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Thursday 8 June 2017

Review: Graham Swift, Mothering Sunday

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I read this novella - 35 000 words – and thought it was beautifully conceived and crafted, one of the best things I have read this year. So a couple of weeks later, I have read it again to see how it is done. Some of the results are quite surprising. For example, the text runs to 149 pages. Exactly half way through at page 74, Swift baldly announces the death of his second most important character, Paul Sheringham:

She had not known he was already dead.

That one sentence provides new interest for the reader, now waiting to discover how Paul died and what will happen next.

The story is heavily marked by premature deaths, starting in the very first line:

Once upon a time, before the boys were killed…

The short lives of boys killed in the trenches of the first world war then stands in dramatic contrast with the longevity of the main character, Jane Fairchild, who appears first as a twenty-two year old housemaid involved in a passionate, sexual relationship with Paul who at twenty four is the youngest of all the brothers, the only boy from two neighbouring families who was too young to be sentenced to death in the trenches.

The heart of the novel  is a narrative of the last time Jane and Paul are together, Mothering Sunday 1924. This occupies the first half and is exquisitely done. Paul dies at twenty four but Jane lives to ninety-eight (it works out at 1901 – 1999), a long life on which Swift places great emphasis, and she becomes a well-known and much-interviewed novelist but one who never discloses the tale which Swift has told in the first half of his book.

Second time around, I had some doubts about the long recessional which forms the second half of the book. Swift writes about how Jane becomes a novelist, the books she reads and what she says about them when interviewed in later life. ( She reads Kipling, for example, who wrote a Recessional).  It chronicles the titles of the novels she writes. It is as if Swift is seeking some quieter objective correlative for the emotions which sear the first half of the book and the abrupt loss which on Mothering Sunday 1924 brings to an end the love affair of the young maid Jane and the young master Paul. But it also suggests, I suppose, that though we normally think that novelists will always end up writing about what has most touched them in their lives, that may not be a general truth. When her secret life as Paul’s lover ends, Jane has to carry on as the housemaid almost as if nothing has happened. She has to close that book and can only find a future by opening a new one. Art is long, but life is short.

Monday 5 June 2017

An Intellectual Biography?

Alphabetical Thinking
I have been organising my thoughts alphabetically for many years. Emptying out a cupboard, I found a sheet of foolscap, dated 1991, with a draft list of chapter headings for a book to be written titled Things to Think With: One Hundred Powerful Ideas. I liked Claude Lévi-Strauss’s phrase choses bonnes à penser (things good to think with) the moment I first encountered it and I have made repeated use of the idea. On this 1991 occasion my alphabetical list of chapter headings reads as follows, now properly alphabetised and numbered by a click on Word. The material in square brackets has been added to clarify what I was thinking about:

1.      Alienation [Marx]
2.      Analytic/Synthetic [philosophy of language]
3.      Aufhebung [Hegel]
4.      Background / Foreground
5.      Bad Faith
6.      Believing that “p” is true
7.      Bricolage [Lévi-Strauss]
8.      Catastrophe  Theory
9.      Collective / Distributive Agreement [theories of convention and mutual belief]
10.  Collective Goods [Mancur Olson etc]
11.  Cyclical Majority (Condorcet)  [also Kenneth Arrow]
12.  Deconstruction [Derrida]
13.  Double Bind [Gregory Bateson]
14.  Emic / Etic  [as in phonemic / phonetic]
15.  Equality of Opportunity
16.  Fact / Value Distinction
17.  Falsifiability [Popper]
18.  Family Resemblance [Wittengstein]
19.  Functionalism [ as in sociology]
20.  Games, Theory of
21.  Geisteswissenschaften [ the human sciences in the German tradition ]
22.  Genre
23.  Gestalt [ as in Psychology]
24.  Gödel’s Theorem
25.  Good Enough Mother [Winnicott]
26.  Grammar
27.  Ideology
28.  Indifference Curve Analysis [as in marginalist economics]
29.  Intentional Object [philosophy of mind and language]
30.  Intertextuality [various literary theorists]
31.  Intuition / Introspection [ as in linguistics]
32.  Irreversibility
33.  Language
34.  Making Strange [as in Wordsworth, Shklovsky and Brecht]
35.  Marginal Utility [in economics]
36.  Modularity [ as in modular theories of mind – Chomsky, Fodor etc]
37.  Natural Selection [Darwin]
38.  Necessary and Sufficient [conditions as in philosophy]
39.  Optimality [ as in public goods theories – Olson, Elster etc]
40.  Original Position [John Rawls]
41.  Overdetermination  [Freud, Althusser]
42.  Paradigm / Episteme [ Kuhn, Foucault]
43.  Personal is Political
44.  Possible Worlds [analytical philosophy]
45.  Pragmatics
46.  Prisoner’s Dilemma [theory of games]
47.  Producer Capture [ libertarian political theory]
48.  Public Sphere [Habermas]
49.  Relevance [Grice, Sperber and Wilson]
50.  Repressive Tolerance [Marcuse]
51.  Rigid Designator [Saul Kripke]
52.  Semiotic / Semantic [Julia Kristeva]
53.  Structure
54.  Surplus of Meaning [literary theory]
55.  Synchrony [Saussure]
56.  “The Real” [probably Hegel]
57.  Theodicy [the problem of evil]
58.  Transference [ Freud]
59.  Transformation [Chomsky]
60.  Transitional Object [Winnicott]
61.  Turing Machine [Alan Turing]
62.  Twin Earth [analytical philosophy; Putnam]
63.  Uncertainty Principle  [Heisenberg]
64.  Unconscious [Freud]
65.  Underdetermination [Kuhn, Quine, Feyerabend]
66.  Uniformitarianism [Lyell’s Geology]
67.  Unintended Consequences [social and economic theory]
68.  Universal Grammar [ Chomsky]
69.  Zero-Sum [Theory of Games]

The idea was to get to 100 ideas but as you see I only got to 69. The book never got written, but many of the ideas are to be found through my writing, past and present. When I look at the list now, I think it can serve as a very short and fairly honest intellectual biography.