Sunday, 23 January 2022

Manet's Mysterious Bar

 It's Manet Day again – the birthday (in 1832) of Edouard Manet – a date that seems to have become a fixture on the Nigeness calendar. Usually I celebrate by posting one of the beautiful flower paintings that he made in the last months of his life. This year, however, I'm posting 'A Bar at the Folies Bergères' (a treasure of the Courtauld gallery), the last large-scale painting he completed. And it does feature an exquisite little flower piece in the foreground, the colours set off against the black of the barmaid's dress. Manet painted this picture entirely in his studio, being too ill for a prolonged session at the Folies Bergères. He set up a prop bar counter for the foreground, and painted the background from memory and existing sketches.
It is a haunting, enigmatic painting, one that has attracted much analysis. Most obviously, there seems to be something wrong with the reflection in the mirror (as there often seems to be in the works of Velazquez, Manet's master). Certainly the looming figure of a top-hatted moustachioed man at top right seems out of scale – and why is the barmaid's reflected back so far to the right? This has been explained (perhaps) by an Australian academic, Malcolm Park, who, in a doctoral dissertation, argued that, if Manet's viewpoint is not from a frontal head-on position but from somewhere to the right, everything falls into place, and the barmaid and moustachioed gent are not in conversation at all. The trick is that Manet makes us assume that his viewpoint is frontal. Well, maybe... For myself, I'm happy to let the mystery be, to ponder what it might represent – a vision of paradise, the ultimate sadness of fallen humanity, the world the dying Manet is about to lose? – and simply to enjoy the painterly beauty of what is surely one of Manet's great meditations on the relationship between reality and illusion. And surely a masterpiece. 
Two more little details: note, on the left, the wine bottle bearing the artist's signature, and, on the right, a bottle of what is unmistakably Bass – English beer, perhaps denoting Manet's anti-German sentiments. 

Friday, 21 January 2022

Sans Gill

 The other day, in the course of a meandering telephone call with my brother, the subject got round to Eric Gill, that brilliant engraver and typographer and famously depraved sex maniac. It can only be a matter of time, I quipped, until they start dropping his typefaces... Well, I though I was quipping, but I should have known better: we live in times so mad that events routinely outpace any attempt at satire, particularly in the wonderful world of 'cancel culture'. Sure enough, I now learn that the charity Save the Children is dropping the Gill Sans typeface from its logo, not wishing to link the work of a known abuser with a children's charity. This begs an obvious question: before the charity drew attention to it, how many people would have known it was Gill Sans? Come to that, how many people would even be able to identify Gill Sans? There are plenty of similar typefaces, and nothing about Sans that screams 'Eric Gill', still less 'Eric Gill, child abuser'. A typeface is just a typeface (in Gill Sans's case a 'humanist sans-serif'), too abstract to express anything of its creator's personality, still less his moral character. However, Eric Gill is clearly in the firing line now – as evidenced by the vandal who the other day took a hammer to his Prospero and Ariel outside Broadcasting House (to its credit, the BBC is so far standing firm in its determination to keep its Gill statuary). Eric Gill was a bad man, therefore even his typefaces must be expunged in our oh-so-moral times. 
  Until Fiona MacCarthy's 1989 biography, Gill's sexual misdeeds were unsuspected: there is nothing in his published work – still less in his typefaces – to suggest them (his erotic wood engravings seem quite straightforward). However, because his sins are now known, his works are to be, if at all possible, suppressed. Had he been a murderer, he would be on safer ground – Caravaggio remains very much in favour, and no one talks of cancelling Benvenuto Cellini or the composer Gesualdo. Come to that, no one takes a hammer to Karl Marx in Highgate cemetery, and 70 million or more deaths can be laid at the door of his political philosophy. Now, if it could be proved that he abused his daughters, that would change things... Or would it? 

Thursday, 20 January 2022


 Muriel Spark's second novel, Robinson, is a curious book – but then, which of her novels isn't? 
As the name suggests, it's a castaway adventure of a sort, but the journal-writing narrator is not a man but the familiar fictional proxy of Muriel Spark – cool, sharp-witted, self-aware, steeped in literature and theology. She, the curiously named January Marlow, is one of three survivors from a plane that has crashed on a remote island owned and occupied by the enigmatic Robinson, who lives alone, but for Miguel, a boy he has adopted. One of the survivors – Jimmie, a Hungarian who has learnt his English from works of high literature, turns out to be related to Robinson, in fact his heir. The other is a dodgy character called Tom Wells, who makes a living from a fortune-telling magazine, the sale of lucky charms, and a little blackmail on the side – very Sparkian. 
  January is repelled by Tom Wells (who is not the only dodgy male in the novel), somewhat attracted to Jimmie, and largely infuriated by Robinson. When the last of these goes missing, to all appearances murdered, things become complicated as all the other three become suspicious of each other. For a while Robinson seems to be developing into a standard whodunit, crossed with an action adventure – scenes of peril in the island's secret caves, a fight described in conventional thriller language – but nothing is ever that simple in Spark's fictional territory...
  I enjoyed reading this one – Spark's bright, pared-down style and unpredictable mind are never less than enjoyable – but it is one of her slighter productions. Perhaps, being only her second novel, it was intended to show that she could handle genres that might not have been thought within her range. Happily, though, it remains a curious, Sparkian book. It's a most unusual castaway tale that ends as Robinson does –

 'Even while the journal brings before me the events of which I have written, they are transformed, there is undoubtedly a sea-change, so that the island resembles a locality of childhood, both dangerous and lyrical. I have impressions of the island of which I have not told you, and could not entirely if I had a hundred tongues – the mustard field staring at me with its yellow eye, the blue and green lake seeing in me a hard turquoise stone, the goat’s blood observing me red, guilty, all red. And sometimes when I am walking down the King’s Road or sipping my espresso in the morning – feeling, not old exactly, but fusty and adult – and chance to remember the island, immediately all things are possible.'

Tuesday, 18 January 2022

'They lost the off switch in my lifetime...'

Sitting in the lobby of a chain hotel, fresh from sitting in a chain café, and all the time accompanied by a soundtrack of non-stop 'music' (and occasionally music), I happen on this poem by Les Murray:

Music to Me Is Like Days

Once played to attentive faces 
Music has broken its frame 
Its bodice of always-weak laces 
The entirely promiscuous art 
Pours out in public spaces 
Accompanying everything, the selections 
Of sex and war, the rejections. 
To jeans-wearers in zipped sporrans 
It transmits an ideal body 
Continuously as theirs age. Warrens 
Of plastic tiles and mesh throats 
Dispense this aural money 
This sleek accountancy of notes 
Deep feeling adrift from its feelers 
Thought that means everything at once 
Like a shrugging of cream shoulders 
Like paintings hung on park mesh 
Sonore doom soneer illy chesh 
They lost the off switch in my lifetime 
The world reverberates with Muzak 
And Prozac. As it doesn’t with poe-zac 
(I did meet a Miss Universe named Verstak). 
Music to me is like days 
I rarely catch who composed them 
If one’s sublime I think God 
My life-signs suspend. I nod
It’s like both Stilton and cure
From one harpsichord-hum:
Penicillium –
Then I miss the Köchel number.
I scarcely know whose performance
Of a limpid autumn noon is superior
I gather timbre outranks rhumba. 

I often can’t tell days apart 
They are the consumers, not me 
In my head collectables decay 
I’ve half-heard every piece of music 
The glorious big one with voice 
The gleaming instrumental one, so choice 
The hypnotic one like weed-smoke at a party 
And the muscular one out of farty 
Cars that goes Whudda Whudda 
Whudda like the compound oil heart 
Of a warrior not of this planet.

Friday, 14 January 2022

Sheeran's Church

 I've always found Ed Sheeran's massive success a total mystery. His songs sound to me like, well, so much dead air – too nondescript to register, let alone catch my attention. However, from what little I know of him as a man, he strikes me as a decent sort, a mensch even. Now my opinion of his character has been further raised by the news that he is building not only a church but also a crypt, or underground burial space, in the grounds of his vast Suffolk estate, 'Sheeranville'. The story is told in typically exhaustive style in the Daily Mail, complete with all manner of elaborate graphics. I love that a young pop star, at the height of his fame, should be thinking about death and, presumably, religious worship. And I love that what he proposes to build is not the monument of a megalomaniac but a relatively humble building, with a simple, small burial chamber (nothing like the 'mausoleum' that some have been excitedly reporting). The boat-shaped church I like very much. It looks as if it will sit perfectly in the Suffolk countryside (provided they get the roofing material right – on the architect's drawings it looks suitably unobtrusive). 
  On one of the aerial photographs of 'Sheeranville', the tower of the nearby parish church – St Michael's, Framlingham – can be seen. This fine church contains several reminders of an age when the building of splendid monuments to oneself and one's family was de rigueur for the wealthier members of society. Chief among them are several tombs of the Howard family, including a grand painted alabaster monument that commemorates Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, the poet. 

Howard, having fallen foul of Henry VIII and been imprisoned in the Tower, was executed in 1547 at the age of thirty. He never got to experience the old age he assumes in his poem, 'The Ages of Man'...

Laid in my quiet bed, in study as I were,
I saw within my troubled head a heap of thoughts appear,
And every thought did show so lively in mine eyes,
That now I sigh'd, and then I smil'd, as cause of thought did rise.
I saw the little boy, in thought how oft that he
Did wish of God to scape the rod, a tall young man to be;
The young man eke, that feels his bones with pains oppress'd,
How he would be a rich old man, to live and lie at rest;
The rich old man, that sees his end draw on so sore,
How he would be a boy again, to live so much the more.
Whereat full oft I smil'd, to see how all these three,
From boy to man, from man to boy, would chop and change degree.
And musing thus, I think the case is very strange
That man from wealth, to live in woe, doth ever seek to change.
Thus thoughtful as I lay, I saw my wither'd skin,
How it doth show my dinted jaws, the flesh was worn so thin;
And eke my toothless chaps, the gates of my right way,
That opes and shuts as I do speak, do thus unto me say:
"Thy white and hoarish hairs, the messengers of age,
That show like lines of true belief that this life doth assuage,
Bids thee lay hand and feel them hanging on thy chin,
The which do write two ages past, the third now coming in.
Hang up, therefore, the bit of thy young wanton time,
And thou that therein beaten art, the happiest life define."
Whereat I sigh'd and said: "Farewell, my wonted joy,
Truss up thy pack and trudge from me to every little boy,
And tell them thus from me: their time most happy is,
If to their time they reason had to know the truth of this."

Wednesday, 12 January 2022

Causley's Gorky

 Some months ago – in fact on the artist's birthday – I wrote briefly about this extraordinary painting, The Artist and His Mother, by Arshile Gorky. Now, browsing in Charles Causley's last collection, A Field of Vision, I find a wonderfully evocative ekphrastic poem, 'Arshile Gorky's The Artist and His Mother'. The final lines look forward to Gorky's suicide in 1948 when, after a terrible succession of calamities – a fire, cancer, a car accident in which his neck was broken, his wife leaving him – he hanged himself in his studio. On a wooden crate nearby he had written 'Goodbye My Loveds'. 

They face us as if we were marksmen, eyes
Unblindfolded, quite without pathos, lives
Fragile as the rose-coloured light, as motes
Of winking Anatolian dust. But in
The landscape of the mind they stand as strong
As rock or water.
                             The young boy with smudged
Annunciatory flowers tilts his head
A little sideways like a curious bird.
He wears against his history’s coming cold,
A velvet coloured coat, Armenian pants,
A pair of snub-nosed slippers. He is eight
Years old. His mother, hooded as a nun,
Rests shapeless, painted hands; her pinafore
A blank white canvas falling to the floor. 

Locked in soft shapes of ochre, iron, peach,
Burnt gold of dandelion, their deep gaze
Is unaccusing, yet accusatory.
It is as if the child already sees
His own death, self-invited, in the green
Of a new world, the painted visions now
Irrelevant, and arguments of line
Stilled by the death of love.
His miracle, he makes the last, long choice
Of one who can no longer stay to hear
Promises of the eye, the colour’s voice.

Tuesday, 11 January 2022

Housekeeping Again

 I first became aware of Marilynne Robinson when I read an essay by her in the TLS, shortly after her first novel Housekeeping was published. I only recall that it had something to do with the now famous passage in the novel that begins 'Imagine a Carthage sown with salt...' – and that I was practically gasping with astonished admiration as I read it. Here was someone who wrote like no one else, and who seemed to inhabit a realm of mental and moral seriousness long ago abandoned by most writers: she spoke as if from another age, or none. I duly read Housekeeping and was not disappointed: indeed I found it the most impressive contemporary novel I had read in a long while. After that, Robinson maintained silence on the fiction front for nearly a quarter of a century, while I sustained myself on the wonderful essay collection The Death of Adam and even on Mother Country, half of which is a brilliant demolition of what might be called 'political economy'. 
  Then, in 2004, came Gilead, and everything changed. Suddenly Robinson became a popular, prize-winning author – an effect that was only amplified when Home won the Orange Prize, among other awards. I loved Gilead, finding it very nearly as impressive – and as different – as Housekeeping, but, sad to say, Robinson began to lose me with Home, which I found a struggle to admire: I got there in the end, but I don't think I would ever reread Home, and I have never read its successors. With fame, Robinson, once so refreshingly reticent, began to have a public voice, to be interviewed and asked her opinion on public affairs, to be, in a word, a kind of literary celebrity. She became less interesting, and, though it grieves me to report it, I began not only to lose interest but to detect something almost of smugness about her public persona. This is no doubt grossly unfair of me – I am talking only of impressions – but it reminded me of a similar transition in Hilary Mantel, another writer (by no means Robinson's equal) whose early work I greatly admired, and who seems to have been adversely affected by fame.
  Anyway, all this is by way of saying that, after an interval of a decade or more, I decided to reread Housekeeping again. Would I find it as impressive, as original, as altogether extraordinary as I remembered it? Happily, the answer is an emphatic Yes. This astonishing novel  has a uniquely evanescent, indeterminate quality, unstable as the water that is its element; it is like a kind of mirror, but a mirror at once reflective and transparent (like the surface of water). It simply is the mystifying world its young narrator lives in, a world in which she is forever trying to find a path and a meaning – and, above all, a home. Having read it once again, I am as convinced as ever that it is a classic, one of very few written in our times. 
'Imagine a Carthage sown with salt, and all the sowers gone, and the seeds lain however long in the earth, till there rose finally in vegetable profusion leaves and trees of rime and brine. What flowering would there be in such a garden? Light would force each salt calyx to open in prisms, and to fruit heavily with bright globes of water–-peaches and grapes are little more than that, and where the world was salt there would be greater need of slaking. For need can blossom into all the compensations it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savours of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing–-the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again.'