One ring to rule us all – does Tolkien matter?

The world was young, the mountains green,
No stain yet on the Moon was seen,
No words were laid on stream or stone,
When Durin woke and walked alone.

The Song of Durin, JRR Tolkien

In Innovation, the final installment of Peter Ackroyd’s entertaining and informative History of England, he writes:

“The post-war years had brought fables of splrltual or material collapse, from That Hideous Strength to Brave New World to Ninteen Eighty-Four. During the Fifties, the novel seemed to be settling back to its journalistic roots – quotidian in subject, unpretentious in style – but the zeitgeist is a wayward wind. Among writers of fiction, another response was offered to the bewilderments of the post-war world, which was to fly above it. In 1955, Return of the King, the last installment of R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, was published. It was the resurrection of heroic romance, tempered by its author’s memories of war. It tells of a small, unregarded race of Middle-earth, the ‘hobbits’,who ‘arise to shake the counsels of great’. The freedom of the world hinges upon the destruction of something tiny, beautiful and evil, evil, a ring forged by a fallen angel. While elves, men and dwarves fight, two hobbits are tasked with the destruction of the great destroyer. A whole world, formed of its author’s experiments in language came into being to the extent that if anyone were to point out that Middle-earth’ is only a translation of the Norse ‘Mittlegard’, the hearer would respond with a shrug. It was there, whatever its origins. For the English journalist Bernard Levin, it offered a beautiful and salutary reminder that the ‘meek will inherit the earth’; for the American critic Edward Wilson, it was “juvenile trash”, a story of good boys being rewarded. In spite of the naysayers, the popularity and influence of The Lord of the Rings grew to unprecedented heights. Tolkien himself, a scholar and devout Catholic, was later to find his work taken up as a banner by most unlikely allies, a group that came to be known as ‘hippies’”.

Whenever a survey or poll crowns JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings as the public’s favourite novel – and there have been many during the past seventy years – and lauds the author as one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century, the reaction has always been the same from critics who have been sneering at his books since their publication. The Lord of the Rings has been dismissed as trivial, juvenile even, and not worth arguing about. It has been called archaic, backward looking, nostalgist and sentimentalist, and has been gaslit for misogyny and homo-eroticism, violence and and even racism (with its ethnocentric and androgynous elves and it’s Graeco-Roman Gondorians besieged by darker races from the south and east). Yet, most critics have probably never read it.

On the side of the angels (or is it the elves?) are the millions who came of age with and fell in love with the books, and adopted a Tolkienesque taxonomy for viewing the world as a perpetual  dialectic between the forces of light and of darkness. Some have even studied the lineages and languages. The actress Liv Tyler, who plays a luminous Arden Evenstar in Peter Jackson’s award winning film trilogy is said to have learned elven, and I sometimes see people on the street with elven rune tattoos. Liv probably has one too. I recall that as we queued at the cinema to see The Fellowship of the Ring, young folk rhapsodized among themselves on the delights about to unfold before their very eyes. The Hobbiton film set on New Zealand’s North Island is one of that country’s premier tourist destinations – indeed, during the three years of the films’ successive release, a big sign at Auckland International Airport declared “Welcome to Orc Land!” The films’ casting prompted criticism in some quarters insofar as the elves, men and dwarves were played by predominantly white Anglo Celtic actors whilst New Zealand’s indigenous Māori portrayed the evil orcs and Uruk Hai. Nevertheless, hundreds of kiwis, Pakeha and Māori alike, were employed as extras, the scenery dazzled the world and the economy of Aotearoa, The Land of the Long White Cloud,  enjoyed a Middle Earth boom.

Arwen Evenstar

In an opinion piece in the Unheard e-zine, republished below, British historian and author Dominic Sandbrook asks whether Tolkien’s works are indeed trivial. “Surely not”, he retorts. “Even if you can’t stand them, only a fool would deny that The Lord of the Rings occupies an extraordinary place in the modern imagination … he wasn’t just a man of his time; he remains a guide for our own … And his themes might have deliberately been chosen to appeal to modern readers, anxious about the consequences of science, the environmental costs of industry, the dangers of war and the fate of the individual in the face of the vast forces reshaping Western societies in the early 21st century. To put it simply, then, Tolkien matters. How many writers can you say that about, these days?”

Tolkien and me

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
Walking Song, JRR Tolkien

My own life has intersected with JRR Tolkien on many serendipitous levels.

I first encountered The Lord of the Rings in my late teens when curiosity, imagination, and various substances bought me admission to his fantasy world, along with that of his fellow Inkling CS Lewis, creator of The Chronicles of NarniaI read all three books in the trilogy over a weekend in the autumn of 1968, and when I’d finished, I felt bereft and out of sorts. I reread it soon after, and again, and again – but didn’t we all in the days when Tolkien was king, and elves and ents walked among us. I set many of the songs to music – now long forgotten – and an apposite quotation was always on hand. I recall reciting the opening lines of The Song of Durin, which prefaces this piece, as I was walking home from a concert under a full moon on the eve of the landing of Apollo 11 upon the moon in July 1969. And many times as I headed eastwards on what we now call the hippie trail, I would recall Bilbo Baggin’s Walking Song.

In subsequent years as I evolved from naïf to cynical, and thence to other passions, the rereads slowed and then stopped, although I read and enjoyed The Silmarillion, and still treasure the opening chapter describing in a manner reminiscent of the St. James Bible of how the world was created by music. I began to pick holes in The Lord of the Rings’ story linewith its derivative ‘hero’s quest’, a monomyth popularised by Joseph Campbell in his celebrated book The Hero with a Thousand Faces; what I now viewed as stereotypical characters; the outdated and anachronistic perspectives of earlier generations; and what I perceived as old-school English prejudices. But, as Sandbrook points out, Tolkien was of his times, and those times were not kind to diversity and dissent.

And yet, The Lord of the Rings is ever present in my cultural and literary consciousness, and is often referred to and quoted. Here us one of my favourites:

It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.” The Return of the King

I have never lost my love for the poetry and the songs that complement the narrative  – the archaic syntax, rhyme, rhythm and balladry that I’ve incorporated into my own writing. There was a wonderful lyricism and, indeed, musicality to them that I still love. It’s as if they are just waiting for a tune to accompany them. Compare Tolkien’s Song of Ëarendil with own No Bull – the style, that is, not the subject matter:

JRR:

In panoply of ancient kings,
in chainéd rings he armoured him;
his shining shield was scored with runes
to ward all wounds and harm from him;
his bow was made of dragon-horn,
his arrows shorn of ebony;
of silver was his habergeon,
his scabbard of chalcedony;
his sword of steel was valiant,
of adamant his helmet tall,
an eagle-plume upon his crest,
upon his breast an emerald.

Me:

With massive head,
And shoulders broad,
As lean and mean as Rambeau
(That’s Sly, and not that fey French bard
This bruiser was no bimbeau!).
His hide as dark as ebony,
As tough as old mahogany,
His horns shone like chalcedony,
This massif of solidity
Was built like a Pajero.

Years passed without a revisitation, but working for a publishing company that ‘owned’ the rights to his work, I collected the latest editions and often gave them away to young people who had yet to enter the magical world of Middle Earth. For all my later cynicism, I still regarded it as a book all young people ought to read. I read the whole thing once more prior to the release of Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy. The films were excellent, although I found the hobbits increasingly irritating, wishing that they’d all jump into the fires of Mount Doom, and the ents were a disappointment, a mob of corny and badly conceived muppets (they were indeed conceived by Jim Henson, the ‘father’ of Kermit and Miss Piggy). I am looking forward to the upcoming, uber-expensive television series – but I don’t reckon I’ll reread in preparation this time around. As for Jackson’s three part Hobbit extravaganza, in my opinion, it was a travesty.

Learning more about the author, I was to discover that he’d grown up in Birmingham, my home town, first in leafy Edgbaston (the home of Cadbury and the Warwickshire County Cricket Club), where he’d attended the prestigious King Edward’s Grammar School – my own school, Moseley Grammar, was not in its league. He lived near Sarehole Mill, in present day Hall Green, around the turn of century, between the ages four and eight, and would have seen it from his house. The locale at that time was rural Worcestershire farmland and countryside and not in the Birmingham ‘burbs. He has said that he used the mill as a location in The Lord of the Rings for the Mill at Hobbiton: “It was a kind of lost paradise … There was an old mill that really did grind corn with two millers, a great big pond with swans on it, a sandpit, a wonderful dell with flowers, a few old-fashioned village houses and, further away, a stream with another mill … “

Sarehole Mill was just down the road from my school, and our sports field and cross country tracks were adjacent to it. On many a wintry, cold, wet and windy Wednesday afternoon, I’d stagger past it on a muddy track. How I hated wet Wednesdays; dry ones were for rugby, and I hated them too!

Tolkien died aged 81 on September 2nd 1973 in Bournemouth, Dorset, a town that I’ve visited infrequently. But I was actually in Bournemouth on that day to meet an old friend. Perchance his spirit swept passed me. On 2nd September 2017, the Oxford Oratory, Tolkien’s Roman Catholic parish church during his time in Oxford, offered its first Mass to advocate for his beatification, the first station on the road to canonisation, as an evangelist for nature, beauty and love.  A prayer was written for his cause:

“O Blessed Trinity, we thank You for having graced the Church with John Ronald Reuel Tolkien and for allowing the poetry of Your Creation, the mystery of the Passion of Your Son, and the symphony of the Holy Spirit, to shine through him and his sub-creative imagination. Trusting fully in Your infinite mercy and in the maternal intercession of Mary, he has given us a living image of Jesus the Wisdom of God Incarnate, and has shown us that holiness is the necessary measure of ordinary Christian life and is the way of achieving eternal communion with You. Grant us, by his intercession, and according to Your will, the graces we implore [….], hoping that he will soon be numbered among Your saints. Amen.”

Just imagine, Saint John Ronald Reuel of Middle Earth!

© Paul Hemphill 2022.  All rights reserved

Read also in In That Howling Infinite, Tolkien’s Tarkeeth – in the darkest depths of Mordor

Gandalf the White

This is Tolkien’s World

The Lord of the Rings is more than nostalgic medievalism

Dominic Sandbrook, Unheard December 10th 2021

It’s exactly 20 years since I stood in line to see a film I had dreamed about since I was a little boy. Ever since I had first turned the pages of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, I had wondered what it would be like to see it on the big screen: the hobbits, the battles, the sweeping landscapes, the blood and thunder. When I read that the director Peter Jackson was filming a trilogy of Tolkien’s masterpiece in New Zealand, I felt almost sick with anxiety. Would it be terrible? Would they sound like the All Blacks? What were they going to do about Tom Bombadil?

I need not have worried, of course. From the moment the lights dimmed in the Odeon, Leicester Square on 10 December 2001, the Lord of the Rings films were a phenomenal success. And although poor Tom B. never made it onto the screen, Jackson’s trilogy carried all before it, grossing a staggering $3 billion and winning a record-equalling 11 Oscars for the final instalment alone.

Two decades on, the films stand up remarkably well. As for the wider Tolkien industry, the bestselling books just keep on coming: The Fall of Arthur in 2013, Beren and Luthien in 2017, The Fall of Gondolin in 2018. And next autumn sees the release of Amazon’s Lord of the Rings prequel series – at a cool $1 billion over five seasons, the most expensive television project in history. Not bad for a writer who’s been dead since 1973.

To some people, all this could hardly be more infuriating. For as we all know, Tolkien is still associated in the public mind with a sweaty, furtive gang of misfits and weirdos — by which I mean those critics who, for more than half a century, have been sneering at his books and their readers.

As far back as the mid-Fifties, the American modernist Edmund Wilson published a comically wrong-headed review dismissing Tolkien’s work as “juvenile trash”, marked by — of all things! — an “impotence of imagination”. Decades later, Philip Pullman, never happier than when sneering at his Oxford forebears, called Tolkien’s efforts “trivial”, and “not worth arguing with”. And whenever some new survey crowns The Lord of the Rings as the public’s favourite novel, the reaction is always the same.

“Another black day for British culture” was Howard Jacobson’s verdict after a Waterstones poll put Tolkien’s work well clear at the top. “Ever since I arrived at Cambridge as a student in 1964,” agreed Germaine Greer, “it has been my nightmare that Tolkien would turn out to be the most influential writer of the 20th century. The bad dream has been realised.” Yet by her own admission, she had never even read him.

So are Tolkien’s works “trivial”, as Pullman claims? Surely not. Even if you can’t stand them, only a fool would deny that The Lord of the Rings occupies an extraordinary place in the modern imagination. Indeed, in his trenchant defence of Tolkien’s reputation, the literary scholar Tom Shippey suggests that much of the criticism is rooted in pure social and intellectual condescension, not unlike the rank snobbery that Virginia Woolf directed at Tolkien’s fellow Midlander Arnold Bennett. Shippey even argues that in the future, literary historians will rank The Lord of the Rings alongside post-war classics such as Nineteen Eighty-FourLord of the Flies and Slaughterhouse-Five. Who’s to say he’s wrong?

One reason highbrow people dislike The Lord of the Rings is that it is so backward-looking. But it could never have been otherwise. For good personal reasons, Tolkien was a fundamentally backward-looking person. He was born to English parents in the Orange Free State in 1892, but was taken back to the village of Sarehole, north Worcestershire, by his mother when he was three. His father was meant to join them later, but was killed by rheumatic fever before he boarded ship.

For a time, the fatherless Tolkien enjoyed a happy childhood, devouring children’s classics and exploring the local countryside. But in 1904 his mother died of diabetes, leaving the 12-year-old an orphan. Now he and his brother went to live with an aunt in Edgbaston, near what is now Birmingham’s Five Ways roundabout. In effect, he had moved from the city’s rural fringes to its industrial heart: when he looked out of the window, he saw not trees and hills, but “almost unbroken rooftops with the factory chimneys beyond”. No wonder that from the moment he put pen to paper, his fiction was dominated by a heartfelt nostalgia.

Nostalgia was in the air anyway in the 1890s and 1900s, part of a wider reaction against industrial, urban, capitalist modernity. As a boy, Tolkien was addicted to the imperial adventure stories of H. Rider Haggard, and it’s easy to see The Lord of the Rings as a belated Boy’s Own adventure. An even bigger influence, though, was that Victorian one-man industry, William Morris, inspiration for generations of wallpaper salesmen. Tolkien first read him at King Edward’s, the Birmingham boys’ school that had previously educated Morris’s friend Edward Burne-Jones. And what Tolkien and his friends adored in Morris was the same thing you see in Burne-Jones’s paintings: a fantasy of a lost medieval paradise, a world of chivalry and romance that threw the harsh realities of industrial Britain into stark relief.

It was through Morris that Tolkien first encountered the Icelandic sagas, which the Victorian textile-fancier had adapted into an epic poem in 1876. And while other boys grew out of their obsession with the legends of the North, Tolkien’s fascination only deepened. After going up to Oxford in 1911, he began writing his own version of the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala. When his college, Exeter, awarded him a prize, he spent the money on a pile of Morris books, such as the proto-fantasy novel The House of the Wolfings and his translation of the Icelandic Volsunga Saga. And for the rest of his life, Tolkien wrote in a style heavily influenced by Morris, deliberately imitating the vocabulary and rhythms of the medieval epic.

But there’s more to Tolkien than nostalgic medievalism. The Lord of the Rings is a war book, stamped with an experience of suffering that his modern-day critics can scarcely imagine. In his splendid book Tolkien and the Great War, John Garth opens with a rugby match between the Old Edwardians and the school’s first fifteen, played in December 1913. Tolkien captained the old boys’ team that day. Within five years, four of his teammates had been killed and four more badly wounded. The sense of loss haunted him for the rest of his life. “To be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years,” he wrote in the second edition of The Lord of the Rings. “By 1918, all but one of my close friends were dead.”

Tolkien arrived on the Western Front in June 1916 as a signals officer in the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers, and experienced the agony of the Somme at first hand. In just three and a half months, his battalion lost 600 men. Yet it was now, amid the horror of the trenches, that he began work on his great cycle of Middle-earth stories. As he later told his son Christopher, his first stories were written “in grimy canteens, at lectures in cold fogs, in huts full of blasphemy and smut, or by candlelight in bell-tents, even some down in dugouts under shell fire”.

But he never saw his work as pure escapism. Quite the opposite. He had begun writing, he explained, “to express [my] feeling about good, evil, fair, foul in some way: to rationalise it, and prevent it just festering”. More than ever, he believed that myth and fantasy offered the only salvation from the corruption of industrial society. And far from shaking his faith, the slaughter on the Somme only strengthened his belief that to make sense of this broken, bleeding world, he must look back to the great legends of the North.

Yet The Lord of the Rings is not just a war book. There’s yet another layer, because it’s also very clearly an anti-modern, anti-industrial book, shaped by Tolkien’s memories of Edwardian Birmingham, with its forges, factories and chimneys. As a disciple of the Victorian medievalists, he was always bound to loathe modern industry, since opposition to the machine age came as part of the package. But his antipathy to all things mechanical was all the more intense because he identified them — understandably enough — with killing.

And although Tolkien objected when reviewers drew parallels between the events of The Lord of the Rings and the course of the Second World War, he often did the same himself. Again and again he told his son Christopher that by embracing industrialised warfare, the Allies had chosen the path of evil. “We are attempting to conquer Sauron with the Ring,” he wrote in May 1944. “But the penalty is, as you will know, to breed new Saurons, and slowly turn Men and Elves into Orcs.” Even as the end of the war approached, Tolkien’s mood remained bleak. This, he wrote sadly, had been, “the first War of the Machines … leaving, alas, everyone the poorer, many bereaved or maimed and millions dead, and only one thing triumphant: the Machines”.

Dominic Sandbrookis an author, historian and UnHerd columnist. His latest book is: Who Dares Wins: Britain, 1979-1982

The year that changed literature


Australian literary critic and cultural studies writer Peter Craven has been described as both a “literary hack” and “one of the most prolific, erudite and opinionated voices in Australian literary circles”. In 2004 he was awarded the Pascall Prize for Australian Critic of the Year. whatever subject he applies his keyboard to, be it for iconic poets and authors or literary contemplations on the legacies of Easter and Christmas, he turns out admirable pieces that are eclectic, erudite and empathetic. We have republished two of his articles in In That Howling Infinite ; The Magic of Dylan Thomas, and  Go ask Alice. I think she’ll know,  celebrating Alice in Wonderland’s 150th birthday.

Recently, he celebrated the centenary of the publication of three works he considers to be very near the summit of the western canon. 1922, he writes, was  the annus mirabilis, the miracle year – 1922, – the year  that modernist literature, by common consent the greatest writing the 20th century and its aftermath would witness, caused its greatest splash. 

James Joyce’s Ulysses celebrated its centenary on February 2 this year. In Craven’s opinion, it is ‘the greatest demonstration of what can be done to the English language in the name of fiction’. It was also the year of the death of Marcel Proust, the French author of what would become in English the 12-volume Remembrance of Things Past, and when his English translator began the great English translation of A la recherche du temps perdu (literally, In Search of Lost Time), which Craven considers one of the greatest modern works of fiction in any language.

And in October 1922,  English-American poet TS Eliot published The Waste Land, ‘the modernist poem that sounds like nothing on earth and that is in some ways the easiest entry point to the weirdnesses and wonders of modernism because it is short but easy to be seduced by the beauty of its music and the kaleidoscope of its imagery’.

As a teen I’d read Joyce’s’ short A Portrait of the Artist as a young Man, attracted by its Irishness  – my parents were from the Emerald Isle – but I gave up on Finnegan’s Wake, although I could sing by heart the song that is said to have inspired Joyce to write it, as recorded by that grand old band The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. The sheer size of Ulysses rendered this literary mountain unassailable even though the controversy that swirled about increased its attractiveness to an adolescent contrarian.

But in a boarding house in Delhi at the end of my outward journey on the Hippie Trail, I casually picked up a paperback copy of Ulysses. And for the next two months, Leopold Bloom’s figurative odyssey became my own as I journeyed back to Britain.

That dog-eared, spine-creased paperback  visited Kashmir, Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey as I headed westwards through the Kyber Pass, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey. I finished it at last in a boarding house in Sultanahmet in Istanbul, just across from Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque, and I dip into it to this day. As Craven writes: ‘The rule with the miracle works of 1922 is to listen to them if your eyes reel. Just as Ulysses will continue to unfold its mysteries if you put on your best stage Irish and force yourself to read aloud’. And that, for me, is the best and only way to appreciate its magic – although being of Irish parentage, I don’t need stage Irish. Small wonder that folk around the world celebrate “Bloomsday” by marathon readings.

As a self-indulgent teenage poet in Birmingham, I’d already been sucked into TS Elliot’s dark universe. In reading Rhapsody on a Windy Night, I believed that, for me  personally, I’d cracked the code of poetry. The Hollow Men has long served me as a political morality play: ‘Between the idea and  the reality,  between the motion and the act falls the Shadow”. And, as a longtime student of the Middle East, I still read The Journey of the Magi to ground my conflicting thoughts about this ever-intriguing part of the world.

As for The Waste Land, to use the language we used back then in that dear, dead decade, it was, well, ‘mind-blowing’, ‘far-out’, and ‘too much’ – and a ‘great trip’. Today, young folk would call it “awesome”. Back then, in bedsits, guitar in hand, I put cantos of it to music – unfinished songs that have never see the light of day.

Craven encapsulates it thus: ‘The Waste Land, which can be read aloud in an hour, is the great circus show of modernism. The collage of languages, the snippets of Dante, and all the many death had undone  … this is an Alice in Wonderland world at the edge of madness: dislocated, disturbed and with an extraordinary dramatic power’.

Who am I to blow against the wind?

Marcel Proust, I could never get into to. As the song goes, ‘I tried, oh my god I tried’, but it went on like wallpaper and was like watching paint dry. Life is too short now, and there is too much to read and too few days to fill, so that land will have to remain unexplored.

Again, Craven comes to my aid. He adores Proust, but acknowledges that he can be hard going: ‘Think of Camus’s remark, “The monotony of Melville, the monotony of the Old Testament, the terrible monotony of Proust.”  I love Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and for all its length and digression, I consider it one of the best novels ever. The title of this blog is actually taken from it. I regard The King James Bible as one of the most beautiful books ever. But I’ll  defer to Albert Camus’ summation of Marcel.

For more in In That Howling Infinite on books and reading, see:  Better Read Than Dead.

How to read Ulysses in 5 easy steps (according to those who have read it):

1. Read it aloud and reread it.
2. Take your time (years, not months).
3. Start at chapter four.
4. Try to read it without trying to understand it on first go. Let go of the bits you don’t understand.
5. Skip the boring parts and go straight to the racy final chapter of Molly Bloom’s sexual musings (then, if not too shocked, you can go back to the masturbation, fisting and defecating chapters).

The year that changed literature

Peter Craven, The Australian, 25th February 2021
Irish writer James Joyce. Picture: SuppliedIrish writer James Joyce

They call it the annus mirabilis, the miracle year – 1922, a century ago now, was the year that modernist literature, by common consent the greatest writing the 20th century and its aftermath would witness, caused its greatest splash.

James Joyce’s Ulysses celebrated its centenary on February 2, and it is the greatest demonstration of what can be done to the English language in the name of fiction. And 1922 was the year Marcel Proust, the author of what would become in English the 12-volume Remembrance of Things Past, died and when his English translator CK Scott Moncrieff began the great English translation of A la recherche du temps perdu (literally, In Search of Lost Time) one of the greatest modern works of fiction in any language.

On top of this, in October 1922 TS Eliot published The Waste Land, the modernist poem that sounds like nothing on earth and that is in some ways the easiest entry point to the weirdnesses and wonders of modernism because it is short but easy to be seduced by the beauty of its music and the kaleidoscope of its imagery.

But let’s stick to the three anniversaries. Ulysses was published on Candlemas, which also happened to be Joyce’s 40th birthday.

It’s called Ulysses as a kind of clandestine joke on the classicism of the world because the hero, Leopold Bloom, is an Odysseus, a Ulysses figure who wanders around Dublin brooding with his own kind of wisdom, even though he knows his wife Molly is having it off with a character called Blazes Boylan. This saddens Bloom but it doesn’t stop the “cultured all round man”, as someone calls him, of acting not only with his own kindness but courage as he distracts himself and feels the depth of his sadness. He enjoys the sight of a girl exhibiting herself for his benefit on the beach, he goes to a funeral and he confronts a benighted patriot, known as the Citizen, the one-eyed Cyclops of this quasi-comical densely encyclopedic retelling of some meta-version of Homer’s Odyssey.

No one, of course, would have cottoned on to the fact Homer had anything to do with this were it not for the title and that Joyce allowed himself to collaborate with Stuart Gilbert (later to be the translator of Albert Camus) about all the obscure parallels. At some Paris party Joyce said to the young Vladimir Nabokov that it had all been “a terrible mistake” and that it was “an advertisement for the book”.

Poet and dramatist TS Eliot (1888-1965).Poet and dramatist TS Eliot (1888-1965).

He was a great leg-puller whichever way you looked at him. What calling the book Ulysses advertised was that this was an epical endeavour Joyce was engaged on that used the fullest possible resources of language in an intrinsically if ambiguously poetic way, but it had something to do with the idea of fidelity in a woman and with the idea of a son-figure.

When Bloom confronts that one-eyed Citizen, he speaks on behalf of love: “I mean the opposite of hatred.” Bloom is a deeply civilised man in his bumbling way, but the son figure he stumbles on – Telemachus to his Odysseus – is Stephen Dedalus, whom readers may have encountered before in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Stephen is a self-portrait on Joyce’s part of his younger self, “with a great future behind him”, and Stephen is as brilliant as the day is long. Stephen is acrobatically smart, flypapered in the glories of the language of the world. He is proud and quick, and what you cop from the get go is the sheer blinding power of a mind that is Homeric in the compositional sense: this is a talent, it’s insinuated, that might rival Homer and who at first glance is likely to be Greek to anyone who tries to follow him.

“Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, sought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot.” Stephen’s voice, like the other two major ones – Bloom and Molly – talks to it without any concession of making things easy for the reader, but if you hang on all the main drift of the action, the innuendo and humour and sudden bits of something poignant, will be nakedly clear. It’s a portrait of a city, among other things, and the action is confined to one day. There’s a Nighttown chapter where everything is nightmarish as Stephen gets more and more drunk and where he cries, “Nothung” like a latter-day Siegfried from Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle.

Bloom, full of kindliness, takes him back to his home where Molly (who can be a seductive witch, is also a faithful wife in a fallen world) is in bed, and Bloom asks Stephen if he wants to stay the night.

“Was the proposal of asylum accepted?

“Promptly, inexplicably, with amicability, gratefully it was declined.”

This second last chapter of Ulysses is in question and answer form like a Catholic catechism, and perhaps in secular terms the voice it is couched in represents the spirit that personifies the feeling (love’s too big a word) between Bloom the father figure and Stephen the son. “What spectacle confronted them?” the wholly ghostly voice asks them. And the answer?’ “The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.”

Marcel Proust.French novelist Marcel Proust.

There is an extraordinary grace in the stiltedness of this parody of a Q&A but everything in Ulysses works by principle of parody because the book is deeply comical and it constantly sends up ways in which words fail while also being intent on the well-worn ways in which common garden language is the only language we have to express the things in the heart.

And this is all turned on its head by the grandeur of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy because Molly is also the muse and she can say anything in the most uninhibited way. She can say anything as she mixes everything together. She thinks about sex and then about lions and says, “I imagine he’d have something to say for himself, an old lion would.” And she says, “With him never embracing me except sometimes the wrong end of me.”

The great Irish actor Siobhan McKenna recorded the last half-hour of Ulysses with Molly’s unpunctuated drowsy and erotic ramblings, and she makes the syntax clairvoyantly clear and it remains far and away the finest introduction to Ulysses. A hundred years after its first publication the great climactic “Yes” remains breathtaking. “I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

The rule with the miracle works of 1922 is to listen to them if your eyes reel. Just as Ulysses will continue to unfold its mysteries if you put on your best stage Irish and force yourself to read aloud, so Proust with his extraordinary long sentences (all those jewel-laden subordinate clauses) can sometimes be easier to read aloud than for the eye to comprehend. Among Proust performances the Ralph Richardson reading of Swann in Love is the parallel miracle to McKenna’s Molly Bloom.

But when Proust died in 1922 having left behind a completed (though not fully revised) text of the great work he’d changed fiction forever. “For a long time I used to go to bed early” is the first sentence of it and before we know where we are we are brought up close, with the greatest intimacy, to this exquisite sook of a child who is obsessed with being kissed goodnight by his mother and who as an adult narrator sees a lost past rising up for him simply because of the taste of that madeleine and that cup of tea.

Proust is the most essayistic but also the most lyrical of novelists and you can see why William Emp­son, one of the founders of modern criticism, could say his masterwork sometimes reads like criticism of genius of a lost masterpiece because part of the clairvoyant aspect of Proust is to make the interpretative unfolding part of the narrative drive of a book that can seem to make the earth stand still. Think of Camus’s remark, “The monotony of Melville, the monotony of the Old Testament, the terrible monotony of Proust.”

But the terrible monotony of Proust can be a chimera, an illusion. When you try to find it in any individual passage it fades away. The Proustian effect is a monumental thing created out of the book’s cumulative power.

A statue of poet and author James Joyce in downtown Dublin.A statue of poet and author James Joyce in downtown Dublin.

Yes, it’s a quest for time lost. Yes, it narrates a hero’s infatuation with the Guermantes aristocrats – no one has ever captured the besotted fascination with mindless glamour so effectively. Yes, it is also one of the greatest works to depict the power and enfeeblement of helpless, blind obsessive passion. Hence George Steiner saying, “No one could read Proust without feeling a frailty at the heart of their sexual being.”

At the same time, to read A la recherche du temps perdu is to feel you’ve experienced something like the totality of what the novel as an art form can express and represent, the novelistic power of a created world that is also blindingly and absolutely compellingly a recapitulated world.

And what a world. There’s the gay girl who spits on her dead father’s photo. There’s the fact he’s actually a great composer. There’s that extraordinary couple of lovers of the artistic, Madame and Monsieur Verdurin, and she is the greatest portrait of a vulgarian in history. There’s Gilberte with whom the hero – occasionally called Marcel – loves to wrestle. There’s his grandmother, a woman of absolute sincerity and culture and depth of love. There’s Albertine, who’s no better than she should be but can look like the abiding memory of everything. And then there’s the tremendous figure of the Baron de Charlus, gay and growling, an immense comic creation, black and brilliant and unforgettable.

Proust has a sustained treatment of the Dreyfus case that rocked Paris just as in Time Regained the characters are shadowed by the Great War. There is no greater memory of life than Proust. It falls on the reader like a revelation of what? The power of art, the power of life.

The Waste Land, which can be read aloud in an hour, is the great circus show of modernism. The collage of languages, the snippets of Dante, and all the many death had undone, the music of the Rhinemaidens, the cockney speech and the terrible dialogue of the woman who is mentally distressed and the man answering with what might be dispassionate hatred from inside his head. All that summoning up of a world where the gestures of lust are unreproved and undesired and then the kind of word salad where the French poem about the prince in the ruined tower blends with the injunctions of classical Indian precept and right at the end the repeated “shantih” is a token of peace or music or nothing.

But this is an Alice in Wonderland world at the edge of madness: dislocated, disturbed and with an extraordinary dramatic power.

If you don’t know the masterpieces of the annus mirabilis or need to revisit them, the centenary of 1922 is a good excuse

Laugh Out Loud! What are “the funniest books ever”?

The listing and rating of comedy books – any books, really, and indeed, “best of” lists of anything, be it music or movies, holiday choices or cheeses, is a highly selective and subjective exercise that says more about the compilers of the lists than about the quality of the books themselves. A demonstration of their erudition, perhaps, and their eclectic tastes? Or is it pomposity and pretentiousness, or worse, that put-down so beloved nowadays of shock-jocks, populists and self-styled”outsiders”: elitism.

Huffington Post published a list entitled “46 Hilarious Books Guaranteed To Make You Laugh Out Loud”. Now, how presumptuous is that? “Hilarious”. “Guaranteed”. “Make you laugh”. Says who? Esquire listed “the funniest books ever“, and The Telegraph presented “the fifteen best comedy books of all time“. And recently, there was he worthy Guardian wrangling famous authors into the paddock: “I fell out of bed laughing‘. “Funniest”. “Best”. Oh well!

I must confess that whilst I have heard of most of the books in these lists, I have read only a handful. And with the exception of Catch 22, The Hitchhikers Guide to The Galaxy, I would not rank these in a list of my own – which I will get to shortly.

Humour, comedy, call it what you will, is a funny business. Sorry. Bad pun.

There is a wide gap between a wry grin and a guffaw. One man’s cringe is another man’s belly laugh. And whilst whoopee cushions are anachronisms, remembered only by over-sixties, some folk actually DO like fart jokes. And age is no barrier – last week in Big W, I marveled (I think “winced with incredulity” is more apt) at a “fart blaster”, a promotional spin-off from the Despicable Me film franchise.

Humour works in many ways and on many levels. Sometimes, it doesn’t work at all. I recall my schooldays back in England, and being obliged to write essays explaining and analyzing the humour in Henry IV Part One (a title that doesn’t suggest a lot of laughs, although this is the play that gave  world that lovable old rogue Sir John Falstaff and his motley crew) , The Pickwick Papers, and the plays of George Bernard Shaw (I can still sing all the songs from My Fair Lady). Like numberless students before me, I tried unsuccessfully to explain to “Sir” that I just didn’t find them “funny”. As did most of my classmates. So we settled for memorizing the different “types” of “humour” (as if being “funny” was not really a part of it). These were usually words of Greek and Latin origin (these old folk invented it, you see – the classical “commedia” that is ), and classifying the Bard, Boz and GBS according to this scholarly taxonomy. Which, incidentally, is summarized beautifully in Monty Python’s classic Piranha Brothers sketch as an a witness describes the negotiating techniques of the demented and dangerous Douglas Dinsdale:

“Well, I was terrified. Everyone was terrified of Doug. I’ve seen grown men pull their own heads off rather than see Doug. Even Dinsdale was frightened of Doug…He used… sarcasm. He knew all the tricks, dramatic irony, metaphor, pathos, puns, parody, litotes and… satire. He was vicious”.

Some may find the concept and realization of this ice-thinly disguised and ridiculous send-up of the notorious and seriously brutal Kray Brothers to be in dubious taste (it would never get up today, what with political correctness and defamation laws). But that was the way the Python crew worked. You really had to “get” it. The same could be said of its predecessors, The Goon Show, Beyond the Fringe, That Was The Week That Was, and Pete and Dud’s Not Only But Also. And it’s successors, The Young Ones, Bottom, Black Adder, and Ab Fab. What is hilarious to some is puerile to others. What is deep and meaningful to serious aficionados is lightweight, trite and pointless to high and low-brow grumps alike – who “just don’t get it”.

And “getting it” too is selective and subjective. Some people “get” Woody Allen, and see all his stuff (and believe me, it can be patchy, and as he gets older, you do have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find the prince of the Annie Hall and Manhattan days), and others just don’t see the point (quite apart from expressing discomfort with his private life). So you can see how subjective it all is.

Humour in radio, film and television is in the eye, ear and imagination of the beholder. It is audiovisual as well as textual, the one often illustrating and enhancing the other. Expressing humour on the printed page is an altogether different and difficult endeavour.

Which brings me back to books, and to those lists.

I could never get into the lightweight upper-class comedies of manners so beloved of many English people, the Jeeveses and the Woosters and the Three Men in a Boat, or the precocious, neurotic memories of New York Jewish writers and intellectuals (although I do “get” Woody, as   I  mentioned earlier, I couldn’t abide Portnoy’s Complaint), nor the chatty, revelatory memoirs and faux-memoirs of celebrities of stage, screen and standup  (I did however enjoy David Niven’s Bring on the Empty Horses, back in the day, and Clive James’ Unreliable Memoirs). Yet these and their ilk would appear to dominate the “best comedy books” lists. And I wondered why classics like Cervante’s Don Quixote and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, surreal and eccentric as they are, didn’t make the team – nor old George Bernard or the now rehabilitated Oscar Wilde. But then again, these worthies were so weighed down with social and political comment that the humour often got side-tracked. I mean, who wants to hear about madness and despair, class prejudice, the privileged few and the downtrodden masses? Who needs to read about what happens when “the white knight is talking backwards and the Red Queen’s off her head”. Sorry about that, but I couldn’t resist bringing Grace Slick into this.. “Remember! What te dormouse said”:

Back to those lists. Compiled several years apart, they contain quite a few of the same titles. Which might suggest one of several things: that intelligent, well-read, journalists and reviewers  are into much the same kind of books as their peers; that their literary tastes are not at all like mine – I am very much a “I like what I like” person, are many other readers; and that people who put together such lists google others’ lists in order to draw up their own – so perhaps there are some lazy compilers out there who have not even read the books that they are listing.

Anyhow, in no particular order, here are my top five:

1. Jospeh Heller, Catch 22
The adventures of an American airman who maintains his sanity in an insane WW2 by endeavouring by fair means or foul to get discharged from the forces on grounds of insanity, and gives the world an iconic catchphrase for paradoxical double-binds and vicious circles. It was mean to be “Catch 18”, but Heller was gazzumped by Leon Uris’ Warsaw Ghetto soap opera Mila 18.

2. Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49
Oedipa Maas returns home from a Tupperware party to discover that she has been appointed executrix of a former lover’s estate, and embarks on a strangely strange quest in which she encounters an exotic bunch of people with equally exotic names, like fascist Mike Fallopian, philatelist Ghengis Cohen, and a shrink named Doctor Hilarius.

3. Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
An alternative history set in the Yishuv of Sitka, Alaska where the Jews of Palestine were settled after being expelled by the victorious Arabs in 1948, as alcoholic detective Meyer Landsmen struggles with his personal demons, broken relationships, Hassidic gangsters, Jewish-Inuit mixed-bloods, and timeless  Jewish customs and traditions whilst investigating a gruesome mob murder.

4. David Barret’s Penguin Books translation of Aristophanes’ The Frogs and Other Plays Written by an Old Greek in the Fourth Century BC, these camp and corny, political satires, replete with cross-dressing, bawdy repartee, catchy choruses, and yes, fart jokes, are sharp and acerbic, and readily applicable to the politics of today. “Not my circus”, his over-the-top characters seem to say, “not my monkeys”.

5. Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment.
Impoverished, arrogant, misanthropic, know-it-all Russian student plots the perfect murder. And, doesn’t get away with it.  Just kidding.

Seriously though, here is number five:

5. George McDonald Fraser, The General Danced at Dawn
GMF Is better know for his Flashman books, in which the unreconstructed villain of Thomas Hughes’ Victorian yarn “Tom Brown’s Schooldays” roves and rogers his way through the late nineteenth century, managing to escape by the skin of his teeth from one military disaster after another. But Fraser’s semi-autographical memoir as a young officer in Egypt during WW2, recounted in a series of short stories, is an absolute delight. The title story of The General Danced At Dawn contains one of my unforgettable “almost pissed myself laughing” moments. It goes like this:

The inspecting General MacCrimmon is unimpressed with the Battalion until he watches a display of the regiment’s officers performing Highland dancing. He joins in, becoming more and more excited, and recruiting more and more soldiers and passers-by to join in, by dawn the next morning, a mob of Highlanders, Fusiliers who share their base, military policemen, Egyptian locals, an Italian cafe proprietor, a some Senussi Arabs from the west in burnouses, and three German prisoners of war make history by dancing ‘a one hundred and twenty-eightsome reel’. The General’s inspection report “congratulated the battalion, and highly commended the pipe-sergeant on the standard of the officers’ dancing.” The pipey’s opinion was that as a dancer, the General was “no’ bad … for a Campbell.

I “got it”. And still smile whenever recall that strange ceilidh.

Didn’t I say that lists can be selective and subjective.

Visit:
https://m.facebook.com/HowlingInfinite/
https://m.facebook.com/hf1983/