About Simon Lavery

Author, blogger.

Joseph Emidy in Kenwyn churchyard

The first week of what feels like house arrest is ending, and we start to adapt. I’ll try to make this a CV-free post, and stick to what we’ve been doing to cope – except to say we were happy to find a local farm shop that would let us pick up fresh fruit, veg, eggs, gin and tonic water. All the essentials.

And now another local shop, even nearer, is about to allow old established customers to collect or have deliveries of locally-sourced fresh produce. A local wine merchant delivered wine the same day as my order on Wednesday. It feels like being in one of those prisons you read about in 19C novels, where inmates have food and drink brought to their cells by their families. Incarceration Gangnam style.

Wild garlic growing profusely in Kenwyn churchyard

Wild garlic growing profusely in Kenwyn churchyard

The last two days’ walks have taken us past Kenwyn church – I posted a picture of its clock tower and lychgate last time. Yesterday we walked through the churchyard. It was a mass of aromatic wild garlic. I’d picked some in a local meadow the other day and made two batches of pesto, which is delicious. Had some with pasta, the rest is going in sauces to enrich them.

There were also swathes of bluebell spears, and the first few pale-violet blooms appearing. Midges danced in the sunbeams like tiny irritating fairies.

Joseph Emidy's headstoneOne of the most interesting of the (mostly Victorian) older gravestones is that of Joseph Emidy (c 1775-1835). He was born in Guinea, and abducted as a child by Portuguese slave traders. He was trafficked to Brazil and later Portugal, where he learnt to play the violin, and became so gifted that he became second violin in the Lisbon Opera orchestra.

Sir Edward Pellew, later Admiral and first Viscount Exmouth, a career naval man whose family came from Cornwall, admired his virtuosity and press-ganged him into providing musical entertainment for his frigate’s crew, playing hornpipes, jigs and reels – hardly the calibre of material he was used to performing. Unfortunately for Emidy, his playing as ship’s ‘fiddler’ was so impressive, Pellew refused to let him ashore, fearing he’d escape to freedom.

Kenwyn churchyard colour

Kenwyn churchyard colour

After four years of this forced, demeaning labour, Emidy was abandoned (around 1797) at Falmouth, when Pellew changed ships. He was able to make a living as a music teacher, and by playing at local parties and concerts.

One of his music pupils, James Silk Buckingham, later a campaigner for the abolition of slavery (and whose autobiography provides some of the online information about Emidy) showed his work to an impresario, who arranged for Emidy to play in London. Despite some initial reluctance from his fellow musicians, who feared playing with a man of colour would lead to failure, Emidy thrived.

He returned to Cornwall, where he lived for the rest of his life, composing and teaching music, and playing in orchestras in Falmouth and Truro. In 1802 he married a (white) woman, Jenefer Hutchins and they went on to have a large family. She came from a respectable tradesman’s family from Penryn; this marriage must have caused something of a stir locally – or maybe not. The Cornish don’t always behave predictably.

Kenwyn valley, just below the church

Kenwyn valley, just below the church

He moved to Truro around 1815, and became one of the most respected and influential musicians of 19C Cornwall. He died here, hence his burial in his (and my) local graveyard. Unfortunately none of Emidy’s compositions survive.

In 2007 there was a ceremony at Kenwyn churchyard to commemorate the bicentary of the abolition of the British transatlantic slave trade, with the focus on Emidy’s headstone. The inscription inaccurately describes him as ‘a native of Portugal’, an erasure that’s typical of stories of involuntary diasporas.

I came across an article about this ceremony that ends with this:

By Emidy’s grave some people recalled other notable African slaves who had found their way to Cornwall like Alexander the Moor, baptized in the ruins of Paul church near Penzance the year after the Spanish raid in 1596… Remarkable in a different way was Evaristo Muchovela (subject of ‘Evaristo’s Epitaph by Patrick Caroll, a BBC Radio 4 play broadcast in November 2002) who died aged 38 in 1868 at Redruth. Sold as a child in Brazil to Thomas Johns, a Cornish miner, c.1837, Evaristo was a slave for 22 years – long after the slave trade was abolished. Unlike Joseph Emidy he chose to stay with his master when Johns returned to Cornwall in about 1859. Johns set Evaristo up as a cabinet maker in Redruth before he died, and both he and Evaristo are buried in the same grave in Wendron churchyard [in W. Cornwall, near Helston]. (British Association for Local History website, spring 2007)

If you’re interested in reading more on these topics, see:

R. Costello, Black Salt: Seafarers of African Descent in British Ships (2012)

Richard McGrady, Music and Musicians in Early Nineteenth-Century Cornwall: World of Joseph Emidy – Slave, Violinist and Composer (1991)

(I’ve not read either of these texts, but they’re both cited in the online materials I accessed for this post, and seem reliable.)

 

 

Isabel Allende and a country walk

I’d intended writing today about Isabel Allende’s latest novel, A Long Petal of the Sea. Mrs TD enjoyed it and passed it on to me. I was less enthusiastic.

The early section that’s set in the brutality of the Spanish Civil War is graphically done, but I’ve read similar stuff before, much of it better. Then we follow the central couple, who’ve survived defeat of the Republican side for which they were fighting, and entered on a marriage of convenience to facilitate their exile to Chile in an emigrant ship, the Winnipeg, a sort of socialist Windrush organised by the Chilean diplomat-poet, Pablo Neruda.

The novel goes on too long for my taste – five or six more decades of the couple’s lives. They have affairs, grow closer. I found the research that Allende had obviously done too obtrusive. All that socio-political history gives the narrative a stilted feel, and the tone is occasionally preachy.

***

So instead I’ll write about what else is going on. As we enter the first week of more-or-less isolation, (the British govt can always be relied on to be decisive and clear) the reality of being confined to the house is kicking in. We are allowed out once a day to exercise, or to shop for essentials, provided we maintain a social distance of at least two metres. It’s amazing how many people seem still not to realise how crucial this is.

Fortunately we have a PM with the resolute, dependable character to steer a frightened nation through this crisis. Yeah, that’s irony again. As the numbers of cases and deaths start to rise exponentially here in the UK, scarily like the curves seen in Italy and Spain a couple of weeks ago, it looks certain that the situation will get much worse.

Land rover reclaimed by natureStill, the spring sunshine has finally arrived after what seems six months of rain. I went on a solo walk this morning in the remote country lanes by my house. Saw just a handful of people, so no problems maintaining that distance.

About half a mile up the road is this strange sight: an ancient Land Rover that’s slowly been reclaimed by nature.

River fordA little further along, the river Kenwyn at the valley bottom flows over the road in a ford. The light dappling through the trees, where the buds are just starting to burst, was lovely.

Along the way I passed the church where my sister-in-law was married. It has a fine lych-gate – that rather macabre structure where, years ago, a funeral cortege would pause. The church is dedicated to St Keyne.

Kenwyn church

She was a fifth-century holy woman, daughter of a Welsh king, who was said to have travelled extensively through South Wales before crossing into Cornwall, where she became a hermit. The only surviving account of her life is in John of Tynemouth’s 14C Sanctilogium, and it’s far from reliable. Like much hagiography. It’s designed to edify, not provide accurate history. The village of St Keyne, in the east of Cornwall near Liskeard, is named after her.

A mile or so down the road the valley opens up – it’s hilly everywhere in this county – and the Rural landscape landscape seemed to be basking in the rare warmth and sunshine. I tried to record a bullfinch that was singing its heart out in a tree beside the road, but by the time I’d got my phone out and found the voice recorder, he’d developed stage fright and fallen silent.

Further along the road  I came upon a man standing staring into the trees. I greeted him. ‘He’s keeping the social distance of two metres,’ he said. ‘A squirrel. We’re having a stand-off.’

I told him they’re not my favourite rodent: a family that lives in a  tree by my house ate every one of the crocuses we only planted in the early autumn. They waited until they flowered, for some reason; maybe then they taste better.

PrimrosesThere were spring flowers everywhere, including some delicate violets, and this lovely cluster of primroses.

So the times might be rough, but nature has a way of lifting the spirits. If anything good can come out of this CV-19 crisis, it might be the ways that nature is re-asserting itself as pollution and human plunder almost ceases. Cormorants and fish swimming in the limpid canals of Venice; animals not being run over on formerly busy roads that are now like rivers of tarmac.

Patricia Highsmith and death in Venice

Patricia Highsmith, Those Who Walk Away (Virago Modern Classics, 2014; first published 1967)

Texas-born Patricia Highsmith (1921-95) moved to a country cottage in Suffolk in England in 1964, apparently to be nearer the Englishwoman she’d fallen in love with. She wrote three novels there, including A Suspension of Mercy (1965), the only one of the three to be set in East Anglia, about which I posted HERE, and Those Who Walk Away, which is set mostly in Venice.

Patricia Highsmith Those who walk away coverAs Joan Schenkar says in the introduction to this VMC paperback edition, it’s a classic Highsmith exploration of her favourite fictional territory, the ‘infinite progression of the trapped and the hunted.’ Ray’s wife Peggy had recently committed suicide, and her father Ed’s grief twists him into a murderously vengeful monomaniac. Ray becomes ‘fair game’ to him. Ed blames Ray for his daughter’s death, and spends much of the novel trying to kill him. After all, he tells himself laconically, with unintentional irony, ‘he’s asking for it.’

After Ed’s first botched attempt to shoot him dead, Ray follows him to Venice, where a sinister game of competitive mutual stalking ensues. Lines blur between hunter and hunted. Ray seems to be set on a quest for his own oblivion, a liberation from his own identity. ‘Obsessions are the only things that matter. Perversion interests me most and is my guiding darkness.’ This Highsmith quotation in the introduction (no provenance is given) sums up perfectly the cheerfully dark, disturbing tone and plot of Those Who Walk Away.

Venice canal

A typical canal scene in Venice taken by me last March

I wish I’d taken this with me to read on holiday in Venice last spring. Highsmith evokes the beauty and history of the lagoon island with great aplomb. But she also shows the seedier side of the city, the menacing alleys and murky apartments where the poorer folk live. It’s there that Ray finds sanctuary, and the famous tourist honey-pot sites are where he’s most in danger.

The famous Gritti Palace hotel features, for example, a key location in another Venice novel  with an American protagonist that I’ve posted about here, Ernest Hemingway’s Across the River and into the Trees (1950). Thomas Mann’s novella seems to have cast a shadow over novelists who set their stories there, for Hemingway’s slightly sleazy account of an older military man’s love affair with a much younger Venetian woman is also haunted by the imminence of death. Hemingway’s American officer is also a keen hunter – of ducks, not hapless sons-in-law.

I’ve not read Highsmith’s famous debut novel, Strangers on a Train (1950), but have seen the 1951 Hitchcock film version, so can recognise the common device: two men with unstable identities, locked in a mutually destructive dance-macabre embrace.

Trollope, pubs and gin

Anthony Trollope, Can You Forgive Her? Post number 2

As this disturbing period of enforced social isolation intensifies, I find myself able again to engage with the online literary blogging world, and to offer my own attempt at keeping our spirits up.

Trollope, Can You Forgive Her cover

The cover image is from the painting ‘Yes’ by Millais – a young woman shown replying to her lover’s proposal of marriage – such a prominent theme in Trollope novels

Last time I wrote about the key sequence in Trollope’s 1865 novel Can You Forgive Her? in which the wastrel Burgo Fitzgerald sees a mirror image of himself in the teenage beggar girl who accosts him in the street to solicit money with which to buy drink. For perhaps the first time in his life he shows compassion and generosity towards a person in distress, and takes her to a pub to buy her a meal.

I was interested in H.K. Browne’s illustration of this scene in the first edition of 1864 (vol. 1, for which Browne did all twenty illustrations; vol. 2 came out the following year, illustrated by a Miss Stevens). Browne, aka Phiz, is best known as one of the main illustrators of ten of Dickens’ novels. In this image he reins in a little his tendency to crude caricature, and shows rare sympathy for Trollope’s more restrained mode of novel-writing than Dickens’.

He depicts Burgo, whom the girl had ingenuously gasped was too ‘beautiful’ to be as poor as her when she confronted him in Oxford Street, in a sleazy working-class pub, the centre of admiring attention.

Here’s how the scene is narrated:

He took her to a public-house and gave her bread and meat and beer, and stood by her while she ate it. She was shy with him then, and would fain have taken it to a corner by herself, had he allowed her. He perceived this, and turned his back to her, but still spoke to her a word or two as she ate.

It seems odd that she’s standing to eat, but this is presumably a feature of such a low pub: the only seat depicted is a barrel on which sits one of the male customers. The passage continues to describe the striking effect Burgo has on the others in the pub, not just the women:

HK Browne's illustration to ch. 29 of Trollope's Can You Forgive Her?

Image from Wikimedia Commons, public domain

The woman at the bar who served him looked at him wonderingly, staring into his face; and the pot-boy woke himself thoroughly that he might look at Burgo; and the watermen from the cab-stand stared at him; and women who came in for gin looked almost lovingly up into his eyes. He regarded them all not at all, showing no feeling of disgrace at his position, and no desire to carry himself as a ruffler.

Browne conveys all this skilfully, marking the social status of each figure with his usual eye for telling detail: the unkempt clothes, hirsute faces and scruffy hats and clay pipes of the water-cabmen; the shabby-chic hats, bonnets and hints of alcohol-flushed cheeks and addled eyes of the gin-drinking women; the young girl’s clothing, described in the earlier street scene, quoted in my previous post, is suitably impoverished.

Her attempt to shrink away into invisibility as she eats is poignantly drawn, and hints at the similar attempts of the two main romantically conflicted female characters, Alice and Lady Glencora, to do the same in their struggle with the competing courtship of their ‘wild men’ and dour, upstanding and insensitive rivals. Women of all ranks, this scene shows, have no possibility of independence or freedom of choice. The only options open to them lead to self-effacement, entrapment and nothingness.

Browne does give an indication of Burgo’s arrogance and selfishness in the exaggeratedly weak chin, the arch expression, and the louche, lazy pose as he leans complacently on the bar, clearly relishing the undisguised adoration, even as he ostensibly disregards it. He’s clearly used to it:

He regarded them not at all, showing no feeling of disgrace at his position, and no desire to carry himself as a ruffler [slang for arrogant swaggerer].

Burgos morally ambiguous behaviour here, and the portrayal of the darker aspects of Victorian society, is narrated (and drawn by Browne) with deft irony – a very different tone from the bucolic comedy in the Barsetshire novels. After paying for her meal, Burgo gives the young woman enough money to pay for a bed for the night, provided she promises not to spend it on gin. If only he showed as much fellow-feeling in his dealings with other people in his life. He could be a decent man, as the start of the final paragraph of this chapter suggests:

Poor Burgo! All who had seen him since life had begun  with him had loved him and striven to cherish him. And with it all, to what a state had he come! Poor Burgo! had his eyes been less brightly blue, and his face less godlike in form, it may be that things would have gone better with him…

I was interested in the two barrels on a shelf high up behind the bar. I assumed they held beer or wine, but one of them has the words ‘Old Tom’ painted on it (I’m afraid the detail isn’t very sharp as reproduced here). After a bit of online digging I discovered this was a make of cheap and potent gin, hence its popularity with the urban poor.

This seems to be one of Browne’s signature details: he habitually inserted an emblematic feature or two into his illustrations to give the reader visual hints at how to interpret the action that the narrative may or may not have made clear.

Back to Old Tom. In researching this online I came across this fascinating essay at the Victorian London website: ‘A Night with Old Tom’, by James Greenwood (1881, first published 1875). It’s too long to quote from here, but if you’re interested in sketches of Victorian London’s seamier side, and a footnote to this scene in Trollope, I’d recommend it.

I’d also recommend exploring the Victorian Web site. It has readable academic studies of Trollope, and the Pallisers in particular, as well as a great selection of useful material on social history; in the context of the penniless girl who Burgo takes pity on, see the sections related to gender matters and prostitution (although it’s not explicit in Trollope’s narrative that she is a sex worker). See also there the links to the prolific and hugely popular Victorian author George WM Reynolds, and in particular his 1845 novel The Mysteries of London. V Web has a chilling extract in which girls as young as eleven or twelve are trafficked by a sort of female Fagin; she then uses them as entrapment tools for blackmailing the ‘elderly voluptuar[ies]’ who were their unwitting customers. Sinister stuff.

Meanwhile, try to stay safe.

 

Can you forgive Anthony Trollope?

Anthony Trollope, Can You Forgive Her? Oxford World’s Classics, 1991. First published 1864-65

Here I am, back again after another long silence. Work again kept me away from reading and posting. The work project is now finished, and there’s a slight pause before the next one begins, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to catch up. Particularly while the world is going crazy; here in the UK we’re fast approaching lockdown because of the Covid-19 crisis.

Trollope, Can You Forgive Her coverI don’t want to summarise the plot, as that’s not the most exciting or original feature of this first in the series of Palliser novels. Its interest lies mainly in Trollope’s dealing with the theme of women’s powerlessness, especially in their marital position (pretty much the only kind of social relation open to them at the time). In brief, there are three linked marriage stories, all of them involving women making potentially unforgivable choices. Alice Vavasor breaks off two engagements, first to an amoral swine, her cousin George, who betrays her in every conceivable way, and then to upstanding but dry John Grey.

More interesting is the story of Lady Glencora, trapped in a loveless arranged marriage with the emotionally arid Plantagenet Palliser, heir to the dukedom of Omnium, who first appeared in the Barsetshire novel, The Small House at Allington, about which I posted here. She’s still attracted to another caddish swine, the admirably named Burgo Fitzgerald, with whom she had a love affair before her marriage. He’s a beautiful, reckless parasite: ‘Every man to himself’ is his motto. Like George with Alice, he’s desperate to get his hands on this woman’s money.

Third is Alice’s lively middle-aged aunt, courted by, yes, another contrasting pair, a dull braggart miserly landowner-farmer and a dashing, amoral waster. You can see how these women’s dilemmas in choices of men produce the title of the novel; each choice they make is largely determined by the contrasting impulses of heart and head, in that context of their subservient positions socially.

Alice muses what a woman should do with her life; women lacked power and agency in an English world still decades away from universal suffrage, and everyone lacked political agency in a Parliamentary system that’s skewed to favour the wealthy males of the landowning and aristocratic classes. Trollope shows some interest in the plight of women in the sexual politics of the era, but like Gissing in The Odd Women, his sympathy for them in their desire for independence and autonomy is limited. But he’s not entirely incapable of sympathy for the disadvantaged, as we shall see.

What I want to focus on here is perhaps the best scene in this very long, prolix novel (the fox-hunting scene is too tedious for words). In ch. 29, the mercenary cad Burgo has been thwarted in his attempt at a party to lure Glencora into eloping with him. As he walks home his thoughts centre as usual on himself. He feels sorry for himself, as he sees his chances of netting the wealthy prize slip away. But he also starts to feel something resembling remorse: ‘He thoroughly despised himself.’ Could there possibly be, even for him,

…some hope of a redemption…some mode of extrication from his misery? 

He even realises that despite the allure of her money, he’d learned to love Glencora. His misery is almost real. He even strives to justify his attempt to persuade her to commit adultery with him by framing it as saving her from a miserable life with a man she doesn’t love. He persuades himself that her husband has less right to her love than he does, who truly loves her (insofar as he’s capable).

As he walks home from the party, he crosses into Oxford Street, in central London, where:

A poor wretched girl, lightly clad in thin raiment, into whose bones the sharp freezing air was penetrating, asked him for money. Would he give her something to get drink, so that for a moment she might feel the warmth of her life renewed?

Burgo is about to pass her by without a thought, well used to such a ‘petition’,

But she was urgent, and took hold of him. ‘For love of God,’ she said, ‘if it’s only a penny to get a glass of gin! Feel my hand – how cold it is.’ And she strove to put it up against his face.

He sees that she is very young, perhaps sixteen at most, and had been ‘very lately…exquisitely pretty.’ A look of the ‘pure innocency’ and faith that she must have had until just a year ago still lingers in her eyes.

And now, at midnight, in the middle of the streets, she was praying for a pennyworth of gin, as the only comfort she knew, or could expect!

Even though that exclamation mark probably reflects Burgo’s point of view, as he’s the focalisation at this point, I think that this is the bluff clubman narrator’s voice, the one that’s usually so urbane and aloof. Can Trollope possibly be expressing some compassion here for the urban poor – and a girl who’s probably soliciting men who look rich for money in return for sexual favours – in a manner we tend to associate more with Dickens? It seems so.

For Burgo stops to talk to her:

‘You are cold!’ said he, trying to speak to her cheerily.

‘Cold!’ said she, repeating the word, and striving to wrap herself closer, in her rags, as she shivered.

I don’t read this gesture of hers as seductive, but more an instinctive attempt to gain some animal warmth (and kindness) from the well-wrapped gentleman.

‘Oh God! If you knew what it was to be as cold as I am! I have nothing in the world – not one penny, not a hole to lie in!’

‘We are alike then,’ said Burgo, with a slight low laugh. ‘I also have nothing. ‘You cannot be poorer than I am.’

‘You poor!’ she said. And then she looked up into his face. ‘Gracious; how beautiful you are! Such as you are never poor.’

He laughs again, but in a different tone – surely one less cynical, self-pitying and callous. He says he will give her money provided it’s for something to eat. And he takes her to a pub for something to eat and drink.

I hope you agree that this is a touching scene, and better crafted than Trollope’s usual dashed-off narrative technique. Burgo is shown as a more complex, sympathetic character. By that I mean in his sympathy for the girl (the etymology of ‘sympathy’: sharing her suffering, unselfishly for once), and my feeling a touch of fleeting sympathy for him (it doesn’t last). He redeems himself for a short time in this scene.

And it seems to me achieved by Trollope in a less melodramatic, sentimental way than Dickens, usually Trollope’s superior as a novelist in every way, would have done it (and they do have radically different novelistic intentions and styles). Trollope rarely depicts the poor with any kind of profound understanding, sincerity or fellow-feeling, but he manages it here.

Next time I want to say a little more about that pub, and gin.

 

Guy de Maupassant, A Woman’s Life

Guy de Maupassant (1850-93), A Woman’s Life (Une vie). First published in French 1883. Penguin Classics edition (1965), translated by HNP Sloman.

The blog has been silent for a while: I’ve been very busy working (even though my day job ended last summer). Mrs TD had a big project on, and I was asked to assist. It’s been tiring but stimulating – and left little time for reading, let alone posting here. I finished this novel a few weeks ago, and this is the first pause in which I’ve been able to try to collect some thoughts about it.

Last year I posted on a selection of Maupassant short stories: Mademoiselle Fifi and other stories. I ended that post with a quotation from a Henry James essay on Maupassant, who  paints ‘a picture of unmitigated suffering.’ It was about Une vie that he was saying that.

Maupassant A Woman's Life cover, H. James criticism coverHe rightly points out that this first novel by Maupassant, started when he was just 27, but not finished until several years later, has little in the way of plot. As EM Forster famously explained, ‘the king died and then the queen died’ is a story; ‘the king died and then the queen died of a broken heart’ is a plot. Jeanne leaves her strict Rouen convent (in 1819) at the age of 19 to go and live in her parent’s grand but dingy country estate on the Normandy coast. Her father is a fairly wealthy man, owning a number of farms, but he’s profligate and generous with money, so the family live in quietly shabby gentility. Then things happen to her, in chronological order. This happens, then that. It’s unanalysed.

Jeanne’s joyful optimism and romantic schoolgirl dreams seem to be fulfilled when she falls in love with a dashing and handsome neighbour, the Vicomte. After a brief courtship they marry, but all goes downhill for her from then on.

She’s appalled by the physical side of married life. Julien drops all the attentive sensitivity he showed towards the naïve, virginal girl he courted, and shows his real, debauched nature. He’s brutal with her sexually, turns out to be less rich than he seemed, stops making an effort to charm, and shows he is an ugly, miserly character – he rapidly takes over all his callow wife’s fortune and leaves her powerless and without a role in the household, while refusing to stop excessive economising. Jeanne makes the miserable boredom of Madame Bovary, by Maupassant’s mentor Flaubert, look like fulfilment.

She’s grateful to find Julien becomes less demanding of her in bed, until the real reason for his indifference is revealed: he’s a libertine, and serially unfaithful to her. His affair with a neighbouring landowner’s wife ends badly for the adulterers, in a horrific scene lifted almost unchanged from Maupassant’s story in the Fifi collection, ‘The Shepherd’s Leap’ (except the role of the insanely zealous priest is shifted to the cuckolded husband).

Can a heart be broken more than once? Jeanne’s is. The illegitimate child on whom she lavishes all her thwarted love completes the job his father started, and drains his mother’s dwindling fortune with his never-ending begging letters for money – he’d left home to live with a woman portrayed as little more than a prostitute. There’s that duality of Maupassant’s view of women: harlot or nun.

James describes this novel with muted enthusiasm as ‘an interesting experiment’. Maupassant opens a window (he wrote in the essay I mentioned at the start) ‘to everything mean, narrow and sordid.’ Jeanne starts her adult life full of hope and dreams of romantic love, and receives ‘the outrages of fate with a passive fortitude.’ As her life gets bleaker and more dreary, so she tries to carry on, friendless and uncomforted, increasingly dominated by her disillusionment, loneliness and grief. Divorce is impossible; she can only endure.

She’s one of Maupassant’s few women characters who’s not extremely sensual or mendacious. If anything, she’s excessively innocent and passive. Even the ‘melancholy void’ of the flat pastures of Normandy and the grey sea Jeanne loves to look at from the windows of her house offer limited comfort.

There’s perhaps too much of that monochrome flatness in the novel as a whole. James suggested Maupassant eliminated too much from it: Jeanne is seen in few of the relations of life – just her much-loved parents and a few others. She has what he calls ‘no moral spring’ – I presume by ‘spring’ he means resilience, energetic core or agency – and lacks ‘the edifying attributes of character’. For example, when she looks through her late mother’s treasured pile of old letters, she finds out that she – like Jeanne’s father – had been less than virtuous in her marriage. That revelation of the banal sensuality and casual superficiality of her parents seems to slide off Jeanne, like all the other catastrophes in her life – or else Maupassant chooses not to explore the full impact of this devastating revelations and events on Jeanne. We get little insight into her inner life beyond the sense of her battered self-esteem, and that makes the narrative too detached and cool.

The forces of renunciation and patience sustain her – at times it would have been good to see some kind of spirited reaction. Her purity and bruised resilience are like those of the horse turning the wheel to which it’s tethered and can’t escape. It’s going nowhere, but endlessly, hopelessly toiling to the benefit of everyone but itself.

There are flickers of light and hope in this novel, but I find that James’s use of ‘interesting experiment’ indicates the ultimate lack of enthusiasm that I feel on contemplating this chronicle of ‘unmitigated suffering.’

Une vie poster Astruc director

Public domain image of the 1958 film poster. Attribution: By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48439206

PS: There are apparently two film versions of Une vie: the first starred Maria Schell in the title role. ‘One Life’ or, rather more sensationally, ‘The End of Desire’, as it was called in Anglophone countries, was directed by Alexandre Astruc (1958), the film critic/director best known for influencing Truffaut with his notion of the ‘caméra-stylo’ in nouvelle vague cinema theory. There’s a brief account of it at the NewWaveFilm.com website.

The other was by French director Stéphane Brizé (2016), also known as ‘A Woman’s Life’; it won the international film critics’ prize (FIPRESCI) at the 2016 Venice film festival. There’s a lukewarm review of it at the Guardian here. I’ve not seen either of these films, so will try to track them down.

 

5 books and a pencil

Castle hotel train cakeOur oldest grandson’s birthday falls just before Christmas, so Mrs TD and I travelled to Somerset to celebrate with his family. We broke our journey in Taunton and stayed overnight in the atmospheric Castle Hotel, with its cobbled forecourt, crenellations and Norman garden.

The lobby looked very festive, with the centrepiece of this huge gingerbread cake, with a miniature electric train chugging around its circular track. How our grandson would have loved it when he was little, and train mad.

Before sharing a delicious seafood meal with our old friend the regulator, who lives nearby, we trawled the shops (in my case, charity bookshops). I came up with this haul of five titles.

Taunton book haul

Taunton book haul

Antonia White’s The Lost Traveller is the first volume in the trilogy sequel to Virago’s first-ever title in its iconic Modern Classics green-spined series: Frost in May. I have yet to read it, but it’s good to have both volumes to anticipate.

I posted on Stefan Zweig’s poignant novel Beware of Pity last year, and The Post Office Girl was recommended by a Zweig aficionado soon afterwards.

I have a couple of other William Gass titles waiting to be read, and liked the look of this American paperback edition of Cartesian Sonata and other novellas – his fifth work of fiction.

I saw the Werner Herzog film ‘The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser’ a few years after it came out in 1974, so it was good to get hold of the 1908 novel by Jakob Wassermann based on the same strange story, in a handsome PMC edition.

Italo Svevo, the pen name of Aron Ettore Schmitz, was a friend of James Joyce during his Trieste years. I read The Confessions of Zeno pre-blog, so I was pleased to find another of his novels in the older PMC format.

Kaweco brass pencilBack home in Cornwall for Christmas, and a pleasant family time with the other grandchildren and their parents, over from Catalonia. Among my presents was this handsome brass clutch pencil: SketchUp 5.6. It’s made by the German company Kaweco. It was a thoughtful gift from Mrs TD’s sister and brother-in-law.

Kaweco pencil and tinIts design I think goes back to the 1930s. It looks very art deco and Weimar. It came in an equally retro tin box. I’ll enjoy using it. Problem is, I now want its companion fountain pen.

I hope you enjoyed your Christmas, if you celebrated it, and that 2020 is full of good times. I can’t say I look forward with much relish to living in Britain once we’ve left the EU. Let’s hope we can somehow maintain good relations with our friends and neighbours across the Channel – despite turning our backs on them in a fit of ill-tempered petulance.

 

No cats. Natsume Sōseki, Sanshirō

Natsume Sōseki (1867-1916), Sanshirō [三四郎] First published as a serial in a newspaper 1908; first book form, 1909. Penguin Classics, 2009. Translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin. Introduction by Haruki Murakami

Natsume Sōseki, Sanshiro cover

The cover illustration is a colour lithograph, ‘View from above of the people at the station’ (detail), unknown artist, late Meiji era (1868-1912)

I remember my own feelings of apprehension and excitement when I first arrived in the strange (to me) city of Bristol to start my undergraduate career as a student of English literature. Natsume Sōseki’s eponymous protagonist (‘hero’ is too…heroic a term to use for this diffident young man of 22) arrives in the metropolis of Tokyo (in 1907, according to the notes to this paperback edition) from a rural backwater with a similar turmoil of feelings as he begins his studies of English literature at the University of Tokyo.

The novel opens halfway through his three-day journey there by train. A misfiring erotic encounter overnight prepares us for the Lucky Jim scrapes, misunderstandings, embarrassments and evasions that will follow.

The online community (including novelist and blogger Jonathan Gibbs: ‘the characters are agreeable’, he rightly says) recommended this novel as light relief after the rigours of the enormous Nazis-WWII-turbulent 60s America novel by German writer Uwe Johnson, Anniversaries.

It’s a gentle, warily comical take on this young ingenu’s stuttering progress through his first university term. There’s little in the way of plot. Sanshirō is of course at the age when he’s attracted to just about any pretty young woman he meets, but has yet to develop the self-confidence to show his feelings, or to persuade the objects of his adoration to take an amorous interest in him.

A meddling, morally fluid fellow student called Yojirō is one of the more interesting characters, and there are a couple of engaging, high-minded older academics. These function largely to allow Sōseki to muse upon the nature of Japanese society soon after the end of the Russo-Japanese war, when the country was still coming to terms with a twentieth-century identity that involved transforming its ancient, feudal character, while accommodating to the newly-accessible West – with its tendency to colonise and patronise any ‘exotic’ new market.

Sōseki spent two not entirely happy years in London as a pioneering Japanese literary scholar, enabling him to absorb the English language and literary culture. He was destined to become a Professor of English at the very university Sanshirō attends. A subplot involves Yojirō’s blundering nationalist campaign to recruit a Japanese professor of English in place of the usual fashionable Westerner. The incumbent had been Lafcadio Hearn, who appears as himself in the novel; there’s a useful essay about this extraordinary Irish-American literary figure at the Paris Review HERE. This episode also provides Sōseki with the opportunity to dramatise the conflicting impulses – westernise or remain culturally uncompromised – noted above.

This was a diverting read, and there are some charming scenes in which the callow Sanshirō tries to cope in what he sees as urban and erotic sophistication. Like the cat in the adage, he knows what he longs for, but lacks the courage or wherewithal to attain it. There are no cats in the novel.

 

 

 

Tree surgery and Janet Frame’s ‘The Linesman’

Tree surgery: ash tree

Tree surgery: ash tree

Three men arrived the other day to carry out tree surgery on two trees beside our garden. As I watched the man climb a ladder then attach himself with harness, clips and his ropes and abseil up, down and round a tall ash, then a lime tree, chainsaw bombinating (a word I just encountered in the Introduction to an Anthony Trollope novel, and had to look up; I’m determined to start using it!), I felt a mixture of trepidation and exhilaration. He was so high up, so precarious.

And I half recalled a poem from my youth about someone looking at a man up a telephone pole, with a shocking last line. I tried Twitter, to see if anyone could name the poem or author. No success.

Then someone suggested I try the National Poetry Library. I sent an email, and after a few days had a reply from Lorraine, asking if I could recall any lines or phrases. A few days later I got a positive response. She’d found it! [Update, 13 Dec: she’s emailed to say it was her colleague Russell who found it, so thanks, Russell!]

It’s not a poem. It’s a very short story by the New Zealand writer Janet Frame. It’s called ‘The Linesman.’ I found a copy online HERE:

Three men arrived yesterday with their van and equipment to repair the telephone lines leading to the house opposite. Two of the men stayed at work in the house. The third carried his ladder and set it up against the telegraph pole twenty-five yards from the house. He climbed the ladder and beyond it to the top of the pole where, with his feet resting on the iron rungs which are embedded at intervals in the sides of the pole, he began his work, his hands being made free after he had adjusted his safety harness. He was not likely to fall. I did not see him climb the pole. I looked from my window and saw him already working, twisting, arranging wires, screwing, unscrewing, leaning back from the pole, dependent upon his safety belt, trusting in it, seeming in a position of comfort and security.

I stared at him. I was reluctant to leave the window because I was so intent upon watching the linesman at work, and because I wanted to see him descend from the pole when his work was finished.

People in the houses near the telegraph pole had drawn their curtains; they did not wish to be spied upon. He was in an excellent position for spying, with a clear view into the front rooms of half a dozen houses.

The clouds, curds and whey, were churned from south to north across the sky. It was one of the first Sundays of spring. Washing was blowing on the clotheslines in back gardens; youths were lying in attitudes of surrender beneath the dismantled bellies of scooters; women were sweeping the Saturday night refuse from their share of the pavement. Perhaps it was time for me to have something to eat – a cup of coffee a biscuit, anything to occupy the ever marauding despair.

But still I could not leave my position at the window. I stared at the linesman until I had to screw up my eyes to avoid the bright stabs of spring light. I watched the work, the snipping, twisting, joining, screwing, unscrewing of bolts. And all the time I was afraid to leave the window. I kept my eyes fixed upon the linesman slung in his safety harness at the top of the telegraph pole.

You see, I was hoping that he might fall.

Lime tree

Lime tree

It was that last line that I’d remembered. We’ve all surely had that strange mix of impulses when standing on a high place like a cliff or mountain: excitement at the panorama, and an urge to jump. So it was with the tree surgeon – or the linesman: how skilful and fearless they were. Precarious. ‘He was not likely to fall.’ Confident that his was a position of ‘comfort and security.’ She wanted, she believes initially, to see him come down safely.

Maybe Janet Frame was also creating an extended metaphor for her own experience. The dangerous, precarious act of creating as an artist. Exposing yourself to the gaze of others, while increasing your own capacity for observing the lives of others (all those verbs of ‘staring’, ‘spying’). The awareness of the possibility of success or catastrophic failure; the mix of artistry and sheer physical hard work (the vocabulary of ‘snipping, twisting, joining, screwing, unscrewing’).

Lime tree againMaybe as well she’s alluding to the horrors of electricity (the linesman is ‘arranging wires’): she endured countless procedures of ECT, and I believe narrowly avoided a leucotomy, as primitive ‘treatment’ for her mental health problems as a young woman (that ‘ever marauding despair’ felt by the narrator).

There’s a sense in this story that the woman is both detached from the linesman, observing him, but projecting herself into him: she becomes him.

I’m pleased to say our tree surgeon safely completed his task and left intact with his two mates. The squirrel whose nest was exposed by the removal of lime tree boughs was less happy. Serves him right for eating all my bird food.

My thanks to Lorraine and the National Poetry Library for their detective work.

St Feock: the saint, the church, the parish

St Feock

St Feock: window inserted in 1930

Church seen from beside tower

Church seen from beside tower

On Sunday the rain finally stopped and the sun shone. Mrs TD and I went for a walk starting at Feock church. I knew nothing about this obscure saint and this, I think the only church dedicated in his name in England (correct me if I’m wrong). There are some parishes in Britanny with similar names, like Lanveoc, whose patron is St Maeoc. The earliest written lives of saints venerated in Cornwall were written in Britanny, the oldest being that of St Sampson.

The nave

The nave

The oldest saint’s Life written in Cornwall is St Petroc’s. Some scholars have suggested that the –oc(k) element in these names is from the Celtic for ‘oak’, and that ‘Lanfeoc’ may be a composite word signifying ‘holy man living on top of an oak-covered hill’, but this is disputed.

There is no surviving ‘Vita’ or Life of this saint. The first reliable written record of St ‘Fioc’ is from c. 1160,

Sts Kea, Feock and Piran

Local saints Kea, Feock and Piran (from L to R)

where he is cited as a male saint living at Lanfioc – but there is some speculation that Feock might have been female. Later historians settle on ‘he’. Where he came from is therefore unknown, although there is a legend that (like Piran, Cornwall’s patron saint) he arrived by sea, floating on a millstone. The origins of this common hagiographical motif may possibly be that early missionary saints from Ireland, Wales and elsewhere often brought with them a large stone to be used as the altar or foundation for the church they intended establishing in these pagan regions.

The tower seen from the church porch

The tower seen from the church porch

Another suggestion is that he emigrated, as others did, from Cornwall as a missionary to Celtic Britanny – St Sampson, for example, became Bishop of Dol; his disciples, saints Austell and Mewan (now place names in mid-Cornwall), migrated there with Kea – now the name of a part of modern Feock parish; there’s a tasty local variety of plum named after it.

Celtic cross

The Celtic cross

The earliest record of a church at Feock is 12C, although it’s probable there was some sort of important religious site there before then. The font is dated 1130, the oldest artefact in the church. A Celtic cross stands in the churchyard near the south porch. This has been dated 13C, but again this is uncertain.

At the south entrance to the churchyard is a traditional lych-gate. It has a room above it, locally known as the Smuggler’s Vestry or the Schoolroom. The original raised slab on which coffins would have been rested before entering the church grounds has gone, but a part of it, or its foundation, was discovered during maintenance work.

Lychgate

Lychgate

An unusual feature of the church’s design is the separate tower (although there are several examples of similar detached towers in Cornwall), located at the top end of the sloping grounds outside, beside the road that runs through the village. This too has been dated 13C. It may have been an early church in its own right, but the writer of the guide admits this is speculative. It doesn’t have regular windows, just window-shaped openings covered by louvred slate. It’s now a bell-tower.

The present church building was entirely rebuilt in 1875-76.

The parish of St Feock spreads across a fairly wide district, and according to Wikipedia had a population of over 4000 in the 2011 census. The village of Feock itself is much smaller.

The tower with church roof below

The tower with church roof below

We walked from the church down a lane to the end of the promontory. The sumptuous houses on either side of the lane command magnificent views over the Carrick Roads (and the sea beyond) on the SE side, and over Restronguet Creek on the other.

There’s a bench at the furthest tip of the promontory – a very pleasant spot to sit and admire the tranquil scene. The only sounds are the curlews’ liquid calls and the slapping of the mast-ropes (I know that’s not the mariner’s term) on the moored boats.

View across Restronguet Creek towards Pandora Inn jetty

View across Restronguet Creek towards Pandora Inn jetty. Clouds already gathering

Across the creek is the jetty projecting from the yard in front of one of the most attractive pubs in Cornwall: the Pandora Inn. Parts of the building date back to the 13C. It was named after the HMS Pandora, the ship sent to Tahiti to capture the mutineers of Capt. Bligh’s Bounty. It struck the Great Barrier Reef in 1791 and sank with the loss of crew and mutineers. Its captain, who survived, was arrested on his return to Cornwall where he is reputed to have bought the inn.

A fire in 2011 destroyed much of the first floor, but it has been sympathetically restored and re-thatched. It’s a lovely place on a summer’s day to sit and have lunch outside on the jetty, watching the yachty folk coming and going. Mrs TD’s sister’s friend held her wedding reception there.

Yew tree

This impressive yew tree in the churchyard is said to be 500 years old

I am indebted for much of the information in this post to the 92-page printed guide by C.D. North, available from the church. There’s no place or date of publication, but it seems to be from 2003.