Sunday, 17 December 2017

The 'Literary Novel'

I caught an interesting talk on Radio 4 this morning on the decline of the 'literary novel' and the flowering of long-form TV drama. In it Zia Haider Rahman – who recently presented an incisive programme on metaphor – accused novelists of 'complicity in their own decline' by 'relinquishing the very things that are [were, surely?] exclusively the province of the novel'. Relinquishing them, that is, to television. That might equally well be seen the other way round: the kind of writers who might have the qualities required to write good novels are understandably eschewing the 'literary novel' in favour of the big money and huge audiences that television offers.
 What is the 'literary novel' anyway, and why must it be separated out from other forms of novel? Is the term anything more than a euphemism for novels that don't sell, unless they're lucky enough to win a literary award? Indeed might the term 'literary fiction' be reduced to the circular definition 'novels eligible for literary prizes'? It's essentially a publishers' category, and of recent growth. Surely none of the great novelists of the past thought of themselves as 'literary novelists', rather than just novelists. Even Henry James wrote some of his best work in what we'd now call 'genre fiction', and most of the novels that now clearly belong to the literary canon sold, in their day and since, in large numbers. The likes of John Updike, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow wrote bestsellers and made serious money; they were not confined to some 'literary fiction' ghetto, sustained only by the esteem of their peers and the generosity of academe. Nabokov, surely one of the most literary novelists ever, wrote on of the biggest bestsellers of the postwar years – a bestseller now regarded as one of the great novels of the 20th century. Updike himself vigorously resisted the whole notion of 'literary fiction', a category that could only 'torment people like me who just set out to write books and if anyone wanted to read them, terrific, the more the merrier'.
Of course drama (in whatever medium) and novels (of any kind) are very different beasts, and the particular skills involved in each are not necessarily transferable – indeed they rarely are – so literary novelists are not 'relinquishing' anything to TV drama. It is our culture that has moved – from a novel-reading one to a screen-viewing one. In the end, perhaps, it's simply a matter of 'follow the money'. In any period, the talent, imagination and innovative flair tends to migrate to where the money is – and that, sure as heck, is not in 'literary fiction'.

Friday, 15 December 2017

Dubin's Lives

I've been reading another Bernard Malamud novel – Dubin's Lives this time. Originally published in 1979, it's very much of its time, being a tale of marital infidelity and male mid-life crisis – well, rather beyond mid-life in Dubin's case, as he's 58 years old. William Dubin, who is of course Jewish, is a successful biographer who seems to have spent his working life writing biographies in an unsuccessful attempt to learn how to live, being constitutionally unable to inhabit his own life with much conviction.
 As his latest project is to write a biography of D.H. Lawrence, Dubin is clearly heading for trouble – and it finds him in the form of 23-year-old Fanny, the flaky but voluptuous young woman his wife has hired as a house cleaner. Though Dubin rejects her initial (extremely direct) advance, he can't stay away and it's not long before he's taking her on an illicit trip to Venice (addressing her all the while as if giving a lecture – which is apparently what turns her on). The romance collapses ignominiously in Venice, but that is by no means the end of the story; Dubin is not going to get over Fanny, and his life is about to get very complicated...
  What makes Dubin's Lives so much better and more interesting than it might have been is the skill with which Malamud plays out the action as at once farcically comic and emotionally tragic, and succeeds in making us genuinely care about the deplorable, myopic and self-absorbed Dubin. He is extraordinary compelling, even addictive company (though one might not wish to know him in real life) and it's actually a wrench to part from him at the end of the novel. Apart from Dubin, the stand-out character is his long-suffering wife Kitty, who knows her husband so well, yet misses so much. You can see how she and Dubin were drawn together by their interlocking weaknesses, why they fit so well together and yet are so unhappy. As the portrait of a marriage, it's painfully convincing.
 The novel is set in upstate (and upmarket) New York, and Malamud describes the rural setting and the movements of the seasons with a sharp, even lyrical eye for nature, making landscape and weather major elements in the story. The verstatile Malamud, it seems, was not only an urban novelist.
 Dubin's Lives has its faults – including an abrupt and rather unsatisfying ending – and is probably a little too long. It's certainly not the masterpiece The Assistant is, but it's immensely readable, quite often laugh-aloud funny, and totally involving. The foolish, self-alienated William Dubin is a character who lingers in the mind.
 There are also some good Jewish jokes along the way, including the one about the rabbi who heard his sexton praying aloud, 'Dear God, you are everything, I am nothing' and remarked 'Look who says he's nothing!'

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

A Word for It...

Earlier today I was enjoying a morning of sparkling frost, deep blue sky and dazzling low sun. It was bitter cold, but the sun was warm on my face – a sensation I've always relished on days like these. There should be a word for it...
And there is, as I discovered at lunchtime, when the nature writer Robert Macfarlane had a spot on Radio 4's The World at One to talk about the rich store of winter words. (As author of the recent Lost Words, he's the go-to guy for this sort of thing.) And there it was – the word for the sensation of warm sun on the face on a cold winter day: apricity.
 There's a related verb, to apricate, meaning to bask in the sun (from the Latin apricus, sunny). I must remember that for my next beach holiday: 'I'm going down to the beach to apricate; I may be some time.' Meanwhile I look forward to my next experience of apricity.

Ignorance of History

'Our ignorance of history causes us to slander our own times. The ordinary person today lives better than a king did a century ago, but is ungrateful!'
 So wrote Gustave Flaubert (born on this day in 1821) to George Sand in 1871. The words were true enough then, and very much more so today, when living standards for most are beyond the wildest dreams of their grandparents, and yet are taken for granted as a mere minimum. But the widespread ignorance of history that has taken hold in this generation has other, potentially more dangerous effects.
 Not only do many take today's sky-high living standards for granted; they also take for granted our freedoms and the democracy that sustains them. Lacking historical perspective, they seem to believe – or act as if – these freedoms represent the default condition of human society, not something historically rare, fragile and vulnerable that must be vigilantly protected and, if necessary, fought for.
They understood these matters better in 1946 (see previous post).

Sunday, 10 December 2017

'There, intact, were various objects all familiar...'

'The need of our time is for wisdom rather than cleverness, intelligence rather than intellectualism, understanding as well as knowledge. Where there is no vision the people perish.
 Our aim is to assist in publicising those liberal and humanistic values whose continued existence is seriously threatened at the present time in our own country as well as elsewhere.'

  How's that for a publisher's mission statement? The words are those of Christopher Johnson Publishers Limited of Great Russell Street, London WC1, and I found them on the tattered dust wrapper of a slim volume published in 1946, Keats, Shelley and Rome, An Illustrated Miscellany, compiled by Neville Rogers. It's a collection of essays (and a poem) about the two poets and the house that memorialises them and in which one of them died – the Keats-Shelley Memorial that overlooks the Spanish Steps and the Piazza di Spagna in Rome.
 What gives the book its special flavour is the time in which it was written, in the immediate aftermath of the war in which the Eternal City had suffered under both Mussolini and Hitler (and from the activities of partisans). The house on the Spanish Steps had been lucky to survive largely unscathed – and especially lucky in having a formidable Italian woman, Vera Signorelli Cacciatore, as its fiercely protective Curator. The book includes the Signora's vivid eye-witness account of the long-awaited June day in 1944 when the Allied troops finally arrived, so worn out that they immediately lay down to sleep:
'Within five minutes of the order to halt the Piazza was covered with recumbent figures. There in the moonlight slept the soldiers: on the pavements, in the dried-up fountain, on the Scalinata of Santa Trinita dei Monti, propped against the obelisk; pillowed on a haversack, a kerbstone, a doorstep or a comrade...'
 These memories – and the related sense of the perilous fragility of civilisation – were still fresh when this little book was published. The first essay is a New York Times correspondent's (A.C. Sedgwick) account of his arrival in Rome with the Allied troops on the day of liberation. With an English Major, he made his way straight to the Keats-Shelley House, climbed the stairs, and was welcomed by Signora Cacciatore. He and the Major were her first welcome visitors in four years.
'There, intact,' writes Sedgwick, 'were various objects all familiar.... There was the smell – more of England than of Italy, or so one thinks – of leather bindings that bewitched Henry James. There was quiet, peace, pause in our lives in which to think, reflect and be thankful that such a haven had been spared, it would appear, by a miracle. Outside – it seemed very far away – we heard the clatter of our mechanised cavalry.'
  Keats, Shelley and Rome is dedicated 'To Young Englishmen who Died in Italy'.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Some Reasons

Some of the reasons why this country was never going to make a fit with political 'Europe' in any of its various forms, from Common Market to EU:
1. English common law (bottom-up as against top-down).
2. A long history of stable democracy and secure borders, free of foreign occupation or conquest.
3. A preference for pragmatic empiricism and inductive reasoning, and a deep distrust of Big Ideas.
4. A unique place in the wider world, the legacy of a long maritime history and a relatively benign, uniquely wide-ranging empire.
5. A national character in which modesty, decency, emotional restraint, fair play and a sense of humour are (or were) prominent features.
6. A natural understanding of, and talent for, popular music. The English equivalent of today's lavish obsequies for Johnny Hallyday would be a state funeral for Shakin' Stevens.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

UK City of Larkin 2

So the next UK City of Culture will be Coventry (and why not?). The accolade has now followed Philip Larkin from his workplace (Hull) to his birthplace. It only remains to fill in the gaps with Leicester (Larkin 1946-50) and Belfast (1950-55) and that will be UK culture firmly nailed to the CV of one of its finest poets. And why not?


Sixty-eight today: me and Tom Waits. Birthdays haven't been the same since Edmundo Ros (7 December 1910 - 21 October 2011) went to join the celestial rumba band. And of course the NigeCorp silver band has long been mothballed.
I guess I'm now a soixante-huitard, but in an entirely English sense...

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

'An exhibition of reckless species-making'

Pictured above is Swainson's Warbler, one of the many species named by William John Swainson, ornithologist, all-round naturalist and pioneer of the use of lithograhy in zoological illustration. Swainson was a survivor of the bitter classification wars that raged through much of the 19th century (and still do today, in the form of the great Splitters v Lumpers debate). Swainson was an enthusiastic proponent of the Quinarian system of classification (don't ask) developed by William Sharp Macleay – a system that soon fell out of favour. Both Macleay and Swainson emigrated to Australasia (no mean endeavour in those days), Macleay to Australia, Swainson to Wellington, New Zealand, where he bought a huge tract of land – which was promptly claimed by a Maori chief, leading to much legal wrangling.
 A visiting American, finding both Macleay and Swainson living in the Antipodes, speculated that they must have been sent into exile 'for the great crime of burdening zoology with a false though much laboured theory which has thrown so much confusion into its classification and philosophical study'.
 In 1851 Swainson sailed to Sydney and took up a post as Botanical Surveyor with the Victoria government. His efforts were not well received. William Jackson Hooker opined that 'In my life I think I never read such a series of trash and nonsense. Here is a man who left this country with the character of a first-rate naturalist and of a very first-rate Natural History artist, and he goes to Australia and takes up Botany, of which he is as ignorant as a goose.' Another critic described Swainson's botanical work as 'an exhibition of reckless species-making that, as far as I know, stands unparalleled in the annals of botanical literature'. Scientists didn't mince their words in those days.
 Swainson returned to Wellington in 1854, and died on this day in the following year.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Intelligence Explosion?

I can't resist passing on this piece (with a tip of the hat to Gareth Williams). It's a fine demolition of the increasingly popular notion that the use of AI (Artificial Intelligence) will at some point create an 'intelligence explosion' that will render us humans redundant and pose an existential threat to us. It's a scifi-inspired projection that rests on a fundamentally flawed idea of intelligence as a kind of superpower, a free-floating contextless phenomenon that, once it's let loose, will carry on doing its work until, as a result of exponential growth in competence, it has far surpassed our puny brains and will lead us into a future where AI is in charge and we humans are no longer needed. Intelligence – artificial or not – simply does not work like that, the author points out. We need not fear this 'explosion'; it will never happen.
Here is the link...

Of course, there may well be reasons to fear the effects of the spread of AI – not least the threat to jobs (this time, interestingly, to high-level as well as low-skill work). But AI isn't going to leave us all sitting around twiddling our thumbs, any more that the rise of digital technology did. AI will, I suspect, find its limits rather sooner than the more excitable futurologists predict. It will bump up against the bounds of the human world that created it and from which is cannot break free.

Monday, 4 December 2017

Year of the Blues

Another grey, cold December day (with redwings everywhere, heralding colder times ahead) has me yearning for the butterfly-rich days of summer. Clearly it's time to look back over my butterfly year – and wish, as ever, that I'd made more of it.
 It started early, with a flurry of Brimstones in February, and continued well into April, including a magical early Orange Tip on a memorable day. When the summer got properly under way, 2017 turned out to be the Year of the Blues (by contrast with 2016's Year of the Hairstreak). A location I'd only managed to find this year proved to be alive with Small Blues, and an exciting highlight of the year was finding a thriving colony of beautiful Silver-Studded Blues at Brookwood – but the most thrilling Blue encounters of the year were with brilliant late-August Adonis Blues, flying in such profusion as I never saw before.
 It was also an uncommonly good year for two other chalk downland rarities, the Dark Green Fritillary and Silver-spotted Skipper – at least it was for me – and I saw plenty of White Admirals and Silver-Washed Fritillaries in high summer, and a quite prodigious abundance of Marbled Whites in late spring. A year to look back on with delight. I feel warmer already...
 And, happily, I don't have long to look forward to my first butterflies of 2018, as I shall be in New Zealand throughout January, visiting our daughter, son-in-law and grandsons, and enjoying the Monarchs and Yellow Admirals and antipodean coppers and blues.

Saturday, 2 December 2017

Billy Burges, Birthday Boy

Born on this day 190 years ago was the extraordinary Victorian architect and designer William Burges. He was so 'Gothic' that he wrote in vellum notebooks and had a working portcullis on his London house – but, unlike the more solemn Gothic revivalists, he also regarded the whole thing as an opportunity to have fun, to let the imagination run riot. His fantastically exuberant interiors – as at Cardiff Castle and the nearby Castell Coch – are full of visual jokes and flights of fancy, and give the unmistakable impression of a man enjoying himself (how very unlike, say, Augustus Welby Pugin).
 Burges was not yet 30 when, with Henry Clutton, he won the competition to design a new cathedral for Lille, but politics ensured that the winning design was passed over in favour of another (eventually abandoned and perfunctorily finished off when it was half built). His design for Cork Cathedral (impeccable 'Early French'), however, was built, and he went on to create a range of extraordinary buildings, mostly for very rich patrons in rather remote places. All his best interiors offer the complete Burges Gothic experience, designed down to the smallest detail, decorated and furnished entirely with Burges's own creations. The effect is overwhelming, but in a thoroughly enjoyable way, with a wonderfully inventive use of colour and form. It's best taken in small doses though - after a while it's just too much.
 'Billy' Burges was a curiously child-like, impish figure, eccentric and flamboyant even by the standards of the Victorian art world. Short, fat and ill-favoured, he particularly enjoyed prancing around in medieval garb – but he was popular and clubbable, and professionally very successful (even if many of his projects never got built). His death was probably accelerated by his addiction to both opium and tobacco (and the opium might well have shaped some of his more extravagant designs). Having fallen ill on a working visit to Cardiff, he lay dying in his London home (the extraordinary Tower House in Holland Park) for three weeks. Among the visitors to his deathbed were Whistler and Oscar Wilde.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Talking Metaphors

There was an interesting programme on metaphors on Radio 4 the other day, A Picture Held Us Captivehere's the link. In it, one Zia Haider Rahman examines the power of metaphor and its widespread abuse in the public sphere. Richard Dawkins, a prime offender, is in the frame from the get-go, and I was reminded of Marilynne Robinson's comment that 'Finding selfishness in a gene is an act of mind that rather resembles finding wrath in thunder' (and the Australian philosopher David Stove's 'Genes can be no more selfish than they can be (say) supercilious, or stupid'). But the 'selfish gene' metaphor trundles on, crushing all in its path, along with the clutch of biblically-inspired metaphors of the genome as the Book of Life, Code of Codes, etc. Metaphorical language like this is, as more than one contributor points out, massively reductionist, closing down other, more complex and nuanced ways of looking at things. Which is probably the intention.
 Of course, there might be a big question that's being skirted here: Is it actually possible to sustain any discourse for long, or to describe any reality, without resorting to metaphor?