Richard Ford, ‘Let Me Be Frank With You’

Richard Ford is one of my favourite writers. I loved the three previous Frank Bascombe novels: The Sportswriter (1986 ), Independence Day (1995) and The Lay of the Land (2006). It was generally felt that Ford had done with this character, but he has now brought him back from retirement in another terrific novel. It isn’t quite up to the standard of the best – the middle one of the trilogy – or the other two, but it’s still damn good.

Richard_Ford_at_Göteborg_Book_Fair_2013_01In four loosely connected novellas Frank, now 68 and that paltry thing, an aged man —  not quite Yeats’s ‘tattered coat upon a stick’, but still fearful of falling and breaking his hip as a consequence of the giddy spells he suffers. These are caused by a problem in his neck bones, as he frequently tells us with the clinical relish of a chronic sufferer. He worries about his declining physical state a lot: Alzheimer’s, heart disease;  he notes the deterioration in his contemporaries – ex-wife Ann has moved to an expensive NJ care facility, suffering from Parkinson’s, near enough for him to feel obliged to visit regularly (one such visit is the subject of section 3). Frank is full of intimations of mortality now. He calls himself a ‘prostate “survivor’. Things are falling apart. He’s fond of quoting from a range of writers – Yeats, Richard Hugo, Roethke, and especially Emerson: ‘an infinite remoteness underlies us all’.

There are plenty of reviews out there which will provide more plot detail, so I’ll concentrate here on the distinctive Ford style, thereby I hope indicating what it is that makes this worth reading (it took me just three sittings: the font is quite large and the lines are wide-spaced).

The opening story begins with an evocative description of the devastating aftermath of hurricane Sandy on the Jersey Shore, where Frank used to live:

Strange fragrances ride the fragrant, twitchy wintry air at the Shore this morning…Flowery wreaths on an ominous sea stir expectancy in the unwary.

It is, of course, the bouquet of large-scale home repair and re-hab. Fresh-cut lumber, clean, white PVC, the lye-sniff of Sakrete, stinging sealants, sweet tar paper, and denatured spirits. The starchy zest of Tyvek mingled with the ocean’s sulphurous weft and Barnegat Bay’s landward stink.

Much of this reads like prose poetry: there are beautiful sound patterns, symmetries (the alliteration and near-rhymes like ‘strange fragrances’); the deftly chosen adjectives (‘twitchy wintry air’) surprise and delight (it had to be ‘wintry’, not ‘winter’; not sure why). He’s good on weather effects: he talks elsewhere of NJ’s ‘discordant skies’. There’s a pleasing mix of registers, from the lyrical, literary ‘Flowery wreaths on an ominous sea’ to the American-demotic/informal list of DIY materials in the second paragraph.

The loping first-person present-tense narrative voice takes us right into Frank’s head as he contemplates impermanence, transgressions and loss, ‘the bruise of defeat’. It usually has that mesmerising blend of relaxed vernacular and pungent philosophising. And the style has become sparer, more stripped-down, compared with the earlier trilogy; Frank has begun an ‘inventory’ of ‘polluted words’ that should ‘no longer be usable – in speech or any form’. Among his pet hates are the clichés ‘no worries’ and a well-wisher being ‘here for me’.

Often accompanying the American cultural references is Frank’s love of (multiple) compound expressions: ‘the plump-pastie Ishpeming girl’. In the Sandy-devastated shopping area of the Shore is a Home Depot ‘Kremlin-like, but enigmatically-still-your-friend-in-spite-of-all’… These add to the novel’s distinctive vernacular, colloquial style, counterpointed by the high register abstractions and polysyllabic obscurities (alongside ‘copacetic’ he’ll have ‘She knows what it’s all about – not as great as it’s cracked up to be’ – he’s talking about masculinity, having met a transgender person.)

Set just before another holiday period, like the other three Bascombe novels, this time Christmas, each section deals with an emotionally bruising meeting with someone who causes Frank to reflect ruefully on his life, and life in general: ‘life as teeming and befuddling, followed by the end.’   These produce the novel’s main feature: Frank’s ongoing internal monologue. Mostly he ponders life with that sort of resigned, cagy stoicism. They are intercalated between the colloquial stream of Frank’s thoughts and observations, creating that curious hybrid style I’ve mentioned. Here are some typical examples:

…life’s a matter of gradual subtraction, aimed at a solider, more-nearly-perfect essence, after which all mentation goes and we head off to our own virtual Chillicothes…When you grow old, as I am, you pretty much live in the accumulations of life anyway.

This English reader often finds these American references obscure: I’d welcome an explanation of that Chilicothe allusion; all I know is it’s a town in Ohio?

He sees himself, after the various stages of existence he’d identified in the previous trilogy, as having moved on, at 68, to ‘the Next Level of life’ – ie retirement –

conceivably the last: a member of the clean-desk demographic, freed to do unalloyed good in the world, should I choose to…

The world gets smaller and more focused the longer we stay on it.

Sally, his second wife (they’ve remarried)

views life as one thing leading naturally, intriguingly on to another, whereas I look at life in terms of failures survived, leaving the horizon gratifyingly –  but briefly – clear of obstructions.

Frank’s reached a stage where he’s started trying to ‘jettison’ as many friends as he can as a means of achieving ‘well-earned, late-in-the-game clarity’, before ‘the-curtain-sways-shut-and-all-becomes-darkness’. He tries to present to the world what he calls his ‘Default Self’, which represents ‘bedrock truth’ at last. Mostly he succeeds, but being Frank, he’s self-deprecating about it – and is often very funny; at one point he’s not sure if he’s thinking or actually talking, when he says the Default Self allows questions, ‘but only ones for which you want an answer – the opposite of lawyers.’ He tries to eschew cynicism, and suspects he might, after all, have a ‘mass and a character peeping reluctantly out from behind the arras like Cupid – which is not a bad outcome at all.’ And then there’s love:

Love isn’t a thing, after all, but an endless series of single acts.

001Despite this slightly weary, ruminating, introspective narrative voice, Frank is always palpably engaged in the lives of others, and the prose often soars to heights of beauty, as I hope some of my quotations demonstrate. The material world, shattered by the destructive forces of nature, mirrors his own existential state, but he comes through, more-or-less cheerfully. But the startling revelation he experiences at the end gives him pause: ‘A wound you don’t feel is not a wound.’

I sincerely hope this is not the last we hear from this battered but indomitable New Jersey survivor.

 

Richard Ford, Let Me Be Frank With You: A Frank Bascombe Book.

Bloomsbury, 2014. 238 pp.

 

Hemingway, ‘Cat in the Rain': a correction

I’ve received a comment from John Beall pointing out an error in my post of Oct. 7 2013 on the Ernest Hemingway story ‘Cat in the Rain’. I wrote there originally that it was first published in Paris in a collection called in our time in 1924, and subsequently in New York the following year. Had I read the Wikipedia entries on Hemingway, the story and its publication history more attentively I’d have avoided this mistake; ‘Cat’ did not appear in the Paris edition. Here’s the first paragraph of the Wikipedia entry on the story collection (I’ve removed hyperlinks and footnotes, and amended the wording slightly):

In Our Time is the first collection of short stories written by Ernest Hemingway, published by Boni & Liveright in New York in 1925. A[n] earlier edition titled in our time (without capitals), had been published a year earlier in Paris, in 1924. The Parisian edition consisted of only 32 pages, printed in a small print-run of 170 copies, [and] contained vignettes that Hemingway would use as interchapters for the expanded 1925 New York edition of In Our Time. He rewrote two of the earlier vignettes, “A Very Short Story” and “The Revolutionist, into short stories for the New York collection.

The entry goes on (I’ve amended and abridged it slightly, as indicated):

Publication history

Bill Bird’s Parisian high-end printing company, Three Mountains Press, founded in the early 1920s, employed Pound as editor who sought to “keep the series strictly modern”.Their aim was to publish well-produced limited private editions by a handful of modern authors, including Pound himself, and Joyce, in small print-runs. Hemingway, who was unpublished, gave Bird the manuscript of vignettes that Hemingway titled Blank, which he later titled in our time from the Book of Common Prayer. When American editors queried him about the lower-case title, Hemingway said it was “silly and affected”.

 

The book was first published in Paris in 1924…in a 38-page volume. A printing mistake ruined many of the copies so only 170 of the 300 printed were released for sale…The volume included 18 vignettes written the year before, presented as untitled chapters. Because the pieces were meant to convey a sense of journalism or news, Bird designed a distinctive dust-jacket showing a collage of newspaper articles…

 

The American edition of In Our Time was to include a collection of short stories as well as the vignettes printed in the Parisian edition. Most of the stories were written in 1924. Sixteen of the vignettes from the earlier Parisian edition were kept as numbered interchapter sketches; two had been published in his first book “Three Stories and 10 poems”; two were from in our time; six had been published in literary magazines. Four had never been published before… Boni & Liveright published the book in 1925, with a print-run of 1335 copies, costing $2 each…

 

The volume as originally published began with two stories linked thematically, set in Michigan, introducing young Nick Adams: “Indian Camp” and “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife”. “The End of Something” is a story about Nick as a teenager breaking up with a girl; the next story, “Three-Day Blow”, has Nick and a friend Bill spending three days at a lake, drinking and talking. In “The Battler”, as he returns home from WWI, Nick meets a prize-fighter. This is followed by “A Very Short Story”, a WWI love story set in Italy; “Soldier’s Home” is set in Kansas; and “The Revolutionist” again is set in Italy. Three marriage stories follow: “Mr. and Mrs. Elliot”, “Cat in the Rain” and “Out of Season”…

My thanks to John for pointing out this inaccuracy. I shall amend the original post and remove the error.

Henry James, ‘Daisy Miller: A Study’

The donnée for ‘Daisy Miller’ was an anecdote told to Henry James (1843-1916) by his friend Alice Bartlett in Italy a year or so before its first publication in 1878. James transformed this wisp of narrative into a vividly realised comedy of social manners which ends with a delicately sketched scene of pathos and loss. He subtly evoked the tourist haunts of Vevey in Switzerland, where the story opens one June, and Rome, where it ends the following January, having spent several years of his life in these places that were so fashionable with the new waves of moneyed Americans dutifully following their Baedeker guides to the tourist honeypots of old Europe.

John Singer Sargent's portrait of James (1913), National Portrait Gallery website

John Singer Sargent’s portrait of James (1913), National Portrait Gallery website

James knew that recently-appeared type: the ‘American girl’ from Schenectady (home of the newly self-made rich, not of those with ‘old money’) disembarking from her transatlantic liner full of brash confidence, in the ‘tournure of a princess’. With their air of regal independence such ‘stylish young girls’ are ‘not the least embarrassed’ to find themselves unchaperoned in the company of strange young men. When Daisy encounters the story’s protagonist, the wealthy Frederick Winterbourne, a twenty-seven year old dilettante, on the terrace of the Trois Couronnes hotel, noted for its air of ‘luxury and of maturity’, on the shores of Lake Geneva, ‘she was evidently neither offended nor fluttered’ to be engaged with in familiar conversation by this suave stranger to whom she had not been formally introduced, and without the protection of her unvigilant mother.

Winterbourne is visiting his formidably proper aunt, Mrs Costello. He is said to be ‘studying’ in Geneva, that ‘little metropolis of Calvinism’, though it is apparent he expends very little effort on academic pursuits: he is in reality ‘extremely devoted to a lady who lived there – a foreign lady – a person older than himself’, about whom ‘some singular stories’ were told. Our omniscient narrator hints that he is having some kind of illicit dalliance, distinctly at odds with Calvinistic puritanism. Therefore when he is clearly attracted to this ‘beautiful young lady’ on the terrace, the description of her as ‘strikingly, admirably pretty’ is evidently filtered through his consciousness:

‘How pretty they are!’ thought Winterbourne…

He is thinking approvingly of the ‘type’ just noted. Her name is Annie P. Miller – a pointedly artisanal surname – but is known as Daisy. If Winterbourne’s name is redolent of his frigidly Europeanised nature (though he is not averse to clandestine affairs), then hers signifies her spring-like, blooming freshness.

In buttoned-up Geneva, he reflects, ‘a young man was not at liberty to speak to a young unmarried lady except under certain rarely-occurring conditions’. But here at Vevey the ‘pretty American girl’ shows no signs of constraint. On the contrary, her glance towards him is ‘direct and unshrinking’, though ‘not immodest’ – her eyes, he notes admiringly, are ‘singularly honest and fresh’, and ‘wonderfully pretty’; the word ‘pretty’ is used a remarkable 38 times in the story, most of them with reference to Daisy or her ‘type’ (she is described as ‘beautiful’ three times).

Winterbourne is ‘addicted to observing and analysing’ feminine beauty: that is to be his problem. Like so many of James’s detached, observing male protagonists, he is incapable of committed action or decision-making. He is from the start enchanted but also puzzled by the liberties taken by this young charmer. Like Eveline in the Dubliners story which I wrote about here recently, it’s indecision and inability to discriminate morally and emotionally that’s at the heart of this story.

He notes, on this first encounter, with candidly critical perspicuity, that her face is ‘not exactly expressive’, with ‘a want of finish’. She showed bland ignorance of the culture and history of the place, and he thinks it very possible she is a ‘coquette’. Although she is coltishly spirited, he also observes, with another telling string of derogatory adjectives and negatives, that ‘in her bright, superficial little visage there was no mockery, no irony.’

Her equally precocious little brother Randolph tells him their father is a rich businessman from Schenectady. She ‘chattered’ expansively and unselfconsciously. He ‘found it very pleasant’, but our taciturn narrator conveys a simultaneous sense that she is hardly articulate and certainly uneducated, with her frequent low idioms (as the fastidious Jamesian narrator would say) such as ‘I guess’ and ‘ever so many’.

The narrative voice is then distinctively Jamesian: detached and ironic, it notes at this point Winterbourne’s mixed reaction to all this superficial flirtatiousness: he ‘was amused, perplexed, and decidedly charmed,’ but had never seen anything like this without sensing ‘laxity of deportment’.

He goes on to wonder whether he had spent so long in Europe he had become ‘dishabituated to the American tone’: maybe it would be wrong to accuse Daisy of what passed in Geneva as ‘actual or potential inconduite’. In a revealing passage of narrated thought he weighs up the possibility that ‘they were all like that’, the pretty girls of New York: or ‘was she also a designing, an audacious, an unscrupulous young person?’ His ‘instinct’, along with his ‘reason’, had deserted him (as Eveline’s were to). She ‘looked extremely innocent’, and he’d heard both that ‘American girls were exceedingly innocent’, and that they were not. ‘Innocent’ appears twelve times in the story, nine times in relation to Daisy (twice, interestingly, to Winterbourne himself; he is perhaps the truly innocent party in this tale, in the sense that he doesn’t fully know himself as Daisy does herself); ‘innocence’ appears in relation to Daisy six times.

He was inclined to think that she was just ‘a pretty American flirt,’an ‘unsophisticated’ girl: ‘she was only a pretty American flirt.’ His repetitive, looping, inconclusive internal monologue over, he wonders (ungallantly) how far he can proceed with this new, ingenous kind of coquette.

His flirtation is not approved of by his aunt; she held great social ‘sway’ in New York, and admitted that she was ‘very exclusive’ (another recurring term in the story, one that Daisy predictably scorns). Mrs Costello was, to Winterbourne’s mind, almost ‘oppressively’ adept at negotiating the ‘minutely hierarchical constitution’ of that city’s society. He realises that she adheres to similar proprieties in the expatriate community in Europe. Her view of Daisy was that her ‘place in the social scale was low.’ One does not ‘accept’ such ‘common’ girls, she advises him, no matter how pretty or charming, or how perfectly they dress: ‘I can’t think where they get their taste’, she remarks acerbically. She disapproves of Daisy’s democratic familiarity with the family’s courier, and her mother is no more socially discerning or proper, and she lets her children do as they please. They lack the discrimination, taste or social awareness to be able to distinguish an outward appearance of gentlemanliness from that of the real thing. Winterbourne later realises Daisy and her mother lacked the ‘culture’ to rise to the idea of ‘catching’ an aristocratic husband for her; they were ‘intellectually incapable of that conception.’

She thinks Daisy is not respectable; her nephew agrees that she is ‘rather wild’ and ‘uncultivated’ – but ‘wonderfully pretty.’

 ‘What a dreadful girl! [Mrs Costello exclaims:] You had better not meddle with little American girls that are uncultivated…You have lived too long out of the country. You will be sure to make some great mistake. You are too innocent.’

When he denies this, she retorts with delicious paradoxical wit: ‘You are too guilty, then!’

She’s not just being snobbishly malicious: he’s revealing himself, she means, with shrewd insight, as hypocritical: attracted to Daisy, while aware of her genuinely vulnerable, bourgeois innocence.

The stage is set. If Daisy exceeded even the ‘liberal licence’ of his aunt’s granddaughters then ‘anything might be expected of her’. Unaware of the unflattering sexual ambiguity of such a notion, he realises he is impatient to see her again, and yet, more to his credit, ‘vexed with himself that, by instinct, he should not appreciate her justly.’ This is the lesson he is to learn by the end.

I have given this detailed outline of the story’s early expositional stage to indicate that it is really as much a narrative of Winterbourne’s slow-growing awareness as of Daisy’s, who hardly changes. A typically ambivalent James protagonist, he feels attracted to this beautiful figure with her ‘delicate grace’, but simultaneously repelled by what he perceives as her ‘commonness’, vulgarity and duplicity. This renders him emotionally, culpably impotent. She’s the ‘unprotected daughter’ of a wilfully indulgent mother and absentee father, and this makes him painfully aware of being tempted by what could be perceived as cynically selfish exploitation of her ‘habitual sense of freedom’. She simply doesn’t realise that ‘nice girls’ don’t flirt with their couriers, imperiously demand unquestioning devotion and attention from every new man they meet with ‘frank persiflage’ and coquettish chaffing, or flaunt their innocent conquests in public.

The denouement shows Daisy’s subsequent, inevitable disgrace in Rome. Winterbourne’s glacially sophisticated American friend there, Mrs Walker, tells him with horrified disapproval that Daisy had been ‘going about’ alone with foreigners and had ‘picked up half-a-dozen of the regular Roman fortune-hunters’.  She and her mother were ‘dreadful people’ for behaving with such ill-mannered licence (Mrs Miller is equally reprehensible for failing to control her daughter, in the eyes of this morally corrupt world where being seen to do the ‘right thing’ is more important than actually behaving with moral probity). Winterbourne feebly defends them, calling them ‘very ignorant – very innocent only’, but Mrs Walker is unforgiving in her condemnation: ‘They are hopelessly vulgar’, she insists.

When Daisy insists on introducing her ‘lovely’ avvocato with the charming manner and beautiful moustache to her compatriots’ salons she refuses to accept that she is violating not only European codes, but also those of upper-class Americans who lived there. She delights in having handsome Romans dance attendance on her; Giovanelli (whose name signifies the generic young man he represents) for his part can’t believe his luck, failing initially to understand her flirtatious nature.

Her outrageously licentious behaviour, in the eyes of American-Roman society, culminates in her unchaperoned walk in the Pincio gardens with Giovanelli. Mrs Walker’s attempt to rescue Daisy from public scandal fails:

‘I never heard anything so stiff! [a favourite expression of Daisy’s; she laughs at Winterbourne for being ‘stiff as an umbrella’] If this is improper, Mrs Walker,’ she pursued, ‘then I am all improper, and you must give me up.’

Mrs Walker duly snubs the girl when she turns up later at her salon, writing her off as ‘naturally indelicate’. Daisy is undaunted, and continues to disport herself as she pleases with the foppish young gold-digger.

In a scene that echoes his interview with the disapproving aunt, he defends Daisy as just ‘very innocent’ when Mrs Walker expresses how appalled she is that Daisy has been recklessly exposing herself to all the world with her beau and ‘running absolutely wild’. ‘She’s very crazy!’ is her riposte. She warns him to cease flirting with Daisy, and to stop her making a ‘scandal’, but he persists, confused and besotted.

Yet Daisy had defiantly rebutted Winterbourne’s earlier polite attempt to stop her flouting convention by having a public assignation with her Italian:

‘I have never allowed a gentleman to dictate to me, or to interfere with anything I do.’

He sees this as lacking ‘standards’ or a moral code because she has never been given or taught any, but it’s also the typical American girl’s expression of uninhibited independence, the spirit of Huck Finn, arising from a dangerously permissive upbringing as James saw it of the newly rising, over-indulged generations. When snubbed by Mrs Walker Daisy can’t understand why she should behave differently in Rome from how she was accustomed to in New York; ‘I don’t see why I should change my habits for them’, she cries when Winterbourne remonstrates with her about her display in the Pincio, and how it offends ‘the custom of the place’. They are ‘those of a flirt’, he points out.

Of course they are,’ she cried, giving him her little smiling stare again. ‘I’m a fearful, frightful flirt! Did you ever hear of a nice girl that was not? But I suppose you will tell me now that I am not a nice girl.’

He cannot decide, when she talks so brazenly, whether she is innocently honest or depraved and spoilt; our narrator presents this with repeated, self-cancelling negativity once again – she lacks ‘indispensable delicacy’, she’s ‘childish’, ‘too provincial’, has ‘an inscrutable combination of audacity and innocence’ or ‘puerility’ – ‘inscrutable’ here signifying his inability to scrutinise with clear perception. These ‘little American flirts were the queerest creatures in the world’, he concludes, his ability to see clouded again. Yet he also wonders whether she has ‘in her elegant and irresponsible little organism a defiant, passionate, perfectly observant consciousness of the impression she produced,’ and whether her ‘defiance came from the consciousness of innocence’ or from her sense of belonging to ‘the reckless class.’ Too late he begins to realise hers is a rebellion against class prejudice, and we realise this is not just another ‘international’ James tale of the familiar collision of naive American democracy with corrupt European decadence. It’s more nuanced than that.

We saw earlier that Winterbourne had engaged in amorous liaisons with high-class older local women. Our narrator points out towards the end of the story that he is nevertheless ‘literally afraid’ of such women; ‘He had a pleasant sense that he should never be afraid of Daisy Miller.’

Colosseum: photo by Dillif, Wikimedia Commons

Colosseum: photo by Dillif, Wikimedia Commons

Winterbourne’s eyes are unsealed too late. Her demise, dying of the ‘Roman fever’ – malaria – by exposing herself to the miasma of the evening air in the Colosseum in one of her flightily dangerous romantic excursions, would be seen by society as just desserts. He has not treated her judiciously, he finally discerns.

He’s chastened when the Italian dandy, at Daisy’s graveside, pronounces her truly ‘innocent’ – he ultimately knew she had no intention of marrying him. Sadly Winterbourne tells his aunt that he had done Daisy an injustice. From her deathbed she had sent him a message saying that she ‘would have appreciated [his] esteem’. But he was ‘booked to make a mistake’, as his aunt had warned him. But not in the way she meant: ‘I have lived too long in foreign parts,’ he adds, acknowledging perhaps that it was he who had been tainted by class and European notions of propriety, and had failed to appreciate Daisy for the free spirit she was. When the narrator concludes by telling us drily that he had returned to Geneva and to was ‘studying hard’ and ‘was very much interested in a clever foreign lady’, the ambiguity is poignant.

Has he learnt a lesson, or has he simply reverted to ‘the custom of the country’? Is he sadder and wiser? Or counting himself lucky at a narrow escape from commitment to Daisy’s recklessly independent individuality? The conflicted responses of his protagonist here raise this story above the apparent ‘flatness’ that caused James to add the phrase ‘a study’ to this story that was immensely popular with a reading public which perhaps relished the superficial charms of Miss Daisy more than it divined the darker impulses in her ambivalent, superficially more cultivated admirer.

Henry James, ‘Daisy Miller: A Study’. From Collected Stories, vol. 1 (1866-91), selected and edited by John Bayley, Everyman’s Library, Alfred A. Knopf (New York, Toronto) no. 244, 1999, pp. 305-64. First published in Cornhill magazine, London, 1878.

 

Sir Thomas Browne: ‘Religio Medici’ and ‘Urne-Buriall’.

Image from the NYRB Classics website

Image from the NYRB Classics website

Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medici and Urne-Buriall. Edited by Stephen Greenblatt and Ramie Targoff. NYRB Classics. New York, NY, 2012

In their detailed and entertaining Introduction the editors describe the ‘idiosyncratic and often surprising ways of thinking’ of Sir Thomas Browne. Coleridge praised him for his ‘brain with a twist’. The eclectic and somewhat eccentric list of topics covered in his works includes a study of the quincunx in gardening, and an encyclopaedic exploration and refutation of ‘credulity and supinity’ and ‘false opinions’ (the Pseudodoxia Epedemica, or Enquiry into Very Many Received Tenents and Commonly Presumed Truths, first published in 1646, and subsequently much revised and augmented): here he considers such beliefs as ‘Glasse is poyson’ (in a chapter on Minerals and ‘vegetable bodies’); ‘Of the pissing of Toads, of the stone in their head, and of the generation of Frogs’ (in a marvellous chapter on animals, which includes the notion ‘That all Animals in the land are in their kinde in the Sea’, which I cited in a recent post on Marvell’s poem ‘The Garden’), or that children, without instruction, would naturally grow up speaking Hebrew.

Born in London in 1605 and educated at Oxford and then in the field of medicine in Italy, France and Holland, he was a typically polymathic, Baconian enquirer into all phenomena and esoterica in the natural and metaphysical worlds. His erudition was profound and extensive, but untrammeled by the scientific methods of his contemporaries: he was, as the editors put it so admirably, a ‘connoisseur of uncertainty’ who ‘delighted in circuitous methods and ambiguous conclusions’.

He settled in Norwich to practise medicine in 1637 and lived there until his death in 1682.

Like Shakespeare he was an aficionado of neologisms: the OED ranks him at no. 70 of the most prolifically cited sources (above Shelley, George Eliot and Ruskin [about whom I posted several times recently ]), and in the list of sources responsible for the first evidence of a word he ranks among the great, at an impressive no. 25, with 788, including the nouns ‘electricity’, ‘hallucination’ and ‘suicide’, and adjectives such as ‘medical’, ‘ferocious’ and ‘ascetic’. He was particularly fond of Latinate vocabulary, so for example snails are not ‘boneless’, they are exosseous; he writes not of birds’ flight but of their volitation; earwigs aren’t wingless but impennious; there’s a highly entertaining article on his contribution to English vocabulary on the Oxford Words blog here.

Title page of 'Religio Medici', 1642 edition

Title page of ‘Religio Medici’, 1642 edition; Wellcome Trust via Wikimedia Commons

The title of his first published work, Religio Medici, is intentionally paradoxical and controversial. It alludes to a contemporary proverb that two out of three doctors are atheists and sceptics, as the opening sentence shows:

For my religion, though there be severall circumstances that might perswade the world I have none at all, as the generall scandal of my profession, the naturall course of my studies, the indifferency of my behaviour, and discourse in matters of Religion, neither violently defending one, nor with the common ardour of contention opposing another; yet in despight hereof I dare, without usurpation, assume the honourable stile of a Christian…

Here he’s also referring to his medical education at three famously free-thinking European universities, where the pursuit of science was demarcated from the usual theological approach, and where the practice of anatomical dissection, which was considered a blasphemous transgression in other institutions, was an essential part of the curriculum. In this same sentence he alludes also to his refusal to be caught up in the doctrinal disputes that had grown increasingly virulent in the 1620s and 1630s, and which were threatening to ‘tear England apart’, and led to the Civil War of 1642-51 (Greenblatt and Targoff). His unorthodox examination of his religious faith in the light of his medical profession proved highly controversial, and like many Protestant works it was (in 1645, three years after its first unauthorised publication, to which Browne responded by bringing out an expurgated edition a year later) placed on the Vatican’s Index expurgartorius – the notorious Index of prohibited books.

Browne’s self-exposure in the Religio was unusual but not unprecedented: Montaigne’s Essays, first published in 1580 (and translated into English by John Florio in 1603) were a similar attempt to explore the questing motions of its author’s mind, and of his learning and beliefs.

Like Montaigne, Browne is addicted to digressions in his labyrinthine pursuit of his mind’s movements, and the text lacks discernible method. As you will have seen in my quotation of his opening sentence, his style is ornate, eloquent and sonorous, full of literary and theological allusions, subordinate clauses and rhetorical flourishes, with parallelisms and mellifluous symmetries; it also has an elegance, ruggedness and verbosity that verges on the obscure and pedantic. His writings were gruffly praised by Samuel Johnson, and admired by the Romantics. More recently WG Sebald wrote with fascination (in The Rings of Saturn, first published in German in 1995 and in English in 1998) about Browne’s ‘Musaeum Clausum or Bibliotheca Abscondita’ –  a playfully imaginative catalogue of his imaginary collection of rarities ‘never seen by any man now living’ (it’s discussed in my blog post here).

The craze for such cabinets of curiosities and wonders in the seventeenth century became the basis for some of the great scientific museums that were founded about this time, like the Ashmolean in Oxford, or the collection of Sir Hans Sloane, parts of which were bequeathed to the nation and formed the heart of the British Museum. But unlike the rational spirit of classification and organisation that underpinned these Baconian enterprises, Browne’s was a mind that delighted in paradox and contradiction, and occult mysteries, and he wasn’t averse to the dangerous voicing of doubts about accepted religious tenets and implausible Bible stories. He sums up his thinking as being dominated by ‘an unhappy curiosity’.

Hydriotaphia, or Urne-Buriall, first published in 1658, was Browne’s prose meditation on the discovery in a field near the village of Great Walsingham in Norfolk of between forty and fifty urns containing human ashes, bone fragments and funerary objects. He reflects upon the different funeral practices of people from earlier cultures, and how they thought about the afterlife. He mistakenly believed the urns contained the remains of Romanised Britons; subsequent scholarship has shown they were probably Anglo-Saxon, dating from around the year 500. But he was far more disposed to link them with the sophisticated Romans, and not the pagan savages (as he saw them) of their successors in Britain’s history.

 

Portrait after a miniature by FH van Hove, now in the Wellcome Trust

Portrait after a miniature by FH van Hove, now in the Wellcome Trust, via Wikimedia Commons

He speculates on the practice of funerary cremation, but is effectively conducting a ‘diagnosis of the human condition’ – principally our hopes and fears about the afterlife:

To be gnaw’d out of our graves, to have our sculls made drinking-bowls, and our bones turned into Pipes, to delight and sport our Enemies, are Tragicall abominations, escaped in burning Burials./Urnall enterrments, and burnt Reliques lye not in fear of worms, or to be an heritage for Serpents.

In a typically elegant but uncharacteristically emotional section he ponders the apparent evidence that some of the urns contained the remains of more than one person, which leads him to consider the origins of the impulse for couples to indulge in the practice of joint burial:

The ashes of Domitian were mingled with those of Julia, of Achilles with those of Patroclus: All Urnes contained not single Ashes; Without confused burnings they affectionately compounded their bones; passionately endeavouring to continue their living Unions. And when distance of death denied such conjunctions, unsatisfied affections conceived some satisfaction to be neighbours in the grave, to lye Urne by Urne, and touch but in their names.

He ultimately finds little consolation, however, in this desire to find solace in the hope that death is not the end of life; ‘Vain ashes’, he concludes, ‘which in the oblivion of names, persons, times, and sexes, have found unto themselves a fruitless continuation, and only arise unto late posterity, as Emblemes of mortall vanities.’ Earthly commemoration is as futile as the hope for posthumous life – but we can’t help pursuing this magnificent endeavour.

I’ll finish with perhaps the most famous lines in the text:

What Song the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzzling Questions are not beyond all conjecture. What time the persons of these Ossuaries entred the famous Nations of the dead, and slept with Princes and Counsellours, might admit a wide solution.

NYRB Classics has yet again done us a service in publishing this pair of texts in such a handsome edition, and I congratulate them and their editors for retaining the original spellings and orthographical practices: this is not just antiquarian quaintness – it enables the modern reader to appreciate the richness of the prose. The ample notes are learned and helpful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Anatomy of a Moment: Javier Cercas.

I’ve not posted for a while, having been preoccupied with reading Leon Edel’s brilliant multi-volume Life of Henry James, (I’m intending writing more pieces on The Master’s stories) and rereading Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 – another weighty tome –  in order to contribute (fitfully) to the lively discussion about this novel going on over at The Mookse and the Gripes website.

Meantime here’s note about something I read earlier this year, and wanted to recommend. I reviewed Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas here back in February, and found it similar in approach, in some ways, to W.G. Sebald’s, with its factual-documentary approach to real historical events, narrated with all the imaginative brio of a novel. In The Anatomy of a Moment Cercas has produced an extended piece of reportage, but once again it’s an exhilarating reading experience.

'Anatomy of a Moment'In meticulous detail – I must admit I skipped some of the more arcane background detail –  he reconstructs the events in the Chamber of Deputies – the Spanish parliament or Cortes in Madrid – during the investiture vote for Calvo Sotelo, the new prime minister, to replace Adolfo Suárez, on 23 February 1981. Suárez had presided for nearly five years, supervising the transition from the dictatorship of Franco as Spain edged nervously back towards democracy, with a precariously restored king Juan Carlos.

What happened next, at 6:23 pm, was broadcast on television – that ‘fabricator of unreality’ as Cercas calls it – around the world next day: Lieutentant Colonel Antonio Tejero, uniformed, brandishing a gun and wearing his shiny tricorne hat, entered the Chamber accompanied by members of his Civil Guard, armed with automatic weapons. Several volleys were fired into the ceiling. Cercas reconstructs this first dramatic ‘gesture’ with chilling authenticity: democracy seemed about to be still-born. A coup d’état, a ‘golpe de estado’ seemed to be taking place. For the Spaniards who watched the footage this was their Dallas 1963 moment.

Cercas structures the mass of material into five sections, with the focus on the three courageous ‘gestures’ of the three members of the Cortes who refused to comply with the trigger-happy golpistas’ shouted commands to lie down on the floor and do as they were told.

These three were Suárez himself, Gutiérrez Mellado, a former Francoist general who had in recent years changed political direction and served the nascent democracy, and Santiago Carillo, who led the recently legalised Communist Party.

Mellado and Carillo had been bitter enemies, on opposite sides as a consequence of the terrible Civil War forty years earlier. Their gesture of defiance united them.

The future of Spain’s democracy hung in the balance. The golpistas held their victims hostage for eighteen hours before surrendering. The tv footage was released next day. Although it only lasted some thirty minutes, its consequence was extraordinary.

I lived in San Sebastián in the Basque country a decade after these events. (At the time of the golpe the increasingly violent Basque independence struggle led by ETA was causing consternation in the Cortes and internationally; there were accusations of torture of suspected ETA prisoners by the Spanish authorities, and the political situation was close to boiling over.) Friends there told me that many of their families, on seeing the film of Tejero and his Civil Guards’ storming of the Cortes, loaded their cars and fled across the border into France a few kilometres away. The older ones who remembered the Civil War and most of those who’d experienced the loathed dictatorship ‘cuando Franco’ believed fascism was returning – and again the Basque people and its culture would be oppressed.

I found Cercas’ account of the build-up to these events, and the aftermath, fascinating. In his Prologue he relates how he’d tried a fictional approach, but failed. He describes Anatomy as a ‘humble testimony of a failure’, too:

Incapable of inventing what I know about 23 February, illuminating its reality with fiction, I have resigned myself to telling it. The pages that follow aim to endow this failure with a certain dignity.

He succeeds for the most part. It will not, he says, ‘entirely renounce being read as a history book’; it’s ‘not a novel’, but it ‘won’t entirely renounce being read as a novel’. It is delineated with some of the ‘symmetries of fiction’, he says later.

You don’t have to be interested in the baroque intricacies of Spanish politics to enjoy The Anatomy of a Moment; anyone who cares for and believes in the human struggle against the agencies of oppression will find it salutary.

Text used: Bloomsbury hardback edition published London, 2011, 403 pp. Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean. First published in Spain 2009.

 

Andrew Marvell, ‘The Garden’

As it’s National Poetry Day in the UK today, and I don’t have much time to compose a post, I thought I’d just accept the challenge of the NPD website and reproduce here two stanzas (there are nine in total in the poem) from one of my favourite poems by Andrew Marvell (1621-78): ‘The Garden’:

What wondrous life is this I lead!
Ripe apples drop about my head ;

The luscious clusters of the vine
Upon my mouth do crush their wine
;

The nectarine and curious peach
Into my hands themselves do reach
;

Stumbling on melons as I pass,
Ensnared with flowers, I fall on grass.

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness :
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find
;

Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas
;

Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.

I recall studying this poem as a new undergraduate (we started in term 1 with the Metaphysicals at Bristol!) and relishing the interplay of sensuality and cerebral thinking in it. One of my first essays for my tutor was to discuss Eliot’s description of Marvell’s poetry as having  ‘a tough reasonableness beneath the slight lyric grace’. I don’t think I knew what I was talking about then.

NPG 554,Andrew Marvell,by Unknown artistNow I’m just happy to savour these lush, surprising couplets.

I wonder if that opening couplet reflects the pronunciation of the period; presumably ‘lead’ and ‘head’ rhymed then (one finds similar things in Shakespeare, as David Crystal points out in his published and forthcoming works on Shakespearean pronunciation).

The natural cornucopia in these stanzas is a poetic commonplace – Jonson used the trope in ‘To Penshurst’ (published 1616). I can’t resist giving a short extract here, for he goes completely overboard in his description of the veritable anxiety of game and edible fish to leap into the maw of the hungry aristocrat:

Each bank doth yield thee conies; and the tops,

Fertile of wood, Ashore and Sidney’s copse,

To crown thy open table, doth provide

The purpled pheasant with the speckled side;

The painted partridge lies in every field,

And for thy mess is willing to be killed…

Then it’s the turn of the exotic and conveniently low-hanging fruit:

Then hath thy orchard fruit, thy garden flowers,

Fresh as the Ayre, and new as are the houres.

The early cherry, with the later plum,

Fig, grape, and quince, each in his time doth come:

The blushing apricot and woolly peach,

Hang on thy walls, that every child may reach.

 

 

Marvell can’t resist outdoing Jonson by adding the even more exotic, newly-arrived (in England) ‘nectarine’.

With typically Metaphysical panache he subverts the familiar image of Eden as the setting for the Fall by suggesting that any ‘fall’ in this garden leads not to disaster but to enlightenment. The peaceful serenity of the natural garden provides a perfect setting (the paradisal physical or material world – ‘all that’s made’) for transcendence to the superior pleasures of a metaphysical, rational world of ideas (the wonderful ‘green thoughts in a green shade’).

A final note on that puzzling couplet about the mind’s reflection in the ocean: ‘In the history of ideas, the concept that in a perfect, and therefore symmetrical Creation, each creature of the earth found its counterpart in the sea had a long career; it had been firmly dismissed by Sir Thomas Browne, in Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646) in which one of the “Vulgar errors” is “that all Animals of the Land, are in their Kinde in the Sea”; even exploded philosophy was grist to Marvell’s metaphysical wit.’ (Wikipedia)

Image of Marvell in the public domain at Wikimedia Commons.

 

Ruskin and Effie: Harvey’s ‘The Subject of a Portrait’

In my previous post John Harvey wrote about his recent novel ‘Subject of a Portrait’, and the questions he tried to address in giving fictional life to the tangled love triangle of its central characters: John Ruskin, his wife Effie, and the artist Millais. He speculated how Emma Thompson might address these questions in her forthcoming film, ‘Effie Gray’, released here in the UK on 10 October. My own review of his novel was posted here in June.

Today my guest writer is Michael Flay, author of the novels The Watchers (2009) and The Lord (2012), and The Persian Wedding (forthcoming), all published by Polar Books (Cheltenham). Dr Flay is senior lecturer in SEN (Special Educational Needs) at a Midlands university.

The Subject of a PortraitChild abuse is an important problem in the U.K. and elsewhere. John Harvey’s recent novel ‘The Subject of a Portrait’, well contributes to understanding aspects of abuse. Perpetrators and victims have individual features and here Harvey presents one example of the former. What kind of person abuses a child? A version of Ruskin reveals the art critic as only able to relate to the female in the shape of pre-adolescent girls. His marriage to an adult woman is annulled because it was never consummated. Adult women disgust him except in terms of spiritual interchange. He sees their bodies as deformed. The novel is courageous in approaching such psychological areas with imaginative insight and detailed psychological investigation.

 

However, a scholarly commentator on Ruskin, Christopher Newall, is cited recently in ‘The Times’ (he is commenting on the forthcoming film about Ruskin) as disagreeing with the idea of Ruskin as sexually disordered. Newall’s view is that Ruskin ‘was perfectly easy’ with his wife ‘physically’ and to suggest otherwise is to contribute to a false myth or negative ‘legend’. Ruskin’s character is a subject for controversy, with several versions available. Newall prefers a purified view.

Harvey’s version is valuable in terms of the vivid fictional light cast on complex psychiatric matters that also exist in factual shape outside imaginative narrative. The Ruskin-version character is seen to encourage visits on fabricated pretexts from a young girl, a ’little maid’—‘that is the age where beauty dwells, we spoil as we grow big’. His encouragement could be referred to as ”grooming“, in current vocabulary.

Pre-adolescent girls are his preference, partly because they have no breasts (the novel suggests this) and, in his view, other sexual features are less obvious. The Ruskin figure, in the novel, has a secret collection of pictures, early photographs, of part clothed or naked, breastless young girls and other views of female children. Some of these shots were taken of children in a hotel he stays at by a clandestine, shady photographer he is in collusion with.

A disturbing, revelatory sequence in the novel comes when Ruskin gets out the pictures in order to assist in a masturbatory event. He stimulates himself also via repeated words, ‘Oh little neat dress with petit point lace’ and by pulling ‘a little girl face in the mirror’ as he watches and listens to himself. After his climax he is full of self praise, ‘John, John—was there ever potency like to yours? You are the King of the Golden River.’ His mood then switches to self disgust as he glimpses a remnant of his own semen on his body, a wish for the Lord to ‘scald my weakness’.

In a later attempt to have sex with his wife Ruskin is presented as calling up this past experience in an attempt to gain arousal, repeating words he finds erotic, ‘ Oh little pert nose and tiny waist’, and telling his wife ‘Be like twelve again’. After the failed encounter he lapses into baby language, ‘Don leave me all on my owny’.

A strength of Harvey’s narrative is that these vivid and revealing sexual crises are presented in a context of Ruskin’s other, but related, behaviours. Such behaviours include mood and attitude instabilities, revulsions towards the physical and exalted views on art and beauty. At times he seems spitefully to collude with his wife’s attraction to Millais, combining this with absolute rejection of her physically. When she attempts to have sex with him he tells her she is physically ‘misformed’ and ‘the hand of nature’ has ‘erred’ in her case. He manipulates Millais by referring to Effie as ‘my own clever monkey’, both praising and insulting her at once, possibly to get Millais to react.

An attraction to sexuality with young girls and a recoil from that kind of relation with older women is a Ruskin characteristic. The episode in which Ruskin takes the ‘little maid’ from the hotel for an outing in the wood is disturbing. Ruskin is ‘suave’ and plausible, getting the girl’s mother to give permission. Then, in the wood, come kissing games, incidents in which the girl lies on him in various postures. The episode concludes with the open comment ‘he led her beneath low branches’. It is left non-explicit, speculative, what follows, maybe nothing, more, or worse? Ruskin reflects early on in the jaunt, that such girls are ‘the art of God. He imagined her tiny shoulder blades sliding within her dress’. The later masturbation sequence reveals that Ruskin’s interest in the girls has a physical aspect and is not just a case of visual appreciation. After Ruskin’s wife has obtained her divorce from him, Ruskin continues to look out for such young girls—he notices one near the National Gallery, ‘nearly a woman but slender as string’. He considers she has an eating disorder, but ‘such’…’I could love with a grown man’s love’. His attractions have a repetitive, part obsessional aspect.

Harvey presents Ruskin’s disorder, reveals it as an individualized psychiatric case in the sense that it issues in symptomatic, cumulative ways. Here is a valuable consideration of aspects of child abuse, embedded in the context too of a specific, stressed marriage. Fiction here performs a useful function of contributing to the understanding of a non-fictional condition that exists in ‘fact’, demonstrating an abuse perpetrator in a complex web of contexts and characteristics. Beyond the theme of the abuser the Ruskin character is also representative of a man who is entirely disunified in a psychological sense. He has therefore no creative relation with anyone in the novel and is alone. At the same time he is an eminent art critic and social reformer. A suggestion here is disturbingly implicit in the narrative that an expert in any field may simultaneously be pathological in a psychiatric sense. This theme too is current in actual society. Mental disorder can occur anywhere, in the prominent and obscure alike. However, the prominent may have more options for concealment or for conveying disorder as talent, likewise for decision making or opinion forming that has its basis in defect or neurosis,

For some Ruskin’s characteristics as seen in Harvey’s novel may seem a psychological area they are reluctant to consider. The presentations of sexual behaviours and thoughts may be challenging. This is all to the good. Lawrence has commented that ‘a condition of freedom’ is that ‘in the understanding I fear nothing’. The ‘abhorrent’ and disturbing need their own attention, both fictionally and otherwise. Writing in ‘The Reality of Peace’ he continues to emphasise that the horrific or pathological needs imaginative presentation, an aim being to ‘see what it is’, to admit it  to ‘understanding’ with no elision of consciousness. Harvey’s writing fits this context, enacting Lawrence’s aim , keeping company as he does so with a minority of fiction writers who do the same, such as Pynchon and DeLillo.

 

 

‘The Subject of a Portrait’, ‘Effie Gray’ & the Ruskin Marriage

John Harvey, author of The Subject of a Portrait, a review of which I posted HERE in June, is my guest for this post. He writes about his novel exploring the tangled relationships between Millais, the subject of his portrait, Ruskin, and Mrs Ruskin, Effie, in the light of the forthcoming film about this troubled triangle of characters.

It’s a curious thing to find yourself telling the same story as someone else, and at the same time — like overhearing a person, in the next room, saying the same thing that you’re saying. For my novel The Subject of a Portrait, about the marriage of John Ruskin and ‘Effie’ (Euphemia) Gray, came out this July, and in August there was a screening of Emma Thompson’s new film on this subject, Effie Gray, which is scheduled for release on 10 October. Since I have not yet seen the film I cannot comment directly, but — following my own engagement with the Ruskins — I am interested to see how Emma Thompsons’s script handles some key questions, and I thought I should record these questions before I do see, or read reviews of, Effie Gray. These are questions raised by the original historic events. They matter for anyone retelling this story, and are I believe interesting in themselves.

Both Effie Gray, and The Subject of a Portrait, feature the trip to the Highlands which Ruskin and Effie made in 1853 together with the young PreRaphaelite painter John Everett Millais — when Millais was to paint a portrait of Ruskin, and when Millais and Effie fell in love. The Ruskin marriage was still, after five years, unconsummated. But no one knows exactly ‘what happened in the Highlands’. Queen Victoria, when she heard the story, thought that everything had happened there.

One question is: what was happening inside John Ruskin? For the Ruskins did not travel to Scotland with only a handsome young artist for company — that would have looked odd to the Victorians and perhaps to anyone. Millais’ brother William came with them. But once they had settled, Ruskin let William stay in their hotel, and rented a tiny cottage where there was just room for him to sleep on the sofa while Millais and Effie slept in tiny bedrooms to either side of him. Ruskin loved this arrangement though Millais and Effie were not delighted. Effie wondered whether Ruskin wanted to get her ‘in a scrape’.

Ruskin treated his wife both oddly and badly. To a contemporary eye what may be most interesting is the monomania in Ruskin’s passion for the body of a child: he had fallen in love with Effie when she was twelve and it seems he could not bear the fact that by the time they married, she had a woman’s body. Not that Ruskin ever explained exactly why he disliked her ‘person’. He did invite her to believe she was wrongly ‘formed’, so that his sexual failure was in some sense her fault. When she protested he decided she was mad — and wrote to tell her father that his daughter was insane. And he insisted they pretend to live like a normal married couple.

The Subject of a PortraitActually there was nothing wrong with Effie’s body, as the physicians found when they examined her during the annulment of the marriage. The deformity — and deformity of mind — was in Ruskin. But why and how did Ruskin come to be so? Because it was not just a matter of high-Victorian puritanism. The pathology of Ruskin was more particular. Contrary to the verdict of the court of annulment, it does not seem that Ruskin suffered from ‘incurable impotency’. He protested at this suggestion, and let it be known that he practised ‘the vice of Rousseau’ — masturbation — and that he had some vigour in that department. Certainly he did not desire his wife, or any other grown woman, so far as we know. He was attracted to very young girls, and in one letter he advises a friend as to the wiles he might use to win a kiss from a tiny girl. But I don’t think one should think of him as a Victorian Rolf Harris. The case is different. He liked to write letters to some of his friends in baby talk, so one could wonder — is the true ‘tiny girl’ inside Ruskin himself? In our time the performance artist Grayson Perry dresses up and performs a little girl called Claire, who he says is his alter ego. And psychologists say it is possible for a person to suffer arrest, emotionally, at a very early stage where the infant psyche is neither boy nor girl. But it was hard, in the nineteenth century, to face such things openly.

I should not simplify the human mystery of Ruskin’s make-up. He was also capable of playing the authoritarian husband: he told Effie once that he would ‘beat her with a common stick’. Clearly he had his contradictions: he called himself both ‘a Tory of the old school’ and ‘a red-hot Communist’. He also is, and by a large margin, the greatest critic of art this country has produced — and he does write very wonderfully about art. It is obviously not easy to get to the root of such a person, you have to guess and imagine, and that is why I am interested to see how Emma Thompson — and her husband Greg Wise, who plays Ruskin — read his character.

There is again a question about Effie. What did she think about her marital situation? This is a real question, because although it was possible for a young Victorian wife to be extremely innocent and ignorant about intimacy, it is odd if Effie was so totally innocent since her best friend in London was Lady Eastlake — that is, the wife of Sir Charles Lock Eastlake, the Director of the National Gallery. Lady Eastlake was an intellectual figure in her own right, a traveller and an author — and she was both the daughter, and the sister, of ladies’ doctors, of obstetric physicians. In The Subject of a Portrait, at one point, Effie asks Lady Eastlake to examine her. And it is the part of Lady Eastlake that Emma Thompson has chosen to play, herself, in Effie Gray, so I am interested to see at what stage Emma Thompson advises Effie about obstetrics.

There are further questions as to Effie. If she and Millais fell in love in the Highlands, why did she go back with Ruskin to London — only to run away later? She did not need to hurry back, because her parents lived in Perth, and she could very well have said, I shall stay with mama and papa and come home later. She visited them easily enough at other times. The fact that she did go home with Ruskin, only to take off later, raises two questions: how much did happen in the Highlands? And what happened later, in London? Was there communication — were there secret meetings — between the lovers? Or were they wholly cut off, knowing nothing of what each other felt, so Effie had to take her decision blind, in the dark? As the story proceeds, Effie does develop a remarkable independence, and an ability to survive, and to grow.

And the PreRaphaelite prodigy, John Everett Millais? For reasons of time, Millais could paint only the background of his portrait in Scotland — for actually, though this now-famous painting is a portrait of Ruskin, Millais painted Ruskin in later, in his studio in Gower Street in London. There were regular sittings. But what on earth did Ruskin and Millais say to each other then? Did Millais give signals, did Ruskin know, that the artist loved his wife? It is clear also that Ruskin liked Millais quite tenderly, but with an ambivalence, so you wonder, was he more attracted to the artist’s brilliant talent or to his youthful glamour? After the annulment he wanted Millais and himself to go on meeting and collaborating, regardless of the fact that his ex-wife was now Mrs Millais. Those sessions in the studio must have been extraordinarily charged, like chapters in Dostoevsky where momentous intensities hang over the quiet talk of two people in a room. I am not Dostoevsky, but still one has space in a novel to imagine such talk, and I have tried to do that. Of course a film must have a different economy, and obviously has many fewer words than a novel. In any event, I am interested to see how Emma Thompson and Greg Wise manage the relation, not only of Effie with Millais, but of Millais with Ruskin, because Ruskin was a hugely important figure for any young painter, whether or not the painter loved Ruskin’s wife. And Millais was, by a large margin, the most talented young artist whom Ruskin, as an art lover and art critic, was ever to meet.

I have said that Effie Gray, and The Subject of a Portait, tell the same story. But it cannot be quite the same story. Even if the narrative is based on real life, still the people in it have to come alive, and sound like living people, in a film or in a novel. And if they are to come alive, they have to have some freedom to go their own way. Also, if you have an idea for a character in a film or a novel, then I think you must be free to pursue that idea as far as it can lead you. What’s the use of half-measures, in a work of imagination? But if you do push your idea as far as it will go, your picture may be more extreme than the reality actually was. I don’t know what Emma Thompson does with John Ruskin, but there have been some critical rumblings in Ruskinian circles. And it may be some admirers of Ruskin will also be dismayed by my portrayal of him — though I am an admirer too, and simply think one must try to understand his pathology. Because ‘pathology’ is the word.

The main point is that the relation between a historical figure and the fictional portrayal of a historical figure cannot be ‘identity’. Maybe their relation can be like that of siblings. Emma Thompson’s Ruskin, and my Ruskin, cannot be Ruskin, the real Ruskin, but perhaps they can be as it were like Ruskin’s brother — or like his bad brother. In science fiction people speak of ‘parallel universes’, and a historical film or a historical novel can only at best be a ‘parallel universe’, it cannot be the actual historical universe. Emma Thompson’s Victorian universe, and my Victorian universe, may or may not be quite parallel to history — or to each other. And this is why I am so interested to see how she tells the story in her film. For every retelling of an event that really happened — however fictitious — may still shed light on the original event. In this case, on the history of a famous wife’s unhappiness, and her search for happiness, in one marriage — or another.

John Harvey

The Subject of a Portrait is published by Polar Books, Cheltenham 2014

 

The Humbert Humbert of Kansas City: Mr Bridge, pt 2

Evan S. Connell’s Mr Bridge was the subject of my previous post; today I intend completing this assessment of his 1969 novel about an emotionally repressed Kansas City lawyer (with his mantra ‘there is nothing to discuss’) and his family, who along with everyone he encounters largely cause him to feel exasperated, angry, bewildered or embarrassed.

I ended last time like with reference to Mr Bridge’s unsettling relationships with his children, especially Ruth, and in his inconsistent – even hypocritical – attitudes to sexuality. This will be the theme of this post.

We see a far more rebellious side to his children in Mr Bridge than we do in the earlier novel. Mrs Bridge showed his son Douglas’s stubbornness, and this reappears in different ways here, causing Mr Bridge to reflect that the boy’s ‘despotic obstinacy’ is a trait they share. Carolyn, the younger daughter, is in many ways similar. Ruth’s insubordination is therefore more shattering for him. When she provokes him in ch. 72 by asking for a loan to help a friend obtain an abortion he slaps her ‘across the mouth’. Afterwards he’s appalled:

He could not believe he had struck her…When she was a baby he had held her in his arms while she was falling asleep. There were nights when nothing more than the knowledge of her existence had been enough to waken him so that he had gotten out of bed and gone to the crib to watch over her.

After such a tender memory, it’s perhaps more shocking and truthful when his barely suppressed illicit sexual impulses are revealed. In ch. 59 the almost effaced narrator that Connell employs presents us with a disconcerting scene when Mr Bridge voyeuristically ‘watched attentively’ as Ruth sunbathed in the back yard in her bathing suit, oiling her skin.

But his behaviour afterwards is even more troubling. Mrs Bridge enters the bedroom from where he’s watching and he kisses her violently; she pulls away, but he forces her towards the bed ‘while she murmured doubtfully’. As usual there is no narrative mediation or comment on this event (almost rape?), which makes it all the more shocking – a technique that I’ve shown to be effective in different ways at other points in both the novels.

When Ruth later defies his anti-swearing rule in the house he’s disturbed by her again: ‘She had never been more beautiful’, the narrative ingenuously informs us:

He was shaken by the sight of her, and he knew he loved her in a way he could not ever love the other children, perhaps because she was the first, or because of the strange darkness in her which he could feel also within himself.

This scene shows yet another example of his failure to confront or reflect on his own feelings; they tend to come refracted through the prism of his family.

But it’s Ruth’s own increasingly defiant sexual activity that causes the most severe crises in Mr Bridge’s psyche. In ch. 84 he catches her having sex in the lounge at four in the morning. She’s unmoved by his outrage, and her defiance takes him aback: he realises ‘he was attempting to cry’ for the first time since he was a child, but can only manage to cough. ‘Things are different now,’ she announces calmly. He disagrees:

‘Love, respect and human decency – these never change. Your mother and I have these things.’

 

‘Good for you’.

Ruth challenges him again when she announces she wants to leave Kansas City:

She wanted more out of life than raising children in the suburbs…while her husband climbed the ladder.

He knows he can’t stop her, and is heartbroken, but the narrator as always refrains from telling us this. We perceive it instead when he shows Mr Bridge’s disappointment when Ruth writes home from New York in letters clearly directed at her mother, not at him. His feeling of elation when she does write to him alone at his office address disappears when it’s apparent that she’s simply to tapping him for money. And he knows, for once, that ‘buying her love’ won’t do.

Another Humbert Humbert moment arises in ch. 98 when he sees an acquaintance’s daughter resembling Ruth:

Desire for his own daughter had surged from the depths where it must be concealed.

This echoes the scene I wrote about last time when he argued with Grace Barron. There too the almost-absent narrator told us ‘He did not like the feeling that swept through him…’ as she challenged his views. In this way Connell presents Mr Bridge as almost a victim of his passions; it’s not that he’s incapable of powerful, even illicit emotions, but that they come unbidden and surge out of control through him. Similar incidents occur when he takes his wife on holiday to Europe.

It shouldn’t spoil the ending if I finish with an examination of it here: the novel has no linear plot to speak of, just an accumulation of contiguous, revealing vignettes. In the final chapter, as Mr Bridge detaches himself from a church service, he reflects on the words of the hymn they’re singing, ‘Joy to the World’:

Evidently he had experienced joy. He asked himself if he had ever known it. If so, he could not remember. But he thought he must have known it…but it must have been a long time ago. Satisfaction, yes, and pleasure of several sorts, and pride, and possibly a feeling which might be called ‘rejoicing’ after some serious worry or problem had been resolved. There were many such feelings, but none of them should be called ‘joy’. He remembered enthusiasm, hope, and a kind of jubilation or exultation. Cheerfulness, yes, and joviality, and the brief gratification of sex. Gladness, too, fullness of heart, appreciation, and many other emotions. But not joy. No, that belonged to simpler minds.

With these partly verbless, truncated lines the narrative ends with a final stream of our protagonist’s free indirect thought. As always Connell refrains from commenting on the scene. What makes the two novels so compelling is that we are required to scrutinise what we’re presented with by the narrator, whose reticence resembles Mr Bridge’s own. Mr Bridge’s self-congratulatory sense of superiority is paradoxically blended with intermittent thoughts that he has somehow been cheated by life. Maybe he’s a little like Emma Bovary, too: like his wife, he has fleeting near-epiphanies in which he senses that there must be something else, something more.

 

The Mr Bennett of Kansas City: Evan S. Connell’s ‘Mr Bridge’, pt 1

(There’s so much to say about Evan S. Connell’s Mr Bridge that I’m going to break this post up into two parts.)

Last month I wrote about Connell’s 1959 novel Mrs Bridge (link here), which relates in 117 short chapters the quietly despondent, unreflecting but unfulfilled life of its bourgeoise protagonist, who I likened to Mme Bovary. Her husband is barely present. Now I turn my attention to Mr Bridge, published a decade later, in which her husband fills every chapter. In a novel that’s at times redolent of bleak existential despair, it’s also shot through with wit and humour.

Walter Bridge is a workaholic, a successful Kansas City lawyer. In her introduction to the 2012 PMC edition Lionel Shriver aptly describes him as a ‘stiff, upright, undemonstrative family man’ who is ‘staid’ and ‘outwardly wholesome’. Beneath this veneer of soap opera stereotypical American fatherhood – the respectable, wise and inspirational paterfamilias – is a complex, layered character as ‘insidiously bleak’ and ultimately lonely as his desperate housewife spouse. He reminds Shriver of her grandfather; I’m reminded of my father, a man of similarly deluded rectitude. And of Mr Bennett in Pride and Prejudice: a wry patriarch with a wife whose silliness he’s largely responsible for (reflecting gender roles of the times), offspring whose behaviour confounds and challenges his complacency, and who has a distorted, inflated opinion of his own superiority.

Like his wife Mr Bridge drifts through life in myopic bafflement, constrained as she is by resolute belief in conventional values (domestic, social, sexual and cultural) of middle-class conformity. Furthermore he has a strong conviction that he’s irrefutably right about such things:

He wished to impress upon his son three things which he felt he had himself achieved: financial security, independence, and self-respect. In his mind these were of supreme importance.

This is a longer novel than Mrs Bridge, and is similar in approach: in 141 vignettes a collage or fragmented narrative is constructed of disparate scenes in Walter’s life which individually are mostly superficially trivial, but which collectively represent a nuanced, tragi-comical portrait of a conflicted, flawed man often seen to be as anxious and unfulfilled as his wife. I found it less successful than the earlier book, and felt that it could have been improved with some editing.

Many chapters revisit scenes and themes from Mrs Bridge: the rapid passage of time, and a commensurate sense of wasted life, for example:

The years were falling over like ducks in a shooting gallery, and it seemed to Mr Bridge that he had scarcely taken aim at one when it disappeared. Now another year was all but gone. However, it had been a good year. He was not dissatisfied. He had worked hard, harder than most men…He was acquiring more than he needed, quite a lot more. And yet most important was the happiness he sensed around him. He believed that his wife was happy and the children also, and because of this he felt their happiness within himself. [ch. 25]

This typifies Connell’s method in both novels. In something approaching free indirect style we seem to hear Mr Bridge’s voice or thoughts here, mediated through an almost effaced narrator. The opening sentence there is perhaps free indirect thought: it’s Mr Bridge’s syntax and idiom, with the clichéd image reflecting his limited cognitive/emotional range. He demonstrates his sadly deluded belief that material comfort equates with emotional fulfilment.  In the final sentence of this extract the narrator’s perspective shifts: no doubt Mr Bridge did complacently believe in his wife’s happiness, but the syntax now reflects his doubts about this conviction, and there’s the ironic gap between his own view and that of the reader that we noted in Mrs Bridge. That closing sentence demonstrates his inability to feel deeply or express the feelings he does have: his happiness is vicarious. This is his problem throughout the novel.

The opening chapter primes us for this paradox. On one level he genuinely loves his wife:

Often he thought: My life did not begin until I knew her. She would like to hear this, he was sure, but he did not know how to tell her…he could think of nothing appropriate.

 

So the years passed…and eventually Mr Bridge decided that his wife should expect nothing more of him. After all, he was an attorney rather than a poet; he could never pretend to be what he was not.

Once again Connell’s narrative focus here is on Mr Bridge’s thoughts, and his reluctance to understand or transcend his emotional torpor. When his wife has one of her periodic, and to him, inexplicable meltdowns, in a chapter called ‘You don’t love me’, she insists out of the blue on a divorce. ‘My life has been spent waiting on you and the children. None of you has been aware of me, but that’s all right. I realize you’ve written me off.’

The chapter closes with another visit inside Mr Bridge’s mind:

She never explained what he had done wrong, and after thinking quite a lot about this incomprehensible fit of hysteria he decided the best procedure was to ignore it.

This is his default response to life’s puzzles. Ironically this scene takes place immediately after an often-quoted chapter in which he contemplates his family chattering in the warm spring evening on the porch:

As he listened to their voices and to the seasonal music of the insects the problems which had troubled him during the day did not seem important, and he reflected that he had practically everything he ever wanted.

His wife’s ‘hysterical’ outburst indicates his failure to empathise with that family. He’s deluded himself that by providing for them materially he’s done his job. This suffices for him, and he’s incapable of comprehending why that isn’t sufficient for them. His birthday presents to them of stocks and dividends is his way of showing his love, and he doesn’t understand that this is perceived by them as unreflecting coldness in him. On the occasions like this when his complacency is challenged, he quietly dismisses the moment and evades emotional commitment. In ch. 60 when his wife demands to know if he loves her, his response is ‘bewildered’, and he finds the conversation ‘embarrassing’.

Numerous chapters indicate his bigotry, racism, homophobia and snobbery, his rigid belief in bourgeois values and conservative politics. So he refuses to give alms to beggars, and hates people who get into debt (he’s often angry about such ‘deadbeats’). ‘He disliked weakness’, is his ‘disgusted’ reaction to the children’s pet rabbit dying of terror when attacked by a dog. He is frequently portrayed as ‘exasperated’ or annoyed by what he perceives as the inability of others to conform to his own strict codes of conduct. He ‘hates’ a ‘bawdy story’ or swearing, but shows barely concealed admiration for Hitler and the rising Nazi powers in Europe. He thinks modern art is ‘junk’, and modern writers peddle filth. He feels ‘provoked’ by such subversions of convention.

He’s full of contradictions, though, and this capacity to show something other than bigotry enables us to find sympathy for his otherwise unattractive nature. Several chapters display his undeniably racist views, yet he scolds his daughter for being high-handed with their black housekeeper. He’s clearly anti-semitic, yet is horrified when his elder daughter Ruth accuses him of being prejudiced (‘you’re so hard and so cold and so humorless’, she complains). Then he writes her a long letter outlining how he’s helped Jewish friends. Her response is the same bafflement he experiences when his family behave unaccountably: ‘Then you do a thing like this. And for a Jew.’ He can’t understand what she means, especially when she goes on to tell him he’s treated his family ‘like strangers’: ‘Dr Sauer said you were a consummate Puritan’, she says, but he doesn’t ‘understand’. Instead we’re told ‘He was embarrassed and puzzled.’ He’s like this too when he contemplates his inability to ‘share’ himself with his family by telling them about his work. There’s ‘nothing to discuss’, he concludes, preferring his hermetically sealed solitude.

And when he writes the letter to try to explain to Ruth that he was shocked that she thought him prejudiced, he’s as incapable of expressing what he really feels to her as he was in the opening chapter about his love for his wife. The nearest he can get to expressing this love is to tell her the ‘good news’ about her stocks increasing in value; he takes his usual position of substituting material wealth for emotional investment:

It was not all he wished to say, but he felt he had clarified his position…He thought she would understand.

I shall round off this first post on Mr Bridge by examining two crucial scenes which could not have featured in Mrs Bridge, but which shed light on Connell’s method and narrative acuity. It’s a counterpart to the chapter in the earlier novel where Mrs Bridge’s unconventional, unhappy friend Grace Barron (‘barren’?) expresses her despair and boredom in ways that Mrs Bridge finds both familiar but also frightening. Both scenes present Mr Bridge’s awkward responses to his wife’s friend and her challenging ways.

In ch. 99 he is unable to avoid Grace and joins her at her coffee-shop table. She shows him the jade pig she’d just bought at auction. He’s pompous and sanctimonious about her being ‘stung’ and can’t understand (yet again!) why anyone would want it. He just hopes it’s worth it.

‘You’re not as cold as you pretend to be,’ she said. ‘I think your doors open in different places, that’s all. Most people just don’t know how to get in to you. They knock and they knock where the door is supposed to be, but it’s a blank wall. But you’re there. I’ve watched you. I’ve seen you do some awfully cold things warmly and some warm things coldly. Or does that make sense?’

 

‘I’d have to think about it,’ he smiled, and picked up the menu…

The subject, for him, is thereby closed, for he clearly does not intend thinking about it; we’ve seen how he habitually avoids considering troublesome topics like this. Yet she’s just provided one of the few instances in the novel where we’re told exactly what Mr Bridge is. It’s to Connell’s credit that he always makes his readers work out what could be the significance of each chapter’s vignette; this time he skilfully uses the dialogue of a perceptive but damaged outsider to provide a rare insight.

She goes on to call him ‘a nineteenth-century figure’; she means he’s paralysed by his sense of propriety. As ever, Connell takes us into Mr Bridge’s mind:

This was the sort of remark she made [free indirect thought again], affectionate and yet insulting. He did not like it…She was a lost, unhappy little woman. He thought he should feel a sense of pity, but he did not. She jeered at too many things.

That Mr Bridge should think in this dismissively patronising way is indicative of his usual conflation of sympathy (he recognises her grudging affection for him) and self-righteous indignation. As a jeerer at everything he disapproves of, the irony and hypocrisy he emanates here are palpable.

When Grace goes on to goad him about his political views he’s stung into declaring a preference for Nazism to Communism, then refuses to engage further. She becomes upset, and complains that her banker husband won’t talk to her either:

‘He says I’m a woman and women have no grasp of politics. Nobody wants to talk to me. I feel like I’m living on an island.’

 

‘What sort of talk is that,’ he said with a deprecatory expression, and crooked a finger at the waitress…

She’s beginning to sound like his wife, and his instinctive response is to ignore or dismiss such talk. As the chapter closes she annoys him by suggesting that a Jewish financier he dislikes might become his neighbour; this

enraged him, but he was careful to hide his anger…He did not like the feeling that swept through him, or the urge to say aloud that he approved of the pogrom in Germany.

 

‘You really are, aren’t you,’ she said as though she could read his mind. ‘I always suspected it.’ And she began to cry.

It’s one of the most powerfully enigmatic and moving moments in the novel.

And it’s followed by another near the novel’s end, when Mr Bridge hears Grace has killed herself.

The idea of suicide exasperated him. Now her children must suffer…She had shown her children how little they meant…He knew he had been correct to feel nothing at the news of her death. What she had done was cowardly. What such a woman deserved was scorn and contempt.

This is surely Mr Bridge’s most despicable stream of thought in the novel. But we don’t have to like a character to admire the text, and what Connell is doing here is brilliantly realised. Just as Grace seemed to have briefly penetrated his stalwart emotional defences and his smug sense of superiority, enabling him to release his gentler inner self, she closes the metaphorical door she’d mentioned, leaving him secure in his self-satisfaction. He’s monstrous, but as vulnerable in his own immutable, emotionally stunted way as his wife. In that sense he’s possibly a more tragic figure.

Where Mr Bridge differs most interestingly from Mrs Bridge is in its protagonist’s unsettling relationships with his children, especially Ruth, and in his attitudes to sexuality. I shall focus on these (potentially controversial) aspects of the novel next time.