Recreating a Disaster–William Blake at the Tate:
"Blotted and blurred and very badly drawn," sneered the Examiner – which, with its progressive politics, was in some ways the Guardian of its day. "The poor man fancies himself a great master, and has painted a few wretched pictures." The critic – the only reviewer of Blake’s 1809 exhibition – reserved, if possible, a more splenetic vocabulary for the catalogue, which Blake also wrote. "A farrago of nonsense, unintelligibleness, and egregious vanity, the wild effusions of a distempered brain," the Examiner thundered.
History has been kinder to the poet, painter, printmaker and visionary than contemporary opinion. Now Tate Britain is to recreate that disastrous exhibition – exactly 200 years after it was staged in 1809 – and will bring together at least nine of the surviving 11 works from the 16 in the original show. It will also republish Blake’s Descriptive Catalogue, now regarded as a fascinating and significant commentary on the London art world of his day. The 1809 exhibition, held in Golden Square, Soho, proved a turning point in the artist’s career. Embittered by its appalling reception, he withdrew even more from the art world into solitary eccentricity.
JPT: Yes, you’re right, it’s a manifesto, a program. I don’t know how aware of this I was. But still, it took me over a month to write the first paragraph. I still know it by heart. “It was at about the same time in my life, a calm life in which ordinarily nothing happened, that two events coincided, events that, taken separately, were of hardly any interest, and that, considered together, were unfortunately not connected in any way.” It’s a very radical opening, and it really is having fun with the readers. Here I am, a thirty-year-old writer saying: “What I’m about to tell you is absolutely irrelevant.” In other words: “I’m about to make you feel foolish.” It’s a very impertinent opening. I’m responding very offhandedly to Kafka’s famous aphorism: “In the fight between you and the world, back the world,” with “In the fight between you and reality, be discouraging.” So yes, it’s a manifesto, but it isn’t a theoretical essay or piece; it’s there, in the book itself, in the opening paragraph of the book, as a theory in action. Underlying my novel is, although it isn’t expressed theoretically, an idea of literature focused on the insignificant, on the banal, on the mundane, the “not interesting,” the “not edifying,” on lulls in time, on marginal events, which are usually excluded from literature and are not dealt with in books.
But while most of Crawford’s contemporaries were staging their loveless, white-knuckle relationship fiction in a spume of alcohol, boxed up in fresh suburban sheet rock, Crawford put his unhappily married couple, the Unguentines, to sea, rendered them as solitary (if not so innocent) as Adam and Eve, and he cursed them to be so awkwardly fit for human behavior that every kind of congress had to be reinvented and mythologized anew. If The Mrs Unguentine is so large and equipped it seems more like an island, it is also a floating stage for human experimentation, beyond the strictures of society, and the novel itself is a playbook for rethinking just what two people are supposed to do together when most of the livable world is out of reach. And to make their dilemma special, so we could see the nosedive of the Unguentines’ failed love through a crystal lens that Crawford ground himself from his own blend, he canopied the bad marriage with a fantastical dome, a literary invention so beautiful it doesn’t hog the spotlight so much as become a kind of distorted monocle through which to see this experiment in isolation, gardening, and love go terribly, terribly wrong.
60 Great Books in 60 Days, and, of course, blogging it.
In case you missed it, my favorite reads of 2008. These are all fiction, but at Ready Steady Book’s year-end "symposium" I’ll be mentioning some of my favorite reads from the critical sphere.