Marie Marshall

Author. Poet. Editor.

There is no such thing as ‘modern literature’

Robert Rauschenberg, untitled.

Robert Rauschenberg, untitled.

Imagine a world where Paul Klee’s ‘Senecio’ (that’s the painting a detail of which currently heads my web site – look above) doesn’t exist. Imagine a world with no Mark Rothko, or no Salvador Dali, no Jackson Pollock, Piet Mondrian, Marc Chagall, Wassily Kandinsky, Henri Matisse, or Robert Rauschenberg to look at. Imagine a world without Györgi Ligeti’s music, or Igor Stravinsky’s, or Steve Reich’s. Imagine there’s no jazz, no John Coltrane, no Miles Davis. Imagine a world where music had been halted before Debussy and Satie, and art before the impressionists. You don’t have to, that world exists.

It’s the world of literature.

Effectively, literature operates to an Edwardian, male pattern. It’s driven by the absolute imperative of plot resolution, the cart valiantly and obstinately pulling the horse along. I’m looking at the list of winners of the Man Booker Prize, all bloody fine books, and a quick scan of the last – say – ten reveals none without a plot that resolves, and thus none that hasn’t been written with the plot driving it along, arse-about-face. We can all probably name a handful of authors who broke out of the comfort zone of writing – James Joyce, Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, and of course dramatist Samuel Beckett who famously wrote a play in which ‘nothing happens, twice’ – but they’re long gone. Even Manuel Puig’s El beso de la mujer araña, an uncomfortably brilliantly novel in dialogue form, interrupted by long footnotes and official reports, is almost forty years old.

Mark Rothko, untitled.

Mark Rothko, untitled.

I see startled looks already. “Surely,” people are saying, “a novel must have a beginning, a middle, and an end? What is it otherwise? What is it if it doesn’t ‘tell a story’?” But look at the vibrant colours of a Mark Rothko painting, or the vigorous action of a Jackson Pollock, ask the question “What is this if it doesn’t show me anything visually recognizable?” Listen to the ‘Kyrie’ from Ligeti’s Requiem, or to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, or to the jazz of Sun Ra, Charles Mingus, or Ornette Coleman, and say “What is this if it doesn’t have a tune?” You will instantly feel silly for having asked the question. Just because there is no recognizable image, no tune, doesn’t mean the work doesn’t engage your senses and your emotions, doesn’t mean that it has no aesthetic, doesn’t mean that it’s no longer painting or music.

So why not literature? Why has this particular art form stood resolutely still?

“Well feel free to experiment all you like, but you won’t sell any books!”

Is that it, then? Is literature not an art form at all, but rather nothing – nothing! – but a commercial product? Of course the argument about ‘canonical’ literature versus ‘popular’ literature is old, stale, and defunct. But seriously, when a rich patron can stage a new opera, or buy a single painting for a hundred thousand pounds, why can’t a rich patron buy a hundred thousand copies of a book to distribute to friends, family, the needy, anyone, or buy the manuscript to keep exclusively for his own?

I can’t be the first writer to ask this question. Why should literature effectively stand still? Why shouldn’t it change its face and figure and still engage us? Discuss.

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Images reproduced under ‘fair use’ terms.

Introducing Evangeline*

Detail from 'The Derby Day' by William Powell Frith

Detail from ‘The Derby Day’ by William Powell Frith

Imagine Epsom a huge tray of type rolling, popping, reversing at it is shaken, and there you have this field of hats and heads, toppers, skimmers, brimmers, bowlers, billycocks, and caps, all peppered with ladies’ bonnets, twirlers, birders, and fascinators as though someone had tossed cloured comfits into the jiggling type. The men of course are the blacks and greys of the inky letters, apart from a handful of jays and mandrakes. In all this steps Evangeline, as though she is treading from tussock to tussock in a wind-disturbed swamp or from boat to boat in a bobbing harbour, although her paces have all the precision of a prima ballerina’s. She only appears to be pushing through the press, which in fact parts, imperceptibly, for her. She sees all, sees the punters, tic-tac men, bookies, buzzers, down-and-outs, up-and-comings, lordings out on the slum like so many drunken second-sons. Evangeline’s back is straight, the face she shows to each person she slides by is what they want to see; she is their equal whether they expect a whore or a lady, oh my, oh my, she can counterfeit all, especially that which she genuinely is.

“I have the skin of a fish,” she thinks, says under her breath, an arcane choice of phrase by which she takes pride in her ability to sense the movement of the crowd and isolate the ripples and disturbifications that are just a little foreign to it. As now she does, finding the zig-zag of a dipper whom she knows, searching for his titfer amongst the thousand, spotting it with a smile. It’s Ganzy Gil Degarry, called ‘Old Cawhang’ by his pals for his Channel Island cant and patois, though more than half he puts on, having left Guernsey as a young’un, and indeed he’s not that old. She sees him making a mark, lifting his hat in apology to a man whose weskit he has just relieved of a deaner or two, a drackmer, or maybe of his best jerry, or maybe of a long-tailed note. Ganzy Gil’s quite the mobsman, quite the tooler.

“What’s this?” she thinks, says under her breath, as a new counter-eddy makes itself known, paralleling the pick-pocket. Her eyes rake the stylish tiles, settling on a couple of bowlers circulating on the periphery. Two Miltonians (she’ll be bound!), one whose gait she recognizes as he whom she calls ‘my grasshopper’, the other no doubt his sergeant. No doubt either that their courses spiral in towards the progress of Ganzy Gil, whom they have spotted at his business. So she herself cuts a curlicue process towards the thief, prettily, carefully, lifting the skirts of her coat. Despite the deliberate ease with which she penetrates the jostling press, she knows they will have him before she gets to them. From her pocket she slips a small bottle of gin, swigging from it to perfume her breath and to give her an excuse to stagger a little.

Ganzy Gil’s skillful monkey-fingers are about to harvest a pocket-book from a portly cove when the sergeant’s hand rests lightly but obviously on his shoulder. He halts, looking for a way out, but is confronted by the grasshopper who stands before him like Dover cliffs. And so Ganzy Gil is voided of his energy – inevitability has seen to that – and his swagger sags. Inevitability, however, suffers a little reverse, when Evangeline takes a small, tipsy stumble backwards, and the heel of her shoe presses down hard on the grasshopper’s foot. He yells in pain, his colleague is distracted for long enough for the pick-pocket to swing away from under his grasp and dodge into the crowd. The sergeant springs to pursue, but Evangeline staggers in front of him and is knocked to the ground.

“Here! What’s your game?” she cries, not in the least winded. “Stop him! Stop him someone! That brute attacked me!”

A dozen or more bodies bar the sergeant’s way, and if Evangeline had been on her feet more quickly, she would seen a cheeky, over-the-shoulder grin from Degarry serving as his a la perchoine to the peelers. As it is, Evangeline is returned to her feet firmly by the grasshopper, whose grip lingers on her slender arm, strongly enough to be a restraint, gently enough to leave no trace of a bruise. “Blind me and bless me,” she thinks, “but he’s done this before, held a woman suspect immobile.”

“Miss, I think you are well aware that I am an Inspector of the Metropolitan Police,” he says, loudly enough so that the eagerly watching crowd does not turn nasty and instead knows him for the jack he is. “Furthermore I think you were well aware that my colleague whom you impeded so excellently is a sergeant of the same force. I also think you know the criminal whom we had arrested and who escaped thanks to your intervention. To put it simply, Miss, you’re nibbed.”

“Sir,” says Evangeline, brushing mud off her coat with her free hand, “you think a deal to much. And since you are a policeman you will know that your thoughts to not amount to evidence. Are we to miss the races because of your thoughts?”

“I see you are not as tipsy as you first appeared,” says the grasshopper. “That goes a little way towards being evidence. It is at least a suspicion in my mind, and as such is enough to oblige you to come with me and be questioned.”

“Then allow me a little dignity,” says Evangeline. “Allow me to take your arm as fits a lady. Your bulldog can walk behind and make sure I don’t cut and run.”

So Evangeline and ‘her’ jack swap their who-holds-whom, at her insistence and without his resistance. Together, and with the sergeant stalking behind like a zealous duenna, they walk through the once-again parting press as lady and escort. When a gaze meets hers she smiles, slightly inclining her head, and the gazer can’t help but touch the brim of his hat respectfully.

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*My previous post was a teaser about ‘Agent Delta’, a fragment of an unwritten novel. Here is one which introduces ‘Evangeline’ – Victorian orphan, sometime mountebank but with true psychic talent, well-born friend of criminals and prostitutes, and destined to be a ‘Woman Searcher’ with the Metropolitan Police – and her ‘Grasshopper’, an unnamed Police Inspector, loosely based on the real-life Jack Whicher (though what an officer of ‘the Met’ is doing at a racecourse in Surrey is in itself a mystery).

I am fascinated by the thought of ‘lost slang’. I know that things I recall from my own lifetime have come and gone, leaving gaps in social history. Nothing appears on the mighty internet about them. They might never have been. For that reason, along with London’s Victorian argot that I have researched, my intention has always been to drop expressions into the mouths of my characters for which there is absolutely no evidence.

One other thing I ought to mention is an additional way that these fragments have been constructed to ‘tease’. All the original text fragments of both my ‘Agent Delta’ and ‘Evangeline’ works-in-progress are written in the first person, the protagonist narrating; however the two pieces I have composed and posted here are written in the third person, though focalized on the protagonist. I like to play. This is all helping me get back into the discipline of writing…