Saturday, 8 September 2012

The Novels of Angela Carter: The 60s


I’ve set out to read all of Angela Carter’s novels this year, to mark the 20th anniversary since her death in 1992. The first five can be conveniently grouped together, since they were all written in the 1960s, and offer, in their own oblique and off-centre way, a reflection on the changes and upheavals of the decade. They are set beyond the glittering bubble of swinging sixties London (largely confined to the central half of the city, north of the river) in vaguely defined South London and Bristol locales which reflect aspects of Carter’s own life. She grew up in South London and moved to Bristol when she married. Regarding the sixties from a Westcountry city allowed her to view the rapidly self-mythologising nature of the decade with a little distance and perspective. Whilst the locales are identifiable, they are never specifically named, leaving them as generic anyplaces rather than realistic depictions of place and time. The 60s she explores is largely a country of the mind, the names of streets and buildings, rivers and parks a distraction, better left abstract and without a map to guide us. It was a time to get profitably lost and mark out new routes.

Shadow Dance (aka Honeybuzzard) was Carter’s first published novel, and the first in what Marc O’Day identified as her ‘Bristol trilogy’ in the Virago collection of essays on her work Flesh and the Mirror. It was published in 1966, but the first draft had been written in 1963/4 whilst Carter was studying medieval literature at the University of Bristol. It’s told from the point of view of Morris, a weak-willed and indecisive protagonist wholly in thrall to, and possibly in love with, his friend and business-partner Honeybuzzard (or Honey, as he knows him). Honey is a charismatic psychopath with whom Morris runs a junk shop, filled with the scavenged detritus of abandoned Victorian houses condemned to destruction in the face of council redevelopment schemes. Morris is married, but without any sense of connection with his dreamy pre-Raphaelite wife Edna, and he also lives in fear of a woman named Ghislaine, Honey’s old girlfriend. She has been assaulted and abused by Honey, with Morris possibly standing by as a stooge-like accomplice, and is left with a disfiguring knife-scar across her face. As she returns from a long stay in hospital, she takes on an aspect of almost supernatural terror for Morris, in spite of her doomed, self-annihilating passivity – a listless figure of death. The story views the carnival parade of the sixties and its magpie tendency to borrow from the lingering remnants of an imperial past through a dark, gothic eye, the colourful and playful theatrical props and costumes disguising a dark abyss into which Morris willingly follows Honey at the novel’s end, even though he knows it will lead to his damnation.

The Magic Toyshop, published in 1967, follows Melanie, its young female protagonist, from a comfortably middle-class country life to a dark and decaying Victorian house in South London, where she and her little sister and brother go to live with their Uncle Philip after their parents have died in a plane crash. Philip rules the household, which includes his mute Irish wife Margaret and her two brothers, Finn and Francie, like an iron dictator, inspiring fear and simmering hatred. The story, whilst remaining ostensibly realist in its telling, anticipates the fantastical and fairy tale tone of later work. Philip is a maker of old-fashioned toys and puppets, an artist-craftsman, and the shop in which his exquisite work is displayed and sold is an enchanted corner of the mundane world, even if the enchantment is a dark and malign one. Several Perceptions was written from March to December 1967 and published in 1968. The second in the ‘Bristol trilogy’, it features another aimless and weak male protagonist, Joseph. He makes a half-hearted and incompetently staged suicide attempt early on, and drifts along for the rest of the story, a restless dropout struggling with his self-consciously sustained angst about the state of the world and of his own life, and engaging in fractious and circular exhanges with his psychiatrist, his new neighbouring flat tenant Annie, and his best friend Viv. It all ends on a provisionally optimistic note with a great party in a sprawling Georgian house which gathers all the novel’s characters together for a Christmas eve’s night of revels, which brings about reunions, reconciliations and resolutions of a sort, at least for a short, magically suspended moment. There is an apparent miraculous curing of the lame (Annie’s limp), as if the world had temporarily shifted into a state of enchantment which defied the normal, relentless rules of iron severity. As such, it acts as a metaphor for the whole mythical aura which shimmers around the 60 era, lending it such a special glow.

Heroes and Villains, published in 1969, found Carter writing a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel. Her ruined England some years after the bomb has fallen is a significantly more brutal and savage place than the worlds depicted by that central figure of the English post-disaster novel John Wyndham in Day of the Triffids and The Chrysalids. It has more in common with novels like M.John Harrison’s The Committed Men and Keith Roberts’ The Chalk Giants, both of which had their origins in Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds magazine and its paperback successor New Worlds Quarterly. Carter’s novel partakes of the spirit of New Worlds, with its new wave emphasis on experiment in form and content, and its insistence on literary quality alongside the traditional generic virtues of startling ideas and imaginative sweep. It tells the story of the passage of the young female protagonist Marianne from the towers of the enclosed city of Professors and Soldiers in which she grows up, a safely ‘civilised’ but stagnant environment, to the unknown territory of the barbarian wilderness beyond its walls. Here, she half-willingly joins a wandering tribe, and is married to their leader Jewel, a man both primitive and educated, brutal and sentimentally tender. The novel’s journey takes us across a shattered landscape filled with the ruins of southern England (railway stations, country houses and seaside amusement parks) and populated with devolved mutant outcasts and savage wild beasts. Finally, we reach the sea, which marks both an ending and a moment of transition, with Marianne faced with the possibility of ascending to a position of power and authority within the tribe, or of retreating to another tower, a lighthouse on the clifftop.

Love was written in 1969 and revised in the Winter of 1970, and although it wasn’t published until 1971, it has a definite summary, end of the 60s feel. The third in the ‘Bristol trilogy’, it charts the trajectory of a disastrous love triangle, with the passive and suicidal Annabel coming to share the flat and lives of two unstable brothers, Lee and Buzz, as a matter of desultory happenstance. The ironically distanced and clinically analytical tone of the novel’s narrative voice mercilessly dissects the self-deceiving fictions of the main characters, laying bare their underlying motivations and emotionally stunted inner lives. There are a number of peripheral characters who look on with a mixture of pity, contempt and distaste as events move towards their inevitably tragic conclusion. It all amounts to a stringent anti-romance, and a critical look at the supposed sexual freedoms of the decade, and the way in which they could prove destructive as well as liberating. But essentially, the novel is an intensely claustrophobic story of three people retreating into the confined, enclosed space of a small flat, narrowing their existence to the circumscribed orbit of their own subworld, cut off from any wider reality. In this sense, it bears some resemblance to Jean Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles or Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived In The Castle. Carter would later revise the novel in 1987, making various changes and adding an afterword which followed the lives of the characters through the 70s and into the 80s. This is the only version now generally available.

An air of theatricality and artifice pervades all of these novels, which are peopled with characters whose lives are lived behind a series of masks and performed with mannered and self-consciously constructed gestures and poses. The opening sentence of the first novel, Shadow Dance, sets the tone: ‘The bar was a mock-up, a forgery, a fake’. It provides a stage for the entrance of Ghislaine, the spectre returned to haunt Morris’ angst-ridden world. Shadow Dance is filled with junk shop props, the ‘oddments, fragments, bits of this and that’ which are ‘the abandoned detritus of other people’s lives’, all of which serves as the backdrop for play and masquerade. Even the local café is turned into a music hall environment, with the old woman who works there singing the old songs to herself (‘she sang about how the boy she loved was up in the gallery’). The shop in The Magic Toyshop centres around a similarly theatrical environment, with its shelves full of wooden puppets, toys and masks. And in the basement there is an actual stage, upon which Uncle Philip makes his obsessively crafted, life-sized puppets dance through his little dramas, strange self-penned scenarios of warped innocence. The rituals and customs of Heroes and Villains have an invented and self-sustaining theatricality, with colourful costumes, feathers, jewellery and body decoration expressing a primitive dandyism and sense of tribal identity and status. The wedding of Marianne and Jewel is an elaborately staged affair, full of colour and drama designed to make a lasting impact and establish this new alliance at the heart of the tribal hierarchy. Wedding dresses themselves are treated as theatrical costumes, with a powerful associative symbolism which can threaten to overwhelm the wearer. In these novels, they have wholly negative connotations, being linked with death and the annihilation of the self. In The Magic Toyshop, Melanie puts on her mother’s dress and plays out a fairytale scene which swiftly descends into panic and fear as the night closes in around her and the surrounding woods hint at a dark world beyond the protective domestic glow. The dress is torn as she frantically climbs an apple tree (the source of forbidden self-knowledge) to try to get back into her room, and is left hanging from its branches overnight like a spectre caught in its grasp as it floated by. The following day she buries its tattered remains. She associates her desecration of the dress with the news she subsequently receives of her mother and father’s death in a plane crash, as if it has possessed some magically protective quality which had now been dispelled. In Heroes and Villains, the wedding dress which Marianne is forced to put on for her marriage to Jewel is a mouldy and timeworn relic, ‘musty and stale’ and with ‘shadows of mildew in every fold of the voluminous skirt’. Marianne finds it ‘horrible and disgusting…and probably full of germs too’, and it becomes ‘an image of terror’. After the wedding she burns it. In Love, Annabel puts on what she considers to be a wedding dress to stage the theatrically arranged tableau of her suicide, a bridal gown in which to meet death. Although ‘because her wedding dress was black, she chose a long, plain white dress of cotton with a square-cut neck and long, tight sleeves’. Her wedding in life was more of a deathly affair than this union with death, for which she seems more actively engaged.

The dominant male characters in the novels can often be found in harlequinesque costumes, a motley and jumbled assortment of bright rags. In Several Perceptions, Joseph is described by Mrs Boulder, his friend Viv’s mum, as ‘a real scarecrow dandy’. Of Beverley Kyte, or Kay as he’s more informally known (and he’s an informal sort), a colourful free spirit who turns up as a recurrent peripheral figure in Several Perceptions, it’s said that he ‘gave the appearance of being in costume, like a little superhero’. Jewel, the barbarian leader in Heroes and Villains, is a ‘beautiful savage’ who bedecks himself with ‘charms and amulets to keep away wild beasts, devils and sicknesses’. Lee and Buzz, the brothers in Love, ‘both appreciated they were exotics’, and cultivate an air of mystery and danger. ‘People rarely mentioned them separately but always as the Collins brothers, like bandits. They knew of, and encouraged, this practice’. Along with the harlequin’s bright ragamuffin wardrobe and gadfly stance, the male characters in these novels also wear masks, literal and figurative, in order to take their part in the daily carnival parade. Honey in Shadow Dance ‘liked to wear false noses, false ears and plastic vampire teeth’, disguises both confrontationally grotesque and deceptively innocent. The barbarians in Heroes and Villains colour and shade their faces into fearsome masks when they are preparing to go out on raids. Jewel recalls that ‘when I painted my face…I became the frightening thing myself’. Worn with sufficient conviction, the mask becomes the person, creating a self-willed possession. By the end of the novel, Jewel longs to become ‘tiger boy’, tattooed from head to toe and transformed into a savage wild animal whose humanity has been wholly subsumed. Lee’s counterfeit smile in Love becomes a practised expression, a well-rehearsed theatrical gesture which can be employed at will to win people over. We learn that ‘at a very early age, Lee discovered the manipulative power of his various smiles and soon learned to utilize them in order to smooth his passage through life’. He also has a sensitivity to light which results in his eyes watering at frequent intervals, tears which have no connection to any authentic emotional state, but which are interpreted as signs of sorrow, sadness or contrition – of some degree of self-reflection or depth, the presence of a soul or a heart. Names are also changed or assumed, different characters tried out and either discarded or added to the repertory cast of selves. When he travels to London, Honey calls himself Harrison Lowell. Buzz in Love names himself, as if he is trying to shrug off his Englishness and become an all-American action hero. As the name of the Apollo 11 astronaut who didn’t walk on the moon, it also expresses his sense of inferiority to his brother, something also reflected in his nickname for Lee, Alyosha – the most heroic and selfless of Dostoevsky’s three Brothers Karamazov. Lee himself was christened Michael and renamed Leon by the socialist aunt who brought him up, before he finally claimed his own name and identity. Names are assigned to others, too, to allusive or symbolic effect. Melanie in Heroes and Villains becomes both Lilith, Adam’s first wife in Jewish mythology, and subsequently demonised, Miranda from The Tempest and ‘our lady of the wilderness – the virgin of the swamp’. The latter echoes the ‘Queen of the wasteland’ honorific bestowed on the statue of Victoria in the overgrown parkland of the National Exposition of 1852. This is clearly a version of Crystal Palace park, the neglected grounds (in 1967, at least) of the 1851 National Exhibition building (the crystal palace itself) which had been moved there from its original Hyde Park site.

All of these masks and theatrical guises are also an expression of what Carter herself described as an act of male impersonation, a more or less unconscious decision to start out attempting to write from a male perspective, which somehow also manages to retain a woman’s viewpoint – a double drag act, as Marina Warner calls it. The idea of dressing up and playing roles also has a childish dimension, with all childhood’s attendant cruelties and insecurities. This is evident in Honey’s tantrum when he loses the game of chess he is playing with Morris; in the game of heroes and villains (police vs barbarians) which the children play in the post-apocalyptic urban enclaves, and which Marianne opts out of – games which are effectively extended into adulthood; in the toys to which Philip and to a lesser extent Finn dedicate themselves in The Magic Toyshop; in Joseph’s sudden childish whims in Several Perceptions – setting the badger free from the zoo and sending a turd to LBJ as a response to the continued American bombing of Vietnam; in the adolescent exchanges of Joseph and Lee with their psychiatrists, who stand in as surrogate parents (Joseph’s telling him he’s ‘a bad actor’); and in Lee’s attraction to one of his school pupils, who ends up seeming the more mature of the two. In Heroes and Villains, Mrs Green, the mother figure, says of the barbarians that ‘they like bright colours…they’re like kids’. This infantile or adolescent quality evokes the childlike aspect of the 60s, with the barbarians appearing like a hippy gypsy tribe who’ve got themselves back to the country. But Carter undermines the innocence to which the young generation laid claim, revealing a darker, more alienated and directionless core. Whilst she by no means rejected 60s values, she doesn’t buy into the back to the nursery regression. For her young pre-adolescent girl protagonists, Melanie and Marianne, the imperative is to grow up. If they don’t, they end up like Ghislaine or Annabel, passive living dolls abused by the vicious children which surround them.

The idea of life as a performance, or as an edifice constantly in the process of being built (and knocked down again) from a varied assortment of cultural components, is furthered by the range of literary and cinematic references scattered throughout, with analogies often drawn by the characters themselves. The film parallels are suggestive of a reality subsumed by the artfully edited world viewed on the big screen which is then absorbed into the perceptions of the everyday, providing a readymade modern mythological interpretation of events. In Several Perceptions, Joseph first sees Annie at an odd angle from his sick bed, a viewpoint from which she is ‘melodramatically foreshortened, like a portentous shot from a German expressionist film’. Later, a young woman who puts on a histrionic display of dramatics in the local pub is described as a ‘cut price Magnani’ (a reference to Italian actress Anna Magnani, star of films such as Pasolini’s Mamma Roma and Rossellini’s Rome Open City, as well as one of the temptresses trying to lead Pete and Dud astray in the famous ‘bleedin’ Greta Garbo’ sketch). In the Magic Toyshop, Melanie’s discovery of a severed hand in the drawer is likened to ‘a still from a Hammer film’, the cinematic simile perhaps an admission of its unreality. When she is in the overgrown ruins of the National Exposition park with Finn, she dissociates herself from the tension of the moment in which they embrace by thinking that ‘they must look very striking, like a shot from a new-wave British film’. The original version of Love (which I haven’t read) was apparently filled with film references which Carter subsequently excised. Lee and Annabel’s wedding is still said to be ‘more Rene Clair than Antonioni’, however, as if it didn’t have enough substantial character to be directly described in its own terms.

Edgar Allan Poe - a presiding presence
Edgar Allan Poe is the presiding literary spirit, and is emblematic of the gothic undertones of all the novels. Honey, sporting a new waistcoat, is described as looking like a character from The Fall of the House of Usher. The crumbling Victorian house in which the terrible denouement of the story, with its descent into murder and madness, takes place could also be seen as a modern day equivalent of Roderick Usher’s cracked, doomladen manse. Ghislaine, wearing her black hat and coat towards the end as she stumbles half-knowingly towards her grim fate, is one of Poe’s revenant women, arousing terror whenever she appears, exuding the damp odour of grave dirt. Poe also sets the autumnal atmosphere in The Magic Toyshop, in which ‘the nights drew in earlier and earlier, clothed in sinister cloaks of mist like characters by Edgar Allan Poe’. Joseph quotes lines from Poe’s poem Eldorado in Several Perceptions whilst he’s in bed with Mrs Boulder, a poem about aging, the waste of a life spent in pursuit of tantalising mirages, and the incipient approach of death: ‘Over the mountains of the moon, through the valley of the shadow, ride, boldly, ride’, he cites. It’s a rather morbid sentiment to bring up in a post-coital moment with a woman considerably older than him, full of the cruel insensitivity and arrogance of youth, but perhaps it sums up the disappointment of their lacklustre lovemaking (Joseph’s problem as much as Mrs B’s). Joseph goes on to recall ‘I used to be very fond of Edgar Allan Poe…I thought he knew the score’, pretending to a world-weary wisdom which he has yet to earn. Later, at the party, he displays his affected pessimism once more, asking Annie ‘who do you think has come along as the Red Death?’ He’s making his Poe-literate reference to the story The Masque of the Red Death in which a personification of the plague crashes a masqued ball, systematically infecting the noble guests who have shut themselves away to avoid its depredations, assuming that their privileged status will protect them. In Love, Poe is encoded into the very names of the doomed lovers, Annabel and Lee, a reference to Annabel Lee, his love poem to a corpse in which the haunted lover dreams of lying down by the side ‘of my darling, my darling, my life and my bride,/In the sepulchre there by the sea,/In her tomb by the sounding sea’. The tower in the park becomes a gothic locale to which both Annabel (who ‘preferred the Gothic north’) and Lee are drawn at the beginning and end of the novel respectively, Lee collapsing on the bench in front of what has now become the Fool’s Tower from the tarot. They are linked by a certain shared sensibility which is suggested by the natural connectivity of their names. During their estrangement, Lee thinks he glimpses his brother Buzz appearing as ‘a gaunt figure…folded in the wings of a black cape like Poe’s raven named Nevermore’. Poe’s influence can also be detected in the necrophile atmosphere which infuses the novels. Both Shadow Dance and Love end with carefully and aesthetically staged deaths. There’s Honey’s creation of the grisly tableau in which Ghislaine’s murdered body is ceremonially laid out on the table, candles blazing around her; and Annabel’s careful preparation of her own perfect bedroom sepulchre, with her corpse as the central object laid out for display. Both of them attain the eternal status of the haunting dead women in Poe’s stories and poems – the lost Lenore, Madeline in The Fall of the House of Usher, Ligeia, Berenice, Morella and Annabel Lee herself.

Women also take on a lamia aspect, the belle dame sans merci, leading men to their doom. Even in their blank passivity, they are objects of fear, inspiring a cowering, cringing terror. Morris is terrified of Ghislaine, describing her in gothic horror terms as ‘the fiend woman from the monster magazines’ and indulging in grim fantasies in which her head is turned into a carved out turnip lantern. Emily, the woman who comes back with Honey from London, also appears mysterious to Morris in her cool self-possession and measured regard, and is referred to as being ‘witch-like’. Joseph in Several Perceptions demonises his old girlfriend Charlotte, recasting her as ‘which woman. Incubus’. In Heroes and Villains, Marianne is viewed with fear by the barbarians as a creature possessed of supernatural power after she has seemingly risen from the dead, recovering from a poisonous snake bite (another powerful Poe revenant). They make the sign of the evil eye to protect themselves against her imagined curses (we later learn that this is in fact the sign of the cross). Although he brutalises her and seemingly subjugates her, it becomes clear that Jewel is under her spell and also fears her. She is destined to bring about his fall from power and eventual death, a fate of which he is fully aware but lacks the will or desire to evade.

Millais' Ophelia
If Poe sets the gothic pitch of the novels, then allusions to pre-Raphaelite art put forward a certain ideal of feminine beauty and propriety – a pale fragility which contains within it an inherently propensity towards the tragic. In Shadow Dance, Morris’ wife Edna is described as looking like Janey Morris posing as Guinnevere in William Morris’ painting. Morris (named after William?) later tells Honey, who has bedecked himself with jewellery found in one of the houses they are scavenging through, ‘you look like an illustration to Goblin Market’ (Christina Rossetti’s narrative poem to which her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti provided a pictorial accompaniment). Melanie has her pre-Raphaelite reveries in The Magic Toyshop, too. At the beginning of the novel we find her looking at herself in the wardrobe mirror, ‘posed in attitudes, holding things. Pre-Raphaelite, she combed out her long, black hair to stream straight down from a centre parting and thoughtfully regarded herself as she held a tiger-lily from the garden under her chin, her knees pressed close together’. She also tries out a Toulouse Lautrec pose to provide a sluttish, wicked contrast. Millais’ Ophelia painting provides the necrophile alternative from Victorian Britain to Poe’s dead gothic sirens. Annabel in Love is compared to her. Lee buys her ‘a print of Millais’ Ophelia in a second-hand shop because Annabel often wore the same expression and she seemed surprised and contented enough with that, though she bore him a concealed grudge’. She resents being aligned with such an icon of passive self-negation, perhaps because it arouses an awareness of her own nature. When she lays down on her bed to commit suicide at the end of the novel, it seems like a semi-conscious act of homage. In Several Perceptions, Joseph does his own Ophelia impression, laying down in the pond below the tower in Brandon Hill park. As he lies there, trying to stop shivering in order to maintain the aesthetic stillness of the painted scene, ‘his hair floated out on the water like that of drowned Ophelia’, precisely the effect he is going for. Other artists are also added to the eclectic jumble of sixties’ favourites. The plastic buttonhole rose from which an ‘obscene, ridged, pink, tactile rubber worm leaped out, quivered momentarily, and then sank back into the crimson nest of plastic petals’, seems to refer to Blake’s illustrated poem The Sick Rose from the Songs of Experience. Finn’s vengeful painting in The Magic Toyshop, which visualises the extreme tortures of hell for Philip, draws on Hieronymous Bosch. Annabel’s favourite artist at college is Max Ernst. And the scene near the end of Heroes and Villains in which Lee sleeps on the beach and is investigated by a curious lion could be illustrated by Rousseau’s painting The Sleeping Gypsy (minus the lute and vase).

Henri Rousseau - The Sleeping Gypsy
Fairy tales are another important element in all of the stories, anticipating the stories for which Carter would become best known in the 80s. The Magic Toyshop is the most thoroughly steeped in such allusions and images, and is the most recognisably Carteresque of these early novels (and therefore the one most often reprinted). Several references are made to Philip’s house as being like Bluebeard’s Castle, with another reference to its folk tale variant, Mr Fox’s manor house. The puppets hanging from the walls in his basement workshop and theatre room are the limp and lifeless equivalents of the murdered bodies strung up by the bloody duke. In Shadow Dance, too, Emily, the woman who comes up from London with Honey, likens the studio where Morris hides his paintings to Bluebeard’s chamber, the secret male room in which their carefully guarded heart is locked away. The severed hand which Melanie finds in the kitchen drawer in The Magic Toyshop, probably as no more than a mental projection of these fairy tale analogies, causes her to exclaim ‘I’m going out of my mind…Bluebeard was here’. Although it could equally be Mr Fox, the crafty charmer from the folk tale whose potential new conquest finds a severed hand in his house and realises that it would be wise to leave promptly. The folk-rock group Mr Fox recorded an eponymous song which powerfully tells the tale. The tale of another predatory shapeshifter is also alluded to when Melanie tells Finn, who has just destroyed one of his treasured puppets, that Philip’s false teeth are not in his bathroom glass, an indication that they are in this mouth and that he is up and about somewhere in the house. ‘All the better to eat me with’, remarks Finn, the perennial object of Philip’s violence, who’s really for it now.

Heroes and Villains with Grunewald cover
The fairytale elements are also reflected in the monstrous, grotesque mother and father figures found in the novels. This is most evident in The Magic Toyshop, whose confined world is dominated by the ogreish father figure of Uncle Philip. He casts a heavy and fearful shadow over the house even though he is frequently absent, labouring away in his basement underworld. He is Bluebeard and ‘the Beast of the Apocalypse’. The father figure in Heroes and Villains is Donally, the self-appointed head of the tribe who contrives an imposing, ritualistic image with his cloak, bird mask, paint and feathers, and who invents a phallic snake cult (complete with fake snake) over which he presides as head priest, investing himself with illusionistic power. Jewel is his adopted son and heir, and also his pet, whom he half educates. He makes sure he remains ‘beautifully savage’, however, in case he should follow the classic mythological pattern and kill the father to absorb his power. Heroes and Villains also has its mother figure in Mrs Green, a wise woman who loves her adopted boys (she comes from the Professor’s cities too) but can see through their self-deceiving bravado. In Several Perceptions, Viv’s mum Mrs Boulder, whom Joseph ends up going to bed with, is a grotesque mother figure, an aging prostitute with a ‘Martello tower of hair’. Mrs Kyte, Beverley’s mum, has retreated into her ‘great Georgian palace’ of a home, never leaving her bedroom, from which she is able to perpetually restage the time when she was ‘a footlight favourite of the 30s’. Parental figure are significantly absent in Shadow Dance and Love, with the older generation represented in the form of the café waitress whom Morris refers to as a Struldbrug, the immortal race in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels who have devolved into an existence of misery and dejection. In fact, she’s a cheerful soul who is kind and considerate to Morris, a character who doesn’t strike one as being inherently likeable, and who offers him a respite from the nagging angst of his daily life, and the agonies caused by his supposed friends. If anyone is a Stuldbrug, albeit a premature one, it is Morris. In Love, we learn that Lee and Buzz’s mother had an operatic breakdown on Empire Day, ‘stripping off her clothes and screaming to the morning ‘I am the whore of Babylon’’. They were subsequently brought up by their aunt, a radical socialist and canteen worker, in South London. She is an alternative mother figure, a strong role model who ‘worked her unsentimental and strong fingers to the bone to support the two boys and inculcated in them a sense of pride and a certain critical severity’. She did her best, but it was all in vain. Her absence (she dies of cancer before the novel’s narrative period begins) goes a long way to explaining their wild and self-destructive behaviour.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Volkhardt Müller’s Any High Street at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter

Volkhardt Müller’s exhibition Any High Street at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter is a mix of old and new work. Of the latter actually, some has actually been created in the gallery, in a small enclosed workshop corner fenced off to the public but completely open to close view. The old works include Cell from 2009 and a filmed record of his Pastoral from the same year, and same project. Both are derived from prison holding cells once housed within the old Georgian Exeter Crown Court buildings within the Norman walls of Rougemont Castle. The Court, its original structure built in 1774, was closed in 2003, and Müller was given permission to use two of the old cells for his art installations before they were, eventually, converted into toilets. Cell reproduces the surface of the walls of one of the cells, which were essentially used as ready made, in situ printing blocks. Their markings and indentations, whether made by human agency or by the steady erosion of time, were imprinted onto delicate Japanese paper. The resulting prints were hung from a frame in order to reproduce the approximate dimensions of the cell. These new and insubstantial walls are fragile and translucent, lit from within by a pendant strip light. You can see the frayed fibres of the paper around the edges of the doorless entrance and at the angles of the room’s corners, where the walls don’t quite meet, leaving cracks of empty space which merely imply a continuity in the imprisoning structure. The whole is suspended airily a few feet off the floor, lending it a feel of floating weightlessness. The loosely tethered paper wafts and wavers gently in the lightest of drafts or air-conditioned exhalations. It is more like a monastic cell, its elevated position and its transparency, which verges on immateriality, symbolic of a spiritually enlightened state.

Such a pious impression is immediately belied by a closer inspection of the graffiti printed onto the paper from the walls, all testament to an adherence to a latterday outlaw mythology. ‘Fuck da Law’ stands as a basic statement of position which, though anonymously carved, could be the motto of any or all of the others who have marked their brief transition through the Court holding cells in necessarily truncated form (a matter of time and the crudeness of the tools available). These include: Clinton ov Brum, who seems happy at the outcome of his trial (Exp 4 Got 2½); Billy P ov Xmuff 6/3/08 (from just down the estuary in Exmouth, a local bad boy); Maggot Faggot ov PSV (not Eindhoven, surely); Charlie ov Truro 2002 7 yrs “A Truro Psycho to the Max” (the quotation marks presumably indicating that this is the manner in which he would like others to see and refer to him); and Simo, who ‘waz ere on tour once more 97/98’. Someone else pledges allegiance to WHU (that’s West Ham United), with their fascistic crossed hammers symbol etched above. Doyl, meanwhile, takes a more aesthetic approach and is rather more painstaking in his execution, the elaborate curved and trailing tails of his D and Y finished off with outlined arrows and the whole etched with a sure hand and sense of graphic design. These graffiti, with their offhand bravado and defiant sense of pride in outlaw status, were clearly originally carved out with fairly crude tools – whatever was close to hand – and as a result have a jagged violence which conveys a sense of angry young men trying to fight their way out of confined lives. They are recorded here on fragile, delicate art paper, which such fiercely wielded tools would have torn through. This lends the writing an oddly delicate character, an aestheticisation of violence and macho f off attitude. The ease with which the inmates could punch and kick through these diaphanous walls suggests that this is a prison cell of the mind, whose confines are not so easily breached.

For the second cell which he used, Müller etched a pastoral scene in the manner of an 18th century etching onto the walls, his far from precision tool a screwdriver. This scene draws on a nearby Georgian house, depicted here with surrounding trees and parkland and a small white bridge across which a figure strolls, dogs in tow. The scene, carved onto three sides of the cell, offers a panoramic escape from the cramped greystoned prison space - a landscape of the imagination to retreat into. It reflects the historic origins of the Court buildings, and also offers an ironic contrast between old ideas of aristocratic, landowning wealth and the mainly lower class status of the men who have passed through the cell. The figure taking his constitutional in the perfectly proportioned grounds would far more likely be the judge. For this exhibition, the three walls have been reproduced via a projected collage of filmed sections in a work entitled Pastoral II. We see one wall for a period of time before the next replaces it. The projection, formed of different ‘tiles’, square sections filmed with a hand-held camera, fit together to create the whole picture. The wavering, slightly woozy nature of the resulting image creates the impression of a provisional landscape, transitory and subject to change and dissolution. The tiles are like the elements of a theatrical backdrop, which can be taken down and packed away at short notice. If this is a landscape of the mind, a retreat into a fantasy of an easeful, bucolic past, then it only takes the rattling of a set of keys, the clank of a metallic door and a call to court to dispel it instantly. It never wholly succeeds in erasing the present, either. Look closely and you can see the graffitied names of previous inmates inscribed behind the tremulous clouds.

The original Pastoral cell
Opposite the Pastoral II projection, an array of colourful yellow plastic children’s TV toys are affixed to the wall like so many identical lunchboxes. These are the kind of old-fashioned (the 70s now warranting such a term, I suppose) mechanical wind-up devices which unspooled a picture loop whose unwinding images, illuminated from behind, were accompanied by a jauntily jingling music box tune of the Row Row Row Your Boat variety. Thhe offered the simple, repetitive pleasures of the pre-digital age and they were, in their time, enough. The sunny promise of these picture boxes, which the visitor is encouraged to play with, fails to correspond with the drab, black and white reality of the scenes depicted within their bright frame. Müller has provided his own paper spools, strips printed off in thickly outlined black ink from woodblocks. They depict scenes of stasis, stagnation and inactivity, the pauses and the waiting moments in life, presented as if they are in fact its major components. The motion of the winding strip merely accentuates the unchanging and repetitive nature of the different scenarios. In the little side window to the right of the main screen, Müller has inserted printed titles which supply an ironic or caustic commentary on the unfolding tableaux. So a parade of indistinguishable terraced house facades is called Progression; Weary old folks hunching down at bus stops are Regulars (referring neither to the frequency of the buses or to pub habitués); A roped-off queue of shivering, ill-clad women waiting to get into a club is Heaven; Staggering post-clubbers are having Low Larks; Shoppers bent under the weight of their bags or talking into their mobiles, none of them looking at each other, labour under the prescriptive title Fun; A row of cash-point with attendant withdrawers is headed Divine Wind (the translation of the Japanese kamikaze), a line-up willing rushing towards self-immolation; A traffic jam has the title Corso, perhaps a reference to beat poet Gregory and the movement’s valorisation of the open road; And the endless expanse of a fast-food counter is simply Limbo. There’s also an edgeland landscape of abandoned petrol stations, empty, weed-cracked sites and aging for sale signs. The tunes which the boxes play are cheery enough. But they are set at different speeds so that, as they are played (and people inevitably move from one to another, so that the tunes are overlaid to Steve Reich phase-shifting effect) there is a feeling of winding down, of the gradual leeching away of energy. This sense of entropic decline is built into the very nature of the exhibit. As time goes by, the small boxes are wound and wound until they wind no more, and one by one they fall silent, the light inside extinguished. Behind the optimistic banana yellow plastic casing it all provides a rather melancholic reflection on social and personal stagnation and decline, dissipation and eventual disappearance. The bright promise of childhood fades away.

The central work of the exhibition is a triptych of new, large scale woodcuts which depict three times of day in three different parts of Exeter High Street: Morning, Afternoon and Night. This has been a work in progress, created during Müller’s residency at the museum. Visitors in the early days were greeted with three large and disappointingly blank spaces on the wall, their empty white rectangular windows waiting expectantly to be filled. Rather than put up prints taken from the woodblocks he carved and chiselled, however, Müller has put up the wooden plates themselves. Or two of them, at least, the third laid flat in the workshop area, ready for prints to be made from it. From these three blocks he has created prints which extract selected squared-off segments or plates – thus relating it to the Pastoral II projection. It offers a similar sense of a constructed, modular landscape (or cityscape) which can be packed up and rearranged according to the demands of social and economic trends. This selective printing also creates contrasting areas on the wooden blocks, with geometrical patterns of darkness chequered across the brown grain. The printed off segments hang up on a rack in the workshop corner and can apparently be purchased for a small sum. The promise of specially commissioned works given in the museum brochure offers an illusion of choice since most of these prints are identical, and the range of images which have been copied limited. It seems like a symbolic gesture. The virtually identical reproduction of a particular detail of the larger composition – a shop sign or a discarded Coke can – is possibly intended as a comment on the identikit nature of many town and city centres, and a reminder of Exeter’s shameful topping of a league of clone towns (places with high streets comprising a high proportion of chain stores) in a survey carried out a couple of years ago.

The artist with the Day woodblock
The pictures themselves take the bleak and run down vignettes of the yellow cases and blow them up into large scale tableaux of weariness, anomie and incipient violence. There might appear to be an element of condescension or patronisation in this relentlessly downbeat view. Part of me thought ‘oi, this is my flipppin city you’re painting as some soulless limbo or Dantean circle of Hell’. But the pieces fall under the title Any High Street, so the actual locale could be said to be more symbolic than particular, a stage upon which to arrange universal dramas. Müller offers an outsider’s view, having grown up in Swabia in South West Germany, although he’s been here ten years or so now, so has probably got used to our ways. He has been on hand at the museum on several days to answer any criticisms from irate or bemused citizens who completely fail to recognise the city which they inhabit. On the wall opposite the triptych a film is projected, a survey of the central axis of the city taken by Müller as he cycled up and down Fore Street, High Street and Sidwell Street. At various times during the exhibition this depicts either morning, afternoon or night, thus reflecting the works displayed opposite. It serves as a corrective to their distorted or heightened realism, and shows that Exeter is, after all, a fairly ordinary city, and not a German expressionist film set. The films also present incontrovertible evidence that he was cycling on the pavement, but perhaps he was granted special artistic license.

There’s a certain repetitive circularity to the pictures, which suggests that this is a sequence which could be repeated, with little variance, over and over again. This links it with the yellow TV case installation, with its repeating loops. Morning, set in the lower part of the High Street, is littered with the detritus of the night before. The Stead and Simpson and Ann Summers shopfronts prominently display 50% and 75% off signs, indicators of deep recession, as are the two homeless people sleeping in the doorway of Ann Summers. They lie beneath two models which offer the allure and promise of the night, but which look a little out of place in the blinking morning light. Afternoon looks at lower Sidwell Street through the transparent screen of the bus shelter. The hunched figures of two old folk squat uncomfortably on the minimalist bench, another standing wearily waiting beside them. A younger woman leans against the advertising hoarding, completely separated off from them by a pillar and the frame of the shelter, and by the fact their her attention is wholly directed towards the screen of her mobile. The sign for the Hospicecare shop over the road is a reminder of mortality. On the pavement, in the street and standing sentinel on the roofs, crows, pigeons and gulls pick over rubbish and discarded fast food containers. At Night, the tableau becomes ominous and threatening, even a little demonic. A group of men are gathered around a small, almost childlike female figure. She is faceless and featureless, naked like an unclothed shop window dummy (from Ann Summers?) Her stance speaks of panic and fear, and a frozen inability to spring into action. The men move to surround her, and tower over her so that she appears to shrink in the shadow of their menacing presence. Something terrible is clearly about to happen. On the other side of the street, a woman stands under a partially obscured shop sign which reads ‘Go’. Her legs are set at crooked angles, her arms flop limply at either side, and her shoulder seems weighed down by the bag hanging from it. She has an open-mouthed gape of weary vacancy, and a brow furrowed with worry and care. To her left, a round-headed bin opens a wide and devouring maw, looking like a ravening robot about to swallow her up. Pools of illumination from overhead streetlights spotlight the pavements as if they were a theatrical stage. Which, in a way, they are. Müller is using the high street – it could be any high street, but it happens to be in Exeter – as a set for his own expressionist dramas. These pictures seek to project the dark subconscious of the consumer society of which the High Street (or its adjunct malls) is the locus. At the lower borders of Night, an oily, oleaginous shadow is oozing up on the prowling group, its fringed edges suggesting sentient feelers. Perhaps it stands in for a spilt pool of printer’s ink. But once it has spread, all will be engulfed in impenetrable darkness.