Writer As Liar – My Debt To Guido Almansi

I had a shock a few months ago in a discussion with a poetry tutor. She told me that in her time at university as an undergraduate, what was taught was in strict adherence to the classic post-Leavis canon of English literature. As she is a bit younger than me, it was an eye-opener to hear such a tale of enforced orthodoxy, but it did ring true when I cast my mind to life back then in the 1970s.

In my final year of study, I frequently visited my then girlfriend (now wife) at her university. She was at Edinburgh studying German and I was at the UEA in Norwich studying Comparative Literature with German, and in that area where our studies overlapped, the two curricula were quite different.

The Edinburgh course was soundly anchored on the foundation of Mittelhochdeutsch and classical German literature. The UEA course, on the other hand, had offered the gateways of genre and literary/aesthetic movements into the German literary canon: in my case leading to finals papers in Tragedy and Modernism respectively: so these offered not only Goethe and Lessing, but also Brecht, Wedekind and Peter Weiß, and Musil, Rilke, Grass and Kafka. So it is and was hard to judge between the two – but they were certainly different.

The UEA also offered a German faculty that included W.G. Sebald, at that time not a published novelist (I knew him slightly as “Max” and he recommended several good Bavarian beers to me).  Indeed, in each area of my studies, the UEA had appeared to have gone out of its way to attract new voices into its faculty, with the other part of Comparative Literature in English and American Studies including Malcolm Bradbury. It was known that lots of his colleagues tried to identify themselves as Howard “History Man” Kirk, although to me, it seems like he was a composite: one man’s SWP politics mixed with another’s womanising and so on…

But for me the academic personality who summed up the spirit of the Comp Lit Sector (pointedly, not a department) was the new Professor who joined as my second year started, announced by one of the tutors as “an amazing character” (which indeed he was) – Guido Almansi, previously of Glasgow, Kent and Dublin Universities, rotund, full of joie de vivre, expansive, unorthodox and indeed iconoclastic.

I took several of his courses.  His subjects included the erotic novel and nonsense literature. Set books included Lewis Carroll, Henry Miller, Edward Lear, Nabokov, Christian Morgenstern, Phillip Roth, Raymond Queneau, James Joyce, Leonard Cohen and Samuel Beckett.  He railed against the humourlessness of D.H. Lawrence and challenged his students: “I am teaching you about literature that literally sets out to mean nothing – this goes against everything you have been taught in high school.”

The lesson for us was that in literature no subject is out of bounds, from literally nonsense right through to the obscene and transgressive. Here is what he has to say on that subject in one of his remaining critical works:

“Havelock Ellis…always mainitained … that great literary masterpieces deal openly and objectively with sexual issues. Probably he has a different list of literary master pieces than I do, for mine would include….” [Guido then goes on to list a string of what he accurately describes as “the most unusual and remarkable sexual excesses.”}

For what Guido really hated, and he makes it clear in the same critical work, and is the difference between the erotic and the pornographic, was writing that was boring.

Writing on Boccaccio, he says: “Fortunately, Boccaccio is not monotonous, for when he is obscene, he has the courage of his own obscenity.”

The name of the work on Boccaccio is also a great signal to Guido’s aesthetic:  The Writer As Liar. It is a remarkable book, which takes on centuries of Boccaccio studies head on, starting with references to Dante and rapidly bringing us to Winnie The Pooh and conventions of narrative voices.

The message is to use words to create what you want, to defy the truth, to defy convention and decency –  but don’t be dull whatever you do. For Almansi, Henry Miller at his best had passed the test, while D.H. Lawrence had failed and betrayed what he had set out to champion.

To me as a willing but naïve undergraduate from a very unliterary background, he was generous and helpful. He praised my translation of a poem by Morgenstern and said he would credit me if he used it in a book (I never knew if he did.) He stopped me in the Comp Lit Sector corridor one day and told me how interested he had been in the ideas in my essay. He never marked me down for references to beat poets, popular culture or rock and roll lyrics – as long as they were relevant and interesting.

He was just as generous with his social life. As a genuine bon viveur, he held great parties for all his students, where he served huge bowls of pasta and lots of good Italian wine. He also made a big deal of real Parmesan cheese, in two ways: he insisted that he had to bring it back in his suitcase every time he came back from Italy, this being Norwich in 1975; and he always invited the prettiest female students to the kitchen to help him by grating it. It was dodgy, but in character.

After the UEA, Guido went back to Italy, and became the Literary Editor of La Repubblica and in that capacity I saw him pop up on the old Late Review show, I think explaining his preference for Jay MacInerney over Brett Easton Ellis. Some of his articles are now online, notably an a review of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and an interview with Edward Said on his seminal Orientalism in the Literary Review  (paywall)

Guido Almansi died in 2001, aged 70, in Ticino, the Italian speaking canton of Switzerland. His literary interests were vast, his intellectual curiosity was even bigger, and his appetite for life was bigger still. He made me the reader I am today, for which I will always be in his debt. If I can write something he would have liked, so much the better. And I will try not to be boring.

Thanks Guido. And that’s not a word of a lie.

Herald letter: not the usual…

ALISON Rowat refers in her article (“Scottish Labour: Too feart to change and too stubborn to die”, The Herald, January 4) to a Fabian Society report which outlines the parliamentary arithmetic whereby the next General Election could lead to a government formed by an alliance between Labour and other parties – including the SNP.

Such a development would be welcome to many of us on the left and centre of politics – as long as the SNP gives up on independence.

Indeed, it ought to be possible to foresee a formal coalition, with SNP MPs taking places in the Government, in both the Scotland Office and in further all-UK departments. In contrast with their colleagues in the Holyrood government, some of the current crop of Nationalists at Westminster have shown that they might be perfectly adequate ministers: we can imagine Stephen Gethins on the EU at the FCO, and Alison Thewliss at Work and Pensions (following her work on the Rape Clause), and perhaps Tommy Sheppard at Defence, considering his former career in the multilateralist Labour Party. Likewise, a ministerial position for Mhairi Black would expose whether she has the substance to match her juvenile rhetoric.

It is even tempting to see the SNP becoming a sub-national junior partner for Labour: a centre-left equivalent to the arrangement in Germany between the CDU and the Bavarian CSU. However, there are two barriers to this progressive outcome, one of which could be overcome, and the other of which would be less tractable.

The first problem is that we cannot expect people in the other parts of the UK to be happy to be governed by a Scotland-only party: they could not vote for it, and thereby hold it to account at the ballot box. This might be overcome by standing on a common manifesto at the subsequent election, making the two parties effectively a single proposition to voters across the whole UK.

The second problem is that the SNP would necessarily be required to surrender its commitment to Scottish independence – ultimately, it would be perverse in the extreme to allow into the government of a nation state a party which is committed to the destruction of that very same state (in this case the UK).

To take this step, the SNP would also of course finally conform with the wishes of the Scottish electorate as seen in the outcome of the 2014 referendum. Regrettably, however, it also seems impossible given its proven propensity to put a dogmatic pursuit of independence above the wishes and the pragmatic interests of the people of Scotland.

Peter A Russell

Last Herald letter of the year: ‘Scotland is benefiting from the wealth of those in the south-east of England.’ (No £)

RUTH Marr (Letters, December 27) tells us “the further south you go, the wealthier it gets, and all down the decades … Scotland’s oil was flowing into the Westminster coffers”. In doing so, she illustrates perfectly the Nationalist mindset she denies – the belief that the greedy English have grown rich by hoarding the income from Scotland’s oil.

Such thinking is a purely a matter of choice, or of prejudice. For a start, her assertion is untrue – the furthest south you can go in Britain is Cornwall, which is one of the poorest parts of the country. Similarly her question “is [there] any other country in the world which would lie down and allow itself to be stripped of its wealth in the way Scotland has?” is utterly bogus: the country which has landed oil from the North Sea was and remains the UK. There has been no lying down and no stripping of wealth.

It is true that Scotland has a claim to oil revenues: but also to the revenues of the whole of the UK, for example, those accruing from Toyota in Sunderland, from Sage in Newcastle, from industry in the north-west of England and the English Midlands, and of course from the massive revenues of the financial services industries in London and elsewhere in the south-east.

All Ms Marr and those like her need to do is to embrace the idea that “we” are the UK and that what is “ours” is the wealth of the whole country. Anything else is an economic absurdity.

Indeed, the wealthier parts of the south are populated by taxpayers and indeed probably have a large number of higher rate tax earners. Scottish Nationalists might feel better in the New Year if they imagine all those people polishing their BMWs outside nice houses in Guildford and East Grinstead as a source of revenue just over the horizon which can be put to use for Scotland’s benefit. A bit like oil, in fact.

Peter A Russell

Herald letter: “where the money goes, let’s all share, and happy Christmas.”

At http://www.heraldscotland.com/opinion/letters/14986675.Letters__Unionists_need_to_spell_out_their_aspirations_for_Scotland/ some replies, especially in the online comments (Newsquest £wall).

ALASDAIR Galloway (Letters, December 23) shows two things in his account of the cash flows between Scotland and the rest of the UK.

The first is a surprisingly unsophisticated view of the economy, in that he seems to believe that revenues originating in Scotland over the past 35 years were shipped off south and straight into the pockets of the greedy English, never to return. In fact those revenues were retained within the same UK economy as the Scotland that generated them, and used for all sorts of things like social security, pensions, Regional Selective Assistance, tax cuts, the NHS.

Scotland benefited at the time from that public expenditure proportionately by population and need to the same degree as any other part of the UK, and of course continues to do so even as those revenues have declined. In these ways, the historic revenues to which Mr Galloway refers can be seen as investments which spread the risk and provide protection for an uncertain future.

The second is a certain meanness of spirit. The approach of regarding Scotland and the rest of the UK as hermetically sealed and indeed antagonistic units reflects an attitude of “what’s mine’s is mine and I am going to keep it.” The other way of looking at the same data is that the UK is a mechanism through which its different parts can share between, and support, each other for mutual benefit.

Of the above, one is the view of nationalists, and the other of social democrats and socialists. One is the philosophy of holding and keeping, and the other that of sharing, and supporting each other. I know which is more seasonal.

Happy Christmas everyone.

Peter A. Russell

Herald Letter: BBC Scotland (includes phrase “servile toadying”). (No£).

IT was good to see that Donalda MacKinnon, incoming director of BBC Scotland, is in favour of home-grown drama.

As a big fan of alternative histories, I would love to see a contemporary drama by one of our great playwrights or screen writers showing the impoverishment of Scotland, and the resulting social and political decay, had there been a Yes vote in 2014.

Indeed, it is a sign of the servile toadying prevalent in the Scottish cultural scene that no such work has been produced on our stage or screen since that vote. One might ask, for example, what the National Theatre of Scotland is for, if not to challenge the Government on behalf of the people.

Such a play on BBC Scotland would also fulfil Ms MacKinnon’s aim of bringing classic works of fiction to the screen: in this case the White Paper “Scotland’s Future/Fraudulent Costs (anag)” co-authored by Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon.

Peter A Russell.

An Old Man Rambles On At Christmas…

So, this is Christmas….

Here is another view based on the Bible-as-literature approach, concentrating on the question “What does it all mean?” –based on the same sort of scrutiny as we would afford to any other major work of prose. And in its King James version, it is very fine prose, being the product of not just the best theological minds available at the time, but also the best literary practitioners available.

The evidence of the sort of people responsible for the drafting can be seen in the wordgame of Psalm 46. If you count 46 words from the beginning, you get the word “shake”; if you do likewise from the end, excluding the incantation “saleh”, you get “spear”.  Add them together, and you get “Shakespear” – in the probable 46th year of his life.

The upshot is that we can conclude that either Shakespeare himself was working on the project, or one of the franchise known as Shakespeare, or someone else we know as Shakespeare, or one of his friends such as Jonson: the best the king could command.

Be that as it may, in the different accounts of two of the four gospels, we have the story of the nativity. In earlier blog a few years ago, I went into the story of the principals (the “holy” family), but there is another story worth examining: the meaning of the story for those who visited the newborn child – and in turn, for those of us who visit and revisit the story annually.

In doing so, we can also recall some more recent and local folklore. Even in my own lifetime (born 1954, as you are so kind to ask), we witnessed the eclipse of the figure of Father Christmas by the American invader Santa Claus. The latter is the product of the New World hijacking of the old Dutch Saint Nicolas, together with the 1822 poem Twas the night before Christmas (aka A Visit from St. Nicholas) by Clement Clarke Moore (1779 – 1863).

This was completed and popularised by the Coca-Cola Company for its Christmas sales campaigns beginning in 1931, and drawn by artist Haddon Sundblom.

However, in the UK, the equivalent figure was historically Father Christmas, or even Old Father Christmas, who had more in common with the North German Weihnachtsmann, and wore a long coat of green and white, rather than the short red jacket of the Coke version. He also in some depictions brought with him the New Year, in the form of a baby, bringing us back to the meaning of a birth at the turn of the year. Interestingly, this Old English version combines both a figure of experience and wisdom with one of infancy and potential.

Again, we can return to Bethlehem.

The first group that we know of who were interested in the events were the Wise Men from the East (not kings, nor only three of them, mentioned only by Matthew) – so, some scientists, interested in the meaning of astronomy, having been brought by the star. What is really interesting about this visit is that they get it wrong, in that they take the obvious route and expect the authorities (Herod) to know what is going on.  The meaning here is two-fold: first that the authorities usually do not know much about science, and secondly that discovery and wonder are found in every part of nature and science, in many cases where they are least expected – like a pub outhouse.

The other outcome of the wise men going to Herod is of course catastrophic: it brings about the slaughter of the innocents, showing that if tyrants and dictators are not in possession of knowledge and expertise that they fear, they react with murderous repression.

The second group of visitors to the newborn child are mentioned only by Luke: the shepherds. These are ordinary working people, dependent on the seasons and exposed to the elements as they make their living. Visited by an angel (probably not the winged djinn of Middle Eastern folklore but a messenger) and frightened out of their wits by a meteor shower (the heavenly host), they too go to see what is going on.

However, we never learn exactly what they get out of their visit, except – crucially – the wise men fall down and worship the child; and the shepherds praise god for all of the things that they had seen. So here we are at the heart of the matter: the mystery, the wonder of this great gift to the world, which is so transformational that it can only be described in terms of being god made human. It is the transcendental, that which remakes us, whether we are scientists seeking it, or ordinary working people suddenly hit by it.

“It” is the mystery, solved by believers as a supernatural force which works miracles. And also, when looked at closely by non-believers, as a human force which does just the same, such is the relationship represented by Old Father Christmas and the child who accompanies him or follows – we all get and need a spark, to open our hearts and minds to new creativity and to new joy in our lives.

And as 2016 ends, we need it more than ever: a year which has seen a series of public disasters which leaves us all looking forward to the future with understandable trepidation. And a year in which we lost many great and influential figures.

And yet even here, there is light, as described by one of those we have lost, Leonard Cohen:

Everybody has experienced the defeat of our lives. Nobody has a life that worked out the way they wanted it to work out. We all begin as the hero of our own dramas, in centre stage, and inevitably life moves us out of centre stage, defeats the hero, overturns the plot and strategy and we’re left on the sidelines, wondering why we no longer have a part or want a part, in the whole damn thing. So everybody’s experienced this. When it’s presented to us sweetly, the feeling goes from heart to heart and we feel less isolated and we feel part of the great human chain, which is really involved in the recognition of defeat.

Cohen’s evocation of how things can be “presented to us sweetly” and thereby link us to the hearts of others in the great human chain is worth all the wise men’s gifts and all of the praise of the shepherds. It is not supernatural, but it is a wonder.  We only need to recognise it.

We can also try to make it happen ourselves, in what we do and make and write (if that is what we do.)

This is the child that I will  welcome with Christmas again, and look forward to that transformational light which is always there –even if we are looking in the wrong place, it will find us, if we only keep seeking it.

Happy Christmas.

Herald Letter: An exit from the United Kingdom single market would be a disaster for our economy (avoid £wall)

She is correct – assuming she means the UK single market, which to Scotland is worth four times that of the EU. We also share a single land mass, a common language, and common currency, a common labour force with common skills and qualification regime and unqualified freedom of movement, a common customs and taxation regime. On top of that, we are sent £15 billion per annum to support Scottish public services. All directly controlled by a common parliament of equal constituencies, but with key competences devolved.

So why does she wish to rip Scotland out of the Union against its will?

Peter A Russell