Direktlänk till inlägg 9 maj 2011

Christ's blood

Av lucyshanxu lucyshanxu - 9 maj 2011 07:17

This novel was a spectacular success even in Britain -- where a bigger war than the Spanish struggle which the book is about was occupying people's minds. In the year of publication it sold 360,000 copies in the United States alone. Such success turned the literary critics against Hemingway: Edmund Wilson spoke of commercialization, concessions, selling out. The fact was that the "popular" novel of the American thirties had already absorbed so many Hemingwayesque elements that what had once been experimental was now part of every second-rate novelist's technical inventory. Hemingway here had not overtaken himself, nor his imitators: the earlier novels still strike the reader with a sense of freshness and original power; For Whom the Bell Tolls has merely the expected stylistic felicities. For any other writer it would have been a great masterpiece. As it is, it is the best fictional report on the Spanish Civil War that we possess. The strength lies in the literary style -- clean, simple, with dialogue that catches the Spanish idiom. Certain scenes and symbols have a classic ring -- Maria and Robert Jordan's night of love, when the earth can be felt moving beneath their "alliance against death"; the "solid flung metal grace" of the bridge, which is the one link between the opposed forces and also, in a wider view, the way by which the new age of mechanical regimentation will overtake the old pastoral world of simple needs and loyalties. Robert Jordan, the American professor of Spanish who fights for the Loyalists, an intellectual who seems ignorant of Marxist ideology, only just convinces; Maria, raped and shorn by the fascists, is not quite as compelling as Tolstoy's Natasha, despite Hemingway's ambition and boast, but she and the formidable Pilar are the best-made of all Hemingway's female characters. The dignity of the author's aim -- to speak the truth about love and pain and courage in the traditional high romantic manner -- has to be applauded. Hemingway avoids the temptation to turn his book into Loyalist propaganda: the left wing is no exemplification of incorrupt and shining chivalry. Like all art, the book is complex, even ambivalent. It taught millions to love or hate Spain, but it could not leave them indifferent.

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This long and difficult work represents for many the end of the period which began in 1922 with T.S Eliot's The Waste Land and Joyce's own Ulysses. That was the age of Modernism -- a movement in literature which rejected the late nineteenth-century concept of Liberal Man and presented (as in Ernest Hemingway and D.H Lawrence) Natural Man, and (in Eliot, Joyce and, later, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene) Imperfect Man. To eliminate all traces of Victorian and Edwardian optimism, literary style had to change from the orotund to the spare, ironic, experimental. There was also a franker realism than known in the old days. The frank realism of Ulysses earned moral censure, and the experimental prose caused difficulties for the ordinary reader. These difficulties were, however, nothing in comparison with those to be encountered in Finnegans Wake. While Ulysses is a book of the sunlight, depicting the events of an ordinary day in Dublin in 1904, Finnegans Wake is a work of the dark. It presents, with no concessions to waking sense, a dream in a specially invented dream language. The hero is a publican in Chapelizod, just outside Dublin, and, while his waking name is probably Mr Porter, his dream name is Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker. He has a wife, Ann, a daughter, Isabel, and twin sons named Kevin and Jerry. Earwicker is the eternal builder of cities, while his wife is all the rivers on which cities are built, but all cities become Dublin and all rivers flow into the Liffey. Isabel becomes the eternal temptress who brings great men low, and the twin boys become all the rival males of myth and history, from Cain and Abel to Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney. Earwicker's long dream is really a mammoth comedy in which his household and the customers of his pub play all the roles. The theme of the play is simple: the father is a builder, but his creative gift is an aspect of sexual sin (no erection without an erection). His sons are most typically presented as a poetic dreamer and a political demagogue. They fight to take over the role of their father, but, as each is only one half of the creative egg (Earwicker often appears as Humpty Dumpty, author of his own great fall), they lack the power and skill to depose him. The great paternal creator is thrust underground, but he always rises again. One of the parts he plays is that of the god-giant Finnegan, who, like Christ, may be killed and eaten and drunk but is indestructible. The action of the dream takes place in 1132 AD, a symbolic year which combines figures of falling and rising -- bodies fall at the rate of 32 feet per second per second; when we have counted on our ten fingers we start again with the number 11. Meanwhile the wifely motherly river -- who never dies -- flows on quietly beneath the turbulent city which is her husband. Some say that this fantasy is not really a novel. In that it has distinguishable characters -- always changing their shapes and names but always brilliantly delineated -- and that there is a summarizable plot and a fixed mise en scène -- the master bedroom over the pub -- it is difficult to deny that it belongs to the genre. We had to wait for the war in order to begin to understand it (it was in many an intellectual fighting man's kitbag), but it is the post-war age that has produced a horde of Joyce scholars dedicated to dragging it further into the light. Janus-faced, it looks back to the twenties but also to the indefinite future: no writer of the contemporary period has been able to ignore it, though most writers have succeeded in not being influenced by it. Flann O'Brien was an Irish journalist, Gaelic scholar and dedicated drinker whose real name was Brian O'Nolan. Of his very few books, The Hard Life and The Dalkey Archive are slight but funny, and The Third Policeman is a vision of hell which does not quite come off, but At Swim-Two-Birds is probably a masterpiece. Philip Toynbee, the novelist and critic, once said: "If I were cultural dictator. . . I would make At Swim-Two-Birds compulsory reading in all our universities." Joyce said of Flann O'Brien: "There's a real writer with the true comic spirit." This book owes something to Joyce, but this may mean merely that both Joyce and O'Brien were Irish. The book is sometimes difficult, but it is no literary heavyweight. It is even, which Joyce's work is not, whimsical. The narrator is an Irish student who, when not lying in bed or pub-crawling, is writing a novel about a man named Trellis who is writing a book about his enemies who, in revenge, are writing a book about him. The book is a book about writing a book about writing a book. This is very modern (compare the Argentine Borges) in that it does not pretend that literature is reality. The student-narrator is interested not merely in literature but in Irish mythology, which enables him to bring in Finn MacCool (Joyce's Finnegan) and indulge in comic-heroic language which sounds as though it is translated from the Erse: "The knees and calves to him, swealed and swathed with soogawns and Thomond weed-ropes, were smutted with dungs and dirt-daubs. . ." Flann O'Brien discovered a way of counterpointing myth, fiction and actuality through the device of a sort of writer's commonplace-book. There is no sense of recession, of one order of reality -- myth or novel or narration -- lying behind another: all are on the same level of importance, and this is what gives the contrapuntal effect. The scope of fiction is both extended and limited -- limited as to action (not much happens, though plenty is heard about) but extended as to technique. It is a very Irish book and very funny. But it still awaits the popularity it deserves. In the USA this novel was entitled Labyrinthine Ways, which suggests pursuit by the Hound of Heaven. No title could be more inept. Greene's hero, the "whisky priest", is, despite all his massive human faults, the incarnation of God's power and glory, which are blotted out by the atheistic positivism of the Mexican dictatorship which puts priests high on the list of enemies of the state. Nowhere in his many novels has Greene better conveyed the torrid decay of tropical townships, where the carious ruins are metaphors for a world without God. His priest is pursued by the hounds of repression, but he clings fast to his vocation, administering the sacraments, giving sermons in jungle clearings and pueblos, looking for wine that he may say mass. The state is not merely atheistical, it is prohibitionist: the outlawing of wine, which can be turned into Christ's blood, is, in Greene's symbolism, the ultimate oppression. The most harrowing scene occurs when the priest has, by good luck, found a bottle of wine but has to suffer its being consumed in his presence by a corrupt state official. Though, at the end, he dies, another priest appears from nowhere: the ministry goes on, the power and the glory will not be denied. This book comes early in the list of those novels of Greene (most of them) which deal specifically with the place of the Catholic in a secular world and present priests who, carrying the referred glory and the actual power, can afford to be imperfect human beings. It seems to many now to be too Greenean to take seriously (early works often look, with the curse of hindsight, like self-parody), but it is distinguished and serious art even when we have ceased to be affected by its theology.


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