I’ve recently bought—but am not yet reading—the new book by Alan Garner, called Where Shall We Run To? – A Memoir. I’m not reading it yet because my epic revisiting of the Patrick White canon is only now nearing its close; then, too, some major deadlines are approaching for the first issue of the new Ford Madox Ford Journal; and in any case, I was just in time to glimpse the Librarian carrying the book away to some other part of the house. First dibs, as they say.
The publication of this new Garner recalled for me the previous one, Boneland, a novel which appeared in 2012. It’s short, powerful and cryptic, as much of Garner’s work tends to be, not through obfuscation but compression. Some of his readers are extraordinarily knowledgeable not only about Garner’s entire oeuvre but also the mythologies and belief systems that underlie so much of his writing; and I remember that the medieval text, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, was mentioned and cited several times in online comments about the book. So I followed up.
(Via The British Library)
I’d certainly read Gawain at some stage over the years. I’d never taken the kind of course of study that included it, though the University of Bristol had the supreme good fortune to have on its staff John Burrow, a brilliant critic and editor of medieval literature (and one of the most delightful people I’ve ever come across). He published a classic study of the poem in 1965, and an edition of it for Penguin in 1982. Following up, though, the edition I read was the one at hand in the office, a modern English version with a critical introduction by John Gardner from the University of Chicago Press, reissued in 2011. Ninety pages of introduction and commentary allow for a fair bit of jousting with other critics and commentators, while demonstrating an impressive familiarity with the relevant secondary literature as well as the poem itself. The alliterative verse rollicks along at a pleasing lick:
Now comes the season of summer; soft are the winds;
The spirit of Zephyrus whispers to seeds and green shoots.
Joyful enough is that herb rising up out of earth,
When the dampening dew has dropped from all her leaves,
To bask in the blissful gaze of the bright sun.
(John Gardner, via The Paris Review)
John Champlin Gardner Jr. died nearly forty years ago in a motorcycle accident at the early age of 49. He’d published more than a dozen works of fiction, half a dozen critical works, children’s books, and translations of the Alliterative Morte d’Arthur and Other Middle English Poems as well as the complete works of the Gawain poet. He’s probably still best-known for his novel Grendel, a retelling of the Beowulf story from the monster’s point of view.
That phrase, ‘following up’, I always associate with an essay by Guy Davenport on the extraordinary photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard (in The Geography of the Imagination):
He was an unfailing follower-up, which is why I think of him as the best educated man I have ever known. As a professor I must work with people for whom indifference is both a creed and a defense of their fantastic narrowness of mind, but Gene knew nothing of this. When he met Louis and Celia Zukofsky at my house, he went away and read Zukofsky. Not that he was an enthusiast. He simply had a curiosity that went all the way, and a deep sense of courtesy whereby if a man were a writer he would read what he had written, if a man were a painter he would look at his paintings.
Davenport was himself a follower-up of impressive proportions. He remembered a walking trip in Italy and France with Christopher Middleton, the two of them armed only with a collected John Donne and Pound’s Cantos, ‘a rich, barely comprehensible poem’, Davenport commented. He continues: ‘My first response was to learn Italian and Provençal, and to paint in the quattrocento manner. All real education’, he adds, ‘is such unconscious seduction.’
That’s quite a response; quite a follow-up.