a note on christopher hitchens

No bright reversion in the sky for Christopher Hitchens – he'd have none of that ethereal humbug (even if the phrase was Alexander Pope's). But our pre-eminent essayist is gone, the political flyting never to resume, and the work with its elegancies and asperities summarily rounded out. His friend Ian McEwan tells how, in his very last days, Hitchens was completing a review of the new Chesterton biography, each sentence a torment to produce. But when it appears, we can be certain that it will have his signature graces: stylistic panache and intellectual rigour. Hitchens never permitted false quantities to mar his prose, and if he was a good hater of the Hazlittean stripe, he could articulate his loves with unsurpassed passion and cogency.

His political trajectory will be picked over and debated in the days to come – his 'apostasy' from the radical Left evidently still rankles in some quarters – but it might be worth reminding ourselves that Hitchens was also a brilliant literary critic, possessed by the conviction that literature still matters, as the great benefice of the ironic mind - even when imperilled by the tohu-bohu of an uglified, celebrity-blighted culture on the one hand, and the enormity of political tyranny on the other.  (Hitchens described the cultural landscape of the former as 'a tundra of pulverizing boredom' which could be applied to the former with equal justice.)


even supposing

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst – Becoming Dickens

It's doubtless to John Carey's The Violent Effigy that we owe our deepened, richer, less complacently knowing sense of Dickens the novelist. Carey tartly sandbagged the sociological Dickens, the jacobinical Dickens, the Dickens that Friedrich Engels would have acknowledged as a fellow traveller – the Dickens who somehow became associated with the Condition of England novel, and for whom each book was a polemical Tract for the Times: in short, the public Dickens. Carey drew our attention instead to the riptides of imaginative energy that surged beneath the surface of the text, the obsessive fondling of certain images, the unruly, contrary instability of Dickens's creative practice – the 'maelstrom of oddity', as John Bayley has it. Certainly the young Dickens was a brilliant improviser, assembling his skits and sketches with a harum-scarum energy. He was compelled to forge a style on the wing. (The critic James Wood recently complained that the “..big contemporary novel 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. Stories and sub-stories sprout on every page, and these novels continually flourish their glamorous congestion.” Wood also decries 'the pursuit of vitality at all costs': but isn't this a just account of Dickens's writing, and the earliest work a fortiori?) 
          The poetry of his fiction – language vigorously destabilised, unresting and impossible to corral; the way Dickens's mind repeatedly returns to its fund of pictures and scenes and 'stage properties': Carey privileged an aspect of his work seldom attended to by more sober-sided critics. Indeed he freed us to think of Dickens as less Mr Popular Sentiment (in Thackeray's jaundiced formulation) than as a writer who – at certain moments and in certain moods – was possessed by almost a Beckettian tournure d'esprit. A kind of unholy violence seizes his work, something demonic in its antinomian pitch. Clubbable, genial Dickens conceals within himself a murderous vagabond, and Carey presented this new perspective in his slim, pointed critical study. G.K. Chesterton and Humphrey House became yesterday's men, critically speaking, at a stroke. (“Dickens,” Carey says at the outset, “is infinitely greater than his critics.”)

Doubtless, too, that Robert Douglas-Fairhurst has been a great gainer from Carey's influence. (There are faint chimes, deliberate or no, at sentence-level - “The fragmented vision results in both nightmare and farce. Naturally enough since farce is only nightmare of which we are no longer afraid.” (Carey) “Getting laughs out of childhood poverty allowed him to transform his hidden fears into nightmare's comic alternative: farce.” (Douglas-Fairhurst).) The critical donnée established by Carey – that Dickens's imagination took flight under the impetus of things seen and felt, that biography subvents creativity to an unremitting degree – is one Douglas-Fairhurst subscribes to. Becoming Dickens essays a close-reading of the period in Dickens's life when art and circumstance settled on a decisive course, and the young clerk succeeded in transforming himself into the celebrated novelist. Douglas-Fairhurst bases his study on the conceit that things could very much have been otherwise, that it was at this point that – if you wish to put it this way – the quantum multiverse split and branched into one stream of possibility, ghosted nonetheless by the alternatives: “Footfalls echo in the memory/Down the passage which we did not take.” Counter-lives throng Dickens fiction. One of his deep themes is the question of the vast complex of event that brings us to where we are, to what we are – and the insistent speculation that goes with it: how precarious our current fortunes, if so little depended on our choices and our determined will. Dickens's rise, of course, was a marvel of creative and professional entrepreneurialism. He was borne along by extraordinary energy and audacity. But he was sharply conscious also that his success had an alarming element of hazard about it – and his fiction often features elaborations of those aborted selves, some of whom remained impoverished copy-clerks or orphaned children. (David Copperfield might be read as a refracted autobiography, for instance: Dickens experimentally massaging and modifying his own life history – the net effect comes perilously close to naked self-aggrandisement.)
          In the course of a decade Dickens was engaged in a rigorous project of self-fashioning. Here, the young man of indeterminate social status – his family always seemed distinctly degringolade, always on the verge of tumbling another rung down the scale – husbanded his considerable resources and undertook to break onto the metropolitan literary scene. Douglas-Fairhurst examines the early magazine work with a scrupulous care seldom devoted to it and normally reserved for the major novels and stories. And he shrewdly cautions us: “Of course, reading Dickens's early sketches as windows that open onto his future risks falling into a form of critical doublethink, in which the early writing is praised as promising, but only because we know that its promise was subsequently fulfilled.” The sketch-writing and parliamentary reporting was elaborated – in an astonishing brief period of time – into the narrative bricolage of Sketches by Boz and The Pickwick Papers, works whose governing principle was one of insuperable forward motion, the format of monthly instalments imposing on Dickens the need to respond with each number to the fluctuations of his readership's mood. Douglas-Fairhurst seizes throughout this study on 'biographical tipping points', where Dickens's life could have taken any of a number of different paths. One such moment was the suicide of Robert Seymour, an illustrator and caricaturist of a peculiarly neurasthentic disposition. Dickens had been commissioned to add text to an album of Seymour's satirical sketches of sporting life – a subordinate role for the fledgeling writer. But Dickens's rambunctious egoism prompted him to make criticisms of Seymour's work that – and no one can be quite sure what the causal link might have been – radically undermined the man, leading him to take his own life with his 'fowling-piece'. This allowed Dickens to wrest control of the project, out of which grew The Pickwick Papers and the onset of literary fame. And again: it was only the invention of Sam Weller in the fourth instalment that secured the ultimate critical and commercial success of the venture. Another 'tipping point', another crux at which things could have been very different. As Pip observes in Great Expectations:

That was a memorable day for me, for it made great changes in me. But it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been. Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.

It's Douglas-Fairhurst's contention that Dickens was throughout his career hag-ridden by this sense of alterity, of other possible lives that might have been his had chance not interposed itself. (Henry James's late tale 'The Jolly Corner' is a reprise of the theme – the narrator is haunted literally by a version of himself who hadn't fled America, and had grown monstrous and degenerate.) Fiction became for Dickens an occult form of self-mastery, by which he dragooned the multiplicity of selves, real and virtual, that inhabited him. The singular merit of Douglas-Fairhurst's critical biography is that – not being a cradle-to-grave narrative – the contracted timeframe affords him the scope to concentrate in greater depth on largely neglected work that, scrutinised in a certain slant of light, further enhances our understanding of this formative period


the buried life

Alan Hollinghurst – The Stranger's Child

In the first of her Richard Ellmann memorial lectures delivered at Emory University in 1999 (published in On Histories and Stories), A.S. Byatt reflects that “[o]ne very powerful impulse towards the writing of historical novels has been the political desire to write the histories of the marginalised, the forgotten, the unrecorded..”; and this observation assonates with one of the principal themes of Alan Hollinghurst's novel The Stranger's Child – its solicitude for the buried life, the generations of men who were compelled to conceal or deny their sexuality, the unrecapturability of historical truth.
          The minor poet Cecil Valance spends a weekend at the family home of his friend George Sawle. Valance composes a poem based on the visit – 'Two Acres' – a fairly mediocre pastoral elegy which will become an anthology staple (inscribing it in the autograph album of George's sister Daphne). The two undergraduates covertly engage in sexual by-play, while Daphne, sixteen and starstruck, nourishes an infatuation for the poet. The Sawles are a touch déclassé, and Valance descends on them with all the condescension and mystique afforded by his own aristocratic background. He appears only in this first section of the book: slain in the Great War, his literary immortality is assured – and it's the after-life of his reputation that forms the motor of the novel. His life and work become a site of contention, for those who knew him and those – biographers and scholars – who didn't. The visions and revisions of the successor generation (the 'stranger's child' of Tennyson's In Memoriam – unknown inheritors) run athwart the mute ravening of time. And – challengingly, frustratingly – the novel's structure enacts these displacements: divided into five sections, its plot doesn't proceed in smooth linear fashion; rather, each part sets us at a point perhaps many years later, where it often isn't clear what has occurred to the characters in the interim. (Between Parts One and Two, for example, Valance has been killed; between Two and Three, the Sawle children have grown into late middle age, their lives in the meantime only faintly hinted at.)
          Latterly we follow the attempts of Paul Bryant, a young bank clerk, to piece together Valance's biography; braided with his erotic dalliance with a schoolmaster Peter Rowe, someone else with a concern in Valance's posthumous fame. Characters earlier introduced rematerialise, but diminished, somehow: and it's this unaccountable reluctance on Hollinghurst's part to give them their narrative due that hobbles The Stranger's Child. Scenes from the childhood of the Valance children – Corinna and Wilkins – are drawn with brilliant intensity, lit from within: but, when both reappear decades later, they are soured, broken and barren: with Hollinghurst offering no clue as to why they might have been alloted this fate. (It makes no sense humanly speaking; nor formally and creatively.) Paul Bryant is tiresome and priggish – but occupies a significant stretch of the novel's middle passage – we spend time with him in the reasonable expectation of some pay-off, of one of the conventional deliverances of narrative fiction. Yet he too slips below the story's horizon, and we glimpse him once more, in the final chapters, after a furlough, a bluff, bloated beneficiary of the Valance legacy, where he stands betrayed as an exploitative cynic for his own careerist ends. For a novel that stakes its authority and fidelity on the tender, patient delicate restoration of lost lives, it seems perverse that its characters should be so carelessly deposited in the landscape of the novel. Hollinghurst writes exquisite, lambent sentences with Jamesian finesse: and this evidently licenses him to feel that he can press his characters into the service of prose style alone; as if secretly he longed to dispense with the heavy obligations of the classic realist novel, yet feared – given the emotional reserve he so prizes, the controlled rage for order – the lawlessness of the experimental.


generously angry

Claire Tomalin – Charles Dickens: A Life

A leviathan of literary prodigality, Dickens. Not so much a novelist, as a compulsive manufacturer of worlds, a novelising magnate, the scribbler-as-captain-of-industry. 'Inimitable', maybe, but also the impresario of his own riotous invention. Since his friend John Forster's authorised account, Dickens has challenged professional biographers to locate the wellspring of his genius (no other word will do), through the passages of a life as populous and energetic as any of the books. A shilling life might give you all the facts, but Peter Ackroyd's Dickens was one English novelist's eccentric, shambolic, unwieldy, undisciplined response to another: an imaginative compte rendu on the Dickens world. It meant to be determinedly unacademic, and drew Craig Raine's fire as “bloated with contradictions, literary-critical baloney and suspect generalizations”. Michael Slater's biography is generally better regarded; but the claim to be 'definitive' at once eludes and galvanizes each new attempt.
          Dickens quite certainly incorporated material from his own life into the novels – and not always in a manner that needed much in the way of lit-crit parsing. To say he 'drew heavily' on his life experience understates the case radically. For the most part, there was nothing unforthcoming about Dickens and his resort to his early life. The dynamo of his creativity was powered by the impulse to take this raw material and refashion it – as if in a bid to grasp its ultimate significance, as if more fully and decisively to possess it. Dickens's imagination is recursive, relentlessly so. The novel he said he was fondest of, David Copperfield, approaches closest to outright autobiography: Dickens revisits the uncertainties of his youth, recasting them, dramatising them. And, with an air of mingled self-reproach and self-knowledge bitterly fought and won, he writes, in the voice of David Copperfield, of the siege of contraries beleaguering his character, that has been meat and potatoes to biographers since:

The man who reviews his own life, as I do mine, in going on here, from page to page, had need to have been a good man indeed, if he would be spared the sharp consciousness of many talents neglected, many opportunities wasted, many erratic and perverted feelings constantly at war within his breast, and defeating him.

Dickens is the ardent conservator of his own origins; but his own licensed myth-maker, too. Even with the approach of his bicentenary next year, however, it's worth considering how many more re-evaluations of the life and work might further serve to illuminate either. (I might note that John Carey's The Violent Effigy is probably the best piece of Dickens criticism in many a long year.)
          Claire Tomalin's Life begins briskly enough, retailing the stuff of Dicken's childhood unfussily – disposing of it in a couple of brief, neat chapters. While Ackroyd seemed obsessed with mythologizing this period of Dickens's life quite as unstintingly as Dickens himself, Tomalin sticks to the facts, as far as they can be ascertained. This is salutary, and harms the book in no way. (Ackroyd was altogether given too much to shamanic communing with his subject; as if he were attending a séance.) Tomalin's narrative economy is apparent in the opening staves of her book – perhaps in implied acknowledgement that this is ground that has been covered extensively before. We needn't dwell, therefore, on the helter-skelter round of Dickens's life in the 1830s – when he flirted with the theatre, became a parliamentary reporter (and no mean stenographer), cutting a dandified figure around the purlieus of Covent Garden, finally discovering his metier as sketch-writer – and Tomalin's account of his meeting and engagement to Catherine Hogarth is sharp, unsentimental and largely without comment. We're aware, at this late hour, that Mr Micawber is an exasperated – and broadly truthful – portrait of Dickens's improvident father: and Tomalin doesn't belabour the point.

And one feels that the apparent redundancy of another Dickens biography has in sense freed Tomalin from some of the obligations besetting previous life-writers. There's little new archival material that might have brought something new to the table (Tomalin herself did precisely this in her earlier work, The Invisible Woman, casting valuable light on Dickens's relationship with Nelly Ternan – genuinely ground-breaking; but stealing a march on her own full-length life of Dickens.) And certain events in Dickens's life are related dispassionately, almost coldly – and typically without the feverish speculative boutades biographers of a more critical turn of mind are goaded into. The death of Mary Hogarth, Dickens's sister-in-law, for example, is related by Tomalin again as a bare sequence of facts. Tomalin refrains from suggesting – as do other writers, Ackroyd chief among them – that Mary's early death so struck at the core of Dickens's creative spirit that her revenant appears time and again, passim, in the novels, as the figure of the frail female child of Grace – Little Dorrit, Florence Dombey – resurrected and reanimated in fiction... A self-denying ordinance of Tomalin's, perhaps. But she is altogether more engaged, more delighted in Dickens's male friendships – it's in detailing these that she allows her approval to shine through - not least with his friend, sometime agent and confidante, John Forster. (Dickens's dealings with the publishing world Tomalin recounts with a fullness not found in her accounts of his domestic life.)

          George Orwell's essay on Dickens is, in some ways, unsurpassed: it's in the narrow ambit of forty-odd pages that Dickens's talent, his politics, his flaws and triumphs are forever locked down. “When one reads any strongly individual piece of writing,” Orwell rounds it up, “one has the impression of seeing a face somewhere behind the page...”:

..Well, in the case of Dickens I see a face that is not quite the face of Dickens's photographs, though it resembles it. It is the face of a man about forty, with a small beard and a high colour. He is laughing, with a touch of anger in his laughter, but no triumph, no malignity. It is the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry – in other words, of a nineteenth-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.

This verbal cartouche could, maybe, stand for all the gallons of ink spilt by biographers and critics wishing to pin Dickens's down to a truthful formulation. Tomalin's contribution to the bicentenary celebration next year is honorable, judicious and free of the scatty self-indulgence of Ackroyd's - but perhaps nonetheless a little de trop.


giuditta decapita oloferne

At last don't you think that the only aim of Giuditta is to move away to avoid the blood which could stain her dress?” - Roberto Longhi

Sumptuous, sanguinary,
the morbidezza of her flesh, her butcher's forearm.
Frowning deliberation.. They might be, the women,
two midwives at a bloody accouchement,
lit by the bale-fire of politicised passion:
Caravaggio's lantern. Fabric creased, distressed,
shadows softening brisk violence,
the spray of arterial blood finely stippling
tribal vengeance and the secret strength of women.
And she smote twice upon his neck
with all her might, and she took away
his head from him...
(That blood-speck on her breast!)

There's a staged composure to it, sculptural
with a commissioned poise.
The warm richesse of the palette
starts thoughts of the kitchen,
the muscular rite of dismemberment
undergone by the boar, ahead of a feast.
Ceremonial gusto, the carvery's business.
The circumflex of the maid's eyebrow
says something about domestic chores,
about service and the aesthetic poor.

Are we meant to see, we tarriers in the future,
Christ's face in the upended satchel
of Holofernes's? The martyred look.
The eyes locked on a dream of Justitia...
Or is it simply a genre-piece, confected
to the unspoken dictates of Medici taste?


the eye in love

Craig Raine - How Snow Falls

Raine prizes the ugly, the deformed, the unpoetic – regarded often in their metaphysical aspect – over the inane, self-complacent suavities of a certain metropolitan literary culture. And this stance has proven to be the defining quality of most of his output: a democratising vision, a narrow-eyed rejection of the Parnassian mode. He submits the body to scrutiny with a watchmaker's loup – is hospitable in his poetry to its pitted imperfection, its oils and flaws. But it seems like rote performance, more often than not: a trick, a bit of verbal legerdemain. Of discursiveness there's very little, and a typical Raine poem abstains from the nervy self-justification that clots the line of other poets – each is an ideogram, the self-consuming artefact that is its own argument. His 'Martianism' has always secretly sought to deflect and discomfit criticism. A poem's thisness must have the ungainsayability of an object, of a material fact that you can no more unpack than a toadstool. The celebrated early poem, 'A Martian Sends a Postcard Home', arrests Raine in the fixative of achieved style:

Caxtons are mechanical birds with many wings,
and some are treasured for their markings -

Such effects require a certain succession of readerly readjustments, so fine as, when we 'get' it, quickly become imperceptible – like learning to juggle, the difficulties of the outset vanish into virtuosity. (We're not to be detained over the question of how the Martian availed itself of the cultural-historical datum of 'Caxton' as in the inventor of the book, while he is unaware of the lexical one of 'book' – the periphrasis tends to disintegrate if we examine it too closely.) Raine's miniaturism is underwritten by a kind of exultant attentiveness to the unremarked blebs and flecks on the surface of the world. Like his admired John Updike, whose hyperthrophied noticings make for an art bristling with contingent stuff, Raine suggests our blockish automatism – and insensitivity to the phenomenal world in which we find ourselves – has an implied ethical dimension. “I am the steward/of her untold wealth,” he has it in the poem 'Rich', with 'she' as Nature, perhaps, “keeper of the dictionary,/treasurer of valuables,//accountant and teller,/and I woo her with words/against the day of divorce.” This view of the matter might be unexceptionable – but when it appears to license Raine to document the private humiliations of family and friends (notably in his elegies to his mother and former lover Kitty Mrosovsky), and to, in effect, ransack intimacy for creative capital, the high-minded pungency of his position errs dramatically into the grotesque. The long poem À la récherche du temps perdu, republished in How Snow Falls (and book-ending the poem about Raine's mother's death), overbrims with illicit life, wrought in a fit of dislike, bafflement and tenderness. But critics (among them Sarah Maguire) found its openness cynical and, yes, rather ugly. It is a catalogue raisonnée of human suffering – but it's free inventorying of the dead woman's body, her sexual exploits, raised hackles. (The squeamishness was rehearsed a generation before, when Robert Lowell composed a poetry collection from the private papers of friends and lovers.) Raine would doubtless insist that there's no sense in glozing the parts of life we find disagreeable. And would endorse Auden's opinion that, although we want a poem to be 'a verbal earthly paradise, a timeless world of pure play,' we also want it “..to be true, that is to say, to provide us with some kind of revelation about our life which will show us what life is really like, and free us from self-enchantment and deception, and a poet cannot bring us any truth without introducing into his poetry the problematic, the painful, the disorderly, the ugly.” And yet, and yet. There's something to be said for reticence.

Against the day of divorce: in a phrase, the nub of Raine's salvatory aesthetic, never so flatly stated, but informing his poetry and extenuating maybe the distressing candour of the poetry dealing with the death of loved ones. Each image, each line granted its specific weight is a refusal of death's wholesale erasure – to be dead is to no longer to feel in our nerves and sinews and on our skin the vibrant presence of the world (Raine's work an extended palinode to Larkin's 'Aubade'); and, cumulatively, what we have in the end is a secular prayer to the superabundance of life, its interrelatedness, the gap between perceiving subject and the object perceived roundly abolished. It's a natural theology, tricked out with mild scepticism, but happy to countenance the shabby unfinishedness of things and our humbling belatedness.

The early poetry drew its vigour and interest from the stylistic kinks that Raine tosses up, where he'd gone some way to rehabilitate the simile – no longer ineffectually decorative, but a device that stood for a particular way of engaging with the world. And what's notable about his output as a whole is that this deft jugglery has remained its chief characteristic. Formal experiment interests Raine very little: technical élan has never been part of his repertoire; and the triplets and clipped quatrains that are like so many pendants to his ways of seeing reoccur from start to finish. Not minimalism – not the wire-drawn brevities of the postwar Eastern European poets - but a dedication to a kind of obsessive poetic microscopy. Language as a tweezer, plucking out details like so many ingrown hairs. Once in a while Raine lays out the principles of his own art, and the art he especially admires: “Good writing is a criticism of life: it describes, selects, contemplates defining features, beauties, flaws; it puts reality on pause; it searches the freeze frame; it is an act of measured consideration, of accurate re-presentation.” Italicized reality, as he has it. Yet the question of what such a pause can yield in terms of meaning and significance – whether the hors texte can finally instruct us in anything at all, even if put under the fiercest scrutiny – dogs Raine's poetry. A cow sipping from a pond, “..her snooker table, torn,/where only one player/attends to a solitary red.” - what licences Raine to this figurative fancy, that seems no more telling than a metaphorical scribble? Once we 'see' that the player is an angler, what then? If it seems a mite inconsequential, that's because it is.

How Snow Falls is Raine's first collection in a long while – À la récherche was published in stand-alone book format a decade ago. (A poet's parsimony usually hints at the expectation that a new volume will be an 'event'.) The title poem rehearses the fractured imagism of his recent work, the sensuous dédoublement between natural phenomena and the state of the soul: “And then love's vertigo,/love's exactitude,//this snow, this transfiguration,/we never quite get over.” The 'exactitude' comprises precision of observation and feeling – our gift of registering the impalpable and making it articulate, something that can usefully be passed from hand to hand. Yet 'How Snow Falls' is unusually blurred for a Raine poem. Its verbal singularity is undercut by the uncertainty of its occasion. Elliptical, undemonstrative, it seems to claim its metaphysical cachet without earning it first. Raine wants to record a moment of vision, but some scruple turns him from it.


daughter of the law

Gillian Rose -  Love's Work

The memoirist seeks to allow free converse between memory and desire, between mere happenings and the inner carnivalesque. Less circumstantial than self-exculpatory, such writing can seem wilful and freighted with occult significance that the reader is obliged to decode. Straight autobiography tells it as it happened – with the usual elisions and contractions and skatings-over-the-truth. The memoir shares more with the prose poem, formally and substantively: it can possess a beautiful perversity, a lyric finesse, that might not compromise its truth-claims too fatally.

Gillian Rose died in 1995 of ovarian cancer. A specialist in German metaphysics (with a twist of Adorno), her work explored the possibility of an erotics of the ethical. The ferocity of her intellect can seem self-consuming, and, in Love's Work, it is put in service of articulating the agon – her own stark term – that provided the motive force for all her activities. Candour and obscurantism are tightly inwoven in this book. We're compelled to make (perhaps unwarranted) inferences from certain of the lines Rose pursues with her customary intensity. The book is populated by a number of individuals brought to the fore and utilised emblematically, almost. Rose asserts their importance to her without strictly illustrating it. The first we meet, Edna, a nonagenarian whose life-gourmandise is undiminished (cancer had destroyed her face, and she wore, without vanity, a prosthetic jaw and nose), she is Rose's 'Intelligent Angel' – an exemplar of one who'd found an ideal orientation towards life and death. “She has not been exceptional,” Rose concludes. “She has not loved herself or others unconditionally. She has been able to go on getting it all more or less wrong, more or less all the time, all the nine and a half decades of the present century plus three years of the century before.” Rose bids to identify her peculiar glamour – in the etymological root of the word: “..the kind of magic which Edna believes in: the quiet and undramatic transmutation that can come out of plainness, ordinary hurt, mundane maladies and disappointments.”

But Edna doesn't seem quite so 'unexceptional' to me. Nor does Rose isolate the quiddity of the woman so attractive, so enabling to her. The personae who by turns haunt and vitalise the book remain somehow radically enigmatic – or Rose's language renders them so. This may simply be a matter of tact – the memoirist is duty-bound to spare the feelings and preserve the privacy of those she describes, chiefly because this form of discourse trades on a powerfully amplified exposition of feelings often contrary and disreputable. The honesty topos determines the reevaluated bounds of the sayable. When Rose mentions in passing that another of her friends, Jim, '..had been asked to leave Bennington on the charge of corruption of students..”, the circumstances of this expulsion are left unstated (although Rose makes the predictable association with the fate of Socrates). When discussing Yvette – a woman d'un certain àge whom Rose befriended during her tenure at the University of Sussex – her erotic idiosyncrasies are admiringly set forth (instancing that naked vitalism that Rose, facing death herself, cleaves to), but Rose displays an odd coyness over the question of whether certain of this woman's instincts (her blitheness with regard to childhood sexuality, for example) mightn't be subject to a more critical scrutiny. This votary of the 'universal and sacred spirit of lust' could, viewed from another perspective, come across rather more as a reckless sexual raptor – whose instincts shade into the pathological – than the ardent maquis of love – a kind of post-feminist Jacobin - that her portrayal connives in.

Love's Work is peopled with such human trouvailles, such outliers of eros. Rose places herself among them as a kindly anthropologist, forgiving them, absolving them by the lights of her own secular covenant. Their courage in the face of bodily dissolution draws from her a guarded admiration. But we're to take them as somehow exemplary, for the boldness of their negotiations with death.

The poet Geoffrey Hill, in a pained, exasperated elegy for Rose, hints at her intransigence, at her absolutism: “You/do, of course [understand him], since I am using your three primers...”:

Mourning Becomes the Law, Love's Work, Paradiso:
a good legacy which you should be proud of
except that pride is forever irrelevant
where you are now. So it continues,
the work, lurching on broken springs
or having to be dug out or jump-started
or welded together out of two wrecks
or donated to a good cause, like to the homeless

in the city that is not just, has never
known justice, except sporadically:
Solon, Phocion – and they gave him hemlock
and burned his body in an unhallowed place.
And his ashes were taken up and smuggled
into his own home, and buried beneath the hearth.
['In Memoriam: Gillian Rose', A Treatise on Civil Power]

Rose's thought pivots on the axis of Love/Law; yet, in contention here are not simply abstract données that yield their own measure of intellectual marrow. “I find love's work,” Hill goes on, “a bleak ontology/to have to contemplate; it may be all we have.” For Rose, it is only when we admit our primal wounding that the 'work' can begin.

The book represents among other things a fleshing-forth of these concepts – a companion-piece on praxis to set beside the theory of her academic work. Rose has set herself to tutor us in our physical vulnerability, and nowhere does she do it more magnificently and terrifyingly than in the chapter detailing her cancer treatment: “My interest is in the uncharted; my difficulty that I will inevitably enlist, by connotation and implication, the power and grace of the symbol. I need to invent colostomy ethnography.” Incarnation is the severe central armature of the book. Rose botanizes her cancer. She sweeps aside the iatrogenic niceties of the medical profession, searching instead for a thematic hook on which she can hang her experience – something novel, an idiolect new-minted; something distinct, on the one hand, from the complacencies of the 'screwtape spiritualism' she deplores, and, on the other, the language of systematic depersonalisation made use of by Medicine and its functionaries: 'the esoteric but fatal language of clinical control'.

the wolf in the mind

Myths and fairy tales – the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves – are an abiding preoccupation of A.S. Byatt. In her most recent novel, The Children's Book, Olive Wellwood compiles, for each of her own children, personalised tales that reflect the natures (and, perhaps, destinies) of her sons and daughters: their essences or unadorned selves. The tales are nightmarish, with an appropriately naif surrealism; peopled by heroic children and their quest companions. They also bespeak Olive's deep anxieties about her own origins, her Midland childhood – her father and brothers died in mining accidents - reflected (but never so stated) in the perilous Underground through which her characters travail. But it's precisely the conviction that 'stories are ineluctable' which lends Byatt's recent work its noble terror. Tom Wellwood's fate is 'plotted' as pitilessly and inescapably as the fate of Baldur – no matter what provision might have been made to free themselves from it, neither can refuse the iron logic of the stories they're welded to.

Others in the 'Canongate Myths' series make use of the fashionable device of 're-imagining' or 're-purposing' myths, but Byatt has, in Ragnarok, written a slender, vital book that at once rehearses a powerful fable and tells a tale of the origins of a writer's imagination – without feeling the need to squint at the source material through the lens of 'contemporary relevance'. (Although she does concede that the apocalypticism might offer itself as a figuring of environmental disaster.)

Myths are often unsatisfactory,” Byatt says, “even tormenting. They puzzle and haunt the mind that encounters them. They shape different parts of the world inside our heads, and they shape them not as pleasures, but as encounters with the inapprehensible.” As John Ruskin domesticated Greek myth – in such lecture series as The Queen of the Air – and brought to it an 'improving' mentality, with a view to the edification of the public, so Byatt purposely resists the temptation to point any moral with her version of Nordic legend. Indeed, she suggests that myth as ur-narrative must necessarily be immune to the sclerosis of overdetermination, be it ethical, political or doctrinal; [it must be in serene keeping with Keatsian 'negative capability', denying sponsorship of human institutional meaning;] it must disengage itself from the formularies of creed, even timeliness. Byatt's gods are merely what they are, not ciphers of ideology or doxa; neither exemplary nor realistic. They embody elemental forces, a reckless energy that, paradoxically, as Byatt comes to admit, is peculiarly human.

In this intensely visual rendering – image tumbles over image, set-piece spawns set-piece - Byatt doesn't signpost the themes of the tale, there's no editoralising, as it were. This isn't a work of explication, or mythography in quite the sense of an unriddling. What we make of it will depend chiefly on our prepossessions. It 'tactfully suggests' possible interpretations. Byatt lays out the stories themselves in all their bracing purity, her prose lyrically sensuous but without the impedimenta of . These stories woo our imaginations. If the catechisms of the established church have palpable designs on us, she as much as says, then the raw unleavened violence of these myths, their exuberant physicality, ought just as well to survive without our input. In the nightwood of myth only instinct and imaginative openness can guide us.

Grafted onto the 'stipe' of the primary tale is the 'thin child's' story, Byatt's avatar, her younger self, as she makes exploratory inroads on the perhaps unanswerable question – why is there something and not nothing? “The thin child, reading and rereading the tales, neither loved nor hated the people in them – they were not 'characters' into whose doings she could insert her own imagination.” Given a book, Asgard and the Gods, by her mother, she sets herself to the job of making sense of the war-time world she finds herself in. The tale of Ragnarok, 'the dark water over everything', tutors her in the stark possibility that, once lost, things can never be recovered (in contrast with the Christian myth of redemption and resurrection). The thin child's reading equips her with images – 'the wolf in the mind', 'the picture of the end of things, like a thin oval sliver of basalt or black slate' – which become fixtures in her psychic life: sense-making eidolons to set against the onrush of experience as it assaults her.

This, Byatt implies, is the supreme significance of myth: not hortatory, not prescriptive, but fluid lit images in the service of permitting us to orient ourselves to the universe. They assist us in coming to terms with our radical contingency, with the bitter fact of our being inessential. We can take them or leave them as we please. But they persist as vagabond memories, shadowing the human enterprise.

in their deathtime

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