||Onward To The New Age
by Keith Garebian
HUGH HOOD`S THE NEW AGE series of novels is, as J. M. Cocking said of Prousts Remembrance of Things Past, the Divine Comedy of a religion of art. Where Proust invented four artists (Bergotte the novelist, Elstir the painter, Vinteuil the composer, and Berma the actress) to convey his notions about art and to show how these ideas were gradually implanted in his protagonist`s mind, Hood has May-Beth and Edie the painters, Tony the playwright-novelist, Linnet the actress, and Matt the custodian of Canadian style. There is also Andrew, the "red" philosopher-saint, who turns the study of values and ethics into a religious art. As characters they all fit into Hood`s plan for a panoramic epic that, forward-looking and hopeful, is composed of sensuous pleasures and knowledge beyond mundane experience -- is really a secular analogy of scripture.
The plan of the series was there from the first in The Swing in the Garden (1975), which, in addition to introducing Hood`s central characters, themes, and emblems, moves from Edenic innocence to after-the-fall experience. Matt Goderich looks back on his childhood and adolescence, beginning with the image of the garden swing (his equivalent of Proust`s "petite madeleine"), and remembers the romance of youth. Like his biblical namesake, he is a synoptic evangelist, one whose voracious intellect internalizes a period`s manners, its social and cultural styles. Matt`s pendular swing away from innocence moves from the pastoral into the darkness and frustration of the human heart. His expulsion from Edenic infancy is marked by a sequence Of Sufferings: he witnesses Adam Sinclair`s cruel humiliation in the infernal din of a cinema, he is accidentally stabbed in the back on his brother`s christening day, and he burns with unrequited love for Beatrice Skaithe who, like Dante`s Beatrice, the "blessed one," is unattainable. His father`s restaurant business fails, and Matt is publicly humiliated by Marianne Keogh. Then the book becomes decidedly demonic as it leaves us poised for the outbreak of the Second World War.
A dominant image is that of a wheel that links us to cars, trains, and the vagaries of fortune, while also outlining an epic cycle -- one that appears to be Proustian and religious. The Swann and Guermantes ways of Proust, which point beyond topography and social manners to time recaptured and redeemed, have their correspondence in Matt`s excursions and swelling spirit of place. Proust`s meditative Marcel has his counterpart in Matt, who relishes "the shapes of things" and how images can reveal interior feelings. The collecting and recording impulse, which never abates in any of the novels published to date in the New Age series, articulates "a Connected account of the past." But Hood`s epic goes beyond Prousts by transforming the mundane into something holy.
Subtly embedded in The Swing in the Garden is an image of Matt as a "knight" who evades a sacred vocation ("I didn`t want to become a priest"), but who privately sees himself as a hero more Arthurian than Conradian ("I had in some sort established myself as a person willing to take various kinds of risks in the interests of higher motives, such as protecting fair young womanhood"). Hood`s epic, then, is a quest whose chief action is contemplative, but infused with subtle modalities of feeling and image.
In A New Athens (1977), the second volume, Matt is a pilgrim who begins with an excursion across a "twinned Ontario traii" (Swann and Guermantes?). He sees history as a tracing of the footprints of the divine, and leads us from the new Athens (Stoverville) to the new Jerusalem expressed in May-Beth Codrington`s visionary art. Reservoir Ravine (1979) is a conceptual extension of the second novel: in telling the love story of Andrew And Isabelle, Matts parents, it deepens the religious analogies, moderating the earlier romantic tone. Matt becomes a Raphael figure, an "affable archangel," who stirs the "waters" of history. As his mother grows old and almost blind, and sits by her window at Sr. Raphael`s nursing home, Matt visits and comforts her, becoming her (,yes" and discovering a moral pattern in the unfolding of the world.
The next four parts of the series are a set of contrasting lights and darks, each distinctive in character yet all highly interconnected. Black and White Keys (1982) is a salvation-history
structured, like The Swing in the Garden, in five parts. In the first, the predominant mood is dark, furtive, and wintry, as Andrew Goderich is commissioned by Ottawa to rescue a
renowned European Jewish philosopher from a Nazi concentration camp. The second chapter counterpoints Matt`s experiences and repeats much of the texture and tone of Swing,
indulging in digressions that become analogies for evil.
Subsequent chapters carry us into the heart of sin and redemption: the New Age becomes a euphemistic label for a genocidal century, and yet there is a radiance that emanates from the
gloom of this infernal era.
To move from here to The Scenic Art (1984) is to move from salvation-history to dramma giocoso (jocose drama with religious overtones), beginning with the tabernacular tent of the Stratford Festival and the honeymoon ritual of Matt and Edie (tainted by Adam Sinclair`s drunken homosexual advances to Matt) to the quick, comic expressions of various theatrical talents in which talent itself is seen as "the artist`s mode of Divine Grace." Where Adam is a comically grotesque example of life lived at a pitch of near-hysteria, Matt is only a half-formed actor (histrionically and existentially) in a theatrical world that reflects its society. The novel is strong on farce (sexual, theatrical, philosophic), and frequently veers into parody; the overall tone is comic. The climax Occurs in Centennial Year, 1967, when Edie`s jokey mural and Adam, drunken adjudicator`s speech at the Dominion Drama Festival cause public scandal. But the final two pages are deliberately anti-climactic and serve as a prologue to Andrew Goderich`s diplomatic mission to Peking -- the ostensible subject Of the next hook.
The Motor Boys in Ottawa (1986) has an opening chapter full Of unsettling feelings, doubts, misgivings. The preoccupation with automobiles and the Canada-U.S. auto pact expresses a social mythology in which cars are our "mechanical bride" -- the great object of desire. There is an early reference to a carmanufacturing plant as "a temple of lost illusions," and George
Robinson, the arch entrepreneur and unscrupulous politician, is depicted as a cartoon Judas who awaits political redemption. Tony Goderich quickly ascends in the London theatre world, as does his English lover, Linnet 0lcott. Meanwhile, Matt, appointed the archivist and custodian of the Codrington Colony for Visionary Art, comes to see history as the name of God working Himself out in time -- a phenomenon most clearly manifested in Andrew`s saintly actions. Art, especially that which prompts everything to be reinterpreted and so born anew, is Matt`s pietas, his mode of honouring his parents, history, vocation, and God.
This is a dark book in which the real temper of the era is iniquitous and treacherous. It is the era of Nixon, the new Machiavelli, and the `60s, the beginning of an age of Trudeau-mania in Canada, a nutty, daffy decade of anxious self-awareness. Many things come to a point of crisis, anarchy, loss, and grief; the ending is marked by the FLQ crisis in Quebec and the implementation of the War Measures Act in a land that was once believed to be "the pacific country" and a world leader in ,`moral statecraft."
But these tremors do not displace the comedy of life and death. There is no action or event so solemn or tragic as not to be open to comic incongruity: at Andrew Goderich`s prestigious funeral, the lowering coffin gets stuck and tips perilously. What would have been simple black comedy in the hands of a satirist emerges as a Joycean comic frisson with spiritual undertones.
I have, no doubt, flattened much of the richness of Hood`s work in this brief synopsis. There are, for example, complex patterns of braided fortunes, parallel actions, twinned or doubled realities, and a subtle process of reinterpretation by Hood`s narrators -- most dramatically seen in Tony`s Book (1988), where a story, spread over different locales, is told from four different narrative angles without losing the composite focus on human identity and art. Linnet`s voice, informed by her Dorsetshire background, shows her acute intelligence. just as her story ends with her quarrel with lover Tony and the unexpected death of his father, Tony`s voice is heard with his return to Canada for the funeral. His is the most comic voice of the quartet, delighting in parody and satire, and making jokes about manners and moral or cultural style even as he seems incapable of knowing any single place well. The most surprising voice is Edie`s, perhaps because she fuses a lively imagination with sexual passion and critical realism. By attempting to dig herself out from under the ruins of the image of her mother and her own failed marriage, she bolsters the book`s overlay of loneliness and emptiness, most strikingly manifested in Matt`s narrative. Here the "ancestor-worshipper" and "guardian angel" feels murdered by Tony`s incestuous love for Edie, as Matt`s section becomes the purgatory of his soul.
How does this book connect with Property and Value, the eighth and most recent volume in the series? Hood appears to believe, rather like Proust (as J. M. Cocking suggests), that sexual desire and social or artistic ambition can be transformed into the pursuit of something spiritually valued; in the purest sense, loved. Romantic love is involved: at times rooted in illicit desire, at times radiating from history and culture and merging with some sort of protectiveness. There is also a presentiment of void or abyss, in which the things loved or betrayed will disappear. Yet, there is a beauty and value abstracted from these experiences and fixed in the complex allure of Hood`s style.
Property and Value (significantly, this is also the title of a book written by Andrew Goderich) crystallizes this admirably. In the literal sense there are several properties: the Codrington business and estate, the colony for Visionary Art, the Goderiches` Montreal home. There are also figurative properties: Linnet as a movie star is a "property," as is each costume or prop in the film described in the plot. But the novel looks as well to other meanings: time, history, culture, identity, ego, knowledge, the self -- all are properties of existence. The words "property" and "value" recur frequently, setting up a chain of associations with passion, knowledge, and the self, all circumscribed by a sense of time that is no longer simply a collecting or recording, but rather the seed of significance and meaning.
Property and Value, the strongest novel in the series to date, is also the most Proustian: it bears marked resemblance, in theme and treatment, to two specific sections of The Sweet Cheat Gone, the seventh part of Proust`s Remembrance of Things Past. In "Grief
and Oblivion," Marcel has to face up to his separation from Albertine. He suffers keen anguish, especially over his self-ignorance, yet he wishes to have her return to him without making it seem as if this is really what he wants. Saint-Loup, whose assistance he seeks in the matter, reminds him that as an artist he should expect to suffer more than ordinary men. Marcel hopes to dispel his suffering by making plans and seeking information about Albertine, despite his dawning realization that our intellect "is not the most subtle, the most powerful, the most appropriate instrument for grasping the truth"; it is merely a "collaborator" and "servant" of other powers. Two chapters later, Marcel, claiming to be in his final stage of forgetfulness of a lost love, journeys to Venice with his elderly mother, where he unites impressions of the city with those of Combray and the freshness of childhood vision. A crucial telegram arrives, and Marcel realizes that his love for Albertine is dead.
Hood`s story works by inversion and ambiguity, rather than by exact correspondence. Matt is twice cheated of love -- first by his wife who had deserted him in Tony`s Book, and then, in the present, by the sudden, unexpected death of a new beloved, the "pocket Venus" Linnet. Intriguingly, she is an expert on Proust and is in Venice to star as Albertine in a lavish film adaptation, Marcel in Venice.
In the film scenario, Marcel discovers the "creative presence of the past in the present moment of existence," and he is shown "trembling on the very edge of salvation through the act of recovering past time, rolling it all up into an enormous present reality." Counterpointing this theme is an air of mystery, generated first from the name of the film company, Night Flight Productions, and developed by the hellish nature of filming with its interminable distractions, delays, quarrels, and compromises. A sinister intrigue takes shape through the figure of the nihilist Pluyshin, a woman who literally works behind the scenes to scuttle Matt`s liaison with Linnet. The espionage elements are analogous to the "detective" work of Proust: where Marcel was determined to investigate Albertine`s real life through the help of her best friend, Andree, Pluyshin investigates the actress-Albertine of the film, leading Matt to more grief and, finally, oblivion.
The novel takes form our of the "dead" selves of Linnet, Edie, Tony, and Matt. Matt`s marriage to Edie has disintegrated and he is "eunuchoized." His aging mother`s vision is totally gone. Uncle Philip lives in perpetual transit, as if mourning the lost paradise of youth. Deserted by his wife and children (except for daughter Andrea who returns to him and attends to her dying grandmother), Matt buries himself in an empty house, until a call comes for him to produce the Canadian exhibit, "Art and Illumination," at the Venice Biennale. This is where he, the man with "clean hands and a clean heart," meets Linnet, his brother`s ex-lover and, as it develops, the hitherto unsuspected bellissima and "queen" for whom he has been searching subconsciously. He, to her, is an "Arturo" or Arthur, the knight faithful and true to his ideals, whose face she had mysteriously discovered by superimposing drawings of his son and brother. Their epiphanic meeting is a phantasmagoria that occurs during the carnival period leading into Lent, the season of atonement that precedes Easter or Resurrection. Once again, Hood`s style works as a magnificent combination of intellectualism and impressionism, of precise exposition and abstract suggestion.
The tang of Proust is tantalizingly present, but, as usual, Hood is up to his own games. For one thing, unlike Proust, he poeticizes the real by transforming it. While demonstrating the significance of time in differences among generations (and in Andrea there is another generation waiting to burst through the cycle), Hood works with religious metaphor. His management of time is predicated on the idea of immortality, not just for art but for man`s destiny as well. His sense of time is contained in images of recurrence and loss; relations shift at all moments, and the feeling of evanescence is strong. And yet, there is an anticipation of something redemptive, which somehow softens Hoods literary defects.
He does not adhere to a single narrative point of view, abandoning it in this novel in favour of a third-person omniscient mode that is sometimes an intrusive mediation between text and reader, as when he writes: "To talk as Linnet and Matt were talking requires more forbearance, more tact, a better and more subtle memory, wiser moral convictions than many of us commonly master." indeed, but this is still a self-conscious technical apologia. Some of the dialogue, too, sounds terribly stilted; yet this is part and parcel of Hood`s style, which is at once plain and arch, realistic and allegorical.
We do not have as yet a convenient name for this style, but we know that it proceeds by a system of relationships for which Hood provides no single key. A prime example of this style, which seems to mean nothing and yet implies everything, is the Giorgione Tempesta sequence, where the narrator combines brilliant art criticism with psychological and mythic suggestiveness. The sensuousness here and in Hood`s evocations of Venetian locale, belle epoque Costuming, and carnival celebration creates what Renaissance critics called una poesia as described by the narrator: "Not a poem exactly, more a poetic frame of mind, a reverie, an atmosphere of reflection, finding no definite clarifications at the end of the process with which to dissolve doubt or uncertainty."
This is the state in which Matt finds himself at the end of Property and Value. Yet we sense that behind this frame of mind, once his reverie has dissolved, the grand plan of a great work will emerge. Meanwhile there is time enough to reread and reinterpret Hugh Hood`s religion of art.