Annihilating all that’s made

The year did not so much end as collapse, amidst scenes of the entire transport infrastructure failing. Viewed from inside, the weather was rather beautiful with the snow gleaming as the skies cleared and the sun shone. Viewed from outside, the affair looked like something from an apocalyptic science fiction film, with the blizzard reducing buildings to barely discernible grey silhouettes. It was probably quite appropriate that the BBC chose this year to broadcast a remake of Day of the Triffids (with The Road being released shortly, realism and science fiction seem to be enjoying something of a rapprochement). Finally arriving in the Midlands, I find the place shrouded in fog. Lichfield Cathedral looms out of the whiteness like some strange creation from a David Friedrich. Later after the snows had gone, I went to visit Waverley Abbey in Surrey; ironically one of the film locations for 28 Days Later. It certainly has a rather bereft feel to it. On the one hand, there are the ruins of the abbey itself, representing a destroyed part of society. On the other, there are the crumbling defensive formations from the second world war. The riverbank is lined with concrete dragon’s teeth, smothered in moss while large redbrick pillboxes face towards the ruins, themselves buried in ivy.

Back in London, I’d revisited Apsley House. The enormous statue of Napoleon by Canova, wonderful as it may be, leaves me rather reminded of Soviet statues of Lenin and Stalin (Napoleon was at least rather embarrassed by it). The same applies to the nearby statues of Wellington himself, of course. We later visit the the new Medieval and Renaissance galleries at the V&A; things like Della Robbia lunettes, the Casa Maffi ceiling, the Hertogenbosch choirscreen, Paul Pindar’s house, a Donatello influenced sarcophagus, Limoges cloisonne reliquaries and a French salt cellar shaped like a boat and made from a nautilus shell. I wonder somewhat as to how long it will be before we see anything else like this being opened, given the inevitable funding cuts coming this year. Later on, I visit the British Museum’s Moctezuma exhibition. Not quite as impressive as the Royal Academy’s Aztects exhibition of a few years ago, it was particularly noteworthy for showing Spanish paintings of Moctezuma and of the events ensuing from the arrival of Cortes, as well as showcasing a number of Mexeca codices and European histories. The problem is that while the exhibition painted a suitably vivid picture of the Mexeca themselves, much of the detail about Moctezuma himself is rather speculative. It’s difficult to discern why he went from being a ruthless general to a craven appeaser of the Spanish invaders and conjecture that he was murdered by the Spanish rather than meeting his end at the hands of his own people does little to help matters. Equally, the attitude towards the Mexeca themselves is an ambivalent one; the post-colonial narrative of a people destroyed by a foreign occupation sits poorly with the fact that the Mexeca were essentially undone by an uprising of the peoples they had themselves oppressed (albeit an uprising orchestrated by the Spanish, who had lacked sufficient numbers otherwise even when their use of horses and guns were taken into account). Beautiful objects like the obsidian mirrors, feathered serpents and feathered fans are offset of stone eagles used to contain human hearts, turquoise skull masks, ceramics with flayed skull designs protruding or by stone skulls. The most impressive exhibit is a stone sculpture dedicated to warfare; rather resembling a throne it stood at the centre of the Reading Room, towering over everything else around it. I also briefly visited the National Gallery, mostly to look at Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity; I rather decide I prefer his portraiture, but am rather impressed by some of Crivelli’s works. The embedding of physical objects into the paintings seems to challenge the distinction of arts and crafts.

The protagonist of Roberto Bolano’s 2666 takes his name from the Italian painter Arcimboldo, with a somewhat crude parallel between the composites that form a common figure in his paintings to the composite formed by the parallel narratives in the novel. The interesting point is whether the novel does actually form a composite at all, given its interest in the impenetrability of meaning, as with Amalfitanio’s drawing of disgrams that he himself does not understand; "something the voice in the dream called ‘history broken down’ or ‘history taken apart and put back together,’ although clearly the reassembled history became something else." Where a novel like The Savage Detective revolved around the quest of its protagonists, 2666 has no centre as such. It simply guestures towards a figure of meaning lost in the distance ("No one pays attention to these killings, but the secret of the world is hidden in them."), veering between the idea of literature as a means of arresting death ("an old book is the past.. its author no longer exists") and the idea of writing as failing to transparently convey meaning. In this respect, it reminds me of the idea in Bayley’s The Uses of Division that it is often the most flawed and imperfect works that have the greatest interest. Bolano seems to guesture in this direction when he makes Amalfitano think that a young pharmacist is; "afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works… they choose the perfect exercises of the great masters." Certainly, Bolano’s conception of the novel is one of enormity and polyphony, as when he describes a writer’s prose; "encapsulates all of Chile’s styles, it also represented all of its political factions."

While much of the narratives are conducted in a mode familiar from realist fiction, the preoccupation with science fiction in the final narrative suggests a wider set of preoccupations, particularly given that the reading of Boris Ansky’s writing that represents a point of turning for Reiter. The novel persistently hints at Platonic or Kabbalistic concepts of the fantastic; "the search for some ‘mysterious numbers’ hidden in a part of the vast landscape." Similarly, Amalfitano believes that "when a person was in Barcelona , the people living and present in Bueons Aires and Mexico City didn’t exist." Reiter becomes obsessed with the illusory nature of appearances, wondering if he and his friend Hugo had been the same person; "he began to think about semblance… semblance was an occupying force of reality" The idea of doubles recurs throughout; Hans and Hugo, Boris and Hans, Hans and Benno; "the Swabian was a grotesque double of Archimboldi, his twin, the negative image." Certainly, many of the characters seem to think the same thoughts and dream the same dreams. Archimboldi ponders alternate realities where either everything is static or where even the inanimate have velocity, just as Espinoza ponders a condition "as if they were living in a world different from ours, where speed was different, a kind of speed that looked to Espinoza like slowness, although he knew it was only the slowness that kept whoever watched from losing his mind." The characters are more symbolic creations here than in The Savage Detective, as with comparisons to Sisyphus or to Reiter’s erasure of his old identity when be becomes Archimboldi.

Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms is something of an odd anachronism. In contrast to The City and the Pillar, Giovanni’s Room or even Maurice which all paint a gay identity we can still recognise today, the one shown by Capote harks back more to the sort of ideas found in the The Well of Loneliness. The ephebian protagonist Paul is mirrored on either side, in one instance by the tomboyish and obviously lesbian Idabel and on the other by the Wildean Randolph. Randolph embodies conventional gay stereotypes; an effeminate transvestite who pines for a brutal heterosexual lover. In choosing to love Randolph, Paul does suggest that gay love is possible and that gay men are not simply pitiable creatures doomed to look with longing on straight men, but the novel nonetheless works by subverting such stereotypes rather than reject them completely.

I recall it being observed that Ireland has Swift and Joyce while England had Eliot and Thackeray. The latter had a stable and autonomous society, the absence of which left the former needing a less realist style of narration. Something similar seems to apply to much Central European literature; the likes of Grabinski, Kafka and Schulz all sharing a penchant for the fantastic, with both Kafka and Schulz writing tales in which a character metamorphoses into an animal. Bakhtin’s concept of carnival is perhaps useful here; Schulz’s concept of fantasy is a rather materialist one ("the demiurge was in love with consummate, superb and complicated materials; we shall give priority to trash.") that is concerned about the alienation of the familiar rather than with the mythological of transcendental; "one’s imagination, bewitched and misled, creates illusory maps of familiar districts." Nonetheless, Schulz opposes this concept materialistic fantasy to certain quotidian concepts; "the spirit of the times, the mechanism of economics, had not escaped our city… pseudo-Americanism, grafted on the old crumbling core of the city." As with Bakhtin’s idea of carnival, Schulz’s fantasy is an inversion of, or escape from, the normal order, as with the barrel organs that Schulz describes as "belonging by right to that dreaming, inward-looking day." Similarly, Roth’s What I Saw: Reports From Berlin reads like an extended version of the Futurist Manifesto retold as a series of feuilletons; "I am filled with awe at the omnipotence of human technology." But at the same time, his technophilia is given some rather odd slants, as when he describes the invention of the airplane as the fraternisation of man and the birds. In his final essay, Roth speaks of how Jews had depicted Germany as it really is in their art while German writers had stuck to parochial ideas of pastoral. The point is well made but Roth is not exactly immune from romantic concepts of nature and his descriptions of Berlin’s pleasure industry is replete with references to ‘infernal machines’ and ‘industrialised merriment.’

Twilight and New Moon seem a rather odd addition to Vampire mythology.
Although much has been made of the fact that their author is a Mormon, with an analogy being drawn between the ‘vegetarian vampires’ and American ideas of sexual abstinence, the novel seems more confused than that. A lot of the novel’s concepts seem more new age than christian, as with the vegetarianism concept or Edward’s comment that they try not to impact on the environment with their hunting. Instead of a view of vampires as damned, the novels alternate between a view of them as being as capable of moral redemption as humans. The story of Carlisle’s background typifies this; his father is described as the epitome of religious intolerance but the evil he believes in is frequently depicted as being real enough. Edward suggests that the same god could have made them as made both the lion and the lamb, a rather odd concept that suggests a god of evil as much as good. Edward believes they are soulless and damned, while Carlisle believes they are capable of redemption; both seem to believe in god, while Bella does not. It’s a rather confused sort of theology, not really helped by the novel’s rather rapacious materialism, with scores of enthused descriptions of the Cullen’s designer clothes and expensive cars.