Should we ‘decolonise the canon’? What a ridiculous question: of course we should.

This is a subject that I feel very, very strongly about – as anyone I’ve ever taught will be able to attest. And, whilst I have often come at it from a feminist angle, purely because that is my ‘margin’ as it were (though it feels bonkers to refer to 50% of the world’s population as a margin of any kind) and it is the area about which I feel most knowledgeable. As it happens, I am on a deliberate mission to broaden my scope and to read more BAME authors, though again, this has been in some respects limited to contemporary work. The ‘row’ that has erupted/wasentirelymanufacturedbysomeappallingjournalismfromTheDailyTelegraph over an open letter from the English students at Cambridge is frankly a nonsense.

The dominant forces in the Western world have for time immemorial been patriarchal and white. It is therefore unsurprising that the educational traditions of said world reflect this exclusivity. The power systems of a society shape the imprint it leaves but that does not render such an imprint accurate. Just because the canon that we have come to accept culturally is overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male does not make this a true reflection of the breadth and quality of writing the world has to offer. Oh and by the way, anyone who dares to proffer the argument that there just aren’t as many women or BAME writers of the same quality is either stupendously arrogant, stupendously ignorant or some unholy combination of the two.

Whilst it may be true to point out that educational opportunity may have produced more work from white, male authors and indeed have denied the voices of many who fall outside that category (see Virginia Woolf on Shakespeare’s imaginary sister); this fact makes it incumbent on those who write the narrative, who shape the modern canon, to expand and recalibrate it. If you are a true lover of literature I can think of nothing more exciting! The more I read, the less well-read I feel because each book, play, poem leads to some other possibility. The joy of reading is in being humbled by how little you know and enthralled by how much there is to learn.

This of course all ties in to broader issues about representation and why it matters that we are exposed to diversity as well as  the white dudes we meet so routinely (NOTE: not necessarily instead of – calm down guys, we aren’t trying to eradicate you as so many of you seem to believe). There are plenty of people far better qualified than I to comment on this so I’ve linked to just a few bits on the topic below that have stuck with me – happy reading and please do link to other recommended reading on the topic in the comments…

The Ladies’ Paradise, Émile Zola: ‘a poem to modern activity’

This was not my first encounter with Zola but it was certainly my first successful one. When I was seventeen I tried to read L’Assomoir in French and, perhaps unsurprisingly, did not get very far. I’ve always been a bit wary of texts in translation for the simple reason that a bad translation can ruin a wonderful book; a wariness much exacerbated by some rather dry, dense translations of Sartre which put me off him for a good while. Brian Nelson’s translation of Au Bonheur des Dames suffers no such impediments and unfamiliar with the story (in spite of the BBCs recent adaptation) I thoroughly enjoyed it, cracking through all 432 pages at speed. It was especially fun to read during a road trip across the south of France which encompassed Zola’s hometown of Aix-en-Provence.

The reader is drawn into the compelling and colourful world of the grand department store, The Paradise, with the same force that it entrances and fascinates our heroine: the young and innocent Denise Baudu. In the opening pages, Denise and her brothers Jean and Pépé arrive in Paris in search of their Uncle and stumble across The Ladies’ Paradise. The effect is immediate and emotional: ‘this building which seemed so enormous, brought a lump to her throat and held her rooted to the spot, excited, fascinated, oblivious to everything else.’ The shop windows are an orgy of energy and colour where the…

…umbrellas, placed obliquely, seemed to form the roof of some rustic hut, beneath which, suspended from rods and displaying the rounded outline of calves, were silk stockings, some strewn with bunches of roses, others of every hue – black net, red with embroidered clocks, flesh-coloured ones with a satiny texture which had the softness of a blonde woman’s skin…

Throughout the novel we are treated to these sensuous, vibrant descriptions of the shop and its wares. Consumption is sexualised to the point of fetishism, the calculating owner Octave Mouret sees his customers – the ladies of Paris ‘pale with desire’ – as objects for seduction: ‘His sole passion was the conquest of Woman.’ The act of selling becomes one of erotic manipulation and the great sales that structure the novel constitute moments of collective abandon, exemplified in the final climactic sale, ‘In the trousseau department’, where:

…all discretion was abandoned: women were turned round and viewed from below, from the ordinary housewife with her common calicoes to the rich lady smothered in lace; it was an alcove open to the public, whose hidden luxury, its platings and embroideries and Valenciennes lace, deprived the senses as it overflowed in costly fantasies.

Mouret’s personal seductions are as numerous and successful as those of his shop, until of course, he meets the steadfast and ‘gentle’ Denise who will not be so easily overwhelmed. Indeed, through Denise ‘the women’ will ‘have their revenge’ as predicted to Mouret himself early in the novel.

Accompanying this strain of eroticism runs a parallel current of violence; the above description of the ‘calves’ is one of many in which the body is distorted and dismembered into fragments: ‘the mirrors made the departments recede further into the distance, reflecting the displays together with patches of the public – faces in reverse, bits of shoulders and arms’. The disturbing image of the mannequins, figures of the female body, decapitated ‘each one had a little wooden handle, like the handle of a dagger, stuck in the red flannel which seemed to be bleeding where the neck had been severed’ is emblematic of the violent commodification of the female body Mouret deals in.

The Paradise itself is figured as a machine, albeit a machine that is ‘based on the flesh and blood of Woman’ and as such it is rendered a symbol of a nascent modernity driven by capital and technology. Zola set out his intentions in his notes; he wanted to write, ‘the poem of modern activity. Hence a complete shift of philosophy: ‘no more pessimism, first of all. Don’t conclude with the stupidity and sadness of life. Instead, conclude with its continual labour, the power and gaiety that comes from its productivity. In a word, go along with the century, express the century, which is a century of action and conquest, of effort in every direction.’ This ‘effort in every direction’ is captured in the relentless expansion of the physical building even at the expense of the old, family shops in the vicinity and of course, at the expense of those families themselves. The new, specifically urban space of the department store is characterised by ‘the crush’ of the crowd and the ‘madness in the air’ that brings with it.

The productivity of Mouret’s machine is inextricable from a Darwinian brutality that sustains both the structure and the dominance of the shop. It is destructive and frequently figured as ‘monstrous’ in its mechanisation and power. Even Denise whose ‘coming was to be a revenge’ is shocked ‘by its brutal operation’. Indeed Denise who is characterised throughout as ‘gentle’ and acts as a humanising influence on both man and monster cannot stem the ‘force which was carrying everything before it.’

Inexorable progress and forward propulsion beat through the novel like the shop itself, ‘regulated and organized with the remorselessness of a machine: the vast horde of women were as if caught in the wheels of an inevitable force.’ It surges forward, driven by Mouret’s speculative approach, attention fixed firmly on the future as the present dissipates into money already made and the next sale holds promises of greater profits; The Paradise remains a machine clothed in luxurious silks – and all for a reasonable price.

Crome Yellow, Aldous Huxley

Crome Yellow, 1921
Crome Yellow, 1921

The country house of Crome welcomes “a painter, a poet, a spiritual journalist and ladies of assorted morals” to a house-party. The plot follows our weak, frustrated hero Denis in his ill-fated endeavours in love and literature alike. The other members of the party as absurd as they are unlikeable and some of the most compelling moments of narrative in the book are derived from the history of the home itself as retold by its now mast, Henry Wimbush. The novel is biting, almost spitting, in its satire on early twentieth century social interaction, I was reminded of Eliot’s earlier poetry particularly, “The women” who “come and go/ Talking of Michaelangelo” in ‘The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock’. In fact Denis himself seems trapped in an almost Prufockian state of inaction as he laments actions he should have taken and moments that pass ungrasped. The cover picture displayed above captures this sense of futility, the men and women pictured as uniform figures on a carousel by Mark Gettler in ‘The Merry Go Round’ (c.1916), mouths open as if in infinite, uncommunicative conversation.

The story itself is hard work, and whilst I’m sure some of that could be happily attributed to brain-bleeding tiredness, it lacks pace and direction. The most interesting aspects are the ideas that the characters give voice to, indeed, poor Denis, indecisive and suggestible, at the best of times is left utterly bewildered by the range and ferocity of opinions that batter him during his stay at Crome. Perhaps the most sinister character Huxley creates here is Mr Scogan and it is through him that we see a prefiguring of the ideas that were to shape Brave New World. He asserts that “men of intelligence must combine, must conspire, and seize power…They must found the Rational State” assigning people roles in society to which they are best suited (though sees no place for Denis, our poet). He envisages the replacement of “Nature’s hideous system” with “vast state incubators, rows upon rows of gravid bottles will supply the world with the population it requires. The family system will disappear; society, sapped at its very base, will have to find new foundations; and Eros, beautifully and irresponsibly free, will flit like a gay butterfly from flower to flower through a sunlit world.”

These ideas, nascent here, come to fruition in Brave New World, arguably the most influential works of science fiction of the last century. Images of human hatcheries and World Controllers are at their most powerful when shaping that narrative; they are terrifying when imagined as an actual future rather than proffered as one possible direction the future might take as they are in the set piece speeches of Crome Yellow. In a way, the whole novel feels like a musing, a writer who is flexing and stretching, toying with ideas still in their formative stages. It’s impossible to come to Crome Yellow without a sense that Brave New World is hovering nearby (even though it wasn’t published until 1932, a full 11 years after Huxley’s first full length work). Whilst I didn’t particularly enjoy Crome Yellow in its own right, the two novels held alongside each other show the genesis of a mind grappling uneasily with a past fast-slipping away and a fascination, perhaps a fearful one, with what the world that replaces it will look like.

The Red Room, New Short Stories Inspired by the Brontës

 

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This collection of short fiction is another Unthank publication (I recently reviewed their new writing Unthology here) in which editor A. J. Ashworth has gathered together twelve new stories inspired by all things Brontë. As she explains in her Introduction, the collection came about as part of an effort  to celebrate the Brontës’ association with the village of Thornton where, “Our nation’s most famous sisters – Charlotte, Emily and Anne” were in fact born. A percentage of the proceeds from the sales of this collection will be donated to The Brontë Birthplace Trust by Unthank, not only to support the promotion of Thornton as a tourist attraction but also to contribute to ongoing fundraising to purchase 72/74 Market Street which appears to be currently be in private hands.

In addition to these stories, the collection also features ‘Emily B’, a poem by Simon Armitage that effectively captures the essence of the Brontës’ or at least, their essence as it exists in the collective imagination. Armitage conveys a wild, hard-edged natural energy, inextricable from the setting of the moors  and the ‘dry wind that rushes’ there, whilst alluding to the inherent tragedy of Emily’s, and indeed all the sisters’ lives, as ‘bad water/leaches the graveyard’ and premature death becomes inescapable.

The stories gathered here are variously dark, playful, sad and eerie. Some extremely accomplished writers engage with the work and lives of the Brontës in different ways, whether it be through the figure of the lost little boy or the isolated governess, the limitations of poverty set in contrast to the freedom afforded by wealth, or most consistently through the weather and landscape of Yorkshire, so integral to the tales they tell us.

Alison Moore’s opening piece is an eerie re-imagining of Catherine repressed in a different time. It draws on familiar ideas of religion and marriage as tools of masculine oppression, even, it is suggested, as the sinister Mr Blakemore puts “four fingers and a thumb inside her mouth so that she would not forget” of physical violation. Elsewhere, the tone shifts to a more playful one, Zoë King’s ‘My Dear Miss…’ imagines a correspondence between the ever-meddlesome Emma Woodhouse (of Emma fame) and Jane Eyre, troubled under the pressure of St John’s proposal. Other stories engage with the influence and impact of the works themselves, Sarah Dobbs’ portrait of a young boy in the anguish of grief and the impressionable teenager in Elizabeth Baines’ ‘The Turbulent Stillness’ both feel the import of Wuthering Heights in one way or another.

The writing is at times moving and reverential in its treatment of the sisters and their works and at others entirely irreverent and ironic. I teach both Jane Eyre  and Wuthering Heights and I see daily the lasting effects that those two works specifically (sorry Anne!) have on students and the longstanding power they hold within the imagination. Part of the pleasure in any tribute is tracing the lines and patterns to the originals, spotting the references and enjoying the sense that you, like a conspirator, are in on the secret. This collection is rich with clues of this nature but it is, in places, wonderfully original with them and invites you, with the contributors to meditate on your own, personal encounters with these wonderful, ill-fated sisters. I read this at home with my family for the half-term break and it’s a good job too as I find myself reaching for my own, rather dog-eared, first and very special copy of Wuthering Heights once again.

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A bit of light summer reading: ‘In the Penal Settlement’, Kafka

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I haven’t read any Kafka in ages. I have a vague recollection of a very teenage, angst-driven encounter with Metamorphosis and Other Stories (the very copy and collection that this tale is from) many years ago and so when at some juncture back in the semi-haze that was last term another of my  fantastically clever friends mentioned ‘In the Penal Colony’ in passing, I nodded, smiled and thought: ‘I sort of know what you’re talking about but I’m not 100% sure’ before resolving to go back and read it again as soon as the holiday began.

Well, more fool me. I read it late at night (error) and the result was a series of extremely unpleasant, eerie and increasingly gruesome dreams. The worlds Kafka draws are nightmareish and surreal at the best of times (of which there are very few to be lighted upon in his prose) and on my first night in a new house with no curtains, well let’s just say I slept with the light on.

If you are yet to come across this story, it tells of an Explorer (although I have heard from various sources that this translation is erroneous and would be better served by the word Researcher? Or Traveller? Anyone who can confirm or deny this please do…) who is invited to witness the execution of a Condemned Man effected by the Officer who is assisted/hindered at various intervals by the Soldier.

This fly-by-night synopsis may seem innocuous by our Hollywood/instant-news/TV-conditioned standards: gun violence, stabbings, even sexual violence have, these days, become entirely unremarkable in their appearance in popular culture or indeed on the news. The chilling power of this story is derived not from the plot but from the narrative voice; the characters’ various responses to the plot and of course, the horrifying piece of appartus that sits, menacingly, at the centre.

The narrative voice is entirely detached. It offers no judgement, no censureship of the fanatical Officer, proponent of the old order as epitomised by the Old Commandant and the machine that he designed. The machine in question scores the sentence into the flesh of the condemned repeatedly over a period of twelve hours using a series of needles and teeth. The Officer explains its workings to the Explorer with a kind of religious fervour, he caresses the machine as he readies it for action and will not permit another person to touch the plans that he carries with him in a briefcase. The narrative voice offers no comment. It relays the setting, a “small sandy valley, a deep hollow surrounded on all sides by naked crags” and recounts the actions and reactions of the characters but the tone of total, moral and emotional indifference remains. It remains in the face of an ingenious vehicle for human violence and an absurd justice system – the Officer is firm in his belief that no defence should be allowed because “guilt is never to be doubted”.

This indifference permeates the text and is perpetuated in its characters. In spite of the horror before him, the Explorer is hesitant, reluctant to intervene against the Officer citing his position as an outsider as protection from that responsibility. It is only when the machine begins to malfunction and its victim (I don’t want to spoil it if you haven’t read it…) is subject to, “plain murder” as opposed to, “exquisite torture” and the moment of spiritual enlightenment this supposedly offers that he is moved to intervene.

The inaction and indifference of the Explorer is in many ways, more disturbing than the fanaticism of the Officer. The Officer is an absurd character, unreal in the extremity of his adherence to an impossibly cruel and inhuman system. The Explorer, however, stands on the sidelines with faint fascination and a sense of unease when confronted with torture, injustice and cruelty; he intervenes only when the aesthetics of the process are threatened by the bloody reality of “a great spike” thrust through a forehead; he beats back those who would escape their unsavoury world with a knotted rope.

It is not the machine, nor the human ingenuity that gave rise to it that perpetuates the sustained sense of dread within this story (although the sheer nastiness of it does go a long way) but the familiar indifference of the voice that tells it and those who watch it unfold. Is it surprising then, given all that is going on around the world today that since I’ve re-read it, I’ve had real difficulty sleeping?

Blogging The Sonnets… Sonnet II

It has been a shamefully long time since my last post but after a maniacally busy term I am returned to my sonnet project with apologies for the sonnetless stint. So, without further dilly dallying: to work!

Sonnet II

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery so gazed on now,
Will be a totter’d weed of small worth held:
Then being asked, where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days;
To say, within thine own deep sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame, and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserv’d thy beauty’s use,
If thou couldst answer ‘This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count, and make my old excuse,’
Proving his beauty by succession thine!
This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.

This sonnet seems particularly pertinent in the wake of last term; it continues to focus on ageing (years off my life…) or, more precisely, how the young man is obligated to take action against it. The argument runs in much the same way as Sonnet I: when you’re old and wrinkled by Time’s ‘deep trenches’, the elaborate garment of your beauty reduced to a ‘totter’d weed’ it would be shameful not to have a ‘fair child’ both to perpetuate and renew your beauty.

The opening image of the military siege figures Time as an attritional force acting on the Young Man’s beauty. The alliterative monosyllables of ‘dig deep’ in line 2 effectively evoke the action of digging and presents the violation of the Young Man’s beauty by time as an act of violation against Nature by a hostile army. The Biblical connotations of the number ‘forty’ (days and years in the wilderness…) combined with ‘winter’ suggest an infertile, fruitless life preparing the reader neatly for the poet’s solution: have a child!

The charge is roughly the same as the previous sonnet, one of Narcissism. It is worth identifying the erotic implications at work in the language here, extending the idea of self-love into that of unproductive sexual activity, that is, masturbation.

‘…All the treasure of thy lusty days,
To say within thine own deep-sunken eyes’

Whilst to our modern ear the sexual connotations of ‘lusty’ are obvious, ‘treasure’ could, at the time of our poet’s composition, refer to semen. Similarly, it would be entirely possible to connect the ‘deep sunken eyes’ – a traditional symptom of old age – as a symptom of over-exertion in this manner during the last forty, sterile winters. This reading ties in with the images of ‘Within thine own bud buriest thy content’ and being ‘contracted to thine own bright eyes/Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel’ of the preceding sonnet and it augments the presentation of a consummative self-adoration. So, with this in mind, the call to fatherhood to preserve beauty becomes a call to engage with the world and the final couplet, heralding the child as a renewal of beauty in the Young Man’s old age, easily reads with the implication that sexual intercourse itself may ‘see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.’

It isn’t a favourite of mine in deepest truth. It is, however, quite refreshing to imagine this mythicalised coterie of high-brow intellectual young men sitting around, giggling at wanking jokes.

It is also entirely believable.