Dr. Peter Lowe

Professional bookworm, supporter of blue and white sports teams, lecturer in 20th century literature

Meeting Mr Eliot

In recent years T. S. Eliot enthusiasts have been recipients of a host of materials that many, perhaps, doubted they would ever get to see. Having made do for years with a solitary edition of his letters (published in 1988) that ended with the appearance of The Waste Land in 1922, and with a body of poetry and prose reprinted largely in the form that Eliot himself approved it in the early 1960s, the reader and student of arguably the poet of the Twentieth Century now finds themselves with a complete annotated 2-volume set of his poetry, the first volume of Robert Crawford’s biography, a still-unfolding multi-volume Complete Prose and, incredibly, an edition of his Letters that sets new standards for its scope and completeness. Now seven volumes in, each of which comes in at close on a thousand pages, we are up to 1934-35. Professor John Haffenden (who has overseen the project since Volume 3) deserves praise and thanks from all Eliot readers for taking on so complex a job and discharging his duties with such editorial care.

On the cover of the new volume Eliot is captured in a still from 16mm home movie footage outside Canterbury Cathedral, squinting a little, perhaps, in the June sunlight as his play Murder in the Cathedral is prepared for its initial performances in the Chapter House. In terms of Eliot’s writing this volume is dominated by his forays into drama: the verse-pageant The Rock, performed to raise funds for church-building in London and, emerging out of that, a play about Thomas Becket that goes by the title of ‘The Archbishop Murder Case’ or ‘Fear in the Way’ until it finally acquires that by which it is known today. There is little in the way of poetry, although the volume ends, tantalisingly, with a letter from New Year’s Eve 1935 to Donald Brace in which Eliot refers to a poem he hopes to finish ‘within the next fortnight’ – a work which will become ‘Burnt Norton’ and, in time, the first of the great Four Quartets sequence. Although he expresses his doubts as to the subject, Eliot’s poetry isn’t finished after all.

The fact that each new volume of Eliot’s correspondence covers only two years of his life is a reflection, in part, of how much business that life contained. Editorial duties at Faber and Faber and on the Criterion take up time and space, although the letters produced by such duties allow us to see Eliot promoting and encouraging the work of Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender, W. H. Auden, Marianne Moore and others, along with an ongoing correspondence with Ezra Pound, conducted in a idiolect known to both parties but designed to frustrate the reader almost as much as a reading of Pound’s Cantos would do.

Two external factors, however, make this volume significant. The first is in Eliot’s personal life, and his decision – on returning from his 1932-3 teaching year at Harvard – to formally separate from his wife Vivienne. Eliot biographers have wrestled with this for years, trying to see the separation as one not only rooted in Eliot’s despair at his marriage but also a spiritual conviction that only so drastic an action could save both parties. Vivienne’s unstable mental state, with its bouts of psychosomatic ill-health undoubtedly placed an enormous strain on the couple, especially when Eliot’s own fragile mental equilibrium is considered as well, but the asceticism of his ‘renunciation’ puts his still relatively new Christian faith to the test and is arguably something that he was never wholly able to explain to himself. When in ‘Little Gidding’ (1942) the speaker is warned of “the things ill done and done to others’ harm / Which once you took for exercise of virtue” it’s hard not to see the roots of that crisis in the behaviour of a man who lodges with a priest so as to avoid returning to his marital home and conducts all dealings with his wife through a solicitor as he files writs to have his personal effects and books recovered. When Vivienne attempts to track her errant husband down to the Faber offices in Russell Square Eliot’s secretaries keep her occupied with excuses while Tom exits by a rear door to avoid seeing her. Unstable as she may have been, Vivienne could hardly have been treated thus and not suffered even greater anguish. Towards the end of the volume we learn that she has attended a public lecture given by her husband on 18th November 1935 and ‘met’ him afterwards – an event that Eliot scholars will recall as the occasion when Tom is said to have said “how do you do?” to his wife, signed the books she was holding and with a final comment about being unable to talk with her at that moment made his exit, never to see her again.

This volume of letters is strengthened considerably by the inclusion of letters written by Vivienne at this time, giving the reader a sense of how Eliot’s wife was struggling to come to terms with his departure and of the immense mental strain that she was herself under as her husband embarked upon the path to what the Eliot biographer Lyndall Gordon called his ‘new life’. Vivienne writes repeatedly to remind Tom that the door to his ‘home’ remains open and unlocked, and that she considers herself still ‘Mrs Eliot’, a woman beset by legal worries and visits from bailiffs employed to recover Eliot’s possessions from their flat. In some letters she expresses her concern that Eliot may have been kidnapped, or to be held in some durance that prevents his return. Eliot scholars have long rationalised the separation in terms of the crisis between Tom’s spirituality and Vivienne’s mental illness, but having Vivienne’s voice included reminds us of the human cost on both sides of this unhappy equation. It is greatly to the credit of the editors that ‘the wife’ should get her voice heard here, and although it doesn’t lessen the prevailing sense of tragedy in the Eliot’s marriage it certainly lays to rest the simplistic idea of Vivienne’s mental collapse as entirely unrelated to her husband’s path of spiritual austerity.

We also know that Vivienne attended that November 1935 lecture in her British Union of Fascists uniform and that, sadly, is the other growing concern that this volume contains. Letters to Ezra Pound warn against ‘involving’ himself with “that Mosley”, whose Blackshirts were themselves to appear in The Rock amongst the worldly critics over whom the Church prevails. The publication of Pound’s Jefferson / Mussolini further raises issues, as the Italian-based poet travels further along the road that would ultimately lead to the Pisan Cantos, a prison cell, and a charge of treason. In this volume then we have the close friend flirting with Fascist ideology and the lonely, isolated wife who finds in political extremism the sense of belonging she lost when her husband walked out on her. One feels on finishing this collection that the Eliot squinting into the June sunlight on the book’s cover is as conscious of the darkness as he is of the light, both in the world around him and in the lives of those whose lives intersect with his own.

The Letters of T. S. Eliot Volume 7: 1934-1935 (ed. John Haffenden) is published by Faber and Faber, priced £50.

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Goodbye to All That?

A few years ago I wrote an academic book on the idea of ‘Englishness’ in the 1930s and 1940s. Taking the title of J. B. Priestley’s wonderful 1934 work English Journey as my starting point, I added an ‘s’ to highlight the fact that I was concerned with the plurality of journeys made in and around England in the inter-war years, and the ways in which this heightened sense of national self-awareness created a store of patriotism that was usefully tapped in the struggle of World War Two. English Journeys was the result.

Researching and writing the book was an immensely enjoyable experience, bringing me into contact with a host of travel guides from the period, and giving me an opportunity to read in depth the work of authors – Betjeman, Priestley, Orwell – that had long been favourites. It was also a fascinating reminder that while the British public were being urged to jump into their cars and motor off in search of unspoilt village idylls they were also being urged to support campaigns for preservation and reform. As Priestley suggested, there were multiple ‘Englands’ to visit at this time: historic and ‘quaint’; (post)industrial and impoverished; ‘modern’ and soulless. Not every journey was a happy one, and the fault-lines of the 1930s opened wide in many travelogues. For every voice that hymned the ‘unchanging’ elements of British life in this period there was another calling for constructive change. This gave my book its overarching theme: that the wartime slogan ‘Your Britain: Fight For It Now’ was not merely a call to preserve the nation’s unspoilt beauty, but also a rallying cry that would run through to the Labour government’s election in 1945 and underpin the welfare state that was set up to address the poverty, disease, and ignorance that had blighted much of the pre-War country.

I need very little encouragement to collect books, and this project was an excellent opportunity to fill the shelves with all manner of 1930s travel literature, from the ‘King’s England’ series of Arthur Mee to the ‘English Heritage’ and ‘The Face of Britain’ books produced by the firm of B. T. Batsford. These are particularly collectible, on account of their wonderfully Art Deco-style dust jackets, with artwork supplied by Brian Cook. Although the content was not always so reassuring, these books conveyed the sense of England (which is, in much of this literature, a synecdoche for ‘Britain’ – problematic as that may often be) as an unchanging entity of country villages, old churches, castles, and pubs with thatched roofs. Second-hand bookshops were scoured at length as my collection of these grew – justified (in as much as one ever needs to ‘justify’ buying books) by their relevance to the work in progress.

Last week I sorted through this collection carefully, took out the volumes that I wished to keep and sold the rest on at a local antiquarian bookseller. I did this because I needed the shelf space (literally) but also because I’ve come to feel that the nostalgia that I explored in my research is part of the problem of where the UK has gone wrong, a naive sense of an idyllic past which resulted in the awful own-goal of last June’s ‘Brexit’ vote. I’m not blaming Batsford’s publications for the rise of UKIP, but at the same time it seems clear that so much of the great future that post-Brexit Britain is promised by advocates of life outside the EU is not really a future at all but a return to the past, or to a very specific and unattainable past that is found in the literature of the 1930s and offered, then as now, as the antidote to present woes.

Calls for the recovery of ‘lost’ greatness or tranquility are nothing new, of course: there have been lost ‘Golden Ages’ from Antiquity onwards. The rhetoric of life in 2017 Britain, though, is quick to proffer a world before the country was ‘sold out’ to Brussels as an ideal state to which return may, tantalisingly, be possible if the British people will only reject any notion of the world’s having moved on in the past 50 or so years. Hence, we see the delivery of the Article 50 leaving letter greeted, on the front page of a national newspaper, with a photo of a UKIP politician drinking a pint (naturally, there are no 500ml glasses in Britain) of (English) beer outside a pub, triumphantly reasserting the victory of ‘Britishness’ over the corrosive influence of EU bureaucracy. In such times, minor details become causes. In a land obsessed by a television programme about baking and still working through its Second World War nostalgia, turning the clock back to the 1950s feels perfectly logical. As Tom Whyman noted in a ‘New York Times’ article back in February, the post-Brexit UK is danger of becoming “the world’s biggest church fete” with its export policy seemingly structured around sales of cheese, jam, and biscuits.

What is missing in this facile re-working of the national past is any of the balance that made the 1930s such a fascinating decade for me to study. In as much as those books dealt with the nation’s past they also offered ideas and suggestions for its future. Not everything ‘old’ was by definition ‘good’, and slums did not become acceptable places to live just because the buildings had been built a century earlier. The authors I found myself admiring as I research the decade were not those content to praise the past but those like Priestley who wanted to forge a better country out of the better parts of its heritage and the desire that better things may be possible in its future. For all of the bold boasts to have followed last year’s events, the vision of the future is, as far as I can see, vague and unconvincing, best defined not by what it offers but by what has been cast off. The past tense is crucial: like an America destined to be “made great again” the British people have apparently “got their country back“.

Nostalgia is, now, all-encompassing, because if EU membership was a national mistake then something better than membership must be held up as a goal to be (re)claimed. Thus, the rhetoric of the ‘finest hour’ of World War Two victory resurfaces – when Britain resisted tyranny and kept freedom alive. Evidently, though, the intellectual contortions needed to make the nation’s struggle of 1940 – great and necessary as that certainly was – applicable to its current temper tantrum are beyond those would prefer to keep things simple. The Foreign Secretary, discussing the financial costs of Britain’s EU departure, advised other member states not to indulge in “punishment beatings” once the plucky Brits have once again managed to escape the Prisoner of War camp that is the European Union. That the EU has largely kept peace in Europe for sixty years does not make this WW2 fascination any less viable for those who think little of consequence has happened in Britain’s relationship with the continent since D-Day.

I don’t blame the Batsford guides for this, but as I looked at them I knew that if I was going to write anything new I needed room for other books, other ideas. Clearing the shelf was a prelude to a new project – a move away from nostalgia into other debates and enquiries. Bound as the country is to the wheel or nostalgic sentiment, it is too much to hope, I suspect, that the UK will undergo any such winnowing of its sentiments until the consequences of last June’s vote are unavoidably, painfully, clear to even the most hardened of the currently triumphalist 52% of the electorate who voted ‘Leave’. Even nostalgia, in the final analysis, is not going to be what it used to be.

Tom Whyman’s excellent article can be found at the link below:

Falling from Grace

Major art exhibitions are, of course, planned years in advance, and if they seem to have a striking resonance with the world in which they finally open that may be as much fortunate coincidence as it is inspired curatorial intent. All the same, though, with the state and direction of the US so prominently in the minds of many the fact that London is currently hosting two major shows of the nation’s art gives visitors ample opportunity to put America’s cultural life into the spotlight and to see if any of that light reflects back in such a way as to provide suggestions for the present and the near-future.

The British Museum’s survey of print-making in the US from the 1960s to the present reminds the viewer of how the political is never far away even in the most superficially aesthetic of pieces. From Warhol and Rauschenberg to May Stevens and Willie Cole the issues that have polarised the nation, challenged it, and forced it to re-define itself for the better (however imperfect that ‘better’ may still be in relation to the ideal) are never far away. Calling the exhibition ‘The American Dream’ reminds us that for the past fifty or so years US history has had its moments of breath-taking achievement alongside its public setbacks and disappointments.

The Royal Academy’s current show is different, however, in its focus on a very distinct period: the decade after the 1929 Wall Street Crash when the US had to face a challenge to many of the ideas that had underpinned its growth and ask some searching questions about what it was and what it could still be. In a world darkening with the clouds of imminent war these paintings show Americans trying to make sense of what had happened to what must have looked for so long like an unstoppable rise to pre-eminence. With a ruined economy, a dust bowl instead of a farming belt, and an uneasy sense that the world outside of the US was by no means inclined to remain stationary while it sorted itself out, many of the items in this show give insights into how America tried to find itself again before its dream was lost altogether. The exhibition’s title, ‘America After the Fall’ brings a post-lapsarian reference to the US in the 1930s, a fall from security, from confidence, and from grace.

Posters for the exhibition unsurprisingly show the seemingly timeless faces from Grant Wood’s ‘American Gothic’ (1930) – loaned to a show outside of North America for the first time in its history. Beyond this iconic image, though, Wood is represented throughout the Sackler Galleries of the RA with a fascinating range of landscapes and portraits that capture something of the tense mood of the times. The winding road that runs through 1931’s historical interpretation ‘The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere’ for example, an image designed to stir up the patriotic urgency of a nation in peril recurs in 1935’s ‘Death on the Ridge Road’ as the scene of an impending and unavoidable automobile accident, that most 20th century of deaths. The past seems, on occasion, to have been too far away and the future as much a source of concern as of promise.

We see in many of the images in the show the ways by which 1930s America tried to reconnect with itself, both in the greater historical sense and in the more communal, lived experience of its farmers and rural communities whose lives seemed for some artists (though perhaps not for everyone) an antidote to the rootless modernism of the cities and social fragmentation found in them. Edward Hopper’s ‘New York Movie’ (1939) captures this perfectly: the bored usherette leaning against the wall to take the weight off her feet as the few audience members sit spaced about in the auditorium watching the grey and white shapes just visible on the screen. The glamour of Hollywood is seen here as second-hand escapism, briefly diverting attention from the world outside in a manner found in Philip Evergood’s ‘Dance Marathon’ of 1934, in which the energy and grace of Rogers and Astaire becomes a ring of near-unconscious people propping each other up to try and win $500.

Elsewhere, landscapes of industrial plants and images of power turbines hint at an industrial might that had taken a blow but was by no means defeated, and in the later stages of the display the viewer recalls that America’s road not only to national recovery but to global pre-eminence really became clear with the outbreak of World War Two and the sheer volume of US material and manpower added to the scales on the Allied side against the Axis of Germany, Japan, and Italy. In Peter Blume’s ‘The Eternal City’ (1937) we get a glimpse of Italy, and more particularly, Rome under the rule of Mussolini: a landscape of partially excavated Roman ruins (of which ‘Il Duce’ was particularly fond) within which soldiers on horseback beat civilians as priests run and flee. Mussolini himself emerges, surreally, as a bright-green jack-in-the-box, his oversized head looming into the picture to be both terrifying and ludicrous. The countdown to war still had some way to run when Blume’s painting was complete, but for the US the defeat of such dictators would prove to be an act not only of national but of international transformation – the ascent that made the ‘fall’ seem a long time ago. Mussolini’s attempts to revive lost Roman greatness were soon bankrupted, but if there was a new Roman Empire after 1945 it was surely based amid the neo-classical monuments of Washington DC. With history often looking and feeling like it’s running in reverse in 2017, the placement of such an image within this excellent exhibition is timely indeed.

America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s is at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, until 4th June.

For more information see https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/america-after-the-fall

The Spanish Pavilion – Eighty Years On

I have a long list of historical places and events that I would, time-travel permitting, like to see. That doesn’t mean, of course, that I’d like to go back and live completely in the past, but that it would be great to go back, experience something first-hand, and then return to the present enhanced by that experience. Usually, this is linked with the wish to ‘meet’ people in the past, to be present at certain events and eavesdrop on conversations.

The Paris International Exhibition of 1937 holds a particular place in this wish-list. This is not, of course, because I’d like to loiter afterwards and see the unfolding world war that was forecast in the architectural antagonism of the German and Soviet pavilions as they squared off against each other. Rather, it’s because I’ve spent so much time trying to understand those spaces that I often find myself trying to navigate them imaginatively, writing my way around them with the help of photographs and descriptions from those who did visit in person. Their propaganda content was read clearly by many contemporary observers, but the temporary nature of these buildings that look so strangely solid in photographs and newsreel footage only adds, for me, to their fascination. On the one side, Albert Speer’s austere classicism imbuing the ‘Thousand Year Reich’ with ancient grandeur and on the other Boris Iofan’s stepped modernism providing a launching platform for the giant statues on its roof: the dynamism of Soviet power writ large.

I’d be sure to take in the Italian pavilion as well, with its declarations of the nation’s imperial destiny, and the British pavilion, where a life-size photograph of Neville Chamberlain in fishing waders added to the sense that the British still saw the World’s Fair as a purely trade-orientated event: a chance to sell fishing rods and tennis racquets while everybody else was sending signals about their plans for continental dominance.

And then there would be the Spanish Pavilion – a country in the midst of a civil war still intent on showcasing itself to the world as a place of education, culture, and progress. A building (assembled by the Republican government that right-wing rebels were trying to overthrow) in which photo-montages of workers, volunteer brigades, and schoolchildren presented a face to the world that tried by its very existence to resist the advances of Franco’s troops, their ranks enhanced as they were by the German and Italian reinforcements that were slowly tipping the Spanish scales in favour of fascism. Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ would be there, of course – carefully carried across the city from the studio in the Rue des Grands-Augustins – alongside works by Miro and Angus Calder’s ‘Mercury Fountain’ – a blend of the beautiful and the poisonous all too appropriate for a country being torn apart.

Thanks to the Mayoral Gallery in London’s St James’ we can, until 10th February, make this imaginative journey back in time. Gathering together works by the artists represented in the pavilion, alongside a display on the Paris Exposition itself, material on the incineration of the Basque town of Guernica, and reminders of the subsequent tour that Picasso’s artwork made of England after its Paris debut, the gallery allows the visitor to experience something of the drama within which the pavilion’s contents were made and the sense of urgent resistance with which their creators tried to capture the Spanish crisis.

It is a powerful experience not only to see these works, but to get a sense of the moment in which the creation of art was itself a political act in defiance of fascism. Visiting the gallery on the afternoon of the American presidential inauguration was, for me, a thought-provoking, and ultimately better way of spending a day when ‘history’ was being made than listening in dismay to TV footage of Donald Trump’s rhetoric echoing across central Washington. In the final analysis, thankfully, Art resists dictatorship. At the present moment, we should thank Mayoral for reminding us that this is so.

‘Art Revolutionaries: Homage to the Pavilion of the Spanish Republic, 1937’ is at Mayoral Gallery, London until 10th February 2017. Details may be found here:

http://www.galeriamayoral.com/en/Exposicions/Art%20Revolutionaries%20in%20London/73/

Seeing the World Transformed: Paul Nash at Tate Britain

Career-spanning exhibitions are not always kind to artists. Early brilliance is sometimes shown slipping into repetition or recycling in later years, the promise of breakthrough work perhaps not fulfilled in maturity. As the National Gallery’s recent show devoted to the late works of Rembrandt made clear, there may be a final flourish to celebrate, but the longer the career in question the greater the risk that a retrospective can show the stop-start nature of an aesthetic life rather than its seamless progress. Even Picasso is, perhaps, better seen in ‘periods’ than in allowing his seventy-plus years of work jostle for our attention as we try to keep pace with its creator.

Tate Britain’s survey of the career of Paul Nash is a wonderful exception to this rule. In room after room we see an artist developing as the world around him undergoes tumultuous change, his style retaining trademark elements re-worked in new ways as he finds his own reality altered by two World Wars. From the Aestheticism of his early work (all Burne-Jones and Blake in style) to the trauma of the trenches in 1917 we see a man whose reality was rendered frighteningly strange by his wartime experience. Works like ‘The Menin Road’ are English landscapes re-modelled in hell: the ponds and trees that Constable would have painted now as blasted and poisoned as the men who cower amongst them. Many of these paintings are regularly on display across the Thames at the Imperial War Museum, but to reach them here after seeing Nash’s early, almost Symbolist views of trees makes the scale of his disgust at the reality of the trenches impossible to ignore. The tree stumps of Flanders clearly become the nightmare cousins of the elms that once featured in Nash’s Edwardian pastorals.

With the First World War as such a rupture Nash’s embrace of Surrealism in the 1930s feels like a strangely logical step, as though a man whose sense of reality was forever off-kilter recognised in the movement the potential to celebrate strangeness and allow the unconscious to find expression. Again, a sense of process is crucial: the Sussex Downs and the Kent coast become necessary stopping-off points on his artistic journey, places where he could work through his relationship with the post-War world.

Surrealism led Nash into the avant-garde experimentation of the ‘Unit One’ artists, and the exhibition makes excellent use of the work of Moore, Hepworth, Nicholson and others to show that in that group Nash found a sense of belonging when he arguably needed it most. To step from there into the world of the Shell County Guidebooks may seem like a strange move but it is a measure of the Tate curators’ skill that it feels oddly fitting here. Embracing the possibilities of photography, the qualities of the ‘found object’ and the potential to celebrate the strangeness of the country he saw around him Nash’s contribution to the inter-war boom in domestic sightseeing was to offer a host of ‘sights’ aimed at rendering England ‘rich and strange’ to its own inhabitants. In his paintings from this time the stone circles and monoliths of the prehistoric past assume surreal properties, often places within landscapes that owe more to the topography of the unconscious than any locations that could be found by consulting a motoring guide.

With the Surrealism of the 1930s in mind, the room devoted to Nash’s work from World War Two assumes greater context. ‘Totes Meer’ (‘Dead Sea’) with its breaking waves composed of the wreckage of Nazi aircraft at the Cowley Dump is linked back to the coastal landscapes of the 1920s and shown to be another work in which the human destruction of war is visible in objects rather than bodies. For the wrecked trees of the Western Front we now see wrecked aircraft in the English landscape; their fragments as out of place in the fields of Britain as the gigantic tennis ball that looms large in a Surrealist work like the pre-War ‘Event on the Downs’. Rather than reflect Nash’s own sensibility his second spell as a War Artist found him recording a reality that had caught up with things his imagination had shown him a decade earlier. Britain’s ‘Finest Hour’ was a Surrealist one.

Nash survived the Second World War by a few months, and in the final room of the exhibition the viewer finds him returning to the landscape but using the phases of the moon to imbue the scenes with unearthly light. Focusing on the liminal moment of the ‘equinox’ his final works take the viewer back to the trees of his earliest ones, but now they are coloured, literally, by all that their creator has seen and done. The world has been made strange in order that it may be seen again.

Rarely in my experience has a retrospective captured so completely this sense of progress in an artist’s career whilst reminding the viewer that the journey is one not of movement onwards and away from the sources of initial inspiration but a constant loop of creative return in which each new development refines and revalues the ones before it. Here, one of Britain’s greatest painters has received the exhibition he deserves, and everyone involved in it deserves praise for the thought and care that have made it possible. If you haven’t seen it yet, you really should. If you have seen it, go again and marvel at the cumulative brilliance of Paul Nash’s artistic life.

‘Paul Nash’ is at Tate Britain until 5th March 2017. Details can be found at the link below:

http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/paul-nash

Reading 2016

As we near Christmas the ‘Best of…’ list becomes a staple of the newspaper, magazine, or website – a handy way of listing the books, films, music, television, theatre, et al that are judged to have made the past year enjoyable.  It’s good for the marketing, of course, but also a happy reminder of what we have gained, culturally-speaking, in twelve months.  And perhaps this year it’s good to be reminded that while our species is worrying adept at breaking things (institutions, trust, order, rules) we can also create aesthetic responses to the times we inhabit.

Looking back on a year of reading, I’m heartened by how many novels have emerged this year and illuminated life by recycling it as art.  In no particular order, then, here are my picks of the year.

Ali Smith’s Autumn was a timely and thoughtful response to the post-EU Referendum state of the UK as well as meditation on ageing and transience and the power of art to stand in defiance of our own instability.  The first volume of a projected ‘seasonal quartet’ it shows that Smith is in fine form, and perhaps the very writer that Britain needs right now.

Kate Tempest’s The Bricks that Built the Houses offered further evidence of how wonderfully talented and insightful its author is: taking the characters that peopled her album Everybody Down and fleshing out their stories and personalities on a larger canvas.  That she finished the year with another album and collection of poems Let Them Eat Chaos showed once again that Tempest, like Smith, has her finger on the pulse of where we are today.  We should be grateful that our times have such perceptive analysts.

Historical fiction remained a powerful comment on present issues in the guise of Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent and Charlotte Hobson’s The Vanishing Futurist.  The one was a tale of late-Victorian tension between faith, science, doubt, and emotional identity.  The other explored the hopes and dreams of Revolutionary Russia as the bright future slid almost immediately into the turmoil of state surveillance and terror.  As in the best fiction set in the past, accounts of events in previous times and other places cast their own light on the present whilst remaining utterly absorbing in their own right.

The two novels that made the greatest impression on me this year we not, however, written or published in 2016, so I’m going to have to bend the ‘end of year’ rules to fit them in.  They both deserve it though.

Walter Kempowski’s All for Nothing was published in Germany in 2006, but Anthea Bell’s translation appeared at the end of 2015.  A story of an East Prussian family in the early months of 1945, the novel charts the collapse of their entire world as the Russian troops roll into the crumbling Third Reich and its citizens experience the displacement and terror that Hitler’s armies had previously inflicted on others.  A sense of slow-building menace runs through the narrative, as events in the present force characters to confront deeds in the past, and to realise that ideas of ‘home’, ‘community’, and ‘family’ offer little defence against their nation’s collapse as the lies upon which the Nazi state was built unravel.

Jean-Michel Guenassia’s The Incorrigible Optimists Club (translated from the French in 2015 by Euan Cameron) is both a memoir coming of age in 1950s Paris and a meditation on the post-World War Two division of Europe and its consequences.  In a society where cafe society is a mix of earnest political debate and table-football the narrator’s induction into a society of Eastern European emigres is as much a tale of growing emotional and political consciousness as a study in loss and displacement.  Moving from the post-War Soviet Union and Hungary to 1950s Paris and Algeria it ponders our need for belonging, for family, for friendship, for a sense of connection to the world around us, before resolving its many plots in a single story of how ‘exile’ remains a trauma that never heals.  With the plight of ‘refugees’ unwillingly politicised by those countries accepting them (or not) Guenassia’s work reminds the reader that maintaining ‘optimism’ having lost everything is an act of quiet heroism.

So my two ‘best’ novels of the year both the reader back to a time when ‘Europe’ was in crisis, reminding us how its stability should never be taken for granted, and how the forces threatening to break it apart must be resisted at every turn.  I doubt that many people who voted for the UK’s ‘Brexit’ would read them, and that’s a pity because they really should.

A Play for Today

In 1989, nearing the mid-point in our route through the A-Level English Literature syllabus, I remember our class going to see ‘Look Back in Anger’ at the theatre in London. We weren’t studying the play, but somehow tickets were available, and presumably in those days the amount of paperwork needed to arrange impromptu field trips was not so prohibitive. I didn’t really appreciate quite why Osborne’s characters were so angry then, or quite what had made them that way, but I remember clearly thinking that Jimmy Porter wasn’t the sort of person I’d want to hang around (the long-suffering Cliff got my sympathy in places) and that things couldn’t really be as bleak as he made them out to be. That said, both Jimmy and Alison were wonderfully acted by a young Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson – famous in that summer but not quite as famous as they were destined to become.

In the years that followed I’ve come to appreciate Osborne’s perspective on English life a bit more, and certainly in this Brexit-age the revival of ‘The Entertainer’ at London’s Garrick Theatre is timely and unsettling. Branagh returns again, this time taking on another role from the Laurence Olivier canon, as Archie Rice, a faded music hall performer nearing the end of the road. Rice’s disintegrating sense of self is mirrored in his home life – as fraught as life at the Porters’ in ‘Look Back’ and filled with uncomfortable silences and even more uncomfortable moments of openness. His stage persona is wearing thin: audiences are dwindling, money is short, and simmering resentments refuse to be suppressed. He is, of course, a walking gin-drinking metaphor for Britain in the 1950s: its misadventures at the Suez Canal having brought home to the populace how far the ‘finest hour’ of World War Two was in the past, and how limited the future may be.

The current production is brilliantly acted throughout, with Greta Scacchi’s long-suffering Phoebe and Gawn Grainger’s exasperated father Billy framing Archie’s disintegrating familial structure as his children Jean and Frank probe and challenge his shortcomings in equal measure. The great missing ‘presence’ in the play, however, is Mick – Archie’s son serving with the army in Suez, taken prisoner and destined to released – whose name unites the characters on stage as long as they believe he will be returning to join them, and whose absence ultimately prompts the disintegration of the Rice ‘family’ in any real sense.

The play’s resonance is as strong today as it must have seemed in the wake of the Anthony Eden’s Middle East misadventure, and whilst the casual racism and sexism may offend everyone but Republican presidential candidates it is remarkable how little of Osborne’s text needs glossing to make it seem relevant to the present. From political demonstrations in Trafalgar Square to nostalgia for the certainties of an age of imperial status, the play skewers the ‘little England’ mentality that carries Archie through on a wave of denial until the last spotlight is turned off and he, like England, is left in the darkness.

Clearly, this production has been a long time in the planning, but to see the down-at-heel vaudeville of Rice’s world in the Britain of today is a sobering reminder of how theatre not only critiques its own time, but lives to critique other times as well. My 1989 self may not have understood why Jimmy Porter was always so angry at the state of things around him, but in 2016 I certainly appreciate why Archie Rice’s delusion is as dangerous now as it was in the retreat from Suez.

A Small-Scale Rothko

The Royal Academy of Arts’ current exhibition of Abstract Expressionist work is, in every sense, a huge show. The quantity of works on display marks it out as a genuine autumn ‘blockbuster’ and the popularity of some of its key artists guarantees a steady flow of visitors to Burlington House. Happily, the equally huge scale of many of the works on display, coupled with the RA’s spacious exhibition rooms, means that even on a busy Sunday afternoon there is still space in which to stand and take in the vastness of the canvases by Rothko, Pollock, Still, de Kooning and their peers. There is paint everywhere: whether dripped or spattered across the canvas or brushed into near-flawless blocks of colour: surely more cubic metres of art then the RA has seen in a long time.

The ‘greatest hits’ of the Abstract Expressionist movement are, perhaps, well known to us: reproduced in smaller formats and absorbed into our culture in such a way that their initial challenge to the viewer is hard to replicate. The opening room of the RA’s display does, in fairness, forge a narrative link between the ‘Expressionism’ of the (largely) American movement and its pre-World War Two European forbear, but this is not always easy to spot when the full force of Abstract Expressionism is woven into post-War narratives of the USA’s rising superpower status and corresponding sense of economic and cultural importance. In the first room, however, alongside Pollock’s immense Male and Female (1943) another giant of the movement makes an unusual, but revealing appearance.

Mark Rothko’s Interior (1936) is, particularly compared to the rest of his output, very small indeed – barely 60cm in height and 46cm across. Within that small space the viewer sees a split-level architectural design. On the top level, painted largely in red, columns frame wall panels, in the central one of which a portrait painting seems to occupy the space. On the bottom, painted largely in green, a group of figures stands in a doorway, again with columns dividing the space and two monumental statues framing the portal, dark behind the group. At first glance very little about the image says ‘Rothko’, but looking closer I was intrigued by how much of his later work is, subtly, anticipated here. The tonal variations in the red and green colour scheme hint at the immense blocks of colour that will feature so much later on, and the detailing of the wall panels suggests his interest in Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library in Florence, and the career-crowning achievement of the Seagram Murals now displayed in Tate Modern.

The figures are a puzzle, not least because we don’t readily associate Rothko with the human form, and the larger-than-life statues add to the mystery, with their Classicism seen in their cream-coloured marble and nude state (each appears to be trailing a length of drapery behind them). Thinking as I’ve been doing lately about the revival of Classical forms there is a distinct sense of order in Rothko’s composition, although the exact nature of the group of figures in the doorway remains a puzzle. Dressed largely in dark colours, could they be Italian Blackshirts, occupying this Renaissance / Roman space? Is the order here something that may threaten as much as it structures? Is there a sense of scale here that, even in a small painting, shows us how much the human form can be reduced by its surroundings, even to the point where it begins to look vulnerable amidst the larger spaces around it? In order to make colour and form as all-pervasive as he would later do Rothko would find himself working on a much greater scale, but this pre-War Interior, while it hints at what is to come, also reminded me of how the ingredients of his later work were both present before the War and appearing not so much in the painting, but certainly in the architecture of regimes less welcoming to the exile from Tsarist Russia than the art world of New York was to be.

Abstract Expressionism runs at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, until 2nd January 2017. For more information see:
https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/abstract-expressionism

Rothko’s Interior (1936) in the collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. For more information see:
http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/Collection/art-object-page.67383.html#history

Lenin on the Metro

As the guidebooks I read before my trip reminded me, Moscow’s Metro network is not simply a means of getting around the city but rather an attraction in its own right. The stations, with their mosaics, statues, and visual representations of Soviet ideology make the Metro arguably the most durable evidence of a period usually seen in the West as the ‘other’ side of a Cold War divide more easily criticised than comprehended. It’s not always easy to study your surroundings when the tide of commuters flows through these underground halls in the course of the working day and early evening, but when I did manage to take a closer look they were indeed as impressive as I’d been led to expect.

The strangest thing, though, is that such highly visible evidence of the Soviet era is not only still in situ but seemingly well-maintained and, as such, evidently valued. Not only are the stations themselves near-spotlessly clean and free from advertising (this latter point an interesting change from London, certainly) but the heroic statues of Soviet sportsmen and women, aviators, shock workers, militia members, et al are not standing as remnants of a discredited past but seem as much a part of the present as they were when installed. Bright ceiling mosaics of parachutists, athletes, and factory workers look down on modern commuters, and if the utopia the images sought to conjure up never quite materialised nobody felt so aggrieved as to take out their frustration on the decor around them when the past was as defunct and eminently ripe for dismissal as it was in the mid-1990s, when Russia woke from its Communist years and found that a world of democracy and free-market economic was not a comfortable place at all.

In many respects I’m pleased that the Metro survived as it did. As Owen Hatherley points out in his excellent book ‘The Landscapes of Communism’ the Moscow Metro was a showcase for the kind of world that Soviet power hoped to bring into being: clean, efficient, run for the benefit of the masses, and the equal of anything found in the capitalist West. It was impossible to build the network in the 1930s and 1940s without the politics of the time being woven right into its fabric (the fact that many stations are, in effect, war memorials makes that clear) but the fact that the imagery of that age survives in contrast to the very different city (and society) that now uses the system encourages reflection on what people once believed, and what they are reluctant to utterly discard. In the city above ground German cars clog the 6-lane roads into the centre and shoppers in GUM (the former state department store) buy designer clothes with credit cards. Below ground, though, the Metro remains; a reminder of another set of possibilities that, although undermined by the course of History, have not yet been consigned to its dustbin.

Summertime Reading Again

A year ago I posted my thoughts on how much one could, realistically, expect to read over a summer break, responding in part to the lists of recommendations that feature so regularly in newspapers and magazines at this time of year.  As always, I was over-optimistic in my intentions, more of which below.  In fact, I was as over-optimistic as the more official lists of suggestions seem to be when contributors recommend recently published hardbacks for the public’s attention without pausing to factor the words ‘airline baggage allowance’ into the mix.  Perhaps such lists are a) for those who read on electronic devices, b) for those who holiday in the UK and have stocked up on books before the post-Brexit pound becomes utterly worthless or c) for those who send their luggage on ahead when holidaying.

If the mass of planned and proposed holiday reading were not itself enough to make the reader feel daunted, the investment of time presupposed by so many titles often has the same effect.  Wonderfully weighty histories, biographies, and novels demand attention now because, the logic runs, if you can’t read it on holiday when will you do so?  With the teaching term now over until September that logic saw me devote a fortnight to Peter Frankopan’s ‘The Silk Roads’ recently and I’m so pleased that I did: rarely have the complexities of the Middle East’s history and present been rendered in so lucid a form.

Personally, I’m lucky enough to be heading to Russia in a few weeks for a long-anticipated holiday to Moscow, a city that I’ve longed to see from days of studying Russian and Soviet history in school and onwards.  Naturally, a refresher course in Russian literature seems good preparation; but which books to select for so immense a task?  And what of the wealth of recent reportage from the country, like Peter Pomerantsev’s excellent ‘Nothing is True and Everything is Possible’? Is there time to re-read some Nabokov before I go, or would a historical refresher on the Soviet period be more useful?  Once again, options proliferate more quickly that available hours appear.

Leaving that aside, there’s also the ‘canonical novel(s) that one ought to have read by now but hasn’t yet done so’ demanding summer attention.  A passing comment at a conference last week convinced me that this is to be the season for Jean-Paul Sartre’s ‘Roads to Freedom’ trilogy and, as these are helpfully available as individual volumes rather than a single 1000-page doorstop I was able to polish off ‘The Age of Reason’ (the first volume) last week in little time at all.  And rather good it was too, so I’m not daunted by the thought of taking on ‘The Reprieve’ (volume two) this week.  Not Russian, of course, but justifiable in some way for its relevance to my own work.  The temptation, having read Andy Martin’s account of the Sartre-Camus rivalry ‘The Boxer and the Goalkeeper’, is to go back and spend the summer (re)reading Camus’ work, even though the Sussex coast is not quite the same as those brilliantly evocative descriptions of swimming in the sea to cool off from an Algerian summer.  I’ve read those books many times already, though, so perhaps that would be cheating.  Sartre it is, then.

Of course, as I said earlier, these lists are always a little optimistic in scope.  Looking at the post I wrote last summer I made some comment about catching up with Thomas Mann, which meant, in reality, that I read ‘Dr Faustus’ over the course a very enjoyable few days in Ghent but didn’t go beyond that.  Not exactly ‘job done’, though, so perhaps if I do manage to complete Sartre’s trilogy and find intellectual freedom I can decide whether or not to pull that copy of ‘Buddenbrooks’ off the shelf and fulfil last summer’s good intention.  Then again, the summer holidays may well have ended by that point.