Clothes in Anne Enright’s ‘The Green Road’

I recently discovered the fascinating blog Clothes in Books by Moira: it does as the name suggests: explores the significance of clothes in works of fiction. As a consequence I’ve decided to postpone my intended review of Anne Enright’s excellent novel The Green Road (first published last year) until another time. Instead, hoping to whet your appetite for more, I’ll borrow her approach and look at one aspect of clothing in this family saga set in rural western Ireland, near the cliffs of Moher overlooking the Aran Islands.

My Vintage paperback copy of 'The Green Road'

My Vintage paperback copy of ‘The Green Road’

The matriarch  of the Madigan family, Rosaleen, has four children; Dan, the oldest, states his intention in the opening chapter, to his mother’s horror, of giving up college in Galway after his first year and becoming a priest. He would finish his degree at the seminary, he says.

Apart from the challenge of reconciling his family to the news, there’s the ‘small matter’ of Dan’s girlfriend, who also has to be told. He takes his 12-year-old sister Hanna with him back to Galway and introduces her to the interesting Isabelle:

“Hello,” said the woman, holding out her hand, which was covered in a dark green leather glove. The woman looked very nice. The glove went up her wrist, with a line of covered buttons along the side.

The description is given from Hanna’s viewpoint, hence the childish tone. She’s smitten by what, to her, seems a glamorous chic look. Later we’re told she had ‘a clasp in her hair made of polished wood’, which again seems the epitome of good taste to Hanna. Shortly afterwards Hanna fantasises about her romantically:

Dan’s girlfriend was a tragedy waiting to happen. And yet, those green gloves spoke of a life that would be lovely. She would study in Paris. She would have three children, teach them beautiful Irish and perfect French. She would always mourn for Dan.

When she asks her name and Isabelle tells her Hanna thinks ‘Of course. She had a name that came out of a book.’ Hanna, who grows up to be an actress, sees (or thinks she does) an enviable drama in this beautiful young woman’s appearance and manner.

On her return home she describes Isabelle as ‘beautiful’.

The reader is probably intended to feel less overwhelmed; Isabelle is simply channeling the standard student bohemian look of the period: 1980. Naive country girl Hanna has never seen such urbanity and sophistication before.

Chapter 2 is devoted to the next stage of Dan’s life. It’s New York 1991, and he has not become a priest. Instead he’s part of the gay scene, breaking hearts with his dashing good looks and Irish brogue. Isabelle is there too, and she and Dan are engaged, but the narrative voice is that of an anonymous member of this gay community who views her with cryptic suspicion:

We met the brave little wife-to-be later…She was nice. Skinny, as they often are. Slightly maverick and intense and above all ethical. She had long hair, a lovely accent, and she was writing a book, of course…As beards went, she was a classic beard. A woman of rare quality– because it takes a quality woman to keep a guy like Dan straight.

Interesting that the childish ‘nice’ is used again, but here in a passage of much more perceptive maturity. And of course the narrator is predisposed to be critical, unimpressed, the very opposite response from Hanna’s. The LGBT period slang ‘beard’ is a largely derogatory term for the sham romantic partner used to camouflage a person’s sexual orientation, and its use is sardonic here, with the grudging but comically cynical and ambiguous admission at the end that she was  attractive enough to tempt Dan away from his true destiny.

Billy, who has fallen in love with Dan, meets her for the first time a few pages later, and this description, like Hanna’s, presents his impressions through free indirect style:

…the unreliable little ribcage, with a pair of those flat little triangular breasts like flesh origami: also lumpy bits from waist to hip where her underwear was a bit too pragmatic – she would look better without, he thought, though Isabelle was not the sort of girl who would ever go without. The most surprising thing about her were the shoes, which were black to match the rest of the outfit, but with fabulous, bloody red soles. She walked in them like a child playing dress-up.

This glorious sketch is typical of Enright’s brilliant mastery of the multi-vocal narrative mosaic she constructs. It’s camp and funny, with that bitchy detail about the underwear and how Billy interprets it, and his unstated but implicit criticism of her boho-beatnik-cool black outfit. The grudging admiration of those shoes (presumably Christian Louboutin, though my research shows he didn’t introduce this trademark look until the following year, 1992) is comically, brutally undermined by the final sentence. All of those adjectives are spot on: ‘unreliable’ (ribcage); ‘lumpy bits’, ‘a bit too pragmatic’ (underwear) – I love that – and the gushing ‘fabulous’ – then the crushing, infantilising demolition job. And it’s all to do with how Isabelle looks – here, and in Hanna’s breathless, adoring account. It conveys with ice-green hostility the jealousy Billy feels but doesn’t admit to.

I’m not as good at this analysis of clothing as Moira, but it’s fun to approach a work of fiction in this way. It drew my attention to some details that I’d half noticed on first reading, but which on closer scrutiny brought out what I hoped you’ve found an interesting aspect of Enright’s technical skill, and demonstrated her pitch-perfect ear for subtly nuanced and sharply perceptive humour that works on several different narrative levels.

 

 

Paints, feathers, beads: Donald Barthelme, ‘The Indian Uprising’

From Sixty Stories, PMC, and the collection Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, 1968, this 6-page story was one of the first of Donald Barthelme’s that I encountered, read on a podcast some years ago. I was quite unprepared for its wild surrealism and bizarre non sequiturs – but beneath the surface charm and throwaway appearance of ease is a subversive seriousness – I think.

My Penguin Modern Classics copy of Sixty Stories

My Penguin Modern Classics copy of Sixty Stories

It begins with a typically allusive, short sentence that immediately sets the tone of strangeness and mystery:

We defended the city as best we could.

Who are ‘we’, what was the nature of the threat that had to be defended against, and which city? The next sentence suggests a Western genre:

The arrows of the Comanches came in clouds.

 

We’re then told of ‘earthworks along the Boulevard Mark Clark’ – why the French term, and who is Mark Clark? The distinguished American officer who served in both World Wars and Korea?

‘People were trying to understand.’ So is this reader. Each accumulating sentence takes us not closer to comprehension or coherence, but further from it, as more and more unrelated details are added:

I spoke to Sylvia. “Do you think this is a good life?” The table held apples, books, long-playing records. She looked up. “No.”

The time-frames are telescoped unsettlingly. Characters’ names are dropped in as if we should know who they were. What’s the relationship of this first person narrator with Sylvia, and why does he ask this question? Why her negative minimal response? Later she seems to be in league with the Indians. Who is the ‘Miss R.’ who appears later?

There’s a paragraph about a ‘captured Comanche’ being tortured to reveal information about his tribe’s plans that seems to allude to perhaps the Vietnam war (or the genocidal history of How the West Was Won). The IRA are also name-checked.

Then there’s another of the strange lists of seemingly random objects of which much of this story is composed, when we’re told that in the ‘outer districts…trees, lamps, swans had been reduced to clear fields of fire…’

Until I came across Barthelme I’d been accustomed to short stories that gradually clarified the significance of the details within the narrative, arriving at either an epiphany (Joyce, Mansfield, Woolf) or resolution (almost everyone else). That doesn’t happen with this writer. Instead all is dislocation.

After another stretch of dialogue between the narrator and Sylvia, in which they cite Fauré and making sex scenes in movies, as if this was the most natural combination possible, the story turns back to intermittent coverage of some kind of urban defence against the ‘Red men in waves’ – Barthelme isn’t interested in politically correct vocabulary.

Barricades had been hastily erected from another strangely implausible list of items:

Window dummies, silk, thoughtfully planned job descriptions (including scales for the orderly progress of other colours), wine in demijohns, and robes.

At this point I abandon any attempt to summarise the rest of the story; to do so would require quoting every sentence, for to omit any detail would be to diminish the overall, dizzying effect.

Breton cited the proto-surrealist, the Comte de Lautréamont (1846-70), and his iconoclastic prose poem Les Chants de Maldoror (published 1868-69) – another non-linear, untrustworthy narrative – in defining the surrealist impulse: in canto 6 a boy is described as ‘beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella’. Max Ernst described a surrealist work as a linking of two realities that by all appearances have nothing to link them, in a setting that by all appearances does not fit them.

A random example from this story that fits that description, to add to those given already: the narrator states with disarming sang-froid that the attackers had infiltrated the ‘ghetto’ (what ghetto?!), a development that causes ‘we’ to send in ‘more heroin’ and ‘hyacinths’. The allusion to ‘The Waste Land’ develops subversively: Sylvia says: “You gave me heroin first a year ago”. A line from Hamlet also pops up. Valéry. ‘Death in Venice’. Jean-Luc Godard. Among others.

The final paragraph mentions how ‘we killed a great many in the south suddenly with helicopters and rockets but we found that those we killed were children’. It’s tempting to interpret (Vietcong? White Russians?), but to do so is to fail to interpret. The narrator is ordered to remove his belt and shoelaces, perhaps about to be tortured himself; his future, like this story, seems uncertain. The knockabout style deployed for what purports to be a war story is disturbing, and subverts the complacency that conventional narrative might invite.

This kind of fragmented collage narrative won’t appeal to some, and I can’t read too much of it in one go: it becomes a glut. ‘Strings of language extend in every direction to bind the world into a rushing, ribald whole’, says the narrator at one point; Miss R, on the other hand, prefers the horizontal (or it can be vertical) lists of ‘the litany’, and dislikes the increasingly ‘unpleasant combinations’ [of language? Dialectic?] favoured by the young as they ‘sense the nature of our society’; she insists

“I hold to the hard, brown, nutlike word.”

The story, then, could be seen as a postmodern metafiction about the making of stories with language. Or the importance of socially systematic…something: values? Youthful ideals? Of love and sex?

Whatever it might signify, and despite the wiful obscurity of this story, I like its exuberance and irreverent wit. Many of the sentences are prosometric, like Lautréamont. Barthelme as counter-culture poète maudit, perhaps.

 

 

Asides: Kenneth Koch, Serge Gainsbourg, Jane Birkin – trains and puns

NY Poets cover The New York Poets: An Anthology, edited by Mark Ford (Carcanet Press, 2004) includes a poem by Kenneth Koch (1925-2002) that drew my eye because of the connotations for me of its title. ‘One Train May Hide Another (sign at a railroad crossing in Kenya)’ begins:

In a poem, one line may hide another line,

As at a crossing, one train may hide another train.

That is, if you are waiting to cross

The tracks, wait to do it for one moment at

Least after the first train is gone. And so when you read

Wait until you have read the next line –

Then it is safe to go on reading.

In a family one sister may conceal another,

So, when you are courting, it’s best to have them all in view

Otherwise in coming to find one you may love another.

And so he goes on, shifting from this banal start to an increasingly surreal, meandering litany of concealments: one father, one wish, one dog, and so on. Read the text and hear Koch reading it here.

The connotations I mentioned? The song written by Serge Gainsbourg, ‘Un Amour peut en cacher un autre’, sung by Jane Birkin, his muse and former partner, released in 1990 on her studio album ‘Amour des Feintes’ – wonderful double entendres abound in his lyrics. There’s a link to this (rather over-produced) song on YouTube here. (Gainsbourg died in 1991 after a life of heavy smoking, drinking and general decadence and misbehaving.)

I first heard this song when I was on a 3-month work placement in France that year; a friend introduced me to the oeuvre of the joli laid Gainsbourg (he’s said to have invented that term), he of the languid, hooded toad eyes and omnipresent Gauloises. The lyrics are often cheesily punning, as here, where the title is presumably lifted from the ubiquitous train crossing warning signs that inspired Koch’s riff on the theme.

Here’s a section of the lyrics:

Un amour peut en cacher un autre

On est aveugle mais comment faire autr-

ement il faut payer le jour crash

C’est l’American Express ou le cash.

The mix of English and French is a recurring feature of the lyricist; Gainsbourg was a fan of American popular culture (hence his famous pop video of his song ‘Bonny and Clyde’, in which he sang with a sultry but strangely unconvincing Brigitte Bardot, another former partner of his; it’s so kitsch it’s almost good.) These lines sound better than any meaning implicit in them – especially as rendered in Birkin’s quavering, breathily untrained singing voice. The lyrics are full of Gainsbourg’s linguistic jouissance.

Birkin is in that long line of actors who ill-advisedly fancied themselves as singers (Bardot, Deneuve, Anna Karina etc.), but she usually pulls it off from a mixture of chic and je ne sais quoi.

Gainsbourg Gainsbourg loved to court controversy, as when, for example, he sang a duet with his 13-year-old daughter Charlotte on the dubiously suggestive ‘Lemon Incest’ (1984), accompanied by an even more dodgily erotic video. Neither of them can sing, and it’s a song so provocative that it makes the more infamous 1969 duet with Birkin ‘Je t’aime’ –banned by the BBC and condemned by the Pope – seem tame. It too showcases SG’s penchant for puns and wordplay (‘exquise esquisse’ – exquisite sketch — he croaks to the half-naked daughterl who shares his bed in the film).

Interestingly, Charlotte Gainsbourg, now something of a movie star, made her name in the Anglophone film world with the 1993 adaptation by her uncle Andrew Birkin of Ian McEwan’s first novel The Cement Garden. It deals, of course, with the theme of incest. The delight her roué father took in provoking outrage seems to have been inherited.

While I’d be the first to acknowledge that Gainsbourg is no Dylan or Jacques Brel, I can’t help finding something pleasing in his knowingly bad songs (‘Les Dessous Chics’ nudges and winks with winsome faux-naïveté) and his outré image (all these French chansons are influencing my vocabulary). He belongs to that tradition of moody chanteurs one associates with smoky cabarets and scandalous lives, but he mixed the image with a sort of pre-punk insouciant swagger. Such figures don’t seem to be around so much now. Maybe just as well…

 

 

 

Asides: Rabbit Angstrom’s incoherence in ‘Rabbit Redux’

In my previous post I looked at a paragraph near the beginning of John Updike’s 1971 novel, Rabbit Redux. In this, the second in a sporadic series of ‘Asides’ (ie not conventional book reviews) I want to take a look at another paragraph closely in order to explore how Updike’s narrative voice functions with such artistic power.

I’m returning to the same early section of the novel from which yesterday’s extract was taken: Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom’s marriage is faltering, his wife Janice has admitted to having an affair with a Greek car salesman called Charlie Stavros, so her insistence that they eat at a Greek restaurant in their home town of Brewer, Pennsylvania with their teenage son Nelson is another of the recurring knocks to his pride and self-esteem that Harry is assailed by throughout this quartet of novels.

In the restaurant Harry is determined to find something on the menu ‘enough like a hamburger’; his natural xenophobia is exacerbated by his incipient jealousy of Charlie. His unreflecting patriotism is one of several unendearing features of his character.

He touches the flowers in the vase on the red checked tablecloth: they’re real. ‘Janice was right. The place is nice.’ The free indirect style and present tense are trademark features of Updike’s technique; here, the words mirror Harry’s thoughts pretty exactly – monosyllabic, unsophisticated, indicative of his grudging approval.

There’s only one other couple dining:

Their faces have an edgy money look: their brows have that frontal clarity the shambling blurred poor can never duplicate. Though he can never now be one of them Harry likes their being here, in this restaurant so chaste it is chic. Maybe Brewer isn’t as dead on its feet as it seems. [p. 33, PMC edition]

The focalisation here is Harry’s, but the language shifts away from his untutored register into one more like the articulate, literate voice of Updike. ‘Edgy, money look’ is surely Harry (‘money’ for the standard ‘moneyed’ is his voice), but ‘frontal clarity’ is too abstract and polysyllabic to be in his lexicon, and the rest of that sentence is far too syntactically, aesthetically poised and complex for his limited range. ‘Chaste’ and ‘chic’ are way beyond Harry’s ken, but they illuminate for us the murky, muddled thoughts and impressions Harry is entertaining in a way he’d never be able to articulate with any such incisiveness or clarity.

Nevertheless these lines do reflect Harry’s grubby class envy and sense of inadequacy in the presence of people more wealthy or intelligent than he is (which is most people). Then the final sentence takes us right back into Harry’s sensibility: the clichéd ‘dead on its feet’ chimes with the rueful sentiment expressed: Harry feels he’s in a dead-end job (a linotype operator), in a dying marriage and a country that’s losing its way – situations with which he can personally identify.

In these few short lines, because of this subtly shifting narrative position, Updike is able both to show us Harry, as all the best writing courses recommend, as edgy and indecisive as his nickname implies, and as metaphysically challenged as the first syllable of his surname indicates. But Updike also provides an insight into Harry from this other, hovering perspective that he himself would be intellectually incapable of.

The narrator is rendering coherent what remains largely incoherent in Harry’s mediated thoughts. Updike doesn’t patronise Harry, however, in shifting the narrative voice about in this way. He is able to give us a perspective from which we can understand and sympathise with Harry’s habitual disappointment and bafflement as life conspires against him and his fundamental, flawed decency.

 

 

Asides: John Updike’s Rabbit

When I started this blog just over three years ago I intended posting a fairly eclectic mix of pieces, literary and otherwise. As time has passed, I find it’s turning into, for the most part, a book reviewing site, with occasional forays into other areas.

I’d like to revert to that slightly more varied approach, and start posting different kinds of piece, either unconsidered trifles that I’ve squirreled away in notebooks over the years, and which when I revisit them strike me as interesting, or snippets I come across that caught my attention. Maybe just a short passage from a book I’ve enjoyed, but don’t necessarily want to review as a whole.

I realise some visitors to this site might not want to read such stuff, so I shall flag these pieces with the generic prefix ‘Asides’ in the title, so you can ignore them if you came here looking for book reviews.

My Penguin Modern Classics editions

My Penguin Modern Classics editions

So here’s a note about a passage in John Updike’s second novel in his Rabbit tetralogy, Rabbit Redux, first published in 1970, and which I read 5 years ago (an old notebook informs me). It picks up Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom’s life ten years after the first in the sequence, Rabbit Run (he added each volume at roughly decade-long intervals).

In this book Harry is older, fatter, softer and has done with running. His marriage is faltering in the first volume, which ended with a domestic tragedy that stretched the marital situation to the limit; his wife Janice has now admitted she’s sleeping with a salesman at the Toyota franchise her father runs (Updike shows the zeitgeist brilliantly – here the looming demise of the American industrial-manufacturing machine; in the background are also the moon landings, civil rights, the Vietnam war) – a Greek man called Charlie Stavros. Harry is something of a bigot and a racist, so this doesn’t please him in several different ways.

He’s not an intellectual or a thinker, so when he does feel something, it tends to be visceral, conflicted. He’s not a particularly engaging protagonist, but there’s a humanity about him that’s rarely encountered in modern fiction in such a direct style, as I hope the following extract shows.

On his way to see a film he takes his teenage son to a Greek restaurant (Janice’s choice wasn’t too subtle). Here they’ve been discussing the film, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ – which Harry typically resents having to go to see [spoiler alert – plot revealed]:

Harry likes the sensation of frightening her, of offering to confront outright this faceless unknown he feels now in their lives, among them like a fourth member of the family. The baby that died? But though Janice’s grief was worse at first, though she bent under it like a reed he was afraid might break, in the long years since, he has become sole heir to the grief. Since he refused to get her pregnant again the murder and guilt have become all his. At first he tried to explain how it was, that sex with her had become too dark, too serious, too kindred to death, to trust anything that might come out of it. Then he stopped explaining and she seemed to forget: like a cat who sniffs around in corners mewing for the drowned kittens a day or two and then back to lapping milk and napping in the wash basket. Women and Nature forget. Just thinking of the baby, remembering how he had been told of her death over a pay phone in a drugstore, puts a kink in is chest, a kink he still associates, dimly, with God. [pp. 31-32, PMC edition]

Updike’s handling of the present tense and complex syntax seems effortless. And he risks taking on the biggest of themes: sex, death, gender, Nature – and God.

The technique is similar to the free indirect thought that has been a feature of prose fiction since Jane Austen: these words are largely focalised through Harry’s consciousness. But it’s more subtle than that. The extended cat simile has the naked nastiness that we’ve come to identify as Harry’s default response to anything upsetting. It’s misogynistic (reinforced by that brutally short, simple sentence about ‘women and Nature’ later) and cruel – but it rings true. Updike doesn’t take the easy option of making Harry ‘relatable’, as my teenage students would say.

He has the courage to make him all too human, as flawed as the next person. He’s consumed with self-pity, inarticulate rage, and an existential-spiritual bleakness that matches some of the bleakest moments in Beckett. Yet there’s a warmth and humour lurking near the surface all the time which somehow redeems these damaged, hurting people. They’re banal, baffled and transcendent in their abrasive contact with the exigencies of life. Harry is no everyman, but he’s not far off.

Next time I hope to look at another passage from this book.

Hope this diversion has been OK with readers. I’d be delighted to hear feedback in the comments – positive or not.

One shall break frost’s fetters: on Old English poetry

Many years ago a friend, who knew of my interest in medieval literature, gave me for Christmas a copy of Michael Alexander’s translation in Penguin Classics of The Earliest English Poets. I’d studied Old English (OE) as an undergraduate, and had worked on the OE version of the Life of St Mary of Egypt (about whom I’ve posted several times recently here) in my postgraduate career, so it was a pleasure to revisit these texts at that time when I was working in the Basque province of N. Spain. I happened to pick this volume from my shelf just now.

Front cover of the Alexander collection

Front cover of the Alexander collection (see below)

It’s divided into categories, including Heroic Poems (with an extract from ‘Beowulf’: The Fight at Finnsburg); Elegies (including ‘The Seafarer’, translated with notorious freedom and panache elsewhere by the inimitable Ezra Pound); Gnomic Verses – which tend to be maxims in the form of generalisations about the natural or human world, for example

Frost shall freeze

            fire eat wood

Earth shall breed

            ice shall bridge

One shall break

                                                                              frost’s fetters

 Some don’t fit into neat categories, like The Dream of the Rood – rood, of course, meaning cross (hence the presence in most medieval English churches of rood-screens, designed to conceal from the gaze of the vulgar congregation the holy secrets of the priest’s sacramental rites).

In his introduction Alexander points out the etymology of the OE word for poet: scop: it derives from the verb meaning ‘to shape, form, create, destine’, and to scieppand, ‘creator, shaper, God’. The scop would likely have been attached to the court of a noble lord, and like today’s poet laureates would have been called upon to compose works for special occasions, as well as to recite (or sing) well-known works about the heroes and events of the past.

The Scandinavian equivalent was the skald, and both types of poet may well have accompanied themselves on a lyre-like instrument (I did some bibliographical work for [the now late lamented] Professor John Stevens at one point on his book Words and Music in the Middle Ages – still in print at CUP – in which he discusses this more learnedly than I can; scholars still dispute the allegedly oral basis of most early medieval poetry). ‘Skald’ seems to have etymological roots in Germanic words denoting ‘song, ring, clang or resound’.

‘Scop’ also had derogatory denotations, ultimately becoming modern English ‘scoff’ (as in scornful),while ‘skald’ may have evolved into modern ‘scold’.

Welsh bards and Gaelic ollaves were the scops of the Celts.

The name scop is the equivalent of ‘poet’, derived in turn from the Greek verb ‘make’; in medieval Scots a poet was thus a ‘makar’. The Provençal and Catalan trobador (much loved by Pound, in his early work), Northern French trouvère and Italian trovatore take their names from another linguistic root meaning ‘finder’. Early medieval ‘found verse’, in fact.

‘Deor’ is one of the uncategorised poems in this collection of worthy rather than thrillingly Poundian translations; one of the few tags of OE poetry that’s stayed with me all these years since my first year of undergraduate study is the refrain from this lovely, haunting poem, translated here as

that went by; this may too

 referring to the catalogue of woes and disasters experienced by the eponymous exiled poet whose voice utters the poem’s words, and his unconvincingly stoical hope that things can only get better.

It’s more powerful in the alliterative original:

Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg

The first letter is a survivor of the old runic futhorc,

OE Futhorc, from a 9C MS

OE Futhorc, from a 9C MS (via Wikimedia Commons)

which would have been incised on horn or wood. There’s a weird OE rune poem about these characters not in this Alexander collection.

There’s a useful article about runes at Wikipedia, from which I’ve taken this image of the 7C Northumbrian Franks Casket, a whalebone and tin box now in the British Museum, and inscribed with OE runes

The Franks Casket

The Franks Casket

relating the story of Wayland Smith (cited in the first line of ‘Deor’; his name signifies ‘articifer’, originating in the belief that forged iron swords were said to possess magic powers; he’s the counterpart of the Roman Vulcan).

 

The front cover of this Penguin edition (included above) has a detail from this casket, depicting Wayland drinking out of the skull of one of the sons of the captor Nithhad, who had hamstrung him so that he would not escape; he did, killing the tyrant’s two sons and raping his daughter. They were a tough lot back then. The poet Deor takes comfort from this legendary miraculous escape from apparently hopeless circumstances, and goes on to relate several other misfortunes from the heroic tradition, all of which resulted in deliverance.

There’s hope for us all in a dreary world, is his message.

 

A Divorce Novel: Edith Wharton, The Children (1928)

‘The incurable simplicity of the corrupt’: Edith Wharton (1862-1937), The Children

Edith Wharton’s nineteenth novel The Children, published in 1928, is less impressive than the others by her that I’ve posted about here recently: The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence. It’s still interesting, and highly unusual in its central theme – the attraction an older man feels for a girl who at the time they meet is not yet fifteen.

Martin Boyne is a globe-trotting engineer who takes on projects in exotic places.
Wharton carefully presents him from the start as a ‘critical, cautious man… whom nobody could possibly associate with the romantic or the unexpected.’

This complacent timidity is about to be sorely tested when a troupe of seven children with their nanny boards his ship and he first sees the eldest child, Judith, who acts as surrogate mother to her siblings and ‘steps’, as the offspring of her feckless parents’ numerous other marriages and acquired stepchildren are known.

“Jove – if a fellow was younger!”
Men of forty-six do not gasp as frequently at the sight of a charming face as they did at twenty; but when the sight strikes them it hits harder…it rather disturbed [Boyne] to be put off his quest by anything so out of his present way as excessive youth and a rather pathetic grace.

My Virago Modern Classics edition

My Virago Modern Classics edition

Wharton is often unfavourably compared to her friend and mentor, Henry James, and at times she did indeed imitate his sophisticated psychological probings of his characters’ subtly described thoughts and actions, and he too was to explore the girl-woman type in a corrupt adult world in stories like ‘What Maisie Knew’. As the above extract shows, however, she writes here in a plain, even colloquial style, and makes little attempt to explore her male protagonist’s musings; they are simply presented to us as free indirect discourse, with no narrative comment. Neither does she enter into Judith’s mind: we’re simply told frequently how ‘charming’ she is, and are given her animated, precocious but often immature dialogue.

This sets up the central feature of the novel: Boyne’s vacillating motives and impulses are largely a mystery even to himself, and it is this that gives the novel its most compelling aspect.

Boyne quickly learns that these are the children of Cliffe Wheater and his wife, whom he remembers as ‘rather aimlessly abundant’ – an apt description, we later learn – both of whom he had known at Harvard and subsequently in ‘the old social dance of New York’. Wheater had since become ‘one of the showiest of New York millionaires’ whose only interests since his marriage had been in ‘Ritz Hotels and powerful motor-cars’ – and a ‘steam-yacht’.

It’s the depiction of this egregiously selfish, idle and shallow rich set that’s another of the most interesting and successful features of this uneven novel. They pass their time trying to stave off boredom by following each other from one fashionable Mediterranean watering hole to another, indulging in ‘wasteful luxury’ on the quest for pleasure, while flirting, divorcing and sleeping with each other and neglecting their children. This is very much a Divorce Novel, dealing with ‘the compromises and promiscuities of modern life.’

Their children are allowed to run wild, largely untutored. Judith, we learn, is barely literate, and one of her closest friends had killed herself while her drug-addled mother and Judith’s were ‘heaven knows where’.

Boyne is shocked to learn, early on, that one of the Wheater children, Blanca, had been engaged ‘to the lift-boy at Biarritz’ when at the time of meeting her she’s ‘barely eleven’. Judith blithely points out that she’d been engaged to ‘a page at a skating-rink’ at about the same age. The guidance that their corrupt parents should have provided is non-existent, and they have become superficially sophisticated, but profoundly morally adrift – like their parents.

Not surprisingly the Wheater children and their antics dominate the novel. The trouble is I didn’t find them at all amusing or charming. There is some distasteful national stereotyping about the two who have an Italian parent – they are lazily presented therefore as volatile and passionate (‘”don’t be foreign”’, their nurse admonishes one of them at one point – I don’t find this as funny as Wharton seems to expect me to). The ones with circus-performer parents are forever engaging in acrobatics. They are consistently depicted with just their one identifying characteristic. Blanca is obsessed with ‘chic’ couture dresses; her twin, Terry, is studious and sickly. Zinnie, whose mother is a glamorous movie-star, is vain, sly and selfish.

Their dialogue is set out with toe-curling whimsy: the first example of many occurs when Martin offers the children oranges as an incentive to visit a cultural site and this exchange ensues:

“An’masses of zoranges?” Zinnie stipulated, with a calculating air…and Bun…turn[ed] handsprings on the deck, [and] shrieked out: “Noranges! Noranges! NORANGES!”

Although like Martin we feel sympathy for their plight, left to fend for themselves as their fickle and crassly materialistic parents pursue their hedonistic and amorous adventures – they are aptly called ‘hotel children’ – their histrionic antics become tediously repetitive, their attitude importunate, manipulative and greedy, as cartoonish as their parents’ .

The plot is driven by Judith’s fierce maternal devotion to her little brood, and her passionate attempts to keep them together, while their various parents change partners and threaten to take back the offspring who originally belonged to them.

When Judith and her wild bunch of siblings burst into Boyne’s tranquil, adult world, he loses all sense of decorum and judgement, and takes on the role of guardian, apparently unaware of the probable true motive for his doing so: his sexual desire for adolescent Judith. Here he is as early as p. 35, when his attempt to cultivate in her a love of art and culture by visiting an Italian cathedral has ended in failure – she’s both bored and bemused by it:

…he was disappointed, for he was already busy at the masculine task of endowing the woman of the moment with every quality which made life interesting to himself.

“Woman – but she’s not a woman! She’s a child.” His thinking of her as anything else was the crowning absurdity of the whole business.

Here Wharton’s narrator offers a rare incisive comment on Boyne’s moral confusion, though even here it can be seen as his own self-castigating thoughts.

Even Rose points out to him that he’s in love with Judith, but he refuses to entertain the possibility. The portrayal of this pretty but vacuous girl is troubling: she’s too naïve and ingenuous to convince us that Boyne is attracted to her mind; she’s innocently childish and ignorant, despite her premature exposure to corrupt, amoral adult behaviour and decadence. Neither is she a Gigi type who will blossom under his tutelage. She has a certain impulsive charm, but Boyne’s real motive is clouded in his own mind.

One of the most peculiar scenes, which arouses in me a certain disquiet, is the one in which Judith turns to Boyne in a crisis and he plies her with two cocktails and a cigarette, and then realises this may have been ill-advised. What was he thinking?

Even worse is when Rose’s 60-year-old lawyer visits and Boyne watches him watching Judith as she sleeps during a country picnic, projecting his own desire jealously on to the slightly older man. The narrative as usual gives us his thoughts, which begin with his reflection that the girl ‘looks almost grown up – she looks kissable’. Then he turns his gaze on lawyer Dobree, the other man:

…it was manifest that Dobree’s thoughts were racing; and Boyne knew they were the same thoughts as his own. The discovery shocked him indescribably.

This duplicity is compounded when, that evening, Boyne tells Rose his suspicions:

“Dobree looks at her like a dog licking his jaws over a bone.”
“Martin — !”
“Sorry. I never could stand your elderly men who look at little girls.”

After this adolescent outburst Boyne goes on to ask sarcastically why Dobree doesn’t ask Judith to marry him if he’s so ‘dotty’ about the girl. He’s dumbfounded when Rose tells him Dobree has just proposed to her. The ‘tumult of his own veins’ turns to confusion at this announcement, and he laughs:

[but] his laugh had simply mocked his own power of self-deception, and uttered his relief at finding himself so deceived.

Rose goes on to tell him that Dobree said to her that he thought Boyne was in love with Judith; Boyne is furious:

“Shows what kind of a mind he must have. Thinking that way about a child – a mere child – and about any man, and decent man…as if I might take advantage of my opportunities to – to fall in love with a child in the schoolroom!”

Even Boyne at this point realises he’s protesting too much, as that little hesitation so tellingly indicates, and he sinks into a chair, ‘hot, angry, ashamed’.

Although the hedonistic selfishness of the parents’ circle is portrayed with venomous narrative power, none of the characters is rounded or fully convincing – they are types, not individuals. Only Boyne, who focalises the story throughout, comes across with any kind of complexity. But ultimately his self-evasions, emotional timidity and sexual murkiness are more annoying than sympathy-evoking.

That this worldly, middle-aged man should ditch a sophisticated and beautiful woman his own age, with whom we are often told he’s been in love most of his adult life, in favour of a callow child with a mildly pretty face and no depth of character, is a situation that’s presented with inconsistent success, as I hope my quotations reveal. Judith is no Maisie.

There is some excellent writing, however, and the novel is worth reading. For example when Judith escapes with her brood in search of Boyne’s protection, he and Rose are incredulous at the circumstances the girl describes that led her to adopt such an extreme course; she sums these up with the precocious perception of which she’s capable when examining the amorality of her parents’ circle:

“If children don’t look after each other, who’s going to do it for them? You can’t expect parents to, when they don’t know how to look after themselves.”

There’s poignancy in this child’s premature wisdom, expressed with such heartbreaking lucidity.

I’ll finish with one passage that is worthy of the earlier, more satisfying novels of Wharton’s that I’ve read. Here is Boyne about to meet Rose in the flesh after the interval of five years during which he’d travelled and worked, and she’d been widowed:

He could never think of her [Rose] as having been really young, immaturely young, like this girl about whom they were exchanging humorous letters, and who, in certain other ways, had a precocity of experience so far beyond Mrs. Sellars’s. But the question of a woman’s age was almost always beside the point. When a man loved a woman she was always the age he wanted her to be; when he had ceased to, she was either too old for witchery or too young for technique.

That aphorism with its symmetrically patterned syntax is a rare moment of an omniscient, observing narrative voice commenting with almost Wildean wit on Boyne’s psycho-sexual ambivalence, and it shrewdly shows him as both clever and perceptive while blind to his own defects of character: he goes on to admit to ‘a faint return of the apprehension he always felt when he thought of his next meeting with Mrs. Sellars.’ Maybe he was never really going to commit to her, and the dalliance with pert, pretty little Judith was more of an excuse to run away, and to resume his melancholy, solitary existence far away from messy human entanglements.

These are my thoughts. I’d be interested to hear if any of you had a different reaction.

Others to write about this novel include heavenali here, and Tom’s blog Wuthering Expectations discusses Wharton’s short stories in several perceptive posts here.

At the colonial Conrad hotel

I had the desperately sad news this morning that one of my oldest friends had died after a brief illness. I’d known him for over 40 years. In memory of Mike I’m reworking an earlier piece from this blog, based on a journal entry from 28 Dec, 2010, written shortly after one of our regular meetings in a soulless hotel bar in a town between our two homes, his in Cheltenham, mine in Cornwall. This time I remove the invented nonsense about the parrot, ‘L’Amant Vert’, and tell what really happened. I hope it doesn’t offend anyone who knew him – it just made me smile fondly when I remembered the incident. If you did know him, you’ll recognise I hope that strange blend in him of intensely intelligent other-worldliness and ingenuous innocence. He was my great friend.

We were our usual meeting place – the hotel bar. Mike used to call it the Conrad hotel, a typically literary allusion to its pretensions to colonial grandeur, while it failed to overcome its obvious mediocrity.

It was nearly Christmas.  A noisy group of men in suits were eating food from a buffet table at one end of the bar, drinking beer and bragging competitively.

They didn’t look like businessmen – they had the air of manual labourers, uncomfortable in smart-casual clothes.

Mike and I sat at a table at the less raucous end of the lounge. The chairs were faux-leather, intended to look impressive.  A flat-screen tv on the wall near our table was tuned to Sky news but with the sound muted.  Disasters scrolled in an endless loop across the foot of the screen.  We drank our beers.

The news of the Jo Yeates murder in Clifton appears on the screen. Mike says he knows Canynge Road, where it happened – was directed there by the accommodation office at Bristol University when he arrived there all those years previously. It probably wasn’t Jo’s house, he says, but one very like it. Regency or early Victorian.

‘There were some weird landlords in Clifton then,’ he says. ‘When he answered the door, I told the landlord I was a graduate student who’d come for the rented room. “You won’t fit in here,” the man said, and closed the door.’

It occurs to me that in those days Mike had long hair and an alarming beard.

On screen appears an image of the 65-year-old landlord who’d just been arrested on suspicion of Jo’s murder.

‘See,’ says Mike, ‘he looks weird. Why do they make a point of saying he was an English teacher at Clifton College?’ We were both English Lit graduates, and subsequently teachers of English.

I point out with a smile that this landlord actually looks very like Mike. This disturbs him, and we move on to the more congenial topic of football.

I shall miss him.

 

Pessoa, Tabucchi and Swift

I recently spent a few days in Lisbon, and felt completely at home in this charming city, with its steep hills accessed via picturesque, antiquated funiculars and creaky yellow trams.

Pessoa PMC cover When back in Cornwall I thought I’d read some Lisbon-set literature, so turned to my two copies (duplicated by mistake some time ago) of Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet: the PMC paperback, with its striking monochrome cover photo, edited and translated by Richard Zenith, and one from Serpent’s Tail, translated by Margaret Jull Costa.

Unfortunately I started to flag after a few dozen pages, and gave up less than halfway through. It’s interesting, but an unremittingly bleak accumulation of short, fragmentary passages, rather like a depressive diary, about the sad, lonely life of a clerk in Lisbon in the period 1910 to the 1930s (the narrator is one of Pessoa’s ‘heteronyms’: Bernardo Soares, also a menial clerk in the Baixa commercial district of Lisbon). The MS was found in the form of hundreds of sheets of paper in a trunk in Pessoa’s apartment after his death at the age of 47; most of it was unpublished in his disappointed lifetime. The two versions I dipped into differed considerably in length and content; any edition represents the best guesses of the editor as to how to sequence and present the randomly stashed fragments in the trunk. The PMC edition was double the length of the other, including excellent notes and appendixes – and hence contains twice the quantity of unhappy Soares’s musings on the futility of (his) existence. Not an uplifting read, though there are moments of lyric grace. Here are some samples from early in the Serpent’s Tail edition:

The Serpent's Tail edition

The Serpent’s Tail edition

I reject life because it is a prison sentence, I reject dreams as being a vulgar form of escape. [entry 17]

 

By day I am nothing, by night I am myself. [23]

 

Through these deliberately unconnected impressions I am the indifferent narrator of my autobiography without events, of my history without a life. These are my Confessions and if I say nothing in them it’s because I have nothing to say. [25]

 

Both objectively and subjectively speaking, I’m sick of myself. I’m sick of everything, and of everything about everything. [33]

So I turned to two other novels: Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday (which has nothing to do with Lisbon) and Antonio Tabucchi’s Pereira Maintains.

Cover of my Scribner's hardback copy of Mothering Sunday

Cover of my Scribner’s hardback copy of Mothering Sunday

 I bought the Swift after reading several positive reviews: it didn’t disappoint. The first half of this short novel – it’s only 132 pages long — is one of the most erotic passages I’ve read in a work of fiction, but it’s beautiful, not pornographic; the scene in which Jane watches her lover dress while she lies naked on his bed is breathtaking. Like William Boyd in some of his recent novels, Swift has a female narrator, and really convinces with the voice he constructs, and the experiences she relates.

From the outset we know that the young housemaid, a foundling given the name Jane Fairchild by the orphanage in which she grew up, in service in a 1920s country estate, will have to learn to survive her passionate affair with this young heir of a neighbouring estate: he’s about to marry an heiress, so this passionate liaison with Jane is doomed. But all is narrated from the perspective of the Jane’s recalling these events from the end of her very long life years later, after she’s become a best-selling novelist.

The second part of the novel I found less satisfying. Maybe fiction is better when dealing with adversity.

Caspar ignores Tabucchi, considering it perhaps a little highbrow

Caspar ignores Tabucchi, considering it perhaps a little highbrow

Tabucchi was an Italian academic who taught Portuguese studies; Pereira Maintains is the story (again a long novella or short novel) of an overweight Lisbon journalist who writes the culture pages for a second-rate Lisbon paper in 1938 under the fascist regime of Salazar. He’s still grieving for his wife, who died some time earlier – he talks to her photograph more than he does any living person, spending his time alone in his flat or eating endless omelettes and drinking sugary lemonade in his favourite restaurant. In temperament he resembles Pessoa’s existentially anguished Soares.

Into his life comes a radical leftist who writes obituaries of notable radical-artistic figures, which Pereira pays for but consigns to the bin: he’s too timorous to risk printing them in this era of oppression and state censorship. Gradually he comes to learn the importance of commitment and action; being a passive critic of a corrupt and brutal system isn’t enough.

It’s a slow-burning narrative written in a curiously deadpan, detached style. In effect it’s a transcript or testimonial, presumably conveyed by a court reporter who relates dispassionately what Pereira ‘maintains’. The refrain of the title, repeated at the end of every chapter, and frequently within each one, became intrusive and even tiresome, for me.

Pereira Maintains is perhaps more of a curiosity than a modern classic, but the final few chapters build to an intriguing and exciting climax, as we are left unsure which which course of action (or inaction) Pereira will choose as the vicious political system, in which he has lived with placid submissiveness for so long, breaks violently into his complacent world.

I can’t quote from the text because the copy I read was borrowed from a work colleague who’d bought it in a Lisbon bookshop while visiting the city, coincidentally, at the same time as me. I hadn’t known she was going there. I read the book in a few days and returned it to its owner. My picture shows a visiting friend’s natty little schnauzer, Caspar, snoozing on my bed as I took a break from reading.

 

 

April and May in the Très Riches Heures

The Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry is one of the most important and beautiful illuminated manuscripts of the 15th century. It is done in the International Gothic style. It is a Book of Hours – prayers, psalms and other texts, usually commissioned by wealthy patrons, as here. Horae, as they were called in Latin, represented abbreviated forms of the Breviary, which contained the texts for Divine Office as celebrated in monastic communities. They were developed to enable lay people to introduce a monastic discipline and element into their private devotions.

It contains 206 folios, of which about half are richly illuminated, with expensive pigments and lavish gold leaf. It was painted between 1412 and 1416 by the three Limbourg brothers, originally from Nijmegen in Holland, for their patron Jean, Duc de Berry. They left it unfinished at their (and the Duc’s) death in 1416. Charles I, Duc de Savoie, commissioned another artist to finish the paintings between 1485-1489. It is now MS 65 in the Musée Condé, Chantilly, France.

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda

The most famous illuminations are probably those which represent the months in the Calendar, often containing images of the agricultural-rural labours associated with each month, as well as the nobility enjoying leisure pursuits in expensively commissioned examples like Berry’s. A calendar was usually incorporated at the start of the book of hours as a guide to the church feasts and saints’ days, so it was not specific to any year; its purpose was to remind the owner which saint or festival to celebrate on that date. Mary of Egypt, for example, about whom I’ve posted recently, is usually commemorated on April 2.

Above each month’s illumination is a hemisphere depicting the heavens, traversed by Phoebus’s solar chariot, with the signs of the zodiac.

As today is the last day of April I’ve begun (above) with the illumination for this month. As in many of these images, noble lords and ladies are seen with one of his castles in the background – in this one it’s the château Dourdan, or possibly Pierrefonds – and a walled garden, boats on a pond, and serried rows of trees. Other months depict peasants engaged in seasonal labours.

The subjects’ headgear is particularly elaborate, and the fabrics of the cloaks and gowns is sumptuous. To the right what appears to be two attendant women (at any rate they are more simply dressed) stoop to pick wild flowers – a traditional April pastime, and symbolic of the season of hope (not the cruellest month, as Eliot would have it).

The central figures are intriguing: the man in the elegant blue robe (the Duke himself? He’s depicted in other illuminations) seems to be exchanging rings with the young lady on the right (perhaps his second wife, Jeanne de Boulogne, who was much younger than him), while another couple witness the scene. Behind them a fifth figure lurks, apparently a young boy. Or is this just a typical scene of betrothal, again representing hope, rebirth and continuity?
Berry May 2 The illumination for May depicts courtiers on horseback, many of them wearing the green garments associated with this pageant, entering (or possibly leaving) the forest in a traditional Mayday cavalcade, wearing foliage to decorate their headgear or as garlands. They are preceded by trumpeters. In the background is probably the Hôtel de Nesle, the Duke’s Paris residence. Small dogs gambol in the foreground.

As I write this my friend Mary’s little dog snoozes on the couch beside my desk, grunting and sighing occasionally with sleepy satisfaction. The sun shines amiably outside, and these two beautiful medieval paintings seemed an appropriate way for me to round off April’s posts and usher in those for May.

More literary material will follow soon. I hope you all have a peaceful, healthy month of May, and experience the hope and vitality so wonderfully depicted in these images.

All images are in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.