‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Ben Markovits, You Don't Have To Live Like This (2015)

I'm going to start with a couple of paragraphs of plot-summary, including quite a few spoilers, because there are things I want to talk about that relate to some of these specifics. You can skip these two paragraphs, of course, if you haven't read the novel. You can also skip the whole post, maybe go have a cup of tea and a biscuit instead. It's entirely up to you.

You Don't Have To Live Like This is narrated by Greg Marnier, known as 'Marny', a middle-class white American who follows a good university education at Yale and Oxford with a dead-end academic job in Aberystwyth. He's an unattached twentysomething who feels his life isn't going anywhere. Since he has nothing to lose, he joins a group of people being organised by one of his school friends, handsome Robert James, now a dotcom millionaire. James's plan is to buy up whole neighbourhoodfuls of abandoned properties in the most deprived areas of Detroit, and bring-in people prepared to live in them on the understanding that they renovate them and contribute to the regeneration of the area. It's a kind of 21st-century dot-com-age Capitalist Pantisocracy, really, and Marny is enthused. So he goes to Detroit, and for a while the project seems to be working. Obama, newly elected, turns up to give the project, or less specifically to give the idea of ground-up urban regeneration, his imprimatur, and the novel handles his cameo well (a bit like Thatcher's appearance in Hollinghurst's Line of Beauty, although in other ways the two novels are poles apart).

But this influx of largely white newcomers into a largely black city agitates deep and underlying racial tensions. The second half of the novel traces the disintegration of Robert James's new community. One trigger is when a seventeen-year-old black kid called Dwayne Meacher steals an iPhone from somebody loosely associated with the project: a white guy called Sandy Brinkman. Meacher is on his pushbike, and as he cycles off rapidly with his loot a car hits him and knocks him down, leaving him in a coma. The driver of the car, another white called Tyler Waites, tells the police 'I was just trying to get in his way'; or perhaps he doesn't, because he later denies saying this. At any rate the whole incident becomes a cause célèbre, around which people polarise more-or-less along racial lines.  Later two more of Marny's friends get into a fight. One is a native Detroiter called Nolan (black) and the other is one of the white Pantisocrats, a man called Tony. Nolan in effect kidnaps Tony's young son Michael. It's a misunderstanding: he thinks he is kidnapping Robert James's kid, and is hoping to draw attention to the, as he sees it, pseudo-colonial occupation of his black town by a bunch of affluent whites. The kidnapping is nothing too heavy-duty, and Marny soon fetches Michael unharmed from Nolan's mother's house. But before he does Tony and Nolan have a fight, Marny the only witness. Nolan is knocked unconscious. This is either because he bangs his head on the floor, or else because the furious Tony kicks him when he is down; the novel doesn't clarify. By this stage in the novel our narrator Marny is in a relationship with a schoolteacher, a black woman called Gloria, who may or may not have previously been Nolan's girlfriend (we're never really told). Nolan recovers, but is prosecuted for the kidnapping. Marny has to testify at the trial, and when the guilty verdict doesn't match the feeling on the streets of neighbourhood (the story gets around that Nolan discovered young Michael wandering the streets and was trying to return the kid to his Dad when he was assaulted and hospitalised) a riot breaks out. The whole neighbourhood, pretty much, burns. Gloria dumps Marny.

Now, I hurry all that plot-summary, rather unceremoniously, out of the way because I think plot is very far from being the most interesting aspect of this (very interesting) novel. Not that the content is nugatory, or irrelevant, or unengaging, but that the novel is more powerfully about the way such content—people's individual lives, loves and adventures, society's cohesion or disintegration—are embodied in literary form. That may sound dry, as if I'm arguing the novel is merely an exercise in the aesthetics of fiction. It's more than that, but the reason it's more than that is that Markovits understands precisely that representation and reality cannot be neatly separated out. Reality exists in itself but also, and often primarily, it exists in the stories we tell about it, and Markovits' real interest is with this latter.

As far as that goes, You Don't Have To Live Like This shop-windows its own textual strategy right at the beginning. Here's the first paragraph:
When I was younger I was never much good at telling stories. If I scored a goal at Pee Wee soccer, which didn't happen often, I used to try and describe it for my brother over the hot dog and potato chips. Then he kicked it there and I ran here and he passed it to me there. My brother called these my "this and then this and then this" stories. I don't know that I've gotten any better at it. [1]
That's how Marny narrates the whole novel. It's true that there's a degree of storytelling swerve in the early chapters, when he dips into the backstory of how he met Robert James, and various others, not least the alluring Beatrice, who won't sleep with him but with whom he remains half-in-love throughout the tale. But once we get to the 'Groupon model for gentrification' [17] in Detroit, the story rolls straight through. It's all told in this deliberately run-on, unemphatic style, this and then this and then this, leavened with occasional smart observation or vivid piece of description. It's a balance between a deliberate blandness of affect and a saving precision of detail. Marny is confessing to storytelling incompetence much as Othello announces 'rude am I in my speech' immediately before going on to towering heights of Shakespearian eloquence.
The consortium planned to rent out the houses, business units, and land very cheaply, not just to individuals but also to groups of people who would organise themselves over the Internet and put in bids ... Robert also brought in a team of consultants, specialists in urban renewal, and the truth is, they called most of the shots. I remember a black woman named Barbara—Barbara Stamford from Stanford, this is how she introduced herself, one of these woman who jogs eight miles a day and lives off cottage cheese, She wore cheerful bright-rimed Prada glasses. Once or twice a week we met up in the big dining room with printouts and laptops cluttering the table. Sometimes I came straight from the house and the leathery smell of gardening gloves on my hands and paint scabs spotting my hair and pants. [57-58]
That 'one of these women who ...' is a recurring tic: people often disposed by Marty's pigeonholing sensibility into this or that box: 'one of those mothers who'; 'one of those people with a confession to make' and so on. Then onto the next page:
Meanwhile the weather improved. Baton Rouge doesn't make much of spring, but over the Detroit sidewalks trees bloomed and lawns, pushing off snow, broke out in daffodils. Robert and I went running sometimes on Belle Isle Park, along the river, where the wind was cold but not bitter. A skyline view of Detroit, as clean as you like, stood up straight-backed on the far shore. There were cold blue days busy with clouds and hot white afternoons and gray mornings where the rain came down as hard as if it fell off a roof. [59]
And so on. It's cleverly done: Markovits has a particularly good ear for dialogue, and he understands the game he is playing. Quotidiana stretch out, all narrated as this and this and this, and when something more charged happens—a rape, an assault, a riot—we are halfway into the account before we really register that this is something more than merely another this in a thisstring. It makes for a distinctive, and often effective, overall tone.

Marny has an on-off relationship with a young German woman called Astrid, a rather sweetly pretentious and awful artist manquée who doesn't believe in privacy or boundaries and who videos everything that happens to her. She is raped by a black Detroitan, and afterward makes video art out of her experience, including an interview with the rapist's sister. When Marny and she first have sex she insists on videoing it, and this footage later finds its way online. This, I have to say, would freak me out; but Marny seems unfazed. Unfazed is the whole tone of the novel.

If I'm giving the impression that You Don't is a kind of cooled-down example of nouveau roman-y flattened affect, then I'm giving an erroneous impression. It's not a flat novel, despite the designedly flattening telling. The this-and-this-and-this style leaves it to us to select which thises are more and which less significant, and one of the structurally very clever things Markovits does is build the novel in such a way that, as we accumulate more this-and-this data-points, we start to see a pattern that brings the more important elements into a sharper relief. Conversations baldly reported become, when we think back with hindsight, freighted with emotion, or significance. Some thises provoke ripples, and some don't, and some of the former expand to determine the whole shape of the latter portion of the novel. Other thises strike us as probably important, in the moment, but become less so as the novel goes on. So, for example: the scene where Marny meets the new President. 'This is what Obama looked like from fifty paces, a young Arab businessman. His head looked small and he seemed light on his feet' [178] Obama gives a speech, and Markovits does a good job of catching his cadences.
'The people rebuilding Detroit, and some of you are in this room right now, are still tinkering with it, still adapting it, still moving forward. You have come here from Albuquerque and Chicago, from Queens and from Cleveland and from San Diego. You have come here from Mexico and Poland and Sudan and from right here in Detroit. You have come because you lost your job or you couldn't get a job or you had to work three jobs just to put food on the table. ... You have come because there was a voice in your head saying You don't have to live like this. There's a better way to live. This voice has called people to America for over four hundred years. [179]
I take it the point here is that political speech-giving also entails a this and this and this logic, albeit one structured according to a different rhetorical logic than Markovits' novel. Afterwards Marny, and a bunch of other people, play basketball with Obama. In the heat of the game somebody elbows Marny in the face. 'I sat down on the frozen concrete, trying to hold the blood in with my fingers. Obama put his hand on my head. "You all right, kid?" he said. "Let's call this thing off."' [189] But Marny insists on playing on, and afterwards earns a Presidential compliment: 'Obama put his arm around me and said, "I want you to know something about this guy. He's not a whiner".'

This scene gets structurally echoed at the novel's end. After the trial Marny is at a friend's house, playing with his toddler, Michael. One of the 'toys' used is an old disused bakelite telephone. 'When I tried to take the phone away he hit me in the face. The earpiece caught my cheekbone under the eye. It was like somebody unplugged the nerves. I couldn't feel anything, even my lip, or part of it, went numb' [378]. His friends take him to hospital, but the cheek is broken and the nerve traumatised. It's in the hospital waiting room, watching the TV in the corner, that Marny first finds out about the riots. In effect the novel is saying: a well-meaning white guy tries to make the world a little better, and he gets literally smacked in the face for his troubles, not once but twice.

This in turn has much to do with the novel's approach to characterisation. Just as the book's narrative is a 'thisstream', so its apparent approach to character is a tessellation of external specifics. Even Marny, whose voice determines the whole, emerges with odd opacities where, in another sort of novel. his 'characterisation' would be. That's because I'm not convinced You Don't Have To Live Like This is really trying for 'rounded' characters (manic-artist-pixie Astrid, in particular, never feels 'real'; Beatrice feels under-drawn; whereas Gloria, on the other hand, feels a little too over-determined by backstory and neurosis and motivation ever to come properly alive). I think the main aim here is the portrait not of individual as such, but of individuals as elements in something larger: communities, tribes and 'society'.

And this is where we come to the real nub of the matter (if, by 'the matter', we mean 'my already overlong blog-post'). I think that inherent to the larger project of You Don't is the premise that society as a whole is best captured as a huge accretion of this and this and thises, or 'this person and this person and this person'. The novel is not afraid to ask some big questions about US society, about why some areas are rich and poor, about how race and class parlay into those facts. And Markovits' novel suggests the answer that society is just a kind of agglomeration of a whole bunch of particulars. As such, it is possible to talk about it in terms of flows, or tides, like collective anger or collective deprivation. But, I think this novel is saying, it misrepresents 'society' to talk in absolute terms as if there is an equation, or magic key, that can unify and explain it all, that can, in Donald Trump's resonant if porcine phrase, 'figure out what the hell is going on'.

The back-cover of my UK paperback carries the following endorsement from the Independent on Sunday:

But that's not right, really. Markovits' prose only superficially resembles Coetzee's (really, there's not a lot in common between those two writers). It's much more like the Bellow of, say, Humboldt's Gift, although Bellow without the automatic manly self-confidence, and without the surety that the rest of the world is a 'moronic inferno'. And this novel really isn't very like The Wire. This comparison is particularly lazy, actually: a shorthand for 'white writer produces text with lots of black characters in it'. But one of the ways The Wire works is via the establishment of governing metaphors for its representation of a whole functioning society: the police in series one, the docks in series two, school in series three, politics in four and the media in five. I have to say, I think this works rather brilliantly: I for one came away from that show with a real sense (spurious, I don't doubt) of Baltimore as a rounded, whole social network. But Markovits doesn't buy it. He doesn't believe society can be modeled by metaphor, or at least, can't be modeled this way without mendacity and distortion.

So the novel's take on that aspect of characterisation we might call 'interiority' (as opposed to all the 'she wore cheerful bright-rimed Prada glasses' exteriorised stuff) has to do with gauging intention. This is important—I mean, in life, it is. It plays a huge part in, for example, race relations: if white person A interacts with black person B it matters if they are motivated by racial hatred or contempt, or by more humane and positive impulses. The trigger episode in chapter 24, when young black iPhone thief Dwayne Meacher is run over by older white Sandy Waites, hinges on this. Marny and Gloria disagree over it:
My real argument with Gloria was this. You can't ever know why anybody does anything and this was a crime that depended entirely on motive, Did Meacher run into Waites's car or did the car run into Meacher? Witnesses on both sides were willing to swear to one thing or another. The simple fact was, car and bike had collided, and they might just as well have hit each other if Waites was trying to swerve out of the way and misjudged the angle. Which is why the whole thing came down to motive. To mens rea, as the put it in the papers: a guilty mind.

But what kind of guilty mind are we talking about? Could Waites have planned to knock Meacher down, for the sake of some long-term personal advantage? Of course not. So what do we mean by a guilty mind in this case? A racist inclination? Because every white American male of his generation who grew up in a town like Memphis was going to have something in his past ... that suggested a 'racist inclination.' If that was the test then Waites was always going to be guilty, then we are all guilty, even if Waites had tried to slam on the brakes he was guilty. And a test that everybody fails is no test. [230]
I've quoted this at length because it seems to me important to the novel. It's what Nolan believes (that all whites are racist, to varying degrees), and what motivates the direct-action opposition to the gentrification that in turn ends him up in prison and causes the riots. But it's not what Marny, or the novel, think. Go back to the two, paired injuries to Marny's face. The first was caused by someone's elbow; but obviously the basketball player didn't smash Marny's nose with malice aforethought. It was just one of those things that happen when people get excited playing a contact sport. The second was perhaps more intentional, but intended by an agent—an infant—who obviously cannot be held responsible. It's a serious injury, actually: Marny's face is paralyzed for many months. But when we try to talk about motive, or try to assign blame for his suffering, we soon realise it's not the right way to frame things.

The notion that this scales is You Don't's message, I think. Markovits's characters are rarely motivated by strong drives, prejudices or visions; nobody is a saint and nobody wholly a sinner. They move from this to this to this driven by the usual short-term desires and fears, and it just so happens that, en masse, they collect into social groups that perpetuate urban degeneration and racial tension. What I'm not sure about is how far this is a novel simply 'about' this as a version of how society actually is, and how far it is slyly critiquing Marny's tendency to do see things in these terms. After all, there's are various indications here that Marny is not entirely trustworthy; and Markovits certainly doesn't spare his dignity at any point: all his little selfishnesses and short-sightednesses, all his Holden Caulfield runs of mental extrapolation (necessarily embarrassing in a man fifteen years Caulfield's senior) about becoming celibate or falling in love with all black people because he fancies Gloria. His passivity, and venality, his porn-habit and cluelessness. Give the novel the benefit of the doubt and its various slippages from precision into knowing stereotype (she was the type of woman who ...) acquire satirical force.

Having finished the book I put it down and thought about it for a bit. The big question here is whether Markovits' strategy is as good at capturing 'society' (or 'Detroit', or 'contemporary race relations') as it was as good at capturing 'sport' in Playing Days. The main character of that latter novel says to his girlfriend 'books are mostly about things happening to people, but nothing ever seems to happen to me. So I want to write books about that' Her reply is: ‘that doesn’t sound very interesting,’ [Playing Days, 166]. There's a higher quotient of 'things happening' in You Don't, but the bulk of the novel follows the earlier novel's approach. As you can see if you take the trouble to read my blogpost on it, I admire that earlier novel very much; but You Don't is clearly a more ambitious and more complex piece of work. Does it do the job it sets itself?

I'm not sure. This and this and this suits sport better than it suits socio-political conflict, I think (and I don't say so because I believe the former term to be trivial and the latter grandiosely important, or anything like that). Bellow is a great writer in many ways, but there are key ways in which he was also a pretty limited novelist, and his unabashed masculinism is one of the most severe of those limitations: his female characters tend either to caricature or an odd insubstantiality, even as his male characters, and especially his core male characters, grandstand and bluster their way. Markovits is a more rounded and subtle novelist than this, I'd say, but the male characters in You Don't have a heft that that the female ones don't, really.

Indeed, maybe that's the real focus of this novel: the ways men frame narratives of self-exculpation. One of the things that happens during the story is that Marny's parents split up, or rather that Marny's father leaves his mother for a younger woman. He writes long letters to Marny explaining himself:
You kids don't need us anymore. And I don't make your mother particularly happy. You're sixty-five years old, and all your so-called domestic virtue is really just another name for laziness. Get off your ass. I don't have any illusions about going it alone either ... But this is what I want to say. From the outside I look like a worse man now than I did two months ago. But it doesn't feel that way from the inside, it really doesn't. For the first time in years I feel like a moral agent again. I'm a human being, and people coming into contact with me are bumping into somebody who is actually there. They get some response. For years, and this is literally true, I didn't say a single thing I hadn't said before, not to anybody, not even to your mother. Now I say something new every day. [205]
Marny is rather impressed by this, though his girlfriend Gloria is having none of it ('this is the craziest excuse I ever heard. A man walks out on his wife to make himself a better man. And for something to talk about'). I'm with Gloria, I must say: but the novel invests great significance in the importance of men saying, and saying something new. This and this and this has, I suppose we could say, its active as well as its passive valence: it could be the acquiescence in stuff happening to you over and over, or it could be something more propulsive, something almost macho, making thing follow thing. A man acts in a way that, he knows, will cause great hurt to his wife and children, and afterwards he says I feel like a moral agent again. That's a moral universe where acting is more important than ethics.

The climax of the novel is Marny's court appearance, where he talks both about how tricky it is getting his account of events to capture the quiddity, or truth, of those events: not that he is lying, but rather that the saying is slippery in some existential way. 'This is true,' he says, looking back on his own testimony; 'it's what I did, but saying it felt like lying.' And more important even than the truth is the saying itself:
A few minutes later Judge Westinghouse called it a day. What surprised me is this: already I was reluctant to get off my chair. For someone who likes to talk, who cares about the difference between one way of saying something and another, who thinks of speech as the best kind of action ... it was like, for sailors, being in a high wind. People were paying attention, my answers mattered. Whereas that evening, I made myself dinner alone and had nothing to do but go over these answers in my head. [360]
That's a key passage for the novel, I think. And it doesn't, really, reflect well on Marny. One of the most significant thises in the this and this of his relationship with Gloria is when he cheats on her with Astrid. Marny relates this infidelity in a typically this and this and this manner, and the effect (at least for me) was of a weaselly abdication of ethical responsibility. It's not good to cheat on your girlfriend, and the way Marny tells us, and pointedly doesn't tell Gloria, pinpoints the culpability of the novel's ethos of Saying:
I almost hoped that we'd run into somebody downstairs, so I could sober up and change my mind, but we didn't. When we got there she said, "You can sleep in my bed, it's big enough. I don't mind." She undressed in front of me, she let me use her toothbrush, it was all very normal. But in the dark, when the lights were off, I couldn't help myself. I started touching her, and she responded quickly. It was strange, I felt very gentle towards her, when all night long we'd been scratchy and sarcastic. But afterwards I slept OK. I the morning I had to pick up my brother from the airport. My car was still parked in the road outside the bar and I worried something might have happened to it. But it was fine, and I drove to meet him in last night's clothes. [257]
You don't have to lie like this, I think.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Ben Markovits, Playing Days (2010)

[Note: I just finished reading Markovits' new novel You Don't Have To Live Like This, and I'm going to pull some brief thoughts together regarding it, and regarding the kind of writing of which it is a (very impressive) example. Since those thoughts riff in part on my opinions regarding Markovits' earlier novel Playing Days I'm reprinting this review, which I wrote for another and now-deleted blog. Thoughts on the new one to follow, probably tomorrow. As to when this blog gets deleted, well: could be any day now.]

Full disclosure requires I note that Markovits is both a colleague and a friend of mine; but though 'full disclosure' is often a token gesture it seems peculiarly appropriate in this context. Playing Days is, among other things, about full disclosure. In the most obvious sense it is closer to memoir than novel. Markovits, an American, played professional basketball in his youth for a German team, living the while in Landshut, near Munich. His first novel was The Syme Papers which came out in 2004. Playing Days tells the story of a character called Ben Markovits, an American, playing professional basketball for a German team in Landshut, near Munich, who in his spare moments is working on the first drafts of a novel called The Syme Papers. The few facts I know about this period of Markovits’ life fit precisely with the representation; but then again such facts as I know about him are of course external ones. If Playing Days claims to be fiction rather than memoir it is presumably on its psychological and emotional grounds. The title page says ‘Playing Days: a Novel’, and perhaps the subtitle is meant playfully—it has perhaps some faint shading of irony; not quite as full-on as Conrad subtitling the very unsimple The Secret Agent ‘A Simple Tale’; closer, perhaps, to Hardy’s title-page gloss on Tess as ‘A Pure Woman’. Then there’s the dedication, ‘To My Father’ (Markovits senior appears as a character in the novel), which is followed, as we turn the page, by the book’s most tendentious moment, an epigraph from Byron. Of course, Byron—of course because it was his trilogy of novels about that poet that really established Markovits’s reputation. Here’s the epigraph:
But I hate things all fiction—there should always be some foundation of fact for the most airy fabric—and pure invention is but the talent of a liar.
OK then.

Since the purpose of this blogpost is not really reviewerish evaluation I suppose I need to get out of the way (if it doesn’t seem unseemly) the praise: this is an extraordinarily good novel, beautifully written, consistently and sometimes hypnotically involving on subjects about which I am either indifferent (basketball) or else which are designedly uneventful: waiting around, indecision, small-scale failure. The way things don’t quite happen. There are two main currents; on the one hand, we get a sensitive account of Markovits’ relationship with a local woman called Anke, the mother of a young child, separated but not divorced from one of Markovits’s team-mates, a Southern US man with the rather wonderful name of Bo Hadnot. On the other we have a detailed account of Markovits as part of the basketball team; his teammates (some American, some German), his coach, training, more training, the economics of running a minor league basketball team in a Continent in love with another sport—football—and accounts of basketball games. Markovits, cannily I think, does not soft-pedal any of this. Quite a high proportion of the whole is stuff like this:
Olaf drifted up to the elbow and Hadnot cut in to meet him with his forearms crossed. The big man curled off him, and Jurkovich stepped out to slow him down. Bo turned, too, but on the outside pivot, and Jurkovich got stuck on his shoulder. Karl bounced the pass in and Hadnot used the lift of the bounce to send him into his motion. [112]
And from time to time characters make this sort of assessment of one another:
Bad hands, too small, and what coaches call “hard”. Decent ups, a respectable shooting stroke, but no inside moves. His rotational quickness was poor, which is what big men depend upon in the pivot. [229]
As a fan of SF I’m used to reading descriptions larded with baffling terminology, and I quite liked all this material: I never doubted it was precisely framed, but it generated a useful distanciating effect.

The best sports novels, the cliché goes, are only incidentally about their sport. They are, rather, about the characters who play the sport, about the mentality of winning (or losing), about being part of a team or being isolated from a team. Playing Days is certainly about all that stuff, and some other things besides. I don’t mean that to sound dismissive; it’s superbly well rendered. One of the themes of the novel is repetition, and in this respect basketball is the right sport to write about. The thing I most love about football—the way so few goals are scored, the way the play builds and builds tension that is only finally released in the joy of your team scoring (or the agony of the opposing team scoring against you)—seems to me fatally dissipated in those US sports where points are scored with relentless frequency: basketball, baseball, hockey, American 'foot'-ball and so on. Some of the most viscerally exciting games I have ever watched have been close fought 1-0, or 2-1 matches; and when England beat German 5-1 (five whole goals!) it felt like a cataract, but that in turn set free blocked energies of having been, for decades previously, mostly beaten by Germany. Basketball is different. A player needs to score fifty points in a game for people to consider it remarkable. On the other hand, this is precisely what draws Markovits: not dissipated energies, but rather repetition—the repetition of training, day after day; the repetition of playing individual matches, scoring, clocking up scores; the repetition of playing match after match and slowly working your way up the league tables, hoping for a play-off place at the end of the season.

Markovits has inherited from his father a Jewish surname and Jewish looks, something he comments on in the novel. In Munich he attends a synagogue, looking amongst other things for community. He doesn’t understand the prayers, but joins in anyway.
I suppose the men there were as various as any other set of old men, but to my eyes they seemed mostly short and a little fat. It was something of a relief, after a week devoted to the perfection of the body, to spend an hour or two among people who had long ago accepted the eccentricities of their own. Besides, I didn’t really want to understand the prayers; incomprehensibility was a part of their charm. We bowed and ducked and shouted and mumbled. Sport is the art of repeating meaningless and tiny acts; I liked the idea of a God who required a similar duty in his people. [67]
The novel makes a lot, deftly and insightfully, out of this trope of repetition. It’s expressive: every writer knows that novels only get written by the writer clocking on, repeatedly, day after day, and going through many of the same motions over and over. Many jobs are like this; as are the habits of (say) raising children. Sex too, of course, involves repeating meaningless and tiny acts; and sex is one of the topics of Playing Days, as Markovits’ relationship with the attractive Anke moves from surreptitious voyeurism through friendship and drawn-out courtship to consummation, and then again through the dying fall into estrangement. Indeed, one of the novel’s few false-touches, I thought, was its opening paragraphs (the first sentence is ‘my first recognizable sexual experience took place in the weight room of my junior high school, after class, during basketball practice.’) It seems to promise something rather more gauche, or tacky, than the novel actually delivers. In fact sex is handled in novel obliquely: the homosocial bond between the men is lightly treated, the (if you’ll pardon the phrase) ins-and-outs of Ben and Anke's phsyical relationship left discretely off-stage. That’s right, too; Playing Days has a core vehicle—basketball—that can do all that work perfectly well without spilling it all over the page.

Basketball is a sport that rewards not brilliance per se, but the ability to be consistently brilliant, to repeat brilliant manoeuvres over and over again. Hadnot, Anke’s estranged husband and Markovits’s teammate (the novels plays the awkwardness of this juxtaposition very well indeed), has something of this brilliance.
On the Tuesday, after lunch, I headed back to the gym to work on my shot and found Hadnot there. No one had turned the lights on, and for a minute I stood in the tall twilight of the sports hall watching him, about twenty feet away. ... Of course, whatever he was doing he had done a hundred thousand times before, planting his feet, lining his elbow up and following through. Watching the ball go in or out, starting from scratch. How much would it help him to practice a thousand more? But you do it anyway. [284]
Markovits has, the novel implies, perhaps inherited this machinic ability to repeat things over and over again from his father. We learn that Markovits senior likes ‘ethnic foods’, which is to say, ‘anything that can be consumed in small repeatable portions.’ When he visits he plays with Anke’s daughter with the repetitive persistence that small kids really love. The narrator notes that ‘my father has always liked children ... it’s his job, but it suits him too, and tests his great patience, which I have inherited to a degree, for repetition’:
Franzisca had found a small plastic ball in the playground, which she wouldn’t let go of, even when climbing—she kept falling over wet bars. My father convinced her at last to let him roll the ball up the slide instead of down and crouched at the bottom, propping her in his lap. He threw it against the incline, again and again; they watched it bounce towards them. Franziska tried to catch it by clapping her hands together, but mostly she just clapped, [199-200]
As it happens repetition bores me very much, agonizingly so sometimes, so all this struck me forcefully. Anke at one point compares Markovits with her (soon to be) ex-husband. ‘“You are like Bo,” Anke said to me. “You don’t mind doing something over and over again.”’ [249] But this is a compromised virtue; one of its faces is ‘stubbornness’. Bo Hadnot, for instance, refuses to learn German properly, even though he is living and working in Germany and more to the point even though his daughter doesn’t speak any English. The pig-headedness serves him as a sportsman (‘all he does is play basketball and think about basketball’), although even there the matter is complicated; but as a pen-portrait of a human being Hadnot comes over as trapped in stubborn small-c conservatism and competitiveness in ways that make him nothing but miserable. Anke, having had one failed relationship with a basketball player, looks for much of the novel to be about to repeat her mistake with Markovits. The narrative/protagonist himself, unsparingly, attributes his own actions, or his more damaging inaction, to laziness and drift; but there’s a stubbornness there, too. Or perhaps the stubbornness is in the grain of things; the way the cosmos keeps wheeling through the same old same old, the inertia of it all.
Books are mostly about things happening to people, I said, but nothing ever seems to happen to me. So I want to write books about that. ‘That doesn’t sound very interesting,’ she said. [166]
It is interesting, of course; because it speaks to our sense of how life is actually lived, or our lives at any rate. Or: it is interesting if it is written properly. The book builds to the sort of climax we might associate with a sports-novel: the team, though put together on the cheap and insufficiently coached, manages to pull together. Hadnot leaves and goes to play for the opposition, but they make the league playoffs anyway. Victory will mean promotion, more money, more coverage and for the best players a shot at the big time. Landshut play Würzburg, the team to which Hadnot had defected. Markovits and Hadnot meet on the court as rivals, with Anke in the audience (over-egging it slightly, the narrator comments ‘I wondered who she was rooting for’ [310]). Hadnot is getting on, but has significant talent and a victory here could give his career the boost to achieve greater things. The game is close-fought, and comes down to the last seconds. Markovits, marking Hadnot, has a sudden insight into the move he is going to try: ‘plant your right foot, take two hard dribbles right. Fix the defender against your left shoulder. Plant your left foot, then jump a little backwards with your shoulder still turned and shoot. If you do it correctly, moving quick and hard, it’s almost impossible for anyone to reach your shooting hand. Hadnot alone in the gym expected to make eight out of ten ... Against a tall defender, who knew what was coming, his chances dropped to five out of ten; he had told me this himself’ [312]. Here is the last paragraph-and-a-bit of the novel as such:
When we were working on the move together, one morning before practice, I asked him again what he thought about while going up to shoot—forgetting I had asked him before. But this time he gave a different answer. “I always think the same damn thing,” he said. “Go in.” The phrase came back to me, in the heat of that moment, as phrases sometimes do—without meaning much. For a few seconds we stood there, amid three thousand people, on one of those strange, sudden islands that emerge from the flow of play. This is how I like to think of him; just as far away as the reach of my arm, with the ball in his hands and everything still undecided.
This is a beautiful moment on which to end: the culminating swerve where the thing repeated over and over gives, unexpectedly, a different answer, or else fails to do. But Markovits doesn’t leave it there, and I rather wish he had (perhaps he considered it too cheesy, like the freeze frame at the end of another sporting text, the movie Gallipoli). There is a 9-page epilogue in which we discover who won the play-off, what happened to Hadnot—and to Markovits. Too many loose ends are methodically tied; we can, after all, intuit from the novel itself that Markovits abandoned basketball for writing. Or perhaps it is his sense that the freeze-frame mendaciously isolates moments of intensity that are actually experienced, in life, in terms of anticipation and longer-lingering aftermath and anticlimax. Markovits is, as a writer, particularly gifted at the representation of those latter two qualities; and verisimilitude is certainly part of his skill-set. In a critical essay he wrote on Colm Tóibín’s Henry James novel, The Master, Markovits praises Tóibín’s rather un-Jamesian prose:
What Tóibín avoids, for the most part, are metaphorical flights and grammatical complexities ... When he runs on he runs on unashamedly, connecting the parts of his thought with nothing more elaborate than a few commas. He balks at elegant variations, and has never taken seriously Nabokov’s advice, to avoid starting successive paragraphs with the same word. Subject + verb suits him fine. Children tell stories by saying, this and then this and then this; his novels are enormously complicated versions of this technique. The effect can be relentless, but his relentlessness is also deeply persuasive. Modesty is the proof he gives us of his realism. [Markovits, ‘Tóibín’s The Master’, in Liam McIlvanney and Ray Ryan (eds), The Good of the Novel (Faber 2011), 188]
He could be describing his own writing in Playing Days; indeed, he could be describing the flow and leap of a player on the basketball court (‘when he runs on he runs on unashamedly’). The repetitiveness of this approach is, as the phrase goes, a feature, not a bug; not only well-fitted to the repetition of the sport Markovits is describing, but to the larger aesthetic project of writing about the way things don’t happen, the way life is an untraumatic, non-Beckettian, ordinary and in a way happy series of repetitions of nothing very much. The question I have is the modesty one. He means it in an aesthetic rather than a personal or practical sense, but although it tells its semi-, or hemi- or whatever-autobiographical story with a quantity of effective self-effacement, I’m not sure modesty is really the currency of this novel. That US habit of treating the word ‘loser’ as the most devastating of put-downs can’t help filtering through. The point of view is rather more with the lions than the Christians. ‘There’s a lot of talk in the sporting news about the love of underdogs,’ the narrator opines towards the end, ‘but it really shouldn’t be confused with an attraction to failure. Really what we like to see is people winning and beating others—the bigger victim, the better’ [301]. Gracious, really? An attraction to failure would be, what—morbid? In a passage I had to read twice to try and work-out if it was framed ironically, the narrator reports on what it is like playing for a winning team.
It turns out that playing for a winning club is kind of wonderful. No matter what else is going on in your personal life, you’re always a little bit happy. Not deeply happy, of course, but as happy as you might be in this first few weeks after buying a new convertible. It’s enough on a sunny afternoon to be driving around in it with the top down, to be publicly visible.
I don’t think this is irony; I think it’s as ingenuously shallow as it seems, which in turn makes the tonal qualifications (‘kind of’ ‘not deeply happy of course’) a little jarring. Jarring not because the passage trades in a kind of immodesty, but because if you’re going to be immodest you might as well do it wholeheartedly. Winning makes us happy; new cars make us happy; showing off to other people makes us happy. The converse is presumably that losing, not having material possessions, not having a crowd to show-off to, make us unhappy. I’m not being quite fair with my imputations here, actually: Playing Days is a much more nuanced and subtle piece of fiction than that. And I suppose there is some force to the objection that a Jamesian, or perhaps more pointedly a late-Jamesian approach to the business of representing human psyches and their interactions can turn obliqueness itself into a sort of fetish, in ways that are more evasive than revealing. And there is a central point which I haven't made yet, but which is actually vital. The largest trajectory of Markovits’ novel is about how he didn’t repeat—how he did minor-league basketball for a while in Germany but now he’s doing something quite different. If he was a minor basketball professional he is a major novelist, so we might want to say: he jumped the right way. And perhaps that’s one of the things the novel is about, as well.


A personal postscript. To go back to that Byron epigraph once again.
But I hate things all fiction—there should always be some foundation of fact for the most airy fabric—and pure invention is but the talent of a liar.
I want, naturally, to avoid the cheap trick of turning this blogpost about a near-memoir into a near-memoir itself, but I will note that when I opened the book and read that Byronic passage my first thought was: ‘hey, Ben really is a very different sort of novelist to the sort I am, whatever that is.’ Because that Byron quotation seems to me almost entirely wrongheaded. It seems to me that any given novel’s relationship to reality, though unavoidable and even, to some extent, a necessary feature of its effectiveness, actually needs to be ironic rather than mimetic. Markovits is capable of genuinely brilliant ironies as a writer, here and elsewhere; but his overall approach here is evidently on the mimetic side of things. Indeed, only our chance proximity, teaching at the same institution, even prompts the comparison: for what sane critic would put one of my novels alongside one of Markovits’s? But my point is, on reflection I’m not sure we are that different as writers. I’m not talking, incidentally, in terms of our respective merits, something I neither would nor, frankly, could attempt to judge. No, I mean approach, I mean the sort of books we write (whether or not we successfully achieve what we’re aiming at). To be a little more precise, I would say that Markovits and I are different varieties of the same thing: Romantic writers. Byron—about whom Markovits has written a trilogy of novels, and to whom he evidently feels a complicated sort of affinity—was, in one sense, the least Romantic of the Romantic poets. He despised most of his contemporaries, Southey and Wordsworth (‘Turdsworth’ he called him) most of all, and he thought the last great English poet had been Pope. He was a writer whose sensibilities were much more classical than anything else, and whose writerly self-revelations were very different to those of what has come to be called ‘confessional’ writing—extremely allergic to gush or self-pity, his self-revelations are staged instead according to a drama of self-conscious doomed nobility—a drama which, perhaps counter-intuitively, is as hospitable to the comic as the tragic. Me, I like Byron fine, but my heart has always been with Coleridge and Shelley (and with Tennyson and Browning). De gustibus, and so on. I write science fiction novels of varying degrees of metaphorical extravagance. Markovits writes autobiographical fictions that evade confessional mush with a precision of tone and insight. Not long ago I came across a passage from Santayana in a recent Adam Phillips book (the passage is from The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy). It strikes me as pertinent here:
To understand oneself is the classic form of consolation; to elude oneself is the romantic.
I have the sense Markovits’ writing gets him closer to understanding himself than mine does to me eluding me. But part of the thing this very fine basketball novel achieves is the sense that understanding is a less dramatic, more elusive thing than it is sometimes taken to be.

Monday, 27 June 2016


Do you know what I've been doing for the last five (that's five) full days? Checking the proofs of, and compiling an index for, the above title, the forthcoming 2nd edition of my Palgrave History of Science Fiction. The first edition was 320pp. This second edition is 540pp. Quite a lot longer: every chapter has been revised and a whole new (and lengthy) chapter on '21st Century SF' added. The indexing was made more onerous than it might otherwise have been by virtue of (a) this overall lengthiness, and (b) the fact that a vol such as this is inevitably proper-name-heavy and dense with indexible stuff. Woh. Five days, though! It's true that Palgrave gave me the option to hire a professional indexer to do the job for me, but his or her fee would have been more than I'm likely to earn in royalties from the sale of the finished volume. Don't get me wrong: I admire professional indexers, and think them worthy of their hire. It's a tricky, laborious and skilled job. But I'm not rich enough blithely to pay the hundreds of pounds they deserve as their fee out of my own pocket; and even if I did, that would still leave the (lengthy, fiddly) proofs to do. No shortcut there.

I did suggest to Palgrave that the index should read, in its entirety,
Science Fiction, 1-540 passim.
But d'you know what, blood? I isn't allowed.

I think one reason I find compiling indices so frustrating (apart, that is, from the brute fact of, you know, actually compiling them: monotonous, repetitive, dull) is that a part of me believes they ought to have gone the way of, let's say, the old hand-assembled concordances. Useful once upon a time, such works have now been so thoroughly superseded by search engines and suchlike algorithms that they're left, in those libraries that have yet to get rid of them, like Easter Island Heads, proud among the wilderness. You think: 'years, perhaps decades of some poor human's life were consumed by this project!' Then you shake your head sadly and move on. Surely The Index is going this way? And the five days of my life I've just expended on this particular task? Phew.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Some Thoughts on Scott

So, I've embarked on a comprehensive re-read of Water Scott. Waverley and Guy Mannering are under my belt, and I'm halfway through The Antiquary, and it's proving quite the eye-opener. I'd read most (not, if I'm honest, absolutely all) of his novels before, some when I was an undergraduate, a chunk more soon after I started work as an academic, but my memory of even the more famous of them is patchy, and I ought to know them better. I ought because the novels themselves are, I'm discovering as I re-read, much more fascinating and complex and rich than I realised; and I ought to because no Romanticist or Victorianist can excuse an ignorance of Scott. Back then, everybody read him. He was the first global superstar of the novel. It's the Rule 34 of 19th-century literary studies: Everybody read Scott, no exceptions. Henry Crabb Robinson was always reading Scott; going through all the novels and, when he finished Castle Dangerous (1831) starting again on Waverley (1815) in an endless loop. Dickens's great dream, when he began writing fiction, was to do what Scott did. According to the old story, which may be apocryphal, though one hopes not, the Russian ambassador assumed Scotland had been named after Scott, to honour her most famous son.

Nowadays nobody reads him, and that's a puzzling thing. (Ann Rigney's recent The Afterlives of Walter Scott: Memory on the Move (OUP 2012) is all about how and why Scott fell from popular favour). I used to think this has something to do with his prolixity, undeniably a feature of his writing. One does need to be able to take pleasure in sinking into the warm bath of Scott's prose fully to enjoy him. But the bath is a very pleasant one, and to step into any 21st-century bookshop is to be struck by just how many fat-spined long, long novels get sold today. People don't mind reading great long novels, or sinking into prose by Rowling, Meyers, Martin et al even though such prose is not a patch on Scott's. So maybe it's something else.

One of the things my re-read is reinforcing in me is a sense of the varieties of irony. Maybe that has something to do with it, since irony is rather out of fashion now. Not in my house, mind: I have a high regard for irony, aesthetically speaking; and, more, I consider it a crucial artistic feature of modernity. It acquires a significant momentum in Romantic and post-Romantic culture (Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and all that). Indeed, I've half a mind to write a book about a particular two-horned manifestation of it in the Romantic novel. On the one hand: Jane Austen. On the other: Walter Scott. I suppose we don’t often think of Scott as a particularly ironic writer—he does foursquare, prosy historical adventure stories, in which a ‘wavering’ character (hence: 'the Waverley novels')  is positioned at some Big Historical Pivot Time: the Crusades; the English Civil War; the Jacobite Rebellion. There is peril, and questing, and journeying; there are battles and duels, and oodles of local colour and vividness. And Scott's success and influence parleyed this mix into later literary offshoots. There’s a reason that description—character caught up in big events, questing/fighting/adventure, lots of local colour—describes a hefty proportion of all the Space Opera and Adventure SF written.

Of course, only a fool would deny that Scott, despite his many excellences, lacks the sophistication and maturity of Austen at her best. To read Scott's books after reading Austen is to be struck by a kind of coarseness and flatness. Austen writes stories not about improbable adventures but about the probable dilemmas of everyday life, stories all readers can test against their own experience. But that’s not the crucial thing. It’s not that Austen writes about falling in love and marrying with sensitivity and charm—of course, that’s exactly what she does do; but there's more to it than that. It’s that she is one of the first creative artists in the world to understand characterisation in ironic terms. Emma Woodhouse simultaneously is handsome, clever and rich and a short-sighted, rather spoilt young woman. The glory of Emma as a novel is the way Austen expertly, beautifully traces her growth in self-knowledge and maturity, correlating it to her awareness of whom it is she really loves. ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged …’ is a very clever sentence; because it both is and isn’t true—isn’t because not all men see marriage as central to life the way Austen’s women do, and is because love is much more important and resonant and human than questing/fighting/adventuring—and in the world of Austen’s novel this truth acquires a universality that derives by definition from the parameters of her art. It's what her novels are about.

 Scott has no characters like this. His heroes are heroic all the way through; his villains similarly villainous. They stalk about their stage-sets acting entirely in character from start of story to happy ending. The Waverley novels construe a WYSIWYG universe of reassuring moral absolutes. And yet, and yet: there is something in Scott that responded to the change in the times. He lacked the technical skill to portray the ironies of individual subjectivity the way Austen could, in part because his approach to character was wholly externalised. But in some of his novels he found a way of articulating something that approaches Austenian doubleness of character.

I’ll give you an example of what I mean. In The Talisman (1825) noble characters are constantly gadding about in disguise. King Richard Coeur-de-lion goes disguised as a slave. When King Richard falls sick he is attended, and healed, by an Arab physician called El Hakim. At the end of the novel we discover that this physician was actually Sultan Saladin himself, Richard’s enemy, all along. All this disguise gubbins is Scott’s way of intimating that a character like Saladin might be both the enemy of Christendom and an honourable, gallant individual at the same time. It’s a device that externalises what happens more naturally, and more persuasively, as interiorised characterisation in Austen’s novels. But it can be a very effective textual; strategy for all that; and there are versions of this device, or variants upon it, throughout the Waverley novels. Edward Waverley's own bivalve political affiliation for example; or the complex games of prophesy and history, false-names and true identities, in Guy Mannering; the manifest and latent paired narratives of Heart of Midlothian.

Another, related matter: Lukács is right. Scott invents the Historical Novel not because nobody before him had ever written a novel set in the past, but because he creates a way formally of realising historical change as a lived-through dialectic: almost all his historical novels centre on a middling, unremarkable character who gets caught up in some big historical hinge point, who meets famous historical individuals (although those famous people are always secondary characters in the novel), who is offered a choice between 'the old ways' of feudal romanticism and the inevitable, coming social logic of bourgeois respectability and who chooses the latter.

Which brings me to: The Lord of the Rings. During my recent re-read of Waverley I found myself repeatedly put in mind of Tolkien's big book: the discursive style, the inset ballads and poems, the way a texture of lived-experience is created, but most of all the central shape—a middling character who leaves his comfortable English home, in part motivated by a imaginative curiosity about more romantic, older modes of life, and who gets caught up in the Great Events of the Day, which turn out to be the hinge upon which History itself turns. The whole narrative is a there-and-back-again journey, through a landscape peopled with various different tribes (English, Borderers, Lowland Scots, Highlanders) and different idioms and, in some cases, languages; the descriptions of mountains and battles, above all the elegaic sense of an old world passing away. But of course the LotR is Scott-like, since Tolkien grew up reading Scott as did all his class and generation. And because of Tolkien's influence on the development of Fantasy that means the default template for a great amount of Modern Fantasy is: the Waverley novels. Everybody interested in Fantasy should read them.

There's one more thing, which gives me the excuse to quote my favourite passage of Chesterton's critical prose, where he compares Scott and Dickens. It came back to me today, because The Antiquary, from where Chesterton takes the lines by Arthur Wardour and the beggar, is what I'm presently re-reading. But, really, the whole passage is on to something important about Scott; and one of the things I'm thinking about is how a 21st-century critic might reframe and develop the insights here:
Of all these nineteenth-century writers there is none, in the noblest sense, more democratic than Walter Scott. As this may be disputed, and as it is relevant, I will expand the remark. There are two rooted spiritual realities out of which grow all kinds of democratic conception or sentiment of human equality. There are two things in which all men are manifestly and unmistakably equal. They are not equally clever or equally muscular or equally fat, as the sages of the modern reaction (with piercing insight) perceive. But this is a spiritual certainty, that all men are tragic. And this, again, is an equally sublime spiritual certainty, that all men are comic. No special and private sorrow can be so dreadful as the fact of having to die. And no freak or deformity can be so funny as the mere fact of having two legs. Every man is important if he loses his life; and every man is funny if he loses his hat, and has to run after it. And the universal test everywhere of whether a thing is popular, of the people, is whether it employs vigorously these extremes of the tragic and the comic. Shelley, for instance, was an aristocrat, if ever there was one in this world. He was a Republican, but he was not a democrat: in his poetry there is every perfect quality except this pungent and popular stab. For the tragic and the comic you must go, say, to Burns, a poor man. And all over the world, the folk literature, the popular literature, is the same. It consists of very dignified sorrow and very undignified fun. Its sad tales are of broken hearts; its happy tales are of broken heads.

These, I say, are two roots of democratic reality. But they have in more civilised literature, a more civilised embodiment of form. In literature such as that of the nineteenth century the two elements appear somewhat thus. Tragedy becomes a profound sense of human dignity. The other and jollier element becomes a delighted sense of human variety. The first supports equality by saying that all men are equally sublime. The second supports equality by observing that all men are equally interesting.

In this democratic aspect of the interest and variety of all men, there is, of course, no democrat so great as Dickens. But in the other matter, in the idea of the dignity of all men, I repeat that there is no democrat so great as Scott. This fact, which is the moral and enduring magnificence of Scott, has been astonishingly overlooked. His rich and dramatic effects are gained in almost every case by some grotesque or beggarly figure rising into a human pride and rhetoric. The common man, in the sense of the paltry man, becomes the common man in the sense of the universal man. He declares his humanity. For the meanest of all the modernities has been the notion that the heroic is an oddity or variation, and that the things that unite us are merely flat or foul. The common things are terrible and startling, death, for instance, and first love: the things that are common are the things that are not commonplace. Into such high and central passions the comic Scott character will suddenly rise. Remember the firm and almost stately answer of the preposterous Nicol Jarvie when Helen Macgregor seeks to browbeat him into condoning lawlessness and breaking his bourgeois decency. That speech is a great monument of the middle class. Molière made M. Jourdain talk prose; but Scott made him talk poetry. Think of the rising and rousing voice of the dull and gluttonous Athelstane when he answers and overwhelms De Bracy. Think of the proud appeal of the old beggar in the Antiquary when he rebukes the duellists. Scott was fond of describing kings in disguise. But all his characters are kings in disguise. He was, with all his errors, profoundly possessed with the old religious conception, the only possible democratic basis, the idea that man himself is a king in disguise.

In all this Scott, though a Royalist and a Tory, had in the strangest way, the heart of the Revolution. For instance, he regarded rhetoric, the art of the orator, as the immediate weapon of the oppressed. All his poor men make grand speeches, as they did in the Jacobin Club, which Scott would have so much detested. And it is odd to reflect that he was, as an author, giving free speech to fictitious rebels while he was, as a stupid politician, denying it to real ones. But the point for us here is this that all this popular sympathy of his rests on the graver basis, on the dark dignity of man. "Can you find no way?" asks Sir Arthur Wardour of the beggar when they are cut off by the tide. "I'll give you a farm . . . I'll make you rich." . . . "Our riches will soon be equal," says the beggar, and looks out across the advancing sea.

Now, I have dwelt on this strong point of Scott because it is the best illustration of the one weak point of Dickens. Dickens had little or none of this sense of the concealed sublimity of every separate man. Dickens's sense of democracy was entirely of the other kind; it rested on the other of the two supports of which I have spoken. It rested on the sense that all men were wildly interesting and wildly varied. When a Dickens character becomes excited he becomes more and more himself. He does not, like the Scott beggar, turn more and more into man. As he rises he grows more and more into a gargoyle or grotesque. He does not, like the fine speaker in Scott, grow more classical as he grows more passionate, more universal as he grows more intense.
The response the beggar gives Sir Arthur Wardour is so brilliant and powerful, Chesterton is absolutely right to pick it out. Sends chills up my spine. But the properly salient passage here is this one: 'Scott was fond of describing kings in disguise. But all his characters are kings in disguise. He was, with all his errors, profoundly possessed with the old religious conception, the only possible democratic basis, the idea that man himself is a king in disguise.'

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Remarks on the Legality and Expediency of ...

I know what you're thinking: finally somebody apologizes for the vices of the lower orders. At last!

(In case you're wondering, Duncan's conclusion is that prosecutions for religious opinion are neither legal nor expedient when used to attack the varieties of religious observance; but may be needful when the horrid atheism rears its ugly head).

Thursday, 9 June 2016

The Cast of Outcast's Inn

So, there we have the title page to Modern Times, or, The Adventures of Gabriel Outcast (3 vols 1785), by John Trusler. Now: I was, for reasons that need not detain us, browsing through this fantastically obscure novel on Google Books earlier today, when I came across this little episode:

Ho ho. Anyway, this gave me pretty sharp déjà vu, and I found myself thinking: surely I'd read a similar scene in a nineteenth-century novel? Not one of Dickens's, I think, since I know them all pretty well; but maybe I'd read a scene like this in one of his occasional essays or stories, a Household Words or All The Year Round shorter piece? Or was it Thackeray? And if so, was one of these gentlemen slyly plagiarising poor old obscure Trusler? That might be worth knowing, if so. But I couldn't pin it down. Google was no use, so I posted a cry-for-help on Facebook.

Suggestions came in thick and fast, some of them blind-alleys (Tristram Shandy, Tom Jones, Henry Esmond). Karl Steel suggested The Phantom Tollbooth, which might indeed have been the source of my personal déjà vu, but, obviously, isn't a nineteenth-century novel (I couldn't shake my sense that there was a nineteenth-century version of this). Christine Ferguson, who certainly knows her 19th-century literature, said 'it's not what you're looking for, but this is essentially what happens to Jonathan Harker at Castle Dracula', which is certainly true but, as she notes, not what I was looking for. Ian Watson said this had actually happened to him in a hotel in Hungary. Jayaprakash Satyamurthy claimed he once read a Donald Duck story 'where Scrooge puts Donald in charge of a hotel. Scrooge comes to stay at the hotel incognito and Donald poses as the bellboy, concierge and so on.' I like to think that Jayaprakash reads more than just Donald Duck stories nowadays, but, you know: who knows? Jared Shurin noted that it happened in an I Love Lucy episode, and Nick Harkaway insisted it was a common gag, though he couldn't think of any particular examples.

By the end of this, process I found myself coming to the conclusion that actually this joke is one of those culturally ubiquitous comedy sequences, often recycled and repurposed. That in itself might explain my sense that I'd come across it before. But if so, then another question presents itself: is this version, in Trusler's 1785 Gabriel Outcast, the first version in print?

Star Camp (1865)

The Flagship of the 18th-Century French Aerial Navy. I found this in Christopher Hatton Turnor's Astra Castra: Experiments and Adventures in the Atmosphere (1865), a survey of manned flight from Greek myth into possible futurity. He found it who-knows-where, except that it is a post-Revolutionary French design.

Among my favourites: this rather-you-than-me-mate early-model parachute:

... and this nifty Persian airborn throne:

Here is Turnor's frankly over-propellered idea for a future dirigible:

He concludes with this slightly tinted glimpse of the future:

Twentieth-century Revelation indeed!

Monday, 6 June 2016

The Wellingtoniad (2824)

A piece of Thomas Babington Macaulay whimsy, this 1824 essay imagines a poet from a thousand years in the future writing a great epic poem about the, to him, deep-historical exploits of Lord Wellington. It represents, on its face, a comic-satiric dig at the invalidity of epic poetry in Macaulay's own day, a mode regarded as a kind of Malvolian cross-gartered-yellow-stocking. But the details are interesting, especially if we read them under the aegis of science fiction. 'I prophecy, then,' Macaulay says, 'that, in the year 2824, according to our present reckoning, a grand national Epic Poem, worthy to be compared with the Iliad, the Aeneid, or the Jerusalem, will be published in London.' He goes on, writing what amounts to a short-story in the future tense:
Richard Quongti will be born at Westminster on the 1st of July, 2786. He will be the younger son of the yonnger branch of one of the most respectable families in England. He will be lineally descended from Quongti, the famous Chinese liberal, who, after the failure of the heroic attempt of his party to obtain a constitution from the Emperor Fim Fam, will take refuge in England, in the twenty-third century. Here his descendants will obtain considerable note; and one branch of the family will be raised to the peerage ... He will display in his early youth such striking talents as will attract the notice of Viscount Qnongti, his third cousin, then secretary of state for the Steam Department. At the expense of this eminent nobleman, he will be sent to prosecute his studies at the university of Tombuctoo. To that illustrious seat of the muses all the ingenuous youth of every country will then be attracted by the high scientific character of Professor Quashaboo, and the eminent literary attainments of Professor Kissey Kickey. In spite of this formidable competition, however, Quongti will acquire the highest honours in every department of knowledge, and will obtain the esteem of his associates by his amiable and unaffected manners. The guardians of the young Duke of Carrington, premier peer of England, and the last remaining scion of the ancient and illustrious house of Smith, will be desirous to secure so able an instructor for their ward. With the Duke, Quongti will perform the grand tour, and visit the polished courts of Sydney and Capetown. After prevailing on his pupil, with great difficulty, to subdue a violent and imprudent passion which he had conceived for a Hottentot lady, of great beauty and accomplishments indeed, but of dubious character, he will travel with him to the United States of America. But that tremendous war which will be fatal to American liberty will, at that time, be raging through the whole federation. At New York the travellers will hear of the final defeat and death of the illustrious champion of freedom, Jonathan Higginbottom, and of the elevation of Ebenezer Hogsflesh to the perpetual Presidency. They will not choose to proceed in a journey which would expose them to the insults of that brutal soldiery, whose cruelty and rapacity will have devastated Mexico and Columbia, and now, at length, enslaved their own country.
Quongti returns (will return) to England and writes (will write) the Wellingtoniad, which is a huge hit. Macaulay quotes 'from Tombuctoo Review for April 2825'
In pathos, in splendour of language, in sweetness of versification, Mr. Quongti has long been considered as unrivalled. In his exquisite poem on the Omithorynchus Paradomus all these qualities are displayed in their greatest perfection. How exquisitely does that work arrest and embody the undefined and vague shadows which flit over an imaginative mind. The cold worldling may not comprehend it; but it will find a response in the bosom of every youthful poet ... It is difficult to conceive a plot more perfect than that of the Wellingtoniad. It is most faithful to the manners of the age to which it relates. It preserves exactly all the historical circumstances, and interweaves them most artfully with all the speciosa miracula of supernatural agency.
Then, before a summary of the poem, Macaulay inserts a slightly heavy-handed pointer to the point of all this mild satire: 'Some readers of the present day may think that Quongti is by no means entitled to the compliments which his Negro critic pays him on his adherence to the historical circumstances of the time in which he has chosen his subject; that, where he introduces any trait of our manners, it is in the wrong place, and that he confounds the customs of our age with those of much more remote periods. I can only say that the charge is infinitely more applicable to Homer, Virgil and Tasso. If, therefore, the reader should detect, in the following abstract of the plot, any little deviation from strict historical accuracy, let him reflect for a moment, whether Agamemnon would not have found as much to censure in the lliad,—Dido in the Eneid,—or Godfrey in the Jerusalem.' Now, on the one hand there needs no ghost come from the grave to tell us this; it's one of the things Herbert Tucker explores so well (and in such detail) in his 2012 Epic book: the older models of epic, though still earnestly copied by minor writers, were being comprehensively redefined and remade by the major Romantic poets, the Blakes, Wordsworths and Byrons. This musty old version of what epic had been, the pedantic cleavage to classical epic conventions and the myopic collapsing together of myth and history, at a time when the first of these was becoming ideology in a purer sense and the latter complexifying and dialecticising beyond the scope of simplifying poetic narrative—all this was gone. As Austen's Northanger Abbey (her weakest book by far I think) has sniggering fun at the expense of Gothic, so Macaulay has fun at the expense of contemporary epic:
BOOK I. THE poem commences, in form, with a solemn proposition of the subject. Then the muse is invoked to give the poet accurate information as to the causes of so terrible a commotion. The answer to this question, being, it is to be supposed, the joint production of the poet and the muse, ascribes the event to circumstances which have hitherto eluded all the research of political writers, namely, the influence of the god Mars, who, we are told, had some forty years before usurped the conjugal rights of old Carlo Buonaparte, and given ' birth to Napoleon. By his incitement it was that the em— peror with his devoted companions was now on the sea, returning to his ancient dominions. The gods were at present, fortunately for the adventurer, feasting with the Ethiopians, whose entertainments, according to the ancient custom described by Homer, they annually attended, with the same sort of condescending gluttony which now carries the cabinet to Guildhall on the 9th of November. Neptune was, in consequence, absent and unable to prevent the enemy of his favourite island from crossing his element. Boreas, however, who had his abode on the banks of the Russian ocean, and who, like Thetis in the Iliad, was not of sufficient quality to have an invitation to Ethiopia, resolves to destroy the armament which brings war and danger to his beloved Alexander. He accordingly raises a storm which is most powerfully described. Napoleon bewails the inglorious fate for which he seems to be reserved. “Oh ! thrice happy,” says he, “those who were frozen to death at Krasnoi, or slaughtered at Leipzic. Oh, Kutusofi, bravest of the Russians, wherefore was I not permitted to fall by thy victorious sword?” He then offers a prayer to Eolus, and vows to him a sacrifice of a black ram. In consequence, the god recalls his turbulent subject; the sea is calmed; and the ship anchors in the port of Frejus. Napoleon and Bertrand, who is always called the faithful Bertrand, land to explore the country; Mars meets them disguised as a lancer of the guard, wearing the cross of the legion of honour. He advises them to apply for necessaries of all kinds to the governor, shows them the way, and disappears with a strong smell of gunpowder. Napoleon makes a pathetic speech, and enters the governor’s house. Here he sees hanging up a fine print of the battle of Austerlitz, himself in the foreground giving his orders. This puts him in high spirits; he advances and salutes the governor, who receives him most loyally, gives him an entertainment, and, according to the usage of all epic hosts, insists after dinner on a full narration of all that has happened to him since the battle of Leipzic.


NAPOLEON carries his narrative from the battle of Leipzic to his abdication. But, as we shall have a great quantity of fighting on our hands, I think it best to omit the details.


NAPOLEON describes his sojourn at Elba, and his return; how he was driven by stress of weather to Sardinia, and fought with the harpies there; how he was then carried southward to Sicily, where he generously took on board an English sailor, whom a man of war had unhappily left there, and who was in imminent danger of being devoured by the Cyclops; how he landed in the bay of Naples, saw the Sibyl, and descended to Tartarus; how he held a long and pathetic conversation with Poniatowski, whom he found wandering unburied on the banks of Styx; how he swore to give him a splendid funeral; how he had also an affectionate interview with Desaix; how Moreau and Sir Ralph Abercrombie tied at the sight of him. He relates that he then re-embarked, and met with nothing of importance till the commencement of the storm with which the poem opens.


THE scene changes to Paris. Fame, in the garb of an express, brings intelligence of the landing of Napoleon. The king performs a sacrifice: but the entrails are unfavourable ; and the victim is without a heart. He prepares te encounter the invader. A young captain Of the guard,» the son of Maria Antoinette by Apo11o,—in the shape of a fiddler, rushes in to tell him that Napoleon is approaching with a vast army. The royal forces are drawn out for battle. Full catalogues are given of the regiments on both sides; their colonels, lieutenant-colonels, and uniform.


THE king comes forward and defies Napoleon to single combat. Napoleon accepts it. Sacrifices are offered. The ground is measured by Ney and Macdonald. The combatants advance. Louis snaps his pistol in vain. The bullet of Napoleon, on the contrary, carries off the tip of the king’s ear. Napoleon then rushes on him sword in hand. But Louis . snatches up a stone, such as ten men of those degenerate days will be unable to move, and hurls it at his antagonist. Mars averts it. Napoleon then seizes Louis, and is about to strike a fatal blow, when Bacchus intervenes, like Venus in the third book of the Iliad, bears off the king in a thick cloud, and seats him in an hotel at Lille, with a bottle of Maraschino and a basin of soup before him. Both armies instantly proclaim Napoleon emperor.


NEPTUNE, returned from his Ethiopian revels, sees with rage the events which have taken place in Europe. He flies to the cave of Alecto, and drags out the fiend, commanding her to excite universal hostility against Napoleon. The Fury repairs to Lord Castlereagh; and, as, when she visited Turnus, she assumed the form of an old woman, she here appears in the kindred shape of Mr. Vansittart, and in an impassioned address exhorts his lordship to war. His lordship, like Turnus, treats this unwonted monitor with great disrespect, tells him that he is an old doting fool, and advises him to look after the ways and means, and leave questions of peace and war to his betters. The Buy then displays all her terrors. The neat powdered hair bristles up into snakes; the black stockings appear clotted with blood; and, brandishing a torch, she announces her name and mission. Lord Castlereagh, seized with fury, flies instantly to the Parliament, and recommends war with a torrent of eloquent invective. All the members instantly clamour for vengeance, seize their arms which are hanging round the walls of the house, and rush forth to prepare for instant hostilities.


IN this book intelligence arrives at London of the flight of the Duchess d’Angouléme from France. It is stated that this heroine, armed from head to foot, defended Bordeaux against the adherents of Napoleon, and that she fought hand to hand with Clause], and beat him down with an enormous stone. Deserted by her followers, she at last, like Turnus, plunged, armed as she was, into the Garonne, and swam to an English ship which lay off the coast. This intelligence yet more inflames the English to war. A yet bolder flight than any which has been mentioned follows. The Duke of Wellington goes to take leave of the duchess; and a scene passes quite equal to the famous interview of Hector and Andromache. Lord Douro is frightened at his father’s feather, but begs for his epaulette.


NEPTUNE, trembling for the event of the war, implores Venus, who, as the offspring of his element, naturally venerates him, to procure from Vulcan a deadly sword and a pair of unerring pistols for the Duke. They are accordingly made and superbly decorated. The sheath of the sword, like the shield of Achilles, is carved, in exquisiter fine miniature, with scenes from the common life of the period; a dance at Almack’s, a boxing match at the Fives-court, a lord mayor’s procession, and a man hanging. All these are fully and elegantly described. The Duke thus armed hastens to Brussels.


THE Duke is received at Brussels by the King of the Netherlands with great magnificence. He is informed of the approach of the armies of all the confederate kings. The poet, however, with a laudable zeal for the glory of his country, completely passes over the exploits of the Austrians in Italy, and the discussions of the congress. England and France, Wellington and Napoleon, almost exclusively occupy his attention. Several days are spent at Brussels in revelry. The English heroes astonish their allies by exhibiting splendid games, similar to those which draw the flower of the British aristocracy to Newmarket and Moulsey Hurst, and which will be considered by our descendants with as much veneration as the Olympian and Isthmian contests by classical students of the present time. In the combat of the cestus, Shaw, the life-guards-man, vanquishes the Prince of Orange, and obtains a bull as a prize. In the horse-race, the Duke of Wellington and Lord Uxbridge ride against each other; the Duke is victorious, and is rewarded with twelve opera-girls. On the last day of the festivities, a splendid dance takes place, at which all the heroes attend.


Mans, seeing the English army thus inactive, hastens to rouse Napoleon, who, conducted by Night and Silence, unexpectedly attacks the Prussians. The slaughter is immense. Napoleon kills many whose histories and families are happily particularised. He slays Herman, the craniologist, who dwelt by the linden-shadowed Elbe, and measured with his eye the skulls of all who walked through the streets of Berlin. Alas! his own skull is now cleft by the Corsican sword. Four pupils of the University of Jena advance together to encounter the Emperor; at four blows he destroys them all. Blucher rushes to arrest the devastation; Napoleon strikes him to the ground and is on the point of killing him, but Gneisenau, Ziethen, Bulow, and all the other heroes of the Prussian army, gather. round him, and bear the venerable chief to a distance from the field. The slaughter is continued till night. In the meantime Neptune has despatched Fame to bear the intelligence to the Duke, who is dancing at Brussels. The whole army is put in motion. The Duke of Brunswick’s horse speaks to admonish him of his danger, but in vain.


PICTON, the Duke of Brunswick, and the Prince of Orange, engage Ney at Quatre Bras. Ney kills the Duke of Brunswick, and strips him, sending his belt to Napoleon. The English fall back on Waterloo. Jupiter calls a council of the gods, and commands that none shall interfere on either side. Mars and Neptune make very eloquent speeches. The battle of Waterloo commences. Napoleon kills Picton and Delaney. Ney engages Ponsonby and kills him. The Prince of Orange is wounded by Soult. Lord Uxbridge flies to check the carnage. He is severely wounded by Napoleon, and only saved by the assistance of Lord Hill. In the meantime the Duke makes a tremendous carnage among the French. He encounters General Duhesme and vanquishes him, but spares his life. He kills Toubert, who kept the gaming-house in the Palais Royal, and Maronet, who loved to spend whole nights in drinking champagne. Clerval, who had been hooted from the stage, and had then become a captain in the Imperial Guard, wished that he had still continued to face the more harmless enmity of the Parisian pit. But Larrey, the son of Esculapius, whom his father had instructed in all the secrets of his art, and who was surgeon-general of the French army, embraced the knees of the destroyer, and conjured him not to give death to one whose office it was to give life. The Duke raised him, and bade him live. But we must hasten to the close. Napoleon rushes to encounter Wellington. Both armies stand in mute amaze. The heroes fire their pistols; that of Napoleon misses, but that of Wellington, formed by the hand of Vulcan, and primed by the Cyclops, wounds the Emperor in the thigh. He flies, and takes refuge among his troops. The flight becomes promiscuous. The arrival of the Prussians, from a motive of patriotism, the poet completely passes over.


THINGS are now hastening to the catastrophe. Napoleon flies to London, and, seating himself on the hearth of the Regent, embraces the household gods, and conjures him, by the venerable age of George III., and by the opening perfections of the Princess Charlotte, to spare him. The Prince is inclined to do so; when, looking on his breast, he sees there the belt of the Duke of Brunswick. He instantly draws his sword, and is about to stab the destroyer of his kinsman. Piety and hospitality, however, restrain his hand. He takes a middle course, and condemns Napoleon to be exposed on a desert island. The King of France re-enters Paris; and the poem concludes.

It's all quite heavy-handed, this: by no means Macaulay's most enjoyable jeu d'esprit. I wonder if the problem is that he rather falls in love with the galumphing nonsensiad he conjures. I feel for him: as a science fiction writer, I rather fell for his thousand-year-hence future, where Timbuctoo is one of he world's leading universities and the key poet of the age is Chinese. This I take straightforwardly, as SFnal worldbuilding, and interestingly prescient, where Macaulay's original readership presumably read it as so absurd as to be richly amusing. But that's their loss. And part of me would like to read the actual Wellingtoniad proposed here.