Cramming for Success

James Wood

Cramming for SuccessThomas Hardy: Half A Londoner by Mark Ford Harvard, 305 pp, £20.00, October 2016, ISBN 978 0 674 73789 1

Human character, we know, changed on or about December 1910, but it had already changed on or about December 1863, when Baudelaire published his essay ‘The Painter of Modern Life’. In the course of writing about the journalist-illustrator Constantin Guys, Baudelaire leaves the salon and goes out into the street, away from art criticism to urban digression. He mentions Poe’s story, ‘The Man of the Crowd’, whose narrator, recovering from a recent illness, sits in a London café and watches the human traffic through the window. Artists are like convalescents, Baudelaire adds: nervously alert, grateful for the slightest detail, omnivorously curious. And the convalescent is like the child, who sees everything as if for the first time, drunk on novelty. Inspiration, Baudelaire continues, ‘has some connection with congestion’. Guys is such an eternal child, and the urban crowd is his domain: ‘he watches the flow of life move by, majestic and dazzling … He gazes at the landscape of the great city, landscapes of stone.’ From this, comes a further generalisation: ‘Modernity is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent; it is one half of art, the other being the eternal and the immovable.’
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I was often put in mind of ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ while reading Mark Ford’s study of Thomas Hardy. Ford doesn’t mention it (though he does refer to Baudelaire’s flaneurial poems), perhaps because that manifesto is too obvious, or too obviously theoretical: he prefers to build his case patiently, historically, in solid empirical sediments, beginning and ending with biography, a form often maligned or ignored in academic criticism. But Ford realigns our sense of Hardy, moving him from Wessex fields to London streets, and offering a transformed writer: less the time-torn pastoral tragedian than a painter of modern life.

Read the complete review
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Read also: Thomas Hardy: Half a Londoner by Mark Ford review – how the capital shaped Hardy’s Wessex
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Listen to Mark Ford discuss Thomas Hardy’s sense of being torn between two worlds

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