Ode To Remembering.

We’ve seen the documentaries. We’ve seen the murals. We have seen the poppies on the lapels of the news presenters (unless you’re Jon Snow). WWI still causes fascination and repugnance on equally absurd levels in humanity’s continual quest to comprehend events like war. As we search for meaning in all our daily happenings and ultimately life, war is one that stumps us, because of its apparent inhumanity. Fundamentally we ask, like in most things – what is the point and why? And we do this, we’re lost and left to the cliche account.

Why. We know why things start and the ‘chain of events’; Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated for a start, but this does not bring us closer to the knowing of why, the italicised why. Now, we can apply certain interpretations, that war is good for capitalism and modernisation and that kind of thing, but it still does not answer why, and what the true meaning is if such a thing exists.To the postmodernist it doesn’t: Hannah Arendt famously said of the Holocaust that the word ‘Evil’ is absolute and that acts like the Holocaust were carried out by people by acts not born of a particular ideology, but out of careerism and obedience. Despite Arendt specifically talking about the events of WWII and the holocaust, one can imagine the notoriously young soldiers caught under the wave of nationalism and heroism as they went to do battle for their country, but the second  world war – as in the second war of the world – became post-reason and war makes exemptions of reason.

The banality of evil might satisfy a postmodern Martin Amis novel, but it is the writers whom we go to help us interpret the meaning of such acts. Pure banality leaves us now unfulfilled; the pure banality of some-thing, like the participants of a Stanley Milgram experiment. WWI was famous for its poets (look how the war claims them and their destiny– the war poets); Owen, Sassoon, Brooke, famous names, and sometimes famous victims of the war. The WWI literature, in the days of realism and reason, of heroes and villains is a search for meaning, without the atrocious act of the holocaust which blew all other acts of evil out of the water.

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Matthew Hollis in Now All The Roads Lead To France (2012) charts the life of Edward Thomas before his death in WWI and his development from full-time critic to canonised poet. As the title insinuates, Hollis rests a lot of the narrative on his relationship with Robert Frost.

Edward Thomas emerges as a not particularly likeable character. He is a tragic person before the times became tragic. He comes across as clinically, and continually depressed which mediates the relationship he has with his wife, and repressed loves he has for other women. To give the man credit, he never had affairs, but this lack of commitment to do anything seems to transcend his life. You almost want him to do it (in a narrative sense), to have an affair. Indeed, for most of Thomas’ life, he was known for his criticism that he churned out for his reputation and for his income.

It was the meeting with Robert Frost that as the blurb states, where the roads taken and the roads not taken were chosen. Under Frost, Thomas began to write verse, and Hollis is brilliant in giving an account of the creation of poetry (a poet himself) as he is of the details of Thomas’ life. That is what Hollis’ account is about – the art – and what makes Now All The Roads a special, and rightly successful piece of work. It is not just an account about the war; war is a daily occurrence, historically and presently, whether it is relied on as a literal or a metaphorical basis, and accounts like Hollis’ don’t necessarily give meaning to it, but give meaning to the life of some of those within it.

Hollis also isn’t guilty of straying into what biographers can sometimes tend to do – a caricature of the subject, overemphasizing a particular trait, action or motive. Maybe the depressive aspect is maximised, but the portrayal is sympathetic, and questioning all at the same time. He does however apply a literary trait of attributing a particular incident to the rest of Thomas’ life – a subconscious motivation, that is more a projection than anything else. Hollis seems to impose, or enforce, the idea that when the war comes around, through this explicit encounter whilst out on a walk with Frost, Thomas questions his levels of bravery and cowardice, mediated by an implicit encounter with an advance copy of Frost’s famous poem ‘The Road Not Taken’. They seem more devices of the autobiographer than autobiography itself.

There is a continual irony within Now All The Roads… though and Thomas’ life. Thomas persistently comes across as a man afraid to commit to an idea; to commit to the idea of becoming a poet; to commit to another woman; to commit to going to America; to commit to the idea of going to war, and it’s through all this that bitter, sad irony of Thomas’ death happens. He died on the first day of the battle of Arras shortly after arriving in France. But he was killed almost, indirectly – his heart stopping by the blast wave of one of the last shells fired. He had survived the battle. He was lighting his pipe after a successful day of not dying. A man who lived by the pen, but died by the sword, hardly seems fair, but one thing we know about war is that it isn’t fair.

Frost went onto to become one of the most successful poets of all time, winning many accolades, and becoming loved by his nation. Thomas instead is left to posthumous fame. A postscript at the end included by Hollis how Thomas is not just ‘willow-herb and meadowsweet and haydocks-dry’, and how Ted Hughes called him ‘the father of us all’. Why is that? At a time when Ezra Pound was proclaiming ‘make it new’, and the war poets depicting the atrocities of warfare, a clash between as Hollis puts it, the Georgians and the Imagists in Harold Monro’s Poetry Bookshop. Thomas was a poet in transition in a world in transition. His whole life seems to be embedded within a transition, which his poetry reflects. The famous critic FR Leavis described him as ‘on the edge of consciousness’; he is on the edge of the intrusion of the consciousness and the edge of the era of the likes of Eliot, Joyce, Woolf who would succeed and respond to the war In ways that Thomas could not.

How the world changed during those wars. You only have to look at the difference of those two wars because of the rampant modernisation WWI preceded. And it was as if Thomas’ work was a precedent to that and all those modernist artists who would succeed him. There is something about a poet and poetry that allows it be ripped out of its context and used for purposes other than what the poets original context may have been. This can’t be done with a novel, probably due to its longevity. “Lest we forget” is taken from he ‘Ode to Rememberance’ by Laurence Binyon, and immediately conjures the poppy symbol, but can even further invoke horrid nationalist images that justify war and England. Frost became synonymous with America, despite being able to read ‘The Road Not Taken’ as a ironic account of individualism and freedom. This arguably fails to work on Thomas; yes we can imagine the haydocks dry of rural England, even Keats talked about England often in his poetry, but it is hardly the Jerusalem syndrome, as when poets and poems become synonymous with the national, and sometimes nationalist cause.

So – why? The postmodernists would reject any ideological purpose to war and evil, but in this age, it does not do anybody justice. We will never know why. We will never find that kernel of truth, the reason and the reality, but we cannot be satisfied with the utter banality of it all. All we have our those who can try and help us construct meaning – the artists, or the humans. And so, Hollis does the exceptional: in a world where meaning can be attributed, contexts altered, words dropped in and out of mouths not knowing where they’ve been before; in this warring, fighting world, dignity and significance is given to a form that now is so often overlooked. It is art for art’s sake, for the artist’s, and for humanity’s sake. Lest we ever forget them.

Now All The Roads Lead To France (389pp) by Matthew Hollis is published by Faber and Faber

A version of this article also featured on http://www.inkwellarts.org.uk

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Stoner.

People like to forebode the book world, its impending doom as it converts to portable electronic devices, but this is one event that might cause those to reconsider their prophecies. Stoner, by the largely forgotten American author is a bestseller in the Netherlands (at the time of writing) and its revival seems to be predominated by the old fashioned word-of mouth-success, and new-fashioned word-of-mouth success, namely Twitter. Its not a 50 shades of grey kind of hysteria that asks you to break out of your comfort zone to be seen reading it in public, there is however, a sense of guilt  pervading the twinging joy of contemporary fiction fans and booksellers.

When it was first published it sold a meagre 2000 copies, even more meagre now considering the book was still a popular choice of entertainment. Television was on the rise though, and advertising was becoming the ubiquitous phenomenon we know it to be now (although emptier). Despite some voicing their bemusement as to why it was not appreciated at the time of its publication (Irving Howe for one) Stoner disappeared quietly into the annals of literary history. Williams enjoyed relative, later success with his 1973 historical novel, Augustus which won the National Book Award, but it was overshadowed by other novelists working at the time, like Thomas Pynchon, who holds a firm seat in the literary pantheon. The writers working then were changing the landscape. Williams style was amidst a frenzied, emerging movement of postmodernism, spear-headed by the likes of Pynchon and Vonnegut. Even Roth’s baroque and lewd Portnoy’s Complaint was only 5 years away and putting that and Stoner together they look to be conceived centuries apart. One built on repression of instincts, the other and absurd projection. Williams looked as if he was wanting to rekindle the past, not change the present.

It nod’s towards the Flaubertian style of realism; acute and precise free indirect discourse which was paving the way for modernist style of introspection and consciousness in an essentially Bildungsromman .There is an irony in the novel’s treatment from 1965 to the present day with the novel itself. It is about an ordinary, distinctly average academic from a simple pre-technological age who gets forgotten by his University and his students. The first paragraph lays all this out like a spoiler:
‘He did not rise above assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses… An older student who comes upon the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a simple question. Stoner’s colleagues who held him in no particular style when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers’.
Its as if it is setting up its own downfall when the trickery of a novelist to open with what is essentially, a spoiler. Who would want to read about an average man who lives an average life, in a unhappy marriage and dies, when they could read about sex and underground mail companies? Updike had paved this ground long before.

William Stoner comes from nothing, literal and metaphorical darkness. At seventeen, his shoulders are already beginning to stoop, since he had been working on his parents farm from six. There is a single light in the room which the family of three gather round on an evening. But then he goes to study agriculture at University, the first of his family to do so, but instead  he becomes enamoured with his compulsory English classes, and drops the study of agriculture and enrols full time in English.

An epiphany of sorts is provoked by his admiration of the hard faced English tutor, clearly averse to freshman blankness, as he picks on Stoner  to explain Shakespeare’s 73rd sonnet. The whole class do not seem to know this when picked on by Sloane, and it inspires Stoner’s study. But why do the whole class not know what it means, and why would it inspire Stoner to drop agriculture and pursue the arts​​? None of them are able to shed a morsel of intuition on it. Here is the sonnet itself:

​That time of year thou mayst in me behold,
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou seest the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well, which thou must leave ere long”

There is dispute as to what the sonnet actually means in scholarly circles, but from reading it is clearly pensive about life and death. There is a great dispute about the directedness of it and whether It is about the reader’s or the writer’s own life he is writing about. Some critics say that it is about the loss of youth. Is this Sloane’s personal choice rather than curricular? A later scene shows Stoner catching a glimpse of Sloane weeping at his desk after the end of WWI, maybe at the great loss of young life there.

The sonnet does not allude to a greater place after death, and focuses on the natural rhythms of nature. It slowly becomes something that the young students have no way of comprehending. If they were to know the meaning of sonnet 73 then it would expose them to a kind of depressing truth about life – that death is inevitably. And as we see Sloane weeping, it’s something that holds a truth for him. The sonnet however gives us some indication as the kind of existence Stoner leads: ““This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong/To love that well which thou must leave ere long.” John Prince (The Explicator, 1997) claims that this line is the greatest evidence that this is about the loss of the reader’s youth. Bitter Sloane, and naïve Stoner, the endured and the about to endure.

The sense of light and dark In the novel ,as metaphors for greater things pervades the novel. Williams plays with darkness both atmospherically but also as if it is a state of mind. Take this from early in the novel:
Sometimes in the attic room at night, he would look up from a book he was reading and gaze in the dark corners of his room, where the lamplight flickered against the shadows. If he stared long and intently, the darkness gathered into a light, which took the insubstantial shape of what he had been reading. And he would feel that he was out of time, as he had felt that day in class when Arthur Sloane had spoke to him. The past gathered out of the darkness where it stayed and the dead raised themselves to live before him; and the past and the dead flowed into the present among the alive, so that he had for an intense instant a vision of denseness into which he was compacted from which he could not escape and no wish that he could escape
He is then abruptly brought out of his reverie by a clanking radiator. It starts off with that question that overhangs the novel; in any other context cliché and banal, wondering whether life is worth living but descends into a sensual introspection of his mind. The dark and the light becomes a state of mind, dualist in essence as the physical and psychological inhibit different spheres as it ‘sucks at his body’ until he leaves it and becomes an inhabited consciousness. There is clear tension in his awakened consciousness, but the dark recesses of his unconsciousness continue to surface.

This is more evident in Stoner’s sexual exploits, especially when considering Edith; his sex is conducted in the dark, or in artificial light from a bulb. With his mistress, Katherine their sex is conducted under the natural light from the fire, and the heat it emits. His love with Katherine seems to be purely erotic but there is love with it: ” he began to know It was neither a state of grace nor an illusion [love]; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment, and day by day, by the will and intelligence of the heart”. It is the only thing Stoner seems powerless to control. With Edith, there is only one instance we are told of their love making, and that is to produce a child. Edith comes across as the Emma Bovary that didn’t get to tell her side of the story, (and inhabits the bourgeoisie ideals that Flaubert derided in Charles Bovary) when Stoner meets her, she comes across as a truly flat character. She displays apathy, and the reader is continually irritated by her neurotic ways, at odds with the sympathetic Stoner.

As if Freud’s two greatest drives of life were at odds, sex and death, we are continually reminded of the mortality of the characters. Stoner comes from nothing, and works on his parents farm that seems to produce nothing as if the land Stoner’s family harvest is the land that they will return to in death. Stoner is reminded at fatality initially at the death of his friend David Masters in WWI, a young confident mind, wasted which also maybe what we see a glimpse of Sloane weeping at. Stoner then has to confront death formidably when his father dies. He returns to Booneville which is portrayed as neglected when Stoner left, as if Stoner he only redeeming hope, “the town retained its bareness and its flimsiness …it was perhaps drier and greyer than it had been; not even a fleck of paint remained on the clapboard, and he unpainted timber porch sagged a bit nearer the bare earth” . At the funeral he looks at his dead father, who is not heavenly and peaceful looking on his way to a better place but is described with adjectives like ‘shrunken’, ‘tiny’ and ‘grotesquely’. And on visiting the small plot where his father is buried Stoner “Knelt in the field and took a dry clod of earth in his hand . He broke it and watched the grains, dark in moonlight, crumble and flow through his fingers”. Quite literally, ashes to ashes and dust to dust.

When Stoner is reminded of his rapid acceleration towards his own death. discussing retirement with life long friend Gordon Finch , Williams is gradually taking us towards the inevitable and it is not something that he ambiguously hints at. His life becomes purely sensual as the physical deterioration of his body leaves his mind loosely intact as he lays in the conservatory, a room that is subject to being lit through its transparent roof by the sun or the moon. That inner monologue displayed in his college office becomes the sole narrative now; the world once lived is distant sounds and then gone and Williams leaves us on the precipice of death or near languishing death.

The passage is broken by several “What did you expect? He thought” as if underwhelmed by death and the empty promise of after life, “He felt that he was waiting for something for some knowledge; but it seemed to him that he had all the time in the world.” And with that, we return to Shakespeare’s 73
rd sonnet. Was this the quest all along for Stoner? I think it was, and does he ever answer the question that Sloane first pitted to him that embarrassed him front of the freshman corpus? No. Cruelly though Williams does, in the fate of William Stoner. Lines 9-12 of Shakespeare’s 73rd sonnet:
“In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on ashes of his youth doth lie
As the death-bed whereupon it must expire
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by”
Williams perhaps produced the greatest answer to one of the many puzzling aspects of Shakespeare’s life in one of his most alluring sonnets.