Colm Tóibín, ‘Nora Webster’

Colm Tóibín’s Nora Webster was published in the autumn of 2014. I’ve recently finished reading the Penguin paperback edition. It’s superb.

The author has said (in an interview in 2013 in the Guardian newspaper in the UK) that he’s ‘against story’:

 People love talking about writers as storytellers, but I hate being called that.

Nora Webster Nora Webster has little plot or ‘story’ to speak of. It shows in chronological sequence how Nora, whose husband Maurice, a schoolteacher, has recently died, struggles to deal with the commiserations of well-meaning family and neighbours as she tries to support her two grieving sons, who still live with her, and her older daughters who have left home. It is set in the late 60s in the sleepy southeastern Irish town of Enniscorthy (Tóibín’s own birthplace). Like women the world over she has to sublimate her own pain and grief while nurturing her emotionally wounded, damaged but needy children. What comes less naturally is learning how to live her life alone; she had previously lived a largely vicarious existence – the needs, tastes and opinions of her husband, and to a lesser extent, her family, had supplanted her own. She must learn how to live bereft of the husband she loved deeply; this means learning a new kind of freedom, and to accept the unwillingly acquired solitude and painful independence that comes with it.

The novel shows with deft sympathy how she undergoes a series of epiphanies to achieve this state. She has to exorcise the ghost of Maurice before she can find out who she is.

As such I see a thematic influence not so much from James Joyce (whose early style is clearly discernible in Nora Webster) and other Irish writers, whom early reviewers tended to adduce, as from Ibsen’s Nora of A Doll’s House. I shall focus here on this aspect of the novel, and on Tóibín’s beautifully lucid, restrained prose style.

Both Noras had played an unquestioning, quietly submissive role in the patriarchy they lived in, until the crisis came, and they were forced to reassess, after which they discover themselves, their resilience and their need for autonomy. From the novel’s opening page we see this passive aspect of women in Irish (or any other) society: Nora’s neighbour Tom has called to offer his condolences. She spends much of his visit anxiously wishing he’d go:

 He was speaking as though he had some authority over her…she knew that she must have appeared put down, defeated.

Shortly afterwards, having taken her two boys on a visit to Dublin to see their sister Fiona, Nora is surprised and a little nonplussed to see her daughter’s maturity and growing independence. She wants to say something as they part, but feels that Fiona is ‘downcast’:

 For a moment, Nora felt impatient with her. She was starting her life, she could live where she liked, do what she liked. She did not have to get the train back to the town where everybody knew about her and all the years ahead were mapped out for her.

 Nora plainly feels envious of Fiona’s comparative freedom to choose, and frustrated with her own circumscribed, provincial life, with the responsibilities and constraints that convention and motherhood imposed.

Here too we see the quietly powerful style the writer adopts to convey the interior life of Nora; most of the narrative is in the form of domestic quotidian detail and internal monologue – and in this respect it resembles the Joyce of Dubliners. Back home, for example, the boys having gone to bed,

she wondered if there might be something interesting on the television. She went over and turned it on and waited for the picture to appear. How would she fill these hours? Just then she would have given anything to be back on the train, back walking the streets of Dublin…[she turned off the TV, ‘irritated’ by the canned laughter on a comedy show] The house was silent now. [She opened the book she bought earlier then put it down.] She closed her eyes. In future, she hoped, fewer people would call. In future, once the boys went to bed, she might have the house to herself more often. She would learn how to spend these hours. In the peace of these winter evenings, she would work out how she was going to live.

 Tóibín is able, in such apparently banal scenes, in that deceptively unadorned prose, to show us a woman’s complex, treasured inner life in the process of growing and changing in response to the the life endured in the external, intrusive world. Here I’m reminded of Eveline’s existential dilemma (in Joyce’s story of that name, about which I wrote on the Mookse and Gripes site HERE), sitting in her dusty, dusk-filled room, longing to escape from the cage of domestic duty, with a brutal father and humiliating, mind-numbingly tedious shop job, and wondering if her lover is her liberator or potential oppressor. Both narratives show a woman attracted to solitude but feeling a paradoxical impulse towards human warmth and companionship – and love.

After her husband’s death Nora has no choice but to take the offer of a job as a clerk at local firm Gibney’s, which is where she had formerly worked with admired efficiency for eleven years, ‘barely tolerating her mother at home’ – Ibsen’s Nora had discovered she was confined to the role of ‘plaything’ for her father until the putative liberation that marriage brought; she too then found, as a relatively young, unfulfilled mother, that she had simply been handed over from one emotionally stunted existence, subservient to a man’s wishes, to another. When she is told of the job offer Nora recalls this time in ‘the distant past’ without relish:

 …Nora viewed the office in Gibney’s as a place where they had spent years working merely because the right chances did not come to match their intelligence, an intelligence that, as married women, they had cultivated with care.

 

This thought leads inevitably to others:

 She thought of the freedom that marriage to Maurice had given her, the freedom once the children were in school, or a young child was sleeping, to walk into this room at any time of the day and take down a book and read; the freedom to go into the front room at any time and look out of the window at the street…letting her mind be idle…but as part of a life of ease that included duty. The day belonged to her, even if others could call on her, take up her time, distract her.

 

With raw immediacy Tóibín develops Nora’s irresistible train of thought:

 Never once, in the twenty-one years she had run this household, had she felt a moment of boredom or frustration. Now her day was to be taken from her…Returning to work in that office belonged to a memory of being caged…Her years of freedom had come to an end; it was as simple as that.

 

Sure enough, when she starts work all the tedium and petty tyrannies reappear, and she longs for ‘the feeling of pure freedom’ when she is able to leave the office and go home.

Like Ibsen’s Nora, she has to learn what her opinions are. The narrative is set against the early days of the Troubles in Northern Ireland; Maurice had been a staunch supporter of Fianna Fáil, and she had deferred to his political views. Now she realises she can think for herself, assert herself independently. At first this personal exposure is unnerving, but she slowly comes into her own. This growth is portrayed with immense skill and is the most rewarding, heart-warming aspect of the novel.

Music is the other main source of her personal liberation. There’s a marvellous scene that occupies several pages, set in a pub where a man begins to sing. This brings about an epiphany that is characteristic of Tóibín’s subtle mastery of the portrayal of Nora’s inner being: we see her remember hearing this song at a wedding. She struggles to recall whose it was. She remembers feeling proud to be married to Maurice. Then her mood changes:

 In all this noise and confusion, she felt a sharp longing now to be anywhere but here. Even though she often dreaded the night falling when she was in her own house, at least she was alone and could control what she did. The silence and the solitude were a strange relief; she wondered if things were getting better at home without her noticing. Since she was a girl, she had never been alone in a crowd like this. Maurice would always decide when to leave or how long to stay, but they would have a way of consulting each other.

 

Notice again how delicately the narrative displays her inner growth. She’s learnt to love her own company, but is beginning to sense, like Ibsen’s Nora, that there is an element of wrong in preferring solitude to human company, and in not having a choice about how to act or be, always having to defer to her man. Her thoughts continue:

 …she was often irritated by the way in which Maurice’s mood could change, how anxious he would be to go home one minute, and then how eager he could become, how easily involved with company the next minute, while she waited patiently for the night to be over.

 And then the revelation comes:

 So this was what being alone was like, she thought. It was not the solitude she had been going through, nor the moments when she felt his death like a shock to her system, as though she had been in a car accident, it was this wandering in a sea of people with the anchor lifted, and all of it oddly pointless and confusing.

 

I don’t recall reading another novel with such a moving, engaging account of one person’s experience of the transforming power of deep emotional trauma. It’s a novel that reaffirmed my faith in the ability of a great novelist to enhance one’s own life through the process of reading their work. Colm Tóibín is an apt pupil of that other literary master of his: Henry James. They both have that empathetic insight into the character of ‘an engaging woman’ that takes one’s breath away. Another writer who comes to mind in this regard is Evan S. Connell, whose novels about Mr and Mrs Bridge I reviewed here, here and here – with a nod towards the influence of Mme Bovary.

Other reviews deal with aspects of the novel I’ve not touched on here: the nuanced depiction of Nora’s two boys and the two older girls, for example, who play their part in Nora’s tentative emancipation.

Max’s customary perception is well to the fore in his recent piece on this novel here at Pechorin’s Journal: he’s particularly good on the family drama: Nora’s relationship with her children and with the ‘love of her life’, Maurice; also on the visceral depiction of Nora’s grief and depression, and the links with the novel’s prequel, Brooklyn, with which it shares a number of themes, and compared with which Max finds Nora Webster less impressive. I find them both outstanding.

 

 

 

 

 

Henry James, ‘The Point of View’

A version of this piece was posted at the Mookse and Gripes website on 9 April.

Henry James wrote two stories in epistolary form: the first was ‘A Bundle of Letters’, published in the expat magazine The Parisian in 1879; the second was ‘The Point of View’, which appeared in 1882. James takes full of advantage in both tales of the scope for ironic presentation of the letter-writers’ antithetical impressions of travelling American and European characters, of the nations through which they pass, and of the people they encounter. He mischievously counterpoints their disparaging or effusive viewpoints with those of the characters they profile.

Several of the characters in these stories appear in both tales, as well as in ‘The Pension Beaurepas’, about which I wrote here (on the Mookse and Gripes site, and at this blog here). The three stories tended to be published together, along with ‘An International Episode’ (about which I wrote here and here), representing as they did the ‘international theme’ that dominated James’s fiction for so long.

I shall focus on Aurora Church, who was chafing under the controlling grip of her mother in ‘The Pension Beaurepas’. Mrs Church anticipated this sequel by saying in the earlier story, when explaining to the young narrator why she preferred Europe to America, for herself and her daughter:

 ‘And I wish,’ she continued…’that I could give you our point of view. Don’t you wish, Aurora, that we could give him our point of view?’

‘Yes, mamma,’ said Aurora.

‘We consider ourselves very fortunate in our point of view…’

 

At the Pension Beaurepas in Geneva Aurora befriended her compatriot, the spendthrift Sophie Ruck. She found the hierarchical society and customs of Europe – that her mother so admired – cloying, and despaired of the maternal plan to find her an aristocratic European husband.

‘The Point of View’ consists of eight letters dated 1880. The first and last are by Aurora. In the opening letter she writes to another young American woman expat (in Paris) about her arrival at New York City on a transatlantic liner. Here we see the approach James took in both these epistolary tales: she presents her correspondent with her intimate, vivid impressions of the places she visits and the people she meets. She explains that she has finally persuaded her sceptical mother to allow her to come to America and has just three months in which to find a suitable (i.e. rich) husband.

Aurora is acrid about her mamma’s oppressive regime: she was ‘dreadfully severe’ on the voyage out to Europe when she was only five, and ‘is severe to this day; only I have become indifferent; I have been so pinched and pushed – morally speaking.’

Aurora in Europe craved and envied the freedom of ‘the American girl’. Now she has her chance. As her name suggests, she is at the dawn of a new life, or so she hopes.

Not surprisingly she is delighted to find herself delivered from the stifling confinements of Europe: ‘I have never had so much liberty in my life,’ she says. Mamma, equally unsurprisingly, is less sanguine, as Aurora explains with her customary blend of levity and asperity:

 She is not in a hurry to arrive; she says that great disillusions await us. I didn’t know that she had any illusions – she’s so stern, so philosophic. She is very serious.

 

Mamma had realised that the dowerless Aurora ‘should never marry in Europe’. We can see in such extracts the dry ironic humour of which these stories are full. The characters unwittingly reveal their weaknesses and partialities, their selfishness and prejudices.

In passing Aurora lets slip that ‘the poor little Rucks’ – including her erstwhile friend Sophie – ‘are bankrupt’. We never hear their fate, but must assume the worst. Aurora, who had only nurtured the friendship for her own ends, seems callously unperturbed.

She goes on to describe some of the other passengers, whose own ‘points of view’ we shall be privy to in subsequent letters. The Europeans largely find America brash, vulgar and over-indulgent towards its young people; the Americans’ views we shall see. As in the earlier ‘A Bundle of Letters’ there is much sardonic humour to enjoy as we see the writers’ contrasting or conflicting views of each other exposed in the acerbic confessional manner that a letter to an intimate friend or relative allows. James’s evident pleasure in matching the correspondents’ style to their character is infectious.

The main romantic interest in this story is embodied in Aurora’s suitors on the ship: the aesthete Louis Leverett (who also features in ‘A Bundle of Letters’, where once again he is attracted to an interestingly picturesque young woman, a flirtation which he languidly tires of) and the ‘roaring Yankee’, Marcellus Cockerell. (Their names are aptly chosen.) Each of these young men expresses in his letters the extreme opposite views of all things American and European, and as Aurora approvingly suggests to her friend, ‘They have a particular aversion to each other, and they are ready to fight about poor little me.’ But despite this coquettish pride, she’s also realistic:

 I am not crazy about either of them. They are very well for the deck of a ship, but I shouldn’t care about them in a salon; they are not at all distinguished. They think they are, but they are not…I should get dreadfully tired of passing my life with either…au fond they don’t quite believe in me.

 

This viewpoint is presented without comment, of course, given the epistolary nature of the story, and this is its distinctive feature. Aurora displays here the kind of incisive analytical detachment of the author himself, but he causes her to express herself so clinically (and accurately) that I find her attractively intelligent and percipient, but also (understandably) a little vain.

Still there is the usual Jamesian interest in the travails of a young woman engaged in the necessary pursuit of a husband capable of satisfying her own intelligence as well as the demands of a pressing social system in which she lacks autonomy. James has an extraordinary understanding of the contradictory innocence and dogmatism, exacting standards (her mother says Aurora is insistent she would marry no foreigner who was not ‘one of the first of the first’) and indulgent lassitude of such a vivacious young woman as Aurora, with her native American sensibilities influenced by the atrophied Europe in which she has been raised. She knows mamma expects her to marry no American whose ‘pecuniary situation’ fails to meet her expectations.

Leverett is a Jamesian Europhile. He detests being back in crudely democratic America, where all is monotonously plain, tepid and mediocre; Europe for him has exciting extremes of beauty and ugliness. James has him write in a louche, affected style to highlight his self-consciously aesthetic pose:

 I feel so undraped, so uncurtained, so uncushioned…A terrible crude glare is over everything; the earth looks peeled and excoriated; the raw heavens seem to bleed with the quick, hard light.

 

He would agree with Mrs Church’s dismissal of America as ‘the country of the many’; she adds in her letter –

 In this country the people have rights, but the person has none.

 

The American citizen, she complains to Mme Galopin, ‘is recognized as a voter, but he is not recognized as a gentleman – still less as a lady.’

 

But it’s James’s sly revelations about the intentions of Aurora’s two admirers that are so engaging in this story. Leverett is shown in his letter to be self-absorbed, and interested in Aurora mostly because she has the good taste (as he sees it) to listen to him attentively. He ungallantly concludes, as he decides to drop her, that she ‘almost understood’ him!

 

Cockerel, on the other hand, derides the very places and people of Europe that the Europhile correspondents admire. It’s this witty symmetry that is one of the main strengths of this admittedly rather slight story. Although he finds Aurora a ‘rather interesting girl’, his attentions are insincere – he knows he could never marry such an impoverished young woman; besides, as he confides to his sister in his letter, ‘She has been spoiled by Europe’ – a taint he would never be able to ignore.

 

Mrs Church confides in her letter that Aurora accuses her of giving her a ‘false education’ in Europe so that she is not considered marriage material: ‘No American will marry her, because she is too much a foreigner, and no foreigner will marry her, because she is too much of an American.’

 

James is careful to balance his characters’ barbed accounts, however. Cockerel, rudely dismissed by Leverett as a ‘strident savage’, sums up his homeland’s superiority to Europe:

 

We are more analytic, more discriminating, more familiar with realities. As for manners, there are bad manners everywhere, but an aristocracy is bad manners organized.

 

Read this story for these opinionated, stylized, often Wildean outpourings of epigrammatic bigotry and insight. In this group of related stories he strove to show nuanced gradations of viewpoint in his representatives of each nation. This didn’t prevent the first reviewers from finding this story distastefully unpatriotic towards America.

 

Read it too for Aurora’s final letter, which rounds off beautifully all that’s gone before. Here we see a glimpse of the profound sympathy James demonstrates for his young female characters. He had recently completed The Portrait of a Lady, which began to be serialized in 1880. That full-length novel is the masterpiece of his early period, a fully developed account of the ‘engaging young [American] woman’ whose choices are misguided, yet she persists in ‘affronting her destiny’. James’s concern is with the ways in which Isabel Archer continues the attempt, in a naughty world, to make her own choices and learn to live with the consequences, always striving for a kind of liberty.

 

There is much to admire also, however, in these thematically similar miniatures: Aurora is in some ways Isabel Archer without the windfall fortune. See what you make of Aurora’s apparent destiny at the end of ‘The Point of View’.

John Harvey on the Colour Black

Men in Black, Reaktion Books, London 1995

The Story of Black, Reaktion Books, London 2013

 Even when brilliant, rich, powerful women have worn magnificent black in the past, they have usually needed the pretext of mourning to do so. And what has seemed to me a curious point of interest for study is the way which, through time, the use of this colour – the colour that is without colour, without light, the colour of grief, of loss, of humility, of guilt, of shame – has been adopted in its use by men not as the colour of what they lack or have lost, but precisely as the signature of what they have: of standing, goods, mastery…It relates to the relations between people in society, and to the relations between men and women; and to the way in which people display externally what in some ways is a ‘dark’ interior of human motivation.

 

This is John Harvey in his introduction to the first of these two fascinating studies of the colour black. In Men in Black he goes on to examine how and why black became the default colour of dress for men, associated with the world of work and professional dignity, contrasting with women who tended to wear white (or various other hues from the colour spectrum) – often in ‘vicarious display by men’; most jobs were ‘closed to women’. The period of black dominance in clothing for men dates largely from the early nineteenth century until shortly after the First World War.

 But both black and white are colours of denial; and what they deny is colour.

Thereafter it became the colour of Chanel’s little dress. In the 1930s it represented for the fascists the ‘most complete and intense way of marking off a group of people from the polychrome ordinary mass’. Himmler, the head of Hitler’s terrifying SS, admired ‘the disciplinary principles on which the Jesuits were organized, and was called by Hitler his Ignatius Loyola.’ More recently it has become the colour of rebellion and youth, from bikers and beatniks to punks, goths and emos.

John Harvey, Men in BlackAlthough men have in the past of course worn all kinds of colours, these books trace the reasons for the shift to sombre black clothes, with a focus on the representation of black in art and literature. Baudelaire is quoted as saying of the frock-coat:

 ‘Is it not the inevitable uniform of our suffering age, carrying on its very shoulders, black and narrow, the mark of perpetual mourning? All of us are attending some funeral or other.’

He also remarked that ‘a uniform livery of grief is a proof of equality’; as Harvey points out, ‘For Baudelaire, black, like death itself, was a leveller.’

John Harvey, The Story of Black These are scholarly but lavishly illustrated works and furnished with copious academic notes, but as that opening extract I hope shows, the texts are written in highly engaging prose, with carefully modulated, elegant sentence structure and, despite the formidable erudition, an accessible style and enthusiastic tone that encourage the reader to devour the text greedily.

Both books are packed with well-researched detail. As Dr Harvey is a literary scholar there is not surprisingly an emphasis on the literary aspects of the significance of the colour black: there are long sections on Victorian literature in particular, with perceptive accounts of Dickens’ dark cities and their inhabitants, and, for example, the saturnine characters in Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot.

Last year I reviewed John Harvey’s excellent novel The Subject of a Portrait, which is about the relationships between John Ruskin, his young wife Effie Gray, and the artist Millais, with whom Effie fell in love. There are supplementary posts by Michael Flay here and by Dr Harvey himself here (where he discusses his novel in the light of the film ‘Effie Gray’, about this triangle of Victorian characters, that was about to be released at the time of the post). Ruskin believed that the Victorian climate was changing as a result of a malignant ‘plague-wind’ of darkness, and that this ‘moral gloom’ was connected with the pollution – real and metaphorical – of industry, and in turn with ‘blasphemy’, ‘iniquity’ and social injustice – and Empire. Victorian morality was founded upon inequality and fear, and on ‘a terrifying faith’. On p. 169 of Men in Black the Millais portrait of Ruskin that features on the cover of Harvey’s novel is again reproduced. This is what he says about it:

 Ruskin is keen but cold like the water, and indeed was himself so damaged by strains of the most intimate British asceticism that he was unable to be a husband to his wife…There are elements of personal pathology in Ruskin’s obsession with the plague-cloud, as possibly there are in Dickens’s darkness: but their pathologies were of their culture, involving as it were ethical injury, and sensitized them to a greater pathology.

 

Elegantly and eloquently expressed. I particularly like that phrase ‘ethical injury’: it sums up succinctly the personality of the enigmatic Ruskin.

I was surprised to discover in Men in Black that dandies like Beau Brummel tended to favour tight-fitting, well-cut black clothes rather than peacock displays, at least at night.

What I found so interesting about these two books is that they take a topic as mundane as the colour black – one which I for one had never really paid much heed to; it’s rather like what’s been said about Jane Austen’s novels: she doesn’t mention the domestic arrangements of the country houses in her fiction because the maids are taken for granted, invisible. That’s how I was with the colour black. These books have enlightened and enthused me.

In Men in Black we learn that dandyism ‘played with discipline, and self-discipline, and the style was, not surprisingly, popular with the military’ – Brummel had been a captain in the Hussars (what a splendid name), and Wellington was thought a dandy.

 Wellington in turn had to reprimand the officers of the Grenadier Guards for riding into battle, on a day of foul weather, with their umbrellas raised.

 

There are sections on black as the colour of ‘self-effacement’, especially in religious contexts – although Christian priests had originally tended to wear white. Nevertheless black gradually became the predominant colour of dress for ascetics, hermits, then monks, friars, Jesuits and priests:

 A perfection of self-denial may make one holy, a person to be heeded with reverence and awe: and black, as the colour of power over oneself, has come to be associated with impressive, intense inwardness.

 

Another felicitously expressed sentence.

Then black is associated with the melancholy lover, and with melancholy in general – the ‘black bile’ of the ancient lore of the bodily ‘humours’; Hamlet is a key figure here (‘a man whose black clothes, finally, are the dress of his dark ontology’) and Robert Burton’s encyclopedic Anatomy of Melancholy, first published in 1621.

Black also became the colour favoured by merchants, especially Calvinist Protestants in the London business community; ‘pious asceticism’, as Weber suggests, is connected with capital. Also, perhaps, it was associated with trustworthiness, fair dealing: ‘Black is serious and means business’ –

 But black is a paradoxical colour, ostentatious through the show it makes of renouncing ostentation. The man in black can sidestep the social staircase because he seems to take his stand on a moral stair instead, and indeed to take the high ground precisely through humility.

 

Other areas explored by Harvey include black as a skin colour, and social/literary attitudes to ‘négritude’ – in Othello, for example. Devils (and the devil), of course, were also frequently depicted as black.

The extracts I have quoted are an indication of the elegant lucidity of Harvey’s writing, as well as of his capacity for conveying a great deal of information in a manner that is as rewarding as a well-written, pacy novel.

Men in Black concludes that the social significance of black is polysemous, ‘because all statements made by clothes are ambiguous, and even one colour will have different meanings’; but the dominant meaning of the widespread use of black could be that it

 is associated at once with intensity and with effacement: with importance, and with the putting on of impersonality. Alone or in ranks, the man in black is the agent of a serious power; and of a power claimed over women and the feminine. Black may be a shadow fallen on the feminine part of man.

 

I’ll conclude by stating that The Story of Black covers much of the same ground as the earlier book, but with very little repetition and a host of different material, and a closing section that looks at some developments in the world of art in the last few years. Both books belong to a series produced by Reaktion that use copious illustrations as the basis for historical analysis.

I’d recommend these texts to anyone with even a passing interest in literary, artistic/cultural, social, political or philosophical history.

Anna Kavan, ‘Ice’

 

In his introduction to Anna Kavan’s novel Ice, first published in 1967, a year before her death, Christopher Priest describes it as a work of ‘literary slipstream, one of the most significant novels of its type’. This genre arose in the US in the late 80s; Priest defines it as fiction that ‘induces a sense of ‘otherness’ in the audience, like a glimpse into a distorting mirror, perhaps, or a view of familiar sights and objects from an unfamiliar perspective…it imparts a sense that reality might not be quite as certain as we think.’

He names JG Ballard, Angela Carter, Paul Auster, Haruki Murakami, Borges and others as exponents of this kind of writing. Slipstream portrays ‘images of the ordinary world through shifting mirrors and distorting lenses, without attempting to explain.’

 

Anna Kavan, IceIce’s strangeness is apparent from the very first paragraph. An unnamed car driver learns that the unidentified country through which he is travelling is experiencing severely unseasonal cold weather. He reveals little about himself except that he has spent much of his life abroad ‘soldiering, or exploring remote areas.’ Later he appears to be involved in covert operations for the military, or in espionage.

 

The world is dying: it’s ‘doomed’. Ice is taking over, perhaps because of some obscure scientific mishap, or else through the use of doomsday weapons:

An insane impatience for death was driving mankind to a second suicide, even before the full effect of the first had been felt.

Our first person narrator, the man in the car, is obsessively searching for a girl with moon-white hair and alabaster skin. ‘I needed to see her; it was vital’, he reveals, but never says why.

She is fragile and thin, and appears cowed, crushed. We’re told she had been treated cruelly as a child by her mother; she is a ‘victim’, with ‘no will’ of her own. When she disappears the narrator abandons all his own affairs to search for her: ‘Nothing else mattered.’ His urgency is increased by ‘the approaching emergency’.

But the almost plotless narrative constantly implodes. What appears to be a narrative line suddenly disappears. In mid-scene we are taken somewhere else, possibly in flashback – or possibly leaping forwards in time: the transition is never explained. With the surreal logic of a dream these shifts render what’s just happened irrelevant or inexplicable.

The man feels compelled to find the girl, but she is inaccessible or hidden away. For much of the novel she is in the power of a brutal warlord known as the warden. He treats her like a prisoner. He abuses her psychologically and sexually. The narrator eventually manages to spirit her away, but he too treats her badly. She fears and detests them both.

At times the identities of the searching man and the cruel warden appear to merge; at times he doesn’t seem to know which one he is. She finds it impossible to distinguish between them and their dastardly treatment of her: ‘there’s no difference’ between them, she says. The narrator’s grasp of reality is tenuous:

 My ideas were confused. In a peculiar way, the unreality of the outer world appeared to be an extension of my own disturbed state of mind.

 

Soon after this moment he becomes aware of ‘an odd sort of fragmentation of my ideas.’ Then again, ‘this was the reality, and those other things the dream.’ Later:

 Nothing but the nightmare had seemed real while it was going on, as if the other lost world had been imagined or dreamed. Now that world, no longer lost, was here the one solid reality.

 

 

I found the novel weirdly compelling. It has a crazed logic of its own: the novel’s world is, as the narrator says, ‘a field of strangeness where no known laws operated.’ The searching man’s obsessive quest has the manic grandeur of Ahab’s pursuit of the white whale.

I’ve written about two other Anna Kavan books: Julia and the Bazooka is a collection of short stories which frequently deal with her addiction to heroin. The Parson has some of the strangeness of Ice.

Priest insists that this novel is not just an extended metaphorical account of Kavan’s heroin addiction, that the ice is not the drug, the girl (victim and holy grail) is not the drug. But I couldn’t help finding this a satisfactory way of interpreting the narrator’s hallucinatory compulsion to find the elusive girl; his obsession causes him more suffering than pleasure, and he abandons her when he does achieve his goal:

When I considered that imperative need if felt for her, as for a missing part of myself, it appeared less like love than an inexplicable aberration, the sign of some character-flaw I ought to eradicate, instead of letting it dominate me.

She’s described like those models a few years ago who earned the unpleasant label ‘heroin chic’: skinny, haunted, bruised.

On the other hand I agree that such a reading fails to account for all of the novel’s bizarre layers and surreal motifs (such as the narrator’s fascination with singing lemurs: the Indris). It can also be seen as an effective protofeminist allegory: just as the world’s men bring about global disaster with their suicidal weapons and Cold War ‘collective death-wish’, so they reify women; the girl-victim is a cipher for the warden and the narrator: she’s their prey, and their aim is to dominate and control her, to possess her, stifle her individuality and identity. They are sadistic bullies, as threatening as the ice-fields that are advancing across the earth’s surface.

There is an excellent review of Ice at Max’s blog Pechorin’s Journal; he gives a much fuller account of the apocalyptic plot than I have here, and an interesting view of ‘slipstream’. He also includes a link to John Self’s review at Asylum blog.

My thanks to Peter Owen publishers, who sent me a copy of this novel as a prize in their online competition: follow them on Facebook.

Alfred Döblin, Alexanderplatz

Published in Germany as Berlin Alexanderplatz in 1929, this novel has been described as the German Ulysses – the style and content of which have clearly influenced it considerably. I found it a difficult but rewarding read. Each of the nine sections, called Books in this translation, begins with a terse summary of its contents; here’s part of the one for Book Two:

…this is no ordinary man, this Franz Biberkopf. I did not summon him to entertain us, but so that we might share his hard, true and enlightening existence.

Doblin, Alexanderplatz The plot and style have been admirably assessed in several places: I’d recommend Max’s typically perceptive account at Pechorin’s Journal here. He summarises the (rather basic) plot and themes: the downward trajectory of the life of Franz Biberkopf, ‘an erstwhile cement-and –transport-worker in Berlin’. At the novel’s opening he is released from Tegel Prison after serving a four-year sentence for the manslaughter of his girlfriend. He resolves to go straight – but the narrative relates his stuttering attempts, and ultimate failure, to do so.

After several menial jobs he falls in with gangsters, loses a limb in an act of treachery by his fellow burglars, and suffers more and more blows in his life.

As Max points out, the plot is exciting enough in its way, but it’s the high modernist portrayal of Berlin in the decadent last days of the Weimar Republic that’s its most compelling feature. That, and the style, something between middle period Joyce and the Dos Passos of USA: montage, collage, snippets of classical literature, popular songs, ads on billboards, anything that surrounds Franz in his peripatetic quests across and beyond the city.

It’s not a cheerful or easy read. Like Emma of Book Around the Corner I found it heavy going. Just as I started to weary of the fragmented style, however, the pace changed and my interest revived. So let’s take a look at the style. As Max has already commented on the fragmentation technique, I’d like to just add a couple of features that stood out for me.

First there’s the use of non sequitur:

 Aha, they are building an underground station, must be work to be had in Berlin. Another movie.

 

This is Franz’s stream of thought as he stands on a corner in front of a movie theatre. The scene of typical urban renewal sparks off thoughts of a possible job, but the movie intrudes and interrupts the flow. This is largely how we all experience our interior monologue, I’d have thought, and it works quite well, but tends to irritate me after several pages of it.

Tenses jump around for no apparent reason from past to present and back. Pages 41-42 contain a sequence of symbols for Trade and Commerce to Finance and Tax Office; these are reminiscent of Laurence Sterne’s insertion of bizarre symbols in Tristram Shandy, and serve no particular purpose here, as far as I can see.

Those sections where I was most able to overcome my aversion to these narrative tics were the ones which dealt with the festering political situation in the city (Max mentions the anti-Semitism), but there’s also a stark portrayal of the extremes of nascent fascism/nationalism beginning to assert itself over socialism and communism. Here’s a taster, in a long scene in a Berlin theatre-cum-drinking den:

 The veteran whispered, his hand before his mouth, he belched: “Are you a German, honest and true? If you run with the Reds, you’re a traitor. He who is a traitor isn’t my friend.” He embraced Franz: “The Poles, the French, the fatherland for which we bled, that’s the nation’s gratitude.”

 

Soon after this Franz peddles ‘Nationalist pro-Nordic papers’:

He is not against the Jews, but he is for law and order. For law and order must reign in Paradise; which everyone should recognize. And the Steel Helmet, he’s seen those boys, and their leaders, too, that’s a great thing. [There follow sickening extracts of fascist rhetoric from the paper] In the Elsasser Strasse the other fellows laugh themselves sick when he makes his appearance in the café at noon, his Fascist armband discreetly tucked in his pocket; they pull it out.

Here it’s possible to see the other problem with the text, apart from its modernist liking for cinematic verbal metonymy: the clunky translation. It has to be said, given the fact that the novel is apparently filled with Berlin dialect and thieves’ argot, that translation must be a nightmare. This UK-published edition was translated by the American-born Eugen Jolas (died 1952), who uses a register that swings oddly from prohibition-era New Jersey to Edwardian English (‘What the deuce are those big boots?’ asks one character, implausibly).

I’ve found it hard to pin down what I ultimately made of this novel: it’s a considerable achievement, and certainly a notable addition to the canon of experimental modernist European fiction. But I can’t say hand on heart that I particularly enjoyed it. I’d be quick to concede that it’s probably more to do with my defects as a reader than those in the text.

Edition used: Secker and Warburg, London, 1974, first published by Martin Secker in 1931. Thanks to Cornwall Libraries for the loan of their copy.

Hypocorism revisited: aptronyms, euonyms and caconyms

February was a busy month for me at work; my intended post on Alfred Döblin is still on its way.

Last week I visited friends in London and thoroughly enjoyed the John Singer Sargent exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. I took particular pleasure in seeing his painting of Henry James that I used in a recent post on his story ‘The Author of Beltraffio’.

Back in Nov. 2013 I posted on ‘hypocorism’ – people’s names as diminutive or pet forms like Billy for William. I went on to consider mononyms, anthroponyms, endonyms, exonyms, and so on.

Just now I encountered a tweet from the OED with a similar term that I’d not previously known: APTRONYM: A name regarded as (humorously) appropriate to a person’s profession or personal characteristics. It can also be spelled (or spelt!) APTONYM.

Among the citations in the OED online are these:

1986   Los Angeles Times 16 Feb. vi. 1/1   According to the American Name Society, they’re called aptonyms, that is, surnames which..have turned out to be incredibly apt. A brief search for local aptonyms produced Tommy Trotter, the new director of racing at Hollywood Park.
2002   Winnipeg Free Press 19 Jan. a14/2   He began collecting aptronyms 30 years ago, when he saw an ad in his local paper for a flower shop operated by Flora Gardner.
There’s a long list of aptronym surnames at Wikipedia, such as a German professor of psychiatry who specialises in anxiety, and is called Jules Angst; there’s a gardener called Bob Flowerdew who regularly appears on BBC Radio 4 shows about the subject; Lord Judge is the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales; Arsène Wenger is the manager of Arsenal football club, the London Premier League side.
I knew a kid at school with the unusual family name Soldier. His parents, with more wit than sympathy, named him Roman. As in Polanski – which is itself a kind of aptronym; here’s the etymology of the surname at the website Ancestry
Polish (Polanski): ethnic name for a Pole, or more specifically for a descendant of the Polanie, one of the original Polish tribes.Polish, Jewish (eastern Ashkenazic), Ukrainian, and Belorussian: topographic name for someone who lived in a clearing, from polana ‘glade’, ‘clearing’ (a derivative of pole ‘field’), or a habitational name for someone from placed called Polana, Polanka, Polany, or any of various other places named with polana.
The OED compares aptronym with EUONYM – also new to me: it derives from the Greek element ‘eu-‘ meaning ‘good’ or ‘well’. OED online defines it as  ‘An appropriate or well-chosen name; (formerly in technical use) a name that conforms to the requirements of a particular system of nomenclature.The term was popularized by its appearance as the winning word in the 1997 U.S. National Spelling Bee competition.’
Its first citation is from 1889, which states that it’s the opposite of CACONYM (‘An example of bad nomenclature or terminology, esp. in biology and botany.’), in which the prefix derives from the Greek for, not surprisingly, ‘bad, evil’. Hence ‘cacophony’ (opposite of ‘euphony’). I rather like OED’s most recent citation:
1956   Nat. Cactus & Succulent Jrnl. 2 3/1   A name may qualify as a caconym in different ways. First, from sheer length… Second, from the clash of consonants making it difficult (for a European at least) to articulate.
Euonymus europaeus. Image from Wikipedia in public domain

Euonymus europaeus. Image from Wikipedia in public domain

Which reminded me of the plant EUONYMUS, defined by OED online thus:

A genus of shrubs (family Celastraceæ), of which many species are now cultivated as ornamental plants. The only British species is the Spindle-tree, otherwise known as the peg-, prick-, skewerwood from the uses to which its wood is applied.

Etymology:  < Latin euōnymos (Pliny xiii. xxxviii. §118), subst. use of Greek εὐώνυμος   of good name, lucky, < εὐ-   (see eu- comb. form) + ὄνομα, in Aeolic ὄνυμα name.

Pliny says that the flowering of the euonymus was a presage of pestilence; hence it seems probable that the name ‘lucky’ was given with euphemistic intention.

 

I love the way one word leads to another. A linguistic dérive…

Mayhem, maiming, ravens and rapine: some etymology

When I began this blog nearly two years ago it was with a notion of writing about the world of words and literature in general. Subsequently my early posts were on a range of topics, from reviews of Javier Marías’ ‘Your Face Tomorrow’ trilogy to unusual vocabulary in Eliot and Byron (orioles, becaficas) to strange engravings in obscure nineteenth-century Portuguese travel books about west Africa. In the last year, though, most of my posts have been book reviews.

I never intended this blog to become just another book-review site – though such matter will always dominate what I write, in keeping with what I’m reading at the time – but I’d like to maintain an element of novelty and surprise.

Today then I came across an entry in an old notebook – which is where several of my early posts originated – about Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. I felt inspired, and looked out a couple of reviews I’d saved. From there I returned to Burton’s book-length Preface, and an hour later had still not written a word. A little ironic, really: it’s a book that arises from what its author ruefully describes as ‘an unconstant unsettled mind’, liable to ‘rove abroad’, ‘taste of every dish and sip of every cup’ —  it’s a ramble, in other words, through everything to be found in an early seventeenth-century library – and I find myself no nearer to a line of critical approach than I was when I set out.

So I’m going to plunder another entry in the same notebook. I hope to return to Burton some time soon. This enables me to do something I’ve not done on this blog for a long time: look at some words and anatomise them.

Before I start, a word about other forthcoming projects. I’m reading Alfred Döblin’s Alexanderplatz, and making pretty slow progress in an intriguing novel that’s clearly influenced by Joyce’s Ulysses, and therefore can’t be read quickly. I also received in the post the other day my copy of Denis Johnson’s new novel, Laughing Monsters. So those two should keep me occupied here for a while.

The first word that I want to examine is MAYHEM. The OED’s first entry for it as a noun is:

  1. ‘Criminal Law. The infliction of physical injury on a person, so as to impair or destroy that person’s capacity for self-defence; an instance of this. Also fig. Now hist.‘ Its first citation is from the Rolls of Parliament in 1447. I was surprised to see that its more familiar use

‘Orig. U.S. Violent behaviour, esp. physical assault’, is first cited here:

  1. ‘1870   ‘M. Twain’ in Territorial Enterprise 20 Jan. 1/1   This same man..pantingly threatened me with permanent disfiguring mayhem, if ever again I should introduce his name into print.’ Its next citation is from a report in the Times from 1930 of ‘brigandage…mayhem and murder’ in New York ‘and its vicinity’. Plus ça change…Next is
  2. ‘Rowdy confusion, chaos, disorder. Freq. in to cause (also make) mayhem . Also fig.’ First cited:

1976   Daily Mirror 15 Mar. 24/4 (caption)    Without wishin’ to cast nasturtiums on your worm—I feel he’s not goin’ to make much mayhem today.

 

It derives from Middle English maheym ‘maim’, from French legal usage maihem, itself derived from Anglo-French mahain or mahaim, originally signifying a ‘lasting wound or bodily injury’; and ‘Subsequently: an injury to the body which causes the loss of a limb, or of the use of it; a… mutilating wound’. Its ultimate etymology is ‘uncertain’:  ‘Compare post-classical Latin mahemium, maamium… mayhem, maiming (from late 12th cent. in British sources), Italian magagna defect, infirmity (late 13th cent.).’ Other sources claim it’s akin to Germanic meidem, gelding, ON meitha, to injure.

 

Corvus corax: the raven (Wikimedia Commons)

Next is RAVENOUS. This apparently derives from OF ravineus, equivalent to ‘raviner’ – to RAVEN, ie take by force; this derives from vulgar Latin rapinare, from earlier Latin rapina, plunder. OED has this: ‘Compare Old French ravineux, ravinos, rabinos rapid, impetuous (late 12th cent.)….’ This produced English ravin, an act of rapine or robbery, plunder, pillaging (first cited c. 1325).

 

How did it come to mean what it does now? Here’s the OED again:

 

  1. ‘a) Originally: (of an animal) given to seizing other animals as prey; predatory; ferocious. Later: (of an animal or person; also of the appetite, hunger, etc.) voracious, gluttonous.’ (First cited ?1387). Here are the first two citations of its now customary primary meaning:
  2. ‘Exceedingly hungry; famished.’ Citations:

‘1648   T. Stephens tr. Statius  Thebais v. 131   Hircanian tygers so the herds inclose, In Scythian plaines, whom morning hunger does Rouse up, and th’ ravenous whelps roare for their paps.

1719   D. Defoe Farther Adventures Robinson Crusoe 201,   I got up ravenous.’

 

The name of the large corvine bird ‘raven’ appears to come via a different, Scandinavian-Germanic route; in its various forms it was spelt hrafn (OI), hraben (OHG), etc., maybe reflecting an imitation of its guttural call.

And that’s it for today. Probably more than enough etymology for one post.

 Picture credit: “Corvus corax ad berlin 090516″ by Accipiter (R. Altenkamp, Berlin) – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Corvus_corax_ad_berlin_090516.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Corvus_corax_ad_berlin_090516.jpg

Henry James, ‘The Pension Beaurepas’

This is a version of the piece to be posted next week on the Mookse and Gripes website

‘The Pension Beaurepas’ was first published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1879. In this story, James satirises two types of American abroad in the guise of two families staying at the Geneva pension run by the redoubtable Mme Beaurepas: the Ruck family from New York City, who represent the rich, uncultivated ‘new money’ families like Daisy Miller’s (Trevor Berrett wrote about her story at the Mookse and Gripes website here) – who show little enthusiasm for the history, culture or scenery of Europe, while demonstrating the principles of liberty, innocence and democracy. The other family are polar opposites to the Rucks: the Europeanised American Mrs Church and her daughter Aurora (and, incidentally, our narrator). Mrs Church had brought Aurora to Europe from their American home sixteen years earlier when the girl was only five.

The young, unnamed American narrator of the story explains at the start why he has come to stay at this pension:

I was not rich – on the contrary; and I had been told the Pension Beaurepas was cheap. I had, moreover, been told that a boarding-house is a capital place for the study of human nature. I had a fancy for a literary career.

Already we can see the subtle presentation of the familiarly ambiguous James narrator: an ingenuous, studious, slightly pompous young man very like himself, with his own literary-cultural hypersensitivity, and a propensity for close observation of his fellows, while at the same time demonstrating a reluctance to engage fully in the life he so attentively observes – a timidity seen in Winterbourne, the disengaged narrator of ‘Daisy Miller’ — and which culminates in a singularly unflattering (to him) episode at the end of this story to which I’ll return shortly.

The first strand in the plot reworks the King Lear theme in Balzac’s Le Père Goriot: Sophy and Mrs Ruck relentlessly spend Mr Ruck’s money, unaware that he has become bankrupt. In ‘An International Episode’, about which I wrote in the Mookse and Gripes last time here, also posted on this blog here Kitty Westgate, whose husband (a work-obsessed counterpart to “tragic” Mr Ruck) hardly appears in the narrative, so busy is he in his lucrative law business, says this:

An American woman who respects herself must buy something every day of her life. If she cannot do it herself, she must send out some member of her family for the purpose.

The narrator says of Mrs Ruck and Sophy, near the story’s end:

“Between them they are bleeding him to death.”

I shall focus here though on the second theme in the story: that of the American Girl. In ‘Daisy Miller’ she’s portrayed, through Daisy, as a charming mix of frankness and spontaneity,  brashness and vulgarity, but essentially, like all American girls, according to Winterbourne, “exceedingly innocent”, even when at her most coquettish and immodest.

Sophy is representative of the Daisy Miller type of feisty American girl. She is “a lively brunette” is the narrator’s initial impression, and “very pretty”, “decisive” and opinionated (like Daisy). When she learns that Aurora is “dying to go to America” but “her mother won’t let her”, she says indignantly:

“If I were you my mother would have to take me.”

The narrator is clearly more attracted to Aurora, who is a less dauntingly assertive, more retiring version of the American girl. She and her mother are described by a fellow guest as having “a tournure de princesse”, and it is as a kind of democratic princess that James usually portrays young American women.

Aurora has never been out of the house alone, and sadly describes herself as having been in Europe, with its social constraints for young women, “always”. She is desperately homesick and frustrated by her imperious mother’s control:

“American girls are so wonderfully frank. I can’t be frank, like that. I am always afraid.”

Our narrator perceives, as Sophy does, however, that her native spirit hasn’t been entirely quashed. She tells him, for example, with ingenuous “coquetry”, that her “figure was admired” in France –

But I was an innocent youth, and I only looked back at her, wondering. She was a great deal nicer than Miss Ruck, and yet Miss Ruck would not have said that.

The perceptive Mme Beaurepas tells the narrator that Mrs Church’s restless migration across Europe via its cheap boarding houses is because “She is trying to marry her daughter.” Whereas Daisy Miller and her family lacked the “culture” to catch an aristocratic and wealthy European husband and were “intellectually incapable of that conception”, Aurora simply lacks a “dot”, as she calls her dowry. What adds poignancy to Aurora’s position is that all she really longs for is the freedom she believes her compatriots enjoy. As the narrator says to her mother:

“…in America young girls have an easier lot. They have much more liberty.”

Mrs Church is not convinced that this is a desirable condition:

“We are very crude,” she softly observed…”There are two classes of minds, you know—those that hold back, and those that push forward. My daughter and I are not pushers, we move with little steps. We like the old, trodden paths; we like the old, old world…we like Europe, we prefer it.”

She calls upon Aurora to endorse her “point of view” – a phrase which was to become a key concept in James’s fiction, as we shall see – and the girl dutifully does so —

with a sort of inscrutable submissiveness. I wondered at it; it offered so strange a contrast to the mocking freedom of her tone the night before…

Geneva, Jardin Anglais wikiThis conflict of views comes to a crisis when Aurora and Sophy walk alone in the English Garden in Geneva. The narrator and a fellow boarder encounter them there, and are shocked to see them so “insufficiently chaperoned”.  Aurora’s rebellious spirit flashes out, in a speech very like Daisy’s when found in a similarly compromising situation with her Italian admirer:

“Which is most improper – to walk alone or to walk with gentlemen? I wish to do what is most improper.”

She explains that she is in a “false position”, and here is where she becomes less ingenuous than Daisy:

“I have to pretend to be a jeune fille. I am not a jeune fille; no American girl is a jeune fille; an American girl is an intelligent, responsible creature. I have to pretend to be very innocent, but I am not very innocent.”

“You don’t pretend to be very innocent; you pretend to be – what shall I call it? – very wise.

“That’s no pretence. I am wise.”

“You are not an American girl,” I ventured to observe…

“There’s my false position. I want to be an American girl, and I’m not.”

“Do you want me to tell you?” I went on. “An American girl wouldn’t talk as you are talking now…She wouldn’t reason out her conduct…”

“I see. She would be simpler. To do very simple things that are not at all simple – that is the American girl!”

She tells the young man she anticipates having “the most lovely time” in New York if the Rucks invite her there – because there at last she would have “absolute liberty”. Her mother adores “European society”, and Aurora knows she’ll be punished for the liberties she is taking at that moment with him – and her mother duly arrives and whisks her away in a closed cab.

Later Mrs Church tells the narrator that she disapproves of the Rucks and their uncultivated vulgarity. She intends to remove Aurora from the “pernicious influence” of “this deplorable family”.

The story ends with her doing just that. Before she fulfils her promise, however, Aurora has one final, revealing conversation with the narrator, to tell him that she and her mother leave for Dresden the next day. He suspects she has sought him out in the pension’s garden that evening to break this news, and he feels very sorry for her, and finds her “interesting” and “charming”. He realises this “insidiously mutinous, young creature was looking for a preserver.” For a moment this is a heroic role he finds tempting to play; he tells her he knows she desires the “liberty” taken for granted by other American girls. Her mother, she replies

“…has so perverted my mind that when I try to be natural I am necessarily immodest.”

She has said her piece, and now waits to see what he will do. As she turns to leave he has a momentary impulse to leave with “this yearning, straining young creature” and pass into “mysterious felicity”. But it doesn’t happen:

If I were only a hero of romance, I would offer, myself, to take her to America.

Like Winterbourne, however, he is unwilling to act decisively when faced with the prospect of a romantic relationship.

The story is, then, more of an example of what James later called “portraiture” – a sketch rather than a developed, textured story. But it is an interesting example of his developing portrayal of the consequences of the innocence of the American girl coming into contact with the decadence and hierarchical social rigidities and atrophied morality and customs of the Old World. He shows how both worlds have their attractions and charms, but both are flawed in their own ways.

We meet Aurora again in a story published soon after this one. Its title is the term employed crucially by Mrs Church in ‘The Pension Beaurepas’, as noted earlier: it’s called ‘The Point of View’.

 

Javier Marías, ‘The Infatuations’

Javier Marías, The Infatuations. Hamish Hamilton, London, 2013.

…the dead are quite wrong to come back, and yet almost all of them do, they won’t give up, and they strive to become a burden to the living until the living shake them off in order to move on.

The first dilemma facing Margaret Jull Costa, the brilliant translator of The Infatuations, by Javier Marías, was how to render the Spanish title of the original, Los Enamoramientos. There is no direct English equivalent. María, the first-person narrator of the novel, discusses the problem in the text, where she points out that most languages other than Spanish and Italian have the same deficiency; she defines the word thus –

..the state of falling or being in love, or perhaps infatuation, I’m referring to the noun, the concept; the adjective, the condition, are admittedly more familiar, at least in French, though not in English, but there are words that approximate that meaning…Some people think that being in love or infatuated is a modern invention that appears only in novels.

Several of Marías’ central concerns appear here: the nature and etiology of love (and, by implication, of the precarious human condition); the modes of narrating this in fiction – which exists in a state of uneasy symbiosis with reality.

The style is typical, too: it has the intricate, baroque complexity, with mixed registers and loping, cadenced rhythms captured unerringly by the translator, but in all of Marías’ novels this is taken to a higher level – slowly accreting clauses, loosely linked by the punctuation – the paratactic, endless commas in lengthy sentences and paragraphs often pages long, take some getting used to, but they drive the narrative relentlessly and hypnotically. There are verbal repetitions at the level of the sentence and the paragraph but also in the longer view.

Marías, Infatuations One of these crucial refrains that punctuate the narrative like a repeated musical phrase is the concept of ‘envidia’; María admires but also envies the connubial bliss of the Perfect Couple she observes, in her solitude, in the café. When the Perfect Husband, Miguel Desvern or Deverne, is murdered, the grieving widow admits she can feel hate for the ‘instigators’ of the killing, someone perhaps who resented his success, possibly a close colleague. She’d seen this definition in an early Spanish dictionary and wondered how it compared with the English word ‘envy’ (Marías is always erudite, fascinated by words and their significance, how they translate):

‘Unfortunately, this poison is often engendered in the breasts of those who are and who we believe to be our closest friends, in whom we trust; they are far more dangerous than our declared enemies.’ [Covarrubias, Dictionary of 1611]

Marías delights in slowly uncovering (never fully revealing) this murder mystery’s secrets to demonstrate the ironic accuracy of the widow’s cryptic remark, which recurs several times in the narrative: he explores how passion, love, fidelity and treachery can drive our actions and cloud our judgement. When the brutal murder of Miguel takes place, María becomes involved in the consequences in a way that compromises her integrity, her sense of justice, and her loyalty to the man she is enamoured/infatuated/in love with.

Despite these philosophical investigations and narrative digressions, Marías is still a consummate story-teller, the translator of Stevenson and Conrad (as well as the more playful, metafictional Sterne and Faulkner, and of the sonorous, meandering prose of Sir Thomas Browne).

Another refrain is from Macbeth: ‘she should have died hereafter’. Macbeth is reacting to the news of his wife’s death. What does he mean? This riddle permeates The Infatuations: when is it timely for an event to take place? And what if we aren’t ready or able to process its significance? What part does memory play as we listen to the stories our thoughts narrate internally? – ‘sometimes a memory can be a devouring thing’.

This intertextuality is also found in all of Marías’ (not María’s) novels – but it’s not a postmodern game or ostentatious trick, it’s a fundamental feature of the writer’s serious purpose. Two other characters from texts that illuminate this novel are Balzac’s eponymous Colonel Chabert, a soldier pronounced dead on the Napoleonic battlefield, but who miraculously survives and comes back to confront his less-than-thrilled ‘widow’, and Dumas’ Milady de Winter, who in an earlier guise had survived being hanged by the musketeer Athos and had come back to haunt him in another incarnation. The Infatuations is a similarly haunted and haunting novel: another refrain is ‘the dead should not return’.

A related theme is what we do when telling or listening to stories – which also pervades other novels by Marías – as María thinks what the stories she hears and is implicated in might signify (most of the novel represents her thoughts, free-indirectly or directly narrated). This is her lover’s commentary on these fictitious revenants (Chabert and de Winter), and her reflection on his pronouncement:

“What happened is the least of it. It’s a novel, and once you’ve finished a novel, what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten. What matters are the possibilities and ideas that the novel’s imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with…” That isn’t true, or, rather, it’s sometimes true, one doesn’t always forget what happened…

This musing on the fictive representation of reality (‘It’s quite shameful the way reality imposes no limits on itself’) recurs throughout the novel. This leads María to speculate on the events that take place in the story narrated here in terms that often become highly conditional, with intricate modalities:

I find it hard to believe that what should never have happened while you were alive wouldn’t happen once you were dead. Would you want to die knowing that? More than that, you would be encouraging it, procuring it, propelling us into it.

Desvern would have remained silent for a few seconds, thinking, as if he had not considered that scenario before formulating his request. Then he would have given a rather paternalistic laugh…

Her dilemma, like the translator’s over the noun ‘inamoramiento’,  is the subject of this novel: how can she determine the truth-status of the tangled story she’s involved in? Especially, as we’ve seen, as all novels’ plots are ‘imaginary’ and soon forgotten; here is her response to the story her untrustworthy lover is about to tell her to account for his role in it:

Perhaps he is going to deceive me with the truth…Perhaps he’s telling me the truth now so that it will seem like a lie. An apparent or genuine lie.

Marías is probably the most rewarding and original novelist writing today, and here we see him probing and assessing the nature of narrative and the practice of writing and reading narratives at a high level of philosophical and aesthetic cognition, while at the same time conveying a story – a novel of his own – that is gripping, wittily intelligent and exciting. I wrote several pieces about his ‘Your Face Tomorrow’ trilogy a while back; some can be found here, here, here and here.

Marías’ style can be hard work, but if you’ve never read him before I’d recommend you start with The Infatuations, which is perhaps his most accessible novel to date, and then move on to the rest of his back catalogue. There’s so much more to be said about this novel: its wicked humour at the expense of vain, vacuous writers in general, for example (‘Like so many writers, he was a mean, spineless little scrounger’, María thinks of one particularly irritating client), and of Luddites like Marías himself who still tap out their novels on a typewriter, not a computer, much to the annoyance of María, who works in publishing, and would have to scan their typescripts.

 

 

 

Geoff Dyer, ‘Out of Sheer Rage’

Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage starts like this:

Looking back it seems, on the one hand, hard to believe that I could have wanted so much time, could have exhausted myself so utterly, wondering when I was going to begin my study of D.H. Lawrence; on the other, it seems equally hard to believe that I ever started it, for the prospect of embarking on this study of Lawrence accelerated and intensified the psychological disarray it was meant to delay and alleviate. Conceived as a distraction, it immediately took on the distracted character of that from which it was intended to be a distraction, namely myself.

The grammar is convoluted – he starts with a retrospective statement then a ‘one hand’/’other hand’-‘hard to believe’/’equally hard to believe’ oppositional/parallel pair of structures, each section of which has balanced, complex multiple clauses. This signals what’s to come: it’s a ruminative, fastidiously self-investigative tone, self-deprecating and witty, meticulously and skilfully controlled. The genre, it seems, is going to be autobiography.

But as we read on we find it’s a genre-defying book. It might be a novel about a writer’s inexhaustible capacity to procrastinate; that writer is called ‘Geoff Dyer’, but he may be a fictional construct. He’s endlessly irascible about the world around him, but also about himself and his clinically delineated defects; he’s mercilessly self-accusatory (look at that wonderfully modulated phrase ‘psychological disarray’, to describe what he clearly suggests is his default mental state). When he reveals that it’s Lawrence’s ‘irritability’ that he finds most endearing about the man, it’s obvious why: they are kindred spirits.

The epigraphs at the start are illuminating:

Out of sheer rage I’ve begun my book on Thomas Hardy. It will be about anything but Thomas Hardy I am afraid – queer stuff – but not bad.

That serves as a perfect summary of Dyer’s book: it’s not about ‘anything but’ Lawrence; it’s mostly about other things – as the second epigraph suggests:

Endless explanations of irrelevancies, and none whatever of things indispensable to the subject.

This is Gustave Flaubert on Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. So we see Dyer fulminating against seafood and its resistance to being eaten and its disgusting taste when finally ingested; the awfulness of films in Italy dubbed badly into Italian; children and people who breed them; people obsessed with telephones…it’s a catalogue of grumpiness.

Then there’s this:

It must all be considered as though spoken by a character in a novel.

This is Roland Barthes, that trickster-savant murderer of the author. At one point Dyer writes:

Perhaps it is best to avoid the novel as a medium of expression.

Hence this book.

Geoff Dyer, Out of Sheer RageDyer has signalled his intentions clearly from the outset then. What’s not clear from all this, though, is it’s often very funny. Not ‘the funniest book I have ever read’, as Steve Martin is quoted as saying on the jacket blurb – it didn’t make me laugh; but I did smile ruefully.

I found the stream of bile and the looping, self-cancelling vacillations (should he take this particular volume of Lawrence’s poems to Greece or not? Right, decided; no, changed his mind. Regrets it…) just a little too relentless.

It’s a travelogue of sorts, too, as Dyer and his long-suffering (and incredibly patient) girlfriend go on a savage pilgrimage of their own in search of the places Lawrence lived, replicating the miner’s son’s endless, doomed quest for a safe, healthy haven (his life was a ‘long convalescence’, said Huxley – a state Dyer characteristically claims for himself after a reckless crash on a moped), from his birthplace in grim Eastwood – become a sort of tacky literary theme park – to Sicily, Italy and New Mexico. There are other, non-Lawrentian pilgrimages mentioned in passing, like Dyer’s trip to Algeria in the steps of Camus.

There are erudite tones, too:  frequent allusions to Rilke, Nietzsche, Barthes and so on. These tend to be counterpointed jovially with earthy, scatological or sexually explicit scenes.

Occasionally among all this knockabout stuff Dyer inserts an aphorism that’s gemlike in its perfection, like this rueful reflection on a statement by Camus about accepting stoically what he is powerless to change:

Not like me. I can’t accept anything, especially things I am powerless to change. The only things I can accept are those that I do have the power to change. This, I suppose, is the opposite of wisdom.

Dyer loves these riffs in which key words are repeated, recycled, savoured in new contexts, positioned next to new verbal partners to see what ensues. The longueurs of this book are worth enduring for moments of brilliance like this.

Dyer makes new combinations of genre, tone and style look effortless and obvious. This is classy writing.

The edition I used is the handsome paperback in the illustration above – strangely there’s no title or author name on the front cover: they’re on the spine. This is in the excellent ‘The Canons’ series by Canongate, published in Edinburgh 2012; first published in 1997.