Tag Archives: England

To invert is to subvert

image001Oscar Wilde was the master of the epigram, the biting riposte.  Though best known for his plays and novels, Wilde’s essays demonstrate some of his sharpest zingers.

“The Decay of Lying” is a perfect example. In this short, Platonic-style dialogue between two upper-class aesthetes of the late nineteenth-century English garden variety (picture Daniel Day Lewis in “A Room with a View”), Wilde pitches his own critical theory of Aestheticism, or “Art for Art’s Sake.” The brilliance comes from his adept twists of logic, the way he inverts accepted ideas in order to subvert them. Even his main argument that lying, really good lying, is the essence of art is a wonderful inversion of the notion then in vogue that art reveals truth.

Here are a few quotes that made me smile:

On England: “Our splendid physique as a people is entirely due to our national stupidity.”

On politicians’ lies: “If a man is sufficiently unimaginative to produce evidence in support of a lie, he might just as well speak the truth.”

On fiction: “The ancient historians gave us delightful fiction in the form of fact; the modern novelist presents us with dull facts in the guise of fiction.”

On a contemporary novelist (poor guy): “Mr. James Payn is an adept in the art of concealing what is not worth finding. He hunts down the obvious with the enthusiasm of a short-sighted detective. As one turns over the pages, the suspense of the author becomes almost unbearable.”

On the literary school of the day, Naturalism: “The difference between such a book as M. Zola’s L’Assommoir and Balzac’s Illusions Perdues is the difference between unimaginative realism and imaginative reality.”

At essence, Wilde argues that the imagination of the true liar trumps the bald truth: “For the aim of the liar is simply to charm, to delight, to give pleasure.” The sole purpose of art, he says, is the same. It’s an argument that has become somewhat dated, still it’s thought provoking, and it’s always entertaining to let the intrinsically subversive imagination of Wilde carry you along.

English: Oscar Wilde, photographic print on ca...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Discovering Jane Gardam’s emotional islands

Britain’s multi-prize-winning author Jane Gardam was virtually unknown in America until the publication of her delightful novel Old Filth in 2004. That book brought her the long-overdue attention she deserves.

Gardam’s writing is smart, bright and impressionistic: she colors places and characters deftly but never lingers too long on description or dialogue. Her novels are remarkable for their insinuation of the emotional undercurrents of ordinary lives.

Old Filth brought to life the unusual and unpredictable character of Sir Edward Feathers, a staid barrister recently retired and widowed whose life story courses through the waning years of the empire. (“Old Filth,” his nickname, is an acronym for Failed In London Try Hongkong.) The Man In the Wooden Hat is Gardam’s equally fascinating reprise of the story told from the perspective of Old Filth’s wife, Mary. In these two novels, which act like facing mirrors, we discover the complexities of their long marriage: fidelities and infidelities, jealousies and desires, unspoken kindnesses and remembered cruelties.

Crusoe’s Daughter is Gardam’s own favorite among her many novels. Again, with the fine tip of her word-brush, she paints a portrait of an intelligent, bookish girl who, at the turn of the 20th century, goes to live on the isolated northeast coast of Yorkshire with her spinster aunts and remains there into her own old age in the 1980s.

Crusoe’s Daughter, Gardam explains in her preface, was the “deeper” book she wanted to write after her initial successes, a story imagined from her mother’s experience of an “old-fashioned” world that had ceased to exist. Gardam says: “But it would not be a nostalgic, romantic or historical novel of bonnets and bustles and tea parties and endless summer days. I would show women of the early nineteenth [sic] century as I knew they had been—starved of money, employment, sex and the love of men who were not their ‘class’. Their success in life in these immovable, unrelenting country places was judged by their ability to get married as soon as possible to a suitable man who could support them, to breed, to live chaste and never to think of working for their living.”

That description pretty well sums up the book she wrote. It is quiet and exciting at the same time, full of ordinary events and emotion, much of it repressed. Protagonist Polly Flint’s attraction to the story of Robinson Crusoe becomes a leitmotif, and although the theme at times feels overdone (its use at the end is odd and not quite satisfying), Gardam creates a female character who is as determined, strong, rational and sexless as Defoe’s.

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At the twist in the tunnel

Evelyn Waugh’s Put Out More Flags is a biting send-up of Britain’s upper class coming to terms with the reality of yet another world war. Waugh skewers the vanity and delusions of a certain caste of high society during the Phony War of late 1939 and early 1940. In the lull, while waiting for the attack that was sure to come, fear preyed on people’s minds and terrorized their dreams, and some took wholesale advantage of the situation, including Waugh to comedic effect.

Though a light book, and in my estimation not his best, there is plenty of vintage Waugh here to enjoy: cruel and selfish characters who use charm to slip blithely through the world, whether at war or not. Then there is Waugh’s sharp wit. In Scoop he wrote three of the funniest paragraphs in modern English literature about a newspaper column called “Lush Places.” Here, he’s worth reading if only for such wonderful bits as the following, where a pompous booby reflects on his wife: “Maternity and the tranquil splendour of Malfrey had wrought changes in her; it was rarely, now, that the wild little animal in her came above ground; but it was there, in its earth, and from time to time he was aware of it peeping out, after long absences; a pair of glowing eyes at the twist in the tunnel watching him as an enemy.”

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