#TBR20: dealing with the To Be Read backlog

In yesterday’s post on The Nun I mentioned bloggers who write and read with such amazing rapidity yet maintain high qualities of output. I’d like here to spend a bit more time on this.

Max first put me on to the Twitter and blogger phenomenon of #TBR20. Essentially it was a project whereby one undertook to choose 20 books (or some other total) from the to be read pile and work through them within a set time, while refraining from buying any new books (link to his piece below). I’ll start with the blogger who instigated this scheme, though:

Eva Stalker in a post from Nov. 2014: TBR20 project proposed HERE

Link HERE to her conclusions when finished (and plan for future similar ventures)

Among those whose blogs I follow (and who post with admirable frequency and read voraciously) and who took up the challenge:

JacquiWine’s Journal 15 May reflections on finishing:

I need to carry on with the spirit of #TBR20, of valuing the books I already own rather than allowing myself to be distracted by the next craving. I’m not sure if I can go another four months without buying ANY new books; it might be a little too soon after the first round.

Jacqui provides links to those who inspired or joined in the project subsequently, including

Emma (BooksAroundTheCorner): her views HERE

Max (mentioned above): link HERE with further links on that piece to related posts.

I’m reluctant to join in formally. I understand Max’s explanation that TBR20 can provide the impetus, focus and discipline to get stuck in to the backlog, and stop finding distractions or excuses – or other books that come to hand; but he does also point out that there’s no point going for it if it becomes itself a burden.

So I prefer to carry on picking out, from time to time, individual volumes that languish on my shelves (some have been there years, like The Nun), sitting patiently awaiting their moment in the sun. And I’ve just been sent another couple of novels for review, so need to prioritise reading them, and have John Harvey’s The Poetics of Sight looking at me reprovingly from my desk as I write this. I need to review it.

I recently had new bookshelves installed, which meant emptying many of the old ones and then putting all the books back once the new shelves were in place. This enabled me to introduce a little system in their placement (though much of it was determined by size of book and depth of shelf), and I’ve isolated many of the TBR books. I’ll keep you posted on the progress I make.

First I need to choose between books which were published some time ago, those that I bought fresh from publication (de la Pava, Newman, etc.) – but there’s another category: those I’d like to reread (the TBRR pile?).

One final reason for dodging the formal TBR20 challenge: I like to choose my next book, often, on the basis of a contrast with the one just finished (something old like Diderot followed by something recent, for example; something modernist and challenging followed by something more conventional; fiction/non-fiction, and so on).

So, in the spirit of self-discipline I’ll shut down my laptop now, ignore the siren call of social media, book bloggers and email – and the constant stream of bullfinches and chaffinches visiting the window-mounted bird feeder by my window as I type – and get down to some serious reading.

 

It’s been quite liberating, writing this piece, and not the usual book review. Must do it more often. No revising, redrafting or polishing: just the thing itself.

 

 

‘Calumnies and persecutions’: Denis Diderot, ‘The Nun’

‘The cloistered life is that of a fanatic or a hypocrite.’

I’ve reached that happy time of year when my teaching commitments are almost over and I have some space in which to read and write. Having posted already this week on John Harvey’s social-cultural-philosophical study Clothes I felt inspired to join that doughty band of bloggers (like Kaggsysbookishramblings – her excellent blog is HERE) who post more prolifically than I can manage, yet are able to maintain admirably high standards of entertaining, well-written posts on their scarily voracious reading (where do they find the time?!) – don’t know if I can reach their level, but here goes with a second post this week.

thumb_IMG_2796_1024Denis Diderot’s (sort of) epistolary novel La Religieuse was first published in 1796, but started as early as 1760 (more on that later) which I read in the Penguin Classics version The Nun, translated by Leonard Tancock. I seem to recall buying it after reading Malcolm Bradbury’s final novel, To the Hermitage, published shortly before he died (too young at just 68) – a delightfully irreverent but highly intelligent response to the life and work of Diderot, and in particular of his sojourn at the St Petersburg court of tsarina Catherine II, who had invited him to curate her library and art works at what is now the Hermitage museum. There’s a review here from the online journal Études Anglaises. I enjoyed it when I read it over ten years ago. In the light of the TBR20 movement started by Eva Stalker I resolved finally to pick up The Nun and remove it from my pile of unread books (the TBR pile as it’s called on the Interweb).

The main difficulty was, I didn’t really enjoy the novel that much.

It began as a hoax. Diderot (1713-84) was the archetypal Enlightenment philosophe, a

First edition of Encyclopédie, 1751

First edition of Encyclopédie, 1751

scientific materialist and polymath humanist with strongly anti-Catholic views, which are apparent throughout this novel. He was most famous as the main editor of the Encyclopédie – a vast ‘dictionnaire raisonné’ of all human knowledge at the time, which began to appear in 1751.

 

One of his circle of Paris friends of eminent thinkers and writers was the Marquis de Croismare, who had recently retired from the capital to his country estate in Normandy. Diderot missed his affable company, so in order to lure him back to the city he made use of a scandalously notorious incident of 1758; a nun had petitioned the Marquis to intervene on her behalf in her attempt to revoke her religious vows and leave the convent (to which she’d been condemned against her will by her parents) for the outside world.

Diderot started writing to the Marquis a sequence of letters in the name of another such desperate nun, Suzanne Simonin. Adopting this fictitious persona he constructed a scenario in which she’d escaped from the miserable cruelty of her convent, to which she too had been condemned by her parents.

The plan went wrong. Instead of the desired outcome – the return of the Marquis to Paris to facilitate Suzanne’s liberation – he offered her asylum and a job on his country estate, and stayed put. Eventually Diderot had to send letters to the Marquis telling him ‘Suzanne’ had died. Later, over a period of years, he worked the original material into a full-length novel, but it wasn’t published in its final form until after his death in 1796, and of course after the Revolution which some of his works had contributed towards fermenting.

The Nun takes the form of a curious hybrid: letters addressed to the Marquis petitioning his support (paid employment and asylum), but also a sort of autobiography or memoir in which Suzanne describes her cruel banishment to cloistered incarceration by her heartless parents, followed by her experiences in the religious houses to which she was confined.

It’s not all gothic gloom; at first she is treated with loving kindness by a saintly Mother Superior. When she dies, it all goes horribly wrong. The new Superior is jealously tyrannical in her persecution of her predecessor’s former favourites. Convents are portrayed here as unholy hotbeds of hypocrisy, corruption and persecution, with an unhealthy atmosphere that generates madness, idolatry (or fear) of superiors, bullying, calumnies and febrile sexual depravity. Just look at the cover image above…

Suzanne takes her vows in a weird sort of fugue trance – a characteristically unconvincing scene. Her later attempts to renounce the veil are met with cruel vengefulness: she’s systematically exposed to mental and physical torture, solitary confinement and ostracism. She often contemplates suicide.

Unfortunately I found the prose indigestible. I’m sure the translator did a good job, but 18C French can be pretty stodgy. And the relentlessly victimised Suzanne has a voice that generally comes across as inconsistent and implausibly literary. Here she is on the opening page, explaining her purpose in writing:

…I have made up my mind to overcome my pride and reluctance and embark on these recollections in which I shall describe part of my misfortunes without talent or artifice, with the ingenuousness of a girl of my age and with my natural candour.

 

Like so many gothic narratives of swooning female victims in menacing cloistered environments (there’s a touch of Clarissa’s influence there, too, perhaps; Richardson’s novel was published in 1748), there’s an unsavoury prurience apparent. The narrator’s constant reminders of her youth, innocence and natural piety become tiresomely strident, and the mistreatment she endures with either stoical submissiveness or passive resistance becomes a catalogue of sado-masochism verging on torture porn that the underlying socio-political message fails to justify.

After one particularly vicious campaign against her, for example, Suzanne reveals her wounds to her superiors; she then melodramatically addresses her putative aristocratic reader –

I can hear you, Sir, and most of those who read these memoirs, saying: ‘So many horrors, so varied and so continuous! A series of such calculated atrocities in religious souls! It defies all probability!’

 

Quite so. And just who are we meant to understand constitute her readers? Not just the Marquis, then, but ‘memoir’ readers. It doesn’t add up.

I have a similar problem with the sexual aspects of Suzanne’s revelations. At one stage she’s accused of what is clearly signalled as masturbation and lesbianism, but her coyly euphemistic account overbalances into unintentional humour:

I was credited with intentions I dare not mention, and unnatural desires to which they attributed the obvious disarray of the young nun [who had just fled screaming from her]. Of course I am not a man, and I don’t know what can be imagined about one woman and another, still less about one woman alone, but as my bed had no curtains, and people came in and out of my room at all hours, what can I say, Sir? For all their circumspect behaviour, their modest eyes and the chastity of their talk, these women must be very corrupt at heart – anyway they know that you can commit indecent acts alone, which I don’t know, and so I have never quite understood what they accused me of…

 Really? You either know or you don’t. This is equivocation that begins to resemble the genre of a bawdy Carry On film.

Credibility is strained even more when her last Superior engages in a series of intimate

Portrait of Diderot by Greuze, 1767. Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Diderot by Greuze, 1767. Wikimedia Commons

Sapphic trysts with her that culminate in what is clearly orgasm – which again Suzanne claims she doesn’t understand (‘I jumped up, thinking she had fainted…’) She thinks her Superior was simply taken ill!

This novel has a certain amount of interest as a blast from the Age of Reason against clerical hypocrisy, but as a novel it fails to satisfy.

Next time – before too long, I hope – I intend to return to the topic of the TBR pile. This attempt wasn’t entirely rewarding.

 

 

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.