Tag Archives: fiction

My Holiday in the Peak District, day 1

I am not sure whether I am more driven to write this because my holiday has been on the whole lovely, or because my partner has been acting most oddly and I am worried. I can’t keep asking him, ‘don’t you think that’s just a little bit crazy?’

That doesn’t seem to be helping at all.

He is keeping his own account, but he won’t let me read it. Just shuts himself away, ignoring me as though we are not on holiday together. Writes feverishly and fast, hunched over the table.

We have this friend Charteris. Well, M. has a friend called Charteris. It is a friendship based on the fact that they went to school together and were insanely competitive around most of the same things. It’s been some time since one of them published something, which always seemed to serve as their unspoken excuse for getting in touch and discussing their favourite bits of arcana and sometimes the cricket.

We were surprised when Charteris invited us up for a bit of a summer holiday. We didn’t really want to go, at least I didn’t. Charteris is so often gloomy. He is sarcastic without kindness or wit, and he smells funny. There’s something about the pasty face and the black clothes and the awkward conversation. He’s totally on the spectrum.

I said to M., please let’s go to Italy, I still haven’t been to Italy. I think we can afford it.

But then he bet our holiday savings on the greyhounds, so overnight you can see that Charteris’s invitation started to look wonderful. The Peak District, I said. The Peak District can be a lovely place. As long as you don’t let Charteris ruin everything it will be wonderful.

M. looked up from that musty old manuscript he’s been working on for months and nodded his head. Even then, I confess, there was clearly a strange gleam in his eye. That gleam has become a positive sparkle over the past few days.

He spoke hardly a word during our journey. I tried to break him out of it, take his mind off of whatever held it trapped like a little bird. I held his hand in mine, tried out a few puns. Nothing. That last leg up the Derwent Valley was fucking beautiful, but he didn’t even see it.

Then we got there and I had to make small talk with Charteris while M. sat mute, and only interjected to talk about squirrels. Fucking squirrels. Charteris shook his head. I almost wished for his friends to arrive, though I could not see how we would all possibly find room in his cottage. But at least there would be some end to the silence, I would not be alone with these two…

I looked forward to a new dawn, but first, at my insistence, we were going to head into the village.

Day 2

Balzac: City, Country & Speculation in Le Pere Goriot

I enjoyed Father Goriot more than I thought I would.

Stately Paris ignores the existence of these faces bleached by moral or physical suffering; but, then, Paris is in truth an ocean that no line can plumb. You may survey its surface and describe it; but no matter how numerous and painstaking the toilers in this sea, there will always be lonely and unexplored regions in its depths, caverns unknown, flowers and pearls and monsters of the deep overlooked or forgotten by the divers of literature. The Maison Vauquer is one of these curious monstrosities.

Reading this rush of French literature I realised just how anglocentric I had become when it came to anything written over a hundred years ago — particularly in the 1800s, I was too busy reading Dickens there for a while.

There is so much to explore here, not least exciting (well, actually, to my mind it was the least exciting) being the story itself. It’s a good enough story and after so many depressing and ‘realistic’ novels (I just finished something by Zola, my god), I confess I loved being told up front that everything ended happy ever after, though you never see it all work out. I was rather fascinated that seeing how it all works out had quite a nice amount of dramatic tension. Zola has a dig at melodrama, though this was also published in serial form in 1834-35 (note to self to look more into publishing forms) it has the feel of something written as a whole. This is before The Mysteries of Paris, so he’s not talking about that when he writes:

That word drama has been somewhat discredited of late; it has been overworked and twisted to strange uses in these days of dolorous literature; but it must do service again here, not because this story is dramatic in the restricted sense of the word, but because some tears may perhaps be shed intra et extra muros before it is over.

I feel that this sentence still holds true. Funny that.

Perhaps what I liked most is that, like Dickens, this is a window on a physical world long disappeared, and Paris is revealed in an immensity of detail that engages all of the senses:

Will any one without the walls of Paris understand it? It is open to doubt. The only audience who could appreciate the results of close observation, the careful reproduction of minute detail and local color, are dwellers between the heights of Montrouge and Montmartre, in a vale of crumbling stucco watered by streams of black mud, a vale of sorrows which are real and joys too often hollow; but this audience is so accustomed to terrible sensations, that only some unimaginable and well-neigh impossible woe could produce any lasting impression there.

In a way I think those of us without the walls of Paris might enjoy it more as we an enter another place and another way of life and we are not trapped there like so many of the protagonists. The centre of the story is this boarding house, the lives of those on the edges of most desperate poverty that are still called middle-class — it is descriptions like this that make me realise just how far everyday life for most of us has come, the comforts we take for granted. But this is class and city as prison:

PROCESSION IN FRONT OF SAINTE-GENEVIÈVE Meunier, fecit (Carnavalet Museum)
PROCESSION IN FRONT OF SAINTE-GENEVIÈVE
Meunier, fecit (Carnavalet Museum)

The lodging-house is Mme. Vauquer’s own property. It is still standing in the lower end of the Rue Nueve-Sainte-Genevieve, just where the road slopes so sharply down to the Rue de l’Arbalete, that wheeled traffic seldom passes that way, because it is so stony and steep. This position is sufficient to account for the silence prevalent in the streets shut in between the dome of the Pantheon and the dome of the Val-de-Grace, two conspicuous public buildings which give a yellowish tone to the landscape and darken the whole district that lies beneath the shadow of their leaden-hued cupolas.

In that district the pavements are clean and dry, there is neither mud nor water in the gutters, grass grows in the chinks of the walls. The most heedless passer-by feels the depressing influences of a place where the sound of wheels creates a sensation; there is a grim look about the houses, a suggestion of a jail about those high garden walls. A Parisian straying into a suburb apparently composed of lodging-houses and public institutions would see poverty and dullness, old age lying down to die, and joyous youth condemned to drudgery. It is the ugliest quarter of Paris, and, it may be added, the least known. But, before all things, the Rue Nueve-Sainte-Genevieve is like a bronze frame for a picture for which the mind cannot be too well prepared by the contemplation of sad hues and sober images. Even so, step by step the daylight decreases, and the cicerone’s droning voice grows hollower as the traveler descends into the Catacombs. The comparison holds good! Who shall say which is more ghastly, the sight of the bleached skulls or of dried-up human hearts?

Yet still, for all this value-laden description, this place is still far more closely tied to the country than any city I know of today. This too I find fascinating, thinking not just about food chains and how we sustain ourselves, but also perceptions of things:

The central space between the walls is filled with artichokes and rows of pyramid fruit-trees, and surrounded by a border of lettuce, pot-herbs, and parsley. Under the lime-trees there are a few green-painted garden seats and a wooden table, and hither, during the dog-days, such of the lodgers as are rich enough to indulge in a cup of coffee come to take their pleasure, though it is hot enough to roast eggs even in the shade.

Imagine this written today, in terms of celebration of fresh, organic and local produce, self-sufficiency, lowered carbon footprints. But wait, there’s more:

Behind the house a yard extends for some twenty feet, a space inhabited by a happy family of pigs, poultry, and rabbits; the wood-shed is situated on the further side, and on the wall between the wood-shed and the kitchen window hangs the meat-safe, just above the place where the sink discharges its greasy streams. The cook sweeps all the refuse out through a little door into the Rue Nueve-Sainte-Genevieve, and frequently cleanses the yard with copious supplies of water, under pain of pestilence.

It’s like a little city farm, this lodging house. In comparison with my own lodging it seems potentially idyllic once I strip Balzac’s adjectives away. Though I suppose it might have been fairly ripe, especially in the summer.

I cease to feel that so strongly when we venture inside — I love this description of smell, always so evocative of a kind of place, joining different buildings together in the imagination:

The first room exhales an odor for which there is no name in the language, and which should be called the odeur de pension. The damp atmosphere sends a chill through you as you breathe it; it has a stuffy, musty, and rancid quality; it permeates your clothing; after-dinner scents seem to be mingled in it with smells from the kitchen and scullery and the reek of a hospital.

In short, there is no illusory grace left to the poverty that reigns here; it is dire, parsimonious, concentrated, threadbare poverty; as yet it has not sunk into the mire, it is only splashed by it, and though not in rags as yet, its clothing is ready to drop to pieces.

Meet it’s owner — and the brilliance of this disagreeable little description:

She is an oldish woman, with a bloated countenance, and a nose like a parrot’s beak set in the middle of it; her fat little hands (she is as sleek as a church rat) and her shapeless, slouching figure are in keeping with the room that reeks of misfortune, where hope is reduced to speculate for the meanest stakes.

This is the world inhabited by those trying to emerge from poverty into the world up above, and those on the opposite trajectory, sinking tragically down. The world of the renter, at the mercy of others and unsupported by property. Perhaps that is the defining sadness of this place, the flow of transience, hopes, more often illness and despair. This is a place though, where I’d love to be able to jump back in time, experience, decide for myself.

I’d like also to meet the cat Mistigris.

It’s a fictional road of course, but there is a whole website dedicated to finding Balzac’s Paris I’d like to return to.

Apart from the relationship between home and food and renting and owning and sustainability, there is a later fascinating section in here about the forces moving to destroy places just such as this and reshape the whole of the city. Here is Madame Nucingen explaining the nature of her vile husband’s work:

Do you know what he means by speculations? He buys up land in his own name, then he finds men of straw to run up houses upon it. These men make a bargain with a contractor to build the houses, paying them by bills at long dates; then in consideration of a small sum they leave my husband in possession of the houses, and finally slip through the fingers of the deluded contractors by going into bankruptcy. The name of the firm of Nucingen has been used to dazzle the poor contractors. I saw that. I noticed, too, that Nucingen had sent bills for large amounts to Amsterdam, London, Naples, and Vienna, in order to prove if necessary that large sums had been paid away by the firm. How could we get possession of those bills?

What a novel this is for an urbanist, though I know I am among many to mine its treasures as David Harvey’s book on Paris has a whole chapter on Balzac. Still, for my own pleasure there is more to come.

For more on writing cities…

Save

Save

Save

An Unsocial Socialist

An Unsocial SocialistSweet Fabian Jesus, was Shaw ever unbearable when he wrote An Unsocial Socialist! It is from his early(ish) years (1884), I grant him, and in his preface he draws a line between himself as young novel writer and the older playwright and man of political experience. I try not to confuse authors with characters, especially whey they are attempting a vaguely humourous novel. Trefusis may well be something of a caricature. Still, the heavily expository nature of this novel seems to indicate that in the main these are essentially Shaw’s views on Socialism, the position of wealth, the workings of class and most abysmally, the nature of women.

I hate it when wit, satire and misogyny get confused.

Trefusis has more public school arrogance than what he mocks in others, a great desire to constantly hear his own voice, and the emotional reach of a twig. Small wonder the Fabians didn’t get far with the working classes. That said, he was right (and occasionally witty) on a number of points.

At Cambridge they taught me that his profits were the reward of abstinence…Then came the question: what did my father abstain from? The workmen abstained from meat, drink, fresh air, good clothes, decent lodging, holidays, money, the society of their families and pretty nearly everything that makes life worth living, which was perhaps the reason why they usually died twenty years or so sooner than people in my circumstances. Yet no one rewarded them for their abstinence. The reward came to my father, who abstained from none of these things, but indulged in them all to his heart’s content (94).

Pages 272-273 contain as good an account of globalisation and the move of industry to countries of cheaper labour as any written today, though he believed the workers would follow the jobs. He writes:

As the British factories are shut up, they will be replaced by villas; the manufacturing districts will become fashionable resorts for capitalists living on the interest of foreign investments… (273)

It did take a while for this to happen, but I got a little chill reading that.

On the other hand, had I written down every grating insult to women phrased as wit contained in these pages, this post would have been as long as the book. I don’t know why these two in particular called me to mark them as I feel sure there was worse, but still:

But we Socialists need to study the romantic side of our movement to interest women in it. If you want to make a cause grow, instruct every woman you meet in it. She is or will one day be a wife, and will contradict her husband with scraps of your arguments. A squabble will follow. The son will listen, and will be set thinking if he be capable of thought. And so the mind of the people gets leavened. I have converted many young women. Most of them know no more of the economic theory of Socialism than they know of Chaldee; but they no longer fear or condemn its name (283).

On reflection, the quote below might just have been the most infuriating. I hadn’t wanted to punch an author in the stomach this much since reading Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, but that feeling started up from the very beginning when he abandons his wife and commences flirting with several 17-year old school girls.

Yes; you sometimes have to answer a woman according to her womanishness, just as you have to answer a fool according to his folly (333).

Socialist women certainly had their work cut out for them in fighting for respect, a place and a voice in this movement. It makes the efforts of those like Maud Pember Reeves and the Fabian women’s group all the more impressive, and I now blame Shaw and his ilk entirely for their steadfast seriousness and abandonment of any kind of ‘femininity’ as they battled to overturn the image of flighty, emotional society women incapable of serious thought presented here. What a waste of women’s effort.

The geographies of this? From a countryside finishing school to London houses in Belsize Park and St John’s Wood and back out to a baron’s country house…far from the London I know and love.

Kafka: The Castle

An amazing book, and how lucky I got to read it in the Czech Republic! I had it for kindle, translated by John Williams I think, so I may have to read the alternative translations. A little fan-girl of me perhaps, but to be reading it as we explored Prague’s castle and the Kafka Museum (which I wrote about here) was brilliant really. Though also existentially terrifying, as I find all of Kafka.

The book opens with a concrete description of the castle, a clear vision of its place and structure as well as the clarity available to those living at that height, but one that becomes more and more complicated as he gets closer to it:

Now, he could see the Castle above him clearly defined in the glittering air, its outline made still more definite by the moulding of snow covering it in a thin layer. There seemed to be much less snow up there on the hill than down in the village, where K. found progress as laborious as on the main road the previous day. Here the heavy snowdrifts reached right up to the cottage windows and began again on the low roofs, but up on the hill everything soared light and free into the air, or at least so it appeared from down below.

On the whole this distant prospect of the Castle satisfied K.’s expectations. It was neither an old stronghold nor a new mansion, but a rambling pile consisting of innumerable small buildings closely packed together and of one or two storeys; if K. had not known that it was a castle he might have taken it for a little town.

This shifts into a more mundane reality of village homes, churches, streets. But always the Castle itself remains something always seen yet always out of reach, an impossible distance to cover. K. walks and walks, yet overcome by strange weariness and drifts of snow, he turns aside. Day by day the castle becomes ever more distant, unreal yet at the same time ever more powerful in its oppression of his spirit and his circumstances.

The castle is home to rarefied beings, almost supernatural in their powers over those in the village and their effect on them. Controlling K.’s fate is Klamm, yet he is as out of reach as the castle, and K.’s attempts to contact him are the stuff of daily nightmares. K. crosses boundaries and suffers the consequences — for example here, in a hidden courtyard he waits for Klamm to enter his waiting sleigh. Instead the coachman eventually leaves K. alone in the darkness, turning off the lights as Klamm cannot, will not face K.  This transgression of space is unforgivable and brings with it a Pyrrhic sense of defeat in victory:

…it seemed to K. as if all contact with him had been broken off, as if he were now freer than ever, as if he could wait here in this otherwise forbidden place as long as he wished; as if he had fought for this freedom as few others could have done, as if no one could touch him or drive him away, or even speak to him, and yet at the same time — and this conviction was at least as strong–as if there were nothing more senseless, more desolate than this freedom, this waiting, this invulnerability (loc 1792).

Above all remains the split between Castle and village, rulers and ruled at varying degrees of distance. There is a visual refinement in the faces of those who have been there, particularly the women singled out for gentlemen’s pleasures. Government is designed to preserve and enhance this split. The landlady tells K.

‘Herr Momus is Klamm’s secretary like any of his other secretaries, but his office and, if I am not mistaken, his official duties too…’ Momus, still writing, shook his head vigorously, and the landlady corrected herself: ‘Well, only his office is confined to the village, but not his official duties. Herr Momus deals with the written work relating to the Village…That’s the way it is; all the gentlemen from the Castle have their village secretaries.’ (loc 1841)

Absolute power reflected in the weakness and uselessness of petty officials. K. only seeks to be informed of his work, his purpose. Instead he is told by letter:

To the surveyor of Bruckenhof. The surveys you have made so far meet with my approval. The work done by the assistants is also commendable… (loc 1953)

He has done no work. He has been given no direction. The assistants are mad. Sill, it is the interview with Olga, sister to the messenger Barnabas, that I found the key to it all in my own mind. I was completely surprised by what was essentially an attempted rape at the centre…a letter demanding a village girl come to a Castle gentleman, her refusal at the heart of the entire family’s destruction. K.’s involvement in it all by extension. It is an extraordinary thing I thought, to find in this bewildering maze of rural geography and bureaucracy and madness. Something so much more real than in The Trial or the Metamorphasis, just as K. is better defined and more sure of himself. Yet K.’s initial outrage changes, shifts, softens to accommodate itself to Olga’s views, the villagers’ beliefs, and it all falls back into the nightmare as Olga continues to describe their desperation and scheming. After the museum, though, I was particularly focused on the geography, and these descriptions of barriers formal and informal, physical and mental, visible and invisible are so fascinating, they almost make me want to study the geographies of bureaucracy–or paranoia:

…it gives us doubts about everything. Is it really Castle work that he is doing, we ask; he goes to the offices, certainly, but are the offices actually part of the Castle? And even if there are offices that are part of the Castle, are those the offices he is allowed into? He’s admitted into some offices, but only some of them, then there are barriers, and behind these are more offices. He’s not actually forbidden to go any further, but he can’t go any further once he’s seen his superiors and they have dealt with him and sent him away. What’s more, you’re watched all the time up there, at least that’s what we believe. And even if he did go further on, what good would it do him if he had no official business there; he would just be an intruder. And you mustn’t imagine these barriers as a hard and fast divide, Barnabas is always reminding me of that. There are also barriers in the offices he visits, so there are some barriers he goes through, and they look no different from the ones he has not yet gone through, and so it can’t be assumed that the offices behind these barriers are any different from the ones Barnabas has been in (loc 2775).

It isn’t just the geography of bureaucracy that is opaque, confused, unreadable. Barnabas works for Klamm, he thinks, yet no one can ever be sure even just of Klamm’s appearance, so at times he is not even sure of that:

…all these differences are due to magic, they are quite understandable because they depend on the present mood, the level of excitement, the countless degrees of hope or despair on the part of the observer, who is in any case only able to catch a momentary glimpse of Klamm (loc 2809).

And so we come to the greatest fear of all perhaps, the method of governance instilling the idea that if one were only stronger, more connected, wiser, everything would be all right. That it is all your own fault:

What I mean by all this is that something is there, Barnabas is being offered something, at least something, and it’s his own fault if all he can get out of it is doubt, fear and hopelessness (loc 2923).

And all of it an exercise in collective (mis)understanding, world building:

Olga’s story was revealing such a vast, almost unbelievable world to him that he could not resist intruding on it with his own little adventure, in order to convince himself of the existence of her world as well as that of his own experience (loc 3402).

I loved most of all that amazing nighttime meeting in the bureaucrat’s hotel wing, which is itself an incredible description of physical space that is as much mental space, constricting, suffocating, claustrophobic:

Here everything was small but elegantly constructed, and space was used to the best advantage. The corridor was just high enough for them to walk upright. Along the sides was a series of doors almost next to each other. The side walls did not reach right up to the ceiling, no doubt to provide ventilation, for the tiny rooms along this deep cellar-like corridor probably had no windows. The disadvantage of these walls that were open at the top was that the noise in the corridor must have been heard in the rooms too (loc 3790).

Everything is concealed, bewildering, yet at the same time there can be no privacy:

The servant climbed onto K.’s shoulders and looked over the gap above the wall into the room. ‘He’s lying on his bed’ (loc 3803)

K. is betrayed by his own weakness, his own tiredness, he cannot take advantage of the interviews he obtains. And then follows the most brilliant of all scenes: the men pushing the carts, distributing folders, the opening and slamming of doors, whispered negotiations, hands emerging from rooms, peeping through cracks and recriminations. K.’s very presence throwing everything into complete chaos as no one can bear to let themselves be seen, much less spoken to.

It ends in mid sentence — I didn’t know that when I started, so it was an almost vertiginous ending. Kafka couldn’t find his way to the ending, I know the feeling, and I’m not sure it could have ended. I found the beginning quite terrifying in its way, but that steadily dropped off, you can feel the tension unwinding somehow, even as it gets more interesting in other ways.

There is so much more here — as always — but being in Prague and reading this, I am thinking most about Kafka and space and remember I found this in the museum:

…Kafka carries out a more difficult operation: he turns Prague into an imaginary topography which transcends the fallacy of realism. Kafka’s phantasmal architecture has other ends. Rather than a particular house, school, office, church, prison or castle being important, it is what these constructions reveal when they act as topological metaphors or allegorical places. What surprises does this transfigured Prague hold in store? Just how far can the metamorphosis of a city take us?

I think they do act as metaphors and allegorical places…in some ways I think they are also ways of imagining the barriers and impassible places in our own minds and actions. But the castle of Prague itself makes some concrete sense of this as well perhaps, the relationship between writer and city a dialectical one. Prague’s castle is no one large building surrounded by defensible stone walls that I would imagine from living in England or Scotland. We looked for it and I’m not sure when we actually found it, entered it, reached the castle. You go through this splendid arch just off the Charles bridge

IMG_8779
And you wander up and always up past a whole lot of Baroque magnificence, becoming more magnificent the higher up the hill you get. You go up a whole lot of steps and suddenly you are there, and walking through stately home sort of buildings to get to the splendidly gothic St Vitus’s Cathedral, which is surrounded by this labyrinthine pomp and what seems like administrative space. Maybe. But there is palace after palace up there, making sense of homes for the many named and revered Castle gentlemen. It is not until you are walking along part of the backside that you really get a sense that this is in any way the defensible space I associate with the word Castle — or was once:

IMG_8889
and there the contrasts are more striking:
IMG_8900 IMG_8898

There are some fake turreted kind of battlements at the top awash with tourists, but there you can also get a real feel of just how high above, how far removed this castle complex is from the rest of Prague:

IMG_8885

We went back down and I found more remnants of ‘castle’ the way that word sits in my imagination:
IMG_8908

IMG_8904
But really, despite the wonderful drain covers, to me here was no sense of any one place you could call a castle

IMG_8910
Instead it seemed a collection of powers, a complicated administrative centre…and of course, for much of its history, an empty shell, a representation, with the real power always residing with the Hapsburg empire far away. A Kafkaesque castle in more than one respect. Also a beautiful place:

IMG_8936

Of course, there are other candidates for the inspiration for The Castle, but Kafka grew up beneath this one, and being here made the book a little less dreamlike and removed from reality — just a little less.

I searched for images of The Castle to see how others had imagined it — conventionally I am afraid, the bookcovers imagine it most conventionally. But I also found this, the most startling, built by architect Ricardo Bofill outside of Barcelona. A modern day construction for your viewing pleasure:

1300835925-castell3-508x500

read more here

Save

Prague’s Kafka Museum, Kafka and Prague

It never occurred to me to think of Kafka spatially or understand spatiality through Kafka, I never thought of him as a chronicler of space or the city. Yet the quite brilliant museum dedicated to him in Prague is entirely about space and Kafka’s relationship to his city, his ‘dear little mother with claws’, and I am fascinated now with thinking some of this through. It’s worth more than one blog post. I think here I shall just capture what I can of the exhibit, and then relate it to Kafka later — because when in Prague read Kafka and I am reading The Castle. Like all of Kafka’s work, I am finding it slow due to its harrowing nature and existential angst. So.

The experience of the museum itself aims at something like a replication of the feelings inspired by reading Kafka, tries to help you enter his world…it succeeds on some level of reaching some different world some how (though if it is K.’s or not that is impossible to say), leaving me fairly awed, and so I can hardly explain what it’s like to experience  it. Darkness, unexplained noise, images shimmering like pools of water, photographs and collections of personal items and writings, short films, a surrounding of file cabinets and ancient phones. Not everything is translated into English or Czech — Kafka wrote in German after all. The different spaces are given context by beautifully written passages as provocations scattered throughout that demanded much more thinking.

I wanted to share these, in the shop, however, you can only buy the guide book that contains them in Italian and Spanish, so I shall be translating back from Spanish to English — who knows what language they were first written in.  The initial ones, however, are on the website. On the existential space:

In this first stage of our immersion into the world of Kafka, we look at how the city affects the writer, how it shapes his life, the mark it leaves on him. Prague acts on Kafka with all of its metamorphosing power, confining him to an existential space which he can only enter by “fixing his gaze on the surface of things”, Prague forces Kafka into a spatial constriction, steadily dosing out its secrets. Prague contributes myth, obscure magic, and provides a magnificent backdrop, but it abhors clarity. And this is precisely what Kafka captures.

This is the city’s action upon the writer, the way it shapes and molds him, the way it confines him in dialectical relation to how he sees and writes it. All writers know that in writing you make things more real, but does Prague abhor clarity? How does a city choose one way or the other?

Our aim is to explore the city, seeing it from Kafka’s point of view. An exclusively biographical or merely chronological approach would not be enough; the challenge lies in condensing the principal conflicts in the life of Kafka in Prague, guided by the writer’s own views. This means joining Kafka on his descent into the depths of his city, adapting ourselves to his sensorial range and cognitive register, becoming involved in a gradual distortion of space-time – in short, agreeing to an experience where everything is allowed except indifference.

But this is no descent of the kind that would be demanded by noir, the first place my mind goes in imagining ‘the depths’ of a city. These are depths imagined differently, experienced differently. Rather than the danger or violence or poverty, there is instead a physic descent. The imagery of a cage, an interrogation that lasts, a prison as much within as without. Yet The first paragraphs of this floor are the ones I loved and remembered most, possibly for the use of the word entelechy, which frankly I struggled with to recall its meaning:

Franz Kafka is born in the interior of a myth named Prague. A city where three human groups act (Czechs, Germans and Jews), reunited through the centuries and, in spite of that, separated by cultural, racial and linguistic differences. The conflict leaves its imprint in the physiology of the city, converts neighbourhoods into airtight compartments, defines invisible frontiers, but it does not ultimately define the nature of the cage. It is also necessary to gain an intuition of it from the perspective of the bird.

Let us imagine an childhood where the I is an enigma and the community, an entelechy. A home besieged by dead brothers, distant sisters, cold governesses and a scathing cook. A world perceived from fear and guilt, in which the figure of the father spreads throughout leaving very little space for the life of a Son.

It begins with the Jewish ghetto, itself a place of confinement, a richness of culture, learning and occult knowledge. In 1895 the ghetto began a ten-year process to ‘clean up’ and reshape it through what many believe to be the ‘the most important urban alteration in the history of Prague’. The quotes given from Conversations with Kafka by Gustav Janoush are marvelous, though who is to say that he said them exactly like this? (Especially translated from one language to Spanish and back to English again)

Inside of us still live the obscure corners the mysterious passages, the blinded windows, the dirty patios, the noisy taverns and inns with their locks. We walk down the wide streets of the new city, but our steps and looks are insecure. On the inside we continue to tremble just like the old alleyways of misery. Our hearts still have not understood the sanitising that has taken place. The old and unhealthy jewish city inside of us is much more real than the new hygienic city that surrounds us. Awake we walk traversing a dream: we are nothing more than the ghost of times past.

Instead the Jewish Quarter now is full of twisting, but grand sweeping roads, though Kafka is still remembered:

IMG_8670

Such quotes led me to more reading of Janoush, some of which can be found here, and in which he writes this of Kafka’s knowledge of his city:

I OFTEN MARVELLED at Kafka’s wide knowledge of all the varied architectural features of the city. He was familiar not only with its palaces and churches but also with the most obscure alleys of the Old Town. He knew the medieval names of the houses even though their ancient signs no longer hung over their entrances but in the city museum in the Poric. Kafka read the city’s history out of the walls of its ancient houses. He conducted me by crooked alleyways into narrow, funnel-shaped interior courtyards in Old Prague, which he called “spittoons of light”; he walked with me, near the old Charles Bridge, through a baroque entrance hall, across a court no bigger than a handkerchief with round Renaissance arches and through a dark tubular tunnel, to a tiny inn enclosed in a small court which bore the name of The Stargazer (Czech: U hvezddru), because here Johannes Kepler had lived for many years, and here, in the year 1609, his famous book, which far outstripped all the scientific knowledge of his day, the Astronomia Nova was born.

Kafka loved the streets, palaces, gardens and churches of the city where he was born. He looked with joyful interest through the pages of all the books on the antiquities of Prague which I brought to him in his office. His eyes and hands literally caressed the pages of such publications, though he had read them all long before I placed them on his desk. His eyes shone with the look of a passionate collector. Yet he was the precise opposite of a collector. The past was for him not some historically dead collector’s piece, but a supple instrument of knowledge, a bridge to today. . . .

We traveled their path, so different today, yet once you leave Karlova Street with its hordes of tourists there is some of this magic:

IMG_9516IMG_9518

There is a tiny museum now where Kepler lived.

IMG_9520And this, bringing Kafka into the 21st century:

IMG_9523

The exhibit looks at this figure of Hermann Kafka, the father filling up the world. The Hilsner case, a jew accused of the ritual murder of a little girl. The obsession of Kafka with Ravachol the anarchist, named for him, tarred with his stigma by the servants. It looks at his intellectual and artistic circles, the figure of four (Kafka, Max Brod, Felix Weltsch and Oskar Baum), the larger circle who would meet up at the Cafe Arco and the salon held by Berta Fanta under the sign of the Unicorn Pharmacy. His contacts with Jewish theatre, undergoing a renaissance through Jicchak Löwy. His four fiancees. His death from TB. And I believe this is where the uncertain line between existential space and Imaginary Topography begins. Of course it is uncertain:

Imaginary topography – The way Kafka creates the layers of his city is one of the most enigmatic operations of modern literature. With only occasional exceptions, Kafka does not name the places he describes in his novels and short stories. The city steps back, is no longer recognizable by its buildings, bridges and monuments. And even if they are recognized by an inhabitant of Prague or by a student of Kafka, they have since become something else.

…Kafka carries out a more difficult operation: he turns Prague into an imaginary topography which transcends the fallacy of realism. Kafka’s phantasmal architecture has other ends. Rather than a particular house, school, office, church, prison or castle being important, it is what these constructions reveal when they act as topological metaphors or allegorical places. What surprises does this transfigured Prague hold in store? Just how far can the metamorphosis of a city take us?

Into a passageway lined with filing cabinets and his drawings brought to life (Conversations with Kafka is full of them). I love this one, but who has not felt like this?

Kafka

There is a wonderful short film of The Castle, almost entirely white, confusing, letters and figures melting into and out of sight, lonely figures never reaching where they are going. The last room is a harrowing one based on ‘In the Penal Colony’, a model of the torture, a film of skin being cut and scarred visible only through narrow windows.

I’d been unsuccessfully fighting off a cold, but confess to a feeling of unsettledness, almost nausea by the time we descended the stairs, it affected me physically and that in a way is my greatest testimony. Kafka’s books affect me the same way, I cannot read them all at once, cannot read them before bed. They fill me with fear and angst and confusion and I admire them immensely. But now I am almost eager to search for the outlines of domestic space, of work space, of the city as described here in this post, The Castle is perhaps the easiest, and the one I am reading now. Climbing up to Prague’s own castle — less a castle than a complex of Baroque magnificence engulfing the old gothic buildings — it seems easy to me to see how this is at once a physical and an existential space, something rooted in both history and in the terrors of the mind. But more of that when I finish the book.

Save

Liza of Lambeth

Liza(1897) W. Somerset Maugham

*SPOILER ALERT*

Meh. So you have your misanthrope and your misogynist and this is a little of both, but mostly I found it to be just a morality tale with some sniping at the animal nature and sad lives of the working classes. The kind of thing that makes me want to make a rude gesture when I read the description ‘Maugham’s first published novel – a vividly realistic portrayal of slum life…’ Of course, Maugham trained in obstetrics at St Thomas’s hospital in Lambeth and worked with the residents of Lambeth’s slums, so he knew a little something of the subject. But an outside view, a judgmental view, a superior view that looked down on the people he was being trained to cure. It permeates the novel, even as there seems to me to be some of that voyeurism associated with slumming, assumptions made and perhaps a small amount of jealousy of people he describes as unfettered by middle-class mores, driven by their passions, able to express themselves completely freely, however coarsely and violently that may be.

There’s some interesting views on family, men and Empire as described by Liza’s alcoholic mother as they are getting drunk together near the end of the novel, after Liza has had the shit beaten out of her by the wife of the man she’s having an affair with — and right before she miscarries and dies.

‘Yus,’ went on Mrs. Kemp, ‘I’ve ‘ad thirteen children an’ I’m proud of it. As your poor dear father used ter sy, it shows as ‘ow one’s got the blood of a Briton in one. Your poor dear father, ‘e was a great ‘and at speakin’ ‘e was: ‘e used ter speak at parliamentary meetin’s–I really believe ‘e’d ‘ave been a Member of Parliament if ‘e’d been alive now. Well, as I was sayin’, your father ‘e used ter sy, “None of your small families for me, I don’t approve of them,” says ‘e. ‘E was a man of very ‘igh principles, an’ by politics ‘e was a Radical. “No,” says ‘e, when ‘e got talkin’, “when a man can ‘ave a family risin’ into double figures, it shows ‘e’s got the backbone of a Briton in ‘im. That’s the stuff as ‘as built up England’s nime and glory! When one thinks of the mighty British Hempire,” says ‘e, “on which the sun never sets from mornin’ till night, one ‘as ter be proud of ‘isself, an’ one ‘as ter do one’s duty in thet walk of life in which it ‘as pleased Providence ter set one–an’ every man’s fust duty is ter get as many children as ‘e bloomin’ well can.” Lord love yer–‘e could talk, I can tell yer.’

‘Drink up, mother,’ said Liza. ‘You’re not ‘alf drinkin’.’ She flourished the bottle. ‘I don’t care a twopanny ‘ang for all them blokes; I’m quite ‘appy, an’ I don’t want anythin’ else.’

It’s been such a struggle for poor folks, bilingual folks, Southern folks, Scottish folks, anyone not speaking the Queen’s English, to write true to themselves and their own way of speaking. I don’t know what I think about well educated men writing like this, not without more respect for the people he writes of, not when there’s such a sly superiority in so much of what he writes.

Still, I did love the opening scene, which Liza steals in spite of Maugham really.

All at once there was a cry: ‘There’s Liza!’ And several members of the group turned and called out: ‘Oo, look at Liza!’

The dancers stopped to see the sight, and the organ-grinder, having come to the end of his tune, ceased turning the handle and looked to see what was the excitement.

‘Oo, Liza!’ they called out. ‘Look at Liza; oo, I sy!’

It was a young girl of about eighteen, with dark eyes, and an enormous fringe, puffed-out and curled and frizzed, covering her whole forehead from side to side, and coming down to meet her eyebrows. She was dressed in brilliant violet, with great lappets of velvet, and she had on her head an enormous black hat covered with feathers.

‘I sy, ain’t she got up dossy?’ called out the groups at the doors, as she passed.

‘Dressed ter death, and kill the fashion; that’s wot I calls it.’

Liza saw what a sensation she was creating; she arched her back and lifted her head, and walked down the street, swaying her body from side to side, and swaggering along as though the whole place belonged to her.

”Ave yer bought the street, Bill?’ shouted one youth; and then half a dozen burst forth at once, as if by inspiration:

‘Knocked ’em in the Old Kent Road!’

It was immediately taken up by a dozen more, and they all yelled it out:

‘Knocked ’em in the Old Kent Road. Yah, ah, knocked ’em in the Old Kent Road!’

‘Oo, Liza!’ they shouted; the whole street joined in, and they gave long, shrill, ear-piercing shrieks and strange calls, that rung down the street and echoed back again.

‘Hextra special!’ called out a wag.

‘Oh, Liza! Oo! Ooo!’ yells and whistles, and then it thundered forth again:

‘Knocked ’em in the Old Kent Road!’

Liza put on the air of a conquering hero, and sauntered on, enchanted at the uproar. She stuck out her elbows and jerked her head on one side, and said to herself as she passed through the bellowing crowd:

‘This is jam!’

‘Knocked ’em in the Old Kent Road!’

When she came to the group round the barrel-organ, one of the girls cried out to her:

‘Is that yer new dress, Liza?’

‘Well, it don’t look like my old one, do it?’ said Liza.

‘Where did yer git it?’ asked another friend, rather enviously.

‘Picked it up in the street, of course,’ scornfully answered Liza.

‘I believe it’s the same one as I saw in the pawnbroker’s dahn the road,’ said one of the men, to tease her.

‘Thet’s it; but wot was you doin’ in there? Pledgin’ yer shirt, or was it yer trousers?’

‘Yah, I wouldn’t git a second-‘and dress at a pawnbroker’s!’

‘Garn!’ said Liza indignantly. ‘I’ll swipe yer over the snitch if yer talk ter me. I got the mayterials in the West Hend, didn’t I? And I ‘ad it mide up by my Court Dressmiker, so you jolly well dry up, old jellybelly.’

‘Garn!’ was the reply.

The man turned on a new tune, and the organ began to play the Intermezzo from the ‘Cavalleria’; other couples quickly followed Liza’s example, and they began to waltz round with the same solemnity as before; but Liza outdid them all; if the others were as stately as queens, she was as stately as an empress; the gravity and dignity with which she waltzed were something appalling, you felt that the minuet was a frolic in comparison; it would have been a fitting measure to tread round the grave of a première danseuse, or at the funeral of a professional humorist. And the graces she put on, the languor of the eyes, the contemptuous curl of the lips, the exquisite turn of the hand, the dainty arching of the foot! You felt there could be no questioning her right to the tyranny of Vere Street.

Suddenly she stopped short, and disengaged herself from her companion.

‘Oh, I say,’ she said, ‘this is too bloomin’ slow; it gives me the sick.’

That is not precisely what she said, but it is impossible always to give the exact unexpurgated words of Liza and the other personages of the story, the reader is therefore entreated with his thoughts to piece out the necessary imperfections of the dialogue.

‘It’s too bloomin’ slow,’ she said again; ‘it gives me the sick. Let’s ‘ave somethin’ a bit more lively than this ‘ere waltz. You stand over there, Sally, an’ we’ll show ’em ‘ow ter skirt dance.’

They all stopped waltzing.

‘Talk of the ballet at the Canterbury and South London. You just wite till you see the ballet at Vere Street, Lambeth–we’ll knock ’em!’

She went up to the organ-grinder.

‘Na then, Italiano,’ she said to him, ‘you buck up; give us a tune that’s got some guts in it! See?’

She caught hold of his big hat and squashed it down over his eyes. The man grinned from ear to ear, and, touching the little catch at the side, began to play a lively tune such as Liza had asked for.

The men had fallen out, but several girls had put themselves in position, in couples, standing face to face; and immediately the music struck up, they began. They held up their skirts on each side, so as to show their feet, and proceeded to go through the difficult steps and motions of the dance. Liza was right; they could not have done it better in a trained ballet. But the best dancer of them all was Liza; she threw her whole soul into it; forgetting the stiff bearing which she had thought proper to the waltz, and casting off its elaborate graces, she gave herself up entirely to the present pleasure. Gradually the other couples stood aside, so that Liza and Sally were left alone. They paced it carefully, watching each other’s steps, and as if by instinct performing corresponding movements, so as to make the whole a thing of symmetry.

Sounds like a forerunner of the Lambeth Walk, and with just as much pride. I quite love her, and wished not just a better life for her, but a better narrator. The book’s available on Project Gutenberg, which makes such long quotes possible…

Somerset Maugham of course, is quite a fascinating character in himself. Liza of Lambeth was popular enough he was able to become a full time writer as I suppose medicine didn’t agree with him. He was one of the most famous and best-paid of his time, but this was after a desperately unhappy childhood after his parents died and he was sent to live with a harsh uncle, and bisexuality must have made life hard during these early days, giving him some edge to his work. He was also called up to work with MI6 — another connection with the borough Lambeth through his work — to aid British efforts to keep Kerensky in power.  We all know how that went, and Maugham went back to writing. He was the lover of the daughter of Peter Kropotkin (!), and married the daughter of Dr Barnardo (!) when she became pregnant with their daughter Liza (!), though he later denied she was his. This is, of course, a terribly truncated summary drawn almost entirely from one website. I may correct this in the future through more reading, but for now be aware the story is undoubtedly more nuanced, complex, and possibly quite different in its main points than the bits that most interested me after a quick scan. Still, as a chronicler of working class life and loves from a female point of view, I’ll take it with more than a grain of salt.

Save

News From Nowhere

1024px-Kelmscott_Manor_News_from_Nowhere(1890) William Morris

A utopian novel, set in the 2000s — It feels so strange to have lived through the futures named by so many utopian and dystopian writers, even if only by year and not imagining. A socialist returns home to Hammersmith frustrated with another meeting of argument and lost tempers (nothing has changed there) and wakes up in a world transformed by revolution. This is actually one of the nicer utopias I’ve read, here is the new Hammersmith and his dream of the Thames river banks, with his ideal residential architecture:

Both shores had a line of very pretty houses, low and not large, standing back a little way from the river; they were mostly built of red brick and roofed with tiles, and looked, above all, comfortable, and as if they were, so to say, alive, and sympathetic with the life of the dwellers in them. There was a continuous garden in front of them, going down to the water’s edge, in which the flowers were now blooming luxuriantly, and sending delicious waves of summer scent over the eddying stream. Behind the houses, I could see great trees rising, mostly planes, and looking down the water there were the reaches towards Putney almost as if they were a lake with a forest shore, so thick were the big trees… (loc 108)

More on the new face of Hammersmith, the modern return to ancient ways and the fate of the city to return to village and countryside:

We turned away from the river at once, and were soon in the main road that runs through Hammersmith. But I should have had no guess as to where I was, if I had not started from the waterside; for King Street was gone, and the highway ran through wide sunny meadows and garden-like tillage. The Creek, which we crossed at once, had been rescued from its culvert, and as we went over its pretty bridge we saw its waters, yet swollen by the tide, covered with gay boats of different sizes. There were houses about, some on the road, some amongst the fields with pleasant lanes leading down to them, and each surrounded by a teeming garden. They were all pretty in design, and as solid as might be, but countryfied in appearance, like yeomen’s dwellings; some of them of red brick like those by the river, but more of timber and plaster, which were by the necessity of their construction so like mediaeval houses of the same materials that I fairly felt as if I were alive in the fourteenth century; a sensation helped out by the costume of the people that we met or passed, in whose dress there was nothing “modern.” Almost everybody was gaily dressed, but especially the women, who were so well-looking, or even so handsome, that I could scarcely refrain my tongue from calling my companion’s attention to the fact. Some faces I saw that were thoughtful, and in these I noticed great nobility of expression, but none that had a glimmer of unhappiness, and the greater part (we came upon a good many people) were frankly and openly joyous (loc 328).

This is a future in which no one knows want, work is shared out equally in small portions — though I was a bit disappointed that women still reveled in domestic duties. Still, they also worked with stone and in building great buildings and other more unconventional places. I laughed out loud when we came to the ‘golden dustman of Hammersmith’! Because everyone can wear what clothes they like, woven for pleasure and beauty. Who will collect the garbage? Mostly this guy, but everyone, and they will do it happily. Their great fear is running out of work because everything is already so beautiful after they have built and rebuilt and rebuilt again. Needless to say the slums are no more:

“Tell me, then,” said I, “how is it towards the east?”

Said he: “Time was when if you mounted a good horse and rode straight away from my door here at a round trot for an hour and a half; you would still be in the thick of London, and the greater part of that would be ‘slums,’ as they were called; that is to say, places of torture for innocent men and women; or worse, stews for rearing and breeding men and women in such degradation that that torture should seem to them mere ordinary and natural life.”

“I know, I know,” I said, rather impatiently. “That was what was; tell me something of what is. Is any of that left?”

“Not an inch,” said he; “but some memory of it abides with us, and I am glad of it. Once a year, on May-day, we hold a solemn feast in those easterly communes of London to commemorate The Clearing of Misery, as it is called. On that day we have music and dancing, and merry games and happy feasting on the site of some of the worst of the old slums, the traditional memory of which we have kept. On that occasion the custom is for the prettiest girls to sing some of the old revolutionary songs, and those which were the groans of the discontent, once so hopeless, on the very spots where those terrible crimes of class-murder were committed day by day for so many years. To a man like me, who have studied the past so diligently, it is a curious and touching sight to see some beautiful girl, daintily clad, and crowned with flowers from the neighbouring meadows, standing amongst the happy people, on some mound where of old time stood the wretched apology for a house, a den in which men and women lived packed amongst the filth like pilchards in a cask; lived in such a way that they could only have endured it, as I said just now, by being degraded out of humanity–to hear the terrible words of threatening and lamentation coming from her sweet and beautiful lips, and she unconscious of their real meaning: to hear her, for instance, singing Hood’s Song of the Shirt, and to think that all the time she does not understand what it is all about–a tragedy grown inconceivable to her and her listeners. Think of that, if you can, and of how glorious life is grown!” (loc 900)

It is fascinating, this new topography of London which makes it no longer London, no longer a city. This is a vision of socialism in which cities are inimical, so different from those visions based on technology and scientific improvement. I did love titling banks as ‘swindling kens’, and that they were occupied in the transition to a new way of structuring society socially and materially:

“Tell me in detail,” said I, “what lies east of Bloomsbury now?”

Said he: “There are but few houses between this and the outer part of the old city; but in the city we have a thickly-dwelling population. Our forefathers, in the first clearing of the slums, were not in a hurry to pull down the houses in what was called at the end of the nineteenth century the business quarter of the town, and what later got to be known as the Swindling Kens. You see, these houses, though they stood hideously thick on the ground, were roomy and fairly solid in building, and clean, because they were not used for living in, but as mere gambling booths; so the poor people from the cleared slums took them for lodgings and dwelt there, till the folk of those days had time to think of something better for them; so the buildings were pulled down so gradually that people got used to living thicker on the ground there than in most places; therefore it remains the most populous part of London, or perhaps of all these islands. But it is very pleasant there, partly because of the splendour of the architecture, which goes further than what you will see elsewhere. However, this crowding, if it may be called so, does not go further than a street called Aldgate, a name which perhaps you may have heard of. Beyond that the houses are scattered wide about the meadows there, which are very beautiful, especially when you get on to the lovely river Lea (where old Isaak Walton used to fish, you know) about the places called Stratford and Old Ford, names which of course you will not have heard of, though the Romans were busy there once upon a time.” (loc 992)

Morris is quite specific in this remapping and remaking of London. Here is the new topography south of the Thames:

About these Docks are a good few houses, which, however, are not inhabited by many people permanently; I mean, those who use them come and go a good deal, the place being too low and marshy for pleasant dwelling. Past the Docks eastward and landward it is all flat pasture, once marsh, except for a few gardens, and there are very few permanent dwellings there: scarcely anything but a few sheds, and cots for the men who come to look after the great herds of cattle pasturing there. But however, what with the beasts and the men, and the scattered red-tiled roofs and the big hayricks, it does not make a bad holiday to get a quiet pony and ride about there on a sunny afternoon of autumn, and look over the river and the craft passing up and down, and on to Shooters’ Hill and the Kentish uplands, and then turn round to the wide green sea of the Essex marsh-land, with the great domed line of the sky, and the sun shining down in one flood of peaceful light over the long distance. There is a place called Canning’s Town, and further out, Silvertown, where the pleasant meadows are at their pleasantest: doubtless they were once slums, and wretched enough.” (loc 1007)

As the protagonist travels through this new civilisation, asking questions that younger people don’t understand, the answers he receives from older ‘scholars’ make this a bit like a book of FAQs. Morris has clearly been asked about what happens to the population, how a dense city can be transformed into a series of villages and country houses.  I couldn’t buy it, but spreading out across England and the world is the answer:

“I am rather surprised,” said I, “by all this, for it seems to me that after all the country must be tolerably populous.”

“Certainly,” said he; “the population is pretty much the same as it was at the end of the nineteenth century; we have spread it, that is all. Of course, also, we have helped to populate other countries–where we were wanted and were called for.” (loc 1096)

But I liked that he grappled with imperialism, re-envisioned work to end exploitation both of the English working classes and the oppressed workers of other nations. Here is more on labour, machines, exploitation and imperialism:

“What’s that you are saying? the labour-saving machines? Yes, they were made to ‘save labour’ (or, to speak more plainly, the lives of men) on one piece of work in order that it might be expended–I will say wasted–on another, probably useless, piece of work. Friend, all their devices for cheapening labour simply resulted in increasing the burden of labour. The appetite of the World-Market grew with what it fed on: the countries within the ring of ‘civilisation’ (that is, organised misery) were glutted with the abortions of the market, and force and fraud were used unsparingly to ‘open up’ countries outside that pale. This process of ‘opening up’ is a strange one to those who have read the professions of the men of that period and do not understand their practice; and perhaps shows us at its worst the great vice of the nineteenth century, the use of hypocrisy and cant to evade the responsibility of vicarious ferocity. When the civilised World-Market coveted a country not yet in its clutches, some transparent pretext was found–the suppression of a slavery different from and not so cruel as that of commerce; the pushing of a religion no longer believed in by its promoters; the ‘rescue’ of some desperado or homicidal madman whose misdeeds had got him into trouble amongst the natives of the ‘barbarous’ country–any stick, in short, which would beat the dog at all. Then some bold, unprincipled, ignorant adventurer was found (no difficult task in the days of competition), and he was bribed to ‘create a market’ by breaking up whatever traditional society there might be in the doomed country, and by destroying whatever leisure or pleasure he found there. He forced wares on the natives which they did not want, and took their natural products in ‘exchange,’ as this form of robbery was called, and thereby he ‘created new wants,’ to supply which (that is, to be allowed to live by their new masters) the hapless, helpless people had to sell themselves into the slavery of hopeless toil so that they might have something wherewith to purchase the nullities of ‘civilisation.’ (loc 1411)

Such a simple breakdown of how imperialism worked and still works. I also like that he gives details of how utopia was all actually achieved — through mass movement. The reason the revolution could not be repressed and destroyed:

“The members of the Committee went off quietly to prison; but they had left their soul and their organisation behind them. For they depended not on a carefully arranged centre with all kinds of checks and counter-checks about it, but on a huge mass of people in thorough sympathy with the movement, bound together by a great number of links of small centres with very simple instructions. These instructions were now carried out (loc 1803).

And of course, you then have the GENERAL STRIKE. Never in America did I hear people go on at such length about the general strike the way they do in the UK, a venerable tradition I can see. Just as the newspapers continue on:

The ordinary newspapers gave up the struggle that morning, and only one very violent reactionary paper (called the Daily Telegraph) attempted an appearance, and rated ‘the rebels’ in good set terms for their folly and ingratitude in tearing out the bowels of their ‘common mother,’ the English Nation, for the benefit of a few greedy paid agitators, and the fools whom they were deluding.

That made me laugh. The revolution had no manifesto though people kept waiting for it, clearly a bone of contention for the socialists of the day, just as it was recently for the occupy movement. What will happen to all of our stuff — another FAQ. Morris is, of course, focused on work and art and the ideal relationship between them, the end of capitalist production means the creation of objects for use not profit, and frees time to make them well and beautifully:

The loss of the competitive spur to exertion had not, indeed, done anything to interfere with the necessary production of the community, but how if it should make men dull by giving them too much time for thought or idle musing? But, after all, this dull thunder-cloud only threatened us, and then passed over. Probably, from what I have told you before, you will have a guess at the remedy for such a disaster; remembering always that many of the things which used to be produced–slave-wares for the poor and mere wealth-wasting wares for the rich–ceased to be made. That remedy was, in short, the production of what used to be called art, but which has no name amongst us now, because it has become a necessary part of the labour of every man who produces (loc 1996).”

Thus the good life can be lived without a trace of the guilt that we always carry with us in a capitalist society, because anything created by the work of others is created through their oppression.

The evening passed all too quickly for me; since that day, for the first time in my life, I was having my fill of the pleasure of the eyes without any of that sense of incongruity, that dread of approaching ruin, which had always beset me hitherto when I had been amongst the beautiful works of art of the past, mingled with the lovely nature of the present; both of them, in fact, the result of the long centuries of tradition, which had compelled men to produce the art, and compelled nature to run into the mould of the ages. Here I could enjoy everything without an afterthought of the injustice and miserable toil which made my leisure; the ignorance and dulness of life which went to make my keen appreciation of history; the tyranny and the struggle full of fear and mishap which went to make my romance. The only weight I had upon my heart was a vague fear as it drew toward bed-time concerning the place wherein I should wake on the morrow: but I choked that down, and went to bed happy, and in a very few moments was in a dreamless sleep (loc 2104).

There is a great deal in here about the openness of relations both between the sexes and between friends, who can choose to live with each other in different configurations of large home or village. There are no prohibitions, rules against divorce, class distinctions, roles for men and women, requirements for nuclear families and children come and go. While sadly queer happiness is not cared for here, for its time (and in many ways ours as well), this is quite advanced in ways I like. The ideas around education — that it just sort of happens by itself — I found the strangest, but from what I have heard of Victorian rote and miserable schooling, also served as an advancement. All in all I quite enjoyed this, in all its sincerity and simplicity.

Just one last thing, because I’ve run into older uses of the word ‘cockney’ in a couple of other places and found it quite interesting, is this description of ‘cockney villas’, also a description of the further suburbs of London in Morris’s own time:

As we went higher up the river, there was less difference between the Thames of that day and Thames as I remembered it; for setting aside the hideous vulgarity of the cockney villas of the well-to-do, stockbrokers and other such, which in older time marred the beauty of the bough-hung banks, even this beginning of the country Thames was always beautiful… (loc 2154).

For more on Morris himself, I’ve looked at the massive biography by E.P. Thompson, you can read Part 1 and Part 2, and also some words on the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris and His Legacy, 1860-1960.

Women who write about cities

Who are key women writing and thinking seriously about cities in fiction and non-fiction? My partner asked me this innocuous question that should have been easier for me to answer as, among other things, an avid reader, a geographer, a feminist, an urbanist. Granted I feel a beginner at the academic interface of all but the first, still, when asked, I was struggling a little. This post is a beginning at rectifying that problem.

space-place-gender-doreen-massey-paperback-cover-artIn the most easily accessible list of ‘great’ or best-known geographers I carry in my head, there is really only Doreen Massey, who has absolutely written on space and gender. Beyond an article or two I haven’t read much, and I’ve been meaning to change that for some time. I suppose Saskia Sassen belongs here as well with her work on world cities, but I think I probably need to revise this list of ‘great’ geographers in my head, or get rid of it all together. Key to my thesis was the work of Laura Pulido, who looks at race, white privilege and the city’s form with a focus on struggle and environmental racism in L.A., and to a lesser extent Gillian Hart, who brings together Stuart Hall and Lefebvre to look at race, gender and space in South Africa. There are Audrey Kobayashi, Linda Peake, Katherine McKittrick,  all of whom I know from searching for discussions of intersectionality and space. One of my favourite books about L.A. is by Becky Nicolaides, a historian writing about the working class suburb of South Gate in My Blue Heaven. Jenny Robinson on everyday politics and the Global South, Margit Meyer writing from Germany on struggle and right to the city. I am sure there are many other women rocking the subject of women in the city, and many I’ve cited, but shamefully they are not in that top layer of my brain’s recall. I’m in Bristol at the moment, but hopefully once I am at home staring at my beloved bookshelves I will come up with a few more.

VIRGINIA WOOLFI’ve been doing all this reading on London and psychogeography as well, and is that shit male! White too. There is a kind of cannon of ‘walkers of the city’ that so many people refer to, Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Years, Poe’s ‘Man in the Crowd’, Baudillaire and Rimbaud, de Quincey’s Confessions of an Opium Eater, Arthur Machen, de Certeau, Walter Benjamin, sometimes Dickens, Breton’s Nadja (where he stalks a woman), the situationists Debord and Vaneigem, there is  James Joyce of course, I always add Dylan Thomas to this list but not many other seem to. Iain Sinclair writing now, Patrick Keillor. There are a few names missing here, but the only woman regularly included is Virginia Woolf, with Mrs Dalloway. Time to create a new and broader cannon I think, much more female, queer, of colour. These groups move through cities, experience cities, desire from cities very different things.

mishaI love noir and SF, which deal so much with cities, but again, most of the people immediately springing to mind as writers of the city are men. Asimov of course, with Trantor, China Miéville’s The City and the City, and New Crobuzon and London in so much of his short fiction and Kraken and King Rat. The city is a character in so much noir, but it’s Chandler and and Hammet, Gary Phillips and Walter Mosely and Chester Himes on LA and Harlem, even Crumley, not Dorothy Hughes or Leigh Brackett or Margaret Millar — though perhaps her more than most. Maybe L.A. for Denise Hamilton, who knows so much history of both the city and noir itself. Chicago in Paretsky‘s novels? Not so much really, not if I remember rightly. There’s the incredible book of urban apocalypse by MishaRed Spider, White Web, Karen Tei Yamashita‘s L.A. in Tropic of Orange, and San Francisco of I Hotel, Nnedi Okorafor‘s Lagos in Lagoon.  Glasgow in Denise Mina‘s work. London’s broader literature scene has Zadie Smith, and Monica Ali, maybe Elizabeth Gaskell on northern cities…but who else? The more I write and think the more names come to me, but I haven’t come across anyone else thinking about these things. Probably my own fault for not looking hard enough.

So I googled women writing on cities. The first hit is a list of work from the Contemporary Women’s Writing Association on contemporary women writers and their constructions of the city from some years ago, it looks good but it is so short:

Comer, K., 1999. Landscapes of the New West: Gender and Geography in Contemporary Women’s Writing. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

An original text that explores the way in which a number of contemporary American women writers (Joan Didion, Maxine Hong Kingston, Leslie Silko, Jeanne Houston and Louisa Erdich among others) have developed a feminine/feminist, postmodern, multiracial, urban imagination in their fiction.

Fischer, S. A., 2002. “A Sense of Place: London in contemporary women’s writing”. Changing English, Vol. 9: 1, pp. 59-65.

An exploration of the symbolism of London and its relation to race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and class in a range of contemporary women’s writing including Sarah Waters.

Palmer, P., 1994. “The City in Contemporary Women’s Writing” In Massa, A. & Stead, A. eds. Forked Tongues: Comparing Twentieth Century British and American Literature. London: Longman, 1994, pp. 315-335.

Palmer’s essay explores the approach taken by women writers to writing the city in contemporary fiction.

Squier, S. M., 1984. Women Writers and The City: Essays in Feminist Literary Criticism. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press.

A unique critical analysis of the symbolic role of “the city” in a range of women writers. This collection includes essays on Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing and Adrienne Rich. Also has a very useful bibliography for further reading.

Wilson, E. 1991. The Sphinx in the City. London: Virago.

An examination of various cities with regard to urbanism and postmodernism. Offers an excellent focus on the role of women and the freedoms and perils that face them in the city.

Some good places to start. There is this book from 2006: Unfolding the City: Women Write the City in Latin America, Anne Lambright and Elisabeth Guerrero, editors.  More to read! This book on women’s poetry and translations and walking the city — Metropoetica from Seren Press. But really, without more thought on google strings and library searches, not much more is coming up. I know you’re out there, women. Writing great things, thinking great thoughts. So, a new theme to investigate and write about and hopefully I will find you sooner rather than later.

The London Adventure or The Art of Wandering

The London AdventureA delightful book of meanderings, almost too meandering because there are some really brilliant things in here that deserve some deeper thought but the style of it almost carries you right past them. I know, I know, that the style of the book maybe reflects the art of wandering itself, stumbling over the unexpected, taking up the digressions, exploring the byways. But still. I wanted more places, more stories of places, more London. Still, there are some real gems about the city, how we experience it, where its wonder lies, speaking both as urbanist and as author. And just thoughts on being human in this world of toil. This is clearly someone who has known toil.

In this pleasant and retiring spot I was sitting not long ago, enjoying gin and that great luxury and blessing of idleness, concerning which so much cant and false doctrine have been preached. (6)

On writing:

Always, or almost always, I have had the horror of beginning a new book. I have burnt my fingers to the bone again and again in the last forty years and I dread the fire of literature (12).

On life:

It is possible, just dimly possible, that the real pattern and scheme of life is not in the least apparent on the outward surface of things, which is the world of common sense and rationalism, and reasoned deductions; but rather lurks, half hidden, only apparent in certain rare lights, and then only to the prepared eye; a secret pattern, an ornament which seems to have but little relation or none at all to the obvious scheme of the universe’. (21)

One of my favourite phrases of all time is now ‘amiable Conandoylery’ (27). It certainly takes him a while to describe the purpose of this book he is being paid to write — and this sense of literature as something for hire, something you must sell to live and feed your children is never absent here, anchoring his wonderings and wanderings. His dread as he sits ensconced in a comfortable pub that Spring has arrived and the book must be begun opens every chapter, humorously to be sure, but not entirely. But it is still on a subject he loves — rambling the city:

[the book] originated in old rambles around London, rambles that began in 1890 when I lived in Soho Street and began to stroll about Soho and to see that here was something very curious and impressive; this transmutation of late seventeenth-century and early eighteenth-century social stolidity and even, in some cases, magnificence, into a wholly different order (30)

What he loves is not about tourist stops or antiquarian wonders but:

the general queerness; a piece, a tesserae, that fitted in very pleasantly with that hopeless 1860 terrace and that desolate 1900 shop, and the cabbages, and the raspberry plantations and, above all and before all, with the sense that I had never been that way before, that the scene to me was absolutely new and unknown as if the African Magician had suddenly set me down in the midst of Cathay, that I was as true an explorer as Columbus, as he who stood upon a peak in Darien. For if you think of it: the fact that the region which is to you so strange and unknown is familiar as daily bread and butter or—more likely—the lack of it to multitudes of your fellow men is of no significance on earth. (40)

There’s some interesting colonial stuff here, though I think it echoes in my own mind far different than in his for I cannot divorce colonial exploration from despair, conquest, slavery and death. I am hesitant to strip these away, but in Machen’s writing it seems to be simply the seed of wonder at what is new, and the acknowledgment that this lies alongside hunger and misery and want. Lightly done, but it is there.

My book, then, was to take all these things into account: the old, the shabby, the out of the way; and also the new and the red and the raw. But it was utterly to shun the familiar. For if you think of it, there is a London cognita and a London incognita(49)

He seeks the incognita, the overlooked. Finds the things that I too love:

I can look with a kind of pleasure on a very doorstep, on a doorstep approaching a shabby grey house of 1810 or thereabouts—if the stone be worn into a deep hollow by the feet of even a hundred years and a little over…The feet of the weary and hopeless, the glad and the exultant, the lustful and the pure have made that hollow; and most of those feet are now in the hollow of the grave: and that doorstep is to me sacramental, if not a sacrament, even though the neighbourhood round about Mount Pleasant is a very poor one. (48)

There is a section imagining the life of the reporter as a road, traveling through cities, opening up the countryside, ‘where there is no money but plenty of happiness’ (62). That old city/country divide. There is also, of course, a touch of the gothic here, a familiar strand running through so much literature of the city:

Strangeness which is the essence of beauty is the essence of truth, and the essence of the world. I have often felt that, when the ascent of a long hill brought me to the summit of an undiscovered height in London; and I looked down on a new land. (127)

I loved the idea that we must no longer seek wonder in castles and keeps, but in the everyday. Even then the sense of the madness of developers and real estate, the joy in the battered cottage amongst plate glass and brick shops, a hold out against profit. On this score there are some brilliant descriptions of Enfield being developed (35) to return to, perhaps after I’ve visited Enfield.

Why have I waited so long to read his fiction? It’s available, unlike this book, which was an amazing birthday present in the form of a first edition.

Save

Confessions of an English Opium Eater

I was disappointed I confess, though I don’t know why I had high expectations given I have always found people on drugs profoundly boring—although they seem to find themselves extremely interesting. De Quincy writes ‘I have, for the general benefit of the world, inoculated myself as it were, with the poison of 8000 drops of laudanum per day (just for the same reason as a French surgeon inoculated himself lately with cancer…)’. Right.

An opium eater is not the most interesting person in the world.

What struck me most was privilege, even in his poverty after running away as a teenager. After all, he heads to Eton, where he will always be at home, to get Lord so-and-so to co-sign a loan against his expected fortune from the Jews. I was sad but not surprised to find such a stereotypical view of jews as existing simply to lend money to wealthy but under-age men. A window of empathy into the lives of the poor and oppressed emerged, but he only opened the curtain a little, hardly even looked properly through it. There is disappointingly little here about London and walking its streets, which is what I expected to find given all I had read mentioning this book. He describes some of Soho, an empty house he lives in for a while, how he finds friendship with a young prostitute whom he believes saves his life then loses her…I was a bit at a loss to understand how this always occurs in psychogeographic lists of London literature.

Deborah Epstein Nord made me rethink this a little, writing that while the first part of the Confessions and London itself seems peripheral to the main obsessions:

‘It seems to me…that the London episode is crucial to the meaning of the Confessions and, more important, that it enacts in a hallucinatory way the essential nature of the London experience I have been describing [as theater]. The Confessions also articulate the centrality of female sexuality to the evocation of the city’s meaning and the construction of bohemian identity…The dreams or images of the London experience were to act as a thread connecting his early with his later days… (41)

I thought this observation interesting too:

De Quincey declines to tell or invent the story of what he sees, to give to urban experience or to his own narrative what one critic has called its own ‘discursive interpretation’. He does not “read” the city as we try to read his narrative (46)…For all these shapers and observers of the London scene regarded the social reality of the city as part of a natural order, a system of social relations that was fundamentally organic and not to be challenged or radically transformed (47)…the people of the street are signs to be read only for the edification of the spectator, or left unread as part of the unraveled urban mystery…(48).

But this reflects my own critique of the book, and the ‘mysteries’ of London, to me, do not seem so mysterious.

What I hadn’t expected to find was a crazy reflection of imperial angst and racism. He’s in the remote mountains in a cottage when a ‘Malay’ comes to the door and doesn’t speak English. He contrasts ‘the beautiful English face of the girl and its exquisite fairness, together with her erect and independent attitude … with the sallow and bilious skin of the Malay…his small, fierce, restless eyes, thin lips, slavish gestures and adorations’. They can’t communicate, but apparently all the man wants is somewhere to rest before he goes on his way. As a parting gift, de Quincey offers him a chunk of opium, which the man proceeds to eat entire–‘the quantity was enough to kill three dragoons and their horses, and I felt some alarm for the poor creature; but what could be done?’ Nothing apparently, he sends him out in the night, and is anxious for his life the next few nights but upon hearing no reports of the dead body turning up, his mind is relieved.

Except it’s not. After the years of happily enjoying his regular opium habit, it eventually spirals down into pain and terrible dreams/hallucinations. These are regularly frequented by what he calls ‘Oriental’ dreams (part of the reiterative process of being influenced by, and contributing to, Orientalism). He writes ‘The Malay has been a fearful enemy for months. I have been every night, through his means, transported into Asiatic scenes…The causes of my horror lie deep, and some of them must be common to others. Southern Asia in general is the seat of awful images and associations.’ Holy crap I thought, the inscrutable asian ‘other’ that he might well have murdered comes back to his dreams, takes him to the very places his opium comes from — though that isn’t thought through or even mentioned. I suppose this is before the Opium wars and Britain’s great Opium-dealing adventure overseas, it prefigures it in a way. And unlike the Heart of Darkness fear of ‘primitive’ man (though he brings up that up as well in relation to ‘barbarous’ Africa), it is instead fear and trembling before an older greater culture–‘the ancient, monumental, cruel and elaborate religions…The mere antiquity of Asiatic things, of their institutions, histories, modes of faith, &c., is so impressive, that to me the vast age of the race and name overpowers the sense of youth in the individual’.

There is so much to think about there, I hope to come back to it at some point, though surely this must have been written about. The only other interesting thing, funny really, was the statement on political economists of the day: ‘I saw that these were generally the very dregs and rinsings of the human intellect; and that any man of sound head…might take up the whole academy of modern economists, and throttle them between heaven and earth with his finger and thumb, or bray their fungus-heads to powder with a lady’s fan’. Which I love, though I am not sure exactly how that insult works…