As easy as pie – sometimes

Basil

‘Basil returned with the two pies. He was wearing the expression of a man who has laid hands on a symbol of his boyhood: it made him look somewhat ponderous.’[1] This seems a pretty straightforward example of a symbol (pie = boyhood), though the passive construction of those verbs (‘He was wearing’ and ‘it made him look’) must be seen a little warily in the context of ‘Basil’ being the ‘great actor’, Sir Basil Hunter, come back from England to Australia to ease his dying mother into an old folks’ home, secure as much of the loot as he can, and play whatever roles are required.

EyeOfTheStorm.jpg

In the opening paragraph of her second novel, Penelope Fitzgerald writes of her central character, Florence Green: ‘She had once seen a heron flying across the estuary and trying, while it was on the wing, to swallow an eel which it had caught. The eel, in turn, was struggling to escape from the gullet of the heron and appeared a quarter, a half, or occasionally three-quarters of the way out. The indecision expressed by both creatures was pitiable. They had taken on too much.’ Bracketing this description, there are passages of studied ambiguity: it is one of the nights when Florence is ‘not absolutely sure whether she had slept or not’; and ‘Florence felt that if she hadn’t slept at all – and people often say this when they mean nothing of the kind – she must have been kept awake by thinking of the heron.’

A little later, we read that, ‘The weather was curious, and reminded her of the day she saw the flying heron trying to swallow the eel.’ One more reference, a dozen pages further on, seems to emphasise dreaming rather than thinking in that first instance: ‘Completely tired out by the time she went to bed, she no longer dreamed of the heron and the eel, or, so far as she knew, of anything else.’[2]

Some fifteen years later, in an essay on the voices of fictional characters, Fitzgerald quoted from that opening and commented, ‘I now think this was a mistake, because dreams in fiction are just as tedious as people’s dreams in real life.’[3] True enough: but the reference to the form rather than the content seems a little disingenuous – or am I oversimplifying by seeing the heron and the eel as a symbolic conjunction relevant to Fitzgerald’s entire corpus? One of her critics, enlarging on this ‘remarkable, predatory image’, remarks that, ‘As if borrowed from the sphere of sleep’s hauntings, the image, Darwinian and predacious, will be recalled more than once in the course of the novel, and it sets up, right at the start, the theme of survival—and the challenges that make survival, especially for the less fit and self-assertive, a chancy matter.’[4]

Blue-Heron-via-Telegraph

(Blue heron, via The Telegraph)

Yes, just before the second reference to the heron and eel, we find: ‘She blinded herself, in short, by pretending for a while that human beings are not divided into exterminators and exterminatees, with the former, at any given moment, predominating.’ And elsewhere, reflecting on V. S. Pritchett’s warning against writing one’s life away, Fitzgerald wrote: ‘This is a warning that has to be taken seriously. I can only say that however close I’ve come, by this time, to nothingness, I have remained true to my deepest convictions – I mean to the courage of those who are born to be defeated, the weaknesses of the strong, and the tragedy of misunderstandings and missed opportunities which I have done my best to treat as a comedy, for otherwise how can we manage to bear it?’[5]

The heron and the eel—together—comprise then an image, and surely a symbol, of the battle that life entails for a certain kind of person, with that particular balance of courage and confidence, who will never triumph yet will never quite give up either. How conscious, how deliberate must the use of a symbol be to qualify as a symbol? It seems absurdly patronising to suggest that so accomplished a writer wouldn’t have been perfectly aware of what she was doing. Nevertheless, I wonder if some writers—having produced such images, or symbols, capable of such strong and varied interpretations—hold them at a distance, play down their ownership with its implied rights of sustained control, concerned to allow those images room to breathe, to expand and flower in their readers’ minds.

‘I think you are playing a dangerous game,’ Patrick White wrote to Manfred Mackenzie in 1963, ‘fascinating to the player, no doubt – in all this symbol-chasing. Most of the time, I’m afraid, it leads up the wrong tree!’ He added, ‘I am sorry not to be able to confess to most of the influences you suggest. I may have arrived at certain conclusions via other writers who had read those you mention. Otherwise I suppose symbols can pop out of the collective unconscious.’ Two years earlier, replying to James Stern’s queries about his religious development, White replied: ‘Certainly in my own case I did not return to orthodox Anglicanism, but the Anglican church is a feeble organisation compared with the Jewish faith. I made the attempt, found that Churches destroy the mystery of God, and had to evolve symbols of my own through which to worship.’[6]

White did sometimes use symbols quite deliberately, often foregrounding them, as with the mandala that becomes part of the title of one of his novels, though circles and other figures of wholeness are everywhere in his books (as are roses). Linked to this, a sense of the wholeness of the world, certainly the artist’s world, perhaps not rationally apprehended but felt, sensed, known, is conveyed by the figure of the dance: Arthur Brown dancing the mandala for Mrs Poulter, or the young musician when she first enters Hurtle Duffield’s house: ‘As she continued turning within the conservatory’s narrow limits, she began also to hum. A golden tinsel of light hung around her lithe, mackerel body; while out of the dislodged tiles and shambles of broken glass her shuffling feet produced discordancies, but appropriate ones: Kathy Volkov would probably never teeter over into sweetness.’[7] William Butler Yeats, mindful of the interconnectedness of every part of both a tree and a work of art, famously asked at the end of ‘Among School Children’, ‘How can we know the dancer from the dance?’[8] And the novelist Richard Hughes, in his introduction to an edition of a William Faulkner novel, mentioned the story told of ‘a celebrated Russian dancer, who was asked by someone what she meant by a certain dance. She answered with some exasperation, “If I could say it in so many words, do you think I should take the very great trouble of dancing it?”’[9] It occurs to me that the title of Poussin’s painting that Anthony Powell adopted for his novel-sequence, A Dance to the Music of Time, could hardly have comprised three terms more mysterious and more difficult to grasp with confidence and conviction.

Dance_to_the_music_of_time

(Nicolas Poussin, A Dance to the Music of Time: Wallace Collection)

The gap that uncertainty—as to whether a literary image or motif is deliberately designed to perform a more substantial symbolic function—allows can carry a good deal of force. I’ve reflected more than once on Ford Madox Ford’s multiple references to cooking and gardening. They are almost always, in the first instance, actual cooking and actual gardening—both arts that Ford practised and regarded as hugely important. But, of course, they also offer extraordinary scope for symbolic interpretation. Ford uses more explicitly symbolic images too, which occur less often but with a more focused aim. So Christopher Tietjens characterises his wife and his lover thus: ‘If you wanted something killed you’d go to Sylvia Tietjens in the sure faith that she would kill it: emotion: hope: ideal: kill it quick and sure. If you wanted something kept alive you’d go to Valentine: she’d find something to do for it . . . The two types of mind: remorseless enemy: sure screen: dagger . . . sheath!’ Later, the suffragette and pacifist Valentine Wannop will acknowledge her ‘automatic feeling that all manly men were lust-filled devils, desiring nothing better than to stride over battlefields, stabbing the wounded with long daggers in frenzies of sadism.’[10]

For literary critics, psychoanalysts and many others, the world is a seething mass of symbols—in the index to my Penguin edition of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, ‘symbol’ runs into three columns, offering no end of joyous examples: asparagus, burglar, nail-file, zeppelin—but they would probably be the first to agree that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, a pipe a pipe, a rose a rose. And surely sometimes a pie is just a pie.

 

 

References

[1] Patrick White, The Eye of the Storm (London: Penguin Books, 1975), 452.

[2] Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop (1978; London: Everyman, 2001), 5, 29, 40.

[3] Penelope Fitzgerald, ‘Hearing Them Speak’ (1993), in A House of Air: Selected Writings, edited by Terence Dooley with Mandy Kirkby and Chris Carduff (London: Harper Perennial, 2005), 499-500.

[4] Christopher J. Knight, ‘The Second Saddest Story: Despair, Belief, and Moral Perseverance in Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop’, Journal of Narrative Theory, 42, 1 (Spring 2012), 70, 71.

[5] Fitzgerald, ‘Curriculum Vitae’, in A House of Air, 480.

[6] Patrick White, Letters, edited by David Marr (London: Jonathan Cape, 1994), 216, 217, 196.

[7] See Patrick White, The Solid Mandala ( Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1969), 265-267; The Vivisector (London: Jonathan Cape, 1970), 443-444.

[8] W. B. Yeats, Collected Poems, second edition (London: Macmillan, 1950), 245.

[9] Hughes, ‘Introduction’ to William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (London: Chatto and Windus, 1966), vii.

[10] Ford Madox Ford, Some Do Not. . . (1924; edited by Max Saunders, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2010), 160, 284. Related images occur in many of Ford’s other works.

Flaming June

Flaming_June_Leighton

(Frederic Leighton, Flaming June, Museo de Arte de Ponce)

Yes, June has flamed, is flaming still. Devotees of sweltering heat and football have clearly struck gold. Personally, my appreciation peaks around 22 degrees Celsius and steadily declines thereafter. But then, retired, if not always retiring, I’m lucky enough to have the option of shopping early before sitting at the kitchen table with a notebook and a pot of tea, reading Patrick White and offering advice to the magpies.

Disconcertingly, for a day or so, while heat waved outside the kitchen windows, White’s Voss and his companions, embarked upon their doomed expedition across the Australian interior, had been halted and confined to the shelter of a cave by incessant rainfall.

‘Now, from time to time, the rain would lift, literally, he felt, of something so permanent and solid. Then, in the stillness, the grey would blur with green. In the middle of the day the body of the drowned earth would appear to float to the surface; islands were breeding; and a black dust of birds, blowing across the sky, seemed to promise salvation.’

But soon enough, more familiar climatic conditions reassert themselves.

‘By the time the sun had mounted the sky, their own veins had begun to run with fire. Their heads were exact copies of that same golden mirror. They could not look into one another for fear of recognizing their own torments.’

Even painful sufferings in the deserts of Australia might seem to offer a kind of relief from the dispiriting spectacle of recent news: caged children in the land of the free (‘That’s a concentration camp’, the Librarian observed as we watched the images beamed from Texas – as, of course, it was), the blustering cowardice of our Foreign Secretary, new evidence of Britain’s complicity in torture and rendition, the Tory ‘rebellion’ on the Lords amendment, which ended, not for the first time, in a handful of feathers on the floor, anti-democratic or frankly racist developments in Hungary, Turkey, Italy – and always, down there in the dust of the arena, Brexit’s heavy boot on this country’s neck.

Magpie-0618

This week’s New Statesman arrives. Concluding her column, ‘Out of the Ordinary’, Helen Lewis writes: ‘I’ve spent my adult life believing that politics matters. But Brexit means I can’t stop thinking . . . what’s the point?’

Indeed. Still, the magpies have grasped the fact that if they stand on the edge of the seed tray they can reach the fat balls comfortably without having to balance on that unstable frame above them. Learning from experience, as they say. A cabinet of magpies – why not?

 

The Extraordinary Ordinary

Tree-of-Man

In Patrick White’s 1955 novel, The Tree of Man, Stan Parker, suspecting what has taken place between his wife and a commercial traveller, turns his car round and drives along familiar roads towards the city. ‘People who did not know what had happened were continuing to live their lives.’[1]

This called to mind the W. H. Auden poem referred to recently, the fall of Icarus into the sea barely warranting the attention of those others busy with their own concerns. In another Auden poem, ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’, he writes:

Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays

He writes of the poet’s work passing into the minds and bodies of countless readers and listeners, who will adapt and interpret and use his writings in their own way and according to their own needs and urgencies, ‘The words of a dead man/ Are modified in the guts of the living.’

But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have their sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And in each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom;
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.[2]

w-b-yeats

(W. B. Yeats via The Poetry Foundation)

The ultimate banal observation – that life continues – everywhere, or everywhere else, whatever disturbing or heart-rending or monstrous event is occurring here, or here, is something that must be confronted and withstood and, ultimately, accepted.

I remember the day on which I was waiting for a train to London, on my way to tell my mother that the hospital staff would be turning off my sister’s life support machine the next morning. My sister’s husband and daughter had made that impossible, inevitable decision and had asked me to break the news.

I was watching two young men on a bench across the tracks from me; one seemed to be dancing while still sitting down. His friend laughed, rocking gently to and fro. An elderly couple passed close to me, intent and purposeful; young women out for the evening shimmied and twirled. In touch with death and faced with exuberant or expressive or just ordinary life, you feel indignant but relieved, offended and thankful. You sit with your own arms wrapped around yourself, alive, while blood dances in your veins.

There is also the paradox against which you bruise yourself sooner or later: on the one hand, the life of practically any man or woman can be and generally is, in the end, whittled down to a handful of words, a few sentences. On the other hand, almost any individual life is, if viewed through certain lenses, immense, significant, infinitely varied. White’s novel, about professedly ‘ordinary’ people, embodies the question, over nearly five hundred pages, of whether there is really any such thing. ‘The sky was blurred now. As he stood waiting for the flesh to be loosened on him, he prayed for greater clarity, and it became obvious as a hand. It was clear that One, and no other figure, is the answer to all sums.’[3]

Sky-through-stone

All lives contain astonishments, illuminations, intensities, immeasurable depths – but very few can articulate, verbally, comprehensibly, what they have seen or glimpsed or divined. This is one purpose – or effect – of art: Guy Davenport despaired over the assumption, set in stone for so many, that the sole purpose of poetry is ‘self-expression’, ignoring the possibility that the poet ‘speaks for people who cannot speak’ and ‘makes sentences for people to say’.[4]

Hearing from Ford Madox Ford that he was publishing a fairy tale (three of Ford’s first five books were fairy tales), Peter Kropotkin said that he hoped it was not about princes and princesses (it was), or at least that Ford would write a fairy tale about simple and ordinary people. ‘I have been trying to do so ever since’, Ford commented forty years later. ‘I always want to write about ordinary people. But it seems to be almost impossible to decide who are ordinary people – and then to meet them. All men’s lives and characteristics are so singular.’[5] Elsewhere, he wrote of ‘The extraordinary complications of even the simplest lives! . . .’ and that ‘every case is a special case’.[6]

 The novelist Blanford, in Lawrence Durrell’s Quinx, also had his doubts about ordinariness: ‘Ah, the mind-numbing ineptness of the rational man with his formulations! Defeated always by the flying multiplicity of the real. “Ordinary life” – is there such a thing?’[7] While, perhaps most pertinently, Sarah Bakewell wrote of Michel de Montaigne, ‘From the start, Montaigne had the impression at once of being a peasant among peasants, and of being very special and different. This is the mixture of feelings that would stay with him for life. He felt ordinary, but knew that the very fact of realizing his ordinariness made him extraordinary.’[8]

 

 

References

[1] Patrick White, The Tree of Man (1955; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1961), 322.

[2] W. H. Auden, The English Auden: Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writings, 1927-1939, edited by Edward Mendelson (London: Faber, 1977), 241, 242.

[3] White, The Tree of Man, 477.

[4] Guy Davenport, ‘Do You Have a Poem Book on E. E. Cummings?’, in The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 132.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, Return to Yesterday: Reminiscences 1894-1914 (London: Victor Gollancz, 1931), 108.

[6] Ford Madox Ford, No More Parades (1925; edited by Joseph Wiesenfarth, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2011), 43; Great Trade Route (London: Allen and Unwin, 1937), 299.

[7] Lawrence Durrell, Quinx, or The Ripper’s Tale, in The Avignon Quintet, one-volume edition (London: Faber and Faber, 2004), 1260.

[8] Sarah Bakewell, How To Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer (London: Vintage 2011), 52.

 

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.