by Paul Kingsnorth
Two Dollar Radio, 2019
146 Pages, $10.99
Review by Josh Allan
Pastoral nostalgia seldom gives rise to a radical temperament. In the English tradition, the tranquillity of the countryside has tended to inspire an equally placid response, artistically speaking, despite providing ‘the better soil’, in Wordsworth’s words, ‘for the essential passions of the heart’. Perhaps this is why, nearly two centuries after the death of Wordsworth and the Romantic movement as a whole, Paul Kingsnorth’s vision is both so compelling and so completely one-of-a-kind; for in all his writing, which ranges from poetry and historical fiction to essays and treatises on politics and environmentalism, Kingsnorth has striven in some way to continue – if not revive – those literary traditions that were steamrollered into oblivion by the unrelenting engine of The Machine (to borrow Kingsnorth’s handy appellation for modernity, industrialism, capitalism, and everything in between).
His latest book, Savage Gods (Two Dollar Radio, 2019), which is neither fiction nor poetry nor essay but a bitter concoction of the above, is also – if one is to detect another ingredient in the aftertaste – something of a throwback to the romantic cultures of a pre-modern world, and a lesson in what happens when those old gods are exhumed in an age when Nature becomes slave to Man, when customs give way to chaos, and the words we use to make sense of it all have lost their meanings.
Language, and English specifically, is the subject of Savage Gods. As the book explains, in its laconic, meandering way, Kingsnorth has led a varied and adventurous life, from joining environmental movements during his studies at Oxford and publishing works across a gamut of genres, to campaigning for the independence of the Papuan tribes and relocating with his family from Cumbria to a house in a field in west Ireland. But, as Kingsnorth tells us, if there is any common denominator to all this, a constant companion in all his travels, it is language. Unlike the abstract forces of global capitalism, of which Kingsnorth is a staunch critic, or nature and the environment, for which he is an avowed defender, language has always been to Kingsnorth both a friend and a foe, a light in the darkness as well as a black mark on the clarity of his conscience.
“Words, for me, have always been everything,” writes Kingsnorth. “They overlay everything I see and walk through, like a set of grid lines which make sense of and measure a landscape.” Like much of Savage Gods, this will be familiar ground for most readers. After all, there is little writers like to do more than to praise the act of writing. But what makes Savage Gods interesting is that Kingsnorth’s love for his vocation is tempered with a sense of shame, so that the act of writing itself becomes a painful dilemma. For while it is language which has come to define Kingsnorth’s life, given him a career many would dream of, and provided an outlet for his ideas and imagination – of which this book is one ironic, not to say aporetic, example – it has also, according to Kingsnorth, engendered his greatest crises, making him both helplessly dependent and the victim of lifelong deception. From this angle, Savage Gods is the story of what happens when a writer’s tools finally fail him, even betray him. “I set them to run in some direction”, he writes, “and they veer off course, jump the fences, make joyfully for the ocean. They have broken their chains, at last. Not this time! they laugh as they run. We’re in charge now!”
Reading Savage Gods, one cannot help but be persuaded of the mischievousness of Kingsnorth’s words. The evasive sentences are rife with ambiguities and unanswered questions, and there is little in the way of a discernible order. Unlike his other works, Kingsnorth wrote this one at night, he tells us, on scraps of paper, which explains the chopped up, syncopated structure, reminiscent almost of Nietzsche’s aphorisms (one-hundred-and-thirty-two pages are divided into eighty ‘chapters’, comprised of isolated paragraphs, as though the sentences themselves are suspicious of one another).
To a degree, Kingsnorth has always been uncomfortable with language. His first novel, The Wake, is perhaps best known for being written in ‘a shadowtongue,’ an imaginary language that mimics the indigenous English of the Eleventh Century. Beast, a spiritual sequel of sorts, while set in the present day, nonetheless employs a peculiar directness of expression which almost recalls the linguistic innovations of high modernism. In contrast, however, Savage Gods feels more stolid, less alive. Understandably this may put off some readers; but it is a sacrifice that Kingsnorth must make to relay effectively the state of being ‘lost for words.’
As a result, Savage Gods is a reluctant, tortured book in its struggle against itself. But perhaps most alarming of all is the subtle question with which the book ends: will Kingsnorth write again? Or will he finally take that leap into the dark, through the net of human language and into the world outside? Even Kingsnorth himself cannot give us the answer, but the intertextuality of the book seems at times like a search to find a writer who can. For instance, the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who contributes an epigraph, also appears later to offer the following advice: “‘Must I write? If there is an affirmative reply, if you can simply and starkly answer ‘I must’ to that grave question, then you will need to construct your life according to that necessity.’”
Incidentally, this same quotation opens the self-proclaimed ‘last novel’ of another writer, Gerald Murnane, who does not appear in Savage Gods, but who in his parochialism, originality and, most of all, contemporaneity mirrors the idiosyncrasies of Kingsnorth. But Murnane went on to write another two books; more may yet follow. For some writers, the pull of the craft is too strong, too entrenched. Let us hope for the sake of Paul Kingsnorth’s conscience that he is not among their ranks. But let us hope for the sakes of his readers that he is.