Roses (almost) all the way


‘What a lovely thing a rose is’, Sherlock Holmes remarks, adverting to the necessity of deduction in religion – and goes on to add that: ‘Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers.’ Client and client’s fiancée view this demonstration ‘with surprise and a good deal of disappointment’ but Holmes, with the moss-rose between his fingers, has fallen into a reverie. Not unusually, all turns out well in the end.[1] Oddly, I see that, in the language of flowers, the moss-rose was associated with ‘voluptuous love’, not the first thing that comes to mind in Holmes’s case.

It’s that time of the morning when there are no workmen yet hammering, drilling or sawing, and the park and the cemetery are peaceful enough even for me. The Librarian photographs a good many flowers and trees while I stand gazing into middle distances, though I succumb to the orange specimen in the park on the way back home.


Reading Rebecca Solnit earlier, I was reminded again of how much George Orwell’s short life (forty-six and a half years) was hampered by respiratory disease: bronchitis, pneumonia, tuberculosis.[2] Set against that are the plump volumes of Peter Davison’s scholarly edition of Orwell’s work: twenty of them in all. Of the ones I have, the 600-page extent of the first volume is not unrepresentative. But then Orwell’s productivity, given his state of health and his honest confrontation of it, the long-held knowledge that his life would not be a long one, is not itself unique: the example that comes quickest to mind is D. H. Lawrence, also hugely prolific, his letters alone filling eight fat volumes, his life two years shorter than Orwell’s.


‘If war has an opposite’, Solnit writes, ‘gardens might sometimes be it, and people have found a particular kind of peace in forests, meadows, parks and gardens’ (5). Orwell’s life was, as she says, shot through with wars. The German writer Ernst Jünger, born almost a decade before Orwell and in a markedly different cultural tradition, recalled that: ‘Grown up in an age of security, we shared a yearning for danger, for the experience of the extraordinary. We were enraptured by war, We had set out in a rain of flowers, in a drunken atmosphere of blood and roses. Surely the war had to supply us with what we wanted: the great, the overwhelming, the hallowed experience.’[3]

But the theme of roses conjured up for me not Ruskin, Pound, Gertrude Stein, Sappho, Shakespeare or Sir John Mandeville but, not for the first time, Patrick White, a young child in the First World War, an intelligence officer in the Second, serving in Egypt, Palestine, Greece. His books are dense with roses. A dozen references, more, in The Tree of Man, as motif, symbol, marker of passing time, from the moment when Stan and Amy Parker arrive at the house after the wedding:

‘Once I saw a house’, she said, in the even dreamlike voice of inspiration, ‘that had a white rosebush growing beside it, and I always said that if I had a house I would plant a white rose. It was a tobacco rose, the lady said.’
‘Well’, he said, laughing up at her, ‘you have the house.’[4]

The black rose on Theodora Goodman’s hat in The Aunt’s Story; Waldo and Arthur talking of the white rose in The Solid Mandala; and, in Riders in the Chariot: ‘Where Himmelfarb was at last put down, roses met him, and led him all the way. Had he been blind, he could have walked by holding on to ropes of roses.’[5] Among the stories, ‘Dead Roses’ calls attention to itself while ‘The Letters’, another  mother-son relationship leading to mental disintegration, has some lovely flowers but, alas, ‘this morning something was eating the roses.’ In ‘A Cheery Soul’, the dreadful Miss Docker doesn’t care for the rector’s wife, who ‘accused her of pruning Crimson Glory to death. “I only did it as a gesture,” Miss Docker had defended herself, “and nobody knows for certain the rose did not die a natural death.”’[6] Most poignantly, perhaps, in Voss, Laura picks roses while the pregnant Rose Portion holds the basket: ‘But the girl was dazed by roses.’ She will later find Rose dead in her bed: ‘the girl who had arrived breathless, blooming with expectation and the roses she had pinned at her throat, was herself turned yellow by the hot wind of death.’[7]

White had met Manoly Lascaris, with whom he would live for the rest of his life, in the apartment of Charles de Menasce in Alexandria, in July 1941.[8] They would spend a good deal of time in Greece and, appropriately, White remembered, decades later, Athens after the German occupation: ‘The smell of those days remains with me – the perfume of stocks in the Maroussi fields, chestnuts roasting at street corners, Kokkoretsi turning on spits in open doorways. And the roses, the crimson roses. . . ’[9]

Maxfield Parrish, ‘Sleeping Beauty’, Colliers (1912)

No rose without a thorn, the saying goes – unless you’re that lucky. Or perhaps in the right sort of story. In ‘Briar Rose’, the hundred years of the curse having expired precisely on the day that the prince comes breezing along, the briar hedge is transformed into beautiful flowers. The bride is won with minimal effort—no giants or dragons—just impeccable timing, ‘illustrating’, as Maria Tatar observes, ‘how good fortune often trumps heroic feats in fairy tales.’[10]

Remembering the appearance of the early romances of H. G. Wells, Ford Madox Ford wrote: ‘Fairy tales are a prime necessity of the world’.[11] So they are, so they are.


Notes

[1] Arthur Conan Doyle, The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, 2 volumes, edited with notes by Leslie S. Klinger (New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company 2005).

[2] Rebecca Solnit, Orwell’s Roses (London: Granta Books, 2021), 25-26.

[3] Ernst Jünger, Storm of Steel, translated by Michael Hofmann (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2004), 5.

[4] Patrick White, The Tree of Man, (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1961), 28.

[5] Patrick White, Riders in the Chariot (Harmondsworth: Penguins Books, 1964), 383.

[6] Patrick White, The Burnt Ones (1964; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1968), 231, 180.

[7] Patrick White, Voss (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1957), 170, 250.

[8] David Marr, Patrick White: A Life (London: Vintage, 1992), 213.

[9] ‘Greece – My Other Country’ (1983), in Patrick White Speaks, edited by Paul Brennan and Christine Flynn (London: Jonathan Cape, 1990), 134.

[10] Maria Tatar, editor, The Annotated Brothers Grimm (New York: W. W. Norton, 2004), 238.

[11] Ford Madox Ford, Portraits from Life (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1937), 109.

Storm warnings

Rousseau, Theodore, 1812-1867; Landscape with a Stormy Sky

(Theodore Rousseau, Landscape with a Stormy Sky: Victoria and Albert Museum)

Walking in the park, the Librarian remarks on how beautiful the light is: lying on the trees, the mosque glimpsed between buildings on the facing hill and the lines of colourful housefronts. The light is, yes, extraordinary—but not least because of the violent mixing of colours on the sky’s palette. Above the trees behind us, there’s a great stretch of glowering darkness, which collides at one point with a patch of pure brilliance, untouched by any shadow or streak of darker colour. Above another clump of trees, a cloud of deep grey seemingly squats among the branches.

As with sky, of course, so with a great deal else. Those with the good fortune to be readers of Louis MacNeice think often of ‘Snow’, which reads in part:

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.[1]

‘Incorrigibly plural’, yes. There are simplicities, to be sure, but not always where our contemporary ‘culture warriors’ believe—or pretend to believe—they are. Elsewhere, MacNeice writes:

‘We are not changing ground to escape from facts
But rather to find them. This complex world exacts
Hard work of simplifying; to get its focus
You have to stand outside the crowd and caucus.’[2]

Now we are watching the trees bend; the door propped carefully open when the cat insists on fresh air; one brief and bitter squall of rain earlier; the wind yesterday afternoon and evening irritable, confidently predicted to be furious today. The worst storm in three decades, one forecast reads.

unknown artist; View of the Cobb and the Bay, Lyme Regis, Dorset

(Unknown artist: View of the Cobb and the Bay, Lyme Regis, Dorset: Lyme Regis Museum)

Novelist John Fowles wrote of the famous Cobb at Lyme Regis that it was not only a harbour but ‘a gigantic breakwater protecting the town from the great storms out of the south-west.’[3] That’s the quarter from which this storm is coming, as often before. Francis Kilvert wrote in his diary of a visit to Claremont House: ‘When the S.W. gales blew and rattled the windows Lord Clive used to get up in the night to wedge them tight and guineas being more plentiful with him than anything else he always used them. The housemaids used to transfer these guineas to their own pockets in the morning and prayed with reason for a S.W. storm.’[4]

Little wonder and plenty of reason, with an annual salary of around £20.

 Before the great storm of October 1987—an extreme depression in the Bay of Biscay moving north-eastwards—there were tough UK winters in 1962-63 and another drifting out of my lifetime, 1946-47. A few years before that, Rosamond Lehmann wrote in her story, ‘When the Waters Came’: ‘The wind was a steel attack; sharp knobs of ice came whirling off the elms and struck her in the face’, while the news at the post office was that: ‘The peacock at the farm had been brought in sheathed totally in ice: that was the most impressive item.’[5] This was, presumably, the wave of freezing weather in January 1940. The River Thames froze then for the first time since 1888 and there was a terrific ice storm across the country late in the month.

Hondius, Abraham, c.1625-1691; The Frozen Thames, Looking Eastwards towards Old London Bridge, London

(Abraham Hondius, The Frozen Thames, Looking Eastwards towards Old London Bridge, London: Museum of London)

In a diary entry of Sunday 8 December 1872, Kilvert wrote: ‘The morning had been lovely, but during our singing practice after evening church at about half past four began the Great Storm of 1872.’[6] In the eighteenth century, Gilbert White noted the  punishing winter of 1767-8: some days, he remarked, were more severe than any since 1739-40. But top billing was given to the ‘amazing tempest’, the great storm of November 1703.[7]

‘From the middle of the month there were gales’, Alexandra Harris writes, ‘and then on the evening of the 26th the wind grew unnerving. By midnight a hurricane was blasting across England, and there was no let-up until dawn. Fatalities were eventually calculated at about eight thousand. The greatest terror of the night was out in the Channel, where thirteen Royal Navy ships and their crews were drowned. On land barely a building survived intact. It remains the most violent storm recorded in England.’[8]

Up until ten this morning, the wind was fitful but not too severe. Predictably, some people were already dismissing the forecasts—‘Nothing’s happening!’—but footage of seafronts in south Wales and south-west England bore them out and I don’t plan to be walking under any trees today. I like this calm space, within easy reach of the kettle and the cooker. Eye of the storm. In Patrick White’s great novel of that name, Elizabeth Hunter’s daughter Dorothy, on the way to Australia, sits next to a Dutchman who tells her about a storm he experienced, being at sea when a typhoon struck. ‘For several hours we were thrown and battered – till suddenly calm fell – the calmest calm I have ever experienced at sea. God had willed us to enter the eye – you know about it? the still centre of the storm – where we lay at rest – surrounded by hundreds of seabirds, also resting on the water.’[9]

White-Eye-Storm

In a letter to Ingmar Björkstén (21 January 1973), who had asked about which of his novels felt closest to him, White confessed his difficulty. ‘I tend to feel close to The Aunt’s Story because in the beginning it was either ignored, or, in Australia, considered a freak. My feeling has been much as I imagine parents would feel towards a child who is not quite normal: they have to protect it. I also feel very close to The Solid Mandala because it conveys a certain nightmarish quality of life which I have experienced, though the incidents in the novel are hardly parallel to anything in my actual life. But at the moment I am obsessed by my latest book The Eye of the Storm, because in it I think I have come closer to giving the final answer.’[10]

David Marr, White’s biographer, remarked that: ‘The Eye of the Storm has the fundamental plot of all the books White wrote after falling in the storm at Castle Hill: the erratic, often unconscious search for God.’[11]

In his story centred on the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, killed at Neuville-Saint-Vaast in 1915, Guy Davenport wrote: ‘But our knowledge, which must come from contemplation and careful inspection, has collided with a storm, a vortex of stupidity and idiocy.’[12]

At least we don’t have to contend with anything like that, do we? To be sure, the storm is really getting into its stride now but it’s just the weather we have to worry about, no?

Notes

[1] Louis MacNeice, Collected Poems, edited by Peter McDonald (London: Faber, 2007), 24.

[2] Louis MacNeice, ‘Letter to Graham and Anne Shepard’, Letters from Iceland, W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice (London: Faber & Faber, 1937), 31.

[3] John Fowles, A Short History of Lyme Regis (Stanbridge: The Dovecote Press, 2004), 10.

[4] Francis Kilvert, Kilvert’s Diary, edited by William Plomer, three volumes (London: Jonathan Cape, 1938, reissued 1969), I, 297.

[5] Rosamond Lehmann, The Gypsy’s Baby and Other Stories (1946; London: Virago Press, 1982), 94.

[6] Kilvert’s Diary, II, 288-289.

[7] Gilbert White, The Illustrated History of Selborne (London: Macmillan, 1984), 46, 19-20.

[8] Alexandra Harris, Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English  Skies (London: Thames & Hudson, 2015), 170.

[9] Patrick White, The Eye of the Storm (London: Penguin Books, 1975), 69.

[10] Patrick White, Letters, edited by David Marr (London: Jonathan Cape, 1994), 410.

[11] David Marr, Letters, 354; on the fall, see  Patrick White: A Life (London: Vintage, 1992), 281ff.

[12] Guy Davenport, ‘The Bowmen of Shu’, in Twelve Stories (Washington: Counterpoint, 1997), 140.

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.

Cooking, cleaning, washing the pig

; Chinese People Washing Three Large, White Elephants

(Unknown artist, ‘Chinese people washing three large, white elephants’: Wellcome Collection)

07:30 and my Spelt loaf is underway. But I actually enjoy bread making so can this count as housework? Cooking, fine, washing up and vacuuming, okay; ironing, less so; cleaning, much less so.

When Rudyard Kipling moved into Bateman’s in September in 1902, the house and thirty-three acres costing £9300, he was, Andrew Lycett notes, looking forward to washing his 335 apple trees ‘with oil, limewash, salt and soap’ as recommended in the agricultural textbooks.[1] Would that count as housework? Probably not. Gardening or perhaps, on that scale, farming—‘We began with tenants – two or three small farmers on our very few acres – from whom we learned that farming was a mixture of farce, fraud, and philanthropy that stole the heart out of the land’—and would Kipling have done that work himself? He certainly had views on domestic service – of some of the people he met on his return from India to England: ‘They derided my poor little Gods of the East, and asserted that the British in India spent violent lives “oppressing” the Native. (This in a land where white girls of sixteen, at twelve or fourteen pounds per annum, hauled thirty and forty pounds weight of bath-water at a time up four flights of stairs!)’[2]

Batemans

http://www.kiplingsociety.co.uk/batemans.htm

D. H. Lawrence might turn his hand to sweeping floors and baking bread—and the Skeptic philosopher Pyrrhon of Elis was, apparently, ‘known to dust the house and sweep the floors for his sister, and was once seen washing the pig’[3]—but the real (male) literary demon when it comes to housework is Patrick White, whose letters are littered with references to the daily tasks. ‘I seem to spend all my time washing up and preparing for the next meal’, he wrote to Frederick Glover and, on the eve of a long trip to Europe, remarked to Mollie McKie: ‘Still, it will be a change not to do the washing up for a few months. I did go away for a few days recently. but found myself washing up in self-defence as my hosts were so bad at the sink.’ To Geoffrey Dutton, he confided that: ‘My rheumatics only left after house-cleaning days: I suppose all the stooping and stretching drove them out; so you can tell Max [Harris] that is another good reason not to keep a “char”.’ Later, furious at a review of one of his plays which asked what Patrick White knew about suburbia since he was brought up ‘in a mansion’, he told Mary Benson: ‘I had lived in suburbia for twelve years, between sink and stove, and scrubbing my own floors, before writing that play.’ Again to Dutton, describing a call from a friend, he noted in passing that ‘I was labouring at the house-cleaning when the telephone went’.[4]

White-Letters

When White and Manoly Lascaris moved to the house in Martin Road in October 1964, White’s biographer records, they had a cleaning woman for a short time but White stated that, ‘after doing everything in the way of house-cleaning ourselves over the last fifteen years, I find it a great strain having somebody else about, and I am always relieved when those mornings are over.’ She didn’t last and, ‘Once again, he took up the broom and Hoover himself.’[5]

How long does all this stuff take? How long should it take? Judith Flanders writes that most Victorian houses (above a certain social level, of course) ‘operated a system that ran more or less as follows:

Monday: laundry

Tuesday: servant’s room [if time was allowed for it at all, her note adds], one bedroom

Wednesday: remaining bedrooms

Thursday: drawing room, breakfast room, morning room

Friday: dining room and polishing the silver

Saturday: hall, stairs, kitchen, passageways

Sunday: collect, sort and soak laundry ready for Monday’[6]

Edwardian-maids

http://www.edwardianpromenade.com/occupations/general-servants-time-table/

Lucy Lethbridge, writing of the Edwardian period, notes that ‘Cotton, woven in the great textile factories of the industrial Midlands, needed mangling, starching, bleaching and pressing to keep its appearance. For the working-class housewife, washing her own family’s clothes took up two full days of the week.’ Midway through the twentieth century, ‘In 1950 a survey of full-time housewives showed that they spent an average of seventy hours a week on housework; in a survey in 1970 that average had risen to seventy-seven hours.’[7]

Leaving aside the fact that ‘labour-saving devices’ are assumed to do precisely that—and surely they became more widely available in those twenty years—seventy-seven hours? Really? Eleven hours a day every day of the week? Madness. I shall continue to cook, wash up, hoover and sweep a bit – and make bread. As for the bathroom and shower. . . the Librarian and I will draw lots.

 
References

[1] Harry Ricketts, The Unforgiving Minute: A Life of Rudyard Kipling (London: Chatto and Windus, 1999), 278; Andrew Lycett, Rudyard Kipling (London: Weidenfeld, 1999), 347.

[2] Rudyard Kipling, Something of Myself: For My Friends Known and Unknown, (1936; edited by Robert Hampson, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987), 146, 87.

[3] ‘Pyrrhon of Elis’, in The Jules Verne Steam Balloon: Nine Stories by Guy Davenport (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1987), 25.

[4] Patrick White, Letters, edited by David Marr (London: Jonathan Cape, 1994), 123, 125, 352, 436-437, 493.

[5] David Marr, Patrick White: A Life (London: Vintage, 1992), 447.

[6] Judith Flanders, The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbed to Deathbed (London: Harper Collins, 2003), 106-107.

[7] Lucy Lethbridge, Servants: A Downstairs View of Twentieth-century Britain (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 76, 308.

 

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.