Saturday, 24 July 2010

Stone buildings in Brittany

On my third annual visit to Brittany, where I’ve always admired the stonework, I’ve noticed a feature for the first time, though it turns out to be common. The front wall of many houses is finished with a course of dressed stone that curves up and out to form a ledge. This then supports the bottom row of slates, creating an overhang that stops rainwater running down the wall.

This stone is granite and I wonder about its working in the days before powered machinery. How many hours labour did one of those curved stones represent? Or the stones with dressed surfaces in churches? And what tools were tough enough to shape granite? Was iron harder than granite and able to split it, chip it or grind it?

I know nothing about this and will look for a book that tells it all. It’s one aspect of that huge deficiency in all our educations in Britain: there’s no subject about the made world, how humanity has got from piling loose stones and using what lay around to mining, smelting, forging, baking: pottery, metallurgy, chemical technologies with ceramic and metal, etc etc. We get physics and chemistry if we’re lucky but not technology (in its basic sense of how materials are worked to make things).

Planes updated and a lime tree

On 3rd May I showed the lopped plane out the back. Here it is now, proving they do indeed recover, though the price was about two months with nothing to show -- as if spring had been abolished.

And elsewhere in Surbiton (see same post, last pic) the planes on the street are looking like this.

In a couple of other postings in May I told how I’d had my lime-tree-awareness raised, first in Berlin and then in Kingston. Well, here’s a fine one in Surbiton (which is in the Borough of Kingston):

See labels 'plane trees' and 'lime trees'.

I don't like the sound of this Sudden Oak Death disease they've got in Devon.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

The Horse's Mouth

This from Bar le Roulis, Esquibien. I'm sure you know it. I'm on the last week of my retiree’s full-month holiday and call here occasionally for the wi-fi and to gaze at the sea and the boats.

Some time before I left I found the 1948 Penguin of Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth (first published 1944). I'd always vaguely intended to read it and recently resolved to soon because I gathered from our informants that it was much prized by Arthur Harvey, the remarkable head of English at Walworth School, 1949-55 (the subject of my research). Two of them independently mentioned Harvey’s frequent quoting of an image from the first paragraph: 'Sun in a mist. Like an orange in a fried fish shop.' (I must admit I don’t quite get it.)

I didn’t expect to be so surprised, impressed and delighted -- I can see why Harvey, with his enthusiasm for ‘vivid’, ‘fresh’ etc language, so rated it. Its language is its most striking feature, issuing from the -- voice? pen? ghostly emanation? -- of the narrator, the elderly eccentric artist Gully Jimson who at the end of the novel is on the point of death. The novel is interlarded with chunks of Blake’s Prophetic Books by which Jimson’s ideolect is heavily influenced while being, often, profane, earthy and working-class. Poetic, extravagant, full of figurative tropes, somewhat surrealist and mad and not always intelligible. I.e. I quite often don’t know what he’s talking about, and that’s not only because the novel contained more words I didn’t know that any I can remember that wasn’t Trainspotting.

Some of these words I imagine are simply dated, referring to things, practices and expressions from the 1930s (the novel ends with the outbreak of war). One of my main impressions, indeed, is of how alien working-class life of the ’30s now seems. Despite the buses and telephones, the world seems more Victorian -- more Henry Mayhew -- than modern, more desperate, raw and primitive. Clothes are never changed (Jimson has ‘my winter drawers’ -- by implication, one pair) and there’s little distinction between under- and outer-wear: the idea is simply layers, that are kept on; baths are never taken; cooking is on smoking coal ranges; people are skint and starve; the workhouse and prison are a constant presence; hospitals are feared as casually killing you once they get hold of you. Existence is unsentimental, ugly and brutal as well as admirable in its gutsiness, repartee and generosity. It's also frequently funny. The women, vastly more oppressed than the men, are formidable, intelligent and winners at repartee, while the typical policeman will slip you a bob if you seem genuinely down on your luck.

The imagination and fertility of the book are huge: no author like him for inventiveness, not at least that I've recently read (Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, perhaps?). And Cary appears to understand art: a lot of Gully’s thoughts are about painting and his response to the world around a painter’s -- how I could render the clouds and the Thames (it’s an archetypal London novel, set somewhere a bit upriver like Hammersmith). These artists’ thought are to me in my ignorance thoroughly convincing.

The plot rambles on but the characters are wonderful, not least the stammering Nosey, the boy with the dripping nose who wants to be an artist and who Jimson unsentimentally tries to drive off. The book’s deliciously iconoclastic and romantic -- true English values against the bureaucrats and upper classes (though millionaires come out well).

It’s long read but I can see myself coming back to it before long.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Are novels poetry?

(There seems to be an unwritten etiquette about keeping blog postings quite short. Well, in this I'm violating it, but don’t know where else to put it. Apologies if it’s too much to read on a screen.)

Somewhere recently I read a mention of a comment by Leavis (FR Leavis, critic, fl. 1930s-50s) that a particular novel by, I think, Dickens, was truly or genuinely poetic. I should look at Leavis to see what he meant by ‘poetic’, though probably he wouldn’t have spelled it out, being dead set against definition and theory.

But I wonder if what he meant is anything like what occurred to me a few weeks ago in reading, finally, the last three novels in Anthony Powell’s sequence of twelve, A Dance to the Music of Time. More importantly, irrespective of Leavis, are novels a sort of poetry, or like poetry, or something quite different? (And thus, I suppose, is ‘literature’ essentially one sort of thing or several?)

Novels create and present (two verbs but one process) their own ‘world’, an interlinked set of characters, situations, times, places, relationships and so on. That’s perhaps the most obvious thing you might say about fiction, and not the first thing you’d say about poetry where you’d be more likely to point to the prominence of patterned form -- rhyme, metre, prosody, structure, patterns of images etc -- and perhaps the expression or activation of feeling.

But in this bout of novel-reading what struck me more than once was a quite different awareness, to do with the sort of speech act a novel was. Yes, a world was being created by the narration but I found myself noticing rather what the author was doing rather than saying, which was, as if were, miming narration, and speculation, reflection, comment, interpretation, evaluation and so on.

Let me try to explain. Here’s a typical passage:

BAGSHAW WAS AT ONCE ATTENTIVE to the idea of an American biographer of X. Trapnel seeking an interview with himself. In fact he pressed for a meeting to hear a fuller account of Gwinnett's needs. Television had made him more prolix than ever on the line. One was also increasingly aware that he was no longer Books-do-furnish-a-room Bagshaw of ancient days, but Lindsay Bagshaw, the Television 'personality', no towering magnate of that order, but, if only a minor scion, fully conscious of inspired status. He suggested a visit to his own house, something never before put forward. In the past, a pub would always have been proposed. Bagshaw himself was a little sheepish about the change. Complacent, he was also a trifle cowed. He attempted explanation.

        'I like to get back as early as possible after work. May prefers that. There's always a lot to do at home.'

        The idea of Bagshaw deferring, in this manner, to domesticity, owning, even renting, a house was an altogether unfamiliar one. In early life, married or single, his quarters had been kept secret. They were in a sense his only secret, everyone always knowing about his love affairs, political standpoint, prospects of changing his job, ups and downs of health. Where he lived was another matter. That was not revealed.

Now what would normally impress me about such a piece of writing, in so far as I surfaced at all from my immersion in the ‘world’, was how real, convincing, detailed and plausibly interconnected that world was, despite being nothing but imagination. (And in the case of a world sustained over twelve volumes and some seventy fictional years the achievement is the more incredible.)

The passage is the start of a chapter (chapter 4 of Temporary Kings); the end of the previous one was about an unconnected incident in a bus station. Yet I immediately latch onto the references: Bagshaw, his television career, his marriage to May and his bohemian past; Trapnel; Gwinnett, the American biographer: I know so much about this world that even casual references can be picked up. Yet the whole thing’s made up; nothing in it is true, though we compulsively read on for what we can’t help taking as further information, receiving it as knowledge of the truth despite our all the time knowing perfectly well that’s it’s fiction.

In so far as I pause to wonder, that’s what I normally wonder at, the achievement of that vast coherent invented world. On this reading though, in the perspective I'd for some reason fallen into, albeit intermittently, the striking thing was not the density and extent of the world or its purely invented nature but the fakeness of the operation being conducted, its character as charade or shadow play. The author is performing an elaborate mime of informing, devoid of any actual referent or substance, yielding nothing in the way of knowledge, generating not a jot of informedness in the reader. If he was really narrating I could go and check on his report but in this case it’s all fake. There’s nothing real to check on apart from other parts of the narration.

So the possibility strikes me that it’s exactly that that we should be experiencing in a novel, attending, with at least part of our consciousness, precisely to the pretend nature of its moves; and that it’s in affording that sort of experience that a novel can be poetry.

If that’s right, it seems there are two levels at which one might read in that way. One registers what the speaker or utterer is doing, the other what the language is doing.

The appropriate responses in the first mode would be something like, ‘Look, he’s pretending to tell us about something that happened,’ or ‘Now he’s doing an imitation of reporting someone’s speech’ or ‘This is like someone taking something someone’s reported to have done and commenting on what it might have meant’ -- all wonderfully realistic even though nothing’s behind it. It’s a telling-like procedure as a demonstration of telling, and it never -- no matter how many volumes it fills -- turns into the real thing. It goes through the motions but the machine isn’t connected. (Wittgenstein’s ‘language idling’ like a motor, or ‘playing’?)

And these are often speech acts depending on speech acts, references referring to previous references referring to previous ones etc. etc., and not one of them anchored to anything actual in the real world (except entities like biographers and television and marriages) but only to virtual entities that are artefacts of thought and language rather than direct reports from reality.

But what the text might also be presenting -- the second mode -- is language doing its stuff.

The representation that we might be being invited to wonder at and enjoy might be language’s formal operations: the prolixity, catholicity and flexibility of its summonings and combinings, in syntax and prosody, across discursive domains -- every evocation of some sense or meaning the obverse of some formal balletic move. ‘There’s that simple declarative clause telling us something very specific that happened, but now look, here comes a clause in a different mood containing the more typical way things went, and next there’s an evocation of X by means of .... etc.’

Thus, for example:

Bagshaw’s attentiveness to the idea of an interview and his pressing for a meeting suggests but doesn’t confirm his talking to the narrator. But where and how is inserted only with ‘prolix on the line’, that casually added adverbial, specifying ’telephone’, in a sentence that’s about something quite different, the fact that television’s made him so -- and that has no bearing on the rest of the episode, except in being connected thematically to the next bit, his television personality, which again has nothing to do with the surprise of the proposal to meet at his house, and is presumably being ‘laid down’ as a marker that can, perhaps much later, be referred to.

Back to the simple past tense for a speech: ‘he suggested’... Verb, that could equally have been done with a noun.

a visit’...: Noun, that could equally have been done with a verb.

something never before put forward’ -- passive, somewhat strangely as it could mean never in the history of the world. Combination of the formal concision of that passive clause linked to the main by apposition (at least that’s what it was called at school) and not by a ‘which was’ or similar with a teacher’s-‘bad-English’ vagueness of reference: is the something the suggestion or the visit?

In the past, a pub would always have been proposed’: ‘in the past’ belongs to a temporal thread that has already occurred three times and maintains it in consciousness: working backwards, never before -- ancient days -- than ever -- had made.

That passive again.

Proposed = suggested? elegant variation? No, because he’s now less assertive -- indeed sheepish and cowed.

Now, this bit I like very much:

Bagshaw himself was a little sheepish about the change. Complacent, he was also a trifle cowed. He attempted explanation.

Not sure why himself: to reintroduce him as a human agent after those passives suggesting the bringing about of actions as if by impersonal forces? Now an ordinary feeble and vulnerable man?

a little, a trifle

sheep, cow.

Simple statements in one-clause sentences, three of them. Direct, though softened by those two down-playing adverbials; but still not simple and direct as in informal speech: there’s the formality (if that’s the term -- as if elevating these minor goings on in the private sphere to the status of history, making authoritative summation appropriate) of complacent, again that appositional construction instead of something wordier.

Complacent, he was also a trifle cowed: co- co-; 3 syllables, 1.

Those two sentences, as if expressing care to get the precise terms -- and diffident about claiming too much. Then, bang! the finality of that 3-word statement, with, again, the formality, this time of noun-for-verbal-construction: He attempted explanation.

I'll leave it there. Is something like that what it means for a novel to be ‘poetic’?

I don’t know -- am I saying anything more than that novels (some at least) repay attention to style? meaning the choices of syntax, lexis, sentence length, sound, prosody? Well, I wanted to say something more by that idea of awareness of ‘language doing its stuff’, but I don’t feel I’ve caught what I was after in that illustration.

My exegsis, I realise, would make the poeticness of a novel a matter largely of what goes on at the level of page, paragraph, sentence, clause, word -- whereas surely it has to be partly about what goes on at a larger scale. But I think I'm right that poetry directs attention with particular intensity onto language; that it can indeed be seen as being about language. Some poetry, anyway.

May come back to it.