Category Archives: Literature

Movement in Time: Roy Fisher’s ‘A Furnace’

This is the introduction to an essay I’m writing for an MA application. Skip it if you’d rather read about an incurable romantic and a man who lives in trees.

*

A Furnace, published in 1986, is generally considered to be one of Roy Fisher’s most significant and ambitious works, a late ‘synthesis’ of sorts, the culminating text in what Barry calls a ‘composite-epic of urban material’, which includes other major works such as City. It is a remarkably dense, charged, meaning-laden poem, representative of some of the poet’s central preoccupations – most notably the city in general, and Birmingham in particular – and signals Fisher’s arrival at a complex and distinctive poetics. It is a memorial to a shared past, a personal history, something of an elegy; but is also a transcript of the forces that constitute what we see as the present. Fisher goes further than in any of his previous work to locate his poetry relative to the time and places he has lived in – to articulate how his imagination moves amongst things.
Indeed, A Furnace is fundamentally a poem in motion, in a constant struggle against stasis. The poem begins on a trolleybus, swinging through the industrial Midlands, and it is kept moving through space and time until its final transcendental image and, implicitly, beyond. Movement is a key motif in the poem, and an organising principle, but it cannot be said to signify anything specific or singular. It is a form of meta-language that enacts the various processes by which we, the readers, arrive at meaning through the text. It describes the structural forces that are at work, gathering things up, expelling them, and eventually depositing them in the shape of a poem. However, in exegesis, the presence of any sort of ‘movement’ raises necessary questions of intention and potentiality: exactly what is moving? What is it moving relative to? In which direction, to where, to what purpose? One way to approach these questions is through the Bakhtinian prism of the ‘chronotope’, which expresses the ‘connectedness’ of time (chronos) and space (topos) in all literature, whereby any movement through space amounts to movement through time. We shall see that A Furnace is an attempt to navigate an infinitely complicated personal and social history in which language has both a dissembling and a substantiating effect.

*

I’ve recently read The Baron in the Trees by Calvino, about a young Baron called Cosimo who, after an argument with his parents at the dinnertable, runs off to live in the trees and doesn’t touch ground for the rest of his life. In one episode Cosimo finds a French Lieutenant called Pappillon, who has lost himself and his troops in the forest, in the middle of a glorious tirade, howling at the moon like a Jacobin Psalmist. I’ll leave you, wordless, with his impassioned declamation, something of a manifesto:

“O Moon! round as a muzzle, like a cannon ball whose thrust from gunpowder is exhausted and continues to rotate slowly and silently through the sky! When will you burst on us, O Moon, raising a high cloud of dust and sparks, submerging enemy armies and thrones, and opening a breach of glory for me in the compact wall of my fellow citizens’ distrust of me! O Rouen! O moon! O fate! O convention! O frogs! O girls! O life!”

Advertisements

Disgrace, J. M. Coetzee

Reading Disgrace is like watching coffee being spilt on a white tablecloth in slow motion; imagine your dismay spreading frame-by-frame, the culminating awareness of damage done, the irrevocable stain.

The story follows David Lurie – steady university job, entirely satisfactory sex-life – as he is rolled off the edge of a high cliff. We are told at the very beginning that his temperament is ‘fixed, set’ and watch as it is comprehensively dismantled. His disgrace is as precisely coordinated as it is complete. He is a sort of unsympathetic Job-figure: pestilence happens to him as a matter of authorial principle.

Lurie forces himself upon a female student, ‘not rape, not quite that, but undesired nonetheless’, and is hauled before a university committee. He is guilty, he feels a remote sort of misgiving as might someone who left the door unlocked and went on holiday, but he remains philosophical. He will not repent. He accepts the charges but not the moral baggage:

“Manas, we went through the repentance business yesterday. I told you what I thought. I won’t do it. I appeared before an officially constituted tribunal, before a branch of the law. Before that secular tribunal I pleaded guilty, a secular plea. That plea should suffice. Repentance is neither here nor there. Repentance belongs to another world, to another universe of discourse.”

This passage is at the core of the novel. Lurie is worldly, curt, highly literate and stupendously stubborn. He is an egotist and a misanthrope, as certain of the world’s inexorable decline as he is of his own magnificent flaws. Coetzee, one imagines, rather than caring overly about repentance in and of itself, is principally concerned with multiple ‘universes of discourse’ and what happens when they converge – or in other words, what happens when the real world impinges upon the worlds we invent for ourselves. There are as many ways to approach the novel, then, as there are discourses to find in it, and Coetzee is extremely thorough; be it postcolonial tensions, gender politics, sexual identity, religious identity – they all find themselves manifest in the seething bright dust of South Africa.

But though Disgrace is a wordly novel, it is not, I would say, a realistic novel. It is too organised and contains too many symmetries: too much a novelist’s world. It is a hyper-reality, the outcome of an experiment that was expected to produce measurable effects, an allegory of disgrace – though this is not necessarily a criticism. One of the many plausible interpretations of Disgrace is that it concerns the power of narrative to shape both the internal and external world and as such it is apt that it should be so conscious of itself.

After leaving his university Lurie retreats to his daughter’s rural smallholding. The second disgrace in the novel is inflicted upon his daughter, Lucy, when she is raped by a gang of black youths (note the symmetry). Lurie is confronted once more with the reality of his own disgrace. He feels himself to be disgraced in the fullest sense; de-graced, in the same way the Job felt himself to be betrayed by God, subject to His unconcern. He feels displaced, powerless, as if the carefully constructed tower he has lived in and observed the world from is being dismantled from beneath him (as it is). He fears being unable to effect change in his own life and its eventual, inevitable annulment.

Lucy, speaking to her father in the aftermath, says:

“You behave as if everything I do is part of the story of your life. You are the main character, I am a minor character who doesn’t make an appearance until halfway through. Well, contrary to what you think, people are not divided into major and minor. I am not minor. I have a life of my own, just as important to me as yours is to you, and in my life I am the one who makes the decisions.”

And so two separate universes of discourse converge: David and Lucy, father and daughter, man and woman, rapist and raped. In fact, we might as well add writer and reader to the list, because as we all recognise implicitly, everyone tries to write their own life story and ends up feeling as if they’re reading what someone else has prescribed them. Lurie has tried harder than most – his grand narrative depends upon the principle of self-reliance – and accordingly he advises Lucy not to “humble [herself] before history”. But Shakespeare was wrong: the world is many stages, rings upon rings of them, infinitely stacked in every possible dimension, and all contingent on each other. Lurie cannot see past the stage he has set for himself and this, in the end, is his disgrace.

On reading ‘Cloud Atlas’

And then I woke up on a cloud.

I can tell you, it’s like being suspended by your eyelashes and bathed in troposphere.

It is said that poetry is best read in coffee shops with ostentatiously crossed legs, and atlases under the drawing room table, and that espionage novels should only be opened in the evening rain – I prefer to read in bed. Which is lucky, for having finished Cloud Atlas it was necessary for me to lie down.

My emotions at this time are now curiously hard to place. Certainly, I wondered how on earth I had come to be so far above it. Nevertheless I soon turned to my memories of land, the elbowing hills and full voluminous lakes, and to the peculiar seething of the wind behind the moon.

People seem to have reacted to Cloud Atlas in various different ways. Eithne Farry was pleasantly ‘boggled’, AS Byatt was ‘enticed’ onto a ‘rollercoaster’, Wayne Burrows’ mind was ‘bent’. I fell asleep.

“… a chain of firecrackers exploded in my skull and the whole world came to an abrupt end”.

It’s true that this was probably not the reaction David Mitchell had in mind. I had the most fantastic dream, though – clouds, all the mysteries of the universe revealed to me, say no more – and in some ways it is quite apt, a very succinct appraisal of a mesmeric, exhaustingly pleasurable novel. Pleasurable, because it is demanding but not at all leaden; an airy, unburdened peregrination through nonetheless uncertain territory.

Oh no – entirely painless. I scanned the roof of the sky with all the scope of my two wide eyes until they dropped to the horizon – at which point something was severed from me as if guillotined.

Cloud Atlas is an intricately tessellated sequence of six separate narratives

“an infinite matrioshko doll of painted moments…”

that link to each other in curiously indeterminate ways, enfolding each other. The novel considered as a whole is an extraordinary feat of versatility and eclecticism: a strange meeting of nineteenth century diary, thriller and post-apocalyptic science fiction.

I saw immediately that the great muddy revolving sphere underneath me was moving independently of the clouds in our second sphere, and the comets were chasing their tails above, and that there was no music. My thoughts moved in silent formations, like ants on a plate of glass.

In its own way, Cloud Atlas circles some Big Tiring Issues (eg. Power, Death, Time),  but only irresolutely, with a wary and suitable ambiguity.  If I were to write a proper review, I’d mention the sense I got that Mitchell is aware of how little can be written convincingly about this these things , that accordingly he refuses to complete the circle arbitrarily.  Structurally his book reflects the impossibly complex connectedness of life, which after all is only the accretion of moments that we attach meaning to.  Mitchell is awake to the dream of it all. He’s written my favourite book, I think, of the last decade.

Breathlessly I saw also how the clouds moved without moving and all at once I realised the utter imposibility of ever recording this, but I was somewhat comforted by the chiming of a clock somewhere behind my eyes…

“We do not stay dead long. Once my Luger lets me go, my birth, next time around, will be upon me like a heartbeat.”

Louder, and still louder.

The Third Policeman, Flann O’Brien

In the snow it is best to read a book by someone long dead.

With this in mind, yesterday I read The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien; a whimsical, lyrical, melancholy thing. It was never published in O’Brien’s lifetime (see how accurately the snow accumulates?) despite his admirers including Joyce and Beckett. It is, as reads the most perfect blurb I’ve read for some time, ‘A murder thriller, a hilarious comic satire about an archetypal village police force, a surrealistic vision of eternity, the story of a tender, brief, unrequited love affair between a man and his bicycle and a chilling fable of unending guilt.’

The novel’s first sentence is a measure of what is to follow:

Not everyone knows how I killed old Phillip Mathers, smashing his jaw in with my spade; but first it is better to speak of my friendship with John Divney because it was he who first knocked old Mathers down by giving him a blow in the neck with a special bicycle-pump which he manufactured himself out of a hollow iron bar.

Having murdered with some success, our narrator (unnamed, orphaned, an unemployed scholar) is surprised (in truth, he is somewhat shaken) to discover his victim alive and not a bit accusatory. It is altogether an ‘insoluble pancake’. He is nonplussed to find that his soul is an irascible fellow called Joe. He will later come upon an lonely constabulary that contains two policeman who know the road to eternity, and will take him there; he will learn of a postman who is at least 75% bicycle and meet the leader of a deadly gang of one-legged men.

The snow piles quite imperceptibly.

The Third Policeman is a remarkable novel, an almost-allegory of purgatorial eternity and an expertly conjured vision of absurdity. O’Brien is a superb lyricist and writes frequent passages of unexpected beauty; he spirits the languid airs and heaths and bogs of rural Ireland into existence with ease. And he can be very funny: the novel is peppered with footnotes pertaining to the obscure theories of De Selby, a man of ‘many ingenious if not convincing’ arguments including for the ‘accretions of black air’ of which he thinks night is chiefly composed. O’Brien excels at these deftly ironic, mock-academic asides.

The whole novel is written in a sort of verbose, aloof, aphoristic chatter (which I find entirely suits the twilit impossibility of snowed streets) – it is the bewildering exposition of a virtuouso eccentricity. It is trivial, delicate and weighty separately, and then is all three at once. O’Brien succeeds in sustaining a totally absorbing, constantly inventive, disconcerting, morbid, surreal narrative, and in transcribing what appears to be the occasional whitterings of an estranged second cousin of profundity. Recommended.

And after all it is best to read in the snow of the dead.

On Deja Vu

Is there such a thing as a visual cliché?

Intruder, Jill Bialosky Public Dream, Frances Leviston

Both are poetry collections. One is ‘a study in the nature of reality, selfhood, and the different levels of consciousness we inhabit’; the other is much more concerned with ‘ideas of the waking world, and the world as it is imagined or dreamt’. Ahem.

I don’t suppose this particular coincidence says an awful lot, really: a misty, light-flecked, snowbound scene, evocative of Narnia and Manhattan parks and lonely childhoods, sells poetry. I wish I didn’t find it symptomatic of the slushy state of the poetry marketplace in general. As Peter Hughes puts it, rather majestically: “Hundreds of books and magazines continue to print thousands of poems in which a person wearing sensible shoes modestly observes how some rhubarb reminds them of their dad”.

Every gushing review I read of a new collection of ‘crystalline poems remarkable for their precision and focus’ (for instance) makes me want to torture a fairy. If you do by any chance stumble across a bad review, be sure to ignore it and if possible buy the collection in question. Normally, it’s just a bit different; perhaps it doesn’t include the word ‘heft’, or any reference to dusk, foxes, or childhood. Perhaps some poems in it avoid lapsing into trite epiphany  – what’s known as the Damascus Syndrome, a common affliction. Perhaps the poet is under 30 and not working in academia and doesn’t like the Goldberg Variations and certainly hasn’t written a ‘ecstatic and utterly crystalline’ poetic sequence about them.

The poetry I read is often dull, and the reviews altogether deadening. It’s all a matter of taste, I suppose, and mine could be off – I do after all have a thing for McNuggets. I wish, though, more of what I read were like Roy Fisher’s long poem ‘Furnace’, which I’m reading at the moment. I intend to write more fully about it down the line, but here’s a snippet of this subtly refracted lyric:

“…Whatever
approaches my passive taking-in,
then surrounds me and goes by
will have itself understood only
phase upon phase
by separate involuntary
strokes of the mind, dark
swings of a fan-blade
that keeps a time of its own
made up from the long
discrete moments
of the stages of the street,
each bred off the last as if by
causality.”

O! Such an irresistible, crystalline intelligence.

NB. I own Public Dream and actually enjoyed it. This is a pretty fantastic poem. August Kleinzahler’s written quite a good review of Fisher’s ‘Collected Poems’ here.

Brueghel / Q

Breughel Proverbs

Brueghel is that mischievous photographer who mistimes the shot to catch you gawping drunkenly; an unscrupulous collector of wonky stares, pimples scratched, that peculiar twitch, those odd bulges – everyday absurdities we look in the mirror to forget.

He painted the totally ordinary and the fantastic in conjunction: piggy-backing, bare arses and haymaking; a man with waffles tied to his hat, a skeleton playing hurdy-gurdy. A flash-flood of. Miscellanies of grotesquery and grot. Seventeen in the bed and the little one laughed. The best bits of ‘Where’s Wally?‘ and  a fleshy, rude wit to boot. Jamboree of the banal, the bawdy and the bestial.

But Brueghel wasn’t just a saucy Flemish cartoonist. He’d a beautiful sense of colour – late ochre and russet, the hushed blue of snow against bark – and crucially, despite their surreal incongruities, his works have a representativeness and a fidelity about them: they fit the sixteenth century perfectly. He painted common people in common professions without resorting to affectation or sentiment, and often his paintings were visual representations of common proverbs or adages, many now defunct. He combined panoramic scope with an exaggerated flatness to skew perspective in such a way that his best paintings suggest artlessness, immediacy and concealed metaphor at the same time.

*

After finishing Wolf Hall, finding myself hankering after more sixteenth century spilt into words,  I was pleased to come across Q (in a dark corner of the market), a novel which follows the fortunes and misfortunes of an Anabaptist heretic through the upheaval in mainland Europe during the Reformation. Same period, similar themes – the Church, power, political intrigue – but these novels are two peas from very different pods.

Q was written by four Italian authors under the pseudonym ‘Luther Blissett’ – a notoriously inept British footballer who once played for Milan. Its protagonist too remains nameless throughout, though he takes on multiple aliases as he hunts for the mysterious Q, who is an undercover spy for the Inquisition.

The novel suffers from obvious flaws: it’s outrageously overblown and inconsistently paced. The two principle characters’ motivations are never convincingly explored or even fully explained. Stylistically, it jerks and flails a bit (though it is translated from the Italian):

“Almost blindly.

What I have to do.

Screams in my ears already bursting with cannon fire, bodies crashing into me. My throat choked with bloody, sweaty dust, my coughs tearing me apart.”

No matter. Whereas Wolf Hall is meticulously directed, this is a brash, breathless maul of a plot, taking in multiple battles, massacres, mad prophets, instances of enforced polygamy, swindling, espionage, torture, and a singular German nobleman who calls his underlings ‘absolute dickheads’. It’s a Brueghel-esque mash.

Q is in fact resolutely and purposefully a ‘flat’ novel – one reviewer called it a species of ‘anti-novel‘ – and it is self-consciously playful,  but it is not without ambition. It works in the same way as Brueghel’s paintings manage to frame the madness of the rabble: by compressing and caricaturing and foregrounding. Brueghel painted the crowd, a press of people;  I think Q is an attempt to write a flood of events in a way that represents how things happen in a rush of odd collocations and coincidences, without resolving themselves beforehand. It’s compulsive and memorable, and whilst not entirely successful, a lot of fun.

Invisible Cities – Italo Calvino

An improvisation:

In a certain low-lying town, where the sky is tall enough to accommodate stacked libraries of cloud, a young man reads of Invisible Cities. Dawn breaks, caramel and pearl, as it does in old stories.

The town is built on a hill upon which it is only possible to think downwards.

At the top of the hill there is a church and a watchtower. All roads lead away, down the hill. The faithful direct their prayers down, like rolling coins in a gutter. The old watchtower now offers free entry: visitors like to see the sky reflected darkly in the still pool at the bottom of the hill, but they never look up.

By the pool is a cinema. Filmgoers, who find the town mysteriously altered at the end of the evening, as if it has exhaled, as if something solid in it has been swallowed, are always surprised to find the hill is still there.

Map-makers dislike the hill for its shock of contours, consider it an obvious spillage in an otherwise perfectly clean cream sea. Architects conceive of the hill hollowed out, dim catacombs wreathing towards high vaulted caverns.

The young man dreams of erosion, rivers breaking their banks, new tributaries carving through old rock, a black weight of water running down a hill.

Read my review >>