Iris Murdoch, The Bell

The BellThe Bell by Iris Murdoch

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Bell is Iris Murdoch’s fourth novel. I had never read the celebrated 20th-century British philosopher and novelist before and decided to start with this 1958 book because it is often said to be her first novel that is characteristically “Murdochian” and also her first that makes a claim to greatness.

The novel has an immediately appealing premise. It is set at a remote Court or country house in England near Imber Abbey, where an enclosed order of nuns has existed since the Middle Ages. The Court has been in the family of Michael Meade for centuries, and he decides, after consulting the Abbess, to set up a lay community of believers and devotees who can live and work for the greater good of the Abbey and exist apart from the increasingly complex and alienating modern world:

…the Abbess imparted to Michael the idea of making the Court the home of a permanent lay community attached to the Abbey, a ‘buffer state’, as she put it, between the Abbey and the world, a reflection, a benevolent and useful parasite, an intermediary form of life.

Michael is one of three characters through whose eyes we see the growth and eventual dissolution of this lay community, as it is riven by the human (above all sexual) frailties of its members and visitors over the course of one late summer and early autumn.

Our other two protagonists are Dora Greenfield and Toby Gashe. Dora is an educated young woman adrift; she comes to the Imber community to follow her overbearing and older husband, the art historian Paul Greenfield, despite her own recent affair and the seeming collapse of their marriage. Toby is a much younger man, an aspiring engineer who intends to live at the Court before going up to Oxford because he wants to find a purer way of life. Whatever salvation Dora and Toby hope to discover, however, proves elusive as the plot becomes a tragic farce of hapless love affairs, misunderstandings, schemes, and accidents.

For one thing, Michael makes an odd leader for the community; less commanding than his lieutenant, James Tayper Pace, he is also a closeted gay man whose teaching career was ruined years before by a student named Nick, with whom he’d had the chastest of affairs. When Nick’s sister shows up at the Court, in order to prepare to join the nuns and enter the cloister, a dissolute Nick follows, and Michael must reflect on how to save the young man from his own addictions and self-hatred. A further complication is that Michael is beginning to have feelings for Toby as well, while Toby, a complete sexual innocent (to a somewhat hard-to-believe extent, in fact), is puzzled by his own sexuality and harbors complicated feelings not only for Michael but also for the alluring and flighty Dora.

While this suspenseful soap opera is transpiring, the titular bell (or rather, bells) furnishes a symbol for the moral problems of the individual. The Abbey’s original bell fell into the lake between the Abbey and the Court in the Middle Ages, as a result of a supernatural punishment for a nun’s sexual transgression. That bell was never recovered, but the Abbey is scheduled to receive a new bell at the end of the summer. In the meantime, Toby, diving in the lake, whose mystery, murk, and beauty also represent the mess of the human condition, discovers the old bell in the water and schemes with Dora to reveal it spectacularly.

The Bell is not just soap operatic, however; Murdoch, a philosopher, liked to use novels as Platonic dialogues, as A. S. Byatt explains in her excellent introduction to this Penguin Classics edition, and this novel’s sometimes over-the-top episodes pose questions about faith and doubt, the nature of morality, and the role of art, sex, and religion in our lives.

The moral question is the novel’s main one. Murdoch provides us dueling sermons, each with the bell as organizing metaphor. The robust James Tayper Pace, a character that Murdoch gives little space as she seems to think he is too strong to be interesting, advocates following simple moral precepts rather than examining the conscience. He preaches thusly:

‘A bell is made to speak out. What would be the value of a bell which was never rung? It rings out clearly, it bears witness, it cannot speak without seeming like a call, a summons. A great bell is not to be silenced. Consider too its simplicity. There is no hidden mechanism. All that it is is plain and open; and if it is moved it must ring.’

Michael, by contrast, advocates a recognition of human complexity and the exploration of that complexity over simple moralism:

‘I will use here, again following the example of James, the image of the bell. The bell is subject to the force of gravity. The swing that takes it down must also take it up. So we too must learn to understand the mechanism of our spiritual energy, and find out where, for us, are the hiding places of our strength.’

Whereas James, without knowing anything about Michael’s sexuality, had said in his own sermon that “sodomy is not deplorable, it is forbidden,” thus to remove the appealing glamor from sin, Michael reflects inwardly during his own sermon:

He did not in fact believe it was just forbidden. God had created men and women with these tendencies, and made these tendencies run so deep that they were, in many people, the core of their personality.


It was complicated; it was interesting: and there was the rub. He realized that in this matter, as in many others, he always engaged in performing what James had called the second best act: the act which goes with exploring one’s personality and estimating the consequences rather than austerely following the rules.

While Murdoch doesn’t quite use Michael’s homosexuality as a metaphor for generalized outsiderdom, she does seem to suggest that the most moral people are not the best rule-followers or the devoutest believers but are rather those who have distance from conventionality forced upon them and who consequently have to make their own moral way with their own inner resources. This struggle is writ large in the lay community as they argue how much space to keep between themselves and the outer world without regressing into a kind of irrelevant neo-medievalist unreality. That Michael praises this struggle as “interesting” brings us out of the world of ethics and into that of aesthetics, and we can’t help but notice that Michael’s recommendation of the free exploration of personality echoes the priority of the novelist.

The Bell is a very briskly-written series of escalatingly intense dramatic incidents and confrontations (many of which are also very funny), but it is more notably illuminated by Murdoch’s old-fashioned essayistic analyses of her characters’ thoughts and feelings, calling to mind writers like George Eliot and Leo Tolstoy. In fact, Murdoch believed in the superiority of the 19th-century novel over the 20th-century novel; modernism, she thought, had in its formalism and nihilism evacuated the novel form of its ethical mission to represent human beings and human society in grounded and granular detail, this so that we may understand our fellows better and, more importantly, treat them better.

In his essay on Murdoch collected in The Broken Estate, James Wood sketches a little literary history that explains Murdoch’s intent for the novel as a literary form:

Of all the postwar English novelists, she had the greatest intellectual range, the deepest rigor. She takes her place, however awkwardly, in a tradition of flexible, homemade English Christian Platonism which includes Ruskin and George Eliot and Virginia Woolf. Woolf, in some ways, was the rebel who had to overthrow her father’s moral Platonism and make the Good an aesthetic category only, and one discoverable only by a highly aestheticized fiction. Murdoch may be seen as the rebel to Woolf’s rebellion, closing down Bloomsbury’s aesthetic mysticism (art is never for art’s sake, always for life’s sake, she has written) in favor of a moral, “hard idea of truth.”

I understand the need to rebel against one’s immediate forebears very well, but still, I am with Woolf here. As much as I enjoyed The Bell for its well-constructed plot, its assured pacing, and its sheer intelligence of analysis, I would have enjoyed it more had Murdoch displayed any greater gift for imagery or description, any richer way with words. So much of the novel is straightforward character analysis. I’m not saying “show, don’t tell” is a rule that came down on tablets of stone (hell, it probably came from a CIA memo!), but I might have preferred more freedom of my own to reflect on the fable without having Murdoch’s interpretation always in front of me. Art requires a little mystery, which fact Murdoch seems to resent, and she seems to resent, too, readers’ potential to miss her point. Given the urgency of her sense of the novel’s mission, I understand her anxiety. Wood quotes her statement of what fiction is fundamentally for:

Art and morals are…one. Their essence is the same. The essence of both of them is love. Love is the perception of individuals. Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real. Love, and so art and morals, is the discovery of reality…. The enemies of art and morals, the enemies that is of love, are the same: social convention and neurosis….Fantasy, the enemy of art, is the enemy of true imagination: Love, an exercise of the imagination…. (Wood’s ellipses)

That this is a paraphrase of Shelley’s own Platonist tract, “A Defence of Poetry,” doesn’t dispel some of the problems with the argument. For one thing, I have always found pain a far more reliable reminder than love that something other than myself is real. Also, anyone who denies that hate is also “the perception of individuals” has never hated intensely enough, and is therefore perhaps to be envied: you study your enemies even more closely than your lovers, because your life depends on it. Love, anyway, relies on a certain saving idealization, lest you perceive too many of the beloved’s flaws too closely.

As for “fantasy,” the plot Murdoch cooks up in The Bell, while it never takes leave of the possible, departs so far from the probable that she obviously had a guiltily-nurtured gift for this most crucial tool of any artist. Without fantasy, reality likely can’t be discovered at all; what would be the motive to explore, except for a fantasy of what might be found? And you don’t need to be a Marx to know that reality isn’t just there to be discovered but also to be transformed. Anyone who has ever cooked a dinner, let alone written a novel, surely grasps this.

Murdoch grasps it too. Midway through The Bell, Dora flees what she sees as the moralism of the Court and ends up in the National Gallery of London where she experiences a revelation before “Gainsborough’s picture of his two daughters” (see here for the image):

She marvelled, with a kind of gratitude, that they [the paintings] were all still here, and her heart was filled with love for the pictures, their authority, their marvellous generosity, their splendour. It occurred to her that here at last was something real and something perfect. […] [She] felt a sudden desire to go down on her knees before [the painting], embracing it, shedding tears.

The work doesn’t teach her anything in particular about reality, still less morality, but exists itself in reality, as a reality, as an instance of the beauty that is and a promise of beauty that may yet be. This epiphany sends her back to Imber, if only because it chastens her desire for an escape, but it does not necessarily make her more moral, only more alive.

“Revelation,” “epiphany.” Let’s add “incarnation.” Here is A. S. Byatt in her introduction to The Bell:

Her own desire to make a world in which consciousnesses were incarnate, embedded in the stuff of things, might seem to derive from George Eliot, who wrote movingly of her wish to make pictures, not diagrams, to “make certain ideas thoroughly incarnate”. Eliot, like Murdoch, was a European intellectual who had also a very immediate sense of human bodies, encounters and absurdities. They shared a preoccupation with the tensions between the formal complexity and design of the work of art and the need to give the characters space, freedom, to be people, not only to represent ideas or classes. It may be that Murdoch thought that Eliot had failed. She asked me once what I thought was the greatest English novel. Middlemarch, I said. She demurred, looking disapproving, and finally said that she supposed it was hard to find which one of Dickens’s novels was the greatest, but that surely he was the greatest novelist…Eliot began, in English, the elegant patterning with metaphor and leitmotiv that Murdoch, who believed that novelists were first and essentially storytellers, sometimes saw as a trap. (Byatt’s ellipses)

In his classic Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1946; English translation 1953), a book roughly contemporary with The Bell, Erich Auerbach writes of how Christ’s incarnation, God’s interpenetration with not only humanity but with common (as in lower-class) humanity, breaks the aesthetic hierarchy of the ancient world and sets in train the cultural process that will lead to the triumph in the 19th century of the realist novel, which confers what Auerbach calls “tragic seriousness” on everyday life. What Murdoch resents in the agnostic Eliot is Eliot’s sense that, with God gone from the picture, art will have to take his place. If the novel becomes a matter of aesthetics, does it thereby lose its capacity for ethics?

Despite that religious quandary, Murdoch does not make an assertion of faith. The Bell is not quite a Christian novel. It ends on the note of a declaration from Michael: “there is a God, but I do not believe in Him.” This, with its echo of Kafka’s “plenty of hope but none for us,” is the opposite of the problem Nietzsche diagnosed in us, whom he addressed as “we moderns,” “we knowers”: we still believe in God, he said, because we still believe in grammar. That is, we are officially secular, often officially atheistic if we are modern intellectuals, but we do not realize how many forms of order we take for granted or wish to preserve actually depend on the tacit presumption of monotheism’s assurance of ultimate significance. Murdoch does understand this dilemma and seeks to circumvent it by writing, in a sense, as if there were a God. “[T]he mass existed and he existed beside it,” we read of Michael at the conclusion. We moderns aren’t ready to believe in the mass beyond its bare existence; still, if it exists, who knows but that its ultimate addressee might exist as well?

A novel this intricately conceived is not to be taken lightly, and I will certainly be reading more Iris Murdoch in the future; but the modernist intuition that a novel must live in its own right rather than just pointing us toward some external source of meaning is neglected to this novel’s detriment. If Murdoch recalls her forebears Eliot and Woolf without equalling their achievement, this painful self-mortification must be the reason why.


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Anna Kavan, Ice

IceIce by Anna Kavan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jonathan Lethem begins his introduction to the new Penguin Classics edition of this 1967 novel, “Anna Kavan’s Ice is a book like the moon is the moon. There is only one.” Luckily, as he goes on he outgrows this meaningless blurb-babble (blurble?) and suggests Kavan’s antecedents and cognates: Poe and Kafka, Ballard’s Crash and Ishiguro’s Unconsoled, Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad and Godard’s Alphaville, and more. This critical gesture is more important than it would otherwise be because Ice has been advertised as science fiction, whereas its tradition is actually oneiric modernism. Like medieval literature, modernist fiction has a strong tradition of dream-inspired narrative; modern writers from Poe to Ishiguro are not seeking religious wisdom in their dreams, however, but the personae and landscapes of the unconscious, the revelation of the repressed.

Such fiction tends to be more interesting when the unconscious it explores is a collective or social one rather than merely the author’s. Despite that, Kavan is a fascinating figure: born Helen Woods to an upper-class English family, she published realist novels under her married name Helen Ferguson in the 1930s; following a nervous breakdown, she took the name of one of her protagonists, Anna Kavan, and began publishing fiction in a much stranger vein (in this edition’s afterword, Kate Zambreno mentions that the “K” in Kavan “has been read for Kafka”); during World War II, she traveled around the world; she spent time in and out of institutions and moreover became addicted to heroin. Combine such a twentieth-century life with such offbeat fiction, and you will get the work explained in terms of the biography. Accordingly, Ice seems to have been freighted beyond reason with biographical interpretations—particularly focused on Kavan’s heroin addition, presumably the source of the novel’s titular apocalyptic imagery, an all-encroaching white oblivion.

But reading from Kavan’s life is even less satisfying than reading Ice as straight science fiction; the novel’s catastrophic ice age is presented as a public and political matter, a kind of nuclear winter unleashed by irresponsible scientists and superpowers, and when Kavan writes about more ostensibly private issues of obsession and control, they are portrayed through the theme of men’s sadistic sexual domination of women (and women’s masochistic complicity therein—Kavan does not seem to be an orthodox feminist). Kavan is working through issues of much broader relevance than her particular story. When critics tear right through the texture of the text to find the writer’s “real life” as if rummaging through closets and drawers, I am reminded that Nabokov associated psychoanalysis with totalitarianism—the abolition of privacy to control what the public can think and say. Even more so in the case of a writer like Kavan, who takes whatever experience was hers and devises a fable that, because its real-world referents are so unclear (no country is named in this novel, nor is any character, and no time period is specified), is virtually unlimited in its scope. Why should we be so sure this is only Helen Woods’s story? What if it is yours or mine? Scholarship has its place, but it should not become a defense against literature.

The story of Ice: a male narrator returns to his home country in quest of an “old friend” or former lover, a fragile young woman whose psyche was permanently damaged by “a sadistic mother.” The narrator claims that the woman sees herself as a perennial victim and will submit to any cruel fate, but he himself is afflicted with sadism. Ironically, given his own sadistic desires, one of the narrator’s goals is to free the woman from “the warden,” her other husband or lover, who is far more overtly domineering and cruel—and not only of her, as he is depicted variously as a kind of sheriff, general, mafioso, or warlord at various points in the tale. But the narrator frequently experiences visions of the young woman in various tortured and submissive postures, of which this is the first:

An unearthly whiteness began to bloom on the hedges. I passed a gap and glanced through. For a moment, my lights picked out like searchlights the girl’s naked body, slight as a child’s, ivory white against the dead white of the snow, her hair bright as spun glass. She did not look in my direction. Motionless, she kept her eyes fixed on the the walls moving slowly toward her, a glassy, glittering circle of solid ice, of which she was the center. Dazzling flashes came from the ice-cliffs far over her head; below, the outermost fringes of ice had already reached her, immobilized her, set hard as concrete over her feet and ankles. I watched the ice climb higher, covering knees and thighs, saw her mouth open, a black hole in the white face, heard her thin, agonized scream. I felt no pity for her. On the contrary, I derived an indescribable pleasure from seeing her suffer. I disapproved of my own callousness, but there it was. Various factors had combined to produce it, although they were not extenuating circumstances.

The surrealism, the stark black-and-white imagery, the blandly descriptive and formal tone, the fetishistic and incantatory repetitions (four whites, four ices in one paragraph), the sadism, the instability of perspective (is the author condemning the narrator or identifying with him?), the unapologetic examination of cruelty without commending it—all are characteristic of the novel’s mode and style.

Ice‘s narrative has the feel of a dream or compulsive sequence of dreams, stopping and restarting as the characters re-negotiate their relationship to each other—at times, the warden allows the narrator to see the young woman; at times, she accepts him and at others rebuffs him; at times he pursues her obsessively and at other times strives to put her out of his mind. Because the narrator is constantly in motion, traveling by ship from one country to another, the narrative is never stable. Each chapter when completed, in my experience, evanesces from the mind, and the narrator himself remarks on reaching a safe port at the beginning of a late chapter:

Nothing but the nightmare had seemed real while it was going on, as if the other lost world had been dreamed or imagined. Now that world, no longer lost, was here the one solid reality.

The novel’s vagueness, then, should not be regarded as a fault or flaw but as a deliberately sought technique of disorientation. The narrator, by the way, remarks frequently that “[r]eality has always been something of an unknown quantity to me,” and also that “the unreality of the outer world appeared to be an extension of my own disturbed state of mind,” so how much of this is to be taken as real and how much a hallucination is persistently in question. As Lethem remarks, Kavan introduces visions and dream-sequences into a narrative whose grounding tone is already hallucinatory and oneiric, layering unreality upon unreality.

The unreality, however, has real meaning. Kavan is investigating the instinct for destruction—both self-destruction and the destruction of others—which is the only thing that can explain humanity’s potentially world-ending violence. Both nature and civilization are collapsing around our trio of narrator, woman, and warden: walls of ice are closing in on the world from north and south poles, cities are destroyed, refugees massacred, nuclear weapons deployed, and in the few temperate zones hysteria reigns. Their menage—and folieà trois is the microcosm of a more general catastrophe, one that could only have been written in the middle of the twentieth century, the world’s first epoch in which a secular and man-made apocalypse is possible. Hence the novel’s seeming villain, the warden, is presented as a charismatic and attractive figure with his piercing blue eyes (“his arrogant, ice-blue gaze,” clearly meant to evoke the ice), even as the young woman is doom-eager and submits to her degradation—

Something in her demanded victimization and terror, so she corrupted my dreams, led me into dark places I had no wish to explore. It was no longer clear to me which of us was the victim. Perhaps we were victims of one another.

—and as the narrator remarks again and again on his kinship to or identity with the cruel warden—”we were like brothers, like identical twin brothers.” The point is not to “blame the victim” but to understand the capacities of the human psyche that make us all victims and victimizers, sometimes of ourselves. We are all entangled in the potential catastrophe, just as this book’s presiding consciousness is dispersed among the three characters who keep flowing into one another and losing their discrete identities—with all of them, perhaps, echoes of the “sadistic mother” named at the beginning of the story and of the author composing it.

As with even the most dreamy of dystopias, there is a moralistic streak in Ice. The narrator is some kind of naturalist who desultorily intends to research the Indris, a species of singing lemur who seem to figure as the opposite of the ice, nature as a redemptive or utopian force. When the narrator finds them in the equatorial jungle after attempting to put his obsession with the young woman behind him, he is given a vision of bliss and peace:

It seemed more as if I received a message of hope from another world; a world without violence or cruelty, in which despair was unknown. I had often dreamed of this place, where life was a thousand times more exciting and splendid than on earth.

He quickly decides that this is not for him, not for humanity at large in their present state: “But I knew that my place was here, in our world under sentence of death…I was committed to violence and must keep to my pattern.” Humanity seems to deserve its destruction at the hands of sadistic mother nature, in the narrator’s (and author’s?) opinion:

Instead of my world, there would soon be only ice, snow, stillness, death; no more violence, no war, no victims; nothing but frozen silence, absence of life. […] A frightful crime had been committed, against nature, against the universe, against life. By rejecting life, man had destroyed the immemorial order, destroyed the world; now everything was about to crash down in ruins.

Earlier, the narrator observes of the ice spreading over the world that “the sight…did not seem intended for human eyes,” suggesting with the modernist writer’s characteristic religious diffidence the vague potential of another, higher intelligence that can make sense of the mess we have made. In the meantime, we have the mysteries of fiction, our public dreaming, to ponder, and Kavan dreams them up brilliantly.


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E. M. Forster, Maurice

MauriceMaurice by E.M. Forster

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Maurice is E. M. Forster’s fifth novel, written in 1913-14, following Howards End. Due to its content, however, Forster suppressed it until after his death; though it circulated privately in Forster’s literary circles, it was not published until 1971. A “Terminal Note” reveals Forster’s intention not only to treat the subject of gay male desire in the novel, but to treat it in a certain way: his gay hero, Maurice Hall, is a “normal” man, a suburban member of the English middle class without artistic or intellectual credentials, and he is moreover to be granted a happy ending with his lover. The point is to stress the normality and the naturalness of what was then identified as homosexuality (a word that today has a clinical or pathologizing ring to some). The dedication page gives the novel’s date of composition followed movingly by “To a Happier Year”—a year, in other words, when the novel will be able to circulate publicly. Forster famously wrote in his “Terminal Note”:

A happy ending was imperative. I shouldn’t have bothered to write otherwise. I was determined that in fiction anyway two men should fall in love and remain in it for the ever and ever that fiction allows, and in this sense Maurice and Alec still roam the greenwood.

The “greenwood” will prove to be the key to the novel’s meaning.

Maurice is divided into four sections. The first briefly narrates the hero’s childhood and early adolescence. He lives with his mother and two sisters after the early death of his father, and his eminently respectable mother expects him to live up to the paternal example, to become a solid businessman and paterfamilias. Maurice’s success at school and his preponderant averageness foretell such a future: “he was a mediocre member of a mediocre school,” the narrator tells us. But by adolescence Maurice is haunted by dreams: a voice directs him, mysteriously, to a “friend.” This exploration of his own mysterious interior in part turns him from the course of mediocrity. When at Cambridge, he becomes fascinated with the flagrantly gay Risley—whom Forster modeled on Lytton Strachey—and through Risley meets Clive Durham, an intellectual and Hellenist, with whom he falls into an intense flirtation. After a false start caused by Maurice’s own panic and diffidence, they fall into a relationship, which forms the basis of the novel’s second section. Clive, we learn, is unlike Maurice; naturally intellectual, he has since boyhood interpreted his sexuality through the classical tradition, as was common in late-Victorian Oxbridge for men like Pater or Wilde:

The boy had always been a scholar, awake to the printed word, and the horror the Bible evoked for him were to be laid by Plato. Never could he forget his emotion at first reading the Phaedrus. He saw there his malady described exquisitely, calmly, as a passion which we can direct, like any other, toward good or bad. Here was no invitation to license.

The Phaedrus ultimately recommends chastity for the male philosopher besotted with his ephebe, and a chaste relationship, pursued in the open among their families, who suspect nothing but masculine companionship, is what Clive and Maurice enjoy for two years. The difference between them is not only of temperament, but of class: unlike the suburban Halls, the Durhams are gentry, maintaining an estate called Penge. “Both were misogynists, Clive especially,” the narrator notes—in other words, his same-sex desire is a revolt against and a vacation from domestic expectation, associated in Victorian and Edwardian England with the female sphere. Clive’s desire, though, proves ephemeral: traveling in Greece, he writes to Maurice, “Against my will I have become normal”—he has begun to desire women exclusively. An intellectual or cultural passion, Forster implies, is not a lasting one. The novel intimates that Clive’s orientation has not changed, only his ability to hold out against the normative forces encouraging progeny and respectability that would press it out of him. This is Forster’s censure of intellectualized Hellenism as the basis for a queer identity.

In the third section of the novel, Maurice himself strives without success to become “normal.” After making a rebuffed pederastic overture to a young man, Maurice consults a doctor friend of the family who, when Maurice confesses that he is “an unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort,” will only say, “Rubbish,” and refuse to discuss the matter at all.

He was an average man, and could have won an average fight, but Nature had pitted him against the extraordinary, which only saints can subdue unaided, and he began to lose ground.

The novel in the end will speak up for the average man, and it does not capitalize “Nature” in vain. At the end of the third section, Maurice sinks into despair when visiting Clive and his new family at Penge. To “cure” himself, he decides to consult a hypnotist, but this too fails. Then one night, standing at his window at the Durham estate, he cries into the night, and is miraculously answered when the gamekeeper, Alec Scudder, enters the window and then Maurice’s bed.

The novel’s fourth section narrates his fitful relationship with the working-man. Alec, wounded when Maurice stops reciprocating his affection, fabricates a blackmail plot; but then the two men meet in the British museum and, as the ancient statuary looks on, they fall in love. The triumph of the scene is crowned when the two men encounter Maurice’s old prep-school teacher who had tried to teach him the basics of normative sex and reproduction in the novel’s first chapter. Coming full circle, the novel and its hero reprove the normative. Maurice ends with the couple’s defiance of all convention—transgressing both sexual and class boundaries, they determine to go to “the greenwood” and live happily ever after—though not before, in the final scene, Maurice tells off Clive Durham for good.

As Forster observes in his “Terminal Note,” he anticipates English modernism’s great banned book: Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence. Connie Chatterley, like Maurice Hall, is liberated from stifling middle-class convention by a tumble in the hay with a working-man. Lawrence wanted to assert the rights of nature as against society. When Forster does the same for gay desire, however, he is making the more radical gesture. Maurice’s hypnotist, Lasker Jones, is without sympathy for gay men, but he nevertheless apprises Maurice of the facts of life after his hypnotic treatment fails to turn Maurice straight:

“I’m afraid I can only advise you to live in some country that has adopted the Code Napoléon,” he said.

“I don’t understand.”

“France or Italy, for instance. There homosexuality is no longer criminal.”

“You mean that a Frenchman could share with a friend and yet not go to prison?”

“Share? Do you mean unite? If both are of age and avoid public indecency, certainly.”

“Will that ever be the law in England?”

“I doubt it. England has always been disinclined to accept human nature.”

Maurice understood. He was an Englishman himself, and only his troubles had kept him awake. He smiled sadly. “It comes to this then: there always have been people like me and always will be, and generally they have been persecuted.”

“That is so, Mr Hall; or, as psychiatry prefers to put it, there has been, is, and always will be every conceivable type of person. And you must remember that your type was once put to death in England.”

“Was it really? On the other hand, they could get away. England wasn’t all built over and policed. Men of my sort could take to the greenwood.”

“Is that so? I was not aware.”


What a comfort the man was! Science is better than sympathy, if only it is science.

If only, that is, it is a correct representation of nature. And not only is science better than that watchword of high Victorian sentimentalism, “sympathy,” it is also better than the “culture” of late Victorian Aestheticism. By enlisting nature on the side of queer love, Forster dispatches the Wildean expedient of esoterically validating the queer by exoterically disqualifying the idea of nature entirely. Put more simply, Wilde defends his “unnatural” desire by saying that artifice is all and nature nothing; Forster, by contrast, declares a man’s desire for a man the most natural thing in the world, even a perennial feature of the “green world” that has always been a space of regeneration and redemption in English literature. The unfaithful Clive stands in for the Hellenic or Aestheticist Wildean position: too concerned with intellect and appearance to be true to feeling (to be fair, Wilde expresses the same fear about his own commitments in The Picture of Dorian Gray, whose Gothic plot shows that when appearance is severed from essence, appearance—Dorian—ceases to develop and essence—Dorian’s portrait—decays). That Wilde has, in the long run, won this argument—I think today we tend to view appeals to nature in morally reasoning about sexual desire or gender identity with political suspicion, and to regard human identity as the creation of discourse rather than as the manifestation of a natural essence—should not detract from the boldness of Forster’s argument in its own context.

Considered only as a novel, Maurice does suffer from being built around a thesis. Events and characters feel pre-determined rather than organic, which tends to work against the novel’s brief for organicism. Maurice is also not really believable as suburban businessman, not even one rattled by “unspeakable” desires; his consciousness seems about as sensitive and perceptive—in a word, artistic—as E. M. Forster’s. (This is not quite fair, but contrast Maurice with modernism’s grand everyman, Leopold Bloom.) Alec, too, is more an (anti-intellectual intellectual’s) idea of a working man, all bad grammar and frank sensuality, than a living character. Ironically, only Clive, the man of Forster’s own education and sensibility, comes fully to life. Luckily, Forster is a strong enough storyteller and eloquent enough narrator, not to mention that he is equipped with a genuinely fascinating thesis, to make Maurice a novel as readable and stirring as A Room with a View, if not as great as A Passage to India.


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D. M. Thomas, The White Hotel

The White HotelThe White Hotel by D.M. Thomas

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

But he would have us remember most of all
To be enthusiastic over the night
Not only for the sense of wonder
It alone has to offer, but also

Because it needs our love: for with sad eyes
Its delectable creatures look up and beg
     Us dumbly to ask them to follow;
     They are exiles who long for the future

That lies in our power…

—W. H. Auden, “In Memory of Sigmund Freud”

A recent series of odd coincidences, during which The White Hotel arose in conversation or correspondence three times in four days, inspired me to read D. M. Thomas’s sensational 1981 novel about, among other things, Freud. Freud, I recall, believed there were no such things as coincidences.

Freud also believed for a while—in the 1890s, early in his career—that the etiology of his patients’ hysterical symptoms lay in their experience of childhood abuse and molestation. (For the most part, as I understand it, he inferred such abuse from the symptoms themselves rather than being told about it by his patients, who often denied having been abused.) Due both to the sheer frequency of hysteria and neurosis, which seem to afflict almost everyone from time to time, and to the absence of evidence that such widespread abuse took place, Freud abandoned this hypothesis. He devised instead his theory that the origin of neurosis and hysteria could be found not in actual early sexual experience but rather in unconscious and repressed sexual fantasy. Later critics, particularly feminists, faulted him for this; they accused him of retreating from a bold and radical critique of pervasive sexual predation to the usual patriarchal omertà around such subjects. Sexual violence is not fantasy, but a reality, inflicted not by the unconscious but by history and society, the critics imply.

At first, I thought that this might be the argument of The White Hotel. The novel’s structure is strange and very complex, but its macroscopic narrative can be retold simply (and with unavoidable spoilers): a Ukrainian Jewish woman is analyzed by Freud due to inexplicable and disabling pains in her breast and side; Freud diagnoses her as a repressed homosexual, which she denies being; later, she dies in the Holocaust, tortured and murdered at Babi Yar, where her breast and side are particularly wounded. Her sufferings come not from repressed fantasy in her past, but from the social and political doom awaiting her in her future; her symptoms are the lacerations of history.

But the novel, when read more carefully, turns out to be a validation of Freud. Thomas does not quite praise Freud as a scientist or a physician—before the novel even begins, he refers to him in an “Author’s Note” as

discoverer of the great and beautiful modern myth of psychoanalysis. By myth, I mean a poetic, dramatic expression of a hidden truth; and in placing this emphasis, I do not intend to put into question the scientific validity of psychoanalysis.

The Viennese physician, so expert in analyzing the feints and dodges of the conscious mind, would recognize that final clause as protesting too much. No, Thomas emphasizes Freud as a writer—as proud winner of the Goethe Prize. He lovingly parodies Freud’s style in a chapter modeled on the psychoanalytic case study, and if Freud does not get the novel’s protagonist “right,” he was right to pay her psyche and her own literary production such respectful attention. Later in the novel, she writes to Freud:

I am touched, beyond words, by knowing that so much wisdom, patience and kindness were devoted to a poor, weak-spirited, deceitful young woman. I assure you it was not without fruit. Whatever understanding of myself I now possess, is due to you alone.

The White Hotel, written by a then-obscure Cornish poet, became both a bestseller and critical hit when it was published in 1981; it almost won the Booker Prize. (Martin Amis memorably parodied the reviewers’ performative fervor: “‘I walked out into the garden and could not speak’, and so on.”) It was also a source of controversy in its blending of the Holocaust with pornography, and in its borrowing, for its most intense and climactic scenes, from the testimony of a real-life survivor of Babi Yar, Dina Pronicheva. Enough time has gone by, though, to assess the novel more neutrally.

It is a twentieth-century novel in the very best sense, in that it does not take novelistic form, genre, or mode for granted. It begins with a series of letters among Freud, Ferenczi, and other psychoanalysts about an erotic document by one of Freud’s patients. There follows, in the first chapter, a fantastical pornographic poem and then a prose gloss on the poem, both detailing a singer’s sexual adventures in the titular white hotel. She romps with a young man she met on a train; she allows a priest to drink milk from her breast; she also takes a corset maker as a lover. While this is going on, the hotel is beset with catastrophes, as fire, flood, landslide, and falling cable car kill most of the guests.

In the next chapter, we shift style and genre again: now we are reading Freud’s own case study of the previous documents’ author; we learn about her troubled family background (she was raised by a Catholic mother and a Jewish father, and her mother died when she was a child), her complex sexual history and failed marriage, and the psychosomatic symptoms that have bedeviled her for years. Freud eventually concludes that repressed homosexual desire is at the root of her problems.

The next chapter alters our and the novel’s perspective again; now, halfway through the book, we are privy to objective third-person narration telling us about Lisa Erdman, now named for the first time in the text (Freud had concealed her identity as “Frau Anna G.”), and her real history and experiences; her poem and its prose gloss had been a fantasy, and much of what she told Freud was not quite true, while his own interpretation was sometimes fanciful. The novel now does get behind these texts to reveal something of the truth, and yet Freud’s method of seeking for buried truths and unraveling densely knotted symbols is validated, because Lisa reveals her memory that her mother and her aunt were involved together in a sexual relation with her uncle, and that her mother and uncle died together in a hotel fire.

The subsequent chapter carries on in this objective narrative mode as Lisa moves to Kiev with her new husband and his child from a previous marriage; her husband, though, dies in Stalin’s purges, while Lisa and her son are tortured and killed by the Nazis.

A controversial concluding chapter seems to re-enter the fantastical mode of the novel’s early passages, as we encounter Lisa, and most of the other characters, including Freud, in an ambiguous afterlife, a Zion of the mind where none are excluded. Here, Lisa is allowed a redemptive re-encounter with her mother—they suckle each other—and she becomes a nurse.

During the painful sequence of Lisa’s torture and murder, the narrator occasionally departs from grimly neutral reportage and grows didactic:

The soul of man is a far country, which cannot be approached or explored. Most of the dead were poor and illiterate. But every single one of them had dreamed dreams, seen visions and had amazing experiences, even the babes in arms (perhaps especially the babes in arms). Though most of them had never lived outside the Podol slum, their lives and histories were as rich and complex as Lisa Erdman-Bernstein’s. If a Sigmund Freud had been listening and taking notes from the time of Adam, he would still not fully have explored a single group, even a single person.

In other words, the novel and psychoanalysis together are beneficent because they are the opposite of discourses like Nazism or Stalinism; in taking the individual as an inexhaustible absolute, literature and psychoanalysis bar the ideological way to viewing any people as disposable. Moreover, the baroque pornography of the novel’s first third, in which sexual pleasure is indeed braided with death and destruction, suggests that literature and psychoanalysis are the safest zones for our exploration of our ineradicable destructive impulses. In fantasy, we can explore rather than indulge the death drive; that way, we do not have to act it out in murder, suicide, genocide, or war. Finally, just as Lisa’s symptoms were premonitions rather than recollections, a study of our psyches may reveal the nature of the future in the present; we may even attempt to forestall the worst of our possible futures. It does not matter if Freud got it right or was “scientific”; what matters is that his method—narrative, description, interpretation, reinterpretation; myth; poetry; drama—is a way to peace.

Critics have objected to the novel’s fantastical ending on the grounds that it obscenely provides a Christian paradise for its Jewish victims. While that would be offensive, it is not what the novel is doing. I grant that some rebuke to Zionism is implied when the narrator decisively states of this Holy Land encampment that one does not have to be Jewish to be admitted; but Thomas’s fancied afterlife is not exactly paradise—it is a refugee camp—and it is a territory not of religion but of poetry. Not only the King James Bible but also Eliot (“there was rock which provided a little shade”), Yeats (“‘Sick with desire'”), and Blake (“‘Where Israel’s tents do shine by night!'”) are recalled, as are all the novel’s major refrains. In an excellent recent article, Cates Baldridge persuasively argues that the novel’s afterlife represents an allegory for literature’s redemptive capacity to imagine new possibilities; moreover, he interprets The White Hotel, despite its first half’s textual game-play, as a quintessential modernist novel that holds out the hope of an aesthetic utopia, rather than a postmodern one that mocks all visionary drive.

I wonder not only about the afterlife in but also the afterlife of the novel. Once a ubiquitous text, a major novel of its time, it seems to have faded somewhat in significance; what recent fictions, if any, might it have influenced? I suspect the final chapter may be lingering in the background of Coetzee’s Novilla, the socialist utopia/dystopia of The Childhood of Jesus, which I interpret as the ethical polity implied by the tradition of the European novel, just as Baldridge finds in Thomas’s Camp a social space embodying aesthetic ideals. And Thomas’s pornotopic modernist and Mitteleuropean hotel abraded by the catastrophes of European history must have at least partially inspired Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s Lost Girls, a graphic novel that suggests fully as much as does Thomas’s book that war and oppression may be quelled by an aesthetic excavation of unconscious desire.

How does The White Hotel look from the vantage of the present? If now less overwhelming than it was to its early reviewers, it is still an intellectually formidable and imaginative novel. It is also very well-written in its own distinct way. The third-person passages have a fascinatingly stilted tone of translationese, as of a version from the Russian or German, that very much reminds me, as implied above, of Coetzee. The recreation of Freud’s style is very persuasive—Thomas catches the peculiar warmth and seductive wit that always comes through even in his most clinical observations—and even the pornographic poem, which could have gone badly wrong, is energetic and strikingly surreal, its stream-of-consciousness iambic slant-rhyme couplets just a cut below John Shade’s bravura neoclassicism in the annals of “fictional” poetry:

                           Asleep at last
I was the Magdalen, a figure-head,
plunging in deep seas. I was impaled
upon a swordfish and I drank the gale,
my wooden skin carved up by time, the wind
of icebergs where the northern lights begin.
The ice was soft at first, a whale who moaned
a lullaby to my corset, the thin bones,
I couldn’t tell the wind from the lament
of whales, the hump of white bergs without end.
Then gradually it was the ice itself
cut into me, for we were an ice-breaker,
a breast was sheared away, I felt forsaken,
I gave birth to a wooden embryo
its gaping lips were sucking at the snow
as it was whirled away into the storm,
now turning inside-out the blizzard tore
my womb clean out, I saw it spin into
the whiteness have you seen a flying womb.

When a man writes so extensively from within his imagination of female sexual experience, he will be accused of sexism or misogyny; but Thomas’s sensibility is so submerged in Lisa’s that this charge is not compelling in this case. As for Thomas’s collaging in of actual victim testimony: I do grasp the ethical difficulty involved, but Thomas credits his borrowing on the copyright page, and, more importantly, the novel’s whole point is to create an imaginative context in which such an experience as the testimony recounts can be received by the reader as an inner, emotional event. The perhaps disturbing implication is that it takes fiction to make life real. For better or worse, I believe this myself. But I hope that even if I did not like much of what The White Hotel has to say, I would be charmed by its weirdness; we need more weird novels!


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J. G. Ballard, High-Rise

High-RiseHigh-Rise by J.G. Ballard

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s strange when you think about it that English writing should have contributed a certain kind of adjectival author to literature. Obviously you can make a meaningful adjective out of any famous writer’s name, but the type of author I have in mind is more specific, one who usually 1. is devoted to the shorter forms; 2. has a ferociously coherent and singular set of settings, characters, and stories; 3. writes in a readily identifiable signature style, often characterized by a deceptively dry mimicry of essayism; 4. eschews realism of content and deeply psychological characterization in favor of fantasy, allegory, or philosophy; and 5. tends to communicate a pessimistic or nihilistic metaphysic, often with a despairing quietist anti-politics: Kafkaesque, Lovecraftian, Borgesian, Sebaldian.

And to this lexicon, modern English literature has contributed “Ballardian,” a word that conjures a vision of atavistic modernity. The idea is that by covering the world in automated and mechanized processes, we have made obsolete those older fortifications of the fragile human ego—the soul, the self, reason, morality—and have released ourselves again to nature. Ballard crystallizes this dizzying idea in a set of iconic images that hover around his name: end-of-the-world scenarios wherein jungle or desert swallow the cityscapes, erotic frenzies amid the car-wrecks and Brutalist housing blocks, somnolent ritual violence in the sunshine among the bored and privileged in pastel resorts—all presided over by the voice of a wry, dispassionate analyst (Ballard’s early training was medical) who lets his passion slip only in bursts of lyricism or metaphor.

If I say that English literature is an unexpected source for such a corpus, it is because the writers of England—ground zero of industrial modernity—have tended either to raise protests against technology and urbanism (Blake, Ruskin, Lawrence, Winterson) or to attempt to humanize and naturalize them (Shelley, Dickens, Woolf, McEwan). Ballard’s method—following the logic of our mechanization ruthlessly to its conclusion, humanity be damned—has been more of a Continental or American speciality (e.g., see here for my comparison of Ballard to Marinetti). And the Shanghai-born Ballard was, like so many of the less melioristic modern English writers (Conrad, Eliot, Lessing, Ishiguro), from somewhere else. His influence accordingly has been felt across media, not concentrated in literature and certainly not the mainstream of literary fiction nor in one national tradition: think only of Neuromancer and Blade Runner and Watchmen and Joy Division and all that has followed from them in and beyond their respective forms or genres.

Now I derived the above from only three of Ballard’s novels so far: The Drowned World, Crash, and now High-Rise, as well as from two volumes of Ballard’s interviews: Conversations and Extreme Metaphors (the adjectival author’s entire oeuvre tends to nestle hidden inside each one of his works, for which reason I find my procedure legitimate). The concept of High-Rise is simple: the titular building has just been erected outside of London and, as the novel begins, it has reached “critical mass” or full occupancy. Its residents range from the lower-middle-class denizens of the lower floors (service-tier workers in media, finance, medicine, education, etc.) to the professionals of the middle floors (doctors, lawyers, professors) to the rich or even properly bourgeois of the upper floors (executives, senior academics, surgeons).

Soon a class war breaks out among the three factions and open violence ensues: children are threatened, pets slaughtered, people harassed, robbed, raped, and eventually murdered. Services break down, garbage lines the corridors, different factions control different elevators, and one of the building’s swimming pools becomes a mass grave. Through most of this, the characters continue to go to and from their jobs, keeping a secret of the war zone they live in. Ballard’s suggestion is that they enjoy it too much to want it to end: living in a space that has absolutely freed them from nature and labor has liberated them to recreate the proverbial jungle.

The novel’s line of development is a de-evolution (based on a teleological evolutionary model of history, implicitly sexist and Eurocentric), as post-industrial society returns to clan society, which itself gives way, the conclusion implies, to prehistoric matriarchy as the building’s surviving women, who had served as a harem for one or another apartment-block warlord for most of the novel, commandeer the men. In literary terms, Ballard, using the allegorical and technical features of the modern novel and portraying the most up-to-date forms of technology and sociality, concludes his fiction in a time before the Oresteia .

Ballard provides a protagonist from each of the building’s three classes: Wilder, a filmmaker from the second floor; Laing, a psychiatrist and professor on the 25th floor; and Royal, the building’s architect, on the 40th floor. The middling Laing is at once the main protagonist and the least active, a passive figure who tends to follow the direction of events. The macho Wilder, by contrast, seeks to conquer the building by ascending to the very top, while the ethereal Royal (a scarred car-wreck victim who seems to have limped out of Crash) plots the perfection of the upper floors and the subjugation of those below. (As biblioklept notes, their names are flagrantly allegorical and they seem to stand in for Id, Ego, and Superego—appropriately, since Ballard, at least at this point in his career, construed his work as a Freud-inflected reorientation of science fiction toward what he called “inner space.”) The absence of an actual working class seems to be part of Ballard’s point: in a post-industrial society, the absence of any class that has contact with material reality is itself the spur to regressive violence.

As social prophecy, this is pretty dated—governed by the old midcentury topos of the psychosocial problems posed by the affluent and administered society, before the New Right in the Reagan/Thatcher years took advantage of the dystopian mood and de-administered society in ways that the ’60s avant-garde had not imagined. But if you squint at the novel and replace the material space of its high-rise with the immaterial space of the Internet, an all-out brutal and atavistic war between factions of the professional and cultural middle classes starts to sound like a reasonable prediction.

As with the other two Ballard novels I read, this one might have been shorter by half: the concept and the descriptive prose are almost enough to convey the vision without an extended treatment of repeating events, cluttered with exposition and traditional novelistic free indirect discourse. Ballard, as he admitted in many interviews, treats characters like psychic functions and social types, not inwardly rich figures; thus, they are only interesting to observe for so long. Ballard’s prose, though, is as neo-Decadent as ever, richly sensuous in its description of the disgusting and campily self-aware in its own melodramatic approach to the breakdown it describes:

By contrast with the calm and unencumbered geometry of the concert-hall and television studios below him, the ragged skyline of the city resembled the disturbed encephalograph of an unresolved mental crisis.

However much Ballard may see himself as in the tradition of Wells or Orwell, issuing not predictions but warnings, he plainly enjoys staging, over and over again, the spectacle wherein we discover the roiling violence and archaic desire not so much beneath as within our most advanced constructions. He can be a kind of psychic relief to read, as you find all your most hideous thoughts echoed with precision and beauty. And the whole novel should almost certainly be read as outrageous comedy, of the nervous-laughter variety.

Not the least of Ballard’s attractions is that his work, loveless and gorgeous, tends to disconfirm most of today’s schoolteacher arguments about how fiction can be good for you (today’s endless, nauseating justifications for literature are perhaps a symptom of literature’s now resting almost entirely in the hands of educators—a state of affairs I criticize from within!). The erstwhile medical student is not interested in curing the human condition but in helping us to know it for the terminal state it is: ruined, violent, technological, primordial, ritualistic, obsessive, visionary, erotic—Ballardian.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Jeanette Winterson, Art and Lies

Art and LiesArt and Lies by Jeanette Winterson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

[Spoilers, disturbing ones at that, toward the end of this review.]

My first encounter with Jeanette Winterson went badly. In college, I read Written on the Body and found it ludicrously overwritten, an imprecise prose poem wearing the guise of a novel, and poorly. I almost wish my Livejournal from that period of my life were still extant so I could quote from my bad review; I remember that it turned on mocking the line from the novel, “Your clavicle is both keyboard and key” (honestly, I still think that is a stupid sentence).

But something about Winterson lingered—her aestheticism, her daring, her egotism (a trait I find wholly lovable in writers and artists)—and I decided to revisit her work. I am glad I did, because Art and Lies could almost serve as an example of the kind of fiction I have been calling for in my more polemical essays (see here, here, and here). It is a completely invented novel, set in a dream-world of its own, rather than dwelling in the merely social or autobiographical. It is a completely written novel, composed in an elevated register that enlivens rather than transcribing common speech, even as it is an echo chamber for poetry. It is a completely traditional novel, alluding to Sappho, Ovid, Shakespeare, Sterne, Blake, Wordsworth, Pater, Eliot, Woolf, and Calvino on almost every page, its sentences sinuous hooks for the eyes of the canon. It is a completely radical novel, both formally as it reinvents what a novel can do and be, and politically as it mounts a thoroughgoing critique of modern society that is both coherent and independent (i.e., it does not merely repeat the cliches of Right or Left). It is also, alas, a somewhat didactic novel—more about this later.

Art and Lies has three narrators: Handel, a Catholic surgeon who revisits in memory his moments of missed opportunity in love even as he laments the spiritual and physical state of modern London; Picasso, a female artist from a strict and sexually abusive household who has struggled to escape the physical and mental confines of her terrible family; and Sappho, the legendary poet, who seems to speak from beyond time, challenging the misrepresentations of her life and work, even as she wanders the streets of London. These three characters are distantly, tenuously united, and they come together as they board a train that seems to be headed to a symbolic sea (death or eternity). Interpolated throughout are passages from an eighteenth-century pornographic novel—their bawdiness and scatology function like the servants’ banter in Shakespeare, to let some of the air out of the novel before we are overcome by its poetic afflatus. All three main characters judge the present in one voice, a voice that occasionally overwhelms the fiction and threatens to turn this rather intricate literary construction into a political screed.

Art and Lies is a strange political beast, though perhaps not as strange as it looks at first glance. Despite Winterson’s early vote for Margaret Thatcher, Art and Lies decisively repudiates Thatcherism, not least for its indifference or hostility toward the poor and the working class:

Homelessness is illegal. In my city no one is homeless although there are an increasing number of criminals living on the street. It was smart to turn an abandoned class into a criminal class, sometimes people feel sorry for the down and outs, they never feel sorry for criminals, it has been a great stabilizer.

But the novel is far more invested in an aesthetic critique of the postmodern west (itself a recapitulation of Eliot’s aesthetic critique of the modern west: “O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag”) as a time and place of wasted time and squandered artifice. All three of the voices in this novel denounce the artlessness of a society given over to money-making and cheap entertainment:

In the country of the Blind the one-eyed man is King? But what of the articulate among the guttural? Once upon a time I would have been listened to with respect, now, I am regarded with suspicion, and for the wrong reason. I know that I am false; the irony is that the barkers and jabberers believe themselves genuine. As if to speak badly is to speak truly. As if to have no command of language must ensure a complete command of emotional sincerity. As if, as journalists and novelists would have me believe, to write without artifice is to write honestly. But language is artifice. The human being is artificial. None of us is Rousseau Man, that noble savage, honest and untrained. Better then to acknowledge that what we are is what we have been taught, that done, at least it will be possible to choose our own teacher. I know I am made up of other people’s say so, veins of tradition, a particular kind of education, borrowed methods that have disguised themselves as personal habits. I know that what I am is quite the opposite of an individual. But if the parrot is to speak, let him be taught by a singing master. Parrot may not learn to sing but he will know what singing is. That is why I have tried to hide myself among the best; music, pictures, books, philosophy, theology, like Dante, my great teacher is dead. My alive friends privately consider me to be rather highbrow and stuffy, but we are all stuffed, stuffed with other people’s ideas parading as our own. Stuffed with the idiocies of the daily paper and twenty-four-hour television.

Winterson goes so far as to indict modern medicine: a central symbol of the novel is a state-of-the-art cancer hospital, which is being erected in a poor district of London. Cancer serves for Winterson as a symbol of bourgeois emotional repression and material superfluity, and its expensive treatment as another means for the middle classes to make and spend, make and spend, its money. (Yes, you could light London with the power generated by Susan Sontag as she spins in her grave.)

But this Romantic assault on capitalist modernity, which is neither Left (too concerned about art and spirituality, too tragic in worldview) nor Right (too sympathetic to the poor and the colonized, too hostile to custom and religion), is a venerable tradition in British letters, encompassing Blake, Wordsworth, Carlyle, Ruskin, Pater, Woolf, Lawrence, and Eliot (if not, indeed, Shakespeare) before Winterson. And Winterson is easily able to reconcile her feminism and queer liberationism with this radically reactionary aesthetic because, in the person of Sappho, she persuasively identifies the artistic tradition itself with queerness and the feminine. Winterson’s polemic, in Handel’s voice, against the type of vernacular feminism that might now be labeled as Lean In feminism is quite timely:

It’s our fault, men like me I mean, we’ve spent so long trumpeting the importance of all that we do that women believe in it and want to do it themselves. Look at me, I’m a very wealthy man, at the top of my profession, and I’m running away like a schoolboy because I can’t sit at my desk even for another day. I know that everything I am and everything I stand for is worthless. How to tell her that?

While I have my qualms about aspects of this worldview—and sometimes Winterson’s personae go much too far (“Better to be a beggar on the Ganges than broken on the gilded wheel of the West,” says Sappho, without, I suspect, having consulted such a beggar)—I am more sympathetic to it than not, for better or worse. The question for literary criticism, though, is, “How didactic can a novel get before readers have a right to protest?” This novel was not very well-received when it was first published in 1994. Its reception seems to have been marred by a spuriously personal venom in the British press, but even in America, reviews were mixed to hostile. William H. Prichard:

“Art & Lies,” while it abandons novelistic constraints Ms. Winterson evidently feels are repressive, is saturated with echoes of Shakespeare and Blake and Wordsworth and T. S. Eliot (especially from “Four Quartets”). By contrast, Ms. Winterson’s own efforts don’t fare so well. “My belly was an unplowed field. Weeds had grown over my pubic hair. I was a nun among nettles,” Picasso declares; Sappho exceeds her in visionary extravagance: “I am the petals double-borne, white points of love. I am the closed white hand that opens under the sun of you.” “Shall I call your nipples hautboys? Shall I hide myself in the ombre of your throat?” Sappho asks rapturously, not staying for our reply. […] Ms. Winterson’s prolonged and steady infusions of poetry into her novel turn the medium gaseous.

And even Rikki Ducornet (“even” because she has many of the same virtues and vices as Winterson):

…a book that has opened with motion and light and a clear ringing becomes within a few pages gravity bound with the author’s good intentions–one must always be wary of good intentions. Just as do children, books suffer from pedantry, and “Art and Lies,” wanting to cover all the issues of our age, from ecological devastation, rampant corruption, dysfunctional families, homophobia, abortion, incest and more begins to preach. So that although the book’s structure is mutable and porous, it manages to be both opaque and tedious, and this from a writer of great capacity whose custom it is to juggle with fire.

And this is all fair enough, even Pritchard’s political complaint about the book’s ideological excesses (Winterson’s portrayal of Picasso’s father and brother make Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” look like a masterpiece of subtlety). Sappho’s section, in particular, is full of the breathless prose-poetry that made me dislike Written on the Body.

But when Winterson writes about Handel and Picasso, her prose becomes inventive and precise. It takes a true and a bold narrative gift to imagine the novel’s final section, in which we revisit with Handel his childhood romance with an older Cardinal who castrated him. This long and disturbing passage will have conservatives, feminists, and many if not most others hurling the book across the room (it did not bring a smile to my face either!), because Winterson, in her nostalgia for the aesthetic past, tells the terrible story without moral judgment; its outlandishness becomes plausible, its outrageousness delicate, as Winterson submerges herself and us in true otherness—not the fashionable otherness of commercial multiculturalism, in which self and other shop together, but the true otherness that even the most open-minded will want to denounce as mere barbarism. And maybe it is. But when Handel’s family finds out what has been going on and decisively ends his relationship with the Cardinal, the novel shockingly invites us to wonder, “Which cut did the harm? His or theirs?” What is worse—the mutilations of art and sex or the mutilations of a society hostile both to art and sex? That strikes me as a real question, a question you could spend your whole life trying to answer, and not a rhetorical one—which is what I mean when I say I want novels that deal with genuinely intractable and tragic quandaries rather than giving easy answers in the name of right-thinking.

It occurs to me that another novel was published around the same time in the U.K. that was similarly experimental and similarly ill-received: Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled. Ishiguro’s novel is as bold as Winterson’s, and as complicatedly involved with the modernist tradition (though Ishiguro’s agon is with Dostoevsky and Kafka, whereas Winterson’s is with Woolf and Eliot). But The Unconsoled, as befits its title, totally undermines any Romantic ambition on the part of the artist to redeem society. Ishiguro’s artist cannot even redeem himself—but for all that, the novel says, art is worthwhile, a deep and private pleasure. These are two novels to read together, in dialogue with each other. They also illustrate the importance of going back to work that has been too hastily dismissed. When the fog of the present lifts in the future, the supposed masterpieces of the moment may be revealed as flimsy cardboard, while some of those books derogated by their first readers will stand out as figures of depth and substance.

(By the way, say what you will about Winterson’s high style, but this is a novel you can learn new words from: retiary orphrey, epurate, aurum, and more.)

In conclusion, it is time to look past the vagaries of Winterson’s reputation and even the datedness of this novel’s packaging—the cover of the edition I read looks (charmingly) like a 1990s cover for an alternative CD—and read this enchanting, disquieting, and exasperating novel. Not all of its risks are rewarded, but, as they say, better the interesting failure than the boring success.

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Tom McCarthy, Satin Island

Satin Island: A NovelSatin Island: A Novel by Tom McCarthy

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Imagine DeLillo or Ballard without either of those writers’ command of language. Imagine prose in the style of successful young humanities academics today, who write as if they have read every novel, played every video game, grasped every political theory, and can now proceed to shuffle them around in a snide and knowing way meant to flatter or intimidate a like-minded audience. Imagine a novel that postures as avant-garde, yet wastes a page telling its readers about Schrödinger’s cat, as if this bit of pop-science trivia, which has been a running joke for years on America’s most popular sitcom, were the latest word in cutting-edge theory.

All good reasons to be impatient with Satin Island, a novel (or whatever) narrated by a man who cutely asks us to call him U. (because, I guess, we are all in his predicament, at least if we’ve bought the new Tom McCarthy novel). U. is the resident anthropologist for a mysterious global corporation, tasked with writing a Great Report that will sum up the age. McCarthy’s narrative is of course about the ultimate impossibility of such an act, due to the waste products generated by all systems, from language to the global economy. At the linguistic level, U. is struck with a kind of apophenia that makes him attentive to wordplay and the slippage of signifiers; at the level of political economy, U. becomes aware of corporate utopianism’s undersides in environmental degradation, damaged health, and political repression, all of which the novel describes. Since ordered systems, from capitalism to writing, issue in unstable meanings, oil spills, cancer, and police brutality, any attempt to master the age will prove futile or, worse, provide a moral justification for all the wastage. Anthropologically, this proves that “we”—the modern world, the western world, etc.—are not the superiors of other or prior cultures and may be their inferiors insofar as we deny, in ways they do not, the contingency and death-adjacency of all human action.

The foregoing is the “point” of the novel, as I understand it—and it is not inappropriate to speak of McCarthy’s point, since he has deliberately written a discursive and even didactic text that eschews the character depth and dramatized viewpoints that would mitigate the propositional content in a traditional novel-of-ideas, such as those of Dostoevsky or Bellow. I find this relatively refreshing; Satin Island is a kind of monologue that does away with much novelistic detail and, in so doing, reminds us of how little we need conventional reality effects. The novel’s brevity and suggestiveness provide a model that we would do well to consider; I enjoyed Satin Island more for not having to be troubled by some intricate melodrama or social panaroma when ideas and imagery are obviously McCarthy’s strengths.

But then we have a right to question what those ideas are, even if we agree to treat them as a character’s utterance. As I hinted above, the ideas in Satin Island are derivative, popularized versions of twentieth-century anti-humanisms that have long ago migrated into popular culture. I don’t understand why philosophies I first encountered in comic books when I was 12 are now being discussed as potentially revolutionizing the literary novel. Moreover, these concepts, or anti-concepts, strongly resist narrative or drama. U. argues that the essence of the world is some tarry black substance, whether oil or cancer or dirt, and that it will claim us all eventually. This is a dark gnosticism in the guise of materialism, a transcendent worldview simply turned upside down like a teenager’s graffiti pentagram, and it flattens all interest anybody might take in a text of any sort. While I was sufficiently charmed by U.’s erudition to keep turning the pages, I did not care about much else in the novel, and I doubt I will remember it.

I am of two minds about Satin Island, then: on the one hand, I missed in it the appeal that even the most daunting and nihilistic works make with their animating if disavowed passion (Beckett, Bernhard), of which McCarthy’s text is wholly void. But in the current cloying literary atmosphere of aggressive sentimentality (St. DFW, empathy exams, insistence on how we’re all “human”), Satin Island‘s refusal of any redemptive promise or beneficent emotion or advocacy for political progress might be a corrective scourge. Maybe that is the historical use of anti-humanism in all periods: to recall us, when we have inflated ourselves with windy rhetoric, back to the common dirt. Even so, others have done this before Tom McCarthy, and they have done it better.

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Samuel Richardson, Pamela

PamelaPamela by Samuel Richardson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As a number of observers have stated, a classic may be defined most simply as any work of art that has endured beyond the time of its production. If it is still in circulation after a few generations, then it is a classic. But this definition still leaves room for nuances; for one thing, there are different reasons why a work may endure.

Consider eighteenth-century Anglophone fictional prose narrative. One such narrative that is still widely read in the present is Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. Why is it widely read today? First, we might say it deals with still-relevant issues: it is a satire whose targets remain with us, from the superficialities of upper-class life to the arrogance of scientists to the base human desires that lead to war, poverty, and crime. But, as Ben Okri has recently angered a lot of smart people by observing, subject matter and theme are probably the least important elements of literature. I think we still read Gulliver’s Travels because it is an elegantly-designed narrative; it is very funny in its caricatural metaphors for those social forms it attacks, as well as being just bawdy and scatological enough to make us all laugh with rueful recognition of our common creaturely life; it is a source of rich and unforgettable imagery; it is written in a clear, descriptive style that allows for deadpan comedy but also an undertone of angry sorrow. In short, we still read Swift’s book because it is fun to read. This is one kind of classic.

Samuel Richardson’s Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded is another classic of eighteenth-century Anglophone prose narrative, but it is a different kind of classic: one we continue to read less for its intrinsic merit or interest than for its immense influence on later works. Pamela is an early realist novel told by the titular heroine in the first person as a series of letters to her parents, letters that come to be read as morally exemplary literature by the novel’s other characters. Pamela famously, concerns a poor servant girl who is sexually menaced by the noble son of her dead mistress until he undergoes a reform of character that leads the pair to fall in love and marry.

Richardson’s 1740 novel was revolutionary for a number of reasons. Sociopolitically speaking, Pamela gives unprecedented voice to a woman of the lower class, insisting on her intelligence, rectitude, and all-around human worth. The novel boldly challenges both the unwarranted hauteur of the dissolute upper classes and the sexual privilege of the landowning or noble male, empowered by social custom to treat young women of the servant or working classes as erotic prey. Richardson, himself of the working class and religiously a Puritan, dramatizes his conviction that God is no respecter of persons and values only right action and virtuous behavior. The aesthetic consequences of this ideological revolt are significant: the realist novel as a literary form becomes in Richardson’s hands a conduit for the voices of the socially marginal or excluded, the most expansive and inclusive and progressive of literary forms. When critics today call for diversity, feminism, multiculturalism, etc., in literary curricula, they are following the path cleared by Richardson (as well as his contemporary, Defoe).

Despite the novel’s troubling (from a contemporary perspective) endorsement of marriage as a male-headed institution in which the wife must obey her master, Pamela might well be called an early feminist novel due to its sympathetic narrative of a poor young woman subject to sexual assault. The scene that is the heart of the novel occurs when Mr. B., Pamela’s master, begins tearing off her clothes to get at the portions of her letters and diaries that she conceals on her person. This scene is almost more shocking than the moment of attempted rape elsewhere in the novel, for when Mr. B. assaults Pamela’s body and her narrative at once, Richardson transforms rape from its archaic meaning as a property crime (the theft of a woman from her family) to a sin against a sacred individual. Because Pamela is not only her body or her social status but also her story and her language, Mr. B. trespasses in this moment against humanity as reasoning image of God. With this new understanding of women, sexual violence, and narrative, Richardson made a revolution, one still ongoing today. With Pamela more than any other work, the novel becomes the literary form corresponding to the modern individual, and the guarantor of that individual’s rights, even if said individual is just a poor girl.

(That these rights are ultimately property rights, guaranteed not only by narrative but by bourgeois virtue, is the underside of the seemingly upbeat transformation in political consciousness effected by Richardson’s novel, as left-wing critics such as Nancy Armstrong have explained at length; Pamela may therefore exemplify the complicity of individualism, feminism, and the novel with class domination, racism, and imperialism—too big a topic to discuss here, but too important to go completely unmentioned.)

By giving direct access to the feelings of a common person through epistolary form, Richardson opens up a new dimension in fictional narrative: the concern with human consciousness that will preoccupy the realist novel from Austen to James to Woolf to Bellow to today. As Margaret A. Doody notes in her introduction to my Penguin Classics edition, Richardson begins the novelistic project that in many ways culminates in high modernism with stream of consciousness narration.

So this novel is an important one in literary history—far more important, in most ways, than Gulliver’s Travels, which was an honorable and brilliant entrant in several longstanding literary traditions (satire, travel narrative, utopia, romance) but not a world-shakingly original, genre-defining work. Swift’s book is a masterful narrative, but Richardson’s has a claim to being one of the first modern novels, a book that influenced the whole course of European literature, affecting everyone from Rousseau to Goethe.

On the other hand, Pamela is not very much fun to read. The narrative is shapeless, moving from intense and active scenes of confrontation or flight to plodding descriptions of minor matters with no sense of design for emotional effect. Richardson blundered into writing a novel; his initial goal was to write a set of model letters for young ladies. Thus, the novel is relentlessly didactic, instructing us over and over and over again about God’s Providence, the importance of virtue, and the necessity of social forms. The only well-developed characters are Pamela herself, Mr. B., his sister, and his grotesque servant Mrs Jewkes. The latter is perhaps the novel’s most vital character, a sharp-tongued and cynical woman who is possibly—we are never quite sure, because Pamela is not—a former procuress or bawd and who seems to harbor homoerotic designs on the heroine. Alas, she repents too by the end: no one is spared the novel’s culminating reign of virtue. Most other characters blur together, insufficiently developed. Also, while I grasp the novelty of Richardson’s emphasis on emotion, the novel’s endless effusions, and the ocean of tears shed by every character in it, become tiresome.

In her introduction, Margaret A. Doody puts a positive face on all these flaws, praising the novel for its life-like impurities, excesses, and organic vagaries. I suppose I understand that assessment of Richardson’s achievement in a purely intellectual sense, but it does not lessen my extreme boredom with the novel qua novel—especially its lethal second half, a pageant of “virtue rewarded” wherein Mr. B. shows off Pamela to all his friends and demonstrates her many merits. Thankfully, Mr. B.’s sister shows up late in the second half to create some drama—poor Pamela has to jump out of a window to get away from her—but she ends up repentantly weeping too. No wonder I immediately thought of Swift on finishing Pamela: his bitterness is a needed corrective to Richardson’s sentimentality.

But more than making me wish for Swift, Pamela made me grateful for Jane Austen: she was the one who took Richardson’s materials and put them in order, discovering how to write a realistic novel of consciousness and common life in a more effective and economical way: she dispenses with the cumbersome and occasionally ludicrous epistolary apparatus (where does Pamela find the time and energy amid all these other events to write what is effectively a 500-page novel?) and instead conveys thought and emotion through a supple third-person narration marked by free indirect discourse. It is via Austen that we get from Richardson to Woolf, and through Austen that the realist novel becomes a form of art rather than a vehicle for didacticism.

Those less aesthetically reactionary than myself and Austen will no doubt see the transition from Richardson’s loose and baggy propagandistic monsters to the mute and well-wrought urns of modern fiction as a loss in cultural energy and complexity, a sacrifice of the radically social to aesthetic quietism; for Richardson was not only a proto-modernist explorer of the inner life, but (as Terry Eagleton discusses in his study of the writer) the popular ringleader of a coterie of devoted (largely female) readers, whose revisions and redactions he solicited and incorporated into his texts. A contemporary analogue to Richardson would be less a distinguished literary novelist like Philip Roth or Ian McEwan and more a master of a sentimental YA fan empire, such as John Green or Stephanie Meyer. Isn’t Twilight just Pamela with a dark Gothic glitter, the same old story of a girl from nowhere who tames the fierce and dangerous bad-boy aristocrat so as to be assimilated into the ruling elite? I would rather read Philip Roth.

For all that, any student of the novel’s history or of cultural history more broadly should read Pamela. A massive bestseller and cultural phenomenon in its own time, it is a book that helped to make our world and our literature, for better and for worse, and that is enough to make it a classic that cannot be ignored.


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David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks

The Bone ClocksThe Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It was about a decade ago that John Banville rightly called Ian McEwan’s Saturday “a dismayingly bad book,” and I am sorry to say that I would make the same judgment about this new novel by another maven of mainstream British fiction. I will not rehearse the novel’s plot or structure, since they are described at length in many other reviews (here, for instance). The following will be evaluative, and mostly of interest to those who have read the novel.

I have quarreled with the theoretical presuppositions underlying James Wood’s review of The Bone Clocks: as I said, I fundamentally disagree with Wood’s claim that the novel as a literary form must treat the inner life with some version of psychological realism. Wood argues that the novel has absolutely superseded the epic following, as he tells it, a suspiciously sectarian and nationally specific hand-off from Paradise Lost to modern fiction. In fact, Mitchell foresees such a critique and answers it in advance when his writer character, Crispin Hershey, silently borrowing from Ezra Pound and Milan Kundera among others, notes that the modern novel emerged long before the eighteenth century in the sagas of medieval Iceland:

“If you’re writing fiction or poetry in a European language, that pen in your hand was, once upon a time, a goose quill held by an Icelander. Like it or not, know it or not, it doesn’t matter. If you seek to represent the beauty, truth, and pain of the world in prose, if you seek to deepen character via dialogue and action, if you seek to unite the personal, the past, and the political in fiction, then you’re in pursuit of the same aims sought by the authors of the Icelandic sagas, right here, seven, eight, nine hundred years ago. I assert that the author of Njal’s Saga deploys the very same narrative tricks used later by Dante and Chaucer, Shakespeare and Molière, Victor Hugo and Dickens, Halldór Laxness and Virginia Woolf, Alice Munro and Ewan Rice [a fictional writer in Mitchell’s novel]. What tricks? Psychological complexity, character development, the killer line to end a scene, villains blotched with virtue, heroic characters speckled with villainy, foreshadow and backflash, artful misdirection. Now, I’m not saying that writers in antiquity were ignorant of all of these tricks but,” here I put my balls and Auden’s on the block, “in the sagas of Iceland, for the first time in Western culture, we find proto-novelists at work. Half a millennium avant le parole, the sagas are the world’s first novels.”*

But literary theory aside, Wood’s assessment of The Bone Clocks‘s aesthetic failings is correct. Mitchell’s novel is an indigestible stew of incompatible elements, and its binding agent is a gratingly superficial, overly “voicey” set of first-person monologues characterized by what Wood calls “matey, Christmas-cracker jokiness.” All five of the novel’s narrators speak in a rushed present-tense narration, a kind of stream-of-consciousness, full of try-hard cleverness and slangy sarcasm: the effect is like 620 pages of Twitter. Here is protagonist Holly Sykes, describing the novel’s catalyst event, a fight with her mother that culminated in her mother’s striking her and Holly’s running away: “I only ate half my Weetabix before Mam started her Muhammad Ali act on me.” Fair enough from a fifteen-year-old, but here is Holly at seventy-four, reflecting with identical TV-teen glibness on a conversation with her adopted grandson as the resources of the modern world run out: “Which maybe wasn’t the best thing to say, but if there was a book called The Right Things to Do and Say as Civilization Dies, I’ve never read it.” With allowances made for differences in class and dialect, the whole novel is written in this tediously over-the-top style, which cannot convey much subtle or genuine feeling. Add to that Mitchell’s excessive reliance on dialogue for exposition, narration, and characterization, so much so that pages at a time feel like a prolix screenplay, and you have a glaring failure from such an accomplished writer. This is a novel without silence; it shouts at us unremittingly.

Its characters’ psychologies are accordingly crude and superficial. Mitchell and his surrogates garrulously offer Tuesdays with Morrie-level platitudes as wisdom—

“Can’t advise you, Ed, but for what it’s worth, I’ve met a fair few fellers down the years just after they’ve been told by a doctor that they’re going to die. […] You won’t be surprised when I tell you that not a one of them fellers ever said, ‘Dave, if only I’d spent more time at work.'”

—even as the most one-dimensional or cliched feelings motivate the main characters: first love, greed, the excitement of war, maternal solicitude. On almost every page of The Bone Clocks, flat characters rush around in a constant hubbub of eventfulness, whether the events are realistic or fantastical. Even the novel’s mundane aspects, meant to contrast with its supernatural subplot, include characters breaking into a church, jumping off the roof of a chalet, defrauding dementia-stricken philatelists, encountering boardwalk psychics, planting cocaine in a rival’s luggage, etc., etc. If the novel is not meant to be a farce—and I don’t think it is—then something has gone wrong.

As seen in Cloud Atlas‘s Adam Ewing and Luisa Rey, the titular Jacob de Zoet, and the aged Holly Sykes in the present novel’s final sections, one of Mitchell’s great and rare strengths is in portrayals of complexly good, kind, well-intentioned, and decent people. But his vision of evil is simplistic by comparison. The villainous cult of soul-decanting Anchorites in this novel are preternaturally selfish, and grossly theatrical about it too. And Mitchell accuses all of us—himself included, I must imagine—of a similar selfishness at the end of the novel, when the apocalypses of liberal and industrial civilization start piling up: climate change, peak oil, corporate exploitation.

Five years later, I take a deep, shuddery breath to stop myself crying. It’s not just that I can’t hold Aoife again, it’s everything: It’s grief for the regions we deadlanded, the ice caps we melted, the Gulf Stream we redirected, the rivers we drained, the coasts we flooded, the lakes we choked with crap, the seas we killed, the species we drove to extinction, the pollinators we wiped out, the oil we squandered, the drugs we rendered impotent, the comforting liars we voted into office—all so we didn’t have to change our cozy lifestyles.

Mitchell also attacks irrationality when Holly gets around to denouncing religious believers in the novel’s last section, sermonizing atheistically in the self-righteous tones of a Dawkins or Hitchens; he also sends up stupidity when in section four Holly’s partner, Ed Brubeck, voices a fierce polemic, correct if out of place, against George W. Bush and the architects of the Iraq War for their gross irresponsibility in destroying Iraq’s institutions without replacing them. But are selfishness, irrationality, and stupidity really the main motivating factors in human evil, especially political evil? The novel lacks any account of how “evil” people convince themselves that they are doing what is right and necessary; among the frankly childish elements of the novel is its portrayal of the Anchorites as greedy sybarites and the Horologists as heroes of human sympathy. A character literally says of the conflict, “It is black and white,” an interpretation that goes unchallenged even though the character himself, a defector from Horology’s services, means it ironically. But isn’t George W. Bush fascinating and frightening precisely because he seems to truly believe that his mission of brutal destruction was in fact a righteous, moral, and compassionate crusade to emancipate the Iraqi people? Bush may be an Anchorite, but he thinks he is an Horologist! Bush’s is a paradox of motivation and consequence that the novel as a literary form exists to examine, but its like is found nowhere in this novel’s characterization, in which all nuance is drowned in a cacophony of cleverness.

In one of the best positive evaluations of the novel, Brian Finney describes it as largely a parody—but how can we tell? What made Cloud Atlas so compelling was its textuality; Mitchell brilliantly recreated six distinct literary styles, each presented as a material text of some sort, which added a savor of sportive Joycean irony to the epic narrative. But Mitchell dispenses with such sophistication in The Bone Clocks; the novel’s shrill staginess of narration and dialogue, presented not as culture-mediated text but as the unmediated expression of its characters, reads less like a parody of grandiloquent silliness than like grandiloquent silliness itself. Cloud Atlas‘s textuality gave it a deeply comic dimension, reminiscent of Gulliver’s Travels or Ulysses, whereas The Bone Clocks is endlessly jokey and rarely funny.

Critics have argued about whether the novel’s fantastical and realistic elements cohere, or whether the fantastical elements are legitimate at all. On the first point, I would argue that they do not. Mitchell’s taste for exaggeration, comedy, and melodrama leaves him little gift for social or psychological realism of the kind practiced by, say, John Updike. Everything is just too, too much in Mitchell’s world to be persuasive as a picture of everyday life. His satire of the literary world in section four of The Bone Clocks, for instance, is a grotesque caricature filled with catty critics, trendy Brooklynites, and hysterical ideologues. English novelists have long maintained that the novel can unite world or cosmic history to the quotidian lives of ordinary people. For example, here is George Eliot in Daniel Deronda, another novel that famously fails to integrate its elements, making what might as well be the case for Holly Sykes:

Could there be a slenderer, more insignificant thread in human history than this consciousness of a girl, busy with her small inferences of the way in which she could make her life pleasant?—in a time, too, when ideas were with fresh vigor making armies of themselves, and the universal kinship was declaring itself fiercely; when women on the other side of the world would not mourn for the husbands and sons who died bravely in a common cause, and men stinted of bread on our side of the world heard of that willing loss and were patient: a time when the soul of man was walking to pulses which had for centuries been beating in him unfelt, until their full sum made a new life of terror or of joy.

What in the midst of that mighty drama are girls and their blind visions? They are the Yea or Nay of that good for which men are enduring and fighting. In these delicate vessels is borne onward through the ages the treasure of human affections.

But The Bone Clocks gets less and less convincing the more it tries to represent the everyday or the individual. Every character in the novel, from barkeeps and journalists and provincial mayors to ancient immortals, think and speak as if they were in some kind of kitschy movie or sitcom, obviating the realism that a great nineteenth-century novelist like Eliot could use to ground her grander world-historical speculations:

Wow, Mum!” says Aoife. “The Crispin Hershey actually knows who you are. Aunt Sharon’s going to be, like, ‘Whaaa?‘”

(If this review were published in the London Review of Books, the reliably malicious editors would title it “Like, Whaaa?”)

Therefore, in answer to the question of whether a writer of Mitchell’s talent should pursue fantasy, I would say it is all he should pursue. Unlike most critics, I thought the fully fantastical fifth section of the novel was the best, not bothering us with one-dimensional mockery of Cambridge privilege, the Iraq War catastrophe, or the Hay-on-Wye festival but rather lavishly indulging Mitchell’s strength at plangent, globe-and-history-spanning fantasies that reveal the small place of the human soul in the vast cosmos. I love the long passage in which the almost immortal Marinus recalls his first encounter with Esther Little, a fellow “atemporal” who has lived for millennia among the Noongar people of pre-invasion Australia. It is precisely in this fantastic moment, wherein the fragility of culture is juxtaposed with the soul’s resilience, that Mitchell’s novel quiets down enough for some tender, lyrical feeling to come through:

By night, Esther and I sat across the fire from each other at the mouth of her her small cave and subspoke about empires, their ascents and alls; about cities, shipbuilding, industry; slavery, the dismemberment of Africa, the genocide of the natives of Van Diemen’s Land; farming, husbandry, factories, telegraphs, newspapers, printing, mathematics, philosophy, law, and money and a hundred other topics. […] Her metaage became apparent one night when she recited the names of all her previous hosts, and I lined up one pebble per name. There were 207 pebbles. Moombaki sojourned into new hosts when they were about ten and stayed until death, which implied a metalife stretching back approximately seven millennia. This was twice as old as Xi Lo, the oldest Atemporal known to Horology, who at twenty-five centuries was a stripling compared to Esther, whose soul predated Rome, Troy, Egypt, Peking, Nineveh, and Ur. […] When she scansioned me I felt like a third-rate poet showing his doggerel to a Shakespeare. When I scansioned her, I felt like a minnow tipped from a jar into a deep inland sea.

Alas, this moment is soon over, and the book goes back to its more characteristic idiom of ranting and unstoppably loquacious screenplay, full of bad action-movie dialogue:

“We do give [the Anchorites] a chance to mend their ways,” says Unalaq.

“But they never do,” says Ōshima, “so we have to mend their ways for them, permanently.”

Mitchell is a dreamy, sensitive fantasist at heart. Or at least dreamy, sensitive fantasy is the mode in which I think his novels—I have read all but Ghostwritten and Black Swan Green—find their deepest springs of energy. Instead of trying to be a postmodern maximalist, writing an endless Über-novel, Mitchell might do well to consider other models of poetic and fantastical narrative—I think of Ray Bradbury’s or even Bruno Schulz’s short stories—ones less susceptible to the vulgar verbosity of The Bone Clocks.

While I admired this novel much less than did Ursula K. Le Guin, I think she is right that its vision of immortals staring over “the Dusk…between life and death” where all souls pass on their way is its truest, deepest moment. The loneliness of the semi-immortal, confronting the littleness of our lives: contra Mitchell’s critics, this is his best vision, and the one he should throw over his blundering excursions into social realism to pursue. Other Über-novels have worked in a similar métier; I recall the Vertigo maxi-series I loved in my youth, Gaiman’s Sandman, Morrison’s The Invisibles. Inside our bone-clock bodies, we feel like eternal souls looking over a vale of mysterious impermanence; this is no idle fantasy, but a metaphor for an actual and pervasive experience.

*Instead of typing this long passage out, I copied it from here, in an intelligent and laudatory interpretation of the novel by Parke Muth, which you should definitely read if you are unsatisfied by my distaste for the book.

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Alan Moore at Length

Alan Moore finishes million-word novel Jerusalem

Quoting Harold Bloom (on a hypothetical production of Faust, Part Two) quoting Lorca (on the body of the dead bullfighter): I do not want to see it!

Well, actually, I do, but I can’t promise I’ll finish it.  A friend of mine, decrying Gaddis’s The Recognitions (she finished, but didn’t much care for it, and found it needlessly, aggressively long), coined the term “gentlemanly length” for novels of the scope of Coetzee’s or Sebald’s, which are undeniably profound without trying to stun you with sheer mass.  I like “gentlemanly length” because it implicitly accepts the feminist thesis* (cf. Carole Maso on “Thousand page novels, tens and tens of vollmanns—I mean volumes”) that endlessly long books written by men are merely dick-swinging maneuvers, gross sexual displays, but then recuperates a sense of honor among men, to persuade them to avoid such excesses.  ”We must compensate the man for the loss of his gun,” says Virginia Woolf; such empathetic realism, the definition of intelligence, is missing from every aspect of our political dialogue—its absence is the clue to the identity in this cursed and constricted century of our neoconservative warmongers (back again, I see) and our social justice partisans, both of whom ideologically commit themselves to not reconstructing reality through their enemies’ perspectives (because the enemy is simply evil, simply oppressive, all too easy to explain), which damns both groups to enact indiscriminate and unintelligent hostility endlessly in the name of permanent revolution and an absolute political righteousness.  But I digress.  (Only slightly—there is an Alan Moore connection to these observations.)

Anyway, the aesthetic flaw that mars so many of Alan Moore’s works is a superstitious investment in structure for its own sake.  This has a genuine philosophical dimension—the demonstration of order in complexity, a refutation of the nihilism of his less savory characters (e.g., Rorschach, the Comedian) and an attempt at articulating a forgotten spiritual outlook (as in Promethea).  But formally speaking, once he figures out what he’s going to do and for how long, he goes ahead and does it.  This can make for an excruciating readerly experience: who among the readers of Watchmen don’t calculate to themselves midway through the book how many more pirate sequences they’ll have to suffer?  It utterly destroys Lost Girls, in my opinion, which is visible from the first as mechanical and schematic in its narrative design, the epitome of empty virtuosity, despite the beauty of Gebbie’s art.  Hence my preference among Moore’s works for Swamp Thing—which is I think genuinely haphazard in conception owing to the constraints of monthly publication—and From Hell—which has to make room for the disorders of history and which moreover thematically associates the desire for absolute order with a murderous patriarchal and economic elite.  (And both of these projects featured collaborators [Bissette/Totleben and Campbell, respectively] who favored a wilder style in the art.)  Someone should write—maybe someone has written—an article on the attraction of this self-proclaimed anarchist to the most rigid aesthetic forms.  So my fear, encouraged by Moore’s comments in the article and elsewhere, is that Jerusalem will come to feel like the automatic running of a pre-scripted program rather than the free exercise of imagination.  A million words of that will be hard to swallow.

Alan Moore, though, has earned his eminence the old-fashioned way, by writing books that people can’t forget, that influence the next generation of writers and artists, and that outlast—so far—their time of production.  So I believe in my anti-mercantile (gentlemanly?) way that he is essentially owed publication of this book as he sees fit, and I look forward to heaving my copy home eventually, even if it rests unread on my shelf.

*As with other examples of feminist culture critique, this one has more than a grain of truth but tends to ruin it with reckless exaggeration.  How does the Maso complaint account for Lady Murasaki, Mme de Scudéry, George Eliot, Dorothy Richardson, Marguerite Young, Leslie Marmon Silko, Eleanor Catton, not to speak of J. K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer, and all our other female authors of doorstoppers, triple-deckers, commercial serials, and romans-fleuves?  It’s almost as if people write with implements other than the reproductive organs.