Intact in the mind

22 September. In 1798—not an uneventful year—Ann Radcliffe wrote of sitting on shipboard, en route from Portsmouth to the Isle of Wight: ‘a fine view of the town, the hospital, the forts and harbour, as we sailed out, the sea not rough. Hear the he-hoes of the sailors, afar in the channel, and the boatswain’s shrill whistle.’[1]

I’m reminded that my sister, born in Portsmouth, would have been 75 today, and that I have several images of its harbour, the seafront and yes, the Isle of Wight, fairly secure in my memory, ‘intact in my mind’ as William Maxwell termed it, in a letter to Sylvia Townsend Warner on this day in 1954: ‘Do you know I always believe implicitly in the places you describe as not only existing but being part of your life? Once read about, they remain intact in my mind, and I could move right into any house or piece of property you have ever written about. It occurred to me, on the train this morning, that perhaps you ought to have me insured.’[2]

As for the border between things remembered from ‘life’ and from books, which are a great part of many lives, it’s as porous as most other borders and is becoming more so, and not just for me. Fiction, as generally understood, has entered increasingly into the areas of public life where it’s not been conventionally expected to occur. When political figures don’t know the answer to a question—or do know but don’t want to say—they just make something up and barely bother to hide the fact. More official advice yesterday and today, so many talking or shouting heads buffeted by passing breezes, obviously humming along to a Bob Dylan song, though whether ‘Blowing in the Wind’ or ‘Idiot Wind’ it’s becoming harder to tell.

Now that the Christmas cracker motto ‘Follow the science’ has become visibly more complicated—it always was though it suited some people to pretend otherwise—I imagine we’ll all go on more or less as we were. Those lucky enough to be in a position to choose various degrees of isolation will so choose; those unavoidably more vulnerable will, alas, continue vulnerable; the frankly exploited, yes, the same; those reckless both on their own account and that of others will go on being so.

I’m now sometimes seen in daylight, though still prone to veering off paths and pavements. But we’ve cancelled our holiday in Dorset – and have put in a little extra pasta and a little extra wine ahead of. . . well, fill in your catastrophe of choice here, though ‘catastrophe’ isn’t quite the word. A downward turn, the Greek original says – but we’re well past that. Play some music, phone a friend and buckle up.


Notes


[1] Radcliffe’s journal, quoted by Geoffrey Grigson in The English Year: From Diaries and Letters (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), 128.

[2] Michael Steinman, editor, The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938-1978 (Washington: Counterpoint, 2001), 55.

Foxed, boxed

(Via Natural History Museum)

I begin to think that the foxes recognise us – by sight or scent? The second, more likely. At first they would retreat much further along the road that crosses the hill we walk up; now, as we reach that point, we see them sitting or crouching only a few metres from the junction and can almost see the thought bubble that reads: It’s them, walking straight up as usual. No problem.
 
A morning’s tally of close encounters: three foxes, one white cat—emerging like a ghost from the bushes in the small park—one woman runner and, as we pass the larger park when almost home, a man with two small dogs. On another morning, darker and with a heavy mist, we see no foxes, two cats and five people: not so good. But always the birds: sparrows, certainly, in some of the hedges, and blackbirds, beyond which even my provisional identification skills peter out.
 
I’ve read, just lately, reflections on several encounters with the wild, by Helen Macdonald, John Burnside and Melissa Harrison, particularly focused on what Harrison, probably in her excellent podcast (https://melissaharrison.co.uk/podcast/) called the ‘I and Thou’ moments, after Martin Buber, the moment of relationship rather than objectification, when the bird, the animal, the forest, even the single tree, looks back at the observer, listens to the listener, in a reciprocal engagement.
 
Certainly, for me, these near-encounters with the wild—however wild urban foxes are reckoned to be these days—are like a shot into the veins, a thrill along the nerves, a rush of oxygen into flagging lungs. Is it the increasing rarity, the always-attendant sense of what’s being lost, the disorienting nudge out of the circles and boxes and bubbles into which we back ourselves these days, even without pandemics? Hard to say. It could just be the contrast with people, with some people.
 
National leaders trashing their own countries’ reputations—and often enough trashing  the countries themselves—the lethal incompetence, the undisguised corruption; the sheer impunity, the denial of climate emergency, the barefaced, continuous lying and the blatant contempt for those voters who, quite bafflingly, will vote for them again—or so it seems. To those of us old enough to remember the Thatcher years, Cold Wars, nuclear stand-offs, illegal invasions and the rest, it seems extraordinary to find oneself thinking—and saying—‘It has never been this bad before.’
 
Ah, well. Winter is coming—as the saying goes.
 

Travelling light, or dark

(Daumier, Honore; The Heavy Burden; Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-heavy-burden-160162)

I knew a woman called Janet many years back—bookseller, cook—and remember when she gave up smoking. It was, she explained, one less thing to worry about and to have to carry when you left the house. So, keys and money. This was before people pledged undying love to their phones, obviously. Lately, I’ve noticed how little I carry myself these days: the cash in my wallet has been there since March, untouched. I don’t carry a chequebook or cards, and don’t worry about pens or a notebook.

Still walking so early in the morning, there are no shops open yet, and nothing in them that I need, or plan, to buy anyway. I don’t bother with a notebook because I’d barely be able to see to write. My bunch of keys has shrunk even further: office keys a while gone now; and the keys to the house of the Librarian’s parents not needed these last few months since we’ve not gone down to visit them in Somerset, though they’ve visited us.

Travelling light or lighter, though in the near-dark. Not that burdens are always material, of course, and this year has been a heavy, sometimes crushing, one for people to bear. Literary history abounds in things carried, from memories or a sense of guilt to the objects carried according to the scheme, devised by Professors at the School of Languages in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, ‘for entirely abolishing all Words whatsoever’. Words being ‘only’ names for things, ‘it would be more convenient for all men to carry about them such things as were necessary to express a particular business they are to discourse on.’ Gulliver remarks that he has ‘often beheld two of those sages almost sinking under the weight of their packs, like pedlars among us, who, when they met in the street, would lay down their loads, open their sacks, and hold conversation for an hour together; then put up their implements, help each other to resume their burdens, and take their leave.’[1]

(Illustrated by J. G. Thompson: British Library)

From Corfu in 1935, Lawrence Durrell wrote to Alan Thomas: ‘The peasants are incorrigible thieves and liars, but make up for it by having the dandiest arse-action when they walk. This is due to always carrying huge weights on their heads. They’re very saucy and can be persuaded to do almost anything within reason.’[2] ‘Within reason’ is nicely placed.

When Greece’s terrible years of invasion and occupation by the Nazis were beginning, Mark Mazower relates, the Chief of Police in Mytilene, Nikolaos Katsareas, ‘had a finger in food and fuel rackets, helped “supervise” allocations of flour to the island’s bakers, and finally fled at an opportune moment by caique to the Middle East so weighed down with large quantities of British tinned goods that he had to ask his fellow-passengers to help him carry them on board.’[3]

In Guy Davenport’s story, ‘Mesoroposthonippidon’, he has Diogenes viewing civilization as ‘weightless’, since he carries books in his head. In ‘On Some Lines of Virgil’, though, during the visit to the cave at Pair-non-Pair, Jolivet carries his disabled friend Marc Aurel—who has lost both his legs—on his back: a burden borne  by choice whereas his Uncle Jacques represents, rather, the burden imposed by familial duty.[4]

‘Now we are truly adult, we think, stunned that this is what being adult means’, Natalia Ginzburg wrote in an essay called ‘Human Relations’, ‘nothing at all like what we thought it meant as children, certainly not self-confidence, certainly not a serene mastery over all worldly things. We are adult because we carry with us the mute presence of the dead, from whom we ask counsel in our present actions, from whom we ask forgiveness for past offenses; we’d like to rip away all our past cruelties of word and deed, from the time when we still feared death, but had no idea, couldn’t yet fathom, how irreparable and irremediable death was. We are adult because of all the silent answers, all the silent pardons of the dead that we carry within.’

In another essay, ‘My Craft’, she comments that, ‘When writing a story, you must toss in the best of everything you have seen and possess, the best of everything you’ve gathered throughout your life. Details can dissipate: if they’re carried around for long periods without being used, they wear out. And not only details but everything—ideas, clever turns of phrase.’[5]

(Natalia Ginzburg via Times Literary Supplement)

Tim O’Brien wrote, in The Things They Carried, that, ‘for all the ambiguities of Vietnam, all the mysteries and unknowns, there was at least the single abiding certainty that they would never be at a loss for things to carry.’ He goes on to detail some of those things: ‘They carried their reputations. They carried the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to. It was what had brought them to the war in the first place, nothing positive, no dreams of glory or honor, just to avoid the blush of dishonor. They died so as not to die of embarrassment.’[6]

Often, what we carry is absence, not only the loss of others but of alternative, possible versions of ourselves. Helen Macdonald wrote that: ‘We carry the lives we’ve imagined as we carry the lives we have, and sometimes a reckoning comes of all of the lives we have lost.’[7]

Sometimes, in fiction as in life, the burden can be laid down, as with Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes among the ‘innumerable’ cowslips: ‘She knelt down among them and laid her face close to their fragrance. The weight of all her unhappy years seemed for a moment to weigh her bosom down to the earth; she trembled, understanding for the first time how miserable she had been; and in another moment she was released. It was all gone, it could never be again, and never had been. Tears of thankfulness ran down her face. With every breath she drew, the scent of the cowslips flowed in and absolved her.’[8]

That weight is sometimes an accumulation of light, apparently slight things, as Charles Olson wrote:

Feather to feather added
(and what is mineral, what
is curling hair, the string
you carry in your nervous beak, these

make bulk, these, in the end, are
the sum[9]

Notes


[1] Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels (1726; edited by Paul Turner, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 184-185.

[2] Lawrence Durrell, Spirit of Place: Mediterranean Writings, edited by Alan G. Thomas (1969; London : Faber and Faber, 1988), 32.

[3] Mark Mazower, Inside Hitler’s Greece: The Experience of Occupation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 56.

[4] Guy Davenport, Eclogues: Eight Stories (London: Picador, 1984), 110, 117; 176-179.

[5] A Place to Live and Other Selected Essays of Natalia Ginzburg, translated by Lynne Sharon Schwartz (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2002), 32, 47.

[6] Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried (1990; London: Fourth Estate, 2015), 14, 17-18.

[7] Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk (London: Jonathan Cape, 2014), 129.

[8] Sylvia Townsend Warner, Lolly Willowes (1926; London: Virago Press, 1993), 149.

[9] Charles Olson, The Maximus Poems, edited by George F. Butterick (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 5.

Sampling Amanda Cross

Looking for something to read the other day, since I had fewer than a hundred waiting candidates, I was browsing the Librarian’s Virago shelves. I’d looked several times at three mystery novels by Amanda Cross but never to the point of actually reading them. This seemed as if it might be the time.

‘Amanda Cross’ was, in fact, the pseudonym of Carolyn Gold Heilbrun, a professor of literature at Columbia University, where she taught from 1960 to 1992, publishing several volumes of feminist literary criticism and fourteen mystery novels featuring Kate Fansler, an amateur sleuth who is also, curiously enough, a professor of literature at a New York university.

The Amanda Cross books are upbeat, civilized, witty, highly readable – and well-populated with literary references, quotations and allusions. I’m not sure how I resisted for so long the first one I read, given that it’s called The James Joyce Murder. It has a prologue, an epilogue – and fifteen chapters, all with the titles of the stories in Joyce’s Dubliners. The order of her chapters differs from the order of the stories in Joyce’s book but all are used and, often very cleverly, the content of the chapter related to the story which gives it its title. There are also characters in the novel with names familiar to a reader of Joyce (in addition to Grace and Eveline): Kate, Molly, Lenehan, Mulligan, Eugene Stratton.

In the last one I read, A Death in the Faculty (1981), which centres on the first appointment of a woman to a tenured position in the Harvard English department—as, I gather, Heilbrun was the first woman to receive tenure in Columbia’s English department—Kate Fansler, while listening to the speeches by graduating students, recalls an event she has read about that took place at the Commencement of 1969. A law student had ‘begun his speech with a call to law and order: “The streets of our country are in turmoil. The universities are filled with students rebelling and rioting. Communists are seeking to destroy our country. Russia is threatening us with her might. And the republic is in danger. Yes, danger from within and without. We need law and order! Without law and order our nation cannot survive!”’ From the audience there is ‘wild applause’, after which the student continues: ‘“Those words were spoken in 1932 by Adolf Hitler.”’ The writer adds: ‘Kate would have given a great deal to have heard the silence that followed.’

Fifty years on from that address, it doesn’t take much effort to see the same tactics employed by Hitler still being used, most obviously and unashamedly in the United States. Still, even here, those Londoners with just a smattering of historical knowledge or, in some cases, long memories, who had thought their streets were cleared of fascists many years ago, have recently discovered that this is not in fact the case.

‘Inversions of phrase’

(Thomas Hardy, 1899)

It being August, and some nights seeming unusually long, I was reminded of the short Thomas Hardy poem, ‘An August Midnight’, written at Max Gate in 1899.[1]

I 
A shaded lamp and a waving blind,
And the beat of a clock from a distant floor:
On this scene enter—winged, horned, and spined—
A longlegs, a moth, and a dumbledore;
While ’mid my page there idly stands
A sleepy fly, that rubs its hands… 

II 
Thus meet we five, in this still place,
At this point of time, at this point in space.
— My guests besmear my new-penned line,
Or bang at the lamp and fall supine.
“God’s humblest, they!” I muse. Yet why?
They know Earth-secrets that know not I.

Only twelve lines, seemingly simple enough, but not without interest. A small drama, which ‘this scene’ emphasises. Four indefinite articles in the first two lines – and one definite article, tied to the word ‘beat’, in the most strongly stressed line of the poem, because of those two strategic monosyllables, ‘beat’ and ‘clock’. ‘Dumbledore’ might momentarily trip up the Harry Potter generation; and commentators on the poem don’t always agree: is it a bumblebee or a cockchafer – or cockchafter? F. B. Pinion says bumblebee, Claire Tomalin says ‘a cockchafter or maybug’.[2]

(Cockchafer via http://www.newforestexplorersguide.co.uk/)

I pause on ‘Thus meet we five’, partly because of the implied equalising of the lives involved here, partly because of the inversion of natural word order and partly because of the number in this context. One of the mystic numbers, as Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable explains, the pentad ‘being the sum of 2 and 3, the first even and first odd compound. Unity is God alone, i.e. without creation. Two is diversity, and three (being 1 and 2) is the compound of unity and diversity, or the two principles in operation since creation, and representing all the powers of nature.’

The conjunctions of ‘still’ and ‘point’ (and time and space) prompt a forward glance to T. S. Eliot’s ‘Burnt Norton’: ‘At the still point of the turning world’ and:

Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.

‘I muse’ is another of these teasing touches, Hardy being his own muse, providing context, content, then text himself, from the materials in his immediate vicinity, the subjects of his poem entering the poet’s territory, the page, physically—‘My guests besmear my new-penned line’—as well as in the mind and memory. Tomalin comments on Hardy’s ‘appreciation that life is lived on different scales’, that the poem ‘shows him at his most tender, at ease in what still sometimes seemed to him to be God’s creation’.

The poem ends: ‘They know Earth-secrets that know not I.’ Pinion remarks that: ‘The inversion of the last line is perhaps an extreme example of the awkwardness and disregard for sound that Hardy sometimes accepted for the sake of verse pattern.’

Inversion: a change in order or position, a recurring theme in critical commentary, mainly but not always with reference to modern poets who, it’s implied, should know better or should, at least, reflect the habits of their own day. We expect to find it in Victorian poetry but not in modern poetry. Where—when—does the change come?

‘Poetry must be as well written as prose. Its language must be a fine language, departing in no way from speech save by a heightened intensity (i.e. simplicity)’, Ezra Pound wrote in January 1915, in a letter often cited, to Harriet Monroe, editor of Poetry magazine. ‘There must be no book words, no periphrases, no inversions. It must be as simple as De Maupassant’s best prose, and as hard as Stendhal’s.’[3]

(Harriet Monroe, 1920)

Ford Madox Ford, whose ideas this letter largely repeated (as Pound himself subsequently acknowledged), had written in 1905 of how modern poets were barred from certain subjects by that dialect then accepted as the proper language for poetry. ‘We wait, in fact, for the poet who, in limpid words, with clear enunciation and without inverted phrases, shall give the mind of the time sincere frame and utterance.’[4] Twenty years on and Ford, in some ‘Notes for a Lecture on Vers Libre’, explained: ‘You see I hate—and I hated then—inversions of phrase. A line like A sensitive plant in a garden grew filled me with hot rage. If the chap wanted to say that a sensitive plant grew in a garden, why didn’t he say it—or if he could not find a rhyme for garden, let him for Heaven’s sake hold his peace.’[5]

Did Pound and Ford not use ‘inversions of phrase’ in their early poetry? Of course they did. But in the quest for both modernity itself and a definition of modernity which could separate your tribe from the others (and occasionally be brandished like a broadsword), word order—along with archaisms, ‘hath’, ‘thou’—was an early bone of contention (and remains so). Often, of course, the driving factor was the need for a rhymeword, until that need too fell away for many. And the First World War brought its own complications, the urgency and intensity of the subject matter sometimes crowding out concern with technique or ‘modernity’—besides, some of the soldier-poets died so young that they had little time to dwell on them.

Here’s Charles Sorley, probably in 1915 – he was killed by a sniper in October of that year at the Battle of Loos, aged twenty, and the manuscript of this poem was found by his father among Sorley’s personal effects:

When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you’ll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise.[6]

The inversions are probably not what you’d first notice there…


Ford ended, in Buckshee, with very free and colloquial verse:

We shall have to give up watering the land
Almost altogether.
The maize must go.
But the chilis and tomatoes may still have
A little water.

Pound, in some respects, circled round upon himself, his concerns, images – and diction, the earliest sometimes bleeding into the latest. Canto CX begins: ‘Thy quiet house’ and, a few lines on:

Hast’ou seen boat’s wake on sea-wall,
                        how crests it?

And some just kept going regardless, such as the prolific, popular and long-lived Walter de la Mare. His biographer noted that the critic Forrest Reid advised de la Mare to aim for simplicity of expression, however subtle the thought. ‘He thought this, with some justice, de la Mare’s greatest temptation, and condemned his inversions as a growing mannerism [ . . . ] De la Mare defended himself rather vaguely on the grounds that inversion either came off or it didn’t, and could not be defended or attacked on principle. He doubted anyway “whether ordinary talk is necessarily the best or most forcible or most attractive form of expression”’.[7]

(Walter de la Mare)

And yes, opening the book almost at random, de la Mare’s 1950 volume begins with ‘Here I sit, and glad am I’. There’s ‘The Changeling’: ‘Come in the dark did I’ and ‘Here’: ‘Forgave I everything’. Although I also catch sight of ‘Unwitting’:

This evening to my manuscript
Flitted a tiny fly;
At the wet ink sedately sipped,
Then seemed to put the matter by,
Mindless of him who wrote it, and
His scrutinizing eye –
That any consciousness indeed
Its actions could descry! . . .

Silence; and wavering candlelight;
Night; and a starless sky.[8]

Half a century apart, poets working late, their pages encroached upon by insect visitors.

Hardy’s last line doesn’t jar that much to me, probably because the inversion—as is not unusual—produces that flickering moment of uncertainty to offset it, as if, as well as the narrator not knowing those Earth-secrets, they don’t know him either.

First rule of poetic inversion: there’s no absolute rule.



Notes

[1] Thomas Hardy, The Complete Poems, edited by James Gibson (London: Macmillan, 1976), 113.

[2] F. B. Pinion, A Commentary on the Poems of Thomas Hardy (London: Macmillan, 1976), 51; Claire Tomalin, Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man (London: Viking, 2006), 281.

[3] Ezra Pound, Selected Letters, 1907-1941, edited by D. D. Paige (New York: New Directions, 1971), 48-49.

[4] ‘A Literary Causerie: On Some Tendencies of Modern Verse’, Academy, 69 (23 September 1905), 982-984, reprinted in Critical Essays, edited by Max Saunders and Richard Stang (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2002), 28-32.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, ‘Notes for a Lecture on Vers Libre’ (1920s), in Critical Writings, edited by Frank MacShane (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1964). The words quoted are from Shelley’s ‘The Sensitive Plant’.

[6] Charles Sorley, ‘[When you see millions of the mouthless dead]’, in Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology, edited by Tim Kendall (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 191.

[7] Theresa Whistler, The Life of Walter de la Mare: Imagination of the Heart (London: Duckworth, 2003), 323-324.

[8] Walter de la Mare, Collected Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1979), 349-355.

‘England have my bones’

(T. H. White on Alderney: BBC)

‘Heaven take my soul, and England keep my bones!’ are Arthur’s last words in Shakespeare’s King John (IV.iii.10), as he leaps from a castle wall. T. H. White, author of The Goshawk and The Once and Future King (another Arthur), among many other books, had a slightly different version, the last four words of which gave him the title of his 1936 volume: ‘God keep my soul/ And England have my bones.’ It ended up, he said, as ‘a book about the tangible side of country life’, adding that: ‘Fishermen will be maddened by the flying, aviators by the snakes, zoologists by the instructions for playing darts.’ Trying to imagine ’the kind of person who will bear with every digression’, he concluded that, should such a person exist, ‘he will be an amateur like myself: a reader with a forgiving mind, not a critical one: somebody not fascinated by sherry parties, who can see the point of an England defined by negatives.’[1]

White’s letter to David Garnett (his second) asking Garnett to look at England Keep My Bones marked the beginning of their nearly thirty-year friendship, ‘a friendship which, reversing the usual order, ripened into acquaintance’, Sylvia Townsend Warner explained, ‘for they met seldom, and never for long at a time. In fact, they were better apart. When they met, they got on each other’s nerves.’

(Sylvia Townsend Warner via NYRB; and her biography of White)

But then, with strangers, as another friend remembered, White ‘could be quite odious; rude and suspicious if he thought they were lionizing them, still more if he thought they weren’t; shouting down anyone who disagreed with his more preposterous assertions or even ventured to interrupt.’[2]

White’s book is often lyrical, but also marked by frequently pugnacious or arresting statement—‘Nowadays we don’t know where we live, or who we are’ (3), ‘I felt happy and interested, as if I had been condemned to death’ (20-21), and ‘Even sitting in the same chair rots one’s soul. Decent men ought to break all their furniture every six months’ (65). There are curious anecdotes and details, such as the origins of Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter (42) and, writing of ‘the shire’ in which he lives, located about half-way between ‘the doze of Norfolk and the fierce friendliness of Gloucestershire’ (4), he notes that it boasted the first recorded beheading and the last person to be gibbeted (110). But there are also evocative statements such as ‘Falling in love is a desolating experience, but not when it is with a countryside’ (22), which seem expressly designed to be plundered by people like me – and have been. The book’s devotion to ‘outdoor pursuits’ prompted the reviewer James Agate to remark—quite understandably, I think—‘It is about subjects in which I am not even faintly interested. It is entrancing’ (quoted by Warner, 87).

It was on this day 85 years ago, 18 August 1935, that White scored 180 with three darts—‘for the first and last time in three or four thousand games of darts’—in The Rose and Crown at Burwash, ‘of which the proper pronunciation is Burridge’ as Henry James remarked to Ford Madox Ford (who already knew).[3] ‘It was not a landlord’s board’, White added, by which I take him to mean that if the target areas for the highest scoring darts are slightly enlarged there is a correspondingly larger chance of successful, happy, and thus higher-spending, punters. ‘Burwash’ may, though, be pronounced ‘Burrish’: it certainly was by a helpful National Trust volunteer, to whom I put the specific question on my one visit to Bateman’s, the fine Jacobean house in which Rudyard Kipling—a story of whom was the occasion of James’s pronouncing the name to Ford—made his home between 1902 and his death in 1936. I bought a bag of flour from the 17th century—and still working—mill which could at that time be seen in action most Wednesday and Saturday afternoons.

(Batemans: National Trust)

The setting is remarkable: the house itself, the garden, the 1928 Rolls Royce Phantom 1 – and the mill. Kipling installed a turbine generator in 1902 and, in the autumn of that same year, published a short story, ‘Below the Mill Dam’. The story, collected in Traffics and Discoveries (1904), largely comprises a conversation between the cat and the rat and is widely seen as a political fable expressing Kipling’s dislike of the attitudes and policies exemplified by Arthur Balfour. David Gilmour, author of The Long Recessional: The Imperial Life of Rudyard Kipling, thinks the cat is Balfour (or at least talks like him): ‘there is no problem identifying the prototype of the Grey Cat’.[4]

That memorable visit to East Sussex was heavily Ford Madox Ford-related: he lived for years in the area, and his books—ten, fifteen, twenty years later—are saturated with its place-names and roads and buildings and outlooks. But, with an hour or two to spare in the afternoon, with Bateman’s on the route back to the station, Kipling-world became irresistible. Perhaps I’ll get back there – sometime – for a longer, slower look.

Notes

[1] England Have My Bones (1934; London: Macdonald Futura, 1981), v-vi.

[2] Sylvia Townsend Warner, T. H. White: A Biography (New York: Viking, 1968), 86; John Verney in the ‘Foreword’, 6.

[3] Ford, Return to Yesterday (London: Gollancz, 1931), 7.

[4] David Gilmour, The Long Recessional: The Imperial Life of Rudyard Kipling (London: John Murray, 2002), 181.

The reader’s share; the reading shared

Readers-share

‘I hope you will bring some books along’ Elizabeth Bishop wrote to her friend Frani Blough in 1936, adding: ‘The books I really like to read best are always those I take away from someone else who is halfway through them. . . ’[1]

We manage to avoid that problem here for the most part: priority, though occasionally resented, is generally accepted once the bid is in. Still, I remember offering half a dozen reminders over several months before Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent was grudgingly disinterred from the Librarian’s work locker (one of them: there seemed to be several). Since then, our tastes haven’t converged too much. Last month, reading Penguin translations of Georges Simenon downstairs—and Hugh Kenner upstairs—I was safe enough from territorial encroachment. More recently, when I’d happened upon the fact that reading a novel on the one hand and, say, a book of modern classic travel on the other stimulates the appetite for both, I could feel reasonably secure, since the Librarian had read my downstairs book, Dervla Murphy’s Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle, years ago, and was some distance further back in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy than my upstairs book, The Mirror & the Light. Now Eric Newby has perfectly happily shared reading space with Kamila Shamsie in peaceful co-existence, the Librarian having already read both of these.

Day 142—is it?—of lockdown. I realise some people are not locked down at all; in fact, if you have 50,000 close friends, you can all go to the beach together. But I don’t know that many people and though I’d like to go to the beach. . . not like that.

And, picking our way through the shambles of the government’s scattergun responses to the Covid-19 pandemic, we find, of course, that risk assessments are to be undertaken, in all practical senses, by us. My personal risk assessment is that some of my fellow-citizens have done no risk assessments at all, so interactions remain on the cautious side: my elder daughter a couple of times so far; and the Librarian’s parents, also a couple of times. We shall take a trip soon, though – somewhere, definitely, probably, more than likely – once the Librarian’s mastery of the hairdressing arts is complete.

Next: possibly another Newby or Patrick Leigh Fermor, to go with Lore Segal’s Other People’s Houses and Ali Smith’s Summer (if I can prise that away) or—not a novel but worth breaking the sequence for—Helen Macdonald’s Vesper Flights, once that arrives, should I get to the door first.
Notes

[1] Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: The Selected Letters, edited by Robert Giroux (London: Pimlico, 1996), 44.

Before and after

Allen_Tate Tate-Memories

Allen Tate remembered his young self wondering (he was born in 1899), ‘What effect could a war in Europe have on me? No more than the news of a thunderstorm over at Deer Park. I could not know that August 5th, 1914, was the end of the nineteenth century, and that four years later, when I entered college, I would be in a new world so different from the old that I would never quite understand it, but would be both of it and opposed to it the rest of my life.’[1]

That ‘before and after’ sensation is more strongly established now, though there are still people apparently believing—and sometimes being encouraged to believe—that at some unspecified point in the future everything will go back to ‘how it was before’. Meanwhile, the global death toll has passed 700,000, with a Covid-19 fatality every 15 seconds.

Writing from China of the point in late January at which ‘nationwide self-isolation began’, Wang Xiuying observed: ‘it was said that Chinese people fall into two groups: cat types and dog types. Cat types were likely to suffer less from the quasi-house arrest that drives dog types mad.’ Not just Chinese people, I suspect, fit neatly into these two categories

Catpot

Unsettlingly, Wang Xiuying also writes that ‘Liberal sentiment in China is at a low ebb. The pro-democracy cause has been weakened drastically since Trump took office. How do you defend a system that gives power to a celebrity with no knowledge of international relations who filed for corporate bankruptcy half a dozen times?’[2] That’s surely a question that will engage more than one future generation of Americans.

And yes, here in the UK, despite frequent confirmations of the lethal mismanagement of our government’s response to the pandemic, along with corruption and cronyism which is now not only unchecked but frankly undisguised, we can at least be grateful that we’re not in the United States. It took me a while to remember that my uncle used to live in Portland, Oregon. He and his wife left Portsmouth in, I think, 1953 and went to Canada. After some years there, with two sons by then, they moved down to Oregon. I didn’t know him well enough to be confident about his likely allegiances but I suspect he was a moderate conservative, so probably a Republican back when that party was still a serious and respectable one. As a decent and civilized man, though, I can be sure he would have been appalled by armed thugs in the streets of his home town attacking and teargassing peaceful protesters and strongarming them into unmarked vehicles—and both puzzled and distressed by a President mustering a private army and fomenting civil unrest.

Requiescat in pace, Peter.

Notes

[1] Allen Tate, Memories and Essays Old and New 1926-1974 (Manchester: Carcanet, 1976), 17.

[2] Wang Xiuying, ‘Diary’ (dated 2 April), London Review of Books (16 April 2020), 37.

End fact, try – fiction?

Jane-Seymour

(Hans Holbein, Jane Seymour, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

Reading of a world nearly five hundred years back in Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror & the Light, you still trip over occasional reminders of the current one: Henry VIII’s new queen, Jane Seymour, has not yet been crowned and the king has talked of a midsummer ceremony. ‘But now there are rumours of plague and sweating sickness. It is not wise to allow crowds in the street, or pack bodies into indoor spaces.’ Even so, ‘The Seymours, of course, urge the king to take the risk.’

Nearly five hundred pages into Mantel’s novel, the name of Thomas Culpeper first occurs: ‘A young man’, ‘The young fellow’.[1] This Culpeper—and the historical one, his age, appearance, character, the stage at which he first encountered Catherine (or Katharine) Howard—who sashays in a little later—sits a little askew with a recent reading of Ford Madox Ford’s Fifth Queen trilogy.

FMF-Fifth-Queen

There, Culpeper—spelt ‘Culpepper’—is introduced early, in conversation between Nicholas Udal and one of the King’s guards and is seen shortly afterwards, leading the mule on which Katharine Howard rides. This Culpeper is cousin to Katharine, rich, aggressive, a braggart, a roaring, swaggering, drunken fellow.[2]

In the first place, I often need to remind myself just how young some of these people were. Culpeper was around twenty-seven when he was executed at Tyburn; Catherine Howard, her birthdate also a little uncertain, was in her late teens, probably eighteen, when she was put to death. Christina of Denmark, subject of Holbein’s marvellous portrait, was widowed at the age of thirteen and was still only sixteen when Henry VIII, after the death of Jane Seymour, tried to secure Christina in marriage.

christina

 

(Hans Holbein, Christina of Denmark, National Portrait Gallery)

In the second place, wonderfully irresolvable, those relations between history and fiction. Noting that Henry James ‘claims for the novelist the standing of the historian’, Joseph Conrad writes of his belief that ‘the claim cannot be contested, and that the position is unassailable. Fiction is history, human history, or it is nothing. But it is also more than that; it stands on firmer ground, being based on the reality of forms and the observations of social phenomena, whereas history is based on documents, and the reading of print and handwriting—on second-hand impressions. Thus fiction is nearer truth [ . . . ] A historian may be an artist too, and a novelist is a historian, the preserver, the keeper, the expounder, of human experience.’[3]

Making-History-New

I was reminded of this by Seamus O’Malley’s discussion of it in his excellent Making History New. He adds that Conrad ‘here desires to defend fiction by comparing it with history, first equating the two, then drawing them apart, then finally bringing them back together’. [4]

In a collection published in 1922, year of Ulysses and The Waste Land, the philosopher George Santayana wrote of ‘those more studious daylight fictions which we call history or philosophy’.[5] Writing more recently of – again – Joseph Conrad, Maya Jasanoff remarked that: ‘Historians don’t go where sources don’t lead, which means they usually stop at the door to somebody’s mind. Even when diaries or letters seem to “tell all,” historians typically treat what happened as one thing, and what somebody made of it as another. Novelists walk right in and roam freely through a person’s feelings, perceptions and thoughts. What happened is what you make of it. That, Conrad argued, could make fiction the truer record of human experience.’[6] And it is not only novelists who ‘walk right in’, as Laura Cummings observes, writing that ‘paintings are fictions, and self-portraits too; there is not a novelist alive who does not believe it possible to enter the mind and voice of someone else, real or imaginary, and the same is true of painters.’[7]

Conrad-via-New-Statesman

(Joseph Conrad via The New Statesman)

I doubt whether there’s wholesale agreement about what ‘fiction’ is – or, perhaps more pertinently, what it isn’t. It certainly doesn’t always stay within its supposed boundaries. In the 1995 ‘Introduction’ to a reissue of his novel Crash, J. G. Ballard wrote: ‘We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind — mass-merchandizing, advertising, politics conducted as a branch of advertising, the pre-empting of any original response to experience by the television screen. We live inside an enormous novel. It is now less and less necessary for the writer to invent the fictional content of his novel. The fiction is already there. The writer’s task is to invent the reality.’[8] Twenty-five years on and such fictions have become more widespread, more insidious, more inseparable from, and indistinguishable in, the fabric of the nation, this nation, all nations.

‘Unlike history,’ Penelope Fitzgerald wrote, ‘fiction can proceed with confidence.’[9]  It can – but often it doesn’t. Innumerable writers have seized on the battlefield aspects of their art, entering the field always on the qui vive, the poem as a field of action, entering enemy territory, looking for cover. Yet the writer, if not in control, has some measure of control, and perhaps the loss of that is sometimes, often, the writer’s choice. Life is not, Penelope Lively observes, like fiction in that ‘[t]here is no shrewd navigator, just a person’s own haphazard lurching from one decision to another. Which is why life so often seems to lack the authenticity of fiction.’[10]

Bertran_de_Born

‘But there is’, William Maxwell wrote, ‘always a kind of truth in those fictions which people create in order to describe something too complicated and too subtle to fit into any conventional pattern.’[11] In Ezra Pound’s ‘Near Perigord’, faced with conflicting evidence and the warring interpretations of Bertrans de Born’s motives and priorities in the canzone he wrote for Maent of Montaignac (‘Is it a love poem? Did he sing of war?’), the Poundian voice counsels: ‘End fact, try fiction.’ And he does:

Let us say we see
En Bertrans, a tower room at Hautefort,
Sunset, the ribbon-like road lies, in cross-light,
South towards Montaignac, and he bends at a table
Scribbling, swearing between his teeth; by his left hand
Lie little strips of parchment covered over,
Scratched and erased with al and ochaisos.
testing his list of rhymes, a lean man. Bilious?
With a red straggling beard?
And the green cat’s eye lifts towards Montaignac.[12]

The poem ends, though, with Bertrans’ own voice, perhaps ‘designed’, as David Moody writes, ‘to show how the dramatic monologue outdoes both “fact” and “fiction”.’[13] As with any first-person narrator, the speaker of the dramatic monologue encloses the reader or listener. There is no outside information to help us with the gauging of truthfulness or reliability. We can only look for clues, slippages, gaps and contradictions – and perhaps assume that the narrator is always claiming, for himself or herself, the benefit of the doubt.

 

 

Notes

[1] Hilary Mantel, The Mirror & the Light (London: Fourth Estate, 2020), 192, 486.

[2] Ford Madox Ford, The Fifth Queen (London: Penguin Books, 1999), 23-24, 36ff.

[3] Joseph Conrad, ‘Henry James’, Notes on Life and Letters (London: j. M. Dent, 1921), 20-21.

[4] Seamus O’Malley, Making History New: Modernism and Historical Narrative (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 24.

[5] George Santayana, Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies ([1922] Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1967), 1.

[6] Maya Jasanoff, The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World (London: William Collins, 2017), 10-11.

[7] Laura Cumming, A Face to the World: On Self-Portraits (London: Harper Press, 2010), 93.

[8] J. G. Ballard, Crash (1973; London: Fourth Estate, 2011).

[9] Penelope Fitzgerald, ‘Why I Write’, in A House of Air: Selected Writings, edited by Terence Dooley with Mandy Kirkby and Chris Carduff (London: Harper Perennial, 2005), 508.

[10] Penelope Lively, Making It Up (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 2006), 136.

[11] William Maxwell, Time Will Darken It (1948; in Early Novels and Stories, New York: Library of America, 2008), 771.

[12] ‘Near Perigord’, in Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations, edited by Richard Sieburth (New York: Library of America, 2003), 302-308.

[13] A. David Moody, Ezra Pound: Poet: A Portrait of the Man and His Work: Volume I: The Young Genius 1885–1920 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 306.

 

Jarrell’s ‘unread book’: The Man Who Loved Children 

Stead-Man-Children

Noting that it’s Christina Stead’s birthday, I wondered how long ago it was that I read her. Quite a few years is the answer. She was born on 17 July 1902 (and died in 1983), and wrote a dozen novels plus some shorter fictions but the best-known (yet not that well-known), periodically reissued, gathering distinguished champions but never quite breaking free into the sunlit uplands of general appreciation or even acknowledgement, is The Man Who Loved Children (1940), the story of a family, many children, little money and two extraordinary, appalling parents, Sam and Henny Pollit. Sam Pollit was, it seems, closely based on Stead’s own father, a marine biologist, and the setting of the novel when it was reissued was moved from Stead’s native Australia to the United States (Washington) to better suit an American audience – who, after all, would be interested in Australians?

The writer C. K. Stead (a New Zealander and no relation) observed that The Man Who Loved Children ‘is indisputably an Australian novel which only pretends in a very perfunctory way to be set in America’.[1] Another Australian, Patrick White, was an enthusiastic admirer. ‘Do read Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children if you haven’t’, he wrote to Frederick Glover in 1966. ‘It is one of the great novels of the world.’ And, almost a decade later, to Marshall Best: ‘The three novelists writing today who interest me most are all women! Christina Stead, Nadine Gordimer, and Doris Lessing.’[2] Stead returned to Australia towards the end of her life but wrote little more once she’d done so. White’s admiration for her work was not returned though she kept that opinion to herself and they got on well enough when they met.

Few novels have been reissued so often: The Man Who Loved Children has been, among others, a Penguin Modern Classic, an Everyman Library Classic, a Flamingo Modern Classic, launched in editions with forewords by Angela Carter, Jonathan Franzen and, famously, the poet and critic Randall Jarrell, whose championing of Stead’s book did have a significant impact at the time. Jarrell could be ferocious in his hostility to writers or books that he didn’t like but he also had a real genius for praise, and could convey wonderfully what made a poem or a novel or a story work, how it affected its readers, seized and held them. He wrote passionately and perceptively about Kipling, William Carlos Williams, Whitman, Marianne Moore and many others, including Stead.

Christina-Stead-c1940s  RandallJarrell_poets.org

(Christina Stead: https://australianwomenwriters.com/ ; Randall Jarrell via The Poetry Foundation)

His 1965 introduction to her novel, uncompromisingly entitled ‘An Unread Book’, includes one of my favourite observations, that a novel is ‘a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it’.[3] Jarrell successfully grasped and conveyed the complex of feelings that the novel can arouse in its readers, in some readers: admiration and fascination, yes, but often combined with discomfort, irritation, impatience, even a tinge of disgust. I remember finding another Stead novel, Cotters’ England, again oddly powerful but a bit, what, dislikeable. Clearly, not every reader has similar responses – Virago Press eventually published nine Stead titles in their series of modern classics.

Why dislikeable? I’m not quite sure. Is it the monstrous characters or the author’s attitude to them? I’d have to go back to her books and look again. There are writers that we read and admire and acknowledge as good or even great while never warming to them or liking them as much as we expect to or feel we should, certainly not feeling that peculiar sense of connection that we experience with some writers, some painters, some people. With Stead, I think it was not quite that but more a kind of chilliness coming off the pages, more, an antagonism. Whatever it was, she’s certainly an extraordinary writer – and The Man Who Loved Children is a remarkable book. It’s on my already ridiculous re-read pile – if that’s still standing.

 

 

Notes

[1] London Review of Books, 8, 15 (4 September 1986).

[2] Patrick White, Letters, edited by David Marr (London: Jonathan Cape, 1994), 297, 452.

[3] Jarrell, ‘An Unread Book’, introduction to Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children (Penguin Modern Classics 1970), 37.