The Unsubmerged City

Commuting days until retirement: 77

To continue the First World War theme from the previous post, I saw that a film based on Vera Brittain’s classic memoir of her early life – Testament of Youth, with that war as the central and dominating event – was soon to be released. I’ve often heard of the book but have never read it, and much prefer to see a book-based film only after having been able to immerse myself in the atmosphere of the book itself. So I’ve now done that, and am very glad that I did. It recreates the reality of that distant period in a way that could only have been managed by a writer who experienced both the best and worst that it had to offer.

Love without dignity

We first meet Vera Brittain as a girl growing up in the rather stultifying atmosphere of a middle class Edwardian household. Meeting some of her brother’s school friends might be an opening to the expanding possibilities of life, but:

The parental habit – then almost universally accepted as ‘correct’ where daughters were concerned – of inquisition into each day’s proceedings made private encounters, even with young men in the same town, almost impossible without a whole series of intrigues and subterfuges which robbed love of all its dignity.

Eventually however she does fall in love with Roland Leighton, one of the group of friends, and an especially brilliant literature and classics scholar who scoops almost all the school prizes available to him. But the experience of a closening relationship was then very different to today’s typical expectations:

We sat on the sofa till midnight, talking very quietly. The stillness, heavy-laden with the dull oppression of the snowy night, became so electric with emotion that we were frightened of one another, and dared not let even our fingers touch for fear that the love between us should render what we both believed to be decent behaviour suddenly unendurable….
I was still incredibly ignorant. I had read, by then, too much to have failed to acquire a vague and substantially correct idea of the meaning of marriage, but I did not yet understand the precise nature of the act of union. My ignorance, however, was incapable of disturbing my romantic adoration, for I knew now for certain that whatever marriage might involve in addition to my idea of it, I could not find it other than desirable.

Vera Brittain

Vera Brittain as a VAD (illustration from book)

But by this point – early 1915 – the war is under way, and soon Roland, as well as her brother Edward and other friends, are away in military training, eventually to be involved in action as officers. Vera has already gone up to Oxford, women since 1876 having been able to study at University, but not – bizarrely to our modern minds – able to take degrees. (Having returned to study after the war she became one of the first who did.) But feeling she must share the experiences of those she loves in one of the few ways that she can, by summer of that year she is becoming a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nursing assistant – one of the women drafted in to nurse the wounded in that war. With minimal training, they were pitched into dealing with men who were often dying in front of their eyes, many with wounds that would be a challenge for the most experienced nurse.

In addition, of course she is unversed in practical tasks in ways that many middle class girls of that were: she describes how she needed instruction in how to boil an egg. And of course more importantly for her work, there are other areas of ignorance:

Throughout my two decades of life, I had never looked upon the nude body of an adult male; I had never even seen a naked boy-child since the nursery days when, at the age of four or five, I used to share my evening baths with Edward. I had therefore expected, when I first started nursing, to be overcome with nervousness and embarrassment, but, to my infinite relief, I was conscious of neither. Towards the men I came to feel an almost adoring gratitude for their simple and natural acceptance of my ministrations. Short of actually going to bed with them, there was hardly an intimate service that I did not perform for one or another in the course of four years, and I still have reason to be thankful for the knowledge of masculine functioning which the care of them gave me, and for my early release from the sex-inhibitions that even to-day – thanks to the Victorian tradition which up to 1914 dictated that a young woman should know nothing of men but their faces and their clothes until marriage pitchforked her into an incompletely visualised and highly disconcerting intimacy – beset many of my female contemporaries, both married and single.

The reality of war

We see how the war explosively disrupted the hardened attitudes of the time in so many fundamental ways; but of course the core of Vera’s experience was that of death – at first hand in her nursing work, and fearfully anticipated in relation to her fiancé, brother and friends. Letters are nervously sent to, and received from, the front, and we experience her emotional swings as good and bad news of the fighting is received. As many must have done, they agree on coded phrases which will bypass censorship and give those at home clues to what is happening.

Roland anticipates that he will get through the war, nevertheless feeling it would be fitting to have received some wound as a token of what he has been through. But, as soon as Christmas 1915, Vera hears that he has died in action, shot by an enemy sniper. Numbly, she buries herself in her nursing work for the rest of the war. Her two closest male friends, members of the group formed at school with Roland and Edward, both succumb in turn, one being killed outright, and the other, Victor Richardson, blinded and brought back to hospital to recuperate, but then dying of his wounds. Her brother Edward, perhaps the quietest of the group, goes on to show great courage and wins the Military Cross. But finally, in 1918, he also dies in the fighting on the Austro-Italian border.

Brittain, Leighton Richardson

Edward Brittain, Roland Leighton and another friend, Victor Richardson (illustration from book)

I found Vera Brittain’s writing sometimes has something of the verbose, circumlocutory quality of the Victorian tradition she has inherited; but when describing the War period, driven by such enormous emotional stresses, it becomes more direct, powerful and evocative. At the same time some of the photographs included in the book brought home to me as much as anything what it must have felt like to live through that time. Not pictures of fighting or of the wounded, but simply of Vera’s brother and friends posed in relaxed groups for the camera: first in school dress at Uppingham, then in military uniform, later with freshly sprouted moustaches; the sequence then ends abruptly and shockingly with photographs of their graves.

The pacifist’s task

In the 1920s we see Vera working for what was then the League of Nations, and throwing herself into pacifist causes – but it’s a nuanced and intelligent pacifism. She writes of the heroism that war can draw out:

It is, I think, this glamour, this magic, this incomparable keying up of the spirit in a time of mortal conflict, which constitute the pacifist’s real problem – a problem still incompletely imagined, and still quite unsolved. The causes of war are always falsely represented; its honour is dishonest and its glory meretricious, but the challenge to spiritual endurance, the intense sharpening of all the senses, the vitalising consciousness of common peril for a common end, remain to allure those boys and girls who have just reached the age when love and friendship and adventure call more persistently than at any later time. The glamour may be the mere delirium of fever, which as soon as war is over dies out and shows itself for the will-o’-the-wisp that it is, but while it lasts no emotion known to man seems as yet to have quite the compelling power of this enlarged vitality…
Since those years it has often been said by pacifists… that war creates more criminals than heroes; that, far from developing noble qualities in those who take part in it, it brings out only the worst. If this were altogether true, the pacifist’s aim would be, I think, much nearer of attainment than it is. Looking back upon the psychological processes of us who were very young sixteen years ago, it seems to me that his task – our task – is infinitely complicated by the fact that war, while it lasts, does produce heroism to a far greater extent than it brutalises.

I’m lucky never to have been involved in a war, and have no idea whether I could have coped with the experience at all. But this sums up for me the paradox of how it can bring out qualities of bravery and selflessness in those who might never have been called upon to show them, were it not for the bumbling of politicians and the posturing of dictators. And perhaps that paradox was more painfully sharp in World War 1 than any other war before or since.

Brittain travels around Europe as part of her work, and experiences the festering resentment brought about by the post-war settlements, realising presciently that another war is a possibility, and wondering sadly what sort of cause it was for which those she loved had died.

War and literature

But perhaps one of the important themes of the book is the fight to preserve the life of literature in the face of the rampant destructiveness of war. There is Vera’s own underlying ambition to write, set against her war work, all-encompassing in time, energy and emotion; as well as her almost-missed university education. But more glaringly obvious is the cutting short of thousands of promising, talented lives such as Roland’s. And her brother Edward had musical ability and enthusiasm which he was never able to develop further.

As the War gets under way and Vera’s friends are sent away, letters between them include poems and other writing – their own as well as that of others. In 1915 Vera sends to Roland a leading article she has clipped from The Times newspaper, whose title I have borrowed for this post. In the book she quotes a passage:

A medieval fancy that still lingers, ghost-like, on the more lonely sea-shores, such as that Breton one so tenderly described by Renan, is the legend of the submerged city. It lies out there barely hidden under the waves, and on a still summer eve they say you may hear the music of its Cathedral bells. One day the waters will recede and the city in all its old beauty be revealed again. Might this not serve to figure the actual conditions of literature, in the nobler sense of the term, submerged as that seems to many to be by the high tide of war? Thus submerged it seemed, at any rate, to the most delicate of our literary artists, who was lately accounting for his disused pen to an aggrieved friend. ‘I have no heart,’ he said, ‘for literature in this war; we can only have faith that it is still there under the waters, and will some day re-emerge.’ . . . There is fortunately no truth in the idea of a sunken literature. A function of the spirit, it can never be submerged, or, indeed, as much as touched by war or any other external thing. It is an inalienable possession and incorruptible part of man.

And of course against whatever literature we might imagine never appeared, because of the destruction of those who would have created it, the war generated a whole body of work which would not otherwise have existed – Brittain’s Testament of Youth being one example.

Je suis CharlieOne of the reasons that I was struck by that ‘unsubmerged city’ passage was that I read it at about the same time that the Charlie Hebdo murders were committed in Paris. A hundred years on, we may be dealing with an entirely different situation and a kind of literature undreamt of in those earlier years, but compare these early 20th century sentiments to the ardent faces of the crowds waving pens and pencils in response to the shootimg of the journalists and cartoonists.

While moved by the Parisian expressions of feeling, I couldn’t help thinking at the same time of the far greater atrocities committed recently by Islamic extremists in Nigeria and Pakistan – not to mention Syria and Iraq. The Western media devoted far more space to Charlie Hebdo than to these – perhaps understandably, since they are closer to home and threaten our own Western culture. But I hope and expect that the floods of ignorance, fanaticism and brutality will not in the end submerge the metaphorical cities which form the true and established cultures of those other, more distant places. They are surely under a far greater threat than our own.

On Being Set Free

Commuting days until retirement: 133

The underlying theme of this blog is retirement, and it will be fairly obvious to most of my readers by now – perhaps indeed to all three of you – that I’m looking forward to it. It draws closer; I can almost hear the ‘Happy retirement’ wishes from colleagues – some expressed perhaps through ever-so-slightly gritted teeth as they look forward to many more years in harness, while I am put out to graze. But of course there’s another side to that: they will also be keeping silent about the thought that being put out to graze also carries with it the not too distant prospect of the knacker’s yard – something they rarely think about in relation to themselves.

Because in fact the people I work with are generally a lot younger than I am – in a few cases younger than my children. No one in my part of the business has ever actually retired, as opposed to leaving for another job. My feeling is that to stand up and announce that I am going to retire will be to introduce something alien and faintly distasteful into the prevailing culture, like telling everyone about your arthritis at a 21st birthday party.

The revolving telescope

For most of my colleagues, retirement,  like death, is something that happens to other people. In my experience, it’s around the mid to late 20s that such matters first impinge on the consciousness – indistinct and out of focus at first, something on the edge of the visual field. It’s no coincidence, I think, that it’s around that same time that one’s perspective on life reverses, and the general sense that you’d like to be older and more in command of things starts to give way to an awareness of vanishing youth. The natural desire for what is out of reach reorientates its outlook, swinging through 180 degrees like a telescope on a revolving stand.

But I find that, having reached the sort of age I am now, it’s doesn’t do to turn your back on what approaches. It’s now sufficiently close that it is the principal factor defining the shape of the space you now have available in which to organise your life,  and you do much better not to pretend it isn’t there, but to be realistically aware. We have all known those who nevertheless keep their backs resolutely turned, and they often cut somewhat pathetic figures: a particular example I remember was a man (who would almost certainly be dead by now) who didn’t seem to accept his failing prowess at tennis as an inevitable corollary of age, but rather a series of inexplicable failures that he should blame himself for. And there are all those celebrities you see with skin stretched ever tighter over their facial bones as they bring in the friendly figure of the plastic surgeon to obscure the view of where they are headed.

Perhaps Ray Kurzweil, who featured in my previous post, is another example, with his 250 supplement tablets each day and his faith in the abilities of technology to provide him with some sort of synthetic afterlife.  Given that he has achieved a generous measure of success in his natural life, he perhaps has less need than most of us to seek a further one; but maybe it works the other way, and a well-upholstered ego is more likely to feel a continued existence as its right.

Enjoying the view

Old and Happy

Happiness is not the preserve of the young (Wikimedia Commons)

But the fact is that for most of us the impending curtailment of our time on earth brings a surprising sense of freedom. With nothing left to strive for – no anxiety about whether this or that ambition will be realised – some sort of summit is achieved. The effort is over,  and we can relax and enjoy the view. More than one survey has found that people in their seventies are nowadays collectively happier than any other age group: here are reports of three separate studies between 2011 and 2014, in Psychology Today, The Connexion, and the Daily Mail. Those adverts for pension providers and so on, showing apparently radiant wrinkly couples feeding the ducks with their grandchildren, aren’t quite as wide of the mark as you might think.

Speaking for myself, I’ve never been excessively troubled by feelings of ambition, and have probably enjoyed a relatively stress-free, if perhaps less prosperous, life as a result. And the prospect of an existence where I am no longer even expected to show such aspirations is part of the attraction of retirement. But of course there remain those for whom the fact of extinction gives rise to wholly negative feelings, but who are at the same time brave enough to face it fair and square, without any psychological or cosmetic props. A prime example in recent literature is Philip Larkin, who seems to make frequent appearances in this blog. While famously afraid of death, he wrote luminously about it. Here, in his poem The Old Fools he evokes images of the extreme old age which he never, in fact, reached himself:

Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin (Fay Godwin)

Perhaps being old is having lighted rooms
Inside your head, and people in them, acting.
People you know, yet can’t quite name; each looms
Like a deep loss restored, from known doors turning,
Setting down a lamp, smiling from a stair, extracting
A known book from the shelves; or sometimes only
The rooms themselves, chairs and a fire burning,
The blown bush at the window, or the sun’s
Faint friendliness on the wall some lonely
Rain-ceased midsummer evening.

Dream and reality seem to fuse at this ultimate extremity of conscious experience as Larkin portrays it; and it’s the snuffing out of consciousness that a certain instinct in us finds difficult to take – indeed, to believe in. Larkin, by nature a pessimist, certainly believed in it,  and dreaded it. But cultural traditions of many kinds have not accepted extinction as inevitable: we are not obliviously functioning machines but the subjects of experiences like the ones Larkin writes about. As such we have immortal souls which transcend the gross physical world, it has been held – so why should we not survive death? (Indeed, according some creeds, why should we not have existed before birth?)

Timid hopes

Well, whatever immortal souls might be, I find it difficult to make out a case for individual survival, and this is perhaps the majority view in the secular culture I inhabit. It seems pretty clear to me that my own distinguishing characteristics are indissolubly linked to my physical body: damage to the brain, we know, can can change the personality, and perhaps rob us of our memories and past experience, which most quintessentially define us as individuals. But even though our consciousness can be temporarily wiped out by sleep or anaesthetics, there remains the sense (for me, anyway) that since we have no notion whatever of how we could provide an account of it in physical terms,  there is the faint suggestion that some aspect of our experience could be independent of our bodily existence.

You may or may not accept both of these beliefs – the temporality of the individual and the transcendence of consciousness. But if you do,  then the possibility seems to arise of some kind of disembodied,  collective sentience,  beyond our normal existence. And this train of thought always reminds me of the writer Arthur Koestler, who died by suicide in 1983 at the age of 77. An outspoken advocate of voluntary euthanasia, he’d been suffering in later life from Parkinson’s disease, and had then contracted a progressive, incurable form of leukaemia. His suicide note (which turned out to have been written several months before his death) included the following passage:

I wish my friends to know that I am leaving their company in a peaceful frame of mind, with some timid hopes for a de-personalised after-life beyond due confines of space, time and matter and beyond the limits of our comprehension. This ‘oceanic feeling’ has often sustained me at difficult moments, and does so now, while I am writing this.

Death sentence

In fact Koestler had, since he was quite young, been more closely acquainted with death than most of us. Born in Hungary, during his earlier career as a journalist and political writer he twice visited Spain during its civil war in the 1930s. He made his first visit as an undercover investigator of the Fascist movement, being himself at that time an enthusiastic supporter of communism. A little later he returned to report from the Republican side,  but was in Malaga when it was captured by Fascist troops. By now Franco had come to know of his anti-fascist writing, and he was imprisoned in Seville under sentence of death.

Koestler portrayed on the cover of the book

Koestler portrayed on the cover of the book

In his account of this experience, Dialogue with Death, he describes how prisoners would try to block their ears to avoid the nightly sound of a telephone call to the prison, when a list of prisoner names would be dictated and the men later led out and shot. His book is illuminating on the psychology of these conditions,  and the violent emotional ups and downs he experienced:

One of my magic remedies was a certain quotation from a certain work of Thomas Mann’s; its efficacy never failed. Sometimes, during an attack of fear, I repeated the same verse thirty or forty times, for almost an hour, until a mild state of trance came on and the attack passed. I knew it was the method of the prayer-mill, of the African tom-tom, of the age-old magic of sounds. Yet in spite of my knowing it, it worked…
I had found out that the human spirit is able to call upon certain aids of which, in normal circumstances, it has no knowledge, and the existence of which it only discovers in itself in abnormal circumstances. They act, according to the particular case, either as merciful narcotics or ecstatic stimulants. The technique which I developed under the pressure of the death-sentence consisted in the skilful exploitation of these aids. I knew, by the way, that at the decisive moment when I should have to face the wall, these mental devices would act automatically, without any conscious effort on my part. Thus I had actually no fear of the moment of execution; I only feared the fear which would precede that moment.

That there are emotional ‘ups’ at all seems surprising,  but later he expands on one of them:

Often when I wake at night I am homesick for my cell in the death-house in Seville and, strangely enough, I feel that I have never been so free as I was then. This is a very strange feeling indeed. We lived an unusual life on that patio; the constant nearness of death weighed down and at the same time lightened our existence. Most of us were not afraid of death, only of the act of dying; and there were times when we overcame even this fear. At such moments we were free – men without shadows, dismissed from the ranks of the mortal; it was the most complete experience of freedom that can be granted a man.

Perhaps, in a diluted, much less intense form, the happiness of the over 70s revealed by the surveys I mentioned has something in common with this.

Koestler was possibly the only writer of the front rank ever to be held under sentence of death, and the experience informed his novel Darkness at Noon. It is the second in a trilogy of politically themed novels, and its protagonist, Rubashov, has been imprisoned by the authorities of an unnamed totalitarian state which appears to be a very thinly disguised portrayal of Stalinist Russia. Rubashov has been one of the first generation of revolutionaries in a movement which has hardened into an authoritarian despotism, and its leader, referred to only as ‘Number One’ is apparently eliminating rivals.  Worn down by the interrogation conducted by a younger, hard-line apparatchik, Rubashov comes to accept that he has somehow criminally acted against ‘the revolution’, and eventually goes meekly to his execution.

Shades of Orwell

By the time of writing the novel, Koestler, like so many intellectuals of that era, had made the journey from an initial enthusiasm for Soviet communism to disillusion with,  and opposition to it. And reading Darkness at Noon, I was of course constantly reminded of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and the capitulation of Winston Smith as he comes to love Big Brother. Darkness at Noon predates 1984 by nine years,  and nowadays has been somewhat eclipsed by Orwell’s much more well known novel. The two authors had met briefly during the Spanish civil war, where Orwell was actively involved in fighting against fascism, and met again and discussed politics around the end of the war. It seems clear that Orwell, having written his own satire on the Russian revolution in Animal Farm, eventually wrote 1984 under the conscious influence of Koestler’s novel. But they are of course very different characters: you get the feeling that to Orwell, with his both-feet-on-the-ground Englishness, Koestler might have seemed a rather flighty and exotic creature.

Orwell (aka Eric Blair) from the photo on his press pass (NUJ/Wikimedia Commons)

Orwell (aka Eric Blair) from the photo on his press pass (Wikimedia Commons)

In fact,  during the period between the publications of Darkness at Noon and 1984, Orwell wrote an essay on Arthur Koestler – probably while he was still at work on Animal Farm. His view of Koestler’s output is mixed: on one hand he admires Koestler as a prime example of the continental writers on politics whose views have been forged by hard experience in this era of political oppression – as opposed to English commentators who merely strike attitudes towards the turmoil in Europe and the East, while viewing it from a relatively safe distance. Darkness at Noon he regards as a ‘masterpiece’ – its common ground with 1984 is not, it seems, a coincidence. (Orwell’s review of Darkness at Noon in the New Statesman is also available.)

On the other hand he finds much of Koestler’s work unsatisfactory, a mere vehicle for his aspirations towards a better society. Orwell quotes Koestler’s description of himself as a ‘short-term pessimist’,  but also detects a utopian undercurrent which he feels is unrealistic. His own views are expressed as something more like long-term pessimism, doubting whether man can ever replace the chaos of the mid-twentieth century with a society that is both stable and benign:

Nothing is in sight except a welter of lies, hatred, cruelty and ignorance, and beyond our present troubles loom vaster ones which are only now entering into the European consciousness. It is quite possible that man’s major problems will NEVER be solved. But it is also unthinkable! Who is there who dares to look at the world of today and say to himself, “It will always be like this: even in a million years it cannot get appreciably better?” So you get the quasi-mystical belief that for the present there is no remedy, all political action is useless, but that somewhere in space and time human life will cease to be the miserable brutish thing it now is. The only easy way out is that of the religious believer, who regards this life merely as a preparation for the next. But few thinking people now believe in life after death, and the number of those who do is probably diminishing.

In death as in life

Orwell’s remarks neatly return me to the topic I have diverged from. If we compare the deaths of the two men, they seem to align with their differing attitudes in life. Both died in the grip of a disease – Orwell succumbing to tuberculosis after his final, gloomy novel was completed, and Koestler escaping his leukaemia by suicide but still expressing ‘timid hopes’.

After the war Koestler had adopted England as his country and henceforth wrote only in English – most of his previous work had been in German. In  being allowed a longer life than Orwell to pursue his writing, he had moved on from politics to write widely in philosophy and the history of ideas, although never really being a member of the intellectual establishment. These are areas which you feel would always have been outside the range of the more down-to-earth Orwell, who was strongly moral,  but severely practical. Orwell goes on to say, in the essay I quoted: ‘The real problem is how to restore the religious attitude while accepting death as final.’ This so much reflects his attitudes – he habitually enjoyed attending Anglican church services, but without being a believer. He continues, epigramatically:

Men can only be happy when they do not assume that the object of life is happiness. It is most unlikely, however, that Koestler would accept this. There is a well-marked hedonistic strain in his writings, and his failure to find a political position after breaking with Stalinism is a result of this.

Again, we strongly feel the tension between their respective characters: Orwell, with his English caution, and Koestler with his continental adventurism. In fact, Koestler had a reputation as something of an egotist and aggressive womaniser. Even his suicide reflected this: it was a double suicide with his third wife, who was over 20 years younger than he was and in good health. Her accompanying note explained that she couldn’t continue her life without him. Friends confirmed that she had entirely subjected her life to his: but to what extent this was a case of bullying,  as some claimed, will never be known.

Of course there was much common ground between the two men: both were always on the political left, and both,  as you might expect, were firmly opposed to capital punishment: anyone who needs convincing should read Orwell’s autobiographical essay A Hanging. And Koestler wrote a more prosaic piece – a considered refutation of the arguments for judicial killing – in his book Reflections on Hanging; it was written in the 1950s, when, on Koestler’s own account, some dozen hangings were occurring in Britain each year.

But while Orwell faced his death stoically, Koestler continued his dalliance with the notion of some form of hereafter; you feel that, as with Kurzweil, a well-developed ego did not easliy accept the thought of extinction. In writing this post, I discovered that he had been one of a number of intellectual luminaries who contributed to a collection of essays under the title Life after Death,  published in the 1970s. Keen to find a more detailed statement of his views, I actually found his piece rather disappointing. First I’ll sketch in a bit of background to clarify where I think he is coming from.

Back in Victorian times there was much interest in evidence of ‘survival’ – seances and table-rapping sessions were popular, and fraudulent mediums were prospering. Reasons for this are not hard to find: traditional religion, while strong, faced challenges. Steam-powered technology was burgeoning, the world increasingly seemed to be a wholly mechanical affair,  and Darwinism had arrived to encourage the trend towards materialism. In 1882 the Society for Psychical Research was formed, becoming a focus both for those who were anxious to subvert the materialist world view, and those who wanted to investigate the phenomena objectively and seek intellectual clarity.

But it wasn’t long before the revolution in physics, with relativity and quantum theory, exploded the mechanical certainties of the Victorians. At the same time millions suffered premature deaths in two world wars, giving ample motivation to believe that those lost somehow still existed and could maybe even be contacted.

Arthur Koestler

Koestler in later life (Eric Koch/Wikimedia Commons)

This seems to be the background against which Koestler’s ideas about the possibility of an afterlife had developed. He leans a lot on the philosophical writings of the quantum physicist Edwin Schrodinger, and seeks to base a duality of mind and matter on the wave/particle duality of quantum theory. There’s a lot of talk about psi fields and suchlike – the sort of terminology which was already sounding dated at the time he was writing.  The essay seemed to me to be rather backward looking, sitting more comfortably with the inchoate fringe beliefs of the mid 20th century than the confident secularism of Western Europe today.

A rebel to the end

I think Koestler was well aware of the way things were going, but with characteristic truculence reacted against them. He wrote a good deal on topics that clash with mainstream science, such as the significance of coincidence, and in his will used his legacy to establish a department of parapsychology,  which was set up at Edinburgh University, and still exists.

This was clearly a deliberate attempt to cock a snook at the establishment, and while he was not an attractive character in many ways I do find this defiant stance makes me warm to him a little. While I am sure I would have found Orwell more decent and congenial to know personally, Koestler is the more intellectually exciting of the two. I think Orwell might have found Koestler’s notion of the sense of freedom when facing death difficult to understand – but maybe this might have changed had he survived into his seventies. And in a general sense I share Koestler’s instinct that in human consciousness there is far more yet to understand than we have yet been able to, as it were, get our minds around.

Retirement, for me, will certainly bring freedom – not only freedom from the strained atmosphere of worldly ambition and corporate business-speak (itself an Orwellian development) but more of my own time to reflect further on the matters I’ve spoken of here.

Two Pairs of Novels (Part 2)

Commuting days until retirement: 202

The Tortoise and the HareI’m not sure exactly what originally put me on to the first one of this pair; but I do remember reading someone’s opinion that this was the ‘perfect novel’. Looking around, there are encomiums everywhere. Carmen Callil, the Virago publisher, republished the book in 1983 (it originally appeared in 1954), calling it ‘one of my favourite classics’. Jilly Cooper considers it ‘my best book of almost all time’. The author, Elizabeth Jenkins, died only recently, in 2010, at the age of 104. Her Guardian obituary mentions the book as ‘one of the outstanding novels of the postwar period’. The publisher has given it an introduction by none other than Hilary Mantel – a writer whose abilities I respect, having read and enjoyed the first two books in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy. She writes: ‘I have admired this exquisitely written novel for many years…’

So why, having read it, did I feel distinctly underwhelmed? Its title is The Tortoise and the Hare, and it tells the story of a somewhat troubled marriage. The husband is an eminent barrister, and the wife is – well, the wife of an eminent barrister. (We are talking about the early fifties here, after all.) And indeed, she seems like what we might nowadays call a trophy wife – the attractive and desirable spoils of her husband’s success. The novel is narrated in omniscient mode, but centred around the point of view of Imogen, the wife. She watches with concern her husband’s burgeoning friendship with Blanche Silcox, a worthy spinster of their village: no scarlet woman, but a capable and organising, but also middle-aged and tweedy one – the tortoise who threatens to snatch the prize from the hare. At the opening of the novel Imogen is with her husband in a bric-a-brac shop, tempted by a delicately decorated china mug. However he only sees where it has been damaged; he has the buying power and she feels unable to challenge him, even though she knows he would give in to her wishes if she were to insist.

So we see the ground rules established. Imogen’s inability to step outside the limits of the role forced upon her by the conventions of the time is in one way an exemplar of what is interesting about the book – as Mantel puts it, ‘its focus on a fascinating and lost social milieu’. But this also seems to me to be part of its weakness. The customs of the time overwhelm the characters to such an extent that they seem to lose any idiosyncrasy or inner volition; we are left with a sense of inert waxworks being trundled about on a stage, fixed expressions on their faces, and their limbs in stiffly adopted poses. True, there are one or two minor characters who break through the unruffled surface of stifling convention: an avant garde architect and his pretentious wife; her sister Zenobia, the ‘famous beauty’. Then there are some who seem to stretch convention almost too far, the like the cerebrally challenged snob of a mother who sends her room daughters to a school where they have ‘a particularly nice class of girl’. “I’m not crazy about examinations. They won’t have to earn their living, but they will have to keep their end up in society.”  But the characterisation seems to me hardly any better here; they are all caricatures – another collection of waxworks, this time with crudely drawn masks fastened over their faces.

The other novel of my pair seemed to invite comparison because it is by another woman novelist writing at the same time, and for the trivial reason that she is also called Elizabeth. She wrote a dozen or so novels between 1945 and her death in 1975. Her reputation has probably suffered because it has been partly blotted out by that of the Hollywood film star of the same name, Elizabeth Taylor. In a comment on the back cover of another of her books, yet another Elizabeth-named novelist, Elizabeth Jane Howard, writes: ‘How deeply I envy any reader coming to her for the first time!’

Well I am one of these lucky readers; and I also noticed that a fellow WordPress blogger recently praised her in Vulpes Libris. And indeed, I in looking this post up I also found an earlier one on this same author. This latter entry is about The Soul of Kindness, the novel I first read and was going to use for the comparison. However it struck me that it was published in 1964 – only ten years after Jenkins’ The Tortoise and the Hare, but a decade in which there was enormous social change. The Taylor novel struck me as outclassing the Jenkins one in all sorts of ways, and but I felt I should try to make a fairer comparison, and so selected one which was almost contemporaneous – The Sleeping Beauty, published in 1953.

The Sleeping BeautyStraight away we find a cast of characters which have all the idiosyncrasies, mixed motives and secrets that you’d expect in authentic, three-dimensional people. There’s the odd household consisting of two sisters – one damaged in a car accident, and one widowed, who fretfully runs the household, which includes a guest-house – and her daughter who has learning difficulties, as they wouldn’t have been called then. Alongside them is another widow, whose MP husband has recently drowned in a boating accident which their traumatised son survived, and the friend with whom she distracts herself in various random enthusiasms, including covert betting on horses. Into this circle is introduced Vinny, the slightly mysterious single man (some of whose mysteries are revealed later) and his insufferable headstrong mother. (“At least you know where you are with her, ” comments one character. “But you don’t want to be there, ” retorts another.)

So here we are, with real people in a real world. Jenkins’ characters seemed to me to be entirely defined by the conventions and the medium in which they move. They can only exist within it, like those floating, translucent sea creatures, which, taken out of water, collapse into nothing. Taylor’s characters, on the other hand, have a fish-like solidity; if taken out of the milieu in which they live they might gasp and flap, but would still be recognisably themselves. They are for all time, and indeed, once you are involved in the action of the novel and the interactions of the characters, the period background becomes just that – background. Only occasionally does a detail give you a sudden reminder of the time you’re in: someone is standing on a railway platform and is startled out of their thoughts by the clatter of a descending signal.

Taylor has a particular gift for sharp description and telling details. For example, a here’s our first sight of that guest-house with the odd menage:

At the top of the cliff, but mostly hidden in trees, he could see a gabled Victorian house of tremendous ugliness, ivy over its dark walls and one upstairs window glinting evilly in the sunset.

This is intensely visual, and and wonderfully suggestive at the same time. Compare a typical descriptive passage from Jenkins, as two characters go for a walk together:

The trees were of unusual height. Against the pale blue sky their myriad leaves, now grey-green, now silver, shivered and whispered. Beneath, the river slid on, dark and clear, till it rounded over the weir in a glassy, greenish curve, then splintered into flakes, tresses, sheaves of foam that poured, thundering, to gush into the stream below.

This is all very well; evocative and elegantly written, pleasant to read, but oh, so conventional; and it doesn’t really get us anywhere. There’s nothing to lift the scene out of the ordinary and give it a purpose, or jolt us with a little shock and portend what is to come. We learn of nothing more than the pleasant surroundings in which the book’s characters live. Taylor’s descriptions, by contrast, are spare with well chosen detail, apt complements to what is happening in the novel.

On the basis of what I have read, I don’t think I’m being unfair to Jenkins. It’s true she had a Cambridge education at a time when that was still unconventional for women, and a life full of literary connections, knowing Virginia Woolf and Edith Sitwell. She wrote biographies as well as fiction. According to the Guardian piece I mentioned earlier, The Tortoise and the Hare is based on her own experience, with herself as the spurned lover – although she never married. But from what I have seen, novel writing was not her forte, while Elizabeth Taylor seems to me to have been a much greater talent. I look forward to reading more of her.

Two Pairs of Novels (Part 1)

Commuting days until retirement: 220

Why two pairs? Well, of my recent fiction reading on the train, I found that four novels fell naturally into pairs which invited comparison with one another. I was drawn to each of the novels by their reputations, and warm praise coming from various reviewers. In each case I found that the reputation of one of the pair seemed to me better deserved than the other.

I haven’t finished writing about the second pair, so rather than holding everything up I’ll publish what I’ve written about the first pair now. What was originally to be a single post seems to have fragmented, with the previous one, into three.

My first pair are both American and 20th century − but the similarities go beyond that. Both are what you would call campus novels, in that the action is centred around the life of a university. Both give you a strong idea on the first page of what is to come.

The first is Donna Tartt’s The Secret History − a debut novel that was an outstanding success in terms of sales when it first appeared in 1992. The setting is informed by Tartt’s experience as a student of classics in an Eastern American university. The second has also been popular, but in quite a different way. Its quiet, cerebral author died in 1994 and this particular book, Stoner by John Williams, attracted only modest attention on its publication in 1965, but was reissued in 2003 and proceeded to enjoy a huge boom on both sides of the Atlantic. Again it derives from the writer’s university experience, but this time as a teacher.

The Secret History’s opening doesn’t waste any time. From the first page we have:

The snow in the mountains had been melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation. He’d been dead for ten days before they found him, you know. It was one of the biggest manhunts in Vermont history – state troopers, the FBI, even an army helicopter… It is difficult to believe that Henry’s modest plan could have worked so well…

The Secret HistoryWell, full marks for grabbing the reader’s attention. The author proceeds to go back and trace how this central event came about, and later its consequences. And trace it she does, in very great detail − sometimes, I found, in rather too much detail for me. Her account certainly has longeurs, as the movement of the characters from one encounter to another is carefully choreographed and each event constructed − at times it’s as if the stage directions are visible. And while from time to time you feel twinges of sympathy for the narrator Richard Papen, he’s hard to like. Clearly Tartt intends this, but 600 or so pages is a long time to spend with a slightly irksome companion.

On the positive side however, Tartt’s major characters − a little outlandish but for the most part just about believable − are well handled, I felt, as is particularly the way they coalesce − or not − as a group. We are introduced to them as a tightly bound coterie centred around a charismatic teacher of Greek, Julian Morrow. We are given to understand that, while employed as a teacher in a minor north-eastern American university and devoting his efforts to a very small circle of hand-picked students, this man is immensely cultured and has been on intimate terms with many major twentieth century figures from show business to high culture. He remains elusive and morally ambiguous; and for me he never seemed to escape from the page as a rounded character, but remained a rather improbable collection of attributes assembled by the author.

However the group of students at the centre of the story did achieve life of a sort in my mind. As Richard, uncomfortably conscious of his working class small-town roots in the West, slowly succeeds in working himself into the circle, what appears at first as an impenetrable, other-worldly group bound together by its eccentricity is slowly teased apart as the foibles of its individual members and the tensions between them become visible.

There’s Henry, the dominant member, perhaps also the most intellectual and serious. Improbably, as we learn at the start, he is the prime mover in the murder that takes place. Bunny, the murder victim, seems the polar opposite of Henry, raffish and unpredictable, yet they appear to have a mysteriously close, troubled – but not sexual – relationship with one another. There is a gay member, Francis, another rootless soul; and the group is made up by the twins Charles and Camilla (did that pair of names have the connotations it does now when the book was written? − an unlucky coincidence perhaps). They are inseparable for much of the novel, and a faint suggestion of incest hangs about them. Collectively, the combination of a devotion to high classical culture and the dependence of nearly all the characters on alcohol and/or drugs seemed somewhat incongruous to me. And I was a little bored at times by the endless passages in which people are shuffled between social events and each other’s rooms; it’s rather like reading a play with an excess of stage directions.

The author does nevertheless exploit well the volatile blend of character and circumstance she creates. But the problem with a spectacularly eventful plot is that you are necessarily placing your characters much closer to the dangerous cliff-edge of credibility. Tartt’s novel, it seems to me, like her unfortunate character Bunny, falls victim to this brinkmanship.

That’s not a charge you could make about Stoner. Here’s the equivalent passage on the first page that gives us our first sense of its flavour:

William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen. Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses. When he died his colleagues made a memorial contribution of a medieval manuscript to the University library. This manuscript may still be found in the Rare Books Collection, bearing the inscription: “Presented to the Library of the University of Missouri, in memory of William Stoner, Department of English. By his colleagues.”

An occasional student who comes upon the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question. Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.

StonerPerhaps fittingly for a novel written by a professor about the life of a character whose adulthood is entirely spent teaching at a university, this introductory passage seems almost like an abstract at the top of an academic paper, in the way that it presents us with the boiled down essence of the narrative. Stoner’s life is viewed as if from a distance, so that the details can’t be made out; shrunk in this way it becomes insignificant, an impression which is heightened in the second paragraph. The tone is simultaneously flat and suggestive − inviting rather than compelling our sympathy and attention.

We then begin at the beginning and advance into the detail of Stoner’s life, and as we share his successes and failures, his moments of joy, of disappointment and of frustration, the distant and uninvolved perspective of the introduction stays in the back of our minds. I found this to be a strangely effective way of eliciting my sympathy. The plain, unshowy and dispassionate third person description seen in the introduction continues throughout the book, almost entirely from Stoner’s point of view. This sustained understatement reflects his own earnest, workmanlike character, and leaves us space to feel the emotional effects of his personal and professional high points and, rather more often, low ones. Stoner and his family, lovers and colleagues arise from the page fully formed; I was never aware of the mechanics by which they were created, or the stage directions. While, unlike Tartt’s novel, the story’s events are all too mundane and believable, I was gripped throughout by an emotional power that The Secret History never managed to invoke.

I wondered whether I was a little unfair in pitching the work of a young author against a more mature one; but checking up I find the difference is not that great: Tartt was 28 when hers was published, and Williams 43. We can perhaps point to the fact that The Secret History was a first novel, and Stoner Williams’ third. Either way, for me, Williams wins hands down in this comparison. In a word, I’d say that Stoner had soul − I felt a depth of integrity that was missing from The Secret History.

The next post will deal with my second pair – both English novels.