ars moriendi

Marilynne Robinson – Gilead

In his early poem 'Mr Edwards and the Spider' Robert Lowell betrayed a precocious obsession with the fate of sinners in the hands of an angry god:

But who can plumb the sinking of that soul?
Josiah Hawley, picture yourself cast
Into a brick-kiln where the blast
Fans your quick vitals to a coal --
If measured by a glass,
How long would it seem burning! Let there pass
A minute, ten, ten trillion; but the blaze
Is infinite, eternal: this is death,
To die and know it. This is the Black Widow, death.

(Josiah [Joseph] Hawley cut his own throat after listening to Jonathan Edwards's hell-fire sermon – everyone's a critic...)

Serenity and resignation; stillness and repose – none of which qualities, or attitudes of spirit, are commended by the pitiless Calvinism explored in Lowell's poem. The grand guignol sadism in evidence here – we the fallen squirming on the spike of God's displeasure – says more about the poet's state of mind than anything about the doctrine itself. But Lowell was drawn to the punitive aspects of American Puritanism. Tant pis.

Blessedly Marilynne Robinson's novel Gilead offers us a picture of the Congregationalist communion not morbidly fixated on spiritual agonies, not at all masochistically overheated. Stillness and repose very much contribute to the emotional atmospherics of the novel. Its narrator – the Reverend John Ames – contemplates his life and imminent death with a clearsightedness and candour that breaks the heart. In his mid-seventies he writes a journal meant to be read by his 7 year-old son, a late child, offering moral instruction for when the father is no longer there.

Ames endears himself as a complex mixture of elderly fussbudget and Emersonian sage; and his remarkable voice, sustained so perfectly through the novel, utters the world and its marvels so gently and raptly. Ames's favourite theologian, it turns out, is Karl Barth; of whom John Updike, bearing as it does on the theme of the novel, has this to say: “Karl Barth's insistence upon the otherness of God seemed to free him to be exceptionally (for a theologian) appreciative and indulgent of this world, the world at hand.” And:

Granted that the situation of the world and of the individual life is as desperate as Barth paints it, and granted that the message of the Bible, and of the Pauline epistles in particular, is just as he explicates it, amid these radical truths how shall we conduct our daily lives? Does not God's absolute otherness diminish to zero the significance of our petty activity and relative morality?

“God is not a God of the dead but of the living” - Ames endorses Barth's dictum, and, page after page, demonstrates how 'appreciative and indulgent' he is 'of this world, the world at hand.' He exults in the thisness of all he observes, in a kind of sensorial gourmandise: “I saw a bubble float past my window, fat and wobbly and ripening toward that dragonfly blue they turn just before they burst... Some of the bubbles drifted up through the branches, even above the trees. You two [Ames's son and his wife] were too intent on the cat to see the celestial consequences of your worldly endeavours.... Ah, this life, this world.” A novel of keen retrospect, Gilead is shot through with such perceptual grace-notes. Ames wants to miss nothing, forget nothing. And this avidity of his, this terminal appetite, makes the prose sing.

Marilynne Robinson excuses herself from the conventional trappings of plot, of narrative progression. Ames digresses, pursues the golden clew of thought and reminiscence, moralises, reflects, holds up his conscience to the light as a jeweller might a precious stone. Robinson allows him all this, allows him the latitude to explore his soul's vagaries; signalling, perhaps, her respect for his predicament – which is ours - and for his integrity. Extraordinarily, Ames seems so present in this work, seems so magically realised, that Robinson the novelist is almost a deus absconditis – Ames absolutely fills this book with his essential self, questing, peevish, awe-struck, ruminative. The novel is a ventriloquial tour de force; by its end, you give yourself over to the almost miraculous illusion of a human being set forth on the page, settled in his ontology, with all his crotchets and sudden flaring insights and confided tendernesses. And his unresting mind! his joyful curiosity!

Set in 1957, Gilead the novel memorialises Gilead the (fictional) Iowan town, and the passing of its generations. John Ames was the son and grandson of preachers, for whom the Civil War was a living memory. Ames's grandfather, one of the novel's great portraits, took part on the Union side and fought with John Brown. He was prone to waking visions, brief audiences with the divine; and an object of baffled terror to his grandchildren. Ames observes that “..we all do live on the ruins of the lives of other generations, so there is a seeming continuity which is important because it deceives us.” What of the past can be meaningfully transmitted to the future, without falsifying its witness?

Ames ponders the mystery of grace, “a sort of ecstatic fire that takes things down to essentials.” His godson Jack, the adult child of his friend Boughton, appears on the scene; and Ames must weigh his mistrust of the man and his 'strange suffering' with his obligation to forgive. Convinced of his damnation Jack taunts the Reverend Ames while at the same time entreating him as one who may have a remedy: their exchanges are among the most psychologically penetrating – and enigmatic – in the novel. (Long ago Jack impregnated a young girl and abandoned her to poverty; and the scene where Ames and Jack's sister visit her, watching her and the infant play by the riverside, must stand as a masterclass of pathos and writerly control – the saddest story.) Ames expresses his gratitude, time and again, for the special providence that brought him, late in life, his second wife Lila, his son's mother; and, again, Robinson invests this with pitch-perfect emotional truth. The novel is rich with these Wordsworthian 'spots of time'; they are, finally, its fibre and nutriment:

I do enjoy remembering that morning. I was sixty-seven, to be exact, which did not seem old to me. I wish I could give you the memory I have of your mother that day. I wish I could leave you certain of the images in my mind, because they are so beautiful that I hate to think they will be extinguished when I am. Well, but again, this life has its own mortal loveliness. And memory is not strictly mortal in its nature, either. It is a strange thing, after all, to be able to return to a moment, when it can hardly be said to have any reality at all, even in its passing. A moment is such a slight thing, I mean, that its abiding is a most gracious reprieve.

Gilead – through the proxy of its narrator – impresses on us the stark imperative of reckoning fruitfully with our mortality. Rare that a contemporary novel should enter, unprejudicially, into the Christian heart, without rancorous scepticism, and depict a believer so sympathetically. Ames moves us – against our own impoverished unbelief – as one steadfast unto God; but, more, as a man of humility and principle, free of the kind of torpid Dostoyevskian spiritual violence we're accustomed to in modern fiction. Compellingly, Marilynne Robinson tenders – in the figure of the Reverend John Ames – a picture of a good man; and the novel borrows much of its lambency from his faith.

Theologians talk about a prevenient grace the precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave – that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honour them is to do great harm. And therefore, this courage allows us, as the old men said, to make ourselves useful. It allows us to be generous, which is another way of saying exactly the same thing. But that is the pulpit speaking. What have I to leave you but the ruins of old courage, and the lore of old gallantry and hope? Well, as I have said, it is all ember now, and the good Lord will surely someday breathe it into flame again.




James Wood – How Fiction Works


Forty-odd years ago Iris Murdoch cast an eye over the spheres of activity termed moral philosophy and literature, and – with the unfussy authority of an ex cathedra – identified the two dominant modes in which contemporary fiction operated. “The twentieth-century novel is usually either crystalline or journalistic,” she wrote; “that is, it is either a small quasi-allegorical object portraying the human condition and not containing 'characters' in the nineteenth-century sense, or else it a large shapeless quasi-documentary object, the degenerate descendant of the nineteenth-century novel, telling, with pale conventional characters, some straightforward story enlivened with empirical facts.” Murdoch was dissatisfied with the thinness of our concept of the Self, lacking as we did a “satisfactory Liberal theory of personality, a theory of man as free and separate and related to a rich and complicated world from which, as a moral being, he has much to learn.”

Murdoch insisted that we needed to rediscover 'a respect for the contingent'; that is, the Novel, in order to attain its fullest expression as an art form, must be hospitable to imperfection, incompleteness; and discard any notion of closure, pattern, formal neatness. “We must turn our attention away from the consoling dream necessity of Romanticism, away from the dry symbol, the bogus individual, the false whole, towards the real impenetrable human person.” ('Against Dryness', 1961)

Contingency, as Murdoch understood it, finds its sublime apogee in the great Russian novelists, Tolstoy chief among them: “...since reality is incomplete, art must not be too afraid of incompleteness”; and it is the profound inaccessibility of the souls of other people, their habit of slipping free of the snares of pure behaviourism and psychologism ('motive', in the kind of fiction Murdoch approves of, being thus a chimera and delusion), that the Novel ought to be engaged with. In Tolstoy, as in Shakespeare, the characters peopling their work are ineluctably, unapologetically themselves. And we have the sense that they somehow resist the puppetry of the author...

The suspension of analysis, that would reduce a human being to a set of clearly intelligible – if fatally reductive – sigils of selfhood, and would deny the 'opacity of persons': for Murdoch, the acceptance of the otherness of the other enjoined on us by great fiction is much akin to the experience of love.

Now, as James Wood has pointed out, Murdoch's practice as a novelist herself falls short of this philosophical ideal, this 'Atlantis of the mind'. She issues a counsel of perfection that, in her own fiction, she fails to meet. (Reading her novels today, one is struck by how mannered, how weirdly stylised and theme-cramped they are: indeed, how masque-like.) Wood cites her 'excessive Platonic scrupulosity' as perhaps the cause of Murdoch's lapse and the aesthetic flaws of her work. Her characters are afflicted by a kind of histrionic diabolism – they lurch from spiritual crisis to spiritual crisis, they are afire with otherworldly mysticism or broken on the wheel of moral abjection. Her prose seems to function in the classic realist manner, its austerity almost painful; but Murdoch is less interested in examining the ordinary than in hauling her characters over the existential coals. Indeed the typical Murdochian novel thrashes about in its hyperreality, and her philosophical concerns are never far from the surface.

For Murdoch, if literature is to succeed qua art it must dispense with any consolatory pleasures; and it “..must always represent a battle between real people and images..” But, with the best will in the world, it isn't easy to find 'real' people populating her novels. Martyrs and psychopaths, hierophants and holy fools, yes – but real? Murdoch's was a deeply divided creative sensibility. Each of her novels, to some degree, was a hamstrung compromise between roman à thèse and conventional plot-driven narrative, characterful and coherent. Each seems asphyxiated by the dense wadding of philosophy. Fascinating though they are, they exist in another dimension, shying from the banalities of life. James Wood remarks that “...it is frustrating, if one cares about English fiction, to see a novelist so well-equipped artistically, skidding around on this hard philosophical ice.” Things as they are,/Are changed upon the blue guitar...

Realism – or things are they are, unmolested by programme and undistracted by philosophical inquiry. James Wood regrets Iris Murdoch's failure to grasp the distinction between aesthetic and philosophical, and there's something rather touching about that. The novels are 'hapless enactments of philosophy', and Wood means for us to regard Murdoch in the light of a thwarted idealist, one in whom the brittle deliverances of a fiction attentive to the textures of the real are stifled by the professional philosopher's bad habits. “Perhaps her novels are the aesthetic sacrifices to her stern metaphysics?” That she enrolls Tolstoy to her ethical vision, as the greatest exemplar of a process through which “an enriching and deepening of concepts ... moral progress takes place”, is instructive – Tolstoy seen in his essential religiosity, the bearded pentateuchal patriarch of his last years, and not the Tolstoy of whom Virginia Woolf can write, in her essay 'The Russian Point of View':

Nothing seems to escape him. Nothing glances off him unrecorded. Nobody, therefore, can so convey the excitement of sport, the beauty of horses, and the all the fierce desirability of the world to the senses of a strong young man. Every twig, every feather sticks to his magnet. He notices the blue or red of a child's frock; the way a horse shifts itself tail; the sound of a cough; the action of a man trying to put his hands into pockets that have been sewn up. And what his infallible eye reports of a cough or a trick of the hands his infallible brain refers to something hidden in the character, so that we know his people, not only by the way they love and their views on politics and the immortality of the soul, but also by the way they sneeze and choke.

This is exquisitely put, and James Wood, I'm sure, would very much approve. Woolf says more about Tolstoy the novelist in a paragraph than poor Iris Murdoch, feverishly flipping the Zener cards of speculative philosophy, can muster in all her critical writings. “Life dominates Tolstoy,” Woolf goes on, “as the soul dominates Dostoevsky. There is always at the centre of all the brilliant and flashing petals of the flower this scorpion, 'Why live?'” Besides Murdoch's anaemic vagueness about Tolstoy saying “that art was an expression of the religious perception of the age..”, Woolf's delight in the power of seeing, in the Conradian faith in making you see, stands as comprehensive and persuasive a reason as any to believe that literary realism isn't the dead letter some would maintain. The fierce desirability of the world to the senses...

Iris Murdoch's fiction – in spite of its peculiar dramatic intensities - feels less than fully realized to us because of the absence of specificity she grants to her worlds. Her characters are ghosts in the machine of her philosophical investigations. A.S. Byatt has written, more forgivingly, that the Murdochian novel “stands beside realism, a papery charade indicating in riddles what it is not doing, but is intensely concerned with.” The Black Prince – the work Byatt discusses - “is best read as a fable about the difficulties of realism, or truth-telling.” Perhaps Wood is wrong to reprove Murdoch for failing to settle comfortably into the realist mode, because she is too self-conscious a thinker not to grasp how troublesome that mode can be. She is a renegade realist, a fabulist at heart, straying into zones beyond the strict boundaries of the form, viewing the novel from without. Blaming her for not writing as a 'straight' realist must then be like blaming a golf ball for not being a vegetable. But, for James Wood, uncomplicatedly, the measure of aesthetic success remains the felt proximity to the world and its devices. Murdoch was simply too infected by thought and the rarefied crossmess parzel of metaphysics – the novel as donnish parlour game – to come to the mark.


Literary realism isn't, James Wood asserts, in cultural receivership. Rather, it supplies the ground to all the types of its contraries - be they never so ready to reject any debt, or disavow realism as 'stuffy, correct, unprogressive'. Writing of Gogol, Wood holds that “'realism' is beautifully flexible and longeval, and has always contained within it, as a single note contains its harmonics, its potential mixtures. Realism produces surrealism; it funds its own defaulters.” Wood emerged in the nineties as a critic at odds with the reigning cultural atmosphere. His two essay collections, The Broken Estate and The Irresponsible Self, introduced a voice that was neither mustily academic nor meretriciously 'cool': measured, serious, with a spidery intelligence that can nimbly explore the pitted surfaces of a text.

Abandoning the 'mephitic kindergarten' (Gore Vidal) of the Cambridge English Faculty, Wood instead worked for the Guardian, as literary editor of The New Republic, and, today, as staff writer for The New Yorker. Ready to accept the risks and rewards of the freelancer, he struck out with a series of deeply involved pieces that make typical newspaper reviewery seem like thin gruel. The publication of The Broken Estate suggested that, however much the naysayers might complain, literary criticism – the real deal, an activity which enhances and adds to the work it examines – still had true viability beyond the academy. (Henry James's absolutism on this score is telling: “The critical sense is so far from frequent that it is absolutely rare, and the possession of the cluster of qualities that minister to it is one of the highest distinctions ... In this light one sees the critic as the real helper of the artist, a torch-bearing outrider, the interpreter, the brother.”) Wood raised the stakes: it seemed that it had become possible once more for literary journalism to find a receptive audience and speak to it au sérieux.

Much of this rests on the gravity of Wood's themes. The Broken Estate declares itself as a study of the dialectical movement between religious belief and literary belief. At some point in the nineteenth century, Wood argues, the immemorial concordat between the message of the Gospels – as revealed truth – and an orphaned humanity was shattered. Yet the impulses animating this former 'estate' remained, and it fell to literature and art to respond to them. The Bible was reinterpreted as an anthology of fables, a verbal artifact. Flaubert elevated style to a religious obligation. Subtly aphoristic in his introduction, Wood nudges us toward an understanding of the upshot of this shift: “The gentle request to believe is what makes fiction so moving... This is surely the true secularism of fiction – why, despite its being a kind of magic, it is actually the enemy of superstition, the slayer of religions, the scrutineer of falsity... Fiction moves in the shadow of doubt...” Which is to say, there will be no glib certainties in the very best fiction, nothing doctrinaire, nothing coercive – it prosecutes its effects on us by the mildest of trickeries, by soliciting our credence, by wooing us with plausibilities, not by extorting it from us. Wood persuades, perhaps, because of this unassuming tack. Unlike an F.R. Leavis, say, there will be no bullying into compliance. We must orientate ourselves toward literature and life sceptically but openly.

Ford Madox Ford once echoed Wood's insistence that 'realism' is the enabler and final guarantor of all the other varieties of fictive art: “... Lord Dunsany imagines himself to be in revolt against realism ... He does nothing of the sort of course, since he is one of the chief realists of them all. He is so much of a realist that he produces an effect of mysticism; just as his countryman who is thinking of filling the old pig with buckshot produces an effect of thinking of the cold way of the stars. This is not a paradox; it is part of the whole scheme of art and of the way art works.”

Wood's conviction of the vital utility of fiction is bracing, if defiantly old-fashioned. His prose, while sharply precise, with a suppleness that never falters into laxity, positions itself somewhere among the belle-lettrists of an earlier age. Little wonder, then, that the blogosphere has rounded on Wood, and he has borne the brunt of such snarkishness from certain quarters that it's fairly easy to feel that a lot of the grandstanding snidery and 'masculinist anti-intellectualism' comes from those threatened, in some obscure way, by him. (Some responses so wrong-headed it's hard to know what to say in reply: "If this is the remaining legacy of the 'great tradition' of British literary criticism [or American, for that matter], better that we should refuse it." Oh, really...) In the capping section of How Fiction Works, Wood quotes two contemporary opinions on realism, Rick Moody and the litblog 'The Elegant Variation'. (Although I ought to point out that Mark Sarvas, proprietor of TEV, is an admirer of Wood.) Both are of the view that the realist novel is a limping Rosinante of a form. Both suggest that it is reactionary, moribund and basically irrelevant. “This,” Wood replies, “is more or less nonsense.”


Wood's latest, How Fiction Works, is a handbook of practical criticism - “casting a critic's eye over the business of creation”. Ten chapters, each composed of short numbered paragraphs; it forms, also, something of an appendix to the earlier books, in that much of its matter will be familiar to readers of Wood (I'd almost written 'fans'), and many of the interpretative moves can be found more expansively in his criticism proper. Wood asks us to think of it as a contemporary revision of E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel. (Ford Madox Ford spluttered over the 'tea cup clattering disquisitions' that Forster indulges himself in: “He cites an immense number of second-rate English novelists and jests over them for all the world like a contributor to Punch making fun of his own children for the benefit of the public.”) Wood, mercifully, isn't quite as niminy-piminy as Forster. His faith in literary realism's capacity for most meaningfully engaging with human experience carries over from the essays. To educate a reader in the 'forms of attention' (Frank Kermode) through which we deepen our maiden apprehension of literature as connected to the world, to our experience of it, as the preeminent means of understanding it: this is Wood's project.

Familiarise yourself with Wood's criticism and you come soon enough to recognise his touchstones: Flaubert, Tolstoy, Italo Svevo, Knut Hamsen, Henry Green, among others. They reappear in How Fiction Works, as those novelists best able to give verbal definition to the textures of real life, to the 'mind's creases', and who acknowledge the final unknowability of the self.

Technically it has been through the development of the Free Indirect Style – and the artful deployment thereof – that the novel emerged as the bel wether of literary forms: it “brings us closer to the characters,” says Wood, “letting us, if only for a minute, inhabit the wilderness of their souls.” He sets the greatest store by writers who make use of it most adroitly, without obtruding their own voices. The reader eavesdrops but does not quite fully occupy a character's mind as one might stream-of-consciousness. The shuttling perceptions and observations of the character blend with the récit. The effect, thus, is that of intermitted intimacy: truer to our oblique, imperfect experience of other people; less self-consciously written than Joycean monologue intérieur. For such subtlety Wood cherishes high realism. Its being comfortable with lacunae, too, as Wood illustrates in his discussions, here and elsewhere, of Chekhov, who spells nothing out, who liberated fiction from authorial tinkering and let it breathe. Wood further argues that the great novelist is a 'first-class noticer', skilled at plucking from the shapelessness of the phenomenal world details which illumine and are themselves promissory notes for the authenticity of the fiction. Now, at first blush none of this seems exceptionable. Close reading is the means by which the reader proves his mettle, after all. And Wood wants to school us in attentiveness to the wrinkles and purls of a narrative, of style and characterisation. The feverish busyness of what he's called 'hysterical realism' – with its promiscuously inventive energy and bustle – really only distracts from the matter in hand. For Wood to read a novel is a kind of secular sacrament; and the spectral traces of the devotional habit are everywhere in his criticism.

Yet How Fiction Works – read alongside the earlier works – feels thinner, less engaged, written left-handedly. This by no means slights Wood's commitment to the business of criticism. (There's been a suspicious rash of such slender 'how-to' manuals of late, from Terry Eagleton's How to Read Poetry to Tom Paulin's Secret Life of Poems.) It may simply be that by far the better instances of his practice are to be found in The Broken Estate and The Irresponsible Self: we've been spoilt. His publisher left a certain hostage to fortune by billing it Wood's 'first full-length critical study'. It is nothing of the sort, which isn't to say that How Fiction Works somehow bombs... The same delight in mastery radiates from the page, the same joyous thrill over the excellences to be discovered in the most accomplished fiction. But it's a minor matter of regret that Wood hadn't quite the nerve to stray far from territory covered before, and more thoroughly and interestingly, at that.

Fiction – the most maturely realised, the most exemplary – transacts between artifice and verisimilitude. The novelist shapes his fiction principally by selection of detail, regulation of tempo, and so on. The proposition, however, seems drably obvious, the merest truism. Might it be a cause for concern, that our instincts for decoding the strategies of narrative writing have become so attenuated, that Wood needs to point it out? (I myself first came across the Free Indirect Style at sixteen, reading Stephen King – I hadn't the term for the technique, but I identified it as such...)

In his much-debated essay 'Hysterical Realism' Wood invokes what he calls the 'Sun King principle': “An excess of storytelling has become the contemporary way of shrouding, in majesty, a lack.” The hyperactive carnivalesque of such writers as Thomas Pynchon, Salman Rushdie and Zadie Smith – Wood believes – conceals an essential nullity in the heart of their enterprise. To be 'merely' human doesn't seem quite enough for their characters, they are to be vivid rushes of vacant self-display. “The big contemporary novel,” Wood goes on, “is a perpetual motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity. It seems to want to abolish stillness, as if ashamed of silence.” He bids us to reflect on the work of fiction with the same untroubled calm as one might contemplate the light in a Vermeer interior. And it is in the finely-graded parity between technique and the actual, the infinitely subtle approximations of reality as we experience it, that Wood finds the measure of the novelist's artistry. Hysterical realism hurries us away from actuality - indeed, it throws a bag over our heads and bundles us into the boot of a car...

Against the rogue energies of hysterical realism Wood places his own gold standard: “life on the page, life brought to different life...” Nor 'lifelikeness', but lifeness. It tutors us to sharpen and enrich our responses to the world of which we are tenants, responses otherwise dulled by habit. How Fiction Works honours this, but cagily. 'Life' assumes the transcendental authority accorded, in former ages, to the Godhead; and, in a sense, resists inquiry. “He found the world to be as deeply evasive as he was himself,” Wood notes in 'What Chekhov Meant By Life', “ - life as a tree of separate hanging stories, of dangling privacies. For him a story did not merely begin in enigma, but ended in enigma too.” ('Knowable unknowability', as Morgan Meis neatly puts it.) Wood is attracted to a kind of aesthetic reticence, above all else. 'Lifeness' exacts from us patience, attention and imaginative pliancy.


götterdämmerung v2.0

Neil Gaiman – American Gods

[Available free online at HarperCollins.com through the month of March]

So richly imagined, so moving, so awesome in conception yet so intimate: Neil Gaiman's American Gods confirms the man in his brilliance, and the 'New Weird' tag - China Mieville? Jeff Vandermeer? - as something to prize and take very seriously, indeed.

Anticipated, perhaps, by Hermes in Paris by Peter Vansittart, and, earlier still, Heine's 'Gods in Exile', American Gods is a tale of deities hors de combat. This, from Heine:

They found themselves in the alarming and dire need which they had suffered in the primevally early time, at that revolutionary epoch when the Titans, bursting the bounds of Orcus and piling Pelion on Ossa, stormed Olympus. The unfortunate gods were compelled to take to ignominous fight, and hid themselves in all disguises among us here on earth... Yes, under that shabby overcoat, and in that sober shopman's form, the most brilliant and youthful of the heathen deities, the craft son of Maia, is disguised. On that three-cornered hat there is not the least sign of a feather which could recall the wings of his divine head-covering, and the heavy shoes with steel buckles do not at all suggest pinioned sandals' this heavy Dutch lead is different from the mobile quicksilver to which the god gave a name, but the very contrast betrays the identity, and the god chose this disguise to be the more securely concealed.

The novel's hero – Shadow, whose real name, though significant, is never explicitly given in the book – finds himself propelled from the get-go into a miasma of mysteries. An ex-con and cuckold, adrift in the rootlessness of modern American life, Shadow falls under the spell of Mr Wednesday, a grifter and flim-flam man – grinning “like a fox eating shit from a barbed wire fence” - with great things on his mind. He retains Shadow as a fixer and scout, dispatching him across America on obscure errands. A storm is coming, Wednesday finally confides. A battle between the Old Gods and the New. Shadow must assist him in rounding up the refugees of the divine diaspora: emigrants in the minds of those who travelled to America from the old world, now lost in the vastness of the land, ignored and diminished. Shadow discovers he is more deeply implicated in all this than he could ever have known. Myth and magic are threatened with extinction by the vanguards of modernity – technology, the media. A 21st century Ragnarok is in the offing.

Mythology and memetics: in Gaiman's 'meta-mythos', the Gods' existence is contingent on humanity's willingness to entertain them, and to worship them. In transit from the old world they lurked in the deep memories of men, as small prayers and nursery rhymes. Most of those who crossed the ocean are hidden, like Heine's Mercury, among an indifferent populace. They make their way as panhandlers and prostitutes. In such reduced circumstances, they're humiliated and sapped of their power. (Gaiman, in a series of inset pieces throughout the book, marvellously tells of their former potency.) The sequence toward the end of the novel, where the gods assemble at the designated 'place of power' – Rock City, Georgia – an ill-assorted bunch of vagrants, is especially impressive.

Gaiman's work is marked generally by its charm and ingenuity: he is a storyteller of almost boundless imaginative resourcefulness. (His short story collection Fragile Things is a handy primer, opening with a wonderful synthesis – a mash-up, if you will - of Conan Doyle and H.P. Lovecraft; and concluding with a novella sequel to American Gods.)

Finally, Gaiman understands the luminous provisionality of myth and religion, its close binding kinship with the subjunctive mood:

None of this can actually be happening. If it makes you more comfortable, you could simply think of it as metaphor. Religions are, by definition, metaphors, after all: God is a dream, a hope, a woman, an ironist, a father, a city, a house of many rooms, a watchmaker who left his prize chronometer in the desert, someone who loves you – even, perhaps, against all evidence, a celestial being whose only interest is to make sure your football team, army, business, or marriage thrives, prospers and triumphs over all opposition.


the age of vanished normalcy

Martin Amis – The Second Plane

James Wood, coolly disparaging Jonathan Franzen's ambition to write the Great American Novel, suggests “..that whatever the novel gets up to, the 'culture' can always get up to something bigger. Ashes defeat garlands.” After September 11th, 2001, a claim such as Franzen makes in The Corrections that “..current affairs in general were more muted or insipid nowadays... But disasters of this magnitude [the Great Depression] no longer seem to befall the United States..”, is, for Wood, 'sadly archival'.

In this assembly of essays prompted by the 9/11 attacks, Martin Amis riffs on much the same theme passim. He has been on the receiving end of a great deal of invective in recent months – Terry Eagleton and Ronan Bennett weighing-in early, followed by other, lesser lights – and much of it has savoured of the kind of ill-natured resentment against one who refuses to stay ideologically on-message. Amis's departure from the broadly left-liberal consensus (more with regard to Islamism and the War on Terror, than Iraq or Palestine) has left him vulnerable to the charge of racism from old stagers like Eagleton and of Islamophobia from the likes of Safraz Mansoor.

Setting aside this particular quarrel for a moment: Amis argues, much in the vein of James Wood, than contemporary fiction – by which we might as well mean the Novel – has been roundly hobbled by the September massacre. A leitmotiv of The Second Plane is precisely the way in which the novelist has been unmanned, his thematic resources suddenly punctured and bled dry: “The so-called work-in-progress had been reduced, overnight, to a blue streak of autistic babble.” Amis the Nabokovian aesthete – for whom the leaden phrase is anathema – now must reexamine the entire bias of his creative life. Pointedly, mournfully he notes that his 'By the Same Author' page “..as an additional belittlement, ended with a book called The War Against Cliché. I thought: actually we can live with 'bitter cold' and 'searing heat' and the rest of them. We can live with cliché. What we have to do now, more testingly, is live with war.” An extraordinary reorientation, for a writer so immaculately devoted to stylistic felicity, to the cleansing of the lexis.

Amis implies that the aborted novella – 'The Unknown Known' – withered under the circumambient pressure current events had brought to bear on us. Perhaps so. He further hints at a deeper existential crisis, one evidenced by this creative arrest. The dark matter of essential human impotence coalesces around much of Amis's recent writing. He is foundering – languidly, maybe – on the realisation that he could, once, with assurance, insist that literature offered “something tangible to venerate: something boundless, beautiful, and divinely bright.” - yet no longer, not with the same utopian confidence. The 'moral crash' entrained by 9/11 may yet have fatally undermined this blithe position; and Amis has increasingly struggled to countenance this possibility. Don DeLillo's (oft-quoted) remark in Mao II enshrines an insight that seems to have rattled Amis:

There's a curious knot that binds novelists and terrorists. In the West we become famous effigies as our books lose the power to shape and influence.... Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness. What writers used to do before we were all incorporated.

This should not be so
, Amis hisses from every page of this book; this is a category error, a deviancy on which we should bend our fullest attention.

Drawing on Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism, Amis mocks the architect of modern Islamism, Sayyid Qutb: a demented mediocrity who, in common with other demagogues and venomous cranks, considered himself something of an homme de lettres. The implication, never so openly stated but there nonetheless, is that bad writing begets tyranny and murder... Literary hackwork and totalitarian thought are kissing cousins. Qutb's masterpiece, the Islamist's Mein Kampf and titled – rather blandly – Milestones, is a compendium of paranoia, misogyny, sexual loathing, and megalomania; and it handily supplied the emotional dynamic of political Islam as we have it today. Amis the literary maximalist no doubt balks at the fact that such a dingy tome should exert such global influence. The finest of fine writing might receive critical plaudits in the book pages, perhaps the odd award: the most dismally execrable reactionary boilerplate sets the tone of geopolitics in the new century.

The Second Plane
will bait Amis's detractors even further than his utterances have already. They will sneer at his presumption, they will denounce him as a metropolitan dilettante. They will call foul on his ironic 'flirtation' with Tony Blair in one of the pieces here... But Amis's is a considered position, without doubt deeply held. If he is to be respected and admired for it at all, it must be for his candour and the honesty of his conviction that literature, as a distinct humanising force, as a vehicle for the better understanding of our predicament, matters, and that there are agencies at work in the world which would, if they could, dismantle – no, annihilate – all that the principles of culture and freedom rest upon.


shakespeare's skeleton-key fable

Ted Hughes - Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being

Something unheimlich, something obscurely offensive to the sentinels of the British literary establishment, about Ted Hughes... Academic managerialism with its Gradgrindian literal-mindedness gibs at this shaman-poet, as the broad response to his critical epic Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being illustrates. A batch of letters fired off by Hughes after the first reviews appeared in the spring of 1992 insist on his anger at the obtuseness of the response: the Cambridge don Eric Griffiths (a 'taught starling', 'straightjacketted in the English Tripos') is swatted aside, John Carey snubbed for the rest of Hughes's life. The 'scholarly howl of indignation' now seems to reflect worse on the reviewers.

Hughes had had the effrontery to stray into their kitchen garden and do something indelicate among the kohlrabi. Perhaps only in Coleridge's Biographia Literaria do we have a work of sustained criticism that succeeds in beating the bounds of discourse and in augmenting its subject. The critical endeavour is so much more than the sum of its footnotes. And perhaps only a poet could have written Hughes's Shakespearean study. It incarnates an intuition central to his work as a whole: that the creative imagination can be engaged with only as something untameable, unsocialised, as a bodily imperative than leaps beyond fashion and taste; that it somehow actuates the deepest – preverbal – impulses of the human.

Hughes was fascinated by dispatches from the outer reaches of psychology and anthropology; he was a student of Frazerian mythography, and it was in Robert Graves's The White Goddess that he found his first sacred book. Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being invites its reader to undertake a thought experiment – to read against the grain, counter-intuitively, even – and allow, for a while, that the plays and poems share a common psychic germ-cell, one that can be lain bare and sketched out in a kind of extended metaphysical écorché: an ur-narrative, a 'skeleton-key fable'. Hughes wrote elsewhere (in the long essay 'Myths, Metres, Rhythms') of the “gulfs of emptiness that [can] open up beneath very slight frowns of bafflement”, as two conceptual systems (think Stephen Jay Gould's 'nonoverlapping magisteria') graze their flanks against one another, generating only mutual friction and discomfort.

Hughes's Shakespeare gestated over a period of decades, emerging, as the Letters show, from discussions with the director Donya Feuer, and later still, in the Introduction to a Faber selection of the poetry. The fable – the Great Theme – of Shakespeare's drama is “a perfect example of the ancient Universal shamanistic dream of the call to the poetic or holy life”; and little wonder that the academic lictors have no time for it. Hughes trespasses and expropriates Heritage Shakespeare, transforming him, electrifyingly, into the high priest of a blood cult and witness to the apocalyptic rupture of the Reformation. History, for Hughes, is not a chronicle of diplomacy and statecraft, but a cockpit in which deep, autochthonous forces struggle to the death. At the heart of Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being burns the 'seismic response in suppressed Catholicism .. to the Elizabethan nightmare'. Hughes vigorously points up Shakespeare's peculiar sensitivity to the religio-political climate. Quite aside from the constant quest for preferment and professional recognition, catching the eye of a powerful patron, another impulse is at work, shaping and energizing the central nervous system that runs beneath the mere dramatic apparatus, the equipage of plot and character.

Shakespeare's entrepreneurial brilliance – in both the creative and practical sense – extends, for Hughes, into the wholesale plundering of the myth-kitty, not simply for decorative purposes, but for the deeper spiritual matrix it opens up. Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being proves a frightening book, massy and dense and obsessive: a 'sort of musical adaptation, a song', with the plays 'a single titanic work, like an Indian epic, the same gods battling through their reincarnations, in a vast, cyclic Tragedy of Divine Love'. It takes a certain magnificent brazenness to suggest that Shakespeare's Complete Works operates on the scale and complexity of the Mahabarata. Hughes was an eagle among the dovecots, indeed.

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...