The Oxonian Review Fri, 19 Sep 2014 09:08:39 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Dangerous To Put Into Words Tue, 08 Jul 2014 07:50:32 +0000 eldin’s eldin chechen chechnya gunin’s gunin wept eldin’s eldin chechen chechnya gunin’s gunin wept Rosie Lavan

Mikail Eldin
The Sky Wept Fire: My Life as a Chechen Freedom Fighter
Translated by Anna Gunin
Portobello Books, 2013
287 pages
ISBN 978-1-84627-318-6

It hardly needs restating, in this centenary year, that one of the great legacies of the First World War was literary. It is taken for granted that writers give expression to experience, but when experience resists adequate representation the failure of articulation becomes a subject in itself. For Paul Bäumer, the narrator of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), it is better simply not to try: “it is dangerous for me to put these things into words. I am afraid they might then become gigantic and I be no longer able to master them. What would become of us if everything that happens out there were quite clear to us?”

It is dangerous, too, to collapse the experiences and representations of one conflict— and the historical and political complexities which gave rise to it—into another. But anyone seeking a new articulation of these challenges, and a fuller understanding of a European conflict of more recent times, would do well to read Mikail Eldin’s memoir of the Chechen conflicts in the 1990s, The Sky Wept Fire: My Life as a Chechen Freedom Fighter. This remarkable first-hand account is fraught with the complications of representation. For a start, its journey through translation was not straightforward. Eldin wrote the book in Russian, not his native Chechen, and a raw, unedited manuscript made its way to Anna Gunin, who translated it beautifully into English. The editing and crafting of the text happened in English, too, and it has not been published in its first language. The book works on the reader principally through its directness of address, and yet Eldin, who is not fluent in English, remains at one remove from his extraordinary work as it has reached his Anglophone readers.

In the Preface, Eldin is careful to position his account in terms of both genre and sensibility. “It is only possible to write beautifully about war if you have never witnessed it from within,” he begins. While he includes, from time to time, the empirical facts of the Chechen wars—the number of Russian troops and the far thinner ranks of resistance fighters who took them on; the cities seized; the key dates—he is insistent that he is not writing a history: “For a chronicle, you need the utterly cold and impartial mind of a historian. Whereas I have followed my memories haphazardly… Listening more to my heart.” His happy life as an arts journalist in Grozny was brought to a halt by the Russian invasion of Chechnya in 1994: in this first Chechen war 100,000 people are estimated to have died. He fled Chechnya but returned to join the second conflict in 1999, before being forced to leave the country once again. He sought political asylum in Norway, where he now lives and writes.

Eldin began by covering the war and he ended up fighting in it—joining the resistance, and suffering capture and torture at the hands of Russian forces. He recounts these experiences with appalling exactness. Eldin understands the people who are tasked with hurting him, and the mixture of the banal and the brutal in one particular scene marks the reader indelibly. He is being subjected to electric shocks in his fingers and toes. The instrument of torture is an old-fashioned telephone set, and so the soldiers are prompted to sing an old Soviet pop song, ‘Call Me Up’. “But this isn’t sadism,” he writes:

It is their job. An ordinary job, which they do with skill and to their utmost ability. The longer and faster they wind the handle, the higher the voltage and stronger the current shooting through you. [. . .] They continue to wind the handle, cheerfully singing, ‘Call me up, oh, call me. For the love of God, call me …’ You realize that they won’t stop unless you scream. You let out a scream. [. . .] You’re screaming more from impotent rage than from the pain. They stop. Only to start again five seconds later…

The Sky Wept Fire is an immersive book: the present tense and the second-person pronoun are repeatedly invoked at such moments of heightened experience. This “you” is of course reflexive—it is him, Eldin, but he has put himself outside the story to see it all again, next to us, the readers, as we see it for the first time.

Supported by English PEN’s ‘Writers in Translation’ programme, Gunin’s translation went on to win an English PEN Award. The lyricism with which she renders this book of memories is in turn one of its most memorable aspects. Eldin begins his account of his return to Chechnya in autumn 1999 with an extended description of that season:

Autumn heralds a brief period of harmony between life and death, between light and dark, between the mind and the soul. [. . .] The sun does not laugh: it smiles. [. . .] And the rain does not pour down. No, it cries teardrops. Mournfully, quietly. It is silently crying for the immensely sad and beautiful autumn.

It is in contemplation of the natural world that the book concludes. Eldin’s epilogue finds him by the sea in northern Norway. The shoreline is always a place in between, and it is there that he recognises himself to be inexorably caught between times, living a present and future life which will always take him back to the past. The Sky Wept Fire is a remarkable work of life-writing and a brilliantly rendered translation; it is also a book that we need, reminding us of the challenge to representation which a conflict in our own time has set a writer who lived, fought, and suffered it.

Rosie Lavan is reading for a DPhil in English at St Anne’s College, Oxford. She is a Senior Editor at the Oxonian Review.

]]> 0
Weekly Round-Up: Absorption, Telling Tales About the Novel, What Is Development?, Reclaiming Liberalism, Moaning Moguls, and Proust Fri, 04 Jul 2014 10:13:09 +0000 hedgehog modi nussbaum liberalism liberalism’s liberalism narendra moguls hedgehog modi nussbaum liberalism liberalism’s liberalism narendra moguls hedgehog modi nussbaum liberalism liberalism’s liberalism narendra moguls The Oxonian Review presents the Weekly Round-Up, featuring articles the editorial staff have found interesting, illuminating, or otherwise noteworthy.

1. “Mark Edmundson: ‘Pay Attention!’“, The Hedgehog Review: In praise of ‘absorption’. “To be absorbed is to intensify one’s connection with what is real with the hope of reshaping it for the better, if ever so slightly.”

2. “Leo Robson: ‘Hedgehog versus fox’“, New Statesman: How should we tell the story of the novel? “There are two potential methods of narrating this story: a fox way and a hedgehog way, both of them rife with problems.”

3. “Martha Nussbaum: ‘Tell Narendra Modi: Human Development is More than GDP’“, The Boston Review: Nussbaum unpicks the Modi ‘miracle’, and makes the case for a more human conception of development. “What is important is to shift the space of comparison from growth alone to the framework of human opportunity, with a strong focus on distribution and social equality.”

4. “Edmund Fawcett: ‘Reclaiming Liberalism’“, Aeon: Fawcett comes to the defence of liberalism. “Liberalism’s aims and ideals remain what they always were: resistance to domineering power, faith in human progress and insistence on civic respect for people. None of those need changing or abandoning. However, liberals urgently need to rethink how those aims and ideals are to be pursued in bewilderingly novel conditions.”

5. “James Surowiecki: ‘Moaning Moguls’“, The New Yorker: Capitalists in the twenty-first century. “If today’s corporate kvetchers are more concerned with the state of their egos than with the state of the nation, it’s in part because their own fortunes aren’t tied to those of the nation the way they once were.”

6. “‘An Interview with Daniel Mendelsohn’“, The Paris Review: “‘What is the lesson you draw from your own existence?’ This is the philosophy that Proust teaches us.”

If you would like to suggest a link, please email fergus.mcghee[at]

]]> 0
Something Gold Can Stay Thu, 03 Jul 2014 06:23:34 +0000 gold album klara klara sisters—their sisters stay stay gold album klara klara sisters—their sisters stay stay Judyta Frodyma

First Aid Kit
Stay Gold
Columbia Records
Release: 6th June 2014

Six years ago, when the Fleet Foxes were ruling the charts with their self-titled album, two Swedish sisters did a forest cover of their song and posted it to Youtube. This in itself was nothing extraordinary, everyone does covers: they wore flannels, and took their guitar into the woods behind their house, and sang. Yet, after over one million views, anyone watching their home video will pick up instantly on their natural talent, from their unusual voices to their distinct harmony to the ease with which they laugh at the echoes in the woods.

Now on their third album, sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg continue to reign over the folk world with youthful effortlessness. At times they have been criticised for covering subject matter in their lyrics that far exceeds their years, such as the lines ‘I can see it now you’re married and your wife is with a child / And you’re all laughing in the garden and I’m lost somewhere in your mind’ coming from an 18-year-old. Yet their third album continues to circle around themes of pain and loss, of transience. Even their title, taken from a Robert Frost poem (‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’) indicates a nod towards both the fleeting world of nature and the hectic life of being on tour. Their inclination towards Americana—previous tracks included evoking Emmylou Harris, Gram Parsons, June Carter, and Johnny Cash—is even stronger in this album, an indication of their projected market.

This is their first record with a major label (Columbia), and it seems that the teenage dream of dropping out of high school (or skipping it altogether, in Klara’s case) to go on tour has actually worked out in their case. There is something familiar and personable about the sisters—their live performances as much as their album touch upon the dramatic stories of country music without as much twang. Like any artist that started really young, First Aid Kit faced the problem of creating their own distinct ‘sound’ at the risk of too much similarity between their songs and albums; however Stay Gold has successfully accomplished just that: it’s recognisably their own while also being new.

Stay Gold harmoniously rings of the same glum hope you find in artists like Tracy Chapman or Bruce Springsteen: ‘I’ve woken up in a hotel room, my worries as big as the moon / Having no idea who or what or where I am,’ they sing in ‘My Silver Lining'; ‘Coast after coast, cities and states / My world’s an empty map where nothing remains’ laments ‘Cedar Lane’. They even have a ‘Waitress Song’ about moving to Chicago to ‘figure things out’ after a breakup. If they seem heavy, it’s because they are, with a long-awaited maturity that their other albums, impressive as they were, somewhat lacked. Musically, the use of more instrumentation has given them a larger sound that comes with the fullness of an adult album.

There’s no doubt that life on the road is as hard as it is creative, and Stay Gold is yet another testimony to the sorts of efforts that composing in the back of a touring bus can yield. With the experience of the international circuit, as well as age (being 14 and being 21 are two very different stages) each sister has become skilled at conveying musical honesty all the while being, to quote from another of their songs, a ‘Master Pretender.’

Judyta Frodyma is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at St Catherine’s College, Oxford. She is Editor-in-Chief of the Oxonian Review.

]]> 0
Photo of the Week: A Wondrous Rocky World Wed, 02 Jul 2014 11:40:35 +0000 stanton stanton pete rocky pole wondrous rocks eternal stanton stanton pete rocky pole wondrous rocks eternal stanton stanton pete rocky pole wondrous rocks eternal Pete Stanton


Pete Stanton’s picture shows the sun rising over Stonehenge, where an estimated thirty-seven thousand people had gathered to mark the summer solstice. William Blake’s depiction of the ancient site, from his late poem Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion (1804-20), is one of the most haunting:

Labour unparallelld! a wondrous rocky World of cruel destiny
Rocks piled on rocks reaching the stars; stretching from pole to pole.
The Building is Natural Religion & its Altars Natural Morality
A building of eternal death: whose proportions are eternal despair…

If you have a photo to submit, please email fergus.mcghee[at]

]]> 0
Minority Culture Tue, 01 Jul 2014 09:15:04 +0000 Fergus McGhee

Will Self
‘A Care Home for Novels: The Narrative Artform
in the Age of its Technological Supercession’
The Richard Hillary Memorial Lecture

Gulbenkian Lecture Theatre, St Cross Building, Oxford
6th May 2014

As the critic Frank Kermode recognised in 1965, “the special fate of the novel is to be always dying.” Elegies for the form have long constituted a kind of genre in themselves, of which Will Self’s lecture is only the latest specimen. In the twenties, T.S. Eliot declared that it had perished with Flaubert and James, a view echoed by José Ortega y Gasset, and by 1948 Lionel Trilling could write that “the opinion is now an established one.” So why plough this stony soil?

Self offered a mixed bag of arguments, delivered with customary polysyllabic brio, if not always with the utmost lucidity (you can read an abridged version over at the Guardian). The structure of the lecture was casually discursive rather than strictly logical, but I made out essentially three main lines of attack: I’ll begin with the least interesting, and work my way up.

The least persuasive plank of Self’s case also happens to be the oldest and most widely discussed. This is the argument sketched out by Ortega nearly a century ago: the form has exhausted itself, the ore has all been worked out of the mine. Curiously, Self appeared to dismiss this line of argument early on only to wheel it out later. He began by assuring us that what he meant by “death” was distinctly not that “serious novels will either cease to be written or read”, but rather that they were losing their “centrality in the culture” (of which more anon). Yet Self went on to say that “the form should have been laid to rest at about the time of Finnegans Wake.” Conceding that “many fine novels” have been written since Joyce’s formal high-water mark, Self claimed these were nonetheless “zombie novels”, instances of “an undead art form that… wouldn’t lie down.”

But is One Hundred Years of Solitude, to pluck an example at random, really what can be described as a “zombie novel”? Is Gravity’s Rainbow? Is Lolita? If these count as zombies, one shudders to think what that makes you and me. Aren’t these novels, and dozens besides, more alive than we ourselves can ever hope to be? The ease with which one can cite such counterexamples must give us pause. Self’s metaphor may be amusing but it is also glib. Doubtless if and when the novel really does expire, it will do so partly under the weight of its own belatedness; that is, it will do so partly because it will seem impossible to do anything new with it. But far more plausible are those threats which arise from the changing material conditions of the novel’s production and reception.

The title of Self’s lecture nods to these conditions in its reference to “technological supercession”. The phrase belongs to the euphemistic lexis of the twenty-first century management consultant (along with “restructuring” and “tax-efficient”), which makes it sound strikingly up-to-date, but the argument is in fact an old one, as Self recognises. He draws on Marshall McLuhan’s 1964 Understanding Media, which stressed the transformative psychological impact of new technologies: the printing press, the telegraph, television. For McLuhan, the characteristics of the new media themselves, rather than the content they transmit, are what really matter: as he famously put it, “the medium is the message.” Likewise, Self argues that “all the opinions and conceptions of the new media amount to nothing set beside the way they’re actually used.”

These are hyperboles, but one need not swallow them whole to agree that media are far from neutral. The regnant medium of the present day, and of the foreseeable future, is of course the internet, and Self neatly captures its endless ability to distract. Before broadband, “the impulse to check email, buy something you didn’t need, or goggle at images of the unattainable was there—but at least there was the annoying tocsin of dial-up connection to awake you to your time-wasting.” With broadband, “it became seamless: one second you were struggling over a sentence, the next you were buying oven gloves.” If, as seems likely, we end up doing most of our reading on “devices linked to the web”, the ability to sustain the kind of concentration demanded by serious fiction will be severely tested. Self believes most of us will fail that test, and hence the novel will lose its “cultural primacy and centrality”: it will die.

Yet if “cultural primacy” is to be the measure of the novel’s well-being it is hard to see how Self could have considered it anything other than haggard in his own lifetime. One suspects the change he registers owes less to a changing reality than it does to his simply gaining a better sense of perspective. Nevertheless he makes a valuable point: the environment for engaged, immersive reading has scarcely been less propitious. The observation is not new, but it continues to gain force. In George Gissing’s New Grub Street (1891) it is the commercial press that is indicted in the person of the unscrupulous literary entrepreneur Whelpdale:

“What they want is the lightest and frothiest of chit-chatty information—bits of stories, bits of description, bits of scandal, bits of jokes, bits of statistics, bits of foolery… Everything must be very short, two inches at the utmost; their attention can’t sustain itself beyond two inches.”

And here is Lionel Trilling in 1946 (in his essay ‘The Function of the Little Magazine’), adding “the radio” and “the movies” to the mix:

The emotional space of the human mind is large but not infinite, and perhaps it will be pre-empted by substitutes for literature—the radio, the movies, and certain magazines…

But it was the Leavises (F.R. and Q.D.) who made the subject their own. In her pioneering 1932 study of English reading habits, Fiction and the Reading Public, Queenie Leavis worried that the “frivolous stimuli” of commercialized culture were not only shrinking our attention spans but pathologizing the isolation necessary for fully engaged reading. Her husband’s enormously influential pamphlet of two years before, Mass Civilization and Minority Culture, made the same point, warning ominously that “the future holds rapid developments in store.”

Self’s lecture unconsciously echoed these concerns:

I’ve come to realise that the kind of psyche implicit in the production and consumption of serious novels… depends on a medium that has inbuilt privacy: we must all be Ambroses.

We must all be Ambroses—committed solitary readers—if the novel is to survive. Really? In the same essay I quoted above, Trilling suggests that “now and then” (he cites the nineteenth century) “periods do occur when the best literature overflows its usual narrow bounds and reaches a large mass of people”, but that “generally speaking literature has always been carried on within small limits and under great difficulties.” Trilling suggests that if the concept of a golden age of literature is not entirely mythical, such phases of “overflowing” have at least tended to be the exception rather than the rule; if literary culture is now a “minority culture”, this is not an aberration but a return to the historical norm. The fact is that “most people do not like the loneliness and the physical quiescence of the activity of contemplation, and many do not have the time or spirit left for it.” Self is thus both too pessimistic and not pessimistic enough about the novel’s future. Too pessimistic because Ambrosial solitude has never exactly been all the rage, and because magnificent novels continue to be written; not pessimistic enough because the novel has long ceased to occupy however central a place it once possessed in the culture at large.

If there is a loss to be accounted somewhere, then, it is not so much the novel’s as it is those who might have been its readers. The novel lives on even as the appetite for it wanes. The distractions of modern life must bear heavy responsibility for the hollowing out of its public, but they have been assisted by brave new educational orthodoxies. This, I think, was the most interesting story Self had to tell.

The hallmark of our contemporary culture is an active resistance to difficulty in all its aesthetic manifestations, accompanied by a sense of grievance that conflates it with political elitism. Indeed, it’s arguable that tilting at this papery windmill of artistic superiority actively prevents a great many people from confronting the very real economic inequality and political disenfranchisement they’re subject to…

Self nails a cultural iconoclasm that distracts from genuine political and economic injustices, and that mystifies the lack of choice available to the culturally deprived under the sign of a pretended egalitarianism.

Fiction and the Reading Public chronicled the relentless public denigration of what was then quaintly known as “highbrow” literature, a campaign waged by real-life Whelpdales with their commercial interests firmly in view. But the Leavises could hardly have imagined that such attitudes might be entertained by the academy. Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s strenuously confused Contingencies of Value (1988) advanced from the perfectly reasonable proposition that literary value is not timeless to an outright rejection of evaluation as therefore pointless. Similarly John Carey’s What Good Are the Arts? (2005) crudely dismissed discussion of value as mere snobbery. In a damning review of that book, Terry Eagleton—no swivel-eyed reactionary—drily questioned whether “this applies to condemning genocide as well as commending Dante.”

At one point Self made the claim that “we are still solidly within the modernist era.” It was a telling remark, because if Self is a kind of displaced modernist this is both his weakness and his strength. On the one hand, as his own fiction demonstrates, he remains beguiled by the conventions of the modernist novel—which are just as much conventions as those which govern any other kind of novel—and this misleads him into discounting everything short of Finnegans Wake as some sort of hopeless anachronism. On the other hand, he is able to see straight through the political and intellectual weightlessness of much postmodernist bluster.

It was disappointing, therefore, that Self concluded on a note of resignation rather than provocation, perhaps in an effort not to seem too self-pitying. Consider what he might have said instead. That in a world saturated in stereotypes, and ruled by a concept of utility as thin as a dollar bill, the novel still speaks out for “variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty”, in Trilling’s memorable phrase. That it still has the capacity, as one of its greatest practitioners, Henry James, magnificently put it, to help us “really to see… in the face of the constant force that makes for muddlement.” To assert as much is not to claim anything so naïve as that reading novels makes us better people. It is to insist that novels are one of the few means we have by which to appraise the texture of our own lives. That is one reason, at least, why their survival should matter to us.

Fergus McGhee is reading for a second BA in English at Harris Manchester College, Oxford. He is ORbits Editor at the Oxonian Review.

]]> 0
Seamus Heaney’s Places Mon, 30 Jun 2014 00:50:00 +0000 Rosie Lavan

Heaneys-RegionsRichard Rankin Russell
Seamus Heaney’s Regions
University of Notre Dame Press, 2014
536 pages
ISBN 978-0268040369


In 1998, the poet and critic Sean O’Brien could write with confidence of the “industrial” scale of scholarship on Seamus Heaney’s writing. Over the 15 years which followed, Heaney gave his critics still more to work with: three further collections of poetry; translations of Beowulf, Robert Henryson’s poetry, and another Sophoclean tragedy; and a volume each of collected poems and prose. This is not to mention the satellite contributions to periodicals, occasional volumes, and the mainstream media, which he made throughout his life. During this period, two other publications greatly expanded the possible approaches critics and readers could make to the poet: the comprehensive bibliography of Heaney’s work assembled by Rand Brandes and Michael J. Durkan and Stepping Stones, the extraordinary collection of interviews Dennis O’Driscoll conducted with the poet, which stands in place of an autobiography. Published this month, Richard Rankin Russell’s new study, Seamus Heaney’s Regions, is the first which is able to take account of the full run of Heaney’s oeuvre. While it was completed before August 2013, it is also, of course, the first study to appear since Heaney’s death last summer, a loss which has been keenly felt at the commemorative events held all over the world since then.

Russell’s work is deeply sensitive to the ethical dimension of Heaney’s writing, and he is concerned to emphasise and laud the beneficent conscience of the poet as it is manifest in his work throughout a writing career of nearly 50 years. In this respect the book is very much a continuation of Russell’s earlier study Poetry and Peace (2010), in which he addressed Heaney alongside his contemporary Michael Longley, and the commitment to reconciliation in their writing about the Northern Ireland of their times. For Russell in this new book, Heaney’s work is best understood when it is read and located within three distinct but related “regions”: “the first, geographic, historical, political, cultural, linguistic; the second, a future where peace, even reconciliation, might one day flourish; the third, the life beyond this one.” The bridges between these regions are conceptual, validated for Russell by recourse to the line of “regionalist” writing and thinking he identifies as formative for Heaney even before Heaney began to participate in it himself. It is further corroborated by the noted progression of preoccupations in Heaney’s writing, from his home ground in County Derry which is enduringly familiar from the early poetry of Death of a Naturalist (1966), through to the increasingly transcendent and mystical interests which belie the poetry from Seeing Things (1991) onwards.

One valuable achievement of this book is to reset and reorient Heaney in relation to place, which is a well-worn theme in discussions of Irish writing in general and Heaney’s poetry in particular. In the early chapters of the book, Russell considers how the idea of the regional was constructed in the middle years of the last century, which were also the early years of the state of Northern Ireland, which came into existence with notorious and devastating contention in 1922. A number of writers are posited as important “regionalists” from whom Heaney took encouragement, inspiration, and literary sustenance. They include Robert Frost, Ted Hughes, Patrick Kavanagh, and James Joyce. It was the experience of reading Kavanagh in the 1960s which convinced Heaney that it was possible to give a shape in poetry to his own, rural, Irish experience, and Kavanagh famously drew a distinction between the provincial and the parochial to which Russell, following Heaney, refers. The provincial mentality, Kavanagh argued in 1952, was in thrall to the metropolis and lacked the courage of the universal parochial mindset, which went out to the world with steadfast faith in its own place. Kavanagh’s universal gestures towards Russell’s interest in the global: Heaney’s regions are, he suggests, part of, and to be valued and appreciated within, a much larger world-picture.

Closer to home, the key figure in cultivating and asserting the specifically Northern Irish regionalist ethos which Russell discusses is John Hewitt, the poet and socialist of Protestant background who strove to argue that Ulster identity could accommodate elements both Irish and British. Russell pays due attention to the institutions as well as the ideas of regionalism in Northern Ireland, considering, for example, the short-lived but significant literary journals Lagan and Rann which were published in the 1940s and 1950s. Crucially, Russell offers a chapter-length consideration of BBC Northern Ireland. For him, Heaney’s important but overlooked work for the broadcaster in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which chiefly comprised contributions to the Schools Service, is to be read as part of a programme of cultural conciliation. Russell’s conviction is that through this broadcast medium, and particularly in appealing through literary means to the imaginations of children and young people, Heaney’s regionalist commitment was affirmed, and different, bigger possibilities for personal and cultural relations in Northern Ireland were created, to transcend the familiar divisions.

Another merit of the book, for first-time students of Heaney and longstanding readers and critics alike, is that Russell is scrupulous in dealing with and responding to a staggering number of the critical opinions which have emerged from that industrial load of scholarship. The book runs to some 500 pages and the extensive notes and bibliography are testament to the exhaustive research which underpins it. Russell made considerable use of archive holdings at Emory University in Georgia and thus offers exciting access to material which has hitherto been forgotten or neglected. He follows what has become the standard trajectory in studies of Heaney: the book is organised along a chronological line, which enables the critic to draw in the historical events which were coterminous with the literature he is discussing. Irish poetry in the twentieth century, and particularly that written in and about the North after 1969, has been relentlessly, exhaustively contextualised, and not always with the insight and acuity one would wish for. It is easy to point unthinkingly to events in the Troubles to elucidate or gloss the literary works which would seem to respond to or represent them; ironically, by the same token, it is easy to slide into a New Critical belligerence which leads to a problematic and rather prudish formalism seeking always to stress literature “as” literature, somehow imperviously superior to the conditions in which it is written and received. It is refreshing to find in Russell’s study, therefore, some unexpected contextual connections being asserted with care paid to both text and context. His fifth chapter, “Darkness Visible: Irish Catholicism, the American Civil Rights Movement, and the Blackness of “Strange Fruit”” is exemplary in this regard. He works towards a focus on “Strange Fruit”, the most intriguing of Heaney’s famous bog poems from North (1975), which took from the recovered mythologies and curiously preserved remains of Iron Age Northern Europe a symbolic framework with which to represent the worsening conflict in Northern Ireland. “Strange Fruit” is a sonnet which, as Russell indicates, went through many drafts. It meditates on the severed head of a woman found in Roum Fen in 1942. The poem’s speaker begins by anatomising her with the cataloguing detail of a museum curator: “Here is the girl’s head like an exhumed gourd. / Oval-faced, prune-skinned, prune-stones for teeth.” The voice is implicitly male, but by the end of the poem the female face is looking back at him:

Murdered, forgotten, nameless, terrible
Beheaded girl, outstaring axe
And beatification, outstaring
What had begun to feel like reverence.

Central to Russell’s discussion is the crucial allusion Heaney’s title makes to “Strange Fruit”, the haunting song sung by Billie Holiday, which faced the brutal racism of the segregated southern states and its most appalling manifestation, lynching. With this dynamic between the Deep South and Northern Ireland in play, Russell can expand on the well established connection between civil rights activity both sides of the Atlantic in the 1960s—the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association looked to the American movement for valuable lessons in non-violence and civil disobedience—but he does so, importantly, with reference to an article Heaney wrote for the Listener during his year at Berkeley in 1970-71, in which he contrasted the Black Panthers with what he deemed to be the less extreme activities of agitators for change at home. The allusion also affords Russell the opportunity to propose an interesting new argument about the way Heaney imagined and represented the outcast other, bringing seminal ideas from W. E. B. Dubois and Frantz Fanon to the discussion.

The chronological approach does not preclude Russell from launching a very fruitful comparison across Heaney’s oeuvre, which centres on a particular poetic form which is current throughout the poetry but emerges with major significance in three collections especially: Station Island (1984), Seeing Things (1991), and Human Chain (2010). That form is the Heaney tercet—the three-line stanza most memorably employed in the extraordinary sequence of 48 12-line poems in Seeing Things and which, as Russell argues with conviction, ought really to be seen as a hallmark of Heaney’s oeuvre. The book’s Afterword is concentrated on Human Chain, which became Heaney’s final collection of poetry. Russell alights on the two moods of this volume, the elegiac and the affirmative: it is a book in which the dead and the lost are remembered, while the newly born are welcomed and celebrated. Russell’s carefully wrought regional thesis settles here, with these last poems and the tercet form in which the greater part of them are written. He says:

The Heaneyesque tercet brings together in this volume his life’s exploration of the triple strains of regionalism in his work: the war-torn region of Northern Ireland, along with its imagined future state, and the spirit region that hovers tantalizingly close to the poet. In this way, his adaption of the terza rima [from Dante] into this form accords with his unambiguous declaration to Seamus Deane in 1977: “You have to make your own work your home.”

It seems appropriate in closing to return to that home Heaney made in his work. Russell is much taken with what he calls the buoyancy of the tercet in Heaney’s poetry; we might think also of what Heaney calls “the big lift” of remembered evenings in an earlier poem, ‘The Harvest Bow’, and find that lift in a different sense in the first lines of the last poem in Human Chain, ‘A Kite for Aibhín':

Air from another life and time and place,
Pale blue heavenly air is supporting
A white wing beating high against the breeze,

And yes, it is a kite! As when one afternoon
All of us there trooped out
Among the briar hedges and stripped thorn,

I take my stand again, halt opposite
Anahorish Hill to scan the blue,
Back in that field to launch our long-tailed comet.

This poem, written for Heaney’s second grandchild, is in dialogue with the poem he had earlier written for his own sons, ‘A Kite for Michael and Christopher’. That lift and return—the tug we feel even as we read—is absolutely anchored to what a poem, for Heaney, is and does. Like Russell’s book, the current exhibition at Emory University, “Seamus Heaney: The Music of What Happens”, was being planned long before the poet’s death. It was brilliantly, perceptively right that Geraldine Higgins, the exhibition’s curator, decided to suspend a huge white kite at its centre. It hangs there now in his memory.

Rosie Lavan is reading for a DPhil in English at St Anne’s College, Oxford. She is an Executive Editor at the Oxonian Review.

]]> 0
Oases And Mirages In The Desert Of ‘After Proust’ Mon, 30 Jun 2014 00:40:41 +0000 Jennifer Thorp

Anne Carson (with illustrations by Kim Anno)
The Albertine Workout
New Directions, 2014
288 pages
ISBN 978-1781682708

(A note: the reviewing pamphlet did not include the illustrations by Kim Anno apparently intended to be included in the finished work, and so they are not reviewed here.)

Reviewers of the new volume from Canadian poet/classicist/contemporary artist/general rejecter of definitions Anne Carson, face a familiar problem: what register on which to evaluate its success. Is it literary criticism wearing poetry’s clothes, poetry dipping its toes into academic discourse, a hybrid form, or something else entirely? Unkind critics have accused her of co-opting parts of either to conceal her weaknesses in both, but Carson appears to be operating, as usual, in a space where boundaries and expectation mean little.

The Albertine Workout, a list of 59 reflections (plus appendices) on Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu and its romantic focus, Albertine, is largely a meditation on sleep and the relation of possession to desire, and has its own dreamlike quality. (The word “reflections” is used advisedly here: Carson’s observations are often simple mirrors of facts in the text or outside it, and are preoccupied with dissembling, appearances, and doubling.) The 59 pieces do not rise to an argumentative peak but follow a dreamlike, winding logic, accumulating along tangential lines and indulging in the occasional diversion. “At this point, parenthetically, if we had time, which we don’t”, she says in reflection 29, “several observations could be made about the similarity between Albertine and Ophelia”—but beyond a few notes on sleep-plants and sexual appetite, the thesis is only tantalisingly sketched. To an extent, this structure can be explained by the text’s stance as literally post-Proust. The Albertine Workout was, in Carson’s own words, written in “the desert of After Proust”: she had finished an intense period of Proust reading, and felt a need to compile, digest, and curate the experience. The sensation is not unfamiliar, and it may account for the disjointed arrangement of the work: these are thoughts and impressions that are not yet fully formed, so that we are witnessing a literary reaction in progress.

Perhaps, in consequence, this is not a piece of work for readers seeking the linearity and depth of Carson’s work on, say, Paul Celan in Economy Of The Unlost (1999). Though they possess Carson’s usual opaque charm, her observations do not add substantially to Proust criticism in general. Reflections on whether Proust’s life mirrored his art—what is termed “the transposition theory”—are virtually as old as À la recherche du temps perdu itself, and Carson’s commentary on Albertine, possessiveness and desire never ventures into particularly uncharted territory. Considering Carson’s previous work, this is frustrating and feels like a missed opportunity. Rather than arranging and digesting old ideas about Proust, it would have been satisfying to see Carson provide some startlingly new ones.

However, these often un-annotated observations may have another underlying cause. Although it is not evident in the review text provided by New Directions (and may in fact have been a joke), Carson told an audience at a preview reading at NYU that she herself is not the author of Albertine Workout. Instead, it is meant to be the first academic treatise of the naïve Geryon, monstrous hero of Carson’s verse novels Autobiography of Red and Red Doc>. This adds another layer entirely: not only is this post-reading digestion, it is a debut critical effort by an untrained eye. There is an overlap of voices here that makes this supposed authorship slightly awkward—Carson’s own syntactical coolness is unmistakable, even if she is ventriloquising through Geryon—but the consequent ambivalence makes a stable reading of the text mischievously difficult.

This ambivalence points to a particular cheeky purpose behind The Albertine Workout: to tempt readers to consider what we expect and glean from literary criticism. In this sense The Albertine Workout continues ideas that have appeared throughout Carson’s career. She has always expressed a suspicion of critical interpretation, for instance while defending Emily Brontë against reductive criticism in The Glass Essay. The Albertine Workout’s ambiguity of authorship, its laying of thoughts beside one another like loose gloves without drawing them into explicit relation, and its detached attitude to”‘rubbing [Proust’s real-life lover] Alfred against Albertine”, at once participate in and interrogate our wish for literature to be neatly theorised and explained. It is structurally designed not to plot conclusions, but to use their absence to make us vaguely uncomfortable. It is a true desert text, lacking markers for direction and positing configurations of ideas that dissolve into mist as you approach, and to that end is both aggravating and fascinating.

There are oases here. Carson’s poetic strength has always been her precise control of the bathetic sentence, and in The Albertine Workout this sees less of an outing than usual, largely due to its closeness to Proust’s own phrasing. This is a pity, as it can be startling and very funny: “Plants do not actually sleep. Nor do they lie or even bluff. They do, however, expose their genitalia”, or “There are four ways Albertine is able to avoid becoming possessable in Volume Five: by sleeping, by lying, by being a lesbian or by being dead.” Yet the most aesthetically beautiful and interesting work begins (and this is a sentence you don’t say about poetry very often) in the appendices. They take the Proust propositions as their base and spark off in all directions, from Beckett to St Cecilia to slavery to the phrase “nun of speed”. The resulting collection is an excellent demonstration of Carson’s most famous skill, as a poet-essayist with paratactic flair. Appendix 15 a), a list of all the adjectives Proust appends to “air”, ends with an abrupt wink: “I can see very little value in this kind of information, but making such lists is some of the best fun you’ll have once you enter the desert of After Proust”. For all the inherent mournfulness, she is quite correct—this is the best fun to be had in this desert.

Jennifer Thorp is reading for a PhD at the Centre of New Writing, Manchester.


]]> 0
Revising the Reading of Aristotle Mon, 30 Jun 2014 00:35:36 +0000 surprisingly lacks—pangle pangle pangle’s surprisingly lacks—pangle pangle pangle’s surprisingly lacks—pangle pangle pangle’s surprisingly lacks—pangle pangle pangle’s surprisingly lacks—pangle pangle pangle’s surprisingly lacks—pangle pangle pangle’s surprisingly lacks—pangle pangle pangle’s surprisingly lacks—pangle pangle pangle’s surprisingly lacks—pangle pangle pangle’s surprisingly lacks—pangle pangle pangle’s surprisingly lacks—pangle pangle pangle’s surprisingly lacks—pangle pangle pangle’s surprisingly lacks—pangle pangle pangle’s surprisingly lacks—pangle pangle pangle’s surprisingly lacks—pangle pangle pangle’s surprisingly lacks—pangle pangle pangle’s surprisingly lacks—pangle pangle pangle’s surprisingly lacks—pangle pangle pangle’s surprisingly lacks—pangle pangle pangle’s surprisingly lacks—pangle pangle pangle’s surprisingly lacks—pangle pangle pangle’s surprisingly lacks—pangle pangle pangle’s surprisingly lacks—pangle pangle pangle’s surprisingly lacks—pangle pangle pangle’s surprisingly lacks—pangle pangle pangle’s surprisingly lacks—pangle pangle pangle’s surprisingly lacks—pangle pangle pangle’s surprisingly lacks—pangle pangle pangle’s surprisingly lacks—pangle pangle pangle’s surprisingly lacks—pangle pangle pangle’s surprisingly lacks—pangle pangle pangle’s surprisingly lacks—pangle pangle pangle’s surprisingly lacks—pangle pangle pangle’s surprisingly lacks—pangle pangle pangle’s surprisingly lacks—pangle pangle pangle’s surprisingly lacks—pangle pangle pangle’s surprisingly lacks—pangle pangle pangle’s surprisingly lacks—pangle pangle pangle’s surprisingly lacks—pangle pangle pangle’s surprisingly lacks—pangle pangle pangle’s surprisingly lacks—pangle pangle pangle’s surprisingly lacks—pangle pangle pangle’s surprisingly lacks—pangle pangle pangle’s surprisingly lacks—pangle pangle pangle’s surprisingly lacks—pangle pangle pangle’s surprisingly lacks—pangle pangle pangle’s surprisingly lacks—pangle pangle pangle’s surprisingly lacks—pangle pangle pangle’s surprisingly lacks—pangle pangle pangle’s surprisingly lacks—pangle pangle pangle’s Nathan Pinkoski

Thomas Pangle
Aristotle’s Teaching in the Politics 
University of Chicago Press, 2013
£27.50 (papergback)
368 pages
ISBN 978-0226213651

For anyone used to encountering political theory in the form of clear arguments, doctrines, or propositions, reading Aristotle’s Politics can be frustrating. The high frequency of tentative remarks, problems raised and yet passed over, and apparent contradictions renders any extraction of doctrines from the work both difficult and controversial. Interpretations based on reconstructing a systemic theory—whether of the state, or rights, or constitutions—sometimes give the impression that they are discounting significant portions of the text.

Thomas Pangle adopts a different approach, which aims to account for the whole of the Politics, including its internal difficulties. Drawing inspiration from his extended commentary on Plato’s Laws, Pangle argues that the reader can only understand the Politics by discerning the multi-level rhetoric which Aristotle used to present a surface reading for an unreflective audience of traditional gentlemen, members of the elites of Greek poleis, and a set of puzzles (the tentative remarks, unexplored problems, or apparent contradictions) for a more reflective audience. The validity of Pangle’s commentary rests on this approach, so it is important to investigate whether it holds together.

Pangle’s approach is influenced by the work of Leo Strauss. Despite the frequent vulgarisations of Strauss’s approach to reading philosophical texts, it was based on the reasonable observation that some philosophers may not have written their thoughts explicitly. A writer might deliberately place puzzles, tensions, or contradictions within a text as a way of guiding the careful reader to more rigorous reflections on the questions in hand. The surface meaning of the text need not be the whole meaning.

With a Platonic dialogue, this approach has a strong credibility, especially because the dialogue form, wherein various characters speak their views, establishes a distance from the author’s whole, considered view. Yet Aristotle’s texts are written in his own voice, and ostensibly as a kind of doctrinaire treatise, so it would appear that there is a much closer relationship between the surface meaning and the whole meaning.

Pangle argues, however, that the comments on method at the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics indicate that Aristotle’s ethical and political lectures should be read as an exercise in persuasive rhetoric in which the need to beguile one’s audience alloys the need to state the truth plainly. In contrast to the mathematician, who seeks truth plainly, Aristotle speaks the truth “to the extent useful for the task”. So Aristotle has a rhetorical strategy that distinguishes between his surface meaning and his whole meaning. To outline the purpose of this strategy, Pangle describes Aristotle’s primary audience as gentlemen who are moved mostly by passion (thumos), settled in their moral habits, and are uninterested in knowledge (nous). This is the audience whom he must concentrate on pleasing and persuading. Yet there is a second, more reflective, audience that is interested in knowledge, and whom Aristotle does not forget. In order to meet the different psychological expectations or demands of these varied audiences, Aristotle communicates on different levels simultaneously. He designs a primary, doctrinaire impression to satisfy the gentleman reader and designs the internal difficulties to appeal to the second audience that desires to know more:

Only gradually, and especially under the guidance of Socratic-inspired questions and questioning, may a reader discern the incompleteness of this deliberate primary impression. Then one discovers the way in which the edifying surface has been designed to veil, but simultaneously to lure one toward a much more troubling but also liberating dialectical ascent […] the path leads to an eventually purified knowledge of the nature of politics.

This reading challenges the orthodox view. But Pangle also calls into question whether that view was always the orthodox one. By reference to the work’s reception history, Pangle sketches a tradition of reading Aristotle as deploying an artful rhetoric which extends through Descartes, Montaigne, and Pascal, as well as some now unstudied 19th century commentators. None of this will serve to persuade a complete sceptic, but Pangle’s effort to marshal the evidence of context, text, and reception shows that he has considered their doubts.

What then, are some of the contributions which Pangle offers to the understanding the Politics? He is at his best when he is shadow boxing with the readings of Aristotle which predominate in contemporary political philosophy. One of these is that the Politics culminates in Books VII and VIII with a fully realized theory of the good, which would mean that the Politics articulated an ideal political theory of the best regime, which in turn could be used as a blueprint for all normative political reflections. To refute this reading, which slyly attempts to annex Aristotle to contemporary projects of ideal political theory, Pangle examines how Aristotle uses the term “best”. In fact, Aristotle criticizes his predecessors for having been too idealistic in their sense of “best”. Aristotle’s focus is on the “best possible”, where “possible” emphasises undertaking regime reforms that the people within the regime can be easily persuaded of. In that way, a crucial role for an Aristotelian-trained political scientist is to be able to provide concrete and realisable assistance to existing regimes, for which theorising an ideal regime per se would be of little help.

Consequently, when Aristotle comes to Book VII, he is not outlining his ideal regime, which is an absolute kingship in which the virtues of man and citizen are matched in one ruler. Nor is he even outlining his second-best choice, which is an aristocracy where the best men rule. Instead, Aristotle is only outlining the best conceivable republican regime and so leaves unexplored the gap—necessary to fill if he were outlining his ideal regime—that relates the best citizen of the republican regime to the best human being of the Ethics. By this means, Pangle argues, Aristotle draws his more reflective reader not to theorise about ideal political regimes, but to recognize “the limits of what can be hoped for from actual civic life”. Each kind of regime, including the republican one, can only incompletely achieve human flourishing for its citizens, drawing attention to the perennial imperfections of politics. According to Pangle, the awareness of the limitations of political life opens the reflective reader up to self-knowledge and to philosophy, recasting the meaning of a most famous saying from the Politics:

Coming to awareness of this, and how and why it dictates Aristotle’s rich rhetorical strategy, provides the key to true self-knowledge—which is available to humans only through civic knowledge. For “the human is by nature a political animal”.

There are difficulties. Pangle’s close reading of the Politics relies upon the assumption—important for the Straussian approach—that the text is given to us in its totality. Yet the manuscript tradition for the Politics is more seriously corrupt than for, say, Plato’s Laws. This lends a much more tentative character to a number of Pangle’s remarks concerning Aristotle’s intention, although it does not damage his core assumption that one can read the Politics as a single book composed by a single author and directed by a single conception of the subject.

Additionally, it is sometimes unclear what Pangle’s reader is supposed to imagine that Aristotle believes. Although Pangle’s commentary is thorough in assessing the entirety of the text, he frequently refrains from conjecturing about Aristotle’s fully considered thoughts on the subject, preferring to pose unanswered questions for the reader to ponder. His intention in doing so is to orient and deepen the conversation that the text is inviting the reader to have. In an age where Aristotle is often appropriated in discussions that have little to do with his thought, Pangle keeps the reader closer to the line of thought evoked by the original text. If that makes Aristotle groan and protest a little less about how we misuse him, then the approach is a worthy tribute to Aristotle.

Arguably, however, Aristotle’s text does offer some answers to Pangle’s questions. On Pangle’s interpretation, the ultimate goal of Aristotle’s discussion is to gain “purified knowledge of the nature of politics” in the manner of a social science. Yet the content of this Aristotelian social science is not something with which Pangle rewards us. In a conclusion summarising the whole commentary—a conclusion which the book surprisingly lacks—Pangle could have provided some concerted reflections organising some of the variant strains of the discussion without compromising either the intention of his commentary or his interpretative approach. His decision not to do so means that his commentary, whilst being a first-rate treatment of how the surface meaning of the Politics guides and educates the reader toward practicing political philosophy, leaves certain important features of the whole philosophical meaning unexplored.

Given its scope, readers of Pangle’s commentary will probably find at least something significant to disagree with, especially with respect to Pangle’s interpretive approach. Yet the greatest feature of Pangle’s commentary is that by detailed scholarly exegesis, it has brought an interpretative approach occasionally criticised for its gnostic tendencies into a wider conversation. Factions opposing this approach can now array their forces for fighting the hermeneutical battle which Pangle offers. If they take this offer of battle seriously, with due attention to the surface and the whole of the text, it may serve to clarify and reform many of the assumptions prevalent in the interpretation of Aristotle. Such a contest will only enrich our reading of Aristotle and help us to grasp the profundity of Aristotelian philosophical practice.

Nathan Pinkoski is reading for a DPhil in Political Theory at St Edmund Hall, Oxford.

]]> 0
On Going for a Walk Mon, 30 Jun 2014 00:30:05 +0000 Daveen Koh

Frédéric Gros
A Philosophy of Walking
Verso Books, 2014
288 pages
ISBN 978-1781682708

“That’s why I don’t walk anymore”, Alberto Giacometti mused in an interview with the critic David Sylvester, “because the first tree on a sidewalk in Paris is already enough…to see two [trees] would make me afraid”. Giacometti, famed for his serrated sculptures of wiry Walking Men, was so mesmerised by the quotidian objects around him that he saw no need to travel to see other “marvels of marvels”. The illustrious walking men who populate Frederic Gros’s spirited new book, A Philosophy of Walking, might beg to differ; walking enthralls precisely because it buries you in nature, where “everything talks to you, greets you, demands your attention”. Gros, a professor of philosophy at the University of Paris XII and the Institute of Political Studies, Paris, intersperses his own lucidly written reflections on walking with lyrical biographical sketches of thinkers who saw walking as integral to creation. However, his focus is fairly narrow: while the urban flâneur and practitioners of Eastern religions appear in the final chapters, most of Gros’s protagonists are Western philosophers who favour walking silently and solitarily in pristine rural landscapes. Nevertheless, Gros makes a compelling case for walking as not only a way of knowing, but also a way of being—in particular, of being free.

Freedom begins as “a mouthful of bread, a draught of cool water, and the open country”. We need only put one foot in front of another; there is no need to keep score or master rules and techniques. This is why walking is not a sport. As we walk, we rejoice in our disentanglement from the web of exchanges to which we are bound. As we realise that we are bodies in motion, we flee from the temptation to be someone; we do not have to remain faithful to a possibly “stupid and burdensome” self-portrait. Our voluntary disconnection can last for days (“suspensive” freedom) or go on indefinitely (“transgressive” and “renunciative” freedom). It is in the latter mode that we get star-struck—dazzled by the vigour of celestial night skies and elemental energies. We cannot feel alone because “looking means possessing” the many things that meet our gaze, and walking splits us in two because we are always observing and motivating ourselves to go on. It is from here, Gros proposes, that we can glimpse eternity. Jean-Jacques Rousseau walked until every step he took became “an inspiration born to die immediately” and he became a “vibration among the trees and stones”. Friedrich Nietzsche, plagued by diminishing sight and intensifying madness, repeated his lengthy walks until his body resonated with the “vibration of the landscape” in an “endless relaunch” that he termed Eternal Recurrence. A passage from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay Nature encapsulates the tone and content of Gros’s meanderings, at once earthbound and ethereal:

But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars… If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how men would believe and adore… The stars awaken a certain reverence, because though always present, they are inaccessible; but all natural objects make a kindred impression, when the mind is open to their influence.

Gros writes how an artist might paint. His portraits of philosophically minded walkers, interspersed with his own meditations on “slowness” and other themes, meld the impressionistic and the existential. These prismatic vignettes, each crafted in about 20 pages, are the triumph of Gros’s deeply felt book. We drift with Rousseau in his waking dreams, and take flight with Arthur Rimbaud wherever his fancy leads. We conquer the fleetingly new as we wander in the wilderness with Henry David Thoreau. We are unwaveringly present at five in the evening when Immanuel Kant, whose life pivots regularity, takes his daily walk—“an immutable ritual, as regular and fundamental as the sunrise”. To read this book is to walk and think alongside these famous men, and also to look at an impressionist (or post-impressionist) painting.

Gros, disagreeing with Kant that walking is a distraction from work, takes Nietzsche’s view that we must walk in order to write words that breathe. Drawing on Thoreau, Gros contends that books should be witnesses to a living experience; they should “make us want to live”:

Our first question about the value of a book, of a human being, or a musical composition is: can they walk?

When we walk, we seek a different light. Gros sees libraries, and the books written in them, as grey. In contrast, books that are written while walking reflect “above, all, colours”. Gros’s sketch of Rousseau recalls Paul Cezanne’s late watercolors, in which swathes of yellows, pinks and blues mingle to form fugacious forests and shadowy houses. The young Rousseau walked alone to be filled with the “quiet murmurs” of the forest and the warmth of the winter sun. His walk was a surrender to “a well-being as slow as a forest path” so that he could unearth in himself homo viator (“walking man”)—the natural man unmarred by art, education or culture. In contrast, Rousseau’s last walks, documented in Reveries, were “a letting go” because he no longer felt a need to be anyone. On “crepuscular” walks, forgotten memories would “come floating up” to the elderly Rousseau “like aquatic flowers, differing only in their shifting colors and shapes”. Gros’s lyricism shines through, even when he writes rather disdainfully about “Parisiennes in all their glory”, strolling in the Tuileries Gardens on summer nights. The militantly manicured hedges, rectilinear walks, and the strollers’ artificial gait are oppressive to Gros, who yearns for the “natural” and despises the “artificial”. Yet, Gros stirringly captures the gentle melancholy of a fading evening, much like that which pervades Georges Seurat’s masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on La Grand Jatte (1884):

… the orange light and violet reflections, the sweetness of the evening advancing on tiptoe, and the dust thrown up by thousands of footsteps. The trees are still scarred with women’s names, carved by sad lovers.

It is tempting to see this book as too romantic; it is not a hankering for the pastoral but a search for truth because, as Gros suggests, “once on his feet… man does not stay where he is”. To walk is to make—a statement, a memory, a person, or a place. Gros’s book holds up as an affirmation of the importance of this link, which has often been made in art and literature. Paul Klee took lines for walks. The performance artist Han Bing takes cabbages for walks. Virginia Woolf’s heroine Mrs Dalloway, crossing Victoria Street to buy flowers, delighted in “life; London; this moment of June” and noted how strange it was that her memory of an old friend had become reduced to “a few sayings… about cabbages”. Morrissey, in Autobiography, describes his childhood in postwar industrial Manchester—where “birds abstain from song” and “the 1960s will not swing”—as one spent racing about “streets upon streets upon streets upon streets”. Through his similarly lyrical prose that pulsates with sights and insights, Gros beguilingly achieves his primary purpose: to show that walking can manifest thoughts about the everyday, which for Gros range from an awareness of our animal “presence” to “eternities”.

While Gros rarely explicitly chronicles his own experiences of walking—an exception being his account of abandoning his rucksack in the crotch of a tree while trekking in the Cevennes—he is unafraid to allow us to think alongside him, even though he is forming his thoughts as he writes (and walks). For instance, we read about Nietzsche’s idea of Eternal Recurrence and Rousseau’s acquisition of a “pure, transparent, limitless compassion” before encountering Gros’s ruminations on “eternities”. Immediately thereafter, these thoughts are challenged by Thoreau’s contrasting proposition that there is no “communion” or “fusion” with nature when man walks for a man feels that he is “natural rather than in nature”. As such, Gros’s book demonstrates that it is both viable and productive to walk and register what comes to our minds as we walk.

While the book’s title makes it clear that Gros has no intention of giving the subject exhaustive treatment, it is rather disappointing that Gros disproportionately focuses on (often picturesque) rural walks. For example, he gives walking in urban areas rather cursory treatment. This is understandable given Gros’s strong aversion to strolling in “artificial” and crowded urban settings. However, it seems likely that Gros could have written a compelling exposition about the travails of urban walking, much of which tends to take the form of transport (getting from A to B as quickly as possible) rather than wayfaring (negotiating and improvising paths as one goes along), to draw on the anthropologist Tim Ingold’s terms. Gros’s limited focus is also unfortunate given the prominence of walkability in recent assessments of city livability as well as the prevalence of urban environments as the setting for many notable expositions on walking. The philosopher Michel de Certeau likens walking in the city to a “long poem” continuously written by pedestrians who cannot read it; the essayist E.B. White, also writing about Manhattan, sees the city as a “poem” that “compresses all life, all races and breeds”, whose “full meaning will always remain illusive”. These works would make interesting contrasts to Gros’s book, as would Ways of Walking, a volume of ethnographies about walking through diverse settings including forests and ruins. Tim Ingold and Jo Lee Vergunst, the anthropologists who edited Ways of Walking, argue that “walking is not just what a body does; it is what a body is”. Unlike Gros, who sees solitary and silent walking as a “blessing in parenthesis” because it relieves us of the duty of self-preservation, Ingold and Lee Vergunst draw attention to how walking is “a profoundly social activity”. For:

…in their timings, rhythms and inflections, the feet respond… to the presence and activity of others. Social relations, we maintain, are not enacted in situ but are paced out along the ground.

Despite its limited focus, Gros’s book is a commendable achievement and a delightful read. Gros’s accessible writing and considerable skill in communicating his thought process emboldens the armchair philosopher to go “outside”—which is “no longer a transition, but the element in which stability exists”—in order to look inside.

Daveen Koh is reading for an MSc in Visual, Material and Museum Anthropology at Wolfson College, Oxford

]]> 0
Getting Away With It Mon, 30 Jun 2014 00:10:03 +0000 Kit Coldstream

Geordie Greig
Breakfast with Lucian: A Portrait of the Artist
Jonathan Cape, 2014
£25.00 (hardback)
272 pages
ISBN 978-0224096850

While we await what Alexandra Pringle of Bloomsbury has declared will be “the book on Lucian Freud”—William Feaver’s full-length biography due out in 2015—Geordie Greig’s Breakfast With Lucian might be said to offer something of an appetite-whettener, a light but gossip-laden read that is reminiscent of a lazy morning spent poring over the papers. That the author is editor of The Mail on Sunday and former editor of London Evening Standard and The Tatler is not insignificant; the relish for small talk, chit-chat, and the scandalous anecdotal detail is evident from the first pages, where the “Grand Old Man of British Art” is described entering his restaurant of choice by the back door in a “crumpled but expensive” shirt and cashmere by Issey Miyake.

The setting is Clarke’s, a “small upmarket restaurant” frequented by “top brass” from the Beeb—Maggie Smith and Salman Rushdie are among the names dropped—and such eminent customers as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Shabby chic and studied dishevelment jostle with “discernment and taste” in this enticing prelude to what is not so much a portrait of the artist as a scrap book of his conquests, both amorous and artistic, with the emphasis falling heavily on the former. Freud’s appetite for sex, and his utter disregard for the sensibilities of his sitters, family, and lovers, is the overriding theme of the book as well as its dominant impression. Breakfast at Clarke’s, where many of Greig’s conversations with the painter took place over a ten-year period, was precious downtime for Freud, whose never-ending schedule had him “working round-the-clock” … or, “as one wag put it, ’round the cock,’ since his libido never appeared to fade”.

The book is divided into fourteen short, vivid, and richly illustrated chapters, which, once the stage is set (and the table cleared of crumbs—Lucian’s favourites included pain aux raisins and scrambled eggs on toast), move chronologically rather than thematically through the painter’s life. From his prosperous middle-class beginnings in Berlin in 1922, via the family’s timely move to England in 1933, to his death in London in 2011, the grandson of the “most prominent Jew in Europe” is scrutinised in uncomfortably intimate detail. Intertwined with anecdotes, interviews, and sufficient hard biographical data to balance the admittedly “personal perspective” announced in the preface, the story of Greig’s fascination with and pursuit of the artist runs throughout the work.

From the early chapter, “Stalking”, which traces the source of Greig’s obsession to a 1970s Eton school trip, when he first encountered Freud’s paintings at the Anthony d’Offay gallery, to late visits to Freud’s home with his young son Jasper (who lies affectionately close to the bedridden artist while the latter “playfully strokes his hair”), the writer’s relationship with his subject is expository, confessional, and only slightly embarrassing. Structurally, the intertwining of the two narrative threads is an interesting contrapuntal device and, when the thrill of the chase is at its height, the effect is positively fugal. The author’s brother, Louis, moves into a large Holland Park Villa, the top floor of which is, coincidentally, the painter’s studio. Kathryn, the author’s wife, shares a hymn-sheet with Lucian at the Rothschild’s Christmas dinner in Buckinghamshire, Freud “belting out” “Good King Wenceslas” as lustily as any Christian.

Greig is disarmingly upfront about the early rejections he suffered at the hands of his subject, who eluded interview for two years, shunned publicity, and was private to the point of paranoia. It took him over two decades of persistent wooing to meet Freud face to face, and be granted an audience (at Clarke’s, at breakfast) with the great painter, even though the prospect of such a meeting made the latter “feel sick”, as he warned the then editor of Tatler in advance. Freud was wary and defensive, once opening the door to his flat only a few of inches and pointing a ten-inch serrated knife at Greig, menacingly asking “‘what do you want?'” When the author replied, “‘it’s me, Geordie. Put that knife down'” and added: “‘Lunatic Artist Stabs Editor of Evening Standard’ is not a good way to be remembered'”, Freud replied “I can think of worse ways” and invited him in for a cup of tea. He changed his telephone number four times a year, keeping his own children in the dark about his movements and even about each other’s existence.

Necessarily, a substantial part of the book is given over to accounts of Freud’s many, often simultaneous, relationships. Women and painting were inextricably linked in this irrepressible life, in which little evidence of inhibition or suppression can be detected (Greig, to his credit, soft-pedals any “psychological” interpretations, and resists facile conclusions based on Freud’s distinguished ancestry). Two family trees at the back of the book—one for Freud’s immediate forbears, and offspring by his first wife, the other for his children by five other women—show only the tip of the iceberg. “Lovers” as they are described throughout, run well into the three figures, one estimate coming in close to 500. The accounts are, of course, fascinating, and one is drawn in and absorbed almost against one’s will. The roll-call is compelling, from Lorna Wishart, the “dark eyed temptress” who “was more than a match for him” and broke his heart at 22, to the countless teenagers, beauties, and heiresses who scatter the pages of Greig’s book.

Alongside the staggering regularity and virtuosity of his sexual conquests, there are those other testimonies to Freud’s taste for danger, risk, and competition—the gambling, violence, and litigiousness. There are car chases, back-street punch-ups, and brushes with the police, as well as the frequent scenes of eye-popping verbal abuse. Yet, Greig tells us, the charm and charisma of the man were such that “all his life he got away with it”. Elsewhere he elaborates that “few were immune to his power of seduction on some level”. The fourteen acknowledged offspring by several different women all complain bitterly of his absenteeism and yet seem as passionately devoted to him as any of his admirers. Freud, who insisted that his success was the result of uncompromising, lifelong selfishness, was clearly able to inspire uncritical adoration in those around him.

The most persuasive chapter of this intensely personal portrait is, not surprisingly, the last, where scores of lovers, friends, and offspring emerge from the woodwork to pay testimony to an exceptional life in a funeral presided over by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. Like so much else in Freud’s life, this final flourish smacks of the unlikely (he had asked for his body to be thrown in the canal in a bag)—as a thoroughly secular and irreverent Jew, his relationship with Williams is accidental. Freud’s much younger partner in the 1980s, Celia Paul, is not only mother of his youngest child, Frank (b 1984), but also the sister of Jane Williams, wife of the Archbishop.

Throughout his life, Freud had maintained an improbable juggling-act of relationships, frequently risking indignation and skirting close to incest. For all the roguishness of the man, however, it was impossible to be unmoved by Greig’s evocation of the empty table at the back of Clarke’s restaurant on the morning after his death: “an empty stage through the window. The white cloth was bare, his chair unfilled”. Further tear-jerkers include the ceremonial laying of a black tablecloth (with a single candle) on his favourite table at the Wolseley, in Piccadilly, and the consequent turning of heads which, that evening, included Lady Antonia Fraser and Victoria Rothschild, as well as David Gilmour, guitarist from Pink Floyd. “There was an ecclesiastical hush, tangible sadness around the … single flickering flame”. Greig certainly knows how to draw a response.

The book suffers from the occasional inaccuracy, not only the implicit and very common confusion of the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception with that of the Virgin Birth, but also such blatant errors as the misspelling of Damian Hirst’s name as Hurst (spellt correctly in the index). Its style is somewhat casual, with a tendency towards the sensational or the cinematic cliché. “Caroline is radiant, seemingly naked between the sheets, with honey-blonde hair and enormous, forget-me-not eyes”. Greig is speaking here of the painter’s second wife, Lady Caroline Blackwood—an example of his taste for aristocratic women and the high life (as evidenced by his love of Wolseley’s). More decadent examples of Freud’s love of luxury include his daily feeding of a friend’s pet rat with Veuve Clicquot (mixed with sleeping tablets) in order to sedate it into sitting for him, in the hand of Raymond Jones, in Naked man With Rat (1977-8).

The most striking omission of this otherwise intricately detailed study of an extraordinary man is the lack of substantial treatment of his painting style or methods. Given that it was painting that drove Lucian’s life (admittedly, alongside sex: “He turns sex into art and art into sex, the physical manifestation of his life expressed through paint”, according to John Richardson), Breakfast With Lucian does leave one hungry for something more substantial. The tidbits of gossip are scintillating and the insights into what must surely be a form of genius are engrossing—I admit, I could hardly put the book down, for sheer curiosity—but never goes quite beyond the appetising, or seductive.

Granted, Greig does introduce the reader into the world of Freud’s studio, with its famous paint-spattered wall (which served as an extension of his palette) and not only to the models and assistants but also to the fellow-painters in his life. Friendships with David Hockney, Frank Auerbach, and Francis Bacon are detailed and dealt with sensitively. Hockney comes across as a good sport, and Auerbach as one of the most level-headed and loyal of his lifelong friends, while Bacon seems as complicated and temperamental a character as Freud himself. The rivalry between the two men and the eventual disintegration of their initially close, if platonic relationship, is powerfully conveyed. But the emphasis is always on the relational and anecdotal, and is never quite analytical enough of the painter’s vision and output to satisfy this reader.

While Breakfast With Lucian may be an ideal introduction to a personality the further study of whom would repay on many levels, as a life-study it reads as rather underweight. The explicit styling of the book as a portrait, however, is disarming and pleasingly multivalent. Greig’s portrait of the artist is an adventurous and cleverly constructed volume that draws on a wide range of original documentation and interview material. If it errs on the side of the sensational at times, it does so on impeccable authority. The fascination of Greig’s subject-matter and the liveliness of his presentation make of this a compelling read. The author, like the artist, ultimately gets away with it.

Kit Coldstream is a teacher and musician living and working in Oxford. She has studied music, theology, and creative writing—in Paris, at Oxford, and at UEA respectively.

]]> 0