Sunday, July 29, 2012

"Anything, seen without prejudice, is enormous": Mervyn Peake, caricature, and the baroque roots of modern fantasy literature

Mervyn Peake wrote:  "For drawing should be an attempt to hold back from the brink of oblivion some fleeting line or rhythm, some mood, some shape or structure suddenly perceived, imaginary or visual.  Something about a head that calls out to be recorded: something about the folds of a long cloth: the crawling wave; the child; the tear; the brood of shadows.  That movement of the arm that hinted fear: that gesture that spelt amazement: the dream; the alleyway; clown; broker; stone or lizard.  The quicksands closing on a centaur's head tokens no more of magic than the penny loaf. ... Anything, seen without prejudice, is enormous" (from his 1946 booklet, The Craft of the Lead Pencil; above are his sketches of Steerpike and the Countess Gertrude, below of Flay with little Titus, Fuchsia, and Flay alone, illustrations to Peake's novels of Gormenghast ).

While Tolkien from his seat at Oxford was at the same mid-century moment creating (or updating) a Mythos For England, based on "that Northern thing," Peake-- ensconced on Sark in the Channel Islands just off the French coast--was plumbing the Universal in the melancholy comedies and grotesqueries of Gormenghast.  Peake is that decidedly un-English thing: a practitioner of the baroque, a Mannerist, an open sluice for rococo passion.  Where Middle-Earth is thick and delineated by maps (both for the characters and for the reader), Gormenghast is endless and unknown to those who reside there and to the reader...and outside Gormenghast the territory becomes utterly unmarked, inchoate, as Titus learns in his exile.  Middle-Earth is earnest, realistic, precise, multitudinous, full of exteriors described...Gormenghast is exaggerated, surrealistic, romantic, suggestive, full of interiors portrayed.

English-language fantasy fiction has since, as is well-known, overwhelmingly followed the Tolkienian mode, harking back to Beowulf, to the sagas, the eddas, the lists of dwarves fleeing through Mirkwood.  Modern fantasy does not favor its other parents, including the ones celebrated by Peake.  He is a caricaturist in the finest, fullest sense of that word, distorting the external to reveal an essential truth (it is arguably harder to produce a good caricature than it is to render a good realistic portrait).  Caricature does not sit well in our modern field of fantasy; to extend the analogy, the market right now demands grand historical and quasi-religious paintings.  Few modern fantasists can be considered caricaturists (my short list includes Jeff VanderMeer, Sylvia Townsend Warner, D.M. CornishAngela Carter, Theodora Goss, Jesse Bullington, and perhaps needless to say, Italo Calvino), and fewer of those have enjoyed the kind of commercial success accruing to writers of  the grand epic.

I am no Peake scholar but I have to believe that Peake, a professional artist, had immersed himself in the great Italian and Spanish traditions of caricature, beginning with his studies at the Croydon School of Art and the Royal Academy Schools, and then as a teacher at the Westminster School of Art and at the Central School of Art in Bloomsbury.  I have neither time nor space today at Lobster & Canary to do more than toss forth below some examples of the sorts of latinate visions I imagine Peake knew well.  I encourage us as we review our genre's recent history to acknowledge not only the Northern elves but also the hippogriffs and pantagruels of the South, not only the stern reality of dragons and rings but the traditions that give us the labyrinth of the lady Gertrude's mind, the depths of Flay's devotion, the anguish of the seventy-seventh Earl of  Groan.

       [Ubaldo Gandolfi, a study of heads, c. 1760-?]

[Goya, They Are Hot, 1799]

[Parmigianino, Figures in a Ferry Boat, c. 1535]

[Parmigianino, The Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine, c. 1527]

[Canaletto, Study of a Man, c. 1750-?]

[Pier Leone Ghezzi, Study of a Lawyer? c. 1725?]

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Heidi Julavits On Genre Fiction; Joan Acocella and Maria Tatar On Fairy Tales

Heidi Julavits, the novelist and co-founding editor of The Believer, reviewing in this week's New York Times Book Review Glen Duncan's Talulla Rising marvelously describes the relationship between that which is "literary" and that which is "genre" in current fiction:

"If literature is lacinato kale, genre is gelato. Despite regular critical attempts to reconstruct this outdated food pyramid, the base holds strong. Fortunately, thanks to a surge in literary molecular gastronomy, readers can enjoy an ever wider array of broccoli rabe (or brussels sprout, or Swiss chard) ice cream. When cooked by mad word scientists like Glen Duncan — whose new horror novel, “Talulla Rising,” is a sequel to “The Last Werewolf” — this harmonic hybrid delivers sweet (plot), salty (character), sour (emotional pathos), bitter (psychological probity) and umami (stylistic and linguistic panache)."

She goes on to say that  the plot can best be described as a gleeful mash-up of Raymond Chandler's entire work, the vampire novels of Anne Rice and Foucault's Pendulum, with Proust looking on.   For the full review, click here.

Meanwhile, in last week's New Yorker, Joan Acocella superbly overviews the evergreen impact of fairy tales on modern fiction ("Once Upon A Time; The Lure of the Fairy Tale," July 23rd issue-- click here for the entire essay).   One example from among her many smart assertions:

"In truth, most of the Grimms’ tales cannot be made wholly respectable. The rewritings that seem most persuasive are sometimes more unsettling than the Grimm versions—for example, Angela Carter’s “The Company of Wolves,” inspired by “Little Red Riding Hood.” This story stresses the eroticism of the girl’s encounter with the wolf."

Acocella also deftly traces the recent history of fairy tale studies in the English-speaking world, noting that Maria Tatar has emerged as the preeminent scholar in the field.   The New Yorker already has Tatar in the fold as well-- see, for instance, her March 16th, 2012 New Yorker blog post "Cinderfellas: The Long-Lost Fairy Tales" about the discovery of five hundred (!) previously unknown (!!) fairy tales in an archive in Regensburg, Germany.  Click here for that.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Hy-Breasail in Manhattan

In May, the New York Times published an article entitled "On the Vaunted City Subway Map, Mistakes and Phantom Blocks" which revealed that the iconic NYC subway map contains wayward streets and hidden realms:

"On the West Side of Manhattan, beginning near Lincoln Center and extending toward the campus of Columbia University, Broadway is seemingly misplaced. It is west of Amsterdam Avenue at West 66th Street when it should be east. It drifts toward West End Avenue near 72nd Street, where it should intersect with Amsterdam. It overtakes West End Avenue north of the avenue’s actual endpoint near West 107th Street, creating several blocks of fictitious Upper West Side real estate.   [...]

On the current map, West End Avenue has inexplicably been extended to around West 116th Street, forging roughly nine blocks of phantom terrain.
Pedestrians on Broadway in this area can stumble upon an Ivy League university or gaze through the windows of Tom’s Restaurant, of “Seinfeld” fame. They can find a copy of “Pride and Prejudice” for $2 at a stand on West 112th Street, and, four blocks south, a taco for 50 cents more. They can even sip mojitos at Havana Central at the West End, near West 114th Street.
But they will never find West End Avenue between Broadway and Riverside Drive."
(For the full article, click here).
I am delighted but not surprised.  Abandoned stations lurk throughout the subway system, realities no longer shown on the map ("The Map"); you can catch shadowed glimpses of them as your train speeds by: Worth Street on the IRT downtown, 18th Street on the east side, 91st Street on the west side, and many others.  On the other hand, the Second Avenue Subway has lived fitfully and half-wrought, a cartographic ghost of endless promises, for going on a century, and now we ponder maps that portray planned stretches of the 7 Line and of the Long Island Railroad.  
Entire new precincts have sprung from the mud and shells of our rivers:  Battery Park City, the East River Park.  Our real estate brokers conjure forth neighborhoods that exist only on paper until pioneers make them real: where exactly is "NoLiTa" or "FiDi" or "Manhattan Valley"?  Equally vague and peripatetic are the boundaries of Chelsea and of Gramercy Park, of Turtle Bay and the Meatpacking District (not to speak of Williamsburg's ongoing annexation of Bushwick in Brooklyn).   On the other hand, very discrete entities such as Grove Court in the West Village, Henderson Place on the Upper East Side and Sniffen Court in Murray Hill exist like Rivendell, i.e., tucked away in plain sight, refuges from the wider world, and not always marked on maps.
The best writers of what is currently called "Urban Fantasy" are exquisitely attuned to such vagaries, to the bizarre, hidden and surreal elements of city life, to the fecundity of the city itself, the city as a seemingly independent actor outside of full human control.   China Mieville specializes in dissecting the hoarsely breathing, patchwork body of the modern metropolis,  most masterfully in The City and The City.  His short story (autobiographical essay?) "Reports of Certain Events in London" details the clandestine movements of feral streets, stealthy intruders that disrupt the maps and go their own way, sometimes playing tourist in other cities altogether.
Catherynne Valente, in her city of Palimpsest (and surely all major cities are palimpsests), describes a train with an impish mind of its own:  "It became apparent to enthusiasts of locomotive travel that there was at least one unscheduled train on the tracks of Palimpsest.  It did not stop at any of the stations, for one thing.  [...] ...the 3:17 northbound Decretal had had a somewhat unhappy affair with the 12:22 eastbound Foolscap.  The mysterious train was their child, and like any child whose parents no longer love each other, it runs wild and does what it likes and there is little at all to be done about it."  And here every NYC commuter nods, thinking of the J train that seems to fall asleep somewhere in Brooklyn because its only constancy is its caprice, and recalling also the quirky G,  while not forgetting the dainty 1-2-3's who apparently dislike water so intensely that the smallest rainfall causes them distress and delay, and the way in which buses travel their routes in packs, creating long caesuras for the anxious or resigned rider-in-waiting.
Theodore Sturgeon in the oft-reprinted "Shottle Bop" captures another reality well known to all big-city dwellers: the cool, curious little shop that you stumble on and then can never find again.  "I'd never seen the place before, and I lived just down the block and around the corner.  ...between Twentieth and Twenty-First Streets on Tenth Avenue in New York City.  You can find it if you go there looking for it. "  Or-- as the narrator discovers--maybe you won't find it.  It happens all the time, this losing your landmark stores, the boutiques and bodegas that orient and anchor you as you navigate the city.  
Delia Sherman knows all about the magic of the city, having mapped out a "New York Between" in her Changeling novels.   Terri Windling and Ellen Kushner know this too, having pioneered and then continued to refine the genre with the shared world of "Bordertown".   Neil Gaiman's "London Below" in Neverwhere,  Ekaterina Sedia's alternate city in The Secret History of Moscow, Marie Brennan's Onyx Court in her Elizabethan historical fantasies, Jeff VanderMeer's City of Saints and Madmen (in which he takes the game to the next brink, which is creating alternate spaces within cities that are themselves fictional),  M. John Harrison's Pastel City with its uncertain addresses and deliberate vagueness... the list is long and worthy, with grafts from Gormenghast (a castle that is a city that is a world, animated by its own desires beyond the petty ambitions of its inhabitants), from the tales of flaneurs in Paris and coffee-drinkers in Vienna, from the calqued realities of Dickens and Mann and Balzac, of Whitman and Kokoschka.
Aren't we all looking for Platform 9-&-3/4 at King's Cross?  For Number 221B on Baker Street?  For Avenue Q, and Coronation Street, and Albert Square, and Sun Hill?
Pardon me, in fact, as I stroll out now into Manhattan's Lower East Side, to stand wondering at the corner of Ridge Street and Grand least, to stand by an official street sign proclaiming the existence of such an intersection in the broadest of daylight, while the ocular evidence yields no such place, only the one street (Grand), with an apartment building of Babylonian proportion and across the way a nondescript but bustling Roman Catholic Church where this alleged piece of Ridge should lie.
I should write Mr. Mieville to inquire if any sightings of a block or two of a "Ridge Street" have been reported in his London neighborhood.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

A Mannerism Of The Mind: John Hale About El Greco; A Pinch of Blake

Adoration of the Shepherds (El Greco, 1614, originally in Toledo, now at the Prado).

Of this painting, the eminent historian John Hale-- a worthy successor to Burckhardt and Huizinga-- wrote: "It is a dazzling technical virtuosity. But this is a Mannerism of the mind, not of ingenious rule-breaking or a search for novelty, a style without a dominating source and which could have no progeny" (page 326 of The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance, one of my touchstones for understanding that place at that time; published in 1993, the book won awards from the Royal Society of Literature and Time-Life).

For grand pronouncements such as this, I love Hale's work. I love the firm assurance that brooks no retort, the god's-eye view, the sense of doors properly opened and closed, indeed of door-frames finely measured, angled and planed...and yet, and yet...the very finality of the assertion starts to bend and elongate (like an El Greco figure!) under closer inspection, does it not?

What--I ask myself--is a "Mannerism of the mind," as opposed to, say, a Mannerism of the heart or a Mannerism of the body? Or, alternatively, whose mind: that of the painter, that of the viewer (the intended original audience at the monastery in Toledo, or today's in the museum in Madrid), that of the critic (the critic at the time, the critic re-discovering El Greco in the 19th century, the critic writing today)?

What, I murmur: no ingenious rule-breaking, no search for novelty? But what had driven El Greco from Venetian Crete to Rome, and thence to Toledo if not his deep desire to break free of first Byzantine and then Italianate artistic rules? Others, some known to El Greco, shared his iconoclastic desires: Pontormo (I think), surely Parmigianino and Tintoretto. And the doom-laden, definitive claim that there not only were no progeny, but that there could not be any--?...even allowing the simple declarative, one ought to note that the offspring of aesthetic invention sometimes skip (many) generations: El Greco's role as progenitor was acknowledged by (among others)Cezanne and Picasso, presumably also by Dali and the other Surrealists.

My point though is not to flyspeck the powerful and enduring work of an expert such as Hale, but to force myself as a reader to slow down and scrutinize the struts and props beneath the carapace of authority, to question my own understanding, to query even the most persuasive of statements-- especially when I need only bend my vision to the image or text being critiqued. To quote Blake (another mannerist ill-understood in his own time): "As the eye is formed, such are its powers."

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A Happy 4th of July (Short Video by Matthew Mehlan)

A short video shot in Brooklyn last year by Matthew Mehlan that celebrates the spirit of the U.S.A.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Cross-hatchings from our commonplace book: Sharon Olds; Little Dragon

We traverse the streets and lanes of our commonplace books, strolling like Benjamin through the arcades, wandering like Woolf through notes and quotes made by our younger selves, intrigued and sometimes amazed at who and what we meet juxtaposed at the odd corner and skewed intersections.

For instance, we read and re-read the opening lines of the first poem, "Unknown," in The Unswept Room, by Sharon Olds (2002): "On the last morning of the summer, a little/ family comes over the dune, across/ the pond, and lays out their cloth, and their nutmeat/ basket, the sweets and freshes cached in its/ worried-forehead lattice-shell."

Olds-- who in this collection once again powerfully demonstrates why she is one of our leading poets of the intimate and the elegiac-- follows the opening lines with an entire story of loss and yearning. I urge you to read all of "Unknown."

In the meantime, I see the "little family" coming over the dune, repeatedly in the theater of my mind, and I wonder about their history. I create stories of my own, little filigrees that spiral off the original text, drifting like down, down the by-ways and into the suburbs of the locus communis. I imagine the family's conversation over their nutmeats and sweets. The child-- a little girl-- traces the lattice-shell; she will always remember the feel of it, the whorl of its glaze over the anxious ripple, combined with the bark of a dog playing in the waves and the distant "halloo'ing" of the dog's master. The mother looks out over the surf, her hand shielding her eyes from the glare of the sun. The father spears a stranded jellyfish with a salad fork. Behind them on the crest of the dune, playing a flute very softly (just audible under the call of gulls and the suss'ing of the waves), is the figure of death, his long scythe laid lovingly on the hot sand.

And so on and on...many small fictions spinning out from the main story...and eventually, in the pages of our commonplace, catching upon the prongs of another reference, in this case the first song, "Twice," of the eponymous first album (2007) by Little Dragon, the band from Gothenburg, Sweden (one of our favorite cities, but that is just happenstance) led by Yukimi Nagano, a song they made the soundtrack of a shadow puppet play called "Dreams from the Woods," directed by Johannes Nyholm.


For more on Olds, click here. For more on Little Dragon, click here.