Saturday, 19 February 2011

Dubliners - James Joyce

Joyce built a reputation on a remarkably small base of work, very little of it conventional. This collection of shorter pieces represents his earliest work and show an almost uncanny ability to use language. The pieces progress from childhood to death, from short to long, and they become deeper.

Each of the pieces is based around a moment of revelation, sometimes for the central character, sometimes for the reader, often for both. Yet at no point does Joyce lead. He gives each vignette in as near neutral a way as is possible, given his own developing style and method. Language used is appropriate to character, and sometimes seems a bit rough round the edges because of it; environment is just as important as those who move within it.

These are, to begin with, glimpses from the window, small moments of the kind we all see every day from the window of a bus or train. Little events that we cannot hope to embed in a wider context but which nonetheless are complete in themselves. As the stories progress that wider context begins to emerge and, indeed, we see some of these characters again in Ulysses.

The skill of Joyce is in writing pieces that leave us at first thinking: “I could have written that”; and then very quickly realising that we couldn’t. Not just because one needs to have been intimately associated with a place and its people, but also because one needs to have a natural ability to paint such detail with so few words.

Although I say natural, Joyce worked at his craft. But that simply increases the worth of the pieces because for all that he puts in; they still seem light and alive with the kind of energy one expects of a rough draft.

Although much is rightly made of ‘The Dead’, I still prefer the earlier, shorter pieces which for some reason remind me so much of the paintings of Tavik Frantisek Simon and to lesser extent Jack Butler Yeats. Moments captured. Frozen. Displayed for our exploration. Moments, also, that informed, shaped, and populated the imagination of Joyce himself.

W H Auden Penguin Poets - W H Auden

I am very firmly with Hugh MacDiarmid when it comes to Auden: “a complete wash-out”. I felt this when first introduced to his work in the early ‘70s. I still feel it now. The only time his poetry works for me is when he is not trying to dazzle with his intellect. For example, the first of his ‘Two Songs for Hedli Anderson’ (also known as ‘Funeral Blues’ and by its opening phrase ‘Stop all the clocks’). The simplicity of language and imagery is where the power of this poem lies.

There is no doubting Auden’s skill, his ability to use many poetic forms, or his erudition. However, for me (and I realise this is entirely subjective) all this produces is a smooth, glacial surface on which my interest is frozen and from whence it slides.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Modem Times 2.0 Plus...

This slim volume (hoorah for slim volumes) contains a new Jerry Cornelius novella, a short essay, an interview, and an outline bibliography. Whilst there is nothing spectacularly new in either the essay (on London) or the interview (by Terry Bisson) for anyone acquainted with Moorcock’s life and work, both are nonetheless illuminating, witty, and well worth reading – not just for insight into Moorcock, but also into the creative process. The bibliography lists (over eight pages) Moorcock’s phenomenal output – which would be amazing enough in its own right but which does include his journalism, musical work, or the less quantifiable contribution he has made over the decades to editing, encouraging, and promoting the work of others.

I am, of course, a Moorcock fan.

I have been reading his work since I was about seven (some of it before I even knew it was him in anonymous pieces in the likes of Look and Learn magazine). From his conventional rip-roaring fantasies to his non-genre work, from the conventional to the exploratory, I have devoured his output (and own most of it). One of the great joys of discovering Moorcock when I did was that you didn’t have to wait long for a new one to appear on the shelves. Interlocking works that he has, over the years, drawn together into a vast, multi-volume, work.

Jerry Cornelius is quintessential Moorcock. These comic strips, short stories, novellas, and novels encompass all his styles, themes, and concerns. Because Moorcock is more than just a fantasy or sf writer (which would be no bad thing). Moorcock’s work is informed by political awareness, a desire to explore and understand the human condition, and a great deal of warmth.

Modem Times 2.0 is a novella that demonstrates that over the years, Moorcock has lost none of his touch. It is a sparkling piece of work that uses old methods and styles to gain a new perspective on today’s’ world. Superficially light and, at times, knockabout (look out for the three literary worthies and their prizes), you find yourself suddenly aware of the depths of the piece. It is difficult to call it a novella as it does not have a plot in the conventional sense. The Cornelius stories (even those carried conventionally by a recognizable storyline) are more a method of bringing bits of the world into focus than they are stories with beginning, middle and end. It would be senseless trying to describe what this is about. You have to read it and tune into it. But I can say that it is eloquent, smooth, with an underlying flavour of the ‘60s still present for the tutored palate. Besides, any story that manages to mention The First Spaceship on Venus (the first movie I saw on my own at a cinema), just has to be one of the best things ever written.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Empire Of The Sun - J G Ballard

It is difficult to find things to say about this book that people haven’t probably read elsewhere. As Ballard’s best known work (and for many people the first time they’d actually heard of him) and as one that has achieved great acclaim (not to mention being adapted as stunning movie of which Ballard approved and in which he makes a brief appearance) it has been dealt with in great length. However, there are some things worth mentioning because they get overlooked.

To begin with, it is a work of fiction. Because Ballard based it on his own childhood experiences of the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, there are some who think it is a recounting of those experiences. If you read Ballard’s autobiography, Miracles of Life, it is clear there are enormous differences. This is worth pointing out, because there are many who undervalue the book for this reason. Jim’s adventures may be based on Ballard’s experience, but they are a deliberate fictional account. The book is a carefully constructed novel, using all the literary devices applicable to such a piece of fiction. If it is read as a recounting of actual events, these other layers can be lost. And there are layers in plenty: levels of imagery concerned with dissociation, themes about family and companionship, arcs concerned with Jim’s development and understanding that occur despite all the obstacles put in his way – including the physical and psychic debilitation caused by starvation.

As a wok of fiction it is one of a minority of literary works aimed largely at an adult audience that has a child as its protagonist. Children do feature more in fiction now, but there was a long period where they appeared only on the fringes and even then only as a bit of colour to add realism. Quite why children have been neglected in this way is a mystery to me. They are ideal central characters because, as with Jim, they can view the world in a naïve way that points up its absurdity. Throughout Empire of the Sun, Jim experiences things which he doesn’t understand yet which are clear to the adult reader. This juxtaposition is an acute tool that heightens events and attitudes.

It is a work that is key to understanding Ballard’s other work. He himself said that he spent twenty years forgetting the events and another twenty years remembering them. It is certainly true that whilst the novels that follow Empire of the Sun address the same concerns and ideas, use the same imagery, they do so in a different way. It would be going a bit far to say Ballard had tamed his demons, but he certainly had the measure of them. The vocabulary of the Ballardian landscape is to be found in those war years. The empty swimming pools, the ruins, the chaos, the hallucinatory attention to detail, the closed worlds with their own sets of rules, the roaming bands of brigands, the fascination with machinery…All these and more informed Ballard’s imagination and shaped the way in which he narrated his vision of the world.

Finally it is a book that makes no pretension to being literary. By which I mean that Ballard allows the story to drive the language and very often we are treated to straightforward and unaffected prose. Which makes the hallucinatory episodes, the description of the gleaming Mustang aircraft, the stark portrayal of violence all the more powerful. Ballard strips the language back and keeps it out of the way of the compelling story.

I could say so much more. It is a novel that encapsulates the twentieth century in a way few others even come close to. It is powerful, unsentimental (at times savage), non-judgemental, and brutally honest. All the ambiguities and evils of conflict are set out for our inspection. And for all the atrocities it exposes, this is also a novel about the development of the artist because from all that happened to him and all that he learned of that period, Ballard became a writer of the deepest integrity who understand more than most just how surreal, absurd, and terrifyingly glorious the world can be.