Friday, October 28, 2011

Aside : The European Sovereign Debt crisis

So, a deal has been done and the European Financial system has been saved. The markets, in their infinite wisdom, have endorsed it with the FTSE up 3% on the day, everyone staggers back from the breach, breathing heavily. However, I'm not so sure...

The deal seems to as follows :- lenders to Greece take a 50% haircut, which, if it is big enough, is OK as long as it is voluntary so Credit Default Swaps don't kick in; European banks impacted must make a provision for €106bn recapitalisation by June 2012, which is OK as long as they don't do so by reducing credit lines and starve the economy of the investment needed to stimulate growth. No, my issue is with the way in which it is proposed that the European Financial Stability Facility is expanded from its current remaining €250bn to €1tn.

We are told that this will be done in two ways - by allowing investors such as China to invest in it, which is reasonable as long as no-one asks the awkward question "Who won the Cold War, Daddy?", or by using the existing EFSF to provide insurance to buyers of new Eurozone debt in order to drive down the cost of borrowing and make it less risky to investors. This is a fine idea. So fine, in fact, that it was essentially the idea behind the Monoline Insurers, who originally insured American Municipal Debt before expanding into CDOs in the 1990s. The big banks insured their Super-Senior Debt with the Monolines, so that CDOs became theoretically risk-free - that was, until the entire US mortgage market started to implode and the ratings agencies reduced the Monolines' credit ratings ...

So what is different this time? Well, the EFSF is underwritten by countries with AAA credit ratings - like France. If France is downgraded, so is the EFSF and the cost of borrowing goes up. And its only part of the bonds that is insured - the top 20%, the riskiest portion. Needless to say, the financial whizzes have already worked out that both parts of the bond can therefore be priced separately, which negates the point of leveraged insurance in the first place.And then, if there is some general move to default, which is in my opinion would be not only possible but likely if another country heads the same way as Greece, the insurance would not only be inadequate,but would stoke the contagion that would rip like wildfire through the unprotected part of Financial System and leave the Policy Makers with no time for an adequate response.

There is an alternative - for the European Central Bank to print enough money to cover all losses on the bond market. But the consequences of pumping a couple of trillion euros worth of new money into the system would be anathema for a German banker with an inherent fear of hyperinflation. However, sometimes the threat of overwhelming force is what is needed to bring calmness to a situation - the threat of mutually assured destruction has limited the scale of international conflicts over the past sixty years, whilst it wasn't until there was a pair of policemen on every street corner of every city in England (and some exemplary punishments swiftly handed out by the courts) that the riots were calmed this summer. Maybe this is what is required - the threat of overwhelming force to force some sanity in the form of lower costs onto bond markets and to allow politicians some time to put in place policies that may generate the growth that is required to get us out of this mess.

However, as far as I am aware this is not what is proposed. Politicians and Bankers have an interest in talking up the rescue mechanism, but I'm not convinced, and I don't think it will take long before the cracks appear. This is one Equity market rally that I would avoid with a gilt-edged bargepole.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Book Review : The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (Penguin Classics 2010)

Few books can claim to be more influential. The Castle of Otranto is generally recognised as the first Gothic Novel, and as such its influence can be seen everywhere - in Gothic Novels themselves from Castle Rackrent to Dracula, in the historical romances of Sir Walter Scott, in the Sensation Novels of the 1860's. Hammer Horror films of the 20th Century are direct descendants, as is the current fad for everything vampire-related. Even Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey and Emily Bronte in Wuthering Heights demonstrate its all-pervasive influence.

Yet the book itself is almost unreadable.

On the day of his wedding to Isabella, Conrad the son of Manfred is dashed to pieces under a giant falling helmet which has appeared from nowhere. A peasant called Theodore observes that the helmet is like that on the statue of the former prince Alonso, for which Manfred imprisons Theodore under the helmet. Fortunately the point of the helmet digs a hole in the ground through which Theodore can escape into the subterranean passages under the Castle. Meanwhile Manfred tries to ensure his dynastic succession by announcing that he will divorce his saintly wife and marry the now-available Isabella, who is not enamoured of this prospect.

What would become in time the clichés of the genre are met here first - the evil ruler who must have his way, the virtuous princess, the peasant who is really a prince, the prophesy of destruction of the family, thunder and lightning, inexplicable events...All fine in their place. Unfortunately, they are thrown together here in a completely indigestible mass. The falling helmet and the giant limbs are too silly for words. There is not a character who isn't a parody, who doesn't act in a predictable manner, there is no coherent plot but what is seemingly a stream-of-consciousness succession of incomprehensible events.

One must give credit to Horace Walpole for putting together such an original work in the first place - but one must also give him credit for knowing when to stop as this was the only book that he ever wrote.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Book Review : The Maniac in the Cellar - Sensation Novels of the 1860s by Winifred Hughes (Princeton University Press 1980)

In this approachable academic analysis of the nature, origins and impact of the Sensation Novels of the 1860s, Winifred Hughes examines the primary works of Charles Reade, E.M. Braddon, Mrs Henry Wood and Wilkie Collins in detail, before making a strong case to show how the spirit of the Sensation Novels continued in a much more literary vein in the works of Thomas Hardy.

She sees their roots in the Gothic novels of the late eighteenth century, the romances of Sir Walter Scott and the Newgate Novels of the 1830s. However, whilst Gothic novels had the elements of romance, adultery and murder which Sensation Novels would appropriate, they lacked a contemporary context. The fact that Sensation Novels were not set in a medieval Italian castle but in middle-class England gave them a thrill and immediacy that was all the more shocking. Newgate novels were contemporary, but they dealt with a criminal underclass whose activities might as well have been as distant as Scott's warring clans to their readership.

She examines the nature of the criticism levied against Sensation Novels, much of which was for the way in which adultery, bigamy and murder was apparently condoned by the authors.Underlying this was a sense that books such as these were democratising the novel, bridging the gap between the penny-dreadful and serious literature and offering dubious moral examples to readers of the lower classes, just as characters such as Aurora Floyd or Magdalen Vanstone move with apparent ease between social classes. Equally, Sensation Novels threatened to usurp the traditional role of the Woman within Victorian literature.Rather than being the emotional lynchpin of traditional melodrama (or - in an area not explored by Hughes - the fulcrum and motive force around which all Women's literature from Jane Austen through the Brontes to Elizabeth Gaskell revolves),  women become for the first time forces of moral ambiguity (in the case of Lady Isabel Vane) or evil (as per Lydia Gwilt).

Hughes locates in Wilkie Collins the Sensation Novel's key place as the transitional form between early Victorian romance and melodrama and its successors in twentieth century thrillers and detective novels.  In tightly-plotted but essentially open constructions such as The Woman in White and Armadale, characters are still subject to external supernatural forces such as dreams, fate and coincidence. Collins' great insight was to enclose the construction of The Moonstone by making it a mystery to be solved. By limiting the scope, Collins reduces the dependence on the supernatural and thus transforms the melodrama into a form that is suited to the emerging materialistic society. The runaway success of detective fiction as a genre in the twentieth century validates this choice. In this respect, Hughes' highly perceptive coda on Thomas Hardy recognises his work represents a return to a more traditional melodrama, but one that takes place in a universe stripped of moral absolutes. As such it represents the bridge from the Sensation Novel to the literary nihilism of the Twentieth Century

Book Review - East Lynne by Ellen Wood (Mrs Henry Wood) (Oxford World Classics 2005)

East Lynne was one of the most popular novels of the 19th Century, yet, as is usually the case, its critical reception did not match its popular sales. Certainly it is moralistic, overly sentimental and Ellen Wood's writing style seldom rises above the workmanlike. Yet it is also extremely well-plotted, fast and intriguing, and introduces us to someone who to my mind is one of the more interesting heroines in Victorian literature. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

First published in serial form from 1860 to 1861, it is one of the books which helped define the "Sensation Novel" of the 1860s, yet - despite the heroine's adultery at the heart of the novel and her subsequent return heavily disguised as the governess of her children and the arrest of  the corpse of her father- it is less extreme than many other books of this genre. This is because of what I consider to be the skilful handling of the central character.

Lady Isabel Vane's mother has died, and her deeply-indebted father, the Earl of Mount Severn, is forced to sell his house East Lynne to his lawyer Archibald Carlyle, who nevertheless keeps the sale secret and allows Lord Mount Severn to remain there, where he inconveniently dies.Lady Isabel discovers that she is penniless and forced to live with her Uncle and his wife, who despises her for her looks and sweet nature. Fortunately, she is rescued by Carlyle's offer of marriage, much to the disappointment of Carlyle's neighbour Barbara Hare. Carlyle is secretly assisting Barbara's brother, who is on the run following an accusation of murder, and his frequent close discussions with Barbara arouse Lady Isabel's jealous suspicions. These are exacerbated by the nefarious rake Sir Francis Levinson, who is staying incognito at East Lynne whilst Carlyle tries to sort out his tangled affairs. Finally, Carlyle declines a dinner engagement pleading pressure of work, but Lady Isabel sees him with Barbara Hare as she returns. She learns from Levinson that Carlyle  has been with her all evening, and in a jealous rage, she elopes to the Continent with Levinson, leaving Carlyle and her children behind. She is not gone long before she realises that she has made a terrible mistake.

Wood's dilemma is to ensure that Lady Isabel retains the reader's sympathy despite her being an adulteress who has abandoned her children. This she does by very carefully constructing the reasons for her jealousy. Carlyle is a heroic character, almost too good to be true, but not given to great introspection. He has no idea how his work to assist his old friends the Hare family could be perceived. Levinson though ensures that Lady Isabel is aware of all his clandestine meetings with Barbara Hare. Crucially, Lady Isabel deeply respects Carlyle, and hopes that she will come to love him, but does not do so yet. She doesn't have parents or any close relative or friend to offer moral guidance, and she feels estranged in her own household by the oppressive presence of Carlyle's opinionated sister.

So she snaps, and regrets it for the rest of her life. The rest of the book follows her search for expiation. Carlyle marries Barbara Hare, and, badly disfigured in a train crash, Lady Isabel returns as Madame Vane, a governess who has to endure the torment of seeing her now-beloved husband being caressed by Barbara Hare, who is called mother by her children. The depth of her torment, and the knowledge that she had been manipulated by a bad man, ensures that she remains a sympathetic character.

Meanwhile, the other strands of the plot come together. Levinson ill-advisedly decides to stand against Carlyle for Parliament. The truth about the murder of Hallijohn slowly emerges. Justice appears to be done.

The success of the novel depends on Ellen Wood's ability to construct a believable set of reasons for Lady Isabel to be driven to elope with Levinson, and this she does with skill. To my mind the second half is weaker since her return unrecognised as a governess does stretch credulity a little far. However, by this point some genuine Victorian tear-jerking sentimentality has kicked in, and, coupled with fast-paced satire on the electoral and judicial processes, conspires to carry the reader breathlessly to the end.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Book Review - The Dead Secret by Wilkie Collins (Oxford World Classics 2008)

The Dead Secret is Collins' last work before he struck gold with The Woman in White, and it marks a considerable step forward from the novels which preceded it. On her deathbed, Mrs Treverton, the wife of the wealthy Captain Treverton, dictates a confession to her maid, Sarah Leeson, to pass to her husband and makes her swear that she will never destroy the letter or let it leave Porthgenna Tower. Leeson, however, hides the letter and flees, and Captain Treverton dies without ever discovering the secret. However, his daughter Rosamund discovers there is a secret locked up in the mysterious Myrtle Room, and sets her mind to discover what it is.

Sarah Leeson is the most interesting character in the book. A shy and weak character, she is haunted by her past and the responsibility placed on her by Mrs Treverton.When she reappears as Mrs Jazeph, Rosamund's temporary nurse, Collins carefully manages her behaviour to make it both creepy and suspicious, but also sympathetic. As her past is slowly revealed, all Collins' skills are deployed to ensure that what may be ostensible faults of character to a Victorian audience never come between Sarah, Rosamund and his readership.Rosamund is a sparkier heroine than the bland Mary Grice in Hide and Seek. She is headstrong and has a temper, and although she and her husband Leonard Frankland (who is blind for some reason, as it has little impact on the plot) are of such unimpeachable uprightness and morality that they restore Andrew Treverton's belief in humanity, she is also believable as she comes to terms about the unexpected change in her circumstances as the Secret is revealed.

The novel works on several levels. Collins handles the Secret with great skill, ensuring that the reader is intrigued from the first chapter, and then gradually building the tension through the interplay of the main characters as Rosamund firstly finds out about the Secret, then Sarah tries to hide it once again. It is also very carefully balanced in terms of characterisation. Any oversweetness on the part of Rosamund and Leonard is balanced by the misanthropic Andrew Treverton and his manservant Showl.The intensity of Sarah Leeson is balanced by her engagingly eccentric Uncle Joseph.And finally, it is morally engaged, subtly showing the iniquity of Victorian laws on marriage, illegitimacy and inheritance, perpetual themes of Collins. Compared to Collins' other early works, this is really the springboard to his masterpieces such as The Woman in White, as by now all the key elements are in place - the sensation, the drama, the pathos - for Collins to make his mark on the Victorian novel.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Book Review - A Rogue's Life by Wilkie Collins (Dodo Press 2007)

This early work of Wilkie Collins is little more than a novella, and completely lacking the finely architectured plots that we come to associate with Collins' novels, but it is nevertheless remarkable for the cynical, worldly tone adopted by the first-person narrator.

Collins is capable of writing well, but he can also be a very functional writer with flat prose driving forward a complex plot, as in the following example from "The Dead Secret" :

  The nurse who was in attendance on Mrs Frankland had suddenly been taken ill, and was rendered quite   incapable of performing any further service for at least a week to come, and perhaps for a much longer period...Mr Frankland suggested telegraphing a medical friend in London for a nurse, but the doctor was unwilling for many reasons to adopt the plan except as a last resort. 

As can be seen, the tone is flat and functional, without any frills except those relevant to the matter in hand.

A Rogue's Life is different, as the narrator's passage below demonstrates.

  After I had left school, I had the narrowest escape possible of intruding myself into another place of accommodation for distinguished people; in other words, I was very nearly sent to college. Fortunately for me, my father lost a lawsuit just in the nick of time and was obliged to scrape together every farthing of available money that he possessed for the luxury of going to law. If he could have saved his seven shillings, he would certainly have sent me to scramble for a place in the great university theatre; but his purse was empty, and his son was not eligible therefore for admission, in a gentlemanly capacity, at the doors.

The cynical, smart, sarcastic tone is ideally suited to the feckless Softly, the narrator, who dedicates what wit he has to schemes for getting rich quick and getting to know the beautiful Alicia Dulcifer. Unfortunately, his get-rich schemes come to naught, until he discovers Alicia's father's secret.

By this point, Collins command of tone has waned, and the novel becomes plot-driven once again, which is a shame as what plot there is is nonsense of the highest order and not really worthy of further discussion. However, it shows what tools Collins had at his command as a writer when he put his mind to it, and gives us a foretaste of bravura rogues such as Count Fosco in his later books.

Book Review - Hide and Seek by Wilkie Collins (Oxford World Classics 2009)

By no stretch of the imagination can this be counted a great novel: at best, it is engaging, tightly plotted, reasonably well-written with some interesting satire on the art market. However, it is also full of unbelievable coincidence, over sentimentalised, with a lead character so irritating that one could cheerfully throttle him. It certainly offers no great insight on the human condition. Compared with Basil, the controversial novel which preceded it – and despite Basil's many faults – this is a step backwards.

Collins is a master of the slow-reveal, the plot which reveals its secrets layer by layer, and this is a good example. Mystery surrounds the background of saintly deaf and dumb girl Mary, known to all  - heavy symbolism alert – as Madonna, who has been obtained from a circus, where she was being mistreated, by artist Valentine Blythe. Blythe wants to hide her so that she cannot be reclaimed from him by her real family, but unfortunately his ne’er-do-well young friend Zack Thorpe has met with a mysterious character in a punch-up in a London drinking den who is also on the lookout for Mary.

Zack is an impetuous, rash young man: rebelling against his repressively strict father he is much given to carousing, but his heart is in the right place. He is however totally unreflective and has a mouth on overdrive  that gets wearing after a while. Valentine is probably the most believable character in the book, not a particularly good artist, but one good enough to make a living from those who didn’t know any better. Having an artist-father (a very good artist at that), Wilkie Collins knew what he was talking about here. Valentine’s wife and Mary herself are simply too good to be true. However, it is the mysterious Matt that dominates the second part of the book. Is Zack being naive in trusting him? Is he a force for good or evil? What is his link to Mary?

Throughout his writing career, Collins is a consistently harsh critic of hypocrisy. As the father of at least three illegitimate children himself, his respect for such children’s opportunities in life and contempt for those who seek to evade their responsibility for them is clearly shown through all his works. Eventually, the mystery of Mary’s origins are explained, whilst – unlike in Basil – Victorian proprieties are respected. Whilst this is a neat resolution, the novel lacks the real cutting edge that one associates with Collins’ best fiction.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Art Review : Joan Miro : The Ladder of Escape (Tate Modern 9/9/11)

The turbulent history of Spain in the Twentieth Century can be quickly summarised - the instability of the early years erupted into violent civil war in 1936, which led to the dead hand of Franco holding the country in thrall for the next forty years, until his death in 1975 and the rebirth of Spanish democracy. Any artist who has chosen to live in Spain through these years must be viewed in the context of such upheaval. What is brilliant about this exhibition is the way it uses the political context of Spain and specifically his native Catalonia to contextualise the work of Joan Miró.

Tête de Paysan Catalan
by Joan Miro
Tate and Scottish National
Gallery of Modern Art
It starts in Mont-Roig - the home of Miró's family near Barcelona, which he depicts lovingly in paintings which already set out essential aspects of Miró's vocabulary, such as the ladder between earth and the stars which recurs throughout his work and gives this exhibition its subtitle. Miro's work is rooted in his Catalan soil, and when in 1923 General Primo de Rivera comes to power in a coup and bans the Catalan language and flag, Miro subtly responds with a series of paintings based on the heads of Catalan peasants, all of which feature a highly stylised barretina, the traditional headware of the Catalan peasant but also associated with the Revolta dels Barretines, where 17th century Catalan peasants rose up against oppression from Madrid.

As the tanks rumble into Barcelona, Miro escapes with his family to Paris, where he works on the Spanish Republican pavilion. Yet he doesn't produce an overtly political masterpiece like Picasso's Guernica. Miro's work is difficult to interpret, reaching for a vocabulary which has been developed over several years.Yet his title "Le Faucheur" - The Reaper - is an explicit reference to Els Segadors, the Catalan national anthem (incidently, as a protest against the banning of the Catalan language, Miro always gave his paintings French names).

For many years under Franco, Miro painted little, concentrating on pottery. He lived on Mallorca, enjoying international fame but little recognition at home since he refused to participate in state-sponsored shows. When a major retrospective was put on in Barcelona, Miro countered with a project entitled Miro Otro in which traditional dynamic of a multi-work exhibition was challenged by a vast, temporary collaborative mural constructed with young radical artists.

Even as an old man, focussing on a starling series of meditative triptychs which have been heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism, he responds to political repression in Catalonia, and in particular the sentence to death of Salvador Puig Antich, by painting The Hope of a Condemned Man. 

What this exhibition does so well is to demonstrate in broad terms the way in which Miro's work has developed, but then to use the political context as a means to highlight aspects of his art. The political is never overplayed, the art is paramount, and this is exemplified by the way in which The Hope of a Condemned Man is displayed alongside explicitly non-political works. The net effect is to make a significant and highly intelligent enhancement of one's understanding of such an important aspect of Miro the person, the artist and of his works.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Art Review : The Vorticists (Tate Britain 2/9/11)

What is the purpose of an exhibition? Usually, it comprises a number of art works brought together in such a way as to present a different perspective on the artist, movement, genre or collection. My preferred way to "do" an exhibition is to go round slowly, trying to understand each work on show on its own terms, then reading any explanatory cards and listening to further explanation on the audioguide. Then I buy the catalogue to read at my leisure, thus giving myself ample opportunity to understand the main themes that the curators wish to develop.

However, I left the recent Vorticists exhibition feeling that I was missing something, and it's difficult to identify exactly what the gap was, as this was an interesting and well-constructed show. Perhaps it was simply a lack of historical context in the exhibition itself, which was covered in greater detail in the catalogue.

Certainly in this case, context is all. The Vorticists may have been a largely British art movement, but they were entirely of their time and could not exist without the impact of cubism, futurism or the various strands of early 20th Century modernism. At the exhibition itself these themes were hinted at, but it needed the catalogue to fill in the background detail. I hope this doesn't presage a trend towards less information being on display in the exhibition hall itself.

Newcastle c1913
by Edward Wadsworth
Johanna and Leslie Garfield Collection
The Vorticists themselves were a mixed bag, dominated by Percy Wyndham Lewis. Of the paintings on display, his works and those of Edward Wadsworth are really the only Vorticist works of interest (that is, excluding  the works of David Bomberg and CRW Nevinson who never counted themselves amongst the Vorticist ranks). Wyndham Lewis's work has a rough, jagged energy which aggressively confronts the viewer. Many of his paintings are now lost, but his power - and the influence of cubism - is best seen in his Timon of Athens lithographs. Wadsworth is more restrained, yet his black and white woodcuts of northern towns combine a stark modernist vision of industrial Britain with immense sensitivity of execution.

However, the most powerful work on display for me was the sculpture of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Jacob Epstein. Both were deeply influenced by native sculpture reaching Europe from Africa and the Pacific Islands, and the way in which this was starting to be used by Picasso, Modigliani and others. Epstein was never formally part of the Vorticist group, although he did exhibit with them. The Rock Drill that confronts you when you enter the exhibition encapsulates the Vorticist aesthetic: modern, angular, aggressive and sexual. Meanwhile, Gaudier-Brzeska's Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound represents the High Priest of modernism as monumental, instantly recognisable, and decidedly phallic.

Vorticism's philosophy was encapsulated in the periodical Blast, only two issues of which were produced. It is undoubtedly Wyndham-Lewis's creation, pretentious, provocative and wilfully contrarian. The exhibition attempts - rightly - to put Blast centre-stage, but it is difficult to appreciate a wordy production in such a context. It is obvious that much effort has been made to display Blast's philopsophical, literary and artistic aspects in a coherent manner.

Ultimately, the Vorticists rage against the modern world was subsumed in the First World War. Their posturing appeared irrelevant in the context of the slaughter of the trenches. Wyndham Lewis and Wadsworth joined up and fought with distinction in the war, whilst Gaudier-Brzeska's death at the Front is commemorated in the second issue of Blast. Ultimately, the Vorticists were too derivative - and, let's be honest, not talented enough - to make a significant impact beyond British shores. Their art took from Cubism, their philosophy from Futurism and the pot-pourri of modernist groups trying to understand the new century. This exhibition is a worthwhile attempt to place them in their proper context.