The Books of My Numberless Dreams

What’s on the plate

Posted on: February 4, 2008

I started Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. It’s a much noisier reading this second time. I cannot recall how I was led to “Lancelot and Elaine” on the internet but it made my 14 years old heart twist with painful pleasure as I surrendered to the poem’s story of faithful, unrequited love. I printed the entire thing which took up several pages, later blown away through the window during a 5th form class; a punishment for choosing to stay with Elaine in the tower guarding Lancelot’s shield rather than listening to the teacher.

A book was a heavier, safer option so I bought a second hand copy and revelled in quests, fights, “forsooths” and the parade of angry, selfish, petulant women. Except that I didn’t remember them being quite so passive and awful when I was younger. Now, I don’t know how I got through “Gareth and Lynette” without crossing out her name in black ink or some other equally childish gesture. In that company of new insights and associations are scenes from Monty Python’s “The Holy Grail” — black night, eh? I suppose it’s fitting that Tennyson’s version wasn’t all that threatening either — and, funniest of all, one of Dan Green‘s criticisms of conservative literary critics who wish to return to a time when every verse had a steady plinkity plonk rhythm and Tennyson lee/sea rhymes. (I liberally restated his position, btw, because I can’t find the specific line. Technorati search sucks.) I did not wish for similar time reversal but, at that time, I certainly felt more comfortable and held more regard for the plinkity plonk ababs.

I can no longer read Idylls innocently. I’m now aware of feminist scholarship on the poems, of the oft-scrutinised confrontation between Merline and Vivien. (I think A.S. Byatt’s Possession led me to it.) Guy Gavriel Kay’s King Arthur and Lancelot appear in my mind in flashes. At other times it’s Clive Owen’s Arthur. Most of all it is Tennyson’s Arthurian women that has created an alienating distance between me and the text. I am wearier, reading askance, mildly trustful of what he’s up to. All these noble youths are besotted with Arthur and his precious ideals while the women (so far) are strangling maternal figures, meek and mild, injured wives, or shrill harpies (who had some reason for protest, mind, but Tennyson works hard to rob Lynette of sympathy).

I miss the comparatively purer of that 14 year old who had no trouble in switching from Elaine’s poignant moments down the river, to a young titled lad on the fence dying to stick someone with a lance. But I am too curious to see how things will end with me and Tennyson now to stop reading. And the fighting scenes still provide thrills.

Besides all that the Idylls of the King struck me as having a bizarre mixture of out-of-control Christian symbolism, particularly in the figure of Arthur as Christ, and prominent fantastical elements out of fairyland, given benevolent and sinister elements depending on which character is talking about it. Perhaps it would help to read the introduction but that’s another thing that hasn’t changed: I can’t read more than a few paragraphs of George Baker’s life-draining foreword.

*****

Andrew Salkey’s Escape to an Autumn Pavement is a very different creature from his first novel, A Quality of Violence, in many respects. He’s moved from the rural Jamaican parish of St. Thomas at the turn of the 20th century to post-WWII London, England. The move is accompanied with a whole change in his prose style, the apocalyptic, prophetic tone of the first novel’s prologue and cosmic significance of the plot development left for the brash, prickly, judgemental, defensive, often short phrases of “Sobert. Johnnie Sobert. Jamaican. R.C. Middle class. Or so I’ve been made to think.”

It’s a little difficult to get through at first because there are two codes to decipher. Johnnie has nicknames for all of the persons he regularly comes into contact with at home or work (none of whom could be called “friends”). The names act as a line of defence between him and them and are often derogatory if humorous. The other code is the swingin’ 60s lingo. All of it so far occurs during club scenes for Johnnie is a water a West Indian night club. The slang seems to be a part of the fake, debauched night scene in which Johnnie feels obligated to play up a snazzy “nig” persona as he fields requests to help sell drugs or find prostitutes for clients, all while carefully counting the tips.

I’ve only got an inkling so far about what has made him bitter, something that goes beyond the usual colonial issues and is tied specifically to his (apparently important) image of himself as middle class, which crumbled when he faced higher living standards in England. It also looks as if he may be gay or bisexual, a detail hinted at in the book’s description but which I glanced over, oblivious. Then I came across a more explicit reference to it online. A Jamaican novel about a gay guy first published in the 60s? I didn’t know such a thing was possible. Our culture is rather homophobic.

Still can’t get over the prose. Salkey wrote it in the first person so one gets a number of incomplete sentences; it reads as if one were in Johnnie’s head, looking out behind his eyes, privy to his every thought, shallow or complex, mean or sympathetic. It’s just so different from A Quality of Violence….Anyway, the libary copy is a first edition, a beautiful hardcover. It doesn’t look faded at all, nor does the design or font choice look dated — it could have been published today. If I could purchase it from the library I would. Hopefully, I can find an equally good copy online.

*****

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is an anti-novel. It must be. I don’t know what it is. As I read I am simultaneously amused and delightfully frustrated as I feel my brain slowly breaking off into shreds of humming material trying to cling to all the meandering pathways Sterne blithely takes with a mocking wink and beckoning hand before leading you back to a main road whose existence you begin to doubt. Really, what is he up to?

When an edited excerpt from a speech Gabriel Josipovici gave was printed in the Times Literary Supplement there was some online discussion on how fiction and literary criticism carries on as if modernism had never occurred. Well, it seems as astonishing me that Laurence Sterne’s novel, published near the end of the 18th century, could have been followed by novels of the sort Austen, Dickens and Eliot wrote. It thumbs its nose at plot, syntax, language, character…Sterne dutifully places them on the game board only to knock them down again, repeating the process. His characters are flat, I suppose, given one dominant characteristic which is then developed — or such an attempt is made before Sterne yanks out of the present in order to read a Latin document (translated too, thank goodness) on the theological validity of christening babies still in the womb, or on cursing, or the maid barges in, or Shandy has a memory about Uncle Toby or his father that must be explained in order to put current circumstances in proper context — or simply to have a laugh by writing a dutifully flattering book’s dedication which is then offered to the highest bidder reading his wonderful book.

That’s another thing. Although, if I understand aright, Tristram Shandy is the one narrating the story, he feels more like Sterne to me, his personality, his opinions, his own little grudges worked out into the book. Not that I mind this at all, in fact, and I may be biased by the footnotes which are constantly relating certain little items to Sterne’s life. And sometimes Shandy and his concerns about his name and nose come to the fore.

It’s a daft book. You should read it.

4 Responses to "What’s on the plate"

“Tristram Shandy” is an all-time great. In English fiction, it’s the road not taken – “Nothing odd will do long. ‘Tristram Shandy’ did not last,” as Dr. Johnson said.

Except in Germany. First Jean Paul Richter, than ETA Hoffmann, and through them a host of Shandeans developed Sterne’s ideas throughout the first part of the 19th century.

Now, it’s been rediscovered by postmodernist types, for whom is a sort of prophetic book. Try to do something original that Sterne didn’t already do.

Oh, goodness, that’s right, I forgot to link it to Sorrentino’s Mulligan Stew. I was rather shocked when I had to put down Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel because the humour and style was just a little too close to Sorrentino and I didn’t want two such brutal (but pleasurable!) reading experiences back to back.

It was odd to them but positively amusing now that another 18th century work also calls for comparisons. Sterne makes a lot of references to Don Quixote too. What does it all mean when I thought that a movement, in its literary form, was about everything new and avant garde (or something) is strongly linked to books centuries old? Though I admit Sorrentino’s novel went down a rabbit hole a little more crooked. I suppose that’s why at least one critic described Mulligan Stew as being dressed up as the “death of the novel” as its quite similar to my reaction to Shandy.

Kept up in Germany, you say? I shall have to look into that.

I only know of Salkey as a children’s author. In the first school library I ran we had copies of ‘Earthquake’ and ‘Riot’. I remember being very impressed with the quality of his writing. I must really look out for his adult work. Thank you.

Ack, forgot to reply to your comment, Ann, do forgive me. My library has those books too.Apparently he did an Anancy stories collection too for children. Do you know about that one? I’m gratified to hear that the kid’s lit is as good as his adult efforts because I wasn’t sure if I would read the kiddy stuff, or not.

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