First Cousin Once Removed of the Great American Novel

The ‘Great American Novel’ is a redolent term that reviewers tend to use towards a certain kind of book: a thick doorstep of social realism, wide in scope, ambitious in theme and literary in style. We’re talking Jonathan Frantzen, Philip Roth, John Steinbeck, Don DeLillo. The essential quality of the novel is that it must capture the spirit of the age, and say something significant about the experience of being American in the contemporary world and the present moment.

Funny, then, that I should find myself thinking about the possibility that the great American novel has an unusual cousin, a long-lost relative from the backwaters who has a quirky, some might even say, eccentric take on American life that might be every bit as truthful and potent as those fat mainstream novels. The ones I’ve read have all been written by women, they concern themselves with the fraught dynamics of family life and they contain a heady dash of magic realism.

For a nation that disapproves of the passive voice, magic realism with its essential unaccountability, its bright-eyed embrace of the fantastic, is always going to be a hard sell. You won’t find the challenging extremes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez here, or the brash playfulness of Angela Carter. But when it appears, it often salutes rural wisdom, the inherited knowledge of generations, or a simple but vivid case of altered perception. I’m thinking of Alice Hoffman, basically, and the candy-sweet voice of Sarah Addison Allen, and further back in that lineage, closer to its mainline and altogether darker, Toni Morrison.

The Moon SistersTherese Walsh’s new novel, The Moon Sisters, lies somewhere on the spectrum between Alice Hoffman and Sarah Addison Allen. It’s a simply told tale of two warring sisters, who must find a way to come to terms with the recent loss of their mother, despite their differences. Jazz, the elder, is rational, distrustful of sentiment and pragmatic. Her response to the sudden loss of their mother under disturbing circumstances is to get herself a job at the funeral home. Olivia, by contrast, is the flighty, dreamy one, homeschooled, imaginative and synaesthetic. Her response is to stare at the sun for so long that she just about blinds herself. And then, in this debilitated condition, she decides that the only way to assuage her grief is to make the long trip to the Monongahela glades and see the will-o’the-wisp phenomenon her mother longed to witness. A failed writer, their mother could never manage to finish her novel until she’d seen these fairy lights, something that was always unlikely to happen, given her depressive state. When she is found dead in the family kitchen, Olivia believes it was just an accident with the gas stove; Jazz has no doubts it was suicide.

An so off Olivia goes, infuriating Jazz, who finds herself once again obliged to protect her ditzy younger sister and embark on a trip she has no desire for herself. In no time at all the sisters run into trouble and fall in with a group of train-hoppers, whose motives for helping them are distinctly unclear. Told in alternating chapters, the narrative whistles along smoothly, the trick of inhabiting each sister’s viewpoint brings the urgency of their desires into relief alongside the vexatious nature of each sister’s response to the other. Olivia can’t bear Jazz’s anger and contempt, her insistence on attempting to lay down the law which makes her react subversively against it. And you cannot help but feel for Jazz who does not understand her sister’s emotions at all and sees only reckless self-harming behaviour. It’s a very good, convincing portrait of the love/hate that binds siblings together, pushed to an extreme because of a family crisis that no one knows how to deal with. A variation on the buddy road trip narrative, they will eventually be forced to come to terms with their differences and understand that what binds them together is stronger than the characteristics that pull them apart.

And what of the spirit of the age embodied in such a narrative? For me it was tied up in a throwaway remark that Oliva remembers her mother saying, when Jazz has spoiled her belief in Santa Claus: ‘my mother pulled me onto her lap and reminded me of one of her life truths: It was okay to believe in things that others didn’t believe in. It was okay not to believe, too.’ When the parameters are set so wide, what couldn’t fit in there? A few will-o’the-wisps are nothing. Olivia’s synasthesia is hardly radical. Yet in the very battle between straight-minded Jazz and hippy-dippy Olivia there’s a nation’s struggle at work between logic and liberality. Between the puritan pursuit of hard work and the desire for self-fulfillment and freedom of expression in whatever form it may take. That’s why this kind of fiction intrigues me: beneath its easy-read surface lies a complicated tangle of ideology. No wonder a little magic is needed to make it all come right.

The World of Angela Thirkell

angela thirkellIt’s curious the way that some of the most amusing and comforting writers develop their voice out of personal tragedy. Any reader might be forgiven for thinking that Angela Thirkell led the same sort of easy, untroubled life of the gentry – with visits from the vicar, summer fêtes up at the village’s manor house and children mostly packed off to boarding schools – that the protagonists of her novels enjoy. Her early connections were unusually good: one of her grandfathers was Edward Burne-Jones and she could count among her cousins Rudyard Kipling and Stanley Baldwin. But by the time she began to write, she was no stranger to hard circumstances. Her first marriage was to a singer, James Campbell McInnes, who turned out to be a violent drunk. She had two sons with him, and a daughter who did not survive, before divorcing him in 1917 in a blaze of undesirable publicity. She married again, this time an Australian engineer and army officer, the splendidly named George Lancelot Allnut Thirkell. They went to live in Melbourne, where she had a third son, but the lower middle class life style she had to adopt was not at all congenial to Angela. Claiming it was nothing more than a holiday, she packed up the sons that would come with her and sailed again for England, never to return. And never to marry again: ‘It is very peaceful with no husbands,’ she was quoted as declaring.

Forced to generate some income of her own, she turned to writing, and published her first novel at the age of 43. She soon found she could publish a novel a year and had almost forty to her name before she died.

Last summer I read Wild Strawberries, and just this morning I finished High Rising, the first two reissues by Virago. They belong in the same stable as Dodie Smith, and E. F. Benson, as the gentlest form of social satire. She has been compared to Barbara Pym, but Pym had a great deal more to say, of a sharply insightful nature, about loneliness. Angela Thirkell is just there to guide her characters through the mildest storms in village tea cups, before the inevitable and charming happy ending, easily effected when marriage proposals fall so readily from the lips of her male protagonists. In High Rising, single mother and author of ‘good bad books’, Laura Morland (Thirkell in semi-disguise) is drawn into a web of complications surrounding the new secretary of her dear friend, George Knox. The secretary, Una Grey, is a scheming sort with an unbalanced temper and a tendency to send poison pen notes, who is longing to marry some unsuspecting meal ticket. Laura and her saintly friend, Anne Todd, step in to prevent George from a typical Thirkellian fate of marrying in a deep state of inattention – a sort of unconscious coupling that must set up a precedent for Gwyneth Paltrow’s latest conscious uncoupling, perhaps.

None of this plot particularly matters. Angela Thirkell sets out to amuse, with Laura’s state of mind legible in the state of her hair – one particularly taxing morning leaves her looking ‘like Medusa on a heavy washing-day’ and her relationship to her small son Tony, a mix of adoration and irritation, offering wonderful scenes at his boarding school, notably a boxing match where ‘shrimp-like figures’ approach each other with ‘downward clawing motions’ from arms that looked ‘about as strong as boiled macaroni’ before the gong sounds and they ‘fled back to their corners, where they tasted real glory, lolling majestically, arms outspread on the ropes and feet dangling well off the ground.’ In fact, the less that happens, the better Angela Thirkell is at describing it. The essence of her world is a kind of Edwardian nursery, where silliness occurs because of short tempers and wounded pride, but there is always someone sensible on hand to restore order. As in the case of George Knox’s lonely approach to his house ‘which occasionally caused one of Mr Knok’s maids to have hysterics and give notice. But being local girls, their mothers usually made them take it back.’

high rising

Servants are intriguing in Thirkell’s novels. While their masters and betters restrain themselves at all times to the most tepid expression of emotions, the mildest of manners and the most distantly tender of relations (or as Hermione Lee phrases it: ‘these light, witty, easygoing books turn out to be horrifying studies in English repression’) the servants are there to tell it like it really is, with strong language, violent emotions and cherished paranoia. They may argue and shout, act compulsively and capriciously, but their emotional stamina lasts well beyond that of their employers. The most disturbing parts of Thirkell’s books are the out-of-date attitudes towards foreigners and the lower-classes, but if her main protagonists patronise their servants, it’s nothing in comparison to the contemptuous patronage they are forced to suffer in return.

It’s a particular and distinct world that Angela Thirkell writes about, one in which small boys want nothing more than to accompany their elders on a hunt, one where kindly doctors don’t charge fees to their favourite patients, where people are generally good and kind and helpful to one another and things work out just fine, thanks to the benevolent intervention of fate. And for the most part, Thirkell’s humour is exceptionally tender, born of loving amusement. It’s a strange, lost world, but a gentle one.

We have to feel for her, then, that one of her sons, Colin McInnes, was a bohemian bisexual who grew up to write books about everything his mother could not bear: ‘urban squalor, racial issues, bisexuality, drugs, anarchy and decadence. He found her novels ‘totally revolting’, a ‘sterile, life-denying vision of our land’.* Unsurprisingly the two of them hated one another, and she cut him out of her will (though she never said anything unpleasant about his books). When we read a Thirkell novel, we get to blindside the uncomfortable, challenging elements of life – that’s the entire point of reading them, to take time out of reality. You do wonder what it must have been like for Thirkell to live there in her imagination all the time.

* Hermione Lee wrote a very entertaining and perceptive essay entitled ‘Good Show: The Life and Works of Angela Thirkell’, which appears in her book Body Parts: Essays on Life Writing. The quote comes from this essay.

 

The Riddle of the Labyrinth

RiddleOfThe LabyrinthMuch as I love words and enjoy arranging them in pretty patterns, I am completely hopeless when it comes to crossword puzzles and anagrams. I just don’t have the kind of mind that can crack a code. So I wondered how I’d get on with The Riddle of the Labyrinth by Margalit Fox, the story of an academic relay race to solve the mystery posed by Linear B, the oldest discovered language on earth. Learning it had made the New York Times Notable Books list spurred me to pick it up (I am so shallow), and I was so glad I did. It’s a fascinating account of three eccentric and gifted individuals who shared a violent obsession and who, between them, proved that the impossible just takes a little longer.

The story begins in 1900 when the Victorian archaeologist, Arthur Evans, broke ground at Knossos in the wild northern reaches of Crete. He came looking for a bronze age settlement, unpersuaded by current thinking that the magnificent race of the Ancient Greeks had sprung into being as fully formed as one of their own Gods. And he was amazingly lucky. Before the week was out, his workmen had hit upon huge building blocks of gypsum, the walls of a vast prehistoric building that predated the earliest recorded Greek settlement by a thousand years. Evans believed he had found the palace of Minos, famous for its labyrinth and the Minotaur that lurked in its depths. The building had contained hundreds of rooms, linked by a complex mass of passages; surely the literal foundation on which the legend would grow.

What was certain was that the excavation had hit the administrative centre of a sophisticated civilization. The fire that had destroyed it had served to bake hard and preserve its records, over two thousand clay tablets inscribed in an unknown language. The find was of immense proportions, the kind of discovery that would see an archaeologist through to the end of his life. Arthur Evans then did what any ambitious academic would do – he sat on his laurels, not allowing anyone else to view his finds, determined to crack the language as the prime achievement of his career. But he was a busy man, and an unknown language in an unknown script offers a fairly daunting obstacle. He published a little, revealing pictures of two hundred or so of the tablets, and made very little progress in decipherment before his death at the ripe old age of 90.

Now I would have absolutely no idea where you would begin with such a task, but it turns out that languages come in a limited range of sizes and varieties. Essentially they are either logographic (little pictures), syllabic (symbols for each different syllable) or alphabet based, as English is. You can tell quite quickly which you are dealing with because of the number of symbols encountered. If every word requires its own picture, then you end up with thousands of symbols. When it comes to syllables, you’ll need 80 or so, and an alphabet is the most economic with symbols, our own a mere 26. Linear B as the language was called, was syllabic, with a few hieroglyphs thrown in for good measure. These were pretty helpful in recognising basic words like man and woman, horse, goblet, cauldron, your average Bronze Age necessities. Arthur Evans also figured out that a mark like a straight comma was used to separate words, and that the script read from left to right.

The meagre publications Arthur Evans made unleashed a coterie of impassioned linguists and classicists onto the problem. But this was the middle of the twentieth century, telecommunications networks were in their infancy and two world wars had left nations poor in resources. Scholars were forced to work in isolation. This was one of the reasons why the middlewoman in the chain of decipherment, the woman who did all the hard graft, has received no recognition for it before Margalit Fox’s book, being somewhat lost to history. Alice Kobel, a hardworking classics teacher in Brooklyn, painstakingly wrote out every word from the 200 or so tablets in the public domain on the few scraps of paper she could get her hands on – the backs of greeting cards, hymn sheets, checkout receipts (wartime rationing left everyone in this era short on paper), then she filed them in boxes made out of the cardboard from cigarette cartons. She noted all the patterns she could find and punched holes in her index cards appropriately, so that when lined up, matches could be found. It was, in essence, an early database. Kober’s approach was rigorous and scientific – no fun guessing at what the language could be. She would work purely with its form alone, teasing grammatical rules out of it, and eventually plotting syllables on a grid, rather like an enormous sudoko puzzle.

It was this painstaking work that left the way open for a British architect, Michael Ventris, who was something of a linguistic genius on the side, to eventually crack the code. Kober and Ventris were both doomed individuals, people who did amazing things and who seemed to have to pay a price for that. Polite and helpful Alice Kober, out of a pure love for scholarship and an absence of competitive spirit, ended up appallingly abused by the male scholars she admired (that bit made my blood boil), and the reader is reminded, once again, that even those who should know better mistake fervent belief for knowledge. This was a surprisingly compelling book, though I shouldn’t have been surprised, given that when humans overreach themselves the results are always hypnotic. And it’s fairly mindblowing to consider a literate civilization in existence some three thousand years ago. If you know a fan of cryptic crosswords, thrust this one into their hands, and for even the most anagramatically-challenged (like myself) it’s a wonderful story.

Critical Theory; A Life

Early in October 1988, I rocked up to the inaugural lecture of the modern critical theory paper, a module I’d signed up for because it sounded new and exciting. Cambridge agreed. The lecture hall was packed out, with most of the English faculty crowded into the front rows and, quite shockingly, my own lecturers and supervisors hogging all the seats at the back. I had never seen the grown-ups, as it were, attending undergrad lectures before. The handful of modern linguists who were actually going to sit the paper, myself amongst them, were submerged by a sea of interested parties. Cambridge had toyed with theory for a while, famously inviting the French Daddy of deconstruction, Jacques Derrida to give a guest lecture, in which he infamously spent the hour discussing the white space between the title of a work and its first lines. But this was the first time that the university had decided to create a syllabus, teach the theory and examine it. For a place that in its Tudor infancy spent a couple of hundred years dedicated to the works of Aristotle before moving onto anything else, this represented swift progress.

It was the Modern Languages faculty that sponsored the paper because theory, as we were about to learn it, had exploded out of the Left Bank of Paris at the end of the 50s. In 1958 the literary journal Tel Quel was founded, and over the next 24 years it attracted a swarm of cultural and literary theorists. Postmodernism, post-structuralism, psychoanalytic theory, feminism, postcolonial theory, reader response theory, these were the ideas setting the intellectual world alight.

At almost the same time in Cambridge (1959 in fact), the biggest ever fight between the sciences and the arts was taking place. In the red corner was C. P. Snow, who criticized the ‘snobbish’ culture of intellectuals for holding back the progress of science and technology, which he believed were about to change the world. In the blue corner was literary critic F. R. Leavis, who laced up his gloves and declared that literature was the place where everyone got to discuss what was actually happening in the world, unlike the sciences which belonged exclusively to those with advanced degrees. Everyone could read and have an opinion on the new books by Graham Greene and Kingsley Amis, but only a handful of people could understand the latest developments in quantum electrodynamics.

There was no clear winner to the debate, but over the next 25 years science and technology gained the upper hand in the cultural imagination. Scientists were increasingly seen as the saviors and pioneers of Western society, literature a leisure pursuit for a minority. Hardly surprising, then, that theory, the closest literature would come to a science of its own, should look so enticing as a way of perking up any flagging interest in the arts.

But theory was exciting, too. I loved the ideas in it, and how audacious and challenging they were. I enjoyed the process by which those ideas went from being ludicrous at first glance to naggingly plausible. Psychoanalytic and feminist theory were the areas that interested me the most. I was intrigued by the challenge the feminists faced to represent a group of people who wanted above all else to be seen as individuals. After centuries of an imposed identity as sweet, nurturing, charming, useless creatures, women longed to be different, but not instantly shoved into another set of adjectives: strong, competitive, dynamic, resilient, whatever. It’s an issue that, as far as I can see, has never yet been resolved. Women still get trapped into a ‘story’ by their cultures and forbidden from diverging from, or subverting, the party line. In my psychoanalytic studies, I was fascinated by the notion that a book, emerging from the mind of a writer, had the same characteristics as that mind: there was an evident surface meaning to it, but also an unconscious one, hidden in the shadows and ambiguities of the writing. Just that idea alone put paid to the belief that authorial intentions were the most important way to view a story. The author had as much chance of seeing his intentions come to fruition in narrative as he did making them come good in real life.

There were so many ideas thrown at me in that course, and I found it fun to play with them. I learned that theory was at its best when being applied to a book. Theory and practice struck sparks, and I grew adept at hunting down the places where they contradicted one another, or created a strange paradox. This was the point of theory for me – if it fit perfectly over literature and life, then we would be robots and our stories nothing more than a vast instruction manual. It was the very places where theory and practice buckled and fought one another that showed up what it was to be human, and how slippery and strange and surprising art could be.

My career at the university lasted as long as the modern critical theory paper did. It was retired a year or so before I stopped teaching, though it continues to this day to be part of the graduate syllabus. A couple of years after that, I noticed the tide turning and a surprising amount of hostility being directed against theory, as if it were in some way responsible for spoiling the field of literary criticism. The anger seemed to arise from the way some theory texts were written, essentially those heavily influenced by the discourse of philosophy. This was a bit unfair, given just how much theory there was available, and how much of it – including all my chosen areas of psychoanalysis, feminism and reader response theory – was perfectly accessible. Books by the likes of Jacques Derrida and Julia Kristeva suffered from being read in translation; I always found them much better in French. And then I think in the States, theory was taught in a vacuum, outside its historical context and away from its natural interaction with literature, which can’t have helped.

But it was hard to get away from the feeling that people were upset with theory because it made them feel stupid. Which says more about the stranglehold of insecurity than it does about theory (and more about the stranglehold of the grade over the notion of an education). I mean, I loathed algebra, which certainly made me feel stupid, but I didn’t believe it wasn’t useful to someone, somewhere. Without those decades of academics working on literary theory, we wouldn’t have the canon of women’s writing we do now, nor literature written by oppressed people of colour, both championed by intellectuals, studied in universities and finally merged with the mainstream. Political correctness wouldn’t exist, and our understanding of history would be infinitely poorer. Hundreds of novels and films and buildings and pieces of music and adverts wouldn’t have been inspired or influenced by theory.

But I wonder whether the ultimate reason for the anger against theory lay back in that debate between Snow and Leavis. Leavis had argued that literature was for everyone in a way science was not. Literature has the power to bring us together to discuss what is happening in society, and maybe we are wired up to want that. We don’t seem to mind the inaccessibility of science, but we do mind if stories get talked about in ways that seem exclusive. If that’s the case, then it’s up to the general reader to keep the discussion going.