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The work chosen from the first decade of the 20th Century by my Wednesday history & literature group this ‘semester’ was The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad.

Joseph Conrad (3.12.1857 – 3.8.1924)

http://www.gettyimages.co.uk/detail/news-photo/portrait-of-british-novelist-joseph-conrad-news-photo/50699636

 

As with all the works we have looked at over the years, the novel was found to be a delight for some, an ordeal for others and impenetrable for yet others. Obviously, then, a ‘suitable’ case for treatment’. I am in the first camp, finding in Conrad such a genius for sentence making as to rival my all-time favorite William Faulkner.

William Faulkner (25.9.1897 – 6.7.1962) photo by Alfred Eriss in Hollywood

http://www.gettyimages.co.uk/detail/news-photo/american-author-william-faulkner-works-on-a-screenplay-at-news-photo/3015789

Plots in novels have never been the main attraction for me, indeed it would be difficult for me to recount many plots from anything I’ve read over 60 years. The Secret Agent is recent enough in memory at the moment that I do know what happens in outline.

The historical background is hinted at here regarding the Greenwich Observatory as a target of an alleged anarchist attack. A wealth of sites for the background to anarchism as a political theory and methodology most of which would not have been available to Conrad is here and would be the subject of a quite different post were I to be inspired to write it. My own politics come closest to anarcho-syndicalism, but this did not interfere with my enjoyment of this novel.

Conrad wrote in his Author’s Note to the novel that the actual bombing and the death of the bomber Martial Bourdin was “all for nothing even remotely resembling an idea, anarchistic or other” (p.9). Some insight into Conrad’s stance towards anarchism can be gleaned from some of the quotations that follow, though most are included as brief but memorable examples of what I consider to be his literary genius. (Page references are to my rather battered Penguin Modern Classics paperback reprinted edition of 1969  bought second-hand many years ago and only just read, having resided in at least 5 houses and previously owned by Caroline Marsden. I hope she enjoyed reading it as much as I did.) The characterisation of political radicals in the novel reminded me very much of some of the characters in  The Spiral Ascent a trilogy by Edward Upward made up of In the Thirties, The Rotten Elements and No Home but the Struggle.

 Edward Upward (9.9.1903-13.2.2009)

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/edward-upward-writer-of-politically-charged-novels-and-short-stories-who-was-a-contemporary-of-wh-auden-1623833.html

Perhaps the first extract from The Secret Agent that stopped me in my tracks occured as Mr Verloc, shopkeeper and erstwhile anarchist, is berated by the scornful and condescending First Secretary of ‘the Embassy’- “He listened in a stillness of dread which resembled the immobility of profound attention” (p.34). It turns out that Conrad quite likes the word (or the concept of?) immobility (pp. 160, 174).

As the Assistant Commissioner of Police, appalled by the futility of office work, looks out of his office window at the rain,  to him, “..the lofty pretentions of a mankind oppressed by the miserable indignities of the weather appeared as a colossal and hopeless vanity deserving of scorn, wonder and compassion” (p.88).

Even in desribing a minor character such as a cab driver, Conrad impresses with a respectful insight into the character’s viewpoint: “..his intellect, though it had lost its pristine vivacity in the benumbing years of sedentary exposure to the weather, lacked not independence or sanity” (p.132-3). For me this just escapes the accusation of verbosity from some other members of the group.

In creating an atmosphere Conrad sometims uses inanimate objects: “..one of two gas burners, which, being defective, first whistled as if astonished, and then went on purring comfortably like a cat” (p.157).

and in the final sentence of the wonderfully written chapter when Mrs. Verloc murders her husband: ” A round hat disclosed in the middle of the floor by the moving of the table rocked slightly on its crown in the wind of her flight “ (p.214).  

In the final sentences of the book, we see Conrad’s imagining of an anarchist and anarchism: “He had no future. He disdained it. He was a force. His thoughts caressed the images of ruin and destruction. He walked frail, insignificant, shabby, miserable – and terrible in the simplicity of his idea calling madness and despair to the regeneration of the world. Nobody looked at him. He passed on unsuspected and deadly, like a pest in the street full of men”  (p.249).

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on January 17, 2013 in Diary, Did, Thought No Comments »

Too tired tonight to say much but after nearly eight months of no posts here at all it struck me as time to at least get back to some free writing that isn’t just short comments on FB or such. Tired, as after an energetic floor mopping front door through to back I decided to try to fix the cooker so that it didn’t slide forward off its plinth when we pulled too strongly on the oven door, thus threatening to precipitate anything on the hob all over us – hasn’t happened yet, by sheer good luck. After much raunging about (yes it is a word, I just wrote it) the oven now seems safe.

My literature group this ‘term’ is called “A Half Century Remembered: 1900 to 1950”. Our wonderful tutor Morag Jones asked us to vote for one of three works from each of the five decades, which was a very interesting exercise for the eighteen or so members present at the last class of the previous ‘course’. The chosen works constitute quite a strange mixture of subjects, styles and authors (all male, I see, sorry Virginia Woolf and E M Delafield). Here’s the list – The Secret Agent – Conrad, for 1900-1910; Greenmantle – Buchan, for 1910-1920; The Waste Land – Eliot, for 1920-1930; Love on the Dole – Greenwood, for 1930-1940 and The Pied Piper – Shute, for 1940-1950. Incidentally, the group that voted had twice as many women as men in it. I’ll try to post some notes here about our consideration of these works, as the weeks go by. [We’ve “done” Conrad but I’m leaving that for when I’m not so tired. Supper and bed calls].

Apart from my virtually total recall of every scene and piece of dialogue from the whole of The Outlaw Josey Wales, there are many other short movie scenes that are easily recalled at random moments or when prompted into the mind’s eye by some other image or sound or remark. Two of them for me involve Robert Redford, the first is when he has just told Paul Newman, aka Butch Cassidy, that he can’t swim so he’s not going to jump into a river at the bottom of a gorge to escape from the rapidly approaching posse (“Who are those guys?” It’s all coming back). It’s just the look on his face and the seriously embarrassed, reluctant nod, in the instant before Butch bursts out laughing. Brilliant and one that just comes randomly from time to time.

The other one is going to come and go regularly if the current hot weather carries on. We’ve put up our “summer” curtains in the back room and they sometimes blow gently in and out the french doors. Every time I see that, there’s Redford again, aka Jay Gatsby, on a hot afternoon, floating on his airbed in his pool, turning at some sound to look back through the gently moving curtains hoping desperately that it’s Daisy come to him, having left Tom Buchanan for good. Of course, his tension is not ours, as we have seen Scott Wilson, great piece of acting, aka George Wilson, approaching, taking a revolver out of a crumpled brown paper bag, sweating, shaking, reeling from seeing his own image in Gatsby’s mirror while the curtains continue to blow gently in and out around the revolver blasts and Gatsby dies.  Here’s a few shots of our little curtains, images dwarfed by those in the film but enough to take me back through that whole wonderfully constructed scene.

         Screenplay F F Coppola. Why am I not surprised.

Great film, great book.

This I believe. The squares marked A and B are the same shade of grey.

Thanks to: http://butisit.deviantart.com/#/d4cs46b

No I don’t. Yes I do. No I don’t. Yes I do. Anyway, Beth having written this: I love talking to my Dad about anarcho-syndicalism, socialism, communism, capitalism, feminism, religion, anarchy, protest, work, profit, everything. He knows so much, explains how the world works so clearly, and usually has an answer/explanation for everything… on Twitter has prompted someone to guess (in a kindly way, I’m sure) that I might be a Deconstructionist and helpfully to provide a link to an article purporting to explain what that means together with a ‘critique’ of some other approaches to sociology, philosophy and politics that he labels as leftist. It is indeed an interesting article but I ain’t one of them – deconstructionist, that is. Can’t think what kind of an -ist I am really. There’s probably an -ist label for that disability though!

The twitter-guesser then moved on to wonder if I was actually a social constructionist then? after Beth ventured to suggest that Marxist, i.e. materialist would do for the moment. Turns out the guesser ( who seems determined (desperate?) to attach -ists here and there ) is a Christian Socialist and practising Catholic and the article writer, Robert Locke, admired by the twitter-guesser, has also suggested that if all Palestinians were forcibly “removed” from all of Israel, that would help to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  After the initial discomfort of wondering what I was being described as and not liking Locke’s style too much, I can feel a sense of comfort returning.

England are playing cricket against the West Indies and are described as being in a strong position on the first day because their opponents have scored 243 runs while losing 9 batsmen. England have yet to bat and so languish at 0 for 0. How can that be a strong position yet? If you are reading this and don’t understand cricket, forget it, it’s not a matter of life or death, it’s much more important than that, as Bill Shankly once described soccer.

Bill Shankly. http://www.lfchistory.net/Articles/Article/2410

If you don’t know what soccer is, never mind.

Feeling a bit stir crazy yesterday so went off to Hem Heath Woods, part of the Staffordshire Wildlife Trust’s complement of reserves.

Leaving behind the infernal race of modern life in the car park on Trentham Road, between a railway track and an electricity sub-station, I took the leaf-covered path, all orange, brown, yellow and black. To the left, or East, is an industrial estate, just discernible through the undergrowth, but audible with hums and rattles from time to time but soon left behind.

Two discreet information boards helped to nurture the growing sense of history such, sometimes ancient, places evoke after a few minutes walking. For example Wedgwoods and all their doings are involved, as the Reserve is leased from the Wedgwood “estate”.  I wish that I could have not noticed the rogue apostrophe or ‘Crewe Comma’ on one board though, where whose had become who’s.  Too much proofreading over the years for that to slip through, unfortunately.

Anyway, the path between the trees suddenly reached a beautiful place aptly called The Glade, just occupying its time there, getting on with being naturally attractive to any human eye that cared to visit.  So far the only others enjoying the woods had been a couple ‘walking’ a very energetic, bouncy and obviously happy dog. Then further on into deeper darker parts was a woman on her own apart from her small dog. She had walked these woods for 45 years but had come in from the southern end and had never been up as far as where I explained my car was, all of half a mile or so. We parted after a short chat, as it was getting late into the afternoon and we both needed to find our ways out in the twilight.

Such an experience of peace clears the mind and spirit. That’s what it felt like.

[photos from the website]

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