Monday 29 December 2008

Death of a Hero by Richard Aldington

Death of a Hero was published in 1929 but despite the time lag is very much a product of the First World War, in which Aldington fought, was wounded, and became recognised as a war poet. Incidentally, the distinction of becoming acknowledged both as a novelist and as a poet is a rare one. One thinks of Emily Bronte, Thomas Hardy and Lawrence Durrell (with whom Aldington would conduct a famous literary correspondence later in life), but the list is a short one.

Death of a Hero was highly commended many years after its publication by Durrell, and while one has to be careful about this since Durrell was being sycophantic and could lay flattery on with a trowel when he felt like it, his judgement is sound. It has a fair claim to being the first truly modernist novel of the twentieth century, though To The Lighthouse was published in 1927, Women in Love was written during the First World War itself, and The Longest Journey as early as 1907. Despite the chronological order of these novels, however, there is a quality that sets Aldington apart from either Woolf, Lawrence or Forster.

Woolf was concerned with the technical aspects of novel writing, most famously her use of the stream of consciousness technique, and with dissecting the psychological motivations of her characters. She was apt to forget Forster’s famous reminder that “the novel, oh dear yes, the novel tells a story”, and perhaps this had something to do with the decline in her popularity. Am I alone in finding her unnecessarily “difficult” to read? Aldington tells his story in direct, straightforward prose, and I use the word “story” deliberately since there is that unfashionable combination of elements: a beginning, a middle and an end (almost literally since the book is divided into three sequential sections).

Lawrence was concerned, at least partly, with portraying the sexual aspects of human relationships, both actual and repressed. Aldington does not bother with these niceties but dives straight into describing sexual relationships as they actually occur, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions. There is not the same analysis between the characters as occurs in The Rainbow and Women in Love. Here, the story is told and that is that. Aldington would probably never have come up with such memorable prose as describing someone as “not a coherent human being but a roomful of old echoes”, yet much of Lawrence’s conversation seems stilted and artificial to a modern reader, whereas Aldington’s does not. Incidentally, the lack of sexual analysis did not save Death of a Hero from the attentions of the censor, and substantial cuts had to be made before publication.

Forster was of course a completely different sort of writer, one who liked to make his points by wry observation much in the way of Jane Austen or E.F. Benson, and it is probably no coincidence that both he and Benson were gay; there is the same deliciously camp flavour about both their prose styles. While some might take issue with this, one could argue that what he wrote were essentially novels of manners. Again, Aldington had little time for this. He tells us bluntly what happens and leaves the question of any judgement of the characters to the reader.

It is this gift of ruthlessly honest observation, simply told, that distinguishes Aldington’s work and provides him with a distinctive voice, and it for this reason that I venture to call him a truly “modernist” writer. He is not playing around with technical fireworks, or trying to impress with florid prose, but telling a story acted out by deftly crafted characters.

The story such as it is may be quickly told, though I am deliberately not going to give away the ending of the book save to say that it foreshadows a novel of the second war by Sartre. Had he read Aldington, I wonder? George Winterbourne is brought up in a seemingly conventional middle class family, though his mother has a string of affairs. Moving to London, he begins a thoroughly modern relationship with Elizabeth; both agree that they should be free to take other lovers. Eventually marriage results, again with the same agreement as to an open relationship. Things go awry, however, when Elizabeth discovers that on the nights she is spending with her lover of the moment, George is making love to her best friend. What is sauce for the goose, it transpires, is not sauce for the gander. The final section of the book can best be described by saying simply that the First World War intervenes and George goes off to fight in France.

Though Aldington never stoops to judgmental passages, we are clearly meant to see Elizabeth as an unattractive character. She reminded me of various characters drawn by a similarly neglected English novelist, Patrick Hamilton, some of whose women are almost unbearably awful (and some of the men, in fairness, almost unbearably weak). I think the clue to the real meaning of the book lies in its title, however. For me, Aldington is saying that after the horrors of the war it is no longer possible even to keep up a pretence of the possibility of any sort of heroic or principled existence. There are clear auto-biographical elements here as Aldington was not only wounded physically during the war but also suffered for many years from the after effects of shell shock; perhaps that is why it took him so long to write this book, which he openly admitted was based partly on his own experiences of a decade before.

George, the “hero” of the book, takes what people say at face value, and is disillusioned by the meaningless destruction of the war, and his fellow officers’ cynical reaction to it. A more complex character would probably have quickly worked out that this was no more than a defence mechanism to the horrors being witnessed on a daily basis, but George is not a complex character; he is one who says what he feels and expects others to do the same. Elizabeth is almost exactly the opposite so it is perhaps inevitable that their relationship is doomed from the outset. She speaks in euphemisms and expects others to understand what she only hints at. She espouses sexual freedom but does not expect her husband actually to practise it, and certainly not with her best friend.

Aldington would write other novels, most notably Rejected Guest in 1939, but none would have the directness and freshness of Death of a Hero. He was a prolific writer of non-fiction, especially biographies and criticism, and achieved notoriety as the author of a hugely controversial revisionist biography of Lawrence of Arabia in 1954, the vitriolic reaction to which greatly upset him. By this time he was living in France, having left England for good in 1928, and in 1957 he began the literary correspondence with his near neighbour and fellow exile Lawrence Durrell that lasted until his death in 1962 and which has been published under the title Literary Lifelines.

Aldington is well overdue a re-evaluation. In his early life he was married to the American poet Hilda Doolittle, usually referred to, especially by herself, simply as “H.D.”. According to no less an authority than Ezra Pound, it was Aldington and H.D. who together founded the Imagist school of poetry. As well as his friendship with Pound, he was also to have close relationships with Ford Maddox Ford (alias Hueffer) - both he and H.D. took dictation of passages that became The Good Soldier – and T.S. Eliot. That he was a fine writer there can be no doubt; his biography of Wellington won the prestigious James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

Yet in all his writings (or all of them that I have read, at any rate), and particularly when he is being at his most intimate such as in the later letters to Durrell, there is a melancholic nostalgia for a world which probably never existed, or at least not as he would have liked it to. There is the sense of someone who very much wanted to be part of the literary establishment but felt himself a perpetual outsider gazing in through the window like Cathy and Heathcliffe at the Lintons’ dance. His self-imposed exile, the reasons for which baffled his friends and which he never explained, even to Durrell, can be seen in this light. Reading between the lines, much of this may be laid at his own door; he seems to have found it difficult to sustain friendly relationships with other writers, or to come to terms with the lack of success which some of his books encountered, though much of this may well be the enduring long term after effects of shell shock, which was not in those days recognised as a disease requiring treatment, except in extreme cases, and certainly not on an ongoing basis (we know that he suffered from severe headaches in later life).

It is precisely this quality of slight detachment, however, that makes Death of Hero such an excellent novel. It is told as if by one standing passively on the sidelines and watching events unfold that, while they are part of one’s life, somehow have an air of unreality and unimportance. Lawrence Durrell was undeniably a great novelist, but maybe it takes one to know one.

Saturday 27 December 2008

Madness and Civilisation by Michel Foucault

I have read various books in French, but am happy to admit that Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation is not among them. Happily a full English translation was published by Routledge some years ago, and so this important work is now available to a whole new body of readers.

Madness and Civilisation is a re-working of Foucault’s 1961 doctoral thesis which looks at the treatment of madness through the ages. The first thing to note, however, is that Foucault draws a distinction between the “mad” and the “unreasonable”, something which is perhaps more meaningful in French, where “déraison” is one possible interpretation of “insanity”. Foucault’s point is that is was the “unreasonable” who were reviled, locked up and generally ill-treated, but that to be “unreasonable” perhaps meant no more than to have an alternative point of view. R.D. Laing would of course express related sentiments in The Divided Self, in which he suggested that what we commonly view as insanity, and in particular schizophrenia, might actually be no more than a sane person’s reaction to an insane world. Laing would later claim Foucault as supporting his views, though the latter was characteristically ambivalent when asked about this. Two things people realised about Foucault very quickly were that he hated taking anything other than centre stage, and that he hated being pinned down on any particular subject. Towards the end of his life his utterances became positively opaque, and he specifically disavowed several of his earlier books, though never Madness and Civilisation.

While on the subject of other writers it is worth pointing out that similar views had been expressed even before Foucault. During the previous decade, Henri Bergson had suggested that the brain might operate as a mechanism for filtering out aspects of reality which are too rich for the mind to deal with, and Aldous Huxley in The Doors of Perception mused in 1954 as to whether “madness” occurs where this mechanism fails to operate properly, so that someone glimpses reality as is actually is rather than the sanitised version of it that is intended for them.

There was an interesting version of this view circulating even during the Renaissance. The reason, or truth of God was beyond human understanding, but it was suggested that the insane had come closer to this truth than had been intended for human experience, and had been rendered mad in consequence. Thus the coupling of insanity with a superior, or at least alternative view of reality is one that has a long history. Modern writers such as John Collier, H.P. Lovecraft and Philip K. Dick were to incorporate this idea into their own work. Indeed, Dick himself famously claimed to have had some sort of revelatory experience in his own life, during which some such sort of altered or superior reality revealed itself to him.

As with so much modern thought, we also find a sound rooting in Freud. He thought that the natural state of mankind was viciousness, destructiveness, and a total inability to live together for the common good. Civilisation is for him something which acts as a filter to deflect these natural but base instincts in the interests of human progress. Like Huxley, he believed that when these safety mechanisms failed, what we regard as mental illness could result. Thus “madness” might be not an abnormal functioning of the mind but rather a totally normal functioning, yet one which society for various reasons cannot admit, much less tolerate. Hence the modern inability to admit an alternative view has a lengthy, if not an honourable tradition.

Sadly both Foucault and Laing were criticised, with some justification, by their more industrious but less interesting academic colleagues, as being populist writers and for sacrificing intellectual endeavour for self-publicity. Certainly Foucault was someone who would have attended the opening of an envelope, who turned every issue into a petition so long as he could be the first signatory on the page, and every petition into a lengthy press conference. He campaigned for socialism in the fifties, and against it in the eighties. He took part in the highly publicised shoplifting raids of a bizarre Maoist organisation which stole luxury foodstuffs and distributed them to the poor. He demonstrated with Paris students in 1968, being tear gassed and imprisoned. He demonstrated on behalf of Algerian nationalists, and later also went to Iran, famously claiming that an Islamic revolutionary republic was a logical impossibility because Islam did not believe in the power of the state. Ayatollah Khomeini disagreed.

The fact that both Foucault and, less flamboyantly, Laing spent so much time on television shows was held in some way to diminish the seriousness of their message, which is a shame because it has never been more apposite. In his later works Foucault would go on to examine at great length the concept of power, and that what seems at first sight the protection of the individual may simply be the state lengthening its reach: a chilling foretaste of life in a post 9-11 world. He also believed that contemporary views of madness had been conditioned by bourgeois morality of the nineteenth century, which saw work as a holy and social duty, and the mad as being denied any chance of redemption through employment.

We live in democracies which past generations of Americans and European fought and died to create and preserve. We enjoy a high standard of civil liberties, often enshrined in constitutions or Bills of Rights. Yet never has the alternative view been more under threat. Never have the words “terror” or “terrorist” been more easily bandied around as an excuse to stifle even discussion, let alone dissent. As Speaker Reed famously said “all the wisdom in the world consists of shouting with the majority”.

A pessimistic view of civilisation might take the view that we had the chance during the Age of Reason to shake off the old shibboleths of kings, gods and tribes. That we had an opportunity to banish for ever the police state, political polemic and petty bourgeois morality. Yet we failed, and these shibboleths now exert as strong a sway as ever they did. Leaders around the globe of all nationalities, religions and political persuasions exhibit views of the world which are self-evidently delusional and demented. Thinking people must find themselves daily posing the question “am I mad and the rest of the world sane, or (more worryingly), am I the sane one?”

Reading Madness and Civilisation may therefore come as a great comfort. Foucault believes that society is prone to define madness for its own convenience, and to brand as “unreason” all that which might challenge the traditional view. Therefore take heart, and join the growing ranks of the mad.

Saturday 20 December 2008

Sunday Times festival talk

No joke, I'm assured, but the date for my E.F. Benson talk will be 1st April - 12 noon in Christchurch College, Oxford and all welcome. Signed copies of Major Benjy will of course be plentifully available!

Monday 15 December 2008

Oxford Literary Festival

I have been asked to give a talk on E.F. Benson at the 2009 Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival. I will post a time and date when I have it.

Thursday 4 December 2008

Living with the Truth by Jim Murdoch

Jim Murdoch describes himself as making steady but erratic progress as a writer. When I read Living with the Truth, I assumed he meant as a novelist, but now I’m not so sure. I do not mean this as an insult – far from it. What I am trying to convey is that while I was reading this excellent and absorbing novel I had a strong feeling that it had actually been written by a poet, and on researching further for the purposes of writing this review I discover sure enough that Murdoch has been writing poetry since he was a teenager, and so his emergence as a poet pre-dates his discovery of himself as a novelist. There are some sentences that could be lifted straight out of this book and re-set as verse, and very good verse too. For example:

Here he was, in his twilight years, his life well and truly worn in, perhaps even a bit frayed round the cuffs …

The premise of the book is simple enough, though I am going to have to be more cursory here than I would like as I am determined not to give away the ending. Jonathan Payne is moving towards the latter end of middle age and leads a life which contains little of interest. He runs a second-hand bookshop, he has no human relationships of any note, and it is debatable whether he really even has any genuine interest in matters literary. He has drifted into his present situation, and has continued to drift aimlessly ever since. He is one of those people who are shaped by events, rather than vice versa, bobbing along like all the other human flotsam and jetsam on the rather scummy tide of life.

(It was) not that he had a particular reason to die, he simply lacked a decent excuse to keep living.

Into his bookshop and his life walks Truth, an omniscient supreme being, who proceeds to bring him face to face with various facets of his life both past and present. The idea that over the quiet boredom of a mundane existence hovers the continual possibility of a metaphysical encounter is handled with everyday nonchalance and a certain black humour which calls to mind Peter Cook playing the devil in Bedazzled.

“I remember a certain time with Descartes: we bumped into each other in this tavern in Holland and we got talking about the meaning of life – he was heavily into stuff like that too, whereas I was far more fascinated by the fact that the barmaid’s bosoms didn’t topple out of her dress … Anyhow, he’d come up with this great new gimmick of his – Cogito ergo Sum – I’m pink, therefore I’m spam. I don’t know why it had to be in Latin, but there you go.”

When helping out around the shop, knowing in advance exactly what every customer wants clearly comes in helpful. Miss Tremble, a seemingly respectable spinster, is handed “an erotic work, whose author had greater aspirations for it than it rightly deserved”. Incidentally, this episode also demonstrates Murdoch’s priceless ability to find a few evocative phrases which perfectly convey someone’s personality on an almost subliminal level. This is one of the novelist’s greatest gifts, and very few are blessed with it.

She had been saving herself for the right man and the interest was accruing nicely. The fact is ‘interest’ could be her middle name, as that was as far as she’d ever got.

Truth dissects Jonathan’s relationships with the opposite sex, which have been infrequent enough to be capable of easy enumeration, and helps him to the realisation that his recollection and evaluation of these has been unnecessarily harsh, and that in at least one case a major opportunity was missed. To say more would risk disclosing essential plot developments, but let us just say that by the end the book Jonathan has become considerably more self-aware than he was when we first met him.

Murdoch offers that priceless commodity, a unique novelist’s voice. Many labour for this, but it is granted to very few and where it appears it is an unmistakeable sign of true talent. In this, as in fact in some other things, Murdoch resembles his countryman, Frank McGillion, who is also reviewed on this blog. There is the same arch and rather mischievous poetry in his view of passing objects and people, for a start.

The woman at Number 66 was calling her son Tommy who was choosing not to hear her death threats if she had to cross that road to fetch him … a couple of sullen teenagers passed them, if not dressed to kill then at least dressed up to commit GBH

This, then, is a novel that speaks to one and it always difficult to define exactly how and why this occurs, partly since the experience is necessarily subjective, but it does. It is a novel which offers frequent shafts of wisdom, usually dressed up as sly, witty asides. More than anything it is a novel which stays with you. By force of circumstances a period of some months elapsed between my reading the book and writing this review. Yet I found that it was still so perfectly formed in my mind that though I read it again (with just as much pleasure as before) I could probably have written this just as well based on my recollection alone.

Jim Murdoch has a genuine natural talent and it as well for all of us that he has both recognised this fact and, so far as I understand it from his blog The Truth About Lies, managed now to arrange his life in such a way that he will have more time to write in the future. That’s good news for everybody.