Month: October 2011

Magnus Mills: A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In

When I was younger, it used to drive me mad when friends (or, more often, family members) would knock music by artists I loved, saying: “All their songs sound the same.” What they meant, I thought, was that their songs don’t sound like anyone else. So it is with Magnus Mills: all his books sound the same, in a sense, because they don’t sound like anyone else.

A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In, therefore, is in a sense business as usual for Mills. It places us in the usual nonspecific but familiar setting, and gives us the unnamed narrator, the bluff blank dialogue, the sense of circularity, and expectations of frustrated progress (both the characters’ and the reader’s). What we also get is Mills’s trademark representation of the world of work and labour, which has occupied so many of his novels. He is most interesting when approaching it at an angle rather than head-on. All Quiet on the Orient Express, where a man “spills a tin of green paint and thereby condemns himself to death”, for example, is a chewier stew than the more directly work-related Scheme for Full Employment or Mills’s last novel, The Maintenance of Headway. With A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In, the oblique title confirms that we are in sideways territory again, and sure enough, the result is one of Mills’s most ambitious and satisfying confections.

Our hero – why not call him that? – is a naïf finding his way: the rules of the world are explained to the reader as he discovers them. This is not to say that the reader ends up enlightened, or running ahead of the narrator: correspondences in literature and history suggest themselves, but remain inchoate. The Empire of Greater Fallowfields, for example, where the book is set, looks very like Britain (it has “the only flag that could be flown upside-down without anybody noticing”), or rather like a cross between a fairytale reading and a media interpretation of it. People appointed to high office have no idea what they are doing, there is a general loss of purpose, like in Vonnegut’s Slapstick, where people “had to believe all their lives that they were perhaps sent to the wrong Universe, since no one has ever bid them welcome or given them anything to do.” Now that they have been given something to do – Postmaster General, Astronomer Royal, Pellitory-of-the-Wall – the characters are defined, literally and psychologically, by their roles. Their personalities are not ruled by the usual qualities in fiction: ambition, envy, passion; instead we get humanity writ small: pedantry, bossiness, passive-aggressive needling. When one complains about unfair treatment, another points out that “unfairness is what keeps the world going round.”

The narrator’s role is Principal Composer to the Imperial Court. He takes up residence in the ‘cake’, the building where the orchestra practises and the conductor Greylag composes music which will be credited to the Principal Composer. He may not know much about music, but our man at least knows more about the stars than the new Astronomer Royal (“They’re all fixed, are they? Well, that’s definitely a fact worth knowing. Thank you”), who can’t even get his telescope to work – though he will once he finds a use for the universal sixpence stipend which none of the court officials is otherwise able to spend. Meanwhile, they are treated with surly compliance by the workers – “serfs” – of Greater Fallowfields, and they are required to rehearse a play which has parallels simultaneously with Macbeth and with their own predicament. Petty bureaucracy is never far from hand: “It’s treasonous to interfere with the postal service,” says Wryneck to Garganey (all the names are like that). “Even to make improvements?” “I’m afraid so.”

Analogues and connections spring up, but scatter as the mind settles on them. Is it a parallel for Nazi Germany, or postwar Germany, or the drifting United Kingdom? The people of Greater Fallowfields believe that the world envies them, when in fact it is passing them by while they remain caught up in their own affairs. They take notice only when the outside world becomes a threat as a neighbouring country builds a railway into Fallowfields. So concerned are the empire’s noblemen about their neighbours taking over (“the customs of the east,” says Smew. “We don’t want them here”), it doesn’t initially occur to them that the greater threat might be from their own people leaving. They are complicit in their own downfall because they are tied to the past and comfortable in their own limitations (“I’d have liked to have been able to award Greylag and the orchestra with a day off in recognition of their valiant efforts, but unfortunately this was beyond my gift”) – even though those limitations, the roles they hold, were only recently new to them. “Progress doesn’t bring improvement,” one of the noblemen says. “It just makes people think they’re cleverer than they actually are.”

As with most Magnus Mills books, the best approach is to forget about pinning it down and simply enjoy the slipstream. A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In is sparklingly sad and seriously funny. It tells us about loss and power and control and authority and things that more literal and realistic books would not address half as directly. It reminded me most of all of Kazuo Ishiguro’s masterpiece The Unconsoled; like that book, like life, here all the characters can do is “try to carry on as though everything was normal.”

Deborah Levy: Swimming Home

Swimming Home is one of the launch titles from And Other Stories, a new publisher headed by alumni from Serpent’s Tail (Stefan Tobler) and Dalkey Archive (Sophie Lewis). Such a provenance immediately made me want to read this novel (a quote on the back from Jeanette Winterson and an introduction by Tom McCarthy sealed the deal).

You can read my review of the book for the Guardian, here.

Matthew Hollis: Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas

This is one of those books that I would happily have ignored as ‘not for me’ (indeed, I happily had) but for a friend urging me to read it in the strongest terms (“one of the best books I’ve read all year”). Does it matter, I tentatively wondered, that I barely know of Edward Thomas at all, and certainly haven’t read his poetry? “Absolutely not.”

Now All Roads Lead to France may be encumbered by a clumsy (albeit relevant) title, but the subtitle is unarguable. It relates, season by season, the last four years of Edward Thomas’s life, before he died on the Arras battlefield on 9 April 1917. The previous day, a dud shell had delivered him a lucky escape. Then, after a successful Allied assault, Thomas leaned into a dug-out to fill his pipe when “a shell passed so close to him that the blast of air stopped his heart. He fell without a mark on his body.”

Matthew Hollis follows the old principle that you should begin a story as close to the end as possible, and his book is all the better for it. In a life of thirty-nine years, where Thomas didn’t even begin writing poetry until a little over two years before his death, the risk of boring the reader with childhood and early life would be great. Instead Hollis fills us in briefly with what we need to know, and concentrates in detail on Thomas and his surroundings and influences.

In fact, this is not just a book about Edward Thomas, but about the cultural life of England in the early twentieth century, and the opposing forces who wanted to move poetry on from its Edwardian stagnation. In one corner were the ‘Georgian poets’, so called for their inclusion in anthologies edited by Edward Marsh and published by Harold Monro’s Poetry Bookshop between 1912 and 1922. They included, behind the survivors like Rupert Brooke and John Masefield, thickets of poets each of whom regarded himself as the greatest poet in England, all now more or less forgotten: W.W. Gibson, Lascelles Abercrombie, W.H. Davies. The Georgians were, said Monro, a ‘forward movement’ in poetry, and he probably didn’t intend faint praise when he described their verse as something “the general public could appreciate without straining its intelligence.” To others, the Georgians, with their innocent, pastoral poems in sing-song rhythms, were beneath regard. As T.S. Eliot put it, not intending any kind of praise, “the Georgians caress everything they touch.” Squared up opposite were the Imagists, including Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) and Richard Aldington, but most prominently Ezra Pound, and whose manifesto required direct treatment, pared language and a relatively free verse. They were, as Hollis says, “modern, forward-facing, trim,” and exemplified in Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro’.

I didn’t know Edward Thomas’s poetry at all when I started this book, though I enjoyed the first few sections so much that I quickly went out and bought his Collected Poems. The first glance of them seems to park him with the Georgians: the bucolic concerns, the looking down and looking in, the frequent recourse to rhyme. In fact what Hollis convincingly shows us in the first half of the book – before Thomas had written a single poem – is that he was persuaded of the need for a new cadence or tone in poetry for years before he began writing it. This conviction was shared by the man who more than any other shaped Thomas’s approach to poetry and who is here so thoroughly presented that he becomes the second subject of the book: Robert Frost.

The names are coming thick now: Frost, Pound, Eliot, Brooke, Yeats too. Hollis’s biography quickens an entire lost world, and is a rounded recreation of the sort of literary life which has always seemed just out of arm’s – or time’s – reach. It seemed out of reach to Thomas too, who by 1913, at the age of 35, was a busy critic, editor and biographer. He had published more than twenty prose books and more than 1,500 signed book reviews (with plenty more printed sans byline). But his prolific rate did not mean low standards: he was “the man with the keys to the Paradise of English Poetry,” according to a letter in The Times, and Walter de la Mare praised his unswerving commitment to distinguishing rich crop from fallow field:

For the true cause, he believed, is better served by an uncompromising ‘Trespassers will be prosecuted’ than by an amiable ‘All are welcome’.

(De La Mare also said, perceptively and presciently, that “any reviewer who uses the word ‘genius’ should be fined for the benefit of a literary fund.”) Thomas, busying himself with scrappy literary work, had suffered from depression since before going to university, and found no happiness in family life. In reading of his breathtaking disregard for the needs of his wife and children, I was reminded of John Cheever, who “loved being a father in the abstract, but the everyday facts of the matter were often a letdown.” Thomas spent as much time as possible away from his family, and made them miserable when he did return for brief visits. When his wife Helen was pregnant with their second child, she wrote to a friend, “I have prayed that I and my babe may die, but we shall not, tho this would free Edward.” Thomas himself acknowledged that “What I really ought to do is live alone” (which he more or less did, given his frequent weeks-, even months-long absences) but was not above absurdly passing the blame, or at least failing to take it upon himself. “But I can’t find the courage to do the many things necessary for taking that step. It is really the kind [Helen] and the children who make life almost impossible.” Since Thomas had no considerate person in his life to tell him to shit or get off the pot, he continued this selfish behaviour until his death. Was the unhappiness he brought his wife and children worth it for the poems it gave us?

It is not, of course, a biographer’s job to pass judgment on his subject, but at times Hollis seems almost to be writing a narrative account from Thomas’s own viewpoint, with all the identification that implies. There is only a little of the marriage problems from the standpoint of Helen, the wife who put the long into long-suffering. He implicitly criticises a poetry editor, who knew Thomas well, for returning poems to him unread (even though Thomas had submitted them as the work of another, anonymous, poet, so the editor couldn’t know they were Thomas’s own). And he offers no comment on Thomas’s embarrassing renunciation of his early – farsighted – praise of Ezra Pound, apparently to save his critical career in the face of outrage from London’s literary cliques. However, these are the only weak points I could find in an otherwise exemplary (half-) Life. If pushed, I could also complain about the choice of tired photos – so ubiquitous they’re invisible – of several of the main players: I only have to say the names W.B. Yeats, Robert Frost and Rupert Brooke and I guarantee you will know exactly which photos are used to depict them in the short eight pages of illustrations. However I presume these – school of Google Image search, page 1 – were not Hollis’s choices.

Ah yes: back to Robert Frost. He dominates much of the book, and his poems are written about here with such sympathy and understanding that I immediately wanted to read them instead of Thomas’s. He was Thomas’s greatest friend and mentor, and the two independently came up, then supported one another in, the notion of “the sound of sense”: a new acknowledgement of poetry as carrying the rhythms and tones of natural speech. This was, to use a terrible phrase, a third way which challenged both Georgian ornament and Imagist minimalism. It came from a belief that “words exist in the mouth, not in books.” Simultaneously acknowledging and challenging his antecedents, Frost declared that his own verse “dropped to an everyday level of diction that even Wordsworth kept above.” For Thomas’s part, he eschewed the forcing of rhyme where none naturally existed, warning himself against “any future lenience to the mob of gentlemen who rhyme with ease.” Hollis’s careful unpicking and assembly of Thomas’s and Frost’s theories of ‘the sound of sense’ is thrilling and brilliant; we see Thomas gradually and then suddenly become a poet, erupting with a white heat of creativity in late 1914. (“Did anyone ever begin at 36 in the shade?” he wondered.) For him this was a natural development, fuelled by Frost’s empathy, of his thinking since the turn of the century: “the best lyrics seem to be the poet’s natural speech,” he wrote in 1901, or as Hollis more formally puts it, this was “the overlaying of variable speech rhythms upon the strictures of conventional blank verse.”

She found the celandines of February
Always before us all. Her nature and name
Were like those flowers, and now immediately
For a short swift eternity back she came,
Beautiful, happy, simply as when she wore
Her brightest bloom among the winter hues
Of all the world; and I was happy too,
Seeing the blossoms and the maiden who
Had seen them with me Februarys before,
Bending to them as in and out she trod
And laughed, with locks sweeping the mossy sod.

It seems likely that this book will be read predominantly by those who already know Thomas’s poetry. For me, the result is an enlightening and peculiarly tense read: wondering whether he will actually get around to writing all that verse as the end grows nearer and he heads off to war – or, more seriously, feeling the anticipatory fizz as I awaited the unveiling of the work. (Beginning in his mid-30s and knowing so much about poetry before he began means that Thomas has almost no apprenticeship material: his gift springs from the womb fully formed.)

The corollary of that is that once Thomas gets going, and once he goes off to war and his death comes closer, the book seemed less urgent to me. His desire to go to war was not so relaxed as Rupert Brooke’s (“Well, if Armageddon’s on, I suppose one should be there”), and Hollis suggests that it came from a fear of seeming unmanly, deriving most strongly from one incident where he failed to back up Robert Frost in a dispute with a gamekeeper. Also, the money was welcome: he could earn more as an officer than he did from his writing. The last third of the book becomes almost literally a life in poetry: Hollis quotes generously from Thomas’s work as his poems transmute his daily lived experiences into art. This is welcome, though it remained the case that the first half of the book triumphed over the second: because the most extraordinary aspect of Thomas to me is not what he did with his poetic gift, or how the world lost it so quickly, but that he managed to get there in the first place.