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Jun 28, 2012

Books & Writers

  1. Train To Pakistan by Khushwant Singh
  2. Love Affair, Nana (1880), Germinal (1885), La Terre (1887) Le Roman Experimental (1880), Pamphlet J'accuse (1898) by Emile Zola
  3. Water Land (1983) by Graham Swift
  4. Sir Gawain And The Green Knight by some unknown contemporary to Chaucer
  5. A Room Of One’s Own (1929) , Jacob's Room (1922) Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To The Lighthouse (1927), The Waves (1931) Between The Acts (posthumously 1941), Modern Fiction by Virginia Woolf
  6. Writing Degree Zero  S/Z (1970), Work On Racine (1963) Mythologies (1957), Elements Of Semiology (1964) essay 'The Death Of The Author (1968) by Roland Barthes
  7. Cat And Shakespeare Serpent and the Rope, by Raja Rao
  8. Essay On Taj Mahal, Antic Hay (1923) Brave New World (1932) The Doors Of Perception (1954) by Adlous Huxley
  9. Things Falls Apart, A Man Of The People (1966),  Chinua Achebe (Nobel Prize in 1989)

Jun 23, 2012


“WALDEN” by Henry David Thoreau (first published 1854)

The uncolonised, scientifically-explored wilderness of Antarctica is one of the icons of the international Green movement. Reading a book about it reminds me, among other things, of all the ways Green habits of thought now influence us. That in turn sets me thinking about a book that is revered by a certain class of American reader and is, in effect, the Bible of much of the Green movement.

It’s very presumptuous of me to find myself in disagreement with a work some people regard as a classic, but that is the position I find myself in with respect to Henry David Thoreau’s Walden or Life in the Woods.

According to many who haven’t actually read it, Walden is the book that shows people how to live simply and serenely, relying on nature and one’s own effort. Add to this the fact that its author was not only a pacifist, but was also an abolitionist at a time when half of the United States still practised slavery, and you have the makings of an unassailable classic. Surely Thoreau’s book must be beyond criticism?

So how bumptious of me to find fault with so much that Thoreau argues.

To clear the ground first, Thoreau (1817-62) was one of those New England intellectuals who found developing industrial society altogether too messy and noisy and vulgar. Being intellectuals, they wanted something that separated them from the crowd and established their credentials as an elite. Something, in other words, that would re-establish the aristocratic ideal, though this time based on intellect rather than inherited property. They found it under the vague name of “Transcendentalism”, which meant developing one’s higher faculties and separating oneself from the vulgar herd. “Transcendentalism” was very cloudy as both a theology and a philosophy, but to some extent it was the logical development of Puritanism. Only the self – the salvation of the individual soul – matters. The community should have minimal control over the individual. This can lead to an admirable concern for individual rights (as in Thoreau’s opposition to slavery) but, I would argue, it also leads to the type of individualism that is unconcerned with others and fails to realize how societies are bound together. It lets individuals ignore how much their individual freedoms and comforts rely on the efforts of others - in other words, on the society at large from which they imagine themselves to have separated. “No man is an island” etc.

Purely as an “experiment” (he never meant to make it permanent), Thoreau spent two years, 1845-47, living on his own in the hut on the edge of Walden Pond. He then spent seven or eight years working up his notes and journals of the experience into the book that was published in 1854. Before I read Walden, I had already come across various “exposes” which explained that Thoreau was no real son of the wilderness. Where he lived for two years was within easy walking distance of Concord, Massachusetts, whither he would repair weekly for civilised talk with fellow intellectuals. In his two years, he was in regular contact with Ralph Waldo Emerson, who had lent him the land. He was no horny-handed survivalist. He was just a guy finding a quiet spot in which to read, write and reflect. Almost the guy living in the shed at the back of a big garden.

But in fact none of this is grounds for criticism of Walden, as in the book Thoreau openly acknowledges his situation. The text itself records his frequent walks to town. He describes the railway embankment that ran down the other side of the pond, and the fact that nearly every day he waved to the passing engineer (much as he resented the sound of the train whistle for disturbing his solitude). There are in the book many accounts of encounters with hunters and fishers and ice-breakers. This is no man alone.

There is, however, a level of evasion in the book about the reason for Thoreau’s withdrawal into semi-solitude. Recent research [you can easily find it on-line if you type in the words “Thoreau” and “fire”] suggests that, far from spontaneously deciding on his withdrawal, Thoreau was virtually run out of town for his part in (accidentally) setting fire to some woodland and destroying many acres of forest. There is also evasion about some of the necessities of life. Walden contains many passages on planting and getting food, but very little about how he, in solitude, disposed of his human waste. There is also no mention of his regularly taking his clothes to town to be washed at a laundry, another detail of his life in the woods that has recently been confirmed.

But none of the above is the reason why I take so negatively to much of Walden. My real reason is that I find Thoreau guilty of a feeble and inadequate outlook on life. Repeatedly as I read, I found ideas and phrases worthy of his spiritual descendants, the hippies. Ostentatiously claiming to draw his inspiration from Indian philosophy (he often refers to the Bhagavad Gita), with its ideas of unity and oneness, he in fact produces a repugnant variety of individualism. Sitting (semi-)isolated from humanity, he casts judgement on humanity without ever testing his theories in the rub and jostle of social intercourse.

This is most clearly the case in the long opening chapter called “Economy”. With ingenious and enticing arguments, Thoreau introduces the anarchist thesis that most toil is wasted labour to earn luxuries that we do not really need; that we need no more housing than a box to shelter us from the rain; that we can get by with the simplest food, clothes etc. – and that if we could only bring about this spiritual revolution we would be able to do away with the oppressive power of the state.

Some of his methods of arguing are attractively witty. I enjoyed his paradox that it is always faster to travel on foot than in a vehicle, because if one travels in a vehicle, one has to add to the journey the time it took to earn the fare for the ride or the price of the vehicle.

Yet hiding behind all this declared “simplicity” there is an undeclared Puritanism. Thoreau never acknowledges that it is part of being human to desire more than the essentials; to derive joy from an elaborately-constructed house and an elaborately-prepared meal. Nobody desires mere subsistence – not even people with simple and unpretentious tastes – and if subsistence was enough then societies, technology, culture, art and the literature that Thoreau enjoys reading in his hut would never have developed. Repeatedly, reading these sections of Walden, I found myself remembering the lines from King Lear “Allow not nature more than nature needs/ Man’s life is cheap as beast’s.”

More tellingly, Thoreau (like hippies!) does not make the connection between himself and society. His simple life is possible only because there is a complex society supporting him. The cabin he builds is made of the prepared timbers he bought from somebody else’s shanty. He eventually (for reasons he never explains in the book) finds it preferable to return to society. Haughtily – and in a scene I find particularly repugnant – he presumes to tell the unlettered Irish labourer John Field how to farm and how to raise a family, and claims to derive humour from the Irishman’s obtuseness in not accepting his advice. But this only shows how few responsibilities Thoreau, as a single man, really has. Having himself no family to support, having no beloved others in his life, he can condescend to those who make an effort for the sake of people to whom they have made a commitment. Like libertarians of later date, Thoreau also rejects the Christian concept of Charity. He argues that it only makes people dependent on other people, and nothing should stand in the way of rugged individualism. Roll on Ayn Rand.

Having said these negative things, though, I am left explaining paradoxically why I find Walden as a whole an attractive book. It is because (apart from its revival in the “Conclusion”) the limp and untenable philosophising gradually fades out of it. Despite Thoreau’s implicit assumption of his superiority to other people, Walden largely becomes what it is best at being – a book of nature descriptions. Its best philosophy is a vaguely Wordsworthian sense of serenity in the simple scenes described – not in the pages which Thoreau thinks are philosophy.

Hence, this book is best enjoyed for such individual and disconnected moments as

the description of the train’s smoke, vivid above the disappearing train
the terrific account of the ferocious battle between red ants and white ants which Thoreau includes in the section called “Brute Neighbours”
the description of ice-cutters at work on the frozen winter surface of Walden Pond, taking away huge slabs to be stored under hotels in those pre-refrigeration days.

My pen was kept busy noting down choice examples of Thoreau’s descriptions and saws, and in some cases choice examples of his stupidity.

Of course there is the famous “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.” There is the aphoristic “But lo! Men have become the tools of their tools” compounded by the anarchistic “I am wont to think that men are not so much the keepers of herds as herds are the keepers of men, the former are so much the freerer.”

In the section on “Readings” he declares truly enough that “To read well – that is, to read true books in a true spirit – is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object. Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.” He also truly notes that “What is called eloquence in the forum is commonly found to be rhetoric in the study.”

I revelled in his account of sitting alone at night watching the firelight making shifting shadows on the ceiling of his cabin. He comments “Should not every apartment in which man dwells be lofty enough to create some obscurity overhead, where flickering shadows may play at evening about the rafters?”

And then, regrettably, we are back to the sententious stupidities such as “Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessary for the soul.”

Which I translate as “Somebody else is paying for me, and my mind is free on the back of somebody else’s toil.”

Jun 14, 2012

Walter Pater

“MARIUS THE EPICUREAN” Walter Pater (written 1881-1884; first published 1885)

Reading William Colenso’s letters-to-the-editor on nineteenth-century religious controversies leads me into a piece of sheer self-indulgence.

I am about to examine and praise a book which has a very dubious reputation and is filled with faults. It is also a book whose religious outlook represents nearly everything Colenso hated. If William Colenso was at heart an Evangelical – a man who referred every religious argument to the Bible and who hated religious ritual – then Walter Pater’s Marius the Epicurean is a book that pushes love of ritual to sheer aestheticism. The Bible and Christian precept vanish in a puff of incense.

Walter Pater (1839-94) was a discreet and retiring Oxford don, an historian and aesthetician whose writings inspired a couple of generations of British “Decadents”, Oscar Wilde being their flashiest exponent. Pater lived quietly and died a virgin. (One slightly rude reference I saw declared that he was “probably innocent of any sexual experience with another human being”.) Nevertheless, the tone he set was deeply homo-erotic – a world of gaily dressed young men burning incense on their rooms as they read the “pagan” poetry of Algernon Swinburne to each other, and wondered if they should become High Church Anglicans or Catholics or merely swan off to the south of France together and write bad poetry.

A world of camp, in other words.

For many such young men, Marius the Epicrean was the Bible, at least it was if they hadn’t yet got around to reading the more interesting French works of Joris-Karl Huysmans.

Plot? There isn’t one.

Marius the Epicurean is essentially a set of reflections tied together by the merest wisp of narrative. (A joker once characterised the book with reference to Keats’ great line as a character “alone and palely loitering”).

In the Rome of the pagan philosopher emperor Marcus Aurelius, in the late 2nd century AD, young Marius tastes and tries the truth of a series of philosophies. The action, such as it is, is all inward and mental, creating a sense of passivity in the main character. There are some passages on the Christian widow Cecilia, and on the concept of motherhood, but Marius’ strongest attachments are to males – with the young man Flavian, who dies of the plague, and with a chap called Cornelius, who expresses vigour and youth. This squares very much with the mindset of the timid bachelor don who wrote the book and who died, unmarried, in the house of his sisters.

Passivity and lack of strong sexual attachment define the delicate sensibility of Marius as he tentatively fingers the surface of life, having never taken the radical plunge into commitment, let alone marriage and procreation. In short, he is a spectator of life’s most essential dramas. Though Marius dies in early middle age, and though Walter Pater was in his forties when he wrote this book, I read it as the sensibility of a sensitive, and as-yet-untried, adolescent.

So much for playing psychologist to a mind finer than my own.

What of the conscious subject-matter of the book?

Essentially, the Epicureanism of Marius is the method against which various available philosophies are tried. – first the traditional pagan “religion of Numa” for those who still believe in the ancient pagan gods; then dinner-table aestheticism; and finally Stoicism and early Christianity.

Epicureanism says that ultimate answers are unknowable (is there a God or afterlife etc.?). Therefore, value in life has to be found in the lived experience of the senses. But, fully aware that this could become a formula for mindless hedonism, Pater says that value means what is true to human experience; what is morally right; what we feel happy with when we survey our memories. In other words, forswearing traditional religious answers, he gives moral gravity to the concept of living well. Or at least he tries to. In practice it means that all philosophical systems are subjected to judgement by aesthetic criteria. How true are they to human feeling; to a sense of wellbeing; to the creation of beauty?

For all its attractions, the old pagan religion is rejected by Marius/Pater as it does not account adequately for tragedy in human life. Marius ceases to be a worshipper of the old gods when plague carries off his friend Flavian.

Stoicism is immensely attractive in the court of the emperor Marcus Aurelius and in the personal goodness of the (Christian-hating) emperor himself. But it ends creating a profound melancholy in Marius. After all, if we endure pain and suffering as Stoics do, by seeing them as mere unreal shadows that will pass, then we are also saying that the joys and goodness of life are mere shadows. Life is drained of reality and meaning. Stoicism stands back from the physical world, undervalues it and contemplates it passively. It simply does not account for human passions. (I wonder how much Pater was aware that this rejection could apply equally to the arguments of Schopenhauer in his own lifetime?)

So, in the novel’s final sections, Marius gives his qualified approval to (civilised, urban, Roman) Christianity. This is not on the basis of any Christian doctrine (doctrines are never examined) but on the strength of Christianity’s aesthetic appeal as a religion whose rituals feast the human senses without ignoring essential human feeling. Dying on the last page, Marius receives the Christian sacrament, but there is no sense that he has ceased to be an Epicurean. He has simply found a congenial home for his worldview.

I can see how for Pater and others this could lead straight into the type of smell-and-bells Catholicism that luxuriates in the rituals of (pre-Vatican II) Catholicism without taking on board any of the church’s teachings.

More significantly, though, I am struck by the similarity of the Aesthetic answer of Pater to the popular Existentialism of a later age. Both deny the validity of received values, traditional religion and absolute answers. In essence both say the individual has to create his/her own values – by moral choice, according to the Existentialist, or by fine receptivity, according to the Aesthete. I wonder if both systems cannot in fact be read as nostalgia for faith and ultimate value in an age where reason denies such ultimates? Significantly Marius the Epicurean is set in an era when traditional (pagan) religion is decaying – like our own post-Enlightenment world?

A few words about the novel as a piece of prose. Often on this blog, I’ve expressed a taste for those 19th century novels where the narrative breaks off for self-contained essays. Paradoxically, though, when I come to a novel that is all essay, I find it very hard going. Pater has an elaborate prose style – long sentences with numerous qualifying and subordinate clauses and a deliberate gravitas of meditation. More challenging is the fact that this is a novel which attempts to make sensual experience itself its philosophic point. It is easier to read of the clash of philosophic ideas than of the fine gradations of the senses. Frequently, as I read Marius the Epicurean, I was reminded of the more obtuse passages of Henry James. You read a whole page, stop, and wonder if the page was about anything at all.

In the very first chapter, Pater describes young Marius’s mind thus:

“Some very lively surmises, though scarcely distinct enough to be thoughts, were moving backwards and forwards in his mind, as the stirring wind had done all day among the trees.”

Even as I luxuriated in parts of it, I wondered if this couldn’t be the epigraph for the whole novel. But at least I had the satisfaction of knowing that William Colenso would have hated it.

Jun 10, 2012

Hone Tuwhare

When people of my generation think of Hone Tuwhare, the first words that come to mind are still No Ordinary Sun, the title of his first published collection in 1964. It’s also the title of the most famous poem in that collection, a very subtle and lyrical protest at the Bomb.

For me, the next thoughts are memories of being present twice when Hone Tuwhare was reading his own works. He had the knack of reading what was appropriate to his audience, and reading with vigour and a sense of enjoyment. So I was one of the university students who rocked with laughter at his slightly bawdy poem “To a Maori figure cast in bronze outside the chief post office, Auckland” (from his 1972 collection Sap-Wood & Milk). Later, I was with a group of teachers listening to him entertaining schoolkids with his “Study in Black and White”, the one about a penguin in a fridge (also from Sap-Wood & Milk). Tuwhare was happy to share the idea of poetry with schoolkids as much as with adults. At one time poetry-reading school visits were a big part of is life.

The good humour of these readings is what I chiefly recall – and the separate audiences’ real appreciation of them. But then I remember that a good case could be made for Tuwhare as the best Maori poet ever to write in the English language. There’s a lot more to him than an engaging way with readings.

He was born in 1922. He died in 2008. A good collected edition of his work was overdue, and here it now is.

The title Small Holes in the Silence comes from the poem “Rain” in Tuwhare’s second collection Come Rain Hail (1970). But we must be careful about the subtitle Collected Works. As Janet Hunt’s introduction makes clear, this is a “collected” works, but it is not a “complete” works.

There are almost all the poems from every collection Tuwhare published between 1964 and 2005, and the book ends with twelve hitherto unpublished poems. But the editors have decided not to publish variant versions of the same poem as it appeared in different collections. They have not included a play and some short stories he wrote, and (wisely I think) they have avoided the juvenilia. I know, from looking at archived copies of the old communist paper the People’s Voice, that when Tuwhare was a young communist boilermaker he occasionally wrote ranty pieces of poetic agitprop. He remained alive to social issues all his life, and was generally on the Left in his attitudes. But I’m sure his ghost is perfectly happy that his kidstuff has been left in oblivion.

Though he used much Maori imagery and some Maori phrases, Tuwhare almost always wrote in English. In accordance with his wishes, a small number of his poems have been translated into Maori for this edition. The Maori language version of each is placed on the page opposite its English original. The translators were Selwyn Muru, Patu Hohepa, and Waihoroi Shortland. As a non-speaker of Maori, I’m in no position to comment on the translations.

What I can comment on, however, is the sheer pleasure of reading this collection whole.

If I say Tuwhare is an uneven poet, I’m only saying what is true of every poet. No poet is always on form and inevitably a large collection like this one will contain at least some poems that seem hasty or that don’t ring true. Tuwhare was aware that it was wrong to be tempted to write poems when ideas and inspiration were lacking. In his collection Making a Fist of It (1978), his poem “Aroha – Thoughts for a Tainui Lady” begins “A long time back in Time, you asked for a poem. I’m not / a machine, you know. I can’t turn them out like sausages.”

He didn’t turn them out like sausages, but he did sometimes write perishable protest poems that are now historical period pieces. Not that a protest poem was necessarily just a piece of graffiti. While his poem on the death of Martin Luther King just goes through the motions, the poem “Speak to Me, Brother” (addressed to a Maori soldier en route to Vietnam) is still a heart-wrencher. So too is the title poem of Making a Fist of It, a protest at South African apartheid, and a late poem like “Who are the real infidels?” from Deep River Talk (1994)

Reading from the beginning to Page 333, it was the evolution of Tuwhare’s perspective and style that was clearest to me. In his early collections, he is very much influenced by a traditional Romantic conception of the universe. There are overtones of Maori chant and of Biblical cadences, but (side-by-side with a colloquial and proletarian piece like “Monologue”) there is also much evocation of the moon, wind, cliffs and the sea, and the lonely heart contemplating death. You have to remind yourself that Tuwhare was in his forties when his first books appeared, and not in his twenties, as these are very much a young man’s poems.

As he develops, there is more gregarious geniality in his poetry, more openness to other people, less Romantic self-isolation. A poem like “Bus Journey, South” expresses how bewildered a Maori writer is in a largely Maori-less part of the South Island; but it still implies a community. Community is expressed in many poems written to friends and comrades (Ron Mason, Ralph Hotere, James K Baxter, Whina Cooper etc.) while “Walker”, from the 1974 collection Something Nothing, puts a wry adult construction on the moon-raging, shadow-fearful Romanticism of a child. Tuwhare now designates himself “a middle-of-the-road man”.

By the time you get to a poem like “Status Seeker’ (from the 1982 collection Year of the Dog) you have a mature, rich expression of the self which manages still to be lyrical.

I’m not pretending that I was familiar with all of Tuwhare’s poetry before reading Small Holes in the Silence. Much came as a surprise to me, but a welcome surprise. This is a great collection.

Footnote – it is usually thought very silly to comment on a book’s physical production when writing a review, but I must add that Small Holes in the Silence is a lovely piece of book production. It is a “soft hard-back” with a sturdy spine, good wide margins and a discreet number of illustrations, including reproductions of the original covers of each of Tuwhare’s collections. It does the poems proud.

Jun 7, 2012

Liza of Lambeth: Maugham

This is Somerset Maugham’s first published novel, and of those of his that I’ve read, I think I like this one the best. About 12 years ago I bought several of his books cheap at a library sale, put them on a shelf and forgot them, and in the course of tidying the shelves I took them down to read, so I’ve been reading one after the other.

Liza of Lambeth is based on Maugham’s experience as a medical student in a poor part of London. Well it’s poor in parts. I once went to a garden party at Lambeth Palace, the London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and there’s nothing poor about that!

Liza is a young girl, a teenager, 18 years old, who saves enough from her job in a factory to buy a new dress, which she wears to a street party and has a jolly good time. Her mother, who is a bit of a hypochondriac, and also a bit of a boozer, thinks the money would have been better spent on booze for herself. But Liza is happy and carefree, and enjoys herself. And her joy and love of life are infectious, and spread to others.

But gradually things start going badly for Liza. This partly because of her own choices, and partly because of the pressures of other people and society generally.

To say any more of the story would give away too much of the plot, but I will say that it still today, more than a century after it was written, gives an insight into the lives of poor people and the conditions in which they live. It’s an outsider’s view. As far as I know Somerset Maugham didn’t grow up in poverty himself, so he writes from observation, not from first-hand experience. And it is pretty good observation.

But books like this are probably not read by the poor. They are probably read mostly by fairly comfortable middle-class people like me. And from what I have observed of the life of poor people, though the time and the place may be different, there is much that is similar.

To give just one example, it’s the people in the streets. The book is about the inhabitants of one street, and they meet each other and talk to each other in the street. They sit on their doorsteps and talk to their neighbours.

Earlier this week I had a couple of hours to kill while my son wrote an exam, so went to visit a friend who lived nearby. Their gate was locked, so I called them on my cell phone, but there was no reply, so I thought I might as well sit in the car in the street and read my book.

It was a lower middle-class suburb. The houses were not pretentious. They were originally built by the Iskor steelworks nearby for housing their white workers, and were later sold off. But they had pleasant gardens and the street was quiet. Only one car passed. There was a tapping on the car window. It was a rather agitated bird, wondering what I was doing there. I waved and it and it went away. Two fat pigeons ambled across the street. A dog barked. In one of the houses nearby a baby cried briefly. A young black woman in a hoodie came walking over the hill and passed me, but there was no interaction between us. Another black woman with hair extensions came walking up the hill and went into the house over the road. But for the most part, nothing happened. And in our neighbourhood it is much the same.

But when we visit Mamelodi, a “previously disadvantaged” township, there are always people walking in the street, talking to each other, greeting neighbours. There are children playing games, hopscotch, cricket (as in Lambeth), football etc. On Sundays (which is when we mostly go there) a phrase from a poem I learnt at school comes to mind, “man’s heart expands to tinker with his car.” There are cars with bonnets up, cars being washed. On some Sundays there’s a Golf club — rows of Volkswagen Golfs with their bonnets up, with the owners hanging around discussing technical points.

The houses may be different, the language may be different, the clothes may be different, the time and the place may be different, but Maugham’s descriptions still ring true.

Jun 4, 2012

Cakes and Ale: Maugham

Cakes and Ale is a new title published by The National Archives. Once upon a time in Britain, cake and ale were considered essential parts of a healthy diet. Late Victorians and Edwardians were fattened with rich, fruity cakes, and ailing ladies imbibed milk stout as a tonic. Cakes and Ale is a cultural history of a turn-of-the-century era of feasting, when the first domestic goddesses began cooking in their own kitchens but servants were still on hand for many to mix drinks at glamorous parties. An affluent and leisured new middle class was keen to impress, and working people could enjoy an unprecedented variety of foods and drinks. Manufacturers responded with the glorious printed advertisements and seductive images that illustrate this book and speak volumes about the contemporary social scene. In whisky and beer advertisements gentlemen sport top hats and working men flat caps, Scotsmen always wear kilts and butlers a wily smile. Blazoned alongside them are the plays-on-words that amused and persuaded their  audiences. Cookery books were suddenly widely available, with pictures of bowls of punch, crusty pork pies and towering jellies and blancmanges to emulate for seasonal meals.

Over the first days of Passover, I rested from my labors and reread Cakes and Ale (1930). It is W. Somerset Maugham’s best, the only one of his novels, as Joseph Epstein says, that is “completely successful.”  A hilarious “easel picture” of literary life in Edwardian England (“I have painted easel pictures,” Maugham later confessed, “not frescoes”), the novel can also stand on its own as Maugham’s artistic credo. That it was once regarded as a roman à clef, having great fun at the expense of Hugh Walpole and the two-years-deceased Thomas Hardy, is no longer very interesting or significant. Contemporaries found the portraits so exact that, as the Chicago Tribune reported, “there were loud cries of ‘Slay the Monster!’ ” Six months after the novel was published a counterattack appeared under the title Gin and Bitters by “A. Riposte.” But who now reads Hugh Walpole, or giggles at the scandal of describing Hardy’s novels as boring?

And yet a good part of the fun in reading the novel is to be found in its literary opinions. When asked whether he remembers any of Edward Driffield’s remarks about literature, for example, Ashenden (the book’s narrator, who knew the Grand Old Man of English Letters when both were much younger men) replies,
[W]hen I was lunching with the Driffields a few years ago I overheard him saying that Henry James had  turned his back on one of the great events of the world’s history, the rise of the United States, in order to report tittle-tattle at tea parties in English country houses. Driffield called it il gran rifiuto [the great refusal]. I was surprised at hearing the old man use an Italian phrase and amused because a great big bouncing duchess who was there was the only person who knew what the devil he was talking about. He said, “Poor Henry, he’s spending eternity wandering round and round a stately park and the fence is just too high for him to peep over and they’re having tea just too far for him to hear what the countess is saying.”
This is at once unerringly true and wide of the mark. Something like it could also be said of Maugham himself, of course. Cakes and Ale he calls his novel, meaning not bread and water. Moreover, the one time he tried to cook up a novel around one of the great events in world history—England at war—he wound up with a blackened pot of melodrama. As Granville Hicks said, The Hour before the Dawn (1942) included “a German spy, a conscientious objector, an escape from France after Dunkirk, and an air raid, to say nothing of a collection of landed gentry, some evacuees, and a triangle”—everything, Hicks concluded, “except a literary conscience.”

The critics never approved of him. David Daiches spoke for the clan when he dismissed Maugham as an “accomplished professional” who lacked “any original vision of humanity or any great distinction of style.” The lack of an original vision did not seem to dissuade book buyers (and theatergoers), who approved of him sufficiently to place him in “the £20,000 a year class,” as the New York Times reported in 1925—more than$97,000 in U.S. currency. Popular approval had its costs, however, which Maugham continued to pay for the rest of the century. As Anthony Daniels (better known as Theodore Dalrymple) wrote in the New Criterionin 2000, “[A]dmitting to an admiration for Maugham is to an intellectual what voyaging overseas once was to an orthodox Brahmin: it leads automatically to a loss of caste.”

Maugham was unapologetic about being a popular writer. In a central passage of Cakes and Ale comparing literary reputations, Ashenden says:
The elect sneer at popularity; they are inclined even to assert that it is a proof of mediocrity; but they forget that posterity makes it choice not from among the unknown writers of a period, but from among the known. It may be that some great masterpiece which deserves immortality has fallen still-born from the press, but posterity will never hear of it; it may be that posterity will scrap all the best sellers of our day, but it is among them that it must choose.
The modern quarrel between popularity and posterity is Maugham’s theme. With the exception of Driffield, who must have “thought about his writing, but never mentioned it,” the literary men of Cakes and Ale are the sort whom I described yesterday as bureaucrats of literature. They are anglers for succès d’estime if not £20,000 a year.

Alroy Kear, the author of some thirty books, has enjoyed a career that “might well have served as a model for any young man entering upon the pursuit of literature,” because no one else among his contemporaries has  “achieved so considerable a position on so little talent.” Kear rises in the world of letters by means of what would now be called social networking and seizing every opportunity to advance himself:
He could be counted on to reply for literature at a public dinner and he was invariably on the reception committee formed to give a proper welcome to a literary celebrity from overseas. No bazaar lacked an  autographed copy of at least one of his books. He never refused to grant an interview. He justly said that no one knew better than he the hardships of the author’s trade and if he could help a struggling journalist to earn a few guineas by having a pleasant chat with him he had not the inhumanity to refuse. He generally asked his interview to luncheon and seldom failed to make a good impression on him.
Driffield’s widow has asked Kear to write the late great novelist’s biography. In typical fashion, Kear had sent a letter to Driffield several years earlier, professing admiration for his novels, was invited to visit, and eventually came to know him well. At first he hesitated over the biography, but he has decided to do it. “[I]f I can make a pretty good job of it,” he tells Ashenden, “it can’t fail to do me a lot of good. People have so much more respect for a novelist if he writes something serious now and then.”

His problem is the first Mrs. Driffield—a working-class beauty with a mischievous smile, a former barmaid, a tart who is spectacularly unfaithful, chucking Driffield and England over for another man and America. Kear does not want to “make a sensation,” nor does he want to be accused to “imitating Lytton Strachey.” He should like to do something “with a good deal of atmosphere, you know, and a certain gravity, and with a sort of aristocratic distinction”—in about eighty thousand words. “I don’t want to say anything that’s untrue,” he tells Ashenden, “but I do think there’s a certain amount that’s better left unsaid.”

Cakes and Ale is the reverse image, the book that Kear has no intention of writing. Telling the story as if he were writing a casual gossipy memoir, Ashenden says everything about Edward Driffield’s first marriage that Kear plans to leave unsaid—although an age that has been informed that Lincoln was gay or has learned that Flannery O’Connor liked racist jokes will find the revelations mild enough. The first-person narrative moves gracefully between the literary present, in which Kear hopes to forestall Ashenden from turning out anything about Driffield and “blowing the gaff,” and the extraliterary past, when Ashenden knew the Driffields as neighbors and friends and spent many happy hours in their company. Although he is no less a hack than his rival—Maugham scorches himself as badly as Hugh Walpole—Ashenden writes to a different standard. If Kear’s is a policy of “reserve and delicacy,” his is one of unembarrassed plainness. He explains in the novel’s last pages. No matter how badly he is treated by posterity and a “fickle public,” the writer has one compensation:
Whenever he has anything on his mind, whether it be a harassing reflection, grief at the death of a friend, unrequited love, wounded pride, anger at the treachery of someone to whom he has shown kindness, in short any emotion or perplexing thought, he has only to put it down in black and white, using it as the theme of a story or the decoration of an essay, to forget all about it. He is the only free man.
This was also Maugham’s credo. He did not seek to claim more for himself than he deserved. He knew his limitations as a writer; his prose style, which (as Theodore Spencer memorably put it) “conceals its real economy under an air of apparent garrulity,” perfectly suits the modesty of his literary ambitions. Like Alroy Kear, he hoped to be chosen by posterity. But he knew that his best chance was to be straight with it, and to  leave questions of greatness to another time.

Jun 1, 2012

Marriages in To the Lighthouse

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a 
good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

The opening line of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice epitomizes the traditional depiction of marriage that is prevalent throughout Romantic and Victorian era literature; a depiction that Virginia Woolf re-evaluates in To the Lighthouse through a modern presentation of marriage. In its traditional literary use, marriage serves a distinct purpose. A young woman must become married in order to ensure stability for her future, and a man must become married to fulfill his societal role. In the words of Jane Austen, the necessity of marriage is “universally acknowledged,” remaining unquestioned throughout the Romantic and Victorian periods of English literature. In this traditional use, marriage was the definitive goal of the text. The novel circulated around the will-they-or-wont-they atmosphere that young love can produce until the final chapters of the novel tied all the remaining questions of the story into one neatly-pressed knot of matrimony.

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