Dirty Tricks (1991), by Michael Dibdin

Michael Dibdin’s Dirty Tricks is a satirical thriller set in Oxford at the end of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership.  Its narrator is a forty-something tutor at the Oxford International Language College, someone who by his own estimation hasn’t risen to the heights of professional or financial success that his Oxford degree had led him to expect. He’s a cynical malcontent, with a clear-eyed understanding of the mechanisms of social class and cultural capital. He embarks on an affair with Karen Parsons, wife of Dennis Parsons, the accountant for the language college.  There’s lust and covetousness involved, but little passion and no empathy. By the end of the novel, Dennis and Karen are both dead, and the narrator has fled to South America. (At a notional level, the novel is his account of events in response to an extradition request; there’s a slight framing narrative that consists of letters between diplomats).  The narrator describes himself in Thatcherite jargon, speaking of his belated conversion to ‘the doctrine of self-help and free enterprise’, but his knowingness about such things makes descriptions of him as a ‘Thatcherite’ reductive or at least inadequate to the complexities of the narration. When untrustworthy narrators define themselves as being this or that, you have to wonder whether they’re engaged in deception and/or self-delusion.  The novel was published in June 1991, and I imagine it was completed shortly before Thatcher was ousted as Prime Minister in November 1990.

I can’t remember where I first heard of the novel, but I think it was on a list of ‘Novels Set in Oxford’ (perhaps Val McDermid’s), and I was particularly interested because it was set in contemporary Oxford (as it was back then), and because it’s about a social world that’s not directly connected to the University. To be sure, the narrator uses University education (or its absence) to define and place the people he meets: as far as he’s concerned, there’s a divide between the materialistic characters like Dennis, and others who supposedly define their lives by reference to culture and ‘higher things.’  But the action is mostly set in the residential suburbs — Summertown, Divinity Road, Headington, and on a brief holiday in the Dordogne — and University people appear only in passing as socially difficult dinner-party guests.  Near the end, as the second of the deaths is reinvestigated, the narrator is called into Oxford police station by ‘Chief Inspector Moss, or some such name’: Moss is a ‘paunchy, balding bloke in is mid-fifties’, sitting at a table doing a crossword puzzle. As the narrator enters the room, ‘he started whistling a phrase which I recognized with some surprise as the Fate motif from Wagner’s Ring cycle.’  This joke — not at all typical of Dirty Tricks — reminds us that this is not, on the whole, the world of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse.

The sharpness of the narrator’s analyses of social pretensions makes him enjoyable company for a while, but the depth of his cynicism, and particularly the way it manifests as misogyny, makes him an uncomfortable companion. He dislikes Karen’s ‘Merseyside vowels’, he dislikes her botched pretentious taste; he doesn’t even find her physically attractive.  The affair is best accounted for using something like René Girard’s notion of mimetic desire: the narrator desires Karen not out of any fundamental romantic or biological urge, but because he wants to be, or be like, Dennis and the other materially successful men in the novel.  The affair makes sense at that level, but that doesn’t make the narrator a likeable person to spend time with. Moreover, as he becomes more preoccupied with the plot of his own devising, the narrator has less time to make the kinds of social observations that had made him initially interesting; or, to put it another way, the narrative no longer requires him to think that way.

The novel’s social observations are subtle enough to have survived. By 1990, there were plenty of stock characters available to a novelist wishing to write some sort of Condition of England novel about Thatcher’s Britain: in works such as Martin Amis’s Money (1984), Hanif Kureishi’s My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), or David Lodge’s Nice Work (1988).  It would have been possible to construct a plausible satirical novel that relied as much on recycled literary materials as it did on direct observation and original thinking.  By tying the characters to a particular part of the economy — language schools — characterised by short-term contracts, and their employment of tutors who are typically over-qualified for the work that they’re doing, and by their selling of the cultural capital that comes through acquiring the English language, Dibdin locates the novel concretely in Thatcherite Britain. The accountants and businessmen are types, and they drive the appropriate makes of car, but they don’t feel recycled.  There are also obvious risks in writing about Oxford, in that the place is over-layered with other people’s literary versions of it, but Dibdin makes it seem real: he makes the social distinctions between its different districts seem plausible, and the appearance of the city is never fetishized or employed merely for scenic effect.  It’s interesting to speculate how Dirty Tricks will look as a novel in ten or twenty years time: how convincing a portrait of the era it will seem, compared to other novels and films from the time.  (I was living in Oxford in 1990, and knew people working in the language-school world, so I’m also curious to know how it reads to people more distant from those milieux).  My guess is that it will stand up quite well; but the exclusive focus on the consciousness of the narrator, and the consequent flatness of the characters who surround him, particularly the women, means that it misses some of the complexity of the times.


Let’s Talk about Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, by Carl Wilson (33 1/3 series)

Carl Wilson’s book about Céline Dion’s Let’s Talk about Love is apparently the best-selling volume in the 33 1/3 series; of those I’ve read so far, it’s also the one that diverges most boldly from the usual parameters. Whether its success is because of its unusual approach, or simply because it’s about a best-selling artist, I don’t know; one would have to undertake the same kind of sociological survey of its buyers that at one point Wilson draws upon in relation to Dion’s audience.  My guess — by which I mean my prejudice — is that this sold to the usual 33 1/3 readership, and didn’t make great inroads into the Dion fanbase; but that’s just the sort of prejudice that Wilson seeks to examine.

Wilson 333 jacket

I was sceptical at first about Wilson’s style, and the way that he seemed to be stretching out relatively thin materials with verbal inventiveness; but I was gradually won over, especially by the ease and simplicity with which he applied Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas about taste to the question of why people identify with Dion and her music.  The sort of thing that annoyed me is best represented by the opening sentences of chapter 4:

Céline’s passage through the stations of Quebec’s fleur-de-lys-shaped cross, from shameful hick to emblem of national self-realization, tells one story about what Line Grenier calls the “usefulness of global pop.” But it explains less about the globalness of global pop; you could argue her rehabilitation at home reflects Quebec’s contentment to ride along with the steamroller of Anglo-American monoculture as it flattens the world, mowing down regional cultures like so many hectares of rainforest, clearing ground for a Starbucks at every river mouth and a McDonald’s at each desertified crossroads.  Indeed, being a stealth operative of globalization is the most substantial charge Quebec intellectuals still lay against her. (p.39)

I got the point at “Anglo-American monoculture”; the rest of that sentence is designed, if you’re charitable, to inflate the idea and make it memorable; or, less charitably, to pad out the paragraph to the requisite size.

The opening chapter begins very much in the first person, with Wilson recalling the 1998 Oscars, at which Dion was up against (among others) indie songwriter Elliott Smith in the Best Original Song category. Wilson’s extended account of that evening allows him to establish iconic representations of two major forms of taste in popular music: mass-market commercial pop, and self-consciously ‘minor’ indie work. The same Oscars also set James Cameron’s Titanic (in which Dion’s rendition of ‘My Heart Will Go On’ was featured) against Harmony Korine’s Gummo: again, mass-market vs. indie.  The rest of the book works to investigate why we create such oppositions, and to find a way of standing outside the reader’s presumed preference for the ‘elite’ segment of popular culture.

Chapter 2 offers more of an argument, an account of how taste is wrapped up with personal identity. Wilson is interestingly reflexive about how ‘difficult’, ‘underground’, and innovative music might signify: he admits that he prefers to write about ‘knotty music like art rock, psych-folk, post-punk, free jazz or the more abstract ends of techno and hip-hop’, and identifies his underlying justification for this preference in the idea ‘that “difficult” music can help shake up perceptions, push us past habitual limits’; in other words, though he doesn’t cite a theorist, the sort of justification for difficulty advanced by Victor Shklovsky in his essay ‘Art as Technique’ (1917). But for him, he realises, Dion’s music is more ‘difficult’ than any ‘postmodern noise collage.’  We might want to stop and ask whether those two kinds of difficulty are really the same, but Wilson strides over that problem, and launches himself into his ‘experiment in taste.’

Chapter 3 begins a strand in the book that considers the specifically Canadian aspects of DIon’s identity, and, within that, the the specifically Québécois aspects of it. Wilson outlines the division of the Canadian Francophone music market into ‘chanson’ (the more highbrow end) and ‘variety-pop’. International ignorance of Quebec means much of what Dion says doesn’t make sense to the outside world. North American cultural coding of music markets into ‘black’ and ‘non-black’ don’t have a space for Québécois.

Chapter 4, the one that begins with the overblown paragraph above, tackles Dion’s place in the international market.  Here, for a few pages, there is almost too much information, and too little digestion, as Wilson quotes eight accounts of Dion’s place in different national cultures from around the world.  I’d have welcomed a bit more analysis of the subtle differences between these quotations, but Wilson’s argument is that global hegemony is often complicated by creolisation: those in the Anglophone world who criticise globalisation presume that the world ‘will automatically become more like us‘ are betraying a chauvinistic assumption.  One version of the argument is that the music is consumed according to local practices, and the songs that become successful and for which the singer becomes known will depend on those practices; another version, which is relevant in Dion’s case, is that the global corporation selling her music will encourage her to record or re-work material for the tastes of local markets: she has approached Japan, France, and Latin America in this way.

‘Let’s Talk about Schmaltz’, the fifth chapter, provides some historical context for the American love of ‘parlor songs’ and other sentimental popular forms, with Charles Hamm’s study Yesterdays (1979) providing some authoritative support. It’s notable that these forms have often been associated with recent waves of immigrants, whether Irish, Italian, or European Jewish. ‘Céline Dion’s music and career’, comments Wilson, ‘are more understandable if she is added to the long line of ethnic “outsiders” who expressed emotions too outsized for white American performers but in non-African-American codes, letting white audiences loosen up without crossing the “color line”‘ (p.58). More immediate antecedents in the 1970s are found not in Barbra Streisand (too Broadway, too self-conscious), but in ‘the nostalgic showmanship of Barry Manilow or Neil Diamond’ (p.60).

Chapters 6 and 7 were less interesting to me: the first of them, ‘Let’s Sing Really Loud’, is about the bigness of Dion’s voice, and the troubling sense that there is no personality behind it.  In this, she may be contrasted again with Streisand: Streisand imposes herself on a song, while Dion appears to be the impersonal conduit for her material.  The following chapter is more theoretical, considering the apparent incompatibility of ideas of taste with ideas of democracy and popular satisfaction.  Vitaly Komar and Alexandir Melamid’s Painting By Numbers (1997) is Wilson’s key text here, with its hilarious statistical identification of the most popular possible painting, a ‘dishwasher sized’ picture of rolling hills, blue skies, and blue water (p.75).

Chapter 8 is where Bourdieu comes in explicitly. There’s a lovely concise analysis of the indie-kid cliché of ‘I used to like that band’ as meaning I used to like them ‘until people like you liked them’ (p.93): it’s all about differentiation of personal identities. I was also interested to read about Richard Petersen and Roger Kern’s idea of ‘omnivore’ taste, even if, on a little reflection, it’s only what Jean-Francois Lyotard had identified in the late 1970s as postmodern eclecticism: ‘one listens to reggae, watches a western, eats McDonald’s food for lunch and local cuisine for dinner, wears Paris perfume in Tokyo and retro clothes in Hong Kong’.  The upper classes, rather than adopting the taste position of the snob, are now eclectic; Petersen and Kern speculate ‘that the shift corresponds to a new elite requirement to be able to “code switch” in varied cultural settings, due to multiculturalism and globalization’ (p.96). However, cautions Wilson, no one is a true omnivore: to have taste is to exclude (p.97).  Your omnivorousness is thoughtless in its eclecticism, while mine is carefully ‘curated’; your code-switching smacks of desperation, while mine displays the approved brand of self-aware irony. Or so I like to believe.  The chapter ends with Wilson following in Bourdieu’s path and analysing a market-research company’s account of the demographics of Dion’s American consumers.

In the next chapter Wilson as first-person persona looms larger again, as he attempts to go beyond the abstract market-research statistics and meet some real Dion fans in Las Vegas.  (Dion had a show there for several years.) Tragi-comically, as soon as he’s arrived he realises he can’t go through with it, and he ends up making contact through the internet with a very small sample of fans. Most interesting of these, because the most self-aware about how her love of Dion didn’t fit her interests in serious literature and experimental theatre, was the fourth interviewee. Her lack of patience with the way that ‘indie’ taste is just as motivated by external pressures as mass-market taste is a particularly illuminating confirmation of the more theoretical arguments in the book:

“the concept of trying to know who the next-big-thing is just seems so difficulty and exhausting . . . And if someone goes, ‘You don’t like that, you’re not cool’, I’m like, ‘I’m not cool. That’s okay.’  . .  I’m fine with my obsession because I don’t think it makes me any less intelligent.” (p.116)

(One might remark from that last phrase that this is someone whose sense of distinction comes from her belief in her own intelligence and sincerity, rather than from her sense of ‘taste’ being important.) Likewise:

“I just don’t like being told what i want.  It almost comes full circle: People who go out of their way to make sure they don’t listen to anything mainstream, they’ve been told, ‘You’re supposed to like this,’ and then they’re like ‘I don’t want to like this.’  But then these people have their own ‘Celine,’ and everyone is supposed to like that.” (p.116)

What this also points to is that, if we agree with Bourdieu, having good taste was never really about the internal possession of good taste, and was much more about the public display of that taste, the making of statements (explicitly or otherwise) that would help to differentiate you from others.

Chapter ten considers cover versions of ‘My Heart Will Go On’ in a punk mode, and asks what such ‘ironic’ reworkings of a mass-market song do in terms of cultural value.  There’s a good account of the way that elite culture disdains sentimentality as the worst possible aesthetic sin, and a sceptical step back to ask whether within elite taste ‘subversion’ fulfils the same function as sentiment.  And he notes, following Thomas Frank (The Conquest of Cool) and Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter (The Rebel Sell), that ‘anticonformist impulses are the octane of consumerism’ (p.125):

The kind of change implored in the music of strident sarcasm — freedom, equality, less authority — aligns handily with a ‘new economy’ whose trade and labor market needs require a more ‘flexible’, mobile, multicultural social structure (pp.125-6)

In other words, the slogans of enlightenment modernity have been co-opted by a consumerist modernity.

Chapter Eleven finally engages with Let’s Talk about Love on a track-by-track basis, but not in the usual 33 1/3 mode of close analytical reading, but in the form of a review for a fictional music magazine.   Chapter Twelve turns to larger questions: about the different ways that we might love music, and about the tragic decline of what Richard Sennett terms ‘public man’ (in a gender-inclusive way): we don’t have a democratic public realm: what Wilson means by democracy is not ‘a limp open-mindedness’ but ‘actively grappling with people and things not like me’ (p.151).

It’s often the case that a good 33 1/3 book sends me back to an album to listen to it again; ideally I hear things that I’d never heard before, or appreciate it with a new depth.  That was never going to be the case with Let’s Talk About Love. Not just because I have never knowingly heard the album or any of its songs, but because the object of the discussion isn’t so much the album as the things that surround it.  For all that Wilson engages with schmaltz and the distinctive qualities of Dion’s voice and her readings of established songs, it’s not the musical fine detail that he wishes to discuss; rather, it’s the fine detail of the social processes that shape her reception. Books in this series that focus on context at the expense of the music can be frustrating, but in this case Wilson’s approach has created a fascinating survey of the production of value in modern popular culture, and a good introduction to Bourdieu for a general readership.

A Strong Song Tows Us: The Life of Basil Bunting, by Richard Burton

A Strong Song Tows Us: The Life of Basil Bunting (2013), by Richard Burton


I’ve finally caught up with Richard Burton’s biography of poet Basil Bunting (1900-1985), published two years ago.  It’s a hefty, generous biography: generous in the length of its quotations from never-printed, rarely reprinted, and otherwise difficult-to-obtain materials; generous in providing both a biography and a series of critical readings, in the old critical-biography mode, and indeed a fairly detailed account of the critical reception of Bunting’s books; and generous to Bunting in — unlike many classic critical-biographies — not judging him or offering any overt interpretation of his character or his behaviour. If there is a covert interpretation of the life inscribed in the narrative, it’s the well-known one: that he was neglected for much of his lifetime and redeemed by the composition and publication of Briggflatts. It’s also seems to be implied that, until the Second World War, Bunting as man hadn’t completely come into adulthood, and that he was transformed by his wartime roles and responsibilities. A moment in Bunting’s mid-teens, when he threatened to leave the Quaker boarding school to which he had been sent, becomes a kind of reference point for later self-destructive moments, but only in the vaguest of ways: Burton is reluctant to interpret what was going on in Bunting’s faintly angry, frustrated, and mildly paranoid teenage outburst, so while the later episodes are similar, the narrative repetition doesn’t  amount to interpretation of the poet’s psyche or to narrative patterning.

All that is good. I enjoy reading biographies, but I worry about the distortions that they involve in order to create a compelling narrative, and I worry about the marketing-driven need to have a major new revelation (usually sexual) to offer to the world, around which the narrative must then be shaped.  Bunting’s teenage crush (or whatever it was) on Peggy Greenback, and his being reunited with her 50 years later, offers potential to create that kind of biography, but Burton doesn’t over-work it.  (In the Literary Review, Matthew Sperling drew attention to Bunting’s relationships with teenage girls, and Burton has responded briefly on the Infinite Ideas website about the difficulty of interpreting what was going on.)

Burton can get away with writing a biography without an overbearing interpretation or narrative line because Bunting’s life is itself full of interesting developments.  His Quaker-inspired opposition to the First World War is moving and fascinating.  His adventures in Persia are sometimes hilarious — I’d previously heard the one about his joining a mob who were baying for his blood — but Burton also conveys Bunting’s love for the country and its culture.  Bunting’s contempt for a southern English political and cultural establishment is a consistent connecting thread.

Generous = Hefty

Generous = Hefty

Burton can also get away with it because Bunting himself is such a vivid and at times hilarious teller of his own life. As Burton acknowledges, Bunting the anecdotalist at times seems to have taken a leaf from the master of unreliable memoirs, Ford Madox Ford, who was briefly his employer, so the record may well be exaggerated and in other ways distorted, but the stories are consistently engaging.  As well as being sceptical about the written record, Burton is alert to the theatrical elements in Bunting’s self-fashioning, especially late in life when he was able to play the role of Grand Old Man and Last-Living-Modernist. But his scepticism isn’t pushed into the position of reductive debunking.

If there’s a weakness in the narrative, it comes in the post-Briggflatts years, from 1966 to Bunting’s death, where Bunting himself seems to have begun to believe that his best years were behind him, creatively, and where Burton cannot find, or is unwilling to impose, any other narrative shape. The narrative can only be one of waiting for death; or, worse still, waiting for death while being forced, through financial necessity, to take a series of visiting professorships at universities. This phase is kept lively by Bunting’s contempt for universities, north American Creative Writing programmes, and the Arts Council, but by the late 1970s even those possibilities have evaporated.  Burton tends to flit around more freely in his source materials, so that a 1983 letter to Jonathan Williams will be followed by one from 1973 to Hugh MacDiarmid (p.488) (and of course, between those two letters, MacDiarmid had died, so that Bunting’s remarks about having ‘just’ written to MacDiarmid, when ‘just’ might seem to refer to 1983, is momentarily disorienting.)

I imagine most readers will come to this biography because they already know and love Bunting’s poetry. Reading it is no substitute for reading the  poetry, and only in small details does the biography (as distinct from Burton’s critical discussions) illuminate the poetry.  But Bunting is an intriguing character, and, by standing at one remove from him, quoting generously and framing documents sensitively and sympathetically, Burton allows us to reach our own conclusions.

Imaginary Cities, by Darran Anderson

Under the name @Oniropolis, Darran Anderson maintains a fascinating Twitter feed, full of images of utopias and dystopias from film, fiction and video games, and imaginings of buildings and cities from the medieval to the modernist.  I think it must have been through his Twitter feed that I learned he had a book coming out — Imaginary Cities (London: Influx Press, 2015) — and I awaited it eagerly.


Now that I’ve made time for it, I’m sorry to say I’m disappointed: disappointed because although there are all sorts of fascinating snippets and glimpses within its pages, a modest level of editorial intervention could have made it a better book, and even within that projected work there is the potential for something stronger.

Imaginary Cities is a rich and sprawling work drawing on wide knowledge of fiction, essays, film, and the history of architecture and urban design. It’s not illustrated, perhaps surprisingly, but texts that Anderson quotes from present such vivid descriptions that, having laid it aside, you might be forgiven for believing there had been images.  It’s concerned with the cities and buildings that Europeans and North Americans have imagined from the late middle ages onwards. It’s about — if an argument can be boiled down from its 570 pages — the way that the perfected building is always shadowed by its potential to become a ruin, and how the actual city is shadowed by never-to-be-built future cities. ‘All cities are built with their ruins in mind, even if only subconsciously’ (p.35).

Who is it written for?  In some ways –in its footnotes, its broad range of literary and scholarly reference — it looks like an academic book, but in the way it’s constructed, it’s more like a popular crossover book: something like A. Roger Ekirch’s At day’s close: a history of nighttime (2005) or Graham Robb’s The Discovery of France (2007). It’s rich in particular instances and anecdotes drawn from wide reading, but reluctant to engage in a explicit deeper analysis of those materials. Like other works in this genre, although Imaginary Cities often documents its sources with scholarly care, it doesn’t bring its arguments to the foreground, and it certainly doesn’t engage with other scholarly writing in the field.

At the level of production, there’s something particularly frustrating about the quality of the footnoting. True, this sort of book doesn’t have to observe all the scholarly conventions, but if you’re going to give a footnote reference (and the book uses footnotes, not endnotes), there are some basic things to get right.  Repeatedly, Anderson gives page references to books without indicating which edition he is using.  In some cases it may be there’s only one edition, but I can say with some confidence that’s not true of Gulliver’s Travels (quoted on p.55), Great Expectations (quoted p.243) or Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (quoted p.281). Page references like these are of no use to anyone, except perhaps the author, if he has the relevant editions on the shelves.  At worst they give a bogus appearance of scholarliness to the book.

The book has been let down by poor typesetting.  On p.18 we encounter the following horror:


Not, as you might think, a footnote cue to note 45, but one to notes 4 and 5.  The unconventional habit of placing the note cues before the terminal punctuation in a sentence is annoyingly frequent, but not consistent.  On p.199 a semi-colon goes stray and is placed at the beginning of a line. On p.202 a quotation from Werner Herzog begins without a quotation mark, and it appears for a moment as if it were Anderson and not Herzog who had ‘hired two drunks from the next town.’  There are plenty of similar instances.

The prose also needed better copy editing. If you’ve decided not to end a sentence with a preposition (‘with which it was once imbued’, p.135), it’s a good idea for you or your editor to delete the trailing preposition and not print ‘with which it was once imbued with’. Facts and names needed checking for typographical errors and errors of fact: The Alchemist was written by Ben Jonson (not ‘Johnson’, p.94), the protagonist of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is Marlow (not ‘Marlowe’, p.54), and Paul Klee painted an Angelus Novus, not an ‘Angeguls’ (p.258). Miss Havisham appears in Great Expectations, not Bleak House, and she’s not called ‘Miss Havisahm’ (p.243).

This kind of carelessness or informality extends to the organisation of the exposition. In a discussion of dystopian films (p.346), Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006) is mentioned first by its title, and discussed for a half a paragraph before the director’s name is dropped in.  The date isn’t given at all. Perhaps I’m not this book’s ideal reader, and Anderson is assuming that everyone knows who the director is? Or perhaps he’s assuming that we can all look it up on the internet?  Or, to think about it another way, Anderson seems unconcerned with the linearity of reading and of conventional exposition. Early on, he remarks that ‘All cities are subject to the Rashomon effect’ (p.22): to the film illiterate, or semi-literate, like myself, this was baffling until p.129, where in a discussion of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, he goes on to say, ‘The real becomes unreal and the unreal becomes real.’  At least, I think that’s what he means by the Rashomon effect.

The non-linear quality about the exposition suggests that by earnestly reading the book through from start to finish, I’ve been going about it in the wrong way. It might be better to treat it as an anthology rather than an argument, and to dip into it at random. It quotes generously, and I’ve come across a variety of passages that I’d like to investigate for my own purposes, as well as being reminded of books that I should have read and films I should have seen.  But to treat it as merely an anthology wouldn’t do justice to the moments where Anderson brings his ideas into focus pithily and forcefully.  Some examples.  There’s his account of the utopia of the seventeenth-century utopia ‘Christianopolis’, devised by Johannes Valentinus Andreae: ‘Its egalitarianism is extended only to those bearing scrotums’ (p.102).  There’s his characterisation of the monsters Mothra and Gorgo, in post-war Japanese films, as ‘fervent architectural critics’ (p.169).  Of the nuclear appcalypse that never came: ‘Instead, we spent forty years destroying our cities in our imaginations and wondering what we’d do in our four minutes of freedom’ (p.174). And there’s his account of futuristic cities of monorails and bridges:

Following the law of unintended consequences, bridges over land will offer shelter and cast shadows. What happens in these havens and hideouts is the stuff of further multiplying stories. There is always a shadow, sometimes literally but always symbolically to our advances. (p.321).

Shadows are everywhere in this book.

There’s a significant amount of writing and photography about cities and ruins at the moment. Imaginary Cities steps beyond nostalgic ‘ruin-porn’ to think about the longer intertwining histories of utopia, dystopia, and ruin.  Had it positioned itself explicitly against sentimental thinking about ruins, or found some other larger argument, it could have achieved a clearer sense of direction without sacrificing its richness and range of reference.

What I learned by writing a critical history of Mrs Dalloway

Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway was ninety years old this May, and in its lifetime it has been approached from a wide range of critical angles.  My Virginia Woolf: Mrs Dalloway in Palgrave’s Readers’ Guide to Essential Criticism series aims to provide a road map to the criticism and summaries of the most important works from various eras and schools. It also aims to place the critics’ works in the context of the literary criticism of their time. I also try to draw some larger conclusions, and I speculate a little about what might happen next.  This blog is more about what I learned about the history of criticism and about Mrs Dalloway in the process of researching and writing the guide.


(1) Critical histories don’t align neatly with decades

Some of the earlier guides in the series (when it began as the Icon Critical Guides) tidied up their works’ critical histories on a decade-by-decade basis, but even my earliest examination of the key critical texts suggested this wasn’t feasible.  A critic who learned his or her trade in the 1950s when the New Criticism was at its peak might write an insightful book twenty years later, and might have grown bold enough to break with some orthodoxies, but in many cases their work will still embody many of the assumptions that they began with.  I’m thinking here primarily of Avrom Fleishman’s 1977 book on Woolf, but also, more subtly, of Emily Jensen’s “Clarissa Dalloway’s Respectable Suicide”.  I place Jensen’s article on the chapter on sexuality, and it was first published in one of Jane Marcus’s pioneering collections of essays; but some of the critical language that Jensen uses harks back to the New Criticism.  At any given moment criticism might contain dominant, residual, and emergent elements (to borrow Raymond Williams’s terminology).  The chapters of the guide follow a broadly chronological pattern, but there are long overlaps.

(2) No-one can agree how many main characters there are

Mrs Dalloway is full of minor characters, some of them little more than names, but how many central characters are there?  The easiest answer is that there’s one, Clarissa Dalloway.  But to view the novel that way relegates Septimus’s story to being what one critic called a ‘grotesque … episode’.  If we see Septimus as a major character, then the novel has a different centre of gravity, and might even be said to have a different form.  What if we also see Peter Walsh as a significant character? And what if we see Elizabeth Dalloway and her relationship with her mother as important, as marking the presence of a future form of social organization?  As critics promote or demote different characters, the emphasis falls differently; the novel takes a different shape and means something subtly different.

(3) Interesting critical articles sometimes dissolve on closer examination

When Palgrave initially approached me about writing this book, the model for the series was closer to that of a critical anthology: long extracts (1000-2000 words) with generous framing commentaries and critical contextualisation. By the time I’d submitted a proposal, the model had changed, presumably because Palgrave were being asked to pay copyright fees. The change in model was good; it allows for a survey that is more generous in its range and that gives a better indication of the variety of criticism, both the big differences and the subtle.  It also changes the emphasis of the author’s task from being an anthologist to being a summariser, though of course in both models the author has to contextualise the pieces and indicate their strengths and limitations. The problem with being a summariser is that works of criticism in styles that are more performative or associative  don’t survive well.  They can be immensely stimulating, they can present fascinating neglected primary texts or cultural contexts, they can be full of brilliant generalisations, but if at the end the reader is left asking ‘What was the argument?’ or ‘Why was that worth saying?’, it’s much harder to find a place for them in a guide like this one.

(4) Interesting criticism on Michael Cunningham’s The Hours doesn’t always yield new insights into Mrs Dalloway

In writing my Virginia Woolf (2005) for the OUP Authors in Context series, I greatly enjoyed thinking about how adaptations (both filmic and textual) recontextualise the original work and might be taken as a form of criticism.  It seemed logical therefore, in writing this book, to include a chapter on criticism of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours.  But fairly early on I set myself the criterion that I wasn’t going to write about all criticism on The Hours: it had to be criticism that also looked at Mrs Dalloway, and in which The Hours cast Woolf’s novel in a new light and allowed us to see something about it more clearly. And when you do that, the number of eligible pieces of criticism reduces drastically. It must be said that some of what remains is among the best formalist criticism that I’ve read on Woolf’s novel: reading the two works side by side allows critics to bring out the brilliance of Woolf’s narrative form. I’m not sure I’d have read Kate Haffey’s ‘Exquisite Moments and the Temporality of the Kiss’ if I hadn’t been writing this book, and I’m glad I did.

(5) Mrs Dalloway looks different with different partner texts

One of the biggest struggles Mrs Dalloway had in the early years of its critical reception was the struggle to escape the shadow of Joyce’s Ulysses, a work crucial to the Kenner & Co. construction of modernism. But there were other, subtler influences. For a long time, To the Lighthouse was deemed to be Woolf’s supreme achievement, and it was the only one of her novels that Leavisite critics would give any time to. If you read Mrs Dalloway under the influence of To the Lighthouse, then it can easily  look like a knowledge about marriage — though a less perfect novel than its successor — and the main characters become Clarissa and Richard, with Septimus and Rezia as their parallels. I don’t give much space to this version of Mrs Dalloway in my book, but it was definitely present in the work of some critics.  Another way of partnering Mrs Dalloway is to find an essay by Woolf to read it with. For the decades where formalist concerns predominated, the obvious partners were ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ and the closely related ‘Character in Fiction’. What’s interesting to observe is how in recent years those essays have come to be taken as read, and with the rise of a more politically focused Woolf, ‘Thunder at Wembley’ has become interesting to several critics.

(6) Sometimes you can’t include interesting and important critics

I found that writing a critical survey of a single novel inevitably foregrounded a certain kind of criticism, one which culminates in, or at least dances around, a ‘reading’ of the novel.  In other words, the ghost of New Criticism can’t quite be laid to rest.  This problem was at its most acute when dealing with critics who wrote about Woolf’s philosophy, or Woolf’s relation to other philosophies.  Such work often involves connecting together a web of references across several different works. The weaving can build a substantial structure, but doesn’t necessarily have anything substantial to say about any single work. The same can also be true for some kinds of cultural materialist work. Inevitably, if a critical article has ‘Mrs Dalloway‘ in its title, it’s more likely to be considered for inclusion than if it doesn’t; if a book has a substantial section on the novel, rather than a generous scattering of references, it’s more likely to have caught my attention. A critical history of Woolf criticism in general — an immense undertaking — would give greater prominence to certain critics who feature here not at all, or who appear only as editors of volumes in which other interesting work was published.

(7) Where now for Mrs Dalloway criticism?

My approach throughout is historicist: how Mrs Dalloway has been approached has been influenced by institutional histories of literary criticism, and sometimes more directly by social and political movements outside the academy. Feminism most obviously: it’s impossible to tell the story of Woolf criticism without telling the story of feminist criticism, and later the story of theories of sexuality. Pacifism is important too: Mrs Dalloway, I suspect, became more prominent in Woolf’s oeuvre than To the Lighthouse because of the Vietnam War and the response to it.  But seeing criticism as historically determined makes it hard to identify future trends  While we can make a guess at trends in literary criticism that will be relevant to Woolf — eco-criticism, let’s say, and comparativism in the new guise of transnational criticism — it’s harder to know exactly how they will play out in the specific case of Mrs Dalloway.  I hope I’ve provided a useful road map, but we’re travelling through time, not space, and the edge of the map is inevitably hazy.

King Crimson gigs, September 2015

This month I’ve been lucky enough see King Crimson perform not once but twice, and I’m not sure anything I can write here will ever convey how amazing they were.  That, of course, is why I want to write about it.

I first became aware of Robert Fripp in the early 80s, as the guitarist on David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’;  around 1984 or 1985 Dan Coggins (always generous) lent me a tape of Three of a Perfect Pair.  Both the title song and the atmospheric side two material stayed with me, but I didn’t follow it up for some time.  With Fripp’s appearance on David Sylvian’s Gone to Earth (1986) I grew more intrigued, and around that time must have got Fripp’s solo album Exposure, perhaps to check out the alternative version of Peter Gabriel’s ‘Here Comes the Flood’. I was intrigued by the J. G. Bennett samples on both those records, though I wasn’t sure what to make of them. Then some time in the late 90s or early 200s I started listening to Brian Eno’s Here Come the Warm Jets, and was blown away by Fripp on ‘Baby’s on Fire’, and at that point started listening to King Crimson from various eras.  All of which is to say, I’ve been waiting for these gigs for a long time.

I was a little sceptical when I heard the band was reforming with three drummers.  Two drummers had worked well, but three seemed to risk the sound becoming too percussive and too bottom-heavy.  I needn’t have worried.  The three-drummers interlock their beats in a way that’s mesmerising: the gamelan style of playing that characterised Fripp and Belew’s guitar parts in the early 1980s lives on it the drums.  Although it’s hard to keep up with which sounds are coming from where, at times Gavin Harrison and Bill Rieflin take the main drum part, while Pat Mastelloto fills in with percussive noises (wobbly sheets of metal, maracas, squeaky toys).  All three had some sort of electronic trigger device for tuned percussion. There’s an almost comical contrast in scale between Rieflin’s very basic kit, and Harrison’s sprawling one, which has enough drums for two. On some pieces, Rieflin didn’t touch his drums, and played mellotron (or mellotron emulator).

Visually, they aren’t a spectacle in the usual rock performance way: every player stays pretty much where he is; only Tony Levin makes any significant amount of eye contact with the audience, and the occasional wryly amused smile. That gives him strong stage presence, though it may also be the case that as a one-time bassist — a recovering bassist — I was more than usually interested to see what he was up to. The Stick is a baffling instrument; the Funky Fingers (on ‘The Talking Drum’, I think) were fascinating to watch.  The lighting was minimal, remaining the same except when the lights turned red at the end of ‘Starless.  At Edinburgh Levin laughed when a drum improvisation we thought had ended started up again.  At the same gig, Jakko Jacszyk was laughing openly at the wild idiot-dancing during the final song of the encore, ‘Twenty-First Century Schizoid Man’ — but that was an exception.  But they’re still visually interesting to see, particularly because of the three drummers spread out across the full width of the stage: you’re constantly looking from one to another, to locate the source of a particular sound, and it’s intriguing to watch them watching each other.

When Mel Collins began to play his instruments, I was slightly surprised, and likewise when Jacszyk began to sing: I had’t heard these sounds within the Crimson mix for a long time, and in  Jacszyk’s case never (only since the Aylesbury gig have I caught up with A Scarcity of Miracles). It took a few moments to get used to, and they didn’t seem to blend with the other instruments; but it was immediately apparent how well Jacszyk’s voice suited the early 1970s material.  At the Edinburgh gig both elements seemed to fit more comfortably: I think simply because I’d got used to it, not any change in the mix. At both gigs, Collins’s baritone sax was particularly impressive, adding a rich forceful sound at the bass end of the spectrum, complementing Levin’s bass.

At both gigs Fripp’s playing was unostentatious, with there being nothing akin to his solos on ‘Baby’s On Fire’ or the Sylvian/Fripp material, but this didn’t register as a disappointment; the pleasure is to hear the entire band interlocking. Where there were extended solos — Gavin Harrison did an extended piece in ‘Schizoid Man’, though it seemed shorter at Edinburgh than Aylesbury — it was a pleasure to hear players I’m unfamiliar with.

Fripp has written often on his blog about his irritation with people recording and photographing gigs, primarily, it would seem, because he would prefer listeners to be living in the moment with the music, rather than living in anticipation of a later playback.  There’s something high modernist about his belief in art as a sacred or quasi-sacred space, and philosophically I’m not sure I buy the idea of the rigorous exclusion of contingency; however, I’m comfortable with the exclusion of cameras.  I wondered at Edinburgh how Fripp felt about people dancing in a mock-Bacchanalian way to ‘Schizoid Man’: I was relieved to see that Jacszyk saw the funny side, but Fripp’s expression gave nothing away. The Aylesbury audience was impressive though: complete silence, which meant that the quite and the silent moments in the music, between the loudness and heaviness, were all the more gripping.  The Edinburgh audience was significantly more restless: there was more coming and going between songs (which I find baffling) and, especially by the end, more cheering and singing along. Much as I appreciated the Aylesbury audience’s concentration, it made them seem staid by comparison. But in both cases the kind of relation the audience’s took to the performance, much more like that of a classical music audience, allowed for a better appreciation of the music.  These were performances of power and precision, muscularity and delicacy, invention and wit. One review spoke of them as valedictory, which I hope isn’t to be the case; but if it is, I’m lucky to have seen them.

Use Your Illusion I and II, by Eric Weisbard (33 1/3 series)

I not quite sure why I chose this 33 1/3 book; possibly I thought it might be interesting to read about music that I’ve never deliberately listened to.  My partner plays Guns n’ Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine” from time to time, and I’m in some way fond of its closing section and the way it runs through every heavy rock cliché in the book and pushes them all that little bit further.  But “Sweet Child of Mine” didn’t appear on Use Your Illusion. The only track I’ve ever knowingly heard off it is the cover version of “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.”  I’d never been keen on heavy metal, even less so hair metal, and when the album came out in September 1991 I was mostly listening to indie rock. For me, 1991 was dominated by The Jazz Butcher’s Condition Blue and the Blue Aeroplanes’ Beatsongs. I was nowhere near the scene of the crime.

Weisbard 333 jacket

Weisbard was near the scene, and spends most of the book being embarrassed about the fact.  There’s some comedy in this, as in Geoff Dyer’s book about not writing a biography of D. H. Lawrence, but — in both cases — not enough to sustain a whole book.  The book begins with some interesting reflections on the larger changes in rock and its relation to rebellion and corporatist consumerism, and if there’s something worthwhile in the whole exercise, it’s Weisbard’s well-informed awareness of the historical moment of the double album: above all, the moment where the idea of releasing two double albums was possible, and necessary for the kind of band whose career was posited on excess, and where the gesture was about to expose the emptiness of the entire genre.  Part of Weisbard’s running joke is that the albums are just too long for him to be bothered listening to; back in 1991 he had made a manageable tape-length selection.  In Chapter 2 he runs through his reduced length version, before reminiscing about Spin magazine and its place in the historical moment of the early 1990s.  In this, Guns N’ Roses front man Axl Rose becomes symbolic of rock at the moment of its last gasp, where it (seemingly) can’t sustain the hopes that have been attached to it. At this point, Weisbard seems to lose interest, or focus, and although Chapter 3 has many anecdotes of Axl Rose’s infantile misbehaviour and wasted talent, and although these are incidentally amusing, the book becomes incoherent.  Chapter 4 takes us through the various ways in which band and record company repackaged the album.  Finally, in Chapter 5, we have the conventional element of a 33 1/3 book, the track-by-track discussion, here rendered unconventional by Weisbard’s reluctance to do it.  Inevitably, his accounts of some tracks are perfunctory; that wouldn’t be so bad were it not that he also gives short shrift to tracks that would be interesting to discuss within the frame that he had earlier established. He might, for example, have discussed the way that “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”, in its bloated and epic scale, becomes “about” rock, about ambition, about the band’s ability to remould and remake Dylan’s song, and the way that in doing so it loses touch completely with the song’s emotional core; it becomes as self-referential as any postmodern ironist could wish, only without the ironic self-knowledge. There are signs in Weisbard’s book that an interesting work could be written about the Use Your Illusion albums, but this one is a missed opportunity.