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 Drawing on an unpublished memoir by one of his fellow-officers, his biographer Desmond Graham wrote that Douglas ‘had climbed from his tank to make his report, when the mortar fire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

‘A Lady Asks Me’

Italian (Venetian) School; Portrait of an Unknown Young Woman; Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/portrait-of-an-unknown-young-woman-189206

‘A Lady asks me’, as Ezra Pound begins Canto 36, borrowing from his own translation of Guido Cavalcanti’s ‘Donna mi prega’, ‘I speak in season’. In fact, here, the season is undeniably autumn – and it’s the Librarian, asking what I’m finding the worst thing about the pandemic – ‘apart, obviously, from huge numbers of people dying’.

I know already that she misses, often very keenly, her library, the beautiful physical space itself and her colleagues—the greetings on a staircase, words exchanged in a corridor, on the phone or round the edge of a door, those brief moments that, tabulated and totalled, make up a significant proportion of any working day, both qualitatively and quantitatively.

For me, though, the shape of the days is much less changed. I read, I write, I walk, I cook, I feed the cat. The things that huge numbers of my fellow-citizens are apparently frantic for don’t really bother me. In another age, we would go to the cinema occasionally and to restaurants a little more often: but a large part of going out to eat—and of being in the cinema—is being able to relax. I certainly couldn’t relax in those settings at the moment, so why would I do it? Going on holiday: yes, but we’d be doing the same things, just in a different setting and at a substantial cost, and the logistics of any such trip make my head hurt. I’d really like to walk by the sea again – but now, as always, I don’t want to do it in the company of several thousand others.

There’s a world out there of worsening political chaos, lethal incompetence, thousands of avoidable deaths (and how many more in the United States, whose president is waging war against his own country); after the schools failures, now the universities fiasco, students imprisoned while administrators rearrange deckchairs on an ever more steeply tilting deck amidst ignorant comments from politicians and tabloid journalists.

Louis MacNeice writes in Autumn Journal:

It is this we learn after so many failures,
The building of castles in sand, of queens in snow,
That we cannot make any corner in life or in life’s beauty,
That no river is a river which does not flow.

Even in lives superficially unchanged or little changed, this has changed. Life at present does not flow. Watching moving water, the fact of it moving becomes less and less its dominant feature; the currents that make our own lives flow are often invisible, unremarked. So perhaps one of the worst things is the simplest. We can go out, we can walk, other people can and do take buses or trains – but never now in an untroubled way, never wholly spontaneous, never unthinking, never without watchfulness, wariness, a readiness to take evasive measures. It’s the old literary metaphor of the poem as a field of action, of moving through hostile territory, always on the qui vive. A potentially productive conceit, you might argue, but probably not how you want to live your – civilian – life.

On this day in 1916, Ford Madox Ford published a piece called ‘Trois Jours de Permission’, about a three-day leave granted to him a little earlier that year, which he spent in Paris, much of it waiting for some grand fromage or other. ‘Yes, one learns to wait’, Ford wrote. ‘The most impatient temperament, somewhere in France, will be strait-waistcoated into inaction, into introspection.’

So here I am, somewhere in England, inactive and introspective, waving goodbye to September – though mentally active and prospective enough to expect little better of October. . .

Intact in the mind

22 September. In 1798—not an uneventful year—Ann Radcliffe wrote of sitting on shipboard, en route from Portsmouth to the Isle of Wight: ‘a fine view of the town, the hospital, the forts and harbour, as we sailed out, the sea not rough. Hear the he-hoes of the sailors, afar in the channel, and the boatswain’s shrill whistle.’[1]

I’m reminded that my sister, born in Portsmouth, would have been 75 today, and that I have several images of its harbour, the seafront and yes, the Isle of Wight, fairly secure in my memory, ‘intact in my mind’ as William Maxwell termed it, in a letter to Sylvia Townsend Warner on this day in 1954: ‘Do you know I always believe implicitly in the places you describe as not only existing but being part of your life? Once read about, they remain intact in my mind, and I could move right into any house or piece of property you have ever written about. It occurred to me, on the train this morning, that perhaps you ought to have me insured.’[2]

As for the border between things remembered from ‘life’ and from books, which are a great part of many lives, it’s as porous as most other borders and is becoming more so, and not just for me. Fiction, as generally understood, has entered increasingly into the areas of public life where it’s not been conventionally expected to occur. When political figures don’t know the answer to a question—or do know but don’t want to say—they just make something up and barely bother to hide the fact. More official advice yesterday and today, so many talking or shouting heads buffeted by passing breezes, obviously humming along to a Bob Dylan song, though whether ‘Blowing in the Wind’ or ‘Idiot Wind’ it’s becoming harder to tell.

Now that the Christmas cracker motto ‘Follow the science’ has become visibly more complicated—it always was though it suited some people to pretend otherwise—I imagine we’ll all go on more or less as we were. Those lucky enough to be in a position to choose various degrees of isolation will so choose; those unavoidably more vulnerable will, alas, continue vulnerable; the frankly exploited, yes, the same; those reckless both on their own account and that of others will go on being so.

I’m now sometimes seen in daylight, though still prone to veering off paths and pavements. But we’ve cancelled our holiday in Dorset – and have put in a little extra pasta and a little extra wine ahead of. . . well, fill in your catastrophe of choice here, though ‘catastrophe’ isn’t quite the word. A downward turn, the Greek original says – but we’re well past that. Play some music, phone a friend and buckle up.


Notes


[1] Radcliffe’s journal, quoted by Geoffrey Grigson in The English Year: From Diaries and Letters (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), 128.

[2] Michael Steinman, editor, The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938-1978 (Washington: Counterpoint, 2001), 55.

Travelling light, or dark

(Daumier, Honore; The Heavy Burden; Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-heavy-burden-160162)

I knew a woman called Janet many years back—bookseller, cook—and remember when she gave up smoking. It was, she explained, one less thing to worry about and to have to carry when you left the house. So, keys and money. This was before people pledged undying love to their phones, obviously. Lately, I’ve noticed how little I carry myself these days: the cash in my wallet has been there since March, untouched. I don’t carry a chequebook or cards, and don’t worry about pens or a notebook.

Still walking so early in the morning, there are no shops open yet, and nothing in them that I need, or plan, to buy anyway. I don’t bother with a notebook because I’d barely be able to see to write. My bunch of keys has shrunk even further: office keys a while gone now; and the keys to the house of the Librarian’s parents not needed these last few months since we’ve not gone down to visit them in Somerset, though they’ve visited us.

Travelling light or lighter, though in the near-dark. Not that burdens are always material, of course, and this year has been a heavy, sometimes crushing, one for people to bear. Literary history abounds in things carried, from memories or a sense of guilt to the objects carried according to the scheme, devised by Professors at the School of Languages in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, ‘for entirely abolishing all Words whatsoever’. Words being ‘only’ names for things, ‘it would be more convenient for all men to carry about them such things as were necessary to express a particular business they are to discourse on.’ Gulliver remarks that he has ‘often beheld two of those sages almost sinking under the weight of their packs, like pedlars among us, who, when they met in the street, would lay down their loads, open their sacks, and hold conversation for an hour together; then put up their implements, help each other to resume their burdens, and take their leave.’[1]

(Illustrated by J. G. Thompson: British Library)

From Corfu in 1935, Lawrence Durrell wrote to Alan Thomas: ‘The peasants are incorrigible thieves and liars, but make up for it by having the dandiest arse-action when they walk. This is due to always carrying huge weights on their heads. They’re very saucy and can be persuaded to do almost anything within reason.’[2] ‘Within reason’ is nicely placed.

When Greece’s terrible years of invasion and occupation by the Nazis were beginning, Mark Mazower relates, the Chief of Police in Mytilene, Nikolaos Katsareas, ‘had a finger in food and fuel rackets, helped “supervise” allocations of flour to the island’s bakers, and finally fled at an opportune moment by caique to the Middle East so weighed down with large quantities of British tinned goods that he had to ask his fellow-passengers to help him carry them on board.’[3]

In Guy Davenport’s story, ‘Mesoroposthonippidon’, he has Diogenes viewing civilization as ‘weightless’, since he carries books in his head. In ‘On Some Lines of Virgil’, though, during the visit to the cave at Pair-non-Pair, Jolivet carries his disabled friend Marc Aurel—who has lost both his legs—on his back: a burden borne  by choice whereas his Uncle Jacques represents, rather, the burden imposed by familial duty.[4]

‘Now we are truly adult, we think, stunned that this is what being adult means’, Natalia Ginzburg wrote in an essay called ‘Human Relations’, ‘nothing at all like what we thought it meant as children, certainly not self-confidence, certainly not a serene mastery over all worldly things. We are adult because we carry with us the mute presence of the dead, from whom we ask counsel in our present actions, from whom we ask forgiveness for past offenses; we’d like to rip away all our past cruelties of word and deed, from the time when we still feared death, but had no idea, couldn’t yet fathom, how irreparable and irremediable death was. We are adult because of all the silent answers, all the silent pardons of the dead that we carry within.’

In another essay, ‘My Craft’, she comments that, ‘When writing a story, you must toss in the best of everything you have seen and possess, the best of everything you’ve gathered throughout your life. Details can dissipate: if they’re carried around for long periods without being used, they wear out. And not only details but everything—ideas, clever turns of phrase.’[5]

(Natalia Ginzburg via Times Literary Supplement)

Tim O’Brien wrote, in The Things They Carried, that, ‘for all the ambiguities of Vietnam, all the mysteries and unknowns, there was at least the single abiding certainty that they would never be at a loss for things to carry.’ He goes on to detail some of those things: ‘They carried their reputations. They carried the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to. It was what had brought them to the war in the first place, nothing positive, no dreams of glory or honor, just to avoid the blush of dishonor. They died so as not to die of embarrassment.’[6]

Often, what we carry is absence, not only the loss of others but of alternative, possible versions of ourselves. Helen Macdonald wrote that: ‘We carry the lives we’ve imagined as we carry the lives we have, and sometimes a reckoning comes of all of the lives we have lost.’[7]

Sometimes, in fiction as in life, the burden can be laid down, as with Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes among the ‘innumerable’ cowslips: ‘She knelt down among them and laid her face close to their fragrance. The weight of all her unhappy years seemed for a moment to weigh her bosom down to the earth; she trembled, understanding for the first time how miserable she had been; and in another moment she was released. It was all gone, it could never be again, and never had been. Tears of thankfulness ran down her face. With every breath she drew, the scent of the cowslips flowed in and absolved her.’[8]

That weight is sometimes an accumulation of light, apparently slight things, as Charles Olson wrote:

Feather to feather added
(and what is mineral, what
is curling hair, the string
you carry in your nervous beak, these

make bulk, these, in the end, are
the sum[9]

Notes


[1] Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels (1726; edited by Paul Turner, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 184-185.

[2] Lawrence Durrell, Spirit of Place: Mediterranean Writings, edited by Alan G. Thomas (1969; London : Faber and Faber, 1988), 32.

[3] Mark Mazower, Inside Hitler’s Greece: The Experience of Occupation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 56.

[4] Guy Davenport, Eclogues: Eight Stories (London: Picador, 1984), 110, 117; 176-179.

[5] A Place to Live and Other Selected Essays of Natalia Ginzburg, translated by Lynne Sharon Schwartz (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2002), 32, 47.

[6] Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried (1990; London: Fourth Estate, 2015), 14, 17-18.

[7] Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk (London: Jonathan Cape, 2014), 129.

[8] Sylvia Townsend Warner, Lolly Willowes (1926; London: Virago Press, 1993), 149.

[9] Charles Olson, The Maximus Poems, edited by George F. Butterick (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 5.

Mistakes, various

Setting for Highland Steer

(Walter G. Poole, Setting for Highland Steer)

‘In a time of coronavirus, small mistakes can have outsize consequences.’
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/07/coronavirus-a-disease-that-thrives-on-human-error

On 4 March 1956, Eudora Welty wrote to William Maxwell about the play of her novel The Ponder Heart (the letter begins, promisingly: ‘I’ve missed you from the time I got on the train with the carrots’). Maxwell and his wife Emmy had joined Welty for the opening night’s festivities in February. She admired the acting, though commenting that ‘[t]he lines still don’t connect with the story, to me’. She closed her letter: ‘Of course I realize now what was wrong with the whole project of the play, having someone else writing it for me (not particularly that one, any play). That’s nothing for a middleman to do, and no wonder it stood all our hair on end. All things that matter in this life are first-hand and direct and person-to-person. Our mistakes had better belong to us.’[1]

Reading that last sentence, it struck me—not for the first time—that one of the most noticeable features of the last decade or two has been the absolute mania for avoiding blame or taking responsibility, for covering backs and always having scapegoats handy. Companies, institutions of all kinds, right up to the highest levels of government: nobody there ever does anything wrong, never makes a mistake, nothing is ever their fault—it was always someone else: him, her, them, those scroungers, those stirrers, those paupers, those immigrants, those others.

Hunt, William Holman, 1827-1910; The Scapegoat

(William Holman Hunt, The Scapegoat: Lady Lever Art Gallery)

Mistake. To take wrongly. Unsurprisingly, it can seem harder to identify such errors in our own lives than in those of others, or the wider world, and may require the long retrospective view. ‘When I was young’, Penelope Fitzgerald wrote, ‘I took my father and my three uncles for granted, and it never occurred to me that everyone else wasn’t like them. Later on I found that this was a mistake, but after all these years I’ve never quite managed to adapt myself to it. I suppose they were unusual, but I still think that they were right, and in so far as the world disagrees with them, I disagree with the world.’

And elsewhere: ‘“It is the death of the spirit we must fear” is Carr’s epigraph, this time for The Harpole Report. The death of the spirit is to lose confidence in one’s own independence and to do only what we are expected to do. At the same time, it is a mistake to expect anything specific from life. Life will not conform.’[2]

Yes, life is a stubborn and uncooperative beast sometimes. Cesare Pavese didn’t conform either, even in the mistakes he made, as Natalia Ginzburg recalled: ‘Pavese committed errors more dangerous than ours. Because our mistakes were caused by impulse, rashness, stupidity and naïvety, whereas Pavese’s mistakes arose from prudence, shrewdness, calculation and intelligence. Nothing is more dangerous than errors of this kind. They can be fatal, as indeed they were for him, because from the path on to which one strays out of shrewdness it is difficult to turn back.’[3]

Hugh Kenner argued that ‘Dante’s coda to the Odyssey was made possible by his not having read it; he was able to suppose therefore that Odysseus was driven by lust for knowledge’, before asking: ‘Is the life of the mind a history of interesting mistakes?’ He added then, since he was discussing Ernest Fenollosa and Ezra Pound’s use of Fenollosa’s studies, ‘More pertinently: is the surest way to a fructive western idea the misunderstanding of an eastern one?’[4]

Well. Surely the point at which to nod to Miroslav Holub:

Some mistakes are now mistakes
others are still virtues
.[5]

 
Notes

[1] Suzanne Marrs, editor, What There Is to Say, We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), 93, 95.

[2] Penelope Fitzgerald, ‘Curriculum Vitae’ and ‘Precious Moments Gone’ (introduction to the Penguin edition of J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country’), both in A House of Air: Selected Writings, edited by Terence Dooley with Mandy Kirkby and Chris Carduff (London: Harper Perennial, 2005), 469, 386.

[3] Natalia Ginzburg, The Things We Used to Say, translated by Judith Woolf (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1997), 190.

[4] Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), 230.

[5] Miroslav Holub, ‘The root of the matter’, translated by Ian Milner, in The Fly, translated by Ewald Osers, George Theiner, Ian and Jarmila Milner (Newcastle: Bloodaxe Books, 1987), 84.

 

Orchards – from a distance

(Clarence Hudson White, The Ring Toss: Yale Visual Resources Collection; William Merritt Chase, The Ring Toss)

I noticed that today is the birthday of the photographer Clarence Hudson White, born in Ohio in 1871 (he died early, aged 54, in Mexico City). He became close friends with Alfred Stieglitz. I’d barely heard of White but, in a brief gallery of his photographs, my eye snagged on ‘The Ring Toss’ because I knew of the 1896 painting by William Merritt Chase, ‘The Ring Toss’. A lot of Chase’s paintings are very reminiscent of John Singer Sargent – who painted a portrait of Chase in 1902 (Museum of Modern Art).[1]

Clarence_White-The_Orchard.1902

(Clarence Hudson White, The Orchard)

This very evocative Clarence White photograph was published in 1905 (Camerawork, 9). Should the women seem to be practising social distancing, that’s probably mere happenstance.

Orchards are certainly evocative for artists and writers, perhaps because of their seeming to balance on the threshold of imposed order and unchecked nature, perhaps because they’re often associated with childhood, a lost paradise, or at least with a rural or semi-rural peace – and thus standing in stark contrast to the destructive forces of war. Edmund Blunden’s classic memoir, Undertones of War, refers to them often.

Early on in his ‘education’, in a chapter called ‘The Cherry Orchard’, he writes: ‘The joyful path away from the line, on that glittering summer morning, was full of pictures for my infant war-mind. History and nature were beginning to harmonize in the quiet of that sector. In the orchard through we passed immediately, waggons had been dragged together once with casks and farm gear to form barricades; I felt that they should never be disturbed again, and the memorial raised near them to the dead of 1915 implied a closed chapter.’ And of Englebelmer, ‘a sweet village scarcely yet spoiled’: ‘Its green turf under trees loaded with apples was daily gouged out by heavy shells; its comfortable houses were struck and shattered, and the paths and entrances gagged with rubble, plaster and woodwork.’[2]

Katherine Mansfield would also borrow the title of Chekhov’s last play, writing to John Middleton Murry from Menton two years after the war’s end: ‘You see it’s too late to beat about the bush any longer. They are cutting down the cherry tree; the orchard is sold—that is really the atmosphere I want.’[3]

In the midst of that war (22 March 1916), Ivor Gurney wrote to Marion Scott, from near Tidworth, in Wiltshire, of his beloved home county, ‘Glostershire where Spring sends greetings before other less happy counties have forgotten Winter and the snow. Where the talk is men’s talk, and eyes of folk are as soft as the kind airs. The best roads in England, the finest cider, the richest blossom in the most magical orchards, beauty content in security, strength quiet in confidence controlled, blood mixed of plain and hill, Welsh and English; are not these only of my county, my home?’[4]

Wilfred Owen never did see the war’s end – though he planned for it, writing in 1917 to his brother Colin, then working on a farm: ‘In my walk this afternoon, considering at leisure the sunshine and the appearance of peace (I don’t mean from the news) I determined what I should do after the war [ . . . ] I should like to take a cottage and orchard in Kent Surrey or Sussex, and give my afternoon to the care of pigs.’[5]

In May 1962, Guy Davenport wrote, in a letter to Hugh Kenner, ‘You see, my ambition is to put down roots and have a real library and workshop, a hearth & orchard, and STAY PUT.’[6]

GD-Balthus-Notebook

(The Balthus painting on the jacket is the 1940 The Cherry Tree)

Apples – and pears – were of central and lasting importance to Davenport: ‘Apple and pear, brother and sister’, he writes in the novel-length title story.[7] In Objects on a Table, he stated that: ‘Pear symbolizes a harmony between human and divine; apple an encounter between human and divine. The forbidden fruit in Eden became an apple through linguistic accident, punning on evil and apple. But the inevitability of the accident was ensured by centuries of Greek and Latin pastoral poetry in which the apple was eroticized.’[8] In A Balthus Notebook, he discussed the painter’s Balthus’s use of apples and pears—‘In Christian iconography, a pear symbolizes the Redemption, and apple and pear are frequently together in Madonnas, Mary being the redemption of Eve, Christ of Adam’—noting that apple and pear appeared together for the first time in the 1981 Painter and His Model.[9]

And in ‘Shaker Light’, he tells the story of a pear tree and an apple tree ‘that had grown around each other in a double spiral’ and had stood for over fifty years around the corner from Davenport’s house. Walking past them daily for twenty years, they got into his thoughts ‘and always benignly.’ He saw them as husband and wife, as in Ovid’s poem. ‘They generated in my imagination a curiosity about the myths our culture has told itself about apples and pears. Apple is the symbol of the Fall, pear of Redemption. Apple is the world, pear heaven. Apple is tragic. A golden one given first as a false wedding gift and later presented by a shepherd to a goddess began the Trojan War and all that Homer recorded in the Iliad and the Odyssey. The apple that fell at Newton’s feet also fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and is right now embedded in thousands of bombs mounted in the heads of rockets, glowing with elemental fire that is, like Adam and Eve’s apple, an innocent detail of creation if untouched and all the evil of which man is capable if plucked.’ Finally, the trees were cut down by a developer, ‘in full bloom, with a power saw, the whining growl of which is surely the language of devils at their business, which is to cancel creation.’[10]

The painting that Stanley Spencer would later call his first ambitious one was called The Apple Gatherers. Spencer was one of that famous generation taught at the Slade by Henry Tonks – other Tonks pupils included Mark Gertler, Harold Gilman, Gwen John, Isaac Rosenberg, Stanley Spencer, David Bomberg, William Orpen, Wyndham Lewis and Winifred Knights. Tonks himself was clearly not immune to the lure of the orchard.

Tonks, Henry, 1862-1937; The Orchard

(Henry Tonks, The Orchard: Birmingham Museums Trust)

And I remember too one of the most memorable and thought-provoking moments in Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, when the narrator John Dowell says: ‘For I can’t conceal from myself the fact that I loved Edward Ashburnham—and that I love him because he was just myself. If I had had the courage and virility and possibly also the physique of Edward Ashburnham I should, I fancy, have done much what he did. He seems to me like a large elder brother who took me out on several excursions and did many dashing things whilst I just watched him robbing the orchards, from a distance.’[11]

Next time you feel the need to do a dashing thing, then, you might well look out for an orchard. It it won’t be for a good while yet, of course. Best stay safely indoors and read about it for the present, watching from a distance.

 
Notes

[1] See Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray, John Singer Sargent. The Later Portraits. Complete Paintings Volume III (Yale: Yale University Press, 2003), 81-84.

[2] Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War (1928; edited by John Greening, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 25, 81.

[3] Quoted by Antony Alpers, The Life of Katherine Mansfield (London: Jonathan Cape, 1980), 327.

[4] Ivor Gurney, Collected Letters, edited by R. K. R. Thornton (Mid Northumberland Arts Group & Carcanet Press 1991), 75.

[5] Quoted by Jon Stallworthy, Wilfred Owen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 174.

[6] Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), I, 121.

[7] Guy Davenport, Apples and Pears (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984), 77.

[8] Guy Davenport, Objects on a Table: Harmonious Disarray in Art and Literature (Washington: Counterpoint, 1998), 63.

[9] Guy Davenport, A Balthus Notebook (New York: Norton, 1989), 53.

[10] Guy Davenport, The Hunter Gracchus and Other Papers on Literature and Art (Washington: Counterpoint, 1996), 59.

[11] Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion (1915; edited by Max Saunders, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 191-192.

 

Plague, fire, war – and bark

Cowper

(George Romney, William Cowper (1792): © National Portrait Gallery)

On another 19 March (1788), the poet William Cowper wrote to his friend the Reverend Walter Bagot, ‘The Spring is come, but not I suppose that Spring which our poets have celebrated. So I judge at least by the extreme severity of the Season, sunless skies and freezing blasts, surpassing all that we experienced in the depth of winter. How do you dispose of yourself in this howling month of March? As for me, I walk daily be the weather what it may, take Bark, and write verses.’[1]

Cinchona

https://botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/p/perbar29.html

Similarly, I walk with the Librarian daily (‘be the weather what it may’) – the park is noticeably busier but the cemetery is still pretty quiet – though I tend to write prose more often these days – and I’ve never knowingly taken ‘Bark’. Nor was I even sure what it meant. My dictionary offered ‘cinchona’ and I gather that this was Peruvian bark, the source of quinine. Roy Porter notes that it was brought to Europe between 1630 and 1640 or thereabouts, possibly by Jesuit missionaries, the reason for its being known as ‘Jesuits’ Bark’ – and also the reason why ‘staunch Protestants like Oliver Cromwell’ refused to take it. Porter adds that cinchona, demonstrably effective against fevers, was introduced into the London Pharmacopoeia in 1677.[2]

In August 1685, the diarist (among much else) John Evelyn visited Mr Watts, ‘keeper of the Apothecaries Garden of simples at Chelsea where there is a collection of innumerable rarieties of that sort, particularly beside many rare annuals the tree bearing the Jesuit’s bark, which had done such cures in quartans’.[3]

[‘Quartans’ refers to a form of malaria resulting in a fever which recurs every third day – by inclusive reckoning, the fourth day, so Latin quartanus, of the fourth]

Samuel_Pepys

(Samuel Pepys)

Recalling that Evelyn’s famous contemporary, Samuel Pepys, also lived through a period of war, plague and fire, I looked up his 19 March 1665 entry, though the Great Plague broke out in earnest a little later than that, so the record of that particular ‘Lords Day’, begins: ‘Mr Povy and I in his coach to Hide parke, being the first day of the Tour there – where many brave ladies. Among others Castlemayne lay impudently upon her back in her coach, asleep with her mouth open. There was also my Lady Kerneeguy, once my Lady Anne Hambleton, that is said to have given the Duke a clap upon his first coming over.’[4]

No reference to applause there, I suspect.

Plague, fire and war: that’s to say the second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-1667, when the peace treaty gave the Dutch a monopoly on nutmeg); it was a period thickly populated with conflicts. In another, later time of war (c. 19 March 1915), D. H. Lawrence wrote enthusiastically to Ottoline Morrell of his novel The Rainbow, having had the first 71 pages typed: ‘It really puts a new thing in the world, almost a new vision of life.’[5]

Lady_Ottoline_Morrell

(Ottoline Morrell)

A positive, anyway, a blow on behalf of the ordinary universe. A new thing in the world. Happy birthday, then, to Philip Roth, born on this day in 1933: ‘But back in bed he thought, The burden isn’t that everything has to be a book. It’s that everything can be a book. And doesn’t count as life until it is.’[6]

Yes. One more 19 March. 1941 this time, when Penelope Fitzgerald (by then a producer in the BBC Features Department) kept her friend Hugh Lee (‘Ham’) up to date: ‘The BBC is not exactly tedious, in fact it is rent with scandals and there are dreadful quarrels in the canteen, about liberty, the peoples’ convention, &c, and the air is dark with flying spoons and dishes. Miss Stevens poured some tea down Mr Fletcher’s neck the other day. He knew Freud who told him the term inferiority complex was a mistranslation and there was really no such thing. I have to eat all the time to keep my spirits up so I am getting quite fat.’[7]

Whatever it takes to keep your spirits up at the moment, I’d say, is just fine.

 
Notes

[1] William Cowper, Letters and Prose Writings, Volume III: 1787-1791, edited by James King and Charles Ryskamp (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), 128.

[2] Roy Porter, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity from Antiquity to the Present (London: Harper Collins, 1997), 233.

[3] John Evelyn’s Diary, quoted by Miles Hadfield, A History of British Gardening (London: Penguin Books, 1985), 143.

[4] Samuel Pepys, The Shorter Pepys, selected and edited by Robert Latham (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1993), 446-447.

[5] Letters of D. H. Lawrence II, June 1913-October 1916, edited by George J. Zytaruk and James T. Boulton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 308.

[6] Philip Roth, The Anatomy Lesson (1984), in Zuckerman Bound: A Trilogy and Epilogue 1979-1985 (New York: Library of America, 2007), 443.

[7] So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald, edited by Terence Dooley (London: Fourth Estate, 2008), 22.

 

Nourished by Travel – or not

Chambers, Thomas, active 1849-1859; A Burning Town by Moonlight with Travellers

(Thomas Chambers, A Burning Town by Moonlight with Travellers: York Art Gallery
© York Museums Trust)

Reading, on and off, Somerset Maugham’s short stories, I remembered Anthony Burgess, a great admirer of Maugham, writing that: ‘The form fitted a talent that was wide rather than deep, not (as with James) going over the same ground again and again till its possibilities were exhausted, but best nourished by travel, brief encounters with many human types, an anecdote swiftly jotted down between rubbers of bridge, a newspaper report, “brunch” with a planter in Burma, a whisky suku in a Malayan club.’[1]

‘Nourished by travel’, yes, though it’s often said that, in a great many cases, travel narrows the mind. Most obviously nourished are the travel companies, the airlines—and, as becomes daily more obvious, the spread of infectious diseases. But the number of those who feel less positive towards the industry is surely growing, now that even the thickest skull and skin must have been penetrated by some shaft of understanding that every journey by air—and, though less, by road and rail too—is another nail in the coffin of this abused planet.

There’s a moment in Jenny Offill’s new novel:
‘Young person worry: What if nothing I do matters?
‘Old person worry: What if everything I do does?’[2]

Like the destructive effects of smoking, denied, concealed or spun away for years, the facts now sit like giant stones on the road to the airport.

In 1950, apparently, the English travelled an average of five miles a day; in 2000, it was more like thirty miles.[3] The Librarian and I now travel, and plan to travel, far less; and less far, mainly because we don’t want to fly – besides, the cat takes a dim view of prolonged absences. On cats and travel: Guy Davenport wrote to James Laughlin (29 July 1995) about an inquiry from Laughlin’s wife: ‘Gertrude’s question—how do I know all the things I know—is a good one in that it lets several cats out of the bag at once. If she means history and geographical detail, the answer is books, travel, and stealing. If she means psychology and the behavior of people, I make it up.’[4]

One of the main divisions among travellers seems to have been the matter of purpose; more specifically, is there one? Sometimes, it’s a personal trait or tic: Colette wrote in Chance Acquaintances of ‘the few personal belongings which, at that time, I held to be invaluable: my cat, my resolve to travel, and my solitude.’[5]

Colette-and-cat

(Colette and cat: via The Guardian)

‘For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go’, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in a famous passage. ‘The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilisation, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints.’[6] So too, in Angela Carter’s post-apocalyptic Heroes and Villains, she writes: ‘The roads were arteries which no longer sprang from a heart. Once the cities were gone, the roads reverted to an older function; they were used for the most existential kind of travelling, that nomadic peregrination which is an end in itself.’[7]

Samuel Johnson certainly defined a purpose: ‘The grand object of travelling is to see the shores of the Mediterranean. On those shores were the four great Empires of the world; the Assyrian, the Persian, the Grecian, and the Roman.—All our religion, almost all our law, almost all our arts, almost all that sets us above savages, has come to us from the shores of the Mediterranean.’[8] Elsewhere, the opening of The Vanity of Human Wishes proposed surveying mankind on a broader scope, ‘from China to Peru’.

A more personal object was voiced by Edward Leithen, central to half a dozen of John Buchan’s novels, who remarks that: ‘All my life I have cherished certain pictures of landscape, of which I have caught glimpses in my travels, as broken hints of a beauty of which I hoped some day to find the archetype.’[9]

The brutal fact is that millions of affluent people fondly believe that they have a perfect right to drive wherever and whenever they like, and to fly wherever and whenever they like, and that exercising such perceived rights concerns nobody else and affects nobody else. The truth is otherwise. Perhaps the most famous inhabitant of Concord, Massachusetts, once wrote: ‘I have travelled a good deal in Concord’.[10]

A few more of us may need to cultivate the ability—and the desire—to study, learn and feel, let’s say, nourished by our own locality, our own small corner of the world.

 
Notes

[1] Anthony Burgess, ‘Bitter-sweet Savour’ (1965), in The Ink Trade, edited by Will Carr (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2018), 23-24.

[2] Jenny Offill, Weather (London: Granta, 2020), 21-22.

[3] Madeleine Bunting, The Plot: A Biography of an English Acre (London: Granta 2009),  91.

[4] W. C. Bamberger, editor, Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007), 205.

[5] Colette, Chance Acquaintances & Julie de Carneilhan (translated by Patrick Leigh Fermor; Harmondsworth; Penguin Books, 1957), 168.

[6] Robert Louis Stevenson, Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes and Selected Travel Writings, edited by Emma Letley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 163.

[7] Angela Carter, Heroes and Villains (London: Picador, 1972), 107.

[8] James Boswell, Life of Johnson, edited by R. W. Chapman, revised by J. D. Fleeman, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 742.

[9] John Buchan, The Dancing Floor (1926; edited by Marilyn Deegan, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 115-116.

[10] Henry David Thoreau, Walden, edited by Jeffrey S. Cramer (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004), 2.

 

Futures imagined or misplaced

Boccioni-elasticity-1912

(A touch of Futurism: Umberto Boccioni, Elasticity (1912): Palazzo Brera, Milan, Italy)

‘What interest have all men in common?’ Ezra Pound asked in January 1912. ‘What forces play upon them all? Money and sex and tomorrow.’ Of the last, he remarked further: ‘And tomorrow? We none of us agree about.’[1] We can at least agree about that non-agreement: even the meaning of ‘tomorrow’ is uncertain in a lot of contexts – literally ‘ tomorrow’, the very next day (though tomorrow, they say, never comes)? Or more along the lines of Macbeth’s ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’?

The first version of tomorrow is the seventieth anniversary of the death of George Orwell and I notice I don’t have a copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four in the house; nor am I sure how or when that disappearance happened. I remember bits of it quite well (as do most of its readers, I suspect), including the cheery suggestion that a feasible image of the future is of a face being stamped on forever; and the Party slogan, ‘Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’

I noticed too that Steven Poole’s ‘Word of the Week’ was ‘xenobot’—that prefix from the Greek, xenos: strange foreign—from the recent announcement that scientists had ‘created the first living robots by building machines using stem cells taken from African frogs’:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/jan/16/xenobot-word-of-the-week

In Jeanette Winterson’s novel, Frankissstein: A Love Story, Dr Stein ‘goes to the window, watches the buses up and down Oxford Road, carrying their cargo of people who aren’t thinking about the future beyond teatime or tomorrow or their next holiday or whatever fear is the fear that waits for them in the dark. It’s raining. That’s what most people are thinking about. The size of our lives hems us in but protects us too. Our little lives, small enough to make it through the gap under the door as it closes.’[2]

Mary-Shelley

(Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell © National Portrait Gallery, London)

Thinking about the future—and thinking about the past’s thinking about the future—is the mainspring of Winterson’s novel (though it contains much else): looking back to Mary Shelley’s conception and writing of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818), looking at the present’s—and the likely future’s—relationship with artificial intelligence, robotics and cryonics. But for most of those not actively engaged in futures—more than I first thought: financial, political, medical, urban planning, electronics, writers of science fiction and how many more?—Dr Stein is probably not far off. Not always the fear that waits for us in the dark but mainly pretty small, and likely short-term too. Longer term, death and taxes are said to be the only certainties. In latter years, unless you have a pretty hefty pension package, you may not pay much tax at all. Death you can’t outwit, outlast or buy off—although, needless to say, this is not a truth universally acknowledged.

Imagined-Futures

It’s hard enough to think about the present just now, and increasingly difficult to remember parts of the past; it must surely take a particular sort of mind to open itself to possible future trends and developments and make constructive guesses or predictions. The doyen of Ford Madox Ford scholarship, Professor Max Saunders, has just published a new book called Imagined Futures: Writing, Science, and Modernity in the To-Day and To-Morrow Book Series, 1923-31 (Oxford University Press). That series ran to more than one and fifty titles and the list of its authors boasted some very celebrated names, J. B. S. Haldane, Robert Graves, André Maurois, Vera Brittain among them. Saunders has written informative pieces about the series on the Oxford University Press blog and The Conversation website:

https://blog.oup.com/2019/11/to-day-and-to-morrow-series-shows-how-imagine-future/

https://theconversation.com/futurology-how-a-group-of-visionaries-looked-beyond-the-possible-a-century-ago-and-predicted-todays-world-118134

Now the crowdfunding publisher Unbound plans to produce a new series, the first five of which will be: The Future of Serious Art by Bidisha, The Future of British Politics by Frankie Boyle, The Future of Men by Grace Campbell, The Future of Stuff by Vinay Gupta and The Future of Antiquity by Sir Richard Lambert. If you want to pledge your support, there are various options, from £40 (plus shipping) for all five paperbacks to more expensive signed or limited editions.
https://unbound.com/books/futures/

Futures

Where might one begin to define, predict or even locate the future? ‘Home is where one starts from’, T. S. Eliot remarks, reasonably enough in East Coker—but earlier, at the very outset of Burnt Norton, plunges straight in: ‘Time present and time past/ Are both perhaps present in time future/ And time future contained in time past.’[3] Julia Blackburn writes, of the small party held to celebrate the completion of her book: ‘I say that I hope everyone will like the book if it is eventually translated into Italian and that being here in the valley has made me think that time past and time present and time future is like a vast landscape and we are walking through it on a tracery of thin paths.’[4] The scholar Roger Lewis wrote in an introduction to Rudyard Kipling’s Rewards and Fairies that Kipling ‘has seen the future, and it is the past in masquerade.’[5] Joseph Conrad, in Heart of Darkness, has his master mariner Marlow observe that: ‘The mind of man is capable of anything – because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future.’[6]

Does our understanding of the past or our grasp of the present better equip us for a stab at the future? ‘Strange how, when you are young, you owe no duty to the future; but when you are old, you owe a duty to the past. To the one thing you can’t change.’ So the narrator in Julian Barnes’ The Only Story.[7] But of course, in one sense, we change the past all the time, rewriting, revising, editing. We augment, elide, censor and, increasingly, bits fall out. And, if we sometimes mourn the past, the losses, disappearances, things never repeated which were meant to be—sometimes we also mourn the future, what we, as individuals, as a country, as a species, will not have or see or know again. ‘In our time’, Guy Davenport’s Adriaan van Hovendaal writes in his journal, ‘we long not for a lost past but for a lost future.’[8]

I have a faint memory of reading, or reading about, a fiction concerned with precisely that: a sort of lost property office stacked not with packages, umbrellas and raincoats but with futures that became unmoored. But I may have imagined it.

 

 

Notes

[1] Ezra Pound, ‘I Gather the Limbs of Osiris. IX: On Technique’, Selected Prose 1909-1965, edited by William Cookson (London: Faber and Faber, 1973), 32.

[2] Jeanette Winterson, Frankissstein: A Love Story (London: Jonathan Cape, 2019), 160.

[3] T. S. Eliot, ’Four Quartets’, in The Complete Poems and Plays (London: Faber and Faber, 1969), 182, 171.

[4] Julia Blackburn, Thin Paths: Journeys In and Around an Italian Mountain Village (London: Jonathan Cape, 2011), 248.

[5] Roger Lewis, ‘Introduction’, Rudyard Kipling, Rewards and Fairies (1910; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1987), 10.

[6] Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness with The Congo Diary, edited by Robert Hampson (London: Penguin Books, 1995), 63.

[7] Julian Barnes, The Only Story (London: Jonathan Cape, 2018), 168.

[8] Guy Davenport, Apples and Pears (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984), 63.

 

Light in December

Fog

(More fog than light over the river today)

‘Susan Hill. Kathleen Jamie. And you’re reading what?’
‘William Faulkner.’
‘Which one?’
‘I’m rereading Light in August.’
‘Why that one?’ the Librarian asks.
Ah.

Because it’s the next one in the Faulkner canon? Not exactly. Because one of the central characters is called Joe Christmas? No, not a factor. Because the festive season is an obvious point in the year at which to embrace a tale of violence, prejudice and racist murder? Not that. Because those things seem so consonant with our current malaise? Tempting but. . . Because it’s not Absalom! Absalom!? Almost.

Over the past year or two, I’ve reread several William Faulkner books. The early ones, Soldiers’ Pay (set in Georgia) and Mosquitoes (New Orleans) are interesting but it’s not until Flags in the Dust—a heavily edited and shortened version of which was published as Sartoris—that Faulkner unrolls his Yoknapatawpha territory: ‘Jefferson, Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. Area, 2400 square miles. Population: Whites, 6298; Negroes, 9313. William Faulkner, sole owner and proprietor’, as he sets down the details on his map, often reprinted. Other rereading included the Collected Stories, Sanctuary – and The Sound and the Fury. Could that be as good as I remembered it? It could.

Yoknapatawpha.County

(http://www.gradesaver.com/short-stories-of-william-faulkner/study-guide/section14/, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29590820 )

Between other books and other writers, I slowly circled round towards Absalom! Absalom! again—the first long-ago reading was stunning but the second attempt, for some reason, fell at an early fence. This month, I wanted something meaty, one of the big ones, that wasn’t – just yet – Absalom! Absalom! So: Light in August.

Light in August has several plotlines that touch or clash at various points: the young Lena Grove’s search for the father of her unborn child, who has fled to Jefferson, changed his name and become the bootlegging partner of the abused, haunted and—probably—murderous Joe Christmas, who believes himself to be of mixed ancestry, though he passes for white. Lena will alter the lives of others, directly or indirectly: Byron Bunch, who is shaken out of his diminished life of risk avoidance and determined insignificance for love of her; and the (also haunted) disgraced Reverend Gail Hightower. Christmas has been pursuing an affair with Joanna Burden, whose abolitionist grandfather and half-brother were killed in an argument over African-American voting rights. And there is the aptly-named Percy Grimm, captain in the State national guard, who shoots Christmas and—while he is still alive—castrates him with a butcher’s knife. Faulkner made a point of stressing the date of the novel in which that character was created: 1932, ‘before I’d ever heard of Hitler’s Storm Troopers’.[1]

Cleanth Brooks questions the evidence for Christmas’s mixed-race origins offered by the text and concludes that there is no definitive case made; while Richard Gray comments that, ‘Faulkner has made sure that the question of Joe’s racial status can never be answered.’[2] But it’s the belief—of Christmas himself and others—that he is of mixed race which is decisive in the immediate and widespread assumption of his guilt of Miss Burden’s murder, though the novel is carefully less definite on the matter of that guilt.

But there are positive elements in the novel too, certainly in Faulkner’s view (as well as a good deal of comedy). In her 1956 interview with Faulkner for the Paris Review, Jean Stein Vanden Heuvel quoted to him Malcolm Cowley’s comment that Faulkner’s characters carried ‘a sense of submission to their fate’. Faulkner responded that Lena Grove, the young pregnant woman in search of the man who has abandoned her, ‘coped pretty well with hers. It didn’t really matter to her in her destiny whether her man was Lucas Burch or not. It was her destiny to have a husband and children and she knew it, and so she went out and attended to it without asking help from anyone. She was the captain of her soul.’ Lena was, Faulkner commented, ‘never for one moment confused, frightened, alarmed. She did not even know that she didn’t need pity.’[3]

Light-in-August

(The fire at the Burden house, visible at multiple points throughout the novel)

Rereading Light in August after a hefty number of years, I found much of it familiar, some of it unremembered, and elements I must have been faintly aware of that came into sharper focus. Lena’s simplicity, endurance and quiet determination provide a steadying ballast to the novel but it clearly required other elements, which are sometimes reminiscent of Greek tragedy: the substantial role of the chorus, in varying forms and guises, the strong current of inevitable crisis and catharsis. There is the remarkable—and frightening—speed of narrative in the chapter where Grimm pursues and kills Christmas, by that stage as inescapable, as inexorable as fate. There are echoes too in the stories of both Lena and the strongly contrasted character of Joe Christmas. On the opening page of the book, Lena is thinking: ‘although I have not been quite a month on the road I am already in Mississippi, further from home than I have ever been before. I am now further from Doane’s Mill than I have been since I was twelve years old’; while later, two-thirds of the way through the novel, Christmas is once more in Mottstown, on a street that he remembers from childhood: ‘It had been a paved street, where going should be fast. It had made a circle and he is still inside of it. Though during the last seven days he has had no paved street, yet he has travelled further than in all the thirty years before. And yet he is still inside the circle.’[4]

Faulkner may not have loved Lena as intensely as he did The Sound and the Fury’s Caddy Compson but she is nevertheless drawn with great warmth and sympathy—though, as has been pointed out, views of her are always exteriorised, she is consistently observed and discussed and evaluated through the prism of male speech and male gaze. Faulkner began the book, he said, ‘knowing no more about it than a young woman, pregnant, walking along a strange country road’,[5] and it can hardly have been irrelevant to that initial vision that, earlier in the year of the novel’s composition, his wife had given birth to a daughter that lived only nine days.[6]

william-faulkner-billie-holiday-1956

(Faulkner with Billie Holiday, 1956)
https://bibliolore.org/2017/09/25/faulkner-and-blues/

I still find, as I do with D. H. Lawrence’s novels, passages that become clotted or overburdened by Faulkner’s compound words, ‘dreamrecovering’, ‘shadowdappled’, ‘diamondsurfaced’. The novel is full of voices yet sometimes the telling lurches into language that fractures the plausibility of oral commentary. Faulkner, as David Minter remarks, ‘remained insistent, even abrupt, in mingling the colloquial and the elevated’.[7] But, as with Lawrence, such blemishes are finally, in the scale of the whole, just scraps of chaff on the granary floor.

A little later in his Paris Review interview, in a variation on Requiem for a Nun’s famous line, ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past’, Faulkner commented: ‘The fact that I have moved my characters around in time successfully, at least in my own estimation, proves to me my own theory that time is a fluid condition which has no existence except in the avatars of individual people. There is no such thing as was—only is. If was existed there would be no grief or sorrow.’[8]

‘Now the final copper light of afternoon fades; now the street beyond the low maples and the low signboard is prepared and empty, framed by the study window like a stage’ (Light in August 744). Light, yes. Kathleen Jamie writes: ‘The wind lifts the grasses and moves the thin branches of the leafless trees and the sun shines on them, in one movement, so light and air are as one, two aspects of the same entity.’[9]

And yes, she is writing of a day in February but – I’m reading it in December.

 
Notes

[1] Faulkner in the University (1957), 41, quoted by Cleanth Brooks, William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), 60.

[2] Brooks, William Faulkner, 49-51; Richard Gray, The Life of William Faulkner (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), 184.

[3] James B. Meriwether and Michael Millgate, editors, Lion in the Garden: Interviews with William Faulkner (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1980), 253.

[4] Faulkner, Light in August (1932), in Novels 1930-1935, edited by Noel Polk and Joseph Blotner, (New York: Library of America, 1985), 401, 650.

[5] Joseph Blotner, William Faulkner: A Biography, two volumes (London: Chatto & Windus, 1974), I, 703.

[6] Gray, Life, 177.

[7] David Minter, William Faulkner: His Life and Work (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), 50.

[8] Lion in the Garden, 255.

[9] Kathleen Jamie, ‘Light’, in Sightlines (London: Sort Of Books, 2012), 91.