My reactions to Inception were somewhat ambivalent. Like The Matrix, Existenz and Avatar it is premised on the idea of unreality, dreams in this case, as something seductive and addictive. Nonetheless, there’s something rather banal and mechanistic about the dreams in the film. Whereas Ariadne’s introduction to the dreams has her distorting and deranging the fabric of the dream city around her, the dreams that are central to the plot are rather generic (literally so, with action films and gangster heist films apparently forming the basis of the dreams within dreams). The only departures from realism in those films are mechanically attributed to the difference in the perception of time and the position of the body between the dreams (the latter being rather unusual; one is surely least aware of the body when dreaming). The action of the dreams is quite sequential; it is in point of detail, simply not especially dreamlike. Compare to Paprika where the dream sequences are laden with giant dolls and circuses and the idea of dreamer’s building a rather dreary concrete city for fifty years seems decidedly drab. Both Paprika and Inception place a Freudian stress on resolving repressed emotions (survivor’s guilt or unacknowledged sexual attraction in the former, lack of parental love or guilt in the latter), but where Paprika‘s characters are quirky and uniquely individual, Nolan’s characters suggest an interest in identity without an interest in character. His protagonists are shown introspecting but not living; in most other films Ariadne would have emerged as a love interest for Cobb, but not here. Nolan’s interest lies within the idea of a self that is increasingly mediated through virtual environments and are accordingly increasingly at risk of editing, masking and hacking; the internet and video games are more pertinent metaphors for the narrative than the dreams Nolan actually uses.


By the Thames

Anthony Giddens sees modernity as a condition whereby pre-modern (traditional) culture have given way to modern (post-traditional) culture; identity becomes more reflexive and self-consciously constructed. Roles are negotiated rather than assigned by convention. Anthony Trollope is consciously writing in The Way We Live Now as an opponent of modernity, counterpointing the morals and dignity of an increasingly impecunious aristocracy with the corruption of the self-made men of the rising mercantile classes; "his position is a sign of the degeneracy of the age". However, the novel also questions conventional ideas of identity; the stereotypically Jewish aspects of the portrayal of Melmotte’s venality is balanced by the portrayal of Mr Breghert as he is wronged by members of the upper classes unwilling to accept that times have changed for social acceptance of Jews. Similarly, Marie Melmotte proceeds from being a hapless victim to revenging herself on her father and taking on property. Equally, the fact that Melmotte is brought down the avarice of the aristocracy and the dissipation of figures like Sir Felix, serves to deconstructs the opposition at the heart of the novel between old fashioned order and middle class rapacity. The novel acknowledges some of this in its discussions of how Melmotte himself is viewed; "as the great man was praised so too was he abused… the working classes were in favour of Melmotte… from their belief he was being ill-used.. that occult sympathy for crime, when the crime committed is injurious to the upper classes… it came to be said of him that he was more sinned against than sinning."

Similar concerns appear throughout Zola’s The Kill, where Haussman’s rebuilding of Paris serves throughout as a metaphor for the disorientation and the Durkheimite anomie of modernity. As such, Paris is seen as artificial and inauthentic, no longer the organic product of social evolution; "a strange feeling of illicit desire at the sight of this landscape that had become unrecognisable, so worldly and artificial." The preoccupation with the artificial and contrived point clearly to Zola’s affiliation with Huysmans. As traditional roles fall into desuetude, so too do traditional ethics of abstinence; "the main preoccupation of society was with knowing how to enjoy itself." Sin becomes a form of consumption, of refinement. Similarly, sexual roles also become fluid once they are no longer constrained by traditional norms; "the sign of his boyish debauchery, this effeminisation of his whole being… he seemed born and bred for perverted sensual pleasure. Renee enjoyed her domination." Renee assumes the masculine role, Maxime the feminine. The paradox in many Zola novels is that while the central fable of his novels is concerning with condemning the immorality of modern, post-traditional society, the syuzhet draws much of its sensational interest from depicting them. As such, The Kill is loosely based on a moral fable, with Renee being betrayed by Saccard and Maxime. However, Saccard’s indifference to her adultery goes a long way towards aborting that moral framework, with the cash nexus replacing normal social relations.

Hans Christian Anderson’s stories depict a world where, as a character in The Ice Maiden puts it, "antiquated ways are discarded" so that mermaids and telegraph wires co-exist (memorably, the eyes of the ice maiden are described as being like the barrels of a shotgun) and the conventions of folk tales (of the kind described by Vladimir Propp) become contested and dispersed. A tale like The Tinderbox recognisably belongs to the same world as that of the Brothers Grimm; a hero is offered the chance of fame and fortune and is ruthless in his will to power, in contrast to the moral fable of Big Claus and Little Claus or The Ugly Duckling. However, in later stories this is sublimated, either into a thanatophilic concept of virtue being rewarded in the afterlife (as in The Little Mermaid, The Marsh King’s Daughter or The Story of a Mother) or where aspiration and virtue alike are thwarted (as in The Shadow). Contingent upon this is a world that is far less centered around the protagonists, where everything from animals to inanimate objects have become anthropomorphised, as cats and storks become participants and commenters within the narrative. The fate of creatures like The Snowman or The Fir Tree is more suggestive of Kafka’s Metamorphosis than the Brothers Grimm. Equally, if the stories frequently see female sexuality as threatening (particularly with the Ice Maiden or Snow Queen) then they also displace the role of the hero in favour of female characters, like Gerda in The Snow Queen or The Marsh King’s Daughter.

Lessing’s Memoirs of a Survivor is one of the most interesting dystopian novels I can think of. Whereas the majority of apocalyptic science fiction, from Wyndham to Atwood, revolves around the causal factors (technological, ecological, political, economic etc) for whatever has changed society from its familiar state, Lessing elides this; "for ‘it’ is a force, a power… ‘it’ can be, has been, pestilence, war, the alteration of climate, tyranny." The novel is deliberately dislocated from any specific sense of time or place and instead concentrates on the consequences of social breakdown from feral packs of children to tribal migration. Nonetheless, Lessing undermines the dystopian aspects of the novel in a number of ways. Firstly, dystopian fiction, whether 1984, Day of the Triffids or The Handmaids Tale tends to emphasise individual agency in the face of events. By contrast, Lessing repeatedly stresses that governments are powerless in the face of change while her characters take no actions to change matters. Offered the choice of moving to safer areas in the countryside, they do nothing. Submission is the order of the day (Lessing’s interest in Sufism comes through strongly in how she handles time, viewing all phenomena as manifestations of a single reality, or Wujud i.e. being). She also expresses little sorrow for the loss of ‘the age of affluence,’ implying that the experiments in communalism that emerge represent an improvement on the society that had marginalised people like June Ryan; "all property worries gone; all sexual taboos gone… free, at least from what was left of ‘civilisation’ and its burdens." By repeatedly ‘cutting’ to descriptions of Emily’s childhood, Lessing also appears to characterise the family in Laingian terms as a source of neurosis whose loss is not necessarily to be mourned.

From Zola’s view of the novel as a scientific experiment to Wolfe’s ‘new journalism,’ the novel has attempted to purge itself of all assocations with artifice and imagination, preferring instead to present itself as something objective and factual. If inherent in the idea of realism, it nonetheless represents a problematic conception, if only because if the act of observing something can change a subject, how much more can the act of narrating change it. The most notable example of which being Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, a ‘non-fiction novel’ relating the murder of four people on a Kansas farm in 1959. Bearing this in mind, the idea of creating a film depicting the writing of the book is an oddly postmodern one (a representation of a representation), particularly since the sparse and austere cinematography appears to be trying to emulate the novel’s journalistic style.

Wimpole Hall, designed by Sir John Soane and James Gibbs, appears at first a model of neo-classical symmetry and proportion. However, the interior easily belies this, as corridors snake in on themselves leading to dead-ends. His main contribution is a drawing room with a large domed ceiling, not unlike some of his works at Lincoln’s Inn. The main contribution from Gibbs was a Wedgewoodesque book room. The highlight of the interior was a small collection of Gillray prints, mostly lambasting the Prince Regent and the Broad Bottomed Ministry (as well as some more unusual ones with hunting as their target). I was also struck by a Grandfather clock, where a ship rocked on the waves in time with the ticks and tocks.

An interior chapel is painted with a trompe l’oeil effect (something of a theme; there’s also a painted playing table, complete with painted cards). The grounds are home to a small church (with a large wing filled with marble monuments of the house owners) and a set of gothic ruins in the distance. The gardens have been restored to their original formal patterns (reversing Capability Brown’s vandalism), though landscaped pleasure grounds filled with a wide range of trees and shrubs remain (including the national collection of walnuts). The sky was a brilliant shade of turquoise inbetween dark rain clouds, while the flatness of the Cambridgeshire landscape reminded me strongly of a Trent Valley that had never been industrialised.

Perched high above the Thames, Cliveden feels as if it should be a gothic castle. Instead, the Italianate building and formal gardens look as if they should be nestled within the gentle slopes of a valley. I’d forgotten the sheer amount of Roman and Italian sculpture in the grounds, such as the Borghese balustrade with its dragons and eagles as well as more modern conceits like the turtles on one of the fountains. The Wisteria was flowering alongside the Acer in the Chinese water garden (it felt as if cherry blossom should have been correct for the pagoda, but the Wisteria made a more than acceptable substitute). Ducklings splashed about in the waters around the Botticelli fountain. Further along the Thames and one comes to Windsor. The castle here towers well above the Thames (the site was chosen by William the Conqueror on defensive grounds) though the presence of the town nestling beneath it softens the scene somewhat. I find a meadow by the river, go paddling in the water and watch the swans glide by. Rather inevitably, the town itself has a rather kitsch feel to it, largely due to the continuous citing of often rather trivial historical associations; HG Wells working as a draper or Nell Gwyn and Shakespeare staying in local taverns. You do have to go back quite a long way before anything actually happened at Windsor. Even much of the castle has a rather Ruritanian feel to it, presumably due to the changes made by George the Fourth. The castle has been redesigned and redesigned so often that its medieval appearance is illusory and hyperreal. The town does at least have a more concrete feel to it, with a Guildhall designed by Wren and the nearby church St John the Baptist, home to an anonymous Renaissance painting of the last supper and beautiful altar mosaics and corbels, designed by the same artist that worked on Westminster Abbey.

Further down the Thames again and one comes to Richmond. When the likes of Hampton Court and Ham House were built here, courtiers would sail to the city on barges establishing its role as a rural suburb early on. Ham House was originally designed in the Jacobean period and much like its rival at Hampton was extended during the restoration. The house reached its apotheosis at this point, described by Evelyn as comparable to the finest villas in Italy and furnished like a palace. Nonetheless, its owner fell from favour at court, penury beckoned and the house was left to stagnate for centuries. Visiting in 1770, Walpole described it as dreary, ancient and decayed, a place barricaded away from the rest of the world and liable to defeat even his passion for the antique. Today, the house seems rather less formidable, in spite of the busts of Roman Emperors filling niche after niche in the redbrick walls at the front of the house. Nonetheless, the house looks out from a long avenue towards the Thames, as parakeets fly overhead. The restored gardens provide a glimpse of what Evelyn meant, with a wilderness area populated by statues of Hermes, hornbeam hedges and secluded gardens, formal gardens planted with lavender and box and overlooked by Bacchus and kitchen gardens (there is also a still chamber for the preparation of perfumes, conserves and cordials). One room contained detailed plans for rebuilding Inigo Jones’ Westminster Palace, the subject of much speculation in Defoe’s Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain and a good example of the many unfulfilled projects of what London could have been.

Like Hampton, the planting of myrtle, lemon, oleander and almond trees is of the period (tulips and pineapples are incorprated into statues and gates throughout the gardens). Conversely, the interior tends to illustrate the decayed grandeur of the place. A great hall hung with paintings by Lely and Kneller leads to a grand staircase, with an elaborate wooden balustrade. The North Drawing Room above is hung with Flemish tapestries (still retaining much of their original colour; a later room has Spitalfields tapestries copying Watteau designs), white marble chimneypieces and ionic columns and ivory cabinets. This leads to a long gallery, where dark black wood is gilded with gold, and Van Dyck paintings of the Royal family line the walls. A strange self-portrait hangs above the door, showing him with a sunflower, symbolic of art and nature, sovereign and subject. Marquetry and Japanned furniture, often with blue and white Kangxi porcelain line the walls. A closet leads to a collection of miniatures of subjects like Elizabeth, Lucretia’s suicide and a love in flames (he who does not burn will die). Finally, an elaborate four-poster bed forms the centrepiece of the Queen’s bedchamber, decorated with Van De Velde paintings.

Lacock in Wiltshire was once the home of an abbey that offered a home to the unmarried daughters of wealthy families, and to a village that grew wealthy through the wool trade. The Abbey was dissolved in the reformation while the nineteenth century cotton imports had a similar effect on the village. The combination of these factors with the relative isolation of Lacock led to them becoming a form of time capsule. The village remains full of half-timbered buildings, while the church of St Cyriac still houses a Lady Chapel where paint remains on the ceiling alongside especially elaborate gargoyle carvings. The church has a window above the chancel arch, indicative of the customary ‘wool gothic’ style of Cotswolds churches. The walls are still whitewashed, presumably indicative of no Victorian changes. The exterior of the church is equally elaborate, while the size of the tombs testifies to the wealth of the community. The abbey has rather less of a sense of continuity with that period, save for its cloisters. After the reformation, it was converted into a country house and an octagonal tower added to the side. The interior is dominated by a circular table, supported by three satyrs, while much of the house is dominated by images of the scorpion from that owner’s crest. Later owners provided good examples of early gothic revival. The great hall comes with a barreled ceiling studded with crests, a rose window and wall niches filled with extraordinary terracotta figures representing death and the scapegoat. Later owners experimented with camera inventions and translation of cuneiform and populated the house with the likes of geological specimens and stuffed pangolins. The grounds are more classical, ranging from a stone sphinx to a botanical garden.

Nearby lies Great Chalfield house, a fifteenth century manor house complete with a moat. The church of All saints lies within the moat and includes a beautiful painted pre-raphaelite organ and wooden rood screens. Swallows nesting in the rafters looked down curiously on the visitors. The grounds bear witness of plants overspilling the paths and forcing their way through the cracks between the lichen covered paving stones (looking rather like Mariana’s moated grange), a welcome correction to the meticulous restoration of the house itself. The great hall on the interior is much as one would expect, save for mask-like faces looking down from the galleries with empty eye-sockets (designed for the lord to spy on servants). Red paint remains on the rafters of the hall, while perhaps the most impressive aspect of the rest of the house are the oriel windows.

Having been to Highgate Cemetery earlier this year, I returned to London today for more of the Victorian way of death. The ‘mighty seven’ cemeteries represent a form of ritual, as much as photographs, death masks and portraits of the recently deceased produced by the Victorians, as well as jewellery that utilized a locket of the dead person’s hair, extravagant funerals and the wearing of black crepe. After a stroll round the Kyoto gardens in Holland Park, were I watched the peacocks lazily strut about and a wagtail flit from one stone pagoda to another, I began at Brompton Cemetery. More like a landscaped garden than Highgate, ferns have nonetheless grown thickly across much of the grounds while squirrels scamper across the tombstones. The layout is also more formal than Highgate (based on the structure of a cathedral), with a central avenue leading to a chapel modelled on St Peter’s Basilica, which is flanked by long colonnades. The tombs are also more impressive than the majority of those in Highgate, with Neo-classical, Gothic and Egyptian mausoleums lining the central avenue. The most impressive tomb is that of James McDonald (Chairman of Anglo-American Oil), a gothic affair complete with Pre-Raphaelite angels and stained glass windows. Conversely, the names of the dead are rather less noteworthy than either Highgate or Kensal Green; Emmeline Pankhurst being the most well known. The cemetery is also a rather blatantly obvious cruising ground; albeit by coincidence rather than by design, there’s something rather reassuring (and oddly apposite) about desire persisting in the midst of death.

I then travelled north to visit Kensal Green, the first of the Victorian ‘mighty seven’ cemeteries to be constructed and perhaps the most impressive. While the trees were still leafless when I went to Highgate, Kensal had a perversely bucolic aspect in the sunshine with buttercups and daisies flowering while a Green Woodpecker perched on top of one of the graves. Kensal Green would certainly have been rural when it was built, but today the cemetery is dominated by the rusting skeletons of two gasometers and the louring presence of Erno Goldfinger’s brutalist Trellick Tower. Kensal is by no means as formally laid out as Brompton, though it does have a set of Greek Revival Chapels (complete with catacombs and hydraulic catafalque) and a central avenue. The tombs along this are especially striking. On one side is the tomb of William Casement (four male statues supporting a stone canopy, in the manner of the Erechtheum), Andrew Ducrow (an Egyptian tomb decorated with scarabs and guarded by two sphinxes), Edmund Molyneux (Italian Gothic in red Peterhead granite) and Henry Edward Kendall (a Gothic cross decorated with Minton tiling). On the other side is Mary Gibson (a Corinthian canopy surmounted by four Pre-Raphaelite angels reaching towards the sky), and the quack doctor John St John Lang (a classical statue standing within a circular canopy) who died of the affliction his medicine purported to cure and William Mulready (a gothic statue lying in state in a classical canopy).

Kensal also has the advantage of the reputations of those interred there, from many writers and artists (Thackerary, Hood, Collins, Trollope, Waterhouse and Grossmith), engineers and scientists (Brunel and Babbage), disgraced royals and fascinating figures like Dr James Barry (a successful army doctor and duellist who was only unmasked as a woman after her death) and the Duke of Portland (an eccentric recluse who had built underground ballrooms and mazes under his estate, and was claimed to have faked his death as part of the Druce affair).

Beginning with Shadwell and Hawksmoor’s church of St George in the East before travelling to Limehouse and St Anne’s church. I’m always stuck by Hawksmoor’s buildings; they make few concessions to architectural tradition and often feel as if they should be stage scenery; viewed from the front they are striking and impressive while viewed from the side they seem two-dimensional. St Anne’s also happens to have an unexplained pyramid in its graveyard (drawings in the British Library suggest Hawksmoor may have planned pyramids on the turrets, while Christ Church in Spitalfields does rather resemble a pyramid from the front), possibly a Masonic reference. Walking around these areas, it was difficult not to be struck by how they are changing. High property prices elsewhere in London seem to be driving new property development, with cranes and tall blocks of luxury flats leaping up all around. This gentrification sits alongside the still all too visible poverty of East London and makes for an uncomfortable contrast. Walking back to the Limehouse station, I passed an old public library with a statue of Clement Atlee (Limehouse was his constituency). The architect of the welfare state was decaying badly and was missing his hand; a fitting comment on what was happening around him.

Travelling back into the centre of London took me to another Hawksmoor church, St Mary Woolnoth, a bizarre structure that barely looks like a church at all, lacking as it does a tower or a spire. I then walked around some of the other buildings in the area, like Wren’s gothic church of St Mary Aldermary and his more baroque St Stephen Walbrook, before changing location again to the other side of the Thames and Lambeth. The gates of Lambeth Palace adjoin onto the former church of St Mary-at-Lambeth, now home to the Museum of Garden History. The sight of a Victorian graveyard, filled with the typically ornate Victorian funerary monuments and planted with sisal, poppies, roses, foxgloves and acanthus, was an odd indeed.

Passing by, I returned to north of the Thames, returning back to the city and The Museum of London. The first exhibition here was dedicated to Pre-Roman settlements in what was to become London. I was struck by the note that since the Thames is notoriously prone to flooding, entire sections of land could suddenly be left underwater. An excerpt from Pepys’ diary captures this well; "digging his late Docke, he did 12-foot under ground find perfect trees over-Covered with earth, nut-trees, with the branches and the very nuts upon them, some of whose nuts he showed us, their shells black with age and their Kernell, upon opening decayed; but their shell perfectly hard as ever. And an Ewe-tree he showed us (upon which he says the very Ivy was taken up whole about it), which upon cutting with an adze, we found to be rather harder than the living tree usually is." Manmade objects seem to have survived well too, with the Walbrook having developed as a religious site, with votive offerings thrown into it to appease the gods (I was struck by a panel paralleling this to Bedivere throwing Excalbir back into the lake); a practice that seems to have continued well into the Roman period. This section showed a number of such offerings, typically carved from evergreen woods.

The Roman section was mainly noteworthy for displaying the statues from the Mithraeum found near St Paul’s. As one would expect, several depictions of Mithras and the demon dull abound, along with statues of Minerva and Egyptian deities (apparently the Eastern cults proved more popular in this part of the Empire than the Roman ones). This also included the recently discovered sarcophagus from Spitalfields, decorated with shells throughout. The rest of the exhibition seemed somewhat lacklustre, though I was rather taken by a Victorian automaton called ‘Psycho,’ who was able to play cards and perform mathematical calculations. Due to the removal of internal workings (or hidden actors, depending on the extent of one’s cynicism) the explanation for these feats has been lost.

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."


Oxford is beautiful at the moment; cow parsley and buttercups flower in the parks, accompanied by horse chestnut, rhododendrons and laburnum. I’d gone to see the Radcliffe Observatory at Green College. This is actually rather larger than the observatory at Greenwich and much more elaborate, being modelled on the Athenian Temple of the Winds (another copy of which exists at West Wycombe Park) and accordingly decorated with astrological and mythological sculpture; an excellent combination of the scientific and the artistic. The building gains from being set in the college gardens, which are rather more impressive than most of the college gardens and were originally used as physic gardens. Various herbal and poisonous plants remain but overall it is as much of a botanical garden now, with wisteria, redwood, catalpa (Indian bean tree) and goldenrain trees. The actual University Botanical Gardens are also rather fine at this time of year; the grounds were filled with irises, tree peonies, anemones and euphorbias while some of the Chinese trees (such as dove trees and Kousa dogwood) with bright blue and white blossom were especially striking. The glasshouses seemed to have similar plants to the gardens at Montjuic; many South African and Chilean plants as well as lily house. On the other hand, the didactic bent of many botanic gardens was rather too apparent in the insistence on featuring plants like papyrus, cardamom and ginger, known for their utility rather than botanical or aesthetic interest. Finally, the gardens were host to a rare plants sale, so I am now the proud owner of a cycad, a living fossil I’ve always been fascinated by.

The University Botanical Gardens also own the Harcourt arboretum. At this time of year the collection of Lebanon cedars, giant redwoods, monkey puzzle and Moroccan blue cedars is complemented by hosts of rhododendrons throughout the gardens, with everywhere being lit up with purple and red. Most of the gardens are taken up with bluebell woods filled with oak, ash and beech, but many of the glades and walks are also host to less traditional denizens; Acers and Bamboo. The grounds were patrolled by a number of peacocks (apparently indifferent to humans, if their occupation of some of the benches was anything to go by), whose beautiful plumage was perfectly balanced by their horribly shrill calls as they prowled around the irises bordering one of the ponds . Again, the gardens at Montjuic, a section was dedicated to plants from high places (Magnolias from the Himalayas, berberis from Chile and so on.

One of the Sir John Soane Museum shows many of his unexecuted designs, covering such buildings the Houses of Parliament and Royal Palaces, all apparently designed to recreate the splendour of Imperial Rome; a bridge design crosses the distance between the Thames and the Tiber. As his austere design for the Bank of England shows, Soane was very much an architect in the style of Wren, with his failed Palladian designs for London (unlike Haussmann’s Paris, Schinkel’s Berlin or even Cerda’s Barcelona) reflecting a similar intent to Gilbert Scott’s gothic design for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (or Albert Waterhouse’s design for the Strand law courts), but his own house seems more of monument to baroque fancy, a cabinet of curiosities (perhaps not entirely surprisingly; his interest in Roman ruins is a product of the romantic era as much as the enlightenment, while his taste in painting and architecture both betray an interest in the gothic).

Each room is crowded with curiosities from Rome, Egypt and Greece, but both normal and curious convex, fish-eye mirrors are used to create the illusion of space. As corridors and chambers cluster around a central courtyard, the result is much the same as Palau Guell; a confusing Escherian building where space seems to fold in on itself; Soane was greatly influenced by Piranesi and it is not hard to see the resemblance (there is even a portrait of Soane’s Bank of England reimagined as a Roman ruin). The most impressive rooms are perhaps the breakfast rooms and library; the latter painted red in imitation of Pompeii and decorated with Chinese chairs and vases, where the windows are occluded by arches and a profusion of Apulian vases. The breakfast room in No.13 is covered with a vaulted ceiling arranged in a starfish shape from each corner of the room to a domed ceiling, which is covered in the aforementioned fish-eye mirrors. The breakfast room in No.12 has a ceiling covered in with vine and flowers painted in the style of a pergola; they even spill out onto the walls. The Hogarth paintings certainly live up to their reputation; the best is probably The Election, which is worthy of Gilray, where The Rake’s Progress is perhaps more moralistic than satirical today.

The oddest thing I’ve read recently is William Bligh and Edward Christian’s The Bounty Mutiny, a collection of firsthand accounts. Any expectation that such source would permit a judgement on the events in question is largely thwarted by the text though; if ill-tempered Bligh would hardly seem to have provoked Christian with any adequate motivation for the mutiny, even on the basis of Edward Christian’s own accusations against Bligh. Most interesting was the least known part of the narrative; the anti-Rousseauist fable of the mutineers on Pitcairn Island.

Angela Carter’s Wise Children, is a picaresque novel where the carnivalesque world of music hall gives way to the more constrained world of television. With a number of intertextual references to Shakespeare’s comedies; except that here the anarchic aspects of carnival triumph. Edmund Crispin’s The Moving Toyshop is really rather impressive. While writers like Agatha Christie moved detective fiction towards a more realist strain (The Forsyte Saga with more corpses), Chrispin instead took the more playful aspects of Conan Doyle and Chesterton and produced something rather more surreal. My favourite part is a rather postmodern little paragraph where the detective, Gervase Fen, decides to pass the time by ‘making up some titles for Crispin.’

By now I have read so much Kundera that each novel begins to seem the work of someone trying to imitate a Kundera novel) represents another dialogic novel featuring Bakhtinian themes of laughter as a subversive force and folk art (whose status is more ambivalent). To a large extent the novel resembles Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, in that a set of differing narrations converges at the end, but Jaroslav’s opposed reaction to Ludvik retains a dialogic quality that staves off any simple convergence or resolution in the ending. As always with Kundera the most dialogic aspect of the novel is the comedy of errors that ensues from the character’s misperception of each other. On the one hand Ludvik states that "the virulence of his (communist) faith was alien to me." But Jaroslav sees him differently; "He had the look all communists had at the time. He looked as if he’d made a secret pact with the future and thereby acquired the right to act in its name;" the same principle applies to Ludvik’s misjudgment of Lucie and Helena’s misjudgment of Ludvik. Similarly, the character of Kostka even deconstructs much of the basis for the novel; "No great movement designed to change the world can bear to be laughed at or belittled. Mockery is a rust that corrodes all it touches." The most interesting aspect of this is the role of folk art in the novel, as it revolves around a folk ritual depicting the ride of a king. On the one hand, this is a source of collective tradition against the corrosive effects of capitalism ("We needed to purge our musical culture of the lifeless hit tune cliches that the bourgeoise had used to force-feed the people. We needed to replace them with an original and genuine art of the people."), but later as a symbol of the communist dereliction of tradition ("nothing but good old romanticism with a thin veneer of folk melody."); it is only as Ludvik ceases to see it as a symbol, as much as he sees other as symbols that it can be revived.

Much of Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London is as much polemic as documentary, two genres that never seem entirely reconciled. This respective sections on Paris and London each conclude with polemical sections that cleave to socialist conventions, asserting that "there is no difference between rich and poor" anymore than there is a difference between white and black, while demonising the rich by snidely commenting of American hotel guests "perhaps it hardly matters whether such people are swindled or not," essentially the inversion of the fear of the mob he had denounced previously. More strikingly, themes of false consciousness appear in the descriptions of waiters; "waiters are seldom socialists, have no effective trade union.. they are snobs and find the servile nature of their work rather congenial." However, the book has many differing views on poverty. Most obviously, Orwell contradicts his own argument on equality by observing that "and educated man can put up with enforced idleness, which is one of the great evils of enforced poverty… the man who really merits pity… faces poverty with a blank, resourceless mind." Equally, Orwell may well be sanguine as to swindling American hotel guests, but seems to dislike the same attitude when demonstrated by others, such as a communist waiter; "He had a curious, malignant spirit. He told me, as a matter of pride, that he had sometimes wrung a dirty dishcloth into a customer’s soup.. just to be revenged upon a member of the bourgeoisie." Elsewhere, when reviewing the inhabitants of a hotel, Orwell writes that "poverty frees them from ordinary standards of behaviour, just as money frees them from work," a view that seems more to romanticise poverty, casting it as a form of freedom rather than of oppression.

Given this, it hardly seems surprising that Orwell excites such divergent attitudes (For instance, the recent account of him as someone who dressed his conservatism in progressive rhetoric persistently attacking the legitimate socialist movements of his time. He blamed the poverty in Wigan on the failure of socialists and the rise of tyranny on the success of socialists. Presented with any given problem, he was more enraged by the failure of the left than by anything else), but it’s difficult to avoid wondering if it isn’t more a case of ‘all things to all men,’ since the account of poverty in Down and Out in Paris and London is such that it can easily accommodated into any number of political creeds. Orwell’s political philosophy seems as occluded as the trouble with Hamlet, to borrow TS Eliot’s description.

Another peculiarly inconsistent figure was Derek Jarman, whose Smiling in Slow Motion I have just completed. On the one hand, his vision is one of inclusion and social equality; "queer people should demand equality in all aspects of life" while decrying the fact that "lesbians and gay men have no way of sanctioning of their relationship" i.e. marriage. On the other hand, he can proclaim that "it is the assimilationists are the enemy," and celebrates the polymorphous perversity of queer, denouncing social conformity; "why does he wants us to fit into a pattern of life that is so obviously outmoded.. if this is what gay has to offer, I’m glad I’m queer." Although the term ‘gay’ is frequently used as with invective it is also often used as a mark of identity, reflecting the ambivalence of wanting equality and denouncing that with which equality is sought and wearing the red badge of the outcast with pride. For example, Jarman can relish the prospect of cathedrals being burned down; "It is a delightful outcome that the church should tear itself apart. I hope it as destructive as possible to that prison of dreams and desire. let the trumpets blast the walls of the churches till they fall into a picturesque ruin." But when he visits Durham Cathedral he finds himself holding back any invective to the clerics he meets and follows a life redolent of tradition. To some extent, it’s impossible not to be reminded of his own complaint against Wilde; "an infuriating icon for queers – the complicity with snobbery and writing less interesting than the life."


I‘ve been to Moseley Old Hall recently, a rather strange building in Staffordshire. From the outside it appears essentially Victorian, save for the twisted chimneys, knot garden, hornbeam and honeysuckle arbour and an orchard filled with cherry and quince. On the inside, it is lined with dark wooden panelling over wattle and daub construction. Similar peculiarities were in evidence at Hardwick Hall, not least the row of ash trees outside with their strange swellings amidst the branches. This building has been largely left as it was in Elizabethan times, with the occasional room that is incongruously filled with eighteenth century furniture. It is always pleasant to have a prejudice confirmed, so I was quite pleased to note that the elaborate design of the original furniture seemed much more spectacular than that of the later pieces (unfortunately most of the other original items such as wall paintings and tapestries are now all badly faded; in many respects the interior is an exercise in the poetics of decay as much as the largely glass exterior seems bold and ahead of its time). One particular item of note was the long gallery, which included an unusual painting of Elizabeth the First, her dress showing a depiction of the sea monsters Hilliard had imagined whales to resemble.

I went to Birmingham at Easter to listen to a performance of Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion at the Symphony Hall. While I like much of Bach’s works, this did rather tend towards being the kind of religious work it is difficult for an atheist to appreciate, like much of the works of Thomas Tallis or George Herbert. Looking around earlier, I discovered that the city has an interesting Church designed by Chatwin with a wooden roof and a stained glass window by Morris and Burne Jones. I’d forgotten how much impressive architecture Birmingham has, such as the town hall and cathedral in addition to the rather oppressive disused factory buildings and warehouses. More recently, many of the grimy concrete buildings for which the city is infamous have been demolished and a new centre built. This includes a strange new shopping area, consisting of a sinuous organic shape whose surface pullulates with silver hemispheres; an impressively futuristic building but one which looks incongruous at best in a rather traditional setting. During this time, I often found myself thinking of the idea of the manufacturing of tradition; though the idea of continuity of tradition embodied in the above stately homes is probably a myth, it is nonetheless a powerful one and the lack of any historical sense of time or place in Birmingham is disquieting at best.

Later, I visited the De Morgan Centre; a single room in Putney library that blazes with colour as one walks in. It includes a good selection of William De Morgan’s work including a number of tiles featuring Islamic designs and a distinctive dark blue moonlight suite. Much of the centre is taken up with Evelyn De Morgan’s work, equally characterised by vivid (possibly too vivid) colours. She has been described as a symbolist rather than a pre-raphaelite (her work is much later than that of the original Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood). Unfortunately, much of the symbolism is rather crude and seems regrettably influenced by spiritualism (I suppose it could have been worse; spiritualism left E F Benson with a morbid interest in demonic slugs). Her better work tends is devoted to classical themes, such as a portrait of Phosphorus and Hesperus; more the sort of subject matter one would expect from Simeon Solomon.

The same afternoon was devoted to the Wallace Collection. This house is decorated in typically Rococco style; red crimson and gilded walls, Sevres porcelain and Boulle marquetry furniture. I tend to have ambivalent attitudes to Rococco, since it very much seems a style designed to demonstrate wealth rather than taste. It has a certain kitsch quality to it. Beyond this, the ground floor is filled with a strange diversity of exhibits; Iznik ceramics, Venetian glass and German pewter, for example. It also has an extensive armoury of which the centrepiece is clearly the Islamic section. The Mughal and Persian shamshirs are much more ornate than any European weaponry, save perhaps those of Venice. The upper floor is more dedicated to painting, including the entirely expected horrors from the likes of Fragonard. However, it also has an excellent selection of Canaletto paintings and a good mixture of Dutch genre and maritime painting. Amongst the less well known artists, Horace Vernet’s paintings of Napoleon and the Middle East stand out. The highlight is the Great Gallery, with Velasquez’s The Lady with a Fan, Rembrandt’s Titus and, above all, Hals’ The Laughing Cavalier. This really does stand out; the facial expression is immediately individual unlike the posed expressions of most portrait painting while the elaborate symbolism of the motifs of the clothing recalls Hilliard as much as naturalistic painting.

Elsewhere in London, I spent a pleasant day in Greenwich. This seems a place quite apart from the rest of London; a leafy setting filled with Hanoverian period architecture that looks directly opposite to the Manhattanite setting of Docklands and Canary Wharf. I recall HG Wells once predicted a future where height restrictions would be abolished and it is interesting watching that come to pass. Initially, I had a look at Wren’s Royal Naval College. The banqueting hall is perhaps less impressive than it should be; the use of painting as a substitute for plasterwork (a’la trompe l’oeil) is rather transparent while the choice of colours is rather subdued (mostly browns). More promising is the opposite chapel where the later interior neo-classical design recalls Wedgewood (presumably Wren’s original design might have looked more like the gold and white rococco design of St James’s Church, rather similar to the gusto italiano interior to the nearby Royal Academy). Following this, I went on to the Queen’s house. Designed by Inigo Jones, this is an odd Jacobean version of classical architecture. Much of the painting is more of historical than aesthetic interest. That said, it does have a Canaletto painting of the Naval college, some works by Hogarth and some maritime paintings by Dutch artists such as Backhuysen and the Van De Veldes. I went on then to the Royal Observatory, with its display of camera obscura, telescopes that more closely resembled cannons and John Harrison’s timepieces (I’d been reading Eco’s The Island of the Day Before illustrated many of the themes in evidence here). Finally the Maritime Museum was of least interest, save perhaps for Prince Frederick’s barge and its gold Chinoiserie decorations. Instead of returning by rail, I took the boat back, passing under Tower bridge and past most of London’s main landmarks. Given London’s maritime history I must say that this does seem the most natural way to travel, though perhaps without the tedious commentary on luxury flat property prices I had to endure. I note that the new Norman Foster skyscraper is visible from most points of this tour; perhaps it needs to have a restaurant built on the upper floors so that we can follow the approach Maupassant took to dealing with the Eiffel tower.

A later visit saw a climb to the summit of Wren’s monument to the great fire; a tower that must have originally dominated the skyline in the same way as Nelson’s Column. Now it is hemmed with other buildings and once one has climbed to the top it becomes apparent that the same applies to other buildings such as the Bank of England, the Royal Exchange, St Paul’s and the Tower of London, all of which have been bested by taller modern buildings such as Canary Wharf; only Tower Bridge stands out as much as it would have done originally.

Conversely, where London is a cacophony of architectural styles Oxford manages to assimilate each new development, even the ziggurat of the Said Business School. While in Oxford, I went to the Ashmolean museum. I’ve often thought the Ashmolean has to be counted as one of the most impressive museums outside of London, if only due to the size of its collection of oriental exhibits., which has a large range of objects like painted silk screens, red lacquerware (as well as one lacquer casket formerly owned by Beckford), arita porcelain and a large wooden bodhisattva statue. Similarly, there is also an impressive Islamic section, featuring the customary display of Iznik ceramics and wooden arabesque patterns. The more customary historical sections, such as those of Rome and Egypt are more modest, including a well preserved statue of Athena, colourful mummy cases and an entire Nubian shrine. More impressive though, were the examples of Romano-Egyptian funeral art, the paintings made on coffin lids; the quality of painting is such that wasn’t seen again for hundreds of years. One of the diverting section was that devoted to the Tradescant collection, an original bequest to the museum that reflects the cabinet of curiosities approach to such things. I must admit to finding this ad hoc collection of Malay kris, Danish wooden tankards and Tomahawks rather more engaging from an aesthetic standpoint than the usual collection of like for like. The galleries similarly reflect a high standard; especially the selection of Dutch paintings including one Hals painting. Beyond that, the modern section has some good Pisarro paintings in a pointillist style (Les Jardin Des Tuileries) and a new gallery includes an excellent selection of Sickert paintings, an intriguingly impressionist Picasso painting (Blue Roofs) and a vivid Kandinsky painting. The pre-raphaelite section was dominated by Holman Hunt ranging from religious allegory (a painting of a priest being sheltered from the druids) to painting of London bridge and continuations of his middle-eastern paintings. As in the earlier pre-raphaelite exhibition, some of Seddon’s similar paintings were included, especially a panoramic painting of Jerusalem. In terms of the other pre-raphaelites excellent paintings by Alma-Tadema, Burne Jones (as well as an arts and crafts wardrobe decorated by him) and Millais (The Return of the Dove to the Ark) are included.

Following the interest in De Morgan, I went to Kelmscott Manor, the former home of William Morris. This is an Elizabethan house built next to river, where willows dip their branches into the water and rooks caw in the horse chestnuts. It still looks exactly like its engraving in News From Nowhere The gardens are a riot of colour, even at this time of year, with bluebells, irises, primroses and tulips in a variety of colours (scarlet, black, lilac, white and some striped red and white). The centrepiece is an ancient mulberry tree at the centre of the garden. The interior retains much of its original character, including Flemish tapestries and a considerable amount of seventeeth century furniture (considerably more ornate then the over idealised rustic simplicity of Philip Webb’s chairs). The arts and crafts tapestries, wallpaper and decoration all accordingly fit in well with their surroundings (a prelapsarian vision of history counterpointed to the reality), though it is perhaps a little surprising to discover the amount of Chinese and Burmese furniture and ceramics (including a star shape tile decorated with the first sura of the koran set in a wooden frame) in the house. Dutch imitations of Iznik pottery and an Icelandic casket were rather less surprising. Beyond that the house has several Durer engravings and Rossetti paintings; more particular portrait of Jane Morris with a gold frame against the dark blue wallpaper (the same colour as the blue silk dress Morris wears in the painting) was especially striking.

I’ve been reading Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. A review of this seems a little otiose, given the futility of deconstructing a book that deconstructs itself, but nonetheless. Although ostensibly written with one authorial persona or heteronym, the book deconstructs that notion to a large extent, with each of the subject it treats of being rewritten throughout the text. On religion, the text veers from mourning the death of god; "Never reaching union with god… always with a longing for it." and castigating atheism "to deny the existence of this intelligence, namely god, strikes me as one of those idiocies… every sound mind believes in god," whereas elsewhere it is stated that belief in god is impossible and the very concept is castigated as dangerous. Similarly, an aesthetic view of art is propounded; "Art is a substitute for acting or living…Why is art beautiful? Because it is useless" But elsewhere, advances a view of art that sees it in didactic terms, as advancing human civilisation. In some places, dreaming is described as "superior to reality," while later it states "I lack the money to be a dreamer," recasting it as a luxury, rather than a retreat from the quotidian. The text even asserts its own plurality, "I have the most conflicting opinions, the most divergent beliefs," only to deny this later, "I reread some of the pages that will form my book of random impressions..even while saying that I’m always different, I feel that I’ve always said the same thing." The result is that reading The Book of Disquiet becomes a matter of finding the figure in the carpet.

Pessoa reminded me of Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg a revisionist novel fictionalising elements of Dostoevsky’s life (an unusual concept to begin with; A Dead Man in Deptford being the only other example to come to mind). As much as The Life and Times of Michael K pastiches Kafka (it’s difficult not to use that term in a pejorative sense, and to some extent I can thinking of Bakhtin’s concept of heteroglossia) The Master of Petersburg pastiches Dostoevsky. This is in spite of the novel having a similar structure to The Life and Times of Michael K, representing a dialogic conflict between a social ingenue (Doestoevsky, with his view of anarchism as a form of nihilism at best, possession at worst) and elements of social extremism (Nechaev with his denunciation of Dostoevsky’s greed in his gambling and ignorance of the economic forces that determine existence). In his own way though, Coetzee deconstructs the idea of an authorial identity every bit as much as Pessoa. Waiting For The Barbarians presents a more idiosyncratic work, wherein the narrator wavers between dissolving the dichotomy between civilisation and barbarism (by presenting the two as part of a cycle; "civilisation entailed the corruption of barbarian virtues.. I never wished it for the barbarians that they should have the history of Empire laid upon them.") and doubting this dissolution (something epitomise by his archaeology, the preservation of the filiations of memory; "Do I really look forward to the triumph of the barbarian way; intellectual torpor.. if we were to disappear would the barbarians spend their afternoons excavating the ruins? ")

I’ve also been reading Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. Science fiction often tends towards the extremes of the utopian (in this case, an extropian or transhumanist view) or the dystopian (in this case, environmentalist or religious conservative; whose language Atwood seems peculiarly close to here), with little time for the no-man’s land between that the present is invariably composed of. This book is no exception to that, following the likes of Brave New World or (perhaps more accurately) Day of the Triffids. With that in mind, it would be perfectly possible to read Oryx and Crake as a dystopian text where Crake, a Faust-figure like Nemo, Moreau or Frankenstein, pursues dangerous technologies without thought for the consequences, unintended (such as the Craker’s development of symbolic thought and religion) or otherwise (the success of the engineered virus). On the other hand, most dystopian novels, including Brave New World, 1984 and We deal with the suppression of biological imperatives rather than their alteration. But comparisons with other Atwood novels suggest otherwise. Surfacing is full of similar dystopian theories concerning an American invasion of Canada for its oil reserves, and sees its protagonist retreat from civilisation into nature (feeling a guilt at being human and expressing a desire for humanity to disappear); similarly, throughout Oryx and Crake mankind is viewed as an aggressive species that consumes resources indiscriminately (essentially, as Easter Island writ large); the Crakers represent a similar retreat to nature, allowing Crake to take on the mantle of an almost heroic figure instead. To be specific, Oryx and Crake shares the same concerns over capitalism as Surfacing but its depiction of gated communities having evolved into a corporate caste system is essentially tangential to the plot, and the overall depiction is more ambiguous since the damage is largely done by environmentalist characters rather than corporate strategy.

Umberto Eco’s The Island of the Day Before, on the other hand, was something of a disappointment, seeming more a vehicle than a novel. More promising was VS Naipaul’s Beyond Belief, an examination of Islam considered as a colonial force in formerly non-Islamic countries. Naipaul characterises islam as a totalising ideology that isolates it adherents from both regional traditions and foreign influences, leaving those societies in an ideological vacuum with islam as the only philosophy available to them (though many of the outcomes of that seem typical of monosyllabic post-colonial societies to some extent). Although he compares the Islamic displacement of other faiths to the spread of christianity in the Roman Empire, Naipaul suggests that christianity tends more to assimilate other traditions and to allow some form of congruence. Certainly, it is possible to think of examples that might confirm this, such as the use of pagan symbolism at Christmas, but equally the history of Protestantism after the reformation hardly seems all that different from islam. Equally, Naipaul notes the Islamic assimilation of Hindu myth and suggests that islam in these societies had become less tolerant in recent times (again inviting parallels with the change from Catholicism to Protestantism). The overall impression is that a predetermined thesis has been proved, with the result that much of the picture painted is both uniform and monolithic. By way of contrast, compare Naipaul’s account to that of Orhan Pamuk; "it seemed to me that their little bursts of lawless individualism were strangely at odds with the state-imposed religious laws that dictated every other aspect of life in the city."

Junichiro Tanizaki’s Some Prefer Nettles represents an interesting continuation of the themes I discussed from In Praise of Shadows. Interestingly, where a European novel would have rendered these themes against a wider social panorama with a large cast, Tanizaki uses a narrow number of characters and suggests such wider concerns through metonym and symbol. The book suggests that Kaname’s westernisation lies at the root of his personal problems; "the tradition of woman worship in the West is a long one, and the Occidental sees in the woman he loves the figure of a Greek Goddess, the image of the Virgin Mother… to some extent every woman tries to make herself look like an American movie star." Conversely, Kaname’s emulation of his father-in-law, with his doll-like concubine, upholds a more reactionary set of Oriental norms, and Tanizaki implies that Kaname has allowed his wife too much autonomy (though conversely, the father-in-law’s concubine appears unhappy).

In terms of film, I’ve been watching Before Night Falls, Beau Travail (a film that reminds me of Apocalypse Now in that cinematography fails to act as a proxy for the interior narrative of the novel used as a source in either case) and Le Fabuleux Destin D’Amelie Poulain, a film that avoids sentimentality through its suggestion that happiness is something that must people must be cajoled or deceived into. Similarly, Delicatessen is an excellent film. Where the Americans always envisaged the post-apocalyptic future as being one of urban warfare and anarchy, the French see it more as people going quietly insane behind masks of middle-class respectability. Interesting food cooked recently: Polish sauerkraut stew, Hungarian ghoulash, Turkish bobotie, Turkish Lahmacun, Chicken Fricassee, Chicken Marengo, Lebanese spiced chicken and Coq au Vin.

Wightwick Manor

I visited Wightwick Manor over Christmas. It’s a decidedly odd house. As one approaches the rather ramshackle building one is struck by the contrast between the mock Tudor facade and the Victorian redbrick. Similarly, the medievalism of the house contrast within the plumbing and electricity (rather like the New Palace at Sanssouci).

Inside, the house has some wonderful William Morris rugs and wallpaper, Kempe stained glass, De Morgan pottery and paintings from Ford Madox Brown. The main highlight of the Manor is the hall, which has a marvelous Venetian mirror and a Burne Jones painting. It also has a Bison head mounted on the wall, who was suitably attired with seasonal decorations.

I got through quite a great deal of reading; The Pickup by Nadine Gordimer, My Idea of Fun by Will Self (a rather queasy mixture of magical and social realism; I have to conclude that Self seems mainly best when confined to short stories), Misreadings by Umberto Eco (a rather carnivalesque series of parodies based upon the idea of distorted perspectives; perhaps a little too contrived and simplistic in this form), Chroma by Derek Jarman (a set of meditations upon the differing significances of colours; perhaps at its best when Jarman becomes distracted from his rather rigid theme), Becoming a Man by Paul Monette (not unlike White’s A Boy’s Own Story) albeit rather more politically strident, and Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse. Solaris by Stanislaw Lem was rather disappointing; a rare case where the film version, Tarkovsky’s beautifully eerie rendition, was much better. The novel does address some of the themes more fully (particularly suicide), but suffers from being rather excessively discursive; the descriptions of Solaris adding little to the book. Update: I’ve now seen the more recent remake of Solaris (remake of the film as much as the book, I suspect), which was considerably better than I expected. The disconnected quality to the filming (more reminiscent of Kubrick than Tarkovsky it should be said; perhaps a 2001 remake is in order) and the special effects both work quite well, and the film introduces several interesting ideas; e.g. concerning the morality of killing the duplicates, especially with the idea of Snow attacking and being killed in self defence by a duplicate of himself. On the other hand, I do agree somewhat with Lem’s own critique of the film; it does dwell excessively on Kris and Rheya, and excludes some of the ideas concerning the Solarian organism’s attempts at communication.

Noting that I don’t often write about films on this page, I thought I should mention two films I rediscovered; Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky and u>Matador by Pedro Almodavar. The latter perfectly balances the Freudian dilemma; on the one hand the liberation of the lovestruck pair of sociopaths (civilisation and its discontents) and the convergence of Thanatos and Eros. On the other, the consequences of repression through Angel and his mother. It’s interesting that similar themes should re-emerge in Almodavar’s latest, more naturalistic, film Talk to Her, though there the characters are left deprived of dignity and stature. Stalker reminds me of T S Eliot’s description of Hamlet; in the absence of the fabled room, there is no objective correlative. As ever with Tarkovsky, the lingering footage of the landscape is especially haunting conveying so much more than the landscape in Apocalypse Now. But it’s also about our stunted capacity for wonder; a kind of postmodern fairytale.

HG Wells pleasantly surprised me somewhat. In the same way that the socialist morality fable of The Time Machine is subverted by having the stereotyped characteristics of the Eloi/Proletariat and the Morlocks/Bourgeoisie inverted, The First Men in the Moon is equally ambivalent. In some ways the film seems a denunciation of colonialism; " What business have we here smashing them and destroying their world?" as the explorers attack the Selenites who spare cavor in return. The film is less than sympathetic to colonialism; "Governments and powers will struggle to get hither, they will fight against one another." The perspectives of Cavor and Bedford are deliberately counterposed; one is belligerent to the Selenities in the capacity of a practical man, while the scientific interest of the other leaves him cold and removed from concern for others. Accordingly, Cavor’s account of the Selenite socialist utopia is deliberately undermined as he records overcoming his irrational practices to the imposition of roles upon the Selenites ("trained from their earliest years to give a perfect respect and obedience"), or even the drugging of workers between shifts.

I also read some of E F Benson’s horror stories. On the whole, I do not consider his apparent obsession with either slugs or spiritualism to be healthy; much of his work is unpleasantly reminiscent of some of Conan Doyle’s ill advised ventures into this field. Algernon Blackwood is, overall, the better horror writer. Also read John Wyndham’s The Seeds of Time. I like Wyndham, but he is so much better when his pessimism shines through his whimsy.

Wightwick Manor

Juan Goytisolo’s novel, A Cock Eyed Comedy was especially interesting.
Essentially a picaresque rendition of Orlando, the novel perfectly matches Bakhtin’s idea of heteroglossia and carnival; "in church language.. in order to parody it from within and expose its hypocrisy," a subversive intent that recalls Genet. That said, the carnival form is not ideal for subversion, since carnival is dependent (parasitic, even) on the order it seeks to invert, something Goytisolo partly acknowledges; "why don’t you denounce tout court the backwardness and oppression.. contradiction and ambivalence nourishes your literary work."

However, the best read was The Garden of Secrets by Juan Goystisolo.
Told by differing narrators, this is a truly polyphonic novel with differing
perspectives and styles; "to realise a creative mix of perspectives and possibilities … with digressions and alternatives." Elsewhere one of the narrators comments "I strive to see myself from someone else’s point of view." As such, differing narrators lambast each other, accusing one another of lack of scientific rigour and of introducing anachronisms; "circumscribed by severely blinkered vision." Some of them describe the central character as an ascetic, some as an epicure; "I felt watched from a thousand differing anglesand sides, harassed by a prismatic gaze, a multiple, polyhedral eye." Like Kundera, Goytisolo equates the steely examining eye of the omnipresent narrator with that of the panopticon.

Leaving fiction aside, I read Bagehot’s The English Constitution and Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals. Of the former, I recall Zizek’s comment on how the most persuasive radical argument often from conservatives like Pascal; certainly it is a much more insightful document than The Federalist Papers. Of the latter, Nietzsche is as gloriously complex as ever. This is the text that comes closest to presenting the ubermensch in partly racial terms, but Nietzsche also bitterly attacks anti-semitism as a mark of slave morality; "they are all men of resentiment. " Nietzsche is perfectly alive to the ambiguities of the idea of the ubermensch; "consider what a problem it is, Napoleon, this synthesis of the inhuman and the superhuman." Georg Brandes described Nietzsche’s philosophy as “aristocratic radicalism,” combining the concept of the elite who define their own values instead of tradition with a commitment to meritocracy rather than to heredity. This text is also the one that comes closest to reconciling these ambiguities in a dialectical, almost Hegelian pattern, in which the re-evaluation of all values will be produced, but it is for these complexities (for example) between regarding science as an aspect of the will to power and a decayed aspect of the christian resentiment of the desire for an impossible truth, that makes Nietzsche so fascinating.

I went to see a performance of Powaqquatsi at the Barbican (it’s not often that you see palm trees covered in snow but that was the case outside the building. I still say that the inside resembles a nuclear bunker decorated by Ikea). The music is rather more varied than Koyannisquatsi, and perhaps rather a little too varied. Similarly, the film lacks the visual language used in Koyaanisquatsi (though it does overlay some frozen and moving imagery to good effect). The film seems less than persuaded as to whether it is concerned with the greater spiritualism of the third world (the film is rife with fire and water imagery) or with the destructive effects of economic inequality between first and third world (the two not being quite congruent, but with the latter explanation being suggested by the meaning of the title). In particular, the film has a rather unpleasant tendency towards cheap sentimentality; children in front of guerilla warfare messages or next to trucks on dusty roads.

Gibson and Ferguson

Alternative versions of history are a perennially engrossing topic, with perhaps the most elaborate exposition of the theme being from Niall Ferguson in Virtual History. This propounds the idea that as individuals in history are not aware of the future, but are aware of possible courses of action that are open, to them it should follow that history is partly a documentation of those courses. What if the Roman Empire had succeeded in vanquishing Germany? What if Charles the First had continued his invasion of Scotland and thereby prevented Cromwell from taking power? What if Stuart Britain had been more inclined to grant devolution to North America and had thereby assuaged the need for US independence? What if French military assistance to the American colonists had never been needed and French finances had been left sufficiently robust to avoid the revolution? What if the Stalin had maintained his pact with Hitler and not entered the second world war, thereby allowing a German victory over Europe? What if the Soviets had opted for a full-out attack on the West rather than opting for a cold war policy? At that point the powers were more finely balanced while Russian endurance in adversity (as demonstrated in the Second World War) was far stronger than that of the United States (which had been extremely reluctant to enter either world war and whose population detested the idea of soldiers dying for the Europeans). The result would well have been Soviet victory, a scenario made impossible by the advantage given by the Cold War to the United States (allowing the US to accumulate both capital and weaponry).

All of which somehow falls short of bringing us to the topic of The Difference Engine by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson. The alternate history presented by this book follows from the premise that Charles Babbage had been able to perfect and build his analytical engine, thereby transforming the industrial revolution and inaugurating the era of computing a hundred years early. The industrial revolution becomes an automation revolution (so that Jacquard looms can be programmed) which in turn worsens the luddite riots, which in turn leads to the destruction of the assets of the landed classes, and which in turn leads to the election of a new reforming administration that continues the technological revolution but with the pace of democratic and social reform quickened. As an end-result the British Empire is greatly strengthened in both economic and military terms. The premise is reasonable enough, but the consequences that the authors trace as following from it are far more questionable.

For example, in this version of history New York has become a communist republic under Karl Marx. Even given the context that the authors build around it (one where most of North America is part of the British Empire and the remaining regions are impoverished) it is somewhat difficult to see that this eventuality could ever have come to pass. In the first place, it seems improbable that the British would have allowed New York of all cities to remain independent (the city had been finely divided during the war of independence). In the second place the tradition of individualism in the United States makes it improbable that communism could have gained a hold, even if the communist victory was achieved as an accident during city-wide rioting. The appointment of Byron as Prime Minister is also somewhat suspect. It is accurate to note that Byron did address the House of Lords on liberal subjects, but his private life was nonetheless already more than sufficiently scandalous as to make any furthering of a political career somewhat unlikely.

All of these occurrences are far from having been impossible and all of them can probably have reputable defences put forward for them. The issue is how these changes have been made. Unlike Ferguson, Gibson and Sterling do not appear to see history as a sequence of events, but as the product of entropy operating within an otherwise ordered system, or, perhaps more accurately as a pseudo-random system. Certain facets of this version of history appear quite unaltered (Huxley and Marx), while others appear entirely different (Byron and Disraeli). For example, if Byron was respectable enough to become Prime Minister and to avert the divorce from his wife it seems improbable that Ada Byron would have been educated with such an emphasis on the sciences and mathematics – under Byron’s influence literature and music would probably have dominated her education. Why was Ada not transfigured in the way her father was? Moreover, characters are deliberately depicted as inherently unpredictable. For example, Mallory’s sudden visit to a prostitute does not appear entirely congruent with the earlier depiction of him, a fact that appears to be deliberately held in reserve to catch the reader off guard. The point is not so much that it is ‘out of character’ but that no attempt is made to relate it to his character as another novelist might well have done. The same applies to the structure of the novel, which can neither be properly described as being either linear or episodic, and would instead appear to be based on "causation, contingency, chance."

As such, Sybil is introduced as the main character and is then deposed with the phrase "their paths diverge forever." Oliphant is casually announced to be dying of cancer at the end of the novel, with a potential death for Mallory is averted in favour of a more pleasant one; "that chain of events does not occur."(1)

The novel explicates much of this in the debate over evolution in the novel, with Mallory favouring a model based upon mutation in response to catastrophic events, and denounces the "doctrinaire" "true and natural course of historical development" in these terms "history works by catastrophe… there is no history – there is only contingency." This appears to be endorsed by the chance Marxist rebellion (one could argue that this is in keeping with the Victorian preoccupation with their society being overwhelmed), caused by the pollution of the Thames forcing all but the working class out of London and only foiled by the arrival of the rain. Yet the novel modifies this view, as catastrophism is forced to give way to the discovery of continental drift.

The novel resolves this ambivalence by pulling something rather surprising out if its hat; Gödel’s theorem; "any formal system must be both incomplete and unable to establish its own inconsistency," as expounded by Lady Ada Byron. The principle is of a plot hinged upon the discovery of Gödelian theory (not unlike the role of the chapter of Aristotle’s Poetics devoted to comedy in The Name of the Rose).

It is one thing to suggest that Gödel’s theorem applies to differing disciplines
(including the humanities) and quite another to suggest that it does so in same manner to all disciplines. As Jerry Fodor writes "It is, after all, entirely possible to doubt that ‘art, ethics and religion’ are primarily in the business of explaining things: not, anyhow, in anything like the way that geology and biology and physics seek to do. In which case, it’s hard to see how the putative unity of scientific explanations could be a model for consilience between science and ‘the humanities’." But this would appear to be precisely what Ada Byron states in the novel; "if human discourse could be interpreted as the exfoliation of a deeper formal system… it was a dream of Leibniz to find such a system, the Characteristica Universalis." Mallory says much the same thing when comparing the social disorder in London to molecules flying apart.

In describing consilience Jerry Fodor criticises Edmund Wilson thus; "The psychology endorsed here is no advance on Hume or Mill, and the exposition is markedly less sophisticated." The point is a legitimate one; as the book would appear to advance a form of taxonomy in which all may be described using the vocabulary of physics, including the workings of social unrest. In fact, the Victorians placed considerable faith in taxonomy, of all things been related in a systemic manner, something that the book mentions with regard to Marx, but which would also have applied to Bentham, Eliot, Darwin and Dickens. While Gödel’s theorem would have been a somewhat alien concept for the Victorian mind, the doctrine of consilence would have been much less so, as it was to be propounded in the Edwardian era, especially by the Logical Positivists. The failure of the Positivists to make a case for this theory goes some way to explaining the sense of unease at the view of history in this novel.

(1) As a side note it is worth noting that while much of this would appear to be akin to John Fowles and The French Lieutenant’s Woman, with its alternate endings. However, Fowles is concerned to contrast the attitudes of present day and Victorian society, where Gibson and Sterling allow the two to run together and congeal (Luddism and Marxism appear to merge while Rudwick and Mallory appear to be playing Victorian versions of Dawkins and Gould).

On another literary note, I’m somewhat puzzled by the controversy surrounding Fay Weldon’s decision to accept a fee from a firm of jewellers and include references to them in her book. While it is easy to see that product placement of this kind could be little more than intrusion into a novel, this surely depends on how adept the author proves to be. It is difficult to imagine Fay Weldon being especially clumsy in introducing the references, and she is to be congratulated for having made them a part of her book, rather than leaving them as alien introductions that sit uneasily alongside the rest of the text. As Weldon herself points out this advertising does not seem to be terribly different from artistic patronage as it has been practised from Maecenas to Kreutzer; the idea that literature is a sacrosanct object that transcends such base affairs is naive at best. To borrow a common adage, if literature has a role it is to challenge our perceptions, which, judging from the sound and fury of the discussion, Fay Weldon has succeeded in doing.