‘Serious Noticing’ – James Wood on writing (and reading) 


The Nearest Thing to Life by James Wood Jonathan Cape 2015

“I find that my memory is always yeasting up, turning one-minute moments into loafing, 10 minute reveries.” – James Wood

Which is not a bad thing to do over the summer break, all things, somewhat leisurely, considered.

Especially if the yeast is also the stuff contained in a nice lager. Cheers, everyone.

This review has in fact been sitting in the draft folder for nearly a year* – in a completely unplanned way, I seemed to have a lot of books about books, and they were all damn good, often better than the books they were about.

The main post at the time was this, involving Clive James, amongst others.

Wood is similarly analytical and, like James, in a determinedly non-theoretical style. He might though, in fact, refute the “analytical” tag: a lot of the criticism he most likes is ‘not especially analytical but is really a kind of passionate reader description’.

That rang a ding of appreciative recognition with me: the basic question of ‘what’s it like?‘ can be over analysed, and certainly over-theorisied.

It is, he says, ‘a way of writing through books, not just about them…. One has the great privilege of performing it in the same medium one is describing:

‘When Coleridge writes of Swift that he “had the soul of revelation but dwelling in a dry place”, or when Henry James says that Balzac became so devoted to his work that he became a kind of “Benedictine of the actual”; when Pritchard laments that Ford Maddox Ford never fell into that “determined stupor” out of which great artistic work comes – these writers are producing images that are qualitatively indistinguishable from the metaphors and similes in the so-called “creative” work.

‘They are speaking to literature in its own language.’

He muses that our life stories have no shape or more accurately nothing but its presence until  ‘it has its ending; and then suddenly the whole trajectory is visible’.

Julian Barnes has similar thoughts in some of his recent writing, prompted in his case by a funeral, and it takes the old brain down some channels of thought which move away from literature and onto religion, or at least questions of a ‘what’s it all mean??????!!’ nature.

There is, Woods says, a struggle within a novel between present and past, instance and form, free will and determinism, secular expansion and religious contraction.

‘Authorial omniscience has such a fraught history: the anxiety is partly a theological one and has the unresolved nature of the theological argument. The novel seems foreverrunable to decide whether it wants to revel in omniscience or apologise for it, foreground or foreclose it. Should the novelist intervene and interrupt or withdraw into impersonality and frigid indifference?’

The most important part of the book is the middle part entitled Serious Noticing , beginning with comments on the Chekhov  story called “The Kiss” which focuses on just that, at length, and the different perspective two parties had on that kiss. Wood expands into writing about noticing:  Chekhov, he says, ‘appears to notice everything’.

Details in ‘The Kiss’  represent a point in that story where “form is outlived, cancelled, evaded.

‘I think of details as nothing less than bits of life sticking out of the frieze of form, imploring us to touch them.’


A lot of these posts are first drafted at odd hours, when trying to get back to sleep after dealing     with various family health things. There’s about 120 odd half/three-quarters written drafts in the folder. I suppose everyone needs a hobby. 

‘Long ago, life was clean, sex was bad and obscene….’

Today’ is Queen Victoria’s birthday. “Victorian” has become an epithet, mostly because of that Bloomsbury poseur Lytton Strachey, but it was a much more complex era than it is given credit for.

The modern writer with the best take on the era is A N Wilson: not only with his popular history ‘The Victorians’ but more importantly, I think, his brilliant and thought provoking ‘God’s Funeral‘ which tracks the gradual loss of conventional faith over that era – and the grief which accompanied it.

I don’t have anything particularly thought provoking or insightful to say, at least not this morning, except that if you have an interest in religion, feel you cannot accept many of the more literal and simplistic canons of Christianity, but feel a need to believe and a hunger for some sort of intelligent, sceptical but not scornful conversation about Christianity (oh, and you value good writing) ‘God’s Funeral’ is a must.

Even if he is, I feel, rather hard on Matthew Arnold.

Anyway, that’s my burst of in depth stuff for now. Here’s the Kinks.

Books: Political history; the rich, slow joy of reading

An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo by Richard Davenport-Hines, (HarperCollins, 2013)
The Fun Stuff by James Wood (Jonathan Cape, 2013)
Writers, poets and philosophers, who have had a fair old lash at defining happiness down the millennia, have never quite come up with a term which captures the gleeful up-kick of emotion one experiences when one unexpectedly discovers a mislaid book voucher.
I found myself musing this, a month or so back, in the midst of a tidying-up frenzy, I stumbled across a book voucher from a birthday (or perhaps even last Christmas).

The old ticker did a metaphorical mini air punch, leaped around prancing “IN YOUR FACE, FISCAL RESTRAINT!” and generally carried on like an All Black who’s just scored a match winning try at the ANZ Stadium in Sydney.

These two books have nothing else in common other than their common voucher-driven purchase,  unless you count the fact I read them, and they’re both, in their very different ways, excellent reads.

Dead Sea Fruit
First up is Rupert Davenport-Hines’ effort, which marks the 50th anniversary of the Profumo Affair.
Briefly, for those who need a potted summary: John Profumo was British Minister for War (that is, the Army) in the Conservative government of Harold Macmillan. Profumo was a compulsive playboy, with a string of affairs, abortions, and similar behind him when he had a brief fling with Christine Keeler, a young model, after a function at Lord Astor’s Cliveden House.
Unfortunately another guest at Cliveden around the time, also pursuing Keeler, was a Soviet Embassy “attaché” (read: “spy”), Eugene Ivanov. The whole thing got rather messy in fairly short order and the government found itself tottering. Although it is not true to say (as many still do) that the affair led to the end of Macmillan’s government, the handling of the whole mucky business did rather hasten Macmillan’s departure.
Davenport-Hines’s authorial history has been building up to this book:  it is perhaps not such a big move from works entitled Markets and Bagmen, Speculators and Patriots: Essays in Business Biography, or Business in the Age of Depression and War  to  Sex, Death and Punishment: Attitudes To Sex & Sexuality In Britain Since The Renaissance  or The Pursuit of Oblivion: A Global History Of Narcotics.
He has also written a lengthy history of the Macmillan family, but although the clan produced one of the world’s more prominent publishing firms, that book work necessarily was dominated by the family member who became prime minister of what was then still called Great Britain.
Like a blimpish Prospero with a hint of melancholy, Macmillan still ranks as one of the more fascinating and complex characters to occupy 10 Downing Street.
“Power? It’s like a Dead Sea fruit. When you get it, there’s nothing there,” was one of Macmillan’s darker asides. “Events, dear boy, events,” is the aphorism most quoted these days – a response to an over-earnest question about what had most determined his decisions as prime minister (his interlocutor had hoped for some elucidation of principle or philosophy).

You have to cherish a politician who, in the course of a live political broadcast, could elegantly draw attention to the ghastly falsity of the whole charade:  The camera’s hot, probing eye, these monstrous machines and their attendants – a kind of twentieth century torture chamber, that’s what it is. But I must try to forget about that, and imagine that you are sitting here in the room with me,” Macmillan told viewers during one such broadcast, a year or so prior to Profumo. 
In this age of the sound bite, of chicken McNugget politics, can you imagine any political leader today making such a comment? 

He told one staff member on one occasion that it was important not to have too sharp a distinction between what is serious and what is frivolous. This ability to see the humorous side, and draw attention to it, when other more limited personalities would not have dared, assuming they even had the ability to perceive such subtleties – he beautifully punctured Khrushchev’s famous shoe-pounding rant at the United Nations, at the height of Cold War tensions, with a drawling “I wonder if we may have a translation?”- was just one part of this intriguing, multilayered personality. 

One journalist from the time suggested Macmillan was haunted by ghosts: from the 1930s, when as a backbench MP for the desperately depressed northern town of Stockton on Tees, he had been in permanent rebellion against his party. Macmillans published John Maynard Keynes and Macmillan was one of the first politicians to take up Keynsian economics. 

Unfortunately, as prime minister he pioneered the kind of short term ‘bastardised Keynsianism’ which, when followed and bulked up by Labour successor Harold Wilson, led Britain to the verge of economic collapse. 
There were also ghosts from two world wars: Macmillan, along with many contemporaries from Oxford, volunteered when World War One broke out and trooped off before finishing his degree (he was “sent down by the Kaiser”, he claimed years later, when asked about his academic career). Macmillan was badly wounded several times, and few of his contemporaries survived. 
By the time the Profumo scandal rolled around he had presided over seven years of unparalleled prosperity and, in an unguarded moment, gave that era its slogan when he warned – and it was a warning – that most Britons had “never had it so good”.
The comment – in its context, a statement that the good times might turn out to be built on a build up of inflation and debt rather than solid economic performance – was hung around his neck for the rest of his life. When the Profumo business erupted, accompanied by a swag of rumours of other salacious goings on in high places it quickly became “you’ve never had it so often.”
He had, of course, plenty of enemies by then. Macmillan was made Conservative leader following the Suez Crisis to some degree because he looked the part, almost to the point of caricature – a moustached former Guards officer who had fought in the First World War and been seriously wounded: the drawling accent, the deliberately-cultivated old fashioned air; the general appearance of a crumbling façade of an old Edwardian building.
This came to hurt him, in the end, particularly when the satire boom took off at the same time as the Profumo Affair. In the kind of savage, multi-layered joke Macmillan himself would probably have enjoyed under different circumstances, what the satirists missed was that part of Macmillan’s persona was always an element of caricature.
There is a theory the reason Macmillan handled the Profumo business so badly was because adultery was a touchy subject with him. His own wife, Dorothy, had been involved in a 35-odd year affair with a Parliamentary colleague, Bob Boothby, and the only reason the marriage endured was Macmillan refused to grant her a divorce. The affair was widely known amongst the political classes and British upper crust generally and had, according to one source, even led Macmillan to a suicide attempt in the early 1930s.
Yet Davenport-Hines suggests there is little evidence Macmillan shied away from the issue of adultery – in fact, by the time he became prime minister he liked to affect a worldly wise attitude to the subject, at least as long as it involved other people. It is perhaps more likely those around him thought he would be highly sensitive to the issue and therefore were nervous about telling him of the rumours swirling around not only Profumo but other ministers as well. One of the perils of power is people anticipate what will, or will not, please the boss, and can often make some dangerous assumptions.
A more likely factor was simply fatigue: Macmillan had been prime minister for seven years, a senior minister for seven years on the trot before that. Besides, he was, after all, approaching 70.
His Conservative rival, Rab Butler, in a comment not quoted by Davenport-Hines but in several histories of that government, best summed it up: as tumult of scandal grew and Macmillan looked more and more out of touch and incompetent, Butler observed to a journalist that “Harold could have handled all this with his little finger five years ago. But when you get to the end of a regime, nothing goes right.”
The true villains of the scandal, for Davenport-Hines, are not Profumo (although he engages in some neat puncturing of the “redemption through good works” pat story which accompanied the remainder of Profumo’s life); nor “the Establishment”, nor good time girls Christine Keeler or Mandy Rice-Davies: rather, the real villain is the British press, especially tabloids News of the World and the Daily Mirror.
Certainly they were out to get Macmillan and his government: the previous year two journalists had been imprisoned for not revealing their sources over a largely bogus spy scandal.
Davenport-Hines outlines the skulduggery and mendacity of a group of media owners – the Mirror Group being the main one – who not only were out for revenge but who were determined to damage Macmillan’s government because they wanted Labour’s Harold Wilson as prime minister. It is not an edifying tale, and he traces much of the malignity, hypocrisy and outright corruption of the British press   – about which we have learned much in recent years – to this period.
Savour Fare
Rather more elevated in tone is literary critic James Wood’s ‘The Fun Stuff’. It starts, not with books, but with an introduction about Who drummer Keith Moon, who died in 1978 after overdosing on drugs he was taking to combat alcoholism.
Why? Moon was his first artistic hero, it seems, and “Keith Moon-style drumming is a lucky combination of the artful and the artless…. There is no time out in his drumming, because there is no time in. it is all fun stuff… So alive and free is this drumming that one tends to emphasise its exuberance at the expense of its complexity.”

 And he notes that, on two of the Who’s most famous tracks, ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ and “Behind Blue Eyes”

“You can hear him do something that was instinctive, probably, but which is hardly ever attempted in ordinary rock drumming: breaking for a fill, Moon fails to stop at the obvious end of the musical phrase and continues…over the line and into the start of the next phrase. 

“In poetry, this failure to stop at the end of the line, the challenge to metrical closure, this desire to get more in is called enjambment. Moon is the drummer of enjambment. 

“For me, this playing is like an ideal sentence of prose, a sentence I have always wanted to write and never quite had the confidence to: a long passionate onrush, formally controlled and joyously messy, propulsive but digressively self interrupted, attired but dishevelled, careful and lawless, right and wrong.”
That description – especially that last sentence – sent me back to my copy of Who’s Next. It captures, perfectly in prose, Moon’s style.
Wood has the great critic’s knack of sending you back to the originals, even when – perhaps, especially when – you think he’s being a bit fatheaded. Despite writing an entire book about laughter and literature (The Irresponsible Self) he sometimes doesn’t seem to quite get humour. Or rather, some of the material he finds funny seems strange. In a comment on a Lydia Davis short story ‘Wife in One Country’ he quotes “wife one’ talking briefing with “wife two and then imagining a future “wife three’ who would have to protect her husband “not only from raging wife one but also from troublesome wife two” and Wood adds that as elsewhere in Davis’s work “comedy always lines the sadness, a necessarily durable cloth”. While I love that image and phrase, I’m not so sure I see the comedy in what he is quoting.
But that is the one of the other thing about Wood: as well as making you want to hunt down what he is writing about (and I had never heard of Lydia Davis before, but I shall be checking out her works the next time I’m in Unity Books) he has a marvellous feel for language. 
In an era when most of us skim read almost everything and in which it is all too easy to flitter over the words even when reading for pleasure, Wood has the knack of making you slow down, savour the language, and enjoy the moment.
One example: discussing Alan Hollinghurst’s work, he quotes a passage on someone watching a tennis match on television with the window open on a summer’s day and hearing on occasion “the sonic wallows of planes distancing in slow gusts above” –
Wood makes you stop and savour that passage:  “Again, the power comes from nouns and adjectives placed in unusual combinations – the paradox of ‘slow gusts’ …and the almost onomatopoeic ‘sonic wallow’ which slow the sentence down.”
And goes on to put Hollinghurst in the English writing tradition – Shakespeare, Keats, Hardy, Larkin, but notes that “when a writer has an ear as good as Hollinghurst, the danger is a lush antiquarianism…ripening the sentences to bursting.”
But then criticises Hollinghurst for becoming too fixated on the style of Henry James; giving examples of several phrases Wood thinks reveal insufficient anxiety of influence (a set of stairs give way to the “confidential creak of oak” on the landing: another character makes “a low disparaging murmur”; someone else says something “with an air of monetary concession” and sex is described as “the unimagined and vaguely dreaded thing”.)
Personally, I love all these, with the possible exception of the last one  – sex might or might not be many things, but “unimagined” seems unlikely to be one of them. 

But for there’s a nice little joke here for those who recall Henry James’ last words are reputed to have been, “here it is, then, the distinguished thing!”

Elsewhere, Wood gently skewers Ian McEwan and puts his finger on one thing which I’d never articulated but which irks me about the Booker winner: he withholds too much in order to keep the reader wondering just what is going on and what the surprise will be: this sustains the reader’s

“narrative hunger, but surely at a cost. His addition to secrecy has a way of cheaply playing us…. if narrative secrets of this kind – narrative improbabilities – always become in the end, narrative predictabilities, then such novels will find it much harder to dramatise meaningfully the impact of contingency on ordinary lives.”

That was, for me, one of those moments when the brain goes ‘Zzing!’ 
VS Naipaul “the public snob, the grand bastard” gets a look in: so does Orwell, (who I revere) – upbraided, rightly I think, for a certain warped snobbery: ex-Etonian Eric Blair is more interested in tearing down his former aristocratic and upper middle class contemporaries than in uplifting the poor.
On Orwell, though, he rightly identifies the real terror at the heart of 1984: it is not the torture room or the rats, but the “abolition of interiority”. A society in which we have no interior world in and of ourselves – no privacy, in other words – is the truest and most subtle of tyrannies. This is true totalitarianism. Never was a sex scene so important to a novel than in 1984 – no, not even in D H Laurence’s florid offerings.
The thought-provoking aspect of this insight for today’s reader, though is this: the social media whirl now means many of us are in the process of voluntarily abandoning the sacredness of this interiority, and what does this mean for our own psychological and spiritual wellbeing? Wood doesn’t explore this thought, but it is one which sent this reader, anyway, down a few mental byways I am yet to feel I can report back on. 
The Fun Stuff also looks at Tolstoy, Geoff Dyer, Paul Auster (about whom Wood verges on the brutal)…. 

It is a great collection to dip into, and to remind yourself, even when you are muttering “Oh, bollocks!” about some of Wood’s conclusions, about the rich, slow joy of reading.

Going Jest

Unspeakable Secrets of the Aro Valley by Danyl McLauchlan (VUP)

A friend – himself a novelist with four published works notched up on the Macbook – mused a year or two back about the dearth of comic novels in New Zealand literature.
It is not a new lament. The lack of humour has often been commented on, and on this issue it is difficult to go past one of the most magnificent philippics ever written on the state of local literature, with particular reference to its inward looking sombreness, penned by Quiet Earth author and academic Craig Harrison in the New Outlook.
Some of Harrisons polemic was the shriek of agony from a soul who, in a moment of negligent folly, had agreed to judge a short story competition.
This is not the sort of thing most people look back on without some stabbing regrets, but the experience seems to have seared Harrison.
There were 125 entries, he reported, and the overall impression left was “life in New Zealand constituted of an uninterrupted parabola of misery…a notable feature of many stories was the retribution meted out to characters who momentarily gave way to happiness: sexual, aesthetic or social. They were nearly all killed on the next page.”
That, and a general attitude from the countrys literary community that sees `”artists'” as special, sensitive souls tormented almost to madness by the angst of living in a nihilistic universe populated by morons (i.e. people who cant understand their poetry).
Harrisons essay, though, rises to a serious conclusion of its own, urging the need for writing that captures “vigorous, resilient, witty, defiant and even triumphant feats of the imagination…. as well as entertaining, or suggesting means of confronting and coping with (rather than despairing of) the problems of existence, especially in an age increasingly devoid of traditional and religious consolations.  It means we are being deprived of something important in the truest sense.
I thought of this essay admittedly more than 20 years old now when Radio New Zealand interviewer Kim Hill asked author Danyl MacLauchlan if he was going to do a serious book. 
There was more than a hint, in the question, of well this humour thing is all very well, but when are you going to do something worthwhile? 
Humour intelligent humour is a serious business. It is not all cheap yuk-yuks. Unfortunately too much of what passes for laughs tends to be produced by the intellectual and moral 10 year olds of radios whacky morning breakfast crews. Either that, or superannuated Pommie immigrants who have somehow convinced people of their wit despite being about as subtle and funny as a claw hammer.
It doesnt need to have an overt point either. Perhaps it is a legacy of the A Week Of It tv show of the late 1970s and the spin off McPhail & Gadsby series; maybe it is simply a function of New Zealands historical statism, but there is a tendency to see satire through an almost exclusively political lens.
Humour doesnt have to have a pointand nor does satire, except to throw the light of laughter on human foibles and more generally on the human condition. Politics is a subset of this human condition but only one of them, and certainly not the most important.
What it needs, most of all, is an antic spirit, illuminated by intelligence and not only a sense of the ridiculous, but a positive, exuberant enjoyment of that ridiculousness.
So, does Unspeakable Secrets deliver?
If any part of New Zealand were to be treated as a strange separate world, with overtones of access to an alternative universe, then – with the possible exception of the Auckland property market – Wellingtons Aro Valley would have to be it.
The main character is named after the author and McLauchlan has stated this follows the practice of several well known literary lions. 
However,  instead of making his namesake an all powerful hero, admired by men and irresistible to women, the Danyl character spends most of his time running around Aro Valley with no trousers on due to accidents and not due to excessive bedroom action.
It is a nice postmodern touch: the Debagging, rather than the Death, of the Author.
The essential hopelessness of Danyl and friend Steve is established early on: in the opening scene a frail old man beats up Danyl while Steve refuses to help (“I’m a scholar…I can only observe.”)  and they engage in those quasi-academic discussions of the terminally over-educated deadbeats (“Let’s see your medical doctors do that. Theyre just shills for the Enlightenment.” “I like the Enlightenment. I like living after it.”)
Steve is, by the way, a magnificent comic creation: deep in discussion around the emerging mystery of what actually is going on in Aro Valley, he muses they need to “Take a look a the big picture here. Start with the basics. First we need to ask ourselves, what is the greatest mystery in all of human history? A mystery so vast and yet so obvious few even know it exists?”
Ah, yes. Some of us have flatted with people like Steve.
The emerging mystery, around the comically menacing figure of The Campbell Walker, keeps 
reader engaged enough in the plot line and the mystery to pull the book along.
There is a tendency for some of the battier characters to talk in expository style, in the way people never do in real life but often do in very bad novels. 
Apparently one of McLaughlans inspirations is the work of Dan Brown and I think this might be the Dan Brown stuff some reviewers have referred to: I have to confess I am not a close student of the Brown oeuvre and will have to defer to superior knowledge in this area.
Other influences are plain: the character of Danyl is in the fine tradition of hapless naïf heroes which run from Voltaires Candide through Waughs Paul Pennyfeather and Pratchetts Rincewind,
while the mysterious building in which The Campbell Walker is preparing..what, exactly?…for humankind reminded me of something out of Scooby Doo.

There are probably other influences, in-jokes and references which passed me by. In fact, Im fairly sure of it.

But that doesnt matter. The trick and it is a difficult one is to sprinkling those sort of nuggets through a book but making sure the book works even if readers do not get them.
And Unspeakable Secrets succeeds brilliantly at this.
More please. And dont get too serious.