song of lights

Clive James – The Divine Comedy

W.H. Auden, in New York Letter (1940), appointed Dante the first of his cultural judiciary:

                                              So, when my name is called, I face,
                                              Presiding coldly on my case,
                                              That lean hard-bitten pioneer
                                              Who spoiled a temporal career
                                              And to the supernatural brought
                                              His passion, senses, will and thought,
                                              By Amor Rationalis led
                                              Through the three kingdoms of the dead,
                                              In concrete details saw the whole
                                              Environment that keeps the soul,
                                              And grasped in its complexity
                                              The Catholic ecology,
                                              Described the savage fauna he
                                              In Malebolge's fissure found,
                                              And fringe of blessed flora round
                                              A juster nucleus than Rome,
                                              Where love had its creative home.

Gravity and grace are the chief properties any translator would dearly wish to bring to the business of 'Englishing' Dante's great theological orrery of a poem. For while The Divine Comedy spans the dark backward and abysm of revealed time it possesses such resources of lyric intensity it can persuade us still that it is an account of a living act of (literal and moral) witness. Auden, intellectual gadfly as he was, much endorsed the theory of Christian redemption, finding consolation and intellectual subtlety in High Church ritualism, and the virtual cathedral of Thomist thought. Auden was a man in search of the Great Good Place – the City of God by any other name – so this shouldn't comes as any great surprise. The architecture of the Comedy might be forbidding to today's reader (the dead letter of doctrinal dispute hangs heavily over the work); but the predicament of the soul adrift – the drama of the lost - still can touch us. And how could it not? We're urgently pressed, too much of the time, to little effect, into negotiating the world and its cruelty. Dante, then, as spiritual navigator, his poem a throttling skyhook carrying him from the Pit to the starry heights.

In 'Conversation about Dante' the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam has given us an extraordinary critical tango with Dante, probably unsurpassed, certainly unorthodox:

If the halls of the Hermitage were suddenly to go mad, if the paintings of all the schools and great masters were suddenly to break loose from their nails, and merge with one another, intermingle and fill the air of the rooms with a Futurist roar and an agitated frenzy of color, we would then have something resembling Dante's Commedia.

T.S. Eliot claimed – hedging, somewhat - that a profound response to the poetry could just about precede any interest in the theology – the heavy stuff could come later. (The scholarly Dantean might still argue the merit of acquainting yourself with the background matter.) And Clive James would make much the same insistence: the language itself is the clew to the labyrinth, the poetry the existential dividend – the saving grace. Dante's Italian – even to the non-specialist – clearly gains from an extraordinary fluidity, and many of its special effects depend on qualities inherent in the language; and so out of reach of even the most ingenious translator. Fulsomely endowed in rhyme, the Italian vernacular permits a hummingbird-wing meshing and unmeshing of sound and meaning: even a glance at a line of the verse will tip off the alert reader that the most adroit translation necessarily, unwillingly subjects itself to a self-denying ordinance. So a decision faces the translator of the Comedy from the outset. Terza rima contributes to the velocity of the poetry but, with the odd distinguished exception, isn't much served by the genius of the English language, say. It manages to attain a forward thrust while casting an eye backwards. Each tercet holds within itself the stem-cell of the lead-rhyme in the next, generating the feeling that the verse-movement is also ascension. (Dorothy L Sayer's version fairly mangles the English while trying to preserve the formal physique of the Italian.) Narrative – one thing after another, a step at a time – fuses with exaltation – the soul's slow rise.

Clive James opts for something different, a technical choice that alters the tonalities and movement of the verse altogether. He plumps for rhyming quatrains, and what he loses in swift unencumbered elegance he gains in a kind of moral heft, a stateliness; James's is a Comedy meant to be taken as a reminder of the poem's cultural durability, that its currency and vitality are constants yet.

The Divine Comedy is the precursor of the whole of modern history,” James writes, “and I hope this translation conveys enough of its model to show that [Dante] forecast the whole story in a single song: a song of lights.” The blood-boltered troughs of Hell are visionary glimpses of Treblinka and Kolyma, of the killing fields. The luminous geometry of the Paradiso, however, is a shot at pure aesthesis, the bodily self discarded in a perfection of music and light: trasumanar, indeed. Most recent translations of Dante have stuck to the Inferno, perhaps for its slaughterhouse melodrama, its raw physicality, its grounding in the world of political violence – more straightforwardly relevant to our modern sensibility. (Rolling news that stays news.) James's bid to muster his energies in rendering the three cantiche as a whole is a bold one, a worthy one, honouring Dante's intent. Eliot observed in writing of Dante: “The experience of a poem is the experience both of a moment and of a lifetime. It is very much like our intenser experiences of other human beings.”


critic, interrupted

James Wood – The Fun Stuff

Ex cathedra pronouncements on the state of literature are gratingly at odds with the democratic spirit of modern Western culture. An Arnold or a Leavis would find themselves on the back foot, in a climate in which the Canon has been disparaged and dismantled by the academic soixante-huitards, and to contend for the intrinsic elitism of art is to confess to one's political bias. A fuzzy left-liberal consensus has made the expression of value-judgements somehow, at best, suspect; a matter of reactionary tendencies and ill-concealed disdain for the popular accessibility of the arts, creeping unbidden into neutral debate. As if to argue that some works will inevitably be better than others amounts to a self-betrayal, letting slip clues to a High Toryism of the spirit. (No coincidence that this wholesale enfranchisement of literary culture has portended the non-appearance of another Lionel Trilling, say.)

James Wood emerged as precisely the kind of heir-presumptive to F.R. Leavis at precisely the moment when the distrust of the critic-as-aesthete had become so rooted in cultural discourse, that he seemed almost wilfully retrograde. Marxisant scholars like Raymond Williams and politically engaged savants of the sort best exemplified by Edward Said had among them contrived to make any discussion of culture that wasn't au fond political appear faintly absurd. Criticism was to be a perilous negotiation with power structures, a demarche in the extra-literary sphere. Whereas 'traditional' criticism - hidebound, reactionary - was reduced to a mazurka of mendacities. Said, for one, could elucidate the rhetorical and narratological strategies of Conrad as deftly as Lionel Trilling; but this was in the service of a broader political vision. A critical reading uninflected by some form of political emergency was fluff. Moralism of the Leavisian stripe - involved in an examination of what constituted a good life well-lived - yielded to a more expansive theory of literature, founded on principles drawn from the radicalism of the sixties, progressive, disaggregrative, angry.

A refusal of this fundamental orientation seemed perverse, ideologically unsound. But James Wood wrote out of the rejected mode. The Broken Estate, his first collection of essays, was written under the sign not of political activism, but was theological in its complexion. Its seriousness gestured not towards a horizon of revolutionary violence - or even Comtean social melioration - but towards an idea of literary fiction as the disjecta membra of a universe from which God had been summarily evicted.

That fiction at its highest pitch could reinstate the meaningfulness and purposiveness of the human enterprise - when such an earnest had been forsaken with the death of God - was the ground-bass to Wood's critical arias. His concept of Realism was given point by a curiously secular faith: there was something 'miraculous' in the capacity of a writer to convey intelligibly the hazards of experience, in the artful contrivance of recognitions. The novel could plausibly tack between antinomies - and gently teased the reader into a state of 'belief' that rehearsed or shadowed the belief of the religious adherent. Its manoeuvres were those that drew on the same psychic attitudes adopted by the believer. Fiction - because it doesn't commit us to the doctrinaire, can say 'Yes, but..', can aid us in spanning contrary experiences of life (meaning modulated with meaninglessness) - is the preeminent art-form: a complex fugue of granite and rainbow. Wood read, in The Broken Estate, through the mesh of a reluctant agnosticism - like a phantom limb, the religious impulse is still obscurely preserved in us; we still turn heliotropically to a vanished source of light. There could be no doubt that Wood wished to be taken au serieux - these essays are gristly with earnestness. They invited us into the cathedral hush, the contemplative stillness that serious art requires of us. In The Broken Estate much of Wood's energies are given over to illustrating, as with Virginia Woolf, that the "novel acts religiously but performs sceptically." (This from the Introduction to the collection: possibly a post hoc rationalisation - as, arguably, the succeeding essays don't quite fulfil it.)

Contra the po-mo theorists and practitioners, for Wood it remains an article of faith that the novel can lead us back to reality. We've grown so accustomed to the conventions of the novel - plot and character chief among them - that we need to be reminded that something essentially uncanny is at work when we offer ourselves to the virtual staging-ground of the novel. The attentive reader moves silently through a tenement of occupied rooms, a spectral guest, in a kind of espionage; the novelist having brokered this delicate relation between the woman reading and those peopling the work. 'Ensouling shadows', Hilary Mantel called it somewhere. And when fiction too obviously displays its pneumatics - as in the immaculately crafted but sterile work of Ian McEwan - James Wood will flag up the failure of the effect. The novelist, 'that free servant of life', must steal a march on the hardening of literary form into convention, as Wood reminds us in How Fiction Works, must be latitudinarian in her use of the familiar toys of the craft, and always be primed to swerve away into 'lifeness'.

Wood's militancy - a severity that occasionally calls to mind Leavis - has drawn fire from various quarters. His negative manifesto 'Hysterical Realism' strafed the literary practice of a group of writers for whom energy and a hurtling headlong Tiggerishness was the prize; and Wood found this all so much indiscipline, self-indulgence, a scouting of the responsibilities of the art. Rather, patience and considered judgement must invest the novelist's endeavours, a steady authoritative attending to the sometimes near-illegible signatures of motive and action. Wood was coming to seem Master of the Rolls, inhabiting the pages of the tonier literary magazines: as Salman Rushdie sniped from his memoir Joseph Anton, Wood was a Procrustes, mutilating the novels he criticised the better for them to fit his preconceptions of what the form should be.

Both The Broken Estate and its successor The Irresponsible Self were assemblies of book reviews published elsewhere. Few reviewers carry sufficient heft - in terms of the unity of their concerns or stylistically - to justify such consecration: most are vaguely in hock to publishers' PR machinery, and the copy itself is a spumante of critical cliches. One hopes that Wood has a book-length critical study in him; but his collections are distinguished by a binding coherence and common interpretative emphases, marbling these pieces with what we might gingerly term a metaphysical patina. Characterisation in the novel bears a decided share in this, for Wood. Those moments in fiction when a character suddenly slithers from under the net of authorial control, when the representation of self to the self locks into brilliant focus; agency depicted as richly and fluidly as we ourselves experience it; and an Emma Woodhouse emerges as a self-reflective being, in all her contrariety - those moments are the dividend of cleaving to literary realism. Wood identifies Shakespeare as the great innovator here, casting aside the stiff brocade of stage-rhetoric and permitting his personae the full dignity of self-awareness; such that we meet them as autonomous selves, by turns opaque and translucent, clean-edged and blurred, governed by discernible motives and bafflingly motiveless. The realist novel took instruction from Shakespeare, grasping that within its scope should come the portrayal of persons as ragged hives of impulses. The 'irresponsibility' that Wood talks about - prompted by his reading of Coleridge's reading of Shakespeare - announces itself in the 'drift' of a literary character into her own kind of self-appropriation: not as the mannequin of the novelist, nor as a cipher of the novel's overt concerns; but as an entity imbued with something close to awareness - crucially, though, to which the reader is privy. Technically, the most effective device for this eavesdropping is free indirect style, in which the character's perceptions and the stipple of thought are rendered, so lightly as not to mar the image. It permits a moment of unflawed communion with the character, possibly one whose strangeness might be rebarbative. Here the ethical implications of Wood's critical stance are at their most emphatic. In the literary parlour game of briefly "inhabiting the wilderness of another's soul", we're tutored in the often taxing business of empathy. We must give the otherness of others its due, however it may unsettle our own self-regard.

Other readers of his new collection The Fun Stuff have detected a slackening or lowering of pressure. But the title of the book - which may have given rise to this supposition - is more a wistful acknowledgement of Wood's own limitations; more about what he cannot do, and where he cannot go, than programme notes for the book at large. "For me, this playing [Keith Moon's exuberant drumming] is like an ideal sentence of prose, a sentence I have always wanted to write and never quite had the confidence to: a long, passionate onrush, formally controlled and joyously messy, propulsive but digressively self-interrupted, attired but dishevelled, careful and lawless, right and wrong." To be less buttoned-up, less diffident, and to attempt something riskier, creatively: but the musician in his ecstasy of self-forgetting remains for Wood the figure from a daydream. The critical beadle is back on duty in these essays, not quite so unforgiving, but with his accustomed sharpness of eye and the glinting panache of his prose. Odd that Wood should write of lacking confidence, when he can collar Cormac McCarthy for a tricksy dalliance with theodicy that never quite comes off, never convinces. Or can mildly chide Alan Hollinghurst for slipping into the register of a cheap novelette. Indeed, the essay on Keith Moon that opens the book – where you might take it as a keynote to the rest – seems not, in fact, to orient the reader toward the themes of the remainder at all.



Sifting his thoughts, idly, as if he had all the time in the world. The uninsistent English rain spattered the window. Dove-grey light disclosed a woman stepping briskly over the pavement, holding up an umbrella as freely and naturally as if it were her own hand that had bloomed, fingers lengthening to spokes, the webbing swelled to a fat dome held above her cropped head. Elementalist. The private garden on the other side of this residential road – bounded by a speared wrought-iron fence – was brilliant, bejewelled in its greenery, shining in the fresh wet. The woman crossed over, lightly, as on tiptoe. She carried her head high, with unemphatic elegance. The rain intensified a touch, and he could hear it through the glass, like cloth tearing.

She sidestepped a slow-crawling car, made the other side, continued. The sun was shy behind a grey swagged cloud. Larissa moved pantherishly, commandingly, it seemed to him – something flamed in the pit of his belly as he watched her approach. He realised his coffee cup he still held was empty, and placed it on the whatnot.

His whole week had been funnelling down to this moment. The succession of days were only a kind of vestibule, and waiting seemed the dominant activity, even if he'd been doing things. Even if his body had, filling up space, moving through rooms, among people. Meetings at vast deal tables under the gaze of ancient magnates hung on the oak panelling. Hurried discussions in stairwells. Lunches in pubs. And now, with Thomas Tallis issuing from the sound system in this Bayswater flat, everything else just fell away. A week of irrelevance. Absence as a hook in the viscera. Larissa drew parallel to his ground floor window, striding by, shot a brief wave at him in passing. Then she was at the door.

“You haven't been waiting all morning for me?”

He shrugged, smiling. Spem in alium flowed out of its material envelope and resolved into silence. He stood looking at her, as if her every feature hadn't been imprinted on his mind, giving a bias and tilt to his thoughts. She wore a light summer jacket and pencil skirt, her erect slenderness making the ensemble neat and practical. She had always this quizzing air, of being on the point of asking a question from which universes of meaning would rush. The slight cleft chin delicately pushed forward, the nimble provisionality of her attention. She folded up her umbrella and lay it against his desk.

“You've got me for an hour,” she said, and he could only nod idiotically. Unfussy, smartly shedding her jacket, Larissa crossed the floor, the carpet with its worn nap and wine stains; sliding by the work-table with its coppice of papers and books. She was before him, and straightening the open collar of his shirt. His breath came levelly, unfaltering, yet his heart swelled with delight.

The sunlight in its generosity lent highlights to her temple, her cheek, her jawline – her left eye caught and held it, the iris glowing green. Her boyishness – that gamine slightness mildly undercut by the discreet never-neutral contours of her hips and breasts – made all the keener the charm and charge of her physical presence in this musty room. He should offer her something, a coffee. But he really should drop to his knees and praise her. But he stood there, simply. She waited for him to speak. Reality split and branched, and multiple shards of possibility sprayed outwards from this still centre. A refuse collection truck nosed along the road outside; the brutish and uncontainable thrum of its machinery filling its sheer tonnage transmitted itself to the room. He felt the flicks and dabs of her appraising gaze on his face – he never could bear such close examination, but it was an intelligent scrutiny tendered in simple honesty, and he allowed it, when with anyone else he'd have turned his face away. The image thrown back by a mirror always appalled him. The haggard, care-worn face – that time had gouged and pitted - thus presented seemed not to be his, more the rude carven mask of a witch doctor, features a primitive daub, scabbed, cracked, awful! He wanted to – but could not – tell her how great was the gift of his not turning away, an intimate benison that resisted speech. (But wasn't the obligation in the circumstances to tell everything?) The faintest allusion of a smile browsed her lips. He marvelled at the steadiness of her gaze. In the card-shuffle of those seconds, he was the young man of twenty-five years ago – the blithe seducer, assured that to want was to have. Did she have an inkling, that she had this restorative power? Or was that the ultimate surety of her charisma, being unaware?

A London hour. Pigeons capered on the low garden wall, scruffy loiterers. The vast unending slipstream of urban life pressed invisibly against the glass.

She said, “Let's have something a bit more appropriate.” - and bent to where the sound system crouched. Brittle clatter of CD cases. Ruminative humming and muttering. The pricked bubble of an 'Oh!' And the soundless This! declaring she'd made her choice. Larissa popped the disc into the player, raised herself in a touching knock-kneed way and turned to him once more. She flattened her skirt with deft hands, brightly challenging his immobility with a broad smile that enhanced that naiad quality of hers. “Now,” she said, “we've got to get you to loosen up!” Those hands were cool and dry in his. Willow wands. The music came from the speaker like an animal emerging from a brake, quiet, a dainty tremor at first. Waltz time. (Even as she moved to embrace him, Larissa was widening the floor space with the toe of her court shoe – her natural economy of grace.) These preliminaries gave him the time to reflect a little – not 'think' as such, but a wordless medley of impressions and unformed notions, held in suspension yet gently drifting – on the conspiracies of chance that had brought them together. An autumn day, the livery of reds and browns and yellows edging the urban streets, sodden yet somehow grand, as the year gathered the last days within itself – dashes through the rain from one doorway to another – Coldplay on a taxi radio – a stray dog, its fur daggled and dripping, with such a candid sorrow in its shining eyes that he had to let it in... (She shook his hand when they met, he remembered – and it still had that lightness.) Our minds seek to engineer these fables of consequence, where seeming randomness is retrofitted to serve our deeper instinctual need for a narrative line, for alembicated meaning. That life should feel plotted in a shapely way, is a universal prepossession: we need it to be so. He mourned for lost time, sitting alone, a paperback neglected on his knee, gazing out. Hours, days, weeks, irrecoverably gone – and they'd barely touched on his awareness; their value known only afterwards. He understood why people craved .. what was the term? .. 'peak experiences', happenings as blazonry. And, in these terminal days, Larissa brought with her the promise that the memory of these hours would be impressed deeply in his mind. A dancer resetting time with her movements, the fullness of it could make you weep...

“Tread on my toes,” Larissa was saying, “and you lose points.”

“I'll try my best not to,” he said with a twisted grin that closed his eyes. Said with a grainy tongue. “I found a shop dummy in a skip the other day. Almost – almost – picked it up and took it home. As a practice partner.” She chucked him under the chin.

“Would've been just as good as me.”


Revolving slowly on the spot, their bodies as close as lovers' but girdled by that chaste compact that understands that nothing more is intended, nothing more will result from this physical nearness, than the bodily expression of sexless pleasure. And he did tread on her toes from time to time – she'd yip with mock distress, and he'd apologise and pause. His clumsiness had become vaguely ritualised, and her adoption of the tutor's role – with its happy blend of hope and exasperation – suited her queerly – as did her unemphatic acceptance of power between them. He turned at her prompting like an ancient, barnacled sea vessel, with Larissa as the gently urgent wind.

These moments are their own guarantee.

The room had darkened as the afternoon wore on. Indeed, the light had lost that charmed translucence of earlier, a bleakening that vaguely plucked at his gut, as if to remind him that the hour would end and she'd leave. Still he made his ungainly revolutions within the pivot of their standing. And her bright boyish face pressed its encouragements on him.
Music fused them bodily and made an improvised grace. Larissa beamed at him when, for a few magical moments, their accord was perfected, and it felt like dancing. Corseted by his clumsiness as he passed through the workaday world, now he issued a snub to gravity. It was good, it was right – it lengthened his bones and turned his skull into an origami cube, aerated. But the worm was in the bud. Larissa's face had taken on an pixellated indistinctness, though it was never so close to his. Earlier he could see each eyelash, and the gold flecking in her iris. Now her eyes were watercolour daubs, runny and grey-black. Her mouth smeared by a thumb. Her face – formerly a dainty heart-shape – fattened and rippled, the chin like a pendulous ooze of melted tallow... Frosty creepers stole up his spine. The space behind her head became a Gerhard Richter frieze, horizons of undetailed colour. “How … more … turning … able?” - She spoke as from the depths of the sea.

Poliakoff released her, letting his hands drop like hung game to his sides. His chest felt cased in tacky soap, and he could feel his pulse ticking in his neck. She was there, whole, a sweet signature of puzzlement on her face. He stepped back from her, shaking his head. “Too.. too much..” - words as wood shavings, dry, curling to the floor. She recoiled in those brittle seconds, from the pain on his face. From the howl that was ribboning then ballooning from his mouth.

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...