Edme Bouchardon Reappraised

“Edme Bouchardon (1698-1762) was a leading figure from the Generation of 1700 who was greatly admired by contemporaries and for some decades later, but his name gradually slipped from public recognition. Chardin is famed, while Bouchardon is obscure to even the most informed layperson. This neglect should be partly redressed by an exhibition catalogue, available in both an English and a French version, and a monograph on the artist’s drawings that have been published to mark the exhibition of Bouchardon held at the Louvre, Paris (closed December 2016) and at the Getty Center, Los Angeles (closes 2 April 2017).

Edme Bouchardon, Philipp von Stosch
1. Edme Bouchardon, Baron Philipp von Stosch, 1727,
marble 85×62×33cm., Eigentum des Kaiser Friedrich-
Museums-Vereins, Skulpturensammlung und Museum
für Byzantinische Kunst, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

(photo: bpk, Berlin / Jörg P. Anders / Art Resource, NY)

“Edme Bouchardon trained in Paris at his father’s workshop and, upon winning the Prix de Rome, moved to Rome to take up residency at the Académie Française, remaining there from 1723 to 1732. He initially attracted interest due to his marble and terracotta portrait busts, which follow the Roman tradition yet manage to be lively and (apparently) good likenesses and became influential in France…”

Read the full review online at £rd Dimension, 31 March 2017, website here: https://3rd-dimensionpmsa.org.uk/reviews/2017-03-31-edme-bouchardon-reappraised

Literature of Longing

Denton Welch

Denton Welch, Daniel J. Murtaugh (ed.), Good Night, Beloved Comrade. The Letters of Denton Welch to Eric Oliver, 2017, University of Wisconsin Press, hardback, 213pp, $29.95, ISBN 978-0-299-31010-3

 

The upheaval of the Second World War provided many people with opportunities for covert romantic and sexual assignations. The blackout in large cities aided fleeting trysts and, on the home front, the relocation of people assigned war work, the absence of spouses and general mobilisation all loosened social constraints. People of different regions, professions and classes mingled on an unprecedented scale during those years.

In November 1943 the author-artist Denton Welch was partially crippled and bed-ridden when a friend paid a visit. Welch said he was too ill to see him, then he changed his mind; it was a decision that would alter the course of his life. The friend brought into Welch’s bedroom a handsome labourer called Eric Oliver. Although they did not know it at the time, Welch and Oliver’s lives would be entwined forever after.

At that time Welch had published a novel and some stories that had made him the toast of a small circle of London literati and a wider circle of homosexual admirers. Welch, who had trained as an artist, had been struck by a car at the age of twenty and for the remainder of his life suffered severe medical complications. Mobility seriously restricted and frequently in pain, Welch occupied himself with writing, spending his adult years in Tonbridge, Kent. Although in his twenties, he described himself as “old, so immensely old, like a stone image on a mountain watching small boys play”. Detachment aided Welch as a writer – he excelled in observation and description. Of the writings published in Welch’s lifetime the most explicitly homosexual aspects were omitted; only in the 1980s were Welch’s frankest writings published.

Welch’s journals and novels are tinged with longing, regret and wistfulness. Reading his descriptions of road-menders working in the sun stripped to the waist, we are made strongly aware of an attraction the author rarely consummated. His bucolic descriptions of rural Kent and pinpoint scrutiny of domestic details also leave a strong impression. Reading Welch is peculiarly like watching Welch write – we imagine Welch melancholy and thoughtful, his full forehead and horn-rimmed spectacles bowed above the pages of a notebook.

When Welch met Oliver, the latter was working in Kent in the agricultural service as a land boy. Oliver found Welch good company; Welch became infatuated with Oliver. The mismatch in class and outlook – with Welch a public-school-educated introverted intellectual and Oliver, a hard-drinking bisexual working-class rake – caused a degree of friction and uncertainty. After a slow start they grew closer and became lovers. After Oliver’s residence was destroyed by a V-2 rocket (in July 1944), he accepted Welch’s offer that Oliver move in with him; they would remain together until Welch’s death in 1948, at the age of 33. The companions gave mutual support and Oliver’s emotional and practical assistance brought the writer great happiness in his last years.

This collection of 51 unpublished letters by Welch to Oliver covers the period 1943-7. Most letters are from 1943 and 1944, before cohabiting rendered correspondence unnecessary. The letters of 1945-7 were written during Oliver’s absences. In early letters, Welch expresses his longing and betrays anxiety about rejection, sometimes pricked by jealousy and self-pity.

“I would agree with you absolutely, over 100% love affairs being very uncommon, but doesn’t that apply to everything in life? Aren’t all our feelings, however strong, never quite as strong as we think they might be? Aren’t they always mixed with some doubt; and aren’t we always torturing ourselves and wasting time thinking, can this be love?”

Reading of the indignities of Denton’s medical examinations and the symptoms of his conditions explains much of his peevishness, although the descriptions are touched with humour. Not all of the correspondence is introspective. Welch tells Oliver about the flight of residents from Kent to avoid V-1 bombs (a number of which landed on Tonbridge), “those wretched bombers circling overhead and those peculiar lights which flash from the hillside” and difficulties of living with rationing. He passes on news of their friends, sometimes empathetic, sometimes catty. Suffering and the threat of sudden death heightened the piquancy of Welch’s desire, though he admitted that “in some moods I would quite ruthlessly sacrifice all the lovers in the world to my work.”

The editor has decided to leave Welch’s spelling and grammatical errors uncorrected and underlining in the original letters is faithfully transcribed. Thus we get Welch at his most raw, intimate and irascible. A vivid, informative introduction allows readers previously unfamiliar with Welch’s writings to understand the course of the author’s life and work. Extensive annotation is confined to the back of the book and includes extracts of Welch’s novels and journals. The reader does not have to be familiar with Welch’s other writings to enjoy this collection, which is as fresh and lively as Welch’s fiction and journals.

This book is part of a series of publications in the press’s “Living Out” series of gay and lesbian literature. More open social attitudes towards sexuality have stimulated interest in gay writing. Newly published letters and diaries give us insights into the experiences of people whose stories could not be publicly told in the eras in which they lived. Although some individuals considered their sexuality shameful and found subterfuge stressful, others relished the frisson of “sex as crime”, leading the lives of sexual outlaws and conspirators. Welch’s life is particularly poignant as it was so clearly restricted by the circumstances of his time. In a later age more advanced medical treatment and altered social attitudes regarding homosexuality would have extended and enriched his life. Yet, perhaps Welch’s best qualities as a writer spring from painful yearning and a sense of isolation. Paradoxically, what might have made Denton Welch’s life fuller would possibly have made his writing less powerfully engaging.

Alexander Adams

Prints in Paris 1900

Vallotton-Raison

(Image: Felix Vallotton, La Raison Probante (Intimacies) (1897-8), woodcut

Fleur Roos Rosa de Carvalho, Prints in Paris 1900. From Elite to the Street, Van Gogh Museum/Mercatorfonds, hardback, 192pp, 200 col. illus., €45, ISBN 978 94 6230 169 6 (English edition, French, Dutch and German editions available)

 

Vincent Van Gogh loved English prints from the popular press, French Realist art, woodcut prints (especially Doré’s wood engravings and other book illustrations) and classic Dutch prints. Both he and his brother Theo collected prints and corresponded on the subject at length, as Theo was in the art trade and had access to most commercially available prints. Although Van Gogh made only a few etchings and one lithograph, he was an avid scrutiniser of prints by other artists; he would surely have found much to admire in this current selection of the best prints made in the decade following his death. The current exhibition Prints in Paris 1900. From Elite to the Street (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 3 March-11 June 2017; Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum, Tokyo, 17 October 2017-17 January 2018) includes some of the 1,800 prints in the Van Gogh Museum collection, showing some of the highlights of printmaking from the period 1890-1905. The collection includes prints owned by Vincent and Theo and prints acquired by the museum recently to form an overview of art of Van Gogh’s era. This large-format catalogue documents not only the eye-catching posters of the era but also prints more specifically made as works of art, including colour and monochrome lithographs, woodcuts, etchings, drypoints and mixed techniques.

The world of prints in 1900 was vast, ranging from common illustrations or decorations in posters, books, tracts and other printed matter up to the most sophisticated and considered artistic productions, produced in editions of as low as a handful of proofs. Good examples of renowned prints of the past (Dürer, Rembrandt and other Old Masters) commanded high prices and were collected by private owners and public museums. To a lesser extent recent and living masters of the craft were also appreciated but the market was relatively limited in size and knowledge about prints generally was not great. In this catalogue, print scholar Fleur Roos Rosa de Carvalho discusses the role of journals devoted to prints and print collecting, asserting that that they played a significant part in raising the profile of printmaking as an art form and informing the readers about historical and modern prints. Writers and readers had in-depth knowledge of prints and were avid aficionados, most with collections of their own. The journals intended to act as guides for collectors, making recommendations and assessing reputations, and were not mass-market publications.

“Virtually all the champions of original printmaking – Charles Baudelaire, Philippe Burty and Henri Beraldi in the case of etching, and Roger Marx and André Mellerio for lithography – were keen to protect the private print [as opposed to the public poster] from the misunderstanding and vulgarity of the masses. Baudelaire, for instance, considered that the intimate outpourings of the artistic etching were too ‘personal’ and ‘aristocratic’ to be shared beyond the circle of artists and collectors.”

This private character of prints was a matter of practicality – for reasons of conservation and size, prints were usually in books or portfolios and could only be viewed by one or two persons at a time – and a matter of content, as the art was often informal, intimate or erotic, and as such less suitable for general public consumption. The notion of exclusivity played to the intellectual vanity and artistic discernment of collectors and critics, it also assisted dealers in the marketing of hard-to-acquire items. Attempts to broaden the appeal of prints met some resistance from inside the artist’s-print circle.

Things were changing though. By 1890 the development of metal-plate, offset and motorised lithography had inaugurated an age of high-quality colour posters on large sheets, in large print runs and relatively low in cost. An array of large colourful posters dazzled Parisians daily on a scale historically unprecedented. The relative cheapness of lithographic printing meant that prints flooded every area of life, from menus and maps to sheet music. It transformed image production and distribution both in the everyday commercial field and the world of the arts, though lithography remained only one of the numerous printmaking methods.

Posters had a lower status than prints made by methods most traditionally linked to artists, such as etching and aquatint, though some artists (including Toulouse-Lautrec) appreciated the effect of posters as much as drawings and paintings. There was vigorous debate among artists, critics and collectors as to the value of the new methods of reprographics. For those buyers who required the cachet of fine art collected posters avant-la-lettre (before the words had been added) or bought proofs from special editions printed on high-quality paper. The battle of High Art and Low Culture had begun earlier than this and can be seen in the critical responses to the subject choices of Impressionist pictures (though paintings of the common people attending dances had existed at least as far back as Bruegel’s paintings of peasants). Here the problem was not the subjects – which did not endear the pictures to the hearts of traditionalists – but the method itself, which was considered too new and too distanced from the artist’s hand to be considered fine art. The demands of multi-plate printing required collaboration between artist and master printmaker, which diluted the authenticity that some collectors craved, and some prints were so distanced from the artist that truly the prints are more “after” an artist than “by” that artist. The fact that the posters were essentially examples of vulgar commercialism – advertising venues and products – put them beyond the pale for many commentators. While some acclaimed colour posters as a new democratic form of art, others complained it was strident visual pollution that assaulted the eye.

Van Gogh died just too early (1890) to experience the boom in artist’s colour lithography. Over the period 1890-1905 the Post-Impressionist, Symbolist, Nabi and Art Nouveau artists made a plethora of prints now considered classics of French Modernism. Many of the prints in this exhibition were a contemporary French response to Japanese colour woodcuts, which began to be collected and appreciated in the 1880s. Japanese prints had originally found their way to France as waste-paper used to wrap imported ceramics; only when a few curious French art collectors expressed an interest in the strange images did anyone realise that there was a potential market in France for Japanese woodcuts. Van Gogh greatly admired Japanese prints and collected them. He painted some and included them in the background of his portraits. The compositional devices of the prints, such as clearly defined areas of bold colour, shaped the direction of his late painting style. Japanese influence is obvious in the prints of the Post-Impressionists and Nabi artists.

Cheret,_Jules_-_La_Diaphane_(pl_121)

(Image: Jules Chéret, La Diaphane. Poudre de Riz (1890), colour lithograph)

Jules Chéret (1836-1932) set the standard for colour posters and the general standard was high. His example inspired a number of established fine artists to poster design and some of the poster artists (especially the Art Nouveau designers) reached the level of classic art. Chéret commonly used elegant young female figures in radically simplified designs with strong colours, which intended to be seen from a distance. So well-known did this female type become that similar female figures were called “chérettes”. His designs influenced the painter Seurat and he was called “the Fragonard of the street” by critic Roger Marx. Chéret was awarded the Légion d’honneur in 1890 and ascended to the firmament of the French artistic pantheon.

The proliferation of posters and the craze for collecting them were commented on in foreign guidebooks to Paris. Dealers and collectors began to hoard the best examples of fine posters. Many would follow bill-stickers at a distance and once he was out of sight they would peel away the still-wet poster. Others bribed bill-stickers for unpasted copies. There sprang up a minor trade in reduced prints that were of more manageable sizes and proofs signed by the artists, though purists disapproved. Specialists offered to mount posters on canvas; others designed giant portfolios to accommodate the posters. Posters became chic additions to the modern home, adding boldness and colour to a room. Carvahlo mentions the elaborate and costly library of Robert de Montesquiou, which was designed to accommodate rare books and portfolios of prints; in the process of creation, the library evolved into a work of art.

This exhibition displays prints by artists who were stars of their era but are less esteemed today. Eugène Carrière’s portraits in monochrome chiaroscuro were immensely influential in their time. Carrière was considered a modern Rembrandt but today his smoky portrait heads appear at most mildly atmospheric and unremarkable.

reopening-of-the-chat-noir-cabaret-theophile-alexandre-steinlen

(Image: Théophile Alexandre Steinlen, Le Chat Noir (1896), colour lithograph)

Likewise, Théophile Alexandre Steinlen was acclaimed as an artist comparable to Dickens, with his domestic scenes and his strand of social realism. Steinlen was considered a campaigning artist highly engaged by the issues of deprivation and social reform. (The fact that he was solely a graphic artist meant that his supporters described his art as truly democratic because the originals were not in museums but pasted on street corners.) Today it is his colour posters of At La Bodinière (1894) and Le Chat Noir (1896) that appeal and the monochrome social satires raise barely a flicker of interest. It is hard to comprehend that hosts of artists (including Picasso) were under his sway in 1900.

l-exode-1915-1

(Image: Théophile Alexandre Steinlen, The Exodus (1915), lithograph (not in catalogue))

The star of the catalogue is Toulouse-Lautrec, whose best prints are included, with and without lettering. Other artists included are Carrière, Chéret, Steinlen, Odilon Redon, Pierre Bonnard, Paul Gauguin, Edouard Vuillard, Félicien Rops, Maurice Denis and more obscure figures. Félix Vallotton (1865-1925) has undergone a recent revival that has included a large retrospective held in Paris, 2013-4. Vallotton’s art straddles different styles: Nabi, Intimiste and Art Deco. His woodcuts Intimacies (1897-8) are brilliant reductions of domestic vignettes to simple woodcuts deploying large areas of solid black or white, decorative patterns and arabesque lines. What is happening in the scenes (which are independent and only connected thematically) is unclear. There are intimations of infidelity, seduction, estrangement and traumatic revelation, which undercut the comfortable bourgeois settings. The suite is Vallotton’s greatest achievement, frequently reproduced and rightly beloved. It manages to be concise yet enigmatic and the suite of ten prints is reproduced in full here. The cancellation print is rather elegant. Cancellation prints are usually single prints of the defaced plate, demonstrating that the plate has been rendered unusable after the edition is printed and that the edition is therefore limited. In the case of Intimacies the cancellation plate is a montage of details of each plate sawed from its block and printed together.

The range of the catalogue and the broadly representative nature of the collection make this title a useful general reference work for French prints of this period (including a timeline, bibliography and index). The mixture of iconic posters alongside lesser known pieces, some by artists almost forgotten, is successful though it just scratches the surface. The author discusses the participation of the Nabis in the production of staging and programmes for Symbolist dramatic productions and other topics related to printmaking. The inclusion of examples of paintings, drawings, photography, furniture and bookbinding (some of which are rare loans from private collections) allows the curator to situate printmaking in a continuum of visual culture of the period. The printing and binding is excellent and the size of the book allows the dramatic prints to come across strongly.

7 March 2017

Franz Kafka: a Life Beyond Literature

“There are few writers as highly regarded as Franz Kafka (1883-1924). Even people who have not read Kafka understand his blend of the sinister and absurd. Despite the reputation of being a high-brow, intellectual author, Kafka wrote bewitching tales in clear prose. Indeed, his stories are often short and ostensibly easy to understand even if the allusions and implications. And his writing is often shot through with humour – not just absurdity, but also comic misunderstandings and dry irony.

“A recently completed three-volume biography by Reiner Stach, superbly translated from German by Shelley Frisch, uses newly discovered sources to capture Kafka’s life and reflect on the origins and meaning of many of his writings. Stach takes time to correct previous biographical misconceptions, and observes that while there are mountains of academic, theoretical and literary overviews of Kafka, there are few biographies.

“Stach attempts to be scrupulously fair to Kafka’s parents. Hermann Kafka was a self-made proprietor of a fancy-goods store in Prague, selling fabrics, clothes, household goods and toys…”

Read the full review of the new 3-volume Reiner Stach biography online at Spiked Online (28 February 2017) here:

http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/kafka-a-life-beyond-literature/19511#.WLWjhfl_s5k

 

Review: The B.S. Johnson-Zulfikar Ghose Correspondence

a-johnson-ghose

B.S. Johnson, Zulfikar Ghose, Vanessa Guignery (ed.), The B.S. Johnson-Zulfikar Ghose Correspondence, 2015, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, cloth hb, 457pp + xxiv pp,  ISBN 978 1 4438 7266 9

 

1.

Bryan Stanley Johnson (1933-1973) and Zulfikar Ghose (b. 1935) were fellow writers who achieved success in the London literary scene of the 1960s. They came into contact with each other in 1959, while still English undergraduates. They entered into a correspondence about the editing of Ghose’s university literary journal, a dialogue that developed into a close alliance, partly epistolary because although they both lived in London at the same time, they also lived apart for periods. This volume collects all the surviving letters, cards and telegrams between the pair, covering the years 1959 to 1973.

B.S. Johnson is once again fairly well known. He achieved professional respect, modest sales and occasional (brief) notoriety as a writer of mildly avant-garde fiction, verse and drama. His first novel was published in 1963 and in the following decade he produced a substantial amount of fiction, drama and prose (much of sports journalism and literary criticism). He covered the 1966 football World Cup for The Observer and The Times of India. He wrote and directed a number of short films and television programmes. His most notable works are novels employing avant-garde techniques, such as text in parallel columns, holes cut into pages and blank and patterned pages. The Unfortunates (1969) is composed of 27 loose sections in a box, to be read – aside from sections marked “first” and “last” – in any order.

Johnson was vociferous in his advocacy of Modernism and experimental techniques in preference to more traditional narrative plot and ostensible realism. He compared the novelist’s position to that of an architect’s, saying that it was dishonest to work as if Modernist innovations had never taken place. It was the duty of the writer, as he saw it, to embody the intellectual developments of his era in formal characteristics of prose. Johnson could be dogmatic and intemperate on this matter, though he could also be generous to fellow writers and his left-wing principles steered him towards occasional collective action and attempts to better the lot of authors who made their living from their work. It is clear from the progression of the novels, as well as from various letters and articles, that at least by the 1972 Johnson felt he had reached a point of exhaustion in his pursuit of technical novelty. Indeed, it seemed clear that his rigid view that “telling stories is telling lies” had left him with only his own life to mine for material, which he had exhausted by the time he finished his last novel.

See the Old Lady Decently (posthumously published in 1975) was an admission of Johnson’s exhaustion It was a reconstruction of his mother’s life, drawn partially from interviews. He had reached the limits of usable material from his own life and struggled to assemble a disjointed assemblage of aspects from his own life and that of his mother. He interpolated fragments of his experience writing the book into the book and thereby became drawn into a web of self-reference and self-absorption that was denser than ever. Writing about writing is dull stuff, largely. As a chronicler of ordinary life, Johnson could see that the subject of See the Old Lady Decently was writing itself, an arid area destined to become ever more self-regarding. The novel was to be part of a trilogy but Johnson understood the line he was pursuing was exhausted, not least because he had already quarried his own life for material in previous novels. He did not write the subsequent two books planned and died shortly after delivering the manuscript of the first to his publisher; See the Old Lady Decently has never been republished.

It could be argued that technical novelty was actually impeding Johnson. He was in danger of being known – when he was known at all by the reading public – as a producer of literary gimmicks. It is the case that some of his novels were very slight in terms of narrative substance. More substantial characters, denser stories, more complete back stories to indicate motivation – all of these would have made Johnson’s novels more satisfying. It is possible that Johnson’s devices would have proved even more taxing to readers if the books had been longer. Johnson was often writing under the pressure of deadlines because of his contracts and he was hamstrung by his ideological position resisting pure invention. Seven novels, two collections of poems and a number of play and film scripts written in the curse of a decade was a relatively demanding production rate for an author who had additionally to write a fair quantity of journalism and who involved himself in the life of his young family.

Johnson’s novels Albert Angelo (1964), Trawl (1966), The Unfortunates and Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry (1973) are rewarding and memorable novels, which are largely successful as literature. What stands out in these books is not so much the technical experimentation – which is often quite modest and to a degree peripheral to the overall experience of reading the novels – but the clarity of writing, the author’s intelligence and sensitivity, the memorable images and humour. The formal innovations do not distract from the substance of the novels. Other nouvelle roman novelists could be much more ambitious than Johnson, whose attachment to radical formalism was tempered by a desire to reach a mass audience.  Johnson wanted to have a readership comparable to that for the novels of James Joyce and the prose and drama of Samuel Beckett. Johnson was always ready to promote his books and to be interviewed. He frequently made suggestions to his publishers and agents about how to market his books. He wanted to be a respected novelist, earn a living from royalties and advances alone and also maintain intellectual credibility. That he managed to sustain all of these three to a degree (however erratically or uncertainly) is a measure of Johnson’s skill and tenacity. However, depressed by the death of his mother and marital difficulties and anxious about the relative commercial failure of his books and – most importantly – frustrated by the apparent dead-end he had reached in his literary work, Johnson took his own life in November 1973. His reputation ebbed over the following decades, with most of books out of print, and it was only with the republication of some of his novels in the late 1990s and early 2000s that Johnson reached a new generation. It seems unlikely that the revival of Johnson’s reputation will extend to his poetry. This minor revival was aided by an intelligent and sympathetic biography, Like a Fiery Elephant (2004), by Jonathan Coe.

Zulfikar Ghose is less known to general British readers, though he was a highly regarded young poet in the 1960s, frequently anthologised and widely published. Many readers while approach this volume of correspondence knowing some of Johnson’s novels and perhaps nothing at all of Ghose’s writings. Ghose was born in Sialkot, India (later Pakistan) and moved to London in the late 1940s. He later read English at the Keele University. His poems were published from the late 1950s onwards and his first novel (The Contradictions) appeared in 1966. His writing style displays greater diversity than Johnson’s, ranging from formally experimental Modernism to more traditional narrative realism. Ghose has rejected the label as a diaspora or post-colonial writer, although some of his early subjects included topics related to his country of origin.

Ghose was more successful as a poet than Johnson was, though no jealousy is apparent in the correspondence. After earning a living as a teacher, Ghose was offered a position in the English department of the University of Texas at Austin, where he moved in 1969. He has been resident in Texas since then. Like Johnson, Ghose wrote sports journalism, including cricket reports for The Observer. He visited Brazil with his Brazilian wife and wrote three novels based on his experiences there (The Incredible Brazilian (1972-8)). His extensive literary friendships generated a large body of correspondence, some of which is housed in the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas and the British Library. His relocation to Texas has probably contributed to the decline of Ghose’s current profile in Britain.

Johnson and Ghose collaborated a number of times: first on Ghose’s university literary review, later on some pieces of journalism, a book of short stories (Statement Against Corpses (1964)), an unpublished book of social satire and some unrealised projects. Johnson and Ghose’s poetry was published together alongside the poems of Gavin Ewart in the Penguin Modern Poets series (1975). These projects form many of the subjects the pair discussed by letter.

One of the pleasures of this collection of correspondence is discovering Ghose as a writer. Any reader of Johnson’s novels and biography already knows his topics, prosodic rhythm and idioms, which are to be found in abundance in these letters. The biography has mined this correspondence so thoroughly that one recognises many passages word for word. What one discovers in Ghose’s letters is an opinionated and vigorous commentator on literature – especially of his time – who is struggling to make a living as a writer. The publication of this correspondence may stimulate Johnson fans to read Ghose’s books.

 

This collection consists of all surviving letters from Ghose to Johnson present in the Johnson archive at the British Library (donated by Johnson’s widow, Virginia) and letters from Johnson to Ghose present in the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas (donated by Ghose). In addition to the letters and cards, there are poems by Johnson and Ghose about each other, a statement about Ghose’s writing by Johnson dating from 1967, Ghose’s memoir entitled “Bryan” (originally published in 1985) and an interview with Ghose by this volume’s editor (originally published in 2013). There are extensive indices.

The letters are organised chronologically. The first letter is from Ghose to Johnson, dated 6 March 1959. Johnson’s letters from January 1961 to late 1962 are missing. The letters divide roughly equally in terms of proportion per writer. Most were typed, with a number of postcards being handwritten. No item is reproduced in facsimile except the telegram of 17 November 1973 notifying Ghose of Johnson’s death, which concludes the correspondence.

The initial subject of letters is literary editing. Both Johnson and Ghose edited student journals and anthologies and exchanged opinions or asked for recommendation. Some names which come up will be familiar while others are of writers now forgotten. The pair wrote about literature in general. There is a mutual aversion to Movement writers, a distrust of Eliot’s verse drama and scepticism towards many of the big literary names of the era. Ghose grew to admire contemporary American writers while Johnson was most attached to Joyce and Beckett.

Johnson greatly admired Beckett and frequently described him as the greatest living writer. When he had the chance, he contacted Beckett and became a correspondent and friendly acquaintance, visiting Beckett when he was in Paris. It is interesting that no letters from Beckett to Johnson are included in the four volumes of Beckett letters, though there are letters to others recommending Johnson as a worthy recipient of literary awards and prizes. Johnson credited Beckett’s intervention as instrumental in getting Christie Malry published in America. Upon learning of Johnson’s death, Beckett wrote to Michael Bakewell, Johnson’s agent.

Dear Michael

Thanks for yours of 14.

I learnt the shocking grievous news at end of last week.

I have had a brief card from Virginia.

I missed T.C. in Paris.

It wd be good to see you again, here or anywhere.

Best always,

Sam[i]

(“T.C.” is “telephone call”, a reference to the fact that Johnson attempted (and failed) to contact Beckett by telephone several times in the days before his suicide.)

Johnson retained – and often seemed to nurture – a class-based resentment of successful middle-class writers. As the child of a working-class family, the first of his family to receive a university education, Johnson had the aspiration to be accepted by a literary class composed largely of middle-class writers and was quick to ascribe professional slights against him to class snobbery. Not that Johnson wasn’t a snob. He could be dismissive of people, books and social trends that did not conform with his views and his inflexibility on political and artistic matters seems very much the product of personal insecurity. Johnson simultaneously wanted to be accepted into a social set that he resented while experiencing a degree of guilt at his inevitable separation from his roots. One reason for Johnson’s idealisation of Wales, which he visited many times, must have been its apparent lack of class distinctions – not apparent to him at least.

Taking sides – even inventing sides if no clear distinction was visible – was a way of making social issues and art adversarial, a kind of moral dialectical football match between progressives and conservatives. It gave Johnson a purpose but it was an approach which inevitably isolated him and caused resentment among colleagues and people who potentially might have supported his writing. Johnson became belatedly politically involved when the Conservative party gained power in the general election of 1970. As a left-winger, he was ambivalent about Communism following visits to Eastern Bloc countries as part of cultural delegations. He found the systems of government oppressive and absurd but he admired the respect that literature was held in by the general public.

Johnson was resentful of the advantages graduates of Oxford and Cambridge had in the literary world and willing to bludgeon perceived enemies as relying on social ties to advance themselves beyond the levels their talents (or lack thereof) befitted them to. Ghose made few such comments. Ghose never mentions racial or religious prejudice in the letters, finding a lack of Oxfordian connections more of a hindrance than any resistance to his Pakistani heritage.

One of the most prominent characteristics of this correspondence is the humour. The writers shared a common mordant sense of humour and exchanged jokes and limericks they had encountered or invented. Upon learning that her husband would be receiving compensatory damages for libel, Virginia Johnson told him that she wanted to use the money to buy a freezer. “Freezer a jolly good fellow,” Johnson commented. On another occasion, school pupils were asked the meaning of “fructify”, to which one pupil muttered “Fructify I know”.

In the letters, the pair rate brands of typewriters (Olympia poor, Olivetti good) and pass on family news (they attended dinner parties at each other’s homes when they lived in London). There is relatively little literary gossip outside of tips and warnings regarding editors, publishers and agents that the pair dealt with professionally. Current affairs do not get much of a look in. Letters sent by Ghose from Brazil and India, and by Johnson from Paris, are richer in description and more informative about their daily lives than their usual letters.

We were almost killed in a car crash exactly a month ago in the wilderness of the state of Goias on our way back from Brasilia. We did the daft thing of going on a dirt road at night , were chased by a a lorry, misjudged a narrow wooden bridge, took it on two wheels and were going careering down into the river but were halted by a tree, which, saving us, made a concertina of the front of the car. I chipped a front tooth and that was all the personal damage.

Ghose to Johnson, 8 February 1967

Cars became a recurrent topic between them. They shared recommendations and comparisons of vehicles.

The main subject of their discussions is their writing. They exchanged newly written poems and stories and sent copies of books, expecting the other to comment honestly and constructively. Although they lived in London at the same time and met frequently, writing letters in privacy allowed them to set out clearly their responses to texts. Their comments are often technical, to do with metre or stress. Although many of the suggestions are minor, the writers did not shy away from criticising whole poems or books. The friendship relied upon candour and expertise depended on complete openness about the writer’s reservations regarding a piece of writing. Readers will often not have access to the poems analysed in these letters, though some poems are included in the body of the letters. Johnson’s novels are easily found, Ghose’s less so.

The pair were equally supportive and critical about each other’s writings, though generally in sympathy. Johnson was liable to be more dogmatic on literary questions.

Ghose’s savage criticism of Johnson’s script Whose Dog Are You Anyway? is a dispassionate dissection. The script was for an anti-clerical stage drama written by Johnson. The script was rejected and has never been performed complete, though extracts have been staged. Ghose’s comments bear quoting at length:

I did not like it. I thought the subject-matter merited a short essay but not a full-length play. It is certainly brave of you to try and write a play about a general idea and the play is probably new in this respect, having no story or character involvement; but such an attempt ought to be either wildly funny or devastatingly aggressive in its use of language, and it is neither; it ought to punch the audience in its stomach, but it does not do so. It is only mildly amusing, too often the humour seemed to be weak. At some points you say in your directions that the audience will laugh; I did not do so nor could imagine myself doing so given the performance. I noticed, too, that at one point you leave the actors to invent their own joke; I don’t trust that and it makes me suspect, maybe wrongly, that you couldn’t be bothered to invent one yourself. For I’ve never known you to leave the slightest detail to anyone else. […]

I don’t expect a PhD disputation, but I do expect lively writing and a really convincing refutation, a once-and-for-all balls to god. Instead the dialogue had a bored air about it, the feeling that we’ve-been-through-it-before; this may well be your intention, but to the theme of the play this situation is an important one and you should have dealt with it with fierce rhetoric. The argument is valid, but its statement is without force. […]

The whole thing is too loose. From the moment when the MC begins to talk about normal and abnormal to the Evangelist’s speeded up insanity, I get the impression that you’re not being tough enough with your language; and intellectually, it’s less than a satisfactory performance.

Ghose to Johnson, 19 July 1967

Johnson responded with a mixture of despondent acceptance and exculpatory defensiveness. To the comment about allowing actors to invent dialogue he replied: “You must accept that (a) actors will not do exactly as you intended”. This is an evasion Samuel Beckett would not have given a second’s consideration to. “The main thing that upset me was your pointing out that the language wasn’t up to my usual standards […]” He admitted he was bored by the writing and that “I don’t have the rhetoric it wants”, implying that the play was an ultimately futile endeavour, as subsequent commentators have agreed it to be. It is more than a little unfair that many readers – perhaps a majority – will be more familiar with an unpublished and unperformed minor play by Johnson than they will be with perhaps any published novel of Ghose’s.

As the correspondence reaches the early 1970s, Johnson’s frustration with the publishing world in general and his career in particular becomes evident.

Did you know they’ve turned down my SELECTED SHORTER PROSE? Irresponsible publishing, I called it, and he got very annoyed. They did not even bother to discuss the book with me – just turned it down.

Johnson to Ghose, 25 September 1970

I’ve just about surfaced after a long (well, four months) period of financial depression, which gave me other sorts of depression as well. I was cheated out of directing a film for which I’d done the script on the understanding I’d be seriously considered to direct it.

Johnson to Ghose, 31 October 1971

Increasingly concerned about supporting his family on his earnings from writing, Johnson considered returning to school teaching. Ghose attempted to arrange for Johnson to take a position of visiting lecturer at the University of Texas, a plan which fell through. We can witness Ghose’s concern for his friend and the equanimity with which he treated Johnson’s rare outbursts of rancour in these letters.

As for The Writing Centre of Great Britain, I shall be pleased to be made its head at £50,000 a year, since I am best qualified. But I shall give one lecture a year, if I think so, on a subject of my own choosing, to last no longer than three seconds. I’m a writer, not a teacher.

Johnson to Ghose, 13 June 1972

With (infallible) hindsight we can see Johnson’s accelerating slide towards the point of extinction. Yet Johnson’s jocose morbidity takes on a suicidal cast only in retrospect and there is much here that – had Johnson’s career taken a slightly different turn and had he lived longer – would seem no more severe than Larkin’s pessimistic rationalisations in his letters.

Readers will be left with the impression of a close bond of friendship and a frank exchange of intellectual ideas between two accomplished writers, serious about not only their craft but also their subjects.

3.

As a publication of literary correspondence, this volume has serious flaws.

The editing of the volume leaves a lot to be desired. Meaningless misspellings such as “libary” and “silverbich” are retained, as is “out [sic] magazine” instead of a silent correction to “our” or “[our]”. “BFI” is best altered to “BFI [British Film Institute]” or written as a footnote rather than the intrusive “B[ritish]F[ilm]I[nstitute]”. Famous figures are given footnotes but some obscure ones are missed. Some obvious and unimportant slips go unremarked upon while others merit footnotes or “[sic]” insertions. Readers will be puzzled to see authors’ handwritten notes made on typewritten letters printed as footnotes rather than as part of the main letter text itself. (Or included in the text – the editing is consistently inconsistent.)

This volume ought to have been either a reading edition (silent corrections or corrections in parenthesis) or a critical edition (transcribed verbatim). Instead, it is an awkward mixture. We don’t get the authors in a fluently readable form because we stumble across intrusive annotation; at the same time, we wonder about what might have been silently corrected. Annotations are inconsistent, sometimes being placed later in the text than the first appearance of that reference or abbreviation. Common abbreviations of titles of Johnson’s work go unaltered, expanded or subject to footnotes, apparently at random.

Every editor must decide his/her methodology dependent upon an assessment of whether the letters under consideration will be read sequentially or individually. It is reasonable – with a group as cohesive as this – that readers will read the Johnson-Ghose letters sequentially and subsequently consult letters in isolation while retaining some familiarity. The methodology should therefore have been formulated accordingly, which it has not been. What the exact methodology is is unclear. There is no editorial procedure described in this book. Contrast this with the exemplary methodologies in the Beckett and Hemingway volumes.

Aside from a flawed methodology – and the inconsistent application thereof – there are some obvious editorial errors. Residents of Ruthin, Denbighshire will be crestfallen to read of Johnson’s visit to “Ruthkin, Denbigshire” in the footnotes.

These matters could have been avoided had there been a firm hand on the editorial tiller – or a clearer and rationalised methodology – and the employment of a competent proof-reader. Do not take from these comments that the editing is terrible. It is not. It is adequate but illogical, suffering frequent lapses and has an unsettling inconsistency which gives the attentive reader a vague unease about what has been missed, omitted and silently changed. This is a common problem in editions of texts that fall between the reading edition and the critical edition. While the substance of the volume is of great interest and a satisfying read, it is not – despite the impression given by the commentary, annotation, indices and presentation – close to critical-edition standard.

Finally, the binding deserves comment. This collection of correspondence is a valuable source of information not only about the writers but British print journalism, poetry and author-agent-publisher relations in the period covered and as such will be a reference work consulted for many decades to come. The imprint is an academic one and care has been taken to make the volume as comprehensive as possible. This shows that the editor and publishers understand that the volume is intended as a lasting reference work. The book is priced highly, as academic books generally are. However, while the hardcovers and binding in cloth (a silky black cloth) are sturdy and attractive, the pages are perfect bound not signature bound. Perfect binding is much less durable than signature binding. Furthermore, perfect-bound pages are generally not repairable if the internal spine splits; signature-bound pages can easily be repaired and re-bound. For a reference work intended to last many decades (and priced commensurately), perfect binding is entirely inappropriate. It is a production decision made to cut costs, one that will disappoint purchasers.

Alexander Adams

19 January 2017

[i] Quoted by Alan Burns, “Two chapters from a book provisionally titled “Human Like the Rest of Us: A Life of B. S. Johnson”, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer 1997. Reproduced on www.bsjohnson.co.uk

Samuel Beckett: a man of letters

“There are few figures in modern literature as enigmatic as Samuel Beckett (1906-1989). His dramas Waiting for Godot and Happy Days present characters in predicaments equally pitiful and grotesque. His novels such as Murphy, Watt and Malone Dies give internal monologues of characters trapped in webs of memory and doubt. These works are quintessential examples of existential literature, though they have been described as absurdist. He was famously resistant to exegesis and refused to explain what his writings ‘meant’, a stance which generated exasperation and admiration in equal measure from detractors and supporters. ‘I know no more of the characters than what they say, what they do and what happens to them.’

“A collection of approximately 2,500 letters, postcards and telegrams fills the 3,500 pages of the recently completed four-volume set, The Letters of Samuel Beckett. Beckett, and later his estate, stipulated that the only letters to be published should be those directly addressing his work. Yet it would be incorrect to say the selection neglects the personal because writing described and defined Beckett’s outlook on life. As readers of his novels notice, there is often an overlap between the fiction and the events in Beckett’s own life….”

Read the full review of Samuel Beckett’s letters in 4 volumes on Spiked, 16 January 2017 here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/samuel-beckett-a-man-of-letters/19206#.WHy8SPl_s5k

A Violent Sensation

“Violence has always been a staple of literature, but it became an obsession during the 19th century, first with the Romantics and the vogue for Gothic horror, and later still with the development of detective fiction, which started with Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens and Edgar Allan Poe in the mid-19th century.

“But as Scott Spector explains in Violent Sensations: Sex, Crime and Utopia in Vienna and Berlin, 1860-1914, it was anxiety about an apparent rise in violence and sexual degeneracy that made Berlin and Vienna twin centres for advances in the legal and scientific discussion of these topics. More specifically, Spector looks at what motivated people of the era to ask ‘Is there something inherent in modernity and urbanisation which causes degeneracy?’ Using German-language sources of the time, Spector examines four aspects of this discourse: biological models of criminal profiling; sexual crime; the emergence of the homosexual as a social and criminal phenomenon; and anti-Semitism.

“The industrial and scientific hubs of Vienna and Berlin were known not only as beacons for culture and enlightenment, but also as centres of squalor and depravity…”

Read the full review on Spiked (30 December 2016) online here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/a-violent-obsession/19153#.WGeCRPl_s5k