Our appearance is our reality: John Harvey, ‘Clothes’

I wrote recently HERE about John Harvey’s two fascinating studies of the colour black, and HERE about his novel The Subject of a Portrait, about the love triangle involving John Ruskin, Effie Gray and the artist Millais. Clothes is part of a series of philosophical studies by Acumen Publishing ‘on matters of life and death’, and in particular on the question: ‘How should we live?’ Other titles include ‘Death’, ‘Sex’ and ‘Work’.

 

Harvey ClothesIn this characteristically energetic, accessible and entertaining short study, Dr Harvey deploys his considerable scholarship and intelligence on a topic that concerns us all – no matter what our attitude to what we wear. Whether we choose designer labels, functional casual or work wear, or power suits, our clothing is ‘an outer envelope’ that we can ‘select and manipulate’ to make a statement about how rebellious, conservative or ‘on trend’ we are. It indicates – even more than our naked skin can – ‘many allegiances, sensitivies and foibles.’

 

Clothes can even be a matter of life and death, as the introductory chapter indicates: two young goths were beaten to death in a Lancashire park, simply because of their outlandishly distinctive look. Military uniforms enabled soldiers to identify who to kill or not, who to salute or not.

Our clothes represent a metaphor for ‘misrepresentation’ – they ‘can be treacherous companions’, his argument begins, because ‘they touch us closely, because they touch our skin.’ Our ‘recurring mistrust’ of them has recurred throughout history, and has exercised philosophers since the time when Socrates deprecated “women’s adornment” and advocated extreme simplicity in garb. In Christian thinking, nakedness and the need to cover it to hide our shame is a theme introduced in the Genesis story of Adam and Eve.

Drawing upon his scholarly research into visual art and its relationship to our literature and broader culture, Dr Harvey explores works as diverse as Titian’s ‘Sacred and Profane Love’ and literary texts; Shakespeare was much concerned with dress and its physical and metaphorical power. George Eliot and Dickens are also cited for their treatment of characters’ dress.

We are ambivalent about clothes, he argues, for they are ‘dangerous things’, often a ‘metaphor for hypocrisy’; what other people wear can take us in, deceive us, until we discover what they are like under this second skin, this body mask or disguise. Clothes are part of our perpetual performance in the world. We dress for ourselves and for others: the ‘sense of an audience’ is important.

Apart from material he’s discussed in a slightly different context in his books on the colour black, such as the contrast between puritanical plainness in costume in some periods of western history and foppish dandyism in others, there’s much that’s new here. There is, for example, the Liz Hurley of the 20s, Rita Lygid, who designed and wore the first backless dress and caused a scandalous success.

What I particularly like about Dr Harvey’s studies is the way he communicates his formidable range of literary and artistic knowledge with an intelligently readable, often witty prose style. For example, he has a way with metaphor:

When we put on clothes we sheathe ourselves in a social shadow: an ethos, an ethic, that guides and limits.

 I also liked this on a design by couturier Jean-Paul Gautier, expressed as wittily as the garment it describes:

When he is not clowning, still there is wit, as when he lets a tight-waisted dress of aluminium-ish silk flare out extravagantly over a froth of flounced chiffon petticoat with a little the look of a washing machine exploding.

He has a good ear for sound patterns, rhythms and linguistic symmetries, as those extracts I hope show; but he also has a subtly prompting, guiding voice. He has that rare gift: the ability to make the familiar strange and new. But I never felt he was lapsing into academic-speak. On the ‘issue of shoulders’, to take an example of his cheerfully discursive tone, he points out that men’s fashions have tended to bulk them out and cover them up, whereas for women’s fashion this is an equally ‘sensitive issue’ for different reasons: John Singer Sargent’s famous portrait of ‘Madame X’ caused a ‘furore’ when it John_Singer_Sargent_(1856–1925)_Madame_X_(Madame_Pierre_Gautreau),_1883–84was first exhibited around 1900 because ‘one slender strap’ was ‘hanging down off the shoulder’:

The strap was scarcely more than a thread, but loosening it was a step too far, and Sargent was required to mend the portrait, and replace the strap. Only later still could shoulders be wholly naked.

There’s much more detail in this book than I can hope to summarise here. Briefly, he looks at the the history, materials, functions and aesthetics of clothes, and the way we use them to ‘be ourselves’ or ‘be someone else’ in order to avoid exposing our ‘private self’ to the public gaze while revealing different “sides” of ourselves ‘deliberately or quite unconsciously’, as he suggests in another elegantly balanced aphorism:

clothes may help us to possess our soul, and we may place our soul within the clothes.

Clothes enable us to innovate or conversely to follow the herd, by conforming to fashions of the day or team to which we belong (I notice most of my teenage female students now favour a torn gash across both knees of their jeans).

As in his other books Harvey explores the differences between the relatively uncovered or exposed, colourful and extravagant look of women’s fashion compared with the more sober, suited, buttoned-up (in every sense) male costume. Young fashions versus old, politicians, soldiers (especially the ruthlessly fearsome black-clad SS) all present various degrees of individuality and uniformity, power and powerlessness.

Politically and socially, then, clothes tend to be mass-produced (often by sweat-shop exploited labour) and enable us to express our individuality but also to group ourselves. They can exhibit modesty, and ‘protect us from temptation as they protect us from the cold’, constituting a ‘moral fence, enclosing our sinfulness and frustrating the desires of others’. Of course, they can also, paradoxically, enflame them, and play a key part in our search for a sexual partner.

As the text on the book’s cover says, by being aware of the role clothes play in our lives, we can come to know and better understand who we are.

John Harvey, Clothes. Acumen Publishing, Stocksfield. 2008. Paperback, 134 pp. Copy supplied by the author.

Apart from the piece on this blog about John Harvey’s studies of the colour black cited above, there are these two pieces from last year: this one, in which the author of the novel The Subject of a Portrait discusses in a guest post the ways in which he treated his historical theme, and its relationship with the film scripted by Emma Thompson which came out shortly after his novel’s publication. There’s also this piece by guest writer Michael Flay, proprietor of the independent imprint Polar Books, which published the novel.

Photo of book jacket my own; ‘Madame X’ in public domain via WikiCommons.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Henry James, “Louisa Pallant” revisited

When my piece on Henry James’s 1888 story ‘Louisa Pallant’ first appeared on the Mookse and Gripes site on May 14 (and again here on this site), it inspired several interesting comments and queries. I’ll answer them briefly there, but thought I’d take the opportunity here on my own site to expand a little on some of the thoughts they produced in my mind.

First there’s the odd, repeated use of religious terminology by Louisa about her daughter Linda (of whom she had said to the narrator, her former lover, that ‘she’s a bad, hard girl, who would poison any good man’s life!) – a query raised in a Mooke and Gripes comment by Betsy Pelz:

‘You make my reparation – my expiation – difficult!’

When the narrator, the uncle of the young man (Archer Pringle) who Louisa fears her daughter has ‘marked’ as a suitably eligible (ie wealthy) target for marriage, repeats these expressions a little later, she adds:

‘She’s my punishment and she’s my stigma!’

She goes on:

‘She’s cased in steel; she has a heart of marble. It’s true – it’s true. She appals me!’

I believe this startling condemnation fits with the portrayal of Louisa throughout the story. In its second section the narrator reflects on her ‘improved and degenerate’ nature; she was, he feels, ‘spiritually speaking, vulgarised’, sceptical. She strikes him as ‘having seen more of the evil of the world than of the good’, and

her devotion to her daughter had been a kind of religion.

In training and educating Linda to ‘reach a high point’ she had made of her daughter ‘the star of her mother’s heaven’, the ‘source of the only light’ on her path: she ‘stood her in stead of every other religion.’ Linda’s role, as taught by Louisa, is that of ‘an educated angel.’

This spiritual-religious imagery is clear and sustained. Soon after the ‘reparation/expiation’ references Louisa’s language develops the theme:

‘It’s a satisfaction to my own conscience – for I have one, little as you think I have a right to speak of it. I have been punished by my sin itself. I have been hideously worldly…and I have taught her to be so…’

 

She goes on to describe Linda’s ruthless ambition to ‘climb up to the top and be splendid and envied there – to do it at any cost or by any meanness and cruelty, is the only thing she has a heart for. She would lie for it, she would steal for it, she would kill for it!’

There could be an allusion here to Christ’s temptation in the wilderness, where Satan takes him to a high point and offers him all he can see. The narrator feels that Louisa has been suffering from this ‘knowledge’ about Linda:

It relieved her to warn and denounce and expose. ‘God has let me see it in time, in his mercy,’ she continued; ‘but his ways are strange, that he has let me see it in my daughter. It is myself that he has let me see, myself as I was for years. But she’s worse…than I ever intended or dreamed’ […Louisa] looked up at the faint stars with religious perversity.

 

James is intent, then, on portraying Louisa in this ambiguous, paradoxical way: her desire to save Archie from Linda’s clutches has a quasi-religious fervour and she adopts a tone at times like this almost of an evangelical preacher; but he is at pains to show, ironically, that this sits badly with her own previous moral lassitude and history of instructing Linda in the wiles of sexual deception in order to satisfy her worldly desires through her attractive appearance and demeanour (a devilish strategy which had worked for Louisa, ten years earlier, when she attracted then jilted the narrator).

It seems to me that James mixes this type of language and imagery with that of another famously scheming, worldly and cynical, sexually perverse couple in Laclos’ Dangerous Liaisons; this becomes particularly apparent in Louisa’s very next words; she sees that the narrator believes that she is ‘acting a part’ by warning him so pointedly about Linda’s evil nature:

‘Your suspicion is perfectly natural: how can anyone tell, with people like us?’

 

Interesting to see she includes the narrator in this perception, and he doesn’t demur; on the contrary, ‘these last words brought tears to my eyes’, he says. Later she links her morality and calm hypocrisy with Linda’s: she points out again that everything between them is ‘implied’, and ‘nothing expressed’; there is ‘our perpetual worldiness, our always looking out for chances’. Such things must be withheld from spoken discourse between ‘persons who like to keep up forms.’ This of course reminds us that we can’t fully trust anything Louisa says – including her account of Linda’s viciousness (although in the final paragraph of the story the narrator confides that he is ‘convinced that [Linda’s] mother was sincere.’ But he is, by his own admission, hardly the most perceptive of narrators – a Jamesian hallmark.)

On two separate occasions the ‘comedy’ of worldly deception being played out by Linda with Archie is referred to, first when the narrator is suspiciously considering whether Louisa’s hostility towards her daughter was just ‘a deeper artifice’ (the devil is the great artificer), a ‘plan of her own for making sure of my young man’, seen by her as ‘a great catch…might she not have arranged this little comedy, in their personal interest, with the girl?’

Later, Louisa herself refers to the way Linda contrived to have Archie take her out for a romantic rowing trip on the lake as ‘a part of all the comedy!’ Like Valmont and de Merteuil, the narrator and Louisa are ex-lovers; like them, Louisa is skilled in the use of sexual seduction as a weapon or tool with which to achieve her selfish ends; she too has made men her victims (our narrator in particular) with her cruel games and manipulative skills. Like dramatists (or purveyors of fiction?) Laclos’s two ancien régime aristocrats stage-manage their perverse sexual dramas for their own gratification. Louisa claims to have undergone a kind of conversion followed by repentance and desire to atone – this religious terminology therefore serves brilliantly to highlight the dramatic nature of that putative reversal; both she (to all appearances) and the narrator as a consequence experience a moral, almost spiritual epiphany which causes them, in their own ways, to forgive (the emotionally wounded narrator) and atone for previous cruelty (Louisa).

Another literary parallel that occurs to me is that Louisa’s ‘making’ her child into what she calls a ‘monster’ of cruelty resembles Mary Shelley’s protagonist in Frankenstein, who also creates a monstrously destructive, vengeful and vindictive creature who turns in jealous fury on the ‘parent’ he feels has wronged him in creating him.

As Louisa tells the narrator, she will have ‘done [her] duty’ if she succeeds in saving Archie from Linda. ‘It isn’t for you that I do it; it’s for myself’, she tells him. His response is to acknowledge bemusedly that he can’t ‘penetrate’ her reasons. Elsewhere she suggests ‘if I hadn’t thrown you over I couldn’t do this for you’. But as I indicated in the previous post on this story, James leaves us wondering whether Louisa’s motives in warning off Archie are as selflessly expiatory as she leads the narrator (and readers) to believe; it could simply be that she thinks a richer target than Archie might be found.

Finally: in earlier posts on the stories of Henry James I have made reference to the significance of the Point of View of narrators and characters. In this story, too, there is explicit use made of this term; Louisa tells the narrator that Linda hasn’t discussed her devious schemes with her mother:

‘Lord! for what do you take us? We don’t talk over things to-day. We know each other’s point of view and we only have to act. We can take reasons, which are awkward things, for granted.’

‘But in this case she certainly doesn’t know your point of view, poor thing.’

‘No – that’s because I haven’t played fair. Of course she couldn’t expect I would cheat. There ought to be honour among thieves. But it was open to her to do the same.’ [She goes on to explain: Linda could have ‘fallen in love with a poor man; then I should have been done.’]

 

The ambiguity in this story and the shifting ‘points of view’ of its characters are typical of James’s narrative skill and artistic genius. Once again I commend the story to you. Even minor Henry James stories like ‘Louisa Pallant’ have much to offer.

Henry James, ‘Louisa Pallant': a little masterpiece of concision

A version of this post appeared at the Mookse and Gripes site on May 14.

Written during Henry James’s residence in Florence in 1887, ‘Louisa Pallant’ was first published in Harper’s magazine in 1888. Like most of his short stories, it has a first person narrator who plays a significant, and far from omniscient part, in the action.

James summarised the outline of the story in his Florence notebooks:

The idea of a worldly mother and a worldly daughter, the latter of whom has been trained up so perfectly by the former that she excels and surpasses her, and the mother, who has some principle of goodness still left in her composition, is appalled at her own work. She sees the daughter, so hard, so cruelly ambitious, so bent on making a great marriage and a great success at any price, that she is almost afraid of her. She repents of what she has done – she is ashamed.

 

This tentative outline goes on to suggest that the narrator should be ‘an elderly American’, the uncle of the naïve young man whose wealth the daughter fixes her sights on; in the finished story, however, much of this changed. ‘I don’t see why’, James ended this notebook entry, ‘this shouldn’t be a little masterpiece of concision.’ It is.

James was beginning to tire of his customary ‘international theme’: stories about the cultural clash between Americans and Europeans, often involving the quest for a ‘great marriage’ to suit the ambitions of a scheming young person. His attitude to marriage as represented in his fiction was ambivalent: it was often depicted as something to be avoided, a danger to the freedom or integrity of those involved – yet the pursuit of freedom and personal fulfilment was a central theme of most of his stories.

James was also beginning to lose his belief that Americans had a finer moral nature and a more innocent, unblemished character than decadent Europeans. By 1888 he was beginning to think that there was, in his biographer Leon Edel’s words, ‘a claustrophobic ignorance’ within that innocence.

The opening line of ‘Louisa Pallant’ is one of James’s finest:

Never say you know the last word about any human heart.

William Boyd used the last three words of that striking sentence as the title of his 2002 novel, in which he, like James, portrays his characters as possessing multiple possibilities and selves.

James’s unnamed American narrator first sees Louisa Pallant on the terrace of the fashionable Kursaal in Homburg, where he is languidly awaiting the arrival of his twenty-year-old nephew, Archer (a recurring and significant name in James’s fiction) Pringle, who is also enjoying a leisurely tour through Europe. His mother has entrusted his welfare to her brother, the young man’s uncle. We learn that the uncle had been in love with Louisa ten years earlier, but she had thrown him over in order to marry money. Ironically, her husband had lost his fortune and died, leaving her a destitute wanderer, living (like some of the characters in ‘The Pension Beaurepas’, about which I wrote recently HERE) in cheap pensions while seeking a rich, preferably titled husband for her ‘remarkably pretty’ 22-year-old daughter, Linda.

Although the handsome mother and daughter ‘were very quiet and decorous’ our narrator perceives something in their demeanour that shows they were accustomed to attracting admiring attention, but he also sees something about them that is ‘not altogether honourable’ – he hints that the mother is, as it were, displaying Linda to ‘the public stare’, while apparently ‘ashamed to exhibit her own face’ (she’s wearing a veil). His first thought is that he needs to protect his young ward from such people ‘and the relations he should form.’ He suspects Archer knows little about life and this makes him feel ‘uneasy’ about his responsibilities.

As the story progresses it is hardly a surprise that Archer should indeed succumb to the beautiful Linda’s charms. At first the uncle is unable to see any contrivance in her behaviour: she seems so ‘fresh and fair and charming and gentle and sufficiently shy…She was simpler than her mother…A girl who had such a lovely way of showing her teeth could never pass for heartless’ is his rather naïve initial perception. It is Louisa who assures him otherwise.

The strongest aspect of this rather slight short story is the portrait of the narrator and his flawed interpretation of the intrigues he finds himself caught up in: ‘She had not treated me well and we had never really made it up’, he reflects on this first encounter. Louisa’s ‘heartless behaviour’ in dumping him causes him to conclude that he had ‘forgiven her’ but that it had been a lucky escape not to have married ‘a girl who had it in her to take back her given word and break a fellow’s heart, for mere flesh-pots.’ That Louisa had given out the message at the time that he had driven her off with his ‘insane jealousy’ before she met Pallant is the narrator’s not entirely reliable account of her cynical tactics; we are never able to tell for sure how accurate his point of view is. And of course, as my previous pieces about these stories by James have indicated, he is the master of the narrative exploration of the point of view.

This narrative ambiguity is seen constantly. At the end of this first conversation with his former sweetheart the narrator reveals that Louisa shows a worldly awareness of the wealthy match his sister had made by marrying into the New York Pringle family; she remembered that they were a ‘disgustingly rich lot’, but this is relayed to us while the narrator tells her about the imminent arrival of his nephew. Instead of suspecting her motives – that she sees Archer as a likely target for Linda – he is instead deflected into a wounded self-pity when Louisa suggests he should have had children, and would have made a good father:

She could make an allusion like that – to all that might have been and had not been – without a gleam of guilt in her eye; and I foresaw that before I left the place I should have confided to her that though I detested her and was very glad we had fallen out, yet our old relations had left me no heart for marrying another woman. If I was a maundering old bachelor to-day it was no one’s fault but hers.

 His pain and confusion here are narrated through this internal indirect discourse with a rich blend of pathos and revelatory ironic humour. The more he insists he hates Louisa the less we believe him.

This opening section ends with Louisa apparently questioning the uncle about his nephew’s financial prospects; she concludes that his responsibility for Archer must weigh heavily on his conscience:

 

“Well, we won’t kill him, shall we, Linda?” Mrs Pallant went on, with a laugh.

“I don’t know – perhaps we shall!” said the girl, smiling.

 The stage is set for an intriguing and artfully realised dénouement. I commend the rest of this story to you: can Louisa be believed or trusted when she warns the uncle to remove his nephew from Linda’s dangerously alluring influence – he later sees the girl as ‘the result of a process of calculation’, an ‘educated angel’ – or is this mother, with her history of duplicitous selfishness, simply playing her part in a devious plan? Because we rely on the narrator’s imperfect point of view we can never really ‘know the last word’ about these human hearts. It is characteristic of Henry James’s artistic genius that he refrains from spelling these things out.

Endnote: I hesitate when categorising these tales: although he became a British citizen, James was American born and never truly lost his American sensibility, no matter how Europeanised he became. Hence the category ‘Literature’ – neither English nor American!

Jonathan Gibbs, ‘Randall, or the Painted Grape’

It’s a couple of months now since I read Randall, so it’s faded slightly from my memory – but I recall enjoying it immensely. I’ll begin by paraphrasing the outline of plot on the book’s inside cover – a handsome affair, by the way, that makes these Galley Beggar Press titles a pleasure to handle and read.

It’s a counterfactual history of the Young British Artists group of the last decade of the twentieth century and the first of this one. Damien Hirst was run over, ‘apparently when drunk’, by a train. His place is taken by our eponymous anti-hero, the genius provocateur conceptual artist who amuses and bemuses the press, public and his friends.

He’s usually drunk or high, and loves causing chaos: he’s Withnail, but talented. The narrative rattles along, with chapters alternating between the notional present, when our narrator, Vincent, a loadsamoney city broker, first meets him in 1989 when he’s an art student at Goldsmith’s, and they become unlikely friends. In the opening chapter Vincent is in New York City to meet Randall’s widow, Vincent’s ex-girlfriend Justine (characteristic of Randall to steal his best friend’s partner). The parallel stories then unfold, and we realise that the narrative of Randall’s early years is taken from the biography Vincent has been writing but has no intention of publishing. His is arguably as important a body of creative art as his hero’s.

The initial revelation comes in a dust-filled, abandoned studio Randall had secretly used in New York, filled with (putatively) brilliant traditionally-painted scenes of pornographic, priapic liaisons involving Randall and most of his friends and patrons. Justine has summoned Vincent, as co-executor of Randall’s estate, to help decide whether to exhibit these oils and risk ruining his reputation as an avant-garde enemy of traditional painting methods, or store them for posterity.

The plot writhes as much as the friends and lovers whom Randall tries and tests. I found some of the narrative a little hard to swallow: why would the art-terrorist bohemian misfit Randall befriend this philistine Thatcherite broker who is proud of his ambition to become a millionaire trader by the time he’s 26? The answer is typical of Randall’s acerbic cynicism: Vincent is his banker: he knows how to make them both very rich. Both of them are pretty unpleasant.

But of course one doesn’t have to like the characters in a novel to enjoy it. And it’s very well written. Essentially simple and lucid in style – the register isn’t artfully literary – the narrative is entertaining and animated: I finished it in three rapid sessions. Let’s try to give a flavour of its compelling language and objectionably boorish protagonist.

Randall is a conundrum: anti-social to the point he seems on some kind of psychological spectrum, he is nevertheless surrounded most of the time by acolytes, sycophants and rivals. Vincent is the character who interested me more, in some ways, than Randall. He’s a stodgy, loyal Boswell to his friend’s anarchic Dr Johnson, Gatsby’s Nick.

For example, Vincent dutifully records all of his hero’s ‘Randallisms’: crudely cynical bon mots like “Conceptual art – art you don’t have to see to get”, or what Vincent himself describes as ‘the more famous “Modern art – art you don’t have to like to buy”’.

Randall is never happier than when he can make ‘art’ as part of his project to dépater the bourgeoisie, hence the series that makes his name, his ‘Sunshines’ fashioned from used toilet paper (the pattern comes from where the sun shines from: out of his arse). Randall is cruder, more scatological than those figures he resembles most from the past: apart from Johnson there’s Blake, the mystic eccentric who saw angels in the trees, and Swift. Mozart.

With his predilection for pretentious names for his shows, which ‘are as much about exhibitionism as art’, Randall both sends up the ignorantly wealthy who buy his works, and exploits their desire to be hip and admired for their edgy taste. Even Vincent begins to get this; he begins to see the world from Randall’s perspective:

The trading floor began to look to me like a massive art installation, and one on a far grander scale than anything Randall or the others had ever even considered. The gallery, with its patches of whispered conversation and furtive body language, and the gradual presence of more important, better connected people, leading to the continual second-guessing of every new arrival, felt like a strange, underwater trading floor.

 

This is the novel’s theme: Mammon and art as symbiotic, mutually exploitative. One of the most interesting exchanges between Randall and his dutiful biographer begins with Vincent ingenuously relating his pleasure that the artist still wants to share his works-in-progress with him when he’d become famous: ‘I still had a use for him beyond the financial’, he believes:

When I gave him a hint of this, he characteristically twisted it around the other way: ‘I only asked you to look after my money so that I could be sure I had you close by, surely you know that, Vincent?’

And, with a hand on my shoulder, his friendly-aggressive-ironical shake. ‘I need you near me, Vincent. I never know what I think about anything till I’ve heard you ask me what it’s supposed to mean’.

Randall likes this accidental aperçu:

He saw me laugh, as much at his conceitedness as at the phrase itself, and grinned. ‘Go on then, Vincent. Write it down.’

And I got out my notebook and pen, and he repeated the words, leaning over me.

 

As the notebooks fill and Randall enjoys annotating and amending the sub-Wildean aphorisms, the whole thing, Vincent suggests, ‘wavered between the ironical and the genuine.’ Near the novel’s end Vincent realises

[Randall] needs someone dumb and philistine to use as a measure of his own brilliance. Or maybe not. Maybe it was Randall’s particular genius to make friends with someone like me.

Earlier, at the Venice Biennale, when Randall had asked Vincent’s opinion of his installation, Vincent fumed:

It made me want to laugh, with rage, to have him ask me that…I wondered what I was doing there at all, if he really wanted my opinion, or if I was still the chump, the doofus, the aesthetic crash test dummy…I make myself ridiculous.

 

In other words, this is a novel about the relationship between art and life: which imitates which? Does the biographer create his subject, the novelist his character – or vice versa? What exactly is creative art, anyway, in a postmodern world where the signifier, like the author, is dead, and a glass of water has become an oak tree because its artist-creator has said it is.

These aesthetic philosophical posers underpin the narrative; they give it gravitas. This is a highly intelligent deconstruction of the world of art – and fiction – a dissection of the destructiveness of creation, the creativity of destruction. As such it’s viciously and abrasively funny but also deadly serious.

The front cover has a quotation from a scene in which Randall perpetrated one of his most egregiously offensive art-attacks, shooting yellow paint balls at a boatload of revellers:

People were sobbing and cowering. A man’s voice, plummy and shrill, was repeating ‘It’s just paint! It’s just paint!’ over and over.

 

If I understand anything about this novel’s take on art (and I accept I probably don’t), it’s that Randall was a genuine genius who was compelled, in a world in which art has no merit or value, only a price-tag determined by the artist’s fatuous celebrity, to conceal his true genius and play the naked emperor, the joker, the satirist, the showman. He hides his real work in a secret studio, a tomb full of lewd treasures that are his final testament.

Chloe Aridjis, ‘Asunder’

Chloe Aridjis, Asunder. Chatto & Windus, London, 2013. Hardback, 192 pp.

This is Chloe Aridjis’ second novel; I reviewed the first, Book of Clouds, here. Both are ethereal narratives that are light on plot but enriched with poetic images and fragments of beautiful prose. I enjoyed this one as much as I did the first.

Aridjis, AsunderThere are several good reviews in the mainstream broadsheets, so I’ll deal rapidly with an outline then try to give an indication of this novel’s tenor. I read it quickly in two sessions, but found when I returned to it to write this post that I was effectively rereading, and finding delights on almost every page.

The protagonist is Marie, a 33-year-old who works at the National Gallery in London as a gallery assistant: ‘We are watchmen, sentinels’, she says. She guards priceless artworks, is ‘finely skilled at it’, and has done this for nine years, a role her great-grandfather Ted had fulfilled for over 40 years. His most compelling experience in that time was when, on the eve of the First World War, he failed to prevent the suffragette Mary Richardson’s attack with a cleaver on the Velázquez painting known as the Rokeby Venus – a famously sensual nude portrait.

This startling attack on the female form in art probably accounts for the cover illustration of the hardback edition: a detail of a portrait of Maria Godsal by John Opie, a Cornishman born just down the road from where I write this. Quite what this particular portrait has to do with the narrative isn’t clear, but it bears slash-marks across the face as if it’s been attacked by another militant feminist.

Marie is lonely. Most of the novel relates her fitful meetings with her platonic best friend, Daniel. When she spends a fortnight in Paris with him she fails to respond to his timorous sexual approach one night after they’d gone to their separate bedrooms:

 …to summon him would be too much of a risk…my best friend had tried, for whatever reason, to step over the silent and invisible boundary we had drawn long ago…Together we had composed our hymn to distance, that magical distance that held the best of life in place…I didn’t want to risk it…[and] began to worry about a new imbalance, the kind that might arise from a small shift, when a tiny peg is removed from one hole and inserted in another.

 

See what I mean about the poetic style? Like Prufrock, she doesn’t dare disturb the placid universe she prefers to inhabit. She’s a lover of boundaries and distances, equilibrium and stasis; she’s squarely pegged in her comfort zone.

She’s also a loner, ‘content to carry out life at low volume’ – which is obliquely reflected in the frequent references to artworks depicting hermit ascetics, in particular Dürer’s St Jerome in the Wilderness. On the reverse of this painting is a fiery star, perhaps a comet, and this is one of the other puzzling central images: another comet features in the picture of Pegwell Bay, which intrigues her so much she makes it into one of her growing collection of dioramas fashioned in the symbolically miniature confines of an eggshell.

Marie is transfixed by this astral body, ‘like a fiery ice-cold sword rising up and away from the canvas’. Marie’s fascinated disquiet is expressed soon after:

‘No matter how greatly you shine,’ I later said to Daniel in the pub, ‘it’s all over before you know it. And what’s left? A white brushstroke, only visible if you really look.’

 She feels the events of that winter were somehow ‘harnessed to its tail, as if my glimpsing it that day were a tiny, punctual omen of its own.’

I’m not entirely sure what all of these images mean, but they’re rather lovely to behold.

Although she’s a custodian of the gallery rooms, she harbours barely-suppressed violent impulses towards the artefacts:

 How not to occasionally envision the Gallery as a great locus of violent acts, a potential arena of destruction at both the paint layer and the human?

 

Rokeby VenusHere we see one of the central images in the novel: the Gallery as representation of humanity as envisioned in paint. The main concern is with the human gaze, especially the ‘male gaze’ on the female form – hence the significance of the attack on the Rokeby Venus, and the iconic role this painting plays in the text. At the end of the story Marie sees her own face in the mirror held in front of the face of Venus in the painting. Daniel has a book of photos of female inmates of a Parisian asylum (probably Charcot’s); madness and the mad appear several times in the cracked surface of this intriguing novel.

Still lifes are another unsettling set of motifs in the narrative. The tiny, timeless landscapes Marie fashions in eggshells have their ‘geological memory handed to them all at once.’ They remind me of outsider art, or the boxes of Joseph Cornell. They contain ‘No human figures. Only moths.’

I added these stilled lives to my still lifes, and liked the results. Let them die for something.

 She composes her inert scenes inhabited only by decomposing moths. Decomposition. This use of the moths is ‘simply part of the ecosystem within the flat,’ Marie laconically suggests. She moves ‘from one collection to another’ – the Gallery to her moths. For her it’s a ‘nuclear centre into which everything fed back’ – but when she examines the detail with a magnifying glass to see if ‘some secret message had surfaced’ she ‘never found anything’, and ‘of course, magnification tends to dent fantasy rather than enlarge it.’

I find echoes here of the creepy protagonist in John Fowles’s The Collector. She’s obsessive about composing these eggscapes of lifelessness in what seems a doomed quest to find some kind of truth; she’s an aficionado of ‘tranquillity’ – a key word in the text. Daniel too has his ‘collection’ – the poems he composes but never publishes, and the ‘almost compulsive correspondence with poets from around the world’, all, like him, we sense, solitary and ‘immensely shy’. It’s easy to see what draws Marie to him: he too is borderline sociopathic, preternaturally reluctant to cross the invisible lines and borders between himself and other people. His (de)compositions are his poems and letters. Words that separate people – they don’t unite them.

Marie too observes life, without participating fully in it. Not susceptible to the ‘acedia’ of a gallery guard’s duties, she keeps boredom at bay by discriminating between the different sounds made by the visitors’ footsteps. She also scrutinises their reflections in the polished floor. She reflects a lot, and prefers reflections to the human forms they mirror. She sees violence in angles; also disruption.

She’s interested in fissures and cracks: the craquelure on paintings’ surfaces, the geological strata and faultlines in cliffs or in people’s faces, and so on, which are another poetic representation of the cracks in her own life, psyche and relationships.

A final example (it’s hard to narrow them down!) of a lovely image: Marie ponders how the Gallery would have looked in her great-grandfather’s time:

Outside, horses would stand hitched to carriages for hours like thaumatropes at rest. All these details never ceased to have a hold on Ted and as they had a hold on Ted they had a hold on me.

 A thaumatrope was a popular 19C toy which utilised the principle of ‘persistence of vision’ to create the illusion of movement, or at least of superimposition of two separate images on either side of a spinning disc (like a horse and rider) so that they appeared to blend into one. It’s a fittingly deceptive image for this novel.

I recommend Asunder: it has a quirky, haunting charm that kept me engaged throughout. It’s a risky move, to attempt a novel about such a passive protagonist, but Aridjis succeeds, for the most part, with aplomb.

Colm Tóibín, ‘Nora Webster’

Colm Tóibín’s Nora Webster was published in the autumn of 2014. I’ve recently finished reading the Penguin paperback edition. It’s superb.

The author has said (in an interview in 2013 in the Guardian newspaper in the UK) that he’s ‘against story’:

 People love talking about writers as storytellers, but I hate being called that.

Nora Webster Nora Webster has little plot or ‘story’ to speak of. It shows in chronological sequence how Nora, whose husband Maurice, a schoolteacher, has recently died, struggles to deal with the commiserations of well-meaning family and neighbours as she tries to support her two grieving sons, who still live with her, and her older daughters who have left home. It is set in the late 60s in the sleepy southeastern Irish town of Enniscorthy (Tóibín’s own birthplace). Like women the world over she has to sublimate her own pain and grief while nurturing her emotionally wounded, damaged but needy children. What comes less naturally is learning how to live her life alone; she had previously lived a largely vicarious existence – the needs, tastes and opinions of her husband, and to a lesser extent, her family, had supplanted her own. She must learn how to live bereft of the husband she loved deeply; this means learning a new kind of freedom, and to accept the unwillingly acquired solitude and painful independence that comes with it.

The novel shows with deft sympathy how she undergoes a series of epiphanies to achieve this state. She has to exorcise the ghost of Maurice before she can find out who she is.

As such I see a thematic influence not so much from James Joyce (whose early style is clearly discernible in Nora Webster) and other Irish writers, whom early reviewers tended to adduce, as from Ibsen’s Nora of A Doll’s House. I shall focus here on this aspect of the novel, and on Tóibín’s beautifully lucid, restrained prose style.

Both Noras had played an unquestioning, quietly submissive role in the patriarchy they lived in, until the crisis came, and they were forced to reassess, after which they discover themselves, their resilience and their need for autonomy. From the novel’s opening page we see this passive aspect of women in Irish (or any other) society: Nora’s neighbour Tom has called to offer his condolences. She spends much of his visit anxiously wishing he’d go:

 He was speaking as though he had some authority over her…she knew that she must have appeared put down, defeated.

Shortly afterwards, having taken her two boys on a visit to Dublin to see their sister Fiona, Nora is surprised and a little nonplussed to see her daughter’s maturity and growing independence. She wants to say something as they part, but feels that Fiona is ‘downcast’:

 For a moment, Nora felt impatient with her. She was starting her life, she could live where she liked, do what she liked. She did not have to get the train back to the town where everybody knew about her and all the years ahead were mapped out for her.

 Nora plainly feels envious of Fiona’s comparative freedom to choose, and frustrated with her own circumscribed, provincial life, with the responsibilities and constraints that convention and motherhood imposed.

Here too we see the quietly powerful style the writer adopts to convey the interior life of Nora; most of the narrative is in the form of domestic quotidian detail and internal monologue – and in this respect it resembles the Joyce of Dubliners. Back home, for example, the boys having gone to bed,

she wondered if there might be something interesting on the television. She went over and turned it on and waited for the picture to appear. How would she fill these hours? Just then she would have given anything to be back on the train, back walking the streets of Dublin…[she turned off the TV, ‘irritated’ by the canned laughter on a comedy show] The house was silent now. [She opened the book she bought earlier then put it down.] She closed her eyes. In future, she hoped, fewer people would call. In future, once the boys went to bed, she might have the house to herself more often. She would learn how to spend these hours. In the peace of these winter evenings, she would work out how she was going to live.

 Tóibín is able, in such apparently banal scenes, in that deceptively unadorned prose, to show us a woman’s complex, treasured inner life in the process of growing and changing in response to the the life endured in the external, intrusive world. Here I’m reminded of Eveline’s existential dilemma (in Joyce’s story of that name, about which I wrote on the Mookse and Gripes site HERE), sitting in her dusty, dusk-filled room, longing to escape from the cage of domestic duty, with a brutal father and humiliating, mind-numbingly tedious shop job, and wondering if her lover is her liberator or potential oppressor. Both narratives show a woman attracted to solitude but feeling a paradoxical impulse towards human warmth and companionship – and love.

After her husband’s death Nora has no choice but to take the offer of a job as a clerk at local firm Gibney’s, which is where she had formerly worked with admired efficiency for eleven years, ‘barely tolerating her mother at home’ – Ibsen’s Nora had discovered she was confined to the role of ‘plaything’ for her father until the putative liberation that marriage brought; she too then found, as a relatively young, unfulfilled mother, that she had simply been handed over from one emotionally stunted existence, subservient to a man’s wishes, to another. When she is told of the job offer Nora recalls this time in ‘the distant past’ without relish:

 …Nora viewed the office in Gibney’s as a place where they had spent years working merely because the right chances did not come to match their intelligence, an intelligence that, as married women, they had cultivated with care.

 

This thought leads inevitably to others:

 She thought of the freedom that marriage to Maurice had given her, the freedom once the children were in school, or a young child was sleeping, to walk into this room at any time of the day and take down a book and read; the freedom to go into the front room at any time and look out of the window at the street…letting her mind be idle…but as part of a life of ease that included duty. The day belonged to her, even if others could call on her, take up her time, distract her.

 

With raw immediacy Tóibín develops Nora’s irresistible train of thought:

 Never once, in the twenty-one years she had run this household, had she felt a moment of boredom or frustration. Now her day was to be taken from her…Returning to work in that office belonged to a memory of being caged…Her years of freedom had come to an end; it was as simple as that.

 

Sure enough, when she starts work all the tedium and petty tyrannies reappear, and she longs for ‘the feeling of pure freedom’ when she is able to leave the office and go home.

Like Ibsen’s Nora, she has to learn what her opinions are. The narrative is set against the early days of the Troubles in Northern Ireland; Maurice had been a staunch supporter of Fianna Fáil, and she had deferred to his political views. Now she realises she can think for herself, assert herself independently. At first this personal exposure is unnerving, but she slowly comes into her own. This growth is portrayed with immense skill and is the most rewarding, heart-warming aspect of the novel.

Music is the other main source of her personal liberation. There’s a marvellous scene that occupies several pages, set in a pub where a man begins to sing. This brings about an epiphany that is characteristic of Tóibín’s subtle mastery of the portrayal of Nora’s inner being: we see her remember hearing this song at a wedding. She struggles to recall whose it was. She remembers feeling proud to be married to Maurice. Then her mood changes:

 In all this noise and confusion, she felt a sharp longing now to be anywhere but here. Even though she often dreaded the night falling when she was in her own house, at least she was alone and could control what she did. The silence and the solitude were a strange relief; she wondered if things were getting better at home without her noticing. Since she was a girl, she had never been alone in a crowd like this. Maurice would always decide when to leave or how long to stay, but they would have a way of consulting each other.

 

Notice again how delicately the narrative displays her inner growth. She’s learnt to love her own company, but is beginning to sense, like Ibsen’s Nora, that there is an element of wrong in preferring solitude to human company, and in not having a choice about how to act or be, always having to defer to her man. Her thoughts continue:

 …she was often irritated by the way in which Maurice’s mood could change, how anxious he would be to go home one minute, and then how eager he could become, how easily involved with company the next minute, while she waited patiently for the night to be over.

 And then the revelation comes:

 So this was what being alone was like, she thought. It was not the solitude she had been going through, nor the moments when she felt his death like a shock to her system, as though she had been in a car accident, it was this wandering in a sea of people with the anchor lifted, and all of it oddly pointless and confusing.

 

I don’t recall reading another novel with such a moving, engaging account of one person’s experience of the transforming power of deep emotional trauma. It’s a novel that reaffirmed my faith in the ability of a great novelist to enhance one’s own life through the process of reading their work. Colm Tóibín is an apt pupil of that other literary master of his: Henry James. They both have that empathetic insight into the character of ‘an engaging woman’ that takes one’s breath away. Another writer who comes to mind in this regard is Evan S. Connell, whose novels about Mr and Mrs Bridge I reviewed here, here and here – with a nod towards the influence of Mme Bovary.

Other reviews deal with aspects of the novel I’ve not touched on here: the nuanced depiction of Nora’s two boys and the two older girls, for example, who play their part in Nora’s tentative emancipation.

Max’s customary perception is well to the fore in his recent piece on this novel here at Pechorin’s Journal: he’s particularly good on the family drama: Nora’s relationship with her children and with the ‘love of her life’, Maurice; also on the visceral depiction of Nora’s grief and depression, and the links with the novel’s prequel, Brooklyn, with which it shares a number of themes, and compared with which Max finds Nora Webster less impressive. I find them both outstanding.

 

 

 

 

 

Henry James, ‘The Point of View’

A version of this piece was posted at the Mookse and Gripes website on 9 April.

Henry James wrote two stories in epistolary form: the first was ‘A Bundle of Letters’, published in the expat magazine The Parisian in 1879; the second was ‘The Point of View’, which appeared in 1882. James takes full of advantage in both tales of the scope for ironic presentation of the letter-writers’ antithetical impressions of travelling American and European characters, of the nations through which they pass, and of the people they encounter. He mischievously counterpoints their disparaging or effusive viewpoints with those of the characters they profile.

Several of the characters in these stories appear in both tales, as well as in ‘The Pension Beaurepas’, about which I wrote here (on the Mookse and Gripes site, and at this blog here). The three stories tended to be published together, along with ‘An International Episode’ (about which I wrote here and here), representing as they did the ‘international theme’ that dominated James’s fiction for so long.

I shall focus on Aurora Church, who was chafing under the controlling grip of her mother in ‘The Pension Beaurepas’. Mrs Church anticipated this sequel by saying in the earlier story, when explaining to the young narrator why she preferred Europe to America, for herself and her daughter:

 ‘And I wish,’ she continued…’that I could give you our point of view. Don’t you wish, Aurora, that we could give him our point of view?’

‘Yes, mamma,’ said Aurora.

‘We consider ourselves very fortunate in our point of view…’

 

At the Pension Beaurepas in Geneva Aurora befriended her compatriot, the spendthrift Sophie Ruck. She found the hierarchical society and customs of Europe – that her mother so admired – cloying, and despaired of the maternal plan to find her an aristocratic European husband.

‘The Point of View’ consists of eight letters dated 1880. The first and last are by Aurora. In the opening letter she writes to another young American woman expat (in Paris) about her arrival at New York City on a transatlantic liner. Here we see the approach James took in both these epistolary tales: she presents her correspondent with her intimate, vivid impressions of the places she visits and the people she meets. She explains that she has finally persuaded her sceptical mother to allow her to come to America and has just three months in which to find a suitable (i.e. rich) husband.

Aurora is acrid about her mamma’s oppressive regime: she was ‘dreadfully severe’ on the voyage out to Europe when she was only five, and ‘is severe to this day; only I have become indifferent; I have been so pinched and pushed – morally speaking.’

Aurora in Europe craved and envied the freedom of ‘the American girl’. Now she has her chance. As her name suggests, she is at the dawn of a new life, or so she hopes.

Not surprisingly she is delighted to find herself delivered from the stifling confinements of Europe: ‘I have never had so much liberty in my life,’ she says. Mamma, equally unsurprisingly, is less sanguine, as Aurora explains with her customary blend of levity and asperity:

 She is not in a hurry to arrive; she says that great disillusions await us. I didn’t know that she had any illusions – she’s so stern, so philosophic. She is very serious.

 

Mamma had realised that the dowerless Aurora ‘should never marry in Europe’. We can see in such extracts the dry ironic humour of which these stories are full. The characters unwittingly reveal their weaknesses and partialities, their selfishness and prejudices.

In passing Aurora lets slip that ‘the poor little Rucks’ – including her erstwhile friend Sophie – ‘are bankrupt’. We never hear their fate, but must assume the worst. Aurora, who had only nurtured the friendship for her own ends, seems callously unperturbed.

She goes on to describe some of the other passengers, whose own ‘points of view’ we shall be privy to in subsequent letters. The Europeans largely find America brash, vulgar and over-indulgent towards its young people; the Americans’ views we shall see. As in the earlier ‘A Bundle of Letters’ there is much sardonic humour to enjoy as we see the writers’ contrasting or conflicting views of each other exposed in the acerbic confessional manner that a letter to an intimate friend or relative allows. James’s evident pleasure in matching the correspondents’ style to their character is infectious.

The main romantic interest in this story is embodied in Aurora’s suitors on the ship: the aesthete Louis Leverett (who also features in ‘A Bundle of Letters’, where once again he is attracted to an interestingly picturesque young woman, a flirtation which he languidly tires of) and the ‘roaring Yankee’, Marcellus Cockerell. (Their names are aptly chosen.) Each of these young men expresses in his letters the extreme opposite views of all things American and European, and as Aurora approvingly suggests to her friend, ‘They have a particular aversion to each other, and they are ready to fight about poor little me.’ But despite this coquettish pride, she’s also realistic:

 I am not crazy about either of them. They are very well for the deck of a ship, but I shouldn’t care about them in a salon; they are not at all distinguished. They think they are, but they are not…I should get dreadfully tired of passing my life with either…au fond they don’t quite believe in me.

 

This viewpoint is presented without comment, of course, given the epistolary nature of the story, and this is its distinctive feature. Aurora displays here the kind of incisive analytical detachment of the author himself, but he causes her to express herself so clinically (and accurately) that I find her attractively intelligent and percipient, but also (understandably) a little vain.

Still there is the usual Jamesian interest in the travails of a young woman engaged in the necessary pursuit of a husband capable of satisfying her own intelligence as well as the demands of a pressing social system in which she lacks autonomy. James has an extraordinary understanding of the contradictory innocence and dogmatism, exacting standards (her mother says Aurora is insistent she would marry no foreigner who was not ‘one of the first of the first’) and indulgent lassitude of such a vivacious young woman as Aurora, with her native American sensibilities influenced by the atrophied Europe in which she has been raised. She knows mamma expects her to marry no American whose ‘pecuniary situation’ fails to meet her expectations.

Leverett is a Jamesian Europhile. He detests being back in crudely democratic America, where all is monotonously plain, tepid and mediocre; Europe for him has exciting extremes of beauty and ugliness. James has him write in a louche, affected style to highlight his self-consciously aesthetic pose:

 I feel so undraped, so uncurtained, so uncushioned…A terrible crude glare is over everything; the earth looks peeled and excoriated; the raw heavens seem to bleed with the quick, hard light.

 

He would agree with Mrs Church’s dismissal of America as ‘the country of the many’; she adds in her letter –

 In this country the people have rights, but the person has none.

 

The American citizen, she complains to Mme Galopin, ‘is recognized as a voter, but he is not recognized as a gentleman – still less as a lady.’

 

But it’s James’s sly revelations about the intentions of Aurora’s two admirers that are so engaging in this story. Leverett is shown in his letter to be self-absorbed, and interested in Aurora mostly because she has the good taste (as he sees it) to listen to him attentively. He ungallantly concludes, as he decides to drop her, that she ‘almost understood’ him!

 

Cockerel, on the other hand, derides the very places and people of Europe that the Europhile correspondents admire. It’s this witty symmetry that is one of the main strengths of this admittedly rather slight story. Although he finds Aurora a ‘rather interesting girl’, his attentions are insincere – he knows he could never marry such an impoverished young woman; besides, as he confides to his sister in his letter, ‘She has been spoiled by Europe’ – a taint he would never be able to ignore.

 

Mrs Church confides in her letter that Aurora accuses her of giving her a ‘false education’ in Europe so that she is not considered marriage material: ‘No American will marry her, because she is too much a foreigner, and no foreigner will marry her, because she is too much of an American.’

 

James is careful to balance his characters’ barbed accounts, however. Cockerel, rudely dismissed by Leverett as a ‘strident savage’, sums up his homeland’s superiority to Europe:

 

We are more analytic, more discriminating, more familiar with realities. As for manners, there are bad manners everywhere, but an aristocracy is bad manners organized.

 

Read this story for these opinionated, stylized, often Wildean outpourings of epigrammatic bigotry and insight. In this group of related stories he strove to show nuanced gradations of viewpoint in his representatives of each nation. This didn’t prevent the first reviewers from finding this story distastefully unpatriotic towards America.

 

Read it too for Aurora’s final letter, which rounds off beautifully all that’s gone before. Here we see a glimpse of the profound sympathy James demonstrates for his young female characters. He had recently completed The Portrait of a Lady, which began to be serialized in 1880. That full-length novel is the masterpiece of his early period, a fully developed account of the ‘engaging young [American] woman’ whose choices are misguided, yet she persists in ‘affronting her destiny’. James’s concern is with the ways in which Isabel Archer continues the attempt, in a naughty world, to make her own choices and learn to live with the consequences, always striving for a kind of liberty.

 

There is much to admire also, however, in these thematically similar miniatures: Aurora is in some ways Isabel Archer without the windfall fortune. See what you make of Aurora’s apparent destiny at the end of ‘The Point of View’.

John Harvey on the Colour Black

Men in Black, Reaktion Books, London 1995

The Story of Black, Reaktion Books, London 2013

 Even when brilliant, rich, powerful women have worn magnificent black in the past, they have usually needed the pretext of mourning to do so. And what has seemed to me a curious point of interest for study is the way which, through time, the use of this colour – the colour that is without colour, without light, the colour of grief, of loss, of humility, of guilt, of shame – has been adopted in its use by men not as the colour of what they lack or have lost, but precisely as the signature of what they have: of standing, goods, mastery…It relates to the relations between people in society, and to the relations between men and women; and to the way in which people display externally what in some ways is a ‘dark’ interior of human motivation.

 

This is John Harvey in his introduction to the first of these two fascinating studies of the colour black. In Men in Black he goes on to examine how and why black became the default colour of dress for men, associated with the world of work and professional dignity, contrasting with women who tended to wear white (or various other hues from the colour spectrum) – often in ‘vicarious display by men’; most jobs were ‘closed to women’. The period of black dominance in clothing for men dates largely from the early nineteenth century until shortly after the First World War.

 But both black and white are colours of denial; and what they deny is colour.

Thereafter it became the colour of Chanel’s little dress. In the 1930s it represented for the fascists the ‘most complete and intense way of marking off a group of people from the polychrome ordinary mass’. Himmler, the head of Hitler’s terrifying SS, admired ‘the disciplinary principles on which the Jesuits were organized, and was called by Hitler his Ignatius Loyola.’ More recently it has become the colour of rebellion and youth, from bikers and beatniks to punks, goths and emos.

John Harvey, Men in BlackAlthough men have in the past of course worn all kinds of colours, these books trace the reasons for the shift to sombre black clothes, with a focus on the representation of black in art and literature. Baudelaire is quoted as saying of the frock-coat:

 ‘Is it not the inevitable uniform of our suffering age, carrying on its very shoulders, black and narrow, the mark of perpetual mourning? All of us are attending some funeral or other.’

He also remarked that ‘a uniform livery of grief is a proof of equality’; as Harvey points out, ‘For Baudelaire, black, like death itself, was a leveller.’

John Harvey, The Story of Black These are scholarly but lavishly illustrated works and furnished with copious academic notes, but as that opening extract I hope shows, the texts are written in highly engaging prose, with carefully modulated, elegant sentence structure and, despite the formidable erudition, an accessible style and enthusiastic tone that encourage the reader to devour the text greedily.

Both books are packed with well-researched detail. As Dr Harvey is a literary scholar there is not surprisingly an emphasis on the literary aspects of the significance of the colour black: there are long sections on Victorian literature in particular, with perceptive accounts of Dickens’ dark cities and their inhabitants, and, for example, the saturnine characters in Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot.

Last year I reviewed John Harvey’s excellent novel The Subject of a Portrait, which is about the relationships between John Ruskin, his young wife Effie Gray, and the artist Millais, with whom Effie fell in love. There are supplementary posts by Michael Flay here and by Dr Harvey himself here (where he discusses his novel in the light of the film ‘Effie Gray’, about this triangle of Victorian characters, that was about to be released at the time of the post). Ruskin believed that the Victorian climate was changing as a result of a malignant ‘plague-wind’ of darkness, and that this ‘moral gloom’ was connected with the pollution – real and metaphorical – of industry, and in turn with ‘blasphemy’, ‘iniquity’ and social injustice – and Empire. Victorian morality was founded upon inequality and fear, and on ‘a terrifying faith’. On p. 169 of Men in Black the Millais portrait of Ruskin that features on the cover of Harvey’s novel is again reproduced. This is what he says about it:

 Ruskin is keen but cold like the water, and indeed was himself so damaged by strains of the most intimate British asceticism that he was unable to be a husband to his wife…There are elements of personal pathology in Ruskin’s obsession with the plague-cloud, as possibly there are in Dickens’s darkness: but their pathologies were of their culture, involving as it were ethical injury, and sensitized them to a greater pathology.

 

Elegantly and eloquently expressed. I particularly like that phrase ‘ethical injury’: it sums up succinctly the personality of the enigmatic Ruskin.

I was surprised to discover in Men in Black that dandies like Beau Brummel tended to favour tight-fitting, well-cut black clothes rather than peacock displays, at least at night.

What I found so interesting about these two books is that they take a topic as mundane as the colour black – one which I for one had never really paid much heed to; it’s rather like what’s been said about Jane Austen’s novels: she doesn’t mention the domestic arrangements of the country houses in her fiction because the maids are taken for granted, invisible. That’s how I was with the colour black. These books have enlightened and enthused me.

In Men in Black we learn that dandyism ‘played with discipline, and self-discipline, and the style was, not surprisingly, popular with the military’ – Brummel had been a captain in the Hussars (what a splendid name), and Wellington was thought a dandy.

 Wellington in turn had to reprimand the officers of the Grenadier Guards for riding into battle, on a day of foul weather, with their umbrellas raised.

 

There are sections on black as the colour of ‘self-effacement’, especially in religious contexts – although Christian priests had originally tended to wear white. Nevertheless black gradually became the predominant colour of dress for ascetics, hermits, then monks, friars, Jesuits and priests:

 A perfection of self-denial may make one holy, a person to be heeded with reverence and awe: and black, as the colour of power over oneself, has come to be associated with impressive, intense inwardness.

 

Another felicitously expressed sentence.

Then black is associated with the melancholy lover, and with melancholy in general – the ‘black bile’ of the ancient lore of the bodily ‘humours’; Hamlet is a key figure here (‘a man whose black clothes, finally, are the dress of his dark ontology’) and Robert Burton’s encyclopedic Anatomy of Melancholy, first published in 1621.

Black also became the colour favoured by merchants, especially Calvinist Protestants in the London business community; ‘pious asceticism’, as Weber suggests, is connected with capital. Also, perhaps, it was associated with trustworthiness, fair dealing: ‘Black is serious and means business’ –

 But black is a paradoxical colour, ostentatious through the show it makes of renouncing ostentation. The man in black can sidestep the social staircase because he seems to take his stand on a moral stair instead, and indeed to take the high ground precisely through humility.

 

Other areas explored by Harvey include black as a skin colour, and social/literary attitudes to ‘négritude’ – in Othello, for example. Devils (and the devil), of course, were also frequently depicted as black.

The extracts I have quoted are an indication of the elegant lucidity of Harvey’s writing, as well as of his capacity for conveying a great deal of information in a manner that is as rewarding as a well-written, pacy novel.

Men in Black concludes that the social significance of black is polysemous, ‘because all statements made by clothes are ambiguous, and even one colour will have different meanings’; but the dominant meaning of the widespread use of black could be that it

 is associated at once with intensity and with effacement: with importance, and with the putting on of impersonality. Alone or in ranks, the man in black is the agent of a serious power; and of a power claimed over women and the feminine. Black may be a shadow fallen on the feminine part of man.

 

I’ll conclude by stating that The Story of Black covers much of the same ground as the earlier book, but with very little repetition and a host of different material, and a closing section that looks at some developments in the world of art in the last few years. Both books belong to a series produced by Reaktion that use copious illustrations as the basis for historical analysis.

I’d recommend these texts to anyone with even a passing interest in literary, artistic/cultural, social, political or philosophical history.

Anna Kavan, ‘Ice’

 

In his introduction to Anna Kavan’s novel Ice, first published in 1967, a year before her death, Christopher Priest describes it as a work of ‘literary slipstream, one of the most significant novels of its type’. This genre arose in the US in the late 80s; Priest defines it as fiction that ‘induces a sense of ‘otherness’ in the audience, like a glimpse into a distorting mirror, perhaps, or a view of familiar sights and objects from an unfamiliar perspective…it imparts a sense that reality might not be quite as certain as we think.’

He names JG Ballard, Angela Carter, Paul Auster, Haruki Murakami, Borges and others as exponents of this kind of writing. Slipstream portrays ‘images of the ordinary world through shifting mirrors and distorting lenses, without attempting to explain.’

 

Anna Kavan, IceIce’s strangeness is apparent from the very first paragraph. An unnamed car driver learns that the unidentified country through which he is travelling is experiencing severely unseasonal cold weather. He reveals little about himself except that he has spent much of his life abroad ‘soldiering, or exploring remote areas.’ Later he appears to be involved in covert operations for the military, or in espionage.

 

The world is dying: it’s ‘doomed’. Ice is taking over, perhaps because of some obscure scientific mishap, or else through the use of doomsday weapons:

An insane impatience for death was driving mankind to a second suicide, even before the full effect of the first had been felt.

Our first person narrator, the man in the car, is obsessively searching for a girl with moon-white hair and alabaster skin. ‘I needed to see her; it was vital’, he reveals, but never says why.

She is fragile and thin, and appears cowed, crushed. We’re told she had been treated cruelly as a child by her mother; she is a ‘victim’, with ‘no will’ of her own. When she disappears the narrator abandons all his own affairs to search for her: ‘Nothing else mattered.’ His urgency is increased by ‘the approaching emergency’.

But the almost plotless narrative constantly implodes. What appears to be a narrative line suddenly disappears. In mid-scene we are taken somewhere else, possibly in flashback – or possibly leaping forwards in time: the transition is never explained. With the surreal logic of a dream these shifts render what’s just happened irrelevant or inexplicable.

The man feels compelled to find the girl, but she is inaccessible or hidden away. For much of the novel she is in the power of a brutal warlord known as the warden. He treats her like a prisoner. He abuses her psychologically and sexually. The narrator eventually manages to spirit her away, but he too treats her badly. She fears and detests them both.

At times the identities of the searching man and the cruel warden appear to merge; at times he doesn’t seem to know which one he is. She finds it impossible to distinguish between them and their dastardly treatment of her: ‘there’s no difference’ between them, she says. The narrator’s grasp of reality is tenuous:

 My ideas were confused. In a peculiar way, the unreality of the outer world appeared to be an extension of my own disturbed state of mind.

 

Soon after this moment he becomes aware of ‘an odd sort of fragmentation of my ideas.’ Then again, ‘this was the reality, and those other things the dream.’ Later:

 Nothing but the nightmare had seemed real while it was going on, as if the other lost world had been imagined or dreamed. Now that world, no longer lost, was here the one solid reality.

 

 

I found the novel weirdly compelling. It has a crazed logic of its own: the novel’s world is, as the narrator says, ‘a field of strangeness where no known laws operated.’ The searching man’s obsessive quest has the manic grandeur of Ahab’s pursuit of the white whale.

I’ve written about two other Anna Kavan books: Julia and the Bazooka is a collection of short stories which frequently deal with her addiction to heroin. The Parson has some of the strangeness of Ice.

Priest insists that this novel is not just an extended metaphorical account of Kavan’s heroin addiction, that the ice is not the drug, the girl (victim and holy grail) is not the drug. But I couldn’t help finding this a satisfactory way of interpreting the narrator’s hallucinatory compulsion to find the elusive girl; his obsession causes him more suffering than pleasure, and he abandons her when he does achieve his goal:

When I considered that imperative need if felt for her, as for a missing part of myself, it appeared less like love than an inexplicable aberration, the sign of some character-flaw I ought to eradicate, instead of letting it dominate me.

She’s described like those models a few years ago who earned the unpleasant label ‘heroin chic’: skinny, haunted, bruised.

On the other hand I agree that such a reading fails to account for all of the novel’s bizarre layers and surreal motifs (such as the narrator’s fascination with singing lemurs: the Indris). It can also be seen as an effective protofeminist allegory: just as the world’s men bring about global disaster with their suicidal weapons and Cold War ‘collective death-wish’, so they reify women; the girl-victim is a cipher for the warden and the narrator: she’s their prey, and their aim is to dominate and control her, to possess her, stifle her individuality and identity. They are sadistic bullies, as threatening as the ice-fields that are advancing across the earth’s surface.

There is an excellent review of Ice at Max’s blog Pechorin’s Journal; he gives a much fuller account of the apocalyptic plot than I have here, and an interesting view of ‘slipstream’. He also includes a link to John Self’s review at Asylum blog.

My thanks to Peter Owen publishers, who sent me a copy of this novel as a prize in their online competition: follow them on Facebook.

Alfred Döblin, Alexanderplatz

Published in Germany as Berlin Alexanderplatz in 1929, this novel has been described as the German Ulysses – the style and content of which have clearly influenced it considerably. I found it a difficult but rewarding read. Each of the nine sections, called Books in this translation, begins with a terse summary of its contents; here’s part of the one for Book Two:

…this is no ordinary man, this Franz Biberkopf. I did not summon him to entertain us, but so that we might share his hard, true and enlightening existence.

Doblin, Alexanderplatz The plot and style have been admirably assessed in several places: I’d recommend Max’s typically perceptive account at Pechorin’s Journal here. He summarises the (rather basic) plot and themes: the downward trajectory of the life of Franz Biberkopf, ‘an erstwhile cement-and –transport-worker in Berlin’. At the novel’s opening he is released from Tegel Prison after serving a four-year sentence for the manslaughter of his girlfriend. He resolves to go straight – but the narrative relates his stuttering attempts, and ultimate failure, to do so.

After several menial jobs he falls in with gangsters, loses a limb in an act of treachery by his fellow burglars, and suffers more and more blows in his life.

As Max points out, the plot is exciting enough in its way, but it’s the high modernist portrayal of Berlin in the decadent last days of the Weimar Republic that’s its most compelling feature. That, and the style, something between middle period Joyce and the Dos Passos of USA: montage, collage, snippets of classical literature, popular songs, ads on billboards, anything that surrounds Franz in his peripatetic quests across and beyond the city.

It’s not a cheerful or easy read. Like Emma of Book Around the Corner I found it heavy going. Just as I started to weary of the fragmented style, however, the pace changed and my interest revived. So let’s take a look at the style. As Max has already commented on the fragmentation technique, I’d like to just add a couple of features that stood out for me.

First there’s the use of non sequitur:

 Aha, they are building an underground station, must be work to be had in Berlin. Another movie.

 

This is Franz’s stream of thought as he stands on a corner in front of a movie theatre. The scene of typical urban renewal sparks off thoughts of a possible job, but the movie intrudes and interrupts the flow. This is largely how we all experience our interior monologue, I’d have thought, and it works quite well, but tends to irritate me after several pages of it.

Tenses jump around for no apparent reason from past to present and back. Pages 41-42 contain a sequence of symbols for Trade and Commerce to Finance and Tax Office; these are reminiscent of Laurence Sterne’s insertion of bizarre symbols in Tristram Shandy, and serve no particular purpose here, as far as I can see.

Those sections where I was most able to overcome my aversion to these narrative tics were the ones which dealt with the festering political situation in the city (Max mentions the anti-Semitism), but there’s also a stark portrayal of the extremes of nascent fascism/nationalism beginning to assert itself over socialism and communism. Here’s a taster, in a long scene in a Berlin theatre-cum-drinking den:

 The veteran whispered, his hand before his mouth, he belched: “Are you a German, honest and true? If you run with the Reds, you’re a traitor. He who is a traitor isn’t my friend.” He embraced Franz: “The Poles, the French, the fatherland for which we bled, that’s the nation’s gratitude.”

 

Soon after this Franz peddles ‘Nationalist pro-Nordic papers’:

He is not against the Jews, but he is for law and order. For law and order must reign in Paradise; which everyone should recognize. And the Steel Helmet, he’s seen those boys, and their leaders, too, that’s a great thing. [There follow sickening extracts of fascist rhetoric from the paper] In the Elsasser Strasse the other fellows laugh themselves sick when he makes his appearance in the café at noon, his Fascist armband discreetly tucked in his pocket; they pull it out.

Here it’s possible to see the other problem with the text, apart from its modernist liking for cinematic verbal metonymy: the clunky translation. It has to be said, given the fact that the novel is apparently filled with Berlin dialect and thieves’ argot, that translation must be a nightmare. This UK-published edition was translated by the American-born Eugen Jolas (died 1952), who uses a register that swings oddly from prohibition-era New Jersey to Edwardian English (‘What the deuce are those big boots?’ asks one character, implausibly).

I’ve found it hard to pin down what I ultimately made of this novel: it’s a considerable achievement, and certainly a notable addition to the canon of experimental modernist European fiction. But I can’t say hand on heart that I particularly enjoyed it. I’d be quick to concede that it’s probably more to do with my defects as a reader than those in the text.

Edition used: Secker and Warburg, London, 1974, first published by Martin Secker in 1931. Thanks to Cornwall Libraries for the loan of their copy.