Thursday, 7 June 2012

Literary meandering

I've read a few novels recently, some of which you might like. The first was David Lodge's 1965 comic novel The British Museum Is Falling Down. Its central character is a struggling PhD candidate who's simultaneously dreading his wife becoming pregnant again. As good Catholics, they find their life is pretty much ruined by the stress of counting the days in the Natural Rhythm then the suspense of working out whether their guilty sex will lead to further poverty… It's a period piece (no pun intended) now, of course, but it's an insight into the travails of ordinary decent Catholics who tried to stick to the rules. Now of course, most believers quietly ignore the rules set by the Vatican.

If Catholic guilt isn't your thing, there's a lot more to entertain you. The novel's set in a single day, like Ulysses, and each chapter is a beautiful parody or pastiche of a range of writers, Joyce included. It also has plenty to say about literature and academic study. Such as:
“Literature is mostly about having sex and not having children. Life is the other way around”
and two characters play a game I also indulge in: dreaming up new laws for when they're in total charge and can abuse the legal system simply to annoy their enemies. With REF (the stupid government research assessment) and the consequent rush to publication, this one very much appealed:
 Academic Publications Act: the government will undertake to subsidise the publication of a monthly periodical, about the size of a telephone directory and printed in columns on Bible paper, which will publish all scholarly articles, notes, correspondence etc. submitted to it, irrespective of merit or interest. All existing journals will be abolished. This will eliminate the element of invidious competition in academic appointments and promotions, which will be offered to candidates in alphabetical order.
That rather appeals to me, as a feckless slackademic whose initials are almost as close to the start of the alphabet as our hero Adam Appleby.

In the afterword, Lodge talks about another of his themes of the novel, The Anxiety of Influence, to use the term deployed by Bloom to describe the sense all authors get that they're merely repeating millennia of perfectly good extant literature. He quotes Flann O'Brien's At-Swim-Two-Birds (one of the greatest novels ever written) on the subject:
The modern novel should be largely a work of reference. Most authors spend their time saying what has been said before - usually said much better. A wealth of references to existing works would acquaint the reader instantaneously with the nature of each character, would obviate tiresome explanations and would effective preclude mountebanks upstarts, thimbleriggers, and persons of inferior education from an understanding of contemporary literature. 
Though one might say TS Eliot, Joyce and many others have already put this into practice.  My students certainly would.

The other novel I read is China Miéville's rather magnificent Railsea, his speculative fiction retelling of Moby Dick, in which the oceans have been replaced by railway lines and the Captain obsessively seeks not whales but a giant feral mole. It's a rollicking story, but like Melville's novel, it's about narrative and meaning, though more explicitly so: the Captain refers to the Moldywarpe as 'that burrowing signifier', and the narrator's interventions are playful, postmodern takes on the process of story-telling. Highly recommended.

No comments: