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relationship, with he and his lover “Parting, after about five / Rehearsals” on the grounds that he is “too selfish, withdrawn / And easily bored to love.”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.

Knausgaard’s Reinvigorated Realism

Once again the publication of a new volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle has been met with a flurry of extremely well-considered responses, but none so incisive as Anthony Macris’ long essay in the Sydney Review of Books. Although it’s ostensibly a review of Some Rain Must Fall, it’s actually goes much further in order to extrapolate from commonplace remarks on Knausgaard’s style in order to articulate precisely the governing aesthetic of the entire My Struggle series:

Much has already been written about Knausgaard’s literary style: the plainness of his language, the massing of detail, the ostensible tendency to over-narration. Critics seems divided as to whether his writing is long-winded and sloppy, his talent failing his ambition, or whether it’s fit for purpose, admirably serving the drama without overly drawing attention to itself. At any rate, there’s more than enough praise to counter the negative view, with writers like Zadie Smith and Jeffrey Eugenides lining up to support his work enthusiastically. Whatever your view I would argue that, no matter what camp you fall into, it’s hard to deny that with My Struggle Knausgaard has pulled off something extraordinary, that he has to some degree, if not reinvented realism, then refreshed it for a contemporary literary readership that is perhaps growing tired of tightly scripted novels that resemble movie scripts, or maximalist fictions that rely on outlandish hyperbole. In turning his back on the trappings of standard conceptions of literariness — for example, the kind of high-blown lyricism and overweening self-romanticism that sank Harold Brodkey’s much vaunted autobiographical novel, The Runaway Soul — Knausgaard has effectively employed a cruder mimesis, one that refuses to engage with the kind of trompe l’oeil effects that can in their own way achieve verisimilitude.

Instead, his style is based in part on what I word term a naïve epistemology, one that harkens back to the Cratylic tradition of the word, a belief that there’s a natural correspondence between words and things, and that by naming things we can create worlds. Metaphor, simile and other poetic devices are virtually non-existent in the My Struggle novels. While comparisons to Proust abound in discussions of Knausgaard (a comparison he invites), his style couldn’t be more different to Proust’s filigree, hypotactical sentences whose sinuous lines, in the great tradition of modernist subjectivity, mimic the train of thought. Knausgaard, like Proust, may draw upon the great internal sweep of remembrance to generate his novel, but his conveyance of choice is made up largely of concrete images, dialogue and simple declarative sentences. Often, in paratactical mode, these sentences are strung together with commas, breaking every rule of ‘good’ grammar. It’s tempting to think this style is a new kind of rendering of consciousness, but I would argue differently. Consciousness in Knausgaard is a kind of extreme ossification of realism, a near empirical entity, gleaned principally from observation of the external world and thoughts narrated as statements of fact, which is easy enough to claim in first person, where the narration of thoughts and emotional states correlate with the authenticity of the narrating subject. Consciousness as a mediating factor, a substance that distorts reality and that must be shown to do so, isn’t evoked. Language is at the service of a what-you-see-is-what-you-get sensibility, and it’s a sensibility that isn’t afraid to dwell on lived experience at length, a Stendahlian mirror that reflects not in a series of tableaux, but that is as vast as the universe it captures, and is somehow co-extensive with it.

This is a somewhat technical way of saying that Knausgaard’s realism is not the kind of realism we are accustomed to. In fact, while working in a realist paradigm, Knausgaard, in his desire to write rapidly and in volume (the near 700 pages of Some Rain Must Fall took, he claims, a mere eight weeks to write), has challenged the limits of contemporary realism. All the standard tropes of realism are there: concrete events plotted in chronological time (there is some achrony, but within the acceptable limits of realism); a hero narrator whose consciousness is the spoke of the wheel; carefully selected conflicts that drive the story forward; internal struggles with self, external battles with people and institutions. But the edicts of contemporary realism that Knausgaard chooses to flout are those of tightness and brevity, and of relegating description and ‘undramatic’ events to the background in order to foreground the ‘real meat’ of the narrative: heightened events, turning points, moments of conflict. There is instead a merging of foreground and background in order to create more vivid textures of lived experience.

Proof positive, as if any more were needed, of the extraordinary value of the Sydney Review, and a real enrichment of the experience of reading Knausgaard.