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Posts tagged ‘Unpopular Writers’

Unpopular Writers 5: D H Lawrence

The author of the infamous Lady Chatterley’s Lover is not regularly mentioned outside academic circles for anything else. The groundbreaking trial and endless film adaptations have kept in within a shared frame of cultural reference, whereas his numerous other works have garnered less attention. The question then emerges as to whether this interring of Lawrence’s work is deserved, or if there remains a rich seam of prose being neglected when it should populate bedside tables and syllabuses.

In the interests of full disclosure, I must be honest about having experienced more intense moments of annoyance with Lawrence than almost any other writer beyond the pulpy butchers of sensationalist crack-lit. The only way of truly illustrating the frustration the reader suffers from the inconsistency of tone, contradictory dialogue and bizarre use of exclamation is to include an extract from his short story, The Wintry Peacock; the premise being a love letter from an Elise of Belgium to farmer Alfred, which is then intercepted by his wife back at home, who makes the narrator translate it for her. The two men meet at the end, and discuss the peacock who roams the countryside and suspicion:

“’Why?’ he said. ‘Why didn’t you wring that b—- peacock’s neck-that b—- Joey?

”Why?’ I said. ‘What for?”

I hate the brute,’ he said. ‘I had a shot at him–‘

I laughed. He stood and mused.

‘Poor little Elise,’ he murmured.

‘Was she small–petite?’ I asked. He jerked up his head.

‘No,’ he said. ‘Rather tall.’

‘Taller than your wife, I suppose.’

Again he looked into my eyes. And then once more he went into a loud burst of laughter that made the still, snow-deserted valley clap again.

‘God, it’s a knockout!’ he said, thoroughly amused. Then he stood at ease, one foot out, his hands in his breeches pockets, in front of him, his head thrown back, a handsome figure of a man.

‘But I’ll do that blasted Joey in–‘ he mused.

I ran down the hill, shouting with laughter.”

Ha ha! Infidelity! Killing things! Hurrah for being so attractive and vital! At moments like this you may quail and think, this author is deservedly unpopular and long may he remain so. It is almost enough to make you throw the book across the room. However, Sons and Lovers did more than redeem Lawrence’s name on first (and second) reading. While he became so tired of the work that he allowed Edward Garnett to cut about a hundred pages from the text, what remains contains passages of moving natural description, such as Gertrude Morel making her way through the Nottinghamshire countryside: 

“She went over the sheep bridge and across a corner of the meadow to the cricket ground. The meadows seemed one space of ripe, evening light, with the distant mill-race. She sat on a seat under the alders in the cricket-ground, and fronted the evening before her, level and solid, spread the big green cricket-field, like the bed of a sea of light. Children played in the blush shadow of the pavilion. Many rooks, high up, came cawing home across the softly-woven sky. They stooped in a long curve down into the golden glow, concentrating, cawing, wheeling, like black flakes on a slow vortex, over a tree-clump that made a dark boss among the pasture.”

Her neat, indomitable figure confronting a tapestry sky in the gloaming, framed by the treeline and cricket field, creates an enduringly positive image to sustain the reader through the grittier sections depicting the collier lifestyle. Lawrence was unparalleled when it came to depicting rural life, and of course, sex. Mrs Morel’s son Paul and his lover Clara cling to each other in this passage: “It was as if he, and the stars, and the dark herbage, and Clara were licked up in an immense tongue of flame, which tore onwards and upwards. Everything rushed along in living beside him; everything was still, perfect in itself, along with him. This wonderful stillness in each thing in itself, while it was being borne along in a very ecstasy of living, seemed the highest point of bliss.

And Clara knew this held him to her, so she trusted altogether to the passion. It, however, failed her very often. They did not often reach again the height of that once when the peewits had called. Gradually, some mechanical effort spoilt their loving, or, when they had splendid moments, they had them separately, and not so satisfactorily. So often he seemed merely to be running on alone; often they realised it had been a failure, not what they had wanted. He left her, knowing THAT evening had only made a little split between them. Their loving grew more mechanical, without the marvellous glamour.” For a shared experience to go from the sublime to the slightly disappointing in her case in such a wonderfully understated way in surely a testament to Lawrence’s skill. The topic was contentious enough at the time, and to depict the woman’s feeling of isolation (despite her admirable faith in Paul’s ability) as he experiences pleasure alone, only for the encounter to be described as mechanical is almost startlingly honest, and human. Of course, he then goes on to despise her as the gleam is lost for him despite the blame being equally shared, arguably. Either way, to be writing in this truthful a vein in 1913 was astonishing, and hardly obscene by contemporary example. At the time of writing I have not quite finished Women in Love, but it is already clear that the author continued to create thoughtful, passionate female protagonists (who are wonderfully dressed in emerald green stockings and drooping hats) who will continually take risks and waste no time in sparing each other’s feelings when it comes to the vicissitudes of the opposite sex. I hope a few of you will read it too. Peacocks aside, he is worth pursuing and not just for the purple prose.

The Editors

Unpopular writers 4: Vladimir Nabokov

Unpopular may not be the first word many readers associate with the author of Lolita, although Orville Prescot wrote the following New York Times Review in 1958, three years after publication:

Lolita, then, is undeniably news in the world of books. Unfortunately, it is bad news. There are two equally serious reasons why it isn’t worth any adult reader’s attention. The first is that it is dull, dull, dull in a pretentious, florid and archly fatuous fashion. The second is that it is repulsive.”

It was by far his most famous novel, and often considered his finest work in English, indeed the author himself remarked that: “Lolita is famous, not I. I am an obscure, doubly obscure, novelist with an unpronounceable name.” While I found it neither dull nor repulsive, I would not describe it as fine. It sticks under the epidermis most effectively, a tale I am glad was told in this way and has endured as it has.

Nabokov’s love of wordplay – incorporating synesthetic detail and acrostics – are an aspect of his style that endears him to the reader or repels them outright, as this ability can teeter on smugness. Regardless, his capacity for speaking English before his native Russian may be a contributing factor to his aptitude. It is certainly why he has often been compared with Conrad (who may be number 6 or so in this series) as the latter also thought and wrote in three languages. Nabokov disdained the comparison for aesthetic reasons, lamenting to the critic Edmund Wilson: “I am too old to change Conradically”, which John Updike later called “itself a jest of genius”.

Following on Lola’s grubby heels, Pale Fire is diverse and extraordinary, a poioumenon on life, the universe and everything; the lauded memoir, Speak, Memory gives some insight into his earlier life while also informing the reader that “our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness” just in case they were starting to relax and hope to merely learn a few things about Lepidoptera. This covers fourteen accomplished writing years.

The question of unpopularity features in relation to Nabokov partly because of Ada. His longest novel, the composition to which he devoted the most time, and the tip of his descent as a writer. His attention to language becomes over zealous – perhaps why Yevgeny Yevtushenko said in a Playboy interview that he could hear the ‘clatter of surgical tools’ in Nabokov’s prose. Character development gives way to meticulous record keeping almost for its own sake. This pedantry is illustrated by his requirements for interviews, according to the Paris Review: “all answers are given as he wrote them down. He claims that he needs to write his responses because of his unfamiliarity with English; this is a constant seriocomic form of teasing. He speaks with a dramatic Cambridge accent, very slightly nuanced by an occasional Russian pronunciation. Spoken English is, in fact, no hazard to him… his frequent apologies for his grasp of English clearly belong in the context of Nabokov’s special mournful joking: he means it, he does not mean it, he is grieving for his loss, he is outraged if anyone criticizes his style”. That fact that he wrote on “filing cards, which are gradually copied, expanded, and rearranged until they become his novels” may explain why the author exclaimed: “My characters are galley slaves”. This is reminiscent of a student revising methodically for an Anatomy exam rather than depicting a character based on shared human experience.

Surprisingly, Martin Amis, in his review of The Original of Laura, wrote perceptively that: “Nabokov, in his decline, imposes on even the keenest reader a horrible brew of piety, literal-mindedness, vulgarity and philistinism.” With his earlier works, when “Left to themselves, The Enchanter, Lolita, and Transparent Things might have formed a lustrous and utterly unnerving trilogy. But they are not left to themselves; by sheer weight of numbers, by sheer iteration, the nympholepsy novels begin to infect one another – they cross-contaminate. We gratefully take all we can from them; and yet . . . Where else in the canon do we find such wayward fixity?” In short, read his earlier works when possible, compare the author’s style with anyone else at your peril, and anything created after the Beatles parted ways is arguably a waste of time.

The Editors

Unpopular writers 3: William Faulkner

Clifton Fadiman, reviewing Absalom, Absalom! for The New Yorker in 1936, wrote the following: “Seriously, I do not know what to say of this book except that it seem to point to the final blowup of what was once a remarkable, if minor, talent… this is a penny dreadful tricked up in fancy language and given a specious depth by the expert manipulation of a series of eccentric technical tricks. The characters have no magnitude and no meaning because they have no more reality than a mince-pie nightmare.”

This fragment is curiously appropriate for this time of year given the culinary reference; it would feel facetious to quote from Light in August. Faulkner may seem like an odd choice given how lauded as a Southern writer he once was, and his international recognition in the form of the Nobel Prize in 1949, however today his reputation is rather less well established.

His less than generous portrayal of women as breeding cows, dervishes and hags is problematic, together with Faulkner’s good ole boy person as a genteel, diminutive drunk distracted from his writing by a series of affairs, leaving his family in Mississippi for several years to peddle scripts in Hollywood. His use of violent religious language and apocalyptic imagery to depict the screaming South in all of its dysfunctional glory may no longer have a place. I was less than impressed at his abuse of the word shibboleth while wading through his 19 novels and 125 short stories, even less so by the extent of secondary criticism on Faulkner: he was the most discussed author in my university library stacks aside from Shakespeare.

However, the fact that his middle name is Cuthbert, together with the fact that no one has come close to writing anything remotely comparable to The Sound and The Fury are factors to consider before banishing him to stand in the corner next to Ms Rand. The sense of unease permeating the page as the coffin slowly makes its journey through As I Lay Dying, and the tissues of symbolic reference he builds up throughout The Snopes trilogy are a form of private language in of themselves. He wrote under constant pressure of insolvency, aware of the fact that he was not physically able to take up a more standard profession in order to support his family. As he failed to distinguish himself during the War, he fell back on storytelling to sustain him and enrichen his existence. The result dilutes the reader’s conception of the true South and of the author’s true self, but enables the delivery of a hurtling slideshow into a mythical country inhabited by men riding furiously in pursuit of revenge and lust, always hopelessly, that almost amount to a dirge in their rhythmic fanaticism.

The land that he created amounted to a desperate blur, finite by definition, however it takes a certain amount of skill in order to craft such a compelling world within a world. The critical canon is a testament to the task of attempting to analyse how he managed it. I would maintain that it is still very much worth a try.

The Editors

Unpopular writers 2: Ayn Rand

A few anecdotes about the perception of probably the most virulently disliked fiction writer in English, Ayn Rand: 1) In Dirty Dancing, there is only really one actively unsympathetic character. Where Baby’s father just fails to understand his daughter or where the greasy and irascible hotel owner, Mr Kellerman, has a moment of pathos near the end when he realises that his life and hotel belong to a passing era, only one character is so two-dimensional as to be wholly without redeeming features: Robbie the waiter. He is on the other side of the class divide from Jonny Castle/Patrick Swayze and all the other dirty sexy, mambo-dancing entz staff, who are all kids from the block. Robbie is at Harvard Med, where that’s a sign not of talent of but privilege. He is the one who has knocked up Jonny’s friend and refuses to take responsibility, seeing it more or less as his droit de seigneur. Later on, he, the unrepenant Robbie, wants to compound his crimes by ‘doing it’ with Baby’s misguided and frankly awful sister. When Baby confronts him about his villainy, the unpsychological, hate-figure defence he gives is “Some people just don’t matter”. To provide a more comprehensive explanation, he offers her his copy of Rand’s The Fountainhead.

            2) Urban Dictionary defines Rand as “Mid-20th century pop-philosopher who first propounded objectivism in a set of rather poorly written cult novels of dubious quality. Her philosophy is founded on unremarkable restatements of the obvious, prizing material achievement, self-centred pride, and unfettered commerce as virtues over love, humility, generosity, and faithfulness. Followers of objectivism, called randroids, tend be a rude, selfish, condescending bunch, intolerant of anything that does not perfectly match their ultra-naturalist, laissez-faire dogmatism.

‘A=A, oh, yes, A=A,’ the randroid muttered again and again, softly, obsessively, as he cut out heart-shaped pictures of Ayn Rand from a magazine for his objectivist collage showing her to be the pinnacle of human evolution.”

Urban Dictionary also describes her as “a perennial favourite of the marginally intelligent.”

            3), online New York magazine, hipster Bible, sex-positive exemplum, home to the campaign that made Republican senator Rick Santorum’s first google-hit “the frothy mixture of lube and fecal matter that can be a by-product of anal sex”, home to the “It Gets Better” campaign aimed at gay teens bullied in high school, forum for the idea of being “sex positive”, accepting chronicler of everything from vanilla dating experiences to where to buy and how to use a cast of your own penis to literally fuck yourself in the ass, this shining beacon all of that is right and ahead of the curve in today’s America, gives us the page Why Liking Ayn Rand Makes You A Terrible Lover. It mentions that Paul Ryan cites Rand as the reason he went into public service and starts a paragraph with, “I have to think that Ayn Rand must never have had any truly satisfying sex in her life.” It also quotes from profiles on the Randians’ dating website Atlasphere (named for her book Atlas Shrugged): “You should contact me if you are a skinny woman. If your words are a meaningful progression of concepts rather than a series of vocalizations induced by your spinal cord for the purpose of complementing my tone of voice,” and “I am rational, integrated, and effacious. So far, I’ve never met a person who lives up to the standard I hold for myself.”

            4) Holy running mates, Batman, Paul Ryan!

            5) In 1998, Modern Library, an American division of Random House, asked its editors to compile a list of the 100 best novels written in English. Everything you would expect the Americans to choose is on there, Ulysses, Gatsby, Lolita, The Sound and the Fury, The Grapes of Wrath. The following year, they published the results of a poll of 200,000 American readers. Best novel ever written in English: Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. Second best: The Fountainhead. In a top 10 that included To Kill a Mockingbird and 1984, Rand also took spots seven and eight, for Anthem and We The Living.

            6) I can easily remember the first two sentences of The Fountainhead, which should tell you a lot about what you should know of its style. No need to look them up, here they are: “Howard Roark laughed. He stood naked at the edge of a cliff.”

Aside from being criticised as morally abhorrent and philosophically indefensible, Rand’s writing is also seen as pathetically transparent, wholly lacking in convincing characterisation or any kind of nuance. But characterisation isn’t the point, because the novel is an allegory of Howard Roark as the perfect human being. He is a young architect, exorbitantly talented, who refuses to play the games required by the industry, which wants more buildings in pseudo-classical styles, post offices with Corinthian columns or banks with Romanesque porticos. Roark wants modern buildings for the modern day, designed for perfect function and in marvellous juxtaposition with their surroundings. Despite every deprivation and attempted humiliation, Roark builds his buildings, and those with eyes to see gradually come to recognise his rightness. He is an embodiment of unwavering (and how inhuman that adjective is) resolve, self-belief, conviction, and, above all, the unshakeable knowledge that only he can sit in judgment on himself.

The high-point of the novel, apart, possibly, from when the evil newspaper magnate stands at the stern of his yacht in wonder at mankind’s brilliance in conquering the seas and throwing cables over continents and oceans, is when Roark is commissioned to build a Temple of the Human Spirit. This is what it looks like:

“The Temple was to be a small building of gray limestone. Its lines were horizontal, not the lines reaching to heaven, but the lines of the earth. It seemed to spread over the ground like arms outstretched at shoulder height. Palms down, in great silent acceptance. It did not cling to the soil and it did not crouch under the sky. It seemed to lift the earth, and its few vertical shafts pulled the sky down. It was scaled to human height in such a manner that it did not dwarf man, but stood as a setting that made his figure the only absolute, the gauge of perfection by which all dimensions were to be judged. When a man entered the temple, he would feel space molded around him, for him, as if it had waited for his entrance, to be completed. It was a joyous place, with the joy of exultation that must be quiet. It was a place where one would come to feel sinless and strong, to find the peace of spirit never granted save by one’s own glory. There was no ornamentation inside, except the graded projections of the walls, and the vast windows. The place was not sealed under vaults, but thrown open to the earth around it, to the trees, to the river, the sun and to the skyline of the city in the distance, the skyscrapers, the shape of man’s achievements on earth. At the end of the room, facing the entrance, with the city as background, stood the figure of a naked human body.”

For me, Rand’s writing oscillates between the exhilarating and the ludicrous. I wouldn’t like to live in a society built solely on rational self-interest and the worship of strength and achievement. It should, however, be axiomatic to state that the morality or the philosophy of the state needn’t be that of the individuals in it, that they serve different functions and are constructed for different reasons. But nor do I think I would particularly enjoy having Randian friends or lovers who would presumably start to disdain me after every moment of failure, sickness or doubt. So ultimately, this Randian exhilaration I do undeniably feel is internal and akin to the famous lines from Tennyson’s Ulysses:

  Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’

  We are not now that strength which in old days

  Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;

  One equal temper of heroic hearts,

  Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

  To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

What I mean really is a feeling. That though I strongly believe that societies and people when engaging with each other can’t justifiably be anything but kind, patient, understanding, forgiving and supportive, that tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner, I would like to reserve a circle of mental space in which to ask more of myself than being the subject of that attitude implies and, when I’m alone, to stand naked at the edge of a cliff, and laugh.

Alexander Starritt