Terrible things

goya

(Francisco Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son)

A correspondent writes: ‘You will remember that Ford Madox Ford quote you often used—“Terrible things—for those to whom terrible things occur in their lives—happen in the last days of January”—and will no doubt trot it out again and try to connect it with that bloody damnable Brexit thing.’

No, Cornelius, I won’t trot it out again. Here, instead, is Edmund Blunden, the poet and prose writer, who served in France, was gassed and won the Military Cross, who died on this day forty-five years ago that. Early in his classic memoir, Undertones of War, he writes: ‘One of the first ideas that established themselves in my enquiring mind was the prevailing sense of the endlessness of the war. No one here appeared to conceive any end to it.’

Will we get to the end of this catastrophic farce—and, if we do, will it only be a beginning anyway? It’s not a comfortable or edifying spectacle, this watching your country eat its own intestines, though difficult to look away from, provoking as it does a kind of appalled fascination. There has been an avalanche of essays and articles on the theme of ‘how to break the impasse’, most managing to say nothing of much value. And with such rigidity and posturing, with so many people talking of ‘the national interest’ while actively pursuing something quite other, the signs are not promising.

milkman

Still, intelligence, imagination, tolerance, an understanding of history and knowledge of the human heart are readily available elsewhere, so thanks to – among others this month so far – Colm Tóibín, Anna Burns, Deborah Levy, Dorothy Baker and Henry James.

‘People can be extraordinarily slipshod whenever already they have made up their minds’, Anna Burns writes in Milkman, her very funny—and scary—Man Booker Prize-winning novel.

Indeed they can.

Transports of Delight

Bus-376

On the way to Wells, I’m reminded of the bus ride we took on the Jurassic Coast service from Chideock to Lyme Regis last month. I ride on buses so rarely these days, mostly walking, occasionally driving, so had almost forgotten just how different the world looks from the upper deck of a bus. Simply, you see more, partly because of the slower speed but largely because of the height – and the frequency with which you stop, not only at traffic lights, in a queue of cars, but at bus stops, pulled tightly in to the side of the road, next to garden fences, house fronts, road signs, shops and cafés, peering into people’s lives in a way you can’t from a car or even a train. So, on the section of road I’d driven on scores of times, between Bristol and Yeovil, I’d noticed Featherbed Lane but had missed Sleep Lane and, worse, Gibbet Lane too. Passing the point where we used to gauge our progress by the first glimpse of the single wind turbine, in the weeks when we drove often to Glastonbury to see my mother in the hospital, I realised a bus top view made it visible for longer and from varying angles. Seeing a truncated version of it complicated my sense of its movement, so that it came to seem not unlike an acrobat tirelessly performing cartwheels.

So, four recent bus journeys. In every case, a failure to sit in the very front seats because these are always the first to be taken. But my clearest memory of a bus ride is precisely of sitting in that front seat and going, a little too fast, over a humpbacked bridge near Bath, so that I was facing vertiginously downwards for an abrupt, disorientating moment, my breath forced jerkily from my nose and mouth. J. R. Ackerley recalled visiting his sister Nancy in Worthing and going into one of the seaside cafés to order a cup of coffee that they didn’t need to drink. There they ‘talked of this and that – the gale that had raged on the south coast on Friday and Saturday and blown a bus full of people over a bridge’.[1] In my case, it wasn’t a gale, just a driver that had mistaken his route for Silverstone or Brands Hatch.

Ackerley_Aunt_EMF

(J. R. Ackerley with his aunt and E. M. Forster)

In those far-off days, I’d been working on a novel and that momentary, violent loss of control, of helplessness in the face of whatever happened next (and that vivid presentiment of the bus not righting itself but continuing to tip forward), the sense of ‘Too late now!’, like realising as the train pulls away from the station that you left the gas on, gave me a title: A Sense of Omission. Safely unpublished, of course. I see that even that far back, I loved a pun.

Tony Judt has the bus in equal second place: ‘I was never so happy as when I was going somewhere on my own, and the longer it took to get there, the better. Walking was pleasurable, cycling enjoyable, bus journeys fun. But the train was very heaven.’[2] Today, after finding that the Prime Minister had found herself in a very hostile environment, I set off to collect an undelivered parcel from what seemed at times to be a galaxy far, far away, though I’d travelled there on foot. So the bus is in equal second place for me too: first place still goes to walking: stop whenever you want to, no traffic jams, fix your own timetable. Take back control, as they say.

 
References

[1] J. R. Ackerley, My Sister and Myself: The Diaries of J. R. Ackerley, edited by Francis King (London: Hutchinson 1982), 69.

[2] Tony Judt, The Memory Chalet (London: Heinemann, 2010), 66.

 

Remembering to forget

Fuseli-night_hag

Henry Fuseli, The Night-Hag Visiting Lapland Witches (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

‘Towards morning I was possessed by a kind of nightmare; I felt the fiend’s grasp in my neck and could not free myself from it; groans and cries rang in my ears. My father, who was watching over me, perceiving my restlessness, awoke me; the dashing waves were around, the cloudy sky above, the fiend was not here: a sense of security, a feeling that a truce was established between the present hour and the irresistible, disastrous future imparted to me a kind of calm forgetfulness of which the human mind is by its structure peculiarly susceptible.’[1]

A ‘calm forgetfulness’ (I lightly pass over that ‘irresistible, disastrous future’, on the fish-in-a-barrel principle) – in 1938-39, Henry Green was clear about the dangers of forgetting, of ageing and acceptance: ‘As I write now a war, or the threat of war, while still threatening seems more remote; a change of wind and the boat is blown in, there is nothing to do but tie up and call it a day. That is the pity of sobering down to middle age, there must be a threat to one’s skin to wake what is left of things remembered into things to die with. The crime is to forget.’[2]

Still, we know well enough the dangers, if not the crimes and misdemeanours, of selective remembering too. We’ve just passed the centenary of the end of the Great War Armistice and, as John Greening remarked recently in the TLS, ‘After four years of remembering the First World War, remembrance itself is being commemorated.’[3] There has been a lot of attention rightly paid to personal stories, men surviving only in blurry photographs or in fragmentary family histories. Meanwhile, the arguments about what actually brought the war about, the competence of various military leaders, the emergence and maintenance of myths that drive nations into further wars or into disastrous political decisions, continue and will continue.

In John Le Carré’s novel, A Most Wanted Man, Dr Abdullah remarks: ‘“That’s one of the great problems of the modern world, you know. Forgetting. The victim never forgets. Ask an Irishman what the English did to him in 1920 and he’ll tell you the day of the month and the time and the name of every man they killed. Ask an Iranian what the English did to him in 1953 and he’ll tell you. His child will tell you. His grandchild will tell you. And when he has one, his great-grandchild will tell you too. But ask an Englishman—?” He flung up his hands in mock ignorance. “If he ever knew, he has forgotten.”’[4]

‘The victim never forgets.’ Indeed. But who is the victim? In earlier catastrophes, from the Armenian genocide through Soviet purges to the Holocaust, the identity of the victims was not in doubt. But now? Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Nigeria, Somalia, Kashmir, Ukraine. Everyone claims victimhood. In some countries, angry white men claim that the only real victims are angry white men. The only inevitability is that innocent civilians, particularly women and children, will continue to bear the brunt of murderous violence and aggression.

opium-eater_quincey

And sometimes, the need to forget, at least for a while, is more urgent, more desperate, than the need to remember. ‘Life’, Balzac wrote, ‘cannot go on without a great a deal of forgetting.’[5] Julia Blackburn remarks that, ‘sometimes we need to remember things because only then can we forget’,[6] while, in a similar vein, the critic Frank Kermode observed that, ‘in the ordinary course of his written narrative, as of the interminable day-to-day account he gives himself of himself, the autobiographer will remember only in order to forget what he cannot bear to remember.’[7]

How easy is it to forget? Is it subject to the usual vagaries of the human mind and will – we unfailingly remember what we seek to forget while what we urgently need to remember falls immediately away? ‘Of this, at least, I feel assured’, Thomas De Quincey firmly asserted, ‘that there is no such thing as forgetting possible to the mind; a thousand accidents may, and will interpose a veil between our present consciousness and the secret inscriptions on the mind; accidents of the same sort will also rend away this veil; but alike, whether veiled or unveiled, the inscription remains for ever; just as the stars seem to withdraw before the common light of day, whereas, in fact, we all know that it is the light which is drawn over them as a veil — and that they are waiting to be revealed, when the obscuring daylight shall have withdrawn.’[8]

Yes: you may think you’ve forgotten – but it’s in there somewhere. . .

 
References

[1] Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, in Three Gothic Novels, edited by Peter Fairclough (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968), 455.

[2] Henry Green, Pack My Bag: A Self-Portrait (1940; The Hogarth Press, 1992), 50.

[3] John Greening, ‘Pity War Distilled: Poetry and the act of remembering’ (review of three recent books), Times Literary Supplement No. 6032 (9 November 2018), 9.

[4] John Le Carré, A Most Wanted Man (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2009), 341.

[5] Honoré de Balzac, Cousin Bette, translated by Marion Ayton Crawford (London: Penguin Books, 2004), 442.

[6] Julia Blackburn, Thin Paths: Journeys In and Around an Italian Mountain Village (London: Jonathan Cape, 2011), 193.

[7] Frank Kermode, Not Entitled: A Memoir (London: Harper Collins, 1996), 156.

[8] Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium Eater, edited by Alethea Hayter (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1971), 104.

Electricity and beefsteak

Sky-through-stone

‘His eyes followed the high figure in homespun, beard and bicycle, a listening woman at his side. Coming from the vegetarian. Only weggebobbles and fruit. Don’t eat a beefsteak. If you do the eyes of that cow will pursue you through all eternity. They say it’s healthier. Windandwatery, though. Tried it. Keep you on the run all day.’ So James Joyce writes in Ulysses. Apparently this passage refers to George Russell (‘AE’) but it’s a figure that makes me think of George Bernard Shaw. In Richard Garnett’s biography of his grandmother, Constance Garnett: A Heroic Life, he tells the story of Shaw inheriting £100 from his ‘ne’er-do-well’ father, who died in 1885. £15 was spent on a new suit produced by Dr Jaeger’s Sanitary Woollen System Company Limited. ‘Thereafter he looked like a toy made for a child by an inexpert knitter.’

As for the beefsteak. Ford Madox Ford, a great lover of wine – especially red wine – tried to persuade Joyce to drink it. Joyce preferred to drink white, comparing it to ‘electricity’ while regarding red wine as ‘liquid beefsteak’.

We’re fairly open-minded on the question in this house, though tending to Ford’s view of the matter rather than Joyce’s. There was a recent Q & A with Jodie Whittaker, the new Doctor Who, which included:

Jodie-Whittaker

What is your guiltiest pleasure?
Drinking wine every day. I have half a bottle a day. There’s a lot of pleasure in it and a lot of guilt, so it ticks both boxes.

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/sep/22/jodie-whittaker-q-and-a-drinking-wine-doctor-who

At that point, my wife made the noise that Librarians make when they come across a kindred spirit, though the word ‘guilt’ caused a moment’s bafflement.

Let me raise a glass, anyway, to my friends in America and send them all best wishes for tomorrow – and many tomorrows thereafter.

 

 

Paying respects

Angels

Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright—so it was, and is. Passing the open front door of a house along our street, cement sacks propped against the wall, the whole building masked by scaffolding—one of several at the moment—I’m struck by how many workers in the building trade believe they can sing – I mean sing well, of course. The song that’s spilling from the radio is almost drowned out by their own near-miss whoops and roars. But then my standards have been skewed since work on the back of our house transformed them. For months, along with the drilling and hammering downstairs, I could hear Mark singing along with the radio. Not only could he sing in tune – and hold a tune – but he seemed to know the words and the melody of every song that came over the airwaves. More, he could sing every part and, frankly, anyone who can do all that and harmonise with himself, has earned respect, certainly mine.

That’s a word that detains me from time to time. ‘Respect’ – for the person, for the achievement, for the office. The last of these has fallen out of favour of late, tangled up with ‘the end of deference’, ‘deference’ being one of those trigger words that creates a certain restlessness in the room. In many countries, of course, respect continues to be accorded a particular office even if the holder is manifestly wholly unfitted for it and may even have brought the office itself into disrepute.

My own position is that, while respect has to be earned, so too does disrespect. Neither praising nor dispraising until the one or the other is warranted, by word or action; and, in the meantime, walk on by. Browsing in dictionaries, I’m fine with ‘a feeling of deep admiration for someone elicited by their qualities or achievements’, so too ‘due regard for the feelings or rights of others’: that’s ‘due regard’.

Vansittart

On the matter of balance between respect for the person and for the position held by that person, I like this from Peter Vansittart: ‘Classics, of course, have no monopoly of pertinent stories, and any age can learn from a French provincial governor, François de Montmain, replying to King Charles IX: “Sire, I have received an order from Your Majesty directing me to kill all Protestants in my province. I respect Your Majesty too much to believe that this order is genuine. But if, which God forbid, it should indeed be, I respect Your Majesty too greatly to feel it in my power to obey it.” Courage, dignity, wit and humanity in a handful of words.’[1]

Bridging the gap – Catholic to Protestant; king to commoner; invader to ‘native’. In his introduction to Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail, David Levin noted that ‘unlike Melville’s narrator, Parkman never learns to respect the people whose life he observes.’ He added: ‘He cannot transcend the invaders’ point of view.’ Indeed, for Parkman, the Native Americans he encountered and whose lands he ranged over, could only be ‘savages’: at one point, he writes, ‘No civilized eye but mine had ever looked upon that virgin waste.’[2]

In our time, it is the politicians who have most visibly and undeniably lost respect – which is hardly surprising, given current and recent events in the United Kingdom, the United States, Hungary, Italy, Brazil, Turkey, Yemen and Saudi Arabia—among many others. There seems no real likelihood of this changing any time soon.

There used to be a common phrase, less common now, I think, ‘paying respects’, a visit of a semi-formal or at least polite kind, while ‘paying one’s last respects’ expresses those sentiments through attending a person’s funeral—or, perhaps, visiting their graves. ‘During a quarter century of poetic folly’, Jonathan Williams muses, ‘I have become more and more goliardic, peripatetic, and simply bizarre.’ Poet, publisher and photographer, he carefully recorded his funerary pilgrimages: ‘I must have by now 300 slides of the resting places of human beings I much revere and whose works and persons nourish me.’[3]

Tait, Robert Scott, c.1816-1897; 'A Chelsea Interior' (The Carlyles at Home with Their Dog, 'Nero')

Robert Scott Tait, A Chelsea Interior (the Carlyles’ house)
© National Trust images

‘Never speaking ill of the dead’ is often used to enforce silence about failings, or used to be. Victorian ‘lives and letters’ were notoriously eulogistic if not sycophantic, one reason why J. A. Froude’s life of Carlyle was so controversial, with its revelation of what Froude viewed as Carlyle’s abrasive character and Jane Carlyle’s unhappiness. But, as Adam Sisman wrote of Samuel Johnson, ‘If biography was to teach men and women how to live, it followed that it should be realistic. Johnson did not share the general belief that respect for the dead required that their faults should be suppressed or glossed over.’[4]

Still, if you’re embarking on a biography, it’s surely advisable to harbour positive feelings—even respect—for your subject. Penelope Fitzgerald, biographer of Edward Burne-Jones, Charlotte Mew and her own extraordinary family, remarked in a letter to her American publisher Chris Carduff: ‘I also write novels (on the whole I think you should write biographies of those you admire and respect, and novels about human beings who you think are sadly mistaken)’.[5]

beachandjoyce-newyorker

(Sylvia Beach and James Joyce via The New Yorker)

Not that respect is, or need be, focused always on persons. It might be a text: Sylvia Beach recalled that Sergei Eisenstein was ‘an ardent admirer of Joyce. He would have liked to make a film from Ulysses but he had too much respect for the text, he told me, to sacrifice it for the sake of the picture.’[6] It might be something more mundane: ‘Whether religious or not (that was something she would not have breathed about, not even to Mrs Hunter asleep) Sister de Santis admitted to a belief in common objects. If you depend on something to any extent, you might as well learn to respect it; so she never kicked the furniture or threw the crockery about.’[7]

Lately, even given the profound and relentless provocation afforded me by the world’s destroyers and their useful idiots, I’ve managed to leave the crockery alone.

 
References

[1] Peter Vansittart, In Memory of England: A Novelist’s View of History (London: John Murray, 1998), 3.

[2] Francis Parkman, The Oregon Trail (1849; edited by David Levin, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1982), 18, 21, 321.

[3] Jonathan Williams, ‘Paying Respects’ (1976), in Blackbird Dust: Essays, Poems, and Photographs (New York: Turtle Point Press, 2000), 11, 12.

[4] Adam Sisman, Boswell’s Presumptuous Task (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2000), 165.

[5] Letter of 7 December 1987: So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald, edited by Terence Dooley (London: Fourth Estate, 2008), 490.

[6] Sylvia Beach, Shakespeare and Company (1959; Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991), 109.

[7] Patrick White, The Eye of the Storm (London: Penguin Books, 1975), 165.

 

Among the trees

Trees-VP

‘This house looks out on a great rampart of trees; all day they are motionless in the strong sun’, Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote to Llewellyn Powys in the summer of 1933, from Frankfort Manor, Sloley, Norwich. ‘But at dusk they seem to creep silently across the lawn, until looking from my window I seem to see their enormous foreheads pressed to the pane. I have never lived with trees before. They take some mastering; but I think I shall be on good terms with them even before I see them naked.’[1]

In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the Ents are a race of huge tree-like beings who stride across the country to take part in the battle against Saruman. But the image of trees walking is an old one. In St Mark’s gospel, the blind man, his sight only partially restored when touched once by Christ, ‘looked up, and said, I see men as trees walking.’ His sight will be fully restored when touched for a second time, so that he sees ‘every man clearly’ (Mark 8:24-25). This is explicitly echoed in Elizabeth Bowen’s description of a young woman called Emmeline, at a party, looking down the hall. ‘There she saw men as trees walking, her mind already at home in the dusk of her white room outside the lamplight.’[2]

ent_Tolkien

(Tolkien’s Ents: from The Two Towers)

Shakespeare’s Macbeth, told that he’ll never be defeated until Great Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane to oppose him, says with understandable confidence: ‘That will never be./ Who can impress the forest, bid the tree/ Unfix his earthbound root?’ But every soldier in the approaching army carries a bough cut from the trees of Birnam Wood, to ‘shadow/ The numbers of our host, and make discovery/ Err in report of us’, as Malcolm says. Very much men as trees walking.

Trees are miracles of growth, sometimes reaching enormous heights from tiny beginnings. They bear fruit, shed leaves, are cut down and die, take on other forms. Unsurprisingly, they’re everywhere in the world’s religions and mythologies: Yggdrasil, the tree of life that connects the nine worlds of Norse cosmology; the Bo tree under which the Buddha sat and attained enlightenment; sacred fig trees in Jainism and Hinduism; the Christian tree of the knowledge of good and evil; the tree of life in the Kabbalah; many more.

They’re everywhere in literature too: oak, willow, laurel, olive, cypress, yew. The elm alone traces a path from Homer and Virgil through Chaucer and Milton to Thomas Gray and Tennyson.

‘I love the fitful gust that shakes/ The casement all the day’, John Clare declared:

And from the mossy elm tree takes
The faded leaves away,
Twirling them by the window-pane
With thousand others down the lane. (‘Autumn’)

Not everyone is, or remains, enamoured. ‘On the way’, William Carlos Williams wrote:

we passed a long row
of elms. She looked at them
awhile out of
the ambulance window and said,

What are all those
fuzzy-looking things out there?
Trees? Well, I’m tired
of them and rolled her head away.[3]

‘I wrapped my tears in an ellum leaf/ And left them under a stone’, Ezra Pound wrote in an early poem.[4] In a what leaf? Is that an Idaho thing – or Philadelphia, or New York? But then here’s Mr Faulkner of Mississippi: ‘The buggy was drawn by a white horse, his feet clopping in the thin dust; spidery wheels chattering thin and dry, moving uphill beneath a rippling shawl of leaves. Elm. No: ellum. Ellum.’[5]

Ah, these Americans. Perhaps one more. ‘“They come down like ellum-branches in still weather. No warnin’ at all.”’ This is in Rudyard Kipling’s ‘An Habitation Enforced’, an early example of his ‘healing’ stories, this one involving a very rosy picture of Edwardian England, where the death of Mr Iggulden prompts Mrs Betts to make that observation to Sophie Chapin (who has found the old man dead in his fireside chair).[6] The Chapins are American—her family there comes from Connecticut—but this is Mrs Betts speaking, a local woman, long resident here. So: Idaho, Mississippi —Sussex.

Swallowdale

At this time of year, walking on a slowly thickening carpet of leaves, with the odd branch fallen in an occasionally fiercer wind, the trees in my local park impress themselves even more closely than usual on my attention. They certainly have a positive effect on people—some people, most people?—and there’s something curiously heartening in the sight of newly-planted saplings. New growth but also a distinctive kind of latent energies, a gathering of strength.

‘“Sleep like young trees and get up like young horses, as my old nanny in Australia used to say”, their mother tells the Walker children in Arthur Ransome’s Swallowdale.[7]

 

References

[1] Sylvia Townsend Warner, Letters, edited by William Maxwell (London: Chatto & Windus, 1982), 25.

[2] Elizabeth Bowen, To the North ([1932] Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1945), 26. In Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War (1928; edited by John Greening, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 58, ‘Willow-trees seemed moving men.’

[3] William Carlos Williams, ‘The Last Words of My English Grandmother’, in The Collected Poems, Volume 1: 1900-1939, edited by A. Walton Litz and Christopher MacGowan (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1987), 465.

[4] ‘La Fraisne’, in Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations, edited by Richard Sieburth (New York: Library of America, 2003), 23.

[5] William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (1929), in Novels 1926-1929, edited by Joseph Blotner and Noel Polk (New York: Library of America, 2006), 972.

[6] Rudyard Kipling, Actions and Reactions (London: Macmillan and Co., 1909), 20.

[7] Arthur Ransome, Swallowdale (1931; London: Jonathan Cape, 1985), 30.

Elation, Misprints, Anthony Burgess

Ink-Trade

I’ve been poring over the intended final proofs of the first issue of the Ford Madox Ford journal, looking for misprints, of course, those tiny details that are capable of provoking rage or despair in some individuals, as I’m only too aware. I’ve reacquainted myself with the well-known phenomenon of staring at a word a dozen times before noticing, at the thirteenth attempt, that a letter is missing. Still, since I’ve come close on past occasions to dismissing out of hand people who can’t spell Ford Madox Ford’s name or who jam an apostrophe into Finnegans Wake, I can hardly rule out a similar intolerance in others, potential readers of our journal.

FMF-Logo

I’ve now reached the point where I tacitly assume that there will be errors in every book I read. Novels are less affected by the virus but anything with a lot of names, places and book titles is at risk. Usually, these are minor lapses, probably invisible unless you have that proofreading or editorial predilection – but not always. I’ve just been reading a highly enjoyable selection of journalism by Anthony Burgess, The Ink Trade (edited by Will Carr, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2018) and, while ‘the playgoing pubic’ is mildly amusing, to be told that, in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ ‘The Windhover’, the word ‘buckle’ ‘resents a forceful ambiguity which is at the root of the strength of the poem’, gives me pause to frown. Resents? Presents? Represents? Interesting, anyway, to learn that, apart from Shakespeare, the two writers that have meant much to him are James Joyce – hardly a secret, that one – and Hopkins.

In any case, the book offers so many pleasures that it warrants a high degree of tolerance to such errors. There are sixty items, uncollected and several unpublished, with numerous reminders of Burgess’s energy, erudition, wit and wide-ranging enthusiasms. On censorship, Henry Miller, Nabokov, Erica Jong, A. S. Byatt, Evelyn Waugh and Malcolm Lowry; Ellmann on Wilde, V. S. Naipaul, Graham Greene and Kingsley Amis. Burgess is always readable, often provocative, generally engaging. Remembering Earthly Powers, whose main protagonist was reputedly based on, or drew upon, Somerset Maugham, it’s salutary to be reminded of Burgess’s considerable and genuine regard for Maugham’s writing. He describes Cakes and Ale as ‘a textbook of literary criticism as well as a superb novel’ and, though he proposes to modify that to ‘a superb work of fiction’, since the book may be seen as an inflated short story, he adds that some of Maugham’s stories are ‘among the best in the language.’ Of his first reading of The Waste Land: ‘I was only fifteen, and I understood very little of the poem, but I recognised that it was important. I seemed to hear a door, a long way down one of my mind’s corridors, trying to creak open but not quite making it.’ That last sentence is right on the money.

He writes often and well on Joyce, of course, is consistent in his championing of Ford—‘without doubt the greatest British novelist of the century’—offers some clear and often compelling insights into the writing of fiction (‘The problem for all fiction writers is to decide who is telling the story’), is always fascinated by language, slang, class differences in speech and pronunciation. I liked this, from an unpublished piece (a version of a speech given at the Tate in 1991): ‘I say that a thing portrays beauty when it induces a feeling of elation which is unrelated to the biological or the utilitarian. The orgasm produces elation because that is nature’s bribe to ensure the continuation of the race, even through that bribe is thwarted. The elation of health, or its recovery, or financial success, the winning of a difficult game doesn’t call into being the praise or near-worship of an artefact. The elation is probably the elation of a kind of metaphysical discovery, and that discovery is very frequently a sense of unity which only the arts can convey.’

Burgess

(Anthony Burgess via theconversation.com)

That word ‘elation’ caught my eye because it recurs in several Jonathan Williams contexts, usually when he was quoting Louis Zukofsky to the effect that the function of poetry is ‘to record & elate’ (or, on occasion, ‘to elate and record’), while Elite/Elate was the title of his 1979 Selected Poems. It’s ironic that Burgess is mentioned in a Williams essay only in a negative context: ‘In one of the Sunday papers, Mr. Anthony Burgess considered it withering and simple enough to call [Zukofsky] “a New Yorker, a Communist, a Jew, and a poet” (I think in that order)’.

Still, Burgess and Zukofsky at least have in common the valuing of ‘elation’ as a desirable effect of literature or the arts and an indispensable element in the perception of beauty.

My other recent Burgess-spotting came in my fat volume of Patrick White’s letters. Writing to Marshall Best, his American publisher, in 1970, White commented that Burgess had seemingly ruffled a gathering of Australian writers with a talk given at the Adelaide Festival, in which he asserted that, ‘A country is only remembered for its art. Rome is remembered for Vergil, Greece for Homer, and Australia may be remembered for Patrick White.’ According to the newspaper report, no one clapped. ‘How I wish I had been watching and listening at a hole in the wall’, White remarked.