Morrissey and Elizabeth Smart
Morrissey fans may not be delighted by Ben Eastham's review of the novel List of the Lost in this week's TLS (December 18 & 25); our reviewer concludes, as many critics have done, that the legendary Mancunian song-writer has not transferred his exceptional talents from one genre to another. But they may gain a little satisfaction from spotting our Fiction Editor's subtle, un-signposted juxtaposition of that review with Claire Lowdon's of By Grand Station Central I Sat Down And Wept by Elizabeth Smart, one of Morrissey's favourite books, and one which has been alluded to throughout his song-writing career.
"Grabs and devours" ("The Headmaster Ritual"), "louder than bombs" (an album title), "reel around the cafe" ("Reel Around The Fountain"), "rocks below" ("Shakespeare's Sister" – a multiply allusive title in itself), " . . . do you hear me where you sleep?", "the fierce last stand of all I have" ("Well I Wonder") are all phrases and lines from Smart's novel. And there are many, many more: a diligent fan has listed them – along with scores of other references to various films, songs and books – here.
Morrissey's work was allusive from the start, and purposefully so. The works to which he lightly pays homage – A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney, Brighton Rock by Graham Greene, George Eliot's Middlemarch, the writing of Oscar Wilde and Joe Orton, the Carry On Films, a book about the Moors Murderers, etc – all contributed to the atmosphere of the songs, rooted in the topography of Manchester and Lancashire, constantly nostalgic for the culture of the 1950s and 60s, delicately queer, defiantly provincial and working-class, romanticizing (or lusting after) young hooligans and then ironizing that very romanticization (most strikingly in "Last of the International Playboys", "Sweet and Tender Hooligan", and "First of the Gang", where the Genet-esque passion for the hoodlum is acknowledged, and deflated, in the final verse: "And he stole from the rich / and the poor / and the not very rich / and the very poor. . . . He stole our hearts away").
The borrowings, thefts and tributes are calculated: one of the first I ever noticed myself was his adaptation of the Leonard Cohen line "And everything depends upon how near you sleep to me" ("Take This Longing"), which became "And everything depends upon how near you stand to me" ("Hand in Glove"). The alteration of one word, from "sleep" to "stand", marked a shift from the erotic to the platonic at a time when celibacy was a significant feature of Morrissey's self-presentation. And Morrissey, a Wildean ironist at his best, was also able to comment on his own processes, in "Cemetery Gates", for example, a song ostensibly mocking plagiarism while borrowing from Shakespeare's Richard II and the film The Man Who Came To Dinner (1942; based on the play by Kaufman and Hart), and even precisely situating his own version of romanticism ("Keats and Yeats are on your side / While Wilde is on mine").
This is one reason, I imagine, why some lifelong fans of the music have been so disappointed by Morrissey's novel. His literary intelligence, unobtrusively active within scores of ravishing pop songs, would lead one to expect a better result. A critical work on the music – The Pageant of His Bleeding Heart by Gavin Hopps – does an excellent job of drawing out Morrissey's literary techniques and influences, and makes a great case for him as a modern-day Orton or Wilde. Given that heritage, perhaps he should turn his talents to writing plays? Or subversive musicals? Or maybe just stick to what he has always done best of all.