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.

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