Monday, 6 February 2012

‘The furtive and clammy touch of poshlust . . .’

There’s a Facebook thread today on the TV Birdsong, adapted from the novel by Sebastian Faulks, which I couldn’t add to (because, I think, the original poster happens not to be a Fb ‘friend’), so why not here. It started from an Evening Standard piece wondering ‘Why are all critics in love with middlebrow?’ – most of the TV critics loved Birdsong, while most of the Fb commenters didn’t. Me neither, from the 20 minutes of the first episode I endured. (‘Mud porn’, I’ve seen it called – some watchable bits, but best with the sound turned off.)

The relevant concept here, I think, is poshlust. Which might serve as a caption to the above photo, but in fact the term comes from a Russian word for which there’s no English equivalent, and it means something like cheap, sham, tawdry, but not obviously thus, and Nabokov, in a digression in his book on Gogol, shows it how breeds in literature. It is (I quote) ‘especially vigorous and vicious when the sham is not obvious and when the values it mimics are considered . . . to belong to the very highest level of art, thought or emotion.’ He’s thinking of the kind of novels that get reviewed as (he quotes) ‘stirring, profound and beautiful’. The book may be ‘a perfectly honest and sincere (as the saying goes) attempt on the author’s part to write something he felt strongly about’, and may have been written without any commercial motive – but ‘the trouble is that sincerity, honesty and even kindness of heart cannot prevent the demon of poshlust from possessing himself of an author’s typewriter when the man lacks genius . . . The dreadful thing about poshlust is that one finds it so difficult to explain to people why a particular book which seems chock-full of noble emotion and compassion . . . is far, far worse than the kind of literature which everyone admits is cheap.’


Ms Baroque said...

That's exactly how I felt about Birdsong when I read it. And I only read it because there was a quote on the back cover saying 'the perfect novel', and it made me buy the book to see what 'perfect' looked like in a novel. Was it going to beat out of me head all memories of Dickens, Thackeray, John Gardner, Evelyn Waugh, Josef Skvorecky, Elizabeth Bowen, Fanny Burney, Jane Austen, Defoe, and indeed Nabokov?

Anyway, the very notion that 'the perfect novel' exists is poshlust. Brilliant.

Ms Baroque said...

I meant 'MY' head, of course.