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.

The King Lear of Thessaloniki: Julietta Harvey, ‘One Third of Paradise’

Earlier this month I posted about Julietta Harvey’s first novel, Familiar Wars, first published in 1987, now reissued with its sequel, One Third of Paradise; both are published by Polar Books on June 25th.

It resumes the story of Eleni, youngest of Gregoris Gregoriou’s three daughters. At the end of Familiar Wars she was about to leave Greece to go to university abroad; her escape was likened to the betrayal of her father by Medea. This novel opens years later with her flying back from England, where she had married an Englishman and had a child, to attend her mother Anastasia’s funeral:

In mid-air…she hovered naked and exposed, lingering over the threshold of home: pulled and pushed by currents of longing and loss.

The author’s style has become richer, more textured than it was 28 years ago: on first reading, those images seem mixed, but on closer inspection they entwine successfully. As the aircraft which transports her home to Greece is buffeted by atmospheric currents, Eleni is herself emotionally turbulent, torn between the conflicting pulls of duty and repulsion; the alliterative plosives in the adjectives tumble in the sinuous syntax, verbally enacting her inner turmoil concisely and with precision.

The central themes reappear: like her father, Eleni has fled her homeland to seek refuge, but she isn’t at home in her life of exile. Back in Greece she rekindles an adulterous, doomed affair.

As she flies back to Greece, she anticipates what awaits her in the family home in Thessaloniki:

The gathered beneficiaries. Her sisters and their husbands appropriating, blaming. She wanted to turn back, before she became entangled yet again in old, disfigured resentments.

That closing metaphor vividly conveys Eleni’s dilemma – she’s being drawn back into the family tragedy that she’d tried to escape; the noun phrase at the end of the quotation turns the abstract concept of her sisters’ resentful greed into a living, corrosive nightmare. And this is partly because Eleni herself acknowledges an impulse to appropriate, while feeling repelled by her family’s dysfunctional selfishness.

Once again the narrative is filtered through the protagonist’s consciousness – this time it’s Eleni’s which dominates, as her father fades away. As in the earlier novel, the sisters I likened to ‘harpies’ last time have become more venomous in their eagerness to acquire what remains of their father’s estate: this section continues with Eleni, a modern Cordelia, her father’s favourite, contemplating the ‘family map’ –

The sisters blindly occupied their allotted territory. Sophia, the eldest, was in control; Kaliopi, in the middle, coaxed, bullied; Eleni herself, late and last, was the expatriate, the pariah. And those responsible for this angry geography were no longer responsible.


These metaphors recur through the narrative. In chapter 21, when Eleni has been trying to persuade her declining father to take the pension he’s entitled to but has so far refused, she endures a bureaucratic scene in the pensions office that is straight out of ‘the world of Kafka, but without the nightmare, of Dickens, without the exuberance’ –

But in her travels within that melancholy geography, through the city of dead ends, the meaning of family became indistinct. She tried to re-draw its clear lines, its natural geometry. Words like father and mother and sisters must have a meaning. They must belong to a natural order and must follow laws of love, loyalty, and obedience; they must dictate duties. But that syntax of feeling, which had once been unquestioned, with her mother’s death lost coherence. What are the duties to the dead, what to the living?


Another time, pulled back into the jealous internecine scheming of her terrifying, overbearing sisters, with their ‘infernal, futile anger’, as they convene to plan their father’s commitment to a ‘home’, Eleni perceives with horror ‘the sight of her sister [Sophia] coiling like a snake, preparing – to suddenly dart her poison’ at their father; but Eleni, along with Kaliopi, is brought together here because of their ‘shared avarice, for money, property, things’ – she’s furtively stashed away for herself their mother’s jewels that her sisters sought:

Eleni stayed apart, but knew she was with them, one of them. She could not compete, but shared this passion of acquisition. It could unite them in love, but only brought war. Perhaps the cause was a common loss. Perhaps their greed was for a more remote, mystical unnamed prey.


That ‘melancholy geography’ has morphed into another kind of awful symmetrical geometry and syntactical, semantic frigidity:

All three of them were caught in a triangle, that stretched its lines and angles to them at whatever distance. But now the remnant of home and family kept them pinned in one place locked in a vicious geometry. Until, when home and family finally went, the three sides might drift apart in peace and forgetfulness.


IMG_2798It’s not necessary to have read Familiar Wars to appreciate this novel. We’re given from the start a clear sense of what happened in the past, and how it precipitated the events that take place here in a new domestic war.

The novel goes on to show this tragedy develop as history repeats itself and the themes of love, loss, exile and refugees’ yearning for a home are portrayed in all their bruising, heartbreaking inevitability. The Aristotelian concepts of ‘eros’ and ‘amartia’ are invoked in the narrative early on: they drive the central characters towards their fate and I felt the process with a mixture of pity, fear and revulsion. In other writers this device might seem pretentious, but Greek-born Julietta Harvey is able to enrich our experience of this modern drama with a natural, compelling sense of an ancient tragedy that ‘enacted itself’, narrated in language that’s rich and sensuous, as I hope the extracts I provide here illustrate.

There’s the sad spectacle of the father Gregoris, the eternal survivor of the first novel, descending into powerless senility like a ‘remote brother’ of King Lear, that other ‘old king’, still full of hare-brained, deluded speculative schemes, like the one third portion of the ‘paradise’ island plot he’d bought (the other third was his deceased wife’s)  that he wants Eleni/Cordelia to return to him so that he can develop a luxury hotel on it – without the capital such a venture would need. When he appears to sign the deeds back to Eleni for tax reasons, father and daughter are mutually deceptive, as the symmetrical syntax demonstrates:

He consented to give, in order to take, probably scheming escapes and petty deceptions. She consented to give in order to take, knowing this was an unnatural reversal.


He is aware that his daughters (‘dogs’ he calls them at one point; ‘I have no children. May your children do to you as you do to me’) are conspiring to rip him apart for his estate:

It was not fate, it was his own daughters who were killing him.

He’s also like an Ionian Willie Loman, a dying salesman to whom the attention he craves is not being paid, the distrusted, despised (even by his own children) outsider in his own land. When Gregoris’ wife dies her family also revert to type; at the pre-funeral gathering, for example –

He surveyed the relatives with superior indifference, native Macedonians all of them, landowners. Now she was dead, he was a foreigner to them, the travelling merchant, the refugee.

 As in all classical tragic figures, he is not a particularly good man, and his misfortune is a consequence of his flawed nature, his frailty of judgement. This is subtly shown in many ways in the narrative, but principally in his cruelty towards his wife and tyrannical treatment of his daughters. In chapter 2 we are reminded how Anastasia was told by her own mother, made spiteful by patriarchal convention:

‘You had better become a good housewife if you want a husband – because you are not beautiful.’

 Now that she is dead her daughters ‘grieved for the harshness of those words’; Eleni, the clever one, shares her ‘longing for learning’. But she also recalls Gregoris’ impatience, unpredictable temper and habitual humiliation of his daughters and wife. She remembers how he’d shouted at the teenage Sophia, in a voice that ‘stopped and muffled’ her, because she’d been discovered to have a secret boyfriend,

‘You think he wants you for your beauty? He wants you for your dowry!’

But what tyranny merited this! Eleni knew, they all knew, the pain he could inflict. Her own mind was bruised by his sudden violence, appearing and vanishing for no reason…

 Despite this chilling echo of her mother’s thwarted ambition, evoked in the carefully recycled language, Eleni never fully shares her sisters’ capacity to exact revenge on him: ‘But no father, even a tyrant, merited this. And from a daughter.’

As in Familiar Wars she finds herself assigned the role of the witch Medea, obliged to betray and desert her own father, exiled from him and her homeland. Her fate is beautifully, painfully, but not humourlessly, revealed to us in this intriguing replay of an ancient family drama. It’s less event-filled than Familiar Wars, more brooding, internal and intense – and probably stronger as a consequence.

My preview copy of the novel was kindly provided by the publisher.

Mother Greece’s scattered, persecuted children: Julietta Harvey, ‘Familiar War’

My first school was a British Army primary in Cyprus. My father, a soldier, was stationed there during the Eoka uprising in the fifties, when Greek nationalists sought union – enosis – with the mother country. This was the Megali – the Great Idea – the irredentist dream of a Greater Greece, the ‘union of Karaman and Ionia, the Black Sea and the Aegean’, as one Turkish character expresses it in this novel. From an early age, then, I was aware of the complex political history of Greece, and its troubled relationship with Turkey – which resulted in the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 and subsequent partition of the island – and the deep sense of nostalgia (a Greek word that dominates the novel) for its lost ancient imperial power and warrior heroes and guileful heroines.

It’s helpful to have a sense of the historical background to this novel – which I lacked, so had to do a bit of digging; not essential, though, so ignore the next two paragraphs if you feel like skipping this contextual information.


It’s set against the double diaspora of the Greek community of Ionia on the western coast of Turkey; this largely mercantile group (they were particularly famous as manufacturers and dealers in textiles) had settled there originally a century after the Trojan War. The Smyrna merchant cited by TS Eliot was an iconic representative of the culturally diverse but barely tolerated immigrant civilisation of Anatolia; for centuries the Greek Orthodox Christians had lived in uneasy harmony with the Turkish Muslim majority.

Familiar Wars begins as a bildungsroman, following the development of Gregoris Gregoriou from his childhood just before the First World War as a merchant’s son in Mouryes, Ionia. But he is also representative of the fate of the doomed Greek Ionian community, from its apparent rise when Greece entered the war on the Allied side as a ploy to regain Constantinople and what it saw as its lost lands in Anatolia, its apparent victory with the Treaty of Sèvres which assigned Smyrna to Greece in 1919, through to the ‘Katastrophe’ or ‘world-large loss’ during and after the Greco-Turkish war of 1919-1922, which ended with the reconquest of the city by Kemal Atatürk and the slaughter of thousands of its Greek and Armenian inhabitants.

Against this violent backdrop we follow Gregoris as he first loses his entire family then manages to escape into remorseful exile, on ‘the day of exodus’ for his Greek compatriots, on a ship to mainland Greece, where he sets about fulfilling his dream: to become an even more successful merchant than his beloved father had been. There are frequent references to the alluring appeal of America as a refuge for the ‘scattered, persecuted children’ of Ionia.

Julietta Harvey, Familiar WarsPart 1 of the novel relates how Gregoris has to flee Smyrna as a refugee, alone, and finds himself in Macedonia, adrift, penniless. Part 2 shifts focus to his youngest daughter, Eleni, from the age of about five, to the novel’s end when she’s about to embark on a new life of university study. This part is essentially a second bildungsroman as she matures into womanhood and ‘war moved into the home’ – literally and metaphorically. I don’t want to give too much of the plot away; in brief, Gregoris builds a thriving business, becoming so obsessive about his shop and his quest to acquire ever more wealth that his family suffers, and hardship returns. The descriptions of his unctuous, flirtatious manner with his female clientele (he ‘pleased and obliged them all’) is offset by his selfishly emotional detachment from his family. He’s a beguiling, conflicted figure.

In some respects then it’s a classic family saga, with a huge cast of subtly drawn minor characters. The central drama is the Gregoriou family’s experiences of love, loss, exile and yearning for a home -its own, personal enosis. Hence the narrative increasingly equates the family’s turbulent trajectory through history with key figures in Greek legend: Jason and his capture of the Golden Fleece aided by Medea is at times likened to the rapaciously ambitious Gregoris’ cunning greed.

Helen of Troy is another recurring figure: ‘I named you after our ancestor and compatriot!’, her father tells Eleni triumphantly, ancient history and present drama intertwining:

‘Troy was down the valley from us, the Trojan War was fought just outside our village, only for her beautiful face. Just like yours. My land was full of Elenis.’ …Eleni drank his words telling her who she was, where her true home was, to what terrible stories she owed her name and life. She thought of those lost homelands, but as she thought and yearned for them, the pain of their loss brought, almost, the sweet finding of them…she was filled with the bitter-sweet music of nostalgia.

Then there is Iphigenia, daughter of Agamemnon, who is sacrificed by her father to propitiate the gods into supplying a favourable wind to enable his fleet to sail off to the Trojan war.

Eleni, from whose viewpoint most of Part 2 is narrated, comes to identify herself with these two daughters: Medea, ‘the traitor, the witch’, who betrayed her father and country by aiding Jason to escape with the Fleece by ‘cut[ting] her little brother into small pieces and scatter[ing] them in the Aegean Sea. Just like Turks do to the Greeks’, as the Ionian Greeks sometimes interpret the legend.

The parallels illustrate the complexity of parent-child relationships – children’s fierce love for their fathers, first Gregoris for his, then Eleni for Gregoris. When Eleni is a young woman she develops a passion for the theatre, stealing out secretly to watch plays performed:

Iphigenia in Aulis was hers. The father’s sea-voyage, and the sacking of Troy, and thousands of years later the burning of another Troy and another father’s sea-voyage from the fatal shores back to Greece, made up for her one story, beginning and ending with the prayer for good wind and the killing of a young girl. She shivered again at the sharp edge of the knife and of the parental mystery, and felt its flames consume her.

 A little later in the performance ‘the massacred shores of Ionia appeared to her again’,

as she watched with fear Medea, the witch, the foreigner and exile, the beautiful refugee from the Asiatic coast, the woman of nightmares, the daughter who betrayed her father, the sister who cut her brother into pieces, the mother who now holds the knife over her own children, consumed by the flames of jealousy.

This scene transports Eleni to the painful moment when she woke as a child in her parents’ bed and became aware ‘that a terrible event had exiled her.’ But

Medea the beautiful witch took Eleni into the exhilarating rages of womanhood, without shame. Without shame, with secret love, she thought of Olga, the other woman now in exile, accused of betraying sisters and brothers. Sons and daughters and brothers and parents. Medea’s words washed off the shame of love.

 Here we see Dr Harvey’s skill in portraying the interpenetrating themes and narratives of past and present, the shockingly familiar animosities and passions and the sometimes unfamiliar obsessions and profound dark mysteries of this east-Mediterranean people.

Her mother Anastasia watches with growing consternation as Eleni becomes ever more like her restless, obsessive father, ‘her eternal admirer’; he ‘ brings out the worst in her’, she frets; ‘[i]t’s the Orient in her! The Asiatic blood! Her father’s daughter!’ He calls Eleni his ‘bride of Smyrna’, his ‘daughter and bride’, when she dresses up in his stock of fabrics and lace for him. She in turn, as the previous quotation showed, is jealous of her father’s love for her difficult mother, as Gregoris himself was when as a child he saw his father and mother together.

When Eleni’s harpy sisters catch her, as a little girl, watching a group of occupying German soldiers in the building opposite her own, they betray her: middle sister Kaliopi shrieks:

‘Mother, she’s looking at the Germans! I caught her looking at the enemy – smiling and waving at them.’

Eleni’s soul is stirred by the soldiers’ music; she cannot hate them with the blind xenophobia of her family or compatriots – she is a loving spirit, unconstrained by convention or prejudice. She looks at the officer with the recognition of one deracinated, isolated human being of another. The contrast with her selfish, preening, scheming sisters is beautifully drawn.

As these children grow up this filial passion develops, in some of them, into a destructive force. The adjective in the novel’s title has a double meaning: wars with which we are familiar from history’s cyclical repetitions (there were four Greco-Turkish wars after Greece won independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1821), and the internecine wars within the Gregoriou family.

As we see Eleni growing into a spirited, intelligent young woman her siblings become openly, viciously greedy; by the end, as their father’s empire crumbles, the two elder ‘cruel, ungrateful daughters’ as he describes them, likening them to ‘snakes…Vipers’, resemble that other mythical, dysfunctional family: King Lear’s. Their venomous spite is doled out equally on each other and on Eleni: ‘They would get her: they would crush her’, she thinks at one point in her later childhood; they become ‘her enemies’.

I’ve lingered too long on the family dynamics and socio-political historical-mythical aspects of this novel; I’d like to finish by commenting on Julietta Harvey’s prose style. She has a way of combining clear, unadorned description with lyrical, transcendent moments conveyed in poetic language that never clogs the narrative. There are numerous memorable set pieces like a community picnic, a marriage broker’s dealings with a suspicious family, or the formal opening of Gregoris’ new shop, that are Dickensian in their vivacity, wit and power.

Here’s just one example of any number I could quote to show what seems to me to be this luminous narrative voice and thematic range. When he’s released from captivity by Communist guerrillas, Gregoris appears reassuringly familiar yet ominously transformed for Eleni, in a passage of extraordinary free indirect thought from her perspective as a child, filtered through the poetic, adult sensibility of its author-narrator:

[Gregoris was] a migrant bird looking for refuge, a bird of bad omen perched, hungry, over her fate. His long blade-like beak and eyes red and tearful concentrated their aim. She lay quiet with fear of this man looking like her father: the woman’s motherly round silent shape gave her no refuge. Unwillingly she recognised her father – witness and reminder of atrocities, and refugee messenger from lands of pain and sorrow. He carried them in his visage, the black stubble on his hollowed cheeks remnant of fires, his worn clothes hanging on him hiding damage!

 The novel traces with rare honesty and insight the ambivalent, passionate intensity that’s to be found in many father-daughter relationships. There’s much more I’d like to say about this richly satisfying novel, but I’ve already gone on too long. It has many illuminating passages, for example, about the casual misogyny and swaggeringly patronising attitude towards their womenfolk that Greek boys and men were brought up to assume, and the submissive role allotted to girls and women; both Anastasia and her daughter Eleni are denied access to the education they yearn for by their dowry-obsessed parents, while Gregoris contemptuously, treacherously ignores his intelligent wife’s attempts to curb his more excessive business speculations or to check his impulsive, tasteless greed.

I recommend this novel to you.

Julietta Harvey’s first novel Familiar Wars, originally published in 1987, is re-released on June 25 in paperback by the independent Cheltenham publisher Polar Books, along with its sequel, One Third of Paradise, which I intend writing about as soon as I’ve finished it. My thanks to the publisher for providing copies of both novels.




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.







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.



Sexuality, repression and aestheticism: John Harvey’s ‘The Subject of a Portrait’

The Subject of a Portrait: a Novel by John Harvey. Polar Books, Cheltenham: 2014.

The Subject of a Portrait

John Harvey

John Harvey (photo: Emmanuel College website)

Apart from being the author of three previous novels, John Harvey (not the homonymous author of the Charlie Resnick crime novels) is a distinguished academic: he’s University Reader in Literature and Visual Culture at Cambridge, and a Life Fellow at my old college, Emmanuel. This interest in the ways in which visual art and fiction intertwine is reflected in this novel, and in his two books on the socio-cultural and literary significance of the colour black.  Men In Black (1995) explores the meaning of clothing and colour, and in particular the way that Victorian men’s clothing went dark, reflecting the constraint and self-abnegation of that period. He explores how Dickens and Ruskin (subject of the novel under discussion here) assessed its ‘paradoxical aspects of repression and self-assertion’. The Story of Black (2013) develops this theme in broader symbolic terms, including aesthetically and sexually.

John Ruskin: self portrait, 1861

John Ruskin: self portrait, 1861

I mention this background because The Subject of a Portrait is deeply concerned with the repressed and conflicted consciousness of the eminent Victorian critic, John Ruskin (1819-1900), the eponymous Subject of the Portrait by the Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais (1829-96). The novel is about the famous love triangle involving Ruskin, his younger wife Effie (1828-97), and Millais.

Effie Gray had been born in the Scottish house where Ruskin’s grandfather had committed suicide – an event that is portrayed in the novel as a dark foreshadowing of the catastrophe of her marriage to Ruskin, which took place in 1848 – the same year that Millais founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood with his friends Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Millais met her in 1852, when she posed for the figure of the doughty Scots wife in his painting ‘The Order of Release’.

Millais in 1854

Millais in 1854

The story is well known and frequently filmed, dramatised on stage and on radio, as well as forming the basis of a number of previous works of fiction by, among others, Emma Donoghue (the story ‘Come, Gentle Night’, in The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits, 2002, recounts the disastrous wedding night, when Ruskin was apparently repelled by Effie’s physical form, which differed from that of the classical statues which represented his ideal of female beauty). The marriage was annulled in 1854 on the grounds of non-consummation and Ruskin’s ‘incurable impotency’.

Events came to a head when the three, accompanied initially by Millais’ brother William, undertook a trip to the Trossachs (around 1853) where Millais had been commissioned by his patron Ruskin to paint his portrait. As Millais notices the strains in the Ruskins’ marriage and the husband’s high-handed treatment of his young wife, he falls in love with her, and she responds to his growing ardour. As noted just now, she tried to seduce John into a full sexual relationship (‘Make me your wife’, she urges him), but he is repelled by her advances and nakedness. His rejection is portrayed with chilling fervour by Harvey: ‘He drew back, as though a serpent crouched there’. When she asked him what was wrong with her, ‘He said in an odd, soft, mealy voice, “It is how you are made”’. When she shows herself hurt and confused, he describes her as his ‘curse’, she is ‘mis-formed, and mad’. When he confesses to a mysterious ‘vice’ of his own, it is her turn to feel a ‘spasm of revulsion’, and she spurns him, dispatching him from her room. He flings a last venomous insult at her: ‘scorpion’. When he has gone she realises he is dead to her as a husband, and she belongs to Everett.

Millais, The Highland Lassie, c.1854, Delaware Art Museum, seems to be a portrait of Effie

Millais, The Highland Lassie, c.1854, Delaware Art Museum, seems to be a portrait of Effie

Earlier she had admitted to Everett that she was still a virgin after five years of marriage: ‘”John does not like children. He calls them bits of putty. He says their eyes are like rat’s hair…We live like angels…It is John’s wish. He wants my figure not to spoil…”’ John’s confused sexuality is thus revealed as the novel progresses: his preference is for pre-pubescent girls, although there are glimpses of a homoerotic feeling towards Everett which he disguises as another ‘angelic’ ardour.


The second part of the novel deals with the aftermath of the Scottish trip, when the Ruskins returned to their Herne Hill marital home in London, and their marriage collapsed. Effie is aided by her friend Lady Eastlake to gain the legal annulment that freed her to marry Millais a year later, in 1855.

The story is summed up in the striking cover image, of Millais’ unfinished portrait of Ruskin (shown in my picture at the start of this piece). As the narrative shows, his method was to paint in the background of portraits in photographic detail, leaving the outline of the figure blank, a ‘white silhouette’ to be filled in later, in this case in London, as the novel shows. The scenes in Millais’ studio where Ruskin visits him to pose are painfully realised. Ruskin adopts a range of humiliating tactics, acting as the outraged innocent husband, betrayed by his protégé (even though Millais swears that although his love for Effie is reciprocated, they did not have sex during the Highland trip), and then suggesting the three of them enter into a triadic relationship. Millais becomes increasingly angry and frustrated with his patron’s bizarre, mercurial behaviour, and angrily rebuts this offer. Harvey astutely refrains from judging Ruskin, and by showing his occasional self-disgust and shame reveals him as a fallible human, rather than a monstrous stereotype of Victorian perversion. When he faces crises in his marriage or dealings with Millais Ruskin slips revealingly into mincing baby-talk and infantile behaviour.

Millais, The Order of Release, 1853

Millais, The Order of Release, 1853; Effie Gray posed for the figure of the Highland wife, saving her rebel husband from the British

The novel is written in a style that verges on pastiche of the high Victorian prose style, but which, like Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell novels, includes touches of modernity that remind us that it’s a modern sensibility behind the prose, as I hope the extracts I have quoted so far indicate. (There are occasional lapses into modern idiom, as when Everett’s brother asks him about his marriage plans with Effie: ‘”Next summer, right?”’ But perhaps this was an 1850s  usage after all? Maybe a specialist in Victorian linguistic style could clarify.) Presumably Harvey has used the letters and other documents available, such as the book by Millais’s grandson William Milbourne James, The Order of Release: The story of John Ruskin, Effie Gray and John Everett Millais (1943), based on the letters of the three characters. The dialogue in particular has the ring of authenticity in its register and idiom.

Effie Ruskin

Effie Ruskin

As I read it first time, I was surprised by the plot’s romanticism: the yearning, passionate love that grows furtively then increasingly openly between Effie and Everett is represented in touching detail. What prevents the novel from straying too far into sentimentality is the sobering, baleful presence of the repressed, tormented figure of Ruskin. He is portrayed as sexually a complete mess. He’s tormented by phallic nightmares of snakes. In Scotland Effie is perturbed by his liaisons with a dodgy figure who turns out to be a supplier of the pornographic images of ‘maids’, like the nine-year-old hotel maid whom Ruskin admits he is ‘half in love with’. Effie recalls that she was only twelve herself when she first met him, and he idolises her little sister Sophie. His response reveals his nature: ‘”I’m so old I can’t tell these things. But that is the age where beauty dwells, we spoil as we grow big.”’

Later, in a passage of interior monologue from Ruskin’s viewpoint, he reflects how even Millais has lost his allure, now that he had passed the age of being ‘maiden-fair’; he now ‘had the un-sweet voice of a man.’

 Soon he would be – the male beast. Oh, animality – the pink stick of a dog in the street, two flies on a pane, the stallion rammed into the dripping mare. But away with brutishness. The perfect beloved must be young and new, delicate-fresh from the Maker’s hand. The tiny body not yet awake, perfect in shape – a fine gold down just appears on her lip. Lower, there is Heaven’s gate: he must never approach it.

Ruskin, in this portrayal by Harvey, emerges as asexual rather than nympholeptic, homosexual or a paedophile; his parents seem (as Larkin would agree) to be partly responsible for arresting his sexual development at a pre-pubescent stage of his own: he is not so much sexually attracted to little girls, as sexually repelled by adults.

Millais, Blind Girl

Millais’s lush style is apparent in ‘The Blind Girl’, 1856; Harvey’s novel relates the scene in which Millais sees this girl, who has a profound impact on him

The Subject of a Portrait is a subtle, engaging and intelligent exploration of some of the iconic figures of the Victorian literary and artistic period. We are familiar with the notion that the Victorians were a strange mixture of sexual repression and prurience; this novel brings to life these contradictions with style and great narrative skill. The characters of Millais and Effie are far from romantic stereotypes; their passion is depicted as convincingly as Heathcliff and Cathy’s. But it’s the strangely sympathetic portrayal of the monstrous innocent Ruskin, with his angels and demons in constant conflict, that dominates the narrative and lingers in the memory.

As I reach the end of this piece it occurs to me that this novel has much in common thematically with the Henry James’s story that I wrote about here recently; both ‘The Author of Beltraffio’ and this finely tuned novel by Harvey deal with the curious Victorian blurring of sexuality, repression and aestheticism.

(All illustrations are in the public domain; cover photo my own)

The finished portrait of Ruskin by Millais

The finished portrait of Ruskin by Millais