Bad Blood at 18


In her introduction to Katherine Mansfield’s The Garden Party and Other Stories, Lorna Sage identifies an approach to short storytelling characterised by, ‘a different kind of continuity made up of allusions, cross-references and affiliations among the separate stories in the book.’ In lieu of writing a novel, Sage points out, Mansfield had found within another genre, a distinct way to connect characters, images and themes. Sage’s analysis here applies to her own memoir Bad Blood, for which she is best known, remarkable in part because of the way it uses similar techniques to tell the story of her childhood and teenage years living in the Shropshire village of Hanmer. Literature was how Sage survived that upbringing and it is how she made her living, as a critic and teacher, so it is not surprising that Bad Blood – charting the first, turbulent eighteen years of her life – would be written with a subtle and imaginative interplay of the literal and the figurative. The book met with widespread acclaim on publication, winning the Whitbread Award for Biography in 2000. Yet the repeated motifs, the fine balance and intricacy of allusions and echoes in it have been little remarked upon, no doubt given the already startling facts of Sage’s youth.

Sage reconstructs social life in postwar Britain with an exacting attention to emotional and physical texture. Hers is a story of growing up in a village of long traditions and fast-changing realities – the emergence of council houses, the mechanisation of agricultural methods, the tricky adaptations of soldiers to civvy street and the arrival of rock ‘n’ roll from the US are all touched on. The members of Sage’s family and their tempestuous relationships, secrets and disappointments make of a seemingly idyllic rural life a psychodrama of sometimes gothic power. Sage’s close connection to her clergyman grandfather – described by her grandmother as ‘Old Devil’ (from whom she is said to have inherited ‘bad blood’) is the source of a difficult relationship with her own mother. Later, the facts of the vicar’s affairs (one with a teenage friend of Sage’s mother) are made known to Sage, who nevertheless feels her kinship with her grandfather undiminished.

Perhaps most insistently underlined by reviewers, however, has been the story of Sage’s pregnancy at the age of 16 and her determination, in the light of local disapproval and Sage’s dependence on Latin and ancient literature for survival, to enter university – which she did, alongside the child’s father, Victor, and from which both would graduate with firsts (a first). Sage went on to become a respected literary critic and teacher at the University of East Anglia. Her death not long after the publication of Bad Blood meant that the press coverage of the book complemented, and sometimes doubled as, personal tributes from former students and colleagues.

Hers is an extraordinary story and the way in which Sage tells it is precisely by making ordinary occurrences into something else; making metaphors out of drab details and finding resonances among the episodes and personalities in her life. All of the elements are combined to give a sense that her account of a vicarage upbringing is a sort of sacrilegious retelling of a religious story – complete with its own ‘travesty of the immaculate conception’ and young lovers ‘crucified on each other’ in the act of that conception; a parable for women, for whom the ‘nervous 1950s’ would give way to the freedoms of the following decades, when so many rules and barriers broke.

In addition, the diary of Sage’s bookworm grandfather and her night-through readings of fairytales, classics and thrillers seem to provide a genetic code for her memoir. The language and the various types of literature that Sage discovered and devoured as a child are all used to help shape the narrative that she makes of her adolescence. There is throughout the book a longing to escape, to break through strictures, to mix genres. Sage blurs boundaries between the abstract and concrete; between generations and between individual characters. This better enables her to draw the reader’s attention to connections, intimacies and rhymes (as well as hypocrisies) among those people and events that might usually be kept at a respectable distance in the rationed, provincial propriety of 1940s Britain.

Against the hyper-literacy of Sage’s story is an unconventional numeracy, which begins at school with her inability to abstract mathematical concepts (‘sums were my cross’) from real ‘things’; continuing through the emotionally fraught triangles among her and her friends (as well as her grandparents and her grandfather’s lover, MB) and finally the merging of Lorna Stockton and Victor Sage in their shared intensity. She describes this passionate intimacy by which their daughter Sharon was conceived as, ‘this childish mathematics of two into one won’t go’ – and later of her bond with Victor, ‘We were each other’s other half, or even closer. We were one and the same, we’d abolished the differences of the conventional world assumed between the sexes, we had a union of true minds as much as bodies.’ There is also mathematical recourse in Sage’s mode of emphasis, which extends to her critical writing on numerous subjects: not just embarrassment but ‘embarrassment squared’; not simply sin but ‘sin squared’.

In order to push at the edges of logic and convention in this way, the ‘bad faith’ of the past (a term Sage learned from Simone de Beauvoir and which Marina Warner suggests might have been an inspiration for the title of Bad Blood) has to be reckoned with. Sage’s depiction of disrespectable vicarage life pulls apart the old order not only of religious authority but also authority between one generation and the next. Though Sage’s closeness to her vicar grandfather is underscored from the first lines of the book (a description of her hanging from his skirts around the church) any sense of old-fashioned fear of God is dissolved. There is an exemplary recollection early on, as Sage remarks on the vicar’s habit of drinking the church wine, leading the authorities to limit the supply and her grandfather replacing it with ‘watered-down Sanatogen from Boots the chemist in Whitchurch’. Already the biblical act of turning water into wine has been replaced by that of watering down cheap fortified wine; the miraculous made mundane.

Just as the unconventional arithmetic challenges everyday understanding, so too there is an unusual evolutionary chain that can be traced through Bad Blood. It’s also a feature that Sage sees in common among the twelve women writers whom she discusses in her collection of essays, Moments of Truth: ‘there is a recurrent evolutionary theme, starting with Darwinian echoes in Wharton and Woolf, surfacing again in Rhys, Stead and Barnes… through to Carter and the wolfish metamorphoses of The Bloody Chamber.’ To progress through her perceptive commentaries on these writers’ works is to simultaneously glimpse Sage describing key elements that characterise her own memoir, not least this recourse to troubled ancestry and freakish mutations as a way of dealing with personal and historical inheritances – and the attempt to free oneself from them.

At the prosaic level of everyday sustenance in 1950s Hanmer, the feeding of the 5,000 finds its modern, secular equivalent in Sage’s account of the fish finger – a revelation in home economics, especially for her mother who could not cook: ‘In fish fingers nature was grandly snubbed and outdone. Their very name mocked the unreasonable design evolution had come up with for fish; and their bland and boneless insides left her nothing to worry about.’ There is a ghastly depiction of nature throughout the book, attuned to the realities of farming and industry. But there is also another narrative of the ‘facts of life’ that complicates the Darwinian story.

Sage’s determination to survive her upbringing is encouraged by what she sees as a regressive tendency among the generations in her family. And even, on her grandmother’s part, a revulsion towards the sexual act as a means of procreation. Her mother’s mother, according to Sage, longs to return to her childhood, when her family ran Hereford Stores in Tonypandy and had skivvies to do the housework. In her discontented marriage, which involves endless rows and the manipulation of her cheating husband for money, the shopping trips and latest cinema screenings by which she spends her time represent, for Sage, ‘the prospect of never growing up’. Similarly her mother embraces fantasy and buys outfits beyond her means while playing the role of housemaid and helpless wife she seems both resentful towards, yet resigned to – to Sage’s horror: ‘it seemed that nobody inside our family wanted to be mother, everyone was a daughter in perpetuity.’ This goes some way to explaining why the gravity of Sage’s sudden pregnancy and its disruption of these comforting illusions, of living out fantasies through others, is conveyed in such shocking terms: ‘I made my mother pregnant’.

Sage even admits to the pull of the ancestral, the lure and threat of the Rhondda, representing as it does a ‘smothering, spongy womb’. But she makes what moves forward she can, as stuttering as they are at first, shuttled back and forth between Whitchurch High School and Hanmer, before Durham with Victor. Film and theatre are the magical escape routes for the adults around her, but they don’t get very far that way. Sage sees through the pretence, sees for instance how her father remains ‘a prisoner of war, although he was never captured’. There is a sense of confinement, and a desire to leave and transform (at the level of the language, too, in that way in which Sage repeatedly makes metaphors from the ground level at which she is apparently stuck). For her grandfather the local pantomime is a means of bearing the strain of his affair with the nurse, MB. For her grandmother the lives of actors are treated as being of equal importance to those of the family. But Sage reserves her strictest judgement for her mother:

‘My mother’s acting seemed to me like a monstrous display of bad faith, she was pretending to be outgoing and self-possessed when “really” she was helpless. Or, even worse, on the stage she was revealing the way she always pretended, for the helplessness she put on in real life was an act too…’

Sage recognises how ‘hemmed in’ everything is in Hanmer. And it is literature that provides the means of her own escape, first psychologically, then physically as well.  Along with the transmutations of traditional religious imagery, Sage also describes her early years as if they are a grey, grubby Welsh fairytale, seeing stock characters in those around her: ‘Also, they measured up to the magical monsters in the story books.’ But the white rabbits are here stricken with myxomatosis and the dwarf is a dentist, who helps Lorna to fix the teeth that do not suit the bad jaw she has inherited (another evolutionary misstep). She even compares her own pregnancy indirectly to Dennis Wheatley’s horror story To the Devil a Daughter (extending the ‘bad blood’ of the ‘Old Devil’).

Literature allows  Sage to transform the cloistered existence of the vicarage and council house in Hanmer into figurative language that raises her experiences, and those of her family, into sublime expressions. Warner writes, ‘Lorna Sage has discerned a pattern in the way women writers of the last century made their exits from bargains involving bad faith – both on their part and on the part of others.’ The philosophical instincts of Sage’s early years in the classroom also appear to be key: ‘I developed a dauntingly Platonic conception of arithmetical truths. The real answer must exist, but in some far-removed misty empyrean.’

But it happens that the answer to Sage’s youthful desires is not so far removed. With Victor, Sage describes, ‘The boundaries between us had been breached… You could track back this kind of alchemy in books’ – and she finds it, for the reader, in Plato’s Symposium. And it is not in some misty empyrean but the University of Durham where the pair find new prospects. As against her mother’s ‘secret, shifting system of taboos’, her father’s ‘mythic realism’, grandfather’s ‘cocoon of distraction’, grandmother’s ‘fantasy gratifications’ and the ‘mind-forged manacles of Hanmer and Whitchurch’ they make a new ‘mutant myth out of poems and stories and sheer necessity’.


To Read the Commedia Undaunted


Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity by Prue Shaw (Liveright)

There is a vast amount of history contained in Dante’s Commedia. I refer not only to those events and lives that came before the poem’s composition and helped to shape it but also to its status as a wellspring of ideas and lines that found their way into some of the most accomplished writing that flowed afterwards – much of which readers today are likely to be more familiar with than they are with Dante’s poetry. That this history can be conveyed in such a relatively short volume as Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity, with clarity and close attention paid to significant contextual details and the nuances of literary technique, appealing both to a non-specialist reader and those familiar with the Commedia, is astonishing.

One prompt for writing Reading Dante, according to author Prue Shaw, was a conversation with two well-read friends:

‘Two writers I know, liberal humanists both, on being asked if they had read Dante, answered almost in unison: why would I bother? In this book I try to show why they should bother.’

A scholar of Dante’s work for decades, currently Emeritus Reader of Italian studies at University College London, the editor of an authoritative edition of the Monarchia and of an online Commedia manuscript resource, Shaw has achieved with this book a wonderful balance of critical depth and intelligibility. Intent on encouraging readers with scant knowledge of the poem, rather than merely adding another exegetical thesis on a detail of Dante’s work to a towering pile of scholarship, Shaw’s book will no doubt impress her fellow academics for its integration of the historical literature around the Commedia and the scrutiny towards the precise metre and varied vernacular elements of the poem.

Some reviewers have drawn a comparison between Virgil’s role in the Commedia as Dante’s guide and Shaw’s role as the author of Reading Dante, leading us through episodes of Florence’s complex political history, of that little of Dante’s life that is known from the few relevant documents that survive, and through the specific structure and thematic content of the poem, its allusions and those echoes found in later works of literature. But there is a deeper sense in which Shaw’s book reflects her subject, in the simple chapter headings: familiar abstract concepts that admit of myriad particular experiences, such as Friendship, Love and Power, reminiscent of the ordering of Dante’s universe according to moral types. The schematic of Dante’s afterlife, Shaw admits, ‘projects a view of the moral universe – of good and bad actions, of virtue and sin – that can be described (and not unfairly) as hierarchical and judgmental: two adjectives not best designed to arouse interest or sympathy’. Sins, punishments and angels grouped neatly and hinting at a religious stricture might be one of the reasons that more readers are not drawn to the Commedia. But as Shaw makes clear, this organisational clarity belies the complexity of the work:

‘The poem may embody moral certainties in its design, but the telling of the tale confronts us with the ambiguities, the reticences, and the self-deceptions of real human behaviour in a real human world.’

Shaw’s thematic structure allows her to range freely through the poem and the history around the poem, to highlight recurring images, draw connections between details that are spaced far apart, all to give a better sense of the intricacy of Dante’s art, which itself takes real events and figures into a timeline and architectural structure of its own:

‘The interweaving of past, present and future becomes a part of the poem’s fabric and fashioning, handled with great virtuosity as Dante moves between these different planes, orchestrating his various themes.’

Published in three cantiche, or parts – Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso – the Commedia was written between 1307-1308 and 1320 in political exile, but it is set in 1300. It features Dante himself as the central figure, a pilgrim led by the classical poet Virgil into Hell, up Mount Purgatory and finally towards Paradise and an encounter with the love of his life, Beatrice and finally his creator. Along the way Dante encounters many people familiar to him from his past – some of whom were still living in 1300 – and from literary history. Their discussions explore the spectrum of human relations, desires and errors. In Hell and Purgatory, specific instances of wrongdoing in the world are echoed in the punishments that Dante observes.

Each chapter, indeed every page of Shaw’s book brings our attention to another aspect of this apparently inexhaustible poem, considers the major aspects of Dante’s religious and political worldview, the depth of his infatuation with Beatrice and also the smaller, but no less insightful, details:

‘[E]ach section of the poem ends with the word stelle (“stars”). Each occurrence of the word marks the completion of a stage in the protagonist’s journey.’

There are helpful repetitions throughout, Shaw returning to certain points to remind and clarify. Again, this mark of a fine teacher bringing the learner along also seems to reflect the expertly woven fabric of Dante’s poem, with its terza rima scheme balancing forward motion and reference back:

‘The first and third lines of the tercet rhyme, but the middle line introduces a new rhyme, which will then become the paired rhyme of the following tercet.’

Shaw considers the politics of Italy in the Middle Ages, of the conflict between the anti-imperial Guelfs and anti-papal Ghibellines in thirteenth-century Italy – and the later split between Black Guelfs and White Guelfs, and the corruption of Pope Boniface VIII – on Dante’s life and writing. With equal brilliance, Shaw unpacks the history of two types of allegory in European and Biblical literature and the way in which allegory is manifested in particular in the Commedia. Shaw’s text is also complemented by several of Botticelli’s drawings, among other selected illustrations, offering perceptive comments on the art relating to her subject as well.


In the chapter on Numbers, Shaw shows a self-awareness as enthusiastic scholar, in her discussion of trinitarian conceptions in the Commedia and wider literature. A convincing case is made for the centrality of the idea of ‘three-in-one’ – from the cantiche focusing on the three realms of the afterlife, to the form of the terza rima. But Shaw admits that it is easy to get carried away with such patterns, finding instances in ever more places, within or beyond the margins of the poem:

‘While it is wise to be wary of the literal-mindedness that detects a trinitarian allusion in every instance of the number three in the Commedia, it remains true that the resonance of the number enriches the poem by connecting it meaningfully with the view of the world it celebrates.’

Still, Shaw’s reference to codons, part of the human genetic code, adds to the sense that Dante’s vision of a cosmic order finds a mirror not only in human psychology but also at the deepest level of modern scientific research:

‘Dante would surely have felt awe and delight had he lived to hear what molecular biologists discovered as recently as 1959 – that a principle of three-in-one is the very basis of life itself at the molecular level. The unit of meaning in the genetic code is a triplet – a sequence of three base pairs which specifies a particular amino acid.’

The pair who had the biggest influence on the Commedia are Virgil and Beatrice, ‘the one a literary passion, the other an enigmatic, elusive real-life relationship.’ Shaw also considers how Dante’s friendships with two contemporaries, Guido Cavalcanti and Guido Guinizzelli also fed into the Commedia’s conception of love, and how he pondered two metaphorical approaches to life, represented as a ‘journey’, as expressed by Ovid in the story of Ulysses and Virgil, in that of Aeneas.

In the final chapter, on Words, perhaps the most illuminating of all the chapters – again, just as the Commedia ends in the heavens – the richness of Dante’s language is confirmed, especially in the skill with which he drew on a range of Italian dialects, including the Tuscan songs of troubadour Arnaut Daniel, as well as Biblical and Latin references, all transformed within the confines of a strict poetic metre to express fundamental aspects of humanity. Shaw’s analysis of an early line when the pilgrim calls for help using the word Miserere is masterful:

‘Only by keeping it in Latin can he preserve the double allusiveness, to the Bible and to the Aeneid. But it is fitted here into a vernacular context: Miserere di me, where di me is Italian and where the hybrid phrase forms a perfect first half of a 6, 10 hendecasyllable. The Latin form Miserere mei would not have worked here metrically.’

Shaw explains, as well as anyone might, why Dante is considered to have invented the Italian language as it is today. The ways in which his words have echoed down the ages is also addressed by Shaw, by reference to the work of the Romantic poets, Tennyson, TS Eliot and Ezra Pound, Primo Levi and more recently Seamus Heaney. Far from being unappreciated in his time, though, Shaw draws attention to examples of verses from the Commedia written on legal documents in the fourteenth-century:

‘Lawyers at the time took pains to avoid leaving any blank space in legal documents, in order to prevent the amending of the documents by the addition of codicils. Fragments of poetic text, probably cited from memory, were often used as a space filler. In 1317 and again in 1319, while Dante was still alive and well before he had finished writing the Paradiso, we find lines from the Inferno quoted for this purpose in Bolognese documents. We can safely conclude that the Inferno had been released to the public before the poem was complete, and that it was widely popular.’

I finished Reading Dante with a sense that there is perhaps no more finely crafted work of literature in existence, one which is both drawn from a very specific historical context whilst exploring universal questions and emotions; one in which use of language and musicality are interwoven so precisely with thematic content, and which has found its way into the everyday language of modern Europe and underpinned some of the finest poetry written since. Shaw has won me over, for certain. Her book will leave any reader prepared to go forward, or back, to Dante’s masterpiece.

The Future Tense


It was only after I had finished reading Christine Brooke-Rose’s short experimental novel Amalgamemnon that I noted its original year of publication: 1984, shorthand for dystopia. While George Orwell’s 1949 book of that name is often referred to nowadays to describe not some imagined future but aspects of the present, proof of that writer’s ‘prescience’, I wondered to what extent writers creating fiction in 1984 reflected on Orwell’s vision, and whether they sought to confirm or challenge it.

Despite the inclusion of Orwellian phrases in everyday English, I’m reluctant to grant Orwell the all-encompassing foresight that he is sometimes credited with, especially since Nineteen Eighty-Four was concerned with criticisms of the ideologies of his own time, transposed to a fictionalised future. Nevertheless I found myself reacting to Amalgamemnon with a shock of recognition. Its fictional world seems to catch something of the texture of the contemporary era – and it is entirely distinct from Orwell’s totalitarian nightmare. The game of Which Author Can Best Foresee The Future falters.

Amalgamemnon’s predictive quality is the necessary result of a stylistic constraint on the part of the author, a constraint grounded in what Brooke-Rose saw as a specific  characteristic of public and private communication in 1984.

As the author explained in an interview with Ellen G Friedman and Miriam Fuchs,

“in Amalgamemnon I decided to use only non-realizing tenses and moods like the future, the conditional, the imperative.” [1]

Brooke-Rose continues:

“The future is theoretically impossible over a whole narrative; it occurs only in a mini-narrative such as a prophecy or a marching order. Even SF is written in the past and post-dated, so is the Apocalypse. This is because the reader needs to know that the story he is reading has happened or is happening. So that was a challenge, a purely technical one. But the more I explored narrative in the future tense the more I realized that we’re all living in the future. I don’t mean an actual event that hasn’t happened yet, but there’s a tremendous amount of speculation like, ‘Tomorrow the Prime Minister will meet the President of . . . and they will probably discuss . . .’ By the time they’ve met and discussed it, it’s gone, and they’re speculating about something else, when will the summit be, and so on. We’re always living in this kind of future so that when a thing happens, it’s always a big letdown, not to mention THE future of the death of the planet, which is hovering over all of us. This is something new that I wanted to explore, the sort of predictability of discourse in private situations.”

Amalgamemnon, then, has much to say about how language is used, how it changes and what it is possible to do with it. The ‘predictability’ Brooke-Rose identifies might even go some way to explaining the endless comparisons of the tense present to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. But Brooke-Rose does not simply use the present as a basis from which to project forward, away from the past. A deeper sense of historical disorientation is created by drawing on Greek myths in Amalgamemnon, as indicated by the novel’s title.

Brooke-Rose’s tense future is conveyed in writing that is by turns puzzling, playful and caustic. Deeply allusive, surreal and given to puns, its 144 pages are amalgams of parable, bureaucratese, media rhetoric, conspiracy and (un)romantic drama, all interleaved across multiple narratives that leave open to the reader how many characters are but aspects or alter egos of the novel’s protagonist, Mira Enketei. Mira is a classical scholar and college professor who foretells the time when there will be no call, no social utility, for her specialist knowledge.

‘I shall soon be quite redundant at last despite of all, as redundant as you after queue and as totally predictable, information-content zero.’

This, Brooke-Rose’s opening line, immediately gives the reader a sense of the multivalent effects of a single sentence. Ordinarily one might read ‘despite’ or ‘in spite of’. ‘Despite of’ seems, well, redundant. An internet language forum cites several examples from Shakespeare. One in particular resonates with Brooke-Rose’s anticipation of an authority out of the job:

‘Deposed he shall be, in despite of all.’ (William Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part III)

Then there’s Brooke-Rose’s first pun, ‘you after queue’. Not only does the author confirm her attention to the linguistic features that have developed within the English language, with which she can experiment even as she questions their use function; she is also giving us the sense of Mira’s character, a teacher steeped in Greek and Latin. The same words also point towards a narrative episode that will soon be described, involving Mira in the queue at the Job Centre, where she is to first encounter the figure known variously throughout the novel as Wally and Amalgamemnon. The fact that the identity of ‘you’ cannot be limited to Mira, the reader or the soon-to-appear Wally also establishes the  possibilities for figural gameplay that Brooke-Rose revels in.

As Mira predicts her coming redundancy, ‘information-content zero’, Brooke-Rose compresses such allusion, wordplay, narrative foreshadowing and characterisation into one opening line as if in resistance to that fate. There is much that is waiting for the reader in this line.

The book proceeds by following Mira’s anticipation of a fraudulent relationship, of feigned love for an overweight administrator of the new technological age – a relationship not only lacking sexual passion but also intellectual communion. As Mira carries this line of thought, Cassandra like, to its almost misandrist endpoint, Brooke-Rose develops, until Amalgamemnon’s last pages, a scathing commentary on the failure of relations between men and women in a society that still will not grant women the joys of their own intelligence and self-sufficiency. One of Brooke-Rose’s memorable phrases comes as she describes the consolation that Mira finds in her solitude and reverie, and the ‘utterly other discourse’ that is to be found there – a discourse unconstrained by the mores and hang-ups of wider society.

Interpolated between these extrapolations of Mira’s coming loveless life on a smallholding are imagined chat show discussions about Third World poverty, radio call-ins, a rock singer contriving his latest hit in the studio, scenes from the political frontline as beamed in via television, with accompanying rumours denied, spokesmen obfuscating. There is a also a lengthy tale of the efforts of gallants attempting to liberate a princess from the clutches of a dragon, a kidnap plot involving Mira and a band of subversives led by a German called Gisela, and the love story of an English officer and a Somali woman in wartime. The reader is left to fathom the echoes, linkages, mirrorings and transformations that hold these images, characters, voices and myths together, if there is any holding on to them at all in the electronic age to come:

‘When the magic cycle of genuine shit will have been replaced by the chemicycle of pure electronic thought ever expanding, more and more unbiodegradable, the heart of the earth will stop, shrivel to a curled up foetus to be ejected lifeless and wither to a moon without even the attracting planet to encircle except the distant sungod dead because unseen unfelt by anyone.’

I do not claim to be familiar with all of the classical allusions that run through Amalgamemnon, from the title onwards. There is evidently far more going on here than even two readings would yield up to an attentive reader, even one steeped in Greek myth, linguistics and post-structuralism. Still, the dizzying, breathless passages often have a phantasmagorical power that captivates and baffles, and the most trenchant lines are not in the slightest undermined by playful puns: ‘fidgetal’, ‘direlogue’ and ‘daytaunt’ among them, that again one cannot help associating with habits of social media and failures of political diplomacy today.

Shortly after I had finished reading Amalgamemnon I turned to the writings of visual artist and writer Hito Steyerl, who maps the uneven contours of the current digital era with marvellous perception and whose style blends technical insight and wit, with an awareness of the myriad forces behind the disruption of artistic, political and technological paradigms. Reading Amalgamemnon alongside Steyerl’s recent essay collection Duty Free Art reveals curious overlaps,

‘Spam’s takeover transforms a pseudo-scientific account of history (and its “progress”) into a performative chaos in which actors, consumers, spam and service workers become indistinguishable. The linear and teleological progression of history, complete with its narration by academic administrators, is discontinued. The unity created by the frontal address of class is gone. The mood shifts from education to celebration.’ (Hito Steyerl, Duty Free Art)

Steyerl’s predictions being similarly dispiriting:

‘But you too might get trapped in your own singular hell of a future repeating invented pasts, with one part of the population hell-bent on getting rid of another. People will peer in from afar, conclude they can’t understand what’s going on, and keep watching cat videos.’

Does Steyerl here indicate a clairvoyance on the part of Brooke-Rose? Has the contemporary world of communications, media, economy and politics modulated in ways that now make the inscrutable, the anachronistic and the disruptive – qualities of much experimental writing – a more faithful ‘mirror’ of daily experience than Orwell’s Oceania? In Amalgamemnon a teacher is harangued by a student. Terrorists conspire. Men patronise women. Europe is in trouble. The media spew rumours that spokespersons deny. This all sounds familiar. But then a cold reading can always give us what we want, confirm what we always suspected would be the case.

Brooke-Rose will need a more astute reader, one willing to read back and forth, to pay witness to all the sonic, graphic and allusive aspects of Amalgamemnon, which is foremost a work of literary experiment. Whether there will soon be any enthusiastic, capable readers left qualified for that undertaking, whether there will be any place left for them, is another matter. As Brooke-Rose has it,

‘[W]e shall all become oracular computers, Draculas sucking endless information from the napetrough of a wavelength…’

The future still sucks. But literature need not face redundancy just yet.



[1] A Conversation with Christine Brooke-Rose By Ellen G. Friedman and Miriam Fuchs, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Fall 1989, Vol. 9.3. Published online at



Down in the Flood – Housekeeping (1987)

For Notebook at MUBI, I wrote about Bill Forsyth’s adaptation of Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping. The full article text is reproduced below.


On first viewing Bill Forsyth’s film Housekeeping (1987) I was somewhat unimpressed by its low-key television-movie feel; a small town family drama lacking cinematic spectacle, featuring relatively unknown actors. It seemed thrifty, in keeping with the unfussiness of the story’s central character, Sylvie. By contrast, Marilynne Robinson’s novel, on which the film is based, describes moments of fantastical prophecy, strengthened by the author’s knowledge of Scripture, in images of dead souls recovered from a deep lake resonant of the Bible’s account of the Flood and Apocalypse. Forsyth’s better-known Local Hero (1983), a comedy set in a remote Scottish village, gives viewers a meteor shower, the Northern Lights and Burt Lancaster descending from the sky, so the director’s use of Robinson’s text could certainly have reached for very different effects.

Though the film retains the perspective of the book’s youthful narrator, Ruth, inclined to the imaginings of childhood, Forsyth makes no attempt to visualise these poetic evocations, and divests the township of Fingerbone of any overt religious associations, preferring to let the natural landscape present a majesty of its own, and working on the delicate personal bonds between the three protagonists. On closer inspection, though, Housekeeping belies an eloquent audiovisual arrangement, submerging profound aspects of the original material in an unpretentious style, leaving them to rise to the surface of their own accord.

Sylvie, a young itinerant woman, returns to her hometown of Fingerbone to become the primary carer of her two nieces, Ruth (Sara Walker) and Lucille (Andrea Burchill), following the suicide of their mother. Like Robinson’s novel, and contrary to the melodramatics of the average ‘real life issues’ soap opera, Forsyth’s film makes no explicit reference to the mental health of Sylvie. But the history of spectacular death in the family, the symbolism of the lake which claimed the bodies of both Sylvie’s father and her sister—the former in the train accident that has become the town’s most famous episode—and the increasingly manifest unconventionality of Sylvie’s behaviour (with actress Christine Lahti skillfully revealing layer beneath layer of her character, from untroubled eccentricity to painful self-awareness and misgivings about her relationships) suggest a shadowy realm populated by ghosts of the past that threatens to encompass the young girls. Lucille senses it, expressing her discomfort primarily in relation to the embarrassment it brings to her as a typical high schooler, and the townsfolk sense it.


Water and flooding are here more simply but subtly associated with the irruption of different currents—of emotion; of memories of events, images and sounds—that risk pulling the characters into their undertow. While Ruth remarks that the family have always been comforted by the fact that their home was built on a hill and so less liable to floodwaters, they are nevertheless inextricably tied to the lake and continually drawn to it. Ruth and Sylvie spend days playing truant, idling down by the water, near the railroad bridge off which their grandfather’s train slipped “like a weasel sliding off a rock.”

Sylvie is eager to show Ruth a valley unknown to many among the mountainous surroundings, and accessible only by boat, which sees the pair staying out all night on the lake in a leaking vessel. This striking image is an intensification of a more humorous early scene when the family home is first flooded by several inches of water. Ruth’s relative acceptance of these commonly disruptive circumstances and her growing fascination with her aunt—whom we come to see, with both empathy and concern, as a reflection of her and her own mother—is transformed into the image of the two women on the perilous waters, under the railway tracks in the dead of night.

It is in this scene, too, that the evocative use of sound is made more apparent, and creates an ambiguity that is not suggested in Robinson’s novel. When Sylvie pulls herself up, hugging the rickety skeleton of the railway bridge, we loudly hear the cross-country locomotive shuttling through Fingerbone. But we don’t see it. The sound of clanking metal on the bridge and the lapping currents against the boat are, again, a kind of amplification of the earlier scene, where the gentle bumping of metal tins and other household items bobbing in the flood water is heard as Lucille tries to sweep them into a closet to no avail.

The passing train is also suggested by the use of intermittent light, to simulate the illuminated carriage windows at night, but perhaps owing to nothing more than budget limitations and/or logistics, this key symbol of the town’s identity and the family’s history is at this moment invisible. It is now that we might question whether Ruth and Sylvie have seen a train at all, or rather if we are aware finally of a folie á deux—or less dramatically, a shared poetic sense—that has been deepening throughout the film. And then one recalls that in the novel, too, Ruth tells us that nobody in Fingerbone actually saw the famous crash.


Robinson’s prose, too, emphasises the auditory, with descriptions of the sloshes of water, and the distant sound of the ice on the lake breaking in thunderous cracks. The latter phenomenon is again presented in the film only as something beyond the screen, beyond the window of the girls’ bedroom. Lucille worries that the sound is like that of a train crashing off the bridge. Ruth assures her that it is only the ice. By now, Ruth is growing comfortable with her unusual lifestyle, living with her aunt, in a house of compulsively stacked newspapers and food cans, growing used to Sylvie’s odd habits.

The sound of ice breaking is, then, both comforting and unsettling. Getting to know their wayward aunt, uncovering some of the mysteries of their past, learning more about themselves and the women they are starting to become places new stresses on the girls’ precarious young lives. The way in which the past haunts the present and the consequent difficulties of intimacy between people are ideas that Robinson would return to in her following three novels, GileadHome and Lila, all set in the town of Gilead. In these stories, everyday gestures, words and apparently unremarkable objects are again invested with a miraculous quality. In doing this, Robinson avoids the prophetic visions of her first novel, and brings the books closer in feel to Forsyth’s subtle, moving adaptation—suggesting that Forsyth had indeed grasped from the start the underlying poetic qualities that make Robinson’s prose so affecting.

On Running Wild

running wild

Running Wild by JG Ballard

Published by Fourth Estate

It says a lot about the sociological and pathological commonplaces that have emerged in my lifetime that I should not be able to suspend disbelief while reading JG Ballard’s novella Running Wild. It is not that the mass killing incident that is at the centre of the book is just too unbelievable and therefore a hindrance to immersing oneself in the story; it is only too predictable – such that, to read this story, first published in 1988, is rather to be unable to comprehend the unwillingness of the experts working on the case to attribute the crime to a group of privileged youngsters.

In the 1980s, comparable attacks would not have been as familiar to readers, with perhaps only the apparently motiveless Hungerford killings haunting recent British memory (these are referred to in Running Wild). This only reinforces the widely held view of the novelist as an eerily reliable forecaster of the heavy weather to come.

Investigating the near simultaneous murder of thirty-two adult residents of a gated community and the subsequent disappearance of their children, psychiatrist Richard Greville raises the possibility of the teenagers as perpetrators only as a brief footnote amid a litany of possible causes being bandied about by the police and media. Early readers of the book who might well have been surprised and shocked by the conclusion that Greville eventually draws, might have thought Ballard to be working in a grimly hysterical, speculative mode. For those of us who have spent adolescence and adulthood with the names ‘Columbine’ and ‘Isla Vista’ signalling a depressing shift towards deadly assaults on large numbers of people; the era of 9/11, Raoul Moat, Jihadi John, school killers, suicide bombers, countless ‘lone wolves’ – the children are all too readily pointed to.

This was my own experience reading Running Wild in 2016. To beat the characters to the punch in identifying the culprits so quickly – on page three no less – may spoil the book as far as it is intended to function as a mystery thriller. But one does not approach Ballard like one might a book by Agatha Christie. Being short on length, there would be little chance for Ballard to take us through multiple twists and turns until throwing us a curveball and closing the case. What Running Wild allows contemporary readers the opportunity to reflect more deeply on is the conditions and mentality that might contribute towards such devastating incidents.

These questions are as urgent as ever, and despite the repeated recourse to the phrase ‘unimaginable’ among TV panellists and onlookers, and the desperate incomprehension of journalists unable to find any clear – or readily admissible – causal link, recent works of philosophy and memoir have treated such horrific attacks with more insight. Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi in his book Heroes has attempted to diagnose the rise in mass shootings, bombings and suicides in the loneliness, narcissism and humiliation that have arisen in the technologically driven, ruthlessly capitalistic, internet age in western societies. More pertinent to Ballard’s focus in Running Wild, Sue Klebold, the mother of Columbine high school student Dylan Klebold has recently published an account of the infamous school shooting that saw her son and his friend Eric Harris mercilessly kill numerous classmates and staff – from the point of view of the parent who feels that they have provided a supportive, ‘normal’ middle class upbringing.

The question that torments family, community and society alike, the question that fuels newspaper editorials, pundits’ prattling, social media messages and organises the clinical business of criminal investigations is: why? In the aftermath of such events, it is understandable that the instincts of many will be to imagine a world in which such shocking and murderous acts might be erased. But while answers might not be easy to come by, or welcome, it will not do to ‘unimagine’ that which has happened, can happen, will happen again. With Running Wild, Ballard was willing to run his imagination along the harder edges of human existence and use them to sharpen his artistic vision and his social commentary in the process.

Blind Vision – The Dying Grass


The Dying Grass by William T Vollmann

Published by Viking

Towards the end of The Dying Grass, William T Vollmann’s novel about the 1877 Nez Perce War, US Army General Oliver Otis Howard calculates the distance that his troops have covered in five months: at over thirteen hundred miles, this amounts to almost one mile per page of Vollmann’s book. The physical size of the novel embodies in its bound form the vastness of the American landscape described within and the historical weight of the events that unfolded in that relatively brief period in which the action takes place.

The Dying Grass is a near-real-time account of the Nez Perce War. The troubles of the US Civil War are still shaping the political and economic mood of the continent and clouding the thoughts of those who fought. The story also captures the country at a moment when its industrial infrastructure is developing and new communications links are being established – with reports of labour strikes reaching the under-equipped officers on Indian Service.

The reader is given an immersive experience into the conflicting philosophies of America in the late nineteenth century. Vollmann’s alter ego narrator, ‘William the Blind’, is too humble: he sees so much of interest. The author’s experience as a journalist, including as a war correspondent, and his extended reflections upon the motivations behind violent actions – see, for instance, Rising Up and Rising Down – underpin William the Blind’s meticulous report on the unfolding war from both sides, and the shifting commitments and justifications of his characters. The parallels with the present, which each reader will draw out for themselves, and the intensity of the violence that is so cruelly mocking of the assurances of moral virtue that are heard throughout the action, add up to a sombre reflection on the nature of human conflict. The book reminds us, among other things, of the ways in which those differences between individuals and groups we typically wish to celebrate and preserve can also divide and oppose so mercilessly.

For those who are sympathetic to Vollmann’s authorial ambition in writing at such length, the empathetic engagement with the characters might well be deepened, rather than diminished, where the demand on the reader’s time begins to approximate the length of Army duty required by Howard’s troops in their dogged, disastrous pursuit of Chief Joseph and his tribe, following the failed attempt in Idaho territory to move the Nez Perce onto a reservation. What a novel as long as The Dying Grass benefits from, given Vollmann’s evident curiosity about people, place and time, is the opportunity to create an exquisite depth of period and geographical detail; and an extended attention to the doubts, memories and hopes of such a broad range of characters – from ostensibly racist and religious soldiers and volunteers, to cross-dressing Indians and spiritual warrior Dreamers.

Much of the dialogue in The Dying Grass is unattributed and presented with the dramaturgical simplicity of traded lines. It is a measure of the author’s skill in delving into the preoccupations of each character, and of the reader’s developing ability to recognise those characters as the narrative expands, that this stylistic approach does not result in bewilderment. It is even more praiseworthy, given the large number of characters referred to frequently by Vollmann and the doubling of names for some – by the end, the reader should remember that ‘Moss Beard’, who hasn’t been referred to for some time, is Agent Monteith, who looms large early in the story. The absence of attribution in the conventional sense also allows the complexities of shared group identity, and the individual anxieties and desires of those within the group – whether US soldier or Indian – to manifest themselves on the page and in the reader’s mind.

As against the attention to detail and the expanse of the novel, the conversations between Howard and other Army figures in particular are characterised by a curious compression of space and time; in particular Vollmann’s decision to dispense with any action between the summoning of a lieutenant and his appearance. An attempt at urgency perhaps, and especially effective in skirmish scenes where speed, confusion and shock are intended, this nevertheless creates an odd contrast with the otherwise elaborate, slow progress of the book – and the war it traces.

Beyond this method of staging scenes of dialogue, Vollmann does so much with prose style, euphonic and graphic representation in The Dying Grass. How often does one find font choices, the spatial arrangement of text, strikethroughs, the inclusion of images and sketches, contributing to the identity and effects of a novel? Then there are the refrains of the troops and the musical repetition of phrases in each camp, whose import is modulated throughout. The cinematic qualities of the battles and the cross-cutting between Howard and Joseph’s groups allow the reader to experience the same incidents distinctly. There’s the journalist’s evocation of the terrain of Oregon, Idaho and Montana. The insertion of memos and letters. The description of archival photographs, which have evidently sown much of Vollmann’s imagination for The Dying Grass. The novel is a polyphonic, multitextured account that imprints the drama on the reader through the eyes and ears.

The musical effects of merging lines and refrains, incantations and chants, works on the reader, holding the whole together. Graphic design aids memory and one’s ability to locate particular passages – the reader is likely to flip back and forth through the pages, just as the action related moves back and forth through time. Without noting down striking moments and phrases throughout, however, it will be almost impossible to recover what has stood out to the reader by the time the left hand begins to gather the majority of the book’s pages. This leaves the novel to fade like dawn fog over the bluffs, lost but for a trace of what was once beautiful. This seems to sum up The Dying Grass itself.

Indentation indicates distinctions between voluble speech and interior thought. The multiple layers of writing also expand the temporal complexities of the novel; from the environment in which characters find themselves at the present moment, to remembrances of things past. At a time when industrialists and bureaucrats were beginning to impose a new sense of time – railroad time – on a land which had long been experienced without such schematism, the use of expansion and compression, fast and slow, present and past is another huge undertaking for the novelist, to convey individual senses of time. The strict chronology of the war, though, allows Vollmann to beat a clear trail through the history he relates.

Indentation is also used to represent physical movement by characters, building on the dramaturgical qualities of the work beyond the use of scriptlike passages, in order to simultaneously treat the page as a stage itself, as Vollmann has confirmed.

The main structuring principle of the book is the comparison of Howard and his men, with the Nez Perce tribe initially led by Chief Joseph. Vollmann moves between key characters on both sides of the war, revealing shifting loyalties, motivations and growing frustrations on each. Moral scruples are countered by fervent hatred in both camps. Lusts are contained and let off the leash. Christian hymns and bugle calls are echoed in Nez Perce chants and the scalp halloo. Impulses hinder resolution, as reckless shots let off on the Army’s side, and vicious raids on citizens by some Indians, make compromise a hopeless prospect.

There is so much that Vollmann has to teach us from his extensive research – documented in copious notes at the back of the novel – about the emergence of US capitalism, the shadows of the Civil War and the devastating extent to which a race, with its abundance of language, myth and knowledge, was all but extinguished in America. Though the author is careful to note where he departs from the known facts, the blend of rigorous historical investigation and dramatisation is undoubtedly memorable and realised with tremendous skill.

We become aware of the similarities and differences between the former slaves and the treaty Indians in the late nineteenth century; of the shortcomings of the army and Government; the growing discontent among the labour force as the railroads and coalmines spring up in the north; of the grievances between various Indian tribes, the changing alliances between them and with ‘Bluecoats’. And everywhere, always, there is violence.

Vollmann’s extensive use of nomenclature; his naturalist’s confidence with identifying fruits, plants and aspects of the land; his painter’s perception of changes in the natural light; his forensic and psychological detail of men, women, children and animals caught up in this bloody conflict, all give The Dying Grass its sensory power and verisimilitude. Elkteeth, carbines, saddle bankets, camas bulbs, swales, slouch hats, buffalo robes, canyons, chokecherries, serviceberries, rubber matresses, lodgepoles, dentalia, feathers, epaulets, thunderheads, boot nails, rush skeletonweed and snowberries are just some of the many elements that make up this distinct environment.

While there is a strong musicality to Vollmann’s prose, rarely does the figurative language astonish. Similes are built out of the features of the surrounding environment, for example comparing blown brains to squished berries during the battle at Big Hole. But too often the comparisons are too contrived to be affecting. The mirrorings and comparisons that Vollmann employs elsewhere, however, are effective. The archival interest of the photos described by William the Blind at the start is underscored by the sense that the material is only available as a result of a process of interruption of a way of life. This makes the images included in the last section of the book all the more difficult to countenance: cheap, touristic references to Indian tribes found on business signs across states today. There are few consequences of Chief Joseph’s surrender as poignant as that of Joseph selling photos of himself for a nickel, while other Nez Perce give up their hopes entirely, to all the getting-drunk liquid they can find.

The Dying Grass builds up a tragic sense of inevitability; the hopelessness of preserving a tradition, a set of myths and ethics, in a fast changing and money-driven society. Against this backdrop the writer engages our sympathy and at other moments our antipathy towards many of the characters within the story. Some reviewers have characterised Vollmann’s depiction of the Nez Perce as romantic, but this is inaccurate. Vollmann is unflinching in his attention to human character, revealing what there is to admire and repel in any one of us, whether ambitious aides-de-camp or desperate Indian tribespeople; man or woman. Vollmann’s books do the hard work of exploring the individual and his or her society, the exigencies of the moment, the impulses of human nature and the residues of history. This is not an easy undertaking for a writer, or reader. But now, as ever, it is as necessary as the leaves must fall.

Top image: Oliver Otis Howard (left) photographed by Mathew Brady, and Chief Joseph, photographed by Lee Moorhouse.

Submission by Michel Houellebecq


Knowing the premise of Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, Submission, any reader might expect it to comprise a fierce indictment of Islamic fundamentalism, the incidence of which in Europe today must surely startle many authors into writing, and then swiftly out of it – mindful of familiar, depressing consequences of doing so. Taking on the subject could very well result in a death sentence. In Iran, a fatwa against Salman Rushdie for his novel The Satanic Verses, which brought the issue of blasphemy within Islam to wider attention among western publics in 1989, has recently been renewed. On the day of Submission’s publication, staff at the office of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were murdered by Islamist gunmen after publishing a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad. Houellebecq was the cover star of the magazine at the time of the attack, and was soon placed under police protection.

In truth the book seems intended to provoke non-Muslims and Muslims alike, owing to the intellectual and spiritual malaise, and career opportunism, rather than sincere religious conviction, by which its protagonist comes to accept Islam as the predominant religion in France in 2022, the year in which the story is set.

Submission is both reflective of important social issues of our time, and shaped by the literary past, in particular the work of writer Joris-Karl Huysmans, of whom the central character François is a specialist researcher. Huysmans’s life and literature are a constant point of reference for François both before and after the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood, led by Mohammed Ben Abbes, as a leading political party in France. Huysmans, dissatisfied with his life in the society of fin de siècle Paris, turned to Catholicism. The nineteenth-century author identified his most famous novel A rebours as the signpost of what was to come. Houellebecq ends his own novel with François heeding the call of the Islamic faith, as a viable way of overcoming his own crippling solitude and anxiety in the face of contemporary social and cultural emptiness.

The word submission is the English translation of ‘Islam’. But the word undoubtedly has an altogether different and banal meaning in François’s life as a scholar of literature and a contributor to academic journals. His infrequent writings and growing boredom with the subject that has occupied him since his teenage years are only countered by an offer, late in the story, to edit a new Pléiade edition of Huysmans’s work, which entails a new preface. François, lonely and unhappy in love, gives in to the flattery and security that his new commission and the new political order bring, despite grave reservations.

Facing the demise of a long-term relationship with student Myriam, who moves with her Jewish family to Israel following Abbes’s presidential win; the death of his parents – which he meets with general indifference; and the dissipation of his intellectual life, incapable of throwing off his early infatuation with Huysmans, François as a character realistically depicts a climate of the mind which can all too easily become pliant under the supposedly benign influence of a strict religious tradition or ruinous political ideology.

Our contemporary era, in which the old opposition of left and right has been blurred and constructive political activism has been undermined by a sense of anomie, a plurality of special interest grievances and religious zeal, Houellebecq delineates some of the perforations that might allow Islamic fundamentalism to accommodate itself to conservative and socialist politics. In the former case, by the Brotherhood’s emphasis on a reduced welfare state and the strengthening of the family as the primary social unit, as well as the maintenance of an aristocracy of some sort – economic, cultural, moral. On the other hand, there is the reckless acceptance by the left of Islamism as an armature of resistance to inequality and the racism of the far right, represented by the National Front and ‘nativist’ movements which are an essential part of Houellebecq’s narrative. The Muslim Brotherhood under Abbes are proponents of an obscure conservative principle, outlined by GK Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, which nevertheless is supposed to avoid monopolies by big business in favour of small entrepreneurs. The willing capitulation of both sides of the political spectrum, as a means to retain power and alleviate social breakdown, starkly underlines the precarious position that secular European countries currently find themselves in.

Many of François’s colleagues have accepted the multiple wives and monetary benefits of continuing in post at the Sorbonne University, newly funded by wealthy Saudis. One ex-Intelligence serviceman acquaintance anticipates that Abbes is aiming to reorient Europe towards an Islamic union capable of competing with the wealth and influence of the Arabians. This vision of a new empire is no cause for revulsion or revolt in François, nor much of the wider public. Despite the initial violence of the National Front, the nativists and the hardline Islamists described indirectly in the first half of the book – with Houellebecq referring to the lack of detailed media reporting on the tumult in the run-up to the elections – Parisian society is subdued by the falling unemployment, helped in large part by the return of women to domesticity and child-rearing, not disallowing a period of non-subversive education.

Many readers would rightly challenge the possibility of such an eventuality in western democracies, especially those which support women’s rights. Still, François, who explains that his university post up to this time has led to short-term relationships with students, eventuallly looks ahead to a classroom of veiled young women – among whom he is sure to find a wife or two.

François not only reaches the same existential impasse and attraction to religion that Huysmans’s des Esseintes experiences in A rebours, he begins to reread Huysmans’s work as a whole, in a way which foregrounds simple bourgeois pleasure, consisting of good food and good company as the key to personal contentment. Downplaying the impulses to sexual abandon, decadence and conversely the desire for Christian salvation with which he previously characterised Huysmans work, François appears to convince himself more and more that Islam is the answer for him. This literary malcontent, who orders sex with prostitutes and then Lebanese mezes by phone, thinking that servants of sensual pleasure will relieve his alienation and misanthropic despair, ultimately reveals a servile mind ready to submit itself.

Mise en scène and Film Style by Adrian Martin


This book review was originally published in the magazine 24 Monthly, February 2016. My thanks to Ehsan Khoshbakht for the Farsi translation.


Mise en scène and Film Style

By Adrian Martin

Palgrave Macmillan, £63 (hbk)/ebook £49.99

Disassembling so vague a term as mise en scène is no easy undertaking. As an early chapter of Adrian Martin’s new book makes clear, the term has come to mean “everything and nothing” over the years. Developing his own complex ideas about mise en scène and film style, Martin suggests ways in which audiovisual material might be studied afresh, in order to better articulate not only the value we might ascribe to specific works, but also the many passions and perceptions that they prompt in us – which the language of ordinary film criticism so often fails to capture. Along the way, Martin outlines the different uses of mise en scène in film writing through the decades, and the various responses among critics and filmmakers to shifting stylistic approaches and technical possibilities in audiovisual production.

Martin’s interest in the audiovisual here runs the gamut from reality TV and the European New Waves, to web videos and gallery installation art. Martin resists clichés concerning those ideas typically associated with mise en scène – including auteurism and symbolic signification – and has no truck with those who would restrict what cinema, as a medium, is or should be. The author challenges the persistent attempts to hive off cinema as epitomised by 1950s Hollywood, and mise en scène as being synonymous only with the moment of staging and shooting a scene during the production stage. Martin pushes beyond those elements of mise en scène merely expressive of narrative content (including lighting, set design and actors’ movement) to highlight other surprising dynamics, logics and materialities on the screen. Still, he includes examples by John Ford and Otto Preminger within his expanded understanding of the possibilities of mise en scène.

Although Martin sets out to focus on one aspect of filmmaking – as Michel Chion has previously done for the voice, and James Naremore with acting – he actually finds a way to talk about all levels of production. He moves beyond discussion of mise en scène to outline a related idea, that of the dispositif, by which artists initiate a system of rules and patterns that are elaborated and modulated to create multiple textural, compositional and emotional effects over the course of a single work – aspects which can be worked over at any stage of the film’s production. However, the extent to which this opens up critical analysis to a field of unbridled relativism, dependent upon a critic’s ability to tease out interesting motifs and turns within any given film, may be faced with reasonable dismay by some.

It is not often that one gets a sense from even esteemed critics that they are as well read as they are ‘well viewed’. The inspiration found in the writings of influential and also relatively unknown theorists, from various language sources, including French, Spanish and German, is continually foregrounded. Martin’s ability to underline inventive concepts in difficult texts in order to refine his own ideas, and apply those to specific films, all communicated in a prose style that uses exclamation marks unapologetically to convey the author’s cinephilia, makes for some of the most accessible and enjoyable film writing in English.

The book exemplifies Martin’s skill in introducing original concepts through succinct, often entertaining, examples, as well as more detailed moment-to-moment analyses of a given film scene – as in the section focusing on Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Martha, and the book’s final chapter on Ritwik Ghatak’s film The Golden Line. Martin finds apposite examples from many of his own favourite films to illustrate his points; though not even the intelligent remarks about the fusillade of post-production effects in Tony Scott’s Domino or the formal inventiveness of the videos of pop duo Pomplamoose encourages me to return to the source material discussed once seen and heard.

Longtime readers of Martin’s work will likely find the experience of reading the book one of revisiting some of the author’s guiding interests, and gaining a better sense of how they intertwine: specifically, figural theory and the notion of the dispositif – elsewhere analysed in the short publication Last Day Every Day, and the essay ‘Turn the Page: From Mise en scène to Dispositif.’ The sheer breadth of references and unusual critical methods that Martin presents here will take newcomers longer to fathom but ulitmately offer illuminating and energising new approaches to film criticism.

The book serves as a most valuable reference work on what has long remained a loosely defined aspect of cinema and a masterclass in audiovisual analysis that teachers and writers on cinema will benefit from re-reading. It ought to find a place in any library of film writing alongside such comparatively wide-ranging, and equally slim, surveys of style as VF Perkins’s Film as Film and Noel Burch’s Theory of Film Practice, two early cornerstones for Martin.

Imperiled by Hope – Black Earth by Timothy Snyder


Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning

By Timothy Snyder

Bodley Head, £25/ebook £13.99

“The synthesis of information into knowledge,” writes Timothy Snyder, “depends upon familiarity…” The Housum Professor of History at Yale is referring in his introductory chapter of Black Earth to the unprecedented events of the Holocaust. He adds: “…and nothing like the Holocaust had ever happened before. The conversion of knowledge into action was imperiled by hope.”

Throughout this deeply researched  study of the unprecedented mass murder that took place in Europe during the Second World War, Snyder appears to be working against the perils of hope himself. The author has acknowledged the central importance of commemoration, with respect to the millions who died, but here confronts the reader with so many uncommon statements of fact that one is forced to reconsider just how the Holocaust might be interpreted by the public at large today. Published not long after Nikolaus Wachsmann’s exhaustive study of the concentration camps, KL, the examination of this terrible period of modern history looks to be moving into less familiar territory, as least as far as common knowledge is concerned.  As Snyder’s book makes clear, this is necessary, even if most difficult, if we are to have any chance of avoiding similar disasters.

It is the very act of trying to understand the Holocaust that puts writers and historians at risk of accusations of justification or trivialisation – or revisionism. Serious historians, in particular, ought not to have to be strongarmed by such sharp emotions – Snyder has already provoked deep criticism, as well as admiration, for his previous book Bloodlands – and as Black Earth makes clear, widely held presumptions about the Holocaust seem to be dangerously misinformed. What is more, the conclusions that Snyder draws challenge ingrained hostilities towards the state, as a component of social organisation, that characterise fervent political viewpoints on both the right and left today.

Auschwitz, as Snyder points out, has become a metonym for the Holocaust. The public is aware of the horrors of the camp owing to survivor testimony. Auschwitz is the terminus in the dark story of the fate of east European Jews that is taught to high school students year on year. Those of us who recall this period of learning are likely to remember that Hitler came to power following the Depression in Germany; passed laws discriminating against Jews whom he blamed for the country’s ills in particular and the world’s in general; ordered devastating attacks on Jewish property and people, notably on Kristallnacht; and instigated a system of mass deportation and extermination of Jews. This German-centric narrative ignores, as Snyder explains, crucial facts.

The following claim is likely to provoke incredulity and even anger if relayed without supporting information today: “Only about three percent of the victims of the Holocaust were German Jews.” This is just one of several eye-opening remarks that run counter to shared notions about this period of history. Over the course of several chapters, Snyder provides the reader with some insight into the ways that Jewish populations lived in Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland before the state destruction brought about by Germany. And of Latvia, Lithuania and Ukraine before the devastating incursion of the Soviet Union. Of central concern, according to Snyder, are those states which underwent double occupation, first overturned by the Soviets and then the Nazis, where the process of mass killings by which the Holocaust began took place.

A large proportion of those who were murdered between 1941 and 1945 as the Holocaust spread never saw a concentration camp, only pits where villagers were routinely rounded up en masse by SS officers and Soviet collaborators and mercilessly shot. The accounts of the involvement of those in eastern European countries – starving, desperate, manipulated by two calamitous ideologies – and the sheer numbers of the dead unaccounted for in studies of the death camps gives Snyder’s account a startling, necessary power.

There are two fundamental elements that Snyder here outlines as defining the Holocaust. The first is Hitler’s worldview, according to which the natural condition of human life is racial struggle; competition for resources, especially food. As Hitler had explained in Mein Kampf and his Second Book, what stops the German race from taking what it is within its power to take, and assert its superiority in the world, at least equal to the empires of America and Britain, are the ideas that originate with Jews. Snyder, in fact, convincingly argues that Hitler’s thinking is not reflective of scientific rationalism, but rather “zoological anarchy”, by which potential for agricultural innovations are dismissed in favour of bloody conflict for the fertile soil of Ukraine. In the book’s final chapter, Snyder draws on the idea of “ecological panic” to consider the dangerous paths that might be taken as climate change, population growth and economic precarity puts pressure on countries the world over.

Secondly, rather than resorting to another frequently cited cause: that of advanced bureaucracy enabling the German government to undertake its warped scheme of mass murder, Snyder proposes on the basis of his evidence and interpretation that, “German Jews died not because of bureaucratic precision in Germany but because of the destruction of bureaucracies in other countries.” Downplaying any desire on Hitler’s part to expand and maintain an indomitable German state, Snyder sees Hitler’s position as that of having to wield state power in order to destroy other states, which was the primary goal. As a result, making extensive reference to the relative fates of those Jews who remained citizens in countries allied to or not wholly occupied by German force, Snyder concludes that the protective role of the state towards its citizens – even in countries where anti-Semitism was widespread – is in fact that main bulwark against similar disasters.

It is not only with these conclusions that some readers are likely to look for fault, though the depth of Snyder’s research cannot be casually dismissed for the sake of proper sentiments; Snyder’s attempts to describe motivations and inner conflicts among eastern Europeans in doubly occupied territory, while drawing on numerous first hand accounts that were unavailable before the collapse of the Soviet Union, is nonetheless a matter of psychological reading that others might reasonably challenge, though hopefully in such a way as to refer to an equally robust scheme of historical research.

Coming to Snyder’s book with little more than a general knowledge of the Second World War, the rise of Nazi power and its defeat, the history presented in such lucid prose and the misunderstandings that Snyder forces one to recognise are certainly uncomfortable though truly valuable. As Black Earth progresses, Snyder returns to his central claims, at times using repeated cadences (“All in all…” to describe the fraction of the Jewish populations of Latvia, Lithuania and Romania killed) to impress the important history he is describing on the reader more forcefully. Through this approach, the fascinating insights and Snyder’s narrative of the course of the Second World War as it was experienced by European Jews becomes more familiar, even if even more painful, to comprehend. If Snyder is successful in his undertaking, he will have encouraged more readers to see the perils of mere hope and antagonism towards the state in itself, and the more practical sociopolitical arrangements that might better preserve for humankind a less murderous future.

Top image: A ‘scrubbing party’ made up of Jews removes references to Austria from the sidewalk, following the Anschluss, 1938

Working Title

Niblock book

My review of Working Title, a collection of essays about Phill Niblock published by Les presses du réel appears in the May 2013 issue of The Wire (#351).

“Throughout the book, evocations of the physiological impact of the performances Niblock would stage in his New York loft – the intensely loud volume of which rarely go unremarked when describing his past shows – and perceived connections with Zen philosophy are balanced by discussions of the technical aspects of Niblock’s music, as well as Bernard Gendron’s splendid history of Experimental Intermedia and the Downtown music scene in New York in the 1970s and 80s.”

To read the full review, visit