Struggling to get Onshore

After my first reading (thirty-five years after publication) of Penelope Fitzgerald’s much lauded 1979 Booker Prize novel, Offshore, I was left wondering what all the fuss was about. The work received wide acclaim, albeit from reviewers, but little academic interest.

It has at its core the relationships between five barge owners, and the families of some of them, moored at Battersea Reach on the Thames. The author would be expected to develop such relationships into an interesting tapestry of personal feeling shaped by events, revealing the characters to their fullest extent and thereby giving the reader an insight into their innermost psychologies. Fitzgerald, however, creates a snapshot, as it were, rather than a complete revelation, thus leaving one feeling the work to be inadequate, wanting and unsatisfying. It could be argued that in a novel barely two hundred pages long, little opportunity is provided for such development and, on first consideration, there may seem to be a point except for the fact that Henry James managed it masterfully. And I use James as a comparison only because several reviewers likened Fitzgerald to Jane Austen – an accolade misplaced and undeserved in the extreme. AS Byatt suggested she was Austen’s ‘nearest heir’ and I am decidedly perplexed (possibly even dumbfounded) why George Eliot might not have been considered suitable for the part. I can only reason there seems to be a desperate proclivity by some reviewers to find in a contemporary writer the genius of some of the great 19th century novelists.

Fitzgerald’s lack of comprehensive characterization weakens the novel immensely and the first half of the book drifts aimlessly to the point of being boringly insubstantial. The characters are presented superficially, and the reader never gets to know them intimately as a result of the author’s inability to allow a full range of reflection or emotion on their part. Consequently the novel cannot develop into a meaningful work and relies on a series of character snapshots to hold it together.

The term ‘snapshot’ is, perhaps, not insignificant as it suggests a style and method not unlike that of cinematography and raises the interesting observation that Fitzgerald’s Offshore is better suited to being developed as a screen play rather than a novel. The sudden and unexpected changes of scene resemble the motion picture, which, it must be said, has never reproduced faithfully, and with telling force, any major literary work because of its reliance on visual perception. Whether or not Fitzgerald was overly influenced by film, I do not know, but the presence of its style and method in Offshore makes it an interesting question.

One cannot escape the fact there is a dull superficiality about the book. The character snapshots (or movie clips if you prefer the idea of motion) presented by Fitzgerald are of mundane, trivial incidents in the lives portrayed – which is not to suggest that a degree of pain and suffering is not present in the representative contextual sampling. But the writer doesn’t explore, in a profound way and not even in one or two characters, the range of content in the individual psyches that could reveal personal tragedy. If she had dealt with her subject matter accordingly, Fitzgerald may have evoked a close and percipient response in the reader and provided substance in an otherwise thin narrative. Yet it is almost as if she wants her audience to assume the tragic consequences of her characters’ lives and simply provides a canvas for the reader’s imagination to play on. This is not subtle suggestion, as some of those who rhapsodize about this book may claim, but an inadequacy unable to meticulously examine and reveal the infinitely delicate processes of human thought and emotion. It is, sadly, and one may venture to say it, an easy way out.

That said I do not believe Fitzgerald sets out to deceive. She has, rather, simply written a defective novel in an unconvincing style, a style unsuited to the task of aspiring to achieving a major (or even a good) work of fiction. Regrettably, many critics (who should know better) mislead the reading public in describing the work, with extravagant claims, as ‘tight’, ‘compressed’ and ‘…unerring in economic force’. What exactly such specious terms are intended to mean or evoke one only can guess. But it is probable, and I suggest likely, that these critics do not themselves know and use such terms to impress and cloak unfortunate critical inadequacies – inadequacies that will attempt to promote something as a work of genius which, in fact, is second-rate.

I could be proved wrong but I’ve not seen the work proposed or selected for serious study and surmise that a competent, critical ethos has had the last word on the subject and put the matter to rest.

Bruce Cooper

Too Close to Home to be Good

Author of Deaf Sentence, David Lodge, admits in the book’s preamble that 60-something protagonist Desmond Bates is loosely based on himself. To what extent we shall never know although both are retired academics and both suffer from progressive hearing loss. The latter disability is central to the narrative and shapes most, if not all, of the hero’s movements throughout the tale.

Lodge manages with literary dexterity to bring out the humour of the hearing misfortune by involving Bates in a comedy of antics with and without his electronic hearing aid. Had Bates been any less placid or even-tempered than he is, the humour would be absent and we’d likely be watching a curmudgeon grappling with his infirmity. Consequently what makes the tale appealing, and reinforces it to some extent, is Bates’s nobility in the circumstances in which he finds himself. And one can only surmise (with a good deal of accuracy I suspect) that Lodge is no less a chap.

The humour is well-executed, and when it becomes a little darker perhaps even better. But the difficulty of comedy, in any art form, is being able to sustain it and Lodge doesn’t manage that altogether successfully.

Bates’s 89-year old father in the book (also loosely based on Lodge’s father) still lives in his own home but is in obvious decline, although far from decrepit. Lodge draws a humorous relationship between the two by bringing out the idiosyncrasies and quirkiness of the old man viewed alongside the solicitude of the son and partial deafness of both.

‘How was the journey?’ he said, as I took off my overcoat and hung it on the                        coat rack by the door.

‘All right. The train was on time for once,’ I said.

‘What?’ This word occurs very frequently in our dialogues.

‘The train was on time,’ I shouted.

‘There’s no need to shout,’ he said . . .

Meetings between the two occur frequently in the book culminating in the old man’s funeral at the end. Although some of the humour and poignancy in their relationship is retained throughout, the narrative tends to become a little tedious and the book would have benefited with less of the father/son episodes. But Lodge, even if he agreed, would clearly have had a problem with this given the story is to some extent autobiographical.

The book may also have suffered in another area from its autobiographical adumbration.

One of the characters, Alex Loom, is an alluring American postgraduate from Bates’s former university. She inveigles a reluctant Bates into helping her as a quasi-supervisor for a doctoral thesis, without his wife’s knowledge. At various times she subtly suggests sex but he never acquiesces, although he does indulge in a fantasy, which she suggests, about spanking her naked bottom.

At the outset, the reader is given the impression of an appealing character (she possesses all the extrovert qualities of the typical American girl) and waits in patient anticipation to see how she will play a leading character role (which the author seems to have intended) in the story’s tapestry. The impression given is that an intellectually interesting, and most likely sexual, relationship is set to develop between Desmond Bates and Alex Loom. The fact that it doesn’t materialise is in some ways a travesty and the book suffers greatly as a result.

Lodge develops Loom into a sexually dysfunctional girl, who lost her father at age 13 to suicide and who consequently has a compulsive sexual attraction for older men. She seduces Bates’s colleague (still employed) at the university and Bates becomes her next compulsive target sometime after the first liaison ended. Bates declines her overtures and she eventually goes back to America.

Had Lodge expanded on the relationship between Bates and Loom in all its facets, and rewritten her character, it would have provided immense possibilities for character development and a more interesting and appealing tale. One could say he lost a trick here, but I suspect the reason to have been the limitations imposed by a quasi-autobiography. It is unlikely that Lodge would have entered into such an affair. Bates, though, does indicate towards the end of the book that, had he been less timid, he might have allowed it. At any event, fictionalising yourself will be constraining at the best of times and may be too close to home to draw a vivid and appealing tale.

Bruce Cooper

Hardy Redeemed

TS Eliot, in After Strange Gods, said of Thomas Hardy:

‘[He] seems to me to have written as nearly for the sake of “self-expression” as a man well can; and the self which he had to express does not strike me as a particularly wholesome or edifying matter of communication.’

But Virginia Woolf, in The Second Common Reader, was lavish in her praise:

‘Thus it is no mere transcript of life at a certain time and place that Hardy has given us. It is a vision of the world and of man’s lot as they revealed themselves to a powerful imagination, a profound and poetic genius, a gentle and humane soul.’

The two views are antithetical but Eliot’s the more accurate.

That a commanding poetic and critical genius of Eliot’s stature should find nothing worthy to say about Hardy is perplexing, and suggests an insufficient or hasty scrutiny of the poet’s work as I shall demonstrate below. Woolf’s evaluation, not surprisingly, stems from a poor critical grasp. That he had a powerful imagination is not altogether true, but he was undeniably gentle and humane. That he was profound or a poetic genius may be stretching the imagination somewhat and serves only to appease critics who idealize him.

Eliot has been criticised (mostly by Hardy devotees) for imposing too harsh a view on his poetry and not doing him justice as a critic. But Eliot is vindicated in that much of Hardy’s poetic work is sentimental and merely seeking, as he correctly pointed out, “self-expression”. Hardy has the unwitting knack of deceiving the less guarded on a first reading, when a closer examination reveals the weakness:

I glanced aloft and halted, pleasure-caught                                                                          To see the contrast there:                                                                                             The ray-lit clouds gleamed glory; and I thought,                                                                  ‘There’s solace everywhere!’

                               A Meeting with Despair

The poet betrays the weakness in ‘pleasure-caught’, ‘The ray-lit clouds gleamed glory’ and the effusive, ‘There’s solace everywhere!’ Such striving after effect cannot signify a major poet and, to Hardy’s credit, it was something of which he was unaware because in some of his elegiac poetry he comes close to achieving major status. But he should not be remembered, or celebrated (as he is so often), for his oeuvre as a whole.

Eliot’s comment that:

‘ … the self which he had to express does not strike me as a particularly wholesome or edifying matter of communication.’

shows a distinct and surprising lack of insight from arguably one of the finest critics in the language and betrays, as it does, a smugness suggestive of cursory dismissal. For Hardy, following the death of his first wife, rose to the occasion and produced some fine elegiac poetry that can only be construed as particularly wholesome and decidedly edifying as matter of communication.

That a poet can go from the contrived and would-be dramatic:

‘I have seen the lightning-blade, the leaping star,                                                                 The caldrons of the sea in storm,                                                                                     Have felt the earthquakes lifting arm,                                                                           And trodden where abysmal fires and snowcones are.’

to the keenly sensitive and poignantly felt:

‘Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,                                                   Saying that now you are not as you were                                                                         When you had changed from the one who was all to me,                                               But as at first, when our day was fair.’

Should provide much interest and speculation for the literary historian who possesses a close critical proclivity. There is nothing contrived here, only pure pathos, and the final stanza consolidates and reinforces the poet’s keenly felt sensitivity to the memory of his dead wife:

‘Thus I; faltering forward,                                                                                                   Leaves around me falling,                                                                                                 Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward,                                                           And the woman calling.’

How finely felt and evocative is this image of a confused, desolate and grief-stricken man. The reader feels, and is drawn by compassion to, the misery.

Hardy’s lesser poetry (and it is mostly second-rate) suggests he spent inordinate amounts of time trying to ‘feel’, as if he desperately wanted to be a poet and convey faithfully what he saw and ‘felt’:

‘I have seen the lightning-blade, the leaping star,                                                         The caldrons of the sea in storm…’

is a striving to feel and express and is written, as Eliot said, ‘…as nearly for the sake of “self-expression” as a man well can.’ But when the feeling is real, and emanates from a personal and confounding grief, the tautness and concoctions of the lesser work give way to a natural and true expression:

‘Here is the ancient floor,                                                                                           Footworn and hollowed and thin,                                                                                       Here was the former door                                                                                       Where the dead feet walked in.

She sat here in her chair,                                                                                         Smiling into the fire;                                                                                                       He who played stood there,                                                                                     Bowing it higher and higher.

Childlike, I danced in a dream;                                                                           Blessings emblazoned that day;                                                                       Everything glowed with a gleam;                                                                                   Yet we were looking away!’

The Self-Unseeing

The effect of this simple verse is telling and can claim to be at least considered among what is good in English poetry. Had Hardy been less impelled to produce, more of the same quality might have been forthcoming. Had he read, and noted, Samuel Johnson’s praise of Denham’s Cooper’s Hill:

‘It has beauty peculiar to itself, and must be numbered among those felicities which cannot be produced at will by wit and labour, but must arise unexpectedly in some hour propitious to poetry.’ – Life of Denham

he might have fared much better.

October 2014