Distractions

These words are a distraction. I don’t necessarily mean for you — although there probably is something else that deserves your attention right now, isn’t there? — but certainly for me they arrive here at the expense of something less occasional, something more worthy of my time.

For a little bit over eighteen months, working in fits and starts, I’ve slowly been piecing together a new novel. It’s called Winter Fugue. At the start of the summer, it existed as a loose-limbed, shaggy beast of about 80,000 words. It was recognisably one thing, fully formed in the sense that all its core components held together, but its surface textures were coarse and unfinished and its proportions were all askew. I’ve been going over it again since August, trawling through it line by line to tighten it up and smooth it out, and now, with the first 25,000 words in better shape, I feel like I’ve passed at least a minor waymark. Time to pause for a look back over the route that has brought me to this place. Time to rest and take stock, and survey the terrain ahead before setting off again.

The truth is that the results are still nowhere close to readable. Even those 25,000 words aren’t quite ready for the eyes of a reader who isn’t me, and there’s a long way to go before all the remaining words have been made to yield to the contours of the second draft. But day by day something is unmistakably coming into being, and it’s now at the stage where I can pick up any one piece of it and feel, beneath the skin of its prose, the coordinated movements of muscles and sinews and bones; I can see, from a single fragment, the integrity of the enterprise as a whole.

It’s hard to reach the stage of writing I’ve come to now. Especially hard, for me at least, is having to grapple always with the persistent doubt that I’ll ever be able to reach this stage at all, the doubt that I’m writing something valuable enough to even warrant being brought to where it is today. Hardest of all, though, is not simply allowing myself to carry on with the task at hand in spite of my doubt, but instead finding a way to seize my doubt and turn it around and use it as a reason, as fuel, to continue to write. I suppose I’m saying that I’ve only reached this point because not for a moment did I give myself permission to believe I could actually do it. I don’t think you can write a novel worth reading if you’re not prepared to invest your life in it, and I can’t see that it would be worth investing a life in it unless it takes a form that has never been given life before. To write a novel involves a lot of trouble. Why would you voluntarily endure it, except to give expression to a thing conceived as so fully itself that trouble is an essential condition of its existence?

Odd, then, to break away from the book and bash out a few new words for this blog. Or at least I can see how it might seem that way. There’s clearly a chink in the logic here. You can’t write about your focus on producing a new novel without breaking the very focus you say you want to sustain. But really, the focus is never sustained. It’s interrupted, time and again, by nagging questions about the meaning and overall shape of the work, by thoughts on the problems encountered in the process of writing, by anxieties towards the standards that must be met if the end result is to be everything it should be.

Although these questions, these thoughts, these anxieties are in some ways woven into the words of the novel, mostly they remain hidden from view. I’ve written this post as the first in a series through which I hope to throw some light on them. I don’t mean to explore the nuts and bolts of things like my preferred writing routine or the layout of my workspace. I mean to consider the trinity of subjects that have been enumerated at the top of this website since I started writing Infinite Patience almost seven years ago. I mean to consider the what, the how, and the why of literature — as always — albeit less as a reader searching out the best of it than as someone shepherding more of it uncertainly into the world.

An Exemplary Intensity

You might be surprised to hear Daniel Green’s Beyond the Blurb described as an intense little book. Surprised because it’s a book of meta-criticism, of literary criticism about literary criticism, which isn’t usually the sort of thing that lends itself to intensity, and because most of its contents has been plucked directly from Green’s litblog, The Reading Experience, which has been running since 2004. But its intensity comes precisely from its brevity, its scant hundred pages plus change, and from how this brevity has emerged from a body of work of awesome magnitude. Green has resisted the temptation to simply throw together a “best of” anthology from the vast amount of book reviews, occasional musings, and discursive interventions that have appeared on his blog and elsewhere online. Instead, he has selected seventeen previously published essays, each of which directly addresses the subject of literary criticism, and supplemented them with some new writing that allows this book – in his own phrase – “to distil” the various things he has said about his own particular critical preoccupations. To distil, yes, as one would distil whiskey or brandy or some other powerful spirit. To filter out any impurities in order to produce something singular, concentrated, and uniquely potent. A quick Google search will turn up an impressive number of the essays in which Green has offered his assessments of various works of literature, usually the sort of complex and challenging works labelled as “experimental.” As he writes in his introduction to Beyond the Blurb, however, he has looked back at more than a decade’s worth of writing on The Reading Experience and recognised that what has most pleased him has been the freedom

to critically examine not just works of literature past and present but also the critics and critical methods whose influence helps to determine how ‘literature’ is perceived and how literary works are made meaningful for diverse and at times disparate readers. All of the essays [in Beyond the Blurb] are animated by this impulse to explicate the assumptions behind a practice referred to by a common name – ‘criticism’ – but carried out in numerous and often quite conflicting ways.

Among Green’s greatest strengths as a critic is the care with which he navigates the various conflicts of the critical enterprise. In particular, I admire the unflagging generosity with which he hears out the arguments and analyses of other critics, especially those with whom he has significant disagreements. He is never dismissive of critics who hold views that depart from his own, or who operate on a different set of critical principles, and he is never derisive or flippant or cursory in pointing out the flaws of their work. He is never anything less than fully attentive to the nuances of their analysis and respectful, if not accepting, of their intellectual positions. In Beyond the Blurb, a long chapter on two books by James Wood provides ample evidence of Green’s generosity, as does a rigorous deconstruction of the work of Morris Dickstein which is all the more impressive for having been written “regretfully.” Green confesses that “Dickstein’s 1979 book, Gates of Eden, was probably more responsible for setting me on a path of study of contemporary fiction than any other critical book I read or any course I took,” and he adds that “much of Dickstein’s analysis of the fiction of the 1960s still holds up, as I discovered when I recently re-read the book.” On the whole, he finds it “undeniable” that Dickstein deserves credit as “an acute analyst of [American literature] within the framework of a consistently applied historical criticism.” All that, however, that doesn’t stop him from picking apart Dickstein’s 2009 book Dancing in the Dark, although his dismantling of it is as respectful as it is methodical, taking care to honour the appeal that the book might hold for some readers while also questioning the validity of the grounds on which one might find it valuable.

Whether Green sets out to address the work of Dickstein or Wood, or Christopher Hitchens or Hershel Parker, he never performs the easy trick of allowing his targets enough rope to hang themselves; he never jumps out at the end of a long quotation to yank open the trap in the floor of the scaffold as soon as someone has taken things a step too far. He routinely gives a variety of critical views a full and faithful airing, but then he backtracks in order to attend more closely to the principles that underpin them and to demonstrate how those principles – those first things, those fundamentals – have skewed or distorted or misinformed a critic’s investigations from the outset. Or, more specifically, he demonstrates how certain principles often have the effect of unnecessarily and arbitrarily limiting the scope and the depths of a critic’s investigations. It’s probably better to say that Green’s great object isn’t literary criticism so much as literature itself, the world of words, and that he therefore doesn’t take issue with other critics simply for reasons of engaging in critical discourses. He seems, instead, to see these critics as having imposed interpretive restrictions on a field of artistic endeavour – a force – whose aesthetic potential he feels is almost unbounded, and whose extraordinary liberties might be more widely recognised if only more critics would broaden rather than seeking to narrow their readers’ understanding of what literature is and what it can be.

Well, okay, so what is literature and what exactly can it be? The introduction to Beyond the Blurb and the first of its three sections, in which Green elucidates his own critical principles, are as clear and stark an explication of the nature and potential of literature as I have ever read. Some of these sections date back many years, perhaps a decade or thereabouts, and I recognised, with pleasure, parts of them that first came to me when I was still taking baby steps towards proficiency in literary criticism. I remember my initial encounter with them; I remember, vividly, the way they struck me not as bloodless rehearsals of pedantic arguments with which a fledgling scholar ought to familiarise himself, but as startling articulations of my inchoate instincts as a reader and a lover of literature. I remember having the sense that another person was reciting to me, in miraculously comprehensible language, my own gut feelings about how literature might be best approached. It’s no exaggeration to say that these parts of Green’s writings became, for me, essential findings in my formation as a serious and attentive reader, much more so than almost all the academic articles and monographs I devoured, and I read them again in Beyond the Blurb more assured than ever of their veracity and vitality. Especially true, and precisely worded, are Green’s reminders for readers of prose fiction to always devote intense concentration to the particularities of its language, over and above all other elements of any given work. It’s certainly the case that most novels contain conventional things like a narrative, characters, a setting, grand themes, and so on. But in spite of all that, Green insists, “fiction as a genre of literature is at its core the creation of illusions of such things… through skilful manipulation of language,” and, as a result,

a critic needs ultimately to be able to focus on the writer’s invocation of language, on the text as an artificial arrangement of words. Attempting to explicate a work of fiction by leaping first of all to plot or character or any other imposed device rather than considering the way such devices are conditioned by and embedded in language ignores the very medium through which literature exists, as if a work of fiction was really just like a movie aside from those pesky words. … Ultimately language is everything in a work of literature, and a critic needs to account for the way a writer marshals the resources of language to create all of the effects in that work.

To be hasty in giving Green’s position some coordinates on the existing landscape of literary criticism, remarks like these basically make him a formalist. One among far too few, I think. Green’s dogged attachment to the sensuality of specifically literary aesthetics – to the effects on the reader of the aesthetic capabilities and resources that are exclusive to literature and are not shared by alternative forms of art – is, for me, another of his greatest strengths, and maybe even his single greatest. For that reason, the introduction to Beyond the Blurb is a goldmine of formalist precepts, clearly and aptly put. “A literary work, whether in verse of prose, is worth taking seriously for its own sake,” Green begins. “The meaning of a literary work,” he adds, “consists of the experience of reading it, not in abstracted ‘themes’ that signify what the work is ‘about.’” He pleads for an “approach to criticism” that “takes literature seriously by granting it a fundamental integrity as a form of art, doesn’t attempt to overshadow the literary work by subsuming it into another agenda… [and] assume[s] that criticism acquires authority through being rigorously attentive and articulating persuasive standards of analysis.” He spells out the half-dozen most important pieces of his critical credo and elaborates on the assumptions and implications of each one, and this credo, in its totality, amounts to a necessary and impassioned advocacy for a view of literature as, first and foremost, an artistic stimulus to human experience rather than a static container for representations of the world.

Having articulated a view of this sort, it’s no surprise that Green goes on to find much to say about the New Critics and their legacy in the form of “close reading,” and he even devotes the third and final section of Beyond the Blurb to praising fellow aesthetes like Susan Sontag, Harold Bloom, Richard Poirier, and William H. Gass. He singles out Poirier’s A World Elsewhere for particular appreciation, even reverence – it is, says Green, “one of the most important academic studies in American literature,” “offer[ing] a radical analysis of American literature and literary history” – and so his essay on Poirier emerges as the most sympathetic and insightful of all those republished in Beyond the Blurb. That said, I couldn’t help but be disappointed to see that none of Green’s extensive and equally immersive remarks on John Dewey’s Art as Experience have made the cut for republication. Their inclusion may have drowned out his responses to the “critical failures” of Dickstein, Wood, and others, bloating the book’s third section and throwing the whole structure of the volume off-balance, but in their sentiment they would have been in the company of kinfolk.

What direction, then, might Green take from here on out? If there’s a blind spot in Beyond the Blurb, or a gap in need of filling, it is arguably the choice of subject in a work of literature. Subject, content, the “message,” the thing that a work is “about” – this is, of course, Green’s bête noire, anathema to the essays in Beyond the Blurb, a distraction from the real stuff of literary art. But while I wouldn’t disagree that critical analyses and discussions of literature are too often dominated or overshadowed by the subject of a work as a site of interest in itself, a writer’s choice of subject is surely just as much a focal point for an aesthete as long as the emphasis falls on the word choice. More specifically, I think, critics like Green have an aesthetic obligation to consider the extent to which and the ways in which a choice of subject coheres, resonates, with the whole complex of other aesthetic choices that characterise a work of literature.

What becomes clear in reading Green’s essays is that an aesthetic appreciation of a work of literature involves, at bottom, two rare and complex things related to authorial choice. The first is an awareness of the effects a work achieves by virtue of the way it is stylised and structured, which is to say by virtue of the stylistic and structural choices a writer has made in the process of creating it. The second is the heightening of a reader’s awareness of those effects, and therefore the intensification of his or her appreciation of the work as a whole, through the development of a broad understanding of the aesthetic capabilities and resources of literature – which is to say an understanding of all the possible choices the writer of the work could have made, but didn’t, as well as all the potential alternative effects the work might have achieved, but doesn’t.

In other words, for Green as for myself, the sum total of all the choices a writer has made in a work of literature, when viewed alongside all the other choices the writer has determined not to make, is the key to a thoroughgoing appreciation of the aesthetics of the work. But a writer can choose a subject that serves the work’s stylistic and structural program, that speaks to its terms and becomes an integral part of the overall aesthetic schema, or else the writer can choose a subject that is more or less appended to that program, if not entirely arbitrarily then at least as a discrete piece of the whole. Whichever way it may go in any particular work of literature, then, this choice is fundamentally aesthetic in nature, with consequences that can strengthen or weaken the aesthetic foundations of the entire result.

An example? If Herman Melville, for instance, had written Moby-Dick using the same vast array of aesthetic resources he actually deploys in that novel but applied them instead to the hunt for something other than a whale, the result wouldn’t be anything like Moby-Dick. His novel, as it stands, is stylistically and structurally oriented around concepts of magnitude and the individual effort to exert control over that which possesses magnitude. These concepts feed into the arcane and technical diction of his narrator, as well as his sophisticated and deliberately convoluted syntax. They also feed into his structuring of parts of the novel as itemisations of the innumerable qualities of whales, and the human uses associated with each one, as well as itemisations of variations on those qualities and further itemisations of the uses associated with each variation. Concepts of magnitude are written into the architecture of the aesthetics of Moby-Dick, playing out at all levels of the novel upwards from each individual word, and very possibly the only subject capable of embodying those same concepts – and thereby reinforcing the aesthetic architecture – is “the whale” as both a species of animal and a specific incarnation of that species. Anything less, anything smaller, anything of comparably unimpressive magnitude, wouldn’t work nearly as well as the whale because it would be a subject lacking exactly what Melville’s aesthetics embody.

I don’t think Green would disagree with this. In his analysis of David Winters’ Infinite Fictions, he approvingly quotes Winters’ observation that the stories in Gary Lutz’s Divorcer deal with the subject of divorce while also adopting aesthetic strategies that correspond with the subject. “[I]t’s as if divorce has seeped into the structure of these ‘stories,’” Winters writes, “buried deep in their syntax, motivating the phrasing that estranges the opening of any errant sentence from its end” so that “words are put to work on pulling something apart.” In his response to Richard Poirier, too, Green writes that as a graduate student he wrote his dissertation on “the self-reflexivity of metafiction,” the ways in which metafiction “direct[s] the reader’s attention to the artifice of language” and “ask[s] the reader not to regard language as the transparent medium for the invocation of a created ‘world’ at all but as fiction’s primary source of interest.” Since an appreciation of literary self-reflexivity involves an awareness of the extent to which a work is about itself and its own devices, a detailed examination of metafiction must involve looking at what a work is “about” as much as looking at “how it is about it.” This is, then, a variation on the critical consideration of the choice of subject in literature, and I wish there was more of it to be found in Beyond the Blurb. It’s not missing from the book, but it deserves closer inspection – particularly since it affords Green an opportunity to chip away at the binary opposition between “subject” and “form,” and to tease out the threads by which “subject” is not so much bound to “form” itself as it is bound to the other constituent elements of “form” that receive the critic’s scrutiny.

Yet if this downplaying of choice of subject is, as I said, a blind spot in Beyond the Blurb, then for that reason it’s also a proof of the intensity that is the book’s signature virtue. What is a blind spot, after all, but the space that opens on the margins of vision when one devotes attention to some other object of concentration? Beyond the Blurb is an intense little book. It’s unique for its kind in the sense that it uses a series of discrete examples of literary criticism in order to articulate a singular vision of the value of the practice. It’s a focal point for critical energies expended over many years, fusing intermittent sparks of writing into a brief but powerful surge. I’ll concede that it was never going to persuade me of its worth because I didn’t need persuasion. I’ve long been onboard with most of Green’s positions on the issues that matter to him. Nevertheless, I anticipated something much more diffuse than what appears in Beyond the Blurb – I anticipated a harvest of blog posts bound between two covers – so it’s a thrill to see that the result is a sharp, serious, and sustained appraisal of the appreciation and evaluation of literature in today’s world.

The Seeds of Mills’ Field

Poor Magnus Mills, the marginalised maestro of contemporary British literature. Although his début, The Restraint of Beasts, landed on the Booker Prize longlist almost twenty years ago, his ten subsequent titles haven’t won him much of a mainstream profile. In a sense, that’s no surprise. Mills makes little effort to appeal to a popular readership. His novels, especially, are abstract and opaque, recursive and pedantic, short on story and long on incidents of no apparent significance, and they loudly and proudly disavow any sense of purpose or relevance beyond their own pages. Still, it’s sad that his work has attracted only a niche following. His books are bitterly funny, belonging to that breed of deadpan absurdism and not-quite-fabulism pioneered by Donald Barthelme, and their narratives are supremely structured around elaborate schemes of concealments and revelations. If you’re one of the many who haven’t yet jumped aboard the bandwagon, Mills’ latest novel, The Field of the Cloth of Gold, might entice you to make the leap. It contains a good dose of everything that makes Mills worth reading, and in fact it not only embraces the tendencies that colour his backlist but also brings them to a sort of apotheosis. Longtime fans may the book a little irritating, perhaps a compendium of retreads of some of Mills’ greatest hits, but for newcomers it will open up the perfect port of entry to his entire body of work and to the array of bizarre scenarios he has spent his career creating.

The novel follows the petty squabbles of a handful of settlers who arrive piecemeal on a remote field in an unnamed country, in an unidentifiable era, in order to seed the land with a scattering of tents and camps. “The Great Field,” the narrator informs us, “lay in the bend of a broad, meandering river. Irregular in shape, it was bounded in the east, south and west by water, and in the north it dwindled gradually into wilderness.” He describes the field as “grassland, pure and simple,” with “nothing to distinguish it from the countless neighbouring fields.” Nevertheless, the narrator is keen to emphasise that in the eyes of “a select few,” himself included, “it was the chosen field: the place where momentous events would unfold and come to fruition.”

When the narrator arrives on the field, it is occupied only by an irritable man named Hen, the original settler. Following in Hen’s footsteps, the narrator erects a tent, more a large decorative pavilion than a swag, and, soon thereafter, additional settlers arrive in waves and set about erecting tents of their own. All of them are lone men, and they manage to live together in a laidback, ramshackle harmony. “We were a handful of tents scattered far and wide across the immensity of the field,” the narrator says. “All around us was spaciousness, peace and tranquility.” But then a couple of new arrivals destabilise the situation, breaking the homogeneity of the settlers and upsetting the balance of power between them. First to appear is the settlement’s only woman, the brash and provocative Isabella, who stays on in spite of repeatedly voicing her disappointment with her new surroundings. The settlement doesn’t live up to the rumours of its existence that have spread across the land and that encouraged her to seek it out: “I envisaged a vast sea of tents billowing in the breeze,” she says, “flags flying, pennants fluttering and so forth.” Then there are the standoffish newcomers who arrive as a troupe and institute an “orderly regime” with “functional tents,” apparently determined to formalise and systematise the settlers’ previously slapdash and carefree way of life.

Who are all these settlers? Where have they come from? Why do they pitch tents on this field? What “momentous events” do they hope will unfold? How do they survive so far from civilisation? How do they subsist without exploiting the land? What might lie beyond the field they have chosen? These and similar questions arise, almost inevitably, as a result of the increasingly illogical events of Mills’ novel, but The Field of the Cloth of Gold never answers them and, in a sense, it doesn’t even really pose them. They’re conjured up by the absurdity of the situation Mills presents, but nothing in the book seems designed to tempt readers into considering them. On the contrary, The Field of the Cloth of Gold aspires to be a closed system. The characters have no lives, no history, no backstory, no identity outside of what can be gleaned from their involvement in the narrative action. There is nothing beyond the field because the perspective never shifts beyond the occupants of the field. The novel never admits the existence of anyone, or the occurrence of anything, outside of the scenes it depicts. The field and the people who populate it, shorn of distinguishing particularities, become motes in a bubble of abstraction severed from anything we might recognise as a plausible world. The Field of the Cloth of Gold is, in short, concerned almost exclusively with the project of populating the Great Field, which is to say that it is concerned with its own narrative premise — that there is such a field, nothing more and nothing less — and it toys with this concern not as other novels do, not by taking it as the starting point for a narrative whose development involves introducing further elements, but by elaborating only on the elements already embedded in the premise.

It is in this respect that Field is very much of a piece with Mills’ broader body of work. Taken as a whole, that body of work is marked by a couple of signature concerns and a distinctive stylistic manoeuvre which appears in book after book after book.

Mills’ foremost concerns are the process of perfecting extensive and intricate systems intended to achieve specific objectives, and the obsessive mindset of the type of person who often assumes responsibility for that process. Early in The Restraint of Beasts, the narrator, a labourer employed in the business of erecting high-tensile fencing in northern England, bristles in the presence of his boss, Donald, who is fixated upon ways of increasing the productivity, quality, and efficiency of his company. “Donald’s pursuit of perfection seemed to be taking things too far,” the narrator remarks, and his words could easily stand as a mantra for the lamentations of almost all of Mills’ protagonists. Typically, these protagonists are victims of petty egomaniacs, of tinpot tyrants consumed by a passion for either fine-tuning a serpentine bureaucratic system or else bringing into reality, with the utmost precision, a system that at first exists only theoretically. These egomaniacs invariably denigrate the complexities of human interactions, demanding an end to the mundane daily affairs of real people and failing to account for the foibles of their hapless minions. In effect, they jettison all consideration of anything that is not directly related to their efforts to ensure that the system entrusted to them exists in its most pristine possible form.

Mills’ back catalogue is replete with accounts of men — only men — who stoically endure the pangs of such systems while labouring under the egomaniacs in charge of them. In The Scheme for Full Employment, the system is intended to occupy unemployed nobodies by assigning them an endless series of spurious tasks that merely ape the appearance of productive labour and therefore make a mockery of those who earnestly administer the system. In Explorers of the New Century, two competing systems attempt to land two expeditions of rugged men in the heart of the wasteland known as the Agreed Furthest Point from Civilisation, despite the fact that the leaders of each system are pursuing the same meretricious objective. Pick up any novel by Mills and you’ll find that there’s always a system in place, always an egomaniac to oversee its implementation, and almost always a protagonist from middle management who has to reconcile the impossible demands of his superior with the complaints, refusals, and misdemeanours of the underlings he’s responsible for. Crucially, though, the egomaniac’s attention is always directed towards a part of the system that is singularly inconsequential or inane, or else towards a part whose significance is kept beyond the ken of the reader. This is what makes the egomaniac’s fervent devotion to the system so unintelligible, so ludicrous, and it’s what makes the protagonist’s devotion to honouring the egomaniac’s instructions so absurd.

Beyond all this, Mills’ broader concern is the ways in which such systems dehumanise and destroy the people who run them because they are designed to be, above all else, self-reinforcing. In other words, for Mills, the rationale behind the existence of such a system is simply to maintain its own existence. Fuck its effects on the human beings who make it run. Fuck its nominal objectives and the way they will supposedly improve real lives. Systems exist for themselves, and their existence is safeguarded by people employed to preserve their existence at the expense of delivering the outcomes that their beneficiaries have been promised. The obtuse administrators of the phenomenally complex bus scheduling system in The Maintenance of Headway incarnate this phenomenon better than anyone else in the Mills oeuvre. Why do buses exist? To shuttle passengers from one point to another point along a predetermined route. How are they made to perform this task? In accordance with a timetable indicating the frequency with which they’ll arrive at and depart from each of those points. What happens when traffic interferes with the flow of the system, diminishing “headway” so that there is a loss of adequate distance between any two buses servicing the same route? An administrator pulls one bus off the route and diverts it to another route or takes it out of commission altogether. What about the passengers on that bus? What about the passengers who need to catch that bus? What about fidelity to the sacred timetable? What about the passengers who will now have to anxiously wait for a bus that doesn’t arrive until much, much later than the timetable indicates it should show up? Fuck ’em, fuck ’em, fuck ’em. Fuck them one and all. The system is God.

For the administrators of the hypothetical systems that Mills constructs in his novels, the cohesion of the system in a theoretical sense is pretty much all that matters. These men are devoted to the system as an ideal concept, as a system that functions flawlessly insofar as it is uncorrupted by people who might need to make use of it. But of course a system without users is a system that has no reason to exist at all, which means that its administrators have no real reason to exist either. Typically, then, Mills focuses not only on people who are devoted to the perfection of a system at extraordinary cost to the humanity of themselves and others, but on people whose obsessive perfectionism, and whose compliance with the dictates of perfectionists, undermines the logic that gives the system its very being. The same double-bind shows up again in The Field of the Cloth of Gold. The purpose of systematising the settlement of the Great Field is so that the settlement of the field can be systematised. Why the field should be settled at all, let alone settled in a systematised way, remains an open question throughout the entire novel.

Stylistically, though, none of the absurd circumstances orchestrated by Mills are varnished in prose that stresses their comic elements, and Mills’ straight-faced approach to his elaborate ridiculousness only makes them more fatuous. “When I entered the field kitchen,” says the narrator of The Field of the Cloth of Gold after he requisitions some implements that are vital to the expansion of the settlement, “I discovered further evidence of decline: the great cast-iron cooking pots were still ranged along the counter, but now they all stood cold and unused. Yadegarian was working nearby, cutting a loaf of bread into very thin slices. … Apparently the cooks had received instructions that all bread was to be toasted so it would last longer. Yadegarian loaded the grill and asked me to keep an eye on it while he sought out my dish and spoon.” Are you impressed by the beauty of the prose? Have you been swept away by the urgency of the drama? I doubt it. But the novel goes on like this, on and on, circumventing the question of why on earth anyone would want to spend their lives systematically settling the Great Field, and focusing instead on the tedium of bread rationing, in prose so simple and direct and matter-of-fact that, tonally, sentences unfold on the implicit assumption that readers couldn’t possibly be interested in anything more than exactly what each sentence has to say.

This sort of prose is not unique to Mills’ most recent novel, nor is the tonal gloss it affords his characters and the narratives in which he involves them. Mills’ characters are routinely thrown into extreme situations — situations every bit as impersonal, immobilising, and inescapable as those of Josef K — and yet Mills’ prose elides any sort of adequate and correspondingly extreme emotional response. His sentences are plain, workmanlike, often monosyllabic and repetitive. They are whatever you might call the opposite of eloquent, the opposite of lyrical, the opposite of the overused descriptor “finely wrought.” The effect of these sentences, across all of Mills’ novels, is an emotional detachment from the palpable conditions that embroil the characters at the coalface of impossible systems, and thus a further transfer of emotional energy into the system as a purely theoretical construct. In Three to See the King, for instance, the narrator is obsessed with his plan to live alone in a remote desert in a house made entirely of tin. Fair enough, and suitably ludicrous. But his schoolboyish pride in living in a tin house takes the form of an asinine repetition of the brute fact that he lives in such a house, and the cumulative effect of this repetition is to establish the statement of the fact itself as the thing he values most. It conveys no sense whatsoever of the tactile experience of having his body occupy that space for years on end. It anaesthetises the reader’s negative capability, transforming the narrative from something potentially immersive into a bizarrely dissociative spectacle to be observed from afar. It also pantomimes verisimilitude, simultaneously nominating elements of an environment that ought to establish a picture of the narrator’s reality and nullifying their capacity for vividness, their capacity to create an impression of realism, so that what is ultimately created is an empty mimicry of the moves that other novels conventionally make in order to create that impression.

Much the same can be said of the effects of Mills’ description of the trek away from civilisation in Explorers of the New Century, or of his report on the dispute between the “early swervers” and the “flat eighters” in The Scheme for Full Employment. It can be said, too, of his transcriptions of banter between the timetable administrators and the bus drivers in The Maintenance of Headway, and of his depictions of the myriad consequences of spilled paint in All Quiet on the Orient Express. It can especially be said of the narrator’s account of digging an irrigation trench across the Great Field in The Field of the Cloth of Gold. Gruelling work, at least in theory. Brambles have to be cleared. Boots are quickly caked in mud. Exhaustion is endured, or is at least said to have been endured. But where’s the sweat soaking into heavy clothes and the burn of the midday sun on someone’s brow? Where’s the feeling of grass and rock underfoot or the jolt through the handle of the spade when the iron strikes into the soil? None of these elements are conjured up because you’re not supposed to believe in the existence of that trench. You’re only supposed to become aware that you’re being asked to believe in it, and you’re being asked politely, as it were, by someone who can’t implore you to believe in it because he himself lacks conviction — and because he overruns its environs with characters who’d rather draw up blueprints for castles in the clouds than keep their feet planted firmly on the ground.

But why write like this? What might be Mills’ long game? What could possibly be his objective? I can’t pretend to have any clear answers, but there’s one thing I’m sure it’s not. There’s a temptation to think of Mills as a modern-day fabulist, a purveyor of parables or allegories, and you need only glance at the blurbs on his books to see that a good number of readers and critics have given into it. Maybe that’s defensible. You could easily lump him in with Steven Milhauser or Wayne Macauley, both of whom fashion fictions that are equally disengaged from the real world and therefore equally susceptible to being read as texts that respond to real world phenomena by oblique, indirect means. But this strikes me as a way of simply bypassing precisely what it is that makes Mills’ work distinctive. Sure, fine, I agree that he enjoys satirising neoliberal economics. We’ve known that much since he débuted with a tale of emotionally and psychologically stunted men who set out to erect fences for “the restraint of beasts” and end up restraining themselves in a cramped system of exchange between capital and labour. You could go ahead and put together a monograph on the subject, peppered with plentiful insights from the pages of Das Kapital. But if Mills writes his novels largely for the purpose of satirising or otherwise critiquing the neoliberal mindset, what is the point of his decision to write novels at all? If what really matters is the commentary that might be taken away from the experience of having read Mills’ books, why bother going through the experience of reading them in the first place when you could just as easily turn to a précis of the commentary?

What makes Magnus Mills worth reading is the mounting effect of the choices he arrives at incrementally, word by word and line by line, throughout his body of work. Importantly, more often than not, these choices serve to extend the disjuncture between the outlandishness of his scenarios and the plainspokenness of his prose. This is to say that they function so as to avoid reconciling those two things — either by avoiding a style that carries the emotional charge of the scenario, or by avoiding a scenario as humble and domesticated as the prose — and this is to say, in turn, that Mills’ novels unfold in ways that continuously, painstakingly avoid resolution, postponing it indefinitely with every page. To neatly resolve its mystery by throwing it straight into the box of fabulism is, I think, to violate it, to deny its most distinctive quality. Of course you might have to say that if this is true, if Mills’ novels flat-out don’t engage with the real world in any meaningful terms, then Mills’ entire body of work amounts to simply a prolonged exercise in gratuity, a slow-motion act of creation contingent upon nothing more profound than the author’s whims and wishes. Personally, I’d venture that this is exactly the case, and I’d say it’s especially true in light of Mills’ recent movement towards wholesale abstraction in The Field of the Cloth of Gold and its beguiling but cheerful predecessor, A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In. It can be hard to accept that books which literary conventions would have us read as fables aren’t actually fables at all, but I genuinely can’t see that Mills’ novels are up to anything more than exactly what they appear to be up to — except insofar as they knowingly manufacture the appearance of being up to much more. Given that I struggle to think of another author capable of pulling off this feat so consistently and at such length over so many books, the dogged but stylistically easygoing irresolution of Mills’ novels is for me their deepest source of pleasure.

I realise now that I’ve said less about The Field of the Cloth of Gold than about Mills’ work as a whole, even if everything I’ve said is germane to the new novel in its guise as a gathering point for Mills’ creative preoccupations to date. I have to add, however, that The Field of the Cloth of Gold is not Mills’ greatest accomplishment. That honour belongs to either Explorers of the New Century or A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest, both of which are more sophisticated in their literary artistry and their exploitation of literature’s unique capabilities. Explorers extracts incredible power from the unsettling definition, redefinition, and re-redefinition of a particular word — a noun — which represents a thing in the world that readers must apprehend as a concept without a definite physical form if its meaning is to be amorphous. A Cruel Bird relies on painstaking descriptions of physical objects and processes which would be mundane when visualised but are, paradoxically, impossibly dynamic when itemised, meaning that the book relies on passages of sinuous imagery that do not lend themselves to detailed imagination. Both Explorers and A Cruel Bird are therefore novels that subject worldly referents to techniques that sidestep direct depiction, especially cinematic depiction, and for that reason they embrace the exclusive possibilities of their artform with greater results than does The Field of the Cloth of Gold.

That said, Field has a simplicity and a purity of purpose that together make it a uniquely appealing novel. If Explorers and A Cruel Bird are banquets, serving up lovingly crafted platefuls of a select dishes that showcase Mills’ most potent flavours, The Field of the Cloth of Gold is more like a tasting platter or smörgåsbord of his flairs and virtues. It offers an opportunity to sample, liberally but in less concentrated form, the results of every talent he has honed throughout his career. It can be a book of mixed blessings, or a book whose blessings become increasingly mixed in proportion to a reader’s existing familiarity with Mills, since any showcase of talents runs runs the risk of reminding onlookers that those talents have occasionally been exercised more skilfully elsewhere. At the same time, though, the novel validates the admiration of readers who have long been drawn to Mills, confirming that none of his previous accomplishments was a fluke, and it reveals a glimmer of the treasures that await newcomers for whom the book marks the first step along a trail leading away from the grassland at the bend in the river to sites of other, older riches.

Rumrill’s Rhythms

Jeremy M. Davies’ second novel, Fancy, is the sort of thing you’d be likely to get if Thomas Bernhard had submitted himself to the stylistic and structural constraints of the OuLiPo. Like most of Bernhard’s novels, it takes the form of a long, meandering monologue, essentially an unhinged rant. The ranter is an old man named Rumrill, and he is ostensibly delivering his monologue to a young man and woman who have agreed, perhaps only provisionally, to house-sit his two dozen cats. The visitors remain silent and unnamed throughout the novel, although after Rumrill suggests that they smell like pickled cucumbers he begins to openly disparage them as “Mr. and Mrs. Pickles” and even as members of the species “Homo cucumis.” As he lays out his instructions for the Pickles to take care of his pets – instructions that become so meticulously detailed, and so outlandishly elaborate, that they tumble from the physical realm into the purely metaphysical – Rumrill intertwines the day-to-day business of pet care with an account of the time that he, as a young man, agreed to house-sit the three dozen felines belonging to an elderly cat-fancier named Brocklebank. As he rambles on and on, the reality of the situation becomes progressively murkier. Did Brocklebank really own three dozen cats or just a plurality sufficient to make it seem as if he owned that many? Was there in fact a man named Brocklebank at all, or is he some sort of hypothetical construct that Rumrill creates for purposes unknown? Is there even a Mr. and Mrs. Pickles, or is Rumrill perhaps only ranting into a void? And what’s the deal with his obsessive recall of a long ago instance of serendipitous fellatio?

But Davies isn’t content to just let Rumrill’s words unspool, line after line after line. The novel is broken down into paragraphs that mostly begin with one of two sentences, alternating between them. Each paragraph beginning with “Rumrill said:” is followed by a paragraph beginning with “He added:” and then a new paragraph beginning, again, with “Rumrill said:.” Moreover, the words “Rumrill said:” are almost always followed by a string of extremely long, syntactically complex, and sometimes unintelligible sentences, each one delivered in a sententious tone and peppered with abstruse, recondite, and never less than polysyllabic terminology. Many of them also include untranslated phrases in French, German, and Latin, as well as Rumrill’s bizarre references to himself in the third person and frequently caustic remarks and jokes whose meaning and humour are for Rumrill alone to appreciate. And, too, the words “He added:” are almost always followed by a short, sarcastic outburst, or a pithy, acerbic aside, that undercuts the gravity of the outpourings that precede it. Finally, these alternating paragraphs are then broken up, on occasion, by interjections that begin with “Brocklebank writes:” and that offer insights into the troubled workings of the mind of Rumrill’s old acquaintance – although it’s never entirely clear whether these are articulated aloud and therefore distorted by Rumrill, who claims to have read Brocklebank’s body of writing.

The result is a literary experience best described as frenetic. It’s infuriating yet hilarious, it’s impenetrable yet vivid, it’s academically inert yet deliciously ribald, it’s philosophically profound yet it revolves around Rumrill’s retrospective relishing of one unforgettable blowjob. For the most part, it’s incredible, and it’s incredible because of the delicate fusion of its substance with its style and structure. The setup of the story is absurd, of course, but what really makes the novel tick is the way in which its alternating paragraphs, and therefore the alternating registers of its diction and syntax, see-saw back and forth towards and away from the absurdity of the story. Rumrill’s unfiltered disclosures take the absurdity of the setup and run with it, after which his brief self-reflexive commentaries – his retrospective annotations to his run-on revelations – bring everything back down to earth, just for a moment, before he launches himself into the stratosphere again. The musical rhythm, the ebb and flow, temper the ridiculousness of the things Rumrill reveals, and the joy of Fancy lies in simultaneously wondering how far he’ll try to push the envelope this time and anticipating the release of tension brought about by the next remark with which he’ll puncture his pretentiousness. I’ve never read anything quite as silly as the story Davies tells, but more importantly I’ve never read any story told in quite the way he tells it.

The Boys Who Wouldn’t Grow Up (3)

Continued from the previous post.

When placed in the company of Betjeman and Larkin, Heaney joins the conversation from a bit of a distance. Love is rarely a subject he sees fit for exploration. The embarrassments and frustrations of lust are not the concerns of his best-known work. More celebrated are poems like ‘Mid-Term Break’ (1966) and ‘Limbo’ (1972), both of which punctuate the quietude of life in rural Ireland with shocking irruptions of death. More compelling are the haunting ‘Follower’ (1966) and ‘District and Circle’ (2006), both of which detail Heaney’s disquieting relationship with his father. More eloquent are Heaney’s sporadic, almost impulsive disclosures of his mystical sentiments — disclosures like those made in section xxii of ‘Settings’ (1991) or in the oblique rhetorical question that appears as a non sequitur between two descriptions of a badger in ‘Badgers’ (1979): “How perilous is it to choose / not to love the life we’re shown?”

But then there are poems like ‘Act of Union’ (1975), starkly coloured by Heaney’s debt to his predecessors insofar as his attempt to wed eroticism with nationalistic commentary tends towards a glut of embarrassing metaphors. “Your back is a firm line of eastern coast,” the speaker tells his lover, “And arms and legs are thrown / Beyond your gradual hills. I caress / The heaving province where our past has grown.” When they make love, the speaker impregnates his lover and then describes himself as at war with the misbegotten child:

And I am still imperially
Male, leaving you with pain,
The rending process in the colony,
The battering ram, the boom burst from within.
His heart beneath your heart is a wardrum
Mustering force. His parasitical
And ignorant little fists already
Beat at your borders and I know they’re cocked
At me across the water. No treaty
I foresee will salve completely your tracked
And stretchmarked body, the big pain
That leaves you raw, like opened ground, again.

Yes, on one level, it’s an allegorical treatment of the relationship between Great Britain, Ireland, and Ulster. Yet the sonnet form and the diction remain very much those of a love poem, and in this poem the act of making love is cringe-inducing, agonising, for both parties — agonising for the lover in the heat of the moment and agonising for the speaker in the process of description. It is less as if the speaker is using love to speak indirectly of international affairs, and more that he is awkwardly contorting metaphors drawn from the realm of international affairs in order to avoid the embarrassment of speaking directly of a torturous love. This is a fundamentally juvenile thing to do, a juvenile way to speak of love, as Heaney indicates in ‘Twice Shy’ (1966), one of his earliest love poems. There, as the speaker and his lover set off along “the embankment walk” with “Traffic holding its breath, / Sky a tense diaphragm” — note the reference to birth control given an atmospheric figuration — he and she play coy with one another. “[T]remulously we held / As hawk and prey apart,” he says, “Preserved classic decorum, / Deployed our talk with art” — but, significantly, he later refers to this talk as “nervous” and “childish,” and he attributes their behaviour to youthful naiveté:

Our Juvenilia
Had taught us both to wait,
Not to publish feeling
And regret it all too late.

Where, then, in the Heaney oeuvre, does Heaney ever grow up? Nowhere at all. He never “publish[es]” his “feeling[s]” of love. After ‘Twice Shy,’ Heaney’s speakers continually render love as lust and then, as in ‘Act of Union,’ they attempt to address it by diversionary means but they fumble the artistry of the diversion, or else they blink in the face of sincerity and opt for a puerile schoolboy’s treatment of the subject at the very moment that calls for maturity. For instance, in ‘Wedding Day’ (1995), the speaker describes his new wife as “demented” while watching her “sing[ing] behind the tall cake,” then he takes himself to “the gents” where he sees, graffitied on the wall, “a skewered heart / And a legend of love,” before he brusquely concludes: “Let me sleep on your breast to the airport.” And how else to describe ‘Rite of Spring’ (1969) but as simply crass and crude? The speaker begins by glazing the image of a frozen water pump with the rhetoric of sexual penetration — “So winter closed its fist,” he says, “And got it stuck in the pump,” and there are few surprises about where he takes that imagery as the poem nears its end:

The plunger froze up a lump

In its throat, ice founding itself
Upon iron. The handle
Paralysed at an angle.

Then the twisting of wheat straw
into ropes, lapping them tight
Round stem and snout, then a light

That sent the pump up in a flame
It cooled, we lifted her latch,
Her entrance was wet, and she came.

While Heaney certainly indulges in bawdiness with less frequency than Betjeman and Larkin, he also does so with greater intensity. On the whole, his speakers have a similar sense of propriety to those of the speakers of the other two poets, albeit Catholic rather than Anglican in origin. From this sense of propriety, any hint of sex or sexualisation — whether in a human encounter or simply in the language applied to non-human phenomena — offers the speaker a private titillation, a sensation that resonates with but does not quell his bodily wants and urges. Heaney’s speakers, like those of Betjeman and Larkin, are grown men who find themselves simply unable to speak of sexual matters with serious or sensual intent. Whether they set out to describe a longing for someone absent or an attraction to someone nearby, the description inevitably breaks down into some sort of joke — sometimes salacious, sometimes forlorn — which suggests the innermost insecurities of the speaker by way of glossing a situation that needs no gloss at all. Theirs, altogether, is a view of romance whose ribald sheen amounts to a varnish over deep, essentially adolescent reservations about speaking forthrightly of love — and even about feeling love in the first place.

The Boys Who Wouldn’t Grow Up (2)

Continued from the previous post.

Larkin’s speakers do something similar to that of Betjeman’s speakers, minus the thrill. In one of Larkin’s most celebrated poems, ‘High Windows’ (1967), the ageing speaker imposes his own lust onto a younger man:

When I see a couple of kids
And guess he’s fucking her and she’s
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
I know this is paradise

Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives —
Bonds and gestures pushed to one side…
And everyone young going down the long slide

To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if
Anyone looked at me, forty years back,
And thought, That’ll be the life…

In another poem of equal fame, ‘Annus Mirabilis’ (1967), Larkin’s speaker makes some wry and oft-quoted remarks on the liberalisation of attitudes towards sex and sexuality: “Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three,” he says, “Between the end of the Chatterley ban / And the Beatles’ first LP.” But the key phrase in this opening quintet, far less frequently quoted, appears in the third line when the speaker makes the self-deprecating confession — in parentheses — that sexual intercourse in 1963 was, after all, “rather late for me.” “Up to then,” he adds by way of explanation, “there’d only been / A sort of bargaining, / A wrangle for the ring, / A shame that started at sixteen / And spread to everything” — and a shame that remains very much in force.

For Larkin, it seems, the heyday of his optimism came during his more vigorous years in the early- to mid-1940s, years that his speaker reflects upon fondly but without true nostalgia in ‘Wild Oats’ (1962). Thinking back over his youthful dalliances, his striving for a sensual connection despite his personal insecurities, he proceeds to reveal something of his ongoing lust for the object of his desire from those days. “About twenty years ago,” he begins, “Two girls came in where I worked — / A bosomy English rose / And her friend in specs I could talk to.” He strikes up a connection with the “friend in specs” and begins a romance that will last for seven years, during which time, he says, “I believe / I met beautiful twice. She was trying / Both times (so I thought) not to laugh” — not to laugh, that is, at him. He goes on to chronicle the demise of his relationship, with he and his lover “Parting, after about five / Rehearsals” on the grounds that he is “too selfish, withdrawn / And easily bored to love.” “Well,” he muses, “useful to get that learnt,” before he confesses, almost as an aside some twenty years after the fact, “In my wallet are still two snaps, / Of bosomy rose with fur gloves on.” That’s lasciviousness without joy, energetic lust without urgency or passion. Time and again, Larkin responds to the prospect of a sexual relationship — even just the hint of a prospect, his own or someone else’s — with a wink-wink nudge-nudge, and then a forlorn sigh. His speakers are moved to fantasy by the same sort of urges as Betjeman’s speakers, but they don’t have the stamina to entertain the fantasy, or to elaborate on it, in the way that Betjeman’s do.

The reason they don’t have the stamina is basically because they’re atheists of a particularly fatalistic pedigree. These men look upon life as, in the final analysis, a vast miasma of missteps and mistakes, missed opportunities and misused time, each instance of which is a sin worse than the one before it because the sum total of remaining life is continually dwindling. In a strange way, then, their behaviour in the world is as conservative as that of Betjeman’s speakers. The real difference between the two sets of speakers is that the melancholic passivity of Larkin’s speakers owes less to a sense of insecurity than to world-weary exhaustion and a feeling of futility. Nowhere is this more clearly expressed than in the elegiac yet embittered ‘The Life With a Hole In It’ (1974):

When I throw back my head and howl
People (women mostly) say
But you’ve always done what you want,
You always get your own way
— A perfectly vile and foul
Inversion of all that’s been.
What the old ratbags mean
Is I’ve never done what I don’t.

So the shit in the shuttered chateau
Who does his five hundred words
Then parts out the rest of the day
Between bathing and booze and birds
Is far off as ever, but so
Is that spectacled schoolteaching sod
(Six kids, and the wife in pod,
And her parents coming to stay) …

Life is an immobile, locked,
Three-handed struggle between
Your wants, the world’s for you, and (worse)
The unbeatable slow machine
That brings what you’ll get. Blocked,
They strain round a hollow stasis
Of havings-to, fear, faces.
Days sift down it constantly. Years.

The pessimism takes other forms, manifesting sometimes as near-paralysis, as in the haunting ‘Aubade’ (1977), and sometimes as gallows humour, as in ‘Born Yesterday’ (1954). Mostly, though, it comes from the speaker dwelling patiently if ruefully alongside his subjects — those who lust and those who are lusted after — and then resigning himself to the state of “Uncontradicting solitude” in which, in ‘Best Society,’ “there cautiously / Unfolds, emerges, what I am.”

Continued in the following post.

The Boys Who Wouldn’t Grow Up (1)

It’s no secret that John Betjeman, Philip Larkin, and Seamus Heaney were bound together by a sense of brotherhood. Larkin greatly admired the work of Betjeman, his predecessor, and then Heaney, arriving on the scene after the other two men were established poets, expressed equally great admiration for Larkin’s work. They even admired more or less the same elements of each other’s poetry: Betjeman, according to Larkin, was remarkable for “the quality in his poetry loosely called nostalgia,” “that never-sleeping alertness to note the patina of time on things past which is the hall-mark of the mature writer,” while Larkin, according to Heaney, was remarkable for his “visions of ‘the old Platonic England,’ the light in them honeyed by attachment to a dream world that will not be denied because it is at the foundation of the poet’s sensibility.” Sure enough, the poems of all three men are tinged with a vague sort of pastoral glow, a sly affection for the peace and calm and orderliness of village life in the British Isles. It manifests in a recurrent fondness for old churches and cobbled streets and other antique relics of a more innocent, pre-War, even pre-twentieth century world. But what also unites them, to my eye, is something considerably less quaint than all that. What unites them is that, when it comes to matters of sex and sexuality, each one of them is basically a man-child, a juvenile schoolboy who never grew up and now finds himself stuck in an ageing body. Betjeman is smutty and giddy about it, Larkin is a little darker, and Heaney is plainly crude, but in each case the words on the page reveal a man in a tussle with his juvenile self upon feeling a great pulse of lust.

The thing I love most about Betjeman is the way his frozen adolescence manifests as lasciviousness. You might call it simple, unashamed bawdiness, but for the fact that the poet is ashamed of it, or ashamed of his inability to act on it, which gives his expressions of lust an undercurrent of self-pity, an air of lament, a tone of proleptic regret. Consider, for example, ‘A Subaltern’s Love Song’ (1945), in which the speaker rhapsodises over his beloved Joan Hunter Dunn, one of Betjeman’s infamous tennis-playing girls with “[t]he speed of a swallow, the grace of a boy.” The speaker loves her dearly for her body, but he doesn’t love the women herself quite so much as to honour his fleshly love by requesting her hand in marriage. He notes, early on, “[t]he warm-handled racket” with which she beats him in a tennis tournament, and then, later, he notes her “strongly adorable tennis-girl’s hand!” — and it’s not difficult to guess where exactly he’d like her to put that hand, particularly as the two of them retreat to private quarters:

Around us are Rovers and Austins afar,
Above us the intimate roof of the car,
And here on my right is the girl of my choice,
With the tilt of her nose and the chime of her voice.

But there’s no handjob in this poem, nor anything else of a sexual nature. Paralysed by the prospect of first having to dance with Joan Hunter Dunn before anyone’s pants come off, the speaker, leaping ahead to a disappointing future, ends the poem by switching into the past tense and glumly looking back: “We sat in the car park till twenty to one / And now I’m engaged to Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.” A similar sort of ennui enshrouds an earlier poem about a tennis-playing girl, ‘Pot Pourri From a Surrey Garden’ (1940), in which the speaker waxes lyrical about his amply proportioned partner, Pam, and her “bountiful body.” “Pam,” he begins, “I adore you, Pam, you great big mountainous sports girl / …you zephyr and khaki shorts girl,” and then, in an oblique addendum to ‘A Subaltern’s Love Song,’ he focuses again on the brachial beauty of his beloved, and uses his image of her to figuratively give himself the handjob he was hoping for:

See the strength of her arm, as firm and hairy as Hendren’s;
 See the size of her thighs, the pout of her lips as, cross,
And full of a pent-up strength, she swipes at the rhododendrons,
    Lucky the rhododendrons,
    And flings her arrogant love-lock
 Back with a petulant toss.

And even though ‘Pot Pourri’ ends in much the same way as ‘Love Song’ — with the speaker and his sweetheart taking themselves to church to become “Licensed… for embracement” — the speaker here, younger than the speaker of ‘Love Song,’ is bold enough to sexualise even the largely undesirable state of marriage. Presumably he and Pam sign the papers, presumably they receive a blessing, and then, as the ceremonial music starts up, he rejoices while “the organ / Thunders over you all.” It certainly does, if we play along with the speaker’s double-entendre, since his “organ” “Thunders over” pretty much everything he captures in verse. And that’s no less true for ‘A Subaltern’s Love Song’ or ‘Pot Pourri From a Surrey Garden’ than it is for later poems like ‘Beside the Seaside’ (1948) or ‘Late-Flowering Lust’ (1954). In ‘Beside the Seaside,’ the speaker displaces his misbegotten lust onto Mr. Pedder, the provocatively and quite aptly named “schoolmaster and friend / Of boys and girls — particularly girls,” who sexually grooms pre-adolescent children but dwells in a haze of forever preparing to act on desires he can’t bring himself to realise. In ‘Late-Flowering Lust,’ the speaker is somewhat more open and blunt —

My head is bald, my breath is bad,
    Unshaven is my chin,
I have not now the joys I had
    When I was young in sin.

I run my fingers down your dress
    With brandy-certain aim
And you respond to my caress
    And maybe feel the same.

— but the loaded ambivalence of that “maybe” suggests that the concerns he expresses here are of a piece with the concerns that run as a motif throughout Betjeman’s work. Betjeman’s schtick, for want of a better word, basically involves taking a superficially respectable English gentleman — he with the Church of England propriety and well-mannered deference to tradition — and imprisoning that man’s sensibility in a body quite at odds with it, a body overruled by lust and a longing for sensual pleasures.  The tension between the man’s sensibility and his bodily urges only grows stronger the more he is forbidden to pursue his wants, whether he is forbidden by circumstance or by law or by age. Yet at the same time — and this is where Betjeman infuses his poems with bitter humour — the very forbiddenness of his wants inclines him to see himself as perverted, so that his need to maintain a respectable appearance grows stronger at the same time. Betjeman’s speakers are thus trapped in a double-bind, indulging in bawdy fantasies while beset with inhibitions that lead them to confine their fantasies to poetry, and this confinement is what pushes his speakers into outright lasciviousness. They savour their fantasies all the more when rendering them in poetic form, knowing they cannot enjoy in the flesh so pure a product of the imagination.

Continued in the following post.