Monday, August 23, 2010

Bomber County by Daniel Swift (Hamish Hamilton)

“Why has this war produced no war poets?” Robert Graves asked in a 1941 radio talk. The lack of new Owens or Sassoons to bear witness to the second world war was troubling. How to account for this “absence of poetry”, asks Daniel Swift in this original book. How to explain “the war's apparent resistance to poetry”?

“I can't do a Brooke in a trench,” Dylan Thomas wrote in November 1939, but he didn't have to. During the blitz he became an “unexpected war poet”, writing haunting poems about the victims of the bombings: “Among Those Killed in the Dawn Raid was a Man Aged a Hundred”, “Ceremony after a Fire Raid”, and “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London”. In place of the trenches of the western front, Swift argues, the poetry of the second world war found its subject in the image of the “bombed city”.

Swift has struck upon a fascinating area, where poetry, fire and air intermix. “Little Gidding” – “Eliot's great poem of bomb damage” – is all about living in a ruined city. TS Eliot was in London for the worst of the air raids and volunteered as an air-raid warden. He saw the rubble and death. He explained how the lines beginning “Ash on an old man's sleeve” refer to the debris of a bombing raid hanging in the air for hours afterwards. “Then it would slowly descend,” he recalled, “and cover one's sleeves and coat in a fine white ash.”

Virginia Woolf also witnessed the devastation at first hand, visiting her bombed flat in Tavistock Square: “rubble where I wrote so many books”. In her essay “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid”, she describes vividly how it feels waiting for a bomb to fall: “during those seconds of suspense all thinking stopped. All feeling, save one dull dread, ceased.” After the raid, “Scraps of poetry return.” (And indeed, during the blitz, sales of poetry soared.)

“No war poetry can be expected from the Royal Air Force,” Graves insisted, and Swift is hard-pressed to prove him wrong. The 1944 anthology Air Force Poetry (“Fetch out no shroud / For Johnny-in-the-cloud”) and the airmen poets he brings to our attention do not greatly inspire. “The poetry of air bombing requires a particular imaginative sympathy absent from other war poetry,” Swift argues. Cecil Day Lewis came close to it in “Airmen Broadcast” (“Speak of the air, you element, you hunters / Who range across the ribbed and shifting sky”). Stephen Spender also tried to become “the poet of bombing” (his “great air-raid poem” being “Responsibility: The Pilots Who Destroyed Germany, Spring 1945”). But in the poetry of bombing Swift detects a problem of distance and scale. In “The Firebombing” (1963), for instance, James Dickey's bomber complains he is “still unable / To get down there or see / What really happened”; whereas in “The Lost Pilot” (1967) James Tate is left with his “head cocked toward the sky”, still searching for his father, a bomber pilot killed over Germany.

Bomber County is a strange beast, “a study of the poetry of a particular historical episode”, intercut with a personal memoir. Swift's grandfather, Squadron Leader James Eric Swift, was killed in action in June 1943 during a raid on Münster. Swift visits his grave in Holland, looks at the cockpit of a Lancaster bomber and goes to Münster, but these sections can be ponderous. It's his evocation of some of our greatest writers wandering through a bombed-out London that really shines, and Swift should be congratulated for undertaking such an intelligent and idiosyncratic project.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Not with a Bang but a Whimper

Alvy's mother: He's been depressed. All of a sudden, he can't do anything.

Doctor: Why are you depressed, Alvy?

Alvy's mother: Tell Dr. Flicker. (To the doctor) It's something he read.

Doctor: Something he read, huh?

Alvy: The universe is expanding . . . Well, the universe is everything, and if it's expanding, some day it will break apart and that will be the end of everything.

Alvy's mother: What is that your business? (To the doctor) He stopped doing his homework.

Alvy: What's the point?

Alvy's mother: What has the universe got to do with it? You're here in Brooklyn. Brooklyn is not expanding.

Doctor: It won't be expanding for billions of years, yet Alvy. And we've got to try to enjoy ourselves while we're here, huh, huh? Ha, ha, ha.

Annie Hall (1977), dir. Woody Allen

I’ve often wondered if the universe is finite or infinite (bear with me). I have to say I tended towards the finite position, assuming the universe would eventually collapse, obliterating itself in a Big Crunch. I’m glad I didn’t put any money on it (?), because my instinct was wrong.

It seems the universe will continue to expand for ever, sliding inexorably towards a state of degeneration. The stars will go out (taking with them any life forms in their vicinity) and the universe will become ‘a cold, dead wasteland’.

This places the poet in an interesting position. No poet can write in the hope of immortality any more. The poet can now be absolutely certain that his or her descendants – indeed, entire species – will eventually die, taking with them any appreciable audience for poetry. We can now be absolutely certain of the finite existence of intelligent life (and therefore poetry) in the universe.

In The Last Three Minutes: Conjectures about the Ultimate Fate of the Universe (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1994) Professor Paul Davies speculates that our descendants might experiment with cybernetics and nanotechnology – to the extent that we might not actually recognise them as anything like ourselves.

But supposing these future beings manage to escape our solar system before the Sun implodes, and then go on to colonise other planets – and indeed they keep hopping from solar system to solar system as the universe gets progressively colder and darker all around them – even supposing these humanoid life forms survive for that long – will they still be reading poetry, let alone poetry written billions of years ago in a dead language (probably)?

Or perhaps the human race will die, but intelligent alien species will survive far into the universe’s cold, dark future. Will they bother to read ancient human poetry? They’ll have their own poets to attend to, perhaps. Human poetry would be a curio.

Assuming the universe does continue to expand forever, Professor Davies envisages ‘bizarre science-fiction creatures eking out an existence against odds that become stacked forever higher against them, testing their ingenuity against the inexorable logic of the second law of thermodynamics.’

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this pow’rful rhyme,
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone, besmeared with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword nor war’s quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
’Gainst death and all oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.

William Shakespeare, Sonnet 55

Thursday, August 19, 2010

RIP Frank Kermode (1919-2010)

'The amazing history of modern academic literary criticism seems to show that we are now in the state of finding almost anything more agreeable, or at any rate less difficult, than poetry; gossip about the private lives of poets is best of all, but in the absence of gossip [. . .] then even philosophy comes more easily than poetry [. . .] The matter is of concern not only to the people who actually do the damage, and who presumably at some point supposed that they loved and admired the poetry. We are all losers, for the wrong sort of attention is what in the short or longer run diminishes a poet for everybody; and a single poet is not all we risk losing.'

Frank Kermode, Wallace Stevens (Faber 1960, 1989), pp. xvii-xviii

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Inside the Kingdom: Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia, by Robert Lacey (Arrow)

“At the heart of the Saudi state lies the bargain between the religious and the royals,” Robert Lacey argues in this gripping account of the power struggle between the Saud dynasty and Saudi Arabia’s fanatical Wahhabi clergy. Lacey charts the rise of Wahhabism from the 1970s to 9/11, when the House of Saud stopped trying to appease the clerics and objected that Saudi Arabia was not Iran: “Rulers must rule, and the religious must go along with that.” By then, of course, Saudi Arabia had given the world Osama bin Laden and 15 of the 9/11 hijackers. A sequel to The Kingdom (1981), this important book re-examines Saudi Arabia post-9/11. Many Saudi women are lesbians, Lacey claims, as a result of strict segregation, while “the Kingdom’s terrorist problem might boil down to sexual frustration”. He looks at a successful rehabilitation programme for Saudi jihadis, who are released early from prison and given £10,000. They marry, buy a flat and “stylish furniture, a flat-screen television and a coffee machine” and become model citizens.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick (Granta)

In theory the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea shouldn’t exist. Somehow it survived the collapse of the Soviet Union, China’s market reforms, famine in the 1990s, George W. Bush, and even the death of the Dear Leader Kim Il-sung, whose son Kim Jong-il is now “the last of the twentieth-century dictators, a living anachronism”. Yet North Korea staggers on. LA Times foreign correspondent Barbara Demick, who has an easy, winning style, introduces us to a country of suppressed impulses and state propaganda; a place where a teacher can accuse a child of “blasphemy against communism”, where a young man is executed by firing squad for stealing some copper wire, and private ownership of cars is illegal. North Korea is an extraordinary dystopia; a Cold War museum, where the only pastimes seem to be spying on one’s neighbours, mass gymnastics and goose-stepping. This compelling book, a worthy winner of the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize 2010, details the experiences of six North Koreans who defected to China or South Korea.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Three Emperors: Three Cousins, Three Empires and the Road to World War One, by Miranda Carter (Penguin)

“My thoughts are with you and I shall always remain your true and devoted friend,” George V wrote to his cousin the ex-Tsar Nicholas II in 1917 after the Russian revolution. However, when the king’s prime minister Lloyd George offered Nicholas sanctuary, the palace objected that “the residence in this country of the ex-Emperor and Empress would be strongly resented by the public, and would undoubtedly compromise the position of the King and Queen”. Nicholas was hastily disinvited. The Saxe-Coburg-Gothas (or Windsors, as they now called themselves) survived and the Romanovs were slaughtered in a basement. Miranda Carter skilfully weaves together the lives of the three cousins – George V, Nicholas II and the insecure Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany – and shows how these dysfunctional men led their nations into conflict. The bloodlines of Europe’s royal families were supposed to keep the peace, forming an indissoluble bond, but in this intelligent and enjoyable history Carter reveals how they were tested to destruction by events.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Theatre and Its Double, by Antonin Artaud, tr. Victor Corti (Oneworld Classics)

Artaud as Marat in Abel Gance's Napoleon (1927)

“In Europe no one knows how to scream any more,” complains Antonin Artaud (1896–1948) in this brilliant attack on institutionalized theatre, and on contented, bourgeois audiences expecting to be entertained. “There is something about a spectacle like the Balinese Theatre which does away with entertainment, that aspect of useless artificiality, an evening’s amusement so typical of our own theatre. Its productions are hewn out of matter itself before our eyes, in real life.”

The lectures, essays, letters and manifestos gathered here flesh out Artaud’s notion of “a truly Oriental concept of expression” in opposition to Western norms. He called it his Theatre of Cruelty, which, despite its connotations of violence, affirmed life. As Artaud explained in a letter to Jean Paulhan: “I said ‘cruelty’ just as I might have said ‘life’ or ‘necessity’, because I wanted especially to denote that theatre to me means continual action and emergence, above all there is nothing static about it, I associate it with a true act, therefore alive, therefore magic.”

At the heart of Artaud’s project is an attack on the authority of language, literature and especially the script. He wants to “break theatre’s subjugation to the text and rediscover the idea of a kind of unique language somewhere between gesture and thought”. As Derrida observed, “The theatre of cruelty is not a representation. It is life itself, in the extent to which life is unrepresentable.”

Perhaps only Artaud could have found similarities between Balinese theatre, Lucas van Leyden’s Lot and His Daughters (c.1509) and the films of the Marx Brothers (“the end of Monkey Business [is] a paean to anarchy and utter rebellion”), but his passion and drive are never in doubt. The Theatre and Its Double originally appeared in 1938, when Artaud was already confined to a mental hospital, the first major period of his career at an end.

This smart reissue of Victor Corti’s 1970 translation is welcome, offering a new generation access to Artaud’s vision of theatre as total art form: a “mass theatre”, sacred but non-religious, popular and physical, a feast of the senses – with exaggerated costumes, aggressive lighting and loud noises – a terrifying, intoxicating, waking dream. Even after all these years, it still sends shivers down the spine.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Stand up for Vineland!

For a long time I've felt rather alone in my admiration for Thomas Pynchon's Vineland (1990), but now it seems there are lots of people out there who enjoyed it too -- and Andy Beckett in the Guardian explains why.

It need no longer be a secret shame. Vineland is a fine book.

And I'll never forget the shock of excitement I felt at Pynchon namedropping Deleuze and Guattari on page 97: 'Fortunately Ralph Wayvone's library happened to include a copy of the indispensable Italian Wedding Fake Book by Deleuze & Guattari . . . '