Getting into Hemingway’s Head

“On the morning of 2 July 1961, Ernest Hemingway took his favourite shotgun and shot himself in the head at his home in rural Idaho. He had finally done it. He had threatened suicide, described the suicides of others and even play-acted it with empty guns. He had been talked out of suicide, and physically restrained from doing it, twice before. Dogged by declining health, difficulty in writing and now a chronic writer’s block, Hemingway chose death. He was haunted by the knowledge that his father had shot himself. Two of Hemingway’s siblings would later commit suicide, with suicide being the suspected cause of death for another sibling. Suicide was a hereditary risk for the Hemingways.

“In Hemingway’s Brain, Andrew Farah, a clinical psychiatric practitioner, has analysed the causes of the mental decline that precipitated Hemingway’s suicide and has come up with a new diagnosis.

“Born in 1899, Hemingway lived a life that was physically precarious. Sometimes due to accident, sometimes by placing himself in dangerous situations, Hemingway courted danger and death. This was in his character and it underpinned a heroic persona that found its way into his writings. As a boxer, deep-sea angler, big-game hunter, trainee bullfighter, war correspondent and hard-drinker, Hemingway lived a life that transcended the macho and became epic.

“During the First World War in northern Italy, Hemingway was wounded by a mortar explosion and hit by machine-gun bullets. He suffered shrapnel and bullet wounds and experienced concussion…”

Read the full review online on Spiked website, 28 July 2017, here:

http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/getting-into-hemingways-head/20130#.WXtJioTyvIU

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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

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

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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

Grove Press/Evergreen and European Literature

barney-rosset-2005

Maarten van Gageldonk, Transatlantic Mediators: Grove Press, Evergreen Review and Postwar European Literature, 2016, 319pp, unpublished doctoral thesis

 

Transatlantic Mediators is the result of Maarten van Gageldonk’s research in the archives of Grove Press/Evergreen Review held at Syracuse University, New York, supplemented by wide-ranging reading and new interviews. This study is of Grove/Evergreen Review’s publication of foreign prose, poetry and drama from 1954 to 1973.

In 1951 American publisher Barney Rosset (1922-2012) took over the small, New York-based publishing house Grove Press and began to publish what would become a stream of highly influential literary, critical, sociological and biographical books. Rosset is widely considered the most important independent publisher of the post-war period. Van Gageldonk explains how the activities of Rosset, Grove Press and Evergreen Review were distinct yet often overlapping and in many respects inseparable. During the 1954-73 period Grove Press was on the cutting edge of avant-garde literature, publishing key texts by the Beats, French nouveau roman writers, European dramatists and other experimental and historically important writers

Van Gageldonk’s expertise in researching and evaluating periodical publications comes to the fore in his appreciation of Evergreen Review. Evergreen Review was founded in 1957 by Rosset to showcase Grove Press authors, as well as publish verse, prose and articles covering literary, artistic, social and political topics by non-house authors. It published excerpts of Grove volumes and introduced new writers in order to test reception. “Partly because of [its] eclecticism, the magazine was able to cater to a large and coherent group of young Americans, interested not only in cultural developments within the U.S., but also abroad. Evergreen Review’s ideal reader would have been in his or her early twenties, with a college education and left-leaning political views.”

Van Gageldonk uses statistical analysis to present a picture of how Evergreen Review changed over the years. He presents Evergreen Review’s sales and distribution figures to demonstrate its rise to the position of America’s most influential literary periodical and how it eventually lost its way. Once the censorship battles of the 1950s and 1960s were won, Evergreen Review was no longer the gatekeeper to clandestine avant-garde literature; it was just another counter-cultural publication. Evergreen Review changed format a number of times. When printing technology evolved, it became economic to publish on coated paper which allowed reproduction of photographs, first in half-tone then, later, in colour. The larger format, proliferation of advertisements and increased photographic illustration marked a gradual change in direction, highlighted by its retitling as Evergreen.  When the journal largely dropped poetry and translations of foreign-language texts – choosing instead to feature a mix of erotic stories, nude photography, radical social commentary and polemic – it came into competition with Playboy, a match it was unequal to. Evergreen ceased print publication in 1973.

Van Gageldonk considers Grove Press’s battles with various American censoring bodies over Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer and Naked Lunch, driven partly by idealism, partly by commercialism. Controversy over freedom-of-speech issues increased sales as well as earning Grove cultural cachet. In purely financial terms, Grove’s position on banned books was not quite justified by the costs of defending them against charges of obscenity – especially in the case of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, where pirated editions by rival publishers would compete for sales once the ban was lifted. Works deemed illegal were not covered by American copyright law, so competing houses eyed the breaking of fresh ground with the intention of launching their own editions as soon as new markets opened.

The author discusses aspects of Grove/Evergreen Review’s output in terms of Pierre Bourdieu’s theories of cultural production and Ulf Hannerz’s conception of creolization of culture through adaptation and interpretation of cultural material. A good example of the latter is Van Gageldonk’s discussion of the publication of texts by Alfred Jarry in a 1960 issue of Evergreen Review dedicated to ‘Pataphysics. At the time, Jarry was a writer obscure to English readers, known mostly by reputation, and little of his work had been translated. The presentation of Jarry was in a highly mediated form: a small selection of his texts in translation with works by others connected to the ‘Pataphysics movement. The editing was highly influenced by figures active in the Collège de ‘Pataphysique, Paris. In this example of creolization, Jarry’s texts was detached from their historical and cultural context and presented as harbingers of Surrealism and Absurdism. The presentation of Jarry as a forerunner of the counter-culture resistance to social conformity and as a debunker of scientific rationalism made him attractive to Grove American readers familiar with the Beats. Thus a relatively underappreciated historical author became pressed into service of a publisher keen to buttress its artistic credibility.

Grove’s stake in the success of the Theatre of the Absurd is clear if one studies its publishing list. In 1954 Grove published the English translation of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, a gamble on an author little-known to Anglophones. Despite huge success in Paris, the play had not been performed in English due to concerns over possible infringement of obscenity and blasphemy laws. Van Gageldonk observes that Grove went on to corner the American market for European Absurdist drama, including in its list Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, Jean Genet, Arthur Adamov, Harold Pinter and Václav Havel. Van Gageldonk explains the involvement Grove had in arranging productions and how the commercial rewards and – particularly – critical responses to debut stage productions in New York could make or break dramatists in America. “Comparing Ionesco and Adamov’s impact on the theatrical field first of all highlights the absolute dominance still held by the older New York drama critics, a position at the time still little eroded by a younger generation. When the three key New York drama critics walked out of Ping Pong, they reduced Adamov’s chances within the field to nil.” He points out how successful early productions of Ionesco established him as a major dramatist for American audiences while Adamov sank into obscurity.

In other chapters Van Gageldonk assesses Grove’s publication of literature from Russia, Eastern Bloc nations and Germany – a useful complement to the attention already given by other academics to Grove’s important ties to the French avant-garde. Even when dealing with highly theoretical matters in the methodological introduction, Van Gageldonk’s prose is clear and precise. Discussing Rosset, Grove, Evergreen Review and Rosset’s most important editors, Richard Seaver and Donald Allen, Van Gageldonk’s text is enjoyable and engaging, conveying the social and literary milieu as well as the substance of his subject. Transatlantic Mediators is an approachable, thoroughly researched and informative study of the contribution Grove/Evergreen Review made to literature in the mid-Twentieth Century. Let us hope it reaches a wider audience in the future.

Book Review: Essential Bukowski

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Charles Bukowski (Abel Debritto, ed.), Essential Bukowski: Poetry, Fourth Estate, paperback, 218pp, £12.99, ISBN 978 0 00 822515 5 (British edition; US edition also available)

 

“To the whore who took my poems” opens:

some say we should keep personal remorse from the poem,

stay abstract, and there is some reason in this,

but jezus:

12 poems gone and I don’t keep carbons and you have my

paintings too, my best ones; it’s stifling:

are you trying to crush me out like the rest of them?

 

Bukowski was a vastly prolific poet, far too prolific for the good of his reputation and for his readers’ patience, but writing was a lifeline for Bukowski. It made sense of a crazy world and a crazy life. It was a way of fending off despair and madness and anger that would have turned his heart black. He wrote more than he needed to and more than any half-critical reader would have wanted him to. He wrote because he had to. When his publisher John Martin restricted publishing his collections of poetry to a volume a year (when Bukowski produced enough material for three collections a year), Bukowski claimed he was being suffocated. Bukowski had a point but Martin also had one. One volume a year was commercially viable and kept the cream of the recent years’ production circulating, though Bukowski claimed some of his best material was never collected. Besides, Bukowski published prodigiously in fanzines and obscure journals. The real issue was not about making work available but control of the poet’s reputation. For a man who had deep-seated resentment towards his authoritarian father, any constriction on the publication of his writing might have felt to Bukowski like a constriction on his windpipe.

Anyone facing the task of selecting the best of Bukowski’s poetry has questions to answer to his own satisfaction: What is most characteristic of the poet? Of the many repetitions of a theme, which version is better to select: the grandly sweeping or the concisely understated? Do popular favourites select themselves or should I exclude poems that fans might expect to encounter? Beyond these questions is the sheer effort of reading and digesting thousands of poems in an analytical frame of mind. The editor also has to decide how to balance the expectations of long-time fans with neophytes who may never have read more than snippets. Every selection of highlights such as this volume has also to be an introduction to the poetry, in this case the work of a poet very diverse in range, tone and subject. Almost the only constants are the use of free-verse form and lack of meter and rhyme.

Editor Abel Debritto points out in his introduction to this new selection, that these 92 poems represent 2% of Bukowski’s surviving output. Almost all of the poems (dating from the late 1950s up to 1994, the year of Bukowski’s death) are in chronological order, allowing us to see Bukowski develop as a poet and a thinker. This is – if needed – final proof that in old age Bukowski never went soft or sold out and never lost his talent. If anything, the late poems are even crisper and drier than the early works. I’ll confess my favourite poem, “no. 6”, a lovely poem about watching horses at the track, made the selection and I’m happy for it.

In Essential Bukowski we encounter the poet as a raging juvenile, a street-preaching philosopher who does not believe in philosophy, a son in revolt, a cynical lover, a furious and bereft widower, an American citizen living through a supercharged global stalemate, a writer passing judgement on art, an old sick man staring death in the face. We get poems as vulgar, desperate, funny, exciting, beautiful and incomprehensible as the world itself. The only significant aspect of Bukowski missing here is the poet as father; instead we have Bukowski as poet paternally admonishing the young, all the time his raddled face creased with a half-smile.

Bukowski writes of cats and men that survived impossible odds and stories of people driven mad by the accumulated infringements upon logic, dignity and humanity. We get stories. We get aphorisms. We get – paraphrased – the letters of fans, lectures of girlfriends and the homilies of teachers. There’s no fat and no repetition. It is a curious fact that although Bukowski wrote a fair number of wholly redundant poems, he never wrote a redundant line, barely even a misjudged word.

So much of Bukowski’s poetry is personal (even internal) that it comes as a relief when we see others in his verse. He writes of the poor. “if I suffer at this / typewriter / think how I’d feel / among the lettuce- / pickers / of Salinas” and the bums in a downtown homeless shelter. When we think of Bukowski we might picture him in a wide-collared shirt in a 1970s’ poetry reading or being interviewed on French television ten years later; it is easy to overlook the poet’s Depression-era childhood. “we ain’t got no money, honey, but we got rain” is a poetic recollection of Bukowski’s past, shot through with threads of cynicism, sadness and painful beauty.

Although Bukowski is considered a poet of the underworld, an inveterate drinker, brawler and womaniser, any reader of one or two books by him will tell you he was also a great reader. He grieved at the burning of the public library where he educated himself. It is fitting that almost the longest poem in the book is a hymn to the time he spent in that library and the writing he encountered there.

Among the best-known poems here are “the genius of the crowd”, “the bluebird”, “Dinosauria, we.”, “one for the shoeshine man” and “the shower”. The selection is very good and the length of the collection is right. The poems are all effective and assured. Beyond that the collection itself is well-paced, balancing shorter and longer pieces, biographical and general, humorous and grave. That is a tribute to the editor’s skill. A collection based purely on popularity or the editor’s own taste would probably not have worked as well as this selection. There’s not a poem here that does not, having read it, make you feel more alive and more human. For sheer reading pleasure and consistent quality of content, Essential Bukowski really is the best Bukowski book published.

Edit: It has come to my attention that the American version has 95 poems, not the 92 in the British edition. One of the poems dropped is about Marina, Bukowski’s daughter, hence the peculiar omission of that aspect of Bukowski’s poetry and life in the collection I reviewed. Nonetheless, the British edition is still a fine collection and thoroughly recommended.

18 November 2016

My other Bukowski reviews

On Love: https://alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com/2016/09/24/review-charles-bukowski-on-love/

On Cats: https://alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com/2016/01/08/review-charles-bukowski-on-cats/

On Writing: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/charles-bukowski-distortion-of-a-dissident-poet/17405#.WJbosPl_s5k

Changes to posthumous publications by Bukowski: https://alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com/2015/09/07/changes-to-posthumously-published-poems-by-charles-bukowski/

Review: Charles Bukowski, On Love

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Charles Bukowski (ed. Abel Debritto), On Love, 2016, Canongate, 216pp, pb, ISBN 978 1 78211 730 8

The third volume in the series of new publications of Charles Bukowski’s writings collects poems on the subject (loosely) of love. The new collections edited by Bukowski scholar Abel Debritto use original manuscripts or first printed appearances, usually in low-circulation poetry journals. Debritto correctly identifies serious editorial interference in the posthumous Black Sparrow Books of Bukowski’s poems and has taken pains to use Bukowski’s original texts where possible.

This is the first of the new series to contain no prose. It benefits thereby. Although Bukowski did publish a few mixed collections – and there are times when his verse turns conversationally prosodic – the changes in tone and density give those collections (and the recent collections) an odd fast-slow-fast feeling. The poems in this volume date from 1957 to 1993 and span the poet’s entire mature career. The poems are ordered chronologically. Some of the poems were not previously collected and a handful was never published at all.

The range of love here is great. The majority of these poems were written about and to Bukowski’s lovers. The most prominent among those are Jane Cooney Baker, Linda King and Linda Lee. There are two poetic eulogies to Jane, seared by grief following her death in 1962. He describes their bodies and snatches of dialogue suggest Bukowski’s relationships with them. Other women go unnamed in the poems and they may or may not be these prominent women in the poet’s emotional landscape.

There are poems of frank sexual excitement and reflections on the absurdity of sex. (These are the poems Black Sparrow decided not to republish.) There is a tender poem written about an anonymous pick-up. “I sit up in bed at night and listen to you / snore / I met you in a bus station / and now I wonder at your back / sick white and stained with / children’s freckles / as the lamp divests the unsolvable / sorrow of the world / upon your sleep.” Another recalls a stripper who enchanted the poet as an adolescent. Others are more passing acquaintances. There the regret about a relationship ended by an argument is more self-centred, like that of a gambler misplaying a hand of cards. Bukowski does not always come out of the poems looking so gallant, which the poet knew well enough. Bukowski is always willing to tell tales against himself for the sake of an insight into human behaviour – or just to raise a smile.

As it turns out, the most delightful and unalloyed poems are to the poet’s only child, Marina. He writes of her as an infant, a child, an adolescent and a woman. The poems document their mutual affection despite Bukowski’s difficult relationship with her mother (“old snaggle-tooth”), who also has some poems to her in the collection. Bukowski’s own parents are mentioned but bitterness towards a bullying father, and a mother who would not take young Bukowski’s side, lasted until the end of Bukowski’s life.

Bukowski writes of his first love – reading – and of other strong bonds of affection, to his typewriter and the “unbelievable gallantry” of his old car as it is towed away to the scrap yard. He writes a eulogy to a trap-driver who raced in Los Angeles at the tracks Bukowski frequented. It is odd that there is no poem specifically about his love for horseracing, but that poem “a magician, gone” stands as a tribute to the sport he loved and the respect he had artists in all fields. The perennial favourite “the bluebird” is included. It is one of his most touching poems, sad in its joyfulness, shot through with loneliness and fierce protectiveness. “there’s a bluebird in my heart that / wants to get out / but I pour whiskey on him and inhale / cigarette smoke / and the whores and the bartenders / and the grocery clerks / never know that / he’s / in there.”

The selection is fitting, as it includes favourites (such as “for Jane”, “shower”, “the bluebird”) and unknown poems; it covers the major figures in Bukowski’s life and hits notes of pathos and hilarity. The decision to order chronologically has its drawbacks (one cannot read poems about one period or one lover, as they were written at different times) but we do see Bukowski’s concerns change as he ages. At the end he writes a heartfelt message to his future widow, which makes a fitting ending. Throughout the book are (black-and-white) illustrations of photographs and Bukowski’s own paintings and drawings. The famous Bukowski cartoon protagonist Hank makes many appearances – lumpen, laconic, lecherous and laughable.

The collection is fine, readable and accessible, yet has a single flaw: it is simply that it is thematic. With the exception of a collection of writings on horseracing, Bukowski himself never published a collection on a single subject. His range is part of his outlook; he wished to be able to cover life in the telling vignette and also to provide the vast and grandiose overview of humanity. He wanted to write about crowds, cities, ages, civilisations and philosophy as well as writing about a man and a woman in bed together, the dog in the street, the man at the typewriter. Bukowski’s urge was not only to encompass the grand and intimate but to be able to do so – if he wished – in a single page and for that reason the approach of any thematic collection is inappropriately limited for a writer such as Charles Bukowski.

But never mind. This is a bracing, amusing and enjoyable collection of Bukowski’s poems faithfully presented as he wrote them. And that is good enough to unhesitatingly recommend On Love.

24 September 2016

My other Bukowski reviews

On Cats: https://alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com/2016/01/08/review-charles-bukowski-on-cats/

On Writing: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/charles-bukowski-distortion-of-a-dissident-poet/17405#.WJbosPl_s5k

Essential Bukowski: https://alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com/2016/11/19/book-review-essential-bukowski/

Changes to posthumous publications by Bukowski: https://alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com/2015/09/07/changes-to-posthumously-published-poems-by-charles-bukowski/

Re-reading John Wyndham, I

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John Wyndham (1903-1969) was a writer of the novel of ideas, where broad ideas take priority over character, mood, dialogue and naturalism. He follows a chain of events that present characters with situations and choices which illuminate the author’s themes. Wyndham’s mature novels have a lot in common with the scientific romances of H.G. Wells. Wyndham had a great variety of occupations before the war and the breadth of his experience shows up in his later writing. His early writing was stories for pulp magazines, mostly American, writing in the genres of crime and science fiction. These were published under pen names. The early stories have been reprinted and are worth reading. They are rich in ideas and provocative conceits; they are not too distant in that respect to the stories of J.G. Ballard.

During the war Wyndham worked in military intelligence and his experience of viewing the destruction of war first hand led him away from fantasy towards stories set in the present day. The experience of mundane reality overturned by the catastrophic became a staple of his literary thought thereafter. His first published novel was The Day of the Triffids (1951). It is that novel and the subsequent one, The Kraken Wakes (1953), which will be discussed here.

Wyndham was the product of a childhood during the Great War, the instability and rise of authoritarian regimes in the 1920s and 1930s, the Great Depression and the shattering experience of World War Two. This was followed by the threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War. Underpinning all of Wyndham’s post-War fiction is the consideration of competing mutually antagonistic ideologies which explicitly and implicitly shape his outlook on the survival of mankind. This is sometimes in the form of overt discussions of Communist and Capitalist reactions to alien threats (Triffids, Kraken, Midwich Cuckoos); at other times the competition is a matter of inter-species rivalry (Triffids, Kraken, Midwich Cuckoos, Chrysalids, Web)

The Day of the Triffids follows the narrator Bill Masen, who awakes in a London hospital to discover that the majority of the human race has been blinded by a supposed shower of comet debris (later mooted as an accidental transmission of a weapons satellite). Masen has a number of unnerving encounters with the blind before rescuing a young woman called Josella. Josella had been a socialite and novelist before the comet. Together they discuss leaving London to find a rural retreat. They join a small group of sighted people who plan to help a limited number of blind and to form a new society based on rational and pragmatic considerations. Before this group can depart as planned Bill and Josella are kidnapped and forced to serve as leaders of bands of blind people. These groups are depredated by sickness and attacks of the triffids (newly developed ambulatory plants cultivated for their nutritious oils and which are capable of stinging to death people). Bill and Josella are separated and flee London. Later reunited, the pair forms a small family group and attempt to survive on a farm surrounded by triffids.

The triffids are not the subject of the story. Indeed, they are little more than a means to hasten the break-up of society and add an element of the unknown to an otherwise mundane catastrophe – widespread blindness. Wyndham is not interested in triffids per se but in examining how societal norms fragment under pressure and how difficult it is for man to adjust his expectations under extraordinary circumstances. Old habits and customs outlive their usefulness; sentiment can undermine necessary pragmatism; excessive ruthlessness can impose intolerably inhumane conditions; good intentions can lead to barbaric outcomes. Wyndham follows different approaches and examines the viability and validity of each.

The novel was an enormous success, sold very well and was critically well received. The concept of the triffids entered common parlance. The story was filmed a number of times but the only adequate dramatization is the 1981 BBC television adaptation, available on DVD. That adaptation hit a sweet spot between faithfulness to the original text while making necessary adjustments for the format. It captures the spirit and letter of the novel and is highly recommended. There are a number of radio readings of the novel which are also effective and recommended, especially the Roger May reading for BBC Radio 4/4 Extra.

 

Triffids is superbly constructed. Wyndham tells the story in such a way that explores many branching possibilities: the serving of large groups of the blind by the sighted and also their abandonment; scavenging a living in an urban environment and farming in the country; the adherence to traditional values of Christian society and the establishment of a pragmatic humanitarian alternative; the imposition of authoritarian feudal serfdom and how it must – in the main – collapse. As a novel of ideas it follows characters living these alternative realities rather than the narrator describing them. The narrator’s life is tied into the farming of triffids. Being a triffid expert, Masen is in a position to supply first-person narration of background to one of the two alien elements in this fictional world (the other is the development and –putatively accidental deployment – sophisticated satellite weaponry).

There are logical faults to Triffids which are plot devices. Almost as soon as the catastrophe takes place, characters are committing suicide and succumbing to despair. In reality, people would have been waiting for aid and for their eyesight to return. The arrival of the triffids in London is unrealistically hasty. The plague (apparently artificial) kills most of the blind within days. These elements artificially accelerate the phases of the story and inject surprise, conflict and tension. The despair of the blind cements the irrevocable loss of sight; the confrontation with the triffids as soon as the day after the disaster brings forward the theme of inter-species rivalry; the plague clears away the surviving blind, ends attempts to aid the blind and removes our protagonists from cities and sets them on the road. One can acknowledge the effectiveness of Triffids’s overall pacing and progression while still finding the plague’s artificiality irksome and the immediate suicides of the blind jarring.

Josella is an example of Wyndham’s highly competent female characters. Wyndham’s co-educational experience at the progressive Bedales School left him with a lifelong belief in the equality of men and women. His fiction is full of strong female characters. There is a speech given by Coker in Triffids which presents what one might take to be Wyndham’s beliefs. It is worth looking at this speech, not least because it is sometimes misunderstood.

Coker confronts a woman at the traditionalist Christian group in Tynsham Manor when he discovers that an electrical generator has been going unused because the women there (the only sighted persons at the manor are women) have not worked out how to operate the generator. He chides her not just for her group’s lack of competence but more for its lack of initiative. She retorts

“It’s not my fault if I’m not any good at things like that.” “I’ll differ there,” Coker told her. “It’s a self-created fault. Moreover, it’s an affectation to consider yourself too spiritual to understand anything mechanical. It is a petty, and a very silly form of vanity. […] Hitherto we have been able to afford to amuse ourselves with that kind of mental laziness and parasitism. In spite of generations of talk about the equality of the sexes there has been much too great a vested interest in dependence for women to dream of dropping it.”

Coker goes on to say that the myth of female impracticality in matters technical was one fostered in a post-War British society to allow women to concentrate on domestic matters and ensure that men went on uncontested in mechanical professions. Now such niceties are unsustainable and women – every bit as competent as men when trained – must learn as much as possible for the advanced society to survive. Coker’s point is that the practice of learned helplessness is one that can only be sustained in a sophisticated, well-ordered, safe society. Wyndham points out the social construction of gender roles, suggests that change is not only possible but absolutely necessary in certain circumstances and might anyway be welcome otherwise. Not only that, he has the discussion take place in a situation germane to the setting and the narrative. It is typical of Wyndham to address sophisticated sociological points in unobtrusive ways within the context of his fiction. This is true of all his books but particularly Triffids and The Chrsyalids. Though Wyndham was writing within the conventions of Britain of the 1950s and 1960s – with a consequent dated tweeness to some of dialogue, which can be off-putting to new readers  – his ideas were as advanced and considered as any author of the time. How much he chafed at the restraints of British social mores and publishing norms can only be guessed at. Wyndham may not have been a radical but he may have wished to be more direct about matters sexual and violent and in terms of swearing.

Wyndham’s prose is rarely discussed but it is one of the great strengths of his books. It has the restraint of English middle-class emotional reserve and the crispness of American crime noire diction. His humour is dry. (A pub sign bears “a reputed likeness” of General Montgomery.) Adjectives are carefully chosen, adverbs rare and there is no straining for literary effect, though there are passages that both memorable and evocative simply through the quality of the prose. Wyndham can be elegiac as well terse. Poignant encounters are underplayed, leaving the reader to draw out the terrible implications. Readers are implicated as silent observers walking alongside Masen as he sees the blind confronting practical difficulties to succeed and fail.

That famous jibe of Brian Aldiss, that Day of the Triffids is an example of Wyndham’s “cosy catastrophe” is quite wrong. It is true, as Aldiss observed, that the hero spends much of the later chapters living with his companion in a world unfettered by law and economic contingencies in a land of supplies so plentiful that they are effectively unlimited. Characters repair to deserted saloon bars to discuss tactics and Masen considers himself liberated from social strictures that numbed him. But just because this adventure takes place in urban and pastoral England populated by the middle-classes, it is quite wrong to assume that the matters Wyndham approached were somehow less serious than the wave of “hard sci-fi” novels of the 1960s. Wyndham is always interested in characters testing their social situation and responding to change. Science, creatures and disasters are merely means by which to effect change in the social, economic and political status quo.

Far from existing in a cosy dream of middle-class liberation, Masen witnesses death by murder, suicide and illness; he assaults and is assaulted, and deals with the consequences of kidnapping and attempted rape. Masen is forced to be brutal and cold-hearted in order to save himself and to confront his innately selfish desire for self-preservation. All of this seems more pointed and real because it takes place in the world we inhabit. Rather than taking place in a space station or on a foreign world or at some time in the distant future, we experience an alternative reality which is theoretically only hours away. We confront our social assumptions and reconsider our fragile existence supported by a highly developed economic system.

 

The Kraken Wakes (1953) shares many similarities with Triffids. The novel is presented through the eyes of a couple of journalists, Mike and Phyllis Watson, observe the approach of alien spacecraft while on a honeymoon cruise. The craft descend into the sea. Soon the couple learn that the phenomena is widespread and unexplained. One of the leitmotifs is the mutual hostility of the capitalist West and Communist East and the suspicion that the opposing side is responsible for the unfolding events. This Cold War conflict makes scientific research, dissemination of accurate information and working in a common cause difficult at times impossible.

Phyllis is another of Wyndham’s strong women. He makes clear that Phyllis is actually the better journalist and more farsighted of the couple. Together the couple report on attacks on unexplained sinking of ships which causes worldwide disruption to travel and trade. It becomes clear an alien intelligence is engaging in marine warfare which humanity is ill-prepared to confront. The Watsons travel to Escondida, a tropical island, to document attacks by sea tanks on human habitations. The attack kills many of their colleagues and presents mankind with a new peril. The next phase of the attack on humanity is the melting of sea ice and the raising of worldwide sea levels. In a setpiece narrator Mike Watson describes high tide breaching the Thames walls and flooding London. London abandoned and much of Great Britain in anarchy, the Watsons flee in order to attempt surviving at their Cornish holiday home, now an island.

The subject of outright alien invasion is less approachable than Triffids, which features only one improbable element – a mobile, man-killing, carnivorous plant. For Kraken Wyndham has to introduce an alien species (never described in the novel), sci-fi technology and global warfare between mankind and aliens. Every new element adds distance between the fictional reality and the reader’s experience. The reliance on newspaper and radio reports likewise detaches readers from the events discussed, though the modern fictional approach (derived from sci-fi movie) of describing individual vignettes through the eyes of multiple characters (or an omniscient narrator) would have been more unsatisfactory. Wyndham’s approach has at least the advantage of brevity and avoids the dislocating effects of multiple perspectives and unnecessary secondary characters. Kraken does the same by having the Watsons personally involved at the arrival of the alien species and following developments closely as journalists. (Something similar happens in The Midwich Cuckoos, subject of a future post.)

The subject of global warming is prescient and precedes Ballard’s Drowned World by nine years. There are many effective scenes but the changing phases of the war feel disconnected and most are viewed from a distance. John Wyndham’s social – even anthropological – preoccupations touch upon environmental disaster and geopolitics. Though enjoyable and with a number of memorable set pieces (such as the attack of the sea tanks in Escondida and the flooding of London), The Kraken Wakes is a less effective novel than The Day of the Triffids. It ends in an almost identical situation – an isolated small group moving from a rural retreat to join a more populous group in order to form a new society – but because the Watsons’ situation and setting are less completely described and explained as the product of the evolution over a period of time, Kraken is less narratively satisfying and emotionally powerful. At the end of Triffids, when Masen’s group flees from their farm under duress we share in their mixture of emotions: we feel their anxiety and loss but also the sense of joyful release.  We can imagine the farm and its setting, whereas the Watson’s cottage and surroundings is barely described. Significantly, in Kraken the message the Watsons get is that the battle against the alien lifeform is all but won, whereas in Triffids the struggle is yet to begin in earnest.

Both novels share the themes of inter-species rivalry, the threat Cold War conflict, the catastrophic decline of established societies and economies, the struggle for life in an anarchic setting and the more overarching theme of remaking society better after disaster. Both are powerfully grounded in reality but use invented threats as the catalysts for sudden upheaval. Though Kraken has perhaps the more dramatic imagery – sea tanks attacking a sleepy tropical island village at night, London streets flooded and peopled by lone bandits – it is Triffids that is more satisfying as a whole.

While many high-brow social novels and technologically prescient sci-fi stories have become dusty curiosities, Wyndham’s novels live on as exciting stories, incisive in social comment and memorable in imagery. Wyndham’s best novels are as serious, intelligent and thought-provoking as any fiction produced in the immediate post-War period in Britain.

French literary censorship

“Two of French literature’s most enduring works of the early modern period, Madame Bovary and Les Fleurs du Mal, faced prosecution on grounds of obscenity. The two cases were prosecuted by the same lawyer, Pierre-Ernest Pinard, in the Sixth Correctional Court, where indicted authors were tried alongside petty criminals, disturbers of the peace and common sexual deviants. One author was condemned and one acquitted. The Censorship Effect examines the causes and consequences of the trials.

“On Christmas Eve 1856 a little-known writer called Gustave Flaubert was indicted on charges of ‘outraging public morals and religious and good manners’ for the serialisation of his novel Madame Bovary. Revue de Paris published the novel in serial form but the cautious editor made many cuts to the text (so many cuts, that an exasperated Flaubert demanded that the journal publish a disclaimer to the effect that what was being printed was only fragments of the novel). Emma, the protagonist of the novel, embarks on sexual affairs and lives an indulgently materialistic lifestyle to combat the boredom of her marriage to a provincial doctor. The depiction of the heroine’s lewd and immoral conduct – in addition to the fact that there is no express condemnation of her actions – raised the suspicion that the novel might lead astray female readers and arouse male ones…”

Read the full review online on Spiked, 28 April 2016, here: http://www.spiked-online.com/spiked-review/article/the-waltz-of-censorship/18293#.VyHyV_ldU5k