Thursday, 29 December 2016

Street to Street

Brian Castro’s Street to Street felt like a novel meant for me to read. This might sound like a very egotistical thing to say, but what I mean is that I sense that I am well equipped – by virtue of my particular background and sympathies – to appreciate its virtues and I think its purposes. Castro is quite a busy author and I have read only a few of his books: Double-Wolf (1991), The Garden Book (2005), and The Bath Fugues (2009). He is a writer drawn to writing about artists and outsiders, and in Street to Street, he finds his subject in the dual narrative of that Sydney, belated Romantic poet Christopher Brennan, and a (beautifully) flawed academic and would-be Brennan biographer, Brendan Costa. In order to manage the ending, a more shadowy friend-of-Costa makes an occasional narrative appearance (and I think is a less successful voice than Costa).
One of Castro’s principal sources for Brennan’s life is Axel Clark’s Christopher Brennan – A Critical Biography (1980). Some years ago, I picked up a second hand edition of this text in the markets in Roselle, and have at least half read it, enough to understand a little more of the troubled romantic life of Sydney’s (almost) famous poet. Of his narrator, I must reveal that I feel like I know him as a type: he is a solitary man; drawn to old-fashioned notions of scholarship (and in conflict, like Brennan before him, with university authorities as a result). I am part-way in writing my own novel with a flawed researcher, who like Costa, resides in the Blue Mountains town of Blackheath, and for this alone I feel like I am a reader and a writer with many intellectual sympathies to Brian Castro (elder statesman and famous writer that he is!). In no particular order, and by no means doing justice to Castro or this novel, these include: the struggle of the writer/poet/artist to create in a ‘provincial’ setting; the nature of biographical research and the doubling of the life of the biographer and his/her subject; an ironic view of self and of male characters and their struggle to form relationships with their own sex and with their devastating opposite. To take just a few sentences from the novel to illustrate how these notions might come together, Costa is thinking about Brennan’s affair with the bohemian Vie, and his self-doubt as a writer:
She was all hunger and astonishment. She crossed the borders; her spit and polish; he was liberated, was a man again. For months after, he scarcely thought about his own anachronism as a poet, the way he was being left behind by those in Europe and Britain, the bankers and the publishers. They had renounced subjectivity for something modern and he was holding back barbarism (pp.99-100).
So, Castro shows a poet’s self-doubt and his hopefulness together in the arms of a lover; Costa, meanwhile, has begun to reimagine himself away from university life, after a Dutch woman takes him seriously (and his loveless Australian marriage dissolves). There is something here about the struggle for authenticity, in other words, of self and as artists, and the relationship between Australia and Europe plays out with all the difficulties of a long-distance relationship, one which remains unequal in terms of power, even as poets and their biographers bunker down in the Blue Mountains to make sense of it all. This is another thing I admire and relate to in the novel and in Castro as writer. I could, perhaps, fear to be a shadow; but I suspect that Castro must feel that way himself at times, as he, too, sympathises with the poet Christopher Brennan and brings him to life as only a fellow artist might.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Down and Out in Paris and London

I read Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia in 2015 and was impressed by his depiction of Barcelona, and the intimate picture of his involvement in the POUM in the early days of the Spanish Civil War. I think I expected something similar of Down and Out in Paris and London, which is of course quite ridiculous, given not on the different cities but also the civilian life he sets out to describe. I suppose what I mean to say is that because Orwell has such a huge reputation for political insight (from later works) I had possibly expected more social commentary or critique of an intellectual kind. What Orwell does instead, of course, is to write a memoir in which he documents his experiences of poverty in Paris, and in London. In themselves, both depictions are devastating critiques, without the ‘argument’ (the experiences of poverty he describes largely speak for themselves).

In Paris, Orwell – or his speaker in the case of that necessary separation between writer and actor, even in a memoir – works as a plongeur, first for a large hotel and then for a small establishment, just opened. Prior to this employment, he has been forced to pawn his little possessions and most of his clothes, and has already discovered ‘the secrecy attaching to poverty’ (p.14) as he initially reduces the former activities that had seemed normal and suddenly seem costly (such as sending clothes to the laundry). He has met a Russian comrade, Boris, and through an act of humanity gained a ‘mate’ to share the hardship and scheme together. Indeed, in the early chapters, the relationship between the two has a comic-tragic nature, and I wondered at times whether the pair had even inspired Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in at least some indirect way (consider the scheming, the waiting, the class discourse, the hope and despair). In Chapter XIV, Orwell describes the social life of the hotel, including the status of cooks and waiters, and the pride all take in their work, however servile (and indeed the revenge they take on patrons through the abject scenes behind the closed doors where food is prepared for the guests and filth prevails). It is altogether a completely different view of Paris as one finds, for example, in Hemingway – who appears to think himself a friend to waiters but has not been ‘behind the scenes’ in Orwell’s way.

In London, things don’t improve for our correspondent. With money running down, he starts in some rather awful lodging houses (after exchanging his suit for rags and a few coins). Orwell presents the life of a tramp, who moves between ‘spikes’ once the money has run out, and meets various destitute men who alternate between daily street life, and ‘locked in’ “accommodation”. A ‘spike’ is something like a ‘casual’ position in a workhouse: men are admitted after six in the evening; forced to take a humiliating inspection and wash; given some very poor food and a cell to sleep in, without a bed; and turned out on the streets again the next morning, after – perhaps – being asked to do some menial work. Orwell introduces some characters to give the reader some sense of who these men are, such as a fallen artisan and a self-educated Irishman. He takes a chapter to describe London cockney language and slang, and another to dismiss myths about lazy tramps who might be ‘playing the system’ (a tramp’s life, he makes clear, is one of misery and deprivation). In a short final chapter, Orwell concludes with a few brief insights, penned with due humility:

“My story ends here. It is a fairly trivial story, and I can only hope that it has been interesting in the same way as a travel diary is interesting. I can at least say, Here is the world that awaits you if you are ever penniless … I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor surprised if men out of work lack energy, no subscribe to the Salvation Army, not pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a small restaurant. That is a beginning’ (pp.229-230).

These last comments include some in-jokes for the reader. For example, he cannot enjoy a meal in a small restaurant because he understands what goes on behind the scenes to make the food ‘ready’ to serve; he knows now that the poor despise the joyless cleanliness of Salvation Army hostels that humiliate the men they feed. And as for the beginning – it is Orwell’s way of saying that there is much more to learn about the life he describes in this memoir. For most of us, who have never experienced genuine hardship, or poverty, desperation and hunger, it is a telling way to end a rather frank appraisal of life on the streets, and life ‘just above’ that.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

The Course of Love

Back in the 1990s, a fiction subgenre emerged in England parallel to the men’s magazines (or rather, lad’s magazines) which popularised views of a new version of masculinity, more hip, more ‘Cool Britannica’, fluid to a degree and yet ultimately re-presenting the experience of prolonged heterosexual adolescence. Alain de Botton’s three novels – Essays in Love, The Romantic Movement and Kiss and Tell were written at the high-brow end of this spectrum, integrating de Botton’s reading of philosophy, psychology and literature within an accessible romantic love story of the boy-meets-girl, move-in-together, break-up and learn-something-new variety. As a more genuinely accomplished novelist, Nick Hornby was more successful, with film versions of High Fidelity and About a Boy to boost the book sales. His stories were about flawed-yet-likeable males who needed to learn something, by means of the same romantic cycle.

Another example was Mike Gayle’s novels, such as Mr Commitment and Turning Thirty. These explore familiar themes of growing up, learning about one’s own bad habits, and wondering if one can commit to a relationship that threatens to end that romantic era of the young man’s twenties (hence ‘turning 30’ as a crisis).

Alain de Botton’s fourth novel, The Course in Love, his first in twenty years, is a return to this genre. Since it aims to portray a more mature view of love, it both succeeds and fails as literature. Another way of saying this – and de Botton’s narrator makes the same point himself – is that literature entertains in a way that life doesn’t, and our expectations around romantic love stories in book and film bear little relationship with the day to day lives we lead, as must needs be, unless we wish to be thoroughly depressed, narcissistic serial monogamists. The book is divided up into the chapters that tell the story: romanticism, ever after, children, adultery, beyond romanticism. You might say that the genre normally deals with the first stage (romanticism) and flirts with the next two as the adult phases the protagonist fears the most (marriage, and the responsibility of family). Here de Botton takes the reader into the lives of a heterosexual couple, and while he tells both sides of the story, there is more about Rabih (would-be architect) than Kirsten (city council town planner). Each is treated sympathetically: they are flawed characters and yet the fault lies in the cycle of childhood to adulthood, with their own parents’ imperfections, and with some serious traumas to deal with in terms of deaths and desertions. Much of this is narrated rather than experienced in any depth by the reader.

The narrative is split up by italicised sections where we hear direct talk from the author. It is as if de Botton’s other self - as philosopher of everyday experiences, happily revealed to us in such texts as Religion for Atheists and The Art of Travel -  has snuck into the book and interrupted the novelist. Here is an example that nicely illustrates both the themes of the novel and some of the problems it encounters:

By the standards of most love stories, our own, real relationships are almost all damaged and unsatisfactory. No wonder separations and divorce so often appear inevitable. But we should be careful not to judge our relationships by the expectations imposed on us by a frequently misleading aesthetic medium. The fault lies with art, not life. Rather than split up, we may need to tell ourselves more accurate stories – stories that don’t dwell on the beginning, that don’t promise us complete understanding, that strive to normalise our troubles and show us a melancholy yet hopeful path through the course of love (p.215).

Stories like The Course of Love, in other words, like this novel-of-sorts. Alain de Botton’s return to fiction is welcome, since he has something interesting to say and since the advice is consistently good throughout. Measured against art and literature, it falls short, because it is a hybrid text, something in between philosophy and literature. As a clearly spoken pedagogue, de Botton the philosopher is more intent on leading us to conclusions than letting us learn those lessons ourselves through the often negative-examples in art and literature. Yet as another ‘essay in love’, and a return to a genre by a man who now has the maturity of hindsight, the story moves us to the territory it formerly feared the most: marriage, children, and life ever after (minus the blinkers).