Clergymen, spinsters and gossip: Barbara Pym, Crampton Hodnet.

Clergymen, spinsters and gossip: Barbara Pym, Crampton Hodnet. Virago Modern Classics, 2013. First published (posthumously) 1985

Miss Doggett is one of literature’s great bullies. Here’s how she’s first described –

She was a large, formidable woman of seventy with thick grey hair. She wore a purple woollen dress and many gold chains round her neck. Her chief work in life was interfering in other people’s business and imposing her strong personality upon those who were weaker than herself.

Barbara Pym is good at using clothes (and hats) as an index of character. That purple dress and bling is a clear sign that Maude Doggett is another, rather stupider, Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

Barbara Pym, Crampton Hodnet She is vicious and domineering to everyone she considers her inferior (she’s obsequious with those few she considers her social superiors). She’s especially nasty to her hapless ‘paid companion’ of the last five years, Miss Jessie Morrow, ‘a thin, used-up-looking woman in her middle thirties.’ In spite of her ‘misleading appearance’, however, Miss Morrow is ‘a woman of definite personality, who was able to look on herself and her surroundings with detachment.’

Clearly Miss Morrow is a sort of surrogate novelist, Barbara Pym’s voice, eyes and ears. She finds life ‘so much funnier than any book.’ She has no illusions about her status, as she cheerful discloses:

A companion is looked upon as a piece of furniture. She is hardly a person at all.

She says to the self-confessed ‘feeble, inefficient’ curate, Mr Latimer, clearly alluding to Miss Doggett’s spitefulness and the world’s unfairness:

‘[Men] are feeble, inefficient sorts of creatures…Women are used to bearing burdens and taking blame. I have been blamed for everything for the last five years…even for King Edward VII’s abdication.’

Shortly before that opening description, Miss Doggett had barked at Miss Morrow about the whereabouts of the buns for the imminent (and excruciating) teaparty she regularly held for sycophantic or long-suffering undergraduates (the novel is set in genteel North Oxford) and occasional Anglican clerics.

She follows up with a complacently miserly reference to the ‘struggling fire’ that fails to warm the musty drawing-room overfull of dreary Victorian mahogany furniture, for it’s a cold, wet October day. She’d once reprimanded Miss Morrow for wearing a cotton vest:

“There is no warmth in cotton,’ continued Miss Doggett. ‘We could hardly expect to find warmth in cotton.’

Miss Morrow felt the reassuring tickle of her woollen underwear and turned away to hide a smile.

That’s the nature of the low-key humour in this flawed but entertaining novel. Through the tyrannical Miss Doggett, Pym is able to show Jessie Morrow as quietly rebellious; her small victories are achieved in various, often sartorial ways. At one point she decides against ‘her brown marocain with the beige collar’, among the ‘drab folds’ of her wardrobe, and puts on instead the richly gleaming blue velvet, bought to attend a wedding (‘Miss Doggett had thought it an extravagance’), confident that Mr Latimer, like all men, won’t notice such a frivolously colourful garment. She’s wrong.

On another occasion she ‘impulsively’ buys herself a spring dress ‘of tender leaf green’, which she hides in her wardrobe ‘among her old, drab things’, knowing it will inspire ‘damping remarks and disapproving raised eyebrows’, Miss Doggett’s especially.

When she finds the courage to wear it for the first time, Miss Doggett’s predictable wrath is palpable in its venomous inarticulacy:

‘Really, Miss Morrow,’ she began, ‘really…’ and then muttered a word that sounded like ‘popinjay’.

Here Pym artfully conveys the spiteful nature of this monster. When Mr Latimer exacerbates the situation by praising Miss Morrow’s verdant appearance, what follows is priceless:

Miss Doggett said nothing. Perhaps in her opinion Miss Morrow hardly counted as a woman, certainly not the kind to be associated with spring and new dresses.

The ‘strained’ dinner the three of them take soon after is one of several such set pieces in the novel, delicately nuanced, its seemingly innocuous humour spikily barbed. And it’s noteworthy that it’s through her choices of dress that Miss Morrow precipitates Mr Latimer’s unflattering proposal.

Others have written well about the plot (concerning multiple doomed romances and individuals trapped by social circumstance), which is perhaps the weakest aspect of this comedy of thwarted passions and ill-fated, farcical liaisons (and there are some awkward repetitions, like that overused ‘drab’ I’ve quoted already), so I’ll give some links at the end. All I’ll say is that Miss Morrow’s archly amused refusal of Mr Latimer’s proposal (straight out of the Mr Elton book of romantic declarations) is representative of her view that her life is as fulfilled and content as it’s ever likely to be, and that ‘worms’ of curates like Mr Latimer don’t make good husband material.

Resignation and occasional rebellion are preferable to revolution, and being risk-averse is sensible: those are some of the ironically ambivalent moral lessons learned in the narrative – and Miss Morrow’s stoicism often looks like a sardonic pose, put on to disguise her true, vibrant, indomitable nature.

Her low-level rebellions serve to indicate that not all irrational impulses are doomed in Banbury Road, and that tender green leaves can flourish in the dogged Miss Doggett’s ghastly drawing-room, stuffed full of faded sepia photographs and dreary prints, intended to display her good taste, but which serve instead to confirm her narrow-mindedness.

Other (rather better) Pym novels I’ve written about:

No Fond Return of Love

Excellent Women

Thoughtful 2013 review by blogger Heavenali.

Interesting 2015 essay by Rose Little (on the B. Pym Society’s website) on her long friendship with near-contemporary Elizabeth Taylor, based on the archive of their surviving correspondence held at the Bodleian. Little shows how both writers were interested in the themes of loneliness and the ways that individuals can become isolated from others. I discussed this, among other topics, in my recent pieces on Taylor’s short stories, and her novel Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont.

 

 

Enmity and marriage: Rebecca West, Cousin Rosamund

Rebecca West, Cousin Rosamund. Virago Modern Classics (1991; first published 1985)

Victoria Glendinning’s Afterword to this Virago edition of Rebecca West’s Cousin Rosamund points out that the author left her continuation of The Fountain Overflows (which I wrote about recently here) in a typescript dating probably from the late 1950s. Part of it was published the year after her death (in 1983, aged 90) as This Real Night. She summarises how West mapped out how the story would have ended, soon after WWII.

The remainder constitutes about two thirds of Cousin Rosamund. After Rebecca West’s death her secretary found manuscripts which developed the story of the Aubrey family beyond the point where the typescript ended.

Rebecca West was a meticulous reviser of her work, and would presumably have edited the last third of this final novel in the Aubrey sequence before its publication. But as Glendinning says, ‘there is such fierceness and freshness in the drafted later section that one cannot regret what she might have considered as its lack of polish’.

he painting on the VMC cover is called 'Glitter', by American artist William Paxton.

The painting on the VMC cover is ‘Glitter’, by American artist William Paxton.

The zest of The Fountain Overflows is much reduced in the two sequels. In Cousin Rosamund the action resumes just after the devastation of WWI. Rose, the narrator, and her twin sister Mary have become famous concert pianists (like their mother before them). Conventional elder sister Cordelia has entered into a mundane, bourgeois marriage, and grown ever more distant and critical of her eccentric family and their bohemian circle. The eponymous cousin has trained as a nurse.

There’s even less plot in this final volume of the sequence than the previous two, but the lack of action rarely causes the narrative to drag. There are several beautifully realised set pieces, but the main interest increasingly resides in Rose’s response to abrasive experience during the decade or so after the first War.

Several of Rose’s family and friends marry men who appear singularly bad choices. Rose becomes increasingly convinced as a consequence that celibacy and solitude are preferable; sister Mary shares that view. But Rose’s convictions become so strong she undergoes a crisis that comes close to mental breakdown.

It’s the quality of writing that sustains the narrative. The characters’ eccentricity is often the source of wry humour, as in this early discussion by the twins and Rosamund, about their friend Nancy’s fiancé, whom they find dull and arrogant:

“But if he is going to be nice to her, we will do anything to please him,” said Mary. “Though I wonder how we can do it. I do wish there were only the people one can talk to and the other people that one just has to make signs at and offer curries to. It is the cases in between which are difficult.”

“Well, think of the only peaceful moments we have with the men who want to marry us,” I said. “They happen when we talk to them about what they do.”

 

Rosamund’s crucial role as the family’s moral arbiter is strongly indicated in the early part of this novel, as it was throughout the previous two. After this conversation, Rose feels emotionally cleansed, uplifted:

It was always so when Rosamund was with us, she found whatever we had for the moment lost.

Rose and Mary’s struggle to deal with relationships is complicated by Rosamund’s inexplicable marriage to a vulgar, swaggering magnate (he reminded me of a certain US president). Her motives for marrying this monster are never made clear, and her humiliation and embarrassment in his bullying, leering presence, the ‘cruelties and treacheries’ she endures, are painful for the sisters (and reader) to witness. Rosamund had always seemed their moral touchstone and guide; how could she have ‘sold herself to a freak of dubious origins and morals?’ Rose wonders. She and Mary are heartbroken; they feel like ‘deserted children’, and their suspicious view of men is endorsed. Here they discuss Rosamund’s former love interest, a man she was determined not to marry:

“I wonder why. I feel he had not that queer thing about him that all men have who want to marry us.”

“What is that?” I asked.

“Why, enmity, of course,” said Mary.

When she reflects on her parents’ marriage, Rose concludes their Pappa had not ‘protected’ Mamma,

and most of the men we met in our profession and at parties seemed not to have been fitted at birth with any apparatus for cherishing. We could believe that those who were homosexual had become so simply in order to evade any such obligation.

That fastidiously witty choice of words is typical of Rebecca West’s unusual style and capacity for surprise – especially in the amount of erotic content in Cousin Rosamund, both homosexual and heterosexual. Much of the book deals with Rose learning to overcome her revulsion at sex as ‘rank stuff’, ‘such pollution spoils women to the destruction of their essence, they become rubbish.’

Then she has her epiphany – her discovery that she is not so bereft that she cannot love a man. Marriage enables Rose to live again, but she experiences further anguish as well. Life is like that.

 

The spider in the corner: André Breton, Nadja

André Breton, Nadja. Translated by Richard Howard for the American Grove Press edition of 1960, and by Penguin when they added this title to their Modern Classics series in 1999.

I’ve found this a particularly difficult post to write. Magnolias and daffodils are blooming and spring is on the way. More important than troublesome books, perhaps.

Nadja has some fine passages that make rewarding reading. But it’s a morally bankrupt book, I feel. I know I should be assessing it from an objectively literary or artistic perspective. But there it is: it’s beyond my control. This is a blog, not an academic journal.

André Breton, 'Nadja': PMC cover Nadja’s opening paragraphs set the tone of strangeness and authority that resonate through much of the book (I can’t call it a novel or romance – a generic problem which the Breton biographer Mark Polizzotti discusses in his informative Introduction). If anything it’s an unreliable autobiography. The narrator bears AB’s name and many of his views, though of course it would be naïve to take this at face value: he’s a literary construct.

He begins with an attempt to set out the answer to the question with which the narrative begins: ‘Who am I?’ His first response is to suggest he is whom he ‘haunts’. He plays a ‘ghostly part, evidently referring to what I have ceased to be in order to be who I am.’ He goes on:

Hardly distorted in this sense, the word suggests that what I regard as the objective, more or less deliberate manifestations of my existence are merely the premises, within the limits of this existence, of an activity whose true extent is quite unknown to me. My image of the “ghost”, including everything conventional about its appearance as well as its blind submission to certain contingencies of time and place, is particularly significant for me as the finite representation of a torment that may be eternal.

These looping, intricate sentences have a poetic-philosophical potency that is both weird and elusive while at the same time existentially dramatic. That final phrase is tremendous. Artful.

He goes on to suggest he is ‘doomed’ to try and learn just a fragment of what he has forgotten –

an idea of irreparable loss, of punishment, of a fall whose lack of moral basis is, as I see it, indisputable…I strive, in relation to other men, to discover the nature, if not the necessity, of my difference from them.

This is typical of the plaintive quest for truth and identity that the book presents – but I’ve quoted them at length because, for me, these extracts also show where I have a problem with it. It’s all about HIM. And ‘men’. Women play a secondary role in the surrealist world Breton constructs.

Perhaps I’m reading this wrongly; it’s not an easy text to understand. Breton is surely trying hard not to be coherent, comprehensible or to create a conventional, linear narrative. As he says later on, the psychological novel with its empiricist basis is, for him, dead. He has no interest in the nature of bourgeois reality; his focus is on himself and his own experience.

This is all very interesting, for a while. But I found it palled – and there are 60 pages of it before Nadja herself appears. 60 pages full of the dropping of names of his important avant-garde friends, from Aragon to Picasso. The influence of Huysmans is acknowledged (not a good sign).

When Nadja does appear the narrator clearly suspects she might be a prostitute. Only French male intellectuals can be flâneurs in Paris (as Lauren Elkin has recently demonstrated in her challenge to this assumption, Flâneuse, reviewed in the Guardian HERE.)

 

He immediately invites her for a drink in a café, the first of many assignations (bizarre trysts) over a ten-day period. He’s clearly infatuated, fascinated by ‘the soul in limbo’ as she describes herself, this proto-beatnik with the kohl-rimmed, fern-coloured eyes and the sultry (inauthentic) Russian name, who clings on to existence by smuggling cocaine, and possibly selling herself.

He clearly tells her he’s a writer, for she makes him promise to bring her some of his books when they arrange to meet next day. He urges her not to read them:

Life is other than what one writes.

She leaves him glowing with self-satisfaction, for she confides that the quality about him that touched her most was his ‘simplicity’ (his italics). Really?! All this is transparently disingenuous and pompous of him.

As their strange liaison develops she reveals disturbing details about her past, and is evidently a troubled soul. She speaks in sphinx-like aphorisms and paradoxical, portentous riddles (‘I am the thought on the bath in the room without mirrors’): the very essence of surrealism. Breton is beside himself: she’s his dream woman, for she symbolises…him and all his beliefs.

But as her frail hold on sanity becomes more apparent, and her haunted eccentricity becomes increasingly extreme, he realises he’s mistaken incipient insanity for the embodiment of a surrealist’s rejection of rationality. Even her surrealist drawings, reproduced in this text in blotchy monochrome (a technique Sebald was to make more interesting use of), he chooses to see as preternatural signs of her role for him as Muse. Freud would no doubt interpret them differently.

It’s at this point that Breton finally lost me. Even by their second meeting he’s writing ‘it is apparent that she is at my mercy’. Yes, he loves that she seems ‘so pure, so free of any earthly tie, and cares for so little, but so marvellously, for life’. She’s a ‘Melusina’ spirit, in his eyes. That’s how he chooses to see her at first, rather than as the psychologically vulnerable young woman (she was 24; Nadja is based on a real-life person) he comes to recognise. Which is when he rejects her.

This renunciation comes as no surprise. Soon after meeting her he writes:

How does she regard me, how does she judge me? It is unforgivable of me to go on seeing her if I do not love her. Don’t I love her? When I am near her I am nearer things which are near her.

His egotism excuses for him every exploitative moment he spends with her. He discusses her with his wife and friends. Nadja is not autobiography, but I find the way he portrays his callous treatment of this damaged young woman inexcusable (‘unforgivable’). Not a particularly valid literary response, but one I can’t avoid.

He took her to be ‘a free genius, something like one of those spirits of the air, which certain magical practices momentarily permit us to entertain but which we can never overcome.’ Ominous that he doesn’t say ‘love’, but ‘overcome’. She’s important to him only as long as she inspires him, and ‘takes [him] for a god’, ‘thinks of [him] as the sun’, her ‘master’. Being adored by a gorgeous, abandoned waif is a tremendous aphrodisiac, and he gorges on it.

Towards the end his guard drops, and guilt begins to show:

perhaps I have not been adequate to what she offered me.

 

What did she offer? ‘Only love in the sense I understand it – mysterious, improbable, unique, bewildering…’ Soon after this adolescent self-analysis he declares baldly:

I was told, several months ago, that Nadja was mad.

So all of this has been written retrospectively, in the knowledge that she was becoming insane. What pushed her over the edge? It’s hard to resist the conclusion that it was his inability to return her love. He used her, and when she gave him her essence he took it and then rejected her. It’s all very well spend much of the last 30-odd pages of the book fulminating against the profession of psychiatry (Breton had medical-psychiatric training), denouncing the kinds of sanitarium to which Nadja has been committed (and where he never visited her, though his friends did); this doesn’t exculpate him. This is his heartless response to news of her incarceration:

…I do not suppose there can be much difference for Nadja between the inside of a sanitarium and the outside.

He’s making a cheap surrealist jibe against the relative madness of bourgeois society: Nadja has become nothing more than a convenient tool to facilitate the construction of his private aesthetic-political manifesto.

His denial of Nadja was the ultimate expression of this smug and callous character. I just hope it wasn’t the real André Breton, and he chose to create this monster for some kind of surreal literary exercise.

This is the same character who earlier wrote about writing Nadja in the Manoir d’Ango as he liked, ‘where I was able to hunt owls as well.’ When I first read this I thought it a surreal joke (there’s an equally good one about ‘the spider in the corner’). When I got to the book’s end that sentence took on a different significance; he’s using Nadja’s mental implosion as another aspect of inspiration, pulling fragments of her shattered psyche out of the wreckage and making them into beautiful literary objects. I can’t countenance that, no matter how beautiful they are.

But I’m willing to acknowledge that all of this might be a wilful misreading of a surreal text as if it were written by one of those empiricists Breton hated – you know, charlatans like Flaubert.

The possibility of happiness: Rebecca West, This Real Night

Rebecca West, This Real Night (Virago Modern Classics, 2000; first published 1984)

This is volume 2 in the trilogy ‘A Saga of the Century’, about the Aubrey family in early 20C England. The story resumes where The Fountain Overflows (about which I posted here recently) left off. Once again its hallmark is the offbeat perceptions of young narrator, Rose, who can be ‘sometimes savage’ as she’s allowed to grow up with minimal parental intervention, and with some unconventional views on life:

A pretence already existed in those days, and has grown stronger every year since then, that children do not belong to the same species as adults and have different kinds of perception and intelligence, which enable them to live a separate and satisfying life. This seemed to me then, and seems to me now, a great nonsense. A child is an adult temporarily enduring conditions which exclude the possibility of happiness.

She and her twin sister Mary have taken up their places in music academies in London, while beautiful eldest sister Cordelia, now resigned to the fact that she has no musical talent, has abandoned her ill-advised career as a concert violinist.

Rebecca West, This Real Night VMC edition coverIn This Real Night we see the twins maturing into young women, and beginning to recognise the unromantic harshness of life as professional classical pianists. Richard Quin, the adored baby brother of TFO, is slightly less cloying in this novel, as he too grows up. By the close, Mamma says of Rose and Mary that they’ve changed, like Cordelia: ‘Much of the original brutality has gone’, she muses placidly.

Money troubles are over now that profligate father Piers has deserted them. Mr Morpurgo, their kindly benefactor, plays a larger role in this novel, but his geniality is soured by his catty wife, who presides over an awkward lunch party with the Aubreys with vindictive, graceless spite.

There are more charming, heartwarming scenes as the girls develop slightly more sophisticated insights into the turbulent world of mysterious adults. Their idyllic visits to Aunt Lily, now established in a friendly Thameside pub, enable a measure of stability and peace to enter their lives after the heartache of their father’s disappearance. There is a dramatically violent scene there involving Lily’s genial landlord friend, Uncle Len, and a gang of desperado gipsies, which profoundly shocks the girls and teaches them yet another harsh life lesson.

Along with the often unreliable insights of Rose, this novel’s main strengths lie in the portrait of her Mamma, a saintly, eccentric and hugely gifted woman. She has taught her children to play and appreciate music with rare sensitivity, but has failed to show such insight into her feckless husband – who she continues to adore even when he’s abandoned her and the children.

Rose’s view of this marriage is characteristically skewed and partial, but it provides another opportunity to learn about life’s vicissitudes, especially for girls and women:

Indeed, marriage was to us a descent into a crypt where, by the tremulous light of smoking torches, there was celebrated a glorious rite of a sacrificial nature. Of course it was beautiful, we saw that. But we meant to stay in the sunlight, and we knew no end which we could serve by offering ourselves up as a sacrifice.

The tone of this novel is darker and more melancholy in some ways than TFO, published nearly thirty years earlier. Mamma’s frail hold on life becomes increasingly tenuous. Death’s shadow lengthens over the family, darkened ever more ominously by the onset of World War I.

It reads very like a spirited, unconventional autobiography, and perhaps reveals the author’s unfinished editing process. Rebecca West died in 1983, and This Real Night (like the final volume, Cousin Rosamund) was published posthumously. It would have benefited from some judicious pruning – but still contains delights.

Once again there are some dazzling descriptions of music and art, and serious reflections on the nature of creativity and its redemptive place in a secular, commercial, largely artless and dull modern world.

It’s not a great novel, but it is seriously good. Rose’s increasing awareness of the importance of moral rectitude and decency in human relations is developed without too much tub-thumping or piety, and is offset by the sometimes spiky humour and bizarre incongruities, especially about Cordelia, who lacks the other siblings’ artistic sensibility and zany imagination. Her desperate need for normality and urge to escape this (to her mind) crazy family is finally realised when she marries an equally uninspired man. His wealthy family views the Aubreys as quaintly plebeian and ‘humble’, while they, viewing his family,

were feeling towards them like unscrupulous horse-dealers who have sold a dangerous horse to an urban simpleton.

Rohan Maitzen wrote a detailed, perceptive review of this novel at Open Letters Monthly in Dec. 2013

 

The V & A revisited: Tobias, Sara and the dog

I posted yesterday about my recent visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London with old friends (one of whom reacted indignantly at being called ‘old’), and the image painted on glass of St Mary of Egypt.

Another that took my fancy was this one, of Tobias and Sara on their wedding night.  It was made (probably) in Germany c. 1520; is clear and coloured glass with printed details and silver stain. It’s in the Medieval and Renaissance Gallery, Room 64: The Wolfson Gallery.

This is the story on the V&A website [with additions of my own]:

The Book of Tobias recounts the story of the pious aged Tobit and how his son, Tobias, with the aid of the archangel Raphael, was able to restore his father’s health and wealth. The archangel Raphael, in disguise, leads Tobias to the lands of his kinsman Raguel. Raguel gives his daughter Sara in marriage to Tobias but warns him that Sara’s seven previous husbands had all been devoured by demons on the wedding night. (Wikipedia adds that ‘the demon of lust, Asmodeus, “the worst of demons” [which implies some of them are really quite nice] abducts and kills every man whom Sarah [spelt with an H] marries, on their wedding night before the marriage can be consummated.

With Raphael’s aid, Tobias prepares a potion, the smell of which drives the demons out. He and Sara are able then to successfully consummate their marriage.

The dog sleeping on their bed belonged to Tobias and accompanied him and Raphael on their journey. In this context he may also symbolise marital love and fidelity.

Wikipedia adds [edited]:

‘Along the way [on his journey to Media], whilst [Tobias] washes his feet in the river Tigris, a fish tries to swallow his foot. By the angel’s order, he captures it and removes its heart, liver and gall bladder.

Upon arriving in Media, Raphael tells Tobias of the beautiful Sarah, whom Tobias has the right to marry because he is her cousin and closest relative. The angel instructs the young man to burn the fish’s liver and heart to drive away the demon when he attacks on the wedding night.

The two marry, and the fumes of the burning organs drive the demon to Upper Egypt, where Raphael follows and binds him. Sarah’s father has been digging a grave to secretly bury Tobias (whom he assumed would die). Surprised to find his son-in-law alive and well, he orders a double-length wedding feast and has the grave secretly filled…After the feast, Tobias and Sarah return to Nineveh. There, Raphael tells the youth to use the fish’s gall to cure his father’s blindness. Raphael then reveals his identity and returns to heaven, and Tobit sings a hymn of praise…’

Sadly, the dog that is said to accompany Tobias and the angel on his journeys disappears from the story – though this glass panel clearly shows him curled up asleep on the newlyweds’ bed (another nice domestic touch is the slippers left beside the bed – a visual reminder, perhaps, that domestic/marital order has been restored with the banishing of the demon).

Michael Gilmour has a small piece in The Huffington Post Blog, suggesting the dog is in fact an angel, too. I find this unlikely. Look at him, snugly snoring on the duvet. Not very angelic, is he?

When my old friends and I looked at this image, we were puzzled by the matter-of-fact way Tobias agrees to marry and sleep with a woman whose previous seven bridegrooms hadn’t survived the night. OK, Raphael had given him the smelly fish potion, but that wouldn’t have put my mind at rest in Tobias’s position. It’s a charming image, nonetheless. It looks strangely familiar: I’ve seen it somewhere before, but can’t recall where. A Penguin book cover? A postcard I once had?

I recall writing in a notebook many years ago a line from the Apocryphal Book of Tobit: mercifully ordain that we may become aged together (Bk 8.8) I’ve a vague feeling it has a DH Lawrence connection, but an online search turned up nothing. I’d be grateful if anyone knows of his having used the line anywhere; maybe I’m just imagining it.

Mary of Egypt

Nothing particularly literary about this brief post. Just wanted to share my excitement at coming across this image a couple of weekends ago. I was with two of my oldest friends, who live in Chiswick, West London, and we went up to the Victoria and Albert Museum in S. Kensington. I don’t think I’ve ever been there before.

It holds a weird pot-pourri of randomly collected objects, loosely arranged into galleries that seem ostensibly to have a logical connection, but don’t.

After a while we found ourselves passing through a hall filled with stained glass images. Out of habit, I checked a few for my saint, Mary of Egypt, the one whose medieval English lives I’d researched as a postgrad so many years ago, when I was a hagiographer. What were the chances…and there she was, as I looked at a random sequence of panels.

Dating from 1670, made in Cologne, the panels depict the penitent saint kneeling before the Virgin and child. It seems to have been made to celebrate the marriage of Anna Geilsbach. Here’s what the V&A say about it on their website (though I’d be happy to update their cursory summary of her legend):

This painted oval panel was probably commissioned by Anna Geilsbach as a marriage panel. It may have been in her home originally, or donated to her local church.

In the middle of the 16th century, new techniques for producing decorated glass were introduced. Glass paints known as ‘enamels’ were used to paint directly onto the glass, similar to painting onto a canvas. To produce the colours, metallic oxides were added to a glass frit mixture. The resulting colour range included delicate blues and greens, as we see here in this panel.

The V&A is one of the strangest, most fascinating museums I’ve ever visited. It’s as if benefactors across the years and continents have said to the directors: I have all this eclectic stuff, would you like it? And they’re like, yeah, please. And they stick it all into galleries.

And it’s all free. Wonderful. Here’s another nice image from another irrelevant room: it’s St Jerome, but I neglected to make a note of who made it, or when. But it’s rather splendid – even without his usual attribute (as a hermit) of a mournful lion:

 

Paltry things: Elizabeth Taylor, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

Elizabeth Taylor, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (Virago Modern Classics, 1982) First published 1971

Elizabeth Taylor’s approach in Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont seems austere and economical in comparison with Rebecca West’s baroque and intricate portrayal of an upper middle class family in decline (The Fountain Overflows), which I wrote about yesterday, who revels in the eccentricity of her adult characters and the almost feral preciousness of the children.

I’ve come to Elizabeth Taylor later than most, it seems. This novel has been so widely reviewed and discussed (list of links at the end of this post) I shall limit myself mostly to just one character in order to show some of the subtlety and unsentimental sympathy the author shows towards characters who she might, given her leftist leanings, have found uncongenial, even repulsive. This is the generosity of spirit of a truly humane artist.

Mrs Palfrey cover

My VMC edition was a Christmas present from Mrs TD

When Laura Palfrey arrives at the unprepossessing hotel to spend her declining years (she and her only daughter don’t get on), she feels like a prisoner when first confined to her cell. From her window all she can see is

a white brick wall down which dirty rain slithered.

The weather and slowly, inexorably passing seasons feature largely in creating mood, as here. The pathetic fallacy doesn’t grate, because it’s clearly refracted through the depressed sensibility of the protagonist. The artist’s own distinctive stylistic touch is seen in that artfully delayed verb, with its connotations of disgust.

Mrs Palfrey’s loneliness is reflected in the jaded residents she meets there. Status is measured by the number of visitors they receive – for all have become adrift from life, mostly forgotten by family and friends (it’s ‘a genteel antechamber to oblivion’ as Robert McCrum memorably calls it in his piece on the novel in his 100 Best Novels column in the Guardian).

The first resident she meets is the scary, cantankerous Mrs Arbuthnot, ‘bent with arthritis and walking with two sticks.’ Asking if is she’s coming to watch ‘the serial’ on tv, this woman ‘looked as if she might have smiled if she had not been in so much pain.’ So immediately we see the reason for her rude abruptness, and although it’s hard to condone, it’s possible to understand it.

Mrs Palfrey got up quickly, and she blushed a little as if she were a new girl at school addressed for the first time by a prefect.

Not a prison, now, but an infantilising, faction ridden school-like institution, with only one escape route (‘The Claremont was rather like a reduced and desiccated world of school’). Taylor in this encounter shows how the dynamics of relationships develop, and how characters’ foibles and inner nature are revealed throughout the novel – with subtle perception and minimal exposition.

Although she realises this woman is a bully, Mrs Palfrey’s insight, conveyed so ambivalently, shows her pathetic gratitude, tempered by humiliation.

A few days later Mrs Arbuthnot condoles spitefully with Mrs Palfrey when her vaunted grandson, the only relative who might visit her and prove she’s not abandoned like the rest of them, fails to materialise. Mrs Arbuthnot clearly doubts he exists, and fails to buy Mrs Palfrey’s excuses for her lack of visitors, gazing at her malevolently. Mrs Palfrey’s inner response is telling:

They were such very pale blue eyes as to make Mrs Palfrey uneasy. She thought that blue eyes get paler and madder as the years go by. But brown eyes remain steady, she decided, with a little pride.

Once again she shows a measure of spirit in the face of malice – but does not condemn her tormenter.

Later, when her new friend Ludo comes to dinner with her at the hotel and flinches under Mrs Arbuthnot’s artless probing – she rightly suspects he’s not really Mrs Palfrey’s grandson, with the instinctive rancour of a disappointed outcast who recognises another (Mrs Palfrey) when she sees one – he exclaims what ‘wicked old eyes’ Mrs Arbuthnot has. Mrs Palfrey says: ‘She is often in great pain.’

Her refusal to judge is rare in this infernal hotel, and redolent of the humanity with which Taylor portrays these sad, abandoned characters.

At bedtime after this encounter, Mrs Palfrey ‘slept well all night, and her lips were level, as if she were ready to smile.’ But the narrator follows Mrs Arbuthnot into her lonely bedroom. She’s in too much pain to sleep, her ‘rigid limbs’ a ‘torture’ to her.

Her interior monologue shows how desperately anxious and depressed she is. Her husband, like those of all these faded women, would have assertively complained to management about their shabby quarters. With ‘ghastly clarity’ she realises her constant complaining is directed ‘only to underlings like herself, who could do nothing.’ Whereas her husband would go ‘straight to the fountain-head’, she is afraid of it. Her raw, fearful vulnerability is painful to witness.

Her dejection is exacerbated by her growing realisation that she will soon be too ill to be allowed to remain at the hotel. ‘We are not allowed to die here’, Mrs Palfrey tells Ludo in one of the most memorable lines in the novel (and which he gleefully steals for the title of the novel he’s writing about the place).

Mrs Arbuthnot foresees her future: her incapacity will inevitably mean a nursing home or geriatric ward (and soon her incontinence brings this about.) ‘Or going to stay with one of her sisters, who did not want her.’

‘Can’t die here,’ she thought, in the middle of the night…One might go on and on, hopelessly being a nuisance to other people; in the end, lowering standards because of rising prices…Down the ladder she would have to go.

She reflects jealously on how happy Mrs Palfrey looked at dinner with Ludo, ‘their eyes on one another’s faces, like lovers’. She’d eavesdropped on them with ‘ears sharpened by malice’.

Mrs Palfrey is a dark horse, she thought. At this unintended little pun in her mind, she tipped her head back against the pillow and grimaced, by way of smiling.

Her ‘casual cruelty’ (as Paul Bailey says in his tender homage in the Introduction) serves to protect her from the ‘not always casual cruelty of others.’ Even a vindictive woman like Mrs Arbuthnot is shown as vulnerable and human – and sharing in humanity’s suffering.

An aged man is a paltry thing, said Yeats, a tattered coat upon a stick. It’s not so often we see such a sympathetic, clear-eyed portrayal of women growing old in literature. Ageing deprives these characters of dignity and, most of them, of hope. It’s to Elizabeth Taylor’s immense credit that she’s able to show an element of both in some of their bleak lives.

It’s not as sad or grim a read as these notes might suggest. There’s humour. Geriatric, unredeeming gallows humour, perhaps, but it’s there. That Palfrey pun adds pathos to Mrs Arbuthnot’s twisted, painful animosity.

Max at Pechorin’s Journal gives his customarily perceptive account, followed by a list of links to other blogs. I’d highlight the following, who’ve written about numerous other Taylor works (so far I’ve only posted here on the Complete Stories):

Jacqui Wine’s blog

Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings

Ali at Heavenali

Caroline at Bookword.

Simon at Stuck in a Book

What is music about? Rebecca West, ‘The Fountain Overflows’

Rebecca West, The Fountain Overflows (Virago Modern Classics, 2011) First published 1956

A while ago I wrote about the spiky charm of Barbara Comyns’ novel Sisters by a River; The Fountain Overflows is also narrated largely from the point of view of a child. Rose seems to be about six at the start of the novel, and is in her early teens by the end. It’s her ingenuously penetrating (and often disarmingly warped) insights into the lives of the adults around her, and sporadically sharp-eyed analysis of her three siblings and other children (‘We were quite little but we were already cunning as foxes’), that lend this narrative its pungency, acerbity and lopsided humour. Its stylistic and psychological naiveté are tempered by the maturer reflections of the narrator at the time of writing, fifty years later.

Rebecca West The Fountain Overflows cover VMC editionHere’s how we first see Clare Aubrey, Rose’s mother, once a brilliant concert pianist, now a shabby-genteel Edwardian housewife:

Mamma was not good-looking. She was too thin, her nose and forehead were shiny like bone, and her features were disordered because her tortured nerves were always drawing a rake over her face.

The metaphor there is typical of the flashes of menace and cruelty that serve as counterpoint to the surface childlike tranquillity of this dark domestic tragic-comedy. Rose never loses track of the family’s precarious situation, and the always imminent proximity of disaster.

A fleeting reference is made early on to the mother’s having ‘second sight’. When Rose first visits cousin Rosamund and Aunt Constance’s house, she and her mother calmly banish malevolent poltergeists by their very presence. Later, Rose is chastised by her mother for using her mind-reading and fortune-telling ability as a party trick. I found this supernatural aspect of the novel rather incongruous and grating.

Her improvident, handsome rogue of a father, who engages in a ‘lifelong wrestling match with money’, gambles and loses what little he earns as a writer. With his scornful manner he alienates the patrons who are impressed by his polemical articles, and dallies with women flagrantly. Yet Rose adores him; all the family do. That’s their problem:

My father, though very cruel, was very kind. [Two pages later:] He was often kind, but he was also ungrateful.

Rose is infatuated with him, but not blind to his selfishness and egregious faults: ‘Human relations are essentially imperfect,’ she muses on seeing a photo of him as a young man. Even his brave intervention to save a murderess, mother of one of Rose’s school friends, shows a thoughtless disregard for the possibly disastrous effect on his family this might have if he fails and goes to prison.

The father’s serial recklessness worsens the already tense marital/familial atmosphere:

We were at first puzzled by the nature of the calamity that had struck our household. We had read a great part of Shakespeare and a good many novels but nothing in them had modified our conviction that Papa and Mamma could not have any very strong interest in each other, as they were not related by blood.

Precocity and childishness combine like this throughout the narrative, but somehow usually managing to avoid cloying (though I found Rose’s attempts to portray little brother Richard Quin as an angelic pet tiresome).

This is Rose on big sister Cordelia, towards whom she tends to harbour murderous thoughts:

At school, we noticed, she got on discreditably well. The wrong sort of teacher liked her in the wrong sort of way, and they were constantly giving her what they called ‘little tasks’ and mentioning her as an example of esprit de corps; and she spoke to them with an air of professed insipidity which we took seriously as a betrayal of childhood. Of course grown-ups wanted children to be blanks, but no decent child, with parents like ours, would encourage them. We saw her paying too high a price for the approval of people who were not Papa and Mamma, and we felt about her as a soldier in a besieged citadel might feel about a comrade who is meditating desertion. Quite often we hated her. But the love of the flesh which binds a family together in its infancy was still strong…Often we loved her.

Poor Cordelia is the only non-musical child, but mistakenly believes her equally talentless music teacher, the faux-bohemian, pretentious Miss Beevor, when she tells her she is a genius violin player. ‘Cordelia is such rubbish’, complains Rose to her Mamma. Cordelia smarts with indignation at the eccentricity and profligacy of the household, longing for normality and to escape: “We are being so badly brought up,” she shrieks at one particularly exasperated moment.

More than a saga about a wildly eccentric family, TFO is really about art, and in particular, music. All four children are trained as musicians by their mother as a means ultimately of earning a living – except for Cordelia, whose beauty they hope will net her a rich husband before she can make too much of a spectacle of herself attempting to perform in public.

This is Rose and twin sister Mary, near the end, discussing their enigmatic, much-loved cousin Rosamund, a beautiful but strangely passive, apparently unmusical girl:

‘…I say, Mary, do you understand Rosamund?’

‘Quite often, no,’ said Mary.

‘Of course, we would find it easier to understand her if she were a musician too,’ I said.

‘Well, she may not be a musician, but she is what music is about,’ said Mary.

‘What is music about?’ I asked.

‘Oh, it is about life, I suppose, and specially about the parts of life we don’t understand, otherwise people would not have to worry about it by explaining it by music.’

This is the first volume in an unfinished trilogy of novels about the Aubrey family. I’ve ordered the next two.

Unusual and humiliating desires: Elizabeth Taylor, Complete Short Stories

Elizabeth Taylor, Complete Short Stories. Virago Modern Classics, 2012.

There are more than 60 stories in this wonderful collection, and nearly every one is a gem. I may have to post separate pieces to try to do some of them justice; for now I’ll just give an overview and first impressions, using just the opening story as illustration.

Elizabeth Taylor (1912-75) surely no longer merits the adjectives often used of her in recent years: underrated, overlooked. Several book bloggers whose opinions I value have praised her novels highly. I was given Mrs Palfrey for Christmas, and intend reading it as soon as my backlog has reduced. I picked up the Complete Stories with a view to dipping in occasionally, but found myself hooked from the start, and couldn’t stop until I’d read the lot.

Elizabeth Taylor, Complete Short Stories coverThe opener, ‘Hester Lilly’, is the longest in the collection (53 pp.; most are much shorter, some just a couple of pages), and one of the best. It introduces several of the themes and scenarios found in many of the other stories: a bourgeois couple, Robert and Muriel – he’s head of a small private boys’ school, she (like so many of Taylor’s female protagonists) doesn’t work – have a childless, emotionally sterile marriage. Their complacently dull life is wrecked with the arrival of young Hester, a cousin of Robert’s. She’s an impressionable, romantic young woman and has developed a crush on him that he reciprocates. The story shows with forensic acumen the self-destructive impulses that take each character into dangerous, desperate situations.

Here’s Muriel at a dance, dreading the music stopping during a ‘Paul Jones’ circle dance and finding herself without a partner:

She had not learnt how to mind less than as a little girl at parties – the panic of not being chosen, the first seeds of self-mistrust.

Her thin veneer of social sophistication is stripped away to reveal a different person: lonely, frustrated, frightened. Hester, the young house-guest, in her innocence has thrown Muriel’s moral state and her empty marriage out of equilibrium, and uncovered the poisonous corruption beneath the surface.

Despite the suburban, middle-class settings in most of these stories, Taylor isn’t coy or maidenly: as this marriage begins to implode, she shows Robert and Muriel, who is weeping after a bitter quarrel, in this sharply observed scene:

She began angrily to splash cold water on her eyes. When she was in bed, she said shakily: ‘After all, you don’t make love to me.’

He got neatly into bed and lay down, as far from her as he could, his back turned.

‘Do you?’ she wept.

‘You know I do not, and you know why I do not.’

‘If I didn’t like it, perhaps that was your fault. Did you ever think of that?’

The prose is always lucid, her style sinuous and elegant. It’s not extravagant or florid, but the apparent simplicity and understated clarity are deceptive: they convey unerringly a complex of emotions and tensions in these seemingly smug, uneventful provincial households. The dialogue is pitch perfect., as I hope these extracts show.

Here’s Muriel after playing reluctant hostess at the school’s Speech Day:

‘Oh, parents!’ she said later…’Perhaps I just hate them because they have children…’

Her childlessness makes her feel ‘panicky’; she wants ‘to go back, be different, have another chance.’ But life doesn’t offer such bonuses. All she can do is cultivate her prickly outer shell and make people feel as awkward as she secretly does.

In a painful closing scene, Muriel lies in bed with Robert again, this time longing for intimacy, but he ignores her gentle, beseeching touch, his back turned resolutely:

‘I cannot make him come to me,’ she thought in a panic. ‘I cannot get my own way.’ She became wide awake with a longing for him to make love to her; to prove his need for her; so that she could claim his attention; and so dominate him; but at last wished only to contend with her own desires, unusual and humiliating as they were to her.

I commend these stories to you: Elizabeth Taylor is a fine writer.

 

 

 

A hallucinated life: David Clerson, ‘Brothers’

Berserkers went into battle, according to some sagas and skaldic poems, wearing pelts of animals (the ‘ber’ element may signify ‘bear’; ‘serk’ is a Germanic term for shirt): they thus took on the ferocity of the beasts metonymically. This concept lies at the heart of David Clerson’s extraordinary novel Brothers.

Brothers cover

Image taken from QC Fiction website

Clerson’s unnamed protagonist, Older Brother, undergoes similar therianthropy in this pulsating narrative. At the novel’s start he and his younger brother scratch a living on a bleak marshland straight out of Kosintsev’s ‘King Lear’, a Tarkovsky dystopia: a post-apocalyptic or pre-modern zone of sterility.

The brothers are deformed: the Older has one arm, his younger sibling has ‘atrophied’, brachial stumps and ‘the face of a pagan angel’.

Their dessicated, moribund mother tells them endless stories ‘of the fearful far away’, and etiologies including their own: she amputated Older’s arm when he was born to create the Younger’s body (as God did Adam for Eve in Genesis). She invents these stories to protect them from unpalatable truths. What those truths might be we can only speculate – that’s one of the mysteries that gives this novel its eerie power. It’s full of dreams – and nightmares.

Her core lesson through these stories lingers with the boys:

‘The world is a cruel place, too cruel to be faced alone.’

The sea-creatures washed up by the ‘Great Tide’, the ocean (that ‘infinite expanse of surging black water, unpredictable and menacing…sealing off their world’), are also deformed, monstrous – a giant dog, bug-eyed cephalapods. The boys construct ‘bone beasts’ from the detritus. They are taunted by neighbouring ‘leech-boys’, reacting to them with ‘a dumb, screeching rage.’ Is this a post-nuclear catastrophe? Or some hellish alternative world? ‘Everything was death.’

I don’t recall reading a novel with such visceral impact. The elemental imagery and saga ferocity are intense. Brothers packs a punch way above its 150-page weight. I don’t normally enjoy ‘fantasy’ genre fiction, but this transcends the genre.

The brothers traverse the estranging sea in a leaky boat to find their ‘dog of a father’ who ‘came from the sea’ – another of mother’s legends; her accounts vary, ‘his lore changing over time and according to the woman’s mood’. Their fraternal odyssey becomes mythic and terrifyingly violent. They are at first ‘still boys but becoming men.’ They are convinced ‘our future is the sea.’

Like St Brendan and his monks, they endure terrifying ordeals on their voyage. Older Brother transforms in a way that seems to confirm his father’s canine nature. Cynanthropy. Starving and emaciated, ‘His body thinned out, the body of a wandering saint, with dried blood encrusted in the hollows of his face, and the cruelty of the world in his belly.’ Brothers becomes an inverted hagiography, a legend of a heroic devil-saint.

Initially more timid than his exuberant younger brother, he gains confidence when isolated. After excruciating experiences with the pig-family who confine him to a dog-kennel, and the transcendent sexual encounter with a grey bitch, he flees and transforms again into a vengeful humanoid beast, with a new-found taste for blood, and a grim resolution to survive whatever the world tests him with.

His growing power and berserker ferocity are signified initially by his wearing the pelt of a drowned dog the boys found washed up on the beach. (There are aspects of Brothers that bring to mind the novel and film My Life as a Dog). This mantle enables him to channel his bestial savagery. When the grey bitch is killed, he takes on her pelt, too: his powers increase. This is White Fang without the sentimentality.

Myths and legends (and other novels) from all times and places resonate throughout the narrative. Apart from ancient Greek epics already alluded to, there are echoes of the Old Testament: the brothers are aptly described early on as ‘children of the valley of Hinnom’ – an alternative name for Gehenna, or Hell. They glimpse other worlds through their father’s imagined eyes:

Worlds of darkness and brutality, untamed worlds, unleashed.

There are flavours of Norse legend. Ravens accompany the older brother in the latter stages of his bloody quest, even appearing to talk to him (or is this part of his hallucination?) and perching on his shoulder, as they did with Odin. The first raven to land on the questing boat is an allusion to the Noah story. As he sails, the brother tells the birds stories of his past:

[B]ut he embellished his tales, telling them the stories his mother had told him, stories in which his younger brother dug tunnels under the hill…a realm of wonders…and sometimes a raven cawed at him in thanks.

When he hunts obsessively for the dark, submarine shape he takes for his father, under ‘the red of a falling sky’, the novel adopts the lyrical weirdness of Moby Dick:

He was getting closer to his dog of a father, like a whale he was going to harpoon…a sharp weapon, forged in steel.

His shape-shifting tendencies are found in shamanic societies from the North American First Nation to eastern Europe and Asia. So is the function of narrative to dramatise creation and growth: it’s a bildungsroman, but Older Brother is a sort of demented Holden Caulfield.

At times it becomes a little muddled. Just what is the Puppet the brothers find washed ashore meant to represent? It becomes a prosthetic arm, a war-weapon and ship’s figurehead, a ‘tribal totem’or Queequeg figure to the Older Brother’s wandering Ishmael; it’s also an obvious Pinocchio substitute. Maybe that’s the point: nothing in the narrative is what it seems.

Such inconsistencies don’t impede the narrative surge. It’s a katabasis story refashioned as surreal folklore, and a classic quest into a dark, nether world, a search for Home and Self and a means of forgetting the past, a demonic redemption song: the brothers (then the Older Brother alone) skirt the shores of their blighted land in their ramshackle boat, endure ordeals and battles that test them beyond endurance. Older Brother undergoes liminal rites that transform him from man to beast and back. Much of the time he’s in a trance-like state; he becomes a seer. Everyone tells tales. Like their mother’s tales, told to her by her mother: ‘songs with a little bit of magic, in a forgotten language – some know the words, but no one knows the meaning.’

His final vision is typically enigmatic, indecipherable, ‘the last rattle of a hallucinated life.’

The novel’s end is the beginning of a new story.

Originally published in French as Frères by Héliotrope in 2013, which won the Grand prix littéraire Archambault the following year, Brothers was translated into lucid, haunting English by the poet Katia Grubisic, and published in 2016 by the independent Quebec subscription imprint QC Fiction, to whom I’m indebted for this review copy.

Excellent reviews by other bloggers:

Tony’s Reading List

Joseph at RoughGhosts who uses a terrific quotation from the text for his title: ‘everything here is dead’…

Stu at Winstonsdad