The Portrait of Two Ladies

My previous post was about my trip to London last week. I didn’t want to cram the piece with too many space-greedy photos, so omitted the ones of pictures I liked in the National Gallery. Several of you were kind enough to suggest you’d like to see them, so having got ahead of myself preparing Tennyson for next week’s classes (and C. Rossetti, looking further ahead), here they are. Just two of them.

First is this one; it seemed easiest to just post the caption on the wall of the gallery for information about it:

Morisot, Girl on a Divan

Berthe Morisot, Girl on a Divan

 

 

Morisot, Girl on a Divan caption

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Morisot first exhibited at the Salon at the age of 23 in 1864, and continued to do so most years for the next six, after which her work was included in the ‘rejected’ alternative salon of Impressionists – among all the now household names. She was married to Manet’s brother. I think her famous painting The Cradle (1872) was the one that first brought her to my attention many years ago; it’s a tender image of (presumably) a mother beside her baby’s ornate crib. There’s a striking portrait of her by Manet, done the same year, dramatically dressed in black (she was in mourning for her father), gazing out at the viewer with large, challenging, slightly amused eyes, yet they seem more guarded than those of the girl in the divan. That’s what interests me about her: she was denied access to the seamier parts of urban/social life beloved of the male impressionists – the brothels, low dives and clubs, and so on; but she could gain access to and gain the trust of the women who wouldn’t necessarily have interested her fellow (male) artists, or posed in the same way.

It seems that she influenced Manet considerably, encouraging him, for example, to taking up painting in the open air, not just in the studio. According to Wikipedia, where you can see the paintings I’ve mentioned, and several more, she was described by some art critics as being the best of the group.

Like most women artists (most women?) she found it hard to be taken seriously in her world. So here she is.

Next:

Ingres Mme Moitessier

This is by the Neo-Classical artist, Ingres (1856), a portrait of Mme Moitessier. She was the wife of a wealthy banker, shown here wearing a costly and fashionable Lyon silk gown. It was the detail and colour of this that has always drawn my eye – this little image can’t do it justice.

Ingres apparently laboured over the work for 12 years, constantly striving to perfect that colour and detail. It’s quite stunningly beautiful. It may be my imagination but the sitter’s facial expression seems far less comfortable under the artist’s male gaze than the girl in the divan above – though her body language seems quite relaxed. But it has more in common with a fashion plate than an intimate portrait, it seems to me. She and her husband no doubt wanted the artist to show off their prosperity.

Hope you didn’t mind this little detour away from my more usual literary territory. Apologies to any art specialists for any solecisms in my Google-derived information in this post. Obviously these are just snaps from my phone; I’d recommend taking a look online at the professionally photographed images of these artists’ work.

London times

I’ve been visiting friends in west London for a long weekend, hence these scenes of a fast-flowing river as we walked on the South Bank first to Tower Bridge, then back to the Tate Modern.

Tower of London

Traitor’s Gate at the Tower

After a weekend of high winds and driving rain (and a visit to the Blake in Sussex exhibition at Petworth House) the sun finally shone. Next day I returned and indulged in a dérive, walking from Westminster tube station to Trafalgar Square – hence the obligatory picture of the lion guarding Nelson’s column.

 

 

 

LionTower Bridge

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the National Gallery I limited myself to just a couple of rooms: Impressionists mainly. The nice guard said it was ok to take non-flash pictures, and patiently assured an anxious Italian visitor that yes, the paintings were all originals.

Then north to Soho Square, with a helpful plaque showing a plan of its earlier layout, and a brief history: it was from the late 17th century a fashionable location, with various aristocratic residents and a notorious brothel. William Beckford, author of Vathek,  was born there, and the naturalist Joseph Banks, who accompanied Captain Cook on his voyage to Australasia, was a resident; his house became a sort of salon for scientists. There’s a Catholic church on one side, which was built to cater for the local Irish and Italian communities, and a French Protestant church on the north side, originally serving the Huguenot exiles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Soho SquareSoho Square

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back to St James’s Park tube station and the ride back to Chiswick, but en route I saw the colourful displays in Chinatown to celebrate the New Year.

Chinatown

 

 

 

 

Then a book haul at Turnham Green Oxfam shop, which has an extensive Classics section. This will be my first Schulz; Edith Wharton I’ve posted about a few times:The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth and The Children

Book haul Feb 18

 

 

 

 

Crows, maggots and oysters: Dickens, Bleak House

I’ve been teaching Dickens this term. I don’t find much to say about Hard Times, with its skewering of Utilitarian selfishness and ‘fact’ displacing ‘fancy’. These strong points are weakened for me by the unpleasant hatchet job on trade unionism. Dickens rightly fulminates against the oppression of the ‘Hands’ by their greedy, bullying, heartless ‘masters’, and the injustices in the social system of the time (it was finished in 1854). His depiction of a union organiser as a windbag rabble-rouser, on the other hand, leads to the distressing conclusion that the workers will be ok provided they have imaginative outlets: principally circuses.

There’s too much sentimentality, too, a trait Dickens found hard to tone down.

Bleak House is another matter. Here we find much more nuanced social criticism, and the huge canvas and cast of characters is deployed with panache. Let me close this short post with a fairly random quotation that illustrates what he’s capable of when he resists the temptation to sentimentalise. This is from Book 1, ch. 10: ‘The Law Writer’, which introduces yet another apparently minor character and his circle, but a person who, like all the other secondary figures, plays an important part in the plotting and thematic coherence of the novel:

The day is closing in and the gas is lighted, but is not yet fully effective, for it is not quite dark. Mr. Snagsby standing at his shop-door looking up at the clouds sees a crow who is out late skim westward over the slice of sky belonging to Cook’s Court. The crow flies straight across Chancery Lane and Lincoln’s Inn Garden into Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

 

Here, in a large house, formerly a house of state, lives Mr. Tulkinghorn. It is let off in sets of chambers now, and in those shrunken fragments of its greatness, lawyers lie like maggots in nuts. But its roomy staircases, passages, and antechambers still remain; and even its painted ceilings, where Allegory, in Roman helmet and celestial linen, sprawls among balustrades and pillars, flowers, clouds, and big-legged boys, and makes the head ache–as would seem to be Allegory’s object always, more or less. Here, among his many boxes labelled with transcendent names, lives Mr. Tulkinghorn, when not speechlessly at home in country-houses where the great ones of the earth are bored to death. Here he is to-day, quiet at his table. An oyster of the old school whom nobody can open.

That motif of the crow recurs throughout the narrative, serving as a device to connect the contrasting locations, from the lowly law stationer in his shady, dank court, to the grand ‘house of state’ of the pompous, corrupt lawyer Tulkinghorn. In Bleak House Dickens brilliantly links the high and the low (even street crossing sweeper Jo, effectively a beggar, who ‘knows nothink’, plays a key role in the puzzle. Everyone knows something, but what they don’t know is usually more important. There are secrets everywhere. Even the painted Allegory on the ceiling signifies more than its surface reveals.

That simile of the lawyers lying ‘like maggots in nuts’ is crude but it works. To move on to ‘an oyster of the old school’ mixes the image improbably, but Dickens is in such fine form here he gets away with it: Tulkinghorn, like Allegory, can be two things simultaneously – maggoty in his insidious law-scheming, and oystery in his clammed-up secret-guarding.

This is a far stronger, richer novel than Hard Times: the moral outrage isn’t negated by dodgy political prejudices and myopia.

He’s still not very convincing in his women characters, though.

Bleak House title page

Title page of the first edition (1853) illustrated by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne) via Wikimedia Commons, public domain

James Wright’s hammock with chicken hawk

I’ve not had time to post for quite a while, such have been the pressures of work. But just now I read the always stimulating Rohan Maitzen‘s post about what she’d doing in her classes, and I felt inspired to emulate her in my own way, by noting here what has roused my interest in my own teaching this week.

I came across the poetry of James Wright, and this poem; the links take you to the Poetry Foundation site, which has useful biographical/background information, and the text of this and other works by him.

Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota By James Wright (1927-80); CGI reading of it here

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,   

Asleep on the black trunk,

Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.   

Down the ravine behind the empty house,   

The cowbells follow one another   

Into the distances of the afternoon.   

To my right,

In a field of sunlight between two pines,   

The droppings of last year’s horses   

Blaze up into golden stones.

I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.   

A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.

I have wasted my life.

[from Above the River: The Complete Poems and Selected Prose (1990); first published in The Paris Review, 1961; see this article about it there from 2015 by Dan Piepenbring]

He focuses, as surely most of us do when we first experience the shock, on that extraordinary last line, that explodes everything that’s gone before; is a lament, a joke, a kind of boast, or ‘a religious statement’ (Wright’s own view) he wonders? He provides useful links to other speculations about and interpretations of it. I’m still not sure what I make of it.

He also provides links to a piece about it by David Mitchell at the Atlantic, a provocative article on ‘the popular disdain for poems’ by Ben Lerner, and a list of other critical responses at Modern American Poetry’s site. Well worth exploring. He also considers some of those responses, including those of Robert Bly and Thom Gunn.

I notice, as I try to process that final line and how it arises out of the previous ones, how he makes interesting use of the definite article for most of the concrete nouns he itemises in his sweep of his gaze around the view from the hammock: ‘THE bronze butterfly’, ‘THE black trunk’, and so on.

But it’s ‘A chicken hawk’ (whatever that is; we don’t have them in Cornwall. We do have buzzards, so I’ll picture it like that.) Why so unspecific about this one raptor? And why is it looking for home (its own, or any old home? Is it lost? Is that what provokes that apparent non sequitur of a closing line?)

Odd, too, how it’s the cow BELLS that ‘follow one another’, not the cows…Bovine synecdoche (a rhetorical term that came up in today’s class on Hard Times – ‘the Hands’).

All the best writing raises more questions of this kind than it answers. And that goes for that enigmatic, explosive last line. Most of us, I’d have thought, would find the curious, engaged sweep of gaze across this rural scene very much the most rewarding kind of spending one’s life – far less wasteful than commuting through dank January streets to work.

Maybe that’s one aspect of its startling impact; if he thinks he’s wasted his life by observing the life around him from that relaxing hammock, what does that make mine (i.e. my life) worth?

You might like to try ‘Outside Fargo, North Dakota’ (1968), or other links at Poetry Foundation site, source of most of these materials.

Finally, I recommend Rohan Maitzen’s site,  the one I mentioned at the start, ‘Novel Readings‘, where she regularly includes a ‘This week in my classes’ item. There’s also plenty of other intelligent, thoughtful material on all things literary and academic.

Just looked up Chicken Hawk at Wikimedia Commons. Here it is:

By Maynard, Lucy (Warner), 1852-1936. [from old catalog] – from Birds of Washington and vicinity, 1902 (& Library of Congress). Seems it’s the popular name for several kinds of raptor, including Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks. Sharp-shinned?

 

Now back to Dickens.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jackson Mitford: holiday reading

Mick Jackson, The Underground Man. Picador paperback, 1998; first published 1997.

Nancy Mitford, Don’t Tell Alfred. Penguin paperback 2015 reissue, first published in 1960.

Jackson Mitford coversOne of my first blog posts was about Mick Jackson’s charming ursine caper Bears of England. I didn’t find The Underground Man as satisfying, but it is a more ambitious, complex and serious novel.

Perhaps that’s why. Despite his capacity for quirky humour, Jackson indulges his penchant for digressions and eccentric excursions and disquisitions too much, making this is an occasionally lacklustre read. Its protagonist is a wealthy landowning aristocrat in Nottinghamshire in the high Victorian period. ‘His Grace’, as his large, not entirely sympathetic staff address him, is based on the eccentric Duke of Portland.

An old man when the narrative begins, he’s bald, losing his faculties (including his sanity) and valetudinarian, like Emma’s father in the Austen novel. He has a tendency to become fixated on trivia, such as the objects he finds in the attic, and on maps, clothes – and tunnels. His huge country house already had some medieval tunnels constructed by the monks who once owned it. These were to enable them to escape when Catholics in England were persecuted.

Mick Jackson, The Underground Man coverThe duke employs engineers to build a larger network of such tunnels, wide and high enough to allow him to ride in his carriage along them. They serve no practical purpose, but amuse him enormously. This self-indulgent childishness is offset by the genuine care and fondness he shows for his estate workers and their families.

The problem is, that’s the plot. The 261 pages are filled with the minutiae of his daily existence, which is rarely more than mildly interesting. The chief interest of the novel is its depiction of a troubled soul and mind slowly deteriorating into a kind of paranoia.

The fragmentary structure doesn’t add to the coherence of the narrative, though the multiple voices that complement the main diary entries of the duke do provide occasional insights into the responses of those around him to the duke’s increasingly bizarre behaviour and erratic obsessions.

My other main holiday read was slightly more engaging: Nancy Mitford’s Don’t Tell Alfred. 

I took it to Spain with me not realising it’s a sequel to The Pursuit of Love, published in 1945, which I read a while back but never posted about here. I don’t find much to say about either novel, except they’re very funny in parts, moderately amusing much of the time, but frothy and ultimately insubstantial. I know it’s shallow of me but I find it hard to care much about characters like Fanny, the protagonist, when they’re given to saying things like this about a luncheon date with her errant son in London:

Never possessing a London house of my own I have always found the Ritz useful when up for the day or a couple of nights; a place where one could meet people, leave parcels, write letters, or run into out of the rain.

Linda’s mother is known as the Bolter, because of her fondness for running off with new partners when married to others. Here’s a sample of the arch humour that the novel is shot through with; eccentric, irascible but supposedly loveable Uncle Matthew, now an old man, is discussing her mother with Fanny:

‘How many husbands has the Bolter had now?’

‘The papers said six –‘

‘Yes, but that’s absurd. They left out the African ones – it’s eight or nine at least. Davey [Fanny’s uncle, another extreme hypochondriac] and I were trying to count up. Your father and his best man and the best man’s friend, three. That takes us to Kenya and all the hot stuff there – the horsewhipping and the aeroplane and the Frenchman who won her in a lottery. Davey’s not sure she ever married him, but give her the benefit of the doubt: four. Rawl and Plugge five and six, Gewan [Spaniard Juan who was introduced in The Pursuit – Matthew has no time for foreigners and wilfully mispronounces the name] seven…[etc.]

 

OK, that kind of thing is pretty funny at times, but some of the jokes and slang are just plain silly. The plot is full of abrupt reversals and revelations, and there’s a large cast of eccentric, mostly louche, lazy and rich characters (most of them have titles or don’t really need to work for a living) who are selfish or stupid or both. Some are said to be very clever or astute. Many of them have a stylishly epigrammatic turn of phrase – one of the pleasures the novel offers.

The approach of the ‘swinging sixties’ is surprisingly prominent in that one of Fanny’s less appealing sons (the other is a tiresome beatnik-bearded, parasitic fake Buddhist) Basil has become a dodgy tourist agent, mercilessly ripping off package holidaymakers. He speaks in a weird hybrid of Cockney, ‘beatnik’ and upper class toff jargon, dismissing his hapless clients as ignorant, bovine victims. Americans’ fondness for psychotherapy (here of a very dubious nature) is wickedly sent up. The other harbinger of the emerging teen/pop era is a rock n roll star with the unlikely name of Yanky Fonzy.

Nancy Mitford, Don't Tell Alfred coverI don’t think Nancy M really ‘gets’ pop culture, the hoi-polloi, or the nascent sixties – or wants to.

The Alfred of the title is Fanny’s Oxford don husband, who accepts a prestigious diplomatic post early on, thus sparking off the novel’s numerous divagations and complications, some of which are quite entertaining, but many are duds.

No doubt I should be more charitable, and accept that it’s all tongue-in-cheek and ironic and not to be taken too seriously. But I found the snobbery and occasional casual racism distasteful – though the novel in its best moments is very funny, and there’s a surprisingly racy sexiness about it.

Being and nothingness: Graham Greene, A Burnt-out Case

Graham Greene, A Burnt-Out Case. Vintage Classics 2004. First published 1960

The cabin-passenger wrote in his diary a parody of Descartes: ‘I feel discomfort, therefore I am alive’.

Graham Greene’s novel opens with a reference to two themes that will dominate this novel: a character has lost his capacity to feel anything but the most basic physical discomfort. And he’s writing about it.

The passenger, who is the protagonist, Querry, is at the end of his spiritual and vocational tether. Like the masterless samurai who entrusts his choice of route to the fates by spinning his sword in the air and taking the fork in the road down which it points when it falls, Querry has boarded a plane going to the most random and remote destination on the departure board: central Africa.

This is why he is chugging up a tributary of the Congo on a battered paddle-steamer that recalls the one in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ – in fact Giles Foden, in an interesting Introduction to this Vintage Classics edition, points out a number of links with this and other post-colonial Conrad novels.

Another parallel, in terms of Querry’s existential angst, is Camus. There’s a lot of Meursault in Querry. Unfortunately Querry is a much less interesting character, and his angst fails to engage my sympathy. Unlike Meursault, Querry is a lapsed Catholic who unconsciously strives for a kind of salvation. Not necessarily in the Christian sense. He’s more a nihilist or apatheist than an existentialist.

Words or phrases signifying ‘nothing(ness)’ or an ‘end’ are frequently employed; here’s the first, on p. 8; the Superior, who’s also the ferry captain, has talked about not suffering from prickly heat, and Querry finds himself unable to remain uncommunicative any longer, and says

‘Nor I. I suffer from nothing. I no longer know what suffering is. I have come to an end of all that, too.’

‘Too?’

‘Like all the rest. To the end of everything.’

The Superior turned away from him without curiosity. He said, ‘Oh well, you know, suffering is something which will always be provided when it is required.’

He’s even taken this ferry trip to the last stop on its route: it goes no further.

But in this exchange what should be an intriguing opportunity to explore and portray Querry’s tortured soul, I feel instead we get a peevish gripe and a complacent priestly aphorism in reply. This sets the tone for the whole novel.

Cover of G. Greene, A Burnt-out CaseMaybe I shouldn’t have read this novel over Christmas. I found it depressing (the main setting is a leproserie, and many of the secondary characters are mutilated lepers or their doctors and priests) and turgid, and the theological soul-searching and debates, like that small fragment I just quoted, which Greene indulges frequently and at length, largely specious.

Querry’s disillusionment with worldly things is largely ascribed in the narrative to his coming to an end with sex. He’s decided his serial affairs with married women, whom he always leaves before any commitment might be required, ends inevitably with the last in the sequence killing herself. But his flight is not, our narrative insists, due to guilt. It’s all about Querry and his emptied masculine soul, his atrophied, once-noble emotions. If anything her death is an affront to him, in some obscure way.

‘I thought you said you had no interest in anything,’ says the Superior to Querry at a later point. He replies: ‘I haven’t. I’ve come through to the other side, to nothing. All the same, I don’t like looking back.’ No, that would require a conscience. And the last letter from his final mistress, now dead, rustles accusingly in his pocket, her words ‘toute à toi’ ringing in his mind; briefly he’d just reflected that ‘one could still feel the reflection of another’s pain when one had ceased to feel one’s own.’ But he keeps the letter in his pocket in a way that a hermit or a monk wears a painful, searing belt or garment to mortify the flesh. This is guilt transformed into self-aggrandisement, distorted by his egotism into just another station of his own route to his cross. The woman’s fate or state is ultimately of less concern than his own desire to end a pain I just called conscience, but which he continues to deny exists any more for him. A nihilist, misanthrope, misogynist. The cosmic scale is all illusion, his own narrative.

Doctor Colin, a rather more engaging character, had ‘long ago, before he had come to this continent of misery and heat, lost faith in any god that a priest would have recognised.’ His spiritual aridity and void seems a product of his close acquaintance with the human suffering and pain of others; Querry’s is largely a result of his own sense of the innate malevolence of the universe towards him personally. He dislikes people, like the ones who enter and admire the buildings, or who worship vacuously in the churches, he’d designed: ‘I wasn’t concerned with the people who occupied my space – only with the space’, Querry declares proudly, unconscious or careless of the arrogance and misanthropy.

It’s Colin who diagnoses Querry as a ‘burnt-out case’ – the rather callous term for lepers whose disease has run its course and they’d lost all the digits and body parts that it was fated to take from them. Their ‘cure’ is a terrible one. That it becomes a running metaphor for Querry’s condition I find bordering on the distasteful and disrespectful.

In his dedication to the novel before the narrative opens Greene explains that it’s not a roman à clef,

…but an attempt to give dramatic expression to various types of belief, half-belief, and non-belief, in the kind of setting, removed from world-politics and household-preoccupations, where such differences are felt acutely and find expression. This Congo is a region of the mind…

And that’s where my problem with the novel starts. There’s very little of a dramatic nature in the novel until the signposted ending. The alternative types of belief the novel acknowledges are largely dismissed lightly, like the fetishes and spirit-worship of the natives.

The claim that Luc, the nearest town to the leproserie, is ‘removed’ from politics is contradicted in the narrative, let alone in common sense. There are references to riots and disturbances in the capital; Sharpville and other shameful post-colonial atrocities are mentioned in passing – inconsequential to these self-obsessed characters, perhaps, but not to the indigenous inhabitants. The very presence of Belgian Catholic priests and entrepreneurs in this part of Africa, who represent to cast of characters of this politically anaesthetised novel, is a salutary reminder of Europe’s shameful role in the former colonies.

This ‘removal’ of Querry’s spiritual dilemma to a kind of socio-political vacuum is to tip the scales of the artistic-moral balance (to paraphrase an essay by DH Lawrence) in the worst way.

As the dedication goes on, his dedicatee, Dr Lechat,

…will know how far I have failed in what I attempted. A doctor is not immune from ‘the long despair of doing nothing well’, the cafard [cockroach?] that hangs round a writer’s life.’

That ‘unworthiness topos’ beloved of the medieval Christian writers is glaringly, ironically apposite here. I think Greene has failed. And I’m not too sure what he’s attempted in terms of novel-writing. It would perhaps have been better as a theological paper.

I’ve gone on too long, and written too hurriedly and imprecisely. I’d have liked to consider the unsuccessful, spurious metafictional touches that draw further attention to the novel’s shortcomings. ‘You’re not a writer, are you? There’s no room for a writer here’ (Colin addressing Querry when they first meet); ‘A writer doesn’t write for his readers, does he? Yet he has to take elementary precautions all the same to make them comfortable…The subject of a novel is not the plot.’ And explained more clearly my objections to Querry’s spurious dilemma.

I don’t think Greene is guilty of not making his reader ‘comfortable’; it’s of making this one feel a mix of ennui and annoyance.

 

 

 

In therapy they go straight after the mother. Elizabeth Strout, ‘Olive Kitteridge’

 

Photo: By Larry D. Moore, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44665615

With Christmas visits and trips about to happen this will be my last post probably this year. I’d like to write more attentively about Elizabeth Strout’s 2008 novel Olive Kitteredge, Pulitzer Prize winner in 2009, but as time is pressing this will be an impressionistic piece.

Olive Kitteridge cover

My Scribner’s paperback edition, published 2016, still with the charity shop price tag stuck indelibly on the front

It’s a fragmentary novel in the form of thirteen linked short stories, each self-contained, usually about a different set of characters in the coastal town of Crosby, Maine, but Olive and her pharmacist husband Henry appear in all of them, sometimes as peripheral characters, in others their story – their fitful, troubled relationship with each other and their son Christopher – develops.

Olive is a difficult, irascible, moody woman, but gifted with surprising empathy. The opening story, ‘Pharmacy’, is a microcosm of the whole novel. It begins with the Kitteredges in their prime, some time in the sixties when ‘the hippie business was beginning’, and ends near the present day when Henry has retired. Henry at the story’s start employs a new assistant, Denise, in his pharmacy, and falls passionately, platonically in love with her. Olive, meanwhile, is subject to fits of emotional ‘darkness’ that distances her husband and surly teenage son. We learn that Henry finds his workplace a safe haven, like ‘a healthy, autonomic nervous system, in a workable, quiet state’, away from ‘any unpleasantness that may have occurred back in his home, any uneasiness at the way his wife often left their bed to wander through their house in the night’s dark hours’. Olive is clearly deeply troubled.

Henry is a long-suffering character it’s easy to warm to, with his perennially ‘cheerful’ nature, and his desire to make everyone happy – even his spiteful wife. Adolescent Christopher has some of his mother’s genes, for he snarls ‘angrily’ at his father near the story’s end:

“Why do you need everyone married?…Why can’t you just leave people alone?” He doesn’t want people alone.

The free indirect style throughout unobtrusively allows us into the main characters’ minds, as here with Henry’s. He can’t bear to see Denise or anyone else ‘helpless’; he wants to help. He needs help – and Olive provides it beautifully but, tragically, too late for him.

The story reveals that Olive’s waspish mouth and misanthropic impatience with people is partly the result of her own unrequited passion for a fellow teacher at her school. The couple never speak about their sorrows or pain, for in their own way they love and need each other. Christopher’s angst, as the other stories unfold, is also explained by his frustration with his mother and her stifling love.

I’d like to say much more about the other stories – maybe I’ll return to them in the new year. All I have time for here, then, is this: a unifying motif or theme is the damaging effect that mothers have on their children. In ‘Pharmacy’ we learn that Henry’s mother had two ‘nervous breakdowns’ and had otherwise cared for him ‘with stridency’ – a word that suits Olive’s maternal style; Henry has to restrain her from giving Christopher too hard a time, and at one point she admits she used to hit him – not smack, hit. Yet her love for her only son almost overwhelms her, and she’s devastated when he moves away from New England with his first wife to live in California; it’s pretty obvious that Olive’s antipathy towards her daughter-in-law is reciprocated, and that Suzanne insisted on leaving. Christopher would not have resisted; when they divorce, he stays out west, and rarely even visits his parents. Tough love hasn’t worked for him.

When pharmacy assistant Denise’s husband dies, Henry cares tenderly for her. Olive is scathing in her dismissal of ‘mousy’ Denise – largely because she’s aware that her transparent husband has feelings for her. Olive acidly observes that at first she couldn’t see why Denise’s husband (also Henry) had married her, until she saw young Henry’s mother at his funeral.

“…he married his mother. Men do.” After a pause. “Except for you.”

It’s typical of the subtlety and psychological insight into her complex characters that Elizabeth Strout reveals in this way how the dynamics of relationships both reveal and conceal truths. Olive is no doubt right about Denise, her husband and his mother; but does she realise that her Henry, too, has married a neurotic, volatile, potentially suicidal woman like his mother? Such self-awareness eludes her, or she swerves away from it, despite her frequent, surprisingly warm empathy for and insight into other people.

In ‘Security’, late in the novel, Olive visits Christopher and his second wife, Ann, in New York City, where they’d followed their therapist (he’d needed one after living first with Olive, then with Suzanne; he’d married his mother that time; Ann is the opposite: vapid, colourless, but damaged in her own way; he’d learned his lesson). The visit is a disaster. Olive detests Ann, and says on the phone to Henry:

“They’re ok, but she’s dumb, just like I thought. They’re in therapy. She hesitated, looked around. “You’re not to worry about that, Henry. In therapy they go straight after the mother. You come out smelling like a rose, I’m sure.”

As before, she shows a startling flash of insight here, while at the same time seeming in denial about the devastating impact she’d had on both her son and her husband. The rueful self-deprecation morphs in typical Olive fashion into an attack on Henry’s benign nature, the opposite of hers.

This quiet, becalmed coastal town of Crosby, Maine (Strout herself was born and raised in Portland, Maine) is the kind that Stephen King might set up for horrific, supernatural mayhem to unleash itself on. Elizabeth Strout prefers a quieter, more insidious kind of hell – the hell of a woman’s seeing her husband suffer a stroke, be emptied of his humanity, and ultimately die. A mother’s realising that the son she adores has been so alienated and intimidated by her acerbity that he dislikes her.

There are many other broken, suffering characters in this novel, and suicide is often not far from their minds, but it usually manages to avoid becoming depressing. There is redemption for most of them, often in surprising places and people. In ‘Incoming Tide’, for example, Olive manages to quell a former student’s suicidal thoughts by revealing with sympathy that she knew his mother killed herself, as her own father did. When he rescues a former classmate of his from drowning in the ocean, we realise she had probably jumped, for she too had tragedy in her life: she’d been unable to become a mother. Their salvation is mutual, reciprocal, and the prose that reveals all this is meticulous and satisfyingly understated.

I’ve only scratched the surface of this multi-faceted, carefully crafted novel. I recommend it – but it’s a bumpy ride.

 

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein – final post

I started assembling examples of the florid, over-written style Mary Shelley adopts in Frankenstein, but that way led to madness, so I’ll start afresh. Here’s just one random example; the Creature’s threat to Victor if he refuses to comply with its request that he make it a female companion is intended to be blood-curdling; instead it’s just…curdled prose:

‘I will glut the maw of death, until it is satiated with the blood of your remaining friends.’

The symmetries in the novel are one of its more pleasing aspects; there’s the doppleganger effect of Walton being another potential Frankenstein (and a strong homoerotic tone to his passionate outbursts about his new friend); this is mirrored in Victor’s relationship with Clerval. Even the Creature and Victor share many traits, some violent and vengeful, some noble and grand.

But these are far too heavily laboured and repeated in the text. A quick search for the word ‘miserable’ in the online text yields well over 50 results. There are too many shouty encounters between these two antogonists where they simply try to outdo each other as to which is either suffering more or more entitled to feel wronged.

Why did Mary Shelley subtitle the novel ‘the Modern Prometheus’? First, this classical mythological character was often equated in literary texts with Adam in Genesis; just as Prometheus breathed life (or fire) into inanimate clay to make human beings, so Adam was given life by God in the biblical text. Mary Shelley, as I have shown in previous posts on this novel, frequently alludes to Milton’s account of the Eden story in Paradise Lost; its epigraph is from that poem –

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay

To mould Me man? Did I solicit thee

From darkness to promote me? (X.743-45)

This provides the novel with its central theme, which is dramatized by the tension and conflict between the scientist-creator, who offends the laws of nature with ‘the spark which [he] so negligently bestowed’ on inanimate tissue, and his innocent, potentially loving and good, creature.

In the Romantic period Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods, was a popular subject for literary and artistic treatment, for he symbolised for artists of the time the spirit of rebellion against tyrannical, cruel power (Percy Shelley was working on his lyrical drama ‘Prometheus Unbound’ around the time of the publication of Frankenstein; it was published in 1820.) He was associated with the spirit of the French Revolution, with Christ and (Milton’s) Adam and Satan – we saw in my previous post how the Creature identified with both Adam and the ‘fallen angel’ – and with the divinely inspired artist or writer. Mary Shelley’s novel indicates that Victor explored the ‘bold question’ of the ‘principle of life’ at his own and his family’s peril; it was all very well for him to warn Walton ‘how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge’, but he didn’t heed it himself, with dire consequences for all concerned. Like Prometheus, he is tortured for the rest of his life – but so is his creature.

For modern readers this resonates particularly because of recent and current debates about GM crops and other scientific developments in biology, genetics and related fields, as well as in AI. The issues of sentient beings created by humans and of bioethics are raised and problematized in the novel in ways that Mary Shelley couldn’t have dreamed would resound as they do in later years.

Victor is shown to become ‘the slave of [his] creature’, and urged by it when they meet in the Alps to honour his ‘duties’ to it. ‘You are my creator, but I am your master. Obey!’ it commands him (with typical rhetorical bombast).The creature wanted Victor to make it a female companion (as mentioned above), with which it promised to go into voluntary exile and become a harmless recluse, away from civilization. Victor fails to do so, and terrible retribution follows. His reason: he finally realised that he was in danger of creating a ‘demoniacal enemy’ of humankind, the ‘hideous progeny’ as Mary Shelley described it in her preface to the revised 1831 edition of the novel. That was also why he refused to divulge the exact nature of his secret of creation: as he says to Walton, who had importuned him to reveal it:

‘Are you mad, my friend?’ said he, or whither does your senseless curiosity lead you?…to what do your questions tend?’

Punch cartoon 1882

Punch cartoon from 1882 representing the ‘Irish Question’ as another manifestation of Victor’s monstrous creation: public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Be careful what you strive for, seems to be the moral for scientists and artists alike. The word ‘Frankenstein’ has become a modern cliché adjective for any questionable, potentially lethal scientific clone or product of genetic engineering – or even cultural-political development, as the cartoon indicates.

Later the Creature itself describes Victor as ‘my tyrant and tormentor’. So there develop some interesting and challenging shifts in the concept of Prometheus as the narrative proceeds and becomes more complex. Whether Mary Shelley is fully conscious of or in control of all of these mirror-images, doublings and shifts is as unclear as her often turgid prose.

Despite the tiresome repetitiveness and Gothic melodrama in the narrative, then, and the waywardness of the plotting and characterisation (and too many intrusive, tedious and laboured digressions, like the Justine and Safie episodes), there remain elements in the novel that explain why it still has such significance for us today.

Frankenstein OWC cover

My Oxford World’s Classics edition, which has an excellent introduction by Marilyn Butler

I’ll end this sequence of rather rambling posts with a couple of links.

Richard Holmes recently reviewed in NYRB a couple of new scholarly versions of the texts – well worth reading.

So is the excellent Wordsworth Trust blog, which has this fascinating essay on Claire Clairmont, Mary Shelley’s stepsister, described as ‘the archetypal Romantic woman’ by its author, Lesley McDowell.

 

 

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein pt 3

Victor Frankenstein’s account continues (see previous post): he relates how he researched obsessively into genetics and anatomy at Ingolstadt. His words are recorded by the equally obsessive explorer, Walton, who’d rescued him from the polar ice. My commentary is partly taken from the Romantic Circles website, which has useful commentary on key phrases in the hyperlinks embedded in the online text of the novel; the Pennsylvania electronic edition edited by Stuart Curran is equally useful (and has a comprehensive index of links to further critical accounts).

Frankenstein title page

Title page of the 1818 first edition; Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ll try to avoid spoilers, but assume most readers will know at least the basis of the plot (which differs considerably from the representations in film and popular culture).

This is still vol. I, ch. 3:

Remember, I am not recording the vision of a madman. The sun does not more certainly shine in the heavens, than that which I now affirm is true. Some miracle might have produced it, yet the stages of the discovery were distinct and probable. After days and nights of incredible labour and fatigue, I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter.

Victor’s insistence on his not being mad (or a liar) immediately raises doubts about his sanity. Presumably Mary Shelley is using the adjective ‘probable’ here in its now obsolete technical sense of ‘able to be proved’ [OED online definition 3].

Victor’s shrill insistence reminds me of the demented first-person narrator of Edgar Allan Poe’s gruesome horror story ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ (publ. 1843): ‘Why, then, will you say that I am mad?’ [well, you murdered an old man because of his vulture eye, dismembered his body and buried the parts under the floorboards, where you gloated over your prowess to the detectives investigating!].

Victor’s hubristic boasting about his ‘miraculous’ discovery reminds us of his earlier enthusiasm for occult works of mysticism and alchemy; he’d mentioned the quest for the ‘elixir of life’. He hasn’t located that exactly, but feels he’s done the next best thing. Note the return to a dominant, emphatic first-person voice, to highlight the arrogance and egotism of his God-like achievement, of which he’s misguidedly proud.

The astonishment which I had at first experienced on this discovery soon gave place to delight and rapture. After so much time spent in painful labour, to arrive at once at the summit of my desires, was the most gratifying consummation of my toils. But this discovery was so great and overwhelming, that all the steps by which I had been progressively led to it were obliterated, and I beheld only the result. What had been the study and desire of the wisest men since the creation of the world, was now within my grasp…[passage omitted]

Victor’s language here takes on a decidedly erotic-sexual tone. ‘Labour’ is an obvious pun on the term for the birth pangs of a mother – yet his ‘child’ is the product of a perverse, ‘unhallowed’ [a frequent adjective in the novel] form of parthenogenesis.

‘Consummation’ is used (usually in a sense used by Hamlet in his famous soliloquy) four more times in the novel [the wonders of searchable e-texts] in various forms. On each occasion the sexual-erotic connotations are as clear as they are here, but at times associated with the apogee (or inverse) of sex: death.

In II.6, in the interlude where the exiled Creature observes the rural family and the arrival of the exotic ‘Arabian’ Safie, he hears the story of how young Felix De Lacey was promised marriage to her by her father as reward for his rescuing father and daughter from the Turks; this would be, he thinks, ‘the consummation of his happiness.’ Literally and figuratively.

In III.5, after receiving his cousin and fiancée Elizabeth’s loving letter, Victor’s joy is erased by the recollection of his Creature’s threat to visit them on their wedding night to ‘consummate his crimes by my [Victor’s] death’. Their sexual consummation, that is, would be prevented by his fiendish, murderous climactic act of malignant vengeance (for being rejected by Victor). Instead of producing another new life, another (this time, natural) birth, their union would result in unnatural death. The conventionally accepted ideals of motherhood are subverted by Victor’s ‘miraculous’ act of creation which violated the laws of nature and science, followed by his equally unnatural expulsion of his Creature because of its revolting appearance (and the over-reaching scientist-creator’s incipient guilt about and revulsion at what he’s done).

The Creature speaks in III.7 – in Walton’s epistolary “continuation” — after another death: ‘my crimes are consummated’ – a similar image to the previous one. A few paragraphs later he says, indicating Victor, and alluding to his own ‘agony and remorse’, ‘he suffered not more in the consummation of the deed’ – meaning the Creature’s act of murder – or could he be referring to Victor’s creation of this ‘monster’ – returning to the erotic-procreative sense of the word?

Finally, a couple of pages later, in his closing speech, the Creature (or ‘monster’ in Walton’s narrative) vows he’ll do no more ‘mischief’; his work is ‘nearly complete’:

Neither yours nor any man’s death is needed to consummate the series of my being, and accomplish that which must be done.

In a novel full of paradox, oxymorons and polar oppositions, Victor’s ‘bestowing animation on lifeless matter’ – a monstrous act of generation rather than birth – reaches its inevitable ‘consummation’ in the destruction of that being. The Creature had said earlier that he’s been ‘fashioned to be susceptible of love and sympathy’, and sought ‘the love of virtue, the feelings of happiness and affection with which [his] whole being overflowed’, his ‘thoughts were once filled with sublime and transcendant visions of the beauty and the majesty of goodness’, but he found himself ‘barred’ from those very virtues and feelings by Victor’s act of rejection. This is what inspired instead his murderous, obsessive desire for vengeance and retribution, causing him to be likened to a monster or ‘vampire’ by those who can’t see past his outward hideousness.

He was created like Adam in Eden; in II.7, where he learnt to read by studying texts including the novel’s paradigm, Paradise Lost, Milton’s epic poem about the creation and expulsion from Eden of the first humans on earth, the Creature develops an extended analogy between himself and Milton’s Adam – and Satan – in his own narrative of this period of his life:

“Like Adam, I was created apparently united by no link to any other being in existence; but his state was far different from mine in every other respect. He had come forth from the hands of God a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial care of his Creator…but I was wretched, helpless, and alone. Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition; for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me…I am solitary and detested.”

Later, he says simply, ‘”I required kindness and sympathy.”

In the closing section of the novel he explains again (for Walton’s benefit this time) how he became full of malicious envy and hatred – taught by his creator, the ironically and inappropriately named Victor:

…the fallen angel becomes a malignant devil. Yet even that enemy of God and man had friends and associates in his desolation; I am quite alone.

Far from being simply the Gothic-monstrous Satanic villain of the novel that most Hollywood versions of the story have opted for, the Creature’s closing words reveal in his involuntary solitude and subsequent ‘misery’ that his nobility and capacity for good were perverted by the greater villainy of being ‘spurned’ by his creator, and other humans who encountered him. I’m reminded in his elegiac final words, as he prepares for self-immolation in flames on the ice (a kind of widowed sati, for Victor is both ‘mother’ and ‘spouse’ to him) of replicant antihero Roy’s famous death speech in ‘Blade Runner’. When the Creature first experienced the beauties of Nature in the world (Paradise to him) ‘”they were all to me”’, he says (though he’s misremembering when he makes this claim; he was actually created in ‘dreary’ November, was expelled an outcast into the cold and wet by Victor, and he wept; the following claim, then, is perhaps poetic licence, for it enhances his natural nobility with its rhythmic Miltonic cadences):

“I should have wept to die; now it is my only consolation. Polluted by crimes, and torn by the bitterest remorse, where can I find rest but in death?”

Here too, the Creature is both ‘monster’ and fallen angel, and it was Victor who created and was responsible for both aspects of his being, providing ‘the spark of existence’ that he ‘so wantonly disposed’ in his ‘workshop of filthy creation’, then turning him into a ‘wretch’ and exile by rejecting him. Victor is surely the true monster in the novel.

Stevenson was to revisit this drama of reversals in his Jekyll and Hyde characters.

Maybe one more post to come on Frankenstein.

 

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein: the text explored

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus: 1818 edn. 

In my previous post I wrote about the tortuous gestation of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. It was written initially, when she was just 18, as a short ghost story at the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva on a stormy night during the dark volcanic summer of 1816. With some input from Percy Shelley she redrafted the tale into a three-volume novel, pubished in 1818.

In the first of a couple of posts I’ll look at a key passage. This is the moment (vol. I, ch. 3) when the young student Victor Frankenstein, adding modern sciences taught by his tutors at Ingoldstadt University in Germany to the earlier mystical texts that had previously enthused him, becomes obsessed with the current notions of ‘the life principle’ and creation itself.

Here this narrative is recorded by Walton, on whose ship Victor is recuperating after being picked up exhausted as he pursues his Creature across the ice. I’ve used the online text at the Romantic Circles site HERE, which is useful for its numerous hyperlinks embedded in the text to scholarly glosses and background. I’ve removed these here and blended their content with other material that I hope adds context and clarity to what’s going in if you’ve not yet read the novel.

One of the phænomena which had peculiarly attracted my attention was the structure of the human frame, and, indeed, any animal endued with life. Whence, I often asked myself, did the principle of life proceed? It was a bold question, and one which has ever been considered as a mystery; yet with how many things are we upon the brink of becoming acquainted, if cowardice or carelessness did not restrain our inquiries.

Mary Shelley

Portrait of Mary Shelley by Reginald Easton in 1820

Victor’s studies in anatomy would have been encouraged at Ingolstadt – its medical school was renowned. Mary Shelley would have gleaned much of her background material for his experiments and research from her reading (inspired by Percy Shelley) of the likes of Erasmus Darwin. It was a ‘bold question’, of course, because the ‘principle of life’ was a key concept in the vitalist controversy that I mentioned in my previous post. As I suggested there, the novel dramatises this debate. Victor’s note of arrogance and pride emerges at the end of that section; he implies that lesser mortals have baulked at the imaginative-scientific leap he believed himself to be making. He portrays himself as the opposite of cowardly or careless – or restrained. Already he’s showing unconsciously that his lack of ethical code is problematic, and that he is challenging divine retribution for his blasphemous career.

I revolved these circumstances in my mind, and determined thenceforth to apply myself more particularly to those branches of natural philosophy which relate to physiology. Unless I had been animated by an almost supernatural enthusiasm, my application to this study would have been irksome, and almost intolerable. To examine the causes of life, we must first have recourse to death.

His self-aggrandising tone becomes more marked here; the ‘almost supernatural’ nature of his ‘enthusiasm’ instils an element of the magical into his endeavours – possibly reflecting his earlier enthusiasm for the alchemy, mysticism and weirdness of the likes of Cornelius Agrippa, the Illuminati and Albertus Magnus, as noted last time. The symmetrical sentence at the end suggests a complacency, even pride, in his rejection of a moral code. His use of the grandiose ‘we’ distances himself from culpability or accountability, and positions opponents as lesser beings. Its epigrammatic tone of certitude has the stamp of authoritarianism, arrogance and overweening pride.

I became acquainted with the science of anatomy: but this was not sufficient; I must also observe the natural decay and corruption of the human body. In my education my father had taken the greatest precautions that my mind should be impressed with no supernatural horrors. I do not ever remember to have trembled at a tale of superstition, or to have feared the apparition of a spirit. Darkness had no effect upon my fancy; and a churchyard was to me merely the receptacle of bodies deprived of life, which, from being the seat of beauty and strength, had become food for the worm. Now I was led to examine the cause and progress of this decay, and forced to spend days and nights in vaults and charnel houses. My attention was fixed upon every object the most insupportable to the delicacy of the human feelings. I saw how the fine form of man was degraded and wasted; I beheld the corruption of death succeed to the blooming cheek of life; I saw how the worm inherited the wonders of the eye and brain. I paused, examining and analysing all the minutiae of causation, as exemplified in the change from life to death, and death to life, until from the midst of this darkness a sudden light broke in upon me—a light so brilliant and wondrous, yet so simple, that while I became dizzy with the immensity of the prospect which it illustrated, I was surprised that among so many men of genius, who had directed their inquiries towards the same science, that I alone should be reserved to discover so astonishing a secret.

Frankenstein OWC cover

My Oxford World’s Classics edition, which has an excellent introduction by Marilyn Butler

Interesting that Victor insists that what he was engaged in doing in his researches was the opposite of supernatural; rhetorically, of course (Mary Shelley’s style is highly rhetorical, like her models, from Paradise Lost and the Bible to ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’) by insisting on what he was not scared of he imbues his work with those very qualities. The catalogue of Gothic and gruesome detail that follows reinforces this effect. His use of passive verbs (‘I was led to…’; ‘and forced to…’; ‘My attention was fixed’) indicates that he believes his progress was the result of some force greater than himself, not his own volition. He’s also trying to impress such a view on his silent interlocutor, Walton. His egotism (‘I alone’) emerges strongly at the end here; his discovery surpasses all previous scientists’ work; they could have discovered his ‘astonishing’ secret if only they’d had his genius. The ‘light’ imagery emphasises proudly his ‘enlightened’ approach, aligning himself with the great discoveries and concepts of the previous century. The ‘dizziness’ he felt once more indicates his intoxication with his work in his ‘filthy workshop of creation’. Another passive voice here (‘should be reserved’) continues the effect noted above. He’s removing agency from himself. In a tragedy this would represent hubris in Victor.

Next time I’ll look at the continuation of this passage, and more.