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.