I‘ve been to Moseley Old Hall recently, a rather strange building in Staffordshire. From the outside it appears essentially Victorian, save for the twisted chimneys, knot garden, hornbeam and honeysuckle arbour and an orchard filled with cherry and quince. On the inside, it is lined with dark wooden panelling over wattle and daub construction. Similar peculiarities were in evidence at Hardwick Hall, not least the row of ash trees outside with their strange swellings amidst the branches. This building has been largely left as it was in Elizabethan times, with the occasional room that is incongruously filled with eighteenth century furniture. It is always pleasant to have a prejudice confirmed, so I was quite pleased to note that the elaborate design of the original furniture seemed much more spectacular than that of the later pieces (unfortunately most of the other original items such as wall paintings and tapestries are now all badly faded; in many respects the interior is an exercise in the poetics of decay as much as the largely glass exterior seems bold and ahead of its time). One particular item of note was the long gallery, which included an unusual painting of Elizabeth the First, her dress showing a depiction of the sea monsters Hilliard had imagined whales to resemble.
I went to Birmingham at Easter to listen to a performance of Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion at the Symphony Hall. While I like much of Bach’s works, this did rather tend towards being the kind of religious work it is difficult for an atheist to appreciate, like much of the works of Thomas Tallis or George Herbert. Looking around earlier, I discovered that the city has an interesting Church designed by Chatwin with a wooden roof and a stained glass window by Morris and Burne Jones. I’d forgotten how much impressive architecture Birmingham has, such as the town hall and cathedral in addition to the rather oppressive disused factory buildings and warehouses. More recently, many of the grimy concrete buildings for which the city is infamous have been demolished and a new centre built. This includes a strange new shopping area, consisting of a sinuous organic shape whose surface pullulates with silver hemispheres; an impressively futuristic building but one which looks incongruous at best in a rather traditional setting. During this time, I often found myself thinking of the idea of the manufacturing of tradition; though the idea of continuity of tradition embodied in the above stately homes is probably a myth, it is nonetheless a powerful one and the lack of any historical sense of time or place in Birmingham is disquieting at best.
Later, I visited the De Morgan Centre; a single room in Putney library that blazes with colour as one walks in. It includes a good selection of William De Morgan’s work including a number of tiles featuring Islamic designs and a distinctive dark blue moonlight suite. Much of the centre is taken up with Evelyn De Morgan’s work, equally characterised by vivid (possibly too vivid) colours. She has been described as a symbolist rather than a pre-raphaelite (her work is much later than that of the original Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood). Unfortunately, much of the symbolism is rather crude and seems regrettably influenced by spiritualism (I suppose it could have been worse; spiritualism left E F Benson with a morbid interest in demonic slugs). Her better work tends is devoted to classical themes, such as a portrait of Phosphorus and Hesperus; more the sort of subject matter one would expect from Simeon Solomon.
The same afternoon was devoted to the Wallace Collection. This house is decorated in typically Rococco style; red crimson and gilded walls, Sevres porcelain and Boulle marquetry furniture. I tend to have ambivalent attitudes to Rococco, since it very much seems a style designed to demonstrate wealth rather than taste. It has a certain kitsch quality to it. Beyond this, the ground floor is filled with a strange diversity of exhibits; Iznik ceramics, Venetian glass and German pewter, for example. It also has an extensive armoury of which the centrepiece is clearly the Islamic section. The Mughal and Persian shamshirs are much more ornate than any European weaponry, save perhaps those of Venice. The upper floor is more dedicated to painting, including the entirely expected horrors from the likes of Fragonard. However, it also has an excellent selection of Canaletto paintings and a good mixture of Dutch genre and maritime painting. Amongst the less well known artists, Horace Vernet’s paintings of Napoleon and the Middle East stand out. The highlight is the Great Gallery, with Velasquez’s The Lady with a Fan, Rembrandt’s Titus and, above all, Hals’ The Laughing Cavalier. This really does stand out; the facial expression is immediately individual unlike the posed expressions of most portrait painting while the elaborate symbolism of the motifs of the clothing recalls Hilliard as much as naturalistic painting.
Elsewhere in London, I spent a pleasant day in Greenwich. This seems a place quite apart from the rest of London; a leafy setting filled with Hanoverian period architecture that looks directly opposite to the Manhattanite setting of Docklands and Canary Wharf. I recall HG Wells once predicted a future where height restrictions would be abolished and it is interesting watching that come to pass. Initially, I had a look at Wren’s Royal Naval College. The banqueting hall is perhaps less impressive than it should be; the use of painting as a substitute for plasterwork (a’la trompe l’oeil) is rather transparent while the choice of colours is rather subdued (mostly browns). More promising is the opposite chapel where the later interior neo-classical design recalls Wedgewood (presumably Wren’s original design might have looked more like the gold and white rococco design of St James’s Church, rather similar to the gusto italiano interior to the nearby Royal Academy). Following this, I went on to the Queen’s house. Designed by Inigo Jones, this is an odd Jacobean version of classical architecture. Much of the painting is more of historical than aesthetic interest. That said, it does have a Canaletto painting of the Naval college, some works by Hogarth and some maritime paintings by Dutch artists such as Backhuysen and the Van De Veldes. I went on then to the Royal Observatory, with its display of camera obscura, telescopes that more closely resembled cannons and John Harrison’s timepieces (I’d been reading Eco’s The Island of the Day Before illustrated many of the themes in evidence here). Finally the Maritime Museum was of least interest, save perhaps for Prince Frederick’s barge and its gold Chinoiserie decorations. Instead of returning by rail, I took the boat back, passing under Tower bridge and past most of London’s main landmarks. Given London’s maritime history I must say that this does seem the most natural way to travel, though perhaps without the tedious commentary on luxury flat property prices I had to endure. I note that the new Norman Foster skyscraper is visible from most points of this tour; perhaps it needs to have a restaurant built on the upper floors so that we can follow the approach Maupassant took to dealing with the Eiffel tower.
A later visit saw a climb to the summit of Wren’s monument to the great fire; a tower that must have originally dominated the skyline in the same way as Nelson’s Column. Now it is hemmed with other buildings and once one has climbed to the top it becomes apparent that the same applies to other buildings such as the Bank of England, the Royal Exchange, St Paul’s and the Tower of London, all of which have been bested by taller modern buildings such as Canary Wharf; only Tower Bridge stands out as much as it would have done originally.
Conversely, where London is a cacophony of architectural styles Oxford manages to assimilate each new development, even the ziggurat of the Said Business School. While in Oxford, I went to the Ashmolean museum. I’ve often thought the Ashmolean has to be counted as one of the most impressive museums outside of London, if only due to the size of its collection of oriental exhibits., which has a large range of objects like painted silk screens, red lacquerware (as well as one lacquer casket formerly owned by Beckford), arita porcelain and a large wooden bodhisattva statue. Similarly, there is also an impressive Islamic section, featuring the customary display of Iznik ceramics and wooden arabesque patterns. The more customary historical sections, such as those of Rome and Egypt are more modest, including a well preserved statue of Athena, colourful mummy cases and an entire Nubian shrine. More impressive though, were the examples of Romano-Egyptian funeral art, the paintings made on coffin lids; the quality of painting is such that wasn’t seen again for hundreds of years. One of the diverting section was that devoted to the Tradescant collection, an original bequest to the museum that reflects the cabinet of curiosities approach to such things. I must admit to finding this ad hoc collection of Malay kris, Danish wooden tankards and Tomahawks rather more engaging from an aesthetic standpoint than the usual collection of like for like. The galleries similarly reflect a high standard; especially the selection of Dutch paintings including one Hals painting. Beyond that, the modern section has some good Pisarro paintings in a pointillist style (Les Jardin Des Tuileries) and a new gallery includes an excellent selection of Sickert paintings, an intriguingly impressionist Picasso painting (Blue Roofs) and a vivid Kandinsky painting. The pre-raphaelite section was dominated by Holman Hunt ranging from religious allegory (a painting of a priest being sheltered from the druids) to painting of London bridge and continuations of his middle-eastern paintings. As in the earlier pre-raphaelite exhibition, some of Seddon’s similar paintings were included, especially a panoramic painting of Jerusalem. In terms of the other pre-raphaelites excellent paintings by Alma-Tadema, Burne Jones (as well as an arts and crafts wardrobe decorated by him) and Millais (The Return of the Dove to the Ark) are included.
Following the interest in De Morgan, I went to Kelmscott Manor, the former home of William Morris. This is an Elizabethan house built next to river, where willows dip their branches into the water and rooks caw in the horse chestnuts. It still looks exactly like its engraving in News From Nowhere The gardens are a riot of colour, even at this time of year, with bluebells, irises, primroses and tulips in a variety of colours (scarlet, black, lilac, white and some striped red and white). The centrepiece is an ancient mulberry tree at the centre of the garden. The interior retains much of its original character, including Flemish tapestries and a considerable amount of seventeeth century furniture (considerably more ornate then the over idealised rustic simplicity of Philip Webb’s chairs). The arts and crafts tapestries, wallpaper and decoration all accordingly fit in well with their surroundings (a prelapsarian vision of history counterpointed to the reality), though it is perhaps a little surprising to discover the amount of Chinese and Burmese furniture and ceramics (including a star shape tile decorated with the first sura of the koran set in a wooden frame) in the house. Dutch imitations of Iznik pottery and an Icelandic casket were rather less surprising. Beyond that the house has several Durer engravings and Rossetti paintings; more particular portrait of Jane Morris with a gold frame against the dark blue wallpaper (the same colour as the blue silk dress Morris wears in the painting) was especially striking.
I’ve been reading Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. A review of this seems a little otiose, given the futility of deconstructing a book that deconstructs itself, but nonetheless. Although ostensibly written with one authorial persona or heteronym, the book deconstructs that notion to a large extent, with each of the subject it treats of being rewritten throughout the text. On religion, the text veers from mourning the death of god; "Never reaching union with god… always with a longing for it." and castigating atheism "to deny the existence of this intelligence, namely god, strikes me as one of those idiocies… every sound mind believes in god," whereas elsewhere it is stated that belief in god is impossible and the very concept is castigated as dangerous. Similarly, an aesthetic view of art is propounded; "Art is a substitute for acting or living…Why is art beautiful? Because it is useless" But elsewhere, advances a view of art that sees it in didactic terms, as advancing human civilisation. In some places, dreaming is described as "superior to reality," while later it states "I lack the money to be a dreamer," recasting it as a luxury, rather than a retreat from the quotidian. The text even asserts its own plurality, "I have the most conflicting opinions, the most divergent beliefs," only to deny this later, "I reread some of the pages that will form my book of random impressions..even while saying that I’m always different, I feel that I’ve always said the same thing." The result is that reading The Book of Disquiet becomes a matter of finding the figure in the carpet.
Pessoa reminded me of Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg a revisionist novel fictionalising elements of Dostoevsky’s life (an unusual concept to begin with; A Dead Man in Deptford being the only other example to come to mind). As much as The Life and Times of Michael K pastiches Kafka (it’s difficult not to use that term in a pejorative sense, and to some extent I can thinking of Bakhtin’s concept of heteroglossia) The Master of Petersburg pastiches Dostoevsky. This is in spite of the novel having a similar structure to The Life and Times of Michael K, representing a dialogic conflict between a social ingenue (Doestoevsky, with his view of anarchism as a form of nihilism at best, possession at worst) and elements of social extremism (Nechaev with his denunciation of Dostoevsky’s greed in his gambling and ignorance of the economic forces that determine existence). In his own way though, Coetzee deconstructs the idea of an authorial identity every bit as much as Pessoa. Waiting For The Barbarians presents a more idiosyncratic work, wherein the narrator wavers between dissolving the dichotomy between civilisation and barbarism (by presenting the two as part of a cycle; "civilisation entailed the corruption of barbarian virtues.. I never wished it for the barbarians that they should have the history of Empire laid upon them.") and doubting this dissolution (something epitomise by his archaeology, the preservation of the filiations of memory; "Do I really look forward to the triumph of the barbarian way; intellectual torpor.. if we were to disappear would the barbarians spend their afternoons excavating the ruins? ")
I’ve also been reading Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. Science fiction often tends towards the extremes of the utopian (in this case, an extropian or transhumanist view) or the dystopian (in this case, environmentalist or religious conservative; whose language Atwood seems peculiarly close to here), with little time for the no-man’s land between that the present is invariably composed of. This book is no exception to that, following the likes of Brave New World or (perhaps more accurately) Day of the Triffids. With that in mind, it would be perfectly possible to read Oryx and Crake as a dystopian text where Crake, a Faust-figure like Nemo, Moreau or Frankenstein, pursues dangerous technologies without thought for the consequences, unintended (such as the Craker’s development of symbolic thought and religion) or otherwise (the success of the engineered virus). On the other hand, most dystopian novels, including Brave New World, 1984 and We deal with the suppression of biological imperatives rather than their alteration. But comparisons with other Atwood novels suggest otherwise. Surfacing is full of similar dystopian theories concerning an American invasion of Canada for its oil reserves, and sees its protagonist retreat from civilisation into nature (feeling a guilt at being human and expressing a desire for humanity to disappear); similarly, throughout Oryx and Crake mankind is viewed as an aggressive species that consumes resources indiscriminately (essentially, as Easter Island writ large); the Crakers represent a similar retreat to nature, allowing Crake to take on the mantle of an almost heroic figure instead. To be specific, Oryx and Crake shares the same concerns over capitalism as Surfacing but its depiction of gated communities having evolved into a corporate caste system is essentially tangential to the plot, and the overall depiction is more ambiguous since the damage is largely done by environmentalist characters rather than corporate strategy.
Umberto Eco’s The Island of the Day Before, on the other hand, was something of a disappointment, seeming more a vehicle than a novel. More promising was VS Naipaul’s Beyond Belief, an examination of Islam considered as a colonial force in formerly non-Islamic countries. Naipaul characterises islam as a totalising ideology that isolates it adherents from both regional traditions and foreign influences, leaving those societies in an ideological vacuum with islam as the only philosophy available to them (though many of the outcomes of that seem typical of monosyllabic post-colonial societies to some extent). Although he compares the Islamic displacement of other faiths to the spread of christianity in the Roman Empire, Naipaul suggests that christianity tends more to assimilate other traditions and to allow some form of congruence. Certainly, it is possible to think of examples that might confirm this, such as the use of pagan symbolism at Christmas, but equally the history of Protestantism after the reformation hardly seems all that different from islam. Equally, Naipaul notes the Islamic assimilation of Hindu myth and suggests that islam in these societies had become less tolerant in recent times (again inviting parallels with the change from Catholicism to Protestantism). The overall impression is that a predetermined thesis has been proved, with the result that much of the picture painted is both uniform and monolithic. By way of contrast, compare Naipaul’s account to that of Orhan Pamuk; "it seemed to me that their little bursts of lawless individualism were strangely at odds with the state-imposed religious laws that dictated every other aspect of life in the city."
Junichiro Tanizaki’s Some Prefer Nettles represents an interesting continuation of the themes I discussed from In Praise of Shadows. Interestingly, where a European novel would have rendered these themes against a wider social panorama with a large cast, Tanizaki uses a narrow number of characters and suggests such wider concerns through metonym and symbol. The book suggests that Kaname’s westernisation lies at the root of his personal problems; "the tradition of woman worship in the West is a long one, and the Occidental sees in the woman he loves the figure of a Greek Goddess, the image of the Virgin Mother… to some extent every woman tries to make herself look like an American movie star." Conversely, Kaname’s emulation of his father-in-law, with his doll-like concubine, upholds a more reactionary set of Oriental norms, and Tanizaki implies that Kaname has allowed his wife too much autonomy (though conversely, the father-in-law’s concubine appears unhappy).
In terms of film, I’ve been watching Before Night Falls, Beau Travail (a film that reminds me of Apocalypse Now in that cinematography fails to act as a proxy for the interior narrative of the novel used as a source in either case) and Le Fabuleux Destin D’Amelie Poulain, a film that avoids sentimentality through its suggestion that happiness is something that must people must be cajoled or deceived into. Similarly, Delicatessen is an excellent film. Where the Americans always envisaged the post-apocalyptic future as being one of urban warfare and anarchy, the French see it more as people going quietly insane behind masks of middle-class respectability. Interesting food cooked recently: Polish sauerkraut stew, Hungarian ghoulash, Turkish bobotie, Turkish Lahmacun, Chicken Fricassee, Chicken Marengo, Lebanese spiced chicken and Coq au Vin.