Tuesday, 1 May 2007

Railway Stations

I'm fiddling with the end of the chapter on Caught now. My supervisor's response to it was reassuringly positive so I'm trying to give it a meaty conclusion, while also trying to figure out how to trim it down for publication. On that note, there may be some exciting news in that field soon: as the semi-secretive blogger's cliche runs, watch this space. I've also been winding up the term's teaching, which (anti) climaxes tomorrow with a revision session which I have little doubt will be attended by the sum total of absolutely nobody.

Concurrently, I've been throwing myself into the chapter on Green's Party Going (1939). A brief summary:

It's sometime in the late 1930s, and war looms ominously upon the horizon. Max Adey, a wealthy playboy, has invited a number of his social set to travel to the south of France for a long vacation. The party are to assemble at London Victoria station, from where they will catch the boat-train for the continent. Unfortunately, as they begin to congregate a thick fog falls upon London, immobilising all transport out of the city. As the station becomes dangerously crowded with commuters, the station officials decide to barricade the entrances, effectively meaning that no-one (with a few unexplained exceptions) can enter or leave. Initially, this does not trouble Max who is flush enough to take a couple of suites at the station hotel in which he and his (increasingly charmless) friends can relax, drink and play cruel pranks upon one another. This unfolds against the backdrop of three hermeneutically challenging sub-narratives. Firstly, the oldest member of the party (who has only turned up to say goodbye) has been taken ill, ostensibly as a result of a dead pigeon she picked up, without good reason, upon arrival at Victoria. The second concerns the party's malicious gossip about a mysterious character called "Embassy Richard", who has developed an unwelcome habit of gatecrashing society parties. Thirdly, an unidentified man who speaks in a range of regional accents has attached himself to the party: they believe he is a detective of some description. The waiting rolls on through a variety of permutations until it is interrupted by the slightly inexplicable arrival of one of Max's paramours, a vaguely obnoxious model. The older lady recovers, Embassy Richard arrives to stake a place on the trip, and the fog begins to lift.

Well, that's as brief as I can do. It probably doesn't emerge from this description, but Party Going is as close as the pre-war English novel comes to the unfixable pseudo-allegories of Kafka that I think Deleuze and Guattari describe in Towards a Minor Literature. That, nevertheless, is a version of Kafka that's been filtered through a lens that is one-part Evelyn Waugh, one-part Agatha Christie. There's touches of Joyce, Baudelaire, Pirandello, Swift, Blanchot and even Zola in there for good measure, though I'm primarily reading it as an allegory that, contrary to the habit of Green's far-travelling contemporaries such as Waugh, Robert Byron and Cyril Connolly, steadfastly refuses to go anywhere, least of all towards its exegesis.

That said, it's still a novel in which things happen in a nominally real-life environment, so I've been thinking rather a lot about train stations lately. I don't drive, and I'm not enormously keen on flying, so I'm rather familiar with them. Here's a list of some of my favourites, in no particular order:

Lisbon Santa Apollonia

This night still be Lisbon's international terminus, as it was last time I was in that ever-so-strange city (see John Berger's last collection of short stories for an idea about what it's like there). This is great, because you expect an international terminus to be like Waterloo, a kind of Hollywood vision of shiny post-iron curtain Europe, and instead you get something that looks like a house in which a young Eva Peron may have lived.

Florence Santa Maria Novella

Continuing the slightly tasteless dictatorial theme, SMN couldn't be more different: it's all Italian modernism with a Viennese twist (thanks, Wikipedia). The building is far more palatable than the builders, in this case, with an ersatz-seeming marbled concourse which gives one the impression of being in a Star Trek set designed by Fritz Lang.

Budapest Nyugati

Really low platforms add 1 point onto any station's quota, and they have these at the evocatively named Nyugati. It's stock-footage central European- I know I'm overworking the cliches here, but one expects Harry Lime to turn up at any moment- and they sell cheap pizzas on the platform. Take that, Whistlestop Food & Wine! All of this pales into insignificance when you look at the Kraftwerkian temptations offered by the departure board: Bucharest, Kiev, Moscow, Venice, Belgrade, Lausanne. You couldn't feel any more like a citizen of Europe than in a place like this.

Edinburgh Waverley

Slightly more prosaic, I guess, but I always associate this one with trips to the zoo when I was a kid. For some reason, I equate it with those teal-coloured 125s from what James Murphy calls "the unremembered 80s".

Darlington North Road

My home town isn't really what you'd call an extravagant place. In the town's west end, with a population I would conservatively estimate at 8-9,000, there isn't a single pub because Quakers paid for all the houses to be built. Darlington makes Norwich look like Barcelona during Sonar. That said, the town is ostentatious enough to have two stations- well, it is the birthplace of the railways, as the up-against-it tourist board never tire of telling everyone- and the smaller of them has a little museum attached. Now, you know that feeling when you're a kid and you can't imagine how happy anyone would be to live next to a station/ football ground/ adventure playground and when someone actually does it feels a little uncanny? I had two separate family members that lived dead near this place, so this place is tinged with magic. The kind of magic that can come only by being dwarfed by one of the biggest B&Qs you're ever likely to clap eyes on.

Paris Gare d'Austerlitz

Loads of underground tunnels painted green that are virtually impossible to escape from give this station an exciting atmosphere akin to being in a horrible nightmare. Normally, when you awake from a horrible nightmare your alarm is ringing and you've got to go and do something unpleasant but essential. At Gare d'Austerlitz, you emerge from the dream to find yourself on the all-night party train to Spain.

That's quite enough favourite stations for now, I think. I should perhaps add that Peterborough is my least favourite station on the planet, because I spend half my life there and seems to be permanently inhabited by goth teenagers and psychos. Interestingly, in the time it's taken me to write this blog, Roman Abramovich has almost certainly finalised the terms of Jose Mourinho's p45...


Wednesday, 14 March 2007

Top-up fees

Just a quick morning gripe: why do the students who (rightfully) protest against the exorbitant nature of top-up-fees never turn up to class? I had four out of sixteen for my nine o' clock session this morning and it's an examination module, which is to say that it really might be a good idea for them to turn up and familiarise themselves with what they will be tested on. Garg.

I'd promised that I was only going to write about "things" on this blog, so I could turn this into a post about the distinctly unexciting supermarket claret I had last night (I ended up chucking half of it into the cooking pan). Maybe I should mention that I'm currently reading Idler editor Tom Hodgkinson's How to be Free, a kind of acceptable self-help book for those who are sick of being interefered with by the cappucino-toting ne'er-do-wells of the Blairocracy ("Chill! Spend! Work harder! Be more anxious! Chill!") I'll post up a proper review when I finished it (though I'm planning a bizarre work-related session with Agatha Christie when I've got the morning's teaching out of the way). Suffice to say that Hodgkinson's book, while a little wearing in places (he pushes it a bit far by offering up "free-wheeling actor Keith Allen" as a paradigm of the resistance to buereacracy) is a heartening read in a time in which people have to deal with the TV licence inspector on a daily basis because he refuses to believe that you don't own a TV. I figure that next time he comes round he'll start taking the books of the shelf trying to locate "my" phantom idiot-box in a kind of Fahrenheit 451*-style scenario. The less said about the Byzantine institution that is Powergen the better...

* This isn't a mistake, Michael Moore fans.

Monday, 12 March 2007

Male sentimentality corner

I found a link today for the Youtube vid of my team, Darlington, winning the Fourth Division championship today. Here it is. My family and I are just off camera when the portly David Cork opens the scoring. I can't believe how quickly the fans are on the pitch at the end: I seem to recall a lot of people being clustered around the away goalmouth before the referee had blown the whistle and the announcer telling everyone to calm down. I think I devoted that whole period of my life to football- I was converted by the twin spectacles of the 1990 FA Cup Final and Italia '90- instead of doing productive things like reading books or learning the flute. When interviewed, most writers claim to have spent their formative years in a vaguely Proustean manner, devouring the works of Dickens/ Balzac/ Goethe. I didn't. I spent them getting into scraps with the kid from across the road, collecting stickers of St Mirren players, and thinking that Hearts played in Watford or Hemel Hempstead (I'm glad my Dad put me right on that count). As a result, vast swathes of literary realism have passed over my head, which is probably why I've developed an essentially apolitical, hedonistic taste in writers and a serious antipathy towards the contemporary humanist novel. I'd like, therefore, to lay the blame for my belligerence towards Zadie Smith and her ilk squarely at the feet of the 1990/1991 Darlington side. Corky!

Friday, 9 March 2007

Wine review

moNegro Amaro (Puglia, 2005, £4.59)

Bottles of this have been turning up in Le Chateau, my local vintners, for some time now. There's never a price tag for it on the shelf and the staff always have to go through to the back room to do a check even when you say "it's four fifty-nine, mate". I keep on buying bottles of it, slightly against my better judgement because it isn't particularly nice and gives you a head the next morning even if you've only had 3 or 4 glasses (cf. me, last night). Why do I keep on buying it? While, the bottle is a slightly different shape to the other wines and it is particularly dark looking. As a good Henry Green reader, I tend to associate dark comestibles (plums, red wine and some other things I can't quite recall, oh yeah, Christmas dates and plum duff) with unreserved sexual epiphanies:

At that he came out with the story of Christopher's abduction. She was so interested that she forgot to slide her glass forward to be filled. At the end of his tale he leant over to pour more of the dark, tale-telling liquid in. (Caught, 102)
What actually happened was that I ate a bacon sandwich and nearly fell asleep on the sofa. Books, why do you lie to me so? More to the point, why must the wine also lie? My friend Tom and I once attempted to "method watch" Sideways, the amusing (if a little smug) story of a neurotic author and his-soon-to-be-married friend spending a week in the winegrowing areas of North California and getting up to all sorts of alcoholic and sexual misadventures. We thought we would match Paul Giamatti and co glass for glass (obviously, there's a problem of "the time of the story" v. "the time in the story" there, but that's for the stomach pumper to decide) but we utterly failed. Halfway through the film, we were clutching our stomachs, rather than our sides, and demanding the salvic effects of an entire series of Transformers.
In conclusion, all this wine proved was that drinking wine without any food more exciting than the aforementioned bacon sandwich during winter in the United Kingdom is a dead loss and I should either have stuck to tea or gone down the pub.

Praham Preene

I'm currently reading Graham Greene's England Made Me, which I acquired in a bookshop in Hull for 99p. This in itself would not be particularly exciting- well, I suppose it would be reasonably exciting in one of those glorious moments where you and an acquaintance get mutually delirious over any kind of shared experience*- were it not for the fact that it appears to be, well, signed. It's a 1947 uniform edition, with a "Graham Greene" shaped squiggle just inside the dust jacket. Presuming that it isn't a forgery (I once scrawled fake signatures all over the player photos in the 1990 Football League yearbook to "impress" my friends), I'd really like to know how a signed Graham Greene ended up in a 99p bin.

In other news, I re-read David Storey's This Sporting Life over the weekend (I was teaching it in midweek). I find it incredibly sad that the Monty Python "Yorkshireman" sketch has become metonymic for a whole generation of English writing: as those of you who know me will be aware, I'm not an enormous enthusiast of literary realism, but I think "kitchen sink" writing has, at times, been badly undersold by "grim up north" cliches and the recalcitrant positions of critical antimodernists. TSL is, for my money, so much more than the average novel of the working-class hero (if there was ever really such a thing). It was nice for one of my (decidedly Southern) colleagues to grace the book with a comparison to Camus but I think its possible to go further still. Storey, like Henry Green, uses ellipsis to the point at which the idea of narrative itself stumbles on the edge of some (presumably appropriately Brontean) precipice. Every page reveals a new satisfyingly dark area which obscures the very promise of resolution itself. The unimaginative will put this down to the lack of narratorial self-knowledge- a hunch that would appear to be justified by Lindsay Anderson's film adaptation- but I think there's always more happening with Storey than critics have hitherto been willing to allow. Of course, only about 3 of my students (out of, erm, 46) had read the thing but I was able to take satisfaction in informing them of what they were missing out on.

Also, I want to go and watch football this weekend. Diss Town v. Wroxham appears to be the only even vaguely local (aka cheap) option: I'll post a report if I make it.

* These moments typically occur to me when I find out that someone I know has a second cousin in North Yorkshire/ South Durham. The acquaintance usually doesn't find this as strange as I do.

Monday, 19 February 2007

A few choice malapropisms from today's efforts

I stuck at home today, an activity that proved so strenuous that I consumed one of my bi-yearly Pot Noodles. My limbs ached from my box-to-box performance down at Eaton Park yesterday morning, and the strain was exacerbated by my now-habitual dose of Mondayitis. Fortunately, it's a semi-official reading week so I had no lecture to attend this afternoon meaning that I could have a clear run-up at the Caught chapter. If you don't know me, the Caught chapter has been hanging over my head for a couple of months now (the fourth chapter of a PhD thesis is comparable to the "difficult second album") and really needs finishing.

Unfortunately, today was the day when I needed to substantiate some of the theoretical claims I've been making. When your theorist is Lacan, this tends to lead bruised knuckles and a damaged desk:

Vertigo, therefore, is written into Caught both as the literal fear of heights [...] and as the ultimate deferral or fading- what Lacan calls aphanisis- of the subject which manifests itself as a display of hyperactive representation.

And if that wasn't bad enough:

Pye, in his visit to the asylum, experiences "the abysmal realm" and "the Symbolic order" as one and the same. Signs confirm a kind of entropy for Pye, because madness has visibly failed to be housed in anything that matches conventional depictions of the subject. The "signposts pointing the way at every turn" indicate another failure of differentiation.

I think the real fear in writing a PhD isn't to do with failing to take the prize, so to speak, but to bottle it when it comes down to writing what you actually believe. Caught was always going to be the problem text for my thesis because, unlike the rest of Henry Green's novels, it is discernibly about something, which is to say that its characters are driven towards life-and-death ends in the context of life-and-death situations. In both theme and tone, it is Green's most serious work by a long stretch of the imagination and there is something oddly non-canon (to borrow my current favourite idea from wiki-criticism) about it. As a result of this, it has blown me a little off course into the uncharted territories of having to adopt an at least marginally more humanistic critical attitude than I'm usually willing to bother with, in as much as I've had to approach the novel as one in which the "things" that happen to "people" can't just be brushed off, or reduced to semiotics or kitsch. It has been a slow process of mediation: how do I make anti-realism of paramount importance to a novel which is "about" a real historical event (the Phoney War and Blitz) which affected the lives of millions of people.

My solution-to read the novel as an attempt to articulate an extreme uncertainty as to the source of violence (see Jacqueline Rose's essay "Where does the Misery Come From?" for a way into this subject)- seems to be more or less holding up, but tomorrow I've got to try and slog onto a long section about nightclubs and sleaze in wartime London. I gave a paper on that subject at the Birmingham Midland Institute last month but I think my ideas have developed substantially since then and I'm not altogether sure how the link works now.

That said, it's still nice to have a week where my teaching commitments aren't so heavy. I would have liked to go and take in some non-league this weekend but I have a feeling there'll be a Teknikov rehearsal.

The Proust diaries

Since my mum found the Terence Kilmartin translations at auction and sent them down for me, I've decided to have a serious crack at reading A la Recherche. For me, Proust is implicated in his own diagnosis: my Scott-Moncrieff copy of Swann's Way reminds me of nothing more than eating supermarket (Monoprix?) camembert while pulling out of Amiens station a few summers back. Anyway, I'm intending to slog through the whole thing in the next couple of months as I've recently realised that you can't have Green's Caught without Proust.

I think my fear of Proust comes from an anxiety that the rest of the novel (if you can call it that) won't be as evocative as the Combray section or as blackly comic as "Swann in Love". I end up in a vicious circle whereby I don't read on because I think it becomes more "social" and less abstract.

Anyway, after a couple of good evening sessions and a twenty-five page stint in the pub yesterday as an accompaniment to the football scores, I'm 140 pages in now. I'm not sure why (maybe it's a Green thing) but I'm fixated with the bit where Marcel is looking through M. Vinteuil's back window without being noticed. I've been looking at Malcolm Bowie's book Freud, Proust and Lacan in the last couple of weeks in which Bowie draws out the (uncanny) simultaneity of Freud and Proust's vision. For Bowie, it is the stated method of articulating the notion of unearthed memory which makes them different in principle. I think this is correct: A la Recherche frequently stops being a novel as such in exactly the same manner in which The Psychopathology of Everyday Life often transforms into a collection of short comic fictions and The Interpretation of Dreams becomes something akin to biography. The scene outside Vinteuil's house, in its meticulous attention to habit and social presentation, is good "theoretical fiction". It gives you the same sensation as you have when you realise that somebody has been watching you singing along to your headphones for the last fifteen minutes.

Sunday, 18 February 2007

The Dark of Summer (Eric Linklater)

Last summer I gave a paper on ghost stories, surrealism and the "paradoxically claustrophobic" exteriors of Thirties fiction at Sheffield Hallam University. It wasn't a particularly good paper- it was overlong and, in places, quixotic- but the weekend remains a pleasant memory for other reasons. Sheffield is a beautiful city when the sun shines, I enjoyed the hospitality of a good friend, had a top-class curry and watched England get knocked out of the world cup- thus curtailing the irritating hysteria of a bunch of beergutted part-timers- in the company of a former Rolling Stone journalist (I also met a man who worked for as a food scientist on the Campbells' Meatballs "brand", but that's another story. He reminded me of the guy in Wayne's World who sits at the bar of the donut cafe. Yes, the murderous one.)

I also met a girl who was studying for her PhD at Aberdeen under the supervision of Peter Davidson whose book The Idea of North got a fair few column inches in the review sections a year or so ago. Chatting to her prompted me to finally get around to reading it, and I was extremely glad I did: it's strangely wonderful. "Strangely" is qualitative here, because it's quite hard to judge the work as a success or failure due to the obscurity of its intentions: like the idea of north which Davidson tracks, the writing is curiously decentred. The Idea of North is the kind of text which I think of as bearing gifts without asking for anything in return. This is predominantly manifested in what amounts to an enormous reading-list of works which strive to articulate a phenomenology of "north"- spectres are a favoured theme for Davidson, and Merleau-Ponty's seems to haunt the book- as a geographic, climatic, linguistic and emotional entity.

Admittedly, TION is a little troubling in places. There is (depending on how generous one is willing to be) an either Wagnerian or Dungeons and Dragons-playing fixation with the intersecting mythologies of the (far) Northern hemisphere which does little to realign the idea itself. This is coupled with a tendency to reach for truisms: melancholy as the motivating force of the Northern imagination, summers without darkness, pine forests, Moomins. As a result of Davidson's obvious investments in these mythologies, one does come away from the book asking what "it" is, wondering if accounts of Inuit legend and "trouble at mill" really do anything more (in this context) than contribute to the "obfuscation of North".

Nevertheless, it is an enchanting work in which ambiguity- when not provoking the lapses of readerly faith I mentioned above- is elevated to the magical level of Symbolist suggestiveness (Munch is another slightly understated presence). It asks what a "literature of North" might be, and speculates as to whether the quintessentially "Northern" work would be able to engage with any straightforward form of realism. "North" has, from Mary Shelley through Virginia Woolf and through to the present day with Christopher Nolan's Insomnia (2002), been used in the figuration of extreme epistemological uncertainty. Setting a work within the Arctic Circle means that the traditional novelistic or cinematic time markers- darkness and light- become redundant in the seasonal absence of their inverses. Woolf's To the Lighthouse presents its characters as gradually slipping from the social map into either death or abstraction and the novel's "real world" setting- the Isle of Skye- is clearly strategically selected to contribute to this effect.

Genre fiction also plays with this idea of North. The Island of Sheep, the concluding novel in John Buchan's Richard Hannay cycle, presents the "Norlands" (presumably the Faroes or, at a push, Spitzbergen) as a place beyond the law in which ancient blood feuds still count. For M.R. James, the forests of Sweden were where one could go to awaken an ancient malevolence (see "Count Magnus", one of James' bleakest little numbers).

Last week I came across a novel which resolved many of my PhD issues- the representability of war, and the representation of loss as space- with Davidson's theme. Eric Linklater's The Dark of Summer ranges from the Faroes to Alamein, but is spiritually anchored to the various groups of islands off Scotland and Scandinavia. Its narrative engine (which is in some ways a MacGuffin) is driven by a plot supposedly operating under the aegis of Vidkun Quisling (Hitler's puppet leader in Norway) to ferment rebellion along the length of the Atlantic fringe and bring the Bretons, the Irish, the Hebrideans, Orcadians, Shetlanders and Faroese to the Axis cause. This is intercut- in a manner slightly reminiscent of W.G. Sebald- with the story of an 18th century feud between Shetland landowners, a descendant of whom is Quisling's ear in Lerwick and whose daughter eventually marries the spycatcher narrator.

Where The Dark of Summer corroborates Davidson's thesis is in its understatedness. Plot events are frequently played "off screen", such as in the case of the summary execution of the narrator's brother at Dunkirk which is never directly represented but always imagined. When this is not the case- such as when the narrator discovers a spy frozen to death in the outhouse of a shady Faroese poet- there is an absence of histrionics. The reader is constantly reminded that the narrator, like the protagonist of Insomnia, is operating in an exhausted condition at the absolute limit of his mental and physical faculties. Moreover, there is an ill-masked cynicism towards the postwar world which does not appear to be entirely confined to the narrator: this, in a way, is a novel about tiredness. One does not locate any centre other than a half-objectified "North" whose physical properties, as in Woolf, oscillate between tangible at-handness and ethereality. The novel is fascinated with both cultural and biological memory, with racial generalisation and with the preservability of historical identities: tellingly, it begins with the discovery of a 200 year-old corpse in a peat bog.

The Dark of Summer, in other words, attempts to sketch notes that differentiate essences from the mythologised absolutes of historical identity. In doing so, it predates the "historiographic metafiction" of Sebald, Ishiguro, Ondaatje et al which has been somewhat predominant in defining the recent literary scene. This alone makes it worth investigation, but it also offers a key to understanding (anglophone) imaginings of North which is in many ways indispensable. It probably belongs somewhere between Louis Macneice's I Crossed the Minch and Erskine Childers' The Riddle of the Sands on the bookshelf and so may be worth reading purely on the basis of the company it keeps.