Thursday 19 April 2018

Why The Owl Service is best: Ressentiment and Alan Garner

Alan Garner has often claimed to be motivated, as a writer, by anger - which he present as a righteous anger on behalf of others. But the sad reality is that he is all-too-often motivated by ressentiment: Nietzsche's term for a selfish, brooding, envy and spite - resentment, a kind of pride.

My conviction is that Garner began, all-but free of resentment - so in the first two books (Weirdstone of Brisingamen, Moon of Gomrath) it is absent. But it makes an appearance in Elidor as class consciousness - and, for me, significantly mars that book.

But with The Owl Service, which was written next - and perhaps because it is set in Wales rather than Garner's native Cheshire, giving distance - the ressentiment is taken-up into the story; and is overcome triumphantly in one of the best endings of any book, ever.

Consequently, the Owl Service is the summit of Garner's achievement - a 'perfect' (ie. unimproveable) book for older children to set alongside the greatest in that genre.

With Red Shift, the ressentiment returns in force, with endless brooding-on, depiction-of, the problems of a working class intellectual (i.e. Garner himself, or how he sees himself). And the pretentiousness of writing style (belated late modernism - of the Ezra Pound, Basil Bunting type) becomes solidified and inescapable.

His last novel, Boneland, ends with a categorical repudiation (to me, a betrayal) of the vision of his early novels - consigning them to a psychotherapeutic pseudo-reality.

After all, in the end - Garner's great gifts and vision and dedication and honesty are all overwhelmed by his lack of spiritual development - by his spiritual degeneration through adulthood. Since the writing is constrained by the man; how could it be otherwise?

Nobody - through a long life - not the genius artist - not anybody; can escape the malign consequences of rejecting God, of setting oneself against God...


John Fitzgerald said...

The Watson children, in Elidor, are working class kids in a working class city (Manchester). To my eyes, that's as far as Garner goes with it. He simply portrays life as it was lived by most folk there at the time. I really don't think he's pushing a class agenda or 'sticking it to the toffs' in any way. I'm from Manchester, as you know, and I have to say that as far as the average Mancunian goes, Elidor is probably his best known and best loved book, more so even than Weirdstone and Moon of Gomrath. I think that's because people in the city feel able to relate to it so well.

I completely agree with you about his later work though. Thursbitch and Strandloper are greatly lauded by the literary establishment yet I found them both so thin and disappointing - full of padding and wilfully obscure. As one reviewer of Strandloper noted, 'This could be a great novel, it's hard to tell.'

Boneland is poor all round. Really one-dimensional. He would never have had it published unless he had made his reputation already. Unlike a writer like John Cowper Powys, say, Garner's imaginative powers seem to have decreased with age. Let's hope he's got one more ace up his sleeve!

Bruce Charlton said...

@John - I know you like Elidor, and I would not want to put you off it! But it has never worked for me, and represents a dip between Gomrath and Owl Service, which I regard as the best books.

Have you read The Voice That Thunders? (A book of essays, several autobiographical.) It is very interesting, and also somewhat appalling!

Garner could probably also be regarded as having been 'consumed' by Anxiety of Influence - and the attempt to distance himself from Tolkien (especially, but also Lewis). This is perhaps what has led him into repudiating his true and natural bent as a writer, and (painfully, artificially) contriving to make himself into something else.

But he isn't really good at 'woodcut' modernism - as you say, the books veer between incomprehensible brevity and repetitive, padded-out stuff. Whereas someone to whom this comes naturally, say James Joyce in the early parts of Ulysses, or Basil Bunting in Briggflatts, attains a consistently densely-focused tone throughout.

Bunting is an interesting comparison - being a consciously regionalist writer in the modernist style; and aiming at a simiar rugged, stony compression of language: but in verse rather than prose. Another 'difficult' character! He returned from Persia after the war with a wife aged about fourteen (? can't remember exactly, but a long way the wrong side); and seemed surprised to be met with... hostility.

John Fitzgerald said...

Yes, I have read The Voice That Thunders. I'd forgotten about that one! I remember being pretty impressed with it. It seemed a lot more substantial and 'to the point' than the fiction AG was writing at the time (the 90s I think). I think you're right about his Anxiety of Influence re Tolkien and Lewis. I've not heard it put like that before but that would explain a lot.