Thursday, July 31, 2008

What is the What, Dave Eggers. The autobiographical novel?

Kakuma Camp.
Dave Eggers and Valentino Achak Deng.

There was a time when I liked novels unequivocally. Or at least, I seem to think there was a time. I hesitate to say that novels from the past were better than those published today. Novels from the past come with a past history, with a rich context that introduces them. Modern novels come without any additional flavour. It is hard to enjoy and weigh up a modern work of fiction. Put another way: novels from the past come with reputations. A reader isn’t asked to start with the question “Is it any good?” Wuthering Heights is a great novel. Ulysses is a great novel. Tom Jones is a great novel. Middlemarch is a great novel. The aim is to enjoy them, leaving aside what “enjoy” means. But with modern works of fiction, those with real scope, such as Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, or Okri’s Starbook, or Eggers’ What is the What, I am never able to start with “Let me enjoy!”; reading always begins with “Is this any good?”

Dave Eggers’ What is the What is a novel with scope and depth. But it isn’t a novel I can like unequivocally. Recently, I caught the critic Mark Kermode discussing the latest Batman offering. He was delighted, yet disappointed. As he put it, “I wanted to love the film, lose myself in it, but I could only admire it.” “Could only admire it.”

Admire. To look at. To view a separate but related image.

That is very much my experience of reading What is the What. The novel tells the story of Valentino Achak Deng and his escape from Sudan’s genocide, to Pinyudo (Ethiopia), Kakuma Refugee Camp (Kenya), then life in the USA as one of the “Lost Boys”. Unlike Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone, which presented boy soldiering as fact and subsequently became accused of fiction and error, Eggers presents the real story of Achak as fiction. This allows Eggers to frame the story in a way suitable to Eggers— experimental fiction— and to avoid accusations of factual mistakes. Fiction is fiction and all it can truly confess is its fictionality.

The problem with What is the What, then, is not related to memory and truth. The problem is related to how Eggars structures fictional truths. Undoubtedly, the story of Valentino Achek Deng is powerfully told. His is a story of incredible courage. The novel captures that admirably. Yet, there are framing devices which are not convincing. The novel is 533 pages long. Perhaps, it takes a novel of this length to show the educational odyssey of Achak. Perhaps, not. The novel opens in the USA as Achak is attacked and burgled. Achak begins to tell his story (in his head) to his namelss attackers. There is real poignancy as Achak contrasts the brutality of a civilised country to the horrors from which he has escaped. Less convincing, however, is the repeating of this method as Achak continues to tell his story to Julian at the hospital. Yes, the story-telling has an interesting effect…the reader becomes an interloper…but effects seem to matter more than the story at times. The strongest parts of the novel are when this device is forgotten and a reader is calmed into listening to the terrors of Achak’s story. When the novel becomes a brutal lullaby it has incredible impact. Jee Leong Koh has an interesting set of reflections on his blog at the moment that relate to the art and artlessness of the narrative voice. Eggers keeps the story within Achak's mind, his persepective, but doesn't always give that narrative voice a psychological perspective. Like Ford Madox Ford (see JLK above), Eggars does not impose chronology. His narrator goes backwards and forwards, telling the story as it would be in life, allowing the narrator to come alive like a real person: we do not get to know a real person from the egg, but from midway in life, then bits are added on from periods as they become relevant. And those new bits change how we feel about that person. But this method can become a rag-bag of tales...make the narrator more true to life, less fictional, but also less able to reveal the truths that the story needs to show. Readers don't go to fiction to learn what they could learn in real life. I suppose, as a reader, I wanted to know about the inner mind of Achak, yet the fiction did not allow me this extra insight.
Great novels from the past balanced narrative voice and events. Fielding was a master of structural story-telling. At times, What is the What, runs away with itself rather than with Achak. A paradox seems to operate. Eggars has made fact into fiction so as he can control fact, but he has not allowed fiction to impose fictional constraints and give structure to the story-telling. Fiction starts to resemble the mess of life and become uncontrolled.

What is the What is a very important modern novel. I ended up admiring it, though I wanted to like it more than that.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

"Her" by H.D. The modern novel in hermetic terms.

Hilda Doolitle belonged to the Pound Era. That familiar description does her a real injustice. The novel Her, written, in 1927, though not published until the 1980s, shows why. In 1927, Hilda Doolittle, by now known as the poet H.D. writes a wonderful analysis of the early Pound. He emerges not as biographies of Pound like to tell: the sun around which satellites, like H.D. revolved. He is subsumed into a different kind of modernism— H.D.’s version! And this is every bit as challenging as Pound’s.

The novel concerns a love triangle. George Lowndes (aesthete and poet Ezra Pound) is in love with Hermione Gart (Hilda Doolittle). Hermione is infatuated with George and Fayne Rabb (Hilda Doolittle’s female love, Frances Gregg). The biographical nature of the novel and its relevance to the Pound industry have promoted one reading of the novel. Critics such as Gubar, Du Plessis and Guest have done much to revise their H.D. along Feminist lines, but really this is a core hermetical work. (H.D. extended this cryptogram to become Hermetic Definition in her final volume of poetry).

The key passage in the novel is when Hermione feels the temperature rising (p.59).

“Degree…degree…degree…Hermione went up like the Mercury in the thermometer.”

Hermione/Her, as she begins to see through her perception, sees George as a ridiculous Harlequin. Harlequin, of course, in his multi-coloured garb is a lower form of Mercury, the trickster, the satirist, the mocker, Eshu, the shifter of perspectives. And Her, linking to Her(mes), god of speed must “Run, run, run…and stoop to fasten nothing…run, run.” (p.220). Hermes, God of communication, underpins the whole novel such that simple letters and telephone messages reverberate with crisis and extraordinary meaning to Hermione/Her Gart/Her.

Her is breathtaking modernism. Reading it again after many years only serves to remind how wooden recent novels are in comparison to the living heart-wood of H.D.’s work.

“Precinematographic conscience didn’t help Her. (The reader reads her, pronoun, then is thrust into the mind of a character/narrator/author who is intent on not being a pronoun with male language). Later conscience would have. She would later have seen form superimposed on thought and thought making its spirals in a manner not wholly related to matter but pertaining to it and the peony petals magnified out of proportion and the people in the room shrunk into tiny insects while the teacups again would have magnified into hemispheres.”

What strikes most in Her, as in the work of H.D. generally, is the extraordinary intellect and power of the narrative voice…the female narrative voice— it has a hard, analytical edge and a soft, synthetic surface at the same time. There are few male novelists who have come anywhere near creating this level of authenticity in their female characters, and not many female novelists either.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Was John Milton gay?

John Milton was born on December 9th, 1608. This December consequently becomes his 400th birthday, a date for Miltonists to celebrate and renew a declining reputation. Anna Beer’s recent biography, Milton: Poet, Pamphleteer and Patriot, offers a modern Milton in a modern way. She renews flagging interest in him in tabloid style by finding a B list celebrity flaw: his gay relationship with Diodati. Reviewers of Anna Beer’s work have given a variety of responses. Peter Ackroyd, with the literary biographer’s eye has applauded her book, Andrew Motion, with a poet’s eye has responded with balanced clapping, whilst observing that her Diodati theory is written in wooden prose and gayness is a difficult issue to discuss. Only John Carey, as a critic and distinguished Miltonist has kept his hands still and stated that Anna Beer’s assumptions about Milton and Diodati are without facts— especially as her book neglects poetic readings and “Milton :Poet” is largely absent from her work. Certainly, Anna Beer’s book presents an almost unrecognisably shallow Milton: he liked Diodati because “he was fun” (p.108) and this sexual attraction caused him, she believes, much religious anxiety. There is no written evidence that Milton suffered any kind of gay crisis: Beer is simply transporting modern Christian gay antagonism back into the seventeenth century. Yes, Diodati played, according to Milton in Elegia Sexta, L’Allegro to his Il Penseroso, but to reduce this relationship to “fun” among best friends is hardly accurate biographical comment. Anna Beer’s book, unlike much Milton criticism, is lively and loosely written and its gains are also its losses. John, as she calls him, is revived in a modern way for a modern audience, but modernising can lead to falsifications.

So, was John Milton gay? An answer to this rests upon some biographical facts and one poem, Epitaphium Damonis (1639-40), in which Milton laments the death of Charles Diodati. Milton knew Diodati from St Paul’s School, 1617-20, and their friendship was formed during their early youth. (Diodati was a few months younger than Milton). Later, Diodati went to Oxford and Milton to Cambridge. Diodati left Oxford in 1628 and Milton departed from Cambridge in 1632. During 1630-31, Diodati was living in Geneva and Milton in London. Dates show that their friendship was not built upon daily “fun”. “The Lady” of Christ College did not frequent Ye Olde Heavene nightclub on a nightly basis and did not take Charles to the annual Eden Gay Ball. Their relationship was built over distance, out of boyhood, and rested on an intellectual intimacy. The Milton-Diodati correspondence stretches to four letters, two in Greek (from around 1625-26) and two in Latin (from 1637). Elegia Prima and Elegia Sexta speak of two further letters, now lost. John T Shawcross has noted some interesting depths in these letters. The second Greek letter, from Diodati, jokes about the homosexuality of Sardanapalus, urging Milton to avoid his excessive pleasures…the joke being that Milton was never likely to succumb. And Milton’s Latin letters to Diodati are infused with sexual puns. Milton writes how he knows that Diodati likes “to study and repeatedly take breaks in between”, allowing studendi and orebro interspires to suggest erotic study and taking gulping breaths whilst having intercourse. The conclusions drawn by John T Shawcross in John Milton: The Self and the World are tentative, but they include his beliefs that Milton was sexually repressed, that there was some “action” between Milton and Diodati, and their connection went beyond friendship and involved Milton playing a female role (psychosexually) to Diodati’s male role.

Gay is a problematical term even now. It suggests a lifestyle and a bias. Neither a lifestyle nor a bias really exists in what is known about Milton. Today’s usage of gay connotes a drive within a man towards other men— the plural is important. What does exist between Milton and Diodati, without a doubt, is a constellation of emotions created by their own particular attraction to one another. Milton does parallel his love of Beauty with his feelings for Diodati. There are overtones of Renaissance Neo-Platonism in their friendship. Milton shares his quest for Beauty with someone who is beautiful in spirit. Ficino’s heavenly love (inspired by The Symposium) echoes within Milton’s mental landscape. But Milton writing to Diodati is not Michelangelo addressing Cavalieri. Milton, to use a clumsy modern phrase, was not a gay man living on the downlow. What existed…and perhaps Epitaphium Damonis becomes the Platonic child…was an intense psychological connection based on Eros rather than eros…evidence of a relationship creating a powerful attraction as opposed to a powerful inclination being attracted to a sexual object.

Epitaphium Damonis presented Milton with a number of problems. Firstly, it had to do justice to what he felt for Diodati in life and it had to hold Milton’s intense feelings of loss within an aesthetic form. Then, it had to be different from yet as exalted as Lycidas: Milton’s elegy for Edward King was not based on a close friendship. And finally, as Milton’s friendship with Diodati spoke through a Classical and Christian language, Renaissance synchronism, the structure of Epitaphium Damonis would have to preserve this element.

Epitaphium Damonis, consequently, is written in Latin. Its thematic imagery is drawn from the world of Greek and Roman pastoral. The most noticeable structural device is a repeated refrain: “Ite domum impasti, domino iam non vacat, agni”/”Go home unfed, lambs, your shepherd has no time for you now.” A key structural device,then, is lifted from pastoral. Both Theocritus and Moschus used refrains in this manner. And the refrain consciously echoes Virgil’s Eclogue X. Milton’s line rephrases Virgil’s “Ite, domum saturae, venit Hespurus, ite capallae.” Evidently, Milton chose to place his elegy within the male-male love of pastoral. But more ought to be asked about this refrain? Why 17 times? Number, for Milton, always carried Christian value. And the answer would appear to be this. According to the tradition of “silent numbers”, 17 was the number of the Perfect Man. The precedent for this would be St. Augustine who in Chapter 17 of Letter 55 explained 17 as man refined (by the 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit and the 10 Commandments of God) and thus able to find his place in Christ’s household. The 17-fold refrain, which reverses earthly pastoral, alludes to a Christian-Classical pastoral that will welcome Diodati as homo perfectus in Heaven. It is a structural statement of the conclusion: “Bacchic frenzy” (Paganism) “under…Zion” (Christ).

Taking 17, as a hint, also reveals something else about the structure of Epitaphium Damonis. In Lycidas, Milton used line length paragraphs to zone his poem. A similar method is used here. The poem opens with 17/1 where 17 lines make a pastoral prologue and 1 is the refrain. Lines 162-179 repeat this device. 17 lines renounce pastoral and make an epilogue in which the shepherd hangs up his musical pipe in favour of a new poetry. Pastoral dies with Damon/Diodati. This 17/1-17/1 circular structure in effect separates the pastoral elegy from its conclusion: a 40 line passage that resurrects Diodati into Heaven. The dark shades of Orcus controlled by Hermes’ virga/stick (l.23) do not await Diodati. He is taken to a world of light and a Hermetic Heaven ruled by the thyrso/branch (l.129) of God. By placing this apotheosis into a 40 line passage, Milton implicitly connects the transformation with control and waiting: 40 in the world of “silent numbers” connoted Christ’s days of reflection in the wilderness. The number 40 also alludes to what Milton celebrates in Diodati: a self-control that has produced chastity and “a youth without stain” (l.212-213).

This over-arching hermetical structure suggests the depth to which Milton identified with Diodati. Yes, he was a man of “virtue”, a “loyal comrade” and someone who offered “cultured wit”. He was most noticeably “a kindred spirit.” He was, moreover, Milton’s ideal companion. The final 40 lines of Epitaphium Damonis build two linked scenes. In the first, Milton/Thyrsis recalls presents that were intended for Diodati as a kind of hermetic baccalaureate…a laurel gift for an intellectual friend. Two books/cups were waiting to be shared. These were wrapped in an engraving that showed the Red Sea, Arabian balm, Aurora and the Phoenix, images of divine protection, healing, awakening and resurrection. The engraving also depicted Heavenly Amor shooting his burning arrows upwards towards the stars, an image of love’s divine power. In the second scene, Milton describes the epiphany of Diodati after death. Crowned with a ring of light, a beautiful Platonic-Christian image, Diodati is raised before the Chief Shepherd, Christ. Hermes-like, Milton puns on Charles Diodati’s name, identifying him as Damon/Spirit on earth, but “Gift of God” in Heaven: “Diodatus, quo te divino nomine….” (l.210). All of this depicts Diodati as rather more than what Beer calls Milton’s “Italian fantasy”.

Structurally, Epitaphium Damonis looks like this. From 17/1 to 17/1 (inclusive) there are 17 verse-paragraphs and 17 refrains.


The refrains act as a markers. These 17 episodes culminate in a Hermetic vision of the perfect man, whose number is 17, being elected to Heaven.

Whilst examining Epitaphium Damonis in Death in Milton’s Poetry (1994), Clay Daniel concludes that Milton’s second elegy is a reversal of Lycidas. Whereas the grief of Lycidas could be placed and solved within a Christian context, the personal grief caused by Diodati’s death shattered Milton’s belief in Christianity. Paganism triumphs over Christianity such that Damon “enjoys every sensual gratification in Heaven that he ever could hoped to have had on earth.” (p.156). This, though it might please those who would like to place the elegy’s homoerotic content outside Christianity, is a serious misreading of the poem. The structure of Epitaphium Damonis frames pagan pastoral despair with Christian hope. The elegy is a fitting devotion by a poet to his beloved. The virginal love between Milton and Diodati is fulfilled in the virginal hymeneal between Diodati and Christ, Bride and Bridegroom.

The intense structuring of this highly complex and personal elegy does not fall within the restrictive modern term gay. It rather opens the friendship between Diodati and Milton to something nameless…closed by death…but open to mystical possibilities. In Epitaphium Damonis, Milton has to expand his poetry to encompass his feelings for Diodati and this involves enlarging his Neo-Platonic Christian world view. In this sense, there is something very modern about Milton here: a poet has to invent language to explain an area of psychosexual experience.