Something in the west

The Scarlet Sunset circa 1830-40 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/D24666

‘We could go for a later walk’, the Librarian said, ‘and try to catch a sunset – if there is one. It’s a bright, clear day at the moment.’ The sunset time on the BBC weather site was 16:34. I remembered being on the Dorset coast a couple of years ago, when we could watch the sun slip out of sight at exactly the predicted time. Science: knowledge ascertained by observation and experiment, critically tested, systematised and brought under general principles, derived from the Latin, to know – so not popular with everyone.

I suspect that there are dawn people and sunset people – and, needless to say, a huge number of others that will take both or neither or who, in any case, are never up sufficiently early to take a balanced view of the matter. Wordsworth’s dawn (in which it was bliss to be alive) in The Prelude embraced both youth and the initial promise of revolutionary France. A red sky at night, the proverb says, has shepherds capering about in sheer glee. Certainly my mother, who was a keen amateur painter, could never get enough of sunsets – but then she lived for a few years in the Far East, and a vista of junks picking their way through a dazzling sunset across the South China Sea was absurdly romantic to western eyes. A more prosaic question is probably: does your day stretch awfully ahead of you in some deadening job that barely puts food on the table after a ten-hour stint or is the prospect rather more alluring?


The narrator of Henry Green’s first novel, Blindness, lingers on an approaching sunset. ‘The sun was flooding the sky in waves of colour while he grew redder and redder in the west, the trees were a red gold too where he caught them. The sky was enjoying herself after the boredom of being blue all day.’[1] John Ruskin, writing in the early 1870s, was a little more agitated: ‘I…cannot any more look at a sunset with comfort, because, now that I am fifty-three, the sun seems to me to set so horribly fast; when one was young, it took its time; but now it always drops like a shell, and before I can get any image of it, is gone, and another day with it.’[2]

Guy Davenport observed that ‘Turner’s violent sunsets can be traced to a volcano in the Pacific, which loaded the air with dust and made chromatic changes in the sky. An element in romanticism can thus be traced to tectonic plates. From Turner, Ruskin; from Ruskin, Proust; from Proust, Beckett. Our sense of history can always be activated by such connections, whether they’re dependable or not. Every age’s past is a chosen one, and tells as much about the age as about the history it recovers.’[3]

Writing to his friends Geoffrey and Ninette Dutton, the Australian novelist Patrick White mentioned that his story, ‘Being Kind to Titina’, was based on his partner Manoly’s ‘childhood and youth in Alexandria and Athens’, and that he wanted to write a novel ‘about a boy growing up in those places, in a large family and ending with the German invasion of Greece. I think of it under the title of “My Athenian Family”, and see it as a kind of Greek version of a Turner sunset’. One of his favourite paintings was Turner’s ‘Interior at Petworth’ and, in a letter to Mary Benson (30 June 1971), he wrote that he used to go and look at it almost every Sunday when living in London: ‘besides being a subtle painting, I feel it taught me a lot about writing.’ Late Turners, he told another friend, Penny Coleing (23 June 1971), made him ‘grow breathless with delight every time I see them’.[4]


I was trying to remember the title – of a book or a section of a book – to do with sunsets, or the sinking of the sun in the west. I could remember the rhythm: the something of the something in the west but got no further. The Decline of the West seemed a possible part of it – Spengler? David Caute? – but no. The closest I got was the latter half of the title of a Cormac McCarthy novel I’d read years back: Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West – and noticed that he’d written a play called The Sunset Limited. Of the novel, I mainly recalled a great deal of blood, scalping and general mayhem.

To Hugh Kenner, Davenport wrote on 18 January 1974: ‘Cormac McCarthy, the Gothic nuvvlist of Sevier County, Tennessee, has begun sending back his Xerox copy of Tatlin!, page by page, with the socks of my prose pulled up. He is right most of the time, but he has made me feel so unsure of my ability to write even a simple English sentence that I’ve had dark and despairing thoughts of withdrawing the manuscript altogether.’ To which Kenner sent his reassuring reply five days later: ‘Pay no ultimate heed to Cormac McCarthy. No hand is surer than your’n with English syntax and epithet.’[5]

There was, of course, no sunset on our walk: no sun to begin with by the time we went out, barely any light at all in fact. It had become a day determined to give a new edge to the word ‘dull’. Still, it was good exercise.


Notes

[1] Henry Green, Nothing, Doting, Blindness (London: Vintage Books, 2008), 421.

[2] Ruskin, Fors Clavigera (New Edition: 4 volumes, 1896), I, 373.

[3] Guy Davenport, ‘Wheel Ruts’,  Grand Street, 7, 2 (Winter, 1988), 246.

[4] Patrick White, Letters, edited by David Marr (London: Jonathan Cape, 1994), 202, 203n.

[5] Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), II, 1503, 1504.

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