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.