‘ A Bend in the River’ read to me like an updating of Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’, taken forward 60 or 70 years forward into the post-independence period. As with ‘Heart of Darkness’, ‘A Bend’ is set in an unnamed African country in the interior of the continent. The setting is not the only similarity between these books – both have colonialism as their principal themes, and both are pervaded with a sense of impending danger and disaster. Continue reading
‘All the King’s Men’ is the story of the rise and fall of Governor Willie Stark in 1930’s America. The novel is narrated by Jack Burden, one of Stark’s assistants and “fixers”, who offers a detached, sardonic commentary on Stark’s progress to become Governor of his State. Stark starts his political life as a honest man, but through a series of compromises he slowly becomes the thing he once stood against:
“Politics is a matter of choices, and a man doesn’t set up the choices himself. And there is always a price to make a choice. You know that. You’ve made a choice, and you know how much it cost you. There is always a price.
Stark appears to be a broadly progressive figure, on the side of the “little man”, introducing reforms designed to tax the rich and ease the burden of the state’s poor farmers. But despite his considerable popularity, the burden of power slowly but inevitably corrupts him, leading eventually to his demise. He never becomes a monster, but he makes a series of compromises and decisions which once taken can’t be reversed.
While Stark is the novel’s focus, the unobtrusive narrator slowly unravels his back story. Burden uses his experience as a historical researcher to dig up material to allow Stark to blackmail a former family friend, Judge Irwin. This sets in train the tragic series of events that leads to Stark’s downfall, and that of several other characters. In a distributing flashback scene, in which Burden explains how he developed his investigative skills, we are told the story of his ancestor’s involvement in the slave trade.
As a narrative character Burden, his name heavily symbolic, is reminiscent of that other observer of the tragic fall of a charismatic figure, Nick Carraway. Even the way he ends the novel
And soon now we shall go out of the house and go into the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time”
calls back to Fitzgerald’s only slightly more memorable and evocative line
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Warren was America’s first poet laureate, and it shows. His prose style is luxurious and elegiac, powerfully evoking the 1930’s Deep South landscape. His use of imagery is extremely strong –
“So I pulled the sun screen down and squinted and put the throttle to the floor. And kept on moving west. For West is where we all plan to go some day. It is where you go when the land gives out and the oldfield pines encroach. It is where you go when you get the letter saying: ‘Flee, all is discovered’. It is where you go when you look down at the blade in your hand and see the blood on it. It is where you go when you are told that you are a bubble on the tide of empire. It is where you go when you hear that thar’s gold in them-thar hills. It is where you go to grow up with the country. It is where you go to spend your old age. Or it is just where you go.”
He handles the big themes running through the novel comfortably, and while the prose sometimes teeters on the edge of taking itself too seriously, it always avoids being pretentious. Mainly this is achieved by Burden’s knowing commentary – at times he reminded me of that other great cynical poet of pre-war American life, Philip Marlowe.
“There was nothing particularly wrong with them; they were just the ordinary garden variety of human garbage” could have come straight out of the best of Chandler.
I really enjoyed this novel. Warren is an author I had not heard of before, embarrassingly, but I am pleased to have now remedied that omission. It is a powerful, tragic story. The n-word is used extensively, as is sadly common in novels of this time and place, but with that one caveat I can thoroughly recommend it.
‘Difficulty’ is obviously a relative term – novels become more or less harder to understand depending on the perspective of the reader. Time alone will make contemporary references harder to discern; phrases in common usage in one generation will be meaningless to another. Nevertheless, some writers clearly do start out with the intention of making their work complex and challenging. That is their prerogative – there is no god given right to transparency or clarity. But it is rare that the obscurity is there for its own sake, to deliberately irritate or confound the reader.
These thoughts are inspired by the single one-star review of ‘Murphy’ on the Amazon UK site. It makes a strong case against Beckett:
“Life lacks ultimate meaning and sense, that doesn’t mean you need to make your novel devoid of meaning and sense. The lack of sense in this novel made me irritated, forcing me to suffer the ultimate boredom of seeking out dull scholars to explain it. This novel diverges from explicit meaning as soon as page 1, with the phrase, “The sun was in the Virgin again for the billionth time”. One sentence later we are told Murphy is tied by seven scarves: “Two fastened his shins to the rockers, one his thighs to the seat, two his breast and belly to the back, one his wrists to the strut behind.” That makes six scarves: where is the seventh? The guide told me that Beckett told a friend it was an oversight he found amusing and so left it in.
Modernists never miss a chance to amuse themselves by confusing the reader. Almost every sentence adds to the confusion. For instance, a few sentences later, we have: “Somewhere a cuckoo-clock, having struck between twenty and thirty…”. But any clock strikes at most 12. Maybe Beckett is making the point that cuckoo clocks are so irritating that they seem to make thirty strikes. Who knows? The continual use of foggy allusion is wearing to me.
To avoid boredom I need to be reading the greatest authors. I need the genius of great artists to keep me interested. But Tolstoy and Dickens do this without making me suffer the meaningless games that Beckett plays.”
It’s not my intention to denigrate the reviewer in any way – they make some very useful points. I simply thought their comments would act as a useful reference point against which I could place my own thoughts. Equally I don’t want to spend too much time on the literalism displayed here. This isn’t a naturalistic novel, so the fact that strange things happen, such as a cuckoo clock striking twenty or thirty, isn’t anything other than contributing to this sense of unreality. (Of course there is arguably a missing word in this phrase which the reader is invited to contribute – is it “times” or “past”?) I think the fact that Beckett miscounted his scarves is actually quite amusing – there are similar mistakes in virtually every other novel, play or poem ever written, and they don’t detract from the value of the work one jot – I certainly didn’t notice the slip. What is interesting is that the reviewer has a problem with the number of scarves, but not the fact that Murphy has managed to tie himself into the chair!
Are the word puzzles Beckett uses, containing obscure references and allusions, intended to make the reader feel puzzled and ill-educated? What for example is one to make of line “the sun was in the Virgin again for the billionth time”? I don’t know precisely what or which virgin Beckett is referring to here, but I took this as a very simple observation about the sun rising and setting. The sun rises and falls relentlessly – time passes, and nothing changes. The essential nihilist theme of the novel is thus captured in this opening paragraph. This theme is picked up later, in the several other reference to virgins in the novel – for example when Beckett does a round of the hospital patients at night, and each check passes smoothly, the run is called a “virgin”. Astrology also plays an important part in the novel – Murphy slavishly uses the reading given to him as a guide to all his future actions. Finally, there is a hint of a sexual play on words here, sun or son. Beckett packs a lot into this phrase, but the one thing it isn’t is meaninglessly obscure – unusual yes, thought provoking yes, but not nonsense. This phrase highlights the contradiction in the reviewer’s complaint – you can’t argue that the novel is too difficult and also meaningless – surely it has to be one thing or the other?
I must admit there is one phrase elsewhere in the novel that remains to me stubbornly resistant to comprehension: “To begin with Miss Counihan, to begin with she was eager to get into the correct grass Dido cramp in plenty of time.” I thought at first it might be a transliteration of a misheard phrase, but no. Google is no help. Is it just mistyped gibberish that appealed to the author’s sense of mischief?
The central challenge in this review is that Beckett plays meaningless games with the reader. Games, undoubtedly, meaningless, clearly not. Wordplay is fun, ambiguity is the source of most humour (where would puns be without it?) and puzzles are at the heart of many if not all great works of fiction. Even games we can’t win have their appeal. All novels require the reader to do some work to understand them, even at the most basic level if that just means the act of reading and imagining the acts described. Most go further of course and ask the reader to see the events from the characters’ perspective, to share their thoughts and feelings. Giving them some word puzzles or other challenges is not something unique to Beckett, nor Modernist writers generally. When the fourth wall is broken, when the laws of nature are suspended, when phrases that at a first read don’t make sense are used, the reader has to pause and reflect, really think about what they are reading. And surely that is a good thing?
In a recent article about Beckett’s prose, the Guardian called him the “maestro of failure”, and described his work as being “a hypnotic flow of words, the meaning of which is initially utterly obscure…. but persevere and patterns emerge:” Or as one of his character says in this novel “It was like difficult music heard for the first time.” Indeed, the complexity of this novel is such that it is one of those rare works that sometimes requires reference to an annotated version giving a page by page guide.
This understanding – that his work is complex but full of patterns and themes – is arguably the key to reading all Beckett, but applies particularly to his prose, including this relatively early novel. This is not difficulty for the sake of it, obscurantism, but complexity. In this novel Murphy, an Irishman of indeterminate profession, likely none, lives in exile in a condemned apartment in suburban London. He is an eccentric character – when the novel opens we find him naked in the dark, tied to a rocking chair. This appears to be more a form of meditation than sexual perversion! Murphy’s acquaintances are introduced as Beckett assembles his cast. Neary and Wylie, friends, Celia, Murphy’s lover and reluctant prostitute, and Cooper, Neary’s dull-witted assistant. Pressurised by Celia, Murphy finds a job as a nursing attendant at the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat in North London, a hospital for the insane, where he feels completely at home. The supporting cast attempt to track him down, but he eludes them by dying, apparently by suicide, caused by an opportune gas leak.
This is not really the stuff of a well rounded novel. The characters are mainly two dimensional, deliberately so. Beckett repeatedly breaks the fourth wall and acknowledges that this is a novel – for example when writing about Celia’s profession he says:
“this phrase is chosen with care, lest the filthy censors should lack an occasion to commit their filthy synecdoche.” This is Brechtian before Brecht, which is all the more striking for such an early work. Elsewhere the origins of Beckett the existentialist playwright can be quite clearly traced in this novel. There is a dark, nihilist streak to many of the characters and observations: A child is called the “eldest waste product” and elsewhere people are referred to as “bacteria”. Beckett is the ultimate poet of despair – “So all things limp together for the only possible purpose”, and there is even the refrain referencing the mixed message of hope and damnation from the crucifixion, picked up years later in (I think) ‘Endgame’, ‘Remember also one thief was saved”
But this bleakness is undercut by the absurdist humour that again is a characteristic of all Beckett’s writing (‘Waiting for Godot’ is a very funny play, despite its reputation, and despite the essential bleakness of its message – “They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more”) The humour derives mainly from the absurd, often surreal situations the characters endure, which often reminded me more of Flann O’Brien, surely an obvious influence, more than Joyce, Beckett’s acknowledged mentor.
One of the things I noticed about Beckett’s prose in this novel (and hold your breath, this is possibly an original observation) is the tendency to break out into verse, particularly when characters are speaking. Here are a few quotes:
“It was a strange room, the door hanging off its hinges, and yet a telephone. But its last occupant was a harlot, long past her best, which had been scarlet.”
“The syndrome known as life is too diffuse to admit of palliation. For every symptom that is eased, another is made worse. The horse leech’s daughter is a closed system. Her quantum of wantum
“She was willing a little bit of sweated labour, incapable of betraying the slogan of her slavers, that since the customer or sucker was paying for his gutrot ten times what it cost to produce and five times what it cost to fling in his face, it was only reasonable to defer to his complaints up to but not exceeding fifty per cent of his exploitation.”
“Oh hand in hand, let us return to the dear land of our birth, the bays, the bogs, the moors, the glens, the lakes, the rivers, the streams, the brooks, the mists, the – er – fens, the – er – glens, by tonight’s mail train”’
“Simplicity is as slow as a hearse and as long as a last breakfast”.
“It is too painful. Then you shall not find me ungrateful”.
“politeness and candour run together, when one is not fitting neither is the other. Then the occasion calls for silence, that frail partition between the ill-concealed and the ill-revealed, the clumsily false and the unavoidably so.”
Try writing these as verses and you will see what I mean. Take the third example, rewritten as verse:
“She was willing a little bit of sweated labour,
incapable of betraying the slogan of her slavers,
that since the customer or sucker was paying for his gutrot
ten times what it cost to produce and five times what it cost
to fling in his face,
it was only reasonable to defer to his complaints
up to but not exceeding
fifty per cent of his exploitation.”
I hear a kind of poetry in these lines. The half rhymes, repetition, and assonance give the narrative a dramatic quality that was to translate so well onto the stage.
Beckett will always remain one of the greatest playwrights of the twentieth century, but this shouldn’t detract from an appreciation of his prose. This novel is fascinating, complex, dark and at times confusing – but if any author deserves the benefit of the doubt it is Beckett.
At the heart of Lowry’s dark complex masterpiece, ‘Under the Volcano’, is his portrait of the physical, mental and psychological collapse induced by alcoholism. Geoffrey Firmin, former British Consul to a small Mexican town sitting in the shadow of two volcanoes (thus ‘Under the Volcanoes’ surely?) spends the last day of his life disastrously staggering from drink to drink, accompanied by his half brother Hugh and his divorced but still attached wife, Yvonne. They have a drink, go on a bus, have another drink, attend a bull-riding event, have another drink, and so on. Some absurd scenes, for example where Firmin falls flat on his face in the road, or where he is chastised for being sick on his neighbour’s garden, would be funny if they were not at the same time so tragic. Much of the novel is narrated from Firmin’s point of view; as he is drunk all the time, this inevitably means the narrative is confused, rambling, chaotic and often surreal, as he fades in and out of different extremes of consciousness, including complete blackouts, hearing voices, and delusions, with always the need for another drink lurking in the background of his thoughts.
Like many readers, I found this a difficult novel, difficult in some very specific ways. Yes, the language is at times convoluted and obscure; the point of view narration often makes it hard to understand what is happening, particularly when we see the world through the drunken haze that permanently suffuses the central character. Little happens, and the few events that do occur are suffused with an air of unreality. Writing in the Guardian, Chris Power said “An atmosphere of difficulty cloaks the book like the thunderheads that hide the “immense flanks” of Popocatepetl,”
Just to give a flavour of this difficulty, here is a typical sentence, taken almost completely at random:
“It was a powerful silent car, of American build, sinking deeply on its springs, its engine scarcely audible, and the sound of the horse’s hooves rang out plainly, receding now, slanting up the ill-lit Calle Nicaragua, past the Consul’s house, where there would be a light in the window M.Laurelle didn’t want to see – for long after Adam had left the garden the light in Adam’s house had burned on – and the gate was ,mended, past the school on the left, and the spot where he had met Yvonne with Hugh and Geoffrey that day – and he imagined the rider as not pausing even at Laurelle’s own house, where his trunks lay mountainous and still only half packed, but galloping recklessly round the corner into the Calle Tierra del Fuego and on, his eyes wild as those soon to look on death through the town – and this too, he thought suddenly, this maniacal vision of senseless frenzy, but controlled, not quite uncontrolled, somehow almost admirable, this too, obscurely, was the Consul….”
I think I am right in saying that is a whole sentence. I can follow the train of thought, just, and can appreciate what Lowry is doing, presenting Laurelle’s stream of consciousness, but there’s no doubt it makes this a tough read – if it hadn’t been for the obligations of this review there is no way I would have finished this novel.
A few other points. It is hard not to see the novel as a meta-narrative, a heavily stylised autobiographical portrait – Wikipedia tells me that the first version of the novel was developed while Lowry lived in Mexico, “frequently drunk and out of control while his first marriage was breaking up”, which comes as no surprise, and which is an accurate summary of the novel itself. Lowry/Firmin knows his alcoholism is destructive, in fact killing him, but is powerless to resist.
The novel is rich in symbolism, some of it done in a heavy-handed manner – Lowry may as well at certain points in the novel have written in the margins “Look, I am using this figure, situation or event as a symbol to represent something else, something more abstract, such as the futility of life”. As an example, here Yvonne, the Consul’s recently divorced wife, considers a bull-riding arena:
“Yes, it struck her now that this whole business of the bull was like a life; the important birth, the fair chance, the tentative, then assured, then half-despairing circulations of the ring, an obstacle negotiated – a feat improperly recognized – boredom, resignation, collapse: then another, more convulsive birth, a new start”
Later, Yvonne, Firmin, and Hugh encounter an old man, carrying quite literally an unbearable burden:
“Bent double, groaning with the weight, an old lame Indian was carrying on his back, by means of a strap looped over his forehead, another poor Indian, yet older and more decrepit than himself. He carried the older man and his crutches, trembling in every limb under this weight of the past, he carried both their burdens.”
What can this represent, I wonder?
Yvonne is particularly prone to pointing out the symbols she bumps into as she wanders around with Hugh and Geoffrey, looking for entertainment:
“They were the cars at the fair that were whirling around her; no, they were the planets, while the sun stood, burning and spinning and guttering in the centre; here they came again, Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto; but they were not planets, for it was not the merry-go-round at all, but the Ferris wheel, they were constellations, in the hub of which, like a great cold eye, burned Polaris, and round and round it here they went…they were in a dark wood, she heard the wind and the rain rushing through the forest and saw the tremors of lightning shuddering through the heavens and the horse—great God, the horse—and would this scene repeat itself endlessly and forever?—the horse, rearing, poised over her, petrified in midair, …the carrousel, but the carrousel had stopped and she was in a ravine down which a million horses were thundering towards her, and she must escape, through the friendly forest to their house, their little home by the sea.”
As well as heavy handed symbolism, the foreshadowing here is equally clunky. Despite these structural reservations, I have to admit that Lowry is a confident writer, particularly strong in his use of different voices. His use of imagery is also striking – Little red birds in the garden are like “animated rosebuds”, and elsewhere he writes about “the cold bath of confession”, and being “rather like someone lying in a bath after all the water has run out, witless, almost dead”. Later, the “huge domes of an observatory, haloed in gold”, stand out “in black silhouette like roman helmets”.
The novel is suffused with literary allusions, to Keats, Cervantes, Virgil, Marlowe, Rousseau and De Quincey, amongst many others, and the “look at me I am being clever” manner of this can be wearying.
Finally, I wrote a few weeks back about the tendency of authors to end their novels by killing of their main characters. ‘Under the Volcano’ joins this club, although given the tragic nature of their relationship, and the inevitability of the outcome, to have not killed off the Consul and his ex-wife would have been the more surprising choice.
I can admire Lowry’s artistry in constructing this complex narrative, and I am pleased I finally managed to finish it, but I can’t honestly say I enjoyed it.