Thursday, 31 January 2013

Sonorous Drone

What novel is the following extract from?

As if in a dream he found himself, somehow, seated in the driver’s seat; as if in a dream, he pulled the lever and swung the car round the yard and out through the archway; and, as if in a dream, all sense of right and wrong, all fear of obvious consequences, seemed temporarily suspended. He increased his pace, and as the car devoured the street and leapt forth on the high road through the open country, he was only conscious that he was ____ once more, ____ the terror, the traffic-queller, the Lord of the lone trail, before whom all must give way or be smitten into nothingness and everlasting night. He chanted as he flew, and the car responded with sonorous drone; the miles were eaten up under him as he sped he knew not whither, fulfilling his instincts, living his hour, reckless of what might come to him.

I’ll give you a clue: it’s not by J. G. Ballard. It was first published in 1908 and is usually regarded as a celebration of homely pleasures and as an elegy for the fading idyll of the English countryside. It’s also an examination of mania and addiction, and of how weakness and desire may be overcome. It’s The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (the missing word above is ‘Toad’ of course), and, according to Professor Robson in his 1982 essay ‘On The Wind in the Willows’* it is emphatically not a children’s book. Well, his argument is really that it isn’t a childish book, and I go along with that. It has passages of tightly rhythmic descriptive force (see above), whole chapters of mesmeric prose poetry (‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ and ‘Wayfarers All’), and moments of surprising psychological insight. What it has to say about progress and human weakness seems to me to be both prescient and relevant.

The extract above is from the sequence in which Toad steals a car and runs amok. But what trouble has he landed himself in by giving in to his automobile addiction? Well, the judge hands him twenty years in the deepest, darkest dungeon in England: pretty brutal, and presumably without a hope of parole. And does prison work? Locking up the Toad hadn’t worked the last time, when under Badger’s supervision he had been confined to his room. Here he is, going cold turkey:

When his violent paroxysms possessed him he would arrange bedroom chairs in rude resemblance of a motor-car and would crouch on the foremost of them, bent forward and staring fixedly ahead, making uncouth and ghastly noises, till the climax was reached, when, turning a complete somersault, he would lie prostrate amidst the ruins of the chairs, apparently completely satisfied for the moment.

Toad exemplifies the disjunction between desire and reason which is addiction. But even though he’s infuriating, foolish and selfish, he also has the reader’s sympathy. Why is that? Professor Robson suggests that what we have is only confusion: Toad is aligned with progress because he is the victim of a reactionary judiciary, but progress also means the motor car and the destruction of the countryside, something which the judiciary would defend as lawful. In Robson’s view, Grahame has failed to sort out which cause gets our sympathy here - justice, or progress: “It may be right for us, the readers, to be uncertain whether Toad has done anything bad or not, but the author should not be uncertain”. But I think Grahame is certain, and that Toad gets our sympathy because he is a victim of progress aligned with a reactionary force**. Robson is nonplussed by the Alice in Wonderland-style troop of surreal creatures - the judiciary - that chase Toad after his prison break, but they are made to look divorced from reality because they are punishing Toad for reacting in an understandable human way to the system they are enforcing.

Like the London rioters of 2011, Toad is severely punished for reacting in a way in which “all sense of right and wrong” can be “temporarily suspended” in the heat of the moment. Both Toad and some of the jailed looters are due at least an amount of sympathy not only because the punishment is out of proportion to the crime, but because the stimulus was so intense and hard to assimilate. Today we understand that we are to be punished if, like Toad, we use the motor car for what it is seemingly designed for (speed, danger, individualist freedom), and its oppressiveness comes not from sudden violations of the pristine countryside, but from its banal ubiquity, its visual pollution of friendly curves and high-gloss colours, its unchallenged predominance over everything else. It’s now totally assimilated, but it’s still an object of desire – as are the various consumer goods looted by the rioters. In their case, the over-stimulus comes from a world of consumerism inculcated almost from birth by advertising and constructed ‘needs’; in a world where infantile impulses are constantly being indulged – in which, for example, we are encouraged to view our cars as cute little sentient beings - how do you assimilate the fact that your desires are not always to be fulfilled, that indulgences come at a cost hard to perceive or calculate? The result, again, is the divorce of desire from reason: mania, addiction and criminality follow.

But what does The Wind in the Willows offer by way of alternative to all this? Religion could be an answer: in ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ Mole and Ratty are humbled and awe-struck by a visitation from a God. I agree with Robson that this chapter is “moving and convincing as a religious poem”, but the encounter with Pan and his music seems to offer only a different kind of mania, a different expression of human weakness:

“It’s gone!” sighed the Rat, sinking back in his seat again. “So beautiful and strange and new! Since it was to end so soon, I almost wish I had never heard it. For it has roused a longing in me that is pain, and nothing seems worth while but just to hear that sound once more and go on listening to it forever.”

The unbearable euphoria is beautifully expressed, but how different is this from Toad and his monomania? Doesn’t this remind even more of actual drug addiction? At the least it doesn’t seem a very sensible foundation for a way of living. Presumably that’s why the Mole and the Rat have to afterwards be hard-reset by Pan, their memories wiped, ready to face normal life again. So is there another answer? In ‘Wayfarers All’ Ratty – who in the end seems just as susceptible to outside influence as Toad – overcomes the terrible temptation to leave his river, brought about by the hypnotic Sea Rat, only with the help of the Mole, a piece of paper, and an almost-forgotten joy in composing poetry:

The Rat pushed the paper away from him wearily, but the discreet Mole took occasion to leave the room and, when he peeped in again some time later, the Rat was absorbed and deaf to the world; alternately scribbling and sucking the top of his pencil. It is true that he sucked a good deal more than he scribbled; but it was a joy to the Mole to know that the cure had at least begun.

What better answer than creativity – the determined working out of ideas into forms that can be appreciated by others – to the problem of malign external influences, to ‘progress’ which is aligned to reactionary forces? Toad, Ratty and Mole have experienced mania, addiction, fallibility and religious fervour. Well, they’re only human, and The Wind in the Willows is, after all, a very human story.

* The Definition of Literature & Other Essays by W. W. Robson, Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Sebald and Reid

Procol Harum, ‘Homburg’ (lyrics by Keith Reid, 1967)

Your multilingual business friend
Has packed her bags and fled,
Leaving only ash-filled ashtrays
And the lipsticked unmade bed.
The mirror on reflection
Has climbed back upon the wall,
For the floor she found descended
And the ceiling was too tall.

Your trouser cuffs are dirty,
And your shoes are laced up wrong,
You'd better take off your Homburg,
'cos your overcoat is too long.

The town clock in the market square
Stands waiting for the hour
When it's hands they both turn backwards,
And on meeting will devour
Both themselves and also any fool
Who dares to tell the time.
And the sun and moon will shatter,
And the signposts cease to sign.


In ‘Ambros Adelwarth’, the third in the series of delicately drawn fictitious lives that make up W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, the narrator’s Aunt remembers the last time she saw her Uncle Ambros:

When it was time for me to leave, he insisted on seeing me to my car. And for that purpose he specially put on his paletot with the black velvet collar, and his Homburg. I still see him standing there in the driveway, said Aunt Fini, in that heavy overcoat, looking very pale and unsteady.

I read this a couple of times and wondered if the Homburg hat and the heavy overcoat amounted to a conscious reference to the chorus of ‘Homburg’, Procol Harum’s classic 1967 single. Sure enough, fifteen pages later, the narrator is following traces of his Great Uncle’s life, and describes a visit to the casino at Deauville, where a young blonde girl sings 60s songs in English, ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ among them. This was, of course, Procol Harum’s first massive single, to which ‘Homburg’ is often considered a rather too similar-sounding follow-up. I first heard the song growing up in Rheindahlen JHQ on a 1980 double LP called 40 Solid Gold Hits. Back in England it became a song laden with nostalgia for Germany (perhaps partly because of its title*), the “town clock in the market square” emblematic of childhood memories of towns and villages my family and I had visited in the Rheinland and beyond. The surreal whimsy of the signposts that will no longer sign and the clock with its hands turning backwards suggested little more to me than the half-frustrating, half-pleasurable woolliness of memory.

This is appropriate enough given the emphasis on memory in The Emigrants, and the unspoken desire of the narrator to rescue half-forgotten lives from ghost-like traces and inscrutable photographs, but Sebald also has a way of imbuing the tiniest details of his fictive world with a slowly gathering sense of loss and melancholia.  Even ‘Homburg’ with its one coy little reference becomes part of a narrative in which the holocaust throws its shadow wide into both the future and the past, altering them irrevocably. Within this changed landscape, the conceits of the mirror climbing back up the wall, the blank clock and sign, and the shattered sun and moon become metaphorical of a world gone horribly, queasily wrong. A song that had been, for me, symbolic of an idealised snow-blanketed Germany, is here being re-read as a holocaust text, and the irony is not lost on me.

Like The Emigrants, in which loss and death loom ever larger as the narratives progress, Keith Reid’s lyrics through the late 60s evolve from the dream-like surrealism of ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ and ‘Homburg’ to a kind of edgy, unsettled poeticism, suffused with morbid melancholia. If the characters in Sebald’s fiction are oppressed continually by “apprehensions of uneasiness, dread and menace”**, the same could be said of Procol Harum’s fourth album Home (1970), where death stalks every song, from the horror-monologue of ‘The Dead Man’s Dream’, in which the protagonist awakes from a hideous dream of rotting corpses into a dark “deathroom”, to the “cancered spectre” and “streets awash with blood and pus” of ‘Piggy Pig Pig’. The imagery feeds into the anxious speculation of ‘Barnyard Story’ that “maybe death will be my cure”, and the despairing final lines of the ostensibly chirpy ‘Your Own Choice’: “Went to the river but I could not swim / Knew I’d drown if I went in / Lost my faith in a terrible race / Rest in peace hereafter”.

I was surprised to learn that Reid also wrote the Australian mega-hit “You’re the Voice” for John Farnham, another favourite song from my youth; but I find little of significance in its U2ish lyrics today, so instead here’s three wonderful verses from ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ (1969), which echo Sebald’s writing not only in their mannered precision and sense of restless, unresolved anxiety, but also in their self-conscious foregrounding of the act of creation (the song, according to Reid, is "about" writing the song itself):

At first I took my weight to be an anchor,
And gathered up my fears to guide me round,
But then I clearly saw my own delusion,
And found my struggles further bogged me down.

In starting out I thought to go exploring,
And set my foot upon the nearest road.
In vain I looked to find the promised turning,
But only saw how far I was from home.

In searching I forsook the paths of learning,
and sought instead to find some pirate's gold.
In fighting I did hurt those dearest to me,
and still no hidden truths could I unfold.

(Keith Reid, 1969)

*Bad Homburg is the town in Hesse from which the Homburg hat originated, and its spa was also, according to Wikipedia, a meeting place for Russian-Jewish intellectuals in the early twentieth century (surely not a coincidence, where Sebald is concerned.)

** James Wood, ‘Sent East’, London Review of Books, Vol. 33 No. 19