08/12/2006

eagleton's great tradition

Terry Eagleton, The English Novel: an Introduction

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It was over a decade ago that Terry Eagleton published Literary Theory: an Introduction and brought the arcana of Foucault and Lacan to a lay audience - students, but not only students - for whom these figures and their work had always seemed as grotesquely inhuman as the alien gods of H.P. Lovecraft. Eagleton wrote as demystifier and impresario, and his guide, a revised, updated edition issued in 1996, has long since earned its reputation as the portal into a world inimical to common sense and clarity. Eagleton entitled his recent memoir The Gatekeeper - and it's precisely in this role that, with Literary Theory, he very successfully cast himself.

Of late Eagleton has produced a substantial critical rehabilitation of Tragedy (Sweet Violence) and a 'sequel' of sorts to Literary Theory. Less systematic exposition than, and certainly no repudiation of its predecessor, After Theory (2003) foregoes the marxisante stridencies of all those middle-aged political thinkers vexed to distraction by the refusal of the twenty-first century world to fit their ideas. Indeed, Eagleton has significantly modified his critical stance, which has become infinitely more hospitable to categories of experience - the numinous, chiefly, but compassion and joy too - he'd have dismissed two decades ago as symptoms of false consciousness. He finds the retrograde inflexibility of his confreres troubling and downright unhelpful; as Eagleton intimates at the close of Sweet Violence:

...Lacan's 'Do not give up on your desire!' becomes a political injunction. It means 'Be steadfast for death': don't be fulled by 'life' as we have it, refuse to make do with the bogus and the second-best, don't settle for that set of shabby fantasies known as reality, but cling to your faith that the deathly emptiness of dispossessed is the only source from which a more jubilant, self-delighting existence can ultimately spring. And for that, the left needs a discourse rather more searching than pluralism or pragmatism. There can be no falling back on metaphysical dogmatism or foundationalist complacency. But if the language of critique is to match the depth and urgency of our political situation, neither can the left be content to remain caught within the repetitive round of its present cultural concerns.


At times Eagleton, in After Theory, appears more the inheritor of the Ruskin of Fors Clavigera than the scion of a tradition springing from Raymond Williams and E.P. Thompson: Ruskin, a visionary socialist where the other two were career academics first and foremost. Eagleton is keenly conscious of writing in a state of cultural emergency, and it is the permeability of the barrier between critical study (Sweet Violence) and moral philosophy (After Theory) that makes it worth regarding the two books in terms of a revisionist portmanteau. We can no longer afford, he seems to be saying, to waste another word on inconsequential blather.

The English Novel: an Introduction, by comparison, is a rather low intensity affair - but loses nothing in charm for it. Indeed, it's almost cosily unprovocative - not least in Eagleton's restricting himself to the Canon - an abstraction, chiefly invented by bored Cambridge dons to pass the time at high table (novelists and poets sharply divided between U and non-U, as though Nancy Mitford had a hand in forming the native literary tradition), and a concept long since thought to have discredited itself. F.R. Leavis would have found its contents, superficially at least, uncontroversial. But he might have raised a patrician eyebrow at the ideas that Eagleton sneaks into the gaps between plot summaries; for the peculiar cast of the earlier two books remains - softened, but implacably there. The novel is "one of the great revolutionary cultural forms of human history" - an artefact than enacts freedom itself. "As the novelist conjures a new world into existence, in a profane parody of God's creation, so each individual shapes his or her inimitable life-history." Eagleton admires and exalts this quality of the novel, it resourcefulness in pinning down 'the Real' even while licensing novelist and reader jointly to interrogate the very notion of reality. Historically a cultural offspring of the ascendant middle-classes, under the hands of such socially heterodox figures as Swift, Sterne and Joyce, it became by far the most capacious medium for the scrutiny of fact and value, freedom and necessity.

Admittedly Eagleton plays it straight through most of this book, after the polemical alarums of the earlier two. The old contention between formalism and historicism is duly played out. Only in the afterword does Eagleton finally begin to betray his exasperation at the failure of the postwar novel - and, indeed, the post-Cold War novel - to fashion itself into a literary form primed to cope with the convulsions of modern geopolitics. As he has it, "the contemporary English novel is doing dismally little to disturb the reigning orthodoxies." The baroque fantasias of an A.S. Byatt seem scarcely bothered by the advent on the global scene of a political death cult.

As an ordnance survey of the English novel Eagleton's latest work is more than adequate. The cross-grained forthrightness of the Marxist firebrand of old still adheres to his prose. The high-mindedness survives intact, as does the tart wit and severe moral urgency. The undergraduate will find it indispensable for its comprehensiveness, and will perhaps even thank Eagleton for goading her into uncharacteristically original thought. The non-academic non-specialist will simply enjoy the assurance and seasoned authority with which Eagleton dispenses his readings of familiar novels. In some ways a slight work, The English Novel: an Introduction could quite profitably be read alongside its recent stable-mates, as Eagleton amplifies further the critical programme he began to elaborate in Sweet Violence. Whatever their apparent subject-matter, each of these books urge us to march into the near-future under the banner: Allons travailler.

05/12/2006

lessons of the master

Colm Toibin - The Master

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Leon Edel's magisterial 5-volume biography brought the literary lion to book. After the Life, Henry James could no longer be slighted as the scowling patrician of the Sargent portrait, the waistcoated Great Pretender who conjured from society gossip the unreadable late novels with their stylistic density and spiritual listlessness. The high seriousness seemed always a soft target for lampoon. Now, we know of Henry James Senior the Swedenborgian visionary, the suicide of Constance Fenimore Woolson, the cultural transit conducted by the son between the Old and the New Worlds, even James's tussle with 'the distinguished thing'. Cynthia Ozick, with her customary absolutist ardour, is downright on the subject of James's relevance: “As the years accumulate, James becomes, more and more compellingly, our contemporary, our urgency.” Literary taste has tended of late toward the glib, the meretricious, the flagrantly clever; by rights, pace Ozick, the Jamesian aesthetic should long have been eclipsed.

But seeded in James's fiction – the figure in the carpet, indeed – are precisely those ethical issues that still solicit our attention at the outset of the 21st century: the corrosive agonies of solitude and loneliness, what it means to live the virtuous life, the competing claims of self-fulfillment and self-renunciation, the semaphore of the self adrift in society. Edel's biography, on a rather grander scale than Auden's 'shilling life', certainly gave us all the facts. But it has taken another novelist to reimagine James with penetration and sympathy, to permit us to take the measure of the leviathan.

Colm Toibin is drawn to that in James which obdurately resists simple paraphrase. But it's difficult to avoid a sense, standing in its portico, that the book is no more than a paraphrase of the last volume of Edel's biography, itself entitled 'The Master'. With the fiction itself, James's notebooks and letters, the suspicion of redundancy clings somewhat to Toibin's enterprise. It isn't so much that realising such intense inwardness, or the unapproachable semi-divinity of genius, should pose significant problems to a novelist of such accredited literary power. Rather, we intuit a certain risk in any bid to decode the charged ellipses and psychological ambiguities of James's work. It might savour of sprezzatura on Toibin's part, it might even seem brazen. A literary game, another instance of which perhaps we don't really need. Yet it becomes clear that Toibin understands how necessarily he must defer to authority and precedent. He absents himself with discretion, and acquits himself on the score of literary tact, working faithfully, in John Keats's phrase, in 'the shadow of a magnitude'. (The silent, humourless Scots amanuensis engaged by James – who received dictation of his final works – stands, in this respect, as an apt figure of the role Toibin himself adopts: spectral representative of the Celtic fringe, watchful, recording all.)

The keynote moments of James's life and career are patiently revisited in The Master, chapter by chapter, year by year. The novel's first set-piece is a public humiliation the author endured on the opening night of his play Guy Domville, that creative experimentum crucis that brought James - by its fatal misjudgement of the mood of an audience then feasting on the languid sorceries of Oscar Wilde - to his knees and forever damaged his reputation. Toibin gives us the catcalls from the galleries as James was ushered onto the stage, “the crescendo of loud, rude disapproval which came from the people who had never read his books.” And this at a moment when James was preoccupied by his waning powers, by the perishability of his renown:

He also felt that as a novelist he had fallen upon evil times, any indication of his being hugely wanted by any editor or publisher was declining. A new generation, writers he did not know and did not prize, had taken universal possession. The sense of being almost finished weighed him down; he had been producing little, and publication in periodicals, once so lucrative and useful, was becoming closed to him.


Toibin concerns himself with the years of professional unsuccess that James was compelled by changing fashions to live through, and the surrender of public celebrity to the private consolations of retrospect. (Yet it was in this period that he composed his great tales - 'The Turn of the Screw', 'The Altar of the Dead', 'The Beast in the Jungle', not to mention the trinity of masterpieces, The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl. We might take from this the claustral nature of creativity.)

In The Master we become James's secret sharer, an intimate silent confederate. (As his letters finely illustrate, he had a gift for friendship – the correspondence is almost symphonic in its solicitude for young writers and acquaintances in need.) The muffled ecstatic shivers of homoerotic desire – James's sexuality has always been a closed matter – raise Toibin's fiction to a rare, saddened delicacy. We are party to the yearning, just as to the fearful insomniac vigils, but Toibin doesn't coarsen proceedings by resort to crass psychologism. Nor will he libel James by too great an emphasis on this or that psychic freak in the shaping of his gift. Toibin confers on him the dignity of final elusiveness as a human being. Edel's Life told us of the Napoleonic delusions and ravings occasioned by a stroke – Toibin concludes his novel before these last ugly scenes; in the pages of The Master at least, Henry James does not die.

James committed to print, in book after book, tale after tale, a deep, exacting study into the hydraulics of human interaction. Colm Toibin, in a prose as still and spare as James's could be luxuriant and exorbitant, brings to bear on the figure of James the same steady regard. The novelist, James had it, was one on whom nothing is lost; and in Toibin's rendering, James exercises a perceptual avidity, a hyperaesthesia that seizes hungrily on the merest emotional shifts and cues. For that is precisely what lay at the heart of his creativity: a famished craving for Life, Life! And yet, in spite of this affirmative credo, Toibin's James is quite literally death-haunted - “Sometimes in the night he dreamed about the dead..” (a first sentence that seems to shadow suggestively and curiously that of a book equally obsessed with the debatable lands of the past : “Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure...”). Each progressive novel was a memento mori, even when they affected to be unflappably urbane. Toibin cites death as the elephant in James's plush, musty parlour. That James's characters step around it as if around some vulgar social betîse somehow intensifies its omnipresence in so much of his work.

But whatever the terminal struggles, the art remains. Monolithic, forbidding – each novel seems to announce another raid on the inarticulate, another few furlongs of the field of human experience painstakingly mapped. 'Master of nuance and scruple,' Auden called him. The novelist Henry St George, in James's story 'The Lesson of the Master', has the honorific qualified to 'the pardonable master', and this might have stood as the title of Toibin's book. Lovable, perhaps not – almost certainly pardonable. Mastery of life itself – and the attainment thereof – is the thing, and the heresy of making death meaningless by living in fullness of spirit right now. James achieved this, Toibin seems to be saying, through the steel glass of literature – by showing us how the past could be 'remembered and captured and held.' That, and a sublime reticence and exemplary self-discipline that could distinguish any of our lives.

alienating ecstasies

Elizabeth Costello by J.M. Coetzee

In his last novel, Youth, J.M. Coetzee annihilated the pretensions to high literary art of a South African émigré in 60s London. It is a peculiarly desolating book, its narrator unsympathetic, a bland egoist who has made a fetish of chill perfection as only the truly mediocre can: “What more is required than a kind of stupid, insensitive doggedness, as lover, as writer, together with a readiness to fail and fail again?” He rejects even this, as he gives himself over to the joylessness and pointlessness of life. (The narrator 'John' is the John Coetzee who exists in the antiterra of the fiction, who didn't remain in South Africa and joined the northward diaspora of a generation of his peers.) Youth baffled critics when it first appeared – but the novel is at least comprehensible as a novel, even as the sensibility it portrays bores and dismays us. Elizabeth Costello is bound to mystify for quite different reasons.

Costello/Coetzee – a near-homonym, but it'd be unwise to identify this book's central figure too swiftly as the Nobel laureate en travesti. On the face of it, one might be inclined to suspect that the distinction between what happens when a writer jack-knifes into meta-fiction and simple exhaustion is a hard one to call. When novelists depart so decisively from the broad realist modes they once found so workable – even if, as with Coetzee, they have distressed the form with cold vigour – and begin slimming down, breaking up, modulating into the essay or the sermon, readerly patience risks a forfeit. Of course we're fairly accustomed by now to the enormous biddability of 'the novel', how freely it welcomes all sorts of formal abuse. It was always, at its historical high water mark, a polymorphous entity, bending itself to the urgencies of the moment. But what is Coetzee up to now?

Elizabeth Costello, author of The House on Eccles Street among other, unnamed works, is on the circuit. An Australian writer d'un certain age, she has surrendered herself to the half-light of late literary celebrity – the public lecture, the academic conference, the 'instructional' leisure cruise. She has become mere subject matter. A thousand and one doctoral dissertations probe her oeuvre. From the Ancrene Wisse to the Sunday supplements, she has given up the isolation, the essential detachment, of her craft, for the sphere of public argument and, most importantly, self-justification. Elizabeth Costello, the book, is framed as a series of lectures, delivered variously in Africa and Amsterdam. Coetzee calmly refuses us the consolations of 'plot', therefore such development as there is coheres in the person of Costello herself. Catechised by interviewers and audiences, she must lay bare the foundations of all that she has believed.

The first chapter slyly prods the principle of 'realism' itself, with a brief episode in which Costello attends an awards ceremony at an American college. The account interleaved with authorial self-questioning, this is Coetzee flirting with the playful instabilities of post-modernism. The old Barthesian chestnut is literalised, ironically: the Death of the Author melts into the possible imminence of Costello's death. The post-structuralists missed a trick, by never factoring in the Bone-Weariness of the Author, or the Author's Desire simply to be Left Alone. On this occasion she is accompanied by her son John and we see her, in the episode alone, through his eyes. He is appalled by and pities her frailty and bewilderment. He bridles bitterly at the difference between how she, the great post-colonial writer, is regarded by the world and how, uniquely placed as he was, he couldn't assent to the ideal. “What is the truth of his mother? He does not know, and at the deepest level does not want to know.”

Had this been a manifesto pure and simple, and not refracted through the consciousness of a fictional character, nothing of Costello's incoherence as a thinker, her spasms of doubt, would have quite the 'truth-value' they actually possess. Had Coetzee sat down and straightforwardly executed a piece of discursive prose, nothing of the drama of Costello's self-exposition – the vulnerability of it – would have transmitted itself to the page.

One of the most arresting of these 'eight lessons' begins with a raw, involuntary act of practical criticism – Elizabeth Costello has read Paul West's novel The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg (a real book, by a real author, as it happens..) and experiences what can least inadequately be described as a negative epiphany:

Obscene! she wanted to cry but did not cry because she did not know at whom the word should be flung: at herself, at West, at the committee of angels that watches impassively over all that passes. Obscene because such things ought not to take place, and then obscene again because having taken place they ought not to be brought into the light but covered up and hidden for ever in the bowels of the earth, like what goes on in the slaughterhouses of the world, if one wishes to save one's sanity.


Her outrage defies articulation. Indeed, though the tenor of the book is very much in a 'confessional' mode, it is as much concerned with the moment in a reflective person's life when their ideas finally no longer admit of expression in a familiar conceptual framework. Received wisdom has its uses, not least in realm of social interaction – it can grease the wheels, makes us intelligible to one another. But Costello has no need of such hedging anymore. Much of Coetzee's book is precisely about the failure to communicate spiritual emergencies, the inadequacy of any but a closed private language to convey the ethical pulse that flows along the heart and in the blood. How can one address such matters as are set forth in West's novel, without taint? How does a writer enter the abattoir, describe what he finds there, without some stealthy contamination, ruinous to the soul? Denying ourselves the concept of Original Sin, how account for human depravity?
On each of her speaking appointments Costello encounters hostility or indifference. Her eccentric passion bears her into a terra incognita through which her audiences are unwilling to be led. Voiced, her opinions lend her a crankish air. What convictions burn within her, when spoken become leaden and dim. She approaches Paul West at the Amsterdam conference on the Problem of Evil, declares that she will not apologize for the fact that her talk would be addressed directly to him – she hadn't known West would be present when she wrote the piece. West stares past her into the distance as she speaks. He does not reply. Again, Costello receives the rebuff of incomprehension. She must always retire to her own unmanageable thoughts, to an unending conversation with the self. “There ought to be an arrangement such that she bumps into someone in the corridor, perhaps Paul West himself; something should pass between them, sudden as lightning, that will illuminate the landscape for her, even if afterwards it returns to its native darkness. But the corridor, it seems, is empty.” Faintly outlined in her fractured discussions of literary art is an aesthetics of decency – one grossly flouted by Paul West, when he ventured into the cellar where the Stauffenberg conspirators were tortured and put to death. Elizabeth Costello, reflecting on the cruelty in the world around her, wonders if perhaps the novelist might do better to draw back from atrocity.

This tortured farrago of argument concludes oddly, with a strange non sequitur that doesn't quite succeed as a capstone to all that has come before. Coetzee has added a postscript, authored by an Elizabeth not the one known to us through the pages of this book. A brief letter by Elizabeth, Lady Chandos to Francis Bacon – its prose quivers and quails with the anxiety of missaying, and the breaking of the estate, in James Wood's terms, between language and being. “Drowning, we [both Lord and Lady Chandos, corresponding with Bacon] write out of our separate fates. Save us.” They turned, each in their alienating ecstasies, to the great essayist and statesman, philosopher of scientific empiricism, for whom the universe can be known. An eloquent but finally defeated rapturist, Lady Chandos ends with the subscription and the, to us, talismanic date: “Your Obedient Servant/Elizabeth C./This 11 September, AD 1603.”

Coetzee has produced a novel of ideas, a sly, profound roman à thèse which nevertheless is thrillingly self-subverting: the 'ideas' are themselves deformed, contradictory or unpalatable. To believe, to cleave to principle, is a matter of absolute risk. To engage utterly with a moral universe that played host to Auschwitz and Kolyma might after all be to imperil one's soul. Elizabeth Costello dramatises the radical problem of liberal humanism in the 20th century – how far must we reconstitute the suffering of others before we can justly speak of it and act upon it? And where does it end?

sudden flurries of enthusiasm

The Power of Delight – John Bayley

It's some cause for regret that John Bayley has become, in recent years, better known as the relict of Iris Murdoch than as a critic of awesome sharpness of insight and matchless breadth of learning. That more people – and people who consider themselves cultured and serious, to boot - will have read his scenes from a marriage and seen Richard Eyre's adaptation than will have even a glancing familiarity with The Characters of Love, decidedly reflects a general state of things. The long day of dedicated literary criticism wanes, the Bookbiz rumbles on.

Few book reviewers can boast the sheer joyful catholicity of Bayley's reading. It'd be fair to say that he knows more about nineteenth- and twentieth-century Russian literature than the average professor of Slavic Studies; he engages as surefootedly with American poetry (Ashbery, Merrill) as with Anthony Powell and Evelyn Waugh – attentive, with a wit that is apt to be sly but never less than generous. Something of the 'gentleman-amateur', or the old-style don: baggily rumpled in person, yet possessed of a fierce critical intelligence; an affable tweedy oddity who for all that can apply himself to the business of Appreciation. F.R. Leavis may never have contributed much to the gaiety of nations – moralists and ideologues rarely ever do. Bayley, on the other hand, meshes the blithe jauntiness of a Pickwick with the earnestness au fond of the Grand Cham himself...

The Power of Delight will be enough of a restorative, perhaps, to the eclipse of criticism - at least for those prepared to fork out for it and spend time among its 660 pages.

Bayley's civility is such that he generally restrains himself from critical snarking and sniping – but he can deliver barbs with the best of them. Examining two books on Balzac – V.S. Pritchett's biography and Barthes's S/Z, noting that “both are trying to reanimate Balzac's image for the modern reader, Pritchett by British empirical methods, Barthes by the latest style of Gallic formalistic analysis” – he dryly observes of the latter:

The results are certainly illuminating, but they will afford most profit to that numerous class of persons who have no instinctive enjoyment of literature and yet feel they ought to get something out of it.


It can certainly be a great relief, to turn to a literary critic who is a reader first and theoretician not at all – and who can extend courtesies to the work of the poets and novelists he discusses so fine and of such fair-minded tact that it makes the Stakhanovite efforts of the theory-mongers seem clumsy, coarse and misconceived:

The inculcation of a critical system is no substitute for the free play of Jamesian intelligence which, like taste itself, cannot be taught. For professionals, everything a literature course can and must be taught.


In the same review of Edward Said's The World, the Text and the Critic, Bayley reflects on this professionalisation of criticism, which by the eighties had become the speciality of the systematisers, and comes round to outing Said as the kind of essentially Arnoldian man of letters he himself approves of – at heart, more Sainte-Beuve than Foucault:

In a sense there is a real book inside Mr Said's official one, and the real book is relaxed and discursive, original, immensely learned, fluently written. It is essentially a book of essays, Victorian essays (perhaps we may soon revive that admirable Victorian critic, E.S. Dallas, who spoke of criticism, God help him, as 'the gay science'') that slip easily and illuminatingly from one thing to another...


Bayley is often twinkly and naughty in this way. And, for the most part, his observations are buttressed by the kind of assurance that comes of having nothing to prove. If he seems impatient at times – with Graham Greene, with Robert Lowell – it's in spite of himself. He makes for good company.
Update: You'll find a rather better account of Bayley's work here... :)

hiding in the light

Tom McCarthy – Tintin and the Secret of Literature

Make no mistake: this is a serious book. True, the sceptical lay-reader will already have made up her mind about the overwrought niaiseries of the Cultural Studies racket – a project whose ingenuity is broadly on a par with its brazenness; whose earnestness is often outstripped only by its silliness – and Tintin and the Secret of Literature was clearly always going to be a hard sell to anyone who can't quite muster the enthusiasm for another game of 'Spot the Aporia'. The dustjacket of this Granta hardback reproduces a work by Jochen Gerner, one of a number of postwar artists who, as McCarthy tells us, made a 'détournement' of Hergé's work – an illicit annexation, a 'meme hack' of the kind flourishing now on the Internet (fan fiction and, more edgily, slash fiction). This procedure isn't so far removed from the critical enterprise itself – while Gerner's inspired vandalism seeks to isolate the emblems of Late Capitalism in the frames of 'Tintin in America', McCarthy performs a similar intervention, writing a high-toned kind of slash fiction of his own: Hergé/Bataille, Hergé/Barthes, Hergé/Derrida, all of them copulating merrily between the Acknowledgements page and the Index.

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Lively, shrewd and utterly, gloriously pointless, Tintin and the Secret of Literature stands at once as a bibliographic acte gratuite – a critical study as elaborate toy – and as the record of an enchantment. McCarthy lavishes on the Tintin albums a full-bore fixity of attention that you might expect from a specialist in, say, algebraic topology. Our sceptic may well suspect that this is as frivolously self-defeating as extracting sunlight from cucumbers. Plausibility was never of prime concern to the originators of Theory in the first place; but those who have chiselled out careers from it depend more on its opacity to the average punter than ever before. Leaf through Tintin and the Secret of Literature, and your eye will be delighted by the usual stylistic plague-spots: “Gravity, like repetition, opens up the dimension of time, by testifying to the 'temporal reality of death'.” Uh-huh. McCarthy's prose can be as sluggishly bathetic as it is overladen with detail. His commitment to divining symbolic matrices in the cartoons – and issuing affidavits to the likes of Derrida and Mauss - draws him perilously close to losing the reader's good will altogether. But McCarthy possesses in spades what for many a pastor of High Theory is unimaginable, unattainable: a brilliance and zesty charm, the underrated capacity for self-irony.

Seven chapters, thematically organized: certain interpretative gambits are raised, submerge and reappear later. Fascism and friendship, forgery, ownership and inheritance and dispossession, the thwarting illegibility of the signs and symbols that invest our world with meaning – McCarthy tosses all of these into a bubbling macedoine of conjecture and analysis. Indeed so much is packed into this slender book, and much of it suggestive, that it's hard not to marvel at McCarthy's powers of compression. After we stop marvelling at his chutzpah.

Crucial to the working-through of his thesis, is that he takes Herge seriously (unusual in the world of Anglophone letters, but there have been a number of weighty tomes published in French). If there were no fully realized aesthetic system at work in the Tintin oeuvre, all the evidence on the page would certainly suggest otherwise. If Herge hadn't in fact brought into play allusions to Balzac and Baudelaire, even the most cheese-paringly scrupulous critic would be forgiven for believing that he had – again, on textual evidence alone. What's so cheering about McCarthy's midrashic labours, is that Herge's draughtsmanship and plotting – wholly à la page – actually encourage the wilder critical assertions.

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So, McCarthy points out the omnipresence of tobacco in the books – we double-check ourselves – and, yes, he appears to be right. He notices how often counterfeiters and copyists - stand-ins for the function of the artist – figure in these stories, how regularly Tintin is entombed and released, and how fatally the characters misread the clues strewn around them. Any doubts we might have about whether these ripping yarns can really sustain such close reading do tend to evaporate the further along we get into McCarthy's book. He sets forth his argument without undue violence to the source text. Cryptanalysis pays dividends – but it's fair to wonder to what extent Herge teases his reader into it.

In any case McCarthy knows his subject matter. His favourite among the twenty-five 'The Castafiore Emerald'. Your average Tintinophile will raise an eyebrow – it's a choice – unintelligible to the casual fan, maybe - that suggests McCarthy is hardcore, a Pharisee among readers, a fanatical purist. In this story nothing happens, repeatedly. But McCarthy's approach needs to uncover the genome, the deep creative incubator, traces of which are seeded throughout the Tintin stories. Herge offered up a unitary creative system, after all, something comprehensive and internally coherent; and his critic is a code-breaker if he is nothing else. Truffling for the 'themes and anxieties active in the Tintin books', McCarthy tosses up one stirring insight after another – rather niftily tying up his thesis with biographical details – yet, for all that, he is a notably coy about the nature of the 'secret' around which Herge's colourful world is constellated. McCarthy nudges us toward, but steers us away, from it, in what amounts to a rhetorical bait-and-switch. “Tintin both offers and withholds,” he says – and so too does McCarthy, and when he turns his attention to the quiffed boy-journalist himself, the book is at its most riddling. Tintin is 'the enabler of all economies', he's also, loftily, absurdly, the 'Guardian of silence at the heart of noise'; but, to his credit, McCarthy shies from suggesting that there's any hint of the Christ-like about him...

Interestingly, among the cenacle of theorists McCarthy calls on, one of the usual suspects appears to be missing. Jacques Lacan is – mysteriously, perhaps – absent, even as Snowy the dog (Milou), Tintin's faithful companion, generally goes unmentioned (Snowy, l'objet petit a?). We might idly wonder – why so? The exigencies of book-making, lack of space, or some other, complex reason? A critic so fond of paradox as McCarthy would surely have seized on the totalizing psychoanalytic interpretation. Impossible to fault him for the thoroughness of his readings, either – it's the evasiveness, however, that frustrates more than the welter of data and the obsessive reliance on the notion that the cartoons set up an infinite regress of lisibilité. Anyone with more than a passing acquaintance with Theory at its high watermark knows the drill immediately. Something to do with death, something to do with the Subject, something to do with the limitlessly recursive nature of écriture itself: a nod to de Manian blindness and insight, and, hey presto!, a critical stance, an attitude. The problem remains, for the reader at least. How are we to take such cadenzas as these of McCarthy's, how can we rid ourselves of the suspicion that he's hoaxing us with such inflated as these?:



Beautiful, seductive, he is, like Balzac's castrato, the vanishing point of all
desire. The black dots of his eyes are the opposite of every sun, his skin the
antitype of any colour. Tintin is pure negative, the whiteness of the whale, the
sexlessness of the unconsummated marriage, the radical erasure of the
Khamsin...

McCarthy risks taking his argument ad absurdum with flights like these – but one senses that he does on some level recognize how daft it is, that the critic is permitted his follies and hobbyhorses, and capering antically like a Shakespearean fool, may indeed light upon truths inaccessible to the more sober-sided of us. He must be entitled to hypothesize freely, to construct interpretative models, to make gambits that seem on the face of it unpromising. When McCarthy cites Barthes's S/Z all our readerly instincts are in revolt – yet it illustrates something of significance in the Tintin books, and can therefore be allowed to stand. It seems that Herge does in fact allude directly to Sarrasine, and it isn't improper of McCarthy to point it out. Quite why Herge does so, is another matter – whether unconsciously prompted, in the heat of creation rummaging in the lumber-room of memory, or whether he wanted to give his art that lustrous sheen of aesthetic legitimacy, is perhaps something to which there can be no answer.

in their deathtime

Paul Farley & Michael Symmons Roberts - Deaths of the Poets What - for the poet, whose work is validated by the vital intricacies o...