Wednesday, 4 December 2019
Sunday, 27 October 2019
Reading this book, I had the sense of someone successfully making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Stefan Collini is a conscientious researcher, who gets deep into the archives; a very alert and astute reader, able to pick up the significance of a parenthetic concession or an adverbial emphasis; and a fluent writer. He also constructs and sustains an interesting thesis which has wider implications than the local ones with which he is primarily concerned.
At the same time, I often felt that the authors and books selected for analysis scarcely merit the very careful attention given to them. At times, something of what may be his exasperation shows through in asides which reveal a very nice, dry sense of humour. But his even-handedness does not allow him to go much further than that.
As universities began to develop imperial ambitions in the late nineteenth century, new professionalised subject departments put the squeeze on older forms of (often amateur) writing. In the new academic history, there was soon to be no place for the kind of general overview which cheerfully assumed both a general theory and a short set of moral, political or religious values to sustain narratives which offered readers a ready-made sense of how they (and, usually, their own country) had got to be where they now were. In England - and Collini is writing only about England - a main victim of university professionalisation was what, as a sixth former in the 1960s, I learnt to call The Whig Interpretation of History.
But there were still readers who wanted those general overviews and Collini’s principal thesis is that, in England, some part of the demand was met by the work of a group of writers and academics (nearly all with strong links to Cambridge University) whose official concern was with the teaching of English Literature, itself a new university subject, and officially focussed on its internal history and on text-focussed criticism. But, perhaps because less secure in its identity than academic history, university English Literature found room for historical and critical works which were stuffed with both general theory and moralising lessons.
The general theory was most often pessimist, a story of cultural decline (T S Eliot, the Leavises) or, at least, fragmentation (maybe good-enough shorthand for Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams) - combined with ideas about how the situation might be reversed, redeemed, or at least made tolerable to the sensitive. The proposed remedies seem to indicate some weakness in the original nostalgic diagnosis: the Church of England, hill-walking, cycling, adult education. I had assumed there were flirtations with fascism among those Collini discusses, but he does not mention any. It would have been good to have had a disclaimer.
Collini does not at any point mention Imperialism, even though the period he covers (roughly from 1918 to the 1960s) embraces both the peak moments of British Imperialism in the 1920s and 1930s and its precipitous decline after 1945. I infer not a failure on his part but a likelihood that, for his authors, the Empire was a bit like your income or your sex life; it was something there but not talked about, as if you didn’t have one or any. You just drank the tea, sweetened with the sugar. In terms of his main thesis, that his authors all gravitated to nostalgia about the past, not thinking about Empire may have helped leave the nostalgia untroubled.
In retrospect, though they were reasonably well informed about history, the group of critics with whom Collini is concerned had no access to an adequate analytical understanding of language (pace Empson). That did not really become available until the work of Wittgenstein, J L Austin, H P Grice - and from another source, Mikhail Bakhtin - enabled the kind of work then accomplished by writers like Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson. The main achievement has been to create clear and useable distinctions between sentence and utterance, sentence meaning and utterance meaning, semantics and pragmatics. This has allowed a recasting of traditional rhetoric (which never distinguished sentence and utterance) and a more sophisticated account of the field of author - narrator - implied reader - actual reader relations.
“Continental” semiology and semiotics as practised by Roland Barthes in the 1950s got underway in no better an analytical position than the Cambridge critics, with Barthes professing to stare at images on the page much as the Cambridge critics professed to attend to words on the page. Both could only do it because of a great deal of only half-formed theory.
The general interest of Collini’s very readable book lies in its connection to the broader topic of changes in the hierarchy and distribution of writing genres brought about by twentieth century university expansion, an expansion which proceeded at an exponential rate. One result was a fairly long period when it seemed that the job of the non-science academic was to write unreadable and unread books, many to be published at astronomic prices by specialised publishing houses. At the same time, anything readable and read was regarded as inferior. But in the last couple of decades a clear movement has arisen to create “cross-over” books which can both function as core texts in serious university courses and appeal to a wider readership. Some of the American university presses have played an important part in this movement, though inhibited by increasingly censorious university environments.
Friday, 11 October 2019
Olga Tokarczuk, two of whose books have been reviewed previously on this Blog in their English translations published by Fitzcarraldo, has just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Here is an essay spun off from her work which I will include in my next book of essays, Between Remembering and Forgetting:
The Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk loves obscure facts and strange little stories which are not just the stuff of competitive quizzes but capable of setting our minds racing. Thus at page 109 in the English translation of her novel Flights, she tells us that
The shortest war in history was waged between Zanzibar and England in 1896, lasting thirty-eight minutes.
If that yields a smile, it is because we discover that we have always sort of assumed that, well, wars - properly speaking - are the sort of thing that have to last a bit longer. How much longer? Well, we have never actually considered that question and right now we don’t have a definite answer. Nonetheless, thirty-eight minutes, no, that’s not long enough. How can you start and finish a war in thirty-eight minutes? Wikipedia tells us that you can:
The ultimatum expired at 09:00 East Africa Time (EAT) on 27 August, by which time the British had gathered three cruisers, two gunboats, 150 marines and sailors, and 900 Zanzibaris in the harbour area…. Around 2,800 Zanzibaris defended the palace; most were recruited from the civilian population, but they also included the sultan's palace guard and several hundred of his servants and slaves. The defenders had several artillery pieces and machine guns, which were set in front of the palace sighted at the British ships. A bombardment, opened at 09:02, set the palace on fire and disabled the defending artillery. A small naval action took place, with the British sinking the Zanzibari royal yacht HHS Glasgow and two smaller vessels, and some shots were fired ineffectually at the pro-British Zanzibari troops as they approached the palace. The flag at the palace was shot down and fire ceased at 09:40.
The sultan's forces sustained roughly 500 casualties, while only one British sailor was injured….The war marked the end of the Zanzibar Sultanate as a sovereign state and the start of a period of heavy British influence.
No doubt about it: a proper war with a bombardment for a beginning, a casualty-strewn middle, and victory for British imperialism at the end.
But my mind is still racing. Thirty-eight minutes. Can you be in love for thirty-eight minutes? Can you mourn for thirty-eight minutes? These are also things which happen in time, in real time, and which have duration so it must be possible to say something about that duration. You fall in love with someone and later you fall out of love, that is normal; but if it is love must not some time elapse before the second can follow the first? Make the time too short and you have a passing infatuation or simply the hots. We have words to describe such short-lived states. The same for mourning. In thirty-eight minutes you can be upset and then stop being upset, but you can’t really mourn, can you? Wittgenstein thought about such problems:
What is a deep feeling? Could someone have a feeling of ardent love or hope for one second - no matter what preceded or followed this second …. The surroundings give it [the feeling - TP] its importance. (Philosophical Investigations, para. 583)
To understand what he is getting at, think of negligence. It isn’t a state of mind, like forgetfulness. A plane comes in to land and the pilot forgets to lower the undercarriage; the plane crashes. Those “surroundings” turn the pilot’s forgetfulness into negligence.
Now look at things another way. Love and mourning are sometimes unending. There are people who marry, live together for sixty years or more, and who still describe themselves as in love with each other. It’s very rare, but the newspapers tell us that such enduring love does happen – but of course, rarely, in the same way that it is rare to live to be older than a hundred.
Some people never stop mourning a loss, but in that case we are less likely to admire and more likely to introduce a new word, melancholy, to describe what has happened. In the middle of the carnage of the First World War, Freud wrote his Mourning and Melancholia which distinguishes the two states, with the one treated as normal and the other as pathological. But the difference was already well-established and the anatomy of melancholy well-understood. A melancholy disposition is just about tolerable in a person, though we may wish sometimes that they would snap out of it, but full-blown and life-long melancholy is something we cannot accommodate. Miss Havisham, jilted at the altar and wearing her wedding dress for the rest of her life, is not an admirable character.
I have deferred the question. How long must it last for it to be love or mourning? We have some vague notions which relate to our sense of the human scale of things. A week in politics is a long time, but a week in love surely not. And if your husband or wife dies, it is offensive to some sense of - what? decorum?- that you should re-marry before a certain period has elapsed. If you do, it suggests that you did not love the person who died or that you do not love the new person you are marrying. Either way, or both, it suggests that you are rather too concerned with your own creature comforts. So there is a moral dimension involved in our assessment.
Unfortunately, there is no Wikipedia page to tell us the story of the shortest love in history or the briefest of sincere mourning. The internet can tell you how many seconds it takes to fall in love (four is popular), for how long the Roman Catholic church expects you to mourn a loss, and much more besides. But that still doesn’t answer the question, How long must it last, at a minimum?
Wednesday, 21 August 2019
The Literary Review makes an annual Bad Sex Award for really, really badly written sex scenes in novels which may have other merits but when it comes to sex, none at all.
They should add a Bad Blurb prize. Bad Blurbs are quotes cut and pasted onto book jackets and sometimes onto front pages which are meant to attract readers to the book but in fact display a certain inappropriateness for the book they supposedly blurb.
Until this week I had only accumulated two examples, books which have been previously reviewed on this Blog:
Novel: Alex Preston In Love and War
Publisher: Faber 2017
Relevant plot summary: Hero dies horribly at hands of Gestapo; heroine dies in Auschwitz
Bad Blurb: selected by the Publisher from GQ magazine which tells us that it’s a book for the beach, “The perfect read to pair with that first sundowner”
Comment: Gin and Auschwitz, anyone?
Novel: Megan Hunter The End We Start From
Publisher: Pan Macmillan 2018
Relevant Fact: Under 20 000 words, disguised by using wide spacing, sixteen pages of end materials, and thick paper
Bad Blurb: “I read it in one sitting” (a breathless Hannah Kent of Burial Rites fame)
Comment: How could one not?
But this week I can add a third one:
But this week I can add a third one:
Novel: Salley Vickers, The Librarian
Publisher: Penguin 2018
Relevant plot summary: Mills & Boon. I gave up at page 155-6 where Doctor finally kisses
Librarian, “ ‘ What would you wish for, Sylvia?’ But he had stooped and was
gathering her body to his, so she didn’t answer./ “I have wanted to do that
since I met you in the foundry”’
Bad Blurb: “Vickers writes of relationships with undaunted clarity” (Adam Phillips, no less, who sold the book to me)
Comment: Phillips was reviewing another book by Vickers, Cousins. But in any case there surely has to be a sotto voce continuation to his phrase: “ undaunted clarity as if Freud, modernism, the War, post-Modernism had never happened”. "Undaunted clarity" from the pen of Adam Phillips gives the game way. It is something no longer available to us, outside the world of Mills & Boon novels.
Friday, 9 August 2019
When I googled the title for this essay on 9 August 2019, Google replied:
No results found for "google assisted prose".
Well, that’s all going to change now.
In recent prose writing - I give an example below - I often end up indicating how I have used Google to enable parts of the prose and in a self-conscious way. If you like, I have got myself into a triangle with a search engine.
As an independent scholar and writer who doesn’t use a university library any more, I am very reliant on Google. But so are lots of other people, including those who do also use old-fashioned book-based libraries. At its simplest, Google allows you to get research results in one minute which would have taken a day in a library to obtain. When a desktop search takes up thirty minutes because you try out every version of the query you can formulate, complete with variant spellings and all the rest, then that could easily be equivalent to a month-long search involving inter-library loans and so on.
Of course, there are problems. Not everything has been uploaded and a serious researcher may well have to go off to a paper-based archive in the hope of finding information they need. But, on the other hand, persistent googling will turn up things which you would never have found through paper-based research - there are just too many bits of paper and too many archives out there. But a remarkably large number have been uploaded.
More importantly, the google search makes certain kinds of writing very easy - perhaps, too easy.
There are successful memoirists and novelists who clearly make extensive use of internet searches. Among books I have recently reviewed on this Blog, Annie Ernaux’s The Years (originally published 2008; review on this Blog 26 February 2019 ) and Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights (originally 2007; review on this Blog 4 August 2018) struck me as examples of google assisted prose - Ernaux explicitly acknowledges it:
The web was the royal road to remembrance of things past [ a double allusion here, to Freud and to Proust ]. Archives and all the old things that we’d never even imagined being able to find again arrived with no delay. Memory became inexhaustible, but the depth of time, its sensation conveyed through the odour and yellowing of paper, bent-back pages, paragraphs underscored in an unknown hand had disappeared. Here we dwelled in the infinite present (pages 209 - 210)
The most obvious advantage of google assisted prose (GAP) is that it enables you to pile up examples and indulge any taste you may have for obscure facts. This is clear from Ernaux's prose:
Some smoked grass, lived in communes, established themselves as factory workers at Renault, went to Kathmandu, while other spent a week in Tabarka, read Charlie Hebdo, Fluide Glacial, L’Echo des Savanes, Taknonalasanté, Métal Hurlant, La Guele Ouverte, stuck flower decals on their car doors, and in their rooms hung posters of Che and the little girl burned by napalm.They wore Mao suits or ponchos, sat on the floor with cushions, burned incense, went to see the Grand Magic Circus, Last Tango in Paris, and Emmanuelle …. (page 108)
Here, Google is enabling the recall of things which have been largely forgotten, and enables it not least because Google now offers an extraordinary library of images which makes any personal album of hard copy photographs look decidedly meagre.
I want to work some more on this but for the moment I provide below a small example from my own recent work of what is clearly GAP writing, even though in this case I use the piece to underline the limitations of Google as a memory prosthesis
Google does not understand. It understands perfectly well when I type in “Ginette Gablot”, “Nicole Geblesco”, “Sanda Geblesco”, “Angeline Goreau” ,“Jawj Greenwald” - just to pick surnames beginning with G. These are people Google recognises. They have had careers and some have written books since our paths crossed in Paris when I was a student there. One is dead. For Ginette, it even has an image exactly as I remember her, and that because at the time she acted in a short film and Google has a still from the fifty year old publicity. That’s quite an achievement, isn’t it? When it appears on my screen, I am very grateful.
But when I type in “Happy Castro” Google does not understand at all. It cannot get past the idea that I want to look at photographs of Fidel, smiling. It seems unable to register any of the admittedly thin additional information that I provide: “Name of person”, “in Paris 1971 - 1972”, “American”, “Cuban-American”, “young woman”. Google has made up its mind; Happy Castro is Fidel, smiling.
I don’t think I knew Happy Castro - the sliver of memory is so slight - but I would have liked to have known her. I think our paths crossed maybe two or three times and when they crossed it was probably on the street and Happy Castro was probably on skates, no mean feat in Paris and not a common one at the time. I don’t associate her with a project; maybe she was a performer but maybe just an American in Paris, bumming around and being Happy. That was what interested me; she was happy. And as a result, fifty years later I have a file name in my head and a flicker of almost gone memory.
And I wanted Google to revive it for me.
Maybe someone somewhere has a snapshot of a young woman on skates in Paris in 1971 - 1972 but who doesn’t know the name of the person in the photograph. I’m not even going to Google it, “Do you have a photograph of ….?”
This is my life now. I vaguely remember things and sometimes not at all - the latter are now the unknown forgottens. Out of what I vaguely remember, it’s hard to make a story and it can only get harder unless Google starts to understand better my needs.
Tuesday, 30 July 2019
I’ve been thinking about the topic of cultural change and recently published a summary on this Blog (11 September 2018). It struck me as I read through it that there were things which led back to Wittgenstein, like my use of the idea of a “sample book”. But I hadn’t read any Wittgenstein-related material let alone Wittgenstein himself since the 1980s. I thought I should retrace my steps and so I bought a copy of the Philosophical Investigations (PI) in the scrupulous modern edition (as a student in the 1960s and 1970s, I used the second edition of 1958 and later sold it when I felt I had no more use).
I have mixed feelings. I’m still not convinced. Here are some thoughts.
Wittgenstein approaches his work in a territorial spirit. He was of course a Professor of Philosophy in a feudal university, so nothing new there. There is Philosophy and it isn’t Science. The sciences which are mentioned in PI - physiology, psychology, maybe psychoanalysis - look for causes whether in the present or the past. They are sometimes interesting, sometimes not. True, psychology as Wittgenstein knew it (behaviourism, fanciful “experiments ” using undergraduates) had very little going for it (See PI, #307; Part II, #371). Philosophy, in contrast, is concerned with concepts and grammar - though the PI locates those within “forms of life” and so sometimes reads like a theoretical or philosophical anthropology or sociology - and has been read that way. Three thoughts.
As people took on board his work, they developed it in two directions. First, there was “conceptual analysis” which had mixed success. Extended into areas like ethics or politics, it read as a rather complacent and conservative rendering of what we think, disguised into what “we say” - as if the student needed to learn etiquette. “When we use the word “democracy” we mean …”. As a result, there is a lot of work in old issues of philosophical journals which is no longer read by anyone. [An aside: in the late 1960s I attended Peter Winch’s seminars at King’s College, London. An old man sat in the corner, Rush Rhees [1905 - 1989], who had been one of Wittgenstein’s acolytes. Occasionally, he made a remark and each time I felt that, well, it wasn’t quite up to what one would expect in a graduate seminar. The remarks were banal. I put it down to his advanced age; but looking now at his dates, that can’t have been the explanation. ]
The “grammar” when linked into the idea of “forms of life” fairly quickly yielded a sharp distinction between “sentence” and “utterance”, semantics and pragmatics. As early as 1960, J L Austin moved things on with How To Do Things With Words which gets us thinking about situated utterances and the many things they are used to do. In one direction, this helps clarify Wittgensteinian ideas about (say) the way in which understanding might be an achievement rather than a state. We say, “Now I understand!” when we feel we’ve achieved something, that we’ve now got it, and can carry on unaided. We are not reporting a state of mind. In another direction, Austin’s and then Grice’s work turned into contemporary and highly technical linguistic pragmatics.
From (say) the 1970s, the development of artificial intelligence, cognitive science, cognitive theory has often proceeded in ways which has ignored territorial boundaries. Many Wittgensteinians have been appalled. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. There have been extraordinary developments in both what we can do (using machines, implants, what have you) and how we investigate what “forms of life” might be natural to human beings. All this has come about by getting over the prissiness of Wittgenstein’s territorial approach and also past his unreflected thinking about "children", “training” and “ instruction”. (As a young man and a good Austrian Catholic, he clearly believed that error could be beaten out of children: go to Wikipedia for the details).
Wittgenstein does give the impression that he thinks that it would make no difference if we had sawdust rather than brains between our ears. (see # 282 on the “babble of a baby” as nonsense; #293 “the box might even be empty”; #376;Part II, # 148 “The oddity of children’s drawings”). He also is at risk of turning local empirical truths into necessary truths, a trap into which later Wittgensteinains have fallen. Conversely, necessary truths are sometimes missed:
Wittgenstein does give the impression that he thinks that it would make no difference if we had sawdust rather than brains between our ears. (see # 282 on the “babble of a baby” as nonsense; #293 “the box might even be empty”; #376;Part II, # 148 “The oddity of children’s drawings”). He also is at risk of turning local empirical truths into necessary truths, a trap into which later Wittgensteinains have fallen. Conversely, necessary truths are sometimes missed:
# 249 “Lying is a language-game that needs to be learned like any other one”. And truth-telling? There are plenty of theorists who think that truth-telling isn’t learnt; it’s what comes naturally to us and makes other language games possible.
Wittgenstein insists that his investigations are not exercises in introspection or phenomenological description (I don’t think the word “phenomenology actually occurs in PI; it isn’t in the Index either). See for example # 232. But they often read as if they are those things and when they do it’s often boring, though there are those who have annexed Wittgenstein for phenomenology or common sense. There are two specific shortcomings when he is working in this introspective / phenomenological way.
I want to make a sharper use than does Wittgenstein of the distinction between judgement and intuition. We offer judgements as guidance for other people - You’ve added that up correctly; in English, the plural of sheep is sheep - but intuitions are simply reports of how things strike us, as in the Müller-Lyer illusion where we report that the lines look of unequal length.
I also want to distinguish two sense of agreement. It is a curious fact that everyone agrees that the Müller-Lyer lines are unequal in length. But they agree this distributively, without discussion or participation in a “form of life” other than a natural one. The Müller-Lyer lines pick up a fact about human vision, not about human culture. In contrast, there are things we agree collectively. That doesn’t mean that we vote or even discuss (very much). All it means is that when we judge (for someone else’s benefit) that the plural of sheep is sheep we are confident enough about what other people think / judge to use our own judgement to guide (say) someone learning English. (Compare PI, # 234, 241; Part II, #346, #351). Of course, we may get it wrong especially when we are over-reliant on local experience and think that everyone shares our dialect.
Sunday, 28 July 2019
This essay was used as the basis for an informal seminar given at New Writing South, Brighton, on 22 May 2019. For further scheduled seminars go to trevorpateman.com
I want to talk about some problems which have confronted me when trying to write both fiction and memoir, and to suggest that the problems are less easily resolved than it would be convenient to think. Not only that, but sometimes that the problems actually provide opportunities.
We have a stereotype of what an anachronism is and what to do about it. A film or television adaptation of an early nineteenth century novel, usually by Jane Austen and set at a time when a George or a William was on the British throne, offers us an image of a character seated at a table, writing a letter, putting it in an envelope, sealing it, addressing it, and applying a postage stamp. Anachronism! Postage stamps were not introduced in any country before 1840 and in that year they were introduced in Great Britain, penny black, twopenny blue, and picture of the reigning Queen Victoria. Caught you out! Didn’t do your homework!
Sarah Perry actually makes a very similar mistake in The Essex Serpent. Set in the 1890s, Perry has a character stick a first class stamp onto an envelope. Nope. First and second class stamps were only invented in the reign of Queen Elizabeth the Second; in Queen Victoria’s time, letters were classless.
We also have a word, though rarely used, to call out a related error. A group of working class men are sitting around in a London pub in the 1930s, drinking and smoking. One pulls out a packet of cigarettes and on the label we can read Camel or, worse, Gauloises. Well, that’s an anatopism, something in the wrong place, unless you can produce a very good story to explain why they are not the expected Woodbine or Players.
Anachronism and anatopism are things we can recognise and take some delight in calling out. You can make a hobby out of it and some do.
However, alongside bad anachronism and bad anatopism, there are versions which we praise rather than condemn. You can go a long way as a film or theatre director by going the whole hog and dressing up your Shakespeare characters in clothes bought last week on the high street or in glad rags left over from a recent production involving stylish street gangs. It’s a well-understood and often successful way of giving new life to an old story and proving that you can teach an old dog new tricks. Something similar is done when you re-cast male characters as female ones, which is not as simple as one might think. Samuel Beckett would not allow an all-female Waiting for Godot when alive and, since his death, his Estate has been willing to go to court, winning in France but losing in Belgium and Italy. The play is in copyright until 2024, just in case you are minded to plan ahead. Copyright is the major reason why all the fun happens to Shakespeare but Beckett will soon have his turn.
All this is straightforward and easy to understand. More troubling is what I will call inevitable anachronism. At the limit, it’s possible to imagine a literary work which is written in a time simultaneous with its real clock time writing, but in the real world of writing, we write about time past and time future, sometimes as memoir, sometimes as fiction. For simplicity, I will leave out of the discussion works about time future, works of science fiction, of imaginary utopia or dystopia.
When we are writing, we are using our current state of memory and current state of our imagination. Unless we cut and paste into our writing an old newspaper story or an old diary entry, we are relying on how we currently remember and imagine, using our current linguistic and stylistic resources. It could not be otherwise. Unfortunately (though I will come back to the “unfortunately”), three of the central truths about our mental life are these: one, we forget things; two, we cannot hold in focus everything at once - there is always a background and a foreground in our thinking; three, our mind is a tireless reviser. If you find the unending stream of Microsoft updates exasperating, just pause to reflect that your own mind is doing exactly the same and far more frequently, like every second.
I will give a deliberately small example. Not so long ago I was looking at old political writing I had done on a typewriter, decades ago. It included lots of acronyms like BBC, TUC and NATO. But I had typewriter-typed them differently to the way I now type them on my computer. I had actually typed B.B.C. and T.U.C. and N.A.T.O. That was not idiosyncratic; it was how you rendered acronyms onto the page then. Now it’s different. But I cannot tell you in what period other people switched or in what period I did. It was something which happened in the background of my typing life and it’s something about which I have no memories. If I dig down, all I can come up with is this: there was a time some decades ago when a drive for civil service efficiency led someone to the bright idea that you could save time if you did not type a comma after the Dear Sir or Madam which opened the standard letter or a comma after the standard salutation with which you closed it. The punctuation was unnecessary but in a world of many millions of hand-typed civil service letters, it cost real time and therefore real money to include it. It may have been the same way of thinking which led to acronyms losing their stops.
What is the point of this story? Suppose you are writing a memoir of the 1960s or a fiction of the 1970s. Now that I have alerted you to a change which took place after those dates, does it make your writing more authentic, more spirit-of-the-times if you now change the BBC you have already written into the B.B.C. which I have just told you is likely to be historically accurate? Do you eliminate the anachronism or stick with it? This is not straightforward. You could just end up looking like someone no writer wants to look like, a pedant. Worse, I am distracting your attention from things which matter rather more. I am pushing into the foreground something which could have easily have been left in the background to take care of itself. But, of course, whenever we leave something to take care of itself, then anachronism has an easy entry. Background is where we don’t do our homework. But there must always be some background and so we can never be alert enough to defeat all of anachronism’s attempts. In this situation, we are like King Canute (previously spelt like that but now spelt Knut). We cannot turn back the waves. This is why I introduced this discussion by talking about inevitable anachronism.
This example is deliberately trivial. Now let’s try an example which isn’t. Before the 1970s in the UK or the USA, it would be hard to find speakers or writers who did not use man, mankind, he, and so on, as generics or pseudo-generics. There are occasional exceptions: in mid-Victorian England, John Stuart Mill consciously tried to use humankind rather than mankind and pointed out that he was doing so. From the 1970s on, there were various attempts to change the situation, some of them with a fairly artificial feel, as if a small App. was being deployed to mechanically change he to he or she or to randomise so that sometimes you got he and sometimes you got she. There was an alternative, which was to exploit the existing possibility of using they and their as a singular. I say “existing possibility” because even before the 1970s, singular they could be found quite easily, for example, on a notice which might read, If you see anyone in the building not wearing an official badge, please ask them to produce one. In my own writing, I eventually developed a preference for singular they because it feels less clunky than all the he or she’s. But this long period of self-conscious uncertainty does pose the writer a problem when writing about the period before the 1970s, whether in fiction or memoir. You may want your character to be sympathetic, for example, or at least not a member of the world’s conservative party, but it’s harder to achieve that effect if they are banging on all the time about man and mankind. As a result, you are pushed towards anachronism, towards a certain photoshopping of language in order to achieve the character you want.
This may also help explain why dialect novels are so rarely successful. The author undertakes a vast labour to bring into the foreground the actual way their characters speak. This involves a great deal of fiddling around to find spellings which adequately convey the dialect and inevitably seem to involve extensive use of apostrophes to indicate dropped consonants or vowels. The result is often distracting; reading the dialogue is like reading an awkward transcription. As a result, authors are generally wary of the dialect project and settle for a few hints of the underlying social reality. This is recently true, for instance, of Graeme Burnet’s His Bloody Project, but also in a different way in Anna Burns Milkman. In American writing, how to represent what linguists call Black English Vernacular has been a recurrent problem for writers who expect to be read by speakers of Standard American English. You can find very different solutions in Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, and most recently Paul Beatty whose The Sellout won the Man Booker prize.
I was recently trying to write a pamphlet in the voice of a young man circa 1897, radical in his thinking but literate rather than educated. This is how the pamphlet opens:
ALL Men shall be as Brothers. But there are two great Obstacles to that great project. The first Obstacle is Greed, about which the Socialists are eloquent. It is indeed the case that Greed pits Brother against Brother, Sister against Sister, and since it is nothing more than a matter of Comparison, Greed is as much present in societies which are poor as in those which are rich.
What is happening here? The first sentence is an allusion to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy - it translates the line Alle Menschen werden Brüder and it’s hard to find another translation, nor would a young man in 1897 have tried. So I’m stuck with the old pseudo-generic Men. But because (fortunately) he belongs to a dissenting religious sect, I am able without glaring anachronism to then have the young man write Brother against Brother, Sister against Sister - a he or she variation. So I use it and not least to try to offset the line from the Ode to Joy which I have handed myself. I don’t want a modern reader to feel unsympathetic towards this young man before he has even got started into his pamphlet. So I rescue him, a bit anachronistically but not glaringly so.
The way we write now about the past, whether autobiographical or fictional, will always be inflected by the present state of our endlessly revising and updating mind. So we just have to get used to it and, perhaps, eliminate the “unfortunately” by trying to turn it to our advantage, just like the director who uses Doc Martens’ to refresh the story of Romeo and Juliet.
I will give another small example from my own writing to illustrate what I mean. I don’t go in for heroes really, but if I read the name Grace Darling I come out in goose bumps. Grace Darling was a lighthouse keeper’s twenty three year old daughter who in 1838 alongside her father, rowed a twenty one foot, four-man boat for over a mile in very rough seas to the rescue of nine survivors from a shipwrecked steamer. Her bravery is remembered in the Royal National Lifeboat Institution’s Grace Darling museum in Bamburgh, on the north east coast. I wanted to use the example of her heroism to illustrate how even in early Victorian England, gender stereotypes could be broken and, in an extraordinary case such as this, the breach even applauded. So I wrote, No one called her out for rowing the boat 1. Well, called her out is not only an anachronism, it’s also an anatopism: it’s modern and American. It’s what people do on Twitter, as everyone knows. But I thought I could use it to make my point more effectively than I could have done sticking to the language of Victorian England or the curious facts: Queen Victoria, aged nineteen, promptly chipped in fifty quid to the Public Subscription which was raised. Called out is a fairly obvious allusion and that may be true of many or maybe all deliberate anachronisms; it is worth following up that line of thought.
But for now I want to mention a recent story, structurally very similar to Grace Darling’s, and familiar from YouTube to three million and counting. You almost certainly know it. Contemporary France is not without a considerable stock of racist stereotypes and migrant stereotypes. But when Mamoudou Gassama, black and illegal and just passing by, scaled the façade of a building to rescue a small child dangling from a fourth floor balcony…. no one - but no one - thought to apply the stereotypes and next day he was sitting down with the President of the Republic. Everyone just thought the rescue was putain de brillant. For Mamoudou it was no doubt fucking brilliant too that the President himself was now going to sort the illegal bit.
Another new topic comes into view: idiom or register. No more than Queen Victoria would have declared I’ll chip in fifty quid would the President of the Republic, at least in public, speak of sorting it, any more than he would go on air and declare the whole episode putain de brillant. He would refer the matter, he would request, he would congratulate. So anachronism might be regarded as a sub-topic within a broader topic of what the linguists call register and we call colloquially idiom and that is the reason we can sometimes turn it to our advantage.
Certain situations seem to invite irony and their character probably tells us something about a common motivation. It is very often defensive. So if you write about your adolescence, even fictionalised, the siren call of irony will offer itself as balm to your own embarrassment about how you, even a fictonalised you, once were. You spare yourself your own embarrassment by offering us irony as humour. In his 1986 fictionalised autobiography, A Perfect Spy, John le Carré does it repeatedly, notably in imagined letters between two budding teenagers, his hero and the would-be object of his youthful ardour. I set a letter in its context:
“She’s panting for it,” Sefton Boyd explained, “She does it with everybody. She’s a nympho.”
Pym wrote to her at once, a poet’s letter.
A tale must linger in your soft hair. Do you ever have the feeling that beauty is a kind of sin? Two swans have settled on the Abbey moat. I watch them often, dreaming of your hair. I love you.2
This is, unsurprisingly, rather quickly followed by its come-uppance:
Please take back your letters which I find oppressive since I regret we are no longer compatible. I do not know what possessed you to slick down your forelock like an errand boy but henceforth we meet as strangers3.
The example from le Carré already illustrates a connection between what in literature is called irony and what in culture is called camp. Pym’s letter is stylised, affected, self-conscious, arch, knowing, and so on and so forth. At a later date in Pym’s life, it can only be acknowledged ironically as a poet’s letter.
That in turn illustrates the commonplace (but due originally to E D Hirsch4) that the presence of irony in a sentence alters nothing, except its meaning. Irony turns a poet’s letter into something most definitely not a poet’s letter.
Whether or not a sentence is ironic or not depends on how we hear it, and how we hear it will be guided by the context in which it is placed. After warning the reader that there is irony ahead, I begin a section of my Prose Improvements as follows:
Some young people don’t know this, but those of my age grew up at a time when governments made strenuous efforts to discourage heterosexuality5
Again, this is irony in its camp, defensive form and Some young people don’t … is meant to be heard as if spoken by a character out of Oscar Wilde. Imagine Lady Bracknell uttering those words. It’s not meant to be heard as irritable or biting. It’s meant to be arch, delivered from a great height in the interests of self-preservation. It’s pretence and pretentious.
In contrast, some irony is meant to be bad-tempered and in that case it aligns not with camp but with satire. It is the attack mode of irony in contrast to its defensive mode: What a wonderful job Parliament is doing.
But as with the binary contrast of bad anachronism and good anachronism, so the binary of defensive irony and attacking irony is not exhaustive. And just as there is a certain inevitability to anachronism, so there is an inevitability to irony. It arises from the simple fact that whether as speakers or writers we are always using words which have already been used and by others and we cannot but echo those and their uses, and in so doing impart our own inflection. This starting fact has been given prominence in work as varied as the literary theory of Mikhail Bakhtin and the pragmatic linguistics of Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson6
Conversation includes a great deal of very obvious echoing and dramatists make extensive use of it, as when a second character repeats the words of a first and word-for-word. Beckett does it. Even if I put inverted commas around a character’s speech to make clear that they are not my words, it is still me who is repeating them and that alters them on their second time around.
In the First World War, the Viennese satirist, Karl Kraus, found a way to criticise official war policy without falling foul of the censors. He simply reproduced in his journal Die Fackel the words he wished to criticise, satirise, ironise - verbatim and without comment. The reader was thus handed the task of reading the words carefully to see what was wrong with them. Private Eye does the same today, though usually adding a clue, as when quotations are grouped together in a box labelled Pseuds’ Corner. Nonetheless, the hapless victims are more or less left to damn themselves; the ironist says nothing, merely points the reader:
Rye and nearby Hastings are bursting with junk shops, but Gina is just as interested in new things that are well-made. She likes nothing better than to find a local woodsman who makes bread boards using a horse-drawn lathe in a forest clearing 7
Nearby, no doubt, two swans have settled on the Abbey moat. We can keep the irony going like a round song and, really, there’s no exit from the round. We just get a bit of choice about how to play it: defensively, aggressively, allusively. The words go round and round in the circle game and none of them do we own.
A person is sentimental who buys an oil painting of a dog with dachshund ears and saucer eyes. A person is nostalgic who votes Leave in order to hold a blue passport in hand, hoping for the experience of a biscuit in a cup of tea.
All memoir writing tends to nostalgia, however distressing the content. And this is not so much a function of the fact that we deliberately set about to remember the past (often hoping for our own madeleine experience, our own epiphany) as from the fact that we are searching for words to bring it to life - and the words most likely to do that are the old words, words we may not have heard spoken these fifty years and which we now re-animate and savour.
Writing my own memoir of childhood, I found that I did not want to actually re-visit the streets where I lived for my first seven years. But I was willing to give them a look on Streetview, a look which shocked me into a nostalgia I did not know I felt. So I write of Auntie Nellie and Uncle Ben’s bungalow that
It is still there on Streetview but where once there was a front garden with wallflowers and hollyhocks, nasturtiums and stocks, roses and forget me nots, now there is hardstanding for vehicles 8
I am deploying words which I now have rare occasion to use and I am using them to conjure the past against the reality of a present which has disturbed me. I could have done it differently, as bald social commentary: the front garden flower beds have been replaced by hard standing. Instead, it looks very much as if I have chosen my last named flower to suggest that the garden itself is saying Forget Me Not! That is nostalgia.
You can have too much of it. But you can’t escape it entirely; sometimes it will find its way into your prose without being intended and just because in order to write a memoir you have to engage with the vocabulary of the past, not just with unmediated smells, tastes, sounds, images. But it is at least as likely that the author has deliberately sought out the old words because they are evocative of the past from which they have been fetched. This is very clear, for example, in Annie Ernaux’s memoir of her life from 1940 to the early 2000s, The Years (originally, Les Années, published in 2008 9). She produces long lists of what are mostly proper names which were once attached to songs, singers, films, department stores, magazines, politicians, cleaning products, scandals, disasters, and hairstyles. For example, to evoke what shortly after happened to those who had participated in the events of May 1968, she writes that
Some smoked grass, lived in communes, established themselves as factory workers at Renault, went to Kathmandu, while other spent a week in Tabarka, read Charlie Hebdo, Fluide Glacial, L’Echo des Savanes, Taknonalasanté, Métal Hurlant, La Guele Ouverte, stuck flower decals on their car doors, and in their rooms hung posters of Che and the little girl burned by napalm. They wore Mao suits or ponchos, sat on the floor with cushions, burned incense, went to see the Grand Magic Circus, Last Tango in Paris, and Emmanuelle …. 10
Because this is a translation from a French originally designed to evoke a French world, it is much easier to hear it for what it is - a listing - and to experience it accordingly. For a French reader, it would be less of a bald list and much more evocative, and there would be points at which readers would be exclaiming to themselves, “Oh, yes, I remember that”. Even for an English reader of the right generation, there will be one or two which will achieve the same effect.
I want to consider an extreme example of an attempt to evoke the past through its language, one where I ended up deciding not to use the material I was seeking. It was just de trop, too much. When I was a young child circa 1952, there was a rag and bone man who regularly came to our road in a horse drawn cart. Sixty odd years later, I set about trying to recall, as accurately as I could, his cry. Sitting in front of the computer screen, I probably spent thirty minutes in what , to lessen my embarrassment, I will call a Stanislavskian exercise, sounding out as many potential versions as I could imagine, hoping that one would strike a sufficient chord. Eventually I stopped, told myself This is ridiculous. It’s not what you are aiming for. And so my memoir is without the rag and bone man and without his cry. But the thirty minutes was not entirely wasted time. My sounding outs reminded me, at one point, of the foghorns which we heard from the neighbouring Thames. We heard them regularly because the London docks were still a major port, the river was always full of commercial shipping, and there were frequent fogs. As a result, when in the memoir I tell a story about a London fog, to evoke its character I include a phrase the sound of foghorns booming from the unseen Thames 11. Without the Stanislavsky exercise I would probably not have remembered the foghorns; to me at the time, they were everyday background, no more. The rag and bone man and his cry was more interesting to me as a child, but to have included him eventually felt too much like a social history cliché, too much like a crude daub of colourful nostalgia.
There is an analogy to be made between old words and old photographs. An old photograph is the real trace in the present of something that happened in the past. In his book about photography and mourning, Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes deduces from that bald fact the inherently nostalgic character of photographs. And it’s true, if we go in search of lost times it is very often through old photographs that we seek to recover them. Sometimes, as in Barthes’ narrative of re-discovering a photograph of his recently-deceased mother, they are powerful enough to function like Proust’s madeleine. But for some people, it will be the case that they do not need the taste of a madeleine; they just need words, words which may be as simple as my cup of tea.
I have argued that there are bad and good anachronisms, but also inevitable ones. Then that there are broadly defensive (camp) and aggressive (satirical) forms of irony, but also inevitable irony which might best be characterised as echoic. Finally, though conceding that you can have too much nostalgia, I have also suggested that at least in memoir, nostalgia inevitably creeps in through the old words needed to evoke the past.
1. In The Best I Can Do (2016), page 45
2. John le Carré, A Perfect Spy, page 200 in the 2011 Sceptre edition
3. Ibid, page 202.
4. E.D. Hirsch, The Aims of Interpretation (1976)
5. Trevor Pateman, Prose Improvements (2017), page 100
6. Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, edited by Michael Holquist (1981); Deirdre Wilson, ‘The pragmatics of verbal irony: echo or pretence?’, Lingua (2006), 116, pages 1722 - 1743
7. Private Eye, No. 1489, 8 - 21 February 2019, page 35, quoting from The Guardian
8. Trevor Pateman, I Have Done This In Secret (2018), page 2
9. Annie Ernaux, Les Années (2008) translated as The Years (2018)
10. The Years, page 108
11. I Have Done This In Secret, page 60