Thursday, 30 December 2010

Words of Mercury

   Loves Labours Lost, a play first "presented at Christmas", is perhaps the most disruptive and bittersweet of all Shakespeare's comedies. As a text centred on language itself - especially the "lover's discourse" of Elizabethan romantic rhetoric - the earlier scenes burst with comic brio as the conventional hyperboles of the four amorous would-be sonneteers (as well as the suspect gender politics their words enshrine) are pulled apart and parodied by their female counterparts.The pantomimish minor characters such as Don Armado "the braggart" and Holofernes "the pedant" are equally abusers of language who contort English into scarcely-intelligible but nonetheless amusing opacity (Shakespeare here joins the tradition of "mock-learned wit" ie. Rabelais, Swift, Sterne, Joyce, Nabokov).

   But the final scene is the play's master-stroke, undercutting and undoing all the erotic intertwinings that have developed before. The abrupt incursion of news of the Princess's father's death means the comedic resolution of the play will have to be deferred, and the tone suddenly veers from anticipated accord towards something more muted and provisional, something more perhaps like the disappointments and postponements of real life.
    The two ambivalent final songs of the Cuckoo and the Owl - seeming to question spring's promise of fulfilled desire in favour of the necessary acceptance of winter - modulate this tone into a beautiful wavering between loss and gain, tragedy and what's left of comedy. As one critic put it ( and with obvious resonance at this post-festive juncture, which is possibly how Shakespeare actually meant it): "It is a teasing thought, yet appropriate; perhaps the ending of Love's Labour's Lost is the more genuinely warm because it is more wintry, more real than the easier resolution that a fuller comic pact would have allowed."    
   The play's closing words, again equivocal in their meaning, are spoken by Armado: "The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo". Is Shakespeare saying that Apollonian poetry (eg. the elevated rhetoric of sonnets) always needs its counterpoint in the language of witty, subversive mischief? Or - more plaintively, and in keeping with all of Shakespeare's plays- that the ideals embodied in lofty poetry must always be brought down to earth by the "harsh" reality of what the two final, mercurial songs speak of?

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Subsumed in a Narrative

'...this proliferation of fantasies from Tolkien through to the Harry Potter books and Philip Pullman and so on, is a curious sort of indication of the way in which we would rather just turn away from the world and live in pseudo myths and mythologies, and they are pseudo, they're not the real thing as they were in cultures that really had myths and really believed in them. And similarly I think straightforward realism also stops you actually recognising this mysterious thing that our lives are open, are not going to be subsumed in a narrative we can easily tell, but we are constantly going to come up against something which is much more mysterious, much stranger, much more un-inchoate than we imagine.' Gabriel Josipivici
   This chimes with what I was gesturing towards in the previous post on Vonnegut. I came across it in the consistently brilliant This Space blog (link in Blogroll). Josipivici's What Ever Happened to Modernism?(a question I've often asked myself over the years)  is definitely on my Books to Read list for 2011 - interesting to see the controversy it provoked among mainstream gatekeepers this year...

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

And So On

    Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions is as far as you can get from the polite, 'well-made', realist novel about middle-class family-life that still dominates our fictional landscape(I haven't read Freedom yet, but I just read quite a scathing critique of Franzen's bestseller based on just these terms in Danny Byrne Blog). In fact it's a trenchant, anarchic anti-novel which lays bare and satirises all the revered and elevated 'inner workings' of how a conventional novel is written - for sure, Joyce had already performed something like this autopsy in Ulysses back in the 20s (and in their own ways BS Johnson and Alain Robbe-Grillet made further scalpel-turnings throughout their own creative careers), but Vonnegut goes further in undertaking a running parody of himself as novelist apparently making it up as he goes in whatever haphazard order the story occurs to him, inserting ineptly-drawn doodles to illustrate certain points, taking narrative shortcuts wherever he can (the phrase "And so on" is used repeatedly to imply the hackneyed predictability of almost all storylines).
    In fact he is more like the 'diagetic' narrators of 18thC. novels (telling rather than showing  dramatic action) - like Fielding and Sterne, in fact - than the supposedly hidden, 'God-like' narrators of the 19th and 20th C. Realist tradition - in many respects Breakfast of Champions could be seen as a Post-Modernist Tristram Shandy, in so far as both novels continually and humorously expose their own shortcomings as fictional representations of the world.
    In the end, despairing of ever making the corrupt, absurd, debased world of 20th C. America cohere into a readable narrative, Vonnegut climbs into his own novel and has blackly comic fun meeting his own doomed characters, rescuing the one who is a kind of self-portrait - the science-fiction writer Kilgore Trout -  and playfully showing up how arbitrary and solipsistic a novelist's imaginary world really is.
     His final act of letting Trout free from the novel's fictional bounds is a last damning parody of the traditional novelist's self-apotheosis and vanity. We finish Breakfast of Champions thinking that all writers, no doubt, need their pretentions as omniscient creative geniuses pinpricked in this way, whereas it can only be salutary for readers to be reminded that literature should be a means for discovering challenging new ideas and perpectives, not for furnishing escapist fantasies that merely bolster everyday norms.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

The Ice River

That winter the bitter Thames froze over,
Our little Elizabeth could not endure
The cold. Ice seized the muscled river
So tight of grip, turned flow to deep-set stone,
The crammed city overran its banks: fair
And market jostled to the new-laid causeway,
Vying for land too perishable to rent or own.

Mornings I’d loiter there - landlocked boatman
Whose craft’s marooned ashore, cracking between
The frosty contractions. With current clenched
And stilled, my trade ran dry as a victualler’s
In Eden. Pinched fishermen and portly
Merchants alike would curse the chill, and pray
For swift reversal of this ‘miracle’.

A chained bear, prodded from his winter sleep,
Would stagger up in a parody of dance
Utterly morose and grudging; yet the traders
Would goad him on, roaring, as they haggled
And bartered, children between the stalls
Raising snowmen, conducting ephemeral wars.

There persisted everywhere such levity,
And carnival abandon, I could only
Attribute it to this: their stark want
Of time, pitched on slipshod ice, weighing
The imminence of certain loss with this
Chance turn of grace – as all do, God knows.

But their prospering was my penury;
My wife and infants bore the unhappy toll.
Our little borrowing could not outlast
The snow: her swaddling proved her cerement.
On the ninth day, hoisted from its winter sleep,
A gross, red, apoplectic sun swelled up
Over the spires and frost-sheened rooves of London.
None spoke: all moved in accordance with this sign,
And to hear – like eerie crow-song –
The faint creaks and fissures of the shifting ice.

Some dismantled the stalls and shelters
So lately improvised; some scrambled back and forth
Safeguarding wares. Chaos overtook them once again: fear.

Shuffling to my thawing skiff, thanking God
For His infinite mercy, I watched them
Butcher the unruly bear for coats, gloves,
Dogs’-meat. And in the ruinous sun
The snowmen, suddenly old: how they shrivel,
And hunch over, weeping until they are gone.


  I thought it was high time I posted a poem of my own. This fairly old one seemed to be timely in terms of the current weather as well as linking to the previous post about 'The Road' - the poem is also concerned with "the frailty of all things" (although obviously I make no comparison with Cormac MaCarthy's book in terms of literary quality).