Monday, May 26, 2014
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“THE SEX LIVES OF SIAMESE TWINS” by Irvine Welsh (Jonathan Cape / Random House, $NZ37:99)
Just a couple of posts back, I was using Henry de Montherlant’s tetralogy Les Jeunes Filles / Pitie Pour les Femmes to preach that it is possible to admire how a novel is written while deploring what it is saying; or conversely to admire what a novel is saying while deploring how it is written. In other words, even though style and meaning are bound up in each other (check out any writing manual or introduction to literary appreciation), one has to discuss both in assessing any novel.
Now how do I deal with a more trying case – an author who has some skill as a yarn-spinner, some story-telling ingenuity, but whose style is lumpy at best and whose ideas bounce between the dodgy, the formulaic and the repulsive? You can already tell that I am straining at the bit in reviewing Irvine Welsh’s The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins. Did I enjoy it? No I didn’t. Do I think the author has added anything to our understanding of the world, or given us any insights worth having? No I don’t. How humane are the novel’s ideas? Not very.
And yet I know that ever since his first novel Trainspotting (and especially since the movie it engendered), the Scots novelist has a following, even if his schtick is to rub his audience’s noses in it and dare us to be repelled. Heroin addiction, porn-addiction and similar matters are his usual novelistic beat.
So, given my negative reaction to this latest 460-odd page novel, how do I account for the author’s apparent popularity?
I’ll clear the air a little by giving you the premise and set-up.
The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins is set in affluent-but-sleazy Miami. Lucy Brennan is a “personal trainer” – a gym-instructor focused exclusively on maintaining her perfect body and getting her clients to shed their fat. Lucy hates the obese, the unfit, the unbeautiful; and as she does most of the novel’s first-person narrating, we get to hear her foul-mouthed words of scorn for anybody who doesn’t fit her desired bodily criteria. This is narcissism plus massive aggression.
Lena Sorensen is an unhappy, obese, unfit sculptor who hails from the bleak and boring Middle West. She is needy, loveless and looking for somebody to heal whatever ails her.
They meet when Lucy does something apparently heroic in the street, disarming a gunman who is attacking homeless men. Lena happens to be nearby. She films the action on her camera phone, and in no time the released footage is making Lucy a media celebrity, and bringing her offers of lucrative TV work. Actually, the part of the plot related to the media fades out fairly rapidly, after Welsh has enjoyed himself taking a few swipes at TV producers and their scouts and the way they back off quickly from anything that might hurt their ratings (turns out that the "homeless men" Lucy rescued were paedophiles, so the great unwashed suddenly cease to see Lucy's actions as heroic). What matters is that fat, dumpy Lena feels she now has a bond with trim, beautiful Lucy and begins to trail after her. She even wants Lucy to be her “personal trainer”.
But Lucy reacts in an extreme fashion, and by mid-point the novel’s core gimmick has been reached. Frustrated with Lena’s lack of will-power in the cause of shedding fat, Lucy in effect kidnaps her and chains her up in an unused new apartment block (there are incidental comments about the ways of Floridian urban real-estate), forcing her to trim down on a tiny diet and a punishing exercise regime. Lena becomes leaner and maybe the pun was intentional.
So we have a novel with a sadomasochistic core – one woman keeping the other prisoner, starving her and in effect torturing her in the cause of turning her into a version of herself. And the other woman gradually getting used to it and liking it. Lucy forces Lena to write out her memories to purge herself of her addiction to food. This allows for another narrative voice (printed in different typeface lest we are too stupid to perceive it is a different voice) and such self-confession as Lena’s account of her descent into morbid obesity by way of depression and lack of confidence in herself:
“We ate whole pies, pizzas and cheesecakes till we were sick. We would lie on the couch, immobilized, barely able to draw breath. We were almost drunk, almost drowned by food. Tormented by stomach-cramps and acid reflux; beyond satisfied, in real physical pain, sitting in abject self-hate which throbbed inside us like the garbage we’d just eaten, yet just wanting this mountain we’d tipped inside our guts to subside, to be broken up and processed by our bodies, the pounds of fat sticking onto what was already there. Just wanting that to happen so that we could start again. Because when it happened we just felt so empty. We needed, craved, the same again.” (p.256)
More to the point, Lucy’s memories are about copulation with both sexes. Lena’s memories are about limited copulation with the male sex only. But there is a lesbian core to their relationship, which becomes stronger as Lena sheds the pounds. The novel’s blurb says it’s about “folies-a-deux” Well, maybe. A press release (related to Irvine Welsh’s recent appearance at the Auckland Writers Festival) calls it “swampy Floridian lesbian noir”. Again, maybe. It’s pushing it to call sensationalism like this “noir”.
Without a “maybe”, however, I can say that Irvine Welsh goes in for dead-obvious symbolism to try to give it resonance. While Lena and Lucy are playing their games, they every so often follow a news story on television about Siamese twins who are trying to decide if they should have a life-threatening operation which could separate them. Okay, okay, I get it (not that there’s much to get). Lena and Lucy are as emotionally attached to each other as Siamese twins are physically attached, and their separation could have dire consequences. My crude guess is that Welsh’s main purpose in deploying this conceit was to give the novel a sexed-up, marketable title.
I admit that there are some moments of sour humour in this novel which are passingly amusing, as in this exchange between Lena and the narrating Lucy:
“- I hear the University of Miami is a really good school, Lena nods.
Don’t kid a kidder, girl, I say in those sage, world-weary tones that disconcertingly remind me of my father – When Sly Stallone and Farrah Fawcett are your best-known alumni, you know that a degree there is worth less than a Twinkies wrapper.” (p.162)
That Lucy’s father is a writer of crime fiction also allows Welsh to have the odd engaging snicker at a different type of formula fiction from the type of formula fiction he himself writes. But then, when he attempts to parody the crime fiction of Lucy’s father, the parody is remarkably inept and unconvincing.
Unfortunately, there’s a big disjunction between the crass, tough and crude voice Welsh gives to Lucy and the perceptions he allows Lucy to have. So self-absorbed is this narrator, so wedded to her own perceptions of what people should be that, in effect, Welsh has to go epistolary in order to let Lena’s viewpoint be seen. In Chapter 27, we are served a big dollop of Lena’s written confessions before Welsh has Lucy cussing her out “for writing f**king War and Peace.” (p.251). The voice of the narrator is, in fact, quite improbable. The author’s mask keeps slipping as he forgets he is supposed to be speaking as Lucy and proceeds to write in his own idiom. Take this passage where Lucy is discussing the Siamese twins:
“However, the girls have pleaded with the courts and their parents to consent to the operation, despite the fact that Amy’s chances of survival are not rated any higher than one in five. Annabel has an estimated 82 per cent shot of leading a normal life following the procedure. Now they’re showing the twins walking together in long shot, strangely harmonious, even graceful, in their synchronized movement, before cutting to Amy in close-up….” (p.285)
Is the section which I have underlined spoken by the same Lucy who effs and blinds and shows no real sympathy for anybody? Nah. It’s spoken by the novelist.
It is made clear early in the novel that Lucy basically sees other people as meat or as commodities to be exploited. She goes clubbing in search of sex, she couples mechanically with a stranger, and their swyving ends with her remarking:
“As he fades and slips out of me, I climb off him, lowering myself onto unsteady legs. In more than a hint of desperation, he croaks that his name is Enrique and he wants to buy me a drink. But the dude is just like a piece of gym equipment to me, and we’re now in a postworkout scenario. I’ve had my dose of dick…. So I smile and say – Thanks, that’s very kind of you, but you know what? I gotta go. Maybe some other time, enjoying the sad tumble of his face and the sorrow in those brown eyes. No point in hanging around a joint like this once you got what you came for. I go back home and check my emails.” (p.69)
With a bit of straining it might be argued that this is the flawed narrator speaking and not the novelist. It might further be noted that (after heaps of narrative improbability), the story ends up with the two main characters “healed” of some of what ailed them and settled into a stable lesbian domestic relationship, with a baby, forsooth. Narcissism is overcome, Lucy sees the loveable person that Lena is etc. etc. But this ending reminds me, in an odd sort of way, of the old Cecil B. De Mille formula for Biblical spectacle. You show people healed of their sins, but to attract the customers you spend more time licking your lips over the sins than you devote to the healing.
Not only is the “solution” to the psychopathology of Lucy (she was a teenage rape victim) and of Lena (she was massively exploited by a jealous boyfriend) glib and too neat; but we have to ask why there are so many graphic sex scenes along the way. Five or six times, in anatomically explicit detail, Irvine Welsh gives us lesbian sex. Why? It reads like “lesbian” porn for a male audience. A masturbation fantasy pretending to be part of character exposition.
I asked earlier how, despite my negative reaction to this novel, I account for the author’s apparent popularity. The best I can do is to direct you (via the index at right) to a post I put up quite some time back. It’s called Let’s Go Slumming, Take Me Slumming. Just as fashionable people once amused themselves by looking at the inhabitants of madhouses, so do some readers now get a buzz out of looking at what is squalid and extreme and preferably involving wild and crazy sex. You can do this safely if you’re only encountering it in a book. And given this buzz, you might even invite to a writers’ festival an author who couldn’t do subtlety if he was chained up in an empty apartment and tortured to do it.
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.
“EYELESS IN GAZA” by Aldous Huxley (first published 1936)
A bit over three years ago, having some spare time on my hands, I embarked on a little reading project. I read my way through all the novels and short stories of Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) in the order in which they had been written, starting with Limbo (1920) and ending with the lamentably flaky Island (1962), written when Huxley had degenerated into the mescalin-imbibing Californian sage. Most of his works were already sitting on my shelves, and I had read a number of them before, including the best-known, Brave New World (1930), which I used to inflict on Year 12 students, together with Orwell’s 1984, in studies of dystopian fiction.
When I got to the end of my Huxley marathon, I asked myself which of his works I had enjoyed most. I had enjoyed most the two which happen to be the longest. As a piece of gossipy, bitchy fiction, and a roman a clef, Point Counter Point (1928), with its demolition of the London literary scene of the 1920s, is great fun, and much superior to Percy Wyndham Lewis’s The Apes of God (1930), which attempts to do something similar. [Look up the index for comments on Wyndham Lewis’s book]. But for sincere human feeling I found the best of Huxley’s novels to be Eyeless in Gaza (1936), perhaps because for once Huxley let up on the cleverness a little and allowed himself to be vulnerable; almost heart-on-sleeve. Eyeless in Gaza has its flaws, including an overblown conclusion, but it appears to contain a version of a real tragedy, which touched Huxley closely.
I first read Eyeless in Gaza when I was in my twenties. I re-read it when I did my Huxley-fest. From my first reading I recalled some isolated details. There were two boys sailing a toy ship in the flooded guttering of their school dormitory. There was the dog, which fell out of the sky and splattered over a courting couple. There was a former social butterfly (called Mary Amberley) who turns suddenly into a messy and disgusting old woman. And there was the lecture on pacifism in the novel’s closing pages which I recalled finding rhetorical and unconvincing.
On re-reading the novel, I found my memory had not played me false. But what surprised me is how I had not remembered what should have been the novel’s more sensational bits. There is, for example, a quite explicit (by 1936 standards) account of a minor character, Beppo Bowles, who is an active homosexual seeking young men in public lavatories and being blackmailed by a piece of rough trade he picks up. There is a vivid account of school bullying, with one boy tormented when he is caught masturbating. In one scene a woman (Helen Amberley) comes out of a drug-induced nightmare after having an abortion. In another a man (Mark Staithes) has his leg amputated in primitive conditions in Mexico. Perhaps, between my two readings, I didn’t remember these things because they are the sorts of things which, since 1936, have appeared in hundreds of novels.
Coming to my second reading of this novel I again gave Huxley points for the clarity and readability of his prose. I found myself able to whizz through the 620 pages of the first edition I was reading in less than a week – and I mean a week in which I was busy with other things. I am amazed to find people on (admittedly less sophisticated) blogs on the ‘net complaining that the novel’s non-chronological presentation was “confusing”. I found it no more confusing than Huxley’s shuffling of different storylines in Point Counter Point.
Eyeless in Gaza has a plot spanning the years from 1902 to 1935. In 1902 the protagonist Anthony Beavis is eleven and his mother has just died. In 1935 he is 44 and has accepted the doctrine of pacifism. The chapters jump through various years between these two dates, gradually illuminating the spiritual despair and vacuity of Beavis’s social set and his increasing desperation to find something to fill the spiritual void. The most significant cluster of chapters, however, is in 1914 when a particularly traumatic event happens which, we realize eventually, led Anthony to deny the pointlessness of his values, deny his own personal guilt (as a means of self-protection) and embark on a life of sexual promiscuity and unsatisfactory relationships.
Pace criticisms, the non-chronological time-scheme is in no way confusing, but I would fault the way Huxley postpones revealing what the traumatic event was until the last few chapters – like a conjuror producing a rabbit out of the hat at the last moment, or a stand-up comic artificially delaying the punch-line. Given the extreme nature of the event, it is hard to see how it wouldn’t have been on Anthony’s mind in the chapters set in the 1920s and 1930s when we are not told of it.
At the risk of providing “spoilers”, then, let me explain.
In 1914, the 23-year-old Anthony Beavis betrayed his emotionally fragile friend Brian Foxe and triggered Brian’s suicide. Brian Foxe was a sensitive young man with a stutter, apparently induced by the cloying over-protectiveness of his mother, the Christian idealist Rachel Foxe. Brian was so idealistic (or immature) that he could not combine his elevated view of love with the facts of sex (or sensuality). He was in love with, and engaged to, Joan Thursley, but could not bring himself to even kiss her without blushing. Though a simple and unsophisticated girl, Joan was living in London and getting tired of Brian’s prolonged courtship. Brian asked Anthony to be his go-between and visit Joan. Already a sexual cynic, and having an affair with the promiscuous, gossipy and manipulative older woman Mary Amberley, Anthony succumbed to Mary’s suggestion that he seduce Joan just for the fun of it. Anthony did so. Brian found out. Brian threw himself off a cliff.
In one sense, then, the whole of this long novel can be read as the story of a trauma leading to a misspent life – from which the ideals of pacifism eventually save Anthony. In another sense it can be read as Anthony’s long-delayed atonement for so long denying his responsibility for his friend’s death.
By the time I re-read this novel, I was aware (as various biographies of Huxley had told me) that Aldous Huxley’s brother Trevenen committed suicide in 1914. This seems to have been the emotional inspiration of the novel. But the year 1914 is artistically appropriate in another way, for it was just before the Great War, the recurrence of which Anthony believes he is averting by his pacifism towards the end of the novel. And in another sense, for Huxley and his generation, the Great War was the big divider between an old order of greater innocence and a cynical and more brutal new world.
On re-reading this novel, I felt like totting up its strengths and weaknesses.
Despite its lumpy texture, it is certainly the most sympathetic novel Huxley ever wrote, because it is the only one which substantially acknowledges childhood as a decisive factor in forming us. In all his earlier, and most of his later, novels, adult characters do not have any remembered childhood. Here we have Anthony’s childhood loss of his mother, and his having to accept the re-marriage of his father to a florid, plump and somewhat inadequate woman. There is the good recurring Dickensian gag centring on the pedantry of Anthony’s father, a philologist who keeps giving people conversational lectures on the origins of words and who uses slang self-consciously and condescendingly (as if quoting it in inverted commas). The childhood scenes also give us the horrors of boarding school and Anthony’s first friendship with Brian Foxe and first betrayals of him (joining other boys in mocking him).
In such childhood scenes, the novel suggests the persistence of character. Mark Staithes, the admired schoolboy sports star and head bully, is later the man of action who wants to prove himself and drags Anthony off to Mexico (in 1934) to take part in some sort of half-defined revolution. He ends up losing his leg in an accident, but fortuitously introduces Anthony to the saintly pacifist Dr James Miller, who shows Anthony a way out of his spiritual impasse.
Hugh Ledwidge, the weedy schoolboy who is persecuted for his masturbation, grows up to be a sentimental weakling and cuckold, who is married opportunistically by Helen Amberley after Helen is already bored with men and jaded by frequent affairs (and her abortion). After marriage, Helen then proceeds to have more casual affairs with other men, including Anthony.
Anthony Beavis himself betrays Brian at school and is later fickle in love. He has affairs with both Mary Amberley (the character who later degenerates into a drugged, self-pitying hag) and her daughter Helen. He is easily swayed, to say the least.
This sort of characterization introduces a strong strain of determinism into the novel, as if Huxley is the Zola of the Smart Set. Are these characters ever capable of changing their essential values? By the 1930s, Helen Amberley is claiming to be past her pointless, promiscuous ways. She finds a cause in Communism through her German Communist lover Ekki Giesebrecht. But, a year after the tragedy of Ekki’s being kidnapped back to Germany by the Nazis, she is already saying she is tired of such social commitment and she is looking once more for pure hedonism.
This matter of the determined continuity of character raises an interesting possibility. If Helen can walk away from commitment to Communism and violent social change, should we then conclude that (for all the novel’s final pacifist sermon) fickle Anthony could walk away from his commitment to pacifism? Probably not. Huxley clearly intended the final pacifism to be the novel’s punch-line. We do have one scene of Anthony being a physical coward (in Mexico, when threatened by a revolver-wielding bully in a bar) and the novel does end with a sort of question mark. After experiencing epiphany in a moment of pure peace, Anthony sets out for a pacifist rally at which bullies have threatened to attack him. How will he live up to his new ideal of passive resistance? Even so, the pacifism is still the punch-line. (At the time Huxley wrote Eyeless in Gaza, he was heavily involved in, and writing tracts for, the Peace Pledge Movement.)
There is, however, another possibility. The novel is written in the “third-person limited” voice. It is in the third person, but we see and experience only what Anthony sees and experiences, he is the centre of consciousness, and it is only his memories that we share. Is there any possibility that he is an “unreliable narrator” on the Conradian model? He, after all, is the person most directly responsible for Brian Foxe’s death; yet it is his memory which presents Brian’s mother as the cloying and over-protective mother who stunts Brian’s emotional growth (and whose idealistic Christian activism is sardonically mocked). Is this in fact the way Anthony remembers things in order to justify himself? The burden of guilt for Brian’s death is thus shifted away from him and onto Brian’s mother.
As in all Huxley’s novels, the clever intellectual chitter-chatter is what is most ephemeral and easily-forgotten. The physical details work better. Certainly the dog falling out of the ‘plane and splattering over sunbathing Anthony and Helen is an excellent image of the unexpected horror that can change the course of a life (it hastens the end of Anthony’s and Helen’s affair). Probably in 1936, at a time when the aerial bombing of civilians was still a novelty, it was also a foreboding image of future wartime realities. As dogs can fall, so can bombs.
These are the positives of the novel, but what of its negatives? As a personal response, I was alienated from a protagonist who apparently never has to work for a living. At certain points we are told that Anthony is a “sociologist” and we once see him undertaking “research” in the British Museum. Apart from that, we have to conclude that he is one of the leisured classes who can agonize over the state of his soul because he has an inherited or unearned income. Or is this a symptom of the same problem Siegfried Sassoon faced when he wrote his George Sherston books? (Sassoon fictionalised circumstances of his own life, but did not allow his main character to be a poet – the very thing that defined what Sassoon was.) In so many ways, Huxley is writing about himself in the character of Anthony Beavis – from the youthful impact of a traumatic suicide to the pacifism – but without making Anthony a successful novelist and public intellectual. After all, he had already dealt with the literary set in Point Counter Point. So, in terms of work and livelihood, Anthony hangs in limbo.
Another weakness of Eyeless in Gaza is its “answers-at-the-back-of-the-book” aspect. Pacifism and a mystic sense of unity with the human race are presented as the answers to Anthony’s and the world’s problems. This necessitates the late introduction of Dr James Miller and the concluding sermon. It is a “moral” like the ending of an Aesop’s Fable but, as I’ve already argued, it is not entirely convincing with regard to the character of Anthony. It is glib.
Allied to this glibness is the journalistic aspect of the novel. Huxley may have gained some perspective on a misspent youth and the ferocious frivolity of his set in the 1920s; but his vision of the “present” (mid-1930s) is a very limited one which history denies. The choice his novel offers is between Communism (which he discredits) and pacifism. This was a woefully inadequate response to Hitler and everything he threatened. I think I already smell the retreat into California and mescalin. For this reader, Anthony’s pacifism is as much a disengagement from reality as Anthony’s earlier disengagement from real human relations. He is still running away from responsibility. There is the added unintentional irony that Anthony finally reaches his moment of love for all humanity while entirely on his own in his solitary room. Has he really become a human being who can relate well to others?
In spite of my misgivings, however, I still see this as Huxley’s best novel. The characterization is flawed, the solution to the protagonist’s problems is simplistic, the final, overlong vision of pacifism is Huxley’s botched Modernist attempt to have a conclusion rivalling something like Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of Ulysses.
But there is a sincerity to the novel’s anguish, a real tragedy being recalled and replayed, and a sense that, at least for the moment, the intellectual smart-arseries of so much of Huxley’s writing are for once kicked into the background.
Redundant footnote: Just for the record, I consulted two biographies of Huxley after polishing off all his novels – Sybille Bedford’s rather worshipful double-decker Aldous Huxley, A Biography (1974) and Nicholas Murray’s much punchier Aldous Huxley, An English Intellectual (2002). Both confirm that, while not the roman a clef Point Counter Point is, Eyeless in Gaza has a number of characters drawn from life. Anthony Beavis is the author himself. Brian Foxe is based on memories of Trevenen Huxley (though the reasons for his suicide were quite different). The debauched and drug-addicted Mary Amberley was Huxley’s view of Sybille Bedford’s mother, and there is in the novel the minor character of a Christian pacifist leader called Purchas, clearly based on the Rev. Dick Sheppard. Just thought I’d feed your taste for idle gossip.
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
ON THE POTENCY OF RUINS
Here is a little aesthetic question I’ve often asked myself.
Why is it that the ruins of old buildings have such a strong imaginative effect upon us – often more powerful than the imaginative effect of equally old buildings that are fully preserved?
I think, in my usual idea-association-game way, of all the artists and photographers who find it preferable, and more artistically satisfying, to paint or shoot ruined old farmhouses than old farmhouses that are still inhabited and maintained. The dilapidated shack with the rusted and peeling corrugated iron roof was once as ubiquitous in New Zealand painting and photography as the inevitable driftwood or bones of dead sheep. Virtually an artistic cliché.
Sometimes the ghost of an answer to my question was given in poetry. In one of his best poems, the young James K. Baxter wrote of “The Fallen House”, the bits and pieces of an old farmhouse, as being “haunted” by “the wraith of dead joy”. To see a ruined building is to invest it imaginatively with ghosts; to realize, without laboured conscious reflection, that it lived once, in the past, but is no longer living now; to know that it has to some extent come to an end, and hence has a story to tell. The only people who used the ruined building are the dead, and we give them a tragic significance. In contrast, the fully-functioning old building, or the old building preserved in its original shape, is not haunted by such ghosts. It is inhabited by living, un-tragic people as quotidian as we are.
That is one answer to my question but, by way of yet another question, let me propose another answer. Could it be that once a building is a ruin, its utility is gone and we can see it in purely aesthetic terms? We do not think so much of its purpose as of its shape and materials, and we are actively and imaginatively involved in reconstructing what its shape once was, before it was a ruin. Paradoxically, we are participants in re-creating the ruin.
So ghosts, and our imaginative collaboration, are what make ruins so potent.
Please understand that I do not mean to fetishize ruins. I am not "some ruin-bibber randy for antique". I am not saying that we should value an ancient ruined cathedral or castle more than we value an ancient well-preserved cathedral or castle that is still in use. I am amused by, rather than admiring of, those wealthy eighteenth-century English squires who would get an architect to design a ready-made Graeco-Roman “ruin” for their estate because it gave them that sweet sense of melancholy for dead antiquity that was such a big feature of their culture. Ruins have to be made by time or by the accidents of history to be potent. They are not mere “follies”.
I was fired to think about all of this a month ago, when my son and his family were showing my wife and me bits of the north of England.
One day, under an overcast but non-threatening English sky, we drove south from Durham and visited two great ruins in Yorkshire on the same day.
First, Rievaulx Abbey, a huge and really impressive Catholic abbey that served much of the north of England with charity and hospitality for about 400 years. It was smashed up and turned into an uninhabited ruin when Henry VIII was busy dissolving the monasteries and creating the new state church, founded as much on nationalism as on Christianity, that is the Church of England. I was pleased to note that in the small museum attached to Rievaulx Abbey, the buildings’ Cistercian history was treated with respect, the lives and duties of the abbots and monks who lived there were chronicled in detail, and the institution’s religious and economic purposes were given equal weight. In its medieval heyday, the abbey was at the centre of a web of countrywide missions. It controlled and serviced many farms, and produced goods for trade that contributed to the area’s wealth. But the scriptorium where the gospels were copied, the liturgical purpose of many features of the buildings, and the way the abbey celebrated the major seasons of the Christian year, were also accounted for in the texts and placards that the museum presented to tourists.
This was all very edifying, but our visit was inevitably dominated by the great ruin itself – and here the imagination had full play.
Put it in the right grey Yorkshire daylight, or put it under a full moon, and it would be what Turner would have painted or Wordsworth would have written about if he hadn’t decided that Tintern Abbey in Wales deserved his verse more. There was that vague, ruin-associated Romantic sense of the Sublime. But my imagination was more at play reconstructing what the abbey would have been and how it would have lived before its dissolution. Here was where the high altar would have been. There would have been stained glass where there were now gaping Gothic-arched holes in the remaining walls. The cloisters would have been here and around this square of grass were once the individual rooms of abbots and senior ecclesiastics. How the cisterns worked and where they were situated was just as interesting. I imagined monks, on a cold fifteenth-century winter night, having to shuffle from their cells and relieve themselves in conditions that we would now see as primitive and uncomfortable.
Yet the very size of it! The grace of the remaining buildings’ design and the engineering feats which, save for a king’s interest in acquiring its wealth, would have left it standing after over six hundred years! To look at it was to belie the ignorant idea that in the “Middle Ages” they knew nothing of the practical arts and sciences.
So I populated the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey and its “bare ruined choirs” with ghosts, and saw aesthetic beauty in it.
In some ways, the second Yorkshire ruin that we visited that same day, an hour-or-so’s drive from the abbey, was filled with even more lively imaginary ghosts.
This was Helmsley Castle, a formidable medieval pile.
It was originally built in the period when “borderers”, the northern English and southern Scots, made a habit of raiding each other’s territory to steal cattle, terrorise isolated farms, and grab loot. The original twelfth-century castle was later strengthened with a moat and “curtain”, and the great keep, the ruin of which still towers over the nearby town, became an effective observation post should the Scots be raiding.
But what of the effect of the ruin?
First, there was that weird sense of disjunction that a place built on violence (castles were designed for warfare) should now be so peaceful. I snapped the well-tended, gentle grassy slopes that were the castle’s earthworks – originally an effective piece of military engineering that was simply not designed for peaceful contemplation.
Then there were the historical circumstances of Helmsley Castle’s reduction to a ruin. It happened in the English Civil War. The castle was a Royalist stronghold. Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads besieged it and eventually starved the Royalist garrison out. Then, once they had taken the castle over, the Roundheads decided to prevent it from ever becoming a Royalist strongpoint again. They systematically pulled down most of the surrounding walls, knocked the floors out of the residential part and, as their coup de grace, blew up the great tower that was the castle’s most defensible building.
As I looked at the remains of the tower, knowledge of this piece of demolition amazed me. We think of high explosives as an invention more recent than the seventeenth century. But the evidence of how Helmsley’s tower was destroyed shows that tons of gunpowder, properly prepared and packed, could do enormous damage. From two angles (looking at, and looking away from, the remains of the tower), I photographed a huge piece of masonry, still buried in the surrounding earthworks three-and-a-half centuries after the parliamentarians did their job.
The ruin’s ghosts were dancing around me. I can only imagine that the explosion must have been tremendous.
This (to return to the theme from which I have been distracted) once again shows how ruins affect us by making us engage imaginatively with them.
But on our day of viewing illustrious Yorkshire ruins, my daughter-in-law, a talented artist with a strong visual sense, suggested a third reason for the potency of ruins, apart from ruins’ ghosts and their attractive lack of utility. She said that ruins are interesting because their lines are simplified. They have the beauty of skeletons, or deciduous trees in winter. Everything that is unnecessary to the essential structure has been removed by time and history and we are, in effect, looking at the essential building without frills.
I add this to my own limited attempts to work out why ancient ruins are such powerful forces exerted on the imagination.
Frivolous and silly footnote: I made a Facebook statement about Helmsley Castle on the day we visited it. One of my Facebook contacts replied that it was “one of the ruins that Cromwell knocked about a bit”. I was glad that at least somebody else remembers raucous old music hall songs.
Monday, May 19, 2014
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“THE IMPROBABILITY PRINCIPLE” by David Hand (Bantam Press / Random House, $NZ37:99)
A man is an expert in his field. The man writes a book about his field of expertise. In his own terms, the man cannot be argued with by the likes of you and me. We are not experts in his field. But we have the uneasy sense that the man has got something badly wrong. And to make matters worse, we also decide that the whole of the man’s book-length argument could have been expressed in four or five pages. In effect, the man’s book is a padded magazine article.
There now. I have short-circuited my own review of David Hand’s The Improbability Principle (subtitled Why Incredibly Unlikely Things Keep Happening) by giving my conclusions first rather than delaying them until the last paragraph or going all evasive and elusive, which is the way with many reviewers when they do not wish to speak clearly or make enemies.
Having passed judgment and called for execution, however, the infallible court of my mind thinks it would be fair to examine the evidence.
David Hand is certainly an expert in the field of Mathematics, especially as it pertains to probability and statistics. He is Emeritus Professor of Mathematics and Senior Research Investigator at Imperial College London, and has been president of the Royal Statistical Society. He has also published a number of popular books on mathematical topics.
The basic question he asks here is “Why do incredibly unlikely events happen? ”
He opens with true anecdotes of the most outrageous and improbable events to show us that such things do indeed happen. He then turns to pre-scientific explanations for such improbable events and huge coincidences, and has fun debunking them one by one. Old superstitions? They all depended entirely on the “confirmation bias” of selecting only that evidence which confirmed beliefs already held, and ignoring all other evidence that contradicted such beliefs. The power of prophets in predicting events accurately? It was always a matter of prophecies being ambiguous enough to be interpreted in different ways, so that the prophet would be validated regardless of what happened. Miracles? Why, David Hume’s dismissal of them is good enough for David Hand – don’t believe in ‘em unless the reason to believe in ‘em is more compelling than the reason not to. And as for psychic phenomena and Jung’s theory of “synchronicity”, please don’t make Professor Emeritus David Hand laugh. He will speak at length on the nature of chance, and on fallacies about luck with which gamblers delude themselves, but he will not take pre-scientific explanations seriously.
Why, then, do incredibly unlikely events happen?
Why (as Hand records it) does a woman buy two lottery tickets in two separate lotteries, and get two winning numbers - except that the winning number for Lottery A is the number of the ticket she has for Lottery B and vice versa? Why does a woman have four daughters born in four different years, but on exactly the same date – 3 August? Why does one man have the ill fortune to be struck by lightning on seven different occasions? Why does the actor Anthony Hopkins happen to find, discarded in a railway carriage, a copy of the very book he is looking for to research a character he is about to play; and then later discover that this discarded and randomly-found copy is the very copy the book’s author lost some years before?
The answer, according to Hand, is very simple. Given a sufficiently large number of events, extraordinary things will inevitably happen. Gaussian distribution means that most numbers will tend to averages, but a small minority of numbers will not. Thus with human events. We have shifted from the deterministic universe of Newtonian “clockwork”, where events in nature always had to happen in a completely predictable fashion; to a probabilistic universe with Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle” and chaos theory telling us that it is quite in the nature of things for the unexpected to sometimes happen. The mere fact that multiple millions of golfers play rounds of golf every year means that inevitably, by the laws of statistical probability, there were be one or two who score three or four successive holes-in-one. There is nothing extraordinary about this at all. It is simply the fact of very large numbers at work.
And that, repeated and spun out with the use of many anecdotes over about 240 pages, is the whole argument of Hand’s book, which is why I call it an expanded magazine article. Really huge numbers of events happen everyday. Some of those events will therefore be unexpected or coincidental. No mystery and end of story. I note that Hand has created a piece of jargon to give his book a jazzy title (“The Improbability Principle”), presumably in the hope that the phrase will catch on. This technique is often used by authors of pop-science treatises, when they hope to create a bestseller.
Now it would be extremely ungrateful of me not to admit that I enjoyed many of the anecdotes, even if I knew at once what point each of them was going to make. It is fun reading about Jean Dixon (pp.23 ff.). She was an American horoscope-deviser and fortune-teller, much trusted by President Ronald Reagan and his wife, whose reputation was built on “predicting”, in the 1950s, that a Democrat would be elected in 1960 and that he would be assassinated while in office. Wow! She “predicted” JFK’s assassination. Except that, as Hand points out, Dixon made many thousands of predictions in her life and nearly all of them proved dead wrong. Thus Hand speaks of the “Jean Dixon effect” - one lucky hit is inevitable given so many predictions. It’s just big numbers at work again.
Hand’s account of the famous “stock tipster” scam is also very entertaining (pp.180-182), showing simply that if you begin with a large enough pool of suckers, you will be able to convince some of them that your predictions are always right. Taking a mild slap at his own scientific community, Hand also amused me when he considered the “publication bias” (pp.135 ff.) in scientific journals, this being a variation of “selection bias”, where those articles about experiments showing the “success” of a certain drug or procedure are the ones likely to be published – i.e. in the main, scientific journals do not favour articles about long series of experiments that have proved nothing or have shown that a certain procedure is worthless. And I suppose it was also fun to see Hand using the “law of near enough” (i.e. people validating what they think is miraculous by means of stretching and selecting their evidence) to defuse Jung’s “synchronicity” or Arthur Koestler’s arguments in his Roots of Coincidence, although in both cases Hand is in no position to debunk those aspects of the two thinkers’ ideas that are not directly related to statistics.
But having noted these incidental pleasures, this is still a book that bashes away at a remarkably small stock of ideas.
And there is another problem. So determined is Hand to prove that everything extraordinary is just the ordinary power of big numbers at work, that he succeeds in warning against any sense of wonder or delight we might have in the unexpected happening. In the last sentences of his Epilogue, before two appendices and after having given us yet more true tales of wild coincidences, Hand concludes thus: “None of this is surprising at all. It’s the Improbability Principle.” (p.237)
But surely unexpected and extraordinary events and coincidences ARE surprising by their very nature. We would cease to be human if we were not surprised by them, even though we already know that many of them are just the work of probability. Hence the colloquial phrase “a one-in-a-million chance”. We understand that a million other, un-extraordinary, events have happened before this one event stands out to us as extraordinary, but that does not take away our delight and wonder in the one event, regardless of Hand’s dour injunction.
And, in a bigger sense, where is Hand’s single-minded and repetitious argument going?
Ah me! I think I smell the folly of the narrowly-focused specialist, in this case a statistician who, by talking in terms of the inevitability of big coincidences and “miracles” because of big numbers, can discount everything that is miraculous and beyond human computation. So he applies his theory to evolution and says randomness of events and huge numbers of life forms and mutations over millions of years mean that therefore there is no need to posit a purpose or a direction of even a particular development in life, let alone a creator. It is just a matter of huge numbers and chance.
And so, dear reader, to his own satisfaction the mathematician solves the riddle of the universe, but fails to take the final step of recognising that own context, the context of big numbers working in a particular way, has an origin. Why should huge numbers behave as they do? Only because the universe is made in a certain way.
The thin argument of The Improbability Principle, amusing in snatches but repetitious overall, is purely functional-operational, but the author presumes to stray into ontological territory, which is way beyond his expertise.
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.
“THE MAN WITHIN’ by Graham Greene (first published 1929)
It’s almost impossible to reconstruct how the first readers would have reacted to the first work of a novelist who subsequently became famous for other and greater things. We are so used to thinking of Oliver Twist as an established classic, for example, that we’re apt to forget its author was a 25-year-old kid whose first real and closely-plotted novel it was (even if he was already famous for the picaresque Pickwick Papers). If we were the first readers of Oliver Twist, would we have said this Dickens fellow was a literary genius, likely to be read for a couple of hundred years at least? Or would we have said he produced promising stuff, perhaps, but no more than that?
Too often I’ve read literary biographies that tell me how undiscerning the reception of a great author’s first work was, always implying that the biographer (and we) would have recognised greatness when we saw it.
Thinking such thoughts, I sat down and thought how Imight have reacted had I, in 1929, been among the first readers of the first published novel of Graham Greene (1904-1991), the man who was England’s most recognized author for about thirty years and who, notoriously, deserved to win the Nobel Prize for Literature but never did.
Let’s just say, for example, I was a publisher’s reader for Heinemann, and this manuscript from an unknown 25-year-old came across my desk.
How would I have judged it?
“The Man Within?” I might have said “Curious choice of title. I recognize it from that 17th century chap Thomas Browne when he was talking about the voice of conscience. I think I’m in for some youthful agonizing.”
Then, like the good publisher’s reader that I was, I would have taken out my writing pad and started making a few notes.
As a professional literary person, I hope I would have recognized the influence of Joseph Conrad on this young writer, especially as Conrad had died only five years previously (in 1924). “Yes,” I might have said, “it’s a story about smugglers and it has at least something to do with the sea. It has a strong tendency to psychological analysis of a flawed main character. He is stricken by a guilty conscience and in flight from the consequences of something bad he has done. He is like a version of the main characters of Conrad’s Lord Jim or Under Western Eyes. And yet it is set sometime in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century. Perhaps this young author has been reading late Conrad, like The Rover, which came out just a few years ago – in 1923 – and which also has such an historical setting.”
And as I came to the novel’s conclusion, with villains closing in on a man and an idealised woman in an isolated place, I might have said, “Hmm, more Conrad. It’s more than a little like the denouement of Conrad’s Victory.”
And maybe I would have smiled at some passages of lush description, which had a Conradian flavour to them, even though the young author tended to write in curt one- or two-clause sentences that had a staccato effect, not really like Conrad’s melodious prose. I might have noticed the heavy symbolism of landscape and setting, making me wonder if young Greene hadn’t been dabbling in the works of Dr Freud. There’s that dark wood the main character runs through in the opening chapter before he comes to the safe haven of a lighted cottage inhabited by a sympathetic woman. The wild, isolated conscience yearning for domestic peace but not finding it, etc.
I suppose, at some point, I might also have struck my forehead in annoyance at myself for not noticing sooner something else about the novel’s plot. “Of course this novel is not for children,” I might have said, “but the central plot situation of an impressionable young man drawn into the smuggling game by a more experienced older man does have at least a whiff of J. Meade Falkner’s classic for adolescents Moonfleet. I wonder if this young author has unconsciously recalled some of the reading of his childhood?”
But I hope, as a publisher’s reader in 1929, I would have had the wit to give young Greene points for not laying on the period details with a trowel, but allowing the story’s historical setting to be suggested by a phrase here and a brief comment there about the “Gentleman” (=smugglers). And I would, I hope, have admired him for not burdening his characters with false “Ye Olde” dialogue, but letting them speak colloquially, except when they are consciously quoting from the old translation of the Bible. Well, in a rather prolonged courtroom scene the protagonist does suddenly give vent to rather stagey, melodramatic phrases, just as he and the woman he admires do in the final scenes. Even so, the dialogue is muscular.
All in all, then, I might have said it was a competent job. Romantic, certainly. Overwrought in its conclusion. Saturated with youthful agonizing about God and about character, but at least telling a story with a clear beginning, middle and end.
So, setting down the pad on which I was making notes, I would force myself to decide whether or not we should accept the MS for publication. “There is a market for this sort of thing,” I might have said. “It’s promising. It’s highbrow period melodrama. I think this Graham Greene might be able to supply us with more intellectual adventure stories, but I do hope he gets over having a main character who snivels and accuses himself of cowardice so much.”
And I would have taken a punt and decided to publish.
Perhaps – just perhaps – this is how I would have judged The Man Within if I were a publisher’s reader in 1929.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Oh well. It’s fun to play this game, but it’s really hard to keep it up when you do know the author’s subsequent career and have read most of his novels. All the time while reading The Man Within, I (unfairly and anachronistically) saw elements of it as rough and tentative sketches for what Greene was to do better later.
His main character, Francis Andrews, is a young man on the run from his former comrades. They are smugglers whom he has betrayed. The smugglers are led by a man called Carlyon, who has been like a father to Andrews, except that Andrews’ real father was a sadistic brute whom Andrews wishes to expunge from his soul. Partly for this reason, and partly because he is tired of being accused of cowardice, Andrews has informed the excise men of the smugglers’ movements. He is exorcising both his deceased father and his substitute father figure Carlyon. In a fight, the excise men intercept the smugglers, but one of the excise men is shot dead and the smugglers are condemned to hang for murder. Except that they break out of custody and come in pursuit of their Judas. Haunted by his own cowardice and his treachery to his comrades, Andrews declares in Chapter 1 “I am a hunted man pursued by worse than death.”
At novel’s opening, Andrews is fleeing through the dark countryside of south-east England. He comes to a cottage where he is given shelter by a mature, sympathetic young woman called Elizabeth who, like Andrews himself, has recently lost a father figure. Pleasingly assertive (at least for a woman in a romantic novel written in 1929), Elizabeth advises Andrews that he can free his soul and prove he is not a coward only if he goes to the assizes in town and, forthrightly and without flinching, bears witness in the courtroom against the smugglers and their crimes. Andrews does so, but the pay-off puts both him and Elizabeth into more serious danger. The conclusion is violent, with Andrews in effect expiating his sins by self-immolation.
Be it noted that the novel’s narrative voice is third-person-limited, with everything seen from Andrews’ viewpoint, and with young Greene indulging in much direct analysis of Andrews’ flawed character.
Be it noted that there is much questioning of an indifferent God. Elizabeth forthrightly believes in God. Andrews is more sceptical, but comes to think of Elizabeth as a “saint” for her understanding of him, and hence comes to feel even more wretched that he himself does not measure up to her saintliness. There are many passages such as the following, in which the “man within”, Andrews’ tormented conscience, is invoked, as is God:
“Andrews’s character was built of superficial dreams, sentimentality, cowardice, and yet he was constantly made aware beneath all of these of an uncomfortably questioning critic. So now this other inhabitant of his body wondered whether he had no mistaken peace for inhumanity. Peace was not cowardly nor sentimental nor filled with illusion. Peace was a sanity, which he did not believe he had ever known. He remembered how once, becalmed at sea day after endless day, he had grown to loath the water’s smooth unstirred surface as a symbol of a hatefully indifferent deity. And yet in the week of storm that followed he had longed to regain that quality which he began to regard as peace.” (Chapter 3)
Be it noted, too, that there is a somewhat perverse sexual subplot. Even with his head filled with the “saintly” Elizabeth, Andrews – in town for the assizes – manages to have a one-night stand with a more sluttish woman called Lucy, and so has more reason to berate himself as “soiled” when he finds his way back to the woman he idealises. Sex is angel or slut. This novel really is filled with a young man’s agonizing.
So how do I, as a hardened Greene-reader, read this novel?
An isolated man on the run through hostile countryside, tormented as much by his inner demons as by his physical enemies? That will be the essential situation of one of Greene’s best novels The Power and the Glory (1940). A young man from a brutalising family, leading a violent life among criminals, and with an extremely perverse attitude towards sex? Sounds like Raven in A Gun for Sale (1936). Sounds even more like Pinky in Brighton Rock (1938). And sinfulness and self-immolation? Surely The Heart of the Matter (1948)? You see, it is very hard to read The Man Within without seeing it as a foretaste of better novels. And the same goes for the religious element. Greene had converted to Catholicism only three years before The Man Within was published, and had not yet worked out the more mature theological questionings, and the Dostoyevskian pairing of sin and redemption, of the later works (The Power and the Glory, The End of the Affair, The Heart of the Matter, A Burnt-Out Case etc.).
I might also note that the psychological motivation for the main character’s actions isn’t as convincing in The Man Within as it is in the later novels. Frankly, I never believed that Andrews would have betrayed his comrades for the rather abstract reasons the novel gives, even if the betrayal suits Greene’s themes and melodrama.
Now for a little bit of background, culled from the standard biographies. Young Graham Greene had an extraordinarily difficult emergence as a bona fide novelist. He actually began writing The Man Within when he was 21, four years before he submitted it for publication, and he worked on it, on and off, for two years. In that time he submitted two other novels to publishers. They were both rejected and he destroyed both. When The Man Within was published, it surprised Greene (and his publishers) by selling well. Greene gave up his day job and thought he could now be a full-time novelist. In quick succession he wrote two more novels, The Name of Action and Rumour at Nightfall. Both of them stank. Both of them hardly sold any copies. Greene himself soon judged both of them to be so bad that he refused permission for them ever to be reprinted, even when he was a well-established literary figure with a large and guaranteed readership. They never figured in lists of his published work. Copies of them are now so rare as to be valuable.
Only when he dropped the imitations of Conrad, and the period settings, did he find his own voice – and he found it by writing a thriller that didn’t pretend to be anything other than a thriller, Stamboul Train (1932). After two good and, I think, underrated novels (It’s a Battlefield and England Made Me) and one more good thriller (A Gun for Sale), it wasn’t until he was in his mid-thirties that he produced his first great novel Brighton Rock. So it had taken two (unpublished) duds before The Man Within, and two (published) duds after The Man Within before he got to his feet, shook off the lingering influence of Joseph Conrad, and began to develop his own voice. I do not believe he ever wrote a novel with a period setting again.
In later years Greene was a little embarrassed by the immaturity of The Man Within. He allowed it to be reprinted, so it appears first in lists of his collected works, but he wrote a preface to a paperback edition in which he judged it to be “hopelessly romantic”. He was right. It is.
But maybe he was being rather harsh on his younger self. The novel shows narrative flair. It begins cunningly in the middle of its story, with Andrews on the run for his sins. It is melodramatic but it has a definite conclusion and at least some sort of moral perspective.
Probably the judgement of my fictitious publisher’s reader is the best. The Man Within is competent and promising. As a first novel, it’s nothing to be ashamed of.
Corrective footnote: Just to reassure you that I have not given way to fantasy, allow me to note that I am fully aware my story of what a publisher’s reader might have thought about The Man Within in 1929 is entirely fictitious. Having consulted the first volume of Norman Sherry’s biography of Greene, I know that Heinemann’s in fact took to the novel most enthusiastically and judged that they had a great new literary star on their list. The novel was a big bestseller, going through three impressions in its first year. (It’s a broken-backed copy of one of the 1929 impressions that sits on my shelf.) It also received great reviews and positive private comments from established authors. Sherry quotes a letter Aldous Huxley wrote in 1929, saying that he thought The Man Within was better than Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. It was this enthusiastic reception that made the absolute failure of Greene’s next two novels even more humiliating. Sherry also notes that the saintly figure of Elizabeth was very much based on Greene’s wife Vivien, to whom he had been married for only two years and who had led him into Catholicism. But the “soiled” sex was also part of Greene’s life, in his lifelong habits of having frequent affairs and visiting prostitutes. That, however, is matter for another day’s discussion.