“Cocks exist for the hen, but hens exist for the cock” – is there such thing as self – parody? with Bernard Richards, Max Beerbohm, Algernon Swinburne, Henry Reed – and Tennyson, Eliot and Kipling

This letter from Bernard Richards in the 29th June TLS caught my eye:

Sir, – Francis Hope spoke in his reprinted review of Nabokov’s Ada (From the Archives, June 22) of authors writing “self-parody”, including Henry James in The Golden Bowl. One quite often encounters this accusation, but in my view it is not sufficiently subtle or accurate. Writers who produce parodies have the intention of mocking their victims, by exposing their benighted attitudes or quirky stylistic techniques. Surely when late James, for instance, was producing his strange and distinctive style he was not doing so with the intention of mocking and exposing himself. What he was actually doing was pushing the boundaries of his originality and distinctiveness further and further, building on and utilizing features which had been developing for decades. He was, in effect, writing self-pastiche not self-parody. There is a distinct difference between late James and Beerbohm’s brilliant parody of him in A Christmas Garland, if only in intention. One might be tempted to think that a good deal of Tennyson is self-parody, but it can’t hold a candle to the real thing: Swinburne’s “The Higher Pantheism in a Nutshell”. Ditto T. S. Eliot, but nothing could be as good as Henry Reed’s “Chard Whitlow”.

Self-parody is fairly rare, if only because most authors take themselves seriously, and have not been able to stand back sufficiently from their own styles and preoccupations to see them for what they are. A rare case of genuine self-parody is Swinburne’s “Nephelidia”, which does indeed mock the Swinburnean. It is said that Kipling’s “Municipal” is self-parody. One hopes it is, because it is pretty bad otherwise.

BERNARD RICHARDS Brasenose College, Oxford.

Being an owner of John Gross’ Oxford Book of Parodies and a former owner of Simon Brett’s Faber Book of Parodies, I am familiar with “A Christmas Garland”  and here is a link to “The Mote In the Middle Distance”, the parody of James in the volume. The echo of James’ rococo style is evident from the first sentence:

It was with the sense of a, for him, very memorable something that he peered now into the immediate future, and tried, not without compunction, to take that period up where he had, prospectively, left it.

“The Higher Pantheism in a Nutshell” was a little harder to track down. It is one of Swinburne’s Hepetalogia, “Or The Seven Against Sense”,  of which digital copies can be found here. As Richards mentions, there is a Swinburne auto-parody, as well as parodies of other contemporaries:

THE HIGHER PANTHEISM IN A NUTSHELL

One, who is not, we see: but one, whom we see not, is:

Surely this is not that: but that is assuredly this.

What, and wherefore, and whence? for under is over and under:

If thunder could be without lightning, lightning could be without thunder.

Doubt is faith in the main: but faith, on the whole, is doubt:

We cannot believe by proof: but could we believe without?

Why, and whither, and how? for barley and rye are not clover:

Neither are straight lines curves: yet over is under and over.

Two and two may be four: but four and four are not eight:

Fate and God may be twain: but God is the same thing as fate.

Ask a man what he thinks, and get from a man what he feels:

God, once caught in the fact, shows you a fair pair of heels.

Body and spirit are twins: God only knows which is which:

The soul squats down in the flesh, like a tinker drunk in a ditch.

More is the whole than a part: but half is more than the whole:

Clearly, the soul is the body: but is not the body the soul?

One and two are not one: but one and nothing is two:

Truth can hardly be false, if falsehood cannot be true.

Once the mastodon was: pterodactyls were common as cocks:

Then the mammoth was God: now is He a prize ox.

Parallels all things are: yet many of these are askew:

You are certainly I: but certainly I am not you.

Springs the rock from the plain, shoots the stream from the rock:

Cocks exist for the hen: but hens exist for the cock.

God, whom we see not, is: and God, who is not, we see:

Fiddle, we know, is diddle: and diddle, we take it, is dee.

Eliot himself loved Henry Reed’s parody, “Chard Whitlow”:

Most parodies of one’s own work strike one as very poor. In fact, one is apt to think one could parody oneself much better. (As a matter of fact, some critics have said that I have done so.) But there is one which deserves the success it has had, Henry Reed’s Chard Whitlow.

 

Here it is:

Chard Whitlow
(Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Evening Postscript)
As we get older we do not get any younger.

Seasons return, and today I am fifty-five,

And this time last year I was fifty-four.

And this time next year I shall be sixty-two.

And I cannot say I should like (to speak for myself)

To see my time over again—if you can call it time:

Fidgeting uneasily under a draughty stair,

Or counting sleepless nights in the crowded tube.

There are certain precautions—though none of them very reliable—

Against the blast from heaven, vento di venti,

And the frigid burnings of purgatory will not be touched

By any emollient.

I think you will find this put,

Better than I could ever hope to express it,

In the words of Kharma: “It is, we believe,

Idle to hope that the simple stirrup-pump

Will extinguish hell.”

Oh, listeners,

And you especially who have turned off the wireless,

And sit in Stoke or Basingstoke listening appreciatively to the silence,

(Which is also the silence of hell) pray, not for your sinks, but your souls.

And pray for me also under the draughty stair.

As we get older we do not get any younger.

And pray for Kharma under the holy mountain.

 

Richards expresses a hope that Kipling’s Municipal was an effort at self-poetry; otherwise it is merely very bad. I would have held myself familiar with much of Kipling’s poetry, but not this one. All I can say is that I concur with Bernard Richards – at best it is a rather laboured effort in the mock-heroic vein:

Why is my District death-rate low?”
Said Binks of Hezabad.
“Well, drains, and sewage-outfalls are
“My own peculiar fad.
“I learnt a lesson once, It ran
“Thus,” quoth that most veracious man: —

 

It was an August evening and, in snowy garments clad,
I paid a round of visits in the lines of Hezabad;
When, presently, my Waler saw, and did not like at all,
A Commissariat elephant careering down the Mall.

I couldn’t see he driver, and across my mind it rushed
That that Commissariat elephant had suddenly gone musth.
I didn’t care to meet him, and I couldn’t well get down,
So I let the Waler have it, and we headed for the town.

The buggy was a new one and, praise Dykes, it stood the strain,
Till he Waler jumped a bullock just above the City Drain;
And the next that I remember was a hurricane of squeals,
And the creature making toothpicks of my five-foot patent wheels.

He seemed to want the owner, so I fled, distraught with fear,
To the Main Drain sewage-outfall while he snorted in my ear —
Reached the four-foot drain-head safely and, in darkness and despair,
Felt the brute’s proboscis fingering my terror-stiffened hair.

Heard it trumpet on my shoulder — tried to crawl a little higher —
Found the Main Drain sewage outfall blocked, some eight feet up, with mire;
And, for twenty reeking minutes, Sir, my very marrow froze,
While the trunk was feeling blindly for a purchase on my toes!

It missed me by a fraction, but my hair was turning grey
Before they called the drivers up and dragged the brute away.
Then I sought the City Elders, and my words were very plain.
They flushed that four-foot drain-head and — it never choked again!

You may hold with surface-drainage, and the sun-for-garbage cure,
Till you’ve been a periwinkle shrinking coyly up a sewer.
I believe in well-flushed culverts. . . .
This is why the death-rate’s small;
And, if you don’t believe me, get shikarred yourself. That’s all.

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The past and future of handwriting- David Rundle in the TLS

In the current TLS there is an excellent review by David Rundle of two recent books on handwriting.

Anyone who knows me, or more specifically had had to read my handwriting, will no doubt be amused to discover I am actually quite interested in handwriting. I have tried various pens, pen grips and other means to improve my scrawl. Alas, when time is short all these are abandoned and I revert to type (in every sense)

It is comforting to find out from the piece that St Thomas Aquinas also had difficult-to-read handwriting:

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Anne Trubek’s book sounds like it exemplifies a current belief that handwriting is irrelevant anyway in the digital age. I am not so sure. Quite apart from anything else, I suspect handwriting to be a skill with much far transfer. And writing is an opportunity for artistic expression, something at a premium in a homogenised, noisome culture.

Rundle is quite sceptical of Trubek’s claims, which as he points out are rather First World centric, and concludes:

Pen and paper, then, will remain because they are cheap. Meanwhile, in the West, many of us may fret over the scrawl we inflict on the page, but we can reassure ourselves that bad handwriting is not an invention of modernity: ask anybody who has tried to decipher pages written by Thomas Aquinas. He would certainly not make it into a gallery such as that Patricia Lovett provides. Her selection of scribes necessarily concentrates on those with the most skill, but enough specimens survive to remind us that few mastered that level of artistry. Many wrote less accurately, less consistently and simply less presentably. If they had been Xerox machines, they would have been the ones in urgent need of a visit from the engineer.

A volume chronicling cacography – poor handwriting – might not sell as well as one on calligraphy, but it deserves its history too, and will certainly have its future. For those who are truly latter-day Aquinases, with a natural difficulty in being legible, the keyboard is a saving grace. Others too prefer it as their medium of self-expression. Yet, it is a “self” sublimated to the font choices of the corporation whose software you use. Of course, when we write by hand, we are also confined, individuality restrained by the requirements of the script, but there is a certain licence for variation and idiosyncrasy, however badly it is executed. Many may find such latitude engenders lassitude and choose to allow the computer to decide for them. That is not a freedom available to everyone in our world – if true freedom it is.

Rundle’s Twitter feed is full of interesting and entertaining snippets from manuscripts:

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Orcs and Oulipo – TLS piece by Peter Hoskin on Fighting Fantasy

There’s an affectionate piece on Fighting Fantasy books on the TLS website by Peter Hoskin (I am not sure if “TLS Online” means it will not appear in the print edition)

Some highlights:

The Fighting Fantasy books, which began with Livingstone and Steve Jackson’s The Warlock of Firetop Mountain in 1982, are categorized as gamebooks. In each, the reader makes decisions about how the story will proceed. Do you want to go down the foul-smelling tunnel to the left, or up the rickety ladder to the right? Would you like to fight that monster, or run away in terror? Discovering the outcome of your choice, and making another choice, involves turning to a particular numbered section of the book. If you’re fortunate, you may eventually succeed in your quest. If you’re unfortunate, death awaits.

There is a brilliant cruelty to Fighting Fantasy, which is demonstrated by the treasure map in The Port of Peril. It took about half an hour of forking paths, monster encounters and dice rolls before I discovered that there was no treasure, and the real story was only just beginning. Half an hour in which I had been toyed with. “It’s like sprinkling petals towards quicksand”, is how Livingstone described the process when I spoke with him recently. “I really enjoy that”.

However, this isn’t cruelty for cruelty’s sake – at least not always. It encourages the reader to pay extra attention to the details of the story. My first death in The Port of Peril came when I decided to avoid a half-orc by hiding in a cellar. If only I’d remembered that I had moved an iron stove from a trapdoor to access the cellar, and the stove could just as easily be moved back by anyone who wanted to keep me down there. Heedlessness, in these books, is the quickest route to failure.

Some notes on the history of FF books:

The whole series began when Geraldine Cooke, then an editor at Penguin, asked Livingstone and Jackson to write a book about the craze that, through their company Games Workshop, they had imported into Britain – Dungeons & Dragons. They proposed, instead, a book that might allow people to experience the craze for themselves. This was D&D, but without the complex latticework of rules and equations, nor the need to corral several people around a table for a hard night’s play. This was a slimmer, solo experience.

Not everyone at Penguin was as broad-minded as Cooke. In Jonathan Green’s excellent book about Fighting Fantasy, You Are the Hero, Cooke reveals that one member of senior management was so unimpressed with the idea that he “la[id] his head on the table and howled with laughter”. His view, presumably expressed between guffaws, was that these interactive books would never catch on

I do wonder if Hoskin slightly overstates the influence of interactive fiction in this piece. We read:

Nowadays, many other writers are applying similar constraints to their work. The app version of Iain Pears’s novel Arcadia (2015) presents its readers with a sort of map that they can press their fingers to, allowing movement between different branches of the story. These branches were written to work alongside each other, but also with the software and within the dimensions of an iPad.

One novel does not a trend, or a school make… and there remains a gimmickiness to much interactive fiction. I say that as someone whose later childhood was fairly dominated by the “five fingered bookmark” Livingstone mentions in the last paragraph:

Perhaps we’ll see a widespread return of what Livingstone calls the “five-fingered bookmark”, used by adventurers who want to retrace their steps as soon as something goes wrong. This is cheating, really, although it’s also in keeping with the greatest lesson that Fighting Fantasy can teach. Every page is a precipice from which you can return. Die and try again.

Hoskin invokes B F Skinner and Oulipo in a brief survey of the precursors of the gamebooks, but misses one, earlier, precursor: William Gerhardie and Prince Rupert Lowenstein. I’ve written about this before:

One of his works I have yet to track down is Meet Yourself As You Really Are written with Prince Rupert Lowenstein, father of the Prince Rupert Lowenstein (or more properly, Rupert Louis Ferdinand Frederick Constantine Lofredo Leopold Herbert Maximilian Hubert John Henry zu Löwenstein-Wertheim-Freudenberg, Count of Loewenstein-Scharffenec) who became financial manager of the Rolling Stones. In his biography A Prince Among Stones (which Sir Michael Philip Jagger, perhaps actuated by jealousy due to relative lack of names, responded: “Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think your ex-bank manager should be discussing your financial dealings and personal information in public”) the younger Lowenstein describes the work:

He [Prince Rupert] was a writer, or more precisely, he had had a modestly successful book first published by Faber and Faber … which he had written with William Gerhardi, a novelist, playwright and critic, born in St Petersburg to English parents, who was a renowned and pioneering supporter of Chekhov’s writing in the West. (Gerhardi was also a keen supporter or the Tsarina, whom he had met as a young man, and believed that the best influence in Russia was, contrary to all normal belief, that of Rasputin who had been violently against the war in Germany…)

Meet Yourself as You Really Are was a very early example of home psychoanalysis, one of those psychological quizzes that offers instant insights into your personality and psyche … You are asked a long list of questions about all aspects of your life, covering everything from childhood to phobia, social behaviour to daily routine. I remember one that asked ‘Do you like your bath water tepid/hot/very hot?’ … From these answers and a scoring systems, you could discover your personality type among multiple permutations (three million possibilities, the book’s strapline proclaimed) leading to a number of basic key type.

William Gerhardi and my father had decided to name these different types after rivers, so you might at the end of the process discover you were the Rhine, the Nile, the Tiber or the River Thames, the latter with its conclusion ‘You’re the sort of poor mutt who always pays.’

“the overbearing mother, the emotional repression, the teasing sort-of girlfriend, the constant guilt and fear ” – draft review of The Cure, Rachel Genn, TLS, 2011

The TLS ultimately used a much edited version of this review of a book I evidently didn’t like. Perhaps I was uncomfortable with the line “having sex with Séamus in a pub toilet.” Bad sex writing ahoy!

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Eugene Mahon is a familiarly depressive fictional Irish male, living a
life of quiet desperation in Salthill, Co. Galway. He is kitted out
with the accoutrements of his type – the overbearing mother, the
emotional repression, the teasing sort-of girlfriend, the constant
guilt and fear. His father, Séamus, died some years before, marinated
in alcohol – his drinking accelerating after a Shoreditch building
site accident which left another man worse off than dead. And in a
familiar move both in reality and fiction, Eugene lights out for
London town; specifically to work on the sites and to live in The
Beacon, the pub lodgings where his father had stayed.

Della, landlady of the Beacon, receives Eugene’s letter announcing his
arrival with dismay. She recalls, in a passage that alternates
logistical and lyrical modes, having sex with Séamus in a pub toilet
(“Between the sink and the toilet there wasn’t much room for the V of
her thighs – ‘Weightlifter’s thighs,’ Seamus had kidded, his fingers
digging into the underside of them for a second … Even then, at the
moment where wanting becomes having, she had known that she would wake
with the barbs of who and where carelessly jagging over her” ). Jack,
a confrere of Seamus’ from the old days, is still is residence at The
Beacon. Della’s Oxbridge educated daughter Julia (“Little Miss May
Balls” as her mother mockingly calls her), and Julia’s shiftless
philosopher-boyfriend Rhodri (working on a volume of aphorisms and
daydreaming of a column: “’Grey Matters – where Psychology meets
Philosophy meets the Popular.’ The better Sunday supplements were
crying out for it. Perhaps even the TLS if he shaved off the
expletives.”) also populate this dive.

Upon arrival, Eugene goes to work on a site presided over by the man
who employed his father, tough but benevolent Buck O’Halloran and his
far from benevolent son Noble. The sites are no longer the preserve of
Irish refugees from miscellaneous misery; this is a truly
multinational crew. Eugene livens up – a little. Of course, an
Irishman in a novel cannot be all that happy for all that long, and
Eugene eventually wakes in a police cell, with a charge of racially
aggravated assault and no memory of how he got there or what lead to
the charge.

“The Cure” reminded me inescapably of Fitzgerald’s dictum that “Begin
with an individual and you end up with a type, begin with a type and
you end with – nothing.” Eugene’s almost stereotypically miseryguts
Irishman may live a little in London, but never takes on a spark of
life. His mother, his brother, his girlfriend back in Salthill – all
seem barely reheated leftovers from an Edna O’Brien novel. The writing
is slightly livelier, slightly more engaging, dealing with the
multiethnic crew of the site – but even these figures feel half formed, and tend to speak in the contemporary equivalent of Kipling’s aspirate-free Tommies.
Of all the characters, Rhodri’s absurd philosophising and pretension
(“he believed that writing in pencil let more of the self out”) are
closest to memorable, striking attributes.

While the flashbacks to Salthill largely read like an updated Angela’s
Ashes, there are some moving moments. The rain-sodden depressive
Irish caricature has a basis in reality, and Genn captures some
elements of the mother-son relationship very well – but more in discursive
passages (“it was obvious to her that her children had been trying to
get one over on her since the day they were born so she countered this
with apocalyptic predictions”) than in action or dialogue. These moments aside, The Cure moves with plodding overinclusiveness towards an unearned epiphany.

Piece on cardiac surgery in Times Literary Supplement

I have a piece in the current TLS – full text behind a subscription/paywall but here is a preview…

A Medical Education

In the current TLS I have a review of two books on cardiac surgery. One is Stephen Westaby’s  memoir of his career, the other is Thomas Morris’ historical perspective.

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The full text is not freely available online, so here is the bit the TLS have made available to tease you all:

It is tempting to place Stephen Westaby’s Fragile Lives, a memoir of his career as a heart surgeon, in the category the journalist Rosamund Urwin recently called “scalpel lit”; following Atul Gawande’s Complications (2002) and Henry Marsh’s Do No Harm (2014) and Admissions (2017), here is another dispatch from a world arcane even for the majority of doctors. To some degree, Westaby’s book follows the Marsh template. In cardiac surgery as in neurosurgery, life and death are finely poised, and even minor technical mishaps by the surgeon, or brief delays in getting equipment to theatre, can have…

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Maren Meinhardt on an urban tree

From the TLS, June 2nd:

Outside my window, there is a tree. Even without it, the view is not at all unpleasant: a row of Victorian houses, cars, a skew-whiff estate agent’s sign, a lamp post. But it is the tree that transforms the scene into something more than just an accumulation of things. The movement, the colour, the presence of something living – together, they create harmony, and beauty. The occasional bird flies from the tree’s branches, leaves move gently in the wind, and the eye is naturally drawn to it. The scene calls to mind, for me, the way Humboldt talks about plants. There is “dead, motionless rock”, and then “the animate plant cover, which puts, as it were, gentle flesh on the skeleton”.

I am writing all this because the tree is scheduled for removal. “Removal” has a calming, sensible ring to it – prompting an image of a tree being gently lifted from its plot and, perhaps, reinserted somewhere else. The reality, of course, is quite different: it will involve tree surgeons – who, not entirely pursuing the vision of the medical practitioners implied in their name – will spend the best part of a day sitting in the tree with chainsaws, cutting it down branch by branch.

I know this, and can picture the result, as this is exactly what has taken place in the street next to mine. I don’t know what the reasons were for cutting down the tree in that case, but I think it’s safe to say that the effect is not desirable, or pleasing.

In the case of the tree on my road, a sign tied around its trunk with council tape informs residents that the tree has been “implicated in damage to an adjacent property”. It seems a rather vague, and at the same time damning, accusation. “Works”, therefore, the sign goes on, will “commence shortly”.

….

And seen like this, trees, particularly mature ones, probably are quite an irresponsible proposition: there they stand, making houses harder to insure, causing cost by needing to be pruned, and dropping sticky leaves on to people’s cars. But it’s hard not to feel that to view them like that is to miss the point. Not only because, in a world of climate change and air pollution in our cities, it would be absurd to say that a tree causes greater damage than, say, a car. But also because we must ask ourselves where all this is going, and how we want to live.  Do we want the bits of nature that surround us subdued and manageable, in the form of those little “architect trees”, the ones Ian Jack wrote about so eloquently in the Guardian last month, pointing out that they “represent the new orthodoxy in planting: small trees for the short term, easily replaced”?

More info on the tree (and the campaign to save it!) here

From “The Long, Long Life of Trees”, Fiona Stafford

 

In spring, you can feel life stirring in the barest twigs and the silhouetted catkins look as if a diminutive duck has run across the sky. One day the twigs are just beginning to thicken and brighten and bulge; by the next they are covered in pincer-paired leaves and pale, lime-white or pink-tinged blossoms. There is nothing tentative about these vernal explosions. When the days are longer, it is all sap and fresh smells, and the liquid calls of birds hidden in the drifts of thicker foliage. The bark has been through it all before, but the craggy faces of cherry tress seems less pinched in the bright light. By early November, when it is all dank and dark, the woods have a different taste, which does not quite match the ember-fall, sugar-brown shaken leaves.