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


Open Season

This year, summer has not so much passed gently away into autumn as violently and convulsively expired. From a searingly hot summer that I remember as a blur of white light and omnipresent heat, it gave way to thunder storms and monsoon rains. Yesterday, as the rain relented the sky was surmounted by two concentric rainbow rings, the inner bright and vivid with sky lighter inside it than outside, the outer fainter in the grey. That night the harvest moon was brilliant in the sky, and its cold light streamed through the windows.

Being autumn, this means the end of the Proms season. The performance of Debussy’s L’Apres Midi d’un Faune and La Mer is perhaps not quite right for the Royal Albert Hall. Debussy seems to require a more intimate setting, whereas the Albert Hall seems to swallow the music. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring has no such difficulties though. The same applies to Monteverdi’s Vespers, which are brilliantly performed; with singers emerging from the wings in mid performance, answering each other from opposite sides of the hall and ghostly echos and children’s voices descending from the gallery.

It also means a few weeks of Open Heritage Days. In Oxford, I begin with Wadham, whose the chapel has a truly bizarre monument, of a skull flanked by two dolphins alongside a plaque to John Wilmot featuring an equally bizarre Yale of Beaufort. Nuffield always seems an odd place; the sandstone and copper are all correct for an Oxford college but the modern design with its sharp edges seems to long to be aged and softened. The chapel is rather small and hidden away, with a matchingly plain interior – except for the John Piper designed stained glass. Pairs of windows appear in different colours, with light streaming brilliantly through a pair of cobat blue windows. The dining hall is rather odd, with a bright red ceiling and a heraldic crest featuring a red bull and a green beaver – both recur in the town hall later, alongside an elephant. Inside the town hall, the council chamber and courtrooms are open (although much of the rest of the building proves to be shut). Two contrasting churches follow. Firstly, the Wesleyan Memorial Church; unsurprisingly rather plain although its rose window is rather beautiful. Secondly, St Barnabas. I’ve wanted to see the inside of this since I saw the model for its design at Torcello. The interior is thick with incense while light streams down from the upper windows, obscuring the gold and blue apse design. The presence of a recent set of orthodox icons in the baptistry makes it look rather more like its Venetian counterpart. The main thing I’d wanted to see was the interior of All Souls. The interior is remarkable in its accretion of different styles into a unity; a medieval building, with a baroque screen by James Thornhill and a set of Victorian reredos by Gilbert Scott. On the other side of the quadrangle, I’m amused that the elaborate sundial’s position renders it completely useless, after its original position was used by the local clockmakers. Behind it, the Codrington Library lacks the ramshackle antiquarianism of some of the libraries I’ve seen, but rather makes up for it in scale, with two large marble statues dominating its length. Finally, I visit the great hall at Exeter, which rather leaves me reminded of the Middle Temple in London.

In London the following week, I walk for a bit around the East End, noting the French window shutters on the old Huguenot houses in Spitalfields, before heading down to the Burnel Museum in Rotherhithe. This area has a beautiful view on a stretch of the Thames sufficiently wide as to make the other shore look as if it belongs to another country. The church of Saint Mary towers over the nearby warehouses while the museum itself is rather innocuous with only a chimney to give it away. What’s striking is below ground; the entrance hall to Brunel’s Thames tunnel. I shin over a wall, crawl through a narrow entrance, climb down some scaffolding and find myself in the remains of the entrance hall with the sound of trains and water pumps throbbing beneath.

Open House proper doesn’t start until the next week though, where I find myself in Tower Hill to visit Trinity House, home to the body charged with operating lighthouses. The building was designed with Samuel Wyatt and has a wonderful domed ceiling above a grand staircase flanked by two mariner statues at the base and caryatids at the summit. Models of ships and lighthouses are to be found on cabinets in all of the rooms, while various naval crests compete with portraits of various royals and politicians on the walls. The next item on the itinerary is St Magnus the Martyr; never having been inside here before, I’m surprised at how cluttered the interior is. Models of god based around the Van Eyck painting I’d failed to see in Ghent compete with models of London Bridge, reliquary shrines, models of St Magnus (compete with horned helmets) and Ethiopian icons of St George. I then walk onto St Mary Abchurch, a building whose drab brick exterior is counterbalanced by the splendour of the frescos on a dome whose existence only becomes visible from inside. The rest of the interior is not nearly as interesting as St Magnus (Grinling Gibbons reredos aside), although I rather like the lion and unicorn carvings. On impulse, I then decide to visit the Lloyd’s buildings. I can’t say I really like liked this building with its lifts and ducting snaking around the exterior before, and although the size of the interior atrium is impressive the overall effect of the interior is to make one conclude that rarely has the future looked so seedy as an expanse of eighties logos and grubby carpets opens up before you. The main highlight is the Adams room on the top floor, although in these surroundings it does looks like as if you’ve walked onto the holodeck. One of the main highlights of my visit on that day turns out to be Marlborough House, the perfect counterpart to my visit to Blenheim earlier in the year. The main hall with its frescos with the Queen’s House in Greenwich matched by Laguerre’s paintings of the Battle of Blenheim is especially spectacular. The final place on that day was 26 Whitehall, the former Admiralty House (presently the Cabinet Office), which is mostly noteworthy for the Grinling Gibbons wood carving and wing dial in its boardroom.

The following day sees me in the city, at Draper’s Hall. Past a set of Tudor paintings in the main hall lies a set of Hogarth engravings tucked in a corner, showing the idle and industrious apprentices.I then ascend a staircase (improbably watched over by four Antinous clones) into an interior marked by a gallimaufry of decorative styles; sculptures by Thorvaldsen and Schadow share rooms with Gobelin tapestries and copies of the company’s charters. I then head out of the city into Islington and the former Finsbury Town Hall, a mixture of baroque and art nouveau. While the Clerkenwell angels, caryatids holding the gilded light fittings, are worth seeing in their own right, the place seems rather desultory, with its current role as a dance academy having left the rooms empty. After this, it’s a while before the other buildings I want to see open, so I head out to look at the Limehouse Accumulator Tower. This turns out to be one of the more impressive buildings of the day; on the outside the fissiparous brick is assaulted by ivy while the green Victorian ironwork inside is pockmarked and rusted. Nonetheless, the ascent of the spiral staircase leads to a cathedral-like interior. I return back to All Souls, Langham Place. Bombed during the war, the interior is rather disappointing, beyond a Victorian altar painting. I do note that the building does seem much larger on the inside than outside, especially with a large underground church hall beneath the building. I then travel downward to St Barnabas in Pimlico. Not a building I’d heard of before, it deserves to be better known, with a richly decorated interior that combines designs from Bodley & Butterfield, Ravenna mosaics and stained glass by Kempe and Comper. The last thing I see before leaving London is the Rudolf Steiner house. Being the solitary example of expressionist architecture in London makes its effect difficult to place; the curved surfaces remind me of art nouveau but the austere absence of surface decoration points in the other direction towards modernism.

Reading Woolf’s biography of Roger Fry, I found myself a bit bemused at the dichotomy it presents. A scientist by training (something that shows in his dismissal of mysticism as a set of crude answers in contrast to the provisional nature of truth offered in science), Fry is depicted as demoralised by the irrationalism that follows the first world war, embodied in movements like surrealism. By contrast, he sees himself as a nomadic classicist. However, he also has a marked streak of Lawrentian paganism, seeing Western civilisation as corrupt.

The Surrealist Wunderkammer

The heat of the summer is impossible to escape at present. After several years of overcast and indifferent summers, crickets are chirping amidst burnt out grass. The church of St Mary in Buscot is notable for a few things. Firstly, it’s nowhere near the village and is surrounded by fields and woodland. Secondly, the churchyard is replete with baroque monuments, from lichen encrusted putti to distended skulls. Finally, there’s the Norman arches and Burne Jones window inside, a St Christopher surrounded by similar designs that prove to date from after the great war. Nearby All Saints Faringdon is less noticeable; the church is a rather squat structure, enlivened mostly by some extraordinary baroque sculptures. Beyond lies Circencester with its exorbitant parish church and its fan vaults, Saxon crucifixes and ornate Garstang marriage chest. Finally, I arrive in Chedworth and its Roman villa. The Corinium mosaics still retain much of their colour, like the hooded figure of winter while the Victorian museum has a display of Samian ware and altars showing carved figures. Outside, a spring still bubbles where water gods would have been worshipped. Nearby, orchids bloom in the grass.

The first thing that strikes me about Blenheim Palace are the eyes painted on the ceiling above the main doors.Inside, one passes through to the Great Hall and Thornhill’s ceiling. Inevitably, it rather reminds me of Chatsworth (unsurprisingly, given Laguerre’s ceiling painting in the saloon), although there is rather less interest in matters artistic or antiquarian here, in spite of Epstein busts and sculptures of Alexander and Hadrian. Most of the paintings are by Sargent, Romney and Reynolds; all well and good but not enormously exciting. A selection of Churchill’s paintings were also on display. While certainly proficient, I can’t say they were especially striking, as nice as it might be to have an artistic Prime Minister now. The porcelain collection is rather better, ranging from Kakiemon to Meissen. Tapestries woven to commemorate Marlborough’s victory at Blindheim line many of the walls, still retaining much of their colour.Most impressive is Hawksmoor’s long library with its Rysbrack statue of Queen Anne and large organ dominating one end of the gallery. The grounds include a number of formal gardens, reconstructed from Capability Brown’s vandalism and featuring a range of neo-classical statues, such as a coade stone replica of The Dying Gaul, as well as some bizarre Greek Sphinxes with their faces modelled on one of the Duchesses. A black and white cat happily rolls around in the dust as it enjoys the sunlight. For all my dislike of Brown, the landscape is nonetheless remarkable with the lakes and islands interrupted by Vanbrugh’s bridge. Finally, I walk out to the victory column, past the young lambs.

The following weekend is given up to visiting Hughenden and West Wycombe. I;m amazed at West Wycombe at how clear the water in the streams and lakes is; fish lazily glide by (a little too lazily given the heron I also notice), while families of swans and ducks swim above, cygnets and ducklings in tow. Hughenden has a new exhibition in the cellars on the house’s role during the second world war in mapmaking.

Surrealism is always a difficult concept to define. Is it simply an art movement that flourished in the wake of Freud’s theories or a universal principle in the the human pysche that includes Lewis Carroll and Lear as much as Breton and Ernst. The Barbican’s surrealist house gives few answers on this score, preferring to construct itself as a wunderkammer. It begins with Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. set alongside Duschamp’s The Fresh Widow and Please Touch. Some objects, such as Freud’s consulting room chair, are here by virtue of association only. On the one hand, paintings by Tanguy, Magritte’s Lovers and Homage to Mack Sennett, Man Ray’s photos of Gaudi’s buildings and Table Surrealiste by Giascommetti are set alongside Hopper’s House by the Railroad, Tarkovsky’s Sacrifice, Svankmajer’s Jabberwock and Louise Bourgeois’s Femme Maison. Dali’s Sleep, with its sleeping head supported on struts is paralleled to Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, shown here through a set photos showing its ruined state as well as a more obviously painting of a zebra on its roof. Corbusier’s Beistegui apartments prove more genuinely surrealist, with the fireplace on their roof garden. Of the modern works, Rebecca Horn’s Concert for Anarchy seems closest to the spirit of the original surrealist movement, a piano hung from the ceiling where the keys and lid periodically explode open.

Reading Iain Sinclar’s London Orbital proves to be a less than scintillating experience. Ballard is repeatedly invoked as a figure, but whereas Ballard’s modernism was ambivalently positioned between rapture and resistance, Sinclar’s posture is rather more predictable. In essence, Sinclair is an advocate of outsider or vernacular architecture. Victorian asylums are worthy of being lauded while the likes of Painswick Park on the one hand or Bluewater on the other are to be condemned.

The Four Seasons (Remixed)

There can’t be many exhibitions that combined the opportunity to see John Dee’s scrying glass (actually an Aztec obsidian mirror) with the porcelain bowl that gave rise to Gray’s Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes. The V&A currently have an exhibition on the Horace Walpole’s collection of art and antiquities from Strawberry Hill, such as medieval armour, Italian maiolica, Sevres china, a wooden cravat carved by Grinling Gibbons, Boulle furniture, Elizabethan miniatures, a French enamel horn, a clock given by Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn and, oddly enough, Cardinal Wolsey’s hat.. It’s definitely not the Victorian idea of gothic; Walpole seems to have had a particular passion for Reynolds. Presumably he was less fond of Rowlandson’s caricature of Strawberry Hill as a catholic monastery. Hogarth seemed the best painter on offer.

In the evening, I go to Oxford for a concert; Vivaldi and Piazzolla’s versions of the Four Seasons (occasionally interspersing passages from them both, rather reminding me of the snippets from God Save the Queen erupting in Red Priest’s version of the Four Seasons). Although based on the Theatre of Marcellus, the Sheldonian reminds me more of the Globe, in its semi-circular design (with some of the audience behind the players) and the trompe l’oeil effects on the pillars.

Animal Farm

My first chance to go anywhere this year was a rather dark and cold trip to West Wycombe church. The mock-Palmyran interior seems rather forlorn in the dim light of an English winter. I’d forgotten about the snake curling its way around the stand on the wooden font towards the doves at the top or the Flemish glass in one window. Outside, red kites turn somersaults in the air. The English winter seems to befit Waverley Abbey rather better; the ruins stand by a river accompanied by a range of pillboxes and dragon’s teeth from the second world war.

A few weeks ago I’d visited Oxford. Walking around North Oxford past rows of gothic castles contorted into modest little buildings, I realised how much the Victorians must have changed the face of the city. This seems particularly so when I walk into Worcester College’s chapel. Not one of Oxford’s more famed buildings, as presumably the exuberant interior design by Burges is rather too florid for many tastes; for example, the pews all have carved animals ranging from the customary lions and unicorns to rhinos, dodos and sperm whales. I decide to look at some more of the buildings Burges designed and Cardiff Castle seems the obvious place to start. Accordingly, the following weekend I find myself stepping through the doors of Cardiff’s art deco central train station. The city seems unusual for the sheer number of arcades that form warrens between its streets, some curving sinuously around other buildings. I look at the animal wall before entering the castle; lions, seals, pelicans, lynxes, bears and vultures are all depicting scaling the walls. Similarly, the interior shows monkeys reading, pigs playing the bagpipes and a strange stork whose tail ends in a serpent’s head playing the trumpet. It would be easy to read much of this as a satirical catholic comment on Darwinism but the effect equally seems to veer somewhere between Carollean surrealism and paganism. The castle itself rather reminds me of Neuschwanstein or the Leighton House, all hyperreal fantasies designed to facilitate escape from the modern age. Just as arts & crafts houses were built with the comforts of gas lighting, so the reconstructed Roman walls had corridors built into them to allow walking in poor weather. I walk onwards through Bute Park towards LLandaff and the cathedral. Daffodils, Cherries, Tulips and Hyacinths are all in flower. Looking out from what looks like a pleasant village green, complete with war memorial, the cathedral is below beneath the ruins of the Bishop’s Palace. Unlike Winchester, Salisbury or Lichfield it sits within a hollow, which gives it the air of a parish church. In practice, the building is rather large and has a rich variety of styles; romanesque arches above the doorways, gothic arches, Pre-Raphaelite reredos and stained glass, more stained glass by Piper and a modernist sculpture by Epstein that hangs on a concrete arch above the nave.

Backtracking towards Cathays Park, I have a look at the art gallery. The atrium has some rather odd sculptures; a crusading knight flanked by Tommies from the first world war as well as an odd triptych derived from Bachelard. Not the best collection but not without interest; a Salvator Rosa landscape, Panini landscapes and a pair of Hogarths. Some attention is given to a pair of Welsh painters I wasn’t familiar; Thomas Jones (I particularly like his romantic The Last Bard) and Richard Wilson’s landscapes of Wales and Italy. Scenes of travellers beset by bandits undermine the picturesque aspect of the landscape. The Victorian section proves to be quite good, with painting by Madox-Brown, Millais, Tissot and quite a few John Brett landscapes. A Welsh landscapes gallery has a few especially impressive paintings by Piper, Kyffin Williams, Lowry and Lionel Walden’s Steel Works, Cardiff at Night. Finally, there’s a small impressionist exhibition; the usual Monet lilies as well as some of his Venice paintings, Cezanne and Manet still lives and some Rodin sculptures. Leaving, I walk back towards the Bay. The street I walk along is lined with boarded-up houses, betraying a rather familiar story. By contrast, the Bay itself is a glittering illustration of the Bilbao effect, with the steel fountain tower and the Millennium Centre. I find myself rather liking the centre; the revival of the Roman tradition of inscriptions on public buildings in combination with the use of traditional Welsh materials like Slate make it a rather ‘readerly’ building. Regrettably, there isn’t time for a ride on the merry-go-round by the Pierhead building and I have to turn back to the train station.

I’ve finished reading Gaskell’s Ruth. As a novel this begins in a similar vein to Eliot; "the traditions of these bygone times, enable one to understand more clearly the circumstances whcih contributed to the formation of character." Nonetheless, Ruth like Silas Marner or The Scarlet Letter is a particularly good example of the tension between the novel and the romance. As a novel, it operates within the constraints of a specific place and time, as well as of causality; Ruth and Benson’s deceptions are inevitably found out and duly castigated. As a romance, it plays out a fantasy of moral redemption that is dependent on those deceptions ("our telling a lie has been the saving of her"). By the same token, much of that redemption is attributable to empathy and natural feeling ("I do believe Leonard’s father is a bad man and yet I live him… it was one of the faults of her nature to be ready to… value affection almost above its price"); but it is surely the simple absence of a sense of duty in Bellingham that leads to Ruth’s downfall as much as an absence of empathy. The result is that the novel does have a rather polyphonic conception of morality; "she has turned wrong into right and right into wrong… the sophistry by which I persuaded myself that wrong could be right."

By contrast, Moore’s Esther Waters depicts the same subject in a naturalistic manner without reference to the romance or to fables; while Esther struggles in life there is no tragic demise or moral redemption ahead for her. Nonetheless, some of his ambivalence towards his subject isn’t dissimilar from Gaskell’s; both Esther and Ruth’s innocence is responsible for their respective downfalls. Moore’s attitude towards religion initially seems much more critical than Gaskell’s "it’s a strange thing that religion should make some people so unfeeling… religion is easy enough at times , but there is other times when it don’t seem to fit in witha body’s duty… I haven’t forgotten God but must do my duty to my husband" an attitude later re-iterated towards Fred and the Salvation Army’s prosecution of the betting at the pub, with William viewing them as puritans. Nonetheless, if Esther is given no deathbed conversion, William does undergo one, coming to accept that the betting that had supported his family had been wrong, even as Esther’s disapproval becomes rather blunted in its severity; "she had always disapproved of the betting… there was a great deal in life which one couldn’t approve of.. there were worse places than the King’s Head."

Food cooked: Black miso chicken, Fabada, Jerk chicken with spicy potato salad, Bakewell tart, Tanzanian Fish Curry, Goulash with Czech Dumplings, Romanian lemon cake, Roe and bacon spaghetti, Greek fish with orange and pine nuts, Pork with Prague-style stuffing, Catalan Duck with Pears, Salmon and Feta Spaghetti, Pan fried Roman lamb, Chicken Donburi, Tarragona seafood stew, Lone Star Steak, Burgers with blue cheese and gherkins, Cholent, Damson Gin, Glögg, Swedish potato salad, Duck with Ponzu dressing, Czech rabbit with cream sauce, Ostend fish gratin, Fish stew and sour cream mash, Lamb shanks with beans, Han hock with honey and mustard, Waterzooi de volaille a’la gantoise.

There is a Mower, Death Yclept

Oxford is beautiful in the autumn. As the sun is alternately hidden and revealed behind the clouds, the stone switches from yellow to grey. Flowers remain on the stalk, ossified into place as leaves fall from the trees into the mud below. The church of St Michael in Begbroke is a rather small affair, rendered noteworthy by its Romanesque arches and its sixteenth century stained glass; I especially like a plate showing Saint Barbara with a Brueghelesque landscape behind her. I’m also rather struck by some rather militant looking angels as corbels on the windows outside. The nearby St Bartholomew in Yarnton is more impressive. A black cat looks at me suspiciously from its gravestone perch in the overgrown churchyard as I enter. Many of the tombs are from the baroque period, with ornate details of skulls and cherubs crumbling beneath the layers of lichen. Here too, the stained glass is especially impressive, with such strange details as Seraphs and All Seeing Eyes. A pair of baroque and medieval tombs for the same family also draw my attention.

Reading Berlin Alexanderplatz after watching Fassbinder’s television adaptation is a strange experience. In many respects, the novel counts as a Schopenhauerian fable concerning the extinction of Franz’s will (or a religious fable, given the presence of Death and his Angels), but the fable is very far from occupying much of the novel. Biblical allegories proliferate throughout the novel, but the ideology behind them often seems far from Biblical; for example, it would have been very easy to present Mieze as receiving the due punishment for a fallen woman but Doblin deliberately states that she does not deserve her fate. In formalist terms, the fabula and syuzhet have diverged; where novels like The Trial deliberately deny meaning, Berlin Alexanderplatz has a surplus of it. As Doblin puts it early on in the novel, it’s as if we see events from behind a lens which switches from close-up to wide-angle and back again throughout. As such, the novel ranges from Franz’s story to counterpointed exemplars of Berlin life (at one point Doblin notes that "we all have different natures and lives, in kind, in future and destiny we are all different"), related through monologue to excepts from the popular press and songs. In short, it’s heteroglossic in the true sense of Bakhtin’s term (as well as polyphonic, particularly in the scenes where Franz argues with the narrator), assimilating different media and registers into itself. Part of the purpose of this seems to be to critique Nietzsche’s idea of the superman and suggest a concept of the interconnectedness of existence, with Doblin presenting himself as as anti-subjectivist. Throughout Franz appears unconcerned with others, wondering if he can sell the Volkische Beobachter to his Jewish friends before introducing to Mieze to her downfall in the form of Reinhold; "what do these people want anyway, first the fairies, who don’t concern me, and now the reds?" This is something that often seems to recur in Franz’s arguments with Berlin’s Marxists; "you can’t do anything alone." But the character voicing that sentiment also denies the idea of a higher being, which sits oddly in so metaphysical a novel; Marxism seems to emerge as one of many wills to power, that upset both Franz’s existence and the narrator’s ideas alike ("somebody had told him all about communism; to the effect that it’s nothing at all and that a reasonable man believes only in Nietzsche"); for example, the novel’s ending casts Death as winning over the Whore of Babylon. But Death is also the warmonger, and the foreshadowing of the war at the end casts a very ambiguous status on this victory.


Reading Zola’s The Belly of Paris, I was struck with the contrast it makes with the later Germinal; the latter an impassioned call for revolution and social justice, the former treating the matter in terms that are rather more cynical, seeing such matters as the affair of naive idealists (as Claude describes Florent; "You’re an artist in your own way. You dream about politics") and hypocrites (Gavard being, as Claude describes it, "fat, but the sort that pretends to be thin. That sort is common."); in other words, not that far away from Conrad’s The Secret Agent. For all of the injustice meted out towards Florent, the novel presents a relatively poor case for revolution, with most of the stallholders prospering. For all of his talk of the fat and thin, Claude seems at best apolitical; "You titillate yourself with ideas of about truth and justice. Your ideas, like my paintings, frighten bourgeois people… politics did not bother him at all." At worst, Claude seems enthralled by the modern age, celebrating the market’s iron cathedral displacing the nearby church; "The iron will kill the stone.. only one original building has been built that has not been copied from somewhere else and that is Les Halles." With the emphasis on walking around the Parisian arcades, Zola and Claude at one with Baudelaire and Benjamin. Equally, the novel also seems ambivalent as to whether Florent’s rebellion is simply a matter of an inherent predisposition; "He could easily have become a decent citizen agan, he had nothing but good examples in front of him. But no, it’s in his blood!" While animal metaphors abound in Zola’s novels, it is unusual here for all being physically present in the market and the protrayal of characters like Cadine tends towards showing Paris as a place ‘red in tooth and claw’ populated by people who are barely distinguished from animals ("as free as birds and quite without shame"). Much of Florent’s revolt is a physical one (as with Claude’s notion of the fat and the thin rather than the rich and the poor), a sense of nausea at the market’s stench; "he had experienced smells as terrible as these but never from his belly." By contrast, Lisa is "a steady and sensible Macquart, reasonable and logical in her craving for well being… even at the age of six" just as Quenu declares of Florent that "had been bound to come to a bad end, you could tell from his face." Nonetheless, Zola is far from consistent also stating that Florent under different circumstances would simply have been schooltecher in a provincial town; "a man as gentle as a child."

Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin is a quite remarkable text and one that reminds me greatly of the Helene Cixous’s gender theories (as well as sharing an interpretation of As You Like it with Woolf’s Orlando). The novel blurs gender boundaries and advances a form of sexual politics that would seem advanced even by today’s standards; "The reality is that neither of these two sexes is mine… many men are more female than I." I was interested in d’Albert declaration that "I am a man of the Homeric age. The world I inhabit is not my own and I understand nothing of the society around me. Chris did not come for my sake. I am as pagan as Alcibiades." d’Albert decries the modern tendency to view women as equals, a view that is challenged by Rosalind’s winning of duels against other men, but which seems nonetheless to continue to inhabit the novel, which does contain a counter-reading whereby d’Albert subdues Rosalind’s Third Sex identity and is freed from the horror of desiring a member of his own sex.

Balzac’s Cousin Bette has the same sort of duality you can find in a lot of his novels (something advertised by the author from the outset with his note that "Moliere always presents both sides of every human problem"); on the one hand, he is a Catholic conservative, deploring immorality and excess. On the other, he chooses to invest much of that enmity in the Napoleonic old-guard in the novel (although he does seem to admire Crevel for sticking to his Voltarian principles on his death bed), seen as the destroyers of the ancien regime (and far more the objects of Balzac’s hatred here than the bourgeoisie Lukacs thought him so adept at critiquing with his aristocratic sympathies, even in the midst of statements that dissolve individual responsibility in favour of social critique; "in Paris, life is too rushed for vicious people to do evil because they choose to"). The result is that the destructive actions of Bette to destroy Hulot acquire an almost laudable aspect, with the same later applying to Victorin’s destruction of Valerie. As in The Chouans, if Balzac is offered a choice between the gildings of civilisation and savage barbarism ("a close observation of the young woman would have observed the fierce side of the peasantry.. the savage has feelings only, the civilised man has feelings and ideas"), he invariably chooses the latter even as he condemns it, with Hulot proving far more driven by feelings than Bette. In the character of Bette, savagery at least proves itself to have a profound work ethic and a strong sense of thrift lacking in the dissolute aristocrats; Bette is in essence Balzac’s avenging angel. This can partly be attributed to Balzac’s ideas on gender. Although in theory, he lauds characters like the Baroness for their piety, even her own daughter sees her as essentially passive, a trait that leads to her destruction. Balzac sees virtue in essentially masculine terms and lauds it irrespective of which gender it is found in (conversely he seems to see characters like Wenceslas and Hulot as essentially feminine and weak, with Balzac sniffily noting that the Poles wear jewellery like women having acquire tastes for "oriental splendour"). This leads to odd conjunctions like "this energetic woman and that weak man." As such, at one point the author opines that the ideal woman should combine virtue with masculine energy, a trait he finds in the courtesan Josepha (and implicitly in Bette) but not in the Baroness; "if you’d had a little of our savvy, you’d have stopped him gallivanting; for you’d have know how to be what we have been; all kinds of women to a man… but governments are so prudish, they are led by men who are led by us."

Lukacs drew a connection between the conservatism of Balzac and that of Scott in their join condemnation of the bourgeoisie. Certainly Old Mortality sees him vesting much sympathy with rebellion and revolt against the established order ("that excites the vassals of persons of rank to to rebel against the very house that holds and feeds them"), but his approach is as dialogic as Balzac’s ("who shall warrant me that these people, rendered wild with persecution, would not be in the hour of victory, as cruel and intolerant as those by whom they are now hunted down?"), with characters like Evandale portrayed with as much sympathy as Morton (hence Morton’s comparison of Balfour’s spirital pride to pride in things material; "Morton could not help, in his heart, contrasting Claverhouse with Balfour of Burley"). Scott’s sympathies inherently lie with the dialogic and tolerant instead of the monologic and the dogmatic; like Eliot later, his novels are in many respects an appeal to empathy. The model character is the old woman whose covenanter sons have been slain in battle and who still shelters Lord Evandale and saves his life ("and was a fanatic woman capable of such generosity?").

Visiting Oxford, I began by walking along the canal to the Church of St Barnabas, a building based on the cathedral I visited last year at Torcello. The church would appear to be well on the way to decaying to the same state as its Venetian counterpart, with the pebble dash crumbling from walls encroached upon by weeds. I pass by towards the Ashmolean. Much of the museum has been closed for refurbishment and a temporary exhibition is in progress. This does rather recapture the spirit of Tradescant’s wunderkammer; the Alfred jewel rests alongside Etruscan canopic jars, a robe given to TE Lawrence by King Faisal, a lovely early twentieth century Japanese waterfall vase and Guy Fawkes’ lantern. The gallery houses a diminished collection of Gertler and Courbet landscapes, Palmer and Spencer neo-platonic scenes, a Vernet night scene, an early Kandinsky landscape, Uccello and Cosimo forest scenes. Wondering around Holywell cemetery afterwards, I noticed that although the tombstones were all mass-produced, with several specimens of the same type often in evidence, they were nonetheless different to those in London cemeteries of the same period; industrial production but on a local scale. It also feels more like a country churchyard, with bluebells in flower and the stones of a much modest scale than their London counterparts. I also visit Exeter Chapel, Gilbert Scott’s remodelling of Sainte-Chapelle, an astonishing confection of stained glass, mosaic and tiling. More impressive though is Saint Mary’s in Iffley; as at Kilpeck, its carvings of Mer-Men, Centuars, Green Men and Sphinxes seem essentially pagan to me, something reinforced with Piper’s stained glass window of sheep, owls and other birds.

The Drowned World

With the return of the sun after the rain, much of the countryside has taken on a strange aspect, with English woodland and fields more resembling mangrove swamps at present. I went to Oxford this weeekend, a place is always familiar to me but which usually manages to afford some surprises. For example, the science museum had some new exhbits showing the astrological and magical along with their customary arsenal of armillary spheres and ivory dials. This included a rock crystal ball suspended above a map of the planets, a Tamil magic square, Dee’s Enochian tablet, Chinese rhino horns used to protect against poison and charms from Persia. Within the Natural History Museum, I was qually captivated by a drama unfolding inside a glass display case; on a topmost branch a battle ensued between two beetles. Eventually a beetle with especially large mandibles succeeded in knocking its fellow off the branch leaving its black and yellow victim to fall to the floor (after a few seconds of it clinging onto those mandibles), from where it slowly crawled away. New College’s gargoyles were visible without leaves on the trees, revealing dung beetles, chameleons and snakes. The church of St Mary Magdalen was open, revealing an interior that seemed more Catholic than High Church. Redesigned by George Gilbert Scott, the interior would have been quite plain were it not for the effigies of Christ and the Madonna, a tiled depiction of the Madonna that looked more Iberian, incense burners and an Orthodox icon of the martyrdom of Thomas a Beckett. The church was always royalist, retaining a painting of the ‘martyred’ King Charles and defied Cromwell before proceeding through Tractarianism to its present stance of Anglo-Catholicism. Outside, its weathered tombstones were encircled by crocuses and daffodils. An exhibition was being held at Oxford Town Hall, displaying some excellent photographs of Port Meadow by Adrian Arbib and Gunilla Treen. Finally, I went to the municipal museum, and its tracing of the history of Oxford through Roman settlement, a Saxon town and defensive burh, St Frideswide, the Norman castle and the antiquarian collection of Alderman Fletcher.

The Petrie Museum in Bloomsbury has an impressive collection relating to the Roman cemeteries at Hawara such gilded plaster cartonnage heads and fayum paintings, including the painting of the ‘red youth.’ I was also struck by a set of sarcophagi, Mamluk pottery, Badarian pottery, faience shabti and votive statues. Nearby is the Percival David Foundation, with its collection of Song stoneware and Ming blue and white porcelains. I was struck by the ritual aspects of the ceramics, with white symbolising the moon, blue for heaven, red for the sun and yellow for earth, while the depiction of tigers and dragons had an equally symbolic function. I quite liked the idea of flower vases alongside incense burners for votive offerings on altars. Finally, the Grant Museum was rather reminiscent of the Pitt Rivers Museum in its wonderfully crowded aspect of skeletons and bottled specimens. Its contents included skeletons of cobras, an icthyosaur, quagga and an archaeoptrex. Other exhibits included a Thylacine skull, a hairy toad, Surinam Toad (which lays eggs under the skin on its back from where the young burst out), lampreys and pangolins. Finally, I also visited the chapel at University College Church, a gothic revival affair with angelic corbels and vivid stained glass.

Jack London’s The Iron Heel is a dystopian novel, which depicts the efforts of an American oligarchy to quell a socialist revolution. It’s an odd book, given that it attributes the evils of capitalism partly to the disconnected nature of the free market economy and partly to deliberate manipulation on the part of a plutocratic class, a conception that seems to recall a distinctly American pre-occupation with an overly powerful central government crushing grass-roots democracy. A similar example of ‘anti-American literature’ is afforded by Dreiser’s Sister Carrie a novel that emphasises the desire of its protagonist in a similar manner to how Balzac or Flaubert would, but then stresses her lack of autonomy and the inevitability of events as determined by the social context, leaving a tension between socialist criticism and a sense of destiny.

Cavafy’s poetry presents a fascinating play of different perspectives and viewpoints. Joseph Brodsky spoke of how Cavafy’s symbols and metaphors were a vehicle in themselves, lacking an object of description. The setting of his work in the classical past partly depicts a civilised world that was lost (echoing the poet’s place at the fringe of what was once the Hellenic world, recalling events like the battle of Magnesia) and with it the possibility of homosexual love (Cavafy’s erotic poems are often without a specific date but are filled with classical allusions, such as the depicting the beloved as a having come down from Olympus). Equally, he looks back at the Hellenic period as a heathen one and vests his faith in the christian church, consequently coming to despise pleasure and regard himself with self loathing. A similar ambiguity permeates his view of art; in one instance art is something fired by life ("but what profit for the life of the artist" in Their Beginning), in another it becomes something that exists either independently of life or in opposition to it. As in Ithaka experience and pleasure are held up as ends in themselves rather than as a means to creating art.

Gothic fiction tends to be both immersed in the medieval and exotic (Vathek, The Castle of Otranto) and in the modern and scientific (Frankenstein’s experiments, blood transfusions in Dracula). The two exist in an uneasy relationship; often science is a means to beat back some form of ancient horror, in other instances it is what produces it. Dark Domains by Stefan Grabinski is a particular good example of this, with his work being heavily influenced by surrealism whilst retaining something of the conservatism of the horror genre towards modernity. Grabinski tends to depict solitary protagonists who have withdrawn into their insanity (as in The Area), sometimes as a result of that isolation, sometimes as a result of contact with the modern world. The Compartment witnesses all of its protagonists repressed drives to lust and murder being unleashed by travelling on the train. Conversely, The Gravedigger is a story that could have been written at the time of Maturin, depicting arcane rites in a cemetery, while the fear of female sexuality in Szamota’s Mistress strongly bears the mark of Freud and Breton. The most representative story is Saturnin Sektor which elaborates on the persistent theme of schizophrenia, thereby expressing the dialogic stance most of Grabinksi’s stories hold towards individual insanity (The story foregrounds the theme of insanity by noting the disdain of its protagonist for normality and that he has been in an asylum) and collective derangement; "you’re desecrated the sacred mystery of duration… an example of how one mechanises life you will find me in the city in a somewhat more modern form. " In one instance, the protagonist is killed by time and its tendency to murder existence by dissecting it. In another, it is a simple case of insanity and suicide.

Reading Balzac’s The Black Sheep, I was struck by what an anti-novel it is. The form of the novel should be similar to that of Lost Illusions, Scarlet and Black or a novel like Nicholas Nickleby but instead of depicting the disjunction between self and society that Lukacs saw as central to the modern novel, Balzac instead depicts his protagonist’s raw will to power who could have been a great general but is left out of place in the world he finds himself in. Instead of a world of overlapping social relationships, Balzac instead depicts &quo t;a place where speculation and individualism are carried to the highest level, where the brutality of self interest reaches the point of cynicism." The bifurcated treatment of Philippe and Joseph is more what one might expect from the depiction of female characters split between virgin and whore.

The Mountains of Holland

Arriving in Oxford at midday, I set off to the former site of Oxford’s castle and, in more recent times, its prison. The site has a grisly history; Empress Mathilda was besieged here by King Stephen in the eleventh century while its grounds proved to be filled with the corpses of executed criminals (several of whose bodies were then used for medical experiments). One tower still stands and I stumbled across it by accident in a suburban street; it was not unlike stumbling across the Burnett’s secret garden.

Following this, I set off for the Christ Church Picture Gallery. Oddly, I’d never been there before and although the collection is comparatively small it was quite eclectic ranging from Russian Orthodox icons (made from metal and ceramics rather than the more high status ones that are better known) to Rysbrack sculptures, Renaissance painting and Medieval triptychs and paintings. Particular highlights were Salvator Rosa’s proto-romantic (a stoic by inclination, his works show a Baroque aesthetic depicting nature in similar terms to David Friedrich) and Jacopo Bassano, a Venetian whose showed a similar use of chiascuro to Caravaggio and similar brushwork to El Greco. As ever, the colours and pigments in the medieval paintings were wonderful, though I was especially drawn to a crucifixion scene by the Master of Delft. The crowds were drawn in the same manner as Brueghel but the rich pigments, gold in particular, seemed more typical of earlier painters.

The gallery featured an exhibition of the drawings of Thomas Graham Jackson, architect of the Examination Schools and the Bridge of Sighs (and ghost-story writer), showing detailed watercolours of Italy and France and designs for Oxford (including what looked like an attempt to build a tower similar to Magdalen in Christ Church). The Bridge of Sighs proved to owe more to Mostar than Venice. Following this we went for a walk around Christ Church. I had been in the great hall before but had quite forgotten the small Alice in Wonderland figures in the stained glass. Conversely, the cathedral was something else I had missed. Highlights included the Morris and Burne Jones stained glass, an enamelled window showing Jonah underneath a fruit tree staring at a far-off city (the colours fading in the background to impart a sense of perspective), the carved wooden dragons in the choir stands and the combination of fan-vaulted gothic with later, more classicist architectural styles in the transepts.

As the evening drew on, I went to a friend’s photo exhibition. The rather beautiful photos were of the Isis and the Thames, showing Willows trailing through the water, young moorhens, frozen leaves in Oxford’s Botanical Gardens and boats by Magdalen bridge. As the photos were all themed around water and rivers, the evening included a recital of poetry with related themes. I especially liked Willow Poem by William Carlos Williams (who I was aware of) and The Swan by Mary Oliver (who I was not aware of).

Having mentioned the Victorian preoccupation with spiritualism with regard to Highgate, I began wondering why it was that this seemed so poorly reflected in Victorian literature. It emerges to some extent in gothic writing from Wilde to Stoker but otherwise one is left with E F Benson’s demonic slugs and Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger stories. So, I was surprised to come across The Damned by JK Huysmans, a novel where such concerns are altogether more central. As a novel it reminds me of the debate as to whether realism could be described as an acute aesthetic technique for depicting both the individual consciousness and its social context or simply a way of seeing such matters that was specific to a certain class and background. The most obvious parallel is between Jane Austen (portraying the details of English provincial life in a manner typical of early realism) and Mary Shelley (portraying a range of locations in a markedly fantastic manner). Of the two, Shelley was probably the one who depicted the spirit of her age more accurately, confronting the ideals of her anarchist and feminist parents with the monsters produced by the French revolution. Much the same could be said when contrasting Huysmans with many of his naturalist contemporaries; "there was always a fundamental intellectual difference between you and other realists… you execrate the age in which you live while they adore it… sooner or later you were bound to flee the Americanisation of art." Contrasting himself with Zola and the grimly utilitarian character of his age Huysmans depicts the same sense of withdrawal to be found in Madame Bovary or Oblomov; "it’s just as positivism reaches its very zenith that mysticism re-emerges."

Equally, the novel questions many of the claims made by realism, citing its obsession with crime and sensation as being little different from that of Gilles. By contrast, Huysmans leaves the novel almost as a commonplace book, lacking the artificially plotted character of much realist fiction. The novel openly foregrounds such concerns in a decidedly post-modern fashion, taking a writer working on a biography of Gilles de Rais as its protagonist and comparing de Rais with Des Esseintes. The identification with the protagonist is marked in the extreme, more resembling Isherwood than contemporary writers.

Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is perhaps best known for the author’s didactic moralising against drink and dissipation but I was nonetheless impressed with how the novel depicts both an unhappy marriage and the consequences of adultery from the perspective of the other parties. Neither of these are unknown in Victorian fiction but nor are they widespread. I was also reading a seminar on How Novels Think at The Valve, I was struck by this; "where such a novel as Jane Eyre allowed the family to eclipse civil society as the symbolic means of resolving social contradictions, Dracula turns the tables and allows a radically inclusive society to render the family obsolete, ending the regime of the liberal individual." The interesting thing about The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is that women are both marginalised and the guardians of the family and civil society. Bronte frequently critiques conventional assumptions about the role of women; "would you use the same argument with regard to a girl?… you would have her to be tenderly and delicately nurtured," supported by her having her heroine step outside social convention and support herself; "his idea of a wife is a thing to love one devotedly, and amuse him and minister to his comfort in every possible way." Nonetheless, the role played by Helen throughout is otherwise a conventional female one, nurturing and standing for morality and the family in contrast to the dissipation of her husband.

Reading Sir Thomas Browne’s Urne Burial, I was struck by the tension between Browne’s faith in christ and the resurrection on the one hand and by his antiquarian interest in such pagan habits as cremation and mummification on the other; Baconian scepticism and mysticism in one text.

Starting by visiting Great Coxwell Tithe Barn, a twelfth century structure much beloved by William Morris, who characterised it ‘as beautiful as a cathedral, yet with no ostentation of the builder’s art.’ It’s easy to see why Morris liked it so much; made from the local pinkish-grey stone, it’s far larger than I had envisaged, while the elaborate purlin roof beams in the cavernous interior do indeed give it the air of a cathedral. On the other hand, Morris’s tendency to romanticise the middle ages does lead him to ignoring the fact that the barn was effectively serving as an ecclesiastical tax office. The nearby church of St Giles is of a similar period, with assorted monsters still louring from the tower. The church sits at the summit of a hill and looks out over most of the Vale of the White Horse.

Arriving at Buscot Park, I began by walking around the grounds, designed in the 1930s in a formal Italianate style by Harold Peto. I have to admit that his style struck me as rather austere and uncongenial, excepting some more imaginative follies like a pair of Egyptian statues guarding the entrance to a sunken garden. The house itself was rather more impressive; the entrance hall was flanked by porphyry columns and contained black and gold furniture designed in an Egyptian style (this seemed something of a theme and was apparently fashionable after Nelson had won the Battle of the Nile, with alabaster canopic jars dotted round the rooms, as well as the first example of a Wedgewood canopic jar that I’ve seen or am likely to), with the rest of the design being more influenced by Boulle marquetry. The green room next to it contained a range of Dutch paintings, including one Rembrandt (and a surprisingly tolerable Rubens), Qing vases and Dutch designed cabinets decorated with red-stained tortoiseshell. This led to a red dining room, which contained two landscapes paintings by William Lambert that were very evidently drawing upon Claude’s work.

Next was something more impressive; four large Burne-Jones paintings depicting the story of sleeping beauty, set into a gold frieze lining the room and with additional smaller panels continuing the narrative inbetween the paintings. Everything else in the room fitted with the gold colouration, excepting some turquoise Kangxi vases. Later rooms continued the Pre-Raphaelite theme by including a Rossetti painting of Pandora’s box, GF Watts’ paintings of Pygmalion and The Judgement of Paris and a Ford Madox Brown painting of the resurrection, which was Pre-Raphaelite in the original sense of the term, down to the saint’s halos. Most striking was Lord Leighton’s painting of Daedalus and Icarus, one of the very few depictions of male figures in Pre-Raphaelite painting (following my previous observations of his painting of Klytemnestra). A painting in the style of Salvator Rosa showed a set of proto-romantic ruins (albeit of classical structures). A staircase area, showed how considerable the wealth of the family must have been, judging by the paintings of family members by JW Waterhouse and of the grounds by Eric Ravilious. Maiolica pottery was kept nearby in cases while the family also apparently felt in need of an instrument linked to the house weathervane to tell them the wind direction. Finally, a sitting room contained a number of sculptures, from one of Napoleon to depictions of Michaelangelo’s David, Antinous and Bacchus (another motif throughout the house and gardens, with a certain theme beginning to spring to mind as a result).

"It is for this rare, precious quality of truthfulness that I delight in many Dutch paintings, which lofty-minded people despise… It is so needful we should remember their existence, else we may happen to leave them quite out of our religion and philosophy and frame lofty theories which only fit a world of extremes. Therefore, let Art always remind us of them; therefore let us always have men ready to give the loving pains of a life to the faithful representing of commonplace things." – George Eliot

Visiting the current Jacob Van Ruisdael exhibition at the Royal Academy, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. Seventeenth century Dutch painting tends to be noted for two mutually contradictory themes; firstly, the detailed realism of its depiction of lower and middle class subjects and secondly the allusive and symbolic quality of the painting. It’s an awkward arrangement, given that there is no meaningful way to discern a distinction between the portrayal of an object (skulls and bones or broken tree stumps, for example) and any symbolic significance to it as memento mori. The argument runs that the Netherlands was primarily an empirical and descriptive culture, whose fascination with maps and microscopes had more bearing than the moralising of emblem books; nonetheless, the influence of Calvinism created fertile conditions for musings on predestination. Equally, the argument runs that the realism of Dutch painting was often tailored to the tastes of equally increasingly wealthy middle-class consumers; the marble floors that are widespread in Vermeer’s paintings were only aspirational in practice, humorous depictions of peasants smoking tobacco went out of fashion once smoking became fashionable for urban consumers.

To some extent, much of Ruisdael’s work does furnish material for this debate. One painting in particular, The Jewish Cemetery, is clearly used to offer an allegorical fable; a cemetery is set in a wild forest, next to a set of ruins and a broken tree stump (similarly, his picture of the prosperous town of Egmond shows the road to it dominated by a dead elm tree). Above, the clouds part to offer the possibility of an after-life; such was at least Goethe’s interpretation, who assumed the ruins to be of cathedrals. In fact, they are of a ruined castle while the graves are those of the Jewish cemetery (which was near the Oude Kirk in what is now Amsterdam’s red light district), which upsets the christian interpretation somewhat. Similar issues occur for The Reconstruction of the Manor Kostverloren; the name meant ‘Money down the drain,’ owing to the fact that the Manor’s position in marsh land left in permanent need of repair, so that the repainting of the ruined walls and nearby bathers have led the painting to be interpreted as an allegory of the folly of human vanity.

Conversely, the realism of Ruisdael’s paintings can be questioned. Ruisdael’s work was highly influential on later painters like Gainsborough and Constable and he often shares with them an idealised and rather Arcadian portrayal of the countryside (though this is difficult to read; windmills may look picturesque to a modern viewer but they were simply agricultural and industrials tools at the time). However, Ruisdael does show aspects of work in the country, like the bleaching and laying out to dry of cloth in the fields or peasants at work in the fields (albeit he avoids anything too degraded, such as a dairy, preferring haymaking scenes). Equally, although he did paint scenes of town-life, they tends to be panoramas of Amsterdam’s spires and windmills rather than showing domestic life.

One of the more interesting aspects to his work lies with how realism can be questioned in other ways; in spite of the influence on Gainsborough and Constable, much of his work looks more like the work of a nineteenth century romantic painter. For example, a painting of Bentheim castle has Ruisdael placing it high up on cragged hills to emphasis what would later have been called the sublime aspects of the work. In reality, the castle occupied no such vantage point. Ruins form an important theme for Ruisdael, as with those in The Jewish Cemetery and depictions of Egmond Castle ruins alone, another theme that would become a standard romantic trope. Most striking is a ruined castle high up above a river in valley filled with pine trees; the scene is set in Norway, a country Ruisdael had never visited and which seems to have served as an strange otherplace for him. The aforementioned painting of The Reconstruction of the Manor Kostverloren is perhaps unique in his work for resolving many of these contradictions; the scene is a wild wood, dominated by a ruined castle. But the scene also shows bathers in the castle moat and builders working on the reconstruction; to some extent it does show how the allegorical themes of Dutch painting (transience, sinfulness and mortality) dovetail well with incipient Romantic themes of decay.

Leaving the exhibition, I went for now seems a customary walk around London, starting at (the rather disconcertingly two-dimensional) Christchurch in Spitalfields (the shardlike exterior is more than usually worth looking at: walking to the side of this it all becomes quite two-dimensional, like a cut-out), to the Gherkin building and St Botolph’s church and down to The Monument. Here I finally found the ruins of St Dunstan in the East. One of Wren’s churches built after the great fire, the roof was bombed in the blitz and the building remains a ruin. As this was one of Wren’s attempts at gothic, decay seems to become it, with the walls and spire still standing while the interior was been turned into a garden; water trickles from a fountain while blue pansies flower where the pulpit would have been; a haven of peace and serenity. While I tend to think of a building like Lichfield Cathedral as a good example of gothic (due to the darkness of the stone), I have to admit that the white Portland stone works well here; the delicate vaulting almost looks like bleached bones. It is, however, rather odd to look through the empty gothic arches and see banana trees and magnolias.

The BBC recently broadcast an interesting documentary about Vivaldi’s relationship with the Ospedale della Pietà, a Catholic orphanage intended to house the girls begotten by the various dalliances of the Venetian aristocracy. Vivaldi taught many of them to play the violin and oversaw their productions, where even the bass parts may have been sung by women. The documentary was followed by a performance of Vivaldi’s Gloria in the Pietà (albeit a slightly later and larger building than the one Vivaldi would have been familiar with), following from the recreation of Handel’s Water Music they did a couple of years ago on a barge on the Thames. Unlike an English choir, the singers were dispersed throughout various upper galleries and largely hidden behind metal screens (the effect alternately being that of a prison or a confessional). It rather reminded me of an organ performance I went to in one of Prague’s churches, where since the organists was hidden from view there was no visual focus to associate the sound with; the sound seemed to come from everywhere.

To Catch A Thief turned out to be much glamorous and exotic than most of Hitchcock’s fare (and consequently less dark) but was refreshingly free of the cod-Fredianism Hitchcock was somewhat prone to. Instead, Cary Grant’s Rafflesian anti-hero is shameless about his kleptomania. By contrast, The Titfield Thunderbolt, is an Ealing comedy about a English country village struggling to defend its railway in the face of the rise of the automobile and the bus. The idea of the harbinger of the industrial revolution as a symbol of English pastoralism seems more than a little odd to me but I did especially like a scene where the villagers gloomily realise that the railway is making a profit and is consequently at risk of nationalisation…

When I reviewed Edmund Crispin’s The Moving Toyshop a while ago, I recall noting how Oxford as a place seems antagonistic to realism, with crime and fantasy its dominant literary modes (the latter paradoxically being the more realist of the two). Similarly, Philip Pullman once spoke of how the river’s mists have a solvent effect on reality. The latest book to fit this thesis is Guillermo Martinez’s The Oxford Murders, a piece of crime fiction whereby all the murders are made to conform to a mathematical series. Hindered by Wittgenstein’s finite rule paradox and Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, predicting the series is essential to solving the crimes. The mathematical conceit is welcome in so far as it places the novel more in the tradition of literary puzzles preferred by Doyle and Chesterton than to Christie’s social conservatism, but it does leave the book with a somewhat abstract and inconsequential aspect that seems a little unpalatable when the novel comes to depict some of the deaths.

I rather liked last year’s BBC remake of The Quatermass Experiment, largely for its eschewal of special effects and actions in favour of drama and dialogue. Accordingly, I was interested in a similar remake of A for Andromeda (in spite of not having realised before that it was written by the somewhat crankish Fred Hoyle). On the whole, I was pleasantly surprised by how easily it kept pace with the intervening decades (albeit with some rewriting), with the idea of self-aware computers chime with recent discussions of the singularity. Similarly, the growing of synthetic organisms was followed this week with the announcement of human organs being manufactured.

The most striking aspects is that where science fiction often depicts alien intelligence as having an utter reliance on logic that will leave them wide open to any strategy involving improvisation or instinct. By contrast here, it is made clear here that a superior intelligence will necessarily displace a lesser, with only the anomaly of Andromeda’s humanity preventing it on this occasion. In that sense, it reminded me of HG Wells’s The War of the Worlds; "We men, the creatures who inhabit this earth, must be to them at least as alien and lowly as are the monkeys and lemurs to us… And before we judge of them too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years."


The Lady Lever art gallery is a particularly idiosyncratic collection covering pre-raphaelite painting, Roman sculpture, Wedgewood pottery, Chinese porcelain and assorted design pieces. The collection dwells on the fantastic and exotic, reflecting its role in advertising Sunlight soap (after all, it is difficult to think of an equivalent collection that did not emerge from an aristocratic background); on the whole, I found it difficult to think any worse of it for this. Most of the pre-raphaelite painting is quite well known (Rossetti’s The Blessed Damozel, Alma-Tadema’s The Tepidarium, Holman Hunt’s The Scapegoat, Millais’s Sir Isumbras at the Ford,) but there some good pieces that are less well known (Leighton’s The Daphnepohoria, Madox Brown’s Cromwell on his Farm), as well as some interesting pieces by more obscure Victorian painters (Etty’s Prometheus). Some of the sculpture was also quite exceptional, such as Onslow Ford’s Snowdrift. The Wedgewood collection was surprisingly interesting, containing a number of Wedgewood’s experiments beyond the more familiar jasperware (as with the Portland and Borghese vases), to imitate Egyptian designs and Greek red figure ceramics with encaustic black basalt. The authentic classical collection covers Attic ceramics (including a black figure Psykter showing a Dionysiac revel) and Roman sculpture (including a statue of Antinous and busts of various emperors, especially dwelling on Hadrian for some unknown reason). The Chinese collection ranged from Kangxi period (including blue and white prunus blossom jars to famille noire vases) to Qing dynasty jade vases and Ming dynasty cloisonne enamel.

The surrounding village of Port Sunlight itself is a model village designed to house Lord Lever’s factory workers. Though a benevolent project, its rather hard not to feel a little uncomfortable in the place, which seems too geometrical, too designed and too neat. The homogeneity is unsetting and unreal, emphasised by the obsolescence of its industrial feudalism. Though the buildings were designed by thirty different architects the arts & crafts style is consistent throughout (though it does jar awkwardly with the austere Lutyens-style classicism of the gallery and war memorial) with the doors still being painted the same colour on each street. As a rural idyll it is decidedly hyperreal.

The collection of Futurist art at the Estorick collection is housed in an unprepossessing building, where the spire of the Union Chapel can be seen from behind the metal sculptures and plants in the back garden. The collection is largely concerned with changing ideas of time and space In EM Forster’s Howard’s End Helen Schlegel finds the speed of travelling in a car disorientating, causing a loss of a sense of space (Forster describes how the landscape appears to congeal as the car gets up to speed). The advent of high-speed transportation radically changed perceptions of both of these, with much of futurism seeking to create a more dynamic concept of art that recognise this, as with Carra’s Hand of the Violinist where multiple hands can be seen simultaneously; "Time and Space died yesterday," as Marinetti put it. In the case of flight (the current exhibition dwells on aeropainting), this was combined with an art-deco machine-aesthetic, again as with Marinetti’s elevation of the motor car as art above the Victory of Samothrace.

The current Aeropainting exhibition ranges from Crali’s vertiginous Nose Diving on the City with its jagged edges to the more organic lines of Tato’s paintings. One disturbing suggestion is the linkage of these paintings with Guernica and the Blitzkrieg against East Europe, respectively. Certainly, in some cases propaganda is clearly apparent, with one painting showing the planes as christian crosses. Although futurism was closely linked with fascism (not least in its glorification of war and a military aesthetic) fascism itself diverged into forms of expression better suited to an establishment (becoming more Catholic and neo-classical) and it seems somewhat harsh to read most of these paintings in such terms. The aesthetic behind them might well be disturbingly militaristic, but on the whole, there is little that is directly political about them. With all that said, it does come as a relief to come across Modigliani’s Dr Francois Brabander.

The Royal Academy’s Turks exhibition covers successive imperial states and nomadic Turkic tribes that went to the form the basis of the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey; beginning with the Central-Asian Uighur tribes, Iranian Seljuks, Mongolian Timurids through to the creation of the Ottoman dynasty itself. This combination of cultural and religious influences from an area that represented the central axis of the silk road, produced a varied and rich number of decorative arts. In the Uighur period, Chinese silk painting was emulated, the Seljuks produced extraordinarily intricate woodwork (wooden doors and Koran stands arranged in arabesque patterns) and metalwork (especially elaborate lamps and mirrors where the back is decorated in cursive or geometrical Kufic scripts) and textiles (carpets showing stylised birds and dragons; the latter being endemic in Ottoman art, from candleholders and doorknockers to Chinese-style dragon paintings), while in the Timurid period the illuminated manuscripts and calligraphy of Herat and Samarkand far outstripped those of medieval Europe.

This engagement with the East was to continue, as with the adoption of Mamelak Egyptian Koran caskets and the imitation of Ming porcelain to produce Iznik pottery with its serrated leaves and lotus blossoms. Ottoman attempts to ‘improve’ Ming porcelain by adding gold and jewels go a considerably long way to reassuring all concerned that the Ottoman Empire did indeed deserve its reputation for tastelessness. However, by this point Ottoman Turkey began to engage with the West as much as the East. Although all of the other works in the exhibition have been decorative arts, the Ottoman section begins with Bellini’s portrait of Sultan Mehmed the Second. By this point, the European use of oils and shading to achieve perspective had already outclassed Islamic rivals; there is something odd about comparing Bellini’s utterly European portraits with Ottoman attempts to produce the same effect in traditional stylised poses (the holding of flowers while sitting cross-legged). It’s also somewhat incongruous that this cultural engagement went hand in hand with the point where the Ottoman Empire began to engage with Europe in a more direct fashion; through the invasion of Constantinople and much of the East of Europe. However, as with the difference between Venetian and Ottoman painting, the Empire was already being left behind as Western Europe explored trade routes that did not rely on the silk road.

Amongst the exhibition’s curiosities are a medieval computer; a geomantic engine where soil proceeded through a set of what we would call logic gates to produce the desired divination. Similarly, if a dice was rolled a book of divinations could be used to look up precisely what this portended (rather like a Tibetan prayer wheel, I suppose). Any observation that a culture’s most bizarre relics can usually be expected from its religions can probably be taken as read.

Ogier Ghislan of Busbecq was Habsburg ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth century, a period when the Ottomans controlled most of Eastern Europe and the Middle East. With the Ottomans closely allied to the French and constantly making incursions into Hapsburg territory, Busbecq was sent to negotiate improved terms. However, progress was slow and uncertain, with much of his Turkish Letters consists of his observations on matters antiquarian, numismatic and botanical (Busbecq appears to have introduced Tulip bulbs into Europe; though the Turkish taste in such flowers bore little resemblance to the modern version).

His attitudes towards the Ottomans are rather schizophrenic, fearing its order, discipline and military supremacy while describing it as backward and primitive (with surprisingly little sense of the apparent contradiction). On the one hand, the Turks had a highly disciplined standing army; "on their side, the resources of a mighty empire, strength unimpaired, experience and practice and fighting, a veteran soldiery, habituation to victory, endurance of toil, unity, order, discipline.. on our side is public poverty, private luxury, impaired strength, broken spirit, lack of endurance and training; the soldiers are insubordinate, the officers avaricious, there is contempt for discipline, licence, recklessness, drunkenness and debauchery are rife." It seems a somewhat odd judgement; in practice most of the wars that were to come resulted in stalemate (excepting the seizure of Cyprus), though it would be another hundred years before the Ottoman decline would begin. To take the example, of technology, Busbecq himself cites the Ottoman refusal to adopt clocks (as it would undermine the authority of the muezzin), the printing press and the destruction of Ottoman forces by a smaller European force armed with rifles. Equally, Busbecq portrays Ottoman society as meritocratic rather than hereditary; something of a distortion from someone whose illegitimacy had left him shut out from the upper echelons of the Hapsburg aristocracy.

Some counterbalance can be found in Busbecq’s depiction of the Turks as backward barbarians. Though the ruins of Christian Constantinople do provoke an outburst against the Infidel from him, his outlook is essentially rationalistic rather than religious, characterising the Turks as superstitious and easily swayed by auguries and omens (though he doesn’t seem entirely immune from such matters himself). He ascribes to the Turks a form of fatalism attributable to their religion; "they are persuaded that the time and manner of each man’s death is inscribed by god on his forehead; if therefore he is destined to die, it is useless for him to try to avert his fate," citing a sanguine approach to containing the plague (the number of fatalities a day shocking Busbecq) as an example. On the other hand, when a Turkish official expresses the view that all men of piety are likely to be rewarded with salvation, Busbecq does not hesitate to condemn the view as blasphemous (perhaps somewhat oddly; the idea is present in Dante and can hardly have been an entirely alien concept); though he condemns Turkish oppression of the Greek and Hungarian peoples, the Ottomans still appear to have been more tolerant than christendom would have been.

Shugborough’s gardens and estates are pleasant enough for a variety of reasons, most obviously the follies dotted throughout its grounds; a temple of the winds, a victory gate, a Chinese pagoda and a romantic ruin. But I was more interested in the Shepherd’s Monument, a structure that depicts a Poussin painting with an encoded inscription beneath it; interpretations of its meaning relate to heretical sects that denied christ’s divinity, the Templars and the grail and to Latin love poetry. Elsewhere, Middleton Hall, is an odd building surrounded by a moat and trees on two of its sides and gardens on the other two. The buildings are a hodgepodge ranging from Tudor to Georgian. I saw it covered with snow and with red squirrels playing on its front lawn. More forlorn is Bradgate Hall, the ruin of a Tudor palace now surrounded by open parkland with only a hilltop folly for company. Food cooked: Partridges and grapes, Chicken with black fruit stuffing, Persian duck with pomegranates, Moretum, Chicken and bacon in Tokay, Hungarian chicken in wine, Catalan Paella del Mar, Elizabethan chicken with sack mead, thai chicken legs, chicken Baltic, Hungarian cherry soup, prawn and crayfish laksa, Swedish fish and potato casserole, Moroccan pigeon pie, German pork and sausage casserole, white chocolate cheesecake with blueberries, Catalan chicken with figs, cherry and pomegranate khoresh, milanese risotto, chicken biryani, Singapore noodles, Corsican stew, baklava, Hungarian lamb with pickle sauce, chicken foo yung, chicken satay, Himmel und Erde, chicken tikka masala, Italian vinegar poached chicken with gnocchi.

Down south, I spent the day in Oxford, first climbing both St Michael’s & Carfax Towers and gazing out over Oxford’s rooftops and weather vanes (rather reminded me all of the viewing platforms from Prague’s towers, particularly with the medieval clock on Carfax Tower; not unlike Prague’s Horologe) and then going to the University and Pitt Rivers Museums. I love the iron forest canopy that makes up the University Museum, especially with various whalebone jaws propped against the pillars. The effect of walking into the main hall with its glass ceiling is more like one of Kew’s palm houses than the London Natural History Museum. I was especially struck by the faked dragon embryo; as it suggested such a creature would be quite difficult to categorise (opposable thumbs more typical of mammals, and a combination of wings and limbs more typical of insects). Equally, I love the clutter of the Pitt Rivers and the totem pole that dominates the interior of the hall. Finally, I went walking amidst the emerging snowdrops and crocuses from the parks. The idea of a genetic garden to plant hybridised species alongside their forebears is a rather interesting one; it’ll be worth coming back when more of the plants are in full leaf.

The QI bookshop in Oxford is based upon the excellent idea that the books are arranged by abstract themes rather than the usual classification by genre. As such, the themes included ‘Ice,’ ‘Sea,’ ‘Bohemia’ and ‘Watching.’ Since the usual divisions between specialisms were absent you found that a heading like ‘The Big Picture’ would include Milton’s Paradise Lost, Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach and Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game. I thought these serendipitous connections between works that would otherwise have been on completely different shelves was rather engaging; perhaps the Radcliffe Camera should be re-ordered.

Recently, the sun was shining and the sky was blue, while a sudden snow shower drifted down to the ground. With odd meteorology like this, I wonder why people find the English obsession with the weather to be so unusual. I’m always struck by how snow makes the familiar unfamiliar, making every leaf stand out, making one’s own footprints tangible. The presence of newly opened daffodils and crocuses only accentuated this even more. A watery and pale sun struggled to make its presence felt
in a clouded sky. One morning I found myself face to face with a fox (presumably in search of food amidst the cold). I’d never been this close to one before, and though it wasn’t an especially dramatic encounter (it simply stood still, meeting my stare, until the cold persuaded me to go inside) it was wonderful to see such an impressive creature.

Reading The Motorcycle Diaries I had much the same reaction as I had to the film. Che’s mestizo nationalism has racism at its centre; "Anglo-Saxon immigrants in Chile do not mix, so preserving the purity of the indigenous race… the pure expression of the most powerful indigenous race in the Americas still clean of contact with a conquering civilisation… the African race who have maintained their racial purity." However, Che is not consistent about this – he heaps praise on the Spanish general Validivia for his will to total authority, also striking an unpleasantly fascist tone.

Baudelaire’s On Wine and Hashish makes an excellent reading of DeQuincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. Where DeQuincey is concerned with a Kantian dialectic between reason and emotion, the ability of the mind to intuit the infinite rather than itself. By contrast, Baudelaire’s concerns are more firmly materialistic and indeed visceral, as Benjamin put it "Baudelaire placed the shock of experience at the very centre of his artistic work" For much of the time, Baudelaire’s language is as mystical or transcendentalist as that of DeQuincey or James; "the proportions of time and being are distorted by the innumerable multitude and intensity of sensations and ideas… you have cast your personality to the four winds of heaven." However, in many respects, his concerns are not with ethics or with mystical experience but with something more utilitarian; the transformation of authentic experience into a commodity; "what indeed is the point of working, ploughing writing, producing anything at all, when you can paradise at a stroke?.. enthusiasm and will-power are sufficient to raise him to supernatural existence… incapable of work, action or energy." As such, DeQuincey was concerned about solipsism, truth is not of concern to Baudelaire. He is instead concerned that if hashish simply opens up inner experiences then it represents a failure of will to be unable to access them without the use of artificial means; "a magic mirror in which man is invited to see himself.. the abyss by which he may admire his face like Narcissus… hashish reveals to the individual nothing but the individual himself." Benjamin suggested that Baudelaire was concerned with the commoditisation of culture and certainly such metaphors as "selling himself wholesale" recur. Marx supplants Kant.

I’ve described Orhan Pamuk as an existentialist mystic before and Black Book would add ‘semiotician’ to that list. Reality in the novel emerges as a form of text, where the link between signifier and signified is the key to a form of transcendental reality; "the world was not a place that yielded its secrets right-off, that it swarmed with secrets, and that in order to comprehend the secrets it was necessary to comprehend the mystery of letters," to see clues in things like in a detective novel. But equally Galip "despised the way he couldn’t live without narratives…there was no room in this world for signs, clues, secrets and mysteries." Interpretation becomes a subjective affair; "he might get lost between these interpretations." Between solipsism and mysticism pamuk seeks a via media "realms unavailable to the ‘objective and subjective styles’ is the third voice: the dark persona, the dark style!" Reality becomes a narrative the characters can rewrite and reinvent, but only through a glass darkly. The novel accordingly teems with the imagery of darkness, literal and figurative in place of the white of Snow; "these dark, black, pitch-black pages." Peering through the darkness is far from easy, as with the Bektasi alchemists unaware their acolytes were Marxist-Leninists; "whichever realm was successful in seeing the world as an equivocal, mysterious place that swarmed with secrets got the better of the other."

In part, intertextuality counts as a means of rewriting reality; "he was being drawn into a world that was unintentionally transformed into a fairytale… the man in the street began to lose his authenticity because of these damn moves that came in canisters from the West." Cultural identity, is driven into the darkness like the ships at the bottom of the Bosphorus or the puppetmaker’s figures in the tunnels. However, as with the narrative of the westernised Sultan, there is no identity without emulation; "we are also affected by those who have a distinctive personality and command our respect because we unconsciously begin emulating them.. I was unable to be myself," just as much as Galip becomes Jelal or the journalist becomes Proust (and the same reason Galip will not spend time in the Anglicised world of Ruya’s detective novels); "No-one can ever be himself in this land!.. I am someone else therefore I am."

Peter Ackroyd’s biography of London reminded me of an argument I had heard that histories dedicated to cross-period thematic approaches were eroding more scholarly works limited by their period. Certainly, Ackroyd approaches London as if it were a text to be interpreted, using literary criticism as much as non-fictional historical sources. He discusses London as a city dominated by symbols and theatricality, where the division between such things and the real is not clear (I was especially struck by his citing an example of Conan Doyle’s The Man with the Twisted Lip being used as the basis for a begging career by one middle-class professional). In particular, much of the biography recalls Ackroyd’s discussion of Blake and in particular Blake’s dictum that without contraries there can be no progression. Accordingly, a chapter on noise is followed by a chapter on silence and Ackroyd alternately condemns London (for its imprisonment and cruelty towards its inhabitants, its ugliness and rapacity) and celebrates it (for its self-renewal, energy and enterprise).

Ackroyd’s novel Hawksmoor, like Winterson’s Lighhousekeeping dwells on the same ideas of permanency within mutability, but perhaps weights the balance in favour of the former. On the one hand, there is the architect Dyer’s mystical demonism and on the other, Hawksmoor, a detective that forms Dyer’s modern counterpart. People, places and events recur between the two time periods. The two characters gain a perverse communion, both alienated from their selves through various means (gazing into convex mirrors, insanity, drunkenness and sex). Hawksmoor notes that the Thames was “perpetually turning and spinning: it was going in no certain direction.” He imagines tracing a murder “backwards, running the time slowly in the opposite direction (but did it have a direction?).” He might then “have to invent a past from the evidence available,” which would make the future an invention too. Toward the end: “the future became so clear that it was if he were remembering it, remembering it in place of the past which he could no longer describe. But there was in any case no future and no past, only the unspeakable misery of his own self.’ As such, the novel’s two narratives proceed in parallel lines like trains on opposite tracks, mirroring each other but never converging. Ackroyd’s conception of time is one founded on eternity and permanence; it does not admit of resolution or conclusion (a perhaps somewhat awkward conception, given the pulp fiction nature of the plot. For example, at one point a lunatic in Bedlam tells Dyer that Hawksmoor will be his undoing, a promise that remains unfulfilled).

DH Lawrence’s Sketches of Etruscan Places is a later text in his ‘savage pilgrimage’ series of travel narratives, it is built on a series of dichotomies between Ancient and Modern, Roman and Etruscan. Accordingly, it is a good example of the progress paradox where one of the more marked features of civilisation and its discontents is an avowed preference for more primitive modes of society. To Lawrence, the Etruscans represented a more natural existence that was extinguished by Rome, something he sees continuing throughout history and exemplified by the distaste with which he responds to Italian fascism (given that he is often accused of fascist tendencies in his own thought, it is interesting to see how he reacts to it its manifestation). Lawrence’s response to the Etruscans is essentially one of pagan mysticism; "In my tissue I am weary of personality.. all the pearly accretion of personality in mankind – what a disease it has become. Stubborn pagan indifference and sufficiency in the self; where can one find it?" Though Lawrence dwells on the balance of male and female sexual symbolism in Etruscan art he suggests a modern inequity; "if a navvy working in the street takes off his shirt to work with a free, naked torso, a policeman rushes to him."

Lawrence’s Sea and Sardinia presents a less clearcut case and rather reminded me of an especially acerbic observation Angela Carter made of Women in Love; that all the men were depicted in close physical detail ("hard cheek, and hard dangerous thighs… to see these limbs in close knee breeches, so definite, so manly") while all the women were depicted as little more than walking piles of clothing (with detailed descriptions of the pleating and colouring of female peasant dress). Later, Lawrence approvingly describes how the young men all masquerade as women during the carnival and describes their two male drivers as being like man and wife, Jane Eyre and Rochester; "so terribly physical all over one another. They pour themselves one over the other like butter on parsnips. They catch each other under the chin, with a tender caress of the hand."

In Orlando Figes’s Natasha’s Dance he speaks of Russian literature as being a fusion of Europeanised upper-class culture and the folk traditions of the peasantry. Though Turgenev is always cited as a zapadnik rather than a slavophile Sketches From a Hunter’s Album shows this quite clearly, in spite of the political mythology concerning the emancipation of the serfs that surrounds it. The sketches certainly do depict the oppression of the peasantry ("They work for him like they were in bondage to him.. bled them white he has"), with the aristocracy either being seen as rapacious, indifferent or ineffectual, with the results being similar in each case (with the rather totalitarian ‘Peter the Great of his own village’ in The Reformer and the Russian German being a case in point). How ever, the peasantry are instead often transmuted into mystical figures ("a strange and wonderful man he is, truly a holy man" or with the suffering and death of Lukeria in Living Relic). The suffering of the serfs is simply part of this transmutation; "What an astonishing thing is the death of a Russian peasant!… he dies as if he is performing a ritual act." The oppression of the serfs is not necessarily much attributed to the social order as to the moral corruption of the aristocracy (most starkly in Meeting where the jaded valet can only speak of the wonders of St Petersburg to the peasant girl he is abandoning or the Dasha mentioned in Death). For example, in Tatyana Borisovna and Her Nephew, the eponymous nephew is corrupted by his time in the city, but the narrative equally shows contempt for Russian parochialism against European internationalism.

Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Bronte records some of the more interesting ambiguities in the Bronte attitudes towards religion. Anne had inclined towards a heterodox notion of universalism, wherein suffering for one’s sins would lead all towards salvation (an idea with an obvious resonance within both Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre; though not Villette which ended in tragedy in spite of Charlotte’s proscriptions against such melancholia). Charlotte’s attitudes do indeed appear ambivalent (though she does repeatedly denounce "ghastly Calvinistic doctrines" of predestination; if christian perfection is necessary for salvation she admits she will never be saved; however, her attitude to existence if one of submission to what is predetermined). Gaskell records that "She had a larger religious toleration than a person would have who had never questioned, and the manner of recommending religion was always that of offering comfort, not fiercely enforcing a duty." Elsewhere, she speaks of how "it is more in accordance with the Gospel to preach unity among the christians than to inculcate mutual intolerance and hatred." She is struck by one of Mr Heger’s exercises in portraying a subject from differing perspectives, using Cromwell as an example. However, she is revolted by Catholicism, describing her reaction as to that of the false Duessa.