Rosemary and rue


We walk back from the frosty cemetery, my jacket pocket stuffed with sprigs of rosemary, courtesy of the bush—one of two—in the park we cut through on the way. The original Latin phrase (ros marinus) translates as ‘sea dew’. Put soon into a jar of water, it lasts surprisingly well.

‘There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance—pray you, love, remember’, poor Ophelia says to Laertes (Hamlet, IV, v). ‘And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts.’

There is, I suspect, little danger of our failing to remember the events of the past week. In our country, record numbers of Covid-19 cases seemingly every day, and the hospitals, especially in London, in crisis. In the United States, a record number of daily deaths from the same cause – and, ah, what seems rather like an attempted coup. Astonishing scenes from the Capitol, which apparently surprised even some of those who knew something very like it was on the cards – let alone the ones who pretended that it hadn’t been coming down the track for the past four years. Clearly, I don’t know enough about American politics to understand why the man who incited all this—and incited or effectively authorised so much more—isn’t already behind bars, along with a good many other members of his entourage, past and present. ‘The cradle of democracy’, I’ve seen the United States referred to as several times recently (not always ironically). If that’s so, the child has been sickening for some time now and, for all the hopeful signs, the prognosis must be in doubt.

Here, luckily, no Conservative politician is acquainted with Donald Trump; nor do they even recognise the name. The thumbs-up, the golden elevator, the smarming and sucking up and toadying – never happened. Reality can be so misleading.

In Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (IV, iv), Perdita (which means lost, suitably enough, though she is found again) offers ‘flowers’ to the disguised Polixenes and Camillo: ‘Reverend sirs,/ For you there’s rosemary and rue. These keep/ Seeming and savour all the winter long.’ ‘Rue’, of course, offers puns a-plenty but its Old High German root, I see, meant ‘mourning’.

Let’s hope for sufficient doses—and effective distribution—of rosemary and rue.

Also the living


New Year’s Day, and we walk in the cemetery. I think we might catch a glimpse of that fabled ‘sovereignty’ which is all the rage among Brexiteers but I see only a couple of examples of the more common unicorn. So it goes.

That we are, for the most part, in the company of the dead, is not inappropriate, given the past nine months. But there are also the living – saving the Librarian, I find there are a few too many of those for my current peace of mind but they mostly keep their distance and the paths are wide here.

On this day in 1916, D. H. Lawrence wrote to his agent, James Pinker: ‘Already, here, in Cornwall, it is better; the wind blows very hard, the sea all comes up the cliffs in smoke. Here one is outside England, the England of London — thank God.’[1]

Two years later, Wyndham Lewis found himself in the region of Neuville-Saint-Vaast, where the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska had been killed in June 1915, at the age of twenty-three. Lewis wrote to Ezra Pound on 1 January 1918: ‘I was taken out sight-seeing today, with a dismal & angry feeling I passed the place, through the fields, anyway, where Gaudier was killed. The ground was covered with snow, nobody about, and my god, it did look a cheerless place to die in.’[2]

2020 has been, by almost every measure, a dreadful year. The United States, Brazil, India, Russia, France have registered appalling figures of infection and death. Here in the United Kingdom, where terrible numbers of infections and deaths have also been recorded, the unutterable foolishness of Brexit has lurched to its appointed, what – end for some people, way station for others. In contrast to the astonishing achievements of the scientific community and the beleaguered National Health Service, our government has continued on its blundering way, handing out lucrative contracts to their unqualified, unsuitable chums as they go. Her Majesty’s Opposition, meanwhile, are missing in inaction.

But we have – what we have, whatever each of us has that is valued and cared for. We can lament the recent past and dread—or even be sanguine about—the future but, on the whole, the present seems the best bet, and as truly local as possible.

Happy New Year, as the saying goes.


Notes

[1] Letters of D. H. Lawrence II, June 1913–October 1916, edited by George J. Zytaruk and James T. Boulton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 494.

[2] Pound/Lewis: The Letters of Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis, edited by Timothy Materer (London: Faber and Faber, 1985), 113.

The turning of the year, the turning of the pages

(Anthony, Henry Mark; Stonehenge; Wolverhampton Arts and Heritage; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/stonehenge-19092)

St Thomas grey, St Thomas grey,
The longest night and the shortest day.[1]

‘I might be lost’, Adolfo Barberá said to Iain Sinclair, ‘but I know where I am.’[2] Many of us can say, with confidence, that we’re lost. Do we know where we are? We now appear to be quarantined on an island off the coast of Europe. There are features discernible in this winter solstice landscape and the main one is probably recurrence, repetition, things going round again. I find the same quotations running through my head, for sure, such as Guy Davenport’s, ‘In our time we long not for a lost past but for a lost future’, or this from Charles Olson:

What has he to say?
In hell it is not easy
to know the traceries, the markings[3]

In England, the pattern is established, if not one to emulate. Receive the advice, ignore it, then eventually act on it—too late—and retreat from it too soon. Repeat. Even the—what is the latest euphemism, ‘low information voters’?—yes, it must surely be dawning on even those co-operative souls that the Leave UK gang hasn’t handled matters quite as well as they might have done. The news from Kent, on the other hand, must be hugely reassuring to those who voted for that Brexit thing.

(Via BBC)

Has this country ever been governed so badly? As we edge, run or career towards the end of 2020, it occurs to me that I’ve been reading for dear life these last months, as if the relentless turning of pages could offset to some degree the idiocy and dishonesty of this government and, frankly, the sheer insanity of the United States administration and many of its supporters.

‘Prose is the devil’, Ezra Pound once remarked in a letter to Alice Corbin Henderson, poet and assistant editor to Harriet Monroe at Poetry magazine. ‘ALL prose is the devil, except perhaps a little of Flaubert and De Maupassant.’[4] Nevertheless, pace Ezra—who was, I note in passing, a clue in yesterday’s speedy crossword, ‘troubled US poet’, though why he should be described as ‘troubled’, more so than Robert Lowell or Anne Sexton or John Berryman or Sylvia Plath or a hundred others, who can say?—it’s been mainly prose that I’ve been reading, although, in conjunction with Roy Foster’s incisive book on Seamus Heaney, I found myself reading (or sometimes rereading) the first six books of Heaney’s poetry.[5]

Some tremendous books have passed before my eyes this year, though it still feels hugely pleasing to be back with Maigret—in Antibes at the moment. There have been jaunts avec M. Simenon in previous months, and a few Golden Age authors such as Margery Allingham but, beyond those, I took in several of the year’s high profile titles. Still, not for the first time, some of the best things were older – but, in either case, most seemed to be by women this time around.

Some of them cropped up on several Books of the Year lists: Maggie O’Farrell’s impressive Hamnet and Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light (I added her collection of pieces from The London Review of Books, Mantel Pieces, and—one I’d missed—her fine memoir, Giving Up the Ghost). Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting was a blast and Helen Macdonald’s collection of essays, Vesper Flights, was marvellous, one of my books of the year for sure. After Elena Ferrante’s The Lying Life of Adults, I read her earlier, very unsettling The Lost Daughter.


Not quite so new but add Annie Ernaux and Mary Gaitskill, just about anything by either of them:  Ernaux seems to have reinvented or recast the genre of autobiography (Fitzcarraldo Editions have done five of hers in translation now); while Gaitskill seems to possess something like perfect pitch.

Maybe the most fun was either Craig Brown’s One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time, six hundred plus pages which I ripped through in a couple of days; Ysenda M. Graham’s British Summer Time Begins; or Paraic O’Donnell’s two novels, The Maker of Swans and The House on Vesper Sands, which came recommended on Melissa Harrison’s podcast, ‘The Stubborn Light of Things’, also the title of the collection of her monthly nature diary columns in The Times, certainly another of my books of the year.

‘The year’, ‘the year’ – an endlessly recurring phrase, often in conjunction with such optimistic sentiments as ‘the next one can’t be worse’ and ‘soon be over’.

Ah, well.

Notes


[1] Quoted in Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 505.

[2] Iain Sinclair, ‘Diary’, London Review of Books, 21 May 2020), 40.

[3] Guy Davenport, Apples and Pears (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984), 63; Charles Olson, ‘In Cold Hell, in Thicket’, in The Collected Poems of Charles Olson, edited by George F. Butterick (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 155.

[4] The Letters of Ezra Pound to Alice Corbin Henderson, edited by Ira B. Nadel (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993), 43.

[5] R. F. Foster, On Seamus Heaney (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020).

It’s beginning to feel a bit like Christmas

The Christmas lights are on; and fat Santa is standing in the alcove. We have some holly; and the Christmas tree has arrived, a little larger than expected, the base of the trunk not quite fitting into the stand.

‘Just saw a bit off.’
‘With what?’
‘Ah – the saw.’
‘Which is where?’
‘I don’t know where it is but we must have one.’
‘Must we?’

After a reasonable amount of investigation, it seems that we have no saw. Or did and lost it, or gave it to someone needy. Or it rusted or pined away from neglect. We order a saw. Length: twenty-one – are these inches or centimetres? It arrives the next day.

I’m used to watching the Librarian’s dad wield a saw, which he does confidently, fluently and effectively. I, on the other hand, differ from that specification just a little and, as a spectacle, may already be a standing joke to extra-terrestrial scouts, even an element in their amusing PowerPoint presentations of life on planet Earth, once they’ve stopped laughing at Brexit. Still, the tree is now in situ, decorated and subject to the baleful stare of the cat.

So the year dwindles down. Today is a popular birthday among the literati or, more broadly, the culturati, including one of my favourite writers, Sylvia Townsend Warner, as well as Ira Gershwin, Osbert Sitwell, Alfred Eisenstadt, Dave Brubeck and Nick Park. One of the most poignant must be that of the painter Frédéric Bazille (born 6 December 1841), who enlisted in the Franco-Prussian War and, during the winter of 1870-1871, ‘the bitterest in living memory’, was killed during a minor attack on Beaune-la-Rolande, on 20 November 1870. For ten days – ten days! – Bazille’s father ‘dug in the snow-covered battleground, looking for his son. Eventually he found his body. He hauled it back to Montpellier himself, on a peasant’s cart.’[1]

(Bazille, View of the Village)

It’s still only a few months since it ceased to be the case that, when asked if I had a personal Twitter account, I would remember, and often quote, the lines in Auden’s Letter to Lord Byron:

Indeed our ways to waste time are so many,
Thanks to technology, a list of these
Would make a longer book than Ulysses.[2]

The Librarian would update me daily and more or less selectively on the latest absurdities from a deranged president, a lying Cabinet minister or an idiot actor. Taking over the Twitter account for a literary society has granted me direct and immediate access to such delights, or rather, less direct than through the commentary of individuals on my timeline. It is, of course, something of an echo chamber, since those the Society follows tend to be well-informed, well-read and clear-sighted when it comes to American politics, Brexit and the English government’s record on the Covid-19 pandemic. Specialists in the apocalypse, you might say.

Still, 2020 almost gone. A vaccine in sight. Are we downhearted, you ask – but do not, I notice, wait for an answer.


Notes


[1] Sue Roe, The Private Lives of the Impressionists (London: Chatto and Windus, 2006), 82, 83.

[2] W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice, Letters from Iceland (London: Faber and Faber, 1937), 53.

No birthday goat


It’s a bright and brassy day and – ‘We could walk by the city farm and see the goat’, the Librarian says, ‘and then maybe go on as far as the harbour.’

‘The goat may not be out in this weather’, I say (pawn to c4), ‘and the harbour area will be swarming with infected people (Bf4).’

‘We’ll be in the open air’, she says, ‘you can wear a mask and’—(Qd4)—‘it’s my birthday.’

Birthdays – they come but once a year, unless you’re a reigning monarch. The pleasure, the anticipation, the dread, the guilt. ‘I did not forget your birthday’, Elizabeth Bishop wrote to her friend Loren MacIver, ‘but could not find the Western Union and had no telephone. Forgive me. I am just not used to work, you know, and find it takes a lot of time, effort, and character, etc.—things I don’t have any of.’[1]

Occasionally, there are instances of peerless symmetry: D. H. Lawrence’s wife Frieda, both born and dying on 11 August, or Charles Waterton, the traveller and conservationist, buried on his 83rd birthday. Some people celebrate by doing something life-changing. On his thirty-first birthday, Saturday 22 February 1913, the sculptor Eric Gill went to Brighton to be received into the Church by Canon Connelly, accompanied by his wife Ethel – who afterwards changed her name to Mary. Then they went home, in time for Leonard and Virginia Woolf to arrive for the weekend.[2] Others involve themselves in other people’s birthday celebrations – sometimes unwisely. So Major-General J. F. C. Fuller, Boer War veteran, military theorist and former disciple of Aleister Crowley, served as Oswald Mosley’s minister of defence-in-waiting—so some pretty bad choices already—then, in April 1939, accepted an invitation to Hitler’s fiftieth birthday parade. In that same year, he denied allegations about German concentration camps.[3]

Still, presents! Occasionally, beauty trumps utility. Of W. B. Yeats receiving on his fortieth birthday ‘a book so ornate you couldn’t read it’— a copy of Chaucer from William Morris’s Kelmscott Press—Hugh Kenner comments: ‘Fortunately, Morris tended to print books you’d already read.’[4]


The Librarian made do with a few books, a necklace, champagne, chocolates, fish pie (which, admittedly, she made herself), phone calls and text messages: a proper lockdown birthday. There was no goat; nor did we go on to the harbour that morning. But the next day, Arnos Vale Victorian garden cemetery being open, we wandered around some of its 45 acres, sticking to the wide paths. Damp weather but a good, unbirthday walk.


Notes


[1] Postcard dated 10 February 1966: Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: The Selected Letters, edited by Robert Giroux (London: Pimlico, 1996), 443.

[2] Fiona MacCarthy, Eric Gill (London: Faber & Faber, 1990), 115.

[3] David Seabrook, All the Devils are Here (London: Granta, 2002), 77.

[4] Hugh Kenner, A Colder Eye: The Modern Irish Writers (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1984), 216.

Just a footnote?

(Gerrit Dou, Maid at the Window: Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam)

So – yes and no. America’s made a decisive start on the crucial task of cleaning house but there are some stubborn stains and a deal of anxiety about just how much of the building is structurally sound. Will even this dark period not be an historical footnote eventually?

On that matter of footnotes – I was reading Denton Welch’s journal for January 1944, when Welch and Eric Oliver, the intimate companion of his last years, took refuge from the rain in a pub called the Chequers in the Kent village of Crouch. ‘It was not imitation at all, very home-made, unperiod, just itself. All round the walls were narrow benches. There was a daddlums board and darts board, nothing else except a table and two chairs.’[1]

There was a what board? ‘Daddlums’? My Chambers and Concise Oxford dictionaries merely shrugged when consulted; downstairs, my Shorter Oxford was heaved off the shelf with no better result. Wandering online confirmed a not unreasonable guess that it referred to a version of table skittles.

The Journals do carry a good many footnotes by their very efficient editor but these tend to be of that specific factual kind: explaining who people were, correcting or adding to an assertion that Welch has made, references to his published stories in which various people appear under different names, explanations of some abbreviation or phrase current at the time of Welch’s writing, much of it during the war and all of it during the 1940s – the journal covers the years from 1942 to 1948, when Welch died at the age of thirty-three. No ‘daddlums’, at any rate.

Ironically, perhaps, Welch himself writes a little later: ‘Is it in Montaigne that I have just read that the way to know what to write about is to think of all the things you wish writers in the past had mentioned? I wish that people should mention the tiny things in their lives that give them pleasure or fear or wonder. I would like to hear the bits of family or intimate history they knew’ (Journals 175). Yes, we tend not to mention the details of our lives which are so familiar that we barely notice them, and these are often the precise materials that future historians will be crying out for.

Personally, I’m a fan of footnotes and acknowledge the meatiness of the remark by Chick, Saul Bellow’s narrator: ‘I have always had a weakness for footnotes. For me a clever or a wicked footnote has redeemed many a text.’[2] They can  be a means of smuggling in an editor’s obsessive interests—which the text itself may not warrant mention of—and can ease other feelings too. Alethea Hayter writes of historical painter Benjamin Haydon’s son: ‘Frank Haydon suffered miseries of embarrassment from his father’s dogmatism and showing off, and years later he revenged himself by writing vicious footnotes to the more pious and pompous sentences in his father’s diary.’[3]

In context, there’s something undeniably pleasing about that ‘vicious footnotes’.

Of his 1941 book on W. B. Yeats, Louis MacNeice wrote: ‘The book is nearly all quotations (I am beginning to think the ideal lit. critic would only speak in person in footnotes)’,[4] while Hugh Kenner, leaving Santa Barbara for Baltimore, explained the nature of his concerns in a letter to Guy Davenport (21 November 1972): ‘The principle is not desertion of a leaky ship, nor sight of pastures greene, but simply need for a massive change if I am to avoid becoming a writer of footnotes and sequels to my previous work. I have finished what I set out to do 20 years ago, and need to get started on something else of some magnitude.’[5]

Should I quote Robert Phelps once again? Absolutely: ‘Scrapbooks, footnotes, almanacs, letters, diaries, questionnaires, marginalia, memos, alphabets . . . how I love them. Pasolini once called himself a “pasticheur.” I think I am an annotator. The story exists for the scribbled notes in the margin.’[6] Sylvia Townsend Warner, having created a new story about her elfin, faery world, wrote to her friends Marchette  & Joy Chute: ‘It is rather beautiful and has a great deal of information about Elfhame unknown till now as I have just invented it. Oh, how I long to give it learned footnotes, and references. There is such heartless happiness in scholarship.’[7]

Happy but not heartless, Bertie Wooster breaks off partway through The Mating Season to observe: ‘But half a jiffy. I’m forgetting that you haven’t the foggiest what all this is about. It so often pans out that way when you begin a story. You whizz off the mark all pep and ginger, like a mettlesome charger going into its routine, and the next thing you know, the customers are up on their hind legs, yelling for footnotes.’[8]

Still, questions inevitably arise. What to put in a footnote – or, very often, does this need a footnote at all? Or, occasionally, would a footnote here end up being longer than the page, chapter, volume, it is intended to explicate?

I recall editorial discussions over whether or not to footnote an anti-Semitic remark voiced by a character in Ford’s Parade’s End (we decided not to). As readers, we notice it, but should we, as editors, draw attention to it, to say, in effect, this is worthy of your scrutiny? What might that note say? That such racist slurs were commonplace in English society at that time in all classes? In a sense, that would militate against a text which renders a world, a time, a social context in which such remarks were, precisely, barely noticed or refuted or queried. And ‘at that time’? I recall a history of anti-Semitism by Léon Poliakov from the University of Pennsylvania Press: its four volumes ran from the time of Christ up to the rise of Hitler. Had there ever not been a time?

(George Orwell)

Some relevant phrases that had long stuck in my head I later tracked down to an essay by George Orwell, ‘Anti-Semitism in Britain’, published in Contemporary Jewish Record in April 1945. Early on he writes: ‘it is generally admitted that anti-Semitism is on the increase, that it has been greatly exacerbated by the war, and that humane and enlightened people are not immune to it.’[9] This is pretty dismaying, given the late stage of the war at which Orwell is writing, although the full horror of the concentration camps was only then just emerging into public knowledge, Auschwitz liberated as Orwell was writing the essay and others, Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen among them, during April, as the essay was published.

Orwell points out almost immediately how ‘anti-Semitism is an irrational thing’ and that the ‘accusations’ of which he has given examples, remarks made to him over the past year or two, ‘merely rationalize some deep-rooted prejudice.’ He adds that, ‘To attempt to counter them with facts and statistics is useless, and may sometimes be worse than useless’ (65), which has its own uneasy resonance for us, given the past four and a half years, to reach no further back. He concluded that he didn’t believe anti-Semitism could be ‘definitively cured without curing the larger disease of nationalism’ (70).

So yes, hardly helpful simply to point out that anti-Semitic remarks were common in the 1920s since they were still flourishing twenty years later in wartime Britain (and can hardly be said to have vanished now). And there is always the temptation in any case, which some commentators seem unable to resist, to ascribe fictional characters’ views and prejudices to their author, as Guy Davenport wrote to James Laughlin: ‘It annoys the hell out of me when reviewers say I like or dislike whatever: they’re always looking at what a character likes or dislikes. In a confessional age I keep my mouth shut (in fiction; not as a critic, natch). . . . ’[10]

Probably no footnote is necessary for ‘a confessional age’.


Notes


[1] Denton Welch, The Journals of Denton Welch, edited by Michael De-la-Noy (London: Allison & Busby, 1984), 121.

[2] Saul Bellow, Ravelstein (London: Viking, 2000), 2.

[3] Alethea Hayter, A Sultry Month: Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846 (London: Faber and Faber 1965), 70.

[4] Louis MacNeice, Letters of Louis MacNeice, edited by Jonathan Allison (London: Faber, 2010), 369.

[5] Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), II, 1424.

[6] Memorable Days: The Selected Letters of James Salter and Robert Phelps, edited by John McIntyre (Berkeley, California: Counterpoint, 2010), 38.

[7] Letter of 8 April 1973, in Sylvia Townsend Warner, Letters, edited by William Maxwell (London: Chatto & Windus, 1982), 265.

[8] P. G. Wodehouse, The Mating Season (1949; in The Jeeves Omnibus: 3, London: Hutchinson, 1991), 177.

[9] Quotations from George Orwell, I Belong to the Left: 1945, edited by Peter Davison, revised and updated edition (London: Secker and Warburg, 2001), 64-70. The essay is cited approvingly in the opening pages of Brian Cheyette, Constructions of ‘the Jew’ in English literature and society: Racial representations, 1875-1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 1-2.

[10] W. C. Bamberger, editor, Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007), 96.

On not sending condolences

Theodor de Bry; America sive Novus Orbis (America or the New World); American Museum & Gardens; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/america-sive-novus-orbis-america-or-the-new-world-271604


Four years back, 10 November 2016, I wrote a blog post on the company website, one of the very last such posts since we closed the company offices down just after that date:

‘A few months ago, several American friends and colleagues were kind enough to express their sympathy in the wake of the calamitous EU referendum result and what it said about the state of our country.

The least we can do is to reciprocate and send them our sympathy, condolences and best wishes, following the Presidential election and what it says about the state of their country.’

Today, let’s just make it ‘best wishes’, with the fervent hope that we never have to send condolences again.

My nerves are bad tonight (and likely to remain so until Wednesday)

I’m a fairly greedy and promiscuous reader these days—though yesterday I was worryingly pleased to see that, of the ninety-nine books read so far this year, fifty were written or edited by women and that the one I’m most likely to finish next is by a man, which will give me an even hundred, precisely fifty-fifty, though unplanned and unintended, so no credit to me, obviously. I remembered the Beckett character who observes: ‘I’ve always had a mania for symmetry’: having knocked down a man met in the forest and kicked him in the side, he is now manoeuvring  himself into a position from which he can kick him in the same place in the other side.[1] Symmetry is often pleasing but I’m not afflicted by that particular mania – not, at least, to that extent.

A greedy reader, as I say, and with a pretty strong stomach – but just lately I find that I can’t bring myself to read anything substantial about the imminent U.S. election. My nerves won’t stand it. And I’m not even American. I accept that we don’t have much to celebrate, given our own corrupt and incompetent government, but democracy seems even more threatened there and in more violent, urgent and brazen ways. Much of it, in any case, is quite mysterious to me: those Evangelicals proclaiming a Christianity which bears no relation to any version of it that I’m familiar with; the aggressively overt voter suppression, seemingly performed with impunity; and the undisguisedly partisan judges who make my understanding of that phrase ‘the rule of law’ just a little wobbly.

T. S. Eliot—American citizen, later British citizen and almost exactly half of his life spent as each—wrote:

“My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me.
“Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.
“What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
“I never know what you are thinking. Think.”

I think we are in rats’ alley
Where the dead men lost their bones.[2]

Yes, one is tempted to say: Good answer, I share that general suspicion.

David Jones (born on this day in 1895), having survived Mametz Wood, trench fever and much else, unsurprisingly had a touch of the same thing as the speaker in Eliot’s poem, writing to his friend Harman Grisewood on 14 February (‘St. Valentine’s Day’) 1938: ‘I think if I could only get not having the worst type of nerves and could work at painting or writing (Bugger—O did not know this had a drawing on the back—it is my leg. I drew it as a study for a thing I’m doing—bugger! I want it, but can’t write this letter over again—well, I shall have to send it as it is and do my leg again if I want it) I should be quite happy alone always.’[3]

Too much in the way of nerves or too little? I recall this line by P. G. Wodehouse: ‘Whiffle on The Care of the Pig fell from his nerveless hand, and he sat looking like a dying duck.’[4] None of us, surely, wants to look quite like that.

But I think that one of my favourite literature-related nerves items is the passage in Allyson Booth’s fascinating Postcards From the Trenches, where, referring to Wallace Stevens’ poem, ‘A Postcard from the Volcano’, she writes: ‘Like the children who pick up bones without stopping to consider that they once strung nerves and housed passions, we read modernism without fully realizing the extent to which it handles the bones of the war dead.’[5] Yes. Here’s the Stevens poem:

Children picking up our bones
Will never know that these were once  
As quick as foxes on the hill;

And that in autumn, when the grapes  
Made sharp air sharper by their smell  
These had a being, breathing frost;

And least will guess that with our bones   
We left much more, left what still is   
The look of things, left what we felt

At what we saw. The spring clouds blow   
Above the shuttered mansion-house,   
Beyond our gate and the windy sky

Cries out a literate despair.
We knew for long the mansion’s look   
And what we said of it became

A part of what it is . . . Children,   
Still weaving budded aureoles,
Will speak our speech and never know,

Will say of the mansion that it seems   
As if he that lived there left behind   
A spirit storming in blank walls,

A dirty house in a gutted world,
A tatter of shadows peaked to white,   
Smeared with the gold of the opulent sun.[6]

‘And what we said of it became/ A part of what it is’. Wonderful.

Hold your nerve, America. Please.


Notes


[1] This is Molloy, of course: The Beckett Trilogy (London: Picador Books, 1979), 78.

[2] The Waste Land, ll.111-116: The Poems of T. S. Eliot. Volume I: Collected and Uncollected Poems, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (London: Faber & Faber, 2015), 59.

[3] René Hague, editor, Dai Greatcoat: A self-portrait of David Jones in his letters (London: Faber and Faber, 1980), 84.

[4] ‘The Crime Wave at Blandings’, in Lord Emsworth and Others (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966), 29.

[5] Allyson Booth, Postcards From the Trenches: Negotiating the Space Between Modernism and the First World War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 17.

[6] Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems (New York: Vintage Books, 1982), 158-159.

A vast quantity of letters (and a counting pony)

(D. H. Lawrence/ Nancy Mitford: both © National Portrait Gallery)

In a letter partly about letters, Nancy Mitford wrote to Hamish Erskine on 24 October 1932: ‘The others have all gone off to a circus but I remain here by the fire & with D. H. Lawrence’s letters. Terrible to have reached an age (or a stage) when one would rather hear about a pony counting to 9 with its foot than bother to go & see it do so. Lawrence’s letters are terrifying – would you read them if I sent them to you? But they must be read – all & carefully or no use & there is a vast quantity of them.’ Mitford added a postscript: ‘The children are back – the pony counted to 20 AND LAUGHED OUT LOUD. Well well.’[1]

That selection of Lawrence’s letters, edited by Aldous Huxley, had appeared the previous month and was reprinted before the end of the year. It was certainly a hefty volume, coming in at almost 900 pages, though Mitford’s ‘vast quantity’ would be thrust into sharp perspective fifty years on by the Cambridge edition of the letters, which increased Huxley’s 790 items by a factor of more than 7, added invaluable annotations and restored the excisions which Huxley had made—‘cutting out feeling-hurting passages, uninteresting bits and things which are repeated in several letters to different people . . . tho’ it’s often worth keeping repetitions because of the subtle variations’.[2] Understandably, he felt he needed to tread a little warily since his edition was appearing only two years after Lawrence’s death at the early age of 44. Huxley had first proposed to Frieda Lawrence that they produce a memorial volume, ‘reminiscences by various people interspersed with Lawrence’s own letters’, offering (‘this goes without saying’) to do whatever work was involved for nothing. But the idea ‘petered out’.[3]


Lawrence and Huxley had met in 1915, apparently at the home of Lady Ottoline Morrell. She suggested to Lawrence that the two of them should get to know one another and Lawrence wrote to Huxley a week or so later, inviting him to tea.[4] They met again in the mid-1920s and Huxley was very important to the Lawrences in the last years of Lawrence’s life.[5]

If, like Orwell, Huxley was not a great novelist—Brave New World and Island, like Animal Farm and 1984, tend to be viewed as fables or satires rather than ‘straight’ novels—he was certainly a significant writer and an extraordinarily interesting figure: Sybille Bedford’s great affection for him is made wholly understandable in her biography of him. 

A year into the First World War—he was then 21—Huxley wrote a letter to a family friend of the Huxleys, the concert violinist Jelly d’Aranyi: ‘This war impresses on me more than ever the fact that friendship, love, whatever you like to call it is the only reality.’ He went on: ‘You never knew my mother—I wish you had because she was a very wonderful woman’ (Julia Huxley had died in 1908). ‘I have just been reading again what she wrote to me just before she died. The last words of her letter were “Dont be too critical of other people and ‘love much’”–and I have come to see more and more how wise that advice was. It’s a warning against a rather conceited and selfish fault of my own and it’s a whole philosophy of life.’[6]

Certainly, that advice—if not always easy to follow—is, yes, not bad. Really not bad at all.


Notes


[1] The Letters of Diana Mitford, edited by Charlotte Mosley (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1993), 51. To a Guy Davenport reader, the counting pony can only recall the typing dog that caused the Stan Brakhage–Joseph Cornell contretemps: see ‘Pergolesi’s Dog’ in Davenport’s Every Force Evolves a Form (Berkeley: North Point Press, 1987), 144-146.

[2] To Dorothy Brett, 10 March 1931: Letters of Aldous Huxley, edited by Grover Smith (London: Chatto and Windus, 1969), 346-347.

[3] Sybille Bedford, Aldous Huxley: A Biography (London: Pan Macmillan, 1993), 235.

[4] Letters of D. H. Lawrence II, June 1913–October 1916, edited by George J. Zytaruk and James T. Boulton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 452, n.2  and 467-468.

[5] David Ellis, D. H. Lawrence: Dying Game, 1922-1930 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 312, and later instances indexed.

[6] Huxley, Letters, 83.

Zounds and scars and other niceties

‘During the endless hours flat on your back’, Ernst Jünger wrote in his famous memoir  of the Great War, ‘you try to distract yourself, to pass the time; once, I reckoned up my wounds. Leaving out trifles such as ricochets and grazes, I was hit at least fourteen times, these being five bullets, two shell splinters, one shrapnel ball, four hand-grenade splinters and two bullet splinters, which, with entry and exit wounds, left me an even twenty scars.’[1]

Virginia Woolf’s Mr Oliver (‘of the Indian Civil Service, retired’) refers to the nearby Roman road: ‘From an aeroplane, he said, you could still see, plainly marked, the scars made by the Britons; by the Romans; by the Elizabethan manor house; and by the plough, when they ploughed the hill to grow wheat in the Napoleonic wars.’[2]

Scars on the body, scars on the land. The wounds are not always visible. In 1944, the poet Keith Douglas died soon after the Normandy landings. Drawing on an unpublished memoir by one of his fellow-officers, his biographer Desmond Graham wrote that Douglas ‘had climbed from his tank to make his report, when the mortar fire started. As he ran along the ditch one of the shells exploded in a tree above him. He must have been hit by a tiny fragment, for although no mark was found on his body, he was instantly killed.’[3] There was a story of Edward Thomas being killed at Arras by the force of a shell-blast that left no mark upon his body: this is discussed and definitively contradicted by his most recent biographer.[4]

‘Zounds’, Philip the Bastard says in Shakespeare’s King John. ‘’Swounds’, he has Prince Hamlet say. These, both standing in for ‘God’s wounds’, are examples of what Geoffrey Hughes called ‘Elizabethan minced oaths’, abbreviations and euphemisms in response to ‘Puritan injunctions against Profanity on the Stage’. Shakespeare himself enlarged the repertoire to blood and eyelid (‘’sblood’ and ‘’slid’).[5]

(Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet, 1899)

It’s hardly comparable to war or deities but ageing certainly inflicts wounds of various kinds. Not everyone is as cavalier as me with knives in the kitchen but what is most noticeable is the body’s increasing slowness to heal. So many nicks and cuts and gashes, though: Doctor Freud would have a field day with me unless, perhaps, one can merely be clumsy in certain contexts.

Literature would hardly be content with marks upon the body, certainly not only those. ‘Language is what eases the pain of living with other people’, Anne Carson writes, before adding sharply: ‘language is what makes the wounds come open again.’[6] Colette wrote of a character she named Charlotte: ‘Her presence lured other ephemera from the depths of my memory, phantoms I seem always to be losing and finding again, restless ghosts unrecovered from wounds sustained in the past when they crashed headlong or sidelong against that barrier reef’.[7] In Sarah Hall’s novel The Wolf Border, Rachel, having just given birth, is impatient for contact with her baby and with the ministrations of the surgeons and the midwife. ‘There seems no need for anything else now. There is no wound. The only wound is life, recklessly creating it, knowing that it will never be safe, it will never last; it will only ever be real.’[8]

(Via BBC)

One of the most alarming wounds is mentioned by E. P. Thompson, when recounting the history of ‘Governor’ Thomas Pitt, of Swallowfield (1653-1726), grandfather of the rather more famous William Pitt. He bought up Old Sarum, famous rotten borough, after his return from East Indian buccaneering (trading outside the East India Company’s monopoly), did a deal with the Company, made even more money in India, became Governor of Madras, ‘and acquired, for some £20,000, a monstrous diamond weighing 410 carats, which had been smuggled from the mines hidden in the wounds in a slave’s leg’.[9]

A nice image to close on. My thumb—courtesy of the sharp lid of an opened tin lurking in the sink—is doing just fine at its own leisurely pace. No sign of any gems there, not the merest sparkle.


Notes

[1] Ernst Jünger, Storm of Steel, translated by Michael Hofmann (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2004), 288.

[2] Virginia Woolf, Between the Acts (1941; edited with an introduction by Frank Kermode, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 3-4.

[3] Desmond Graham, Keith Douglas, 1920-1944: A Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974), 256.

[4] Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Edward Thomas: From Adlestrop to Arras (London: Bloomsbury, 2015), 412-413.

[5] Geoffrey Hughes, Swearing: A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths and Profanity in English (London: Penguin Books, 1998), 18, 104.

[6] Anne Carson, ‘Just for the Thrill: An Essay on the Difference Between Women and Men’, in Plainwater: Essays and Poetry (New York: Vintage, 2000), 232.

[7] The Pure and the Impure (translated by Herma Briffault; 1962; Penguin Books, 1971), 26.

[8] Sarah Hall, The Wolf Border (London: Faber 2015), 254.

[9] E. P. Thompson, Whigs and Hunters (London: Penguin Books, 1990), 110