Monday, January 24, 2022

According To Queeney by Beryl Bainbridge

On the surface, According To Queeney by Beryl Bainbridge might appear to be firmly rooted in the genre of historical fiction. Its cover portrays two gentlewomen, perhaps a mother and daughter, of the eighteenth century. Their arms are intertwined hinting at an intimacy their expressions do not convey. The elder, perhaps of the mother, stares into a distance beyond the landscape, beyond the viewer, but her imaginings are surely internal. The younger looks rather quizzically towards the mother, but there is a formality close to an assertion of independence in her demeanour. Her arm, on which her mother’s rests, is offered stiffly, tolerating her other’s presence rather than engaging with it. Surely this is to be a family affair.

We are told not to judge a book by its cover. We should also not be influenced by presumptions of genre. According To Queeney might be an historical fiction, but there is little that is purely historical about this plot. Some of the salient detail is documented elsewhere. Samuel Johnson, after labouring on his dictionary, needed silence and rest to avoid breakdown, both physical and mental. The Thrale family, who resided in Streatham, then a country retreat far from the bustle of the city, lived comfortably by virtue of profits from the family brewery. They had space and the inclination to invite. Johnsen accepted. His sojourn with the family, perhaps the most settled years of his life, is not documented, even by Boswell, though the diarist occasionally walks in and out of this novel, that charts the transformation of Johnson in the household from mere lodger to something more than a companion.

According To Queenie has nothing to do with genre fiction. It fits no mould, occupies no stereotypical niche. The events that unfold while Johnsons relationship with the Thrales develops, especially with Mrs. Thrale, are described by Hester, a daughter of the household, who is better known to all as Queeney. The same character, via letters from decades later, also reflects upon what happened in an illuminating light. According To Queeney is thus a series of probably recalled scenes during Samuel Johnson’s stay with the Thrales, recollections that shed considerable light on the eighteenth century family, social relations and cultures of the era and contemporary concerns, as well as the specifics of Samuel Johnson’s character. We meet other notable names along the way, such as Charles Burney and his scribbling daughter Fanny, Joshua Reynolds of the peeling paint and David (Davy) Garrick who seems to ham his way through life.

Genre fiction this is not. What happens is not important here, only how it happens. Johnson develops an apparently pragmatic relationship with Mrs. Thrale, who tolerates, encourages, enjoys and rejects all at the same time. We are left with the impression that marriage may be for life, but commitment within it is taken as variable. Her overeating husband munches away. Hester, the Queenie, seems determined to compete with her mother, perhaps merely to state her own claim on individuality. Her insights along the way and afterwards are often grounded more in judgment than insight.

But what is most startling about Beryl Bainbridge’s novel, communicated via simple, transparent yet vivid prose, is the proximity the reader is brought to eighteenth century life. By the end of the book, we feel we have been there, rather than have been told about it. Exactly where we have been, let alone let alone why, is as confusing as life itself was, and remains, for its protagonists. Things happen that have no explanation. People do things for complex, often contradictory reasons. Individuals put themselves first. They overeat. They over-indulge. They get ill. They get better. They die. They pee by the roadside. They pontificate. They hurt one another. They use their stools in public. That, it seems, is life, whatever the era and whoever the celebrity. Some, like Queenie, do survive, at least for a while.

Friday, January 21, 2022

The Guermantes Way by Marcel Proust

 

In a turn of uncharacteristic succinctness, Gioachino Rossini, himself the composer of long-winded and often empty vocal gymnastics undertaken because they were possible - or not! - rather than apposite or even aesthetic, uttered a remark, probably between courses, probably apocryphally, somewhere sandwiched between the tournedos Rossini and the baked Alaska, which wasnt called by that name at the time because the Americans, who put the dish and the state on the map, had not yet purchased the real estate, a remark that became an oft-quoted opinion on Richard Wagner, a fellow composer, who was actually writing music at the time, rather than being a professional whipped cream spreader on the back of cigarette packets. “Wagners music,” said the composer, “has its moments. Its the hours in between that are the problem.” No doubt the other guests, also choking by now on the strozzapreti, probably guffawed their recognition of the maestro’s wit. And that was two sentences.

It is a sentiment that is often associated with the so-called task of reading A la recherche de temps perdu of Marcel Proust. He does go on, doesn’t he? Well, yes, a bit like life really, until the end. It’s where we go along the way that forms the point, a point of departure, a point of destination, a point of return and eventually no point at all. And that is the point, at least for one reader of this work.

Marcel Proust lives amongst an elite. He describes them in detail. He brushes shoulders, bellies and other parts on a regular, even daily basis, with members of “society”. It was Margaret Thatcher who claimed there was no such thing as society, only the individuals who constitute it. It is wonderful how something can be defined not to exist in terms of an agglomeration of things that unquestionably do. I digress, and so does Marcel Proust, regularly, but not because digression is an end in itself, rather because digression is all we have. Of course, when one is bored with such society one can always retire to other parts and brush bellies with one of those working women - never ladies! - who have a little time for digression. For them, it's the matter in hand that takes precedence, but usually not in the hand, itself. Times, it seems, have changed. Perhaps…

“Oh, my dear Charles," she went on, "what a bore it can be, dining out. There are evenings when one would sooner die! It is true that dying may be perhaps just as great a bore, because we don't know what it's like." A servant appeared. It was the young lover who used to have trouble with the porter, until the Duchess, in her kindness of heart, brought about an apparent peace between them. "Am I to go up this evening to inquire for M. le Marquis d'Osmond?" he asked. "Most certainly not, nothing before to-morrow morning. In fact I don't want you to remain in the house to-night. The only thing that will happen will be that his footman, who knows you, will come to you with the latest report and send you out after us. Get off, go anywhere you like, have a woman, sleep out, but I don't want to see you here before to-morrow morning." An immense joy overflowed from the footman's face. He would at last be able to spend long hours with his ladylove, whom he had practically ceased to see ever since, after a final scene with the porter, the Duchess had considerately explained to him that it would be better, to avoid further conflicts, if he did not go out at all. He floated, at the thought of having an evening free at last, in a happiness which the Duchess saw and guessed its reason

In The Guermantes Way, Marcel Proust describes these creatures of society, upper crust, titled, even royal, certainly rich if we ignore the debts, propertied, (no doubt proprietarian in Piketty’s terms), conceited, racist, learned yet ignorant, self-obsessed, selfish. They even have the odd good point. I could go on. They do. But at the root, they are pretty ordinary rather than pretty.

But in the other boxes, everywhere almost, the white deities who inhabited those sombre abodes had flown for shelter against their shadowy walls and remained invisible. Gradually, however, as the performance went on, their vaguely human forms detached themselves, one by one, from the shades of night which they patterned, and, raising themselves towards the light, allowed their semi-nude bodies to emerge, and rose, and stopped at the limit of their course, at the luminous, shaded surface on which their brilliant faces appeared behind the gaily breaking foam of the feather fans they unfurled and lightly waved, beneath their hyacinthine locks begemmed with pearls, which the flow of the tide seemed to have caught and drawn with it…

They dress to the nines, but for many of the species adornment makes little difference.

The Marquis de Palancy, his face bent downwards at the end of his long neck, his round bulging eye glued to the glass of his monocle, was moving with a leisurely displacement through the transparent shade and appeared no more to see the public in the stalls than a fish that drifts past, unconscious of the press of curious gazers, behind the glass wall of an aquarium. Now and again he paused, a venerable, wheezing monument, and the audience could not have told whether he was in pain, asleep, swimming, about to spawn, or merely taking breath

This society is certainly snobbish, but it is also deeply racist. But then that was the norm of the time, wasnt it? They were, after all, professedly Christian in an era where, in order to claim this allegiance, it may have been almost expected to be anti-Semitic. But a theme that underpins this society’s ever-competitive camaraderie deals with opposing and divisive views on the Dreyfus affair, the details of which may now be referenced with ease across a democratic internet, noted for its thorough fair-mindedness, disinterest and impartiality.

"In the first place because at heart all these people are anti-Semites," replied Swann, who, all the same, knew very well from experience that certain of them were not, but, like everyone who supports any cause with ardour, preferred, to explain the fact that other people did not share his opinion, to suppose in them a preconceived reason, a prejudice against which there was nothing to be done, rather than reasons which might permit of discussion. Besides, having come to the premature term of his life, like a weary animal that is goaded on, he cried out against these persecutions and was returning to the spiritual fold of his fathers. "Yes, the Prince de Guermantes," I said, "it is true, I've heard that he was anti-semitic." "Oh, that fellow! I wasn't even thinking about him. He carries it to such a point that when he was in the army and had a frightful toothache he preferred to grin and bear it rather than go to the only dentist in the district, who happened to be a Jew, and later on he allowed a wing of his castle which had caught fire to be burned to the ground, because he would have had to send for extinguishers to the place next door, which belongs to the Rothschilds."

Like the contemporary and newly enacted Brexit in the United Kingdom, the Dreyfus affair began in untruths married to conceit and racism, peddled by those with ideological interest in pursuing it, perpetrated by others who found their own identity in an insane bigotry that appealed to inane prejudice, and, unlike Brexit at least thus far, was eventually revealed as utter untruth. What it did do was bring to the fore the ideological cleavages born of racism that cut through this otherwise apparently monolithic society, revealing its inhabitants’ penchant for competition rather than the cooperation their decorum tried to advertise. For all their apparent politeness, for all their overt adherence to manners, these people are vicious cynics capable of waging war to achieve their interests. And that is precisely what they would do.

And the concerns of difference are so small minded that, like Remainers and Brexiteers, these Dreyfusards and their opponents cannot conceive that anything of interest might live outside their own myopic ambit. The universe, it seems, consists of my parlour and the rest.

…at this point in the social year, when people invited the Duchesse de Guermantes to dinner, making every effort to see that she was not already engaged, she declined, for the one reason of which nobody in society would ever have thought; she was just starting on a cruise among the Norwegian fjords, which were so interesting. People in society were stupefied, and, without any thought of following the Duchess's example, derived nevertheless from her action that sense of relief which one has in reading Kant when after the most rigorous demonstration of determinism one finds that above the world of necessity there is the world of freedom. Every invention of which no one has ever thought before excites the interest even of people who can derive no benefit from it. That of steam navigation was a small thing compared with the employment of steam navigation at that sedentary time of year called 'the season.' The idea that anyone could voluntarily renounce a hundred dinners or luncheons, twice as many afternoon teas, three times as many evening parties, the most brilliant Mondays at the Opera and Tuesdays at the Français to visit the Norwegian fjords seemed to the Courvoisiers no more explicable than the idea of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea…

But just how self-obsessed and selfish these people are is indicated by the Guermantes’ reaction to Swann’s revelation that he has just three months to live.

"I don't know why I am telling you this; I have never said a word to you before about my illness. But as you asked me, and as now I may die at any moment. But whatever I do I mustn't make you late; you're dining out, remember," he added, because he knew that for other people their own social obligations took precedence of the death of a friend, and could put himself in her place by dint of his instinctive politeness. But that of the Duchess enabled her also to perceive in a vague way that the dinner to which she was going must count for less to Swann than his own death. And so, while continuing on her way towards the carriage, she let her shoulders droop, saying: "Don't worry about our dinner. It's not of any importance!" But this put the Duke in a bad humour, who exclaimed: "Come, Oriane, don't stop there chattering like that and exchanging your jeremiads with Swann; you know very well that Mme. de Saint-Euverte insists on sitting down to table at eight o'clock sharp. We must know what you propose to do; the horses have been waiting for a good five minutes. I beg your pardon, Charles," he went on, turning to Swann, "but it's ten minutes to eight already. Oriane is always late, and it will take us more than five minutes to get to old Saint-Euverte's."

I mean, Darling, doesn’t the man realise that in society there is a time and place for everything? And this, surely, is neither the time nor the place to talk of dea… of such things! Get a move on! We’ll be late! Our friend’s demise will have to wait until after liqueurs, dessert at least. Bid him goodbye and come along! But then there are things that are just not done, Darling. Such as…

"You know, we can talk about that another time; I don't believe a word you've been saying, but we must discuss it quietly. I expect they gave you a dreadful fright, come to luncheon, whatever day you like" (with Mme. de Guermantes things always resolved themselves into luncheons), "you will let me know your day and time," and, lifting her red skirt, she set her foot on the step. She was just getting into the carriage when, seeing this foot exposed, the Duke cried in a terrifying voice: "Oriane, what have you been thinking of, you wretch? You've kept on your black shoes! With a red dress! Go upstairs quick and put on red shoes, or rather," he said to the footman, "tell the lady's maid at once to bring down a pair of red shoes."

I mean, black shoes with a red dress… What could she be thinking of? Well he was Jewish, after all… Perhaps she should just have kept talking… The need to speak prevents one not merely from listening but from seeing things, and in this case the absence of any description of my external surroundings is tantamount to a description of my internal state… I bet she talked quickly and, at the same time, said very little. Just how little Marcel Proust says in the five hundred pages that constitute The Guermantes Way might just be its point. And, in the grand run of time, we have yet to reach perhaps the crowning absurdity of the century, The Great War, the apparently heroic event of unquestioned and racist imperialism we have all recently been honouring after its centenary. Times change, perhaps also assumptions.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Capital and Ideology by Thomas Piketty

 

Thomas Piketty’s Capital and Ideology is a monumental achievement. Its scope is vast, its size is daunting, its scholarship and vision both quite breath-taking on every one of its 1000-plus pages. Ostensibly, it claims to be an analysis of the origins, politics and economics of inequality, but it goes considerably deeper and further than its brief. This work is nothing less than a snapshot of global economic history and politics taken at the time of writing. Though the historical element might be seen in different forms via the lenses of centuries and assumed perspectives, the book’s analysis of current political issues was always going to be subject to faster change.  I doubt whether Thomas Piketty himself would have predicted that, just a few months after his work’s publication, the global economic and political landscape would be redrawn by a new, microscopic virus. But that is exactly what has happened. And, given the effects on wealth and asset distribution the author attributes to the capital-destroying wars that dictated the history of the twentieth century, one wonders what a post-Covid analysis of the mechanisms that create and maintain inequality might look like. One suspects that the political prescriptions in the book’s last chapter may just, out of sheer necessity, have been rendered more likely.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century charted the origins and extent of inequality in human societies. Capital and Ideology follows on by examining current and historical circumstances and mechanisms that determine its extent and influence its propagation. The book charts comparisons of inequality across countries, continents, cultures and eras. In doing so, its author uses much more than statistical comparisons. Historical and cultural perspectives are offered. Economic analyses are suggested. Crucially, societal structures are analysed, especially those of triumvirate societies, where the ownership of religious, scientific and military power provide the justification and the means of establishing and maintaining skewed ownership of assets. Though the book covers much ground, many different civilizations, locations and eras, the overall analytical focus is never lost.

A criticism of such an achievement may seem petty, but the book could have profitably dealt with one of its weaknesses much earlier. A constantly aired opinion of Thomas Piketty’s work is that, like all socialists, he wants everyone to be the same, to compress all to the same lowest common denominator. This, the criticism continues, would stifle creativity and drive in any society that tried to implement his recommended policies or even tried to address the obvious and growing inequality caused by market capitalism. Readers of Capital and Ideology, however, will have to wait until the book’s last chapter before reading this passage.

“A just society is one that allows all of its members access to the widest possible range of fundamental goods. Fundamental goods include education, health, the right to vote, and more generally to participate as fully as possible in the various forms of social, cultural, economic, civic, and political life. A just society organizes socioeconomic relations, property rights, and the distribution of income and wealth in such a way as to allow its least advantaged members to enjoy the highest possible life conditions. A just society in no way requires absolute uniformity or equality. To the extent that income and wealth inequalities are the result of different aspirations and distinct life choices or permit improvement of the standard of living and expansion of the opportunities available to the disadvantaged, they may be considered just. But this must be demonstrated, not assumed, and this argument cannot be invoked to justify any degree of inequality whatsoever, as it too often is.”

Let’s juxtapose this quote from page 967 of Thomas Piketty’s book with the following: “Above all, we will listen to the people who have felt left behind by the last few decades of economic growth and want to have control of their future. (We) will give the public services the resources they need, supporting our hospitals, our schools and our police. We will help people and families throughout their lives…” This latter passage is quoted verbatim from the webpage of the British Conservative Party, from the manifesto upon which they fought their successful campaign for the 2019 election, an election where an unprecedented number of voters from disadvantaged communities (largely as a result of previous Conservative governments’ priorities) opted to vote for the party in the hope they would honour a promise to “level up” the country. There seems to be electoral kudos in levelling, despite the opinion of right-wing politicians who extol the need for libertarian individualism married to economically deregulated separatism. Thomas Piketty analyses such tendencies and offers a paradigm to explain these shifting political alliances.

Capital and Ideology is the perfect text for anyone needing an update on the world. It has so many succinct and pertinent analyses that even a list of its insights would be a tome in itself. Some examples will suffice.

For instance, if anyone finds it hard to understand why certain elite groups from Western democracies might now be sympathetic towards Putin’s Russia, Thomas Piketty can enlighten.

It is important to note that it is very difficult to measure and analyse income and wealth in postcommunist Russia because the society is so opaque. This is due in large part to decisions taken first by the government headed by Boris Yeltsin and later by Vladimir Putin to permit unprecedented evasion of Russian law through the use of offshore entities and tax havens. In addition, the postcommunist regime abandoned not only any ambition to redistribute property but also any effort to record income or wealth. For example, there is no inheritance tax in postcommunist Russia, so there are no data on the size of inheritances. There is an income tax, but it is strictly proportional, and its rate since 2001 has been just 13 percent, whether the income being taxed is 1000 rubles or 100 billion rubles.”

When this is placed alongside the fact that Europe in general and the European Union in particular is a global outlier in the extent of its greater equality of wealth and income and we can see immediately why the libertarian, individualists of the political right, who for example favour Brexit for the United Kingdom, might also cast an envious glance towards Russia’s largely unregulated treatment of wealth, no matter how it was amassed.

Thomas Piketty offers numerous such insights. He analyses India’s castes, charts the French Revolution, analyses politics in the USA and takes long hard looks at colonialism and empires. And what is more, all of this is accomplished with transparency and fluidity, so that at no stage does a reader feel presented with a mere list. The analysis of current political strands is particularly enlightening.

Piketty rejects the term “populism” as meaningless. He prefers to use “identitarian” to describe the tendency for many voters in democracies to retreat behind promised protectionism and fortified borders to exclude foreigners. In doing so, he sums up both cause and effect in a single idea, a summary that is both more accurate and more enlightening than “populism” in terms of understanding the political direction being followed. But he goes beyond description and offers analysis of motives. He cites, for example, evidence relating to Poland and Hungary, both of whom currently have governments that have displayed tendencies to restrict freedom or roll back liberalism, even to the extent that they are at odds with a European Union they were once eager to join. Many observers are perplexed by this phenomenon, noting that both countries have benefitted hugely from European development aid and inward investment. Piketty’s analysis, however, examines net transfers and finds that for both countries, capital flow has consistently been out of the country and towards Europe’s epicentres of wealth. And electorates are aware of this bloodletting. The only solution, he maintains, is greater political integration, not less.

He analyses politics in the USA, though obviously not in great depth. He does, however, make enlightening points about race to illustrate how the Democrats became transformed from the party of southern slavery to the natural home of the “ethnic” vote. It is a process that happened over a century, from the Civil War, when the Republicans were the champions of opposition to slavery through the New Deal and into the late 1960s, when it was the Democrats who espoused civil rights.

The author spends much of the early part of the book identifying the structure of triumvirate societies, where a peasant majority is ruled by an alliance between warrior and priestly classes who, combined, rarely accounted for more than ten percent of the population. He then shows how this structure developed into proprietarianism, which preserved the right of the ruling classes to own property. This later evolved into capitalism when the owners of property increased the scale of operations and created industrialization. He makes a convincing case in relation to the political control claimed by an alliance of religion and sword that was used to justify and then preserve property ownership of the ruling minority. Piketty offers the following, again late in the book:

“I have defined proprietarianism as a political ideology based on the absolute defense of private property; capitalism as the extension of proprietarianism into the age of large-scale industry, international finance, and more recently to the digital economy. At bottom capitalism rests on the concentration of economic power in the hands of the owners of capital. In principle, the owners of real estate capital can decide to whom they wish to rent and at what price while the owners of financial and professional capital govern corporations according to the principle of “one share one vote”, which entitles them, among other things, to decide by themselves whom to hire and at what wage.”

And then there arose democracy and later war. It was not that wars had been unknown in the pre-modern era, but he suggests that the industrialization of war after the dawn of the modern era rendered it more thoroughly and extensively destructive than it had previously been. Because of its destruction of property and the creation of debt via interruption of economic life, war threatened proprietarian societies in a way they had never before experienced. Democracy also threatened ownership directly unless it could be manipulated, of course, and both of these threats to the classes born to own had to be managed. Ownership had previously coped with war losses, the twice national income debt in Britain after the Napoleonic Wars, for instance, having been turned to the owners’ advantage by the issuing of bonds their capital bought and a century of poor people’s contributions rendered lucrative to their owners via interest and redemptions.

Democracy posed a new type of challenge to the owners of assets, and still does. So, to explain how systems of inequality can be maintained after everyone, at least in theory, has an equal say, Thomas Piketty needs to examine in detail how politics have changed over the last century. He now finds there exist four almost equally popular political ideologies. He writes:

“In 2017, 21 percent of voters could be classified as “egalitarian internationalists” (pro-immigrant, pro-poor); 26 percent are “inegalitarian nativists” (anti-immigrant, pro-rich); 23 percent are “inegalitarian internationalists” (pro-immigrant, pro-rich), and 30 percent are “egalitarian nativists” (anti-immigrant, pro-poor).”

Furthermore, he finds that there is now a tendency for there to develop an alliance between the two factions of nativism, an alliance that does not challenge property rights.

And, crucially, he finds that the social democrat model that made significant inroads into inequality in the middle of the twentieth century has now been transformed into an ideology of a Brahmin-like educated elite, leaving the votes of the losers in the distribution of wealth to be hoovered into an identitarian trap by the owners of an increasing share of property. This, in essence, is not dissimilar in character to the concept of false consciousness that Marxists find they have to apply in order to explain why masses of people regularly vote or act against their own interests. Here, Thomas Piketty offers a rational mechanism and a convincing argument by which false consciousness can be cultivated and exploited, an approach which does not fall into the distasteful trap of branding poorer people merely stupid.

There is so much in Capital and Ideology that it is almost impossible to review. Reading it comes close to a life-changing experience. Please do read it. Do persevere with its length. Take it at a steady pace and read something else, something contrasting, alongside. Readers will immediately and repeatedly find themselves amazed at the scholarship, the revelations and the rationality of the book’s argument. Anyone interested in our own times should regard it as essential reading. The presence of a virus, however, probably demands a companion volume, since the political and economic landscape is now surely transformed, just like war ripped up its design a century ago.

Eventually, Thomas Piketty champions the politics of social democracy as the solution to growing inequality and, eventually, environmental degradation. He cites the example of Sweden, in that:

“it shows that inequality is not the product of some essential cultural predisposition: in the space of a few years Sweden moved from the most extreme hyper-inegalitarian proprietarian system, which survived until 1909-11, to a quintessential egalitarian social-democratic society once SAP came to power in the 1920s and then ruled almost continuously from 1932 to 2006.”

With the right policies and crucially an end to the retreat into identitarian separatism, the author sees a future where, during an individual lifetime, people can be as entrepreneurial and as successful as they like, but where tax systems and inheritance management ensure the recirculation of wealth and capital to ensure it does not become the permanent property of an ever-smaller elite. A still far from perfect Europe is the example, while the libertarian, identitarian deregulators pose the threat.

The Green Road by Ann Enright

 

Ann Enright’s The Green Road, eventually, is a family saga, but its characters cover a large part of the globe before joining forces in the grist of events back home. But this microcosm that is the Madigan birthright becomes by association something much broader, not only a mirror of contemporary Irish society, but also linked to some of the grander issues that characterize our time.

The poem, “This be the verse” by Philip Larkin, comes to mind, not only because of its portrayal of the role the mums and dads play in family life, but also for two other reasons. First, its title alludes to readings in church, to verses that are perhaps Biblical as well as secular. In contemporary Ireland, the role of the Roman Catholic Church, once unquestioned and unquestionably served, once paramount, has diminished. It may not have diminished as a source of guilt and underlying neurosis as much as the general society will admit.  But things have certainly changed. Secondly, Larkins poem bids farewell with the instruction, “And dont have any kids yourself”. Fortunately for the plot of The Green Road, Ann Enright has her matriarch, Rosaleen Madigan, turn a deaf ear to such advice, or perhaps she simply never heard this command. She had four and they shared the family life that was created for them, went their own separate and individual ways, and then returned, long after their father died to share a Christmas together.

We first meet Rosaleen undergoing a hospital procedure, a biopsy on something that has appeared. Her years are advancing, and she feels the need for change. Perhaps she should sell the house… She muses on the past, present and future and hopes to see her children, now dispersed a class across the globe. At one stage, Dan was destined for the priesthood, a life in the missions, ministering human kindness to those in need. He did finish with his girlfriend, but never took the route that would have led to Holy Orders, thus unwittingly leaving the global charitable acts to a sibling, who acted in an official capacity.

What happens to these children is crucial from the for the book’s plot. From their diverse lives and distant places they return to the family home for a Christmas get together. There are now children, Rosaleen’s grandchildren, children of her own children, doubly corrupted, perhaps, in Larkin’s terms. There are partners as well. There is alcohol. There are stalled careers. There are the hopes and aspirations of modern people involved in a modern world which seems to have left Rosaleen behind, now alone in her County Clare house that is filled with memories. Amongst her children, there are drinking problems, failed relationships, and quite a lot of sex. They are a pretty normal lot, if normality applies to anyone in particular.

“And half at one anothers throats” is a final line in one in the particular stanza of Philip Larkin’s “this be the verse”. But when the Madigans meet for their communal festive celebration, it is the other half that shines through, the half that Larkin did not describe. At least on the surface…

Notwithstanding the tension caused by differing economic status, the need to advertise public happiness via possessions, decayed Catholicism and known but not advertised sexual preferences that a generation before would have produced public damnation, the siblings cooperate via festivities and compete via interests as Rosaleen, their enduring mother, pursues the sale of the family house. It is worth quite a bit, especially in the Ireland of today where people might carry around four hundred euros in their wallet as small change. And so, the siblings compete, differ, recognize the paramountcy of their mother’s needs, but cannot escape the pressures of their own lives or the need to find solutions to problems they have dreamt up. And so together, they prepare their Christmas dinner, with most of the work falling on the sibling that always takes the load.

The Green Road of the title refers to a journey that Rosaleen undertakes unannounced, thereby causing panic amongst those left behind. She does not go far, but rediscovers an unmade track with old houses, yes, in ruins, nearby. All this, this mess of family life, must have happened before, to other families in the past, and will be repeated in the future with different actors, in different places, with different scripts. It is what we are and, despite what Philip Larkin might opine, we are all part of the process, for if we werent, there would be no one to write the verse. And we must all be thankful that Anne Enright has the vision and skill to create this moving and surprising tale.

Monday, January 3, 2022

Within A Budding Grove – In Search of Lost Time 2 – Marcel Proust

 

There is a genre in modern fiction called “Coming of age”, designed presumably to appeal to the “Young adult” whose type ought to feature among such a tale´s characters. But, like most genres, authors who regularly tread the potentially formulaic tramlines of readers´ expectations are themselves usually somewhat beyond the age of consent and are therefore transporting themselves via imagination or memory into an experience they may have experienced in their own past, had related to them or simply imagined as an ideal of a type, itself possibly even dysfunctional, since not every ending is happy.

We all fall in love. Even ugly people fall in love, often successfully and rewardingly. Socially perfected beauty often languishes in regretful unhappiness, having made a false or compromised choice. Imagined “young adults” can relive the irony of wrong decisions and false assumptions, but only when directed from a distance of years that have taught by experience. At the time, a whirlwind of experience and emotion, a cake-batter of hard and soft, liquid and solid awaits mixing, let alone baking, and it has generally been licked and gobbled by eager fingers well before it ever approached an oven. It is only after the event that we can reassess how much of each ingredient we actually added and whether, had the mix ever been properly prepared, it might have been eventually tasty.

What is often lacking from tales of “Coming of age” is any truthful assessment of how the first person is externally perceived. Perhaps we all possess enough arrogance to think we can judge others from a position of permanent personal neutrality, from a vantage where we ourselves are exempt from the processes we apply to the rest of humanity. But not so Marcel Proust, whose second volume of  “A la recherche de temps perdu” – “In search of lost time” is essentially a stream of consciousness “coming of age”, a tale of long adolescent summer holidays at the coast in Balbec, of chance encounters along Paris boulevards and of contractual sex to pass the time. This is fiction of its time. A modern reader, to partake of any experience on offer, must be willing to cast off the shackles of contemporary mores, to ignore the imposed correctness of our age and be willing to enter into both the culture and the values of its author, as he flits and flirts from one potential assignation to the next, equally convinced, each time, that this one will be for real, but forever replete with doubt and question as to whether anything might ever come of anything. At least Marcel Proust, from the privilege of his own maturity, is under no illusions of how his own first person may have appeared to those young women, maidens perhaps, whom he pursued.  

In my case, what was physically evident might equally well have been due to nervous spasms, to the first stages of tuberculosis, to asthma, to a toxi-alimentary dyspnoea with renal insufficiency, to chronic bronchitis, or to a complex state into which more than one of these factors entered. Now, nervous spasms required to be treated firmly, and discouraged, tuberculosis with infinite care and with a ‘feeding-up’ process which would have been bad for an arthritic condition such as asthma, and might indeed have been dangerous in a case of toxi-alimentary dyspnoea, this last calling for a strict diet which, in return, would be fatal to a tuberculous patient. But Cottard’s hesitations were brief and his prescriptions imperious. “Purges; violent and drastic purges; milk for some days, nothing but milk. No meat. No alcohol.” My mother murmured that I needed, all the same, to be ‘built up,’ that my nerves were already weak, that drenching me like a horse and restricting my diet would make me worse.

The author is hardly the epitome of physical perfection, but he is nonetheless undeterred in his pursuit of young ladies. It´s not every teenage youth, however, who can always call on the services of a full-time maid for support. And not many of the contemporary variety would admit the need for that support.

Sometimes my mother would stroke my forehead with her hand, saying: "So little boys don't tell Mamma their troubles any more?" And Françoise used to come up to me every day with: "What a face, to be sure! If you could just see yourself! Anyone would think there was a corpse in the house." It is true that, if I had simply had a cold in the head, Françoise would have assumed the same funereal air. These lamentations pertained rather to her 'class' than to the state of my health. I could not at the time discover whether this pessimism was due to sorrow or to satisfaction. I decided provisionally that it was social and professional.

And did it matter what the first person actually looked like, whether health, bodily attributes or even integrity were in adequate supply? There were, after all, copious examples of birth-right being sufficient in itself in order to secure a man´s desired married bliss alongside desirable beauty.

 (This man's wife, incidentally, had married him against everyone's wishes and advice because he was a 'charming creature.' He had, what may be sufficient to constitute a rare and delicate whole, a fair, silky beard, good features, a nasal voice, powerful lungs and a glass eye.)

And I ask you, what in the world can he see in her? He must be a bit of a chump, when all's said and done. She's got feet like boats, whiskers like an American, and her undies are filthy. I can tell you, a little shop girl would be ashamed to be seen in her knickers.

In speaking, Albertine kept her head motionless, her nostrils closed, allowing only the corners of her lips to move. The result of this was a drawling, nasal sound, into the composition of which there entered perhaps a provincial descent, a juvenile affectation of British phlegm, the teaching of a foreign governess and a congestive hypertrophy of the mucus of the nose

An age with different values and assumptions is what we must enter. We may not always feel at home. In fact, given the rarefied upper strata of society that we the readers are expected to inhabit, we may rarely even feel we belong and be constantly aware of a desire to head for the exit. The experience is always challenging, not because it questions our presence, but merely because it takes us to places we feel we ought not to be. But there is complexity in this culture that a casual glance will not reveal. It is only when we engage with this shared experience that we begin to feel that the assumptions of our own age are not in the end very new.

"I've no intention of making fun, I assure you. Well, to continue, she went up to one of these black fellows with 'Good morning, nigger!'… " "Oh, it's too absurd!" "Anyhow, this classification seems to have displeased the black. 'Me nigger,' he shouted (quite furious, don't you know), to Mme. Blatin, 'me nigger; you, old cow!'" "I do think that's so delightful! I adore that story. Do say it's a good one. Can't you see old Blatin standing there, and hearing him: 'Me nigger; you, old cow'?" I expressed an intense desire to go there and see these Cingalese, one of whom had called Mme. Blatin an old cow. They did not interest me in the least

And it is not only the ideological baggage of the age that surrounds us. It is also the physical reality of stuff, stuff we accumulate, stuff we assemble as definition of our personality, as adjunct to personal history. And we are all prisoners of fashion, locked in cupboards of clothes we never wear, perhaps should never have bought, garage shelves of redundant gadgets, now rusting or moulding until we attempt to salve a guilty conscience and cart them off to a charity shop where someone not of our own social or economic class might patronisingly “make use of them”. And it is our age, not that of Marcel Proust, that claims to be “aware” of threats to the planet’s resources. And we assume it is our own age that seeks something deeper, more abstract, more refined, more lasting… Are any of us willing to admit how utterly materialistic we are?

However it may be, always when I think of that drawing-room which Swann (not that the criticism implied on his part any intention to find fault with his wife's taste) found so incongruous - because, while it was still planned and carried out in the style, half conservatory, half studio, which had been that of the rooms in which he had first known Odette, she had, none the less, begun to replace in its medley a quantity of the Chinese ornaments, which she now felt to be rather gimcrack, a trifle dowdy, by a swarm of little chairs and stools and things upholstered in old Louis XIV silks; not to mention the works of art brought by Swann himself from his house on the Quai d'Orléans - it has kept in my memory, on the contrary, that composite, heterogeneous room, a cohesion, a unity, an individual charm never possessed even by the most complete, the least spoiled of such collections that the past has bequeathed to us, or the most modern, alive and stamped with the imprint of a living personality; for we alone can, by our belief that they have an existence of their own, give to certain of the things that we see a soul which they afterwards keep, which they develop in our minds.

Alas, what he was saying, how little, I felt, did it apply to myself, whom all reasoning, however exalted it might be, left cold, who was happy only in moments of pure idleness, when I was comfortable and well; I felt how purely material was everything that I desired in life, and how easily I could dispense with the intellect.

A recurring theme in Proust is reference to art and music. Likening characters to faces in paintings gives physical form to the words that inhabit the page and musical harmonies may give clue to personality.

…in Luini’s fresco, the charming Mage with the arched nose and fair hair, to whom, it appeared, Swann had at one time been thought to bear a striking resemblance.

or in piano-playing, which she did not like to be too finicking, too laboured, having indeed had a special weakness for the discords, the wrong notes of Rubinstein.

…and when the narrator offers an assumption of is age, we realise how particularistic are all assumptions of any age. Personally, I have little time for the idea that scientific knowledge is a mere social construct subject to change. Researched and documented “laws of nature” are always incomplete and always specific to the conditions that apply to their relevance. Gravity was not contradicted by relativity, but the ranges of its applicability were more fully appreciated. If we read pre-relativistic science that might assume gravity’s concept to be universal, we suffer contradictions similar to those we experience when we read a different work written in a time when the workings of mass-attraction were not quantified. How we apply this knowledge, our appreciation of its relevance to our lives, this is perhaps always governed by a combination of fashion and our personal misunderstanding of the concept. In a different age, however, such adherence to social or personal norms might be quite confusing, certainly surprising.

In view of the dampness of the air I had taken rather more caffeine than usual.

But back at the plot, if such a diversion might be admitted to the detail of such a life, this coming-of-age young-adult is really hot on chat-up lines. He is utterly smitten by M. Swann´s daughter, Giberte. He seeks out her company, diverts from his route through Paris just to walk the street she has trod, cranes his neck at the promise of the merest glimpse of her presence. And then, when presented with a drawing-room audience with the heart-racing object of his desire, issues the hottest chat-up line that Hollywood might ever have dreamed up.

“I thought, the other day, that the clock was slow, if anything.”

His affections move on, eventually, his ardour unrequited, his memory perhaps scarred for its entire adulthood. One learns to live with such disappointment, to cope with the imperfection of reality. But memory is permanent, even if the events that created its existence never actually happened. And when they did, the power of memory to transform the future is immense.

…the mother whose son has gone to sea on some perilous voyage of discovery sees him in imagination every moment, long after the fact of his having perished has been established, striding into the room, saved by a miracle and in the best of health. And this strain of waiting, according to the strength of her memory and the resistance of her bodily organs, either helps her on her journey through the years, at the end of which she will be able to endure the knowledge that her son is no more, to forget gradually and to survive his loss, or else it kills her.

And without doubt we are conscious of this process by which the formation of future-determining memory via experience comes about as it actually happens, as it chips away at the as yet unmade block that is our forming self. We can change. We often do. We can take things for granted. We can shift our allegiances. We can ignore certain consequences, whilst being obsessed with others, just like here when our narrator appears to be thoroughly concerned with the effects that affection transfer might have in relation to Giberte, but not even to consider the consequences of his actions upon the lives of those he says he does not love.

for when evening came I was always too wretched to stay in the house and used to go and pour out my sorrows upon the bosoms of women whom I did not love. As for seeking to give any sort of pleasure to Gilberte, I no longer thought of that; to visit her house again now could only have added to my sufferings. Even the sight of Gilberte, which would have been so exquisite a pleasure only yesterday, would no longer have sufficed me. For I should have been miserable all the time that I was not actually with her. That is how a woman, by every fresh torture that she inflicts on us, increases, often quite unconsciously, her power over us and at the same time our demands upon her. With each injury that she does us, she encircles us more and more completely, doubles our chains - but halves the strength of those which hitherto we had thought adequate to bind her in order that we might retain our own peace of mind.

But then, we find him truly conscious of that which surrounds him. Its reality, or perhaps its invented memory, is both vivid and permanent. There is no doubt here that the detail comes via later reflection, since the teenager´s ability to apply musical notation to sensory input was probably developed long after this particular journey, years after music became comfortable under the fingers and some time after reflection revealed the detail of exactly how it worked.

I was surrounded by the soothing activity of all those movements of the train which kept me company, offered to stay and converse with me if I could not sleep, lulled me with their sounds which I wedded - as I had often wedded the chime of the Cambray bells now to one rhythm, now to another (hearing as the whim took me first four level and equivalent semi-quavers, then one semi-quaver furiously dashing against a crotchet); they neutralised the centrifugal force of my insomnia by exercising upon it a contrary pressure which kept me in equilibrium and on which my immobility and presently my drowsiness felt themselves to be borne with the same sense of refreshment that I should have had, had I been resting under the protecting vigilance of powerful forces, on the breast of nature and of life, had I been able for a moment to incarnate myself in a fish that sleeps in the sea, driven unheeding by the currents and the tides, or in an eagle outstretched upon the air, with no support but the storm.

And such is the power of this process of filtration and reinterpretation of experience by memory that when it clearly expresses the views of later years, it appears to be in the mind of the teenager at the heart of the story. It is a context in which we appreciate, via reflection in later solitude, what became of the life, how it came about, how it was formed.

Nine tenths of the men of the Faubourg Saint-Germain appear to the average man of the middle class simply as alcoholic wasters (which, individually, they not infrequently are) whom, therefore, no respectable person would dream of asking to dinner. The middle class fixes its standard, in this respect, too high, for the feelings of these men would never prevent their being received with every mark of esteem in houses which it, the middle class, may never enter.

"After all," I said to myself, "possibly the pleasure that its author has found in writing it is not the infallible test of the literary value of a page; it may be only an accessory, one that is often to be found superadded to that value, but the want of which can have no prejudicial effect on it. Perhaps some of the greatest masterpieces were written yawning."

Pleasure in this respect is like photography. What we take, in the presence of the beloved object, is merely a negative film; we develop it later, when we are at home, and have once again found at our disposal that inner darkroom, the entrance to which is barred to us so long as we are with other people.

That our words are, as a general rule, filled, by the person to whom we address them, with a meaning which that person derives from her own substance, a meaning widely different from that which we had put into the same words when we uttered them, is a fact which the daily round of life is perpetually demonstrating. But if we find ourselves as well in the company of a person whose education (as Albertine's was to me) is inconceivable, her tastes, her reading, her principles unknown, we cannot tell whether our words have aroused in her anything that resembles their meaning, any more than in an animal, although there are things that even an animal may be made to understand.

And so we are condemned to live the only life we have, largely unaware of how it is perceived by others, eternally ignorant except by speculation of what it might have meant to ourselves. We do not choose our self. Neither do we choose our place or time of birth, though for some the details of death are an option. Transporting ourselves into another mind, in another place, inhabiting a different time reminds us of the minimal control we have over our destiny, of the very events that might befall even the most ordered existence. But certainly what does happen forms experience which we can either ignore, hoping the next is what we always wanted, or we can store it in a file of memory, so that later in life we can revisit that place and perhaps reinvent it, thus transforming our existence into the life we thought we deserved. Only then, perhaps, has that young adult truly come of age.

Interpretations of Twenty Modern Composers by Paul Rosenfeld

 

Tastes change. Fashions change. Presumptions, through whose refracting prisms each new age interprets its aesthetics, also change, but usually unpredictably because we absorb the restrictions without being conscious of their control. Its probably called culture, and perhaps we are all imprisoned by its inherently commercial pressure. And we only rarely perceive change in our ability to respond to stimuli, often surprisingly perceived when we remove our experience into a different culture, a different aesthetic and possibly another time. This is precisely why exploration of criticism from the past can be so rewarding and, in a way that the writing would never have achieved in its contemporary setting, challenging. It was this kind of experience that flowed from every page of Paul Rosenfeld’s Musical Portraits.

These “Interpretations of Twenty Modern Composers” were published in 1920, having previously appeared as occasional pieces elsewhere. A hundred years on, of course, the first challenge is the meaning of the word “modern” in its title, especially when the presented list of composers starts with Wagner and finishes with Bloch. Personally, I have nothing against classifying Bloch as “modern” in the 1920s, but the inclusion of Wagner is surely pushing the definition, since he had already been dead for over 35 years.

Reading Rosenfeld’s text, however, one quickly understands Wagners inclusion. For the writer, Wagners work created the cusp between the feudal and modern worlds. His stature and influence was still so great, his achievements still considered so monumental, that this work of critical appraisal just had to begin with his name. Rosenfeld sees his music dramas as manifestations of a new industrial age, reflecting the unprecedented might of the new coal-powered civilization.

Strauss, Richard, of course, comes next. Pure genius, he is judged, at least on the evidence of his early symphonic poems, which approached a realization of the Nietzschean dream via colours that suggested impressionist painting. By the time we reach Salome, however, he had become “a bad composer”, “once so electric, so vital, so brilliant a figure” had transformed into someone “dreary and outward and stupid”. Rosenkavalier is judged “singularly hollow and flat and dun, joyless and soggy”. One must recall that this was 1920 and that Richard Strauss still had over 20 years of creative life remaining.

Mussorgsky’s “marvelous originality” was an expression of the true nature of Russian folklore, culture and peasant life. Liszt, on the other hand, was offering work like “satin robes covering foul, unsightly rags”, “designed by the pompous and classicizing Palladio, but executed in stucco and other cheap materials”. The impression was vivid, but the substance close to zero.

Berlioz, on the other hand, had grown in stature. His music was judged barbarous and radical and revolutionary, “beside which so much modern music dwindles”. He was the first to write directly for the orchestra as an instrument.

Cesar Franck suffers the ignominy of having a good part of his section devoted discussions of Saint-Saens. He can be gratified, however, that the author judges his work greater than that of this more famous composer, who seemed to seek only an increase in opus numbers. Franck’s own music  is seen as an expression of the silent majority, those who feel “forsaken and alone and powerless”, the army of society’s workers. The basis for this is that Franck had himself to work for a living.

Claude Debussy, by contrast, already seems to Rosenfeld to have achieved the status of a god, so elevated by aesthetic and achievement from the rest of humanity that it could hardly be considered he had ever composed a bad note. The piano of this most perfect living musician, becomes “satins and liqueurs”, his orchestra sparkling “with iridescent fires ... delicate violets and argents and shades of rose”.

Ravel is something of a problem child, certainly impressive, but whose judgment is not quite trusted, no matter how engaging it might sound. “Permitted to remain, in all his manhood, the child that we all were”, he seems to receive a pat on the head to encourage him to try harder.

Borodin, a true proud nationalist, suffered from “flawed originality”. But his music, like an uncovered, uncut piece of porphyry or malachite is perfect in its natural, unpolished state. Rimsky-Korsakov, on the other hand, is merely decorative and graceful, but also vapid, whilst Rachmaninoff offered product that was “too smooth and soft and elegantly elegiac, simply too dull”. It was the music of the pseudo-French culture of the Saint Petersburg upper crust.

Scriabine, however, “awakened in the piano all of its latent animality”. He wrote music that “hovered on the borderland between ecstasy and suffering”, probably bitter-sweet to the layman. But Strawinsky was the ultimate realist. A product of industrialization, he produced “great weighty metallic masses, molten piles and sheets of steel and iron, shining adamantine bulks”. So real were the impressions in his music that one might even smell the sausages grilling at Petrushka’s fair.

Four contemporary “German” composers are thoroughly dismissed, Strauss being bankrupt, Reger grotesquely pedantic, Schoenberg intellectually tainted and Mahler banal, despite the fact that only two of the four were actually German. Specifically, Mahler’s scores were “lamentably weak, often arid and banal”. It seems that much of Rosenfeld’s criticism arises out of an inquisitorial distrust of Mahler’s sincerity in converting from Judaism. The music of Reger, the author judges, is unlikely to suffer a revival and the composer himself is described as being like a “swollen, myopic beetle, with thick lips and sullen expression, crouching on an organ bench”. Let us say no more. Schoenberg is a troubling presence, formalistic and intellectual. He smells of the laboratory and exists in an obedience to some abstract scholastic demand. We are still discussing music, by the way.

Sibelius personifies nationalism, Finnish nationalism, of course. As it emerges from its domination under the Russian yoke, Finnish identity suddenly realizes it has a beautiful landscapes, meadows and forests.

Loeffler, surprisingly, gets a full entry. Perhaps it has something to do with his opting to live in the United States. Ornstein will be a name that is perhaps unfamiliar to 21st-century music lovers. At the time he was a brilliant 25-year-old pianist who was embarking on the composition of tough, rugged scores. And finally Bloch is praised for introducing non-European and oriental influences into western music. He is praised for retaining his Jewish identity and culture, which suggests that Mahler might have got off with lighter criticism had he not rejected the faith and thus have allowed they author to note the similarity of that composer’s clarinet writing to klezmer.

Opinion in the words of Paul Rosenfeld often presents a florid display, mixing prejudice and observation, and pre-judgment with insight. He describes his appreciation of these twenty composers through the distorting lens of his own aesthetic, derived from the assumptions of his age. Reading this short, concentrated work, we soon appreciate that we are doing the same. Only the language and the presumptions are changed.