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Philip Horne

Philip Horne teaches English at Cambridge.

It’s just a book

Philip Horne, 17 December 1992

Paul Auster is an amphibious writer whose eclectic methods and influences make one unsure by which end to try and grasp him. His early self-exile to an apprenticeship in Paris as a poet and translator, absorbing the lessons of the ‘high’ aesthetic rigorists – Beckett, Blanchot, Jabès, Celan – was an unexpected preliminary to his return to America and, after several years, his dark, formally self-conscious entry onto the scene of the American novel with The New York Trilogy, an elaborate anti-detective volume full of Hawthorne, Melville and Thoreau. Despite its grand title it had been rejected 17 times before a publisher brought it out in 1985; yet it became, at the chic end of the market, a ‘best seller’, and established Auster as a figure to be puffed or sniped at, as some blankly indulgent and huffily impatient receptions of Leviathan have again shown.’

Making sentences

Philip Horne, 21 November 1991

Forty-one years after F.O. Matthiessen’s suicide, and 44 after his big book The James Family: A Group Biography, here is R.W.B. Lewis, Matthiessen’s pupil at Harvard, with one on the same subject, nearly as big. Its very title twists a touch awkwardly to avoid repeating that of its precursor, to which Lewis acknowledges a large debt.

Making faces

Philip Horne, 9 May 1991

What do coincidences mean? As I was reading Nicholas Salaman’s elaborately-patterned historical paranoia novel The Grimace, in which all the women the cracked narrator encounters are called Johanna, I came across the phrase ‘visions of Johannas’. It gave me a shock to realise that the song ‘Visions of Johanna’, by Bob Dylan, at which Salaman nods just this once, was at the same moment playing quietly on my stereo, which it does perhaps once a year. I didn’t bother to try to compute the odds against this happening, and left it as a sharp earful of what Paul Auster calls ‘the music of chance’.

Henry Hill and Laura Palmer

Philip Horne, 20 December 1990

One of the strongest and strangest moments in David Lynch’s unsettling TV serial Twin Peaks, part of the dream of wholesome investigating agent Dale Cooper, comes when he is kissed full on the mouth by the figure of Laura Palmer, who was a ‘wild girl’ but is now dead and whose murderer he has come to town to detect. The story exerts its spell over television viewers through a combination of gruesome invention, deadpan quirkiness and hyperbolic intensity characteristic of Lynch (in Eraserhead, for instance, and this year’s Wild at Heart): but also through the tracing of sinister secret networks within the placid small-town community, the revelation not just of illicit sex but of drug-dealing and ritual murder underlying the ordinary goodness of pie and coffee. The deathly kiss Cooper receives in his nightmare from a girl ‘filled with secrets’ could stand for the ghoulishly thrilling intercourse between the lawful and the wild, for the impulse to get down to human nature’s bottom line.

Ranklings

Philip Horne, 30 August 1990

Edith Wharton is known, among other things, as the teller of the most devastating of the anecdotes displaying Henry James’s incapacity to communicate efficiently. The story told in her 1933 autobiography, A Backward Glance, has James, late one evening, attempt to ask a doddering Windsor pedestrian how their car can find its way to the address they want. After a page of repetitious parenthetical irrelevancies from James, which leave the old man ‘dazed’, she loses patience and insists James ‘ask him where the King’s Road is’. This, a little less elaborately, he does, and the old man says: ‘Ye’re in it.’

Clean Sweep

Philip Horne, 10 May 1990

Klima’s fine, disconsolate novel is scarcely the cliché its blurb makes it out – ‘a moving account of the fate of the dissident artist under an oppressive regime’ – because Klima’s reason for joining a team of Prague street-sweepers is not exactly that he has been forced to do it by the state. ‘I needed to go somewhere in the morning, at least I’d now have a natural objective for a while: set out somewhere, perform whatever kind of activity and listen to whatever kind of talk, just so I don’t have to sit amidst the silence listening to the snapping of threads.’ Dissidence plays a fairly small part in Klima’s preoccupations, which are more existential, both more private and more universal.’

No more pretty face

Philip Horne, 8 March 1990

Wim Wender’s very pleasurable Paris, Texas (1984) is both an American movie and a European film. Its creative pedigree is mixed – all through the credits: the German Wenders as director, the American Sam Shepard as writer; the German Robby Müller as cinematographer, the American Ry Cooder as composer/performer of the music; the American actors Harry Dean Stanton and Dean Stockwell as the central Henderson brothers, the French Aurore Clément and the German Nastassia Kinski as their wives. For Wenders, a long-time lover of the Western and of American rock music, it was, as he has since told the French magazine Positif, the closing of a circle, the completion of his preoccupation with the USA. The last piece in his (embarrassingly titled) Emotion Pictures is a long, troubled free-verse meditation on ‘The American Dream’, written in 1984, in which he deplores the perversion of American ideals by what he calls the ‘state philosophy of “entertainment” ’. As in his exploration of the German condition in Kings of the Road (1976) – where his pair of heroes are the son of a small-town printer and a travelling cinema engineer, intimates of past and present cultural technologies – Wenders unobtrusively loads the two Henderson brothers with implications, makes the contrast between them richly suggestive.’

Sunlight

Philip Horne, 28 September 1989

In 1982, at the age of 30, Andrew Motion, together with Blake Morrison, claimed attention in the Introduction to the Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry for the idea that ‘British poetry is once again undergoing a transition’: the new poets, many of them ‘Martians’, showed ‘a preference for metaphor and poetic bizarrerie to metonymy and plain speech’, and ‘a renewed interest in narrative’. Their leader was not Larkin but Heaney, who ‘delights in language’ and yet also benefits from ‘a larger historical framework’. For quite a few of those yoked together by their ‘common purpose’ – ‘to extend the imaginative franchise’ – the perspective of children played an important part, as ‘one way of viewing the commonplace with wonder and innocence’.’

An Infinity of Novels

Philip Horne, 14 September 1989

Anthony Trollope once proposed to write ‘a history of English prose fiction’, but ‘broke down in the task, because I could not endure the labour in addition to the other labours of my life’ – for ‘it would be necessary to read an infinity of novels.’ Such a wholesale reading of fiction takes on for many of us, as for Trollope, ‘a terrible aspect’. It doesn’t apparently, though, for Gilbert Phelps, John Sutherland and Peter Keating, surveyors and encyclopedists of the form who in their respective fields have laboured with energetic exhaustiveness and not broken down. Each of these books feels as if it takes in an infinity of novels, and each deserves the gratitude of those who, if they could not have endured the labour involved in the production, will find their understandings helpfully, often excitingly enlarged. Coverage on this ambitious scale carries an implicit rebuke to the specialist in the corner, or at least a reminder that a reframing of the wide angles can also refresh our views.’

Diary: Million Dollar Bashers

Philip Horne and Danny Karlin, 22 June 1989

5 November 1988. In the Madison suite of Sacha’s Hotel in Manchester (motto: ‘Sacha’s Only Looks Expensive’), Paul Williams recalls an unrewarding encounter with Bob Dylan: ‘But I shook his hand which was … and this was at the beginning of the tour … and things changed significantly during the tour … he became more sociable, I’ve been talking to a number of people who did see him backstage later on in the tour, but, uh, his hand was very very soft, and it was … it’s hard to describe – I don’t mean limp, but … like a pillow, and the man himself … now, I didn’t look at him for very long, and I’m not very visually-oriented, but it’s … it was as though his head was very large. And it was just, you know … it was a little bit ghostlike … and, umm, and it was one of those … you know, I mean he was friendly but it was totally, like you’re not, you know, you’re not necessarily really there.’ The soft hand so hard to describe was extended to Williams earlier in the year. Williams had met Dylan in 1966 and 1980, and describes Dylan on these occassions as less big-headed and more ‘really there’, ready to ‘see him backstage’ and even dedicate the only live performance of ‘Caribbean Wind’ to him. Williams speaks for 90 minutes to a packed, and rapt, audience. He has been in the presence. He is the next best thing.

Dark Strangers, Gorgeous Slums

Philip Horne, 16 March 1989

Travel is sometimes supposed to broaden the mind, impending death to concentrate it. Travel is more desirable than impending death, but it is usually harder to arbitrate between the claims of mental breadth and concentration. Reading Off the Rails by Lisa St Aubin de Teran, however, a memoir in which she brings us up to date with her 35-year ‘lifetime of truancy and escape’, a career of spontaneously marrying, travelling and writing, will make many readers feel that the loss of some sorts of breadth is not to be deeply regretted. The first third of the book, which takes us up to 1984, works best: because the author has already written about many of its strange experiences in her fiction; because it clips along with extreme rapidity; and because the exotic wanderings and encounters it records lie sufficiently in the past to allow due ironic distance. It has remarkable passages. The rest of the book is a different story – though it might be thought to tell the same story through rosier-tinted spectacles.’

Diary: Common Assault

Philip Horne, 2 March 1989

In October 1922 a young man called Freddy Bywaters lurked in the dark front garden of a corner house in Ilford. When his mistress and her husband came along, he emerged from the garden and, with or without premeditation, stabbed Percy Thompson 16 times. Thompson died, and so, after being sent for trial at the Old Bailey, did Bywaters and Mrs Thompson, at the end of a rope.

Wasps and all

Philip Horne, 8 December 1988

As this summer wore on I became aware of wasps in my bathroom. There would be a remote drone, and then a wasp would be flying at me, at head-height, on its way to the window, there to cling, finding itself shut in. Entrants multiplied, but without stinging. They just clustered at the source of light. When not expelled or allowed issue, the wasps simply curled up and – unhurriedly, with twiddling of legs and little angry buzzings – died. After a day at work I would find a dozen, after a week’s holiday a hundred, of the dead and dying, where they had dropped or crawled; and would hoover them up, or scoop them, for defenestration, onto the offprint of a friend’s article. I postponed calling in pest control, however, till the first sting. Baths and showers became occasions of suppressed anxiety; my invaders emerged from any number of orifices in the cupboard containing the boiler, which overhangs the tub. But their numbers declined with the onset of autumn. Soon I thought myself relaxed. One day, though, reading in the bath, I glanced down from the page to see a large one busily doggypaddle towards me: and weeks of submerged panic surfaced with a splash. I hurled the book into the air, expelled the wasp, sent half my bathwater onto the floor and subsided again into what remained within a couple of seconds, pulse racing. That seemed the climax of the infiltration. Now, though, I have the impression that even if no more than one or two any longer crawl out in person, or in toto, black bits of wing, of sting, of tiny leg or thorax or mandible, can be seen flowing from the taps. I am bathing, shaving, brushing my teeth, in a decoction of wasp.’

Tunnel Visions

Philip Horne, 4 August 1988

Troubled countries usually cause troubled minds in their writers, as do troubled families or systems of belief: but while being so troubled may be a powerful incitement to literary production, it may equally get in the way of real achievement. Writers can find themselves facing a dilemma, a choice between fidelity to their own passionate confusions and the possibly spurious lucidity of analytic detachment. The duties of a citizen will clash with those of an artist when both realms seem to call for full-time devotion, and writing can be propelled towards propaganda in the desire to avoid political irrelevance or the accusation of it. To create further fictions, in a nation already infested with political lies, risks complicity and redundancy.

Nothing’s easy

Philip Horne, 26 November 1987

‘Writing this book I am like a man playing the piano with lead balls attached to his knuckles.’ The weighty agonies and agonisings of Flaubert, most famously over the details of Madame Bovary, have made him an exemplary writer for other self-conscious writers, and this unlikely simile is quoted in a recent work testifying to that detailed interest: Julian Barnes in Flaubert’s Parrot (1984) made a clever novel out of a preoccupation with the minutiae of Flaubert’s life, inventing a biographer-narrator to fight a long rearguard action against the death of the author. Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Perpetual Orgy (first published in 1975, and only now translated into English) is the work of a novelist whose creative imagination more than equals that of Barnes in complexity and abundance: yet it is what is called, sometimes regrettably, ‘secondary literature’, and Llosa is there in what seems person more than persona, autobiographically forthcoming, to convey, through an impressive array of details, his notion of the meaning of a novel by which he is obsessed – Madame Bovary. His novelistic vocation is not too much narrowed in his operation as a critic: The Perpetual Orgy is an expansive and self-reflecting book, a generously-ranging consideration of what fiction does and is for, and its critical reconstruction of Flaubert’s hampered processes of composition shows a convincing insight and a grasp of detail like those of Llosa’s fiction.’

Relations will stop at nothing

Philip Horne, 5 March 1987

Henry James was a perfectionist, though not a humourless one, about his public appearance and appearances: hence the pleasure taken by certain anecdotalists in showing him out of control – of situations, conversations, himself, others. That he danced a cake-walk in 1899 and was photographed with a mouthful of doughnut intrigues us, as a treasurable departure from the magisterial dignity we mainly like to impute to him. Cakewalk and doughnut were taken at a party at the Cranes’, a private affair. The Whole Family, which became a book at the end of 1908 after 12 months in Harper’s Bazar, is a public party game for Harper’s authors, an improvised collaboration (or sequence, rather, of solo turns). What, one asks, is the author of The Golden Bowl doing dans cette galère?’

Life and Work

Philip Horne, 8 May 1986

Life and work are in the happiest relation when the life comfortably includes the work; the relation becomes unhappy when the work threatens to preclude the life. Then we have a competition between the demands of work and the duties of the domestic life, or the impulses of the inner life. The competition may be a matter of man-hours or of values, or both: at any rate the division, once established, exposes the individual to stress. Wemmick in Great Expectations has expressed his siege mentality in his moated home, a refuge from the Jaggers law-work: ‘the office is one thing, and private life is another. When I go into the office, I leave the Castle behind me, and when I come into the Castle, I leave the office behind me.’ Wemmick’s chiasmus reflects the two selves he has contrived for his places of abode and work; he does his job well, working as a different person with a different expression on his face. Melville’s Bartleby, in contrast, a few years earlier, quite withdraws his labour – also legal in character – and goes with mysterious politeness to a death in the New York Tombs: an enigmatic martyr, he seems to suffer from some perception which makes intolerable to him his probably emblematic task of copying.’

Train Loads of Ammunition

Philip Horne, 1 August 1985

In his own words ‘a queer fish’, Sergei Eisenstein declares at one point in this 1946 memoir that he worked amphibiously, by extremes. ‘I create an arbitrary and capricious flood in my films. Then I endeavour to divide this flood with the dry beats of a metronome, according to its conformity with certain principles.’ Eisenstein’s dialectic of riot and order can stand as a prime instance of the way in which others have struggled to discipline, exorcise or justify their passionate relations with films. This powerful medium is still less than a hundred years old, its soundtracks less than sixty, its success with colour about fifty. We don’t yet know – or at least we don’t agree – how seriously to take it; but in its reduced form (television’s screens are on average 160 times smaller) most of us do take it somehow.’

Those Heads on the Stakes

Philip Horne, 23 May 1985

1900 was the end of the 19th century but it wasn’t the end of the world, as we can see. Antonio Conselheiro, a religious leader in the Sertao, the harsh backlands of north-eastern Brazil, had predicted that it would be: ‘There shall be a great rain of stars, and that will be the end of the world. In 1900 the lights shall be put out.’ He was not there to see this prophecy belied; his own light had gone out on 22 September 1897, towards the end of a strange, grim piece of history. He had issued other, preliminary prophecies, among them the eerie sentence: ‘In 1898 there will be many hats and few heads.’ His resistance to the newly-established Brazilian Republic was based on passionate objections to the census, to metrication and to civil marriage. Conselheiro’s thousands of followers, the rebels of the Sertao, lived mentally as well as geographically apart from the rest of mankind. Others, including other Christians, would have to say of such beliefs, with the agnostic Wittgenstein: ‘I think differently, in a different way. I say different things to myself. I have different pictures.’ So that perhaps, insofar as Conselheiro’s settlement of the faithful at Canudos lived in a world of its own, the apocalyptic prophecy carried a rough truth: for by October 1897, concluding a protracted campaign shockingly brutal on both sides, the Brazilian Army had brought that world to a close with cannon, carbine, dynamite and bayonet.

In the dark

Philip Horne, 1 December 1983

Television recently showed a likable young man from Florida who had committed an atrocious murder giving evidence in court against his ‘accomplice’, whose trial had been thrown open to the cameras. The photographs of the victim’s wounds were sickening, but the softly-spoken young man went back over the sequence of incompetent brutalities which produced them with unbroken equanimity. Interviewed outside the courtroom, he was deferential and polite in explaining why it had been sensible for him to turn State’s Evidence; and as he talked, he coughed, his hand went demurely up to cover his mouth, and he murmured: ‘Excuse me.’ Looking for a qualitative deviation in the murderer’s demeanour, a frightening glint or a nervous tic by which to know him for different, we were baffled by his ordinariness; anxious not to be thought ill-mannered, he held out no greater token of a need for forgiveness than this piece of social small-change.

A World of Waste

Philip Horne, 1 September 1983

Perhaps because of its concentration on people’s circumstances and constraints, the novel is often concerned with freedoms under threat and forms of liberation. The generality ‘freedom’ is much bandied about in the world at large, of course, mostly with a bland or fierce prejudice in its favour: misapplied, it can lead to terrible blunders. An aspect of the value of the novel is therefore its power to examine the conditions of freedom in particular cases, to refresh our sense of what this tortured word can mean. In proportion as the novel brings us into contact with the pressures of a particular predicament, moreover, we may feel ourselves liberated from the generalising entrapments of ‘freedom’ into a consciousness of urgent special dilemmas from which catchwords can bring no real release. The freedom of the imagination is not necessarily greatest in imagining freedom: or rather, as in Ann Schlee’s novel and George Konrad’s, it is where social and psychological pressures are most intense that we get from art our purest expressions of freedom.

Adulterers’ Distress

Philip Horne, 21 July 1983

The order in which we read the short stories in a collection makes a difference. Our hopping and skipping out of sequence can often disturb the lines or blunt the point of a special arrangement, lose us the pleasure of seeing large intentions emerge. Jumping to the end of Joyce’s Dubliners to get at ‘The Dead’, for a familiar instance, would considerably obscure the generous force in that story’s sympathetic pressing of its attention beyond and away from the social medium of public occasions on which its first half, like the three preceding stories, works – and into a tenderer, more private world. A successful sequence can build up different sorts of unity and we need to be careful not to run the pieces together into a single work like the chapters of a novel, and at the same time, in the case of a single author, to look out for the coherence of a sensibility, the various achievements of a style. A Nails on the Head, a first collection of stories by the Irish writer, Clare Boylan, whose admirable first novel, Holy Pictures, came out in February, satisfyingly gives us a dramatic logic of sequence without renouncing the particularity of each of its 15 elements: patterns of recurrence and variation set up a creative tension. For example, when it creeps up on the reader that the stories are beginning to have mad central characters, the exciting sense that each tale is a fresh start is enjoyably qualified by an ominous suspense. A great deal of one’s pleasure in such a collection, and such a connection, comes from the way in which its inter-relatedness renders a critical interest over and above that of the sum of parts we are permitted formally to count on.–

The Real Life of Melodrama

Philip Horne, 16 June 1983

In his book on Flaubert and Madame Bovary, called The Perpetual Orgy (1975) – the title is a phrase of Flaubert’s for the life of writing – Mario Vargas Llosa says what he likes in novels: ‘the greatest satisfaction a novel can give me is by stimulating, as I read, my admiration for some act of rebellion; my anger at some stupidity or injustice; my fascination with those histrionically distorted situations of excessive emotionalism that … have always been part of literature, because they have probably always been part of life; and my desire.’ This checklist of stipulated affects, to be brought on by ‘revolt, violence, melodrama and sex’, recalls, by its candid crudity, Sam Fuller’s striking definition of a film, early in Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou, as ‘Love. Hate. Action. Violence. Death. In one word … Emotion’. Vargas Llosa’s highly-coloured set of preferences is explicitly presented as a matter of temperament, something to be dealt with and built on, and he takes for an epigraph in The Perpetual Orgy the remark of Flaubert’s friend Louis Bouilhet that ‘our admiration is only complete for works that satisfy both the temperament and the mind.’ What happens in this recently translated novel (which came out in Spanish in 1977, two years after the Flaubert book) is that Vargas Llosa excitingly turns his mind to this temperamental predilection, both in himself and others, by a double plotting of the ‘pure’ melodrama of radio soap operas against the real texture of ordinary life – a process designed, as he has said, ‘to discover in that real life, in that version of ordinary life, the melodrama of a soap opera’.–

Maids

Philip Horne, 1 April 1983

Lisa St Aubin de Teran’s The Slow Train to Milan and Clare Boylan’s Holy Pictures share a subject – girls growing up to a world whose language is new to them – which demands close attention to the register of words and sentences, a measure of novelty and an enactment of surprise. Many of their sentences glint with recognitions, giving back a fine pleasure out of the often painful misunderstandings and reverses they render. In their careful sense of a vanishing past, their evocation of innocences not quite departed with the loss of ignorance, the best passages of both books offer a firm, affectionate hold on formative passages of life.–

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