The Voice That Thunders

I’ve loved Alan Garner’s books ever since I first read The Owl Service – and then wolfed down – Elidor, The Wierdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath. When Red Shift was published – in the Autumn of 1973 – I bought it in hardback – a rare event in those days – and read it at a sitting.

I remember shutting the book finally (carefully) at about 3.00 in the morning; getting out of bed and making my way to the bathroom across the landing – with the uneasy feeling that shadows were slipping off the wall behind me and that a false step might take me out of my safe home in Evesham into the strangeness that was always hovering – you now knew – at the edge of vision.

(If anyone is interested there is a great discussion about Red Shift on the brilliant Backlisted Podcast)

It was the podcast that put me on to The Voice That Thunders – a collection of Garner’s Essays and Lectures – which are just as rich and fierce and individual as the fiction itself.

This, for example, describes more clearly than anything I have read before, what, in my heart, I am always hoping to find in every book I read. Garner writes:

I live, at all times, for imaginative fiction; for ambivalence, not for instruction. When language serves dogma, then literature is lost. I live also, and only, for excellence. My care is not for the cult of egalitarian mediocrity that is sweeping the world today, wherein even the critics are no longer qualified to differentiate, but for literature, which you may notice I have not defined. I would say that, because of its essential ambivalence, “literature” is: words that provoke response; that invite the reader or listener to partake of the creative act. There can be no one meaning for a text. Even that of the writer is but an option.

Literature exists at every level of experience. It is inclusive, not exclusive. It embraces; it does not reduce, however simply it is expressed. The purpose of the storyteller is to relate the truth in a manner that is simple: to integrate without reduction; for it is rarely possible to declare the truth as it is, because the universe presents itself as a Mystery. We have to find parables; we have to tell stories to unriddle the world.

It is a paradox: yet one so important that I must restate it. The job of a storyteller is to speak the truth; but what we feel most deeply cannot be spoken in words. At this level only images connect. And so story becomes symbol; and symbol is myth.

Garner adds – unnecessarily to my mind – that he is:

…using the word “myth” not as meaning “fiction” or “unhistorical”, but as a complex of story that, for various reasons, human beings see as demonstrations of the inner cause of the universe and of human life. Myth is quite different from philosophy in the sense of abstract concepts. The form of myth is concrete always, yet it holds those qualities that demand of the human mind that it recognise a revelation of the function behind the world.

Of course he is. You can find the Voice That Thunders here.

Afterthought – Garner’s story of his own childhood – Where Shall We Run To? – about growing up in the shadow of war, illness and Alderley Edge – is marvellous too. Seek it out!

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The Voice That Thunders

Lost Europeans

This is a sort of footnote to my blogpost about the Dreyfus Affair and anti-semitism.

One of Rose’s points was that Dreyfus showed French Jews (and reminded Jews everywhere) that even the most assimilated, the most loyal, diligent and dedicated servant of the state could become in an instant the other, the outsider, the Jew.

For Jews themselves it gave added impetus to the drive for a Jewish state – where else could a Jew truly be safe? Many liberal minded Europeans – guilty by association – felt the need too, in part at least as a way of saving European Jews from ourselves.

Now that Israel exists, it all feels a more complicated. In my lifetime Israel has morphed in liberal (my) consciousness from embattled underdog (Democratic, western, like us) into an oppressor, justifying every terrible action by that first promise – that Israel should be the place Jews must be able to be safe.

It clouds our understanding of what anti-semitism is and how we understand it. I feel it myself.

When, recently, Margaret Hodge said that the rise of anti-semitism within the Labour Party put her in mind of her father’s advice, telling her that, “you’ve got to keep a packed suitcase at the door, Margaret, in case you ever have to leave in a hurry.” She added, “when I heard about the disciplinary action, my emotional response resonated with that feeling of fear”.

In my own mind, my response was equivocal. I heard a wealthy privileged woman, close to the heart of power in this country, and part of me was suspicious that this was a sort of over-statement for political effect. Like many Labour politicians, Hodge has never made any secret of her distaste for Corbyn or the Labour values he stands for.

The feeling was also coloured by a concern that anti-semitism and a wish to challenge Israel’s actions in the Middle East were being conflated, making criticism of Israel that bit more difficult – and I wanted to resist the link (most clearly seen in the definition of anti-semitism that Labour was being pressed to adopt) being strengthened.

I still feel that humanity demands that we challenge Israel over its treatment of Palestinians until a proper settlement can be found, but I read a book recently that led me back to Margaret Hodge’s feeling of unease with a lot more sympathy and understanding.

Dennis Litvinov’s first novel was called, The Lost Europeans and describes the experience of a young Jewish man who goes back to Berlin after the war to set in motion a claim for restitution of his family’s property.

He himself was a child in the 30s. His family were wealthy bankers, secular and assimilated until the rise of the Nazis threatened them. Then, like Dreyfus, they became suspect, ‘other’. They suffered tragic loss – his sister experimented on and killed, his mother’s suicide – before his father escaped the country bringing him to England.

In every outward sense he goes to Berlin a middle class, public school educated Englishmen – but he is a Jew and Berlin helps him understand what this will always mean. He reflects:

‘After all, was he so English? How would they be remembered in London, he and his kind? As temporary residents among the many thousands who occupied furnished rooms in the big, hospitable metropolis? As one species among a host of refugees from every land of intolerance, a class apart, with a voice, a manner, a shrillness that belonged nowhere in the strictly stratified society of England? As something of a burden on the conscience of liberal socialists; too-many-of-the-chosen-people-in-the-professions to the strident housewives of the Conservative Association; white Negroes to the league of Empire Loyalists? The kind and sentimental might think of Daniel Deronda. The others, the enemy, of Shylock, or Eliot’s Jew squatting on the windowsill of the decayed civilisation he owns, or of Colleoni in Brighton Rock – The Tempter who looked like a man who owned the whole visible world, cash registers, police, prostitutes, Parliament, and law, and whose face was the face of any middle-aged Jew, the mythological Wanderer trapped, as they saw it, in the web of his own evil. Judas.

That’s how it was written into the civilisation of Europe. It was the classic Jewish dilemma. Once they offered you conversion, the forgiving embrace of an alien church; then the chimerical brotherhood of man. But all roads led to Auschwitz, to the Warsaw ghetto.

The truth, it said, is that you have been condemned to homelessness. Each generation passes onto the next its virus of insecurity. You learn the technique of survival, fearing ostentation as if it were a vice, censoring the act or gesture that may be pilloried as strangeness, observing yourself constantly through the eyes of an enemy. In a fortunate time a hundred years may pass and you will remain unmolested. You become incautious and show a coloured feather, a hand with six fingers, and another King arises to say: ‘Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we: Come let us deal wisely with him; lest they multiply…and join also unto our enemies.’ You who survive go out to the wilderness for 40 years, space of a generation, until a new, hard people advance upon another land of promise.’

The book was published in the late 50s and it’s been a long time since I have read such a clear expression of the experience of European Jews. Of the insecurity that is bred in the bone – the deep knowledge that achievement and wealth and even access to power will not protect (and may even harm) you, that neither assimilation or difference matters, that, sure as the sun rises and sets every day, when the wheel turns persecution will come again.

In this context Margaret Hodge was only saying what every European Jew must know in their bones.

For liberals now, even though we challenge Israel – and we must – we must not forget that this is also true, or that we, have been, are still, responsible for that turning of the wheel.

Lost Europeans

Frock Consciousness

Rosemary Hill entertains and informs in her lecture about women and clothes, Frock Consciousness. The phrase is Virginia Wolf’s who wrote:

‘My love of clothes interests me profoundly, only it is not love; and what it is I must discover.’

Hill reflects that this diary entry was written in the year that:

Woolf published Mrs Dalloway, which brought her to literary prominence; the previous year she had sat for her photograph in Vogue. For that she chose to wear a dress of her mother’s, which was too big for her and long out of fashion. To plant it in the most famous fashion magazine in Europe was to make a statement, however ambiguous. And the experience of the sitting prompted a further thought: ‘My present reflection is that people have any number of states of consciousness: & I should like to investigate the party consciousness, the frock consciousness etc. These states are very difficult … I’m always coming back to it … Still I cannot get at what I mean

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Hill adds,

I don’t suppose that I shall get at it either, but I will revolve the question again and apply the advantage of nearly a century of hindsight to the idea of frock consciousness, an idea that I think was not born but at least much heightened in that period between the world wars just as Woolf was trying to put her finger on it.

It’s fascinating. It answered questions a brother always puzzled about when he saw his sisters getting dressed (why on earth should girls’ buttons be on the opposite side?) and makes a case for the revolutionary importance of the pullover.

Worth reading in full here. The linked page contains a recording of the lecture, if you prefer to listen rather than read.

Frock Consciousness

The best ever courtship scene

“she pictures Mom in a gym suit. The gym suit is shiny and blue, and Mom’s feet move swiftly; she’s the star of the team. She can do a kick split and spin like a top. She’s so stunning that Dad can’t take his eyes of her. No way he’d ever get enough of watching a girl like that. Dad takes a running start, he takes a running start and streaks through the gym, his big hands stretching out before him. He wants to get over to where Mom is and he does. He comes within reach of the girl in the shining outfit. She looks like a kingfisher, he thinks, and kingfishers are rare. They screech as they fly through the air like arrow shafts, and Mom screeches too when Dad’s red hands grasp her about the waist. Then she sinks down; he is gravity itself. “You’ve got strong arms,” she tells him.”From Dorte Nors wonderful novel, Mirror, Shoulder, Signal


There’s a good review of it (and more about Dorte Nors) here

The best ever courtship scene

RIP Robert Pirsig

It’s hard to claim much sadness for the death of a person you never met and haven’t thought about for many years, but reading about Robert Pirsig’s death yesterday (at the grand age of 88) did give me pause.

I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in the mid seventies, not long after it came out. It thrilled me. I was completely caught up in Phaedrus’ inner journey, and although I still have no sense of the academic worth of the ideas Pirsig’s hero lives through – I’m no philosopher – they hit me like a bombshell.

I was 20 or so when I read it, trying to work out what to do with my life and what to make of the tail end of all that sixties idealism I’d grown up with.

ZAMM made sense to me. It seemed to express – in a more coherent and structured way than anything I had read before – the  spirit of those years.

Pirsig’s emphasis on quality, his challenge to the value-free subject/ object duality that was driving the materialism of western culture seemed – seems – essential. I never forgot it – it simply became part of the way I looked at the world.

That’s why, when I read the news last night, not having thought about him for many, many years, I raised my hat to him – in respect and thanks – and wished him well on his next road trip, perhaps – who knows – with his son Chris again.

RIP Robert Pirsig