The Boys Who Wouldn’t Grow Up (2)

Continued from the previous post.

larkinLarkin’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. Continue reading

The Boys Who Wouldn’t Grow Up (1)

John Betjeman, "Collected Poems"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. Continue reading

Precision of Statement

lordjimHe spoke slowly; he remembered swiftly and with extreme vividness; he could have reproduced like an echo the moaning of the engineer for the better information of these men who wanted facts. After his first feeling of revolt he had come round to the view that only a meticulous precision of statement would bring out the true horror behind the appalling face of things. The facts those men were so eager to know had been visible, tangible, open to the senses, occupying their place in space and time, requiring for their existence a fourteen-hundred-ton steamer and twenty-seven minutes by the watch; they made a whole that had features, shades of expression, a complicated aspect that could be remembered by the eye, and something else besides, something invisible, a directing spirit of perdition that dwelt within, like a malevolent soul in a detestable body. He was anxious to make this clear. This had not been a common affair, everything in it had been of the utmost importance, and fortunately he remembered everything. He wanted to go on talking for truth’s sake, perhaps for his own sake also; and while his utterance was deliberate, his mind positively flew round and round the serried circle of facts that had surged up all about him to cut him off from the rest of his kind: it was like a creature that, finding itself imprisoned within an enclosure of high stakes, dashes round and round, distracted in the night, trying to find a weak spot, a crevice, a place to scale, some opening through which it may squeeze itself and escape. This awful activity of mind made him hesitate at times in his speech…

Joseph Conrad
Lord Jim

Halfway Between That and the Other Thing

Max Porter recently received an unusual honour when his debut novel, Grief Is the Thing With Feathers, was shortlisted for both the Guardian First Book Award and the Goldsmiths Prize. The Guardian, operating in partnership with Waterstones, tends to favour middlebrow literary fiction, eloquent but structurally conventional accounts of individuals in emotional extremis. Goldsmiths, in contrast, seeks to reward fiction that “breaks the mould or opens up new possibilities for the novel form” and “embodies the spirit of invention that characterises the genre at its best.” How, then, did Porter pull off the double nomination?

Despite the clear differences between the two prizes, it’s not a great surprise to see Grief Is the Thing With Feathers shortlisted for both of them. The novel explores the emotional distress of an academic whose wife has recently died, leaving him to raise their two sons by himself, and this set-up alone makes the novel pure gold for The Guardian. The twist in the tale is that the man and his boys are visited one night by a crow or a crow-like creature named Crow, a physical manifestation of their shared grief who moves into their house to guide them through the grieving process. Crow is a wild and wonderful creation: as mischievous as Loki, as brash as a barroom brawler, as self-pitying as a whipped puppy, and, on top of it all, a manifestation not only of grief but also of intertexuality. The grieving husband is a Ted Hughes scholar whose personal trauma turns his thoughts towards the intricacies of Hughes’ Crow, the poet’s exploration of his own grief after the suicide of Sylvia Plath, and so the character of Crow gives form to the animating spirit of Hughes’ book as much as he gives form to the scholar’s emotions. There is yet more intertextuality throughout — the title alludes to one of Emily Dickinson’s best-known poems — and, too, there’s a structure in which the narration jumps around between the increasingly terse man, the two boys who only ever speak of themselves as “we,” and the stream-of-consciousness ramblings of their otherworldly, inhuman companion. All of these elements, in combination, push the novel not too far beyond a scant one hundred pages with lots of white space throughout, which in turn often transmutes it into something approaching prose poetry and thus something distinctly palatable to the Goldsmiths judges. Continue reading

Rachel Cusk and the Revisionary Imperative

“Call it autofiction, metafiction, or the post-Sebaldian novel,” as Stephanie Bishop writes, or, if you prefer, follow Charles Finch and call it the “granular introver[sion]” of those who write “barely novels, all in an ambiguous first-person indistinguishable from the author’s own voice.” Whatever name it goes by now or at some stage in future, there’s no denying that the last few years have seen the growth of a body of literature in which — among other things — truth and fiction begin blurring together, long stretches of essayistic contemplation marginalise conventional modes of character development, and scenes and events are sequenced in an associative way rather than being bound to the rules of narrative causality. Continue reading

To Find a Way In

I suppose it’s one of the perils of writing about the natural world that, on publication, your work ends up as ‘nature writing’ regardless of how reductive the genre label may be. Such has been the fate of Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain. Written in the early 1940s, locked in a drawer for twenty years, published at last in 1961, and promptly forgotten for several decades, Shepherd’s work has recently been retrieved from obscurity by Robert Macfarlane and hailed as an unjustly overlooked masterpiece of the genre he cherishes most. Yet Shepherd aims for something more, more literary, than most of what typifies the genre and even more than the best of the titles to which the genre lays claim: Roger Deakin’s Wildwood, for instance, or Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard. Far less invested in describing her perceptions of a natural environment and reporting the sensory and spiritual experiences they afford her, Shepherd’s overriding concern is the search for words of adequate force to reverse the sensory flow. To halt and peel away the sensory stimulation she receives from the natural world, and then to apprehend the meaning she imposes on the world in the process of stimulation, and so to wonder whether, by an effort of the will, it might be possible for her to sense the world in ways not circumscribed by human subjectivity: this is the task she sets herself. Continue reading

In Edinburgh

Edinburgh is a place of absolute contrast and paradox. A sense of quality in men and things goes hand in hand with chaotic squalor. The rational squares and terraces of the New Town confront the daunting skyline of the Old. Slums still abut the houses of the rich. Wild mountain scenery impinges on the heart of the city. On fine summer days nowhere is lighter and more airy; for most of the year there are icy blasts or a clammy sea fog, the haar of the east coast of Scotland. Edinburgh is contemptuous of the present. In no other city in the British Isles do you feel to the same extent the oppressive weight of the past. Mary Queen of Scots and John Knox are a presence. The dead seem more alive than the living. There is a claustrophobic, coffin-like atmosphere that makes Glasgow, in comparison, seem a paradise of life and laughter. Moderate health is virtually unknown. Either people enjoy robust appetites, or they are ailing and require protection. Heady passions simmer below the surface. In winter the city slumbers all week in blue-faced rectitude, only to explode on Saturday evenings in an orgy of drink and violence and sex. In some quarters the pious must pick their way to church along pavements spattered with vomit and broken bottles.

Bruce Chatwin
‘The Road to the Isles’