Jarrell’s ‘unread book’: The Man Who Loved Children 

Stead-Man-Children

Noting that it’s Christina Stead’s birthday, I wondered how long ago it was that I read her. Quite a few years is the answer. She was born on 17 July 1902 (and died in 1983), and wrote a dozen novels plus some shorter fictions but the best-known (yet not that well-known), periodically reissued, gathering distinguished champions but never quite breaking free into the sunlit uplands of general appreciation or even acknowledgement, is The Man Who Loved Children (1940), the story of a family, many children, little money and two extraordinary, appalling parents, Sam and Henny Pollit. Sam Pollit was, it seems, closely based on Stead’s own father, a marine biologist, and the setting of the novel when it was reissued was moved from Stead’s native Australia to the United States (Washington) to better suit an American audience – who, after all, would be interested in Australians?

The writer C. K. Stead (a New Zealander and no relation) observed that The Man Who Loved Children ‘is indisputably an Australian novel which only pretends in a very perfunctory way to be set in America’.[1] Another Australian, Patrick White, was an enthusiastic admirer. ‘Do read Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children if you haven’t’, he wrote to Frederick Glover in 1966. ‘It is one of the great novels of the world.’ And, almost a decade later, to Marshall Best: ‘The three novelists writing today who interest me most are all women! Christina Stead, Nadine Gordimer, and Doris Lessing.’[2] Stead returned to Australia towards the end of her life but wrote little more once she’d done so. White’s admiration for her work was not returned though she kept that opinion to herself and they got on well enough when they met.

Few novels have been reissued so often: The Man Who Loved Children has been, among others, a Penguin Modern Classic, an Everyman Library Classic, a Flamingo Modern Classic, launched in editions with forewords by Angela Carter, Jonathan Franzen and, famously, the poet and critic Randall Jarrell, whose championing of Stead’s book did have a significant impact at the time. Jarrell could be ferocious in his hostility to writers or books that he didn’t like but he also had a real genius for praise, and could convey wonderfully what made a poem or a novel or a story work, how it affected its readers, seized and held them. He wrote passionately and perceptively about Kipling, William Carlos Williams, Whitman, Marianne Moore and many others, including Stead.

Christina-Stead-c1940s  RandallJarrell_poets.org

(Christina Stead: https://australianwomenwriters.com/ ; Randall Jarrell via The Poetry Foundation)

His 1965 introduction to her novel, uncompromisingly entitled ‘An Unread Book’, includes one of my favourite observations, that a novel is ‘a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it’.[3] Jarrell successfully grasped and conveyed the complex of feelings that the novel can arouse in its readers, in some readers: admiration and fascination, yes, but often combined with discomfort, irritation, impatience, even a tinge of disgust. I remember finding another Stead novel, Cotters’ England, again oddly powerful but a bit, what, dislikeable. Clearly, not every reader has similar responses – Virago Press eventually published nine Stead titles in their series of modern classics.

Why dislikeable? I’m not quite sure. Is it the monstrous characters or the author’s attitude to them? I’d have to go back to her books and look again. There are writers that we read and admire and acknowledge as good or even great while never warming to them or liking them as much as we expect to or feel we should, certainly not feeling that peculiar sense of connection that we experience with some writers, some painters, some people. With Stead, I think it was not quite that but more a kind of chilliness coming off the pages, more, an antagonism. Whatever it was, she’s certainly an extraordinary writer – and The Man Who Loved Children is a remarkable book. It’s on my already ridiculous re-read pile – if that’s still standing.

 

 

Notes

[1] London Review of Books, 8, 15 (4 September 1986).

[2] Patrick White, Letters, edited by David Marr (London: Jonathan Cape, 1994), 297, 452.

[3] Jarrell, ‘An Unread Book’, introduction to Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children (Penguin Modern Classics 1970), 37.

Consulting the oracle

HK

With a lockdown birthday doggedly nearing, and required by the Librarian to come up with suggestions for a present she might give me, I settled on a book called Joyce’s Voices, which has several points in its favour. It’s by Hugh Kenner, and one of the few titles of his that I don’t already own. It’s a blessedly slim volume, which will take up very little of the very little space available. Then, too, it’s neatly designed and clearly-printed, a paperback reissue from the redoubtable Dalkey Archive Press of the original 1978 edition, which was largely based on the T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures that Kenner gave at the University of Kent in Canterbury in 1975.

I’ve just been moving warily through the final proof of the third issue of Last Post: A Literary Journal from the Ford Madox Ford Society, so was reminded of Kenner struggling with the page proofs of The Pound Era and writing to Guy Davenport: ‘It is demoralizing to find “viligance” for “vigilance” in a line one has already read 4 times.’[1]

Indeed. That in itself recalled my discovering The Pound Era a hundred or so years ago and making my naïve and youthful pencilled notes against unfamiliar terms (of which there were quite a few). ‘Frightfulness’ I have scrawled beside ‘Schrecklichkeit’, having never come across it then (I’ve come across it a good many times since), and ‘first five books of Old Testament’ against the adjective ‘Pentateuchal’. The one I recall most easily came in the chapter ‘Inventing Confucius’, concerned with Pound’s extraordinary and hugely productive dealings with Chinese ideograms. Kenner describes one ‘lucky hit’ and goes on: ‘He was not always that fortunate, but that was thereafter his method: follow the crib, and when it flags, haruspicate the characters.’[2] My inelegantly written note: ‘haruspicate – to foretell events from inspection of entrails of animals’.

I reflected that, while Canto I’s Tiresias doesn’t examine the entrails of that sacrificed sheep, he does drink its blood, ‘for soothsay’ – and his forecast of Odysseus’ future is pretty much on the money.

In an earlier book, partly based, like Joyce’s Voices, on a series of lectures, Kenner wrote of Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet, ‘So the scientific character of the novel, its quest for the ideal type, the general law, was to turn upon itself like a haruspex scrutinizing his own entrails.’[3]

Hughkenner

(Hugh Kenner by Walter Baumann, via The Ezra Pound Society)

Haruspices, the Etruscan soothsayers, interpreted the will of the gods primarily by examining the entrails of sacrificial victims. ‘The science of augury certainly was no exact science’, D. H. Lawrence wrote in 1932. ‘But it was as exact as our sciences of psychology or political economy. And the augurs were as clever as our politicians, who also must practise divination, if ever they are to do anything worth the name.’ He added that, whatever your personal path, there was ‘no other way when you are dealing with life’, it all came to the same thing in the end. ‘Prayer, or thought, or studying the stars, or watching the flight of birds, or studying the entrails of the sacrifice, it is all the same process, ultimately: of divination. All it depends on is the amount of true, sincere, religious concentration you can bring to bear on your object. An act of pure attention, if you are capable of it, will bring its own answer.’[4]

We are all augurs now, or we might as well be. I can’t recall a time in which there was a greater sense of unmooring, of instability, of frankly unknowing. Who can guess what next week offers, or next month, let alone further ahead? We may as well glean what we can from birds’ patterns of flight or the nature of lightning strikes, though, given recent history, we’re unlikely to stray with unearned optimism into the assumption that an equitable and well-ordered world is coming down the track.

Phersu_from_the_painted_walls_of_the_tomb_of_the_Augurs_at_Tarquinia,_525-500_BCE,_Etruscan
(Phersu, from the painted walls of the tomb of the Augurs at Tarquinia)

There was, to be sure, a brief moment in which many people thought that, however bad the situation brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, there were at least glimpses of possible routes towards improvement, in social inequalities, in reducing pollution, in rethinking political and economic structures in the broadest terms. But the rising levels of traffic, of pollution, of thoughtless social behaviour, suggest that we are already falling back, rapidly and heavily.

Still, I have Kenner on Joyce to look forward to. And in that connection, I think of another letter he wrote to Davenport: ‘Whenever I bring a new car on its 1st trip across the continent I expect a Joycean oracle. In 1956 I passed, on June 16, through Bloom, Kansas. That car subsequently rolled up 112,000 miles without so much as a valve job. This time the odometer turned 1904 on June 16, and the night’s stop was at 1922. We shall see what this double augury portends.’[5]

 

Notes

[1] Letter of 21 June 1971, Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), II, 1357.

[2] Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), 450.

[3] Hugh Kenner, The Stoic Comedians: Flaubert, Joyce, and Beckett (1962; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), 29.

[4] D. H. Lawrence, Etruscan Places, in D. H. Lawrence and Italy (London: Penguin Books, 1997), 54-55.

[5] Letter of 29 June 1962, Questioning Minds, I, 144.

Listen to yourself!

Severn, Joseph, 1793-1879; Keats Listening to a Nightingale on Hampstead Heath

(Joseph Severn, Keats Listening to a Nightingale on Hampstead Heath: Guildhall Art Gallery)

Needing something to set against my good fortune in having a small outside space, a nearby park and online slots for food shopping, the gods sent a steady succession of minor health problems—in fact, the ricked back didn’t seem that minor for two or three weeks but the leg cramps and stiff neck went by pretty quickly and the eccentric knees are probably just ordinary wear and tear. The last week, though, has been dominated by temporary—I sincerely hope—deafness, first in one ear, soon in both. Probably just an excess of earwax but it’s pretty wearing. Since I have only one person that I speak to face to face just now and I can’t hear what she says, conversation is a little problematic.

I’m reminded of a moment in the memoir by A. M. Homes: ‘I can’t remember what the neighbor said. I was suffering the deafness that comes in moments of great importance.’[1] I’ve certainly had moments like that, climactic emotional moments where it somehow seems impossible simply to say: ‘Pardon?’ In literature, those moments can be suggestive and productive. Guy Davenport, in a letter to Hugh Kenner, observed that ‘Eudora Welty once said that written dialogue differs from life in that everybody hears what’s said right off. Not in Joyce. Ulysses (as you’ve pointed out) is full of mishearing.’[2] At the end of The Good Soldier, the narrator John Dowell says that, just prior to his suicide, Edward Ashburnham looks up to the roof of the stable, ‘as if he were looking to Heaven, and whispered something that I did not catch.’ In the manuscript and typescript, as Martin Stannard’s edition records, the word ‘Heaven’ was followed by ‘and he remarked: “Girl, I will wait for you there.”’[3] You can see why Ford might have decided to change that.

Beginning-of-Spring

In Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring, at the moment to which the title refers, the opening of windows marks the season’s change: ‘Throughout the winter the house had been deaf, turned inwards, able to listen only to itself. Now the sounds of Moscow broke in, the bells and voices, the cabs and taxis which had gone by all winter unheard like ghosts of themselves, and with the noise came the spring wind, fresher than it felt in the street, blowing in uninterrupted from the northern regions where the frost still lay.’[4]

Detailing a visit to Alec Vidler, priest, theologian and Mayor of Rye, who was helping with the research for her family biography, The Knox Brothers, Fitzgerald wrote in a letter to her younger daughter Maria: ‘Later came a surrealist tea-party with 3 people who’d come for the week-end (a trendy cleric, his dull wife, a long-skirted daughter, going up to read English at Hertford, who evidently hadn’t wanted to come, and Henry James’s manservant (still living in Rye, but with a deaf-aid which had to be plugged into the skirting) who couldn’t really bear to sit down and have tea, but kept springing up and trying to wait on people, with the result that he tripped over the cable ­and contributing in a loud, shrill voice remarks like “Mr Henry was a heavy man – nearly 16 stone – it was a job for him to push his bicycle uphill” – in the middle of all the other conversation wh: he couldn’t hear.’[5]

Unlike countless others less fortunate I believe my condition really is temporary. If I can avoid seeking professional help in this plague time, I shall: the ear drops and the bulb syringe are standing by, as is a large dose of optimism – or, perhaps, desperation. Apart from not being able to hear conversation or birdsong, I’m a little oppressed by what I can hear – me, basically. My breathing, my body. Just a little too intimate. I recall the words of Brother Patrick Duffy, of Georgia, recorded by William Least Heat-Moon. ‘When I go quiet I stop hearing myself and start hearing the world outside me. Then I hear something very great.’[6]

I’m looking forward to hearing something very great again.

 
Notes

[1] A. M. Homes, The Mistress’s Daughter (London: Granta Books, 2007), 16.

[2] Letter of 1 October 1978, in Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), II, 1684.

[3] Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier, edited by Martin Stannard, second edition (New York: Norton, 2012), 169 and fn.

[4] Penelope Fitzgerald, The Beginning of Spring (1988; London: Everyman, 2003), 440.

[5] Letter of 6 October [1974]: Penelope Fitzgerald, So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald, edited by Terence Dooley (London: Fourth Estate, 2008), 150.

[6] William Least Heat-Moon, Blue Highways: A Journey into America (London: Picador, 1984), 88.

 

‘A gathering web of insinuations’: Henry Green

B0KGC2  Loving_Henry_Green

(Henry Green via the TLS; jacket of first edition, Loving)

‘This writer is unique’, Sebastian Faulks remarked. ‘No fiction has ever thrilled me as the great moments in Living and Loving; I have been moved by Tolstoy, Lawrence, Proust and others, perhaps more so, but not in the same way.’[1]

Faulks is writing here about Henry Green, whose admirers have included John Updike, W. H. Auden,  Elizabeth Bowen, Kingsley Amis, Rebecca West, Anthony Burgess, V. S. Pritchett, Angus Wilson, Olivia Manning, L. P. Hartley and Julian Maclaren-Ross.[2] Edmund White apparently rereads Green’s 1950 novel Nothing every year.[3]

Green – real name Henry Yorke – worked in his family’s engineering firm, after Eton and Oxford, eventually becoming its managing director. His second novel, Living (1929), set in a Birmingham iron foundry, cast a cold eye on the definite article and focused closely on the rhythms of its characters’ speech and behaviour.

‘Lily Gates and Jim Dale, who was Mr Craigan’s young man in iron foundry, stood in queue outside cinema on Friday night. They said nothing to each other. Later they got in and found seats. Light rain had been falling, so when these two acting on screen walked by summer night down leafy lane, hair over ears left wet on his cheek as she leant head, when they on screen stopped and looked at each other. [ . . . ] Later her head was leaning on his shoulder again, like hanging clouds against hills every head in this theatre tumbled without hats against another, leaning everywhere.’[4]

Written during the war, when Green served in the Auxiliary Fire Service, his fifth novel—exactly midway in that sequence of nine, spread over twenty-seven years—was Loving, set in an Irish country house, staffed by English servants, during the Second World War. Those circumstances are conveyed early in the book with great economy, as the old butler lies dying: ‘The pointed windows of Mr Eldon’s room were naked glass with no blinds or curtains. For this was in Eire where there is no blackout.’[5]

Green memorably recalled his novel’s genesis—it certainly stuck in my mind anyway—in a 1958 Paris Review interview with Terry Southern:

‘I got the idea of Loving from a manservant in the Fire Service during the war. He was serving with me in the ranks, and he told me he had once asked the elderly butler who was over him what the old boy most liked in the world. The reply was: “Lying in bed on a summer morning, with the window open, listening to the church bells, eating buttered toast with cunty fingers.” I saw the book in a flash.’[6]

Loving’s central character is Charley Raunce, the footman promoted to butler after Eldon’s demise—or rather, one of the central characters, since the novel concerns in large part the coming together of Raunce and Edith, beautiful and sweet-natured, one of the two under-housemaids, who, when we first encounter her, has ‘stuck a peacock’s feather above her lovely head, in her dark-folded hair’ (19). The Tennants’ two hundred peacocks play a recurring part in this novel, as practical elements in the story as much as in symbolic force. Green’s working-class characters are sometimes untruthful or dishonest or selfish or conniving—fully human, that is to say—but they tend to come off immeasurably better than their social ‘superiors’ who, though of Green’s own class, are often mercilessly anatomised to reveal their shallowness, amorality and hypocrisy. Green denied any socio-political programme in his work: with Living, he said, ‘I just wrote what I heard and saw’. A group of workers at the factory put in a penny each and bought a copy. ‘And as I was going round the iron-foundry one day, a loam-moulder said to me: “I read your book, Henry.” “And did you like it?” I asked, rightly apprehensive. He replied: “I didn’t think much of it, Henry.” Too awful.’

Burne-Jones, Edward, 1833-1898; A Peacock

(Edward Burne-Jones, A Peacock: Victoria and Albert Museum)

I’ve always been drawn to Green in part because he seems unlike any other writer (though Ivy Compton-Burnett is sometimes cited: the social class of many characters and the dominance of dialogue); and critics seem not to know where to put him, if they put him anywhere. His first novel appeared in 1926, just four years after Ulysses; his second in 1929, the year of The Sound and the Fury—and, though Green said he hadn’t read Ulysses until after he’d completed Living, he did profess great admiration for Faulkner. So, as a novelist, he was a contemporary of Joyce, Ford, Faulkner, Wyndham Lewis, Woolf—but rarely crops up in discussions of ‘modernism’.[7] In the Paris Review interview, Southern commented on the difficulty of tracing Green’s work to sources of influence, noting that V. S. Pritchett had tried to place it ‘in the tradition of Sterne, Carroll, Firbank, and Virginia Woolf’, while Philip Toynbee had gone for ‘Joyce, Thomas Wolfe, and Henry Miller’. When the question of influence was put directly to him, Green answered rather splendidly: ‘I really don’t know. As far as I’m consciously aware I forget everything I read at once including my own stuff.’ (He then admitted to ‘a tremendous admiration for Céline.’)[8]

Here are Edith and her fellow-maidservant Kate, discovered by Charley dancing in the ballroom, in a part of the great house now closed: ‘They were wheeling wheeling in each other’s arms heedless at the far end where they had drawn up one of the white blinds. Above from a rather low ceiling five great chandeliers swept one after the other almost to the waxed parquet floor reflecting in their hundred thousand drops the single sparkle of distant day, again and again red velvet panelled walls, and two girls, minute in purple, dancing multiplied to eternity in these trembling pears of glass’ (65).

Green-Pack-My-Bag

There are many moments of startling beauty and poignancy in Green’s books – and innumerable moments of comedy. There are, too, tiny, distinctive touches such as Raunce’s regular letters to his mother in Peterborough, first written in pencil—as is the envelope—then carefully inked in (and the money order added).

‘Prose is not to be read aloud but to oneself alone at night, and it is not quick as poetry but rather a gathering web of insinuations which go further than names however shared can ever go’, Green wrote in his ‘mid-term autobiography’. ‘Prose should be a long intimacy between strangers with no direct appeal to what both may have known. It should slowly appeal to feelings unexpressed, it should in the end draw tears out of the stone, and feelings are not bounded by the associations common to place names or to persons with whom the reader is unexpectedly familiar.’[9]

‘A long intimacy between strangers’ sounds about right—and pretty characteristic of its author too. A touch enigmatic and paradoxical, with that hint of contradiction which seems to dissolve on closer inspection.

 
Notes

[1] Sebastian Faulks, introduction to Henry Green, Loving, Living, Party Going (London: Vintage, 2005), 13.

[2] Julian Maclaren-Ross’s Bitten by the Tarantula and other writing (London: Black Spring Press, 2005), includes both his essay on Green ‘A Poet of Fear’ (291-297) and his parody of him (481-484).

[3] Rachel Cooke, review of The Unpunished Vice: A Life of Reading: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jul/02/the-unpunished-vice-life-reading-edmund-white-review

[4] Henry Green, Living, 216-217.

[5] Henry Green, Loving, 13.

[6] The interview is reprinted in Surviving: The Uncollected Writings of Henry Green, edited by Matthew Yorke, introduction by John Updike (London: Chatto and Windus, 1992), 234-250. A headnote quotes a letter from Southern: ‘No, there is no real trouble over our interview. There is some vague and preliminary dissension among the staff over the use of the word “cunty”, but nothing concrete.’ A little later, this exchange occurs: INTERVIEWER: And have you ever heard of an actual case of an Irish household being staffed with English servants? MR GREEN: Not that comes quickly to mind, no. (249).

[7] Although James Wood stated that Lawrence, Woolf and Green ‘were the last great English novelists, the last true magi of language, the last serious European modernists’; see ‘Martin Amis: The English imprisonment’, in The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief (London: Jonathan Cape, 1999), 186.

[8] Surviving, 236, 243.

[9] Henry Green, Pack My Bag: A Self-Portrait (1940; The Hogarth Press, 1992), 84.

[10] Henry Green, Nothing (1950), in Nothing, Doting, Blindness (London: Vintage 2008), 60.

[11] Henry Green, Loving, 109.

Frenchies and Russkis

(Ivan Turgenev and Pauline Viardot)

Ivan Turgenev was born two hundred years ago, on 9 November 1818, in Oryol, 220 miles southwest of Moscow; he died near Paris in 1883. Exiled in 1852 to his estate in Spasskoye when an obituary that he wrote on Gogol provoked disapproval, he spent most of his later life in Baden-Baden and Paris, always close to the singer and composer Pauline Viardot. He was long associated with the French realists, Flaubert, Zola, the brothers Goncourt.

I’ve read half a dozen of Turgenev’s novels in translation, mostly the work of Richard Freeborn, otherwise that of Constance Garnett. Probably because of the unfamiliar alphabet, the ‘original’ text seems even more distant than is the case with other languages and I’m more conscious that I’m reading the words of a translator. I’ve tended, in any case, to read those words through the eyes of Ford Madox Ford, for whom Turgenev, perhaps above all other writers, remained ‘a talismanic figure throughout his career’.[1] Unsurprisingly, I see that almost all the notes I’ve made or phrases I’ve marked in Turgenev’s books link back to Ford, some quite directly, some by more circuitous paths.

In 1878, Henry James published French Novels and Novelists, the eighth chapter of which concerned one ‘Ivan Turgénieff’. This is our man, his name spelt in a dashing Gallic manner. Richard Garnett remarks that Turgenev had ‘authorised and supervised, if not actually written, French translations of his works himself. Without ceasing to be a Russian he had become an honorary Frenchman.’[2] A good many English readers knew Turgenev’s work in French, even though English translations were becoming available. By the turn of the century, Constance Garnett had translated most of Turgenev’s fiction. Ezra Pound refers to ‘Turgeneff’ in a 1912 letter to his mother, possibly influenced by James in this instance,[3] but he certainly advises his mother to ‘take the things in french, if you can.’[4]

Turgenev visited this country a dozen times, often in the company of his friend—and translator of one of his books— W. R. S. Ralston. Ford, as a child of seven, had met them both in the studio of his grandfather, Ford Madox Brown. Forty years after that meeting, Ford wrote a novel called The Marsden Case. Sending a copy to his friend Edgar Jepson, he wrote: ‘I believe that, as “treatment,” it’s the best thing I’ve done—but the subject is not a very good one, though it’s one that has haunted me certainly ever since I was eighteen on and off. It’s the story of Ralston, the first translator of Turgenev—a man I liked very much. At any rate, that suggested it to me.’[5]

On another 9 November—1894—Olive Garnett confided to her diary that Ford’s brother Oliver, having been to Blomfield, where Ford (still Ford Madox Hueffer at that date) and his new wife Elsie were living, had passed on his ‘graphic account of the ménage’. Both Ford and Elsie were, apparently, smoking shag in a cutty pipe constantly on their walks. They were known, Olive noted, as the Frenchies, and their society ‘was that of the Vicar & his pretty daughter’.[6]

Constance Garnett and her son David, known as Bunny, mid-1890s

(Constance and David Garnett, 1890s)

Twenty years on, Ford was writing about Constance Garnett’s translation of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. Ford viewed Dostoevsky as Romantic, as against his admired ‘French Realist School – in which I should include Turgenev’.[7] The following year, writing about two other Russian writers, Ford again mentioned Turgenev, suggesting that he was ‘something more than merely Russian’.[8]

All these citizens of – somewhere, of several somewheres, managing to transcend the narrow bounds of nationality, reaching beyond borders, whether actual or imposed. Not that aggressive nationalism was ever entirely absent from the story. In the 1930s, Ford recalled seeing John Galsworthy give a presidential address to PEN. To French writers then, Ford remarked, Maupassant was ‘the Nihilist enemy’ and Turgenev ‘an alien ugly duckling who once disgusted the paving stones of Paris with his foreign footsteps.’ Ford described how, when the applause subsided, ‘poor Jack went on: Yes, he repeated, all the art he had had he had had of the French. If he stood where he was, if he was honoured as he was, it was because all his life long he had studied the works, he had been guided by the examples of . . . Guy de Maupassant and of him who though a foreigner by birth was yet more French in heart than any Frenchman—Ivan Turgenev!’[9]

Ford was himself a man of multiple roles, selves and aspects; born to a German father, possessed of Italian uncles and an aunt through his Aunt Lucy’s marriage; never divorced from his English wife; his third daughter born to an Australian painter while his partner by the thirties was a painter of Jewish family born in Eastern Poland; his closest literary relationships were with a Pole and an American; he fought in the British Army still bearing a German surname; and wrote in half a dozen different genres. He once observed—surely with a strong sense of recognition—that Turgenev ‘was by turns and all at once, Slavophil and Westerner, Tsarist and Nihilist, Germanophile and Francophobe, Francophile and Hun-hater’.[10] Homo duplex, homo x-plex. In 1925, he wrote to a friend that Some Do Not. . ., the first of the Tietjens novels, had done well in America but that, ‘Otherwise I am rapidly becoming a French writer.’[11]

Metzinger-Apollinaire-Christies

(Jean Metzinger, Portrait of Guillaume Apollinaire, via Christie’s)

Curiously, exactly one hundred years after Turgenev’s birth, 9 November 1918, Guillaume Apollinaire died in the flu pandemic. Poet, prose writer and influential art critic, this ‘Frenchman by everything except birth’[12] had been born in Rome and then named Wilhelm Albert Włodzimierz Apolinary Kostrowicki.

Here you are beside me again
Memories of my companions killed in the war
The olive-branch of time
Memories that make only a single memory
As a hundred skins make only a single coat
As these thousands of wounds make only a single newspaper article
Impalpable and dark presence who have assumed
The changing shape of my shadow

(from ‘Shadow’, translated by Christopher Middleton)

At the time of his death, Apollinaire was just thirty-eight years old.

 
References

[1] Max Saunders’ phrase. His ‘Ford and Turgenev’ is the most thorough reading of this literary relationship: see Ford Madox Ford’s Literary Contacts, edited by Paul Skinner (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007), 63-78.

[2] Richard Garnett, Constance Garnett: A Heroic Life (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1991), 95.

[3] Richard Sieburth suggested this in Instigations: Ezra Pound and Remy de Gourmont (Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1978), 96. Ford was referring to ‘Tourgénieff’ around this time: The Critical Attitude (London: Duckworth, 1911), 59.

[4] Ezra Pound, Ezra Pound to His Parents: Letters 1895–1929, edited by Mary de Rachewiltz, David Moody and Joanna Moody (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 283.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, Letters of Ford Madox Ford, edited by Richard M. Ludwig (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), 149. Ralston died in 1889.

[6] Barry C. Johnson, editor, Olive and Stepniak: The Bloomsbury Diary of Olive Garnett, 1893-1895 (Birmingham: Bartletts Press, 1993), 128.

[7] Ford Madox Ford, ‘Fydor Dostoevsky and The Idiot’ (14 February 1914), reprinted in Critical Essays, edited by Max Saunders and Richard Stang (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2002), 129.

[8] Ford Madox Ford, ‘Sologub and Artzibashef’ (26 June 1915), reprinted in Critical Essays, 176.

[9] Ford Madox Ford, Portraits from Life (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1937), 141-142.

[10] Ford, Portraits from Life, 158.

[11] Ford, Letters, 166.

[12] Francis Steegmuller, Apollinaire: Poet Among the Painters (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1963), 322.

Autumn harvest

Sargent-gassed

(John Singer Sargent, Gassed, Imperial War Museums)

September. Originally the seventh month of the year. The Welsh name, ‘Medi’, is the word for reaping; the Irish, ‘Meán Fómhair’ means ‘mid-autumn’; and the Scots Gaelic, an t-Sutltuine, refers to the abundance and cheerfulness of harvest.[1] It hardly feels like mid-autumn here yet, early mornings aside; and while the ‘astronomical’ autumn begins on 23 September, the date of the autumn equinox, the ‘meteorological’ autumn began on 1 September (mine too).

The ‘abundance of harvest’. Yes, I’m currently closely engaged with a handsome festschrift for poet and publisher (and much else) Jonathan Williams, which I intend to write about in the very near future. Jeffery Beam, one of the book’s editors, closes his introduction with the observation that, ‘One might call Jonathan’s life a poetics of gathering, and this book is a first harvest.’[2] Then too, harvest looms very large indeed in a superb recent novel, All Among the Barley, by Melissa Harrison.[3] She took part in a Festival of Ideas event last night with Tim Pears, ‘The Pastoral Novel and Lessons of History’, held at the main Waterstones branch in Bristol, both of them very impressive, articulate and engaged (the moderator was good too). Melissa Harrison, asked to read an extract from her book, recited from memory, as Alice Oswald does her poetry. With prose, it’s rarer, though I recall an event years ago at which Iain Sinclair read and then Stewart Home recited or, possibly, improvised, talking very quickly and for a good fifteen minutes.

Harrison-Barley

I read Melissa Harrison’s novel on the train to and from Manchester. Set in the 1930s, it doesn’t need to spell out or even point towards the painful resonances with our current situation. The narrator dreams of the countryside in which she grew up. ‘Awake, I would picture in loving detail the valley’s fields and farms, its winding lanes and villages, conjuring up a vision of a lost Eden to which I longed to return. But at last I came to see that there is a danger in such thinking; for you can never go back, and to make an idol of the past only disfigures the present, and makes the future harder to attain’ (324).

Wave-IWMN

The Imperial War Museum North is exhibiting Wave, initially conceived for the installation at the Tower of London in 2014, designed by Tom Piper and sculpted by Paul Cummins. Poppies as symbols of remembrance (the history, the controversies, the disparate opinions) featured in the current exhibition, Lest We Forget? As well as some fascinating photographs, film footage, documents and commissioned war paintings—Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer, Wyndham Lewis—there was the huge John Singer Sargent picture, Gassed, which I’d been trying to show to the Librarian for quite a while: when we asked in London it had been lent to Washington but now we’d finally caught up with it.

Whitworth

Once checked-out of the hotel, we walked to the refurbished Whitworth Gallery, a stunning success, every detail a real class act, now one of the Librarian’s favourite places (and mine). To walk into a huge and elegant space—the exhibition is called In the Land—a Terry Frost canvas on either side of the threshold, past a Peter Lanyon, a Bryan Wynter, a Roger Hilton, then a Barbara Hepworth and John Milne’s aluminium Icarus, to the end wall’s pairing of a John Piper and a beautiful Ben Nicholson—it’s a damned fine walk. Prints of Darkness: Goya and Hogarth in a Time of European Turmoil was wonderful and terrifying, reminding me again how precisely Goya’s ‘The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters’ provides the default text for our times. Textiles from the Islamic World included some breathtaking exhibits and Bodies of Colour—yes, wallpaper—was diverting too.

Goya-sleep-of-reason

(Goya, ‘The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters’)

Then the City Gallery—remarkable—with the wonderful cards that people fill in: ‘What did you enjoy most about your visit?’ One read: ‘I saw it with my wife’. Another: ‘The Ancient Arts were decent. Thank you.’ Then the Central Library. Bloody hell. Fantastic. The Wolfson Reading Room. The rows of intent and silent readers. The Henry Watson Music Library. The kids picking out tunes on the piano, working out songs together. Democratic. Non-judgemental. Free. This stuff matters. I think of all the Tories and privatisation fetishists who say: ‘We don’t need libraries’ or ‘Nobody uses libraries’. They know nothing; they display such shameful ignorance that they should never pronounce on this or any other issue again. Never ever again.
References

[1] Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 355.

[2] Jonathan Williams: The Lord of Orchards, edited by Jeffery Beam and Richard Owens (Westport and New York: Prospecta Press, 2017), xiv.

[3] Melissa Harrison, All Among the Barley (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018).

His tongue partly in his cheek – realism or not

White

On 14 June 1940, T. H. White, who had been in Ireland since the previous year, wrote from Healion’s Hotel, Belmullet, Co. Mayo, to his friend David Garnett. ‘Ireland is in a most amusing condition just now. Everybody has noticed in the last 3 days that there is a war on: it is too ridiculous.’ He went on: ‘Lord Dunsany said to me six months ago that we are like children on the beach at Howth, quarrelling about what shape our sand castle is to be, while all the time the tide is coming in.’ Then: ‘I wonder if I wrote to you about Dunsany? I made friends with him when I was in Meath. He is not a patch on his wife, who remarked in a tone of acute nostalgia, à propos of a Daimler which they had once owned: “Ah, that was a splendid car. It was simply riddled with bullets.”’[1]

White had lunched with Lord Dunsany at Dunsany Castle, ‘an ugly Victorian gothic structure in a very beautiful park’, and thought him ‘a decent, amusing, interested, selfish, vain, enlightened fellow’.[2]

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

(Via www.buildingsofireland.ie )

Dunsany died in 1957, having published more than ninety books in practically every genre, though he was best-known as a writer of fantasy, his most celebrated title being The King of Elfland’s Daughter. He had been a significant donor to the Abbey Theatre, worked with Lady Gregory and W. B. Yeats, and his work was extraordinarily well-regarded in the period of the First World War.

In November 1953, White, now living on Alderney, wrote to Garnett about the recently published The Golden Echo, the first volume of Garnett’s autobiography.

‘Far the best of your character pictures are of course the safely dead: Lawrence and the charming Ford.’ He added, ‘If there is a chance in the next volume, do give us some more of Ford’s relative truths. What a kinship I feel for him! All my truths are relative. He must surely have had his tongue partly in his cheek?’[3]

David-Garnett

(David Garnett)

Partly often, yes, and wholly sometimes. To what extent, I wonder, when he used the occasion of reviewing Dunsany’s Five Plays for a prolonged meditation on realism, in the course of which he produced one or two of the critical remarks most often revisited by Ford enthusiasts.

Passing general remarks about Ireland and the Irish is risky at the best of times but in the spring of 1914, it was frankly hazardous. Ford declared that while the Irish were as humourless and joyless and materialist as anyone else, they had impressed upon ‘the bemused world’ the conviction that all the Irish ‘are passionate pilgrims journeying through a material world with their eyes on the great stars of heaven, with the verses of the old poets on their lips and gallant thoughts in the hearts of them’.[4]

All this was a disquisition on literary technique, Ford went on, ‘for what is literature but the producing of illusions?’ And, ‘for the producing of an illusion there is nothing like an Irishman.’ Dunsany’s great conjuring trick for Ford was to imagine himself ‘to represent the revolt against realism’, while in fact he did nothing of the sort, ‘since he is one of the chief realists of them all.’ And ‘we need realists very badly, because this world is so much too much with us. It is too much with us, and it is an extraordinarily unreal mirage. Yes, just a mirage.’ Ford describes the stones in the drive, a broken bucket in the orchard, the rain against the window, the baker coming in at the front gate. ‘But all that is really mirage; there is nothing real about the stones or the discarded bucket, or the rain, or the baker coming in at the gate. Myself, my own self, is miles away – thirty miles away, thinking of things how different – how utterly different!’

Ford Madox Ford, 1915
Ford Madox Ford, 1915

(The good soldier via NYRB)

And the future is to ‘the artist who, by rendering the stones and the bucket and the baker and the Daily Telegraph that is lying on the sofa, will give the world the image of that kingdom of heaven that is behind it all.’

‘I rather fancy’, Ford remarks, ‘that the Cubists and the Futurists and the rest of the movement that is trying to get away from representational art are trying to put the kingdom of heaven too directly on to canvas’.

Yes, the way to heaven is via the earth; the way to transcendence is via the real. Begin with the fantastic and you find you’re holding a one-way ticket ­– fine if that was the plan, if not, not. I’ve always liked realism plus, the world that seems solid enough, seems familiar enough, until you try to lean on it. With a little of what Muriel Spark called ‘the mental squint’. And Ford, with the body in one place and the mind somewhere quite other. Or, indeed, Mr Joyce, Mr Germ’s Choice, whose great novel is – what, precisely? Modernist, realist, naturalist, expressionist, surrealist, symbolist, postmodernist, mythic, epic, not a novel at all. If Dublin were destroyed in an earthquake, it could be rebuilt using Ulysses as a blueprint, its author thought. Yes, realism with a reach like that.

References

[1] David Garnett, editor, The White/ Garnett Letters (London: Jonathan Cape, 1968), 70.

[2] Letter to Ray Garnett, in The White/ Garnett Letters, 45; Sylvia Townsend Warner, T. H. White: A Biography (New York: Viking, 1968), 141.

[3] The White/ Garnett Letters, 264.

[4] All quotations from Ford Madox Ford, ‘Literary Portraits-XXXI. Lord Dunsany and “Five Plays”, Outlook, XXXIII (11 April 1914), 494-495; reprinted in Critical Essays, edited by Max Saunders and Richard Stang (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2002), 142-146.

 

Aunts, mandalas, cockatoos: Patrick White

SMH

(Patrick White: photo credit, Ross via The Telegraph)

‘But old Mrs Goodman did die at last.’ That opening sentence—of The Aunt’s Story, by Patrick White (London, 28 May 1912—Sydney, 30 September 1990)—has stayed in my head since I first read it more than thirty years ago. It’s partly the use of the conjunction to open not merely a sentence but a book: a conjunction which, by definition, usually contradicts or qualifies what has come before it. Nothing has come before it here—except the epigraph, taken from Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm: ‘She thought of the narrowness of the limits within which a human soul may speak and be understood by its nearest of mental kin, of how soon it reaches that solitary land of the individual experience, in which no fellow footfall is ever heard.’[1]

So ‘But’, together with ‘did’ in that first short sentence, looks backward to an existing situation not yet explained; and the epigraph looks forward to what will become an increasingly internal voyage made by Theodora Goodman:

Then, in a gust, Theodora knew that her abstraction also did not fit. She did not fit the houses. Although she had in her practical handbag her destination in writing, she was not sure that paper might not tear. Although she was insured against several acts of violence, there was ultimately no safeguard against the violence of personality. This was less controllable than fire. In the bland corn song, in the theme of days, Theodora Goodman was a discord. Those mouths which attempted her black note rejected it wryly. They glossed over something that had strayed out of some other piece, or slow fire.[2]

The Aunt’s Story was White’s first great novel, following Happy Valley and The Living and the Dead. He won the initial Miles Franklin Award for Voss (and won it again four years later with Riders in the Chariot), declined a knighthood in 1970 and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973 (he didn’t attend the ceremony in Stockholm so the painter Sidney Nolan collected it on his behalf and read White’s acceptance speech). But, even though an unfinished novel, The Hanging Garden, was published in 2012 and a film of The Eye of the Storm released a year earlier (with Geoffrey Rush, Charlotte Rampling and Judy Davis, among others), White seems to have suffered the neglect which often follows the deaths of major artists, coupled with his kind of writing—perhaps seen as that of ‘another dead white male’—apparently going out of fashion.[3]

What was his kind of writing? Modernist, dense, often lyrical, psychologically penetrating, serious (which certainly didn’t exclude an often savage humour), built on the grand scale. The Nobel citation referred to White’s ‘epic and psychological narrative art which has introduced a new continent into literature’. The continent was Australia, which White left, returned to, embraced, rejected, loved and loathed. I read a lot of White’s work many years ago and remember that, at the time, it made a great many other contemporary writers look as though they were just playing at it. These days, the research seems to be the important thing, sometimes more than the actual writing. A lot of people seem to have forgotten what fiction actually is and does. It wasn’t a matter of research with White: it was the immense ambition, the scale of things, the grasp of the elemental, the hard rock at the basis of lives and the extraordinary lengths to which people will go to fulfil or deny their individual destiny. Sometimes his characters staggered under their symbolic weight but even White’s partial failures were more impressive than the majority of contemporary successes. From the pages of his best books, even opened at random, one is often reluctant to stop transcribing:

To what extent is this girl dishonest? he wondered.
Unaccustomed to recognize his own dishonesties, he was rather sensitive to them in others.
It is disgraceful, of course, Laura realized; I have come out here for no convincing reason. She was defenceless. Perhaps even guilty.
‘I try to visualize your life in this house,’ said Voss, facing the honeycomb of windows, in some of which dark figures burrowed for a moment before drowning in the honey-coloured light. ‘Do you count the linen?’
He was truly interested, now that it did seem to affect him in some way not yet accounted for.
‘Do you make pastry? Hem sheets? Or are you reading novels in these rooms, and receiving morning calls from acquaintances, ladies with small waists and affectations?’
‘We indulge in a little of each,’ Laura admitted, ‘but in no event are we insects, Mr Voss.’
‘I have not intended to suggest,’ he laughed. ‘It is my habit of approach.’
‘Is it so difficult then, for a man, to imagine the lives of poor domesticated women? How very extraordinary! Or is it that you are an extraordinary man?’
‘I have not entered into the minds of other men, so that I cannot honestly say with any degree of accuracy.’
But he would keep his private convictions.[4]

White battled constantly with reactionary forces in Australia. Increasingly irascible, with an ever-expanding list of shipwrecked friendships and moving politically further to the left, he campaigned and spoke in public against cowardly or shifty politicians, nuclear weapons and environmental vandalism.

Who could fail to be diverted by White’s rehearsal of testimony as a literary expert at the Melbourne trial of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint? White mentioned the charges of pornography laid against Lady Chatterley’s Lover, suggesting that Lawrence’s novel ‘might well be considered pornographic since when I read it I developed a cockstand. Judged by this criterion, Portnoy’s Complaint cannot be considered pornographic since I read it from start to finish without once developing a cockstand.’ The judge then asking, ‘But Mr White – at your age do you think you are capable of manifesting such a physical alteration?’ To which White, ‘beaming around the courtroom’, replies: ‘Shall the court go in camera while we find out?’[5]

White-Letters

‘I went down to Melbourne one day last week for the Portnoy trial’, White wrote to Tom Maschler of Jonathan Cape, who published Roth’s novel as well as many of White’s own, ‘It was an ordeal till I actually got in the box, then the actor in me quite enjoyed the performance. The whole thing has to be conducted with great solemnity, I realise, but I couldn’t resist saying what a funny book I think Portnoy is: I hope I didn’t put my foot in it.’[6]

Thinking about Patrick White, revisiting even the memory of his books, has had a couple of immediate effects: the rapid acquisition of a tidy copy of David Marr’s large volume of White’s Letters—to set beside his fine biography of White; and a troubling determination to add at least half a dozen White titles to my ‘Books to Re-read’ list: certainly The Aunt’s Story, Voss, The Tree of Man, The Eye of the Storm and The Vivisector – about a painter, Hurtle Duffield, one to put beside Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth (for all the differences); and probably A Fringe of Leaves and The Solid Mandala. Then there’s Riders in the Chariot, The Cockatoos, The Twyborn Affair—a late, remarkable work—and White’s characteristically fierce and candid self-portrait, Flaws in the Glass.[7] Frankly, the list was already looking ridiculous.

There’s a valuable reappraisal of White by the novelist David Malouf, first published in the TLS but probably more generally accessible here:
http://www.theage.com.au/news/books/patrick-white-reappraised/2007/01/26/1169594479079.html?page=fullpage

An appreciation by novelist and biographer Nicholas Shakespeare is here:
https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/9617484/Patrick-White-Under-the-Skin.html

References

[1] In fact, Schreiner’s sentence begins with the word ‘Perhaps’, which White omits here. Part Three of The Aunt’s Story uses another epigraph from Schreiner’s novel: ‘When your life is most real, to me you are mad.’

[2] Patrick White, The Aunt’s Story (1948; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1963), 270.

[3] See the edited extract from the recent book on White by Christos Tsiolkas here:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/may/23/i-saw-patrick-white-as-another-dead-white-male-but-his-writing-changed-my-world

[4] Patrick White, Voss (1957; Harmondsworth: Penguins Books, 1960), 86.

[5] David Marr, Patrick White: A Life (London: Vintage, 1992), 502.

[6] Letter of 1 November 1970: Patrick White, Letters, edited by David Marr (London: Jonathan Cape, 1994), 368.

[7] ‘In my own opinion, my three best novels are The Solid Mandala, The Aunt’s Story, and The Twyborn Affair’: Patrick White, Flaws in the Glass: A Self-Portrait (London: Jonathan Cape, 1981), 145.