W.G.Sebald and the common reader

The literary elite likes to keep certain authors to itself. Rather in the way that libraries segregate adults from children, it prefers to keep books by these authors out of the reach of the common reader. Publishers join the conspiracy for their own ends by making it easy to know a book by its cover, so that each finds its target audience and none ever falls into the wrong hands. Popular fiction and its various genres are distinguished from literary fiction by the recognisable styles of illustration used to market them. Literary elite fiction is an exclusive brand with covers that are designed to put everybody else off by making it clear that it is not for them.

The Penguin edition of W.G.Sebald’s Austerlitz has on its cover a sepia-toned photograph of a child running across a field, wearing fancy dress and an enigmatic expression, below which is printed the title and the name of the author, both rather forbidding in a Germanic sort of way, presenting the average English reader with an immediate pronunciation problem. Underneath that is a quote from a review in The Times which must have been chosen as the one most likely to put people off. ‘His tale of one man’s odyssey through the dark ages of European history is one of the most moving and true fictions in the postwar world.’ As if that wasn’t enough, ‘Sebald,’ it concludes, ‘is the Joyce of the 21st century.’ That’s the killer punch, guaranteed to keep Sebald’s book out of the hands of the hoi polloi. You won’t like this, it says. Here, try this debut novel that everybody says is a masterpiece. That’ll be more in your line.

Austerlitz is in fact very readable. It might not be divided into paragraphs, let alone chapters, which makes it seem rather daunting to begin with, but the experience it gives you, if you give way to it, is like being swept along on a wave. A better comparison than Joyce, though no less likely to put people off, it must be admitted, would be Beckett. Two men meet at a railway station, one tells the other the story of his life. That’s it.

Another comparison, one that might actually persuade more people to read it, is Conrad. He made frequent use of this particular narrative device, one person telling a story to someone else, nor was he by any means the first to do so. It is sometimes called a framing device, setting one story inside another, as in The 1001 Nights, but it can also be a distancing device, putting two voices between the novelist and the reader. It is and has been for a very long time a common way of telling a story, a way for the writer to establish his credentials as an honest chronicler (‘I don’t know whether it’s true or not, but it’s what I was told,’ as Herodotus used to say) and a way of making an incredible story credible by putting it into someone else’s mouth.

Conrad does it in his way, Sebald in his. With Conrad, we soon forget who is telling the story. Sebald on the other hand keeps reminding us.  The words, ‘said Austerlitz,’ inserted into a sentence, appear regularly throughout the novel, just to keep us on our toes. Sometimes, when Austerlitz himself is reporting what someone else said to him, we get a ‘said so-and-so, said Austerlitz’. In my view, this is meant to be funny. It made me laugh anyway. James Wood, in his introduction to the Penguin edition, describes it as ‘a kind of parody of the source-attribution we encounter in a newspaper’, but then he also has a lot to say about Roland Barthes.

The other device that Sebald uses is withholding information. Austerlitz is a kind of detective story. The story Austerlitz tells starts with his earliest memories and proceeds chronologically to the point where he discovers that he is not who he has been brought up to think he is, that is to say a Welsh boy called Dafydd Elias, but Jacques Austerlitz, a Jewish boy who came to England on the kindertransport in the years before the war and was adopted by a childless Welsh couple. Then begins the detective story. The elements of the genre are all present – a mystery to be solved, an obsessive detective, helpful and unhelpful witnesses, evidence unearthed during the course of an inquiry that takes us to strange, unsettling, alien places – but, as with the old-fashioned narrative device he uses to frame his story, Sebald uses these elements in his own way.

The comparison here, perhaps, is with José Saramago. Sebald abandons paragraphs, Saramago abandons punctuation, but they both make up for it by telling a story that captures and holds their readers’ attention in the traditional way. They both want to be read and not just by the literary elite. Saramago confronts his characters with apparently insoluble problems in impossible circumstances and gives his readers the pleasure of seeing how they cope and guessing how it will end. Sebald engages his readers in an exercise in historical analysis that, because it is located in real places and grounded in real experience, reveals both the history and the analysis as human acts. Both use fiction as she should be used, to turn fact into truth.

You will say (James Wood will say) that it is unrealistic to expect the common reader to overcome the difficulties presented by W.G.Sebald. I say that, if that is the case, the fault lies with the English education system, which has one kind of school for common readers and another for the literary elite, demanding too little of the former and (not infrequently) too much of the latter. Not to mention publishers who serve up identikit debut novels for the masses, keeping the real thing for themselves.

w.g.sebald 01

My Reader’s Diary on 23 April will be on a suitably Shakespearean theme.

My essay on 30 April will be a contribution to this year’s centenary celebration of the work of Dylan Thomas.

Click here for an extract from my new book, An Englishman (and his mother) Abroad.

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A Reader’s Diary, 9 April 2014

I found Ronald Fraser (not to be confused with either the actor or the historian of the same name) in a second-hand bookshop, which is the only place he can be found now. Information about him is as hard to find as his books. An internet search leads straight to the other Ronald Frasers. You have to search for Sir Ronald Fraser. Then you will find that he was born in 1888, died in 1974, wrote 27 novels and received a knighthood in 1949 for services, not to literature, but to the overseas section of the Department of Trade.

It was probably the title that caught my attention – The Flying Draper. His first novel, published in 1924 by Jonathan Cape, it tells the story of a man called Codling, the owner of a draper’s shop, who goes up onto Hampstead Heath and, by an effort of will, rises into the air and flies to Devonshire. In his introduction to the 1931 edition, the one I bought, Humbert Wolfe tells us that the book was at first ‘dismissed as a fantasy in the manner of Mr H.G.Wells’ and goes on to say, quite rightly I think, that ‘no serious book of our time is less like the work of Mr Wells or more completely unaffected by him.’ Describing Wells as ‘a reformer of society rather than a philosopher’, he says that ‘the opposite is true of Mr Fraser’. He then gives us a description of Fraser’s un-Wellsian imagination which I don’t think can be bettered. ‘His imagination is as nearly disembodied as it is possible for imagination to be without losing meaning.’ In other words, he has much more in common with Maurice Maeterlinck than with H.G.Wells. He belongs with the symbolists and, if it had not been for the association with English tradesmen of the Kipps variety that the hero of his first novel inevitably produced in readers’ minds, he might have been recognised sooner for what he was.

Since making my discovery, I went on to read Rose Anstey, in his day the most successful of his novels, published six years after The Flying Draper, and, just a few weeks ago, Surprising Results, which was published five years after that in 1935. It seems to me now that Fraser’s originality is not a matter of style or form, as it is with, say, James Joyce or Virginia Woolf, but of character and narrative. All three of the novels that I have so far read are conventional in style and form, telling a story in the manner of the nineteenth century realistic novel. But the events of which the narrative is made up and the characters who participate in them are quite the opposite. This is what makes the novels so strange and individual.

It explains too why his publishers, with the support of advocates like Humbert Wolfe, stuck with him and why most readers did not, with the result that all his books went out of print soon after his death. It helped, perhaps, that Wolfe was a poet of Jewish Italian descent who therefore had a wider view than that of most English readers. His work, like Fraser’s, is largely forgotten now, except for one piece of verse, which is still widely quoted.

You cannot hope
to bribe or twist,
thank God! the
British journalist.
But, seeing what
the man will do
unbribed, there’s
no occasion to.

English tradesmen are absent from Rose Anstey and Surprising Results. What we have instead, in each case, is a group of characters in settings that are remote and detached from the everyday world. The story of Rose Anstey is a kind of variation on Goldilocks and the Three Bears, in which the part of Goldilocks is taken by Rose, a young woman who appears out of nowhere looking for somewhere to live and about whose origins we know as little at the end of the story as we did at the beginning, in other words nothing, and that of the Three Bears by the three unmarried brothers who take her in. It is a love story, untrammelled by the rules and conventions of real life, but related as if it were all perfectly normal, which is what Fraser was aiming at in The Flying Draper and managed with more skill and sophistication as he went on.

In Surprising Results, the characters are ex-pats living comfortably in the south of France, their lives for the purposes of the story revolving around the violent relationship between a local bar owner and his beautiful young wife. English detachment is contrasted with Mediterranean passion. The story of the French couple would make a good opera of the Cavalleria Rusticana variety, melodrama here taking the place of fairy tale as a vehicle for Fraser’s ‘disembodied imagination’. The thought makes me wonder why nobody, as far as I know, has thought of putting it on stage. The characters are all very finely drawn and given a distinctive voice in the dialogue through which, as much as through description by the first person narrator, they are presented. The fact that two of them are identical twins could be a problem, but if that could be overcome I think it would work very well as a play. Fraser’s imagination might be set free in the theatre and find a new audience for his books, if someone could be found to publish them again.

Neglected female novelists of the twentieth century have been well served by specialist imprints, notably Virago. The assumption that male novelists can be left to fend for themselves is an example of gender bias and discrimination that has gone unnoticed. There are others besides Ronald Fraser whose work is long overdue for rediscovery. Jack Lindsay, Louis Golding, David Garnett, T.F.Powys are four who spring immediately to mind, most of whose work can be found only in second-hand bookshops. By definition, there will be many more that I have yet to find, among them for example Humbert Wolfe. These writers need their own Virago to rescue them from oblivion.

But what is a male virago? If you look it up in the OED, the definition you expect, ‘a man-like, vigorous, and heroic woman’, comes second. The first is simply ‘Woman’, qualified as ‘the name given by Adam to Eve after the Vulgate rendering of Gen.ii.23’. I propose therefore an imprint called Adam with a mission to rescue male writers from neglect, starting with Sir Ronald Fraser. Meanwhile, you can pick them up for a song at your local second-hand bookshop. My signed first edition of Surprising Results cost me just £5.00.

secondhand bookshop 01

My next essay, to be published on 16 April, is called W.G.Sebald and the common reader.

My next Reader’s Diary on 23 April will be on a suitably Shakespearean theme.

Click here for an extract from my new book, An Englishman (and his mother) Abroad.

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D.H.Lawrence, the poet

D.H.Lawrence was simply a writer, in the way that a composer is a composer or an artist an artist. He wrote prolifically in every literary form and showed that he could do them all. He wrote novels, short stories, plays, poems and essays. He translated the work of other writers too, notably the nineteenth century Italian, Giovanni Verga, whose novels and stories he introduced to the English-speaking world. Whatever he wrote was recognisably his, in the same way that a painting by Monet is a Monet. (Some say that the same applies to his translations of Verga.) He is as individual as William Blake and belongs in that tradition: the rebel, the outsider, the untutored genius.

Lawrence’s poetry has several distinctive features that mark him out as different from other writers and, taken together, add up to the quality that is often called, rather lazily, because the term is understood in different ways by different people, Lawrentian. They are almost all written in the present tense; some of them are written in an assumed persona which is sometimes working class and often female; they consist largely of direct observations of things seen and heard; the thoughts and feelings they convey are an immediate reaction to a particular experience rather than a reflection on it; the language is personal, direct and intimate.

What links all these is their immediacy. His poetry is not Wordsworth’s ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’. It is closer in this respect, leaving aside the question of style, to the poetry of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, to Sir Thomas Wyatt or George Herbert. There are similarities too with John Clare, another working-class boy with a genius for words.

Browsing the complete poems (Wordsworth Poetry Library, 1994) is like leafing through an artist’s sketchbook. Each poem gives the impression of having been written al fresco, drawn from life. They have the immediacy (there is no better word for it) that a sketch or a study often has and that a finished painting sometimes lacks.

There are poems written when he was a teacher that give the impression of being written in the classroom, while the children are getting on with their work. The atmosphere these poems conjure up may be different from that of today’s classrooms, but it takes me straight back to the classrooms I taught in for twenty years. Last Lesson in the Afternoon ends on a note of sullen resentment that must have been felt by more teachers than just Lawrence and me.

I shall keep my strength for myself; they can keep theirs as well.
Why should we beat our heads against the wall
Of each other? I shall sit and wait for the bell.

But most of the poems are about love and most of the love poems are about pain of one sort or another, misunderstandings, disappointments, failures of communication, sexual failures. Both Sides of the Medal has more than a faint echo of the best known of Catullus’s poems, Odi et amo.

And because you love me,
Think you you do not hate me?
Ha, since you love me to ecstasy
it follows you hate me to ecstasy.

In First Morning he writes in the aftermath of an unsatisfactory first night.

The night was a failure
    but why not – ?

In the darkness
    with the pale dawn seething at the window
    through the black frame
    I could not be free,
    not free myself from the past, those others –
    and our love was a confusion,
    there was a horror,
    you recoiled away from me.

Lawrence’s entire œuvre, but above all his poetry, was unashamedly autobiographical. There is more than a passing resemblance to Strindberg in the way in which his own life finds its way into his writing, not least in his ambivalent attitude to women.

Another side of this appears in what he called his Pansies (‘And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts’) short poems or epigrams in which he gives unrestrained expression to his feelings about the world – or, more particularly, England. A Tale Told by an Idiot is typical.

Modern life is a tale told by an idiot;
flat-chested, crop-headed, chemicalised women, of indeterminate sex,
and wimbly-wambly young men, of sex still more indeterminate,
and hygienic babies in huge hulks of coffin-like perambulators –
The great social idiot, it must be confessed,
tells dull, meaningless, disgusting tales
and repeats himself like the flushing of a WC.

The disgust is reminiscent of Swift or the cartoons of Gilray and Hogarth. Also, again, of Catullus because, with him as with Lawrence, it’s personal. Take Innocent England as an example.

Oh what a pity. Oh! don’t you agree,
that figs aren’t found in the land of the free!
Fig trees don’t grow in my native land;
there’s never a fig-leaf near at hand
when you want one; so I did without;
and that is what the row’s about.

The row was about the exhibition of his nudes in a London gallery (he painted too) which so scandalised the nation that twelve thousand people came to see them, before they were taken away by the police and put in a cell – the paintings, that is, not the people. (The Bloomsbury set were on his side and encouraged him to fight the case in the courts. But if he had lost the paintings would have been destroyed and he couldn’t bear the thought of that, so he gave in and the paintings stayed where they were, detained at His Majesty’s pleasure. It was the reaction of a working man, less confident than he seemed, wary of litigation, and the difference between him and his posh friends.)

A few years ago, a review in The Guardian of a book about these paintings began with this sentence: ‘It’s hard to imagine that David Herbert Lawrence will ever again be read with the passion and recognition that people evidently felt forty years ago, when his cultural war was still not won.’

I think that says more about the reviewer’s understanding of culture than it does about D.H.Lawrence. Lawrence has been out of fashion for a long time. He was never entirely in fashion, working class writers never are in England, so it is not surprising that he should quickly go out of it.

Lawrence is known as a novelist, but his poetry is just as good as his prose and, taken as a whole, perhaps better. It is in his poems above all that we find the immediacy, the intimacy, the working-class honesty, which seem to me to be the essence of what we mean by Lawrentian – or what we should mean.

lawrence 01   lawrence 02

Click here to read a small selection of poems by D.H.Lawrence, chosen to illustrate the qualities mentioned in my essay.

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A Reader’s Diary, 26 March 2014

Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary fails for me because Tóibín fails to give Mary a voice. Instead of letting her speak for herself, as first person narrator of his novella, he puts words into her mouth. The poor woman sinks under the weight of heavy symbolism and poeticism. ‘They appear more often now, both of them, and on every visit they seem more impatient with me and with the world,’ she says right at the start. ‘There is something hungry and rough in them, a brutality boiling in their blood, which I have seen before and can smell as an animal that is being hunted can smell.’

Our first acquaintance with Mary reveals her, not as a Jewish woman living in Palestine two thousand years ago, but as a British woman halfway through an MA in Creative Writing. The first sentence is straight out of the creative writing text book: start with a pronoun referring to unnamed and vaguely threatening characters, hinting at the events which are to follow so as to capture the reader’s attention. I can imagine the second being read out to the class as one student’s response to an exercise in descriptive writing: notice her use of alliteration in the second clause, repetition in the third and the simile at the end. But I can’t imagine the real Mary saying it.

On every page, she speaks to us as an articulate, educated woman, our contemporary. ‘I will come down this passageway as the dawn breaks,’ she says, ‘as the dawn insinuates its rays of light into this room.’ She is out to impress. She knows how to end a paragraph with the right note of foreboding. ‘Before the final rest comes this long awakening. And it is enough for me to know that it will end.’ When she lapses into cliché, as she does all too often, it can be a relief: at least she’s human, which is what Tóibín wants us to feel. Actually, it’s just him being lazy, using phrases like ‘grim satisfaction’, ‘heightened atmosphere’, ‘the centre of power’, ‘despite my initial alarm’. Barrabas, she tells us, as if reporting the event for the local newspaper, ‘was set free to roars of approval from the crowd.’

Tóibín’s idea is that the real Mary has to be kept quiet, somewhat implausibly, by ‘minders’, so that the Christian myth they are intent on creating will not be undermined. He makes the real Mary run away after the crucifixion, but the official story, the one we read in the bible, is that she and the other women take Jesus down from the cross, wash his body and wrap it in clean linen, ready for burial, so that he can rise from the dead after three days, in line with the prophecy. Did it escape his notice that the ‘true’ story he tells is a fiction too?

The only incidents he allows Mary to talk about come from the Christian gospels, notably the wedding feast at Cana and the raising of Lazarus. The real Mary might or might not have told us about these, but she would surely have told us about others too, things that were new to us, things that a Jewish woman of that era would have been interested in because they formed part of her daily life, stories about Jesus and his brothers. (She never mentions them, her other sons, but talks only about ‘my son’, as if he were the only one.) Perhaps she might even have said something about his birth. The real story of his birth, as well as, if not more than, his death, is surely something that the real Mary would want to talk about.

Tóibín should not have made Mary the narrator if he was not willing or able to give her a voice. He could and perhaps should have told the story in a different way, as Jim Crace did in Quarantine. Crace tells the story of Jesus’s forty days in the desert with a credibility, subtlety and complexity that allows him to depart from the biblical version more substantially than Tóibín and to greater effect. What, after all, is Tóibín trying to say that has not already been said about Marilyn Monroe, Joan of Arc and Boadicea? The life lived and the myth that came after are two different things. The attempt failed because, in his enthusiasm for dispelling the myth, he didn’t tell us enough about the life or give Mary a voice of her own to tell it with.

Pietá, Van Gogh

Pietá, Van Gogh

Next week I’ll be writing about D.H.Lawrence, the poet.

Then it will be back to my Reader’s Diary on 9 April.

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Honest Iago

In the very first scene of Shakespeare’s Othello, Iago tells us (he is speaking to Roderigo, but what he says is for our benefit) what kind of man he is. ‘I am not what I am,’ he says. In the first recorded use of the expression, he asserts that he is not one to wear his heart on his sleeve ‘for daws to peck at’. Only we and Roderigo (until he kills him) get to see what he calls ‘the native act and figure’ of his heart, which he keeps well hidden from everyone else. The men he admires are those who, ‘trimm’d in forms and visages of duty, keep yet their hearts attending on themselves. These fellows,’ he adds,’ have some soul’.

In the popular imagination, Othello is a play about jealousy. But jealousy is only one of its themes and a secondary one at that. The action of the play revolves around Iago. Othello is the object of his hatred. Cassio, Emilia, Desdemona and the rest matter to him only insofar as they play a part in satisfying his hatred of Othello. ‘The native act and figure’ of Iago’s heart is what the play is really about. Iago’s heart, hidden to everyone else, is visible to us from start to finish.

He talks about it constantly. Iago is all that Iago is interested in. He is as self-obsessed and introspective as Hamlet. ‘Were I the Moor,’ he says, ‘I would not be Iago: in following him, I follow but myself.’ His hatred of Othello is a facet of his own self-love. That is what drives him and that, more than Othello’s jealousy, is what drives the action of the play.

Everything Iago does is done on the spur of the moment. In this too he is like Hamlet, whose periods of brooding lead to impulsive acts, his rejection of Ophelia, his murder of her father. Iago does not know – how could he? – what will be the consequence of his informing Desdemona’s father that ‘your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs’. What he says to Roderigo (and to us) is that he wants to make life unpleasant for Othello, to ‘poison his delight’, to ‘plague him with flies’. That’s all he wants to begin with. ‘Though that his joy be joy,’ he tells him, ‘yet throw such changes of vexation on’t, as it may lose some colour.’ Only when that doesn’t work does he get the idea of using jealousy as a better way to spoil Othello’s fun.

Iago’s fallibility, foreshadowing his eventual defeat, should not be overlooked. Iago as controlling puppet-master is a misreading of his character. He is not a brilliant general like Othello, but an opportunist, an expert in guerrilla warfare. He takes his chances when he can. His first attempt to discomfit Othello fails altogether. Expecting a brawl in which he will pretend to be on Othello’s side, he is treated instead to a master class in diplomacy. ‘Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them,’ Othello says, not even bothering to draw his own. His natural authority is enough to disarm his opponents.

Iago remains silent for the rest of this scene and for most of the scene that follows. His silences are always worth noting, whether on stage or off. His mind is always at work, taking stock, revising his plans in the light of events. Only when Othello has won the Duke’s approval (‘I think this tale would win my daughter too’) and he is left alone again with Roderigo, does he break his silence. When he does, almost the first thing he says is that he ‘never found man that learned to love himself’.

He goes on to give Roderigo (and us) a lesson in moral philosophy, in which he argues that a man must use his reason to control his passions. ‘If the balance of our lives had not one scale of reason to poise another of sensuality, the blood and baseness of our natures would conduct us to most preposterous conclusions: but we have reason to cool our raging motions, our carnal stings, our unbitted lusts.’ He mocks Roderigo’s irrational threat to drown himself for love of Desdemona, advising him instead to ‘put money in thy purse’.

The interest of the play lies in the working of Iago’s mind. With Roderigo’s threatened desertion averted (‘I am changed: I’ll go sell all my land’) he dismisses him (‘Go to, farewell! put money in your purse’) and remains alone on stage, thinking aloud. ‘Cassio’s a proper man: let me see now… How, how? Let’s see…’ Suddenly, he has an idea. ‘I have’t!’

If he were less human, he would be a villain of the kind that Webster specialised in. He knows how to work on Othello because he has the self-knowledge that Othello lacks. He knows jealousy so well that he is able to warn him what he is in for if he gives way to it. ‘O beware, my lord, of jealousy; it is the green-eyed monster, which doth mock the meat it feeds on: that cuckold lives in bliss who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger; but, O, what damned minutes tells he o’er who dotes, yet doubts, suspects, yet strongly loves.’ Like the rest of us, Iago has felt jealousy, but unlike most of us he has the ability to stand outside himself and watch how it works. He knows that, to satisfy one’s passions, it is necessary to be dispassionate.

Lodovico is shocked when he sees Othello strike Desdemona. ‘Is this the noble Moor,’ he asks Iago, ‘whom our full senate call all-in-all sufficient? Is this the nature whom passion could not shake?’ Iago’s reply, ‘He’s that he is,’ recalls what he said about himself in the first scene: ‘I am not what I am’. Othello acts on what he believes to be true. He is to that extent honest. ‘Honest Iago,’ as everyone calls him, is the only one who acts on what he knows to be true. Othello wears his heart on his sleeve, Iago knows better. It all depends what you mean by honest.

Emilia is the first to come close to the truth. ‘The Moor’s abused,’ she says in Act IV, ‘by some most villainous knave, some base notorious knave, some scurvy fellow,’ whose identity as yet she has not guessed. In Act V, when she realises that the knave is her own husband, she is the prototype of Paulina in The Winter’s Tale berating Leontes. ‘Thou hast not half the power to do me harm,’ Emilia says, when Othello threatens her, ‘as I have to be hurt.’ When Leontes threatens Paulina, ‘I’ll ha’ thee burnt,’ her answer is, ‘I care not: it is an heretic that makes the fire, not she which burns in’t.’ The similarity is as striking in form as it is in sentiment. Shakespeare seems always to have been preparing for the next play. Some of them are masterpieces, some are the stepping stones that lead up to them.

Coming after Emilia’s honest anger, Othello’s attempt at self-justification (‘one that loved not wisely, but too well’) seems at best feeble, at worst dishonest. ‘Speak of me as I am,’ he says, but we know already how slippery that form of words is. We know by now who has the monopoly on self-knowledge in this play. Iago’s last words are plain and to the point: ‘Demand me nothing: what you know, you know: from this time forth I never will speak word.’ Nor does he. Honest Iago.

Edwin Booth as Iago c.1870

Edwin Booth as Iago c.1870


The next post will be my Reader’s Diary for 26 March.

On 2 April I will be writing about D.H.Lawrence, the poet.

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A Reader’s Diary, 12 March 2014

How much does our enjoyment of a novel depend on the extent to which we find the characters likeable? How much does our engagement with it depend on the way in which our sympathies are divided between them? The answer, I think, is quite a lot. In fiction as in life we like some people more than others, make moral judgments and observe with varying degrees of sympathy their pleasure or their pain. Novelists use this propensity, this human capacity for sympathy, by creating a fictional world that operates in the same way as the real world but, through some form of exaggeration or distortion, a change of perspective or a re-ordering of the rules of time and space, persuades or seduces or forces us to see the world as the novelist sees it. If we don’t believe in what we read, the trick won’t come off.

The characters have to be credible, but do they have to be likeable? The question arose from my reading of David Golder, a novel by Irène Nemirovsky, in which there is little or nothing to like about any of the characters. The usual opposition between good and bad, moral and immoral, generous and mean, is absent. All we have is a set of characters who are motivated wholly by self-interest. David Golder is an elderly Jew who has made a fortune buying and selling on the money markets. The novel begins with his refusing to lend money to his long-standing business partner who, as a direct consequence of his refusal, kills himself. The reader’s expectation that this will lead to some change in Golder himself is disappointed. Life for Golder continues as before, except that he has even less regard for his partner after his suicide than he did before. This is quickly followed by a sequence of events in which it becomes apparent that Golder will do anything for his eighteen year old daughter who has expensive tastes and no scruples about asking him for the money to satisfy them. If this leads us to expect a story something like Père Goriot, in which a father’s indulgence towards his daughter leads to his own impoverishment, we are again mistaken. She turns out not to be his daughter anyway and he cuts her off without a penny. So it goes on. Husband, wife, daughter, friends, hangers-on, not a likeable person among them. Which leaves us with the narrator, who remains impartial from beginning to end, giving no preference to one character over another, but simply reporting what they say and do. The result is a curiously flat narrative about a group of people who have little or no feeling for each other, their mutual inter-dependence giving rise only to resentment and hostility.

But the answer to my question is yes. The absence of anything to like about these people makes the novel painful to read, but they are all utterly believable and you keep hoping that something will change. It never does, but that’s the point. Our belief in human nature, our hope for a change of heart, is what keeps us going, our disappointment is what the author intends us to feel.

Every reader, male or female, is able to identify with the hero or heroine of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. Written nearly a hundred years ago, its cavalier way with the conventions of English literature, its constant springing of traps for the unwary reader, the power of its language and its insights into the cultural history of England continue to fascinate. I was bowled over by it when I first read it as a young man and enjoyed it as much, though necessarily in a different way, when I read it again recently. Orlando, at first in his Elizabethan childhood and early manhood, then in his eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth century maturity as a woman, from pupa to imago, takes us on a journey through five hundred years of English history (mainly literary history, it has to be said) reacting to the changing ‘spirit of the age’ with various degrees of delight and disgust.

A stage adaptation of Orlando is currently playing at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, which is why I read it again before going to see the play. Most of what are generally thought of as the essential ingredients of drama are missing from the novel, whose main attractions are the quality of its prose and its observations on English literature. There is one central character (albeit one who begins as a man and turns into a woman) and several minor characters, but no conflict on which to hang a drama, only the conflict between maleness and femaleness in the character of Orlando him or herself. In spite of which, Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation succeeds by taking advantage of every opportunity the novel provides for theatricality. It remains faithful to the text, virtually every word spoken being taken directly from the novel, follows the narrative faithfully from beginning to end and is faithful to the novel’s central themes. Inevitably, it leaves a lot out. Most of Orlando’s encounters with English poets, which make up a good part of the novel, are missing. And rightly so. Interesting as they are to read, they would be tedious on stage. The most effective moments are those in which Virginia Woolf’s prose is transformed into another medium, as in the scenes which take place on the frozen Thames during the Great Frost, beautifully described in the book and beautifully presented on stage in a display of aerial acrobatics by the actors playing Orlando and Sasha (who in Virginia Woolf’s day would have been called actresses).

Regretting what had to be left out, while enjoying the theatrical transformation of what remained, I was left wondering whether it might not have been better to leave it all out and find a theatrical equivalent. The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that Orlando would make a wonderful ballet.

orlando 01

The next post, Honest Iago, will be published on 19 March.

The Readers’ Diary will be back the week after that.

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Kenneth Grahame

Kenneth Grahame, the author of one of the most famous and best loved of all children’s books, was a banker. Born in 1859, he worked his way up to become Secretary of the Bank of England, a post from which he retired in 1908. The Wind in the Willows was published in the same year. He once said that the part of his brain he used between the ages of four and seven had never changed.

Few people now read his other books, The Golden Age and Dream Days, which were once as popular as The Wind in the Willows. Both are what would now be called memoirs, recollections of his childhood in which real and imagined adventures are re-told. One of the stories in Dream Days had an after-life as a Walt Disney film and a John Rutter opera. In its original form, the story is told to the young Kenneth and his friend, Charlotte, by an old man who lives nearby. Kenneth and Charlotte are looking for the tracks of dragons in the snow and the man, entering into the spirit of their game, tells them a story about one. The chapter in which this happens begins like this:

‘Footprints in the snow have been unfailing provokers of sentiment ever since snow was first a white wonder in this drab-coloured world of ours. In a poetry-book presented to one of us by an aunt, there was a poem by one Wordsworth in which they stood out strongly with a picture all to themselves, too – but we didn’t think very highly either of the poem or the sentiment. Footprints in the sand, now, were quite another matter, and we grasped Crusoe’s attitude of mind much more easily than Wordsworth’s. Excitement and mystery, curiosity and suspense – these were the only sentiments that tracks, whether in sand or snow, were able to arouse in us.’

These books, which were written ten years before The Wind in the Willows, were not only, or even primarily, books for children, but books about being a child, to which the author applied the appropriate part of his brain. It was unusual at the time when they were written for the child’s point of view to be elevated above that of the adult and that was what caught people’s attention when they were published. Kenneth Grahame, writing about his own childhood, brought children into the foreground, while he hovered behind them, entering into their games like the old man who told the story of the Reluctant Dragon.

In the first chapter of The Golden Age he tells us that things might have been different if he had been brought up by parents, as most children are, instead of by aunts and uncles. ‘They treated us,’ he writes, ‘with kindness enough as to the needs of the flesh, but after that with indifference (an indifference, as I recognise, the result of a certain stupidity), and therewith the commonplace conviction that your child is merely animal. At a very early age I remember realising, in a quite impersonal and kindly way, the existence of that stupidity, and its tremendous influence in the world.’ He called them ‘The Olympians’ and ended the chapter on a cautionary note: ‘A saddening doubt, a dull suspicion, creeps over me. Et in Arcadia ego – I certainly did once inhabit Arcady. Can it be that I also have become an Olympian?’

The Wind in the Willows was different from the other two in being a wholly made-up book for children to read, but not in its vocabulary, syntax or points of reference different from a book for grown-ups. On the first page we read a sentence which, in all three respects, is entirely grown-up. ‘Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing.’ Anyone who has read The Wind in the Willows as a child, recognises Mole when he meets him again as Mr Polly or Mr Lewisham.

The best children’s writers don’t write about a child’s world as if it is in some way different from the adult world. Instead, they bring a child’s intelligence to bear on the world we all inhabit. Even so, I wonder whether all those books that are written now just for children may not be an unmixed blessing. It is not just that children might be missing out on vocabulary, syntax and points of reference, but that ‘the commonplace conviction that your child is merely animal’ may have been strengthened rather than diminished by the creation of a separate literature for children. Books as pet food. Let the children have their books, let the grown-ups have theirs and let there be no confusion between the two.

‘The only excuse which I have yet discovered for writing anything,’ wrote A.A.Milne, ‘is that I want to write it; and I should be as proud to be delivered of a Telephone Directory con amore as I should be ashamed to create a Blank Verse Tragedy at the bidding of others.’  Having delivered himself of Now We Are Seven and The House at Pooh Corner, he watched in dismay as the audience for his plays, thinking that anything written by A.A.Milne must be for children, dried up.  He died by all accounts a rather unhappy man.

J.M.Barrie wrote books and plays for adults before he wrote Peter Pan and went on writing them long after. In the opinion of George Bernard Shaw, it was ‘ostensibly a holiday entertainment for children but really a play for grown-up people.’ Lewis Carroll followed up Alice in Wonderland with An Elementary Treatise on Determinants. A representative selection from Robert Louis Stevenson’s work in order of publication would include Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, Familiar Studies of Men and Books, Virginibus Puerisque, Treasure Island, A Child’s Garden of Verses, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Kidnapped, The Master of Ballantrae and In The South Seas. E.Nesbit was one of the founders of the Fabian Society (she named her son after the society) and wrote socialist tracts as well as The Railway Children.

The 21st century is not so very different from the 19th when it comes to the attitude of grown-ups to children. We still, most of us, look down on them from Mount Olympus. ‘Can it be denied,’ Matthew Arnold wrote in his essay on Democracy, ‘that to live in a society of equals tends in general to make a man’s spirits expand, and his faculties work easily and actively; while, to live in a society of superiors, although it may occasionally be a very good discipline, yet in general tends to tame the spirits and to make the play of the faculties less secure and active? Can it be denied that to be heavily overshadowed, to be profoundly insignificant, has, on the whole, a depressing and benumbing effect on the character?’

He was writing about the different classes in English society, comparing England unfavourably with France, but he could as easily have been writing about children. England is still as much a ‘society of superiors’ as it ever was and its children are still made to feel profoundly insignificant, mere adults in the making, soon to be fully fledged contributors to the economy. We observe that the children of what used to be called the lower orders do less well at school and persuade ourselves that it is possible to do something about it without ordering society differently. We take it as a fact of life that some people are more equal than others. We, that is to say English grown-ups, say that children who murder other children are evil, but lack the honesty and courage of Prospero to say, ‘This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.’

England needs more bankers like Kenneth Grahame, more school inspectors like Matthew Arnold, fewer Olympians and a greater sense of equality in the literary world between those who still have that part of their brain they used when they were children and those who don’t.

kenneth grahame 01

Next week’s post, on 12 March, will be the latest entry in my Reader’s Diary.

The post on 19 March will be about Othello.

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