Combinational delight: Nabokov, Pale Fire

I’ve tried to write this post several times. How to even begin to discuss a text as dense and as teasing, as multifaceted and astonishing, as Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, first published in the US in 1962.

Scholars have been poring over this chess puzzle of a text since it was published; I’ll put some links at the end for those who’d like a more profound and challenging account. Much of what’s been published, and I’ve just scratched the surface of a daunting amount of scholarly interpretation and comment, involves exactly who on earth is the ‘only begetter’ of this…novel.

I hesitate to use that word because Pale Fire refuses to conform to most definitions of novel, from Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary: ‘A small tale, generally of love’ – when the novel was still closer to what tended to be called later Romance – to the OED online:

..A long fictional prose narrative, usually filling one or more volumes and typically representing character and action with some degree of realism and complexity; a book containing such a narrative….

After a Foreword by an American university scholar called Charles Kinbote, in which he explains that his neighbour and alleged ‘very dear friend’, the poet John Shade, was killed on July 21, 1959, just one line short of completing his magnum opus, a 999-line poem in rhyming couplets (he calls them ‘heroic’, but they are too ‘open’ in structure to fit this term, beloved of the Augustans; and Shade shows a heavy debt to Pope in the poem, as Kinbote does in his commentary). It was completed, Kinbote claims, in the last 20 days of Shade’s life.

Already my problem in trying to give an idea of this Russian doll of a novel appears: how to describe it coherently, when it defies coherence itself.

Nabokov Pale Fire cover

My Penguin paperback edition

The poem itself follows the Foreword. Its four cantos consist mostly of autobiographical details about Shade, his wife Sybil, and their daughter Hazel, who apparently killed herself at a young age, after experiencing ‘psychokinetic manifestations’ and some kind of mental collapse. There follows a long section in which he questions the notions of existence and ‘le grand néant’.

The largest portion of the text consists of Kinbote’s supposed ‘commentary’ on the poem. He’s stolen the MS (record cards, like the ones Nabokov himself composed on) of the poem and hidden himself away in an obscure American hotel to edit it. It rapidly becomes apparent that this is no ordinary scholarly exegesis or approach – despite his disingenuous claim that these notes ‘will certainly satisfy the most voracious reader’.

Kinbote reveals himself to be increasingly deranged and pompous. If there is a narrative, it’s in this slow self-revelation: he deludes himself that Shade had become an intimate friend, and that he, Kinbote, had told him in the months before he died that he was actually the exiled King Charles the Beloved of his native northern country, Zembla – he’d been arrested by the Shadows, who resemble the secret police of the Soviet regime that Zembla closely resembles. Kinbote insists, however, that its resemblance to any such place is illusory; it’s very name, he explains unconvincingly, means ‘semblance’ (his claim that his name is Zemblan for ‘regicide’ is equally duplicitous). He and his country are shape-shifters. He even uses the word ‘versipel’, which can mean ‘werewolf’ – a creature of dual nature. The commentary lingers on such wordplay, puns, and relishes its own obscure vocabulary and elegantly sinuous but ostentatious prose style.

Kinbote boasts that Shade was intrigued by his stories of his royal exploits in Zembla, and isn’t daunted by the complete absence of any reference to Zemblan material in the poem; instead he sets about a ludicrous, often hilariously outlandish hermeneutically distorted set of pseudo-scholarly notes in which he interprets extracts from the poem as a coded version of his own Zemblan story.

Either that or he just digresses into long rambling reminiscences, full of non sequiturs and dead ends, of his own putative life as King, including his bizarre escape from captivity and arrival in the US. Or riffs on waxwings, cicadas and butterflies, in the register of TS Eliot (sometimes echoing Conan Doyle), Pope, Shakespeare (the poem and novel’s title may come from Timon of Athens, but Kinbote dodges accuracy by claiming not to have any books with him to verify his literary claims). He’s almost pathologically hostile to his fellow scholars, who find him ‘disagreeable’ and ‘insane’ (with reason!), and who he denounces as frauds and fools who envy his intimacy with the great poet and his superior intellect; only he perceives the truth.

To try to give any fuller a picture would require a post almost as long as the novel.

The poem famously begins with one of nature’s ‘pranks’:

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain

By the false azure in the window pane…

The bird had died by flying into a reflection of the world in the poet’s window-glass. The text is full of such ludic language (‘shadow’/Shade; ‘pane’/pain; strictly speaking the bird has ‘slain’ itself unwittingly – the suicide theme is established obliquely at the outset), doublings, deceptions, mirrors and false notions – like Kinbote’s deluded gloss on the poem.

Instead of being Boswell to Shade’s Johnson (the Epigraph is taken from Boswell’s Life of the great man; but who is supposed to have inserted the Epigraph?!), Kinbote reveals himself to be a slightly modified, super-vain version of a Shandean (ie interpreter of Sterne’s vast comic shaggy-dog story), calling himself a ‘Shadean’.

All the reader can do is try to make sense of things, knowing that with Kinbote as guide, claiming as he obfuscates that he’s ‘clearing things up’ authoritatively, we’re unlikely to succeed. That’s where I went wrong at first; once I’d relaxed into glorious failure, the novel took off and took me where it liked.

It was exhilarating and not a little scary. It’s about authors’ lack of…authority. A postmodern labyrinth of paratexts or hypertextual cross-references and metafictional asides, word games, parody, and looping paradoxes, offering impossible solutions to imaginary questions, prolix and dazzlingly allusive. Even the foreword advises how to read the text (preferably using two juxtaposed copies) – in a non-linear, reflexive manner similar to the way today we read e-texts full of hyperlinks. As Shade concludes, near the end of the poem, he understands his existence, or part of it,

…through my art,

In terms of combinational delight.

And as Kinbote teasingly boasts at one point in his faux commentary: ‘for better or worse, it is the commentator who has the last word.’

It’s cerebral and very funny.

As I was about to start this post I came across this by Anthony at his brilliant blog, Times Flow Stemmed: thesis 20 (of 33) published today to mark his blog’s tenth anniversary:

20: Difficulty in fiction is normally pleasurable

Very apt for a reader of Pale Fire. See Frank Kermode on St Mark’s gospel in The Genesis of Secrecy, and Jesus’ disturbingly opaque explanation of why he spoke in parables.

Here are those links to some of the academic studies of the novel:

Brian Boyd on his theory that Kinbote is really another scholar named in passing in the novel, Botkin:

Zembla website has many more such links.

 

 

A martyr and a ruler: Ivy Compton-Burnett, A House and its Head

Ivy Compton-Burnett, A House and its Head (1935)

Ivy Compton-Burnett has possibly the most idiosyncratic and instantly recognisable literary method and prose style of any modern writer. I’ve written about her technique extensively in my previous two posts about her:

The Present and the Past – several posts

A Family and a Fortune

In A House and Its Head she sticks to the formula that works so well for her: a forensic portrayal of a deeply dysfunctional upper middle-class family – the Edgeworths – living in a large country house in the 1880s. The villagers with whom they come into contact are mostly hypocritical, outwardly pious, virtuous types in the vein of Dickens’s ‘telescopic philanthropist’, Mrs Jellyby, or just malicious gossips.

Ivy Compton-Burnett, A House and its Head - coverDuncan Edgeworth is the most interesting character in a novel full of them. He’s a monster – straight out of her usual pool of Jacobean revenge-tragedy nasties. “He behaved like a god,” one of his daughters says at one point, part in awe, part rancorously. “He is always a martyr and a ruler,” is another description of him near the end.

In the opening chapter he starts in a minor way to show his tyrannical, oppressive control of his family: of his downtrodden wife Ellen, two spirited daughters who rebel as far as they dare, but ultimately succumb to his bullying, and of his more courageous and rebellious nephew, Grant, who for a while looks like he’ll be the one to refuse to be constrained by Duncan, but turns out to be just a self-serving, shallow hedonist.

First, he berates innocent, timorous Ellen for the tardiness in coming down to breakfast of the younger generation – as if it’s her fault. When they finally appear, his sarcasm is vicious. It’s Christmas day, and they open their presents. Grant’s is a book ‘inimical to the faith of the day’ that Duncan disapproves of: ‘on every page there is poison’. Presumably it’s Darwin. Duncan places it on the fire to burn. When elder daughter Nance mildly objects (‘Oh, Father, really!’), this is his characteristically venomous response:

“Really? Yes, really, Nance. I shall really do my best to guide you – to force you, if it must be, into the way you must go. I would not face the consequences of doing otherwise.”

“Would not the consequences be more widely distributed?”

“I shall really do what I can to achieve it,” went on Duncan, as if he had not heard, “and I trust it will not be impossible. I do not do it in my own strength.”

His coercive control here is revealed as a combination of patriarchal laying down of the law (i.e. his), personal attack on what he sees as heinous moral turpitude in those around him, and ridiculing of the linguistic-semantic shortcomings, as he pedantically represents them, of his victims’ attempts verbally to resist his strictures and oppressive behaviour.

As always, it’s the brilliantly contrived dialogue that’s the main vehicle for ICB’s mordant, witty take on the corrosive nature of this privileged, borderline deranged cast of characters. She makes little attempt at the usual novelistic technique of presenting what’s meant to be naturalistic dialogue (it never is, even in writers noted for their “realistic” dialogue; it’s always a literary contrivance), and this heightens the sense of artificiality, pomposity and egotism in the characters who deliver the dialogue.

Here’s Duncan still being cruel to Nance near the end of the novel, when her friend Cassie has called to announce the death of her mother:

“Nance, here is Cassie, out of sorts and out of heart. So listen to her, and let her talk herself out. She hasn’t come to you, for you to be of no good to her. See you are of some use as a woman, as you can be of none as anything else.”

So accustomed (and cowed) are the others in his house to this kind of casual unpleasantness that his comment receives no response.

The plot enables ICB to show the nastiness and defects in her characters in full flow: there are many deaths, an infanticide, incest and adultery – plenty for the salacious gossips in the village to indulge in. See what I mean about Jacobean tragedy? Oh, and there’s an insulting marriage proposal that Trollope would have been proud of (“you and I would be a charming couple”, the young woman is told by her would-be husband, whereas if he married her sister, who had just turned him down, they would have made “such an awkward pair”. How could anyone resist this charmer?)

It’s never easy to read a Compton-Burnett novel: the style is arch and dense, and it’s necessary for the reader to keep alert as multiple characters converse with minimal identification of who says what. But she’s well worth the effort.

Scott at his Minor Moderns blog wrote a perceptive, more detailed account of this novel (I liked his summary of it as a modernist Gothic comedy), with a useful biographical portrait of the author.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sally Rooney, Normal People

Sally Rooney Normal People. Faber and Faber hardback, 2018

This is going to be controversial.

Two young people are finding their feet in post-crash Ireland as they leave sixth form for university and beyond. Published when she was just 27, Sally Rooney’s second novel Normal People has had a sensational success. Costa Winner, Waterstones book of the something – year? Month? I know when I bought a copy for Mrs TD they had it stacked high everywhere, and the staff at checkout were all wearing Normal People badges. At first I thought it was an off-colour statement about their view of their customers.

When she’d finished it Mrs TD insisted I read it to compare notes. I’m afraid I was less enthusiastic than she was, and certainly less than most of the gushing reviews in the media.

Sally Rooney Normal People coverIt’s been hailed as a zeitgeist novel, capturing the ‘collective precariousness’ (Guardian) of our times – not just personal but economic and political. I can’t say that’s what I took from the novel. And Rooney is said to have got into the heads of her two love-lorn protagonists, Connell and Marianne as they learn to come to terms with their sexual and emotional hangups.

That same Guardian piece by Sian Cain added the rider that these two are ‘over-educated, neurotic, and slightly too self-aware’ – Connell sees himself early on as politically astute and feels poised to engage in intelligent, sophisticated discussions about the Greek crisis at smart dinner parties when he leaves home. But, Cain concludes, Rooney avoids the pitfalls of ‘hysterical realism’ by showing, for example, how sincerely engrossed Connell becomes in his reading of Jane Austen. She insists we’re less concerned with the overblown context and focus on whether these two insecure adolescents will manage to find happiness together as they do their damnedest to break up.

I never became that invested in their fate, I’m afraid. I found them rather irritating – a sort of Roddy Doyle version of The Inbetweeners (both of which, I think, do what they do in a less ambitious way, but more successfully). Maybe because I taught that age group for so long. It was like reading an account of a normal day at work.

The dialogue is brilliantly handled, as others have said – but to what end? Sure, this is a sensitive and deftly done examination of maturing sensibilities, learning to realise that love is complicated and often painful, and sex is more than recreation.

There’s a lot of graphic sex, angst and teen slang and syntax – Yeah, he says. No – is one of Connell’s habitual contradictory responses to questions (Rooney dispenses with punctuation of direct speech, for some reason). I suppose he’s so shy and messed up he can’t commit to even the simplest of prompts, let alone negotiate owning up to his laddish mates that he’s having sex with a girl thought to be a weirdo, and who harbours masochistic tendencies as a consequence of her abusive upbringing.

I know this response sounds a bit harsh, and I did find the emerging horrors of the cruel treatment Marianne endured from childhood at the hands of her brutal father and brother almost unbearably moving. Normal People does give an unusually frank and (so far as I can tell) honest and accurate portrayal of young love’s traumas, mistakes and betrayals.

But I still prefer Jane Austen’s approach in Emma.

Penelope Lively, Moon Tiger

Penelope Lively, Moon Tiger. Penguin paperback. First published 1987

An old lady – Claudia – lies dying in a hospital bed, appearing out of it most of the time, but we are privy in this novel’s first-person sections in a multi-voiced narrative to her still functioning, brilliant mind as it savours memories.

‘“Was she someone?” enquires the nurse’, who patronises her and fails to acknowledge the humanity and intelligence of this impetuous, spirited woman: to the nurse she’s just a delirious, rather querulous and troublesome patient, who needs placating and humouring.

But the doctor, reading her notes, confirms what Claudia’s thoughts had alerted us to a few lines earlier: ‘”Yes, she does seem to have been someone’ – and he recites her history as recorded there:

…”evidently she’s written books and newspaper articles and … um…been in the Middle East at one time…typhoid, malaria…unmarried (one miscarriage, one child, but he does not say)…” [ellipses in the original text]

Penelope Lively Moon Tiger coverMoon Tiger, Penelope Lively’s tenth novel, won the 1987 Booker Prize, and it’s easy to see why: it’s a moving account of Claudia’s tempestuous, richly textured life in the context of the history of the world in which she lived. That terse list of her achievements – of the scars life left on her and the legacy she left – is brought dramatically to life in this novel. Claudia lives on in the reader’s memory long after finishing it – a difficult, prickly, assertive woman who scared many who knew her with her uncompromising confidence and glamorous good looks: ‘sometimes she squashes people,’ is one comment about her from someone who loved her.

The novel opens with Claudia saying that she’s writing a history of the world, ‘And, in the process, my own’:

fact and fiction, myth and evidence, images and documents.

The raw material of the historian and journalist that she had been. In writing this personal and universal history in her head, however, she is attempting to make ‘real history’, her story. ‘Everything and nothing’ is her method, a refrain that recurs throughout the narrative.

Coming to this novel after WG Sebald’s The Emigrants was illuminating. Like Sebald, she’s concerned not just with events, evidence, data, but with something more profound and important, more elusive.

She recalls a trip with Gordon, the dying brother with whom she had an intense, even sexual, love-hate relationship. As usual he has challenged her, deprecating her kind of history writing. She vehemently refutes his suggestion that she disdains theory, preferring to write popular histories that appeal to less discerning readers, about ‘action’ and the big names: Tito, Napoleon –

“That’s not real history. History is grey stuff. Products. Systems of government. Climates of opinion. It moves slowly. That’s why you get impatient with it. You look for spectacle…[and this] may mislead. What’s really happening may be going on elsewhere.”

“Oh, come on,” cries Claudia. “You’d tell the prisoner on the guillotine that the action is really somewhere else?”

Yet in that opening hospital scene Claudia had reflected on the nature of her history:

The voice of history, of course, is composite. Many voices; all the voices that have managed to get themselves heard. Some louder than others, naturally. My story is tangled with the stories of others…their voices must be heard also, thus shall I abide by the conventions of history. I shall respect the laws of evidence. But truth is tied to words, to print, to the testimony of the page. Moments shower away; the days of our lives vanish utterly, more insubstantial than if they had been invented. Fiction can seem more enduring than reality…History unravels; circumstances, following their natural inclination, prefer to remain ravelled.

The novel’s longest and most vivid section – an evocation of the central and most important episode in her ‘composite’ life when she was a war correspondent in Egypt in the 1940s, and met the love of her life – reveals the cause for this philosophy of Claudia’s. She sits trying to file copy in her room while worrying about her soldier lover’s fate. There are the statistics of retreats and advances, tanks and aircraft lost, men taken prisoner:

Figures dance on bits of paper, tenuously related to machines, to flesh and blood. There is out there, where these things or something like them are supposedly happening, and back here where ice clinks in glasses at six and hoses play on the gardens of Gezira.

Like Sebald, she reflects on the ‘disorder’ that follows war, its ‘aftermath’:

The aftermath of war should, correctly, be another war; it usually is. But the conventional aftermath is the struggle to set straight that which is awry; the taking stock, the counting of the living and the dead, the drift of the dispossessed back to their homelands, the apportioning of blame, the extraction of penalties and, at last, the writing of history. Once it is all written down we know what really happened.

Like him, she attempts to articulate a response to reading the entries in a loved one’s diary at the end of the novel. It’s more poignant and revealing than any accumulation of evidence:

I cannot analyse and dissect it, draw conclusions, construct arguments. You tell me about gazelles and dead men, guns and stars, a boy who is afraid; it is all clearer to me than any chronicle of events but I cannot make sense of it, perhaps because there is none to be made. It might be easier if I believed in God, but I don’t. All I can think, when I hear your voice, is that the past is true, which both appals and uplifts me.

She needs these memories:

And I can only explain this need by extravagance: my history and the world’s. Because unless I am a part of everything I am nothing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Erasures and absences: WG Sebald, The Emigrants

WG Sebald, The Emigrants (Vintage Classics; first published in German, 1993. Translated by Michael Hulse)

But certain things, as I am becoming increasingly aware, have a way of returning unexpectedly, often after a lengthy absence.

The particular thing Sebald is referring to in this, the first of four sections (as in Vertigo) of semi-fictional (auto)biography/travel writing (I can’t find a suitable term for Sebald’s genre) – ‘Dr Henry Selwyn’ – is found in a report in a Swiss newspaper that catches his eye: the remains of alpine guide Johannes Naegeli, ‘missing since 1914, had been released by the Oberaar glacier, seventy-two years later.’

Naegeli was a close friend as well as mountain guide to Dr Selwyn, the elderly Lithuanian-Jewish emigrant owner of the crumbling Norfolk house that the narrator, presumably Sebald, rented with a woman named Clara – presumably his wife, although in real life she was called Ute. The method in most of Sebald’s fiction (for want of a more accurate word) is to present places and exiled people he encounters that interest him, usually because of something in their history that resonates with the Bavarian-born son of a soldier who served in the Wehrmacht through the Nazi era until the end of the war. He collates oral narratives from people who knew his subjects, or writings in scrapbooks, pictures in photo albums (many of which grainily illustrate this text) and other evidence of their lives in an act of literary bricolage and…what? Atonement? He mentions the ‘lack of memory that marked the Germans, and the efficiency with which they had cleaned everything up’. They had, he feels, collectively erased history.

Sebald Emigrants coverThe people who feature in these four chapters come from Jewish emigrant families, most of whom fled the anti-Semitic oppression that surged in Europe (and beyond) from the nineteenth century and on into the early twentieth. By writing about them and their families, the hardships and hatred they endured at the hands of the bigoted and intolerant, Sebald seems to try to exorcise the aching guilt his nation’s terrible past has caused in him and his compatriots – and all those who were complicit in the Holocaust. These fragments he assembles against ruin – his own, and the world’s. But they are as elusive as Nabokov’s butterflies – a recurring image in this novel. (His autobiography has the Sebaldian title, Speak, Memory).

That revenant mountain guide may or may not have existed in reality; such details are irrelevant and elusive in Sebald’s fictional world. He serves as one of countless instances in this strange and haunting novel, of the way the author’s act of testifying in writing simultaneously honours the sufferings of these victims of ultra-nationalism, while failing to assuage his profoundly melancholy unease. The Selwyn chapter ends with a passage that reminds me of Joyce’s ending to ‘The Dead’:

And so they are ever returning to us, the dead. At times they come back from the ice more than seven decades later and are found at the edge of the moraine, a few polished bones and a pair of hobnailed boots.

But even as Sebald records these poignant, concrete details from the lives (and deaths) of emigrants, retrieved from the interstices of history (cemeteries and even glaciers can be historical repositories, mute custodians of the disappeared), he conveys the hopelessness of his task. Lives like the eccentric, reclusive Selwyn’s, who eventually killed himself with his ‘heavy hunting rifle’, or the artist Max Ferber’s, with whom the narrator became acquainted during his years in Manchester, or those of his peripatetic, flamboyant Uncle Ambros Adelwarth, whose own ‘infallible memory’ so haunted him he sought its erasure through ECT treatment, or his junior school teacher Paul Bereyter, who committed suicide when his sight began to fail him, but who had become obsessed with collecting his own archive of suicides. These lives are full of incident and similar factual, concrete details, meticulously set down by the narrator. Yet he despairs about his inability to provide the kind of testimony of their existence that he yearns for. ‘Memory’, great uncle Adelwarth had written as a postscript in his ‘agenda book’, ‘often strikes me as a kind of dumbness. It makes one’s head heavy and giddy…’

In that final chapter on Ferber the artist and the decaying post-industrial city of immigrants, Manchester, that he had made his home, he describes the artist’s obsessive technique of erasure – one that recalls Sebald’s own as a writer:

Ferber had set up his easel in the grey light that entered through a high north-facing window layered with the dust of decades. Since he applied the paint thickly, and then repeatedly scratched it off the canvas as his work proceeded, the floor was covered with a largely hardened and encrusted deposit of droppings, mixed with coal dust, several centimetres thick at the centre and thinning out towards the outer edges, in places resembling the flow of lava.

The meticulous accretion of details here, like a scholarly biographer-historian’s reconstruction of a man’s life and its significance, creates the kind of literary verisimilitude that is usually considered essential in a credibly authentic historical account. Near the end of this chapter, and of the novel, Sebald describes his frustration when trying to write this very chapter, using the documents and photos that Ferber had handed him – an archive of actuality:

It was an arduous task. Often I could not get on for hours or days at a time, and not infrequently I unravelled what I had done, continuously tormented by scruples that were taking tighter hold and steadily paralysing me. These scruples concerned not only the subject of my narrative, which I felt I could not do justice to, no matter what approach I tried, but also the entire questionable business of writing. I had covered hundreds of pages with my scribble, in pencil and ballpoint. By far the greater part had been crossed out, discarded, or obliterated by additions. Even what I ultimately salvaged as a “final” version seemed to me a thing of shreds and patches, utterly botched.

A postmodernist would doubtless seize upon this as a thrilling example of mise en abîme, a description of the futility of trying to articulate anything with signifiers that fail to adhere to the things they attempt to signify (‘the entire questionable business of writing’). I was discussing this feature with Mrs TD, saying that Emigrants was a fascinating example of Sebald’s self-reflexivity, his frustration with the limitations of language in writing this very novel – the act of narrating simultaneously erases what it tries to record.

She’s very sensible, Mrs TD. That’s ridiculous, she said.

My post on Sebald’s A Place in the Country

One of my earliest posts was about The Rings of Saturn

 

 

Vita Sackville-West, Family History

Published in 1932, two years after The Edwardians (I posted on it here), Family History has the same central themes and milieu. It concerns the familial, sexual and social affairs of the wealthy and privileged upper classes, with the central issue being the struggle for personal authenticity and self-fulfilment, being true to one’s desires, against the negating influence of social convention, family expectations, and the need to maintain ‘standards’ and ‘manners’ in the face of one’s shallow, hypocritical but judgemental peers.

This time, though, the protagonist isn’t male (Sebastian, the young heir to Chevron in The Edwardians): Evelyn Jarrold is a beautiful, chic widow (her husband was killed in WWI) who falls for Miles, a man fifteen years younger. Like Sebastian, she has to contend with that struggle to satisfy her personal desire – she’s passionately in love with him – in the face of their profound differences, and her powerful social ‘training’, which induces her to try to keep up the pretence that she hasn’t lost all sense of propriety by having an affair with a man so much younger.

Even worse, he’s ‘not one of us’, as the Jarrolds see it, and her breeding and upbringing incline her to conform to their self-serving, hypocritical mores. Miles represents everything they fear and despise: he’s an intellectual, left-wing, a rising, progressive Labour politician who writes books and cares for the poor and the downtrodden. They see him as ‘a traitor to his class.’

V Sackville-West, Family History cover

My Vintage Classics paperback 2018 edition

Like Evelyn, however, he’s also a dual personality: he deep down hates ‘democracy’, and is a self-confessed Tory country squire when back where he feels happiest: at his rambling ruin of a castle (presumably based on VSW’s recently acquired Sissinghurst) where he farms a large estate. Yet he despises the affluent, superficial world that means everything to his lover.

His friends are all intellectuals, ‘highbrow’ – a term of abuse when used by the Jarrolds – as it is on one occasion even against Evelyn herself. But he’s attracted to Evelyn by her glamour, not her intellect, and hates ‘clever women’: he prefers his women to be ‘idle’ and ‘decorative’, and becomes irritated by her jealous demands that he immerse himself totally in her and her passionate love. He ultimately values his masculine independence more than her cloying devotion, and can’t understand why she is so demanding. They argue frequently, then make up. He can’t match her emotional fervour, finds it annoying.

And she’s uncomfortable in the company of his bohemian friends, especially of Miles’s closest friends, Leonard and Viola Anquetil (thinly disguised portraits of Virginia Woolf, one of Vita’s many lovers, and her husband Leonard). Viola was the sister of Sebastian in The Edwardians, who chose the ‘highbrow’ path and married the outsider who tried to persuade her brother also to relinquish the deadening world of social hypocrisy and unquestioning acceptance of convention in which they were born.

Evelyn is uncomfortable when they discuss things with passion; instead of the ‘perpetual heavy banter’ and ‘small-talk’, ‘gossip’ about ‘personalities’ of the Jarrold world, these people instead exhibit a ‘desire for the truth’. And ‘their frankness horrified her.’

Glamorous, trivial parties, lavish shopping trips to her society dressmaker’s, expensive trips to exotic watering-holes of the rich, and dull family dinners were Evelyn’s world. They were characterised by superficially good manners – Evelyn was aware of their stultifying vapidity, but struggled to emancipate herself. Here she is, early in the novel, in her sumptuous flat in an opulent part of London, being visited by her teenage niece Ruth, who adores her glamorous aunt:

She [Ruth] chattered. Evelyn lent herself amiably to the chatter; it seemed to her that she was always lending herself amiably to somebody or something, till she ceased to have any existence of her own at all. Would she ever turn round on the whole of her acquaintance, and in a moment of harshness send them all packing? She knew that the necessary harshness lurked somewhere within her; in fact she was rather frightened of it…She disliked it, thinking it ugly. But she felt sometimes that she could endure the emptiness of her friends and the conventionality of the Jarrolds no longer. The two old Jarrolds were real enough, in their separate ways, but the rest of them were puppets, manikins, and their acquired conventions were so much waste paper.

VSW does such a good job portraying her snobbish, shallow world of philistines that Evelyn lacks the strength to escape from that it’s hard to find her sympathetic for much of the first half of the novel (even harder to find Miles much more than a selfish brute). What redeems her from the outset is this faltering awareness of the fierce, ‘authentic’ self that refuses to be completely crushed by the ‘puppets’ and their soul-destroying conventions.

It’s interesting that VSW is dealing with the kinds of existential crises that were to preoccupy Sartre and the rest of the Left Bank set a decade or so later.

As her struggle diminishes her depleted emotional and spiritual resources, Evelyn becomes a sad and almost tragic figure, with a kind of nobility that astonishes even her. Near the end she finally finds the strength to be true to herself, and to be firm in rejecting attempts to placate or reconcile her:

This firmness was mysterious, even to her. It seemed to be the reverse of the medal. The medal was stamped on the other side with self-indulgence, softness, luxury, egotism; now she had turned it over and found a certain austerity, pride, and self-sacrifice.

The final section of the novel is deeply moving, I found – more so than The Edwardians. It’s more authentic.

I’ve written about some other VSW novels:

The Edwardians (1930)

All Passion Spent (1931)

No Signposts in the Sea (1961)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wilkie Collins tries another thriller

Collins Miss Mrs coverThe third in this OWC trilogy of Wilkie Collins novellas is The Guilty River. It first appeared in Bristol publisher JW Arrowsmith’s Christmas Annual, 1886, three years before Collins’ death, and subsequently in their ‘Bristol Library’ series.

Arrowsmith’s annual festive volume had become a big success, tapping into the contemporary taste for seasonal sensation-thrillers and ghost stories. They’d enjoyed best-seller status with the first of three such one-volume ‘shilling shockers’ (as they were known when published in book form, cheap ‘railway reading’ to rival the cumbersome and more expensive triple-deckers) by Bristolian Frederick John Fargus, writing as Hugh Conway. His first was in 1883, Called Back. When Fargus died in 1885, Arrowsmith turned to the ageing Collins to replicate his success.

But Collins’ health was failing, opium was taking its toll as well, and he fell behind schedule. He produced his final copy in a rush, working long hours to meet the deadline. This shows in the creakiness of the plot in The Guilty River. He also unashamedly adopts many of the plot features of his predecessor, such as a love-triangle, one of whom is a man with sensory deprivation (blindness), and a complicated, fast-paced plot (once it got going) designed to maximise thrills and horrors.

The Guilty River starts quite strongly, with an interesting account of the 22-year-old protagonist, Gerard Roylake, engaged in hunting moths – a pursuit he prefers to the trivial company of his frivolous, social butterfly (pardon the pun) of a stepmother, who he’s just met for the first time. He catches the insects with a process he calls ‘sugaring the trees’ with ‘a mixture or rum and treacle’. This ‘treacherous mixture’ allured and ‘stupefied’ the creatures.

The wood is dark and dreary – it’s a scene of typical Gothic gloom and death. It becomes weirder when Roylake’s familiar flying ‘enemies’ appear.

As I stretched out my hand to take [the moth], the apparition of a flying shadow passed, swift and noiseless, between me and the tree. In less than an instant the insect was snatched away, when my fingers were within an inch of it. The bat had begun his supper, and the man and the mixture had provided it for him.

This strange and stirring moth-hunting scene foreshadows much of the sporadically thrilling plot that follows – and many of its devices. It involves a love triangle: first, a deranged Deaf Lodger who insists on being called The Cur, because of the misery of his condition as a lonely outsider, cut off from society by his disability. Only a year earlier he’d been a beautiful, loving, good young man. Because of the discovery of dark family secrets on his father’s side, and the fear that he has a ‘family taint’ caused by the African slave blood of his grandmother, exacerbated by his ‘deaf man’s isolation’, his mind has broken.

Insanely infatuated with Cristel, the beautiful daughter of the devious miller, Roylake’s tenant, and obsessively jealous of the young landlord, who also falls for the buxom charms of Cristel, he attempts first to murder his hated rival, then, when that is narrowly thwarted, to abduct the young woman.

There are some interesting plot features like the doppelganger theme: the lodger is seen as a dark counterpart to Roylake – the Mr Hyde to his Jekyll. But modern readers will not find congenial the assumption that character was adversely influenced by the lodger’s being of ‘mixed breed’, or that the criminality of his paternal ancestors’ blood flowed in his veins. The benign influence of his much-loved mother’s genes is weaker than that of these malignant forebears – a dramatic struggle of heredity shared to a less extreme extent by Roylake, whose gentle, loving mother was cruelly treated by his father. His jealousy of his innocent wife’s past also caused him to banish his equally long-suffering son to exile on the continent of Europe when his ‘martyr’ of a mother died.

There’s the usual Gothic-sensational complexity of structure, with multiple secondary narratives. One of these, the lodger’s ‘Memoirs of a Miserable Man’, has two further embedded narratives within it, and there are numerous other letters, reports, etc. to spice up the mix – with limited success. That staple feature of so many Victorian novels (Trollope’s in particular) of class-based objections to socially mismatched love-matches is handled in a cumbersome manner.

As in The Haunted Hotel there are overt comparisons of the events in the narrative with a theatrical melodrama: ‘like a scene in a play, isn’t it?’ says Roylake to Cristel after summarising for her the Cur’s ‘Memoirs’. Not a good play.

It’s not surprising, then, that Collins’ attempt to do a Fargus was a failure. Sales came nowhere near those of ‘Hugh Conway’. After its fairly stirring start the plot falters and loses coherence. The ending is a bit of a mess. Too often the narrative tries too crudely to heighten tension by asking ‘How will it end?’, or speculating on how different choices at key moments might have, surprise surprise, resulted in less torturous outcomes.

So: thanks, Twitter folks, for the recommendation of Collins’ Venice-set novella, but I’m afraid this trilogy as a whole isn’t a great success for me.

 

 

Happy 2019

Just back from a long drive west from our dear friend’s house (and her delightful miniature schnauzer Caspar) in Somerset. I’d like to wish any readers of this blog a very happy and peaceful 2019.

Coming from the vicinity of East Coker on New Year’s Day, heading towards the drooping sun in an England at odds with itself, put me in mind of TS Eliot:

Each venture

Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate

With shabby equipment always deteriorating

In the general mess of imprecision of feeling…(from East Coker, the second of Eliot’s Four Quartets [1940 – a dark time for Europe])

We in England today slouch towards the unknown, divided, possessed only of the certainty of our uncertainty. But it’s a new year, and there will, we hope, be new opportunities. As Eliot says elsewhere, ‘success is relative:/ It is what we make of the mess we have made of things’ (The Family Reunion [1939 – another dark time for this country and Europe]).

So I’m sipping a glass of champagne, surveying the increasingly overloaded bookcase in my study (there are more in other rooms). Scattered among the shelves are some of the unread – so there’s the hope for the coming year: from Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries to Dorothy Richardson. There’s Mrs TD and our now long-deceased, much-loved dog Brontë in a photo there somewhere, too. Another beacon of hope.

May your own reading be enjoyable, and your experiences in the year to come rewarding and fulfilling.

And all shall be well, and/ All manner of thing shall be well.

Wilkie Collins, The Haunted Hotel

The Haunted Hotel is the second novella or long short story in the trilogy by Wilkie Collins (1824-89) published by Oxford World’s Classics; I posted yesterday on the first one, Miss or Mrs? 

Collins Miss Mrs cover

The rather handsome image on the cover of the OWC paperback is a detail from a watercolour by James Holland, ‘The Steps of the Palazzo Foscari'(1844)

The Haunted Hotel was first published in six monthly instalments, June-November, 1878, in Belgravia: An Illustrated London Magazine. This was a popular journal initially edited by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, author of the best-selling sensation novel Lady Audley’s Secret (serialised in 1861; first book form 1862) and established by her lover, the publisher John Maxwell, to provide an outlet for her copious fictional production. It was sold to Chatto and Windus in 1876, when its huge sales had already started to dwindle.

Hardy’s novel The Return of the Native appeared in serial form in the same magazine in the same year as The Haunted Hotel. That’s where the connection ends. Collins’s novella is nowhere near in the same class as Hardy’s sixth published novel.

Like Miss or Mrs? it is highly melodramatic and plot-driven. It differs in that it is has more in common with the gothic romance wing of sensation fiction, as its title suggests. Its first major player is the mysterious Countess Narona – whose very name resembles that of the equally demonic (and dangerously foreign) Count Murano in Radcliffe’s seminal gothic romance, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). The eponymous Venetian hotel, like the castles in that predecessor, is decaying, putrid and full of dark, spectral secrets – including a lab-workshop in the cellar that would have pleased Victor Frankenstein.

Although once again Collins keeps his plot rattling along at a good pace, ending every few chapters (presumably these were the final pages of each monthly instalment) with a cliffhanger. But these aren’t sufficient to hold the modern reader’s attention. The narrative only fully arrives in Venice at ch. 17, almost half-way through the story. Collins attempts to build suspense leading up to this point with a variety of familiar gothic-sensational devices, from letters and legal reports to oral narratives delivered by marginal characters.

The single unifying principle, on which the author stakes his whole supposedly terrifying mystery, is the probability that the room in which a character died under suspicious circumstances has lingered in ghost form and appears to his family members when they come to stay in the rambling, ruinous palazzo he’d rented during his stay in Venice, and which has subsequently converted by developers into a fashionable hotel.

Unfortunately, although there is a certain frisson when the ghastly truth arrives, it has taken far too long to arrive, and the  clichéd plot, full of stereotypical characters and implausible coincidences and developments, once again weaken the story. Collins tweaks that ending to leave a slight possibility of doubt whether the supernatural element really does have a more mundane explanation – but that’s not enough to rescue the novella from mediocrity.

Interest perks up slightly when it takes a surprising metafictional turn in the Venice section: the evil Countess suggests to a theatrical entrepreneur that he produce a play she’ll write called ‘The Haunted Hotel’, involving, guess what, a Venetian palazzo with a terrifying ghost, a plot contrasting credulous superstition with more rational villainy, and some twisty secrets. This too soon palls and becomes yet another creaky implausibility. As in Miss or Mrs? there’s some nasty casual racism and sexism.

Nevertheless I also found this second dose of sensational Collins – this time with a gothic flavour – entertaining enough for the post-Christmas torpor. It was this novella in the OWC volume that was recommended to me by the literary folk on Twitter when I put out a request for Venice-set literature to prepare me for a planned short break there with Mrs TD next spring.

Collins had visited the city several times, including one stay with his collaborator-friend Dickens and their mutual friend, the genre artist Augustus Egg, and most recently in 1877 while on a tour to alleviate the symptoms of gout in the eyes – for which he also turned to opium for relief. This first-hand knowledge doesn’t show itself in the story, however. I thought the detail about the setting could have been arrived at by any half-decent writer of potboilers armed with a tourist guide and a few poems by Byron.

Wilkie Collins, Miss or Mrs?

Not much time for reading over the Christmas period, but visitors have now gone, and I can at least post about the first of three long short stories by Wilkie Collins (1824-89) in one OWC volume (2008). The first, Miss or Mrs? (1871) is 80-odd pages long. The middle one, The Haunted House, about which more next time, is probably better described as a novella at 160 pp. The Guilty River is 110 pp.

Collins Miss Mrs coverNorman Page and Toru Sasaki point out in their Introduction that these shorter-form works of fiction were well favoured by many Victorian novelists, from Dickens (a friend of and collaborator with Collins) to Stevenson, Henry James to Conrad, and of course with later writers like Thomas Mann and DH Lawrence. Although he wrote more than twenty novels between 1850 and 1890 (Blind Love was published posthumously), and produced his most popular work in the 1860s –The Woman in White (1860) to The Moonstone (1868) – Collins was happy to meet the demand from publishers and the reading public for shorter fiction, mostly published originally in magazine form. Two of them were later republished in book form, thus reaching a new market, and generating a new income stream for author and publisher.

Miss or Mrs? first appeared in the Christmas edition of The Graphic, an ‘illustrated London newspaper’, which sold 200,000 copies. Its typically lurid and melodramatic plot reflects Collins’ knowledge of the law (he’d been intended for a legal career by his father, and was called to the bar in 1851, but soon turned to writing as a profession).

I have a soft spot for these Victorian ‘sensational’ works of fiction. They rely on intricacy of plot and outlandish developments, larger-than-life characters, implausible coincidences and murky secrets to drive the narrative at a cracking pace. Not so much energy or interest is invested in characterisation or psychological verisimilitude.

Readers today might not find it so easy to warm to the two central romantic figures. Natalie Graybrooke is only fifteen. Her weak-willed, money-loving father is easily persuaded by his shady middle-aged and clearly villainous friend Turlington (with some nasty secrets in his history) to consent to their marrying, unaware that the shady ‘Levant trader’ has got seriously into debt and needs the money that her father has promised as a dowry to get him out of his difficulties.

Her secret lover has the implausibly Tennysonian name Launcelot Linzie. He’s not so much older than Natalie, but her cousin – neither her age nor their familial connection seem to cause much of a problem in Victorian times.

The convoluted plot involves a heartless abandonment of a man at sea (in the past), a dastardly murder plot that nearly succeeds (in the present), a blackmail plot, and the lovers’ secret wedding in a dodgy part of London (to avoid the gentry who know her family from finding out about Natalie and Launcelot’s marriage). Because she’s underage – presumably this is why the author makes his heroine so young, otherwise the plot collapses – they can’t elope, as under Victorian law of the time this would open the groom to the charge of abduction (if she’d been sixteen she’s described by him as being ‘ripe for elopement’! – some of the social and gender attitudes are pretty grim). So she has to remain, secretly wed, in her father’s household, subjected to the creepy advances of her would-be husband, Turlington.

It might be a plot device to make Natalie only fifteen, but Collins repeatedly describes her as sexually mature, alluring and nubile. Her physical and emotional precocity is accounted for in further dubious plotting – she’s another of those Victorian plot staples, an outsider: her mother had been born in the West Indies, and it’s thought she has ‘a mixture of Negro blood and French blood’. Both would have been considered sufficient to explain her sexually advanced development (Rochester’s wife in Jane Eyre belongs in this category; Heathcliff, too, in his own way, perhaps). This racial and gender stereotyping is difficult to countenance now, and the love scenes between Natalie and Launcelot are a little disturbing.

It’s good fun finding out how all these tangled threads of plot are tied up by the end, but it’s far from a work of high literary seriousness. Entertaining reading for the holidays, though.

Maybe the plot owes something to Collins’ well-known unconventional personal views on marital relations. From 1858 he lived with a lower-class widow and her daughter. Although she wanted to marry him, he disapproved of the institution of marriage. She left him for a time in the early 1860s and even married someone else, but returned to him and they continued their ménage. In 1868 he met Martha Rudd, then 19, and they began a separate household together and they had three children. He divided his time between the two families. He’d also become an opium addict, having taken the drug initially to treat the painful symptoms of gout.

It’s not surprising really that his stories have such outlandish and sensational plots.