‘The evil in the air was corrupting everybody’: Gamel Woolsey, ‘Death’s Other Kingdom’

When I was studying Spanish at school back in the late 60s, my teacher, who then seemed to me an old man, but who was probably younger than I am now, used to beguile us all with his misty-eyed reminiscences of his youthful days in 30s Spain, which seemed to be spent bathing in icy mountain pools and eating delicious peasant food in country inns. Gamel Woolsey’s autobiographical account of her experiences of the outbreak of Civil War in Andalucía in 1936, and in particular the beginning of the attacks on Malaga, belongs to that same era, when the pastoral tranquillity of the country was shattered irrevocably.

My copy is in the Virago Travellers series

My copy is in the Virago Travellers series

Published in 1939, Death’s Other Kingdom is a lyrical and deeply personal record of her feelings and perceptions as the rugged but idyllic village life she shared in Churriana, just outside Malaga (now absorbed into its post-tourist-resort urban sprawl) with her husband, the Hispanist author Gerald Brenan, turned into a nightmare the morning she woke to the news of Malaga burning ‘under a pall of smoke’.

The opening chapter beautifully evokes that pre-war idyll:

It was the most beautiful day of the summer…The sky at dawn was cloudless and the ‘pink band’ of the tropics, the band of rosy light which ascends the sky from the horizon at twilight, rose to the zenith and faded into the growing light. Then the sun rose suddenly with a leap into the air: the long hot southern day had begun.

 It’s a world of placid serenity, when the Brenans did little more, in the summer heat, than ‘bask in the day like lizards, in the shade of the high white garden wall’ which surrounded their big old house with its walls ‘four feet thick’, and its huge garden, ‘gay with bright flowers, immaculate and cool in any weather.’

She describes the place with sensual, poetic fervor:

I always loved waking in Spain. The sun fell in stripes from the slatted shutters on the red and white diamonded tiles of the floor. Noises from the street below floated up; the pattering feet of the milk goats sounded like rain drops…

 More sounds rise up: the ‘melancholy call’ of the fish sellers ‘their hampers full of fresh fish just coming up from the sea on their lean donkeys’ — Sardinas and boqueronis – ‘the food of the poor, the cheapest of fishes.’ Then come the cries of the vendors of ‘grapes fresh and plump’, tomatoes and ‘pimientos gordos’, ‘melons, lettuces and plums, squashes, peaches and pumpkins were passing, a perfect harvest festival going by on donkeys.’

This is the dominant tone of the book: Woolsey’s profound sympathy for village life and the desperately poor rural inhabitants of these remote mountain and coastal pueblos. There are affectionately vivid portraits throughout the book of the Brenans’ domestic staff: Enrique, ‘a gentle, charming young man’, their passionate gardener, and his mother María the ‘severe’ and crotchety but ‘devoted’ cook-housekeeper and her daughter, a ‘melancholy widow’ called Pilar, whose brief experience of romance is cruelly and violently ended, leaving her in sad solitude again.

Woolsey evokes a now largely vanished rural Andalucia:

For a village in Spain is a unity; its inhabitants are like members of a clan, they have a close and indissoluble bond. ‘My village’ is constantly in the mouth of a Spanish countryman. It is more than ‘my country’.

 The villagers view with deep suspicion anyone from a different village, no matter how close; as for the nearby town of Malaga – it’s seen as the abode of evil people.

But when Malaga is set on fire and the air-raids begin, the peace is shattered. Lorries thunder by constantly:

The young men wave their pistols and throw up their clenched fists in a gesture of triumph.

 All is confusion. The ‘Revolution from the Right’ is countered by a ‘Revolution of the Left’. Rumours fly rapidly. Everyone is fearful, most especially of ‘El Tercio’ – the seasoned Foreign Legion ‘worthy of Lucifer’, and its most feared contingent, the Moors, the expectation of whose arrival ‘ran like a cold wave of horror through the countryside’. Patrols enter the house and the countryside looking for enemies. Arrests and imprisonments are commonplace, and summary executions and brutal reprisals from both sides terrify the people. Former friends become mistrustful enemies. Irreparable fissions form in the village’s life. The Brenans are protected from the worst atrocities by their foreignness – Gerald flies a Union Jack over the house and this acts like a lucky charm. But many of their neighbours and friends are less fortunate.

There are vivid descriptions of their visits to Malaga to see for themselves the terrible destruction wrought by the newly erupted Civil War. There are rueful touches of humour: they meet an Englishman in Malaga who regales them with tales of the night the houses around him were torched:

But I suppose it seems worse for British subjects to lose their luggage than lesser races their lives.

 

Most of the narrative relates with grim impartiality the catastrophic impact of the war on the people. A kind of madness grips the civilians, who indulge their ‘uglier instincts’ and take malicious pleasure in spreading stories of atrocities. It’s the ‘pornography of violence’ as she memorably puts it. ‘Hate is the other side of fear’, she suggests, ‘and it was horrible to see and feel this hate-fear rising around us like a menacing sea.’ The people are gripped by the ‘suspicion and bitterness’ that ‘thrive on fear’; ‘the distrust of Spaniards for other Spaniards is bottomless’.

The strangest section of the book is devoted to the Brenans’ providing refuge in their house to the aristocratic family from whom they’d bought it. Well-known supporters of the Falangists, they were in mortal danger if they stayed on in their own estate near the airport, so they accept the offer of a hiding place for their entire family and retinue. It’s an extraordinarily dangerous gesture of generosity, and would have cost the Brenans their lives, foreigners or not, if their guests had been found by the vengeful workers who searched for them and any other Franco supporters. Our sympathies are hardly engaged when Don Carlos, the head of the family, dances with glee on the Brenans’ rooftop as he watches Malaga burn in a fascist air-raid.

Gamel Woolsey (1895-1968) was an interesting character. Born Elizabeth Gammell (her mother’s maiden name; she later shortened it to Gamel and dropped her first name) Woolsey to a wealthy South Carolina plantation owning family, she was brought up with a sense of morality and virtue that are so apparent in this memoir. Her aunt was the author of the Katy books, Susan Coolidge, whose real name was Sarah Chauncey Woolsey.

She had an affair with a member of the literary Powys family, Llewelyn, whom she followed  to England in 1929, settling in Dorset to be near him. There she met Brenan (1894-1987), and left for Spain with him where they settled as man and wife. He had been a member of the Bloomsbury group, and had been romantically involved with Dora Carrington; Gamel was pursued by the philosopher Bertrand Russell. Leftist in politics, Brenan had served as one of the youngest British officers in WWI. His terrible experiences there explain some of his responses to the brutal behaviour of some of their Spanish neighbours when the Civil War broke out, and his determination to help the oppressed, whatever their politics or religion.

In Spain they were visited by a stream of eminent artists, including Virginia Woolf, the Partridges (Frances wrote the Introduction to my Virago edition of DOK), Hemingway and V.S. Pritchett.

The book’s title is taken from T.S. Eliot’s Dante-influenced poem ‘The Hollow Men’ (1925):

Those who have crossed

With direct eyes, to death’s other kingdom

Remember us – if at all – not as lost

Violent souls, but only

As the hollow men

The stuffed men…

 ‘Death’s other kingdom’ is one of three of death’s kingdoms in the poem, and it relates to that heavenly zone entered by those who have left behind a state of spiritual nothingness (in hell or purgatory) and entered into an enlightened state of knowledge where they are capable of seeing the inner truth. The hollow men are those who fail to reach such heights. Eliot was one of Gamel’s favourite poets (she was primarily a poet herself, though she published very little verse or prose in her lifetime), and the line’s significance for her memoir is apt: it could signify the higher truth to which she felt those who experienced war should aspire, rather than the hypocrisy, lies and deception that so many around her (the hollow men) wallowed in when hostilities broke out, who lost sight of their morals and values.

 

‘Among gentlewomen’: Barbara Pym, ‘Excellent Women’

Excellent Women was Barbara Pym’s second novel, published in 1952, but set, as a note on the MS indicates, in the year immediately after the end of WWII: London is a city still gripped by economic austerity, rationing is still in force, meat and other commodities are in short supply, there are still bomb-ruined churches (though the services still go on), and the men are still coming home from military service to find their homes much changed. The women they left behind have learned to become more independent, and unsure whether they want to return to the old, pre-war culture of subservience to the men.

My Virago Modern Classics copy

My Virago Modern Classics copy

The novel has been much written about by other bloggers (links at end), who all give admirable summaries of plot and themes, so as with some of my recent posts I’ll give just a sketchy outline of plot here, then focus on those aspects of the novel that I found most interesting.

The protagonist is a 31-year-old spinster, Mildred Lathbury (a dowdy name, resonant perhaps of ‘mildewed’ or ‘mouldered’? buried?), who lives alone in a flat in an unfashionable part of London, on ‘the “wrong” side of Victoria station’. She’s a pillar of the local Anglo-Catholic church, and much of her life is devoted to its fund-raising and parochial matters. She’s a close friend of its priest, Julian Malory (he’s ‘about 40’), and his slightly older career-spinster sister, Winifred. The two women have vague notions that he and Mildred might one day marry; he insists he’ll remain celibate, until he meets his glamorous new lodger, Allegra (more on her shortly). Despite her relative youth, Mildred comes across as lonely, middle-aged and frustrated, for she is imaginative and spirited, not entirely convinced that she’s cut out for the life of submissive service to others – of taking on their ‘burden’ (a key word in the narrative) — that she’s assumed, and which others assume, is her lot.

Mildred’s life, and those of the Malorys, are changed irrevocably by the arrival of two sets of new neighbours. This plot device causes all three of them to reassess their relationships, their feelings and their destinies.

The central theme is the desirability of or necessity for a woman to marry. Is there a possibility of fulfilment in any other kind of relation in this world, as there is for men? Pym is too subtle an artist to give a clear answer; her delightful skill lies in her subtle and deceptively witty way of posing such questions.

As others have written so fully about all of this, I’ll simply look at a few passages and comment on what I enjoyed so much about this novel.

First, it isn’t as cosy or twee as it might seem on the surface. As with Jane Austen’s heroines and fictional worlds, with which Pym’s have often been compared, there is a steely, deeply serious quality beneath the humorous, parochial triviality of Mildred’s daily routine.

Another revealing literary parallel drawn explicitly in the narrative; Mildred says early on that she is not Jane Eyre,

Who must have given hope to so many plain women who tell their stories in the first person, nor have I ever thought of myself as being like her.

This merits close attention. There is no further explanation or justification of this remark, and one’s initial reaction is to think: Really? What makes you think that? Isn’t Mildred deceiving herself, or failing to face up to her own shortcomings and weaknesses? By the time I’d finished the novel, however, I revisited this statement, and have come to agree that indeed she isn’t a Jane Eyre. Charlotte Brontë’s heroine is always going to find her Byronic, broodingly handsome and wealthy hero, despite her self-deprecating, humble doubts that such is the fate for the likes of her.

Mildred, the novel shows, is far from certain that her ‘Mr Right’ exists in her circle of acquaintance; more important, she has serious doubts whether she wants or needs a man to complete her. Yes, she presents herself as ‘mousy and rather plain’, with the drab dress sense of a much older woman. But after meeting her glamorous new neighbour, Helena Napier, and the splendidly and deliciously inappropriately named Allegra, a predatory merry widow who turns the head of Julian when she ingratiates herself into his life as his lodger, Mildred smartens herself up and even buys some uncharacteristically sexy ‘Hawaiian Fire’ lipstick and swaps her usual dowdy brown skirts for a chic Dior-esque black dress. She is not prepared to become the kind of ‘excellent woman’ Jane Eyre was, and did not want to conform to that romantic formula – even though like Jane she craves love and companionship. In that sense this can be seen as a proto-feminist novel in its questioning of that kind of fairytale plot outcome.

How does Pym negotiate all this without descending into banality? Here’s a random passage I’d marked early in ch.1:

I don’t know whether spinsters are really more inquisitive than married women, though I believe they are thought to be because of the emptiness of their lives…

 Her language here, as in the previous passage about Jane Eyre, is suggestively ambiguous. Mildred habitually expresses such bleak thoughts in an unassertive way, often as negatives (she is not Jane Eyre, she does not know about married women compared with her own spinster state), with frequent hedges – all that use of adverbial markers of doubt or uncertainty, like ‘really’, ‘rather plain’ and so on. And the more she protests her unworthiness with such unassuming, self-deprecating timidity, the less I believe her. This is the persona she has been ‘trained’ for – as she often suggests about her upbringing as a ‘clergyman’s daughter’. For although it’s her natural inclination to assume her role in life is to be a mouse, as it was Jane Eyre’s, like Jane she has suppressed fire in her. In that sense she IS Jane Eyre – but Jane’s Rochester is definitely not matched by Mildred’s handsome new neighbour Rocky Napier (the similarity of name is surely deliberate).

Photo from the Barbara Pym Society website

Photo from the Barbara Pym Society website

Mildred is sexually attracted to Rocky, with his ‘charming smile’, but realises he’s a shallow, philandering flirt. Part of her would love to throw herself at his feet – but this is not 1847, and Rocky isn’t going to be symbolically castrated, as Rochester is when he’s blinded in the fire at the end of Jane Eyre. On the contrary, Rocky never really looks at Mildred, preferring to gaze at his own reflection in her adoring eyes. And deep down she knows it.

Mildred had worked ‘in the Censorship’ during the war, and later at a ‘Learned Society’ of anthropologists – as Pym herself did. As a consequence she isn’t as unworldly or naïve as she chooses to suggest – though she certainly deceives those who know her into assuming that she is, and it’s easy for a modern reader to fall into the same misconception. Despite her frequent references then to her gradual drift into becoming ‘fussy and spinsterish if I wanted to’, ‘set in my ways’, ‘spinsterish and useless’, one of the shabby-genteel ‘impoverished gentlewomen’ whom she helps out in her voluntary work, the language clearly hints that she doesn’t ‘really’ want this fate:

I forebore to remark that women like me really expected very little – nothing, almost.

 She says this to the other potential romantic partner in her life, the attractive but desiccated Everard Bone (Pym’s good on names). As ever the apparent nullity of her expectations is counterpointed by those qualifications: ‘really’ (yet again), ‘almost’. And of course, she ‘forebore to remark’ the words anyway. She might have thought them, but she sure as hell wasn’t going to say them to the pompous, treacherous Everard.

It’s this plucky refusal ultimately to accept the Trollopian fate that all around her – and those who shaped her – take for granted will be hers that makes Mildred such an engaging heroine, given her apparently self-effacing character. In another of her little remarks in which as usual she appears to present herself as nugatory, there’s the equally usual ambiguity; she’s being teased by Father Julian about her crush on the desirable sailor home from the war, Rocky; Mildred would never ‘do anything foolish’, says his sister Winifred, springing to her defence. Mildred reflects on this ‘a little sadly’ (note the usual hedge) as being ‘only too true’, but

…hoped I did not appear too much that kind of person to others. Virtue is an excellent thing and we should all strive after it, but it can sometimes be a little depressing.

 

Exactly. She may be a female Prufrock, but like Eliot’s wistfully cautious and obtuse ‘Fool’, who is ‘not Prince Hamlet nor was meant to be’, Mildred has heard the male equivalent of ‘mermaids singing’. And she’s less inclined than Prufrock to believe finally that they won’t sing to her – or that if they do, she’ll be taken in by their siren calls.

Other reviews

 Most recent is the excellent post at Jacqui Wine’s Journal. Jacqui closes with links to several other bloggers’ reviews. I’d also recommend to anyone interested in further researching the work of this once neglected author’s work the site of the Barbara Pym Society, which has links to a huge range of web resources, including scholarly conference papers of that Society.

 

 

 

 

 

Edith Wharton, ‘The House of Mirth’

Edith Wharton (1862-1937), The House of Mirth (1905): Virago Modern Classics edition

The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth (Ecclesiastes, 7:4)

House of M coverIt’s fitting that I sit down to start writing this piece on the anniversary of Edith Wharton’s birth – Jan. 24, 1862. She was born into that ‘aristocracy of wealth and tradition’ that Leon Edel describes in his Life of Henry James, whose influence on Wharton’s writing was immense (they first met in 1903, when she was in her fortieth year and he was 60; he found her refined but ‘a little dry’). She never needed to work for a living, having inherited a large fortune. But her circumscribed world of wealthy cosmopolitan socialites was beginning to succumb to the arrivistes who are represented in this novel by the sinister entrepreneur Rosedale – a Jewish stockbroker/speculator whose depiction as a social climber is tainted by the anti-Semitism considered acceptable at the time.

The privileged, luxurious Manhattan world – ‘this crowded, selfish world of pleasure’– was imbued with a hypocritical sense of traditional decencies, strict social codes based on superficial appearances and good manners whilst murkily compromised deeper down.

At the time of their first meeting in 1903, James was working on The Golden Bowl, his intense and complex psychological portrait of a flawed aristocratic marriage, and its impact on a naïve young woman who learns and grows in maturity as a consequence of her husband’s venality. It’s interesting that Wharton’s House of Mirth, published a year after James’s novel, though set in New York, not England (where James had settled, and where his novel was set), has a plot and themes in some ways similar, but different in important ways. Even her title derives from the same book of the Old Testament.

Portrait of Lily Bart (via WikiCommons, public domain)

Portrait of Lily Bart (via WikiCommons, public domain)

As I have written in earlier posts, James was interested in the restricted, frustratingly limited prospects of the ‘American girl’ in a society that demanded of her little more than ornamental charms with which she would be expected to snare a wealthy husband, and which deplored any kind of independence of spirit – this would have been considered subversive. The ‘flatness and futility’ of fashionable New York was what Edith Wharton knew intimately; she, like James, opted for the woman’s view of it, but with a unique insight that he could only imagine. She had struggled for moral and artistic independence in a society in which women were more at the mercy of convention than men; she was able to depict a woman who was born to be an ‘artistic object’:

A frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys. Its tragic implications lie in its power of debasing people and ideals. The answer, in short, was my heroine, Lily Bart (quoted by Nina Bawden, in the Introduction to the VMC edition).

The novel opens when Lily is 29 and still unmarried. Her father had foolishly lost his fortune and both he and her mother are dead. She lives with her unloving aunt in New York, who distributes to her niece sufficient to get by, but which is never enough for extravagant Lily, who had been spoiled as a girl, and who naturally assumed that her beauty deserved luxury and indulgence. As a consequence she is ‘horribly poor – and very expensive. I must have a great deal of money’, as she confesses to Lawrence Selden in the opening chapter. She was ‘not made for mean and shabby surroundings, for the squalid compromises of poverty’, and has a ‘naturally lively taste for splendour’, she reflects later. Selden is the novel’s cowardly hero, and Lily makes the fatal error of believing that his self-satisfied, sanctimonious lectures on the vulgarity and venality of the society they both circulate arise from his truly virtuous moral rigour. What she fails to perceive is that this supercilious attitude is a pose; at heart he hypocritically enjoys the social life he outwardly scorns. They share a mutual attraction, but she considers him unsuitable marriage material because he works for a living (as a lawyer), and isn’t rich enough for her needs. When she needs him most he lets her down cravenly.

She confides in him, in this early and ill-advised tête-à-tête (to visit a bachelor unchaperoned in his rooms, smoke his cigarettes and chat intimately like this would be considered ill-bred, ‘fast’ and morally compromising) that her only hope, as her financial situation reaches crisis-point – she has amassed huge gambling debts on top of her usual extravagances with jewellery and clothing – is to ‘calculate and contrive’ to marry a rich man. But her looks are beginning to fade, and her plight is becoming desperate.

That she has failed to catch a rich husband so far is a result of her impetuous nature and naïve habit of pursuing immediate gratification, over-confident that something better will always turn up. Consequently she has let go several big, wealthy fish at the last minute in order to indulge a fleetingly more enticing whim. This childish recklessness is tempered by an intermittent but genuine moral sense of the ‘great gilt cage in which they were all huddled for the mob to gape at’, with its ‘vacuous routine’ of trivial parties and rancid gossip. Lily would love to have that freedom which Seldon calls ‘the republic of the spirit’, but as a woman this is not accessible to her.

There are several estimable reviews of this novel online (links at the end), which summarise plot and characters thoroughly. I shall restrict my remarks now to the style of the writing, which in my view is the novel’s strength. The plot, skilfully constructed and pacy, with dramatic reversals and a colourful cast of wealthy, leering men and scheming, treacherous women, is perhaps at times a little contrived and strained: poor Lily’s ‘hateful fate’ is made clear from the start. As Jonathan Franzen suggests in his piece (see below), we read on largely because we sympathise with her, despite her often exasperating selfishness and childish impetuosity, her contradictory blend of an ingenuous naturalness (‘sylvan freedom’, Selden considers it) and shimmering artificiality. There’s a lot of Becky Sharp about her: she uses her charm and beauty to attract a rich man, but lacks the ruthlessness of the other women in her social circle which would provide her with the security she craves. Even in extremity there’s a courageous spirit in her:

Misfortune had made Lily supple instead of hardening her, and a pliable substance is less easy to break than a stiff one.

 Even though she has the means with which to blackmail her way out of her ultimate crisis, she refuses to stoop to such behaviour – her own destruction is the outcome. When she’s betrayed and cruelly shunned by society, and staring into the abyss, Lily shows a heroic, noble spirit, even when confronting ‘the shifts, the expedients, the humiliations’ of the poverty she has no resources to cope with. As one of her circle, Mrs Fisher, says of Lily’s fluctuating fortunes:

‘Sometimes…I think it’s just flightiness – and sometimes I think it’s because, at heart, she despises the things she’s trying for.’

I’d like to finish with a look at some of the  barbed, epigrammatic narrative comments. This is an early description of Lily about to stalk her prey – a shy wealthy dullard called Percy Gryce:

She had the art of giving self-confidence to the embarrassed, but she was not equally sure of being able to embarrass the self-confident.

Such parallel structures can seem trite, but the chiasmus here is wittily shrewd.

Character portraits are often Wildean in their acerbity: this is the socialite Mrs George Dorset:

…she was like a disembodied spirit who took up a great deal of room.

 Finally, a passage which caustically reveals the moral lesson Lily begins to learn at the novel’s midway stage, as her plans go awry and her reputation suffers:

She was realising for the first time that a woman’s dignity may cost more to keep up than her carriage; and that the maintenance of a moral attribute should be dependent on dollars and cents made the world appear a more sordid place than she had conceived it.

 

There are numerous reviews online; I’d recommend Trevor Berrett’s post at the Mookse and Gripes website, and Jonathan Franzen’s New Yorker article. I’ve just read JacquiWine’s post and find I’ve quoted several of the same passages! Hers is a judicious reading of this classic novel.

 

 

 

 

 

Ivy Compton-Burnett, ‘A Family and a Fortune’

Ivy Compton-Burnett’s novel A Family and a Fortune, published in 1939, is the only one of her twenty novels that I have read so far, but from what I have gleaned from other reviews and articles about her, they are all mordantly witty, surgical explorations, written almost entirely in the form of elegantly expressed dialogue, of the painful vicissitudes of comfortably well-off country gentry at a late Victorian-early Edwardian period of English history. Hilary Mantel, for example, refers to each one as ‘a gavotte on needles’.

The plot is complicated and eventful. It concerns the dramatic impact on the Gaveston family (and their circle) of a large inheritance; there are several deaths, a broken engagement, and various other twists and narrative turns.

In ‘A conversation between Margaret Jourdain and ICB’ in the Turtle Point Press ‘Traveltainted’ online literary magazine here (MJ was ICB’s housemate-companion for much of her adult life; she died in 1951), Compton-Burnett cheerfully agrees that she has very little interest in ‘exposition and description’, and prefers to hear her characters’ voices. Authorial comments or free indirect discourse are sparse; much of the wickedly pleasurable experience of reading this novel derives from the brilliantly orchestrated, extended sequences of internecine warfare conducted through acerbically epigrammatic drawing-room or dining-room family conversations in the Gavestons’ large country house.

Unfortunately for me, this makes it almost impossible to demonstrate the exquisite skill shown by the writer, for each speech depends on the whole context of the entire conversation, for each one is intricately woven into the whole sequence of discourse; to quote a short extract out of context would not do the longer sections justice.

Often it is difficult to determine who is speaking to whom, for the characters tend to converse in fairly large family groups, without the author ascribing a name to the speaker, or making it clear which of the group they are addressing. This means one has to read closely and attentively, and often, I found, re-read – but it’s an effort that I recommend you make, for the dialogue has some of the wit of Wilde, the insight and wisdom of Austen, and the technical dexterity and psychological subtlety of Henry James – with a touch of the bleakness and darkness found in later masters of suggestive, elliptical dialogue such as Pinter and, weirdly, Beckett himself.

What I can do is to quote a few sections in an attempt to illustrate some of the other rewarding aspects of what second son (of three) Mark Gaveston calls ‘our family drama’ (the Freudian note is apposite). His late-middle-aged father, Edgar Gaveston, is married to Blanche, whose sister Matilda (Matty), two years her senior, comes to live, along with her elderly father, Oliver, and her much-put-upon companion, Miss Griffin, in the Lodge House on the Gaveston estate, having come down in the world and grudgingly sought charitable refuge. Far from showing gratitude for Blanche and her family’s generosity, Matty displays nothing but venomous selfishness and resentful self-pity for her straitened circumstances, and she verbally skewers each of the Gavestons remorselessly, while bullying the unfortunate Miss Griffin, and anyone else who has the misfortune to enter into her sight. The Gaveston family is completed by the presence with them for much of his adult life of Edgar’s kindly, slightly younger bachelor brother, Dudley, whose inheritance of a large fortune precipitates the action of the novel.

The cover of my beautifully designed PMC edition of 1962

The cover of my beautifully designed PMC edition of 1962

Character description is one of the only occasions when the author ventures into authorial comment of any kind. When Matty first appears at the Gaveston house, this is what we are told about her:

 A fall from a horse had rendered her an invalid, or rather obliged her to walk with a stick, but her energy seemed to accumulate, and to work itself out at the cost of some havoc within her…She had never met a man [ie potential marriage material] whom she saw as her equal, as her conception of herself was above any human standard. She may also have had some feeling that a family would take her attention and that of others from herself. [This portrait is frequently shown to be accurate in Matty’s conversation later, for example:]‘Dear, dear, it is a funny thing, a family. I can’t help feeling glad sometimes that I have had no part in making one.’

Dialogue is not always unnaturally poised, literary and stylised, as most critics have complained – although it is often baroque and deviously allusive; here’s Matty, talking to the assembled characters around her, when Dudley’s huge inheritance has been revealed:

‘I too might have been left a fortune…Well, a man was in love with me or said he was; and I could see it for myself, so I cannot leave it out; and I refused him – well, we won’t dwell on that; and when we got that behind, he wanted to leave me all he had. And I would not let him, and we came to words, as you would say, and the end of it was that we did not meet again. And a few days afterwards he was thrown from his horse and killed. And the money went to his family, and I was glad that it should be so, as I had given him nothing, and I could not take and not give. But what do you say to that, as a narrow escape from a fortune?’

This speech could hardly be simpler in structure or vocabulary, with its multiple paratactic ‘ands’ and ‘buts’, those colloquial largely monosyllabic expressions and the repeated discourse marker ‘well’. This shows how the author’s skill resides not just in the beautifully wrought, subtly nuanced prose conversations, but in her ability to reveal character indirectly like this in passages of realistically, apparently straightforwardly ingenuous, dialogue. But Matty’s bitter irony at the end of this speech is breathtaking. Whether she intends to reveal so much of her sordid nastiness, or realises she’s doing so, is part of the ambiguous effect. Did she even have such an experience, or is she just making up a story about another horse accident victim to highlight her own devious self-depiction as a worse sufferer, who persists in projecting a monstrously distorted image of herself as a martyr, a long-suffering saint?  And Compton-Burnett herself acknowledges in the interview cited earlier that wrong-doing in a novel is more ‘spectacular’ and attracts more sympathy from a reader than virtue, and makes a ‘more definite picture or event’; the villain tends to ‘usurp the hero’s place’. Egocentric Matty seeks revenge on the whole world for what she perceives as the injustices life has meted out to her.

Money – a central theme and topic of conversation – is also a device for revealing characters’ flaws, defects and occasional merits (Edgar’s daughter Justine’s stern moral probity and her little brother Aubrey’s adolescent but precocious wit, for example), as Dudley’s inheritance is disbursed to then withdrawn from the other Gavestons with the plot’s rollercoaster swoops; this is Dudley, on announcing he’s to give his brother’s rancid sister-in-law, Matty, a small allowance out of his inheritance – but a generous sum nonetheless:

‘Two hundred a year is a tenth of two thousand, and it must be mean to offer anyone a tenth of what you have. It sounds as if I were keeping nine times as much for myself. I hope Matty will not hear before she goes. People don’t resent having nothing nearly as much as too little. I have only just found that out. I am getting the knowledge of the rich as well as their ways. And of course anyone would resent being given a tenth.’

‘Riches are a test of character and I am exposed’, he says soon after, when Matty writes him an unctuously ambiguous note to thank him. He is one of the few characters to emerge with much dignity. All the others reveal more or less unflattering aspects of themselves as they respond to the fluctuations of their fortunes in the light of Dudley’s (and hence their own) changes of circumstance. Watching this process unfold is fascinating and often darkly, deliciously humorous.

The dialogue distributes ambiguities, multi-faceted, hinted-at underlying meanings and innuendo, lurking insidiously below the apparently innocent surface remarks; these in turn often lead to discussion and metapragmatic debate as to what the speaker might really have meant, and how their words could or should be interpreted. It’s a heady mix.

An example of this: Dudley has announced his departure to arrange some legal matters, and his thirty-year-old niece, Edgar’s only daughter Justine – a wonderfully drawn, outspoken character, who has some stirring verbal duels with formidable Aunt Matty – has asked for one of the menfolk to take her aunt’s arm to help the self-proclaimed invalid; Matty snaps,

‘I think I may stay here, dear. I am not so able-bodied as to keep running away on any pretext…’

‘I think it would be better to forget your office [senior woman of the household at that point] for once. Too duenna-like a course is less kind than it sounds.’

‘It did not sound kind, dear. And the words are not in place. There is nothing duenna-like about me. I have no practice in such things. I have been a person rather to need them from other people.’

 As always she wrings every last drop of self-pity out of a speech intended for once by Justine to be attentive to her aunt’s needs, and a dramatic situation in which her family – even the perennially exasperated Justine – are trying to be helpful.

‘Yes, I daresay, Aunt Matty [Justine replies]. I did not mean the word to be a barbed one.

Oh, I think you probably did, Justine, and doesn’t Matty let you know it!

After one of the final critical plot developments, Dudley is stung into an uncharacteristically critical and heartfelt outburst against his brother Edgar, who has unapologetically and shamelessly stolen Dudley’s fiancée Maria Sloane from him to replace his deceased wife, and Maria is forced to contemplate the awkward position she now occupies, in another rare moment of authorial comment; this is Dudley to Edgar:

‘You may be glad to be left with your wife, and I shall be glad to leave you. I shall be glad, Edgar. I have always been alone in your house, always in my heart. You had nothing to give. You have nothing. There is nothing in your nature. You did not care for Blanche. You do not care for your children. You have not cared for me. You have not even cared for yourself, and that has blinded us. May Maria deal with you as you are, and not as I have done.’

Maria stood apart, feeling she had nothing to do with the scene, that she must grope for its cause in a depth where different beings moved and breathed in a different air. The present seemed a surface scene, acted over a seething life, which had been calmed but never dead. She saw herself treading with care lest the surface break and release the hidden flood, felt that she learned at that moment how to do it, and would ever afterwards know…

This may not be a novel to rank with Austen or James, but it’s not far off, in my view. But I think for many it will be an acquired taste. I’d be interested to hear what others who’ve read it think.

 

 

 

 

Barbara Comyns, ‘Our Spoons Came from Woolworths’

Barbara Comyns’ novel Our Spoons Came from Woolworths (first published in 1950) has attracted considerable critical attention recently, much of it a consequence of reissues by various publishing houses of several Comyns novels – notably NYRB Classics in autumn 2015. Because it’s so easy to find online reviews with plot summaries, I’ll simply discuss here some features of the novel that seemed to me so remarkable.

Inevitably I need to say a little about the plot. Sophia is an engagingly bright, ingenuous, unworldly woman of 20 who marries Charles when they are just 21. Most of the novel relates the hellish experiences she undergoes in this marriage to a selfish, probably talentless struggling artist. He insists that he needs his freedom to work on his art: this means Sophia has to do all the paid work and domestic chores. He loftily assumes that this is her sphere and responsibility – an attitude that even today hasn’t entirely disappeared.

The Virago Modern Classics cover of my edition

The Virago Modern Classics cover of my edition

Maggie O’Farrell describes this situation perfectly in her introduction to my VMC edition as the ‘erosion of a woman’s spirit through her husband’s vain and casual cruelty’.

It’s not a spoiler to say that Sophia finds happiness in the end after a gruelling sequence of horrible events. The key to the story’s being told at all is given to us in its arresting opening sentence:

I told Helen my story and she went home and cried.

In the final chapter we learn that Helen is a close friend of Sophia’s. The narration takes place eight years after the grinding Dickensian poverty and misogyny Sophia experienced during her first marriage in London. When she’s finally freed from the parasitic Charles she finds true love and a happy marriage. This colours the way she tells the story: it’s a testament of the indomitable young woman’s spirit that enabled her to endure appalling events and emotional abuse: even as she tells, in the final chapter, of her new-found happiness, she fears it won’t last:

At first, because I wasn’t used to happiness and freedom from worry, I would be terrified that disaster was coming round the corner at any minute.

It’s much more than a sort of fictitious misery memoir, then; despite all the ordeals that Sophia endures it’s strangely uplifting and often very funny (misery is subverted by lines like ‘even the cat had run away’ when there’s no food for the young family to eat). It’s the mode of narration and the narrative voice that are so interesting. Like Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, she’s compelled to tell her story in a bleakly matter-of-fact voice to her incredulous, horrified friend; it’s a kind of therapy, but she keeps the full emotional horror at bay by either ignoring it or minimising it (those flashes of humour in the face of adversity are one such device).

The narrative at first seems charmingly eccentric, humorous and more than a little twee (for example Sophia has a bizarre taste in pets; her favourite is a newt), as the young couple scrape together enough to set up home (hence those cheap spoons); here’s a typical example of her capacity for seemingly inadvertent insight (she’s talking about a man who thinks he can cook):

Men are often like that. They say they can cook and it turns out to be an omelette, scrambled egg or sausages. They never can cook jam or Christmas pudding and proper things like that (I don’t, of course, include chefs when I say this, I mean real men).

The lightly humorous parenthesis is a smokescreen; Sophia in such moments of lucidity is perfectly aware of the gender inequalities that beset her; incapable of fighting them, inexperienced as she is, she makes fun of them instead. It’s a charmingly pointed, poignant weapon.

The tone darkens perceptibly, though, as money runs out and Charles refuses to work gainfully; the Bohemian idyll turns into a nightmare. Sophia’s voice throughout alternates, as her vicissitudes multiply, between a sort of jauntily optimistic cheerfulness and grimly stoical acceptance.

Here resides most of the novel’s power, for me: the reader is required to fill in the unstated social, moral and emotional message. Sophia isn’t lacking in perception as she tells her story: she’s protecting herself from its full traumatic impact. We have to reconstruct this ourselves, and thus feel its force indirectly, in the near-absence of emotionally explicit comment or analysis from Sophia’s point of view – what she does state is obliquely offered, and she’s usually reluctant to judge or lapse into self-pity. Here’s a typical example, indicative of her fatal inexperience, as she relates her response to starting an affair with a married man who appears to care for her:

I had had one and a half children, but had been a kind of virgin the whole time. I wondered if there were other women like this, but I knew so few women intimately it was difficult to tell.

Her second baby, a daughter called Fanny, dies of scarlet fever (from which Sophia almost dies also) after they spend a night on the bitterly cold streets, having been turned away by that treacherous lover Peregrine, Fanny’s father. ‘Her life had been wasted because of stupidity and poverty’, muses Sophia. This heartbreaking summary is not innocent or naive: she is perfectly aware of the injustice of her fate, but is powerless to change it. She lacks agency in a patriarchal society – it’s significant that although she’s an artist herself, the only way she can make money is by exploiting her beauty through posing as a model for male artists – whose gaze is usually more sexually than aesthetically inspired. But Comyns is too subtle a writer to hector her reader with feminist polemic; this adds to the novel’s powerful emotional impact.

These brief extracts above give an indication of her extraordinary voice. It’s often somewhat misleadingly described as naïve and simple – there are recurring, dated, gushing colloquialisms, like ‘I was frit’. ‘I wish I knew more about words’, she admits in chapter 9, where she stoically but pointedly remarks that ‘this will never be a real book that businessmen in trains will read’. (Jane Eyre might have said something similarly self-deprecating but mordant.) I agree with Trevor Berrett in his short but perceptive piece in a Nov. 2015 ‘Mookse and Gripes’ review of the NYRB Classics reissue here, when he says: ‘There’s no doubt that the protagonist in Our Spoons Came from Woolworths lacks polish and sophistication, but Comyns’ rendering and style — which to me is more like Hemingway than like a child — is complex and darkly psychological.’

It’s tempting, as some reviewers have said, to feel frustrated with this aspect of Sophia: she seems too passive and accepting of all the troubles life (and society) throws at her, too inclined to feel sympathy for the appalling Charles when she is the one suffering – but there is an element of toughness in her:

Charles was getting desperate. I felt dreadfully sorry for him, but angry, too.

She doesn’t seem fully to recognise how guiltless she is, how feckless the men in her life are, and how stacked against her are the social and cultural attitudes towards women in the 30s, where this novel is set. In the Paris Review article (taken from her introduction to the NYRB Classics reissue) here Emily Gould writes about the ‘class and sex limbo’ in which Sophia finds herself, horrifically and frankly portrayed in the three chapters devoted to her labour and childbirth as a charity case in a bleak public pre-NHS hospital – she’s too poor to give birth, as most middle class women would have done in the 1930s, at home, so endures brutal and humiliating treatment from the maternity unit staff. She feels ‘shame, helplessness and terror.’

I don’t think the happy ending is too like a fairytale’s. It’s in keeping with the tone and voice of the narrative, as I’ve tried to show here, that Sophia is shown ultimately as a survivor, and her integrity is justly rewarded. But it’s hard not to feel disgruntled that this has to come in the form of the love of a good – and very wealthy – man.

Virginia Woolf, ‘Between the Acts’

Virginia Woolf, née Stephens (1882-1941), was famously a central figure in the Bloomsbury Group, that loosely-linked, sexually entangled set of artists and writers who originally lived and met in the Bloomsbury district of central London. I’m sure I don’t need to say more: this is well-charted territory, and my OWC edition has an informative Preface and Introduction by the great Frank Kermode.

1902 photo of Virginia Woolf by George C. Beresford/Hulton Archive/Getty Images) via Wikimedia commons

1902 photo of Virginia Woolf by George C. Beresford/Hulton Archive/Getty Images) via Wikimedia commons

Between the Acts was completed in November 1940 but published in 1941, shortly after the author had drowned herself in the River Ouse in Sussex, having lapsed into another episode of the depression that had dogged her throughout her life. Its title derives from the novel’s central event: the staging of a ‘pageant’ about English history in the grounds of Pointz Hall, the country seat of the Oliver family.

The novel’s subject is the history and culture of England as enacted in the pageant, possibly in response to the desperate atmosphere in which it was written, shortly after the outbreak of World War II. London was enduring the blitz – the Woolfs’ London house was damaged in it. Europe had largely fallen under the Nazi onslaught, and German invasion seemed imminent. Virginia’s husband, the Jewish intellectual Leonard Woolf, knew well what his fate would be under German occupation. From their Sussex house near the south coast of England they watched some of the aerial dogfights as the German planes flew towards their target zones: the industrial centres of Britain.

The very survival of the country, and all that the Woolfs held dear in it – art, literature, civilization itself – seemed doomed. This novel can be seen, then, as concerning itself with endings: internationally and politically, but also personally. It’s set in June 1939, just before war was declared, but the crisis was clearly coming even then.

My initial response to the novel was not entirely positive. The first half reads something like an Evelyn Waugh kind of witty portrait of privileged country gentry patronising the rural peasantry, with a great deal of sparkling social conversation and concerns expressed (as with Mrs Dalloway) about the refreshments (will the fish be fresh?) and about the weather – the pageant can only be staged outdoors if fine, in the swallow-haunted barn if wet. Kermode points out, however, that the novel needs to be read as a high modernist summa of contradictory images and thoughts: it is a linguistic enactment of the polarities which make up what we consider to be reality, and out of which we strive to make some kind of coherent sense. I shall give this a try.

From the opening paragraphs another feature becomes apparent: the use of imagery as another means of attempting to convey life with all its shiftings of solidity. First we see Mrs Haines, ‘the wife of a gentleman farmer’:

a goosefaced woman with eyes protruding as if they saw something to gobble in the gutter

 

Then Isa, wife of old Bart Oliver’s son Giles, enters:

She came in like a swan swimming in its way; then was checked and stopped.

People quote Byron (the first of innumerable intertextualities, from canonical literary authors like the Romantics and Shakespeare, to snatches of nursery rhyme), and the words, the narrative suggests – at this point focalising on Isa’s consciousness with its streaming flow –

made two rings, perfect rings, that floated them, herself and Haines, like two swans down stream. But his snow-white breast was tangled with a circle of dirty duckweed; and she too in her webbed feet was entangled, by her husband the stockbroker.

 

What’s going on here? It’s tempting to fall into biographical fallacy and see a prophetic allusion to Virginia Woolf’s imminent death in the weedy Ouse; this may be so, but more to the point the entwined, iterated images of birds and water indicate that there are darker undercurrents, especially in the central relationships between the elderly brother and sister, Lucy and Bart Oliver, but more particularly that of Giles – who has a roving eye — and Isa, with whom he fails to connect emotionally. At the personal and the national level, that is, things are falling apart.

Images of birds and death and violence convey this. In the next paragraph Miss Haines, feeling excluded from the emotion circulating in the room, anticipates the moment in the car on the way home when

she would destroy it, as a thrush pecks the wings off a butterfly.

It’s a mistake, then, to read Between the Acts – as I admit I did initially – as simply a fanciful sequence of non-events and what Kermode calls ‘irrelevant fancies’; the author wasn’t especially interested in plot – her aim is to represent the randomness and incoherence of the fracturing world in the texture of her language, as poetry does. If it’s read in this spirit, the novel appears less trivial.

The animal and bird imagery is woven through the novel, illuminating as in a verbal tapestry the narrative. This too is heavily freighted with rhythmic and syntactic patterns, as Kermode shows: dyadic and triadic patterns, repetitions and inversions, heavily marked by intrusive punctuation, are frequent. Back to violent imagery and stream of troubled consciousness. Here’s Lucy Swithin –

She had been waked by the birds. How they sang! attacking the dawn like so many choir boys attacking an iced cake.

 

She goes on to muse about prehistoric Britain, when there were ‘rhodedendron forests’ in Piccadilly, and no English Channel divided the country from the continent. By examining this imagery it’s possible to see that Virginia Woolf is attempting, through such poetic tropes, to portray Britain in its entirety, from prehistory to the current desperate time of war, in terms of transitory fleetingness and cyclical patterns (birds inhabit the air (like warplanes?) or drift on water; their lives are short; swallows are often mentioned: they migrate – depart, arrive back). The troubled relationships of the central characters counterpoint these larger matters.

The second half of the novel I found less satisfactory. It relates in what I found to be too much detail the contents of the pageant: staged tableaux and mini-plays depicting important milestones in Britain’s history, from early cavemen to the 1930s. There are long extracts of dramatic dialogue that I confess I often skipped. I also skimmed the last 50 pages.

The cover of my Oxford World's Classics paperback edition

The cover of my Oxford World’s Classics paperback edition

Between the Acts is worth reading, however, for its first half. Here’s a last extract to indicate its better poetic qualities, with those rhythmic patterns and swirling images:

Mrs Sands [the cook] fetched bread; Mrs Swithin fetched ham. One cut the bread; the other the ham. It was soothing, it was consolidating, this handiwork together…Why’s stale bread, [Lucy] mused, easier to cut than fresh? And so skipped, sidelong, from yeast to alcohol; so to fermentation; so to inebriation; so to Bacchus; and lay under purple lamps in a vineyard in Italy, as she had done, often; while Sands heard the clock tick; saw the cat; noted a fly buzz; and registered, as her lips showed, a grudge she mustn’t speak against people making work in the kitchen while they had a high old time hanging paper roses in the barn.

 

Some readers may find this too highly wrought; in some ways it is. But it’s also a subtle representation of the ways different people’s thoughts flow ineluctably towards the unknown, intertwining but never fully merging, laden with images (bread, clock, cat, fly) and sensations of sounds, sights and memories, from the mundane and concrete to the ethereal, abstract and imaginative. No individual can ever truly know another, this passage seems to suggest, or fully connect – but she can try. I can think of few other writers who come close to such a feat of narrative performance. Henry James, perhaps. It’s hard work, reading this novel, but probably worth the effort.

I maybe need to read it again in the light of the second thoughts I’ve begun outlining here, and the brief assessment of some of the extracts cited; and give its other half a more attentive reading. Meanwhile I have other holiday reading to post about, and more books to read. And work next week…

 

 

In America bluff is everything. William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams (1883-1963), White Mule. Penguin Modern Classics1971

William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) is probably best known for his pared-down, brief poems like The Red Wheelbarrow and This is Just to Say (I have eaten/the plums/that were in/the icebox…), or urban poetic epics like Paterson (he lived most of his life in New Jersey). After an early flirtation with the Imagists – his second volume of poems was published in 1912 with the support of Ezra Pound, whom he’d met at university in Pennsylvania – Williams’ writing style was to change direction towards a more radical modernism; he rejected the highly allusive and multilingual intellectual European style of Eliot, adopting instead a voice that was distinctively American vernacular, with his mantra ‘no ideas but in things’.

Williams also wrote prose fiction and non-fiction; one of my tutors at Bristol University, Charles Tomlinson (a British poet who died in August of this year) introduced me to modern American writing, and in particular that of Williams and Wallace Stevens, two poets he admired. He in his turn had an enormous influence on my own literary interests; he’s much missed – a genuinely kind and sensitive teacher.

1921 passport photo of Williams

1921 passport photo of Williams

I was interested in following up my reading of another American poet’s prose work, E.E. Cummings’ The Enormous Room, about which I wrote here last week, with that of Williams: what sort of novel would this paediatrician-poet create? Published in 1937, White Mule was the first in a trilogy of novels about the immigrant Stecher family’s struggle to assimilate in New York City. Its title derives, according to something I read online, but I don’t recall seeing it in the novel, from the baby, Flossie, whose fierce kick is likened to that of White Mule whiskey.

The plot is minimal: the novel opens with the birth of Gurlie and Joe Stecher’s second child:

She entered, as Venus from the sea, dripping. The air enclosed her, she felt it all over her, touching, waking her.

The baby is sickly and cantankerous, and her mother’s response on learning her sex is at first callous and negligent: ‘Another girl. Agh. I don’t want girls. Take it away and let me rest.’ She takes out her annoyance on Joe, telling him he’ll now have to earn more. And here one of the novel’s central themes emerges: Gurlie wants to live the American Dream, and as a woman is incapable of achieving her ambition on her own; she urges Joe to be more assertive:

You are too careful, you have no daring, you must bluff!

Never, said he.

You must. In America bluff is everything…be a better bluff than they are…But you are too timid. I could do it. But now is the time. You have two daughters now and I am not going to sit down and be a hausfrau. I am going to live and see the world and I must have money. And you are going to make it for me…If you think I’m going to stay here and have babies one after the other and nothing else you fool yourself. You tell those people you want more money or quit. If you don’t, I quit.

 The style is akin to that of Williams’s poetry: spare, idiomatic, concrete, almost monosyllabic. There’s minimal punctuation and no quotation marks for speech, or paragraphing to differentiate speakers’ utterances. Free indirect discourse abounds, as when Joe muses that outburst of Gurlie’s:

Watching her eyes flash, the very insensibility of her fire somehow excited him in spite of himself. It was something he did not understand but there it was. Foolish or reasonable, but there it was. He could understand that all right…It was his own wife. She had the brains of a chicken – but that was his hard luck. He had married her, hadn’t he? That wasn’t her fault…What did he care? He felt admiration – a borrowed resentment against the world momentarily possessed him. Yes, she was right. He was abler than the rest…

Notice how the stream of Joe’s untutored, barely articulate thoughts is complemented by the narrator’s higher-register observations. He and Gurlie make a formidable team. Go out and fight them, she tells him: ‘It is a free country. If you don’t fight for it you get nothing – but to be called a fool. You owe it to me to fight.’

Joe, a printer, was once a firebrand union member, but at the time the novel opens he’s turned gamekeeper, having become disillusioned with the corruption of union officials: as foreman in his printing works he does the owner’s bidding in pushing the workforce to ever greater output with minimal financial reward, taking great pride in his own technical printing skill. The printers eventually call a strike, which Joe resolutely defies and fights, even risking his own life as the hostility grows. But his ungrateful boss fails to recognise his loyalty, and doesn’t even give him a raise when the strike ends. Gurlie is disgusted with him.

This is really Flossie’s novel. Much of the book relates her precarious infancy as a succession of youthful, inept nursemaids take unprofessional care of her; her mother finds her a chore. Williams’s clinical expertise as a pediatrician is apparent in his wonderful descriptions of the infant’s development:

For a fact the baby liked it immensely in that hot room, if actions mean anything, for it lay completely relaxed on its back, its head moving slowly about as if it were viewing the room though its eyes didn’t seem to focus on anything…The baby was playing up to the girl’s gentle voice and easy manner to perfection. With half closed eyes, it moved first a finger then an arm as if talking some mysterious sign language.

When malnutrition, neglect and infections weaken Flossie dangerously, her mother is advised to take her into the country for a healthier environment. Taking her other daughter with her (she’s five when Flossie is born), Gurlie lodges with a frugal, elderly Norwegian couple at their farm in upstate New York. Flossie thrives in the regime there, and Gurlie loves rural life, having been raised on a farm in Norway – she feels ‘cooped and tormented by city exigencies.’

By the novel’s end Joe appears to have made a deal with another printer-entrepreneur to start up his own company, a development which will please his driven wife.

Mule cover This is an artistically more ambitious and skilfully realised work than The Enormous Room, with a more artful structure and rounded portrayal of character and relationships. At first I found the abrupt shift of scene from the city to the country farm odd and felt it unbalanced the novel, and the open ending, with an apparently inconsequential rural event, unsatisfactory. On reflection, however, I’ve come to see that it points forward to the next novel in the sequence, and I find I do want to stay with the account of this abrasive, dysfunctional family, which manages simultaneously somehow to persuade me that they’re more than just a force to reckon with – they become a symbol of America’s thrusting, upwardly mobile immigrant-founded citizenry: they’re people who, despite their unattractive selfishness and truculent ambition are credible as flawed, striving human beings.

The novel closes with a description of Flossie and other children watching the menfolk (some are from Boston) shoot their rifles:

The children were standing back in a fascinated circle, the baby’s face smeared with berry juice, her hands sooty: quite part of it all.

 She has survived the ordeal of her first year in America and has become ‘part of it all.’ An American. But the cost to Joe has been high as he struggles to maintain his integrity in the face of corrupt unions on the one hand and greedy, corrupt employers – whose number he is about to join in order to get ‘In the Money’ – on the other.

We are all, in our diverse ways, immigrants, craving integration and assimilation while maintaining our independence and hoping for our families to flourish. Would Flossie thrive today, I wonder?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Short post about Cheever’s Christmas story

BBC Radio 4 has a recording of John Cheever’s excellent story ‘Christmas is a Sad Season For the Poor’, read by Martin Freeman – so charming in the Sherlock BBC TV dramas – and available to listen to for almost a month. Highly recommended. Link HERE.

220px-JohncheeverYou might also want to look up my 2014 review of this story HERE. Bittersweet, like Dickens’ more famous seasonal story.

Have read several books recently that I’m hoping to write about here soon: E.E. Cummings, William Carlos Williams, Barbara Comyns among others. Once the holiday guests and visits are departed/completed I might find time to compose some posts. In the meantime I hope you’ve had an enjoyable holiday – if you had one – and have a peaceful, fulfilling 2016.

I’m not a big fan of ‘best books of the year’ posts, so won’t be doing one here. But do read through my archive if you’re interested in what I had to say about this year’s reading. I recently bought some bargain bundles from The Book People: Hemingway, Wharton, the Barbara Comyns that I mentioned, Barbara Pym, Edna O’Brien’s country girls trilogy (which my wife is currently enjoying; she doesn’t always like my recommendations!)…So plenty of reading to keep me going. Bulgakov, Franzen’s ‘Purity’ and Pound’s complete Cantos for Christmas, too (not to mention Clarice Lispector’s complete stories still languishing accusingly on the shelves from my birthday wish list). A desert retreat would be good so I could just binge on them all…

 

The soonness of the train: E.E. Cummings

People, says Cummings in his 1932 Introduction to the 1971 Penguin Modern Classics edition of this autobiographical novel first published in 1922, had wanted a war book but were disappointed; in The Enormous Room he ‘uses war: to explore an inconceivable vastness which is so unbelievably far away that it appears microscopic’. Something ‘more unimaginably huge than the most prodigious of all universes – …The individual.’ This is an account of an individual’s struggle against a callous wartime system.

Edward Estlin Cummings was born in Cambridge, Massechussetts in 1894, the son of a Harvard professor who later became a Unitarian minister in Boston. With family friends like Henry James’s philosopher brother William, it was unsurprising that he graduated from Harvard in 1915. In 1917 he enlisted in the Norton-Harjes ambulance corps in France (Hemingway also drove ambulances in WWI). With his friends John Dos Passos and William Slater Brown (known as ‘B’ in this book) he became deeply Francophile, hostile to the bigoted, bellicose attitudes of his superiors, and all three volunteers, especially Brown, expressed in their letters and conversation anti-war sentiments which exhibited a lack of animosity towards the Germans which the military censors considered seditiously suspicious. He and Brown were arrested, cursorily arraigned, and committed to a ‘dépôt de triage’ – a sort of interim jail – at La Ferté-Macé in Normandy for over three months.

Paul Klee adorns the cover of my PMC edition

Paul Klee adorns the cover of my PMC edition

Here they were incarcerated in the huge cell which gave the book its title. More of a bitter-humorous memoir or journal than novel, The Enormous Room simply relates the events leading up to Cummings’ arrest and imprisonment, and then profiles the brutal, unhygienic regime he endured, with portraits of dozens of the varied inmates with whom he shared this ordeal. Most of them were there simply because they were foreign; in the eyes of the French government, depicted in the book as blinkered by bureaucratic xenophobia and systemic stupidity, this was sufficient grounds to consider them spies.

 

In many ways the book resembles Solzhenitsyn’s blistering account of a Soviet gulag in Ivan Denisovitch, but Cummings imbues his narrative with the irreverent wit of a young American non-conformist adrift in the France he loved for its culture but which was governed and administered by thuggish buffoons – according to this account.

A surprising factor is that there are only intermittent signs of the experimental style of his later poetry, with its typographic unorthodoxy and syntactic fluidity; his prose style is curiously stately, even Victorian/Edwardian in its ornateness. At times, in fact, it’s rather too stuffy and decoratively literary, with frequent allusions to Pilgrim’s Progress that clog its workings awkwardly.

But there are also modified quotations from Pound, and hints of the high modernism to come. Some excellent images, too: on the march to prison he describes the scene –

The road was absolutely deserted; the night hung loosely around it, here and there tattered by attempting moonbeams…and the delicious silence of the night (in which our words rattled queerly like tin soldiers in a plush-lined box) boosted me…

Installed in La Ferté he describes the disgusting coffee and bread:

Between gulps I smelled the bread furtively. It smelled rather much like an old attic in which kites and other toys gradually are forgotten in a gentle darkness.

 There are a few unfortunate casual racist terms that can probably be ascribed to the intolerant attitudes of the times. Otherwise it’s a deeply humane story of the principled resistance by a young man of deep moral rectitude to the inane and unimaginative prejudices of a corrupt and hopelessly narrow-minded system that was rendered even more stupidly corrupt by war. The need to oppose the enemy encouraged an attitude of self-righteously venomous racism that would be unimaginable today, except it’s still too (sadly) evident.

Most of the portraits of Cummings’ colourful cell-mates are intriguing, affectionate and entertaining, but the catalogue does at times seem too long and detailed. The style, already mentioned, can also cloy the narrative:

The door by which we exited with the water-wagon to the street outside was at least eight feet high, adorned with several large locks…We waited until told to proceed; then yanked and shoved the reeling vehicle up the street…[a water source] operating by means of a stubby lever which, when pressed down, yielded grudgingly a spout of whiteness. The contrivance was placed in sufficiently close proximity to a low wall…the man in the shafts leaning back with all his might to offset a certain velocity promoted by the down-grade…

 And so on; I find that too polysyllabic and filled with stodgy ‘elegant variation’. But these are minor defects. The Enormous Room was much admired by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and it’s worth reading as a testament to the indomitable human spirit in the face of institutional cruelty, intolerance and hostility to people who dare to flout convention and refuse to conform to the tenets of mediocrity.

I’d rather end on a more positive note. Here’s a glimpse of the innovative poetry to come:

Rain did, from time to time, not fall: from time to time a sort of unhealthy almost-light leaked from the large uncrisp corpse of the sky, returning for a moment to our view the ruined landscape. From time to time the eye…stopped upon the incredible nearness of the desolate without-motion autumn.

On being released he muses:

I will get upon the soonness of the train and ride into the now of Paris.

 

 

They have lost themselves but not their ambitions

Matt Haig, The Humans. Canongate paperback, 2014.

When he won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year I’d never heard of Patrick Modiano, so I thought I’d better do something about this. For my birthday, among the books I asked for from family friends, was his Occupation Trilogy. Last week I read the first novel in that trilogy: La Place de l’Étoile. I found it a bit of a struggle, but might write about it here soon.

I craved something less dark and serious over the weekend, so devoured Matt Haig’s The Humans, first published two years ago, in two binges. At first I thought it too slight to merit a post here, but I’ve done some thinking and online digging and have changed my mind.

As I read it I thought it rather derivative. It’s about a highly advanced alien race – so advanced they have learnt, through the mastery of higher mathematics, to become immortal, to have almost magical powers (they can revive the dead, for example, or heal wounds instantly simply by thinking themselves better) – who send one of their own to earth in order to prevent a mathematical discovery by a Cambridge maths professor (named Andrew Martin) accidentally destabilising the human race, and possibly the universe. As the novel starts they seem already to have killed Martin; our protagonist, the alien, has assumed his bodily form and begun his mission – to seek out and destroy anyone to whom he might have divulged his secret discovery.

After a few pages I was thinking this reminds me of numerous sci-fi narratives: Mork and Mindy, the Robin Williams vehicle from the seventies in which another naïve, largely well-meaning alien struggles comically to understand the peculiarities and defects of a flawed human race, while reporting back to another increasingly alarmed host planet (‘Mork calling Orson’) that he’s beginning, like our protagonist ‘Andrew Martin’ here, to find it rather endearing. As his masters see it he is, like Mork, becoming ‘corrupted’ or impure by contact. Also like Mork he has a repertoire of super-powers (like the capacity to learn English after hearing or reading just 100 words; later he learns to communicate wordlessly with dogs).

Here’s ‘Andrew’ musing judgementally on humanity after watching the news on TV for the first time soon after moving in with Andrew’s wife, posing as her husband:

The term ‘news’ on Earth generally meant ‘news that directly affects humans’. There was, quite literally, nothing about the antelope or the sea-horse or the red-eared slider turtle or the other nine million species on the planet.

His relationship with the 40-year-old professor’s wife Isobel becomes, however, increasingly close as he learns to overcome his initial revulsion with the (to him) alien human form and to appreciate our human capacity to cope with our weaknesses and mortality, our vulnerability and our selfishness.

IMG_2983The Isobel plot resembles that of Starman, John Carpenter’s 1984 film in which Jeff Bridges, another innocent alien on earth, assumes the form of a young widow’s husband and befriends her. Like Haig’s ‘Andrew’ he revives the dead and has other special powers, and gradually falls in love with his ‘wife’. The book’s front cover points out other influences: David Bowie’s alien in Nick Roeg’s 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth, and Mark Haddon’s 2003 novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.

The other parallel that I found most obvious was the ‘Martian poetry’ of the kind instigated in 1979 by Craig Raine’s ‘A Martian sends a postcard home’- it’s surely no coincidence that human Andrew’s family name, Martin, is so close to ‘martian’. In this poem a Martian visits earth and describes (as ‘Andrew’ often does) with unintentional poignancy, wit and puzzled, oblique insight the mundane objects and rites of humans (books have ‘wings’ not pages, and rain ‘has the property of making colours darker’).

As I became engrossed with the progress of ‘Andrew Martin’ and his increasingly reluctant murder quest I began to realise that this was, like Raine’s poem, not really sci-fi at all. When I’d finished and read Haig’s short afterword it became apparent that it was about the defects and vulnerabilities of the human condition and psyche, and how we learn to come to terms with them. Here’s ‘Andrew’ on seeing Isobel fall in love with him, believing him to be her human husband: she was, he thinks,

someone who had lived enough to know that loving and being loved back was a hard thing to get right, but when you managed it you could see forever.

Haig explains that he’d suffered from depression in his early 20s, and I’ve since read how he struggled to deal not only with his condition, but with the stigma attached in our culture to those who have mental health problems (see for example this interview in the Guardian from Feb. this year, about his recently published book about depression, Reasons to Stay Alive). The Humans, then, is about alienation – that feeling experienced by the person with depression when everyone around them is ostensibly ‘normal’.

He’s particularly good on the Martins’ troubled teenage son, Gulliver, who’s experiencing that adolescent angst, anger and turmoil that most people in their mid-teens grapple with. The human Andrew had been a remote father and husband, self-absorbed and lacking emotional intelligence and empathy. He’d also been unfaithful to Isobel, whom he’d taken for granted to such an extent that he hadn’t registered her unhappiness when she sacrificed her own successful academic career to play the role of mother and housewife. He’d betrayed her and his son.

But the alien Andrew learns to recognise how important it is for humans to endure and overcome our deficiencies and confront our mortality in order to be able to love. Although this ‘love conquers all’ moral becomes a little sentimental at times and the lessons are spelt out a little portentously, as when ‘Andrew’ is kicked out by Isobel for guilelessly blurting out that he’d had sex with human Andrew’s student girlfriend, being naively unaware – a touch implausibly, given his ability to assimilate a culture’s communicative codes in seconds — of the concept of fidelity in marriage, and writes out a 97-point manifesto of aphoristic advice for Gulliver, who he’s also come to love, to help him survive being a teenager surrounded by treacherous adults. This seven-page document fills one whole chapter, and slips at times into whimsical mawkishness.

There’s a great deal of warmth, wit and charm in this novel, despite the derivative plot and tendency to overdo the moralising (‘Humans learn the errors of their ways’, insists ‘Andrew’ to another clone sent, like the Terminator, to complete the murderous job he’d abjured). Its heart is more honest and sincere, to my mind, than Curious Incident’s. It shares that novel’s witty take on the relations between mathematics and poetry, music and, ultimately, the transcendent beauty and purity of this troubled sphere that is the planet earth, and of the inhabitants of that sphere. There’s also a dark, almost metaphysical seriousness beneath the slight lyric charm, to paraphrase Eliot. The frequent doses of Emily Dickinson add to the experience.

Haig is very good on dogs, too. The Martins’ dog Newton is one of the best dogs I’ve encountered in fiction for some time. There’s a hilarious scene when alien Andrew learns about the delights of peanut butter with Newton.