Harris's Requiem by Stanley Middleton
Trent Editions, £9.99
Review by David Riddiford
There is much to admire about Stanley Middleton's novel “Harris's Requiem”, which is available in a new edition by Trent, nearly fifty years after its original publication. It seems Middleton’s novels are known for their rich local colour, which are set in and around the Nottingham area. “Harris’s Requiem” is no exception here, and to my mind it is this aspect which is its real strength.
The novel in one sense is a genuine treasure - in its more impressive moments it provides us with a window into a lost time – a time when almost every male person in England wore a tie, and there were things like coal mines that actually operated, real live miners and a language that was still affected by the British army patter of the war. We also get the convincing dialogues of the local Nottingham dialect. At least that’s what I think it is. Not being English I wouldn’t really know – I’ll take David Belbin (who writes an excellent introduction to this edition)’s word for it.
Middleton has a strong eye for detail, and he is able to build up a rich and varied background through a skillful accumulation of detail in his writing. Take, for example, the following passage. Here he describes the staffroom of the local boy’s grammar school:
The room, large, a squat L-shape, was brilliant with sunshine after the corridors. It was one of the rooms in the school which had plastered walls. Furniture was new and bright, domestic, modernistic, Picasso chintz. Over the bright topped tables and chairs was blown, like ash after an earthquake, a coloured layer of schoolmasterly litter. Piles of exercise books, magazines, open newspapaers, chess boards, ash trays full of apple-peelings, staggering piles of useful bumf, the odd gown, gym shoes, cricket pads, envelopes, dirty cups, mathematical instruments, chalk, pullovers, an overturned jack plane, a half finished sun-dial face, text books.....
It is one thing to string a long list of details together; it is another, rare thing to do it and build up some vivid picture as he has done here, or use it to some powerful and effective end as he has done in other parts. Middleton has a Swiftean-like talent with this. These kinds of details and lists of details are used to help give, to great effect, its rich local flavour.
Middleton is also no slouch at doing some convincing characters in the novel, characters that add to the ‘Nottinghamness’ of the novel and give it depth. There is the Morel-like father of Thomas Harris (the main character) who seems to have come straight out of “Sons and Lovers”, the local figure of power, Grainger Cooke who seems to be a throw back to a pre-war power broker; a kind of overweight cigar-smoking, top hat and tails wearing guy. An interestingly arcane figure, but perfectly feasible that such a type may be still around in the late fifties.
Some of the most impressive characters in the book are centred around the local school. Middleton himself was a teacher and it shows in his writing, because some of the most impressive bits are related to the school. The principal is a fascinating study of your school version of the timeless bureaucrat. He is a perfect facade of fairness and reason, but where is the core? Another engaging school character is Winterburn. One of those classic figures in literature: a sort of universal sympathetic and pathetic miserable bastard whose inevitable decline into despair and abjection, if done well, is an unfailing delight for any reader. Winterburn is Middleton's convincing version here, an incompetent teacher whose career, family and personal life are falling apart at the seams.
The local scene, then, is beautifully done. From this we might expect a “Sons and Lovers”- like tale of familial and other relations, or possibly a story of local power relations between the local figure of power Grainger Cooke and his underlings, or even a saga about local school politics; usually a winner. Actually these are all stories in the novel but they are minor narratives in and around the main theme and story, that being.. er … classical music and its central story being, of course, that of the struggling artist and his efforts to create the masterpiece, and all that... So in contrast to the colourful language (and other details) of the local Nottingham scene we have the highly formal world of classical music and its associated language.
These two worlds also set up an interesting contrast within the development of the central character, Harris. The local world, that of the school, the family, the local politics etc. is where Harris’s exterior life takes place, that is to say his daily life and its related developments. The Classical world represents Harris’s interior life; more than being just part of the background, classical music becomes part of him: it’s at once his obsession and his deepest source of inspiration and creativity. With this dichotomy of Harris's internal and external worlds we have also a dichotomy of language. There is the language of the local world, something that Middleton is very good at, and then there is the language of this internal world of Harris's. This aspect strikes me as being a weakness in the novel.
Harris's internal world is laden with the formal and incomprehensible (to the average lay man) terms of classical music. Does this ponderous language sit well with the often lively and informal language of the other parts? To me it simply doesn’t work at times. Middleton writes about Tempest Overtures, librettos, quartets, sonatas, oratorios, chorales scenas and prologues; and drops names such as Moeran, Faure, Tippet – it’s out of place in a novel like this. Some of the heavy themes that come with classical music also seem jarring, given their contexts…
It was a popular programme, as the festivities demanded. ‘Tancredi,’ ‘Finlandia,’ two Victorian duets, arr. Marby, for tenor and soprano accompanied, the first movement of ‘Beethoven’s fifth symphony’ and finally a mighty tone poem, specially composed…This called oddly, enough, ‘Julian the Apostate.’ It purported to describe not only the ceremonies, rites, orgies, hecatombs etc. favoured by the emperor, his intense mental anguish, and subsequent damnation but also the steadfast nature and suffering, andante tranquillo, of the faithful Christians.
This was certainly no musical masterpiece but whoever had lifted it out of Mendelssohn and Wagner, with one eye on Morean and Vaughan Williams, had unblinkingly set out every trap a band could pitch itself into. ‘Marby’s lot’, however, were not napping.
A few lines later we have this …
‘Comin’ in for a quick ’un, Tom? It was Harris’s father.
‘No thanks Dad. Got to get back to the nobs.’
‘Ah I see you sittin’ next to Lord Saxondale, I’m two rows behind, on y’r left. Look out for us and gi’e us a wave. I’ll be wi’ you, lad, shoutin’ like ’ell when your march comes on.’
There is simply too much going on here. Middleton expects us take on board his short exegesis of 'Julian the Apostate', drop that and pick up on the colloquial natter between Harris and his father. The only thing that I can see formally linking the two notions is the strangely informal/formal hybrid sentence ‘This was certainly no musical masterpiece but whoever had lifted it out of Mendelssohn and Wagner, with one eye on Morian and Vaughan Williams, had unblinkingly set out every trap a band could put pitch itself into.’ For my money the link is too tenuous. Perhaps Middleton and others would argue that the writing is playful here, but it is stylistically flawed.
There is also a problem with Middleton’s writing when he attempts to write directly about Harris's interior life. In chapter 17 Harris is in a composing frenzy and it is here where we get such phrases as 'creative to the fingertips' and 'his whole mind was ablaze with energy.' Unfortunately it seems that Middleton's inability to write impressively or even sensibly about this sort of thing has affected his confidence, or maybe even poisoned his abilities in areas where I think he should be more competent. Near the end of the novel he attempts to convey Harris's sense of anxiety with this unfortunate sentence:
His bowels were loose; his face locked in a mask of cool steel.
In the final chapter Middleton attempts to describe the power of Harris's music as it is being initially performed. To attempt to justify in his writing the impact of some great music is an interesting and ambitious idea. We don't see it too often in literature. Maybe it is an impossible task – the effects that music can have on us cannot be put down in words. At least one might conclude so after reading this particular effort of Middleton’s:
Nothing stopped. A murderous crescendo was on, which rattled up in intensity until it seemed as if every man-jack and woman would fling himself, herself off the stage, smashing the polished wood, trampling the delicate bows, splitting the flattened bridges and splintered bellies. Again the great hammer of percussion, fighting to hold the gallop into chaos, and with a shattering second of discord the whole dissolved, thrashed itself into a chord of C major with trumpets up high and a thunder of two great organ pedals.
Middleton has completely lost control of the intended effect here – it is one of a bomb going off more than anything. There are too many of these instances where Middleton is straining too hard for some effect or another, particularly in his writing about the music and the creative processes associated with it. Unfortunately this affects a lot of what is good about the book. I mentioned earlier that one of the more engaging characters in the novel is Winterburn. His plight sets up an initially strong narrative strain that in turn helps to establish the novel. We look forward to the next Winterburn installment and follow with some relish his descent and ultimate demise. He, however, disappears for a long time. (We wonder if he's done a Lear's fool and just disappeared without trace.) However he does eventually resurface at the beginning of chapter 18:
Winterburn surprised everybody, himself included, by applying for and obtaining a senior post in a grammar school in Belsthorpe, a new town. Not only did the job carry a fat responsibility payment but a council house was also provided…The effect on Winterburn was immediate. He affected a charming modesty, consulted colleagues on choice of books and examining bodies, took a tome or two on education out of the library …
What? Middleton promised us schadenfreude, but has failed to deliver. This is an unconvincing and unsatisfying redemption in what was an engaging character. It seems the author has suffered a sudden loss of interest in Winterburn because there are too many other things going on. “Harris’s Requiem” is an ambitious novel and Middleton is unable to sustain all the narrative strains in it. It is evident in the way in which he strains to express unsuccessfully the difficult notions of the creative process, and it is evident in the unsatisfactory or incomplete narratives where his writing is strong. Perhaps it would have been better to have done away with the whole idea of art and creativity and just kept to what Middleton knows and is good at. A less ambitious project, perhaps, but it would have made for a more satisfying and consistent novel.
© David Riddiford, 2007