‘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 23 June 2017

Francis's Mabinogi

Everything seemed to have been torn from its roots,
so that it tumbled over the mind
as in a dream: pigs, seaweed,
birds, people, flowers.

Perhaps that's what he meant by Unland,
a country where things break loose
from their own being.

The storyteller goes on,
as if to himself.

Wednesday 21 June 2017

Lewis's Dactyls of Narnia

Do we pronounce the word ‘lion’ as a disyllable? I think we do, which leads me to the belated realisation that the title to Lewis's first-published Narnia novel is, prosodically speaking, the second half of an epic hexameter line, the template for which sixfold pattern in Homer, Vergil et al (I need hardly remind you) is five dactyls capped with a spondee. There are many variations on that basic pattern in epic verse of course (although the terminal spondee never alters), but that's the basic set-up. And so we can imagine an epic line continuing, post-caesura:
[the] Lion, the │ Witch and the │ Wardrobe

[ᴗ] — ᴗ ᴗ │ — ᴗ ᴗ │ — —
That's just a curio, I know. But then I started to think about how often Lewis's imagination, reaching for a made-up name to supply his made-up country, lighted either upon something dactylic or something spondaic. Narnia itself is a dactyl, which enables the first-half-of-a-Homeric-hexameter title to this post. Also dactylic are Caspian, Reepicheep, Pevensie. The working title for The Silver Chair was the doubly dactylic Night under Narnia. I suspect, but can't prove, that immersing himself in medieval literature had shaped Lewis's imagination had given him a bias towards the dactylic; Jean-Yves Tilliette notes the ‘almost universal adoption of dactylic verse by medieval metrical poets’ [in Ralph Hexter and David Townsend (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Latin Literature (OUP 2012), 242]. And this has one small bearing on the question of how we pronounce ‘Aslan’. The name might be a trochee, ARSElǝn, — ᴗ; I don't suppose many people would put the stress on the second syllable, asLARN ᴗ — ; but shouldn't we give both ‘a’s equal weight? That would make the leonine name a terminal spondee, the finishing point to the epic hexameter line and therefore the omega to the alpha-led name, because in Lewis's imagination Aslan must come both first and last? Ahslahn: — —. No?

Tuesday 20 June 2017


I picked up the above three-vol paperback edition of Harold Nicolson's diaries from a charity shop for 60p (I know!), and have been going through them in a pick-and-mix fashion. My reason for doing so is that Nicolson knew Wells, and the diaries are full of little things that may come in useful for me in completing this project. But, Wells aside, the diaries are full of splendid things. Nicolson is especially good on the claustrophobic awfulness of British aristocratic gatherings.
29th November 1930. Down to Cliveden. A dark autumnal day. Thirty-two people in the house. Cold and draughty. Great sofas in vast cathedrals: little groups of people wishing they were alone: a lack of organisation and occupation; a desultory drivel. The party in itself good enough. Duff and Diana [Cooper], Tom Mosley and Cimmie [ie Oswald and Cynthia Mosley], Oliver Stanley and Lady Maureen, Harold Macmillan and Lady Dorothy, Bracken, Garvin, Bob Boothby, Malcolm Bullock. But it does not hang together. After dinner, in order to enliven the party, Lady Astor dons a Victorian hat and a pair of false teeth. It does not enliven the party.
Some of the anecdotes are a little, as it were, formed; but usually Nicolson redeems himself with a genius touch. So here he is in 1943, by which point he was the National Labour MP for Leicester West.
9th June 1943. I went to the house where I received a deputation of tomato-growers. In they trooped in their country clothes. I took them to a Committee Room and managed to gather together a few other M.P.s Their spokesman addressed us the injustice being imposed on tomato-growers by the Ministry of Food. I took notes. I said a few vague and hopeful things, and one of them presented me with a huge tomato. I do not in any circumstances like carrying objects in my hand, even when these objects are small and hard and dry. I roamed the lobbies miserably holding the thing in my palm as if it were an orb of majesty instead of a huge and squashy vegetable. Then I darted to the kitchen and laid it firmly on the table. ‘Thank you, sir,’ said one of the cooks, as if it were customary for M.P.s to appear suddenly like Pomona and deposit upon their tables the teeming riches of the soil.
That's perfectly nice, but the transition to the next paragraph is better :
I had that evening to go to a conversazione given by the Authors’ Society. As it had taken me some time to dispose of my tomato, I arrived late, and H. G. Wells was already talking nonsense in front of a microphone and a plate of biscuits.
As it had taken me some time to dispose of my tomato is just lovely.
4th February 1934. I walked into Joyce's flat in the Rue Galilée. It is a little furnished flat as stuffy and prim as a hotel bedroom. The door was opened by the son. A strange accent he had, half-German, half-Italian—an accent of Trieste. We sat down on hard little chairs and I tried to make polite conversation to the son. Then Joyce glided in. It was evident he had just been shaving. He was very spruce and nervous and chatty. Great rings upon little twitching fingers. Huge concave spectacles which flicked reflections of the lights as he moved his head like a bird, turning it with that definite insistence to the speaker as blind people do who turn to the sound of a voice. Joyce was wearing large bedroom slippers in check, but except for that, one had the strange impression that he had put on his best suit. He was very courteous, as shy people are. His beautiful voice trilled on slowly like Anna Livia Plurabelle. He has the most lovely voice I know—liquid and soft with undercurrents of gurgle.

He told me how the ban had been removed from Ulysses (‘Oolissays’ as he calls it) in America. He had hopes of having it removed in London, and was in negotiation with John Lane. He seemed rather helpless and ignorant about it all, and anxious to talk to me. One has the feeling that he is surrounded by a group of worshippers and that he has little contact with reality.

He told me that a man had taken Oolissays to the Vatican and had hidden it in a prayer-book, and that it had been blessed by the Pope. He was half-amused by this, and half-impressed. He saw that I would think it funny, and at the same time he did not think it wholly funny.

My impression of the Rue Galilée was the impression of a very nervous and refined animal—a gazelle in a drawing-room. His blindness increases that impression. I suppose he is a real person somewhere, but I feel that I have never spent half an hour with anyone and been left with an impression of such brittle and vulnerable strangeness.
I didn't know that Joyce pronounced Ulysses ‘Oolissays’, and wonder if I'll think of that novel title differently now. Tennyson pronounced Idylls of the King ‘Idles of the King’ and I absolutely refuse to follow him in that. Still: a rather mournful portrait of Joyce, all things considered. Plus Ulysses is a huge volume: how did anybody manage to smuggle it inside a prayer book?

Thursday 1 June 2017

The Kitschies That Never Were

No Kitschies were awarded last year. 2016 was a Kitschless year—for one year only it was Nitch on the Kitsch. Which was a shame, since 2016 saw a wealth of (to quote the Kitschies’ remit) ‘progressive, intelligent and entertaining works containing elements of the speculative or fantastic’. So, prompted by Glen ‘the Man’ Mehn, and [*clears throat*] in my capacity a former judge, I thought I’d post some speculative short-lists for the year the prize didn’t happen.

A disclaimer is needful: I didn’t do last year, what I did in my judging year—that is, read a metric tonne of hard-copy and e-books, the better to be able to narrow down our shortlists. But I read a fair few and some of the books I read were really excellent. So here, for the sake of argument (and please: do argue with what I list here) are my Phantom Kitschies shortlists for 2016.

Red Tentacle for the best novel

Naomi Alderman’s The Power is a brilliant jolt of a read, a book happy to inhabit blockbuster conventions in order to suborn them to some powerfully subversive ends. Teenage girls across the world suddenly discover they have the ability electrically to shock others—to burn them, cause them intense pain, even to kill them. The narrative rattles through the immediate implications of this: girls taking revenge on violent or raping men, girls simply being mean, girls collectively coming to a sense of their new power. But the strength of the novel is the way it follows-through its premise, into a world in which men are segregated for their own protection and women, for good and ill and with quite an emphasis on the latter, take control. I particularly liked the way this new society retcons its sense of the world—it becomes seen as ‘natural’ and a product of ‘evolutionary psychology’ for women to be aggressive and violent, since they have babies to protect; if men ever ruled the world their patriarchy would be nurturing and gentle. It’s a raw novel, more than a little jagged—though that also suits its theme—but sparky and engaging throughout. A lightning bolt of a read.

Dave Hutchinson’s Europe in Winter is the third of his ‘fractured Europe’ novels, set in bivalve European set-up—one a tessellation of myriad tiny statelets and ruritaniae, the other, ‘The Community’ a calm but stifling version of 1950s Britain rolled out across the whole continent. The two versions of European reality are linked via a complex of strange portals. Each of the Europe books has a subtly different emphasis and tone, although all provide the pleasures of alt-spy adventures, a cosmopolitan richness of interlocking storylines and slowly unfurling mystery; but arguably this is the best of the three, from its bang-bang opening act of intercontinental railway terrorism through to its big finale. A modern classic.

Lavie Tidhar’s sprawling masterpiece Central Station, set in a future spaceport Tel Aviv, is easily his best book yet (and that’s saying something). What I particularly loved about this is the way it manages to be both gloriously old-fashioned in its SF—an actual fix-up novel set in a space-port in which a colourful variety of humans robots and aliens intermingle—and a distinctively twenty-first century novel about the complex but sustaining inter-relationship between culture and place and memory and technology and change. Most of all it’s about the centrality of stories to who we are, and about the way those stories are always collective and heterogeneous. It’s a marvel.

Christopher Priest’s The Gradual works a simple-enough sciencefictional version of time-zone differences into a haunting exploration of travel, aging and loss. Set like many of Priest’s best novels in his ‘Dream Archipelago’ of endless islands, it is the first-person narrative of composer Sandro Sussken, a citizen of the Glaund Republic on the Northern mainland (a downbeat, authoritarian society locked in an Orwellian permanent war with the Faianland Alliance). The success of his music means that, unlike most Glaundians, Sussken gets to travel from island to island, but in doing so he discovers the titular ‘gradual’, a kind of complex time-slip, or time-stall, that dislocates him from his origins, his family and in the end from the world as a whole. Priest uses his speculative conceit brilliantly to explore what it means to age. It makes me think how rarely the old figure, and how much more they ought to, in progressive narratives of equality and diversity.

Sofia Samatar’s The Winged Histories is a remarkable epic Fantasy, the follow-up to her debut A Stranger in Olondria (2013) and an even stronger novel. It gives us many of the satisfactions of this over-populated mode, as four women—an aristocrat, a military officer, a priestess and a nomadic poet—are caught up in the events leading to an empire-shaking war. But Samatar has the confidence, and the skill, to downplay the conventional satisfactions of narrative. The result is a gorgeous labyrinth of a text that circles through the permutations of its characters, plot, and the history of her world, richly written and formally involuted.

Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad deploys its fantastical conceit—the literalisation of the celebrated 19th-century US ‘railroad’ along which slaves would try to pass to freedom as a network of actual excavated tunnels, railways and stations—with commendable restraint. He is not interested in the worldbuilding mechanics of his idea so much as in the imaginative freedom it gives him to send his heroine, Cora, on a journey encompassing the different violences slavery has manifested over the centuries. It is a novel that renders slave society as vividly and memorably brutal without, at any point, reverting to the pieties of hindsight or historical cliché. An unforgettable piece of fiction.

Golden Tentacle for best debut novel

Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit recasts Korean legend in a densely rendered high-tech future universe governed by ‘calendars’, sort-of computer programmes that determine the nature of reality itself. It’s a book that boldly drops its reader into its properly futuristic and alien cosmos—an interstellar empire called the Hexarchate in which six factions each with unique skills are competing for power. Though it might put some readers off, the advantage of this approach is that when the book clicks fully into focus it does so with kaleidoscopic brilliance and coherence. The game theory and maths, all the politics and military tactics, neatly offset some nicely written central relationships.

David Means’s Hystopia is a brilliant, baffling and expertly fractured novel set in an alt-1970s America in which Kennedy wasn’t assassinated, and Vietnam veterans are being treated for PTSD with psychedelics. It is steeped in the flavour of its era, and manages to be simultaneously weirdly familiar and intensely strange—quite the combo, that. I have to concede it’s a little distorting describing this as a ‘first novel’ (even though that’s what it is) because Means has been honing his craft writing short stories for decades. The technical skill shows: Means’s multi-viewpoint and deracinated approach could easily have slid into mere messiness; but though the novel is often violent it is also potent and, in its way, coherent.

Wyl Menmuir’s superbly eerie The Many is, though short, a tricky book to summarise. Suffice to say that as an exercise in unnerving the reader, this cryptic, powerful novella is remarkable. Its seemingly simple plot, about a young man coming to a Cornish seaside village to live in an abandoned cottage whose previous owner had drowned, invokes a sort-of ghost story, or perhaps hallucination, or perhaps dreamtime, to render its poisoned near-future world more obliquely vivid that any straightforward account ever could.

Idra Novey’s Ways to Disappear wonderfully resuscitates a form—magic realism—I had thought dead and buried. A famous Brazilian writer, Beatriz Yagoda, up to her neck in gambling debt, goes missing; her American translator Emma flies down to South America to try and make sense of things. The characters she meets are colourful and varied (indeed, perhaps, their colourful variety is a little by rote), and the tone is lightly comic, but as the story goes on it becomes stranger and more beautiful, and Novey’s background as a lyric poet increasingly comes to dominate the telling. A short novel that leaves rich and strange residue in the imagination.

Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning boldly mashes together eighteenth-century manners and 25th-century adventure in a post-scarcity utopia where which gender-distinctions are taboo and large-scale affinity-groups are carefully manipulated and managed by behind-the-scenes forces to maintain broader social balance. Readers are liable to find the richly mannered idiom in which Palmer tells her story either beguiling—as I did—or, perhaps, archly offputting. But it is worth persevering with the narrative: there’s a piercing political intelligence at work here, of the sort that would surely have delighted the Enlightenment philosophes that inspired it. Intricately worked, and, I’m pleased to say, the first of a very promising series.

Nick Wood’s Azanian Bridges is set in a modern day South Africa still under the sway of Apartheid, and expertly uses this alt-historical premise to estrange and refresh the way racism violates social and human contexts, without abandoning the possibility of bridging this chasm. Sibusiso Mchunu, traumatised by seeing his friend killed at a demonstration, is admitted to a psychiatric hospital where White doctor Martin test him on his new invented, an ‘empathy machine’. The potential of this device, and its dangers, power a compact but very effective thriller. A thought-provoking and promising debut.

All that remains is to decide on the winners.