Around 70% of this short book is about pottery, coins and beards. That may put you off. It must be admitted that when historians peruse these far offAround 70% of this short book is about pottery, coins and beards. That may put you off. It must be admitted that when historians peruse these far off centuries there is very little hard evidence to show what happened. So, we are left with pottery, coins and beards.
Actually this is really NOT a book for the general reader. I found myself in a room where a bunch of specialists in the “Late Antiquity” period were yelling
And Bryan Ward-Perkins was yelling back “Invasion!”
"Yah – your mother smelled of elderberries and your sister had several romances with haddock, flounders and other types of marine life!”
So what’s it all about? The original view put forward by everyone up to 1970 was that the Roman Empire collapsed in ruins during the 5th century as waves of invasions by Germanic tribes with cool names gave them such beatings that their epicurean somnolence could not withstand and they were turfed out. These barbarians were called Goths and Vandals and Visigoths (maybe the latter were just Goths with bad eyesight, the archaeological records do not say). So, pretty straight-forward, right? The Romans were effete and couldn’t get off their sofas without three slaves to help them, and the Goths were all big & brawny and had next to no manners. It was no contest.
The traditional view in which catastrophe destroys the magnificent Roman dinosaur, but leaves a few tiny dark-age mammals alive, to evolve very slowly over the coming centuries into the sophisticated creatures of the renaissance.
In 1970 an alternative to the traditional story was proposed. Decline and fall was replaced with integration, transformation, cultural revolution, where the German tribes were invited in to the Empire and kind of fused with it. The idea was that the narrative of the decline and fall of Roman civilisation implied that what came after was inferior – brutish, unlettered, ignorant, awful. The traditional narrative was on the site of the patrician Romans. It was – well, it was antidemocratic. It had to go. You can see that kind of thinking coming out of the sixties.
It is currently deeply unfashionable to state that anything like a ‘crisis’ or a ‘decline’ occurred at the end of the Roman empire, let alone that a ‘civilisation’ collapsed and a ‘dark age’ ensued.
This new narrative has taken over the history departments, but it’s like the debates about Christianity which the clergy always have – the public are blithely ignorant of it all, and in this case they stick with the traditional view - Rome 0, Goths 1.
So this book is a counter-counter argument, it’s really for the in crowd who can enjoy a good professorial punch-up. It’s not an entirely black & white issue, as you may expect. BW-P accepts that, for instance,
in many regions, despite some expropriation and loss, Roman aristocratic families continued wealthy and influential under Germanic rule
Most of the new rulers ran their kingdoms in a style that closely imitated that of the empire, and that required Roman administrators to make it work
So that sounds like transformation to me, not eradication. But when you think he’s trying to have his cake and eat it, he comes down strongly on the side of cultural decline. This is where the coins, pottery and beards come in. No, the archaeologists do not dig up remains of old beards. The Romans didn’t have them and the Goths did. So in portraits – well, maybe we should stick to the big picture here, not the little ones.
BW-P paints a convincing big picture of the complexity of the Roman economy, with functioning distribution of sophisticated products not just for the elite but the average citizen. After the barbarians (such a pejorative term!) this all stopped. The transformation guys say it was because the imperial power was replaced by local egalitarianism. BW-P says stuff and nonsense – the material level of society plummeted after Rome. E.g. buildings had tiled roofs in Italy as a matter of course in the 5th century. It was 1000 years before that became true again.
It may initially be hard to believe, but post-Roman Britain in fact sank to a level of economic complexity well below that of the pre-Roman Iron Age
He has to explain this – because he says “the invaders entered the empire with a wish to share in its high standard of living, not to destroy it”. But destroy it they did, unwittingly, says the professor. Mainly by removing security, so that trade became difficult, then impossible. The Roman world was highly specialised (like our world is) and without the security of movement and trust in money the complex trade of the empire shrivelled very rapidly. The Goths were the bulls in the Roman chinashop.
One curious point BW-P makes is that his argument sounds like he is defending the concept of an Empire, and as this is as politically unacceptable as possible these days, that’s why his argument is resisted. I am sorry to hear that. I had hoped that scholars were able to find the meanings within words, and not have their thinking blocked by mere syllables.
Note Romans fighting a giant insect on reverse of coin. ...more
Orwell on Dickens is fantastic and if you’re a Dickens fan is a must read. Orwell actually gets his arms around the huge beast that is the work of ChaOrwell on Dickens is fantastic and if you’re a Dickens fan is a must read. Orwell actually gets his arms around the huge beast that is the work of Charles Dickens. Insights fly out of every page like bold bright birds flapping wings of gold – not many writers on literature are so fearless. First Orwell describes, then as he gets into his project he sharpens his axes, then he buries them into Dickens. You think he’s going to chop down the great man, but no, in the end Orwell himself drives the ambulance to the A&E and pumps life back into the gasping relict.
Here is Orwell gearing up :
He attacked English institutions with a ferocity that has never since been approached. Yet he managed to do it without making himself hated, and, more than this, the very people he attacked have swallowed him so completely that he has become a national institution
Here he is circling around his prey, figuring out what he is and is not :
Not a proletarian writer – if you look for the working classes in fiction, and especially English fiction, all you find is a hole… the ordinary town proletariat, the people who make the wheels go round, have always been ignored by novelists
That’s one of many enormous generalisations about the novel, English novels in particular. He seems to have read all of 19th century fiction including the Russians. He is of course approaching this issue from the Left :
His criticism of society is almost exclusively moral. Hence the utter lack of any constructive suggestion anywhere in his work… its whole moral is that capitalists ought to be kind, not that workers ought to be rebellious
In his attitude towards servants Dickens is not ahead of his age. In the nineteenth century the revolt against domestic service was just beginning, to the great annoyance of everyone with over £500 a year… He was writing at a time when domestic service must have seemed a completely inevitable evil…It was an age of enormous families, pretentious meals and inconvenient houses, when the slavey drudging fourteen hours a day in the basement kitchen was something too normal to be noticed.
For Orwell Dickens can write about prison, about childhood, about problems and issues, about the bourgeois, but not about work, not about agriculture, not about inventions, or about social progress or solutions. He has limitless imagination for characters and comic detail, none for how people might live better.
He is a man who lives through his eyes and ears rather than through his hands and muscles
His plots wind their melodramatic ways through the dead returned, the revelatory will, the revealed identity and so forth, and at the end is a nice rich guy who rewards the patiently suffering hero with a big bag of cash. After which, the hero… does nothing. He retires, he marries, he has a large family, he is a nice person, the end.
By this time, anyone who is a lover of Dickens, and who has read as far as this, will probably be angry with me says Orwell, and then starts into some very unflattering comparisons with Tolstoy. But in the end, he says, you do not begrudge the time spent with him, indeed, you think of it as blessed – Dickens
is laughing, with a touch of anger in his laughter, but no triumph, no malignity… a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened… a man who is generously angry…
There were so many interesting points in here - I would like to discuss them all - but this is a review not a counter-essay.
I wish there were fearless critics of today who would take on the big beasts of our modern literatures and knock them around for 10 rounds or so, with such candour, vivacity and relish. ...more
The introduction says that Philip Larkin was “by common consent, the best-loved British poet of the last century”. And I see that in 2008, he was numbThe introduction says that Philip Larkin was “by common consent, the best-loved British poet of the last century”. And I see that in 2008, he was number one in a poll of readers of The Times to find the "50 greatest British writers since 1945". He described himself as “the paltry librarian of a piffling university”. His thing was dreariness and impending death (“Outside it’s pissing with rain & I sit in my enormous duffel coat before my lukewarm fire, hands like two chilly frogs”) – well, a lot of the time anyway – and he was given to making comments like
Children I would willingly bayonet by the score.
He was the right-wing son of a right-wing father who
shared the anti-Semitism of many of his class and generation. During the thirties he had brightened up his office in Coventry with Nazi paraphernalia brought back from conferences and Nuremberg rallies.
Philip told a colleague that his father
had a statue of Hitler on the mantelpiece which at the touch of a button leapt into a Nazi salute … However, when the object came to light in 2002, it turned out, in fact, to be a tiny hand-painted figurine, barely three inches high, with brown shirt and piercing blue eyes… There is no button, the arm simply props up on a catch.
(Well, you can’t have everything.).
Off he went to Oxford university where he attended lectures on Anglo-Saxon by JRR Tolkien and became a woman… literarily. Brunette Coleman, authoress!
During summer and autumn 1943 he devoted much energy to writing girls’-school fiction under a female pseudonym. This seems a strange development for a twenty-year-old male undergraduate in the middle of a war.
Well, yes. It was this kind of thing:
Then he wrote two novels you would have to pay me to read, and then he met two people, Monica Jones and Kingsley Amis, who hated each other. MJ became his life-long long-distance girlfriend and Amis his best friend.
So he and Amis were both fiddling around with novels and Larkin was doling out much well-taken advice about the novel Amis was struggling over. It was apparently quite a serious realist novel but Larkin kept pointing out how funny it was or could be, and gradually it became Lucky Jim.
Monica Jones features in Lucky Jim as the neurotic, manipulative and really rather creepy Margaret Peel. Amis is quite vicious about her:
What a pity it was, he thought, that she wasn’t better-looking, that she didn’t read articles in the three-halfpenny press that told you what lipstick went with what natural colouring. With twenty per cent more of what she lacked in these ways, she’d never have run into any of her appalling difficulties : the vices and morbidities bred of loneliness would have remained safely dormant until old age.
Well, maybe that’s Amis for you – but here’s our biographer:
Edgy, defensive, loud and with little interest in other people, Monica was not an easy companion. Anthony Thwaite remembers being baffled, when he first met her a few years later, that the urbane Philip should have paired himself with so socially inept and ungracious a partner.
Larkin to Monica:
In my view you would do better to revise, dramatically, the amount you say and the intensity with which you say it.... you've no idea of the exhausting quality of yourself in full voice...
He proposes three rules:
1 – restrict yourself to two or at the most three sentences at a time
2 – abandon altogether your harsh didactic voice, & use only the soft musical one
3 – do more than glance at your interlocutor once or twice while speaking. You're getting a habit of boring your face up or round into the features of your listener - don't do it! It's most trying.
I love to be made to goggle and cackle by biographies and page 138 of this one made me do both. In 1949 Larkin had the idea that maybe Amis would let his new wife pose for some photographs.
Letter from Amis:
I have asked Hilly about your dirty-picture proposal, and obtained a modified assent. She is prepared to do corset-and-black-stockings or holding-up-a-towel stuff, and bare-bosom stuff but is a hit hesitant about being quite undraped “though I’ll probably get bolder when I start”.
Alas, our biographer doesn’t say if this project was embarked upon.
But in 1958, Larkin’s porn collecting habits brought a letter to his door :
On headed notepaper, putatively from the Vice Squad, saying that his name and address had been found on a mailing liste of a pornographic publisher and that legal proceedings would be taken… He was certain that his mugshot and crude headlines would be blazoned over the News of the World and the Hull Daily Mail and that he would lose his job. He might even be sent to prison. … He visited his solicitor.
Quite soon, however, his great friend Robert Conquest revealed that it was all a hoax, just something to try to give him a heart attack and get a great laugh. Larkin “appreciated the prank” and “remained on cordial terms” with Mr Conquest.
Sad biographer’s comment on p285 :
Larkin’s pornography collection is almost entirely lost.
The second photo section helpfully provides two examples of what has survived : “Left : a characteristic ‘nude study’ of the model Sophia Dawn…Right: a naughty schoolgirl photograph.”
Larkin’s life is easy to sum up. He was a university librarian in a distant northern town. He had two girlfriends, one local and Monica. He didn’t want to get married. He wrote poems, quite slowly. He gradually got semi-famous.
2 people asked me to autograph The Whitsun Weddings in the train – the Ringo Starr of contemporary verse.
His character is another matter and here the story turns dark – he was a racist all right, although James Both jumps through many hoops to try to exculpate him. He was a towering snob too. And a traditional jazz fan, in which pursuit his racism was inverted – whites out, blacks in. This irony did occur to him. He was the kind of genteel buffer who you would never think had a nasty bone in his long body until you got a letter from him or you read his diary. And this is the danger of biography – you read about those you admire at your peril. Maybe better to stick to the work, which in this case is magnificently memorable. You all must know this one:
I work all day, and get half drunk at night. Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare. In time the curtain edges will grow light. Till then I see what's really always there: Unresting death, a whole day nearer now, Making all thought impossible but how And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread Of dying, and being dead, Flashes afresh to hold and horrify. The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse - The good not used, the love not given, time Torn off unused - nor wretchedly because An only life can take so long to climb Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never: But at the total emptiness forever, The sure extinction that we travel to And shall be lost in always. Not to be here, Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true. This is a special way of being afraid No trick dispels. Religion used to try, That vast moth-eaten musical brocade Created to pretend we never die, And specious stuff that says no rational being Can fear a thing it cannot feel, not seeing that this is what we fear - no sight, no sound, No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with, Nothing to love or link with, The anaesthetic from which none come round.
And so it stays just on the edge of vision, A small unfocused blur, a standing chill That slows each impulse down to indecision. Most things may never happen: this one will, And realisation of it rages out In furnace fear when we are caught without People or drink. Courage is no good: It means not scaring others. Being brave Lets no-one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood. Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape. It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know, Have always known, know that we can't escape Yet can't accept. One side will have to go. Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring Intricate rented world begins to rouse. The sky is white as clay, with no sun. Work has to be done. Postmen like doctors go from house to house.
If that butters your parsnip, there's plenty more where that came from. ...more
Such was the big fat craptastic big-reveal groanworthy lurid pulpy Victorian melodramatic you-got-to-be-kidding ending-with-no-sense that the two starSuch was the big fat craptastic big-reveal groanworthy lurid pulpy Victorian melodramatic you-got-to-be-kidding ending-with-no-sense that the two stars this novel was hanging on to by its fingernails up to page 130 slipped out of its grasp and it ended up with the ignominious one star, but since that puts it in the same company as many much-loved novels it may well be worn as a Badge Of Honour – I envisage one of those peelable stickers on all future editions A P BRYANT ONE STAR NOVEL!! and Julian Barnes can swank around with Zadie Smith, Richard Ford and Don DeLillo and read each other their own one star reviews.
It’s one thing to realise that as a person with a fiction addiction you must tread a lonely path because in Real Life as you may know not that many people are as hopelessly addicted as we here on Goodreads. But then it’s another thing to have to admit that within that already small (but intense, intense) community of readers you are now part of a minority since the majority appear to be besotted with YA/adult romance/fantasy etc. So, mainstream literature is now a minority sport like lacrosse or curling, and should be rebranded. But then, even stranger, to find oneself as the minority of the minority of the minority…. Which happens when the majority of the minority are all raving about a novel that turns out to be The Sense of an Ending.
In Flaubert’s Parrot by JB a guy moons around in France on his own and has thoughts about his life and about Flaubert and you gradually realise that he’s suppressing some horrible thing he doesn’t want to think about. The atmosphere in that novel is transfixing, it’s maximum understated comedy horror. Top novel. This one, 150 pages of picking over an old friendship and a first romance the banal entanglements of which come to a vague watery light when the deceased mother of the ancient girlfriend (it was all 40 years ago) bequeaths to our boring narrator a diary. Like a bolt from the blue.
This was a novel where all the detail of the guy’s current mildly depressed defeated mouldering away English life were exactly and toe-curlingly right, and all the actual incidents in the plot (of which there are five, I think, maybe five and a half) are completely wrong, simply ridiculous – no one would do that. The girlfriend would not (redacted), the mother would totally not (redacted) and if the friend really did (redacted) then the narrator (redacted). This is why a novel can be both intelligent (he drops in a sprinkling of Readers Digest Improve Your Conversation by Quoting Philosophy snippets and he’s forever going on about Time, what is Time, can we control Time or does Time control Us, can Time go backwards or sidewards, can Time flow up one nostril and down the Other?) and also stupid (people don’t behave like this).
This was a Booker prize winner but it was one of the Bad Bookers like Vernon God Little. There are Good Bookers, like Wolf Hall and The White Tiger. Read the good Bookers, avoid the Bad. Keep on the sunny side of life. ...more
There are so many novels which are really memoirs but are given to us as novels because memoirs are like “oh, what makes you think your life is so intThere are so many novels which are really memoirs but are given to us as novels because memoirs are like “oh, what makes you think your life is so interesting I might want to read about it?” and novels are “yay! A new novel!”
I will bet one thousand of my British pounds
that Jenny Offill really did have a bug infestation in her apartment and really did have a daughter who broke both her wrists. (Novels I read recently which are really also memoirs are : A Question of Upbringing, The Wallcreeper, The Adventures of Augie March, The Naked and the Dead, Voyage in the Dark… the list could go on and on.)
It’s true that calling your memoir a novel allows you to have a lot more fun with the facts, as in, you don’t have to stick to them. And some sharp arts reporter won’t be able to Frey you alive.
I read that JO’s agent said “this isn’t a novel, it’s an x-ray of a novel”. Yes, that’s right! The main characters have no names and all the main events have to be inferred, but that’s not hard as it’s a banal tale of adultery, which is why JO did it this way.
It’s written in teeny paragraphs, some of which are quotations from famous brainiacs of the past. And the mother is called The Mother and the baby is called The Baby. Reviewers like its brilliant originality but we have seen these elements before, in Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson (1988) and in a long and great story by Lorrie Moore called “People Like That are the Only People Here”. And maybe elsewhere too, heck, I ain’t read everything. I could prove this to you by means of quotations but I don't mean to be mean.
It was very sad. It was full of stuff like this:
The wife sits in the backyard with binoculars. She is trying to learn about the birds. She has seen robins and sparrows and wrens. A green-throated hummingbird. She wants to know the name of the black bird with the red wings. She looks it up. It is a red-winged blackbird.
That reminded me of the flocks of sparrows which used to descend in the back garden of my childhood when we used to throw out breadcrumbs for them. The common house sparrow. Nottingham was full of them, you never gave them a thought, they were just there. Now, you don’t see a single one from January to December. I don’t know why. Was it something we said?
Viewed from afar, Anthony Powell’s 167-volume A Dance to the Music of Time appears as one of the Alps of 20th century fiction. You are daunted by itsViewed from afar, Anthony Powell’s 167-volume A Dance to the Music of Time appears as one of the Alps of 20th century fiction. You are daunted by its crags. My goodness, a 167-novel sequence stretching over 89 years! It’s some achievement. But when you find yourself in possession of the first volume, a fun-sized 230 pages, disconcerted and relieved, you realise that this is nothing more than a leisurely afternoon stroll through the early years of a young toff and his posh mates, firstly in the last year of school and then the first year of university. It is no Alp at all. This is familiar territory – Mr Powell is surely Evelyn Waugh’s twin brother.
Mr Powell writes ponderous, clausey sentences which have pleasing bends and graceful arcs. He is like a great swan gliding upon the English language, feathers never to be ruffled. The acknowledged musicality of the prose makes this a symphony of snobbery with violins. The song he sings is of the English upper class and how they run everything. How their etiolated scions lounge through school (meaning the fearfully expensive public schools of England, like Eton, where many of the current Tory cabinet were educated), putz around in the colonies patronising the natives and the colonists (you could call it a gap year), then saunter along to put in a spell up at Oxford or Cambridge (there are no other universities for this crowd) until some family acquaintance shimmies them into a middling job in the City.
We observe through the eyes of Jenkins three or four of these toffs. At Eton, as 16/17 year olds, they talk pompously and preposterously to each other like this:
But my dear Peter, why do you always go about dressed as if you were going to dance up and down a row of naked ladies singing “Dapper Dan was a very handy man” or something equally lyrical? You get more like an advertisement for gents’ tailoring every day.
But usually not so entertainingly.
The book is in three sections – school, my holiday in France, and my university days. The French episode, lasting 60 pages, brought me close to despair. It was beyond dire. At the French pension various minor characters got to do footling things to each other. Many pages were spent on a tennis match between two Scandinavians. One won by utilising a drop shot which was considered ungentlemanly by the other. I have been more entertained opening unsolicited junk mail. Throughout the novel minor characters swirl in and out, and each get the Powell introductory treatment.
…shaking from his round, somewhat pasty face a brownish, uneven fringe that grew low on his forehead and made him look rather like a rag doll, or marionette; an air augmented by brown eyes like beads, and a sprinkling of freckles. His tie, a broad, loose knot, left the collar of his shirt a little open.
The American, Honthorst’s, hair was almost as uncontrolled as that of Members. It stood up on the top of his head like the comb, or crest, of a hoopoe, or cassowary; this bird-like appearance being increased by a long, bare neck, ending in a white collar cut drastically low
Well - if I am to suffer through endless introductions to and descriptions of minor characters you will forgive me if I ask if there is likely to be a point to their presence, more than just filling up the room, like furniture. Perhaps the point will be encountered in Book 43 or Book 77 of the series, by more determined readers than I. If so, hapless is the reader of volume one, meeting and greeting one character after another who then does nothing.
Jenkins, the narrator, endlessly contemplates the precise class relations and characters of his few acquaintances and their exact degrees of regard for each other
It was possible that, in the eyes of Quiggin, money represented some element in which he knew himself deficient : rather in the same way that Widmerpool, when he wanted to criticise Stringham, said that he had too much money; no doubt in truth envying the possession of assets that were, in fact, not material ones.
But why all this may be of interest to the reader is not clear. I must confess that the warm appreciation this novel inspires mystifies me.
some very funny incidents made me burst out laughing. (Goodreads)
It is quite fascinating and, oh, so skillfully crafted, often with dry and understated wit. (Goodreads)
A very entertaining and enjoyable read, but not purely fluff and insignificance, as the psychological insights are acute and revealing (Goodreads)
Subtle, witty and immensely entertaining. I started to affix post-it notes to mark favourite passages, but there were so many I finally gave this up. (Goodreads)
Intensely enjoyable – his dry, ironic descriptions are very funny indeed (The Observer)
I would rather read Mr Powell than any English novelist now writing (Kingsley Amis)
Tedious and overpraised (Auberon Waugh – oops!)
It’s possible that a steady diet of Breaking Bad, Walking Dead, Richard Price police procedurals, Cormac McCarthy and true crime has dulled my senses to the point where a series of diffident reflections on the interpersonal relations of several assorted rich British men from the early 1920s fails to completely engage my attention with its subtlety and understated humour. But no – I’ll have none of that - for the most part this was excruciatingly dull.
I would like to disembowel Mr Anthony Powell At my wall I would be flinging A Question of Upbringing ...more