Friday, June 12, 2009

Just as a kestrel sees more vividly than a mole

I recently ordered the first volume of George Orwell's collected essays, journalism and letters (we have volumes two and three, and very well thumbed they are...).

It's striking that, before you've even read a few dozen pages, you find such amazing examples of both cutting insult and sublime praise.

The insult comes from a review of J. B. Priestley's novel Angel Pavement:

When a novel lacks the indefinable, unmistakable thing we call beauty, one looks in it for sound delineation of character, or humour of situation, or verbal wit. But one looks in vain in Angel Pavement--Mr. Priestley can be clever, but he cannot be in any way memorable. (26)

Oh, that's painful, in a particularly painful way. But then comes the coup de grâce: Orwell notes that Priestley has been much over-praised by other reviewers, and he continues,

Once this absurd praise is discounted, we can salute Mr. Priestley for the qualities which he really possesses, and take Angel Pavement for what it is: an excellent holiday novel , genuinely gay and pleasant, which supplies a good bulk of reading matter for ten and sixpence.(Emphasis added, 27)

Oh man...that must have burned.

On the other hand, Orwell knew how to make a well-placed compliment.

In the context of a review of a biography of Herman Melville, he enthuses:

More important than his strength, he had--what is implied in real strength--passionate sensitiveness; to him seas were deeper and skies were vaster than to other men, and similarly beauty was more actual and pain and humiliation more agonising. Who but Melville would have seen the beauty and terror of a ridiculous beast like a whale? And who else could have written scenes like the bullying of Harry in Redburn, or that shocking and ludicrous account of an amputation in White Jacket? Such things were done by a man who felt more vividly than common men, just as a kestrel sees more vividly than a mole. (Emphasis added, 20-21.)

Partly because of this review, and partly because I noted recently that Melville also made the top of the 'best reads' list by J. G. Ballard some years ago (I found this in the additional material added to my copy of Millennium People), I have thought I should probably give Moby Dick another chance.

It was--like many things...and nearly Shakespeare!...ruined for me in high school (a common story, perhaps).

Though my renewed Melvillian interests may also be partly because I've been enjoying my belated discovery of Mastodon's 2004 heavy metal concept album, Leviathan, which is based on that novel about the white whale.

(I very much like the song--though not so much the video--for 'Blood and Thunder'...which for some reason involves clowns. Far scarier than whales, if you ask me.)

Any post-secondary-school Melville fans out there with their own observations?

And, yes, I know: from a strictly naturalistic perspective, one could have turned Orwell's metaphor on it's head, saying just as a mole feels more vividly than a kestrel.

But somehow I don't think it'd have worked as well.

Funny, that....


mikeovswinton, oop north, yung man said...

The comment on Priestley might work in the genre of "reviewing as blood sport", but it evokes the sneaking suspicion that what it actually represents is conventional London literary opinion, which would damn Priestley for the crime of being Northern. (I could adduce other examples, from very different sources than Orwell politically, but not necessarily socially).

Wasn't Priestley on that list of "reds" that Orwell supplied to MI5? And if Orwell thought Priestley a Communist sympathiser, what does that say for his judgement? Discuss, as they say on Uniersity exam papers.

J. Carter Wood said...

Good points all. Yes, the list did include Priestley, though whether that had to do with Priestley having been a Bradford boy is beyond my knowledge of the literary spats of the time.

I must admit, my interest in the insult (and compliment) that I noted was purely a formal one, i.e., I admire their workmanship. Whether they were justified...well, I don't know. I haven't read Angel Pavement.

But I'll be taking Moby Dick along with me on my lengthy upcoming stay in Blighty, so perhaps I can report back on that point sometime in the future.

Was Orwell particularly anti-northern? (Or even 'anti-Northern'?)

This exceeds my knowledge.

But others should feel free to take up the discussion, if they will...

Mikeovswinton said...

No one's taking us up, John. I'm ashamed to say I haven't read Angel Pavement, either. Though I've seen most of the plays and read some of Priestley's non-fiction (both of which I rather like, hence my post). Ashamed, because it was on my father's shelves for my childhood etc. Still, you can get it from ABE for £2.50p, so maybe I'll give it a whirl this summer. If I can break the crack like habit of reading what the Germans call Krimis. Currently working through the W.J.Burley "Wycliffe" series. And there are a LOT of them to be dealt with.

J. Carter Wood said...

No one's taking us up, John.

Well, probably since no one reads us. We've noted a significant drop-off in readership (and ratings) of late. Oh, we still get our (very welcome and intellectually elite) regulars, as far as our sources (i.e., Sitemeter) can say.

But most of our other visitors in recent times seem to be either looking for recipes (due to our title) or -- the majority, it seems, from Saudi Arabia -- 'German sex films' (this is due to a single post I did as part of my found history series...)

Neither of these, one might think, would be likely to take up the cudgels for J. B. Priestley.

Though I could be wrong there.

Oh well.

Curiously enough, although I'm a historian of crime, I've never gotten into crime literature/mysteries in a big way.

But if you get round to Angel Pavement, I'd be interested to know what you made of it. It sounds potentially interesting, from a social history perspective, being mostly -- it sounds -- about clerks....

Mikeovswinton said...

Hmmm. My father was a long standing branch officer in what used to be called the National Union of Clerks...... (I do hope that this is not what the Freudians call an invented memory. I could swear I remember the lapel badges.)

mikeovswinton said...

Having checked Wikipedia, it WAS the National Union of Clerks and Administrative Workers. I'll read Angel Pavement this summer with this in mind.

Dale said...

Well, in a word, yes. Yes to the quality of the insult, yes to the quality of the praise.

As to the content of the praise -- Orwell's for Melville -- I thank you for bringing it forward and issue another yes in its general direction: what works for me in Melville is the manic quality of his writing. He gets very worked up about the smallest things, which is maybe to say that he finds what's interesting in the smallest things and wrings it dry. And if he can't find it, he invents it and pretends he found it.

I love Moby Dick and all of his later writings for this quality: because there's no telling what he's going to drag into the light next or what he's going to do with it. Every sentence is a potential adventure.

I put him in a category with Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, Emerson, and Nietszche for exactly this quality: what's the crazy writer going to say next? What far-flung imagery will he deploy? Can he possibly be stating that so forcefully? Can he possibly mean that? And if he doesn't mean it, why on earth is he writing it?

The best parts of Melville strike me as improvisational, maybe insane. I like to think that if the clock were set back and he had the same task before him again, an entirely different piece of writing would emerge. If someone unearthed notes in which Melville planned out the novel in meticulous detail -- ... and then I shall digress upon the nature of white before turning to ... -- I would be very disappointed.

The story is a slender hook on which to hang so much stored-up imagery and observation. People who read it for a story of peril at sea -- for example, high school students with teachers assuring them they're about to read a story of peril at sea -- are as off-base as people who read Hamlet for a story about the politics of feudal Denmark.

That said, Moby Dick is a thrilling story. This same approach falls flat, I say, in Melville's The Confidence-Man because there's not enough basic narrative to keep things respectably on track.

Also: Moby Dick is very funny!

I hope you like it this time around.

J. Carter Wood said...

Thanks very much for that, Dale. I'm not positive that I'll actually get around to conquering the white while in the next couple of weeks.

We'll see, but you've helped to move that a bit further up on the old agenda.

This is very well put:

The best parts of Melville strike me as improvisational, maybe insane. I like to think that if the clock were set back and he had the same task before him again, an entirely different piece of writing would emerge. If someone unearthed notes in which Melville planned out the novel in meticulous detail -- ... and then I shall digress upon the nature of white before turning to ... -- I would be very disappointed.

Looking forward to that digression on the nature of white....