Search Deeblog
Navigate through Deeblog
Categories and months of Deeblog
Login
Reviews, essays, and translations

Entries in Ireland (32)

Sunday
May142017

A Mother

Miss Devlin had become Mrs. Kearney out of spite. She had been educated in a high-class convent, where she had learned French and music. As she was naturally pale and unbending in manner she made few friends at school. When she came to the age of marriage she was sent out to many houses where her playing and ivory manners were much admired. She sat amid the chilly circle of her accomplishments, waiting for some suitor to brave it and offer her a brilliant life. But the young men whom she met were ordinary and she gave them no encouragement, trying to console her romantic desires by eating a great deal of Turkish Delight in secret. However, when she drew near the limit and her friends began to loosen their tongues about her, she silenced them by marrying Mr. Kearney, who was a bootmaker on Ormond Quay.

We forget sometimes that our most fundamental relationships – parent, child, sibling – are the bases for all other relationships, romantic or office, temporary or everlasting. Those of us lucky enough to enjoy a happy, stable childhood – and happiness and stability are the foundations of life, all life – can only wonder at the broken promises that others have endured. Having children is no easy task, and one that to some should never be assigned; but when children are present, when a couple has created a perfect little mammal or welcomed such a being previously bereft of such caretakers, all thoughts should be geared towards the benefit of the children. No longer are we husbands and wives and sons and daughters and brothers and sisters: we are simply parents, mothers and fathers. And while not everyone, for a variety of reasons, may have a father, every single being on earth may claim the title character of this story.

It may seem strange that we are concerned with a mother, when the focal point of our tale is the performance of a certain Kathleen Kearney, the elder of two daughters of Mrs. Kearney, née Devlin. Kathleen Kearney has the type of name that can "be heard often on people's lips," because some names lend themselves to savoring. By dint of her very marketable appellation, her mother's own insistence, and some veritable musical talent, Kathleen Kearney becomes "the accompanist at a series of four grand concerts." These concerts, to be held in Dublin, are sponsored by the Éire Abú Society, which  I am afraid means something rather dull in Irish (and only appears to exist in Joyce's fictional realm). As the concert days approach, all consecutive, with the fourth on the very fateful evening of Saturday, Mrs. Kearney, who should not be mistaken for a person of culture, has high hopes for her daughter's performance. That first night she meets the secretary of the Society, who will represent everything she is hoping to overcome:

In the dressing-room behind the stage she was introduced to the secretary of the Society, Mr. Fitzpatrick. She smiled and shook his hand. He was a little man, with a white, vacant face. She noticed that he wore his soft brown hat carelessly on the side of his head and that his accent was flat. He held a programme in his hand, and, while he was talking to her, he chewed one end of it into a moist pulp. He seemed to bear disappointments lightly. 

Mrs. Kearney, it should be noted, does not bear disappointments lightly; in fact, she does not expect to have to bear them at all. Disappointments, for a snobbish social climber like Mrs. Kearney, are the lives of those without grace, without ambition, and, most importantly perhaps, without the proper connections to put that grace and ambition to best use.  

Things, of course, get worse for our eponymous matriarch. The Wednesday concert provokes the blasphemous suggestion that perhaps the Society "had made a mistake in arranging for four concerts: four was too many"; on Thursday, "the audience behaved indecorously as if the concert were an informal dress rehearsal"; and by Friday morning, someone has seen enough of the first concerts to use "special puffs in all the evening papers reminding the music-loving public" that Kathleen Kearney will be accompanying some impressive artistes the following night. The following night? After the apathy of the Wednesday and Thursday audiences, it was decided by the Society that Friday's would be even less attentive, a logic that would bankrupt the sturdiest of entertainment enterprises, but that is not ours to ponder. And so, a day before their daughter's third and final appearance on the Dublin stage, Mrs. Kearney reveals her suspicions to that "bootmaker on Ormand Quay" who bestowed his surname upon her:

He listened carefully and said that perhaps it would be better if he went with her on Saturday night. She agreed. She respected her husband in the same way as she respected the General Post Office, as something large, secure, and fixed; and though she knew the small number of his talents she appreciated his abstract value as a male. She was glad that he had suggested coming with her. 

The phrase "she appreciated his abstract value as a male" in a modern work would seem, and would very likely be, wholly disingenuous; but in Joyce's context there can be no more accurate a description. What ensues that rainy Saturday night will not surprise readers accustomed to those vicissitudes of human nature that may be loosely termed "aesthetic sensibilities" (we will leave the matter at that). We will likewise not address the role of Mr. O'Madden Burke, whose ridiculous name swathes a most ridiculous figure, one which, of course, is "widely respected" by simple-minded people who think spruce, pompous frauds are something to which to aspire. What we should examine, however, is one of the artistes whom Mrs. Kearney surely cannot appreciate:

The bass, Mr. Duggan, was a slender young man with a scattered black moustache. He was the son of a hall porter in an office in the city and, as a boy, he had sung prolonged bass notes in the resounding hall. From this humble state he had raised himself until he had become a first-rate artiste. He had appeared in grand opera. One night, when an operatic artiste had fallen ill, he had undertaken the part of the king in the opera of Maritana at the Queen's Theatre. He sang his music with great feeling and volume and was warmly welcomed by the gallery; but, unfortunately, he marred the good impression by wiping his nose in his gloved hand once or twice out of thoughtlessness. He was unassuming and spoke little. He said yous so softly that it passed unnoticed and he never drank anything stronger than milk for his voice's sake.

Mr. Duggan, you see, is precisely what a mother would want in a child, because he has fulfilled his potential to a sensational level, all the more impressive an accomplishment given the banal hurdles of poverty. And yet, among the innumerable Philistines of grand society, an imaginary community staffed almost entirely by such vulgarians, all that will be remembered of him will be his nose and his gloved hand. The same gloved hand that will one day inherit the earth, the air, and the sea.  

Wednesday
Feb082017

A Painful Case

This writer has come to be known, among other titles, as an innovator of the difficult, of the abstruse, of the unnecessarily and overindulgently literary. A judgment that renders his early works even more shocking if one considers their bluntness. They are not, it should be said, simple works. "Simple" in literature should only apply to books for children and young adults, where certain conventions are followed, or to the etiolated parcels that litter every convenience store and airport, the formulaic kitsch of which some people cannot get enough (explaining this type's everlasting appeal). Dubliners is blunt in the manner that a strong cordial does not get away from you: you know what it will do, you feel at once empowered and weakened, and yet you cannot but have another sip because even the most jaded among us are always impressed with quality. Yet our subject James Duffy, for whom life has been constructed as a fortress, is not impressed with much at all.

A bachelor and "for many years cashier of a private bank," Duffy is a resident of the Irish capital's Chapelizod "because he found all the other suburbs of Dublin mean, modern, and pretentious" (ironically perhaps, the protagonist of this very modern and very pretentious work hails from this same area). Duffy clearly does not desire much human kindness, milky or otherwise, and has shut himself up in a bourgeois bunker "as far as possible from the city of which he was a citizen." A survey of his shelves does not dissuade us from the suspicion that James Duffy does not believe in anything finer or greater than himself, which some may call solipsism and others misanthropy. There is a reason why Duffy "had bought himself every article of furniture in the room," but it is not ours to discover. There is also a reason (perhaps the very same one) why "he allowed himself to think that in certain circumstances he would rob his bank," and why the probability of such a crime dissipated. Maybe a snapshot of our man will yield more clarity:

Mr. Duffy abhorred anything which betokened physical or mental disorder. A medieval doctor would have called him saturnine. His face, which carried the entire tale of his years, was of the brown tint of Dublin streets. On his long and rather large head grew dry black hair and a tawny moustache did not quite cover an unamiable mouth. His cheekbones also gave his face a harsh character; but there was no harshness in the eyes which, looking at the world from under their tawny brows, gave the impression of a man ever alert to greet a redeeming instinct in others but often disappointed. He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances. He had an autobiographical habit which led him to compose in his mind from time to time a short sentence about himself containing a subject in the third person and a predicate in the past tense. He never gave alms to beggars and walked firmly, carrying a stout hazel.

To paraphrase this author, you cannot know how ugly or beautiful a face is until you try and draw it (I will say that I initially read "not quite unamiable mouth," a dull bromide). But we have already sketched Mr. Duffy, so how should we presume? From this passage and his subsequent acts, there remains no doubt as to his character. Self-serving, arrogant, vain, and asocial, he is well-read but far too enamored with his own literary knowledge, which for him means absorbing a lot of 'important' books so as to be able to present them to lesser minds in a discreetly condescending manner. A person far unkinder than I might even suggest that Mr. James Duffy could represent the typical talentless literary critic ("ever alert to greet a redeeming instinct in others but often disappointed" seems to lean in that direction), but there is no need for such contumely. Which is why his sudden romance with a married woman, a certain Emily Sinico, takes everyone, Mr. James Duffy included, rather violently by surprise.   

What befalls the lonely coparcenaries of this little fling, and how the story won its title, will be left to the curious reader. The last paragraph of A Painful Case has been much discussed among people who like to discuss such things, undoubtedly because it forfends any hope for humankind and its sentiments. Similarities to another, far greater tale with an equally ambiguous ending are unavoidable, but Chekhov's masterpiece at least envisions the couple acting in unison, as two halves of a whole that, per society's conventional mores, is not permitted to endure. For all the effortless beauty of the prose that cages the two lovebirds, Duffy's affair with Mrs. Sinico must be considered nothing if not implausible. That is, unless we truly subscribe to his interpretation of her as an empty vessel, a hollow orb polished by his palms:

Neither he nor she had had any adventure before and neither was conscious of any incongruity. Little by little he entangled his thoughts with hers. He lent her books, provided her with ideas, shared his intellectual life with her. She listened to all. Sometimes in return for his theories she gave out some fact of her own life.

Whether Mr. Duffy has indeed squeezed the universe into a ball, and whether that ball will be rolled toward some overwhelming question, will be discussed by those who deem the identification of literary allusions the mark of a cultured mind. For some reason Mr. Duffy strikes one as belonging to that group, even if the only group he could ever imagine joining is some cenacle in which he obtained a lifelong presidency. One also has the distinct impression that the currency that Mrs. Sinico utilizes, a plain fact from her plain existence ("Her husband's great-great-grandfather had come from Leghorn"; "Her husband was captain of a mercantile boat"; "They had one child," and so forth), is not much valued by the recipient, who has assumed the far more generous task of imbuing her with ideas from books – as if life outside of libraries were entirely notionless. Is it because he has seen the moment of his greatness flicker? Much more likely that Mr. Duffy could not distinguish a mermaid from the eternal foam.    

Thursday
Dec222016

Dracula

Let us forget for a moment all associations with the name of this novel, the subject of hundreds of books and films and owner of permanent territory in the landscape of our nightmares. While such an exercise is almost impossible, we might imagine a world in which the vampire had not yet been accorded the title of legend and to a certain segment of Europe was still very real. What then would be the response to a Western work that tried with solemn research and Victorian restraint to capture the essence of fear? Fear of an aristocratic and evil genius, practically immortal and unstoppable, capable of feats of superhuman strength and diabolical skill? Do not think that I subscribe to the ridiculous theories about the sexuality and foreignness of Dracula as indicative of Victorian England’s threatened moral structure and pending hoards of migrants who will suck the British Crown dry. Nor is the repetition of the Mongol invasion to blame; instead, it is the fear of esoteric truths that conflicts the minds of the steady, righteous Victorian citizen, and of lust, greed, and cruelty as the new traits of the new century. England is not afraid for England; rather, it is humans who are afraid for humanity.   

As it were, these predictions were hideously accurate. The book itself, a masterpiece of the epistolary genre, is composed in the lush style of the Gothic romances such as these earlier novels, with a scrupulous eye for detail and no frail moral backbone. Stoker was never quite able to replicate the magic of Dracula in any other of his many works, perhaps because the subject matter was not as compelling. Consider this novel or this one and their forays into, respectively, the pagan worship of a giant snake and the revivification of an Egyptian mummy, and we see that these are generally subjects for horror buffs, even if the books themselves are fantastically beautiful. But a vampire has an added element that urges us to read on and wonder about the damnation that may ensue, however silly the whole premise must seem to a logical mind, if certain criteria are not met. The legend was born because death itself remains a mystery.

Dracula’s beginning has no parallel in modern literature: it is simply the best opening to a modern novel of suspense or horror ever written. Until Jonathan Harker is abandoned in Castle Dracula to the whims of a triptych of female bloodsuckers, the book is hypnotic and impeccable. An excerpt does small justice to the precision with which Stoker describes the indescribable: 
Suddenly, away on our left I saw a faint flickering blue flame. The driver saw it at the same moment. He at once checked the horses, and, jumping to the ground, disappeared into the darkness. I did not know what to do, the less as the howling of the wolves grew closer. But while I wondered, the driver suddenly appeared again, and without a word took his seat, and we resumed our journey. I think I must have fallen asleep and kept dreaming of the incident, for it seemed to be repeated endlessly, and now looking back, it is like a sort of awful nightmare. Once the flame appeared so near the road, that even in the darkness around us I could watch the driver’s motions. He went rapidly to where the blue flame arose, it must have been very faint, for it did not seem to illumine the place around it at all, and gathering a few stones, formed them into some device. Once there appeared a strange optical effect. When he stood between me and the flame he did not obstruct it, for I could see its ghostly flicker all the same. This startled me, but as the effect was only momentary, I took it that my eyes deceived me straining through the darkness. Then for a time there were no blue flames, and we sped onwards through the gloom, with the howling of the wolves around us, as though they were following in a moving circle.  
One wonders whether a better account could be rendered of the hellfire that will surround and plague Jonathan for the entirety of the novel. How is a modern author able to present demons on earth without evoking suffocating laughter? Perhaps as the most evil of humans, with communion with the vilest beasts (although I have a soft spot for wolves), and control over the harshest weather. This is the world into which a naive young barrister enters for the sake of career advancement and for his fiancée, Mina Murray, and which they may never leave unscathed.

What happens after this first seventh of the novel is less satisfying: Dracula comes to England aboard a ship whose crew meets with a horrific fate; he seduces Lucy, a close friend of Mina’s and tries to get to Mina herself; and he is supported (if mostly in spirit) by Renfield, a former barrister now held in a London asylum. Fraught with twists typical of any modern thriller, the end chase is decidedly humdrum in comparison with the onset of this great expedition. In the intermediate scenes we are plagued by the stratagems of scholar and physician Abraham van Helsing, destined to become almost as famous as the monstrosity he has hunted for decades. Van Helsing’s diction is curious to an English ear, and has much of his native Dutch about it although it often makes for poetic interludes. His organization of a team to destroy a centuries-old source of evil is undermined by the frenetic pace of the plot, needlessly weaving together side stories to make it seem that Dracula is fenced in on many fronts, which he certainly isn’t. In the end, he is forced to scamper back to his native Transylvania, and we still do not know why he chose to forsake his local omnipotence to brave the dangers that the distant post of London provides. No particular explanation, apart from plot furtherance, is ever given. If it is boredom or isolation that drives the Count to pick up and move, one wonders what he has really been doing all these centuries. Why not take London during the Great Fire or interregnum? Let us hope that it is indeed boredom, which would be much more plausible for a character of ambition.                
 
The origin of Dracula is notably never revealed in full. He may very well be this historical figure known for impaling his opponents in battle, but he is hardly the first despot to inflict horrific suffering on his enemies. Why then would he be chosen as king of the damned? Many modern films and books have delved in speculation ranging from the most mundane (psychological and scientific references to acute taphephobia and the concomitant madness) to the most vivid (this most famous of betrayers). If it is indeed Judas behind the slaughter of centuries, then the character is well chosen and portrayed. There can be no greater penalty on a soul than a mockery of life sustained by death after death.
Friday
Nov112016

The Untouchable

I wanted to tell her about the blade of sunlight cleaving the velvet shadows of the public urinal that post-war spring afternoon in Regensburg, of the incongruous gaiety of the rain shower that fell the day of my father's funeral, of that last night with Boy when I saw the red ship under Blackfriars Bridge and conceived of the tragic significance of my life; in other words, the real things; the true things.

Why do so many betray all that they love?  An expert or three will aver that these traitors are ashamed of what they love, ashamed either of humble roots or past generations, or simply and unavoidably attracted to the garish limelight (which soon will resemble the pale moonlight, but anyway). There are other reasons, of course, reasons that involve one's own identity, so quietly and carefully folded up in a hidden suitcase, a suitcase that one cannot help but look at every time one enters the room. A suitcase one begins to imagine, as one begins to imagine entering the room and finding it again and again to make sure it's still there intact, undiscovered, sealed from oxygen and mankind. It is then, we may suppose, that the dreams commence. The nightmares or day-mares about walking in one dire day and not finding a suitcase anywhere. Because the suitcase was never there; nothing was ever hidden; and one's past comes crashing into one's present like two mirrored doors in close collision. A summary of the life and fate of the narrator of this novel. 

That our man is called Victor Maskell should not influence our impression: he has lost and will continue to lose, and the masks he has chosen are facsimiles of his own countenance. As we begin our tale, Maskell has been outed as having been far less patriotic than he might have seemed in the preceding decades establishing himself as one of Britain's finest Baroque experts, in particular of this painter of genius. Now at the threshold of his eighth decade on an ungrateful earth, he has become a widower, a lover of his "own kind," and an occasional parent, his son loathing him for what he was, his daughter pitying him for what he wasn't. He has long pondered the nature of his quandary:

In the spy's world, as in dreams, the terrain is always uncertain. You put your foot on what looks like solid ground and it gives way under you and you go into a kind of free fall, turning slowly tail up and clutching on to things that are themselves falling. This instability, this myriadness that the world takes on, is both the attraction and the terror of being a spy. Attraction, because in the midst of such uncertainty you are never required to be yourself; whatever you do, there is another, alternative you standing invisibly to one side, observing, evaluating, remembering. This is the secret power of the spy, different from the power that orders armies into battle; it is purely personal; it is the power to be and not to be, to detach oneself from oneself, to be oneself and at the same time another. The trouble is, if I were always two versions of myself, so all others must be similarly twinned with themselves in this awful, slippery way.

And where did Maskell split his being, dividing the poor son of an Irish preacher from the soon-to-be Soviet informer ("the fact is, I was both a Marxist and a Royalist")? Cambridge University of the 1920s and 1930s, a hotbed of radical thought and, on occasion, even radical action. The Great War has led to a peace once unimaginable, and the fervent idealism that courses through the veins of able-bodied intellectuals when serenity and prosperity have been secured has now embraced a new approach to humanity: a destruction of greed. The atmosphere in those years, says Maskell, "had something thrillingly suppressed in it, as if at any moment the most amazing events might suddenly begin to happen." And what events might he mean? Oh, the downfall of capitalism, the founding of a worker-based government which would control the means of production – and I believe we don't need to go on. Himself a distant relative of the queen, Maskell was not alone in his endeavors: there is Boy, who splits his day evenly between cottaging and stealing state secrets; Nick, a rich, ambitious, and rather sleek operator, whose sister Maskell would eventually marry, even if it is her brother he more greatly desired; and Leo Rothenstein, who buys Maskell his first Poussin, although maybe not for the reasons supplied at the time of purchase. There were others, of course; but their roles were mostly as supporting actors, which is another way of saying they were granted brief spurts of magniloquence then killed for the cause. One exception to this rule is the man known as Querell.  

Querell is a spy alright, but unlike his confederates he is also a writer of a series of potboilers ("He was genuinely curious about people  the sure mark of the second-rate novelist"). Maskell wonders and wonders some more about Querell, who does not seem to eat or sleep or do anything except lurk, smoking "the same, everlasting cigarette, for I never seemed able to catch him in the act of lighting up." A rather revolting scene early on in the novel, coupled with his professed Catholic faith, make Querell an even more unlikely human being and a much more likely Frankenstein's monster. So when someone informs Maskell, that "that Querell now, he has the measure of us all," our art historian begins to reconsider the popular novelist:    

Querell would come round, tall, thin, sardonic, standing with his back against the wall and smoking a cigarette, somehow crooked, like the villain in a cautionary tale, one eyebrow arched and the corners of his mouth turned down, and a hand in the pocket of his tightly buttoned jacket that I always thought could be holding a gun .... You would glance at the spot where he had been standing and find him gone, and seem to see a shadowy after-image of him, like the paler shadow left on a wall when a picture is removed.

If Querell is meant to represent, as some have surmised, this writer, then this is cruelty indeed. And it should not detract from our enjoyment of The Untouchable that Victor Maskell is modeled, hewn, and traced on this infamous figure (with the name a punning reference to this scholar), nor that many other characters, most notably Boy, have historical archetypes. Blunt was a spy, an art historian, a Communist, and a homosexual, basically in that order, and the proud Briton will always shudder at the mention of his name. Maskell knows very little about the cause he supposedly serves, probably because, for a spy, he is a very poor judge of man. An orphaned chapter segment prattles on about this anarchist, the idol of many a collegiate ignoramus, a quickly-abandoned tactic which, while oddly out of line with the narrative, spares us the stale biscuit aphorisms of the hidebound comrade. The passage is fake just like Marxism is fake, the lazy imposition of an artificial understanding on a world far more natural and complicated than even the most perspicacious Marxist could ever suspect. The only thing we are convinced of is Victor Maskell's utter selfishness, which he admits, his flimsy homosexuality (which, for most of the novel, he experiences vicariously through Boy), his family feelings (which he barely senses), and that the only thing he truly seeks is to imbue his life with some profundity, to be as memorable as the Poussin masterpieces he knows he can merely admire but never replicate.  

As in all of Banville, passages of extreme beauty grace page after page ("The Daimler .... vast, sleek, and intent, like a wild beast that had blundered into captivity and could only be let out, coughing and growling, on occasions of rare significance"; "We sat opposite each other ... in a polite, unexpectedly easy, almost companionable silence, like two voyagers sharing a cocktail before joining the captain's table, knowing we had a whole ocean of time before us in which to get acquainted"; "You will find my people at the top, or if not at the top, then determinedly scaling the rigging, with cutlasses in their teeth"), but to his credit Maskell does not drift into unabashed sentimentality, even when he fully succumbs to his genetic programming. And who is the female interlocutor in the quote beginning this review? One Serena Vandeleur (whose name recalls characters in both this novel and this one), in principle a young journalist yearning for a breakthrough as the biographer of an outcast, although Maskell has his suspicions about her true agenda. As, it should be said, he comes to have about everyone's agenda; such are the wages of duplicity. Perhaps he could just take a group photograph of his backstabbing brethren for his biography and title it The Shepherds of Arkady.

Thursday
Aug252016

The Departed

I gave you the wrong address. But you showed up at the right one.

Successful, enduring criminals – be they of the pocketbook or the heart – must be able to do one thing well, and that thing is lie. They must live under the guise of law-abiding normalcy and profess no knowledge of underworld happenings; yet for them to move up (or down) within this realm, they will have to know how to double-cross, triple-cross, and endure an endless series of betrayals just to emerge victorious. We will need a word far stronger than Pyrrhic to caption such winners' accomplishments, who don't seem nearly as happy as they should be. That is likely because they know full well the ways of the gun, which have replaced the ways of the sword without overmuch changing the outcome. A brief introduction to this much-acclaimed film.

We begin with an unmistakable voice, for our immediate purposes inhabiting the body of Francis "Frank" Costello (Jack Nicholson). At this point in his career it seems unreasonable to expect Nicholson, who rightfully owns one of cinema's most enduring reputations, to do a role that might disparage his off-screen persona. Thus even without hearing the racist platitudes he utters strolling through the noonday Boston shadows, we know what his philosophy "a man makes his own way" really means. This suspicion is reinforced in a measured early scene in which he stands very still behind sunglasses, his voice slithering from his lips. People at a family diner react to his presence, and their first impression is fear. The second, especially after a lascivious remark directed at the owner's teenage daughter, is disgust; but their third impression is perhaps unforeseeable. As he dismisses the girl from her cashier duties, Costello whispers something in her ear that induces a genuine, coquettish smile; later comments suggest that this type of banter comes to him with enviable ease. So when he turns his attention to a ten-year-old boy by the name of Colin Sullivan, we might expect the mesmerizing of a true prodigy – but this is precisely what does not occur. Costello's life (we begin to get flashbacks of his methods) is neither appealing nor safe; that he is about to turn seventy is a testimony to both his sadistic ruthlessness and a long and passionate affair with Lady Luck. And as Colin, who pleases Costello by unhesitatingly identifying the phrase non serviam with this author, replies that he does indeed do well in school, our gangster finds that they have something in common. "That's called a paradox," Costello quips, talking about himself. But what he is actually saying is that given some of the alternatives in South Boston, a microcosm of life's struggles to an Irish immigrant, organized crime is simply what people do who think the Church, the State, and every authority in between do not really abide by another Latin phrase, Deus est Deus pauperum.

Is it all about money? Well, insanity aside, there is no other explanation. Consider when a grown-up Sullivan (Matt Damon) graduates from the academy for Massachusetts State Troopers, still completely under Costello's patronage (that Costello, a publicly-known mobster, drives up to the ceremony grounds is either audacity or a glitch in the plot), and moves into an apartment that will make him "upper class on Tuesday." If his "co-signer" is who we think it is why does he want to draw attention to himself? Is there nothing more suspicious than a cop who lives in a luxurious home? These and many other, admittedly minor points in The Departed are left unaddressed, mostly just to maintain the plot's pleasantly frenetic pacing. As Sullivan is set to be Costello's inside man, we meet a moody, somewhat delicate fellow by the name of William "Bill" Costigan Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio). While Sullivan seems like he could have come from decent, hard-working folk, Costigan's pedigree is decidedly felonious: his uncle was a high-ranking criminal, as was, we are told, most of his family, and Bill spent weekends in thug-infested Southie. In fact, the only males in his family who did not have a connection to organized crime were Bill and William Sr., whom everyone labeled an underachiever because he worked baggage carts at the airport. Much later in the film, a rather dubious source insinuates that even William Sr. had criminal tendencies, although "he would never accept money" – and whatever that means may depend on what you would do for a bit of coin. With his high SAT scores, gentle manner, and pretty boy looks, Costigan doesn't strike one as a typical cop – even if he has attended and excelled at the same academy that graduated Sullivan. And for that reason, among others, is he a near-perfect candidate to infiltrate Costello's gang. 

Counterpoised moles are hardly a novelty and, indeed, The Departed is itself a remake of one of Hong Kong's most successful cinematic ventures. I cannot say I plan to see Infernal Affairs – one of the greatest movie titles of all time – because most of its pleasures will likely already have been filched by Scorsese and his exquisite cast (a scene with Chinese gangsters, a tip of the hat to the original, is perhaps the film's least necessary, merely allowing Costello to indulge in more ethnic slurs). After the identity-switching motif starts feeling at once contrived and too devoid of genuine suspense, one character makes a brilliant leap in logic by entertaining a second character’s advice then reversing it. The utter genius of this tactic is undermined by the fact that it seems to bear fruit that very day, but such is the expediency of the plot. This monumentally fateful decision triggers a slow climax that shines at so many moments it is hard to count them all. The best may be when one mole calls the other, and neither one says a word, both of them fully aware that the person on the line is either the spy each has long sought or a dead man (and, in a way, he is both). Another occurs at a funeral, when we see one character approaching from very far off and know she will not look at much less stop for Sullivan, who issues perhaps the film’s most piteous single line. Yet the film will be remembered not for its moments of silence but for its barbs, most of which are not printable without expunction. Costello gets some of the finest repartees (the quote that ends “With me, it tends to be the other guy” must rank as the absolute best), as does a bilious bully of a cop called Sean Dignam (Mark Wahlberg), who has some choice words about everyone, including federal agents. It is when, however, a dead man turns up that we thought could not possibly be a policeman, but is declared as such by the evening news, that we start to wonder about another scene which suddenly makes much more sense – including the unforgettable line that begins this review.

I have never cared terribly much for this famous trilogy. Yes, Coppola’s works are beautifully, almost tenderly, produced; but the romanticizing of the Mafioso lifestyle belies the ugly truth of its daily business. That is why The Departed and, in a very different way, this brutal masterpiece, are more powerful statements on America’s most revered bandits (this work, also by Scorsese, while at times even-handed, likewise drifts too far down lover’s lane). Although The Departed is very much a character study, the details do not allow us to forget we are dealing with a grim environment (this is, in other words, not a French film). Surveillance and technology sustain shocking failures, fistfights break out regularly over trifles, and, as is usually the case among men who beat heads for a living and those who seek to arrest those men, an endless litany of filth drips from everyone's mouth. The vitriol is pervasive and nasty, but verbal violence, talking the talk, especially in this age of political correctness, is the first rite of the outlaw. The only person somewhat immune to this disease is police psychiatrist Madolyn Madden (Vera Farmiga), the lone female with more than two minutes of screen time and/or four lines of dialogue. Apart from the teenager in the opening scene and a few pro forma 'policewomen' who do nothing more than smile shyly, Madden is the only female who isn't a corpse, nun, hooker, or secretary – the four age-old misogynist categories subscribed to by imbecile men. At least we can report that something will happen to Madden that is wholly predictable, and something else that is dramatically incorrect yet laudable, specifically because it so defies expectations. And does the rest not defy expectations? I think a rat can always see it coming.

Saturday
Jul162016

The Room in the Dragon Volant

My eyes were often on the solemn old clock over the chimneypiece, which was my sole accomplice in keeping tryst in this iniquitous venture. The sky favored my design, and darkened all things with a sea of clouds.

                                                                                                                               Richard Beckett

We may concur with the above quote, taken from this novella, apart from the first five words of the second sentence. If it is sometimes impossible to detect from a first-person narrative whether or not the narrator is observant, awake, or even sane, a careful writer will allow him enough interaction with the world, often in dialogue with other characters, for the reader to make that assessment. In The Room in the Dragon Volant, this assessment is ultimately unkind; but the story, like its female protagonist, pulls us towards an eddy with irresistible charm.

Our time is that "eventful year, 1815," and our protagonist the aforementioned Mr. Beckett, an Englishman of twenty-three. As the tale begins he finds himself the heir to a decent fortune and elects to gallivant around France, a country whose language he speaks smoothly and correctly, and thereby to add to the "philosophical throng" of young people who hoped "to improve their minds by foreign travel" (a most admirable goal). We will learn a lot about Richard Beckett, especially about his weaknesses, the most egregious of which was supposed to have been purged from the European spirit around the year of Beckett's birth – but no matter. The first glance into his values, on the occasion of his helping a horse-drawn coach in distress, does not reassure us:

The arms that were emblazoned on the panel were peculiar; I remember especially one device it was the figure of a stork, painted in carmine, upon what the heralds call a 'field or.' The bird was standing upon one leg, and in the other claw held a stone. This is, I believe, the emblem of vigilance. Its oddity struck me, and remained impressed upon my memory. There were supporters besides, but I forget what they were. The courtly manners of these people, the style of their servants, the elegance of their traveling carriage, and the supporters to their arms, satisfied me that they were noble. The lady, you may be sure, was not the less interesting on that account. What a fascination a title exercises upon the imagination! I do not mean on that of snobs or moral flunkies. Superiority of rank is a powerful and genuine influence in love. The idea of superior refinement is associated with it. The careless notice of the squire tells more upon the heart of the pretty milk-maid than years of honest Dobbin's manly devotion, and so on and up. It is an unjust world!

Beckett may not wish to be associated with "moral flunkies," but his subsequent actions make that comparison inevitable. The coach will turn out to belong to a certain Count de St. Alyre,  and a much younger woman, "the daughter or wife, it matters not which." That "it matters not which" to our narrator, when it should very much matter, is justified to our incredulous ears by a series of statements on the Countess's misery and the rumored wickedness of her keeper. And so it is to this "beautiful Countess, with the patience of an angel and the beauty of a Venus and the accomplishments of all the Muses," that the idealistic and ingenuous Beckett will recur – but not before he makes the acquaintance of someone he would like to forget, a ghostly soldier called Colonel Gaillarde.  

I have not mentioned the plot because the plot is so standard as to be better off left unscrutinized. Gaillarde and another fellow, a Marquis who claims to be incognito for reasons that may satisfy Beckett but should not satisfy us, hover in our hero's vicinity as he makes one bad decision after another. Le Fanu was an amazingly prolific writer who is remembered now mostly for this tale, which somehow has never done it for me. Surely, like everything he composed, Carmilla is a prolonged victory of style; yet, any story that allows supernatural elements to defeat the efforts of man must be of extraordinary interest, a point in which Le Fanu's lady vampire falls short. The real delight in a work like The Room in the Dragon Volant is how a very plain and pleasing plot whose secrets are discernible to even a callow reader can still remain so delicious. Beckett trusts the Marquis from the very beginning because of a mild confidence trick that would admittedly fool much greater minds; but after a bizarre sequence in a coach that could only spell doom for our protagonist, the Marquis inexplicably remains in his good books (perhaps this conceit is merely an attempt to record the sensations as they occurred at the time, since Beckett informs us he is now an old man reminiscing about his twenty-fourth year). Towards the middle of his adventure, Beckett is urged at a masked ball to consult an oracle on his innermost desires – as if they weren't stenciled in boldface on his sleeve, but anyway. The result is one of the novella's finest passages:

I had been trying to see the person who sat in the palanquin. I had only once an opportunity of a tolerably steady peep. What I saw was singular. The oracle was dressed, as I have said, very richly, in the Chinese fashion. He was a figure altogether on a larger scale than the interpreter, who stood outside. The features seemed to me large and heavy, and the head was carried with a downward inclination! The eyes were closed, and the chin rested on the breast of his embroidered pelisse. The face seemed fixed, and the very image of apathy. Its character and pose seemed an exaggerated repetition of the immobility of the figure who communicated with the noisy outer world. This face looked blood-red; but that was caused, I concluded, by the light entering through the red silk curtains. All this struck me almost at a glance; I had not many seconds in which to make my observation. The ground was now clear, and the Marquis said, 'Go forward, my friend.'

Go forward, indeed. Without giving much away, including what the oracle intuits regarding our gullible Englishman, we note that this scene more than any other explains Mr. Beckett's failings, although Beckett may not see it that way, despite the decades of hindsight that his narrative affords him. That leaves, I suppose, only one last thing unaccounted for, namely the airworthy lizard of our title. So if I were to tell you that the dragon were nothing more than a haunted hotel, I think you would be more than a little disappointed. Just don't ask why Beckett, even with his solid French, does not see the multifaceted humor in an individual being called Pierre de la Roche St. Amand. Or why he doesn't notice that he and the young Frenchman are precisely the same age.

Wednesday
Jan272016

The Black Prince

It is the woman's privilege to save herself at the man's expense.

You may know little about this author apart from what was depicted in this film, which for more than one reason I cannot recommend. Despite Bayley's presumably good intentions, the portrait of his wife could not have been any less flattering (if Iris had its way, Murdoch's sexuality and dreadful descent into dementia would become the bookends on her memorial), although writers in film rarely come off as anything other than bores, neurotic bastards, or incorrigible dreamers. Pondering what Murdoch the woman was and wasn't does not befit the discriminating reader: any biography of hers may have anecdotal value, but her true life is her literary oeuvre, the history of her soul. An odd interest in Murdoch has persisted owing to a childhood recollection of two of her books gracing my parents' shelves. The first one has a most peculiar name, but everything thereafter came as a disappointment; the second, far greater work, is this fine novel.

Our time and place is early 1970s London, and our narrator is a high-strung, largely unsuccessful British writer by the name of Bradley Pearson. Readers who like symbols and crossword puzzles will immediately note that the book's title and protagonist share initials (readers such as these, I fear, will find little catnip among my pages). At fifty-eight, Pearson is well past life's middle path; he is childless and bitterly divorced, although his sexual affiliation will be questioned on more than one occasion; his friends and acquaintances are few; he is most certainly an alcoholic; and his family consists primarily of his sister Priscilla, who will turn out in her harmless Philistine way to be one of the most annoying characters in modern literature. Pearson has published a few books to critical and consumer indifference but insists, as good writers must, that his inner life replete with unwritten tomes more than compensates for this lack of recognition (his style is streaked with genius). His nemesis, therefore, must be a prolific and utterly worthless writer who hardly bothers to edit a single line of his trendy triteness. A profile apposite to Pearson's old chum, Arnold Baffin:

I 'discovered' Arnold, a considerably younger man, when I was already established as a writer, and he, recently out of college, was just finishing his first novel .... He was a schoolmaster, having lately graduated in English literature at the University of Reading. We met at a meeting. He coyly confessed his novel. I expressed polite interest. He sent me the almost completed typescript. (This was, of course, Tobias and the Fallen Angel. Still, I think, his best work.) I thought the piece had some merits and I helped him to find a publisher for it. I also reviewed it quite favorably when it came out. Thus began one of the most, commercially speaking, successful of recent literary careers. Arnold at once, contrary as it happens to my advice, gave up his job as a teacher and devoted himself to 'writing.' He wrote easily, producing every year a book which pleased the public taste. Wealth, fame followed.

Like all thriving second-raters, Baffin is worshipped by the average person impressed by his own ignorance and too scared to develop his own opinion (indeed, one minor character stares dimly as she labels Baffin "her favorite writer"). That Pearson has maintained his alleged friendship with Baffin, going so far as to have become a weekly dinner guest, might bespeak envy or simply the proximity that two people who love books require, even if what they get out of books is decidedly different. The fact that Pearson accords most praise to Arnold's first novel (likely started while still an undergraduate, when one knows absolutely nothing), and that the novel's title suggests a young readers' paperback about Biblical characters, should tell you all you need to know about Arnold Baffin.  

As we begin our tale, therefore, Arnold summons Pearson to his house after a domestic incident concludes in abject cruelty. Mrs. Rachel Baffin, a tall, spatially disruptive woman with freckles, is comforted by Pearson and we quickly learn about their insidious past together. Of course, since there is nothing easier to write about than betrayal, this past will bleed into the present, a point that cannot be overstated, and yet Pearson is only half-heartedly interested in Rachel the person. Rachel the fictional creation of the novel he is "destined" to write, however, fills him with action, literary action, that is, the unquenchable desire to reproduce emotions and thoughts in a tidy, ethical framework. I say "ethical" framework not only to betray my own sensibilities, but also those of Bradley Pearson, that self-anointed "puritan," and lifelong member of "some old unpassionate, rather ascetic cult." Pearson's wish is that we see him not necessarily as "ethical," but that we see him at all. That we notice him from amidst the throngs of published authors who write about themselves and their circles of family, friends, and lovers and hope to God that a somewhat less ordinary existence could interest an outsider. We meet the other persons in this circle and grow more suspicious of Pearson's motives: there is Priscilla, his only sibling, a hysterical, wretched disaster freshly dumped by her rat of a husband, even if, knowing how she is, no one could possibly blame him; Francis, Pearson's brother-in-law and, as opposed to Bradley, a non-functioning alcoholic; Christian, the erstwhile Mrs. Pearson, a rich widow fresh off a couple of decades in the New World; and finally Julian Baffin, twenty, female, named after the saint, the Baffins' only child and the third main character with an androgynous first name. Why is that significant? Well, it likely isn't; it is rather a tactic to remind us to consider another, far less interesting reading of The Black Prince of the kind so beloved by fashionable minds who construct their insipid labyrinths only to cloak their utter lack of talent. Pearson will learn something very interesting about Christian and something in a way just as shocking about Francis. But his aim throughout is self-discovery, the writer's "dream of a silence which [he] must enter, as some creatures return to the sea to spawn," and over the novel's longish arc we will discover quite a great deal about Bradley Pearson.  

Murdoch's prose has much to offer those who cannot do without impeccable style, a fact which, coupled with her strong moral compass, would be enough to guarantee her legacy. Nevertheless, she is often deemed a "philosopher," as if the added title does her or that nebulous word any justice whatsoever. Even if we were to consider The Black Prince the summit of her achievement, masticating too long on the asides and aphorisms would only direct the preprogrammed and dull to explore vacuous alleys. Samples of the style prove the point: "Julian suggested that we should collect some wood for the fire, but this proved difficult because every bit of wood we found was far too beautiful to burn"; "These were not words, but the highest coinage of human speech melted down, become pure song, something vilely, almost murderously gorgeous"; "The future had passed through the present like a sword"; "In waiting time devours itself .... yet at the same instant the terrified mind has flown ahead through centuries of unenlightened despair"; "The return of a passionate letter unread desolates far regions of the imagination"; "Death always seems to commit truth to some wider and larger court"; "The hand of death modelled him speedily, soon made his head a skull"; "Like spirits of the damned pricked by the devil's fork we bounded up." A casual sexist − a most unintendedly fabulous term − might comment that far too many humid, chatty conversations surface in The Black Prince, conversations that no male writer would ever deign to record. Given what Pearson consistently says about such techniques, the inclusion of these chats (some of them, admittedly, could stand to be diminished) should be understood as ironical, a brilliant method allowing characters to perjure themselves. And why would any one of these fine citizens perjure himself? Perhaps because no character, fictional or otherwise, may have "unassailable dignity." But whether they have any at all is another matter entirely.  

Thursday
Nov262015

The Jewel of Seven Stars

There is little in the way of evidence that we understand what this ancient civilization truly accomplished. We have disinterred tombs, deciphered a hieratic language of obscure characters and darker gods, and mimicked the Egyptians’ customs and designs endlessly in an array of films and media (to the last any self-respecting horror fan will attest). Yet what we haven’t understood so dwarfs our discoveries that pensive minds tend to consider a rather terrible alternative: the Egyptians were so far ahead of their age as to remain uncanny forever. Canopic jars, thurification that has proven irreproducible, astronomy that may be more accurate than we care to imagine, mummifying techniques never seen before or since – never mind the everlasting monuments that have symbolized the country in our imagination. For a number of reasons the Egypt of today has little in common with its glorious past, but one thing from which it has not strayed is its ability to enchant and attract. One of the prototypes of Egypt’s mysteries can be found in this seminal novel.

Our hero and first-person narrator is Malcolm Ross, a nice name for a nice fellow. He is a single London barrister, quite professional and Victorian in the sense that he feels a deeply rooted repulsion towards the easy virtues that men in his position routinely enjoy. What he wants is a wife, a goddess he can place upon a pedestal and focus his awe upon until his ghost departs. We learn these facts quickly but as sidelights to another tale. A certain Margaret Trelawny, a young, retiring, raven-haired beauty, calls upon Ross to help her tend to her father Abel, who just happens to be a wealthy, world-famous Egyptologist and also just happens to have fallen into an unexplained hypnotic stupor. Ross comes racing in heart and leg only to find a wicked scene: the explorer is unconscious, bleeding from an odd scratch on a bangled wrist, his room of Egyptian antiquities sealed from within; he also lies at a strange angle to a safe whose contents shall remain unidentified for most of our story. A physician, a couple of incredulous policemen, and a band of snooping household staff all combine for a plain body of voices and visions – not one being of any particular interest – yet as a whole they provide a fine chorus for what is essentially a romance cast against a Gothic landscape. In the face of upped precautions the next night the event repeats itself (with the added bonus of a catatonic nurse), at which point Ross, a hopeless Romantic to begin with, now comes to consider that something otherworldly may be the catalyst. The policemen wish to instill in Ross the notion of empirical proof; the servants are aghast at the poltergeist-like attacks and quit in droves. But Ross is in love (detractors may carp that the novel devotes far too many pages to hand-holding and unrequited affection) and nothing on earth or beyond could drag him away from the object of his obsession. That is, until the appearance of a frantic polymath by the name of Corbeck.

A leather-faced collaborator of Margaret’s father just arrived from an operose three-year excursion on his partner’s dime, Corbeck’s degrees and level of learning are so extraordinary as to broach the inhuman. After some debate on the theft of a set of seven Pharaonic lamps that Corbeck insists are unique, Ross is handed a 17th-century Dutch travelogue on a tomb, a jewel, and a sinister mummy hand that guards that same jewel outside of its sarcophagus. The hand, you see, has seven fingers, and the jewel it protects contains the constellation of seven stars that appear to compose a sort of mandate from heaven. In time, we hear of a young and beautiful Queen Tera who inherits the throne as very much the envy of a theocratic cabal thirsting for power. We are regaled on stories of the Queen’s innovation and intelligence as our novel progresses, but that is not how the Dutch traveler van Huyn recalls an episode from his journey:

The fellaheen absolutely refused to enter the valley at such a time, alleging that they might be caught by the night before they could emerge from the other end. At first they would give no reason for their fear. They had hitherto gone anywhere I wished, and at any time, without demur. On being pressed, however, they said that the place was the Valley of the Sorcerer, where none might come in the night. On being asked to tell of the Sorcerer, they refused, saying there was no name, and that they knew nothing. On the next morning, however, when the sun was up and shining down the valley, their fears had somewhat passed away. Then they told me that a great Sorcerer in ancient days – ‘millions of millions of years’ was the term they used – a King or a Queen, they could not say which, was buried there. They could not give the name, persisting to the last that there was no name; and that anyone who should name it would waste away in life so that at death nothing of him would remain to be raised again in the Other World.

Ross reads on to find a fantastic sepulcher as well as the sorcerer in question – or at least, the curse that followed the desecrators and their loot. If you’ve seen a couple of mummy movies, the consequences of such greed will be quite clear to you.  As will the oddly parallel lives of Margaret and the much-beleaguered seven-fingered Queen.  

There are a few conclusions to draw about the novel that recommend themselves upon re-reading. We have the very distinct impression that our opening scene may not appear to be what it claims; we also comprehend that a human being who has willed herself seven digits cannot be holy. There is also the not nugatory matter of the novel’s two editions. The original, published to much vitriol in 1903, features an ending quite in keeping with the cataclysmic predictions of the forerunning chapters. It also contains a chapter omitted in the 1912 edition entitled “Powers – Old and New,” that holds forth elegantly and quite reasonably on the implications of the discovery at hand. While the ‘happy ending’ of the 1912 can at best be termed lamentable and at worst incoherent, the omission of the 1903 edition’s sixteenth chapter might be the more egregious sin. It is in this brief chapter that Ross, an introspective and overly sensitive young man, mulls history as a whole, its myths and its gods, the visions of artists who looked askance at the basic notions of divine power and glory:

The whole possibility of the Great Experiment to which we were now pledged was based on the reality of the existence of the Old Forces which seemed to be coming in contact with the New Civilization. That there were, and are, such cosmic forces we cannot doubt, and that the Intelligence, which is behind them, was and is. Were those primal and elemental forces controlled at any time by other than that Final Cause which Christendom holds as its very essence? If there were truth at all in the belief of Ancient Egypt then their Gods had real existence, real power, real force …. If then the Old Gods held their forces, wherein was the supremacy of the new? ….What was it that Milton saw with his blind eyes in the rays of poetic light falling between him and Heaven? Whence came that stupendous vision of the Evangelist which has for eighteen centuries held spellbound the intelligence of Christendom?

This is the precise reasoning of a Christian, but also of any monotheist gazing at the dynasties that allegedly yielded only one ruler who wished to believe in a single universal force. There is, anyway, something more than a little off-putting about gods with the heads of hyenas or birds. Not that you'd ever know that from all their modern acolytes. 

Tuesday
Jul142015

Counterparts

Most of us are comfortable with the notion of failure (epitomized perhaps by the maxim "Fail better" from this Irishman); the only matter left to define is failure itself. We accept failure at a certain age because our body signals that it can no longer improve, that actions once easy and insouciant have now become concerning and treacherous. The lightness of youth seems long gone. In its place come for the privileged among us more cerebral tasks and, indeed, more responsibilities. The mind develops, strengthens, maybe even never ceases to peak, but the body descends into simpler routines, longer rest and more fervent adherence to medical advice. Failure can also be perceived as relative, an unfortunate byproduct of a world in which we constantly wonder about the other side and its emerald hills. Which brings us to this nasty, brutish, and short tale.  

Our protagonist acts anonymously most of the story, but is eventually revealed as a Dubliner by the name of Farrington. Farrington is a large and violent man in frame and temperament. The aspirations of his youth, while unabandoned, seem distant although their aspirer is not old. His elbows twitch atop a desk he detests beneath the office of a man he hates even more, and all that he seeks in his mind has as little to do with his reality as we are permitted to imagine it. Since this is a tale of petty failure the details of the story are appropriately frivolous, yet a few deserve mention. As in this famous story Farrington labors as a scrivener, spending his time copying out the words and ideas of others without the slightest possible amendment of his own other than proper spelling. Such work may be vapid, but it also suggests living in the shadows of those who have succeeded. They have succeeded because their words mean action; and action signifies movement in life, change, improvement, the approbation of others, their consent and, finally, authority over them and power. It would hardly be exaggeration to claim that all these qualities are lacking in Farrington's professional life. What we learn, however, is that this effeteness extends into all aspects of his ineluctable modality.

As we begin our brief glimpse into what must be a daily plight, we find Farrington summoned to the office by Mr. Alleyne, his boss. Alleyne is a typical boss in the sense that he offers little to support his statements other than his mandarin authority. He is slight, bald, and redolent of something distinct yet unpleasant. Alleyne has nothing nice to say to our man: according to Alleyne, Farrington lunches too long, copies poorly, shirks the menial tasks he accrues, resorts to that most despicable habit of quoting others as sources of information (a great way to offend your boss), and in general evinces little interest in his work or the well-being of the firm that so graciously hired him. Upon hearing this tirade, Farrington's thoughts are opened to our inspection:

Mr. Alleyne bent his head again upon his pile of papers. The man stared fixedly at the polished skull which directed the affairs of Crosbie & Alleyne, gauging its fragility. A spasm of rage gripped his throat for a few moments and then passed, leaving after it a sharp sensation of thirst. The man recognised the sensation and felt that he must have a good night's drinking. The middle of the month was passed and, if he could get the copy done in time, Mr. Alleyne might give him an order on the cashier. He stood still, gazing fixedly at the head upon the pile of papers. Suddenly Mr. Alleyne began to upset all the papers, searching for something. Then, as if he had been unaware of the man's presence till that moment, he shot up his head again, saying: 'Eh? Are you going to stand there all day? Upon my word, Farrington, you take things easy!' 'I was waiting to see...' 'Very good, you needn't wait to see. Go downstairs and do your work.' The man walked heavily towards the door and, as he went out of the room, he heard Mr. Alleyne cry after him that if the contract was not copied by evening Mr. Crosbie would hear of the matter.

A paterfamilias – Farrington is the resentful father of five – should not, in a logic-fitted world, yearn to go boozing with the boys; nor should he, in that same world, pawn off a watch chain to afford such debauchery. Were the author himself not Irish, he might be accused of cheap stereotyping (there is no expensive variant). But Joyce knows the kind he describes because Farrington contains a lot of him, and even more of more common men. That is to say, perhaps it is indeed natural for a man burdened by insatiable accountability to want to return to lighter days, evenings that lasted as long as one's thirst, dreams that extended those evenings down rich and glorious paths. But what Farrington undertakes later that evening with a bacchanalian crew, and then at home with his children, makes us lose all hope for his redemption.

Had the story been entitled "Farrington," "The Family Father," or "The Long Night after the Long Day," we might have concluded our analysis at the aforementioned points; failure, after all, has been one of literature's most enduring topics because, over time, tragedy and failure slip into synonymity. Yet "Counterparts" is as curious a headline as Farrington's actions are almost egregiously predictable. It has been proposed that the foil to our surly scribe is none other than his young son, who has little of his father so far, trapped in some narrow, infantile bliss that permits many to survive their childhoods. One might just as rationally argue for the ostensible pleasures gained by Alleyne as he hosts a female guest in his office, and then Farrington when he encounters a woman from London during his pub crawl. Another duo, however, can be taken into consideration, one of whom is certainly Farrington and the other of whom may well have been Farrington in an idealized future whose energy comes purely from the past. The only question is to what degree they have decided to co-exist in this plain and awful present.   

Sunday
May102015

A Little Cloud

The author of this story is split in two: Ignatius Gallaher, the cosmopolitan rake who has no interest in anything and his hand in everything; and our title character, the meek and pious Thomas "Little" Chandler who loves the night and melancholy poetry. Normally, such a dichotomy would beget deep sighs of disdain from the literary-minded who want their figures clear but not clear-cut. Yet in this case the debate is far more fundamental: it is the debate between those who choose to live for their families and those who only live for themselves. Joyce, a man who by most accounts never really decided between these two life paths, only succeeded in one facet of his existence, that of art. His methods were hardly novel, albeit well-chosen. At the age of twenty-two, Joyce selected his bride from among the fairest maidens of Dublin  she not being one of them  because it was she whom he was destined to love and it was she who would accompany him to Trieste, to Switzerland, to Paris so that he would never be completely alone. It is common for literary biographers to overextend the influence of their subject's work into the personal and intimate banalities that lead to practically every coupling on earth as well as every inhabitant. Perhaps we are fools for supposing that a great artist can separate his identity from his reality, his dreams from the contagious mist of mediocrity that swirls about him on every corner, his physical and emotional handicaps from the weaknesses of all men at all times. Yet this is precisely what Joyce attempted, and he tried harder at it than any other major writer of the twentieth century. He failed and failed badly and almost became a footnote within Irish literature. Now we can imagine it: Here lies James Augustine Aloysius Joyce, b. 1882.  Addio terra, addio cielo

Around the age of thirty-two, however, when, like Little Chandler's, "his temperament might be said to be just at the point of maturity," and after ten years of Bohemian uprisings that nearly resulted in his family's perdition, Joyce opted to wed the everyday and the elevated, and in so doing showed us the full contour of his soul. Rarely had such an educated man such a filthy sense of humor; among the truly great (this doesn't mean you, Mr. Sterne) only Mozart's and Goethe's seemed to be on the same base plane. It is this hedonistic, selfish, scatological Joyce that cradles the Petri dish that is Ignatius, both a famous saint and a name rooted in fire and the diabolical pursuits of the Greatest of Pleasure Seekers. Ignatius does not possess a single redeeming quality, and Joyce would have it no other way. Conceding some elements of humanity to this despicable lout would deprive him completely of his relevance as a symbol and the more-than-rare occurrence of someone slowly becoming the poster child for the vice he or she embodies (in Ignatius's case, the vices are a collective). 

Is Ignatius simply a wastrel in a primitive allegory about values? Most certainly; yet he is also representative of the need of modern humanity  even though the need has surfaced time and again for centuries  to justify its instincts by praising the beauty of youth, of frivolity, of unaccountability, of meaninglessness. I think the majority of young men of privilege, myself included, have fought through the phase which Ignatius endorses as truth itself. Take for example Chandler's worries about the City of Lights:

 Tell me, is it true that Paris is so ... immoral as they say?

Ignatius made a Catholic gesture with his right arm.

 Every place is immoral, he said. Of course you do find spicy bits in Paris. Go to one of the students' balls, for instance. That's lively, if you like, when the cocottes begin to let themselves loose. You know what they are, I suppose?

 I've heard of them, said Little Chandler.

The only sincere statement in this whole exchange is Chandler's first question, a fear of missing out on the best that life has to offer, if that's really what one defines as the best. For every girl that becomes part of our past, there are a dozen that can only populate our speculative dreams. And for Chandler, married two years ago at the uncoincidental age of thirty, life consists of refraining from the poetry that his soul desperately wishes to express in favor of a bourgeois home of wife, child, and unambitious job. There is little wrong to such a scenario apart from the great injustice it inflicts upon the artistically minded. Those select few may have other jobs in which they support themselves while spending evenings and weekends on their true passion; and they may manage a personal life that needn't be a series of mistakes, regrets, or distractions. Chandler would be the person to strike such a balance if he weren't, in his own words, "timid." That is why, after his futile evening in Gallaher's shadow,  "he [still] wished to vindicate himself in some way, to assert his manhood," the silliest and most juvenile of male instincts, even at the somber age of thirty-two.

The end of A Little Cloud has been much discussed, but it is not as significant as the rest of the story. As is unfortunate in tales of simple characters that gain in importance owing to the smoothness of their correspondence to people we know, we are prone to manufacture our judgments from our last impressions, from fateful cracks in the armor of otherwise solid citizens who have perhaps just lost their way. Once Chandler determines that "Gallaher was only patronizing him by his friendliness just as he was patronizing Ireland by his visit," the mood shifts from hopeful expectation to resentment to a brief acknowledgement of the greatest ill of our modern society  selfishness. Never before has man been so capable of forging his own destiny  without anyone else, without country, without God  and transforming himself into who or what he desires regardless of "birth and education," two factors in which Chandler is actually Gallaher's superior. But with this freedom comes a concomitant responsibility that is far harder to embrace. As hard in fact as Chandler's infant child  a boy and little cloud who, like his father, continues to pass unnoticed through the twilight sky.

Saturday
Apr182015

Shroud 

He is called by many names, and no one can say which was rightfully and originally his; many authorities maintain his name was first of all a sobriquet. He is without doubt of divine essence, if not, indeed, Mercury himself, god of twilight and the wind, the patron of thieves and panders. He is Proteus, too, now delicate, now offensive, comic or melancholic, sometimes lashed into a frenzy of madness. He is the creator of a new form of poetry, accented by gestures, punctuated by somersaults, enriched with philosophic reflections and incongruous noises. He is the first poet of acrobatics and unseemly sounds. His black half-mask completes the impression of something savage and fiendish, suggesting a cat, a satyr, an executioner.

Our beliefs assume curious shapes as dusk descends; what we have loved becomes either more enchanting or more alien; what we have feared glows with illuminant strength; and what we have known sinks into a morass of ruinous doubt. It is not our faith weakening as the light, but our gradual glimpse of the obverse of that old coin we had been carrying so confidently in our pockets. And even if the two-headed coin of conjurors and charlatans, one face will necessarily be darker, the duplicate or understudy. A small hint at the structure of this novel.

Our novel is cloven into three, perhaps because only three characters have any bearing on its outcome. The first and most rotund is a tall, lecherous, one-eyed beast of an academic with the unripe name of Axel Vander. The name, as any speaker of Dutch will tell you, seems to indicate a nobiliary particle with a syncopation of its final and most important component – a fact that Vander duly notes, then, like most everything else, brushes to the side to deal with more pressing problems. The most pressing at hand may come in the form of Catherine Cleave, dite Cass, our second character, apparently Irish, and as young, feminine, and thin as the aging Vander is bulgingly male. She enters our landscape as the novel opens in his own thoughts; she has discovered his secrets and intends, like any unsteady extortionist, to meet her victim in person. He travels, sweating, cursing, knocking a bad leg to the metronome of his cane, to Italy from California, land of the gold rush, of lawlessness and, towards the end of the twentieth century – a century that he knows almost in its entirety – a cultural vacuum where a learned man can hide in peace. More specifically, he will meander to Turin, where he initially plans, like any practiced murderer, to cast Cass Cleave from this famous tower and be done with her.

What our plot entails cannot and should not be elaborated upon in these pages; the pleasure of reading Banville hardly extends into the superficial realm of artifice. His repeated triumphs are the victories of style that frame details so minute as to seem both obvious and radiant. Vander dreams he will rot in a "cavernous hospital in which all the other beds, twenty or thirty of them, were empty, and sinisterly waiting"; America to him "seemed like a nonce-word, or an unsolvable anagram, with too many vowels in it"; when asked for a glass of water, a ubiquitous waiter in the Antwerp hotel where Cass and Axel's paths finally cross, "nodded, or perhaps it was a little bow that he made, briefly letting his eyelids fall as he did so, and murmured something, and padded off into the shadows" (I had initially read the passage as "paddled," which would have been even more magnificent). What can be said is that both Axel and Cass – who almost devolve into a rather fitting anagram – are subject to acute hallucinations that could easily be diagnosed by people who enjoy easy diagnoses and easy living. Such an approach will not, however, get us very far. Vander has something wicked on his conscience; it could very well be the fate of his late wife, Magda, appearing most frequently as a stuffed corpse; or a numinous link to Cass's father who revels in the mendacity of the professional actor; or even something increasingly distant for the contemporary reader – the bottomless perdition of the last European War. Contracts were drawn up, mostly with the Devil or his minions, and persons otherwise unconsulted in battle strategies or occupation policies suddenly tended to chirp from the obscurest branches. Vander recalls one of his Belgian compatriots in this vein:

Although at the time I had a foot in the door of a number of papers and periodicals, the Vlaamsche Gazet was unlikely to have been amongst them. The paper's editorial attitude was one of noisy and confident anticipation of what it called the Day of Unity, when all the country's unnamed enemies would finally be dealt with. This Day of Unity was never defined, and a date was never put on it, but everyone knew what it would be when it came, and knew who those enemies were, too. The editor, Hendriks – I have forgotten his first name – large, overweight, glistening, with a wheezing laugh and furtive eyes, had, in the early years of that dirty decade that was now coming to a calamitous end, decided in which direction the future was headed, despite the fact that, in private, he expressed nothing but contempt for our immediate and increasingly menacing neighbor to the east.

Vander will gain the by-lines he so craves, and only at the cost of a few scruples; Hendriks gets his comeuppance a few years after the war as one of the swinging sacks of Jack Ketch. Whether Vander sees this fate as justice depends in no small part to what he thinks of destiny, whether what we do and those who fall as our victims could play any role in our own condemnation – and perhaps enough has been said on the matter.

There is a topical undercurrent to Shroud that may rile those who believe in art as an island replete with apolitical fauna and flora. At worst, the implications come off as a thin crutch, no more supportive than Vander's own Faustian staff; at best, the historical context infuses the tale with much-needed logic and causality. And yet, there are many unlikelihoods. That long and horrific night when an anonymous letter, in a Satanic reversal of a Biblical passage, saves Vander from certain destruction; the random appearances of a secondary character of impossible age best accounted for as "an off-duty clown"; the syndrome (perhaps lifted from this novel) that causes Cass to smell almonds and then slowly unfurl the foolscap of her very troubled mind; the whole conceit of Lady Laura, whose life is an amalgamation of so many woeful habits that it would seem well-nigh impossible for her to exist for the years and the circumstances provided (although her nasty form of retribution is spot-on); yet the most unlikely of all the scenarios involves Cass herself. That Kristina Kovacs, a former flame now dying as slowly as Vander's memories, would be interested in one last carnal exploration in which she might recall the Sapphic nights of her enlightened youth is perfectly plausible; that Vander himself could see anything in his blackmailer except insanity may suggest what state his mind and soul currently inhabit. Yet through this long and lusty poem, one face stands out as true and enduring, the "raptor's profile of a desert monarch," a thin and eternally pensive physician who comes to Vander's aid then hovers in his vicinity. Perhaps he is convincing because his secret is unambiguously clear; perhaps his utter indifference and opposition to Vander can be taken as a symbol of what Vander has long since avoided. And we haven't even mentioned who gets to play the Harlequin.

Wednesday
Oct222014

Mr. Justice Harbottle

There is a tinge to tales of the morbid that appeals both to the vulgarian and those of elevated sensibilities. The vulgarian, of course, will enjoy first the trepidation and the terrorizing and lust secretly for disembowelments; those of finer mind will be able to read the same pages with the same words and detect a design far more sinister than plain brutishness. Is this why I have always loved ghost stories? Is this the vulgarian in me or someone striving towards greater understanding of our realm through the prism of art? Whatever the case, those of faith know hooves when they see them dragged through the dirt. Which brings us to this horrid little gem

Our titular character is not a merry old soul, and never a merry old soul could he possibly have been. He is, however, a man of particular sway since his bench has wrought the most death notices of any other under the crown – well, actually, that matter may be implied but not confirmed. A description of our judge during his last living year suggests something of the Dickensian tyrant laden with terrible auspices:

The Judge was at that time a man of some sixty-seven years.  He had a great mulberry-colored face, a big, carbuncled nose, fierce eyes, and a grim and brutal mouth. My father, who was young at the time, thought it the most formidable face he had ever seen; for there were evidences of intellectual power in the formation and lines of the forehead. His voice was loud and harsh, and gave effect to the sarcasm which was his habitual weapon on the bench. This old gentleman had the reputation of being about the wickedest man in England. Even on the bench he now and then showed his scorn of opinion. He had carried cases his own way, it was said, in spite of counsel, authorities and even of juries, by a sort of cajolery, violence and bamboozling, that somehow confused and overpowered resistance. He had never actually committed himself; he was too cunning to do that. He had the character of being, however, a dangerous and unscrupulous judge; but his character did not trouble him.

The identity of the narrator is of little concern. Le Fanu used the papers of literature's first occult detective, Martin Hesselius, to achieve several degrees of separation and lend his tale what all good ghost stories need: the strength of hearsay. Hesselius lived well past the erasing of Roger Harbottle's traces from this earth, but a tenant known to a friend of his spoke of a "dark street in Westminster" and "a spacious old house" where one unforgettable night, two men emerged from a closet in a locked room and began to traipse insouciantly across his bedroom floor:

A slight dark man, particularly sinister, and somewhere about fifty, dressed in mourning of a very antique fashion, such a suit as we see in Hogarth, entered the room on tiptoe. He was followed by an elder man, stout, and blotched with scurvy, and whose features, fixed as a corpse's, were stamped with dreadful force with a character of sensuality and villainy .... this direful old man carried in his ringed and ruffled hand a coil of rope.

These specters "walked as living men do, but without any sound," and our judge, given what we learn later on, is clearly the older, scurvy-ridden of the two. And his dark, thin companion may very well be a certain Lewis Pyneweck.

Pyneweck was once a grocer in Shrewsbury, to become in the course of our narrative "prisoner in the jail of that town." His charge, perhaps ironically, is forgery. As in so many of the cases presided over by Judge Harbottle, the only questions to weigh are whether the charge is valid, and if so, whether the punishment meted out conforms to the dimensions of the crime – and here is where our narrative begins to swerve and slope. Harbottle is visited by a rickety old man, Hugh Peters, who warns him of a plot afoot against the judge by his peers. A few pointed remarks are bandied about before Harbottle has the mole followed by his footman, who will be surprised at his quarry's hidden talents. In time, it is also revealed that another mole resides in Harbottle's own home, his housekeeper Flora Carwell. Carwell is the maiden name, now reassumed, of the former Mrs. Pyneweck, and into this household she brought her only child in exchange for the silence of the Judge on what had previously occurred, what was occurring between two consenting adults, and what would occur to her husband, incarcerated and abandoned to the whims of injustice. Were Harbottle's promises just more taradiddle? Given his propensity for "jollifications," it would appear that Mrs. Carwell is at best a muted conspirator and at worst a galley slave. Imagine her horror, therefore, when she consults a Shrewsbury paper one May morning on the only Friday the 13th in 1746 to find her ex-spouse among the most recently executed.

Some may argue that Le Fanu's talents were wasted on the occult, yet I must dissent. Surely mystery and murder can be deemed a lesser genre than the pure pleasure of first-rate art; but as soon as genius decides for a more layered interpretation of reality, it may find the supernatural the most plausible of all phenomena. Harbottle is a baleful rogue, but he is not immune to logic or logic's fearful consequences. In this vein he reconsiders his guest that night and begins to doubt the senses he so loves to indulge:

I need hardly say that the venerable Hugh Peters did not appear again. The Judge never mentioned him. But oddly enough, considering how he laughed to scorn the weak invention which he had blown into dust at the very first puff, his white-wigged visitor and the conference in the dark front parlor were often in his memory. His shrewd eye told him that allowing for change of tints and such disguises as the playhouse affords every night, the features of this false old man, who had turned out too hard for his tall footman, were identical with those of Lewis Pyneweck.

A quick check with prison officials confirms what cannot be reassuring: that Pyneweck has long been accounted for and has never once been released from his murky dungeon. And if you think this would be nightmarish enough among the waking, wait until you see what godforsaken corners our judge visits when he sleeps.