Tuesday, May 10, 2016
The final review in my Spring collection is of a very different book, an allusive account of ruins and fragments across the whole field of human culture...
Robert Harbison, Ruins and Fragments: Tales of Loss and Rediscovery
Published by Reaktion Books
Robert Harbison’s recent book explores questions about our reactions to ruins – why we are fascinated by them, why they are sometimes more satisfying to look at and think about than structures that are pristine or new. Harbison ranges widely, covering not just the expected old ruined buildings but also fragments of antique statuary that wash up in odd places, modernist ruins such as St Peter’s Seminary at Cardross, Scotland, and buildings that look as if they’re ruined, but aren’t. He has interesting reflections on reconstructions of various sorts, including Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, Warsaw as rebuilt after World War II, and Colonial Williamsburg. There are absorbing accounts of buildings that had long intrigued me, such as the Castelvecchio Museum in Verona, where architect Carlo Scarpa removed part of the existing structure to reveal the fragmentary medieval town ramparts behind, then attached his elegant modern additions to produce a building that’s both beautiful and functional as a museum.
The book’s scope is not limited to architecture. There’s a chapter on ‘Interrupted texts’ (Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, Montaigne’s Essays, Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy) and another on ‘Ruined Narratives’ (Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and Joyce’s Finnegans Wake). There’s also quite a bit on sculpture and painting, portraying cubism as an art of destruction (I’m not sure I go all the way with that) and setting the structures of Gordon Matta-Clark and Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau against the baroque quasi-ruin of Sir John Soane’s house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. He also writes about iconoclasm, presenting 17th-century church-defacers and modern graffiti artists, and about the art and destruction of war, invoking poetic works such as David Jones’s In Parenthesis and Christopher Logue’s spellbinding (though sometimes far from Homeric) version of Homer’s Iliad – and placing these beside the celebrated and much reproduced late-classical statue, The Dying Gaul.
It’s a heady mix, all this, a poetic account of its subject in which one is never sure what the next page-turn will bring. I was carried along with it in part because it deals with some of my own favourite structures and writings, in part because Harbison usually finds interesting things to say. Ruins and Fragments takes its place in the rich literature of ruins, a tradition stretching back to Volney* and on to such more modern meditations on ruins as Rose Macaulay’s Pleasure of Ruins and Christopher Woodward’s In Ruins. And Harbison makes you think, and sends you off in unexpected directions, as readers of his other works (Eccentric Spaces, Reflections on Baroque, Thirteen Ways) will recognise. Fans need not hesitate to get hold of this latest book. Newcomers who are doubtful should pick it up in a bookshop and start reading.† They might just be gripped…
* And back, indeed, to Old English poetry.
† Or, yes, use the ‘Look inside’ feature on Amazon.