Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Masters of Atlantis

I recently wrote a piece on Charles Portis's Masters of Atlantis for a literary magazine with a line in forgotten/neglected classics. In the event, it wasn't used, so, by way of upcycling, I shall post it here for the select band of connoisseurs who browse the pastures of Nigeness...

The American author Charles Portis is best known for his classic western True Grit, but among his other work is a comic novel that is regarded by its admirers – myself included – as one of the funniest of the 20th century, and one of the most distinctively original. It has been described as ‘a glimpse of how a twentieth-century Mark Twain might write’, and Portis is certainly a writer in that droll Southern tradition, but Masters of Atlantis is (like True Grit) a complete one-off. I first learned of it from references on various American blogs, was intrigued, bought it and read it – and read it again and, just now, again – and every time I found it so laugh-aloud funny that it was positively embarrassing to read it on public transport.
 Portis’s comedy is impeccably deadpan. He has no need to set up comic situations and setpieces; everything emerges from the characters and their doings, which Portis has only to describe in his spare, fluent prose. For these characters of his are – how shall I put it? – a bunch of crackpots, cranks, dingbats. Portis does nothing to point this up – he hardly needs to – nor does he mock or judge; he is sympathetic, entirely relaxed about the endless possibilities of human folly. As well he might be, so many of those possibilities being richly comic.
 So, what is it about? Masters of Atlantis tells the story of one Lamar Jimmerson and the founding, flourishing and long decline of the Gnomon Society of America, a fraternity dedicated to preserving the, er, ancient wisdom of the lost city of Atlantis. When the novel begins it is 1917 and Jimmerson, in France serving with the American Expeditionary Force, finds himself at a loose end in the town of Chaumont. There, one evening, he is approached by ‘a dark, bow-legged man’ who, in the course of several meetings, takes a deal of money from Jimmerson, a trusting soul – and passes on to him a volume beyond price, the Codex Pappus, in which the Gnomon Master Pletho Pappus has laid out, for those initiates who can understand it, the whole wisdom of Atlantis.
 Armed with the Codex and the Poma – a conical red hat given to him by the mysterious stranger – Lamar makes his way to Malta to seek out, as instructed, Pletho Pappus and a man named Rosenberg. His attempts to make himself known to the one Pappus and three Rosenbergs in Valletta, making use of various Gnomon salutes, come to nothing. However, before long, an English aesthete named Sydney Hen crosses Jimmerson’s path, and soon shows himself determined to possess the Ancient Wisdom, dominate the passive Jimmerson, and, if he can get his way, take over the entire Gnomon project. Two things come out of this fateful meeting – Lamar’s marriage to Sydney’s surprisingly sane sister Fanny, and, ultimately, the Great Schism that will divide World Gnomonism into the Jimmerson School and the Hen School.
 Portis wastes no time in tracing the rise of Gnomonism in America, covering the years up to 1936 in the novel’s first 20 or so pages, along the way chronicling the contributions of Jimmerson’s helpers, including a go-ahead fellow called Bates:

‘Through a friend at the big Chicago marketing firm of Targeted Sales, Inc., he got his hands on a mailing list titled “Odd Birds of Illinois and Indiana,” which, by no means exhaustive, contained the names of some seven hundred men who ordered strange merchandise through the mail, went to court often, wrote letters to the editor, wore unusual headgear, kept rooms that were filled with rocks or old newspapers. In short, independent thinkers, who might be more receptive to the Atlantean lore than the general run of men. Lamar was a little surprised to find his own name on the list… His gossiping neighbours in Skokie, it seemed, had put him down for an odd bird. They had observed him going into his garage late at night in a pointed cap and had speculated that he was building a small flying machine behind those locked doors, or pottering around with a toy railroad or a giant ball of twine.’

 The helpful Bates is soon quite eclipsed by the arrival of Austin Popper, the character who is the comic heart and driving force of Masters of Atlantis. Popper is a motormouthed, silver-tongued bull artist with a unique talent for talking himself and those around him into all manner of scrapes, then talking himself out of them – or, in extremis, taking to his heels. He appears, disappears and reappears throughout the book, and the effect of his reappearances is always galvanising.
 One of Austin Popper’s early triumphs is in the Battle of the Books, bitterly fought with the now openly hostile Sydney Hen:

‘Hen stepped up the campaign… by having his people remove Mr Jimmerson’s books from libraries and bookstores and destroy them. Popper countered with a program of defacement, ordering the Jimmerson men to fill in all the closed loops of letters in Hen’s books with green ink, to underline passages at random in that same green ink and to scrawl such comments in the margins as “Huh??!!” and “Is this guy serious?” and “I don’t get it!” in red ink, the aim being to break the reader’s concentration and to subvert the message. He also commissioned a drawing of a pop-eyed, moronic human face, that of a collegiate-looking fellow with spiky hair and a big bow tie, and had rubber stamps made of it. The face had a strange power to annoy, even to sicken the spirit – one had to turn away from it – and Popper directed that it be stamped on every page of Hen’s book, in a different place on each page so that the reader could not prepare himself.’

 At one point, Popper takes off for the Rockies with a Romanian madman called Golescu to pursue a scheme of extracting gold from a (fictitious) plant of repulsive appearance and invasive habit called Creeping Bagweed  or Blovius reptans. Not only does the scheme fail but Popper and Golescu fall out over a woman, and Popper is chased out of town by an FBI agent. Another mysterious Popper disappearance ensues, followed by another triumphant reappearance to energise the increasingly torpid Jimmerson and his dwindling band of followers.
 Masters Of Atlantis has been criticised for losing momentum as it goes along – hardly surprising, as it is a story of loss of momentum, of the long decline of Gnomonism from its interwar glory years. But Portis doesn’t linger on this, at one point letting 12 years pass between chapters  - ‘another long Gnomonic stasis’ – and whenever Austin Popper reappears with his latest crackpot scheme (e.g. Jimmerson to run for Governor of Indiana) things liven up no end.
 By the time of Popper’s final reappearance, Jimmerson and his tiny band of followers have taken up residence in a trailer park in La Coma, Texas (‘a town notable for its blowing paper’), owned by one of the few living  Gnomonists, a wheelchair-bound midget called Morehead Moaler. But the Gnomon Society is to have one last moment of public attention when it is one of the subjects of a Congressional investigation.
 The account of these proceedings is among the funniest chapters in the book, as the ill-briefed and mystified interrogators try at once to hurry things along and to get to the bottom of the matter, ponderously pursuing bizarre and irrelevant lines of questioning. Here they want to find out more about Austin Popper’s lost years as an alcoholic tramp living in a box:

‘”A big crate? A packing case of some kind?”
“A pasteboard box.”
“Under a viaduct in the warehouse district of Chicago?”
“No, sir, it was in a downtown park in one of our eastern cities.”
“A long box you could stretch out in?”
“A short one… When it snowed I had to squat in it all night with my head between my knees like a yogi or a magician’s assistant. Then when morning came I had to hail a policeman or some other early riser to help get my numb legs straightened out again.”
“More a stiff garment than a house.”
“Yes, sir.”
“Hunkered down there in your box, slapping at imaginary insects on your body. Your only comfort a bottle of cheap wine in a paper sack. Supporting yourself with petty thievery, always on the run, with Dobermans snapping at your buttocks. Not a pretty picture.”
“It was cheap rum.”
“The clear kind?”
“The dark kind.”
“ As an urban bum, Mr Popper, did you often stagger into the middle of busy intersections with your gummy eyes and make comical, drunken attempts to direct traffic?”

And so, gloriously, on.
Comedy is a deeply subjective affair – there are even people who don’t find Wodehouse funny – but I hope this taster of Masters of Atlantis might tempt you to give it a try. If it’s your kind of comedy, you’re in for one of the most enjoyable reads of your life.

Masters of Atlantis by Charles Portis. Duckworth, 2011 (UK paperback), originally published 1985.

Monday, 30 November 2015

Hot Air

So, barely a fortnight after Islamist murderers staged a random massacre of infidels in Paris, the city is hosting the latest international 'climate summit', addressing what all concerned agree is the real threat. This vast expulsion of hot air will, as ever, achieve almost nothing; even if an agreement is signed, we can be quite sure it won't be widely observed, and it's highly unlikely that, with India pledging to triple its carbon emissions, there will be any real impact on the perceived problem.
 I don't know whether it's heartening that, so soon after the Paris massacre, it's back to 'business as usual', or depressing that that business is still the same old futile flogging of a half-dead horse. It's a subject I don't often refer to here (it tends to lead to unpleasantness), but ever since 'global warming' - as it was then called (I wonder why the name changed?) - rose up the political agenda, I've been suspicious of the whole business, on various grounds. I might as well outline some of them here:
Climate is an immensely complex supernetwork of immensely complex networks. We surely can't claim to have a complete understanding of how it works, let alone that 'the science is settled'.
 The claim that 'the science is settled' is profoundly non-scientific, like so much else in this field, which looks more like a mix of politics and spilt religion, its orthodoxy enforced by means that appear more like the ruthless enforcement of a faith than anything to do with science.
 The 'climategate' emails, the scientifically discredited 'hockey stick' on which so much of the alarmism was based, the more recent uncovering of systematically 'massaged' temperature readings... All of these - plus the inconvenient truth that 'global warming' did not occur in the manner that was confidently predicted (this, we are told, was an unexpected 'pause') - suggest that we would be wise to be sceptical. Scepticism is, after all, the very basis of the scientific method, and faith its very opposite.
 I suspect future generations might look back on our 'climate change' preoccupation with much the same bewilderment that we feel about medieval scholiasts (allegedly) arguing over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. Especially this time, when the angel-counting is taking place in a city where unmistakable, brutal notice has just been given of a threat very much more imminent and real.

But that's enough editorialising - I shall return directly to my usual, more agreeable preoccupations, and hereby pledge not to go near this subject again until the next climate summit [pledge subject to the usual provisos].

Illustrated London News

Something I wrote about Gustave Doré's images of Victorian London is on The Dabbler today, handsomely illustrated...

Friday, 27 November 2015

Talking of Ivy Compton-Burnett...

Three years and more since I read Hilary Spurling's brilliant Ivy When Young (see here and here), I have moved on to the concluding volume, Secrets of a Woman's Heart, which promises to be every bit as illuminating, insightful and diligently researched. It picks up the story after the Great War and the succession of family tragedies that had rained down on Ivy, leaving her deeply traumatised (as we'd say now, and as she most definitely would not say), but at last free to live her own life.
 She set up home with Margaret Jourdain, who was among other things an eminent authority on English furniture and design, and the pair of them lived happily together for the rest of Margaret's life (she died in 1951). Miss Jourdain was very much the grande dame, a formidable woman and already famous in her field, while the unknown Ivy was, to most visitors, a dim governess-like figure in the background. (It was not until Pastors and Masters and its successors came out that the roles began to be reversed, somewhat to Margaret Jourdain's chagrin.)
 The distinguished Miss Jourdain had a vast, rather grand social circle, as well as numerous hangers-on and a following of devoted young men, so dinner guests were numerous and frequent. For some, dinner with the Misses Jourdain and Compton-Burnett was somewhat of an ordeal. One guest was Francis (Frankie) Birrell, 'one of Margaret's liveliest, seediest and most amusing young men', who on his first visit disgraced himself by falling asleep and smashing the arm of his chair:
 'I can quite clearly remember the soup,' he recalled. 'Then, I suppose, we must have had fish, because when I woke up there was plate of fish, uneaten, in front of me. As a matter of fact, my left hand was in it, covered with sauce. I was alone in the dining-room; the lights were burning, and when I looked at my watch I saw that it was past midnight. The ladies had gone to bed.'
 Birrell let himself out and slunk home. And he was not the only one to succumb at the Compton-Burnett dinner table; a similar fate later befell the young Philip Toynbee, invited as an admirer of Ivy, who woke to find that 'the table, even down to the coffee cups, proved that the meal, as he sat bowed over his plate, had otherwise taken its natural and unperturbed course...' And Ivy, equally unperturbed, had gone to bed.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Anglo-Saxon Attitudes

When you can buy the first edition of a novelist's most famous work, in its original dust jacket, for £1.99 in a charity shop, you know he has fallen thoroughly out of fashion. So it is with that once towering literary figure Angus Wilson, CBE, knight of the realm, professor, whose Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (1956) I snapped up recently for that paltry sum (slightly foxed, and the Ronald Searle jacket a little tatty, but even so...). I snapped it up because I've never read it - nor any of Wilson's novels, only some short stories and a rather good critical study, The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling. I don't know why I hadn't read more - his books were everywhere for years, and the novels achieved critical as well as popular success, some (including Anglo-Saxon Attitudes) even being televised. I had had it in mind for some while to catch up with Wilson, see what I had been missing, and perhaps even get some clue as to why his reputation has faded so fast.
Well, now I have read Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, and I can report that I found it an immensely enjoyable experience, richly satisfying in a decidedly old-fashioned way. It's a big book, ample and spacious but shapely too, with a cast of characters so large that they are listed In Order of Appearance at the start of the book. There are nearly 40 of them (excluding those already dead or off-stage) and virtually all of them are interconnected in complex ways that tend to lead back to the long-ago event that is at the centre of the novel. This interconnectedness is on a positively Dickensian scale (almost on a par with Bleak House), and I found myself referring often to the list of characters to remind myself who's who and how they link in to the others. Some of the characters are decidedly Dickensian too, notably the glorious Mrs Salad, former cloakroom attendant and charlady with a picturesque turn of phrase and grand ideas.
 The character at the centre of the novel is Gerald Middleton, distinguished medieval historian and wealthy man, and the event around which everything revolves is the excavation in 1912, in Suffolk, of the tomb of the Anglo-Saxon bishop Eorpwald (a real historic figure) and the sensational discovery therein of a phallic pagan idol. Middleton has good reason to believe that this idol was planted as a deliberate hoax by the son of the lead archaeologist, who was killed (the son, that is) in the (Great) war, but not before Gerald and the son's fiancée, Dollie, had fallen in love and had an affair. It is the tangle of guilty feelings around these events - complicated by his continuing feelings for Dollie - that the troubled Middleton strives to resolve in the course of the novel.
 Around this focal point, a mass of side-plots and coincidences spin merrily away as different characters - some fully rounded, others more sketchy, some (notably Gerald's estranged wife) grotesque - come into and out of focus. The novel is topped and tailed by two sharply comic set-pieces - one a blow-by-blow account of an excruciating meeting of a distinguished learned society, the other an equally wince-inducing account of a grand party getting badly out of hand. Both these long chapters are bravura stuff, as, in its different way, is the long central chapter in which Middleton, enduring a Christmas get-together of his largely dysfunctional family, looks back over his life as he drifts in and out of sleep.
 In the end, Gerald does achieve some kind of resolution, and is certainly in a far better state of mind than he was at the beginning. It's a satisfying conclusion to a hugely readable, beautifully crafted novel - one that surely doesn't deserve to disappear into obscurity. No doubt Wilson - like that other neglected giant Ivy Compton-Burnett - keeps a toehold in the fashionable field of Queer Studies (Anglo-Saxon Attitudes is peppered with gay characters), but that's really not good enough, for either of them. I'll certainly be scanning the charity shop shelves for more Angus Wilson, and hoping I enjoy others as much as I enjoyed this one. If anyone has any recommendations, please let me know...

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

How Distant

On this day 50 years ago, Philip Larkin wrote this poignant and evocative poem about emigration - or rather about home, the leaving of it and the making of it, the precarious human venture...

How Distant

How distant, the departure of young men
Down valleys, or watching
The green shore past the salt-white cordage
Rising and falling.

Cattlemen, or carpenters, or keen
Simply to get away
From married villages before morning.
Melodeons play

On tiny decks past fraying cliffs of water
Or late at night
Sweet under the differently-swung stars,
When the chance sight

Of a girl doing her laundry in the steerage
Ramifies endlessly.
This is being young,
Assumption of the startled century

Like new store clothes,
The huge decisions printed out by feet
Inventing where they tread,
The random windows conjuring a street.

And how distant it does seem, that age of emigration, when young men (and whole families) set out into the unknown, beyond the range of any but the most minimal contact with their native land or any real hope of seeing it again, facing long slow voyages to new worlds where they would have to make their own lives, or die trying. One of the things we tend to overlook about the 19th and early 20th centuries is how extraordinarily mobile people were, not only in moving from home to home (in those days before the ties of mass home ownership) but from country to country and across vast swathes of the world.
 My own grandfather was a case in point. As a young man in 1892, he embarked for Canada, 'to try his luck', with little money and no friends or contacts on the other side. He eventually got a job with the great Canadian Pacific Railway, settled in Vancouver, married and was swiftly widowed, spent two years at sea in the Far East, returned to England, then crossed the Atlantic again to work for Westinghouse, finally settling back in England and marrying my grandmother in 1906. I'm sure many other families have similar tales to tell...  

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Barney and Hoagy

The Met Office's latest publicity stunt is to give a name to every little storm that blows our way. They'll be coming in alphabetical order, and we've already had Abigail and, last week, Barney (can't wait for Storm Nigel - and won't have to wait long at this rate). While Barney was still blowing, I remarked to my son, 'Tell you what, if this storm destroys any buildings, what's left behind will be Barney rubble.' He turned and stared wearily out of the window. A ball of tumbleweed was blowing slowly along the street. The clock ticked. A fly coughed and fell from the ceiling, dead...
 But talking of Barney Rubble, Radio 3's Composer of the Week last week was Hoagy Carmichael. I wish I'd heard more of it; I hadn't realised just how many great songs he wrote, or how many great singers performed them. But where's the link? Here's the link - Hoagy's guest appearance on The Flintstones, performing Barney's song Yabba Dabba Doo, with assistance from Barney on the Stoneway and spirited backing vocals by the combined forces of Flintstones and Rubbles. Enjoy.