This is the fourth and concluding part of the Professorial Inaugural Address delivered by Niall Griffiths on 8 December 2014 at the Arena Theatre in Wolverhampton. To read the speech in sequence follow this link to Part 1 and click on the ‘Go to’ links at the end of each installment.
PARADISE IS ON THE END OF YOUR NOSE: VOICES FROM THE OUTER DARK IN CONTEMPORARY BRITISH FICTION (Part 4 – Conclusion)
[I] see the word ‘darkness’ . . . as shorthand for the recurring pains and anguish of being alive. Such themes are not chosen; who would make a conscious decision to immerse themselves in the blood and tears of others, or to re-visit, and thus re-live, time and time over, their own past terrors and agonies and heartbreaks? Cliché to say one’s work is violent and sad because the world it deals with is violent and sad; an element of that rings true, but it’s not good enough – no cliché ever is. Better to call on biographical anecdote:
[On a] holiday in Wales – [I came across a] shrike’s larder – [there were] small creatures crucified, left to rot – grotesque fruit on the gorse – a demonic smorgasbord. . . I’d read about such things, in birdwatching books, but how to write about them, in the only voice I had, the one I’d been brought up with and that was as much a part of who I was as the colour of my eyes? [It] took 30 years to find a way – in Sheepshagger – although of course my voice as a writer is evolving and I may write differently about the experience now, but it would still be authentically me. Falseness – as when Amis adopts the voice of Lionel Asbo – leaps horribly off the page. You can smell it from a mile away.
My point is – it’s not a choice, to put the pain and brutality of the world under a magnifying glass. The shrike stands for nothing other than shrike-ness. It signifies nothing but the fact that there exists in the universe the idea and physicality of shrike, of butcher-bird. If we had a choice, I’d imagine that most of us would prefer not to study such suffering – we’d prefer to focus on the resilience of the rabbit in thriving as a species rather than the terrible vulnerability of its flesh to the claws of a hawk or fangs of a fox […]. And human frailty – if you’re concerned with this, and you will be, if the place of the species to which you belong in the narrative of the planet interests you at all – you’ll encounter sadness, and hate, and loneliness, and destruction – ‘darkness’, in other words. But in the way that the savage and awesome beauty of the hawk is dependent on the vulnerability of the rabbit, so human fragility, and the chaos that comes from that, stems from the irrepressible urge for its opposite – peace. It is the need for calm that leads to war. So I feel that it is incumbent on innately pacific people to make a study of violence, since such people remain resistant to its corruption and taint.
William Vollman, one of the most interesting and prolific writers at work today, spent 26 years on his 4000 page work Rising Up and Rising Down, a historical overview of the impulse towards cruelty, from the jurisprudential inequities of ancient Rome to the civil wars of the late 20th century and the crippling poverty of turn-of-the-millennium American cities. Far from gleefully imbibing the bilge that humanity has a tendency to produce, ‘dark’ writers actually undergo a certain sacrifice of contentment, both in their conscious interactions with ugliness and in their self-marginalisation – Derek Raymond’s autobiographical book The Hidden Files is essential reading in this area.
Many of the big-selling novels of recent years have tended to be those that satisfy a readership’s need for comfort – not calm, which is a very different thing; they portray our living closely together in a multi-cultural harmony in a Britain not without its problems but where everybody essentially gets along. Terry Eagleton’s take on this is rather different, as he trains his gaze on a dimension that the more polite writers lack: ‘multiculturalism’, he says, ‘poses a threat to the existing order not only because it can act as a breeding ground for terrorists, but because the political state depends on a reasonably tight cultural consensus in order to sell its materially divisive politics to its citizens’ (Reason, Faith, and Revolution). There is every reason to applaud that which makes Nigel Farage splutter into his stage-prop pint of bitter. But the 21st-century mind is daft like that; the noise within it is so hot and heavy and hectic that only repetitive confirmation of remedial neuroses or shared solipsisms can be heard above the static.
To my mind, one of the biggest-selling and most offensive pieces of writing to appear in the last couple of years consisted of 5 words: Keep Calm and Carry On. Everywhere, those
words, on t-shirts and mugs and window stickers and cushion covers and screen savers, at a time and in a place where more people than ever before are catastrophically losing all capabilities of achieving calmness and finding it impossible to carry on. One of the best of the ‘dark’ writers, and another resurrected voice, Richard Yates, turned his fierce gaze on this 50 years ago, in Revolutionary Road; a belief in a right to happiness leads to terrible despair, which leads to self-loathing, which deepens the despair; I’m told that I should be happy, that I’ve never had it so good, but I’m not happy, therefore there must be something deeply awry and remiss with me. I must be a horrible person to be so deeply wrong in my soul.
When a tough, honest writer can look squarely at all the horrors of the world, face all the facts, and still come up with a hard-won, joyous celebration of life at the end, in spite of everything, that can be wonderful. . . . It’s a cop-out to say that our times are too frantic or confusing for good, traditional formal novels to emerge. I think that’s just a cheap answer. . . . If my work has a theme, I suspect it is a simple one; that most human beings are inescapably alone, and therein lies their tragedy. (‘An Interview with Richard Yates’, Ploughshares 1.3 )
‘Traditional formal novels’. . . Yates was defending himself at the moment he was under attack, as his work was being passed over for the more experimental stuff of, for example, Robert Coover or Donald Barthelme. But Yates had found his voice, and he’d honed it whilst writing presidential speeches. Myself, I don’t write structurally formal novels – I find freedom in playing with form and voice, but my need to communicate with clarity and urgency does chime with Yates’s views. BS Johnson – yet another forgotten voice now receiving some of the attention it deserves – saw this as lying, and it’s one of the reasons for his suicide, this compulsion to lie to strangers, but I profoundly disagree with him; novels are a kind of collaborative truth, a collusion between writer and reader, and human contact, of course, a shared commonality of understanding, the thrilling and moving and stirring conversation between two people who will never meet, which is what reading is, is never hopelessly dark. Revelatory and empathic contact is all about light; in each other’s authentic voices we communicate our fears, illuminate our shadowed recesses, make them less dank, less foreboding, less frightening, and more bearable. This is the ‘joyous celebration’ that Yates refers to.So we come back to voice. All of this can only be achieved, to the satisfaction of one’s deepest urges, if we find a voice – are allowed the voice – that we both recognise and feel comfortable with using, that fits us like a skin. The tips of our tongues are just below the ends of our noses. Without this, we lie to ourselves, and to others, and not only invite the most calamitous of cognitive dissonance but also destroy the basic value of art, which is, to repeat, the light of contact in a darkness; to achieve, in Dylan Thomas’s words, ‘the momentary peace that is a poem’. With it, we achieve that kind of joyous celebration which makes the world, despite everything, the only place of possible wonder; we can’t live anywhere else, after all. Ron Berry is back in print (and apologies to those of you who’ve read my intro to the LOW edition, because now you’ve heard my thoughts on Berry twice); Kelman, and others like him, continues to produce work that astonishes and amaze; you can indeed find infinity in your back yard. We have Russ Litten’s Hull dialect; we have the local Liz Berry; Katie Tempest; when I was teaching up in Liverpool recently I spoke to a group of writers working in Scwelsh – Scouse/Welsh; first language Welsh speakers who’ve settled in the city. It is a beautiful Babel. It is a glorious cacophony of voices which ensures that there is no inner darkness, and which goes some way to lightening the world we share. Last word to DH Lawrence, son of a miner who tapped the seams of his own inner pit for light-giving fuel:
if you’re a writer [and reader, I would add] you know that paradise is in the palm of your hand, and on the end of your nose, because both are alive, and alive, and man alive, which is more than you can say, for certain, of paradise. (‘Why the Novel Matters’)