Friday, 9 March 2012

Books books books books

OK, I haven't received many books this week - though I've ordered a lot of previously unavailable Keith Roberts novels: he wrote the wondrous Pavane (England as a non-Reformed Catholic nation desperate to repress technological development and free thought: a combative take on Catholicism but a popular one in intellectual history). I don't think many of his novels are up to Pavane's standard, but he's always interesting and an essential part of the English SF/catastrophe tradition headed by Wyndham and Ballard. His obituary suggests that he was a very unpleasant man.

Today's post brought a very interesting book, D. A. Miller's 1992 The Novel and the Police, which seems to take a Foucauldian line into the Victorian period's obsession with policing and detectives - I've read similar things in the past for teaching purposes, but Miller's book looks like the last word (I know, there's no such thing in literary studies) on the subject. He sees Victorian novels as 'the often unconscious agents of a disciplinary culture… keeping a public in its private place': as I'm currently reading Trollope's He Knew He Was Right (past the 500 page mark, only 400 to go), I can quite understand: the characters are only slightly grotesque: functioning as lessons to us all about how to be men and women, wives and husbands.

The other line on Victorians and detection is that the culture inherited the Protestant tradition of self-examination (hence the prevalence of spiritual diaries etc) and added a degree of social surveillance (e.g. the growth of middle-class do-gooders intent on disciplining the lower orders, such as the RSPCA, which prosecuted people for overworking their donkeys but left hunters alone), allied to the new developments in science. Suddenly everything could or should be visible. The application of rational methods and science would unravel the secrets of everything, from slum life to the universe. Convinced that everything had a logical explanation, the Victorian's duty was to uncover God's mechanisms - finding the chains of causality, deducing the murderer's identity from his cologne and measuring his cranial dimensions were all about control - fending off the dreadful darkness of randomness, decay and irrationality which stirred in the darker corners of both the brain and the city. If Mr Holmes can detect the crime from a cigar butt, the universe is comprehensible. There is a plan. You can all relax because God's in charge. If he can't… the deluge.

Of course rationality led - ironically for the Victorians - to atheism, and to World War 1, the Holocaust and all sorts of evils, thanks to the popularity of imperialism, eugenics and allied 'scientific' beliefs. Oddly enough, today is the birthday of Rex Warner (1905-1986), one of my favourite authors. In particular, his The Aerodrome (1941) takes up similar concerns a few years later. In the 1930s, fascists and pilots existed in a state of mutual admiration: flight represented the triumph of the Machine: the individual hero could literally gain a new perspective on the ant-like scurrying of the proletarian untermenschen: once separated from the mass, the clinical application of the bomb begins to seem like a rational, surgical operation rather than an atrocity. Warner, once a Marxist and always a lefty humanist, sees things differently: in The Aerodrome, the fascist flight lieutenant uses the village population's admiration for his Modern superiority for his own ends, before being exposed as a fraud. It's a great novel - thrilling, outspoken and at odds with mainstream culture of the time. Acclaimed by the Popular Front/proletarian literature crowd as 'one of us' (he was actually a philandering toff), Warner's virtue is that he could really write. To him, the cleanliness and order of the air base is anti humanist, whereas the village is where life happens - if only more architects and politicians read his work. Highly recommended.

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