#1930Club: William Faulkner, Helen Zenna Smith

#1930Club logoKaren at Kaggsysbookishramblings and Simon at Stuckinabook are hosting this week’s #1930 Club: do go and take a look at what they’ve been posting, and join in with comments or thoughts of your own on anything from that year that you’ve read and want to share, here, and/or on their blog sites.

I’m just past p.1000 of Uwe Johnson’s massive Anniversaries, so don’t have plans to start a new book from 1930 while immersed in that, but didn’t want to let this week pass without some sort of contribution, so here we go, with two posts from the archive.

As I Lay Dying Penguin cover

Penguin edition of ‘As I Lay Dying’ used for this review

Faulkner As I Lay Dying cover with Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies

My ex-library hardback edition is rather battered but has an appropriately abstract cover design; Vile Bodies (also been bashed around when in a library, rescued by me from a bin) I read pre-blog, so although it’s another 1930 publication I can’t link to it here

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First is William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (link HERE), first posted in 2013. This was Faulkner’s fifth novel, and is a high modernist, fragmented narrative account (fifteen different narrators, each with a distinctive voice and idiolect) of the Bundren family’s difficult quest to carry the body of matriarch Addie to her people’s home cemetery at Jefferson, some 30 miles north of the Bundren farm. Neighbours think this is a crazy scheme, but ‘pa’ Anse insists he’d promised his wife that her dying wish would be fulfilled.

Faulkner himself called it a ‘tour de force’: it’s maybe not a modest claim, but well justified.

Others have posted this week on my second #1930Club HZ Smith Not So Quiet coverchoice from the archive: Helen Zenna Smith’s novel Not So Quiet… My post was from the summer of this year.

It’s her riposte to Remarque’s similarly titled All Quiet On the Western Front, and deliberately foregrounds the experience of a female ambulance driver in the horror and carnage of WWI near the front lines. It’s one of the most compelling, unflinching accounts of that terrible war that I’ve read.

 

Namiki maki-e crane and turtle pen

I was made redundant from my teaching job this summer, and was given a small payoff. I put some of this, plus a generous birthday contribution from Mrs TD, to buy myself a special fountain pen – a Namiki with a maki-e design of a crane and turtle. (Namiki is the high-end brand name of its parent company, the better-known Pilot corporation).

I started my collection of pens a few years ago when the always thoughtful Mrs TD gave me a Mont Blanc for a significant birthday. Since then I’ve acquired about one a year: a green Pelikan, an Onoto special Cambridge University edition (see my homepage banner photo of these two pens), and a few others.

I wouldn’t say I’m a fountain pen geek, but I do love writing with a handsome instrument that glides over the paper leaving a glistening ink trail. I like the heft of a well-made pen in my fingers. It’s inspiring.

I have several beautiful Japanese pens, including a red Nakaya ‘Aka Tamenuri’ (the ‘tame’ element means ‘pool’, and ‘nuri’ refers to the lacquer-layering process: one sees the colour as it were through a pool of water) and a black Platinum ‘Kuro Tamenuri’, both made with the urushi lacquer technique – a process that dates back centuries in Japan. The lacquer is drawn from the sap of the sumac tree. The underlying ebonite base tends to discolour and wear over time, so the craftsmen of Japan applied the ancient art of lacquering to create a more durable, beautiful finish.

Highly skilled artisans painstakingly coat the barrel and cap with layer after layer of lacquer, carefully and repeatedly polishing the clear finish, a process that takes months, creating a rich, deep colour and texture through which a contrasting lighter shade is faintly seen. With use this underlying hue gradually emerges more clearly.

Namiki pen boxThis was my first pen made with the hira maki-e decoration. This involves an intricate design of gold powder and pigment being applied by a skilled artist with a variety of delicate brushes to the deep black urushi undercoat layer of lacquer (while still wet) applied to the body of the pen. This production takes place at the Kokkokai artisan workshop in Hiratsuka, Kanagawa province (midway between Tokyo and Mt Fuji).

The workshop was founded in 1931 around the master craftsman Gonroku Matsuda. It was named from the statement by the co-founder, Ryosuke Namiki: as sumo is Japan’s national sport, maki-e is the nation’s light (‘kokko’ in Japanese). With his fellow founder he travelled to the west in 1925 and began marketing this distinctive type of product; a London Pilot office was set up in 1926, and a contract made with Alfred Dunhill in 1930. The ‘Dunhill-Namiki’ pens were established.

The golden crane on my new pen is depicted with its distinctive red cap, wings Namiki craneoutstretched, as it flies over the turtle below, looking up at it. They make eye contact, showing rapport and unity. They are ancient Japanese symbols of long life and good fortune. There’s an old saying in Japan: As the crane one thousand years, the turtle ten thousand years.

namiki turtleThe water from the turtle’s pond is shown as stylised swirling waves curling around the barrel.

The 14K nib in inscribed with the outline of the sacred Mt Fuji. There’s a lovely short film about the pen-making process at the Namiki website HERE

Namiki water signature

The swirling water design with the artist’s signature underneath

Sebastian Faulks, Paris Echo

Sebastian Faulks, Paris Echo. Vintage paperback,2019. First published in hardback by Hutchinson, 2018

A central theme in this novel is the way the past seeps, as through a ‘semi-permeable membrane’, into the present. The Paris of 2006, where the main action is set, is haunted by the past: in the canonised historical figures and places whose names are commemorated in the names of Métro stations, squares, streets and so on; and more poignantly in the ordinary people who walk those modern streets and squares in the footsteps, as it were, of their antecedents.

Faulks Paris Echo coverThis is most movingly apparent in the audio files accessed from an archive by one of the two central characters (their voices narrate the chapters in a kind of counterpoint). Hannah is an American scholar in her early thirties, researching the part played during the Occupation of WWII by Parisian women. We are given full versions of the transcripts of two of these women, one from the seedier side of the city familiar to the young Édith Piaf, struggling to maintain moral and physical integrity when faced by the sexual importuning of German soldiers with money to burn, and the other from a different world.

The choices they make and shocking, terrible dilemmas they face are sensitively handled by Faulks. One plot twist left me gasping.

I’m less impressed by his choice of the two voices I mentioned. One is of a nineteen-year-old Moroccan lad called Tariq, who’s smuggled himself illegally into the capital of the former colonial ruler of his homeland with the vague aim of finding out something about his half-French mother, who spent her earlier years there. This enables Faulks to indulge in some important, sometimes heavy-handed consideration of France’s often oppressive and brutal colonialist history, and of the plight of immigrants in the 21C city – marginalised and mostly scratching a living, as Tariq ends up doing, in sleazy dead-end jobs like fast-food joints. Two cities, two nations.

At least Tariq’s voice enables Faulks to inject some much needed humour into this dark, disturbing story of historically layered or textured narratives of oppression and hardship, both during the Nazi occupation, and in the modern incarnation of the city. His narcissism, sexual urgency and being constantly hungry are often hilariously apparent; his callow disingenuousness, lack of common sense but basic integrity and decency – with some lapses – also ring true.

Hannah is a less convincing narrator. She’s emotionally scarred and numbed by an ill-advised love affair some years earlier, and Faulks’s providing her with the possibility of romantic redemption is handled, to my mind, rather too conveniently and clunkily.

The author clearly knows Paris intimately, and he brings it sensually to life – especially that dark underbelly noted above that tourists and the fashionable rich rarely see. Tariq serves as a kind of Candide figure, blissfully ignorant of the significance of the names of his beloved metro stations. This causes me to re-examine received notions of such names as Monet or Stalingrad and what they could signify to someone not from a western European culture – and what they say about that culture.

I liked the magical-realist way in which Faulks has figures from the past seem to appear in the flesh in modern Paris. Some embody Tariq’s desperate wish to establish an identity for himself in the living archive of the city, and more pertinently to know and see his late mother in the city, providing him with a personal connection to this alien city which has so far in his young life been only obliquely experienced through its political-historical impact on his homeland.

Others fulfil Hannah’s more academic longing (partly a response also to her emotionally empty life) to animate the past more immediately than historiography allows. The electronic voices she listens to in the archive take on flesh and blood, in a way: this is how history could look, if we had eyes to see, Faulks seems to be saying. Mostly this works.

The puppeteer/beggar on the metro, Victor Hugo, is a more playful example of the ghostly presences that populate this novel as vividly as the supposedly living ones. An epigraph on the first page is a quotation from Hugo’s L’Homme Qui Rit (never heard of it), which gives the book its title. It translates as:

What is history? An echo of the past in the future. A shadow (or reflection) of the future on the past.

There’s a lively interview with Faulks by Sam Leith at the Spectator books podcast from September last year, where I learned that the dedication to ‘Hector’ is to his dog. Why not?!

 

 

Only women grow up: Kay Boyle, My Next Bride

Kay Boyle, My Next Bride. Virago Modern Classics, 1986. First published in America, 1934

If ever I see the faces of Brancusi, or Duchamp, or Gertrude Stein, I shall look the other way because of the history of courage they made for you. “If you can’t live hard, die holy like a piece of cheese, Victoria.”

Kay Boyle My Next Bride cover

The cover of this handsome VMC paperback shows ‘Mrs Douglas Illingworth’ by Meredith Frampton

This cryptic thought and strange aphorism appears in parentheses early in Kay Boyle’s künstlerroman My Next Bride. It thus contrasts bracingly with the Modernist narrative account of the early scene in which nineteen-year-old, virginal Victoria John unpacks her few treasures in a decrepit, crumbling boarding house at which she’s just arrived in Neuilly, Paris.

It’s the early thirties, and Paris is the city of that Lost Generation of American expats like Victoria (and Kay Boyle). She’s an aspiring artist (who favours, significantly, portraits from the lives of the saints) whose much-loved woman friend, an older Australian vaudeville singer called Lacey, with whom she’d hoboed across the States and Canada, had recently committed suicide. Lacey had challenged and inspired her, ‘a stricken thin madonna’ who’d said to the ingénue Victoria, in addition to the startling words quoted above, that ‘life was an obligation in arrogance, talk an experiment in insult.’

What I’ve quoted so far indicates that Boyle’s narrative voice is typical of its period and her coterie: experimental, unconventional, fragmented and poetic. Perspectives shift abruptly, mid-paragraph, even mid-sentence: the Modernist verbal equivalent of the artistic developments favoured by the avant-garde of Montparnasse in which she moved. Dos Passos, Pound and Hemingway had been there – some of the few names Boyle doesn’t let drop. Archibald MacLeish is name-checked, DH Lawrence, Picasso. No wonder Victoria gravitated there to develop as an artist, to find herself as an artist and person.

It’s a thinly veiled autobiographical novel. Victoria, like Boyle, joins a commune run by a shady American proto-hippy named Sorrel. He’s clearly based on Isadora Duncan’s brother Raymond. A charlatan scoundrel, who preys upon lost souls like Victoria and lures them into his squalid community to exploit. She’s put to work as a salesgirl in his shop in fashionable central Paris; the stock is the hand-crafted tat churned out by his doting disciples. He meanwhile swans around in classical Greek robes and sandals, striking poses and extolling the virtues of the simple life, dance, art, vegetarianism, and free love. Entering this group, where washing up is rarely done and the food is vile, is like ‘taking the veil’, another member breathlessly tells Victoria, unaware of the hypocrisy of her despicable phoney guru, who pockets a wealthy American patroness’s cash at the end and takes off for the Riviera with his mistress. “They don’t know what they want,” he confides to wide-eyed Victoria at one point, gleefully.

Victoria is attracted to the charismatic Anthony Lister, who seems to be based on a combination of Harry Crosby, the wealthy, sexually promiscuous playboy who with his wife Caresse was part of the bohemian expat artistic scene in Paris, and Laurence Vail, modernist sculptor and writer who was became Boyle’s second husband in 1932. He’d previously been married to Peggy Guggenheim, the heiress, who appears in the novel as Fontana (also resembling Caresse C.), destined to become Victoria’s most true friend – if not her next bride.

He quickly singles out Victoria as his next bride, chatting her up with the most bizarre line in garbled stream-of-consciousness monologues, that read like an Imagist poet on opium (pretty much like Crosby, then). Here’s a sample from their first meeting:

“It’s the first time I’ve walked up this side of the street. I always take the other. I believe in embassies, and always in the emissary of the soul. The patterns on these walls take the sight right out of the eye like an operation. My name’s Anthony,” he said, his eyes escaping. “I believe in bone.”

Right. Not sure what escaping eyes look like, but this is impressive hokum.

After numerous late-night debauches with him Victoria comes to see his darker, troubled side. When she’d told him of the problematic issue of the poor (herself included), he replied:

Rich or poor, every one was stabbing every one else with hate, stabbing in envy and in terror. “It isn’t a great deal to ask, only that every one put down their weapons…I ask that people give up their brides. The whole universe on a honeymoon of horror, wedded to their daggers, stabbing their way from one betrayal to the next…”

Poor Anthony. He knows there’s more to life than partying, being ‘the eternal bridegroom’, despite his best efforts to prove otherwise.

Some of the best scenes in this uneven novel (brilliant at its best, which is most of the time; dire in places) involve the two starving, genteel Russian sisters living in the grim Neuilly boarding house. Aristocrats from before the Revolution, they’re reduced to applying to an agency for domestic staff where, in a scene of comic genius, they’re mistaken as employers in search of maids, when in fact they’re looking for work themselves, but can’t quite articulate this evidence of how low they’ve sunk.

Fontana’s dog is excellent, too:

The Russian dog came after them into the car and slouched down beside them, incredibly bored, incredibly clean, with his hair curled smooth as a caracal and his loose, tapering limbs bent under his pointed breast.

In later life Boyle became a fervent social activist, fingered by the McCarthyists for her left-wing tendencies. In this novel there are signs of this tendency, as in a stirring speech towards the end from Victoria to privileged but angst-ridden Anthony. She’s begun to grow up, to see through fakes like Sorrel, and to discern the self-indulgence of Anthony’s atrophied poeticisms:

Only women grow up, Victoria was thinking; men go on remembering the time when their families stood on guard about them, or the books on the table, or the silver, and there was no need for explanation. Haven’t you learned that once cut out of the family’s life you are a single thing given to yourself and other people, carved out separate to stand alone or not to stand at all?

Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado is a weaker, more frivolous version of My Next Bride‘s more ambitious, satisfying account of a young American woman’s painful growth into selfhood and discovery of love’s unexpected springs.

 

Éric Mathieu, The Little Fox of Mayerville

Éric Mathieu, The Little Fox of Mayerville. QC Fiction, Québec, 2019. Translated from the French by Peter McCambridge. ARC

My whole childhood was nothing but dread, drifting, and disappointment. And yet I wanted to be happy.

Éric Mathieu, The Little Fox of Mayerville front coverThese opening words of Éric Mathieu’s novel The Little Fox of Mayerville give an indication of most of what follows. Émile Claudel is born in 1945 into an ‘austere, joyless family home’ in the small, gossip-ridden village of the title, a rural place in Lorraine near where, significantly, Joan of Arc had lived. He too is born to suffer France’s pains.

It’s a magical realist bildungsroman; for example, the boy is able to speak from the moment he’s born, and he babbles competently in several languages, quoting from an early age from canonical literature he can’t possibly have read. From the outset this precocity – and everything else about him – arouses only hatred in the rest of his family.

With his red hair and vulpine features he quickly acquires the eponymous nickname. It’s not a token of affection. His slyness, tricks and (often cruel) pranks, usually perpetrated with his only friend Max, don’t endear him to his community.

As the narrative proceeds we learn that he suspects the man he calls father isn’t his biological father (he’d returned from the war, having been a POW, too late for the dates to fit). Much of the time Émile desperately searches for clues about the identity of who his father could be.

His supposed father is a shadowy, barely-present figure. His mother is moody, volatile and unloving towards the boy – he presumes out of guilt about his illegitimacy. She also seems to be promiscuous, especially with a sinister neighbour, Ducal. Could this demonic man be the one? Or was it an American GI who’d been quartered at the Claudel house during the war?

Aged about eight, before he can find the answers to these questions, he’s abandoned by his family and sent to an orphanage, euphemistically called ‘boarding school’. This place makes Jane Eyre’s Lowood seem like heaven. After suffering and growing up there he absconds and has a number of picaresque adventures. Falls in love. The sixties arrive: rock and roll, Bardot, liberation. Kennedy is shot. Maybe what’s coming isn’t liberation.

The novel never flags – in fact at times it’s almost too packed with incident, so the scenes blur. The protagonist is protean: at times feral, a kind of werewolf (werefox?), at others a scared, lonely child. It’s often unclear if what’s narrated is his fantasy. Dreams are interwoven with the narrative without distinction from ‘real life’, adding to this magical quality. Most of the people he meets are monstrous, distortions, like nightmare figures.

The poignancy of Émile’s childhood is the most affecting aspect of the novel: he’s lost, searching for some kind of identity – he assumes finding out about his father will solve this problem. Like most of us, he discovers that the truth isn’t always what you really want to find – or expect. The epigraph to Part III highlights this ambivalence: a quotation from The Brothers Karamazov – ‘who doesn’t desire his father’s death?’

He craves love and affection, and when it’s withheld not surprisingly his dark side exerts itself. I suppose The Little Fox is best summed up as a kind of postmodern fairytale. There are elements resembling Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. But I was most reminded of Truffaut’s seminal film ‘Les Quatre cents coups’– Émile, like Truffaut’s alter ego, barely copes with his abrasive contact with mid-20C French conservatism and duplicity. Its society is scarred by memories of war.  It attempts to gloss over its dubious record under German occupation. Maybe Émile’s quest represents in microcosm that of modern France.

Although the narrative seemed (for me) to lose its way a little towards the end, I was always engaged in Émile’s troubled, delinquent quest. The short chapters, some just a sentence or two, and the nimble, restless narrative voice, create a breathless, other-worldly effect that accords well with the theme.

The translation by this innovative Québec imprint’s fiction editor, Peter McCambridge, is lively and fluent. My thanks to the publisher for the ARC, and a welcome addition to its growing, impressive catalogue.

 

 

 

 

Colm Tóibín, Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know

Colm Tóibín, Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know: The fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce. Viking, 2018

Mrs TD bought me this stimulating collection of four essays (she also got me a lovely Japanese Namiki fountain pen – maybe more on that another time). In an interview with Colm Tóibín by Mariella Frostrup on the BBC Radio 4 programme Open Book in August (it begins around 8 mins 20 secs, link HERE) the author explains its origins and his intentions. I draw upon that interview in my general comments here.

Toibin Mad Bad coverInvited to deliver a series of lectures at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of Richard Ellmann, who’d written biographies of Wilde and Joyce and ‘a very good book on Yeats’, Colm Tóibín concluded that there was no point in expounding directly on these Irish authors, because Ellman had done that. The mothers, he goes on, were ‘a problem’ in two of the instances, because they ‘left no record’. But the fathers, in all three cases, were ‘very lively, interesting characters’ who’d left a legacy, in letters or other forms, and in the various other influences they’d had on the writings of their famous sons.

While I was reading this book during my Norway trip a couple of weeks ago I was troubled by the scarcity of reference to the three mothers. The author explains in this interview that not only, as stated above, was there a paucity of documentation about them, but also he’d already written a book (published in 2006) on Mothers and Sons; the explanation seems a little flimsy, but I suppose it’ll do.

It’s a lively and entertaining book, as you would expect from such a fine writer. The opening chapter is an impressionistic essay in which Tóibín recreates a walk through the familiar streets of Dublin, some of which are filled with a ‘peculiar intensity’ of ‘memories and associations’. He reflects on the buildings and places, including the General Post Office, HQ for the 1916 rebellion, Finn’s Hotel, or St Stephen’s Green, ‘the heart of the city’, full of ‘a secret energy’, and ‘Yeats territory’ – though it features importantly of course in Joyce’s work; Stephen Dedalus refers to it as ‘my Green’. His walk takes him past sites redolent of Dublin’s and Ireland’s turbulent history and rich culture, and their key personalities, from Cuchulain to Hopkins and Newman, to these three writers. He’s drawn particularly to those buildings that housed the families of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce. It’s the close proximity of all these places that’s so apparent in this essay: Dublin is in that sense a small city. Tóibín’s narrator is haunted by these presences.

All three ‘prodigal fathers’ were deeply flawed. Sir William Wilde was a polymath: travel writer, historian, biographer, antiquarian and statistician with an expert knowledge of the history and language of Ireland. He was also an internationally renowned eye and ear doctor. The most interesting aspect of the essay about him and his son is the way that Tóibín brings out the strange congruence between the notorious libel case about a sex scandal Sir William was involved in (he had an inappropriate relationship with a vulnerable young woman he’d treated: Mary Travers) and the libel trial which was the ruin of his son decades later involving the Marquess of Queensbury.

Despite his caveat mentioned above, I’d have liked to hear Tóibín’s views on Wilde’s extraordinary, dramatic mother, ‘Speranza’. He quotes Yeats as saying that any understanding of who Oscar Wilde became had to take into account

the mixture of formidable intelligence and unmoored strangeness exuded by his parents.

Unlike poor Oscar, who was imprisoned in Reading Gaol, which ruined his health, shortened his life and destroyed his reputation, Sir William wasn’t ostracised from society and the scandal didn’t have too detrimental an effect on his family’s life. On the contrary, Tóibín speculates that the glittering soirées in the Wilde’s house in Merrion Square where he was raised exposed him to the brilliant conversation and unconventional morality that flourished there. This may well have ‘nourished’ his later dramatical work —

but it did not help him once he had to stand in an English witness box when he, unlike his parents, was facing an actual prison sentence.

The essay on John B. Yeats, the one who Tóibín says he probably admires most out of the three fathers, reveals a feckless man who showed scant interest in providing for his family materially, and spent many of his later years alone in New York. Tóibín makes a powerful case, however, for the profound influence he exerted on his children, especially the sons Jack, one of the most gifted Irish artists of his generation, and the Nobel Prize-winning poet William. Through his talk when he lived with them, and later when he wrote them scintillating letters, he instilled in them his views on the salience of the spiritual, non-material world, and of the perils of beliefs that are too dogmatically, inflexibly held. Interesting parallels are drawn in this essay with the relationship between Henry James and his brother William with their father.

The deficiencies of John Stanislaus Joyce are too well known to repeat here. Tóibín is most interested in the literary representations James made of him throughout his fiction. He traces with enthusiastic precision, especially in Ulysses, the generosity of forgiveness with which the son portrays his indigent, drunken, violent, volatile father. I’m not entirely convinced that his being a fine tenor and bar-room raconteur altogether redeems him (he was, after all, ‘a bully and a monster’), but that’s not the point. We learn a great deal about the making of James Joyce as an artist and how he used this unpromising upbringing to fertilise his prose fiction. Tóibín concludes, in characteristically elegant style:

Because Joyce found the space between what he knew about John Stanislaus and what he felt about him so haunting and captivating, he forged a style that was capable of evoking its shivering ambiguities, combining the need to be generous with the need to be true to what it had been like in all its variety and fullness, and indeed its pain and misery.

 

Norway 2: Bergen and the coastal ferry

Following on from yesterday’s post about Oslo, I started drafting a piece for today on the complexities of the languages spoken and written in Norway, but it started to become too academic, so I’ll just stick to more pictures. As the comment from ireadthatinabook pointed out last time, there are two main variants: Bokmål and Nynorsk. Wikipedia has a pretty comprehensive account.

Bergen harbour

Bergen harbour in the rarity of a sunny day

After three days in Oslo we took the long train ride to Bergen. It’s a pretty harbour town and ferry port surrounded by hills, but less vibrant than the capital – though my son, who’s in the music business, tells me it has a buzzing music scene.

Bergen view from hill

Bergen view from hill

There’s a funicular up to the top of one of them. Great views from the top, and some friendly goats. Friends on social media suggested they’re descended from central Asian cashmere goats.

Bergen goat

At Bergen we boarded the Hurtigruten ferry which was to take us over seven days right up the western coast of Norway, stopping numerous times – often during the night when we were sleeping. This was not a cruise ship, but a working ferry, used by locals as a more convenient way of travelling north when the roads have to avoid long fjords and wind around mountains.

It had more in common with a night sleeper train than a pleasure cruiser. Such a good way to see the harbours, cliffs and crags of this beautiful west coast.

Sadly the northern lights didn’t show up.

Arctic circle marker

Arctic circle marker

Once we crossed the Arctic Circle the scenery started to become bleaker and more brooding, with skies to match.

Here’s some of the pictures I took; I hope they convey some of the magnificence and atmosphere of this nordic world.

 

Ferry wake 2Ferry weather skyTrondheim Cathedral was built in the middle ages by British masons, which probably explains why its front and design generally look so familiar.

I liked the detail of the Norse monster decorating the edge of the romanesque arch over a doorway. A nice pagan touch on a Christian building, typical of the medieval northern sensibility.

The statue of a whaler in Tromsø is an unfortunate reminder of Norway’s history as a whaling nation. Sadly there was often whale steak on the menus of restaurants.

We did get to see some sea eagles at Honningsvåg on another sunny day.

Honningsvag sun

Evidence that it doesn’t always rain in Norway: this is Honningsvåg harbour, with out ferry in the background, with the orange hull.

Trondheim cathedral monster

Trondheim cathedral monster

Trondheim cathedral front

Trondheim cathedral front

Ferry wake

Norway trip: Oslo

I wanted to relate some of my enthusiasm for my recent two-week visit with Mrs TD to Norway. Although this and any subsequent posts about it won’t be the usual bookish stuff entirely, there will be a literary-cultural aspect, so please don’t look away.

Many Norwegian houses are made from one of the country’s most abundant resources: wood. Not surprisingly, many of its towns and cities have therefore been damaged by fires. After over a dozen such conflagrations, Oslo was effectively destroyed in 1624 in one of its biggest. It was rebuilt and the new town named Christiania, after the then king Christian IV. After a spelling reform in 1877 it became Kristiania. It reverted to Oslo in 1925.

A whole post could be devoted to the Norwegian language. Maybe next time.

Perhaps the best-known novel set in Oslo is Hunger (1890) by proto-modernist Knut Hamsun (1859-1952). I wrote briefly about it in one of my earliest posts here. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1920 – a choice that became increasingly controversial because of his support for the Nazi cause during the German occupation of his country before and during WWII. Everywhere we went in Norway there were stories of the ruthless scorched earth policy adopted by the retreating German troops near the end of the war. Whole towns were burnt down and anything that could be used or eaten by the approaching allied forces was destroyed. I hope to say more about the occupation in another post.

The city today bears little resemblance to the one his troubled protagonist roamed through. The area round the Oslofjord harbour is now all steel and concrete high-rises.

The most striking is the Opera House, which I mentioned briefly in my previous post. It’s supposed to resemble a glacier, and it’s fun to walk up its sloping sides to admire the view from the top.

Oslo new Munch museum

The new Munch museum is scheduled to open in spring next year

Behind it is the almost finished new Munch Museum. It’s one of the largest and most striking-looking buildings on the waterfront. I’m not sure what it reminds me of most: a racecourse grandstand, perhaps. It’s a rectangular block, but its top few floors lean forwards as if trying to look at the floor. The architects call it ‘Lambda’, but I can’t see the similarity to that Greek letter.

We visited the existing Munch Museum, housed in a less dramatic modern block just off the city centre. Edvard Munch (1863-1944) was born forty miles from Oslo, and moved there in 1864.

Although it doesn’t hold more than a few dozen of his paintings, the most famous are there, and many of the tens of thousands of prints and drawings he donated to the state in his will. His two most famous – The Scream (‘Skrik’ in Norwegian; I think ‘The Shriek’ doesn’t quite convey the existential horror the picture conveys) and The Madonna – were stolen in an armed raid on the museum in 2004.

Munch Scream

This is I think the 1910 version of The Scream, done in oils; there are also two versions in pastels, and several versions in lithograph

Both were recovered, slightly damaged, two years later. His obsession with these works is reflected in the numbers of versions he produced in oils and prints. Like most of his work, they reflect his lifelong acquaintance with illness, bereavement, love, loss, terror and loneliness.

Munch Madonna

Much has been written about this Madonna (also titled Loving Woman). The pose is ambivalent: erotic, pained, strong, submissive, a victim? The facial ecstatic/pained expression reminds me of the marble Ecstasy of St Teresa by Bernini

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rådhus Oslo

Rådhus Oslo [Public Domain photo: By Ranveig – Own work, CC SA 1.0]

The other most prominent waterfront building is the Rådhus, home of the city council.

This is where, since 1990, the Peace Prize ceremony is held annually. Alfred Nobel (1833-96) is perhaps most famous for inventing dynamite, but he patented over 350 other inventions, including gelignite. At his death he owned ninety armaments factories (including Bofors).

When his brother died in 1888 a French newspaper mistakenly published an obituary for Alfred. So appalled was Alfred to read its condemnation of him as ‘marchand de la mort’ that he made a will donating most of his huge wealth to the foundation of the five prizes named after him, so that his legacy would not be that of a merchant of death. It’s not known why this Swedish industrialist stipulated that the Peace Prize should be decided by a Norwegian committee; the other four are determined by the Swedish academy.

It’s an ugly brutalist building (constructed 1931-50). The mud-brown brick it’s made of has given rise to its unflattering nickname with locals: Brunost, a Norwegian brown cheese that tastes as bad as it looks. But it has some interesting decorative features. My favourite is the frieze of multi-coloured scenes by Werenskiold from the Norse legends related in the Poetic Edda .

Swan maidens

Three valkyries, half spiritual, half earthly, come flying as swans and change into three beautiful maidens. Three brothers discover them, carry them off and marry them. Seven years later they left. Volund remains at home waiting for his wife’s return; his brothers leave to search for theirs [adapted from the caption to this relief in the frieze]

Oslo deer frieze

Four deer grazing on the world tree Yggdrasil’s green shoots. Three of them in this relief are depicted as symbols of ‘peace, cautiousness and timidity’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The other most notable literary figure associated with Norway is of course Henrik Ibsen (1822-1906). Unfortunately I didn’t get time to visit the museum located at the house where he lived for his last eleven years in Oslo, after spending most of his life in exile abroad – he found the people and atmosphere of Norway stultifying, as much of his drama shows. He wrote in Danish; as I said earlier, so much could be said about the significance of Norway’s relationship to language.

Munch sick child

Munch, The Sick Child. One of his earliest departures from his earlier Impressionist style in favour of the effort to depict his inner soul and emotions expressionistically or symbolically. This is one of six paintings and numerous prints on this theme done 1885-1926; it probably depicts his sister Sopie’s deathbed. She gazes into the abyss – or her aunt’s face. She died of tuberculosis when he was 14; his mother died of the same illness when he was five. Mental illness also ran in the family, the awareness of which haunted him as much as his morbid fear of the precariousness of existence.

Another time I intend to post on the rest of our experience of Norway: by train to Bergen, then the working ferry to Kirkenes…

Norway and Elizabeth Jane Howard, After Julius

Oslo opera house

Oslo opera house with the almost finished new Edvard Munch museum to its right

This is my first post since returning from a break in Norway. Three days in Oslo, a lovely city, with floating saunas in the harbour opposite the dramatic sloping roof of the Opera House – designed to look like a glacier. You can walk to the top and get a great view from the top.

Long train trip to Bergen, which at first we found a letdown after Oslo, but it grew on us. Then the Hurtigruten ferry (the name means ‘rapid route’) up the coast, over the northernmost tip of the country and back down yet another fjord into Kirkenes (‘church on a promontory’) just a few kilometres from the Russian and Finnish borders to the south and east. It was one of the most bombed cities in WWII, and has suffered greatly over the years from invasions and occupations by hostile forces.

Elizabeth Jane Howard, After Julius coverI read the two books I took with me. First was Elizabeth Jane Howard, After Julius. Picador paperback, 2015, 339pp. 19651. This was the first in a bundle I bought for a ridiculously low price from the Book People, a budget UK online bookseller. Jacqui Wine recommended this at her blog as the best one to start with.

I enjoyed the crisp, intelligent writing style, and the observations of characters were astute. In this respect EJH reminded me of Elizabeth Taylor: both writers are good at depicting lonely, unfulfilled, thwarted women. Esme is particularly well drawn: at 58 she’s spent the past twenty years as a widow, her eponymous husband Julius having sacrificed his life by sailing single-handed to assist at the Dunkirk evacuation, with no previous maritime experience. It’s an act of suicide, for he’d discovered Esme was having an affair.

Esme’s lover Felix is fourteen years her junior, the love of her life, and she’d hoped when her husband died that they’d at last be able to be together. She’s disappointed. Now, twenty years on, he’s invited himself to a weekend at her country house in Sussex. Her two daughters are there, both also unhappy in love.

The narrative is structured with poise and skill: the three parts deal with the three days of the weekend, with frequent glimpses into the past lives of the main characters that gradually explain how they’ve become the people they are. Five of the chapters in each part take the restricted viewpoint in turn of each of these main characters, with the sixth being a culminating set group piece, usually ending in disaster or farce. Events become complicated, enlightening or humiliating for all of these five characters, as revelations are made that transform their views of themselves and each other. There’s some dark humour to leaven the rather melodramatic plot, and a particularly poignant section in which, in flashback, the fate of Julius is recounted.

It’s a novel of set pieces, such as country house meals and rural walks. Descriptions of interiors and the outdoors are delicately done, integral to the unfolding of character and relationships. The housekeeper’s cat is a fine feline portrait.

Like Jacqui, however (link to her post here) I had grave reservations about some of the sexual relations. Howard is astute about the dawning sexual liberation of the early sixties, with some frank and touching insights into its consequences. It wasn’t the outspokenness that disturbed me; it was her portrayal of abusive and controlling treatment of women by some of the male characters without any apparent sense that this was reprehensible. Unfortunately this ruined for me what had otherwise been an entertaining and well written novel.

The men are weakly done, too. Esme’s anxious and vulnerable younger daughter Emma has brought home an uncouth, working-class boor called Dan Brick (apt name) who we are intended to believe is a poet. She works at the family publishing firm, and he’s supposed to be a literary genius. Yet he shows no sensitivity to or interest in language, culture or people. He’s an inverted snob, scorning the privileged lives of these wealthy people from a world so different from his. He’s a character who doesn’t ring true at all, and this seriously weakens the novel. I found it impossible to believe that a young woman like Emma would be attracted to such a brute.

I wasn’t entirely convinced by Esme’s former lover, Felix, either. Like some of the other characters he attempts to reconcile conflicting moral impulses (Dan wouldn’t even begin to understand such a concept), but ultimately he too behaves like a cad.

I was left at the end thinking that Howard wanted in some way to punish these lonely, desperate women. She shares some of the acerbic wit of Elizabeth Taylor’s narrators, but little of their generosity.

There’s another review of After Julius by Caroline here

I enjoyed the second book much more: Colm Tóibín, Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know will be the subject of another post. There may be more on Norway, too.

 

Sennen, Geevor, a tin miner and DH Lawrence

A week ago I drove with Mrs TD down to my favourite part of Cornwall, west Penwith, for one of our regular visits to these remote and beautiful moors and coasts. There’s a point on the A30 when the road crests a rise and a couple of miles below you see the magnificent sweep of Mount’s Bay, with the dark turrets of St Michael’s Mount in front, and the graceful crescent of the bay curving round to Penzance and beyond (I’ve posted about this, and St Mary of Egypt, here.)

Sennen Cove harbour

We headed further on this road, past Penzance, to Sennen Cove. We wanted to see again another lovely Cornish bay – not as spectacular as Mount’s Bay, but still lovely. It’s a popular destination for summer holidaymakers, and on a lovely August day the beach was busy with surfers, swimmers and watchful lifeguards (but not, sadly, the famous Newfoundland surf lifesaver dog, whose name I forget; there’s a book about him.)

The cliffs loom above the cream-coloured sand of the beach, giving the bay a sense of being protected by a tremendous elemental force: furrowed and fissured black granite.

We wandered through the village, heading for the art gallery: the Capstan and Round House. It’s a wonderful old building, with an ancient capstan wheel in the basement; there’s just room to walk around its perimeter and admire the artworks on the walls and surfaces.

Geevor entrance flags

Entrance to the Geevor Mine site

The owner was charming: Colin Caffell (his partner runs the gallery upstairs). He told us about his commission a few years ago to make a memorial statue to Cornish miners. He started with the clay model, then handed it on to the people who specialise in casting. He also told us about the garden in which the statue stands, at the entrance to Geevor Mine, a few miles along the coast road just outside Pendeen, which of course we had to drive on and visit (it’s only been there since 2015, and we’ve somehow never been in before).

This north Cornish coastline is spectacularly beautiful: more rugged and forbidding than the south, just a few miles across the moors of this narrowest part of the peninsula. I’ve posted before about Cape Cornwall, nearby, with its dangerous offshore rocks and iconic community of red-legged, red-billed choughs. Also nearby is the surprisingly large town of St Just, home of the gallery of one of my favourite artists: Kurt Jackson.

 On his website the sculptor Colin explains his intentions: he wanted to position the seven-foot bronze resin statue in a garden containing grasses and plants from all of the continents to which the intrepid Cornish hard rock miners took their skills: the Americas, Australasia, Africa and Asia. The colour scheme he was aiming for, the blues, oranges and reds, were intended to evoke the sunset over the Atlantic. He wanted this garden to become a ‘place for quiet reflection.’ It is.

Of course the plants had to be hardy enough to survive the salty winds blowing off the ocean. He goes on to say that the plants do better than one might expect; the artist Patrick Heron managed to create his own exotic garden where he lived not far along the coast.

The plaque beneath the statue reads:

Hard rock breeds hard men

Who slip between earth’s cracks for a living,

The dark chasm which closes around you,

Tight like a fist, draws you down

Into the mine’s gullet, the belly of the beast

Hewn out of granite, the ledger of tin,

The ingot of tradition, a labyrinth of strong voices

That still chisel the dark, the rich seam,

A stream that runs through each generation,

A lode that anchors a man’s life

From ‘The Wheal of Hope’ by James Crowden.

The memorial was ‘raised and funded by the community of the St Just Mining District in honour of the courageous men who worked the narrow lodes in hazardous conditions far below the land and sea in the mines of this district; and the women and children who toiled on the surface crushing and dressing ore. As pioneers, many of these Cornish families took this skill and expertise to the far corners of the world as new mining opportunities emerged.’ [from the same plaque]

That last point is perhaps a little romanticised. The diaspora of Cornish miners – the hard rock specialists who’d learned to extract every kind of valuable mineral from the granite under the moors of west Penwith and the rest of the county (or duchy) – had to emigrate when the mines became less competitive than their counterparts in other ‘far corners of the world.’ They had little choice, in other words.

In 2016 I wrote some posts on the Man Engine (here, and here) the massive mechanical puppet that toured the county and beyond, commemorating these hardy miners – many of whom died or suffered terrible injuries, working in dangerous, unpleasant conditions. The Levant disaster was just one such terrible event.

View from the moors above Zennor

View from the moors above Zennor

We drove on for lunch at the Tinners Arms, Zennor. I usually aim to have a pint of Tinners Ale here, the inn where DH Lawrence stayed briefly while searching for a place to rent in what he optimistically considered his ‘promised land’. He eventually found the small, basic cottage complex at Higher Tregerthen just outside the village. I’ve posted several times before about his stay in west Cornwall, trying to create a utopian community, Rananim, starting with John Middleton Murry and his wife Katherine Mansfield – but they disappointed him by moving to the ‘softer’ part of the county, to less basic accommodation.

A comment on a related post last August, about the sale of this remote cottage by a local estate agent, elicited a comment today from Julie Warries (thanks, Julie), who said she’s particularly interested in Lawrence’s time in Cornwall and the letters he wrote there. She added a charming aside: when she visited the Tinners Arms she asked a barman for directions to Higher Tregerthen. He didn’t know, but added that she wasn’t the first person to ask that!

Mrs TD thinks I should start a ‘DH Lawrence tours in Cornwall’ agency…Who knows.