Slouching towards Bedlam

JOAN DIDION

Joan Didion via The Paris Review. The Review‘s 1978 interview with Didion is available here: https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/3439/joan-didion-the-art-of-fiction-no-71-joan-didion

I was struck by an exchange in the recently printed Guardian interview with the BBC journalist and news presenter Clive Myrie:

You’ve worked all over the world. Which posting do you have the fondest memories of?
Being based in Los Angeles during the Clinton years. The USA, pre-9/11, was a much more carefree place and the Clinton White House was incredible to cover. Because I was based in Los Angeles, I wasn’t just covering hard news; I covered Central America, hurricanes in Honduras, the Oscars, three times, so there was a breadth of story-telling. Strangely enough, I would say America is the most alien place I have ever reported from. I think we have far more in common with northern Europeans than we will ever have with Americans.
https://www.theguardian.com/media/2017/dec/03/clive-myrie-bbc-should-be-treasured-interview-bbc-yemen

Yes, that, ‘strangely enough’ and ‘the most alien place’. Recently, in the wake of President Trump’s offensive response to Theresa May’s characteristically restrained criticism of his irresponsible re-tweeting of extremist videos, a number of British politicians and commentators are finally interrogating the lazy platitudes surrounding ‘the special relationship’. It has dawned on some people that the relationship was always rather more ‘special’ in one direction than in the other.

In the United Kingdom, we watch a great deal of American film and television; some of us read a lot of American literature; and the language we speak is, in some regards, broadly similar. And yes, apart from my US cultural consumption, I have American friends and acquaintances. I even follow, with increasingly appalled fascination, American politics. But I also never quite lose that sense of distance, of strangeness, of great stretches of material never touched on, better left aside and not embarked upon. Two continents separated by divergent categories of insupportable weirdness, perhaps.

I recall Guy Davenport recounting a visit to Ezra Pound, when the latter was confined in St Elizabeths Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Washington. Pound had given Davenport a book by Leo Frobenius and asked how he was travelling. Learning that he was returning home by train, Pound reversed the dust jacket so that the title would be invisible to those likely to be ‘driven to fury that learning was being freely transported about the Republic.’ Having himself been born in Anderson, South Carolina, Davenport merely commented that ‘Southerners take a certain amount of unhinged reality for granted’.[1] And ‘unhinged’, yes, seems to be le mot juste, a fracturing of defences, a throwing open of doors to disorder and worse—much worse, as we see now.

(Leo Frobenius; Ezra Pound)

I’ve unsettled myself in an American context several times this year—I mean, apart from reading or watching the news in stark disbelief that such behaviour and such pronouncements can be tolerated in a Western democracy. What else has unsettled me? The Raoul Peck documentary, centring on James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, for one, mostly in the yawning space of time between now and then set against the—in many ways—pitiful progress made since the events that the film deals with. Then the ten-part documentary series on The Vietnam War, directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick: the political duplicity and deceitfulness, the casualness of the decision-making that doomed hundreds of thousands to unnecessary deaths, decisions in which the Vietnamese civilians weighed nothing at all, a blueprint for much that followed.

Tallent

On the printed page, in various ways and to varying degrees: rereading Flannery O’Connor, though I note her comment that, ‘of course, I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.’[2] Catching up on other titles, I finally read Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, which I was already embarked upon when O’Brien cropped up in the Burns/Novick series; and A. M. Homes’ Music for Torching. Of newer books, Mary Gaitskill’s book of stories, Don’t Cry, J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and, perhaps in particular, Gabriel Tallent’s risky, brave and disturbing novel, My Absolute Darling.

And then, noting that today is Joan Didion’s eighty-third birthday, I should mention South and West: From a Notebook, dating to the summer of 1970 and largely comprising material for a piece on the South that was never written. I’ve just read this book, and also watched the documentary, The Center Cannot Hold, directed by Didion’s nephew, Griffin Dunne, currently available on Netflix, a film which will, of course, send me back to reread Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album.

Didion has long been admired for her prose style and her ability to write the history of her time through the medium of the essay, as David Hare remarks in Dunne’s documentary. I know people who have always resisted her work, largely on political grounds—a child of conservative Republicans parents, she apparently voted for Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election but would subsequently describe, in Political Fictions, ‘the abduction of American democracy’.[3] The political pieces that she gravitated towards, with the encouragement of Robert Silvers at The New York Review of Books, including Salvador, ‘Sentimental Journeys’, about the notorious trial and conviction of the five black boys accused of the rape of a white woman jogging through Central Park, and ‘Cheney: The Fatal Touch’, complicate that picture.

South-and-West

There are details and comments in South and West that seem to connect with the present time with startling directness, as if by underground cable. In Biloxi, Didion noted: ‘[t]he isolation of these people from the currents of American life in 1970 was startling and bewildering to behold. All their information was fifth-hand, and mythicized in the handing down.’ And, ‘[i]t occurred to me almost constantly in the South that had I lived there I would have been an eccentric and full of anger, and I wondered what form the anger would have taken. Would I have taken up causes, or would I have simply knifed somebody?’[4]

In Alabama, she sees signs supporting George Wallace’s campaign: he would serve two consecutive terms as governor from 1971-1979. The thought occurs to Didion that ‘the reason Wallace has never troubled me is that he is a totally explicable phenomenon.’[5] That question of explicability came up several times in Naomi Klein’s recent book. Looking back at some of the destructive trends that she’d researched over many years, she observed that, as she began to research Donald Trump, ‘he started to seem like Frankenstein’s monster, sewn together out the body parts of all these and many other dangerous trends.’ She added that, though Trump ‘breaks the mold in some ways, his shock tactics follow a script, one familiar from other countries that have had rapid changes imposed under the cover of crisis.’[6]

Joan Didion was also struck by ‘[t]he time warp: the Civil War was yesterday, but 1960 is spoken of as if it were about three hundred years ago.’[7] As Nathaniel Rich observes, ‘An unquestioned premise among those who live in American cities with international airports has been, for more than half a century now, that Enlightenment values would in time become conventional wisdom. Some fought for this future to come sooner. Others waited patiently. But nobody seemed to believe that it would never arrive.’ In such a view, he adds, ‘the past’ can in many ways be relegated to the ‘aesthetic realm’.[8] But, evidently, it is not safely dead: in fact, a great many people have never left it.

Not, of course, that such symptoms are confined to the United States. Alas.

References

[1] Guy Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 174-175.

[2] Flannery O’Connor, ‘The Grotesque in Southern Fiction’, in Collected Works, edited by Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Library of America, 1988), 815.

[3] John Leonard, ‘Introduction’ to Joan Didion, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Nonfiction (New York: Knopf, 2006), vx.

[4] Didion, South and West: From a Notebook, foreword by Nathaniel Rich (London: 4th Estate, 2017), 34, 55.

[5] South and West, 71.

[6] Naomi Klein, No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics (London: Allen Lane, 2017), 2.

[7] South and West, 104.

[8] Rich, ‘Foreword’, South and West, xviii.

 

 

 

 

Finished sentences, tied shoelaces

STW_Gdn_stw.com

(Sylvia Townsend Warner in her garden: via the Sylvia Townsend Warner Society)

‘We have just come back from Theodore Powys’s funeral’, Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote to William Maxwell on 28 November 1953. ‘He died sooner, and with less misery than any of us dared expect, probably because he had made up his whole mind to it. I do not mean that he was resigned; but he was resolved. There was a great deal about the funeral that he would have approved of. To begin with, because of the lay-out of his front door, the coffin came out upright, as though it were walking out on its own volition, or rather, as though he were walking it out to its burial. It was a mild grey-skied day, the doors of the village church were open during the service, and while the parson was reading the lesson from St. Paul a flock of starlings descended on the churchyard and brabbled with their watery voices, almost drowning the solitary cawing rook inside the building. The parson, an old man, and a friend of Theodore’s, must have believed every word he said, and after the blessing he stood for some time at the foot of the grave in an oddly conversational attitude, as though, for this once, he had got the better of an argument.’[1]

A longish extract – but why settle for anything less?

Powys-T.F

(Theodore Francis Powys, by Howard Coster, 1934 © National Portrait Gallery)

Sylvia had met Powys (whose brothers included John Cowper and Llewellyn; his sisters the writer Philippa, the painter Gertrude, and the authority on lace and lace-making Marian) in March 1922—annus mirabilis for a good many writers other than James Joyce and T. S. Eliot—after a brief correspondence. Her friend Stephen Tomlin (‘Tommy’) had conveyed his strong interest in Powys, finally prompting Sylvia to read The Soliloquy of a Hermit (1916). Having visited him in East Chaldon—or Chaldon Herring, ‘as it is properly called in the Ordnance map though the postal name is East Chaldon’[2]—Sylvia was given the task of finding a publisher for a Powys manuscript and found her way to Tommy’s ‘only influential acquaintance in the literary world’. This was David Garnett, co-founder of the Nonesuch Press and currently a bookseller, whose novel, Lady into Fox would appear in October, with tremendous success. Garnett sent the story on to Chatto and Windus, who published The Left Leg (1923) when Powys added the title story and one more. The stories were dedicated to Tommy, Garnett and Sylvia.[3] Mr Tasker’s Gods (1925), Mr Weston’s Good Wine (1927) and Unclay (1931) followed in the next few years, as did several further collections of stories. Douglas Goldring commented in Odd Man Out that ‘The Dorsetshire stories of T. F. Powys, which suburban critics find so morbid and unreal, seem to me to give an entirely truthful picture of peasant life as I observed it in Somerset.’[4]

David-Garnett

(David Garnett)

In 1930, Sylvia bought a cottage opposite the inn called The Sailors Return in East Chaldon and, soon afterwards, began the relationship with Valentine Ackland which would last until Valentine’s death nearly forty years later.[5] Garnett, who had first visited the village in the summer of 1922, published his novel, The Sailor’s Return, in 1925.[6] Set in the late 1850s, it concerns an English sailor returning home with his black African wife to rent a Dorset village inn and the prejudice and hostility they encounter from local people. It’s been reprinted by Dorset publisher The Sundial Press: http://www.sundialpress.co.uk/index.html
who also publish books by Powys brothers Theodore, Llewellyn and John Cowper, including Theodore’s Unclay and Kindness in a Corner.

Garnett was instrumental in getting Sylvia Townsend Warner’s early work published and their close friendship produced scores of superb letters. There was a long, slightly mysterious hiatus in their contact, probably due to Valentine’s jealousy, but it resumed and continued until Sylvia’s death.

Near the end of her life, Warner wrote to Garnett: ‘You enjoy my letters, I enjoy yours. We are like those Etruscan couples who sit conversing on their tomb. We belong to an earlier and more conversational world, and tend to finish our sentences and tie up our shoelaces.’ And Garnett, on his travels, sent her vibrant reports filled with tantalising details, such as this from Campeche, Mexico: ‘In the square there is a bust to the lifelong mistress of Porfirio Diaz, the dictator, Señora Romero. He gave her a villa and had the railway line diverted to run in front of the windows because she liked watching trains.’[7] 

References

[1] Michael Steinman, editor, The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938-1978 (Washington: Counterpoint, 2001), 44-45.

[2] Sylvia Townsend Warner, ‘T. F. Powys and Chaldon Herring’, in With the Hunted: Selected Writings, edited by Peter Tolhurst (Norwich: Black Dog Books, 2012), 54.

[3] Claire Harman, Sylvia Townsend Warner: A Biography (London: Chatto & Windus, 1989), 48-51.

[4] Douglas Goldring, Odd Man Out: The Autobiography of a “Propaganda Novelist” (London: Chapman and Hall, 1935), 47.

[5] Harman, Sylvia Townsend Warner, 96-97.

[6] Richard Garnett, editor, Sylvia and David: The Townsend Warner/ Garnett Letters (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1994), 23-25.

[7] Garnett, Sylvia and David, 213, 114.

‘The story exists for the scribbled notes in the margin’

Robert-Phelps

(Robert Phelps via Narrative)

‘As for credos, Monroe Wheeler, Glenway, and I were once walking along the gentle ridge above his house and I asked how each would summarise his philosophy. Monroe’s answer was straightforward, prompt: “I never want to be left out of the dance.” After a slow, foxy smile, Glenway reached down and picked up a stone. “I believe everything breathes; even this stone must utter a blissful sigh every millennium.”’

This is Robert Phelps, in the third of ‘three miniature portraits’ which he believed combined to offer a view of the writer Glenway Wescott, whose The Pilgrim Hawk (1940) and An Apartment in Athens (1945) I’ve read and admired.

wescott

Glenway Wescott, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1936: Via the Beinecke Library, Yale University: http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/

Phelps (born 16 November 1922) did publish one novel, though it was not successful: ‘a serious new writer like Robert Phelps produces in Heroes and Orators (1958) a complex and troubling study of homosexual love that goes unnoticed’, Leslie Fiedler commented.[1] Phelps was one of the co-founders of Grove Press, though he sold his share in it and turned to freelance writing. He’s best remembered now as the editor and translator of, particularly, Colette, introducing a great many readers to her work, primarily through his wonderful compilation of her own writings, superbly fitted together to form an autobiography, Earthly Paradise. He also edited her Collected Stories and worked the same sort of editorial magic on the writings of Jean Cocteau. His other major editing job was the journal of Glenway Wescott or rather, drawn from memos, newspaper clipping and carbon copies of letters, Phelps remarked, ‘in substance as well as appearance it is closer to a scrapbook.’[2] To James Salter, he wrote of his work on this volume: ‘It’s like walking for days along the English coast after the wreck of the Armada. The beach is strewn. You keep running back and forth. Everything glitters, even the eyes of dead men.’[3]

Colette

(Colette)

Phelps died in 1989, aged 66. I’d read a few books by Colette over the years but read quite a few more, especially the Phelps-related ones, after coming across the letters between Phelps and James Salter: two superb writers in love with other writers, in love with each other’s being in the world, to talk and write about books and weather and France and the look of things, the touch and smell of things. ‘Your stories pour over me’, Salter wrote, ‘I am in a different world, one where I recognize myself’ (12). Phelps intensely admired Salter’s writing and, what is less common, was able to articulate the reasons for that admiration. Of Salter’s story, ‘The Cinema’, he observed: ‘The thing that most gratifies me (and I mean gratify literally, as good cheese gratifies me, or a well-hung line of laundry snapping in the wind, or a Cavafy poem) is that if I stop at the end of almost any given sentence, I cannot guess what will come next—neither substance nor syntax. With most writers, there is maximum predictability. You can skim whole paragraphs’ (30). After noting that Salter was ‘a minority of one’ and ‘a new herb in the cabinet’, he remarked that, with ‘wholly different temperaments, Genet and Pasolini do something of the same thing. But you are tender, and unperverse. You are pure, and in the European sense of the word, American’ (31).

He told Salter about Erik Satie: ‘Did you know that after he died, his friends found one hundred unused umbrellas in his room? There was also a piano, which was unplayable and which Braque bought as a souvenir’ (47). He mentioned his hostess at Pound Ridge, in upstate New York, where he was staying. She was ‘an old friend of Philip Roth’ and told Phelps how Roth ‘puts the ms. of his current book in the refrigerator every day—in case of a fire’ (51).

Salter wrote to him, with more than a little urgency, ‘We must catch the train, Robert, we must move, otherwise life takes you, makes you soggy. We’re wearing cheap shoes, we must stay ahead of it’ (53).

Belles-Saisons

So much fascinating, mysterious, stimulating, alluring, irresistible stuff in the world—‘Scrapbooks, footnotes, almanacs, letters, diaries, questionnaires, marginalia, memos, alphabets . . . how I love them’ (38)—to which he brought an insatiable curiosity and in which he took an evident delight: he asks Salter, ‘Did you know that St. Francis of Assisi thought of God “as a melody so sweet it could just be borne”? One of his best friars, Giles, when attacked by theologians, answered their arguments on the flute’ (111).

Just reminding myself of Phelps and his work has prompted me—wanting more of such melodies—to order two books that I found I didn’t have.

There’s a very fine 2009 piece on Phelps in American Scholar by Michael Dirda (who contributed the ‘Foreword’ to Memorable Days:
http://theamericanscholar.org/i-wanted-to-be-robert-phelps/#.UZEHY4ImZUQ

References

[1] Leslie Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel (1960; revised edition, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1984), 477.

[2] Continual Lessons: The Journals of Glenway Wescott, edited by Robert Phelps with Jerry Rosco (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1990), vii.

[3] Memorable Days: The Selected Letters of James Salter and Robert Phelps, edited by John McIntyre (Berkeley, California: Counterpoint, 2010), 71: other page references to this book in parentheses.

 

Forty-four: a number to remember

robert-louis-stevenson

(Robert Louis Stevenson)

Here’s a quiz question: what do the following have in common? Henry Thoreau, Billie Holiday, Arshile Gorky, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Maya Deren, Joseph Roth, Anton Chekhov, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, J. G. Farrell, D. H. Lawrence, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Robert Louis Stevenson?

Answer: they all died at the age of forty-four. (Mathematicians – you must have a theory.)  A few by accident or suicide, not surprisingly, but mostly from natural causes, though exacerbated in several cases by alcohol or other drugs. But so short a life doesn’t rule out extraordinary productivity, as witness the cases of Chekhov, Lawrence – or Stevenson.

Stevenson (born 13 November 1850) is the sort of writer whom a lot of bookish people read when they were younger but, if they go back to him later, are apt to murmur about ‘guilty pleasures’. In fact, he’s one of those rare beasts who manages to combine huge popularity with admiration from fellow-writers—Borges, Henry James, Kipling, Proust, Nabokov—(along with some stern dismissals, it has to be said) and who has survived to become the focus of a great deal of critical and scholarly attention. A dozen novels; half a dozen volumes each of stories, essays and travel writing, books of poems—for adults and for children—and letters that fill eight volumes in the Yale University Press edition. Irresistibly attractive to cultural critics, psychoanalytical critics, specialists in Scottish literature, sexual politics and others. The stage and screen adaptations of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde run to some one hundred and twenty; there have been over two hundred biographies of Stevenson.

It wasn’t that long ago that I read through my fat copy of The Stories of Robert Louis Stevenson. Eleven hundred and twenty pages in all, New Arabian Nights, The Dynamiter, The Beach of Falesá, and much more; I had a whale of a time.

RLS-Writing-Table-1885

Stevenson at his writing desk 1885
http://robert-louis-stevenson.org/early-years/

‘“Listen,” said the young man; “this is the age of conveniences, and I have to tell you of the last perfection of the sort. We have affairs in different places; and hence railways were invented. Railways separated us infallibly from our friends; and so telegraphs were made that we might communicate speedily at great distances. Even in hotels we have lifts to spare us a climb of some hundred steps. Now, we know that life is only a stage to play the fool upon as long as the part amuses us. There was one more convenience lacking to modern comfort; a decent easy way to quit that stage; the back stairs to liberty; or, as I said this moment, Death’s private door. This, my two fellow-rebels, is supplied by the Suicide Club.’”[1]

Or this, from John Wiltshire: ‘I was dreaming England, which is, after all, a nasty, cold, muddy hole, with not enough light to see to read by’. And, of the priest: ‘He was a good-natured old soul to look at, gone a little grizzled, and so dirty you could have written with him on a piece of paper.’[2]

‘Now, to be properly enjoyed,’ Stevenson wrote, in Travels With a Donkey in the Cevennes, ‘a walking tour should be gone upon alone. If you go in a company, or even in pairs, it is no longer a walking tour in anything but name; it is something else and more in the nature of a picnic.’[3]

And again: ‘For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilisation, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints.’[4]

Here’s the wonderful John Singer Sargent portrait (he did three in all) of Stevenson and Fanny:

Sargent-RLS

John Singer Sargent, Robert Louis Stevenson (Private collection )

Stevenson crops up in an astonishing range of contexts, not least in the customary use of the phrase ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ without reference to, and usually without thought of, the story’s author. In Bristol—the city Jim Hawkins made his way to in order to sign on as a sea cook on the Hispaniola—it’s not uncommon to see groups of eager children taken on tours of Treasure Island–related points about the city by pirate captains armed to the teeth. I recall that, in John Buchan’s novel The Three Hostages (1924), Sandy Arbuthnot’s notes are signed in the names of supposed Derby winners. The first is ‘Buchan’ and the third, genuine this time, is ‘Spion Kop’ (named after the Boer War battle). In between these two came ‘Alan Breck’, which had been the name of Buchan’s own horse when he was in South Africa c.1902; but it was also, more famously, the name of the Jacobite hero of Stevenson’s Kidnapped.[5]

Stevenson was buried on the summit of Mount Vaea, Samoa. The Samoans, led by Lloyd Osbourne, Stevenson’s stepson, had cleared a path to the top of the mountain overnight, to be able to bury Stevenson.
(That detail is taken from the very impressive Robert Louis Stevenson website here:
http://robert-louis-stevenson.org/ )

Why does that remind me of the burial of Ernest Fenollosa? Answers on a million pound note to. . . No, but certainly that sort of respect shown to a figure from quite another culture is a striking image.

Fenollosa-grave

https://nohtheatre.wordpress.com/2013/06/09/a-visit-to-ernest-fenollosas-grave/

Ernest Fenollosa is best known now as the author of the two-volume Epochs of Chinese and Japanese Art (1912) and as the source of the literal translations from Japanese Noh plays and the Chinese poetry from which Ezra Pound brilliantly fashioned the poems of Cathay (1915). Fenollosa died in London in September 1908 and his ashes were interred in Highgate Cemetery but, on the first anniversary of his death, they were reburied, as he had wished, in Uyeno Park, Tokyo, the hills overlooking Lake Biwa and the gardens of Miidera temple. The legend inscribed on the Fenollosa monument reads: ‘To the merit of our Sensei, high like the mountains and eternal like the water.’[6]

In the closing lines of Pound’s long Canto LXXXIX, we read:

I want Frémont looking at mountains
or, if you like, Reck at Lake Biwa.[7]

Frémont was an explorer who, with four others, climbed the loftiest peak in the Rockies in August 1842. One leading Pound critic remarked that Frémont and Fenollosa are here ‘made to stand at the threshold of the “mountainous” heaven’ of Cantos XC to XCV.[8] Michael Reck wrote of visiting Fenollosa’s grave at a temple overlooking Lake Biwa in June 1954 and describing that visit in a letter to Pound, who ‘recorded it in the last line of his Canto 89.’[9]

References

[1] The Stories of Robert Louis Stevenson (London: Victor Gollancz, 1928), 19-20.

[2] ‘The Beach of Falésa’, The Stories of Robert Louis Stevenson, 620, 621.

[3] Stevenson, Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes and Selected Travel Writings, edited by Emma Letley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 256.

[4] Stevenson, Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, 163.

[5] Buchan, The Three Hostages (1924; edited by Karl Miller, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 106, 126, 120. For Buchan’s horse, see plate 3, in Andrew Lownie, John Buchan: The Presbyterian Cavalier, London: Constable, 1995), 128-129.

[6] Lawrence W. Chisolm, Fenollosa, the Far East and American Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963), 35.

[7] The Cantos of Ezra Pound, fourth collected edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 604.

[8] Massimo Bacigalupo, The Forméd Trace: The Later Poetry of Ezra Pound (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980), 257.

[9] Michael Reck, Ezra Pound: A Close-Up (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1968), 174-175.

 

‘Tiring people! Without manners!’

Prometheus

(Ancient Greek vase painting: Prometheus pecked)

‘Tiring people! Without manners! . . . They would presumably run the world now. It would be a tiresome world.’[1]

So Christopher Tietjens, on the Western Front in the latter stages of the First World War. Writing a couple of years before Ford Madox Ford’s novel is actually set, Ezra Pound, thinking of Henry James, wrote in ‘I Vecchii’:

They will come no more,
The old men with beautiful manners.[2]

I was thinking of manners as I stood in the newsagent’s yesterday. In front of me, a man held a phone clamped to his ear while he vaguely pushed small piles of coins around on the counter. The shopkeeper waited patiently. I stood behind phone man, holding my newspaper, scanning the headlines. Eventually, I flapped my paper a couple of times. It might have seemed no more than a small, nervous spasm; or it might have sounded like a voice from a dense, black cloud, saying: ‘I am the great Death Bird, your Apocalypse Now. And in the afterlife, I shall eat your liver daily, as did the eagle to Prometheus, unless you move your sorry and mannerless arse now!’

In any case, he shifted the necessary distance, even murmuring—could it have been ‘Sorry?’ Perhaps. It may, of course, have been ‘Sherry’, ‘Surrey’ or even ‘Slurry’. When I used to walk to work, I would pass, most mornings, a wide blonde woman with three children. I would sometimes linger a little on the pavement, just out of curiosity, but no, my presence always remained wholly unregistered and I always had to step into the road. I was reminded of how, when I was bookselling, we reached the point at which we had to explain to indignant customers that, if they wanted to buy something from us, they had to finish their phone business first since it was damned rude to think they could do both simultaneously. They gazed in moonfaced, baffled wonder. Rude? Whassat?

Different times, different manners. A great many people seem unable to distinguish ‘deference’ from common courtesy. I always thought that the best defence against undue deference was to be equally polite to everyone: cleaners, computer scientists, cloakrooms attendants and countesses. Others apparently believe that the safest way is to be equally offensive to everyone. It is, I suppose, a point of view.

1906-House-Party-at-Goodwood-with-Edward-VII1

(Goodwood House 1906 via periodliving.co.uk)

In earlier periods, there certainly was deference; and there was a class-based expectation of unearned respect. Writing of the aftermath of the complete destruction of Edwardian England, Samuel Hynes observed that the ‘conclusive factor’ in this was ‘the attitude of the soldiers themselves towards their elders, the Old Men in Whitehall who had sent them into battle. The mood of bitterness that emerged from the First World War has no like in any other war that England has fought; no other British army felt itself so betrayed, or so scorned the causes for which it had fought. In that mood the post-war generation rejected altogether the world-before-the-war – its propriety, its overstuffed luxury, its conceptions of society and manners, its confidence in England and in Progress.’[3]

And, of course, manners change. Boswell recalled Samuel Johnson’s observation that ‘all works which describe manners, require notes in sixty or seventy years, or less’. Elsewhere, he remarked of the Letters of Lord Chesterfield to his son—purportedly instructing him in etiquette and the worldly arts—that ‘They teach the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing master’.[4] It was with the Doctor in mind that Norman Lewis wrote of several men of his acquaintance in wartime Italy who were impoverished descendants of eminent families: ‘They had grand manners, and hearing them talk one sometimes seemed to be listening to Dr Johnson in an Italian translation.’[5]

Moore-via-Spectator

(Marianne Moore, via The Spectator)

Of George Moore, W. B. Yeats remarked that he ‘lacked manners , but had manner’.[6] It’s a useful distinction. By all accounts, Marianne Moore’s manners were faultless but Randall Jarrell commented that, ‘Sometimes, in her early work, she has not a tone but a manner, and a rather mannered manner at that’.[7] (It was also Jarrell who remarked that, ‘to Americans, English manners are far more frightening than none at all’.)[8]

My favourite exposition on such matters is Guy Davenport’s, who records ‘the best display of manners on the part of a restaurant’ he’d witnessed, at the Imperial Ramada Inn in Lexington, Kentucky. Davenport went there in the company of the photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard (‘disguised as a businessman’), the poet – and Trappist – Thomas Merton (‘in mufti, dressed as a tobacco farmer with a tonsure’) and an editor from Fortune magazine, ‘who had wrecked his Herz car coming from the airport and was covered in spattered blood from head to toe’. The meal was served, Davenport adds, ‘with no comment whatsoever from the waitresses, despite Merton’s downing six martinis and the Fortune editor stanching his wounds with all the napkins.’

thomas-merton

(Thomas Merton)

‘Who has manners anymore, anyhow?’ Davenport asks. ‘Nobody, to be sure; everybody, if you have the scientific eye.’ And so it proves.[9]

So manners, or the perceptions of them, or expectations of them, are constantly revised. Once or twice I’ve tried to remember this: when I was young and someone older said in my hearing that something or other ­– a product, a company, a service – used to be much better, did I think: ‘That’s just because you’re old and sentimental and living in the past; when I’m your age, everything that is brilliant now will still be brilliant then’? My general sense of collapse and disintegration is sometimes sharpened by specific moments that neither confirm nor deny that general sense but merely serve as punctuation marks. As I walk across the pedestrian crossing, carefully avoiding the arrestingly ugly vehicle which some bulky fool has stranded there by moving forward when his path was not clear; or read the newspaper; or watch the news on any day at all, I sometimes suspect that there are no more questions about the future of the species that need detain us. We can fool around with the word ‘extinction’, making whatever anagrams are available but no other raw material than that is called for. (‘Toxic in ten’ occurs to me – the countdown has begun.)

Sometimes, though, in the optimistic moments that still startle me from time to time, fluttering up abruptly like birds almost stepped on at the edges of paths, I wonder how much of it is not boorish and antisocial but simply heedless. The slack-brained noddies cycling on pavements or wandering into the road or leaving their toddlers to stray into ponds or ditches or the jaws of dragons while they moon over their mobile phones and other handheld toys, the featherheads I must walk around while they drift unseeingly across whichever planet may be accommodating them ­– it may not be enemy action, may not be expressly designed to make me bury my head in my hands and whisper the word ‘doomed’. Yet sometimes it’s actively damaging: I recall Nick Carraway’s reflections as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby draws to its close:

daisy-buchanan-tom-buchanan

(Carey Mulligan and Joel Edgerton  in Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 The Great Gatsby).

‘They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.’[10]

Ah, the other people. Yes.

 

References

[1] Ford, A Man Could Stand Up— (1926; edited by Sara Haslam, Manchester: Carcanet, 2011), 119.

[2] ‘Moeurs Contemporaines: VII’, Personae: The Shorter Poems of Ezra Pound, edited by Lea Baechler and A. Walton Litz (New York: New Directions, 1990), 180.

[3] Samuel Hynes, An Edwardian Turn of Mind (1968; London: Pimlico, 1991), 14.

[4] James Boswell, Life of Johnson, edited by R. W. Chapman, revised by J. D. Fleeman, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 509, 188.

[5] Norman Lewis, Naples ’44: An Intelligence Officer in the Italian Labyrinth ((1978; London: Eland Books, 2002), 50.

[6] W. B. Yeats, Autobiographies (London: Macmillan, 1955), 443.

[7] Randall Jarrell, ‘Her Shield’, Poetry and the Age (1955; London: Faber & Faber, 1973), 177.

[8] Randall Jarrell, Pictures from an Institution (1954; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 12.

[9] Guy Davenport, ‘The Anthropology of Table Manners from Geophagy Onward’, in The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 348, 349-350.

[10] Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1926; edited by Ruth Prigozy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 142.

 

Everything as something else

Sea

When I read John Banville’s novel, The Sea, some years ago, one statement stuck in my head, when the narrator observed: ‘Everything now reminds me of something else.’ It stayed with me because this seemed increasingly my own case. If you have an associative memory, in which details tend to cling to others like burrs, as the sheer quantity of matter in that memory becomes unmanageable, it’s increasingly difficult to dredge up a thing cleanly. ‘To see the object as it really is’—a central concern for Matthew Arnold, meaning rather to remove the incrustations of orthodoxy or class habit or cultural assumption: perfection ‘can never be reached without seeing things as they really are; and it is to this, therefore, and to no machinery in the world, that culture sticks fondly.’[1]

How much of a problem is it if something read or heard or, increasingly, seen recalls something else, quotations, images derived from similar-sounding words, parallels and echoes? And, problem or not, is it in any case avoidable—or even desirable that it should be?

‘Now, this power of suggestion is one of the most mysterious properties of words. Everyone who has ever written a sentence must be conscious or half-conscious of it. Words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations—naturally. They have been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries. And that is one of the chief difficulties in writing them today’. This is Virginia Woolf, who gives the example of ‘incarnadine’, adding: ‘who can use it without remembering also “multitudinous seas”?’[2]

Woolf.2

‘Incarnadine’ isn’t a word I’d use that often anyway, to be honest, but the essential case is made and plenty of other examples confirm it. The word ‘swaddled’, for instance, is now, I think, inextricable from images of the Christ-child, even in the minds of those least-versed in Christian imagery and symbolism. Yet that’s immediately complicated by the example of the word’s use that first springs to mind, T. S. Eliot’s ‘Gerontion’, where, to borrow a phrase, ‘the quotabilities swarm’:[3]

Signs are taken for wonders. ‘We would see a sign!’
The word within a word, unable to speak a word,
Swaddled with darkness. In the juvescence of the year
Came Christ the tiger

Tiger

The poem is two and a half pages long; the commentary, twenty. ‘Swaddled with darkness’? ‘The Book of Job’ (38, 9) via a sermon of Lancelot Andrewes.[4]

But the Banville, yes. At some point, without foreboding or focused intention, but merely happenstance (how often and how genuinely are things ‘merely happenstance’?), I browsed my way back to it and noticed (of course) that what I recalled so vividly was not present at all. He had actually written: ‘…everything for me is something else, it is a thing I notice increasingly.’[5]

And (of course) this, or something like it, had cropped up before; many times, probably, but one occurs to me without searching or straining. Towards the end of To the Lighthouse, James, the Ramsay son to whom the first words of the novel are addressed, recalls what the lighthouse has meant to him in the past and compares it with the reality of the structure very close to him, as the boat journey to the rocks on which it stands is almost ended. And he understands that ‘the Lighthouse’ is neither one thing nor the other, not simply, not always. ‘For nothing was simply one thing.’[6] And in Orlando, a work notable above all, I suppose, for changeability, mutability and instability: ‘Everything, in fact, was something else.’[7]

Something else as well, I want to write. Everything turning out to be something completely different from what we believed it to be is too scary a thought; but multiplicity is fine, better than fine, desirable, no, indispensable.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.[8]

We are deluged with information now, much of it crazy, much of it incorrigibly plural—and much of it by routes where nothing is filtered or ordered. The internet is a wonderfully accurate reflection of this: a hundred or a thousand or a hundred thousand links brought up by a typed keyword or phrase. We may recognize a few of the sources and already have them arranged in a loose hierarchy in our minds; but in most cases we can’t tell without clicking on them, assessing, questioning. Many people assume, based on other contexts, that the ‘best’ links are at the top of the page. Alas, it ain’t necessarily so. And the question we ask of them can often not be answered since the lack of the information required to answer it was what prompted the original inquiry. I recall this from the novelist Nicholas Mosley: ‘The experiment is to discover the mechanisms of the brain. But the instruments are constructed by these mechanisms, so the operation is impossible.’[9]

Byron

Information overload. Recreation overload. Writing a letter to Lord Byron (as you do), W. H. Auden remarked:

Indeed our ways to waste time are so many,
Thanks to technology, a list of these
Would make a longer book than Ulysses.[10]

I remind myself that we’ve had eighty years since Auden published his poem to develop ways of wasting our time – and that my favourite edition of Ulysses is 933 pages.

 
References

[1] Culture And Anarchy (1869; edited by J. Dover Wilson, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 35.

[2] Virginia Woolf, ‘Craftsmanship’, in Selected Essays, edited by David Bradshaw (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 88 (referring to Macbeth, II, ii, 59).

[3] Hugh Kenner on Part II of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, in A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers (London: Marion Boyars, 1977), 194.

[4] The Poems of T. S. Eliot. Volume I: Collected and Uncollected Poems, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (London: Faber & Faber, 2015), 31, 474.

[5] John Banville, The Sea (London: Picador, 2006), 138.

[6] Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (1927; edited by David Bradshaw, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 165-166, 152.

[7] Virginia Woolf, Orlando (1928; edited by Rachel Bowlby, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 138.

[8] Louis MacNeice, ‘Snow’, in Collected Poems, edited by Peter McDonald (London: Faber, 2007), 24.

[9] Nicholas Mosley, Natalie Natalia (Dalkey Archive Press: Victoria, Texas: 2006), 130.

[10] Auden, Letter to Lord Byron, Part II (first published in Letters from Iceland, his 1937 collaboration with Louis MacNeice), in The English Auden: Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writings, 1927-1939, edited by Edward Mendelson (London: Faber, 1977), 177.

 

Sorrows, joys, magpies

magpies

Watching a magpie on the garden fence, trying to identify the memory that its gestures and movements called to mind, I realised that it was Jacques Tati, in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday. (One of my earliest visits to the cinema: the only time I ever saw my father crying with laughter.) The abrupt uplifting and lowering of the head, the stiff yet rapid leaning forward from the waist, the quick flicks of the head to left and right: mais oui, c’est Monsieur Hulot!

Tati

Their distinctive staccato chatter sounds from the roof, the fence, the tree, the neighbouring chimneys. It’s everywhere in the nearby park, though generally singly. There was a period during which we would see five or six in a group, strutting, leering, looking distinctly thuggish. But lately it’s one at a time. More than a dozen years ago now, my wife was walking to work over the park and had just noted two magpies when she slipped on black ice and fractured her wrist. Since then, we have been wary of rhymes’ prophetic validity. Two may not be lucky but do the loners necessarily signify misfortune?

One for sorrow, two for joy
Three for a girl, four for a boy

That’s the version most people know, at least if of a certain age and able to recall the television programme. What is, presumably, the older rhyme runs:

One’s sorrow, two’s mirth,
Three’s a wedding, four’s a birth[1]

This survives in the version – from a sixteen-year-old Birmingham schoolgirl, recorded by Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey:

One for anger, two for mirth,
Three for a wedding, four for a birth

This version gets ‘saltier’ (their word) as it progresses:

Five for rich, six for poor
Seven for a bitch, eight for a whore[2]

The origin of the name runs back through Shakespeare’s Macbeth (‘maggot-pie’) to ‘Margaret’ or ‘Margot the pye’, from a French equivalent. Iona and Peter Opie have a nice story of the poet laureate, Henry James Pye, appointed in 1790, whose first (very poor) ode was for the king’s birthday, and was guyed by a punster named George Steevens (‘when the PYE was opened’), unimpressed as he was by Pye’s feeble effort. The Opies quote a version of ‘Sing a song of sixpence’, the rhyme published in 1784, which ends with ‘Up came a magpie and bit off her nose.’ The maid still suffers, then, but at the hands – beak, rather – of a different bird.[3]

‘Pie’ is ‘pied’, of course, the black and white plumage, and bishops were sometimes termed ‘magpies’ because of the similarly contrasting colours of their vestments. The magpie’s occurrences in literature include one in Ezra Pound’s ‘Canto 81’:

Pull down thy vanity
Thou art a beaten dog beneath the hail,
A swollen magpie in a fitful sun,
Half black half white
Nor knowst’ou wing from tail[4]

The black and the white together is a handy representation of the opposing strains of interpretation of this passage and the question of just who is being addressed here (‘Pull down thy vanity’): some say it’s Pound himself, others the U.S. Army (Pound’s captors at that time, in the Disciplinary Training Center at Pisa).[5]

Ezra_Pound_1945_May_26_mug_shot

In ‘House and Man’, Edward Thomas recalls a man in his house amidst ‘forest silence and forest murmur’, the only house for miles:

But why I call back house and man again
Is that now on a beech-tree’s tip I see
As then I saw – I at the gate, and he
In the house darkness, – a magpie veering about,
A magpie like a weathercock in doubt.[6]

This is, as you’d expect from Thomas, quite accurate: I’ve watched magpies, precisely, veering about; and ‘a weathercock in doubt’ is wonderfully suggestive.

John Fowles had a bookplate which showed his name surrounded by magpies, a pictorial representation of his habits as both reader and buyer of books. ‘A quite literal pair of magpies breed in my garden every year,’ he closes his essay on the subject. ‘Wicked creatures though they are, I let them be. One must not harm one’s own.’[7]

‘Wicked’? The magpie certainly has a justified reputation for being omnivorous: eggs and nestlings feature among many other food sources. It’s a famously intelligent bird, sociable, mischievous and, I’d venture, with a strong sense of humour. Pretty widespread too: Jonathan Trouern-Trend, who served in Iraq, notes sightings of grebes, egrets, kites, vultures, bustards and avocets galore but, happily, our friend Pica pica is also there: ‘Seen year round at LSAA [LSA – Logistics Support Area is my guess – Anaconda, his home base], seemed more common at higher elevations.’[8]

 

References

[1] The version quoted by Sylvia Townsend Warner, in a letter to Julius Lipton, 21 October 1935: Letters, edited by William Maxwell (London: Chatto & Windus, 1982), 36-37.

[2] Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey, Birds Britannica (London: Chatto & Windus, 2005), 400.

[3] The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, edited by Iona and Peter Opie, second edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 471, 472.

[4] The Cantos of Ezra Pound, fourth collected edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 521.

[5] So, for instance, Christine Froula—‘self-accusations’—in A Guide to Ezra Pound’s Selected Poems (New York: New Directions, 1983), 236; and A. David Moody—‘humbled’—Ezra Pound: Poet: A Portrait of the Man and His Work: Volume III: The Tragic Years 1939-1972 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 159; as against Jerome McGann—‘not himself but the US Army’—in Towards a Literature of Knowledge (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 114.

[6] Edward Thomas, The Annotated Collected Poems, edited by Edna Longley (Tarset, Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books, 2008), 60.

[7] John Fowles, ‘Of Memoirs and Magpies’, in Wormholes: Essays and Occasional Writings, edited by Jan Relf (London: Jonathan Cape, 1998), 33.

[8] Jonathan Trouern-Trend, Birding Babylon: A Soldier’s Journal from Iraq (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2006), 79.