“John Wyndham: Genius and Prophet”

“The publication of a clothbound boxset containing the classic novels Day of the TriffidsThe Midwich Cuckoos and The Chrysalids by John Wyndham (1903-1969) by the Folio Society, prompts the question, ‘How much is Wyndham a man of his time?’ In this review, we will look at the novels, these illustrated editions and how much 1950s England influenced these stories.

Wyndham had a difficult childhood. His parents were involved in a high-profile divorce case, at a time when divorces were rare, and must have been aware of the consequent press coverage. The family moved around the country, and the young Wyndham attended a number of schools, including the famously progressive Bedales School. He had a number of different professions before deciding to pursue fiction writing. While he had some success as a writer of science fiction and pastiching American detective stories during the inter-war era, he did not seem to have found his metier. Although he did not know it at the time, his background and writing had set him up for spectacular success in the post-war period.

It was the catalyst of the war which seemed to bring Wyndham new introspection and a wider view of human nature…”

Read the full review free on The Brazen Head, here: https://brazen-head.org/2022/06/03/john-wyndham-genius-and-prophet/

Edward O. Wilson, The Diversity of Life

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[Image: © The Folio Society, 2019]

Edward O. Wilson (b. 1929), University Research Professor Emeritus at Harvard University, is one of the world’s leading biologists. Damage to his eyesight during childhood led him to study insects, which is why he became a myrmecologist (a scientist specialising in ants). His research led to breakthroughs in understanding of the social structures of ants and wildlife more widely. He has taught and written on entomology and biology and won numerous awards and prizes during his distinguished career. It is his book BioDiversity (1988) that is credited with introducing the phrase “biodiversity” into scientific and general usage.

The Diversity of Life was first published in 1992. This Folio edition is a republication of the second edition (2010), with a new foreword by Bill McKibben, renowned environmentalist author. This issue – as is usual with Folio Society books – contains unique visual elements, discussed at the end of this review.

Wilson’s thesis is that although life is vigorous and multifarious, it is also delicate. Ecosystems are dynamic but depend upon multiple factors, with relatively small changes to a few species causing a great knock-on impact. Wilson starts by outlining the rich diversity of life in the tropical rainforest, before outlining the impact of the eruption of Krakatau (Krakatoa), in the Indonesia archipelago. The famous eruption – more properly volcanic explosion – in 1883 destroyed all life on the small island. The event destroyed most of the island and left the remainder desolate. Naturalists realised this was a test bed for biological study: as flora and fauna returned to the land, observations could be made about the evolution of ecosystems. New species arrived – to thrive or die off and sometimes old species never returned to the island. Forest regrew on the island but to this day none of the species of rainforest giant trees have arrived on the island.

Wilson explains the thorny issue of inter-subspecies hybridisation. It is possible to interbreed lions and tigers in captivity. That being so, why do we not see natural hybridisation? In other words, why do we have two distinct groups at all? One reason is that the subspecies are separated geographically (though this has not always been the case) and the second is that in terms of social structure and preferred climate, the subspecies are dissimilar and therefore would have little in common and thus rarely mix. Plants in temperate regions hybridise more than those in tropical regions.

Division into subspecies can come about by the environment changing (leading to a local population diverging by developing unique deviations from its original form), isolation (a population being suddenly separated by a flood, earthquake or volcanic activity) or by colonisation (waifs being translocated to islands and subsequently evolving). (“The 10,000 known endemic species of insects in Hawaii are believed to have evolved from only about 400 immigrant species.”) The use of subspecies as a taxonomical classification is tricky. Wilson points out that these classifications can be relatively arbitrary, only denoting how much scientific attention a widely distributed species has attracted, for many such species could be broken down into numerous subspecies. Exactly what markers denote a population to be worthy of assuming the status of a subspecies is flexible.

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[Image: © The Folio Society, 2019]

Some species develop distinct characteristics faster than others, with insects of short lifespans evolving fastest. In Lake Victoria, a family of freshwater fish called cichlids evolved into a variety of unique species with specialised physiognomies, diets and behaviour in only 200,000 years. “If evolution can occur rapidly, with the number of species quickly restored, why should we worry about species extinction? The answer is that new species are usually cheap species. […] Great biological diversity takes long stretches of geological time and the accumulation of large reservoirs of unique genes. The richest ecosystems build slowly, over millions of years.” In the case of the chichlids, they are rapidly approaching extinction because of the predation of the Nile perch, a non-native species introduced by man as a sport fish. This giant predator has adapted well to Lake Victoria and could well outcompete the specialised and isolated chichlid species.

The author introduces technical discussions where necessary but does this sparingly, allowing the non-scientist to follow is discussions easily and pleasurably. He finds apt examples to demonstrate points. The explain how absence of competition can lead to parallel evolutions in separate species, he chooses Hawaii. The honeycreeper is a family of bird species native to the islands of Hawaii. They have developed beaks and behaviour that resemble woodpeckers, albeit in inefficient forms. Wilson points out that had woodpeckers migrated to the islands, honeycreepers would never have developed their woodpecker-type features because they would have been competing with a much more efficient family that would have exploited the ecological niche already, outcompeting for associated resources. The absence of woodpeckers allowed the honeycreeper space to evolve woodpecker-style behaviour and physiological forms.

The sheer variety of life forms defies scientific understanding, with potentially millions of species, ranging from microbes to viruses, fungi, lichen, advanced plants, insects and mammals. The precautionary principle suggests we should beware of destroying species and environments of which we are not even aware, in case their removal leads to significant consequences for the ecosystem. When the sea otter was hunted to near extinction in the Aleutian Island, the sea urchins they preyed upon – now largely unpredated – decimated the kelp forests. The subsequent barrenness severely reduced the biodiversity of the environment. Thus, a single apex predator can shape an ecosystem.

Wilson is honest about the impact of human migration on reduction of biodiversity – as many non-indigenous apex predators have upon ecosystems. He discusses the extinction of the moa (a giant flightless bird in New Zealand) at the hands of the Maori and the damage done by species introduced by Western colonists. He shows sharp declines in numbers of species in recent eras match the expansion of Homo sapiens. An alarming map of reducing forest in Ecuador gives a graphic warning of the impact of man-made habitat change. The case is put for the practical benefits species preservation has for humanity, in the form of medicines or crop hybridisation derived from life forms not yet studied. A couple of fascinating lists give native species that could be reared as potential crops and animals for human consumption, all of which might prove superior in their native environs the imported Western staples. The book ends with some positive steps that are being taken and avenues for future activity to prevent loss of biodiversity.

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[Image: © The Folio Society, 2019]

Edward O. Wilson is a gifted communicator, full of enthusiasm. The clarity and vigour of Wilson’s prose is a great pleasure to read. The importance of his warnings is as relevant now as when The Diversity of Life was originally published. Wilson’s personal encounters (sometimes as part of field experiments) add touches of personal experience – elegiac but lacking false sentimentality. The book contains footnotes, a glossary and an index.

The Folio Society edition boasts a full-colour iridescent hardback cover, protected by a slipcase. The cover was designed by Jamie Keenan. The complex, demanding and precise process that was used to apply the special holographic film over the cover is described in a Folio Society blog post here. This edition includes maps, charts and graphs with attractive ornamentation. The line and stipple ink drawings by Amy Bartlett Wright are concise and attractive, acting as visual aides and enriching the reading experience. There are plate sections of 24 colour wildlife photographs, featuring close-ups that showcase the beautiful variety of flora and fauna. The simple textured board used to make the protective slipcase has a pleasing eco-friendly feel to it.

The Folio Society edition of The Diversity of Life is an ideal gift for a child over 14 or young adult interested by science and for anyone delighted by the natural world. The visual touches enhance the message and the content in a sympathetic and considered manner. Highly recommended.

 

The Folio Society edition of Edward O. Wilson’s The Diversity of Life, with foreword by Bill McKibben and preface by the author, with extensive Folio Society picture research, is available exclusively from The Folio Society.

Edward O. Wilson, Bill McKibben (foreword), The Diversity of Life, The Folio Society, 2019, hardback, 448pp, 24 col./47 mono illus., slipcase, £49.95

 

© Alexander Adams 2020

To view my books and art visit: www.alexanderadams.art

Philip Larkin: Collected Poems (Folio Society)

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This new edition of the collected poems of Philip Larkin (1922-1985) brings together Larkin’s poems published in his lifetime and his own photographs for the first time in book format. The book is handsome and pieces work very well.

This edition has introductions from editor Anthony Thwaite and biographer Andrew Motion. Motion discusses the connections between Larkin and photography. Larkin was influenced by photographs and made them the subject of some poems. The device allowed Larkin to use more temporal distance and emotional detachment whilst permitting detailed visual description. Yet Larkin did not always use emotional detachment, as Larkin knew and exploited the personal responses he had to viewing photographs. Photographs were ways of preserving memories and interacting with these images generated new responses – melancholic, wry, sad, cynical, sentimental.

From his teenage years on, Larkin was a proficient and enthusiastic amateur photographer. His hobby of cycling and church visiting went in tandem with his photograph taking. He also photographed friends and scenes around him. These have been the subject of exhibition and publication, although these have treated the photographs as adjuncts to Larkin the poet. Whether or not Larkin’s photography stands as an independent body remains to be determined. Photographs in this book include those of Monica Jones and Maeve Brennan (long-term romantic interests), his mother, himself and scenes of Hull and local countryside. Some of the selected images are those Larkin marked for cropping.

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[Image: Philip Larkin, Collected Poems, The Folio Society, 2020. ©2020 Estate of Philip Larkin/The Folio Society]

Larkin very rarely left Great Britain and his writing is characterised by its intense affection-repulsion complex regarding the British, specifically the English and Englishness. “Show Sunday” describes the course of a day at a country fair; “The Whitsun Weddings” is an account of travelling by train and observing newlywed couples boarding the train. “Going, Going” laments the commercialisation and industrialisation of England and the degradation of the country he considered irrevocably lost to him. He blames companies, social policies and people generally. “[…] greeds / and garbage are too thick-strewn / to be swept up now […]” Larkin’s misanthropy is never very far away. He sees the English working class as saviour and destroyer of English culture, a cultural ecosystem that is fragile and degrading yet still capable of coarse vitality. It reminds us that environmental concern is not the preserve of the political left or right but temperamental in outlook.

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[Image: Philip Larkin, Collected Poems, The Folio Society, 2020. ©2020 Estate of Philip Larkin/The Folio Society]

The selection and arrangement of verse by Thwaite is almost ideal. Thwaite admits being in error for the editing of the first Collected Poems of Larkin, performed just after Larkin’s death. Rather than abiding by Larkin’s carefully judged ordering of poems in their original collections, Thwaite broke up the poems and ordered them chronologically. This contradicted Larkin’s wishes. He stated often that he carefully arranged his selections in order to heighten drama and direct the mood of readers. This volume has the poems sequenced in the order of original publication in books, with a selection of published and uncollected verse at the end. Thwaite has correctly decided to exclude Larkin’s juvenilia, published while he was at Oxford University. He has also excluded all unpublished pieces, which is not entirely satisfactory. A few fine pieces, which Larkin deemed too raw to publish in his lifetime, are omitted. The means the volume lacks a couple of powerful poems (“Ape Experiment Room”, “Love Again”) and the unfinished “The Dance”, which is a loss.

I spotted one error. The couplet “When the Russian tanks roll westward” omits the prefatory quotation quoted in Larkin’s letter of 22 August 1969 to C.B. Cox. It is a small thing but as easy to get right as to get wrong. Thwaite knows the letter as he included it in his edition of Larkin’s letters.

The Folio Society is known for its attention to production detail and distinctive designs. A leaf-green cloth binding and an abstract geometric design (reminiscent of the 1950s) are attractive and appropriate for Larkin’s verse. The layout is unobtrusive and the number and choice of illustrations serve the texts rather than drawing attention to the designers. This is not just a bookshelf ornament but an edition that will be constantly re-read by the Larkin enthusiast. There is no reason why this edition will not become the go-to volume for readers. This collection is by far the best collection of Larkin’s verse ever published. It is comprehensive, respectful of Larkin’s wishes, beautiful printed and bound and including some of Larkin’s images. It omits weak and distracting material and is not encumbered by notes. This is not a book for scholars and researchers but a reader’s book, a book for lovers of Larkin’s writing.

 

Philip Larkin, (introductions) Andrew Motion, Anthony Thwaite, Collected Poems, The Folio Society, 2020, three-quarter bound in blocked cloth with a paper front board, set in Berling, printed with a design by Richard Peacock, 280pp, colour title page, 12 integrated black & white photographs by Philip Larkin, 91/2˝ x 63/4˝, $49.95/£34.95. The book is available exclusively from www.FolioSociety.com

 

© 2020 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

The House of Borgia

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First published 2008, The House of Borgia, is historian Christopher Hibbert’s highly readable study of one of the leading dynasties in Renaissance Italy, newly available from the Folio Society. This is a companion volume to Hibbert’s The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici, already published by the Folio Society.

The Borgias rose to significance in history during the return of the popes from Avignon. The seat of the papacy was in Avignon 1309 to 1376 due to a dispute between the French crown and the papacy. A series of French Popes resided in the Kingdom of Arles until it became clear that a return to Rome was necessary to secure the Roman estates of the Pope. Lord Alfonso de Borja, Bishop of Valencia, was elected by a conclave of cardinals as a compromise candidate. He was elected on the twin virtues that he was neither French nor expected to live long. “By the time of the conclave of April 1455, he was living in Rome, an austere, modest and increasingly gouty old man in his late seventies, in such poor health that it was doubted that he would survive the arduous ceremonies of his consecration.”

The expectation was that an elderly scholar – albeit a well-connected and worldly one – would be non-interventionist stop-gap figure. Pope Calixtus III proved to be otherwise. In his reign of three years, he dedicated the Holy See to protect Christendom against the Turkish invasion, selling and pawning valuables to back military expenses. The favours of Calixtus III and subsequent Popes advanced members of the Borgia family, including Cardinal Rodrigo (1431-1503). Corruption and brigandage threatened Roman inhabitants and pilgrims during the reign of ineffectual popes.

Popes were called to adjudicate legitimacy of claimants and were hardly disinterested in the tax revenues involved. Popes faced the real threat of deposition should they side with a power that was more militarily powerful than the Vatican and its allies.

Assisted by considerable bribes, Rodrigo Borgia was nominated and enthroned as Pope Alexander VI in 1492. He would rule until 1503. In part, he was chosen for his toughness and political skills. “Alexander VI was both conscientious and competent in the discharge of his duties. Approachable, affable and good-natured, he was also determined to put a stop to the riotous lawlessness into which Rome had fallen during the pontificate of his predecessor, Innocent VIII.”

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Alexander VI took steps to secure his family as a dynasty in Italy by marrying daughter Lucrezia to Giovanni Sforza, cousin of Ludovico Sforza, ruler of Milan. Son Jofrè became a Neapolitan grandee and his brother Juan (Duke of Gandia) married the cousin of King Ferdinand of Aragon. Illegitimate son Cesare Borgia (1475-1507) was appointed cardinal.

Alexander VI’s papal bulls affirmed Spain’s authority in the New World, playing a major part in the colonial development of the Americas. Alexander VI’s reign coincided with the period of the High Renaissance in Italy (1490 or 1500 to 1520) and saw a flourishing of the arts, patronised by the princes, churchmen and merchants of Italy. Not least of the patrons was Alexander VI. He commissioned work by Bramante, Michelangelo, Raphael and Pinturicchio; the latter painted murals for the Borgia Apartments (now the library) in the Vatican.

The French captured Naples in 1494, marching through Rome. Cesare and Alexander VI used wily diplomacy and Cesare used ruthless violence to undermine Charles VIII’s occupation of Naples. A virulent outbreak of syphilis and ill discipline among his troops forced Charles to withdraw. Alexander VI evaded the irate French king by moving his court out of his way as he marched home northwards through Rome. Harried in battle on his retreat by mercenaries of the Holy League, Charles won a military victory but lost some of his plunder, which included holy relics and erotica.

It was during the reign of Alexander VI that troublesome firebrand Savonarola rose to demagogue status by rousing the populace of Florence to millenarian fervour. In 1495, with the flight of the Medici, his radical preaching whipped congregations into states of pious anger, ready to follow the preacher’s lead in not only preventing the return of the Medici but the overthrowing of the church authorities. There was no shortage of evidence of corruption, as it was a part of everyday life. Using the populace’s political defiance of the Medici, Savonarola became the de facto theological ruler of Florence. Citing authority from God, Savonarola claimed he was founding a New Jerusalem, a holy republic. He instigated a crusade of theft and intimidation, in which children would search out and possess items of value to commit them to a bonfire of the vanities. Children would urge elders to abandon vice and adopt virtue, informing authorities of instances of moral turpitude. In a climate that mixed piety and fear, Florentines abandoned ostentatiousness and comfort. Alexander VI attempted to rein in the prior but Savonarola refused to submit to the Pope’s authority. In 1498, after being arrested and convicted of heresy, Savonarola and two fellow priors were publicly burned alive. Leonardo sketched the preacher hanging in chains.

Cesare was more soldier than cardinal. He seduced Jofrè’s wife Sancia. Hibbert describes how the high-spirited Lucrezia and Sancia would “leave their seats during the tedious service to go up together to the choir reserved for their ladies, and to chatter and laugh together, oblivious to the boring sermon.” Juan also seduced Sancia. In 1497 Juan was murdered in a planned assassination. Alexander was appalled and vowed to bring the killer to justice. A few weeks later, he dropped the subject. It seems he had been appraised that Cesare (and maybe Jofrè) had been behind the killing. Reports are that the other Borgias believed Cesare had ordered the murder of his half-brother.

The marital estrangement between Giovanni Sforza and Lucrezia Borgia was exacerbated by political rivalry between the two clans. There were accusations of impotence and incest made by the families. A this time, Cesare murdered the lover of his sister. (Even in an age of violence, Cardinal Cesare was judged particularly cruel and dangerous. On one occasion he took pleasure in shooting arrows at confined prisoners. His temper was not improved by recurrent effects of syphilis. He pursued vice with dedication, neglected the duties of his position and generally wore a nobleman’s finery rather than holy robes.) The newly divorced Lucrezia was married to Alfonso, illegitimate son of King Federigo of Naples. Meanwhile, the Pope fathered a child.

The accession of Louis XII to the French throne, following the death of Charles VIII, was an advantage to the Borgias. Upon the request of the new king, the Pope dissolved his barren marriage, allowing the king to marry advantageously. The Pope also saw the Borgias interests aligning with Louis XII in the matter of Milan. He gave secret approval for Louis XII to invade and occupy Milan, which he did in 1499, aided by Cesare. This alliance caused tension between the Spanish crown and the Vatican.

Cesare became a terror in Italy. He led his mercenaries fearlessly, fighting on behalf of the French (and himself), sacking any town that did not pay a ransom. He was accused of kidnapping and rape. Whilst disguised, Cesare would provoke fights with strangers. (Physicians suggested that secondary syphilis had impaired his mind.) Another pastime was go game hunting with trained leopards. He became Duke of Romagna and an honorary nobleman of Venice, using the symbols of the Pope and the French crown in his heraldry. He briefly employed Leonardo da Vinci as a military architect. For 10 months over 1502-3, Leonardo toured the Papal States, surveying towns and local geography; he suggested improvements to their defences and waterways. Another courtier of Cesare was Niccolò Macchiavelli, who would write his treatise on leadership The Prince, which was informed by his first-hand observations of Cesare.

Cesare would have his sister’s husband Alfonso murdered. This led to an arranged marriage between the widowed Lucrezia and Alfonso d’Este, heir to the Duchy of Ferrara. Hibbert describes the arduous journey through the winter of the bride to Ferrara and the spectacles (including, jousts, balls, parades and theatrical performances) arranged for her welcome. The d’Este sisters Isabella and Elisabetta, fumed bitterly and in private, jealous of their beautiful and accomplished sister-in-law.

In the summer of 1503, Alexander VI became sick. The Roman summer the miasma and mosquitos brought illness of all types. He suffered a fever and bleeding and died on 18 August. Crucially, when this occurred, Cesare was in the Vatican and also sick with the same malady. Gravely ill, Cesare was in no position to influence the conclave that would elect the next pope. Thus the election of Pius III was out of the hands of the Borgias. He was a compromise candidate, already very ill. He died on the tenth day of his reign. Julius II succeeded Pius III. He was an opponent of the Borgias. Mentally, Cesare was a broken man. He was indecisive and made poor decisions. His captains deserted him as it became clear he was a spent force. He was imprisoned in Spain, at the orders of the Spanish crown. In 1507, shortly following his escape, he died fighting for the king of Navarre. In 1519 Lucrezia, Duchess of Ferrara died, weakened by a multiple pregnancies.

Hibbert concludes, “Alexander VI had been extraordinarily ambitious for his children; yet, in the end, few traces of the Borgia name appear in the annals that trace the history of the illustrious families of Rome.”

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Hibbert quotes eyewitness sources and marshals the rich evidence in an easily comprehensible and energetic narrative. Sources are included, as is an index. The new edition of The House of Borgia is a sumptuous production. The patterned red satin (with designs of the Borgia bull and the Papal armorial bearings), top edge gilt and protective slipcase are handsome and very appropriate for the subject. The maps allow us follow the narrative more clearly and the art chosen as colour-plate illustrations comprise portraits of significant figures, places and events. So much great art was produced under the patronage of the Borgias (and contemporaneous to their reign) that 24 illustrations are a mere fraction of the available images. However, so vivid is Hibbert’s writing, and so ingrained in our memories are Renaissance paintings, that we can follow the story of the Borgias very satisfactorily with no more than 24 illustrations.

 

Christopher Hibbert, The House of Borgia, Folio Society, 2017, cloth hardback in slipcase, top-edge gilt, 280pp, 24 col. illus., 2 maps, £44.95. The Folio Society edition of Christopher Hibbert’s The House of Borgia is available exclusively from www.FolioSociety.com

 

(c) 2020 Alexander Adams

To see my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art

[i] P. 12

[ii] P. 32

[iii] P. 76

[iv] P. 241

A Confederacy of Dunces

CFD_S_11“When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” Jonathan Swift, Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting

In John Kennedy Toole’s novel A Confederacy of Dunces (1980) (reissued in an illustrated edition by the Folio Society) Ignatius J. Reilly is that genius. He dresses oddly, refuses to convert his university education into productive employment and lives with his mother in New Orleans. He is ashamed of his mother, who likes to drink and socialise, and she is beginning to tire of him. He speaks like so to a policeman: “This city is famous for its gamblers, prostitutes, exhibitionists, anti-Christs, alcoholics, sodomites, drug addicts, fetishists, onanists, pornographers, frauds, jades, litterbugs, and lesbians, all of whom are only too well protected by graft.”

Ignatius mission is to act as truth teller for the 1960s. He attends the cinema to observe the lewd and tawdry content of films purely to glean insights into the descent of culture. “With the breakdown of the Medieval system, the gods of Chaos, Lunacy, and Bad Taste gained ascendancy,” he declares in his treatise on the decline of the Western world, written on pads which he illustrates.

Finally at the age of 30, forced by circumstance, Ignatius takes a clerical position at decrepit Levy Pants. In its squalid premises he seeks apply his acumen to the ignoble task of pursing trade. He engages in business correspondence with the arrogant vitriol of which society so necessarily curtails expression. “Mr I. Abelman, Mongoloid, Esq.: We have received via post your absurd comments about our trousers, the comments revealing, as they did, your total lack of contact with reality.”

Announcing that “I cannot tolerate social injustice,” Ignatius visits the factory floor to observe the inequities of capitalism in action. He is astute enough to realise that the black workers’ responses to jazz on the PA is mere Palovian conditioning, which the subjects mistake for pleasure. “In a sense I have always felt something of a kinship with the colored race because of its position is the same as mine: we both exist outside the inner realm of American society. Of course, my exile is voluntary. However, it is apparent that many of the Negroes wish to become active members of the American middle class. I can not imagine why. […] However, if they wish to join the bourgeoisie, it is really none of my business.”

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[Image: Illustration ©2019 Jonny Hannah from The Folio Society edition of A Confederacy of Dunces]

Fired from Levy Pants for organising a (failed) riot, Ignatius becomes the world’s (or at least New Orleans’s) least satisfactory hot-dog vendor: arguing with customers, fighting bystanders and consuming the hot dogs himself. This brings him into contact with the seedy underbelly of New Orleans and into the orbit of yet more odd characters, which drive the story to a satisfying denouement.

Toole gives us some comedic set pieces without too much contrivance. These include an incipient lecture “Sex in Politics: Erotic Liberty as a Weapon Against Reactionaries”, the luncheon party and Ignatius’s follies. There is a plot and plenty of action and thus A Confederacy of Dunces does not suffer from the usual weaknesses of comic novels: passages of self-regarding clever prose and contrived authorial observations. The reader feels he is in the world of these characters and is invested in what happens to them. He is never irritated by the author incongruously taking him aside to deliver witty barbs about modern life.

Ignatius is a comic protagonist: he is a liar, glutton, sluggard, prig and sneak. Yet Toole keeps us engaged and we never lose sympathy despite our disapproval for his main character, who is somewhere between hero and anti-hero. Ignatius suffers consequences of his character flaws and his actions drive the plot. Ignatius is unfettered by social convention and we get the delight of seeing a person overturning politeness and saying the unsayable. He seems to lack the filter that most people have that prevents them from immediately voicing our views out loud. On the other hand, by reading his journal we see that he is driven by folie de grandeur and a series of peculiar convictions which distort his understanding. Thus Ignatius is both liberated by self-belief (having few behavioural inhibitions) and constricted in by delusion (having little wisdom). It is that friction between liberation and ignorance that makes Ignatius compelling as a character. That is why we can find him loveable – or at least appealing – while being aware of his foolishness and inadequacy.

Myrna Minkoff is Ignatius’s long-distance on-and-off-again Beatnik girlfriend. She wears black clothes, a beret and glasses purely to demonstrate her seriousness. From New York she writes letters diagnosing Ignatius’s dysfunction and urging sexual liberation. (To be fair, in this case Ignatius’s sexual repression does seem a contributing factor to his abnormal behaviour.) She reports on her activism. “At the moment my every waking hour is spent in helping some dedicated friends raise money for a bold and shattering movie that they are planning to film about interracial marriage. Although it will be a low-budget number, the script itself is chock full of disturbing truths and has the most fascinating tonalities and ironies.” She makes it her place to befriend the black actress. “She is such a real, vital person that I have made her my closest friend. I discuss her racial problems with her constantly, drawing her out even when she doesn’t feel like discussing them.” She carries a valise full of pamphlets on left-wing campaigns. Toole indirectly shows that her defiance of her parents is bound up with her libido. Although outwardly agitating for racial equality through political conviction, it is Myrna’s sex drive that directs her towards race-mixing and reveals a fetishisation of interracial relationships.

She is a great comic creation, although admittedly one drawn from Toole’s real-life experience. In her relentless moralism, lack of inhibition and absence of self-awareness, Myrna stands as a cutting portrait of a proto-SJW. Ignatius, likewise, is a precursor of a disaffected university-graduate anarchist who rails against the middle class whilst living with his mother. He suspects he is slandered by the forces of white supremacists. He is an armchair revolutionary who muses on how to restructure society and abolish the tyranny of commerce. He could be persuaded to engage in terrorism. “I am not above tossing a Molotov cocktail or two,” he confesses. His class solidarity allows him boundless compassion towards the masses but no patience in their execrable company.

In their forceful views, profanity, volcanic tempers and quick resorts to violence, Ignatius and Myrna are the embodiment of the minority-adulating, self-appointed class warriors.

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[Image: Illustration ©2019 Jonny Hannah from The Folio Society edition of A Confederacy of Dunces]

The secondary characters are distinctive. Hapless Patrolman Mancuso, operates undercover as a vice operative; factory owner Mr Levy is a distracted and uninterested owner of a failing concern; his wife is discontent, mildly guilty about their income, she nags her husband to better himself; Darlene, the barmaid, wants to develop a striptease act with her pet cockatoo removing her garments; her boss Lana is a penny-pinching martinet overseeing a dive bar; Dorian Greene is a party-hopping trust-fund homosexual with a line of catty banter. Burma Jones is a stand-out character; he is a cool streetwise black man living on the boundary of the licit. Toole captures his patois accurately and without condescension. When he is employed to clean a bar for below minimum wage, Jones sourly rehearses a conversation he could have with the policeman who has harassed him to get a job. “Well, I gonna tell that po-lice I gainfully employ, keep him off my back, tell him I met up with a humanitaria payin me twenty dollar a week. He say “That fine, boy. I’m glad to see you straighten out.” And I say, “Hey!” And he say, “Now maybe you becomin a member of the community.” And I say, “Yeah, I got me a nigger job and nigger pay. Now I really a member of the community. Now I a real nigger. No vagran. Just nigger.””

Jones’s backchat with his employer shows him moving between leveraging historical injustice and following self-interest in a seamless manner, yet he is sympathetic and believable. He is not a rake, criminal or grifter but a smart-yet-lazy man who follows the line of least resistance, able to provide a dry self-deprecating commentary on his situation. We enjoy his company, appreciate his intelligent insight and wish him well. He is the closest to a neutral reader-perspective character in the book. It would be wrong to call A Confederacy of Dunces a collection of grotesques. Toole’s characters do not seem calculated to make social critiques or embody types but seem to have an internal life and faithfulness to life (albeit heightened) that renders them truer than outright caricatures.

This volume consists of the corrected text of the novel, an introduction covering the writing and publication history of the book and a preface by Bill Bailey, comedian and musician, explaining why he – like many comedians – finds Toole’s story strikes a chord. Production values of the Folio Society edition of A Confederacy of Dunces are characteristically high. Carefully designed, well printed and using high-quality materials, the book is a pleasure to read. Jonny Hannah has provided new illustrations for this edition. It comprises 7 illustrations plus a frontispiece, all full colour. He has also designed endpapers, cover and the design of the pictorial slipcase, as well as incidental figures in black and white, making the book a complete experience. The images are painted and drawn in a collage style, vigorous and striking. This riotous, informal and vibrant approach perfectly matches the tone and contents of the novel. Reading this new Folio Society is like being immersed in one of the best comic novels of the Twentieth Century.

John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces, Folio Society, 2019, cloth hardback in pictorial slipcase, 332pp, 8 col. illus., £39.95. The Folio Society edition of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, with preface by Bill Bailey and illustrated by Jonny Hannah, is available exclusively from www.FolioSociety.com

 

(c) 2020 Alexander Adams

To see my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art

Ayn Rand: Atlas Shrugged

“Ayn Rand (1905-82) is now more famous as a philosopher and ardent proponent of laissez-faire capitalism than as a writer of fiction. As such she is known for advocating rationalism and pure self-interest as bases for ethical and political action and as a bulwark against collectivist ideologies and government influence. According to this approach, which she called objectivism, the most virtuous man is one who makes money; the most depraved is one without purpose. Wealth, therefore, is a sign of success and a motivator for ambitious capable men. (Rand’s attitude to feminism was ambivalent – personally ambitious, she was opposed to the intrusion of feminine virtues into traditional masculine public spaces of politics, commerce and science.) Although objectivism has furnished American libertarianism with (disputed) intellectual seriousness, a worldview that considers all taxation as theft has had little appeal in Europe. Objectivism has largely been seen by philosophers as a political position rather than a coherent system of ethics and logic.

“Rand’s belief in the great-man theory of history (positing that social and technological progress is made through the achievements of exceptional individuals) translated in artistic terms into a strand of heroic individualism. That is nowhere better exemplified than in her giant novel, Atlas Shrugged, published in 1957. An elegant new edition, published by the Folio Society, captures the grand scale and epic themes in its illustrations and pictorial hardcover designs….”

Read the full review online here:

https://www.spiked-online.com/2018/11/22/atlas-shrugged-ayn-rand-novel-of-ideas/