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.

Independence Days, or Daze

Alice-white rabbit

The Fourth of July. Birthday of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Stephen Foster (‘father of American music’), anniversary of the deaths of both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in 1826. And yes, I make it 244 years since the Continental Congress passed the Declaration of Independence (New York abstaining).

The Oxford Companion to the Year helpfully quotes those lines which must be in the minds of a good many thinking Americans just now as they scan their present political and social landscape, lines regarding those ‘unalienable Rights’, among them, ‘Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness’: ‘That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their Just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundations on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.’

The Companion also quotes, in addition to George Washington, an Englishman (Marryat) and a Scotsman (Macrae), the orator, activist and author of the classic Narrative of an American Slave, Frederick Douglass, in an address he gave on 4 July 1852: ‘I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you this day rejoice are not enjoyed in common . . . This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice. I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthem, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony.’[1]

frederick-douglass

(Frederick Douglass)

The anniversary of publication of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland would have seemed scarily appropriate to the state or states that we’re currently in and, apparently, it was scheduled for release by Macmillan on 4 July 1865. But the illustrator, John Tenniel, was wholly unsatisfied by the quality of the pictures in the finished book and Carroll recalled the entire print run, also asking for the advance copies he’d sent out to be retrieved.

So the occasion would seem to be an all-American one – except that some members of the British government, with the eager connivance of the popular press, have named this ‘Independence Day’ (seemingly forgetful of what and whom America was declaring its independence from), the reopening of pubs, hairdressers, theme parks and restaurants, with added slogans such as ‘eat out to help out’, that ‘help’ surely intended for the hospitality industry rather than the further spreading of the virus.

We are, in any case, a month further on from the Prime Minister telling the House of Commons that he was ‘very proud of our record’ in the fight against Covid-19, just a few days before the estimated total of excess deaths in the United Kingdom passed 63,000.(https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/jun/09/excess-deaths-in-uk-under-coronavirus-lockdown-pass-63000)

 

 

Notes

[1] Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 281, 282.

 

Consulting the oracle

HK

With a lockdown birthday doggedly nearing, and required by the Librarian to come up with suggestions for a present she might give me, I settled on a book called Joyce’s Voices, which has several points in its favour. It’s by Hugh Kenner, and one of the few titles of his that I don’t already own. It’s a blessedly slim volume, which will take up very little of the very little space available. Then, too, it’s neatly designed and clearly-printed, a paperback reissue from the redoubtable Dalkey Archive Press of the original 1978 edition, which was largely based on the T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures that Kenner gave at the University of Kent in Canterbury in 1975.

I’ve just been moving warily through the final proof of the third issue of Last Post: A Literary Journal from the Ford Madox Ford Society, so was reminded of Kenner struggling with the page proofs of The Pound Era and writing to Guy Davenport: ‘It is demoralizing to find “viligance” for “vigilance” in a line one has already read 4 times.’[1]

Indeed. That in itself recalled my discovering The Pound Era a hundred or so years ago and making my naïve and youthful pencilled notes against unfamiliar terms (of which there were quite a few). ‘Frightfulness’ I have scrawled beside ‘Schrecklichkeit’, having never come across it then (I’ve come across it a good many times since), and ‘first five books of Old Testament’ against the adjective ‘Pentateuchal’. The one I recall most easily came in the chapter ‘Inventing Confucius’, concerned with Pound’s extraordinary and hugely productive dealings with Chinese ideograms. Kenner describes one ‘lucky hit’ and goes on: ‘He was not always that fortunate, but that was thereafter his method: follow the crib, and when it flags, haruspicate the characters.’[2] My inelegantly written note: ‘haruspicate – to foretell events from inspection of entrails of animals’.

I reflected that, while Canto I’s Tiresias doesn’t examine the entrails of that sacrificed sheep, he does drink its blood, ‘for soothsay’ – and his forecast of Odysseus’ future is pretty much on the money.

In an earlier book, partly based, like Joyce’s Voices, on a series of lectures, Kenner wrote of Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet, ‘So the scientific character of the novel, its quest for the ideal type, the general law, was to turn upon itself like a haruspex scrutinizing his own entrails.’[3]

Hughkenner

(Hugh Kenner by Walter Baumann, via The Ezra Pound Society)

Haruspices, the Etruscan soothsayers, interpreted the will of the gods primarily by examining the entrails of sacrificial victims. ‘The science of augury certainly was no exact science’, D. H. Lawrence wrote in 1932. ‘But it was as exact as our sciences of psychology or political economy. And the augurs were as clever as our politicians, who also must practise divination, if ever they are to do anything worth the name.’ He added that, whatever your personal path, there was ‘no other way when you are dealing with life’, it all came to the same thing in the end. ‘Prayer, or thought, or studying the stars, or watching the flight of birds, or studying the entrails of the sacrifice, it is all the same process, ultimately: of divination. 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.’[4]

We are all augurs now, or we might as well be. I can’t recall a time in which there was a greater sense of unmooring, of instability, of frankly unknowing. Who can guess what next week offers, or next month, let alone further ahead? We may as well glean what we can from birds’ patterns of flight or the nature of lightning strikes, though, given recent history, we’re unlikely to stray with unearned optimism into the assumption that an equitable and well-ordered world is coming down the track.

Phersu_from_the_painted_walls_of_the_tomb_of_the_Augurs_at_Tarquinia,_525-500_BCE,_Etruscan
(Phersu, from the painted walls of the tomb of the Augurs at Tarquinia)

There was, to be sure, a brief moment in which many people thought that, however bad the situation brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, there were at least glimpses of possible routes towards improvement, in social inequalities, in reducing pollution, in rethinking political and economic structures in the broadest terms. But the rising levels of traffic, of pollution, of thoughtless social behaviour, suggest that we are already falling back, rapidly and heavily.

Still, I have Kenner on Joyce to look forward to. And in that connection, I think of another letter he wrote to Davenport: ‘Whenever I bring a new car on its 1st trip across the continent I expect a Joycean oracle. In 1956 I passed, on June 16, through Bloom, Kansas. That car subsequently rolled up 112,000 miles without so much as a valve job. This time the odometer turned 1904 on June 16, and the night’s stop was at 1922. We shall see what this double augury portends.’[5]

 

Notes

[1] Letter of 21 June 1971, Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), II, 1357.

[2] Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), 450.

[3] Hugh Kenner, The Stoic Comedians: Flaubert, Joyce, and Beckett (1962; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), 29.

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

[5] Letter of 29 June 1962, Questioning Minds, I, 144.

Mistakes, various

Setting for Highland Steer

(Walter G. Poole, Setting for Highland Steer)

‘In a time of coronavirus, small mistakes can have outsize consequences.’
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/07/coronavirus-a-disease-that-thrives-on-human-error

On 4 March 1956, Eudora Welty wrote to William Maxwell about the play of her novel The Ponder Heart (the letter begins, promisingly: ‘I’ve missed you from the time I got on the train with the carrots’). Maxwell and his wife Emmy had joined Welty for the opening night’s festivities in February. She admired the acting, though commenting that ‘[t]he lines still don’t connect with the story, to me’. She closed her letter: ‘Of course I realize now what was wrong with the whole project of the play, having someone else writing it for me (not particularly that one, any play). That’s nothing for a middleman to do, and no wonder it stood all our hair on end. All things that matter in this life are first-hand and direct and person-to-person. Our mistakes had better belong to us.’[1]

Reading that last sentence, it struck me—not for the first time—that one of the most noticeable features of the last decade or two has been the absolute mania for avoiding blame or taking responsibility, for covering backs and always having scapegoats handy. Companies, institutions of all kinds, right up to the highest levels of government: nobody there ever does anything wrong, never makes a mistake, nothing is ever their fault—it was always someone else: him, her, them, those scroungers, those stirrers, those paupers, those immigrants, those others.

Hunt, William Holman, 1827-1910; The Scapegoat

(William Holman Hunt, The Scapegoat: Lady Lever Art Gallery)

Mistake. To take wrongly. Unsurprisingly, it can seem harder to identify such errors in our own lives than in those of others, or the wider world, and may require the long retrospective view. ‘When I was young’, Penelope Fitzgerald wrote, ‘I took my father and my three uncles for granted, and it never occurred to me that everyone else wasn’t like them. Later on I found that this was a mistake, but after all these years I’ve never quite managed to adapt myself to it. I suppose they were unusual, but I still think that they were right, and in so far as the world disagrees with them, I disagree with the world.’

And elsewhere: ‘“It is the death of the spirit we must fear” is Carr’s epigraph, this time for The Harpole Report. The death of the spirit is to lose confidence in one’s own independence and to do only what we are expected to do. At the same time, it is a mistake to expect anything specific from life. Life will not conform.’[2]

Yes, life is a stubborn and uncooperative beast sometimes. Cesare Pavese didn’t conform either, even in the mistakes he made, as Natalia Ginzburg recalled: ‘Pavese committed errors more dangerous than ours. Because our mistakes were caused by impulse, rashness, stupidity and naïvety, whereas Pavese’s mistakes arose from prudence, shrewdness, calculation and intelligence. Nothing is more dangerous than errors of this kind. They can be fatal, as indeed they were for him, because from the path on to which one strays out of shrewdness it is difficult to turn back.’[3]

Hugh Kenner argued that ‘Dante’s coda to the Odyssey was made possible by his not having read it; he was able to suppose therefore that Odysseus was driven by lust for knowledge’, before asking: ‘Is the life of the mind a history of interesting mistakes?’ He added then, since he was discussing Ernest Fenollosa and Ezra Pound’s use of Fenollosa’s studies, ‘More pertinently: is the surest way to a fructive western idea the misunderstanding of an eastern one?’[4]

Well. Surely the point at which to nod to Miroslav Holub:

Some mistakes are now mistakes
others are still virtues
.[5]

 
Notes

[1] Suzanne Marrs, editor, What There Is to Say, We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), 93, 95.

[2] Penelope Fitzgerald, ‘Curriculum Vitae’ and ‘Precious Moments Gone’ (introduction to the Penguin edition of J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country’), both in A House of Air: Selected Writings, edited by Terence Dooley with Mandy Kirkby and Chris Carduff (London: Harper Perennial, 2005), 469, 386.

[3] Natalia Ginzburg, The Things We Used to Say, translated by Judith Woolf (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1997), 190.

[4] Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), 230.

[5] Miroslav Holub, ‘The root of the matter’, translated by Ian Milner, in The Fly, translated by Ewald Osers, George Theiner, Ian and Jarmila Milner (Newcastle: Bloodaxe Books, 1987), 84.

 

Listen to yourself!

Severn, Joseph, 1793-1879; Keats Listening to a Nightingale on Hampstead Heath

(Joseph Severn, Keats Listening to a Nightingale on Hampstead Heath: Guildhall Art Gallery)

Needing something to set against my good fortune in having a small outside space, a nearby park and online slots for food shopping, the gods sent a steady succession of minor health problems—in fact, the ricked back didn’t seem that minor for two or three weeks but the leg cramps and stiff neck went by pretty quickly and the eccentric knees are probably just ordinary wear and tear. The last week, though, has been dominated by temporary—I sincerely hope—deafness, first in one ear, soon in both. Probably just an excess of earwax but it’s pretty wearing. Since I have only one person that I speak to face to face just now and I can’t hear what she says, conversation is a little problematic.

I’m reminded of a moment in the memoir by A. M. Homes: ‘I can’t remember what the neighbor said. I was suffering the deafness that comes in moments of great importance.’[1] I’ve certainly had moments like that, climactic emotional moments where it somehow seems impossible simply to say: ‘Pardon?’ In literature, those moments can be suggestive and productive. Guy Davenport, in a letter to Hugh Kenner, observed that ‘Eudora Welty once said that written dialogue differs from life in that everybody hears what’s said right off. Not in Joyce. Ulysses (as you’ve pointed out) is full of mishearing.’[2] At the end of The Good Soldier, the narrator John Dowell says that, just prior to his suicide, Edward Ashburnham looks up to the roof of the stable, ‘as if he were looking to Heaven, and whispered something that I did not catch.’ In the manuscript and typescript, as Martin Stannard’s edition records, the word ‘Heaven’ was followed by ‘and he remarked: “Girl, I will wait for you there.”’[3] You can see why Ford might have decided to change that.

Beginning-of-Spring

In Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring, at the moment to which the title refers, the opening of windows marks the season’s change: ‘Throughout the winter the house had been deaf, turned inwards, able to listen only to itself. Now the sounds of Moscow broke in, the bells and voices, the cabs and taxis which had gone by all winter unheard like ghosts of themselves, and with the noise came the spring wind, fresher than it felt in the street, blowing in uninterrupted from the northern regions where the frost still lay.’[4]

Detailing a visit to Alec Vidler, priest, theologian and Mayor of Rye, who was helping with the research for her family biography, The Knox Brothers, Fitzgerald wrote in a letter to her younger daughter Maria: ‘Later came a surrealist tea-party with 3 people who’d come for the week-end (a trendy cleric, his dull wife, a long-skirted daughter, going up to read English at Hertford, who evidently hadn’t wanted to come, and Henry James’s manservant (still living in Rye, but with a deaf-aid which had to be plugged into the skirting) who couldn’t really bear to sit down and have tea, but kept springing up and trying to wait on people, with the result that he tripped over the cable ­and contributing in a loud, shrill voice remarks like “Mr Henry was a heavy man – nearly 16 stone – it was a job for him to push his bicycle uphill” – in the middle of all the other conversation wh: he couldn’t hear.’[5]

Unlike countless others less fortunate I believe my condition really is temporary. If I can avoid seeking professional help in this plague time, I shall: the ear drops and the bulb syringe are standing by, as is a large dose of optimism – or, perhaps, desperation. Apart from not being able to hear conversation or birdsong, I’m a little oppressed by what I can hear – me, basically. My breathing, my body. Just a little too intimate. I recall the words of Brother Patrick Duffy, of Georgia, recorded by William Least Heat-Moon. ‘When I go quiet I stop hearing myself and start hearing the world outside me. Then I hear something very great.’[6]

I’m looking forward to hearing something very great again.

 
Notes

[1] A. M. Homes, The Mistress’s Daughter (London: Granta Books, 2007), 16.

[2] Letter of 1 October 1978, in Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), II, 1684.

[3] Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier, edited by Martin Stannard, second edition (New York: Norton, 2012), 169 and fn.

[4] Penelope Fitzgerald, The Beginning of Spring (1988; London: Everyman, 2003), 440.

[5] Letter of 6 October [1974]: Penelope Fitzgerald, So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald, edited by Terence Dooley (London: Fourth Estate, 2008), 150.

[6] William Least Heat-Moon, Blue Highways: A Journey into America (London: Picador, 1984), 88.

 

Name changer: Ford Madox (Hueffer) Ford

FMF-GS-viaNYRB

(The good soldier via New York Review of Books)

‘June’, Paul Simon wrote—and Art Garfunkel sang—‘will change her tune/ In restless dreams she’ll prowl the night’. In June 1919, Ford Madox Hueffer moved a little beyond melody and changed his surname.

‘Yesterday I changed my name by deed poll from Hueffer to Ford’, he wrote to his agent on 5 June, ‘partly to oblige a relative & partly because a Teutonic name is in these days disagreeable & though my native stubbornness would not let me do it while the war was on, I do not see why I shd. go on being subjected to the attacks of blackmailers indefinitely.’

To his friend the Liberal politician C. F. G. Masterman, he wrote on 28 June that the novelist Violet Hunt, with whom he had lived for several years, had refused to sever relations with people who had been denouncing him to the police as a German agent and ‘stating, on her authority, various other untruths to my disadvantage.’ Consequently, he ‘took a labourer’s cottage in the country where I am still.’ And, ‘Today I have changed my name by deed-poll to “Ford.”’

To the novelist and later art critic Herbert Read, he wrote that he’d changed his name by deed-poll on 28 June ‘to please a relative from whom I have expectations; & in order to escape from the attentions of the Society of the neighbourhood’.[1]

The apparent disparity in the dates is explained by the petition being lodged on 4 June and the legal process being actually completed on 28 June.[2]

Names were, of course, always remarkably unstable in Ford’s life. In Violet Hunt’s memoirs, he is ‘Joseph Leopold’ (his Catholic baptismal names), to Ezra Pound he is ‘Forty Mad-Dogs Hueffer’ or ‘Freiherr von Grumpus ZU und VON Bieberstein’. Then too he chooses to adopt quite a few pseudonyms in the course of his career, from the early ‘Fenil Haig’ through ‘Baron von Aschendrof’ and ‘Daniel Chaucer’ to ‘Faugh an-Ballagh Faugh’, the name with which he signed a letter—not long before he died—complaining about a lukewarm review of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake which, Ford wrote, ‘stands up across the flat lands of our literatures as does the first Pyramid across the sands of Egypt’.

(Stella Bowen, mid-20s: Carl A. Kroch Library, Cornell University; Stella Bowen, Vegetable Still Life)

‘The year 1919 was certainly an annus mirabilis’ Richard Aldington remembered, ‘if you take the “mirabilis” ironically.’[3] For Ford, one of the year’s main points would be the official end of his war service: ‘Darling’, he wrote to Stella Bowen on 7 January 1919, ‘I was gazetted out of the Army this morning—so I might walk out this minute’—in fact he didn’t, for another week.[4] Another major factor was his seriously beginning to write again. And there was Stella herself, the young Australian painter whom he had met in the autumn of 1917—their daughter Julie was born in November 1920—and with whom he would live for most of the next ten years. ‘In June’, Ford wrote to his mother in early July, ‘I set up house with another lady.’[5]

House but also garden; flowers and many vegetables; pigs (Anna and Anita); an old mare; chickens; a goat called Penny, ‘because it had a certain facial resemblance to Mr. Pound’, ‘a drake that someone called Fordie’, a dog named Beau. ‘These beasts had a great dislike of being left alone, so that when I went out I was followed by dog, drake and goat—sometimes for great distances. A little later I acquired a black pig. This animal was also companionable, but I thought my procession would look too noticeable if she were added to it.’[6]

Ford was also a cook and hugely interested in food. Coming up next year is a special edition of Last Post: A Literary Journal from the Ford Madox Ford Society, devoted to that: Ford and Food (a broader and deeper subject than you might think), for which we’re already inviting proposals.

Meanwhile, for closet Ford Madox Ford fans—are there such people? Come on out!—the Ford Society website now has the first two issues of the journal freely available online:
http://www.fordmadoxfordsociety.org/last-post-open-access.html

 

 

Notes

[1] Ford Madox Ford, Letters of Ford Madox Ford, edited by Richard M. Ludwig (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), 93, 95, 98.

[2] Max Saunders, Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life, two volumes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), I, 1.

[3] Richard Aldington, Life for Life’s Sake (London: Cassell, 1968), 225.

[4] Correspondence of Ford Madox Ford and Stella Bowen, edited by Sondra J. Stang and Karen Cochran (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993), 53-54.

[5] Saunders, A Dual Life, II, 72.

[6] Ford Madox Ford, It Was the Nightingale (London: Heinemann, 1934), 104-105.

 

Flickering optimism

Vera_Edward_Spartacus

(Vera Brittain and her brother Edward, 1915: https://spartacus-educational.com/Jbrittain.htm )

‘Words of grief become almost meaningless in these days, they have to be used so frequently. But one does not feel any the less. Sorrows do not grow lighter because they are many.’[1] This is Vera Brittain, writing in June 1915, less than a year into the First World War, in which Brittain’s fiancé, younger brother and two close friends were all killed.

It’s a little over three months since the first death from Covid-19 was reported in the UK. We are 50,000–60,000 deaths further on from that now. A smallish island off the west coast of Europe which has seen the second highest total of Covid-19 deaths in the world. Second only to the United States, so little more needs to be said—except, perhaps, that this government’s domestic approval rating is the lowest in the world, nestling beside Mexico’s and below—below!—that of Donald Trump’s America.

There have been several notable shocks to the system in the last week or two – in this time of pretty constant shocks to the system. Perhaps the first was the Health Secretary claiming that the UK government did the right things at the right time – which surely took the breath away of any sentient being who had been paying attention. Secondly: the Prime Minister asserting that he was proud of the way this country and his government had dealt with the pandemic.

The third thing was an article in the New Statesman by Edward Docx—together with some of the responses to it on the letters page of the next week’s issue—about intensive care consultant Dr Jim Down and his colleagues dealing with the pandemic at its absolute peak of deaths from Covid-19 in hospitals, in harrowing and quite impossible conditions, with breathtaking and humbling courage, skill and devotion. It was a devastating article which should be – but, alas, won’t be – read by everybody.

New Statesman (29 May – 4 June 2020), 24-33.
https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/health/2020/05/peak

I-Am-Not-Your-Negro

(Raoul Peck, I Am Not Your Negro)

The fourth thing was watching again the superb Raoul Peck documentary centred on the remarkable James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, which blew me away the first time and—well, well—blew me away the second time too. I felt just as sickened as the first time around by the footage of racist cops beating Rodney King, and by that lonely walk of Dorothy Counts through a rabid mob of white folks brave enough to scream and spit at a fifteen-year-old girl. I found it worryingly difficult to distinguish recent footage of murderous racist violence from historic footage of murderous racist violence—and very hard to differentiate American police and armed militia.

The fifth thing was footage and stills of, and commentary on, the toppling and sinking of the statue of Edward Colston in my home city of Bristol. My initial doubt about the way in which it happened centred on whether too much had been given away to reactionary elements in this country and beyond. I think now that the positive responses and effects since then have clearly outweighed that consideration, helped by some lucid and insightful pieces by historians, notably David Olusoga:
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jun/08/edward-colston-statue-history-slave-trader-bristol-protest

Hannah Rose Woods has a good piece too:
https://www.newstatesman.com/2020/06/destruction-edward-colston-s-statue-act-living-history

So even now, in the midst of a pandemic, with our flailing government and with appalling scenes in the United States still streaming across our screens, it’s hard not to feel a flicker of optimism that something might finally be changing for the better, that George Floyd’s killing will not simply be remembered as yet one more police killing of a black individual – because enough people have decided that they will not allow that, and are acting on their decision.

 
Note

[1] Entry for Thursday 10 June 1915, Vera Brittain, Chronicle of Youth: Vera Brittain’s War Diary 1913–1917, edited by Alan Bishop (London: Gollancz, 1981), 206.