decline and fall

Martin Amis – Lionel Asbo

Is Martin Amis a prose stylist too heavily mortgaged to his own style? It occurs to you, reading his new novel Lionel Asbo, that the trade-mark melopeia of his language really isn't equal to the celebrutality of modern England, its grotty decadence – too mannered, too prone to devolving on itself lyric finesse; well-tooled, when so much that it wants to describe is shabby, rough-edged and maladroit. Dickens could ascend to the High Style when the fit was on him, but his style was, au fond, born of low-slung journalese, siphoning its energies from the vernacular. Amis – reaching for a Dickensian amplitude and gusto – seems instinctively to revert to a miniaturist precision, a delicacy of registrement, that is almost, yes, Austenesque. And somehow wanly apolitical. The lovely mellowness of his previous novel The Pregnant Widow owed itself in large part to the four-ply style, a pitch and poise in the line, balance in each perfectly chased sentence. What a state-of-England novel needs – and Lionel Asbo doesn't have, regrettably – is a kind of in-built preparedness to destroy itself, a cannibal language, self-consuming, rabid as society is rabid. A rhetorical stave like this one might or might not be an effective bit of writing, but it's unassigned écriture– where is 'the world of the manifest', as Amis calls it?:

In Diston – in Diston everything hated everything else, and everything else, in return, hated everything back. Everything soft hated everything hard, and vice versa, cold fought heat, heat fought cold, everything honked and yelled and swore at everything, and all was weightless, and all hated weight.

British culture in the main is an anti-poem, a consumerist Cloaca Maxima, an unholy orgy of money-grubbing, vulgarity and bottomless hypocrisy. The literary – capital 'L', as Amis would understand it, as a value-system among other things – has been all but extinguished. Every novel must be its own valediction. No more Dunciads. Now get out of that.


whisper music

Craig Raine – T.S. Eliot

There were hints and mutterings of his prejudices; but with Anthony Julius's T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form, the charge was set forth aggressively. Eliot's sovereign standing had gone unchallenged for a generation or two, his pronunciamenti acquiring the weight of orthodoxy in the literary world. His poetry of negation spoke to a shared spiritual rudderlessness, as he searched painfully for meaning in a desacralised universe: Eliot, ..”a poet of apocalypse, of the last days and the renovation, the destruction of the earthly city as a chastisement of human presumption, but also of empire.”
      So Frank Kermode, in his Sense of an Ending. “He had his demonic host, too,” Kermode adds; “the word 'Jew' remained in lower case through all the editions of the poems until the last of his lifetime, the seventy-fifth birthday edition of 1963.” Julius levelled against Eliot the gravest of accusations. Insisting that the anti-Semitic insults weren't merely blemishes on the poetry, but actually somehow nourished it, he argued that Eliot's work was enhanced by malignity: hatred was its lymph. The boldness of Julius's position still might give us pause. But it convinces only insofar as we accept anti-Semitism as something more than just a regrettable psychic kink. Julius wants to impress on us that in Eliot it was programmatic. (James Wood described Julius's study as “..an unstable book about an unstable subject; reading it is like watching a maniac trying to calm a hysteric.”)

Over a decade later the intensity of the controversy has waned, and it's a nice question as to how damaged by it Eliot's reputation finally was. As the poetry of Philip Larkin can no longer be read quite innocently – the same covey of critical shrikes as have set upon Eliot saw to that - so are we obliged to make certain readerly concessions, greater or lesser, as we examine Eliot's work. Craig Raine has defended Eliot from the kick-off, holding that the documentary evidence for his anti-Semitism is inconclusive, that his poetics militate against mere self-expression, and that we cannot uncomplicatedly infer the personal from the subtle play of the poetry's language – which, after all, works with involutes of word, tone and image that require careful parsing.
      Reading the poems as encoded autobiography is fraught with difficulties, anyway – especially with so continent a man as Eliot appears to have been. Hints and guesses are all we have to go on, if we follow that tack. Raine detects in the body of work a theme which does lend itself to critical scrutiny, however. (The alleged anti-Semitism is reserved for an appendix.) He traces 'the figure in the carpet', the unifying strain of thought that pulses faintly through the poetry, a poetry haunted by the 'failure to live', vital spirits throttled and the seedless diversion of emotional energy: more prosaically, “the cautious circumspection of our sluggish hearts.” From the strange études of the earlier work to the visionary hymnody of 'Ash Wednesday' to the chamber music of Four Quartets, via the penumbral jazz of Sweeney Agonistes, Eliot contends with the inertial drag of matter, the grotesquerie of the body and the wager on transcendence – all refracted through an obscure personal vision, and Raine's account is by no means the full picture.
      Matthew Arnold's poem 'The Buried Life' is the crib-sheet by means of which Eliot grasped this elusive theme. But Raine asserts rather than argues for its importance to Eliot. The poem itself is an reflection on spiritual blockage and the impossibility of true intimate contact: “And long we try in vain to speak and act/Our hidden self, and what we say and do/Is eloquent, is well – but 'tis not true!” - to which Eliot's answering cry redounds: “It is impossible to say just what I mean!” 'The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock' is a poem 'about' a soul hamstrung by convention, by caution; and its goading awareness that life, for others perhaps, is yet brightly unconstrained – something fuller, richer in reserve for others. (It evokes, as Hugh Kenner has it, “..a nervous system snubbed by the Absolute without committing [itself] as to whether that Absolute is the moral rigour of an implacable Creator or the systemized social discomfort of a Boston tea-party.”) Raine's key insight, the 'animating idea', is that this psychic deadening haunts the oeuvre. “In the early poetry,” he says, “the idea is animated by all of Eliot's young man's savagery, all his militant hatred of sentimentality, all his aggressive insistence on what we really feel – how unpleasant that can be, and frequently how meagre.” True, we find in Eliot's work a whispering gallery of unmoored selves, all more or less unfinished and subject to a variety of suppressions. But it's a flimsy, trivial notion of Raine's, creating the illusion of some mystery brought to light while doing nothing of the sort. With equal justice could you claim that the buried life was Larkin's master-theme. There is more to Eliot than this.
      'Unpleasantness' is something Raine responds to with a wry delicatesse. He warms in Eliot to the poet's willingness to acknowledge the ill-favoured and the damaged – the conventionally unpoetic: the quatrain poems are doodles of disgust, and 'Hysteria' registers the speaker's fear and loathing of female sexuality with a stiff-necked deadpan: “I decided that if the shaking of her breasts could be stopped, some of the fragments of the afternoon might be collected, and I concentrated my attention with careful subtlety to this end.” (If the critic seeks a common thread uniting the poetry, he might do worse than examine the instances in Eliot's work of such rejection of our creaturely selves, mired as we are in the gnarl of imperfect matter.)
      But a close reading by Raine is really a crabwise apology for his own practice as a poet. His criticism - interpretative frottage, really - gloats over the verbal detail in Eliot's poetry, skimping on a dimension which places it in a very particular socio-historical 'spot of time'. (Tom Paulin, by contrast, has suggested that 'The Waste Land' is a 'Keynesian epic', shaped in part by Eliot's engagement with J.M. Keynes's Economic Consequences of the Peace; and Eliot was a writer “..impelled by the currents and extremities of the social moment, pushed and pulled by history.” The 'corporate raider of English poetry', as Paulin has it, “...also expresses despair and anger, courage and idealism in what is really the greatest poem of the First World War.”) The peculiarity of its address, its unforgettable cadencing, the micro-transactions at the level of the line between the seedy actual and the exalted: all this somehow contributes to the enduring mystery of Eliot's poetry, and why it should still affect us.


overlord of the spaces and the silences

Hilary Mantel – Bring up the Bodies

One of Mantel's minor characters, the courtier Thomas Wriothesley voices what we may take to be an epitome of this novel and its predecessor Wolf Hall:

All our labours, our sophistry, all our learning both acquired or pretended; the stratagems of state, the lawyers' decrees, the churchmen's curses, and the grave resolutions of judges, sacred and secular: all and each can be defeated by a woman's body, can they not? God should have made their bellies transparent, and saved us the hope and fear. But perhaps what grows in there has to grow in the dark.

Mantel's Cromwell novels depict an extraordinary moment in English history – when the birth of the nation-state was bound up with the fortunes of two women, one discarded and damned, the other bearing in her belly the hopes of the succession. Katherine, the queen that was, is under house arrest, sequestered in a moated grange; Queen Anne, having given birth to the Princess Elizabeth, awaits the arrival of a male heir – while King Henry and his stewards contrive finally to assert the sovereignty of England, effecting the decisive break with Rome, and forging the modern nation almost by a kind of inadvertence. Indeed, if there is a subtext to these novels humming beneath their narratives of courtly intrigue, it's that of the advent of the Modern, a political settlement recognisable to us today:

But chivalry's day is over. One day soon moss will grow in the tilt yard. The days of the moneylender have arrived, and the days of the swaggering privateer; banker sits down with banker, and kings are their waiting boys.

Thomas Cromwell is the ultimate arriviste: a blacksmith's son, a roaring boy from Putney, schooled in the violence of the underclass; all of which left him formidably resourceful, proof against the buffets of circumstance. He emerges in these novels as peculiarly 'modern' – in the matter of his political realism, his pragmatism and his tactician's genius. But Mantel purposely departs from the conventional portrait of Cromwell as the ruthless enforcer, and by means of the free indirect style, ushers the reader into the moment-by-moment of his conscious awareness. You're Cromwell's secret sharer in these pages. Placed among the contending voices of the privy counsellors, the court hirelings and ladies-in-waiting, Cromwell can instantly assay the charge of implication in any given encounter. He misses scarcely anything, is perhaps almost a novelist in the Jamesian sense – one on whom nothing is lost. Mantel shows us his household at Austin Friars, full of devoted retainers and promising young wards, Italian merchants and fugitive scholars. (He can recall the position of the pieces in a chess game abandoned years ago.) Yet he was capable of hounding Thomas More to death; and would do yet worse to those men unfortunate enough to have been snared in Queen Anne's adulteries.

Bring Up the Bodies follows on immediately from the close of Wolf Hall. (The first sentence comes with a strange visionary flourish - “His children are falling from the sky.” - enacting the doubleness with which we are to view much of what occurs later, both at the stylistic level and on the plane of plot and character: a stark surreality that, very briefly afterwards, accords nicely with the novel's covenanted realism.) Mantel brilliantly evokes the fevered conveyancing of information among the principal actors – all are spies in this 'dripping web of court patronage', where a throwaway remark can later carry huge significance. The royal entourage is a brocaded cavalcade of mannered politicking and whispers behind-doors. Intelligencers all, the various figures who haunt the king's presence are each engaged in a decorous negotium. Cromwell, 'the overlord of spaces and the silences', is alert to the vulnerability of truth to corruption, and comes to use it to his advantage:

What is the nature of the border between truth and lies? It is permeable and blurred because it is planted thick with rumour, confabulation, misunderstandings and twisted tales. Truth can break the gates down, truth can howl in the street; unless truth is pleasing, personable and easy to like, she is condemned to stay whimpering at the back door.

Mantel explores the idea that law-court truth and imaginative truth are irreconcilably at odds. The chancery-truth of the diplomatists and the lawyers is a chill abstract of 'the poet's truth' exemplified by Thomas Wyatt, whom Cromwell admires as his antitype: “A statute is written to entrap meaning, a poem to escape it.” As the novel progresses Mantel enlarges this theme – suggesting why Cromwell spared Wyatt from the king's wrath. The novel's language shivers exquisitely between a disciplined plain style (the historic present is used quite disarmingly to effect the palpable immediacy of the unfolding action) and subtle dabs of lyricism. Mantel has contrived a style at once lightsome and precise – the innovation of Wolf Hall was in the rendering of progression d'effet with economy and vital movement. The prose is charged with a fleet effervescence that makes it compulsive without showiness, richly appointed but not clagged with 'local colour'. Not the language of historical fiction as we've come to know it, with its clumsy heritage ventriloquism; but a pliable instrument that permits Mantel to eavesdrop on Cromwell's inner life. Bring Up the Bodies is a fine novel, with its dramatic torque and cold-eyed meditation on power – and Mantel's Cromwell one of the most arresting central characters in recent fiction.


homo homini lupus - i

Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall (2009) was signally more than just a venture into historical fiction by one of our most gifted novelists – it was a piece of elegant necromancy. Peopled by vitally shifting dramatis personae, it triumphed in at once giving us a shrewd image of its central figure, Thomas Cromwell, and at the same time hedging that image with a corona of indeterminacy and volatility that made good the 'lifeness' that the critic James Wood prizes in the very best novels. Mantel's Cromwell is an electrifying figure, and she confers on him the dignity of a fully-realised human being: “He is the inconsolable Master Cromwell: the unknowable, the inconstruable, the probably indefeasible Master Cromwell.” He deploys his statecraft with genius, yet frets that he may have the face of a murderer. He is directly complicit in engineering the execution of Sir Thomas More, yet jibs at the unflattering portrait Hans Holbein has made of him.

The suppleness of Mantel's prose ensures that she never sacrifices the reader's patience by depositing gobbets of historical detail at your feet, like a truffle hound. Henry VIII's bid to disentangle himself from his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, the bitter contention with the Papacy, and, latterly, the unavailing efforts of Cromwell to have More swear an oath of recantation and accede to the Act of Supremacy – all this was dynamically, thrillingly portrayed. Yet Cromwell's domestic life was rendered with a sweetness and compassion, an almost eerie acuity. It's in according Cromwell the ultimate privacies – he seems fully ensouled, dense with mystery, in all his power and vulnerability – that Mantel has performed the rarest of feats. Like the spiritualist Alison in her Beyond Black, she conjures the dead, bodies forth phantoms..



Love's Bonfire – Tom Paulin

Tom Paulin's last collection, The Road to Inver (2004), showed a kind of thrawn fidelity to its source material, its Lowellian appropriations. The signature prickliness was there, as was the crackling boogaloo lexis. And, where Lowell's seigneurial grip on his material betrayed something violent, overinsistent – the poet as imperator – Paulin's repurposing of the poetry of Baudelaire, Montale, Simon Dach, all the rest, had more of a creative bienséance to it, as though Paulin found in these poems something out of which he might profitably invest his own restive energies (“You find the poem's title/but not the poem..” - 'Une Rue Solitaire'.) 
      Among the roster of better-known foreign poets (and how many more 'versions' of Montale's 'L'Anguilla' do we need at this late hour of the world?), one had been quietly installed, one seldom translated in the West and still less read: the Palestinian poet Walid Khazendar is represented in The Road to Inver by three poems

                                                 ..I could hear you trapped in your own voice
                                                   as we made sleaked talk – worse and worse
                                                   by a well that since we were kids
                                                   no one'd drawn a bucket from ever...
                                                                                             ('A Single Weather')

..and twelve more stand as the copestone and centre of Love's Bonfire, Paulin's new volume. It's harder to judge how burked by his own voice are these mintings of Khazendar's poetry: you'll seek in vain for English language translations. But they have a shorn, denuded unfussiness that's characteristic of all these new poems; the same unemphatic plain style that Paulin has settled into in the past eight years. A further access of language dismantled, after the (by his standards) flamboyant point-devices of a book like The Wind Dog, for example, with its allusive gusto, its use of the cento. More enterprise in going naked?

          The same fixation on the grungy, the soiled, the disreputable – but palled by a kind of ashen weariness, these new poems. The old combativeness, too, seems to have retired to a wan thought-taking, as Paulin's language has lost its mica glitter. The political covenant is still detectable; but less aggressively, with less of its former urgency. And still the patented Paulin voice – the 'derisive caw' (as Larkin described Bob Dylan's vocal delivery), the pawky Ulster vernacular in tension with literary inkhornisms. But Love's Bonfire doesn't represent an equivalent to Seamus Heaney's late clean-edged classicism. What Paulin has elsewhere termed 'political anxiety' has dulled to something dimly plaintive, if not baffled. A poetry harder to lay hands on. Paulin's earlier work intimated that it could be sensible of its own procedures – Paulin the critic was at the shoulder of Paulin the poet, assaying a poem's techne even as it flowed from his pen – a sort of live auto-criticism. In 'A Noticed Thing', Paulin returns to a favourite image of his, the windsock:

                                                 I happen on it this hot humid Friday
                                                 like the way you find a symbol
                                                 in a poem or novel
                                                 – something that's over- or predetermined
                                                 – something like that
                                                 let me remind you
                                                 I was your image at one time
                                                 for the whole world
                                                 for everything-that-is-the-case
                                                 plus the wind rushing through it
                                                 or gulshing through it if you like
                                                 but perhaps you've moved on?

It recognises, now, its own provisionality. Paulin won't second-guess himself now. And, indeed, he is no longer quite the ambitious bricoleur he once was in Walking a Line, say, or, triumphantly, in The Invasion Handbook. Nor is his poetry the glorious noisy thunderbox it once had been – imagery and allusion and verbal promiscuity have been reined in; the vaunting historical ironies have gone, and the politics has lost its vinegar; and there isn't that nimbling spastic intelligence to it now. The bare lyricism still stirs in this collection – those jerky phrasings threaded by rhyme – but Paulin's short line feels less apt to spin off in unexpected directions, less aleatory music than a pared-down recitative, smaller, quieter, uncertain of itself. 'And Be No More Seen' packs in an entire aesthetic, ending with the poet's off-hand correction of a kind of ontic disfigurement:
                                               The oilcloth on the kitchen table
                                               an olive green thing – retro surface
                                               japped with little bits of water
                                               or if you like like with bits 'v watter
                                               and so throughother – itchy uncomfortable
                                               is what you call this kind of mess
                                               the ever so slight chaos of matter
                                               where what you want is tightness order
                                              - though having just said this
                                                it's like I've wiped the oilcloth clean

The occasions of this poetry – Montale's 'Le occasioni' – remained personal, sometimes wholly obscured, making them an altogether trickier proposition to interpret.

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...