Sargent, Lavishness, Girls and Herrings

Vernon Lee 1881 by John Singer Sargent 1856-1925

(John Singer Sargent, Vernon Lee, 1881, Tate Gallery)

John Singer Sargent: American; born on 12 January 1856 in Florence; later lived in Paris and London, where he died in 1925. The novelist James Salter once told an interviewer: ‘Someone said that I write the way Sargent painted. Sargent based his style on direct observation and an economical use of paint—which is close to my own method.’[1]

Two of my strong likings may connect then, Sargent’s pictures and Salter’s prose. I have hugely pleasurable memories of the 2015 John Singer Sargent show at the National Portrait Gallery, Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends. Reviewing that show, Jackie Wullschlager wrote in the Financial Times that: ‘Virtuosity made Sargent’s fortune, but his formal portraiture, its grand manner and lavish brushwork derived from Velázquez and Frans Hals, never fully persuaded critical opinion.’

sargents

http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/sargent/home.php

I do recall that a few of the more formal portraits– mainly of American sitters – worked less well, when there seemed less reciprocal current between artist and subject. But the vast majority were superbly successful. When there are fewer restraints on what Sargent is obliged or moved to do, the technical mastery that is always there soars and sweeps. There are wonderful details, a finger, a buttonhole, the faintest touch of whiteness on a lip, and moments of dizzying poise as the brushstrokes, never losing their hold on the recognised and recognisable world, edge towards abstraction, in parts, fluid and swift.

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose 1885-6 by John Singer Sargent 1856-1925

(John Singer Sargent, Carnation-Lily-Lily-Rose: Tate Britain)

Here are some lines from Hart Crane:

A goose, tobacco and cologne—
Three winged and gold-shod prophecies of heaven,
The lavish heart shall always have to leaven
And spread with bells and voices, and atone
The abating shadows of our conscript dust.[2]

hart-crane

Hmm, never a quick read. Or should it be? How to read. An Ezra Pound title. How to read Ezra Pound? For Hugh Kenner, that question was illuminated by hearing Pound talk, the speed (or slowness) and rhythms of his speech. Donald Davie wrote of reading the Cantos at two speeds, once fast and once slow: ‘so the verse-lines of the Cantos have to be read fast for their meanings, but slow for their sounds’.[3] That’s probably how best to read Ulysses too: once at a canter, not worrying about every word or phrase, just gorging on the language and laughing a lot. Then roll your sleeves up.

‘The lavish heart’, though. Lavish brushwork, lavish heart.

There used to be a regular feature in – was it The Guardian? – in which some notable person would be presented with a list of questions, one of which was ‘What is your favourite word?’ I used to run idly over a number of possibilities. My words of the moment varied, of course: resonance, tessellated, desolation, susurrate, imago, though I liked, always, the word ‘girl’, which I knew wouldn’t do at all, being immediately suspect in the twenty-first century, not to mention a chunk of the twentieth, though it seems to recur now in every other new book title.

Another choice for me would be ‘lavish’. ‘Après mot le deluge’, in James Joyce’s little poem for his friend Eugene Jolas, fits this, the old French lavasse meaning deluge of rain, the Latin lavare meaning to wash. Outpouring, then, but always with the sense of profusion, extravagance, overabundance. It also has a couple of positive literary links for me. First is Louis MacNeice’s wonderful ‘Bagpipe Music’, which I have, once again, managed to commit to memory (I think), having mislaid a few lines for a while:

Willie Murray cut his thumb, couldn’t count the damage,
Took the hide of an Ayrshire cow and used it as a bandage.
His brother caught three hundred cran when the seas were lavish,
Threw the bleeders back in the sea and went upon the parish.

Farquharson, David, 1839-1907; The Herring Fleet Leaving the Dee, Aberdeen

(David Farquharson, The Herring Fleet Leaving the Dee, Aberdeen: Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums)

‘Cran’ refers, apparently, to a measure of capacity for herrings just landed in port. Chambers Dictionary (of Edinburgh) specifies 37½ gallons, wonderfully specific. I assume this is because that, in turn, equals 300 pints.

Second is the phrase that William Maxwell employs in the introduction to his edition of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Letters, and which, in turn, provides the title of Michael Steinman’s edition of the letters between Warner and Maxwell: The Element of Lavishness. ‘The personal correspondence of writers feeds on left-over energy,’ Maxwell noted. ‘There is also the element of lavishness, of enjoying the fact that they are throwing away one of their better efforts, for the chances of any given letter’s surviving are fifty-fifty, at most. And there is the element of confidence–of the relaxed backhand stroke that can place the ball anywhere in the court that it pleases the writer to have it go.’

element-of-lavishness

This is still high among my favourite volumes of letters between two writers (along with Warner–Garnett, Maxwell–Welty, Garnett–White and even Davenport–Laughlin or Salter–Phelps, though completion of the Davenport-Kenner correspondence may shake up the league table). Warner to Maxwell, 4 October 1953: ‘My old friend, Jane Ann, died the week before, all in a flash, and though death cannot close an inn when there is not another within sixteen miles of it, I rang up her brother thinking I would put off, and only changed my mind when he said, She had everything planned for you. So not to go there would have been an impiety. Life has never seemed such a fleeting thing as it did in that house, the same chairs, the same cut glass dishes, the stuffed fox and the prize curling-stone in their old place, the same brand of matches in the bedroom candlesticks, the same voices in the tap-room, the same smell in the early morning of the hills and the river outside and porridge cooking inside. Everything was so familiar, I might have been dead myself.’

And once more, 26 March 1971: ‘I hope your cold is better and the kettle put by –though I have nothing against kettles. I remember many happy days with them in my childhood, with my father coming with story-books & champagne. Champagne for everything above the waist, brandy for anything below it, was the medicinal way; and I am still a credit to his theory.’[4]

An element of lavishness indeed.

 

References

[1] Salter, interview with Edward Hirsch, Paris Review, 127 (Summer 1993).

[2] Hart Crane, ‘For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen’, Complete Poems and Selected Letters, edited by Langdon Hammer (New York: Library of America, 2006), 23.

[3] Hugh Kenner, ‘Retrospect: 1985’, in The Poetry of Ezra Pound (1951; Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1985), 3-4; Davie, Pound (London: Fontana, 1975), 90.

[4] William Maxwell, ‘Introduction’ to Sylvia Townsend Warner, Letters  (London: Chatto & Windus, 1982), viii; Michael Steinman, editor, The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938-1978 (Washington: Counterpoint, 2001), 44, 219.

 

‘Depressed by the world but better in ourselves’.

Letters-LM

In a letter of 3 November 1961, Louis MacNeice wrote to Allen Tate and his wife Isabella: ‘We get more & more depressed by the world but better in ourselves.’[1]

(I could write that to any number of people right now: so half of it is optimistic, no?)

MacNeice had recently moved to a half-time contract with the BBC. He’d begun an affair with Mary Wimbush the previous year and, shortly after he and Mary were involved in a car crash that autumn, MacNeice asked his wife Hedli for a divorce. She refused, supposedly on the advice of ‘their mutual friend’, Allen Tate, who had told Hedli that his wife wouldn’t give him a divorce for five years and he was ‘so grateful to her!’[2]

Tate divorced Isabella Gardiner in 1966 and married Helen Heinz, who survived him (he died in 1979); MacNeice died in 1963. So Tate’s extensive experience of marriage and divorce in late 1961 derived from his relationship with the novelist Caroline Gordon. They married in May 1925, divorced in 1945, remarried the next year and finally divorced again in 1959.

caroline-gordon

(Caroline Gordon via http://porterbriggs.com/)

Gordon’s early mentor was Ford Madox Ford, whom she worked for as secretary in New York in the mid-1920s and remained friends with, in Paris, Provence and Tennessee, for the rest of his life. ‘A few days later Ford heaved a sigh and asked me if I had done any writing. I told him that I had started a novel but that I was going to have to throw it away. He heaved another sigh and said, “You had better let me see it.” I brought him the manuscript a few days later. He read the manuscript through, then said: “Why has nobody told me about this? What were you going to say next?” I recited the sentence. He said, “That is a beautiful sentence. I will write it down.” This procedure was repeated several times. It ended with Ford taking my dictation for three weeks. The result was a novel called Penhally.’[3] Or, as she wrote to her friend Sally Wood, a little nearer to the time: ‘Ford took me by the scruff of the neck about three weeks before I left, set me down in his apartment every morning at eleven o’clock and forced me to dictate at least five thousand words, not all in one morning, of my novel to him. If I complained that it was hard to work with everything so hurried and Christmas presents to buy he observed “You have no passion for your art. It is unfortunate” in such a sinister way that I would reel forth sentences in a sort of panic. Never did I see such a passion for the novel as that man has.’[4]

Ford-Gordon-Biala-Tate

Caroline Gordon; Janice Biala; Ford Madox Ford; Allen Tate: Summer 1937, via Cornell University Library: https://digital.library.cornell.edu/catalog/ss:550910

Gordon would publish eight more novels, as well as several volumes of short stories and criticism, including A Good Soldier: A Key to the Novels of Ford Madox Ford, based on a lecture she gave at the University of California, Davis, in which, recalling her first reading of Ford’s 1913 historical romance, The Young Lovell, she remarked: ‘I have since come to feel that this novel, which is almost unobtainable and has been read by comparatively few people, is the key to Ford’s life work.’[5]

Gordon_Coll_Stories

I find this, in my current reading: ‘We impose connections in a futile attempt to find meaning in a maelstrom of possibilities.’[6]

True enough. Last word for MacNeice, then: with such an embarrassment of riches to choose from, try this, which I only came across the other day and have a liking for, ‘Prologue (to The Character of Ireland)’:

‘Facts have their place of course but should learn to keep it. The feel
Of a body is more than body. That we met
Her, not her, is a chance; that we were born
Here, not there, is a chance but a chance we took
And would not have it otherwise.’[7]

 

 

References

[1] Letters of Louis MacNeice, edited by Jonathan Allison (London: Faber, 2010), 687.

[2] Jon Stallworthy, Louis MacNeice (London: Faber and Faber, 1996), 457.

[3] ‘Caroline Gordon’, in Sondra Stang, editor, The Presence of Ford Madox Ford (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981), 200; see also Brita Lindbergh-Seyersted, A Literary Friendship: Correspondence Between Caroline Gordon & Ford Madox Ford (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1999).

[4] Sally Wood, editor, The Southern Mandarins: Letters of Caroline Gordon to Sally Wood, 1924-1937 (Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1984), 51.

[5] Caroline Gordon, The Good Soldier: A Key to the Novels of Ford Madox Ford (Davis: University of California Library, 1963), 19.

[6] Iain Sinclair, The Last London: True Fictions from an Unreal City (London: Oneworld, 2017), 18.

[7] Louis MacNeice, Collected Poems, edited by Peter McDonald (London: Faber, 2007), 781.