Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Specters of Eliot

This week it's the 30s. A little depressing after all that terrible honesty and sexy Surrealism, but what are you gonna do, we've got to get to the 60s somehow.

Anyway. Anyone remember two weeks ago when I noted that T.S. Eliot seems to have developed a split personality in the mid-1920s? Well, what's interesting me currently is that these two sides of Eliot seem to have borne fruit in two different writers: significantly, one a novelist, one a poet. I'm reading Henry Green's Living at the moment, which I highly recommend to both of you and to anyone else who may be reading this: it's really an extraordinary book, and certainly a neglected Modernist text (it was first published in 1929). I sort of expected Green to be basically a novel-of-manners type, and I suppose in a way he is, but he's much weirder than I expected. He writes a very spare, almost telegraphic kind of prose, not a million miles away from Hemingway or D.H. Lawrence or even at times Gertrude Stein, full of abbreviated syntax and dropped articles (for example, here are the third and fourth sentences: " 'What we want is go, push,' said works manager to son of Mr. Dupret. 'What I say to them is — let's get on with it, let's get the stuff out,' " 207). But Green pushes it further, and to more striking effect, in my opinion, than any of them. At times it anticipates David Mamet! At other times, William Gaddis! As well as more expected people like Green's friend Graham Greene, especially his early stuff like Brighton Rock.

As the above comparisons should indicate, what Green is especially good at, and what his reputation rests on, is dialogue. The range of voices in Living is pretty extraordinary, encompassing upper-class and lower, young and old, male and female, etc. And he's especially interested in his working-class characters, the rhythm of their speech, their slang, their reflection of motifs and phrases from movies, music, and other pop culture. As I wrote before, this was a talent of Eliot's which he largely neglected to develop after Sweeney Agonistes, perhaps deciding that it wasn't really suitable to lyric poetry: at any rate, I think Green must have read Sweeney, and the relevant sections of The Waste Land, before writing his book. John Updike's introduction makes it seem as if Green wasn't all that avant-garde of a guy (for one thing, he was the managing director of an engineering firm, just like "Mr. Dupret's son" in Living) and suggests that his style is modeled on Charles M. Doughty's 1888 Travels in Arabia Deserta (also a big favorite of Marianne Moore's; clearly I need to take a look at this book); but I'm thinking that there just have to be some Modernist skeletons in Green's closet as well: certainly Eliot and Lawrence, if not Stein. He does admit to reading Proust (and refers to him, very amusingly, on page 261; apparently he was a big tipper) but that influence is more or less undetectable, whereas the English writers — who would, of course, have been right under Green's nose — are all over the place.

At the same time, more or less, W.H. Auden is making the first significant advance on Eliot's style and sensibility in English (as opposed to American) letters. And he does it by taking the bleak, blasted landscapes that Eliot's poetry had colonized (in "What the Thunder Said," "The Hollow Men" and "Ash-Wednesday") and making them more specifically English, both in their descriptive particulars and in their metrical expression. But it largely lacks Eliot's irony, or sense of humor (though Auden would soon manifest one of his own); Auden, at this stage anyway, is not really interested in colloquialism, or vulgarity: he's interested in refining Eliot's style (and "refining" seems like an appropriate word here, since one of the things Auden does is put factories into Eliot's waste lands). The sense of sinister atmosphere that Eliot conjures in his poetry of the 20s becomes absolutely oppressive in Auden's early work: and for the Laforguean Symbolist lightness that Eliot always retains, even when seriously bumming us out, Auden substitutes a very English heaviness, experimenting with alliterative verse in imitation of William Langland's Piers Plowman (e.g., "Doom is dark and deeper than any sea-dingle") and other lugubrious effects. (The Doughty influence seems to sneak in in places as well, particularly in the prose sections of The Orators.)

I will probably write about Auden again soon so I'll stop here. But for now, in order to radically oversimplify everything and help me see what's wrong with my own argument (a useful tactic, I've often noted), I'll say that Eliot, in his early years, was equally interested in the way the modern world talked (which both delighted and repelled him) and the way it looked (which just filled him with disgust). Green is only interested in the former, Auden the latter.