Jeremy reviews “Wainewright the Poisoner” – Andrew Motion

wainewrightThomas Griffiths Wainewright (1794-1847), the little-known subject of Andrew Motion’s intriguing book, was a significant figure in the London of his times: artist and writer, he painted Byron and was a friend of Fuseli and Blake. The form of the narrative is as beguiling as the subject matter. Eschewing straight biography, Motion writes the ‘Confession’ from the fictionalised first-person viewpoint of Wainewright.

At the end of each chapter, he adds ‘Notes’ — scholarly, biographical information about the real Wainewright. This ‘creates a fascinating alternative perspective to the vivacious but chilling story of the gentleman-dandy artist. After the suspicious death of three relatives, he was charged — though only with the forgery of life insurance documents and transported to Tasmania. Wilde wrote about him, spookily foreshadowing his own downfall.
This mixed-genre study produces a complex reconstruction of its subject, and reinstates Wainewright in his Romantic context.

Lachlan’s War – Michael Cannon

(Published in The Tablet, 5 August 2006)

lachlansDr Lachlan McCready, the eponymous hero of Scottish writer Michael Cannon’s third novel, is the much-loved doctor in a small fishing village, Rassaig, on the west coast of Scotland in 1941. For those who remember the popular television series of the 1960s, Dr Finlay’s Casebook, there is a resemblance between the programme’s benign, elderly Dr Cameron, and Lachlan McCready: both tend their community with humour and wisdom. But this bold, readable novel soon develops in darker and more complex ways than Dr Finlay ever attempted.

After a complicated journey, a Jewish refugee boy, Franz, turns up in the village and Lachlan gives him a home. At the same time three English girls, working on farms to help the war effort, are billeted in the area. The locals gossip salaciously about them.

Cannon is a natural storyteller and he explores Lachlan’s past, including service as a doctor in the First World War, particularly convincingly.
Cannon has the ability both to expose, and to sympathise with, human frailty. He writes intensely about sexual and religious passion, and his judgement of religious fundamentalism is acid sharp, embodied here in the figure of “Gavin Bone, Elder of the Free Presbyterian congregation”, and hater of all the village Catholics. Cannon makes a fascinating investigation of the conflict between a Presbyterian and a Catholic view of the world, as it is lived out in a small village.

If there is a flaw in this short novel it is its ambition: there are just too many characters and incidental plots. Lachlan’s War is attempting to be too many different kinds of novel: it is historical, psychological, a novel of ideas, and a novel of place. Occasionally, too, the author’s style runs to melodrama.

That said, it runs along at a cracking pace. The stories within stories keep the reader alert and interested, if sometimes frustrated that the central characters are not getting their share of attention. When the focus shifts briefly to Franz’s background in Prague, we feel alienated, and not close enough to care that much. It is Rassaig that provides the strange, sometimes macabre and primitive atmosphere that gives such a rich texture to the narrative.

The story concludes on an uplifting and moving note of change and acceptance, with Lachlan’s reflections placed rightly at the centre: “Only fools, or those who read too much, fail to take consolation from the texture of the everyday.”

A Book of Silence – Sara Maitland

(Published in The London Magazine, June/July 2010)

This lively book sets out to restore the importance of silence to our frenetic culture. Although classified as ‘Memoir’ by the publisher it embraces many aspects: autobiography; quest; discussion; history; polemic; confession; travel book. The author has written several novels, short story collections and theological works. She was also editor of the illuminating Very Heaven: Looking Back at the 1960s (1988).

silenceFor over twenty years, from the late sixties, Sara Maitland described herself as an ‘Anglo-Catholic socialist feminist’ (she is now a Catholic). She relished her ‘noisy life’ in London but in 2000 decided that a withdrawal from society would allow the expression of a deeper self. She asks why there is ‘a fear of silence’ in our culture and argues that in solitude we gain a sense of inner happiness that is not dependent on commodity culture. She travels to the Sinai Desert to research her premise.

The author is an Oxford-educated, upper-class bohemian: is she following an egocentric hippyish path to enlightenment? David Willetts’ provocative book The Pinch, about ‘the baby boomers’ (those born between 1945-1965) claims that they have ‘concentrated wealth in the hands of their own generation’. A corollary to this is the way in which this privileged group has assumed the right to sample any new experience – LSD, travel, psychotherapy, alternative lifestyles, the search for inner tranquillity – as a norm and a right. The sitcom Absolutely Fabulous illustrates such a way of life.

Maitland is one of those spoilt baby boomers, as I was, but A Book of Silence is far more than mere indulgence. The author is following in a long line of religious thinkers who have written about silence and personal liberation. Before the birth of Buddha, the ancient teaching of the Vigyan Bhairava Tantra Text was advising: ‘Toss attachment for body aside. I am everywhere. One who is everywhere is joyous.’ In 2003 Eckhart Tolle published the best sellerStillness Speaks. Maitland’s study is more exploratory, and original, in its aim to discover the importance of silence in various cultural contexts. The personal candour of the writer is refreshing, about her stay in a mental hospital, the personal changes caused by the menopause, her relation to her children and ex-husband. We side with her against the babble in the world and with her apoplexy that people even cheer at the funerals of heroes and celebrities. The intellectual energy of this study – about myths, hermits, the power ascribed to language – is wide-ranging and impressive.

But the heart of the writing is the search for ‘the bliss of solitude’ She also found that being alone for long periods could be psychologically difficult and the chapter ‘The Dark Side’ is a kind of manual for the negative fears one will come across, and how to defeat them. The underlying thrust of her argument is that ‘the modern boundaried self’ of Western culture is limited until silence is embraced when a radically different self is uncovered: ‘A whole world in and of itself, alongside of, woven within language and culture, but independent of it.’ What does this really mean and how useful is such a dimension for those working full time or bringing up a family? The author is clear about her intention: ‘I want to encode silence, so that out there in all that noise, people can access and love it. I am not sure that this it is possible, but it seems worth a try.’ Conveying the meaning of mysticism is a daunting task and this book is a valiant attempt to do so.

There is no manifest sense of a political perspective in A Book of Silence, which is surprising when the writer has been such an active campaigner on so many issues. Yet, in this exciting work, Sara Maitland remains a sixties girl in spirit as she makes a passionate case for silence.

Jeremy reviews… Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination by Peter Ackroyd

(Published in The Salisbury Review, Spring 2003)

Peter Ackroyd has produced a long study of great ambition, which in 53 short chapters explores the sources of the English imagination. It seems clear that Ackroyd has set himself two main tasks. The first is to trace the origins of the imagination in Anglo-Saxon texts, early myths, historical documents and religious imagery. The second is to show how certain central themes that Ackroyd has identified recur over the centuries, for example: the myth of King Arthur; the use of dreams and visions in literature; the strain of melancholy in the English imagination; the love of gardens; the need for a connection to landscape; the central motif of ‘character’ in English fiction. Throughout the book, Ackroyd maintains a deep belief in the imagination’s role as the storehouse for the ‘origins’ of the collective consciousness of a nation.

The introduction is titled ‘Albion’ (the ancient name for England) and the first sentence claims: ‘Of the English imagination there is no certain description.’ Ackroyd gives us a feast of material in these densely packed chapters that investigate this point, but no clear guidelines about how to judge what are the most important elements of the English imagination. However, in chapter 5 the author makes two points about the seventh century historian Bede, which suggest clearly the approach Ackroyd has taken to his own work: ‘Bede lent English history the coherence and consistency of art’ and ‘history is an art, in other words, and cannot be finally distinguished from drama or from fiction.’ Ackroyd implicitly favours as a method the use of the historical imagination, of the ability of the individual to feel, know and reconstitute the past. But his approach to history is paradoxical. For he often treats the concept of the imagination as if it were timeless, embodying transcendent truths, to which the properly-tuned individual may connect: ‘our ancestors shine through at that moment of quietus and we are but a palimpsest of past times.’ This attitude seems to link strongly to an idea expressed by T.S. Eliot in his essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ (1919). T.S. Eliot wrote: ‘The historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the termporal together’ (Ackroyd’s brilliant biography of T.S. Eliot was published in 1985).

Ackroyd’s technique is illustrated in the first chapter, ‘The Tree.’ The author draws together various forms of evidence, religious, symbolic, mythic, literary, that have collected in the English imagination around the idea of the tree. For example, the spiritual importance of the tree to the Druids, the mythic resonance of the forest in the legend of Robin Hood, the magical quality of trees in Kipling’s Puck of Pooks Hill, the symbolic relevance of trees in Jane Eyre and Women in Love, and much else, all in five pages. Ackroyd concludes the chapter, ‘So the tree grows through the literature of the English.’ The connections he makes, ricocheting across genres, places and times, are electric. It is as if the origins of the imagination, in this case ‘the tree’, form a special category, ‘of the timeless and the temporal together’ in Eliot’s phrase. This category may then be detached from a particular place or story, to form a simultaneous and timeless source of inspiration, which may be drawn upon at any time by reader or writer.

Ackroyd consistently makes revealing connections in these chapters. However, because each chapter feels like a fresh endeavour, there is a lack of an underlying argument to Ackroyd’s project. The reader does not always know where we are being led, or why.

As the book proceeds it becomes clear that this is less an objective study of the origins of the English imagination than Ackroyd’s own subjective interpretation, guided by his longing for a lost Catholic tradition: ‘the Catholic culture of fifteen hundred years ago could not wholly die. Its inheritance is buried just below the surface of our own times.’ He also points out that ‘John Milton’s family were Catholic’, and of Shakespeare ‘that the evidence suggests that his father was a Roman Catholic.’ This study leans towards a Catholic interpretation of the origins of the imagination, in the sense of a quasi-mystical connectedness between all phenomena, which thus transcends historical time. But there is far too little close analysis of a great Protestant work, Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress for instance, to illustrate differences from, and similarities to, a Catholic interpretation of the imagination. Nor, as a subsidiary point, does Ackroyd deal with the issue of social class and the English Imagination: what origins are shared between, say, a Leveller and an upper-class Anglo-Catholic?

The Catholic perspective does not lessen the reader’s pleasure, but two particular absences from this study may do. First, there is very little discussion of how the political perspective of writers shapes their sense of what they consider the origins of the English imagination to be. For instance, Evelyn Waugh (I am thinking especially of Brideshead Revisited) would surely have had a radically different taxonomy of the English imagination than George Orwell. Perhaps both authors do have in common some shared concepts of the imagination, but the absence of any discussion on this point disappoints. Second, Darwin’sThe Origin of Species is dismissed summarily as ‘essentially a work of fiction.’ This is nonsense. When this minutely-researched scientific study was published in 1859 it reshaped, or even uprooted, Victorian culture’s sense of its own origins. According to Darwinian interpretation, mankind was no longer a unique species that began with Adam and Eve. Instead the human species was part of a vast temporal flow, which predated Christianity by millions of years, and made mankind brother to the monkey. In turn, the English imagination, in Hardy’s The Return of the Native (1878) for example, showed the importance of Darwin’s ideas in shaping a different idea of the relationship between landscape and man. Hardy’s characters are diminished by a temporal order that views humanity as transitory and inconsequential. Hardy explored how the long history of geology marginalized human history, and forced the imagination to engage differently with its beginnings. And perhaps each generation reinterprets the origins of its nation’s imagination. Ackroyd does not discuss these points.

Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination is a beautifully presented, delightfully illustrated book. In the otherwise full bibliography there is one unfortunate omission. There is no mention of David Gervais’s superb book, Literary Englands: Versions of ‘Englishness’ in Modern Writing (1993), which deals in a more scholarly manner with a number of themes that are considered by Ackroyd.

Albion is a study that is best read and savoured in small portions. In this way the concentrated illuminations are fully appreciated, and the reader is able to engage, empathize and argue with the author, without being irritated by the lack of a cohesive argument. Ackroyd has written a work as quirky and wilful, fresh and vivid as the English imagination itself.

Jeremy reviews Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide

“South of Calcutta are the “Sundarbans”, an archipelago of more than 50 islands in the Bay of Bengal, and this is the sensual and turbulent setting for Amitav Ghosh’s spellbinding, tautly written contemporary story of struggle and human dignity. The author is a convincing interpreter for the Western reader of this unusual world: born in Calcutta, with a doctorate in social anthropology from Oxford, he brings to his ambitious work a 19th-century, Hardyesque scope of analysis and exploration.”

You can read Jeremy’s full review on The Telegraph’s website:

Greenfly – Tom Lee

(Published in The London Magazine, October/November 2008)

An Unsettled Calm

There is an effectively cold and unnerving tone to the author’s first published work. Most of the short stories focus on people who are living at the edge of a crisis: a couple waiting for a drug deal to be concluded; relationships that are almost over; and a woman who is secretly planning to cross a border into another country. These common themes are developed into well-structured and usually satisfying narratives by the verve and originality of their plots. We are rarely given a sense of the natural world, which increases a feeling of claustrophobia. Locations in Germany, America and South America broaden the range of interest.

greenflyThe stories are sometimes bleakly humorous. Many are set in a contemporary world whose values are nihilistic. Even if characters have a conventional surface life, the weirdness of their thoughts or actions puts most of them in the oddball category. Cocaine, affairs, obsessions, and psychological collapse, break through the mask of the self.

The worlds of GreenfIy are eerily insubstantial because they feel so temporary, merely part of the storytelling devices of the author, without a sense of their own permanence. Descriptions of characters too are kept to a minimum and there is, deliberately, little exploration of the inner self. As Henry James might have said, nothing is solidly specified. The writer’s lightly-worn postmodernist awareness of the fictiveness of fiction usually works well. In ‘Mrs Echegary’, for example, the title seems to be a playful nod to William Trevor’s novel Mrs Eckdorf in 0’Neill’s Hotel. Mrs Echegary is waiting in her hotel room for her lover. Eventually she leaves, dissatisfied. Numerous vignettes are linked to the main narrative. The reader can never settle in one place, just as the characters never seem at peace in a stable world. These extra stories run the risk that the reader could lose emotional connection to Mrs Echegary. But we don’t. We care about her plight. The writer has pulled off a clever trick of drawing together the disjunctive nature of the text into a satisfying conclusion – a trademark of his style.

‘Cerology’ is brilliantly ambitious. The title itself is full of hints and clues, both medical and mythical. I suggest that the reader researches the word. A professor in the 1890s develops a frightening new field of science. The story is told through the diaries of his wife, which are given to his granddaughter, who is currently writing an article, ‘The Fantastic Vagina: Sigmund Freud and the Narratives of Edgar Allan Poe.’ The sub plot, about sexual positions, is a minor tour de force. The main plot depends upon the relationship between the professor and his daughter, but we have not gained enough insight into their emotional bond, and therefore the climax is not convincing.

Perhaps there is a warning here for the author: he should not become too absorbed in over elaborate textual games. A few of these narratives distance the reader by not developing a deeper sense of the characters, though most of the stories are fresh, strange and compelling. ‘Berlin’ shows the author at his best. GreenfIy is an accomplished debut.

Jeremy reviews – The Married Man by Edmund White

edmund whiteEdmund White’s engrossing eighth novel opens in a sensual 1989 Paris. The central character, Austin, a ‘Europeanised American’ homosexual, is on the verge of new love with Julien, a young, still-married French architect. The third-person narrative lyrically evokes a sense of grand bohemian life. Well-drawn male characters are rather Jamesian, with the addition of a full and explicit sex life. Tension is created in The Married Man by the clash of values between Austin’s European aesthetic and the politically correct puritan ideologies of America, where he teaches for a year. A fellow lecturer advises: ‘Just imaglne you’re in China during the days of the Cultural Revolution.’

Returning to Europe, he travels with his now divorced partner, and sometimes with an ex-lover, to Venice, Rome, and Morocco. The ancient permanence of these landscapes becomes a poignant reminder of the transience of human love blighted by Aids. A moving and quietly powerful novel.

Jeremy reviews – Atomised by Michel Houellebecq

AtomisedThe French writer Michel Houellebecq’s explosive second novel is set in contemporary France ‘in the midst of the suicide of the West’. It is a tirade against liberal, individualistic values. The loose plot recounts the lives of two middle-aged half brothers — Mlchel, an introverted molecular biologist, and frustrated ex-teacher Bruno, who is constantly in search of sexual satisfaction. Both grew up in the wake of the Slxties political and sexual revolutions.

Philosophical insertions, reflections on anthropology and false gurus, and discussions about literature deliberately dismantle the conventional form of the novel in order to say Big Things about Western culture. The humorously obscene commentary about sex lightens the load. Clearly, to the Left Bank type characters, oral sex is the new art form in France, and fellatio is as prevalent as café au lait. Some will rail against Houlellebecq’s show-off nihilism, but everyone will ponder the conclusions of the extraordinary Atomised.

Jeremy reviews – Underground by Haruki Murakami

harukiIn Tokyo, on 20 March 1995, 12 people died and thousands were injured by a series of gas attacks on subway trains, perpetrated by members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult. Haruki Murakami, a well known Japanese novelist, investigates through interviews with both victims and cult members the ‘implications for the’ Japanese psyche’, posing the question: ‘Where did all that come from?’

Answers are not explored convincingly, however. There is too much passive recording of interviewees, and too little analysis from the author. We have the impression of Japan as a straight-jacketed, depressingly conformist culture, summed up by a subway employee: ‘Work means you fulfil your duties.’

Interviews with Aum members merely illustrate general tendencies of cults — obsessive, leader-oriented millenarian — rather than probing the motivations of this particular group. The reader is left frustrated by a dull book which delivers less than it promises.