Rupert Brooke: Peace

October 21, 2018

Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary,
Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
And all the little emptiness of love!

Oh! we, who have known shame, we have found release there,
Where there’s no ill, no grief, but sleep has mending,
Naught broken save this body, lost but breath;
Nothing to shake the laughing heart’s long peace there
But only agony, and that has ending;
And the worst friend and enemy is but Death.

For me, Brooke typifies the gung-ho attitudes of so many at the outbreak of the Great War. It’s easy to be critical more than a century later, for hindsight is a wonderful thing; it takes an effort of the twenty-first century mind to imagine both the innocence and the patriotism of those distant days. So why the welcoming of the war? A country relatively speaking at peace for the best part of a century, apart from the Crimean War and various minor skirmishes in the Middle East, South Africa and India? Pride in what Great Britain had achieved with its Empire that painted a quarter of the globe red on world maps? Public school ethos? A pride in a homogeneous nation, in the days before refugees and mass migration? Possibly a combination of all of those things…

I don’t think I have been deliberately picking out poems which are Petrarchan sonnets in this recent series of posts on poetry of the Great War, but it is striking how many poets used this form, which is most often associated with love poetry.

I always found it useful in my teaching to approach a poem in three stages: what is the poet saying? how is the poet saying it? how successful is the poet in saying it? You can see a progression in terms of reader involvement there, gradually more demanding, moving from the simple ‘story’ if you like, to poetic technique and then personal response.

So: thanks to God for offering the youth of the nation something real to do, something that surpasses the trivial and everyday, the mundane. And the worst that can happen to you is to be killed… unlike in The Soldier, the d-word is used, and capitalised too, but here it’s still a distant and rather vague experience. For me, Brooke creates a similar feeling to Herbert Asquith in The Volunteer. We are still light-years away from the horrors of Dulce et Decorum Est.

The form is that of a love poem, which surely is significant, particularly as towards the end of the octave Brooke will mock love itself as inferior to the coming experience of war, which is more concrete, more masculine, perhaps. There is a sense of thrill in the first quatrain, perhaps like the realisation that one is in love, then a sense of something new and refreshing in the second, after a long period of tedium reflected in the long vowel sounds in old, cold, weary, dreary. I do find love described as a little emptiness rather disturbing, and the glibness – to me – of the entire sestet is shocking, revealing a total lack of awareness of the actual effect of modern weaponry and warfare.

Evaluating, I think Brooke is successful in saying what he wanted to say, but I am too far from his time and his attitudes to be able to get inside what he actually means, and if I were to choose a word to sum up his poem, I think unpleasant would fit the bill…

Advertisements

On visiting ruins

October 13, 2018

I visited my favourite place in Yorkshire, possibly my favourite place in the country, the other day: the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey near Helmsley. Yorkshire has many ruined abbeys and castles, but I have always particularly loved the way Rievaulx is nestled in a valley, surrounded by hills and woodland, off tiny minor roads where two cars can barely pass each other. I’ve often wondered what it must have been like to be a monk there five or six hundred years ago, isolated from the cares of the world…

And I found myself wondering, what is it that attracts me to ruins? For this year I have spent a week wandering the Roman remains of Hadrian’s Wall, as well as various places in Roman Provence. But then, I suppose, it’s not only ruins, but also ancient places in general: I love cathedrals and churches and castles, though I’m not quite so attracted to stately homes.

Ancient places remind me of my insignificance: I’m on the earth for three score years and ten, by the traditional reckoning, a century if I’m very lucky (or unlucky?), and the places I’m writing about have either survived as remains, or intact, for many centuries, in some cases thousands of years. They remind me of the different kinds of existences which I have read about, which went on there long ago. And they have endured, which I won’t in the same way, and which I can’t see many of our contemporary constructions doing, either: we don’t build to last any more. You might imagine we would have access to better and more durable materials: maybe we do, but don’t use them. How long before the Metropolitan Cathedral in Liverpool – for example – crumbles away or is demolished? It was only consecrated in 1967…

Many years ago I used to live in east London and often travelled on the train to Broad Street Station (it no longer exists); there was a plaque somewhere on an outside wall that said that the station had been built on the site of the original Bethlehem(=Bedlam) Hospital, around about 1850, and the hospital had been there for about five or six centuries previous to that. Reading that used to give me a headache: something being there for so long, serving the same purpose all those years.

There is something romantic about ruins, of course, as the Victorians discovered, and they excavated and tidied everywhere up, as well as wandering the world stealing bits of others’ ruins. And it wasn’t only the Brits, as you will realise if you visit various museums on the Museum Island in Berlin. Ruins are often seen in peaceful and rural settings, tidily manicured for the discerning visitor. They fit in with certain aesthetics of beauty, and arouse what may be termed spiritual responses in the spectator. Certainly this is part of my response to such places; often their isolation is conducive to reflection and meditation on all manner of things.

And yet… ruins are in many ways the detritus of past ages. In countries where there is plenty of space, old buildings that have served their purpose are abandoned, left to decay, and new ones constructed; it’s easier and cheaper to leave the old behind rather than to demolish and tidy away (in crowded Britain this is often not possible). Sometimes old materials may be re-used. Travel writers have sometimes been shocked at locals’ dismissive and cavalier attitudes to their unwanted remains. Dozens of Roman cities apparently lie buried under the sands of the Sahara, awaiting the attentions of archaeologists – or not. Does any of this matter? I enjoyed visiting the Roman city at Moulay Idriss in the Moroccan desert, but it was miles from anywhere, and forgotten, I suspect, until it was realised that crazy westerners would visit, and there was money to be made.

We are interested in the past: we explore, excavate, research, write up reports; we learn how our ancestors lived and died. Perhaps we are wiser, perhaps thereby we understand ourselves and our behaviours and impulses better – I don’t know. But something draws us back to the past, as something which can be known, after a fashion, and which is gone, too: not as fearsome or unknowable or unpredictable as the future into which we are all inevitable moving…


Stefan Brijs: Post for Mrs Bromley

October 10, 2018

51E9jdRvQIL._AC_US218_This is an astonishing new novel set during the First World War, but sadly not yet available in English, though there is a sample here. At first, I wondered when I read ‘translated from the Dutch’ on the cover, but then I actually realised Brijs is a Flemish writer, and all fell into place, Flanders, the Western Front and everything: a writer from the area, fascinated by what happened there a century ago. And the final sections are set in Poperinghe and feature Talbot House, which I visited earlier this year…

It’s interesting because it’s a novel about Britain at the very start of the war, and its early days, a time of confusion and bewilderment as well as growing patriotism and propaganda, a time before the horrors with which we are all familiar became widely known. This is an aspect I haven’t met in other fiction, to the same degree. The first part is set in the working-class areas of the East End of London, and to me Brijs seems to create a very detailed and convincing picture of life there, with very credible characters and settings. It centres on two ‘milk brothers’ (i.e. one was wet-nursed by the mother of the other): their backgrounds and aspirations are very different, however, and they grow apart, one a true and patriotic proletarian who wants to join up at the outset, thought too young and undernourished and therefore having to resort to subterfuge, the other – John – more questioning, academic, and by his own eventual admission, more cowardly. His father is a bookaholic postman, and it’s through his experiences delivering official letters and messages that the awful truth about the war gradually emerges; he feels increasingly like an angel of death, and begins to conceal rather than deliver official mail.

John chooses to go to university to study literature rather than join up, and makes a very good friend who is finishing a degree in German, and who questions everything he hears about the war.

As the story develops we encounter a powerful portrayal of how the tentacles of support for the war spread, gradually affecting more and more people; we see the hero’s attitudes and emotions changing as he reflects and questions his own stance and behaviour, in response to other people as well as to events. Particularly well described is the terror of the early Zeppelin raids on London and how these crystallised anti-German feeling; equally we see the effect of atrocity propaganda. Ultimately, as a result of events as well as reflection on his apparent cowardice, our hero signs up, and eventually ends up at the front, in the Somme region towards the end of 1916, in quest of the truth about his childhood ‘brother’, who he knows is dead.

His experiences as orderly to a lieutenant who has clearly been badly mentally affected by his experiences is very sensitively and thoughtfully developed, and I was reminded at various times of the characters in Susan Hill’s Strange Meeting. John is loyal to his officer, both sensitive to and horrified by his affliction. We are not spared the suddenness and meaninglessness of death at the front. Brijs manages to bring to life men who are utterly trapped by their circumstances, their sense of duty, mentally deranged by their experiences in so many different ways, small and large. At times I wasn’t totally convinced by the levels of deceit John resorts to in his quest for truth, but realised that in the enormity of the chaos surrounding him, anything was possible: all are suffering in a true hell that spares no-one. Without giving anything away, I can truthfully say that I found the denouement very powerful indeed.

So here was a novel about Britain and the British Army during the Great War, written in Flemish, translated into French and German so far, but not English: what’s going on?


Philip Pullman: La Belle Sauvage revisited

October 4, 2018

51zrG9f2dVL._AC_US218_I’ve come back to Pullman’s novel a year after it was published and in anticipation of the rumoured appearance of the next one in the series in the spring. If you want to read my reaction first time round, you can find it here.

I usually find a re-read quite different from the first read and this was no exception: apart from the main plot characters and outlines of the story, I’d forgotten many of the details; this is quite natural in my experience, since that first reading is so driven by wanting to know the plot, the whole story. Now it was time to slow down, and focus on what else the author was doing.

The first thing I have to acknowledge (again!) is what a really good story-teller Pullman is: the plot grips from the outset and carries you along; once again I found myself side-lining other activities to sit on the sofa with the book. And the book is well-written, too, as you might expect from an ex-English teacher, perhaps.

I found myself thinking about alternate universes, which is what Pullman created in the original trilogy His Dark Materials, and what is so effective is its plausibility. I’m sure Tolkein’s Middle Earth is a coherent whole but Pullman’s alternate universe is populated with humans with whom we can identify, even though their being, consciousness and experience of the world is split between themselves and their external daemons; the technology of their world resembles ours in many but not all ways and its nomenclature is interesting, too (there is Pullman the English teacher playing again). So that world absorbs us from the start, in all its detail and complexity, with its different history and yet similar concerns to those of our own world: freedom of thought, the power of religion, climate change…

In this novel, Pullman clearly gains from his readers’ familiarity with that universe from his previous trilogy, and from the reappearance of some characters with whom we are already familiar, even though this novel is chronologically set some ten years earlier.

Pullman again uses young characters at the heart of his story, and not because he’s specifically writing for a child or adolescent audience – he’s not – but this aspect of the novels intrigued me this time around. In His Dark Materials we have Lyra and Will, roughly of the same age, not quite adult, but adolescents on the cusp of adulthood, and Pullman highlights this crucial age by having the transition to full adulthood as the point in life where one’s daemon becomes fixed as a single creature which it will remain for the rest of that person’s life, rather than being capable of constant change as it is during pre-adulthood. Behind this concept, as well as what particular creature an individual’s daemon fixes as, lies deep reflection of the process of development of the personality, and all the influences on the individual during her or his formative years. And in La Belle Sauvage we have two similar, yet slightly different characters: Malcolm is younger by several years than Alice, who is rather more worldly-wise and experienced but still not quite an adult…

Pullman puts his characters in very challenging situations where they are often faced with difficult and complex moral choices, sometimes able to reflect before acting, sometimes not, and it seems to me that there are lessons offered here, not in any didactic or exhortatory sense, but lessons nevertheless to be experienced through the characters and then reflected on by the reader whatever age s/he is, as it were: Pullman’s characters have to learn how to live right, and to live with the consequences of the choices they make, and he is reassuring to the reader and to his characters about the outcomes for his young characters…

I think this aspect of his work is one that I shall return to in future readings of his works: as well as being a stunning story-teller, Pullman is also a very moral writer.


Eleanor Farjeon: Easter Monday

October 2, 2018

In the last letter that I had from France
You thanked me for the silver Easter egg
Which I had hidden in the box of apples
You liked to munch beyond all other fruit.
You found the egg the Monday before Easter,
And said, ‘I will praise Easter Monday now –
It was such a lovely morning’. Then you spoke
Of the coming battle and said, ‘This is the eve.
Good-bye. And may I have a letter soon.’

That Easter Monday was a day for praise,
It was such a lovely morning. In our garden
We sowed our earliest seeds, and in the orchard
The apple-bud was ripe. It was the eve.
There are three letters that you will not get.

The poet was a personal friend of Edward Thomas the poet and his wife Helen; the poem remembers him, killed on Easter Monday 1917.

This is a fourteen-line poem: is it a sonnet or not? It doesn’t follow the rules for Petrarchan or Shakespearean. Does that matter? It’s clearly a love poem, and a very moving one, too. It’s also a very personal one. The poem (sonnet?) falls into two parts, like a traditional Petrarchan sonnet: the last letter, and the consequence, but doesn’t divide into an octave and sestet. Look at the two meanings in that phrase last letter: most recent, and final; necessary, clever, and so easily overlooked, particularly as the words are almost at the start of the poem we are eagerly reading. The intimacy and love between the couple comes through in the gift she hid for him, and the little detail of his liking to munch apples – not just eat, but munch. How well she knows – knew him. Although her husband is dead she still addresses him as if her were with her, alive, as she shares, indirectly, the contents of that last letter with the reader. The weight of the words, ‘This is the eve. Goodbye.’ is ominous.

Then there is the shift in the second part of the poem, which would be the sestet in a traditional Petrarchan sonnet. From before to after.

Although the whole poem is written in the past tense, it is only as we move into the second section that we are fully aware of it, and it begins to have a sharper effect. That Easter Monday – the distancing demonstrative article separates them, whereas they were together before and she spoke to him as alive – was a day for praise. She talks of what she did that day, while they were apart, no doubt thinking of him as she saw the ripening apple-bud. She was joyfully alive, enjoying the spring: he was dead. There is the echo, with the change of tense now, from present to past: It wasthe eve, that is, both of Easter Monday, and the day he was killed. And in response to his final request, ‘And may I have a letter soon.’ comes: ‘There are three letters that you will not get.’ What is not said, what we are forced to notice for ourselves, is unbearably sad, and I think it is so sad because we are forced to make that simple connection ourselves, as she will have done, thinking of those letters she had written.

Women’s poetry of the Great War which I have read has a totally different quality from that of the men who were actually away at the war. That is a blindingly obvious difference; the men suffer away from the world they knew, at the front, seeing almost indescribable horrors whereas the women suffer quietly at home, in the world they have always been part of, usually in silence and often alone, sometimes knowing but often not knowing. The men’s poems often shout with anger, rage, fury; the women’s are understated, not in an apologetic way, but because there is nothing that can be said, once the terrible news is known. One cannot say whose lot was worse, but I am reminded of the chilling line in Philip Larkin’s MCMXIV ‘The thousands of marriages lasting a little while longer’…


Siegfried Sassoon: Base Details

October 1, 2018

If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath
I’d live with scarlet Majors at the Base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death.
You’d see me with my puffy petulant face,
Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel,
Reading the Roll of Honour. “Poor young chap,”
I’d say — “I used to know his father well;
Yes, we’ve lost heavily in this last scrap.”
And when the war is done and youth stone dead,
I’d toddle safely home and die — in bed.

Sassoon is at his angry best here, and here is another war poem that begins with ‘if’. Hmm. Looking at the title again, I’m struck by the multiplicity of possible meanings in ‘base’ as in military base, or base as in morally low; ‘details’ as in military punishment detail, or minor aspects as in unimportant?

Why are the Majors ‘scarlet’ – a reference to medals and uniforms or the ruddiness of complexion that comes from high-living? ‘Speed’: does this mean to hurry up, as in the conveyor-belt of young men shipped off to be slaughtered at the front, or do we imagine it as part of the phrase ‘God speed’ a wish of good luck? And, what is a ‘glum’ hero? That’s a marvellous oxymoronic phrase that I’ve always wondered about whenever I return to this poem. Surely our picture of a hero is of someone contentedly, patriotically doing his duty.‘Glum’ suggests reluctance, as if the men have been told they’re heroes, and don’t actually want this role, this label. Sassoon certainly tuned in to the multiplicity of meanings our language offers in this poem.

Look at the mockery of the top brass emphasised by the alliteration of ‘puffy petulant’ and ‘guzzling and gulping’, and then the officer’s patronising tone when talking about the ‘poor young chap’ – somehow ‘chap’ seems far too informal and dismissive, especially coming from a man who doesn’t actually know the dead soldier, only his father long ago – perhaps at public school? And to refer to a bloody battle as a ‘scrap’ shocks as well. Then there’s the final, jaunty rhyming couplet, with ‘done’ before the caesura somehow adding more weight to ‘dead’ at the end of the line… and the childishness of ‘toddle’ which takes us back to the overeating of the early lines of the poem: perhaps the major is so obese that he must walk that way?

Base Details is one of a number of similar poems in which Sassoon expresses his anger about what the war is doing to men, along with The General, The Hero, Does it Matter? Glory of Women and Memorial Tablet, to name a few.

Sassoon and Owen both, though in very different ways, highlight the indifference of both military high-ups and those at home to the death and suffering endured by the ordinary soldiers at the front, an indifference that seems to grow as time passes: only those directly affected by the death of a loved one perhaps shocked out of that indifference? A century later, it is hard to know for certain, but I think both poets are keenly aware that it is old men who start wars and send the young off to be killed and maimed. And though I find it even harder to understand, I have nothing but respect for two poets who nevertheless continued to do their duty, as they understood it.


Jean Verdon: Le plaisir au Moyen Age

September 30, 2018

51zbteZ-JsL._AC_US218_I’ve read, enjoyed and found enormously informative this author’s book on travelling in the Middle Ages, and couldn’t resist this one, on pleasure. Verdon was immensely informative on the idea of courtly love, which I’d first encountered at A level when studying Chaucer, but what we were given as school students was a basic outline and some key concepts. To have it all clearly exemplified with extracts from a wide range of literature from the time was fascinating, and only partly because I’d always regarded courtly love as such a crazy idea…

Pleasure only makes slaves of those who consider it an end in itself…’ that I found really thought-provoking. In those times, everything was overlaid by a strongly religious outlook – not just sexual activity – and yet it’s clear that there were lively debates and disagreements on the subject, with clerics and ascetics taking a much harder line than those who actually lived in and engaged with the real world. Verdon explains the astonishing religious scruples and hair-splitting about the different kinds of sexual activity, and the sinfulness of pleasure: from a twenty-first century perspective, it’s quite mind-boggling. And yet, there seemed to be a general agreement that desire was necessary in nature…

I found myself wondering why what seemed to have changed most radically in religious attitudes towards human sexuality over the centuries was its acceptance of pleasure, whereas the Catholic Church is still wedded to the idea that all sexual acts must be open to procreation, thus creating the problems we are all familiar with, concerning contraception, abortion, homosexual activity, before we even come on to considering clerical celibacy: why is enjoying sex now OK whereas the other baggage is still retained?

I found Verdon’s further exploration of the influence of religious attitudes to food, fasting and other forms of asceticism just as mad as attitudes to sex; within the total religious weltanschauung, they make sense perhaps, but at the cost of such an astonishing warping of human life and experience. There was basically an ‘official’ downer on any kind of pleasure, enjoyment or fulfilment, with the clergy wanting to dictate to everyone how they should live. However, as Verdon also makes clear, there was fairly widespread scepticism and ignoring of official dictates.

It was useful to be reminded that the entire mediaeval mindset was shaped by Christianity – or rather, interpretations of Christianity over the centuries – and focused ultimately on the duty to love God and have the eternal rather than the secular in view at all times.. And while this may make little sense to us in these radically different times, I am often unsure that our current materialistic, money-focused and ultimately hedonistic approach is any saner or healthier an approach to life, happiness or contentment.


May Herschel-Clarke: The Mother

September 29, 2018

The Mother – May Herschel-Clarke (1917)

If you should die, think only this of me
In that still quietness where is space for thought,
Where parting, loss and bloodshed shall not be,
And men may rest themselves and dream of nought:
That in some place a mystic mile away
One whom you loved has drained the bitter cup
Till there is nought to drink; has faced the day
Once more, and now, has raised the standard up.


And think, my son, with eyes grown clear and dry
She lives as though for ever in your sight,
Loving the things you loved, with heart aglow
For country, honour, truth, traditions high,
Proud that you paid their price. (And if some night
Her heart should break — well, lad, you will not know).

A reasonable first reaction is that this is a very clever poem, parodying so carefully and so completely Rupert Brooke’s famous sonnet The Soldier. And it is that, but so much more besides.

Yes, there is the cleverness of the echoing, with a different slant, of so many of Brooke’s actual words. But there is also the way in which, though the whole poem is about death and dying (like Brooke’s), the d-word is never mentioned, as neither is the horror of death in warfare. And it is death, not the (statistically far more likely) mutilation but survival. There is the same sense of Brooke’s picture of young men relaxing, laughing, which comes over so strongly in Peace, another of his sonnets, with ‘men may rest themselves and dream of nought’, the use of euphemism in drained the bitter cup’, and the patriotic pride in the raising up of the standard, almost in a Roman sense: echoes of Herbert Asquith’s The Volunteer and the oriflamme, and the men of Agincourt…

Battlefield death imagined – only as a possibility: ‘if’ at the opening of the octave, just like Brooke’s opening, and the mother’s private and quiet response in the sestet. She has wept, and come to terms with her grief: eyes grown clear and dry, patriotically accepting her boy’s sacrifice loving the things you loved’, and proud that you paid their price’note the alliterations which feel to me just a little too glib, and hint perhaps at the falseness or forced-ness of her public sentiments there…

And then the parenthesis, which is very powerful indeed, I feel. Setting it apart like that is significant in itself, side-lining her true feelings as somehow less important – than what, though? – the mother’s affection in ‘lad’, and the silent relief that he will not be able to witness her grief.

What a distance women’s poetry has come since the simple-mindedness of Jessie Pope three years earlier…


Some thoughts on sex in literature

September 25, 2018

I’ve thought about this topic for a long time, and also about how to write sensibly about it.

Literature at different times has reflected all of life, and that inevitably includes the sexual side; the age and its attitudes have determined what it was acceptable to write about. The earthiness of Rabelais does not approach the depth and sophistication of the novel; not does the bawdiness of Shakespeare and his times. But when we get to the 18thcentury and the beginnings of the novel, the potential for exploring sexual experience is there.

51-h9ana0tL._AC_US218_512-zoayHzL._AC_US218_Sex and seduction are there in Fielding’s Tom Jones, though not described in any detail but we are left in no doubt as to what takes place; similarly the earthiness of Defoe’s Moll Flanders accepts a full and very complicated sexual life for the heroine. There is also the famous Fanny Hill, by John Cleland. Here the focus is completely on sex and sexual enjoyment: must we therefore class it as pornography? That’s another question which the entire subject raises: what is the primary purpose of any description of sexual activity: is it an integral part of the story, or is it primarily there to arouse the reader?

51myrirOQhL._AC_US218_51UfiU57zXL._AC_US218_The late 18th, and the entire 19th century took a very different approach, by eliminating the subject almost entirely. Some of the female characters in Jane Austen’s novelshave babies, so there must have been sex. Sometimes characters exhibit what we might today call desire in the presence of someone of the opposite sex (of course) but this is so hidden in convoluted language that a reader may well miss it. In the later Victorian novel, sex produces children out of wedlock – Adam Bede by George Eliot, and Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy immediately spring to mind, and both of these novels explore the terrible consequences of sexual ‘sin’. And yet during those times erotic fiction was certainly written, published and circulated – such matter seems to be one of the items on sale in Mr Verloc’s shop (along with condoms) in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, and I think it’s Molly Bloom in Ulysses that enjoys reading the novels of one Paul de Kock (!).

Admission that humans have sex and enjoy it becomes clearer as the 20thcentury progresses. The horrendous guilt felt by Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man after his nocturnal visits to prostitutes is displayed in detail; as are Molly Bloom’s sexual fantasies in the famous final chapter of Ulysses, and Leopold Bloom’s furtive self-pleasure as he watches girls playing on the beach in an earlier chapter. And then there is D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, subject of the famous obscenity trial in 1960. I remember my astonishment at reading it as a teenager: the openness about sex and pleasure, and the earthiness of the language and the experience. And, a little later, how toe-curling it all really was: innocence and experience…

51hZouI7EcL._AC_US218_51Bo55QmNrL._AC_US218_Nowadays it seems anything goes in the land of fiction, except writing well about the subject, so much so that there are the famous Bad Sex Awards, given annually to particularly bad writing about love-making.

51cxBPbzYKL._AC_US218_I’ll mention one novel that I found interesting in its approach to sex: Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain. There’s an oddity about a novel set in the mid-19th century, butwhich was written towards the end of the 20th, with the feel of those times, the attitudes of those times and characters clearly part of those times and yet, unlikecharacters in novels actually written in the 19thcentury, openly having sexual thoughts and experiences. I think that Frazier does it all very well. The flirtatiousness between Ada and Inman is convincing, as is his desire for her; it makes the characters so much more real. At one point later in the novel, while she is waiting for news of him, Ada masturbates while thinking of him. It’s not described in detail; indeed, without careful reading a reader misses it, yet this reads like the genuine Ada we have come to know through the novel. So does the consummation of their mutual desire when they are finally reunited in the final pages of the novel. It’s clear, yet not flaunted, almost in the manner of a genuine 19thcentury novel that did encompass its characters’ sexual acts, if you see what I mean; Frazier gets it just right, in my judgement.

There’s an interesting contrast in matters sexual – as well as in so many other areas – between two 20th century dystopias, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four and Huxley’s Brave New World. In the latter, sex is so commonplace, communal and consensual, having been completely separated from pregnancy and reproduction, that it’s almost meaningless in our terms (for the characters in that novel are not humans, surely); in Orwell’s novel sex, at least for Party members, has been overlaid with such revulsion and obscenity, and the Party is supposedly working on how to abolish the orgasm, that  Winston and Julia’s furtive sexual pleasures become acts of rebellion against the Party.

In the end I’m not at all sure what I think about the whole topic. I’m aware I’m a man writing about the subject and therefore my presentation here, and my take on these matters may only speak for half of the human race. I can see that there’s clearly a dividing line – though fairly obscure – between literature and pornography. Even if not pornographic, I can see descriptions of sex in novels working on the reader’s imagination, in different ways dependent on their innocence or experience, perhaps. And then the myth of realism, about which I’ve written in the past, comes in to play too: much of the ordinary stuff of daily life is in fact omitted or edited out of the most ‘realistic’ works of literature, where characters are usually not described cleaning their teeth, shaving (pace Joyce), going to the toilet (pace Joyce again), cooking and eating (and again) or having sex… unless there is a specific and particular plot or character-linked reason for including such mundane activity. So sex in a novel must have some significance rather than merely being gratuitous – perhaps.

Once again, I will be interested in my readers’ comments.

 


Klaus Mann: The Turning Point

September 25, 2018

41zmqD9SlKL._AC_US218_This post also begins with a confession: many years ago, I tried to read a novel by Thomas Mann, and gave up. Then I had to read one as part of my master’s degree: Death in Venice bored me. Nevertheless, I was attracted to his son Klaus’ autobiography when I came across it in a bookshop in 1987 and bought it. Finally, I read – most of it…

There’s an awful lot of self-indulgent rambling in the 600+ pages, as well as a huge amount of name-dropping, a great many of which names have completely fallen off anyone’s radar by now. So, it’s not an easy read, and I found myself skimming certain sections; I also took a two-week break from it, but then decided I’d better get on.

Mann is interesting in his description – and realisation, with hindsight – of just how much intellectuals, and intelligent people generally, were looking the wrong way all the time in post-First World War Germany, whilst anarchy reigned in politics and public life, and the far right was rumbling away, first in the background and then much more overtly and confidently, and this made uncomfortable reading in these times. I found myself beginning to understand the German feelings of betrayal in 1918, and the idea, so effectively used by Hitler and the Nazis, that they hadn’t lost the war.

Mann is clear about not wanting to succeed as a writer by hanging onto his father’s (or indeed his uncle Heinrich’s) coattails, but there is no denying that it helped a lot. The breathlessness of his youth and travels comes across very well, and I was interested to learn of his friendship and travelling with Annemarie Schwarzenbach, whose travel journals I have dipped into. At times I had the impression of reading about the German equivalent of the British Bloomsbury group, with all the interconnected names and relationships.

Mann was gay, but nowhere does his sexuality or its effect on his life receive overt attention in his writing, perhaps understandably from the times. I was shocked by his, and his friends’ near-obsession with suicide, and how many of them, including Mann himself, took this option.

Chronicles of life within Germany during the time of the Nazis I have always found interesting, because I strive to understand how such a death-focused and poisonous ideology could have gripped an entire nation, and Mann’s account is no exception. The fact that for so long intellectuals just could not take the Nazis seriously, expressed total incredulity towards them, is revealing: Mann describes sitting at the next table to Hitler and his cronies in a Munich cafe a year or so before they came to power, and the description of the would-be führer troughing through one strawberry cream tart after another makes him seem utterly ridiculous…

Mann and his family left Germany very quickly after the takeover; his vehement anti-Nazism (and that of his sister Erika, who I have written about here) is never in doubt; he ended up striving to enlist in the US army even before he had been naturalised an American citizen, and his account of Germany in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War is also very illuminating, especially about the sordid compromises very rapidly made by the Allies with the remnants of the old regime, and the way suddenly every German had secretly been an anti-Nazi all along…

Overall, for our time, the book is far too long and rambling, and I did find myself skimming sizeable sections, but I’m glad I bothered, for the various illuminating sections I’ve mentioned which I’ve fitted into my overall jigsaw of those times…

 


%d bloggers like this: