In the Critics this week

John Burnside celebrates chance encounters with animals, Ray Monk looks at Wittgenstein, Alice Gribbin interviews John Banville and John Gray reviews Rowan Williams's ventures beyond the wardrobe door.

The Critics section of this week's New Statesman opens with John Burnside's ode to animal encounters, “of the fleeting, gorgeous exchange of a look” that is "an occasion of quiet, if short-lived joy." He laments that “real animals, wild animals, have all but passed from our lives.” “There is so little of the wild in us.” This is tragic because as “Paul Shepard has said … I suspect the greater loss is of another kind – the way a local fauna links the concept of self and the uniqueness of place in different cultures. The loss of non-human diversity erases nuances in identity. We are coarsened by the loss of animals.’”  In Burnside’s opinion this coarsening means that “Nature poetry has become more urgent than ever,” praising in particular William Stafford’s “laconic and unsettling” Travelling through the dark, which asone of the most beautifully dramatised moments in modern poetry, creates a scene in which the only live thing seems to be the car engine, and the man.”

The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;

Under the hood purred the steady engine.

I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red.

A similar outlook can be found in Rowan Williams’s The Lion’s World: a Journey into Narnia. As John Gray writes in his review, “Williams argues that theism can counteract a narrowly anthropocentric viewpoint. Pointing to the central role of animals in [C S Lewis's] Narnia [novels]”. “‘The passionate campaign against nature itself is typical of the most toxic kinds of modernity’ – in which human beings are set apart from all other creatures, then invested with the special rationality needed to subjugate and remodel the world.” Williams's book is a “concise, pellucid, richly thoughtful study [which] can be read with profit and enjoyment by anyone, whatever their beliefs or lack of belief, who is interested in fundamental questions about the places of humankind in the scheme of things.” Gray is uncertain of the relevance the book’s epigraph, which echoes Wittgenstein’s aphorism “'Whereof one cannot speak, thereof on must be silent’… a maxim that has attracted a good deal of criticism … it has never been entirely clear what the gnomic philosopher meant.”

Serendipitous, then, that Ray Monk has the answer to this exact question. “Wittgenstein made clear in private conversation and correspondence, he believed those things about which we have to be silent to be the most important.” “For Wittgenstein, to think, to understand, was first and foremost to picture” and “not everything we can see and therefore not everything we can mentally grasp can be put into words.” Monk explains that is why Wittgenstein puzzlingly referred to himself as a disciple of Freud. Furthermore, he sees these strands of thought as embodied evocatively in a recent exhibition, Wittgenstein: Philosophy and Photography. “The exhibition began with its most intriguing item: a composite  photograph made up of four portraits or Wittgenstein and his three sisters. At first, it looks like a picture of a single person … enabling one to see directly the very strong family resemblances that existed between these four siblings.” Monk emphasizes that this notion of ‘family resemblances’ “is cruical to Wittgenstein's later philosophy”.

Alison Gribbin's interview with John Banville on Ancient Light, his latest novel about a 12-year-old who has an affair with his best friend’s mother, also has some philosophical and Freudian moments. Banville tells Gribbin: "The older I get, the more I realise writing is a process of dreaming… we like to imagine we’re in control, but actually we’re not. I think I’m less the writer than I’m the written.” He also clarified the assertion he made on Radio 4 that "writing sex into a novel is impossible" by saying that “the act is wonderful but writing about it is terrible … The erotic always tends to affection, love or negative things. You can’t write about fantasy without being ridiculous. I would love to write a pornographic book- I think it’s a great challenge.” Watch out E L James! Considering the inherent eroticism of the subject matter, combined with the strong first-person voice, Gribbin asks Banville if we are supposed to long for the interiority of the mother. He replies that “the point of Mrs Grey is that she lives on the surface.” “Nietzsche says: on the surface, that’s where the real depth is. It’s true. All a work of art can do is present the surface. I can’t know the insides of people.”

One might imagine then that Banville would be as enthused as Ryan Gilbey about a moment in the film Take This Waltz, in which a husband “gazes through the window at Magot [his wife] – her lips mouthing the words to a song that he cannot hear, her head moving to a rhythm that is inaccessible to him and likely always will be.” Gilbey, however, was less enamoured of the movie as a whole, arguing that actress Michelle Williams is "sometimes all that separates Take This Waltz from Amelie.”

Last, but not least, Brian Dillon reviews Will Self’s latest, and Man Booker-longlisted, novel Umbrella, about the Encephalitis lethargica epidemic, which sucked “victims into somnolence, torpor and coma." "The patients had not merely spun down into slow-mo; they had been seized first with a variety of tics and tremors, clawing motions and darting eye movements. In this sense, as Will Self discerns, theirs was a suitably modern, even modernist, affliction.” As such “Umbrella is as much a novel about the historical slump of modernist fiction – and its potential reanimation – as it is about the fates of encephalics.” “Yet Umbrella is not exactly a pastiche of modernist styles, nor… an effort to recharge those modes at one century’s remove… its relationship with modernism is as much a matter of historical allegory as structural or textual affinity.” “All of which suggests that Umbrella is a complexly textured, conceptually forbidding thesis about the modern, its art and their discontents. This being Self, though, there is also a great deal of humour.”   

Author John Banville, interviewed in this week's New Statesman (Photograph: Getty)
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The stuff of life: how A S Byatt intertwined the lives of William Morris and Mariano Fortuny

In Peacock & Vine, Byatt has turned works of art and their shade, texture, patina and heft into words.

How to evoke a colour in words? It is a task of daunting simplicity which A S Byatt attempts in her essay on the artist-designers William Morris and Mariano Fortuny. A Fortuny dress in pleated silk embellished with gold pomegranates is, she writes, “a colour somewhere between dark pink and pale red . . . a shining rose crossed with rust”. She adds, “no one reading what I have written will imagine the colour very well, or at all”. An adjacent photograph of the dress shows that “rose crossed with rust” is a fine description of its luscious and evasive colour – though it is also true that the words will conjure a slightly different tone in the mind of every reader, and none of those imagined russets will be exactly that of the dress.

Still, if anyone can turn words into shade, texture, patina, heft, it is Byatt. Her fictions swarm with physical objects of intense emotional potency and with characters whose lives they touch in strange and unexpected ways. Byatt herself, she writes in her introduction, has “always admired those whose lives and arts are indistinguishable from each other. And as I grow older I become more and more interested in craftsmen – glass-blowers, potters, makers of textiles.” Her own ancestors, she remarks, were Staffordshire potters.

On a first visit to the Palazzo Fortuny in Venice, Byatt found herself unexpectedly thinking about William Morris, whose work she knew well. “I was using Morris . . . to understand Fortuny. I was using Fortuny to reimagine Morris. Aquamarine, gold green. English meadows, Venetian canals.”

The two men were born four decades apart: Morris in 1834 in Walthamstow, Essex, to “a family with no aesthetic interests”, Fortuny in Granada in 1871, to an aristocratic family of artists and collectors. Each led a life of intense, multifarious ­creativity in surroundings where no distinction was made between domesticity and professional work. Morris designed houses, gardens, furniture, stained glass, tapestries, textiles, wallpaper, books and typefaces. Fortuny was a painter, photographer, theatre designer and inventor whose innovations included a system of electrical stage lighting that revolutionised the staging of Wagner’s operas.

Both he and Morris came late to textile design, but it is perhaps for this that each is now best known. In 1907, after reading a book by the archaeologist Arthur Evans, who excavated the Minoan palace at Knossos, Fortuny designed his first purely fashion creation, the Knossos scarf, incorporating Minoan imagery. In 1909 he patented his Delphos design for a pleated sheath dress in the Grecian style. The dresses were made of fine silk, dyed with vegetable dyes, hand-pleated using a technique that remains a mystery and held together with Murano glass beads. They turned the female body, of any size or shape, into a graceful column, and they were both elegant and extremely comfortable – though not, Byatt thinks, “sexy, either in 1910 or now”.

Fortuny saw his creations as works of art, and they were worn by women of highly evolved aesthetic sensibility: the dancer Isadora Duncan, the art collector Peggy Guggenheim. Byatt notes that Kay, the protagonist of Mary McCarthy’s novel The Group, was buried in a Fortuny dress. She was not the only fictional character to wear Fortuny: his designs are a potent presence in Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. Of all the dresses owned by the narrator’s lover, Albertine, a Fortuny in blue and gold, lined in Tiepolo pink, is her favourite; when she leaves him, she takes with her only a dark blue Fortuny cloak.

In his lifetime, Morris was almost better known for his writing than for his designs. His literary output was as prodigious as his craft: a book about his journeys to Iceland; News from Nowhere, a pastoral utopian fantasy; translations of Icelandic epics and of a 16th-century Venetian book on the art of dyeing; an epic poem, “The Earthly Paradise” (vastly popular in his lifetime, but now almost unreadable, Byatt says: “The rhythms hack and bang”); as well as books and essays on art and design.

Pattern, Morris wrote in his 1881 lecture “Some Hints on Pattern Designing”, must possess “beauty, imagination and order”. It is here, in the tension between imagination and order, that Byatt finds the connections between her heroes that illuminate the work of each. In chapters on motifs that both men loved – pomegranates and birds – she explores the multitudinous ways in which they used them; the exhilarating collisions of naturalism and abstraction, the audacious juxtapositions of simplicity and complexity.

In considering this, she considers, too, the acts of making and looking. Both of her subjects, she says, were “obsessive workers, endlessly inventive, endlessly rigorous, endlessly beautiful”. They acknowledged no separation between art and labour, but made their lives and their work a seamless continuum; and, through the beauty they created, invited us to do the same.

“It is always surprising,” Byatt writes, “how people don’t really look at things.” But she does, and in this brilliant and tenderly observant little book, with its elegant Gill typeface and handsome colour illustrations, she celebrates the fruits of making and looking: “the endlessness of what is there to be imagined and shaped”. 

Peacock & Vine by A S Byatt is published by Chatto & Windus, 183pp, £14.99

Jane Shilling is a book critic for the Telegraph and the author of two books: The Fox in the Cupboard and The Stranger in the Mirror, a memoir of middle age, published in 2011. She writes on books for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt