‘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.

 

Kidneys out of mind

AB-rear-7-Feb-1965

(Anthony Burgess at the rear of 7 Eccles Street, 7 February 1965. From The Listener via James Joyce online notes: http://www.jjon.org/joyce-s-environs/no-7-eccles-street )

‘Cut to ECCLES STREET. Number 7, Bloom’s Ithaca, was being demolished to make way for office blocks, but the destroyers were persuaded to hold off for a day while we filmed in what would have been the Blooms’ bedroom. Much speech was slurred by the need to down much whisky in freezing pubs. Some of my monologues were unacceptable in London, They had to be redone as voice over.’[1]

‘Kidneys were in his mind as he moved about the kitchen softly, righting her breakfast things on the humpy tray.’ This is our first sight of Mr Leopold Bloom in his house at 7 Eccles Street, in James Joyce’s Ulysses. I still find ‘Kidneys were in his mind’ funny when I revisit: it was certainly a point of contention among the translators of Joyce’s novel into French and one of the examples that Valery Larbaud sent to Joyce, suggesting that, in the version by Auguste Morel and Stuart Gilbert, ‘The humourous side of the phrase in the text is lost.’[2]

valery larbaud

(Valery Larbaud)

Crossing the bedroom to the bathroom, I hear Melvyn Bragg signing off from his radio programme, ‘In Our Time’, by mentioning that next week they’ll be discussing the evolution of teeth. Damn, really? I think that’s what he said but could have been unduly influenced by the fact that teeth are in my mind again just lately, biting into it, in fact, with increasing force. Yes, I’ve been to the dentist: and have another appointment for Friday. Can I hang on that long? No. I make a phone call and plead my case. The appointment lurches a little closer to me.

Eyes slammed shut while the drill gets into its stride, I pass the time in the dentist’s chair running through the seventy-nine titles Ford Madox Ford published in his lifetime, going backwards on this occasion, in tune with the current national mood. I’ve barely reached A Little Less Than Gods (1928) before I experience a fierce spasm that lifts me a little out of the chair. It happens twice more. ‘Yes’, my dentist explains later, ‘where you were feeling the most sensitivity in the gums on the far side of that tooth, I had to inject anaesthetic directly into the nerve.’

ALLTG

http://www.fordmadoxfordsociety.org/first-editions-gallery.html

In Anne Carson’s compelling ‘The Glass Essay’, the narrator writes of her visit to her father, in company with her mother, in the hospital where he is cared for, having suffered from dementia for several years:

I notice his front teeth are getting black.
I wonder how you clean the teeth of mad people.

He always took good care of his teeth. My mother looks up.
She and I often think two halves of one thought.
Do you remember the gold-plated toothpick

you sent him from Harrod’s the summer you were in London? she asks.
Yes I wonder what happened to it.
Must be in the bathroom somewhere.[3]

With teeth no longer in my mind—nor kidneys, for sure—I can again eat normally, rather than biting down on precisely the same point with every mouthful. Even better, I can once more take liquids into my mouth without gripping the edge of my seat convulsively or tipping my head tipped steeply sideways as though going fast around a sharp corner in a motorcycle sidecar. Water, tea, coffee, yes. And wine. Red wine. Santé.

 
References

[1] You’ve Had Your Time: Being the Second Part of the Confessions of Anthony Burgess (London: Heinemann, 1990), 100.

[2] James Joyce, Ulysses (1922; London: The Bodley Head, revised edition, 1969), 65; Richard Ellmann, James Joyce, new revised edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 602fn.

[3] Anne Carson, Glass, Irony & God, introduction by Guy Davenport (New York: New Directions, 1995), 26.

 

Temperature normal – sometimes

Borogroves-toves-raths

(Sir John Tenniel, ‘Borogroves, toves, raths’)

‘Delirium would seem to be the fate of all societies which become content in secured wealth and gradually forget the conditions of labour and service upon which alone that security can be maintained.’[1]

 
Writing to Eudora Welty in 1996, William Maxwell told her that he was sending ‘a lifetime of correspondence’ to the University of Illinois Library but couldn’t bear to dispose of his letters from Charles and Susan Shattuck without rereading them.

‘Reading the letters has plunged me into such a fit of remembering, not only of them but of almost everything else, that I couldn’t sleep because my mind was racing so. It made me realize that remembering can be a kind of illness, and perhaps I have it.’[2]

It can be; I may have it too. But if it’s the other way around, I’ve had a touch of that too lately, encountering people I’ve not seen for years, some of them dead, of course, but also with the tendency to turn into others or, indeed, into narrow staircases or resistant thickets or animals—among them, white rabbits, though not, to my recollection, Grace Slick.

Even though I’ve been luckier than a great many other people in the matter of general health, I’ve still had far more serious medical conditions than this in my life—‘I want you to go to hospital’, my doctor said once, years ago and, when I mumbled vaguely about dates and appointments, he said, ‘I mean now. Immediately.’ So peritonitis was happily avoided—but I can’t remember feeling so generally ill. And yes, the nights have been the worst but I’m still frustrated by the sheer physical effort involved in such major undertakings as putting on clothes or lifting a dropped spoon from the floor. (For the most part, the Librarian, visibly puzzled by the circumstances which have landed her with this most unnatural role, buckles to and tends.)

‘Space the doses evenly throughout the day.’

We all experience illness; some are never free of it; a part of ordinary life, it also offers the means of luring or urging the poet, the painter, the storyteller into strange and often arresting terrain. Illness is so various, involves its own related places, its own rituals, its own company. If we are not ill now, we have been and we will be.

The Centurion's Servant 1914 by Sir Stanley Spencer 1891-1959

Stanley Spencer, The Centurion’s Servant: Tate Gallery
© Estate of Stanley Spencer

Discussing Stanley Spencer’s The Centurion’s Servant —‘a person walking only it is lying down’, the painter remarked— Kenneth Pople notes that, in Spencer’s childhood Cookham, it was the custom to pray round the sickbed. Family recollections included an episode in which one of the older Spencer boys developed pneumonia. The illness reached a stage at which the anxiously watching women dispatched young Sydney Spencer to run to his father, then working across the Thames at Hedsor, ‘to tell him that “the crisis has come”; a message which reached Pa’s ears as ‘“Christ has come.”’[3]

Alethea Hayter quotes Coleridge—‘“I appear to myself like a sick physician, feeling the pang acutely, yet deriving a wonted pleasure from examining its process and developing its causes”’—and comments that, ‘He was speaking metaphorically, but illness, like anything else for him, could become an allegory and was interesting for that reason. Anything, however intrinsically repugnant, could be used as a symbol which would make a poem.’[4]

The warring elements of my recent nights have been the sleeplessness for hours at a time but, on the other hand, a seething and feverish onslaught of images tap-dancing on the insides of my eyelids. Lying still can, of course, be a quite exhausting business.

‘This medicine may colour your urine. This is harmless.’

Kipling-via-BBC

Edmund Wilson’s assertion that ‘[t]he theme of inescapable illness dominates the whole later Kipling’ is a reminder of just how many impressive stories this applies to, when postwar trauma is included, as it must be.[5] Yet, as J. M. S. Tompkins points out, the theme of healing predates the war, emerging in Actions and Reactions (1909), with its opening story ‘An Habitation Enforced’ and its concluding one, ‘The House Surgeon’.[6] In later stories, it is sometimes the ritual and fellowship of the masonic lodge that is the healing power: ‘In the Interests of the Brethren’, ’Fairy-Kist’, ‘The Janeites’.

‘Ah!’ Conrad’s Marlow says, ‘but it was something to have at least a choice of nightmares.’ (I think we can all wholeheartedly second that.) And: ‘I admit my behaviour was inexcusable, but then my temperature was seldom normal in these days.’[7]

My own temperature promises to be—and, importantly, to stay—normal, any day now. Yes. I think so. Any day now.

 

References

[1] C. F. G. Masterman, The Condition of England (London: Methuen, 1911), 34.

[2] Suzanne Marrs, editor, What There Is to Say, We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), 441.

[3] Kenneth Pople. Stanley Spencer: A Biography (London: Harper Collins, 1991), 63.

[4] Alethea Hayter, Voyage in Vain: Coleridge’s Journey to Malta in 1804 (1973; London: Robin Clark, 1993), 152.

[5] Edmund Wilson, ‘The Kipling That Nobody Read’, in Andrew Rutherford, editor, Kipling’s Mind and Art (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1964), 67.

[6] J. M. S. Tompkins, The Art of Rudyard Kipling, second edition (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965), Chapter Six, ‘Healing’.

[7] Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness with The Congo Diary, edited by Robert Hampson (London: Penguin Books, 1995), 103, 114.