Lately, I’ve found a rather curious shift in my reading habits, from the alternative and progressive to the steadfast and traditional. It’s probably not enough of a change to justify the rather sensational headline, but it’s nevertheless somewhat surprising to me.
Typically, if I’m drawn to “classics” (of the English lit class variety, I mean, not necessarily Classic in the Greco-Roman sense) it’s to those books that had to wait a little longer than most for an audience that, when it arrived, never arrived in the numbers deserved, and looked like the sort of people you’d cross the road to avoid anyway. From contemporary authors, I tend in the direction of the Geoff Dyers and Lydia Davises rather than the Haruki Murakamis and the George Saunderses. And, if those distinctions seem slight (certainly Murakami would seem peculiar enough for most) allow me to posit the more extreme contrast of the 3:AM Magazine alumni of Blake Butler, Adelle Stripe and Ben Myers against the more salable literary mainstays of Michael Chabon, Jonathan Franzen and Yann Martel – the former I read with tempered pleasure whilst the latter, for all their talent, leave me cold in their established bourgeois temperament.
This is the Will Self vs Hilary Mantel debate the Booker judges had to wrestle with writ small, though it goes back much further than that. In recent criticism, it most eloquently crystallized (can it really be?) five years ago in Zadie Smith’s excellent essay on the contrasting virtues of the experimental Tom McCarthy and the lyrical realist Joseph O’Neill. Two paths for the novel, indeed, and two paths for one’s taste.
Ironically, these tastes blend more frequently than those of us of a more decadent persuasion would care to admit. The trajectory of the writing of Smith, who argues in the above essay for the newness of McCarthy over the “19th century” features that typify O’Neill, is that of a bourgeois stylist increasingly seeking the authenticity of the experimental crowd. Self, more so, is a public school boy and Oxbridge graduate who mired himself in drugs and De Sade to appear more “real”; one of the many reasons he’s mocked by the likes of genuinely “out there” novelists such as Stewart Home. And McCarthy, himself one of the underground writers first championed by aforementioned bequeather of indie respectability 3:AM Magazine, has risen above his classmates to the very event horizon of middle class recognition.
McCarthy is, of course, himself middle class. Which, of course, makes a nonsense of class distinctions being in any way a judge of literary genuineness (though, if we on the left were being honest with ourselves, we’d see that Marx was – on this, at least – wrong, and that almost any culture of any lasting value produced in the last two centuries has been born from the middle). Nor is drug use any reliable indicator that what we have on our hands is any more real than anything else; surprisingly few people want to hear that Jack Kerouac was a conservative who latterly hung out with William F. Buckley more than William S. Burroughs. For that matter, even Burroughs appeared in Nike commercials and patronised the Murdoch presses.
Perhaps it’s for this reason that I’m not so ashamed to have lately (and probably temporarily) traded my Georg Trakl for my Kipling or my Jean Ray for my Joseph Conrad. I found myself unusually sympathetic to Kipling especially whilst reading the comments beneath a Guardian article reporting the discovery of fifty to date unseen poems by the man. Though it’s ludicrous to try to remove the imperialist pandering from the poetry, it’s likewise ridiculous to thus decry Kipling as some squalid little jester at the Raj court. Both are hermeneutically undesirable because it is occasionally exactly that meditating over empire that gives Kipling his poetic power. Grown men of any political persuasion would find it difficult to recite Recessional, say, in its entirety – it has a tendency to stick in the mouth and throat as the human fails before the genius. I know of no more brutal stanza in English than this:
If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe—
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the Law—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!
Here we almost have Kipling in a nutshell. “Lower breeds” won’t vacate conscience’s craw. But it’s exactly that phrase that is why I say Kipling is meditative: “lower breeds” does not refer to the subaltern, but to the colonial hegemony of other, and at the time more cruel, European powers such as the German and Belgian varieties. Which is not at all to excuse the wording, but my contention is that it doesn’t require excusing any more than Achilles’ subjugation of Briseis does. A postcolonial or feminist analysis of a pre-postcolonial or pre-feminist work can bear worthy fruit and tell us much about literature’s role in society and vice versa, but it does not strike at the aesthetic heart where Kipling reigns supreme.
Lest we forget – lest we forget! That Kipling’s metre sings of power and blood and steel without ever seeming protofascist in the manner of a Bismarck speech is one of literature’s greatest feats. It’s precisely this poetic dynamism that makes the depiction of Kipling as a warm and friendly writer of children’s parables a more curious and damaging one than that of him as a contemptible witness for the Occidental prosecution. If I had my way, the Just So stories would be consigned to the pits of history and the Jungle Book remembered only for the jazzy Disney songs.
I’d like to write more, but I’m sometimes contrary of this blog seeming more a poetry one than a literature one. So we turn to the prose of Conrad, whose Nostromo currently holds my attention in a vice.
Conrad’s position within imperial history is a more ambivalent one than Kipling: his most famous work, Heart of Darkness, is perhaps the primer text for postcolonial studies, but on the other hand he also penned works with titles like The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’. Nigger is, by the by, an astonishing piece of writing and so transitional and important in the context of Conrad’s oeuvre. Since I have Nostromo to hand, however, I will use that to prove the point that being politically and aesthetically just are very far apart.
The impious adventurers gave no other sign. The sailors, the Indian, and the stolen burro were never seen again. As to the mozo, a Sulaco man – his wife paid for some Masses, and the poor four-footed beast, being without sin, had been probably permitted to die; but the two gringos, spectral and alive, are believed to be dwelling to this day amongst the rocks, under the fatal spell of their success. Their souls cannot tear themselves away from their bodies mounting guard over the discovered treasure. They are now rich and hungry and thirsty – a strange theory of tenacious gringo ghosts suffering in their starved and parched flesh of defiant heretics, where a Christian would have repented and been released.
Conrad, like Nabokov, came to the English language from without. Though this seems on the face of it a disadvantage, it is my suspicion that these men turned it on its head. Whereas a native speaker learns the tongue by virtue of a child’s mind picking up repeated sounds, Conrad learns English first as one might listen to music, a smart adult mind learning the rhythms. The sentence construction here is magnificent for this. Note how the letter “m” forms the baseline for “As to the mozo, a Sulaco man – his wife paid for some Masses.” Or, for that matter, the brilliant symmetry in the rest of that sentence, how “poor” rhymes with “four” but “four” goes so alliteratively well with “footed” that it’s difficult to imagine a different phrasing. In the sentence we also have “man” and “wife”, and a constant interplay between life (“alive”) and money (“paid”, “success” as well as the general context of purloined goods) and religion (“Masses”, “sin”, “spell”) and death (“die”, “spectral”, “fatal”), between humans (“man”, “wife”, “gringos“,) and nature (“beast”, “rocks”). Excavate it enough and Conrad contains multitudes of a cosmic manner.
Conrad is too conscious of his rhythm to write anything like “they’re rich, but hungry and thirsty too.” No; it’s “They are now rich and hungry and thirsty”. And beyond the beckoning of the alliterative “gringo ghosts” (another juxtaposition of life and death) we find that a Christian “would have renounced and been released.” You might need to read that aloud to yourself to find why nothing else will fit: “would have renounced and been released.” In fact, if we put the two “r”s aside for a second and focus more on the ends of words, we discover the repetition of renounced’s “ced” in released’s “sed”.
Were all of these choices made consciously? Probably no more so than my periodic attractions to them. They’re there, nevertheless. And the truth of it is that the 19th century Conrad, for all he might seem on the surface fusty compared to some counter-culture icon like Bukowski or a cutting edge Oulipo artist like Harry Mathews, was admired and held as an influence by the modernists, the biggest piece of literary experimentation of the century following. Precisely why we must not let our personal or political temperaments always dictate or drive our reading habits, or why we must sometimes remove the ethics from our aesthetics in order to hone them better.