First Post, Next Post

FP-Front

A parcel arrives with copies of the Newsletter from the Ford Madox Ford Society, which will be sent out over the next few days to the homes and offices of the faithful—even to a few of the lapsed, if that lapsing is of recent enough date.

To post First Post I need a lot of C5 envelopes, so set off on the two-mile walk to the stationer that we used pretty regularly for fifteen years, ten minutes away from the old offices. But I find it gone. Stationery, no longer stationary, has fled. Should I have checked before leaving home? Probably, given the recent examples of things assumed to be stable and enduring proving to be nothing of the kind.

Still, maybe tomorrow, if I manage to score a lunch date with the woman of my dreams. For many years, there’s been a stationer on the main road below her workplace. If it can just hang on twenty-four hours, those copies could soon be on their way.

Ford Madox Ford Society: http://www.fordmadoxfordsociety.org/

 

 

News, percentages, violin solos

Jordaens, Jacob, 1593-1678; An Allegory of Fruitfulness

Jacob Jordaens, An Allegory of Fruitfulness (1620-9)
© The Wallace Collection

Another week, another cornucopia of good news. Worrying noises—surely the first ever—from the White House. A Hollywood scandal rippling out, worsening and darkening as it does so, women everywhere rolling their eyes, taking in the film world, industry, local and national government, science, academe, business, retail and every media outlet going, unable or unwilling even to feign surprise. ‘Wait—you’re saying that some men in positions of power actually misuse that power to exploit and sexually abuse women? Truly?’ Meanwhile, for the delectation of the British public, talks in Brussels (official slogan: ‘Down we go!) have paused to allow both sides to parse thoroughly the words ‘deadlock’ and ‘impasse’.

On Thursday, The Times Literary Supplement arrives. The NB column on the back page discusses a recently published ‘literary plebiscite’ called Goodbye Europe: Writers and artists say farewell. At one point, I read: ‘Fifty-two per cent of British voters chose to vote Leave.’

No, they didn’t. Fifty-two per cent of those who voted on the day of the referendum may have done but this represented around thirty-seven per cent of the electorate. So nearly two-thirds of the British electorate did not vote to leave the European Union. None of this changes the result: however ill-advised it was to call a referendum at all, with no safeguards—such as requiring a true majority of the electorate or agreement among all the constituent parts of the United Kingdom—and amidst a blizzard of misinformation, the result was what it was. Still, I object to the constant swilling about of such phrases as ‘the will of the people’ and ‘the British people have spoken’ to imply a collective, wall-to-wall, shoulder-to-shoulder-with-linked-arms determination to exit the EU. I confess that I tire too of the constant pretence that the referendum itself—and the recent General Election—were centrally concerned with ‘the Nation’ or ‘the British people’ when they were merely chapters in the continuing story of Conservative Party infighting. But that’s another issue.

Wodehouse

Thankfully, there are brighter spots in the world, such as P. G. Wodehouse’s The Mating Season, which I happened to be reading (aloud) last night, where it cheered me to find the Reverend Sidney Pirbright described as ‘A tall, drooping man, looking as if he had been stuffed in a hurry by an incompetent taxidermist’; and Bertie Wooster’s brisk review of Miss Eustacia Pulbrook’s violin solo: ‘It was loud in spots and less loud in other spots, and it had that quality which I have noticed in all violin solos, of seeming to last much longer than it actually did.’

Indignant violinists, please note: Mr Wodehouse is not currently on social media.

 

Ghost-seers and revenants

Shields, Frederick James, 1833-1911; Hamlet and the Ghost

(Frederick James Shields, Hamlet and the Ghost: Manchester Art Gallery)

Saturday’s Guardian carried a paperback review of Lisa Morton’s Ghosts: A Haunted History. It begins: ‘Nearly half of Americans believe in ghosts; the worldwide figure is almost certainly higher’, and adds that Morton shows belief in ghosts to be ‘nearly universal, though the form taken by the “undead spirit” varies across time and space.’[1]

It’s certainly a remarkably prevalent word – and idea – in our culture, in most cultures. Ghostwriter, ghost story, Ghostbuster, ghost train, ghost town, ghost of a chance, give up the ghost, to look like a ghost, ghosts walking over our graves, the ghost in the machine. The Holy Ghost: the Divine Spirit, the third person of the trinity, the Holy Spirit, closer there to the German geist. Ford Madox Ford remembered telling his confessor about his difficulty in conceiving, let along believing in, that ‘Third Person of the Trinity’. The old priest sensibly replied: ‘“Calm yourself, my son, that is a matter for theologians. Believe as much as you can”.’[2]

The poet Thomas Campbell recalled meeting the celebrated astronomer William Herschel in Brighton, in September 1813, feeling that he’d been ‘conversing with a supernatural intelligence’. Herschel completely perplexed him by saying that many distant stars had probably ceased to exist ‘millions of years ago’, ‘and that looking up into the night sky we were seeing a stellar landscape that was not really there at all. The sky was full of ghosts.’[3]

I’d tended to assume that fear of ghosts in the old sense had sensibly diminished in the more than four hundred years since Hamlet and the other witnesses had no doubts at all about what they were seeing when the ghost of the late king appeared to them, or the two hundred and fifty years since James Boswell was so unsettled by talk of ghosts: ‘This was very strong. My mind was now filled with a real horror instead of an imaginary one. I shuddered with apprehension. I was frightened to go home’.[4]

Had interest not steadily shifted to the observer rather than the observed? Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw is an obvious example; and Algernon Blackwood, in the preface to his collected stories, wrote: ‘My interest in psychic matters has always been the interest in questions of extended or expanded consciousness. If a ghost is seen, what is it interests me less than what sees it?’[5]

Ghosts_Almeida

(Ghosts at the Almeida Theatre via The Telegraph)
Lesley Manville as Helene Alving and Jack Lowden as Oswald Alving.

Henrik Ibsen disliked Ghosts as the title chosen by William Archer for his translation of the play into English. Richard Eyre, discussing his 2013 version, rendered the Norwegian Gengangere as ‘“a thing that walks again”, rather than the appearance of a soul of a dead person’ but pointed out that ‘Againwalkers’ was ungainly and the alternative, ‘Revenants’ he found ‘both awkward and French. Ghosts has a poetic resonance to the English ear.’
https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2013/sep/20/richard-eyre-spirit-ibsen-ghosts

Awkward? Arguably. French, most certainly. The 2004 film, Les Revenants, I’ve seen translated as They Came Back, while the recent television series based on it is called The Returned. In any case, the poetic resonance of ‘ghosts’ is certainly true enough in this English ear.

Unsurprisingly, the ‘theatre of war’—‘“theatre” is good. There are those who did not want / it to come to an end’[6]—is a flourishing site of wraiths, phantoms, visitants, revenants and vanishings. ‘Ghosts were numerous in France at that time’, Robert Graves wrote, recalling the second year of the First World War. Later, staying near Harlech at the large Tudor house of the Nicholson family—Graves married Nancy Nicholson, sister of Ben, third child of the painter William Nicholson and his wife Mabel—Graves remembered, ‘It was the most haunted house that I have ever been in, though the ghosts were invisible except in the mirrors.’[7]

Lucy_Masterman

(By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51483551)

From France in 1916, Ford Madox Ford wrote to Lucy Masterman, wife of the Liberal politician, then running the British War Propaganda Bureau (Wellington House): ‘Why does nobody write to me? Does one so quickly become a ghost, alas!’[8]

And two and a half years after the Armistice, Siegfried Sassoon, thinking about the war, pulled out his war notebooks and paused on a diary entry of 30 June 1916. ‘The diary makes me realise that I shall never partake of another war. It makes me wonder whether five years ago was real. “Gibson’s face in the first grey of dawn . . . ” Gibson is a ghost but he is more real to-night than the pianist who played Scriabine with such delicate adroitness. I wish I could “find a moral equivalent for war”. To-night I feel as if I were only half-alive. Part of me died with all the Gibsons I used to know.’[9]

Rapid and colossal changes, in agriculture, in urban sprawl, in transport, in technology, in population density, in the widespread loss of natural habitats, the accelerating extinction of species, the rampant carelessness of planning and development, combine to engender common but unpredictable sensations of loss, an uneasiness, an unfocused search for the missing. ‘Our landscape is full of ghosts’, Anna Pavord writes, ‘of hands that have twitched and pulled it into sheep runs and cattle folds, bridleways and burial mounds. It is one of its great strengths.’[10] And Helen Macdonald wrote that ‘The hawk and I have a shared history of these fields. There are ghosts here, but they are not long-dead falconers. They are ghosts of things that happened.’[11]

The self, of course, can become a ghost, or feel like one. Writing to William Maxwell in early 1940, Sylvia Townsend Warner remarked: ‘Being a writer makes one a ghost before one’s time—the kind of ghost that likes a libation. War—or rather a state of things that antedates war—makes one feel more ghostly still’.[12] John Banville’s narrator refers to the self as an indistinct black shape, ‘like the shape that no one at the séance sees until the daguerreotype is developed. I think I am becoming my own ghost.’[13]

STW2

(Sylvia Townsend Warner via  http://sylviatownsendwarner.tumblr.com/)

How many of us are never haunted, by remembered faces, voices, names, the lives unlived, places unvisited, old friends misplaced, acquaintances not pursued, desired lovers untried? We may not use the word ‘ghost’, of course. But sometimes one of the most poignant experiences of the ghostly is not the dead friend or relative or lover, the spirit reluctant to leave building, battlefield or landscape—but the life that was never quite there at the outset, the lost because never held, the almost-life, as in the poem by Julia Copus, her narrator straining to see the longed-for sign of a successful IVF treatment:

She takes it all in, like a small, controlled explosion:
here is the inch-long stiff, absorbent pad –
a stopped tongue, the damp on it still; and the plastic housing

with its cut-out windows. And here is the latex strip
(two lines for yes), the single band of purple
and beside it the silvery ghost of a second line

willed into being – frail as the arm of a sea-frond
trailed in the ocean – but failing to darken or turn
into more than a watermark.[14]

 

References

[1] P. D. Smith, ‘Out in paperback’ column, which I cannot find online: Guardian review supplement (7 October 2017), 9.

[2] Ford Madox Ford, Provence (London: Allen & Unwin, 1938), 140.

[3] Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (London: Harper Collins, 2008), 210.

[4] Boswell’s London Journal, 1762-1763, edited by Frederick A. Pottle (London: William Heinemann, 1950), 214.

[5] The Tales of Algernon Blackwood (London: Martin Secker, 1938), xi.

[6] ‘Canto LXXVIII’, The Cantos of Ezra Pound, fourth collected edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 477.

[7] Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That (1929 edition; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2014), 157, 342; Sanford Schwartz, William Nicholson (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 179-180.

[8] Letter of 6 September 1916: Letters of Ford Madox Ford, edited by Richard M. Ludwig (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), 74.

[9] Siegfried Sassoon, Diaries 1920-1922, edited by Rupert Hart-Davis (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), 73.

[10] Anna Pavord, Landskipping: Painters, Ploughmen and Places (London: Bloomsbury 2016), 43.

[11] Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk (London: Jonathan Cape, 2014), 240.

[12] Michael Steinman, editor, The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938-1978 (Washington: Counterpoint, 2001), 8.

[13] John Banville, The Sea (London: Picador, 2006), 194.

[14] Julia Copus, ‘Ghost’, in The World’s Two Smallest Humans (London: Faber and Faber, 2012), 50.

‘We poets in our youth’

Redcliffe_Church_via_OBI.tumblr

(George Shepherd, Via https://www.oldbookillustrations.com/ )

‘The weather was brilliant’, the Reverend Francis Kilvert recorded in his diary, Friday 24 October 1873, when he attended the Bristol Music Festival. ‘We walked first to St Mary Redcliffe Church and remained to service in the beautiful Lady Chapel at 11 o’clock.’[1]

This imposing church, some of it dating back to the twelfth century, is about a mile from where I sit at this moment. Bristol boasts a giddily multifarious literary-historical line-up, those who have lived, visited or worked here ranging from Richard Hakluyt, Maria Edgeworth and Thomas Lovell Beddoes to Walter Savage Landor, Angela Carter and Charles Tomlinson. Edmund Burke was Member of Parliament, Humphry Davy experimented with laughing gas (often on himself) and Daniel Defoe may have met Alexander Selkirk, the ‘original’ of Robinson Crusoe, in a tavern in King Street. But traces of English Romanticism show up particularly strongly in any blood sample taken from the city’s literary history, and St Mary Redcliffe’s is a name that recurs often.

On this day, 4 October, in 1795, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, poet—recently, though briefly, having served with the Fifteenth Light Dragoons under the name Silas Tomkyn Comberbache—was married to Miss Sara Fricker in St Mary Redcliffe. He was not quite twenty-three, she a year or two older. The marriage would not be a conspicuous success but, in and around this year, Coleridge was meeting and often enchanting other figures who would be crucially important to his life and art.

‘SOUTHEY! thy melodies steal o’er mine ear
Like far-off joyance, or the murmuring
Of wild bees in the sunny showers of Spring –
Sounds of such mingled import as may cheer

The lonely breast, yet rouse a mindful tear’.[2]

Coleridge and Southey first met in Oxford in June 1794. Coleridge and his travelling companion, Joseph Hucks, had just begun a walking tour which would extend to more than five hundred miles in just over a month. The three-day stopover was transformed into a three-week stay, essentially because of this encounter between Coleridge and the twenty-year-old Southey, who ‘wrote bad poetry at tremendous speed’ and, though a self-proclaimed atheist and democrat, ‘with strong Jacobin sympathies’, was at that stage destined for the church.[3] Southey was a Bristol man, born above the family draper’s shop in Wine Street in August 1774, educated at Westminster School and then Balliol College. Coleridge’s friendship with him—like his friendships with several other men of letters—would be prone to convulsions, smarts and sorties but it started out with a tremendous velocity.

Coleridge

(Coleridge, 1975, by Peter Vandyke: © National Portrait Gallery)

By the time he and Hucks moved on from Oxford, Coleridge had established with Southey plans for a community on the banks of the Susquehanna river in Pennsylvania, which would sustain itself through farming (two or three hours’ daily labour) and would be grandly based on the principles of ‘Pantisocracy’, a Coleridgean coining, from Greek roots, meaning, more or less, government by all. The ‘astonishing’ speed with which this all happened ‘was testimony not only to the transforming effect they had on one another, but to the very weak foundations upon which the whole enterprise rested.’[4]

Within the next three months, Coleridge would meet Thomas Poole, radical, philanthropist and essayist, then living in Bristol, who would become a lifelong friend; and his future wife, Sara Fricker.

‘My gaze! Proud towers, and Cots more dear to me,
Elm-shadowed Fields, and prospect-bounding Sea.
Deep sighs my lonely heart: I drop the tear:
Enchanting spot! O were my Sara here.’[5]

In August and September, Coleridge composed other poems looking forward to his marriage: ‘The Eolian Harp’, the first of his celebrated ‘Conversation’ poems; and ‘Lines Written at Shurton Bars’, in which he ‘even dares to anticipate metaphorically the soon-to-be-enjoyed sexual congress with Sara (‘And so shall flash my love-charg’d eye/ When all the heart’s big ecstasy/ Shoots rapid through the frame!’).[6]

Still, there were hints for Sara of the absences and unreliability to come:

‘O Peace, that on a lilied bank dost love
To rest thine head beneath an olive tree,
I would, that from the pinions of thy dove
One quill withouten pain ypluck’d might be!
For O! I wish my Sara’s frowns to flee,
And fain to her some soothing song would write,
Lest she resent my rude discourtesy,
Who vowed to meet her ere the morning light,
But broke my plighted word—ah! false and recreant wight!’[7]

In August or September 1795, Coleridge met William Wordsworth, in Bristol: most likely at the house of John Pinney, a hugely wealthy merchant whose fortune was founded on sugar and slaves.

(The University of Bristol Library Special Collections include the Pinney family papers: accounts, letter-books, family and estate papers, mainly relating to Dorset and the West Indies, 1650-1986. See https://www.bristol.ac.uk//library/resources/specialcollections/archives/#pinney )

WW-Robert-Hancock-1798

(William Wordsworth, 1798, by Robert Hancock: © National Portrait Gallery)

In that same busy period, he quarrelled with Southey: though they were reconciled in the autumn of the following year, their Pantisocracy scheme, hardly surprisingly, fell through. And, less than six weeks after the Coleridge wedding, on 13 November 1795, Southey also married—also in St Mary Redcliffe Church. His bride was Edith Fricker, a sister of Coleridge’s wife.

In later years, when the Southeys lived in Keswick, at Greta Hall, they also supported Sara Coleridge and her children. And where was Coleridge then? In London, perhaps; or Germany; or South Wales; or Scotland; or Malta; or Sicily; or Italy. In September 1798, Lyrical Ballads, the landmark volume by Wordsworth and Coleridge, was published in Bristol by Joseph Cottle. Thereafter, Coleridge nursed an increasingly hopeless love for Sara Hutchinson (whom he addressed in print as ‘Asra’, not quite an unbreakable code), sister to Mary—whom Wordsworth would marry in 1802; there were quarrels and reconciliations; unfinished poems; accusations of plagiarism; lectures, marathon conversations, table-talk—and opium.

The early celebration of French revolutionary principles fell entirely away in the cases of both Wordsworth and Coleridge—and fell away even more steeply, perhaps, in that of Robert Southey, with whom Byron’s ‘Dedication’ to Don Juan was concerned (the first two Cantos appeared in 1819), though he had begun his ‘Preface’ with a swipe at Wordsworth’s unintelligibility and here jabbed at Coleridge’s recent preoccupations.

Byron-Thomas-Phillips

(Byron by Thomas Phillips)

Bob Southey! You’re a poet – Poet Laureate,
And representative of all the race;
Although ‘tis true that you turned out a Tory at
Last, yours has lately been a common case.
And now my epic renegade, what are ye at
With all the Lakers, in and out of place?
A nest of tuneful persons, to my eye
Like ‘four and twenty blackbirds in a pye,

Which pye being opened they began to sing’
(This old song and new simile holds good),
‘A dainty dish to set before the King’
Or Regent, who admires such kind of food.
And Coleridge too has lately taken wing,
But like a hawk encumbered with his hood,
Explaining metaphysics to the nation;
I wish he would explain his explanation.[8]

There were major achievements still to come from Coleridge, though, barring his restless revising, few of these were in the field of poetry, after the first years of the nineteenth century, and some—the Notebooks—would be barely visible in his lifetime. Wordsworth too, after the publication of Poems in Two Volumes (1807), is generally viewed in terms of poetic decline. In ‘Resolution and Independence’, written in the first half of 1802, though not published until 1807, Wordsworth’s narrator thinks of Chatterton, ‘the marvellous Boy’, whose brief life and tragic death were inextricably linked to St Mary Redcliffe Church, where his father was sexton and found the papers in the Muniment Room which led to Chatterton’s ‘discovery’ of the poet Thomas Rowley.[9] The same stanza concludes with two famous lines:

We Poets in our youth begin in gladness;
But thereof comes in the end despondency and madness.[10]

And yes, ‘sadness’ would have scanned—and would have rhymed too. But it just wouldn’t have cut the mustard, somehow. . .

References

[1] Francis Kilvert, Kilvert’s Diary, edited by William Plomer, Three volumes (London: Jonathan Cape, 1938, reissued 1969). Volume Two (23 August 1871—13 May 1874), 386.

[2] ‘To Robert Southey of Balliol College, Oxford, Author of the “Retrospect”, and Other Poems’, in Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Complete Poems, edited by William Keach (London: Penguin Books, 1997), 74.

[3] Richard Holmes, Coleridge: Early Visions (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1989), 61-62.

[4] Tom Mayberry, Coleridge and Wordsworth: The Crucible of Friendship, revised edition (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2000), 22-23.

[5] ‘Lines composed while climbing the left ascent of Brockley Coomb, Somersetshire, May, 1795: Coleridge, The Complete Poems, 80.

[6] Rosemary Ashton, The Life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), 74-75; Coleridge, The Complete Poems, 87-88, 89-91.

[7] ‘Lines in the manner of Spenser’: Coleridge, The Complete Poems, 81.

[8] Lord Byron, Don Juan, edited by T. G. Steffan, E. Steffan and W. W. Pratt (London: Penguin Books, 1996), 37, 41. Southey accepted the post of Poet Laureate in 1813. Byron had assisted Coleridge financially, sending him £100 in February 1816: Ashton, The Life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 295. On the Pye joke, see an earlier post: https://reconstructionarytales.blog/2017/08/21/sorrows-joys-magpies/

[9] On Chatterton, see Richard Holmes, ‘Thomas Chatterton: The Case Re-opened’, in Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer (London: Harper Collins, 2000), 5-50; Alistair Heys, editor, From Gothic to Romantic: Thomas Chatterton’s Bristol (Bristol: Redcliffe Press, 2005).

[10] William Wordsworth, edited by Stephen Gill (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 232.

 

A Turn around the Cemetery

Arnos-Vale-1

2 October. Taking time away from news bulletins detailing mass murder, police brutality, terrorism and gross political irresponsibility, I take a turn around the cemetery, where the dead seem quite peacefully disposed.

They were calmer times in Westmorland, even though Britain and France were at war, when Dorothy Wordsworth recorded details of her day (and William’s) that Thursday, 2 October 1800. ‘A very rainy morning. We walked after dinner to observe the torrents. I followed Wm to Rydale, he afterwards went to Butterlip How. I came home to receive the Lloyds. They walked with us to see Churnmilk force and the Black quarter. The black quarter looked marshy, and the general prospect was cold, but the Force was very grand. The Lychens are now coming out afresh. I carried home a collection in the afternoon. We had a pleasant conversation about the manners of the rich—avarice, inordinate desires, and the effeminacy unnaturalness and the unworthy objects of education. After the Lloyds were gone we walked—a showery evening. The moonlight lay upon the hills like snow.’[1]

In Arnos Vale, I can hear, from far off, the workmen busy at the end of Sydenham Road. Wind buffets the trees. A woman in dark glasses walks three dogs towards me, one black, two matching white. We exchange half-smiles, nothing too risky.

Arnos-Vale-2

The wind pauses and the birdsong is more audible. Two, three Red Admirals in as many minutes pass me. The wind was only drawing breath. Gathered again, it gusts, leans, stills. There’s a sudden rush of children’s voices as the doors of the nearby school slap open and they spill into the playground.

On another 2 October, 1940, into the second year of another war, Josie Brinton wrote from Alexandria to her mother in Tennessee, ‘I know how worried you must be and it’s useless to tell you not to be but what else can I say. If you saw the carefree life everyone leads here you’d wonder what all the excitement was about’. Italian troops had crossed the border from Libya into Egypt three weeks earlier. Josie went on to recount the story current in Alexandria that ‘in the Mediterranean now all the English sailors had to do was lean over the side of their ships and shout “waiter” to have an Italian submarine come to the surface!’[2]

Alexandria-1940

(Alexandria, 1940 via histclo.com)

I used to be friends with a man who drove a Volkswagen Beetle. Drivers of this car would salute—or at least, acknowledge—one another, hooting, flashing their lights or simply waving. As a consequence, the whole world seethed with Beetle drivers: they were everywhere. Just so, romantic love will narrow all the people in the world to women with red hair or blue dresses, to men with slight stoops or yellow scarves. Now the streets are full of men of about my age, all equipped with rucksacks exactly like mine, all walking purposefully (when I am) or sauntering unhurriedly, without direction (when I am).

But there are no such men in the cemetery today: men with matching dogs, yes, but nothing more (I have no dog to match). And I notice again how often here the magpies are in pairs, as though companionship were more necessary, or at least a little more desirable, in the company of the dead.

References

[1] Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth, edited by Mary Moorman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973), 41.

[2] Michael Haag, Alexandria: City of Memory (Yale University Press, 2004), 180.

 

Difficult demands, corresponding charms

Macdonald-books

I drift back—early enough to cook the dinner—from a couple of days in California in the company of Ross Macdonald, not for the first time. The thirteenth occasion, I think. I must have seen, in a previous life, one of the films featuring Macdonald’s private eye Lew Archer, either Harper (1966, based on The Moving Target) or The Drowning Pool (1975), both starring Paul Newman. There was a later film, Blue City (1986), based on an early Macdonald novel, not a Lew Archer book. But I only started reading Macdonald a few years ago, decades after going through the whole of Chandler and of Hammett (one of whose books made a strong impression on the sixteen-year-old Macdonald).

Ross Macdonald was born Kenneth Millar in Los Gatos, California, though his parents were Canadian. After a difficult childhood, he studied at the University of Western Ontario and eventually received a PhD from the University of Michigan in 1952: his dissertation was on Coleridge.

While I wait for The Archer Files to make its way through the postal system, I review my collection of Macdonalds: seven mass market paperbacks jostle the three handsome Library of America volumes which, between them, contain eleven full-length novels. The last of these, Four Later Novels, published this year, is a recent arrival on my shelves and awaits the week’s holiday towards the end of the year—probably, if I can last that long.

tspa_0099971f

(Kenneth Millar/ Ross Macdonald via Library of America)

Inclusion in the Library of America series probably hints at the status that Macdonald has achieved in the view of some influential readers, since The Goodbye Look (1969) prompted the New York Times Book Review notice by William Goldman (‘the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American’).

Thirty-three years before the first Library of America volume of Macdonald’s work appeared—the series was launched in 1982, with eight volumes published that year—Hugh Kenner published an essay, ‘Classics by the Pound’, which began by detailing some comparisons between the products of that list and ‘the esteemed French series Bibliothèque de la Pléiade’, not least the fact that early volumes suggest a tendency to play it safe, perhaps influenced too much by potential copyright problems with more recent writers. Kenner went on to remark that ‘one difference’ between Harriet Beecher Stowe and Ross Macdonald was that Macdonald, ‘in devising his fables of modern identity, wrote them as things called “detective stories,” handled at Harvard with tongs’, while Stowe’s ‘famous eleven-Kleenex tract, sanctified by a testimonial of Lincoln’s, soars aloft into the Disneyfied sunsets of Literature.’ But, he added, a hundred years hence, should the Library of America series still be around, ‘it either will have atrophied into total irrelevance or else will have managed to embalm three novels by Ross Macdonald. Just watch. And you read it here first.’[1]

Kenner

(Hugh Kenner)

Ah, literary history. The friendship between Kenner and Macdonald dated back to 1950, when Kenner was teaching at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Kenner acknowledged his gratitude to Macdonald—Kenneth Millar—‘for his patience in expunging the flaws from the manuscript’ of Wyndham Lewis (1954); Macdonald reviewed Kenner’s Gnomon and his The Invisible Poet (on T. S. Eliot), while Kenner would contribute a piece to a collection of essays, memoirs, poems and photographs, Inward Journey: Ross Macdonald, edited by Ralph B. Sipper, published in 1984.[2] But the friendship ran into trouble long before the Sipper volume.

Sleeping Beauty (1973), my most recent outing in the Los Angeles/Santa Barbara area, is one of his most intricately plotted, with the trademark Macdonald complexities of generations of family history, unsuspected interrelations, threatening secrets and vulnerabilities, this one set against the backdrop of a disastrous oil spill. (Macdonald was politically engaged and environmentally concerned: when an underwater oil well blew out off Santa Barbara in early 1969, both Macdonald and his wife, novelist Margaret Millar, took part in the ensuing protests.)

Sleeping Beauty is dedicated to Eudora Welty. Two years earlier, the New York Times Book Review had run, on its front page, Eudora Welty’s hugely positive review of The Underground Man. The two writers’ correspondence had begun the previous spring and would develop into a close personal relationship. In January 1973, following Welty’s appearance on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line television programme, Macdonald mentioned that Buckley had recently been in Santa Barbara, ‘house guest of an old friend of mine, Hugh Kenner—a friendship that began to lose its virtue about the time that Hugh became literary godfather of the National Review, and has now eroded—but a friendship that I regret. In the late forties and early fifties Hugh and I taught each other a good deal, he more than I. Who is our most brilliant literary scholar? Alas, it is Hugh Kenner.—This summer he leaves Santa Barbara for Johns Hopkins.’[3]

Yes, that was the issue. Kenner had become friends with Buckley in the late 1950s and published his first contribution to Buckley’s conservative National Review in November 1957, his last more than forty years later. (My own knowledge of Buckley is pretty limited but I thought Best of Enemies, the 2015 documentary about the televised debates between Buckley and Gore Vidal in 1968 was tremendous: funny too.)

eudora-welty.paris.review

(Eudora Welty via The Paris Review)

Is there a Ford Madox Ford connection somewhere here—apart from Kenner? Indeed there is. In the spring of 1971, Welty mentioned to Macdonald that she was writing a review of Arthur Mizener’s biography of Ford (‘I’m not sure if I can stand Arthur Mizener on Ford, anyway [ . . . ] I’ve been reading all the Ford I can, to get a little balance.’ In his reply, Macdonald mentioned having seen a part of the biography and being struck by ‘what seemed to me its rather dull antipathy towards its subject.’ And it’s true that, while Arthur Mizener made some valuable contributions to the body of biographical work on Ford, what queers the pitch is that he really disliked Ford and ends up not believing a word he says, hardly the best frame of mind to foster insight and understanding. Ford had to wait another couple of decades before Alan Judd and Max Saunders corrected the Mizener view.

Another of Macdonald’s friends was Richard W. Lid, whose book, Ford Madox Ford: The Essence of His Art had appeared in 1964, dedicated ‘To Kenneth Millar’. Macdonald’s letter went on to mention this: ‘Dick wrote his own book on Ford—an analysis of the major novels which I think is the best thing done on him so far. Could be I’m prejudiced: I worked on it with Dick—this in confidence—and in fact he dedicated it to me. So when you told me you were involved with Ford, it closed another circle, dear Miss Welty, with a tinkle. But it’s no coincidence, is it? All writers admire Parade’s End and love The Good Soldier, and hate to see them fall into fumbling hands, unimaginative hands.’[4]

Thanking him for his letter—and Macdonald’s own copy of Lid’s book which he’d sent her—Eudora Welty said it was just what she needed ‘at this very point, when Mizener in his jovial disparagement was about to get me down.’ She claimed to see the traces of Macdonald’s work on the chapter devoted to The Good Soldier, ‘in the awareness of what Ford is doing in that marvelous book’, adding: ‘I don’t need to tell you I undertook the review not for love of Mizener but for love of Ford.’[5]

Eudora Welty’s review of Mizener’s biography is included in The Eye of the Story, a selection of essays and reviews. In that book, the review is immediately followed by her appreciation of Macdonald’s The Underground Man: ‘In our day it is for such a novel as The Underground Man that the detective form exists. I think it also matters that it is the detective form, with all its difficult demands and its corresponding charms, that makes such a novel possible.’[6]

We know that Ford greatly appreciated Welty’s writing.[7] I like to think that he would have admired Macdonald’s work too—‘fables of modern identity’ indeed.

References

[1] Hugh Kenner, Mazes (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995), 118, 123, 124.

[2] Hugh Kenner, Wyndham Lewis (1954; New York: New Directions, 1964), viii; other details are from Hugh Kenner: A Bibliography, edited by Willard Goodwin (Albany, New York: Whitston Publishing Company), 2001.

[3] Suzanne Marrs and Tom Nolan, editors, Meanwhile There Are Letters: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2015), 109-110.

[4] Meanwhile There Are Letters, 11, 12.

[5] Meanwhile There Are Letters, 13.

[6] Eudora Welty, The Eye of the Story: Selected Essays and Reviews (London: Virago Press, 1987), 258: review of Mizener, The Saddest Story: A Biography of Ford Madox Ford, 241-250; review of The Underground Man, 251-260. The book is dedicated ‘To Kenneth Millar’.

[7] Letters of Ford Madox Ford, edited by Richard M. Ludwig (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), 310; Sondra Stang, editor, The Ford Madox Ford Reader (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1986), 510-512.

 

Acts of Attention

Vermeer-Lacemaker

(Johannes Vermeer, The Lacemaker)

Concentration: the focusing of all one’s attention; the keeping of the mind fixed on something.

Towards the end of the first year of the Great War, Friday 16 July 1915, Vera Brittain noted in her diary, ‘I find it very difficult to read just now, especially fiction; the immense realities of the present crowd in upon my mind, making concentration almost impossible & fictitious events quite trivial.’[1]

The present certainly offers plenty of ‘immense realities’—not all of them likely to foster optimism—though I’m not finding it difficult to read. Still, concentration is a little trickier these days. There’s the matter of intensity; but also the question of duration. The rate at which I read varies wildly—a crime novel, however good, demands a different kind of attention from, say, The Anathemata of David Jones—but on average, if I manage a hundred or a hundred and fifty pages in a day, that’s pretty good going. Yet I remember—how many years ago?—reading a Dickens novel, perhaps Little Dorrit or Our Mutual Friend, and reading four hundred or four hundred and fifty pages in a day.

So I seem to have lost that ability to stick to a single task, a single object of interest, for that length of time; but, of course, this is in large part because of the various distractions that can break my concentration and the habits I’ve lapsed into of allowing myself to be distracted.

Still, when I read of people who go crazy after eight hours without a phone, or who check their texts or emails every five minutes, a hundred and fifty times a day, I feel entirely dissociated from such patterns of behaviour. I’m not so easily distracted, am I? Just how often do I check the damned thing? In any case, here, sitting by the back door, reading, yes, Michel Leiris (‘Like many men, I have made my descent into Hell, and like some, I have more or less returned from it’),[2] my attention is caught—too easily caught—by a movement outside. And I mean this as a serial event: wind in the leaves, birds on the fence or on the bird table or, perhaps, this—neither a bird nor a plane:

Cat-tree

That cat—the visiting cat—is absurdly prone to distraction: a leaf, a fly, a cloud, gulls passing overhead, any of these will do. We have confidently diagnosed ADHD or the feline version of it. Yet, come to think of it, such behaviour has become typically human.

I was remembering—and getting almost right, from memory—an early passage in Aldous Huxley’s Island, when Will Farnaby, hearing the mynah bird utter its one-word message—‘Attention’—yet again, turns to Doctor MacPhail:

“Attention to what?” he asked, in the hope of eliciting a more enlightening answer than the one he had received from Mary Sarojini.
“To Attention,” said Dr MacPhail.
“Attention to attention?”
“Of course.”[3]

Paying attention: a transaction. We hand over a portion of ourselves and receive in return—what? It varies, of course, but, ideally, an addition, an augmentation, an enlargement of the self. Colette lamented that ‘We do not look, we never look enough, never attentively enough, never excitedly enough.’[4] What is enough? As John Ames, the narrator of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, observes, ‘This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.’[5]

Not that it is simply a question of giving it attention. Don Gifford recalled the tale of Thoreau’s young friend Ellery Channing being reduced to tears because, as he himself admitted, ‘he knew so little about what merited recording that he returned home from his nature walks day after day with an empty notebook.’[6] And Robert Richardson writes of Thoreau ‘eagerly’ reading Ruskin and Gilpin, ‘whose work starts from the often ignored fact that the uneducated eye simply does not notice most of what is in front of it. Until our attention is called to this detail or that feature, we rarely scrutinize our surroundings, “in the full, clear sense of the word, we do not see.”’[7]

EstruscanPlaces

Attention at such a pitch is sometimes seen as a sacramental act: the Latin root of the word means an oath or a pledge. Of Leopold Bloom in Joyce’s Ulysses, Declan Kiberd observes, ‘To each and every detail of the surrounding world he gives that close attention which is the nearest modern equivalent of prayer.’[8] D. H. Lawrence, writing of augury and divination, pointed out that there is ‘no other way when you are dealing with life.’ You may pray to a personal god or rationally mull things over but it amounts to the same thing in the end: ‘it is all the same process, ultimately: of divination.’ And he asserts that: ‘All it depends on is the amount of true, sincere, religious concentration you can bring to bear on your object. An act of pure attention, if you are capable of it, will bring its own answer. And you choose that object to concentrate upon which will best focus your consciousness. Every real discovery made, every serious and significant decision ever reached, was reached and made by divination. The soul stirs, and makes an act of pure attention, and that is a discovery.’[9]

An act of pure attention seems like something to aim at. Or, failing that, a hundred or so pages in a day punctuated by phones, emails, whirring birds and treed cats.

 
References

[1] Vera Brittain, Chronicle of Youth: Vera Brittain’s Diary 1913-1917, edited by Alan Bishop (London: Gollancz 1981), 221.

[2] Michel Leiris, Manhood: A Journey from Childhood into the Fierce Order of Virility, translated by Richard Howard (1939; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 6. I’m still in the midst of it—it may not all be as cheerful as that quotation suggests.

[3] Aldous Huxley, Island (1962; London: Vintage, 2005), 21.

[4] Colette, Looking Backwards: Recollections [Journal à rebours and De ma fenêtre], translated by David Le Vay (London: Peter Owen, 1975), 149.

[5] Marilynne Robinson Gilead (London: Virago 2008), 32.

[6] Don Gifford, The Farther Shore: A Natural History of Perception (London: Faber, 1990), 11-12.

[7] Robert D. Richardson, Jr., Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 53.

[8] Declan Kiberd, Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Living (London: Faber and Faber, 2009), 89.

[9] D. H. Lawrence, Etruscan Places (1932), in D. H. Lawrence and Italy (London: Penguin Books, 1997), 54-55.