Sargent, Lavishness, Girls and Herrings

Vernon Lee 1881 by John Singer Sargent 1856-1925

(John Singer Sargent, Vernon Lee, 1881, Tate Gallery)

John Singer Sargent: American; born on 12 January 1856 in Florence; later lived in Paris and London, where he died in 1925. The novelist James Salter once told an interviewer: ‘Someone said that I write the way Sargent painted. Sargent based his style on direct observation and an economical use of paint—which is close to my own method.’[1]

Two of my strong likings may connect then, Sargent’s pictures and Salter’s prose. I have hugely pleasurable memories of the 2015 John Singer Sargent show at the National Portrait Gallery, Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends. Reviewing that show, Jackie Wullschlager wrote in the Financial Times that: ‘Virtuosity made Sargent’s fortune, but his formal portraiture, its grand manner and lavish brushwork derived from Velázquez and Frans Hals, never fully persuaded critical opinion.’

sargents

http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/sargent/home.php

I do recall that a few of the more formal portraits– mainly of American sitters – worked less well, when there seemed less reciprocal current between artist and subject. But the vast majority were superbly successful. When there are fewer restraints on what Sargent is obliged or moved to do, the technical mastery that is always there soars and sweeps. There are wonderful details, a finger, a buttonhole, the faintest touch of whiteness on a lip, and moments of dizzying poise as the brushstrokes, never losing their hold on the recognised and recognisable world, edge towards abstraction, in parts, fluid and swift.

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose 1885-6 by John Singer Sargent 1856-1925

(John Singer Sargent, Carnation-Lily-Lily-Rose: Tate Britain)

Here are some lines from Hart Crane:

A goose, tobacco and cologne—
Three winged and gold-shod prophecies of heaven,
The lavish heart shall always have to leaven
And spread with bells and voices, and atone
The abating shadows of our conscript dust.[2]

hart-crane

Hmm, never a quick read. Or should it be? How to read. An Ezra Pound title. How to read Ezra Pound? For Hugh Kenner, that question was illuminated by hearing Pound talk, the speed (or slowness) and rhythms of his speech. Donald Davie wrote of reading the Cantos at two speeds, once fast and once slow: ‘so the verse-lines of the Cantos have to be read fast for their meanings, but slow for their sounds’.[3] That’s probably how best to read Ulysses too: once at a canter, not worrying about every word or phrase, just gorging on the language and laughing a lot. Then roll your sleeves up.

‘The lavish heart’, though. Lavish brushwork, lavish heart.

There used to be a regular feature in – was it The Guardian? – in which some notable person would be presented with a list of questions, one of which was ‘What is your favourite word?’ I used to run idly over a number of possibilities. My words of the moment varied, of course: resonance, tessellated, desolation, susurrate, imago, though I liked, always, the word ‘girl’, which I knew wouldn’t do at all, being immediately suspect in the twenty-first century, not to mention a chunk of the twentieth, though it seems to recur now in every other new book title.

Another choice for me would be ‘lavish’. ‘Après mot le deluge’, in James Joyce’s little poem for his friend Eugene Jolas, fits this, the old French lavasse meaning deluge of rain, the Latin lavare meaning to wash. Outpouring, then, but always with the sense of profusion, extravagance, overabundance. It also has a couple of positive literary links for me. First is Louis MacNeice’s wonderful ‘Bagpipe Music’, which I have, once again, managed to commit to memory (I think), having mislaid a few lines for a while:

Willie Murray cut his thumb, couldn’t count the damage,
Took the hide of an Ayrshire cow and used it as a bandage.
His brother caught three hundred cran when the seas were lavish,
Threw the bleeders back in the sea and went upon the parish.

Farquharson, David, 1839-1907; The Herring Fleet Leaving the Dee, Aberdeen

(David Farquharson, The Herring Fleet Leaving the Dee, Aberdeen: Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums)

‘Cran’ refers, apparently, to a measure of capacity for herrings just landed in port. Chambers Dictionary (of Edinburgh) specifies 37½ gallons, wonderfully specific. I assume this is because that, in turn, equals 300 pints.

Second is the phrase that William Maxwell employs in the introduction to his edition of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Letters, and which, in turn, provides the title of Michael Steinman’s edition of the letters between Warner and Maxwell: The Element of Lavishness. ‘The personal correspondence of writers feeds on left-over energy,’ Maxwell noted. ‘There is also the element of lavishness, of enjoying the fact that they are throwing away one of their better efforts, for the chances of any given letter’s surviving are fifty-fifty, at most. And there is the element of confidence–of the relaxed backhand stroke that can place the ball anywhere in the court that it pleases the writer to have it go.’

element-of-lavishness

This is still high among my favourite volumes of letters between two writers (along with Warner–Garnett, Maxwell–Welty, Garnett–White and even Davenport–Laughlin or Salter–Phelps, though completion of the Davenport-Kenner correspondence may shake up the league table). Warner to Maxwell, 4 October 1953: ‘My old friend, Jane Ann, died the week before, all in a flash, and though death cannot close an inn when there is not another within sixteen miles of it, I rang up her brother thinking I would put off, and only changed my mind when he said, She had everything planned for you. So not to go there would have been an impiety. Life has never seemed such a fleeting thing as it did in that house, the same chairs, the same cut glass dishes, the stuffed fox and the prize curling-stone in their old place, the same brand of matches in the bedroom candlesticks, the same voices in the tap-room, the same smell in the early morning of the hills and the river outside and porridge cooking inside. Everything was so familiar, I might have been dead myself.’

And once more, 26 March 1971: ‘I hope your cold is better and the kettle put by –though I have nothing against kettles. I remember many happy days with them in my childhood, with my father coming with story-books & champagne. Champagne for everything above the waist, brandy for anything below it, was the medicinal way; and I am still a credit to his theory.’[4]

An element of lavishness indeed.

 

References

[1] Salter, interview with Edward Hirsch, Paris Review, 127 (Summer 1993).

[2] Hart Crane, ‘For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen’, Complete Poems and Selected Letters, edited by Langdon Hammer (New York: Library of America, 2006), 23.

[3] Hugh Kenner, ‘Retrospect: 1985’, in The Poetry of Ezra Pound (1951; Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1985), 3-4; Davie, Pound (London: Fontana, 1975), 90.

[4] William Maxwell, ‘Introduction’ to Sylvia Townsend Warner, Letters  (London: Chatto & Windus, 1982), viii; Michael Steinman, editor, The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938-1978 (Washington: Counterpoint, 2001), 44, 219.

 

Editing the early days of 2019

XAM634

(Festivity, dressing up and misrule in Twelfth Night: British Library)

‘Well it’s wonderful to be alive’, William Maxwell wrote to Eudora Welty, 6 January 1954. ‘Wonderful to be a writer. Wonderful to grow roses. Wonderful to care. Isn’t it?’[1]

Epiphany, twelfth day, the Librarian reluctantly dismantling Christmas decorations, wreaths, paper chains, cut-outs of cats carrying Christmas puddings, the holly and the ivy. Even the fat Santa must go into storage along with the tree ornaments.

‘And after dinner to the Dukes house’, Samuel Pepys wrote, ‘and there saw Twelfth night acted well, though it be but a silly play and not relating at all to the name or day.’[2]

Grose, Melicent Symons, 1844-1924; Samuel Pepys (1673-1703)

(Melicent Symons Grose, Samuel Pepys
Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford)

At 09:15, dozens of people are running in the park; all ages and sizes, accompanied by ragged but persistent applause and monitored by a score of stewards in high-visibility vests dotted around the course. At 06:45, it was still dark and there were only two runners, one of them the Librarian, who sped past me at intervals into the surrounding gloom while I loitered furtively – and no doubt suspiciously – by the park entrance, hearing though not yet seeing the gulls gathered at the top of the long slope.

So the year takes off, to a recurrent background music of improvement: dry month, new me, new you, new body, new us, new them, new beginning, remake, reset, reflux. Dry January: the very phrase is like a bell / To toll me back from thee to my sole self!

Not quite John Keats in toto. We can, though, sing along to his ‘Ode to a Nightingale’:

O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!

Severn, Joseph, 1793-1879; John Keats

(Joseph Severn, John Keats: National Portrait Gallery)

Yes, to contemplate a dry month in the face of so many frantic urgings to drink seems a little perverse. All over the country – at least I hope so – people of reasonable intelligence and awareness are staring at the television screen wondering why, rather than pissing billions of pounds of our money up the wall in preparation for ‘the eventuality of a no-deal Brexit’, the people charged with running the country don’t simply make damned sure that such an eventuality doesn’t occur in the first place.

Averting my eyes from the latest of these dispiriting reports, I catch sight of a piece in the Times Literary Supplement, headed, ‘What is the point of editors?’ Oh, great. But it turns out that Katherine Ashenburg is predominantly concerned here with the differences in attitudes towards the editorial processes typical of Latin America, Europe and the United States ‘(American editors probably edit most exhaustively, with British ones being more light-handed. The Canadians, as so often with Canadians, fall somewhere in between.) Europeans have traditionally resisted much editing, and Latin Americans perhaps most of all’ (TLS, 4 January 2019, 17).

Ah, to edit: ‘to prepare for publication’ is fine: but then my dictionary starts frothing at the mouth a little: to garble, cook up, censor, bowdlerise, having in mind, no doubt, Thomas Bowdler, who snipped out bits from Shakespeare’s plays and who, I’m not cheered to see, shares a birthday with me. Unlike Messrs Chambers and Oxford, the editors that come first to my mind are the likes of Wyndham Lewis, T. S. Eliot, Margaret Anderson and Ford Madox Ford, editor of two important journals himself, whose story teems with other editors. He maintained friendly relations at various times with R. A. Scott-James, Edward Garnett, Harold Monro, Burton Rascoe, A. R. Orage, Harriet Monroe, Ernest Rhys and Paul Palmer, among others. Douglas Goldring, who became Ford’s sub editor at the English Review and later wrote two books about him, was introduced to Ford by Anderson Graham, yet another editor—of Country Life[3]— while, in the winter of 1928, the novelist Katherine Anne Porter, another friend of Ford’s for a time, was working as copy editor for The Macaulay Company, publisher of Ford’s No Enemy: A Tale of Reconstruction the following year.[4]

colette-3

Being personally more concerned in an editorial sense with academic essays or creative non-fiction circling, if not centring on, Ford and his contemporaries, I’m rarely tempted to employ the advice that Colette (then literary editor at Le Matin) offered to the young Georges Simenon: ‘She told him that he was on the right track but he should drop “the literature”. “Pas de littérature!” she said. “Supprimez toute la littérature et ça ira!”’[5]

 

References

[1] Suzanne Marrs, editor, What There Is to Say, We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), 58.

[2] Pepys, entry of 6 January 1663, quoted in Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 25. T. W. Craik reviews the matter of Shakespeare’s title in the Arden edition of Twelfth Night (London: Routledge, 1995), xxxiii-xxxiv, concluding that it was most likely chosen for its ‘general festive associations.’

[3] Douglas Goldring, Odd Man Out: The Autobiography of a “Propaganda Novelist” (London: Chapman and Hall, 1935), 92.

[4] Nancylee Novell Jonza, The Underground Stream: The Life and Art of Caroline Gordon (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1995), 61.

[5] Patrick Marnham, The Man Who Wasn’t Maigret: A Portrait of Georges Simenon (San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Company 1994), 112.

 

Ending up or ending down

Crows

Do the crows know something that we don’t? Maybe –­ or perhaps we all know the same damned thing.

‘Family customs should not be kept up after they decompose.’—Sylvia Townsend Warner to William Maxwell, 31 December 1975.

Almost there – and yet there’s no great feeling of relief as there often has been in the past when we’re finally shot of a dreadful year. It’s as if, when Philippides arrived at the assembly with news of the Battle of Marathon, he wasn’t even given time to collapse and die but told: ‘Sorry, mate, didn’t we tell you? You have to turn round and run all the way back again now.’

As for the next one, there’s little likelihood of it being any better, a strong chance of it being measurably worse, given the levels of mendacity and cowardice among our leading politicians. I suspect that the recent case of the lucrative ferry contract given to a company that has never run a ferry service and has, in fact, no ships is accurately representative of the levels of intelligence and competence among the governmental ranks.
https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/dec/30/no-deal-brexit-ferry-company-owns-no-ships-and-has-never-run-ferry-service

I was reading about Anniversaries by Uwe Johnson, finally translated – by Damion Searls – in its entirety, two volumes totalling 2000 pages.
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/dec/30/uwe-johnson-anniversaries-review

The only book by Johnson that I’ve read, forty years ago, is An Absence, which was a novella, short enough, I think, to appear in the small, pocket-sized Cape editions. Anniversaries sounds fascinating but I’ve not yet finished navigating my current two-volume, 2000-page opus, Questioning Minds, Edward Burns’ superb edition of the Kenner-Davenport letters, let alone two or three other colossi, longer-term tenants, combining to crowd Johnson out of my particular landscape.

HighlandSteer copy

(Highland Steer by Walter G. Poole)

I seem to be constitutionally opposed to the whole idea of New Year resolutions – if it’s really worth doing or changing, you’ll probably do it or change it anyway – but I do entertain reading intentions, probably because I just like making booklists. More poetry for sure, now that I have the books up on shelves and can actually see what we have. The Patrick White and Penelope Fitzgerald re-reads were such a blast that I’ll have a couple more next year: Henry Green definitely; Eudora Welty and Olivia Manning are certainly in the frame; and, of course, I have some Ford Madox Fords to revisit. Then too, some history—a more widespread ability to distinguish history from myth might have saved us all some pain—and particularly local history, this city. Read, walk, ask, listen.

2019’s pleasures, positives and signs of intelligent life will, I think, be firmly located in private, personal spaces. But – always – there just might turn out to be cracks in the wall. O optimist!

The hunter hunted, or: hounded by Diana

Rubens-Diana-and-Actaeon

(Peter Paul Rubens, Diana and Actaeon)

Over two days at the home of the Librarian’s parents in Somerset, I find I don’t read much at all, the time slipping pleasantly away in a great deal of conversation, some eating, drinking, the odd quiz, a couple of games – not even much walking this year. Still, we return home on Boxing Day with as many books as we set out with.

Among my new acquisitions are two volumes of poetry, Like by A. E. Stallings and Michael Hofmann’s One Lark, One Horse, poets and translators linked in my mind by Ovid. Stallings is one of the many poets—I hadn’t realised until recently just how many—to have translated, recast or reimagined Ovid’s telling of the story of Actaeon, the hunter who came by chance upon the goddess Diana bathing naked. Outraged, she transformed him into a stag and he was torn to pieces by his own hounds. Stallings’ poem begins:

The hounds, you know them all by name.
You fostered them from purblind whelps
At their dam’s teats, and you have come
To know the music of their yelps[1]

There have been numerous translations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses since the sixteenth-century version by Arthur Golding, ‘the most beautiful book in the language’, Ezra Pound called it, ‘from which Shakespeare learned so much of his trade’.[2] Golding’s translation has the goddess conjuring antlers onto Actaeon’s head. Then:

She sharpes his ears, she makes his necke both slender, long and lanke.
She turns his fingers into feete, his arms to spindle shanke.
She wrappes him in a hairie hyde beset with speckled spottes,
And planteth in him fearfulnesse.[3]

Golding-Metamorphoses

Michael Hofmann was one of the editors – with James Lasdun – of the celebrated anthology, After Ovid: New Metamorphoses, which included four pieces (more than fifty pages in total) by Ted Hughes, a milestone on the road to Hughes’ later Tales from Ovid.[4] His ‘Actaeon’ begins:

Destiny, not guilt, was enough
For Actaeon. It is no crime
To lose your way in a dark wood.[5]

Absolving Actaeon of blame (and apparently absolving Dante too in passing, perhaps all of us, come to think of it) aligns Hughes with several other translators and commentators. A. D. Melville’s version, after stating that Actaeon’s hounds were ‘sated with their master’s blood’, goes on:

Though, if you ponder wisely, you will find
The fault was fortune’s and no guilt that day.
For what guilt can it be to lose one’s way?[6]

No crime, no guilt ­ – but was he not at fault at all? There’s a moment in Lisa Halliday’s novel Asymmetry when Amar tells his girlfriend Maddie a story as they skirt around the question of religious belief and she says ‘something about how, once we know the end of an unfortunate story, it’s tempting to ask why its protagonist did not do better to swerve his fate.’[7] It’s certainly easier to ask such questions if it’s not us in the story – or if we believe that we are, unaided, writing our own.

fontainebleau-diana

(Diana the Huntress: École de Fontainebleau, c. 1550-1560)

In Ford Madox Ford’s The Young Lovell, after the battle of Kenchie’s Burn, Lovell is pursuing the Scots and is lost in a great valley between moors where he sleeps on the heather. ‘There he heard many strange sounds, such as a great cry of dogs hunting overhead, which was said by those who had read in books to be the goddess Diana chasing still through the night the miserable shade of the foolish Actaeon.’[8]

Heartless fellow. Ten years after that novel was published, Ford was in Paris, feeling the mounting pressure of people’s expectations upon him to launch what became the transatlantic review: ‘not even Diana herself would preserve me from their fury if I did not provide harbourage for their compositions. I should be torn to pieces as was Actaeon by the hounds of that Goddess’.[9]

A little more sympathy from Ford than from his fictional creation – or at least no disparagement here of the unfortunate Actaeon.

Actaeon also figures in poems by writers as varied as Seamus Heaney, George Szirtes, Wendy Cope, Robin Robertson and Simon Armitage. In March 1915, Poetry published six poems by Ezra Pound, among them ‘The Coming of War: Actaeon’:

An image of Lethe,
and the fields
Full of faint light
but golden,
Gray cliffs,
and beneath them
A sea
Harsher than granite,
unstill, never ceasing;
High forms
with the movement of gods,
Perilous aspect;
And one said:
“This is Actaeon.”
Actaeon of golden greaves!
Over fair meadows,
Over the cool face of that field,
Unstill, ever moving,
Host of an ancient people,
The silent cortège.[10]

It’s not immediately obvious what Actaeon is doing here; or rather, why it’s Actaeon as opposed to any other of the illustrious dead who have crossed into Hades. (He appears in Pound’s Canto IV but in his familiar context of pool, goddess, stag and hounds.) James Longenbach comments that here Pound ‘was able to pull his experience of the war into the private world of the Image’ but points out that ‘the sacrifice was a large one’ since the poem ‘addresses the war only by mythologizing it out of its place in history and ignoring the brutality of the actual experience.’[11]

Titian, c.1488-1576; Diana and Actaeon

(Titian, Diana and Actaeon, National Galleries of Scotland)

The story that Ovid tells is, in any case, a wonderfully suggestive one, presumably accounting for its strong attraction for poets and translators. The hunt is itself a potent idea, especially the sexual politics of the hunter become the hunted, the mortal man doomed by the arbitrary act of the divine woman. Or is it arbitrary, since the intrusion may be seen as not merely a social solecism but a sacrilegious blunder, a subversion of the natural order? As for the metamorphosis, the transformation, every translation – perhaps every work of art – can be seen as a metamorphic act. But another attraction is surely the tumultuous unfurling in Actaeon’s mind, the dizzying terror, the internal screaming as the words come to his lips, the things he would utter ­ – but his power of speech is gone, his human faculties fled.

Here’s a favourite recent telling of the tale, by Lavinia Greenlaw:

He walks his mind as a forest
and sends of himself into dark places
to which he cannot tell the way.
The hunt comes on and he in his nerves
streams ahead – hounds flung after
a scent so violent no matter the path
or what’s let fall.
A burst of clearing.
Water beads and feathers her presence
as she thickens and curves.
He says words to himself not to look
but his eyes are of their own
and she at their centre a dark star
contracted to itself discarding
wave on wave on flare on fountain.
His skull erupting, branching . . .
And his blood is shaken down.
And he is all fours.
And his noise.
And his hounds.[12]

 

References

[1] A. E. Stallings, ‘Actaeon’, published in Poetry (May 2003).

[2] Ezra Pound, The ABC of Reading (London: Faber and Faber, 1961), 127; How to Read (London: Desmond Harmsworth, 1931), 45.

[3] Confucius to Cummings: An Anthology of Poetry, edited by Ezra Pound and Marcella Spann (New York: New Directions, 1964), 37, 40-41.

[4] After Ovid: New Metamorphoses, edited by Michael Hofmann and James Lasdun (London: Faber and Faber, 1994), 3-20, 94-109, 114-117, 245-258.

[5] Ted Hughes, Collected Poems, edited by Paul Keegan (London: Faber and Faber, 2003), 937.

[6] Ovid, Metamorphoses, III, 140-142, translated by A. D. Melville (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 55. In a note (392), Melville suggests that Ovid had his own case in mind here, having insisted that the offence for which he was exiled was an error rather than a crime.

[7] Lisa Halliday, Asymmetry (London: Granta Books, 2018), 188.

[8] Ford Madox Ford, The Young Lovell: A Romance (London: Chatto & Windus, 1913), 27. On Actaeon’s connection to Peire Vidal in The Good Soldier, see my ‘“Speak Up, Fordie!”: How Some People Want to Go to Carcassonne’, in Ford Madox Ford and the City: International Ford Madox Ford Studies 4, edited by Sara Haslam (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005), 204.

[9] Ford Madox Ford, It Was the Nightingale (London: Heinemann, 1934), 262.

[10] Ezra Pound, ‘Actaeon: The Coming of War’, Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations, edited by Richard Sieburth (New York: Library of America, 2003), 285.

[11] James Longenbach, Stone Cottage: Pound, Yeats and Modernism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 124.

[12] Lavinia Greenlaw, ‘Actaeon’, The Casual Perfect (London: Faber & Faber, 2011), 13.

 

Lights and shadows

The Good and Evil Angels 1795-?c. 1805 by William Blake 1757-1827

(William Blake, The Good and Evil Angels, Tate Britain

Hell beckons. The handcart trundles a little closer. Yemen, Syria, the latest dangerous ravings from the White House. ‘End of days’, the Librarian murmurs. ‘The wheels have come off.’ Our increasingly grubby country offers only unparalleled political paralysis and irresponsibility, a housing secretary for whom the shameful rise in homelessness and rough sleeping in this country is nothing to do with government policies at all, a Labour leader inflicting what may be the final disappointment upon a large number of the party’s supporters and a Prime Minister still fixated on immigration. The death of Paddy Ashdown is a painful reminder that, not so long ago, party differences aside, there were politicians concerned about the welfare of the whole country. Following David Runciman’s provocative suggestion that six-year-olds should be given the vote, interviews with children aged six to twelve in today’s Observer, demonstrate—encouragingly or dispiritingly or both—that they frequently have a sounder grasp of the important issues than those supposedly forming and directing policies in this country – and are more humane also.

https://www.theguardian.com/global/2018/dec/23/should-we-give-children-the-vote-voting-at-age-6-politics-interviews

Against the encroaching darkness, the Librarian puts up strings of lights on walls and doorways, bakes, makes quince gin and quince vodka. I take refuge in the usual things. It’s been an unsettling year, yet a not unbalanced one, with its births and beginnings, deaths and disappearances.

Gin-Vodka

‘The Dyings have been too deep for me’, Emily Dickinson, observed in the Fall of 1884, ‘and before I could raise my Heart from one, another has come.’ In the nineteenth and earlier centuries, death was a more frequent caller, certainly among the young. Still, even now the frequency inevitably increases when one reaches a certain age; and one death often recalls another. Oscar Wilde famously said that, ‘Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.’ Perhaps less contentiously, art shadows life—for those who know the shadows are there—but shadows death also.

I remember sitting on an early evening train more than seven years ago, avoiding the quiet carriage in case somebody called. The train was taking me to London – to tell my mother that the hospital staff would be turning off my sister’s life support machine the following morning. I remember too making the ultimate banal observation – that life continues, everywhere, even in – perhaps especially in – the context of death. Or we simply notice it more readily. At the station, there had been two men on a bench across the tracks; one of them, a Sikh, I think, was dancing while still sitting down. His friend laughed. An elderly couple passed, intent and purposeful; young women out for the evening shimmied and twirled. And in the carriage, the usual noisy blathering into mobile phones. But life. Now. Like it or not, in that present moment, life, the undramatic pulse of it, movement, irrefutable and irreversible.

A woman had a long, very audible conversation on her phone about her father’s latest consultation with the specialist and the conditions necessary for his operation. I read; then felt guilty about reading; then stopped; then remembered that if I didn’t read I would only have other voices in my head. It was dusk, with heavy cloud, gradually darkening, but across the valley, there was a single blazing field, still in brilliant sunlight. I was rereading Women in Love and abruptly realised that I’d reached Chapter XIV, ‘Water-Party’, in which Gerald’s sister Diana dies from drowning, while he repeatedly, desperately, futilely dives in search of her.

Water-party-scene-WIL

(Alan Bates and Jennie Linden in Ken Russell’s Women in Love)

A few years further on. We scatter some of my mother’s ashes in a secluded part of the river; I say a few words, it’s all very peaceful and positive and appropriate. More recently, we scattered the rest in the sea. The tide was coming in, faster and more strongly than expected, night was approaching (also faster than expected). A dropped urn, flooded boots, more than a touch of farce, absurdity – but that seemed oddly appropriate too.

There have been other familial deaths this year, mostly expected or at least unsurprising. But only weeks after the funeral of one of my loved aunts, we attend another. One of the closest and oldest friends of the Librarian’s parents: she herself has known him since she was eight. He was prodigiously gifted, as artist and writer and photographer, possessed of a genius for friendship and for making connections of every kind, one of the bright beings on this earth, whose intellectual curiosity and vitality were like a shot into the bloodstream. I am sitting at one end of the dining-table as we finish lunch and he surges down to sit next to me. ‘What are you reading? What have you found?’ I tell him – and he already knows, has bought, has read – but wants more and, eloquently wanting more, gives back far more than that.

Anathemata DJ-Dedication

Probably not many funeral services begin with the beginning of David Jones’s The Anathemata but, that being one of his favourite works, it’s highly fitting. We sit in Sherborne Cathedral and hear:

‘We already and first of all discern him making this thing other. His groping syntax, if we attend, already shapes:
ADSCRIPTAM, RATAM, RATIONABILEM . . . and by pre-application and for them, under modes and patterns altogether theirs, the holy and venerable hands lift up an efficacious sign.’

Elsewhere, Jones wrote: ‘It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for us to see the wood in which we find ourselves for the trees against which we break our heads and in the tangle of which we break our hearts.’

I came across the order of service for that funeral a day or two ago. ‘Where shall I put this?’ We are standing by the bookshelves and the Librarian hands me a volume of William Blake, another writer he admired. I tuck it inside the back cover.

Man was made for Joy & Woe
And when this we rightly know
Thro the World we safely go
Joy & Woe are woven fine
A Clothing for the soul divine
Under every grief & pine
Runs a joy with silken twine

 

 

No one’s reading

Routledge-Companion small  Melmoth

I saw a recent Guardian interview with Robin Robertson, the poet whose The Long Take was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize and also won the Goldsmiths prize. Asked, ‘What was the last great book you read?’, he replied: ‘There are so few great books. I don’t suppose I’m allowed to mention one of my authors [Robertson works for the publisher Jonathan Cape], but Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight is extraordinary. I love Patrick White, but no one reads him these days. He’s very politically incorrect.’
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/dec/08/poet-robin-robertson-interview-the-long-take
I too thought Warlight was tremendously good but it was a little odd to see that comment on Patrick White in a year when I read or reread eighteen of White’s books plus a 600-page biography of him. ‘No one reads him’ – I must then be no one, ου τις, ou tis, the name Odysseus gave himself in the Cyclops’ cave, so that Polyphemus, when his neighbours asked why he cried out, answered, ‘No one is hurting me!’ The ghost of Patrick White can now exclaim: ‘No one is reading me!’

I’ve browsed or skipped briskly through at least half a dozen selections of ‘Books of the Year’ already. Geared almost exclusively towards new books—some not even published yet—such lists always used to look utterly unlike my own because I’d often read nothing at all published that year. In 2018 I did actually read titles published in 2018, about a dozen of them. Some have dropped out of my head already, others seem in no particular hurry to leave. But to summarise a whole year’s travelling through books? ‘There is no end to what I have to say’, William Maxwell wrote to Eudora Welty in December 1989, ‘but then you would have to read it.’

SignsForLostChildren

So apart from White – and my other major re-read, the wonderful Penelope Fitzgerald – and a few of the usual suspects that cropped up in many lists, I’d pick out Melissa Harrison, whose novel All Among the Barley, as well as her short book Rain: Four Walks in English Weather, greatly impressed me, and Sarah Moss, whose The Tidal Zone I read last year but whose other books, six of them, I’ve read in the last few months, all novels apart from Names for the Sea, which is about her family’s year in Iceland. She writes beautifully, accurately and inventively about place, about human relations, particularly about young women confronted by prejudices, constraints and barriers, in this and earlier ages, being an expert and seasoned traveller in both time and space. Ghost Wall is the latest novel, a short, concentrated and powerful book. The others, all accomplished and hard to choose between, are Bodies of Light, Cold Earth, Night Waking and, perhaps a personal favourite by a narrow margin, Signs for Lost Children. Then, after the notable sureness and confidence of Sarah Perry’s first two books—After Me Comes the Flood and The Essex Serpent—I am being impressed all over again by her Melmoth. I’m also halfway through the big new Routledge Research Companion to Ford Madox Ford—but it’s hardly surprising that I should be.

 

‘With just the touch of a sigh’: Ford Madox Ford 145 years on

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(Ezra Pound, John Quinn, Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce, Paris 1923)

‘Pray pardon my minute examination of such matters. That is my preoccupation in this world.’—Ford Madox Ford, ‘Literary Portraits – VII. Mr. Percival Gibbon and “The Second-Class Passenger”’, Outlook, XXXII (25 October 1913), 572.

Born on 17 December 1873, Ford Madox Ford grew very fond of decades, as markers and aids to memory. The Good Soldier had hatched within him for a decade before he wrote it, he said. In Provence, he remembered a snowstorm in Carcassonne, noting that snowstorms happened there ‘once every forty years or so. That was in 1913, when I was refreshing my memory as to the Albigeois martyrs of that city…’ Every forty years or so. Exactly the span of Ford’s life at that date. In the ‘Dedicatory Letter’ to The Good Soldier, he wrote: ‘I had always entertained the idea that…I at least should not be able to write a novel by which I should care to stand before reaching the age of forty…’ And again: ‘on the day I was forty I sat down to show what I could do—and The Good Soldier resulted’. In 1913, too, he published his fortieth book.

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Let me try some ten-year intervals. 1883 is the date that Ford’s biographer gives as the date of his ‘earliest surviving letter’, sent to his grandfather, the painter Ford Madox Brown: ‘We went on to the rocks yesterday & they were dotted over with sea anemones. We saw a lizard & I caught it & let it go after & then Harri & I lifted a stone up & we saw a snake which seemed to wake up in a strang[e] manner & then went lazily into some grass.’

In 1893, Ford—under the name of ‘Fenil Haig’—published his first book of poems, The Questions at the Well, dedicated to Elsie Martindale, with whom he would soon elope. In October, his beloved grandfather died. Ford would publish his biography of Ford Madox Brown three years later.

‘But now, at the ebb, the river’s flight
Seaward ceases, and in its might
The sea rushes on in smooth delight.
Spray-bright and sparkling from stem to prow
With dripping oars and heaving bow,
The boat holds on’.

1903 saw the publication of the most substantial of the three collaborative works Ford wrote with Joseph Conrad, Romance (Smith, Elder & Co., 6s.).

‘Before then I had not lived. I had only waited—for her and for what she stood for. It was in my blood, in my race, in my tradition, in my training. We, all of us for generations, had made for efficiency, for drill, for restraint. Our Romance was just this very Spanish contrast, this obliquity of vision, this slight tilt of the convex mirror that shaped the same world so differently to onlookers at different points of its circle.’

In 1913, following the trial of The Throne, edited by his friend René Byles, which had referred to Violet Hunt as ‘Mrs Ford Madox Hueffer’, prompting Ford’s wife Elsie (they were never divorced) to sue, Ford and Hunt roamed around the South of France: Montpellier, Carcassonne, Beaucaire, Las Tours, Tarascon, St. Rémy-de-Provence. They went to Corsica for a week. By the close of the year, Ford had begun writing a novel called ‘The Saddest Story’. It became The Good Soldier.

Elsie-Martindale

(Elsie Martindale c. 1895 by Catherine Hueffer – Ford’s mother)

‘So I shall just imagine myself for a fortnight or so at one side of the fireplace of a country cottage, with a sympathetic soul opposite me. And I shall go on talking, in a low voice while the sea sounds in the distance and overhead the great black flood of wind polishes the bright stars. From time to time we shall get up and go to the door and look out at the great moon and say: “Why, it is nearly as bright as in Provence!” And then we shall come back to the fireside, with just the touch of a sigh because we are not in that Provence where even the saddest stories are gay.’

In 1923, he was in France with Stella Bowen, first at the Villa des Oliviers, St. Jean Cap Ferrat, at Ardèche, Saint-Agrève, Tarascon, and Paris. The American printer William Bird, to whom Ford would dedicate No More Parades in 1925, produced Ford’s Women & Men at the Three Mountains Press. By the end of that year, Ford had published The Marsden Case,  Mr Bosphorus and the Muses, was already well-advanced upon his great tetralogy, Parade’s End, and was launching the transatlantic review.

Bosphorus

In the South the sombrero’d poet,
His harlot having gathered the scattered coins,
Rose slothfully and stretching out a hand
White but not overwashed beneath the benevolent moon,
Shouts out his indolent verse, accustomed rhymes
POUR for AMOUR and PURE to match AZURE
And a scratch on the guitar, a diamond flash
In the birchen shadow. Gesture with the hat
And so to bed beside his harlot. . . . Ah!
In the scented azure night.

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(Ford and Pound in Rapallo, c. 1932)

In 1933, now with Janice Biala, he published The Rash Act and one of his finest books, It Was the Nightingale.

‘A social system had crumbled. Recklessness had taken the place of insouciance. In the old days we had seemed to have ourselves and our destinies well in hand. Now we were drifting towards a weir . . . ’

By 1943, Ford was four years dead, one of four major modernists to die within the three years 1939-1941, together with Yeats, Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Sixty-five when he died, he’d published eighty books, several of them among the best the twentieth century has to show. He is buried in Deauville.