Something in the west

The Scarlet Sunset circa 1830-40 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/D24666

‘We could go for a later walk’, the Librarian said, ‘and try to catch a sunset – if there is one. It’s a bright, clear day at the moment.’ The sunset time on the BBC weather site was 16:34. I remembered being on the Dorset coast a couple of years ago, when we could watch the sun slip out of sight at exactly the predicted time. Science: knowledge ascertained by observation and experiment, critically tested, systematised and brought under general principles, derived from the Latin, to know – so not popular with everyone.

I suspect that there are dawn people and sunset people – and, needless to say, a huge number of others that will take both or neither or who, in any case, are never up sufficiently early to take a balanced view of the matter. Wordsworth’s dawn (in which it was bliss to be alive) in The Prelude embraced both youth and the initial promise of revolutionary France. A red sky at night, the proverb says, has shepherds capering about in sheer glee. Certainly my mother, who was a keen amateur painter, could never get enough of sunsets – but then she lived for a few years in the Far East, and a vista of junks picking their way through a dazzling sunset across the South China Sea was absurdly romantic to western eyes. A more prosaic question is probably: does your day stretch awfully ahead of you in some deadening job that barely puts food on the table after a ten-hour stint or is the prospect rather more alluring?


The narrator of Henry Green’s first novel, Blindness, lingers on an approaching sunset. ‘The sun was flooding the sky in waves of colour while he grew redder and redder in the west, the trees were a red gold too where he caught them. The sky was enjoying herself after the boredom of being blue all day.’[1] John Ruskin, writing in the early 1870s, was a little more agitated: ‘I…cannot any more look at a sunset with comfort, because, now that I am fifty-three, the sun seems to me to set so horribly fast; when one was young, it took its time; but now it always drops like a shell, and before I can get any image of it, is gone, and another day with it.’[2]

Guy Davenport observed that ‘Turner’s violent sunsets can be traced to a volcano in the Pacific, which loaded the air with dust and made chromatic changes in the sky. An element in romanticism can thus be traced to tectonic plates. From Turner, Ruskin; from Ruskin, Proust; from Proust, Beckett. Our sense of history can always be activated by such connections, whether they’re dependable or not. Every age’s past is a chosen one, and tells as much about the age as about the history it recovers.’[3]

Writing to his friends Geoffrey and Ninette Dutton, the Australian novelist Patrick White mentioned that his story, ‘Being Kind to Titina’, was based on his partner Manoly’s ‘childhood and youth in Alexandria and Athens’, and that he wanted to write a novel ‘about a boy growing up in those places, in a large family and ending with the German invasion of Greece. I think of it under the title of “My Athenian Family”, and see it as a kind of Greek version of a Turner sunset’. One of his favourite paintings was Turner’s ‘Interior at Petworth’ and, in a letter to Mary Benson (30 June 1971), he wrote that he used to go and look at it almost every Sunday when living in London: ‘besides being a subtle painting, I feel it taught me a lot about writing.’ Late Turners, he told another friend, Penny Coleing (23 June 1971), made him ‘grow breathless with delight every time I see them’.[4]


I was trying to remember the title – of a book or a section of a book – to do with sunsets, or the sinking of the sun in the west. I could remember the rhythm: the something of the something in the west but got no further. The Decline of the West seemed a possible part of it – Spengler? David Caute? – but no. The closest I got was the latter half of the title of a Cormac McCarthy novel I’d read years back: Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West – and noticed that he’d written a play called The Sunset Limited. Of the novel, I mainly recalled a great deal of blood, scalping and general mayhem.

To Hugh Kenner, Davenport wrote on 18 January 1974: ‘Cormac McCarthy, the Gothic nuvvlist of Sevier County, Tennessee, has begun sending back his Xerox copy of Tatlin!, page by page, with the socks of my prose pulled up. He is right most of the time, but he has made me feel so unsure of my ability to write even a simple English sentence that I’ve had dark and despairing thoughts of withdrawing the manuscript altogether.’ To which Kenner sent his reassuring reply five days later: ‘Pay no ultimate heed to Cormac McCarthy. No hand is surer than your’n with English syntax and epithet.’[5]

There was, of course, no sunset on our walk: no sun to begin with by the time we went out, barely any light at all in fact. It had become a day determined to give a new edge to the word ‘dull’. Still, it was good exercise.


Notes

[1] Henry Green, Nothing, Doting, Blindness (London: Vintage Books, 2008), 421.

[2] Ruskin, Fors Clavigera (New Edition: 4 volumes, 1896), I, 373.

[3] Guy Davenport, ‘Wheel Ruts’,  Grand Street, 7, 2 (Winter, 1988), 246.

[4] Patrick White, Letters, edited by David Marr (London: Jonathan Cape, 1994), 202, 203n.

[5] Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), II, 1503, 1504.

No birthday goat


It’s a bright and brassy day and – ‘We could walk by the city farm and see the goat’, the Librarian says, ‘and then maybe go on as far as the harbour.’

‘The goat may not be out in this weather’, I say (pawn to c4), ‘and the harbour area will be swarming with infected people (Bf4).’

‘We’ll be in the open air’, she says, ‘you can wear a mask and’—(Qd4)—‘it’s my birthday.’

Birthdays – they come but once a year, unless you’re a reigning monarch. The pleasure, the anticipation, the dread, the guilt. ‘I did not forget your birthday’, Elizabeth Bishop wrote to her friend Loren MacIver, ‘but could not find the Western Union and had no telephone. Forgive me. I am just not used to work, you know, and find it takes a lot of time, effort, and character, etc.—things I don’t have any of.’[1]

Occasionally, there are instances of peerless symmetry: D. H. Lawrence’s wife Frieda, both born and dying on 11 August, or Charles Waterton, the traveller and conservationist, buried on his 83rd birthday. Some people celebrate by doing something life-changing. On his thirty-first birthday, Saturday 22 February 1913, the sculptor Eric Gill went to Brighton to be received into the Church by Canon Connelly, accompanied by his wife Ethel – who afterwards changed her name to Mary. Then they went home, in time for Leonard and Virginia Woolf to arrive for the weekend.[2] Others involve themselves in other people’s birthday celebrations – sometimes unwisely. So Major-General J. F. C. Fuller, Boer War veteran, military theorist and former disciple of Aleister Crowley, served as Oswald Mosley’s minister of defence-in-waiting—so some pretty bad choices already—then, in April 1939, accepted an invitation to Hitler’s fiftieth birthday parade. In that same year, he denied allegations about German concentration camps.[3]

Still, presents! Occasionally, beauty trumps utility. Of W. B. Yeats receiving on his fortieth birthday ‘a book so ornate you couldn’t read it’— a copy of Chaucer from William Morris’s Kelmscott Press—Hugh Kenner comments: ‘Fortunately, Morris tended to print books you’d already read.’[4]


The Librarian made do with a few books, a necklace, champagne, chocolates, fish pie (which, admittedly, she made herself), phone calls and text messages: a proper lockdown birthday. There was no goat; nor did we go on to the harbour that morning. But the next day, Arnos Vale Victorian garden cemetery being open, we wandered around some of its 45 acres, sticking to the wide paths. Damp weather but a good, unbirthday walk.


Notes


[1] Postcard dated 10 February 1966: Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: The Selected Letters, edited by Robert Giroux (London: Pimlico, 1996), 443.

[2] Fiona MacCarthy, Eric Gill (London: Faber & Faber, 1990), 115.

[3] David Seabrook, All the Devils are Here (London: Granta, 2002), 77.

[4] Hugh Kenner, A Colder Eye: The Modern Irish Writers (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1984), 216.

Just a footnote?

(Gerrit Dou, Maid at the Window: Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam)

So – yes and no. America’s made a decisive start on the crucial task of cleaning house but there are some stubborn stains and a deal of anxiety about just how much of the building is structurally sound. Will even this dark period not be an historical footnote eventually?

On that matter of footnotes – I was reading Denton Welch’s journal for January 1944, when Welch and Eric Oliver, the intimate companion of his last years, took refuge from the rain in a pub called the Chequers in the Kent village of Crouch. ‘It was not imitation at all, very home-made, unperiod, just itself. All round the walls were narrow benches. There was a daddlums board and darts board, nothing else except a table and two chairs.’[1]

There was a what board? ‘Daddlums’? My Chambers and Concise Oxford dictionaries merely shrugged when consulted; downstairs, my Shorter Oxford was heaved off the shelf with no better result. Wandering online confirmed a not unreasonable guess that it referred to a version of table skittles.

The Journals do carry a good many footnotes by their very efficient editor but these tend to be of that specific factual kind: explaining who people were, correcting or adding to an assertion that Welch has made, references to his published stories in which various people appear under different names, explanations of some abbreviation or phrase current at the time of Welch’s writing, much of it during the war and all of it during the 1940s – the journal covers the years from 1942 to 1948, when Welch died at the age of thirty-three. No ‘daddlums’, at any rate.

Ironically, perhaps, Welch himself writes a little later: ‘Is it in Montaigne that I have just read that the way to know what to write about is to think of all the things you wish writers in the past had mentioned? I wish that people should mention the tiny things in their lives that give them pleasure or fear or wonder. I would like to hear the bits of family or intimate history they knew’ (Journals 175). Yes, we tend not to mention the details of our lives which are so familiar that we barely notice them, and these are often the precise materials that future historians will be crying out for.

Personally, I’m a fan of footnotes and acknowledge the meatiness of the remark by Chick, Saul Bellow’s narrator: ‘I have always had a weakness for footnotes. For me a clever or a wicked footnote has redeemed many a text.’[2] They can  be a means of smuggling in an editor’s obsessive interests—which the text itself may not warrant mention of—and can ease other feelings too. Alethea Hayter writes of historical painter Benjamin Haydon’s son: ‘Frank Haydon suffered miseries of embarrassment from his father’s dogmatism and showing off, and years later he revenged himself by writing vicious footnotes to the more pious and pompous sentences in his father’s diary.’[3]

In context, there’s something undeniably pleasing about that ‘vicious footnotes’.

Of his 1941 book on W. B. Yeats, Louis MacNeice wrote: ‘The book is nearly all quotations (I am beginning to think the ideal lit. critic would only speak in person in footnotes)’,[4] while Hugh Kenner, leaving Santa Barbara for Baltimore, explained the nature of his concerns in a letter to Guy Davenport (21 November 1972): ‘The principle is not desertion of a leaky ship, nor sight of pastures greene, but simply need for a massive change if I am to avoid becoming a writer of footnotes and sequels to my previous work. I have finished what I set out to do 20 years ago, and need to get started on something else of some magnitude.’[5]

Should I quote Robert Phelps once again? Absolutely: ‘Scrapbooks, footnotes, almanacs, letters, diaries, questionnaires, marginalia, memos, alphabets . . . how I love them. Pasolini once called himself a “pasticheur.” I think I am an annotator. The story exists for the scribbled notes in the margin.’[6] Sylvia Townsend Warner, having created a new story about her elfin, faery world, wrote to her friends Marchette  & Joy Chute: ‘It is rather beautiful and has a great deal of information about Elfhame unknown till now as I have just invented it. Oh, how I long to give it learned footnotes, and references. There is such heartless happiness in scholarship.’[7]

Happy but not heartless, Bertie Wooster breaks off partway through The Mating Season to observe: ‘But half a jiffy. I’m forgetting that you haven’t the foggiest what all this is about. It so often pans out that way when you begin a story. You whizz off the mark all pep and ginger, like a mettlesome charger going into its routine, and the next thing you know, the customers are up on their hind legs, yelling for footnotes.’[8]

Still, questions inevitably arise. What to put in a footnote – or, very often, does this need a footnote at all? Or, occasionally, would a footnote here end up being longer than the page, chapter, volume, it is intended to explicate?

I recall editorial discussions over whether or not to footnote an anti-Semitic remark voiced by a character in Ford’s Parade’s End (we decided not to). As readers, we notice it, but should we, as editors, draw attention to it, to say, in effect, this is worthy of your scrutiny? What might that note say? That such racist slurs were commonplace in English society at that time in all classes? In a sense, that would militate against a text which renders a world, a time, a social context in which such remarks were, precisely, barely noticed or refuted or queried. And ‘at that time’? I recall a history of anti-Semitism by Léon Poliakov from the University of Pennsylvania Press: its four volumes ran from the time of Christ up to the rise of Hitler. Had there ever not been a time?

(George Orwell)

Some relevant phrases that had long stuck in my head I later tracked down to an essay by George Orwell, ‘Anti-Semitism in Britain’, published in Contemporary Jewish Record in April 1945. Early on he writes: ‘it is generally admitted that anti-Semitism is on the increase, that it has been greatly exacerbated by the war, and that humane and enlightened people are not immune to it.’[9] This is pretty dismaying, given the late stage of the war at which Orwell is writing, although the full horror of the concentration camps was only then just emerging into public knowledge, Auschwitz liberated as Orwell was writing the essay and others, Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen among them, during April, as the essay was published.

Orwell points out almost immediately how ‘anti-Semitism is an irrational thing’ and that the ‘accusations’ of which he has given examples, remarks made to him over the past year or two, ‘merely rationalize some deep-rooted prejudice.’ He adds that, ‘To attempt to counter them with facts and statistics is useless, and may sometimes be worse than useless’ (65), which has its own uneasy resonance for us, given the past four and a half years, to reach no further back. He concluded that he didn’t believe anti-Semitism could be ‘definitively cured without curing the larger disease of nationalism’ (70).

So yes, hardly helpful simply to point out that anti-Semitic remarks were common in the 1920s since they were still flourishing twenty years later in wartime Britain (and can hardly be said to have vanished now). And there is always the temptation in any case, which some commentators seem unable to resist, to ascribe fictional characters’ views and prejudices to their author, as Guy Davenport wrote to James Laughlin: ‘It annoys the hell out of me when reviewers say I like or dislike whatever: they’re always looking at what a character likes or dislikes. In a confessional age I keep my mouth shut (in fiction; not as a critic, natch). . . . ’[10]

Probably no footnote is necessary for ‘a confessional age’.


Notes


[1] Denton Welch, The Journals of Denton Welch, edited by Michael De-la-Noy (London: Allison & Busby, 1984), 121.

[2] Saul Bellow, Ravelstein (London: Viking, 2000), 2.

[3] Alethea Hayter, A Sultry Month: Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846 (London: Faber and Faber 1965), 70.

[4] Louis MacNeice, Letters of Louis MacNeice, edited by Jonathan Allison (London: Faber, 2010), 369.

[5] Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), II, 1424.

[6] Memorable Days: The Selected Letters of James Salter and Robert Phelps, edited by John McIntyre (Berkeley, California: Counterpoint, 2010), 38.

[7] Letter of 8 April 1973, in Sylvia Townsend Warner, Letters, edited by William Maxwell (London: Chatto & Windus, 1982), 265.

[8] P. G. Wodehouse, The Mating Season (1949; in The Jeeves Omnibus: 3, London: Hutchinson, 1991), 177.

[9] Quotations from George Orwell, I Belong to the Left: 1945, edited by Peter Davison, revised and updated edition (London: Secker and Warburg, 2001), 64-70. The essay is cited approvingly in the opening pages of Brian Cheyette, Constructions of ‘the Jew’ in English literature and society: Racial representations, 1875-1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 1-2.

[10] W. C. Bamberger, editor, Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007), 96.

My nerves are bad tonight (and likely to remain so until Wednesday)

I’m a fairly greedy and promiscuous reader these days—though yesterday I was worryingly pleased to see that, of the ninety-nine books read so far this year, fifty were written or edited by women and that the one I’m most likely to finish next is by a man, which will give me an even hundred, precisely fifty-fifty, though unplanned and unintended, so no credit to me, obviously. I remembered the Beckett character who observes: ‘I’ve always had a mania for symmetry’: having knocked down a man met in the forest and kicked him in the side, he is now manoeuvring  himself into a position from which he can kick him in the same place in the other side.[1] Symmetry is often pleasing but I’m not afflicted by that particular mania – not, at least, to that extent.

A greedy reader, as I say, and with a pretty strong stomach – but just lately I find that I can’t bring myself to read anything substantial about the imminent U.S. election. My nerves won’t stand it. And I’m not even American. I accept that we don’t have much to celebrate, given our own corrupt and incompetent government, but democracy seems even more threatened there and in more violent, urgent and brazen ways. Much of it, in any case, is quite mysterious to me: those Evangelicals proclaiming a Christianity which bears no relation to any version of it that I’m familiar with; the aggressively overt voter suppression, seemingly performed with impunity; and the undisguisedly partisan judges who make my understanding of that phrase ‘the rule of law’ just a little wobbly.

T. S. Eliot—American citizen, later British citizen and almost exactly half of his life spent as each—wrote:

“My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me.
“Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.
“What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
“I never know what you are thinking. Think.”

I think we are in rats’ alley
Where the dead men lost their bones.[2]

Yes, one is tempted to say: Good answer, I share that general suspicion.

David Jones (born on this day in 1895), having survived Mametz Wood, trench fever and much else, unsurprisingly had a touch of the same thing as the speaker in Eliot’s poem, writing to his friend Harman Grisewood on 14 February (‘St. Valentine’s Day’) 1938: ‘I think if I could only get not having the worst type of nerves and could work at painting or writing (Bugger—O did not know this had a drawing on the back—it is my leg. I drew it as a study for a thing I’m doing—bugger! I want it, but can’t write this letter over again—well, I shall have to send it as it is and do my leg again if I want it) I should be quite happy alone always.’[3]

Too much in the way of nerves or too little? I recall this line by P. G. Wodehouse: ‘Whiffle on The Care of the Pig fell from his nerveless hand, and he sat looking like a dying duck.’[4] None of us, surely, wants to look quite like that.

But I think that one of my favourite literature-related nerves items is the passage in Allyson Booth’s fascinating Postcards From the Trenches, where, referring to Wallace Stevens’ poem, ‘A Postcard from the Volcano’, she writes: ‘Like the children who pick up bones without stopping to consider that they once strung nerves and housed passions, we read modernism without fully realizing the extent to which it handles the bones of the war dead.’[5] Yes. Here’s the Stevens poem:

Children picking up our bones
Will never know that these were once  
As quick as foxes on the hill;

And that in autumn, when the grapes  
Made sharp air sharper by their smell  
These had a being, breathing frost;

And least will guess that with our bones   
We left much more, left what still is   
The look of things, left what we felt

At what we saw. The spring clouds blow   
Above the shuttered mansion-house,   
Beyond our gate and the windy sky

Cries out a literate despair.
We knew for long the mansion’s look   
And what we said of it became

A part of what it is . . . Children,   
Still weaving budded aureoles,
Will speak our speech and never know,

Will say of the mansion that it seems   
As if he that lived there left behind   
A spirit storming in blank walls,

A dirty house in a gutted world,
A tatter of shadows peaked to white,   
Smeared with the gold of the opulent sun.[6]

‘And what we said of it became/ A part of what it is’. Wonderful.

Hold your nerve, America. Please.


Notes


[1] This is Molloy, of course: The Beckett Trilogy (London: Picador Books, 1979), 78.

[2] The Waste Land, ll.111-116: The Poems of T. S. Eliot. Volume I: Collected and Uncollected Poems, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (London: Faber & Faber, 2015), 59.

[3] René Hague, editor, Dai Greatcoat: A self-portrait of David Jones in his letters (London: Faber and Faber, 1980), 84.

[4] ‘The Crime Wave at Blandings’, in Lord Emsworth and Others (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966), 29.

[5] Allyson Booth, Postcards From the Trenches: Negotiating the Space Between Modernism and the First World War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 17.

[6] Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems (New York: Vintage Books, 1982), 158-159.

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.