Criticism


As a young man I rejoiced in the poems, which circulated among us, of Christopher Logue. We had his poster poem on our walls; we carried about his ‘Red Bird’ jazz-and-poetry disc (these were both firsts). As a schoolboy, I had invited him to the Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe, but he would not come because we could not pay him. My poet-banker friend Jack Osbourn, who like Logue had read his own poems on 11th June 1965 at the Albert Hall, on the occasion of the International Poetry Incarnation, admired the chutzpah of Logue’s arrogance. My lovely CG went off and slept with him (Logue), as a sort of trophy. I met him once or twice amid the shouting din of Faber’s summer parties in the early 90s, when little in the way of communication was possible. What I did not know was that, amid the gathering success of Logue’s Homeric ‘versions’, Christopher Reid was editing a new Selected Poems of Logue.[1] These I have just now finished.

Christopher Logue (photo by Eric Hands)

There are one or two stand-alone poems which I would salvage for my Universal Anthology of Modern Poetry in English:

Later I discovered he had only one eye, and,

needless to say,

posh vets won’t have him in their surgeries.

What’s more, Madame won’t like him.

ּ

But what can you do? — he has moved in

and she hasn’t.[2]

and, after Villon, ‘Caption for a Photograph of Four Organised Criminals’:

Gas, gunshot, Alcatraz, the electric chair —

Only the best machinery could do

Justice to the sensational despair

You legal felt for us illegal few.[3]

And it has been a real pleasure to be reunited with some old friends ─ which I found I knew by heart:

O come all ye faithful

Here is our cause:

All dreams are one dream,

Christopher Logue by Colin Spencer, 1959

All wars civil wars.

ּ

Lovers have never found

Agony strange;

We who hate change survive

Only through change.

ּ

Those who are sure of love

Do not complain.

For sure of love is sure

Love comes again.[4]

Popular appeal is part of his popular appeal. But the real revelation of this revisiting is of the desolate salt wastes that surround the Cyclades of the Homeric versions. There is really nothing there. In spite of the technical prowess, all is fragmented, miscellaneous. Even some individual successes cannot redeem the impression that this man has nothing of his own to say. The tiger is caged by his own bleak vision. One cannot help but notice that he is no Walcott, Cavafy or Ken Smith:

Ask what song

Mother sang us all to sleep with. Speak again

as Lear spoke and the dead in Homer, called again

beyond the ditch’s lip to be an upright bag of blood.[5]

Many of Logue’s shorter, earlier poems embody a spirit of dissident radicalism eager to be mantled by his readers’ youthful empathy ─ but in favour of what? It is impossible to say. Now in his 80s, Logue seems to have been picked up in the 60s by the tide of hipsterism for which he had been waiting without knowing it. His shining lyrical virtues were suddenly recognised by a large, shaggy audience that asked no questions. For some reason ─ loyalty, perhaps ─ he still wishes to be associated with Alex Trocchi.

Logue seems to be very much more talented ─ in a way Ben Johnson would recognise ─ than similar vernacular poets of our time ─ Cohen, Ginsberg ─ but to have been unable to break out of a confining definition of the lyric poet. There is no doubt that his variations upon Homeric themes excite by their huge vernacular energy:

Flames ate the elms,

Sad-willow, clover, tamarisk and galingale [6] — the lot.

Rushes and the green, green lotus beds crinkled — wet dust,

The eels and the pike began to broil.

Last of all Scamander’s back writhed like a burning poultice,

Then, reared up, into a face on fire:

‘How can I fight you, Cripple? Flames in my throat,

My waters griddled by hot lacquer! Quit — and I’ll quit.[7]

Alex Trocchi, the “world’s second most famous junkie”

But a comparison with more orthodox ‘translations’ shows how much is left out. Logue really just freewheels, filling in the details in inspired ways, while omitting everything in Homer that might tell us what is going on. He carves the lyric out of the narrative.

Among the non-Homeric shorter poems, through which the hardy reader must navigate knot after irresolvable knot, he several times attempts an explicit narrative ─ ‘The Girls’, ‘Urbanal’ ─ but loses himself in recondite vocabulary,[8] syntactic ingenuities,

Is Thaïs still? Is Nell? And can

Stern Héloïse aurene, [9]

Whose so-by-love-enchanted man

Sooner would risk castration than

Abandon her, be seen?[10]

or:

A curse upon the law. Where did I kiss

My right to cut that scumbag down goodbye?[11]

and just plain obscurity:

This triple step’s best foot still must. Amen.[12]

Christopher Logue, 2002

or:

and then she hears his vicar’s sandal creak

and as she runs towards her friend

and as her friend’s well-bitten fingertips

dandle her frightened scents from bank to peak

triangles blind his lens

and laughter stripes his mind.

And as her friend unties

and as she hops the peak

and as they glide away, away, she stoops.

‘Goodbye to him.’[13]

or:

I talk too much; and when I talk

gesticulate too much; and slender booms

endlessly tending cinderbeds along the city’s cut

affect me deeply.[14]

But modern poetry should be difficult, shouldn’t it?

Christopher Logue

Nevertheless, an occasional classical neatness springs up, ever fresh, in anapaests and iambs, when you are least expecting it:

And we are on the point of leaving, when,

just for an instant something emerald flares

among the crosslights rising off the sea

and exits through the seamless curvature

of water mixed with sky and quiet stars.[15]

Or:

No clamour of a common weal or woe

summons the lesser clamour of my tongue

to give its resolution clarity.[16]

To an astonishing extent in one so ‘revolutionary,’ many of the poems are literary, in the sense that they arise from starting points in old books. However, no amount of footnoting will render interesting a poem that has already left you cold.


[1] Christopher Logue, Selected Poems, ed. Christopher Reid. London: Faber and Faber, 1996. Page references are to this edition unless otherwise noted.

[2] ‘ Cats are full of death’ p. 51.

[3] p. 53.

[4] ‘O come all ye faithful’, p. 133; a poem worthy of its resonance with Creeley’s ‘Love comes quietly,’ written about the same time.

[5] Ken Smith, closing lines of ‘Departure’s Speech’, final poem of Terra. Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1986, p. 89.

[6] A word of Persian origin, meaning sedge.

[7] p. 141; from Book 21 of the Iliad,

[8] See galingale, above; I have also looked up hyoid (a U-shaped bone at the root of the human tongue), mucid (mouldy, musty) and snood (hairnet).

[9] Logue’s own note to this word is: “‘Aurene’ = shining gold; scans as in ‘serene’.“

[10] The awkwardness of this must, albeit reluctantly, reduce one’s enthusiasm for the spanking modern version, ‘Gone Ladies’, p. 81, of Villon’s ‘Where are the snows of yesteryear?’ Ballade.

[11] ‘Urbanal’, p. 131.

[12] ‘The Song of Autobiography,’ p. 9.

[13] ‘The Girls’, p. 120.

[14] ‘Fragment’, p. 89. What is the city’s cut? And how, along it, can booms tend cinderbeds?

[15] This mellifluous passage, in an iambic pentameter measure which has usurped, at the last minute, the steadfast narrative pulse of anapaests, ends (p. 127) the extended but very strange narrative poem, ‘The Girls.’

[16] ‘Fragment’, p. 90, a poem whose unevenness we have already noticed and in which these pentameters, knocked out as meanly as any by Robert Lowell, sit like duck’s eggs in a basket of stones.

It is in many ways a great honour to be allowed into this book.[1] The poet, bereft of his wife of 29 years, has written a short poetic memoir that seems neither indulgent nor egotistical, in which he seems to find his effects almost accidentally.

Christopher Reid and Lucinda Gane, 1976 wedding

It will be recalled that on two occasions in the Gospels Jesus utters similar sayings:

“He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters.”[2]

But again, perhaps more inclusively, he also puts the statement in its reverse form:

“Do not stop him,” Jesus said, “for whoever is not against you is for you.”[3]

These then are the ancestral memories that gather around a word. Christopher may also wish to suggest the scattering of ashes that did not occur for Lucinda (20 October 1949 – 6 October 2005) since, at her request, her body was donated to medical research; as a result, the poet reflects, as he passes the Institute,

I hope they’re treating her kindly.[4]

Published four years after her death from a brain cancer, A Scattering is a book in four sections and benefits from its own organic form:

  1. The Flowers of Crete. These are nine poems chronicling the last holiday the couple took, when they knew she was ill, but were able to accept the invitation of a friend to visit Crete. Lucinda hardly appears in this section, which deals conventionally enough with landscape, monastery, flora, ruins. The ‘husband’ is still preoccupied with his role as ‘poet’.

Glib analogies!

Makeshift rhymes!

Please pardon the crimes

of your husband the poet,

as he mazes the pages

of his notebook, in pursuit

of some safe way out.

  1. Then, quite without warning, we are pitched into the second section, The Unfinished, a section of 11 numbered but untitled poems, which begin with the moment of Lucinda’s death and work chronologically backwards to the occasion of her last hospice admission when she suggests champagne as a favourite drink to the ambulance attendants.
  1. A Widowers Dozen, like a baker’s, consists in 13 titled poems, all written in the aftermath and capably exploring the incidental pitch and roll of the poet’s continuing reactions.
  1. Finally, there is a section closer in form to a notebook than a placard of polished elegiac, and much the better for it, Lucinda’s Way. In this section Lucinda appears in her unique, vibrant and multifarious character, truly a force of nature:

When that quack put you on a punishing diet,

you pedalled a borrowed exercise-bicycle

for however many static miles a day

and learned Italian from a book supported on the handlebars.

Christopher Reid, 2009

Christopher was my poetry editor at Faber and I was privileged to meet Lucinda once or twice.  My previous favourite book of his was Katerina Brac (1985, 2001) which adopted the persona of an East European woman and did so in a consistent way as a sustained act of empathy and historical imagination.  From an early ‘Martian’ emphasis on description shared with his tutor and mentor Craig Raine, publisher of the new volume, both men have moved away into greater emotional depth, Craig notably into an ‘epic’ family history, History: The Home Movie (1995).  Christopher’s more persistent ‘ludic’ tendencies can seem to have something in common with Max Beerbohm’s later preoccupations, but there is very little gaming in the present volume, enlarged by existential challenge.

To give some idea of the enormous, yet also somehow selfless, achievement of this collection, I want to visit certain poems by means of excerpts.

The heart of the book for me is the moment at which the reader feels most privileged, when he is admitted into the room at the moment of Lucinda’s death.  The poet takes his arm off his wife’s chest and

Kisses followed,

to mouth, cheeks, eyelids, forehead,

and rigmarole

of unhurt farewell

kept up as far

as the click of the door.

All this is told just as it is, undecoratively, with the moment’s own grandeur brooking no augmentation. ‘Kisses’ just ‘followed’ (things just happen). But notice that ‘unhurt farewell.’

Here and there, we are treated to the couple’s own deliberate secularism, occasionally to an extent which lapses into obscurity, at least for this reader:

Heaven or Hell,

Whose multitudes meekly receive whatever the design teams

and PR whizzes of religion have conjured up for them.[5]

But of course the facts of the main experience run clean in the opposite direction for a poet whose honesty seems in some mysterious way frequently to transcend such selfhood.

Of the more conventional and ‘finished’ poems, ‘Soul’ comes high among my list of favourites.  Here the poet charmingly describes the internal clankings of what appears to be a kind of pregnancy.  But the poem ends:

It kicks, or thumps, hollowly, and I come to a standstill,

breathless, my whole internal economy primed

to attend without delay to its nursing and nourishment:

memories, sorrows, remorses are what it feeds on.

ּ

Luckily, I have no shortage of these to give it,

so that it can continue its murky labours,

quintessential upheavals, noxious bubblings

at the bottom of a flask, as it strives to distil pure tears.[6]

Finally, an actress, weaver and celebratory gardener, Lucinda appears, untrammelled by her husband’s poetic deliberation, in many of her glorious incarnations:

You’re wearing homemade

Turkish trousers,

one of your fearless

unfashion statements;

shirt loose as a tunic;

wild hair bunched

in an ikat[7] bandanna,

for extra buccaneer effect.[8]

Christopher allows himself little that is self-indulgent or even what an entomologist might regard as personal.  At one minute we glimpse ‘a voyeur’ grateful for the fortification

of the strong, health-giving, world-immersed

feminine element

his life has lacked for too long.[9]

And then, most revealing, in the last poem we hear:

Shopping-list, phone message, birthday-present label,

proxy greeting left on the kitchen table:

you told me you never threw away a scrap of my writing

without kissing it first.[10]

These are not isolated moments, but cohere in a natural but ordered outpouring of grief, recollection and resurrection.  What is real in us lives on.


[1] Christopher Reid, A Scattering. Oxford: Areté Books, 2009.

[2] Matthew 12:30, NIV, 1984.

[3] Luke 9:50, NIV, 1984.

[4] Afterlife, p.49.

[5] Afterlife, p. 49.

[6] Soul, p. 39.

[7] I had to look this up: “Fabric made using an Indonesian decorative technique in which warp or weft threads, or both, are tie-dyed before weaving. Malay.” New OED, 2003.

[8] ‘A Faust moment’, p. 59.

[9] An Italian Market, p. 48.

[10] ‘ The documents are gathered’, p. 61.

The collapse of artistic tradition in poetry is nowhere shown as clearly as in the USA. By tradition I precisely mean knowledge, craft, expertise. One doubts that a real feeling for the English-language poetry tradition can be gained even in colleges and universities any more.

Be sure: tradition is not a matter of pastiche and form is not a matter of metre and rhyme (bit and bridle). Tradition is as TS Eliot said it was, a changing body of experience that modifies the present and is modified by it:

It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour.

Wilfred Owen

Form is the means whereby art achieves its transformation of reality and, in poetry, this means such considerations as length, verse or stanza structure, speakability, momentum, voice and register, drama and intensity, rhetoric and eloquence. With the systematic introduction of half-rhymes early in the last century (see Wilfred Owen’s Strange Meeting), poetry became a vast acoustic with long-held echoes. The accentual or stress-syllable patterns, characteristic of English, have made the iambic pentameter an unfailing harbour from which adventurous barks forever set sail, or to which they return, rather like the French alexandrine (hexameter) which is native to the different, syllabic prosody of the French language.

Free verse is a sort of poetry that walks by itself, very much a speaker’s voice and often appropriate and successful, but normally now a characteristic of the flood of illiterate adolescent outpouring that has become the steel-hard, inexorable convention.

Consider the following:[1]

Walking, you thumb the remote to scan news, watch the weather girl dance both hands, pivot, smile, and point to the other coast. So what does morning look like? What does the world. From this motel: an anywhere town, across the bay, shining. Elsewhere mountains. Miles beyond hills, the capital cities, their walls behind walls. Monuments to our lies, to our self-blinded lives. Above us now, two fishhawks, cheeping musical shrieks, the risen sun easing their wingbeats. Over us all, daylight’s invisible satellites, shamelessly bouncing back from space the emptiness we feed them.

In these 93 words of prose, one may detect some ambiguity in the first sentence: Is it ‘you’ or the weather girl who pivots, smiles and points to the other coast? Dance here is used as a transitive verb. Cannot ‘What does the world’ have the question mark it needs? Is the motel in an ‘anywhere town’ or is an example of the latter visible, ‘across the bay’, from the motel window? Cities are pilloried as Sodom and Gomorrah, emblematic of ‘lies’ and self-blinded lives’ (with no explanation). In keeping with this rejection of modern worldliness, satellites send and receive ‘emptiness’ (including to those who arrive successfully by SatNav after a complex journey). Perhaps thumbing the remote is evidence of the contemporary inanity of the poet’s companion.

The passage appears to be a mere grumble, confided perhaps to a notebook, to be taken up later and turned into a poem, or abandoned. Good clear prose obeys certain laws of basic communication and this specimen enables us to see its flaws readily enough.

But the passage has been rendered as prose by me! Let us reintroduce the line-breaks with which it was endowed at publication by its author:

Walking, you thumb the remote

to scan news,

watch the weather girl

dance both hands, pivot,

smile, and point to

the other coast.

So what does morning look like?

What does the world.

From this motel:

an anywhere town, across the bay, shining.

Elsewhere mountains.

Miles beyond hills,

the capital cities, their walls behind walls.

Monuments to our lies,

to our self-blinded lives.

Above us now, two fishhawks, cheeping musical shrieks,

the risen sun easing their wingbeats.

Over us all, daylight’s invisible satellites, shamelessly

bouncing back from space the emptiness we feed them.

Now we are certainly taking up more space and, for those readers lacking stamina, short lines enable more rapid breathing. But what exactly is added to the passage by thus inserting carriage-returns all over the place? Perhaps one ambiguity becomes clear: it may be the companion, because of the line-beak after ’girl’, who watches the weather girl, dances her (the companion’s own) hands, pivots etc. But in this case, why not resort to the humble comma? Line-breaks are the defining feature of poems; but here the final line-break seems to have been inserted after ‘shamelessly’, dividing up a verb phrase, simply, one feels, because the poet did not want a line that was too long. Here, he was obeying Ezra Pound’s asinine injunction, a century ago, to ‘Break it up! Break it up!’

Ezra Pound

We may think this crumbled prose, but the product is an authentic, paid-up, modern American poem, complete with an occasional grunt of disregard for ordinary punctuation. To remove this veneer of pretension certainly exposes the communicative fragility and argumentative poverty of the piece. How often is the main verb, that motor of the prose sentence, suppressed.

But, wait: we have not finished. There is another layer of varnish available to the poet, with a couple of flicks of his word-processor, by means of which he may strengthen his claims to be the right-on, modern American poet, a technique further redolent of The Cantos, that vast and popular[2] primer of illiteracy, the technique of indentation:

Views

Walking, you thumb the remote

to scan news,

watch the weather girl

dance both hands, pivot,

smile, and point to

the other coast.

So what does morning look like?

What does the world.

From this motel:

an anywhere town, across the bay, shining.

Elsewhere mountains.

Miles beyond hills,

the capital cities, their walls behind walls.

Monuments to our lies,

to our self-blinded lives.

Above us now, two fishhawks, cheeping musical shrieks,

the risen sun easing their wingbeats.

Over us all,

daylight’s invisible satellites, shamelessly

bouncing back from space the emptiness we feed them.[3]

Philip Booth

Now it even looks like a poem! In addition to completely arbitrary and superficial line-breaks, we now have a verse-array!

But I don’t want to be unduly negative about this still-born little slip of a poem. Let it be put back gently in the Museum of Literature whence it came and where it belongs. The point, surely, is that this poet hasn’t even begun to think about the form of the whole, the life that builds up from the line into the verse-paragraph, the suite or sequence, and the work as a whole. I doubt if metre-and-rhyme would improve matters (the mould improve the jelly?), although the extinction of the tedious autobiographical American poetic voice would be a relief (Whitman is the other unfortunate godfather of officially sanctioned American ignorance). On the other hand, the prose-poem is a perfectly valid, muscular yet stream-lined genre that has been too little exploited. Let all such poems be presented as prose. Their shortcomings will be exposed, but a natural weeding-out will leave the best standing beside those of Rimbaud and Baudelaire.

Walt Whitman

Let us have a little less lazy revolution and a little more dedicated apprenticeship.


[1] ‘Views’ by Philip Booth, the daily offering of the Writer’s Almanac for 30-Jan-10, rendered as prose.

[2] Pound hd invtd the txt msg half a century before the mobile phone.

[3] Philip Booth, from Lifelines: Selected Poems 1950-1999, Penguin Group, 1999.

We spied down from our eyrie yesterday upon the small stage at the Comedy Theatre to see a starry cast exchange high calibre performances, albeit with a sense of cramp derived only in part from the frock-coat of Molière. The play was a modern re-creation by Martin Crimp of The Misanthrope, clever rather than moving, replete with 1990s references to Tom Stoppard being passé.

Moliere

The dynamic of the original, in which Molière himself played Alceste, amid rumours of his emotional ricochets among his three actresses, lies not in the relationship ─ which seems to open (“You’re the only one here who understands me,” says Jennifer after briefly stunning everybody by her journalistic treachery) and close (“Let’s escape from all this hypocrisy, go away to the country and make babies,” responds Alceste). Rather, it hovers around Alceste as the sole figure of integrity in a brittle world of log-rolling, mutual back-scratching mediocrity which is universal and undoubtedly contemporary.

Because Molière was fighting entrenched, predatory interests ─ government, Catholic Church ─ with only the veiled and intermittent support of the Sun King, he had to have an escape route. This is achieved by not taking the part of the defiant Alceste but, instead, of the catty mob. It is thus expedient to paint Alceste as a pepperpot, a ‘misanthrope,’ rather than the clear-sighted satirist he, like Molière, actually is.

Damian Lewis and Keira Knightley rehearsing The Misanthrope

This production adheres closely to this disappointing failure of nerve, if to little else.  Damian Lewis flings himself about sinuously but doesn’t abrogate the pepperpot rôle with any conviction.  Tara Fitzgerald, released from her bespectacled, white-coated, focused, forensic boffin  scenario in the entrails of Waking The Dead, several times electrified the whole theatre from her limited part.  Keira Knightley, burdened throughout with the accent of an American movie star, carried off her more dramatically mobile rôle with angular, elegant panache.  The stage managed to refresh itself ─ with music, with candlelight, with costume ─ from time to time, the actors emitted aplomb and the fireworks fizzed, but the latter were more verbal than dramatic.

It is sad to see Alexander Solzhenitsyn depart and worth casting an eye once more over this 20th-century writer of incomparably heroic stature.

Solzhenitsyn was both a great Russian novelist ― though no Tolstoy, Dostoevsky or Pasternak ― and more than this. Like Avvakum trekking the shores of Lake Baikal, he retained the mission of the prophet-purist and perhaps saw himself as a religious leader. Art and prophecy jostle in Russian literature. In the course of his fully-televised global re-emigration into the ferment of post-communist Russia (from Vermont via Vladivostok), he may have been disappointed to find Boris Yeltsin bobbing like a ping-pong ball on the fountain; but from my brief and indirect contacts with the distraught Mrs Yeltsin, I can only feel thankful that Solzhenitsyn was spared such undignified upheaval and consternation.

Solzhenitsyn, 1976 (NYT)

Given the ability of the KGB to reach out and murder Bulgarian dissidents (Markov) and Russian former agents (Litvinenko) on the streets of London, and contrive the murder even of a pope on the streets of Rome (John Paul II), it had been no fantasy that inspired Solzhenitsyn to create a fortress in Vermont from which he rarely emerged.

So what more was he? A historian and documentarist. A writer with the impudence to think that, as a calf tethered to a stout oak tree, he should at least keep butting away. How could he have known he would one day ultimately succeed, an individual who, more than any other, brought about the collapse (“through its own inner contradictions”) of an evil empire.[1]

It is remarkable to think that in 1951, in his luminously original and prescient The Captive Mind, Čzesław Miłosz should still have seemed to think that Marxist ideologists were immensely cunning, resourceful and intellectually triumphant, perhaps like Vatican theologians (though he does not say this). Yet in fact Marxist ideology was never like this. It was a self-justifying smokescreen behind which thieves and gangsters could go about their accustomed business robbing and killing the innocent.

Bear in mind, indeed, that the finest philosophical minds in Europe had identified the intellectual flaws in both Marxism and Freudianism by, roughly, the end of the First World War.[2] This, though (I digress for a moment), is an example of the wide and ever-widening gap between the elite and the mass of those left behind, many of whom will never catch up. (One has to remember that in the West half, and in the rest of the world perhaps three quarters, of the population has an IQ of 100 or below.) This is the problem I call the Tail of the Comet, symbolised today by the intellectual distance between the Large Hadron Collider and the increasingly headscarfed and monolithic streets of Cairo, Istanbul and Alexandria, formerly culturally diverse cities like Beirut. Perhaps the tragedy of September 11th 2001 best captures this gulf of centuries. It is a hallmark of the uneducated mind that it takes symbols literally.

Lenin, who invented the Gulag, understood perfectly the dis-equation between strength and weakness, a feature of Russian backwardness in Tsarist and Leninist times alike, then as now. Russia is a vast world with nonexistent or crumbling borders across which its forces flutter like chickens. The only border it understands is the Ice Sea.

Intriguingly, One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich was not even original when it finally saw the light of day in 1962, in the shortlived Krushchev thaw after the death of Stalin.[3] Even before Solzhenitsyn had been arrested for a commonsensical remark in a letter to a friend seen by censors, Russians who had been unable to pronounce the name of a Pole captured in 1940, Gustav Herling, thought he must be a nephew of Hermann Göering and processed him into the Gulag. He survived two years by a chain of miracles to produce A World Apart in 1951. This remarkable documentary account retains, if possible, still more of the immediate vividness and knife-like moral edge of daily camp life. Ivan Denisovich, after all, has a good day. There is less optimism in Herling and he never returned to this theme.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

There is little fine writing in Solzhenitsyn, though his analytic aim ― for instance in August 1914 and Lenin in Zurich was acute: a historian’s instinct. Most impressive are his networking efforts in relation to fellow zeks (convicts) whose testimony seemed to him to teeter on the verge of extinction. Compensatingly he therefore spared no effort to gather, through meetings and correspondence, every scrap of first-hand witness account he could lay his hands on and incorporate it all in the three mighty volumes of The Gulag Archipelago (I still haven’t read the third). No longer could a trivialising Sartre argue against the eyewitness testimony of the trickle of survivors arriving in post-war Paris, thus seriously compromising his relationship with Camus.[4]

Nothing could have done more to shake the oak tree and root world opinion in a more realistic view of the workers’ socialist paradise. Reagan, Thatcher and Gorbachev swayed in the upper reaches of the oak tree in thermals long before activated by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Martin Turner

18-Sep-2008


[1] If this epithet should be questioned, consider the following: “After reading Rayfield’s book, no one will doubt that the Chekist-dominated USSR was one vast, sadistic frenzy of criminality.” Simon Sebag Montefiore, in review of Donald Rayfield’s Stalin and His Hangmen. Telegraph Online 14-Mar-2004.

[2] For a readable account, see: Popper, K.R. Unended Quest: an intellectual autobiography. Glasgow: Collins (Flamingo), 1986. Nothing however was available to prevent Karl Marx from building on the foundations of the crab-like Hegelian dialectic ― Hegel’s deterministic philosophy of history ― after they had already been decisively exploded by Kierkegaard. And Marxist-Leninist and Freudian ideas have progressed blissfully ever since in western academic departments of literature and history.

[3] The subsequent film, starring Tom Courtenay, was banned from public viewing in Finland in 1970.

[4] Sartre actually became a perfectly orthodox Marxist at the end of his life.

The modern idea of modernism is already quite old, and traceable back at least to the middle of the 19th century. It has different meanings at different junctures. One period that interests me is the interlude between the two world wars. The atmosphere that followed the carnage of the First World War ─ and for a long time nobody knew that a Second was coming ─ was quite manic, perceived as festive at the time and as hysterical today. The gulch of modernism seemed to run like raving water, as DH Lawrence would say, between the steep and rocky walls of two world wars.

This is the context into which Lawrence’s The Captain’s Doll fits and it is a representative work of its time ─ it was first published in 1923 ─ as much so as the portraiture, literature and to some extent music of the day, of all of which it contains faithful echoes. But like all of the works of Lawrence it quickly establishes itself as timeless, concerning itself, as it does, with the relationship between a man and a woman over several years. In only 64 pages (in my edition[1]) it burrows with Lawrentian acuity to the heart of this relationship and worries away at it like a terrier.

DH Lawrence

Lawrence has the confidence of a man who has trained his reader. Each sentence is a live and sinewy creature, engaging on the one hand with the corpuscles and morsels of words themselves, and on the other introducing the very characteristic tattoo of Lawrentian repetition, a device which enables Lawrence to distribute emphases, and thus keep the reader’s attention, as he goes along. It is a unique instrument and contributes mightily to the impression that this man can compare favourably, if one were so childish as to want to do so, not only with the Bennetts, Hemingways, Fitzgeralds and Waughs of the period, but with the best writers of any and every age.

An example, not quite at random, will suffice here:

So, after a while of this valley of the shadow of death, lurching in steep loops upwards, the motor-car scrambling wonderfully, struggling past trees and rock upwards, at last they came to the end.[2]

A thousand other sentences would have demonstrated the same thing. We have the music of steep loops upwards, the repetition and emphasis of upwards and the poise and musical delivery of the sentence as a whole in its acoustic envelope.

This describes a level of poetic control unusual in most novelists, but what really wakes up a reader within a few initial paragraphs of any DH Lawrence fiction is the expansion of intuitive intensity with which characters perceive each other and are described. As in an encounter group, we are led directly into the realm of what people truly think and feel about each other. This zone of truth is commonly approached much more gradually, if at all, in the work of more circumspect novelists, but Lawrence seldom seems to bother doing anything else. Like Jane Austen, he scarcely indulges in incidental description, preferring to let the reader know quickly what the essential territory is that interests him. There is little distinction between public and private.

In the poverty and reduced freedom of British-occupied post-First World War Germany, a doll-making Countess and her Baroness friend interact with a British Army captain, his wife come to check up on him from England and, briefly, a local German politician, beautifully drawn, who appears as a possible candidate husband for our Countess. I suppose we know from the comic melancholy of the latter that the serious business will always be between the Countess Hannele and Captain Alexander Hepburn, but Lawrence manages to obscure the highly ambiguous outcome up to and including the very final sentences of the story. Will they marry or won’t they? (The Captain’s wife has fallen from an upper window and died, a huge sacrificial benefit to the narrative.)

Most of the drama, when the Captain seeks out Hannele in Austria after an interval of years, follows the escalating upward ascent of mountains towards a solid glacier that sits in a little valley at the summit. Thus the twists and turns of the journey and the excitement of the scenery do duty for Lawrence’s unfolding of the remarkable dénouement, in which a marriage is apparently agreed.

But the essential question for a critic is, what exactly is Lawrence up to in this novella ─ what is the purpose that has brought the story about, what is the itch that drives the writer’s creative agitation? This, it seems to me, has to do with a desire to satirise the faint, bleating amours of the English upper classes. The common and characteristic verbal gambit of Alec is to respond, “Quite,” to the conversations of his wife or his lover. Lawrence has a very good ear for this sort of thing: he has not hung around the drawing-rooms of Bloomsbury and Garsington in vain for all that time, boiling inwardly no doubt, but catching perfectly the self-detaching accents that we hear today in the talk of Mrs Hepburn:

But then, what can you expect, when there aren’t enough men to go round! Why, I had a friend in Ireland. She and her husband had been an ideal couple, an ideal couple. Real playmates. And you can’t say more than that, can you?[3]

The countess is not presented as a complex character. Her moment comes, climbing the mountain, when she arrives at the aperçu that the stony and isolated Alexander wants her to love him. Indeed, the reader is unable, when all is over, to disagree much with this. But throughout the story Hannele’s astonished fascination with this man is emphasised. She doesn’t understand him, cannot read his emotions and finds the experience intriguing.  To this extent, Hannele is the reflecting surface for the drastically limited, and possibly inhuman, emotional life of this crippled man who has never loved anybody, who now proposes a loveless marriage and who is incapable of rising to the existential occasion with any tone beyond that of take it or leave it:

“Very well, then ─ there it is,” he said, rising.

She rose too, and they went on towards where the boat was tied.

As they were rowing in silence over the lake, he said:

“I shall leave tomorrow.”

She made no answer.  She sat and watched the lights of the villa draw near.  And then she said:

“I’ll come to Africa with you.  But I won’t promise to honour and obey you.”

“I don’t want you otherwise,” he said, very quietly.

Lawrence maintains to the end the drama and uncertainty of this exchange.  It is only afterwards that the pieces settle into any kind of order.  Earlier on, one is exposed to the thoughts and feelings of Alexander by the author himself, hovering and fluttering around his character; but in the later passages the Captain is described wholly from the outside ─ through his actions. This, then, may be the point: that not only are the British upper classes incomprehensible to foreigners, especially defeated Germans, but that any particular male member of them is, in precise and elaborated detail, so unalive, so defeated by life, as to be limited and stunted, and even beyond this radically incapable of normal relationships. It may be that all this is caricature, Lawrence’s alienated class consciousness seizing on the movements of the elite like an entomologist as others have done before and since, but it also seems pretty faithful to the clipped and etiolated moeurs of the period as one comes across them, for instance in the Diaries of Evelyn Waugh.

Fortunately, we English love to laugh at ourselves, though England is not what it was. Today we can welcome Lawrence’s astounding, riveting, versatile and fecund critique as a tour de force in the particular genre that he seems altogether to have invented.


[1] Lawrence, DH. Women in Love etc. Heinemann Octopus, 1980.

[2] Op. cit., p. 498.

[3] Op. cit., p. 473.

Winston Churchill was always held out, I suppose, as something of a rôle model to me in childhood. His greatness ─ as orator, leader, realist, humorist ─ could only be questioned by a fool. He was essentially right, and decades ahead of his time, in appreciating the slaughterous tendencies of Stalin (Katyn Wood) and the half-century division of Europe into hostile ideological blocs.

When I visited Chartwell, Churchill’s country home in Kent, I stood at his desk, looked at the little bust of Napoleon and realised what a conventional, non-intellectual, middle-class chap he was. This put me in mind of another occasion:

Meeting Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, at Walmer Castle, near Deal in Kent, as guests of the prime minister, Herbert Asquith, and his daughters, Violet and Elizabeth, in January 1915, had “brought home to me very forcibly – very vividly – the limitations by which men of genius obtain their ascendancy over mankind. “[1]

Young Winston Churchill

But more recently, encountering Churchill in the histories of Andrew Roberts, I have wished to discover what Churchill himself had to say in his voluminous historical works. I thought I would begin with the early and readable My Early Life.[2]

Literature it is not. I had recently read Black Mischief, published only two years after My Early Life. Waugh’s tongue-in-cheek satire contains abundant close observation of East Africa and is marred only by a storyline that depends on cannibalism. Although there isn’t really a hero or much of a plot, the book reflects contemporary manners and trends with indirect verisimilitude. Churchill lurches from trope to ponderous rhetorical trope in a language that was anachronistic even when it was written. He cannot express a thought without uttering it in triplicate. With its orotund frills, flourishes and furbelows, this was already, in 1930, a museum of 18th and 19th century styles (Macaulay, Gibbon).

Nevertheless, the prose is but a vehicle for the man and Churchill is already enough of an orator to deploy massive charms of self-irony, good humour and, I think, genuine modesty. He’s not telling us the half of it. We know that Churchill suffered throughout his life from crippling depressions, but he makes sure that the undertow of this autobiography is one of smiling bonhomie.

Churchill was massively disadvantaged by his education. He seems not to have had any penchant for academic study and to have set his face against it, possibly because he was flogged so brutally at his preparatory school. He writes poignantly about his young boy’s longing for a relationship with his father, but this was never to be gratified. He was, and felt himself to be, a disappointment to Lord Randolph who, we know, was declining into syphilitic disintegration[3] at this stage and could not reciprocate his overtures.

But alas I was only a backward schoolboy

he writes (p. 39) of one occasion when his father showed more interest in his school friend companion than in himself. Lord Randolph died when Winston was 20.

From time to time thereafter, Churchill laments that he did not attend university. He felt himself to be a failure and a disappointment to others, although his mother seems to have been gloriously loyal and active in his behalf well into his adult life. In fact, from the moment he transferred from Harrow to Sandhurst, Churchill seems to have come into his own and to have flourished. But it is altogether commendable that he faces squarely and soberly these menaces to his early integrity.

Winston Churchill as a subaltern in the hussars, 1896

The other thing that comes across from these years of boyhood is how impulsive and accident-prone young Winston was. It seems impossible that anybody should slip and fall so often or incur so many dangerous injuries. Mostly this is glossed as an attractive adventurousness, but there can be little doubt that he actively courts death and destruction, especially in military situations. This, of course, is an aspect of depression.

Given these personal characteristics, it is perhaps a help to Winston that he is not given to taking any principles too seriously. He does not adhere to his own side politically, nor eschew the other. He knows he is attractive to both and is not inclined to ponder for long any issues of fundamental importance. His genius is, rather, for friendship and camaraderie. His affectionate nature glows forth like sunbeams in a dawn garden. Though his marriage lies in the future and is alluded to only in the last sentence of the book, one knows that his love for his wife will eventually prove both painfully committed and all-encompassing.

Something of this is redolent in my favourite story in the book, which concerns Churchill’s beloved friend, Louis Botha:

In 1906 when, as newly-elected first Prime Minister of the Transvaal, he came to London to attend the Imperial Conference, a great banquet was given to the Dominion Prime Ministers in Westminster Hall. I was Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, and as the Boer leader, so recently our enemy, passed up the hall to his place, he paused to say to my mother, who stood by my side, “He and I have been out in all weathers.” It was surely true.[4]

So, strange as it may seem in an era of identity politics, if I’ve never had the slightest difficulty about knowing myself to be English, this has to do in part with one generous, expansive and large-hearted Englishman, who was thirty-four when my father was born and who died when I was seventeen.


[1] Quoted in Leon Edel, Henry James: A Life. London: Collins, 1987, p. 699.

[2] Churchill, WS. My Early Life. London: Eland, 2000.

[3] A left-brain tumour is another possibility. Lady Churchill seems to have remained healthy, like their two sons. Richard Holmes, In The Footsteps Of Churchill. London: BBC Books, 2005, p. 38.

[4] p. 251.

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