Aunts, mandalas, cockatoos: Patrick White


(Patrick White: photo credit, Ross via The Telegraph)

‘But old Mrs Goodman did die at last.’ That opening sentence—of The Aunt’s Story, by Patrick White (London, 28 May 1912—Sydney, 30 September 1990)—has stayed in my head since I first read it more than thirty years ago. It’s partly the use of the conjunction to open not merely a sentence but a book: a conjunction which, by definition, usually contradicts or qualifies what has come before it. Nothing has come before it here—except the epigraph, taken from Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm: ‘She thought of the narrowness of the limits within which a human soul may speak and be understood by its nearest of mental kin, of how soon it reaches that solitary land of the individual experience, in which no fellow footfall is ever heard.’[1]

So ‘But’, together with ‘did’ in that first short sentence, looks backward to an existing situation not yet explained; and the epigraph looks forward to what will become an increasingly internal voyage made by Theodora Goodman:

Then, in a gust, Theodora knew that her abstraction also did not fit. She did not fit the houses. Although she had in her practical handbag her destination in writing, she was not sure that paper might not tear. Although she was insured against several acts of violence, there was ultimately no safeguard against the violence of personality. This was less controllable than fire. In the bland corn song, in the theme of days, Theodora Goodman was a discord. Those mouths which attempted her black note rejected it wryly. They glossed over something that had strayed out of some other piece, or slow fire.[2]

The Aunt’s Story was White’s first great novel, following Happy Valley and The Living and the Dead. He won the initial Miles Franklin Award for Voss (and won it again four years later with Riders in the Chariot), declined a knighthood in 1970 and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973 (he didn’t attend the ceremony in Stockholm so the painter Sidney Nolan collected it on his behalf and read White’s acceptance speech). But, even though an unfinished novel, The Hanging Garden, was published in 2012 and a film of The Eye of the Storm released a year earlier (with Geoffrey Rush, Charlotte Rampling and Judy Davis, among others), White seems to have suffered the neglect which often follows the deaths of major artists, coupled with his kind of writing—perhaps seen as that of ‘another dead white male’—apparently going out of fashion.[3]

What was his kind of writing? Modernist, dense, often lyrical, psychologically penetrating, serious (which certainly didn’t exclude an often savage humour), built on the grand scale. The Nobel citation referred to White’s ‘epic and psychological narrative art which has introduced a new continent into literature’. The continent was Australia, which White left, returned to, embraced, rejected, loved and loathed. I read a lot of White’s work many years ago and remember that, at the time, it made a great many other contemporary writers look as though they were just playing at it. These days, the research seems to be the important thing, sometimes more than the actual writing. A lot of people seem to have forgotten what fiction actually is and does. It wasn’t a matter of research with White: it was the immense ambition, the scale of things, the grasp of the elemental, the hard rock at the basis of lives and the extraordinary lengths to which people will go to fulfil or deny their individual destiny. Sometimes his characters staggered under their symbolic weight but even White’s partial failures were more impressive than the majority of contemporary successes. From the pages of his best books, even opened at random, one is often reluctant to stop transcribing:

To what extent is this girl dishonest? he wondered.
Unaccustomed to recognize his own dishonesties, he was rather sensitive to them in others.
It is disgraceful, of course, Laura realized; I have come out here for no convincing reason. She was defenceless. Perhaps even guilty.
‘I try to visualize your life in this house,’ said Voss, facing the honeycomb of windows, in some of which dark figures burrowed for a moment before drowning in the honey-coloured light. ‘Do you count the linen?’
He was truly interested, now that it did seem to affect him in some way not yet accounted for.
‘Do you make pastry? Hem sheets? Or are you reading novels in these rooms, and receiving morning calls from acquaintances, ladies with small waists and affectations?’
‘We indulge in a little of each,’ Laura admitted, ‘but in no event are we insects, Mr Voss.’
‘I have not intended to suggest,’ he laughed. ‘It is my habit of approach.’
‘Is it so difficult then, for a man, to imagine the lives of poor domesticated women? How very extraordinary! Or is it that you are an extraordinary man?’
‘I have not entered into the minds of other men, so that I cannot honestly say with any degree of accuracy.’
But he would keep his private convictions.[4]

White battled constantly with reactionary forces in Australia. Increasingly irascible, with an ever-expanding list of shipwrecked friendships and moving politically further to the left, he campaigned and spoke in public against cowardly or shifty politicians, nuclear weapons and environmental vandalism.

Who could fail to be diverted by White’s rehearsal of testimony as a literary expert at the Melbourne trial of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint? White mentioned the charges of pornography laid against Lady Chatterley’s Lover, suggesting that Lawrence’s novel ‘might well be considered pornographic since when I read it I developed a cockstand. Judged by this criterion, Portnoy’s Complaint cannot be considered pornographic since I read it from start to finish without once developing a cockstand.’ The judge then asking, ‘But Mr White – at your age do you think you are capable of manifesting such a physical alteration?’ To which White, ‘beaming around the courtroom’, replies: ‘Shall the court go in camera while we find out?’[5]


‘I went down to Melbourne one day last week for the Portnoy trial’, White wrote to Tom Maschler of Jonathan Cape, who published Roth’s novel as well as many of White’s own, ‘It was an ordeal till I actually got in the box, then the actor in me quite enjoyed the performance. The whole thing has to be conducted with great solemnity, I realise, but I couldn’t resist saying what a funny book I think Portnoy is: I hope I didn’t put my foot in it.’[6]

Thinking about Patrick White, revisiting even the memory of his books, has had a couple of immediate effects: the rapid acquisition of a tidy copy of David Marr’s large volume of White’s Letters—to set beside his fine biography of White; and a troubling determination to add at least half a dozen White titles to my ‘Books to Re-read’ list: certainly The Aunt’s Story, Voss, The Tree of Man, The Eye of the Storm and The Vivisector – about a painter, Hurtle Duffield, one to put beside Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth (for all the differences); and probably A Fringe of Leaves and The Solid Mandala. Then there’s Riders in the Chariot, The Cockatoos, The Twyborn Affair—a late, remarkable work—and White’s characteristically fierce and candid self-portrait, Flaws in the Glass.[7] Frankly, the list was already looking ridiculous.

There’s a valuable reappraisal of White by the novelist David Malouf, first published in the TLS but probably more generally accessible here:

An appreciation by novelist and biographer Nicholas Shakespeare is here:


[1] In fact, Schreiner’s sentence begins with the word ‘Perhaps’, which White omits here. Part Three of The Aunt’s Story uses another epigraph from Schreiner’s novel: ‘When your life is most real, to me you are mad.’

[2] Patrick White, The Aunt’s Story (1948; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1963), 270.

[3] See the edited extract from the recent book on White by Christos Tsiolkas here:

[4] Patrick White, Voss (1957; Harmondsworth: Penguins Books, 1960), 86.

[5] David Marr, Patrick White: A Life (London: Vintage, 1992), 502.

[6] Letter of 1 November 1970: Patrick White, Letters, edited by David Marr (London: Jonathan Cape, 1994), 368.

[7] ‘In my own opinion, my three best novels are The Solid Mandala, The Aunt’s Story, and The Twyborn Affair’: Patrick White, Flaws in the Glass: A Self-Portrait (London: Jonathan Cape, 1981), 145.

Raising a glass towards the west


Something reminded me of an article by, I thought, Angus Wilson, which I’d seen in a very old issue of Encounter. I believed it began with something like, ‘Among the things that have irritated or depressed me this week’, and included the self-satisfied smirk on the face of some minister or other.

In the end, resisting the magic of fallible memory and resorting to the dangerous magic of the internet, I found it in an issue from January 1962, headed ‘Fourteen points’, and beginning: ‘I find that the following things have made me angry recently’. These included almost every photograph of the Prime Minister or the Foreign Secretary (Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home) and almost any photograph of those Cabinet Ministers who are usually labelled ‘well-groomed’.


(Angus Wilson)

The historical context was interesting—in the late sixties, Stephen Spender (one of the co-founders and the then literary editor) resigned, to be succeeded by Frank Kermode, who also resigned, once it was evident that the magazine was covertly funded by the CIA—and I was impressed by the fact that I’d remembered it at all; impressed even more, perhaps, by there being only fourteen points. That in itself made me feel quite nostalgic. Could anyone of sound mind get through a week now with only fourteen items in the news to depress or irritate them?

There was a New Statesman column by Helen Lewis some weeks back, with the header, ‘In all of my adult lifetime, I’ve never felt more despairing about the quality of our politicians.’ That’s a little too long to fit onto a T-shirt but I can’t disagree with it—and my adult lifetime has been going on rather longer than that of Ms Lewis.

Now the latest issue arrives to remind me that yes, the wrong people have the upper hand pretty well everywhere, in a world stuffed with deliberately hostile environments, and the lunatics are indeed in charge of the asylum.

But now the referendum results come in, confirming the exit polls, and there is finally something to raise a glass—glasses—to. Would this make me feel any more positive about another referendum here? Probably not, unless it were actually necessary, intelligently designed, and the whole process managed infinitely better than the last botched and ruinous effort. Still, when it’s done properly. . .

I remember William Butler Yeats, in his Autobiographies, remarking that, ‘In Ireland harsh argument which had gone out of fashion in England was still the manner of our conversation.’ Was still, is still. Today, though, the glass is readily raised with admiration and relief towards the west: well done, Ireland! Sláinte!



A day’s news, reviews, revues


The first important news of the day, conveyed by the Librarian, is of a stand-off between two cats in the back garden, interrupted by the magpie with the screw-you attitude. It sometimes taunts the cat by raiding the bird table under its nose—and does so now under two such noses.

Making breakfast, I keep an eye on the dramatically upgraded arrangement for the birds—metal not wood, and taller, very like the lamp post in Narnia, scene of the first encounter between Lucy and Mr Tumnus. The female blackbird has cottoned on quickly; the male, not so much. Upstairs, the Librarian berates Nick Robinson for his woeful line of questioning of John McDonnell. And it is, of course, The Day: in fact, the newspapers and radio and television bulletins are awash with items for which I’m not the target audience, notably royal weddings and cup finals. I realise that huge numbers of people are drawn to these things but, as with, say, piercings, barbecues, tattoos, reality shows and holidays in ‘exotic’ places, they’re not really for me. Luckily—though some folk display a frightening propensity for forcing their views upon others—there’s generally enough world to go round, so that we can follow our own tastes and inclinations, leaving others to theirs.

‘I know you don’t like Michelangelo’, Ford Madox Ford wrote in a poem addressed to the partner of his last decade, the painter Janice Biala:

‘But the Universe is very large, having room
Within it for infinities of Gods
All co-existing, much as you and I
Drudge on, engrossed by paper or on canvas,
You in that corner, I, in this, our thoughts
Going side by side for years and years and years’.

Okay. So we have books and journals, the diversions of wildlife and gardening, food to prepare for a daughter’s visit later—and yet, and yet, there is always the nagging pull of spectacle, theatre, candyfloss and popcorn: and the Librarian is making worrying suggestions about cucumber sandwiches, even mentioning Pimm’s and lemonade. . .


One thing leading to another


An online image of the jacket of the Penguin edition of William Faulkner’s Light in August that I used to own caught my attention. In the background there, E pluribus unum, the one out of many, or many made one. A painful, if not tragic, irony now, in this time of ‘The Breaking of Nations’, as Thomas Hardy wrote in another context—and the phrase with which George Oppen headed his poem ‘The Lighthouses’, for his once close and now estranged friend Louis Zukofsky: ‘(for L. Z. in time of the breaking of nations)’.[1]

So, the one, the one thing, a phrase to dwell upon. ‘The real unum necessarium [the one thing needful] for us’, Matthew Arnold wrote in Culture and Anarchy, ‘is to come to our best at all points.’[2] Emily Dickinson, continuing to resist the extreme pressure at her college to convert and be ‘saved’, in the midst of a religious revival, wrote in a letter of May 1848: ‘I have neglected the one thing needful when all were obtaining it.’[3]

Views on that one needful thing tend to differ, depending on circumstance and character. In Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel Innocence, ‘They were talking about their bowel movements. Loyalty from that quarter was the one thing necessary, said Ricasoli, for absolute peace of mind.’[4] Well, if not the one thing, certainly a contender. And Sarah Bakewell tells us that Montaigne, in his main chamber, had the roof beams painted with classical quotations, including this from Pliny the Elder: Solum certum nihil esse certi / Et homine nihil miseries aut superbius [Only one thing is certain: that nothing is certain / And nothing is more wretched or arrogant than man].[5]

Our best selves; our bowels; uncertainty. In other contexts, that ‘one thing’ is immutability: ‘Strange how, when you are young, you owe no duty to the future; but when you are old, you owe a duty to the past. To the one thing you can’t change.’[6] Or it might be clarity: ‘this book, and my manner of writing it, should make one thing about my life clear: that everything I have lived through either has been completely forgotten or is as yesterday. There is no blue to the horizon of Time.’[7]


Eudora Welty and William Maxwell:

But, it hardly needs saying, one thing tends to lead to another. ‘Ever since Christmas, I have had such an appetite for reading that one thing leads off to another, to the point of madness’, William Maxwell wrote to Eudora Welty.[8] ‘All this really began’, Penelope Fitzgerald wrote to her editor Richard Ollard, ‘when I tried to find out who really discovered the blue poppy, meconopsis baileyi, as it seems not really to have been Colonel Bailey at all, and one thing led to another, but never mind that now.’[9]

‘All this’ was Fitzgerald’s last novel, The Blue Flower, drawing closely on the early life of the German Romantic writer Friedrich von Hardenberg, who took the name ‘Novalis’. His young brother, known as ‘The Bernhard’, reflects on the first chapter of the story that Friedrich has written:

‘He had been struck – before he crammed the story back into Fritz’s book-bag – by one thing in particular: the stranger who had spoken at the dinner table about the Blue Flower had been understood by one person and one only. This person must have been singled out as distinct from all the rest of his family. It was a matter of recognising your own fate and greeting it as familiar when it came.’[10]

The singular, the distinct, the discrete. But the mind moves on, cannot do other than move on. Sebastian Barry wrote in A Long Long Way: ‘Funny how a person thought of one thing and then thought of another thing. And then another thing. And was the third thing brother at all to the first?’[11] A good question. Delano, in Robert Lowell’s play, ‘Benito Cereno’, says:

‘I wish people wouldn’t take me as representative of our country:
America’s one thing, I am another;
we shouldn’t have to bear one another’s burdens.’[12]


In the title story of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s collection, One Thing Leading to Another, Helen Logie accidentally adds snuff instead of curry powder to the dish she serves up to Father Green and his curate, Father Curtin, the two Catholic priests for whom she keeps house. Their lack of response prompts her to a few more culinary experiments, still without getting any reaction. When rheumatism prevents her from pinning up her abundant red hair, its luxuriant looseness is deemed unacceptable. She gets a local lad, Willy Duppy, to help her pin it up but enlisting such aid is also beyond the pale and an impasse is reached. ‘So that was the secret! All a woman need do to get herself attended to was to have a fit of rheumatism that would make it impossible for her to put her hair up.’ Helen moves towards self-assertion and a final exasperated bid for freedom: she gives notice and ultimately reappears in a new guise: ‘soon after Easter, Mr Radbone’s redecorated shop opened its doors for the sale of light refreshments, cooked meats, cakes, jams, scones, and bannocks, and there was Helen presiding over it, assisted by Willy Duppy.’[13]

Temperamentally, I’d say I’m definitely in the one-thing-leading-to-many-others camp; I doubt if I could settle convincingly or consistently on the one thing needful. Perhaps that requires extreme youth; or the kind of certainty that grows increasingly difficult to keep in focus.


[1] Thomas Hardy, ‘In Time of “The Breaking of Nations”’, in The Complete Poems, edited by James Gibson (London: Macmillan, 1976), 543; George Oppen, New Collected Poems, edited by Michael Davidson (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2003), 256.

[2] Matthew Arnold, Culture And Anarchy (1869; edited by J. Dover Wilson, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 150.

[3] Quoted by Lyndall Gordon, Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds (London: Virago Press, 2011), 43.

[4] Penelope Fitzgerald, Innocence (London: Flamingo, 1987), 148.

[5] Sarah Bakewell, How To Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer (London: Vintage 2011), 29.

[6] Julian Barnes, The Only Story (London: Jonathan Cape, 2018), 168.

[7] Richard Wollheim, Germs: A Memoir of Childhood, (London: Black Swan, 2005), 40.

[8] William Maxwell to Eudora Welty, 7 January 1979, Suzanne Marrs, editor, What There Is to Say, We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), 346.

[9] Letter of 14 September [1994], in So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald, edited by Terence Dooley (London: Fourth Estate, 2008), 416.

[10] Penelope Fitzgerald, The Blue Flower (London: Everyman, 2001), 448.

[11] Sebastian Barry, A Long Long Way (London: Faber and Faber, 2005), 124.

[12] Robert Lowell, The Old Glory (London: Faber and Faber, 1966), 149.

[13] Sylvia Townsend Warner, One Thing Leading to Another (London: Chatto and Windus, 1984), 45-63.


Feeling sheepish


Outside the back door: the familiar plant pots; the collapsing shed; the teetering bird table that caters to blackbirds, magpies, blue tits. Working keenly enough at the thinning, clearing, preparations for the new season’s plants, the Librarian is, nevertheless, a little wistful: she is missing the sheep.

Close to the Black Mountains, we stayed in a cottage six hundred years old. People were smaller in those days, Robin of Locksley’s chum Little John notwithstanding. I think my skull had significant contact with wood six times in all: twice to remember to duck as I went in or out between kitchen and terrace; twice more to remember to stay ducked, since the total breadth of solid wood to be negotiated before straightening was more than twelve inches; and, say, twice accounted for by thinking of, or looking at, something else as I approached the doorway.

The noise of that world was its height when you could just make out the sound of the tractor in the field across the valley. Otherwise, you heard only sheep, birdsong—and bees interrogating the crevices in the slate wall which bordered the terrace below the orchard. At times, especially at day’s end, you heard nothing. The sound of silence.

‘As the truest society approaches always nearer to solitude, so the most excellent speech finally falls into silence.’[1] So wrote Henry Thoreau, who was not, perhaps, that crazy about society. Still, for our first three days in border country, we went nowhere and saw nobody—and loved it.


Did I take anything to read? I did. The Librarian’s gathering was a separate matter but didn’t consist of many fewer books.

As for sheep—literary sheep—I recalled the curious sentence in Ford Madox Ford’s memoir of Joseph Conrad: ‘In all our ten thousand conversations down the years we had only these two themes over which we quarrelled: as to the taste of saffron and as to whether one sheep is distinguishable from another.’ Hmm. The saffron affair came down to Conrad’s declaration that saffron had no flavour but was merely a matter of colouring, against Ford’s assertion that saffron was strongly flavoured. And one sheep distinguishable from another?

There was one more bone of contention mentioned later: the matter of official honours. ‘The reader should understand that this matter is one which divides forever—into sheep and goats—the world of the arts. There are some few artists who will accept Academic honours; to the majority of those who are really artists the idea is abhorrent, and those who accept such honours betray their brothers. To this majority Conrad had enthusiastically belonged. You had Flaubert who refused, you had Zola who all his life sought, academic distinction. For Conrad there had used to be no question as to which to follow. Now he had followed Zola.’[2]

As for the burning question of whether one sheep is distinguishable from another – on the basis of extensive research conducted over the last week, occasionally with a glass in my hand, I have an answer ready: yes.




[1] Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers; Walden; The Maine Woods; Cape Cod (New York: Library of America, 1985), 318.

[2] Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance (London: Duckworth, 1924), 29-30, 69.


Merry Jesting


(Henri Rousseau, ‘La carriole du père Juniet’ (1908): Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris.)

Published in the Partisan Review in the summer of 1939, Elizabeth Bishop’s appreciation of Gregorio Valdes made no claims for him as a great painter—‘sometimes he was not even a good “primitive”’—and observed that the artist himself saw no difference between ‘what we think of as his good pictures and his poor pictures’, that success and failure seemed to be merely a matter of luck. Most were copied from photographs or reproductions, nevertheless, ‘when he copied, particularly from a photograph, and particularly from a photograph of something he knew and liked, such as palm trees, he managed to make just the right changes in perspective and coloring to give it a peculiar and captivating freshness, flatness, and remoteness.’

Bishop commissioned Valdes to paint a picture of the Key West house she was living in with Louise Crane, and asked the painter for extras: more flowers, ‘a monkey that lived next door, a parrot and a certain kind of palm tree, called the Traveller’s Palm.’ She began her memoir by describing the first Valdes painting that she saw, ‘a real View’: ‘In the middle of the road was the tiny figure of a man on a donkey, and far away on the right the white speck of a thatched Cuban cabin that seemed to have the same mysterious properties of perspective as the little dog in Rousseau’s The Cariole of M. Juniot.’[1] In letters of that period, she referred to Valdes as ‘our new Key West Rousseau’ and ‘our local Rousseau’.[2]

In 1949, Flannery O’Connor met Robert and Sally Fitzgerald, and subsequently moved into their house, Ridgefield, Connecticut, as a paying guest. In a letter to Janet McKane, 27 August 1963, O’Connor wrote: ‘Thanks so much for the museum bulletins with devilish dogs etc. The dog I like in painting is one in a painting of Rousseau. I don’t know the name of it but the family is in a wagon, all looking ahead and there is one dog in the wagon and one underneath, kind of prim diabolical dogs. It’s very funny. It used to hang in the Fitzgeralds’ kitchen (the people I lived with in Connecticut) but I have never seen it anywhere else.’[3]


(Flannery O’Connor: Ina Dillard Russell Library via New Georgia Encyclopedia)

It is, of course, the same painting, ‘La carriole du père Juniet’ (‘Old Juniet’s Cart’), by Henri Rousseau, commonly called ‘Le Douanier’, although ‘he was never a douanier (customs inspector) but a gabelou (employee of the municipal toll service).’[4] Like most of the work of Valdes, Rousseau’s painting began with a photograph, ‘which shows how he selected and revised at will. The bleak snapshot is transformed into a study of red wheels and shafts penetrating masses of black. In the painting the people sit in a compact arrangement in the cart, with space around them, instead of standing formlessly on the kerb. They have become, recognizably, creatures of Rousseau’s vision.’[5] (And four of the people in the picture plus one dog are, pace O’Connor’s memory, not looking ahead but rather at us—only old Juniet and two of the dogs seem to be looking ahead.)

Rousseau has consistently been mocked or celebrated, and sometimes both simultaneously, as was the case with most of the guests attending the famous banquet, given in Rousseau’s honour by Pablo Picasso and Fernande Olivier at the Bateau Lavoir, probably on 21 November 1908. Those guests included Guillaume Apollinaire, Marie Laurencin, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, André Salmon and Georges Braque. Many years later, Picasso commented that it was ‘vraiment une blague [really a joke]. Nobody believed in his talent, only Rousseau took it seriously. He wept with joy.’ And yet Picasso was ‘the only person present who genuinely admired Rousseau’s work.’[6]

André Derain commented on the work of Henri Rousseau that, ‘“It seems hardly worthwhile searching and using technical training, when a person so simple, so pure, such a dope, in fact, can succeed in giving such an impression; his work is the triumph of the dopes.”’[7] Nevertheless, his influence on several other painters, notably Robert Delaunay, is often remarked, and Guy Davenport suggests that Picasso’s career-long habit of ‘combining full face and profile’, which became ‘a stylistic trademark’, prompted Rousseau’s ‘perfectly accurate observation, “You and I, M. Picasso, are the two greatest living painters, I in the modern manner, you in the Egyptian,” the full-face eye in a face seen sideways being the rule in Egyptian drawing.’[8]

So too, the impact of the Rousseau retrospective at the 1911 Salon des Indépendants (the year following his death) was considerable. The younger artists ‘conspired to present a retrospective exhibition’ of forty-seven of Rousseau’s paintings. ‘Esteemed as a true “primitive” by Delaunay and Léger, Rousseau was considered a precursor by the salon cubists, on a par with Cézanne, another modernist primitive’.[9]

John, Gwen, 1876-1939; A Corner of the Artist's Room in Paris

(Gwen John, A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris: Museums Sheffield)

There were other, perhaps less predictable, appreciations. ‘In the Indépendants a man named Rousseau had a collection of pictures which you would be very interested in, I’m sure’, Gwen John wrote in a letter of 22 August 1911. ‘He has died lately. He was a douanier and at fifty year[s] old he felt he must paint and so he painted, not knowing at all how to paint. His pictures are very remarkable works, as you can imagine, but they are works of art. I hope you will be able to see them some day, but I don’t know where they are now. I suppose they have gone to his family. The other exhibitors in the Indépendants are just mad people.’[10]

Among recent critics, Robert Hughes wrote that Rousseau meant his visions to be absolutely real, the authenticity of the jungle scenes resting on a tissue of fibs about serving in the French army in Mexico in the 1860s. It was important, Hughes went on, that these spectacles ‘should seem witnessed, not invented’ – and they had, in fact, been witnessed twice, once in Rousseau’s imagination, once more in the Jardin des Plantes.[11] In fact, Roger Shattuck comments, much of the ‘lingering falsehood’ stems from Apollinaire’s articles, in which he stated that Rousseau ‘went to Mexico with troops sent by Napoleon III to support Maximilian, and that it is the memory of the “forbidden” tropical fruits in Central America that obsessed him in his jungle paintings.’ There’s no evidence of such a trip but, as Shattuck remarks, ‘Rousseau’s imagination was capable of its own voyages.’[12]

So it was. His paintings are unsettling but oddly compelling, with their huge children and tiny animals, moustachioed figures frozen in peculiar poses, startling vegetation, sly self-portraits, the sleeping gypsy (who is, in fact, awake, though pretending to be dead), the velvety exoticism of his snake-charmer.


(Henri Rousseau, Les joyeux farceurs: Louis and Walter Arensberg Collection, Philadelphia Museum of Art)

‘Until we are willing to enter Rousseau’s world’, Guy Davenport writes, ‘we are going to misread all his paintings.’ (He has just discussed five such misreadings, of Rousseau’s Les joyeux farceurs.) And, ‘What, psychologically, was most useful to Rousseau was not childishness but a quality wholly mature: the ability to fool himself.’ That is, he saw his paintings as he wished to see them. ‘In this he was a kind of Don Quixote; and, as with the Don, Rousseau wins us over to his way of seeing.’[13]

In a letter to Hugh Kenner (1 March 1963), accompanying his long poem, Flowers and Leaves, Davenport signed himself ‘The Douanier Rousseau of Poetry’ (Kenner’s letter of 1 May 1963 began ‘Dear Mr Rousseau’).[14] * And, as Davenport mentions in the essay just cited, Monsieur Rousseau is there, in that poem:

Henri Rousseau’s garden jungle
Is sincerity’s domain.


Mr Rousseau, master in the modern manner,
Has depicted us in forests of flowers, inquisitive
As catfish, intelligent as Miss Gertrude Stein.[15]

* (Currently scheduled for October this year, and keenly awaited in some quarters, is Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward Burns, published by Counterpoint Press: a total of 2016 – no, that’s not a date – pages: two volumes of a thousand pages each. Quoted price is $95.00 which, given that a lot of slim UK monographs come in at £70 or even £80 these days, seems a snip.)




[1] ‘Gregorio Valdes, 1879-1939’, in Elizabeth Bishop, Poems, Prose, and Letters, edited by Robert Giroux and Lloyd Schwartz (New York: Library of America, 2008), 326-332.

[2] Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: The Selected Letters, edited by Robert Giroux (London: Pimlico, 1996), 75; Bishop, Poems, Prose, and Letters, 746.

[3] Flannery O’Connor, Collected Works, edited by Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Library of America, 1988), 1190.

[4] Roger Shattuck, The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France, 1885 to World War I, revised edition (New York: Vintage, 1968), 46.

[5] Shattuck, The Banquet Years, 100.

[6] John Richardson, A Life of Picasso. Volume II, 1907-1917: The Painter of Modern Life (London: Pimlico, 1997), 110, 112.

[7] Derain, in Denys Sutton, André Derain (London: Phaidon, 1959), 27: quoted in Judi Freeman, The Fauve Landscape (London: Guild Publishing, 1990), 110.

[8] Guy Davenport, Objects on a Table: Harmonious Disarray in Art and Literature (Washington: Counterpoint, 1998), 68.

[9] Mark Antliff and Patricia Leighten, editors, A Cubism Reader: Documents and Criticism, 1906-1914 (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2008), 120, 121.

[10] Gwen John to John Quinn, in Letters and Notebooks, edited by Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan (London: Tate Publishing, 2004), 69.

[11] Robert Hughes, The Shock of the New, revised edition (London: Thames and Hudson, 1991), 229.

[12] Shattuck, The Banquet Years, 46.

[13] Guy Davenport, ‘What Are Those Monkeys Doing?’, in Every Force Evolves a Form (Berkeley: North Point Press, 1987), 14, 26.

[14] Edward M. Burns, ‘Questioning Minds: The Letters of Hugh Kenner and Guy Davenport’, The Hopkins Review, 8, 3 (Summer 2015), 338-371 (349).

[15] Guy Davenport, Flowers and Leaves (Flint, Michigan: Baumberger Books, 1991), 91, 110.


The plural of referendum is – Herodotus?


(Herodotus asking ‘What??’)

In the latest issue of the London Review of Books, David Runciman’s ‘Too Few to Mention’, a review of Nick Clegg’s How to Stop Brexit (and Make Britain Great Again), assesses the arguments for and against a second referendum and concludes that ‘the likeliest way to overturn the referendum result is to wait until one party or other has taken clear ownership of its consequences. For that to happen, Brexit has to happen too.’ He adds: ‘It is possible that at some point a second referendum will be appropriate, once a new status quo has been established, to see whether people would prefer an alternative. Until then, however, conventional electoral politics will have to decide our collective fate.’

If you regard the whole Brexit business as a nose-to-tail blunder of epochal proportions (and arguably a very twenty-first century right-wing coup), this makes grim but convincing reading. Of course, the offhand incompetence displayed on an almost daily basis by those charged with seeing the whole sorry process through is itself extraordinary and I know that a great many people have been reduced to a state of rigid boredom as it drags on. Others still retain enough energy for outrage or forceful questioning – but this is generally of a rhetorical kind, with no real expectation of satisfactory answers. It’s not a new phenomenon, that of people reacting and indeed voting according to criteria that exclude facts, reason, logic and the rest: everyone does it to a greater or lesser extent, I suspect, the relevant question being the degree to which we’re conscious of doing so. What does seem to be a fairly recent phenomenon is the general realisation—by analysts of the reasonable, the rational, the logical—that this is actually the case. Why did so many people vote for Donald Trump, for Brexit, for political extremists in Hungary, Germany, Denmark? Hmmm. ‘How anyone can still be voting Tory,’ the Librarian remarks, as we listen to the results of the English local elections, ‘is baffling.’ I acknowledge and share that bafflement. But here we are.

Still, looking back at the EU referendum, I am strongly reminded of Herodotus writing about the Persians: ‘If an important decision is to be made, they discuss the question when they are drunk, and the following day the master of the house where the discussion was held submits their decision for reconsideration when they are sober. If they still approve it, it is adopted; if not, it is abandoned. Conversely, any decision they make when they are sober, is reconsidered afterwards when they are drunk.’[1]

Yes. I don’t think we advanced beyond the discussion-when-drunk stage. But I still don’t expect a second referendum.



[1] Herodotus, The Histories, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt, revised by John Marincola (London: Penguin Books, 1996), 56. Cf. Tacitus, Germania, in Agricola and Germania, translated by S. A. Handford (London: Penguin Books, 2000), 120: ‘They debate when they are incapable of pretence but reserve their decision for a time when they cannot well make a mistake”