One might more broadly argue that one of Modernism’s legacies has been to render plot something vulgar, more appropriate for popular genre works than artistic literature. Hence the truism that one should read fiction not to find out what happens (since any sophisticated reader understands that these stories are all invented), but rather for Hawkes’s verbal and psychological elements: complex characters bobbing in a sea of lyric descriptions, wordplay, themes and motifs, and the dazzling execution of poetic constraints and concepts (which can structurally replace plot). Such fiction’s worth, we’re told time and time again—as though we keep forgetting—that the words on the page are just words on the page, “mere language.” At best, we’re given guilty apologies for plot, as I was when I asked a college professor what he thought of Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, which he was reading for the first time: “I don’t know yet. I’m still reading it for the plot, and I know that’s not what matters.”
Even Harry Mathews has said “I think situations are more important than plot and character.” And while his 1987 masterpiece Cigarettes is, at first appearance, a collection of situations, reading it quickly reveals that one of its chief pleasures is the (re-)construction of its plot: learning who its characters are, what they do, and how they are related.
Since 1995, Brown University has been building a digital library of periodicals associated with the Modernist era – the exact dates they observe are journals published from 1890 to 1922. The University of Tulsa joined the project in 2003, and the result is a site where you can read complete issues of fabled early 20th century magazines like BLAST, The English Review, The Little Review, The Egoist, and the original Harriet Monroe incarnation of Poetry.
Most of these journals are literary magazines of one sort or another, associated either with a particular movement or with an editor’s idiosyncratic vision. Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis’s BLAST was the vaudeville clarion of the short-lived “Vorticist” movement, while magazines like the English Review and the Little Review didn’t serve a movement so much as the wide-ranging taste of their editors (the great novelist Ford Madox Ford and the brilliant impresario Margaret Anderson, respectively).
Glancing at the list of contributors for magazines like The Egoist and the Little Review, one notices a fair bit of overlap. Names like James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, D.H. Lawrence, Rebecca West, Wyndham Lewis, H.D., and Ford Madox Ford recur again and again. The omnipresent Ezra Pound served as “foreign editor” for both Poetry and the Little Review, literary editor for The Egoist, co-edited BLAST, and contributed to The English Review and The New Age (among others).
What is striking in these old Modernist magazines, aside from the roll call of their famous contributors? Mainly that they have very little in common with prominent literary magazines in today’s English-speaking world. There is no gee-whiz tweeness (surely you can find your own examples without too much trouble), no senile genteelism (ditto), no forced jokiness, no desperation on the part of the authors to prove that they’re good guys and gals who aren’t necessarily smarter than anyone else and maybe want to be your best friend.
Not much happens in a Lispector novel. In Near to the Wild Heart, Joana recalls her childhood, is orphaned and adopted by an aunt, attends boarding school, marries, chats with her husband’s mistress, takes a lover, and loses both husband and lover. But this “plot” is incidental to the life of her mind, where all the real action takes place. In The Passion According to G. H. (A paixão segundo G. H., 1964), the heroine, known only by her initials, goes to clean the room of the maid who has given notice the day before, and has an apocalyptic encounter with a cockroach. The whole book takes place in the maid’s room, or rather, in G. H.’s thoughts. Água Viva (Água viva, 1973), has no trace of a plot, being instead a series of rhapsodic fragments, while A Breath of Life (Um sopro de vida; pulsções, 1978) explores the purely mental relationship between a character called “the author” and “Angela”, his creation. All four works are better described as internal dialogues: between Joana and Otávio; between G. H. and various interlocutors (her former husband, the doctor who performed her abortion and, of course, the cockroach); and between “the author” and Angela. Even Água Viva is addressed, in combative terms, to a putative reader called “you”.
Lispector can be a bafflingly elusive writer. But her images dazzle even when her meaning is most obscure, and when she is writing of what she despises she is lucidity itself. In The Passion According to G. H., the disintegration of the protagonist is superbly done, as she describes the woman she has ceased to be, organized in terms of what others saw in her, living perpetually in quotation marks, adopting “the elegant, ironic, and witty replica of a life” as a sort of extra leg. But as she advances into meaninglessness, identifying with the prehistoric, prehuman, inert world of the wounded cockroach, she enters a waste land of fragments of what she was before – we find bits of religion, mysticism and philosophy expressed in a form in which the separate words make sense, but the combinations are baffling.
Laura Del-Rivo’s The Furnished Room came as a revelation to me, for many reasons. While I was researching my novel Bad Penny Blues, I was trying to track down a film called West 11, directed by Michael Winner and scripted by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, that was set bang in the middle of the era and the location I wanted to write about. But the film proved elusive and I didn’t getto see it until after the book was published. It was screened as part of Portobello’s Pop-Up Cinema in the autumn of 2010, and was introduced by the ever-entertaining Mr Winner himself. Whereupon it was revealed that the author of the book on which the film was based was someone I had actually known for over 20 years, through visiting her stall on Portobello. I loved the film, and its evocation of an era of beatnik rebels, bottle parties, art students, and a Rachmanesque Ladbroke Grove haunted by Mosley rallies and standing in the shadow of the wrecking ball was precisely the world I had been trying to conjure in my book. When Laura said that Five Leave Press would shortly be publishing her original manuscript, I was even more delighted.
The Furnished Room is a vivid evocation of a shifting world, caught between the monochrome post-War austerity and the bright new generation who would turn the Sixties Technicolor. It has one foot forward in the world that Laura came from, the Ladbroke Grove of Colins Wilson and MacInnes, Peter Blake and Pauline Boty, and one foot behind, in the Soho demi-monde of Iron foot Jack and Daniel Farson, with characters that seem to represent the crossing of the eras.
Convent educated in Surrey, Laura, like so many bright young rebels from the suburbs, couldn’t wait to leave the straitjacket of suburbia and pitched up in Rathbone Place, W1, in the early Fifties, where she entered the door of a little club and into a whole new world. It wasn’t long before she joined a house of writers, actors and painters in 24 Chepstow Villas, West 11, which included Colin Wilson, Dudley Sutton and Bill Hopkins. The celebrated photographer Ida Karr caught the image of Laura in all her austere, raven-haired beatnik beauty in a portrait that is now in the National Portrait Gallery. The Furnished Room was published in 1961, making Laura the first British female beatnik author. It is a work that still fizzles off the page, the energy of that post-War, pre-Swinging world captured every bit as vividly as the works her more celebrated contemporaries, Shelagh Delany’s A Taste of Honey and Lynne Reid Banks’ The L-Shaped Room.
Readers who enjoyed discovering The Furnished Room as much as I did will find plenty more to savour in the two new pieces first published here on 3:AM. ‘Dark Angel’, in particular, captures Laura’s unnerving gift for describing time and place with a cinematic verisimilitude. Beginning in the Soho of her youth, she describes the bombed-out West End and the sort of shady dives where she entered the world of the bohemians that existed on the fringes of criminality, esoteric bookshops, fake Barons and mystics, actors and spivs. Moving forward into the Eighties, she then evokes a lost Ladbroke Grove that I well remember from my own youth, when it was still seedy, snotty and alive with possibility – the first place I ever desperately wanted to live and have, like Laura, never been able to leave. The shorter ‘Krissman’ is another speciality of the author – a finely tuned portrait of a mind unravelling, that anyone with a predeliction for the anti-heroes of Patrick Hamilton’s manor will savour.
In fact, anyone with a love of London, and the unsung heroes and villains who tend to have been written out of history, will read Laura’s work and wonder why she has been forgotten for so long. Here is a woman who has lived her whole life in the company of mavericks and chancers, visionaries and dreamers, who all contributed to changing the artistic landscape and created bodies of work that continue to challenge and enlighten successive generations who stumble upon them and eagerly devour. She hasn’t lost the edge that first brought her here, nor has she de-tuned herself to what goes on around her, as her remarkable ear for dialogue proves. A market trader on Portobello to this day, she really is a true writer of the streets.
As any good biographer, Finbow demystifies rather than promulgates romantic notions about his subject. In fact, he is resolutely straight-shooting about Ginsberg’s neuroses, his guilt over his mad mother, his suicidal tendencies, his petty jealousies and sexual perversities, mentions of which perforate the slender volume throughout, individually as well as in conjunction with Ginsberg’s literary contemporaries. Finbow describes the “jazz loving, poetry quoting” Beatniks as an insular clique riddled with professional backbiting, “soap opera” sexual dynamics and incestuous relationships. Albeit many of the Beats were heterosexual, most dabbled in homosexuality which goes some way to explain how Ginsberg frequently found himself in love with straight men. The worst of these disastrous affairs was with Neal Cassidy, a lubricious sadist and a liar who frequently drove Ginsberg to the brink of suicide. Although, Ginsberg’s suicidal tendencies were in full swing long before Cassidy came on the scene. “For Allen,” writes Finbow “Nietzsche’s maxim ‘The thought of suicide is a powerful comfort,’ held true, and more so that ‘it helps one through many a dreadful night.” It was, in fact, a lifelong coping mechanism which aided Ginsberg thought chronic loneliness, reoccurring breakdowns, numerous bereavements and fruitless quests for love. All of these themes were later celebrated in Ginsberg’s poetry, combining autobiography, fantasy, psychosexuality and imagination – a complete bouleversement of poetic tradition.
(And that’s Steve photographed by Ginsberg above.)
3:AM’s David Winters interviews the legendary Gordon Lish for Critical Quarterly: If we go back to Beckett, or to various bits by Thomas Bernhard, these examples seem to represent an exception. One wants to find the new. And, in finding it, do everything one can to fight for it. There was a time when I […]
Tom Jenks, Spruce (Blarts Books) One of most overlooked poets in the UK, doing the work conceptualism should be doing, getting to the heart of uniquely British ennui through splicing methodology and jet black humour. Sandeep Parmar, Eidolon (Shearsman Books) High modernism powerfully maintained and redeployed by one of the most interesting poets crossing the American / UK […]
Wolfgang Hilbig I’ve got a problem with best-book-of-the-year lists. I can’t really articulate what that problem is – they’re egotistical? it’s not the end of the year yet? I’m doubtful anybody cares? that they seem to somehow dovetail into the frenzy of Christmas? Whatever it is, they fill me with a general discomfort. So in […]
Joanna Walsh’s Top Reads of 2015 My books of the year, all published in 2015, and in no particular order… Claire-Louise Bennett, Pond (Stinging Fly/Fitzcarraldo) Words build spaces for living in Bennett’s genre-defying meditation on creating and practicing a solitary life in rural Ireland. Gavin Corbett, Green Glowing Skull (4th Estate) An […]
Clarice Lispector I consumed books in two very different modes in 2015; the tension between the two shaped my reading year in a number of ways. As a critic adhering to a review schedule, much of my reading was necessarily driven by a need for angles and fertile connections, the controlled epiphanies of interpretation. There […]