Annihilating all that’s made

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Gleaming Vanes

"High the vanes of Shrewsbury gleam

Islanded in Severn stream;

The bridges from the steepled crest

Cross the water east and west." (AE Housman)

Shrewsbury is one of the best preserved towns in England, with streets lined with half-timbered buildings (one of them stayed in by Henry prior to the Battle of Bosworth Field), a castle on a hill and a profusion of churches from a number of a variety of different periods. Outside the town and besides the Severn lie the remains of the old Benedictine monastery (including a rather eeriely isolated refectory pulpit standing outside) and the present Abbey. The red sandstone exterior left me rather reminded of Hereford. The interior remains largely gothic, with the remains of St Winfrid’s shrine having an orthodox icon of the saint by them (it’s not really my sort of reading but I did always rather like the alternative story of Winifrid’s arrival in Shrewsbury from A Morbid Taste for Bones), Tudor and Norman tombs, Norman remains, a font made from an upended Roman column as a font and Victorian reredos depicting Winifrid.

Within the town lies the church of St Mary the Virgin, with the third largest spire in England (half of it from the original sandstone, the rest much later). This is one of the most impressive churches that I’ve seen; the windows are filled with 13th to 16th century stained glass from Belgium and Germany, purchased at the same time as the Lady Chapel of Lichfield Cathedral. The ‘Tree of Jesse’ window showing Edward the Third is 14th century, Saxon tomb slabs, the floor is covered with Minton tiles, while the wooden ceiling is filled with elaborate angel carvings. Nearby is the more modest St Alkmund, a Victorian church with a painted East window and St Chad, a baroque round tower church with a circular nave. Outside, yellow and red leaves had fallen and covered the ground around the large tombs. Over the road is a park with a classical war memorial containing a statue of the angel Gabriel. Past a statue of Darwin outside the library, lie the remains of the castle, as red as the Abbey. A tower built by Thomas Telford when an earlier part of the structure collapsed stands overlooking the river. Down in the town, the museum houses a number of interesting exhibits from the Roman city of Virconium (Wroxeter), including soldier’s gravestones (originally garishly painted) and Samian wear.

Elsewhere, St Michael’s in Lichfield is set in one of the largest graveyard in the country. Though it lacks the elaborate tombs in the London Victorian cemetery, one of the larger tombs had it’s own clock and gas supply to light it up. St Mary and St Hardulph, or Breedon on the Hill, is siutated atop a hill above the surrounding plain. Originally, the site of a Monastery, the largely Norman church is notable for its extensive Saxon carvings; an angel like the one at Lichfield, Vine scroll above the altar and Anglian beasts. Seventeenth century slates tombstones line up in the windswept churchyard, each decorating with elaborate neo-classical etchings that have survived well. A Tudor family memorial depicts the deceased at prayer as well as showing a skeletal corpse beneath. A wooden pew surives that served as the box for the local gentry during services. Nearby is St Michael and St Mary at Melbourne, a Norman cathedral in miniature, with thick columns and round arches supporting a gallery that runs the length of the church. A wonderful medieval mural of the devil survives on one of the walls, near to columns where Saxon carvings of animals remain, including a Sheela-na-gig, a pagan fertility symbol. Further on is St Mary at Tutbury, a rather more restrained affair which does nonetheless have an extraordinary Norman arch in alabaster (another shows scenes of boar hunting). Finally, I had been to Repton before, but was interested to note the same slate tombstones outside and the statue of St Wystan bearing a metal sword above the door.

Autumn is my favourite time of year, with the world transfigured with green thoughts to shades of bronze, gold and burgundy and where the fallen leaves are suddenly siezed and thrown through the air by the unseen force of the wind. I think what I increasingly like about looking at buildings and the natural world is a sense of transfiguration, something similar to Shklovsky’s concept of ostranenie translates as ‘making strange.’ I think of how buildings take on different characters in different lights, of how the fog I can currently see from the window makes the innocuous and familiar sinister and hidden, of how autumn leaves transform the living into something artificial. Autumn has come late this year and it still feels more like October than November. Travelling into London to the Velasquez exhibition at the National Gallery, the sun is bright and the air still seems gentle. The exhibition itself shows Velasquez as a consummate realist, concerned with the mundane in his genre paintings (in spite of the number of religious or mythical subjects), while also continually suggesting, as with Foucault’s analysis of Las Meninas, the limits of representation, as with the two kitchen scenes shown here where christ is seen as being somewhere else beyond everyday concerns. The same applies to The Rokeby Venus, where the mirror image only shows a dim reflection of Venus and one that is at the wrong angle (although most of the portraits show the subject facing the viewer, Velasquez also has his sibyl turned away and hidden). Two other small exhibitions were being held, of Cezanne and Dutch winter scenes. The former seems striking for Cezanne’s almost cubist approach to nature painting while the highlight of the latter was Jan Beerstraten’s The Castle of Muiden in Winter and Avercamp’s Scene on the Ice Near Town. Elsewhere within the gallery, I walked through the Sainsbury wing, responding to the colours, but as ever, finding it hard to respond to the subject matter of works like The Wilton Diptych, until we come to the lascivious mythological painting of Florentine artists like Botticelli, Di Cosimo (though a Crivelli altarpiece with real jewels and gold embedded in it was rather striking), Cranach’s Greek allegory of Cupid Complaning to Venus and Venetian portrait painters like Bellini’s portrait of The Doge Leonardo Loredan. Van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait also stands out for me and I next visit the Dutch section, with its Vane De Velde maritime paintings, De Hootch allegories (although he always seems more amused at vice than outraged) or Ruisdael landscapes. Other striking works included Moroni’s aristocratic portraits set in the midst of ruins and Rosa’s proto-romantic scenes.

Like several other Icelandic sagas, Njal’s Saga depicts the conversion of Iceland to Christianity. Njal is himself shown as an unearthly figure gifted with second sight and whose death has all the hallmarks of a saint’s martyrdom. Zola’s Therese Raquin shows less of a conflict between physiological and environmental considerations than that seen in his later works, cleaving to a theory of the body as the wellspring of all action (Therese and Laurent do not act consciously but are instead two people, driven by their physiogonomy), something that looks back to the medieval humours and forward to Ballard’s instinct driven idea of consciousness rather than inahbiting a conventional idea of character. The results can be somewhat uncomfortable; Therese’s actions are attributed to her African blood. Nonetheless, Zola is far from being consistent in this regard; Therese speaks of having her upbringing made her into a hypocrite and liar, while Laurent’s suffering is seen to induce a change in his body and character, making him more nervous and feminine. While Laurent is held to act only out of fleshy desire, Therese is supposed to take pleasure in knowing why she acts. Their very guilt seems to product of consciousness rather than the instincts of the flesh, while such tropes as the ghost and their eventual suicide seem to suggest the structure of a moral fable.

The figure in the carpet is often cited as a characteristic of Jamesian fiction. The Europeans exemplifies this through the way it depicts its characters in relation to their environment (America and Europe) but elides description of those environments. Felix resembles a Turgenev protagonist while Eugenia resembles Flaubert’s most famous heroine. But both Turgenev and Flaubert depict their characters as part of a complex web of social relationships, while James only briefly limns such matters in. Whereas earlier novelists like Dickens and Eliot had assigned a deterministic element to a character’s environment, no such element exists for James whose characters are rather more unpredictable, with the lackadaisical Felix settling down while Gertrude discovers herself out of kilter with her home.


Autumn is my favourite time of year. The weather is hesitant and uncertain, with blackened clouds and rain interrupted with bright sunshine and deep blue skies. Silver birch remains green, Stag’s Horn (Sumac) turns bronze while Ivy turns crimson red. I’d recently seen an old tree stump with lavender growing around it and bracket fungi growing out of it. Tonight, I noticed something odd growing in the nearby borders. Parting the foliage I found an odd looking toadstool, red with white blotches. As far as I can tell it’s fly agaric (Amanita muscaria), a type of mushroom noted for its hallucigenic properties amongst the Siberians, American Indians and the Japanese. I don’t think I’d ever seen one before.

Arriving at the Watt’s Gallery in Surrey, I noticed an odd looking red church on a nearby hillside and decided to walk back to have a look. Initially obscured from view by the churchyard’s Irish Yew trees, the building proved to be the Watts Chapel, designed by Mary Watts in memory of her husband. Mary Watts was an exceptional artist in her own right, a painter and potter who worked with Celtic and art nouveau styles.

The structure of the rather squat chapel is cruciform (though essentially a rotunda intersected by the stations of the cross) and surmounted by a somewhat incongruous campanile. The exterior is ringed with a band covered in Celtic ribbonwork patterns made from terracotta and supported by three corbels on each section of the wall. The band’s imagery is somewhat pantheistic, drawn from Egyptian and Sanskrit sources as much as The Book of Kells. Built from local red clay, Mary Watts had apparently hoped it would ‘tone down’ as it aged over time, but my suspicion is that the colour is only slightly less vivid than it was after it had been built. Surrounding it, much of the gravestones are made from the same clay and combine Burne Jones style angels with Celtic patterns. As you might expect, the overall effect is bizarre, more resembling a Byzantine or Italian church than something to be found in England; Romanesque design (the dome, Greek cross and lozenge shaped windows) with Celtic imagery. The interior, complete with white and marmalade guard cat (lying in wait for visitors and demanding to be stroked), is different again. The style is late pre-raphaelite or art-nouveau, showing gesso angelic figures and the tree of life, save for the altar where one of Watt’s symbolist paintings hangs.

In truth, Watts himself is not one of my favourite Pre-Raphaelite painters. His work lacks the colour and vividness of Rossetti or Leighton (not to mention their rather decadent glamour) and, while anticipating the impressionists, lacks the dreamlike aspect of Monet’s paintings. Looking at the works in the gallery he seemed to me to resemble William Blake more than most of his contemporaries, with all of his paintings being loaded with symbolism borrowed from christian and classical sources as well as an essentially private mythology. Like Blake, much of his work has a very direct aspect of social criticism (ranging from sympathy for ‘fallen women,’ anger at poverty and inequality and even concern about animal cruelty). In many cases, even his portraits seem to burst into the allegorical, with one such portrait having been changed from an original depiction of a neiad. The back of the gallery houses a junk room sculpture collection, littered with casts of his large public sculptures (like Physical Energy in Kensington Gardens) and one odd Egyptian sculpture that Watts had designed to look as if it had been ruined and devastated. Finally, the gallery has a small room dedicated to other Victorian painters like Arthur Hughes and Albert Moore.

The Edvard Munch exhibition at the Royal Academy. The range of personae on display is often surprising. Where Frida Kahlo always represented herself in broadly similar terms, it is often difficult to credit that Munch’s paintings are of the same man. Partly, this is due to the fact that the paintings span his entire life, but equally he changes from naturalistic depictions where the flesh is whole to ones where the skin seems scarred (equally, his paintings often seem like acts of self-mutilation, showing his murdered or dissected corpse, his decapitated head, his skull and eyeball; Munch left his paintings out in the rain to be warped and distorted, inverting Dorian Gray’s picture) to ones where his face has been all but erased completely. Equally, Munch’s features displace those of any number of mythical and historical personae; John the Baptist, Marat, Orpheus. Women figures in any number of roles; whore, virgin, muse. Munch often simply allows paint to slide down the canvas, creating a particularly disturbingly liquid effect when he is painting blood, or even hair in the case of The Vampire; but again the range of painting styles were many and varied over his career. The early paintings are characterised by their sense of bohemianism; as if Wilde were being painted by Leighton. The later styles are clearly more symbolist, but unlike Kahlo there is no sense of an hermetic personal mythology. I was especially struck by one painting, Murder where the entirety of the painting swirled around a central point in the distance; it reminded me of how camera angles zoom in onto a central figure, especially in Hitchcock’s films.

Der Edukators (or Die Fetten Jahre sind vorbei as it was originally titled) rather left me feeling that matters had been resolved rather too neatly. Much of the film revolves around contested ideas; in one instance, a group of activists who break into the villas of the wealthy, rearranging the furniture and leaving notes saying that the owners have too much money. In the other, the owners of one of the villas that they are keeping prisoner after things go wrong. For much of the film, it isn’t clear whether his statements of former activism and sympathy for their ideals are genuine or whether he isn’t simply manipulating them; the ending does seem to answer this question a little too equivocally for my taste, though it was rather noticeable that their prisoner’s claim that it is simply natural for some to lead and others to follow receives rather more credence than might be expected from the way in which he almost over from them.

A pleasant day was spent with a walk around the Roman ruins at Silchester, leading to the incongruous discovery of a field in the middle of the old city housing some young llamas. I visited St Mary’s Church and looked at the pre-reformation wall paintings (mostly floral). I also managed to spot a sparrowhawk almost floating over the walls.

A History of Violence sees David Cronenberg shedding the elements of science fiction in his films in favour of a more ostensibly naturalistic genre, the thriller, where a married man in Midwest America is confronted with his past with the mob. However, it seemed rather clear that this was a false distinction, with Cronenberg using the trappings of normalcy to disturb in precisely the same manner that the surrealism of his previous films did. What particularly achieves this effect is that the film seemed to suggest that violence isn’t something that is repressed and periodically erupts but is rather something that forms an intrinsic part of normality, blurring moral distinctions between the Midwest family and the gangsters.

When I’ve reviewed Juan Goytisolo’s novels on past occasions, I’ve tended to describe them in relation to the ideas of the Russian formalists Mikhail Bakhtin. In his essay collection, Cinema Eden, he himself raises Bakhtin in the first sentence of the first essay, characterising the Arab world as one where discourses are intermingled, between the sacred, the profane and the satirical; "this happy blend of licence and piety." Throughout, he adheres to this precept, mingling fantasy and reality in a piece imagining Gaudi living as a hermit in Cappadocia. Nonetheless, Goytisolo seems to introduce a further ambiguity, noting that many of these traditional elements of Arbaic culture help people "not to deny modernity but to co-exist with it," but elsewhere suggests that such arrangements are threatened by progress and Islamism alike and that they are better described as "a new form of shelter against the rootlessness and alienation created by modernity." It’s difficult not to wonder at the extent to which these discourses really are entangled; the homosocial love of mystics or the soldier and the charcoal burner depends on homosexuality as a practice while leaving it castigated as an identity. The qualities he sees in the inhabitants of Cairo’s city of the dead contrast to the antiseptic values of the West but also seem to come close to endorsing a form of social Darwinism in a society where life is nasty, brutish and short.

Reading the Laxdaela Saga, I found myself reminded of Ruth Benedict’s distinction between shame and guilt cultures in The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. In guilt cultures personal morality is specific to the individual and their relationship to god, whereas in shame cultures morality is a social concept relating to community opinion (for instance, Hrafnkel The Priest of Frey sees its protagonist expelled from his lands for having been so foolish as to spare Hrafnkel’s life earlier). The saga depicts Iceland’s transition from one to another. Iceland as a society lacked executive government, meting out punishment through exile, ostracism and private compensation; something that became more complex with the introduction of christianity. One consequence of this is that the saga depicts character with unusual complexity (the concept of the individual being essentially inapplicable for the majority of other medieval texts where personality is seen in relation to religious and social categories). Gudrun is depicted against both a christian scheme of private sin and repentance and a pagan scheme of moral attrition and atonement where guilt is shared and negotiated (not unlike Aeschylus and The Oresteia).

Engel’s The Condition of the Working Class in England struck me as vacillating between a number of opposed concepts; between a desire to both prevent ("it is high time too, for the English middle-class to make some concessions to the working men who no longer plead but threaten; for in a short time it may be too late") and to spark a revolution to end the class structure ("the revolution must come; it is already too late to bring about a peaceful solution"), between an idealised account of earlier more pastoral social structures (speaking of its ‘idyllic simplicity;’ "leading a righteous and peaceful life in all piety and probity; and their material position was far better than that of their successors.") and a view that their destruction was an advance towards the creation of communist society ("in a well-ordered society such things could only be a source of rejoicing; in a war of all against all, individuals seize the benefits for themselves."), even celebrating the creation of an internal proletariat and the deadening of national characteristics in the English working class. To a large extent, Engels is both awed and horrified by London, observing that "I know nothing more imposing than the view which the Thames offers…all this is so vast, so impressive that a man cannot collect himself, but is lost in the marvel of England’s greatness," before detailing the sacrifices required to achieve it.

Barnaby Rudge is one of only two historical novels written by Dickens and it’s interesting to observe how the constraints of a genre typified by Scott conflict with the more gothic and sensational elements that are more characteristic of Dickens. On the one hand, the historical genre demands a detailed observation of social and individual change. On the other, the gothic and sensational elements demand a more Manichean approach. As such, the narrative lacks a generic centre, perhaps due to its centre being the blank slate of Barnaby himself. In terms of social observation, Dickens frequently notes how much smaller London was at the time of the riots; "Nature was not so far removed, or hard to get at, as in these days… which turned into squalid courts." Social criticism is as present here as in any of contemporary social novels, as with the depiction of Sir John Chester’s dissipated character. However, he also condemns Sim Tappertit for his opposition to the state of urban society; "the degrading checks imposed upon them were unquestionably attributed to the innovating spirit of the times, and how they united therefore to resist change." Accordingly, the social dimension of the novel is a complex one. Equally, the gothic and sensational elements complicate this further; George Gordon and Barnaby’s father are both depicted in almost demonic terms to begin with ("prowled and skulked the metropolis at night… a spectre at their licentious feasts, something in the midst of their revelry and riot haunted and chilled him."), with the rioters also compared to devils. Innocence in the novel is no protection, either for Barnaby himself or for Miggs, the parody of his more virtuous heroines. The result is that Dickens is ambivalent in his attitude to the riots; "composed for the most part of the very scum and refuse of London, whose growth was fostered by bad criminal laws, bad prison regulations and the worst conceivable police… stimulated by their own headlong passions, by poverty, by ignorance" The riots emerge as both something unnatural and something manufactured by society, where the commons can revenge themselves on their oppressors.

Keith Robert’s Pavane struck me as being quite odd; like many counterfactuals (such as Bring the Jubilee or even His Dark Materials; Pullman’s vision of Geneva becoming the centre of christendom being the inverse of Robert’s vision of Rome as remaining dominant in England) it is essentially whiggish, presenting a version of history where a vision of progress based on science and technology has gone awry and a vision of superstition and feudalism triumphed. It’s an odd vision that ignores the fact that capitalist economies began to thrive through the renaissance more than the reformation. Conversely, its a fantasy, crafting a land still where faeries and old gods still hold sway; the peculiarity is that such a vision fails to lend itself to the same kind of pastoralism to be found in Tolkein.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


I had hoped to see the exhibits of the Carlsberg Glyptotek in the Copenhagen gallery that normally houses them (if nothing else because the prospect of a gallery and museum that has its own heated palmhouse seems more than a little striking), but since that is shut for renovation for several years, the current exhibition at the Royal Academy makes a reasonable substitute. The exhibition certainly makes clear that it is the product of the vagaries of a family of private collectors, consisting of Danish and French painting and ancient sculpture. The Egyptian exhibits are rather fine, including an impressive seated statue of Anubis and a bust of Pharoah Amenemhat the third. Rather memorably, it eschews the typically stylised nature of Egyptian art in favour of a more naturalistic style, emphasising the Pharoah’s rather sharply defined cheekbones. The Roman exhibits covered a variety of periods and geographies, the most unusual being the Palmyran exhibits, showing many of the conventional aspects of Roman sculpture (e.g. couples with linked hands) are combined with Asiatic dresses and even camels. Of the native Roman exhibits, I was especially struck by a sarcophagus showing ships at sail; the waves are filled with dolphins and one man is drowning; very Musee des Beaux Arts. Other impressive exhibits here included a rather adorable red marble hippo from the Gardens of Sallust, and some statues of three of the Muses from the Sabine hills.

Nineteenth century Danish painting proves to have had a rather agreeable penchant for landscape and ruins. Much of this can be accounted for with paintings within Denmark, like Lundbye’s painting of Zealand (a somewhat Constableseque affair, enlivened by a burial tumulus on the hill and what looks like a stone circle in the foreground) and Lake Arre or Kobke and Skovgaard’s paintings of Frederiksberg Castle. But like many other European painters of the same period, the ancient world looms large, as with Rorbye’s painting of the Tower of the Winds and Cypresses by the Baths of Diocletian, Hansen’s painting of Rome, Naples and Vesuvius. By contrast, the French painting tends to be impressionist, heavily weighted towards Degas, Cezanne, Lautrec, Courbet and Manet (whose The Absinthe drinker, I especially liked). Most interesting here were paintings by Monet (a dark and unusually realist piece showing smoke stacks along a Dutch canal, counterpointing a more turquoise typical seascape) and Sisley. However, the highlight was clearly Gauguin, with paintings of Frederiksberg woods and Ostvald windmill showing his early realist style, and his later riotously colourful paintings of Tahiti. Of especial interest was a wood carving, recasting the narrative of the fall in Tahiti.

I then went for a walk, past Fortnum & Mason’s clock with its automata appearing on the hour (a rather odd contrast to the Horologe in Prague), a market at St James Church, the Athenaeum and the Haymarket theatre, before emerging in Trafalgar where a group of pigeons were holding a sit-in against the London Mayor. Finally, I went to the National Portrait Gallery to looks around the Victorian and Modern wing. It’s interesting to note that the museum inadvertently traces the decline of the court painter, so that the likes of Holbein are gradually replaced with Millais painting Gladstone and Disraeli or Singer Sergeant painting Balfour. In the modern area, it was especially good to see Brigid Marlin‘s portrait of JG Ballard alongside Graham Greene and Phillip’s painting of Iris Murdoch.

Run Lola Run has a peculiar mix of chaos theory and free will; the slightest change in events has wildly different repercussions (along the lines of the flapping of the butterfly’s wings), but the action is rerun until it produces an outcome satisfactory to Lola. The changes each time seem essentially unpredictable, but there is an order in how the lives of each of the characters proves to overlap, as well as in how Lola seems to retain a distant memory of how the events had previously been played out. In contrast to the wasted and conventional lives of her parents (The film shares Goodbye Lenin!‘s anti-materialism; Lola’s mother is the only point in the film never to change, more wrapped up in television than in events around her), Lola’s actions reinvent reality, as much as her travels take her through an impossible Berlin that barely corresponds to the actual geography of the city and stitches together East and West, crossing the formerly restricted Oberbaumbrucke.

The Motorcycle Diaries seem an oddly empty film, just as after his death Che Guevara became an oddly empty symbol of rebellion. Much of the film is taken up simply with the cinematography of the South American landscape and lacks any specific ideology other than a broad protest against social injustice and some more specific sympathy for indigenist causes. With the actor playing Guevara’s Hollywood looks, the motorbike (more Brando than Lenin), the rock & roll soundtrack (more Jagger than Castro) and incongruously American metaphor of the road (more Kerouac than Marx), Guevara becomes the perfect rebel without a cause. Ironically, given the criticism of how a sisterhood of nuns run a leper colony in the film, one of the most powerful images in the film, that of Che’s body wracked by his asthma, is arguably an icon of Catholic martyrdom (communism may have officially been atheist, but it hardly seems unreasonable to characterise it as a religious movement in its own right). It is, in short, the perfect film was a post-ideological age that believes that everything communism said about capitalism, as was everything capitalism said about communism.

On the other hand, it’s difficult not to suspect that the film represents something noted by the likes of Martin Amis, Robert Conquest and Anne Applebaum; a tendency to excuse the horrors of communism where one would do nothing of the kind for other ideologies (It’s somewhat difficult to imagine a film that lovingly depicted the coming of age of an idealistic Hitler or Franco.). I am reminded of a quote Lessing attributes to Koestler in the Golden Notebook, that it was only possible to continue to cleave to the idea of communism out of a personal mythology, as a form of denial. Having read Arenas’s Before Night Falls, and his descriptions of Che’s labour camps I find it difficult to witness the mythologisation of Che. Certainly, the sole indication of the later Che (the Commandante of the Cuban labour camps) in the film is a scene at Machu Picchu where he dismisses democratic change in favour of armed insurrection. Nonetheless, I have to admit that it’s difficult not to respond to the sense of injustice in the film, to the idealism, to the beautiful South American landscape. By contrast, Pedro Almodovar’s Bad Education (also starring Gael Garcia Bernal) is oddly reminiscent of what Hitchcock might have made of Death in Venice; the same confused identities feature for both Directors, with the glacial blondes being replaced with dark latin men.

Meteorology, it seems to me, can be considered as a form of aesthetics (nature as a form of art; typical romanticism). During fog the most familiar of objects become rich and strange. Most obviously, the brick church steeple I can see from my window, rising through the trees. Reduced to a faint sliver of darkness ("Annihilating all that’s made / To a grey thought in a grey shade. "), the denial of the usual detail grants it an otherwise unknown air of the unheimlich. Equally, the loss of colour in the trees as they become simply shades of grey, between which the difference is in degrees of colour rather than kind, seems to change the depth perception. Later, the sky grew more and more overcast until it rained, and it rained more and more until the rain became almost a solid wall of water. The level ground all around turned into a fast flowing river that had to be waded through and the thunder was deafening. One especially striking morning saw rime frost covering the ground all around, a light mist in the air and a grey sky; but a ferocious crimson sun staining the sky pink, like Homer’s metaphor of dawn’s rosy fingers.

As ever, Autumn is my favourite time of year and the golds, burgundies and crimson of the leaves at this time are something I can never tire of. There are few things as wonderful as walking through piles of crisp leaves as the wind causes others to swirl in the air around you. Accordingly, Wayland’s Smithy is rather fine at this time of year; the funeral barrow is at the centre of a copse of beech trees that have turned to a yellowed shade of brown. Whereas the Kennet barrow can be seen for miles around, one simply happens across Wayland’s Smithy. I noticed that someone had left some flowers and a note for a lost son on a tree stump amidst the beech mast. Uffington is more austere at the best of times and today (with the wind howling and walls of rain descending) the landscape in the distance seemed to dissolve into the bleached white sky, leaving the hill with its bare scalloped slopes (cut during the last ice age) against the tide of nothingness. Since the Uffington white horse can only be seen properly from the sky the most striking thing is Dragon Hill. Like Silbury Hill, this can be easily recognised as an artificial structure; like the stuffed animals in Bernhard’s Correction these things impress because they are neither nature nor art.

Nearby is Ashdown Manor. This tall building is designed in a pure Dutch style, with hipped roof, dormer windows and a peculiar round glasshouse surmounted with a cupola and finial. Lacking any attached wings, the building towers over the surrounding landscape; in the seventeenth century lanes would have radiated from it at each of the four points of the compass, cutting across a square of domesticated parkland. The geometrical precision with which nature is subordinated, especially in the elegant curves of the parterre garden, has something to it that is at least as ritualistic to it as the Uffington horse. Today, the landscape is sparse downland, with sarsen stones embedded throughout the fields in front of the house and inkcap mushrooms growing between them.

I felt that Alan Hollinghust should have won the Booker Prize with The Folding Star ten years ago, so I was pleased to see that The Line of Beauty has won it this year. Firstly, on account of the sexual politics involved and secondly, because it is a social novel. Possibly, I’m becoming a new puritan ("In the name of clarity, we recognise the importance of temporal linearity and eschew flashbacks, dual temporal narratives and foreshadowing… We recognise that published works are also historical documents. As fragments of our time, all our texts are dated and set in the present day."), but the recent vogue for postmodernist, historical and speculative fiction (typically revolving around a somewhat superficial attempt to instantiate a rather limited set of metaphysical ideas) has become more than a little tiresome. Meals cooked recently: Javanese curry and Nasi Goreng (a form of spiced Indonesian paella), Mexican chicken with pineapple rice.

Marco Polo’s Travels are rather more odd than their later English counterpart, Hakluyt’s Voyages and Discoveries. Whether Hakluyt’s compilation divides the world between noble savages and barbarians, Polo is more nuanced, typically cataloguing the wealth of other states in true mercantile fashion. The wealth and technology of the nations visited by Polo is typically more advanced than Europe (as with the Yuan dynasty postal system, paper money or the great canal; oddly enough, coal and stone bridges seem to fall into the same category while Polo neglected to observe either the Great Wall or printing). Polo is especially impressed with the city of Kinsai (City of Heaven), seeing its lakes, lagoons and bridges as being like Venice; it is easy to see where Calvino got the ideas for Invisible Cities. However, the narrative is far from lacking in ethnocentricism (for instance in the description of Christian Abyssinia’s attack on Islamic Aden), often recounting miracles by which Eastern christians were preserved against the Saracen. However, the narrative is also a romance, and the sensationalisation of the east often interferes with this, as with the descriptions of the magical powers of the Brahmins and Buddhist monks, leading to the Khan’s comments; "You see that the Christians who live in these parts are so ignorant that they accomplish nothing and are powerless. And you see that these idolaters (Buddhists) so whatever they will" Polo attributes such magical powers as refilling cups without touching them to the devil (certainly such things remind one of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus), but his descriptions of Buddhism and Hinduism are remarkably sympathetic, seeing Buddha as the equal of a christian saint.

Tanizaki’s The Key presents the text that has no more connection with naturalism than the Bunraku theatre of Some Prefer Nettles, being composed of a dual narrative taken from two diaries, the authors of which frequently elide information or include misleading detail. But it is more interesting than either Some Prefer Nettles or In Praise of Shadows in that it breaks down the binary division they established between oriental and occidental social norms; "In the old days a woman simply obeyed her husband’s wishes, not matter how indecent or disgusting.. I’d begun to understand that making him jealous was the way to make him happy – that was the duty of a model wife."

Maupassant’s Bel-Ami is largely cast in the form of critique of a nouveau riche overreacher, criticising Duroy’s both racism and chauvinism, his sense of emasculation stemming from the women he uses to progress his career. However, this moral fable is one that exists in spite of the death of god, "there are some people who really do suffer. And he felt a sudden anger against the cruelty of nature… these people at least thought that someone cared about them in heaven.. In heaven? Where’s that?"Norbert de Varenne’s complaint of the futility of things substitutes a form of hedonism for morality in much the same way as that of Henry Wotton in The Picture of Dorian Gray; "no doubt the truth is that we were born to live more materialistically and less spiritually; but through too much thought we’ve created a discrepancy between our overdeveloped intelligence and the unchanging conditions of our life.".

Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma is set in a period where Jacobinism threatens to overturn the established aristocratic order, and his novel correspondingly pulled between romance, picaresque and the more modern novels that followed. The romance elements of melodrama, the heroic quest romance for self discovery, aristocratic dramatis personae ("That commonplace does not rise to the height of ours") and almost courtly love are certainly present, so too are the more novelistic elements of character development and the depiction of characters in terms of their social interrelation, as with Eliot and Dickens. In terms of the picaresque, events frequently occur by accident (Fabrizio’s exploits at Waterloo or the death of Giletti) or through a fortune beyond the control of the protagonists. Equally, causality pertains as much as in Dickens or Balzac, with the difference that the characters rarely seem aware of the implications of the actions. The resulting combination of accident with the crossed wills of the characters tends to recall Hardy as much as Defoe.

Astrology is a particularly difficult area for the novel; "inoculated him with unlimited confidence in the signs by which the future may be foretold… my imagination took upon itself to give them meaning and the most romantic one possible." As such. events frequently occur as if predestined by the heavens (as with Father Blanes’s predictions or Clelia’s prediction of her son’s divinely ordained death), but the narration is distanced from the events it depicts and is consistently counterpointed to them; "she did not make that moral reflection that which could not have escaped a woman brought up in one of the Northern religions which allow self examination… That religion deprives men of the ability to reflect on unusual matters and particularly forbids self examination as the most heinous of sins;" Parma is persistently seen as a land governed by an arbitrary and unpredictable despotism (and therefore lacking the social stability that is a precondition for the realist novel) and whose inhabitants are governed by uncontrolled emotions ("Fabrizio was one of those unfortunate people who are tormented by their own imagination; this is a fairly common fault of men of intelligence in Italy") that they are unable to reflect upon. Much of religion is satirised throughout the novel, as with Fabrizio’s use of the preaching as a means to see Clelia.

In Stendhal’s Memoirs of an Egotist Italy emerges in the similar terms for Stendhal as it later figured for Forster and Lawrence. Describing himself as a liberal who despised other liberals, Stendhal’s loathing of aristocratic privilege was only matched by his loathing of the crass mercantilism that was replacing it, something he saw prefigured in England, where all society has been subordinated to the cash nexus. By contrast; "How ridiculous it is for the English worker to have to labour for eighteen hours. The poor Italian in his ragged clothes is much closer to happiness."

Reading Twain’s contemporaneous The Gilded Age alongside Maupassant was especially interesting. Twain departs to a large extent from the individualist conventions of American fiction in favour of something that does resemble a European social novel, examining each social strata through a broad cast of characters. However, there are differences. For example, Twain notes that a conventional novel would resolve the question of Laura’s parentage, using it as means of demonstrating the interconnection of all parts of the social fabric (as with Esther in Bleak House), equally failing to provide a moral fable in the verdict of Laura’s trial (often interrupting the narrative to make these gaps between artifice and nature clear in a surprisingly postmodern way). Maupassant depicts a society where social advancement is predicated on exploitation, counterpointed to the simple life of the peasantry. To some extent, Twain shares this, describing that "they were honest and straightforward, and their virtuous ways command respect" but also tends to see poverty as a form of injury to a greater extent, as with Colonel Sellers’ turnip feast. Conversely, although elites are characterised as utterly corrupt, social advancement is seen in the gentler guise of a series of impractical visionaries (more like Skimpole in Bleak House).

Like Twain, Howells creates a social novel in The Rise of Silas Lapham, but the form seems hollow in comparison to its European counterparts. When Bromfield Corey notes that workers will in time dwell more and more on their poverty and become increasingly discontented, Lapham’s reaction is that a poor man is satisfied if he can make ends meet. Lapham’s fall is not attributable to anything that is deserving of censure, but instead to his unnecessary guilt over ousting Rogers from his partnership and "(if) he had looked after the insurance of his property as carefully as he had looked after a couple of worthless women that had no earthly claim on him, they should not be where they were now." Throughout the novel’s moral scheme is an essentially utilitarian one, where Pen’s self-sacrifice is seen as a form of "shallow sentimentality" that punishes three instead of one. In consequence, the moral fable of the novel deliberately undoes itself, with the fall into poverty having little more redemptive power than wealth had a corrupting one.

Darwin’s The Origin of Species had always struck me as typifying the Victorian emphasis on the systematic, seeing all things as interconnected as much as Dickens or Eliot. The Voyage of the Beagle shares these traits, interweaving geology, paleontology and biology, but equally presents a more problematic picture. Darwin’s observations here are equally amenable with a view based on Gould’s punctuated equilibrium model (describing both natural disasters, such as the extinction of a land snail in St Helena when its habitat was destroyed and human disasters, such as the various South American dictatorships and revolutions as well as noting how South America would once have been populated with monsters, whose extinction left only pygmies in their place) as on natural selection (as with observations on the acquired blindness of a mole). His views on the introduction of alien species are without sentiment; modern environmentalism is anachronistic here, instead he comments on the historical ironies of the reintroduction of the horse into South America after its earlier extinction, these discussion of earlier mass extinctions sitting alongside extinctions caused by the introduction of European species, with the pig replacing the peccary; "according to the principles so well laid down by Mr Lyell, few countries have undergone more dramatic changes."

Although Darwin admires the tattoos of the Tahitians and vehemently opposes slavery ("I shall never again visit a slave-country… I will not even allude to the many heart-sickening atrocities which I authentically heard of"), his views are nonetheless imperialist; it is greater than between a wild and domesticated animal, inasmuch as in man there is a great power of improvement." Comparisons between native races and animals, even in the context of arguing against slavery are commonplace; "one can hardly make oneself believe that they are fellow creatures and inhabitants of the same world. It is a common subject of conjecture what pleasure in life some of the lower animals could enjoy; how much more reasonably the same question could be asked with regard to these barbarians!… persecuted enough to break the spirit of the lowest animal." Darwin’s imperialism lies in his belief in the ability of colonial administration to effect an improvement in the character of the natives ("at the present day, from the progress of civilisation, there is much less warfare"), invoking Lamarckian terminology where he would have been contemptuous of it anywhere else. But elsewhere, Darwin appears to see the process in terms of natural selection. Just as he had written of how English vegetation was introduced into St Helena or how the Norway rat annihilated much of New Zealand’s fauna, he writes of how the eventual extinction of the Australian aborigines and Tahitian natives ("it was melancholy at New Zealand to hear the fine, energetic natives saying that the land was doomed to pass from their children") due in part to European diseases to which there is no immunity and in part of the extinction of the wildlife seems inevitable to him. On one particular occasion, Darwin explicitly applies the idea of natural selection to the natives in a way he is rather unlikely to have done to Europeans; "nature, by making habit omnipotent, and its effects hereditary, has fitted the Fuegian to the climate and productions of his miserable country."

Pliny’s Letters seem rather odd, recalling some of the reservations I had about medieval literature. In that context, all ideas of character and personality were related to moral and social schemes, without the modern idea of any form of interior life. It seems much the same as Chaucer’s descriptions of his pilgrims, which almost exclusively relate them to essentially social ideas of morality. Much the same applies to Pliny, with the additional complication that (as a politician) much of the letters are a studied description of the author’s public aspect, his pietas, that of his patrons and those that received his patronage. The Letters are an attempt to display his own suitability to be a member of the ruling class and for manipulating other members of that elite to subscribe to the same moral values and patterns of behaviour which he felt to be important. More interesting perhaps are the descriptions of the other sides of Roman society, opposed to this public aspect; the slaves that killed their Master, the husband who had a centurion convicted of adultery and exiled him, but refused to banish his wife.

Much of this relates to an attempt to gain immortality through his writings, as when he writes to Tacitus saying "I believe that your histories will prove immortal: a prophecy which will surely prove correct. That is why (I frankly admit) I am anxious to appear in them" and is later unafraid of appearing boastful when his own name is recognised and set along that of Tacitus. However, this is far from problematic, as when he notes that "my idea of the truly happy man is one of who enjoys the anticipation of a good and lasting reputation… lives in the knowledge of the fame to come. Were my eyes not fixed on the reward of immortality I could be happy in an easy life." Others, such as Regulus and Pallas whose monuments are without proportion to their objects are derided as immodest, and Pliny records how "people have criticised me in your hearing for taking any opportunity for the exaggerated praise of my friends.". The negotiation on this subject, between fame and hubris, are delicate, especially when Pliny defends his friend Verginus Rufus for ordering an inscription on his tomb, instead of forbidding such things; "do you really think it shows more reticence to publish throughout the world that your memory will live on, than to record your achievement in a single place in a couple of lines?" Tacitus’s own Agricola and Germania is an equally odd text, lauding what he sees as the barbarians of Germany for their sexual morality (in contrast to Roman decadence) and both the Germans and Britons for their struggles for freedom (to some extent in contrast to Rome under Domitian). On the other hand, he derides their indolence and the primitive nature of their societies; seemingly he endorses a mid-point between barbarism and civilisation that can never be wholly satisfied by either.

Some of the most vivid aspects of Pliny’s writing are the descriptions of his villas, where each of the elements are harnessed. Water falls by each seat, while each room catches the sun at different times. Quite a different conception is at work with Derek Jarman’s Garden. Influenced by Gertrude Jekyll, it lacks any fences or hedges and is filled with the same wild flowers that grow in the shingle elsewhere at Dungeness. Stones are arranged in intricate patterns according to colour, in an imitation of Avebury. Gorse grows in a circle around a pole, which has patterns raked in the centre around it. It seems more reminiscent of the Japanese notion of shakkei, borrowed scenery, and the practice of raking gravel as a meditation exercise. But, as with the stone circles, Jarman does not fully subscribe to any notion of oneness with nature, setting rusted pieces of metals as found sculptures in his garden. Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North encapsulates this idea of oneness with nature, being distanced from an idea of a distinction between subjective and objective; "whatever such a mind sees is a flower, and whatever such a mind dreams is the moon. It is only a barbarous mind that sees other than the flower." The results of this are variable, with the poems often being rather abrupt.

As with Pliny, Suetonius is not especially interested in the psychology of imperial rule, tending not to speculate on the character development of the twelve caesars. However, he does shun a chronological narrative in favour of a more thematic approach (combining both of what we would see as the public and private), a technique that allows him to finely balance the vices and virtues of each Emperor. This doesn’t seem especially surprising, since Suetonius presumably had to approach his subjects with considerable diplomacy. On the one hand, it would have been expedient for someone at the court of Hadrian to diminish former emperors by describing the arbitrary and cruel nature of their rule. On the other, his descriptions of attempts made to restore the Republic make it equally important to describe the need for Imperial authority against instability (including that of the Emperors themselves, especially Claudius). One of the more awkward aspects of The Twelve Caesars is the role assigned to augury. Although many of the defeats and downfalls chronicled throughout are foreshadowed by various omens, there is something often rather mechanical about such things with either generals or priests offering the most convenient interpretations of decidedly ambiguous events. Equally, Tacitus seemed to view such things as barbarian superstition in the Germania, while Plutarch noted how strange it was that Marius succeeded by heeding prophecies while Octavious was destroyed through them. It all rather reminds me of a story in Frazer’s The Golden Bough, where a woman buries her son to his neck in the sand and sits nearby, wailing and lamenting in the hope that their particularly gullible rain god would take pity and cry (rain).

An interesting comparison is offered by Sei Shonagaon’s account of her life at the Imperial Court of Heian Japan, where the sense of the noumenal is very strong throughout (and as manifest as her descriptions of the phenomenal world of her nature descriptions), with Shonagon often shunning rooms and paths proclaimed to be plagued by demons and spirits and fearing the return of ghosts at festivals. Her descriptions show a court that was heavily dominated by a ritual and etiquette that barely manages to conceal her own playfulness. However, as with Pliny, there is the sense of something repressed; given her distaste of the menial and common, to the point where it breaches etiquette even to mention such things, it’s difficult not to wonder about what took place outside of the rather mannered court.