Henry Miller, ‘Tropic of Cancer’


Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer

Any article on the internet listing the most influential novels of the 20th century is sure to include Henry Miller’s 1934 work Tropic of Cancer. At the centre of a high-profile obscenity trial, the book challenged the literary status quo and revolutionised the canon, toppling regulations surrounding literature deemed ‘acceptable’ to print. In this way, Miller helped expand the breadth of authorial voice, allowing authors to write about, amongst other subjects, the sexual realm, with a newfound confidence and transparency. 

I found the opening few pages of the text to be engaging but quite overwhelming. The narrator (who we later found out is Miller himself) flitters from one thought to another: the essence of the book he is writing, his love interest, Tania, the Villa Borghese and animal genitalia are each considered within a few pages. In the first paragraph, the reader is introduced to the kind of ‘honest’ carnality that features throughout. Miller writes candidly about happenings with his roommate: ‘Last night Boris discovered that he was lousy. I had to shave his armpits … . We might never have known each so intimately.. had it not been for the lice’. Unfiltered and unashamed. But the opening section is integral in other ways. The essential philosophy of the text is expressed in another frank admission: ‘I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive’. Celebrated here is the now clichéd motto of ‘living in the moment’. ‘Hope’ is imagined as a destabilising instinct that rejects the present in favour of an unforeseen, incalculable future. Rather than being fettered by expectation, one should ‘seize the day’. The quote also captures the anti-materialist spirit that runs throughout the book. For Miller, the trappings of bourgeoise life are heavy and repressive; he experiences the most profound sense of freedom when he is destitute. 

“Do anything, but let it produce joy. Do anything, but let it yield ecstasy”.

As aforementioned, the style of writing is raw and the subject matter is often brazen. Miller roams through seedy Parisian side-streets, meeting drunkards, prostitutes and down-and-outs, but also spends time with wealthy and morally reprehensible expats. He records his encounters in a visceral and graphic manner that echoes Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. Nonetheless, there is also a clear poeticism to the prose – a graceful and imaginative quality that is almost incongruous with the carnal themes. Take these two sentences, for example:

‘In the blue of an electric dawn the peanut shells look wan and crumpled; along the beach at Montparnasse the water lilies bend and break. When the tide is on the ebb and only a few syphilitic mermaids are left stranded in the muck, the Dôme looks like a shooting gallery that’s been struck by a cyclone’. 

A notable structural feature is the abrupt – and often confusing – diatribes that crop up during the text. These enraged, philosophical passages on the human condition break out suddenly during episodes, emphasising the need to find freedom from overbearing power structures. 

Rather than focus on humankind’s goodness, Miller takes base desires and instincts as his loci. In a self-reflexive passage that foreshadows the novel’s publishing difficulties, he writes: ‘If any man ever dared to translate all that is in his heart, to put down what really is his experience, what truly is his truth, I think then the world would go to smash, that it would be blown to smithereens’. Throughout the narrative he depicts his friends and acquaintances in a stark light, exposing their faults and selfish inclinations; Fillmore, for example, leaves his pregnant (and physically abusive) wife Ginette in Paris and escapes to America; Van Norden demonstrates a rampant, destructive sexuality. Rather than impose narratorial judgment, Miller merely paints them for what they are and recedes. There is no moralising or sermonising, but instead an admission that human nature contains an inherently dark streak, an ignobility that George Orwell recognised when he wrote of Miller: ‘“He knows all about me” you feel’. 

The novel is also controversial in that it espouses a patriarchal world-view, one in which women are sexually objectified and frequently referred to as ‘cunts’. Even the female characters afforded greater character development fit a range of derogatory stereotypes: seductress (Tania), abusive wife (Ginette), femme fatale (Yvette). Anti-semitism is similarly rife in the text; Jews are repeatedly insulted and singled out for their unethical behaviour. The representation of the hostile Rabbi, who turns away Miller and his associate when they are destitute, encapsulates this xenophobic spirit. Consequently, a key tension when reading the novel is how to reconcile Miller’s brave attack on social – particularly sexual – mores with his more regressive and troubling views. 


Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Uwe Schütte, ‘Kraftwerk: Future Music From Germany’

I have been a fan of techno since university and have read on a few occasions about the genre’s indebtedness to Kraftwerk – the mysterious and pioneering electronic band from the heart of Germany’s Rhine-Ruhr region. It was, then, curiosity that prompted me to read Uwe Schütte’s fantastic new work, Kraftwerk: Future Music From Germany. … Continue reading Uwe Schütte, ‘Kraftwerk: Future Music From Germany’

Uwe Schütte, ‘Kraftwerk: Future Music From Germany’

I have been a fan of techno since university and have read on a few occasions about the genre’s indebtedness to Kraftwerk – the mysterious and pioneering electronic band from the heart of Germany’s Rhine-Ruhr region. It was, then, curiosity that prompted me to read Uwe Schütte’s fantastic new work, Kraftwerk: Future Music From Germany. In the text he expands on what he calls the ‘Dusseldorf-Detroit axis’, explaining how the industrial noise of Detroit Techno represented a mutation of the post-war, German electronic sound – best exemplified by Kraftwerk. 

Following a loosely chronological order, Schütte structures the study by considering each of the band’s eight major albums in turn, notwithstanding an introductory chapter on Kraftwerk’s influences and the socio-artistic-historical context that informed their output, and a final chapter considering their legacy (it is at this point that attention turns to the pioneers of Detroit Techno). The story begins in the late 60’s with founding members Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider meeting at a summer music school outside of Dusseldorf, and ends with Kraftwerk’s formidable live shows of the 21st century. In the foreword, Schütte states his intention to look at the group ‘as a cultural phenomenon, as an art project translated into a multimedia combination of sound and image’. It follows that the emphasis is on the band’s representation, guiding concepts and musical oeuvre, not the atypical behind-the-scene stories of revelry and drinking. The unqualified reader (me) learns that Kraftwerk carefully curated a private, self-mythologising image that rejected media attention, or, indeed, any form of penetration into the band’s inner-circle. Schütte stresses (repeatedly) Hütter’s and Schneider’s fascination with cycling, but this is about as close as we get to their private lives.

Karl Whitney’s review in the Guardian, in which he writes that the first half of the book is by far the strongest, is spot on. Schütte’s prose is most absorbing and thought-provoking when discussing the artistic movements that influenced the band and how a particular historical context informed their sound. Kraftwerk, he explains, were intrigued by the potentially revolutionary vision of 1920’s avant-garde modernism (futurism, the Bauhaus school, German expressionism) – a (wasted) potential that was curtailed by the rise of fascism. The group looked back to this period as a fertile epoch brimming with ideas to illuminate a brighter future. This ‘retro-futurism’ was a guiding concept throughout the decades. Part of a post-war German generation facing a crisis of identity, Hütter and Schneider sought to create a new image, one that rejected Nazism, West German conservatism and isolationism. Their music was to be both trans-international and yet paradoxically regional, symbolic of Europeanism as well as pride in their roots. Schütte also cites Andy Warhol and Joseph Beuys as key contemporary influences on Kraftwerk, and is engaging and convincing in his analysis. 

A number of key German phrases that crop up throughout the offer further insight into Kraftwerk’s philosophy. Industrielle Volksmusik refers to the band’s style of music: a technological sound stemming from the heart of German industrialism, with a clear nod to the nation’s romantic traditions and folk roots. It is decidedly anti-Anglo-American and popular in its reach. Allagmusik, or ‘everyday music’, captures Kraftwerk’s engagement with the everyday noises of the modern, mechanised world; a great example of this is the song ‘Tour de France’, which features noises made by a rotating bicycle chain. Gesamkuntswerk refers to the notion of ‘a total work of art’ and is associated with Richard Wagner’s attempts to marry music and drama in opera. For Kraftwerk, music is only part of the sum that is their unified artistic project: 3D visuals, album artwork, choreography and a painstakingly constructed group image are other components. In this way, Kraftwerk itself became the concept, or, Gesamkuntswerk. As such, Schütte perceives their main achievement to be: ‘artistic influence extend[ing] beyond the realm of music’.

Schütte comes across as a devoted Kraftwerk fan and writes vividly when considering the structure and emotional resonance of various songs in the band’s oeuvre. Although his use of jargon, at times, can seem quite overwhelming for a musical novice, he has a knack of describing each song in an original and exciting manner, capturing the variations in tone and message throughout Kraftwerk’s body of work. Reading Schütte’s analysis of ‘Tour de France’ I was prompted to place the book down and play the song – his words certainly did it justice. 

This is a great study of Kraftwerk, brimming with genuine insight and moments of laughter. Schütte tackles some potentially difficult concepts in a lucid manner and brings the group’s notoriously shielded identity to light. 

“What the Beatles are to rock music, Kraftwerk is to electronic dance music”

Neil Straus

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Julian Barnes, ‘The Sense of an Ending’

‘“What you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed”’ – that’s the fundamental idea informing Julian Barnes’ Man Booker Prize winning work The Sense of an Ending. In one sense, the whole text is a meditation on memory and its shortcomings. Memories are subjective, they get remoulded and repurposed over time, Barnes contends. 

I spent a lot of time trying to summarise the plot in a short and concise manner, but really struggled – apologies for the elongated synopsis below. The text is divided into two sections (1 & 2) and told from the (unreliable) first-person perspective of Tony Webster. In the first section, Tony recounts his formative years. We are introduced to his friends (Colin, Alex and most importantly, Adrian) and their shared years at secondary school, as well as Veronica, his girlfriend at the University of Bristol, whose family house he visits during a summer break. After breaking up with Veronica, Tony soon finds out that she has become romantically interested with his school friend, Adrian. He sends an angry letter to her and breaks contact. The section ends with Tony returning home from travelling in America after university, where he finds out that Adrian has committed suicide. In the second section Tony, now in old age, is prompted to look back into his past and re-examine his imperfect memories. 

Although I found the pacing of the novel quite slow at times in the second section, the climax was absorbing and tense. The final revelations force the reader to reconsider Tony’s narrative in a whole new light, become a literary detective and piece together the various clues amongst the faded memories. I’m trying to comment without revealing any major spoilers, but a quote from a review by The iIndependent captures the mood well: ‘the concluding scenes grip like a thriller – a whodunnit of memory and morality’. It is to Barnes credit that we initially read Tony as a genuine, average – if not emotional protagonist, with Veronica the unstable and calculating antithesis. But memories are subjective, and once the repressed past surfaces, we draw closer to the causes of Adrian’s suicide and Veronica’s anxieties – Tony has a part to play in both. 

Sexuality is another major theme in the novel. Tony describes his clique of friends as ‘sex-hungry’, and the metaphor of the ‘holding-pen’, from which they are ‘waiting to be released’, denotes their desire for sexual, as well as social, liberation. Throughout the first section, Tony’s disdain towards Veronica is centred around her rejection of sex. Later, it is implied that Sarah’s (Veronica’s mother) sexual transgressions have stunted her daughter’s psychological growth. Issues in the private, sexual sphere repeatedly spill out into the public world and cause great pain, affecting both filial and romantic relationships. 

The Sense of an Ending is dramatically different in tone, style and register to England, England, the only other Barnes novel I’ve read – this attests to authorial scope and imagination. The real achievement of The Sense of an Ending is that it offers no concrete ending. Upon completion, it demands to be re-read and analysed further. This process mimics the text’s plot, in which Tony must confront and scrutinise his murky past from a new perspective, peeling away the layers of artificiality he has constructed in his head. 

Competition and Co-operation in Charles Dickens’ ‘Hard Times’

Today I stumbled across a few of my old essays from university and thought I’d share one. The essay in question felt pertinent in the current climate given its focus on competition and co-operation. It explores the contrasting value systems in Charles Dickens’ great satirical novel, Hard Times

Discuss Competition and Co-operation in Hard Times

Much of the narrative tension in Hard Times revolves around the ‘opposition of two value systems’. The circus, espousing co-operation and empathy, is a site where counter-cultural ideas are expressed and practiced. In contrast, the prevailing ideology is one that permits conflict, promoting self-interest at the expense of others. Mr Bounderby and Bitzer come to embody this hegemonic world-view, and Sissy Jupe the former. Competition is ubiquitous throughout Coketown, and is embedded into institutions like the school; it is the circus-folk’s marginalised existence that shields them from this destructive force. Dickens mistrusted the ‘reductive but compelling account of laissez-faire capitalism’ offered by political economy. His depiction of a hyper-competitive environment, where social relations are warped and ethical development is shackled, speculates on the potential damage to a society built on the mantra of self-interest.

Centred around the fundamental value of Fancy, the circus purports an ethical code in opposition to the prevailing ideology of the novel. Analysing the meaning of Fancy in Hard Times, Sonstroem concludes that one aspect relates to ‘fellow feeling: compassion, sentiment’. The human ‘pyramid’ that the circus men enact highlights these ideals in practice; based on mutual experience and interdependence, the pyramid requires each man to respect and trust his fellow showman. The circus folk’s commitment to forming co-operative relations is apparent throughout, particularly in their treatment of Sissy Jupe following her father’s disappearance. Indeed, Sleary proposes the formation of a surrogate family, promising the girl that ‘Emma Gordon… would be a mother to you, and Joth’phine would be a thither’ (p. 41). In attempting to alleviate the burden on Sissy and replace the familial ties she has lost, Sleary demonstrates an instinctive desire to provide for the girl, altruistic behaviour that is commonplace in the troupe. Further, the narrator implies that it is Mr Childers’ manners and craft that prompt Gradgrind’s compassionate proposal: ‘he had sought to conciliate that gentleman, for the sake of the deserted girl’ (p. 37). Childers, in part, secures Sissy the right to an education, allowing her the opportunity to fulfil her father’s will. 

If the circus is the main site of co-operation in the novel, then Sissy is its agent. Her presence ensures that the doctrine of compassion reverberates around the narrative despite Dickens’ limited engagement with the circus. In the wake of Louisa’s emotional breakdown, Sissy offers her companionship: ‘‘‘I would be something to you, if I might”’ (p. 209). Laid bare is Sissy’s genuine desire to form intimate relations. Although shunned by Louisa following Bounderby’s proposal, she retains no ill-feeling, and her honesty and warmth suffuse through Stone Lodge. Jane’s ‘beaming face’ (p. 204) is attributed to the humanising influence of her adopted sister, and contrasts with the ‘doubtful flashes’ (p. 17) evident in a young Louisa, schooled instead in Gradgrind’s repressive theories on human nature. The major triumph of Sissy – and indeed the values she symbolises – is her confrontation with the James Harthouse, who antithetically epitomises rugged individualism. Spurred by the ‘commission of.. [her].. love’ (p. 215), Sissy pressures Harthouse into leaving Coketown, temporarily renouncing his self-interest in a complete subversion of character. The use of the noun ‘commission’ implies that she cannot but submit to a deep-rooted impulse to protect those around her. Harthouse’s departure is, then, a victory for solicitousness over egocentrism. 

Antithetical to the circus is the school, a space in which co-operation is limited. The Coketown school is under the influence of the caricatured utilitarian dogmatist, Mr Gradgrind, and his Philosophy of Fact. Singled out in front of the class, Sissy is noted to have ‘blushed’ (p. 8, 10, 11) multiple times in the chapter ‘Murdering the Innocents’, a telling indicator of her shame. As the chapter title suggests, the school is a hostile environment in which relations are governed by fear and students are ridiculed into conformity. If, as Humphrey contends, the novel bemoans the lack of  ‘moral virtues.. in personal relations but also the work-place and government’, it looks towards educational institutions also. As later in Hard Times, Sissy represents an incongruous force; quizzed on the basic tenet of political economy, she replies to Mr M’Choakumchild ‘To do unto others as I would that they should do unto me’ (p. 57). Paraphrasing Matthew’s ‘Golden Rule’, Sissy’s answer reads as a satirical riposte to the cold-hearted self-interest at the basis of Gradgrind’s philosophy. Her misplaced allusion to Christian ethics is Dickens’ affirmation of a world-view that promotes mutual respect and and affection. 

Stephen Blackpool’s rescue in ‘The Starlight’ is one example of co-operation that is not spearheaded by Sleary or his company. Inter-class synergy is vital to the effort, as representative members of the middle-class like the ‘surgeon’ (p. 248) unite forces with working-class men counting a ‘pitman’ (p. 250), to achieve a shared goal. There is an organic quality to Dickens’ description of the community: ‘Every one waited with his grasp set, … ready to reverse and wind in’. (p. 250). Uniformity of action turns the individual members of the rescue party into a collective force for good. When Stephen is raised from the Old Hell Shaft ‘A low murmur of pity went round the throng, and the women wept aloud’ (p. 251). The capacity for empathy amongst the community is highlighted, closely mimicking the allusions to crying noted earlier in the novel when Stephen is ostracised for refusing to join the Union. In the absence of Slackbridge’s divisive discourse, the people rally together, a nod to the potential inherent in society for co-operation.

Returning again to Sleary’s troupe, the ending demonstrates their ability to co-operate with wider society – namely the Gradgrinds – despite apparent ideological differences. Their willingness to help those outside of their peripheral existence is not reflected by Coketown’s inhabitants, who largely perceive the circus-folk as ‘useless vagabonds at best, and at worst as evil seducers of the ignorant and unwary’. The narrow-minded, prejudicial attitude is epitomised by Gradgrind, who initially comes to tell Sissy that ‘her connexions made her not an object for the school’ (38). Bigotry is thus an integral part of the hegemonic culture. Sleary, however, challenges this notion by preventing Bitzer from incarcerating Tom and risking Bounderby’s wrath. He tells Sissy ‘The Thquire stood by you, Thethilia, and I’ll thtand by the Thquire’ (266), invoking the spirit of solidarity synonymous with the circus. In allying with Gradgrind, Sleary looks beyond their philosophical differences and rewards empathy with empathy. The closing scene functions as a reverse of the second chapter, with Gradgrind becoming student, not teacher. Here a new philosophy is preached, built around ‘a love in the world, not all Thelf-intheretht after all’ (p. 269); it is a message of inclusivity and acceptance that serves to complete Gradgrind’s metamorphosis. 

Having analysed ‘co-operation’ in some detail, the remainder of this essay considers ‘competition’ in Hard Times. As Hilary Schor asserts, Dickens sought to ‘represent the systems of thought that both produced and sustain[ed]’ the miseries of industrialism. The ideology of laissez-faire capitalism, one such thought, is epitomised by Mr Bounderby, the self-centred and cold-hearted industrialist. Recalling those who exploited him in his mythologized childhood, Bounderby claims ‘‘They were right; they had no business to do anything else’ (p. 21). Exposed is a world-view that naturalises competition and equates ruthless individualism with what is morally sound. Bounderby’s belief that struggle is a fundamental part of society distorts his perception of industrial relations. He identifies a chasm between man and master, policing his workers, whose sole aim is ‘to be fed on turtle-soup and venison, with a gold spoon’ (p. 120). This anxiety centres around a fantasy that Coketown’s employees are seeking to profit at his expense. The implication that the workers are somehow work-shy and hedonistic is grossly misinformed, but the discourse of antagonism at the core of Bounderby’s attitude skewers his view of reality. He is, on a symbolic level, the product of a socio-economic system that validates conflict in the name of individual gain. 

It is also Bounderby who Dickens employs to critique the organic vision of society at the heart of political economy. Hard Times is particularly conscious that ‘industrialising, commercial society featured economic losers as well as winners, have-nots as well as haves’. This reality is apparent in the Stephen-Bounderby dynamic. For, it is Bounderby’s fear of insubordination amongst his workers (‘chaps who have always got a grievance’ (p. 143)) that prompts him to cruelly dismiss Stephen Blackpool, whose subsequent fall into an old mining shaft completes a metaphorical descent into hell. The presence of ‘economic losers’ like Stephen and fundamental power imbalances in the novel problematises the view that free competition might create ‘a rational, mutually beneficial and dynamic way of connecting people’. More broadly, the hardship of the workers is a reminder that in such a system for one to prosper many must suffer. The Hands live in a ‘labyrinth of narrow courts upon courts’ (p. 64) where the macabre motif of the ‘black-ladder’ (p. 67) is a stark reminder that death looms ever present. This claustrophobic, hellish evocation of Coketown contrasts patently with Bounderby’s arcadian country grounds: ‘a rustic landscape, golden with heath’ (p. 157). 

The fractious nature of Coketown is further attributed to a flawed educational system. Bitzer, the austere bourgeois aspirant, is shown to be a product of his schooling. Likened to a vampire, Bitzer’s ‘cold eyes’ and skin ‘so unwholesomely deficient in… natural tinge’ (p. 9) hint at both his future parasitic behaviour, and also his emotional detachment: common traits within an ideological apparatus that ‘consciously institutes division’. During the scene in the school Gradgrind sets up a paradigm of competition that the impressionable Bitzer will follow throughout the novel. In an act of public shaming, Gradgrind shouts “Girl number twenty unable to define a horse!”’ (p. 9), humiliating Sissy for placing imagination above fact. A repeat incident occurs some two chapters laters, whereby Bitzer imitates his pedagogue, asking Sissy ‘‘if she would know how to define a horse to-morrow’ (p. 29). Evidently Bitzer’s propensity to expose those who are vulnerable or unconventional is formed in Coketown’s educational academy; a failure to properly cultivate his youthful ‘imagination leads to egocentrism and a lack of understanding for others’ as the narrative continues. 

Bitzer, then, develops into a competitive and exploitative individual in the mould of Bounderby. He comes to hold the ironically ‘respectable office of general spy and informer’ (p. 109) in the bank, claiming a small bonus at christmas. Espionage is an apt service for the light porter, who is willing to sever relations in the name of material gain. Bitzer believes rational behaviour is that which benefits the self, and is consequently troubled because the Hands do not betray their Union, relinquishing the opportunity to ‘earn a trifle now and then, … and improve their livelihood’ (p. 112). In his view betrayal is a means to an end – and the underlying motive, social elevation, always justifies the means. Burdened by his stunted moral development, Bitzer retains a calculated and removed outlook that is sub-human in nature. Despite the tension in penultimate chapter, he calmly foresees his future prosperity: ‘I have no doubt that Mr Bounderby will then promote me to young Mr Tom’s situation’ (p. 264). The dialogue is bereft of emotion, and Dickens details no hint of hesitation on the part of Bitzer, even though Tom is sure to be imprisoned as a result. He has become robotic in his ways: an example of the danger to one’s humanity posed by Gradgrind’s marrying of utilitarian ethics and political economy. 

If Hard Times can, and should, be read as a critique of rampant individualism and conflict in society, the ending somewhat problematises this interpretation. In ‘Final’ the omniscient narrator relays the future prospects of the characters; Bounderby, who will soon ‘die of a fit in the Coketown street’ (p. 272-73), is clearly punished for his belligerence. Nevertheless, it is Bitzer who escapes repercussions, described as ‘the rising young man… who had won young Tom’s place’ (p. 272). He has ascended from relative poverty into the aspiring middle-class, usurping Tom at the Bank. Immoral behaviour notwithstanding, this ranks as a success for the philosophy of self-interest. Dickens is not however endorsing Bitzer’s actions, instead, his victory functions as a caution that the ‘self-interested, materialist emphasis of political economy.. [could].. dominate and thus diminish humanity’s potential’. The narrator’s final comment: ‘Dear reader! It rests with you and me’ (p. 274) stresses the reader and writer as agents alike in countering the ethical rot that Dickens had delineated in the novel.

Although Hard Times is sceptical about the systems of thought informing conceptions of social relations, there is a sense of optimism in the organic model offered by the circus. Incidents like the removal of Stephen Blackpool from the Old Hell Shaft also signal co-operative and sympathetic behaviour in practice. As aforementioned, this is offset by the desire to compete that is so ingrained into the psyche of many characters, and has disastrous implications for, amongst other things, industrial relations and human potential. A social apparatus founded on a belief in individual self-interest is thus shown to inevitably lead to conflict. Most worrying is the notion that in striving for success one must invariably trample upon others: Bitzer and Bounderby even equate this notion with what is rational, or morally sound. Considering that Hard Times celebrates moments of co-operative behaviour, for additional research it would be apt to consider Dickens’ negative portrayal of the Union, as this has not been considered in this essay.

Julian Barnes, ‘England England’

After fittingly revisiting Albert Camus’ The Plague at the start of quarantine, I next wanted to read an overtly comical novel that was lighter in tone. After some research, I ordered Julian Barnes’ England, England; having never encountered Barnes’ oeuvre before, I was not disappointed. I actually read England, England alongside Mikhail Bulgakov’s seminal work The Master and Margarita, and whilst I enjoyed both, Barnes’ novel resonated more with me. 

England, England loosely follows the life of Martha Cochrane from her adolescence, through to her working life and later years. Martha, a Special Consultant, is employed by the heavily satirised newspaper magnate, Sir Jack Pitman, who dreams up the idea of creating a microcosmic, mini-England on the Isle of Wight for wealthy tourists to enjoy. Martha and her co-worker turned love interest, Paul, eventually blackmail the megalomanic Sir Jack and assume control of the island, only for scandal and betrayal to deprive her of her job. In the third and final section of the novel, Martha returns to a nostalgic ‘Old England’, which has regressed to a pre-industrial state. 

On reading Barnes for the first time, what stood out to me immediately was his range and mastery of language. The prose was rich, evocative, symbolic and, at times, shocking. It could also be visceral and sexual: ‘With Christine he burst into a world of condom-unrolling and menstruation, of being allowed to put his hands anywhere’; ‘she slid a finger into her mouth, and then into the top of her cunt’. His characters engage in witty and calculated conversations (Paul and Martha’s bedtime conversations are a real highlight) and the entire novel is deeply satirical. But whilst it is undoubtedly a ‘funny’ book, there are poignant moments and strands that infiltrate the narrative, particularly when Martha philosophises on her childhood, gender and sexuality. 

The prominent themes relate to national identity and national myths. When Sir Jack asks his Concept Developer, Jeff, to come up with a list of the fifty quintessences of Englishness, he bemoans the ‘character assassination’ of the English that the survey implies: ‘snobbery’, ‘hypocrisy’ and ‘whingeing’ are all traits that potential visitors to the island consider integral to Englishness. Throughout, Barnes deconstructs, subverts and re-interprets powerful ideas about the nation and identity. Attractions and historical figures are simplified and caricatured. Myths are re-imagined so that they are purged of any perceived impurities and made accessible for the doting visitors. Nell Gwynn (mistress of Charles II), for example, is presented in pure and unthreatening terms as a friendly, elderly lady selling juice: ‘her essence, like her juice, had been concentrated’. Yet later in the book the actors playing Robin Hood and his Band of Merry Men adopt their roles so readily that they literally become outcasts, stealing livestock and shooting arrows, ‘rebelling against the Project, against .. [the].. repositioning of the myth’. 

England, England is a complicated and multi-faceted novel that is both unwaveringly critical and farcical. I will definitely be returning to Barnes in the near future. 

Albert Camus, ‘The Stranger’ (L’Etranger)

Travelling back to Manchester on the train last weekend I decided on a short novel that I could finish in one sitting. Eventually, I opted for Albert Camus’ existentialist work The Stranger (‘L’Etranger’), which I had read on holiday a few years ago.

The Stranger follows a number of months in the life of Meursault, an alienated man living and working in the French Algiers. Divided into a two-part structure, the narrative is uncomplicated, and takes impetus from two key events: Meursault’s seemingly unprovoked murder of an Arab man, and the death of his elderly mother. The latter section details Meursault’s lengthy trial for murder and subsequent indictment, ending just prior to his anticipated execution via guillotine.

Narrated entirely through Meursault’s first-person perspective, the style is memorable for its detached, even offhand manner. Despite Meursault’s exposure to atypically troubling experiences, it is hard to locate any presence of unease or discomfit in his narrative. Events are relayed chronologically in a matter-of-fact manner, interspersed with thoughts and feelings (hunger is referenced a number of times). Only when Meursault is affected by physical sensations – particularly heat from the sun – does a more impressionistic form develop. Before shooting the Arab man, for example, he describes how ‘The sky seemed to split apart from end to end to pour its fire down’. This description echoes in some sense the ‘cloudy haze of heat’ purported at Mama’s (Meursault’s mother’s) funeral.

What makes Meursault such an outcast is his rejection of social norms. Unafraid of projecting his true character, he shows no apparent remorse for his crime and is unable to empathise with others. In the workplace he is bereft of ambition, spurning an implied promotion to a role in Paris because ‘none of that sort of thing mattered very much’. At his mother’s funeral he shows no signs of bereavement; and it is, in part, a failure to elicit emotion that condemns him in the eyes of the jury. The mother-son relation is notoriously unaffectionate, and Mersault sulks about the inconvenience of visiting the care home, forgetting his mother’s age when quizzed. Aloof, cold-hearted and unable to conform, Meursault represents a threat to society and the conditioned behaviour it fosters.

Despite the obvious theme of alienation, life is also rich and rewarding in the novel, and Camus takes great pains to describe sensual pleasures. Mersault is enticed by the darkly tanned skin and gratifying touch of his girlfriend Marie; he calls her beautiful, and their relationship includes moments of passion and fun, particularly at the beach. Yet, their bond is hampered by Mersault’s dismissal of marriage as a futile institution. Mersault is also prone to embracing simpler pleasures – the sensation of sun on his body, or in watching the world go by from his apartment balcony. Elsewhere in the novel, the value of companionship is realised through Salamano (Meursault’s neighbour) and his ageing and deformed dog. Salamano mistreats the pet until he disappears; at which point he despairs, realising the significance of their bond.

Throughout, Camus exposes the relativity of truth, and critiques the ways in which the individual is susceptible to popular beliefs, ideals and modes of behaviour.

Favourite quote: ‘Since we’re all going to die, it’s obvious that when and how don’t matter’.

Louis MacNiece, 1930’s Poetry and Jack Lindsay’s ‘not english?’

‘Poetry today should steer a course between pure entertainment (“escape poetry”) and propaganda […] The writer today should not be so much a mouthpiece of his community (for then he will only tell it what it knows already) as its conscience, its critical faculty, its generous instinct’. So wrote the esteemed poet Louis MacNiece at the back-end of the ‘Red Decade’. Although MacNeice believed it fundamental that the poet engage with topical socio-political developments, he was critical of the form being used merely as a vehicle for propaganda. Lindsay’s mass declamations, including ‘not english?’, defied these assertions by espousing marxist discourse, and contributing to the emergence of a popular front.

Jack Lindsay’s poem of 1936, ‘not english?’, debunks myths surrounding national identity, exposing the ‘english’ as an exploited race at the behest of the ruling-classes. With a mixture of lament and condemnation, Lindsay recalls the men who were manipulated into fighting:

‘All you that went forth, lured by great-sounding names

which glittered like bubbles of crystals in your eyes

till they burst and you burst with them’

The names of prominent politicians, and indeed the rhetoric they propagate – jingoistic nationalism – entice the working-class with grand claims and false promises. Eventually, the ‘bubbles of crystals’ dissipate, and the hollow essence of patriotic spirit is realised, breaking the illusion. War in the name of nationhood, brings only death to the ‘english’, whilst society’s governing forces – the merchant, the capitalist – grow ever wealthier. History is merely a collection of rubbish piles, in which the forgotten dead are piled up, a counter-image to the notion of historical progress. Lindsay powerfully evokes the waste of lives experienced in the Great War, grimly noting that ‘Flanders mud flakes off the latest dump’ (23). Despite this injustice, the dominant ideology secures its consent to rule through the superstructure, ‘providing dope’ (35) to the people and alienating them from reality. In particular, popular cultural forms like the ‘pictures’ (34) and ‘national newspapers’ (36), render the working-classes unconscious. England, an idyllic, pastoral environment, has been robbed from the men who give their name to the land. The poem envisages change in the form of collective action, impelling the subjugated to ‘depart from its rulers, to abandon traditional epistemologies (common sense), to reorientate itself through tumult and transition’. Lindsay’s concern with unearthing the dominant ideologies’ corruptive workings indicates he is a poet in the mould MacNeice advocates, an insightful agent of the community. He proposes the re-appropriation of english identity, whereby ‘unity is born from the sweat of mingled toil’ (186), and togetherness, not enslavement, is the underlying feature. In this way, the text’s communist and nationalist impulses are reconciled.

In ‘not english?’, the radical individuals and movements of English history are appropriated, and a historical tradition for the Left to inherit is forged. The middle-section details a lengthy historical procession, in which instances like the 1381 Peasants Revolt and the English Civil War are lauded as evidence of defiance against traditional forms of authority: the church and the monarchy. Common cause is found between breakaway Protestant sects and the rebellious reformists of the industrial era, ‘Anabaptists’ (84) and ‘Muggletonians’ (85) fall in behind the Chartists, who ‘sing songs of defiance on the blackened hills / invoking the storm’ (88-89). Nature submitting to, or even aiding the cause of the oppressed is a recurring motif, adding to impression that revolution is just, or even inevitable. Time vaults to the present, in which the proletariat are heralded as yet another revolutionary body who will fulfil the legacy crafted by their forebears, taking jurisdiction over England. In this way, Lindsay imposes a structure and purpose upon history. Lines from the Communist Manifesto penetrate the verse, disseminating from the radio, as a new insurgency forms. This is the ‘augural moment’ (160), vindicating Marx and the historical struggle. Doctrine echoes across the landscape of England, drawing the men from their beds in a dream-like state; the process of night becoming day is symbolic for the new level of consciousness that is reached. Once again an alternative history is posed, the industrial revolution is perceived as empowering, not undermining the workers, teaching solidarity in ‘mine and factory’ (190) and the ability to harness technology: ‘the turbines’s fury, the craft of dynamos’ (196-197). These resources, coupled with a form of eco-communism in which nature co-operates in the attack against the ruling-class, will ensure that England is returned, the ‘disinherited.. restored’ (204). The noun ‘disiniherited’ looks back to the anti-English forces of the middle section, suggesting they may finally be at peace.

The kind of community envisaged by Lindsay is decidedly male-centric. For a mass declamation designed to rally the working-class, female exclusivity is a prominent theme, part of the troubling gender politics in the work. Every historical figure referenced is male: John Ball, John Wycliffe and William Morris are signed out and commended for their resistance. They epitomise the radical, establishment defying spirit upon which ‘another England’ (189) will be founded. Anonymous peasants are too welcomed to join the parade, promoted to ‘leave the blowsy ale-wife’ (59). This kind of separation forms a darker undercurrent of the grand design; men must abandon women who are somehow morally suspect if they are to forge a new society. Indeed whilst the men march forward, female agency is mocked, and through Charles I – ‘the henpecked king’ (75) – patriarchal anxieties about authoritative female figures are realised. The obscure reference to a frightening homeless ‘woman under a bridge’ (158) reads indaequately. As the radio diffuses the rousing cries of the Communist Manifesto, bringing together the workers, she will be left behind, symbolically trapped by the bridge. Here Lindsay’s verse captures not the ‘generous instinct’ of the working-class community, but its latently patriarchal underbelly. Despite the drive towards unity, isolation evidently remains. Women are even displayed as synonymous with the corruptive essence of capitalism, advertising boards are dominated by ‘pink whore faces beckoning the bankrupt to buy’ (10). The facade of consumerism is likened to a sexually deviant woman. The poem’s conception of gender is archaic, recycling numerous derogatory archetypes associated with women in the literary tradition: femme fatale, ‘mad’ woman and adulteress. During the act of re-creating a decidedly rural England, the earth is compared to a ‘womb’ (201) yearning for the ‘seed’ (202) of men. Impregnating the maternal earth with their toil, these men are the true agents of the new world. Continue reading “Louis MacNiece, 1930’s Poetry and Jack Lindsay’s ‘not english?’”

John Steinbeck, ‘Cannery Row’

Not one of Steinbeck’s most coveted novels, ‘Cannery Row’ is worlds away from the kind of meaningful socio-political criticism invested in, say, ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, or ‘In Dubious Battle’. The novel (or novella) is ultimately comic in tone, using satirical episodes to poke fun at the capitalist, bourgeoise value system: materialism, greed, egotism and consumerism all come under attack.

Set in Monterey, California, the 1945 work follows an eclectic group of down-and-outs – a kind of counter-culture exisiting on the margins of society. There is Dora, owner of a public-house; Doc, the moral compass and shining light of the Row, but most importantly Mack and the boys, a group of self-confessed ‘bums’ who, although poor in respect to wordly goods, are rich in spirit, camaraderie and fellow-feeling.

The style of the prose is nostalgic. Cannery Row, although a beacon of industrial America, is also pre-capitalist, sometimes pastoral space. Steinbeck implictly compares the ideals of the wealthy businessmen who own the factories with the Row’s sub-community. Lengthy descriptions of tide-pools function as metaphors for the modern world; starfish prey on tiny fish and eels sting their prey, each species inherently selfish, competitive and prone to taking advantage of the weak.

One enduring message of the novel is that ‘all men everywhere are and must be inextricably identified with their kind’; no greater evil lurks in Cannery Row than loneliness, such is Steinbeck’s essential faith in companionship. Empowered by the deep bond that constitutes their relations, Mack and the boys channel their respective energies; aligned in goal and outlook, they carefully negotiate the perils of the modern world.

Favourite quote: ‘Crabs rush from frond to frond of the waving algae. Starfish squat over mussels and limpets, attach their million little suckers and then slowly lift with incredible power until the prey is broken from the rock. And then the starfish comes out and envelops its food… And black eels poke their heads out of crevices and wait for prey’. (p. 30)

Virginia Woolf, ‘To the Lighthouse’ Review

After years of neglecting creating a platform to share my views on literature I’ve finally decided to start. This is the first of (hopefully) a number of posts where I will review what I have recently been reading. Having read Orlando and Mrs Dalloway in the last year, I was interested in delving a bit further into Woolf’s oeuvre – To the Lighthouse, perhaps Woolf’s magnum opus, felt like a good start.

To the Lighthouse centres around two summer breaks to the Ramsay’s holiday home on the Isle of Skye. Each visit – one before, one after the Great War – explores the mutating relations, aspirations and emotions of the Ramsay family and their array of middle-class, often eccentric, guests. Sandwiched in between these two chapters is another section that details the gradual deterioration of the summer house in the intra-war period. A fusion of forms, the novel is at once autobiographical – relaying Woolf’s memories of her childhood in St Ives – but also elegiac. There is also an often latent concern with topical issues of the day, particularly the post-war legacy in Britain and Western imperialism.

The novel is not plot-driven: in reality, not much happens in the way of action. As elsewhere in Woolf’s fiction, weight is given to specific moments or memories that somewhat eclipse the wider happenings of the narrative. When reading the novel one of the most impressive feats is Woolf’s ability to capture the arbitrary nature of consciousness in words: thought patterns develop in way that tests the reader’s desire for coherence and rationale, but ultimately reflect the whimsical nature of the human mind. The syntax is often testing as a result: ‘He is petty, selfish, vain; egotistical; he is spoilt; he is a tyrant; he wears Mrs Ramsay to death; but he has what you (she addressed Mr Bankes) have not; a fiery unworldliness; he knows nothing about trifles; he loves dogs and his children’. Although the perspective remains always that of the third-person omniscient narrator, subtle changes in diction and tone give the illusion of an ever changing point of view; the scene at the dinner-table being the best example of this in practice.

Much like Mrs Dalloway, temporality plays an important role in To the Lighthouse. Mr Ramsay is gripped by the anxiety that he will be lost to posterity – that he has never been able to scale to the heights of intellectual acclaim. This sense of missed opportunity is mirrored in the planned trips to the lighthouse that are repeatedly curtailed because of poor weather. For much of the novel, then, the lighthouse symbolises what is unreachable and insurmountable. The distortion of time is also significant, multiple pages are sometimes used to describe what is effectively a number of seconds, whereas, the chapter ‘Time Passes’ takes ten pages to account for ten years: it is the intensity of a moment that has a determining influence on time.

Although visibly a novel about a holiday-break to an island Scotland, the Great War seeps into the narrative. The damp-infested, decaying house mirrors Europe’s spiritual decline in the aftermath of war. Andrew Ramsay, the eldest son, dies fighting in France. His death reflects a generation of loss. Allusions to ‘no-man’s land’ and ‘poppies’, coupled with descriptions of the sea that account for submarines sighted on the harbour, ensure that the language, paraphernalia and emblem associated with war are always present. Again, as in Mrs Dalloway, Woolf is interested in the legacy of conflict.

At the heart of everything is Lily Briscoe. Shunned by Charles Tansley and Mrs Ramsay for painting, she rejects their prejudice and searches to find a unique form of expression. She mimics Woolf in her desire to disturb gender roles, revolutionise artistic styles and resist patriarchal authority. Allied with the elderly Mr Bankes, their relationship is perhaps the purest amongst the contingent of guests and family. Lily’s belief that her painting will likely end up in the attic is poignant – echoing in a sense Mr Ramsay’s agitation about the future. Yet, for Lily art is predominantly a private affair, and she takes refuge in the slow but therapeutic process of painting, often becoming sidetracked and philosophising on what is around her.

Favourite quote: ‘What is the meaning of life? That was all – a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come’.