A whole that conformed to nothing: clothes in Ivy Compton-Burnett’s ‘The Present and the Past’

I write this in Berlin and it’s 31 degrees and heavy humidity presages a thunderstorm, so this will have to be hastily done – especially as two young grandchildren need my attention soon.

I wrote recently about the significance of clothes in Anne Enright’s novel The Green Road, inspired by Moira’s blog Clothes in Books. Today I’ll look at a scene early in Ivy Compton-Burnett’s (1884-1969) 1953 novel The Present and the Past. Earlier this year I considered her 1939 novel A Family and a Fortune, and noted her extraordinary capacity for extended scenes written entirely in dialogue – more like a play script than conventional prose fiction. Her affinity with Jane Austen in this respect has often been noted (this includes her focus on upper middle-class families in a historical period slightly earlier than the one in which she wrote).

 

Cover of my elderly PMC edition, with an illustration from Stanley Spencer, 'Villas at Cookham'

Cover of my elderly PMC edition, with an illustration from Stanley Spencer, ‘Villas at Cookham’

In The Present and the Past the plot, such as it is, deals with the seismic effect on the Clare family of the paterfamilias Cassius’ first wife, Catherine, whom he divorced nine years earlier after five years of marriage, and two sons – Fabian, now 13, and Guy, 11 – reappearing with the announcement that she regrets her decision to yield custody of the boys to their father, and expressing the wish to be able to see them whenever she wishes. Cassius’ second wife, Flavia, is understandably unhappy with this development, but is generous enough in spirit to accede to the demand.

Early in the proceedings we see some of Compton-Burnett’s incisively drawn scenes in which the children talk and interact with each other with precocious poise. In these she throws satiric light on the foibles of the adults who squabble and fret around them.

Cassius and Flavia had three children of their own together: Henry, 8; Megan, 7 and Tobias, 3. In this passage we meet Miss Ridley, their stereotypically starchy governess. In the opening pages they outwit her by talking metaphysics in the context of the imminent death of a hen, moving on to demolish her limited attempt to explain Darwinist theories of evolution (a key feature in Compton-Burnett’s fiction, along with Nietzschean power struggles).

In a rare passage of narrative description, here’s how Miss Ridley is presented:

Miss Ridley was forty-seven and looked exactly that age. She wore neat, strong clothes that bore no affinity to those in current use, and wore, or had set on her head an old, best hat in place of a modern, ordinary one. She was fully gloved and booted for her hour in the garden. Her full, pale face, small, steady eyes, non-descript features and confident movements combined with her clothes to make a whole that conformed to nothing and offended no one. She made no mistakes in her dress, merely carried out her intentions.

The outward appearance is used to suggest the woman’s inner nature. The adjectives that describe her clothes – ‘neat’ and ‘strong’ – are satirically ambiguous, suggesting utility and durability, rather than aesthetic qualities, as the rest of that sentence goes on to show.

The note that her has is ‘set on her head’ rather than worn there further suggests a physical awkwardness and disjointedness with her time –  the added detail that it is outmoded reinforces this impression. Wearing her ‘old’ and ‘best’ hat in the garden tempers this slightly snobbish account by indicating that it’s probably her only hat; she’s poor. Our sympathy is now partially invoked, while we are shown at the same time her limitations of character and intellect.

Added to this is the detail that she’s ‘fully gloved and booted for her hour in the garden’: she’s more in thrall to propriety than to common sense or individuality of expression.

The next set of adjectives, about her face, eyes, ‘features’, ‘movements’ and ‘clothes’, do nothing to contradict this growing image of a narrow-minded, cribbed personality. The portrait is rounded off with that killer ending: the whole conforming to nothing and offending no one. She is deeply conventional and full of a conviction that she is just as she should be in her submissive role as governess – hence her inability to conform to anything, for this would be to commit herself to something, and her status and nature forbid her to do such a thing. She must be firm and narrow with the children, teaching them what she can from her limited range of knowledge, but ultimately remain inoffensive – and servile. Hence the lack of ‘mistakes’ in her ‘dress’: they signify the ‘intentions’ I’ve just outlined. She is in the invidious position of having to set an example but possessing no social identity.

I find this portrayal brilliantly suggestive. It seems at first sight a little cruel and patronising to a woman whose status at the period in which the novel was set, which seems to be Compton-Burnett’s favourite – late Edwardian or slightly later – would have been ambiguous: neither a servant, nor an equal to her employers. The children are astutely aware of this, and they regularly run rings round her emotionally and intellectually, as practice for their interactions with their trickier, more complicated parents (and contriving stepmother).

This description, then, isn’t just an ostentatious display of waspish, Austen-light character-sketching; it’s symptomatic of Compton-Burnett’s exploration of class and family dynamics. I hope to go on in later posts to examine other aspects of this interesting novel.

 

The world is merciless if you expose yourself to it: Michael Flay, ‘The Dancer’

I’ve written recently about the first two stories in Michael Flay’s 1999 collection Closed Doors; today I’d like to consider a story with a different theme and tone.

Flay Closed Doors Many of the stories in this collection are baleful protests at the consumerist culture of modern society: the fat-cat ‘businessmen’ who often appear are excoriated for their banal, depraved practices, their cultural blankness and their selfish, gloating boorishness. Their sense of superiority is repulsive, and the author’s rancour is corrosive. Male-female relations are just another form of commerce in this bleak world.

I’d like to look, by way of contrast, at some softer touches the author is capable of. In ‘The Dancer’ there’s a poignant love story, delicately conveyed. It’s one of a few stories set in Finland, where Michael Flay taught for a while back in the 90s – hence his imprint’s name: Polar Books.

The eponymous Finnish woman dancer is gifted and the unnamed male (English) protagonist is attracted, as this striking image indicates:

She was liquid, and he would like her to pour over him.

When she dances she can both express and lose herself – qualities he admires and perhaps envies:

In this she could be herself, beyond relationship for the time…[Later] She had revealed herself quite barely in the dance; there was something brave, insolent in the revelation.

The relationship is strained, however, largely because of the exigencies of their economic situations, the ‘systems’: both need to work at jobs that are deadening, unfulfilling – in his case, teaching at an institution that exploits its staff with contemptuous disdain; each day is ‘trivial’; the work ‘was taking him down’.

There’s a bleak, unforgiving polar setting (the words ‘ice’ and ‘snow’ are repeated frequently, along with related terms – ‘frozen’, ‘cold’, adjectives ‘desolate’, ‘black’, ‘dead’, sterile’, etc.) In spite of this, the man and the dancer had ‘come close’:

He had wanted to draw her into his conscious world, had tried also to show her himself. And she had almost seen, had wanted to see, but had not wanted to show herself so much.

Here the pervasive influence in all of Michael Flay’s work of his literary model – DH Lawrence –  is apparent, but he adapts the imagery to make it his own.

The man is forced to return to England to seek more temporary work (no permanent contracts in his academic world), and again the scene reflects the emotional temperature of the characters:

A grey drizzle fell across the dirty London sky…It was all [the ‘council estate’ with its boarded-up houses] nauseous and forlorn.

He’s surrounded by the more privileged, the ‘cash complacent’, drawling, refined ‘businessmen’ so often reviled, as I have shown, in these stories – ‘how had they come to run things?’, the man muses, disillusioned, as they scurry to their ‘bank blocks’ (a favourite Flay term). He lacks their commercial drive. But here the venomous portrayal serves as a counterpoint to the ‘tenderness’ between him and the dancer.

Their separation is bruising; the estranging world is ‘merciless if you expose yourself to it.’ Why should he, the man thinks, ‘dent her defences for the outside to come in?’ I find those images beautifully done.

I won’t reveal the outcome; it’s the tender depiction of the ‘contact’ these two otherwise thwarted, disconsolate, constrained characters are able to establish in a harsh, uncaring world that gives this story its lustre.

I’m off on holiday tomorrow, so may not get a chance to post here for a while. Have a good summer, and happy reading, happy living.

 

 

Aside: Onoto fountain pens

Onoto my pic 2 pen boxA diversion from books for today’s post. My wife bought me a lovely Mont Blanc fountain pen for a special birthday four years ago, and I became obsessive about fine writing instruments. I subsequently bought myself an Onoto (more on that shortly), and a beautiful red lacquered Nakaya Aki-tamenuri, made in Japan. The design at the top of my blog’s homepage is a photo of the first two of those pens. A handsome green Pelikan Souverän M800 followed on another birthday.

Here’s an account of the history of Onoto, adapted from their website (from where most of the images are taken).

In 1905 British company Thomas De La Rue, printers of stamps and banknotes, was approached by George Sweetser, an outstanding Mechanical Engineer and Inventor, with a self-filling safety fountain pen which he had recently patented.

The first Onoto – Sweetser’s original plunger-operated self-filling fountain pen guaranteed not to leak – was manufactured by the company in London in 1905.

drawing

The Onoto pens were an immediate success in the United Kingdom and internationally, and were one of the very few 100% British-made pens prior to WW1. Famous Onoto owners included Field Marshal Haig (the WWI military leader), Winston Churchill and the Japanese author Natsume Soseki.

The origin of the company name is disputed: it may derive from the name of a Japanese watchmaker, or it might simply be an invented word easy to pronounce in any language (like ‘Kodak’).

Advertisements for the Onoto pens were famous – they included an iconic red pillar box in many early examples: here’s one from the company’s website, dating from ‘Punch’ magazine, 1920; the second one I’m not sure of the date for, but it looks about the same period –

peter-pan-1

 

 

 

Ad-5c-small_NewInitially the pens were made in Bunhill Row, Islington, London, where coincidentally the HQ of my wife’s former employer is located. There’s a famous nonconformist graveyard nearby (the earliest tomb dates from 1666); buried there are John Bunyan, Daniel Defoe and William Blake, among other notable figures.

Finsbury_bunhill_blake_1

Onoto pen manufacture was transferred to Strathendry, Fife, Scotland in 1927 and continued there until 1958 when the factory closed its doors for the last time. After nearly 50 years Onoto production has started again.

Onoto my pic 1 I acquired my special edition Onoto a few years ago; it commemorates the 800th anniversary (in 2009) of Cambridge University, where I conducted my postgrad research. It has a stylish chevron pattern on the gold clip, a legacy of the company’s art deco days in the 30s, and the University’s crest on the top of the cap; my former college’s crest (Emmanuel) is at the other end

Onoto my pic 4 Emma crest

Onoto my pic 3 top

 

The nib is as beautiful as the pen:

nib2

 

 

 

 

 

 

And it writes as smoothly as could be; I derive enormous pleasure from writing with it and with my other fountain pens. Never thought I’d become a pen geek. I also like mechanical pencils, but that’s another story…

Michael Flay, ‘The Theorist’, from ‘Closed Doors’ (1999)

Michael Flay, Closed Doors: Polar Books, 1999

After Mike’s funeral last week I’ve had time to return to the stories in Closed Doors, from his own Polar Books imprint.

The second in the collection is ‘The Theorist’. Unlike ‘The Mad Mother’, written about last time, which was set in Switzerland, this one takes place mostly in Paris, and briefly in London.

Flay Closed Doors As usual in these short stories the protagonist and main secondary characters are unnamed: there’s ‘the Professor’, who’s part of an interviewing panel for an academic post at his university, and ‘the applicant’ – a man who has applied for the teaching post only because he needs ‘to survive, to have the wherewithal’, and hence has to ‘perform, catch a selector’s eye’ – whereas his instinct is to ‘baulk them’.

Also in keeping with the other stories the setting adds to the bleak tone: the street outside is ‘gritty’, the panel of interviewers ‘ludicrous’. This is a world in which scholarly merit or integrity has no virtue: all that matters is to be fashionable and commercially active – and maybe sexually deviant. The Professor-theorist has made a name for himself by riding the crest of the postmodern, post-structuralist wave of literary-critical, jargon-filled theory. He has ‘banished experience from the text’:

All was cynicism, he was well paid. What did it matter if he talked nonsense? Hadn’t the greatest grown jaded and found communication impossible?

Maybe an echo of Yeats there. The disaffected applicant moves on, possibly to Brussels:

He’d just ride on. You just did things. He’d studied, but what he knew was out of key with the fashion…He had no market value.

For this is the world of the market – that repeated ‘just’ is telling. The protagonist is a modern urban equivalent of the samurai who casts his sword into the air at a crossroads to see which path to take, or the drifting cowboy, homeless, friendless and seeking some kind of contingency, security.

The theorist is a paedophile with a taste for boys, like the early Romans, an indicator of his morally nugatory state. It’s a socio-ethical corruption he shares with other senior figures in London with whom he fraternises: a financier, a minister – that is, the worlds of commerce and politics are equally destitute morally, depraved. I find the equation of sexual deviance with moral destitution one of the weaker aspects of this writer’s position.

But these are general themes that recur in Mike’s work. His is a world view that shares some of Kafka’s despair and the hopelessness of Camus. It could maybe do with a little of Beckett’s humour.

The visions of the blood-soaked battlefields of two European wars create a grim backdrop to the images of Nazi troops in occupied Paris, of Goebbels with his PhD thesis on ‘romantic poetry’. Literature and art has been subsumed by the monsters, and the crowd has followed.

The next story, ‘The Dancer’, has a lighter, more romantic tone.

As always, contact Polar Books via Facebook if you’d like to obtain a copy of Closed Doors, or any of Michael Flay’s other works of fiction.

Michael Flay, ‘Closed Doors’: The Mad Mother

Michael Flay, Closed Doors (Polar Books, Cheltenham 1999)

I’m sad to say that Mike passed away last month, far too soon. In his memory I’d like to devote some posts over the next few weeks – holidays will intervene so not sure how long it’ll take – to his published work. I’ve already posted about his novel The Persian Wedding.

Flay Closed Doors Closed Doors, his first book to appear under his own imprint, Polar Books, appeared in 1999, which is when I last read it. Because of time constraints this past few weeks I’ve not been able to reread the whole collection of stories in Closed Doors, and will have to limit myself here to the first one: ‘The Mad Mother’.

It bears many of the features of the others, in that the main characters are unnamed, known only as ‘the mother’, ‘the daughter’, ‘the wife’, and so on. To confer a name would be to present them in too familiar or intimate a way. These are stories that throw a beam of light on to semi-concealed lives, like an entomologist opening up a termite nest.

There’s a bleakness or grim quality that runs through them. Here’s the opening sentence to this story:

She was living strange, giving things up, doing damage.

Mike’s style is distinctive: there’s a disjointedness in those three parallel participial phrases, a lack of agency (the absence of finite verbs after the first clause). That phrase ‘living strange’ is syntactically strange. The language, in other words, re-enacts the meaning and reinforces it. We are forced to confront that strangeness, the inertia of the structure.

The abstractions and omissions are notable, too. Who is ‘she’?  In what way was her living ‘strange’? Which ‘things’ was she giving up, and why? What was the nature of the damage she was doing? These are stories that forensically examine the damage we do in our lives, the toxicity of relationships in a corrupt world in which power is wielded by the most corrupt people of all, and that poison sinks down on to all levels of society.

There’s perhaps too much tendency to use pathetic fallacy, but then these stories come from the tradition of Kafka via Lawrence and Dostoevsky. It’s psychological truth that is striven for, not poetic decoration. Hence the first pages sketch the physical scene only in terms that create the requisite atmosphere: ‘The streets were grey with rain’; ‘The block [of flats where she lives] was dismal, angular’, and from within it she could hear ‘a queer chuckling, female and gloaty’. Later ‘the landscape was grey, obscured, dead.’

This is the world of the underclass, the housing-estate sink. The narrative style has more of the features which will become familiar to readers of Mike Flay: those accumulating, dreary terminal adjectives; that Lawrentian, early-20C use of ‘queer’ in its non-sexual sense, which recurs half a dozen times in this very short story; the Keatsian habit of turning a noun into a neologistic adjective (‘gloaty’) by adding a ‘y’ to it. And of course, these details create a new, disruptive sense of unease – it’s as if the ‘block’ (there are many of these ambiguously named places in the stories) is doing the sinister gloating. The description of disembodied ‘selfish mouths opening and shutting in a black expanse’ (within the block) is reminiscent of Beckett and the abyss.

I shan’t go on here to summarise the story too closely. It involves an emotionally ‘blank’ and ‘deficient’ Swiss-German woman (abetted by her mother) exploiting a wealthy TV ‘celebrity’ (himself ‘full of rottenness’) in order to become pregnant by him, abandon the ‘weak’ husband and either increase their social security (state) benefits, or tap the man for some of his presumed wealth. The stories are set in a variety of locations: this one in Switzerland and briefly the UK. Meanwhile the women sit and endlessly, obsessively ‘talk over’ their ‘mad’ schemes and feelings. There’s a scathing critique of the self-indulgent kind of pseudo-feminism:

In her mind a female fixation circulated: she was an injured princess claiming her rights. She was justified: all her moods, her acts of spite, her small meannesses, were justified because she was female. It was best not to repress what you felt – this was the family tenet – or censor it…No criticism should be made, the female was sacred.

The free indirect style portrays the woman’s views, not the narrator’s. While she broods incessantly over her own feelings her young son is cruelly neglected, to the point of abuse.

This first story sets the tone for the rest. They are not a comfortable read. They intend to challenge and provoke. The disconcerting style works in the same way as the long lines of prose-poetry in the likes of Whitman and Lawrence’s verse: on the level of rhythm and juxtaposition rather than semantic sense. It’s a grim perspective and unflinching. Someone has to do it. Usually most of us look away.

Strangely, Mike had a wicked sense of humour. After any meeting with him one left feeling uplifted, enhanced and enriched, and there would have been a lot of laughter. In his writing, however, he was determined to anatomise the world in all its states, and to do that it’s necessary to contemplate the rottenness beneath the veneer of consumerist plenty.

Closed Doors is currently unavailable on the Amazon website (two of the novels are still in stock), but if you would be interested in acquiring a copy please contact me via the box on this site and I can pass on your message to Polar Books – they also have a Twitter account and Facebook page, so a message there should also work.

Clothes in Anne Enright’s ‘The Green Road’

I recently discovered the fascinating blog Clothes in Books by Moira: it does as the name suggests: explores the significance of clothes in works of fiction. As a consequence I’ve decided to postpone my intended review of Anne Enright’s excellent novel The Green Road (first published last year) until another time. Instead, hoping to whet your appetite for more, I’ll borrow her approach and look at one aspect of clothing in this family saga set in rural western Ireland, near the cliffs of Moher overlooking the Aran Islands.

My Vintage paperback copy of 'The Green Road'

My Vintage paperback copy of ‘The Green Road’

The matriarch  of the Madigan family, Rosaleen, has four children; Dan, the oldest, states his intention in the opening chapter, to his mother’s horror, of giving up college in Galway after his first year and becoming a priest. He would finish his degree at the seminary, he says.

Apart from the challenge of reconciling his family to the news, there’s the ‘small matter’ of Dan’s girlfriend, who also has to be told. He takes his 12-year-old sister Hanna with him back to Galway and introduces her to the interesting Isabelle:

“Hello,” said the woman, holding out her hand, which was covered in a dark green leather glove. The woman looked very nice. The glove went up her wrist, with a line of covered buttons along the side.

The description is given from Hanna’s viewpoint, hence the childish tone. She’s smitten by what, to her, seems a glamorous chic look. Later we’re told she had ‘a clasp in her hair made of polished wood’, which again seems the epitome of good taste to Hanna. Shortly afterwards Hanna fantasises about her romantically:

Dan’s girlfriend was a tragedy waiting to happen. And yet, those green gloves spoke of a life that would be lovely. She would study in Paris. She would have three children, teach them beautiful Irish and perfect French. She would always mourn for Dan.

When she asks her name and Isabelle tells her Hanna thinks ‘Of course. She had a name that came out of a book.’ Hanna, who grows up to be an actress, sees (or thinks she does) an enviable drama in this beautiful young woman’s appearance and manner.

On her return home she describes Isabelle as ‘beautiful’.

The reader is probably intended to feel less overwhelmed; Isabelle is simply channeling the standard student bohemian look of the period: 1980. Naive country girl Hanna has never seen such urbanity and sophistication before.

Chapter 2 is devoted to the next stage of Dan’s life. It’s New York 1991, and he has not become a priest. Instead he’s part of the gay scene, breaking hearts with his dashing good looks and Irish brogue. Isabelle is there too, and she and Dan are engaged, but the narrative voice is that of an anonymous member of this gay community who views her with cryptic suspicion:

We met the brave little wife-to-be later…She was nice. Skinny, as they often are. Slightly maverick and intense and above all ethical. She had long hair, a lovely accent, and she was writing a book, of course…As beards went, she was a classic beard. A woman of rare quality– because it takes a quality woman to keep a guy like Dan straight.

Interesting that the childish ‘nice’ is used again, but here in a passage of much more perceptive maturity. And of course the narrator is predisposed to be critical, unimpressed, the very opposite response from Hanna’s. The LGBT period slang ‘beard’ is a largely derogatory term for the sham romantic partner used to camouflage a person’s sexual orientation, and its use is sardonic here, with the grudging but comically cynical and ambiguous admission at the end that she was  attractive enough to tempt Dan away from his true destiny.

Billy, who has fallen in love with Dan, meets her for the first time a few pages later, and this description, like Hanna’s, presents his impressions through free indirect style:

…the unreliable little ribcage, with a pair of those flat little triangular breasts like flesh origami: also lumpy bits from waist to hip where her underwear was a bit too pragmatic – she would look better without, he thought, though Isabelle was not the sort of girl who would ever go without. The most surprising thing about her were the shoes, which were black to match the rest of the outfit, but with fabulous, bloody red soles. She walked in them like a child playing dress-up.

This glorious sketch is typical of Enright’s brilliant mastery of the multi-vocal narrative mosaic she constructs. It’s camp and funny, with that bitchy detail about the underwear and how Billy interprets it, and his unstated but implicit criticism of her boho-beatnik-cool black outfit. The grudging admiration of those shoes (presumably Christian Louboutin, though my research shows he didn’t introduce this trademark look until the following year, 1992) is comically, brutally undermined by the final sentence. All of those adjectives are spot on: ‘unreliable’ (ribcage); ‘lumpy bits’, ‘a bit too pragmatic’ (underwear) – I love that – and the gushing ‘fabulous’ – then the crushing, infantilising demolition job. And it’s all to do with how Isabelle looks – here, and in Hanna’s breathless, adoring account. It conveys with ice-green hostility the jealousy Billy feels but doesn’t admit to.

I’m not as good at this analysis of clothing as Moira, but it’s fun to approach a work of fiction in this way. It drew my attention to some details that I’d half noticed on first reading, but which on closer scrutiny brought out what I hoped you’ve found an interesting aspect of Enright’s technical skill, and demonstrated her pitch-perfect ear for subtly nuanced and sharply perceptive humour that works on several different narrative levels.

 

 

Paints, feathers, beads: Donald Barthelme, ‘The Indian Uprising’

From Sixty Stories, PMC, and the collection Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, 1968, this 6-page story was one of the first of Donald Barthelme’s that I encountered, read on a podcast some years ago. I was quite unprepared for its wild surrealism and bizarre non sequiturs – but beneath the surface charm and throwaway appearance of ease is a subversive seriousness – I think.

My Penguin Modern Classics copy of Sixty Stories

My Penguin Modern Classics copy of Sixty Stories

It begins with a typically allusive, short sentence that immediately sets the tone of strangeness and mystery:

We defended the city as best we could.

Who are ‘we’, what was the nature of the threat that had to be defended against, and which city? The next sentence suggests a Western genre:

The arrows of the Comanches came in clouds.

 

We’re then told of ‘earthworks along the Boulevard Mark Clark’ – why the French term, and who is Mark Clark? The distinguished American officer who served in both World Wars and Korea?

‘People were trying to understand.’ So is this reader. Each accumulating sentence takes us not closer to comprehension or coherence, but further from it, as more and more unrelated details are added:

I spoke to Sylvia. “Do you think this is a good life?” The table held apples, books, long-playing records. She looked up. “No.”

The time-frames are telescoped unsettlingly. Characters’ names are dropped in as if we should know who they were. What’s the relationship of this first person narrator with Sylvia, and why does he ask this question? Why her negative minimal response? Later she seems to be in league with the Indians. Who is the ‘Miss R.’ who appears later?

There’s a paragraph about a ‘captured Comanche’ being tortured to reveal information about his tribe’s plans that seems to allude to perhaps the Vietnam war (or the genocidal history of How the West Was Won). The IRA are also name-checked.

Then there’s another of the strange lists of seemingly random objects of which much of this story is composed, when we’re told that in the ‘outer districts…trees, lamps, swans had been reduced to clear fields of fire…’

Until I came across Barthelme I’d been accustomed to short stories that gradually clarified the significance of the details within the narrative, arriving at either an epiphany (Joyce, Mansfield, Woolf) or resolution (almost everyone else). That doesn’t happen with this writer. Instead all is dislocation.

After another stretch of dialogue between the narrator and Sylvia, in which they cite Fauré and making sex scenes in movies, as if this was the most natural combination possible, the story turns back to intermittent coverage of some kind of urban defence against the ‘Red men in waves’ – Barthelme isn’t interested in politically correct vocabulary.

Barricades had been hastily erected from another strangely implausible list of items:

Window dummies, silk, thoughtfully planned job descriptions (including scales for the orderly progress of other colours), wine in demijohns, and robes.

At this point I abandon any attempt to summarise the rest of the story; to do so would require quoting every sentence, for to omit any detail would be to diminish the overall, dizzying effect.

Breton cited the proto-surrealist, the Comte de Lautréamont (1846-70), and his iconoclastic prose poem Les Chants de Maldoror (published 1868-69) – another non-linear, untrustworthy narrative – in defining the surrealist impulse: in canto 6 a boy is described as ‘beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella’. Max Ernst described a surrealist work as a linking of two realities that by all appearances have nothing to link them, in a setting that by all appearances does not fit them.

A random example from this story that fits that description, to add to those given already: the narrator states with disarming sang-froid that the attackers had infiltrated the ‘ghetto’ (what ghetto?!), a development that causes ‘we’ to send in ‘more heroin’ and ‘hyacinths’. The allusion to ‘The Waste Land’ develops subversively: Sylvia says: “You gave me heroin first a year ago”. A line from Hamlet also pops up. Valéry. ‘Death in Venice’. Jean-Luc Godard. Among others.

The final paragraph mentions how ‘we killed a great many in the south suddenly with helicopters and rockets but we found that those we killed were children’. It’s tempting to interpret (Vietcong? White Russians?), but to do so is to fail to interpret. The narrator is ordered to remove his belt and shoelaces, perhaps about to be tortured himself; his future, like this story, seems uncertain. The knockabout style deployed for what purports to be a war story is disturbing, and subverts the complacency that conventional narrative might invite.

This kind of fragmented collage narrative won’t appeal to some, and I can’t read too much of it in one go: it becomes a glut. ‘Strings of language extend in every direction to bind the world into a rushing, ribald whole’, says the narrator at one point; Miss R, on the other hand, prefers the horizontal (or it can be vertical) lists of ‘the litany’, and dislikes the increasingly ‘unpleasant combinations’ [of language? Dialectic?] favoured by the young as they ‘sense the nature of our society’; she insists

“I hold to the hard, brown, nutlike word.”

The story, then, could be seen as a postmodern metafiction about the making of stories with language. Or the importance of socially systematic…something: values? Youthful ideals? Of love and sex?

Whatever it might signify, and despite the wiful obscurity of this story, I like its exuberance and irreverent wit. Many of the sentences are prosometric, like Lautréamont. Barthelme as counter-culture poète maudit, perhaps.

 

 

Asides: Kenneth Koch, Serge Gainsbourg, Jane Birkin – trains and puns

NY Poets cover The New York Poets: An Anthology, edited by Mark Ford (Carcanet Press, 2004) includes a poem by Kenneth Koch (1925-2002) that drew my eye because of the connotations for me of its title. ‘One Train May Hide Another (sign at a railroad crossing in Kenya)’ begins:

In a poem, one line may hide another line,

As at a crossing, one train may hide another train.

That is, if you are waiting to cross

The tracks, wait to do it for one moment at

Least after the first train is gone. And so when you read

Wait until you have read the next line –

Then it is safe to go on reading.

In a family one sister may conceal another,

So, when you are courting, it’s best to have them all in view

Otherwise in coming to find one you may love another.

And so he goes on, shifting from this banal start to an increasingly surreal, meandering litany of concealments: one father, one wish, one dog, and so on. Read the text and hear Koch reading it here.

 

My photo taken at Bram, Aude, June 2016 - added to this post later

My photo taken at Bram, Aude, June 2016 – added to this post later

The connotations I mentioned? The song written by Serge Gainsbourg, ‘Un Amour peut en cacher un autre’, sung by Jane Birkin, his muse and former partner, released in 1990 on her studio album ‘Amour des Feintes’ – wonderful double entendres abound in his lyrics. There’s a link to this (rather over-produced) song on YouTube here. (Gainsbourg died in 1991 after a life of heavy smoking, drinking and general decadence and misbehaving.)

I first heard this song when I was on a 3-month work placement in France that year; a friend introduced me to the oeuvre of the joli laid Gainsbourg (he’s said to have invented that term), he of the languid, hooded toad eyes and omnipresent Gauloises. The lyrics are often cheesily punning, as here, where the title is presumably lifted from the ubiquitous train crossing warning signs that inspired Koch’s riff on the theme.

Here’s a section of the lyrics:

Un amour peut en cacher un autre

On est aveugle mais comment faire autr-

ement il faut payer le jour crash

C’est l’American Express ou le cash.

The mix of English and French is a recurring feature of the lyricist; Gainsbourg was a fan of American popular culture (hence his famous pop video of his song ‘Bonny and Clyde’, in which he sang with a sultry but strangely unconvincing Brigitte Bardot, another former partner of his; it’s so kitsch it’s almost good.) These lines sound better than any meaning implicit in them – especially as rendered in Birkin’s quavering, breathily untrained singing voice. The lyrics are full of Gainsbourg’s linguistic jouissance.

Birkin is in that long line of actors who ill-advisedly fancied themselves as singers (Bardot, Deneuve, Anna Karina etc.), but she usually pulls it off from a mixture of chic and je ne sais quoi.

Gainsbourg Gainsbourg loved to court controversy, as when, for example, he sang a duet with his 13-year-old daughter Charlotte on the dubiously suggestive ‘Lemon Incest’ (1984), accompanied by an even more dodgily erotic video. Neither of them can sing, and it’s a song so provocative that it makes the more infamous 1969 duet with Birkin ‘Je t’aime’ –banned by the BBC and condemned by the Pope – seem tame. It too showcases SG’s penchant for puns and wordplay (‘exquise esquisse’ – exquisite sketch — he croaks to the half-naked daughterl who shares his bed in the film).

Interestingly, Charlotte Gainsbourg, now something of a movie star, made her name in the Anglophone film world with the 1993 adaptation by her uncle Andrew Birkin of Ian McEwan’s first novel The Cement Garden. It deals, of course, with the theme of incest. The delight her roué father took in provoking outrage seems to have been inherited.

While I’d be the first to acknowledge that Gainsbourg is no Dylan or Jacques Brel, I can’t help finding something pleasing in his knowingly bad songs (‘Les Dessous Chics’ nudges and winks with winsome faux-naïveté) and his outré image (all these French chansons are influencing my vocabulary). He belongs to that tradition of moody chanteurs one associates with smoky cabarets and scandalous lives, but he mixed the image with a sort of pre-punk insouciant swagger. Such figures don’t seem to be around so much now. Maybe just as well…

 

 

 

Asides: Rabbit Angstrom’s incoherence in ‘Rabbit Redux’

In my previous post I looked at a paragraph near the beginning of John Updike’s 1971 novel, Rabbit Redux. In this, the second in a sporadic series of ‘Asides’ (ie not conventional book reviews) I want to take a look at another paragraph closely in order to explore how Updike’s narrative voice functions with such artistic power.

I’m returning to the same early section of the novel from which yesterday’s extract was taken: Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom’s marriage is faltering, his wife Janice has admitted to having an affair with a Greek car salesman called Charlie Stavros, so her insistence that they eat at a Greek restaurant in their home town of Brewer, Pennsylvania with their teenage son Nelson is another of the recurring knocks to his pride and self-esteem that Harry is assailed by throughout this quartet of novels.

In the restaurant Harry is determined to find something on the menu ‘enough like a hamburger’; his natural xenophobia is exacerbated by his incipient jealousy of Charlie. His unreflecting patriotism is one of several unendearing features of his character.

He touches the flowers in the vase on the red checked tablecloth: they’re real. ‘Janice was right. The place is nice.’ The free indirect style and present tense are trademark features of Updike’s technique; here, the words mirror Harry’s thoughts pretty exactly – monosyllabic, unsophisticated, indicative of his grudging approval.

There’s only one other couple dining:

Their faces have an edgy money look: their brows have that frontal clarity the shambling blurred poor can never duplicate. Though he can never now be one of them Harry likes their being here, in this restaurant so chaste it is chic. Maybe Brewer isn’t as dead on its feet as it seems. [p. 33, PMC edition]

The focalisation here is Harry’s, but the language shifts away from his untutored register into one more like the articulate, literate voice of Updike. ‘Edgy, money look’ is surely Harry (‘money’ for the standard ‘moneyed’ is his voice), but ‘frontal clarity’ is too abstract and polysyllabic to be in his lexicon, and the rest of that sentence is far too syntactically, aesthetically poised and complex for his limited range. ‘Chaste’ and ‘chic’ are way beyond Harry’s ken, but they illuminate for us the murky, muddled thoughts and impressions Harry is entertaining in a way he’d never be able to articulate with any such incisiveness or clarity.

Nevertheless these lines do reflect Harry’s grubby class envy and sense of inadequacy in the presence of people more wealthy or intelligent than he is (which is most people). Then the final sentence takes us right back into Harry’s sensibility: the clichéd ‘dead on its feet’ chimes with the rueful sentiment expressed: Harry feels he’s in a dead-end job (a linotype operator), in a dying marriage and a country that’s losing its way – situations with which he can personally identify.

In these few short lines, because of this subtly shifting narrative position, Updike is able both to show us Harry, as all the best writing courses recommend, as edgy and indecisive as his nickname implies, and as metaphysically challenged as the first syllable of his surname indicates. But Updike also provides an insight into Harry from this other, hovering perspective that he himself would be intellectually incapable of.

The narrator is rendering coherent what remains largely incoherent in Harry’s mediated thoughts. Updike doesn’t patronise Harry, however, in shifting the narrative voice about in this way. He is able to give us a perspective from which we can understand and sympathise with Harry’s habitual disappointment and bafflement as life conspires against him and his fundamental, flawed decency.

 

 

Asides: John Updike’s Rabbit

When I started this blog just over three years ago I intended posting a fairly eclectic mix of pieces, literary and otherwise. As time has passed, I find it’s turning into, for the most part, a book reviewing site, with occasional forays into other areas.

I’d like to revert to that slightly more varied approach, and start posting different kinds of piece, either unconsidered trifles that I’ve squirreled away in notebooks over the years, and which when I revisit them strike me as interesting, or snippets I come across that caught my attention. Maybe just a short passage from a book I’ve enjoyed, but don’t necessarily want to review as a whole.

I realise some visitors to this site might not want to read such stuff, so I shall flag these pieces with the generic prefix ‘Asides’ in the title, so you can ignore them if you came here looking for book reviews.

My Penguin Modern Classics editions

My Penguin Modern Classics editions

So here’s a note about a passage in John Updike’s second novel in his Rabbit tetralogy, Rabbit Redux, first published in 1970, and which I read 5 years ago (an old notebook informs me). It picks up Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom’s life ten years after the first in the sequence, Rabbit Run (he added each volume at roughly decade-long intervals).

In this book Harry is older, fatter, softer and has done with running. His marriage is faltering in the first volume, which ended with a domestic tragedy that stretched the marital situation to the limit; his wife Janice has now admitted she’s sleeping with a salesman at the Toyota franchise her father runs (Updike shows the zeitgeist brilliantly – here the looming demise of the American industrial-manufacturing machine; in the background are also the moon landings, civil rights, the Vietnam war) – a Greek man called Charlie Stavros. Harry is something of a bigot and a racist, so this doesn’t please him in several different ways.

He’s not an intellectual or a thinker, so when he does feel something, it tends to be visceral, conflicted. He’s not a particularly engaging protagonist, but there’s a humanity about him that’s rarely encountered in modern fiction in such a direct style, as I hope the following extract shows.

On his way to see a film he takes his teenage son to a Greek restaurant (Janice’s choice wasn’t too subtle). Here they’ve been discussing the film, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ – which Harry typically resents having to go to see [spoiler alert – plot revealed]:

Harry likes the sensation of frightening her, of offering to confront outright this faceless unknown he feels now in their lives, among them like a fourth member of the family. The baby that died? But though Janice’s grief was worse at first, though she bent under it like a reed he was afraid might break, in the long years since, he has become sole heir to the grief. Since he refused to get her pregnant again the murder and guilt have become all his. At first he tried to explain how it was, that sex with her had become too dark, too serious, too kindred to death, to trust anything that might come out of it. Then he stopped explaining and she seemed to forget: like a cat who sniffs around in corners mewing for the drowned kittens a day or two and then back to lapping milk and napping in the wash basket. Women and Nature forget. Just thinking of the baby, remembering how he had been told of her death over a pay phone in a drugstore, puts a kink in is chest, a kink he still associates, dimly, with God. [pp. 31-32, PMC edition]

Updike’s handling of the present tense and complex syntax seems effortless. And he risks taking on the biggest of themes: sex, death, gender, Nature – and God.

The technique is similar to the free indirect thought that has been a feature of prose fiction since Jane Austen: these words are largely focalised through Harry’s consciousness. But it’s more subtle than that. The extended cat simile has the naked nastiness that we’ve come to identify as Harry’s default response to anything upsetting. It’s misogynistic (reinforced by that brutally short, simple sentence about ‘women and Nature’ later) and cruel – but it rings true. Updike doesn’t take the easy option of making Harry ‘relatable’, as my teenage students would say.

He has the courage to make him all too human, as flawed as the next person. He’s consumed with self-pity, inarticulate rage, and an existential-spiritual bleakness that matches some of the bleakest moments in Beckett. Yet there’s a warmth and humour lurking near the surface all the time which somehow redeems these damaged, hurting people. They’re banal, baffled and transcendent in their abrasive contact with the exigencies of life. Harry is no everyman, but he’s not far off.

Next time I hope to look at another passage from this book.

Hope this diversion has been OK with readers. I’d be delighted to hear feedback in the comments – positive or not.