Thursday September 27, 2012 § Leave a comment
Topaz and granite
suburban villas spread
like pond growth
it is barbarism springs him to the brink:
a man who franks his anger
on the wind
who turns circles in the drowning pools
of his ambition
left to tread the dusty rise of circumstance,
in coarse climates,
dilatory and resilient, here
are seeded the pale fires
that would burn the very sand, & could
quench an ocean
thirst answers thirst, as sky answers sky
one expanse struggling
to contain the other in the tangerine scrub
a kiss fails a kiss
Thursday September 27, 2012 § Leave a comment
defer chance chainlink and pot-plants the storm riding in, casual at 4.30
the shallow glass wrinkled with perspiration
of isolation from a balcony hanging forty stories high
sucks a little sugar nixed from the mirror the taut prince
& beneath, the chronic city
patio furniture heavy with
sweet tooth the curse of the sentry
benson & hedges, and a little tinnitus
Thursday September 27, 2012 § Leave a comment
of mid-afternoon a high, a cold moon relinquishing, his predicament is a solstice brightness on a cold day of shadows faint along the strip breathing into
the slipstream, collar up, wind makes eyes weep, under clouds signals of distress blink into the evening a dynasty the tumble-down fall of the dull light of a plane landing
& how long he can stand outside the circle
Sunday September 16, 2012 § Leave a comment
float the dreary bubble
abroad, gone are the singing reeds
wind only, blatant in its
drop a single halting pass
where curlew held in the brink
Sandford the longing lights spellbound
on the dusk
what failure ever goes unrecognised, untranscribed, how we know
the tinny reverberations of our own undoing
when we hear them
now the shank of steel the wincing irons lacklustre on the breeze
the bleeting shame
the rainless afternoon
the last office, lingered over
cold fire lost to the noon
asylum jinxed, finally
Tuesday September 11, 2012 § Leave a comment
I am still somewhat troubled by Will Self’s new novel, Umbrella, and its overt modernism. The first thing to say is that it is a really incredibly well-written book, from what I have read thus far, and in its way, a page-turner. There are moments when I have been left smiling at the inventiveness of the language, or the sheer rightness of a description or an image. On its own terms, this is shaping up to be a great book.
However, it is those terms that leave me a little wary. Because this is a recognisably ‘modernist’ novel. Those features that most people would accept as representing high modernist technique – the broken diction, the close grammar, the fractured, dilatory narrative, and the foregrounding of linguistic invention – are all there. The plot, such as it is, is a story told across three time periods (and naturally the novel flicks between them, sometimes at random and mid-sentence) concerning a young woman called Audrey Death who in the aftermath of the First World War, owing to a worldwide epidemic, enters a coma. The novel narrates the period of her life before her coma; the attempts of a doctor, Zak Busner to cure her during the 1970s; and then finally the elderly Busner of the present, recollecting his time treating her all those years ago.
I suppose my wariness is owing to a number of factors. One is that for all its accomplishment, this novel feels like something of a throwback. It really does read like a modernist novel – in the sense that you feel, if it were not for the present day sections, that it could have been written at any point between 1920 and 1930. Which is fine, but it raise questions as to what modernism might usefully be considered to represent now, or more accurately (and pompously), what is its legacy. By so faithfully replicating the techniques and methods that characterised literary modernism in the 1920s it situates those techniques as museum pieces, that can be lifted out and dusted off. It freezes modernism in its moment so that it ceases to be the sum of its intellectual concerns, and instead becomes the accumulation of a range of narrative devices.
Which is unfair to Self. I suspect he shares those intellectual concerns (which, for what it is worth, interest me too) and it is those concerns he is seeking to explore and resolve. But what makes me wary is that there does not seem to been an acknowledgement of the fact that those techniques are of a time. Which isn’t to say that they can never be used again, or that they have a kind of expiry date. But there does not appear to have been development of the ideas underpinning them.
To come at it from a different tack, I believe there is a clue to this in the novel’s setting. It is partly a historical novel after all, and whilst there were modernist texts that cut between different time periods, or that were partially set in the past (Ulysses for example is set some twenty years before it was published, and Woolf has novels that span generations, The Years and Orlando most obviously) a good many were very much set in their own near present. The fact that the historical period of Umbrella is the cusp of the high modernist years is also telling. It reinforces in my mind the sense that this is more a homage to, rather than a development of the modernist novel.
Related to this, I think the novel also closes down our working definitions of what modernism is, fixing it as I say above in a very clearly defined set of techniques. But why should a novel that shares modernist concerns about narrative, and about the ways in which we think we know our world, employ broken diction. Have circuitous grammar. Fracture time at the level of the sentence, and foreground linguistic agility within it. What are its longer horizons?
Its all a bit harsh on Self. He hasn’t, anywhere I’ve seen, said that his book is the definitive guide to, or representation of modernism (although he has given several interviews pinning his personal colours to the modernist mast, which suggests he is in this novel trying to signpost an affinity to a certain notion of modernism – implicitly of course the one presented and enacted in Umbrella). But these are some of the questions that reading his book have prompted for me.
Wednesday September 5, 2012 § Leave a comment
The afternoon had grown sordid. Empty heat poured vacantly across the garden, which lay inert and greedy under its luminous shade. Hannah bristled, snorting the hot air, swallowing to keep down a puff of Benson & Hedges, and emitting a little burp as she did so. The garden, its square lawn, its brief ashy terrace, dark beneath the jaundiced parasol, and the spoiled solar-powered night lamps (dormant in the thick daylight, and carrying the slow, murky smear of summer) jack-knifed into the flaky border soil, had reduced itself to a constellation of surfaces, all lightly reflecting and feeling a little smacked and spoiled with sunlight.
– Everything’s dying, said Hannah, flecking ash into the tall grass. Except the fucking grass.
Becci looked up from her magazine. Inside the house a stereo kicks into life, and nineties pop-music drifts out and across the patio.
– Why don’t you cut it? says Becci.
At which Hannah directs a withering look in her direction. It is as if she is saying (but isn’t – in fact it is important that she isn’t, for her power, if she has any, lies in her ellipses, in her silences, in her dilatory, but entirely deliberate and steely omissions), ‘I didn’t spend my life landladying to mow my own fucking lawn.’ No, it’s nearly seven years since she got out of that game, since that fire at the Loaf.
Of course, that fire being the other reason she doesn’t say it. Just as it consumed the tired fabric and alabaster certainties of the Loaf and Cheese, so the trauma of it all cauterized her already shaky grip of her own limitations, which now displaced and disputed even in her own mind (though she was cleared of any personal wrongdoing in the tragedy), cause her to decline now even to approach them. This lends her a slightly circumscribed air, with such an emphasis on refusal, and on what can’t be attempted, causing a kind of negative gravity. She inhabits strange orbits.
– Can’t you just get Martin to do it, persists Becci.
Martin: former Loaf and Cheese regular, now sometime boyfriend, sometime caretaker for Hannah, who now escalates her gaze to new more rarefied levels of disdain.
– Mum, I’m just saying.
– Saying what? Becci’s sister Helen deposits their drinks on the table, taking her own from the middle of the tray, and settling into the only chair still in the sun.
– I was saying Mum should get Martin to cut the lawn.
– I’m sure he would, says Helen hopefully.
But Hannah is unmoved. She has turned away now, and standing on the edge of the patio much as one might stand on the deck of a ship looking into the sea, the memory of the fire is returned to her, having drifted unbidden, and quite against her own best instincts, into her mind. The mulchy remains and the strange indignity of its shapeless wilted frames – a door, a window – pointing from the debris with delirious quietness. How she would not miss knowing what she knows, having seen what she has seen, she thinks.