The Spire

Following trips to Lichfield and Winchester, I went to Salisbury yesterday. The Cathedral purbeck stone is as white as Winchester but the early English gothic design is more reminiscent of Lichfield; an elaborate front (filled with image of christian masochism like Sebastiane and Agatha) surmounted with an octagonal spire that is the tallest structure from medieval Europe. Since the building was constructed in a reasonably short space of time, the design has an unusual consistency to it, though the impression of layer upon historical layer at Winchester seemed to make the place more intriguing, from my standpoint at least. By contrast, Salisbury was a tabula rasa, built to overcome the shortcomings of the original site at Old Sarum.

Inside, the interior is perhaps a little more colourful than is usual; the ceiling was painted during Gilbert-Scott’s restoration, with the ceiling covered in Romanesque designs, while some of the windows were designed by Burne-Jones. The most impressive areas are the cloisters and chapter house. In the latter, a fan-vaulted ceiling rises above window arches that flood the room and its window friezes with light, while the arches of the cloisters look out onto a garden with Lebanon cedars at the centre. The Cathedral close is probably best described as picturesque; none of the buildings in it are especially striking but do produce an effect in combination. Mompesson house, a Queen Anne style building (moulded ceilings and painted walls combined with oak staircases; more genteel than Jacobean design, less mannered than later interiors), had an interesting display of modern engravings by artists like Eric Ravilious, set into a context of etching that included Munch, Gauguin and Blake. There were more traditional paintings too, including a view of the Thames by Brueghel and a view of the Tiber by Vitelli. The house also had a pleasant garden; wisteria and white tulips were in flower.

Returning, I called at Stonehenge. On the whole, I have to admit to finding Avebury a much more striking place though that may be simply due to how regimented any visit to Stonehenge is. Standing outside the circle at Stonehenge, it remains occluded where Avebury opens itself up to people and to the landscape it is a part of. Avebury is much more a part of its landscape, where Stonehenge is so fenced off from everything else (the fence cutting across what would have been the entrance route to the stones for instance; the site path takes you into it at a completely different place from how it would originally have been approached). Avebury’s scale and fragmented beauty seem much more compelling than Stonehenge’s closed and almost fascist regularity. Later, I returned to Avebury. When I was there last it was cold weather, with bare trees, a bitter wind and pale white sky. Today, close to the solstice, summer finally arrived and the sky was blue and the trees green as I walked through the fields from Silbury Hill to the village. Perhaps perversely, I couldn’t help but find it more striking in its bleakest aspect (perhaps the ancient tribes agreed, since I understand that it is improbable that the summer solstice was actually celebrated). On the other hand, it was amusing to see how the usual middle-class and middle-aged visitors were counterpointed by visitors with dreadlocks and regrettable experiments in tie-dye. The weather was been quite extraordinary; following the heat came thunderstorms that lit up the entire sky. There’s something very reassuring about the oppressive heat slowly ebbing away as you can hearing the sound of water dripping from the trees. Finally, the sun set, blazing red as it burned into the horizon.

From the outside the church at Cheadle, with its slender and rather severe steeple, is quite inauspicious, until one is close enough to realise that the doors are bright red with gold lions emblazoned on them, as with European churches. Inside, it is initially dark and unlit. The lights are switched on and the interior blazes with colour, with everything coloured in the brightest golds, reds, blues and greens. Modelled on old Catholic churches in East Anglia and Saint Chapelle in Paris, the church is the work of Pugin and the Earl of Shrewsbury, a relationship that seems surprisingly analogous to Gaudi and Eusebio Guell. Pugin sought to strip ecclesiastical architecture of all classical pagan elements, returning to a pure form of English gothic as an attempt to demonstrate the Englishness of Catholicism.

Passing on to Biddulph Grange, I walked around the gardens. These are interspersed with various follies; a Chinese pagoda and bridge, sphinxes and a yew pagoda. There’s something rather kitsch about the whole affair (reminiscent of Eco’s travels in hyperreality); the face of the sphinxes is a jowled Englishmen rather than the aquiline features characteristic of Egyptian aesthetics while a golden Hindu cow rests in a Chinese pagoda (reflecting the idea of the oriental as a single category; just as the Brighton pavilion is chinoiserie on the inside and Mughal on the outside). Elsewhere in the gardens are a pinetum lined with sequoia and a glen filled with mosses and tree ferns. The centre of the garden is a lake filled with koi and lined with yellow irises; as the sun appeared from behind the clouds the reflection of the house played gently in the waters. Finally, I’ve returned to a few other places; to Little Moreton Hall, to see the plasterwork in its long gallery and to Packwood House. Having being constructed in an ad hoc basis over the years, Packwood seems to face in all directions, having three front doors, four sundials (one bearing the inscription orimur morimur; I have risen and I have died, a typically melancholic inscription) and two clocks. Its allegorical depiction of the sermon on the mount in its yew tree garden always strikes me as especially pagan, something more like Stonehenge than Salisbury Cathedral. The gardens were full of red poppies, red hot pokers and fennel. At The Vyne, hibiscus and Monkshead were in flower.

Amelie by Jean Pierre Jeunet is probably my very favourite film, so my hopes were high when I went to see his latest film, A Very Long Engagement. I wasn’t disappointed. This is a much more complex film than Amelie describing the First World War in a way that is bloody and horrifying, but retaining all of Amelie’s quirky humour and dreamy romanticism as well. In short, it has a complexity that one would more commonly expect from a novel than a film. Like many of my favourite films (Goodbye Lenin and Amelie again) this writerly quality is partly due to the film being narrated as much as dramatised and to a structure that is very heavily reliant on flashbacks.

The title The Deep End refers to the name of a club in the film, but also alludes to the depths of Lake Tahoe as well as the more obvious associations of the phrase. Blue permeates the film, whether seen in the waters or in the club’s lighting while the soundtrack also gives it a gentle ambient feel that is quite at odds with the events being depicted. The narrative itself is reminiscent of an Almodavar film (a blackmail plot revolving around the protagonist’s gay son and the death of his lover), although as the relationship between the protagonist and her erstwhile blackmailer deepens it is this that proves the most disruptive aspect of the film, rather than her son’s affairs.

One of my recent serendipitous secondhand bookshop discoveries was Benvenuto Cellini’s Autobiography. This can perhaps be best described as the sort of account either Marlowe or Caravaggio might have written of their lives, had their survived to tell the tale. Like them, Cellini was homosexual (surprisingly openly so, as with an account of a handsome apprentice being dressed in drag), quick-tempered and deeply embroiled in court politics. The text seems to comprise a number of different influences. Firstly, it does bear a striking resemblance to a medieval hagiography (in much the same way as the first autobiography in English, The Life of Margery Kempe) by recounting the various hardships and misfortunes suffered unjustly by Cellini. This is taken to the extent that he even acquires a halo and a guardian angel (although the marks on his forehead that appear in one vision seem more like the mark of Cain and Cellini at one point witnesses the invocation of demons), and is saved from death by miraculous forces; "I was seized by an invisible force and carried away as if by a wind; I was taken to a room where that invisible companion of mine became visible and appeared in the form of a young man." It goes without saying that Cellini’s guardian angel would be "marvelously beautiful."

Of course, where Kempe was a mystic persecuted on suspicion of heterodoxy, Cellini was a good deal closer to being an unapologetic sinner (most obviously when he is accused of being a sodomite and replies "I wish to God I did know how to engage in such a noble practice. After all, we read that Jove enjoyed it with Ganymede in paradise and here on earth it is the practice of the greatest emperors." Oscar Wilde would have done well to take note). The other influence seems quite opposed to this; like Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller (also describing hardships endured on travels), it is a picaresque account of the life of someone who is often clearly a rogue, if a sympathetic one; "If when describing these events, I did not admit that I know I was sometimes acting wrongly, it would not ring true when I treat of actions which I know were justified." The text combines a Bakhtinian aspect of carnival that resists the religious narrative within the same text (again highlighted by the absence of any need for repentance being admitted at the end).

Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello has often led to questions as to whether it can be called a novel at all, seeming more like Murdoch’s Acastos or Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Composed of a series of lectures given by the author himself, the issue of the author function is also present to an unusual extent, although this issue is further problematised by the extent to which the Costello personae’s views are challenged throughout. In practice, the central issue of more one of the relation of literature of life; "the word-mirror is broken, irreparably… we are just performers speaking our parts." Similarly, the section on the novel in Africa foregrounds the solitude of reading as much of Costello’s seclusion when writing, "people on trains take books out of their bags or pockets and retreat into solitary worlds" The novel and writing become a form of imperialism, a form of cancer, denying the ability to think ourselves into the mind of a bat and diminishing the ability like Kafka to think himself into the mind of an ape or cockroach; "if I do not convince you, that is because my words here lack the power to bring home to you the wholeness, the unabstracted unintellectual nature of that animal being."

Costello’s flair for negative capability, to become the characters she depicts, is balanced by her total lack of empathy for others. Her passionate advocacy of animal rights, even if shared by her creator, is essentially a symptom of her alienation from other people, even wondering why she cannot help but see her own relatives as being as depraved as concentration camp guards for eating meat. Literature is an engaged media; it cannot help but be dialogic, representing the views of Costello’s interlocutors (such as a Jew offended by her concentration camp comparisons) as Costello, of murderers (as in Paul West’s novel in spite of the offence it causes Costello) as much as victims; "I maintain beliefs only provisionally ; fixed beliefs would stand in my way. I change beliefs as I would change my habitations or my beliefs." Likewise, in Dusklands, the narrator’s involvement in the propaganda project contaminates him, effecting him far more than its recipients (the intent to dissolve Vietnamese patriarchal ties rebounding on his own son); "Print on the other hand is sadism and evokes pure terror." Conversely, in the second story, the narrative of Jacobus Coetzee, his sadism is innate and part of role as an explorer. Conversely, in In the Heart of the Country the narrator is denied awareness of the basis for her own actions, speaking of theories and fictionalised narratives of herself; "I signify something. I do not know what… is it possible that there is an explanation for all the things I do and that explanation lies inside me, like a key(?).. To die an enigma with a full soul or to die emptied of my secrets.

Michel Houellebecq’s pose of wearied disgust with contemporary society and both extremes of the political spectrum is counterpointed by his commitment to what can probably be called futurism or extropianism; "ill-informed of recent progress in molecular biology, he had no idea that such modification… would shortly be possible." Lanzarote confronts this strain and appears to conclude it. The island could easily be a post-apocalyptic Europe, with its settlements destroyed by the volcano. While there, the narrator hears of similar themes within Europe; rising crime, ethnic violence and religious fundamentalism in European cities while America comes to dominate the world; "In Belgium we no longer constitute what is commonly called a society… I realise that this tendency is common to all European countries." When confronted with the Azraelian sect, the novel appears to compare their ideas to Houellebecq’s futurism, suggesting that both emerge as a symptom rather than a cure of social breakdown.

Like Madame Bovary, Zola’s Nana balances within itself a moral fable of subversion and punishment against the subversion of depicting such matters at all and eliciting sympathy for the perpetrator. But although he began by seeking to create a moral allegory that drew parallels between the Second Empire’s moral degradation and its defeat in the war with Prussia ("morals such as these, reminiscent of Roman decadence, meant an end to all society.. the sort of indulgence that leads society to the abyss."). Zola is considerably more radical than Flaubert. In The Experimental Novel he wrote that "I consider that the question of heredity has a great influence in the intellectual and passionate manifestations of man. I also attach considerable importance to the surroundings… Man is not alone; he lives in society, in a social condition; and consequently, for us novelists, this social condition unceasingly modifies the phenomena. Indeed our great study is just there, in the reciprocal effect of society on the individual and the individual on society" Ambiguities between what we might now call genetic and social determinisms lie at the heart of the novel. In the case of the former, the novel abounds with imagery comparing its characters to animals (dogs in particular) and it is Nana’s innate magnetism that allows her to conquer others; "his whole being was in revolt; the way in which Nana had slowly taken possession of him for some time past terrified him." Nana herself is an empty vessel, holding moral and religious views with limited awareness of her effect on others. But in practice, she poses a challenge to French society; "if decent women are going to meddle in our affairs and take our lovers away from us!… Oh, they’re a nice lost, these decent women are!" The nature of this challenge is stressed by the social aspect of the novel; "the whores… avenged public morality by emptying his money bags… she had avenged the beggars and martyrs of her world." Devoid of materialism ("Money was all a lot of rot."), Nana is in some senses simply practicing redistribution of wealth from those that had earned theirs through privilege or dishonesty.

Similarly, in L’Assommoir, the narrative depicts Lantier’s radicalism and seems to endorse it in its conclusion; "the truth was that she died of poverty, from the filth and exhaustion of her wasted life," though it immediately qualifies this with the less charitable suggestion that Gerviase dies from her own slatternliness. Elsewhere, the novel teeters between these explanations. On the one hand, the novel condemns Paris as an active participant in events, with Coupeau escaping his alcoholism only when out of Paris; "people don’t realise how refreshed drunkards are simply by getting away from the air of Paris, which is really polluted by fumes of wines and spirits… oh, if she could have gone off like that, anywhere yonder, away from these dwellings of poverty and suffering." Here Zola is not so far removed from Engels who sees such matters in exclusively environmental terms; "How can he be expected to resist the temptation? It is morally and physically inevitable that, under such circumstances, a very large number of working men should fall into intemperance." But equally, the novels functions as a highly reactionary moral fable, condemning Gervaise for her profligacy and the tendency of the characters to destroy themselves (as with her conscious decision to start drinking).

Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind is a rather odd combination of The Mysteries of Udolpho and Bleak House. The plot is in many respects a gothic romance, concerning the forbidden love of Julian Carax and Penelope Aldaya but like Bleak House its more fantastic elements (from a haunted mansion to a mephistopholean character that pursues the narrator as he uncovers Julian’s history) are subdued within a realistic setting. The novel covers much of the history of Barcelona throughout the twentieth century and describes much of the city in precise detail (even assigning said mansion an architect, Puig Cadafalch who worked at the same time as Gaudi) with such areas as Barcelonetta, Els Quatre Gats, Las Ramblas and Montjuic playing central roles in the novel (the latter either in its capacity as cemetery or as a place of execution during the civil war). Equally, another of the central aspects of the novel is the Borgesian conceit of the cemetery of forbidden books, a sanctuary for lost works, and the novel is also concerned with more metaphysical concerns; for example, the allusion to shadow in the title covers a number of areas, from a sense of obscurity, a sense of evil to allusions to Plato’s cave (books being referred to alternately as prisons and as mirrors).