The Western Canon by Harold Bloom

The Western Canon by Harold BloomPublished in 1994, Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon is a celebration of great literature. It has achieved a certain notoriety for Bloom’s taking a stance against what he saw as the unwanted politicisation of literary criticism (‘the School of Resentment’ as he calls it, being deliberately provocative), when for him the key to all ‘deep reading’ is the experience of the individual, alone with a book. ‘Such a reader,’ he says, ‘does not read for easy pleasure or to expiate social guilt, but to enlarge a solitary existence.’ But the real core of the book is Bloom’s attempt to, as he puts it, ‘confront greatness directly’. Doing this, he necessarily talks about ‘the canon’ — his particular Valhalla of great works from Western literature — but whether you agree with his choices or not is beside the point. It’s the conclusions he draws, or the aspects he celebrates, that are the reason to read The Western Canon. My own experience certainly chimes with his:

‘When you read a canonical work for a first time you encounter a stranger, an uncanny startlement rather than a fulfilment of expectations.’

As well as the standard reasons you’d expect for a work to be considered great — ‘mastery of figurative language, originality, cognitive power, knowledge, exuberance of diction’ — Bloom adds another, ‘strangeness’:

‘…a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange.’

Bloom_ShakespeareWildest of Bloom’s many wild ideas is that the way we’ve come to see ourselves as human beings has been, at least in part, formed by the representations of human beings in our greatest literature. For him, Shakespeare is the greatest of the greats, and the most influential on human nature itself. His pronouncement that ‘The more one reads and ponders the plays of Shakespeare, the more one realises that the accurate stance towards them is one of awe’, may sound overblown, but frankly, it’s nice to be in the presence of someone who allows themselves a little bombast when talking about what they love. ‘Shakespearean drama,’ Bloom writes, ‘seems at once utterly familiar and yet too rich to absorb all at once.’ And whether you agree or you don’t — or whether such statements could ever be lived up to by any work by any writer — I certainly find them inspiring, both as a reader as a writer. And that’s one of the things I like about this book: it makes me want to read better, to read ‘deeper’ or ‘stronger’, as he puts it. Bloom’s model as a reader (and critic) is Dr Johnson, who is, he says, ‘everything a wise critic should be: he directly confronts greatness with a total response, to which he brings his complete self.’

Reading properly, then, makes you both human and whole.

Bloom’s canon is no mere dusty list. It is, rather, an eternal battlefield on which current works must fight it out with the greats of the past to win a place: ‘a conflict between past genius and present aspiration, in which the prize is literary survival or canonical inclusion.’ Bloom’s judgements and summaries of writers and their works have a wonderful strangeness of their own, being utterly unverifiable but always illuminating, intriguing, and provocative, like the literary criticism version of Zen koans. ‘Shakespeare,’ he says, ‘is the inventor of psychoanalysis; Freud, its codifier.’ Or, to put it another way: ‘Hamlet did not have an Oedipus complex, but Freud certainly had a Hamlet complex and perhaps psychoanalysis is a Shakespeare complex.’ Later he says, ‘Freud, slyly following Shakespeare, gave us our map of the mind; Kafka intimated to us that we could not hope to use it to save ourselves, even from ourselves.’

Agon by Harold BloomThe thing that brought me to Bloom’s book was when someone told me he’d included David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus in his long list of canonical works (a list required of him by his publishers, apparently, rather than being something he set out to compile). In an earlier book, Agon (from 1982), Bloom devotes a chapter to sketching out a ‘theory of literary fantasy’, which he then applies, in some detail, to Lindsay’s novel (as well as offering an explanation of sorts for his one venture into fiction, his — dull, in my opinion — attempt at a Lindsay-esque novel, The Flight to Lucifer). This ‘theory of literary fantasy’ is short, but I’ve always found it to apply whenever I pause to test it on a work of fantasy I’m reading. Rather than an all-encompassing theory, it’s an attempt to understand a peculiar aspect of fantastic literature: why, when given the freedom to invent anything, and therefore to potentially indulge oneself in nothing but power-fantasies and pleasurable daydreams, great fantasy literature ends up confronting genuinely difficult and meaningful themes — in other words, what rescues truly good fantasy from the accusation of escapism:

‘What promises to be the least anxious of literary modes becomes much the most anxious… The cosmos of fantasy, of the pleasure/pain principle, is revealed in the shape of a nightmare, and not of hallucinatory wish-fulfilment.’

Fantasy, for Bloom, is the ‘compounding of Narcissism and Prometheanism’ (which sounds like a neat counterpart to Brian Aldiss’s definition of SF as ‘hubris clobbered by Nemesis’). It certainly applies to the best of the fantasy books I’ve reviewed on this site — think of, for instance, Ursula Le Guin’s Threshold, where two characters seek to escape from their daily lives in a fantasy world, only find themselves on a quest to face something even more dangerous and difficult; or a similar situation in William Mayne’s A Game of Dark, where an escape from a difficult home life is illuminated by a parallel quest to destroy a truly disgusting dragon.

Harold Bloom, photograph by Jeanne Bloom

Harold Bloom, photograph by Jeanne Bloom

Bloom’s The Western Canon has persuaded me to read a few of his choice of great books (among them, appropriately, Jane Austen’s Persuasion), though by no means all of them. But always, dipping into it, I’m revitalised as a reader. My canon is not, and will never be, Bloom’s (I’d put Peake’s Gormenghast books in there for sure, as well as Le Guin’s first two Earthsea books), but I can’t help but agree with him about the core purpose of reading, and of writing about what one reads:

‘Aesthetic criticism returns us to the autonomy of imaginative literature and the sovereignty of the solitary soul, the reader not as a person in society but as the deep self, our ultimate inwardness.’

‘Our ultimate inwardness’ — the thing I, for one, certainly search for between the covers of a book.

Threshold by Ursula Le Guin

I think one of the reasons I may have gone away from fantasy literature after my initial love of it when I was a young teen reading and re-reading David Eddings’s The Belgariad, was it was so hard to find fantasy that matured as I did. After that early enthusiasm for fairy-tale-ish adventure, what came next, where were the works of deeper power, or greater complexity? There were some, but they seemed as rare as they were wonderful: Holdstock’s Mythago Wood and Lavondyss, Peake’s Gormenghast books, Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea.

Threshold, Gollancz edition. Cover by Alan Cracknell

Threshold, Gollancz edition. Cover by Alan Cracknell

At my first reading, I found Le Guin’s 1980 novel Threshold (The Beginning Place in the US) a little dour, I think, but a recent re-read made me realise it was certainly one of those books that were taking existing fantasy ideas and adding much greater depth and weight, exploring the implications, adding complexity to the characters and ideas. Taking the Narnia-like premise of people from this world going into another, magical world, the difference with Threshold is that, unlike the children of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, who go to another world to essentially become fairy-tale versions of themselves (children in this world, adventurers then kings & queens in that world), the protagonists of Le Guin’s novel very much take the preoccupations and problems of their this-world lives with them. Initially using this other world as a refuge from difficult relationships and worldly hardships, the novel’s two protagonists (who, at first, are deeply resentful of each other’s presence in what they thought was their own personal hideaway) are drawn into the troubles of this other world in which they must play a key role.

Hugh Rogers (“Run-and-hide Rogers” as he calls himself) is twenty years old, working on the checkout of a local Thrift-E-Mart, and stifled by his over-controlling mother. Recently moved to the area, he discovers the very edge of the “twilight world” as he calls it (because its light is in a perpetual edge-of-day state) and finds in it the only real place where he can be himself. Irena Pannis, a little younger, has known the “ain country” (which she names after a line in a folk song she once heard) longer, having spent time in its mountain town of Tembreabrezi, where she has learned the language. For her it’s a refuge from a starkly unloving world, a world in which “Everybody I know just hurts each other. All the time”, and “Love is just a fancy word for how to hurt somebody worse.”

threshold_pbTembreabrezi is a way-station for travellers on the roads that pass through it, but recently something has changed: the town-dwellers themselves cannot walk the roads, cannot leave their town, and nobody is coming to them anymore. Something has to be done, something that was done, once, long before — a confrontation on a nearby mountain which left a previous lord of the town with a withered hand — something that Irena, with her basic grasp of the language, can’t quite translate or understand, something that the townspeople believe Hugh has come here to do.

A monster has to be faced. Like the worm in William Mayne’s A Game of Dark, it’s a pale, stinking, disgusting thing, almost too horrible to face, something that strips Irena and Hugh of all pretensions that they might, like the Narnia children, be in some way destined, blessed heroes in this realm — but also it’s a thing of pain and suffering, a thing that cries, “howling and sobbing”, an embodiment of something “horrible and desolate, enormous, craving”.

Quite what the monster is, why the roads are closed, and what the very palpable fear the townspeople feel is, is never stated, but I felt it was, in some way, tied deeply to Irena and Hugh’s own need for this escape-world that they find themselves in — as if, by leaving behind the fears and difficulties of the outside world when they come to the “ain country”, it in fact separates from them, into a sort of intensified, separate and monstrous form. The horror they face in this sad beast is real and loathsome and genuinely dangerous. But what happens changes Irena and Hugh, as though facing any fearful thing, if horrific and dangerous enough, can wash them clean of the lesser fears they deal with in their normal, daily lives.

Threshold is certainly a book worth not just reading but re-reading, one that feels it’s saying something new about the traditional ideas behind fantasy fiction, more than thirty years after its first publication.

IT by William Mayne

IT by William Mayne (HB)I was intrigued to find that, aside from Stephen King’s, there’s another book called IT, this one by William Mayne, published in 1977. I was even more intrigued by the plot: Eleven-year-old Alice Dyson, looking at her home town from a distance, spies a hill she didn’t know existed, and resolves to explore it. At the top she finds an ancient, faintly-carved stone, similar in shape and design to three crosses that mark the boundaries of the town (and of which her grandfather, a vicar who has written a local history, believes there to have once been a fourth). Digging idly in the mud beneath it, Alice finds a dark hole. She puts her hand in — and feels another hand grasp it. When she withdraws her hand, she still feels the presence of that other hand; hers is “still haunted by what had held it”.

Alice gets on with her everyday life. She’s a bit of a trial to her family, the sort of child who’s always doing the wrong thing. Her grandfather, a bit of an authority-figure in the family, in particular finds her wanting (“she was always a miserable milk-and-water miss, with the milk curdled and the water tepid,” he says). But this is not as bleak a book as the Mayne novel I reviewed last time, A Game of Dark — Alice herself has a lightness and humour that prevent these family tensions from building up to anything like the awful alienation that exists between Donald and his parents in that book.

Alice learns of a possible explanation for the ghostly hand:

“…a witch, or sorceress… had taken refuge in the town and then come into the Market Place and made terrible frightening threats against the town. Before she had finished them a retribution had come upon her and she had fallen down dead, some said struck by God, and others by the Devil, stabbed with an invisible knife in full daylight in front of a crowd of people.”

Returning to the hill, Alice pokes about in the darkness with a piece of rusty metal she finds nearby. Suddenly, she feels she has stabbed something, and the ghostly hand leaves hers. She, then, is the cause of that “invisible knife”. But her troubles are not over. She has attracted another presence. This is not the witch, but the witch’s familiar, a poltergeist-like spirit keen to attach itself to Alice as it once did to the witch. It starts providing Alice with rings that are meant to bind them together — often as not lifted from other people. Alice, quite sensibly, hands them into the police. The spirit starts trying to follow what it assumes are Alice’s wishes — she wins a game of monopoly with every dice roll landing in her favour; a friend who throws a snowball at her gets showered in the snow from a nearby window ledge; when Alice gets angry, the spirit starts to break things.

What stops William Mayne’s IT from being a horror novel is that Alice isn’t isolated by her strange experiences. In fact, several adults, including her grandfather, a local bishop, and her mother, all accept what’s going on. As her mother says:

“Don’t forget that I was… in New Guinea… I was your age at the time, and I was older, and we’re both quite familiar with wandering spirits that attach themselves to people for a time, so at least we knew what was going on. Believe me, we met far worse ones than yours. But of course out there it was much easier to talk about things like that.”

IT by William Mayne (Puffin PB)Perhaps it was because I was expecting IT to be more of a horror novel that I found it slightly unsatisfying at the end. Although the effects of the ghostly hand and the later familiar spirit can be quite spooky (whenever Alice approaches a church, she’s enveloped in her own little storm, as “IT” tries to prevent her from entering the holy place, which it can’t follow her into), Alice herself isn’t overly spooked, and instead, feeling sorry for this childlike spirit that’s attached itself to her, tries to find a way to free it, and her, from an unwanted bondage. She realises a ritual has to be carried out involving the four crosses that once surrounded the town. Usefully, there’s an annual parade that, if Alice can persuade the committee, could have its route changed so as to provide the sort of magical act required. She does this in a series of quick-cut brief scenes that bring a comic feel to the story. But Mayne’s skill at characterisation, and Alice’s constant little difficulties with people, particularly her family, prevent it from being the sort of E Nesbit lark-with-magic that might make it sound like.

IT passes through spooky territory, then, but never becomes a horror novel. Nowhere near as bleak as A Game of Dark, neither is it as powerful, though it has its moments. What lingers, rather than the sort of trials Donald Jackson went through in that earlier book, is the light touch and resilience of Alice’s character, and the way her determination to see this strange experience through, in her own way, finally wins round her previously disapproving grandfather, and the town as a whole.

A Game of Dark by William Mayne

William Mayne, A Game of DarkA Game of Dark (1971) opens with young Donald Jackson feeling dizzy and being led out of class to the empty school staffroom. There, he somehow slips between this world and another. In our world, he is Donald, the troubled teen son of a father left wheelchair-bound and in constant pain from an accident that occurred on the night Donald was born; in the other world, he is Jackson, a boy who wanders into a medieval town under siege from a gigantic worm, where he is picked by the new lord (Lord Breakbone — “The lord is supposed to protect us and to kill the worm, but it will not be killed, it kills them instead. So they send us another lord.”) to be his squire.

This slipping between worlds can occur at any moment, with no fanfare. At first it is only when Donald is alone — in the staffroom, or walking home at night — but later it can be while he’s in the presence of others, in mid-conversation, even. One moment he’s Donald in our world, the next he’s Jackson:

“He was being some other person, he found, in a crisp buzzing world of hard light and hard ground and hard people. Then, for a moment again he was Donald walking towards the bridge, and the boy who that morning, perhaps, had called himself Jackson to a girl on a hillside. For a moment he could choose again which he would be. One is real, he said to himself. Donald is real. The other is a game of darkness, and I can be either and step from one to the other as I like.”

At first, he teeters on the edge of full immersion. Hearing someone speak to him in that other world, he fights not to understand their language, because understanding will be a commitment to existing in that world; then he gives in. Returning to our world, he finds that time has passed, events have moved on:

“[His mother] was standing in the doorway of his room, and he was working at his homework, remembering what he had done since coming home without feeling he had experienced it.”

Neither world is an escape from the other. Donald cannot face his father, who has become strange, almost fearsome, and who can barely communicate through the often delirious pain, which he endures because of his beliefs. As Mrs Jackson tells her son:

“We were meant to bear pain in this world, and what’s sent to us we must submit to.”

Donald struggles to feel connected with either his father or his schoolteacher mother (who calls him by his surname at school, like any other pupil, and often slips into calling him the same at home). He wonders if he is truly their son. He finds a haven in a local church group — a Church of England one, disapproved of by his Methodist parents — and the (to my mind) rather touchy-feely friendship of the everyone’s-friend vicar, Mr Braxham, who encourages Donald to smoke and insists on being called “Berry”. In the other world, meanwhile, as if the everyday harshness of a bleak, medieval existence isn’t enough, there’s the worm, a great, unthinking, stinking thing that preys on the people of the town with nothing anyone can do to stop it.

A Game of DarkDonald/Jackson, then, has a whole series of father figures — Mr Jackson and Berry in this world, Lord Breakbone and the worm in the other. As his father in this world is taken into hospital, Donald can hardly find any feeling for him but a sort of panic fear; meanwhile, in the other world, the fight with the worm becomes unavoidable. At first it is pacified by animals left outside the town walls, but when the townspeople struggle to keep feeding it, it breaks through the wall and begins, once more, to eat human beings. (The worm in the book is particularly well-created. Its stink lingers for days; animals refuse to cross its slimy trail. In one fight, it suddenly produces a winged claw, seemingly as much to its own surprise as anyone else’s. The feeling is of a thing made stupid and complacent by being so powerful it has no serious opposition.)

Without its two worlds directly paralleling each other, A Game of Dark reaches its moving conclusion only when Donald brings his experience as Jackson in that other world — where he has faced and killed the worm, though not in the honourable, knightly way the town demands — to bear on the internal, emotional conflicts in this one. And not just on his own life. While, to him, the worm can be seen as standing for the darker and more difficult aspects of his relationship to his father, killing it throws light on just what his father must be facing — for his illness is a worm, too, something that humiliates and dehumanises.

Mayne’s style reminds me of Alan Garner’s in its spareness and occasional poetic density, its feeling of slight alienation from the world it describes, and its deft moments of character insight. But the matter-of-factness of slipping between one world and another, the way it is never explained, examined or excused, is something quite new to me in a fantasy novel, as is the very moving way the fantasy strand illuminates the equally-weighted real-world strand at the end.