The world is merciless if you expose yourself to it: Michael Flay, ‘The Dancer’

I’ve written recently about the first two stories in Michael Flay’s 1999 collection Closed Doors; today I’d like to consider a story with a different theme and tone.

Flay Closed Doors Many of the stories in this collection are baleful protests at the consumerist culture of modern society: the fat-cat ‘businessmen’ who often appear are excoriated for their banal, depraved practices, their cultural blankness and their selfish, gloating boorishness. Their sense of superiority is repulsive, and the author’s rancour is corrosive. Male-female relations are just another form of commerce in this bleak world.

I’d like to look, by way of contrast, at some softer touches the author is capable of. In ‘The Dancer’ there’s a poignant love story, delicately conveyed. It’s one of a few stories set in Finland, where Michael Flay taught for a while back in the 90s – hence his imprint’s name: Polar Books.

The eponymous Finnish woman dancer is gifted and the unnamed male (English) protagonist is attracted, as this striking image indicates:

She was liquid, and he would like her to pour over him.

When she dances she can both express and lose herself – qualities he admires and perhaps envies:

In this she could be herself, beyond relationship for the time…[Later] She had revealed herself quite barely in the dance; there was something brave, insolent in the revelation.

The relationship is strained, however, largely because of the exigencies of their economic situations, the ‘systems’: both need to work at jobs that are deadening, unfulfilling – in his case, teaching at an institution that exploits its staff with contemptuous disdain; each day is ‘trivial’; the work ‘was taking him down’.

There’s a bleak, unforgiving polar setting (the words ‘ice’ and ‘snow’ are repeated frequently, along with related terms – ‘frozen’, ‘cold’, adjectives ‘desolate’, ‘black’, ‘dead’, sterile’, etc.) In spite of this, the man and the dancer had ‘come close’:

He had wanted to draw her into his conscious world, had tried also to show her himself. And she had almost seen, had wanted to see, but had not wanted to show herself so much.

Here the pervasive influence in all of Michael Flay’s work of his literary model – DH Lawrence –  is apparent, but he adapts the imagery to make it his own.

The man is forced to return to England to seek more temporary work (no permanent contracts in his academic world), and again the scene reflects the emotional temperature of the characters:

A grey drizzle fell across the dirty London sky…It was all [the ‘council estate’ with its boarded-up houses] nauseous and forlorn.

He’s surrounded by the more privileged, the ‘cash complacent’, drawling, refined ‘businessmen’ so often reviled, as I have shown, in these stories – ‘how had they come to run things?’, the man muses, disillusioned, as they scurry to their ‘bank blocks’ (a favourite Flay term). He lacks their commercial drive. But here the venomous portrayal serves as a counterpoint to the ‘tenderness’ between him and the dancer.

Their separation is bruising; the estranging world is ‘merciless if you expose yourself to it.’ Why should he, the man thinks, ‘dent her defences for the outside to come in?’ I find those images beautifully done.

I won’t reveal the outcome; it’s the tender depiction of the ‘contact’ these two otherwise thwarted, disconsolate, constrained characters are able to establish in a harsh, uncaring world that gives this story its lustre.

I’m off on holiday tomorrow, so may not get a chance to post here for a while. Have a good summer, and happy reading, happy living.

 

 

Michael Flay, ‘The Theorist’, from ‘Closed Doors’ (1999)

Michael Flay, Closed Doors: Polar Books, 1999

After Mike’s funeral last week I’ve had time to return to the stories in Closed Doors, from his own Polar Books imprint.

The second in the collection is ‘The Theorist’. Unlike ‘The Mad Mother’, written about last time, which was set in Switzerland, this one takes place mostly in Paris, and briefly in London.

Flay Closed Doors As usual in these short stories the protagonist and main secondary characters are unnamed: there’s ‘the Professor’, who’s part of an interviewing panel for an academic post at his university, and ‘the applicant’ – a man who has applied for the teaching post only because he needs ‘to survive, to have the wherewithal’, and hence has to ‘perform, catch a selector’s eye’ – whereas his instinct is to ‘baulk them’.

Also in keeping with the other stories the setting adds to the bleak tone: the street outside is ‘gritty’, the panel of interviewers ‘ludicrous’. This is a world in which scholarly merit or integrity has no virtue: all that matters is to be fashionable and commercially active – and maybe sexually deviant. The Professor-theorist has made a name for himself by riding the crest of the postmodern, post-structuralist wave of literary-critical, jargon-filled theory. He has ‘banished experience from the text’:

All was cynicism, he was well paid. What did it matter if he talked nonsense? Hadn’t the greatest grown jaded and found communication impossible?

Maybe an echo of Yeats there. The disaffected applicant moves on, possibly to Brussels:

He’d just ride on. You just did things. He’d studied, but what he knew was out of key with the fashion…He had no market value.

For this is the world of the market – that repeated ‘just’ is telling. The protagonist is a modern urban equivalent of the samurai who casts his sword into the air at a crossroads to see which path to take, or the drifting cowboy, homeless, friendless and seeking some kind of contingency, security.

The theorist is a paedophile with a taste for boys, like the early Romans, an indicator of his morally nugatory state. It’s a socio-ethical corruption he shares with other senior figures in London with whom he fraternises: a financier, a minister – that is, the worlds of commerce and politics are equally destitute morally, depraved. I find the equation of sexual deviance with moral destitution one of the weaker aspects of this writer’s position.

But these are general themes that recur in Mike’s work. His is a world view that shares some of Kafka’s despair and the hopelessness of Camus. It could maybe do with a little of Beckett’s humour.

The visions of the blood-soaked battlefields of two European wars create a grim backdrop to the images of Nazi troops in occupied Paris, of Goebbels with his PhD thesis on ‘romantic poetry’. Literature and art has been subsumed by the monsters, and the crowd has followed.

The next story, ‘The Dancer’, has a lighter, more romantic tone.

As always, contact Polar Books via Facebook if you’d like to obtain a copy of Closed Doors, or any of Michael Flay’s other works of fiction.

Michael Flay, ‘Closed Doors’: The Mad Mother

Michael Flay, Closed Doors (Polar Books, Cheltenham 1999)

I’m sad to say that Mike passed away last month, far too soon. In his memory I’d like to devote some posts over the next few weeks – holidays will intervene so not sure how long it’ll take – to his published work. I’ve already posted about his novel The Persian Wedding.

Flay Closed Doors Closed Doors, his first book to appear under his own imprint, Polar Books, appeared in 1999, which is when I last read it. Because of time constraints this past few weeks I’ve not been able to reread the whole collection of stories in Closed Doors, and will have to limit myself here to the first one: ‘The Mad Mother’.

It bears many of the features of the others, in that the main characters are unnamed, known only as ‘the mother’, ‘the daughter’, ‘the wife’, and so on. To confer a name would be to present them in too familiar or intimate a way. These are stories that throw a beam of light on to semi-concealed lives, like an entomologist opening up a termite nest.

There’s a bleakness or grim quality that runs through them. Here’s the opening sentence to this story:

She was living strange, giving things up, doing damage.

Mike’s style is distinctive: there’s a disjointedness in those three parallel participial phrases, a lack of agency (the absence of finite verbs after the first clause). That phrase ‘living strange’ is syntactically strange. The language, in other words, re-enacts the meaning and reinforces it. We are forced to confront that strangeness, the inertia of the structure.

The abstractions and omissions are notable, too. Who is ‘she’?  In what way was her living ‘strange’? Which ‘things’ was she giving up, and why? What was the nature of the damage she was doing? These are stories that forensically examine the damage we do in our lives, the toxicity of relationships in a corrupt world in which power is wielded by the most corrupt people of all, and that poison sinks down on to all levels of society.

There’s perhaps too much tendency to use pathetic fallacy, but then these stories come from the tradition of Kafka via Lawrence and Dostoevsky. It’s psychological truth that is striven for, not poetic decoration. Hence the first pages sketch the physical scene only in terms that create the requisite atmosphere: ‘The streets were grey with rain’; ‘The block [of flats where she lives] was dismal, angular’, and from within it she could hear ‘a queer chuckling, female and gloaty’. Later ‘the landscape was grey, obscured, dead.’

This is the world of the underclass, the housing-estate sink. The narrative style has more of the features which will become familiar to readers of Mike Flay: those accumulating, dreary terminal adjectives; that Lawrentian, early-20C use of ‘queer’ in its non-sexual sense, which recurs half a dozen times in this very short story; the Keatsian habit of turning a noun into a neologistic adjective (‘gloaty’) by adding a ‘y’ to it. And of course, these details create a new, disruptive sense of unease – it’s as if the ‘block’ (there are many of these ambiguously named places in the stories) is doing the sinister gloating. The description of disembodied ‘selfish mouths opening and shutting in a black expanse’ (within the block) is reminiscent of Beckett and the abyss.

I shan’t go on here to summarise the story too closely. It involves an emotionally ‘blank’ and ‘deficient’ Swiss-German woman (abetted by her mother) exploiting a wealthy TV ‘celebrity’ (himself ‘full of rottenness’) in order to become pregnant by him, abandon the ‘weak’ husband and either increase their social security (state) benefits, or tap the man for some of his presumed wealth. The stories are set in a variety of locations: this one in Switzerland and briefly the UK. Meanwhile the women sit and endlessly, obsessively ‘talk over’ their ‘mad’ schemes and feelings. There’s a scathing critique of the self-indulgent kind of pseudo-feminism:

In her mind a female fixation circulated: she was an injured princess claiming her rights. She was justified: all her moods, her acts of spite, her small meannesses, were justified because she was female. It was best not to repress what you felt – this was the family tenet – or censor it…No criticism should be made, the female was sacred.

The free indirect style portrays the woman’s views, not the narrator’s. While she broods incessantly over her own feelings her young son is cruelly neglected, to the point of abuse.

This first story sets the tone for the rest. They are not a comfortable read. They intend to challenge and provoke. The disconcerting style works in the same way as the long lines of prose-poetry in the likes of Whitman and Lawrence’s verse: on the level of rhythm and juxtaposition rather than semantic sense. It’s a grim perspective and unflinching. Someone has to do it. Usually most of us look away.

Strangely, Mike had a wicked sense of humour. After any meeting with him one left feeling uplifted, enhanced and enriched, and there would have been a lot of laughter. In his writing, however, he was determined to anatomise the world in all its states, and to do that it’s necessary to contemplate the rottenness beneath the veneer of consumerist plenty.

Closed Doors is currently unavailable on the Amazon website (two of the novels are still in stock), but if you would be interested in acquiring a copy please contact me via the box on this site and I can pass on your message to Polar Books – they also have a Twitter account and Facebook page, so a message there should also work.

Michael Flay, ‘The Persian Wedding’

The Persian Wedding (Polar Books, Cheltenham: 2015) is a timely, angry novel. I’m writing this on the day after the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, apparently by Islamic extremists. Over the past couple of weeks lurid stories have been published in the media alleging sexual malfeasance by a prominent English prince, famed for his involvement in aiding British trade abroad – especially the arms trade with dubious militaristic regimes.

Author of The Lord, The Watchers and a volume of short stories, Michael Flay here turns his attention to the troubled cross-cultural relationship between two young lovers, in a setting in which terrorist attacks appear to be instigated by the Western political/security forces who ostensibly protect its people. Instead they ‘keep things insecure, then you impose the order that suits you.’ Sinister trains and ships transport deadly cargos of nuclear materials and goodness knows what else. British-made tanks patrol the repressed streets of the Shah’s Persia. British ‘advisers’ train torturers, their leaders gloating and gorging themselves in scenes of sickening illicit sex and violence. All power corrupts.

Flay Persian Wedding coverAn unnamed English man meets a Persian girl at a language school in England at a time that seems to be around 1976. He’s the English teacher, she (her name is Zohre, which means ‘Venus’ in old Persian) the child of a privileged middle-class Persian family, sent to Europe to polish her education and no doubt make her a more suitable match for a wealthy Persian husband.

He follows her to her home country, still ruled by the autocratic Shah, propped up by UK and US interests (it was they who’d instigated the coup d’état which installed his family in 1953). We see the young man’s struggles to adapt to the passive, powerless position of a suitor for a woman who lives in a fiercely partriarchal world. He meets her young, westernised friends, who sympathise with the lovers’ plight and do all they can to help, but ultimately he fails to change the intransigent attitude of the Persian father.

Later things change for the better for the lovers, but this is set against a chilling account of the West’s cynical exploitation of a lucrative market for its weapons and personnel who specialise in intimidation, sedition and control.

The narrative style is pared down and restrained, in keeping with the sober subject matter. There are descriptions of the bucolic English setting at the start, which ironically contrast with the stark scenes in urban Tehran which fill the bulk of the rest of the novel.

Michael Flay habitually deploys a paratactic style, piling on adjectives and noun phrases to the main clauses, to demonstrate, for example, the random fortuitousness of events happening beyond the protagonist’s control; here’s an early description of Tehran soon after the man arrives there:

Air hung heavy with exhaust fumes, coloured blue grey. Unfinished blocks of apartments lined the road in disorder. Buildings were put up, incomplete, non embedded on scrap land…There were several limousines, chauffeur driven, running  silently, these were common like broken off parts of a US president’s cavalcade, dispersed. Everywhere space was taken up, cars, buildings, as if dumped down at random, unembedded and laid on.

This technique also adds cumulative detail to the disconcerting  narrative: there’s a dreamlike quality to the prose, which foregrounds the disturbing incongruities in the story. Tehran under the Shah is a city of a westernised, power elite, deeply corrupt and cynical; England is little better. And after the 1979 revolution and the return of Khomeini, nothing changes. Everywhere is the same. Women are used as sex objects but otherwise kept in subjection. Fathers and men are all-powerful, demanding total obedience of their daughters. Yet they commit despicable sex crimes themselves. Hypocrisy is rife.

The protagonist’s attitude throughout seems to me rather naive: he would go to Iran, he thought, at the start of the novel, ‘confident’ and optimistic that he could convince the family that he was a suitable match for this pampered but closeted daughter in a stereotypically protected environment, and spirit her away from potentially more suitable matches (as the father would see them). He was educated, decent – what could possibly go wrong?

But of course that’s what happens in life. We all believe the person we love and who loves us is all that’s needed to convince everyone that the match is right. To hell with convention, social pressures and the desire to conform to bourgeois morality (which usually involves perpetuating the system of self-aggrandisement financially); love conquers all.

This is a novel with some flaws in the style, perhaps – all those loose-limbed sentences with their odd syntax and accretions. But it’s also a searing indictment of repressive regimes everywhere, not just in Iran, and of the swaggering toxicity of power elites, and their inbuilt conviction that they have the right to do whatever they like in a world tailor-made for their own gratification.

Perversity takes many forms, and this novel powerfully melds the political with the personal: sexual depravity as an outward and visible form of inward corruption – in short, of the evil of our decadent western world. Yes, the Iranian society depicted here was corrupt, misogynistic and depraved, but ours has pretensions of superiority; it is no less depraved, flawed or corrupt. Worse, really, for we see ourselves as beacons of fairness and upright moral probity.

Yesterday in Paris fundamentalists murdered writers and artists for propagating satiric views. Novels like this play an important role in holding up a mirror to our complacent society; as was memorably said by Swift in the preface to The Battle of the Books (1704):

Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.

 

Ruskin and Effie: Harvey’s ‘The Subject of a Portrait’

In my previous post John Harvey wrote about his recent novel ‘Subject of a Portrait’, and the questions he tried to address in giving fictional life to the tangled love triangle of its central characters: John Ruskin, his wife Effie, and the artist Millais. He speculated how Emma Thompson might address these questions in her forthcoming film, ‘Effie Gray’, released here in the UK on 10 October. My own review of his novel was posted here in June.

Today my guest writer is Michael Flay, author of the novels The Watchers (2009) and The Lord (2012), and The Persian Wedding (forthcoming), all published by Polar Books (Cheltenham). Dr Flay is senior lecturer in SEN (Special Educational Needs) at a Midlands university.

The Subject of a PortraitChild abuse is an important problem in the U.K. and elsewhere. John Harvey’s recent novel ‘The Subject of a Portrait’, well contributes to understanding aspects of abuse. Perpetrators and victims have individual features and here Harvey presents one example of the former. What kind of person abuses a child? A version of Ruskin reveals the art critic as only able to relate to the female in the shape of pre-adolescent girls. His marriage to an adult woman is annulled because it was never consummated. Adult women disgust him except in terms of spiritual interchange. He sees their bodies as deformed. The novel is courageous in approaching such psychological areas with imaginative insight and detailed psychological investigation.

 

However, a scholarly commentator on Ruskin, Christopher Newall, is cited recently in ‘The Times’ (he is commenting on the forthcoming film about Ruskin) as disagreeing with the idea of Ruskin as sexually disordered. Newall’s view is that Ruskin ‘was perfectly easy’ with his wife ‘physically’ and to suggest otherwise is to contribute to a false myth or negative ‘legend’. Ruskin’s character is a subject for controversy, with several versions available. Newall prefers a purified view.

Harvey’s version is valuable in terms of the vivid fictional light cast on complex psychiatric matters that also exist in factual shape outside imaginative narrative. The Ruskin-version character is seen to encourage visits on fabricated pretexts from a young girl, a ’little maid’—‘that is the age where beauty dwells, we spoil as we grow big’. His encouragement could be referred to as ”grooming“, in current vocabulary.

Pre-adolescent girls are his preference, partly because they have no breasts (the novel suggests this) and, in his view, other sexual features are less obvious. The Ruskin figure, in the novel, has a secret collection of pictures, early photographs, of part clothed or naked, breastless young girls and other views of female children. Some of these shots were taken of children in a hotel he stays at by a clandestine, shady photographer he is in collusion with.

A disturbing, revelatory sequence in the novel comes when Ruskin gets out the pictures in order to assist in a masturbatory event. He stimulates himself also via repeated words, ‘Oh little neat dress with petit point lace’ and by pulling ‘a little girl face in the mirror’ as he watches and listens to himself. After his climax he is full of self praise, ‘John, John—was there ever potency like to yours? You are the King of the Golden River.’ His mood then switches to self disgust as he glimpses a remnant of his own semen on his body, a wish for the Lord to ‘scald my weakness’.

In a later attempt to have sex with his wife Ruskin is presented as calling up this past experience in an attempt to gain arousal, repeating words he finds erotic, ‘ Oh little pert nose and tiny waist’, and telling his wife ‘Be like twelve again’. After the failed encounter he lapses into baby language, ‘Don leave me all on my owny’.

A strength of Harvey’s narrative is that these vivid and revealing sexual crises are presented in a context of Ruskin’s other, but related, behaviours. Such behaviours include mood and attitude instabilities, revulsions towards the physical and exalted views on art and beauty. At times he seems spitefully to collude with his wife’s attraction to Millais, combining this with absolute rejection of her physically. When she attempts to have sex with him he tells her she is physically ‘misformed’ and ‘the hand of nature’ has ‘erred’ in her case. He manipulates Millais by referring to Effie as ‘my own clever monkey’, both praising and insulting her at once, possibly to get Millais to react.

An attraction to sexuality with young girls and a recoil from that kind of relation with older women is a Ruskin characteristic. The episode in which Ruskin takes the ‘little maid’ from the hotel for an outing in the wood is disturbing. Ruskin is ‘suave’ and plausible, getting the girl’s mother to give permission. Then, in the wood, come kissing games, incidents in which the girl lies on him in various postures. The episode concludes with the open comment ‘he led her beneath low branches’. It is left non-explicit, speculative, what follows, maybe nothing, more, or worse? Ruskin reflects early on in the jaunt, that such girls are ‘the art of God. He imagined her tiny shoulder blades sliding within her dress’. The later masturbation sequence reveals that Ruskin’s interest in the girls has a physical aspect and is not just a case of visual appreciation. After Ruskin’s wife has obtained her divorce from him, Ruskin continues to look out for such young girls—he notices one near the National Gallery, ‘nearly a woman but slender as string’. He considers she has an eating disorder, but ‘such’…’I could love with a grown man’s love’. His attractions have a repetitive, part obsessional aspect.

Harvey presents Ruskin’s disorder, reveals it as an individualized psychiatric case in the sense that it issues in symptomatic, cumulative ways. Here is a valuable consideration of aspects of child abuse, embedded in the context too of a specific, stressed marriage. Fiction here performs a useful function of contributing to the understanding of a non-fictional condition that exists in ‘fact’, demonstrating an abuse perpetrator in a complex web of contexts and characteristics. Beyond the theme of the abuser the Ruskin character is also representative of a man who is entirely disunified in a psychological sense. He has therefore no creative relation with anyone in the novel and is alone. At the same time he is an eminent art critic and social reformer. A suggestion here is disturbingly implicit in the narrative that an expert in any field may simultaneously be pathological in a psychiatric sense. This theme too is current in actual society. Mental disorder can occur anywhere, in the prominent and obscure alike. However, the prominent may have more options for concealment or for conveying disorder as talent, likewise for decision making or opinion forming that has its basis in defect or neurosis,

For some Ruskin’s characteristics as seen in Harvey’s novel may seem a psychological area they are reluctant to consider. The presentations of sexual behaviours and thoughts may be challenging. This is all to the good. Lawrence has commented that ‘a condition of freedom’ is that ‘in the understanding I fear nothing’. The ‘abhorrent’ and disturbing need their own attention, both fictionally and otherwise. Writing in ‘The Reality of Peace’ he continues to emphasise that the horrific or pathological needs imaginative presentation, an aim being to ‘see what it is’, to admit it  to ‘understanding’ with no elision of consciousness. Harvey’s writing fits this context, enacting Lawrence’s aim , keeping company as he does so with a minority of fiction writers who do the same, such as Pynchon and DeLillo.