Saturday, 30 March 2013

Albert Cossery: The Jokers



In 1964 Albert Cossery, a Cairo-born French novelist, published The Jokers, his fourth novel. Cossery, who practised a type of contemplative idleness and lived most of his life unemployed, wasn’t a very prolific writer, he wrote one novel per decade. Spending the mornings in his hotel room and only leaving to the esplanade after the job centres closed, he lived his intellectual live in the Parisian cafés. Publicity and fame did not interest him, and outside a small circle of friends and admirers in France – his acquaintances included Albert Camus, Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell – he was all but unknown when he passed away in 2008, the same year I discovered him. I’ve been reading ever since, idly reading through his oeuvre. One of my favourite novels by him was The Jokers, translated into English in 2010 by Anna Moschovakis.

The fifty years that separate the publication of The Jokers and our era haven’t reduced either the charm of its wit or the power of the corrosive irony that runs through its pages, an irony directed at the political, social and economical institutions that regulate freedom and hinder human development. In all his books Cossery has a bone to pick with authority, order and the ruling classes. The satire of this quasi-political thriller is no exception.

In an unnamed Middle Eastern city, the governor has declared war on beggars, “that peaceful but so deep-rooted race that no conquer before him has managed to exterminate.” In this city the “police persecuted sloth and indolence, considering them crimes against the nation.” As the novel opens a policeman has just detected a beggar. The matter requires urgency because the felon is sitting before a building that has a “bank and a jewellery, or, in other words, two aspects of a universal metaphysics demanding immediate protection against the rabble.” As the policeman charges against the beggar, his head rolls down the ground, attracting a crowd that starts threatening the figure of authority for his brutal methods of repression. The policeman, seeing his illusory authority disappear faster than a drop of water under the desert’s scorching sun, inspects the beggar’s body and discovers that it’s in fact a doll. The crowd’s anger turns to mockery and the policeman’s sense of importance, at least for that afternoon, is shattered.

The mastermind behind this harmless act of rebellion against authority is the young kite-builder Karim. Karim is an easy-going hedonist who belongs to an underground group that opposes the government, using mockery instead of violence. The joker is new brand of enemy that the government ignores, used only to the clandestine revolutionary party composed of individuals who take themselves as seriously as it does. The group of pranksters is financed by Khaled Omar, a former criminal who discovered ways of making money in prison and became a businessman after regaining his freedom. The intellectual Heikal acts as the leader and also as its theoretician; his philosophy can be thus summed up: “the permanent spectacle of men’s stupid madness delighted him; he felt like a child at the circus, facing existence like something extremely funny.”

This means the group does not want to change society; it does not even believe that society can be changed. For them, the revolutionaries fighting the government are just as stupid, corrupt, and pointless. The resistance, with its terrorists and bomb makers, by openly opposing the powerful with violence, incurs on the crime of taking itself too seriously. To Heikal both sides are the same, thirst for power. “Above all,” declares Heikal, “it’s better not to take them seriously. That’s what they want, to be taken seriously.” Instead of staging coups, the group prints posters praising the government and plasters them all over the city’s walls. This may seem a strange idea, using praise as a political weapon, but their praise is so exaggerated, grovelling and subservient, that it becomes absurd and an embarrassment for the government. It undermines its seriousness and incites the population to deride it because of its poor taste; for in the minds of the citizens, the posters were produced by the government itself. This ingenious plan has the added effect of putting the government in a conundrum: who ever heard a government arresting someone for praising it? At the same time it can’t convince the people that the posters were not authorised by it. The people mistrust it so much they wouldn’t consider self-aggrandizement beneath its capabilities, and would they be wrong?

The disinformation campaign spreads throughout the whole city, and rumours start running around that the governor is being pressured to resign. But as the hedonists’ victory seems imminent, something happens that gives the novel’s conclusion a bittersweet taste. And more I won’t reveal. In fact there’s not a lot more to reveal. Although Cossery never fails to write entertaining novels, and he has a gift for storytelling, you can’t say a lot happens in his novels. Most of his books take place in sleazy rooms where pariah smoke, have sex or discourse on their contempt for authority and order. And that’s fine because his dialogues are hilarious and captivating.

But I also think his philosophy of laziness turned into a laziness at writing. The main idea of the novel – that humour instead of violence can bring down a corrupt government – is wonderfully tempting, but Cossery is sure of his idea that instead of spending time analysing and developing it, takes it for granted and rushes it to a precipitated conclusion that lacks strength and conviction.

Another problem is that he too often relies on types. His repertoire of characters is limited, and the same protagonist keeps showing up, the young sensuality living on the margins of society, conniving with the dregs, sexually outstanding and wise and weary beyond his years. The bureaucrats, rulers, ministers and rich men he vilifies are no less formulaic in their stupidity and cupidity. Cossery’s good fortune is that he has the ability to keep saying the same in different ways, and also that what he has to say is worth listening to. His vocal disdain for politics, power and authority, and the intelligence behind his ferocity, makes him a highly entertaining writer, and in our age when trust in politicians may have reached an historical low, I think this is the best time to read him. Cossery so often expresses what we all think about them, but so much better and funnier.

Before concluding, I must return to Albert Cossery sometimes being called an anarchist. It’s something you’ll find in most reviews of his books; and in the past I used to think it was accurate. With time I’ve been rethinking this position. I don’t think it’s this is the first time I’ve expressed my belief that the ideas espoused by Cossery’s heroes are contrary to many of basic tenets of anarchism. Anarchism teaches that society can be improved, that men can organizes themselves into higher, fairer, better social structures, that co-operation is superior to competition, and that solidarity is essential to progress, that evil is wicked and that justice is essential. Cossery and his heroes laugh at all this. I think Cossery’s hatred for power and authority gets him mixed up with the anarchists, and no one bothers to notice the gradations. Cossery’s characters are, in a few words, selfish sceptics who believe the world’s confusion, disorganisation and injustice are alright; nihilistic hedonists who seek endless source in the stupidity of Mankind. If corruption and tyranny didn’t exist, they’d have to invent them to deride them. With so many egocentric characters, it’s no wonder human relationships are scarce in The Jokers. The group only exists to destabilize the government, no other unifying theory or purpose exists, no manifesto. They have no family, although Heikal has a servant. Love affairs are transient matters that last only a night. There is a fourth member in the group, the teacher Urfi, responsible for writing the texts that accompany the posters. He’s the closest thing to a member of the working class in the novel. Ironically he feels distant from the group. “Unlike Heikal, he sometimes tried to find in human institutions an appearance of seriousness or justice”. Urfi is the traditional revolutionary, an idealist who suffers because Mankind keeps disappointing him. He’s also the most sympathetic character in the novel, grieving over the irreversible mental disease destroying his mother’s sanity. As problematic to Cossery’s identification with anarchism as the protagonists’ sceptical selfishness may be, though, the real problem is his strange worship of poverty. For Cossery’s hedonists, who ironically tend to be well-off most of the time, the best people are the poor. Their virtues are endless, and they’re the happiest and freest people on Earth because they have no riches, no possessions. I’m pretty certain I never came across this in my Bakunin and Kropotkin. Intellectually speaking, the praise of poverty as virtuous is a worldview as ancient as Diogenes’ Cynicism, which I think is closer to his philosophy. For me these views aren’t troubling, but if we’re to continue to pigeonhole Cossery in existing philosophies and ways of living, I think we should do him the justice of being more accurate about it.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Most glorious and most horrible: Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell




Ever since I wrote about William Blake I’ve also been meaning to write about Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s magnificent comic book From Hell. Tenuous as the connection may be, any mention of Blake always makes me think about this book. In fact I’m sure much of my interest in the mad bard originated in its myth-addled pages. Comics, especially American superhero comics, have been my passion since I’m nine, and since this is the first time I write about this wonderful medium I figured the occasion demanded a very special comic book.


But first some biographical facts. Alan Moore (b. 1953) is a British writer from Northampton who started writing comics at the end of the 1970s, first newspaper strips and then for weekly magazines like 2000AD and the seminal Warrior, for which he created two of the most acclaimed comics of the modern era: Marvelman, a lyrical and melancholy-tinged exploration of how the world would be like if a superhero actually existed; and V for Vendetta, a science-fiction thriller set in a future fascist England terrorised by an anarchist vigilante. Moore’s comics were considered a bold new development in the medium’s writing, smarter, more mature, more elaborate, more profound. His work was so distinctive and impressive that editors of the American comics company DC Comics, home of Superman and Batman, invited him to try his hand at a second-rate title that was on the chopping block, a horror series called Swamp Thing. His now-legendary 1983-1987 run is considered a landmark on American comics, famous for having changed the way comics were made and lauded for having expanded the possibilities of what comics, as an art form, could achieve: Moore and his artistic collaborators started playing around with form, colour, panel layouts, themes, long-form storytelling, symbolism, using the strengths of comics medium as an integral aspect of the narrative. For a good reason he’s called the Orson Welles of comics. Still at DC Comics Moore and artist Dave Gibbons created Watchmen, the only comic book included on the Time’s 100 Best Novels, for those who care about such honours. Watchmen is considered one of the best comics ever made, some even argue the best ever made. Although I wouldn’t go so far, it is a remarkable example of alternative history that mixes Cold War tensions, superheroes, vigilantism, and shrewd ruminations on politics, ethics and the nature of time. Then in 1989 Moore had a falling out with DC Comics over creators’ rights and censorship and he started self-publishing his own comics. Although since the late eighties Moore has produced many memorable and ground-breaking comics, nothing surpasses what I consider to be his true masterpiece: From Hell.

It is hard to praise From Hell and then describe what the story is about without looking like a fool, so please bear with me. At its simplest, it’s a historical comic book about the Jack the Ripper murders, the title coming from the address written on the only letter reputed to have been sent by the killer (hundreds were sent, something I’ll come back to later). I know this doesn’t sound very spectacular but Moore isn’t really interested in another tiresome thriller about cops chasing a Victorian fog-veiled killer cutting up prostitutes in squalid West End back alleys, or in entertaining unverifiable and scandalous hypotheses about his identity. He’s not Patricia Cornwell, let’s make that clear. Back in 1989, when Moore started thinking about writing a big comic book on murder he didn’t even have the infamous serial killer in mind, too played out for him. But the centennial of the murders had taken place in 1988 and pop culture was ablaze with him. By chance he read Stephen Knight’s Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution (1976) and became interested in the possibilities of using the infamous serial killer after all. Knight’s non-fiction book, with its long debunked theory, proposed the wild and entertaining theory that the Ripper murders had been carried out by a Masonic agent of Queen Victoria in order to suppress the scandal that could possibly arise from the secret marriage between her grandson, Prince Albert Victor, and a commoner called Annie Crook. After doing away with the mother, who meanwhile had given birth to a baby girl, the Queen’s agent proceeded to execute a group of prostitutes who knew of the affair and were trying to blackmail the crown. Moore simply picked up this crackpot theory, which he didn’t believe in for a second, and used it as a skeleton to frame a more ambitious story. Pairing up with Australian comic book artist Eddie Campbell, he started serializing the story in 1989, finishing only in 1996, after three publishers had gone under. In the end, however, they had created a nearly 600-page-long masterpiece: fourteen chapters, a prologue and an epilogue, forty pages of end notes, and an appendix where Moore details the history of Ripperology, that is, the science, or pastime, of investigating the Ripper murders.

From Hell, then, is not a whodunit, the criminal investigation being very superficial and limited to a handful of chapters. Another simple way of describing the story is saying that it is a character study of Sir William Gull, the tentative author of the Ripper crimes, according to Knight’s book. Gull, incidentally, really did exist and was Physician-in-Ordinary of Queen Victoria, a title he received after curing her son, Prince Albert Edward, of typhoid fever. His connection to the murders is established early on, in chapter two, when he’s tasked with performing a rudimentary lobotomy on Annie Crook, wrongly detained in a hospital for madwomen. This chapter perhaps offers the first glimpse of the book’s distinction, for it is visually constructed completely from Gull’s point of view, his face being revealed only when Annie meets him, a very novel idea in comics at the time. In chapter four, after the letter of blackmail is transmitted to the royalty, he’s sent for by Queen Victoria, who instructs him to eliminate the four prostitutes that know of the royal affair: Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride and Mary Jane Kelly. (Catherine Eddowes, who makes part of the five canonical victims, is killed by Gull by mistake). Chapter four is widely reputed to be the book’s pièce de résistance, a coach ride across London during which Gull lectures his helper, John Netley, on the pagan history of London, druids, psychogeography, its monuments, churches, ghosts, and famous murders. This chapter was, according to Moore’s admission, inspired by Iain Sinclair’s poem Lud Heat, which was the first book to notice the strange patterns of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s London churches, famous for their pagan symbols and major settings in the novel. It is here that Gull’s full design is revealed: for him the murder of the blackmailers is merely the superficial aspect of his mission. Gull is a man of science, a Free Mason, and a misogynist conservative who opposes every sort of progress that may undermine the stability of the Empire and the hold of patriarchy. Explaining to Netley that women once held the power until men usurped it and then enslaved women through force, symbols and myths, he believes his real purpose is to cast a magical spell that will reinforce men’s power upon the world. Gull, as you may imagine, is completely insane:

Chapter Four: Gull begins his lecture

Although Moore takes many liberties with the facts concerning Gull’s life, reading the end notes it is astonishing how much of his real life Moore incorporated in his fictional rendering. Moore and Campbell did a laborious work of research in order to portray him, and everyone else in the book, as accurately as possible, save for necessary dramatic changes. For instance he must have been one of the few people in the modern era who has read William Withey Gull – A Biographical Sketch, written by Gull’s son-in-law, Theodore Dyke Acland, who in turn shows up in the book too. Equal research was done for the victims, secondary characters like Inspector Frederick Abberline and the psychic and spiritualist Robert James Lees, as well as on the history and architecture of London. As a result of such intense research, cameos in the story include Oscar Wilde, William Morris, Joseph Merrick, better known as the Elephant Man, the Native American writer Black Elk, a young Aleister Crowley, painter Walter Sickert, poet William Butler Yeats, and even William Blake, all adding textual density to the narrative.

Chapter Four: Gull on legendary queen Boudica
There are several themes that run throughout the book. Perhaps the most ordinary and didactic is the theme of social injustice at the time. More than in any other Jack the Ripper work of fiction I know, Moore and Campbell humanize the five canonical victims and show the whole sordid mechanism that turned these women into prostitutes vulnerable to predators. A recurrent leitmotif in the book is that these women were easy prey because they were walking in the streets late at night, looking for strangers to have sex with for money in order to pay for a spot in a lodging house to spend the night in. They don’t overlook their undernourishment, their drinking problems, their health problems. Perhaps the most efficient example occurs in chapter five, where Moore and Campbell visually juxtapose the lives of Gull and Polly Nichols: his scenes being painted in dreamlike watercolours, while hers are grittier and scratchier: 

Chapter Five: notice the change in style...


... emphasizing the social differences between Gull and his victims
 
The hypocrisy of the era is well captured, in the words and in the images (Campbell, it must be said, does a tremendous job in the art department). Still I fear the book does not advance anything new that we didn’t know about the Victorian era’s general inhumanity towards the wretched and its ugly ideas of social Darwinism. Moore doesn’t surpass the countless realist and naturalist writers of that era, either, in capturing the squalor of the slums and the moral turpitude of its unfortunate denizens. Still Moore deserves credit for paying so much attention to the victims’ lives.

A more interesting theme is the dichotomy Gull sees to exist in history between male and female symbols and archetypes, the Apollonian reason and the Dionysian imagination, solar and lunar deities. He believes he’s living in the age of Reason and science, threatened nevertheless by socialism, women suffragettes, the books of Madame Blavatsky, the theosophists, the séances, and other spiritualist entertainments Victorians were fascinated by at the end of the century. He believes a magical spell is necessary in order to reinforce the power of men upon the world, and his work is it. The murder of the prostitutes is in fact an intricate magical spell that seeks to bind women to men’s power. If this sounds absurd, believe me Moore and Campbell make it work with chilling seriousness and aplomb. The reason, I think, this book never falls into camp is because Moore knows how to temper it with irony. The most salient of course being that Sir William Gull claims to be a servant of Reason when he’s the member of a secret society full of arcane mystical rituals that worships a deity called Jah-Bul-On. And his method of preserving rationality is by counter-attacking with his own magical spell. Incidentally, it’s in chapter four that Gull eloquently discusses William Blake, and hence the reason I associate the two.

Chapter Four: Gull talks about William Blake

A fourth theme is a study of the end of the Victorian era itself: Moore postulates that the 1880s were, in a way, the progenitors of the 20th century: this magical decade saw the invention of the first cars, the rise of atomic science, the first Madhi uprising that foretold modern Islamic fundamentalism, even the conception of Adolf Hitler. The year 1888 itself, as Moore demonstrates, was a year rife with events of huge importance to the modern era. Another invention was the birth of modern-day tabloid press: the name Jack the Ripper, for instance, is believed to have been created by a journalist who sent a hoax letter signed with that name to the cops, in order to maintain the interest of the case alive and sell more newspapers. Also, hundreds of letters were sent pretending to be from the killer, made up by ordinary men and women drawn into this lurid story. Fascination with media murders, Moore points out, is not an invention of our times. He has lots of fun pointing out all these connections between this and our eras.

Chapter Two: Hinton explains his son's theories on time
For me, though, the most interesting theme is the exploration of a theory about time that says that all time – past, present, future – is occurring simultaneously, made to seem linear only because of our limited senses. Moore borrows this theory from a pamphlet of the time called ‘What is the fourth dimension?’ by C.H. Hinton (the name will not be completely meaningless to fans of Jorge Luis Borges), son of James Hinton, Gull’s best friend. Gull asks in wonder, “Can history then be said to have an architecture, Hinton? The notion is most glorious and most horrible.” Gull, however, in his ascension to godhood, becomes capable of seeing and influencing this architecture, as seen in chapter fourteen. As Moore explains in the end notes, while reading up on serial killers, he learned that usually these men have hallucinations during what is called the ‘aura phase’, prior to murders. Moore takes this one step further and makes Gull’s hallucinations into actual glimpses of the future. Each murder allows him to pierce the veil of time a bit more, receiving prophecies. For instance in his first murder he notices that it occurs near a Brady Street (and this is a fact, making the coincidence all the more chilling), wondering why the name is familiar to him, not yet knowing that he’ll influence a real 20th century serial killer called Ian Brady. In the final murder of Mary Kelly, as he slowly destroys her body, past and future mix: Gull hallucinates that he’s giving a lecture on anatomy to his students, but impossibly one of the spectators is Myra Hindley, Brady’s partner. The escalation of the murders’ brutality runs pari passu with the collapse of time itself, as each murder thrusts Sir William Gull deeper and deeper into the tangled strands of coincidences and patterns built on the legend of Jack the Ripper and propagated throughout the 20th century.

Although I said that chapter four is the highlight of the book, chapter fourteen is a serious contender to the title. Gull abandons his body and travels as spirit across time and space, to the past and the future, shaping and influencing both. Retreating in time, he becomes the nightmare that famously inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to write Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and moving further back he appears before William Blake as the scaly phantom that the mad bard renders in his famous painting, Ghost of a Flea:

William Blake's version


Chapter Fourteen: Eddie Campbell's rendition of Blake
Then propelled into the future, Gull gives commands to a young Ian Brady and to Peter Sutcliffe, a British serial killer that terrorised Yorkshire during the ‘70s. The reason they’re included is because they fit very well in the book’s theory of time architecture: in 1788 a real-life madman was caught in London after slashing the buttocks of several women; in 1888 Jack the Ripper kills five prostitutes; exactly fifty years later, in 1938, there is a scare known as the Halifax Slasher; twenty-five years later, in 1963, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley initiate their reign of terror; twelve years after them, in 1975, Sutcliffe kills his first victim. Thinking too long about this is not good for the mind. But it’s a testament to Moore’s research that he manages to make it all so plausible and persuasive.

I keep bringing up the research because it’s something that is critical to the success of this comic book. Without the countless, trivial coincidences that resonate throughout the story, much of its poignancy would dwindle. For instance, in chapter two Gull receives a letter from Hinton’s son informing him that his father passed away. A few scenes later, Gull is operating on an angry Annie Crook, who claims she was talking to a James Hinton when she was grabbed off the street. This unlikely mention of this name momentarily disturbs the aging physician. And yet, as Moore shows in the end notes, according to the electoral records of the time there was a James Hinton living in Annie’s building. This is but one example.

Equally fascinating are some tricks of irony Moore sprinkles throughout the book. Moore was one of the first comic book writers to appreciate the possibility of long-form storytelling, and he plans his stories carefully and plots them out in advance with a lot of attention to details. So his books are full of mirror images, little scenes that occur at the beginning and then are repeated, slightly distorted, later on.

For instance, in chapter two we see a young Gull capturing a mouse and gutting it, cruelty to animals being common in serial killers growing up. In the final chapter, when Gull is ascending to godhood, he witnesses the following scene:

Chapter Fourteen

Notice that the little girl has released the captured frog; instead of death, the little girl represent life. This whole page in itself is full of little payoffs. The ‘clear off back to hell’ is not only a reference to the title but also to the fact that the only letter believed to have been sent by the killer was addressed as ‘From Hell,’ metaphorically making that Gull’s abode. Another curious touch is that Gull is scared of this woman, Mary Kelly, the one victim that may have escaped him (the book is deliberately ambiguous on this point), and this is a counterpoint to his meeting with Annie Crook, who claims to be terrified by his face:

Chapter Two: in the next page we finally see Sir William Gull's for the first time
 
Another mirroring, both chapters are from Gull's perspective. Moore, it must also be acknowledged, is a masterful wordsmith. Almost everything he writes is pregnant with multiple meanings. For instance, in chapter ten, after he allegedly butchers the woman who may or may not be Mary Kelly, Gull confides to Netley: “For better or worse, the twentieth century. I have delivered it.” It’s an interesting verb, to deliver, because it can also mean to give birth to. Gull is working to contain and suppress the powers of women, giving birth being their most important, so this is quite ironic, and it also brings to mind Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, a novel written by the daughter of a famous feminist about a doctor who discovers the secret of giving life without involving the female sex. Another great trick Moore uses is reusing dialogue from a previous page on a completely different context:

Chapter Two


Chapter Ten

What’s impressive is that the dialogue fits each page, in a perfect marriage of words and pictures. Just how far Moore had planned his magnus opum in advance, which took him nearly a decade to finish, is unknown to me, but readers familiar with his long-form work in Watchmen and Promethea know that he’s a master at constructing intricate, complex narratives with several strands coming together seamlessly at the end.

But in terms of language his greatest feat is perfectly reproducing Victorianspeak. I’ve seen many writers try to imitate the way English people in the 19th century spoke, Hollywood’s historical dramas are great offenders in this regard, but no matter what there’s always something that betrays their attempts. In Moore’s case I can say there wasn’t a line I read that made me think I was standing before a character from the 20th century, or any anachronistic expression or syntax. His mastery of language never ceases to astonish me.

I really haven’t spoken much about Eddie Campbell, whose sketchy, seemingly unfinished artwork contributes to a gloomy atmosphere that is the unsettling but apt face of this horror story, but certainly all the panels I have posted so far will convince you that without him From Hell would be a far lesser book. Alan Moore has worked with many legendary artists, but Campbell may just be his best collaborator in terms of how writer and artist worked to each other’s strengths, achieving a unity of form full of lyricism and dread that remains unsurpassed in comics to me.

In trying to compare From Hell to a novel, there are many possible candidates. In terms of sheer narrative intricacy, I don’t think it’s inferior to Terra Nostra or La Saga/Fuga de J.B., with which it incidentally shares themes about history following patterns. Regarding the level of complexity of the book, Moore has cited Thomas Pynchon as an inspiration. Alas, I know nothing of Pynchon so it’s not for me to comment. Recently, though, I began thinking about the similarities between this comic book and Umberto Eco’s excellent Foucault’s Pendulum (1988). Eco’s novel is a work of vast erudition about a group of friends who start creating The Plan, the most overarching conspiracy theory ever set forth by anyone; it intends to connect everything: the Knights Templar, the Rosicrucian, the Free Masons, and just about every other known conspiracy into one big, coherent, plausible super-conspiracy. Like Moore’s theory about Jack the Ripper, The Plan is disturbingly plausible at first. Interestingly, both books contain their own negations of these same theories. In Eco’s novel much of the conspiracy theory is based on a coded manuscript Casaubon and his friends come upon; but when his girlfriend looks at the manuscript she dismantles its apparent coded messages as a mere medieval delivery list. This doesn’t stop the conspiracy, built on nothing, from taking a life of its own. Now in Moore and Campbell’s book, there isn’t really such a moment within the narrative. Instead they added an appendix called “The Dance of the Gull-Catchers,” in which Moore takes apart the history of Ripperology and, using the mathematical theory of the Koch snowflake, explains why the killer’s true identity can never be discovered. In this regard, From Hell shares similarities with another 1988 novel, Dom Delillo's Libra: in this novel about the life of Lee Harvey Oswald, there's a counter-narrative about a CIA agent in the archives trying to make sense of all the material written about the assassination of JFK, knowing that it's an impossible task, knowing that no answers can ever be found.  Moore, unlike others who have dabbled in the lore of Jack the Ripper, never forgets he’s writing fiction, the only place where answers can still be given. In writing a work of fiction, then, he has created an ambitious and interesting book that will likely outlive all the fanciful ‘final solutions' presented in the real world.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Grande Sertão: Veredas/The Devil to Pay in the Backlands Read-Along




By now you may have heard that there’s going to be a group read of João Guimarães Rosa’s The Devil to Pay in the Backlands. The book is hailed as the greatest Brazilian novel of the 20th century, which sounds promising, and the Brazilian equivalent of Ulysses, which, since I’m firmly convinced James Joyce’s novel is one of the worst and most insufferable wastes of paper I’ve ever read in my life, doesn’t make it very reassuring. But I’ll remain optimistic until I open the book.

This event, which will no doubt be etched deeply on the history of book blogging, is being co-hosted by several extraordinary bloggers. To make it more interesting, each person will be reading a copy in a different translation: Richard, from Caravana de Recuerdos, will read it in Spanish; Scott from seraillon in French; Rise from in lieu of a field guide, in English; and I shall have to make do with a Portuguese translation that, alas, I hear is very deficient. A recent and notable addition to our merry polyglot bunch is Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat,who will read it in German. So that means we still have slots for Italian, Russian, Albanian, Arab, Chinese, etc.

The event starts at the end of May, and everyone is free, and encouraged, to join. Copies in English, I understand, are elusive, so start looking around in libraries and used bookshops. You might get lucky. In preparation I’m also reading some other Brazilian books I plan to write about once we get closer to the date. It’s time we celebrate the great literature of Brazil!


Saturday, 16 March 2013

The Man Who Bought Books






Sometimes I wonder if we book readers don’t suffer from a terrible addiction. Usually I don’t like to write in this blog about my personal life, but there is a topic that I can’t discuss with people I know in the physical world, because they wouldn’t understand me. I mean the compulsion to buy books.

In January I made a resolution to moderate my book buying and only make new purchases when my TBR pile had been reduced to half its size. From the start I didn’t expect to achieve good results since, for more years than I can remember, not a long time went by without my buying a book. Even so from mid-December, all presents having been bought earlier, to March I managed not to buy new books, which, as insignificant a period as it may be, for me was a remarkable personal achievement.

But it was hard work keeping away from books. It seemed that the more I tried not to think of books to buy, the more books I remembered that I wanted to buy. And this aggravated a problem I have: I’m obsessed with lists. I have book lists for everything: lists of plays (with divisions like Ancient Era and Before 1900), lists for novels (in chronological order from La Celestina to William H. Gass’ Middle C), lists for poetry, country lists for Brazil, Italy and Spain, dozens of non-fiction lists on varied subjects (history, politics, biographies, language, science), and more. Now while I was trying very hard to shrink my TBR pile, I was also spending a lot more adding new books to all my lists. This is, I realize, quite foolish because, even at my rapid reading pace, I can’t read fast enough to read everything I want. Most of the time I spend expanding my lists is pointless because I’ll never have enough time to read most of these books. Another problem is that since I’m always on the lookout for new books, and I buy a lot on impulse, depending on fleeting caprices, many of the books I do end up buying aren’t even on my lists, meaning their size remains static most of the time. But nevertheless I enjoy my lists very much, I enjoying reorganizing them and going through them. There’s something very soothing and reassuring about their existence that I can’t explain.

But going back to my book addiction, well, towards the end of February I was beginning to waver in my determination. I had no shortage of books at home, but I just wanted more. And then, unexpectedly, I received a Book Depository 10% discount coupon, and I thought to myself it’d be a shame not to use it wisely. I was also finishing my reading of The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake: I had carried this tome with me everywhere for two weeks, ingloriously trying to appreciate the incoherent ramblings of a madman, and I thought I’d just be wasting my time if I didn’t read some books that shed light on Blake’s life and work. This got me starting another list, now of books about William Blake. And then it finally happened. The juxtaposition of the coupon and urge to read books on Blake led me to rashly order Alexander Gilchrist’s Life of William Blake and Charles Algernon Swinburne’s William Blake: A Critical Essay at the start of March. That was it, the end of the new year’s resolution. Perhaps this craving could have stopped there, though, if something totally unexpected hadn’t happened.

Around September or October I visited a little bookstore in Lisbon I had never been to before. I had only discovered it days before going there for the first time. It was too out of the way for me, being rather distant from the centre of Lisbon where I tend to buy my books physically, and its only distinguishing feature is that it specialised in Brazilian books. I had only gone there with one purpose alone: to buy João Guimarães Rosa’s The Devil to Pay in the Backlands. They had run out of copies: it seems it’s a very requested book. I bought a book (obviously) of poems by João Cabral de Melo Neto and ordered a copy of GR’s novel. Now this is an actual Brazilian bookstore, and the books really come from Brazil, on crates, shipped only when they’re totally full as a means to cut down costs. Since sagacity is not one of my virtues, I naively asked when the book would arrive from the other side of the Atlantic. Six months, one year, was the reply. Well, that was good news: I was unemployed at the time so perhaps when it arrived I already had a new job and money to pay it without having to suffer pangs of consciousness for wasting my shrinking savings on frivolities. In fact I pretty much forgot I had ordered the book.

Until Richard from Caravana de Recuerdos e-mailed me, last January, asking me to join a Guimarães Rosa Read-Along. I wasn’t sure I could get the book on time, I promised I’d call the bookstore to check if the tome had arrived. It’s a tell-tale of my interest in the read-along that it took me more than a month to actually contact the bookstore. Anyway the book hadn’t arrived from the New World yet. And that was that, as far as the read-along was concerned, or so I thought. Then, I don’t know how, the bookstore e-mailed me asking to contact them. And, well, since I’m a very literal-minded person, when someone asks me to contact them, I interpret this as meaning physically. This being a weekend I decided to go there next Monday, during my lunch break (why, yes, I did find a job in the meantime), since my work place and the bookstore are rather close. I should add that during the morning the bookstore tried to contact me some four times, but since I always ignore unknown numbers, I didn’t know that at the time. So after hurriedly eating my lunch I go to the bookstore, walking up a ridiculously steep street that is a tourist site, only because it has this streetcar you can ride on up and down for a euro or so, under a mild rain, feeling like a character in a Fernando Pessoa poem. So I arrived at my destination rather humid and panting, because I was in a hurry to go back to work, and right on the counter I see a pristine copy of The Devil to Pay in the Backlands. Nevertheless it had been in the Old World for some time now since it had been returned from another bookstore to the warehouse, which in turn had contact the Brazilian bookstore. The lady behind it told me they had tried to reach me all morning, to know if I still wanted the book because there was a list of people interested in them. I got the impression I had gotten ahead of others who had ordered the book before me, no doubt because I had recently phoned, and this made me feel maliciously content. Anyway, I almost missed the chance buying it.
So March had only started a few days ago and already I had three new books. The curious thing is that rather than sating my need to buy new books, these purchases made it easier to buy even more books. So one week after this relapse I ordered more books from Book Depository. I pretty much annihilated whatever was left of my self-discipline and abandoned myself to literary hedonism, a binge book buying. So this time I bought T S. Eliot’s The Sacred Wood, Aleister Crowley’s The Simon Iff Stories, Adam Zagajewski’s Another Beauty and Two Cities, Eugene O'Neill’s Three Plays: Mourning Becomes Electra/Desire Under the Elms/Strange Interlude, Virginia Woolf’s The Common Reader vol. 1, and W.B. Yeats’s Collected Poems. And just let me say it felt great to buy the hell out of all these books!

But this still wasn’t the end of the story. To go back to where this all started, I bought The Sacred Wood because it has an essay on William Blake. And this got me thinking about another book with early essays on William Blake, a book called Ideas of Good and Evil, by W.B. Yeats. And I decided I wanted that took. Now this is one of those olds books that doesn’t have reliable modern editions. But after looking around, I learned it was included in The Collected Works of William Butler Yeats Volume IV: Early Essays (a new list is being made of all the books in this collection), so a few days later I ordered this one too. Now you don’t need to tell me that I’m out of control. I think, however, that my craving is dying down at last. I was this close to also buy Eugene O’Neill’s Complete Plays 1920–1931 alongside Yeats’ (only because I wanted to read All God's Chillun Got Wings, a play amongst Jorge Luis Borges’ suggestions; this is what I mean by impulse buying) but sanity and self-control prevailed.

So now I’m back to buying books again, and I feel very happy about that. I know I don’t need so many, and regardless of my lack of time, and more importantly space to put all my books, a problem that is getting too noticeable for me to ignore, buying books does relieve me of my melancholia. And I don’t know what says about me.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

The poet, the magician, the suicide, and the detective novel that never was



In 1929, only a few days before the end of November, the Mandrake Press, located in London, received a letter from Portugal making inquiries about The Confessions of Aleister Crowley in order to make the purchase of the same. This publisher had been founded by the infamous English occultist and writer Aleister Crowley, who, in a financially difficult period for him, set it up as a means to publish and sell his numerous books. The letter’s author was none other than Fernando Pessoa, the greatest Portuguese poet of the 20th century and dabbler in the occult himself. Shortly after Pessoa sent this letter, and for the next two years, he and Crowley started corresponding. The letters and the ramifications of this meeting of titans is the subject of Encontro Magick, a non-fiction book organised by one of Pessoa’s nephews, Miguel Roza.

The reader will probably be surprised that the meeting of these two remarkable and avant-garde figures did not produce a body of epistolary splendour or make a decisive contribution to illuminate their thoughts, aesthetics or beliefs. No doubt the incurable romantic in me expects that when two idiosyncratic writers meet, they will discuss art, literature, the life of the mind, with the sagacity, wit and uniquely awkward way of seeing the world that writers in our imaginations possess. We presume they will be as fascinating an clever in private as in their public writings. And we feel a bit defrauded when their private letters are no less preoccupied with the mundane than our e-mails. This makes me wonder if the literary epistle isn’t the most artificial of genres, at least in this day and age when everything the author writers must be saved for posterity to analyse, read decode, interpret; and the author knows this, meaning his private writings have none of the innocence, ingenuity and even banality that is the mark of privacy. Now if anything can be said of the letters Pessoa and Crowley exchanged, is that they were not written with an eye on posterity. As much as letters can reveal about the personality of their authors, they reveal Pessoa and Crowley as rather petty, deceptive, boorish mortals with ordinary problems – money in particular – especially Pessoa, whose skills at poet dissimulation here bleed into real life.

After the first letter, the correspondence with the editors took a more personal turn when Pessoa incidentally reported to them that Crowley’s horoscope, as publicly known, was wrong. “If you have the occasion to communicate, as you probably have, with Mr. Aleister Crowley, you may inform him that his horoscope is unrectified, and that if he reckons himself as born at 11h.16m.39s. p.m. on the 12th October 1875, he will have Aries 11 as his midheaven, with the corresponding ascendant and cusps. He will then find his directions more exact than he has probably found them hitherto.” Pessoa was slowly letting the cat out of the bag; pretending to be merely interested in a couple of books, the poet surreptitiously induced the editors to give Crowley, for his own sake, a reason to contact Pessoa. As it will become clearer later, Pessoa must have planned this all along as a stratagem to persuade Mandrake Press to publish his books in England. Pessoa’s plans backfired in the most amusing, and for this slightly misanthropic and insecure man, irritating way possible. Crowley not only contacted him but immediately proposed their meeting each other, then went to Lisbon to visit him, and ended up dragging Pessoa into the story of a fake suicide, upsetting the peaceful existence of the Portuguese poet. But we’re getting ahead of our facts and narrative.

Not long after Pessoa brought attention to Crowley’s imperfect horoscope, the great magician replied to him, and to his merit it must be said he immediately treated Pessoa with respect, addressing him as ‘Dear Frater’ in his letters, recognizing him as an equal in initiation. No doubt he was impressed with Pessoa’s astrological knowledge, which indeed were not negligible. Pessoa was well-versed in the occult and hermetic studies, and had an occult-themed library which included the English translation of the Zohar by MacGregor Mathers, the founder of the Golden Dawn, a magical order to which Crowley belonged.

Crowley, it must also be said, knew geography well enough to locate Lisbon in Portugal, unlike the Mandrake Press editors, who not unusually thought it was in Spain, a frequent mistake the Portuguese are used to. Even so Pessoa ironically asked the editors to ‘disannex Portugal from Spain,’ the clever fellow.

Crowley also showed unusual humility for one known as a fiend and perverse man. “I dare say your guess is accurate enough. I don’t bother with directions. I do very little astrology, except pure genethliacal and transits. I should be very glad if you would let me have some information about my present situation.” Crowley not only asks Pessoa for help, he asks him to read his future for him, which is a serious request. Crowley would wait in vain for the rectified horoscope to arrive, though, since Pessoa kept making excuses not to send it. Instead Pessoa sent him ‘a curiosity without interest, three booklets of English verse I published here some time ago.’ No doubt he expected that Crowley, with his influence over Mandrake Press, would approve of their publication in England. As we can gather from his roundabout way of getting Crowley’s attention, nothing was innocent in his letters. Obviously it was of supreme importance to Pessoa to have his poetry published in England, his spiritual and cultural fatherland. Crowley read and apparently enjoyed his poems, considering them ‘very remarkable for excellence.’ But being an occultist and magician, Crowley interpreted these poems not in the crude commercial way Pessoa hoped, or even in a purely aesthetic sense. For Crowley they were augurs, signs that good times were coming. “I have, indeed, taken the arrival of your poetry as a definite Message, which I should like to explain in person.” How Pessoa must have dreaded these words! Not only did he make no mention of publishing them, now he was making plans to travel to Lisbon and disturb the peaceful life of this unassuming clerk. The correspondence they exchange for the next months show him putting up all sorts of excuses to avoid a meeting, although never extricating himself from a promise to meet Crowley, who even asked him to meet him in London. Pessoa’s main difficulty was of course finding the money to travel. Not put off by his silence, the magician one day surprised Pessoa with a telegram informing him that he and his girlfriend, a young German woman called Hanni Jaeger, were arriving by ship, asking him to meet them in the peer.

Crowley arrived on September 2, 1930. In Lisbon Crowley and Hanni take a room in Hotel de l’Europe. Pessoa serves as his guide. In his diary Crowley describes him as ‘nice.’ Pessoa, undaunted, continues to try to persuade the Mandrake Press to start business relationships with him. In what we’d nowadays call outsourcing, Pessoa proposed transferring MP’s book printing shop to Portugal, because of cheaper costs of production. Another idea consisted in arranging translations of their back catalogue for the Portuguese and Brazilian public (Pessoa would be in charge of them). Yet another idea was the ‘translation of strange or unknown Portuguese authors whose works may be potentially of interest to the English reading public.’ Pessoa’s opinions of what constituted books of interest was varied, ambitious, and odd: ‘old Portuguese Song-Books and Romances of Chivalry, which are the very beginning of European literature,’ in his deluded mind anyway, ‘strange fancies like The Mandarin by Eça de Queiroz, or scandalous masterpieces (in their own kind) like Abel Botelho’s The Baron of Lavos, which is the completest and most brutal study of pederasty which, to my knowledge, has ever been written.’ (If Botelho’s novel is ever translated into English, I hope someone remembers to use that last sentence as a cover blurb.) Pessoa did not forget to include his own poetry amongst the books worthy of translation, reminding the editors of the booklets he had sent them previously. Oh, Pessoa was one smooth operator. (There’s a whole book devoted to all his ill-fated entrepreneurial attempts.)

Whatever good fortune Crowley hoped to find by his meeting with Pessoa failed to materialise. Instead his relationship with Hanni grew so tense she started having hysterical fits, throwing tantrums and showing signs of being tired of his magical rituals and wanting to return home to Germany. On September 20 she leaves aboard a ship, making Crowley so angry he plots a little revenge: fake his suicide and leave behind a note blaming her for it. Visiting a geological site in Cascais called Hell’s Mouth, Crowley, no doubt because of the symbolism of the name but also because of its fame as a suicide haunt and place where unwary visitors disappear, he gets the inspiration to stage the suicide there. Returning home, he writes in his diary that he must arrange the details with Pessoa.

Boca do Inferno, literally meaning Hell's Mouth.

On September 23, Crowley is reported to have jumped down a crack and died in the sea below. A journalist called Augusto Ferreira Gomes, wandering about at Hell’s Mouth, came upon a note tucked underneath a rock. Ferreira Gomes was a friend of Pessoa who was in on the joke and who was going to use his connections in the media to get the story of the suicide running. On the night of the staged suicide Crowley crosses the border on the Sud-Express, heading to Berlin to reunite with Hanni. The first news about the mysterious occurrence comes out in the Diário de Notícias, on the 27th, in articles prepared by Pessoa and Ferreira Gomes. Soon a police investigation was underway, with Ferreira Gomes and Pessoa being called in to give depositions. At this point Pessoa started blurring fact and fiction. To the editors of the Mandrake Press, and even to Israel Regardie, Crowley’s personal secretary, he wrote confabulations where he entertained hypotheses of what may have happened, never confirming any suicide, but relating only the news he read. At the same time he testified to the police facts that were incongruent with the facts they had – they knew for instance that a man holding Crowley’s passport had crossed the border on the 23rd, although Pessoa swore he had seen him in Lisbon after the date of the alleged suicide, in the company of a man Pessoa did not know, adding more confusion to the case. Pessoa plays both sides, cooperating with the cops and giving reports about what he knew, while subtly adding distortions to create paradoxes in the versions, all the while never rejecting the possibility of a hoax, but exculpating himself from any role in it. The international police was so baffled they weren’t sure anymore if the man who showed the passport in the border was indeed Crowley. The rumour even starts that someone other than Crowley was killed in Hell’s Mouth. During this time Pessoa was the nexus of this elaborate hoax, being contacted by people requesting more information, dispatching news clippings to England with translations, and the news of Crowley’s suicide spread as far as Spain and France. A British newspaper even reported that Crowley may have been pushed to his death by ‘an agent of the Roman Catholic Church.’ Mandrake Press continues to write to Pessoa, showing concerns that this, if a hoax, could affect their image as a serious company. In Berlin, Hanni receives letters from Pessoa in Crowley’s behalf, playing her role in the drama. Through her, Crowley, living in hiding, was kept up to date on the events.

On matters closer to home, Pessoa’s dealings with Mandrake Press aren’t having the results he intended. The editors try to get Pessoa, a miserable clerk, to buy stocks in the company in the value of 1500 pounds. They had a very mistaken idea of who Pessoa was if they thought he had such quantities to shell out. But it’s becoming clearer and clearer to the poet that MP is not interested in the slightest in his proposals to publish his poetry in England.

Perhaps due to this lack of interest in him, or maybe due to his own nature incapable of finishing anything, of keeping his attention focused on something for too long, Pessoa started losing interest in the hoax and the letters grew scarcer. The event also never reached the proportion both authors hoped, and no doubt the censorship of suicide news in fascist Portugal may have played a role in that, an oversight in Crowley’s part, better used to England’s tabloid culture. In any event the newspapers in Portugal grew silent after a few weeks. Long after Pessoa’s own interested had clearly died too, Crowley continued to contact him. In particular the always-penniless magician asked for news about a detective novel Pessoa had committed himself to write based on the events. This was to be a detective novel about the investigation, planned to be sold at the height of the event’s popularity, but of course Pessoa’s inability to finish anything ‘triumphed’ once more. Crowley, who wanted to split the money of the sales between the two, obviously had not spent enough time with Pessoa if he ever supposed him capable of finishing a novel. Enough fragments exist to make one relieved the novel was never completed. One almost feels compassion about Crowley, who was the gullible party in this relationship. On a more positive note, Pessoa’s experience with Crowley led to some interesting poems of his own with a strong mystical undertone, as well as a translation of his “Hymn to Pan” into Portuguese.

All in all, their dealings lasted two years, from November, 1929 to November, 1931, when the letters abruptly stopped. Considering the remarkable lives these two men lived, it’s hard to say this incident was anything but a bump in their lives. Apart from the letters, Pessoa didn’t leave writings referring to it. The event itself certainly holds more interest to their fans than anyone else: there’s something that seems to defy reality when we imagine the meek, reserved, shy Pessoa meeting the diabolic Crowley, and the elaborate fabrication at Hell’s Mouth. But above all what I retain are these two men unexpectedly meeting because of financial matters, each thinking the other was somehow his lottery ticket, one demure and bound to Portugal, the other a globe-trotter in search of new experiences who never lived too long in the same place, but both drawn into a strange hoax that they perhaps never quite understood how it started.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Cézanne's Outbursts, Blake's Phenomenon, Beardsley's Perversions



This final post on Roger Fry has less purpose and structure than the previous ones. Before I latched onto overarching themes in Vision and Design. Now I just intend to regale the reader with a few passages from this critic’s opinions on three famous artists. When it came to sitting in judgement on visual artists, Fry, a painter himself, did so with the authority of a life-long study of the history of world art, and he doled out praise and censure with the same assuredness, untroubled about offending sacred cows.

Being ignorant as I am of William Blake and the way his paintings and engravings were received in the past, I don’t know where Fry’s article on him can be situated, but he’s the oldest art critic I know who admired and promoted his work to a large audience:

There assuredly never was a more singular, more inexplicable phenomenon than the intrusion, as though by direct intervention of Providence, of this Assyrian spirit into the vapidly polite circles of eighteenth-century London. The fact that, as far as the middle classes of England were concerned, Puritanism had for a century and a half blocked every inlet and outlet of poetical feeling and imaginative convictions save one, may give us a clue to the causes of such a phenomenon. It was the devotion of Puritan England to the Bible, to the Old Testament especially, that fed such a spirit as Blake’s directly from the sources of the most primeval, the vastest and most abstract imagery which we possess. Brooding on the vague and tremendous images of Hebrew and Chaldean poetry, he arrived at such indifference to the actual material world, at such an intimate perception of the elemental forces which sway the spirit with immortal hopes and infinite terrors when it is most withdrawn from its bodily conditions, that what was given to his internal visions became incomparably more definite, more precisely and more clearly articulated, than anything presented to his senses.

As those who have read my previous posts will know by now, Roger Fry opposed the view that art should be representative, that is, imitative of nature, or concerned with realism. Obviously Blake’s art was especially dear to him because it supported his own views. “Blake’s art indeed is a test case for our theories of aesthetics. It boldly makes the plea for art that it is a language for conveying impassioned thought and feeling, which takes up the objects of sense as a means to this end, wing them no allegiance and accepting from them only the service that they can render for this purpose.” Blake’s art, like his poetry, lived in its unique, autonomous world, and was anything but realistic, in theme, forms and proportions. In fact, Blake’s strange method of colouring, where colours and objects did not match our everyday assumptions, is not unlike the revolution carried forth by Fry’s Post-Impressionists.

Fry wasn’t just about praising though. He has a fascinating article on Albrecht Dürer that is quite balanced on praise and criticism, with Fry convinced the famous German engraver was a bit overrated. But his article on Aubrey Beardsley is my favourite putdown from the book. Fry seems to grudgingly acknowledge this decadent artist’s talent while simultaneously condemning him for his ‘perversion,’ a slur he repeats too often for my liking.

His style was constantly changing in accidentals, but always the same in essentials. He was a confirmed eclectic, borrowing from all ages and all countries. And true eclectic and genuine artist as he was, he converted all his borrowings to his own purposes. It mattered nothing what he fed on; the strange and perverse economy of his nature converted the food into a poison.

Fry chastises Beardsley for using everything in order to further his art of corruption and decay, which seems like an unfair thing to do to a man who clearly had no interest in art but to drawn grotesque and erotic figures of women. But Fry disagrees on Beardsley’s personal narrowness of theme.

The eighteenth century, China, Japan, even the purest Greek art, all were pressed into his service; the only thing he could do nothing with was nature itself. Here he was entirely at a loss, and whenever he yielded to the pressure of contemporary fashions and attempted to record impressions of things seen, as in the topical illustrations of plays which he contributed to the Pall Mall Magazine, he failed to be even mediocre. Everything that was to be the least expressive had to come entirely from within, from the nightmares of his own imagination.

This is unfair indeed coming from Fry, who spends so much time defending art from imitation and representation and promoting it as the singular vision of the artist. It’s like he makes a 180 degree turn here. Also his grievances seem to stem from a lingering Puritanism over Beardsley’s sexual themes, which is ironic considering Fry spends so much time deriding the repressiveness of Victorian epoch in other articles. He makes an interesting remark, however, which I think worth thinking about:

But if we are right in our analysis of his work, the finest qualities of design can never be appropriated to the expression of such morbid and perverted ideals; nobility and geniality of design are attained only those who, whatever their actual temperaments, cherish these qualities in their imagination.

This is a curious and thought-provoking passage. What is the link between nobility and geniality? And does one really need to have this nobility Fry speaks of in order to be an artist? I personally disagree but it’d be interesting to know what others think. Artists, it has to be said, are not good people, in fact they’re downright spiteful, childish and sometimes just evil. Which brings me to his panegyric of Paul Cézanne:

In a society which is as indifferent to works of art as our modern industrialism it seems paradoxical that artists of all kinds should loom so large in the general consciousness of mankind – that they should be remembered with reverence and boasted of as national assets when statesmen, lawyers, and soldiers are forgotten. The great mass of modern men could rub along happily enough without works of art or at least without new ones, but society would be sensibly more bored if it the artist died out altogether. The fact is that every honest bourgeois, however sedate and correct his life, keeps a hidden and scarce-admitted yearning for that other life of complete individualism which hard necessity or the desire for success has denied him. In contemplating the artist he tastes vicariously these forbidden joys. He regards the artist as a strange species, half idiot, half divine, but above all irresponsibly and irredeemably himself. He seems equally strange in his outrageous egoism and his superb devotion to an idea.

When he properly starts talking about Cézanne, he paints a remarkable, if frightening, figure:

In one very important detail Cézanne was spared by life – he always had enough to live on. The thought of a Cézanne having to earn his living is altogether too tragic. But if life spared him in this respect his temperaments spared him nothing – for this rough Provençal countryman had so exasperated a sensibility that the smallest detail of daily life, the barking of a dog, the noise of a lift in a neighbouring house, the dread of being touched even by his own son might produced at any moment a nervous explosion. At such times his first relief was in cursing and swearing, but if this failed the chances were that his anger vented itself on his pictures – he could cut one to pieces wit his palette knife, or failing that roll it up and throw it into the stove.

That artists are no better or worse than mere mortals is no surprise to me, almost anyway, sometimes I’m still blinded by the notion of artists as great, magnificent, superior men, forgive me, but I never cease to relish at the infinity of their ways of being strange, unpleasant, rude and misanthropic. 

My journey with Roger Fry must end here so I can move on to other things. I just wish to repeat that reading this book was a tremendous pleasure. I kept it on my shelves for some eight years, shuffling it around from time to time, before I finally opened it to give it a serious reading, and I was pleasantly surprised. For those who love elegant prose or are interested in aesthetics or visual arts, Vision and Design is a worthwhile classic.