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Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler

Z_A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler

Writing in the Author’s Note and Acknowledgments at the end of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgeral Therese Anne Fowler says she “tried to adhere as much as possible to the established particulars” of Zelda and Scott F. Fitzgerald’s lives. And in that she has succeeded. It is apparent from the first few pages of Z that the writer has done her research which, as she explains, offered varied – and greatly conflicting – versions of their story. “I often felt as if I’d been dropped into a raging argument between what I came to call Team Zelda and Team Scott,” Fowler says at the end of the book, “For every biographer or scholar who believes Zelda derailed Scott’s life, there is one who believes Scott ruined Zelda’s.” This, no doubt, made Fowler’s undertaking a very tricky one not least because of the Fitzgeralds’ own mythmaking. Their accounts – sourced from their epistolary exchanges – are riddled with liberal embellishments, exaggerations and occasionally downright machinations, rendering the truth indeterminable. As Fowler points out, it is difficult to establish whether it was Scott who brought about Zelda’s downfall or visa versa because opinion varies, paving way for pedagogic wrangling and biographical confusion. It is, however, clear that their mutual predisposition for excess played a large part in their undoing.  This is something Fowler aims to convey in the book, distributing the culpability equally between Zelda and Scott. Yet occasionally Zelda’s voice is also that of Fowler’s who, somewhat inevitably, has far more sympathy with her protagonist than she does with her literary husband.

Z is an interesting but deeply flawed book. Fowler writes wonderfully of the background sights and sounds that constituted the couple’s lives, their time in Alabama, their stint in New York, their travels around Europe and their sultry summers on the French Rivera. The writer’s imagination roams freely across the dance floor of Montgomery Country Club’s high-ceilinged ballroom where Zelda first meets Scott, the benevolent warmth of the Mediterranean landscape where Zelda begins to yearn for independence and the resonating buzz of the casinos and cafes around Antibes where the couple’s glamorous life begins to crumble. This is something that Fowler does very well, conjuring up consummately vibrant accounts of the atmosphere, places and people with impressive lucidity and verisimilitude. But Zelda’s voice – the linchpin of the book – is somewhat less convincing. We are introduced to Zelda as a precocious and effervescent 17 year old Southern Bell, running riot in her home town much to the dismay of her stolid and disapproving father. “Boys liked me,” she tells us, “because I shot spitballs and because I told sassy jokes and because I let ‘em kiss me if they smelled nice and I felt like it.” This seemingly carefree attitude, however, quickly dissolves when Zelda meets Scott and after a brief courtship begins to contemplate her future. “I knew that if I let Scott go, I’ll most certainly end up married to some nice, proper fella from a good family whose people have deep roots in the South,” she says, thinking on the matter, “I’ll be the same girl I’ve always been only the parties I go to will take place in drawing rooms instead of the Club or the Exchange Hotel…Looking down the road in the other direction, I see the life Scott offers me…It’s more unpredictable than Alabama’s weather in springtime…It will be an adventure…”

And the pair do indeed have an adventure, which Zelda then spends most of her time bemoaning. Fowler documents the couple’s domestic disputes, financial troubles and champagne-fuelled misadventures, speaking directly through Zelda, who never really manages to ingratiate herself with the reader. Her voice, inflected with a sensationally Southern drawl, fluctuates between frivolous and fatuous, conceited, rapacious and inane. Her contemplations are sometimes interspersed with witty and amusing observations, but even in her most private and reflective moments Zelda appears to be quite uninspired and uninspiring.  And this is Z’s biggest failing because the woman behind the reputation is never quite exhilarating, complex or compelling enough in comparison to the idea we already have of her. It is somewhat unfortunate that in writing about Zelda Fowler was always going to be competing with the man who knew her best. F. Scott Fitzgerald immortalised his wife perfectly – if not altogether accurately – in his books, writing about her in various fictional guises for several decades. From The Beautiful and the Damned (1920) –  the first of Fitzgerald’s works to include a portrait of Zelda as the volatile beauty Gloria Patch –  to Tender Is the Night (1934), his last book in which Zelda appears as the captivating but unhinged Nicole Diver, wife to the equally troubled Dick. The Divers were reportedly modelled on Fitzgeralds’ friends on the French Riviera, Gerald and Sara Murphy, yet the fictional couple’s marriage and all its elements – alcoholism, mental illness, a mounting emotional chasm and eventual separation – is more closely allied to that of Zelda and Scott. Again this is something Fowler explores in the book, paying particular attention to Zelda’s looming breakdown, which was reportedly spurred by Scott. “I was fighting for my right to exist independently in the world, to realise myself, to steer my own boat if I felt like it” Zelda says toward the end, “He wanted to control everything…He wanted his adoring flapper, his Jazz Age muse.”

Fowler does well to show us Zelda’s evolution as a personality – and a woman – who outgrows her lavish lifestyle and her insular existence. “I considered how I might become more like the women I respected and admired,” she muses as the novel progresses, “Surrounded as I was by such ambitious, accomplished women, I couldn’t ignore the little voice in my head that said maybe I was supposed to shed halfway and do something significant. Contribute something. Accomplish something. Choose. Be.” In highlighting Zelda’s personal development, Flower permits us to get a glimpse of her as someone who was deeply driven, intelligent and ambitions. Her introspection, her dreams, worries, aspirations and observations make for some interesting reading, especially in regard to other historical figures such as Ernest Hemingway, Ford Madox Ford, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Dorothy Parker, Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso and Edmund Wilson, whom Zelda asses with incisive consideration. But again, there is little real indication of just how unstable Zelda is (aside from the reference to“blackness” in her head) or how this may have affected Scott. Fowler does, however, tap into the popular idea that Scott hindered Zelda’s literary progress as well as her rights as a woman, subjugating her to the role of his sidekick and that of a mother. “There’s no need for you to be a professional dancer, writer, anything,” he says to his muse, “Be a mother. Be a wife. I’ve made a good life for you, Zelda; stop rejecting it.” Fowler also explores the idea that those in Scott’s camp (namely Hemingway) believed the opposite was true and that Zelda, driven by professional jealously, set out to bring down her husband. This, again, is the area where Fowler sides with her protagonist.

Reading Z one senses a distinct lack of sympathy with Scott, who for all his faults – passing off Zelda’s work as his own, pilfering dialogue straight out of her diaries, controlling and neglecting her – was someone that loved her very deeply and was fiercely protective of her. “I fell in love with her courage,” he once wrote in a letter, “her sincerity and her flaming self-respect and it’s these things I’d believe in even if the whole world indulged in wild suspicions that she wasn’t all that she should be, I love her and that’s the beginning and the end of it.” It is difficult to ascertain the true nature of their relationship or be objective in the process, as even their own records are filled with misinformation devised to contribute to their own romantic myth. The Fitzgeralds’ story, however, should be read as a cautionary one, a tale of two people who ruined themselves and each other through carelessness and excess. And in many ways, this is how Fowler sets out to project it through granting Zelda a voice of her own, allowing her to tell her story and debunk the unjust depictions of her circulating in the literary ether. But Fowler’s Zelda never quite manages to make herself heard in the way she deserves, often lacking conviction and authority. This is perhaps due to the fact that the writer aimed for objectivity but if so it begs the question why write the story from Zelda’s perspective at all? Zelda was a hurricane of a woman, disarmingly intelligent, outspoken, passionate, fearless, ambitious and unapologetic – everything that Z is not.

Publisher:  Hodder & Stoughton
Publication Date: April 2013
Hardback:  384 pages
ISBN: 9781444761405

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Zona by Geoff Dyer

Zona by Geoff Dyer

“Nothing that happens in Stalker is an accident,” Geoff Dyer tells us in the first couple of pages of Zona, “and yet, at the same time, it is full of accidents.” This is one of the ways in which Andrei Tarkovsky’s most ambitious film imitates life and its seemingly arbitrary nature, which is in fact mapped out with cartographic precision. This exquisite geometry is also mirrored in Dyer’s book, a paean to Tarkovsky’s work, boasting a swaggering array of facts, anecdotes, references and deviations beneath a consummately rigid structure. Zona is as much about Tarkovsky as it is about Stalker which, Dyer says, was partly responsible for shaping his perception and understanding of the world and without which it would be “radically diminished”. Dyer’s interest in Stalker has been compulsive, obsessive and longstanding – and is now well into several decades. “I’ve seen Stalker more times than any film except The Great Escape,”  he wrote in the Guardian a while back, “I’ve seen it when the projectionist got the reels in the wrong order (I was the only person who noticed), I’ve seen it on my own in Paris and dubbed into Italian in Rome, I’ve seen it on acid (remember that sequence when the solid ground begins to ripple?) and I’ve seen it on telly –  and it’s never quite as I remember. Like the Zone, it’s always changing. Like the Stalker, I feel quite at home in it, but whenever I see the film I try to imagine what it might be like, watching it for the first time when it seemed so weird.” Despite Dyer’s intimate familiarity with the film one gets the distinct impression that he still finds it weird. And the emphasis on weirdness is both implicit and explicit. It is, in fact, the film and its maker’s otherness, which transcends both cultural and aesthetic hegemonies, that Dyer finds strange and idiosyncratic. He ruminates over the nuanced complexities of Stalker with admirable erudition and finesse but with a quintessentially English sense of curiosity, ossified by ratiocination and intellectual liberalism, which is doggedly linear unlike its European counterparts.

In many ways, it is Dyer’s Englishness that prevents him immersing fully into Tarkovsky’s imagination, and identifying with the filmmaker and his work. And thus he always remains an analytical observer and a piqued voyeur, who finds his subject exoteric and esoteric, lucid and puzzling but altogether too remote from his own value system. There is a point in the book, for example, when Dyer ponders the Stalker’s sleeping raiment, finding himself perplexed by the irrationality of it. “To sleep without trousers but with a sweater does not make sense with regard to any system of convention,” he says thinking about a scene in the film when the Stalker gets out of bed, “It just seems weird and not terribly hygienic.”  This sentiment is echoed again and again whenever Dyer thinks on the Stalker and his two travelling companions.  One almost feels as though he cannot quite reconcile the idea of a “prophet ” with the obdurate physiognomy of the shaven-headed zek who is to lead his two equally gruff “clients” – the Professor and the Writer –  on a spiritual and metaphysical journey to “the Zone” at the crux of which lies “the Room” – a place where one’s deepest wishes are granted and ”ultimate truths are revealed”. Despite lacking an interpersonal affinity with the film’s characters and director, Dyer  feels the same desire to find fulfilment, peace, happiness. “I am as badly in need of the Zone and its wonder as any of the three men,” he writes, “The Zone is a place of uncompromising and unblemished value. It is one of the few territories left –  possibly the only one –  where the rights to Top Gear have not been sold: a place of refuge and sanctuary. A sanctuary, also, from cliché.” Dyer employs wry and acerbic humour throughout the book to make his subject –  a 163 minute long film “about three blokes drifting along the railroad to nowhere” – more palatable, more accessible, and in doing so sees the reader follow his irreverent, digressive and meandering voice avidly from page to page.

Some may find Dyer’s footnotes and interpositions self-indulgent and whimsical but they are in fact quite important to the rich tapestry of the narrative. Every anecdote and story contributes something to our understanding of the film, its director, its cast and crew and how Stalker was made after a hellish number of delays and logistical and technical difficulties. The film went through three different directors of photography, changed locations before and after shooting, encountered various faults with the experimental Kodak film, was marred by professional rivalries, directorial vicissitudes and had a serious problem with drinking on set. The cast and crew boozed heavily to alleviate boredom in between takes, spearheaded by Anatoliy Solonitsyn (the Writer) who was renowned for his two-week binges.  Despite all the problems, however, the film went ahead and was made but sadly “at the cost of a heap of corpses and triple retakes”. Several people involved in Stalker, including Tarkovsky and Solonitsyn, were believed to have died as a result of the arduous shooting schedule and the toxicity of the location, which was based around a half-functioning hydroelectric station in Tallinn. Ironically, it is the beautifully desolate landscape that gives Stalker it’s most memorable quality, framed by Tarkovsky’s unorthodox used of  long takes with slow, subtle camera movements, which make the film seem alive –  suspiring in tandem with the viewer.

Dyer pieces together a capital of information to provide a comprehensive overview of Tarkovsky and his cinematic vision; a sophisticated and original vision, which has made him one of the most innovative and brilliant directors of the last four decades. “Tarkovsky was not only a visionary, poet and mystic,” Dyer says, “he was also a prophet.”  Stalker is loaded with allusions to mankind’s immanent future; and it is a dire forecast. One of these portentous bolts seems to be forewarning of the looming disaster of Chernobyl, by way of the Professor’s impassioned speech about a meteorite which fell to earth, destroying lives and communities and creating the Zone. ”Tremors from the future can be felt throughout Stalker,” Dyer writes, “In less than a decade Professor’s summary  of how the Zone came into existence had taken on an aura of a premonition fulfilled, and Stalker acquired yet another dimension of suggestiveness in its foreshadowing of the 1986 disaster at Chernobyl.” Paradoxically, the oneiric terrain and scenic atmosphere of the Zone is where Tarkovksy’s poetic propensities come to the fore. “Landscapes like this had been seen before Tarkovsky,”  Dyer writes, “but…their beingess had not been seen in this way. Tarkovsky reconfigured the world, brought this landscape…into existence.” Dyer also stresses that we ought to pay close attention to the seemingly irrelevant objects on film because they too mean something in Tarkovsky’s world. Everything, a rock , a tuft of moss, a puddle, is imbued with a “breathing magic”. They’re all part of the human interaction with the landscape , Dyer explains, which Tarkovsky makes into a kind of poetry comparative to that of William Wordsworth’s. It is Tarkovsky’s Wordsworthian understanding of and interest in nature’s ”inward meaning,” says our literary tour guide that gives Stalker’s filmic archaeology that “special aura”.

This is one of the many and varied elements that make up Tarkovsky’s cinematic trajectory. Most of them are considered in the book through Dyer’s ruminations on Stalker, which he says is a literal journey as well as a “journey into cinematic space and in tandem into time”. This was one of Tarkovsky’s principal preoccupations, which Dyer contemplates in regard to this own life, conflating research and studious inquiry with humorous yarns and confessional annotations. We get to learn, for example, that Dyer could have had several threesomes but didn’t, that he used to spend his student days tripping on LSD, that he thinks there was a time when his wife looked uncannily like Natacha McElone in Solaris and that they’ve been debating getting a dog for over five years. Some of these might be immaterial to the topic at hand, but they’re fairly interesting and offer great insight into Dyer, the man. Throughout the course of the book we get to learn about both the writer and his subject as Dyer journeys into himself by recounting the journey of Stalker and his two clients. And this makes for some very interesting reading, but perhaps the most interesting (and important) of the nuggets of knowledge we acquire is the meaning of the Zone, a term which derives from prison jargon for the world outside. “[In] the 1950s when the Soviet Union was a vast prison camp…in prison camp-slang (as an Applebaum points out in Gulag) ‘the world outside the barbed wire was not referred to as freedom, but as the ‘bolshyaa zona’,” Dyer explains, “the ‘big prison zone’ large and less deadly than the ‘small zone’ of the camp, but no more human – and certainly no more humane.” Whenever asked about the symbolism of Stalker Tarkovsky always maintained that there wasn’t any, saying the Zone should be taken at face value rather than as a cinematographic treatise on freedom, and its dearth in the Soviet system. But that’s precisely how the film should be interpreted, as Tarkovsky’s (man’s) quest for personal freedom through his artistic realisations, which was the only time he felt he had any. This is something Dyer could have explored a little bit more perhaps for after all Tarkovksy’s artistic freedom was the linchpin of his work.

Guardian | Geoff Dyer 

Publisher: Canongate
Publication Date: March 2013
Paperback:  228 pages
ISBN: 9780857861672

Writers On Writers

Rebecca West_ Fyodor Dostoevsky_ Willa Cather_ Walt Whitman_ Margaret Drabble_Raymond Chandler_ Katherine Anne Porter_ Blaise Pascal_ Eugene O’Neill_ Émile Zola

“Rebecca West was one of the giants and will have a lasting place in English literature.”
William Shawn

“I don’t like Dostoevsky. He is like the rat, slithering along in hate, in the shadows, and in order to belong to the light professing love, all love.”
D.H. Lawrence

“Willa Cather. I loved Death Comes for the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock—really all of her work.”
Paula Fox

“Hey—Walt Whitman, isn’t he magnificent?”
Jim Crace

“Well, now I’m over sixty I can simply say this: the reception of my early books was completely meshed up with the fact that my sister Margaret Drabble was a writer.”
A. S. Byatt

“Chandler is all about the wisecracks, the similes, the constant satire, the construction of the knight.”
James Ellroy

“Katherine Anne Porter was an influence on me.”
Nadine Gordimer

“Pascal was the shock of my life. I was fifteen. I was on a class trip to Germany, my first trip abroad, and strangely I had brought the Pensées of Pascal.”
Michel Houellebecq

“I remember at one point going through everything of Eugene O’Neill’s. I was struck by the sheer theatricality of his plays.”
Joan Didion

“When I said that Zola was my favourite writer, I meant that I loved his courage, his indignation.”
Anita Brookner

Sources: The Paris Review, GoodReads 

Favourite Reads – 2012

Favourite Reads 2012

Allen Ginsberg by Steve Finbow

Finbow is a resolutely straight-shooting biographer who treats his subject with complete candour, examining Ginsberg’s neuroses, his guilt over his mad mother, his suicidal tendencies, his petty jealousies and sexual perversities in relation to his work and how it shaped him as a poet. The biographer draws on secondary sources and first-hand knowledge with great proficiency and skill in order to evaluate Ginsberg’s place in American letters and beyond.

Reaktion Books  | 239 pages| £10.95

Bel Ami by Guy de Maupassant

Maupassant explores the dynamics of urban society through its relationship with politics and the press, power and sex. This book is a conscientiously observed and rendered tale of intrigue, liberated women and old-fashioned men, love, loyalty and social climbing. Written in the 1880s, the book records the social milieu of bourgeois capitalism under La Troisième République, mirroring the reality of its day in this sprightly and compelling tale.

Penguin Classics | 416 pages | £9.99

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart

A uniquely relayed story of love, abandonment, pain and triumph of the will. Smart conveys the multifarious graduations of emotion with a sentience rarely matched, but she also has a tendency to fluctuate between disclosing too much and too little, between superbly lyrical prose and overlaboured writing, between aesthetic excellence and a propensity for the melodramatic. Overall, however, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept is superb.

Flamingo | 112 pages | £5.59

Hell by Henri Barbusse

A semi-philosophical study of the human condition devised to show us that man’s desire for solitude cannot be reconciled with his desire to live to the utmost degree of fulfilment. A tragic book in many ways but also a triumphant one, which reads like a bold rejection of philosophia Christiana and a homage to secularism, daringly rendering God obsolete.

OneSuch Press | 136 pages | £7.95

John Berger by Andy Merrifield

This wonderful critical study contains an array of insights about Berger the man, the artist, the “concerned citizen” and the “uneasy rider” aboard his Honda Blackbird. Merrifield documents the trajectory of Berger’s professional life with expertise, showing how the modernist novelist, who had given the English novel an art-house Continental twist, has evolved into a craftsman storyteller. In doing so, the biographer conjoins different aspects of Berger together, demystifying the seeming disparities and deriving new meaning from his art, his life and his politics.

Reaktion Books  | 224 pages | £10.95

Museum Without Walls by Jonathan Meades

There really are no walls to Jonathan Meades’ Museum as this book contains everything from seventeenth century literary dicta to the demerits of the Theory of the Value of Ruins. Meades’ spellbinding enthusiasm, his acuity and his crafty prose in writing about social, political and religious issues – which he contemplates with wit and gravitas – are surpassed only by his uncompromising candour, which also extends to his personal life.

Unbound | 352 pages | £20

The Lowlife by Alexander Baron

A compelling and moving book full of optimism where one might see none, relayed in a precise and engaging narrative driven by a rogue but very likable protagonist, who despite his trials, troubles and tribulations aims to see the good in all things. Baron’s extraordinary eye for period detail and his astute observational abilities, combined with his ostensible penchant for storytelling, make The Lowlife a highly enjoyable read.

Black Spring Press | 192 pages | £9.99

The Richard Burton Diaries edited by Chris Williams

The Diaries offer a very candid look at Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s volatile married and professional lives; their travels, interests, passions and temperaments. The collection spanning from 1939 to 1983 comprises frank and spirited accounts of Burton’s carousing, his ambivalent feelings toward his own talent, his caustic impressions of the film industry and its personalities, his role as a doting father, his scholarly appetite for learning and avid interest in literature.

Yale Books  | 704 pages | £25

The Voyeur by Alain Robbe-Grillet

A murder mystery with a seemingly straightforward plot, which is anything but straightforward. Robbe-Grillet spent his career experimenting with themes of repressed memory and nebulous identity, the ambiguous complexity of space and time and the intricate nature of truth. The Voyeur is an early example of his style and the erratic chronology, mystic symbolism, incantatory narrative, rounded repetitions and stylised deconstructions of plot that later came to define it. It is a truly new vision of the novel, depicting a familiar yet numinous universe, where a man by the name of Mathias may or may not be implicated in a murder.

Alma Classics | 178 pages| £7.99

White Noise by Don DeLillo

White Noise is a valiant and veracious postmodernist depiction of “human dread” as well as of the horrors and ecstasies of life. DeLillo captures the state of modern family, the society of the spectacle and the notion of the future as the here-and-now with considerable deft. Not only that, he manages to create a neoteric social satire, funny, plangent, absurd, terrifying and skilfully evocative of modern-day life and all its ecstasies and encumbrances.

Picador | 400 pages| £7.99

Robert Bird: A diligent and enthusiastic biographer

Fyodor Dostoevsky by Robert Bird

Fyodor Dostoevsky was an enigmatic man. Sigmund Freud, for example, writes Robert Bird in his book on the famous Russian discovered “four distinct faces for Dostoevsky, the creative artist, the neurotic, the moralist and the sinner”. All of these are carefully examined in Bird’s critical study, which suggests that Dostoevsky’s multi-layered image presented the writer himself with certain “mysteries”. As his fame grew Dostoevsky would frequently decline to pose for photographs deeming it an infringement upon one’s person, believing that the physiological was inseparable from the spiritual self. In his case, however, there was a great dichotomy between the two. Bird quotes a number of descriptions of the writer to illustrate the ostensible discord between his physical appearance and his personality, his “intellectual authority” and his “unappealing exterior”. “A little man, skinny, grey fair hair, the colour of his face and of everything was grey,” wrote one observer in 1880, “he read and everyone listened, holding their breath. He began quietly and ended as a prophet.”  Another account of Dostoevsky is provided by Varvara Timofeeva, an editor with whom he worked on the Writer’s Diary. His “was not a kind or evil face,” she wrote in 1873, “it somehow simultaneously attracted and repelled, frightened and captivated”. Bird suggests it is for this reason, among others, this puzzling duality of the corporeal and the spiritual, which also came to define Dostoevsky’s works, that our interest in him has never dwindled and is showing no sign of doing so.

Dostoevsky rose from humble beginnings, although occasionally he liked to suggests otherwise. His father worked in a hospital for the poor and money was always a source of worry, even later on in Dostoevsky’s life when he had achieved considerable success.  “From early on,” explains Bird, “ Dostoevsky’s financial problems were exacerbated by this wholehearted immersion in the imaginary realms opened up by poetry, drama and fiction.” Experiences of monetary hardships infiltrated his fiction from as early as Poor Folk, The Double and White Nights all of which lament, as Bird points out, “the disfigurement of society and the individual psyche under the pressures of modern life,” defined by “forces that constrain human freedom, both exterior forces such as money and power and interior ones like illness and sexual desire”. Bird unveils Dostoevsky as a formidable social commentator, whose works were infused with popular philosophical and ideological ideas akin to those of Karl Marx. “As different as their analyses and solutions were,” writes Bird, “both Dostoevsky and Marx sought to identify the iron fences of necessity in order to establish the conditions of new freedom.” In his own way Dostoevsky sought to form these conditions with every single one of his books, two journals, Vremya and Epokha, and continuous calls for artistic liberty, which saw him arrested for sedition and sent to the Semipalatinsk labour camp. Dostoevsky later described those four years in Siberia as deadening as being “buried alive and enclosed in a coffin”. But Bird notes that surviving documents paint a picture of Dostoevsky as a brave and courageous “man trying to stay true to his artistic vocation in the face of crushing physical and psychological blows”.

Bird is very diligent in chronicling how each period of Dostoevsky’s life shaped his fiction. After leaving the camp, for example, Dostoevsky began “remaking himself as a writer” and resolved to set up house and raise a family. In 1857, he met and married a widow by the name of Maria Dmitrievna Isayeva. “Family, patriotism, religion,” writes Bird about this time in Dostoevsky’s life, “all three elements of this essentially conservative mind-set issue directly from the artist’s attempt to compose a new image for a new time.”  To keep this momentum going Dostoevsky launched the first of his two literary journals, Vremya, with his brother Mikhail, which showcased a “nascent ideology for national unity”. And for a while the future of literature and society seemed to rest with “his talented, socially committed pen,” which deemed it imperative for Russia to find its own place in the world, away from the Western Tradition. “Our task is to create for ourselves a new form, our own, native to us,” Dostoevsky wrote at the time, “taken from our own soil, taken from the national spirit and from national principles.”  This notion would also apply to the writer himself, who in 1861 resumed writing Dead House, a fictionalised account of prison life in a form of “notes” consisting of disconnected and fitful narratives, rich in dominant ideological standpoints. In order to proceed with Dead House, Dostoevsky had to invent a new literary form because his vision, Bird explains, “refused to submit to conventional means of literary representation”. Dead House was an artistic turning point for the writer just as Crime and Punishment would later elevate his “name to a wholly new status”.  But this was also a troubled time for Dostoevsky, who found himself in a dire emotional and financial position following his wife’s death and the folding of both his literary journals. It prompted Dostoevsky to refer to himself as “a literary proletariat,”  perpetually toiling away with little  to show for it.

Dostoevsky’s lack of control over his gambling and his estate haunted him until the end. It was in part due to his impractical nature and his inability to abnegate the vices of the flesh despite his Christianity, which was a dominating element in his personal and professional life. While travelling around Europe, for example, Dostoevsky became fascinated with religious art, deeming the famous Sistine Madonna “the greatest revelation of the human spirit”. The painting was later obsessively mentioned in all of Dostoevsky’s mature novels, except one (The Brothers Karamazov). But even in his early works of the 1860s, the religious element was at the forefront of the writer’s mind as he set out to “create a Christian literature”  in his own unique way. “Christianity infuses his work as a gesture,” Bird explains, “changing the quality of his images by setting them against an infinite horizon. The crucial decision was to stop projecting ideas onto fictional forms and to allow both form and idea to emerge viscerally from his raw experience”. Bird illustrates this point throughout the book with learned enthusiasm, occasionally too academic and scholastic in tone.  But this is no surprise as Bird’s main area of interest is the aesthetic practice and theory of Russian modernism, whose spectres loom over the otherwise very well balanced book, which conscientiously appraises all of Dostoevsky’s faces.

“The Idiot,”  Bird writes mid way through the book, “is a novel that reveals most about Dostoevsky’s inner life, his experience as an epileptic and his dreams of (and for) the world.” One can clearly see elements of Myshkin in Dostoevsky, who fought a lifelong battle between flesh and spirit, between intellect and labour. The book was written abroad, with Dostoevsky pinning for Russia, gambling himself into destitution and feeling increasingly ill  due to his epilepsy. He was by that point married to his second wife, Anna Grigoryevna, with whom he had a daughter that died before Dostoevsky finished the book. This state of mind inevitably shaped the tortured and on occasion torturous work. In the book, explains Bird, Dostoevsky hoped to portray a “positively beautiful individual,” resembling the spirit of the Sistine Madonna, a man endowed with all the qualities that Dostoevsky considered godly: love, humanity, faith. All the qualities he wished in himself, but felt he struggled to find. “You think I’m one of those people who save hearts, resolve souls and dispel grief?” Dostoevsky asked in reply to a  fan’s letter, “Many write such things to me but I know for sure that I am more capable of inciting disappointment and disgust.” It would be easy to assume that this earnestness was part of some perverse affectation, but it is more likely that Dostoevsky genuinely believed himself more capable of the latter than the former. “Even in his final repose,” Bird says, “Dostoevsky was unable to maintain the solemn dignity he so craved.” His funeral was a large scale public spectacle, almost farcical in scope and grandeur. “A student records,”  Bird cites, “that one passer-by asked who was being buried with such pomp: he was given the puzzling answer: A convict.” A sinner. A neurotic. A moralist. But a creative artist, above all.

Publisher: Reaktion Books
Publication Date: March 2012
Paperback: 240 pages
ISBN: 9781861899002

Richard Burton: An actor with a scholarly appetite for learning

In November 1966, Richard Burton turned 41. “I don’t seem to feel physically any older and tend to think ‘well thank God’ that’s another year gone,” he wrote a couple of days after his birthday, “I’ll change my refrain later when I’m 60. If I reach that age.” Sadly, Burton died in 1984 aged 58. But he did leave behind 450,000 handwritten words in a series of notebooks and journals, which have been meticulously gathered together into a single definitive volume of Diaries spanning from 1939 to 1983. The majority of these collected musings, which commence in earnest in the 1960s, chronicle his passionate but destructive relationship with Elizabeth Taylor, following their adulterous whirlwind romance on the set of Cleopatra (1963). Occasionally, the entries are annotated by Taylor herself and even when they’re not she’s ever-present on the page and in Burton’s everyday thoughts and contemplations. His diaries provide a very candid look at the couple’s volatile married and professional lives as well as their travels, interests, passions and temperaments. They also comprise frank and spirited accounts of Burton’s carousing, his ambivalent feelings toward his own talent, his caustic impressions of the film industry and its personalities, his role as a doting father, his scholarly appetite for learning and avid interest in literature.

Burton was born Richard Walter Jenkins on 10th November 1925 in a small village of Pontrhydyfen, Neath Port Talbot, Wales, to a coal miner father and a barmaid mother. He was the twelfth of thirteen children and grew up in a working class Welsh-speaking household. “I have been inordinately lucky all my life,” Burton wrote at the peak of his career, “but the greatest luck of all has been Elizabeth”. Shortly after the couple’s scandalous romance began Burton divorced his wife at the time, Sybil Williams, and Taylor ended her marriage to Eddie Fisher (“a gruesome little man and smug as a boot,” according to Burton). The couple tied the knot nine days after Taylor’s divorce was finalised in 1964. For the next 10 years, they jetted around the globe “surrounded by publicity and paparazzi” celebrating their love and their glamorous lifestyle. In his most tender moments, Burton lavished Taylor with boundless love, affection and gifts. “She is a wildly exciting lover-mistress,” he wrote early on in their marriage, “she is shy and witty, she is nobody’s fool, she is a brilliant actress, she is beautiful beyond the dreams of pornography…she is clement and loving, Dulcis Imperatrix, she is Sunday’s child, she can tolerate my impossibilities and my drunkenness, she is an ache in my stomach when I am away from her, and she loves me!” But he also recorded the violent clashes of their discordant tempers and their explosive rows, which would arise at any given moment in public and in private. “In the middle of the early night Elizabeth and I exchanged insults,” Burton wrote on 2nd August 1967, “in which I said she was not a ‘woman but a man’ and in which she called me ‘little girl’. A couple of months later Burton raged: “Am in a violent temper. E, as usual, has to combat everything I do or say in front of the children.” And even a couple of years later in 1971 while on a visit to Rome, Burton wrote: “I had a quarrel with E so vivacious that I went for a long walk to cool my anger.”

The ups and downs of their relationship were many and frequent, and eventually led to divorce in 1974, remarriage in 1975 and another divorce in the following year. Judging by Burton’s diaries, however, he could never quite believe his luck when it came to Taylor. “My God she’s a beauty,” he wrote after an evening out in 1968, “sometimes even now, after nearly 8 years of marriage I look at her when she’s asleep at the first light of grey dawn and wonder at her.” There was also a playful element to their relationship, which the diaries auspiciously chart. “E anxious that I write about her here so here goes,” Burton teased in 1967, “She is a nice fat girl who loves mosquitos and hates pustular carbuncular Welshmen, loathes boats and loves planes, has tiny blackcurrant eyes and minute breasts and no sense of humour. She is prudish, priggish and painfully self-conscious.” One of many ways Taylor would retaliate would be by telling Burton in graphic detail the delights of over-eating kippers, for example, and the joy of their repeating. “She is the only person, certainly the only woman who will tell you, details of the internal working of her body,” Burton wrote in September 1971, “She knows it appals me which is why perversely she enjoys telling me. Liz la Perverse.” The diaries reveal Burton’s impeccable observation skills and an abundant interest in books, places and people. The intimacy of the medium allows him to emerge as a fully rounded human being – and a man quite different from his public persona – who readily confronts the challenges of life lived in the public eye. Burton disliked the spotlight and never fully grasped the fascination with celebrity. “Why do they do it?” he once wondered after being accosted by fans, “I never gaped at anybody in my life and much as I admire certain famed people, Churchill and various writers – R. S Gwyn and Dylan Thomas, T.S Eliot, Spender, Greene, MacNeice etc etc I have never asked for an autograph.”

As the above suggests, Burton was a voracious reader and spent a lot of his free time immersed in a book. “I read P.G Wodehouse’s’ latest Do Butlers Burgle Banks? in one sitting,” he noted in an early entry, “it’s exactly the same as all the others. He’s still mining the same vein of gold, but it’s as effortlessly entertaining as ever.” A little later in life, Burton developed an appreciation of poetry, boasting that it was “a magnificent thing to discover poetry in middle age”. He took a particular interest in Dylan Thomas and W.H Auden, with whom he was once invited to read. He later remarked: “Auden has a remarkable face and an equally remarkable intelligence.” Burton wrote of his fellow actors with equal shrewdness. “Marlon’s immorality, his attitude to it is honest and clean,” he notes of Brando, for example, “he is a genuinely good man I suspect and he is intelligent. He has depth…Very little misses him as I’ve noticed.” Amid numerous pages of descriptions of writers, actors, politicians and people in general, Burton comments on important world events – the UK general elections, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s landing on the moon, Jackie Kennedy’s marriage to Aristotle Onassis, Russian spy Oleg Lyalin defection, the disgraceful death of Nelson Rockefeller and so on. Most of the entries, however, are of a more personal nature and document Burton’s insecurities, vanities, disappointments, drinking and eating habits which he tried to curtail and control throughout his life. “Being (relatively) sober for the last three or four days I have learned a great deal,” Burton wrote in July 1969, “drink, for instance, is a great anodyne. I had forgotten how boring people are. I’d forgotten how afraid people are. I’d forgotten how boring I am. And how all of us lead lives of quiet desperation, and bugger you Thoreau.” 

There is no artifice with Burton – a true Welshman – but occasionally his frankness is somewhat unpalatable as it is, for example, when he documents Taylor’s intimate medical ailments. There is a fine balance between openness and indiscretion and occasionally – even if very occasionally – Burton misses the mark. But his love for Taylor never comes into question, as even in their later years after numerous suspected infidelities, brutal cattiness and decades of turbulence Burton remains firm in his feelings, confessing on paper in late 70s that he loves her still, “mindlessly and hopelessly”. The later entries in the volume are sparse and laconic and bear little resemblance to Burton’s intelligent, revelatory, witty and fascinating ruminations of his heyday. Surprisingly, it seems that much of his unhappiness was a result of his profession. “Very edgy and cantankerous” he wrote in 1966, “no doubt the prospect of working tomorrow is the reason. Always the same before I start a job.”  This sense of anxiety and insecurity plagued him throughout his career. “Off to work,” he wrote in 1971, “in case I hadn’t mentioned it before I hate my work.” This was reportedly due to the fact that he felt he had wasted his talent by working for Hollywood rather treading the boards in London. “My lack of interest in my own career, past present or future is almost total,” he declared in  August 1971, “all my life I think I have been secretly ashamed of being an actor and the older I get the more ashamed I get.” Burton’s Diaries were bequeathed to his last wife, Sally Hay, whom he married in 1983, a year before his death. She gifted them to Swansea University in 2005. They have been thoughtfully compiled and edited by Professor Chris Williams, and give a rare and exclusive look into the life of Richard Burton – the man.

Publisher: Yale Books 
Publication Date: September 2012
Hardback: 704 pages
ISBN: 9780300180107

Brian Sewell: Forthright and formidable

The title of Brian Sewell’s new book of criticisms is a revealing one. Naked Emperors – a play on Hans Christian Andersen’s famous tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes – pre-emptively informs that the material contained within pertains to swindlers and imposters unmasked by a single-truth telling individual. Some of these are world celebrated contemporary artists, others belong to the curatorial establishment; all are subject to Sewell’s vituperative evaluation. Sewell has been the art critic for London’s Evening Standard since 1984, almost as long as he has ”locked horns” with the ”successive chairmen, panjandrums, secretaries and Councillors of the Arts Council”. This, he says in a pointedly entitled chapter, A Nest of Vipers, is due to their ”Byzantine methods of selection and appointment, their often outrageous exploitation of appointment for professional advantage, their buddy-boy and back scratching patronage and subsidy”. Unsurprisingly, his repetitive enquiries and interest in this particular institution have been obstructed and deemed “malevolent”. But neither one nor the other has disparaged Sewell in his quest for veracity, or has stifled his stentorian cries at the fact that the public has been duped into gazing “in adoration on works of art in the mediums of human blood, semen, urine and the fluff discovered in an artist’s navel”.

Sewell’s distaste for what is nowadays foisted as art is palpable throughout the collection and only outweighed by his anger, which reaches its pinnacle in a chapter on Tracey Emin and her “retrospective celebration of unmediated autobiographical relics and self-centred sentimentality” at the Hayward Gallery in 2011. The critic duly informs the reader that he has previously “said very little of Miss Emin” since her debut in 1997 due to the fact that he had hoped that even “our insane contemporary art world would have enough common sense to let her fade into obscurity”. But alas it has not thus Sewell’s erroneous assumption is perhaps as much a reason for his vehement hostility toward Emin as is his objection to her patchworks, her tumbled bed and her general “misery reconstructed in self-pity”. The chapter on Emin, which spans all of three pages, is replete with gratuitous name-calling and ebullient contempt for the “art’s Jade Goody” who, according to Sewell, has made her name through “cunning exploitation of ignorance, irascible emotion and raw sex” while playing the “drunken slut” for the benefit of the popular papers. Sewell’s bile toward his subject – with whom he feels “not the slightest sympathy” over her sexual and personal tribulations – is unmitigated, unrestrained and borderline sadistic. On the other hand, his grievances regarding her art are credible and validated. He’s right; crude images of bladder emptying, masturbation and neon signs telling one to “FUCK OFF AND DIE YOU SLAG” and “PEOPLE LIKE YOU NEED TO FUCK PEOPLE LIKE ME” is the stuff of a “teenage girl besotted with boy bands rather than the serious business we might reasonably expect of a famous woman of forty-eight”.

Now in his 80s, Sewell is perhaps both most maligned and celebrated – depending on your stance on conceptual art – for his scathing reviews of the “intelligence-insulting, cynical, exclusive, manipulated and fraudulent” Turner Prize. He attributes the award’s success to its elements of perversity and freakishness and the public’s inexorable interest in the “enjoyable frissons of dismay, incomprehension and distaste”. But Sewell laments it all the more for its “exclusive approach to art, for its blindness to the quality of anything not definable as cutting-edge…for the secrecy that surrounds it and the evident mismanagement of the results”. Simon Starling, who won the Prize in 2005 for Shedboatshed, is a prime example, says Sewell, of someone who was awarded the accolade for the sheer “eccentricity of the idea” rather than its connection with “ancestral forms of art”. Starling dismantled a shed turned it into a boat sailed to Xanadu and then turned it back into a shed. And that won this unassuming genius £25,000. Sewell quite rightly points out that the whole project was an exercise in carpentry rather than art, the very definition of which he questions throughout the collection. He does this scrupulously as he ponders one “incomprehensible postmodernism” to the next, produced by the likes of Anthony Caro who for the past decade has been “toying with the student exercise of making three dimensional tableaux” from the paintings of old masters; Damian Hirst whose “imagination is as dead as all the dead creatures” suspended in formaldehyde; David Hockney whose “portraiture has been unworthy even of the street painters of Montmartre” for the last couple of years and a handful of others favoured by the art establishment.

And here the establishment is as vehemently lambasted as the individual artist. ‘‘The Whitechapel Gallery is,” writes Sewell, “to anything pretending to be a work of art, the most flattering space in London.” Tate Gallery ranks lower than “a minor museum in provincial Germany,” the Arts Council is “an irrelevance to the great majority of working painters and sculptors,” the Royal Academy has “fallen on hard times…complacency [and] indolence,” and the Saatchi Galleries are run by a proprietor whose taste is “crudely literal, bizarre, grotesque, sexual and calculatingly offensive”. Sewell also sneers at compliant journalists and submissive broadcasters espousing uniform and uncritical praise for artists of international calibre but little skill. His astringent disposition was famously challenged in 1994 when 35 art world signatories wrote a letter to the Evening Standard accusing Sewell of prejudice, homophobia, misogyny, hypocrisy, demagogy and “formulaic insults and predictable scurrility”. Sewell retorted in kind and with a letter from 20 other art world signatories condemning the accusers for their attempted censorship. As a critic Sewell is both forthright and formidable, as a man he often appears quite vulnerable, somewhat wounded, perhaps, by the fact that the industry considers him an outsider, even if an esteemed one. His commentary, however biting, bitchy and belligerent, is insightful, interesting and supported by over 30 years of expertise which lends itself to understanding individual works as well as their place in history.

Naked Emperors is a shrewd and witty book charting a man’s interest in and changing perceptions of art as well as the industry’s shifting values, ethics and standards. It is also a book which makes it easy to see why many take objection to Sewell’s brand of criticism. His is not a subtle approach, but it is astute, intelligent and humorous. Sewell studied Art History at the Courtauld Institute of Art under celebrated historian and disgraced Soviet spy Anthony Blunt. He graduated in 1957 and after a stint in the National Service worked at Christie’s auction house, specialising in Old Masters. He has since been a regular commentator on television and radio, and has won several prestigious awards including the George Orwell Prize for his column in the Evening Standard. Naked Emperors gathers Sewell’s reviews of exhibitions by contemporary English artists, most of which were written exclusively for the London paper. They are arranged chronologically under artist and institution and coalesce into a comprehensive and intelligent record of how “ancestral conventions of painting and sculpture” have been discarded for the sake of shallow, vulgar and fatuous installations and daubs, which have made the Naked Emperors undue millionaires.

Publisher: Quartet Books
Publication Date: October 2012
Paperback: 368 pages
ISBN: 9780704372825

David Stephen Calonne: A biographer of skill, humour and insight

“There is absolutely no plan to it,” Charles Bukowski once claimed speaking about the process of writing, “it’s just me, the typewriter and the chair”. In reality, this was not strictly true says David Stephen Calonne in his new critical study. “Writing was for him,” explains Calonne, “a kind of ritual accompanied by four necessary accessories; alcohol, classical music, the sound of the typewriter, tobacco.” Toward the end of Bukowski’s life the list was extended by the addition of cats – the “smart/spontaneous, self-/absorbed, naturally poised and awesomely/beautiful” creatures – who not only lay at his feet while he wrote but also often made into the writing. They teach us humans, Bukowski observed in a poem called Exactly Right, a “grand lesson in persevering”. A worthy lesson indeed but one Bukowski didn’t need tutelage-in having spent years at his typewriter trying to make it. And when he did finally make it, he made it all the way to the prestigious Huntington Library in San Marino, California, where his literary archive is now kept alongside William Shakespeare, Galileo, Geoffrey Chaucer, Langston Hughes, Jack London et al. “To many it is a matter of some pleasurable amusement,” says Calonne at the end of the book, “that Bukowski’s literary legacy is now housed in this cathedral of culture which is located not far from his own preferred temple – the San Anita race track where he spent so many happy days and evenings.” This would no doubt be a source of some amusement to Bukowski himself, who has also recently made it to the literary (web) pages of The Daily Telegraph.

In this slight but expansive 170-odd page book Calonne covers every aspect and angle of Bukowski’s life, from his childhood to his old age, from his friendships to his relationships, from his work to his leisure,  providing a wonderfully complete overview of this enigmatic barroom-bard whose life, at least in theory, seems full of contradictions. Bukowski wanted literary success but hated fame; was brutish but frangible, forthright but guarded, sensitive but apodictically chauvinistic. And yet, toward the end when age had finally bestowed its wisdom and the bravado had dissipated somewhat, Bukowski unclenched revealing his “tender emotional nakedness,” which began to mark his work. To illustrate this ostensible shift Calonne quotes from Bluebird, a poem which very clearly bridges the gap between Bukowski’s “outer image and his wounded heart”. It is all there in the artless sincerity, when Bukowski says: “there’s a bluebird in my heart that/wants to get out/but I’m too tough for him/I say, stay in there, I’m not going/to let anybody see/you.” But – perhaps faced with his own mortality – Bukowski knew that he had to let us see him, this bluebird, which he had kept hidden for so long. Subsequently, his late style was defined by an “increased attention to death, to his literary heroes, to his cats, to a new metaphysical, stripped-down and often tender lyricism”. Calonne also notes that during this particular time Bukowski kept heed of world news and current affairs, commemorating events such as the 1992 LA riots in his work.

Never a political writer, however, Bukowski preferred to concentrate on what he knew best, drinking, women, the racetrack, love. In one of his two essays on poetry, Basic Training, he says he always endeavoured to hurl himself towards his “personal god: SIMPLICITY”. But it was sheer determinism that proved to be the sulphur in his blood, the superhuman resilience to incalculable personal and professional rejections. Bukowski would often say that it was, in fact, his father who made him a writer because he first became interested in literature as a means of escape from the harrowing reality of his early domestic life. “His literary style was forged in the crucible of his youthful anguish,” writes Calonne, “as he would learn to handle words as if they were fists, pounding back at the injustices he had endured.” This bravura would eventually evolve into “his characteristic sarcasm, tough guy persona and his combination of courtly style with rough house antics”. Calonne adds that Bukowski’s way of coping was by “rebelling, revolting against everything, with a bit of charming humour thrown into the mix.” Again, this would become a defining trait, running through his uberous canon, adding to it a touch of impertinence and wisecracking which is distinctly his own.

Bukowski started out with poetry, short fiction, essays and reviews but by the 1970s his champion and friend John Martin suggested he tackle a novel. “Bukowski took immediate action,” writes Calonne, “he sat before his typewriter each evening precisely at the time he used to begin work at the Post Office: 6:18”. A mere 19 days later he had finished a book, which was published on 8th February 1971. Post Office has been translated into over 15 languages and remains one of Bukowski’s most popular works. This is partly because it has wide-ranging themes, depicting everyday working class life in a distinctively “scatological, sexual and colloquial style,” which Bukowski fashioned after one of his literary heroes, Louis-Ferdinand Céline. It is also a work that clearly sprung from the vantage point of experience. “The book telescopes various periods of Bukowski’s life,” Calonne explains, “returning to the early 1950s, when he worked as a mail carrier; snarling dogs, sexual encounters with lonely women; the struggle to memorise postal codes.” It is not entirely clear, the biographer suggests, whether Martin approached Bukowski to write full time or vice versa but the leap toward a literary career came just at the right time as Bukowski’s absenteeism from work and association with underground newspapers had not gone unnoticed by his employers at the Post Office. In many respects, Bukowski’s writing was more auspicious or at least more constant than his personal life. Here too, Calonne has every angle covered, chronicling his subject’s romantic inconcinnities with objective sympathy.

Calonne’s book is meticulously researched and assembled from select excerpts of Bukowski’s saporous letters, poems, novels and other elements of autobiography he left behind. The biographer has extensive knowledge of his subject and beyond, which he uses to construct multiple interpretative frameworks to present Bukowski’s work, his dualistic German/American identity and his place in today’s literary landscape. Unrefined, voluble and ventripotent, with  “beer-maddened” breath, coarse canescent hair, speck-brown eyes and a face like a cribriform plate, due to severe adolescent acne, Bukowski was never a typical man of letters. But by his fortieth year, says Calonne, he “had found his genius and marked out his literary territory,” and thus “the terror of existence” became him subject Literature for Bukowski was always directly related to “his own experience of living” and in a way it led to his innovative and idiosyncratic style. “It is a miswriting of literary history, for example,” says Calonne, “that the ‘Confessional poets’ –  Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, Theodore Roethke, Anne Sexton – are given sole credit for the invention of a new mode of self-revelation, which dealt with the most intimate, hidden and painful aspect of the psyche, when actually Bukowski was doing this form the outset.” Calonne is clearly passionate about his subject and it shows as the book comes wonderfully together to illustrate a man’s life through the biographer’s lens of skill, humour and insight.

Publisher: Reaktion Books 
Publication Date: August 2012
Paperback: 224 pages, 30 illustrations
ISBN: 9781780230238

Jonathan Meades: An indefatigable deipnosophist and a polyhistor

“There is no such thing as a boring place,” says Jonathan Meades. And let’s face it, he should know having spent a lifetime “writing about it in different media and in different ways: polemically, analytically, essayistically, fictively”. Place, albeit not exclusively or singularly, is also the subject of his new collection, Museum Without Walls. The sturdy hardback – boasting 54 prose pieces and six film scripts – delivers some genuinely droll and outré views and ideas, all backed up by an astonishing wealth of knowledge. Meades is an indefatigable deipnosophist and a polyhistor, who often veers off course to fascinating ends. Writing about architecture, for example, in Hamas & Kibbutz he deviates from the topic at hand to the subject of football, pondering: “If it is a national game how come we always lose?” He writes more amusingly, however, about one of the game’s biggest stars, saying: “A buzzard is an avian analogue of the even squeakier David Beckham,” who will “always be a wrong voice, a treble in a tenor’s body. That for me is his defining characteristic. He is to be filed, ultimately, alongside Alan Ball and Emlyn Hughes in the Sportsmen Posing As Castrati category”. Yet jocund badinage aside, Meades really knows his stuff from seventeenth century literary dicta to the ineptitude of an untutored architect, from the demerits of the Theory of the Value of Ruins to the capital’s imperfect traffic and transport systems. Meades is a redoubtable social critic and nouveau historian with an intrepidly facetious streak, humorous and clever without being glib.

Much of Museum Without Walls is dedicated to Meades’ monomania, which he has spent 30 years cultivating in numerous television programmes, books and journalism features. Here, in this collection, are some of his most interesting texts pertaining to London and its monuments, both the memorable and the unremarkable. “Of London’s major set pieces,” writes Meades, “St Paul’s Cathedral is the most distinguished, though not, I suspect, the most loved: it is too stately, aloof and worldly to excite the sort of affection granted to such exercises in quaintness as Big Ben and Tower Bridge”.  Further in the collection Meades ruminates over the subject again, praising St Paul’s for its “swagger and urbanity and temporal grace,” which stands at odds with its function as a church, “a monument to unreason…a musty repository of ancient mysteries and incomprehensible superstitions” and the residence of “the fearsome, jealous, tyrannical wrath-monger called god”. Meades continues his deadpan fulmination against the numinous deity in the brilliantly irreverent Absentee Landlord. God is “an absurdity whose existence it is absurd to deny,” he says, “because God is omnipresent, God is in believers’ minds or souls or hearts or wherever it is they know he is”. In fact, he is a “fantastically successful invention.” And if an idea ever had legs Meades muses, “this one has run and run and is still full of puff”. 

Next, he tackles the church. The Church of England to be precise or rather “the Church of Convenience,” as he calls it, “founded to sanction a king’s polygamous lubricity and his Bluebeard appetites”. Speaking from an architectural point of view, however, he avers that churches as buildings cannot be denied. Most of these putatively sacred structures are lumped together as Gothic, because they predominantly are and have been since the Middle Ages. “The Gothic is an agent of de-secularisation, it is an architectural means of achieving sacredness,” Meades explains, “it made schools, law courts and railway stations into quasi-religious building which were thus invested with added authority: we thanked God for selective education, for the wisdom of judges, for making the trains run on time.” Interestingly, Meades goes on to note that “Atheism, unlike Christianity, possesses no architectural type or decorative style which is peculiar to it.” And yet he daydreams here a little, saying: “Still, had atheists built they could have built at no more propitious a moment than during the middle years of this century, when nearly all architecture had broken with western Christian precedent, when architecture was so ideologically determined that it was itself a cult or religion.” Sadly this is no longer the case, as Meades laments in Postmodernism to Ghost-Modernism because modern British architecture died when Margaret Thatcher assumed power in 1979 and thus dismantled the “economic and cultural apparatus that had supported it”.

And, it only got worse under the tenure of Tony Blair, “the most bellicose prime minister of the last 150 years”. There is something of the Uriah Heep that Blair’s “corrupt regime” has banqueted to Britain, says Meades. But what he really takes objection to are the “block upon block of luxury flats” despoiling different cityscapes across the country. In On the Bandwagon talking of Blair’s government, Meades says that the decade-long rule “will be recalled as much by its architecture as by its low dishonesty”. But the architectural legacy is Meades’ primary concern, so much so that he has coined a neologism for the particular type of structure associated with New Labour. A sightbite, the analogous equivalent of a soundbite, is “characterised by its hollow vacuity, by its sculptural sensationalism, by its happy quasi-modernism, by its lack of actual utility”.  These “dangerously vapid” buildings found mostly in municipalities undergoing regeneration, from London’s Docklands to Cardiff Bay, are fully representative of the government who authorised them. A government this particular auteur takes to task where others have not dared. Meades’ spellbinding enthusiasm, his acuity and his crafty prose in writing about social, political and religious issues – which he contemplates with wit, deft and gravity, depending on the exact nature of the topic – are surpassed only by his uncompromising candour.

This candour also extends to his life, his childhood and formative years, references and anecdotes of which punctuate the collection.  Occasionally, these sketches are plaintively nostalgic as those, for example, in Fatherland, where Meades remembers places associated with his father, which he says “coalesce into a memento mori whether I like it or not”.  Thus places, like certain smells and sounds, are able to solicit small and inconsequential but also exigent and momentous reminiscences and are therefore an integral element of our emotional life. A great number of these places for Meades are – in a very quintessentially English way – pubs, or more precisely their parking lots, where he whiled away the hours eating crisps and imbibing fizzy lemonade, waiting for the grown-ups. “I spent the 1950s in pub car parks,” he confesses, “in summer I kicked gravel, walked perilously on the wall tops, scaled trees. In winter which is what it usually was I sat in my father’s car watching my breath condense, mining driving, scrutinising the underside of Issigonis’s dashboards, reading maps”. Here like elsewhere in the collection Meades pays tribute to his father, a biscuit salesman with whom he travelled from town to town, taking-in the beautiful, the grotesque and the commonplace which, in his own words, grew to seem extraordinary. Unbeknown to young Meades at the time his edacious interest in his surroundings would not only develop into a lifelong fascination but also into a brilliant career, both in print and in television. The six scripts gathered here give unprecedented insight into the filmmaker’s pedantic precision and attention to detail. Surprisingly – surprisingly because Meades’ television programmes appear so wonderfully spontaneous – every nuance and scene, every screen-shot and take is meticulously scripted, attesting to Meades’ proficient showmanship.  Just as Museum Without Walls attests to his talents as a writer with an exciting and varied body of work of which one hopes there is much more to come.

Publisher: Unbound
Publication Date: September 2012
Hardback: 352 pages
ISBN: 9781908717184

Writers On Writers

“We cannot help but see Socrates as the turning-point, the vortex of world history.”
Friedrich Nietzsche

“Mayakovsky impregnated poetry in such a way that almost all the poetry has continued being Mayakovskian.”
Pablo Neruda

“I wouldn’t like to do what Elizabeth Bowen once told me she did—write something every day, whether I was working on a book or not.”
Angus Wilson

“Vladimir Nabokov, and I languidly English the name, takes up a good five feet of my library. “
Martin Amis

“Flann O’Brien is unquestionably a major author.”
Anthony Burgess

“Between thirteen and sixteen are the ideal if not the only ages for succumbing to Thomas Wolfe—he seemed to me a great genius then, and still does, though I can’t read a line of it now.”
Truman Capote

“As far as I’m consciously aware, I forget everything I read at once, including my own stuff. But I have a tremendous admiration for Céline.”
Henry Green

“It may really be said: You are either a Spinozist or not a philosopher at all.”
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

“Kingsley Amis and I used to exchange unpublished poems, largely because we never thought they could be published, I suppose.”
Philip Larkin

“Tolstoy is the greatest Russian writer of prose fiction.”
Vladimir Nabokov

Sources: Wikipedia, Brainy Quote, The Paris Review  

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