American Modernism

I went to Oxford this weekend to visit the Ashmolean exhibition on American Modernism. It begins with a series of works that show the greatest resemblance to European Modernism, such as paintings by EE Cummings, a ‘poster portrait’ of William Carlos Williams by Charles Demuth or even in some of Strand abstract photography. Much of Georgia O’Keefe’s work fits in here as well, such as a black study of her experience of anaesthesia. In some cases, such as Louis Lozowick’s Red Circle, the influence of Suprematism is evident. But most of the exhibition if occupied with precisionism, the quasi-cubist depiction of the modern city and the machine age. Painters like Charles Sheeler, George Ault, Francis Criss, Samuel Margolies dominate with depictions of factories and skyscrapers. It also blurs the line between painting and photography, showing Sheeler’s photography alongside Bourke White and Abbot. A film by Sheeler and Strand showing Manhattan in the course of a day rather reminds me of Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera. The later sections are dedicated to Hopper’s depictions of the American city.

Afterwards, I go on a tour of the cast gallery, a basement in the Ashmolean crammed full of Greco-Roman casts. I recognise a lot of them; casts of the Elgin Marbles, a statue of Diomedes from the Munich Glyptothek, from Trajan’s column or the Winged Victory of Samothrace from the Louvre. In many cases, the constituent components of the casts remain arranged in configurations that are no longer regarded as historically accurate or show groupings that have been dispersed between different galleries and countries.


Parallel Lines

The Hockney exhibition at the Tate is one of the most popular exhibitions I can recall there, with a long queue snaking round the central hall. We wait for our time slot for a while wondering around the permanent collection; a few things that leap out are Sunil Gupta’s photographs of gay couples, Wolfgang Tillman’s photographic series around Heathrow, a Bridget Rile line painting, Chair by Allen Jones and a sculpture of Saint Sebastian by Eric Gill.

When we do get in, it’s interesting how although Hockney’s style changes over time, the focus on perspective remains consistent; early works showing a flattened box of tea or a flat figure pressed against  an illusionary window foretell the compound eye approach to photography and painting later adopted. Some of the early works fit into a whimsical approach to trompe l’oeil; an abstract painting of geometrical objects that is actually a realistic depiction of a red rubber ring floating in a swimming pool or a Hogarth parody where a woman holding a candle out of a window can have it lit by a figure standing on the hill behind her. The early work that most predicts his later work shows his boyfriend sleeping while Hockney is shown behind him sketching; only for this to become clear as an unfinished self portrait hung behind the figure.

This theme continues in the Californian paintings; the various pools occupied by naked men tend to be shown as flat blue planes whose surfaces are covered in snaking lines t reflect the play of light. The buildings are always modernist structures characterised by rigid lines; even lawn sprinklers spout water in precisely triangular shapes. The turn towards naturalistic painting maintains this focus; in each portrait the two figures are essentially shown at right angles to one another; often a figure stares out towards the viewer while the other figure looks at the first. Mr and Mrs Clark are unusual in both looking out at the viewer and it is appropriately left to Percy the cat to turn his back on the viewer and stare out of the window instead.

The compound eye approach I spoke of becomes evident in the photographs; the photo of Gregory Swimming replaces the intersecting lines of the pool paintings where the water, the building and a diving board converge with a series of fragmented moments in both time and space, concurrently showing Gregory at multiple points. The same follows as Hockney’s interest in landscape emerges with photos of the Grand Canyon, Ryoanji and Yorkshire. The landscape paintings differ from the photographs in deliberately warping space; a painting of the Wolds piles each field up in a series of vertiginous planes. The result looks more like one of Escher’s Italian drawings than traditional English pastoral. Something similar goes for the Grand Canyon paintings’ it’s noticable that a forced restriction of Hockney’s palette (to Red in this case or Green for England) is helpful in counteracting the surfeit of primary colour in some of his Californian paintings. His further series of Yorkshire paintings and videos (some of which I’d seen before at the Royal Academy) are always split between multiple canvasses, even where one large canvas would be perfectly possible. In the video series, each screen represents  a different camera showing slightly different angles.

A few weeks later and I visit the Ashmolean’s Degas to Picasso exhibition. A lot of this consists of drawings; Gericault’s equestrian drawings, Daumier’s satirical drawings of the French assembly, a Manet drawing of his mistress, studies for his paintings of Berthe Morisot and The Execution of Maximilian, an Ingres study for his Odalisque painting and Millet drawings of shepherds and sailors. Paintings tend to be from more minor artists; a Cubist city view from Gleizes, a Mother and Child from Leger, a Villon Cubist portrait of his father or a Metzinger landscape. More diverting is a smaller exhibition showing Hiroshige views of Mount Fuji; I especially like an unusual urban scene showing a Tokyo street stretching off into a vanishing point with Fuji appearing to rise up at that juncture.

The following week and I go to London to see a performance of The Taming of the Shrew at the Globe. It’s perhaps played a little too much as a comedy for my taste, with frequent interludes of modern music, whereas arguably it’s better to treat it as a problem play. The production tries to soften some of the problematic aspects of the text; for example by interpolating a puppet sequence to draw out some of the abusive implications of Katherina’s last speech; Gloria Onitiri certainly plays it as a tragic role.  I have a brief look around the Tate afterwards, looking at some of Agnes Martin’s white paintings, Anish Kapoor sculpture, Bridget Riley op-art, surealist paintings and work by the New Tendencies group.

Ascending and Descending

I’ve wanted to visit University College for sometime now, mostly because of the Shelley Memorial. Set in a railed off part of the college the memorial is a beautiful piece with the white marble of the naked figure set against spare purple walls. The college chapel is also rather wonderful with a series of stained glass panels showing Genesis and Jonah & the whale. Next, I visit the Blavatnik building. The circular exterior has an amphitheatre as its lecture hall as the base, with concentric ramps up to the upper floors. There’s a series of spiral staircases that lead upwards to a terrace looking out over the city. Later, I go to Pembroke where the chapel has a Bach organ concert.

The following weekend is the open doors days for London. I visit the baroque church of St John Smith Square (an orchestra here is giving a  rendition of the Van der Valk theme tune) before visiting Cutler’s Hall in the city. As one might expect the hall features elephant designs everywhere; in the stained glass, the banisters, cushions and rafters. There’s some rather beautiful stained glass showing a series of industrial scenes; rather unusual for the Victorian period. I then visit some of the Victorian dock warehouses at Wapping before visiting the Royal Society. Exhibits like Newton’s death mask and some of Priestley’s electrical equipment are on display. Lastly, I visit the William Morris gallery in Hammersmith, where a printing press demonstration is being held. The next day, I visit the Sandys Row synagogue. Tucked away in a warren of lanes, the interior is rather expansive, although the combination of an old Bimah with a set of what look like thirties pews is rather odd.

A few weeks later, and I head to Reading for the open day at Reading Gaol.  A tour leads us throughout the original debtor’s prison, through rooms that look like they were only abandoned a few weeks ago.  The highlight of the main prison wings is obviously Oscar Wilde’s cell and the prison chapel, along with photo and video installations by Nan Goldin and Wolfgang Tillmans. Alongside the modern installations are various photographs of the prisoners and of the prison as it originally stood.

A few weeks later and I visit the Royal Academy’s Abstract Expressionism exhibition. The most impressive room is dedicated to Clyfford Still’s work; where Pollock’s work aims to emulate the entropic element of nature, Still’s work does often rather resemble natural patterns; the bark peeling off a silver birch, rust on old machinery or paint peeling off a wooden door. The sense of depth is a lot greater than on Pollock’s accreted layers of dripped paints. The other highlight is the room dedicated to Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt. Reinhardt’s work composites layers of similar paint combinations on top of one another; the black paintings in particular require quite a lot of time for the eye to adjust to see the colour variations. It’s like the visual equivalent of  a Philip Glass painting. The Newman works remind me rather more of Mondrian, with their flat planes of bold primary colour intersected by vertical ‘zips.’ Other things that strike me; Barbara Morgan’s black and white light paintings, Lee Krasner’s The Eye if the First Circle, Kline’s Vawdavitch, De Kooning’s Villa Borghese and a small collection of Rothkos. There’s also a small John Gibson exhibition, showing a range of scuptures and funerary monuments.  A few weeks later and I go to the National Gallery’s Caravaggio exhibition.  Works by Caravaggio are interspersed alongside pieces by his followers.  Some of the earliest works, like those by Francesco Buoneri mirror his master closely. Later works by Gentilleschi, Reni and Ribera, Regnier and Tournier diverge more in their greater use of colour. Later sections record the irony that while Caravaggio never painted a candlelit scene this was arguably  his greatest influence, shown here in works by Honthorst and de la Tour.

Lastly, I find myself spending an afternoon in Cambridge. I visit the chapel at Robinson college, with its wonderful stained glass landscape window by John Piper, before spending a few hours in the Fitzwilliam. Things that catch my attention; a bust of Antinous, Greek dramatic masks, a Roman mosaic, a Gibson Venus, the collection of Egyptian sarcophagi, the spectre of Braze Alonzo, a Burges cupboard and a trillion Dollar Zimbabwean note.

The Libation Bearers

I start Open Doors Oxford by visiting Campion Hall. The chapel here with its frescos rather reminds me of Spencer’s memorial chapel at Sandford, with its angels and Biblical scenes set in the English countryside. The design of the building overall is by Lutyens and much of it accordingly feels like a country house more than a theological college. Next, I visit the church of St Philip and St James (I’ve been here before but it’s now possible to visit the upper gallery to see the Kempe stained glass in more detail) and St Anthony’s College, where there’s a new library designed by Zaha Hadid. The exterior is quite striking for Oxford, a thin snaking metallic line, but the interior is rather bland. I prefer the old gothic chapel, which now houses another library. I then briefly have a look around the chapels at Exeter and Lincoln before visiting the baroque library at Lincoln. I then go for a walk around the riverside gardens at St Hilda’s before looking at their art deco library. Lastly that day, I visit Mansfield and look at its rather ark chapel and library; this is a rather impressive surprise, designed in a gothic revival style with arts & crafts style decoration. The next day, I start off by visiting Worcester College. I walk around the lake and gardens before visiting the chapel. Next is a visit to the chapel at Oriel and the Town Hall.

The next weekend is the turn of Open House in London. I start off by visiting Wilton’s Music Hall. Although restored, this simply means stabilising the structure which remains bare with peeling paint and cracked walls. The interior is dark and labyrinthine, with spotlights gleaming onto Victorian frescos of Indian musicians and dancers. Next I head out to Hampstead Garden Suburb and Lutyens church of St Jude. The interior combines redbrick with elaborate frescoes in varying symbolist and quasi art nouveau styles. By contrast, the interior of the adjacent free church is incredibly austere. I then go on a tour of the Senate House in Bloomsbury. The interior here is a little more ornate than Holden’s other skyscraper at 55 Broadway; I particularly like the wall covered with a map of London, showing all of the University’s then halls and institutions. Next, I visit the Fitzrovia Chapel, with its wonderful gilded interior, combining Byzantine sensibilities with a gothic revival structure. Lastly that day, I visit Burlington House and visit the Royal Society of Chemistry with its Lee windows and the Linnean society with its library.

The next day, I visit the French Institute in Kensington, with its Rodin sculpture and Delaunay tapestries and visit its art deco library. Most of this day is taken up with walking out to the church of St Mary in Battersea. Most of the interior is Georgian with some enamelled glass surrounded by modern glass depicting figures like Blake and Turner. The surrounding area is quite odd, with a strange combination of industrial decay and gleaming new blocks of flats. I walk back along the river via Battersea Park, where I stop to look at the Pagoda.

A few weeks later I visit Avebury. It’s an unusually sunny day in October. The trees are turning to gold and the Virgina Creeper has turned red but the Dahlias in manor gardens are still in flower alongside elaborate topiary. The manor has been subject to a rather fanciful restoration by the BBC, which leaves it with a rather hyperreal character; Oriental wallpapers recently made in China cover several walls, fake marbling gleams in a virulent shade of orange, Tudor plaster ceilings in the bedrooms have been brightly painted, art deco detail of racing cars covers the carpets in the sitting room.

Lastly, I’m back in London for a performance of the Oresteia at the Globe. While the layout of the theatre is well matched to how Greek tragedy would originally have been performed, the historical specificity of the venue seems a little odd for such a performance. Some of this shows; Agamemnon is dressed as a Greek hoplite, Apollo is unimaginatively dressed in a toga but the chorus are dressed like Londoners during the Blitz, Orestes is wearing contemporary clothes and Klytemnestra’s dress with its geometrical patterns recalls the seventies – finally, the Furies seem to owe a great deal to Japanese horror films.

The following weekend I visit Dulwich Picture Gallery for its Escher exhibition. Much of the ground covered here is familiar but much of it is new, like his studies of tessellating tile patterns in the Alhambra, self-portraits or studies of naturally vertiginous landscapes in Italy, like Castrovalva, Bonifacio or San Gimignano. I also go to visit the yellowbluepink installation at the Wellcome collection. It’s an odd sensation; the coloured mist is indeed so thick as to leave you divested of any sense of direction. I only realise I’m walking towards a wall a few seconds before I’m directly in front of it.  On the other hand, I don’t stumble into it or anyone else. Lastly, I visit the exhibition at Somerset House comparing one of Seurat’s paintings with a Bridget Riley copy as well as some of pointillist works inspire by his work. It seems an odd combination; most of Riley’s work is concerned with abstract pattern and shape, whereas for all of the proto-impressionist stylisation Seurat is largely a realist.

The next weekend I visit the Science Museum. A few things stand out; the difference engine, a copy of the Shukov radio tower, Stephenson’s rocket, the watchmaker’s museum, a fake merman, porcelain jars for storing leeches and phrenological heads. I’m mostly there for an exhibition on Soviet Russia’s cosmonaut programme, which includes spacesuits, copies of Sputnik, some of the original capsules as well as statues of Gagarin and posters from that era. That evening, I go to a play about Thomas Tallis at the Globe. Some aspects of it work, especially where the playhouse is entirely plunged into darkness or only lit by solitary candle. On the whole though, the dramatic aspects seem rather tacked on and it’s mostly enjoyable for performances of his music by The Sixteen.

Back in Reading, I visit the town museum for an exhibition of landscape paintings. Only a few of the names are known to me; Charles Ginner, Paul Nash and David Bomberg. The main item of interest are a pair of John Piper tapestries; one of them is particularly beautiful with its depictions of Fritillaries, Butterflies and Oak leaves. It’s been a while since I’ve looked at the rest of the museum so I linger a while. A few things grab me; a Francis Danby painting of a windmill at sunset, a Roman head of Serapis, Samian ware, floor mosaics from Silchester, Delft tiles showing the flight from Sodom and Gomorrah, the Roman eagle and medieval alabaster carvings. I spend most time looking at the Victorian replica of the Bayeux tapestry; it’s easy to be snide about something created as a hobby but in truth it’s an impressive achievement.

A few weeks later and I go to the British Museum’s Celts exhibition.  As exhibitions go, it’s something of an oddity being dedicated to a subject who existence it denies. Instead it essentially showcases artworks from a number of disparate peoples;  the Gundestrup cauldron from Denmark, Gold torcs from Germany, the Battersea shield, a Carnyx from France, the Snettisham treasure, the Chad gospels, Pictish symbol stones and a Janus faced stone totem from Germany (which rather reminds me of the four faced god Swietowit in Krakow). The exhibition also covers the historical revision of the Celts into a single people, with banners from the Welsh Eisteddfod, Victorian celtic revival painting, painting based on images from Ossian through to mock-celtic jewellery.


I begin this Easter I drive up to Compton Verney for its Canaletto in Britain exhibition. I recall a lot of the paintings from a similar exhibition at Dulwich a few years back but it still impresses; areas like Greenwich and Horse Guards Parade emerge as rather quiet and pastoral locations in contrast to the dense packing of buildings onto London Bridge. Other paintings show a lost London (the Ranelagh Rotunda or Vauxhall Gardens) or one that never was, as with Marlow’s painting of St Paul’s relocated to Venice.

Back in Staffordshire, I visit the church at Clifton Campville with its alabaster monuments before visiting the Brockhampton estate in Herefordshire. I also visit the church of St George at Brinsop, with its combination of medieval stained glass. designs by Ninian Comper and a medieval tympanum & green man. I also visit the church of Saint Mary at Madley,which has an extraordinary set of medieval stained glass windows. On the subject of stained glass, I realise that the Herkenroode stained glass has been reinstated at Lichfield Cathedral; the interior of the Lady Chapel certainly seems a lot lighter than I remember it from before the glass was restored,

Lastly, I spend a day visiting Derbyshire, staring with Hardwick Hall. I’d forgotten how lovely the collection of tapestries and rugs inside it is, but it does seem a pity that a building notable for its large glass windows has to be kept shrouded in darkness with drawn curtains in order to protect them. I’s also forgotten the wonderful wood carving on the furniture, with table legs formed as sea dogs. I then travel onto Eyam, where I visit the church with its Celtic cross, plague memorial window and graveyard suffused with buttercups. Nearby Eyam Hall proves to be full of curiosities; a poem etched into one of the windows, a tapestry room and a weird pair of bacon settles in the hall.

Back down south,  I decide to revisit Canterbury, mostly so that I can see the place for myself rather than at the whims of a tour guide. This time I’m able to see a bit more of the cathedral, including the cloisters, chapter house and the frescos of St Hubert. I’m also able to visit the ruins of Augustine Abbey and the church of St Martin, as well as the remains of Canterbury Castle. On the way back, I’ve booked tickets for a performance of King John at the Temple Church in London. The performance takes place in candlelight, with a stage having been erected in the middle of the nave. John is shown as a rather weak and indecisive figure than as being ‘determined to prove a villain.’ The absence of a dominant central protagonist gives a degree of unpredictability to events, as with the unexpected deaths of Arthur, Eleanor and ultimately John himself. I also go to see Tom Morton Smith’s Oppenheimer at the Vaudeville Theatre; it does occur to me that I don’t think I’ve ever see a play performed in a West End theatre before. The theatre does come over as having seen better day. The play rather reminds me of a film or documentary; the narrative suddenly flashbacks between different times without the actors leaving the stage while images of atoms are projected onto the stage, effectively providing a form of special effects. The play even has its own soundtrack.

At the British Museum a few weeks later, I visit its exhibition of Greek sculpture. This contrasts original Greek sculptures (the Discobolus of  Myron, the Westmacott Youth and the Parthenon sculptures by Phidias, for example) with replicas of Greek sculpture as it originally appeared, such as a gilded statue of Athena which shines out against the darkness. Nude depictions of Greek warriors counterpoint to more puritanical Assyrian depictions. The Sonia Delaunay exhibition at the Tate rather reminds me of their previous exhibitions on Malevich and Rodchenko; like them Delaunay works in many different media, with the exhibition including bookshelves, mosaics, curtains, book bindings, dresses and home furnishings as well as her painting. Much of the work also demonstrates a lot of the familiar tropes of the time; partial abstraction in which figures like singers and dancers blur into light and movement or more full abstract work based around electric lights (circular patterns called electric prisms – it rather reminds me of Klee’s magic squares) – the most orginal pieces are the mural she created for the International exposition, based around aircraft parts. Painted in bright blues and yellows and overlaid with blueprints, it’s quite unlike most of her work. I also enjoy the Eric Ravilious exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery. Much of the watercolours on display are pastoral, but it’s a heavily qualified version; ruined buses and dilapidated caravans rest in England’s green and pleasant fields. Unsurprisingly his war work strongly shows this tension with many paintings of ships and fighter plans but also frankly picturesque depictions of the locations he was sent to. Lastly, I also go to the Impressionism exhibition at the National Gallery; being primarily about the art dealer who backed the impressionists it does accordingly rather lack focus; I find myself rather disliking Renoir’s sentimental paintings of children and much preferring his dance paintings, surprised by a Manet painting of a naval battle and liking Sisley and Monet’s landscapes (especially of Dutch windmills and of the Houses of Parliament).

Another weekend, and I visit the Sky Garden on Fenchurch Street. It’s a rather grey and dull day, so the visibility is somewhat limited; one one side the only comparable building is the Shard while on the other a few buildings like the Gherkin compete. The garden at the summit with its assemblage of ferns seems rather odd, like something out of a film.

Lastly, I visit Oxford to see a couple of exhibitions at the Ashmolean. This is mostly for a set of Gilray prints. As often with Gilray I’m struck by how his preferences vary; for the most part his work is anti-whig propaganda, but he equally turns his fire on Pitt, while his attitude towards the royal family is hardly that of a conventional Tory. There’s also an exhibition of British drawing, including Ravilious, Nash, Sutherland, Piper, Ruskin, Holman-Hunt, Hamilton-Mortimer, Turner, Beardsley, Rossetti,  Rowlandson and Francis Barlow.  I have a bit of time before the return train, so I go for a walk along the Oxford canal.


The main thing that occurs to me in the Tate’s Malevich exhibition is the extent to which is work contains multitudes; the same geometrical abstraction as Mondrian versus the same cubo-futurism as Braque and Severini, Schwitteresque collages or even the Magrittesque surrealism of some of his works likeCow and Violin. The earlier work uses many of the idioms of Cubism and Futurism in terms of deconstructing its subjects into geometrical planes in motion but whereas Italian Futurist had a cult of the machine, Malevich’s work often dwells on rural subjects like the painting of a scyther or a village after a snowstorm (one or two of them rather remind me of Stanley Spender in the chunky depiction of the peasants). There’s something in his abstract works that reminds me of Kandinsky, the way that cross symbolism recurs throughout multiple paintings. Equally, his architecton models remind me of the hypothetical architecture of Fenriss or the set designs for Metropolis. The attempt to relocate art from the abstract to concrete crafts (as with the suprematist teapot) is ultimately a dead-end though; the last works resemble Renaissance portraits, perhaps of characters in dress from one of Malevich’s operas. The following week and I’m in Oxford for the Ashmolean’s Tutankhamun exhibition. This largely dwells on the details of Carter’s exhibition; how the tomb was laid out, the original photographs used to record it, Carter’s drawings of the tomb frescos and the resultant Tutmania that ranged from records to board games. The Egyptian sculpture inevitably stands out though; a relief showing the Pharoah Horumheb at prayer, a statue of Tutankhamun and a replica of the funerary mask.

I’ve been to a few Proms this year; Der Rosenkavalier, Mozart’s Requiem, Janacek’s Glagolitic Mass, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4, a piano concerto by Brahms and Gurney’s War Elegy. There’s also a piece of Sally Beamish played by James Crabb on the accordion; I don’t really rate the piece, but Crabb’s playing was superb and ably demonstrates that the accordion can act as a lead instrument for an orchestra.


I managed to brave the cold and wet today to head out to go to the Estorick Collection’s De Chirico exhibition. Although the collection does hold some of the paintings he’s known for, like The Revolt of the Sage, most of it is given up to his post-war sculpture. The classical influences in the sculptures are evident, with titles like Hector and Andromache or Castor; the presence of broken classical columns rather reminds me of Mitoraj. Equally though, much of the sculptures remind me of Dali, with their faceless egg-like faces and mannequin like figures.

A few weeks later I go the cinema to watch the Lon Chaney version of The Phantom of the Opera with a live soundtrack performed by Minima. I tend to feel that their combination of ambient electronics with guitars works rather less well here (where much of the film revolves around opera or organ music) than it did with the last film I saw them perform at, Aelita Queen of Mars. Later that week, I go to Two Temple Place in London for their Discoveries exhibition; essentially a form of wunderkammer it features Ammonites, Dodo skeletons, Moore sculptures, Gaudier-Brzeska drawings, Japanese prints, Icthyosaur skeletons, Greek sculptures of Hermes, Apollo and Aphrodite, Muggletonian critiques of Newtonian discoveries opposed by allegorical representations of his achievements, an egg taken from the Galapagos by Darwin, telescopes, Indian snakes and ladders boards, Yemeni lion sculptures and an Orrery. I also visit the Romanticism exhibition at Somerset House, with paintings by David-Friedrich, Palmer and Turner. There’s also a small exhibition of Iraqi arts, featuring ironwork from Mosul at the time of Mongol occupation.

The British Museum’s Vikings exhibition inevitably tends to dwell on the surviving metalwork left by the Vikings in the absence of many other surviving artefacts; swords, a weathervane, metal animals, brooches, coins in Viking hoards from Anglo-Saxon England to Baghdad, charms in the shape of Odin or Thor’s hammer, bear teeth emblems, stolen christian reliquaries, snake pendants, jewellery, cups, axes, torcs, spears and helmets. Most impressive is a Danish crucifix, showing christ triumphant. But there are some other objects; the remains of a longboat from Roskilde, the Lewis Chessmen, a painted replica of the Jelling stone, crosses with decorated knotwork, wooden shields, picture stones as well as raw materials like amber and walrus tusk.

The V&A’s exhibition on William Kent is perhaps most notable with its inclusion of a lot of his un-built designs, like the plans for a new Parliament modelled on the Pantheon or a model of a palace at Richmond intended to replace Whitehall. Otherwise, it includes a range of his history paintings, Italianate furniture, silverware and chandeliers, models for the Royal barge, plans for his monuments at Westminster Abbey and houses like Holkham, Chiswick and Houghton. Considering the relative austerity of the Palladian architectural style I find myself taken aback by the rather kitsch opulence of his interior designs, something satirised by Hogarth, for whom Kent seems to have been a particular object of dislike.

A few weeks later, the Tate has an exhibition on ruins, showing how the interpretation of ruins has altered over time. Initially, the exhibition focuses on ruin paintings by Turner, Piranesi, Gandy, Dore and Martin, with the subjects ranging from classical to Biblical and Gothic. Themes such as the fall of empire transmute in World War Two paintings by Piper, Nash and Sutherland to a focus on the fall of England itself, while later works focuses on the ruins of World War Two fortifications in the photographs of Jane Wilson and Tacita Dean. More contemporary work by Jon Savage focuses on ruined brutalist estates, an elegy for the decay of post-war socialism. Perhaps more interesting are works like Gerard Byrne’s 1984 and Beyond, with its focus on ‘ruins in reverse’ in a sixties discourse between science fiction writers like Asimov on their vision of the future, Ian Hamilton Finlay’s re-interpretations of Claude and Inigo Jones or Paul Nash’s photographs of natural objects. The weekend after, I visit the Ashmolean and an exhibition of the private collection of Henry Pearlman, which includes a number of Cezanne landscapes, a Pissarro still life, a Sisley landscape, portraits by Manet and Degas, a street scene by Van Gogh, sculptures by Modigliani as well as several portraits by him, including one of Cocteau.

Reading Lessing’s Memoirs of a Survivor, I’m struck by how her chosen mode of science fiction seems to conflict with the Sufi ideas she chooses to express in it. The novel is cast in the form of an apocalyptic narrative, with society progressively descending into barbarism, with children reverting to savagery. However, the cause of the collapse is never specified and the novel also sees the narrator transcending through states of being beyond the social collapse around her; the more one sheds the norms of civilisation the easier it is for one to surrender to a higher will than their own. Something similar applies to Lessing’s MaddAdam, where the extinction of the human species is brought about by an ecological terrorist but the final part of the trilogy presents a mixed picture of the outcomes of this; the species he has bred to replace mankind has begun to acquire traits like reading that he had sought to eradicate but the destruction wrought by a small group of renegade survivors goes a long way towards validating Crake’s decision. The likely outcome that humanity and the new species interbreed, thereby replacing both and suggesting an ambivalence about both humanity and the eco-terrorist viewpoint.

Hunter Thompson’s Hell’s Angel’s presents a view of the Angels that is at least partly a romanticised one of them as counter-cultural outlaws and rebels. Thompson spends much of the earlier sections of the book seeking to exculpate a great deal of the public view of them as middle-class hysteria but it’ rather difficult not to feel rather repulsed by the way he diminishes allegations of rape by questioning whether there can be such a thing, suggesting that it is typically likely to have been consensual. There’s a marked sexism that undermines his case but Thompson is at least partly aware of such contradictions when he describes the Angels as inherently conservative and fascistic when describing planned attacks on anti-Vietnam protesters.

Food cooked: Fish chowder, Roman lamb, Chicken with chestnuts and sharp salad, Valencian fish with peppers, Pad Thai, Chicken mole, Chicken with plums, Pork with prunes and Hasselback potatoes, Persian seafood stew, ribs with egg-crusted rice, Szegedin Goulash with dumplings, Alsace meatballs and pasta, Duck with pate and caraway seeds, Gochujang Stew, Rabbit with red wine and currants, Rabbit with mushrooms, Lobster Thermidor, Spanish seafood with vermicelli, Steak with anchovy sauce, Arroz con Pollo.


The week back after Paris is Oxford Open Doors weekend which accordingly offers little opportunity for relaxation. I start off at Hertford College, with its Blois inspired staircase, before visiting the Union for the first time in over a decade, with its Burne Jones decorated library. I also visit Lady Margaret Hall, with its Byzantine chapel designed by Gilvert Scott and St John the Evangelist, a Bodley designed church just down the road from where I used to live. The rich decoration of the interior with its Kempe stained glass rather contrasts with how empty it is. The following day I go on a tour of the former prison (now a hotel) before visiting Rhodes House. The exterior is decorated with images of Elephants, Sphinxes, Zimbabwee birds and pyramids but the interior is spartan, filled with memorials to Rhodes scholars who died in world wars. I then visit the library at St John’s St Edmund Hall; again, rather odd to return to a place I had once spent so much time. I recalled much of the detail correctly; the layout, the desks but not elements like the monuments, ceiling or stained glass, which would now be the first things I’d look at.

A few weeks later and it’s the Open House in London. I start off with Freemason’s Hall; a work of Stalinist brutalism on the exterior proves to contain an opulent art deco interior; stained glass windows, mosaic floors and frescoed ceilings. I then head southwards for a tour of Lambeth Palace, including the library with its hammer beamed roof the guardroom with its paintings of past Archbishops (Laud’s painting being accompanied by the remains of his pet tortoise) and the chapel. I then spend a bit of time in Brompton Cemetery. The bracken and dried grass is high and the sound of crickets can be heard in the background. Conkers fall from the trees. Squirrels scamper about in the autumnal sun carrying nuts in their mouths. Holly berries are ripening while the ivy has turned a deep crimson. I’m pleased to see the Courtoy mausoleum, which had suffered bad frost damage when I had last visited, has been repaired. I also visit Greenwich and the restored Cutty Sark. It looks rather odd now sat on a glass and steel cushion and while the view of the ship’s golden prow from beneath is impressive, I rather conclude that the Great Britain in Bristol has been rather better conserved. I do rather like the collection of ship’s figureheads though.

Towards the middle of October, the sun continues to shine as the leaves brown and fall. One weekend, I decide to visit Old Basing. I walk beneath a Victorian railway viaduct and alongside the rover Itchen, which is full and clear but with no fish. Arriving, the Tudor tithe barn is the only complete part of the original estate and is a wonderful, vast, cathedral like building. The house itself is but a ruin; at the time of my visit, there were a number of civil war re-enacters there. Rosehips are flowering in the hedgerows and I see a jay in the trees. Finally, I visit the nearby church, whose interior is rather stark, with only one monument.

Reading Ibsen’s plays, I’m struck by the contrast between a writer similar to Shaw in exposing the hypocrisies and inequities of the bourgeoisie and a more modernist writer who instead documents perverse and destructive impulses (the sort of Freudian mythology that predated Freud). The Pillars of the Community is a perfect illustration of the former tendency, in depicting a community built on repression and hypocrisy. The play insists that truth is the only acceptable response to such a foundation but in Ibsen’s other plays this particular recommendation proves entirely destructive. A play like A Public Enemy is more pessimistic, suggesting that society will typically prefer falsehood to truth and do all it can to suppress it; but it also opens the door on the suggestion that those who wish to discard society’s lies are often driven by selfish and perverse impulses. A play like the Wild Duck adheres even more closely to Freud’s suggestion in Civilisation and its Discontents that repression is an essential building block of society, given that Gregers pursuit of truth only results in pain and destruction. Similar patterns emerge in his other plays; The Lady from the Sea and When We Dead Wake contrasts nature and civilisation. Nature is represented in the former by the sea with its sense of fascination for Ellida. Her eventual choice of domestic life is predicated on greater openness and Wangel’s equal treatment of her. By contrast, in When We Dead Wake nature as represented by the mountains symbolises the lure of the animal life for Maia in contrast to the deathly life of art offered by Rubek. A Doll’s House suggests that the subordination of women carves out a path that leads only to hypocrisy, with the solution being greater equality. In Hedda Gabler, Hedda too yearns for a sphere of greater freedom but her instincts tend towards the destructive, leaving it unclear whether society has deformed her or whether her destructive nature is hers alone.

In some sense, similar patterns recur in Wharton’s The Custom of the Country. The custom in question is that of American marriages; "the average American looks down on his wife…How much does he let her share in the real business of life? How much does he rely on her judgement… why haven’t we taught our women to take an interest in our work? Simply because we don’t have enough interest in them. " In this hypothesis, American women lead a gilded existence in which they demand to be kept in a luxury whose means of production they are entirely abstracted from. Having nothing else to occupy them, those demands are all that their existence amounts to. Certainly, throughout the novel Undine’s ignorance of such matters leads her into a series of errors, in which she mistakes aristocratic grandeur for genuine wealth. However, equally, Ralph is clearly an exception to this rule, but his desire to save Undine from the mercenary aspects of New York life are confounded by her own wishes; his failure is not due to lack of interest. Similarly, if European man take more interest in their wives, such interest does nothing to salvage Undine’s marriage to Raymond, leaving it open whether Undine is a "monstrously perfect result of the system" or whether she is simply more representative of the wider greed of American life. The main thing that occurs to me from reading the Pages From the Goncourt Journals is also about women and how the brothers were utterly alienated from any. Their existence revolved around a series of society soirees that were almost exclusively populated by men. The only two exceptions in the decades spanned by the journal are the Princess and George Sand; otherwise the only means by which they encounter any women is through prostitution. Their attitudes towards women are accordingly a mixture of fear and contempt. The other aspect of their lives that comes through particularly strongly is how a set of writers given to naturalistic depiction of the lower class were actually snobbishly aristocratic in their attitudes, fearing the lower classes and sneering at the middle class.

Zola’s The Fortune of the Rougons expounds the themes of heredity versus environmental factors that were to become a staple of all his novels; "Heredity, like gravity, has it laws… the dual problem of temperament and environment… he was predisposed to utopian ideas by certain hereditary influences… his lonely childhood, his patchy education led to unusual developments of his natural tendencies." It also introduces some of the dichotomies inherent in his novels; although it dwells on the Rougon tendency towards greed and ambition, it also introduces the tendency towards violent zealotry that re-emerges in The Debacle; "another dream, that of compelling men to be happy by force… Liberty was his passion, an unreasoning, absolute, passion." Utopian idealism is not easy to square with the general character of the Rougons or Macquarts in the novel and it accordingly also introduces some of the anomalies that re-emerge later, as with Pascal’s very different character to his parents and brothers; "he was one of those frequent exceptions to the laws of heredity. As a race evolves, nature often produces a being whose every aspect is derived from his own creative powers." The irony in this case is that as a doctor, Pascal is precisely the one who sees everything in terms of genetics, comparing his parent’s drawing room circle to animals in his mind.

I’d wanted to read Lichtenstein’s Rodinsky’s Room for a while after visiting the old synagogue on Princelet Street in Spitalfields. The initial premise of the tale is one of singularity, with Rodinsky seen as a mysterious figure possessed of arcana kabbalistic knowledge like a figure out of Meyrink’s The Golem. As the narrative unfolds though, Rodinsky takes on a dual character, half characterised by singularity of that kind and half characterised by being representative; sufficiently ordinary as to represent an entire swathe of Jewish history in London; "as did any notion of Rodinsky’s singularity. It was clear to me.. that this story… was only one of many similar tales… make sure that David Rodinsky’s story was not being mythologised.. the different Rodinskys lived on in memory… we each see each other in a different light."


I‘ve been to a few churches since the start of the year, so this would seem a suitable point to make some notes about the more interesting examples, particularly as I’m trying to visit all the nearby churches in Simon Jenkins list of England’s thousand best churches. First came a set of churches with John Piper stained glass in Farnborough, Nettlebed, Turville, Pishill and Bledlow Ridge. For the first three in that list, his designs seem oddly pagan; butterflies, fish, flowers and trees. Near to Bledlow Ridge is the church at Radnage, with medieval frescos still on its wall. Next on the list where North Moreton and East Hagbourne, the former most notable for medieval stained glass and tracery, the latter most notable for various macabre and surreal medieval corbels and grotesques. I also make a return visit to the churches at Bramley and Silchester, with their medieval frescos and neo-classical monuments; the redbrick baroque church at Wolverton, with its bizarre spectacle of a Wren style church rising above the fields proves to be firmly locked. That also proves to be the case at Childrey and Compton Beauchamp, although the Church of the Holy Rood at Sparsholt is open and proves to contain several medieval and Jacobean monuments (not unlike Aldworth). Last on my list are Uffington, whose extraordinary octagonal spire isn’t matched by an equally extraordinary interior, save for one medieval monument, and Fawley, one of GE Street’s rather austere designs, save for some Kempe windows and some boards painted with biblical verses (presumably survivors from the previous church). In this case, the church is perhaps most notable on the exterior, being set as it is high on a windswept hill.

I also pay a more sustained visit to one of Streets churches in Oxford, St Philip and St James, which now serves as the library for Oxford’s Centre for Mission Studies. This is easily the most impressive Street church I’ve seen, something that’s perhaps helped by the bright lighting inside dispelling Street’s usually rather dark interiors. A painted wooden barrel roof is accompanied by Kempe stained glass, and a decorated rood screen. I also visit Pusey House, where the chapel architecture is also rather wonderful if perhaps a little stark; the most interesting things tend to arise from Comper’s decorations, like his flotating christ wood carving or painted baldachin. The last thing I look at in Oxford is Harris Manchester chapel; the light was fading ar this point so the interior was dark and the only thing I could see was the Burne Jones stained glass lit in the gloom.

There aren’t many examples of modernist historical novels; with the exception of Lawrence’s The Boy in the Bush the nearest comparisons I can think of is Woolf’s Orlando, which is an allegory where Lawrence’s work sits rather more tradition in Hardy. In practice though Lawrence still uses the historical form in much the same way as Woolf; to explore ideas (such as polygamy) more explicitly than would have been possible with the removal of a contemporary social context. The use of a pioneer setting also caters well for the homosocial (there are times when it reads like a homoerotic update of Fenimore Cooper) aspects of his work, not entirely unlike Forster’s green wood; "this was what Australia was for; a careless freedom. An easy, unrestricted freedom.". As such, although it is concerned with the dark unconscious as any other Lawrence novel, the tension between that facet of the self and its social aspect is rather less marked here. As an example, where Kangaroo directly examines Lawrence’s political ideas, they seep through The Boy in the Bush in a rather less palatable form; "the Jewish gentleman was effusively greeting another Jewish gentleman. In fact, they were kissing, which made Jack curl with disgust… his blood recoiled with old haughtiness and pride of race… I’m an Englishman and I could crush everything in my hand… he belonged to the blood of the masters, not the servants." Much of the novel essentially forms a parable around the masculinisation of its protagonist, Jack in opposition to a civilised society depicted as feminine in character; "Jack found himself in a really female setting. Instinctively, he had avoided women but particularly he avoided girls." Love is accordingly characterised as ‘sentimental weakness, as in the description of how marriage has emasculated Esau; "he was one of those men whom marriage seems to humiliate, and to make ugly. As if he despised himself for being married… Esau was a tame dog." The death of Esau acts as a form of allegorical amputation of these similar tendencies within Jack; "a mean with all of boyishness cut away from him… he had lost his softness…he was not a tame dog like all the rest." By contrast, all the details about Jack not being able to bear physical intimacy seem to apply rather less to male characters like Tom than to any of the women in the novel.

Food cooked: Bobotie, Hen in a pot with parsley sauce, Swedish sausage and potato bake, Ham hock with spiced figs, Macaroni cheese, Doro Wat, Damson vodka, Arroz de Pato, Portuguese tomato soup with chorizo and egg, Ardennes venison stew, Lapin a’la Kriek, Squid with meatballs and peas, Chicken with plums, Chorizo ghoulash, Catalan crab and nut stew, Plaice and pepper paella, Duck with hazelnuts and apple, Pork with chocolate and orange, Caribbean chicken, Feijoada, Fish stew and herby mash, Chicken with almonds and pine nuts, Damson and chery cobbler.


When I read Gauguin’s Tahiti Journals earlier this year I didn’t know that the Tate were set to put on a large exhibition of his works. The exhibition is sufficiently popular that I have to wait a few hours to get in and go for a walk past Hopton’s Almshouses and the Oxo Tower. Once I’m inside, the exhibition is drawn up thematically (landscapes, portraits, still life, the feminine, narratives, religion) as well as two rooms dedicated to biography and social history. As an approach it works rather well, putting his Breton works alongside Tahiti and Martinique, while contrasting his early career as a bourgeois portrait painter with his later works.

As a painter, Gauguin is particularly writerly, in spite of his emphasis on ceramics and carving alongside painting. Where the impressionists dwelt on surface and effects of light, Gauguin’s primary colours point to an ambition to see the instress and inscape of things. Each painting seems like a fragment of a wider fresco, particularly with the way that so many of them depict wallpapers (or his own paintings) in the background in order to emphasise the reality of the foreground or even to suggest to blur the line between imagination and life, with the wallpaper being shown as a projection of a sleeper’s dreams, something that begins with paintings of his children and extends to his Tahitian paintings. By the same token, his still life paintings are often depicted through the gaze of an observer, as if the thing in itself could not be left unattended.

Nonetheless, my view of his journals was that his romanticisation of the noble savage was to a large extent superficial (given that missionaries had been active in Tahiti a hundred years before Gauguin’s arrival, which was essentially a product of the advent of mass tourism) and the paintings do go some way to confirming that. A painting of a woman holding a fruit as a representation of Eve at the tree of knowledge is painted a second time with her holding a fox, a folklore symbol of sexuality. Christian themes compete with pagan themes throughout; even as he rejects Christian theology he depicts Tahiti through its lens. Christ is frequently depicted in his paintings, but is often shown in the guise of Gauguin. Conversely, the idols in his paintings were often carved by himself while the Tahitian names are often chosen for their sounds rather than their means. Easter island glyphs included in his paintings remain untranslated today and are included solely as a form of exoticism.

The following week sees a visit to Oxford for the Ashmolean’s exhibition on the Pre-Raphaelites and Italy. It’s a somewhat thin pretext for an exhibition, which ranges from Ruskin’s detailed studies of Italian architecture and Burne-Jones church interior designs to Brett’s landscapes of Capri and Florence and to Rossetti’s somewhat fanciful interpretations of Dante. However, it does have some rather nice works by minor painters, like Dyce’s interpretation of Paolo and Francesca Da Rimini, Inchbold’s painting of the Venetian lagoon, Bell Scott’s painting of Keats and Shelley’s graves, Newman’s depiction of the Duomo in Florence and an extraordinary painting of the Maries at the Sepulchure after Mantegna by Howard. Some of the Etruscan group’s paintings are more interesting than the Pre-Raphaelites proper, with Howard’s ruin paintings and Richmond’s landscapes especially standing out. Afterwards, I visit the castle; I don’t particularly like tours but it was worth is to see the interior of St George’s chapel alone.

The British Museum’s Egyptian Book of the Dead exhibition leaves me feeling rather ambivalent, given that it does rather tend to drag Egyptian religion out of the exoticism of mythology down to the rather prosaic level of theology. The paraphernalia of a seraph-like soul being weighed and judged as to whether it shall gain eternal life and the promise of a physical resurrection all presumably found their way into christianity (sadly missing the Cerberus like Devourer), while the desperate ploys to persuade the heart not to testify against the soul in the final judgement seem like nothing so much as the Catholic confessional and selling of indulgences. The best exhibit is rather clearly the beautiful gilt cartonnage mask of Satdjehuty, the one item free of religious symbolism.

In a certain sense, literature is commonly associated with social order. In tragedy, the ambitions of the malcontent or overreacher are curtailed. In comedy, the perverse and vulgar are help up as objects of amusement, before the social order snaps back into its fixed position. Both descriptions are of course exaggerations, and often diametrically opposed to tragedy’s ability to highlight the plight of the powerless or comedy’s ability to mock the privileged. However, I did find myself thinking of those definitions as I read a collection of Ancient Egyptian writings. Many of them are explicitly cast as teachings, instructions on inherited tradition; “emulate your forefathers, your ancestors.” Stories, such as The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant dwells on social injustice, but only in the context of restoring social order; indeed, issues of order and kingship permeate many of the stories. The result often feels rather narrowly defined, in terms of everything being seen through a single lens to the exclusion of all else. The best story is clearly The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor, which is rather more reminiscent of the Odyssey in its delight at the fantastic and in its refusal to suggest that all will be re-ordered at its conclusion. Compare that to The Tale of Sinuhe, which dwells on travel to other lands but almost of the sole purpose of setting a scene for the return to Egypt in the manner of a prodigal son.

As in Coetzee’s Foe, White’s Voss can be regarded as a feminist critique of the European exploratory narrative. The parallels between the stories of Voss and Laura places both on an equal footing, implicitly serving to undermine the epic calibre of his narrative. However, it inevitably also partakes of the same sort of mythologising as Robinson Crusoe, hence the novel’s stress on the relativity of such accounts; "words were not the servants of life but life was the servant of words… all words must be deceitful… people have a habit of making truth suit the occasion.. all truths are particoloured."

Reading Adorno’s The Culture Industry I’m reminded of the way Lukacs paid homage to conservative writers like Scott and Balzac, noting that the Tory worldview dovetailed with a Marxist analysis, at least where it concerned the depiction of the middle class. Something similar applies to Adorno’s defence of a division between elitist high-culture and a carnivalesque popular culture in the face of a middle class culture industry exemplified by film and television. As such, his arguments against mass culture chime quite readily with a conservative viewpoint (I can easily imagine the likes of Roger Scruton secretly nodding in agreement with much of it); in fact, the historical genealogy he constructs that high and low art were last united by Mozart doesn’t really sound terribly different to Eliot’s dissociation of sensibility. Adorno’s theory rests on the presumption that consumers are simply passive recipients of mass cultural propaganda that induces a permanent state of false consciousness in its "blind and passive victims" a patrician idea of the working class that denies them any concept of agency.

Coetzee’s early novels could loosely be described as being in the mould of Kafka; allegorical novels told in the first person that sought to withhold their allegorical meaning. More recent novels have preceded from modernism to postmodernism and from a single narrator to multiple narrators, seeking to postulate a fictionalised version of the author while interrogating the realism of such a version. As one character in Summertime put it; "it would be very, very naive to conclude that because the theme was present in his writings it had to be present in his life…. what Coetzee writes there cannot be trusted, not as a factual record, not because he was a liar but because he was a fictioneer." Summertime interrogates that self by removing its presence entirely and reconstructing it through a set of narratives told to a biographer by several of his acquaintances. As one of them points out that they are all fictioneers, with one of them complaining about the biographers account of their conversation and all of them demanding editorial rights. However, although the picture they paint varies widely and is far from uncritical (as with a critique of the romantic primitivism in his work or his cousin’s criticism of his impracticality), it is not inconsistent. While a novel like Lessing’s The Golden Notebook suggests that the self is fractured, the fictionalised Coetzee is entirely recognisable between each narrative. Much the same applies to Diary of a Bad Year, a set of diaries split between an elderly author and one of the foreign woman whose recurrent presence as a trope in his work is noted in Summertime. The novel begins with a set of essays, much of which seem to imply a criticism of the author, which Anya and her libertarian boyfriend make explicit. However, the dialogic aspect of the narrative is undermined somewhat by a improbably melodramatic act by the boyfriend that decimates the force of his criticisms. Summertime is perhaps more at ease with polyphony than Diary of a Bad Year, but Coetzee seems to be split between withholding truth as a concept and presenting it as complex and fractured.

Much of satire resorts to simplification and objectification as a means of making its point. The travel metaphor in Gulliver’s Travels enables Swift to make his case with much greater ease than if he were operating in a realist vein. Similarly, Flatland reduces human society to a matter of geometry in order to make a series of disproportioned broadsides against the inequality of woman (especially the notion of the irrationality of women), Lombrosian criminology, eugenics and and social injustice. The later section, a sort of cross between A Christmas Carol and Gulliver’s description of the Houyhnhnms is more difficult to pinpoint, given that it relates to the protagonist’s perception of geometry, thereby relating more closely to the signifier structure in the novel than to what it generally signifies. Like Swift or Bellamy’s Looking Backward (which it anticipates), the pessimism in that conclusion does rather undermine the melioratory project otherwise at work in the novel.

When reading Zola’s The Ladies Paradise my main reaction as how extraordinary that such a hymn to progress and commerce could come from an author who’d written such vehement denunciations of capitalism as The Belly of Paris and Germinal. In the case of Pot Luck, although the novel forms a prequel to The Ladies Paradise, it has rather more in common with The Belly of Paris than its sequel. In particular, Pot Luck metes out to the bourgeoisie the same sort of treatment Zola has given the working class in L’Assommoir. However, in this context, much of the text is rather reminiscent of Civilisation and its Discontents; "covering the corrupt bourgeoisie with the cloak of religion." Nonetheless, the nature of vice is something Zola regards with ambivalence. Vice is often seen as an inherited condition "it;’s your mother all over again… all the unhappiness of his life was going to be repeated in his daughter!" which may be suppressed by which will nonetheless release itself; "checked at first by their good breeding the desire for the twenty francs got the better of them and all pretence was abandoned.. their lips quivering with the excitement of the fray." At other points, the characters vices are seen as something specific to their class (not that this idea had occurred to him when he was describing the lower classes ), with the servants either imitating or scorning them; "like master, like servant! When the landlords set the example, the flunkeys become immoral as well…how glad they were not to belong to the bourgeoisie when they saw their masters living in this flithy state." In order to explain middle class vice, Zola resorts to education and environment as factors, and the tendency to bring up girls in sexual ignorance with only idealised expectations; "it’s absolutely certain that if you’d brought me up differently… some of whom were brought up as dolls and were made crazy or corrupt thereby, while others had their feelings and passions corrupted by hereditary neurosis."

The Hunchback of Notre Dame reminded me of Dickens in several respects; both authors combine a rationalist outlook with a gothic sensibility. In the case of Hugo, he descriptions of medieval Paris are emphatically those of the gothic revival evangelist, with modern architecture viewed as a form of degeneration, but he is nonetheless constantly at pains to stress the barbarity of the medieval worldview. Bernhard’s Old Masters, follows the generic convention of every Bernhard novel I’ve ever read; a character incessantly fulminates against the repressive and philistine nature of his native Austria, from the Catholic church through to subjects that increasingly suggest the first person narration to be unreliable (the state of Vienna’s public toilets springs to mind) and the narrator unbalanced, a point confirmed when the narrative details the circumstances of his wife’s death. As usual. the reader is left working out how much of what they have read can be trusted and how much doubted.

It’s a cliche in literary criticism that the most powerful effects in literature can be attributed to an author showing something dramatically rather than describing it. Reading some of Lovecraft’s stories, I wondered about this. In horror fiction it is often vital to neither show nor describe the monster being depicted, but while Lovecraft rarely shows dramatically the beings in his stories, he often does describe (and indeed taxonomise) them in rather tedium detail. The story veers between the narrator resorting to vague adjectives to relate what he has seen (horrifying, dreadful etc) and speaking of their capacity for flying or the descent of some of the creatures from fungi. Houellebecq’s recent essay notwithstanding, it’s difficult to see this as being comparable to the likes of Blackwood or Derleth.

If Tom McCarthy’s previous novel Remainder was distinctly cast in the mould of Sartre and Robbe-Grillet, then his latest novel C is perhaps rather less predictable; perhaps being best described as a picaresque novel that combines Tristram Shandy with Ulysses. Where the futile attempts of the narrator in Remainder to re-capture a sense of the authenticity of past events could be as easily read as an essay on the death of affect as on the spuriousness of authenticity, C makes little attempt to hide the fact that it is depicting a linguistic world. The two novels arguably represent a transition from modernism to post-modernism, with part of its effect being derived from the narrator treating events with an air of surrealist whimsy (of jouissance at the sense of differance), ranging from parodies of first world war literature through Serge experiencing a Marinettiesque sense of enjoyment during his time at the front while reading Holderlin and denigrating Housman, to parodies of Mann’s Magic Mountain during his stay at a spa. Throughout McCarthy deploys realist tropes such as the bildungsroman or first person narration in order to parody them; for example, characters often simply repeat the same stock phrases in order to defuse any illusion of interiority (although the effect of that can often be rather Dickension) and anachronistic detail casually inserted into the text. The world is instead depicted as a confluence of signals and cryptonyms; a dummy-chamber in the sense the novel’s Egyptian’s section introduces or the various radio transmissions that form a leitmotif throughout it. While C relates to the protagonist’s surname, Carrefax, it also relates to carbon, the basic stuff of life reduced to the character of the textual.

The early section of the novel follows that of Freud’s Wolf Man, Sergei Pankejeff in terms of Serge’s incestuous relationship with his sister Sophie and resulting neurosis. Sophie is repeatedly encoded throughout the novel as a set of myths; that of Persephone, Isis ("the god’s dismemberment, his sisters Isis’s search for his parts.. forced to remake her self") or Philo’s Saint Sophia ("the Logos, dweller in the inmost… desiring too ardently to be united with God, she falls into matter and our universe is formed from her agony or remorse."). Death is certainly linked to sexuality in Freudian terms (as in the joke about the res-errection of Horus, in Serge’s death about having sex with Laura or Sophie’s suicide in response to her pregnancy) but is also coded as a form of signal; Sophie’s signal is disperse, Serge’s death is a call. The name of the family estate, Versoie, similar to Versailles, is more importantly a Derridean word, from his essay "Un Ver a soie" (A Silkworm of One’s Own; silkworms are indeed farmed on the estate), as the silkworm becomes a moth it is not what it was, but is now the opposite of a silkworm, and is therefore opposed to itself. As such, the novel veers between a concept of existence as somehow fallen, lacking in meaning that can only be regained in death and a concept of the world’s differance, producing jouissance, as with the parodies of Freud’s analysis of Pankejeff or the unmasking of a seance.

One particular thing stays with me after reading the novel; although McCarthy parodies realist tropes in the novel (effectively treating the period as a historical theme park), his choice of a period that witnessed the birth of modernism and of modern communications technology leaves me wondering how much C differs from AS Byatt having characters in Angels and Insects ponder Jungian archetypes long before Jung has invented them. Equally, for all of the intertextual references outlined above, there’s something remarkably flat about this novel, as with Serge’s inability to draw perspectives. I recall that when I first read Tristram Shandy, I felt that its auto-deconstruction was rather flat and predictable in comparison to the often accidental contradictions in Fielding; similarly beyond the facile pleasures of decoding, C seems a rather two-dimensional exercise in modernist pastiche.</p