‘Last few days’: bits of paradise

FMF-Biala-viaTLS

(Ford Madox Ford and Janice Biala via the Times Literary Supplement)

Eighty years ago today, Thursday 25 May 1939, William Carlos Williams, poet and paediatrician of Rutherford, New Jersey, went into New York City to make his farewells to Ford Madox Ford and his partner, the painter Janice Biala. Ezra Pound was also expected to say goodbye but didn’t turn up. Ford and Biala were due to leave on 30 May, aboard the Normandie. Williams ‘knew with his trained medical eye that Ford would soon be dead. Nevertheless, Ford himself, wheezing and overweight, was still optimistic. He was taking a villa on the French coast near Le Havre and invited the Williamses to sail over for the month of August.’

The next day, three and a half thousand miles away, Lawrence Durrell and his wife Nancy, returning to Corfu from England, called in to see Henry Miller in Paris. ‘With a sense of finality, Henry inscribed a copy of Tropic of Capricorn to them with the words, “To Larry and Nancy from Henry – Paris 5/26/39 ‘last few days’”.’

Durrells-via-Guardian

(Nancy Durrell and Lawrence Durrell, family photograph, Joanna Hodgkin, included in Amateurs in Eden: The Story of a Bohemian Marriage, Virago, 2012, via The Guardian)

(Miller’s novel begins: ‘Once you have given up the ghost, everything follows with dead certainty, even in the midst of chaos.’)

Ford fell ill on the voyage to France; he and Biala reached Le Havre on 4 June and moved across the Seine to the port of Honfleur. Three weeks later, on 26 June 1939, Ford died at the age of sixty-five. His death ‘hit Williams hard’, though it was four months before he set down his feelings about Ford in a poem because ‘he deeply mistrusted occasional verse’. Towards the end of October, his poem ‘To Ford Madox Ford in Heaven’ emerged. It was later included in his volume The Wedge (1944) and begins:

Is it any better in Heaven, my friend Ford,
than you found it in Provence?

I don’t think so for you made Provence a
heaven by your praise of it
to give a foretaste of what might be
your joy in the present circumstances.
It was Heaven you were describing there
transubstantiated from its narrowness
to resemble the paths and gardens of a
greater world where you now reside.
But, dear man, you have taken a major
part of it from us.
Provence that you
praised so well will never be the same
Provence to us
now you are gone.

With Europe under threat, Paul Mariani comments, Williams was ‘writing an elegy not only for a man but for a whole world in danger now of disappearing forever.’

Ford’s long poem ‘On Heaven’, written before the First World War, essentially identified that celestial place with his beloved Provence. It became increasingly central to his work in the last decade of his life. In the late work Provence: From Minstrels to the Machine (1935), Ford remarked, ‘If I write of Provence a little as if it were an earthly Paradise the reader must amiably condone what, not being fully in the know, he will consider as a weakness.’

Earthly Paradise was the title that Robert Phelps gave to his skilfully assembled collection of Colette’s autobiographical writings. Colette once observed that, ‘For the hearts which have chosen Provence it takes only July, August, to restore – new, annual unchanging – every astonishment and every bestowal.’ Lawrence Durrell, who spent his last decades, living in Sommières, wrote of catching a glimpse of what Provence must have meant to the ancients: ‘a sort of Tibet-shaped land of paradisiacal luxuriance, remote and at peace’.

aldington-durrell-miller-fjt-pont-de-sommic3a8res-1959

(Durrell with Miller – flanked by Richard Aldington and F. J. Temple, Sommières, 1959)
https://lesuniversdetemple.wordpress.com/une-vie-1955-1971/

In earlier years, it was Greece that had seemed paradisal to Durrell, not least because it represented release from a stifling England—it did to his wife Nancy as well at the outset, though Durrell’s jealousy and controlling behaviour led to their separation during the Second World War, after they had been forced to flee Greece. For Henry Miller too, his first experience of Greece tasted of heaven in the face of encroaching catastrophe. A few months before the outbreak of war, he went to the Dordogne region: ‘It is the nearest thing to Paradise this side of Greece.’ Arriving at Piraeus in a heat wave in July 1939, he joined Durrell and spent time on Corfu, in Athens and travelling in the Peloponnese. He would later state simply that, ‘Greece is now, bare and lean as a wolf though she be, the only Paradise in Europe.’

The ‘last few days’. But the noises of war were increasingly difficult to ignore. The American Embassy was keen to get its nationals home safely and Miller returned to the United States.

A few years later, in a detention camp a little to the north of Pisa, Ezra Pound wrote:

Le paradis n’est pas artificiel

adding, unsurprisingly:

l’enfer non plus.

 

A few books

Colette, Looking Backwards: Recollections [Journal à rebours and De ma fenêtre], translated by David Le Vay (London: Peter Owen, 1975)

Lawrence Durrell, Caesar’s Vast Ghost: Aspects of Provence (London: Faber and Faber, 1990).

Ford Madox Ford, Provence (London: Allen & Unwin, 1938).

Joanna Hodgkin, Amateurs in Eden: The Story of a Bohemian Marriage (London: Virago, 2012).

Edmund Keeley, Inventing Paradise: The Greek Journey, 1937-47 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999).

Ian MacNiven, Lawrence Durrell: A Biography (London: Faber and Faber, 1998).

Paul Mariani, William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked (New York: W. W. Norton, 1990).

Henry Miller, The Colossus of Maroussi (1941; London: Penguin Books, 1972).

Henry Miller, Tropic of Capricorn (1939; London: John Calder, 1964)

Max Saunders, Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life, two volumes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), II: The After-War World.

William Carlos Williams, The Collected Poems, Volume II: 1939-1962, edited by Christopher MacGowan (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1988).

William Carlos Williams, Selected Letters, edited by John C. Thirlwall (New York: New Directions, 1969).

 

 

Always changing, always the same

durrell.via.theamericanreader.com .  Mansfield

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

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

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

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

Dore-Punishment-Sowers-Discord

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

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

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

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

 
References

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

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

 

Put it more simply, Larry

durrell.via.theamericanreader.com

(Lawrence Durrell via theamericanreader.com )

When I went to the Ford Madox Ford conference in Swansea in September 2013, I remember thinking, as the train entered Wales, that the change was physically apparent. Could I really look out of a train window and say ‘that’s Wales’? I felt I could but would have been hard put to it if I were challenged to say precisely how and why. But I did, quite abruptly, recall the opening lines of a poem by R. S. Thomas, whose title I could not then remember, and sat leaning against the window, listening to the voice in my head:

To live in Wales is to be conscious
At dusk of the spilled blood
That went into the making of the wild sky,
Dyeing the immaculate rivers
In all their courses.
It is to be aware,
Above the noisy tractor
And hum of the machine
Of strife in the strung woods,
Vibrant with sped arrows.[1]

No, that’s not quite what I heard. The third line had ‘to’ instead of ‘into’, the fourth and fifth lines had vanished from my memory, I had ‘the noise of the tractor’ and ‘the hum’. But not too bad since I hadn’t read the poem for a good thirty years. At home, seeming not to have any R. S. Thomas, I took down from the shelves four or five anthologies of post-1945 poetry, all containing poems by Thomas but not that one. Then I remembered that the hugely important and influential series of Penguin Modern Poets had featured Thomas in the very first volume. I’d owned that, more, at least the first ten volumes in the series, for years. Penguin Modern Poets 10: The Mersey Sound—Roger McGough, Adrian Henri and Brian Patten—was the bestseller, which took everyone by surprise. Where did my copies go? I’m not sure. Perhaps they didn’t go anywhere. It was just me that went. In any case, the Thomas poem, ‘A Welsh Landscape’, yes, was in the initial volume.

RST-via-Telegraph

(R. S. Thomas via The Telegraph)

It was in April 1962 that Penguin Books launched Penguin Modern Poets. Each volume contained representative selections from three poets and that first volume included, together with Thomas, Elizabeth Jennings – and Lawrence Durrell (born on this day, 27 February 1912, in Jalandhar, India). I don’t know how far the series had gone before I came to it but there was a handful of poems of which I recalled parts, sometimes only a few lines, for years.

PMP1

The Thomas was one and another, in the same volume, was by Durrell. It was called ‘The Parthenon’, dedicated ‘For T. S. Eliot’, and it was the direct, colloquial beginning that stuck in my head:

Put it more simply: say the city
Swam up here swan-like to the shallows,
Or whiteness from an overflowing jar
Settled into this grassy violet space,
Theorem for three hills,

Went soft with brickdust, clay and whitewash,
On a plastered porch one morning wrote
Human names, think of it, men became the roads.[2]

Looking at it now, of course, I’m struck by more details: the conversational opening phrase followed by the word ‘say’; the artful sibilants, ‘swam’ to ‘swan’ then, with the modifying ‘like’, shifting to ‘shallows’. The word ‘jar’ in a grassy space would prompt me to look back at Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ via Wallace Stevens, whose ‘Anecdote of the Jar’ begins:

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.[3]

This is purely because of the strong recollection of one of my lecturers—surely John Reid?—reading the Stevens poem and looking encouragingly out at his audience: ‘What does that remind you of? What’s Stevens doing there?’ Pause. Then, with a kind of resonant despair: ‘It’s Keats! The urn!’ Packed rows of blank faces gave back whatever was the equivalent then of ‘Yeah, whatever’.

Durrell’s insertion of the word ‘Theorem’ is a nice touch too. He refers often to scientific or mathematical matters, a continuum or simultaneity here, a Freudian slap there, his range of interests always extended beyond the narrowly ‘artistic’. Firmly established in Sommières, he played with the ideas of opposing characteristics of North and South, discerning in France’s great figures ‘a pattern of talents: for scientists, philosophers and thinkers tend to be of northern stock, while the poets, artists and men of action come from the Mediterranean southern fringes.’[4] From Corfu in the mid-1930s, he wrote to his friend Alan Thomas, ‘What do you read when you spend a wet Monday alone? Myself I read one of the sciences.’ But he slyly added: ‘The most exact one to date is demonology. It is fun to follow the growth of science out of magic and demonology, and see it declining again in our time back to magic, its parent.’[5]

Whenever I find myself quoting one of those ‘Cypriot Greek proverbs’ that Durrell used as epigraphs to several chapters in Bitter Lemons, such as ‘A fool throws a stone into the sea and a hundred wise men cannot pull it out’, I’m reminded that, a little further on, he casually notes that, ‘No Greek can resist aphorism; its form will make him believe it to be true, even if it is false.’[6]

A bit more R. S. Thomas followed that early reading of the poems—and a lot more Durrell. The novels, the travel books, essays, letters; plus the connected stuff, the related writers, the sacred places. Greece, Alexandria, Provence. Miller, Cavafy, Seferis, Anaïs Nin. And, of course, the stimulus of conversation, a decade and a half in the office with my friend Andrew, a thoroughgoing Durrellian.

Nin-Brassai

(‘Darling Anaïs, I do feel for you in your cutoffness, and there seems nothing to say to you that will make you less conscious of the distance of light and air which lies between us; the war goes bitter and deep in me – it makes everything taste of ash.’—Letter from Durrell in Greece, quoted in The Journals of Anaïs Nin: Volume Three, 15.
Portrait of Anaïs Nin by the wonderful Brassaï [Gyula Halász, 1899-1984], 1932.)

Durrell was so prolific that, inevitably, some of the writing is a bit hit and miss. But with that range of cultures and countries and curiosities there are plenty of highlights, often cropping up in unexpected places or small-scale pieces or, say, in departures and returns. He writes of April 1941 when, lying ‘on the pitch-dark deck of a caique nosing past Matapan towards Crete’, he thinks back to ‘that green rain upon a white balcony, in the shadow of Albania’, with ‘a regret so luxurious and so deep that it did not stir the emotions at all. Seen through the transforming lens of memory the past seemed so enchanted that even thought would be unworthy of it.’[7] And revisiting Corfu, long afterwards: ‘As for the people . . . Memory does not grow older by a second per thousand years in Greece. Step off the ship and everywhere you will fall upon remembered faces, be instantly recognized and embraced: and I don’t mean only by friends, but by everyone who remembers you in that once, nearly twenty years ago, you gave his son a lesson or let him shine your shoes. Because they remember you they possess you, and you belong to them.’ And then, ‘there is nothing to do but surrender yourself. Strong-willed men break down and cry like babies. No good. The steady flow of hospitality ends only when you are lovingly hospitalized or carried aboard a departing ship on a stretcher.’[8]

Again, rereading The Alexandria Quartet a while back, with that slight nervousness attendant on a revisiting of a past favourite, was as provoking and pleasurable as I hoped it would be. Durrell’s rarely less than diverting, even when he’s being exasperating, a thought that occurred to me when deeply implicated in the more than 1300 pages of The Avignon Quintet, with its maddening hall of mirrors, characters repeatedly dissolving into novelists writing other characters, who are then revealed to be characters in someone else’s novel, while I mutter, ‘Cut it out, Larry’, every ten pages – but read on. ‘There is only trial and error on a journey like this, and no signposts’, as Durrell wrote on another occasion.[9]

Joyeux anniversaire, Larry. Or even, Aürós aniversari.

The International Lawrence Durrell Society site is here: http://www.lawrencedurrell.org/

 

References

[1] R. S. Thomas, ‘Welsh Landscape’, Collected Poems: 1945-1990 (London: Dent, 1993), 37.

[2] Lawrence Durrell, Collected Poems 1931-1974 (London: Faber and Faber, 1985), 134.

[3] Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems (New York: Vintage Books, 1982), 76.

[4] Lawrence Durrell, Caesar’s Vast Ghost: Aspects of Provence (London: Faber and Faber, 1990), 26.

[5] Alan G. Thomas, editor, Spirit of Place: Mediterranean Writings (1969; London : Faber and Faber, 1988), 47.

[6] Lawrence Durrell, Bitter Lemons (London: Faber and Faber, 1959), 152, 235.

[7] Lawrence Durrell, Prospero’s Cell (1945; London: Faber and Faber, 1962), 133.

[8] Lawrence Durrell, ‘Oil for the Saint: Return to Corfu’, Holiday, Philadelphia, (October 1966), in Spirit of Place, 286, 290.

[9] Lawrence Durrell, The Black Book (1938; London: Faber and Faber, 1977), 233.