Proust?

 

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Exile

The political leverage over the subject of immigration, and the question of the authenticity and status of displaced people has risen sharply in the last year. The problem of who such people are, across varying degrees of definition, and whether they have rights, or deserve access to sanctuary, is no longer a recognizable debate, it is really an open sore.

The current status of this dispute bears on the character and story of the ‘soldier’ in The Hidden Bend. Links to the soldier are here and here.

I heard an echo of the bait and switch political rhetoric, which we now hear constantly, while writing the soldier’s tale. I deflected that language and used it to a countervailing purpose. It was also an indirect response to the opportunism, to the conflation of identities and the cant from those vociferous protagonists who sought adherence to their objectives.

Originally, the character had never been conceived in such an environment, but in the writing it took on those layers because of the growing and wider antipathy, which has more recently, released a valve of the worst and darkest motives.

The soldier’s experience is carved out of war and victory, and then, almost imperceptibly, political forces react again and break the unquiet peace which leads to more chaos and violence.  In that situation the soldier, who acquires new attributes after the war, is driven into an untenable situation. As others have said, the soldier’s personal qualities and his unstinting enterprise is extraordinary; he continues to strive and resume the struggle.

In literature and in politics, exile is almost a requirement to attain the greater goal. For the writer, or artist, it represents a rejection of the status quo and the need to live elsewhere and reform. For some: Nabokov and Joyce, it was a permanent state. Nabokov said his life was determined by displacement and consequently he had none of the links and networks that settled people take for granted.

Political exile is even more imbued with meaning being the period when a leader collects their ideas into a form that eventually delivers them power and triumph over their opponents: Lenin at the Finland station, Mao after the Long March, Churchill’s so-called return from exile in Chartwell after the 1930s. Rare cases, where for most people exile is endless deprivation and defeat in every conceivable way.

A book is a small thing and The Hidden Bend, just a single voice. Although the expression of a fictional character’s experience lacks real effect and power, its meaning, and the reason novels are written and read after all, is to understand and reflect on another’s experience.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2017. All Rights Reserved.

Repetition

A long time ago I read some letters, and other documents, written in the 1920s by Sudeten Germans. Sudetenland is the German name for a region in the modern Czech Republic, comprising, Moravia, Bohemia and Silesia. After the First World War the Germans there were in a minority. Politically they were part of what was then Czechoslovakia. But they resented their status; it was not what they wanted because it reminded them of what they had lost: being part of Germany, with all the tangible and other emotive links that old bond represented.

I read one of those documents again last week but this time it was by a man in Oklahoma. It wasn’t identical, but it carried enough of the same tone, pleas and ideas, as to suggest a connection. In the essay the man outlines the views, the blunted aspirations and the resentments of people who have been ignored for a long time.  Behind his text was an imperative as to how things ought to be, none of it unreasonable, and all it impossible to realize which made it more desperate.

The connection between Sudetenland and Oklahoma is implied; there are, of course, many details and conditions that are not alike in anyway at all, but nevertheless, the shared sense of experience, of being discarded, rendered irrelevant, is clearly drawn between the two eras.

It is not very surprising that experiences should share commonalities and be articulated in the same way. There must be thousands and thousands of such links between different people over different time periods. That is the essence of The Hidden Bend.

It is the political dimension that makes such a comparison intriguing. Such thoughts are being uttered, besides Oklahoma, in Leeds, Marseille, Lecce, and elsewhere. Through his experiences the Oklahoma essayist makes it clear why political change was obligatory. To the best of my memory, the Sudeten Germans agitated for a border that suited their interests which led to political affiliations necessary to their aims.

It’s not a great leap of the imagination to draw parallels between these two cases into some form of portentous determinism. But no; Kierkegaard firmly shut the possibility of such an idea, and that type of facile inference has exclusive cogency on talk-back radio.

History doesn’t repeat but in nearly similar circumstances, people use familiar refrains to express grievance and self-pity, to claim righteous indignation and rebuke their enemies, to strain for what has gone, but which, in a phrase, can still be held, even in the mouth, and shared between people. It is self-fulfilling and justifies itself through its rancor. Reaction and retribution repeat.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2017. All Rights Reserved.

 

Bovril

With a new year it is inevitable that the passing of time sees us taking account of what has passed and what we plan to do in the future. Somehow this natural pause seems more focused with this new year.

The passing of many well-known musicians, actors, writers, and others besides, last year promotes looking back and reflection on what their work has meant. Time filters and changes our perceptions; of how we value the songs, the books and films we have known over the years.

With that in mind, bear a thought for someone who, in his day, was a consummate writer, of novels, poetry, and plays; who was wildly successful and popular; left a few phrases that have become part of speech; had a political career, and judging from his pictures, he was quite dashing too. Surely this person would be a vital part of literary life, even now.

It is not so: this fabulous writer is celebrated chiefly now, in the humorous Bulwer-Lytton contest which is founded on his infamous opening sentence: It was dark and stormy night – the rain fell in torrents….

Bulwer-Lytton has suffered this indignity for more than 30 years.

Just a little context: Wagner adapted his novel, Rienzi, into an opera and Wagner had quite good artistic judgement. Bulwer-Lytton left us the expressions: almighty dollar and the great unwashed. His other phrases and witticisms have been digitized on YouTube and like Oscar Wilde they hinge on inversion and paradox to achieve effect.

In 1871 he published an intriguing book called, The Coming Race, about superior beings, who call themselves the Vril-ya, and lived underground. They have a fluid called Vril, which is a source of energy and these beings use it at will.

The book impressed a manufacturer who realized the value of Bulwer-Lytton’s status to market a new product. He called the product Bovril. This is a sticky black meat extract which can be used for flavorings in cooking, or commonly in winter in England, as a drink diluted with hot water.

Now Bulwer-Lytton’s literary career is not a joke: it’s a syllable that nourishes people when they are cold and need a comfort drink.

It was dark and stormy night – the rain fell in torrents, there was thunder and lightning all around, but as Jessica sat down to her favorite Netflix series, she cradled a mug of Bovril in both hands, and sipping it, she felt warmed through.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2017. All Rights Reserved.

Starvation

In a world where cornucopia is the norm – in the west in any case – hunger does not touch most people. There are even reliable stories, and research, which suggests that children today never experience hunger; not the twinge of emptiness, but real hunger, because they are fed frequently. There are some people who suffer from hunger, or a type of nutritional deprivation, for one reason or another, but it’s still relatively rare.

This predicament is exceptional in history. That is an achievement. For the last thousand or so years humans have struggled to beat, not just hunger, but starvation. For most of history hunger was normal, frequent and ever-present. Even in good times, when ordinary people had regular work they didn’t eat much; not by today’s standards, anyway.

With hunger conquered there are new important things to do. Winning the consequences of the victory over hunger – obesity, diabetes – might be considered. That has been tossed around for a while now and it still hasn’t got much traction.

The other thing might be a sovereign currency. Money-food: it’s an obvious connection though it’s not especially interesting. But that’s not what I am talking about, although there will be a few people who see the connection, or for ideological reasons, make the connection. About three hundred million Europeans do and in Italy voters have decided they’d like to eat.

Italians voted on a constitutional referendum which has implication for Europe, the European currency and whether it might disappear. I won’t chorus in with opinions of what it means, there are plenty of others doing that now. While the ramifications are going to be clearer in the months ahead; the motive, the link to food, and national currency goes back 24 years.

A month after Europe decided to merge, a lone English voice wrote a prescient and very pithy analysis of why it was inevitably going to end badly. It’s a technical commentary which may seem obscure. Towards the end he states explicitly what happens when a country, like Italy, in its current position, has fewer options and no lira to use for its advantage: it declines and its people must emigrate, an Italian solution from a century ago, in order to survive starvation.

The Italian referendum, like Brexit, doesn’t end their problems; it signals that other ideas are needed which will, in all likelihood, come from the belly.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2016. All Rights Reserved.

Spleen

Looking at the regional distribution of voting patterns in the British referendum there seems to me enduring patterns, not just responses to the last five, let alone thirty-five years of politics.

The areas which most vociferously opted to abandon the European project, and by implication reject the political status quo in London, have, at times, chosen their own course, regardless of the consequences. It was these regions which rose to fight the king in the Civil War; it was from the same areas that the pursuit of individual faith led people to emigrate to America.

It is dangerous to draw such long conclusions between current circumstances and the historical record. However, English atavism is stubborn and proud; it is repeated frequently, not just on football terraces to abuse German supporters: Two world wars and one world cup, doo-dah, doo-dah, but through more respectable media and a plurality of voices

Deep-rooted beliefs and myths bind a polity. Their expression in literature provides coherence. English writing often forms and exhibits a clear identity of England, a country and people, which is singular and separate from any other.

John of Gaunt’s sceptred isle soliloquy is the touchstone of English patriotism in words, while Henry V’s happy few underscores the impossible odds of a small band defeating a much larger army in France.

The laureate of the English provinces is Philip Larkin: insular and anti-many, many things, most of all, anything cosmopolitan. His work is abrasive with anger, with resentment: he comprehends the essential inequality between himself and some other.

There is in Larkin a very strong sense of quiet desperation, the English way as Roger Waters phrased it. On the day of the referendum it was thought the bad weather might induce people to stay at home and watch the rain but, nonetheless, the turn-out was very high. Desperation turned to rebellion.

The best English novel to describe this regional landscape and its attitudes is Middlemarch. Eliot’s book is about various characters, both high and low, who in their own ways hope for something different and purposeful, but in the course of the novel they discover their own illusions.

It is certain the same thing will occur across middle England before too long.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2016. All Rights Reserved.

 

Resolution

The reader awakens to the turmoil of the main characters at the same time as “the soldier” rouses to another sultry day on an unnamed battlefield. The soldier wakes to his day, but also attempts to awaken himself as to who he is. The reader is taken on his campaign for discovery alongside the soldier as he tries on different identities such as “the farmer, the son, the brother…” In a similar way, the reader makes the acquaintance of Nastasiya and Piers, who are yet only acquaintances to themselves at the beginning of Cranswick’s book. Nastasiya embarks on a journey that mirrors her own journey of self discovery and Piers behaves in ways that are unfamiliar to him, deepening his idea of who he truly is….(more)