‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Friday, 20 September 2019

Two Hawk Poems


C Day Lewis's poem ‘The Hawk Comes Down From The Air’ (1936) starts as Ted Hughesy avant la lettre:
The hawk comes down from the air.
Sharpening his eye upon
A wheeling horizon
Turning scrutiny to prayer.

He guessed the prey that cowers
Below, and learnt to keep
The distance which can strip
Earth to its black contours.

Then trod the air, content
With contemplation till
The truth of valley and hill
Should be self-evident.
The cowers/Below enjambment is a bit clumsy; and the third stanza has the feel of marking time that makes it seem more anticlimactic than it needs to after such a sweeping opening. But then the poem takes a turn for the twee:
Or as the little lark ...
I'll stop there, for a moment, to observe that I don't think there's a poet in the English tradition with the skill to prevent ‘or as the little lark’ coming off as soppy. Anyway.
Or as the little lark
Who veins the sky with song,
Asking from dawn to dark
No revenues of spring:

But with the night descends
Into his chosen tree,
And the famed singer ends
In anonymity.

So from a summer's height
I come into my peace;
The wings have earned their night
And the song may cease.
That ending, retrogressing from Hughes to Newman or indeed Newbolt, feels unearned. A shame, because it starts pretty well.

So: I took this poem, fed it into Google translate on an English-Dutch setting, then took the result and fed it back through the Dutch-English filter. What emerged is below. I prefer it to the original, I think.
The hawk comes down from the sky.
Grinding his eye
Wheeling a horizon
Test run prayer.

He recommended that to the cowering prey
Below, and learned to keep
The distances that strip
The earth for its black contours.

Then enter the air, the contents
With contemplation of
The truth of the valley and hill
Must of course be

Or  the Lark
Whose veins the sky singing,
Questions from dawn to sunset
No income of spring:

But with the night falls
In his chosen tree,
And the famous singer ends
In anonymity.

So from a summer height
I come into my peace;
The wings have earned their night
And the song may be present.
I'd say it needs a little extra tinkering to take out the residual rhymes, which are now just distracting now. But otherwise: better!

Sunday, 8 September 2019

George Buchanan's ‘Desiderium Lutetiae’ (1567)



In George Buchanan's allegorical idyll ‘Desiderium Lutetiae’ (written 1552, first published as the third of Buchanan's Silvae in 1567), the poet, unhappy in Portugal, addresses his beloved Paris as ‘Amaryllis’, styling her a pastoral maid and himself a lovelorn pastoral swain called Daphnis. It was one of Buchanan's most famous poems (at least, among his secular poems) and Buchanan himself was for centuries Scotland's most famous writer—indeed, arguably he was sixteenth-century Europe's single most celebrated poet, although because he wrote in Latin he's more or less been forgotten now. Still: I needed a sense of this poem for an academic-y thing I was looking into, and couldn't find a translation anywhere (there's this, and this, but in neither case can I lay my hand on a copy of the actual books, and Google Books, as you can see, only gives us snippet views). So I had to gorblimey up a rough English version. Having done so, I thought I might as well blog it. It's a line-by-line translation, more or less. If anyone is reading this post (not likely, I know) and wants to offer corrections on my translation, they would be very gladly received. I shan't be holding my breath, though.

Desiderium Lutetiae
O formosa Amarylli, tuo jam septima bruma
Me procul aspectu, jam septima detinet aestas:
Sed neque septima bruma nivalibus horrida nimbis,
Septima nec rapidis candens fervoribus aestas
Extinxit vigiles nostro sub pectore curas.
Tu mihi mane novo carmen, dum roscida tondet
Arva pecus, medio tu carmen solis in aestu,
Et cum jam longas praeceps nox porrigit umbras:
Nec mihi quae tenebris condit nox omnia vultus
Est potis occultare tuos, te nocte sub atra                 [10]
Alloquor, amplector, falsaque in imagine somni
Gaudia sollicitam palpant evanida mentem.
At cum somnus abit, curis cum luce renatis
Tecta miser fugio, tanquam mihi tecta doloris
Semina subjiciant, et solid moestus in agris
Qua vagus error agit feror, & deserta querelis
Antra meis, silvasque & conscia faxa fatigo.
Sola meos planctus Echo miserata gementi
Adgemit, & quoties suspiria pectore duco,
Hæc quoque vicino toties suspirat ab antro.              [20]
Sæpe super celsæ prærupta cacumina rupis
In mare prospiciens, spumantia cœrula demens
Alloquor, & surdis jacto irrita vota procellis:

O mare! quæque maris vitreas, Nereides, undas
Finditis, in vestros placidæ me admittite portus:
Aut hoc si nimium est, nec naufragus ire recuso,
Dummodo dilectas teneam vel naufragus oras.
O quoties dixi Zephyris properantibus illuc,
Felices pulchram visuri Amaryllida venti,
Sic neque Pyrene duris in cotibus alas                     [30]
Atterat, & vestros non rumpant nubila cursus,
Dicite vesanos Amaryllidi Daphnidos ignes.
O quoties Euro levibus cum raderet alis
AEquora, dicebam, Felix Amaryllide visa,
Dic mihi, Num meminit nostri? num mutua sentit
Vulnera? num veteris vivunt vestigia flammæ?
Ille ferox contra rauco cum murmure stridens
Avolat irato similis, mihi frigore pectus
Congelat, exanimes torpor gravis alligat artus.
Nec me pastorum recreant solamina, nec me            [40]
Fistula, Nympharumque leves per prata choreæ,
Nec quæ capripedes modulantur carmina Panes:
Una meos sic est prædata Amaryllis amores.

Et me tympana docta ciere canora Lycisca,
Et me blanda Melænis amavit, Iberides ambæ,
Ambæ florentes annis, opibusque superbæ:
Et mihi dotales centum cum matribus agnos
Ipsi promisere patres, mihi munera matres
Spondebant clam multa: meum nec munera pectus,
Nec nivei movere suis cum matribus agni,                [50]
Nec quas blanditias teneræ dixere puellæ,
Nec quas delicias teneræ fecere puellæ.
Quantum ver hyemem, vietum puer integer ævi,
Ter viduam thalamis virgo matura parentem,
Quam superat Durium Rhodanus, quam Sequana Mundam,
Lenis Arar Sycorim, Ligeris formosus Iberum,
Francigenas inter Ligeris pulcherrimus amnes:
Tantum omnes vincit Nymphas Amaryllis lberas.
Sæpe suos vultus speculata Melænis in unda,
Composuit, pinxitque oculos, finxitque capillum,        [60]
Et voluit, simul & meruit formosa videri.
Sæpe mihi dixit, Animi male perdite Daphni,
Cur tibi longinquos libet insanire furores?
Et quod ames dare nostra potest tibi terra, racemos
Collige purpureos, & spes ne concipe lentas.
Sæpe choros festos me prætereunte, Lycisca
Cernere dissimulans, vultusque aversa canebat
Hæc, pedibus terram, & manibus cava tympana pulsans;
Et Nemesis gravis ira, atque irritabile numen,
Et Nemesis laesos etiam punitur amores.                      [70]
Vidi ego dum leporem venator captat, echinum
Spernere, post vanos redeuntem deinde labores,
Vespere nec retulisse domum leporem nec echinum.
Vidi ego qui mullum peteret piscator, & arctis
Retibus implicitam tincam sprevisset opimam,
Vespere nec retulisse domum mullum neque tincam.
Vidi ego qui calamos crescentes ordine risit
Pastor arundineos, dum torno rasile buxum
Frustra amat, (interea calamos quos riserat, alter
Pastor habet,) fragiles contentum inflare cicutas.         [80]
Sic solet immodicos Nemesis contundere fastus.

Hæc & plura Melænis, & hæc & plura Lycisca
Cantabant surdas frustra mihi semper ad aures.
Sed canis ante lupas, & taurus diliget ursas,
Et vulpem lepores, & amabit dama leænas,
Quam vel tympana docta ciere canora Lycisca
Mutabit nostros vel blanda Melænis amores,
Et prius æquoribus pisces, & montibus umbræ,
Et volucres deerunt silvis, & murmura ventis,
Quam mihi discedent formosae Amaryllidos ignes:       [90]
Illa mihi rudibus succendit pectora flammis,
Finiet illa meos moriens morientis amores.
‘O lovely Amaryllis’: ‘O formosa Amarylli’ is Vergillian (Eclogue 1 line 5 praises formosam Amaryllida, echoing Vergil’s Theocritan original, both the 3rd and 4th of whose Idylls address ὦ χαρίεσσ᾽ ᾿Αμαρυλλί) as is Buchanan's pseudonym, Daphnis. The two lovely nymphs Melaenis and Lycisca are the Portuguese towns of Coimbra and Evora, where Buchanan spent most of his time, both of which offered him academic posts, but whose charms, though not negligible, are outshone in his opinion by those of the University of Paris. Likewise the generic pastoral rivers mentioned in the poem, Durius, Munda, Sycoris and Oberus are the Iberian rivers Douro, Mondego, Segre and Ebro. Here's my line-by-line Englishing:


Missing Paris

Lovely Amaryllis! Seven winters gone
and seven long summers since I saw your face,
though endless sevens, wintry clouds of snow,
hot blasts of fervid summers, nothing
could ever quench the ardour in my breast.
You're the song I sing at dawn, as the flock returns
to crop the dew-wet grass; it's you in the hot noon
and when the night is long and shadow stretches
night embalms everything, but not for me
since you are there, hidden behind the darkness:                        [10]
in dreams I talk to you, embrace you, share
the complex joys of my mind's idea of you.
When sleep is lost to day my cares are reborn
I leave the town—the houses blanks to me
units of subduing pain—and rush through fields,
sad-hearted fugitive, hopeless escapee:
through caves, through woods I haul my weary thoughts.
Grieving Echo hears my rough-edged groans
and groans back at me to my chest's tempo,
the very caves sigh round me as I do.                                         [20]
Sometimes I loiter on tall, rugged cliffs
watching a sky-blue sea thrash itself foam-mad
and yell my yearning at the deaf-eared storm:

“Carry me over waves of sea-coloured glass
Nereids, gently across to my safe harbour.
If safety's too much, I'm fine with shipwreck,
provided such dangers bring me to my love.
How often I've addressed the quick winds, saying:
You fortunate breeze, you will see Amaryllis;
I pray no Pyrenees crags bruise your wings                                 [30]
no clouds chafe you as you go rushing on
to tell Amaryllis of Daphnis’s wild desires.
How often I've asked Euro, as his wings
scrape foam from wavetops: is Amaryllis well?
does she still remember me? does she feel
the pain I do? Does our flame still live in her?
But the wild wind recoiled with a rasping
angry rush, dashed off, chilled the soul in my breast
seizing up my veins, freezing my helpless limbs.
Nor can I take comfort now in rural thoughts:                            [40]
meadow nymphs dancing to a shepherd’s pipe
nimble-footed, singing songs of feasting
all tainted now by thoughts of Amaryllis.”

Lycisca taught me rhythms from the drum,
and gorgeous Melaenis is crowned with love;
both rightly proud of their  youthful beauty.
And I've been promised a hundred fatted lambs
as dowry by their fathers, their mothers,
promising extra gifts. Pledges that don’t move me,
no matter that the lambs are white as snow;                           [50]
erotic words, low-spoken by these girls,
such promises could never change my mind.
Wizened winter to the boyish blush of spring—
that, times three, is how they fall short of my girl;
As Durius trumps the Rhone, Seine the Munda,
Sycoris than Saone, Ebro than the Loire,
(though the Loire is France’s loveliest river!)
so Amaryllis bests Iberian nymphs.
Melaenis saw her face in the waters' mirror,
her powder, painted eyes, her fine-dressed hair,                  [60]
thought to herself she was the lovely one.
“Such agony” (she said), “in Daphnis’s soul!
Why waste your love on what is far away?
Why blank the attractions of our earth, our clustered
black-and-purple grapes—why yearn for what's not here?”

I've watched Lycisca at the festival
Pretending I'm not there, sly-glancing, beating
her foot, pounding the hollow drum, singing:
“Nemesis is cruel, my lad, a wild god,
Nemesis will punish your transgressions.                                 [70]
I've seen the hunter chase the hare, and ignore
the easy hedgehog, only to return hungry
at dusk, bringing home neither hare nor hog;
seen fisherman lay nets for deep-sea mullet
ignoring rich schools of small tench; returning
home at last with neither tench nor mullet.
And I, I sneered at basic reeds, desiring
instead the polished lathe-turned shepherd's flute
vainly wanting what I could not have, ignoring
slender hemlock: though it's fine for playing!                             [80]
So Nemesis works, crushing insolent pride.”

This (and more) Melaenis and Lycisca sang
to ears that were quite deaf to all their words.
Dogs shall love wolves and bulls shall yearn for bears
hares adore foxes and deers pair off with lions
before the rhythms of Lycisca’s music or
Melaenis’s smooth beauty change my love.
Fish will leave the sea and mountains lie down,
birds quit the woods, the winds give up their roar
before my Amaryllis ardour fades.                                         [90]
She it was who lit these flames in my heart;
only when she dies will my death put them out.

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

1905 Cyborgs



At one point in his autobiography, Speak, Memory, Nabokov remembers being five (in 1904) and meeting one of his father's friends, General Kuropatkin:
To amuse me, he spread out a handful of matches on the divan where he was sitting, placed ten of them end to end to make a horizontal line and said: ‘This is the sea in calm weather.’ Then he tipped up each pair so as to turn the straight line into a zigzag – and that was ‘a stormy sea’. He scrambled the matches and was about to do, I hoped, a better trick when we were interrupted. His aide-de-camp was shown in and said something to him. With a Russian, flustered grunt, Kuropatkin immediately rose from his seat, the loose matches jumping up on the divan as his weight left it. That day, he had been ordered to assume supreme command of the Russian army in the Far East.
Nabokov picks up (as it were) these matches in a further, 1919-dated memory. The Nabokovs are fleeing the Bolsheviks, and on a bridge are approached ‘by an old man who looked like a peasant in his sheepskin coat’. It's Kuropatkin, of course; and he asks for a light. I mean, it probably wasnt Kuropatkin, actually, but Nabokov still insists: ‘whether or not old Kuropatkin, in his rustic disguise, managed to evade Soviet imprisonment, is immaterial. What pleases me is the evolution of the match theme. Following of such thematic designs through one’s life should be, I think, the true purpose of autobiography.’

Kuropatkin's disgrace stemmed from his mismanagement (as many Russians saw it) of the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War which, of course, Russia lost. That defeat was sealed at the Battle of Mukden fought from February to March 1905. It's a fascinating, surprisingly little-known corner of military history, this; the largest land battle ever fought at that point in history, and a stark anticipation of what was coming in World War 1. General Kuropatkin, commanding more than 340,000 men, fought the 270,000-strong Imperial Japanese Army (Wikipedia tells us ‘the Japanese side alone fired 20.11 million rifle and machine gun rounds and 279,394 artillery shells in just over ten days of fighting: the Russians fired more’). In freezing conditions, and with an army that collapsed into disarray when he tried to manoeuvre it, Kuropatkin was eventually forced to retreat.

The Japanese naturally celebrated this victory, which brings me to the image at the head of this post. It is a 1905 woodcut cartoon woodprint by Japanese artist Kobayashi Kiyochika showing Tsar Nicholas II waking from a nightmare of the broken Russian forces returning from battle. But I love the way those Russian troops have been rendered as strange hybrids of battered human forms and big military tech. Cyborgtastic!

Sunday, 1 September 2019

These Books Were Made For Walking, And That's Just What They'll Do



There's a lot of walking around in Fantasy, and I wonder why.

Which is to say: I'm wondering in what sense walking figures as something essential to Fantasy as a mode, after the manner of such generic conventions as systems of magic, dragons and fantastical creatures, medievalised or otherwise historically-determined social logics and so on. Must we have our characters perambulate if we want a proper Fantasy novel? Let's say: part of the joy of Fantasy is the worldbuilding (maps! varieties of landscapes and peoples and locales!) and having your main characters meander about your built-world is the best narrative strategy for showing it off. Fans tacitly acknowledge this when they talk, not entirely derisively, of a ‘Cook’s Tour’ of Fantasyland.

Plus walking is (for many people, if not all) a pleasure, and a pleasure with pre-industrial bona fides, appropriate to the valorisation of the pre-industrial that is often what Fantasy entails. So maybe walking is integral to the mode: or if not walking, then at least riding horses, or sailing sailing-ships, or something similar that puts the characters into pre-industrial motion.

Then again (there’s always a then again) I’m not so sure.

Put it this way: sometimes we walk because we need to get somewhere specific, and sometimes we walk just because we want to walk. Which of these two kinds is the Fantasy walk?

Consider Romanticism. Wordsworth and Coleridge (and others) loved walking for the sake of walking. The Prelude is an epic of walking, and the important thing is always the walk, not the destination—when Wordsworth crosses the Alps it’s the crossing that is the locus poeticus, not the destination (where even was he going? Somewhere in Italy presumably? The poem doesn’t say). As Anne Wallace argues in her Walking, Literature and English Culture (Clarendon 1994) Wordsworth's poetic was a radically pedestrian and peripatetic one; he literally composed his verse by walking it out, and if he didn't have a longer walk in mind he would walk round and round his Grasmere garden, using the rhythm of his feet on the ground to help generate the poetic lines in his head, only afterwards coming inside to write them out. When Seamus Heaney said ‘Wordsworth at his best, no less than at his worst, is a pedestrian poet’ he was only half joking.

But there’s another model of ‘the walk’: pilgrimage. This is an activity with a peculiar resonance nowadays—because if you need to get somewhere specific, someplace far off, for secular reasons nowadays you’d probably take a train, or drive, or fly, or otherwise technologically facilitate your progress. If you have to get somewhere both specific and far away and you elect to walk it will surely be because you have some more than merely secular reason. This might be the traditional pilgrim’s sense that you have travel under your own power to a holy site to be, yourself, holy: to Mecca, to Jerusalem, to Canterbury. But it might be less traditionally specific. Frodo has to go to Mount Doom: he’s not going because the mountain is holy (quite the reverse), but he has to go for magical world-saving reasons that are more than merely mundane business. And, it seems, he has to walk there—the old gag about ‘why doesn’t he hitch a ride on an eagle, then Lord of the Rings could be over by page 25!’ is funny because it so patently misses the point of Tolkien’s text.

All this has its resonance for thoughts I’ve been having about Fantasy as a mode, which thoughts are presently scattered about this blog, a few other places and disposed ungainlily in an ongoing email conversation I’m having with a friend. Some day, if I’m spared, we might find it worthwhile, he and I, pulling these scattered pieces together into something more coherent. For now, I’ll lay my finger on three things that has emerged from our ponderings, to do with the agument that the roots of the late 20th-century boom in commercial Fantasy go back before Tolkien (and Howard, and Fritz Lieber) into the nineteenth-century, and three linked cultural phenomena in particular: (a) the huge resurgence in Victorian/Edwardian interest in medievalism, and Arthurianism in particular; (b) the vast popular culture reach of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and (c) Wagner.

Setting that third aside for a moment (is there much walking around in Wagner’s Ring? I’m not sure there is, actually) I'll pull something out of the Bunyan post linked there by way of moving my argument in this post onward a little. So: Pilgrim's Progress is, as we would now say, a Fantasy: a world full of danger, magic and monsters, through which an ordinary middling protagonist must pass. But because the book is an allegory (a word Tolkien pointedly denied had any applicability to Lord of the Rings) it is necessarily a doubled novel: its fantastical surface story is one text, and its implicit buried real-life story a second. The man called in the novel Christian in this spiritual realm is presumably called something quite different in our material realm: John, say. Paul. George. Adam who knows. It looks odd in the novel that Christian simply abandons his wife and four children to go on his pilgrimage, never to return (scripturally, of course, Christ enjoins his faithful to abandon their earthly duties and follow him, to “let the dead bury their dead” as he puts it). But we have to presume that this abandonment only happens, as it were, in the spiritual realm; that in the material realm he continues living with his family and materially-supporting them as was his duty. The point is, Bunyan's story is not focused on that material life. It is allegorising the spiritual separation that must grow between a husband who has been born again and a wife who hasn't, even if they're still living in the same house.
Indeed, we must assume that this peripatetic narrative describes the actual life of a man called John (or whatever) who himself has most likely never travelled anywhere—who stays all his life in the same town or village where he was born, as almost everybody did in the seventeenth-century. Indeed it's really quite important that the “actual” person Bunyan is writing about doesn't travel, even though his allegorical avatar, Christian, does. That's because one of the things Bunyan is striving for is a clear separation between his story and the (as he saw it) wicked old Catholic rituals of literal pilgrimages. To distinguish between his book and all those dodgy medieval Catholic allegorical romances. As Alec Ryrie argues in his book Protestants: the Radicals who Made the Modern World (2017), Protestants like Bunyan had a complicated relationship to the idea of pilgrimage: on the one hand a Catholic and suspect notion, on the other one that expressed their sense of faith as a journey—‘Protestantism was and is a religion of progress, of restless, relentless advance towards holiness, not of stagnation’ [132-33] is how Ryrie puts it. Bunyan is not saying Christians have actually to schlep to Canterbury, or Rheims, or Jerusalem, the way a Muslim actually must travel to Mecca. He is saying that Christians must undergo spiritual pilgrimages, journeys of faith.
Perhaps all the walking-around Fantasy characters engage in is less specifically pilgrimmy in terms of destination, and more the externalisation in terms of story and worldbuilding of a more fundamental, Protestant-y dynamic: progress, not stagnation.

I've had another thought, recently, that relates to this, and to Fantasy as a whole, and it comes out of my re-reading The Faerie Queene. I decided to read the whole thing right through, rather than rely on my piecemeal acquaintance, picked up here and there over the years with this or that episode. To see how it reads as Fantasy.

This time through, one thing in particular has been striking me: an as-it-were larger, plot-structuring thing. The world of the Faiery Queene is, very obviously, divided between goodies and baddies. The former tend to roam around, and the latter tend to be stuck in one place. Good walks (or rides), Evil is homebound. Even limiting ourselves to Book 1 (which is where I am, at the moment): the virtuous Redcrosse Knight, having been led astray by the wicked Duessa, is locked-up in the castle (the chateau, the house) of the wicked giant Orgoglio. Una happens to meet Prince Arthur, riding around the countryside, and he it is who attacks Orgoglio's house, defeats the giant and frees Arthur



The houses of Fairie Queene don't exclusively belong to wicked creatures like Orgoglio, of course. Indeed, even continuing to limit ourselves to Book 1, Una and Arthur bring the Redcrosse Knight to recuperate from his wounds in the House of Holiness, enjoying the hospitality of the House's ruler Caelia and her three daughters. But, on my re-read, I'm struck by how mobile virtue is, and how settled and lair-bound evil.

There's a particular reason this strikes me as odd, since Renaissance British attitudes to vagrancy were, by modern standards extraordinarily harsh. People (that is, common people, folk like thee and me) were supposed to stay where they were. The 1572 Vagabonds Act was a codification of, and by no means any kind of departure from, preceding Elizabethan Poor Laws; and by those laws beggars had to be licensed by the justice of the peace of the parishes to which they belonged (which is to say: where they were born). Unlicensed vagabonds were to be whipped and burned through the ear. Common folk who travelled from town to town could not do so as masterless men: merchants had to belong to a guild, and actors to a company sponsored by a nobleman (as Shakespeare's was: the Lord Chamberlain's Men). Lacking such patronage actors were regarded, legally, as sturdy beggars—an illegal category (those who were well-enough to work could not, legally, beg)—and whipped to the parish boundary. The other type of Renaissance wanderer, or tramp, was the outlaw, and the way to handle them was by hanging them by the neck until dead.

Virtue, in this larger discourse, was a home; a homestead, a place where you belonged and where you should stay. Robert Cleaver famously declared: ‘the household is as it were a little commonwealth’. Moving about, on the other hand, was deeply suspect, and in ideologically multivalent ways. Linda Woodbridge's Vagrancy, Homelessness, and English Renaissance Literature (University of Illinois Press, 2001) explores the various ways in which vagrants and wanderers were demonised: as shiftless, placeless rogues ‘wily, sexually promiscuous and inherently anarchic ... fomenters of widespread social rebellion’. Interestingly  Woodbridge's second chapter shows how Protestant writers like Martin Luther and Simon Fish associated vagrants with the Catholicism they despised. Nor was it just the Prots: ‘For writers like Juan Luis Vives, Desiderius Erasmus and Sir Thomas Elyot, the vagrant poor are “less than human”.’

The world of Faerie Queen presents a striking photographic negative of this world-logic, and commercial Fantasy (descended in part, if a little tortuously, from Spenser) does too. In Generic Fantasyland today, though the setting is medieval or Renaissance, you, an ordinary hobbit, or a humble pig-herd, or a simple villager, get to roam and explore, to wander and travel and see the wonders of the world. In Spenser's fairyland some of the evil the knights encounter are wild and loose beings, it is true, haunting the woods and making the roads unsafe for honest travellers (until they are slain); and some characters, like Duessa herself, are encountered out in the open. But, like Giant Despair in Bunyan, evil is as often as not holed up in fastnesses and fortresses. And although there is nothing unusual in a Renaissance nobleman, like Redcrosse or Arthur, travelling whereso'er they choose (benefits of nobility, of course) the more usual type in today's Fantasy is the nondescript, the commoner, the Scott-style ‘ordinary individual’ who can act, in the larger logic of the story, as a mediator between remarkable characters encountered on the way.

Is this noteworthy, do we think? I mean: as a reflection on the pedestrianism of commercial Fantasy? Hmm.

Thursday, 29 August 2019

Franz Kafka "An Imperial Message" (September 1919)


The Emperor—they say—sent a message, dictated it from his death bed no less, sent it to you alone, to you his feeble subject, to that miniature shadow hiding at the remotest distance from the imperial sun. He instructed the messenger to kneel down beside his bed and to whisper the message in his ear. It was important, he believed, to have the messenger repeat it back to him. He confirmed the messenger’s accuracy by nodding his head. And before the whole crowd of them, all those people witnessing the emperor’s death—the walls surrounding him have been pulled down, and all the great men of the empire are arranged in a circle on the wide and high-tiered flights of stairs—before all of them he sent off his messenger. Away he went at once, a strong, indefatigable man. Thrusting out one arm and then another he pushes through the crowd. If he meets resistance he gestures at his own chest where is pinned the sun-shaped medallion. He’s the only one moving, pressing easily forwards. But the crowd is so very big; its mansions are infinite. If he were crossing an open field he’d fly along, no question, and you would very soon hear the wonderful pounding of his fist on your door. But instead of that all his efforts come to nothing. He is still making his way through all the private rooms of the inner palace. He will never find a way through. And even if he did, it wouldn’t make any difference. He’d only have to struggle down the palace steps, and, even if he did that, it wouldn’t make any difference. He’d still have the courtyards to cross, and after the courtyards the second palace that encircles the first, and, again, down stairs and through courtyards, and then, yet again, another palace, and so on for millennia. But say he managed it at last, burst through the outermost door—although such a thing could never, never happen—why then: the whole royal capital city, the centre of the world, is standing before him, heaped buildings and streets clogged with mud. No one forces his way through such a place, certainly not a man carrying a message from a dead man. But nonetheless, you sit at your window as evening falls, and you dream the message to yourself.

Friday, 2 August 2019

Zombi



The OED says the first recorded use of the word ‘zombie’ (a word originally ‘of West African origin’) in English is 1819:
1819 R. Southey History of Brazil III. xxxi. 24 Zombi, the title whereby he [chief of Brazilian natives] was called, is the name for the Deity, in the Angolan tongue... NZambi is the word for Deity.
I've found some earlier examples. Here's an article from the Universal Magazine (‘Account of a Republic of Slaves which Existed For About Sixty Years in Brazil’) in 1809:



And here, fifty years earlier, is a passage from George Sale, ‎George Psalmanazar and ‎Archibald Bower's Universal History, from the Earliest Account of Time (1760). This one is especially interesting, because in this case ‘zombi’ (or ‘zambi’) means not ‘ruler’ but fetish. A missionary to the Congo is bigging-up his crucifix for the benefit of the locals:



So, no: Southey does not get the credit for introducing this African word into English.

Thursday, 25 July 2019

Loving Our Monsters: Thoughts on "Communion Town"



In the introduction to a recent reprint of Dracula (Constable, 2012) Colm Tóibín makes the case for Stoker’s book not just as a great novel but more specifically as a great Irish novel. The apparent absence of great Irish writers of the nineteenth-century, before Joyce (we might prefer: before Wilde and Shaw) is an illusion, he says. The 19th-century, Tóibín argues, saw important manifestations of a kind of Irish subconscious in the writings of Maturin, Le Fanu and Stoker. He quotes Maria Edgeworth, from 1834:
It is impossible to draw Ireland as she is now in a book or fiction. Realities are too strong, party passions too violent, to bear to see, or care to look at their faces in a looking-glass. The people would only break the glass and curse the fool who held the mirror up to nature—distorted nature in a fever.
So, change scenes: Communion Town (2012) the Booker-longlisted first novel by Sam Thompson. It’s about London, but it follows the Pratchett-Harrison-Gaiman-Miéville line—and what a strange collection of names to bring under the same umbrella—of writing about London indirectly by writing about an imaginary metropolis that both is and is not London. If I ask why?, I hope it won’t be taken, by the seven people liable to read this post, that I’m in any sense sniping at the validity of the 'speculative' approach as such. Obviously not; it’s what I love; it’s what I do. But what is our excuse? We aren’t living through the situation Edgeworth described. What does a fantastic and metaphorical apprehension of the city have that documentary verisimilitude (say) doesn’t?

Here's one idea: that we metaphorise the monstrosity of life as actual monsters because, pace Edgeworth and Stoker, it’s the only way we can articulate it. But I don't think that's right. We're all post Chatterley-trial, after all. All sorts of horrible things get written and published in broadly ‘realist’ modes nowadays. Another is that we metaphorise that monstrosity, even though we’re perfectly capable of addressing the monstrousness more directly, because we’ve fallen in love with our imagined monsters to the exclusion of real life. Maybe the problem is that we take our imagined monsters too seriously—more seriously than the problems of real life. Maybe the problem is that we don’t ironize our metaphors enough. Of course, I would say that, wouldn’t I?

So here’s Thompson’s City (it is unnamed in the novel: ‘Communion Town’ is one of its quarters); more specifically, here's its main railway station:
A world of grey dawn twilight and blackened stone above, rainwater dripping from the girders, pigeons skulking in rows and strangers spilling from carriages to gather on the concourse, disoriented. [3]
Waterloo? Or, wait: Paris Gard de Nord? (further out, ‘...those banlieues where the old streets are overshadowed by never-completed tower blocks stalled midway through the process of being torn down’ [6]). No: because we’re on the coast (‘I head past shut shops and cafés and across the park … as the gaining light scribbles colour and texture into the world, and soon I smell brine, and I’m on the seafront, buffeted by gusts of wind with crows blowing around above the mud’ [10] Aberdeen?). Except the flavour is London (‘River walkways and cycle paths looping from Three Liberties to Green Stairs, from Syme Gardens to Glory Part’), inflected—as actual London increasingly is—via Continental Europe (a metro rather than an underground; ‘these flower tubs and iron railings, these stained white pavements, locked restaurants, fire escapes and commercial accessways, these airy canyons whose window-sills are crowded with geraniums …’ [41]; ‘the Market was a broad, kinked half-mile of cobbled thoroughfare as old as the city, jammed with stalls’ [146]; ‘tarry clutches of lobster pots lay here and there’ [173] ‘Simon rode the metro over to Sweatmarket station and climbed through the chipped tiling and wet concrete up to the streets of Glory Part. He crossed a footbridge and turned down Sluice Lane.’) What else? Well there’s something monstrous in this city. Which is to say, there are monsters in Thompson’s city rather in the way that there are ghosts in Turn of the Screw.

It’s not a novel. It is ten short stories, linked each-to-each not by character or narrative but by the propinquity of all taking place in the same imaginary city, as well as by a certain commonality of mood, tenor and theme (arrival; alienation; suspicion; compromised love; crime and violence). The first story is sort of about terrorism (a group call ‘Cynics’ attack the city’s Metro in a 7/7esque move). The second is a melancholy sort of love story that has to do with music and the making of music. In the third, a boy builds elaborate model city in his room (Kurosawa liked to put models of his worlds in his fictions about his worlds too). The fourth, ‘Gallathea’, spins Noirish adventures amongst the criminal element via a slightly clumsily ventriloquized Chandler tone (‘I tipped the spirit into the back of my throat and choked appreciatively as it burned all the way down. The swell at the other end of the bar was taking a sidelong interest in me’ and so on). Then there’s ‘Good slaughter’ a first-person tale of serial killing; ‘Three Translations’ again about arrivals, and foreignness; ‘The Significant City of Lazarus Glass’—perhaps the best of the stories—much interested in crime as puzzle (‘exquisite enigmas, mysteries, sinister and bizarre: for Peregrine Fitch these were at once a vocation and the keenest happiness of life’ 189); then ‘Outside the Days’ and ‘The Rose Tree’ (We’re in a pub, one evening. A bold young man says: ‘They tell me that in this season, in your city, no one dares go out after dark … well I’m going out!’ [243] So what happens to him? Well he comes back. ‘unsteadily, with his jacket hanging open, confused … one arm of his jacket was ripped and the blood was sticky on his hand. We couldn’t work out where all the blood had come from.’ [252]. He falls down.) Finally ‘A Way To Leave’ tells us about the relationship between Simon and Florence, and, well, about ways of leaving.

Thompson works to give each chapter a different voice, and this kind-of-works, though it’s a little hit and miss. My sense is that Thompson’s skill as a writer is not in variety, or pastiche, but in a kind of dense, closely observed atmospherics. His dialogue is not very especially well differentiated, character to character; nor does it have the snap or vim of actual interchange; and his plotting is a touch over-reliant on a small number of oblique knight’s-moves—the beauty of insinuations, rather than the beauty of inflections. But the novel is often very striking and memorable, and many moments are eerily beautiful, and that’s not to be sniffed at. Does the novel wear its academic learning on its sleeve? Pharmakons and homi sacri? A serial killer called ‘Le Flâneur’? Characters from Jonson’s Alchemist? Well that’s alright.

I’m more interested, I think, in the larger picture: the thing of which this intriguing novel is, perhaps, symptomatic. I mean: that there is more purchase in talking about the fragments of urban subjectivity by removing it from the real. I wonder, though: is that true? It’s not so much about the fragmentation of urban living as it is about the subjectivity of urban spaces (all these people, like the ten speakers of The Ring and the Book perceive a slightly different city!) which is news about on the level of the news when Roscius was an actor in Rome. Buzz, buzz.

Here’s what I half-suspect, though I’m not sure. The predatory violence at the heart of ‘civilised’ society, sexualised and class-marked, was the hidden thing that could not be directly expressed by a 19th-century writer like Stoker. What’s the 21st-century equivalent? We can write as much violent sexualised class critique as we like; and we do. It just doesn’t change anything. What a novel like this suggests is that it’s something else that is becoming inexpressible except via the displacement of metaphor: a mood, or a flavour, a particular scent of ontology. The way living in the city makes us feel like strangers. The way it baffles us, intrigues us, frightens us, attacks us. We can’t admit to it, directly; because we’re all so clever and postmodern and self-aware. It may be a variant of the Eco notion that we can no longer own emotion directly (that we cannot say ‘I love you’; we can only say ‘as Barbara Cartland might say “I love you” … ah! how that Barbara Cartland reference dates old Umberto). Except that the point of Communion Town is not love. It’s something else.

Sunday, 7 July 2019

A Trove of Triffids



John Wyndham's 1951 novel The Day of the Triffids manages the impressive task of making vegetables scary. It requires a degree of contrivance, but Wyndham pulls it off. First he posits bioengineered carnivorous plants that can walk about on three stumpy legs and sting their prey with whip-like tentacles. Then he adds-in a second disaster: a spectacular meteor shower (which may actually be an orbiting weapons platform: it's never made clear) that blinds all who see it, leaving whole populations helpless before the perambulating plants. The result is one of the masterpieces of British ‘cosy catastophe’ science fiction. The original Michael Joseph cover by Welsh artist John Griffiths imagines the triffid as a sort of giraffe-shaped artichoke on tuberous legs. Since ‘gigantic artichokes’ rather undersells how tense and scary Wyndham's novel actually is, Griffiths has superimposed spiraling green lines to convey alarm. Still, his conception of triffid was iconic enough for it to be copied across to the 1961 Penguin first paperback edition with only minimal changes:



There's something about the neatness of Penguin's orange-and-white livery that adds menace to the clear-line drawing of the plant in the middle; an effect enhanced by the way the penguin logo itself appears to be giving us an alarmed side-eye at the proximity of the monster. The cover art for the first US edition (1951), by New York artist Whitney Bender, reworks the British cover by adding turmoil in the sky:


The splendour of the rendering of city and sky rather dwarfs the poor little triffid, who looks more like an overgrown lampost than a monster. Bender was in his day a respected painter for whom book illustration was a sideline, and there's something a little too stately about his terror-plants. By way of contrast this Earle Bergey cover for the ‘Popular Library’ paperback of 1959 is much more kinetic and vivid, even if it relies for its effect on the titillation of partially undressing the books' heroine:



‘Revolt ...’ was clearly considered a grabbier title than ‘Day ...’, although that shout line is a little strange. Hard to read it, now, without inserting a tentative pause between the first and second words. ‘An  ... unusual science fiction novel’. Still the triffid itself is painted with impressive force and dynamism. Then there's this 1972 cover (artist unknown) with a trio of bristling triffids, standing like backing singers.


Gladys Knight and the Pippids.

Friday, 5 July 2019

Morlock poem



Wells’s Morlocks
Suffer everything from rickets to smallpox.
Turns out that living so molesome
Is pretty unwholesome.

Existence Compared to a Bicycle Race


Our soul rides the peloton
Of bones that is our skeleton:
Life's macabre dance
A Tour de more-than-France
This skin
A yellow jersey to keep our organs in.
Birth, death, birth: life's circle
Is a very peculiar type of cycle.

Thursday, 27 June 2019

The Cow


The cow jumped over the moon. The cow jumped under the moon. The cow went around and around the moon. The cow, altering its course fractionally, spiralled in and landed upon the moon. The cow docked. The cow vented four hundred thousand litres of milk into the lunar refectory reservoir. The cow was made of a mixture of metal and plastic. The cow refuelled. The cow decoupled. The cow was piloted by an AI with an equivalent 30% more-than-bovine mental capacity. The cow jumped to orbit again.

Dawg, watching from Alpha's main observatory, sucked on a stimulant delivery package. The stimulant filled him with pleasurable thoughts.

Sunday, 23 June 2019

The Man Who Fell to Earth (dir, Nick Roeg, 1976)


[This is a review of the Special Edition DVD (2-Discs, OPTD0732) release of Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth that I wrote some years ago for an academic journal. I thought it might be an idea to blog it. And so, here we are.]


Roeg’s reputation as a major director rests chiefly on three of his 1970s films: Walkabout (1971), in which an ordinary young girl encounters the radical strangeness of the Australian outback; Don’t Look Now (1973), another strange, but strangely affecting, movie that combines psychological portraiture, erotic drama and ghost story to striking effect; and the science fictional The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). This last is perhaps the strangest of the three, a work in which humanity as a whole is defamiliarised by being seen through the eyes of David Bowie’s visiting humanoid alien. In all three films Roeg develops a visual grammar to express the encounter with weirdness that is at the core of his directorial praxis. Indeed, one way of assessing the DVD release of this title is to try and gauge the extent to which this visual grammar is still capable of creatively estranging its viewer.

It’s a question raised by DVD re-releases in general, actually, since the commercial habit the format has engendered of re-releasing classic movies with a large amount of extra material will inevitably tend towards the ironing-out of any mysteries or uncertainties pertaining to the films themselves. Interviews with film-makers, directors commentaries and the like strive to explain everything about a given film; and owning a film in such a convenient form enables multiple repeat viewings in a way largely alien to the 1970s film viewer, who tended to see a film once, or (at most) a couple of times in the cinema. Certainly, such complete explanation would be detrimental to the effectiveness of The Man Who Fell to Earth, which depends for its hefty emotional and imaginative punch on a dreamlike unclarity, a lucid impression of deeper mysteries that would surely disintegrate on too rigorous an analysis.

To this end, this DVD re-release of Roeg’s film does its job.  Despite running to two discs the release contains no commentary from its director, or anybody else, on the main feature. The extras, such as they are, are confined to the second disc, and they are scanty.  There’s a short making-of documentary largely based upon interviews with Roeg, producer Michael Deeley, screenwriter Paul Mayersberg and actor Candy Clark (evidently neither Bowie himself nor Rip Torn could be persuaded into the studio to face questions) as well as some of the technical staff—costume designer, cinematographer, editor.  There are in addition two separate interviews, with Roeg and Mayersberg, in which much of the material from the making-of is reiterated . And then there are trailers, TV-spots and other advertising material.  Compared with many DVD re-releases this is thin fare.

Moreover Roeg, in particular, is endearingly unforthcoming about the deeper meanings of his own project.  In interview he tends, in his patrician mumble, towards either vatic incomprehensibilities (‘it’s … like a butterfly being friendly with a dormouse’) or else he gives voice to various rather disconnected trains of thought.  ‘It had,’ he says of the script, ‘a human ethos to it—it was not just sci-fi … mere sci-fi … not sci-fi … I mean, I like sci-fi … but it … um … the character of Mr Newton interested me.’

The Mr Newton whose character so intrigued Roeg is the alien whose fall is alluded to in the movie’s title.  The film begins with his spaceship literally falling out of the sky into a New Mexico lake; and the plot marks out the title character’s metaphorical rise and fall.  To begin with we see Newton marketing advanced alien photographic technology to earthlings in order to accrue a fortune.  He also begins a relationship with Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), a sweetly innocent girl working in a small New Mexico hotel.  Newton’s plan, it seems, is to make enough money to build a spaceship and return to his dying planet—scenes are intercut of Newton’s alien wife and two children that show a desiccated desert world.  He leaves his business affairs in the hands of Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry) and retreats to New Mexico to live, more or less, as a Howard Hughes-style recluse, employing university lecturer Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn) to help him build the space ship. In a striking sequence Newton reveals his alienness to Mary-Lou by removing his humanising wig and contact lenses—to her initial and urinous fright, although she subsequently accepts and even continues having sex with the alien. Bryce also has his suspicions that Newton is an extraterrestrial, and eventually betrays him to the authorities—government agents, presumably from the CIA, lurk in the margins of many scenes. Newton’s attempt to return to his home world is thwarted, and he is imprisoned in a bizarre luxury apartment built inside a warehouse, where ‘they’ (we assume, government agents) experiment upon him.

By the end of the film Mary-Lou and Bryce, visibly older, have become a couple. Newton on the other hand looks as young as ever, despite years of alcohol abuse—one Earthly vice to which he has succumbed. Newton has given up hope of returning to his home, and instead has recorded an album of pop music in the hope that, being played on the radio, its message will eventually reach his wife. Both Mary-Lou and Bryce meet Newton again, separately, and the film ends abruptly, during the second of these meetings. Newton’s minder interrupts Bryce’s conversation: ‘don’t you think Mr Newton has had enough now?’ ‘Yes,’ says Bryce, ‘I think he probably has’. Newton makes a sort of high-pitched ‘mm’ noise and lowers his head so that the wide brim of his hat obscures his face.

The strangeness of the film has to do with a deliberate reticence, a disinclination to tie-up the plot neatly, and is partly a function of Roeg’s characteristically oblique and fractured editing and intercutting. We never learn exactly what the government agents are up to, or even who they are. We don’t even learn, exactly, what Newton was doing on earth—his own world is parched, and he initially shows great reverence for Earthly water, but there’s no indication that he makes any plans to (for instance) ship water from planet to planet. The early scenes imply that Newton’s new technology is revolutionary, but in later scenes it seems to have had no impact on the world.

In place of exposition, Roeg gives us a particular sort of visual layer-cake; fairly rapidly, occasionally disjointed montages alternate with a number of lengthy set-piece sequences that appear, on the surface, to have only glancing relevant to the main storyline. So for instance, by way of the latter, we get a lot of sexually explicit detail of the midlife crisis Bryce undergoes before he meets Newton. There is a lengthy scene in which Mary-Lou inadvertently debilitates Newton by taking him up in a lift to his hotel room; and later in the film there is a drawn-out sex scene between the old Mary-Lou and the unaged Newton in which they shoot one another with blanks from a pistol.

Those interested in the question of what this is all about will find few insights in the DVD extras of this most recent re-release. All the participants accede to the rather obvious point that the film is in some sense about alienness. But what manner of alienness? Deeley describes the film as saturated with Englishness, as if Englishness and alienness are somehow cognate (‘the English in America,’ he says, ‘are very alien-like’). Roeg himself was English, of course; as was Bowie; and in the film the character Newton passes himself off as British. Moreover we learn that New Mexico was chosen as the movie’s primary location (Walter Trevis’s novel, upon which the film is based, is mostly set in Kentucky) because that state had recently passed labour laws that allowed the filmmakers to import an English crew wholesale from the UK. On the other hand, in the making-of documentary, Roeg opines that ‘nobody wants to be an outsider … it’s rather annoying’, and it’s difficult to pin-down any particularly English quality to The Man Who Fell to Earth itself—on the contrary, the way the film captures a specifically American set of landscapes and cultural mannerisms is one of its strengths. Elsewhere Roeg talks about actors as aliens, on the not very eloquently expressed grounds that ‘actors play alien people from themselves’, a point rather undercut by the decision—about which Roeg and Deeley talk at some length—to cast the rock-star celebrity Bowie in the title role rather than a trained actor. There’s no question but that Bowie is well-cast, but the strange quality he possesses has less to do with his Englishness, or with the rather mannered and untutored ‘acting’ he undertakes in this role, but simply reflects the uniquely spaced-out and peculiar status of Bowie himself qua star.

Does this film still have the capacity to startle and estrange? This question does not admit of a straightforward answer. Certainly, there are some respects in which the film’s attempt to estrange has lost force. This might be a function of the fact that western culture has moved on from the world into which the film was originally released. The representations of sexual activity, which were counted as very explicit in 1976, now seem, if anything, rather tame. The Oliver Farnsworth character is presented as gay, and in a stable relationship with a younger man; and one of the CIA agents, a black man, is shown having sex with his white wife. But these things do not startle us today as they perhaps did audiences in the 1970s, a decade when homophobia and horror at miscegenation were more conspicuous blots upon Western society than they are, generally speaking, now. Then there is Roeg’s deliberately defamiliarising directorial style, which certainly hasn’t aged badly. If his choppy, nonlinear approach to editing doesn’t seem so strange today it is in part because it has become largely absorbed into the mainstream, a testament to his success as a visual stylist. But at the heart of the film is Bowie’s performance, and Bowie himself; and there’s something in those two things that still possess this quality, or ability, to estrange.

Watching The Man Who Fell to Earth again, I found it hard to avoid the sense that its apprehension of strangeness works most powerfully as a commentary upon the strange cultural explosion of pop music and the status of pop stars of the late 1960s and early 1970s. This is to say that, in fact, the film is most powerfully about Bowie himself—or more particularly about the celebrity persona, or perception, of Bowie. The sequences of wealthy reclusive eccentricity at the heart of the movie, although premised in terms of plot on the life of a businessman, actually play visually and semiotically on our expectations of pop star indulgence. Sex, drugs (in this case alcohol) and music (Newton’s final venture into recording) constellate the whole movie, and watching Newton rolling around on a bed with Mary-Lou in an expensively cluttered flat reminded me of similar sequences from Ken Russell’s Tommy (1975), or Michael Apted’s Stardust (1974).

 I'm not arguing that the movie is about ‘pop stardom’ in a modern sense, since such stardom nowadays is merely an emptied out and business-driven matter of wealth and media exposure. By the same token, the sort of ‘pop stardom’ I’m talking about wasn’t something that really existed before the mid-1960s. So, in that sense The Man Who Fell to Earth is very strongly about its decade: a period when the really big music stars, like Bowie, still possessed a strange and totemic aura, were still the locus not only of weirdness and excess but of a strange sexualised innocence. It’s a notion of pop stardom that still has, I think, genuine cultural currency; and few films have found as powerful and evocative a visual correlative for expressing it than this one.

This may seem like a roundabout way of saying that The Man Who Fell to Earth is Bowie’s best film; but that would be to say very little—the competition, after all (Hemmings’s 1979 Just a Gigolo? Damski’s 1983 Yellowbeard?) is not strong. The point is that this film not only stars Bowie, it construes Bowie, or a version of Bowie that remains potent and recognisable—recognisably estranging, if that doesn’t sound too paradoxical. It is that imagistic and iconic articulation that is the core of the film’s enduring power. That’s why it is a film that spilled out of the purely cinematic idiom to determine Bowie’s next two music releases—Station to Station (1976) and Low (1977), two of his best. That’s why I can see that it made sense for Optimum Releasing (the company who have put this DVD special edition together) to use as a cover image not the original film poster, but rather a black-and-white head-shot of Bowie, hair-brushed back, looking straight at the camera; and looking, too, quite astonishingly beautiful.

Thursday, 13 June 2019

Anthony Burgess's Black Prince



Today sees the mmp publication of The Black Prince. To mark this auspicious moment I'm going to share something special with the readers of this blog.

When I took Burgess's original idea (that is: the idea of a medieval historical novel written in the style of Dos Passos) and worked it up into The Black Prince I, and Andrew Biswell, who heads-up the Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester, believed AB himself had not actually drafted any material towards the work. But then Andrew dropped me a line to say he'd discovered one solitary page—page one—of what we have to assume was an abortive attempt by Burgess actually to write out the book. I'm copying that page here, so you can see the difference between the echt Burgess and my four-decades-later reimagining of Burgess's idea. Have a care, though, if violence and sexual violence are liable to trigger you. It doesn't hold back.


Click, as they say, to embiggen. It's fascinating for me to see this: original writing by Anthony Burgess that, so far as I know, only a couple of pairs of eyes at the Burgess Foundation—and me—have ever seen before. A shame there's not more of it; I'd like to see how he developed it.

As to the question of what I would have done if I'd known of this when writing my own version of the story (whether, that is, I would have incorporated it into what I was doing) I honestly don't know. When it comes to representing violence my Black Prince pulls no punches, I hope, but it's tonally not like this. I don't know if the casualness of the representation of rape, here, would be acceptable, or would even work, in a novel published in the twenty-teens (it is shocking, and that was evidently what AB was setting out to do; but I'm not sure mere shock is aesthetic validation enough). One point of commonality: the crowing rooster. That bird is the first thing mentioned in Burgess's screenplay, and the first thing mentioned in this draft page too.



My Black Prince also opens with a rooster, although because I was cleaving more closely to Dos Passos, opening with a Newsreel section, I turned my rooster into the ident of the old black-and-white British Pathé News film.



Of course, it's actually just a medieval rooster in a falling-down French barn. Pathé News wasn't invented for many centuries yet. (The novel, strictly speaking, opens with a preface called, for onbrand reasons and because of the novel's thematic of cavalry war as a terrible inundation or flood, ‘Prance, Noah!’ But you can ignore this and start with Part 1. Indeed, I urge and exhort you to do so.)

So it's publication day for the mass-market paperback edition of my novel. Buy a copy, why don't you, and see the ways in which my handling of this medieval material, whilst I hope Burgessian enough, differs from the actual typed-out Burgessia. And check out Unbound, my publisher here: they have all sorts of brilliant projects ongoing.

Friday, 7 June 2019

Black Prince: Money Money Money




:1:

In a few days the mass-market paperback of The Black Prince is published. This is the historical novel I wrote, taking as my starting point an unmade 1970s screenplay by Anthony Burgess, and adopting the approach he identified in an interview with the Paris Review in 1972:
INTERVIEWER: Do you expect to write any more historical novels?

BURGESS: I’m working on a novel intended to express the feel of England in Edward III’s time, using Dos Passos’ devices. I believe there’s great scope in the historical novel . . . The fourteenth century of my novel will be mainly evoked in terms of smell and visceral feelings, and it will carry an undertone of general disgust rather than hey-nonny nostalgia.

INTERVIEWER: Which of Dos Passos’ techniques will you use?

BURGESS: The novel I have in mind, and for which I’ve done a ninety-page plan, is about the Black Prince. I thought it might be amusing blatantly to steal the Camera Eye and the Newsreel devices from Dos Passos just to see how they might work, especially with the Black Death and Crécy and the Spanish campaign. The effect might be of the fourteenth century going on in another galaxy where language and literature had somehow got themselves into the twentieth century. The technique might make the historical characters look remote and rather comic—which is what I want.
Naturally I had to clear this project with Burgess's estate, and the Burgess Institute in Manchester (headed by the estimable Andrew Biswell), Burgess being still in copyright. When I wrote the novel Andrew and I both believed that Burgess's talk of ‘ninety pages’ written was common-garden Burgessian rodomontade, and that in fact he wrote nothing of the novel beyond the (conventionally framed, non-Dos-Passos-y) screenplay. Since the novel came out in hardback Andrew has turned up a first draft page of the actual novel, and about which I shall blog in a little while. But back when I sat down actually to write The Black Prince I had a free hand. In my first draft I tried to retain as much echt Burgess dialogue from the screenplay as possible, but in the event I revised most of that away. Screenplay dialogue is a different quantity to novel dialogue, and one of Burgess's distinctivenesses as a novelist was his extraordinary ear for the idiolects of human speech; so the rather flatter speech of the screenplay needed a bit of Burgessy titivating.


:2:

One of the things that drew me to this project was that I'd never written a historical novel, never mind an historical novel, before, and I wanted to give it a go. The thought of working on something Burgess initiating was extremely exciting, since I'm a long-term Burgess fan. And quite apart from anything else, I really liked his strange conceit. One advantage of writing in a Dos-Passosish manner is that it allows for a large variety of characters and perspectives, which was fun. Most of my characters existed in their own sections, and become part of the larger tapestry; but two reappear at different stages of their lives, and the stories, throughout: Edward the Black Prince himself, and a regular soldier and commoner called Black George (two other characters, Edward's wife Joan and William Tyndale also have recurring sections, but are less important to the overall scheme of the novel).

Still: my main task, as I sat down at my desk, was: to write a historical novel. To do that I needed a working model of what a historical novel is. So what is it?

Let's say: ‘a novel that tells a story set in some distinct historical period.’

I'm going to go with: ‘nope.’

Obviously, my novel does tell a story, and is set in a distinct historical period. It really is about Edward, the Black Prince, his life and battles, his world and his destiny. I mean, really: it tells that story, at some length and in a good deal of detail, such that if you happen not to know the story (unlikely though that sounds) you'll pick up the key facts. But this is not what a historical novel is.

Which is to say: this is not what a historical novel ought to be. Lots of historical novels are this; and that's fine if that lights your candle. Indeed, I'd say the majority of historical novels in print today are this: characters with modern attitudes, exemplary of modern mores, relatable where modern readers are concerned, dressed up in period-specific fancy dress, riding horses instead of driving cars. Only a few historical periods are covered: World War 2, Victorian Britain, Regency England, Tudor England, Ancient Rome. The narrative is full of incident and colour, passions run high, people speak to one another in readily comprehensible ways although dialogue will be more elegant and expressive than is the case on Love Island and may be primped with the odd by-jove!, prithee or eheu. The reading experience gives a spice of temporal exoticism (it would be crass to talk about temporal orientalism, not least since what's overwhelmingly on offer in the modern blockbuster historical novel is temporal occidentalism; but there's more than a whiff of that in the mode's appeal, I think).

In fact, though, the historical novel is not about people at historical moments, but is rather about history as such. That means these kinds of novels are of course going to be about people, because history is not an abstract process but is, on the contrary, precisely how people have lived over time. But how people have lived has changed, and in more than just the technology they use and the styles of clothes they wear. Modernity has largely replaced the old warrior values of feudal society like bravery, loyalty and strength with bourgeois virtues like honesty, decency and hard work. There has been, in the West, a profound shift from a shame culture to a guilt culture. Post-Romantic aesthetic sensibility—and therefore, sensibility as such—is different to pre-Romantic aesthetic sensibility. We are not just less violent nowadays than people used to be in the past, we are many orders of magnitude less violent, because (I'd argue) life is immensely less constrained and frustrating than it used to be. People are still people of course; they deal with many of the same basic ontological necessities that people always have. We still yearn, rage, labour and rest; we still love our children and decline towards death. But in important ways we not only live in different surroundings but are different people now.

A historical novel doesn't have to reflect that, in any absolutist or prescriptive sense; and I cast no aspersions on people enjoying the escapist pleasures of the bodice-ripper. But I would say that a good historical novel at least needs to attempt it. Writing SF or Fantasy, as I usually do, is not that far away from writing a historical novel: worldbuilding an unfamiliar environment, recreating the mindworld of characters who believe in magic, construing the-past-as-such into some kind of present-day relevancy (for what else are Tolkien, Moorcock and George R R Martin doing if not that?) But more importantly, writing a historical novel needs to be more like writing SF or Fantasy in that it ought to estrange us from its material to one degree or another. A historical novel that doesn't estrange has failed, I think.

All this devolves upon another very big question: ‘what is history?’ If you believe that people don't really change, and that history is just one thing followed by another thing, then anachronisms of subjectivity and form won't bother you. Me, I take a more Lukácsian view of the matter. Lukács's still-essential study, The Historical Novel (1937 in Russian, 1962 in English translation) takes Walter Scott as the paradigmatic historical novelist, not because he was the first person to write a historical novel (he wasn't), nor because he was in his day very popular and influential (he was, but that's not what interests Lukács). Rather he identifies in Scott's Waverley novels a dramatisation of the dynamic of history as such.

The typical Scott novel goes like this: there's a protagonist not in himself notable or important, a (fictional) individual living at a time of (historical) flux, and he meets various real historical characters in the course of his peregrinations. Generally this individual—let's call him Waverley, after the protagonist of Scott's first and series-naming novel—is torn between supporting the old and supporting the new. The old is the romantic, thrilling, charismatic but outmoded and unviable past; the new is the practical, bourgeois, in many ways unappealing but viable and inevitable present-future. In Waverley this dyad is: the romantic, doomed Jacobites on the one hand and the Hanoverian succession, which is the future, on the other. Waverley ‘wavers’ between the two, hence his name: drawn first to the cause of Bonnie Prince Charlie, he ends the novel a respectable Hanoverian-supporting laird. And, with variations and tweaks, that's the basic Scott paradigm for all his novels.

What Lukács thinks important about this is that Scott (writing decades before Marx though he was) intuitively grasped that history is a dialectical process by which older social-cultural theses come into conflict with antithetical present-day forces and are sublated into a synthetic future. That, in other words, Scott is writing about the dynamic of history itself, and his stories and characters are there to illustrate that dynamic. Scott's historical periods are always in flux, always illustrative of process, rather than being static period backdrops. ‘Through the plot of the historical novel,’ says Lukács, ‘at whose centre stands the hero, a neutral ground is sought and found upon which the extreme, opposing social forces can be brought into a human relation with one another.’ Where Shakespeare’s histories (say) focused on figures of world-historical importance like kings and caesars, Scott’s protagonists were ordinary people, removed from the centres of historical power.

But in Scott's novels, the big names of history ‘can never be central figures of the action. The important leading figure, who embodies an historical movement, necessarily does so at a certain level of abstraction. Scott, by first showing the complex and involved character of popular life itself, creates this being which the leading figure then has to generalize and concentrate in an historical deed.’ Accordingly ‘the struggles and antagonisms of history are best represented by “mediocre” heroes who, in their psychology and destiny, always represent social trends and historical forces.’ In this context, ‘it matters little whether individual details, individual facts are historically correct or not ... Detail is only a means of achieving historical faithfulness, for making concretely clear the historical necessity of a concrete situation.’ At the same, time, Lukács insists that historical fiction written entirely ‘from below’, dealing only with proletarian experience without any middle class or aristocratic characters, cannot capture the totality of historical experience as such. And here we are.


:3:

I'm not suggesting Lukács would have had liked The Black Prince, had he lived to see it published. On the contrary: it's likely he would have hated it, actually. He championed classical realism and despised Modernism, where this novel is written according to the formal logic of that arch-Modernist, Dos Passos; and he looked down on historical novels that emphasised torture and violence, as ‘archaeologized’ artefacts, in which ‘brutality and pathology’ merely anesthetized history as such. Nonetheless I have here, deliberately, written a Lukácsian historical novel.

There are various ways in which this is, I think, true of The Black Prince, and I'm not going to detail all of them. But I'll pick an indicative one. So: the events of the novel run from The Battle of Crécy (26 August 1346) through to Edward's death in 1376. The acme of feudal  medievalism; but intimations of change are present. Burgess's screenplay sees Tyndale's incipient Protestantism as the sign of things to come, and my novel picks up on that a little. But more important, I figured, was money.

Early in the novel I wrote a section about a character called Brian, a serf owned by his master, the Lord of Bower. Brian tends two acres of his lord's land, and raises chickens. Although technically everything of Brian's actually belongs to his master, the Lord is canny enough to allow him to sell his chickens and keep a portion of what he earns. The chapter concerns Brian selling two dozen chickens to the adjacent manor house, which is preparing a banquet to entertain the king. Brian isn't allowed inside, of course, but he gets a shilling for his birds.
It was four great manor houses crashed together into one enormous structure, surely bigger than any cathedral or palace, big as the whole city of London together, or so Brian imagined. He loitered for an hour or more because he was unsure how to approach such magnificence, or where to go, and fearful that he would be beaten for presumption if he came close. But then a man he knew, called Edgar the Nine-fingered, came by, herding two big geese with a stick. Edgar showed Brian which flank of the huge brick-built edifice to approach, and which door to wait at. ‘Some say, knock,’ Edgar noted, ‘but I tried that in Trumpington, and a man came out and beat me with a cane. So I just wait.’ They waited for an hour, until a maid emerged with a slop bucket, and she called the cook out, and he agreed to buy the geese and the chickens, the former live, the latter dead. ‘I’ve kept them hooded and living,’ Brian explained, ‘to keep them fresh.’ ‘And I’ve kept my wits hooded and living,’ the cook returned, holding his fist close to Brian’s face, ‘so as to not need the fucking obvious explained to me. Wring their necks and I’ll buy them at three a penny.’ Brian might have gone along with that, if not for the fist. He kept his calm face on, but part of him wanted to smite the cook with the pole he was carrying, squawking birds and all. ‘Two a penny,’ he said. ‘A shilling the lot.’ The cook scoffed and rolled his eyes and turned his attention to Edgar and his two geese. Nine-fingered Edgar said: ‘I can get sixpence a head for these in London.’ ‘You’ve never been to London, shit-tongue,’ retorted the cook. ‘You’re a nobody. Me, I have seen the King himself as close to me as you are now. Threepence each.’ For a while the two haggled back and forth. ‘I might give you fourpence for that one,’ said the cook, eyeing the larger of the geese. ‘But then I’d only give you tuppence for that other, on account of it being so fucking scrawny.’ ‘Sixpence a head in London.’ They settled on ninepence the pair, and the cook went inside and came out again in person with nine brown pennies. A maidservant shooed the geese round the side of the building, the birds hissing like rainfall as they went. Edgar slipped quickly away with his money. The cook saw Brian, still standing there with the pole over his shoulder and said: ‘you you you still here? Go, go, fuck off, before I wake up the house mastiff and he comes out and bites off both your balls.’ The cook went back in the house.

Brian sat down on the grass bank outside the door, and rested one end of the pole on the floor. The chickens were not happy. They kept opening their wings and clucking and shuffling. Brian did not move. It was some time after noon, and big clouds the colour of whitepink blossom were barging into one another overhead. The sunlight came round the edges of the clouds in long, straight lines, spears of brilliance reaching down from God to his green world. Away to the west some of the clouds had darker bellies, but they showed no sign of coming in this direction. Larks tumbled over one another in the afternoon sky, spilling their long and complicated songs. The wind was rising a little, and the trees all around shushed the birds. For a while Brian only sat. The clouds parted, and bright sunlight pressed a great flat-edged shadow onto the grass beside the palace.

A serving boy, who could surely be no older that six or seven put his head round the door, saw Brian, and shrank back inside. The clouds came together again and the air grew chillier. Brian sat. The stonework of the wall facing him was a marvel of intricate placing. The builders had not only arranged the flints with an almost supernatural neatness, they had somehow embedded different coloured stones in the matrix to create diagonals, fine shapes, true beauty. For a while Brian tried to imagine the process involved, but the mere thought of it puzzled his brain. So he stared at the roof for a while, and pondered how he might arrange such solidity for his own cottage roof. It was clearly beyond him.

A maid, kitchen-maid by the look of her, came out of the door. ‘He says, take tenpence, do?’

‘Shilling,’ says Brian.

The maid slipped back inside.

A little while she re-emerged. ‘He says, wouldn’t pay a shilling even for a whole hog, nohow.’

Brian thought to himself that a pig could cost twice or three times as much, depending on the size of the animal, so clearly the cook was not telling the truth here. Brian did not reply to the kitchen maid, and she retreated back inside.

He waited a long time, and the sun started to go down. He would be making the last part of his walk home in dark at this rate. The wind got up, and some rain drops flew about, in an exploratory way; but no proper shower came. Finally the kitchen maid came out for a third and last time. She approached Brian in a rather timid fashion, and then held out her hand. A silver coin. Brian took it and looked at it. One side was marked with the cross, and dotted around the rim. In the centre of the other was the king, sharp-bearded and crowned with a huge crown, looking straight out.

‘It’s a shilling,’ the girl said.

‘I know what it is,’ Brian said, although he had never before held such a thing in his hand. ‘Here,’ he added. ‘You want me to bring these inside?’

‘Says if you set foot over the threshold he’ll kick your can’t say where he’ll kick you, maiden as I am.’ She blushed, but smilingly. He smiled at her, too. Her eyes did not look in the same place at the same time, but otherwise she had a pleasant face. ‘I’ll take them in,’ she said.

‘Shall I wring them necks?’

She nodded, and he quickly killed each of the birds in turn. Then she heaved at the pole, smiled at him, and dragged it inside.

He waited, and several servants put their heads out to look at him, and drew them in again. It did occur to him just to go, but he wanted his pole. Eventually the young boy from before brought him his pole back. He thanked the lad, and set straight off.
Although money stands as a medium of exchange in a system of hierarchically fixed values it can never be entirely rigid, it is mostly so. Later in the novel Black George returns to England rich with looted French treasure.
So it was peace, and Black George rode the unsteady sea back to England, and you’ll let me off at fucking Dover captain my captain I’ll walk to London if I have to, I thank you, no need to sail me all round the Kent coast and in at the Estuary in this shipwreck waiting to happen thank you very much. Glad to have feet on ground again, and a mule loaded with French wealth. Treaty of Brétigny signed and sealed and King Edward and French John brothers again, and the Frenchers have already paid hundreds of thousands of golden pounds of ransom, and now the news is they’ve fallen behind paying the new instalment of hundreds of thousands, the bâtards. And King Edward has thrown the whole mass of coins at these gigantic building projects. A new Castle at Windsor. A Fortress in the Thames Estuary. A Silver Ladder to the Moon for all Black George knew. He cared not at all. He had his haul, and some of it he deposited with a man called Gareth, notionally a trader in fine cloth but actually a kind of unofficial banker for the more ordinary sort of man. Some of it George kept to himself, to have ready, and he spent a chunk of that buying a house near Cripplegate, and putting a wife inside it—his actual wife, his own actual wife, of good family and good looks—and making sure she had the finest dresses plundered French money could buy. Six happy months. Well, two happy months, then four unhappy ones when he became certain his wife was cheating on him with the lithe young apprentice boy who would walk past their house every day on his way to the glovers’ shop and leer in at their windows. She denied it of course, and the one time George discovered the lad inside the house she swore she was only giving him a drink of water on a hot day. But it chewed his guts, it really did. He knew he wasn’t the handsomest dog in the kennel: old, his skin scraggy, scarred from years in the wars, his manners rough. But he was paying for everything, wasn’t he? His wife, Kate, lived in a fine house and her two older sisters lived with her for company, both widows from the plague, both too old for childbearing and neither wealthy—but happy to live on his charity whilst criticising him for pissing in the corner, or spitting on the table. His money. They all spent it like it was nothing.
His wife dies of the plague, and George grieves. Then he hears about John Hawkwood's mercenary company and resolves to join it. His dead wife's older sisters are living in his house, and are distraught at his plans of selling up and going back to France, not least because it will leave them homeless. At first he hardens his heart against them, but then he changes his mind:
The following day he approached his sisters-in-law in more emollient mood, and promised them thirty pounds between them, half the sum he expected from the sale of the house. They thanked him, but soon began weeping again. Why must he sell the house? Why couldn’t he stay, and they keep house for him. He rebuked them, told them to be grateful for the large sum he had promised them—a fortune, really—but then he caught the image of his wife’s face in the one of the sisters’ imploring eyes, and couldn’t be angry any more.

I’m going to fight in France, he told them.

There is no more war in France, one of the sisters—Anna—said. In his last sermon Father Balliol said the war is over and we must give thanks to the King and to God that the scourge of war has been lifted from our fellow Christians.

War is never over, said Black George.

You will not be the man to call our priest a liar, said Anna, her temper rising. Joan, the other sister, tried to hush her, for she could see her fifteen pounds evaporating like a puddle in the sun of George’s anger. But Anna wouldn’t be shushed. Father Balliol said it in church. There is no more war.

There’s no war in England, George said, and you two crones should be grateful of that fact, for you would last no time in France, no time at all. But there is still war in France, and there a great company of soldiers is fighting under Sir John Hawkwood, and I am a soldier and will go.

Stay in England where it is peaceful, urged Joan. Why risk your life?

Stay and do what? I am a soldier. When Anna rolled her eyes at this, he roared at them both: what would you have me do? God made me a soldier! I must go where there is work for soldiers!

God made you a man, was Anna’s retort. The devil made you a soldier.

At this George walked away, for he could feel a killing rage come up at her words, and he didn’t want his wife’s sisters’ blood on his conscience. Instead he spent the day in a tavern and drank down a vast sum.

In the event he did not sell the house, for the cleric fellow came back with an offer from a silversmith of only forty four pounds, forty in coin and the rest in comestibles, plus two chairs for which George had no use. Forty pound, he complained? I bought it not one year ago for sixty! Back then London was full of soldiers newly returned from France, and every one had a sack of booty, said the cleric. Naturally prices went up. But now, with the plague back, and people leaving the city, few are looking to buy a house, and prices have come down. You should be happy to get so generous an offer. Happy to get any kind of offer at all.

Prices went up? George repeated in incredulity. Prices came down? What are you talking about? Prices are prices. Things are things. Has half my house fallen down that I should get less money for it?

This, said the cleric, with a curious and sly expression on his face, is not how the world is.

He can take his forty pounds and four pounds of comestibles and most especially his two fucking chairs and stow them snugly up his arsehole, George said. Still, he paid Hawkwood's cleric the three pounds of gold and took the fellow’s letter down to Southampton. He even bade farewell to his wife’s sour old sisters before he left, telling them to keep the house clean for now, and he would sell it when he came back. They wept and Joan embraced him, but it was Anna’s grateful look that brought the twist of grief into his gut, for he thought again of his beautiful wife, his beautiful dead wife, who had died in such pain in his own arms, and he had to hurry away so that they did not see him weep.
George has various adventures on his way to Italy, and Hawkwood's company; and more adventures fighting in it. Eventually he tires of the life, buys his way out and resolves to take his new treasure back to England.
He got to Genoa without much difficulty, and there spent a month converting his two hefty boxes of treasure into more portable form. It was a great city for bankers, was Genoa, and traders of all kinds, and soon enough he had two thousand florins’ worth of coin inscribed on legal letters and binding documentations. A remarkable metamorphosis this, worthy of Ovid: heavy gold into light paper. The men he dealt with had counterparts in London, for whom these fine-scribbled and wax-sealed documentations were as binding as a prince’s word of honour, or as gold itself, or so he was told. He believed it too. Or at least he talked himself into believing it. Then again, he kept a couple of hundred gold coins in specie as well, and carried them with him. He was old-fashioned that way.
The point, it seems to me, is not about money itself, so much as it is about a shift from one understanding of value—the feudal—to another: the modern logic of banking. Under the logic of the first value was, in effect, one quantity: the figure of the monarch, refracted through a privileged class of aristocrats. Under such a logic, in essence, ‘money’, like ‘time’, is for slaves, both in the sense that they were the ones who actually handle it and quantify it, but also in the sense that they embody it: they are units of worth to be shuffled around in pursuit of aims not their own. I say they; I mean we. Under this system, everyone but a tiny minority were de facto slaves: not only the people actually owned as property, the serfs, peasants and women, but the so-called freemen and clergy too. Under this system you would have been a slave, as would I, regardless of whether we owned literally nothing or owned a little and enjoyed a fair standard of living. One of the interesting features of a Marxist view of history, like Lukács's, is the way the dialectic, to use that ungainly word again, ‘sublates’, not only moves beyond but also preserves these earlier elements. In a spectral, or embodied, or if you like subconscious way, we still think of value this way, and money is the reification of our own slavery (think of the phrase: wage-slave).

Of course, in another way, we have moved entirely beyond that, of course: now we have no monarch except in a nostalgic, theme-park sense. Now money is king, and so value is defined in terms of debt—I'm ventriloquising David Graeber when I say so, as you'd already noticed: Graeber’s argument that debt can only be considered as part of the history of money, since money is that which distinguishes a debt from an obligation or promise. ‘Obligations are immemorial and incalculable, but until the advent of money such relations of mutual obligation evade mathematical specification,’ as Benjamin Kunkel puts it, summarising Graber. ‘Only through money do nebulous obligations condense into numerically precise debts, which can and—according to—our accustomed morality—must one day be paid off’. Obligation, duty, an honour culture of oaths and loyalty, the whole warrior-code thing, is part of what The Black Prince is about, and although I consider it in large part a brutal thing, it also have the glamour of actual chivalry and heroism, the bright-lit excitement of actual knights in armour galloping across a bright green field under a bright blue sky. If I had followed Burgess to the letter, in focusing solely on what he calls ‘general disgust’, would have derailed me from all that, and it seemed to me important to the novel to include it.

To work as a historical novel, this story needed to dramatise both that world and that world that was coming: the capitalist bourgeois Protestant world in which we (in the West) now live. But so early as the 1360s, that latter world was only incipient, not actually emerging, as might be the case in a novel set in the sixteenth-century, so I had to find ways of dramatising it, in terms of character and incident, that weren't too intrusive. Some of the novel includes magic, the supernatural and the trappings of what today we call genre Fantasy (but which in the Middle Ages were just part of the regular weltanschauung); some of the novel is a matter of the distributed tabulation of specific elements, and their relative fungibility. It sounds drily unappetising, I appreciate, but that was one of the ways I tried to balance the novel. The trick is in finding characters, and their individual stories, that aggregate into a larger narrative humanly-engaging enough to embody this, rather than just drily to preach it. I hope I've managed that. You could pick up a paperback of my novel and see for yourself, if you wanted to. It will cost you only a small sum of money-money-money.