Asides: Bristol Templars

Mrs TD and I went to Bristol on Saturday to help family celebrate our granddaughter’s ninth birthday. She likes unicorns and Littlest Petshop.

Bristol Temple churchWe discovered across the road from our city centre hotel a lovely green space called Temple Gardens – I wondered why it had that name. At the far end was a ruined church – bare ruined choirs. Walls and ends more or less intact, in what looks like Perpendicular style, but roof gone.

According to the plaque outside, this church was built in the 15C on the site of a round church built by the Knights Templar in the 12C, taken over by the Knights Hospitaller in the early 14C. So that accounts for the name of the gardens – and existing church ruin.

Ruins of circular churchWhen I peered through the locked iron gate that barred entry to the building, I could see the stone foundations of the pillars that would originally have supported the original circular nave, right in the centre of the later medieval one.

The Luftwaffe had destroyed the church during the Bristol blitz of 1940 (which also took out much of the city centre, now replaced by 1960s brutalism and subsequent temples to consumerism). When the rubble of the church was being cleared these ancient circular foundations were revealed – a happy outcome for what seemed a disaster. Wikipedia has a different story, saying it was excavated in 1960.

Temple gardens

View from outside the church towards the hotel. Shame about the litter bin

The later church has at its west end a leaning tower, apparently built out of true perpendicular from the outset – probably because of subsidence in the clay on which it was built.

The gardens are serene and lovely, right in the bustling city centre.

I’d been an undergraduate in Bristol many years ago, and never knew this place existed. I said as much to Mrs TD; two ladies nearby turned to me, and one of them said she’d lived in Bristol 20 years and didn’t know it was here!

Temple gardensMaybe more on this trip next time.

Temple church

19C archway and the west tower, seen from the main road outside the gardens. Garbled mix of more modern architecture jostles garishly beside it, incongruously mundane

Readings: The touch of truth

In an essay first published in 1864 Matthew Arnold responds to those who’d objected to a ‘proposition’ he’d put forth about the importance of criticism at that time, and its function to enable us ‘to see the object as in itself it really is.’ His detractors asserted the ‘inherent superiority of the creative effort of the human spirit over its critical effort.’ He concedes:

Everybody would admit that a false or malicious criticism had better never have been written. Everybody, too, would be willing to admit, as a general proposition, that the critical faculty is lower than the inventive. But is it true that criticism is really, in itself, a baneful and injurious employment; is it true that all time given to writing critiques on the works of others would be much better employed if it were given to original composition, of whatever kind this may be?

Perhaps ‘the critical power’ is ‘of lower rank’ than the creative, he goes on, but although it is ‘undeniable’ that ‘a free creative activity’ is ‘the highest function of man, the source of our ‘happiness’; but it is also undeniable

that men may have the sense of exercising this free creative activity in other ways than in producing great works of literature or art; if it were not so, all but a very few men would be shut out from the true happiness of all men. They may have it in well-doing, they may have it in learning, they may have it even in criticising.

Besides, it is not always possible, he suggests, for creative activity to take place if the ‘elements’ and ‘materials’ necessary aren’t present. Those elements consist of ‘the best ideas…current at the time.’ The ‘creative power has, for its happy exercise, appointed elements, and those elements are not in its own control’:

Nay, they are more within the control of the critical power…Thus it tends, at last, to make an intellectual situation of which the creative power can profitably avail itself. It tends to establish an order of ideas, if not absolutely true, yet true by comparison with that which it displaces; to make the best ideas prevail. Presently these new ideas reach society, the touch of truth is the touch of life, and there is a stir and growth everywhere; out of this stir and growth come the creative epochs of literature.

A stirring defence of criticism – that branch or area of literary endeavour which most of us who blog about books (mostly, in my case, at least) are humbly and earnestly – and honestly –  engaged in, searching to find ‘the touch of truth’.

The quotations are taken from my copy of Matthew Arnold: Culture and Anarchy and other writings. Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought, ed. Stefan Collini (CUP, 1995). My quotations from ‘The Function of Criticism at the Present Time’ are at pp. 26-29.

 

 

 

 

John Locke on reading

Readings: John Locke (1632-1704), ‘Reading’

Those who have read of everything are thought to understand everything too; but it is not always so. Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking makes what we read ours. We are of the ruminating kind, and it is not enough to cram ourselves with a great load of collections; unless we chew them over again, they will not give us strength and nourishment…The memory may be stored, but the judgement is little better, and the stock of knowledge not increased, by being able to repeat what others have said or produce the arguments we have found in them. Such a knowledge as this is but knowledge by hearsay, and the ostentation of it is at best but talking by rote, and very often upon weak and wrong principles.

From Of the Conduct of Understanding, in William Peacock, ed., English Prose, vol. 2 (OWP, 1949; 1st edn 1921), pp. 183-84

Locke portrait

Kit-cat portrait of Locke by Godrey Kneller, in the National Portrait Gallery, London

Salutary thoughts.

I hope from time to time to introduce short ‘readings’ of this kind to supplement the usual reviews, Asides, etc. I hope it might prove of interest.

This particular example reminds us that simply cramming our heads with more and more, well, ‘words, words, words’, we aren’t necessarily making ourselves more knowledgeable, intelligent or judicious. If we don’t ‘ruminate’ on what we read, we simply risk becoming pedants and parrots.

Here’s to more rumination, and less parroting.

Portrait of Locke attribution: By Stephencdickson – Own work, Public Domain

I didn’t know what a ‘Kit-cat portrait’ was, so here’s the (edited) Wikipedia entry on it:

A kit-cat portrait or kit-kat portrait is a particular size of portrait, less than half-length, but including the hands. The name originates from a famous series of portraits which were commissioned from Godfrey Kneller for members of the Kit-Cat Club, a Whig dining club, to be hung in their meeting place at Barn Elms. They are now mostly in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London…Each canvas is thirty-six inches long, and twenty-eight wide. The special Kit-cat portrait size is said to have been determined because the dining-room ceiling of the Kit-cat Club was too low for half-length portraits of the members.

And this explains the name of the club (same source):

The first meetings were held at a tavern in Shire Lane (parallel with Bell Yard and now covered by the Royal Courts of Justice) run by an innkeeper called Christopher Catt. He gave his name to the mutton pies known as “Kit Cats” from which the name of the club is derived.

Fairly disastrous individuals: Javier Marías, Written Lives

Javier Marías, Written Lives. Penguin Modern Classics, 2016. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa. First published in Spain as Vidas escritas, 2000; US, New Directions, 2006

‘Writers are monsters’, said Hilary Mantel in her introduction to Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel (the VMC edition) – which I made the title of my post about that novel. Many of the 26 writers that Javier Marías includes in this idiosyncratic collection would readily fall into that category.

Mostly it’s best to read Written Lives as a collection of short stories – as the author hints we should in his characteristically witty Prologue to this PMC edition (and his regular translator, Margaret Jull Costa, deserves immense credit for her deft, elegant translation):

The idea, then, was to treat these well-known literary figures as if they were fictional characters, singling out interesting ‘snippets’ from their lives; this may well be how all writers, whether famous or obscure, would secretly like to be treated.

All of his subjects, he points out, were ‘fairly disastrous individuals’. His brief portraits – most are about five pages long – are a willed rejection, that is, of the usual solemn ‘hagiography’ usually found in full-length biographies, he suggests. He approaches his subjects with ‘a mixture of affection and humour.’

Marías Written Lives

Isak Dinesen subsisted on oysters and champagne, as this cover photo shows 

And that’s the key to reading this collection. Marías warns us of the ‘lack of seriousness’ in his texts. This is not intended to be an objective work of scholarship.

For example, that Henry James never forgave Flaubert for receiving the Master and Turgenev in his dressing gown – an outrage for which James never forgave him – is probably taken from Ford Madox Ford’s unreliable testimony, as Philip Hensher pointed out in his review of the 2006 edition of this book (see the end of this post).

Nothing in these sketches has been ‘invented’, Marías disingenuously claims in the Prologue, but it’s in ‘what is included and what omitted that the possible accuracy or inaccuracy of these pieces partly lies.’ And although nothing is ‘fictitious’, some ‘episodes and anecdotes’ have been ‘embellished’.

In case we miss the sly wink behind these words, he goes on to advise the ‘suspicous reader who wants to check some fact’ that he appends an impressively lengthy bibliography as a (surely ironic) attempt to provide an aura of academic authenticity to the portraits – that are transparently cobbled together from a range of such sources, but with more of an eye for entertaining anecdotes than for factual veracity. It’s really a work of fiction – and as such, hugely entertaining.

Largely because of the sly humour. To Malcolm Lowry Marías awards the dubious accolade of

the most calamitous writer in the whole history of literature, which is no mean feat, given the intense competition in the field.

Animals don’t fare too well. The paranoid drunk Lowry, we’re told, once took exception to a horse pulling a cart as he passed by because it gave what he took to be a ‘derisive snort’ – even the beasts were conspiring against him. His response was ‘to punch the horse so hard below the ear that the horse quivered and sank to its knees’ – the horse recovered, but Lowry suffered acute remorse for weeks afterwards.

As he did when, like Lennie in Of Mice and Men (is that where he got the story?), he inadvertently broke the neck of a pet rabbit that he was stroking on his lap, watched by the owner and owner’s mother. Like all the best comic writers, Marías is able to risk an outrageous step further after such a moment; he adds

For two days, he wandered the streets of London carrying the corpse, not knowing what to do with it and consumed by self-loathing, until…the waiter in a bar agreed to provide what promised to be a funeral as ordained by the God of all animals.

There are countless such moments of deliciously nasty insights into these…well, semi-fictitious portraits. Like Conrad, who ‘lived in a permanent state of extreme tension’; such was his uncontrollable ‘irritability’ that whenever he dropped his pen, instead of simply picking it up and carrying on writing,

he would spend several minutes exasperatedly drumming his fingers on the desk as if bemoaning what had occurred.

Conan Doyle, when he was about to become a practising doctor, once thrashed a bully who’d kicked a woman – he was an accomplished boxer, and prone to getting into brawls. The next day the man showed up at his surgery, his first patient. Fortunately he didn’t recognise his doctor.

This is what Marías says about Rilke:

It is not known what he liked, as regards food or other things, apart from the letter “y” – which he wrote whenever he could – as well, of course, as travelling and women.

This post is already becoming too long, but I must mention a trait of Marías’ inimitable style and approach that I’ve discussed in previous posts about his novels, and is also present to comic effect in Written Lives: his habit of judiciously, wryly moving from a detailed particular into a generalising aphorism of spurious portentousness: of Isak Dinesen he says that her philandering husband was the twin brother of the man she had loved from girlhood,

and bonds formed through a third party are perhaps the most difficult to break.

RL Stevenson was

undoubtedly chivalrous, but not excessively so, or rather, he was simply chivalrous enough, for every true gentleman has behaved like a scoundrel at least once in his life.

This volume includes a section of even briefer accounts of notable women (not all of them writers). Like Lowry, the quick-tempered Emily Bronte is said to have punched an animal that had caused her disgruntlement, with similarly dolorous effect (for the dog).

A final section gives Marías’ interpration of photo portraits of writers. These again are surely not intended to be read as serious, but are prompts for some good jokes – for example, he says that in his picture, Nietzsche wears an overcoat ‘that looks as if it had been lent to him by some much burlier relative.’

Philip Hensher’s review of the 2006 edition finds the book inaccurate, rather pointless and embarrassing; he’s also po-facedly critical of the wayward observations Marías offers in that final section, and offers this one of his own about the dustjacket photo of Marías in that edition; it’s just as good as those by the King of Redonda:

Given all of this, it is almost more than you could ask of a reviewer not to comment on the portrait of Marías himself on the dustjacket. Well, he has narrowed his eyes in a way which conventionally indicates sceptical intelligence; his hair could do with some attention (impossible genius); he is holding a burnt-down cigarette like a prop or a trophy, like a non-smoking actress in a revival of Hay Fever. He looks, slightly appallingly, like an author having his photograph taken.

 

Plymouth Pilgrim 2

Tamar bridge

View from my train as it crosses the Tamar bridge into Devon

On July 14, 2016 I wrote this post about my visit to Plymouth in memory of my oldest friend, Mike Flay, who’d died earlier that year. As I wrote then, we used to meet there often, usually ending up at the same couple of watering holes as we talked endlessly about books, football, family.

Yesterday I repeated the pilgrimage. So in a departure from my usual bookish posts, here’s a photographic record of my day there. A commemorative dérive…

I always relish the word ‘wharf’, which derives either from OE hwearf: bank, shore, or from Old Dutch. Typical of the English language, it can be spelt ‘wharfs’ or ‘wharves’ in the plural. Like hoofs. But not rooves.

Barbican

Barbican wharves and marina

We didn’t often wander to this old part of town, but I thought I’d approach our usual lunchtime haunt from the Barbican.

My first stop was the old bookshop by the marina. Over three floors are spread thousands of second-hand books. The fiction section seemed to follow a loose sort of plan – orange Penguins, green ones, hardbacks – but there was little discernible use of alphabetical order.


Bookshop

I resisted the temptation to buy anything.

The Scots proprietor told me he had far more stock in his warehouse.

 

 

Barbican sculpture

This strange creature stands on the Barbican marina

Barbican

Barbican marina

Cannon

This 19C cannon probably saw action in a warship in the Crimean campaign

This is one of two cannon that loom over the bay from the hilltop by the Hoe. Plymouth is still very much a maritime town.

 

 

Plymouth sound

Plymouth sound

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lido

Art deco Tinside Lido, recently restored. That’s sea water in it

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jail ale

This is the terrace of the Waterfront bar where Mike and I usually had lunch. He always had a burger.

It was warm enough yesterday to sit outside. Pigeons and gulls tried to persuade diners to part with some food.

That’s not St Austell brewery Tribute in the glass: it’s a Dartmoor brew called, appropriately, Jail Ale. Not bad at all.

 

Right on cue, as last year, the Brittany Ferries ship Armorique steamed by, just a few metres from the terrace.

Ferry

Armorique ferry passing the Waterfront bar

 

 

 

 

 

 

As I headed back towards the town centre I passed this game of bowls in progress. Not exactly Francis Drake…

Bowls

Bowls

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dragonfly

Dragonfly sculpture in a rather murky pond by the town centre

Colonial hotel

Colonial hotel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I made one final stop, before taking the train back to Cornwall, in the place Mike always called the Colonial Hotel – not its real name. It’s a bleak sort of place, but strangely conducive to conversation, we always found – perhaps because there’s nothing much else to engage the attention.

Rather a sad trip home, but the day was good.

 

An ebon stick: Max Beerbohm, Zuleika Dobson

Max Beerbohm, Zuleika Dobson. Penguin Modern Classics paperback, 1961 (before they started the grey covers; this one has a cover design by George Him). First published 1911

Beerbohm (1872-1956) wrote in a preliminary Note to this edition, with characteristically arch indignation, that responses to the novel on first publication wrongly took it to be:

intended as a satire on such things as the herd instinct, as feminine coquetry, as snobbishness, even as legerdemain; whereas I myself had supposed it was just a fantasy; and as such, I think, it should be regarded by others.

It’s never safe to trust such authorial protestations, especially from ‘the incomparable Max’ (as Shaw called him; ‘Compare me, compare me’, Max responded – one of his better witticisms). And he goes on to say that all fantasy should ‘have a solid basis in reality’. Zuleika Dobson portrays Edwardian Oxford University life with what I take to be an accurate eye (Beerbohm was at Merton, but never completed his degree: he’s not a great completer, which is maybe why he never produced the great full-length literary work his contemporaries expected and longed for from him).

Zuleika DobsonAlthough published in 1911, this novel was several years in the writing, and reflects Max’s early period obsessions: the Aesthetic Movement – he wrote for the Yellow Book, working with the likes of Wilde and Beardsley. – and the Classics; the novel is full of portentous quotations from and allusions to Greek and Latin literature and myth. This gives it part of the ostentatious, pompous tone that I found, frankly, repellent (and I won’t get started on the mass suicide plot). A recurring choral note referring to the ‘grim busts of the Roman Emperors’ staring down on the drama unfolding below them is another jarring note for me.

Here’s an example of that florid, overwritten ‘poetic’ style, which starts on page 1, and carries on relentlessly throughout; this is from the second paragraph of the novel. The scene is Oxford railway station, where the train bearing the eponymous heroine is just arriving:

At the door of the first-class waiting-room, aloof and venerable, stood the Warden of Judas [ie Merton]. An ebon pillar of tradition seemed he, in his garb of old-fashioned cleric.

I’ll stop there; the prose is so purple I can only take it in small doses. Max, in this narrative dandy persona, adores inverted syntactical structures, preferring to use fronted adverbials, delayed verbs, and miniature inversions embedded in these larger ones (‘stood he’; why not ‘he stood’?!).

Then there’s the overwrought vocabulary, that arcane, aureate diction; Max is striving too hard for comic-poetic exuberance: ‘an ebon pillar’. OK, it’s meant to be funny. It isn’t. ‘Garb’ isn’t funnier or cleverer than the plainer alternative.

The paragraph goes on in similar inflated style:

Aloft, between the wide brim of his silk hat and the white extent of his shirt-front, appeared those eyes which hawks, that nose which eagles, had often envied.

This is the tortuous, self-consciously rhetorical style suitable for a Roman orator, not a comic novel – that it was published in 1911 doesn’t excuse it. This is the style that was to influence early Evelyn Waugh, probably Wodehouse, maybe others (early Huxley, perhaps). So he has a lot to answer for. At least they saw the light and went on to better things (perhaps not PGW, who found his niche and stuck in it, sensibly).

The description goes on:

He supported his years on an ebon stick. He alone was worthy of the background.

Ah, that’s why he’s an ‘ebon pillar’. Still not funny. But that last sentence is good – and funny. But even then it manages to turn the scene into a painting. It’s intended to be ironic, this juxtaposition of the foppish ‘aesthetic’ with the mundane reality of an old man on a station platform, meeting his granddaughter. I don’t see the point.

And that’s Max. Ninety per cent overblown, aesthetic posturing, then a killer line in demotic, plain, brilliant English.

The next paragraph carries on in the same style:

Came a whistle from the distance.

What’s wrong with S-V-O?

Then comes the first of dozens of uses of the poetic-archaic ‘ere’ (not ‘before’), sometimes preceded by dud effulgences like ‘insomuch that’. Paragraph four includes ‘cynosure’ (well, here it is appropriate), and ‘Him espying, the nymph darted in his direction’. That is, Zuleika walks towards her grandfather.

Robert McCrum placed this novel at no. 40 in his list of 100 Best Novels in the Guardian in 2014. He gives a summary of the plot there, saying that it is

a brilliant Edwardian satire on Oxford life by one of English literature’s most glittering wits that now reads as something much darker and more compelling. Readers new to Max Beerbohm’s masterpiece, which is subtitled An Oxford Love Story, will find a diaphanous novel possessed of a delayed explosive charge that detonates today with surprising power.

Yes, Max writes what reviewers tend to call ‘lapidary’ prose, but as I hope my brief examination demonstrates, it’s not to my taste, over embellished. I read in another review, I forget where, that readers tend to either love or hate Max’s work. I’m in the latter group.

Oh, yes, and he’s beastly about the Americans.

One very funny passage, just to redress the balance. This Edwardian Kardashian, Zuleika, is passing the Front Quadrangle of the college, where there are some chained-up dogs:

Zuleika, of course, did not care for dogs. One has never known a good man to whom dogs were not dear; but many of the best women have no such fondness. You will find that the woman who is really kind to dogs is always one who has failed to inspire sympathy in men. For the attractive woman, dogs are mere dumb and restless brutes – possibly dangerous, certainly soulless.

She stoops down to pet this unfortunate dog as an act of coquetry, not genuine affection, to awaken envy in her male companion:

Alas, her pretty act was a failure. The bulldog cowered away from her, horrifically grimacing. This was strange. Like the majority of his breed, Corker…had been wistful to be noticed by anyone…No beggar, burglar, had ever been rebuffed by this catholic beast. But he drew the line at Zuleika.

See what Max can do when he stops the posturing? This is genuinely funny, and the first part of my quotation has an aphoristic quality worthy of Oscar. But he still can’t resist calling the dog a ‘catholic beast’; old habits die hard. That’s the kind of 18C grandiloquence that Wordsworth (at least in his younger days) tried to reform, a century before Max.

As I was in Portugal when reading this, and it was the last book I had with me, I was stuck with it. Mass suicide played for laughs, written mostly (there are a few worthy exceptions, as I’ve indicated) in a style that makes Pater look like Hemingway – no. Fortunately, there were Chekhov’s stories on my Kindle.

Let’s end with a few more pictures of the Fuzeta scenery of E. Algarve. At least it’s natural – which is impossible to say of Zuleika Dobson.

Fish market at Olhão

Fish market at Olhão

I didn’t choose my holiday reading at all successfully.

Apologies for another negative post.

 

 

 

 

Armona island

Armona island

Fuzeta lagoon, sunset

Fuzeta lagoon, sunset

Rapture and cowardice: Damon Galgut, Arctic Summer

Damon Galgut, Arctic Summer. Atlantic Books paperback, 2015; first published, 2014. 352 pp.

 South African writer Damon Galgut uses this title for several reasons: first, it’s the title of a novel that E.M. Forster – of whom this is a novelised biography – started in 1911, tinkered with for the next years, but left unfinished. He said this about it:

‘I had got my antithesis all right, the antithesis between the civilized man, who hopes for an Arctic Summer, and the heroic man who rides into the sea. But I had not settled what was going to happen, and that is why the novel remains a fragment. The novelist should I think always settle when he starts what is going to happen, what his major event is to be.’ (From Nicola Beauman’s biography, Morgan, pp. 248-49)

What does he mean by that? Well, I think it’s to do with a long, empty, bright space of time in which things could but maybe don’t get done.

So that’s perhaps the second reason for the title of Galgut’s novel: it deals mostly with the writer’s block Forster experienced between about this time, around 1912, when he embarked on his first passage to India, and 1924, when he finally published his ‘Indian novel’ – A Passage to India [APTI]; it had taken him some eleven years. It was only towards the end of that period that he was able to pick up the MS and finish it – largely, according to Galgut’s version, at the instigation of his Indian friend, Masood, to whom A Passage to India was dedicated, and of Leonard Woolf.

Galgut Arctic SummerThe other possible significance is in the emotional blankness of Forster’s life for much of this period. Galgut’s Arctic Summer deals in meticulous detail (sometimes I felt a little too much detail) with the conflicting impulses he was feeling sexually and emotionally. He longed to lose his virginity, but felt ashamed of his lustful thoughts and impulses; he also longed for intimacy, romance – love.

Galgut excels in his depiction of the ‘hateful self-righteousness’ and hypocrisy of the English middle classes; as early as page 3 Morgan (Forster was always known by his middle name) is fuming (silently) at the behaviour of his fellow passengers on board the ship that was taking them in 1912 to India – their intolerance of anyone who didn’t conform to their narrow, smug circle’s mores, which he likens to the suburban snobberies of Tunbridge Wells:

But it was the casual vilenesses, flung out in airy asides at the dining table, that upset him most…On one occasion a matronly woman, who had been a nurse in the Bhopal Purdahs, had lectured him between courses on how deplorable Mohammedan home life was. And if English children stopped in India, they learned to speak like half-castes, which was such a stigma. “And this young Indian man who’s on board,” she added in a low voice. “Well, he’s a Mohammedan, isn’t he? He has been to public school in England, but has it improved him? He thinks he’s one of us, but of course he never will be.”

Anyone familiar with APTI will have fun recognising these references from the Indian novel – that malicious racism, laced with complacency, homophobia and suspicion.

It was only 17 years before this voyage that Oscar Wilde had been imprisoned for homosexual activity, and much of this narrative deals with the ways in which gay men at that time had to act with extreme caution. Morgan is shocked when a fellow passenger, a young English officer named Searight, talks openly about his sexual conquests, mostly of boys or young men, in India, and shows him the long, explicit epic poem he’d written about them:

To have spoken in that way to a near-stranger, to have exposed oneself so recklessly! It hadn’t been a confession – there was no shame behind it.

Shame is something with which Morgan is intimately acquainted, and his ambivalence about his sexual inclinations conflicts with his sense of decorum and…well, constrained Englishness:

…he was not nearly so afraid of the State as he was of his mother. He could not refer to his condition, even in his own mind, with too direct a term: he spoke of it obliquely, as being in a minority. He himself was a solitary. At Cambridge, among his own circle, the question was discussed, though from an angle, and safely abstracted. One could be forgiven for believing it was a matter of talking, not doing. As long as it remained in the realm of words, no crime had been committed. But even words could be dangerous.

‘English attitudes felt foreign to him’, he feels when he hears exponents of Empire and colonialism holding forth, jingoistically.

This ambivalence, a sort of splitting of the self into a public and a private persona, is a central theme of the novel. Morgan observes Searight, for example, and sees ‘his life was broken in two: the ‘vigorous and masculine’, back-slapping hearty, ‘popular and well respected’; ‘that was one half of him – but of course there was another secret side, which Morgan had already seen.’

Later, when he’s serving with the Red Cross in Cavafy’s Alexandria during World War I, he sees a similar duality in men: ‘Night selves and day selves’: an Egyptian acquaintance who takes him to a hashish den does so as ‘a private gentleman in the evening’, but then as ‘a member of the administration by day’ he reports the proprietor to the authorities and he is deported, the ‘haunt of vice’ closed down.

Morgan spends much of the novel struggling to bridge such gaps, and to find true connection across gulfs of class, race and sexual orientation, embodied most brutally in bigoted outposts of Empire like India and Egypt.

He almost succeeds with the two loves of his life: the Indian Masood, and the young Egyptian tram conductor, Mohammed. He’s doomed, however, to fall for men who don’t fully reciprocate his feelings.

There are frequent references in such relationships to ‘the distance’ between them being ‘closed’, but usually it’s never completely realised, and Morgan spends (rather too much time) frustrated at his inability to find requited love, satisfy his sexual urges, and quell the feelings of shame and guilt:

To touch, to hold. To be touched. The yearning was so strong sometimes that it hurt. The more so because it could not be spoken. Not even – not really – to Hom.

(Hom is a Cambridge friend with whom he experienced his first kiss and intimacy – but not sex. As Hom says, they can flirt with ‘the unspeakable vice of the Greeks’, but had stopped short of anything ‘carnal’ or, at that time, illegal.)

It’s a well-wrought novel, but the long sections in India and Egypt I found became repetitive and turgid, though there are some fine passages of description of place: palaces and cities, rivers and forest, and there are some colour characters and lively incident. There’s not enough humour, though, which is a shame, because Galgut shows he can be very funny (as could Forster). Here are my favourite such moments.

The first is when, shortly after that homoerotic romp, his friend Hom ‘casually’ tells Morgan he had become engaged. “To a woman?” Morgan asked stupidly.

On his first visit to India Morgan watches a Miracle Play performed by a Maharajah’s acting troupe, portraying scenes from the life of Krishna. Another friend with whom he’s travelling, Goldie (Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, a Cambridge don whose biography Forster would later write), is unimpressed:

“You see,” he told Morgan. “It’s as I said. Everything comes down to religion, and it’s dull, dull, dull.”

“Religion is perhaps not the only element at work here.”

“What do you mean? Oh, yes, I see…but even that part of it is dull. A mixture of rapture and cowardice. No action, but all that quivering!

This comic scene has a sharp edge: this is Morgan’s central dilemma in the novel; like the poor cat i’ the adage in Macbeth, he spends much of his life aching to act upon his impulses and live life fully (as DH Lawrence imperiously urges him to, in another fine comic scene), but ‘he didn’t dare’, and lacked the confidence to do so. And when he does finally screw up the courage to make a sexual advance, he’s usually humiliated and rejected. Hom, Masood and Mohammed all married (that ignoble, ‘silly business’, as the hypocritical Hom bitterly calls it after some years of it) and settled into marital conformity, leaving him feeling bereft, solitary, marginalised. His life is largely one of emotional torment.

His life, and his writing by the end of this period of his life, is largely ‘sterile’, he’s a Prufrockian figure; near the end he overhears two women who recognise the now famous novelist in a teashop in London discussing him: ‘”His trousers are a few inches too short,”’ says one of them (‘I shall wear the bottom of my trousers rolled’). She goes on: ‘”He is a timid soul. They say he hasn’t really lived at all, except in his mind.”’

At this point he catches sight of his reflection in a mirror:

The angle of the light wiped out the surrounding room, so that he seemed to be standing alone in the middle of an immense whiteness. A snowy, frozen landscape, on which the sun was nevertheless pouring down. Arctic summer: nothing moving, nothing alive, and yet the sky was open.

He contemplates several cutting ripostes, but ends, with a characteristically ‘small’ voice:

“I have loved,” he told them. “That is, I mean to say, lived. In my own way.”

The most interesting aspect of this novel is when he finds the answer to the mystery at the heart of the plot of his Indian novel, just when despair of doing so had almost crushed him:

The moment he thought it he knew that the lack of an answer was, in fact, the answer. He had circled the question for nine years, while all along the solution was almost underfoot…Dry, earnest Adela [Quested, in APTI]. All this time, she’d been in love, longing to be touched, and her longing had transmuted into violence. Imaginary or real or ghostly: let it remain mysterious. He wouldn’t explain what had happened, because he didn’t know what had happened. As a writer, he’d felt he had to provide answers, but India had reminded him that no answer would suffice.

Like Flaubert’s Mme Bovary, Adela is Morgan in his ‘driest, most sticklike’ persona.

Let me finish what has turned out, I’m afraid, to be a rather long post, with a couple more pictures of Portugal, where I read Arctic Summer. After five days Mrs TD and I caught the train down to the Algarve, and stayed ten days near Tavira, by the Ria Formosa national park, a haven for wildlife, especially birds – including flamingos.

Fuseta

The disused lifeboat station at Fuzeta, opposite our apartment, in the lagoon at low tide.

Flamingos

They were a bit far away, but those are flamingos, feeding and honking on the salt pans near Fuzeta

 

 

 

 

 

 

A picaresque Basque: Pío Baroja, The Restlessness of Shanti Andía

Back from my summer break in Portugal – that’s why there have been no posts for a few weeks.

The books I took with me turned out not to be a judicious choice. I’ll post about them anyway; although they weren’t to my taste, they have merits worth sharing.

Last spring when I visited Portugal for the first time – a short break in beautiful, shabby Lisbon – I read fiction with a Lusitanian connection: Pereira Maintains , by Antonio Tabucchi, and the pseudonymous Fernando Pessoa’s (the word in Portuguese just means ‘person’), The Book of Disquiet (I posted about both HERE; again, my response wasn’t entirely positive).

 

The Restlessness of Shanti Andía cover

The cover of my 1962 Signet Classics paperback, bought years ago

First: The Restlessness of Shanti Andía by Pío Baroja. I struggled through the first hundred pages, skimmed some more, then, I’m sorry to say, gave up on it.

Baroja had first interested me because he was born in San Sebastián (aka Donostia) in the Basque province of Guipuzkoa – I taught English there for a year some decades ago, and was interested to see what one of its most famous literary figures had written (one of the others is the philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, 1864-1936, born in Bilbao, just along the coast from Donostia).

Between 1900 and his death aged 83 in 1956 Baroja published nearly 100 novels, and numerous volumes of autobiography, essays and other writings. This prolific output perhaps accounts for the looseness in structure and general aimlessness of Shanti Andía. Balzac was also sometimes prolix (but also capable of great characterisation, a quality I found missing in this novel).

First published in 1911, it’s a sort of picaresque fictional memoir of a dashing Basque seafarer – it formed part of a loose trilogy called ‘El Mar’, the Sea. Its title in Spanish, Las inquietudes de SA is difficult to translate; ‘restlessness’ suggests a sort of pique; ‘inquietud’ connotes unease, worry; restless as in desire to be on the move, a rejection of tranquillity. That’s Shanti: he can’t bear mundane life ashore, and longs for action, to see the world.

There’s no plot to speak of, then, just a sequence of episodes reflecting those ‘inquietudes’. The first section of the novel recounts the developmental experiences Shanti had as a boy and young man growing up in the Basque fishing village of Lúzaro, such as ‘borrowing’ a boat to explore caves said to be haunted, or trying to board a wrecked ship (an exploit that ends in near disaster). In this sense the novel reminded me of Stevenson’s yarns like Treasure Island (published 1883; indeed, RLS died in 1894, when Baroja was only 23, so he could have read him, though I have no idea if he did; RLS is a much more accomplished writer).

There’s a unifying principle, however, to the narrative: Shanti hero-worships his uncle Juan de Aquirre, who, like his father, was a sailor. The family is told the uncle has died, but Shanti in adult life discovers this is untrue; gradually the old mariner’s exploits are revealed (partly via a ‘found MS’ device beloved of gothic romance) – many of them unedifying, such as his stint serving on a slave ship. I admit I’d stopped reading attentively by then, so can’t say for sure if Baroja shows any sense of immorality in such activities.

Porto tram

My picture from inside the tram to Foz from Porto

Maybe reading this salty yarn in the urban environment of Porto was a mistake. The Atlantic is only a short ride away by charming antique tram from the picturesque city centre, but the riparian environment of the city didn’t harmonise with this book.

Porto, of course, is noted for its port wine, and I loved visiting producers’ vaults and seeing the replica rabelos – the flat-bottomed boats (with curved prows like an Arabian slipper) that plied the dangerous waters of the Douro, bringing the produce of the vineyards far upstream down to the city to be vatted and bottled by the likes of Taylor, Sandeman and Cálem.

Regua

Old photo of rabelos displayed on the wall of a port producer in the upstream Douro town of Regua

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But — back to Baroja.

During Shanti’s apprenticeship to a Cádiz sea captain and his first voyages on the Philippines run, he becomes romantically (and disastrously) involved with their employer’s imperious daughter. Even more clichéd adventures and entanglements follow, with similarly implausible coincidences and complications that could have come straight out of medieval romance.

Shanti Andia title page

Title page of the Signet edition

I don’t think it was the fault of the translators, whose prose reads fairly lucidly, for the most part. It’s the boy’s-own content that I couldn’t get on with.

Maybe I should go back to Bernardo Atxaga.

 

 

 

Taylor's port caves

Inside the Taylor’s port wine caves