A whole that conformed to nothing: clothes in Ivy Compton-Burnett’s ‘The Present and the Past’

I write this in Berlin and it’s 31 degrees and heavy humidity presages a thunderstorm, so this will have to be hastily done – especially as two young grandchildren need my attention soon.

I wrote recently about the significance of clothes in Anne Enright’s novel The Green Road, inspired by Moira’s blog Clothes in Books. Today I’ll look at a scene early in Ivy Compton-Burnett’s (1884-1969) 1953 novel The Present and the Past. Earlier this year I considered her 1939 novel A Family and a Fortune, and noted her extraordinary capacity for extended scenes written entirely in dialogue – more like a play script than conventional prose fiction. Her affinity with Jane Austen in this respect has often been noted (this includes her focus on upper middle-class families in a historical period slightly earlier than the one in which she wrote).

 

Cover of my elderly PMC edition, with an illustration from Stanley Spencer, 'Villas at Cookham'

Cover of my elderly PMC edition, with an illustration from Stanley Spencer, ‘Villas at Cookham’

In The Present and the Past the plot, such as it is, deals with the seismic effect on the Clare family of the paterfamilias Cassius’ first wife, Catherine, whom he divorced nine years earlier after five years of marriage, and two sons – Fabian, now 13, and Guy, 11 – reappearing with the announcement that she regrets her decision to yield custody of the boys to their father, and expressing the wish to be able to see them whenever she wishes. Cassius’ second wife, Flavia, is understandably unhappy with this development, but is generous enough in spirit to accede to the demand.

Early in the proceedings we see some of Compton-Burnett’s incisively drawn scenes in which the children talk and interact with each other with precocious poise. In these she throws satiric light on the foibles of the adults who squabble and fret around them.

Cassius and Flavia had three children of their own together: Henry, 8; Megan, 7 and Tobias, 3. In this passage we meet Miss Ridley, their stereotypically starchy governess. In the opening pages they outwit her by talking metaphysics in the context of the imminent death of a hen, moving on to demolish her limited attempt to explain Darwinist theories of evolution (a key feature in Compton-Burnett’s fiction, along with Nietzschean power struggles).

In a rare passage of narrative description, here’s how Miss Ridley is presented:

Miss Ridley was forty-seven and looked exactly that age. She wore neat, strong clothes that bore no affinity to those in current use, and wore, or had set on her head an old, best hat in place of a modern, ordinary one. She was fully gloved and booted for her hour in the garden. Her full, pale face, small, steady eyes, non-descript features and confident movements combined with her clothes to make a whole that conformed to nothing and offended no one. She made no mistakes in her dress, merely carried out her intentions.

The outward appearance is used to suggest the woman’s inner nature. The adjectives that describe her clothes – ‘neat’ and ‘strong’ – are satirically ambiguous, suggesting utility and durability, rather than aesthetic qualities, as the rest of that sentence goes on to show.

The note that her has is ‘set on her head’ rather than worn there further suggests a physical awkwardness and disjointedness with her time –  the added detail that it is outmoded reinforces this impression. Wearing her ‘old’ and ‘best’ hat in the garden tempers this slightly snobbish account by indicating that it’s probably her only hat; she’s poor. Our sympathy is now partially invoked, while we are shown at the same time her limitations of character and intellect.

Added to this is the detail that she’s ‘fully gloved and booted for her hour in the garden’: she’s more in thrall to propriety than to common sense or individuality of expression.

The next set of adjectives, about her face, eyes, ‘features’, ‘movements’ and ‘clothes’, do nothing to contradict this growing image of a narrow-minded, cribbed personality. The portrait is rounded off with that killer ending: the whole conforming to nothing and offending no one. She is deeply conventional and full of a conviction that she is just as she should be in her submissive role as governess – hence her inability to conform to anything, for this would be to commit herself to something, and her status and nature forbid her to do such a thing. She must be firm and narrow with the children, teaching them what she can from her limited range of knowledge, but ultimately remain inoffensive – and servile. Hence the lack of ‘mistakes’ in her ‘dress’: they signify the ‘intentions’ I’ve just outlined. She is in the invidious position of having to set an example but possessing no social identity.

I find this portrayal brilliantly suggestive. It seems at first sight a little cruel and patronising to a woman whose status at the period in which the novel was set, which seems to be Compton-Burnett’s favourite – late Edwardian or slightly later – would have been ambiguous: neither a servant, nor an equal to her employers. The children are astutely aware of this, and they regularly run rings round her emotionally and intellectually, as practice for their interactions with their trickier, more complicated parents (and contriving stepmother).

This description, then, isn’t just an ostentatious display of waspish, Austen-light character-sketching; it’s symptomatic of Compton-Burnett’s exploration of class and family dynamics. I hope to go on in later posts to examine other aspects of this interesting novel.

 

The world is merciless if you expose yourself to it: Michael Flay, ‘The Dancer’

I’ve written recently about the first two stories in Michael Flay’s 1999 collection Closed Doors; today I’d like to consider a story with a different theme and tone.

Flay Closed Doors Many of the stories in this collection are baleful protests at the consumerist culture of modern society: the fat-cat ‘businessmen’ who often appear are excoriated for their banal, depraved practices, their cultural blankness and their selfish, gloating boorishness. Their sense of superiority is repulsive, and the author’s rancour is corrosive. Male-female relations are just another form of commerce in this bleak world.

I’d like to look, by way of contrast, at some softer touches the author is capable of. In ‘The Dancer’ there’s a poignant love story, delicately conveyed. It’s one of a few stories set in Finland, where Michael Flay taught for a while back in the 90s – hence his imprint’s name: Polar Books.

The eponymous Finnish woman dancer is gifted and the unnamed male (English) protagonist is attracted, as this striking image indicates:

She was liquid, and he would like her to pour over him.

When she dances she can both express and lose herself – qualities he admires and perhaps envies:

In this she could be herself, beyond relationship for the time…[Later] She had revealed herself quite barely in the dance; there was something brave, insolent in the revelation.

The relationship is strained, however, largely because of the exigencies of their economic situations, the ‘systems’: both need to work at jobs that are deadening, unfulfilling – in his case, teaching at an institution that exploits its staff with contemptuous disdain; each day is ‘trivial’; the work ‘was taking him down’.

There’s a bleak, unforgiving polar setting (the words ‘ice’ and ‘snow’ are repeated frequently, along with related terms – ‘frozen’, ‘cold’, adjectives ‘desolate’, ‘black’, ‘dead’, sterile’, etc.) In spite of this, the man and the dancer had ‘come close’:

He had wanted to draw her into his conscious world, had tried also to show her himself. And she had almost seen, had wanted to see, but had not wanted to show herself so much.

Here the pervasive influence in all of Michael Flay’s work of his literary model – DH Lawrence –  is apparent, but he adapts the imagery to make it his own.

The man is forced to return to England to seek more temporary work (no permanent contracts in his academic world), and again the scene reflects the emotional temperature of the characters:

A grey drizzle fell across the dirty London sky…It was all [the ‘council estate’ with its boarded-up houses] nauseous and forlorn.

He’s surrounded by the more privileged, the ‘cash complacent’, drawling, refined ‘businessmen’ so often reviled, as I have shown, in these stories – ‘how had they come to run things?’, the man muses, disillusioned, as they scurry to their ‘bank blocks’ (a favourite Flay term). He lacks their commercial drive. But here the venomous portrayal serves as a counterpoint to the ‘tenderness’ between him and the dancer.

Their separation is bruising; the estranging world is ‘merciless if you expose yourself to it.’ Why should he, the man thinks, ‘dent her defences for the outside to come in?’ I find those images beautifully done.

I won’t reveal the outcome; it’s the tender depiction of the ‘contact’ these two otherwise thwarted, disconsolate, constrained characters are able to establish in a harsh, uncaring world that gives this story its lustre.

I’m off on holiday tomorrow, so may not get a chance to post here for a while. Have a good summer, and happy reading, happy living.

 

 

Aside: Onoto fountain pens

Onoto my pic 2 pen boxA diversion from books for today’s post. My wife bought me a lovely Mont Blanc fountain pen for a special birthday four years ago, and I became obsessive about fine writing instruments. I subsequently bought myself an Onoto (more on that shortly), and a beautiful red lacquered Nakaya Aki-tamenuri, made in Japan. The design at the top of my blog’s homepage is a photo of the first two of those pens. A handsome green Pelikan Souverän M800 followed on another birthday.

Here’s an account of the history of Onoto, adapted from their website (from where most of the images are taken).

In 1905 British company Thomas De La Rue, printers of stamps and banknotes, was approached by George Sweetser, an outstanding Mechanical Engineer and Inventor, with a self-filling safety fountain pen which he had recently patented.

The first Onoto – Sweetser’s original plunger-operated self-filling fountain pen guaranteed not to leak – was manufactured by the company in London in 1905.

drawing

The Onoto pens were an immediate success in the United Kingdom and internationally, and were one of the very few 100% British-made pens prior to WW1. Famous Onoto owners included Field Marshal Haig (the WWI military leader), Winston Churchill and the Japanese author Natsume Soseki.

The origin of the company name is disputed: it may derive from the name of a Japanese watchmaker, or it might simply be an invented word easy to pronounce in any language (like ‘Kodak’).

Advertisements for the Onoto pens were famous – they included an iconic red pillar box in many early examples: here’s one from the company’s website, dating from ‘Punch’ magazine, 1920; the second one I’m not sure of the date for, but it looks about the same period –

peter-pan-1

 

 

 

Ad-5c-small_NewInitially the pens were made in Bunhill Row, Islington, London, where coincidentally the HQ of my wife’s former employer is located. There’s a famous nonconformist graveyard nearby (the earliest tomb dates from 1666); buried there are John Bunyan, Daniel Defoe and William Blake, among other notable figures.

Finsbury_bunhill_blake_1

Onoto pen manufacture was transferred to Strathendry, Fife, Scotland in 1927 and continued there until 1958 when the factory closed its doors for the last time. After nearly 50 years Onoto production has started again.

Onoto my pic 1 I acquired my special edition Onoto a few years ago; it commemorates the 800th anniversary (in 2009) of Cambridge University, where I conducted my postgrad research. It has a stylish chevron pattern on the gold clip, a legacy of the company’s art deco days in the 30s, and the University’s crest on the top of the cap; my former college’s crest (Emmanuel) is at the other end

Onoto my pic 4 Emma crest

Onoto my pic 3 top

 

The nib is as beautiful as the pen:

nib2

 

 

 

 

 

 

And it writes as smoothly as could be; I derive enormous pleasure from writing with it and with my other fountain pens. Never thought I’d become a pen geek. I also like mechanical pencils, but that’s another story…

Michael Flay, ‘The Theorist’, from ‘Closed Doors’ (1999)

Michael Flay, Closed Doors: Polar Books, 1999

After Mike’s funeral last week I’ve had time to return to the stories in Closed Doors, from his own Polar Books imprint.

The second in the collection is ‘The Theorist’. Unlike ‘The Mad Mother’, written about last time, which was set in Switzerland, this one takes place mostly in Paris, and briefly in London.

Flay Closed Doors As usual in these short stories the protagonist and main secondary characters are unnamed: there’s ‘the Professor’, who’s part of an interviewing panel for an academic post at his university, and ‘the applicant’ – a man who has applied for the teaching post only because he needs ‘to survive, to have the wherewithal’, and hence has to ‘perform, catch a selector’s eye’ – whereas his instinct is to ‘baulk them’.

Also in keeping with the other stories the setting adds to the bleak tone: the street outside is ‘gritty’, the panel of interviewers ‘ludicrous’. This is a world in which scholarly merit or integrity has no virtue: all that matters is to be fashionable and commercially active – and maybe sexually deviant. The Professor-theorist has made a name for himself by riding the crest of the postmodern, post-structuralist wave of literary-critical, jargon-filled theory. He has ‘banished experience from the text’:

All was cynicism, he was well paid. What did it matter if he talked nonsense? Hadn’t the greatest grown jaded and found communication impossible?

Maybe an echo of Yeats there. The disaffected applicant moves on, possibly to Brussels:

He’d just ride on. You just did things. He’d studied, but what he knew was out of key with the fashion…He had no market value.

For this is the world of the market – that repeated ‘just’ is telling. The protagonist is a modern urban equivalent of the samurai who casts his sword into the air at a crossroads to see which path to take, or the drifting cowboy, homeless, friendless and seeking some kind of contingency, security.

The theorist is a paedophile with a taste for boys, like the early Romans, an indicator of his morally nugatory state. It’s a socio-ethical corruption he shares with other senior figures in London with whom he fraternises: a financier, a minister – that is, the worlds of commerce and politics are equally destitute morally, depraved. I find the equation of sexual deviance with moral destitution one of the weaker aspects of this writer’s position.

But these are general themes that recur in Mike’s work. His is a world view that shares some of Kafka’s despair and the hopelessness of Camus. It could maybe do with a little of Beckett’s humour.

The visions of the blood-soaked battlefields of two European wars create a grim backdrop to the images of Nazi troops in occupied Paris, of Goebbels with his PhD thesis on ‘romantic poetry’. Literature and art has been subsumed by the monsters, and the crowd has followed.

The next story, ‘The Dancer’, has a lighter, more romantic tone.

As always, contact Polar Books via Facebook if you’d like to obtain a copy of Closed Doors, or any of Michael Flay’s other works of fiction.

Michael Flay, ‘Closed Doors’: The Mad Mother

Michael Flay, Closed Doors (Polar Books, Cheltenham 1999)

I’m sad to say that Mike passed away last month, far too soon. In his memory I’d like to devote some posts over the next few weeks – holidays will intervene so not sure how long it’ll take – to his published work. I’ve already posted about his novel The Persian Wedding.

Flay Closed Doors Closed Doors, his first book to appear under his own imprint, Polar Books, appeared in 1999, which is when I last read it. Because of time constraints this past few weeks I’ve not been able to reread the whole collection of stories in Closed Doors, and will have to limit myself here to the first one: ‘The Mad Mother’.

It bears many of the features of the others, in that the main characters are unnamed, known only as ‘the mother’, ‘the daughter’, ‘the wife’, and so on. To confer a name would be to present them in too familiar or intimate a way. These are stories that throw a beam of light on to semi-concealed lives, like an entomologist opening up a termite nest.

There’s a bleakness or grim quality that runs through them. Here’s the opening sentence to this story:

She was living strange, giving things up, doing damage.

Mike’s style is distinctive: there’s a disjointedness in those three parallel participial phrases, a lack of agency (the absence of finite verbs after the first clause). That phrase ‘living strange’ is syntactically strange. The language, in other words, re-enacts the meaning and reinforces it. We are forced to confront that strangeness, the inertia of the structure.

The abstractions and omissions are notable, too. Who is ‘she’?  In what way was her living ‘strange’? Which ‘things’ was she giving up, and why? What was the nature of the damage she was doing? These are stories that forensically examine the damage we do in our lives, the toxicity of relationships in a corrupt world in which power is wielded by the most corrupt people of all, and that poison sinks down on to all levels of society.

There’s perhaps too much tendency to use pathetic fallacy, but then these stories come from the tradition of Kafka via Lawrence and Dostoevsky. It’s psychological truth that is striven for, not poetic decoration. Hence the first pages sketch the physical scene only in terms that create the requisite atmosphere: ‘The streets were grey with rain’; ‘The block [of flats where she lives] was dismal, angular’, and from within it she could hear ‘a queer chuckling, female and gloaty’. Later ‘the landscape was grey, obscured, dead.’

This is the world of the underclass, the housing-estate sink. The narrative style has more of the features which will become familiar to readers of Mike Flay: those accumulating, dreary terminal adjectives; that Lawrentian, early-20C use of ‘queer’ in its non-sexual sense, which recurs half a dozen times in this very short story; the Keatsian habit of turning a noun into a neologistic adjective (‘gloaty’) by adding a ‘y’ to it. And of course, these details create a new, disruptive sense of unease – it’s as if the ‘block’ (there are many of these ambiguously named places in the stories) is doing the sinister gloating. The description of disembodied ‘selfish mouths opening and shutting in a black expanse’ (within the block) is reminiscent of Beckett and the abyss.

I shan’t go on here to summarise the story too closely. It involves an emotionally ‘blank’ and ‘deficient’ Swiss-German woman (abetted by her mother) exploiting a wealthy TV ‘celebrity’ (himself ‘full of rottenness’) in order to become pregnant by him, abandon the ‘weak’ husband and either increase their social security (state) benefits, or tap the man for some of his presumed wealth. The stories are set in a variety of locations: this one in Switzerland and briefly the UK. Meanwhile the women sit and endlessly, obsessively ‘talk over’ their ‘mad’ schemes and feelings. There’s a scathing critique of the self-indulgent kind of pseudo-feminism:

In her mind a female fixation circulated: she was an injured princess claiming her rights. She was justified: all her moods, her acts of spite, her small meannesses, were justified because she was female. It was best not to repress what you felt – this was the family tenet – or censor it…No criticism should be made, the female was sacred.

The free indirect style portrays the woman’s views, not the narrator’s. While she broods incessantly over her own feelings her young son is cruelly neglected, to the point of abuse.

This first story sets the tone for the rest. They are not a comfortable read. They intend to challenge and provoke. The disconcerting style works in the same way as the long lines of prose-poetry in the likes of Whitman and Lawrence’s verse: on the level of rhythm and juxtaposition rather than semantic sense. It’s a grim perspective and unflinching. Someone has to do it. Usually most of us look away.

Strangely, Mike had a wicked sense of humour. After any meeting with him one left feeling uplifted, enhanced and enriched, and there would have been a lot of laughter. In his writing, however, he was determined to anatomise the world in all its states, and to do that it’s necessary to contemplate the rottenness beneath the veneer of consumerist plenty.

Closed Doors is currently unavailable on the Amazon website (two of the novels are still in stock), but if you would be interested in acquiring a copy please contact me via the box on this site and I can pass on your message to Polar Books – they also have a Twitter account and Facebook page, so a message there should also work.