Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Ahab's Philosophy

All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event — in the living act, the undoubted deed — there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask... Sometimes I think there's naught beyond. But 'tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him.
Moby-Dick, Ch.XXXVI

What follows is my effort, taking Ahab's outburst a little further:
'They will tell you, if you let them, a great deal about our common father Adam, but all of it is false. They will tell you that it was his greed and disobedience that caused mankind’s fall, and they will push the lie further and say it was Eve’s fault before then. They will not say that it was hatred and jealousy, man’s twin and natural states, for these are truths unpalatable to many. They will not say that in his naked form, ostensibly clothed in innocence, that man raged at his creator as all men have done since. But his anger was the greatest, for he was the first. The indignity! To be the prototype of a fumbling demiurge, the product of his inexpert and trembling hand, the whetstone for his dull scalpel! Who can truly imagine this first man and his first, roaring hatred?

You who ask for proof of this conjecture, witness the lessons of history! Of ancient and attic warriors who endured starvation and thirst in boundless deserts, who walked for months and years to bring bloody war to a people they had never known. Witness those at war for a decade for the sake of a whorish princess they never even saw. How else do you explain such actions, veiled as they are behind such thin and petty tissues? Hate, I tell you, is as much a part of man as his very blood, the blood that is spilled and spills the life of other men into the dust for no reason other than to satisfy animal urges that most men cannot control or name.

Moby Dick - Herman MelvilleBut the utmost proof I can provide is stored deep within you, though you know it not. Every shred, every tatter of self-loathing, of humiliation, of despair redounds to the curses of your creator. Man is not an instantaneous, unspawned hater of others, but was made in the image of another. Life is not so bleak! We are not without precedent, alone in this world; our actions are validated and confirmed by the actions of our maker. Not for nothing were we made weak, and jealous and wrathful, and not for nothing does everyman seek to improve his lot by shedding the blood of his neighbour.

What man, then, can hate anything so much as he hates his god? Though he venerate him and burn for him the thighs of oxen and totemicise the heads of his enemies; though he lets the vital fluid of his own kin, his son or his daughter, and boils their blood upon ancient stones worn and reddened with centuries of propitiatory murder; though he preach to his flock words of peace and admiration and mocks up his god in a language of love, what man can consider anything more worthy of his hatred? What greater, more fitting foe could be found for a species which has toiled for millennia slaughtering one another, whose sole aim is manifestly the attempt to satiate the bloodlust that burns within them? What better action for a species wracked with jealousy, and with the arrogance that takes jealousy by the glove, and with the rage that cavorts behind them, gnashing his needlelike teeth! What finer expression of hatred and arrogance can there be than hatred of the creator?'

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Melville and I

Herman Melville is synonymous with Moby-Dick - a book which I thoroughly enjoyed despite being warned away from it by a friend – despite the author having several other novels and a collection of short stories to his name. It is the latter, entitled Billy Budd, Sailor and Other Stories, which I have on my desk at the moment. Although I’m less than halfway through it, parts of the collection are shaping up to be very... familiar. There is a pervasive nautical theme, as you can tell from the title, and Melville’s grandiose and allusive style is just as magical as it was in Moby-Dick. On a less positive but entirely predictable note, these short stories are also sometimes very heavy going.
My least favourite story so far is The Encantadas, or, The Enchanted Isles, which is divided into a series of ‘sketches’ of various mystical isles, and betrays the author’s fascination with the sea. They almost feel like rough drafts for Melville’s magnum opus. Although occasionally engaging and characterful, these sketches more often seem like indigestible lumps of vaguely-factual, semi-autobiographical writing without any particular theme or plot to unite them. So, enough of them.
The story I’ve found most interesting so far is entitled Bartleby. It is not nautical.
Bartleby has a distinctly Dickensian feel about it. It is the story of a solicitor and his staff of three copyists, who are soon joined by a fourth, the Bartleby of the title. He is a lean, cadaverous young man, who works hard all day except for periodic window-gazings, and appears to subsist solely on ginger nuts. Bartleby is so other-worldly that his oddly-phrased refusals – ‘I would prefer not to’ – to carry out some mundane tasks leave his employer stunned. It is eventually discovered that Bartleby has been squatting in the office, and his continual refusals to perform commonplace tasks lead to confrontation. It is Bartleby’s quiet, passive refusal that is so remarkably haunting to his employer and to the reader. Frequently he ignores all calls and requests, and continues staring out of the window. He remains in the offices, ghostlike, even after he has been officially fired, leaving his angry but concerned former employer no choice but to relocate his offices.
Bartleby’s melancholy suggests some ancient trauma, and his quietly unyielding nature gives the impression of a man whose past experiences mean that he no longer fears retribution from any man. He is, to use a cliché, a lost soul. Eventually, the solidity of nineteenth-century society reinstates itself, and Bartleby is incarcerated in the pauper’s gaol. Unsurprisingly, this cannot long hold him.
This emaciated, haunted man cuts a romantic figure reminiscent of an abstemious Withnail. Melville shows that his majestic, orotund prose is just as at home in human mystery and tragedy as it is tumbling from the roaring, cursing beard of Ahab.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

A Hand-Made Tale

If, a couple of years ago, you’d have asked me to read a novel that ‘illuminates some of the darker interconnections between politics and sex,’ I probably would have told you where to put said novel. Fortunately, times have changed. And, in tandem with this process of enlightenment, I got hold of a copy of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale for free...
In the near future, fertility is the overriding concern of human society. Mass chemical leaks have caused widespread sterility, and women are empty vessels, valued only for their reproductive potential. Those who cannot yield are banished, they are Unwomen, and in the patriarchal fascism of the Republic of Gilead a failure in fecundity is always the fault of the woman. Sterile men do not exist. The eponymous handmaid, Offred, recalls her past life and her past lover against the stifling backdrop of this new society.
Atwood’s prose is acutely poetic, and it is no surprise that she has also published volumes of poetry. She clearly has a deep interest in words, their sounds and connotations as well as straightforward meanings, and this comes through very strongly. There is a pleasing sense that her words really are meticulously chosen. ‘I feel like the word shatter,’ Offred thinks to herself. The words she finds scratched inside the wardrobe in her room become totemic, and complex memories and streams of thought are evoked by casual words repeated, echoed, distorted. The process of wordplay vividly displays the layers of consciousness of someone caught between a happy past and a bleak present.
It is these small details that I’m enjoying most about The Handmaid’s Tale. The grocery shops are called things like All Flesh and Daily Bread, and this again gives the reader a point of contact with our own world. Just as Offred seizes on a word and it becomes evocative of her past, so we can seize on these names and know that organised religion and male dominance are virtually inseparable in Atwood’s crosshairs. As always, it is the recognisable elements of our own society that are the most frightening.
Atwood also evokes the worst of our society’s past as well as its present. There are high walls and public penalties for political dissidence which bring to mind the very worst that the twentieth century had to offer in Europe. There are also the barren Colonies, reminiscent of the wasted, sterilised Africa in The Man in the High Castle, which condemn imperialism and colonisation, so often perceived as masculine instincts. 
I once read an article exploring the sexual side of colonialism, and it was one of the worst piles of tripe I’ve ever waded through. Something about King Arthur slaying giants with the phallus of his sword. Obviously, Atwood is vastly more subtle than this. She has issues with modern, masculine society, but they are expressed in such a way that you can almost take them or leave them. I don't think this is a bad thing. The book may be intended to make a point, but my experience of it was more poetic than political.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Autopeotomy and the OED

A brief foray into non-fiction.

Simon Winchester’s The Surgeon of Crowthorne is the history of a former US army surgeon imprisoned in Broadmoor lunatic asylum, near Crowthorne, in the late nineteenth century. It charts his involvement with the creation of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, which was compiled with the help of hundreds of volunteers throughout the English-speaking world who read obscure books and sent in little slips of paper with words and quotations illustrating their meanings. The surgeon, Dr Minor, was imprisoned after he killed a man in Lambeth whilst suffering from one of his periodic, almost nightly, bouts of delusion. From his asylum cell, lined with his many books, he begins a correspondence with the editor of the OED that will last twenty years and will prove him to be one of the most meticulous and productive of the many volunteers involved in the project.

The subject matter, a murder in smoggy Victorian London and the severe conditions of a nineteenth-century lunatic asylum, are enough to make Edgar Allen Poe salivate. The story hinges on the tension between Minor’s insanity – he is convinced that he endures nightly persecution by would-be assassins who emerge from the floorboards to drug, torture and sexually abuse him – and the evident lucidity of his work on the dictionary. It is told well, with a verbosity that suits the bookish subject matter, and leaves one’s own vocabulary enhanced (see title, a late twist in Dr Minor’s already grim saga).

As with all such books – and to continue on from the previous post on Burgess – it suffers from what I perceive to be a problem. Some of the facts are clearly verifiable, and the author acknowledges his debts to many documents, institutional registers and the like. But some are obviously the product of artistic license, and this bothers me. Either write a history, or write a novel. I might sound a bit militant here, but I am a historian by training. On the back of the book, it is described as a ‘classic work of detection’. Very noncommittal. But Winchester does intersperse his narrative with enough perhapses and maybes to let us know that he is filling in a number of gaps. He is being honest, at least.

I sound very snobbish about this, I know. I enjoy a book that meddles with the line between fiction and reality, but I think I only enjoy this in a fictional context. Hopefully somewhere out there is a semi-history or a historical novel that can persuade me to take the plunge off my high horse, but I’m not quite there yet.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Beyond Nadsat

Like most people, I think, my acquaintance with Anthony Burgess is based solely upon A Clockwork Orange, and like most people, I think it is an excellent book. But the problem with it is that it is so saturated with words of Burgess’ own invention that you almost lose sight of whether or not the man can actually write in English. It is his power of invention that dazzles us most, not his storytelling.
That’s why I bought Burgess’ collection of short stories, The Devil’s Mode, a week or two ago. The Devil’s Mode makes it very clear that Burgess is an exceptional storyteller, but also suggests that when the author wrote these short stories – at the age of 72 – his power of invention was waning. Just take a glance through the contents pages: the first story describes an encounter between a foppish young Shakespeare and an embittered Cervantes; the next follows Marlowe and Goethe as Dr Faustus conjures the notorious beauty Helen of Troy; the third is based around an opera libretto. There is also a pastiche of Sherlock Holmes and a historical novella about Attila the Hun.
If I was being incredibly critical, I would say that this suggests a lack of imagination, perhaps even laziness. This is the same charge that can be levelled at all historical fiction. What is easier than inventing characters and situations? Why, using ready-made ones, of course. And then rudely imbuing those ready-made characters – whether they are the product of someone else’s imagination or of history itself – with one’s own thoughts and prejudices.
These remarks are general, not specific to Burgess. His stories are written with great liveliness and intelligence, and when he resurrects a character it is done incredibly convincingly. He transforms Attila from the ravening barbarian we expect him to be into a sophisticated strategist, his land-grabs preceded by tenuous diplomatic pretexts that are so civilised that the Romans are unable to refute them.
My favourite story was the first one, Shakespeare and Cervantes. Burgess is protective of English culture, almost to the point of being jingoistic. Cervantes blasts the English, their amputated stump of Christianity, and their infantile written culture which lacks the dramatic suffering of the Spanish mindset. Shakespeare’s task is to convince a vaguely hostile, non English-speaking crowd that his work has some value, and can convey the gamut of emotions expressed in Cervantes weighty tome. The solution is beautiful. A seven-hour production of Hamlet, incorporating Falstaff and other additional characters, shows both the range of Shakespeare’s talent and the pigheadedness of Cervantes’ insistence that the length of Don Quixote is one of its chief virtues. It is a story of literary one-upmanship, giving Shakespeare an appealingly childish personality worthy of Angela Carter’s Wise Children.
The Devil's Mode is a finely crafted selection of short stories, and I think that the accusation of a lack of originality is combated by the obvious depth of reading and research that has gone into them. After all, pastiches, imitations, or whatever you want to call them are fundamental building blocks of literature. If you only read Shakespeare, you would write like Shakespeare, and if you only read Cervantes, you would write like Cervantes. Burgess’ achievement is to put all of these into a melting pot and produce something – certainly not something coherent, because that’s not the point – but something wide-ranging, intelligent and very enjoyable.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Once More With Feeling

I’ve been sans computer for a week, but on the plus side, I have done a bit of reading. I thought I’d give Italo Calvino another go, since I found another one of his books lying around the house. I wasn’t exactly harsh on him before, but I do think he has a lot of potential. 
The Path to the Spiders’ Nests is Calvino’s first novel, written when he was just 22 years old. On this basis at least it is impressive. It follows a young boy, Pin, in rural Italy during the second world war, charting his encounters with various local characters, resistance members and so on. Pin is not quite a child, being somewhat too aware of his older sister’s nocturnal activities, but is certainly not treated like an adult in the tavern where he goes to sing ribald songs for a free glass of wine. As village life becomes ever more disrupted by the war, Pin eventually (and accidentally) joins a rag-tag local resistance movement.
The first thing that struck me about this book is the narration. The narrator’s voice is that of an omniscient third person, but Calvino’s interest is necessarily in Pin’s interpretation of the world. I think this can sometimes seem awkward, because Pin’s childlike thoughts and actions are told with the voice and conviction of a much older narrator. I’m sure this can be interpreted as the author’s failure to fully align his narrator with his protagonist. I also wonder how much this curious voice is a product of the novel having been translated. Finally, I wonder whether Calvino is being subtle, and creating this confusion of childlike thought and adult expression in order to convey Pin’s limbo-like adolescence.
This difference between Pin and his narrator is exacerbated towards the end of the novel. There is an interlude in which the narrator focuses on the thoughts of an officer of the resistance, named Kim. Kim analyses the war and the men under his command in a stream-of-consciousness internal monologue reminiscent of Robert Jordan’s meanderings in For Whom the Bell Tolls. This is where it becomes apparent that Calvino’s young protagonist does not allow the author space to express his feelings about the complex subject matter. Kim’s interlude is slightly clumsy, and it feels odd to have intimate contact with the thoughts of a character only briefly introduced late in the novel. But in his role as Calvino’s mouthpiece, he expresses some interesting thoughts about why the men around him fight as they do.
This isn’t really a problem with the book, it’s just something I noticed. I do take the view that Calvino deliberately makes the narrator’s voice ambiguous to emphasise the ambiguity in the character of Pin himself. As with Calvino’s much later work, Invisible Cities, this novel is impeccably written. It has well-drawn characters and some very haunting turns of phrase. But I still haven’t quite made up my mind about Calvino, and I might have to read another one of his books.