Thursday, 24 March 2011

The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie - Muriel Spark

One could wish that all writing was this accomplished, but without such peaks, we would not be able to see the troughs or the other peaks beyond. Yet such literary peaks (unlike their geomorphological counterparts) are the easiest to climb. Deceptively so. And The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is no exception. For we have a short, simple tale of a teacher and the influence she has (or thinks she has) over a particular group of girls.

Packed into the 120 or so pages of this novel are endless and complex layers of characterisation and moral exploration, not to mention social history. And with the style of writing so beautifully mirroring the story itself, we are presented with a portrait that is by turns comic and tragic with all the shades between, and which is always compelling.

As the narrative progresses it becomes more sophisticated, maturing as the children mature and their understanding of what is going on around them increases. It makes use of remarkable leaps back and forth, of startling imagery (the death of Mary Macgregor, in particular, is one I always find deeply moving because of its inevitability and the way it is echoed in her response as a child to the explosive chemistry experiment).

The fragmentation of time, however, presents a seamless narrative, that makes sense in the way it is presented. It is what allows for such a compressed piece of work. For one could imagine a lesser writer being tempted to present us with a 1000 page epic embracing all social history and world events, Miss Brodie’s holidays abroad, and so on. But we need none of that in detail. We know enough about Jean Brodie to know how she reacts to these things as an individual. It is clear in the way she attempts, increasingly, to manipulate her ‘set’, how her mind works and has been influenced by her own life (of which learn surprisingly little) and larger events. In the small world of the school we see the larger world at work. In the Brodie set, we see how friendships develop and how minds are shaped, not always in the way the shaper assumes.

Muriel Spark’s writing here is breathtaking. It is economical without ever giving up on richness; makes use of poetic language and technique (particularly the repetition and variations on theme); manages to be modernist without once severing its links with the long and venerable Scottish literary tradition (which has, in any case, always been innovative); and paints a picture that lingers and changes as one continues to think of what kind of person Miss Jean Brodie was and the effects she had on her charges.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Running Wild - J G Ballard

Whilst The Day Of Creation seems to be a coda to Ballard’s earlier work, this novella prefigures the later novels. It is not a complete change. All the Ballardian concerns, ideas, and symbols are there, as is the trademark surrealism. But Ballard is no longer prophesying as the world he foresaw had, by the time of this work, come to pass. So Ballard lifts the body of society onto the table and with a sharp knife, flays the skin to let us look underneath.

Short and passionless, as befits the psychological report the story claims to be, this is nonetheless compelling, not least because of what is left unsaid; because of its implications. It also suits the world described – a safe, sterile environment, the perfect world as envisioned by a particularly unimaginative class of people who still hold sway over the world, bankrupting it whilst withdrawing into their elitist and protected enclaves. In this, Ballard is still a prophet because he foresaw that these people were taking the seeds of their own doom in with them.

Set in a small, gated community protected by the latest in security and serviced by those who live without the wire fencing, this tells of the massacre of the inhabitants and the disappearance of all the children. Theories abound, but very few people are prepared to face the truth. One such is the narrator who shows just how the children killed their parents and why.

This nightmare scenario probably does not shock so much now, but Ballard was there early pointing out that keeping children in a sterile environment is not a good thing. Over protectiveness and the ubiquity of digital entertainment have already given rise to concerns about social interaction and obesity. Take that to its extremes and one wonders how long it will be before the social problems lead to extreme psychological breakdown.

As always, Ballard writes with a visual eye. The scene is beautifully realised, the estate accurately drawn (although only sketchily as this is a short work). Indeed, the environment is the key and it is this that is given more space than the human characters that in habit it. They are unknown and, in the case of the children because they are sui generis, unknowable until found. And perhaps even then they would remain a mystery. The story is filmic in its quality and would make great television, provided the production team could be trusted to keep to the low key delivery that Ballard uses and which delivers this kind of story with far greater impact than thrills and spills.

Not, perhaps, a master work from Ballard, but certainly a thought provoking and eerie piece of work.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

The Day Of Creation - J G Ballard

What do you do when you have written a highly acclaimed novel that not only sheds light on the horrors of war, but which also sheds light on the roots of your earlier work? Well, if you are J G Ballard, you go back to those roots and reprise your earliest novels. But you do so with a whole new level of understanding and skill.

On the surface, The Day Of Creation belongs with Ballard’s first four (or three, as he would have it) novels. It does have a great deal in common with The Drowned World, The Drought, and The Crystal World (which in turn were born out of earlier short stories and The Wind From Nowhere). The world and society of the novels is dysfunctional. The central character is a doctor. The central character is an outsider on many levels, not least because of their descent into psychosis. And the whole thing is deeply symbolic. This might not sound like a particularly gripping read, but Ballard had an extra trick up his sleeve. He could tell a good story. And The Day of Creation goes well beyond those earlier works in terms of content and style.

Set in sub-Saharan Africa, the book tells of how a new river appears in the arid landscape and the effects it has on the lives of those who live close by. Mallory, the central character and local WHO doctor, has already been drilling in a dry lake bed to see if he can find water. The town where he lives has been deserted by most of its inhabitants because of a war between a guerrilla group and government forces. It is an uneasy dynamic that is thrown into chaos when a distant earthquake alters the level of a buried aquifer and releases water.

Mallory, already on the edge of sanity, is somehow convinced he has created the river. Torn between the desire to irrigate the Sahara and to destroy the river that will flood his drilling project, he steals an abandoned car ferry and sails upriver to seek its source. Chased by government forces, harried by a band of armed women, starving, diseased, he is driven by some inner force he does not understand. His only true companion is a young rebel soldier he calls Noon.

Whilst everyone else assumes his motives to be sexual, his relationship with the girl soldier is much more complex and forms one of the central strands of the book. It is developed with great subtlety because whilst it is a genuine relationship between two people, it also carries a huge weight of symbolism about the way in which Africa has been treated by outsiders and its own people. The river (named the Mallory), which symbolises Mallory’s own journey is a second strand that examines the relationship of people with the land and how they treat themselves.

The symbolism is powerful. The first time I read the book, I had vivid, potent dreams, much as many of Ballard’s early protagonists. They were not disturbing, but the book clearly unlocked something in me at the time. Whilst I was not affected in the same way this time (only the second time I have read this book), it did open many more layers to me. It is certainly difficult to avoid drawn parallels between the book and real events in Africa today, both sub-Saharan and Mediterranean parts of the continent. But life has provided more experience and Mallory’s search for himself, his journey back to his own beginnings, his search for love and a way to reconcile and heal all that he sees as awry and painful in the world make much more sense.

Ballard’s writing is also more assured. He was always a good writer, but there is a fluency about this work that is deceptive. It seems straightforward, less exotic than some of his earlier works, yet it manages to be more poetic and powerful as a result. And the final sentence, after everything has been lost, resonates not just with that loss, but with longing and hope, and with all the layers of meaning inherent in the book: ‘Sooner or later she will reappear, and I am certain that when she comes the Mallory will also return, and once again run the waters of its dream across the dust of a waiting heart.’

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

The Complete Poems - T S Eliot

It would be difficult to overstate the effect that Eliot’s poetry had on me when I first read it. Unlike Auden’s work which I could not find a way into, I felt that Eliot’s poetry was an open and inviting doorway into a place where you could look at the things behind the world.

Reading the two so close together has allowed me to consider why this should be so. In the end, it comes down to the very simple fact that whilst both poets are undoubtedly fiercely intelligent and pack their work with reference and allusion, I do not need to understand it to get anything out of Eliot. Auden it seems to me uses his intelligence to obscure and exclude. Eliot uses his intelligence to open up and include.

This is not to say that I do not understand the levels of Eliot’s erudition. Well… some of them at least. And it did no harm to my understanding that I was already a great fan of Shakespeare, Dante, and Conrad; and steeped in Arthurian literature and analysis. However, it is Eliot’s imagery that first hooked me. Those first three lines of ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ were enough. Anyone who could write like that was going to have a permanent place on my bookshelf (and I saved my three pounds and bought the hardback of the complete poems and plays which I still have).

At school (this was one of my A Level set texts) we worked from the Selected Poems. No Minor Poems etc. No Old Possum’s. Whilst we had a good teacher, that selection did somewhat obscure two things about Eliot’s poetry. Firstly was the way in which it developed. His increasing pre-occupation with religion is more obvious when the poems are read chronologically. The second is the varying quality of his work. The minor pieces simply do not compare with the epic quality of the major works. But that is to compare Eliot with Eliot, because even the pieces written in ‘Early Youth’ are assured and redolent with the voice that would later shake my world.