Saturday, November 24, 2012

A Text-Book on the History of Painting by John Charles Van Dyke

A Text-Book on the History of Painting by John Charles Van Dyke was published a century ago. Today it offers the modern reader not only potted, period critiques of important artists, but also a remarkable insight into how aesthetics change from generation to generation. John Charles Van Dyke’s assessments of some work will surprise today’s reader, especially his attitudes towards some contemporary artists who received rather hostile reactions from some quarters when their work was first exhibited.

The book deals with the European tradition. It makes no excuses for this. At the time, non-European art was perhaps less well known in Western critical circles. Perhaps also, it was regarded as somehow inferior, perhaps also merely because it was not European in origin. But Van Dyke does offer us a working distinction that excludes most non-European art from his survey, that of the difference between observation and expression. Only that which aims at expression, for van Dyke at least, is worthy of the label “art”. Somehow ancient Egyptian art makes it into the oeuvre, probably because it was also represented in museums that were close at hand and accessible.

Two painters in particular illustrate the difference in treatment between van Dyke’s age and our own, El Greco and Alma-Tadema. El Greco is hardly mentioned as a figure in sixteenth century Spain, his achievements apparently being regarded as rather localised on Toledo. Thus a figure now regarded as a unique stylist and visionary hardly figures in this text. Alma-Tadema, whose academicism and detail might today offer summary and epitome of the staid Victorian England that toyed euphemistically with the erotic is also dismissed. And one of the few English painters to be raised to the peerage, Frederick Leighton, also did not impress Professor Van Dyke. Neither, it seems, did Albrecht Durer.

Central to Van Dyke’s aesthetic is a judgment as to whether the painter not only represents, interprets and expresses, but also constructs a painting. Mere reality is never enough, it seems, life requiring the skill of an editor or architect to render its experience communicable. It is interesting to reflect on how much or little we still value this aspect of aesthetics in today’s painting.

Some of Van Dyke’s observations will at least entertain. Franz Hals, we learn, lived a rather careless life. William Blake was hardly a painter at all. A Dutchman is attributed with the faint praise of being a unique painter of poultry. Matthew Maris is criticised for being a recorder of visions and dreams rather than the substantial things of earth, while Turner is dismissed as bizarre and extravagant, qualities that today might enhance rather than diminish his reputation.

But Van Dyke’s book remains an interesting, informative and rewarding read, despite its distance from contemporary thinking. He is especially strong in his summary descriptions of the different Italian schools of the late Gothic and Renaissance eras. It is more than useful to be reminded of how independent these city states were at the time and how little they managed to influence one another. A Text-Book on the History of Painting by John Charles Van Dyke remains, then, an essential read for anyone interested in the history of art. Much has changed, but then there is much that has not.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Dalkey Archive by Flann O'Brien

Brian O’Nolan was an Irish civil servant who wrote fiction and journalism under pseudonyms. Flann O’Brien was the name O’Nolan used on his fiction and it is the name of the author of The Dalkey Archive, a metafictional novel that veers from the philosophical to the nonsensical, from the tender to the coarse and from the religious to the irreverent, often in the same sentence.

The Dalkey Archive is much more than a novel and at the same time much less than a story. There are linear threads of sorts that run through the book, but they are often knotted or broken. But the real ambition of the book seems to be something different from story-telling, something more akin to a flippant, sometimes facetious examination of the relationship between received assumption, demonstrable fact and identity-endowing allegiance.

On the face of it, The Dalkey Archive is something of a farce. There is this fellow called Mick, who is generally surprised by the use of Michael. He has an acquaintance called De Selby who claims both theories and capabilities, one of which is the ability to manufacture a substance capable of sucking all the oxygen out of the atmosphere. He has plans.

But his greatest achievement is to attend a meeting with Saint Augustine of Hippo set up by De Selby, where the attendees can grill the Saint about, amongst other things, his dabbling with Manicheanism and his sexual preferences. But this is no story cast in black and white, though it may make claim to the mundane.

Another of Mick’s adventures is to locate James Joyce, reportedly resident nearby. He wants to ask the great man a few questions about his work. He traces Joyce to a seaside resort called Skerries, which means he is on the rocks. James Joyce is working as a bar assistant, which is convenient because Mick likes to spend quite a lot of his time in bars.

But Joyce remains enigmatic. And why wouldn’t he be? He denies all knowledge of Finnegan’s Wake and maintains that someone else wrote Ulysses. It’s all right, especially when the concept of truth is under scrutiny. After all, the eternal Holy Ghost only became extant - in its non-extant way – at the Council of Contantinople in 381AD, so there!

Now if anyone might think that things are getting a tad silly, then spend just one day - as Leon Blum did in another place - just making notes on the things you saw, said or thought, however random. At the end of the day, have a look at what is there and realise that you have been everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Welcome to being human. Oh, and there are some pretty strange policemen in the book as well, often riding bicycles, of all things. They have made appearances in another book.

It is hard not to read The Dalkey Archive in a Dublin accent. Even then, it remains incomprehensible, the blast of reality coming, perhaps, with Mary’s final words. Which Mary? you might ask. Now there’s a story…

As novels go, The Dalkey Archive might itself be intoxicated. Certainly most of its characters are intoxicated for a good proportion of their time. Read it to realise, amongst other things, how much other writing, especially that we often describe as conventional or mainstream, is no more than illusion sugared with unreal reality. Also realise how much of life, itself, and our assumed beliefs within it are delusional. Oh, and have a good number of laughs along the way.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Sense Of An Ending by Julian Barnes

In some ways The Sense Of An Ending by Julian Barnes is far too short. Tony Webster, the novel’s central character and first person narrator, lives most of his adult life in relative anonymity. He marries, works to earn his living, raises a daughter and perhaps blends into the suburban landscape of outer London’s long terraces with their fair-weather-only gardens. During these intervening years, how often did Veronica cross his mind? And when she did, just how much of their courting did he recall, and how much did he have to re-invent? Compared to the vivid recollections of school and university years, Anthony’s take on his intervening adulthood seems scant in the extreme, dismissive even.

We would like to know more about Anthony, because Julian Barnes’s novel is pure, unadulterated joy to read. This character is so rounded and three dimensional that often it feels like he is in the room, telling his story. His manner would be quite assertive, but also self-deprecating, without that force of delivery that would suggest confidence. Surely he is a reflective type, but like most of us he is not good at reading others’ motives, especially when these do not coincide with his own. This inability will have significant bearing on this novel’s own sense of an ending.

Now in his sixties and divorced, Anthony recalls the arrival of a new classmate at school, a lad who becomes a friend, adopted into a clique. Adrian, however, is different from the others. He seems more intense, certainly more analytical, both intellectually and personally. He is one to examine the detail of justification in almost every aspect of human activity, most of all his own. But for all his attention to apparent detail, is he any better at knowing himself and his own motives than anyone else? The question will remain open.

Anthony, on the other hand, seems to get on with things as they present themselves and reflect later. He is not prone to analysis. He does find a girlfriend, Veronica, whom he seems to worship, both mentally and physically. It is the nineteen-sixties, the time of sexual liberation and free love. But not for those who lived through the era, Tony reminds us. What became iconic for a decade was at the time probably only an aspiration for an elite. For Anthony it remained a time when he could only dream of the pleasures that might await. His relationship with Veronica, however, did become reasonably intense, even if it did remain pre-marital by not usually going all the way. On a weekend visit to her parents’ home in Kent, her father seemed superciliously jocular and yet evasive, while her mother seemed strangely free and close. She even confided in him, warning him about her daughter. Tony found motive hard to ascribe.

Adrian went to Cambridge, of course, as did Veronica’s brother. Tony didn’t. You might guess that there is going to be a transfer of allegiances, a falling out, a separation and a redrawing of relationships. The Sense Of An Ending is the kind of novel where the twists and turns of people’s lives provide the plot. There is no linear invention that progresses from one false cliff-hanger to another and on to the next, so a review of the book should reveal no more than the above about its principal characters.

Overall, the book is a complete joy. It is not long enough and it is hard not to finish it in one sitting. Eventually Tony has to accept that words thrown away almost without thought or reflection have caused events to twist out consequences that have entwined the people concerned for the rest of their lives. Forty years on, Tony, never good at identifying motive, must wrest out of memory an analysis of his own intentions in the light of consequences of which he remained unaware.

Every minute of every day we communicate, sometimes in anger, and remain unaware that anything we say might have long-term consequences that we could never have imagined. Of course if we do try to consider the significance of everything we say or do, we cease to communicate and have no interaction at all. Thus we remain human, actively involved in lives whose progress and development we cannot predict. Ignorance is inevitable, but it is not blissful. Julian Barnes’s The Sense Of An Ending is not the kind of book that will enlighten or alleviate our collective state of ignorance, but it is pure bliss.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Prodigal Summer is eventually both surprising and deceptive. It is surprising because of the twists and turns of the lives of its characters, all of whom become completely, sometimes endearingly, always engagingly real. The deception arrives subtly to enlighten, because these apparently ordinary lives with their pressingly everyday concerns grow to illustrate and then eventually represent something of great significance, being the natural world and our place within it. Thus Prodigal Summer, a novel that begins suggesting a snapshot of a single season in the lives of just three households grows into a profound statement of their relationship – all of our relationships – with the natural world and indeed life, itself.

Deanna Wolfe is a mid-forties idealist who has chosen to live as a warden and ranger in the National Forests near Zebulon in the southern Appalachians. She is studying predators, especially coyotes, but apparently yearns to worship living things, especially those that are not human. She is beginning to anticipate the menopause of her own life-cycle as she marvels at nature’s ability to both regulate and reinvent itself. Crucial in this process, she feels, is the role of the predator, the animal at the top of the food chain, and especially the females of those species, those charged with husbanding its renewal. Her work seems all absorbing.

Then one day she meets Eddie Bondo. He is not from those parts. He is a hunting cowboy-type from out West, not the type, you might think, that Deanna would have time for. He is twenty-something, almost two decades her junior and he has a body plus a way of handling it that stirs the autumnal debris of Deanna’s psyche, debris that has accumulated in her continued, self-imposed and desired isolation. After all, in magnetism opposites attract.

Not far away there is Lusa. She came to these parts to marry Cole. He was the man who lured her away from her biology and installed her on a smallholding, where even the hardest work would hardly make a living, let alone create wealth. Lusa has some relationship problems with Cole’s family. After all, she is not one of them and, perhaps more importantly, her parentage has European and Middle Eastern roots. And - at least in theory - she is not even a Christian.

And then, one day she finds herself a widow. Cole’s family are immediately closer and yet further away at the same time. Sympathy partly overrides the tensions. Lusa has to begin dealing with them directly, not through the mediation of her husband’s filter. Problems of making a living might just be solved by going into goats. Goats? At least she still has time to study her beloved insects.

Not too distant are the neighbours Garnett and Miss Rawley. They are, shall we say, at the senior end of their citizenship and perhaps as a result rather set in their ways. Garnett is not just a Christian, but one of the breed that interprets the Bible, including its timeline, quite literally and can thus locate an exact date of creation just beyond 4000BC. He might profess not to be impressed by science, but in many ways he worships it by regularly dousing parts of his land and its flora in insecticides. If only…

If only that darned neighbour, Miss Rowley, would clear the cuttings and clean up that compost where al the pests breed. But she is a declared worshipper of science and cannot bring herself to interfere in any natural process, lest human intervention gets in the way of the inevitable. Miss Rawley and Garnett are not the most companionable of neighbours.

In Prodigal Summer these three households, each with their own tensions, relationships, feuds and priorities live cheek by jowl with nature. Animals, plants, the weather, chance and inevitability press themselves to the forefront of daily concerns. Thus they find they are in contact in more ways than one. Not only must they commune with the natural world, they must coexist, even communicate as assumption, motive and consequence push them in different, sometimes conflicting directions.

Of course, given Prodigal Summer’s theme of renewal and at-oneness with nature, it is no surprise that all things female are predominant. Reproduction, its necessity, its mechanisms, its intended and unintended consequences, its intended inevitability, runs not like a thread but like a strong, perhaps unbreakable rope that ties everything together. No matter what we do or think or feel, experience tries to lead us all in the same direction, as if the destination were pre-ordained, in spite of our determined meanderings designed to deny it. In Prodigal Summer, a many of the encounters are sexual. If it does not form the main argument, then the need to mate is at least preamble. There is never time to review. Life has a habit of taking us where it wants, ideas of control or self-direction being perhaps illusory.

But in the end these people all realise that they are part of the same natural world that, independently of human-created desires and prescriptions, sets its own pace, follows its own rules, precludes exemption and decides consequence. This Prodigal Summer thus reveals its surprises to all concerned, leaving them changed and transformed, older and wiser. The reader makes the same journey.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Blackberry Wine by Joanne Harris

In Blackberry Wine Joanne Harris presents a novel about Jay, who is a writer. Some years ago Jay created a character in Three Summers With Jackapple Joe, the novel that made his name. But since then, Jay’s products have been mediocre and his career has stalled. We meet him looking at his life, especially his relationship with Kerry, whose own media career seems to go from strength to strength. There is tolerance in the air, but resentment and envy are not far from the surface.

Jay reminisces about Joe, the ex-miner in Yorkshire who became something of a local hero for the young writer. Back in the 1970s, when Jay Mackintosh was an impressionable lad growing up in Yorkshire, Joe seemed so sophisticated, a much travelled man of the world whose collection of exotics from all over the planet facilitated the concoction of strange brews from the fruit of his plants. Blackberry Wine is actually written from the point of view of one of Joe’s bottles of home brew that survived for decades after its initial fizz. The device is interesting at the start and end of the book, but for the most part it is best ignored. It remains a good idea, but does not quite come off.

Chapters describing Jay’s present in London and then France and his past as a child and adolescent in Yorkshire are interleaved. Joe’s magic seemed to work those years ago when talismans cast spells that protected Jay from local bullies. They also seem to work when, disaffected with city life and frustrated by his continued lack of achievement, Jay disappears to a rural French farmhouse. There, lubricated by some of the home brew preserves, Jay finds himself haunted by old Joe and, once again transformed, as if by magic, newly able to write.

Jay finds that there is more than meets the eye in his little French town. The small community is riven by family feud and accusation, alongside general disagreement about how the area should develop in the future. Should it retain its rural roots or appeal to the holiday trade? Perhaps displaying latent Romanticism, Jay finds himself securely on one side of the discussion. He negotiates his way through new relationships, some mixed with a little local politics. Meanwhile his muse, Joe’s old wine and its associated ghost, encourage him to write a new and successful book.

Jay’s neighbour in France is Marise. She has a daughter, Rosa, who apparently is deaf after an illness contracted when an infant. For some unknown reason, Marise is determined to buy the very farmhouse that Jay himself has bought. The competition from over the fence intrigues Jay. He is at a loss to explain how passionately Marise appears to want his property.

Joanne Harris’s characters are thoroughly credible. Their weaknesses are truly human and their reserve makes their shortcomings understandable. But overall Blackberry Wine fails to convince. Not only is the setting in which Jay finds himself too soon accommodated by both himself and the locals, but the book simply has too many themes. Jay’s relations with the locals could have been the single focus of the book, but we also have his childhood, his inspiration, his relationships with two different women, his coming of age. As a result, none of the themes is thoroughly examined. This gives the book a lightness that aids a skimming read, but which simultaneously undermines any real engagement with the character. Some of the book’s themes, indeed, become submerged and apparently forgotten, only to spring up again without warning. The novel remains, however, a rewarding read and an interesting take on what really has the power to motivate people to achieve. There might be an added dimension of autobiography, but that would be another story.