Friday 18 January 2019

On Spark and Comprehensibility

Do you read for pleasure? I do, and I know it is wrong. I know I should read to be challenged and discomforted. But I want consolation. I'm nervous of very short novels, and almost never read short stories. Having to work out what's going on and who everyone is! The stress and anxiety of it!

Some writers make almost no effort to put the reader at their ease. Muriel Spark is one of these, especially in her later work. I read Aiding and Abetting (2000) recently, and it was an alienating experience. Two men, each purporting to be Lord Lucan, consult a psychoanalyst in Paris. The analyst has her own preposterous secret: she is wanted for fraud after pretending to be a stigmatic and harvesting money from the gullible. Then we're in Scotland with two fresh characters who are in pursuit of one of the Lucans. Then Spark starts to tell the story as though one (or possibly both) of the Lucans were the real thing. The novel ends in Africa and involves cannibalism.

Aiding and Abetting flies by, and at times it's a romp. But it's a difficult read. I don't like to feel I'm only just keeping my head above water. I want to be taken just a little by the hand, and I want things to make sense. And it makes me rather uncomfortable when I get the feeling that the author, who will always know more than I, is quietly having a diabolical little laugh at my expense.

Sunday 13 January 2019

Running out of Plot

The Times, reviewing Trollope's John Caldigate at the time of its publication, reckoned it 'a good novel expanded into a dull one'.

Trollope was usually writing for serial publication, and he was here. The chapters, accordingly, are regular in length, and a particular quantity was required.

I don't know what Trollope's planning looked like, but I suspect it wasn't quite at the level of the chapter. He knew where he was going but there was a danger he might get there too quickly.

Perhaps the last sixth of John Caldigate is markedly drawn-out. And yet I loved it. I never like saying farewell to characters. I like a long goodbye. I like discovering new things about them, perhaps unrelated to what has been their main function. I even don't mind meeting new characters so late in the day, though that's usually a novelist's no-no. So we find ourselves in London, with the Home Secretary, or lounging among legal eagles in gentlemen's clubs. Or we learn about the love life of a Post Office clerk. Or we witness a heartening reunion in all its affecting detail. I was charmed. The main business was all but at an end, or the outcome assured; the tension was released. I could simply enjoy the company of an urbane and sensible author and his personages. I had the time, and I didn't find it dull.

Saturday 12 January 2019

Less than Explanatory

Having spent many years mentally time-travelling to Victorian England, I might feel I know it fairly well, its modes and mores, its customs and practices. But I think of the warning at the start of Michael Faber's novel The Crimson Petal and the White, as he guides his modern reader into the nineteenth-century past: 'You may imagine, from other stories you've read, that you know it well ... The truth is that you're an alien from another time and place altogether.'

Do we need guides? On my e-reader I've a number of cheap 'complete works', which do without explanatory notes. I've read Dickens, James, Trollope in these editions, and seldom been flummoxed.

I've tried the same with Scott, and quickly come a cropper. It isn't just the dialect words; it's the legal stuff. And it was a legal point that caused me minor grief while reading Trollope's John Caldigate.

The major part of the novel takes place in the later 1870s. This isn't stated explicitly but is implicitly clear from dates earlier in the text. The last section of the novel concerns a trial for bigamy, and a questionable verdict. 'There ought to be some Court of Appeal for such cases,' opines the put-upon Home Secretary.

This set me wondering. When was the Court of Appeal established? I was reading John Caldigate in the World's Classics edition, which has explanatory notes. Surely this would be a worthy topic for a scholarly comment?

But no. Mine is one of those editions in which every biblical reference is carefully detailed, along with other banal or fairly well-known information such as Newmarket being a horse-focused town. But there's nothing that a general or even an academic reader might genuinely want to know. And vast chunks of the novel go unannotated, followed by little flurries of activity. That always gets me suspicious and irritated.

So I've had to do my own research. The Court of Appeal was apparently established in 1875. So why isn't it a recourse for the characters in John Caldigate? Is this a rare Trollope slip? I'd love to know. But I've paid my money, bought the World's Classics edition. Surely it isn't for me to do the donkey work?

Thursday 10 January 2019

On Trollope and Predictability

Trollope for decent feelings, said Anita Brookner when asked whom she read and why. (And Dickens for indignation and James for scruple.) Anthony Trollope is often cited as a source of comfortable predictability, a salve for the troubled. He is certainly comfortable, even at times cosy. But predictable?

John Caldigate is a little-known standalone Trollope from near the end of the author's career. Like other Trollopes from this period, such as Is He Popenjoy?, it constantly veers off in surprising directions, taking the reader into unknown corners of the Victorian world.

But Trollope was always unpredictable. His usual starting point, unlike Dickens or Wilkie Collins, wasn't a mystery, but a moral puzzle. A character has one of several choices to make. What will he or she decide? And when? And what will happen next? The variables multiply. The fascinated reader imagines an ever-branching tree of possibilities.

John Caldigate seems at first a story about the conflict between a father and son. So - the novel will end with a reconciliation? No, that happens early on. Then it's a story about the hero's love for a young woman brought up in a puritan household. We envisage an eventual union. But no again - the girl yields easily, and there's an early marriage. Then we're on board a ship to Australia and there's some repartee under the stars with a progressive, proto-feminist widow. Before long we're in the pioneer goldmines of New South Wales. And sooner than we supposed, we're back in England for a bigamy plot and a trial, which comes earlier in the novel than expected and has an unexpected outcome...

John Caldigate is perhaps the closest Trollope came to writing a 'sensation' novel. But Trollope's surprises are justified and rooted in character. There is an early cavil: the plot depends on whether Caldigate was married in Australia to the woman claiming to be his first wife. Trollope gives us access to Caldigate's rough life in the colony, but stops short of information that the later bigamy trial will depend on. This feels like a breach of faith. But slowly yet surely Trollope smooths it over, giving us over time an impression of what went on, if not every detail. There is really no mystery in the past. The only mystery is in what is to come, as the novel, like real life, puts one surprising foot in front of another.

Saturday 5 January 2019

The Element of Time

Why don't women paint? November 1979 in the TLS (and reprinted as an archive item in this week's issue) sees Anita Brookner taking on Germaine Greer. Greer had written a book about the women painters lost to history; Dr Brookner, then known only as an art historian, was reviewing it.
Dr Greer did not win me to her cause because there are even more numerous male painters of obscurity and mischance awaiting the art historian's attention, and obscurity, in any case, is sometimes temporary but more often deserved.
Dr Brookner goes on to suggest her own answers to the 'durable enigma of why women write but do not on the whole paint'. These include, unsurprisingly, education and economics. More contentious, perhaps, is the following:
There is the question of stamina: painting is a hefty profession, wafted about with fairly sickening smells, and these do not combine easily with other pursuits.
More intriguing is Brookner's concluding comparison between writing and painting, not least in light of the great literary project she herself was, in 1979, about to begin:
There is the fact that behaviour, observed, described, enacted, is, I think, of greater interest to women than the comparatively abstract reification of it in paint. I would even say that the element of time, which is obviated in painting, is of more pressing significance to a woman than to a man.

Tuesday 1 January 2019

Two Operas

How to make it new? I saw two operas in Frankfurt last week, and each sought to reinterpret or repackage canonical works. You almost never get a 'straight' reading nowadays, and certainly you don't in Frankfurt, a quietly radical venue.

Bellini's Il Puritani tells a story set in England in the 1650s. It's a tuneful if gloomy work. There's a suggestion that Sir Walter Scott was an influence, though there's no exact original in his work.

The Frankfurt production, played and sung well, is ruined by creative decisions outside the singers' and musicians' control. The costumes, for one thing: they're a bizarre mix of seventeenth- and nineteenth-century styles, and there's no differentiation between Cavaliers and Roundheads. Sometimes the puritans are in black, at other times in bright silks. It's very confusing.

The biggest disaster is with the visual effects. Why do we need visual effects? At the start of the show a gauze net screen descends over the entire front of the stage. The gauze is transparent, but not completely. On to the screen are projected arty images: fluttering butterflies, falling petals, scudding clouds. More, the screen seems to muffle or deflect some of the sound from the voices. So you can't see properly, and you can't quite hear. But the butterflies were very pretty.

Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel is a seasonal children's favourite - though here suitable for children only of ten years old and over, as the publicity states, and so, I suppose, we have been warned. We open not in the familiar fairytale cottage but in the ward of a rundown children's hospital or asylum. Hänsel and Gretel's 'parents' are a brutal and drunken doctor and nurse. The forest, later, is textual: made of text. And the witch's house - not a trace of gingerbread in sight - is an horrific psychopath's murder lair, with blood-spattered walls and a chest-freezer full of dead children. When the 'witch', a baritone, abandons 'her' female drag and appears in male clothes it's truly disturbing. Children were being ushered in tears from the auditorium. The production ends uncertainly, with Hänsel and Gretel grown up and the father and mother doctor/nurse figures from Act 1 younger than before - why, I'm not quite sure. It's a troubling but rather brilliant production.