WHY EVERYONE SHOULD READ VIOLET TREFUSIS

The next post will be on or before Sunday April 28th

WHY EVERYONE SHOULD READ VIOLET TREFUSIS

‘Caroline was certainly pretty, but she looked sullen and extinguished. The most noticeable thing about her was her hair, which was the colour of sherry and probably waved naturally, but it was parted down the middle and plastered into an unbecoming bandeau. Why try to look like a Luini Madonna, when one’s expression is that of a schoolboy who has been kept in on a half holiday?’

Hunt the Slipper (1937) by Violet Trefusis

Somewhere around the mid-1930s wealthy English socialite Caroline Crome who is in her early 20s is being scrutinised by her future lover, the middle-aged Nigel Benson, who resides with his unmarried sister Molly in a handsome rural pile called, significantly, Ambush. Note in the 3-sentence extract above that there is an enormous, quite uncanny amount being told and hinted about the young woman, and in the sharpest and most economical manner, in terms of ironic qualifications and nuanced comic wonderment. Caroline, daughter of the aptly named Lord and Lady Random of the eponymous mansion, has been married off to young Sir Anthony Crome, who lives with his mother in another mansion called Critchley, but she soon finds Anthony dull, and slowly though by no means easily, she falls for his one and only good friend, Nigel. But and before I elaborate on the story, I’d ask you to look again at the passage above, and reflect that in its density and lateral richness and deliberate comic bluntness, it is rather like a virtuoso jazz musician, inasmuch as lots of things are happening at once and yet the author/musician is in total and lucid control of her material. I emphasise this, because such technically adroit and complex writers of any gender are extremely thin on the ground (the remarkably subtle stories of US Deep South writer Eudora Welty, 1909-2001, as in the 1941 A Curtain of Green, are a worthy parallel) and one major literary injustice among many affecting Trefusis (1894-1972) is that her critical reception has always been guarded and mixed. It didn’t help that, as she spent much of her life in France. she wrote equally well in 2 languages, and several of her 7 novels are in French. For complex copyright reasons, the wonderful feminist Virago Press who put some of her books back in print in the 80s, were unable to do so with her unpublished novels that only survive in manuscript. If you’ve heard of Trefusis at all (I myself hadn’t till I was in my mid 50s) it is probably in the context of upmarket literary scandal, for between 1918 and 1921 she was lover of the novelist  and later owner of Sissinghurst and its legendary gardens, Vita Sackville-West(1892-1962) who in turn was lover of Virginia Woolf (1882-1941). Woolf’s famous 1928 novel Orlando has a central character who keeps changing gender throughout various periods of history, and is based on Vita, and likewise the novel also fictionalises Trefusis as Sasha, a wild even savage princess who is part of a Russian embassy entourage.

What follows next is going to sound like a spectacularly racy, albeit elevated version of the Archers or Eastenders, but here goes. Violet’s mother was the Hon Alice Keppel, wife of the Hon George Keppel, and Alice was favourite mistress of the British monarch Edward 7th (Honourable George apparently made himself obligingly scarce when the royal made his weekly visits). Violet was sent to an exclusive London girls’ school where she met Vita Sackville-West and their friendship continued until they became lovers when both in their mid-twenties. Despite her own impressively top draw adultery, Alice could not accept the scandal of an openly Lesbian daughter, so had her married off to Major Denys Trefusis in 1919. Violet having sworn eternal love to Vita, made Denys promise their marriage would never be consummated, and ditto Vita when she was married off to Harold Nicholson requested the same of him. Harold was in any case bisexual, meaning marriage in his case was a handy social camouflage. Nevertheless, Violet and Vita kept fleeing their marriages to be with each other, often to France, and once were pursued by anguished Denys in an aeroplane. That’s enough of the pulse racing stuff to be going on with, but and before I forget, just to emphasise that Violet Trefusis still does not get her just critical acclaim, not even in 2019, and is much less read than Sackville-West who in my view is a far inferior, even clumpingly awkward writer. Vita’s 1931 All Passion Spent, for example, is a limp, jejune and underwritten affair with a title to match, and Woolf several times wrote that her lover was often ‘too fluent’ aka was often a bad writer. Yet astonishingly, in her day Sackville-West was regarded by critics as a greater talent than Woolf, and she certainly sold more books, ironically some of them with the famous Hogarth Press which Virginia and her husband Leonard owned and ran.

But back to Hunt the Slipper.  Here is Nigel’s sister Molly, a gardening fanatic who devotes herself to looking after both herbaceous borders and feckless Nigel, as she muses tenderly about her insomniac brother:

‘He gets so little, meaning sleep. She was glad to contribute to that little. An excellent sleeper herself, she was rather proud of his insomnia. It set him aside as a superior being. Like Nietzsche, he only obtained by violence what was given others freely’

One obvious thing here is that Trefusis has a very subtle and caustic wit, and the publishing industry both in her day and now, seems to be suspicious of women authors who are both very funny and very clever, and much prefer the acceptably facetious. The only female British author I can think of who managed to succeed as a razor sharp and clever comic stylist, was Muriel Spark (1918-2006) possibly in part because some of her books e.g The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) were eminently filmable, whereas Trefusis’s miniature masterpieces are less adaptable in cinematic terms.

Meanwhile, in the context of their illicit love affair, it is Caroline, not Nigel, who has always been the rebel and the iconoclast. She and Anthony have a little daughter called Margaret who Anthony adores, but Caroline finds her plain and dull, to the point that she even slaps her at times out of pure irritation. Not only does she struggle to bond with her child, she is neither a gardener like Molly and her mother in law, nor is she a cherisher of objects like her husband and her lover. Nigel and Anthony both love their ancestral homes to distraction, and they also collect antiques, furniture and ‘bibelots’. Recall that Violet’s lover Vita, owner of Sissinghurst, was an avid horticulturalist, and for years wrote a gardening column for The Observer, and then read Caroline’s observation on such worthy pastimes.

‘That was it…a turn in the garden was good English dogma…whereas a new kind of bath salts was Discovery. Surely there was something maudlin about the way these old women gushed over each embryonic plant: could it be that gardening was their last sexual outlet?’

Nonetheless, the real strength of this novel is the subtly woven thread of the two lovers’ stop-start infatuation, which also explains the title of the novel, the party game slipper which always seems within reach but stays tantalisingly elusive. They first meet inconclusively at Critchley, as naïve Sir Anthony thinks meeting a sound chap like his friend Nigel might distract his wife from her occasional doldrums. Later by coincidence Nigel happens to be in Paris at the same time as the Cromes, and there Caroline is carrying on flagrantly with a handsome Chilean called Melo. Typically, Anthony is incapable of being jealous, as Melo is not only not a gentleman, he is a ‘dago’ foreigner, hence there can be no conceivable danger in their dancing together all night. Trefusis’ shrewd evocation of Melo and his obvious limits is masterly in its economy.

‘He had no friends. Le chic was his undoing. He was really a perfectly harmless childishly vain young man with a taste for playing the maracas…and a talent for dancing which almost amounted to genius. Completely self-possessed, fashion rather than passion dictated his affairs, and he was capable of giving excellent and disinterested advice to young women on the art of running their faces.’

Melo is also very fickle and lies to Caroline when he cancels an evening assignation, the excuse being his mother has turned up in Paris out of the blue. In fact, he has a rendezvous with one of the most elegant women in Europe, namely Terpischore von Putsch, also known as Terps, the widow of a Senator. Terps has ‘bones that were joss sticks, her eyes were by Faberge, her heart made out of Venetian glass, was a pretty toy’. By chance, Caroline spots the two of them together in a taxi, and returns to her hotel in great distress, virtually paralysed by the betrayal. As it happens, Anthony has just been called back to England, because his mother Lady Crome has suddenly been taken ill. And fortuitously, it is Nigel who escorts her back to the hotel, for he has seen her in the street in a state of obvious shock and has ministered alcohol and guided her to her bed. Intimacy predictably follows, and very soon the middle-aged bachelor finds himself completely infatuated with his best friend’s young wife. Caroline before long has to return to England, but Nigel stays on with Molly on a European jaunt, taking in Monte Carlo, Florence and Rome, a blurred itinerary if ever there was, as now the whole of his life hinges on her letters and their unpredictable arrival. Her correspondence is both perfunctory and scarce, and he is driven to madness by this passive and paralysing obsession, and even becomes suicidal in Rome.

‘How could he get even with her, the bitch? How dared she make him suffer so, encouraging him in one letter, annihilating him in the next? He loathed her, despised her, longed for a whole harem of women on whom to wreak his vengeance. A second whisky and soda…made him leer at quite a respectable American girl who was sitting opposite him in the lounge. She got up and walked away.’

By a miracle Nigel’s torment does eventually cool, and as the great Stendhal (1783-1842) has analysed at length, in his treatise on the torment of unfulfilled passion entitled On Love (1822), his lesser ardour suddenly prompts Caroline to realise how much she misses him and to increase hers. They become lovers at Critchley when Anthony is away, and of course, at Ambush, with Molly ignoring everything apart from her flowering shrubs, they can behave as they like. Everything would seem to be secure for ever more, especially as Anthony is the blindest of naïve cuckolds, who sees his wife’s new happiness (she has stopped slapping little Margaret for example) as down to Nigel’s regular fraternal visits, it being inconceivable that his friend would betray him. Two things get seriously in the way however, one being that Caroline wants to show off her lover in London, somewhere else where they can behave as they like. This entails Nigel not only deserting his beloved Ambush, but also going dancing and partying, which not only bores him stiff, but gives rise to anguished jealousy when she is dancing with someone else. Caroline eventually relents on all that, but will not concede on something far more important. Guilt at his treachery to Anthony aside, Nigel would be happy to stay her lover for evermore, as long as he can stay at Ambush and have his bibelots as well as his mistress. But Caroline, for all her volatile moods, is now genuinely in love, and wants to leave Antony and to marry Nigel. Nigel meanwhile is appalled, not just as the prospect of his life being turned upside down, but at her callousness towards her doting husband and neglected daughter.

While this unresolved contention is bubbling away, Caroline makes a visit to her extraordinary family, and this is one of the comic high points of the novel. To describe the Randoms as eccentric is excessive understatement. Her mother is very keen on ornithology, especially the icterine warbler, and she has no interest in running the house, so that Lord Random the ex-diplomat survives mostly on breakfast cereals. Dinner is always at least an hour late, and is frequently organised by one of Caroline’s three brothers, all of whom live at Random, all of whom are collectors of objects, and only one of whom Terence, is married, to, of all things, a penniless emigre Russian.

‘Terence collected keys. The only key that didn’t interest him was the key to his wife’s heart. Once she had grown accustomed to his angelic beauty, she discovered his angelic coldness.’

As for the dinner Caroline is offered on the first night of her visit:

‘Lord Random thought it was time to intervene. “Leave your mother alone boys, and attend to your- er – chicken.”

“It isn’t chicken, it’s peahen,” came the indignant reply.

Caroline pushed away her plate. “Faugh! I might have guessed it was something disgusting. Really, it’s like dining with the Borgias! The next time I come here I’ll provide my own food.”

…Lord Random offered Caroline a covered dish. “Here child, you’d better have some of my puffed wheat. It’s quite safe.”’

This is high class farce, worthy of Evelyn Waugh, indeed funnier than Waugh in my opinion. However, what follows next gets less and less farcical, as Caroline pressures Nigel into telling Anthony about their affair and insisting that he must divorce her. After a colossal struggle, Nigel eventually musters enough courage, at which point Anthony is suddenly struck down with typhoid fever and almost dies. The aftermath is that his heart is so weak that any shock could kill him, which thankfully puts paid to any immediate disclosure. Caroline’s next strategy is to get Nigel to go abroad again partying, and in an attempt to stir him into jealousy, starts making much of a naive and rich 55-year-old Canadian called Tom, a man so ignorant he thinks Picasso is the name of a holiday resort. When Nigel has to return to England, Caroline refuses to go with him, but stays on with Tom, so that he believes things must have finished and is in terminal despair. It gets even worse, when Anthony turns up pitifully distraught with a letter from Caroline saying she is in love with Tom, and their marriage must end, and he must look after Margaret. Even at this stage Anthony has no idea that Nigel Benson has betrayed him. While her shattered husband is staying with Nigel, a letter arrives in Caroline’s handwriting which he assumes can only confirm what she had told Anthony. Then, the cruellest of all conceivable tragedies. Fool that he is, he doesn’t open the letter for several days, only to discover that Tom was a hoax and a lure, nothing more, intended solely to spur Nigel into putting his money where his mouth was, and to marry her. Her appalling letter concludes:

‘…if you’re not here by Friday I shall run away with Tom and it’s no use trying to find me. When I think of all the trouble I’ve gone to, to induce you to take such a natural step, it makes my blood boil, and I see red. And you say that you love me!  If you’re not here by Friday, I never wish to see you again.

This is final. Don’t be a fool.’

And yes, he has missed Caroline’s deadline…

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SHOCKING STUFF

The next post will be on or before Friday 26th April

SHOCKING STUFF

My friend the American writer Lorna Tracy (born 1934) who for years co-edited Stand Magazine with her late husband the poet Jon Silkin (1930-1997), once complained that she received an enormous number of unsolicited and unreadable short stories about what life was like in the Aftermath of a Nuclear War. As she put it, there was so little pliable fictional material for any writer to work with, given the utterly reduced, absolute and nightmarish vacuum succeeding any nuclear holocaust, it would have needed a genius to render the thing artistically. Round about that time, I was thinking exactly the same thing about the burgeoning number of novels produced by fashionable British/Irish writers, which were all about Murderous Psychopaths and/or Serial Killers, for at one stage and despite the extreme statistical rarity of such appalling and terrifying individuals, it really looked as if everyone felt they must include one as part of the supercharged formula. Co Monaghan Ulsterman Patrick McCabe (born 1955) hit the big time with the blood-splattered Butcher Boy with its picaresquely disturbed small-town murderer and slaughter house worker called Francie, and it was successfully filmed in 1997 by Neil Jordan. The Welsh equivalent arrived in 2001 when Niall Griffiths (born 1966) published the boldly titled Sheepshagger which was about the mountain boy, Ianto, a feral drug crazed psychopath, and his rather poetic obsession with extreme violence. Both were meant to be radically uninhibited studies of characters so deprived, damaged and suffering such irreversible societal alienation, their psychopathy must therefore be ipso facto authentic, not to say structurally inevitable.

All that sounds good on paper, but after wading my way through both of them, my feeling was that neither McCabe nor Griffiths would have known what a real flesh and blood (or possibly fleshless and bloodless) psychopath was like, even if it had stood up and waved a handkerchief at them at the Booker awards. For instead of rendering a credible imaginative version of three-dimensional visceral madness, they both opted for the shorthand in your face approach of in Griffiths’ case, four letter all-purpose ranting demotic monologues by Ianto…and by a quaint inversion in McCabe’s book, he had Francie musing repetitively over a schoolboys’ comic cartoon character, namely Winker Watson of the old Dandy. What I’m saying is, their versions of disturbed and violent psychotics, were in fact acceptably stylised caricatures, which apart from anything else made them eminently filmable (Sheepshagger became a movie in 2012) for instead of making your blood run cold as any real psychos would have, they became almost cherishable and victorious antiheroes. Compare either of them with the vivid and hair-raising evocations of innately homicidal characters as in the novels of a giant like Emile Zola, 1840-1902 (qv the 1890 The Beast in Man, also frequently filmed) and you will see that the modern UK/Irish  version is a kind of anodyne and I would argue teenage rendition of psychosis, nowhere in the realm of the painfully real and infinitely distressing thing. For it would surely take an artist of massive imaginative power, another Zola or another Fyodor Dostoievsky, to project convincingly into someone who inhabits the ugliest, most barren and most wretchedly estranged areas of human, or arguably inhuman experience.

It has always been possible for a gifted writer to shock their readers in a cathartic, meaning artistically instructive manner, but without resorting to outlandish, factitious or pathologically violent characters. One author who was doing this successfully long before McCabe and Griffiths (or before Alan Warner in his gory 1995 Morvern Callar set in a fictionalised Oban in the Highlands, or Bret Easton Ellis and his 2000 American Psycho, both successfully filmed) was the story writer and novelist Guy de Maupassant. Maupassant, 1850-1893, (the honorific ‘de’ was his father’s wishful thinking) published in his short life no less than 300 stories, 5 novels (the recently filmed Bel Ami is the best known) a few travel books, and rapidly became phenomenally and lucratively successful, and has been read in every language ever since. Admired by Leo Tolstoy and Nietzsche, and subsequently a role model for the stories of O’ Henry and Somerset Maugham, he was born of bourgeois parents with a father violent enough for his mother to successfully seek a legal separation when such things were virtually unheard of. He died of syphilis aged 42, which might have been congenital, and a year before that he attempted to slit his throat and was consigned to a private mental asylum. Significantly then, male violence, whether actual or threatened, and whether evident in 19th C French peasants or aristocrats, is a regular feature of his stories, as is the contemplation of suicide. However, the threat of violence, which is to say a form of mental bullying, is not just confined to men, for there are regular spectacularly heartless women in the stories, so vicious and so callous in some cases, that your eyes all but pop out of your head. You are shocked not so much by what they do as fictional characters, but by the fact they are very obviously based on real originals, meaning you suddenly have the transforming illumination, that human beings in apparently minor circumscribed domestic dramas, are capable of being so heartlessly and egotistically appalling, it is almost beyond belief.

Below I give thumbnail summaries of 3 of Maupassant’s most shocking stories. With at least one of them you do not know whether to laugh or cry, for it is both blackly comic and extremely pitiful. All 3 have stunningly callous and unsentimental antagonists, 2 of them female and one of them male. After reading these brief and potently disorienting parables, most of them about 1500 words long, you are left with the conclusion that human beings at their solitary worst (none of these antagonists work in cooperation with other bullies, they are strictly autonomous monsters you might say) are more atrocious than even the wildest of wild animals. Also that the collective horrors and mass cruelties of every century, are surely the explicable result of infinite numbers of these solo antagonists blindly and instinctively uniting and cohering to do their vicious worst. The titles of the summaries are  my own, and if you wish to seek out the originals, I suggest you zestfully work your way through all 300 of de Maupassant’s tales, for they are not all shocking by any means, some of them are very funny or very sad, and  you will scarcely be wasting your time reading everything written by an author of such extraordinary talent.

THE MAN WHO TRIED TO MAKE HIS WIFE UGLY

A landed French aristocrat with a penchant for having his domineering way, marries a beautiful young woman in her early 20s. The worrying problem is she is so beautiful he starts to feel pathologically jealous of possible attentions from other men, not least because he himself is given to infidelity. His bizarre solution is to have her more or less continuously pregnant, in the hope that she will eventually lose all her looks and there will be no chance of any rivals. So it is that by her late 20s she has 7 children and is thoroughly exhausted and wretched, even if her beauty is still exquisite. She confronts him one day and says she understands and abhors his perverse thinking, even though he has never confessed to it, and she refuses to have any further pregnancies. Enraged and astounded, he is about to strike her, when she stops him in mid-air by telling him that one of the 7 children is not his! She flinches when she says it of course, but instead of beating her, he is stupefied and instantly crumples, whereupon she clinches things by informing him she will never tell him who the father was, not even on her death bed.

He slinks away defeated, and for the next few years wanders about like a ghostly shadow, obsessed with the identity of this child not his, and with all the torturing implications in terms of his personal honour and his future heirs. At last he begs her without fear of any reprisal, to put him out of his misery and tell her which child is someone else’s. He simply cannot take any more of this diabolical guessing, and now being just a shadow of himself, he has no wish to seek revenge, simply to free himself of this crippling anguish. At which point, his beautiful wife relents and assures him that all the children are his, she has always been faithful to him, and her confession was a justified fabrication to stop him so cruelly destroying her looks. Reasonably enough, she might have anticipated the aristocrat would become homicidally violent, but no he slinks away again, and we are left to wonder whether he really believes in her retraction or whether the torture will continue for ever more

THE MAN WHO BECAME A HEN 

In the quiet French countryside, a fat, lazy and amiable man of late middle age runs a popular public house. He is married to a remorseless bully of a woman who derides and nags him for his laziness and who resents his good nature which she sees as contemptible weakness. One day the landlord tragically takes an apoplectic fit, and becomes virtually paralysed. All he can do is sit in his bed and with a struggle turn sideways. Nevertheless, he copes as best he can by having his bed put right next to the public bar, and by chatting to his friends the customers through the walls. However, his wife happens to have one abiding passion which is raising poultry, and one day one of the customers jokes that her husband with his flabby bulk could at least earn his keep by hatching their eggs. Remarkably she takes this at face value, and instructs her husband that unless he agrees to play the broody hen, she will give him nothing to eat. Pliable as he is, the pitiful invalid protests at the outlandish proposal, but she sticks to her promise and gradually starves him into submission. With the first clutch of eggs under his motionless arms, the man gradually grows bored, so that fidgeting and turning in his bed, he promptly turns the clutch into an omelette. Enraged, his wife threatens to starve him again, until with a great struggle he manages to restrain all movement, and eventually hatches a beautiful little chick from underneath his arm. The couple happen to be childless, and as the tiny chick cheeps gently under the wing of its ‘mother’, the hopeless cripple is overcome with emotion, and tears of pride and love for this new offspring start streaming down his face

HOW TO CHEAT DEATH

A poor young peasant has a widowed mother who is seriously ill and who will obviously die very soon. He is her only child but he has to work every day to earn his bread, meaning he cannot manage the customary all-night vigils by her bedside, even though a kindly neighbour has agreed to see to her during the day. He therefore has to call in the stony old woman in the village who specialises in tending dying folk by night. For rich people she charges a certain nightly rate and for peasants less, but it is still far too much as far as the peasant is concerned.  It swiftly comes down to crude haggling, and assuring her the doctor says his mother will die very soon, within a couple of days at most, he agrees to pay her the standard peasant rate. But in the remote case that those last days drag out to a week or even longer, he insists on an inclusive reduced rate. After lengthy tussling the attendant snorts her agreement, and on her first night with the mother is confident that the end will be soon. She is therefore severely perturbed, indeed openly angry with her charge the next night, when she seems to have made a modest improvement. The old nurse does a few rapid sums and decides that this terminal decline cannot possibly be allowed to follow its own anarchic course. Quietly she steals down to the kitchen to bring up a mop and a pail and then rummaging in the bedroom wardrobe, she finds a vast sheet. She inverts the pail on her head, covers herself with the ghostly white cloth, and then by the death bed vigil of candlelight, makes the stick end of the mop look like some variation on a mediaeval lance. Moving towards the bed, she makes a muted howling sound designed not to wake the son, but to wake his mother who stares in petrified astonishment and gasps in raw horror at this terrible phantom…

Then she takes a fatal heart attack, and so assures the smiling attendant that she will not be fleeced by her wily young son…  

COME BACK, SPITTING IMAGE

The next post will be on or before Friday 19th April

COME BACK, SPITTING IMAGE

About a week ago something quite remarkable happened to me, which is to say I have never experienced anything like it in all my 68 years. I was sat in all innocence in my Kythnos house of an early evening, musing vaguely about the business of mimicry, human mimicry that is, as in the debatable and, as a rule, downmarket entertainments of TV Impressionists and Tribute Bands (qv the Jimi Hendrix tribute band from Hexham, Northumbria, UK called, right, you’ve guessed it, ‘Jimi Hexham’). Those impressionists not only mimic, they also strive to ‘imitate’ in every possible sense the original models, and if there were any justice in the world they would be rewarded according to the brilliance of their imitation. Sadly, that isn’t always the case, but that in any event is a distraction from my story, because the extraordinary thing that happened next was my mind suddenly seemed go into freefall and started thinking about all other examples of imitation to be found in that capacious entity called the Cosmos. By which I mean within the human and the animal, and why stop there, the botanical and even the immaterial and transcendental context. Before I knew it, I started to think and with a considerable degree of dizziness that I had found myself a new Universal, a new Explanation, a New Imaginative Key to Human Knowledge…me the as a rule humble Kythno-Cumbrian who hitherto had discovered precisely nothing original in any field of human endeavour, other than my one and only invented culinary dish (roast potatoes in orange juice, olive oil and basil, in case you are wondering).

Let me explain. Suddenly, after thinking for some time about the most illustrious TV impressionist of recent years, Scotsman Rory Bremner (born 1961) and his satirical imitations of Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, David Cameron, sundry US presidents and the like, I began to ponder all other examples of Imitation and as in an escalating whirlwind, there seemed to be no recognisable end to them, and more to the point they seemed to subtend almost every example of human and non-human endeavour. I need to stress that I had never once in all my life thought anywhere along these mesmerisingly reductive lines, and in such a rapid synthesising manner, and that the realisation came altogether gratuitously, more or less dropped on my head, rather than me striving to make any conceptual connection.

Here for example, and by way of starters (you will no doubt think of your own variations), are some examples of the ubiquitous phenomenon of Imitation Writ Large…

Both psychologists and linguists tell us that when an infant learns how to speak, they do so by Analogy and Imitation of their role models, customarily their parents, but also of course their siblings, TV programmes, playmates etc. They only learn to speak at all because seemingly, of their own volition, they decide to imitate, or let us say if they didn’t imitate their models, they would end up borderline mute and sadly disadvantaged for the rest of their life. Of course, their progress as they start to copy their learning templates is far from perfect, as like inadequate TV impressionists or inept tribute bands, they cannot get things right in one go. Hence unlike their Mum (even if when the wine is going down well, she is sometimes given to the hilarious colloquial) they will say ‘Me like Smarties’, as they cannot cognitively distinguish between subject and object, between who or what does the deed, and who or what they do it to. Ditto you rarely hear a 3-year-old resorting to the subjunctive mood as in, ‘Would that you made a lot more money Dad, so that we could have Sky Digital and 500 channels…’  for instead they will innocently lisp, ‘Me like Sky TV ’ an infant variation on, ‘me would also like the Moon.’

But let’s turn to the serious and pragmatic post-infant business of doing and achieving. When a grown child or an adult for that matter, learns any new educational or manual skill, they obviously do so by studious imitation. A 12-year-old for example learns how to solve a mathematical equation by imitating the teacher’s favoured method, and if they are unable to do that, they cannot learn the skill. That said, the important empirical variable here is the teacher’s mode of explanation, for if the teacher summarises their method badly or ambiguously, then the child cannot see how to do a successful imitation. This was in fact my own painful case, back in Gothic West Cumbria in 1963, when our incredibly foul-tempered, ever-salivating and aged spinster maths teacher Miss Puckridge told us all that in order to solve a simple equation, we must gather the x’s on one side and the numbers on the other, and to do this we must ‘change the sign and add’. It was that last bit that made nil sense at all to me, it might as well have been salivated in Elamite or Middle Vandalic, for what so-called signs must I change and to what else must I add the incomprehensible bastards? For long and fretful weeks I couldn’t get my equations right, until I confided with my older brother, and he immediately showed me a method as clear as day, and I have been able to solve 2x + 6 = 12 ever since, and it has been a considerable consolation to me in all life’s trials, as I’m sure you can appreciate. Likewise, and crucially, an apprentice plumber learns how to unblock a domestic drain and to make an entire household happy instead of forlorn and dysfunctional, by following closely their boss’s instructions, by imitating their method, both by attentively watching and carefully listening. Ditto any yoga student in an evening class in Stow on the Wold or Piddle Trenthide  or London SE21 learns how to get the utthitaparsvakonasana posture right by imitating Margie the teacher’s instructions to the letter…and if they don’t, or do it carefree and blasé, or when full of 15% wine, they might do their back in for the next 20 years and need more than yoga to sort it out…

A conceptual distance from the learning of skills, whether intellectual or practical, is the business of living a whole life according to moral, ethical or spiritual direction. When it comes to instructive role models striving Christians are adjured in the Biblical Epistles, to walk in the ways of the spiritual giants, meaning to Imitate the Saints. This is never going to be easy of course (especially the outlandish business of loving your enemies) no more than advanced plumbing skills or advanced mathematical calculus are ever going to be easy. One has to follow/imitate strict spiritual rules or strict spiritual directions in imitating the saints, and one way to start is with the Ten Commandments, which as one theologian has wisely pointed out are not called the Ten Suggestions…though most of us prefer to act as if that is exactly what they should have been called. By the same token, pious Hindus read the hallowed Bhagavad Gita, where Krishna, an avatar of the god Vishnu, urges them to imitate his own example, and do their designated duty without attachment to either Reward or Loss, to either Pleasure or Pain. By which discipline, which is to say by learned imitation, they will not by their actions create Karma and thus will be freed from the cycle of Death and Rebirth called Samsara.

Then there are matters of a more diversionary, not to say glamorous nature. When an actor acts, they imitate the character as portrayed by the dramatist for the stage or the TV or film screen, and if we are lucky, they perform the sleight of hand of making us suspend disbelief and believe, almost as a child would, that we are watching real people in real dramas doing real and engaging things. Of course the number of variables here is considerable. Great acting comes by the actor imitating the subtlest depths and nuances of the character, assuming the character has any depth as rendered by the playwright. At this point, crucially the world divides into those who like Drama and those who prefer Melodrama which is also known as Soap Opera. The latter regularly concocts serious, even tragic, even devastating issues, but instead of rooting them in Credible Character, roots them in acceptably narcotising Stereotype. This same narcotic works as an analgesic, hence there is no Real Grief nor Real Rage nor Real Terror nor Real Joy in these prime-time TV melodramas. Their 2-dimensional characters are not and never will be real, for the simple reason that their feelings are, qua the audience’s wishful thinking, manufactured or cooked up by the obliging soap dramatist, which is to say they are not viscerally nor imaginatively felt by either dramatist or audience. None of which would matter all that much, until one reflects that some of the most powerful people in the world, e.g. political celebrities like Trump and Putin talk exactly like lead actors in the strangest soap opera, and Trump at his verbal worst conveys nothing but undiluted and incontinent melodrama. Even more worrying, almost every politician in the world, including the UK Labour and Tory variety, resorts, on hypnotised autopilot, to soaplike truisms, inasmuch as those godawful things called Political Speeches are never about itemised, specified and checkable realities, but instead a set of vacuous cheerleading motifs, full of indefinable wholly fictional entities (and very downmarket fiction at that). For example, slogans like ‘The British People will not accept this travesty of justice’ is surely the purest meaning the rankest bog-standard soap opera. For at some point, anyone remotely sane would surely ask themselves, who are these so called homogeneous and united British People when they are at home, in front of their flat screens and their TV dinners and their exercise machines and buy one get one free online vitamin pills? Can you see them, smell them, hear them, touch them, as something describably and ontologically real? Do they seem, these redoubtable ghosts, invented by cheery politicians, like genuine human beings or more like lathered soap? What exactly do they look like, smell like, feel like, in their so-called reality?  Where exactly do you find them, and does it involve turning over a stone?  How many times a minute do these phantoms check their smartphones, and does this make them in any sense more or less like a 24/7 soap that has been sold all over the world in 17 languages?

Meanwhile, if imitation is such a recognisable universal and an essential component of what it is to be human, then you can start to feel a pessimistic fatalism when you consider the likelihood of children helplessly imitating the wrong role models, and with all its implications for the world at large. We have all known small boys with fathers who are openly vaunting, bumptious and puerilely competitive, and seen how those kids when they reach adolescence suddenly start to ape their father to a tee. The good news is that at least when it comes to learned social behaviour, Free Will is still a reality, and plenty of teenagers opt to become the opposite of their Dad, possibly because they felt too painfully the demeaning tail end of all that masculine competitiveness. It is an undeniable fact that plenty of boys with violent and abusive fathers end up violent and abusive themselves, but it is also a fact that many others decide to  acknowledge their own vulnerability and closeted victimhood and make a crucial decision not to project, not to introject, not to act it all out for the rest of their lives, but to walk defiantly in the opposite direction of being kind and gentle to others.

There are clearly two principle varieties of imitation, that done in the crucial name of Learning and that done in the name of Diversionary Entertainment. The latter may be formalised and even provide a source of income as in TV Impressionists and Tribute Bands (The Beetles from Stony Stratford, The Rocking Stones from Todmorden, Elvis Preston from Preston, Lancs), or it can be informal as in the case of a schoolgirl doing a brilliant send up of her uptight PE teacher Ms Maggie McCorquodaile, she of the comical sniff, the surreal facial tic and the far too masculine voice.  The schoolgirl mimic won’t make any money out of it, but she will have great cache among her pals as her imitation is so pitch perfect that she has almost stolen or encapsulated and thus neutralised Maggie’s Identity or even Soul by her magical mimesis. It is that love of mimicry which once in the early 1970s lead to a mindboggling show called Who Do You Do? on UK’s ITV, where the camera went repeatedly along a whole row of performers of both sexes, none of them virtuosos, who often did the same impersonations, and to such a degree of monotonous sameness  the viewer would end up feeling dazed to the point of  non- imitative inanition. Take-offs of mad TV scientists Magnus Pyke and David Bellamy, of Marlon Brando as the Godfather, of James Cagney and his You Dirty Rat, of WC Fields and Mae West (minus of course her admirably outrageous double entendre) of avuncular Labour PM James Callaghan, not to speak of Ronald Reagan’s avowed heartthrob Margaret Thatcher when she was in opposition pre 1979…

There is no radio equivalent of TV impressionists as far as I know, though I do vividly recall the truly surreal phenomenon of radio ventriloquists as in the runaway 1950s BBC hit, Educating Archie, Archie being a talking schoolboy doll. The TV variety has justly almost vanished from the screen, and for one very good reason. Mechanical mimicry in itself is not enough unless it reaches virtuoso heights and to do that it would have to get inside the original’s soul, every nook and cranny of it, and as if the impressionist were another Olivier or Gielgud or Plowright.  As most UK impressionists tend to imitate topical politicians for easy laughs, they have the singular task of rendering wavering semantic vacuity, take it or leave it verbal imprecision, lack of a coherent and credible moral core, lack of a centre of existential gravity, whilst also conveying timid hypocrisy, timid double dealing, vain and forgettable mouthings, and all the rest. Bremner has survived longer than most as he does after a fashion take the piss out of politicians, but with nowhere near the scorn or mockery or seditious contempt that was so welcome in Spitting Image, the ITV’s satirical puppet show of 40 years ago.

The conclusion deserves a paragraph to itself and especially when we are all wallowing in the nightmarish morass of Brexit in April 2019. It is surely instructive that to get an authentic satirical edge, which is to say a moral weapon intended to pierce the thickest of insentient political hides, the creators of the show had to adopt a strategic and ineffable Double Imitation. The first Imitation was the Puppet Doll which imitated a Man or a Woman, and the second or Meta-Imitation was the Meta-Man or  Meta-Woman which mimicked the Politician as he or she bluffed and blustered and shuffled into relaxing Soap Opera mode and who has been soaping and lathering and relaxing ever since.

A GENIUS CALLED LIDIA JORGE

The  next post will be on or before Friday 12th April

A GENIUS CALLED LIDIA JORGE

Writing of her extraordinary 7th novel The Migrant Painter of Birds (1998, translated 2001), Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago says of Lidia Jorge (born 1946):

‘A remarkable book…written by one of the most important voices in new Portuguese literature.’

Given that Saramago (1922-2010) is in my view one of the most talented writers in the whole of world literature, past or present, this is a testimonial more authoritative and enduring than most. Jorge has published to date 4 story collections and 11 novels, but sadly only 2 of her books including this one are available in English, translated by the doyenne of Portuguese specialists Margaret Jull Costa. Saramago’s chosen term ‘remarkable’ is especially apt, because both theme and prose style here are unnervingly original as Jorge starts to play with the perplexing  notion of a worrying dual identity experienced by a young child all the way through to her thirties. The setting is an obscure village called Sao Sebastiao in the Portuguese Algarve, beginning in the early 1950s and taking us as far as 1983 when the ‘girl’ is in her mid thirties and has just discovered the truth about her paternity and confronted her father. Prior to this, in a massive farmhouse called Valmares, Francisco Dias lords it over his large family, his sons and their wives (including the girl’s mother) who bow to the irritable patriarch on all matters and grind away as his impoverished labourers and domestic skivvies. In the 1950s the Algarve under a Fascist government was remarkably primitive with flickering oil lamps and horse drawn buggies, and Jorge’s narrator reflects that the sternness and harshness of people like Francisco is consonant with the petrifying hardness and austerity of the reactionary government. This spartan and frugal mentality of the struggling peasant, is echoed with extreme precision when the author describes something as seemingly innocuous as the patriarch’s footsteps.

‘…there were the heavy footsteps of Francisco Dias, which, thanks to the two gleaming lines of tacks on the soles of his boots, had a metallic ring to them that followed him everywhere as if he were wearing a crown on his feet.’

It is the unexpected crown on his feet image which takes this finely wrought prose into the realm of the exceptional, or shall we say a quiet genius. For of course Francisco is no monarch but a bitter and disappointed man who neither loves nor is loved by his biddable children. His inordinately large farmhouse is explained by his buying up the most wretched land imaginable at rock bottom prices then getting his team of filial slaves to use pick and hoe to turn it into something fertile. And besides, there is a major fly in the ointment in the form of one son Walter, a rebel who refuses to stay at Valmares, but after his army years goes wandering the globe, only giving a clue to his whereabouts by posting home beautiful drawings of birds he makes in the various exotic countries: parrots from Brazil, ducks from Panama, storks from Casablanca and humming birds from Caracas. These drawings predictably charm the little girl back in Valmares who believes Walter is her uncle, for indeed whenever he sees her he calls her his niece. But Walter is instead her father, an inveterate and shameless womaniser who impregnates a young farmer’s daughter Maria Ema and then immediately vanishes abroad. Worse still he has a strange totemic custom, in that whenever he makes love to a woman and wherever in the world, he spreads his old army blanket down for her to lie on, a sacrilege in military terms for a soldier’s blanket is symbolically tantamount to his national flag, and is to be treated with reverence, not as an adjunct to random fornication. Meanwhile Maria Ema’s life, once she was abandoned, is pure purgatory, as her shamed parents go about doing everything to humiliate and punish her publicly. Ironically it is Francisco saves the day when he realises he can retrieve the Dias grandchild by marrying another son off to Maria Ema. The other son is Custodio who happens to be lame and is the most obedient of his family. As Maria Ema very obviously continues to hanker after vagabond Walter, everyone refers to Custodio as The Cuckold, which it has only just struck me as I write this, is another avine image, as it is derived from the word cuckoo.

‘On that far-off winter night, the rain was falling over the sandy plain, and the noise of the rain on the roof tiles protected us from the world and from the others in the house like a drawn curtain that no human force could wrench open. Had it been otherwise, Walter would not have come up the stairs or entered the room’

Over and again throughout the novel, we have this haunting image of Walter in the 1950s in his bare feet, carrying his shoes, and  going up to the girl’s bedroom to inspect her by an upraised oil lamp. He is coming to look at his daughter, though he invariably assures her she is his niece. She is of course besotted with this wandering uncle who does beautiful drawings and at times she imagines she is summoning him there from distant parts in some magical manner, as if he were part of a film, for she can seemingly force him to visit as she wishes.

‘She would have liked to tell him that she was fifteen, but that she could watch Walter’s film whenever she wanted…and that the film was an intangible inheritance, invisible to the others, but real to her, a film in which no one came or left unless she chose’

These dreamlike fantasies parallel her dreamlike ignorance of not knowing who she is, nor the identity of her roving hero. There is indeed so much of this vertiginous uncertainty that at times we wonder whether Walter ever actually came to her bedside, or if it was all her imagination. But at least one of the visits was real, for Walter later admits to one of his brothers now living and prospering in Canada, that he did on a secret visit enter her bedroom holding aloft his shoes to take a look at her. Far from being touched by this confession, the brother is horrified and in a round robin to his father and all of his siblings (all but Custodio and Maria Ema having fled the nest) he suggests that Walter only went back to Valmares to have his way with still infatuated Maria Ema, and even possibly to have incestuous relations with his daughter. Prior to this crucial revelation and almost as shocking, the girl when very young (in 1951) manages to get hold of Walter’s army revolver, complete with its tantalising golden bullets. She hides it carefully under the pillow or sometimes between the mattress, though taking it out often to play with it, and even once when Walter is stood there in her room.

‘And she cocked and uncocked the gun again and again, so that he would understand that she was afraid of nothing and of no one, for this was the night she managed both to be born and to say farewell, like the mayfly described in her zoology book in the chapter on insects of the genus Ephemera. Then he himself lowered her arm.

‘“Good God, what have we done to you?” he said.’

Note that that word ephemera is hardly insignificant in this context, given how on the unsettled margins of a fantasy existence Walter’s daughter invariably has found herself.

Later the whole of the Dias clan is thoroughly shaken, when Walter announces a surprise visit after years of absence. Maria Ema for one is overwhelmed with excitement, and cannot hide it to the extent that she starts putting make up on, which normally she only does for going to church.

‘But Maria Ema’s make up consisted of just a touch of lipstick. That was all. The transformation lay in her mouth. Her white flesh grew paler next to the bright rose of her mouth. Maria’s mouth became a real rose, a brilliant pearly rose, that put a sparkle in her eyes, smoothed her hair, made her waist more slender, her foot slimmer, her ankle finer, her hands softer…’

However the prodigal son brings very little comfort. After bluffly informing the Diases that the days of subsistence farming are over and tourism is the future, Walter abruptly departs and Maria Ema is to upset she retreats to bed, stops eating, and shows every sign of going into terminal decline. Ironically she is only saved from dying of love, by the sight of her daughter suddenly behaving like her errant father. The teenage girl decides to walk in the direction of the house of the local doctor, a curious dissipated man of about 30 called Dalila, who is a whisky addict and who invites her inside to embrace her, but insists she is in no danger as he is ‘as harmless as a woman’. The girl sees him as a glorified and comical eunuch with glass in hand ‘looking at her, wanting her, undressing her’. The same eunuch is however wise enough to shout at the girl when she mentions Walter’s revolver that she still keeps under her pillow, and he commands her to go and get it, and then flings it triumphantly into the sea. He also takes a titanic laughing fit when she tells him that Walter uses his army blanket for lovemaking. Meanwhile her daughter’s brazenness shocks Maria Ema into action, and she shakes off her lethal torpor and tells her that she will spy on her from now on and clip her wings. However Dalila’s drinking is so bad that before long he is carted off in an ambulance, after which the girl now in her late teens acquires a Citroen Dyane and starts to roam at large to meet as many men as she likes, and Maria can do nothing but vainly threaten.

By now Francisco is very depressed and pitifully uncomprehending, as all his sons bar Custodio have deserted him and gone to America, Canada and South America. They all initially have terrible back-breaking jobs in things like logging or underground mining, where one of them claims he never sees daylight, but as the years roll by, they all become fairytale prosperous. One gets rich in Real Estate, another has a fleet of taxi cars, they all write insultingly brief letters to their father once in a blue moon, and promise they will heed his command and return to divide the estate, but of course they never do. One of them vengefully discloses that Walter borrowed a lot of money from him and promised to pay it back and never did, and it is this breaking of his promise and the parallel disclosure in the same letter that he is her father, not her uncle, that causes the girl’s terminal disenchantment with her lifelong hero. In her thirties now in 1983 she learns that Walter is running a bar called Los Pajaros, The Birds, in a town in Fascist Argentina, where currently certain people are sanctioned to kidnap and drug leftists and fling them out of helicopters into the ocean near unpeopled Tierra del Fuego. Her poetic vengeance is to sit down in Valmares and to pen 3 short stories, all about Walter who is not named but in one of them is called The Fornicator. She promptly gets herself to Los Pajaros, and after some delay finds Walter and gives him the 3 stories to examine on the spot. Obediently he starts reading, and at first she is stupefied as he shows no visible response, and concludes he doesn’t even realise they are all about him! When at last the penny drops, Walter flies into a hate-filled rage and kicks her out of his bar.

‘His hatred was an old one, similar to the hatred seen by his daughter in certain men in Valmares. It was a barbarous hatred, that sent tables and chairs flying, that flung out at her the names of different members of the family, each one accompanied by an insult…’

She returns when  her father has calmed down a little, and with an urgent question. She wants to know why over all those years he drew all those birds with so much detail and love,  as if somehow the answer to that will spell out some renewal of her love for him. But the sad fact is, and it applies to many a disappointed child (and adult for that matter) past and present and anywhere in the world, that our fancies are our personal fancies only, and not the reality of the one we believe uniquely understands  and thereby truly cherishes us.

Her father  says, ‘Look, I did it, because I enjoyed it that’s all.’

A short while after Walter dies penniless, and a long while after that (typically he had addressed it inadequately) the girl receives a parcel covered in foreign stamps and many readdressings by conscientious postmasters from all over the world. Inside is Walter’s army blanket, the one on which the girl was conceived and where all her father’s lovers had spread themselves thereafter. And even to the end her so called father is in a cruel if contented state of thoroughly amnesic denial

To my niece, as sole inheritance, I leave this soldier’s blanket

WHEN GERMAINE AND ZADIE GOT IT WRONG

The next post will be on or before Saturday April 6th

WHEN GERMAINE AND ZADIE GOT IT WRONG

Few things are more entertaining, albeit also irritating and risible, than seeing brainbox literary critics, whether the UK or US variety, writing myopic and unbelievable drivel about certain overlauded books that come their way. Here for example is Deirdre Donohue writing in USA Today about the 2000 novel Mr Phillips by John Lanchester (born 1962)

‘Lanchester possesses enormous stylistic gifts. Not one sentence is pedestrian…’

Are you sure, Deirdre? Or were you just possibly half-watching the telly, say Friends or the demanding Seinfeld while writing your panegyric to the blemishless maestro? Note that Lanchester is a lifelong Londoner (he is also on the editorial board of the London Review of Books) and here he is in Mr Phillips bringing metropolitan architecture to life with some far from consummate vividness.

‘The houses in the Crescent are low-squatting semi-detached Edwardian villas…They look more cramped than they are, with decent space at the back and sometimes an attic too, as well as three upstairs bedrooms.’

This reads to me like a cross between an estate agent with incipient dementia and the late Ivor Cutler, Scottish poet and humourist (1923-2006) doing his deadpan riffs on witless overstatement. But just in case you think I am cruelly plucking out a sole and anomalous authorial lapse, here is some more tickertape prose where the hero Mr Phillips is caught up in a bank robbery. He is looking at Clarissa Colingford, a TV celebrity who is the object of his regular erotic fantasies, and who by coincidence is also caught up in the terrifying heist.

‘Her thin pale-brown shirt looks as if it was made out of chamois leather and her thin-looking cream trousers unfortunately seem likely to pick up all kinds of dirts and smears from the Barclays carpet’

Do you, intelligent reader, need me to point out the quantity of ungainly hyphenated adjectives in these two samples, one of which is both a repetition of ‘thin’ and also a weakening item of pallid description as he says it is ‘thin-looking’. The point is that Lanchester who is capable of great things as in his debut prizewinning novel written in the first person The Debt to Pleasure (1996) once he moves to the third person as in Mr Phillips, would seem to find himself much of the time completely at sea. The novel is about a day in the life of a London accountant aged 50, recently made redundant and afraid to tell his wife, who even though she is a gifted music teacher, appears more of a blurred cipher than a credible character throughout the novel, where she is invariably called Mrs Phillips. They have 2 young sons called Martin and Thomas who indulge in amiable and predictable anthropological quirks like sleeping all day at the weekend and putting signs on their bedroom doors saying No Entry, but that said none of the four Phillips could be accused of coming to life in the radical novelistic sense of being vivid and credible on the page. As I’ve been telling all my creative writing students for the last 30 years, when trying to produce compelling literary fiction, there are 3 principal ways of making a character vivid. You have the option of telling us the readers, one or all of the following:

-how precisely they look (Dickens, Mollie Keane, George Eliot)

-how precisely they do things (Chekov, Eudora Welty)

-how precisely they speak (Graham Greene, Ivy Compton Burnett)

Sadly, employing the third person and with the distancing device of the ‘Mr’ for his hero, Lanchester’s descriptive powers tend to the formulaic, and his characters, especially the women who set Phillips’ sex-obsessed mind going, tend to be presented as police identikit summaries rather than 3 dimensional human beings. Hence, when we turn to a woman beggar who Phillips chances across during his day at large, his cameo of her down-and-out appearance would barely pass muster in an essay written by a callow and unheeding 11-year-old.

‘…sitting half rolled-up in too many clothes for the weather – heavy trousers, two or three shirts, a coat, a bobble hat, with a couple of plastic bags strewn around her’

Chekov or Dickens or Mollie Keane could have made the same beggar alive for ever by going to town on the precise nature of the trousers, the shirts and the hat, whereas all Mr P can do is subsequently offer a weary and unoriginal John  Lanchester riff on how beggars embarrass you whether you give them money or not. And note that there is not only US Deirdre telling us that inter alia Proustian/ Joycean Lanchester is incapable of writing a pedestrian sentence. We also have Germaine Greer no less (born 1939) with her colossal and original and as a rule fearless brain, saying, ‘I think it is a masterpiece’ plus the  gifted novelist Zadie Smith (born 1975) of all people declaring, ‘Absolute blinder of a book, hysterically funny, very moving, sooo (sic) elegantly done. Rather wish I’d written it meself (sic)’. Perhaps Zadie’s folksy Our Lass Next Door colloquialisms give a clue to both the ambient weakness of British critical insight, and the bizarre astigmatism whereby declared and prominent feminists are praising a book that is at times repellently misogynistic.

To start at the beginning. Mr Phillips who only once in the whole novel is referred to as Victor (it means Conqueror in Latin, but the nuance, if there is any, is so obscure, it is beside the point) is a 50 year old accountant with a 46 year old wife and 2 teenage boys. He has been bounced/made redundant from his job but we don’t discover that until well into the book, nor that his picaresque journey around London is intended to dupe his wife into thinking he is still working. Much of the notional energy of the novel is given up to Mr Phillips’ random third person ruminations, most of them about sex, and as he is an accountant he and his erstwhile Scottish colleague Monroe had often drily embarked on elaborate calculator computations re things like the frequency with which couples all over the UK might have sex. The essential paradox they both agree is that while everyone goes around thinking everyone else is always at it, the obvious statistical and commonsense reality is that the majority of folk are rarely or indeed never having sex. Phillips’ subconscious deals with his own middle- aged libidinal famine by regular erotic dreams, where despite their vividness (more vivid than any of the characters in the book for sure) he never actually penetrates the woman of his night-time fantasy. The vocabulary of his masculine fantasies is often expressed in a stark and mechanical manner with ample use of the words cock, dick, erection and the debatable word cunt (I know several far from prudish women of different generations who cannot bear to hear it uttered in any context). There is very rarely anything approaching a glancing tenderness or even authentic passion of any kind, as opposed to the phallocentric clinical, and there is an odd and strained passage about the hero and his wife where he manages to move from an incipient tender gentleness to a raw and repugnant conclusion

‘…the smell of her…her skin smelling of milk and sometimes cinnamon, her hair of leaves or sometimes, not unpleasantly, of London, a smell of distant gunsmoke…or of the floral aftermath of her previous day’s toilette, and of sweat metallic and musky, perhaps even of the farts which might have been democratically intermingling under the duvet, with an occasional whiff of authentic cunt smell wafting up as she shifts beside him…’

Aside from the lazy imprecision of that word ‘authentic’, it seems to me that both the hero and Lanchester are acutely uncomfortable when it comes to simple tenderness. So that although all is going well and movingly in the text till we get to the word ‘musky’, thereafter both author and protagonist cannot resist the yah boo schoolboy crudity of under the sheet farts. The same is rolled up in a kind of posh and ironic decorousness, which alas shoots itself in the foot by bringing in the sheer banality of that Terry and June suburbia word ‘duvet’. The writer and his hero then stamp on things decisively by dragging in the c-word just to show they ain’t frightened of anything, and aren’t really Terry and June lookalikes after all. The semantic clue to all this cheerily masculine infantilism seems clear at one stage, when Phillips muses that of all the words for sex, such as lovemaking, fucking etc, the one closest to his heart and inner reality is just ‘doing’ ‘it’. One ‘does’ the thing called sex, which seems to me at any rate a grim species of alienation, for he is definitely not talking about women with insensitive lovers lying back and making the lifeless motions. He is instead stating that when he Phillips copulates, in pure existential terms he ‘does’ ‘it’, the all-purpose auxiliary verb ‘to do’ being in my view a colourless and deeply estranged agency if ever there was.

That being the case, there is scant room here for real comedy if any, for how can you have comedy or any other kind of animated fiction, if the characters and descriptive indices are all 2 dimensional, the scene setting ditto (cue at one point a string of undescribed London tube stops by way of ‘movement’ and ‘colour’ in the novel). This book is hailed by numerous cognoscenti as a comic masterpiece, which surely means it needs to stand shoulder to shoulder with Dickens, HG Wells and Flann O’ Brien, but alas it fails at every level, as instead of being truly funny, it is measuredly and usually ornately facetious. Worse still, at times it doesn’t even manage that, and the ironies such as they are could have been culled from a Rotarian’s after dinner speech.

‘A jogger, a tall man wearing white shorts who has a curious prancing stride, lifting his knees high, passes Mr Phillips, and gives him a sidelong look as he bounces by. Presumably you don’t see many people in suits carrying briefcases in parks at this time of day’

I have read this extract six times trying to get some picture of the jogger and his hinted persona, but I see precisely nothing. He like the man who observes him is a facetious ghost, no more. You might well retort, but he is a minor incidental character, so what’s the problem, to which I would say, well why did Lanchester bring him into the novel in that case? By contrast note that in different ways Dickens and Wells and O’Brien, all took pains to animate their creations, including the monsters as well as the buffoons, by appropriate descriptive touches and as a rule subtly wrought if stylised dialogue. To that extent when Dickens is writing about appalling caricatural specimens like Gradgrind and Pecksniff and Murdstone and Mrs Joe, he invests an objective love in their creation by doing them the courtesy of rendering every last piously cruel sniff and snort and wheeze and hypocritical smile. More relevant perhaps is that Wells like Lanchester was also given to titling his comic heroes ‘Mr’ and we have those eponymous and uneven novels featuring Mr Britling, Mr Lewisham, Mr Blettsworthy, Mr Parham and best known of all, Mr Polly. The History of Mr Polly (1910) is by far the least whimsical and most funny of these works, and for all its caricatural contrivance, manages to squeeze piquant comedy out of Wells’ own appalling years as an apprentice draper in Kent, as witnessed also in his superior and perennially endearing 1905 novel Kipps. We all know about Dickens the child in the hideous blacking factory, and perhaps the reason why Lanchester cannot extract great comedy out of his character Phillips is because his creation has known nothing worse than being made redundant at the age of 50, having a marital sex life not quite exciting enough, and having for a time to live on only one income viz that of his wife, Mrs Phillips, with her, as he puts it in an altogether vain and vulgar stab to raise the fictional flashpoint, ‘authentic’ and intimate body odours.

A LIFE WITHOUT ANY PROBLEMS

I will be on holiday soon for a couple of weeks, and there will be no new post until on or before Friday 29th March

A LIFE WITHOUT ANY PROBLEMS

When was the last time you solved a nagging personal problem by breaking the law?  Never?  Me neither. But let me tell you about a friend of mine I shall call Maria, married and living in the countryside, who somewhere around the mid-1980s, when she was about 30, had a problem that was driving her mad. A skilled and natural driver, she kept failing her driving test simply because she was so pent up and nervous at the all or nothing ordeal. Because she lived out in the sticks, she needed reliable transport to her job in the town, plus she was planning to have a child, and there was no way she could rely on non-existent rural buses, nor exorbitant taxis, and with Jack her overworked husband giving her inconvenient lifts everywhere, it was proving onerous and a strain on them both. So it was that on her fourth attempt, before going into the Test Centre, she nipped into the public toilets and took a hefty swig of odourless vodka, a double or possibly a triple measure, whereafter she sailed through her test and indeed the elderly male examiner congratulated her on her impressive navigational finesse.

There is a whole array of moral issues to be debated here, and any reasoned outcome might well be inconclusive. Supposing Maria had kept on failing her test for say another 2 years, with the rural housing market completely stagnant at the time, it is not impossible the marriage might have broken up with them trapped there in their remote but no longer idyllic cottage, she might well have ended up a single mother without a car, she might well have lost her job. Needless to say, once she passed her test and with a small child in tow, she never drank and drove, and for sure she never will. So what she did to make life tolerable for herself and her partner and the imminent child, was an act of lucid and ad hoc expediency rather than moral recklessness, even if I doubt that many others would follow her example. And given that we are talking about the pragmatic use of hazardous alcohol, it’s also relevant to recall life in impoverished mining villages in the UK somewhere around the 1920s and 30s, when colliers on exhausting shift work simply could not be allowed to have broken sleep. If there was a young baby in the house and it was teething and crying, the mother would often take out the rum bottle normally reserved for Christmas cakes and puddings, and put some rum on the baby’s dummy to make it go to sleep. The objective reality of giving a tiny baby strong spirits, however little, is certainly shocking, but with the acoustics of poky back to back mining cottages, of divorce for working folk being non-existent, and the prosecution of domestic violence ditto, what meaningful choice did a practically-minded collier’s wife have at that point?

There are by my count 3 principal ways of dealing with the Bashing Your Head Against a Brick Wall scenario. The most common one is to just keep on vainly bashing and exhausting yourself, possibly until your dying day, with temporary relief in the form of e.g. amnesic weekend holiday breaks if you can afford them, drinking, gambling, and possibly adultery, whether or not you can afford it. The second option is a mystical or spiritual and occasionally psychotherapeutic one, variations on the Zen koan or exercising a paradoxical approach to an intractable problem. The controversial US writer Henry Miller (1892-1980) who was full of homely didactic wisdom often culled from oriental sources, fittingly once quoted a Zen Buddhist saying about brick walls, which went:

Stand still and watch the wall crumble

As I’ve mentioned earlier in these pages, there is the apocryphal tale of two famous Surrealist painters, one of whom I believe was the Belgian, Rene Magritte (1898-1967). The two artists liked each other very much, but were always painfully tongue-tied in each other’s presence, so much so it looked as if the friendship might have to end. Then one of them (remember that he was an artist hence easily seized by unrehearsed inspiration) one day took a pure Zen approach, and instead of mumbling and squirming and blushing at his lack of words, promptly cracked the other one across the face, full across the chops! Satori! Liberation! It was high risk inspiration you might say, but instead of it leading to cascading not to say surreal fisticuffs, it instantly broke the ice, they both started laughing heartily, and they had no communication problems ever after.

In a therapeutic context, there exists something rather on the same lines. A few unusually imaginative psychotherapists, working with those who have a stuck obsession or phobia or fear of losing control, sometimes apply the Paradoxical Injunction method, as a means of reversing the existential blockage, so to speak. Thus, in the American context, we read of a middle-aged woman Maisie institutionalised in a mental hospital for acts of non-dangerous violence, meaning she never actually attacked anyone, but had a habit at home of threatening to go berserk and wrecking the joint, and occasionally actually doing so. Then one day, the farsighted therapist in charge, had the idea of actually encouraging Maisie to go berserk rather than forbidding it, so that he got all his staff to put temptingly smashable but dispensable and non-hazardous objects all over the main reception area, when all the other residents were away on an outing. He then more or less grinned and taunted Maisie to do her worst, whereupon seized by decades of repressed rage, she started smashing and smashing unrestrained. At long last she got tired of, even bored by her epic vandalism, sat down exhausted on the sofa, and alongside her therapist started laughing her head off. Thanks to the paradoxical injunction, she had broken the deadening and debilitating taboo, meaning the projected and introjected and pathological rules she had lived by most of her days, especially during her grotesquely puritanical childhood. At last those rules had been proved by physical means to be existentially false, and from then on Maisie started to improve and would eventually return to the world. And the catharsis you will note, could not be achieved by talk or reasoning or reasonableness, but only by Maisie seizing the prohibition by the horns and overturning it in the form of physically, with her muscles, breaking those bogus childhood rules.

The third way of demolishing the brick wall is by the exercise of imaginative or creative thinking, best exemplified by the Maltese physician and academic Edward de Bono (born 1933) in his theory of Lateral Thinking, a concept he first expounded in 1967. It is the antithesis or perhaps imaginative counterpart of Logical Thinking, which sees deduction and induction and error-seeking as the primary rational means. Lateral Thinking is very often more on the lines of Playful Thinking, in the sense of provocatively asking seemingly inane or pointless questions at times. For example, why should most cups have handles, which demand greater ceramic time and more ceramic expenditure, even if they stop you burning your hands? Whereupon a lateral thinker might suggest that some cheap insulating material be put where the handle would be, or that an external holder, a cheap cardboard container with a cardboard grip be offered…an image which takes me back nostalgically, almost tearfully in fact, to the old British Rail and its Golden Blend coffee in those ground-breaking paper cups. An attractive analogue of the provocative question, why do we always have to have entity X, is the glorified party game which should never be scorned, whereby a bunch of people brainstorm any given problem (should Mary here marry George, currently on a boys only holiday in Benidorm, who is rather good at disguising his alcohol consumption?) to give as many practical decision-making options as possible. They should be rapidly and spontaneously generated, including any ludicrous options (George is really brilliant at pulling crazy faces) and then they can be reduced to the most liberating and imaginative core by the person with the problem, meaning Mary. Mary, in her crucial decision making, is opening up the emotional and imaginative possibilities, simply by the radical energy proliferated by creative brainstorming.

A word or two of obvious caution, though. Some of the least imaginative and least benign people in the world, like to brag about their own capacity for Lateral Thinking, but interestingly they call it something else, and overall, in the UK at least, they favour the cheery if decerebrated vocabulary of Rotarian after dinner speakers. Hence the former UK Prime Minister David Cameron, that not always inspired Bullingdon Club graduate, he who laid Brexit on us by offering a referendum to the good old British public…he our PM was forever talking in reverential terms about ‘Thinking Outside of The Box’. The rent-a-cliché vacuity of this pre-packaged discourse was laid bare in other oleaginous formulae, specially designed to make your flesh itch. Namely, and apropos Tory political maxims or economic strategies he would say, ‘It Does What It Says on The Tin’ and re those unsettling not to say irritating and treacherous differences of collective strategic viewpoint, he would sunnily enquire ‘Are We Singing From The Same Hymn Sheet?’

Boxes, tins, hymn sheets? Imaginatively and subliminally speaking, seemingly we are back in the cosily retarded world of the 1930s, when you will recall Britain ruled a quarter of the world as colony, dominion and protectorate (which sonorous term is surely its own antonym, is it not?). There is no mystery then about why so many people voted for Brexit, for with every nerve they are hankering after the good old days when like so many selfless and saintly monarchs they and their like amnesically ruled the grateful globe…

THE MAN WHO LET IT ALL HANG OUT

The next post will be on or before Thursday 7th March

THE MAN WHO LET IT ALL HANG OUTT

I was once told that there is an exotic rodent somewhere in Asia, who performs a type of spring cleaning (other sunny, not to say inane anthropomorphic terms, would be ‘downsizing’, ‘rationalising’, ‘decluttering’) by shoving what they regard as superfluous stuff out of their burrow and letting it accumulate immediately outside. Believe me, the same rodent would get on like a house on fire with Bojan the Serbian handyman, who lives a few doors down from me, and the two of them could swap notes for hours about what to classify as decadent surplus and what as integral essential. In the space of a few months, Bojan, who comes from Belgrade, and is divorced with a married daughter living back in Serbia, has lined up immediately outside his spartan one room Kythnos bedsit, for the whole world to see and marvel at, the following beguiling objects:-

-a newish but sadly defunct washing machine, inside of which was visible for a while, a single grubby white trainer. The shoe soon disappeared, and up until this morning it had a bright red and empty Lay’s salt-flavoured crisp/patatakia packet relaxing within its innards. This morning instead of the crisp packet, it had a scraggy stray cat gawking phlegmatically out as it sheltered from the rain

-leaning against the washing machine, a massive bag of solidified cement, which would break my back if I tried to lift it, and might even strain the wiry and fearless sinews of short and very skinny Bojan

-symmetrically opposite the washing machine, a lovely pair of pristine blue designer trainers, which can only have been rejected because they don’t fit Bojan, and indeed seem to be designed either for a child or for a petite woman. There is no mystery to this, as Bojan’s destitution evokes pity in plenty around him, and he is always receiving things like costly denims from kindly island folk, keen to give away what suddenly doesn’t fit them, meaning what alas would go three times round Bojan’s meagre hips and as a rule, wholly invisible arse. More touchingly, the old widow opposite, Tasoula, aware that Bojan isn’t looking after himself, gives him surplus doppio food she has cooked, and as very often he doesn’t come to the door but is prostrate inside with tsipuro brandy, she simply hangs the foil-wrapped stuffed peppers or brisola chops  or bean fasoladha on the doorknob inside a carrier bag, so that all he has to do is wake up to this fairytale surprise, and dozily heat it up on his ancient Baby Belling.

“Ti na kanoume?” he mutters stoically, and with only the tiniest trace of self-pity, each time  I see him. “But what can I do? What is to be done?”

I’ve given some examples of his mesmerising drift towards personal entropy, but just to add that next to the discarded footwear is a glinting motor out of someone’s abandoned car, and in front of that two dilapidated small motorbikes, one a Honda 70 that he sometimes with a purple-faced struggle gets to work, for as it was made in 1966 it is older than Bojan who at 52 was born in 1967, contemporaneous with the coup by the Greek Fascist Junta, that is. The glossier, smirking youth of a machine that sits beside it, hails from the late non-Fascist 1970s and is a Honda 90, but Bojan is working on that, it goes only fitfully, and he manages a kind of all or nothing mobility by cursing at and cajoling both of them until one of the two finally relents and submits to his desperation. The point is, as a jobbing handyman he has to have transport, as some of the building work is 10 kilometres away, and the only reliable supplier to the building trade is a 20-minute journey, all of it a steep uphill. Three years ago, Bojan actually possessed a rusted 1962 saloon car, with the boot and back seat and passenger seat full of his tools and random junk, a patient but tuberculous vehicle which coughed its way everywhere with an exhaust that seemed to play Bach’s Toccata and Fugue as it hiccupped along to wherever the job might be. In those days Bojan lived somewhere rather smarter, in a proper one bedroom flat with a monthly rent of 250, and then two cruel misfortunes happened together. His car finally died on him with as they say zilch compression from the engine, and his irate landlady kicked him out for six months unpaid rent. His solution was to fuse the 2 tragedies and over the summer of 2016 he lived and slept among the wrenches and oil cans and giant spanners in his car, and whatever scant work he acquired he reached by his put-put Honda 70 that was a year his senior, and which could no doubt remember exactly what Greek Fascism was like.

Bojan’s rent is now a bargain 150, for he resides in a single room with a curtained off kitchen and a partitioned toilet, and any time I have stood at his door I have beheld a surreal and very impressive clutter, reminiscent of the ancient Steptoe and Son rag and bone man comedy from the BBC.  Even so, I initially racked my brains as to how on earth he could pay even that meagre rent. Competent as he is in all DIY fields, meaning he is a skilled electrician, plumber, joiner, gardener, builder, painter and decorator, Bojan gets almost no work in the winter and spring, and not even much at the height of summer. He can only manage his peppercorn rent because the landlord owns property all over the island, and Bojan offers him payment in kind by regular maintenance. The trouble is the landlord demands a great deal of work to pay off the rent, so that it pans out about 3 euros an hour, even less than jobbing Albanian labourers are paid, those who usually make 60 euros in cash for a 12 hour day….

 “Ti na kanoume? But what can I do?”

Then, should he be in a mordant and eloquent mood, Bojan lists his sorrows, which are almost on a par with Job’s. He has currently no money whatever in his pockets, because he has no proper work other than his landlord’s payment in kind. His wi-fi has been cut off for non-payment, and one of Bojan’s small but abiding joys is putting up jokey, even saucily rude Facebook posts (women with comically outsize breasts and backsides, underneath which he writes a lubricious not unsexist caption) and of course he can’t use any café wi-fi, as he cannot afford to buy a drink anywhere. Then to cap all, at only 52, he is afflicted with incipient arthritis, because of decades of toiling outside in bad weather. The island doctor had told him to take regular exercise to help matters, so that up to four times a day like a penniless prisoner on supervised release, he will parade up and down the sea front for the sake of his back which of course is essential for him to lie on when prostrate with Greek brandy.

At his poorest, Bojan is inevitably marooned inside his room all day, and he nurses himself with copious draught tsipuro, which tastes very much like his native slivovic,a kind of Slavonic raki that instead of being made of grapes, is made out of plums. At this point, one might grotesquely reflect that the Belgrade man keeps on shoving random objects outside of his poky bedsit, just to show the world that he is still alive in the formal and minimal sense, and that it is indeed possible for someone to survive and be alive without any money whatever….

Which is of course not true. No one, unless they are an incarcerated prisoner, can survive on nil income, and yet, and this is the perennial and insoluble miracle, Bojan has been living on more or less nothing for all the 5 years I’ve known him. Like most East Europeans and Greeks, he smokes like a chimney, and is never without cigarettes and often they are packet Marlboros, rarely humble roll ups. His draught booze he gets in a plastic litre bottle from a supermarket, but even draught raki isn’t free. His rent does not include electricity and water, yet every night I notice there is a light in his room, and it is not candlelight, so he must have paid his bill somehow. For a long time I thought he was being subbed by his Belgrade daughter, but then one day when he was miraculously in funds he told me he had to wire her some urgent money, as not only was her husband, the charmingly named Ratko, addicted to slivovic but worse than that was a crazy gambler, and Zara had no money to feed Bojan’s 2 little grandchildren, so had turned to her old Dad who lived in Greece for lifesaving help. Then, once, as delicately as I could, I asked him if he managed to get any credit from the local shops, but he snorted and said only one of the port supermarkets would give him occasional electrical work, but would pay him only in shop goods, not with cash.

Bojan added, with a quaint solemnity: “You can’t pay your wi-fi bill with a tin of fucking tuna. Can you, eh?”

He looked at me then for a long and scrutinising moment, as if I might provide some kind of answer. As it happened I gave him all the DIY work I could, if only because my own practical skills were on a par with Homer Simpson’s, with whom I have long felt an enormous fraternal solidarity. And isn’t it very odd, I asked myself once, that I happen to have an important role model who was not in fact a person but a cartoon drawing?

He went on furiously, “You can’t pay your phone bill with a dozen fucking eggs? Can you, eh?”

It was the first time ever I had seen him looking truly angry at the treacherous and heartless human race, as opposed to intractable physical objects like car engines or recalcitrant stopcocks.

I said quickly, “No. No, you can’t.”

Then I racked my brains to think of some DIY job I didn’t really need, and right enough the inspiration quickly came, and Bojan followed me home at once, and we chatted emphatically about landlords and landladies and shop prices, and the fact that a feeble 5 euro note bought you almost nothing worth having these days…