Some Versions of Gothic

This Easter, I travelled back up to the Midlands with a visit to Stokesay Castle and Ludlow. I recall going to Stokesay as a child and I’ve long wanted to return. I recall it as a ramshackle affair, not entirely unlike Gormenghast, and the truth is surprisingly close to this, even if the scale now seems different to how it appeared to my younger counterpart. The building is a 13th century fortified manor that has largely survived unaltered. I enter through a half-timbered gatehouse, its beams decorated with images of sea-beasts and dragons, before passing through to an inner courtyard, home to a great hall and a stone tower. The hall with its cruck roof and large arched windows is rather reminiscent of a cathedral, save for the worn wood that makes up its stairs and buttresses. Walking upstairs to some of the rooms, I realised I can hear birds calling though the floor. Most of the building is bare and cavernous, save for some medieval tiles and a carved overmantel. The same goes for the tower, with its warning notices about rabid bats. The interior courtyard has been richly planted with flowers, while the drained moat is home to swathes of white daffodils. Swans can be seen gliding across a nearby lake. Nearby lies the manor’s church (there was a village here once, of which little remains). Inscriptions from Exodus are written on the walls.

I then pass onwards to Ludlow, a town of white and black half-timbered houses. The church of St Laurence is effectively a minor cathedral; one enters through a hexagonal porch, in to a gloomy interior through which shards of light rain down from the upper windows. As my eyes adjust to the darkness, I can see more detail; alternating bands of red and green on the ceiling between carved angels, baroque skull monuments, a gold lantern on the crossing, medieval tiles mixed with Minton, owl and griffin misericords and tree of Jesse stained glass windows. Later, I finish the day with Croft Castle. In contrast to the perpendicular gothic of Ludlow, the Castle is a variant of Regency Gothick. The church here is medieval, with a strange Georgian clock tower grafted onto it. The interior is dominated by an elaborate alabaster monument of a sleeping knight and angels. The lion at the Knight’s feet has his tongue stuck out. Jacobean wall panelling survives on the interior alongside Georgian stucco and the Rococo concept of gothic. I’m surprised to see a Kokoschka portrait on the walls, alongside a painting of the castle by John Napper.

I also visit St Mary in Ingestre, a Wren design in the middle of the countryside; I’m struck by the Grinling Gibbons carvings, Burne Jones windows, marble tombs, golden skulls, Venetian tapestries. In neighbouring Derbyshire, I visit Kedleston Hall. Buoyed by funds from a recent film, much of the interior has been re-upholstered and re-hung, emphasising its resemblance to a particularly opulent mausoleum. In the case of the church, the claim is of course true, with iron railings fencing off funeral monuments for the Curzons, alongside a series of Tudor and Medieval monuments. The exterior is dominated by skulls, hourglasses and a faded romanesque typanum. I visit Melbourne’s church on the way back; a Romanesque affair with thick columns and a medieval wall painting of the devil. Finally, I visit St Edburg and St John the Baptist in Oxfordshire; St Edburg has William Morris and Burne Jones stained glass, Baroque skull monuments and a single pane of surviving medieval glass. St John is a ruin, its redbrick skeleton hidden in wooded shadows near a lake. Broken tombstones are arranged on one of the altars.

A few weeks later, I travel westwards towards Bath. Again, this is somewhere I remember visiting as a child but other than some memories of the baths themselves, the rest of the city is now a blank to me. The place reminds me of Oxford, in terms of the period of the buildings and the colour of the stone, although Oxford’s flatness is not replicated at Bath. To begin with the baths then. Once one has gone past the Georgian entrance, the baths are decidedly impressive; steam rises from the bubbling green waters, as water spills out from underneath the pavement into the pools and statues of Roman emperors or medieval effigies of King Bladud look down from above. The east and west baths are undercover and the dark glooms in those rooms closely approximates what it must have been like for a Roman visitor who, lacking any rational explanation of the spring, took the site as sacred. Coins glimmer beneath the surface of one of the pools. The accompanying exhibition contains some of the lead curses that would have been thrown into the waters, various Roman and Celtic gravestones, and various altars, including one that would have been used by a Haruspex. A couple of items stand out; a mask that worn have been worn by a Priest, the face of the Gorgon surviving from the temple pediment and a bronze bust of Sulis Minerva. This leaves me especially impressed; in its own way it’s as beautiful as the bust of Nefertiti. From the baths, I wonder past the abbey and an obelisk dedicated to the Prince of Orange, past a set of gardens with a bronze angel dedicated to King Edward towards Adam’s Pultney Bridge (the gardens are occupied by some alarmingly large seagulls, whose cries can be heard throughout the city). With shops lining either side of it, I can only assume it to be modelled on the Rialto Bridge. A swan is nesting underneath it. I continue northwards, past the Victorian church of St Michael Without (modelled on Salisbury cathedral, like so many Victorian churches), until I arrive at the Circus. This seems especially impressive to me, much more so than the nearby Royal Crescent. Enclosed like Stonehenge or the Colosseum on all sides, each building having odd acorn finials and decorated with Masonic symbols, it’s an especially odd piece of Georgian architecture. I walk for a bit in the Victoria park, looking at the Victoria memorial, replica of a vase from Cicero’s garden and the sphinxes and lions decorating the gates. I then return to the town centre, walking through some of the Victorian arcades and through a garden maze with a set of mosaics at its centre. I then enter the abbey. A particularly pure example of medieval fan vaulting, the walls are pale, with light streaming in through the large windows. Equally, there are relatively few large tombs inside, although the walls are lined with plaques. The exterior is especially ornate, with angels climbing a ladder on the front facade. Finally, I visit the Victoria Art Gallery. I have to admit that most of the artists named therein are utterly unknown to me, but it does have some interest works by Hodgkin, Sutherland, Sickert, Nash and Danby. I’m struck by a moonlight scene painted by Sebastien Pether; it reminds me of Dahl and Freidrich. There’s also a good ceramics display; Delft, Lustreware and Eltonware.

The following weekend and I’m back in London, at Dulwich Picture Gallery for an exhibition on Sicket’s Venetian paintings. It’s something or an irony that for a city first painted in minute detail by Canaletto, its depictions were later to decidedly to incline to the impressionistic, as Monet, Turner, Whistler and Singer-Sargent depicted its mists and sunsets. Of these, it’s Whistler that Sickert most clearly resembles, with night scenes of the Campanile and St Marks reducing them to blurs of light and with the influence of Degas apparent in the cropped ‘close-ups’ of the same buildings. Yet, Sicket is significantly more realistic than Whistler, and while his palette tends to more subdued colours, the buildings are not difficult to recognise; they merely look more grimy than is their usual wont. Equally, the influence of Degas or Toulouse-Lautrec is apparent in the depiction of the Venetian lowlife; the exhibition records an interest in the exoticism of Venetian women with their strange geisha-like hairdressings, but for the most part we could easily be in Camden or Montmartre.

Bolano’s The Savage Detectives is in many respects utterly materialistic, concerned with the failure of the visceral realist movement, the trajectory of its leading lights from romantic roles as rebels and criminals in the vein of Rimbaud or Genet, to their dissolution into obscurity. It is also in many respects utterly metaphysical, concerned with a quest romance to discover the poetry of Cesárea, which is a set of arcane symbols that denote the limits of language’s mimetic abilities. Amadeo Salvatierra admits that he has never understood her work, and he does not listen to or record Belano or Lima’s discussion of its meaning. Similarly, although the narrative dwells on Belano and Lima, the writer who repeats her achievement is Madeno, who is never mentioned by any of the other narrators. Writing in Bolano is something to be written about but not to be shown; we never read any of Belano or Lima’s poetry, only Cesarea and Madeno’s ideograms. The insane writings of one narrator, Andres Ramirez, use Plato’s cave metaphor to describe reality, glimpsing alternative visions of his present through dreams. Bolano’s mode of etaphysical realism’ operates by offering differing fractured routes to the same subject; Bolano saw the orderly, refined and harmonious in literature as coterminous with cruelty and fascism, the unstylised and untidy, with rebellion and truth, as in Planell’s epiphanic moment;3 "in a brief moment of lucidity, I was sure that we’d all done crazy. But that moment of lucidity was displaced by a supersecond of superlucidity… a sign of our miraculous and pointless innocence," Events are accordingly described in a polyphonic manner by different narrators. Their narratives are frequently unreliable, some told by the insane, some told told be the mendacious or biased. Univocal statements are quickly dissolved. Belano and Lima themselves are witheld from the narrative, denied the opportunity to explain themselves. Meaning exists at a vanishing point, the novel guestures towards but does not show, as with the description in By Night in Chile of books as being equivalent to the shadows in Plato’s cave. One other point to note is the role of sexuality; there’s a marked machismo in Bolano’s work here and in By Night in Chile, only challenged by the narrator’s confession in the former novel that the women and gays he had demonised in his poetry had done nothing to him.

Reading Broch’s The Sleepwalkers is an odd experience; the structure of the novel is decidedly experimental, with various narrative strands developed in isolation, some of which converge while others remain separate. Nonetheless, he lacks the interest in consciousness typical of that period; since he regards his characters as primitives, products of the social and ideological conditions of their age. They may act unpredictably, as rounded characters in Forster’s phrase, but only because Broch is sceptical that such animals can have a controlling intelligence. If he sits at an odd angle to the modernist novel, much of this can be explained by the fact that many of his views would have sat well with the Victorians; the condemnation of the Renaissance architecture would have chimed with Ruskin’s views ("the horror of this age is perhaps most palpable in the effect that its architecture has on one"), if not Broch’s accompanying denunciation of Protestantism and of Kant in favour of Leibniz. Like the Victorians, Broch is essentially a medievalist, seeing medieval Catholicism as offering an organic structure into which every aspect of existence could be integrated; the fall into various sectarian cults opened the way for the remorseless fragmented logic of the modern rationalist and commercial society that Broch sees as being decadent and degenerate. It is in many ways one of the most reactionary of European novels; foreigners like Czechs are characterised as barbarians, women are split into virgins and whores, causal homophobia ("the horror that overcame him when he saw those men dancing cheek to cheek") and anti-semitism (the abstraction of Judaism and its basis in law stand in contrast to Broch’s account of Catholicism) are rife. Sometimes Broch sounds rather like Carlyle, whose unpleasant views also went hand in hand with a denunciation of the cash nexus, as with Broch’s complaints that the profit motive is the sole governing principle in modern like, so that respectable business men may also be murderers. The progression towards degeneracy in the novel is also a progression down the social spectrum. Nonetheless, the novel isn’t quite that simple. The initial section is in many ways a pastiche of a Victorian novel; Pasenow’s failure can either be viewed as not submitting to duty or of failing to break with convention altogether. As is said of Esch later in the novel; "he saw the play of good and evil. But his impetuosity often made him see an individual where he should see a system." This particularly applies to the character of the aesthete Bertrand. Broch describes aesthetes as serpents with the garden of eden, art for art’s sake representing another branch of the disintegration of all values in place of medieval art’s religious purpose. These are certainly the terms Pasenow always thinks of Bertrand in, as he disdains Bertrand’s commercial work in contrast to his military career. Nonetheless, with his nomadic lifestyle, there’s a case to be made that Bertrand is the romantic, not Pasenow. As Broch puts it; "we have no longer two mutually exclusive fields of reality… we find them co-existing within the same individual… we are ourselves split and riven" Similarly, when Bertran falls a victim to Esch’s homophobia (as when Esch is taken aback that Martin and the Newspaper Editor defend Bertrand; "what business is it of ours anyway?"), there’s a good case to be made that is the victim of Each’s rage rather than a criminal receiving his punishment.

Reading Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy and Repetition, I’m struck by the way he repeatedly depicts women as powerful and aloof, only to insist on their degradation. In the midst of a text like Repetition, where are all the characters (consciously or unconsciously) are liars, it is only Gigi who is repeatedly denounced as such.