April 17, 2014

Go litel bok

The Critic in the Modern World is an exceptionally intelligent and well-written study, showing how some of the greatest English-language critics have engaged with literature and the world. Like the critics he writes about, Ley is addressing not the specialist but the generally educated reader, and anyone who cares about the tradition of criticism will find him a rewarding and enlightening guide.”  
–  Adam Kirsch


August 16, 2013

Evelyn Waugh: Fictions, Faith and Family by Michael G. Brennan

Among the revealing biographical details in Michael G. Brennan’s study of the novels of Evelyn Waugh is the story of one C.R.M.F. Cruttwell, a history tutor at Oxford, who had the misfortune to encounter Waugh in the early 1920s. The young novelist was busy drinking and carousing his way to a gentleman’s Third, and Cruttwell’s abrasive personality – the product, Brennan notes, of some traumatic war experiences – seems to have rubbed Waugh up the wrong way. Not content merely to subject his tutor to puerile pranks and spread scurrilous rumours about a penchant for bestiality, Waugh was to include caricatures of Cruttwell in his fiction for the rest of his life and turned undying hatred of his old nemesis into something of a family tradition. In 2003, at a conference held at Oxford to mark the centenary of Waugh’s birth, his grandson, Alexander Waugh, stood beneath Cruttwell’s portrait and proposed a toast that the hapless tutor be ‘for ever remembered as a dog sodomiser and a total shit’. Brennan observes of this extraordinary case of sustained vindictiveness that it is ‘an intriguing example of how minor facets of [Waugh’s] Oxford life permeated the entire span of his literary career’. That’s one way of looking at it, I suppose.
Brennan’s thesis in Evelyn Waugh: Fictions, Faith and Family can be simply stated. It is that Waugh’s Catholicism is central to his art. As Brennan points out, Waugh belonged to a generation that was just old enough to feel the terrible effects of the First World War, but was too young to participate. The cataclysm imbued many writers of the era with a deep pessimism about the fate of modern civilisation. Like his close contemporary and friend Graham Greene (about whom Brennan has written a similarly themed study), Waugh came to experience his profound cultural pessimism as a spiritual crisis, which ended in his conversion, in 1930, to Roman Catholicism. All of Waugh’s subsequent writings, proposes Brennan, are devoted to the exploration and elaboration of aspects of his Catholic faith, which provided him with ‘an inspiring source of narrative creativity, intellectual scepticism and spiritual solace.’
Waugh was a famously prickly character. Near the end of the book, Brennan acknowledges that his subject ‘has always attracted passionate detractors. Both his writings and his caricature public persona [sic] of an irascible, tweed-suited “old fogey” have been accused of snobbishness, elitism, boorishness, cruelty, misanthropy and racism.’ Literary historian and critic John Sutherland has identified only one likeable working-class character in all of Waugh’s fiction (though, to be fair, the upper classes don’t fare all that well either), and has suggested that the novelist’s discontented social vision may well be a product of his very English obsession with class – and, specifically, Waugh’s feeling that he was born into a slightly lower social stratum than he would have liked.
Though not at all a hagiographer, Brennan is not a detractor. He chooses not to dwell on his subject’s less than admirable social views, or the fact that Waugh was capable of being, in the words of Stephen Fry (another admirer of his fiction), ‘a howling shit’. This is perhaps fair enough in a work concerned with the theological dimension of Waugh’s writing, but it gives an odd cast to the book’s mixture of biography and criticism, because it downplays the paradoxes of his character.
Brennan treats Waugh’s faith as sincere, which it certainly was, but in treating it respectfully he also presents it uncritically. Yet one of fascinating things about Waugh, which Brennan’s argument only hints at, is the apparent contradiction between his professed piety and his temperamental irascibility. This is a literary issue, as much as a psychological one. Some of those negative qualities that made him a ‘howling shit’ – irritability, cruelty, misanthropy – also provided the satirist with his inspiration and drive. Brennan reads the later novels – the Sword of Honour trilogy (1952-61) and Bridehead Revisited (1945), in particular – as the mature realisation of Waugh’s religiously informed literary vision, but there are many readers, including this reviewer, who prefer the incorrigible early works, such as Decline and Fall (1928), Vile Bodies (1930) and A Handful of Dust (1934), in which the satire is sharper and crueller, the scabrous displeasure more palpable.
In a passage on the Sword of Honour novels, Brennan notes that they positioned Waugh as ‘an authoritative commentator on the follies and aggressions of humankind but also as one who should not merely be defined through his religious affiliations.’ It is a reasonable caveat, yet it goes against the grain of much of Brennan’s argument, which is all about positioning Waugh as a Catholic artist with Catholic preoccupations: a man whose dedication to his religion was such that (as Brennan notes on the same page) he turned down a commission to write about the Coronation of Elizabeth II, because he ‘refused to be drawn into celebrating the accession of a new Protestant monarch’.
Evelyn Waugh: Fictions, Faith and Family is a worthwhile and convincingly argued book that establishes just how deeply Waugh’s Catholicism is woven into the fabric of his novels. But it lacks the poetics, and perhaps the will, to grapple with Waugh’s idiosyncrasies. Brennan is not given to close reading. When he quotes, it is usually to illustrate his subject’s thematic preoccupations. The satirical orientation of the writing is often noted, and Waugh’s stylistic evolution is acknowledged, but his techniques are not analysed in detail. One gets little sense of his acerbic wit, for example. As a result, the book is not moved to consider that satire is itself a form of displaced aggression, or why a man with Waugh’s massive sense of disdain should find the Catholic ideology so agreeable, or how the novels unite the snobbery and the religious faith of a writer who was often at his very best when he was at his worst.

Evelyn Waugh: Fictions, Faith and Family
Michael G. Brennan

August 10, 2013

National Bookshop Day

… My grandmother, as I learned afterwards, had first chosen Musset’s poems, a volume of Rousseau, and Indiana; for while she considered light reading as unwholesome as sweets and cakes, she did not reflect that the strong breath of genius might have upon the mind even of a child an influence at once more dangerous and less invigorating than that of fresh air and sea breezes upon his body. But when father had almost called her an imbecile on learning the names of the books she proposed to give me, she had journeyed back by herself to Jouy-le-Vicomte to the bookseller’s, so that there should be no danger of my not having my present in time (it was a boiling hot day, and she had come home so unwell that the doctor had warned my mother not to allow her to tire herself so), and had fallen back upon the four pastoral novels of George Sand. “My dear,” she had said to Mamma, “I could not bring myself to give the child anything that was not well written.”

The truth was that she could never permit  herself to buy anything from which no intellectual profit was to be derived, above all the profit which fine things afford us by teaching us to seek our pleasures elsewhere than in the barren satisfaction of worldly wealth.

⎯ Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time, Volume 1: Swann’s Way, translated by C.K. Scott Moncreiff and Terence Kilmartin (New York: Modern Library, 2003) 52-3.

July 13, 2013

Age of Idiots

Sydney Review of Books (26 June 2013).

There is a moment in Waiting for the Barbarians when Daniel Mendelsohn notes in passing that the etymological root of the term ‘idiot’ is the Greek idiotês, meaning a private person. It is related to idios, from which we also derive the word ‘idiom’. A true idiot, in other words, is ‘someone who acts in public as if they were still in private’.

Mendelsohn makes this observation in an essay on the subject of memoirs called ‘But Enough About Me’, the title of which alludes to an old joke about self-centredness (the omitted punchline is ‘what do you think about me?’), and it is merely an aside. But it crystallises his concerns. The concept of ‘autobiography’ is a relatively recent invention: the word only came into common usage in the nineteenth century. As Mendelsohn points out, however, confessional writing has a long history. Its modern secular manifestations can be traced back to Rousseau’s Confessions (1782-1789), and beyond that to a religious tradition of personal testimonies, originating in the fourth century writings of St Augustine, in which the author claims to have overthrown a life of waywardness and arrived at a state of spiritual redemption.

Yet the proliferation of memoirs in recent years, argues Mendelsohn, also needs to be understood in the context of the unprecedented technological transformation that is defining our historical moment. The current obsession with the testimonies of the self – and he cites the obvious examples of reality television, talk shows and, of course, the deluge of self-exposure that has been enabled by the internet – has created a situation in which the public sphere is swamped with the opinions, idle thoughts, revelations, commentaries, reviews and diaristic ramblings of anyone and everyone. This is clearly indicative of a great hunger both to create and consume personalised narratives, an instinctive desire to connect. But as Mendelsohn points out, one of the consequences of this compulsion has been an erosion of the distinction between our public and private selves. Thanks to the advent of social media, in particular, many person-to-person communications are also public performances. This phenomenon has been normalised with astonishing swiftness. As the fifty-something David Shields remarks in How Literature Saved My Life, ‘everyone I know under thirty has remarkably little notion of privacy.’ We are living in an age of idiots, in the etymologically precise sense of the word.

Letters to the End of Love by Yvette Walker and We Are Not the Same Anymore by Chris Somerville

Other than their publisher, these two first-time authors do not have much in common. Chris Somerville’s short stories in We Are Not the Same Anymore are written in a classically minimalist style, in which concrete details are reported in clipped declarative sentences and deeper meanings are buried and implicit. Yvette Walker’s epistolary novel Letters to the End of Love, by contrast, is openly expressive: its intimacies are confessed rather than implied, and its romantic subject matter is reflected in its richly metaphorical and, at times, nakedly sentimental prose. They are geographically polarised too: Somerville was born in Tasmania and now lives in Brisbane; Walker is from Perth.

What can be said of both authors, is that they have written works of considerable promise, though both are a little green. On the face of of it, Walker’s novel would seem to be the more conspicuously flawed of the two, its heightened style occasionally spilling over into instances of overwriting and even the odd solecism. Yet it is also the case that Letters to the End of Love ultimately proves to be the more ambitious and original work.
There is a sense in which many of Somerville’s stories in We Are Not the Same Anymore are no such thing. They are pared back to essentials, to the point where several are better characterised as sketches or vignettes. Even the longer inclusions that allow a chronological narrative to unfold – stories such as ‘Snow on the mountain’, ‘Parachute’ and ‘Athletics’ – seem to have more of interest in the juxtaposition of events than in causality. This tendency is, in fact, their most interesting feature. Though they have an affinity with realist short story tradition, they eschew moments of epiphany, which have become a tired cliché of the genre, preferring to create their effects by allowing disconnected moments to resonate with each other.
The opening inclusion, ‘Earthquake’, is a good example of Somerville’s sense of the essential. Barely five pages long, it describes the narrator and his sister helping their dotty father distribute flyers about a missing dog. It works as a mildly comical character sketch, but hints at a deeper turbulence within the family via the narrator’s memory of an earthquake they experienced while on a trip to California. It is neither as light nor as slight as it first appears.
The coolly observational tone of Somerville’s prose can sometimes give his fiction an air of almost existential blankness, a sense that no event or detail means more than any other and that their collective meaning remains uncertain. Indeed, the climax, of ‘Parachute’ – another story that features the pursuit of a missing dog – involves some gunplay on a beach that could easily be interpreted as a reworking of the famous central scene in Albert Camus’s L’Etranger. Frustrated at the failure of their search, one of the two principal characters shoots blindly into the waves in a symbolic gesture of futility, before the narrator turns the weapon on a nearby sign, attacking the idea of meaning itself. The story’s final moment is rich in its ambiguity.
The fictions in We Are Not the Same Anymore are invariably well-judged and polished. They establish Somerville as a writer of undeniable talent, albeit one who is yet to discover a style of his own. Emmett Stinson has recently argued against what he describes as the element of ‘academicism’ that is prevalent in a great deal of contemporary Australian short fiction. The charge is too severe in the case of Somerville, who has a knack for offbeat concepts and whose writing is adept enough to move from moments of wry humour to the kind of disquieting atmosphere he creates in the surveillance story ‘Room’. But there is a strong sense of familiarity about the mode of these stories that can sometimes make them seem like examples of what Milan Kundera calls ‘kitsch’ – by which he means, quite specifically, art that is content to work with received techniques and the constraints they impose.
It is interesting on this point that Kundera has also remarked that the epistolary novel remains an under-explored form, for much of the originality of Walker’s novel derives from the fact that it consists entirely of a series of letters. It is a kind of triptych, in which we move between three sets of correspondence. One is between a Russian painter, Dmitri, and his wife, Caithleen, both of whom are living in Ireland in the late 1960s; the second, from 2011, is between a young West Australian woman named Grace and her lover, Louise; the third is a one-sided correspondence written in England in 1948 by a man named John to an artist named David, with whom he had an affair in the 1930s.
There is something anachronistic and perhaps even a little nostalgic about the idea of a novel in letters, but Walker turns these qualities to her advantage. The combination of intimacy and formality that defines a personal letter allows her to present the novel as a series of set pieces. Each letter blends directness of address with the fluidity of reflection: they slip back and forth between the first and second person, and often digress to give accounts of dreams. Though one character explicitly denies she is anything like Virginia Woolf, the technique is somewhat reminiscent Woolf’s in The Waves, in which a small cast of characters deliver a series of stylised monologues.
Rather than develop a linear plot, Walker gradually reveals her characters’ back-stories. The artful aspect of this technique lies in the way Walker develops a complicated network of overlapping symbols and allusions that do not so much reinforce the novel’s themes as make them manifest. The novel is a collection of remembered moments and is interested in the evocative power of association. The lives of the three sets of characters do not overlap literally, but thematically. All are considering the meaning of relationships that have either ended or are coming to an end; all at some stage are led to muse about Paul Klee’s painting ad marginem. Their accumulated experiences raise the question of how best to make sense of the past, a question that naturally shades into the novel’s overt reflections on art and expression, the differences between a linguistic and a visual understanding, and the difficulty of capturing what Dmitri and Caithleen call the ‘ordinary poetry’ of their lives together.
Letters to the End of Love is a yearning novel, but it is not overly earnest. There are some nice comic touches, including a dream sequence in which a duck wanders into Dmitri’s studio, smokes a cigarette and critiques his work in progress. It is an unusual novel in a very positive sense. Though its ambitions are not perfectly realised, it  nevertheless displays a great deal of heart and intelligence.

We Are Not the Same Anymore
Chris Somerville
(University of Queensland Press)

Letters to the End of Love
Yvette Walker
(University of Queensland Press)

May 11, 2013

Levels of Life by Julian Barnes

‘Finding good in grief,’ The Age, Life & Style (11 May 2013) 25.

Death has been on Julian Barnes’ mind lately. In 2008, he published Nothing to be Frightened of, a book that approached the subject from the perspective of an non-believer. At the centre of his recent Man Booker Prize winner The Sense of an Ending (2011) is a suicide and the novel is, in part, a reflection on the inscrutable questions raised by the act of rejecting life itself. His new book, Levels of Life, a slim volume as elegant as anything he has written, gets to what is surely the heart of his recent preoccupation: it is a mediation on his personal grief following the death in 2008 of the dedicatee of his books and his wife of nearly 30 years, Pat Kavanagh.
Kavanagh’s death was sudden. Barnes records that she had a mere 37 days between the diagnosis of her terminal illness and her final moments. Five years after the fact, his dismay at the swiftness of her demise is evident in the last of the three sections of Levels of Life, in which he sets out with a kind of savage clarity the upending consequences of her absence.
It is an absence that defines the book in interesting ways. Though Kavanagh appears on the dustjacket beside her husband, almost as if she were his co-author, her name does not appear in the text. Rather than enter into the details of their life together, Barnes dissects the way in which the experience of grief makes interactions with the world difficult and painful. No one seems able to strike the right note of condolence. He bristles when people use coy euphemisms like ‘passed’. When friends try to sympathise, it only reinforces his sense of loss; but when they try the opposite tack and behave with faux-cheerfulness, or try to pass over the sensitive issue in silence, he feels affronted.
He reveals that he contemplated suicide and nominates his preferred method (the same one used by Adrian Finn in The Sense of an Ending: a hot bath and a blade across the wrists). More importantly, he explains why he decided against it. He notes that even now, despite the passing of time, he is still capable of being blindsided by an innocent remark or a sudden recollection, but he suggests that there is a sense in which it is only right and proper that grief should endure. The death of a loved one creates a need to remember, to hold on to the traces of their existence: the sense of loss can never, and should never, be entirely overcome.
Barnes is an Englishman, not someone given to overt displays of emotion, and as a memoir of grieving Levels of Life is rather unusual. His heartfelt tribute to his wife comes only after he has devoted two thirds if his book to a charming semi-fictionalised historical essay about ballooning, photography, the efforts of a Frenchman named Felix Tournachon to become the first man to capture an image of the Earth from the air, and a love affair between the celebrated nineteenth century actress Sarah Bernhardt and an English aeronaut named Fred Burnaby.
As a preamble to the book’s personal material, this makes more sense than first appears. It works as an objectifying and, in a sense, distancing gesture that contextualises the problems evoked by Barnes’ experience of loss. Levels of Life asks to be understood, retrospectively, as a secular encounter with the reality of death, but as Barnes points out we have ‘lost the old metaphors, and we must find new ones’. It is as metaphors, as well as ‘emblems of modernity’, that he invites us to consider photography and flight. The book’s encompassing ambition is to suggest that the demystifying forces of the modern world, though they have rendered untenable the old mythical understandings, might yet provide ways to speak of the meaning of life and death. It inverts the structure of the Divine Comedy, which ascends from hell through purgatory to heaven, proceeding instead from ‘the sin of height’ to being ‘on the level’ before it arrives at its final ‘loss of depth’, and in its deft examination of the complexities and ambiguities of these commonplace notions, and what they might signify to us now, Levels of Life acquires an unlikely coherence.
Capturing a profound sense of sadness in writing without slipping into sentimentality or self-pity is a difficult thing to do. In Levels of Life Barnes has not only negotiated the apparent incongruity of his material, he has created a distinctive and ultimately very affecting hybrid work that balances reflection and analysis with great skill. As an essay, Levels of Life is a deeply thoughtful work; as a piece of historical fiction, it is quite charming; and as a memoir, it is perfectly judged.

Levels of Life
Julian Barnes
(Jonathan Cape)

March 19, 2013

J.M. Coetzee: A life in writing by J.C. Kannemeyer

J.M. Coetzee’s 2001 essay collection Stranger Shores begins with the text of a lecture he gave a decade earlier in Graz, Austria. Its title – ‘What is a Classic?’ – alludes to T.S. Eliot’s 1944 lecture of the same name, in which Eliot considers Virgil as an example of a poet whose writing has transcended its historical moment.

In Eliot’s account, a classic is more than just a work that has endured; it has an importance that is at once literary and historical. Virgil is thus a classic in a way that no English writer, not even Shakespeare, can claim to be – indeed, he is ‘the classic of all Europe’ – because his poetry is the mature expression of a mature civilisation. He is ‘the consciousness of Rome and the supreme voice of her language’: a pivotal figure whose work reaches back to the pagan civilisation of ancient Greece and whose influence flows into the Christian era that succeeded his own. He qualifies as a classic because he wrote in one of the two languages – Latin and Greek – that Eliot describes as the ‘blood stream of European literature’, and because his work achieves the twin virtues of comprehensiveness and universality. For Eliot, the Aeneid is an exemplary manifestation of the ‘common heritage of thought’ that informs his ideal of European civilisation – a civilisation whose underlying unity he holds as an article of faith. It establishes a ‘criterion’ against which other works might be assessed, but more importantly, its cultural centrality resists the chaos of disunity and acts as a corrective to provincialism.

J.M. Coetzee: A life in writing
J.C. Kannemeyer
Translated by Michiel Heyns

March 16, 2013

The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee

‘A restless questing,’ The Age, Life & Style (2 March 2013) 22-23.

At the end of J.M. Coetzee’s 2003 novel Elizabeth Costello, his eponymous heroine finds herself in a strange purgatorial landscape reminiscent of a remote colonial outpost. She is before a gate, through which she wishes to pass for reasons that are never made explicit, but is refused permission until she provides the local authorities with a satisfactory statement of her beliefs.
As the culmination of the novel’s disquisitions about the travails of authorship, about the competing claims of literature and philosophy, about animal rights and evil and desire (and much else besides), the scene is an odd contrivance, but it works brilliantly. It shifts the moral questioning and soul-searching into a different fictional register, uncoupling the action from the naturalistic order of the preceding chapters. In doing so, it draws together an apparently contingent work, a rickety lean-to of a novel built from scraps of old essays, with the suggestion that its coherence might be found in its restlessly questing spirit. Behind the novel’s unresolved arguments and its self-reflexive premise is Costello’s awareness of her state of metaphysical suspension, in which the confronting fact of her own mortality awakens a desire for meaning so deeply personal it seems to defy articulation.
Each of Coetzee’s novels establishes its own generic identity, but this wrestle with idealism is one of the unifying features of his work. It is one of the things that makes books as formally distinct as Foe (1986), Disgrace (1999) and Diary of a Bad Year (2007) all seem recognisably Coetzeean. His protagonists tend to be Quixotes rather than Hamlets. While not necessarily deluded, they are preoccupied with their ideals, which they project into the world, only to find that impure reality tends to be rather stubborn.
The Childhood of Jesus is deeply concerned with this conflict between abstraction and brute fact, although in a formal sense it is unlike anything Coetzee has written before. Though it has something of the allegorical gloss of his early fiction, and there are shades of Elizabeth Costello’s reckoning in its peculiar atmosphere and its homespun philosophising, it arrives as a surprising late contender for the title of the strangest book in his catalogue.
It begins with its two main characters, a man named Simón and his five-year-old companion David, arriving in the town of Novilla in an unidentified Spanish-speaking country. They pass through several gates in a symbolic transition that alienates them from their past. Simón has only the dimmest recollection of his previous life and little notion of how or why he came to be in Novilla; the boy has been separated from his parents and the letter that ‘might have explained everything’ has been lost.
The early chapters are taken up with Simón’s quest to find the boy’s mother. He does not know her name or what she looks like, yet he claims he will recognise her when he sees her. He soon finds someone whom he insists is David’s real mother, even though no one else seems to think so. Weirdly, the privileged young woman goes along with his quixotic conviction, agreeing to live in a seedy housing estate and become a mother to the boy.
The Childhood of Jesus is not a novel in which conventional ideas about characters’ motivations have much traction. Nothing happens that is unworldly enough to warrant the label fabulism, but the absence of the kinds of explanations and rationalisations we expect from a narrative creates an air of unreality that is extraordinarily evocative. Concrete details start to seem loaded with implications, while the characters – and this is a novel in which even the stevedores who labour on the docks beside Simón are philosophy students – conduct stylised conversations that wander into profound questions of life and death.
This overt questioning, so characteristic of Coetzee’s late fiction, drives the novel. Its dramatic structure is episodic, but significant sections are devoted to the elementary philosophical discussions that ensue when David asks childish questions about the world. Simón’s protective instincts make him anxious the boy receive an education, but his attempts at instruction prove halting and unreliable. He dissembles when David wants to know about sex and death; he cloaks his explanations in quasi-religious or mystical terms. Some of his answers are just plain wrong. Yet the salient feature of these exchanges is less Simón’s unreliability than David’s frequent refusal to accept his assertions.
These exchanges evoke a dualism that runs throughout Coetzee’s work. Simón informs David of humankind’s double nature, telling him that we are material beings subject to material laws, yet have access to the abstract realm of ideas. Like many of Coetzee’s protagonists, however, he is apt to confuse the two realms. He is quite prepared to argue, as David Lurie does in Disgrace, that the biological urges he experiences in the presence of an attractive woman are the expression of a higher principle. (She is not fooled.)
One of David’s roles is to show up the problematic nature of this dualism. Simón is an adult: he has learned how to ignore his contradictions and to accept certain basic truths. David, having absorbed the lesson that there are two ways to see things, frustrates his mentor by consistently choosing the wrong one. He insists he can speak a language only he can understand; he takes metaphors literally; he refuses to accept that numbers proceed in a specific order. When Simón reads to him from Don Quixote, David is on Quixote’s side: those were giants, not windmills.
The name ‘Jesus’ appears nowhere in the novel. The provocative title would seem to imply that in the boy’s flighty rejection of the tyranny of logic is the first stirring of a world-changing moral vision. The underlying idea is perhaps that if one holds to one’s convictions with enough force, however strange they seem, it eventually becomes possible to sway others and thus make the world a different place. It’s a beard-scratcher, though. The novel’s elegant formality of style and the childish orientation of its arguments walk a fine line between profound simplicity and mere simple-mindedness, though there is no question of simple-mindedness with regard to the work as a whole. The Childhood of Jesus is so intricately layered with allusions, symbols, archetypal resonances and teasing echoes of Coetzee’s earlier work that it is quite likely to baffle as many readers as it intrigues; it will have critics chasing their tails for many years to come. 

 The Childhood of Jesus
J.M. Coetzee
(Text Publishing)

March 13, 2013

Thought for the day*

‘… a News-writer is a man without virtue, who writes lies at home for his own profit. To these compositions is required neither genius nor knowledge, neither industry nor sprightliness, but contempt of shame and indifference to truth are absolutely necessary.’
Samuel Johnson, The Idler, no.30 (11 November 1758).

*May also be applicable on other days.

March 9, 2013

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

‘No joke,’ Australian Book Review, no.347 (December 2012-January 2013) 18.

In the opening pages of The Casual Vacancy, a man named Barry Fairbrother collapses and dies in the car park of the Pagford Golf Club. For the next seven chapters, news of his premature demise spreads through the small English town. Reactions vary.
‘Fairbrother’s dead? … Good God … He wasn’t much past forty was he?’
‘Gavin was only playing squash with him on Thursday.’
‘Good God. Just goes to show you, doesn’t it? Just goes to show. Hang on. Mum wants a word.’
‘Christ, it puts everything in perspective, though, doesn’t it, eh?’
‘He’ll have had a massive cerebral haemmorhage. His poor, poor wife … she’s absolutely devastated.’
‘Bloody hell … What was he, forty? … Goes to show, doesn’t it? … Got to watch yourself.’
‘Do you think I should put something on the website?’
‘He’s … fuck, he’s dead! … Jesus Christ! Jesus fucking Christ! … I play squash with him. He’s only forty-four! Jesus Christ! … I can’t believe it. We only played squash on Thursday. I can’t ⎯ Jesus.’
‘Oh yeah, I heard.’
‘Mr Barry Fairbrother, who has coached our extremely socksess … success … successful girls’ rowing team for the past two years, has died … died … last night ... Who laughed? … Who laughed?’
No!  How?’
‘Is this a joke?’
It is no joke: Barry Fairbrother is dead, all right. Yet there is a tincture of grim humour in The Casual Vacancy’s rather awkward and repetitive overture. As she introduces her cast of characters, J.K. Rowling establishes the social dynamic of her novel. Their differing responses ⎯ banal, stilted, platitudinous, shocked, indifferent ⎯ hint at the small-mindedness and egotism that is at the core of its vision. For this novel beginning with the death of a man named Fairbrother is concerned with the loss of fraternity. Pagford is presented, with a wryness that gradually gives way to a steely disapproval, as a microcosm of a society that has abandoned any notion of fairness: a society that is stratified, selfish, and riven by petty rivalries. Most of the adult characters are plotting to claim Fairbrother’s vacated seat on the Parish Council before his body is cold. The council is divided by the issue of a grimy housing estate known as the Fields, which one faction, led by the fat and sleazy Howard Mollison, wants to exclude from the town. In the absence of the socially conscious Fairbrother, a respected man who had rallied the opposing faction, the political dispute becomes increasingly personal. Each counsellor comes to be driven more by the desire to see his or her enemies fail than by a desire to realise any positive objectives.
A wag has already dubbed The Casual Vacancy ‘Mugglemarch’ ⎯ an allusion to some books Rowling wrote for younger readers that were apparently quite successful. The joke proves to be surprisingly apposite. Rowling is no George Eliot (no shame there), but she does establish herself as a canny moralist whose summations have a kind of blunt perspicacity. The sourly discontented Samantha Mollison thinks ‘her crass, uninhibited way of talking, especially when drunk, constituted trenchant humour’; the dim-witted bully Simon Price is ‘a contented prisoner of his own contempt for other people’; while the insipid, neurotic Colin Wall is ‘perennially appalled by the threadbare state of other people’s morals’. At the culmination of one of the novel’s more effective scenes ⎯ that staple of social realism, a dinner party that descends into a row ⎯ Rowling observes that Samantha’s smug husband Michael’s ‘inner certainties had been no more rearranged by Kay’s arguments than a breeze can move a boulder’.
That Rowling’s troubled teenage characters are more sympathetically drawn than her blinkered adults is of thematic significance. Indeed, the novel’s social conscience is evident its depiction of two parallel worlds, the adult and the adolescent, between which there is interaction but no genuine communication. While the adults are always alert to their own interests and vigilant when it comes to their perceived enemies, they remain ignorant of their children’s travails and frequently behave in ways that are neglectful or belittling. The intrigue that grips the council in the second half of the novel and the events that lead to its tragic denouement are both the result of this generational divide. There is a savage comment implicit in the fact that the catalyst for the latter is an ill-fated union between the socially disadvantaged Krystal Weedon ⎯ who is well on her way to inheriting the wretched life of her drug-addicted mother, yet retains a flickering sense of responsibility ⎯ and ‘Fats’ Wall, a teenage rebel and an individualist of a Nietzchean stripe, whose selfishness mirrors that of the adults he affects to despise.
The Casual Vacancy is fuelled by an palpable dismay at the state of British society. It means to kick against the prevailing ideology of self-interest and indifference that leads to the entrenchment of disadvantage. On one level, it is cautionary tale offered in the hope that its readers might take stock of the kind of society they have created and ask why they allow its injustices to persist. It is, in other words, the kind of novel that one might easily scoff at. (Won’t someone think of the children?) And, on one level, it is not a great book. As a stylist, Rowling is strictly meat and potatoes. When she tries to elevate her tone, she stumbles. Yet her dramatic instincts are often sound and, more importantly, her characters are drawn with enough grit and insight to make The Casual Vacancy into a credible piece of socially engaged fiction, and even at times an astute one.

The Casual Vacancy
J.K. Rowling
(Little, Brown)