Always changing, always the same

durrell.via.theamericanreader.com .  Mansfield

‘I think that, as I say, in England, living as if we are not part of Europe, we are living against the grain of what is nourishing to our artists, do you see? There seems to be an ingrown psychological thing about it, I don’t know why it is. You can see it reflected even in quite primitive ways like this market business now—the European Common Market. It’s purely psychological, the feeling that we are too damned superior to join this bunch of continentals in anything they do. And I think that’s why it is so vitally important for young artists to identify more and more with Europe. As for me, I have joined the Common Market, as it were. But, mind you, that doesn’t qualify one’s origins or one’s attitude to things. I mean if I’m writing, I’m writing for England—and so long as I write English it will be for England that I have to write.’

(Lawrence Durrell—born 27 February 1912: happy birthday, Larry—interviewed by Julian Mitchell and Gene Andrewski, 23 April 1959,[1] fourteen years before the United Kingdom joined what was then the EEC (European Economic Community). Two years later, a referendum resulted in a 67.2% vote in favour of remaining in the EEC.)

‘I shall never live in England again’, Katherine Mansfield wrote to Sydney Waterlow, ‘I recognise England’s admirable qualities, but we simply don’t get on. We have nothing to say to each other, we are always meeting as strangers.’[2] Of course, that ‘never’ turned out to have strict limits since, less than two years after writing her letter, Mansfield was dead, at the age of thirty-four.

A hundred years on; there are still some ‘admirable qualities’ (my choices wouldn’t be everybody’s) and I shall certainly go on living in England. That ‘meeting as strangers’, though, crops up a lot just lately. Good grief, how many times can you ask the question—of the empty air or, indeed, of a Librarian—‘What is wrong with these people?’

Dore-Punishment-Sowers-Discord

(Gustave Doré, ‘Punishment of the Sowers of Discord’ (1890), illustration for Dante’s Inferno)

The end-of-pier show lurched into literature following Donald Tusk’s studied musing into a microphone as to ‘what the special place in hell looks like for those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan how to carry it out safely’. Letter-writers determinedly sited the miscreants in Dante’s Inferno. I remember one suggestion that the ‘special place’ might be the poet’s eighth Bolgia or ditch, where the souls of deceivers and false counsellors are found, though I’d been thinking of the ninth one, where the sowers of discord are given a very hard time by a large demon equipped with a sharp sword. But of course, it might not be a special place at all and they may just be pitchforked in with the rest of the riff-raff.

There were people in the public sphere to be admired – but they all seemed to be under voting age – the twelve year old journalist Hilde Lysak, for instance (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/feb/24/hilde-lysak-police-officer-arrest-video) and the thousands of schoolchildren striking in protest at the feeble gestures made by the political class towards combatting climate change and environmental crisis, inspired by the example of the – now – sixteen year old Swede Greta Thunberg. The criticism of this demonstration from Downing Street and in the columns of one or two professional dimwits rather strengthened the case made by other commentators that the only adults in the room seemed to be, ah, children. The young environmental activists were acting in concert in the face of a planetary disaster. In the House of Commons, even the imminence of a national disaster couldn’t affect the posturing and squabbling and the exorbitant influence on Government policy exerted by a gaggle of fops, chancers and wide-boys.

Still, as a friend remarked to me yesterday, although the situation seems always the same it also seems to be constantly changing, a bizarre but discernible feature. So the Labour leadership has, at that familiar glacial pace, finally arrived at allowing, if not actually supporting, the idea of a People’s Vote, turning up at the party with a bottle of cheap white wine as the ashtrays are being emptied, the floors swept and the lights turned out. It could all, as they say, have been so different. But when historic opportunities come along, the relevant people need to be looking in the right direction.

 
References

[1] Writers at Work: the Paris Review Interviews, 2nd series, edited by George Plimpton ((Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1977), 263.

[2] Katherine Mansfield, Selected Letters, edited by Vincent O’Sullivan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 199.

 

Bearded men in overcoats: Edward Gorey

Gorey-Avedon

(Photograph by Richard Avedon, via The New Yorker
© The Richard Avedon Foundation)

‘Gorey’, Hugh Kenner wrote to Guy Davenport in 1962. ‘I have tracked down THE CURIOUS SOFA, THE FATAL LOZENGE, THE WILLOWDALE EXPRESS [i.e., The Willowdale Handcar], and THE HAPLESS CHILD. No others seem to be available. One is especially curious about THE DOUBTFUL GUEST and ($1,000,000 prize title) THE LISTING ATTIC. Are any sources of supply known to you?’

The following Spring, breathing down the neck of Pound-Joyce-Ruskin references that will emerge in different form a dozen years later in ‘The House That Jack Built’, is this Davenport remark: ‘All the bearded men in overcoats in Gorey are Gorey.’[1]

Doubtful-Guest

‘At times it would tear out whole chapters from books,
Or put roomfuls of pictures askew on their hooks.’[2]

Some of the attractions for Davenport are fairly obvious: a wide and varied taste in books (Gorey owned upwards of 25000), cats—and the hospitality offered to other living creatures—virtuosic graphic work, an extraordinary range of interests and knowledge, a productive eccentricity and a distinctly individual stance towards the world.

Edward St John Gorey was born 22 February 1925 (and died in 2000). He published more than a hundred of his own works, beginning with The Unstrung Harp in 1953, and illustrated the works of scores of other writers, poets and critics, from Dickens, Edward Lear, H. G. Wells and Samuel Beckett to Saki, Muriel Spark, Virginia Woolf and the wonderful Treehorn books by Florence Parry Heide.

Treehorn

‘The next morning Treehorn was so small he had to jump out of bed. On the floor under the bed was a game he’d pushed under there and forgotten about. He walked under the bed to look at it.’[3]

Moving around our house, I find Gorey items in a surprising number of places: small hardbacks and larger paperbacks, postcards, a jigsaw, even a toy theatre, Edward Gorey’s Dracula, a Christmas present to the Librarian some years back.

Gorey-Dracula

There are some irresistible moments in the interview of Gorey by Clifford Ross:

CR: What about your working day?
EG: I usually wake up and think, “Oh, I really must do something today.” But then quite often many things come up before I can start doing them.
CR: Do you work each day?
EG: I try and do something each day. Work might not be exactly the word for it.

Elsewhere, ‘But I do collect postcards of dead babies.’ And, in response to the question about what sort of art he collects—Balthus, Burchfield, Albert York, Vuillard, Bonnard—‘And I have one Munch lithograph, I think.’ Ross asks which one and Gorey tells him: ‘Omega and the Bear. I couldn’t resist it. It’s this back of a naked lady and she’s got her arms around a big bear. I think it has some significance. I’m not sure what.’

Karen Wilkin, in her absorbing essay, lists some of the inhabitants—‘Mustachioed men in ankle-length overcoats; elegant matrons with high-piled hair; athletic hearties in thick turtlenecks; imposing patriarchs in sumptuous dressing-gowns; kohl-eyed wantons with alarming décolletages and nodding plumes’—of what she terms ‘an utterly unreal but wholly believable universe instantly recognizable, at least to initiates, as the world of Edward Gorey.’ It is, it is. She details the influence of theatre and, particularly, dance on Gorey’s art. He rarely missed a performance of the New York Ballet for thirty years and his ‘knowledge and understanding’ of the choreography of George Balanchine was ‘profound’.[4]

McDermott-Elephant-House

(© Kevin McDermott, photograph facing chapter heading ‘The Living Room’)

Kevin McDermot, in his book about Gorey’s Cape Cod house, illustrated with his own superb photographs, quotes a Vanity Fair interview with Gorey from October 1997:

What or who is the greatest love of your life?
“Cats.”
If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what do you think it would be?
“A stone.”
What is your favourite journey?
“Looking out the window.”[5]

Accept no substitutes.

Gorey’s home is now a museum, dedicated to his life and work, open from April to December each year. The Edward Gorey House: http://www.edwardgoreyhouse.org/

 
References

[1] Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), I, 167, 286.

[2] Edward Gorey, The Doubtful Guest (1957), in Amphigorey: Fifteen Books by Edward Gorey (New York: Perigee Books, 1981), unpaginated.

[3] Florence Parry Heide, The Shrinking of Treehorn, in The Treehorn Trilogy, drawings by Edward Gorey (New York: Abrams, 2006), unpaginated.

[4] Clifford Ross, ‘Interview with Edward Gorey’, in Clifford Ross and Karen Wilkin, The World of Edward Gorey (New York: Abrams, 1996), 19; Karen Wilkins, ‘Mr. Earbrass Jots Down a Few Visual Notes: The World of Edward Gorey’, 45, 86.

[5] Kevin McDermot, Elephant House, or, The Home of Edward Gorey (San Francisco: Pomegranate, 2003), unpaginated.

 

Owl’s Eyes

Owls

My daughter’s flight from Barcelona, due late in the evening, is delayed by two hours, so I sit up, well beyond my usual bedtime. ‘Night-owl’, people used to say, certainly my mother used to say, of those who kept late hours, though Edward Hopper’s famous 1942 painting of four people in a diner keeping very late hours, ‘the classic film noir Hopper’, as Robert Hughes calls it, is entitled Nighthawks.[1]

Nighthawks

(Edward Hopper, Nighthawks: The Art Institute of Chicago; Friends of American Art Collection)

Owls, though, I associate with at least three firsts in my life: in the pages of the brief travel journal I kept on my first trip to Greece some twenty years ago, I see several mentions of the call of the Scops owl, the Eurasian (or Common) Scops owl, known to a generation of young (and older) readers of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books because Ron Weasley’s owl is a Scops. Similar in some ways to a Scops and, apparently, sometimes mistaken for it, is the Little Owl, Athene noctua, sacred owl of Athena. The goddess with the grey eyes, she was traditionally described as. When James Joyce talked to Sylvia Beach of his eye problems and mentioned glaucoma, Beach remembered: ‘It was the first time I had ever heard of this disease, with its beautiful name. “The gray owl eyes of Athena,” said Joyce.’[2] So said the author of Ulysses but, apparently, while Homer uses the word for an ‘owl’ (skops) only once, glaukopis—derived from glaux, the generic term for ‘owl’—occurs some ninety times in his work. It may have meant ‘sharp-eyed’ or ‘with gleaming eyes’.[3]

SB-JJ

(Sylvia Beach and James Joyce via The Washington Times)

I was working on my thesis when my supervisor, the poet Charles Tomlinson, mentioned in conversation that John Ruskin had discussed the meaning of glaukopis in a book called The Queen of the Air (1869). ‘In her prudence, or sight in darkness, she is “Glaukopis,” owl-eyed’, he wrote of Athena. And a little later, Glaukopis ‘chiefly means grey-eyed: grey standing for a pale or luminous blue; but it only means “owl-eyed” in thought of the roundness and expansion, not from the colour; this breadth and brightness being, again, in their moral sense, typical of the breadth, intensity, and singleness of the sight in prudence’.[4]

I’d been reading Ezra Pound on Allen Upward and the pages to which Charles had directed me evolved into a large part of my first published essay.[5] Upward regarded with a severely critical eye the attempts of scholars thus far ‘to understand the word glaukopis, given to the goddess Athene. Did it mean blue-eyed, or gray-eyed, or—by the aid of Sanskrit—merely glare-eyed? And all the time they had not only the word glaux staring them in the face, as the Athenian name for owl, and the name of ox-eyed Hera to guide them, but they had the owl itself cut at the foot of every statue of Athene, and stamped on every coin of Athens, to tell them that she was the owl-eyed goddess, the lightning that blinks like an owl. For what is characteristic of the owl’s eyes is not that they glare, but that they suddenly leave off glaring, like lighthouses whose light is shut off. We may see the shutter of the lightning in that mask that overhangs Athene’s brow, and hear its click in the word glaukos. And the leafage of the olive, whose writhen trunk bears, as it were, the lightning’s brand, does not glare, but glitters, the pale under face of the leaves alternating with the dark upper face, and so the olive is Athene’s tree, and is called glaukos. Why need we carry owls to Oxford?’[6] (The many owls that were in Athens gave rise to the saying, ‘To bring owls to Athens’, an early forerunner of the English phrase, ‘to take coals to Newcastle’.)

Athenes-Owl

The novelist Violet Hunt, who often received Ezra Pound at South Lodge, her home on Campden Hill Road, had an owl named Ann Veronica, after the novel by H. G. Wells, ‘a very pretty little owl’ but—‘She died untimely.’[7] The owl was part of a menagerie that included a bulldog, nine Persian cats, and several parrots that ‘shrieked “Ezra! Ezra!” whenever they saw him bouncing up the walk.’[8] Hunt’s partner for a decade was, of course, Ford Madox Ford, the other main focus of my research: the rest of my essay linked Upward and his double vortex, or waterspout, with Ford’s 1913 novel The Young Lovell. Ford published almost eighty books in his lifetime but the first of them all was a fairy tale called The Brown Owl, its frontispiece created by his grandfather, the painter Ford Madox Brown.

Brown_Owl_FMB

The mountains being so tall
And forcing the town on the river,
The market’s so small
That, with the wet cobbles, dark arches and all,
The owls
(For in dark rainy weather the owls fly out
Well before four), so the owls
In the gloom
Have too little room
And brush by the saint on the fountain
In veering about.[9]

 
References

[1] Robert Hughes, American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America (London: The Harvill Press, 1997), 427.

[2] Sylvia Beach, Shakespeare and Company, new edition (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991), 39.

[3] Michael Ferber, A Dictionary of Literary Symbols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 146. Liddell and Scott’s Greek Lexicon has ‘epithet of Minerva’—Roman goddess identified with Greek Athene—‘with gleaming eyes’.

[4] The Works of John Ruskin, Library Edition, Volume XIX: The Cestus of Aglaia and The Queen of the Air with Other Papers and Lectures on Art and Literature, 1860–1870, edited by E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn (London: George Allen, 1905), 306, 381.

[5] Paul Skinner, ‘Of Owls and Waterspouts’, Paideuma, 17, 1 (Spring 1988), 59-68.

[6] Allen Upward, The New Word: An Open Letter addressed to the Swedish Academy in Stockholm on the meaning of the word IDEALIST (New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1910), 238.

[7] Violet Hunt, The Flurried Years (London: Hurst and Blackett, 1926), 109.

[8] Barbara Belford, Violet: The Story of the Irrepressible Violet Hunt and her Circle of Lovers and Friends—Ford Madox Ford, H. G. Wells, Somerset Maugham, and Henry James (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990), 166-167.

[9] Ford Madox Ford, ‘In the Little Old Market-place’, Selected Poems, edited and introduced by Max Saunders (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1997), 68.

 

Using your loaf

Jean_Francois_Millet_-_Woman_Baking_Bread_12x16_jdscqy__80810.1486481549

(Jean-Francois Millet, Woman Baking Bread)

Yesterday, after a night of rain had put paid to the snow and the bird chorus in the park was at full stretch again, I walked uphill in mizzle or, better, dringey—‘the kind of light rain that still manages to get you soaking wet’—which I borrow from the back pages of Melissa Harrison’s splendid Rain: Four Walks in English Weather, even though she indicates that its usage is mainly in Norfolk, Suffolk and Lincolnshire. I should also nod to her ‘Scotch mist’, noted here as ‘the kind of fine rain a Scotsman will barely notice but which will wet an Englishman to the skin (Northamptonshire, Scotland)’.[1]

In fact, there were still sad heaps of snow—or rather, heaps of sad snow—scattered about the slopes, some the remains of snowmen, others less artistic, never being more than heaps, just bigger ones for a while. The rest had melted away more quickly—much more quickly—than a fantasy Brexit.

Snow-pile

With that in mind, today I reach for flour and yeast. One small step for man—actually no, not for this particular man. Decades since I made bread but it seems, at this juncture, a handy skill to have. Not that I’m paranoid, you understand—though I recall with fondness the days when certain people were only on the early pages of the How to Fuck your Country Up Handbook, Part One, initial indicative wish list: lorry queues from Dover to Dartford, empty supermarket shelves and bodies strewn along the sides of the roads—and we’ve normally bought bread from a local baker anyway. But making your own is just a very satisfying thing to do. Carpentry would be too – but I have no talent for it and can barely cut paper straight. Mastery of a foreign language would be, yes – but I’ve shown little aptitude for it thus far and it’s a bit late now. I can, though, bake a loaf of bread.

This baking business is no mundane matter. In 1917, there was a Royal Proclamation, a call from the King to his people, to eat less bread, in the face of unrestricted U-boat warfare.[2] A world war later, here was poet and playwright Ronald Duncan, then working on the land and railing against the false division of things into different ‘departments’, singling out the baking of a loaf of bread: ‘Is this an economic action, a spiritual ritual, a biological necessity or a work of art? Is it not obvious that the whole is contained in any part?’[3] I think I’m aiming for the first and last of these, though when you get into the rhythm of kneading, the idea of ritual is a feasible one.

Bread

Then, too, there’s a pleasing language to roam around in: wholemeal, sourdough, banana bread, rye, flatbread, brioche, crumpet, muffin, pretzel, pumpernickel, focaccia, scone, split tin, cottage loaf, bagel, ciabatta, Bannock, Soda bread, spelt, teacake, Bara brith, Lardy cake, oatcake. . .

‘Give us this day our daily bread’, I intoned for years as a child before experiencing what was, I suppose, the opposite of what Saul of Tarsus experienced, though also on a dusty road, in my case walking to a summer Sunday service from the school where my father had chosen to board me while he occupied himself with a new job a hundred and fifty miles away—and, concurrently, divorce from my mother.

James Joyce seems to have had a properly elevated view of such things, Stephen Dedalus seeing himself as ‘a priest of eternal imagination, transmuting the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of everliving life.’[4]

I probably won’t aim quite so high – but I do need to advance beyond that two pound loaf tin. I feel it’s cramping my style a little. Today the tin but tomorrow – the baking sheet.

 

References

[1] Melissa Harrison, Rain: Four Walks in English Weather (London: Faber and Faber, 2017), 90, 93.

[2] E. S. Turner, Dear Old Blighty (London: Michael Joseph 1980), 229.

[3] Ronald Duncan, Journal of a Husbandman (London: Faber 1944), 87.

[4] James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916; edited with an introduction and notes by Jeri Johnson, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 226.

 

Lesbia’s lively guest

hokusai-sparrows

(Hokusai, Sparrows)

Snow still on the ground from the falls of Thursday night, which produced enough to satisfy the Librarian’s appetite for such things and to allow for taking impressive photographs of a crow in the park. Nothing much since but the temperature hasn’t climbed enough to clear it. And still no sign of the robin – which, I gather, doesn’t do well in cold weather. I clear the water dish each morning of its solid disc of ice and refill it, and have scraped off the hillocks of snow from the seed tray and feeder, but I’ve noticed only one pigeon and one sparrow turn up so far.

The sparrow has been the more persistent: two visits on Friday and three on Saturday. Long ones too, perched in the seed tray for up to ten minutes. Apart from their inherent attractiveness, I’ve always felt particularly sympathetic towards sparrows since reading about how they were regarded as unusually lustful by earlier ages. Apparently, the Greek strouthos (sparrow) could mean ‘lewd fellow’ or ‘lecher’.[1] Sappho had Aphrodite’s chariot pulled by them:

In that chariot pulled by sparrows reined and bitted,
Swift in their flying, a quick blur aquiver,
Beautiful, high. They drew you across steep air
Down to the black earth[2]

More famous is Catullus, first detailing the interaction between Lesbia — Clodia Metelli – and her pet sparrow. In Walter Savage Landor’s version:

Sparrow! Lesbia’s lively guest,
Cherish’d ever in her breast!
Whom with tantalizing jokes
Oft to peck her she provokes:
Thus in pretty playful wiles
Love and absence she beguiles.

Oft, like her, to ease my pain,
I thy little fondness gain.
Dear to me as, bards have told,
Was the apple’s orb of gold
To the Nymph whose long-tied zone
That could loose, and that alone.[3]

Bewick-Dunnock

(Thomas Bewick’s Dunnock, or Hedgesparrow)

In the following poem, Catullus responds to the sparrow’s death. It has ‘now hopped solitarily/ down that dark alleyway of no returns’, its loss ‘swelling my girl’s veiled eyes/ which redden with tears.’[4]

There’s a remarkable Scots version of Catullus 3 by G. S. Davies (1912):

Weep, weep, ye Loves and Cupids all,
And ilka Man o’ decent feelin’:
My lassie’s lost her wee, wee bird,
And that’s a loss, ye’ll ken, past healin’.

The lassie lo’ed him like her een:
The darling wee thing lo’ed the ither,
And knew and nestled to her breast,
As only bairnie to her mither.

Her bosom was his dear, dear haunt—
So dear, he cared na lang to leave it;
He’d nae but gang his ain sma’ jaunt,
And flutter piping back bereavit.

The wee thing’s gane the shadowy road
That’s never traveled back by ony:
Out on ye, Shades! Ye’re greedy aye
To grab at aught that’s brave and bonny.

Puir, foolish, fondling, bonnie bird,
Ye little ken what wark ye’re leavin’:
Ye’ve bar’d my lassie’s een grow red,
Those bonnie een grow red wi’ grieving.[5]

I’ve just found it quoted too in a post by the poet and translator A. E. Stallings on the Poetry Foundation website, where she discusses several version of Catullus, including those of Louis and Celia Zukofsky:

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2007/09/miss-her-catullus

Then again, there’s this post by Katherine Langrish:

http://the-history-girls.blogspot.com/2018/04/lesbias-sparrow-katherine-langrish.html

In short, once again, a small bird (or its equivalent in other contexts) expands into flocks, squadrons, gigantic murmurations, up and out into limitless stretches of space and light.

I’m still keeping an eye open for the robin.

 

References

[1] Michael Ferber, A Dictionary of Literary Symbols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 198.

[2] Sappho 1, in Guy Davenport, Seven Greeks (New York: New Directions, 1995), 69.

[3] Walter Savage Landor, ‘To the Sparrow of Lesbia’, in Charles Tomlinson, editor, Eros English’d: Classical Erotic Poetry in Translation: from Golding to Hardy (London: Bristol Classical Press, 1992), 203.

[4] The Poems of Catullus, translated with an introduction by Peter Whigham (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1966), 52.

[5] The Oxford Book of Classical Verse, edited by Adrian Poole and Jeremy Maule (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 265-266.

 

Albers, Bonnard, Carter: as easy as ABC

Bonnard, Pierre, 1867-1947; Coffee (Le Cafe)

(Pierre Bonnard, Le Café: Tate)

In search of ways to take our minds off the quagmire of Brexit, we head for the Anni Albers exhibition at Tate Modern, just squeezing in before it closes. It was certainly impressive—and important that a woman working in the fields of weaving, textiles and design should be recognised as a significant artist. My difficulties were, firstly, that the lighting, reduced for understandable reasons, made it tricky for me to see some of the materials very clearly; secondly, that the show required a certain level of technical knowledge to appreciate what was actually displayed—knowing a bit about the Bauhaus and more about Black Mountain College didn’t cut the mustard; and, thirdly, lacking the requisite knowledge, chunks of the exhibition seemed rather repetitive. Still, several items, such as the Six Prayers, were astonishing even to the most inexperienced eye.

albers-six-prayers-1965

(Albers: Six Prayers)

To have gone all the way to London, at such expense, only for that might have felt to me a bit, hmm, thin. Luckily, there was, at the same address, an exhibition of paintings, and drawings, and photographs, by Pierre Bonnard. That is to say, light and colour and Marthe, his companion of fifty years, glimpsed, clothed or naked, in the bath, in the kitchen, at the table. She died in January 1942. ‘You can imagine my grief and my solitude’, Bonnard wrote to Henri Matisse, ‘filled with bitterness and worry about the life I may be leading from now on.’ (‘Vous jugez de mon chagrin et de ma solitude pleine d’amertume et d’inquiétude sur la vie que je puis mener encore.’)[1] Julian Barnes, whose essay on the artist is called, not unreasonably, ‘Bonnard: Marthe, Marthe, Marthe, Marthe’, comments that ‘Bonnard’s subject-matter is sometimes so seductive as to be problematic’ and notes that Bonnard’s exteriors, when they occur, retain the qualities of the interiors: ‘Bonnard is the painter of the Great Indoors, even when he’s painting the Great Outdoors’.[2] And those ‘Great Indoors’, of course, are his true domain. Laura Cumming, in a typically acute and discriminating review, remarks that Bonnard ‘turns curiously conventional outdoors’ (https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/jan/26/pierre-bonnard-the-colour-of-memory-review-tate-modern-wife-marthe)
which is perfectly true – but a lot of that outdoors is seen through an open window and here is the bath, the table, the coffee cup, the door or window frame, the curve of hip or breast or shoulder in Southern French light, the essential Bonnard: the sketched, the familiar, the remembered, the known, felt on the skin and the fingertips and the mind’s eye. There’s an extraordinary canvas, The Sunlit Terrace, which was painted over seven years, 1939-1946, right across the span of the Second World War; and some unsettling late self-portraits which radically undercut the idea of Bonnard as a consistently happy or serene painter.

bonnard-nude inaninterior

(Bonnard, Nude in an Interior: National Gallery of Art, Washington)

Back on the 16:30 train, with a valuable reminder, if such were needed, that some people just Can’t Shut Up. Two of them on their phones for miles after mile, talking over and against each other, a twenty-first century duel to set against those of Lermontov, Pushkin, George Canning and Lord Castlereagh. Still, there and back, I sojourned happily enough in the Golden Age of Crime—Margery Allingham and Dorothy Sayers—as opposed to this age of it, the Brass one.

wise-children

(Wise Children, via The Guardian)

Then, on Saturday, to the marvellous Emma Rice adaptation of Angela Carter’s Wise Children at Bristol Old Vic. The Librarian and her sister shaking with laughter beside me; their mother crying with laughter in the seat in front of me. Songs, dancing, spontaneous applause, tears, jokes, a deafening ovation to end with. As someone rarely seized by things theatrical, I was—seized.

And we are back, with a glass of wine to offset cultural overload—but that Other Thing, alas, is still with us.

References

[1] Antoine Terrasse, Bonnard/Matisse: Letters Between Friends, translated by Richard Howard (New York: Abrams, 1992), 101.
[2] Julian Barnes, Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art (London: Jonathan Cape, 2015), 142.

Terrible things

goya

(Francisco Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son)

A correspondent writes: ‘You will remember that Ford Madox Ford quote you often used—“Terrible things—for those to whom terrible things occur in their lives—happen in the last days of January”—and will no doubt trot it out again and try to connect it with that bloody damnable Brexit thing.’

No, Cornelius, I won’t trot it out again. Here, instead, is Edmund Blunden, the poet and prose writer, who served in France, was gassed and won the Military Cross, who died on this day forty-five years ago that. Early in his classic memoir, Undertones of War, he writes: ‘One of the first ideas that established themselves in my enquiring mind was the prevailing sense of the endlessness of the war. No one here appeared to conceive any end to it.’

Will we get to the end of this catastrophic farce—and, if we do, will it only be a beginning anyway? It’s not a comfortable or edifying spectacle, this watching your country eat its own intestines, though difficult to look away from, provoking as it does a kind of appalled fascination. There has been an avalanche of essays and articles on the theme of ‘how to break the impasse’, most managing to say nothing of much value. And with such rigidity and posturing, with so many people talking of ‘the national interest’ while actively pursuing something quite other, the signs are not promising.

milkman

Still, intelligence, imagination, tolerance, an understanding of history and knowledge of the human heart are readily available elsewhere, so thanks to – among others this month so far – Colm Tóibín, Anna Burns, Deborah Levy, Dorothy Baker and Henry James.

‘People can be extraordinarily slipshod whenever already they have made up their minds’, Anna Burns writes in Milkman, her very funny—and scary—Man Booker Prize-winning novel.

Indeed they can.