Farewell, January, I hardly knew you.
The month was proceeding really well. I was catching up with work, had a ridiculously fabulous research day trip to Paris with my supervisor to see L’Invention du Sauvage, which was richly rewarding in terms of thoughts and ideas (not to mention possessing the world’s most enormous exhibition catalogue). And then, a few days later, the virus which had been wandering quietly around in the background for a week or so apparently decided ‘enough’. To judge from my work diary, that was round about January 13th, Friday 13th, after which it degenerated into an interconnected series of naps and bouts of coughing. Be grateful this is not a podcast otherwise you would be able to appreciate the resonant maturity of that cough, eighteen days later. Or, as I keep saying, I feel so much better than I did, cough, hack, no, really. And it’s true. I began to perk up last weekend and started writing again, which was a relief, and since then have been catching up on various writerly tasks.
So, here we are at the end of the month, damn all done and a twelfth of the year gone already. Still, better late than never, it’s time to get back to blogging before the cobwebs get any larger and the tumbleweeds start eating the cats. One of my plans for 2012 is to make more of an effort to list books read, films seen, and so on, as much for my own information as for your pleasure. It may not reveal anything startling, but there may be patterns to be discerned. We shall see.
The Children’s Book – A.S. Byatt (review below)
Ben Jonson: A Life – Ian Donaldson (detailed biography of a fascinating character)
The Last Pre-Raphaelite – Fiona McCarthy (big biography of Edward Burne-Jones, rich in information, stylistically dull)
Pyg: The Memoirs of a Learned Pig> – Russell Potter (amusing if slightly laboured account of the travails of a genuinely learned pig)
Desdaemona – Ben Macallan (reviewed for The Zone here: I liked it)
Kultus – Richard Ford (reviewed for The Zone here: I didn’t like it)
Giant Thief – David Tallerman (review forthcoming in Interzone: not overly impressed)
Pandemonium – ed. Anne C Perry, Jared Shurin (review forthcoming in Vector: good in parts, adored the Sophia McDougall story)
Remainder – Tom McCarthy (Very much enjoyed C; this has certain similarities and preoccupations. Still mulling over it but was fascinated by the concepts.)
Glorious Nemesis – Ladislav Klima (review to come).
The Children’s Book – A.S. Byatt
The first novel read in 2012, and I could have wished for something more … novelistic, I suppose, rather than huge lumps of undigested research barely submerged in a thin soup of narrative. It’s been lauded to the skies, was nominated for the 2009 Man Booker, and won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize yet I remain utterly baffled by its success. What Alex Clark praises in this review in the Guardian in 2009 I can see in the novel I read, but Clark’s review suggests it is all much more highly developed and ‘finished’ than I found it to be. One begins to wonder whether the glamour of Byatt’s name has exerted an ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ effect on the novel’s readers.
The novel centres on the Wellwood family: the Kentish Wellwoods are presided over by Humphrey, who works at the Bank of England, and his wife, Olive, who writes stories for children. They have a large family (and it is fair to say that a number of the younger members of the family become disturbingly interchangeable: Tom and Dorothy are of most immediate interest to the reader). Olive’s sister, Violet, keeps house for the family, and is fond of noting that she is in effect the children’s real mother.
The Kentish Wellwoods seem to be living in some sort of fairy tale, a very carefully calculated fairy tale, as Olive works particularly hard to maintain an atmosphere of magic in the household, with annual parties, dressing up, performances and other events. She has a talent for creating an atmosphere around her, but as one sharp-eyed character notes, only within her immediate vicinity. Move out of the aura, and things are not quite as wonderful as they seem Anyone familiar with the life of Edith Nesbit might, by this time, be wondering whether this is based on Nesbit’s life, and one would have to say that there are a lot of similarities, strengthened by the fact that the family spends a certain amount of its time out on Romney Marsh, where Nesbit herself finally went to live.
The London Wellwoods, headed by Basil and his German wife, Katharina, are rather more buttoned up, or at any rate, Basil is. He is something in the city, Katharina keeps house, and the children, Griselda and Charles look with envy to their Kentish cousins. To them must be added the families of Prosper Cain, an important official at the newly established Victoria and Albert Museum, a widower with two children, Florence and Julian, and Benedict Fludd, a master potter, who with his wife, Seraphita, and their three children, Imogen, Pomona and Geraint, lives far out on Romney Marsh, barely making a living as he struggles with his considerable personal demons (and here we should consider Eric Gill, though the time frame and indeed the artistic medium are different).
Into this elaborate set-up of relationship and acquaintance comes Philip Warren, whom Tom and Julian find hiding in the cellars of the museum. He has run away to London, desperate to make some sort of life for himself in art, and is fortunate to find himself taken up by the Wellwood and Cain families, and despatched to the Fludds to become Benedict’s apprentice. One might suppose that Philip will become the outside observer who unravels the families’ various secrets but once despatched to Romney Marsh he is hardly in a position carry out that function and the reader is instead left to the mercy of an omnipotent narrative voice which informs us about the families’ movements and dispenses lectures about elements of the Arts and Crafts movement, the Fabian Society, suffragism, and so on, at the drop of a hat. On occasion the narrative focuses in sharply, and briefly, on a particular incident in the life of one family then pulls out again and moves on elsewhere, hunting for interesting scraps.
Perhaps the most consistent story is that of Tom, Olive’s eldest son, a rather fey individual who cannot settle to any idea of life away from the family house and indeed away from his mother. One of Byatt’s great interests, apparently, lies in the things that happen to the children of famous writers – she singled out the son of Kenneth Grahame (who committed suicide eventually by lying on the railway line at Oxford), A.A. Milne’s son, Christopher Robin; Kipling’s son, John, and the Llewellyn boys, whose adoptive father was J.M. Barrie. Olive’s habit, throughout the novel, is to write individual stories for her children – they each have a book of their own – in which she works out ideas and thoughts. Tom’s story is by far the best developed, and it is not difficult to see that they are overly emotionally invested in one another, causing all sorts of problems for both of them.
However, and for me this is one of the significant problems with the novel, we are told and shown this but there is surprisingly little self-reflective examination of the situation by the characters. This novel sits unashamedly in a pre-Modernist world where such questions are simply not considered, which is a pity as what is mainly interesting about most of these characters is their psychology, something several of them seem to dimly perceive.
Whether Byatt was more interested in writing a panoramic novel about late nineteenth/early twentieth-century artistic circles, I don’t know, but one has a sense that she isn’t really that interested in most of her characters. They are very much like the puppets who dominate the action at various points in the novel. On the other hand, I don’t feel Byatt is actually that comfortable with producing a novel of this scale. I am also frustrated by the fact that I know enough about the Arts and Crafts movement, about suffragism and political movements of the early twentieth century to suspect that many of her fictional characters have their roots in reality but not quite enough to work out who all the rest of them are. On more than one occasion the people I suspect to be models for them actually appear in their own right and one ends up wondering what kind of game Byatt is playing. At its worst, one ends up suspecting a significant chunk of the novel was constructed in order to allow her to use a particular Lalique dragonfly brooch on the novel’s cover.
This is not to say that there are not some interesting ideas about the nature of the creative impulse and its effect on people but that is one of several thinner novels fighting to get out of this bloated monster.
Addendum 31/1/2012: I wrote this review at the beginning of the year, since when it has slumbered gently on my hard disk. Looking through it again today, I realised that I didn’t comment on the coldness of her voice in this novel. So detached, so dispassionate, as though she were writing a history. Which, I suppose, in effect, is what parts of this novel are.
Bonus link to some great pictures of the Exposition Universelle of 1900, held in Paris. One portion of the novel is set there. It’s worth clicking the link leading to the Brooklyn Museum photo sets for more photos. And just to close the circle, this is of course the section of Paris I was wandering around in at the beginning of January!
Puss in Boots
Very agreeable (cat) fluff, with an absolutely minimal storyline but lovely set-pieces, particularly the dance-fight between Puss and Kitty Softpaws and the various rooftop chases. It’s an odd thing but in the sequences in the Litter Box bar, none of the other cats seem to be as realistically drawn (give or take the walking on back legs, the wearing of swords, boots, etc.) as Puss or Kitty, the two talking felines. Narnian hierarchies seem to be in play again.
My first experience of 3D film-viewing; technically not that pleasant though I can’t tell whether that was the film or the fact that I had to watch without my own glasses under the 3D viewing specs. I wear glasses in part because I have no depth perception and I have no idea how that works with 3D film.
The film itself was very odd, rather disjointed plotwise, a love-letter to the early days of film-making all mixed up with the story of Hugo, a young boy struggling to make his way in the world, living in the walls of the railway station. But rather than listen to me wibbling on, read this excellent discussion of the film by Jonathan McCalmont.
John Martin – Apocalypse (Tate Britain)
The exhibition is sadly now over but it was a delicious collection of OTT paintings, the people huddled around the edges of the pictures as disaster overwhelms the landscape. Looking forward to working my way through the exhibition catalogue
L’Invention du Sauvage (Musée du Quai Branly)
Or, as the English exhibition catalogue has it, Human Zoos: The Invention of the Savage.
Huge exhibitionat the Quai Branly about the ways in which humans have been put on public display.