Foxes, Graces, Fatal Flowers

Maitland, Paul Fordyce, 1863-1909; Boats Moored on the Thames

(Paul Fordyce Maitland, Boats Moored on the Thames: York Museums Trust)

On a cold and blue and almost cloudless day, I pass through the park, between the bobbing magpies. Once you recognise the sight and sound of them, they’re everywhere. In our small garden yesterday, I watched a magpie take into its beak three, four, five suet pellets, and was put in mind of the fox.

Six or seven years ago, looking out of the window of my mother’s first-floor flat in Sutton, I would sometimes see foxes jogging along beside the railway line, about fifty metres away. At the end of the short garden was a garage with a flat roof and the downstairs neighbour used to throw food up onto it. One morning a fox appeared there – the roof was accessible from a low wall nearby. It took up items of food into its long jaws, meat and vegetables, five, six, seven pieces and, at the last, added a whole egg. Then it made its way down off the roof and emerged at the side of the track, all the food still apparently in place, undamaged, before padding off in the direction of home where, presumably, its cubs were waiting.

There are times when something occupying our minds or strongly present for a while—and it might be anything, from a car, a song or a woman’s name to a painting, a terrace of houses or a body of writing—exerts a powerful centripetal force. Details of things seen or heard fly to it and stick like burrs. Sounds and sights, images, phrases, connect with an audible click.

Since I’m reading or, mostly, rereading Penelope Fitzgerald’s books at present, when I walked in the park yesterday and heard the skirl of bagpipes launching into ‘Amazing Grace’, it was enough to recall the novel I’d just finished. Offshore, which won the Booker Prize in 1979, is set on the barges moored on Chelsea Reach and is dedicated ‘To Grace and all who sailed in her’. Grace is the name of the central character Nenna James’s barge, as it was the name of Fitzgerald’s, ‘a battered, patched, caulked, tar-blackened hulk’. The ‘great consolation was that a Thames barge, because of the camber of the deck, never sinks completely.’ On this point, Fitzgerald remarked, she could ‘give evidence, because we went down twice, and on both occasions the deck stayed just above water’, although Grace was finally ‘towed away to the Essex marshes to be broken up.’[1] After one of those disasters, Fitzgerald ‘went back to her teaching the next day, looking more than usually dishevelled, and said to her class: “I’m sorry I’m late, but my house sank.”’[2]

Bavarian-Gentian

Similarly, thoughts of that fox recalled Fitzgerald’s letter in response to Frank Kermode’s review of her final novel, The Blue Flower, which centres on the life of the German Romantic poet Friedrich von Hardenberg, who wrote as ‘Novalis’. ‘I hope you won’t mind me writing to thank you for your review of The Blue Flower. I started from D. H. Lawrence’s “fatal flower of happiness” at the end of The Fox, having always wondered how DHL knew it was blue, and never quite managed to find out all I wanted to, partly because Novalis’ letters to Sophie have disappeared, buried in her grave I daresay.’[3]

Kermode had written of Fitzgerald: ‘She has the gift of knowing, or seeming to know, everything necessary, and as it were knowing it from the inside, conveying it by gleams and fractions, leaving those who feel so disposed to make it explicit.’ And, of the object of Fritz’s quest, ‘The visionary blue flower dominates his imagination, but in the waking life of Fritz von Hardenberg the part of the flower was played by Sophie von Kühn’.[4]

Sophie was the twelve-year-old girl with whom the poet fell in love. They became engaged on her thirteenth birthday but she died of tuberculosis just two years later. Novalis himself died before reaching thirty.

The end of ‘The Fox’ has ‘poor March’ musing on how, ‘The more you reached after the fatal flower of happiness, which trembles so blue and lovely in a crevice just beyond your grasp, the more fearfully you became aware of the ghastly and awful gulf of the precipice below you, into which you will inevitably plunge, as into the bottomless pit, if you reach any further. You pluck flower after flower – it is never the flower.’[5]

And the ending of Offshore? The two weakest characters, drunk and more than usually incapable, drift off in the storm, when the anchor comes clear and the mooring-ropes pull free under the strain. ‘It was in this way that Maurice, with the two of them clinging on for dear life, put out on the tide.’[6]

A craft that should be firmly linked to those of its close neighbours becoming unmoored and drifting off into the open sea because of intoxicated incompetence. Not a fable for our time, obviously.

References

[1] Penelope Fitzgerald, ‘Curriculum Vitae’, in A House of Air: Selected Writings, edited by Terence Dooley with Mandy Kirkby and Chris Carduff (London: Harper Perennial, 2005), 477-478.

[2] Hermione Lee, Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life (London: Chatto and Windus, 2013), 158.

[3] Penelope Fitzgerald to Frank Kermode, 3 October [1995], in So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald, edited by Terence Dooley (London: Fourth Estate, 2008), 453.

[4] Frank Kermode, ‘Dark Fates’, review of The Blue Flower, London Review of Books, 17, 19 (5 October, 1995), 7.

[5] D. H. Lawrence, ‘The Fox’, in The Complete Short Novels, edited by Keith Sagar and Melissa Partridge (London: Penguin Books, 2000), 203.

[6] Penelope Fitzgerald, Offshore (1979; London: Everyman, 2003), 131.

 

Manning the pump, manning the ship

Collins, William, 1788-1847; The Caves of Ulysses at Sorrento, Naples

(William Collins, The Caves of Ulysses at Sorrento, Naples, 1843
Photo credit: Victoria and Albert Museum)

There’s a moment in Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald when, discussing the long period of Fitzgerald’s teaching, she mentions that ‘Her copies of Joyce and Beckett are full of little jokes to herself, as when the citizen in the “Cyclops” episode of Ulysses goes out “to the back of the yard to pumpship”, and she notes: “Has to pee just like Bloom. We’re all human.”’[1] By ‘the citizen’ is meant—or should be meant—not ‘the Citizen’, that violent and foul-mouthed Polyphemus figure but the unidentified narrator of the ‘Cyclops’ episode. ‘So I just went round to the back of the yard to pumpship’.[2]

Pumpship – or pump ship. Yes, perhaps inevitably there comes a time in a man’s life when his thoughts alight and pause on slang terms for urination. Might women be content to be left out of this general discussion? On the basis of my (admittedly very limited) survey, it would seem so. . . .

Don Gifford’s authoritative Ulysses Annotated didn’t find the term worth elucidating, though R. W. Dent’s Colloquial Language in Ulysses has an entry (which basically reproduces Eric Partridge’s).[3] Joyce’s friend Frank Budgen doesn’t enlarge on it either, merely commenting that ‘I’, or ‘the Nameless One’, as he also refers to the narrator, ‘goes out into the yard to pumpship’. But then Budgen, in earlier life, had spent six years at sea.[4]

Bloomsbury-Pie

All this put me in mind of the account in Regina Marler’s Bloomsbury Pie of the discussions between Joanne Trautmann Banks and Nigel Nicolson, the editors of Virginia Woolf’s letters, on the level of annotation to be used there:

‘Having decided, too, that the annotation should insult neither English nor American readers, the editors sometimes battled over what should be explained. The Adirondacks, for instance, were judged too basic. But what about “pumping ship,” or as Virginia used the phrase, in reference to T. S. Eliot’s extreme reserve: “It’s on a par with not pump shipping in front of your wife.” “What’s that?” Trautmann asked, certain they would have to annotate it. “Pumping ship means urinating,” Nicolson told her. “Every Englishman knows that.” Trautmann decided to test his assumption:

So the typists, the cook, and the nanny were asked. Nigel’s children were asked, as was every guest at Nigel’s next dinner party….Only one man knew, a physician, as it happens. I say “as it happens,” because Nigel determined that it was not the doctor’s profession that led to this particular genito-urinary information, but his age and schooling. “Only Old Etonians over 50 know about pumping ship,” Nigel announced. We annotated it.[5]

They did. The note reads ‘Virginia misconstructed this now obsolescent term for urinating.’[6] With a markedly worse misconstruction, E. M. Forster, floundering badly and unappealingly, writes in letters of having ‘pump shitted’ and of ‘pump shitting’.[7]

‘P.S.’, Rupert Brooke wrote in a 1912 letter to James Strachey, ‘When I pump ship, it’s bright green. What does that portend?’[8]  A portentous question.

PF-BlondeB-Slate

(Penelope Knox, ‘the blonde bombshell’, via Slate Magazine )

Penelope Fitzgerald, anyway, seems untroubled by the word ‘pumpship’. To be sure, she wasn’t an Old Etonian over fifty, but two of her uncles had been (though Dillwyn died in 1943, aged only fifty-eight). Back in mid-1930s Oxford, where men at the university outnumbered women by six to one, ‘the blonde bombshell’ then at Somerville College—‘No one was surprised when she got a First after a “congratulatory viva”, at which the candidate is praised rather than quizzed’—surely met a good many Old Etonians (and Harrovians and Rugbeians).[9]

But then a Dubliner, educated at O’Connell, Clongowes and Belvedere, also seems quite untroubled about it, as does ‘the Nameless One’, as fluent in speech as in relieving himself—and admiring too (if grudgingly) of Leopold Bloom’s own fluency:

And of course Bloom had to have his say too about if a fellow had a rower’s heart violent exercise was bad. I declare to my antimacassar if you took up a straw from the bloody floor and if you said to Bloom: Look at, Bloom. Do you see that straw? That’s a straw. Declare to my aunt he’d talk about it for an hour so he would and talk steady.[10]

References

[1] Hermione Lee, Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life (London: Chatto and Windus, 2013), 199.

[2] James Joyce, Ulysses (1922; London: The Bodley Head, revised edition, 1969), 435.

[3] Don Gifford, with Robert J. Seidman, Ulysses Annotated: Notes for James Joyce’s Ulysses, revised and expanded edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989); R. W. Dent, Colloquial Language in Ulysses: A Reference Guide (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1994), 145; Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, edited by Paul Beale, 8th edition (London: Routledge, 1991), 933: nautical slang, late 18th century to c.1870, given there as two words.

[4] Frank Budgen, James Joyce and the Making of ‘Ulysses’ and other writings, enlarged edition (1934; London: Oxford University Press, 1972), 165.

[5] Regina Marler, Bloomsbury Pie: The Story of the Bloomsbury Revival (London: Virago, 1997), 158. She quotes from Trautmann’s piece in Charleston Magazine, 13 (1996), 12. See also Joanna Trautmann Banks, ‘The Editor as Ethicist’, in Virginia Woolf: Interpreting the Modernist Text, edited by James M. Haule and J. H. Stape (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 29.

[6] Virginia Woolf, The Question of Things Happening: Collected Letters II, 1912-1922 (London: The Hogarth Press, 1980), 572, n1.

[7] Selected Letters of E. M. Forster, Volume One: 1879-1920, edited by Mary Lago and P. N. Furbank (London: Collins, 1983), 95, 238. His editors note, of the letter of 19 October 1908, ‘“Pump shitted”: EMF’s misspelling of “pumpshipped”’ (96, n.3).

[8] Friends and Apostles: The Correspondence of Rupert Brooke and James Strachey, 1905-1914, edited by Keith Hale (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 253. A footnote mentions ‘semen’, so poet and editor appear to have something else in mind here.

[9] Lee, Penelope Fitzgerald, 57. In the 1970s, Fitzgerald became friends with Mary Lago, one of the editors of E. M. Forster’s letters (quoted above)—on which she was probably then working.

[10] Joyce, Ulysses, 410.

Noises off, spell checkers on

Burne-Jones, Edward, 1833-1898; Love Among the Ruins

(Edward Burne-Jones, Love Among the Ruins
National Trust, Wightwick Manor: photo credit National Trust)

A few days ago, I could hear a frequent but unidentifiable noise: upstairs as well as downstairs. Washing-machine? Sewing-machine? Drill? Just at the edge of the range of my hearing, so that I couldn’t identify the source of it either. Surely from one of the neighbouring houses but which one? Mechanical or electrical; varying duration; it had stopped; no, it hadn’t, it kept on happening. I finally decided that it was workmen taking down the scaffolding from a house thirty or forty metres along the road. But the salient point was that, once aware of the sound, even though it was barely audible, I couldn’t ignore it: the fact of it had lodged in my head and wouldn’t be shifted.

Now an impressive commotion at the door heralds the arrival of a copy of the 1975 edition of Penelope Fitzgerald’s Edward Burne-Jones: A Biography, supplied with promptness and efficiency by G. & J. Chesters of Tamworth. After finishing, The Knox Brothers, Penelope Fitzgerald’s remarkable group biography of her father and three uncles, the only one of her books that I’d not read was Edward Burne-Jones: I’d dipped into it but never read it through properly. Having determined to reread all her fiction—which I’d thought wonderful the first time around even while I was convinced that I’d missed at least half of what there was to see—I added the biographies, intending to start at the beginning.

Penelope_Fitzgerald_A_Life

I had the paperback edition, published by Sutton in 2003, with a brief preface by Christopher Wood. By the time I reached page twenty-five, which mentioned the French city of ‘Chatres’, I was so aware of the errors in the text that it had become as serious a distraction as bolt-removing workmen. But was it just a case of errors carried forward from the original publication? I found a limited preview of that on Google Books and checked a couple of examples. No, these were all Sutton’s own work, so I placed an order for the first edition. Just after I’d done so, I found an endnote in Hermione Lee’s superb biography of Fitzgerald, which mentioned the publishing history of her life of Burne-Jones: it had ‘two reissues, by Hamish Hamilton in 1989, and by Sutton Publishing in 2003, a bad edition full of misprints.’[1] Ah yes.

Long before I did any editorial work, I was a freelance proof-reader for a few years, always desperate for a little extra money. If you take to proofreading and sub-editing, and you have the type of eye and mind that lock on to errors of that sort, it’s impossible to shake the habit off (sometimes tiresome, no doubt, to those not afflicted in the same way). I was once moved to write to the American publisher of an edition of William Faulkner’s Collected Stories that I was reading, pointing out the appalling state of the text; on another occasion, I wrote to John Calder about a Wyndham Lewis novel, suggesting that Lewis’s writing was quite challenging enough without  the addition of occasional gibberish because the proof-reader (if there was one) had nodded off or had recourse to the bottle. In neither case did I hear back. Years later, when I read Pursuit, subtitled ‘The Uncensored Memoirs of John Calder’, I thought ‘unedited too: you should have let me—or, at least, somebody—proofread this, Mr Calder.’[2]

Spalding-Piper

Most recently dispiriting was the case of Frances Spalding’s joint biography of John and Myfanwy Piper, published by Oxford University Press.[3] It’s a beautiful book, six hundred pages long, with an extensive range of illustrations, both in colour and in black and white, well-designed and produced (although, despite my care, several of the colour plates were working themselves loose by the time I’d finished the book). A successful and highly-regarded biographer and art historian; an eminent university press; yet, in the first three pages, I read of a ‘Librian’ (this may be something vaguely astrological but it isn’t a keeper of books and manuscripts) and a sentence that started: ‘After this begun book was begun’, which seemed overgenerous with beginnings. Subsequently, among other delights, there was an antiquarian named William Stukley (referred to again, correctly spelt, within a few lines), an institution called the Royal Collage and a novelist named Henry Greene. Indefinite articles were missed out several times, there was an unsettling reference to Piper’s ‘panting’, Keynsham was shunted into another county and a village named Layock, near Melksham, was  invented for the occasion.

All of which, once again, only served to distract this reader from the text. It is, I know, an open secret that, while publishers generally used to see to this sort of thing, a great many now. . . don’t. Perhaps there’s some uncertainty as to where the burden of responsibility ultimately lies, which makes it all very twenty-first century—but there, I feel a bit of politics coming on. Perhaps better not. . .

References

[1] Hermione Lee, Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life (London: Chatto and Windus, 2013), 457, n.25.

[2] Looking back now, I note Michael Horowitz’s comment, when reviewing the book in The Telegraph (18 March 2002): ‘Calder’s unimpeachable commitment to the defence of literature is heavily sabotaged by misspellings and glaring errors of fact, grammar, punctuation and attribution throughout the memoirs.’ I see that a paperback edition came out at the end of 2016, perhaps proofread for the occasion.

[3] Frances Spalding, John Piper, Myfanwy Piper: Lives in Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).