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.

Bloody Sundays

morris.portrait Cunninghame_Graham

(William Morris; Robert Cunninghame Graham)

Bloody Sunday. Most often—before the film buffs’ recall of the 1971 John Schlesinger film Sunday Bloody Sunday, starring Glenda Jackson, Peter Finch and Murray Head—the phrase triggers memories of the Bogside area of Derry, 30 January 1972, when thirteen unarmed demonstrators were killed by British troops (a fourteenth died later), an event whose aftereffects are still very much with us.

But there was an earlier ‘Bloody Sunday’, 13 November 1887, when tens of thousands of protesters, in and around Trafalgar Square, were blocked—and columns of demonstrators broken up—by police, and troops. The politician John Burns and the writer and radical MP Robert Cunninghame Graham were among those beaten and imprisoned. It was, Fiona MacCarthy remarks, ‘the scene of the most ruthless display of establishment power that London has ever seen.’ There were more than 400 arrests and more than 200 marchers were treated in hospital, ‘only a fraction of the many people injured.’ A law copyist, Alfred Linnell, was killed, probably beneath the hooves of a police horse. William Morris, who had been present at ‘Bloody Sunday’, quickly produced a pamphlet, its cover by Walter Crane, sales of which went to the Linnell family. The funeral, another occasion for mass demonstration, was held on 18 December, the pall-bearers including Morris, Cunninghame Graham, the crusading journalist W. T. Stead and Annie Besant.[1]

alfred-linnell_300x384

(Working Class Movement Library:
https://www.wcml.org.uk/contents/creativity-and-culture/art/walter-crane/)

Here’s another socialist, half a century later, Naomi Mitchison, on a research trip to Edinburgh, 13 November 1941:

Going along Princes Street and up the Mount to St Giles, felt a queer kind of pride and anger; the lion flag was flying on some building, I could have kissed it. Walked into Parliament Hall, with its bloody awful stained glass—all the pictures are put away—and thought of James VI’s remark when young “There is ane hole in this Parliament” and suddenly felt the most passionate and disconcerting longing to be a member of the first Scots Parliament under the New Order, or maybe the Supreme Soviet of Scotland, working with the others all over Europe.’[2]

Mitchison

(Naomi Mitchison)

A hole in this Parliament rather than this Parliament in a hole. Those were the days, eh?

On one more 13 November, this one exactly one hundred years ago, an essay by a certain Ezra Pound: ‘Capital v. Labour is not the only conflict; there is also the endless conflict between the furnished and the half-furnished mind.’[3]

 

Notes

[1] Fiona MacCarthy, William Morris: A Life for Our Time (London: Faber & Faber, 1994), 567-572.

[2] Naomi Mitchison, Among You Taking Notes . . . The Wartime Diary of Naomi Mitchison, 1939-1945, edited by Dorothy Sheridan (London: Victor Gollancz, 1985), 169.

[3] Ezra Pound, ‘The Revolt of Intelligence. I’, New Age, XXVI, 2 (13 November, 1919), 22.

 

The chosen destination

Lyme130919

The first strikingly cold day—when the heating takes an executive decision to fire itself up—renders the summer immediately distant. Complaints about humidity, the constant swallowing of water to ward off dehydration, the absurdity of pocketless clothes—all fled away. As for our last escape to the sea, that final foray in convincing summer weather, was it a week ago, two, more?

Lyme Regis is the chosen destination these days when we retreat to the sea. Retreat or advance? Katabasis or Anabasis? There are the odd days to recover from, or seek to outdistance, the mental breakdown currently being undergone by the United Kingdom. Otherwise, the more durable points are November, for the Librarian’s birthday, and sometimes, in early June, for the birthday, not of Thomas Hardy (nor that of Edward Elgar, Barbara Pym, John Lehmann or the Marquis de Sade) but of the Librarian’s mother. This involves a good deal of driving, or being driven, through Mr Hardy’s county although, as far as I’m aware, he never mentions Lyme in his writings, despite having visited the town twice, possibly three times.

Stretching eyes west
Over the sea,
Wind foul or fair
Always stood she
Prospect-impressed;
Solely out there
Did her gaze rest
Never elsewhere
Seemed charm to be.[1]

 

Fowles--french-lieutenants-pb    French_lieutenants_woman-film

The town’s more familiar literary associations now are with John Fowles’ long residence in the town and his 1969 novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman, filmed by Karel Reisz in 1981 with a script by Harold Pinter, starring Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons. In Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Louisa Musgrove falls from the Cobb and suffers a serious concussion. There is also, on a wall in Church Street, a plaque commemorating the occasion, on 11 November 1725, when the novelist Henry Fielding, with the assistance of his servant, tried to abduct Sarah Andrew (a distant cousin of whom he was enamoured), as she was walking to church with Andrew Tucker and his family. That is also, of course, the Henry Fielding who eventually became London’s chief magistrate and, with his half-brother John, founded the Bow Street Runners, the first police force in London.

We walk to the Cobb, sit or lean against the wall, watch the waves, boats, kayaks, swimmers, dogs, walkers and all those people busily engaged with fish and chips. Some places become uncomfortable very quickly when crowded – but somehow Lyme seems not to, perhaps because of the several beaches. And there is not only the sweeping sea view, the harbour, the Cobb itself, but also the public gardens, the beach huts, the sense of cohesion and singleness deriving in part from the steep roads down into Lyme so there’s never the feeling of its merely being on the way to somewhere else.

Lyme has spectacular scenery all around it and a nice spot from which you’re directed to view Charmouth, West Bay, Golden Cap, Portland. The Cobb is Lyme’s famous curving harbour wall, originally dating back to the thirteenth century, and is where the French Lieutenant’s woman stood; it’s certainly where we take our fish and chips—from Herbie’s, among the best you’ll taste but one portion will cater for two people unless their appetites are matters of record with local or national newspapers.

Lyme is first mentioned in 774, in connection with a manor granted to Sherborne Abbey and received a Royal Charter in 1284 from Edward I (6 feet 2 inches and thus ‘Longshanks’). Edward was also known as the ‘Hammer of the Scots’—and was the conqueror of Wales, which caused the poet and artist David Jones, aged twelve and ‘careful that no one was looking’, to spit on his tomb in Westminster Abbey.[2]

William_Hogarth_Coram

(William Hogarth, Thomas Coram: Foundling Museum)

It was the birthplace of Thomas Coram, whose portrait by William Hogarth was presented by the artist in 1740 to the Foundling Hospital which the retired shipwright Coram began , appalled by the numbers of abandoned children in the streets of London. Sir George Somers, discoverer of the Bermudas was also born here: when he died, he was Admiral of the West Virginia Company fleet ‘and accidental inspirer of Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest.’[3] One of his shipmates, Silvester Jourdain, wrote the first published account of the voyage and the shipwreck, Discovery of the Barmudas: The Isle of Devils, one of the three publications cited by Frank Kermode as being ‘directly relevant to The Tempest.’[4]

The remarkable fossil hunter and palaeontologist Mary Anning is another celebrated Lyme native. Born in 1799 into a poor family, she would operate with marked success in a field dominated by men, at a time when science ‘was still largely the province of the leisured gentleman amateur.’ An increasing numbers of visitors to Lyme, to meet Mary Anning and see her collections included Louis Agassiz and the King of Saxony. Fossil-hunting on the shore there was a hard and often dangerous affair but she had ‘the sharpest eyes in the business’, patience, persistence, courage and physical strength. She discovered Ichthyosaurs, Plesiosaurs, a Pterodactyl, fossil fish and coprolites. She died at the age of 47 and is buried in the churchyard of St Michael the Archangel, which has memorial windows for her and for Thomas Coram.[5]

Mary-Anning-via-BBC

(Mary Anning and her dog Tray via BBC)

On this last visit of the season, Lyme was looking its best, the air clear, the views long, the sea literally dazzling, even distant Portland standing out sharply. On the debit side, the Librarian was the victim of two attacks by Lyme’s already infamous seagulls: bombed once and raided once, the first occasion best not talked about, the second seeing the abrupt and violent theft of her ice-cream, the cornet whittled down to the perfect size and state—then gone, one swoop, one beak.

We already knew that the latest advice was to stare seagulls out – can this really work? But the Lyme seagulls have heard all that stuff in any case: they come from behind or from the side. Try staring me out now, sucker.

Next year: helmets and umbrellas.

 

 
Notes

[1] Thomas Hardy, ‘The Riddle’, The Complete Poems, edited by James Gibson (London: Macmillan, 1976), 448. John Fowles uses this stanza as epigraph to the opening chapter of The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

[2] Thomas Dilworth, David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet (London: Jonathan Cape, 2017), 15.

[3] John Fowles, A Short History of Lyme Regis (Stanbridge: The Dovecote Press, 2004), 18; also his ‘Islands’, in Wormholes: Essays and Occasional Writings, edited by Jan Relf (London: Jonathan Cape, 1998), 304-309.

[4] The Arden edition of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, edited by Frank Kermode (London: Methuen, 1987), xxvii.

[5] Information from Crispin Tickell, Mary Anning of Lyme Regis, with a foreword by John Fowles (Lyme Regis Philpot Museum, 1996), 11, 18.

Belief: a world of a word

Knox, Archibald, 1864-1933; 'In preachings of apostles faiths of confessors'

(Archibald Knox, ‘“In preachings of apostles faiths of confessors” (from Knox’s illuminated manuscript “The Deer’s Cry” or “Saint Patrick’s Hymn”’: Manx Museum, Douglas, Isle of Man)

Sitting before the evening news, the Librarian remarks that, if we’d been told ten or fifteen years ago that the world would be like this—the Artic and the Amazon forest on fire, the extreme Right resurgent in Europe again, the widespread mainstream dissemination of racist and supremacist views, this country’s prolonged and painful foundering, the President of the United States in a snit because he couldn’t buy another country and suggesting nuclear strikes to combat hurricanes—we wouldn’t have believed it.

Believe. What a world of a word. ‘I do not believe in Belief’, E. M. Forster wrote in his 1939 essay, ‘What I Believe’. And, ‘Faith, to my mind, is a stiffening process, a sort of mental starch, which ought to be applied as sparingly as possible. I dislike the stuff’.[1] I also own a curious volume called What I Believe, edited by Mark Booth, ‘curious’ not in its contributors (W. H. Auden, Albert Einstein, Jacques Maritain, Rebecca West, Bertrand Russell and, yes, Martin Sheen among them) but in its publishing history, issued in Britain by Firethorn Press, ‘an imprint of Waterstone and Company Limited’, of 193 Kensington High Street, London W8. A Waterstones branch is still at that address, thirty-five years on.

What-I-Believe

‘The brute necessity of believing something so long as life lasts does not justify any belief in particular’, George Santayana wrote.[2] And Shirley Jackson’s observation seems increasingly pertinent: ‘The question of belief is a curious one, partaking of the wonders of childhood and the blind hopefulness of the very old; in all the world there is not someone who does not believe something. It might be suggested, and not easily disproven that anything, no matter how exotic, can be believed by someone.’[3] These days, of course, that ‘anything’ is believed with greater volume and stridency.

T. S. Eliot famously declared of the essays in For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on Style and Order, that: ‘The general point of view may be described as classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion.’[4] The previous year, he had published ‘A Note on Poetry and Belief’, responding to an essay by I. A. Richards: ‘But I cannot see that poetry can ever be separated from something which I should call belief, and to which I cannot see any reason for refusing the name of belief, unless we are to reshuffle names altogether.’[5] Responding to Eliot’s musing about what his friend ‘believed’, Ezra Pound recommended reading Confucius and Ovid, but advanced a few years later to a more precise statement: ‘I believe the Ta Hio.’[6] This—The Great Learning—became, some years later, Ta Hsio: The Great Digest, its most often quoted lines (certainly by me) perhaps: ‘Things have roots and branches; affairs have scopes and beginnings. To know what precedes and what follows, is nearly as good as having a head and feet.’[7]

Certain beliefs—and I pause on the ironic savour of the word ‘certain’ in this context—are, or have been, pretty well obligatory. Northrop Frye writes that: ‘The Christian mythology of the Middle Ages and later was a closed mythology, that is, a structure of belief, imposed by compulsion on everyone. As a structure of belief, the primary means of understanding it was rational and conceptual, and no poet, outside the Bible, was accorded the kind of authority that was given to the theologian. Romanticism, besides being a new mythology, also marks the beginning of an “open” attitude to mythology on the part of society, making mythology a structure of imagination, out of which beliefs come, rather than directly one of compulsory belief.’[8]

I recall, quite specifically, the moment in which I ceased to be a Christian believer, though I may not have then become a Romantic. It was a bright, dry Sunday morning in a village a few miles from Bath. I boarded at a nearby college, though continuing to attend school in the city and, every Sunday morning, the boarders were ferried by the college’s ramshackle coach to the village church. While I stood on the side of the hot road, that belief fell off me like a solid object, as though I’d dropped a stone or a coin, one I wouldn’t bend to pick up again.

‘Lord, I believe’, the father cries out in St Mark’s Gospel, ‘help thou mine unbelief’ (Mark 9: 24).

Palma il giovane, Jacopo, 1544/1548-1628; Saint Mark

(Jacopo Palma il giovane, Saint Mark: Hatton Gallery)

Anne Carson writes:

‘Where does unbelief begin?
When I was young

there were degrees of certainty.
I could say, Yes I know that I have two hands.
Then one day I awakened on a planet of people whose hands
occasionally disappear—’[9]

Religious belief clearly doesn’t require buildings and clerical collars. In Of Human Bondage, Somerset Maugham’s Norah tells Philip that she doesn’t believe in ‘churches and parsons and all that’ – but, she adds, ‘I believe in God, and I don’t believe He minds much about what you do as long as you keep your end up and help a lame dog over a stile when you can.’[10] There are, too, very individual manifestations of God. ‘Binding up these sheaves of oats’, Ronald Duncan wrote in his record of wartime smallholding, ‘I am certain I believe in oats. The stalks falling behind the cutter which we draw behind an old car, the monk binding methodically, the new members binding enthusiastically, women with coloured scarves round their heads are gleaning and one cannot glean ungracefully. If one cannot see God in an oatfield one will never see. For, here is the whole of it.’[11]

Palmer, Samuel, 1805-1881; The Gleaning Field

(Samuel Palmer, The Gleaning Field: Tate)

Kate Atkinson writes of Jackson Brodie in her recent novel: ‘He didn’t let the fact that he was brought up as a Catholic interfere with his beliefs.’[12] Beliefs or faith? In what I suspect has now become my favourite Penelope Fitzgerald novel, she writes of the feast of St Modestus, patron saint of printing, and the blessing of the ikons by the parish priest. ‘Because I don’t believe in this, Frank thought, that doesn’t mean it’s not true.’ Then: ‘Perhaps, Frank thought, I have faith, even if I have no beliefs.’[13]

As to the secular world, who can say? Faith in facts, in political systems, in international law, in human rights? Belief seems sometimes rampant, sometimes inert, stunned, left for dead. It’s a long time since Proust wrote: ‘Facts do not find their way into the world in which our beliefs reside; they did not produce our beliefs; they do not destroy them; they may inflict on them the most constant refutations without weakening them.’[14] Remembering the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, now more than forty years ago, Lavinia Greenlaw asserted that ‘England was no longer England, at least not the England it persisted in believing itself to be.’[15]

And now? Here we are. There they are. So I turn to the Librarian and say yes, I believe you’re right.

 

Notes

[1] E. M. Forster, Two Cheers for Democracy (London: Edward Arnold, 1951), 77.

[2] W. H. Auden and Louis Kronenberger, The Faber Book of Aphorisms: A Personal Selection (London: Faber and Faber, 1964), 334.

[3] Shirley Jackson, The Sundial (1958; London: Penguin, 2015), 33.

[4] T. S. Eliot, ‘Preface’, For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on Style and Order (London: Faber and Gwyer, 1928), ix.

[5] T. S. Eliot, ‘A Note on Poetry and Belief’, The Enemy, 1 (January 1927) 15-17.

[6] Ezra Pound, ‘Credo’ (1930) in Selected Prose 1909-1965, edited by William Cookson (London: Faber and Faber, 1973), 53; ‘Date Line’ (1934) in Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, edited by T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1960), 86.

[7] Ezra Pound, Confucius. The Unwobbling Pivot; The Great Digest; The Analects (New York: New Directions, 1969), 29.

[8] Northrop Frye, A Study of English Romanticism (Brighton: The Harvester Press, 1983), 16

[9] Anne Carson, ‘The Glass Essay’ in Glass, Irony & God (New York: New Directions, 1995), 31.

[10] Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage (1915; Penguin Books, 1963), 318. Readers of Ford Madox Ford nod sagely at this point—‘I remember my grandfather laying down a rule of life for me. He said: “ Fordie, never refuse to help a lame dog over a stile.”’ See Ancient Lights and Certain New Reflections (London: Chapman and Hall, 1911), 197.

[11] Ronald Duncan, Journal of a Husbandman (London: Faber 1944), 52-53.

[12] Kate Atkinson, Big Sky (London: Transworld, 2019), 10.

[13] Penelope Fitzgerald, The Beginning of Spring (London: Everyman, 2003), 378.

[14] Marcel Proust, The Way by Swann’s, translated by Lydia Davis (London: Allen Lane, 2002), 149.

[15] Lavinia Greenlaw, The Importance of Music to Girls (London: Faber & Faber, 2017), 114.

Plus ça change: editing, comedy, politics

Harry-dozing 1

A flurry of activity, since we are—finally!—in the last throes of preparing for the printer the second issue of Last Post: A Literary Journal from the Ford Madox Ford Society. Before that – days of depressing weather and weathering depression as British politicians plot, plod, falsify, feint and fail, some of them apparently paralysed while others are clearly willing to jeopardise not only the wellbeing of the United Kingdom as a whole but the still fragile peace in Northern Ireland too.

Still, there was my elder daughter’s birthday, though on the actual day she was—not exactly abroad but offshore, that region so favoured by the rich—aboard a small train bound for Laxey in the Isle of Man, and then on another train up a mountain. On the other hand, her sister, who lives in Barcelona, arrived in Bristol to stay with the Librarian and I—and, crucially, Harry the house cat—for a few days before heading off to Scotland to unleash some stand-up comedy at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe with a group of friends. (Such familial displays of extrovert behaviour might offset, to a degree, my increasingly wary view of the world out there and the people in it.)

The second issue of Last Post includes a reprinted article by Ford, dating from 1936, when he revisited London, a relatively rare event in the post-war years, since he lived first in Sussex, then Paris, then Toulon, with trips to New York and other parts of the United States – but not often to London.

Fordie-BBC

http://www.fordmadoxfordsociety.org/last-post-journal.html

In the world-before-the-war, he’d been based in London for a decade and his first commercially successful book (at least since his first, a fairy tale illustrated by his grandfather Ford Madox Brown) was devoted to the city: The Soul of London appeared in 1905. And, though Ford didn’t live there much after 1915, he continued to write about the city or to draw upon it in many of his later books. More than eighty years old, then, that article but I was struck by his characterisation of the politicians of the day:

‘It was impossible to imagine a more impressive collection of dumb-bells and left-overs than were provided by H. M. Government and H. M. Opposition between them. A photograph of the lot of them impressed you with the idea that you were looking at a group-picture of the better-behaved inmates of Bellevue—as who should say Bethlem Hospital. And their political records were none of them more cheerful.’

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as they say in some quarters, I believe.

 

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

LA_Egyptian_life_304

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

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

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

tutankhamun

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

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

Golden-Child

(Penelope Fitzgerald, The Golden Child)

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

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

Wilfred-Knox-via-Wikipedia

(Wilfred Knox via Wikipedia)

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

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

Penelope_Fitzgerald_A_Life

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

Marguerite_Yourcenar-Bailleul-1982

(Bernhard De Grendel, Marguerite Yourcenar, 1982)

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

Carter-1925-via-Guardian

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

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

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

 

 

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[9] Lee, Penelope Fitzgerald, 243.

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

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

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

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

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

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