A Modern Piranesi

Eliot had it right; April truly is the cruellest month, bearing the promise of light and warmth only to dash such hopes. Between overcast skies and bright sunlight, little middle ground has been offered this year. Arriving in Tamworth, I walked over the river Tame to the base of the hill surmounted by the town’s castle. This wooded area is home to a statue of Aethelfleda, the daughter of Alfred the Great and ruler of Mercia, who rebuilt the town after the Danes destroyed it. Walking past the somewhat fanciful recreation of the castle’s battlements and into the town, the first thing I met is the marketplace where a statue of Robert Peel stands in front of the town hall. Beyond this lies St Editha’s Church, named after a saint that interceded with the Norman Lord Marmion to preserve the town’s convent. Norman arches remain clearly visible in the fabric of a thirteenth century church filled with stained glass by Ford Maddox Brown while the dark wood ceiling is beautifully studded with gold patterns.

Shugborough was essentially built on the proceeds of piracy, with a British admiral capturing a Spanish ship and its gold cargo. Given that, some of the rooms accordingly show a taste for the exotic. One room is filled with Chinese porcelain, mirror paintings and cabinets in what Chippendale believed to be a Chinese style. Others are painted with pictures of ruins, mostly Roman but intermingled with the occasional gothic spire or pyramid, in contrast to the elaborately plastered Vassalli ceilings. I was also rather taken with the library, where the door is lined with fake books to conceal its presence. The grounds are similarly dotted with ruins and fake follies. One, a quaint imitation of The Temple of the Winds, is incongruously complete with stained glass and gothic gargoyles. Sudbury Hall is more of an oddity. Built in the Carolean period, the Dutch cupola on its hipped roof is the only contemporary aspect of its architecture. The rest is more Jacobean in style, with red and grey bricks arranged in quincunx patterns. The interior is much the same, boasting a wooden staircase, wooden carvings and a long gallery, filled with paintings by Wright and Kneller, whose ceiling is plastered in a more Carolean style, seeming to be alive with grasshoppers, boars and other animals. The grounds were changed to suit later tastes, and formal gardens were replaced with a lake and natural vistas.

Elsewhere, Calke Abbey lives up to its reputation rather poorly. Often described as a time capsule, there is no doubting the historical authenticity of the house contents but there is considerable doubt as to their interest. Put unkindly, the house is largely filled with the sort of objects no-one would wish to retain and which only remain because they could not be auctioned. The exterior of the building is unimaginatively neo-classical while the interior demonstrates that its owner’s principal interests were less concerned with aesthetics and more concerned with destruction; room after room is filled with stuffed animals. The most interesting room houses case after case of fossils, geological curios, even an alligator skull. However, for the most part of the cold and decaying rooms seem to have little former grandeur to have The nearby medieval church is perhaps more interesting, as are the gardens (planted with period vegetables, even down to clay jars to force rhubarb), cavernous ice house and heated peach house (incongruously painted in blue).

The entrance to the Barber Institute is every bit as idiosyncratic as that of the Vienna secession, with traditional herringbone brickwork matching the jagged art-deco patterns on the doors. The heraldic crests on either side form an equally traditional contrast to the fluid modern lines of the rest of the building, while Birmingham University clock lours overhead. The inside is similarly modern, all gleaming marble and wood. The initial rooms present excellent works by Rossetti, Whistler, Gauguin, Derain and Magritte interspersed with such objects as Chinese cloisonne drinking cups, German unicorn models, Shiva statues and such objects as the head of Amenhotep. Later galleries present excellent displays of Medieval and Renaissance art but the highlight was an exhibition of art by the Norwegian painter JC Dahl. Dahl would seem to have had a predilection for moonlight scenes, drawing on the work of Vernet, Wright (the exhibition included a Wright painting of a lighthouse at night) and David Friedrich (including a painting of Pomeranian spires seen from the sea), Dahl draws such scenes as Kronborg Castle, Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples, the isle of Stege and Dresden, all exquisite works of Romanticism that parallel painters like Arkhip Kuindhzi or Atkinson Grimshaw.

Walking alongside the Birmingham-Fazeley canal, with its crumbling brickwork, weeds pressing through the cracks and decaying seventies buildings all around, was a rather disquieting experience. Nowhere more was this the case than underneath one of the railway arches, with the cavernous space beneath reminding me of the sort of thing Piranesi might have drawn. Emerging once more into the light I was confronted with St Chad’s Cathedral, the first Roman-Catholic Cathedral to have been built in England since the reformation. With its two thin towers flanking its front facade, it’s oddly reminiscent of Lichfield Cathedral, while the Baltic-German style chosen by Pugin seemed to take well to being transplanted into English redbrick.

Zola’s Germinal presents Zola’s most direct confrontation of Marx and Darwin. On the one hand, Etienne asks "Was Darwin right then, was this world nothing but a struggle in which the strong devoured the weak..?" The novel accordingly questions whether Darwin is merely providing a scientific basis for inequality, and whether strength rests with capital or "if one class had to be devoured, surely the people, vigorous and young, must devour the effete and luxury loving bourgeoisie?" The novel is decidedly dialogic in its approach to this; capital does defeat the miner’s strike but the ending, as implied in the novel’s title, leaves open the possibility of future changes; "before the century was out there would have to be another revolution, and this time it would have to be another revolution". However, it is clear that the balance is decidedly tipped in favour of capital, something the novel balances with its satirical depiction of the owner’s ignorance of the miner’s condition as set against their own unconscious assumption of what is a comparatively luxurious lifestyle. Nonetheless, Zola is even-handed enough to clearly report the owner’s own problems; "since the factories have been closed down one by one… in view of decreasing demand we are obliged to lower our prices. That’s what the worker’s simply refuse to understand." Equally, one aspect of the novel is that Zola’s interest in Darwin leads him to repeatedly characterise the miner’s as animals; "the placid features of the Montsou miners had lengthened into something resembling beasts." Similarly, the novel leaves open the question of environmental and heredity influences. On the one hand the miner’s suffer from "unnatural postures, the stifling darkness in which they were blanched like plants in a cellar." On the other; "the crushing mould of habit pressed him a little more each day into the likeness of an automaton." Such ambiguities coalesce in the figure of Etienne and the hereditary taint he carries with him, leading to the question of whether his actions are influenced by this (as with Rassenur’s observation that Etienne is leading the workers out of self-aggrandissement or Maheude’s realisation that the zealotry of the Priest sounds identical to that of Etienne).

Reading Balzac’s A Harlot High and Low continues many of the ambiguities from Lost Illusions. Gradually sloughing off the form of a moral fable inherited from the earlier novel as the two protagonists kill themselves, the novel broadens its canvas to consider the status of crime and society in a decidedly Brechtian manner. Although, the novel is ostensibly cast in the same mould as Crime and Punishment or Bleak House and does not hesitate to repeatedly characterise Vautrin in terms that Lombroso would have been proud of, it still contests the moral and social viewpoints implied by the nascent crime genre. Nucingen’s deception is partially justified on the grounds of his own rapacity; "they offered robbers the opportunity of stripping one of the richest capitalists in France… the shark." Prostitution and theft are characterised as forms of protest against society, the latter calling property and heredity into doubt. Accordingly, Vautrin’s Vidocqesque transition into head of the Surete, hailed as Corentin’s equal encapsulates this critique. A further aspect of the novel is its handling of sexuality, with Vautrin’s relationship with Chardon and Rastignac being seen by Proust as sexual; certainly Vautrin characterises Chardon as feminine and in need of his protection.

Gabriel Josipovici’s Moo Pak presents itself as a palimpsest of the events that occurred throughout the history of Moor Park; Swift’s teaching of Stella, becoming a lunatic asylum, a code-breaking centre and an institute for the study of animal language. However, unlike the intricately woven Rings of Saturn by WG Sebald, the intricate sestina promised by the author does not figure, with only Swift and animal language emerging as themes alongside disquisitions on cultural decline. Josipovici sees tradition and the individual talent as being at odds, with this cultural dislocation leading to artists turning inwards. While artists like Shakespeare depicted the overthrowing of kings to symbolise this erosion, the Romantics were only able to produce fragments. So too is Moo Pak, a novel the narrator confesses to never having written, looking instead to figures like Swift and their bridging of the romantic and the classical, depicting an individual on quest romance in a fallen world, but still looking at the world around, the bodily distortions in Gulliver’s Travels being cognate with Bosch’s distortions in painting.

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