Reviewed: Zoo by Louis MacNeice

Where the wild things star.

Louis MacNeice
Faber Finds, 256pp, £15

To the 21st-century visitor, London Zoo can seem a tamed and shabby place. It’s not just the poverty that seems apparent in the tatty hangar of the aquarium, or the clutter of more or less useless buildings that the zoo, willy-nilly, has to preserve because of their architectural interest (Lubetkin’s glamorous Penguin Pool, Hugh Casson’s clumsy Elephant House). What makes it seem so defensive are the little noticeboards dotted around, assuring visitors that it is all in the interests of conservation, and the signs by each enclosure that inform you in precise terms how near the enclosed species is to extinction – the top rating being “Not yet endangered” – since even if right now the plains or forests or oceans are pulsating with hordes of the buggers, it can be only a matter of time.

Louis MacNeice wrote Zoo in a breezier time – breezier as far zoos were concerned, that is; though when it was written, in the summer of 1938, the world outside was still languishing in depression and starting to twitch at the approach of war. Back then, zoos were far more casual about the divisions between the public and the exhibits: children went for rides on the elephants, feeding of the animals was encouraged – MacNeice notes that small girls were let behind the barriers to feed sun bears golden syrup from a wooden spoon, in homage to Goldilocks.

A character known as the Wolf Man was permitted in the wolves’ enclosure to groom them, even to nurse them when sick. MacNeice himself records getting a keeper to bring a binturong out of its cage so he can feed it grapes (the binturong is a south-east Asian relative of the civet, also called a bearcat, and is as cuddly as the name suggests, but, the keeper tells MacNeice, too smelly for a pet). The zoo is a confused institution – “a cross between a music hall and a museum” – but unflustered by the confusion: that modern defensiveness is nowhere in sight.

These were evidently breezier times for publishers, too. MacNeice’s rationale for the book seems to have been that, first, he was living up the road from the zoo, in Primrose Hill, and second that he was having an affair with Nancy Sharp, wife of the painter William Coldstream, and she could do the illustrations. Apparently that was enough for Michael Joseph to go ahead and commission the book and the finished article has an answering breeziness: MacNeice cheerfully strays off for a weekend back home in Northern Ireland, or cuts short a description of the zoo’s layout on the grounds that there’s too much of it. He mentions a trip to the East End to pick up his car when it has been stolen and analyses Rudolph Valentino’s appeal in a revival of The Sheik.

The final chapter consists of a rushed visit by bus to Whipsnade Zoo and a list of topics he has been forced to omit because his publisher is clamouring for the manuscript. Even while he is at the zoo, he can’t resist interrupting his observations – at one point imagining the reactions of the zoo’s visitors to a unicorn:

What’s a virgin, dad.
It’s a lady.
Like mum, dad?
Come along now, it’s late.

The strangeness helps account for the book’s obscurity: until now it has never been reprinted and it has been hard to find a second- hand copy for much less than £50. Its rediscovery, by Faber Finds, is a blessing: Zoo is beautifully written, littered with poetry, quoted or incidental, and with improbable analogies: a gorilla looks like a medieval devil but instead of horns has “the magnificent onkos of a tyrant in ancient Greek tragedy”. Breeziness sometimes spills over into selfindulgence and carelessness about facts, and to the democratic modern ear, MacNeice’s portraits of “lower class” zoo visitors reek of an appalling snobbery.

But Zoo is more than belles lettres or a period piece. Books on the eccentricity of zoos are legion, as are books on their cruelty (something MacNeice is alive to). But Zoo is the only book I have come across that attempts serious reflection on the good that zoos do, the value they can have for us. For MacNeice, the zoo is a necessary antidote to urban life, an antidote to other people and not least to yourself; but it is also an aid to self-understanding. Zoos allow us to place ourselves: he likes looking at animals “not because they are like me, but because they are different – even more different than my waking is from my sleeping self”; at the same time, animals are us: “the sea-beast still swims in our brains and the monkey itches in our fingers”.

To read Zoo is to share with him a glimmer of understanding of the distance and nearness of civilisation to the state of nature: to see that a zoo is not just an institution but a kind of poetry.

Louis MacNeice.

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide