‘Domestic detail come alive’

Vuillard, Jean Edouard, 1868-1940; Interior with Madame Hessel and Her Dog

(Jean-Édouard Vuillard, Interior with Madame Hessel and Her Dog, 1910: Photo credit: Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives)

‘What would you like to do on your birthday?’

The time before last that I lunched with the Librarian, she steered me to the excellent Sotiris Bakery for spanakopita and a Greek coffee (and some halva and cakes to take away), after which I drifted into the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery to visit a few favourites, including Vuillard’s portrait of Lucie Hessel and her dog.

Lucie Hessel—friend, muse, lover of Vuillard—was the wife of the art dealer Joss Hessel: they remained close friends for many years with Vuillard, to whom they offered constant hospitality in their Rue de Rivoli apartment or the Chateau de la Claye near Versailles. Vuillard lived mainly with his mother until her death: he was then sixty.

In 1955, Elizabeth Bishop wrote to Randall Jarrell, thanking him for his review of Poems: North & South—A Cold Spring: he had written that her work was ‘as unmistakable as the first few notes of a Mahler song, the first few patches of a Vuillard interior. (The poems are like Vuillard or Vermeer.)’[1] Bishop wrote that ‘it has been one of my dreams that someday someone would think of Vermeer, without my saying it first, so now I think I can die in a fairly peaceful frame of mind, any old time, having struck the best critic of poetry going that way. . . ’ She continued: ‘Something else rather funny too—I’ve been working on a long poem about an aunt of mine, and when I don’t write on the poem I’ve been trying to use all the same material for either a long story or a short play—and in both of them Vuillard was the person I had in mind for the exact effect I wanted to produce. In fact, in the beginning of the play version I’d already written (in the stage directions) that it was to look like a Vuillard, before I received your clippings. —Well, communication is an undependable but sometimes marvelous thing.’[2]

Vuillard-Seamstresses

(Édouard Vuillard, Deux ouvrières dans l’atelier de couture (Two Seamstresses in the Workroom), 1893, © National Gallery of Scotland / Photo: Antonia Reeve)

And so say most of us. Paris in 1968 was pretty busy with demonstrations, strikes, student occupations of universities, workers’ occupations of factories, running battles with the police and the like; but a little later in the year, Patrick White and Manoly Lascaris were able to indulge in ‘an orgy of paintings and food’, White noted, mentioning ‘[a] marvellous exhibition of Vuillard’. David Marr’s biography quotes another letter of that time: ‘The great joy of Paris was an orgy of paintings, especially little intimate Vuillards “of people sitting over the remains of a meal, women sewing, and nursemaids looking after children in parks. Although he is so very French he is also related to the best 19th century Russian writers in his ability to make domestic detail come alive.”’[3]

What more natural, then, in answer to the Librarian’s question as to what I’d like to do on my birthday than say lunch in Bath, followed by the Vuillard exhibition at the Holburne Museum (Édouard Vuillard: The Poetry of the Everyday, until 15 September)? Alas. Ten minutes before we left I stooped a little to put a book back on a shelf and yelled loudly—not from delight or exultation but because I must have twisted my upper body when shelving it, just enough anyway to wreck my—previously wrecked—back again. Instead of looking at paintings by Vuillard, then, I shouted, winced, clutched at walls and door handles, climbed the stairs on all fours and subsequently spent at least ten minutes getting out of bed, cursing and howling, with the aid of the Librarian and a bemused stare from the cat.

A trip deferred for now. À bientôt, Monsieur Vuillard.

 
Notes

[1] See Randall Jarrell, Kipling, Auden & Co. Essays and Review 1935-1964 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980), 245.

[2] Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: The Selected Letters, edited by Robert Giroux (London: Pimlico, 1996), 312.

[3] Patrick White, Letters, edited by David Marr (London: Jonathan Cape, 1994), 329; David Marr, Patrick White: A Life (London: Vintage, 1992), 483.

 

Getting rid of her annoyance: Penelope Fitzgerald’s ‘The Golden Child’

LA_Egyptian_life_304

(Detail from a wall-painting in the tomb-chapel of Nebamun, Thebes, Egypt, late 18th Dynasty, around 1350 BC: British Museum)

‘I’ll send you a copy of my poor British Museum mystery when it comes out in paperback’, Penelope Fitzgerald wrote to her friend Mary Lago (E. M. Forster scholar and also author of books on Rabindranath Tagore, William Rothenstein, Max Beerbohm and others), ‘although it’s scarcely worth reading’.[1]

The Golden Child was Fitzgerald’s third published book and her first novel. It appeared in 1977, a year after the death of her husband: the book had been written, Fitzgerald said, ‘to entertain him’.[2] She gave other versions of what had prompted its writing: ‘I did write this mystery story, largely to get rid of my annoyance: 1. about the Tutankhamen Exhib: as I’m certain everything in it was a forgery, and : 2. about someone who struck me as particularly unpleasant when I was obliged to go to a lot of museums & c. to find out about Burne-Jones’.[3]

tutankhamun

Set in the British Museum (not explicitly so), it creates, as Frank Kermode remarked, ‘the impression that the author was at least as familiar with the workings of that institution as its Director could possibly be.’[4] Nevertheless, it’s often viewed as standing apart from Fitzgerald’s other fiction, partly because of its generic character, seeming to fall into the category of ‘detective fiction’, and partly because, not least due to Fitzgerald’s own dismissive or self-deprecating comments, it’s seen as somehow unachieved, a trial run, a dead end quickly perceived and thereafter avoided. One other factor is the extensive cuts made to the novel, earlier called ‘The Golden Opinion’, by its publisher. Duckworth: some original materials, in Fitzgerald’s notebooks, are included in the archive of her work now held by the British Library:
https://blogs.bl.uk/english-and-drama/2019/07/penelope-fitzgeralds-archive-a-human-connection.html

A common response in such circumstances is to stress that the interest in the book under discussion is that it connects with so much else in the life and work of its author. And there are certainly connections that can be and have been traced: Fitzgerald’s enduring interest in closed institutions, with their peculiarities of structure and habit (the British Museum, the BBC, a drama school); cryptography, language games, mysteries; suspicion of authority and distrust of hierarchies; an affection for outsiders, those conventionally perceived as ‘failures’ or simply ‘ordinary’.

Golden-Child

(Penelope Fitzgerald, The Golden Child)

As Hermione Lee in particular has shown, there are a great many links between the novel and the research into her own family that Fitzgerald was conducting at the time she was writing it: ‘Her head was full of the characters of the four brothers, now all dead, whom she had known as odd, unworldly, formidably clever older men, with the enigmas of their lives cocooned in layers inside them. Unravelling their secrets was like following a thread from the present back into the underworld.’[5]

Her uncle Dillwyn’s involvement in cryptography in both World Wars and his work on ancient Greek texts, particularly the mimes of Herondas, are pertinent here, while the inability of Waring Smith to tell a lie, even to avoid distressing his wife,[6] recalls another Knox uncle, Wilfred, who ‘never told a lie in his entire life – he never saw the necessity’.[7]

Wilfred-Knox-via-Wikipedia

(Wilfred Knox via Wikipedia)

Then, although this was her first published novel, there were earlier fictional efforts, one of them, ‘A Letter from Tisshara’, dating back to 1951, when she was editing the World Review with her husband. This is probably the clearest forerunner of much of The Golden Child.[8]

The Golden Child uses the occasion of an extraordinary exhibition at a major museum to set in motion an exploration of the uses and misuses of power and the ways in which human types come together or damage those around them. When the possibility of fakery arises, the Director will not consult Sir William—the obvious candidate to settle the question of authenticity—in case of disclosure. ‘The Director’s voice trembled with the pride and bitter jealousy which is the poetry of museum-keeping’ (85). Of the novel’s ‘three musketeers’,[9] the significantly-named Professor Untermensch is an Austrian or German Jew, who hasn’t seen his wife since 1935 and whose skill in clearing up the floor of the Exhibition Hall at the end of the novel is traced back to 1937 when Nazis forced him to ‘do the street-sweeping in Vienna’ (256). Len Coker is self-educated, actively devoted to left-wing causes, a craftsman. Waring Smith is a junior exhibition officer, ‘not an exceptional young man’ (29). Their collective strength and the combination of their separate talents and qualities will suffice to solve the mystery and force the confession of the murderer. Its ‘villains’ are those with their own agendas and priorities: the Museum, though ‘nominally a place of dignity and order’, is experienced by those who work there as ‘a free-for-all struggle of the crudest kind’, marked by ‘the ferocious efforts of the highly cultured staff trying to ascend the narrow ladder of promotion’ (13). The class division is strongly marked.

Penelope_Fitzgerald_A_Life

In retrospect, noting the elements of the book that dated it—Russian villains, French structuralists—Fitzgerald added: ‘But I think of The Golden Child as a historical novel. All novels, in fact, are historical.’[10] That point had been made by Ford Madox Ford’s prefatory letter (addressed to the publisher William Bird) in No More Parades, the second volume of his Parade’s End tetralogy. Ford wrote there, ‘All novels are historical, but all novels do not deal with such events as get on to the pages of history.’[11] It has been made by others since. Marguerite Yourcenar wrote, ‘Those who put the historical novel in a category apart are forgetting that what every novelist does is only to interpret, by means of the techniques which his period affords, a certain number of past events; his memories, whether consciously or unconsciously recalled, whether personal or impersonal, are all woven of the same stuff as History itself. The work of Proust is a reconstruction of a lost past quite as much as is War and Peace.’[12]

Marguerite_Yourcenar-Bailleul-1982

(Bernhard De Grendel, Marguerite Yourcenar, 1982)

One noticeable feature of The Golden Child is the obvious extent to which the author is enjoying herself, not only in the more farcical elements of the plot, nor even the satirical sharpness with which art historians and cultural aristocrats are drawn but also on a smaller scale, in the whimsical humour of the Garamantian pictographs (188, 192-194) or sly literary jokes such as Sir William Simpkin’s enquiry as to the whereabouts of Waring Smith, elegantly sidestepping Browning’s poem to ask ‘What’s become of Smith?’ (28).[13] The investigating police officer is an Inspector Mace—the Egyptologist Arthur Cruttenden Mace was a member of Howard Carter’s excavation team, and died from arsenic poisoning six years after the opening of Tutankhamen’s tomb—and Fitzgerald also enjoys puns, Mace’s assistant, Sergeant Riddell and the Hopeforth-Best tobacco company among them. Telling the story of Waring Smith’s marriage to Haggie, she comments, ‘They went out once a week to see films by leading French and Italian directors about the difficulties of making a film’ (29), while the restaurant close to the Museum, to which Waring takes Dousha at Sir William’s request, ‘having been formerly called the Bloomsbury Group, Lytton Strachey Slept Here, the Cook Inn, Munchers, and Bistro Solzhenitsyn, now bore the name of the Crisis’ (63).

Carter-1925-via-Guardian

(Howard Carter with the sarcophagus of Tutankhamen, c. 1925, via The Guardian)

One of Fitzgerald’s critics writes of The Golden Child leaving us ‘with the sense that this first novel raises questions of a “supernatural” order that would also characterize Fitzgerald’s later fiction, to the degree that it might be said that all of her fiction can be viewed as a form of detective fiction, if by this we understand that there is a mystery – spiritual in nature – that challenges us and does not readily admit of solution.’[14]

Yes. As Le Mesurier says to Voss in Patrick White’s novel: ‘“The mystery of life is not solved by success, which is an end in itself, but in failure, in perpetual struggle, in becoming.”’[15]

 

 

Notes

[1] Letter of 9 July [1994], in So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald, edited by Terence Dooley (London: Fourth Estate, 2008), 319.

[2] Several instances of this statement noted by Hermione Lee, Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life (London: Chatto and Windus, 2013), 458 n.44.

[3] To Richard Garnett, 16 September 1977, So I Have Thought of You, 240. Her biography of Edward Burne-Jones was published in 1975.

[4] Frank Kermode, ‘Introduction’ to the Everyman’s Library edition of three Fitzgerald novels: The Bookshop; The Gate of Angels; The Blue Flower (London: Everyman, 2001), ix.

[5] Lee, Penelope Fitzgerald, 239; The Knox Brothers, Fitzgerald’s study of her father and his three brothers, also appeared in 1977.

[6] Penelope Fitzgerald, The Golden Child (1977; London: Harper Collins, 2004), 199: page numbers of this edition given hereafter.

[7] See Penelope Fitzgerald, A House of Air: Selected Writings, edited by Terence Dooley with Mandy Kirkby and Chris Carduff (London: Harper Perennial, 2005), 470.

[8] See Dean Flower and Linda Henchey
, ‘Penelope Fitzgerald’s Unknown Fiction’
, The Hudson Review, 61, 1 (Spring, 2008), 53-55.

[9] Lee, Penelope Fitzgerald, 243.

[10] Penelope Fitzgerald, Independent Books (24 September 1994).

[11] Ford Madox Ford, No More Parades (1925; edited by Joseph Wiesenfarth, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2011), 3.

[12] Marguerite Yourcenar, The Memoirs of Hadrian, translated by Grace Frick, with Yourcenar (1951; London: Penguin Books, 2000), 275-276.

[13] Robert Browning’s ‘Waring’ begins: ‘What’s become of Waring/ Since he gave us all the slip’. Fitzgerald’s 1995 review of Peter Levi’s Edward Lear: A Life, ends by asking, in response to his highlighting of Tennyson and Hardy, ‘What’s become of Browning?’ See A House of Air, 90.

[14] Christopher J. Knight, ‘Penelope Fitzgerald’s Beginnings: The Golden Child and Fitzgerald’s Anxious Relation to Detective Fiction’, Cambridge Quarterly, 41, 3 (September 2012), 364.

[15] Patrick White, Voss (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1957), 289.

 

All safely gathered in – Guy Davenport, Stanley Spencer

Piper-Enjoying-Paintings

Here’s a recent arrival: Enjoying Paintings, edited by David Piper, a Pelican Original (at twelve shillings and sixpence), published in 1964. I ordered my secondhand copy at the prompting of a few lines by Guy Davenport—another prodigious instigator of book purchases and readings, not unlike his admired Ezra Pound.

In March 1966, Davenport wrote to Hugh Kenner: ‘[Rene] Odlin tells me the Egyptians wrote letters to the dead, the temple being the post office.’ A month later, he advised: ‘Do add the Penguin Enjoying Paintings to your library (ed. David Piper) – contains essays on specific works by essayists who write in the gracious olden manner. Ayrton on Watteau, for instance. Piper on Holbein also excellent. And an essay on Stanley Spencer’s Resurrection in Cookham Churchyard, that has moved me more than any contemporary work of English painting. And more than anything in American painting.’[1]

Davenport didn’t say that this essay is by the painter Carel Weight, one or two of whose early paintings are a little reminiscent of Spencer’s own, nor did he mention, and may not have known, that Spencer also wrote letters to the dead, specifically to his first wife Hilda, beginning with a December 1950 letter and continuing until his own death nine years later. At no point did Spencer refer to her being dead. Some of the letters ran to a hundred pages.[2] More than fifty years after his own death, his younger daughter Unity, herself a painter, ends her autobiography, Lucky to be an Artist, with a moving letter addressed to her father.[3]

Unity-Spencer-Lucky

This very high value placed on Spencer’s painting is introduced fairly abruptly but Davenport’s interest in him manifested itself many times and in several contexts.

The attractions of Spencer’s work seem to have been the painter’s direct engagement with a world which is there, the human body crucially a part of its natural beauty; pictures often crowded with puzzling details that required an intense and knowledgeable gaze; and a figure of the kind that he felt too often evaded conventional critical and historical habits of classification. Davenport’s enthusiasms frequently tended to be for the maverick, the misunderstood, the overlooked, the misread and the misrepresented.

‘Christ Preaching at the Henley Regatta’, Davenport’s story in Eclogues, plays on Spencer’s Christ Preaching at the Cookham Regatta, a painting ‘made of a collage of elements: Dufy, Mallarmé, et d’autres choses.’[4] A few years later, Davenport’s essay ‘Stanley Spencer and David Jones’ begins by pointing to Roger Fry’s part in what was ‘a necessary revolution’ but one which had unforeseen consequences. The hierarchical placement of technique over subject ‘calcified into a dogma: the subject of a work of art is negligible.’ So a good many British artists largely disappeared from serious critical consideration. Davenport views Spencer and Jones as ‘spiritual twins’, together constituting ‘a thoroughly British phenomenon: nonmodernist modernism.’ He adds that, ‘The meaning of a work of art is efficacious only insofar as its charm elicits a response. Thus a new kind of art, like Spencer’s and Jones’s, must educate an audience before it can communicate.’ He remarks also that: ‘Modernism has been owned and operated by various groups with their own interests to look after.’[5] In an essay from the early 1940s, David Jones wrote: ‘“All must be safely gathered in”, as Mr Stanley Spencer said to me, with reference to the making of a picture (a more apt expression of the artist’s business I never heard).’[6]

Dufy-Regatta-at-Henley

(Raoul Dufy, Regatta at Henley: National Gallery of Art, Washington)

In an essay on Jonathan Williams, Davenport discusses English eccentricity, then the tradition stemming from Blake’s Ancients, seeing it for the most part as ‘a tangled and untraced path in and out of official literature and art.’ He mentions Charles Doughty, Tolkien, Edith Sitwell, Bruckner – and Stanley Spencer: ‘we await the historian of these visionaries.’[7] Elsewhere he suggests that Balthus and Spencer ‘illuminate each other’, the latter’s ‘intrepid religious grounding’ comparable to Balthus’ ‘privileged, undisclosed, but articulate psychology’, both of them expressing ‘a sensual delight in the material world that is openly hedonistic’. Davenport sees Balthus in ‘the distinguished category of the unclassifiable, like Wyndham Lewis and Stanley Spencer’, remarking that, ‘If modernity ended by trivializing its revolution (conspicuous novelty displacing creativity), it also has a new life awaiting it in a retrospective survey of what it failed to include in its sense of itself.’[8]

Most evidently, there is, in Thasos and Ohio—a selection of Davenport’s poems and translations—The Resurrection in Cookham Churchyard, which opens the book:

The Cookham dead begin to rise
When God with April in his eyes
Ended in O its midst the night.
To dogwood flowered hard and white,
To rain and violets overhead,
Sharp music lifted up the dead,
In cuckoo song and silence born,
A silver brilliant hunting horn.

GD-Thasos

In the following 212 lines, fifty or so named figures arise—a touch of verbal equivalence to the Jann Haworth and Peter Blake design for the sleeve of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band—many of them familiar from other Davenport writings: Michael Ventris, who deciphered the Linear B script, Ruskin, Alan Turing, Charles Doughty, Hugh Miller, Christina Rossetti, Wittgenstein, Henri Rousseau, Babbage, Stan Laurel (also on the Beatles album cover, together with Oliver Hardy) – and Spencer himself, of course.

And Stanley Spencer rose upright,
Who, naked as a swimmer, stood
As best his sleepy body could
Beside his tombstone while his wise
And deep and dark untroubled eyes
Watched the startled, exultant dead
Take flesh of fire in flesh’s stead.[9]

Stanley Spencer wrote of his painting: ‘The resurrection is meant to indicate the passing of the state of non-realization of the possibilities of heaven in this life to the sudden awakening to the fact. This is what is inspiring the people as they resurrect, namely the new meaning they find in what they had seen before.’[10]

The Resurrection, Cookham 1924-7 by Sir Stanley Spencer 1891-1959

(The Resurrection, Cookham: Presented by Lord Duveen 1927: © Tate Gallery)

The Resurrection in Cookham Churchyard is a huge – 108 x 216 in/ 274 x 549 cm – painting, begun in 1924 and completed in 1926. ‘He painted it in a small room over a public house in the Vale of Health, Hampstead. Outside was a fairground, and Spencer used to say that the only way he could ever get far enough to see his picture as a whole was “to have two pennyworth on the swings” and glimpse it as he shot by the window.’[11] That’s a wonderful image. Penelope Fitzgerald, born in 1916, wrote to Howard Woolmer in 1990, ‘I’m glad you like the Spencer Resurrection and the Cookham pictures – I used to be taken to see them when I was quite small, and indeed Stanley Spencer was a familiar sight on Hampstead Heath in those days with his pram full of canvases.’[12]

There were many resurrections in Spencer’s body of work but The Resurrection in Cookham Churchyard represented, he thought, a consummation of all his work up to that point.[13] There are many interpretations of it but I doubt if anyone feels confident that they’ve plumbed its depths, not least because, as Carel Weight remarks, the painting is ‘a great piece of autobiography which can tell you more about its author and his immediate family than any self-portrait could have done’.[14] So Spencer’s wife Hilda appears at least three times and his favourite dresses of hers a couple times more; his brother-in-law Richard Carline is there two or three times, and Spencer himself twice.

GD_Hunter_Gracchus

(The jacket painting is Spencer’s Swan Upping at Cookham: Tate Gallery)

As against Wyndham Lewis—‘The lines define, the surfaces are expanses of ink or graphite or paint, NOT cloth or flesh or any texture whatever’—Spencer, ‘by contrast, painted textures only.’[15] Spencer was ‘before all else a poet for whom the natural beauty of the world [ . . . ] was the primary fact.’ Of Spencer’s extensive and unfinished series, Christ Preaching at the Cookham Regatta, Davenport wrote that it was going to be ‘a very crowded. Bosch-like tangle of people, picnicking, and punts. A great deal of eighteenth-century British humor comes from too many people in a space (Rowlandson, Hogarth, Smollett). This very British theme becomes for Spencer an objet-petit-a [Jacques Lacan’s unattainable object of desire], an intimacy with gratuitous sensual content’. Spencer’s art exemplifies ‘an insistence that the world (not a world created ideally by a choice of attentions) is there.’[16]

Though he spent time during the First World War in the Beaufort War Hospital and later served in Macedonia, experiences which had a huge and lasting effect upon him—and resulted in some extraordinary pictures—the centre of his life and art was Cookham. There’s a world in William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha, in Thomas Hardy’s Wessex and in William Carlos Williams’ Rutherford – there’s one more distinction in Spencer’s case, which is the erasure of that line between the secular and the holy, between the human, godly and angelic realms. ‘Everything is holy and everything is connected’, Alexandra Harris wrote of Spencer’s work.[17] And so it is.

 

Notes

[1] Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), I, 781, 789.

[2] Maurice Collis, Stanley Spencer: A Biography (London: Harvill Press, 1962), 214.

[3] Unity Spencer, Lucky to be an Artist (London: Unicorn Press, 2015), 229-234.

[4] Bernard Hoepffner, ‘Pleasant Hill: An Interview with Guy Davenport’:
http://wvorg.free.fr/hoepffner/PleasHillEng.html (Accessed 3 July 2019)

[5] Guy Davenport, The Hunter Gracchus and Other Papers on Literature and Art (Washington: Counterpoint, 1996), 112-113, 121, 125.

[6] David Jones, ‘The Myth of Arthur’, in Epoch and Artist: Selected Writings (London: Faber, 1973), 243.

[7] Guy Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 188.

[8] Guy Davenport, A Balthus Notebook (New York: Norton, 1989), 19, 18.

[9] Guy Davenport, Thasos and Ohio: Poems and Translations, 1950-1980 (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1986), 9, 10.

[10] Kenneth Pople, Stanley Spencer: A Biography (London: Harper Collins, 1991), 226, citing the Spencer collection in the Tate Archives, reference TA 733.3.1.

[11] Carel Weight, ‘The Resurrection: Cookham’, in Enjoying Paintings, edited by David Piper (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1964), 225.

[12] Penelope Fitzgerald, So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald, edited by Terence Dooley (London: Fourth Estate, 2008), 358.

[13] Keith Bell, Stanley Spencer (London: Phaidon, 1999), 59.

[14] Weight, ‘The Resurrection: Cookham’, 226.

[15] Questioning Minds, II, 931.

[16] Davenport, The Hunter Gracchus, 121-123.

[17] Alexandra Harris, Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper (London: Thames & Hudson, 2010), 179.

 

Rabbits, posts, house-crickets

KW

(Kenneth Williams as Julius Caesar, seeing a dagger before him (‘Infamy, infamy. They’ve all got it in for me’), in Carry On Cleo (1964), via IMDB.)

July: formerly Quintilis, the month was renamed in honour of Julius Caesar, not long before his murder in 44 BC.

‘If the first of July it be rainy weather,
’twill rain more or less for four weeks together.’

The cat climbing onto my chest at around 04:30 wakes me enough to remember to pinch and—lightly!—punch a Librarian. There’s a mutual muttering of ‘white rabbits’, one of those ancient traditions that turns out to be not so very old. ‘Several correspondents’ in the Westminster Gazette in the spring of 1919 claiming that, with local variants, it was common in many parts of Great Britain, isn’t overwhelmingly convincing of great age.[1]

I don’t think of myself as superstitious. Lead me to the nearest ladder propped against a house front and I’ll walk under it; and I positively encourage black cats, whether crossing my path from the left or the right. But between the railway bridge at one end and the line of shops and the supermarket at the other, there’s a road that runs past a pub, an old church and the city farm – and has a row of bollards mounted on the pavement. Quite often, barely conscious of doing so, I touch each bollard as I pass. I think that responds to a half-buried memory of a story told about Samuel Johnson – where did I see that? I read an old Oxford World Classics paperback edition of Boswell’s Life of Johnson years ago: it started falling apart, unsurprisingly given its huge length, and I later bought an Everyman hardback edition. Looking recently, I didn’t find it in either. I think now I must first have seen it referred to in The Book of Witches by Oliver Madox Hueffer (Ford’s brother), where he mentions ‘Dr Johnson’s idiosyncrasy for touching every post he passed upon his walks abroad’.[2] The passage in question concerns a man called Whyte, who described watching Johnson walk along the street:

I perceived him at a good distance working along with a peculiar solemnity of deportment, and an awkward sort of measured step. . . . Upon every post as he passed along, I could observe he deliberately laid his hand; but missing one of them, when he had got at some distance, he seemed suddenly to recollect himself, and immediately returning back, carefully performed the accustomed ceremony, and resuming his former course, not omitting one till he gained the crossing. This, Mr. Sheridan assured me . . . was his constant practice.[3]

Reynolds, Joshua, 1723-1792; Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

(Sir Joshua Reynolds, Samuel Johnson: National Trust, Knole)

In six volumes, there’s space to gather in all manner of additional related material; in a one-volume edition, however bulky, something has to give. Johnson’s behaviour, anyway, seems to have been more indicative of obsessive compulsive disorder. I can at least take comfort in the fact that if I miss a post I don’t turn back.

Superstition. A widely held but irrational belief in supernatural influences, especially as bringing good or bad luck; omens, divination, sorcery; a deep-rooted but unfounded general belief (no jokes about contemporary political attitudes at this juncture, though, the situation being almost beyond a joke). But uses of it vary hugely. ‘Chance or free will?’ Sybille Bedford asked. ‘Which is it that we the irreligious, the superstitious ones, mean when we say, “in the lap of the gods?”’[4] In the view of Graham Greene’s assistant commissioner in It’s a Battlefield, ‘One had to choose certain superstitions by which to live; they were the nails in the shoes with which one gripped the rock. This was what a war threw up: a habit, a superstition, one more trick by which one got through the day.’[5] And Wyndham Lewis, characteristically combative, remarked in an early story, ‘The Cornac and His Wife’: ‘One of our greatest superstitions is that the plain man, being so “near to life,” is a great “realist.”’[6]

I tend to think of it as something quite mundane, homely, barely noticed or remarked, the almost automatic responses to those ladders or lines on the pavement. The word’s origins, whether from Middle English or Old French, seem to point back to Latin, ‘standing over’, suggestive of protection as much as threat but also a quite ordinary part of the landscape. Sarah Moss has her sisters Alethea (Ally) and May in the garden: ‘A magpie hops under the beech tree. Foolish superstition, Mamma says, but even so Ally finds herself casting around for another one to make two for joy. Maybe she can save this one until she sees another and count them as a pair, like carrying numbers in arithmetic. Carrying magpies.’[7]

White-birds

https://naturalhistoryofselborne.com/ )

The great naturalist Gilbert White mentions house-crickets in a domestic setting: ‘Whatever is moist they affect; and therefore often gnaw holes in wet woollen stockings and aprons that are hung to the fire: they are the housewife’s barometer, foretelling her when it will rain; and are prognostic sometimes, she thinks, of ill or good luck; of the death of a near relation, or the approach of an absent lover. By being the constant companions of her solitary hours they naturally become the objects of her superstition.’[8]

I think a somnolescent ‘white rabbits’ and occasional absent-minded post-touching probably keeps me on the safe side of ‘obsessive’ – in those contexts, anyway.

 

References

[1] Iona Opie and Moira Tatem, editors, A Dictionary of Superstitions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 192.

[2] Oliver Madox Hueffer, The Book of Witches (New York: The John McBride Co., 1909), 278.

[3] James Boswell, Life of Johnson, edited by G. B. Hill, revised and enlarged by L. F. Powell (Oxford, the Clarendon Press, 1934), I, 485, fn1. This and much more is referred to and discussed by Lawrence C. McHenry, Jr., in an article, ‘Samuel Johnson’s Tics and Gesticulations’, Journal of the History of Medicine, 22 (April 1967), 152-168.

[4] Sybille Bedford, Quicksands: A Memoir (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2005). Her 1963 novel is called A Favourite of the Gods.

[5] Graham Greene, It’s a Battlefield (1934; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1983), 170.

[6] Wyndham Lewis, The Complete Wild Body, edited by Bernard Lafourcade (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1982), 102.

[7] Sarah Moss, Bodies of Light (London: Granta Books, 2015), 85.

[8] Gilbert White, The Illustrated History of Selborne (1789; London: Macmillan, 1984), 210.

Some like it hot; some do not

Overlooking the Bay 1921 by Juan Gris 1887-1927

(Juan Gris, Overlooking the Bay: Tate)

In Anne Carson’s translation of Agamemnon, the messenger says, ‘I could tell you stories of winter so cold it killed the birds in the air.’ By way of seasonal contrast, I remember reading back in 2012 that birds had been falling from the sky in Iraq, where the temperature had breached 50 degrees Celsius.

It was 50 degrees in Basra yesterday; 42 in New Delhi, 40 in Cairo and in Florence too. Temperatures of 45 are predicted in the South of France and parts of Spain in the next few days.

Yesterday marked exactly eighty years since the death of Ford Madox Ford. Scheduled for tomorrow and Saturday, there is a conference taking place on the Mediterranean coast of southern France, ‘Ford and Toulon: Biography, Culture and Environment in the 1920s and 1930s’, under the auspices of the Université de Toulon and the Ford Madox Ford Society. Ford visited Toulon in 1925 with Stella Bowen, and again the following year. According to the dates and places of composition that he gives in the books, he began A Man Could Stand Up— in Toulon, and finished both A Mirror to France and New York Is Not America there. He socialised with the painter Juan Gris and his wife Josette, and Stella Bowen recalled that their group at the café was often joined by the art critic Georges Duthuit and his wife – Duthuit’s dialogues with Samuel Beckett (drawn from their correspondence) would first appear in 1949. Ford later lived with Janice Biala in the Villa Paul on Cap Brun in the last decade of his life. Further details of the conference are on the Ford Society website:
http://www.fordmadoxfordsociety.org/upcoming-events.html

I won’t be in Toulon – which is probably just as well. Even if the temperature doesn’t reach 45, it will be at least 20 degrees above my comfort level these days: I’ll go a couple of degrees higher if there’s a stiff breeze; maybe a few more if I were in Greece, where the heat seemed to bother me less –­ though it’s 33 degrees in Athens today and, given our aversion to flying, will we ever get back?

Harry

So, deep shade for me – some reading, a little wine, a little conversation (two-way with the Librarian, one-way with the cat). And perhaps some material from that conference might find its way, by and by, into Last Post: A Literary Journal from the Ford Madox Ford Society. . .

 

Bombs, planes, larks and mere delight

Gurney-ODNB FMF-GS-viaNYRB

(Ivor Gurney via Oxford DNB; Ford Madox Ford via New York Review of Books)

The poet Ivor Gurney wrote to his friend and sponsor Marion Scott (21? June 1916): ‘High up in the air like harmless gnats British aeroplanes are sailing – but No Germans – and ever and again as they come round in their circles lovely little balls of white fleece, or dark fleece or occasionally ruddy, gather in their track and up above and below. But they take about as much notice as of so many peas.’ And, in a second letter of the same date: ‘Tonight an aeroplane has been sailing high up in the blue – right over the German lines, and occasionally leaving at his back a flock of tiny white clouds; looking so innocent as they unfold, that unless one has caught the tiny flash of the explosion it is perfectly impossible to think that these are anything but the tiny clouds of Summer W H D loves to sing of.’[1]

This reminded me that, also in that summer of 1916, Second Lieutenant Ford Madox Hueffer—later Ford—arrived in France. In No Enemy: A Tale of Reconstruction, written partly in that year (but mostly in 1919), his persona, Gringoire, recalls a day on which he and other officers ‘sprawled about on the bare hillside with the downland winds running over the grasses just as they do in Sussex on a cloudless day.’ Then:

induced as the eye was to look into the pellucid sky, there became visible a number—some one counted fourteen—of tiny, shining globes. They appeared to be globes, because there was a fresh wind blowing straight from them and they turned end on. So, but slowly and incessantly heaving, did the immense one close at hand; a spider’s network of cordage went with its movements. Tiny and incredibly pretty, like films of gold dust floating in blue water and like peach blossom leaves—yes, incredibly pretty in the sunlight—airplanes were there. Because the—just as pretty—little mushrooms that existed suddenly in the sky, beside the sunlit dragonflies and peach blossoms, were pearly white, one officer said:
“Hun planes!”[2]

FokkerDIIsingleseatfighter.flickr

Flying machines were still a relatively new phenomenon then, something that many people would still not yet have seen. But I’ve been reading lately the poems and prose of Keith Douglas, killed in Normandy on 9 June 1944, so just three days after the Allied landings, at the age of twenty-four. Douglas served in the desert war as a tank commander and, early in his classic narrative, Alamein to Zem Zem, there’s this:

Up above in the clear sky a solitary aeroplane moved, bright silver in the sunlight, a pale line of exhaust marking its unhurried course. The Bofors gunners on either side of us were running to their guns and soon opened a rapid, thumping fire, like a titanic workman hammering. The silver body of the aeroplane was surrounded by hundreds of little grey smudges, through which it sailed on serenely. From it there fell away, slowly and gracefully, an isolated shower of rain, a succession of glittering drops. I watched them descend a hundred feet before it occurred to me to consider their significance and forget their beauty. The column of tanks trundled forward imperturbably, but the heads of their crews no longer showed. I dropped down in the turret and shouted to Evan who was dozing in the gunner’s seat: “Someone’s dropping some stuff.” He shouted back a question and adjusted his earphones. “Bombs!” I said into the microphone.[3]

Douglas-viaWarPoetsAssoc

(Keith Douglas in the desert via War Poets Association)

The bright silver of the plane is noted but that impression of beauty given to the poet’s eye derives from the shower of bombs it drops. Douglas, unsurprisingly, was well acquainted with the poets of the First World War, particularly Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg – his ‘Desert Flowers’ begins:

Living in a wide landscape are the flowers—
Rosenberg I only repeat what you were saying—
the shell and the hawk every hour
are slaying men and jerboas, slaying

the mind: but the body can fill
the hungry flowers and the dogs who cry words
at nights, the most hostile things of all.[4]

I wondered, then, if there might be an element of reversal there, looking back to Rosenberg’s ‘Returning, we hear the larks’:

Lo! Heights of night ringing with unseen larks:
Music showering on our upturned listening faces.

Death could drop from the dark
As easily as song—

But song only dropped[5]

A comparison of the passage from Alamein to Zem Zem with the earlier draft shows some interesting revisions: the published version adds ‘imperturbably’ to the tanks trundling forward; and in that last line, ‘I said’ replaces ‘I shouted’, clearly choosing to avoid the repetition; ‘and forget their beauty’ was earlier ‘as well as their beauty’.[6]

All three writers note and record the beauty while variously showing themselves aware of the purpose and true meaning of what they’re looking at. The disruptive effect of that ‘Hun planes!’ of Ford finds its echo in Douglas’s ‘Bombs!’, while Gurney’s observations demonstrate a consistent awareness of what he’s looking at. Douglas, though, foregrounds the conscious reinstating of that borderline between observed beauty and understanding of what is observed: ‘I watched them descend a hundred feet before it occurred to me to consider their significance and forget their beauty’—or ‘as well as their beauty’.

So, two qualities held in the mind; or entertained sequentially. If the latter, that neat sequence is like a demonstration of the terms of the debate about subjective and objective judgements, of what Elizabeth Prettijohn refers to as ‘free beauty’, which is ‘altogether independent of interests or ends’, and ‘dependent beauty, ‘in which our response to the object is influenced by considerations other than the mere delight we experience in contemplating it.’[7]

Certainly, in the cases of the Ford and the Douglas, though other considerations are massing in the background, I’d say I’m happy enough in the first instance with mere delight.

 

Notes

[1] Ivor Gurney, Collected Letters, edited by R. K. R. Thornton (Mid Northumberland Arts Group & Carcanet Press 1991), 100, 102. W. H. Davies has a poem called ‘Clouds’: ‘My Fancy loves to play with Clouds/ That hour by hour can change Heaven’s face;/ For I am sure of my delight, / In green or stony place’. His ‘When the Cuckoo sings’ begins, ‘In summer, when the Cuckoo sings,/ And clouds like greater moons can shine’.

[2] Ford Madox Ford, No Enemy (1929; edited by Paul Skinner, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2002), 31-32.

[3] Keith Douglas, Alamein to Zem Zem (1946; edited and introduced by Desmond Graham, London: Faber and Faber, 1992), 27.

[4] The Complete Poems of Keith Douglas, edited by Desmond Graham (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 102.

[5] Isaac Rosenberg (21st Century Oxford Authors), edited by Vivien Noakes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 113; Desmond Graham notes that there was no copy of Rosenberg’s poems among Douglas’s books but that he had as a school prize Ian Parsons’ The Progress of Poetry (1936), which contained a good selection of Rosenberg’s work: Graham, Keith Douglas, 1920-1944: A Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974), 277, note to page 188.

[6] See ‘Abandoned draft, revising part of Alamein to Zem Zem’, in Keith Douglas: A Prose Miscellany, compiled and introduced by Desmond Graham (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1985), 107.

[7] Elizabeth Prettejohn, Beauty and Art 1750-2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 50 – she is here referring back to Kant’s The Critique of Judgement.

An unfamiliar tribe

Harry-Banana

(Harry dealing with Brexit in the only sensible way)

I could just read; or fool around on the internet. The Librarian could, as befits the dignity of her profession, continue to play on the kitchen floor with a tabby cat and a yellow catnip banana. Instead, unwisely, we tune in to the Conservative party leadership debates. Dear God, they’re depressing. We deserve better than this, the Librarian says, flourishing her empty glass with obvious urgency. We do, yes – and are unlikely to get it. Indeed, the latest results have just been announced: the one hundred and sixty thousand members of the Conservative party—and thus grotesquely unrepresentative of the nation as a whole—will choose between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt to assume the position of Prime Minister of this country’s sixty-six million citizens.

Unsurprisingly, the debates were poor stuff. All that relentless concern for the poor, the underprivileged, the disadvantaged, climate catastrophe – and this from Tories, who thus nodded through the hostile environment, the bedroom tax, Universal Benefits, arms sales to the Saudis, airport expansion and much, much more. And, crucially, they all support Brexit and claim that ‘we’ must, absolutely must, leave the EU on or by 31 October.

It was, yes, like watching the antics of an unfamiliar tribe, at least one remove from the ordinary universe. While it’s frankly puzzling that anybody would consider giving a position of any responsibility to Boris Johnson, to be told repeatedly that he’s the favourite to become the country’s next Prime Minister beggars belief. I remind the Librarian that a large chunk of the country has turned mad dog in recent years but she, reasonably enough, reserves the right to continue to be astonished.

Robert-Graves Siegfried=Sassoon

I think briefly of Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon around the time of the latter’s famous protest against the conduct of the First World War. ‘We discussed the whole political situation’, Graves recalled. ‘I told him that he was right enough in theory; but that every one was mad except ourselves and one or two others, and that it was hopeless to offer rightness of theory to the insane.’

Somewhere, a hundred years pass. . .