Human flotsam: Penelope Fitzgerald, Offshore

Penelope Fitzgerald, Offshore coverThe handsome hardback Everyman in my picture contains three of Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels: Offshore, Human Voices and The Beginning of Spring. It seemed a shrewd choice to take on my extended foreign travels recently, compacting as it does three books into one. I wasn’t disappointed.

Most of the other 20C writers I’ve posted about in the recent past – Pym, Comyns, Compton-Burnett, Elizabeth Taylor, Wharton – have a distinctly identifiable voice, style and zone of interest. Penelope Fitzgerald never writes the same novel twice (though they all feature mischievous, often dark humour and surprisingly bereft characters who are outcasts, eccentric, struggling with life’s vicissitudes, constrained, thwarted, adrift – and violence is usually imminent).

The first, Offshore, notoriously won the 1979 Booker Prize against stiff opposition. I don’t intend summarising the plot – two of my favourite bloggers, Max and Jacqui, have done a great job giving an overview and critical response – links at the end of this post.

Max is particularly astute about the two astonishingly precocious (but endearingly innocent) children of the central character, Nenna: Tilda (6) and Martha (11) – so there goes one part of the post I intended to write!

Both of them embody the quiet, confused desperation of this novel’s fragile cast of impractical characters, adrift metaphorically and sometimes literally on their leaky Thames-side barges, buffeted by the winds of the world. Most of them are lost, lonely, waiting for something tangible in their lives – which resemble the inexorable tides of the river they float precariously upon. As in the Elizabeth Taylor novel I discussed earlier this month, the E.M. Forster notion of how characters ‘connect’ – or fail to – is central. That one of the members of this marginal community of drifters is a male prostitute called Maurice is pertinent.

Nenna, a former musician, whose artistic career was curtailed by her husband’s fecklessness and by motherhood, is more of an outsider than the rest of the houseboat community at Battersea Reach, being a Canadian expat whose bourgeoise sister constantly urges her to come ‘home’ and acknowledge her life in England is a failure. Yet she loves her boat and life ‘on the very shores of London’s historic river’, refusing to comply with the world’s promptings.

This is a novel interested in character and mood – its rewards lie in the language and the precision and compassion with which Fitzgerald places her characters in juxtaposition, struggling to make sense of themselves and their direction. It’s also suffused with warmth and humour, overshadowed by the tragic, shocking events towards the end.

Fitzgerald is also prepared to risk lengthy descriptions; she vividly evokes the mutable, muddy essence of bankside life in the early 60s to show both its romantic, intoxicating appeal and its grittily Dickensian reality. Here’s a typical early example, where in four beautifully modulated paragraphs she describes this fluvial world’s most significant rhythm: the tide turning. Tilda is ‘up aloft’ the Grace’s mast, ‘fifteen foot of blackened pine, fitted into a tabernacle’ (great word):

Her mizzen mast was gone, her sprit was gone [I initially misread that as ‘spirit’!], the mainmast was never intended for climbing…[Tilda] was alone, looking down at the slanting angle of the decks as the cables gave or tightened, the passive shoreline, the secret water.

James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne, Blue and Gold: old Battersea Bridge, via Wikimedia Commons

This is photographic realism full of concrete details and salty, nautical terminology, conveyed with the precision of an imagist poet. But she also does what all good writers do: she makes us perceive the beauty in what might otherwise be dismissed as ugly, dirty, decrepit…familiar. There’s a long tradition behind such descriptions of the ‘sweet Thames’, one that passes from Spenser through to Turner, Whistler (who features in the narrative at one point) Conrad (one of the boats is called ‘Lord Jim’), more ironically and wistfully in Eliot and later visual and literary artists.

A tremor ran through the boats’ cables, the iron lighters, just on the move, chocked gently together. The great swing round began.

Not many novelists deploy language and imagery so well. In this scene the progress of driftwood, temporarily ‘at rest in the slack reaches’, takes on an almost mystical symbolic significance that’s beautifully transmitted through the rapt gaze of the little girl clinging to the top of the mast, feeling the turning tide’s surge and its relentless surge. She’s uninterested in that urban ‘ratless’ world which consumes the interest of most people: ‘the circulation which toiled on only a hundred yards away’; she has a mudlark’s eye for the river’s gifts, but is acutely aware too of its dangers.

Whistler, Nocturne in Blue and Silver

Whistler, Nocturne: Blue and Silver – view from Battersea towards Chelsea, where ‘Offshore’ is set:[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When she thinks of the many who’ve drowned in that muddy river, she feels ‘distress, but not often’ – unlike her big sister and her bohemian mother:

But her heart did not rule her memory, as was the case with Martha and Nenna. She was spared that inconvenience.

Here again she elides the concrete – drowned sailors’ boots, become flotsam – and the abstract: memory, sensibility. All this to create a memorable character: Tilda has the elemental indifference of a seabird, a piece of driftwood or the river itself – yet Fitzgerald shows how she’s still vibrantly alive.

Although at times the central metaphor of the novel, the river, becomes a bit too intrusive and obvious, and some of the characters are two-dimensional (but they aways have life) Fitzgerald assembles her cast of misfits, losers and dreamers with engaging sympathy: she never judges them.

What little plot there is largely involves Nenna’s struggle to confront the reality of being abandoned by her husband – he doesn’t want the liminal existence she’s embraced ‘offshore’; neither does he want her sexually or emotionally. Their marital argument at the heart of the novel is the most visceral and shocking I’ve ever seen portrayed in fiction.

There’s a particularly fine, sagacious cat, as muddy and flawed as the humans in the novel; Stripey fights a complicated war with the wharfside rats, her survival as precarious, and her sex life as mysterious as those of the humans she disdains.

I’d urge you to read Penelope Fitzgerald.

Links to other discussions of this novel:

Jacqui Wine here

Max here (who provides links to other good reviews)

 

[I’ve managed to refrain from using the word ‘riparian’ in this post, even though it would have been particularly apposite.]

The born-again flâneur, ambulant signmaking: Iain Sinclair lights out for the territory

Iain Sinclair’s Lights Out for the Territory (1997) is topped and tailed by epigraphs from Huckleberry Finn – the second of which provides the title of this loose collection of nine essays about wanderings in London:

I reckon I got to light out for the Territory…I been there before

Huck is in danger of becoming ‘sivilised’ again as he returns to sedentary, comfortable town life after his picaresque adventures with Jim, and he tramps off into unknown America – the ‘Injun Territory’ – to escape this terrible fate. These words close the novel.

This literary appropriation is typical of Iain Sinclair’s method. But his urban tramps through the streets of his adopted city of London (though he retains a bolt-hole in chi-chi St Leonard’s-on-Sea in Sussex) bear little resemblance in their purpose to shoeless fugitive Huck’s. Still, he’s unashamedly content to adopt the pose of the vagabond fleeing into the (urban) wilderness to liberate himself from modern life’s vulgar depredations. The horror. Unreal city.

I’m afraid it often descends into invertedly snobbish celebration of romanticised East End low-life and rapturous evocations of Elizabethan charlatan magus John Dee – who Sinclair prefers to the grim realities of Thatcherite-capitalist ‘redevelopment’ of 90s London.

My Penguin paperback edition of Lights Out for the Territory

My Penguin paperback edition of Lights Out for the Territory

Yes, it’s deplorable that decent working-class citizens have been ousted by gentrifying, speculator hipsters; but this is a process of change that’s existed in cities – not just London – for centuries. The silk weavers of Spitalfields and the dockers of Alf Garnett’s beloved West Ham are long gone. Sweet Thames, run softly. And the fictitious docker Garnett was a bigot – not one of the admirable Cockney-sparrer rascals Sinclair celebrates.

He writes a bizarre mash-up of Beat-poetry riffs and brusque, verbless Hemingwayesque bromides on urban decay, as he sees it, in the form of exploitative ‘regeneration’ schemes. One suspects he’d like to restore the rookeries and slums that Dickens described with such outraged horror; this might satisfy his misguided desire for Eastender authenticity. Heritage chic.

Let’s try to substantiate this claim. Essay 1, with his trademark punning playfulness, is called ‘Skating on Thin Eyes’. It has its own epigraph, name checking that esoteric magician, John Dee (who often crops up in the text):

the magus dee dreams of a stone island in force, dying in poverty, drunk on angelspeech…[etc.]

 A capital-free jive on the free Capital sets the tone for the essay. This guff by Richard Makin is presumably admired by Sinclair. His own style often stoops to such folly, seemingly not noticing its resemblance to the ill-advised excesses and self-indulgence of Dylan’s amphetamine-fuelled verbal doodlings on the sleevenotes of his early-period albums. There’s also too much Ginsberg, and Blake at his impenetrably weirdest, with a dash of dirty realism.

This first essay begins with a typically portentous mission statement:

The notion was to cut a crude V into the sprawl of the city, to vandalise dormant energies by an act of ambulant signmaking.

Meaning what, exactly? He goes on (with ever-increasingly pretentious alliteration) to plot a walk from Hackney, his home, to Greenwich Hill, back along the River Lea to Chingford Mount, ‘recording and retrieving the messages on walls, lampposts, doorjambs: the spites and spasms of an increasingly deranged populace’.

Not very complimentary to Londoners, is it? Maybe he means the despised gentrifying profiteers he despises, unconsciously mimicking their parasitic behaviour while jeering at them and their lego-block houses and grandiose skyscrapers. He’s against everything in the ‘culture of consumerism’ except the arcane and the archaic. He lights out as a King Lud-ite. Moorcock, Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor, history, pentacles and Interzone Neoism. ‘The aesthetics of provocation.’ Slogans shouted by the apolitical, no perspective, no prospect.

His style is catching. Not fetching.

He mitigates this cultural-political hypocrisy by adducing the usual dodgy heroes. Apart from visionaries like Blake and druggy De Quincey, there’s a touch of Defoe’s plague journalising, Milton’s epic demons, cut with the situationist-surrealist reinterpretation of the flâneur posited (more subtly) by Benjamin via Baudelaire and Poe, and celebrated in works by expat London tourists from Apollinaire, Rimbaud and Verlaine to Céline, and crazed homegrown punk psychogeographers like Stewart Home and Tom Vague.

Sinclair’s ‘curious conceit’ is expressed in paragraph one:

The physical movements of the characters [he’s just cited his novel Radon Daughters] across their territory might well spell out the letters of a secret alphabet. Dynamic shapes, with ambitions to achieve a life of their own, quite independent of their supposed author. Railway to pub to hospital: trace the line on the map. These botched runes, burnt into the script in the heat of creation, offer an alternative reading – a subterranean, preconscious text capable of divination and prophecy. A sorcerer’s grimoire that would function as a curse or a blessing.

Not only does he seem to take this kind of ley-line mysticism seriously, he expects us, with that hippy-Gothic dog’s-dinner New-Age style, to admire him in the process of transcribing what he calls the ‘pictographs of venom that decorated our near-arbitrary route.’ (Simon and Garfield got there much earlier, and only slightly less embarrassingly, with their ‘words of the prophets’ written on the ‘subway walls, tenement halls’. I find graffiti difficult to admire, no matter how venomously done, how grimy the grimoire.)

Yes, there’s a creative energy here, and he turns some neat phrases – some excellent ones. But one has to endure paragraphs, pages, essays of pretentious tosh like this along with them. And his dislike of verbs renders his prose broken-backed, brandishing its ‘look at me, I’m avant-garde’ eccentricities that are so habitual they become mannerist clichés.

I sympathise with some aspects of his deranged scheme:

Walking is the best way to explore and exploit the city; the changes, shifts, breaks in the cloud helmet, movement of light on water. Drifting purposefully is the recommended mode, tramping asphalted earth in alert reverie, allowing the fiction of an underlying pattern to reveal itself. [p. 4]

 

I too love to get to know a strange city on foot. But Sinclair can’t resist going verbally too far; he doesn’t just crave exploration of the city; he wants to ‘exploit’ it. He doesn’t mean this in a capitalist-developer sense: they are the real villains of the text. No, he means this approvingly. Only psychogeographers tuned in to the arcane-mystical ley-lines, the proverbial beach beneath the street (that the rest of us are too insensitively materialistic or addled to perceive) can fully appreciate this aspect of city walks.

He goes on, perhaps realising how he’s beginning to sound (pretentious):

To the no-bullshit materialist this sounds suspiciously like fin-de-siècle decadence, a poetic of entropy – but the born-again flâneur is a stubborn creature, less interested in texture and fabric, eavesdropping on philosophical conversation pieces, than in noticing everything.

 And he’s off for another 9 small-print lines of prose, listing the random trivia/effluvia of the street detected by his superior sensory antennae and alchemised into gold by his visionary/literary caméra-stylo. He needed a judicious editor, because this flood of detritus ends up making for the very ‘poetic of entropy’ he’d decried earlier.

Any ‘underlying pattern’ that he claims to discern comes largely from his own febrile imagination. He portrays it in arabesques of prose that derive (as the dérive itself over the asphalted earth does, d’abord, from Debord) from the hallucinatory meanderings of De Quincey and Kerouac, with a pinch of Pynchon (sorry, it’s catching, this verbal gushing). Here’s the closing sentence of the paragraph I quoted from just now:

Walking, moving across a retreating townscape, stitches it all together: the illicit cocktail of bodily exhaustion and a raging carbon monoxide high.

This is the loose, prose-poetry, adjective-heavy kind of outpouring derided by Capote in Kerouac as being not writing but typing. Why must every key word be replicated synonymously? Not just ‘walking’ but ‘moving’. How exactly does walking ‘stitch it all together’, and why (and how) would one even want to try to do so? Seeds sown in the sewer. In what ways is this metaphorically mixed, stitched cocktail ‘illicit’? The prose is itself a cocktail of heady, mismatched, intoxicated ingredients. A good drink spoiled.

What a shame. In many ways Sinclair is on to something. I’m not averse to a psychogeographic dérive: I wrote about one (in Berlin; I can name-drop, too) on the blog some time ago. But don’t blot the copy by expressing it in the kind of psychedelic agit-prop rhetoric that was embarrassing when I was a student in the 70s. Lay the ley-lines to rest (see? It’s still contagious.)

This makes for a dyspeptic reading experience. How else could he justify, on the next page, this vomitorium (in the misconceived sense) about his intended route, part inspired by the quixotic ‘temperature traverses’ across London in the late 50s described by TJ Chandler, which were, he says,

An apparently scientific excuse for a glorious clandestine folly, joyriding the tail of the cosmic serpent. As with alchemy, it’s never the result that matters; it’s the time spent on the process, the discipline of repetition. Enlightened boredom.

Too much boredom, for me, and insufficient enlightenment. Anyone who can cite ‘a sorceror’s grimoire’; a ‘preconscious text’ of graffiti that ‘wink like fossils among the ruins’ and that are like ‘Polaroid epiphanies’; cosmic serpents, ‘botched runes’ and alchemy — without irony, or celebrate the funeral of a psychopathic Kray twin gangster as if it were Gandhi’s, has lost the plot. This is a weird kind of pompous, distorted hipster nostalgia.

By dressing it all up with half-digested geomancy, necromancy, Tarot cartomancy-mysticism, occult paranoia and laudatory, bookish reference to the Dissenters’ cemetery at Bunhill Fields doesn’t lessen the disrespect for the kind of Londoner (they’re called workers) I feel Sinclair would run a mile from if he had to sit and have a drink with them in one of the pubs he professes to admire so much.

Oh dear, I’ve only got as far as Essay 1, and had better stop there for now. I’ll maybe return to this infuriating, intermittently wonderful but mostly dire book later this week, as I have time off work.

Or I might just go off on some purposeless drifts.

 

 

 

 

 

Gatsby, Boswell & Johnson, Hemingway

We’re going to see the new Baz Luhrman film ‘The Great Gatsby’ tonight (there’s a Guardian review of its opening screening at Cannes here, so finding myself in Waterstone’s this morning (I believe they’ve dropped the apostrophe, but never mind) I thought I’d buy another copy of the Fitzgerald novel, having lost, lent or mislaid my own some years ago; must be fifteen years or more since I read it, so it’s time for a revisit.  On display was a range of editions: the Penguin Modern Classics edition looked good, with fairly useful notes and a pleasant cover; then I noticed a bright paperback by Alma Classics (who have the uplifting motto on their website ‘clari in tenebris’; they announced on Tues. I think that they’d won the Booksellers Independent Publishers of the year award); they publish some out-of-the-way and non-mainstream literary work and I thought deserved preference, especially as the store had put one of those ‘buy one get one half-price’ stickers on the front – which also has an attractive design and nice old-fashioned folded-in covers (there must be a technical trade name for this: sort of like the dust jacket tuck of a hardback).  This posed a new selection problem: what to buy as a second book?  The contenders narrowed down to three: Paula McClain’s The Paris Wife (a fictional account of Hemingway’s life in 20s Paris with his then wife, Hadley Richardson, and of their crumbling marriage) – there’s an interview with her by Random House here; David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which we saw a couple of weeks ago at the cinema, and quite enjoyed (but too ambitiously long, perhaps); and Ned Beauman’s The Teleportation Accident – review of the hardback edition in the Guardian last year here.  I ruled out the last one because I’m just finishing Javier Marias’s Dance and Dream, vol. 2 of his ‘Your Face Tomorrow’ trilogy, which although compelling and beautifully written is quite a challenge stylistically, structurally and in terms of content, and it moves at a glacial pace; will post more on him another time.  I thought one novel-film hookup was enough, so opted for the McClain, also on the basis that it looks to be a fairly light, not too demanding read – ideal for the long train journey I undertake next week to travel up-country to visit friends and go to see Colm Toibin talk about opera at a King’s College, London symposium on 22 May in their The Joy of Influence symposium (curated by Andrew O’Hagan), one of three such events on the theme of writers discussing other media of artistic inspiration – they all look intriguing: Sarah Hall on painting and Alan Warner on pop; apart from the Johnson-Boswell event noted below, there are others on Marx and one on ‘Literary Identities’.  Pity I shan’t be able to make it to them all.

Finally for today, I’m going to crave your indulgence as I experiment with something new: I’m attempting to embed a tweet about the 250th anniversary of the first meeting (in London) of Dr Johnson and the young Scotsman who became his close friend and biographer, James Boswell.  The TLS article from which it derives (ie the tweet; sorry about the tortuous syntax here – been reading too much Marias) points out, with an illustrative photo of John Sessions in period dress, that those literary heroes at King’s College, London are also behind an event today in their ‘Telling Lives’ series about this literary pair.  So here goes: let’s try to embed this tweet.  Apologies if goes pear-shaped…

http://t.co/renqCTY8rA

Hmm.  Don’t think that’s worked out as I anticipated.  Must try again, perhaps; fail better…But maybe it’ll be ok