In an earlier blog I had read and had not admired J.M. Coetze’s The Childhood of Jesus, and I see now its sequel, The Boyhood of Jesus, is long-listed for the Booker. I’ve been thinking about how bad the one I read seemed, and decided the problem was that it’s all imagined, doesn’t draw sufficiently direct from particulars of place, time, people and circumstance in Coetze’s life, and so is thinly imagined. I know that feeling when there’s no real life source, no subject there in front of the artist to be represented (or misrepresented/ distorted), and the feeling of inadequacy that can come over the work. This sounds like the realist speaking and no doubt it is, up to a point, though the degree to which the subject is acted upon, processed, changed can be essential, and will qualify the ‘realist’ label. I have always liked Stendhal’s definition of the novel as a mirror walking along a highway; but only so long as it recognizes that each writer’s mirror will show a different highway. The objects will be the same, but the colours, tones, focus, framing – for each writer all will be different, and in effect personal.
I should also say that though there is an absence of representation in The Childhood of Jesus, I suspect that in very broad terms the childhood as he portrays it is, to a significant degree, his own.
I said I must read something else by Coetzee and began with what I could find on the bookshelves of Margaret, my daughter in London – the second volume of his three volume autobiography, the one called Youth, which covers his early years (the early 1960s) in London where he went from South Africa, found work, and began to turn himself into a writer. I’m fascinated by the ways in which our lives, his and mine, and our intellectual circumstances at that time, overlap – first simply that he is South African, with the same reactions to Britain, and from the British; the same sense of trying to prove himself, half believing (and partly resenting) that the U.K. is, or at least will be seen as, the larger and more challenging pond. A lot of this book seems naïve, and I can’t be absolutely sure (especially since it is written as fiction, referring to himself as ‘he’, not as ‘I’) whether one is meant to read it as a sophisticated representation of the naïve fellow he was, or whether it is itself simply naïve. My own feeling is that there are not enough signals to the contrary, and for at least the first half, it must be read as literal and naïve.
I was surprised to find he reads the letters of Ezra Pound, and ‘is engrossed by the Cantos... reads and re-reads them (guiltily skipping the dull sections on Van Buren and the Malatestas), using Hugh Kenner’s book on Pound as a guide. T.S. Eliot’ (he goes on) ‘magnanimously called Pound il miglior fabbro, the better craftsman. Much as he admires Eliot’s own work, he thinks Eliot is right.’ Anyone who has read much of what I have written on this subject will know how closely it accords with my own views.
Other literary judgements are odd, however, and don’t at all accord with my own. He prefers Pope to Shakespeare, and Swift to Pope. He likes Chaucer who ‘keeps a nice ironic distance’, and ‘unlike Shakespeare... does not get in a froth about things and start ranting.’
His dislike of disorder is entirely comprehensible, but it sometimes has an unappealing regimental air. Speaking of himself he says, ‘he will certainly not be a Bohmemian, that is to say, a drunk, a sponger and a layabout.’
It is Pound who directs him to Ford Madox Ford, especially The Good Soldier, and the four novels that make up Parade’s End; and for a time Ford will be the central focus of his academic studies. He is trying to write poetry but without much success. He turns to writing prose and tries to emulate the style of Henry James, whose fiction he admires; but James’s sensibility, he acknowledges, is more delicate, subtler than his own. His overriding ambition is to be ‘an artist’, a role he seems to think is pretty much reserved for males. There are exceptions – Sappho, Emily Bronte – but mainly women ‘do not have the sacred fire’. It’s ‘in quest of the fire they lack’ that women give themselves to artists. In their lovemaking with artists, women experience ‘briefly, tantalizingly, the life of gods’ – and by this their life is ‘transfigured’. I remember hearing ideas like this in the 1950s from Frank Sargeson – though not with such bland confidence, such blindness to their injustice and untruth. Had the members of the Nobel Committee read this before they awarded Coetzee the prize?
Looking at his portrait on the flap I am struck by his resemblance to the movie actor, Clint Eastwood, who might share his views of women and men and how they relate.
And yet in other ways I still find much to identify with. He lives through the Cuban missile crisis fearing that this may be the nuclear end of everything, seeing some justification for Kruschev’s putting missiles into Cuba, admiring Castro, and fearing the Americans. He finds comfort in the BBC Third Programme and begins there his education in the classical repertoire. He hates Apartheid South Africa and wishes the Russians would invade – ‘land paratroops in Pretoria, take Verwoerd and his cronies captive, line them up against a wall, and shoot them.’ He feels South Africa as the albatross around his neck and ‘wants it removed, he does not care how, so he can breathe.’ He reads about it constantly in the Manchester Guardian and it makes ‘the soul cringe within him’. He wonders what it will take to make him ‘English’. He sees the signs, NO COLOURED, in the windows of lodging houses and knows, or feels, that though white, he is not wanted either.
Once again, though there are differences in each case, and their cases are much more extreme than my own, I feel some identity with what Coetzee and V.S. Naipaul have written about their early years in London. One crucial difference is that for me English was the first language. With Coetzee, though he dislikes so much of his Afrikaaner inheritance, Afrikaans and not English came first.
(Footnote: I am often asked why I publish as C.K. Stead – two initials and a surname, with no first name. It must be a sign of those times: my models for this were W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden; and these two have always published as J.M. Coetzee and V.S. Naipaul.)
In Naipaul’s case there is also a language before English (Hindi, I assume), though the family began to make English its everyday language while V.S. was still a child.
One passage that particularly affected me in Coetzee’s book was a sort of once-only out-of-body moment. He is lying half asleep in an English field, hearing the faraway sounds of children, birdsong, the whirr of insects, and all this, and the throb of his own pulse, comes together: ‘At last! he thinks. At last it has come, the moment of ecstatic unity with the All.’
(Footnote: Cf. the final lines of my sonnet 3, Collected Poems 1951-2006, p. 92, where the same kind of moment is described.)
It lasts no more than a second, but he describes it as ‘this signal event’.
Yet he also describes himself as ‘at home in misery’, saying of himself, ‘If misery were abolished he would not know what to do.’ Happiness teaches nothing; misery is ‘a school for the soul.’ In that our temperaments, his and mine, are quite different – which may partly explain why my reaction to his novel was so negative.
So for me the mystery of Coetzee and his enormous reputation, which began with my reading of The Childhood of Jesus, remains. I need to read one of those Booker prize-winners – Disgrace for example. But that will have to wait while I come to terms with Michel Houellebecq (pronounced Wellbeck).
After we left Menton we spent three days in Paris and there I recovered interest in a novel set in that city, which, within the last year or two I’d written a draft of and then lost interest – had ‘gone off it’, ‘got sick of it’, abandoned it. I still think it a foolish idea, to be writing fiction about Paris when I’m not living there able daily to absorb atmosphere and check on detail; but it was an idea about characters (including a New Zealander) working as academics at the Sorbonne, so I had at least the academic element to hold on to. And I had a source there, possibly two, who could help me.
Michel Houellebecq’s most recent novel, Soumission (in English, Submission), is also about a character who teaches at the Sorbonne. His first-person narrator, François, is an academic expert on (and obsessed with) the fiction of Joris-Karl Huysmans, famous for end-of-(19th)century decadence. François has turned his back on the literature of 20th century France, the Leftists of the middle century, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, but also the later writers of the Nouvelle Vague (the New Wave) – Claude Simon, Marguerite Duras and Alain Robbe-Grillet. He is some kind of conservative, perhaps reactionary, and the novel is as much political and sociological as literary.
Houellebecq made his mark as a fiction writer famous for illiberal, even reactionary ideas. In his novel Les particules élémentaires (in English Atomised) he deeply offended Muslims by describing theirs as ‘by far the most stupid, false and obscure of all religions’. In Submission however he seems to have altered radically – but this may depend on how you read the novel and what you think its intention is. It posits a France in the year 2022, in which Marine Le Pen (National Front) is favoured by close on one third of the voters. The UMP (conservatives), who have lost supporters to her, are running fourth; so the only way Le Pen can be beaten is for two parties, the Socialists, and the Muslim Brotherhood (a political force Houellebecq has invented) each of which have about 21% support, to combine. They do this, and since the Brotherhood comes out slightly ahead of the Socialists, their leader, Ben Abbes, becomes the new President.
Francois, aged 44, a typical Houellebecq anti-hero with many bodily ailments and a problem with alcohol, says of himself, ‘When you got right down to it, my cock was the one organ that hadn’t presented itself to my consciousness through pain, only through pleasure. Modest but robust, it had always served me faithfully.’ In the new France, however, he will not be allowed to continue teaching unless he becomes a Muslim.
Fearing civil war, he leaves Paris. ‘I had no plan – just a very vague sense that I ought to head south-west. I knew next-to-nothing about the south-west really, only that it was a region where they ate duck confit, and duck confit struck me as incompatible with civil war.’ It’s a joke of course, a good one; only a Frenchman would make such a decision on culinary grounds. But there is very little violence, and France slides almost painlessly into acceptance of the new order. Is there meant to be a glancing parallel with the nation’s almost passive acceptance of the Occupation in WW2? I think that might be part of his intention.
The politics of Left and Right is represented as having run its course. This is the new century, and neither the right-wing nor the old soixante-huitards (the revolutionaries of 1968) can claim authority. What the Muslims fear is not Catholicism, which was long ago put in its place in France, but secularism – the force of ‘atheistic materialism’. Against this force stand the three monotheism, the religions of the Book – Christian, Jewish and Muslim.
Under the new Muslim-dominated regime unemployment falls (because fewer women are working), crime and violence begin to disappear from the banlieues (economic upturn and fear of sharia law), the economy flourishes with the help of petro-dollars from the Sheikdoms, the EU is enlarged to include Turkey, with Tunisia, Morocco, Abyssinia, in prospect...
This novel is not, I think, meant to be read as a prediction, but rather as a ‘what if?’ and ‘where would you stand?’ It might be described as an intellectual jeu d’esprit, but a serious one, and seriously dark. Houellebecq is asking himself these questions. There is a sense in which he is an enfant terrible in a world he represents as rife with pornography and the technology of the instant and the immediate. But he is also, I suspect, deeply conservative, in reaction against this world in which, nonetheless, his own fiction seems to thrive.
Francois’s obsession with Huysmans is probably Houellebecq’s own, as is also his metaphysical angst. In the end he will convert to the Muslim faith, not just so he can retain his teaching post at the Sorbonne and score a couple of teenage wives, but because there is in him a deep horror of the ‘atheistic materialism’ of which Houellebecq has probably been thought to be a modern day evangelist. ‘Since I was 15,’ Francois says, ‘I’ve known that what they now call the return of religion was unavoidable.’ Europe, which achieved the summit of human civilisation, has in just a few decades ‘committed suicide’, yielding to the ‘simpering seductions and lewd enticements of the progressives’. Gay marriage, abortion rights, and women in the workplace represented ‘moral decadence’.
All this comes late in the book, and seems to arrive with the force of real conviction. Probably Houellebecq is divided against himself; but this reactionary disgust must be very close to the centre of his being. It is not attractive.
there’s a lot to be said for
in a green, foxy wood
drumming on the roof of leaves.
But there was no rain the day we visited Methwold churchyard somewhere along the remote back-roads of Norfolk, where I found eight or ten gravestones with the surname Flatt. One or two of these must have been my direct forebears, the rest collaterals, before or subsequent to the departure of my great great grandfather, the missionary-catechist John Flatt, for the Bay of Islands in 1834. John Flatt’s early adventures in New Zealand are an important part of my novel The Singing Whakapapa, just re-released by Penguin in a group of ‘Six New Zealand classics’. None of the inscriptions on these headstones was completely readable, but I’ve been told (and have not yet managed to confirm) that one grave was that of John’s father Robert, and that he was an M.P. for the area.
As we returned to our car through the churchyard gate my friend Tony Axelrad said, ‘Well at least you know who you are.’ His forebears were Jewish, he thinks from Russia via Scandinavia to London; and then he grew up in France, which perhaps added to the uncertainty about identity, but gave him two languages to be at home in. Most of his professional life has been as a translator, most recently for the U.N. Court in Den Hague, set up to investigate crimes committed during the war in the former Yugoslavia. It is as a translator that I first met Tony, when he translated one of my novels into French. He’s retired now and living in Norwich, and Kay and I were staying briefly with him and his wife Pat.
Philip Larkin and Anthony Thwaite on the River Tas, photograph by Ann Thwaite. Via LiteraryNorfolk.co.uk.
While we were in that part of the world we visited other old friends, Ann and Anthony Thwaite, Anthony a noted British poet, associated in the 1950s and onward as one of what was known as ‘the Movement’, sometime poetry editor for BBC radio, then literary editor of the New Statesman, and later of Encounter; and perhaps best-known now as Philip Larkin’s literary executor and editor of his work. (The photograph, by Ann, is of Anthony punting Philip Larkin on their mill race, Thwaite in polo-neck and wellingtons, with his 1970s hair, and Larkin in typically proper jacket and tie.)
Ann is a noted biographer, having written (separate) lives of Edmond Gosse, Philip Henry Gosse, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Emily Tennyson, and A.A. Milne; and she is currently deeply involved in the making of a movie about the real life Christopher Robin, based on the life of Milne’s son, the model for his famous children’s stories.
The Thwaites live in an ancient mill house on a millrace cut in the local river, the Tas, with woods and a field behind; and as always we were given lunch and then taken up the river on their punt. Ann has interesting New Zealand connections which she has recounted in her book Passageways (University of Otago Press). Her parents were New Zealanders. Ann and her brother David were born in the U.K., and when WW2 broke out, with its threat of bombing and possible invasion, they were taken back to New Zealand by their mother who left them with relatives there for most of the war years. Back with her parents in England after the war, Ann attended Oxford where she and Anthony met. They have been, and continue to be, a formidable literary combination, both Fellows of the Royal Society of Literature, and with many connections in the British book world.
The punting expedition on this occasion had an untimely comic end. The upper reaches of the millrace were beautiful, the banks rich in purple wildflowers and green and gold reeds visited by turquoise damselflies, the water reflecting the woods and the small field where two horses, one chestnut, one white, grazed peacefully. Anthony, who normally plies the pole while Ann sits in the prow, this time stayed indoors for a post-prandial snooze. So Ann was our redoubtable means of propulsion, and all went beautifully until we returned to the landing stage. One end of the punt was tied up, and I climbed out. Kay made moves to follow but while she still had hands and half her weight on the landing, and feet and knees in the punt, the boat swung slowly out from the shore. It was the classic punting disaster, which I have seen before in Oxford. It seems to happen in slow motion, with an accompaniment of shrieks, while the victim’s weight, equally distributed between ship and shore, yields to the laws of Newton, and plunges.
Anthony, wakened from his slumbers by the shouting, emerged from the house to lend a hand, and four literary persons, all in their eighties, struggled to haul one of their number up on to the landing.
– C.K. Stead