Yoked together

Frank Kermode

  • History: The Home Movie by Craig Raine
    Penguin, 335 pp, £9.99, September 1994, ISBN 0 14 024240 6

‘There is hardly a stanza in the long poem which is not vivid, hardly one which is not more or less odd, and the reader feels ... as if he had been riding on the rims over an endless timber bridge.’ As I read Craig Raine’s new poem (a novel, an epic, a film, says the ebullient blurb) something stirred in the depths of memory, and I found myself thinking of Theophila, a very long poem published by Edward Benlowes in 1652. Theophila is written in three-line stanzas, a pentameter, a tetrameter and an alexandrine, all on a single rhyme. The judgment on Theophila quoted above comes from The Oxford History of English Literature, which rightly regards Benlowes as representing the giddy limit in 17th-century attempts to write ‘heroic’ poetry in the high metaphysical manner. And this must surely seem an unpromising way to tackle extended argument or narrative. Benlowes was a devotee of the far-fetched conceit, in the by now degenerate tradition of Donne, perhaps with some input from the smoother baroque concettismo of Marino and his followers. (On the evidence of some of his delightful earlier poems I had privately awarded Craig Raine an honorary position in the company of the marinisti.) Marino produced narrative in this style, but in more fluent stanzas, and without proceeding to the metaphorical extremes of the English. Though often eloquent, Benlowes is neither fluent nor moderate, and clearly it formed no part of his plan to make it easy for his readers to know exactly what he was on about.

Later poets with stories to tell normally preferred to use pentameter couplets or blank verse, which allowed the narrative or the argument to be followed with less effort, and did not encourage wild flights of baroque wit. Milton, a contemporary of Benlowes and an admirer of Spenser, not only freed his narrative of ‘the modern bondage of rhyming’, but after a youthful fling more or less gave up conceited poetry. It would not do for real epic.

However, if you hold that lucidity and what the philosopher W.B. Gallie called ‘followability’ aren’t everything, that they may be sacrificed in a good cause, then admirable precedents are not wanting. Conceits can be combined with stories at acceptable cost to the stories. A narrative line can be more or less sustained through complex verse-forms and under repeated pressure from centrifugal interests. Think of The Faerie Queene, with its awkward nine-line stanza and its heavy concluding alexandrine: in this unlikely form Spenser undertook a huge narrative poem combining a great many stories, only more or less germane to one another and required to bear a considerable weight of philosophical and historical allegory. How well he succeeded is a point that has always been disputed. ‘Every stanza,’ wrote Spenser’s 18th-century editor John Hughes, ‘made as it were a distinct paragraph, grows tiresome by continual repetition and frequently breaks the sense, when it ought to be carried on without interruption.’ Others contrast Spenser’s heavy pace and patches of opacity with the more athletic movement of Ariosto. C.S. Lewis, on the other hand, thought the whole poem moved along pretty briskly. Other critics, without necessarily denying either view, waste their lives, though they may also secure tenure, in trying to explain just what is really going on in Spenser’s poem.

These historical reminders are meant to contribute to an understanding of what Craig Raine is attempting in his new long poem; it seemed important to do that instead of saying ‘Post-Modernism’ and putting that familiar stop to all sensible discussion. He has presented an episodic history (one reason for his subtitle: you don’t expect narrative continuity in home movies) and he has done so without serious modification of his normal conceited manner. The history is primarily that of two related families, Raines and Pasternaks (a second reason for calling the book a home movie). I first read the work in a proof copy which lacked the dual family tree now found in the opening pages, so that it was not easy for me to tell with any precision how apparently disparate episodes were related. Readers of finished copies will fare better, though there remain many passages that are not obviously or not closely related to the families or explained by the family tree, and others that may be so related but are still rather obscurely elliptical. Since Raine’s three-lined stanzas (much simpler than Benlowes’s) must serve as vehicles not only for the discontinuous narrative but for a great payload of Martian similes, in their nature at least as centrifugal as those baroque conceits, the poem is far from instantly intelligible, and is not meant to be.

But it’s no use getting into an argument as to whether this is the best way to tell a tale, even if the tale makes some sort of claim to be some sort of history of Europe from about 1905 to 1984. As we have seen, there are precedents of some grandeur for a certain darkness and obliquity of treatment; there are also more modern exemplars, not only in poetry but in fiction and cinema. If you feel a need to hold the entire thing in a single thought, you have to satisfy that need yourself. Or, the sequence of historical occurrences, real and fictional, doesn’t make sense in the old way, and it is a disabling mistake to suppose it should.

Interviews and press leaks of various kinds have offered hints on how to read the poem, but it may be best to ignore them and stick to the text. The narrator is a fly on the wall, a secret policeman, a pencil on a desk. He begins with a scene in a Black Sea dacha, date 1905, where the Pasternaks, children of the painter Leonid and his Jewish wife Rosa, are at play. Boris makes his first appearance. The 1905 Revolution is in progress offstage. The painter’s palette is compared to a latrine,

turds of fresh pigment
fresh from their bolsters,

and the painter himself wipes his hands on a newspaper, thus carelessly disposing of the history it doubtless records. In the next episode, ‘1906’, a male impersonator, whose act includes pretending to have a pee, disgraces herself before Edward VII, incognito at the Victoria Palace. Now skip to 1915, when Henry Raine, the grandfather of Craig Raine (family tree), is writing from the trenches. His letter contains an inadequate attempt to console his wife on the death of their eight-year-old daughter Alice from ‘diptheoria’. He then masturbates, a favourite occupation of the characters in this book. Indeed the narrator is extraordinarily interested in their sexual behaviour generally; this private eye stares hardest at everybody’s genitals. Meanwhile, all around are corpses wearing gas-masks:

fixed, like horse-flies
feeding on filth
with a black proboscis
and bulging perspex eyes.

Raine is very good at noticing that things are unexpectedly like other things, a power certified by Aristotle as an indication of high intelligence: ‘a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars’; he adds that the gift is innate and cannot be acquired. It was valued just as highly by the 17th-century concettisti, some of whom thought they were demonstrating what the world was like, a vast network of resemblances waiting for poets and other persons of genius to discover them. The Rainean conceit depends on the perception of similarity in dissimilars, which in turn calls for a gift of careful and curious observation. This Raine certainly possesses. Henry in his trench is set amid much expertly-noted military detail, each item wherever possible resembling something else.

Next we are moved to Moscow in 1917 for a domestic view of the October Revolution – here begins a long process of persecution and exile – and to Oxford in the same year, where Henry’s wife Queenie is assaulted by a pervert. He wields a razor, and ‘A nervous moth of light/Flits over the ceiling.’ The war ends, Henry returns home, Lenin orates, but Stalin is thinking of sex and does not listen. A wheelchair and the hammer and sickle both resemble an ampersand (which, being an instrument for yoking things together, also resembles Raine’s poems). What is memorable here is not the story, though it continues, but the notation of resemblances you would never have dreamed of: a glass of beer is ‘a bulging leather gleam/like a farmer’s legging’. The same eye can observe the resemblance between a certain kind of sofa and a boxing glove, which in turn resembles a toffee apple. It perceives a light bulb dangling from its flex as being ‘like a suicide’, or a dangling telephone brushing the carpet as ‘like the arm of an ape’. Can you imagine teeth aching ‘like testicles/after hours of foreplay’?

Some of the characters emerge recognisably, if dimly, from the plot: Henry is a boxer, also, apparently, an Oxford scout; his son Eliot, not, it seems, a competent doctor, becomes a psychiatrist (probably the most fully presented character, he is not very likeable). The Pasternaks get exit visas, marry and fornicate. Meanwhile History, more largely considered, continues, punctuated by lower-case, domestic history: the Germans experience hyperinflation, the young Raines masturbate, Mosley rants, the Nazis enact their eugenic laws, Pasternaks in England dig air raid trenches, Henry Raine fights, the death camps begin, some Jews escape. Norman Raine, father of Craig, gets a bad prognosis after an RAF accident. And so on till, in 1984, we reach the final ampersand and encounter Craig, grandson of Henry, son of Norman, and Craig’s wife, Lisa, great-niece of Boris Pasternak, great-granddaughter of Leonid. They are momentarily amused by two Chinese, speaking comical English, and then visit the art gallery at Dahlem, where the more memorable pictures seem to share the anal interests of the author; even the word Drücken on a door reminds the latter of the trials of constipation. But there they are, ampersanded amid all this variety of scene and language, and accompanied by a photograph of Eliot Raine, the pornography-loving doctor who, according to the family tree, married Lydia Pasternak and begot Lisa. The photograph was ‘taken on his deathbed’ and he seems to be ‘Straining to relieve himself’. So it goes; everything sort of comes together in the end.

A considerable number of famous people float anecdotally through the poem, Lord Northcliffe crazy, Lenin in the process of being mummified, Lady Conan Doyle getting in touch with her dead husband, Haile Selassie in exile, his gas bill unpaid. Stalin quizzes Pasternak on the telephone about Mandelstam, Pasternak refuses to sign the letter commiserating with Stalin on his wife’s suicide, Churchill jeers at Chamberlain in the Commons. Edward, Prince of Wales, is cosy with his lady, Mussolini has a play on in the West End, Eisenhower is challenged by Jimmy Raine on sentry-go, Yeats lectures tediously at Oxford and has his Steinach operation. The Mandelstams, Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva make appearances. Rilke drops in, mocked by Karl Kraus. Dante and Wallace Stevens are silently cited. Obviously there is never a dull moment, though the sum total of those moments seems duller than they are.

There is an old argument about texture and structure in poetry, and John Crowe Ransom thought that although you had to have the second the first, however irrelevant to the structure, was more important because, for one thing, it is what makes poetry different from prose. Of course there can be recurrent elements in the texture which help to constitute structure; but these, and possibly other structural agents the poet prefers to keep quiet about, can be in some degree occult. Craig Raine has demonstrated elsewhere, when writing for the opera, that he has architectonic ambitions, and they exist here, though in large measure occulted. His short lines and often truncated syntax are capable of narrative load bearing, and are often tersely effective, even when straitened, as they sometimes are, to aposiopesis (to use one of his own many learned words); but their main business is with texture, in its nature irrelevant to structure.

So we return to the questions posed at the beginning of this notice. Poets care most about texture but understand that poems, and especially the more ambitious kinds, need structure. It has always been a problem, and modern solutions have been authoritatively offered, notably by Eliot and Pound For Post-Modernists, structure, in the old-fashioned sense, is an outworn myth, one of those grands récits that have to go and the sooner the better. But so is the very idea of history as consecutive narrative, an idea to which this poem, in however qualified a way, subscribes. Perhaps that final episode in the art gallery suggests, in addition to what it says more obviously, that the real structure of the poem is occult, accessible only through the details of texture. In Rembrandt’s John the Baptist Preaching it is not the saint who attracts attention but

a woman in the foreground dusk ...
holding her little girl trussed
so she can shit in the river.

Of the gallery itself what is remembered is the door marked Drücken, which Craig mistakenly pulls, perhaps to avoid the memory that this was the word used to exhort children in the throes of constipation. Admittedly that condition is almost antithetical to the style of this poem, with its splendidly lavish textural scatterings. These are what one remembers: ‘a squirrel shudders up a pine./Tines of sunlight through the trees’; or, in a gale, ‘Yachts like Hassids in the harbour’. What they are doing in a novel is a different question from whether they are worth having. They can cleanse one’s way of seeing things; why should they also have to tell us what to think?