Thursday, 15 April 2010

"Does such a thing as "the fatal flaw," that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature?"

I have about a hundred other things I should be reading right now, but I've gone back to The Secret History by Donna Tartt. I suddenly remembered that it existed when reading a review of Naomi Alderman's new novel, The Lessons, which is supposedly a mix of Brideshead Revisited, The Secret History and The Line of Beauty. I adored two of those books and loathed the other, and haven't decided if I'm going to read The Lessons or not but nonetheless, I'll always make time for The Secret History, even if I should technically be reading Beckett instead.

I've read it so many times, but this is the first time I've re-read it having actually had some experience of university. Not that Oxford is much like Hampden. It's full of intelligent people and sometimes seems a bit detached from the outside world, but that's about it. So far, I'm not sure if I can relate to Richard much more now that I could a couple of years ago, although there are some experiences which seem familiar. That feeling that there's a hidden, more exciting way of life that's just out of reach. However happy and satisfied I might be with my life, it's impossible to quite get rid of that feeling, although sometimes I wonder if I'd feel the same way if I hadn't read so much fiction that deals with finding that "low door in the wall"...

The people who love or hate The Secret History seem to be divided their attitude towards the elitist little group of Henry, Bunny, Francis, Charles and Camilla - do you let yourself be charmed by them and decide that you would also seek their friendship if you were in Richard's position, or do you find them pretentious and annoying? I have a love-hate relationship with all the characters, but I think it's a sign of Tartt's skill that despite the fact that I've never met anyone would remotely like them, I still believe in them. They shouldn't work, but they do, somehow. Tartt also - I have no idea how - manages to make the idea of a groups of students having a Bacchanal seem almost sensible...Or at least, not entirely insane.

I'm not a Classicist. My experience is limited to struggling through five years of Latin at school, and then thoroughly enjoying two years of studying Classical Civilisation, which involved looking at Greek vases in the British Museum, theatre trips, and being delighted when I was given marks in an essay for speculating about a possible penis metaphor in Agamemnon. It also involved reading The Bacchae repeatedly, partly because it seemed to count as revision, but also because I adored it, and it was the start of a slight obsession with Dionysus. The first time I read The Secret History, I hadn't read anything by Euripides, so re-reading it now, knowing The Bacchae practically off by heart and back to front, it's even more powerful. It's wonderful when you reach a stage in your reading where you're constantly making connections, understanding allusions, and just understanding how influence works in general. You can read The Secret History without any knowledge of Greek tragedy, of course, but familiarity with Euripides certainly helps.

I find the idea of mob mentality, total loss of control and the return to a more primitive state of being so fascinating. Tartt probably explains it better, so here's an extract from one of Julian's lessons in The Secret History:

'The Greeks were different. They had a passion for order and symmetry, much like the Romans, but they knew how foolish it was to deny the unseen world, the old gods. Emotion, darkness, barbarism.' He looked at the ceiling for amoment, his face almost troubled. 'Do you remember what we were speaking of earlier, of how bloody, terrible things are sometimes the most beautiful?' he said. 'It's a very Greek idea, and a very profound one. Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely? To throw off the chains of being for an instant, to shatter the accident of our mortal selves. Euripides speaks of the Maenads: head thrown back, throat to the stars, "more like deer than human being." To be absolutely free! One is quite capable, of course, of working out these destructive passions in more vulgar and less efficient ways. But how glorious to release them in a single burst! To sing, to scream, to dance barefoot in the woods in the dead of night, with no more awareness of mortality than an animal! These are powerful mysteries. The bellowing of bulls. Springs of honey bubbling from the ground. If we are strong enough in our souls we can rip away the veil and look that naked, terrible beauty right in the face; let God consume us, devour us, unstring our bones. Then spit us out reborn.'

We were all leaning forward, motionless. My mouth had fallen open; I was aware of every breath I took.

'And that, to me, is the terrible seduction of Dionysiac ritual. Hard for us to imagine. That fire of pure being.'

It's something that isn't really explored enough in modern literature - or at least, in the books I've read - and I'd love to read a novel which takes those ideas and explores them in more depth. The Bacchanal is an important part of The Secret History, but it is only one part, something more significant as a plot device than in psychological terms. It's not a complaint, as there's so much going on already, and Greek literature raises so many issues that it would be impossible to cover them all in a novel which is already complex and full of ideas. I also think that someone needs to write a good novel about Dionysus. It's something I'd like to do, perhaps, once I've written the first four, which are in various states of progress (the vampire one, the flood one, the heramphrodite one, and the somnambulist one). I bought a book by Carl Kerenyi called Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life which I still haven't got round to reading...

The Secret History always make me wish, just for a bit, that I was studying Classics at university, but I was always hopeless with Latin grammar, and as much as I love the literature, from Aeschylus to Ovid, I do think I'm better suited to English Literature. This term we're studying modern literature, and although I'm not thrilled at the prospect of writing essays on Joyce and Beckett, there's still lots to look forward to. I plan on begging my tutor to let me spend a week on Waugh, which she'll hopefully be fine with, although I might have a harder time convincing her to let me study Peake. Essentially we only have six weeks to spend on modern literature, which seems ridiculous, but terms are only eight weeks long after all, and seventh week is spent on revision...then exams in revision. If terms were longer, but just as intense, we'd all be nervous wrecks by the end, but still, it seems a shame to cram everything in. Too much to read, too little time...

Monday, 5 April 2010

"Daubaway Weirdsley" and Decadence

I've just finished Matthew Sturgis's biography of Aubrey Beardsley, which I enjoyed so much that I could have easily done with another couple of hundred pages. Unfortunately, though, Beardsley died when he was only twenty-five, so I suppose there's a limit to how long the biography could be. Nonetheless, as I'm currently going through a phase where I want to know everything about the 1890s that I possibly can, it was useful as well as entertaining, and it's interesting seeing all the links between Beardsley and the writers of the time. Not just Wilde, but also Arthur Symons, Ernest Dowson and others. I think I first heard about Beardsley in connection with Wilde, and when I was researching my essay on Salome I came across quite a few of Beardsley's illustrations and became intrigued. I particularly liked the caricatures of Wilde that popped up occasionally, apparently in reaction to Beardsley feeling snubbed when Wilde chose Lord Alfred Douglas's French translation in favour of his own:

Although best known as an artist, Beardsley also wrote. Apparently the journalist Sidney Horler read the first three lines in Under the Hill and "felt the urge to be violently sick". They didn't have the same impact me, but here are the first three lines, if anyone's interested:

The Chevalier Tannhäuser, having lighted off his horse, stood doubtfully for a moment beneath the ombre gateway of the Venusberg, troubled with an exquisite fear lest a day’s travel should have too cruelly undone the laboured niceness of his dress. His hand, slim and gracious as La Marquise du Deffand’s in the drawing by Carmontelle, played nervously about the gold hair that fell upon his shoulders like a finely-curled peruke, and from point to point of a precise toilet the fingers wandered, quelling the little mutinies of cravat and ruffle.
It was taper-time; when the tired earth puts on its cloak of mists and shadows, when the enchanted woods are stirred with light footfalls and slender voices of the fairies, when all the air is full of delicate influences, and even the beaux, seated at their dressing-tables, dream a little.

Not exactly sick-making, but even so, nothing that I've read by him so far matches his art.

I've been immersing myself in Beardsley and The Yellow Book even though I really ought to be sticking to my modernism reading list, but I can't resist. Since reading A rebours I've had the vague aim of trying to read as much "decadent" literature as possible. It's a confusing term, and I still find myself dithering over symbolism, decadence and aestheticism, but if I carry on with my self-made reading list, hopefully I'll get my head around it eventually. The excellent Decadent Handbook has given me some more ideas for writers to investigate. For now, here's my list of writers associated with decadence. I know it all started with the French, but I'm sticking with the British writers for now, and going backwards.

Algernon Charles Swinburne
Oscar Wilde
Walter Pater
Michael Field
Rosamund Marriott Watson
W. B. Yeats
Ernest Dowson
Lionel Johnson
John Davidson
Richard le Gallienne
John Gray
William Ernest Henley
Lord de Tabley
Lord Alfred Douglas
Aubrey Beardsley
Sarojini Naidu

Not all of them were that prolific, but it'll probably take me ages to get through them all, anyway, especially as I keep being distracted by reading for my course. We only spent a term on the Victorians, and I still can't quite let go. The first lecture series I attended, and the one that made the greatest impact on me, covered everything from Swinburne to Dracula - I still miss it. While Old English has grown on me, and I'm happy to be moving on to modern literature next term, I can't help but cling to the late 19th century. As geeky as it sounds, one of the highlights of Michaelmas was sitting in the Bodleian with a first edition copy of Michael Field's Long Ago...

Similarly, although I've finished the Beardsley biography and am moving on to Virginia Woolf, I think I may be at the start of a new obsession that won't go away.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

An introduction

I've been blogging in some form or another since I was thirteen - I'm now eighteen - and I feel like it's time to have another go at a book blog, seeing as I'm reading more now than ever before. I'm in my first year at Oxford, studying English Language and Literature, and when I'm not reading I'm thinking about reading, or writing, or mourning dead poets. While it's tempting to try and give a brief history of what I've read so far, or to try and set out my aims for this blog, the former would feel too much like writing my personal statement all over again, and the latter would be impossible as I don't really know what I want to do. I just like writing about books. For some reason, all the essays I have to write aren't enough.

So for now, here's an extract from The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass, which is where the blog's title comes from. Oskar Matzerath reflects on his childhood reading, and the conflict between Rasputin and Goethe:

The conflicting harmony between these two was to shape or influence my whole life, at least what life I have tried to live apart from my drum. To this very day - and even now that Oskar in his eagerness for learning is gradually plowing his way through the whole hospital library - I snap my fingers at Schiller and company and fluctuate between Rasputin and Goethe, between the faith healer and the man of the Enlightenment, between the dark spirit who cast a spell on women and the luminous poet prince who was so fond of letting women cast a spell on him. If for a time I inclined more toward Rasputin and feared Goethe's intolerance, it was because of a faint suspicion that if you, Oskar, had lived and drummed at his time, Goethe would have thought you unnatural, would have condemned you as an incarnation of anti-nature, that while feeding his own precious nature - which essentially you have always admired and striven for even when it gave itself the most unnatural airs - on honeybuns, he would have taken notice of you, poor devil, only to hit you over the head with Faust or a big heavy volume of his Theory of Colors.

But back to Rasputin. With the help of Gretchen Scheffler he taught me the big and little alphabets, taught me to be attentive to women, and comforted me when Goethe hurt my feelings.