Brigid Brophy

  • Deliberate Regression by Robert Harbison
    Deutsch, 264 pp, £8.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 233 97273 0

Something is amiss with Robert Harbison’s sentences. They seem to consist almost wholly of last-minute additions.

The way out of the impasse brought on by the decay of religion available to Wilson was an authorised version of Ruskin’s symbolic correspondence, authorised by duplicated evidence from the distant past excavated by science, and institutionalised by the artist in specific forms, like the Brighton chalice, also a calyx, a flower on its stem, attempting to work a magic which would inhere in a thing not just in one’s method for contemplating it.

This shock-horror pile-up on the motorway manner of writing makes it hard to sort out what belongs to what. I surmise it was not ‘the decay of religion’ but the ‘way out of the impasse’ that was ‘available to Wilson’. (The Wilson concerned is Henry. To find out his dates, 1863-1934, I had to turn to a good book, Alastair Service’s Edwardian Architecture.) But there’s no guessing whether it was the past or evidence from it that science excavated, let alone whether Mr Harbison supposes Henry Wilson or the chalice Wilson made for a church at Brighton or a flower to be ‘attempting to work a magic’. He never explains in what sense evidence from the distant past was ‘duplicated’. Is he hinting that the archaeologists cooked the books?

Even had he managed his appositional pile-up adroitly, it would be difficult for a chalice to resemble both the calyx, which consists of the green sepals only, and the whole of ‘a flower on its stem’. In fact, however, Mr Harbison makes nonsense of his own purple passage by reproducing the chalice in question. Its stem has nothing to do with a flower stem. It is fashioned in the shape of several tree trunks (clearly recognisable as such because, rather romanesquely, they begin to branch near the top) bound together by a knobbly circlet. Its closest resemblance is to a bundle of asparagus tied up for boiling.

Occasionally one of Mr Harbison’s sentences sets off without a destination in mind and finishes somewhere almost surreally inappropriate.

Ruskin makes legends the way most people give excuses, but extraction of the self-contented skeleton traduces its effect in place.

That one begins as a wisecrack, feeble but welcome in the circumstances. At least, it would have been a wisecrack had not Mr Harbison spoilt the symmetry between making legends and making excuses by changing the verb, at what should have been its second and more idiomatic time round, to give. This botched joke is then opposed, by way of a but, to what I take to be a truism about skeletons. I am rather proud of having (I think) decoded ‘its effect in place’. So long as it remains in place, a skeleton holds the body rigid; remove the skeleton and you forfeit the rigidity. This generally acknowledged truth is, I suspect, what Mr Harbison is repeating in tarted-up terms when he tells us that ‘extraction’ of the skeleton ‘traduces its effect in place’. I can’t, however, conjecture why he calls the skeleton ‘self-contented’ and still less how filleting is relevant to Ruskin.

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