Darkness Visible – William Styron

Dante’s Dark Wood

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the descent into despair in William Styron’s Darkness Visible is the inexpressibility of suffering involved in depression.  He writes, ‘Depression is a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self – to the mediating intellect – as to verge close to being beyond description. It thus remains nearly incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it in its extreme mode.’ This ‘veritable howling tempest in the brain’ resists all the art so powerful a writer can throw at it. This might be why so many approach mental illness through art and poetry. Indeed, Styron’s very title is from Milton,

As one great Furnace flam’d, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Serv’d onely to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all; but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery Deluge, fed
With ever-burning Sulphur unconsum’d

Paradise Lost Bk I

So distant from the literal, allusion is all that is left, and the more severe his ‘melancholia’ the more poetic Styron’s prose becomes. The first quotation is one I used in my review of Jonathan Lee’s JOY and it was a strange experience reading Styron and then Lee. Both examine from quite different perspectives what Styron calls ‘the stigma of self-inflicted death’ and the resistance to reduction of suicide to any one explanation. It would be hard to argue that any character in JOY suffers from the kind of illness Styron was struck by, but suffering and self-destruction and unfathomable loss are shared concerns.

My wife researches the philosophy of psychiatry and she tells me that one thing that comes up again and again in accounts of depression is the sufferer’s loss of a sense of the world as constituting an arena for them to act in. Objects lose the penumbra of possibilities which normally surround them in our perception. So a cup, for example, is no longer perceived as an object we might manipulate, drink from, throw against a wall, and so on. Styron writes of this loss of the sense of oneself and one’s relation to the world,

I had now reached that phase of the disorder where all sense of hope had vanished, along with the idea of a futurity; my brain, in thrall to its outlaw hormones, had become less an organ of thought than an instrument registering, minute by minute, varying degrees of its own suffering.

Styron’s writing is direct and intimate whilst being flowing and capacious. Such clarity of expression serves to emphasise the resistance of the condition to articulation. However, whilst the essence of the experience eludes him, Styron captures the rhythms of his experiences, the descent, the paralysis, and the utter loss of faith in deliverance which can result in the altered consciousness which admits suicide as a real possibility. However, such experiences can be endured, and Styron does endure them, finding time on the way to be rather scathing about both therapy and pharmacology: a debate that continues up to the present moment. Of his own Freudian approach to his illness we might be sceptical, but, as Wittgenstein noted, perhaps what is more important from a therapeutic point of view is not some strict and accurate causal account of mental illness, but a narrative that the sufferer can identify with, own, and integrate into their understanding of their situation, thus reintegrating the fragmented and distraught collection of mental shards they have become.

That depression is misunderstood, indeed cannot be understood; and that it is conquerable – or at least controllable – is the core of Styron’s message in Darkness Visible. This book should be read by everybody.

Buy Darkness Visible

Amazon: Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (Vintage classics)

Or at your local bookshop!

JOY – Jonathan Lee (William Heinemann 2012)

Jonathan Lee’s JOY is a shifty novel. The best novels are. The narrative swirls around the fall of Joy Stephens from a second floor platform to the marble floor of her City law firm. Four people converge on her broken form and, in the relative safety of a counsellor’s borrowed office, begin to converge on Joy in quite a different way, struggling to understand the rationale of apparent self-destruction. Each grasps a small part of her, understanding some aspect of a more complex whole, before being whisked away by contours of thought and preoccupation. Lee occupies each voice near flawlessly: the academic husband, the handsome, obnoxious lawyer, the OCD personal trainer, and the aged and resentful PA. Particularly wonderful are the digressive footnotes of the English lecturer Dennis, forever qualifying statements in a manner I find uncomfortably familiar. The dissembling lawyer’s lewd desperation to impress and seduce recalls the dialogue of Edward St. Aubyn’s fractured individuals; and like St. Aubyn Lee manages to render this desperation amusing and absurd in equal measure. The threat of caricature looms large, but this is slowly stripped away as Lee shifts their speech from public to intimate.

Only Joy is permitted an interior monologue, and it is her embodied experience which allows Lee’s lyricism free rein. Throughout her language of thought is intensely sensual as Lee delves beneath the superficiality of her working and married life, contrasting this with the sexual language of those who move and speak around and of her. Sensual and sexual are not the same thing, of course, and this contrast serves to highlight one of the central themes of the novel: the disconnection between speech and thought; or, better, the apparent gulf between how we feel or intuit ourselves to be and the person others get to see – and judge. In the case of mental distress this is particularly clear: as William Styron writes in his memoir of depression Darkness Visible, ‘Depression is a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self – to the mediating intellect – as to verge close to being beyond description. It thus remains nearly incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it in its extreme mode.’ Lee reclaims such distress for the everyday, situating it in an office whose shallow preoccupations threaten to implode.

Such imaginative sympathy is the prerogative of the novelist, for each character is bounded by their own concerns, each, to steal a phrase from JOY itself, recreating people and events according to their own private ambition.  The contingency of perception on preoccupation and its coupling with the distortions of memory and motive contributes to narratives of persons and events we rarely question except in extremis. That everyday life can deliver such prompting extremity is masterfully argued here. In a forthcoming book which might be marketed as a companion to Joy the late Peter Goldie considers the ways in which people understand their past and the nature of grief and self-forgiveness. At the heart of Goldie’s account is a narrative sense of self whose instability is evidenced by Lee as each character returns to the counsellor’s office and slowly sheds their simplicity.

That grief and its ideal corollary self-forgiveness are the axis around which this novel turns is not immediately obvious, at least not in the way one might expect, but then Lee constantly surprises the reader. With great control he moves us through the day preceding Joy’s fall and through each person’s recollections of it. A vortex forms around her, as each tries to understand their role in her life – and her role in theirs. The final act is affecting and unexpected as self-narratives break down; their acts finally, perhaps, matching their thoughts. In the central passage on Hampstead Heath and throughout in certain elements of the whole book it is hard not to see an echo (or perhaps more) of Keat’s Ode to a Nightingale, ‘the weariness, the fever, and the fret’. Indeed, it is here that Lee’s writing is at its strongest: ‘Something deep and dreamy about this realm of woodland. Trees bunched like troubles. They crowd around unexplained clearings in which only earth seems to grow – within itself, swelling against its own skin.’

There are times when JOY threatens to buckle under the weight of its varied voices and their revelations and misunderstandings. Yet it never does, and that tension serves to underline its emergent humanity. This is a generous and intensely human novel which achieves a great lyrical intensity in its exploration of the depth of our ignorance of ourselves and others, the sheer contingency of life where everything is visible but nothing seen, and where two contradictory statements can be equally true of the same person.  Goldie’s book is titled The Mess Inside. It is hard to think of a better summation of Lee’s project in JOY. In the collapse of his characters’ narratives Lee has constructed a stunning one of his own.

Buy JOY 

Amazon: Joy

Or from your local bookshop!

Friday Poem: Peat

The Aeolian Revue has published another one of my poems. Go and have a look at their other writers too.

This poem was written a couple of years ago in a small cottage in Baltimore on the South coast of Ireland. We used peat in the cast iron stove.


A slow burn bound in black

giving nothing away

save the stains on hands


anything you care

to name

nameless as flame is

as flames are


collapsing compressed bricks

processed as wild is

by staining hands and anything

we care to claim

Anthony Trollope: The Warden (Chronicles of Barsetshire)

Trouble with the media is apparently nothing new. In The Warden (1855), the first book in what would become the Chronicles of Barsetshire, Anthony Trollope (1815-1882) explores the clashes between public and private, institution and individual, abstract and particular, in the aged person of Septimus Harding and his crisis of moral conscience arising from reformist attacks on his wardenship of Hiram’s Hospital in the quiet and unremarkable cathedral town of Barchester. All is well until his young friend John Bold decides to investigate the grounds on which Harding receives the income from the medieval bequest which is in the gift of his old and somewhat ineffectual friend the bishop.

Bold’s naivety in thinking to separate his friendship with Harding from his attack on the institution of the Church is most pronounced in his enlisting the The Jupiter (The Times), whose thunderous pronouncements on the iniquity and inequity of clerical privilege and simony are notorious and hugely influential, and make no allowance for the tragedy of the individual caught in the middle of institutional conflict and reform.

That media pronouncements which elide fact and comment at the expense of private individuals should strike one as so strongly contemporary says something both for the legitimacy of Trollope’s concerns at the influence of the media on public opinion as well as for the apparently inevitable sensational tendencies of newspapers. It is a strength of the novel that it does not simply reduce the legitimacy of Bold and The Jupiter’s attack on clerical gifts to that of their methodology. They may well have a point. However, it is not the fact – if indeed there is any such fact – of Harding’s entitlement or lack thereof which matters particularly, except to the warden himself, in this novel. Trollope’s concern is with the manner in which one’s duties are carried out, one’s defences laid, one’s attacks prosecuted. Those who defend Harding, the formidable Archdeacon Grantly in particular, do so not in the warden’s individual interest, but in the interest of the public institution of the Church; it is a battle of wits built on partisan presumption, rather than moral reflection.

The Warden is suffused with a gentle, occasionally stinging, humour which serves to highlight the absurdities and idiosyncrasies of his characters, each of whom is, on the whole, made to seem more human for all their public bluster through Trollope’s omniscient revelation of the private aspects of their personalities. Trollope’s portrait of Harding is highly sympathetic and one senses a real affection for the inoffensive and well-meaning Warden who carries out his duties with love and pleasure. Indeed, Trollope might also be seen in the person of Septimus Harding as privileging feeling or sentiment over reason. Alternatively, we might see his moral integrity as Trollope’s playing out of the triumph of practical over theoretical reason: Harding acts well toward others (perhaps too well) in the face of the abstract and dehumanising pronouncements of an intensely rational but unfeeling reform movement. (His love of music, expressed in his tendency to play an imaginary cello at moments of particular emotional turbulence, might be seen as the ideal marriage of the two.)

Trollope’s evocation of Harding’s lost innocence is most striking in the image of the Hospital’s walled garden: pristine and loved by the warden, this garden stands as a symbol for the loss of his timeless paradise. As his fortunes falter, so does the garden. We shouldn’t forget that ‘paradise’ derives from the word for walled enclosure or garden. As Adam and Eve gained their knowledge of good and evil at great expense, so Harding’s awakening to the moral complexities of his own case strips him of his comfortable position. The Warden’s charm lies in its subtle and humorous playing out of one man’s isolation at the hands of his own conscience whilst institutions do battle around him; in its emphasis on the complexities of the individual case in the face of sweeping public pronouncements; and in a warm but ambivalent nostalgia for the provincial Church life so clearly disappearing in the face of progressive social agendas.

The Essay – Robin Gilmour

One of the excellent things about PEL editions is that they place their essays after the novel rather than before. I never read introductions beforehand for, as the PEL series editor has pointed out, it is best to approach the story without one’s interpretation having been nudged in some particular direction. Frankly, it takes half the fun out of it. Having said that, I find that the best commentaries make me feel that I need to go and read the book all over again. Robin Gilmour’s essay is very good indeed, providing a lot of the context of The Warden’s original publication amidst the anti-clerical editorials of an all-powerful Times. He also highlights Trollope’s subtleties of symbolisation in the opposition of Barchester and London, and the journey of moral conscience Harding undergoes as he moves between the two: details easily missed on a first read-through. That Trollope’s heart was with the country and the cloister is hard to doubt, even if, as is so often the case, his head could see all too clearly the demand for modernisation and the equitable distribution of heretofore protected clerical gifts. These days, we would probably have an enquiry.

Buy The Warden 

Amazon: The Warden (Penguin English Library)

Or from your local bookshop!

Mrs Bridge: Evan S. Connell (Penguin Modern Classics)

I’m reviewing Mrs Bridge as part of the Penguin proof group on Google +.

Ostensibly an innocuous collection of episodes spanning her adult life, from marriage to the onset of old age, Evan S. Connell’s novel is a brilliant study in the alienation and infantilisation of India Bridge, whose life is circumscribed by her husband, her children, and the trappings of a suffocating moneyed domesticity in interwar Kansas City. With unflinching realism Connell details Mrs Bridge’s struggles to understand those around her from a position of well-meaning but utterly shallow convention and deference. We see that this convention is all she has to cling to as her children grow up and rebel in entirely predictable ways, displaying an individualism she cannot comprehend. For Mrs Bridge deals in types of person each with their proper place, she has such trouble with names because she cannot connect with individuals, let alone the expression and non-conformity that might come with such self-consciousness. The irony of her surname, coupled as it is with so exotic a Christian name, in so parochial and disconnected a person should be lost on no one.

Connell’s realism is made poignant by the humour with which he explores Mrs Bridge’s increasingly confused interactions with her limited world. Whether it be her doomed attempts to make her son conform by wearing a hat or the shock of some revelation about her absent but utterly dominating husband, Mrs Bridge’s uncomprehending alienation is constantly underlined by the absurdity of the situations she engineers for herself and the world for her. She rarely asserts herself except in the cause of convention – the correct use of cutlery or the treatment of guest towels – and when she does it is a well-meaning but uncomprehending failure. One by one she drives her children away.

Every now and again, however, there are flashes of a deeper and repressed existential awareness, of ‘a terrifying inarticulate need’ for a past, for a future, that is the most human of all Mrs Bridge’s fears. She is spurred to try new things, but each time initial enthusiasm falls prey to a circumstance she might overcome were the will present. Yet she fails to assert herself and falls back into old rhythms once more. Connell controls all this with a fearful precision, allowing Mrs Bridge to edge closer to some existential epiphany, but always bringing her back to the surface before she becomes what Sartre termed ‘authentic’; before, that is, she decides to control her own fate by choosing the kind of life she wants to lead.

Yet Connell’s novel is more complex than a simple call to self-consciousness. In one episode he depicts the worst excesses of individualism with a violence which once again shocks, but cannot quite unbalance Mrs Bridge, at least not for long. The challenge is to find a position of rest between blasé propriety and outré excess; but such equilibrium will not come for Mrs Bridge because it requires some internal counterweight to the pressure of outward order. Her loneliness is borne of such a lack of self-definition and the repressed hopes and desires of a confused and unfulfilled promise.

Mrs Bridge might be read as a comment on the predicament of the women of the interwar years, caught as they were between a stifling domesticity and burgeoning emancipation; it might be read as the peculiar disconnection of one woman in the conservative surroundings of Kansas City; or perhaps as a penetrating and unrelenting pursuit of the human condition made manifest in a confused, fearful individual whose central predicament is summed up in one question she herself asks: ‘Do you want to be different from everyone else?’ The contradictory answers we all give to such a question form the tense heart of this very good novel.

Buy Mrs Bridge 

Amazon: Mrs Bridge

Or from you local bookshop!

A discussion of the evolution of the cover for Ben Marcus’ new novel. I really want to get hold of this to review it here.

(Knopf, 2012)

When I finished writing The Flame Alphabet, Tom McCarthy’s novel C had just come out, with a dazzling jacket by Peter Mendelsund.

This confirmed what I’d been suspecting: Mendelsund is a tremendously strong, intuitive designer. I’d already drooled over a few of his jackets, including the Kafka reprints he recently completed.


And then when I met him, and we spoke a bit, I learned he was a passionate reader, a deep reader. He knew The Flame Alphabet inside and out—had read it as closely as I ever could have hoped. While we never spoke about what the design would be (what on earth would have been the point?), I knew then that my mission was very simple. I would stay the hell out of his way and let him do his thing.

He makes beautiful, inviting jackets, of course, but they are also wickedly smart…

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Mysticism and Logic

The Aeolian Revue has published another one of my poems. Go and have a look at their other writers too. Now.

Mysticism and Logic

Metaphysics, or the attempt to conceive the world as a whole by means of thought, has been developed, from the first, by the union and conflict of two very different human impulses, the one urging men towards mysticism, the other urging them towards science.

— Bertrand Russell

A cracked glaze on a vase puzzles out

its reflections and refractions in

the only way it knows how: Silently

reconciling all contrary motion

beneath its fired and fissured skin, for fear

a bright moment might be its undoing.


Bright moments are many, so tensions run

high between jostling shoulder, neck and lip.

The quiet perseverance of oven sweat

contains a taut struggle of dust and clay.

Hilary Mantel and the Moralists

Part of the Man Booker Longlist Series

In Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell novels we follow the rise to power of Henry VIII’s minister and facilitator as he navigates and terrorises the Royal Court of the 1530s. In Wolf Hall Cromwell emerges from the shadow of the doomed Cardinal Wolsey and helps resolve Henry’s Great matter in favour of the seductive Anne Boleyn. In Bring Up the Bodies his star continues to rise as Boleyn’s sets in favour of the seemingly unremarkable Jane Seymour. Cromwell enables and disables Henry in not-quite-equal measure; his very service and facilitation of Henry’s desires ensures their insatiable and changeable nature. The better Cromwell appears to satisfy Henry’s wants – and, of course, it is often only an appearance – the more he is held to such success in the future. The more he is hostage to caprice. Mantel’s next novel will show where this must lead.

Anthony Beevor has recently professed a dislike for historical fiction, arguing that it blurs the boundaries between history and fiction. As Mantel writes in her Authors Note in Bring Up The Bodies, however, she offers only an interpretation of the people and events of that turbulent time. This, of course, is the strength of historical fiction and allows Mantel to explore certain questions of human nature and motivation within that context without being assessed for historical rigour, although she displays plenty of that. The intimacy she achieves amidst events so often the subject matter of the epic is symptomatic of the best historical fiction and cannot be criticised for that. Characters recognisable as human, and in the most human situation of marriage, birth, death, play out their lives on the most public of stages. And it is when the private explodes into public view – as for Royals it must – that she is at her best.

In ‘Jane Austen and the Moralists’ the philosopher Gilbert Ryle argues that Austen was a writer interested in theoretical problems about human nature and conduct; whether, for example, ‘deep feeling is compatible with being reasonable’ (Sense and Sensibility), or ‘What makes it sometimes legitimate or even obligatory for one person deliberately to try to modify the course of another person’s life, while sometimes such attempts are wrong?’ (Emma) To an extent Mantel marries such opposing traits in her central characters. Anne Boleyn is a mixture of cold reason and hot passion, each intensifying the other in an overreaching rage of resentment and calculation. Whichever is the driving force at any one moment can be no guide as to the next. In contrast, Jane Seymour is everything Boleyn is not: inexpressive, seemingly uncalculating, virginal, and, of course, fecund, or so it is hoped. Cromwell himself seems to embody repressed passion, presenting only a blank mechanical exterior to the world, whilst harbouring a hidden violence.

It would be neat if one could sum up Mantel’s Cromwell novels in terms of an exploration of such dualities as the conflict between personal feeling and duty, or between action and reaction, but her work is more complex than that, and all the better for it. Her moral psychology is complex and avowedly not the bi-polar arrangement of good and bad that Ryle terms ‘Calvinist’. In contrast, he writes, ‘A person is not black or white, but iridescent with all the colours of the rainbow; and he is not a flat plane, but a highly irregular solid.’ And yet this ‘Aristotelian’ moral psychology cannot apply wholeheartedly to anyone in Mantel’s work other than Cromwell, for in an entirely deliberate fashion she leaves the thoughts and actions of others opaque: we, and Cromwell, can conjecture, even be fairly certain, as to the motivations and character of others, but it is only conjecture born of experience and acquaintance with humanity. Even Cromwell’s knowledge of Henry’s moods and how best to handle him is born of trial and error, garnered from the advice of Wolsey, and his ability to project himself into the minds of others.

Mantel’s writing mirrors the psychology of her protagonist. As Cromwell is thoughtful and patient so is Mantel’s prose. Yet there are flashes of depth and introspection in both, which are all the more striking for the measured action and narration surrounding them. Cromwell’s reflection on the lowliness and instability of his origins – detailed in Wolf Hall – enables him to navigate more deftly a world built on the order, birth, and power from which he was initially excluded and alien. His very ascent to power empowers him in a way that the aristocracy cannot understand. It is telling that eventual doom should be heralded by admission to the ranks of a class he has so terrorised. And yet, even Cromwell’s motives and convictions are unclear much of the time. Of course, his driving passion seems to be vengeance for the hounding and death of Cardinal Wolsey, but even this underdetermines the quiet ferocity of his actions which contrast so strongly with the kindness of his behaviour to others. Indeed, it is his very slipperiness of identity that so alienates Cromwell from others who rule. They are as duplicitous as he is, but he does not even have the virtue of their breeding.

At the heart of these novels is a vagueness of motivation, an instability of character, which moves Mantel’s work beyond Ryle’s Aristotelian moral psychology toward a more characteristically modern, perhaps more humanistic, understanding of motivation and duty. This vagueness goes hand in hand, of course, with the indeterminate nature of historical interpretation: ‘truth’ is a term anathema to historians these days. There is both a moral and a motivational vagueness in Cromwell. He seems likeable from inside, a man who cares about family, duty, and service: in the context of the 16th Century he seems a near paragon. And yet even we can’t be sure what he really thinks, and certainly those around him can never be sure. It is those who watch him most keenly who seem to understand him best, those who trust to his word are both few and far between and likely deceived. We certainly can’t acquit Cromwell for Anne’s death; a death that Mantel is careful to leave far from justifiable on the grounds that Cromwell believes her guilty. Her wrongdoing is never laid bare and nor is that of her courtiers. Is Cromwell simply facilitating Henry, advancing the interests of the nation, or cleaving to old loyalties? This impenetrability is characteristic of Mantel’s characters reflects one of the (few) aspects of moral psychology that Immanuel Kant and David Hume held in common: we can never be really sure why we do act in as we do, especially in ethical matters. Duty, self-interest, both, neither, one masquerading as the other? Cromwell is often questioned about his motives. His outward certainty belies his humanity.