“There’s no such thing as autobiography, there’s only art and lies” (Jeanette Winterson) or “The poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.” (G. K. Chesterton)

Recently I fell subject to one of those viruses that seems never ending.  Basically for about two and half weeks I was behaving like this:

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(Only with much less impressive cheekbones). I wouldn’t bother mentioning it, stoic that I am, except it meant I had to turn down a last-minute ticket to see Zoe Wanamaker in Stevie, Hugh Whitemore’s play about the life of the poet Stevie Smith.  I love Zoe Wanamaker and I’m sure she’d be great as the idiosyncratic Smith, so I did not take this in my stride:

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(Only with much less impressive cheekbones). So to compensate for my loss, I’m going to look at two other instances where the lives of poets have been imagined, in a novel and in a play.

Firstly, John Clare (and to a lesser extend Alfred Lord Tennyson) as imagined by Adam Foulds in The Quickening Maze (Vintage, 2009), which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2009.

NPG 1469; John Clare by William Hilton  300_tennyson

John Clare suffered with poor mental health for most of his adult life, and for a time was an inpatient at High Beach Asylum in Essex.  The Tennyson brothers move nearby as Septimus is being treated for depression, but thankfully this isn’t an excuse for Foulds to create conversations on the nature of poetry between the two versifiers (can you imagine? ‘What think you Clare, of this long poem of mine?’ ‘Will you permit me Alfred, to suggest In Memoriam is better name than My Friend Hallam What Died?’ Ugh.  OK, so Foulds would never be that bad, but sometimes these things can be so clumsy as to become comical).

Instead Foulds looks at the lives contained within and without the asylum, and the nature of their various freedoms and restraints.  Alongside the patients live the profligate Dr Allen, who has progressive ideas on treatment but lacks the focus to truly push things forward; his daughter Hannah, desperate for freedom but unsure how to get it other than by marrying; the grieving Tennyson yearning for his dead friend and for critical approval; and of course Clare, the ‘peasant poet’, determined to leave the built environment of the asylum for the forest beyond:

“As he worked in the admiral’s garden…being there, given time, the world revealed itself again in silence, coming to him. Gently it breathed around him its atmosphere: vulnerable, benign, full of secrets, his.  A lost thing returning. How it waited for him in eternity and almost knew him. He’d known and sung it all his life.”

Things begin to unravel: Clare becomes progressively more deluded, the doctor veers towards bankruptcy again, Hannah harbours fantasies regarding Tennyson which amount to nothing. But The Quickening Maze is a novel of quiet, closely observed drama of domestic life (despite the asylum and famous poets), rather than enormous, declamatory moments:

“From her window, Hannah could see Charles Seymour prowling outside the grounds, swishing his stick from side to side. Boredom, a sane frustration, a continuous mild anger: Hannah thought he looked like a friend, someone whose life was as empty and miserable as her own…he raised a hand to lift his hat and found he wasn’t wearing one.  He smiled and mimed instead. Hannah gazed for a moment down at his shoes and smiled also.”

Foulds is an accomplished poet himself, and this shows itself in tightly constructed prose full of startling images:

“She liked the pinch of absence, the hollow air, reminiscent of the real absence. She wanted to stay out there, to hang on her branch in the world until the cold had burned down to her bones. She could leave her scattered bones on the snow and depart like light.”

The result is a tightly plotted novel that maintains a contemplative, elegiac quality: perfect for the poets it captures.

Secondly, Oscar Wilde, as imagined by David Hare in The Judas Kiss, which premiered at the Almeida in 1998.

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The story of Oscar Wilde is so well-known, it can be difficult to imagine what more there is to be said on it.  What Hare gives his audience is an Oscar past his prime, bruised and sad, the architect of his own downfall.  The first act sees Wilde staying in London to face the court over allegations he is gay (which was illegal at the time) while his friends urge him to leave:

“Ross. Oscar, I’m afraid it’s out of the question. You simply do not have time.

Wilde. Do I not?

Ross. You are here to say your goodbyes to Bosie.

Wilde. Yes of course.  But a small drink, please, Robbie, you must not deny me.

Ross. Why, no.

Wilde. And then, of course I shall get going. I shall go on the instant.

Arthur. Do you want to taste, sir?

Wilde. Pour away. Hock tastes like hock, and seltzer like seltzer. Taste is not in the bottle. It resides in one’s mood. So today no doubt hock will taste like burnt ashes. Today I will drink to my own death.”

The knowledge we have of the outcome, rather than resigning us to Wilde’s fate, actually adds to the dramatic urgency.  I found myself desperately rooting for Ross, wishing Oscar would listen, that somehow the outcome would be different and he wouldn’t stay long enough to allow the courts to give him a two year sentence. But Wilde is stubborn, proud, defiant, and wonderful, as his selfish, weak lover Bosie testifies:

“You have wanted this thing. In some awful part your being, you love the idea of surrender.  You think there’s some hideous glamour in letting Fate propel you down from the heights!”

But Bosie doesn’t want Wilde to leave, rather stay and fight his battles for him with his father, the Marquess of Queensbury, who is  challenging Wide in court.  Between his own wilfulness and Bosie’s self-interest, Wilde agrees to stay…

In the second act we are in Italy with a Wilde after he has left prison and moved abroad “grown slack and fat and his face is ravaged by deprivation and alcohol”.  Bosie is enjoying himself with the local beauties, while Wilde is isolated and contemplative:

“I am shunned by you all, and my work goes unperformed, not because  of the sin – never because of the sin – but because I refuse to accept the lesson of the sin.”

The Judas Kiss is a tragic play, but not in the usual sense.  No-one dies, there is no physical violence, and yet we witness betrayal, destruction and loss.  It’s heart-breaking, and at the centre of it all is the great genius of Oscar Wilde, who we witness fading away.

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To end, the words of a poet rather than words written about them. Wilde responded to this trauma through his art, and created The Ballad of Reading Gaol:

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“I’ve got my country’s 500th anniversary to plan, my wedding to arrange, my wife to murder and Guilder to frame for it; I’m swamped.” (Prince Humperdinck, The Princess Bride)

I have an enduring weakness for swashbucklers, which I think is due to watching Errol Flynn at an impressionable age.

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So of course I have been watching the BBC series The Musketeers, which ended a few weeks ago.  I was very put-out that [SPOILER ALERT] Marc Warren’s dastardly Comte de Rochefort died in the final episode. There wasn’t really any other option for his character, but Marc Warren always creates great baddies and I was sad to see him go (also he looked awesome– I think eyepatches should come back as a thing):

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I thought I’d console myself by looking this week at literary villains.  There are so many great ones to choose from, and villains are often so much more compelling than the heroes.  Of course some of them are just downright despicable:

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But generally the story is a sorrier place when they’re not in it (and therefore usually ends at that point).

Firstly, for obsessive, depraved stab-happy villains, you need never look further than Jacobean tragedy.  I’ve chosen Ferdinand from The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster (1612). Ferdinand is the twin brother of the titular character and he is barking mad (quite literally, as he thinks he is a werewolf and goes round digging up graves after dark).  He doesn’t want the sister he characterises as a ‘lusty widow’ remarrying.  To this end he employs melancholic henchman Bosola:

‘Your inclination to shed blood rides post

 Before my occasion to use you.  I give you that

 To live i’ the court here, and observe the duchess;

 To note all the particulars of her haviour,

 What suitors do solicit her for marriage,

 And whom she best affects.  She’s a young widow:

 I would not have her marry again.’

The poor Duchess, being female, is entirely disempowered against Ferdinand and her other brother, a corrupt Cardinal.  She only wants love:

“Why should only I,

Of all the other princes of the world,

Be cas’d up, like a holy relic?  I have youth

 And a little beauty.”

She finds affection with the pretty steward Antonio, but normal family life never stands a chance in the depraved court where your own brother is sexually obsessed with you “my imagination will carry me/ To see her in the shameful act of sin”  and spends his time, when he’s not pretending to be a wolf, imagining you in flagrante:

Happily with some strong-thighed bargeman;
Or one o’th’woodyard that can quoit the sledge
Or toss the bar; or else some lovely squire
That carries coals up to her privy lodgings.

Yep, Ferdinand is insane.  Yet he’s part and parcel of a society that is utterly degraded and false.  In the hands of a good actor, he isn’t cartoony evil, twirling his moustache, but almost as much as a victim as the Duchess.  There have been two productions in London in recent years which have seen excellent performances by Harry Lloyd (Old Vic, 2012) and David Dawson (Globe, 2014) as Ferdinand, both of which captured his cruel depravity, and his tragedy.

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This being a Jacobean tragedy, I don’t think it’s a SPOILER to say that everyone dies, yet Webster gives Ferdinand a moment of clarity, and some of the most beautiful lines in drama, as his dying words:

Whether we fall by ambition, blood or lust,
Like diamonds we are cut with our own dust.

Amazing. Those final lines make Ferdinand complex and insightful, and a truly great villain.

Secondly, another sure-fire source of colourful villains: Charles Dickens.  I’m not the biggest Dickens fan, but actually the things I don’t like about him (clearly delineated binaries like good/bad and one-dimensional stereotypes instead of fully realised characters) do make for opportunities to enjoy all-out villainy.  You can usually tell the villains in Dickens because he helpfully signposts them through names like Ezekiel Slime or similar.  In this instance, I’m going to look at David Copperfield’s (1849) Uriah Heep (see what I mean?) the obsequious clerk to David’s landlord Mr Wickfield. I chose him over a more obvious villain like Bill Sykes from Oliver Twist, because he’s more insidious (although Bill Sykes outdoes every villain in the millinery stakes):

 

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Bill Sykes never tries to present himself as anything other than downright terrifying, whereas Uriah Heep is always trying to convince everyone of his humility:

“”I got to know what umbleness did, and I took to it. I ate umble pie with an appetite. I stopped at the umble point of my learning […] I am very umble to the present moment, Master Copperfield, but I’ve got a little power!'”

Of course, he is far from humble.  Instead his fawning manner disguises a vicious class jealousy and powerful ambition to take over the Wickfield business through blackmail, before marrying the virtuous Agnes (as someone who can’t stand Dickens’ pious virgins I think it’s not a bad match, but I realise I may be alone in this). With Victorian beliefs that appearance demonstrated character, it seems improbable that anyone would ever trust the unattractive Heep:

“a youth of fifteen …whose hair was cropped as close as the closest stubble; who had hardly any eyebrows, and no eyelashes, and eyes of a red-brown, so unsheltered and unshaded, that I remember wondering how he went to sleep. He was high-shouldered and bony; dressed in decent black, with a white wisp of a neckcloth buttoned up to the throat; and had a long, lank, skeleton hand…”

Yet he still manages to ingratiate himself quite successfully and defraud the Wickfields amongst others.  Of course, this being Dickens, the good end happily and the bad unhappily, so his comeuppance is inevitable.  Heep is a highly effective villain, wholly unlikeable and so oily he just seeps across the page. Uriah Heep : a villain so villainous they named a rock band after him (really).

To end, probably the most single-minded, seductive villain of all time (George Sanders’ voice is a joy):

“My brother Bob doesn’t want to be in government – he promised Dad he’d go straight.” (John F. Kennedy)

Have sympathy for me reader, for it’s started and it won’t stop until 7 May. We are having a national election, which means turning on the news is to hear about how the various parties interpret the same statistics entirely differently, each claiming a victory for themselves; incessant party political broadcasts with production values only slightly above a year seven video project; smug campaigning by politicians desperately trying to disguise their smugness in a series of cringey set pieces to convince us they are in touch with something called ‘the ordinary man’…it goes on, and on, and on…

I’m going to cheer myself up with a picture of Rik Mayall (works every time)as Alan B’Stard in The New Statesman, a brilliant piece of satire about Thatcher’s government:

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“We hear an awful lot of leftie whingeing about NHS waiting lists. Well the answer’s simple. Shut down the health service. Result? No more waiting lists. You see, in the good old days, you were poor, you got ill and you died. And yet these days people seem to think they’ve got some sort of God-given right to be cured. And what is the result of this sloppy socialist thinking? More poor people. In contrast, my policies would eradicate poor people, thereby eliminating poverty. And they say that we Conservatives have no heart.”

Resistance is futile, so I’m embracing it this week by looking at writing about politics. Drama seemed to be the way to go, as there is much discussion at the moment about political theatre. James Graham’s play The Vote, is being broadcast live on election night, a real time drama about a polling station, making the link between theatre and politics explicit. It also means there’ll be something to watch other than endless exit poll speculation, for which I am truly grateful (I will be voting by the way, I just hate all the politicking).

Firstly, Stuff Happens by David Hare, which premiered at the National Theatre in 2004.  A ‘recent history’ play, the title comes from Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld’s reaction on being told that there was looting in Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s deposition.  Watching a recent history play is a strange business, presenting events that will have had an immediate impact on our lives.  The play considers the run-up to the Iraq War, and Hare does a great job of balancing factual information and dramatic action; public speeches and imagined private conversations.  He looks at the main government players in the US and UK, exploring the political manoeuvring that occurs when no-one’s too sure exactly what the fight is:

“Rumsfeld.  I liked what you said earlier, sir. A war on terror. That’s good. That’s vague.

Cheney.  It’s good.

Rumsfeld. That way we can do anything.”

This obfuscation through meaningless rhetoric seems to be part of the politics of our age.  In this instance, we know what it led to, and Stuff Happens could be a very bleak and cynical play.  However, I think Hare encourages scepticism rather than cynicism when it comes to politics, using our knowledge of how events played out to deepen our understanding of why stuff happens, presenting the person behind the politician. There is heightened dramatic irony running through imagined private dialogue like this:

“Blair. I’ve been thinking. I’ve had this idea. I need…I think it might help if we had some sort of dossier. A kind of dossier.”

The knowledge that this ‘sexed-up’ ‘dodgy dossier’ would haunt Blair’s remaining time in office means the audience/reader witnesses this tentative suggestion with a sense of dread.  It’s a tough job to make politics entertaining when you have a duty to those who have lived it to keep to the facts, but Hare balances it all beautifully, and creates an entertaining and thought-provoking piece that is responsible but not dogmatic.  There are even opportunities for some wry humour, in this instance from the mouth of Secretary of State Colin Powell:

“There’s an element of hypocrisy, George. We were trading with the guy!  Not long ago. People keep asking, how do we know he’s got weapons of mass destruction? How do we know? Because we’ve still got the receipts.”

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Secondly, another (less) recent history play, Democracy by Michael Frayn, which also premiered at the National, in 2003.  Set in West Berlin in 1969, it tells the story of Chancellor Willy Brandt, the first liberal-leaning Chancellor elected in Germany since before World War II, and his personal assistant Gunter Guillaume, who had begun life in East Germany, and was spying on the Chancellor for the Stasi.  The playtext describes the setting as:

“a complex of levels an spaces; of desks and chairs; of files and papers; also of characters, who mostly remain around the periphery of the action when not actually involved in it, listening or unobtrusively involved in their work”

This captures the bureaucracy and paranoia of Cold War government, the environment in which Willy Brandt tried to effect change whilst being a bit…ineffectual.

“Brandt. Let’s talk about it. See if we can’t find a solution that keeps everyone happy.

Schmidt. You can’t keep everyone happy, Willy! Not if you’re running a government!  We’ve got come to a decision!

Brandt. Thank you, Helmut.  What do the rest of us feel…?”

These days Germany is such a powerful world leader, it can be easy to forget the fragility of its post-war state.  Even in 1969 Brandt was faced with:

“Two Germanies, broken apart like the old shattered masonry. This is the material out of which we have to build the world we’re going to be living in tomorrow. This is the only material we possess – the two Germanies as they actually are. Riddled with doubts and suspicions on both sides.”

As the government tries to navigate a way forward, Brandt and Guillaume’s relationship adds to the complexity of the situation, as Guillaume’s Stasi handler observes:

“You and Willy. You’re like some old couple who’ve been married for forty years.  He goes down so you go down.  He comes up again and….”

Democracy is a subtle, intelligent study of people and politics in a time where nothing is straightforward.  Brandt and Willy distrust each other and rely on each other in a symbiotic relationship that defies easy definition.  It’s a play about politics but Democracy also succeeds on a very human level.

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If the electioneering has left you feeling somewhat jaded about politics, let’s end by looking back to the politics of the past, noble statesmen concerning themselves with issues of great import…

“There shall be no more novels about incest. No, not even ones in very bad taste.” (Julian Barnes)

Trigger warning: this post contains discussion of upsetting sexual subject matter.  Please do not read if you are not an adult or if you will find such discussion traumatic.

I’ve picked a rather disturbing theme for my post this week, as you may have guessed from the title quote. I try and pick a theme based on what’s been happening at the time, and for me this week it’s incest.  I feel I should qualify that statement rather rapidly: I went to see Maxine Peake’s Hamlet – that Oedipal family drama to end all Oedipal family dramas – and then I saw A View from the Bridge with Mark Strong.

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(Images from: http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2014/sep/21/hamlet-maxine-peake-royal-exchange-review-delicate-ferocityhttp://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk/productions/ntlout9-a-view-from-the-bridge )

Then in my early modern literature class, someone pointed out that Tis Pity She’s a Whore (where a brother and sister are in a relationship) had warped her mind because when we read A King and No King (where a brother & sister struggle with their mutual attraction) she couldn’t see what the problem was & why they didn’t just get on with it.  Don’t get an education kids, it will put your moral compass on permanent fritz.

But if you can cope with the upsetting subject matter, there’s been some wonderful novels written about circumstances where incest occurs, so I hope you’ll stick with me.

Firstly, Never Mind by Edward St Aubyn (1992).  This is the first of the Patrick Melrose quintet, St Aubyn’s series of autobiographical novels (the fourth, Mother’s Milk, was nominated for the Booker in 2006).  In this first novel , Patrick is five years old, living in France for the summer with his alcoholic mother and controlling, cruel father.  As Patrick explores the garden, creating adventures for himself, St Aubyn brilliantly evokes the microscopic view of a child:

“As Patrick approached the house, climbing as usual the right–hand flight of the double staircase because it was luckier, he turned into the garden to see if he could find the frog that lived in the fig tree.  Seeing the tree frog was very lucky indeed.  Its bright green skin was even smoother against the smooth grey skin of the fig tree, and it was hard to find it amongst the fig leaves which were almost the same colour as itself.  In fact, Patrick had only seen the tree frog twice, but he had stood still for ages staring at its sharp skeleton and bulging eyes…above all at the swelling sides which enlivened a body as delicate as jewellery, but greedier for breath.”

The third person narrative enables St Aubyn to shift between the various Melroses so that while the parents are reprehensible (the mother) and downright repugnant (the father) you understand why they are the way they are; how damaged they are and how they continue to inflict damage on all who surround them.

What makes it bearable is St Aubyn’s beautiful, intelligent prose; the delicate way he approaches the Melroses to capture this moment in family history.

“’What did you do today?’

‘Nothing,’ said Patrick, looking down at the floor.

‘Did you for a walk with Daddy?’ asked Eleanor bravely.  She felt the inadequacy of her questions, but could not overcome the dread of having them scantily answered.

Patrick shook his head. A branch swayed outside the window, and watched the shadow of its leaves flickering above the curtain pole.  The curtains billowed feebly and collapsed again, like deflated lungs.  Down the corridor a door slammed. Patrick looked at the clutter on his mother’s desk. It was covered in letters, envelopes, paperclips, rubber bands, pencils, and a profusion of different-coloured cheque books.  An empty champagne glass stood beside a full ashtray.”

SPOILER: And now, to quote the vampire Lestat, I’m going to give you the choice I never had. Never Mind is a great novel.  Edward St Aubyn is a hugely talented writer.  He was also repeatedly raped by his father as a small child and his novels are autobiographical.  In Never Mind, there is a scene where Patrick is raped by his father. I didn’t know this when I was reading the novel (I read the scene on a train, and had to get off at the next stop because I genuinely thought I was going to be sick), and I’m telling you so you can decide whether or not to read it. I would urge you to do as it is such a brilliant novel, but go in prepared.

Phew!  Let’s pause for a moment and go to a happy place:

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Secondly, The Ventriloquist’s Tale by Pauline Melville (1997) which won the Whitbread First Novel Award in 1997.  Set in Guyana and spanning most of the twentieth century, Melville uses the lives of generations of an Amerindian family to explore large themes: colonialism, the nature of love, religion and progress.  In contrast to Never Mind, this is a tale told with vivacity, serious but not depressing.

“Where was I? Oh yes. My grandmother.  She still refers with rage to a man called Charles Darwin who wandered through the region with the slow-motion frenzy of a sloth, measuring and collecting.  No one round here likes measurers, collectors and enumerators.  We cannot hoard in the tropics.  Use it or some other creature will eat it.  Sooner or later everything falls to the glorious spirit of rot with its fanfares of colours and nose-twisting stenches.”

The narrator/ventriloquist tells the story of the McKinnon family: Scottish Alexander McKinnon who builds a life in Guyana with 2 wives; his incestuous son and daughter; and the present day Chofy McKinnon, drawn back to Guyana through a love affair.

“It was confusing for McKinnon. He settled into the life well at one level, but every now and then he caught a glimpse of a world he did not understand at all.  He tried to discuss things with his father-in-law who was something of a philosopher and who explained to McKinnon that there was no point in trying to do anything about everyday life.  It was an illusion behind which lay the unchanging reality of dream and myth.”

These themes of The Ventriloquist’s Tale are heightened by the heady environment that challenges what is real:

“It was night and the deer was hiding somewhere in the tall grasses. Danny lay on the side of the sloping hill.  The rough grass under him felt like the pelt of an animal.  He almost imagined he could feel it breathing.”

Reading this novel engages all the senses: you can see, smell and taste all that is happening.  There’s a strong current of humour too; Melville has accomplished a novel that would be astonishing at any point in a writer’s career, but all the more so as a first novel.

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