aristocracy

NIGHTWOOD BY DJUNA BARNES

They come without being called, dog-nosing the air as though they sense a hard surface upon which they can lean or dash their heads. They claw at my heart, like a dog that has been put out for the night, with tales of infidelity, premature ejaculation, and a knife to the throat. And I sit impassively, sometimes sullenly, saying things like: ‘love means swallowing your pride and not allowing the bitter taste to show on your face.’ Do they believe that I can help them because I was born lost? Born lost, yes, but therefore never having known defeat. For them it is a new feeling, a new state of being, and that is why they are wild, why they writhe and howl in its strong arms. They come without being called and have their say. It is never anything I haven’t heard before. I am the defrocked priest of this parish. I am the comb they drag through their knotted hair. I tell them: read Jean Rhys. Read de Nerval. Christ, read The Daily Mail. Read Nightwood, if you must do something. Here’s your razor; here’s your rope. I cannot help you.

“I was doing well enough until you came along and kicked my stone over, and out I came, all moss and eyes.”

Of the many books that concern themselves with outcasts, with those on the periphery of life, Nightwood is the one I return to most often. Guido: a Jew, at a time – has there ever not been such a time? – when, and in a place where, to be Jewish was inadvisable. Guido: who is, by living in Europe, cut-off from his people both geographically and spiritually; and who, moreover, cannot accept himself, or perhaps dare not, and so pays ‘remorseless homage’ to a nobility that he has no genuine claim to. As does his son, Felix. With his mixed blood, he is perhaps even more rootless, more displaced, than his father. The wandering half-Jew. He is, we’re told, ‘everywhere from nowhere’. He is at odds with the world; and at home, if not at ease, only with the odd. There is something ‘missing and whole’ about him. He dresses, it is written, as though expecting to participate in a great event, and yet there is no event for which he could be said to be appropriately dressed. Even his hair, that symbol of vitality, strength and self worth, is wrong, for it starts ‘too far back’.

35-gay-dancing-paris-1930s.jpg

As for the important others, I may deal with them later, if I can find them. Robin, however, is easier to pin down, although she flits around the margins of the story. Easier, because predictable, because like me. Which is to say that she lacks substance, lacks blood and guts. What is love, I once said, without fear? To love truly, successfully, one must be afraid; yet I am not, and nor is Robin. She is ‘fading’ and ‘noncommittal’; her attention, it is felt, has ‘already been taken’. She is easily appropriated – by Felix, by Nora, by Jenny – because she is not looking, or is looking, but somewhere far off, her eyes fixed on some nonexistent thing, on ‘something not yet in history’. Yes, Nightwood has sorrow and pain under its fingernails, nails hidden inside wet gloves. Even the minor characters, the off-cuts, the offal, are maimed: the girl with no legs who has at least a mouth to cry out her lover’s lament, Felix’s and Robin’s sickly and ‘strange’ child. Yes, all, all who are contained within the book are attired in grave weeds.

“We are but skin about a wind, with muscles clenched against mortality. We sleep in a long reproachful dust against ourselves. We are full to the gorge with our own names for misery. Life, the pastures in which the night feeds and prunes the cud that nourishes us to despair. Life, the permission to know death. We were created that the earth might be made sensible of her inhuman taste; and love that the body might be so dear that even the earth should roar with it.”

Yet they are not entirely lost; no, I wouldn’t say that. Say: avoiding themselves. Say: trying to be something they are not. Guido, remember, and Felix too, falsely lays claim to a Baronetcy. Dr. Matthew O’Connor is not really a doctor, either. And the Count? ‘Her Gott,’ said the Duchess. ‘Am I what I say? Are you?’ Everywhere there is imitation, pretence. The paintings of Guido’s parents, which show a accidental familial resemblance, are ‘reproductions of two intrepid and ancient actors.’ On Jenny’s finger hangs someone else’s marriage ring; Jenny, the ‘bold and authentic’ robber. But more than that: no one is any sole definitive thing. There is ambiguity, fluidity. Hedwig, Felix’s mother, who dies during childbirth, has ‘the masterly piano stroke of a man.’ Robin – a name suitable for both sexes, mark that – is a tall girl with the body of a boy. And O’Connor again? Misericordia.

Matthew-mighty-pinch-of-salt-O’Connor. Transvestite. Fabricator. Exaggerator. Drunk. Irish, but not really. Exile, certainly. His bearing is ‘apologetic’, ‘slouching, ‘pathetic.’ And yet he dominates the novel, with his mouth, with the ‘insistent hum’ of his words. Indeed, he acts almost as the narrator, or commentator. He sizes up, he diagnoses, he unleashes. Yes, it is fitting that he is a doctor, or a fake doctor, for Nightwood‘s losers drift towards him for advice, for commiseration, for illumination. He is the rock upon which they intend to lean, or fling themselves to weep, only to find that it is in fact made of sponge. He is necessary, O’Connor. Maddening at times, of course, though he is, he is indIspensable, for them and for us. His moments are the only moments when one isn’t kept at arm’s length, when one doesn’t feel as though one’s nose is pressed against aquarium glass, watching ugly fish swim in unclean water.

Advertisements

THE LEOPARD BY GIUSEPPE TOMASI DI LAMPEDUSA

The other day I found a grey hair, by which I mean on my own head, of course, not on the floor. If I was in my forties, or upwards, I may have anticipated such a thing, but, in my naivety, I didn’t think it possible at my age. Yet there it was, gesturing to me in an offensive manner; it was like staring at a crowd of people and suddenly spotting, deep in their midst, a child looking my way and insouciantly giving me the finger. I’ve been, it is fair to say, somewhat perturbed ever since; I keep checking the backs of my hands, and around my eyes, for signs of wrinkles, and any slight twinge or ache strikes me as the inevitable, irrevocable, breaking down of my mechanism.

This is, and always has been, my worst fear. Decline, old age, and their tyrannical father: death. How on earth do you face up to that? You haven’t got much of a choice, I guess. How awful! Some people are blasé about it; ‘it’s fine,’ they say, ‘ageing is a positive thing’; ‘I’m not afraid of death,’ they say, ‘I’m more concerned about how I will go.’ I’ve never understood all that. I’m don’t care one bit about the manner of my death, it’s the fact that it is going to happen at all that bothers me; it’s the not-being that terrifies me. ‘But wouldn’t it be terrible to be immortal, to remain young, while all your loved ones, your family and friends, age and pass away?’ No, it’d be glorious! Make no mistake, I’d gaily skip down the street as the last man on earth.

There have been many fine novels about all of this – Samuel Beckett, for example, wrote reams of them – but I think my favourite is Il Gattopardo, or The Leopard, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. In the opening pages, we are introduced to Don Fabrizio, the Sicilian aristocrat who dominates the book. The imposing, heavy-set, Prince of Salina is an old-fashioned sort, conservative in values where his family are concerned, but more than willing to give himself major leeway. For example, he demands the utmost respect and propriety from his children, and yet brazenly cheats on his wife and, on one occasion, drags Father Pirrone along on one of his amorous escapades, almost as a display of his power. The children are, of course, petrified of him; it is noted that the household cutlery has had to be straightened numerous times, for their father, in moments of anger or irritation, has a tendency to grasp knifes and forks and spoons in his heavy paws and bend them.

“Love. Of course, love. Flames for a year, ashes for thirty.”

In contrast to his outward displays of strength, the domineering Fabrizio is, privately, prone to melancholy and self-pity. He may rule his children and wife with the proverbial iron fist, but this does not stop them from disappointing him; in fact, almost everything disappoints him. His son, Paolo, is referred to as a ‘booby,’ and is less than favourably compared with the Prince’s nephew, Tancredi. Fabrizio appears to have more affection for his daughter, Concetta, but even she frequently irritates him, and is, sadly, no match, in terms of looks, for Angelica Sedara, the daughter of a nouveau riche Mayor, whom Tancredi wishes to marry. His wife, on the other hand, is a woman of strained nerves, who is no longer sexually alluring to him; indeed, her pious reserve [Fabrizio claims to have never seen her navel] is used as justification for infidelity. This disappointment also extends to himself, or at least his own mortality, and to the state of the country.

The Leopard is set in the years 1860-1862, 1883 and 1910, during a period in history known as the Risorgimento, the aim of which was the unification of Italy. It was, then, a time of revolution, change, and unrest. On this basis, one could legitimately call The Leopard a political novel, but the politics feed into the broader and, for me, more important and engaging themes of decline and death. In the most literal way, war or revolution drag death and destruction in their wake, of course, and this is brought into sharp focus when the mutilated body of a soldier is found in the Prince’s garden. But what the Risorgimento really represents, what it brings home to Don Fabrizio, is that the old ways, his ways, are numbered. Indeed, one of the aims of the Risorgimento was a levelling of the classes, so while the rich and powerful Don Fabrizio is not directly involved in the conflict his kind are, in a way, a target, and therefore they are, culturally-socially, on borrowed time.

RV-AC576_MASTER_G_20110428000350

[A still from the 1963 film of the same name]

Unfortunately, the Prince, like all of us, is also on borrowed time physically. One of the most impressive aspects of the novel is how the decline of the old ways of Italy are actually mirrored in Fabrizio’s own personal decline; the two reflect each other. Despite being only in his forties, from the very beginning there is a sense that the Prince is no longer at his peak, that he is not staring proudly from the heights of physical perfection, but is steadily making his way back down the mountain. For example, Don Fabrizio’s sensual-sexual nature is frequently alluded to; as noted, he cheats on his wife, and he is struck by, and excited by, Angelica’s attractions [her beauty, her body, etc]. However, he is also fully aware that he is no longer in the running, so to speak, that the vibrant young woman will prefer the charming, and also young, Tancredi. This is not the same, alas, as saying that he is happy about it. Far from it; he feels, rather, a twinge of jealousy, a sexual jealousy that is not particularly admirable, of course, but is understandable.

“To kneel before Angelica would be a pleasure, but what if he found it difficult to get up afterwards?”

To say that the Prince is not as vital as he once was, and that Italy is at war and going through important social-political changes, does not do justice to how deeply ingrained the book’s preoccupations and themes are. I said before that it is perhaps the greatest novel about death and decline, and to understand this one must read it, because these things are present in the text on almost every page. Indeed, Lampedusa’s work is so rich in allusions and references to them that the atmosphere is of a unrelenting gloominess, almost regardless of the main narrated action. For example, it is at one point noted that the Prince’s initials on a wine glass have begun to fade; Bendico, his dog, noses his way through the garden smelling of ‘dead lizards and manure’; Fabrizio goes hunting at Donnafugata, but hardly ever shoots anything, because there are scant targets; as payment for rent he is given slaughtered lambs; stories are shared about poisoned holy water and people cut up into little pieces, and so on.

“As always the thought of his own death calmed him as much as that of others disturbed him: was it perhaps because, when all was said and done, his own death would in the first place mean that of the whole world?”

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, himself a Sicilian aristocrat, only ever wrote one novel; and even this was rejected numerous times and was published only after his own death. If I had to guess as to why it wasn’t instantly appreciated I would perhaps point to the intricate, detailed prose as being something of an acquired taste. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love it; in fact, I consider Lampedusa to be one of the very finest prose stylists; his extended metaphors alone make reading the book worthwhile. But it is decidedly Proustian, perhaps more so than any other that gets lumbered with that tag, and his prose, by which I mean Marcel’s, is also an acquired taste [it seems]. Moreover, Lampedusa’s novel lacks the emotional sturm and drang of certain parts of In Search of Lost Time, is just not as viscerally exciting as, say, Sodom and Gomorrah. The Leopard is a slow book, a deeply ruminative book, with very little action. It is, the author himself claimed, not very good. He was wrong, of course; it’s a masterpiece. Now if you’ll excuse me I’m going to listen to Frank Sinatra’s It Was a Very Good Year, and then go quietly weep in a corner.

BUDDENBROOKS BY THOMAS MANN

I’ve always found the plight of the panda both moving and somewhat amusing. It truly is an animal not made for these times, an animal not meant to endure. It can’t eat, can’t procreate; it almost seems as though it wants to die. Its situation is made sadder by the fact that at some point it must have flourished. Anyway, whenever I think of pandas, or when I see one on TV or something, I am always put in mind of Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters. It is a novel that deals with a family that were once prosperous, but that, like the panda, are ill-suited to the times they eventually find themselves in; the Makiokas are a family tied to archaic systems, ways of life, and values. This is why the novel packs an emotional punch, because there is something horribly inevitable about the fate of the characters, about their increasing irrelevance and ultimate insignificance.

Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks is often grouped together with books like The Makioka Sisters under the heading of novels about decline. However, as a novel about decline Buddenbrooks isn’t particularly thought-provoking, and it certainly doesn’t deal with the subject as inventively as Tanizaki. In fact, I am not entirely convinced that Mann was all that interested in it as a subject, despite subtitling the work the decline of a family. Buddenbrooks is a family saga, spanning many generations, and therefore decline is a consequence of the natural passing of time, is of the kind that you would expect from any similar novel of significant length; the decline experienced by the family is the kind that comes to us all, through old age, failing energy etc.

“The Ladies Buddenbrook from Breite Strasse did not weep, however – it was not their custom. Their faces, a little less caustic than usual at least, expressed a gentle satisfaction at death’s impartiality.”

To return to The Makioka Sisters as a comparison, in Tanizaki’s novel the change in fortunes has already occurred prior to the events being described, the Makioka’s heyday has already been and gone; it is what gives it its elegiac atmosphere. Everything in Tanizaki’s world is coloured by this change in fortunes. But that is not the case with Buddenbrooks. In Mann’s novel the fortunes of the family ebb and flow; there are successes and failures. Both The Makioka Sisters and Buddenbrooks are concerned with values, ways of life etc that are not relevant to us [or most of us] now; they are both novels that focus on disappearing worlds, but Mann’s novel simply recreates that world, rather than saying anything meaningful about why it disappeared/is disappearing. The Makiokas are out of time, but the Buddenbrooks, for the most part, are very much of theirs.

So while the subtitle is not exactly misleading, because it is literally true, it might be considered unfortunate for it seems to dominate the thoughts of readers and reviewers, meaning that they overlook what are, in my opinion, the more engaging aspects of the novel. What I was far more taken with were the fascinating, and often moving, things that Mann has to say about family and class and the world of business. The patriarch Johann Buddenbrook is a merchant, and a successful one at that. He is also exceedingly bourgeois; he believes in the overriding importance of the family and the reputation of the firm; he believes in the entitlements of his class and position, in the absolute nature of social hierarchy. It is possible, then, to view the Buddenbrooks as intolerably snobbish; they, it is fair to say, have a very high opinion of their worth and standing.

For me, it is these attitudes that dominate the novel and the characters, and that, in some cases at least, ultimately leads to their unhappiness. Take the issue of marriage, Johann admits near the beginning that he didn’t chose his wife for love, and he passes on the idea that marriage is a duty to the family to his children. Tony, his daughter, is the one who suffers most in this regard. In one of the finest sections in the novel she is pursued by a suitor, Bendix Grunlich, who, in her own words, she cannot stand. She rejects Grunlich numerous times, but he refuses to take no for an answer and essentially gangs up on the girl with her father in order to force her to submit. Johann sees the match as a good one and appears to be unaware of how grotesque his behaviour is. Yet to be fair to him, while it may seem unfair to us now, in the 1800’s and amongst the appropriate classes marrying for commercial or social reasons was not out of the ordinary. In any case, Tony relents, taking pride in her submission, in doing something for the family. In one poignant scene she makes a note of her engagement, before she has verbally accepted Grunlich, in the old family ledger where the history of the Buddenbrooks is recorded. In another, as she is about to be driven away with her husband she jumps out of the carriage, throws her arms around her father and asks him, are you proud of me, papa? The tragedy is that Tony is worth so much more, she is a lively, vivacious and charming girl, yet she is categorically her father’s daughter, she is, fatally, in terms of her own happiness, a Buddenbrook; Tony is incapable of compromising on what she thinks is due to her, in word and deed, as a member of that distinguished family.

“Thomas Buddenbrook’s existence was no different from that of an actor – an actor whose lfe has become one long production, which but for a few hours for relaxation, consumes him unceasingly.”

The Buddenbrooks are ruled by their sense of duty and honour, their conventionality. To a certain extent, the book reminded me of Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. In that novel the advice appears to be that it is not always wise or prudent to forsake the solid, the familiar for the glittering and exciting. In Mann’s novel the message isn’t clear; it is not obvious where his sympathies lie, but he often contrasts the conventionality of the strongest members of the family with the impulses or character of the artist or the imaginative or romantic [in the Brochean sense] person. Christian, for example, is lambasted, by his brother Tom in particular, for being a buffoon, for shaming the family by taking up with actresses. Poetry, novels, romance are all things that are described as youthful folly, as the kind of things you engage in briefly before settling down; and Tony gives up the one genuine love of her life to fall in line with family policy. Ultimately, the Buddenbrooks have no freedom, even though that is mostly a self-imposed state of affairs.

Tom is the epitome of conventionality, the poster boy; his immaculate manners, his refined bearing, his diplomacy is a large part of what defines him. After a while he comes to dominate the narrative, and the family itself. His rejection of Christian, his antipathy towards him, is based entirely upon what he sees as his brother’s tactlessness and inability to understand what their status as Buddenbrooks demands. In one scene towards the end he flares up at him because he wants to marry someone of low-birth; Christian accuses him of lacking feeling or empathy. What is most interesting about Tom is that he chooses for a wife one who is artistically inclined; yet, tellingly, he does not love her for her passion, or appreciate it in-and-of-itself, but rather he sees it almost as a charming, albeit inconsequential, decoration, like a lovely piece of jewellery. One of my favourite passages in the novel is when Tom’s wife accuses him – patronisingly, arrogantly – of having no musical feeling, of only liking the most easily-digestible, populist tunes. Tom responds with incredulity, for he cannot comprehend why he is being disparaged for enjoying music that he finds stirring or gently moving. To put this in a modern context, Tom likes Angels by Robbie Williams and his wife likes Dead Flag Blues by Godspeed You Black Emperor.

This tension between the conventional or bourgeois attitude and the imaginative or artistic is greatest when Tom has a son. Hanno is even more precious than his mother, even more sensitive and dreamy. For Tom Hanno is too indulged, too coddled and, most alarmingly, too feminised by his wife and nanny/governess. Tom laments that his son isn’t more active, more manly; he sees art, he sees expressions of feeling in fact, as womanly. Hanno is, in this sense, not a true Buddenbrook; he is not, as far as Tom is concerned, a model son, is not the kind of son he had hoped for. The ideal son would be one who is reserved, but strong and proud; he would grow up to be a merchant, and one day take over the family business. What Tom gets instead is a sissy who loves music; because of this both the father and the son suffer. Perhaps Mann’s ultimate aim was to show how hard it is to be an artist, or to be unconventional, in bourgeois society, but more movingly, more interestingly, Buddenbrooks reminds us how most families consist of a bunch of people who are very different personalities, who, because they are tied to each other by this incredibly strong bond, have to try and rub along, have to try and understand each other.

In terms of style, Mann wrote in a relatively simplistic manner. The sentences are short, the language not very difficult and, unlike both Doctor Faustus and The Magic Mountain, there are no long philosophical passages. One of the things that Mann’s work is most often criticised for is how detached, how arch and ironic, the narrative voice is. Mann tended to write as though he had a wry smile on his face; he made it abundantly clear that his characters are characters, not in a meta or post modern way, but by making sure that, like Dickens, his third person impersonal narrator was always a presence in the text, offering droll asides etc. Having said that, Buddenbrooks is Mann’s warmest work; it is the closest he got to producing characters that we believe in, that we fall in love with, that don’t exist primarily as ciphers. This is a truly wonderful book, which confirms that Thomas Mann was one of the great geniuses of world literature.