere in Italy. There’s an excellent Introduction by the editors, which provides an illuminating account of his life and work, and the social-political-cultural world in which he operated. It’s also placed in the context of the ars excerpendi: the 16-17C techniques of ‘filing and rationally organising knowledge in catalogues and indexes.’ The Arcades Project by Walter Benjamin, with its ‘convolutes’, is a similar enterprise.

Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone: The Notebooks of Leopardi, edited by Michael Caesar and Franco D’Intino. Translated by Kathleen Baldwin, Richard Dixon et al.  Penguin Books, hardback (2013)

1900 Florence edition

In this Introduction there’s a fascinating account of how the MS, hidden away until the turn of the 19-20C, came to light and began to appear in Italian editions, but failed to make much of an impression, so extraordinary and original was its content, so wide-ranging in subject-matter – which tended towards a rejection of high-Romantic idealism and optimism in favour of a more nihilistic world view.

Filling more than 4,500 pp in MS, and 2,502 in this handsome Penguin edition (it’s printed on ultra-thin paper), its focus is the 16-year period 1817-1832, although much of it was completed by 1823, when Leopardi was just 25. It’s the product of his egregious erudition and polymath mind, which was enabled to develop in his aristocratic father’s extensive library, and later in the literary-philosophical Italy of his day.

It would be virtually impossible to ‘review’ this enormous repository of random allusions and dialogues with other texts. Here I shall mention just one entry that recently took my fancy. It’s a book to be dipped into, rather than read in a linear way. One could imagine it lending itself to bibliomancy. I may well revisit it in this way another time (and perhaps the Benjamin text, too, another favourite of mine).

The section that caught my attention appears on p. 88 of this edition, numbered 94-95 by the editors. Here Leopardi is discussing the advantages of being polyglot: it ‘affords some greater facility and clarity on the way we formulate our thoughts, for it is through language that we think’:

Now, perhaps no language has enough words and phrases to correspond to and express all the infinite subtleties of thought. The knowledge of several languages and the ability, therefore, to express in one language what cannot be said in another…makes it easier for us to articulate our thoughts and to understand ourselves, and to apply the word to the idea, which, without that application, would remain confused in our mind.

This is a sentiment of profound good sense, though many would disagree. He goes on to say he has experienced this phenomenon frequently:

…and it can be seen in these same thoughts, written with the flow of the pen, where I have fixed my ideas with Greek, French, Latin words, according to how for me they responded more precisely to the thing, and came most quickly to mind.

Leopardi,_Giacomo_(1798-1837)_-_ritr._A_Ferrazzi,_Recanati,_casa_LeopardiThe editors’ note to this section (the emphasis is mine) points out that Leopardi makes clear here that he writes his diary a penna corrente – ‘with the flow of the pen’, or senza studio. I find these expressions particularly felicitous – and perfect examples of what he said earlier about the ability of one language to fix an idea more concisely and expressively than another: ‘a penne corrente’ is so much more satisfying a concept than the prosaic English translation ‘quickly’; ‘senza studio’ more mellifluous than ‘unreflectingly’.

It is in this spirit that I’ve written some of my blog posts, including this one (and the previous post on Fred Titmus and Liz Taylor), whereas I usually draft them – though it probably doesn’t seem that way to readers – with great care.

I recently attended an academic conference at Birkbeck College, University of London, on the subject of ‘action writing’: the improvised free-form style favoured by Jack Kerouac and others of his generation, pioneered in music by the jazz musicians of the preceding years, and by Jackson Pollock’s ‘action painting’. How intriguing to find in the Zibaldone an advocate of this Zen attitude to artistic creation…

Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone: The Notebooks of Leopardi, edited by Michael Caesar and Franco D’Intino. Translated by Kathleen Baldwin, Richard Dixon et al.

Penguin Books, hardback (2013)


Vignettes: Liz Taylor, Fred Titmus

A whimsical departure from my usual book-based posts today. I find myself on dog-sitting duties while visitors and spouse are out and I came across some vignettes in an old notebook that I wanted to pass on, to pass the time. Please give this a miss if you want serious literary analysis this time. There are taboo terms, too (advance warning).

On 23 March 2011 (the date of my notebook entry) the film star Elizabeth Taylor died at the age of 79.

Fred Titmus in 1962

Fred Titmus in 1962

So too did Fred Titmus, the former Middlesex and England off-spinner (b. 1932, so he was one year younger than Taylor; one wonders if they ever met); this will mean little, I presume, to some readers, but he was a hero of mine in my youthful cricketing days. His career was curtailed when he lost four toes in an accident (while on tour with the England team in the West Indies) involving an encounter with a speedboat’s propellors when he was swimming .

The indie band Half Man Half Biscuit (from NW England) have a song called ‘Fuckin’ ‘ell, It’s Fred Titmus’ (link to a YouTube recording here), from their 1985 album Back in the DHSS – this was the British government department which was responsible for Social Security, including unemployment benefits (colloquially known as the dole). The song has interesting lyrics:

Oh I was walking round my local store

Searching for the ten pence off Lenor

When suddenly I bumped into this guy

On seeing who it was I gave a cry…(title refrain)

In subsequent verses the narrator encounters the bowler in a park and at a railway station. Lenor is the proprietary name of a brand of fabric conditioner here in the UK.

Statue of Larkin in Hull

Statue of Larkin in Hull

Trains tend to play a significant part in the band’s lyrics; they have a song called ‘Time Flies When You’re the Driver of a Train’. The video for ‘National Shite Day’ includes footage shot from a train pulling out of (or into) Hull station, in the NE of England. This is not a fashionable city – though Philip Larkin was librarian at its university library, and Andrew Marvell was born near there.

I rather like their songs; they delight in satiric references to minor celebrities and pop culture (such as the facile pun on Stevie Nicks’ name in the Titmus song), and the slow tedium of life on the dole. Another track on the DHSS album rejoices in the title ‘Sealclubbing’, which could also be seen as a pun of sorts, but probably isn’t. A character in this song tries fruitlessly to commit suicide by taking an overdose of Haliborange – a brand of harmless vitamin pills for children.

National Shite Day includes a reference to a character called Stringy Bob (who’s ‘still on suicide watch’; life on the dole is grim) finding a dead wading bird while beachcombing on the Dee Estuary (I used to live in Bagillt, a desolate village on the opposite shore of the estuary from Birkenhead-Wirral, where HMHB hail from). Bob parcels the bird up and posts it with a note reading:

‘Is this your sanderling?’

A sanderling (with leg tag)

A sanderling (with leg tag)

Surely the only pop song to namecheck this particular wader.




‘The poet of the prosaic’: Stanley Middleton

Stanley Middleton, Holiday (title quotation from the Guardian obituary, 2009)

What governs your choice of what to read next? The last two novels I opted for weren’t on my TBR pile (still teetering); I was inspired by two other bloggers – Susan Osborne at A Life in Books for the subject of my previous post, Sarah Moss, Bodies of Light, and Ali at the Heavenali blog for today’s, the (now rather neglected) 1974 co-winner of the Booker Prize that year: Stanley Middleton, Holiday. As she and others have summarised the plot and Middleton’s life admirably (1919-2009; wrote 44 novels – links at the end), I’ll commend to you her review for details on such matters. Here I’d like to examine a few key literary features in some extracts that demonstrate his scrupulous style and technique .

It’s the meticulous consideration of acutely observed details in the quiet lives of ordinary people that Middleton excels at; nothing wrong with writing about unexceptional provincial, middling people – George Eliot showed this in Middlemarch, while the blurb on one edition of the novel describes him as ‘the Chekhov of suburbia’ (a phrase also used of John Cheever). His debt to D.H. Lawrence is apparent, and he shares much of his fellow Nottinghamshire artist’s ability to relate ostensibly mundane subject matter in beautifully crafted literary prose.

My copy of the novel; my local library over-zealously covered it, cutting off a little at the edge

My copy of the novel; my local library over-zealously covered it, cutting off a little at the edge

The novel consists mostly of flashbacks in which, through the focusing filter of protagonist Edwin’s cultured mind (he’s a thirty-two-year-old university lecturer in the philosophy of education), we are given access to his every intimate thought – especially how he came to find his wife Meg’s tempestuous nature increasingly unbearable, especially when her moody outbursts became more hurtful after a family tragedy devastated them both.

Much of the narrative consists of accounts of the people, sights and sounds Fisher encounters as he wanders aimlessly around a shabby Lincolnshire seaside resort, processing these experiences as a starting point for his forensic dissection of his painful relationships, first with his unimaginative, undemonstrative parents, and then with his wife.

For example, early in chapter 1 he recalls his father’s behaviour on holiday at that same working-class holiday resort when Edwin was a child:

 Edwin hated his parents then, for the shopkeepers they were. Obsequious, joking, uneducated, the finger-ends greasy from copper in the till, they drew attention to themselves. When the retainer ushered his rabble round the stately home, Father Fisher asked the first fool question, chirped the witless crack, was rebuffed in all eyes but his own…Yet the old idiot had brains; he made his shops pay; he’d left his children tidy sums. And he’d read, though with a mind bent, young Edwin had decided, on trivialising.

 So much is packed into those few lines. The time-frames are suggestively telescoped, in a manner best exemplified by Dickens’ treatment of Pip’s adult recollections of his selfish younger self in Great Expectations. This is seen in the unobtrusive but crucial temporal adverbial ‘then’; does this signify that the narrating, adult Edwin no longer hates his parents? Is he recalling that hypersensitive boy’s bittersweet love/hatred with the more enlightened, forgiving insight of the adult? It’s a raw, painfully honest portrayal of father-son relations that resonates with me – also a grammar-school boy with working-class parents who’d left school at 12, who embarrassed their children as they grew up in a world their generation and class couldn’t fathom.

The relationship with Meg is portrayed with equal flaying precision. Here’s a passage from early in chapter 2; it’s Sunday evening in Edwin’s seedy ‘digs’:

Outside it was bright still, and calmer. On the dressing table he’d put his writing case, which lay open. Perhaps, not this day, he’d write to his wife, a mild letter of description, with no mention of himself, no recriminating, merely a message so that she knew where he was, and in her anger at him could learn what this house, this street, this seaside was like. He’d not apologize or sulk or shout, but put down physical facts about rooms and holiday artisans and lilos until she screamed.

Here Middleton’s technique shows in all its acerbically witty ambiguity. The narrator reveals his own deficiencies by highlighting his self-image as a mild-mannered, put-upon victim of a vengefully spiteful, shrewish, selfish wife, while unwittingly conveying the simultaneous impression to the reader that he’s far from blameless in this imploding marriage. He’s calculating and provocative, knowing exactly how to drive his volatile Meg to distraction. He’s also apparently unaware of his insouciant snobbery as he describes the hapless fellow holidaymakers with whom he spends the rest of the novel drinking, ‘chaffing’ and flirting (and while often patronising them – here with ‘artisans and lilos’). He frequently replicates many of the aspects of his father’s character that he hypocritically recalls finding so crass and limited.

In chapter 7 we see the first of these tepid flirtations: he’s chatting on the beach with two bikini-clad sisters, Patricia and Carol, and he pictures them innocently singing in a choir (music is an important feature in the narrative):

No such simplicities existed in real life. When these girls married, and they were the sort to become excellent housewives, their husbands would be plagued with their moods, and fears, and boredom, because this was universal; nobody was exempt. But at present he felt no qualms.

See what I mean about the patronising tone. Here again is the ironically indirect self-revelation of Edwin: he’s content to generalise about these two harmlessly simple, friendly girls in a manner that shows them to be limited, predictable, while he’s plainly, unknown to himself, projecting on to them his and Meg’s roles (note the telling metaphor ‘plagued’ and the tripled list of nouns signifying his idea of a wife’s typical shortcomings) in his own closely examined but fitfully understood married life.

The penultimate sentence there is cold and unbecoming, culminating in its pseudo-existential, intellectually sterile aphorism. The callousness of the last sentence is breathtaking: intelligent and cruelly humorous on several levels.

Another such aphoristic generalisation follows a chance encounter in the fens with a young man frustrated with having to care for his ailing father:

Fisher drove off, disconsolate, down in the mouth…He was in no mind to fault the young man, who spoke out of his own depression, perhaps, talked thus sullenly against a society that promised, proffered him nothing…Everybody judges from the point of view of his own inadequacy.

At the very moment of seeming to gain an epiphanic insight, Edwin simultaneously shows once again that he reads the world and its people in terms only of his own partially understood experience. He feels that society (Meg?) proffers him nothing; he too is depressed, and he surely does fault the young man for his cynicism in his family relationships, while failing to perceive his own. – there’s that characteristic use again of ‘perhaps’, suggesting an unconvincing attempt to seem tentatively fair in his mental assessments.

The truism that last extract ends on reveals Edwin’s tendency to turn an impressive-sounding phrase in his stream of thought, indirectly disclosed to us through the narrative voice, but its ironic aptness for his own condition isn’t honestly confronted or acknowledged here in his thoughts. I can’t help reading an unstated ‘else’ after ‘everybody’. This intimation is gently, wittily pointed up a few sentences later when Edwin snaps out of this reverie to conclude ‘He ought to go back to Meg. A prodigal.’

And here I’d better stop, though there is much else to say about Middleton’s achievement in Holiday. But I can’t resist one last quotation. This comes near the end of the novel, after breakfast on the final Saturday of his week’s stay in the boarding house:

They’d paid their dues, and the staff prepared to forget them. New faces that afternoon when the rush of bundling sheets had been scrambled through. Last corn-flakes, bacon, for the zombies, final jokes as if the holiday were still on, still provided pleasure. Fisher felt a stiffness as he braced himself against parting. It seemed entirely bodily, a matter of nerves, not reasoned, not even imagined.

Even as Fisher fleetingly seems to empathise with the staff, the free indirect discourse unerringly shows up his ambivalent, ultimately dyspeptic view of them. He’s both sharing their unkind view of his anti-intellectual fellow guests (‘zombies’) while also including the same staff in that generalisation. His genuine sense of Prufrockian stiffness and regret, so often presented in the narrative with apparent self-deprecating uncertainty, also indicates a conflicting desire to appear superior, more sensitive than others, more knowing. I find that sequence at the quotation’s end — ‘bodily’, ‘nerves’, and the pair of negatives — a brilliantly realised and nuanced demonstration of Edwin’s complex, not entirely endearing intelligence, ruthlessly skewered by Middleton’s clinically exact but never judgemental narrative technique.

I must read more of him. Thanks, Ali, for the recommendation.



Heavenali review here

Nicholas Lezard’s 2014 Guardian review here of the newly reissued paperback (with handsome covers) by Windmill Books: interesting parallels drawn with TS Eliot, the Fisher King, etc.

Sam Jordison’s Guardian 2008 review in his series on past Booker winners here.



The Mrs Jellyby of Manchester: Sarah Moss, ‘Bodies of Light’

I don’t often write here about new or recently published books; mostly I read from the teetering TBR pile of older works – as regular readers will no doubt have noticed. Modern English fiction I find uneven in quality (Americans like Denis Johnson seem to me superior to what the UK can offer at present). All the fuss in the media and blogosphere about what’s on or should have been on the Man Booker long list published yesterday doesn’t pique my interest too much.

Sarah Moss

Image of Sarah Moss taken from Granta books website

Earlier this month, however, I read a review on Susan Osborne’s site A Life in Books of Sarah Moss’s new novel, Signs for Lost Children, a sequel to Bodies of Light, which was published by Granta last year; Susan put this sequel on her own list of Booker predictions. She mentioned that the central character of the first book, Ally, becomes a doctor in an asylum in Truro, Cornwall. As that’s where I live, and I find literature to do with mental health fascinating – one of my earliest posts was about Oliver Sacks’ The Mind’s Eye, and I’ve long admired the seminal work on women, mental health and literature The Madwoman in the Attic, and Lisa Appignanesi’s Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors From 1800 to the Present (the link is to Viv Groskop’s 2008 Guardian review) is excellent – I decided to give Ally’s story a try.

Susan did a fine job reviewing Bodies of Light, so I won’t summarise the plot in detail. It’s an account of a family’s ordeal at the hands of a fiercely idealistic and evangelical Victorian mother who, like Mrs Jellyby, the ‘telescopic philanthropist’ in Bleak House, who also neglects her own children while obsessing about an obscure African tribe’s plight, devotes all her attention to the care and welfare of the poor and ‘fallen women’ while neglecting and abusing (physically and emotionally) her own two daughters – as her own mother had with her and her sister. Her husband, Alfred, an artist of the Pre-Raphaelite type who builds a successful career as painter and interior designer, is also excluded by his wife, and he finds solace elsewhere.

The epigraph from RD Laing and A. Esterson’s Sanity, Madness and the Family is salutary and apt: ‘We have clinical terms for disturbed, but not disturbing persons’.

The novel is mostly very well written. The theme of parental neglect and cruelty passing on through the generations is Dickensian in its seriousness and emotional clout. I found the novel a little slow, however. Despite the often beautiful prose (Susan gives some fine examples) the relentless narration of the mother’s cruel, deluded treatment of her girls is just too long and repetitive.

There is interesting use of catalogue-type descriptions of artworks by Alfred and his friend Aubrey West at the head of each of the ten chapters, which poetically and symbolically foreshadow the sexually ambiguous, hypocritical treatment of the growing sisters by parents and by West – but these are brief points of light in a gloomy plot.

I also found the latter part of the novel, in which Ally struggles against social prejudice and general misogyny to become one of the first women doctors, rather contrived and predictable. The author’s research (the 1864 Contagious Diseases Act and its disastrous consequences for Victorian women is a central feature, for example) is a little too evident and becomes intrusive. The (justifiably) angry message dominates the narrative. Ally is ultimately a credibly damaged but insubstantially realised character.

S Moss Bodies coverI feel Sarah Moss missed the opportunity to introduce a little contrast into the depiction of this deeply unhappy family’s life. The father, Alfred, doesn’t share his wife’s tormented, demented obsessions; why couldn’t he have stood up to her more, defended his suffering children – and himself? His acquiescence seemed to me unlikely, and his character fades quietly into the background as the novel proceeds, and his wife’s tyrannical domestic regime is unchallenged.

At the end, though, Ally has developed an interest in mental illness, and has moved at last to Truro. I hope to find the sequel (I shall certainly read it) less predictable and a bit more varied in tone. Sarah Moss can write, but she needs to preach a little less and let her characters breathe.

Postscript: in her Acknowledgements at the end of the book Sarah Moss points out that she wrote much of it in cafes in Penryn and Falmouth; is this JK Rowling type activity coming into vogue? She also states that she wrote and read a lot on the Cornish Riviera trains from Paddington to Truro, and expresses gratitude for their provision of Quiet Coaches. I would have thought that tapping away on her laptop would not have endeared Ms Moss to her fellow quiet-seeking passengers…

‘It’s good enough for the market!’ George Gissing, ‘New Grub Street’

‘Ed Reardon’s Week’ is a cleverly funny comedy series on BBC Radio 4. Its protagonist is a grumpy, disillusioned writer whose highest achievement was the scripting an episode of the cheesy early-80s BBC TV series ‘Tenko’ – an achievement on which he still dines out. Since then he’s scratched a living as a writer of hack pieces, while teaching a desultory evening class in creative writing to a group of jaded, equally cynical pensioners.

When I discovered that this opinionated failure was based on the central character of George Gissing’s 1891 novel New Grub Street I knew I had to read it. I was not disappointed. It’s deeply moving, and a scathing portrait of the lives of struggling writers in Victorian London, striving to make a living in a literary world, like Ed Reardon’s, which seems to be run by ignorant plutocrats supplying crass product for an undiscerning, low-brow public of equally ignorant consumers.

New grub street Penguin C editionIt relates two parallel, intertwining stories: we first meet Jasper Milvain (Jaz in the radio show), a cynically ambitious, moderately talented and clever writer whose lazy selfishness is matched by his ruthless determination to study what the literary ‘market’ wants and provide it, dismissing anyone with literary pretensions as hopeless romantics; this is revealed in many of his discussions with his family and friends. Here he’s pontificating to his long-suffering sisters, whose meagre allowance he sponges from their mother:

People have got that ancient prejudice so firmly rooted in their heads – that one mustn’t write save at the dictation of the Holy Spirit. I tell you, writing is a business… There’s no question of the divine afflatus; that belongs to another sphere of life. We talk of literature as a trade, not of Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare… I don’t advocate the propagation of vicious literature; I speak only of good, coarse, marketable stuff for the world’s vulgar… I maintain that we people of brains are justified in supplying the mob with the food it likes.

His plan is to milk his family’s small financial resources – his sisters will have to fend for themselves by becoming hack writers also (for the children’s market, naturally, as they are mere ignorant girls!) – in order to network with important literary and journalistic contacts, flattering and flirting with the rich and influential. Authorial merit has little to do with commercial success; ‘modesty helps a man in no department of modern life’, he declares.

His polar opposite is Edwin Reardon. After some modest success with his first few novels (traditional three-deckers) his star is waning. He receives less money for each successive book; if it weren’t for the small fees he earns for earnestly academic articles he publishes in literary journals he’d already be penniless. He’s headed for penury. As his plight worsens, his wife’s support declines. Amy, a beauty, had married him mostly because she relished the prospect of being feted as the wife of a successful author – and of being rich.

Eventually they separate; she can bear his blocked, sullen artistic sterility and refusal to compromise no longer. He meanwhile is rendered unable to work because of her hostility, and the pressing urgency to produce fiction just to pay the bills. Inspiration has deserted him, as poverty has dried up his source of stories.

The main interest in the novel rests in the painful decline of poor idealist Reardon. As it reaches its climax this plot pitilessly traces his tortured inner struggle: should he compromise his artistic soul and sell out, as Milvain, Amy and others repeatedly urge him to do? The answer has tragic consequences for him.

This desperately heart-rending story is counterpointed by the career of Milvain, whose tactics work so well that his success is as stellar as Reardon’s downfall is crushing. After a brief dalliance with Marian, who briefly becomes an heiress, he’s forced to make a critical decision. As with Reardon, the outcome is cruelly exposed in Gissing’s unstinting prose.

This is so much more than a critical attack on the petty squabbles and liaisons of the moderately talented literary figures of the time; it’s more a serious examination of what it is that drives people to become authors, to expose their most intimate and sensitive selves to public scrutiny, often to meet with derision, dismissal, or, worst of all, indifference.

As a portrayal of that part of late Victorian London it’s fascinating, emotionally draining (in a good way) and powerful. As a three-decker itself it’s probably 200 pages too long (it has 551 pages in my Penguin Classics paperback, bought at the Oxfam shop near Chiswick Park underground station when I was visiting friends last month). There are longueurs; Milvain and Reardon are given far too many speeches in which they reiterate their philosophies at wearying length; there are some colourful minor characters, but they fail to enrich the narrative as inventively as Dickens’, for example, in whose shadow this novel inevitably falls. It is perhaps a little too relentlessly dour; the talented few are dashed down, fail, while the greedily talentless thrive. The romantic/sensational elements of the plots descend into the cartoonish and clichéd at times.

New Grub Street is, nevertheless, a classic, and worth persevering with. I urge you to read it, and would love to hear what you think. Let me finish with one of the most evocative, moving descriptions of a blocked author struggling to write that I’ve ever encountered:

 For two or three hours Reardon had been seated in much the same attitude. Occasionally he dipped his pen into the ink, and seemed about to write: but each time the effort was abortive. At the head of the paper was inscribed ‘Chapter III’, but that was all. And now the sky was dusking over; darkness would soon fall…[O]n his face was the pallor of mental suffering. Often he fell into a fit of absence, and gazed at vacancy with wide, miserable eyes. Returning to consciousness, he fidgeted nervously on his chair, dipped his pen for the hundredth time, bent forward in feverish determination to work. Useless; he scarcely knew what he wished to put into words, and his brain refused to construct the simplest sentence.  The colours faded from the sky, and night came quickly. Reardon threw his arms upon the desk, let his head fall forward, and remained so, as if asleep.

 Familiar plight!


Betrayed by her singer: Henry James, ‘The Aspern Papers’

This first appeared in slightly different form at The Mookse and the Gripes site on July 15th.

The Aspern Papers – more a novella than short story – was published in 1888, soon after “Louisa Pallant”, which I wrote about here and again here recently. It therefore seemed logical to tackle this one next, but I very nearly didn’t write about it — it just didn’t at first satisfy as much as the others I’ve written about here and at the Mookse. I thought I’d explore why this might be.

I find it necessary to talk about the ending as I go along, so if you haven’t read the story yet you might want to do so and (I hope) return here afterwards.

Like so many of his ‘tales’, James based this one on an anecdote he was told, as recorded in his Notebooks, during his stay with friends in Florence in 1887. It concerned a ‘curious adventure’ that befell Edward Silsbee, ‘the Boston art-critic and Shelley worshipper’ or ‘Shelley fanatic’:

Miss Claremont [more usually spelt Clairmont], Byron’s ci-devant mistress (the mother of Allegra) was living, until lately, here in Florence, at a great age, 80 or thereabouts, and with her lived her niece, a younger Miss Claremont – of about 50. Silsbee knew that they had interesting papers – letters of Shelley’s and Byron’s – he had known it for a long time and cherished the idea of getting hold of them. To this end he laid the plan of going to lodge with the Misses Claremont – hoping that the old lady, in view of her great age and failing condition would die while he was there, so that he might then put his hand on the documents, which she hugged close in life.

His scheme is initially successful: ‘the old woman did die’, having spent the last nine years of her life in Florence, where she died in 1879;

and then he approached the younger one – the old maid of 50 – on the subject of his desires. Her answer was – “I will give you all the letters if you marry me!

He adds wryly that his informant said that Silsbee was still running.

From this scanty ‘essence’ James developed his novella, delighting, as he puts it in the Preface to the New York edition (1907-09), in ‘a palpable imaginable visitable past’ in which the ‘divine poet’ is connected with James’s own modern world.

Edition used: Everyman Collected Stories, vol. 1 (ed. J. Bayley, 1999), pp. 815-910

Edition used: Everyman Collected Stories, vol. 1 (ed. J. Bayley, 1999), pp. 815-910

He changes quite a few of the details of the anecdote he had heard. The English Miss Clairmont becomes the American Juliana Bordereau, while the younger woman is either her niece or grand-niece, Tita (renamed Tina in the New York edition). The location is shifted to Venice. Shelley (with elements of Byron) becomes the New York poet Jeffrey Aspern: in this same Preface James makes several references not just to Shelley but also to Byron; he postulates ‘an American Byron to match an American Miss Clairmont’. This too is significant, as we shall see.

The end of his Notebook entry adds that a Countess Gamba, who married a nephew of Byron’s last mistress, had inspired the telling of the anecdote, for her family was in possession of ‘a lot of Byron’s letters of which they are rather illiberal and dangerous guardians’. They refused to publish any of these papers, scorning attempts to persuade them that it was in the literary public’s interests to let them at least be seen. Their contents he describes as ‘discreditable to Byron’, and the Countess admitted that ‘she had burned one of them’.

These details are found in The Aspern Papers; our unnamed narrator’s ungallant response, at the end of the story, in rejecting Miss Tita’s offer of the papers in return for his marrying her, is brutal, and her reaction is to tell him next day that she had ‘done the great thing’ and burnt the papers, ‘one by one, in the kitchen.’

This is surely fair enough, for James makes us privy, as he does throughout the story through the device of free indirect discourse, to the narrator’s cruelly unpleasant thoughts when she proposes her humiliating, ‘embarrassing’ (for both of them) offer of her hand:

That was the price – that was the price! And did she think I wanted it, poor, deluded, infatuated, extravagant lady?

His rationalizations conveniently excuse his rejection:

I could not pay the price. I could not accept. I could not, for a bundle of tattered papers, marry a ridiculous, pathetic, provincial old woman.

He bemoans having succumbed to ‘that most fatal of human follies, our not having known when to stop’.

Like Silsbee, he runs for it. This first ungentlemanly reaction is succeeded by shame; he blushes, hiding his face from the gondolier who is rowing him to cowardly safety away from the dilapidated palazzo. He wrestles feebly with his jaded, guilty conscience. When he does finally consider the possibility that ‘her delusion, her infatuation’ might have been his own ‘reckless work’, that he had made love to her, just to get the papers, he tells himself –

I had not, I had not; I repeated that over to myself for an hour, for two hours, till I was wearied if not convinced.

Back on land, bewildered, it exhausts him to think that he ‘had been so much at fault’, had ‘unwittingly but none the less deplorably trifled.’ This uncharacteristic but fleeting shameful thought is brusquely quashed:

But I had not given her cause – distinctly I had not. I had said to Mrs Prest [a friend who had first given him the idea to lodge at the palazzo in order to have a chance at the papers] that I would make love to her; but it had been a joke without consequences and I had never said it to Tita Bordereau. I had been as kind as possible, because I really liked her; but since when had that become a crime where a woman of such an age and such an appearance was concerned?

His capacity for self-delusion and –justification is ugly but horribly convincing, so artful is James’s narrative technique. Consider how, when his resolve falters next day – ‘Was I still in time to save my goods?’ – and he returns to the decaying palazzo, having restored his ‘passionate appreciation’ of the papers, he has changed his viewpoint: ‘I would not unite myself and yet I would have them’ – though he has been unable to devise an alternative stratagem for persuading Tita to part with them.

It is a typical feature of a James story that much of the interest in the narrative resides in his presentation of the protagonist’s point of view. For an apparently scholarly, intelligent literary biographer our narrator knows himself (and others) very imperfectly; shortly after Juliana’s death had left Tita feeling isolated and vulnerable, and before the marriage offer she decided would provide her lifeline, he’d weighed up his options (in a manner reminiscent of the equally unattractive narrator in “The Pension Beaurepas” who also briefly considered behaving like the hero in a romance and whisking Aurora away to her beloved America – a point I discussed in my recent post on that story):

I certainly was not prepared to say that I would take charge of her. I was cautious, not ignobly, I think, for I felt that her knowledge of life was so small that in her unsophisticated vision there would be no reason why – since I seemed to pity her – I should not look after her.

He had earlier thought he might have killed Juliana by allowing her to catch him on the point of rifling through the desk in which he believed she had secreted Aspern’s papers: ‘Ah, you publishing scoundrel!’ she’d cried. When she fell in a dead faint he bolted, touring Italy for twelve days, with the rankling feelings that her accusation had some foundation, grudgingly admitting to himself that he ‘had not been very delicate’, while indecisive whether to do the decent thing and stay away, or return to see how things stood with Tita. Of course he can’t resist returning to have another go at the papers.

Very soon after this return his selfish, misogynistic callousness re-emerges in his thoughts: ‘I could not linger there to act as guardian to a piece of middle-aged female helplessness.’

I think my initially lukewarm response to this story was indicative of my superficial reading. I’d seen it as a too-neatly constructed narrative in which the two climaxes – Juliana’s swoon and Tita’s humiliation – were melodramatic and contrived. Now I’ve looked at the story more closely I appreciate its subtleties. As I’ve gone on at too great length already let me end by pointing out a few more of these qualities to add to what I hope has become apparent in what I’ve said and quoted so far.

First there’s the ingenious double plot: the cat-and-mouse game of ‘watchings and waitings’ (James’s words in the Notebook) played by the narrator as he heartlessly schemes to acquire the Aspern papers is matched by Juliana’s own predatory stratagems, in a way he only dimly perceives (‘Do you think she has some suspicions of me?’ he asks Tita early on, for he soon reveals his plans to her, hoping to enlist her support in his plans). He toys with the notion in chapter 5 that there is ‘a trap laid for [him]’ and his putative wealth, that he had presented himself to Juliana ‘in the light of a victim’, and several times refers to her as an ‘old witch’, a ‘terrible relic’, her room when he enters it is likened to that of ‘an old actress’, she is ‘very cunning’ and ‘a sarcastic, profane, cynical old woman’; yet he unwisely prides himself on his superior duplicity, and he is the one at the end left filled with ‘chagrin’ at his ‘intolerable’ loss. Meanwhile the reader is alerted to what he fails to perceive in Juliana. This is largely done through the frequent, suggestively ambiguous narrative references to darkness and light, clarity or obscurity of vision, and to eyes.

Juliana habitually wears a ‘horrible green shade’ that covers her eyes, making her face resemble a ‘mask’. This means the narrator can’t really see what she’s thinking, but the implication is rendered clear to the reader: she sees through him from the start. He dimly, dimwittedly realises that the mask means that she can ‘scrutinise’ him ‘without being scrutinised herself.’ At the same time it

increased the presumption that there was a ghastly death’s-head lurking behind it. The divine Juliana as a grinning skull – the vision hung there until it passed.

 He’s so greedily intent on his literary spoils that he allows this perception to turn into a speculation that her appearance simply confirms that she must be at death’s door – ‘then [he] could seize her papers.’

When Juliana catches him about to rifle her desk he sees for the first time ‘her extraordinary eyes’ that make him ‘horribly ashamed’.

My final thought concerns the possibility that some critics have entertained that Tita is in fact Juliana’s daughter, not her niece. I can find no evidence in the text to support this theory, but it is odd that Tita seems to have spent her entire life at the palazzo in sequestered ‘seclusion’ (‘We have no life,’ she frankly, sadly tells the narrator; ‘[t]here’s no pleasure in this house’.) The narrator sees the two ladies as ‘like hunted creatures feigning death’; they receive no visitors, there’s no ‘comfort’ in their ‘darkened rooms’, or contact with the outside world.

Is this a sign of the old lady’s guilt, her shame once her infatuation with Aspern had died out, leaving her with an illegitimate daughter that she shields from the world’s view? It’s true that she demands an extortionate rent from the over-eager biographer as a kind of dowry for Tita; the younger woman tells him frankly ‘the money is for me’, yet this unromantic ‘pecuniary question’ simply convinces him that Juliana is too greedy to see that he intends to ‘take an advantage of her’.

This raises the question about the narrator’s extraordinarily obsessive desire (his ‘eccentric private errand’ he calls it euphemistically) to obtain the papers. He justifies this with the airily aesthetic justification that his quest is part of his ‘mystic companionship’ with other Aspern scholars, that ‘moral fraternity’ who he sees himself as part of ‘in the service of art’:

They had worked for beauty, for a devotion; and what else was I doing? That element was in everything that Jeffrey Aspern had written and I was only bringing it to the light.

What could be in the letters that hasn’t already been written about Aspern? The narrator tells us that the god-like Aspern returned to Italy for Juliana’s sake when she was just twenty and beautiful, that there was something ‘positively clandestine in their relations’, and that he’d written some of his most sublime verses about his love for her, ‘works immortal through their beauty’. The narrator’s view as early as chapter 1 is that his early death was the only ‘dark spot in his life’ – ‘unless the papers in Miss Bordereau’s hands should perversely bring out others’:

There had been an impression about 1825 that he had ‘treated her badly’, just as there had been an impression that he had ‘served’, as the London populace says, several other ladies in the same way.

He had always been able to find evidence, however, to acquit Aspern, in those previous cases, of ‘shabby behaviour’. The Bordereau case is still unresolved, hence his desire to acquire the papers for some answers.

Statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni by Verrochio, in Venice

Statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni by Verrochio, in Venice

‘By what passions had she been ravaged? By what sufferings had she been blanched?’ the narrator wonders in chapter 4; there is a ‘perfume of reckless passion’ about her and he has ‘an intimation that she had not been exactly as the respectable young person in general.’ Was this a sign that her ‘singer had betrayed her’? That her ‘fair fame’ had suffered some obscure ‘imputation’? Did the letters Juliana hoards ‘affect her reputation’, he asks Tita at one point, to which she gives him a ‘singular look’, a ‘kind of confession of helplessness’; “Do you mean she did something bad?” she eventually replies. Is this an allusion to Juliana’s being her mother?

In chapter 7 the old lady asks him if ‘it’s right to rake up the past’, batting away his defence that he likes the ‘discoveries’ made by questing critics by retorting that they’re ‘mostly lies.’ When he defends them as often being the truth, she responds that the truth ‘is God’s, it isn’t man’s’.

In chapter 5 the narrator considers the women are ‘worse off than Carmelite nuns in their cells’; he later learns that Juliana was Catholic. This accords with the fact that Claire Clairmont converted to Catholicism in later life. She had thrown herself at the tender age of eighteen at the rakish Byron, first by bombarding him with increasingly frank letters, and borne his daughter after what may well have been their one sexual encounter. He rapidly tired of her (he described her as ‘that odd-headed girl’, a ‘fiend’). When Allegra was barely one she was persuaded by the Shelleys to hand her over to the father’s unwilling custody; Byron was by then living in – no surprises here – Venice. When the child was just three he broke his promise to care for her personally and placed Allegra in a convent, where she died two years later, breaking Claire’s heart a second time. She continued to send Byron importunate, melancholy, obsessive letters. Maybe it’s inflammatory correspondence of this kind that Juliana has kept so carefully guarded.

Or maybe they were part of a cache of her voluminous correspondence with others in the Shelley circle. One critic has suggested that Claire was less attracted to Byron (and possibly Shelley) than she was to Shelley’s eventual second wife, her step-sister Mary (and it’s also possible to detect a homoerotic element in the narrator’s reverential hero-worship of Aspern; it can be seen as a story of wished-for and undesired, past and future, fruitful but disastrous consummations, while our narrator is ultimately hopelessly impotent as a literary or romantic ravisher). Claire wrote to Mary often (and to her poet husband, with whom many believe she not only had an affair but another illegitimate child), despite Mary’s finding her increasingly tiresome and wilfully wild. Although I find this a little speculative, it might also explain some of the hints alluded to above about the dark secrets that might lie in the Aspern papers, and our narrator’s obsession: rather than being a ‘rich dim Shelley drama’, as James calls it in his Preface, perhaps it’s a sordid, scandalous Byronic one. Whatever the case, I think you’ll enjoy the teasing, mysterious, densely textured story that James managed to concoct out of this titbit of Romantic gossip. It’s pertinent that James, that most private of writers, who guarded his detachment from sexual entanglements fiercely, and burned many of his own letters, encouraging his correspondents to do the same with the ones he had written them, should dramatize this duplicitous invasion of privacy with its anomalous role allotted to snooping literary biographers, and its paper-burning at the end.

Although it’s dangerous to indulge in the ‘biographical fallacy’, it’s tempting to see traces in the story of James’s own growing unease in his relations with his emotionally needy Venice-based friend Constance Fenimore Woolson – maybe she owned incriminating letters from him that he’d rather were burnt, Edel speculates in his biography. Certainly his portrayal of the once-beautiful Juliana is dominated by the delineation of her manipulative cunning that is more than a match for our narrator’s, so that we are left with a typically Jamesian bleak view of the appeal of romantic attachments, the female psyche, and the mutable shallowness (and danger to men) of feminine beauty and attractiveness.

We can’t even know for sure whether Juliana ever actually possessed any papers – the narrator never sees them, and has only witnesses as unreliable as himself to vouch for their existence. These are the moral, ethical ambiguities, paradoxes and complexities that I failed to detect initially, and which provide much of the story’s satisfying richness.






Book podasts again

Over the last few weeks, among my posts about Julia Harvey’s two novels about the family drama set in the Greek diaspora community of Smyrna and then Thessaloniki, I’ve been recommending some of my favourite book podcasts. Today I’d like to round this sequence off with a brief summary of a final few.

I’ve already mentioned some BBC Radio 4 programmes with podcast versions available free online; here I’d like to add the Radio 4 Bookclub. It’s hosted engagingly by the astute James Naughtie (about to leave the prestigious Radio 4 morning news programme Today after some twenty years to take up the post of books editor, among other things, with the BBC). It’s very like book clubs in the real world, except that here the author of a book is invited to the studio to be interviewed by Naughtie, then the audience is free to pose questions of their own. It’s more than an opportunity to market a new book: often the work chosen was published some time ago, so there’s genuine reader engagement with a rare opportunity to hear what the author was striving to achieve. Recent guests include Jon McGregor, Lorrie Moore, Donna Tartt and Hilary Mantel. Although the names tend to come from the more popular end of the literary spectrum, there’s usually plenty of interest.

Also broadcast by the BBC, the World Service this time, is the general arts programme Strand. Although no longer on air – it finished in 2013 – its archive is still freely available online, and has many features of merit in it. For example there’s an obituary/tribute to Chinua Achebe, and an interview with Javier Marías on his novel The Infatuations (which I reviewed here). Being a World Service production, though, Strand has a far wider remit; other pieces include profiles of Romanian cinema, Lebanese trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf, the Indian film director Anurag Kashyap, and Michael Haneke’s production of Cosí fan Tutte in Madrid. Pretty eclectic, then.

I have to declare an interest about this next choice of general literary website, but with a cool podcast attached: The Mookse and the Gripes — I’m an occasional contributor, with pieces on Joyce’s Dubliners and an ongoing series on the stories of Henry James. But this is one of the best podcasts out there for its mix of conversations (mainly) about NYRB Classics titles, and in particular of literature in translation. Apart from well-known names that the irrepressible Trevor Berrett and his brother consider, such as Kingsley Amis, Theodor Fontane and John Williams, there are (to me) less prominent figures like Lydia Millet and the Russian writer of short stories Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (b. Kiev 1887).

Another site that specialises in critical discussions on modern world literature is Three Per Cent, produced by the University of Rochester. It takes its title from the sad fact that only that percentage of books published in the USA are works of  literature in translation. All kinds of new names have been brought to my attention here (and on the related website).

Drawing by Max Neumann from Animalinside, his 2010 collaboration with Krasznahorkai.

Drawing by Max Neumann from Animalinside, his 2010 collaboration with Krasznahorkai.Image from the Sylph Editions website

Next choice for world literature in translation (description taken from its website): ‘That Other Word is a collaborative podcast between the Center for Writers and Translators at The American University of Paris [which also publishes the ‘Cahiers Series’ of texts in association with Sylph Editions – this illustration is taken from one I bought and enjoyed] and the Center for the Art of Translation in San Francisco. The podcast offers discussions on classic and contemporary literature in translation, along with engaging interviews with writers, translators, and publishers. Hosts: Daniel Medin and Scott Esposito.’ Although this podcast also has in-depth discussions on writers from across the world, there’s also professional consideration of the translator’s role and art.

Finally, to turn attention to podcasts which feature readings of fiction, I’d recommend the New Yorker‘s offering. The format is intriguing: a prominent contemporary writer chooses a favourite story published in the New Yorker magazine, reads it and then discusses it with the fiction editor, Deborah Treisman. A random selection of some recent gems includes Joshua Ferris reading Robert Coover’s ‘Going for a Beer’, Etgar Keret – Donald Barthelme’s ‘Chablis’, and Joseph O’Neill – Muriel Spark’s ‘The Ormolu Clock’.

Most of these podcasts last between 30 and 45 minutes — ideal listening when walking (or in my case, cycling) to work or driving down Desolation Row.

I’d love to hear what book podcasts you’d recommend – and maybe where and how you listen to them.