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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Counting the ways: what Virgin and Other Stories teaches us about want

April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection is both forensic and mysterious.

The title story of April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection, which won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for Fiction in 2011, begins with a man staring at a woman’s breasts. The breasts belong to Rachel, a recent survivor of breast cancer and a wealthy donor to the hospital where Jake works. His attraction to Rachel grows in tandem with his suspicions about his wife, Sheila, who was a virgin when they married. Jake “thought . . . that she couldn’t wait to lose her virginity to him”. It didn’t turn out like that. Sheila was first horrified by, and then indifferent to, sex. But why does she smile at strange men in the street? Why does she come home so late from orchestra practice? The story ends on the brink of infidelity – but the infidelity is Jake’s own.

“Virgin” is a fitting introduction to the animating question of Lawson’s fiction: who feels what and for whom? The narrator of the second story lists the similarities between her and the two women with whom, at a summer party, she sits in a hammock. “All three of us were divorced or about to be legally so. All three of us were artists . . . All three of us were attractive but insecure and attracted to each other,” she begins. A couple of pages later, this accounting becomes more like a maths puzzle that seems to promise, if only it could be solved, a complete account of each woman and her relation to the others. “Two of us were pale with freckles. Two of us had dark hair and green eyes . . . One of us didn’t talk to her mother and one of our fathers had left and one of our sets of parents had not divorced. . . Two of us had at some point had agoraphobia and all of us had problems with depression . . .” It goes on.

Reading the five stories of Virgin and Other Stories, trying to catch the echoes that bounce between them, I caught myself performing the same move. One story is fewer than ten pages and one more than 60. Two are narrated in the first person and one in a mix of first and third. Two have teenage protagonists and two have young, married protagonists. Two protagonists steal works from a public library. Two stories mention Zelda Fitzgerald. Four contain women who have experienced sexual abuse, or experience it in the course of the story. Four are set partly or wholly in the American South. All five feature characters struggling with powerful and inconvenient desire.

Evangelical Christianity skirts the edges of Lawson’s stories. Her characters are seldom devout but they are raised in an atmosphere of fanatical devotion. The 16-year-old Conner narrates the collection’s funniest story, “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling”. “I saw women only at church,” he says. “Though . . . we went to a progressive church, our women looked the opposite of progressive to me: big glasses and no make-up, long skirts and cropped haircuts. You couldn’t imagine any of them posing naked.” He has “hard-ons ten or 12 times a day”, pores over Andrew Wyeth’s Helga Pictures, is furious about his mother’s intense friendship with a transgender woman and obsesses over a pretty, aloof girl from church. In another story, the 13-year-old Gretchen is fascinated by her piano teacher’s sick brother. Surrounded by people talking in religious platitudes, the two teenagers lack a language for their complicated feelings, re-narrating them as love.

The collection’s last and longest story, “Vulnerability”, suggests that this lasts beyond adolescence. The brutal, joyless sex that takes place near the story’s end is all the more disturbing because of the long, complicated sentences of the 60 preceding pages, in which the narrator tries to make sense of her interactions with two men. By turns she desires them, feels nothing for them and wants them to desire her. Yet brutal though the sex is, its aftermath brings a moment of peace that makes the reader wonder whether she should reconsider her interpretation of what came before. Lawson’s stories, at once forensic and mysterious, show how insistent our wants can be and how hard they are to understand.

Hannah Rosefield is a writer and a doctoral candidate in English at Harvard University.

Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson is published by Granta Books, (192pp, £12.99​)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge