They have lost themselves but not their ambitions

Matt Haig, The Humans. Canongate paperback, 2014.

When he won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year I’d never heard of Patrick Modiano, so I thought I’d better do something about this. For my birthday, among the books I asked for from family friends, was his Occupation Trilogy. Last week I read the first novel in that trilogy: La Place de l’Étoile. I found it a bit of a struggle, but might write about it here soon.

I craved something less dark and serious over the weekend, so devoured Matt Haig’s The Humans, first published two years ago, in two binges. At first I thought it too slight to merit a post here, but I’ve done some thinking and online digging and have changed my mind.

As I read it I thought it rather derivative. It’s about a highly advanced alien race – so advanced they have learnt, through the mastery of higher mathematics, to become immortal, to have almost magical powers (they can revive the dead, for example, or heal wounds instantly simply by thinking themselves better) – who send one of their own to earth in order to prevent a mathematical discovery by a Cambridge maths professor (named Andrew Martin) accidentally destabilising the human race, and possibly the universe. As the novel starts they seem already to have killed Martin; our protagonist, the alien, has assumed his bodily form and begun his mission – to seek out and destroy anyone to whom he might have divulged his secret discovery.

After a few pages I was thinking this reminds me of numerous sci-fi narratives: Mork and Mindy, the Robin Williams vehicle from the seventies in which another naïve, largely well-meaning alien struggles comically to understand the peculiarities and defects of a flawed human race, while reporting back to another increasingly alarmed host planet (‘Mork calling Orson’) that he’s beginning, like our protagonist ‘Andrew Martin’ here, to find it rather endearing. As his masters see it he is, like Mork, becoming ‘corrupted’ or impure by contact. Also like Mork he has a repertoire of super-powers (like the capacity to learn English after hearing or reading just 100 words; later he learns to communicate wordlessly with dogs).

Here’s ‘Andrew’ musing judgementally on humanity after watching the news on TV for the first time soon after moving in with Andrew’s wife, posing as her husband:

The term ‘news’ on Earth generally meant ‘news that directly affects humans’. There was, quite literally, nothing about the antelope or the sea-horse or the red-eared slider turtle or the other nine million species on the planet.

His relationship with the 40-year-old professor’s wife Isobel becomes, however, increasingly close as he learns to overcome his initial revulsion with the (to him) alien human form and to appreciate our human capacity to cope with our weaknesses and mortality, our vulnerability and our selfishness.

IMG_2983The Isobel plot resembles that of Starman, John Carpenter’s 1984 film in which Jeff Bridges, another innocent alien on earth, assumes the form of a young widow’s husband and befriends her. Like Haig’s ‘Andrew’ he revives the dead and has other special powers, and gradually falls in love with his ‘wife’. The book’s front cover points out other influences: David Bowie’s alien in Nick Roeg’s 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth, and Mark Haddon’s 2003 novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.

The other parallel that I found most obvious was the ‘Martian poetry’ of the kind instigated in 1979 by Craig Raine’s ‘A Martian sends a postcard home’- it’s surely no coincidence that human Andrew’s family name, Martin, is so close to ‘martian’. In this poem a Martian visits earth and describes (as ‘Andrew’ often does) with unintentional poignancy, wit and puzzled, oblique insight the mundane objects and rites of humans (books have ‘wings’ not pages, and rain ‘has the property of making colours darker’).

As I became engrossed with the progress of ‘Andrew Martin’ and his increasingly reluctant murder quest I began to realise that this was, like Raine’s poem, not really sci-fi at all. When I’d finished and read Haig’s short afterword it became apparent that it was about the defects and vulnerabilities of the human condition and psyche, and how we learn to come to terms with them. Here’s ‘Andrew’ on seeing Isobel fall in love with him, believing him to be her human husband: she was, he thinks,

someone who had lived enough to know that loving and being loved back was a hard thing to get right, but when you managed it you could see forever.

Haig explains that he’d suffered from depression in his early 20s, and I’ve since read how he struggled to deal not only with his condition, but with the stigma attached in our culture to those who have mental health problems (see for example this interview in the Guardian from Feb. this year, about his recently published book about depression, Reasons to Stay Alive). The Humans, then, is about alienation – that feeling experienced by the person with depression when everyone around them is ostensibly ‘normal’.

He’s particularly good on the Martins’ troubled teenage son, Gulliver, who’s experiencing that adolescent angst, anger and turmoil that most people in their mid-teens grapple with. The human Andrew had been a remote father and husband, self-absorbed and lacking emotional intelligence and empathy. He’d also been unfaithful to Isobel, whom he’d taken for granted to such an extent that he hadn’t registered her unhappiness when she sacrificed her own successful academic career to play the role of mother and housewife. He’d betrayed her and his son.

But the alien Andrew learns to recognise how important it is for humans to endure and overcome our deficiencies and confront our mortality in order to be able to love. Although this ‘love conquers all’ moral becomes a little sentimental at times and the lessons are spelt out a little portentously, as when ‘Andrew’ is kicked out by Isobel for guilelessly blurting out that he’d had sex with human Andrew’s student girlfriend, being naively unaware – a touch implausibly, given his ability to assimilate a culture’s communicative codes in seconds — of the concept of fidelity in marriage, and writes out a 97-point manifesto of aphoristic advice for Gulliver, who he’s also come to love, to help him survive being a teenager surrounded by treacherous adults. This seven-page document fills one whole chapter, and slips at times into whimsical mawkishness.

There’s a great deal of warmth, wit and charm in this novel, despite the derivative plot and tendency to overdo the moralising (‘Humans learn the errors of their ways’, insists ‘Andrew’ to another clone sent, like the Terminator, to complete the murderous job he’d abjured). Its heart is more honest and sincere, to my mind, than Curious Incident’s. It shares that novel’s witty take on the relations between mathematics and poetry, music and, ultimately, the transcendent beauty and purity of this troubled sphere that is the planet earth, and of the inhabitants of that sphere. There’s also a dark, almost metaphysical seriousness beneath the slight lyric charm, to paraphrase Eliot. The frequent doses of Emily Dickinson add to the experience.

Haig is very good on dogs, too. The Martins’ dog Newton is one of the best dogs I’ve encountered in fiction for some time. There’s a hilarious scene when alien Andrew learns about the delights of peanut butter with Newton.



Ancient dogs and caltrops

A Paean to Dogs in Ancient Times

Domesticated from earliest times in Greece and Italy as hunters of wild goats, deer and hares, dogs also served humans as guardians of the house and stock and as faithful companions (and bedwarmers).

Louis Frederic Schützenberger, Retour d'Ulysse 1884

Louis Frederic Schützenberger, Retour d’Ulysse 1884

The Greek hero Odysseus, after ten years of fighting in the Trojan wars, then ten more of struggles to return home, disguised himself as a beggar in order to surprise the suitors who were pressing his wife Penelope to accept one of them in his absence, presumed dead, while she resolutely cherished his memory. His dog, Argos, at an implausibly advanced age, fallen on evil times, neglected, ill, dozing on a manure heap, pricked up his ears when he heard a familiar step. He wagged his tail and dropped his ears when his master, incognito, had to pass by and ignore the overjoyed dog, who died. Heartbroken that he couldn’t acknowledge his dog’s greeting without betraying his identity, Odysseus wiped away a tear.

Homer and Hesiod mention sheepdogs and watchdogs: the Molossian Hound of Epirus, mastiff-like, Laconian, was the subject of this post of mine some time ago (the Jennings Dog in the British Museum, via Flaubert and Alcibiades).

The Jennings Dog at the British Museum

The Jennings Dog at the British Museum

Xenophon (ca 430-354 BC), better known as a historian and philosopher, also wrote a treatise on the value of hunting as a suitable training for the soldier, for it makes men sober, pious and upright; in this Cynegetikos he extols the Castorian and the Vulpine hounds. The dispositions and ailments of hounds are delineated, and he describes how they should be trained and cared for. If the hare is caught at the first attempt, he says, the hounds should be brought back in to begin the search for another, he says. Psyche, Pluck, Spigot, Hilary, Yelp, Strongboy, Bodkin, all are suitable names, being short and indicative of hounds’ temperaments and qualities.




The boar requires a great deal more effort, and stronger nets. Not so much a pursuit as a fight. Dogs are often injured or killed in the boar hunt. Caltrops are useful in the chase, if unsportsmanlike. Darius used them against Alexander at the battle of Gaugamela, Persia. They served to slow the advances of horses, war elephants and humans. The soft feet of camels are particularly susceptible.

Iron caltrops have been found in Virginia that date from the seventeenth century.

In Italy, Umbrian hunters and sheepdogs were renowned as keen-nosed but lacking in courage. Salentine and shaggy-coated Etruscan dogs lacked speed but were keen-nosed.

Lucius Columella (born in Cádiz, ended up writing about agriculture – and a treatise on trees — in Italy, d. ca 70 AD) praises in his Res rustica the incorruptible dog, steadfast avenger or defender (rather poorly scanned translation into English here). The shepherd prefers a white dog because it is then unlikely to be mistaken at dawn or dusk for a wolf. The farmdog, on the other hand, has a more alarming appearance when approached by an evil man in daytime if he be black, with a sonorous bark and growl. At night, however, he can approach the crafty thief with greater security. The joints of its feet and its claws, which the Greeks call drakes, should be very large, like its head.

The Cú faoil or Irish wolfhound, as its name suggests, was used in the hunting of wolves Cuchalain better picbut also as a war dog. It has an ancient history. Names of kings and warriors often had the prefix ‘Cú’ as a sign that they were worthy of the loyalty of a brave hound. The Irish hero Cúchalain won his name by slaying, when he was a child, the ferocious guard dog of Culain, in self defence, and being taken on as replacement.

As early as 279 BC they may have fought alongside Celtic tribes that sacked Delphi. Caesar in the ‘Gallic Wars’ mentions them, and in 391 a Roman Consul named Symmachus writes about receiving as a gift seven ‘canes Scotici’ for fighting lions and bears, to the wonder of all Rome.

From Gaston Phoebus, Le livre de chasse, 13C

From Gaston Phoebus, Le livre de chasse, 13C

Associated with royalty, these dogs were highly prized. Around 210 King John gave Gelert to the Welsh prince Llewellyn. He is the subject of an ancient folktale motif that’s found in stories from around the world, and the 13C hagiographical legend of the Holy Greyhound, St Guinefort; sadly I’ve mislaid my copy of the superb study by Jean-Claude Schmitt of this bizarre cult, which survived into the 1930s in France, despite the opposition of the church. (The dog-headed saint, or Cynocephalos, is Christopher). In the legend this faithful hound was rashly killed by its owner, who believed the dog had mauled his son, when in fact it had bravely saved him from a serpent’s attack (or in some versions, a wolf’s). When he hears his son’s cries, he realises his mistake and buries the dog with great reverence. The grave became a pilgrimage site and was believed to benefit the health of children if taken there by their parents.

By the way, Lesbia’s sparrow was probably a bullfinch.

(All images are in the public domain)

A little colder, a little lonelier

Alfred Hayes’ 1958 novel My Face for the World to See was reissued in 2013 by the always reliable NYRB imprint.

Only 130 pages long, it packs a punch way above its weight. As Nicholas Lezard said in this review, its content suggests it might be a ‘grim read’ but it isn’t: it’s ‘unsettling’ but the ‘beauty of its precision is what carries you through.’

The unnamed narrator, a writer of film screenplays, watches from a plush beach-house balcony (he’s at a tediously boozy Hollywood party, seeking to escape the ‘smiles which pinned you against the piano’) as a long-legged pretty girl in ‘a jaunty cap’ woozily enters the ocean, martini glass in hand. When she gets into difficulty (under ‘the indifferent sky’ – a Camus allusion perhaps, certainly one of Hayes’ frequent nods to European existential bleakness) he intervenes and rescues her.

Intrigued and troubled by this event he later phones her and they start an affair – he’s married, but his wife is on the other side of the continent in New York, and their marriage is in an unhealthy state – but then his whole life is. His work disgusts him. This affair is also toxic, and reveals some ugly things about the girl and the narrator.

That’s it as far as plot goes. It’s the measured, cautious narrative voice that is the most compelling feature of the novel, though. Apart from the bleakly anonymous, smoke-filled Californian bars, restaurants and parties that so weary him, the narrator’s ennui and self-disgust are redolent in almost every line; here’s a random example, from the opening of ch. 4:

I took a hot shower and went to bed. Occasionally, a car went by in the street; occasionally, there was the sound of a bird in a tree. I did not feel, in the darkness, lost or in despair or even unhappy. My throat burned a little, but that was because I smoked too much: it seemed somewhat ironic to have only that as a concern lying there in the darkness. I’d been coming here now, to this place, off and on for about five years. I’d work for a few months at one of the studios and then I’d go back to New York. It was not a disadvantageous arrangement. I did not feel, or at least I did not think I felt, superior to the things which concerned these people here.

 I’ve quoted at length to demonstrate the meticulous style. There’s a surface simplicity and lucidity reminiscent of Hemingway (that fondness for ‘and/’and then’ structures, the monosyllabic vocabulary), but this is counterpointed by a disturbing and contrasting complexity. Hayes carefully fragments his syntax with those awkward incidental details (the fronted, repeated adverb ‘occasionally’, ‘in the darkness’ and ‘to this place, off and on’).

The simpler elements (the opening sentences of that extract) create a rhythmic fluency, enhanced by the symmetrical repetitions (he’s fond of tripled structures); but look again at their negativity: ‘I did not feel’ when repeated suggests our narrator is being less than candid with himself. He acknowledges this when he goes on to concede that ‘at least’ he did not think he felt these things. Even the birds are denied agency: they don’t sing in the tree, there’s just their sound, passively registered by this fretful insomniac, lying there in indifferent ‘darkness’ (also tellingly repeated), who is, surely, despite his denials, irredeemably ‘lost’, ‘in despair’ and ‘unhappy’.

The denials are hollow, hence that unconvincing double negative in ‘not disadvantageous’ – this lapse into the kind of clichéd structure deplored by language purists like Orwell is deliberately fatuous and discordant in comparison with the mellifluous, fastidious syntax the narrator usually deploys. The emptiness of his soul is conveyed with deeper resonance here because of the hollowness of this note.

Alfred Hayes, My Face for the World to SeeThis is a narrator who’s in existential crisis. Like a bird caught in a hunter’s net, the more he struggles to free himself, the more entangled he becomes. All he can do is to explore these futile attempts and try to survive them. That’s why, when asked later by the girl about his work, he says sardonically that he’s not writing but ‘writhing’.

The narrator’s portrayal of the girl tends to be superficial and callous. We never know much about her except that she has a pretty face – that’s what caused her doomed decision to try to make her fortune in the ‘rhinestone’ fakeness of Hollywood and become a star (the town at night is marvellously described as ‘looking as hell might with a good electrician’). She’s failed, and she knows it, and measures out her lonely, dwindling days in a ‘bleak apartment’. The narrator says this about her at the start of ch. 9:

I found she struck the nerve of pathos, somehow; there was an air about her of a somewhat touching injury. It was possibly accentuated by the fact that she was pretty.

Here again is Hayes’ characteristic hedging: ‘somehow’, ‘somewhat’, ‘possibly’. Every thought or experience is held up and examined as potential mitigating evidence in his defence. For although he can’t admit or confront it, that’s what this narrative is: he’s on trial for the betrayal or abandonment of his moral, spiritual and emotional integrity. He knows his conduct is indefensible; this is, in a way, his confession. Probably that’s why the girl’s role is so tenuous: he’s responsible for his own actions, including his cowardly behaviour towards her, and his own tenuous grip on reality. The superficiality of the narrative towards her is part of his indictment of himself. That’s why we get passages like this a few sentences later, as he scrutinises the evidence:

Looking at her, it struck me that among the things wrong with her was that she had neither humor nor, really, charm. The eyes were fine and quite beautiful, and she was undeniably a very pretty girl, but there was no charm in that somewhat rigid face, in the manner so constantly tensed. She hadn’t all evening said anything I could recall as either charming or witty. What she did have, apparently, was a sort of desperateness, which compelled another, and different sort, of appeal.

 The stuttering style accentuates the narrator’s disingenuousness; if there’s so much ‘wrong with her’ and she’s so humourless, desperate and ‘rigid’ why is he pursuing her? If her beauty is just superficially there in her ‘face for the world to see’, why is he attracted to her? The answer isn’t ‘apparent’ to him, because he’s rejecting the possibility that what he sees in her is a mirror image. He’s attracted to a kindred spirit whose damage is more overt and ‘apparent’ than his own. He can’t acknowledge this without condemning himself, but the language here reveals the true cause of her ‘appeal’ to him, perhaps. He can’t spell it out any more clearly (as always the prose if full of hedges and evasions like ‘somewhat’ – again – and that awkwardly positioned ‘really’) than to say it’s of a ‘different sort’. Later, thinking he’d even prefer not to be with the girl, he admits there’s nothing else ‘out there’ without her: it’s ‘a little colder, a little lonelier’ out there:

…at least here, together, even unhappily together, there was a semblance of warmth, there was a kind of light, there was a habitation of a sort.

That ‘habitation’ is just right in its unexpectedness, pointed up by the habitual use of tripling in ‘a semblance’, ‘a kind’, ‘of a sort’. But now I’m straying into cod psychology, and had better stop. Without giving too much away, I’d warn that things don’t turn out too well in the end. From what I’ve shown so far this should come as no surprise.

Why are intelligent men like this drawn to equally damaged, wilfully destructive women? Why are such women attracted by emotionally evasive men like him? Like all the best literature, this novel doesn’t try to answer such questions — but it asks them in fascinating, beautifully written ways.




Umbrella words and Buridan’s Ass: a bibliomantic foray

I began drafting a piece the other day on Alfred Hayes’ excellent novel My Face for the World to See, but my wife has taken my copy away with her on a working trip, so I can’t continue with it. Instead I’ve done one of my occasional bibliomantic forays into old notebooks.

Back in August 2012 I was reading Will Self’s neo-modernist Umbrella. I enjoyed it immensely; its sequel published last year, Shark, has been sitting on my TBR shelf (which doesn’t actually exist, it’s just randomly shelved with books read and unread) looking accusingly at me whenever I catch sight of it.

It’s so long since I read Umbrella, however, that I feel ill-equipped to review it here: I’d need to re-read it, and don’t have time to do so. I’ve already got the recently-purchased Patrick Modiano ‘Occupation’ trilogy lined up for my next read. Instead here’s what I was noting about the novel in my notebook back then: samples of Mr Self’s notoriously arcane vocabulary that I had to look up. Many of them reflect the novel’s location in what was then, early in the twentieth century, called a lunatic asylum, and its central theme of the treatment of people with mental health problems.


KYPHOTIC The OED online prefers the spelling cyphosis-cyphotic. It signifies the medical condition in which spinal curving causes the sufferer to bend over severely. It derives from the Greek for ‘hunchbacked’. First recorded 1847.

TACHYPNOEA The first element of the word derives from the Greek for ‘rapid’, the last from ‘to breathe’; it means unusually rapid respiration. From 1898.

VERBIGERATE To repeat the same words or phrases obsessively, often as a symptom of mental disease. First recorded in Blount’s Glossographia (1656) meaning ‘to speak, to talk, to noise abroad’; its clinical sense was first recorded in D. Hack Tuke (splendid name), A Dictionary of Psychological Medicine (1892). In my notebook I see I’d written this as ‘vergiberate’ – a slip of the pen (or eye – if the eye can legitimately be said to slip) that was perhaps a result of an unconscious association of the word with ‘gibber’.

[I’ll omit here opisthotonos and hypotonic]

APHERISIS Its medical meaning is either ‘amputation’ or, as Self seems to use it, the removal of a quantity of blood, eg to extract specific useful or undesirable components before returning it to the donor (which sense originates from 1880). It derives from the Greek for ‘take’ or ‘snatch’ (from which ‘heresy’ also, oddly, derives). In linguistics it means the loss of an unstressed syllable at the start of a word, as in ‘round’ for ‘around’. It was first glossed as such in 1550 with the Latin equivalent term ‘ablatio’. The introduction of an additional first syllable is called ‘prosthesis’ (hence prosthetic limbs). Omitting the final syllable(s) of a word is ‘apocope’.

BURGOO was a thick gruel or porridge served to soldiers in WWI; sailors called it ‘loblolly’ (first recorded 1750) – Capt. Marryat referred to it in Peter Simple (1834). It derives from Arabic ‘burgul’ which in turn was ‘bulgur’ in Turkish, hence bulgur wheat.

I initially searched for this word in my Encarta dictionary. It wasn’t there, but I found this lovely entry instead:

BURIDAN’S ASS: a situation used to demonstrate the impracticality of making choices

Buridan's ass

Political cartoon c.1900 depicting the US Congress in terms of this paradox, with the 2 piles of hay version, hesitating between a Panama route and a Nicaragua route for an Atlantic-Pacific canal – via Wikipedia

according to a formal system of reasoning (after Jean Buridan, 1300-1358, a French philosopher). Wikipedia defines it as an illustration of a paradox in the conception of free will:

 It refers to a hypothetical situation wherein an ass that is equally hungry and thirsty is placed precisely midway between a stack of hay and a pail of water [or in some versions two piles of hay]. Since the paradox assumes the ass will always go to whichever is closer, it will die of both hunger and thirst since it cannot make any rational decision to choose one over the other.

 There are plenty more Selfian terms, including: ‘hebephrenic’, ‘anhedonia’ (lack of pleasure) and this one, which I thought I knew but didn’t –

CRAPULENT The adj. from ‘crapulence’: sickness or indisposition arising from excessive drinking or eating. It’s found in Nathan Bailey’s dictionary of 1727, and Dr Johnson’s of 1755. In Greek the word signified a drunken nauseous headache; the Romans adopted it (‘crapula’, a word first used in English c. 1687) to mean ‘excessive drinking’ as well as ‘intoxication’.

And that’s probably enough verbigeration for one post. Keep hitting the dictionary, Mr Self.






Alfred Hayes, Salinger and Bananafish

Work has been all-consuming so far this term, so although I’ve found time to do some reading – most recently and notably Alfred Hayes’ taut, harsh little novel of 1958, My Face for the World to See, published in their usual handsome covers by those splendid folk at NYRB (I can’t write about it here because I impulsively lent it to someone, and would want to quote from Hayes’ style: he can write). I’ve just started Kate Atkinson’s sequel to Life After Life (2013), A God in Ruins, but doubt I’ll write about it here as I didn’t much care for the first one, interesting as it was in parts; I found it what I think film buffs call too ‘high concept’ in structure and content. Why read it? It was lent to me, so would be churlish not to. The sequel is more of the same thing, if the first 70 pages that I’ve read are anything to go by. Entertaining enough, though.

I just listened to the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘A Good Read’ – which I included in Pt 3 of my list of recommended podcast-programmes back in the summer and enjoyed the discussion by Julia Blackburn, whose choice this book was (good taste), and David Morrissey, of JD Salinger’s short story collection For Esmé — With Love and Squalor. (Link to the programme HERE.) I posted about this book in the early days of my blog, so thought it wouldn’t be amiss if I recycled part of it here now, in the hope that, if you missed it first time round, you might feel inspired to give this early Salinger a try. It’s sublime. Here’s an extract:

Most of the stories in this collection concern war and its effects on individuals, and the traumatised memories of post-war Americans.  Even when its presence isn’t directly felt, the war has created in the characters in the stories a damaged, questing quality; as we saw in Franny and Zooey, most of them seek solace in oriental mysticism.

Some (usually children) find enlightenment; others are thwarted.  The opening epigraph to the book is the famous Zen koan – what is the sound of one hand clapping?  This serves as the theme of the collection: how to transcend or deal with mundane reality when in contact with the dulling, deadening effect of what Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye and members of the Glass family in other stories call ‘phoniness’.

The opening story, ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’ sets the tone with the story of Seymour Glass’s suicide in 1948 while on holiday at a Florida beach hotel with his shallow bourgeoise wife Muriel.  In the opening section there’s Salinger’s usual technique on show: Muriel chats distractedly on the phone with her mother – there’s minimal authorial intrusion or commentary.  This is typical of Salinger’s fiction: characters talking.  In this way he shows us their foibles, weaknesses and strengths without having to tell us what’s going on.

In the story’s second section we see Seymour, about whose mental health Muriel’s mother had been expressing (not very sympathetically) concern to her daughter, chatting on the beach with a small girl called Sybil.  Unlike the women’s selfish talk, Seymour shows himself as sensitive and charmed by Sybil’s innocent prattle.  He teases her gently about the fictitious titular fish, telling her they eat so much they get too bloated to escape from the holes they enter on the seabed, causing their own deaths.  The shocking denouement echoes this jolly, innocent narrative, told to amuse and entertain the girl, in a chilling, existentially tortured way.

The whole post can be read by clicking HERE, and there are links there to the other Salinger titles I’ve posted about. Do read him if you haven’t already.


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.