About Simon Lavery

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Penzance, Egypt, Denis Johnson and Gandhi

Mrs TD and I stayed Saturday night after our visit to Tate St Ives in Penzance, seven or eight miles away across the ancient granite-boulder-studded West Penwith moors (see my posts on DH Lawrence and this part of Cornwall), just a few doors down from one of the most extraordinary buildings in the southwest, if not in England: the Egyptian House, Chapel Street –

Egyptian House Penzance

The façade

Early C19 stucco Egyptian extravagance. 3 storeys. 3 windows Battered half round corded pilasters, windows and glazing bars. Lotus bud columns flanking entrance. Coved cornices above windows. 2 obelisk caryatids. A coat of arms crowned by an eagle. Heavy coved crowning cornice. [Historic England website description (it has Grade I Listed status – for its ‘special architectural or historic interest’)]

 

It was built ca 1835 in the Egyptian Revival style – which became popular after the Napoleonic campaigns in Egypt, and his defeat by Nelson at the Battle of the Nile in 1798, bringing the culture of ancient Egypt into the European consciousness. Napoleon had taken a scientific investigative team with him on his campaign, and they began publishing the results of their studies into the sites and artefacts of Egypt in 1809. But Egyptian style had been imitated in European architecture and design to a lesser degree ever since the Renaissance. Here’s a detail of that amazing façade:

Egyptian House Penzance

The main central façade

The Landmark Trust, which owns the building, rents out three apartments there as holiday accommodation. The house was built originally as a museum and geological repository. The Trust is a charity ‘that rescues important buildings that would otherwise be lost’ (their website).

Egyptian House portico

The portico

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We stayed at Artist Residence hotel, ‘a slice of eccentric charm’ as it describes itself, 22 rooms designed in eclectic taste, full of quirky features like a cobbler’s last acting as toilet roll holder in the en suite bathroom, or ‘distressed’ ancient French-style wooden window shutters which serve as the wardrobe doors. There are several hotels in this group across England; the first was started in Brighton, and was named because the young owner couldn’t afford to renovate the place, so invited the thriving local artistic community to come and decorate in return for board. This principle is what gives each location its own individual, innovative and engagingly idiosyncratic identity.

It was a delightful place to relax in after the rigours and excitement of the Virginia Woolf exhibition at the Tate St Ives during the day on Saturday, about which I wrote here yesterday.

I took with me to read Denis Johnson’s last book, a collection of short stories published in 2018 posthumously (he died last year). I’m about halfway through, and the style and subject matter are very like the gritty realism of Jesus’ Son, his 1992 collection whose title from the Velvet Underground song ‘Heroin’ says it all.

Denis Johnson, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden

Denis Johnson, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden

I wrote an elegiac piece for him here a week after his death, with a brief note on the four of his works I’d read at that time.

This new collection has his usual lyrical and hypnotic style and strung-out characters. I hope to post about it fairly soon, once I clear the backlog of posts on books already finished: there’s a May Sinclair and the Miklós Bánffy Transylvanian Trilogy.

Just to finish, I’d like to illustrate the lovely bookmark Mrs TD brought me back from her recent trip with her sister to India. She bought it at the Mahatma Gandhi museum in Delhi; it’s a delicate filigree representation of the great man in his loincloth, walking with his long stick.

Gandhi bookmark

It’s a humbling and inspiring way to mark my progress through my books.

 

A visit to the Tate St Ives

Mrs TD and I treated ourselves to a short break this weekend, going to the Tate St Ives yesterday, and driving on to stay at the quirky and charming Artist’s Residence hotel in Penzance. I was going to write briefly about both aspects of this trip here, but on researching the first part of it (as always happens) I got sidetracked, so shall focus here just on the Tate part; more on Penzance next time.

We wanted to take a look at the recently opened extension to the beautiful gallery, dramatically located overlooking the even more beautiful Porthmeor beach.

Porthmeor Beach

Porthmeor Beach seen from the ace café on the top floor of the Tate – hence the slight reflection in the glass. Arguably better than Miami Beach when the sun shines like this!

I wanted to visit an exhibition being held there: Virginia Woolf: An Exhibition inspired by her writings, Tate St Ives (until 7 April) – link is to the Tate’s page on the exhibition, with some lovely images from it (of course Woolf’s long association with St Ives is well known). My colleagues and I are going there again next week with our students, so I was keen to get a preview.

Do take a look at those images at the Tate site; it’s a fascinating set of exhibits – not just the variety of artworks reflecting aspects of Woolf’s life and work, but also letters and other interesting pieces. Dora Carrington, for example, was clearly a terrible speller, and had very large, dramatic handwriting (there are some of her works on display, even more dramatic).

Another artist (and writer) well represented in the exhibition, one I’ve been intending investigating further for some time, partly because of her writings about Cornwall, is Ithell Colquhoun. I hadn’t realised how yonic her art was…

But the one work that particularly drew my attention was this: Louise Jopling’s (1843-1933) Self Portrait, 1877:

Jopling, Self Portrait

Jopling, Louise; Self Portrait; Manchester Art Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/self-portrait-205303; public domain Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND

She was born in Manchester, studied art in Paris for a time – she exhibited at the Salon there – and her work featured in shows at the Royal Academy from the late 186Os or certainly by 1870 (depending which source one consults). She worked vigorously on behalf of women artists and of the Suffragists. She struggled all her life against the restraints imposed by Victorian and later societies on women and women artists, and succeeded in forging a professional career and reputation that few of her women contemporaries achieved. She campaigned for the right of women artists to work with live models without the prudish constraints of the Academy that such models be ‘carefully draped’ – which surely ruined the whole point of life drawing!

Like the portrait by Ingres I wrote about seeing at the National Gallery last month, this one drew my gaze with its forthright, full on contemplation of the onlooker: poised and self assured, intelligent, slightly amused perhaps – look at her right eyebrow. And that hat is at such a rakish angle. It’s a remarkable image.

When I looked her up online, I discovered there’s a Louise Jopling research project website, University of Glasgow (started 2005):

 The project aims to document her career as a leading female artist and her close-knit artistic, literary and theatrical world of late 19th century London and Paris. It also seeks to understand better the climate in which women then practised as artists and, more generally, the climate for women’s growing participation in the workplace and in public life.

[There follows a list of ‘core aspects of the project’, such as compiling catalogues raisonnées and databases of all her artistic and written works, transcripts of her correspondence, and the online edition of her autobiography, Twenty Years of My Life, 1867-1887 (1925).

The project also cites Louise JoplingA Biographical and Cultural Study of the Modern Woman Artist in Victorian Britain, by Patricia de Montfort (Routledge-Ashgate, 2016).

There are links at this site to a brief biography, with photos, a catalogue of works with links to the galleries holding them, and a bibliography. Well worth a look.

It’s interesting to compare the handsome portrait 1879 at the NPG of Mrs Jopling (link only, for copyright reasons) by family friend John Everett Millais; a lengthy account of how it came to be painted, with extracts from the writings of artist and subject, is at the NPG site here

Whistler’s portrait ‘Harmony in Flesh Colour and Black: Mrs Louise Jopling’, at the Hunterian Gallery, University of Glasgow, reflects the fashionable social and cultural life this remarkable woman led, mixing with these artists who painted her, Oscar Wilde, and other notables of the time. She deserves wider recognition.

It’s possible to see an image and account of Jopling’s Self Portrait at the Manchester Gallery site. While there I noticed this: John William Waterhouse’s famous (and rather twee) painting Hylas and the Nymphs (1896) was removed from Manchester Art Gallery last month on the grounds of its sexist objectification of the semi-naked female forms depicted, as widely reported in the media; the Gallery’s website gives a strikingly different account:

The painting – part of the gallery’s highly prized collection of Pre-Raphaelite works – was temporarily removed from display as part of a project the gallery is working on with the artist Sonia Boyce, in the build-up to a solo exhibition of her work at the gallery opening on 23 March 2018. Boyce’s work is all about bringing people together in different situations to see what happens. The painting’s short term removal from public view was the result of a ‘take-over’ of some of the gallery’s public spaces by a wide range of gallery users and artists on Friday January 26th.

The event was conceived by Boyce to bring different meanings and interpretations of paintings from the gallery’s collection into focus, and into life…In its place, notices were put up inviting responses to this action that would inform how the painting would be shown and contextualized when it was rehung.

 

I suppose this is what would have been called Fake News in some quarters…

Seagull

Outside the Gallery

Snow, lobster, Lothar

This week Cornwall experienced its first serious snowfall in some years. Siberian winds blew in fiercely from the east, caused by atmospheric shifts over the Arctic (nothing to do with global warming, I’m sure). Later in the week storm Emma moved up from the south, full of dampness, and more snow ensued.

This was the blizzard-like scene on Wednesday:

Truro snow

Normally i can see Truro Cathedral from this back door; now screened by the icy blast

Truro snow

Birds struggled to keep warm and sustained; my feeders in the back garden were thronged right through the storms

I know there are plenty of countries where much harsher winter conditions are common; I once visited my late friend Mike in Finland and the sea was frozen!

But here, where the prevailing winds come mild and damp from the southwest, across the Atlantic, and our Cornish coasts are kept temperate by the warm Gulf Stream, we rarely see this kind of weather.

It looked beautiful, though of course it caused all kinds of problems for people who needed to travel or try to get to work. Our staff and students were sent home to keep safe. So a couple of bonus days of reading…

By Saturday the snow had gone and the temperature returned to normal.  was able to go into town with Mrs TD. At the wonderful Fal Catch unit in the covered market we bought fish and prawns for our Keralan curry that night.

 

Truro snow

This was the scene down the road on Thursday: no cars, just families out sledging

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the tanks were several live lobster – all fairly normal in size. I asked the proprietor about the monster crustacean they’d had in the same tank before Christmas: he was huge. Had they sold him? He told me the lobster must have been 60 years old, and no, they hadn’t sold him by Christmas Eve. So he and his partner took him with them to the pub, had a pint, then drove home and released the lucky chap into the sea off Pendennis Point. I just hope he’s learned his lesson and evades the traps in future.

Lobster

Image via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today in town I did a few chores and browsed a couple of charity bookshops. In one I came across this: an author new to me, but I so liked the cover and the summary of the text that I had to buy it. Anyone reading this know it? He was born in Brünn, now Brno in the Czech Republic in 1890 and died in Vienna in 1974. He was a writer, theatre director and producer. Here’s the cover:

Lothar Vienna Melody cover

A handsome Europa Editions cover

A portable abyss: John Cheever, Bullet Park

John Cheever (1912-82), Bullet Park. First published 1967. Vintage paperback 2010.

This is a startlingly strange book, full of narrative elisions and unsettling shifts, a linguistically pyrotechnic display of insidious intent.

Its subject is that old American existential dilemma, from Hawthorne and Melville to Updike and Stephen King: the paradoxically simultaneous impulse towards the untamed forest of Sabbats, ocean as pratum spirituale, and the ironically deadening pull of the suburbs.

Bullet Park coverBullet Park is a ‘precinct of disinfected acoustics’, where everyone knows the price of everyone else’s property, where men paint their houses obsessively then go out into the garden and shoot themselves, unable to ‘stand it any longer’. These people numb their neuroses with cocktail parties and pills, gossip, mowing the lawn or taking the chainsaw to a diseased elm or soul.

In a typically weird and lyrical outburst early on the narrator imagines ‘some zealous and vengeful adolescent’ who might rail like Lear in the storm against such a deadening place, with its

legion of wife-swapping, Jew-baiting, booze-fighting spiritual bankrupts. Oh, damn them all…Damn their hypocrisy, damn their cant, damn their credit cards, damn their discounting the wilderness of the human spirit, damn their immaculateness, damn their lechery and damn them above all for having leached from life that strength, malodorousness, color and zeal that give it meaning. Howl, howl, howl.

Tony Nailles is such an adolescent, but his resistance takes the form of neurosis: he takes to his bed and, like Oblomov or Bartleby the Scrivener, prefers to stay there. His father, the uxorious Eliot, a chemist who helps make a mouthwash called Spang and hates himself for his bourgeois uselessness, has to drug himself to endure the daily commute by train into the city of New York, for a cold shower

had no calming effect on his image of the 7:46 as a portable abyss.

Part I ends with a mysterious Caribbean swami curing Tony with a mix of magic and prayer. Then it all gets much weirder.

Paul Hammer, who with his bitchy wife Marietta has just moved into Bullet Park at the start of the novel (shown his new home by a realtor named Hazzard), takes over the narrative; his monomaniacal first-person voice gives us his lengthy dysfunctional back-story. It’s hardly surprising he’s so deranged; from his exiled mother, crazy as a badger herself, he picks up the idea of crucifying a denizen of suburban respectability and excellence: the collocational congruence of names and pure chance (hazard) of contiguity provide the perfect candidate: Nailles. Or even better, his angsty teenage son.

The purpose of this symbolic crucifixion is ‘to awaken the world’, Hammer believes, with the certitude of the terminally lost. Nailles represents ‘a good example of a life lived without any genuine emotion or value’, he decides – this from Hammer, a man who falls in love with a woman because of a white thread on her shoulder, and who kills because of a piece of string or a much-coveted yellow room.

Nailles’s excellence is shown by such gestures as dutifully to turn on his windshield wipers, whatever the weather he’s driving through, to convey the ‘nomadic signals’ of his church’s somnolent belief in ‘the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.’ In their white-painted house (like all the other Bullet Park houses) the Nailles family ‘seemed to have less dimension than a comic strip.’ It’s the Dick van Dyke show scripted by Mephistopheles: this is hell, nor am I out of it.

I’ve written here before about Cheever’s deftly crafted short stories; this novel in some ways is a loosely linked collection of such units. This weakens the flow a little, but interest is sustained by that barely-contained sense of mayhem in the lawned pacific real estate, and by the dazzling language that often reaches levels of poetic delirium that’s akin to a spell. An example: Tony has a spat with his astrologically obsessed, seriously neurotic French teacher, blessed with the lewdly inappropriate name Miss Hoe:

She lived alone, of course, but we will grant her enough privacy not to pry into the clinical facts of her virginity…As a lonely and defenseless spinster she was prey to the legitimate anxieties of her condition…She had read somewhere that anxiety was a manifestation of sexual guilt and she could see, sensibly, that her aloneness and her virginity would expose her to guilt and repression. However, the burden of guilt must, she felt, be somewise divided between her destiny and the news in the evening paper.

‘Sensibly’ is just so well placed in that wicked profile.

How Nailles is impelled to thwart Hammer’s demented plan to immolate Tony in the chancel of the local church is the nearest this strange novel gets to a regular plot. It works, just about, as a sequence of disturbingly ironic, magical-surreal vignettes of a civilisation whose barbarity and existential vacuity is barely concealed, or tolerated. In one such scene Nailles wakes his wife by blazing away with his shotgun on his lawn in his underpants at a century-old snapper turtle that’s emerged from the local bog:

In this pure and subtle light the undressed man and the prehistoric turtle seemed engaged in some primordial and comical battle.

That battle takes many forms in this extraordinary novel, where one feels it’s turtles all the way down in an infinite regress to nothingness.

The Portrait of Two Ladies

My previous post was about my trip to London last week. I didn’t want to cram the piece with too many space-greedy photos, so omitted the ones of pictures I liked in the National Gallery. Several of you were kind enough to suggest you’d like to see them, so having got ahead of myself preparing Tennyson for next week’s classes (and C. Rossetti, looking further ahead), here they are. Just two of them.

First is this one; it seemed easiest to just post the caption on the wall of the gallery for information about it:

Morisot, Girl on a Divan

Berthe Morisot, Girl on a Divan

 

 

Morisot, Girl on a Divan caption

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Morisot first exhibited at the Salon at the age of 23 in 1864, and continued to do so most years for the next six, after which her work was included in the ‘rejected’ alternative salon of Impressionists – among all the now household names. She was married to Manet’s brother. I think her famous painting The Cradle (1872) was the one that first brought her to my attention many years ago; it’s a tender image of (presumably) a mother beside her baby’s ornate crib. There’s a striking portrait of her by Manet, done the same year, dramatically dressed in black (she was in mourning for her father), gazing out at the viewer with large, challenging, slightly amused eyes, yet they seem more guarded than those of the girl in the divan. That’s what interests me about her: she was denied access to the seamier parts of urban/social life beloved of the male impressionists – the brothels, low dives and clubs, and so on; but she could gain access to and gain the trust of the women who wouldn’t necessarily have interested her fellow (male) artists, or posed in the same way.

It seems that she influenced Manet considerably, encouraging him, for example, to taking up painting in the open air, not just in the studio. According to Wikipedia, where you can see the paintings I’ve mentioned, and several more, she was described by some art critics as being the best of the group.

Like most women artists (most women?) she found it hard to be taken seriously in her world. So here she is.

Next:

Ingres Mme Moitessier

This is by the Neo-Classical artist, Ingres (1856), a portrait of Mme Moitessier. She was the wife of a wealthy banker, shown here wearing a costly and fashionable Lyon silk gown. It was the detail and colour of this that has always drawn my eye – this little image can’t do it justice.

Ingres apparently laboured over the work for 12 years, constantly striving to perfect that colour and detail. It’s quite stunningly beautiful. It may be my imagination but the sitter’s facial expression seems far less comfortable under the artist’s male gaze than the girl in the divan above – though her body language seems quite relaxed. But it has more in common with a fashion plate than an intimate portrait, it seems to me. She and her husband no doubt wanted the artist to show off their prosperity.

Hope you didn’t mind this little detour away from my more usual literary territory. Apologies to any art specialists for any solecisms in my Google-derived information in this post. Obviously these are just snaps from my phone; I’d recommend taking a look online at the professionally photographed images of these artists’ work.

London times

I’ve been visiting friends in west London for a long weekend, hence these scenes of a fast-flowing river as we walked on the South Bank first to Tower Bridge, then back to the Tate Modern.

Tower of London

Traitor’s Gate at the Tower

After a weekend of high winds and driving rain (and a visit to the Blake in Sussex exhibition at Petworth House) the sun finally shone. Next day I returned and indulged in a dérive, walking from Westminster tube station to Trafalgar Square – hence the obligatory picture of the lion guarding Nelson’s column.

 

 

 

LionTower Bridge

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the National Gallery I limited myself to just a couple of rooms: Impressionists mainly. The nice guard said it was ok to take non-flash pictures, and patiently assured an anxious Italian visitor that yes, the paintings were all originals.

Then north to Soho Square, with a helpful plaque showing a plan of its earlier layout, and a brief history: it was from the late 17th century a fashionable location, with various aristocratic residents and a notorious brothel. William Beckford, author of Vathek,  was born there, and the naturalist Joseph Banks, who accompanied Captain Cook on his voyage to Australasia, was a resident; his house became a sort of salon for scientists. There’s a Catholic church on one side, which was built to cater for the local Irish and Italian communities, and a French Protestant church on the north side, originally serving the Huguenot exiles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Soho SquareSoho Square

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back to St James’s Park tube station and the ride back to Chiswick, but en route I saw the colourful displays in Chinatown to celebrate the New Year.

Chinatown

 

 

 

 

Then a book haul at Turnham Green Oxfam shop, which has an extensive Classics section. This will be my first Schulz; Edith Wharton I’ve posted about a few times:The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth and The Children

Book haul Feb 18

 

 

 

 

Crows, maggots and oysters: Dickens, Bleak House

I’ve been teaching Dickens this term. I don’t find much to say about Hard Times, with its skewering of Utilitarian selfishness and ‘fact’ displacing ‘fancy’. These strong points are weakened for me by the unpleasant hatchet job on trade unionism. Dickens rightly fulminates against the oppression of the ‘Hands’ by their greedy, bullying, heartless ‘masters’, and the injustices in the social system of the time (it was finished in 1854). His depiction of a union organiser as a windbag rabble-rouser, on the other hand, leads to the distressing conclusion that the workers will be ok provided they have imaginative outlets: principally circuses.

There’s too much sentimentality, too, a trait Dickens found hard to tone down.

Bleak House is another matter. Here we find much more nuanced social criticism, and the huge canvas and cast of characters is deployed with panache. Let me close this short post with a fairly random quotation that illustrates what he’s capable of when he resists the temptation to sentimentalise. This is from Book 1, ch. 10: ‘The Law Writer’, which introduces yet another apparently minor character and his circle, but a person who, like all the other secondary figures, plays an important part in the plotting and thematic coherence of the novel:

The day is closing in and the gas is lighted, but is not yet fully effective, for it is not quite dark. Mr. Snagsby standing at his shop-door looking up at the clouds sees a crow who is out late skim westward over the slice of sky belonging to Cook’s Court. The crow flies straight across Chancery Lane and Lincoln’s Inn Garden into Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

 

Here, in a large house, formerly a house of state, lives Mr. Tulkinghorn. It is let off in sets of chambers now, and in those shrunken fragments of its greatness, lawyers lie like maggots in nuts. But its roomy staircases, passages, and antechambers still remain; and even its painted ceilings, where Allegory, in Roman helmet and celestial linen, sprawls among balustrades and pillars, flowers, clouds, and big-legged boys, and makes the head ache–as would seem to be Allegory’s object always, more or less. Here, among his many boxes labelled with transcendent names, lives Mr. Tulkinghorn, when not speechlessly at home in country-houses where the great ones of the earth are bored to death. Here he is to-day, quiet at his table. An oyster of the old school whom nobody can open.

That motif of the crow recurs throughout the narrative, serving as a device to connect the contrasting locations, from the lowly law stationer in his shady, dank court, to the grand ‘house of state’ of the pompous, corrupt lawyer Tulkinghorn. In Bleak House Dickens brilliantly links the high and the low (even street crossing sweeper Jo, effectively a beggar, who ‘knows nothink’, plays a key role in the puzzle. Everyone knows something, but what they don’t know is usually more important. There are secrets everywhere. Even the painted Allegory on the ceiling signifies more than its surface reveals.

That simile of the lawyers lying ‘like maggots in nuts’ is crude but it works. To move on to ‘an oyster of the old school’ mixes the image improbably, but Dickens is in such fine form here he gets away with it: Tulkinghorn, like Allegory, can be two things simultaneously – maggoty in his insidious law-scheming, and oystery in his clammed-up secret-guarding.

This is a far stronger, richer novel than Hard Times: the moral outrage isn’t negated by dodgy political prejudices and myopia.

He’s still not very convincing in his women characters, though.

Bleak House title page

Title page of the first edition (1853) illustrated by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne) via Wikimedia Commons, public domain

James Wright’s hammock with chicken hawk

I’ve not had time to post for quite a while, such have been the pressures of work. But just now I read the always stimulating Rohan Maitzen‘s post about what she’d doing in her classes, and I felt inspired to emulate her in my own way, by noting here what has roused my interest in my own teaching this week.

I came across the poetry of James Wright, and this poem; the links take you to the Poetry Foundation site, which has useful biographical/background information, and the text of this and other works by him.

Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota By James Wright (1927-80); CGI reading of it here

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,   

Asleep on the black trunk,

Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.   

Down the ravine behind the empty house,   

The cowbells follow one another   

Into the distances of the afternoon.   

To my right,

In a field of sunlight between two pines,   

The droppings of last year’s horses   

Blaze up into golden stones.

I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.   

A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.

I have wasted my life.

[from Above the River: The Complete Poems and Selected Prose (1990); first published in The Paris Review, 1961; see this article about it there from 2015 by Dan Piepenbring]

He focuses, as surely most of us do when we first experience the shock, on that extraordinary last line, that explodes everything that’s gone before; is a lament, a joke, a kind of boast, or ‘a religious statement’ (Wright’s own view) he wonders? He provides useful links to other speculations about and interpretations of it. I’m still not sure what I make of it.

He also provides links to a piece about it by David Mitchell at the Atlantic, a provocative article on ‘the popular disdain for poems’ by Ben Lerner, and a list of other critical responses at Modern American Poetry’s site. Well worth exploring. He also considers some of those responses, including those of Robert Bly and Thom Gunn.

I notice, as I try to process that final line and how it arises out of the previous ones, how he makes interesting use of the definite article for most of the concrete nouns he itemises in his sweep of his gaze around the view from the hammock: ‘THE bronze butterfly’, ‘THE black trunk’, and so on.

But it’s ‘A chicken hawk’ (whatever that is; we don’t have them in Cornwall. We do have buzzards, so I’ll picture it like that.) Why so unspecific about this one raptor? And why is it looking for home (its own, or any old home? Is it lost? Is that what provokes that apparent non sequitur of a closing line?)

Odd, too, how it’s the cow BELLS that ‘follow one another’, not the cows…Bovine synecdoche (a rhetorical term that came up in today’s class on Hard Times – ‘the Hands’).

All the best writing raises more questions of this kind than it answers. And that goes for that enigmatic, explosive last line. Most of us, I’d have thought, would find the curious, engaged sweep of gaze across this rural scene very much the most rewarding kind of spending one’s life – far less wasteful than commuting through dank January streets to work.

Maybe that’s one aspect of its startling impact; if he thinks he’s wasted his life by observing the life around him from that relaxing hammock, what does that make mine (i.e. my life) worth?

You might like to try ‘Outside Fargo, North Dakota’ (1968), or other links at Poetry Foundation site, source of most of these materials.

Finally, I recommend Rohan Maitzen’s site,  the one I mentioned at the start, ‘Novel Readings‘, where she regularly includes a ‘This week in my classes’ item. There’s also plenty of other intelligent, thoughtful material on all things literary and academic.

Just looked up Chicken Hawk at Wikimedia Commons. Here it is:

By Maynard, Lucy (Warner), 1852-1936. [from old catalog] – from Birds of Washington and vicinity, 1902 (& Library of Congress). Seems it’s the popular name for several kinds of raptor, including Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks. Sharp-shinned?

 

Now back to Dickens.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jackson Mitford: holiday reading

Mick Jackson, The Underground Man. Picador paperback, 1998; first published 1997.

Nancy Mitford, Don’t Tell Alfred. Penguin paperback 2015 reissue, first published in 1960.

Jackson Mitford coversOne of my first blog posts was about Mick Jackson’s charming ursine caper Bears of England. I didn’t find The Underground Man as satisfying, but it is a more ambitious, complex and serious novel.

Perhaps that’s why. Despite his capacity for quirky humour, Jackson indulges his penchant for digressions and eccentric excursions and disquisitions too much, making this is an occasionally lacklustre read. Its protagonist is a wealthy landowning aristocrat in Nottinghamshire in the high Victorian period. ‘His Grace’, as his large, not entirely sympathetic staff address him, is based on the eccentric Duke of Portland.

An old man when the narrative begins, he’s bald, losing his faculties (including his sanity) and valetudinarian, like Emma’s father in the Austen novel. He has a tendency to become fixated on trivia, such as the objects he finds in the attic, and on maps, clothes – and tunnels. His huge country house already had some medieval tunnels constructed by the monks who once owned it. These were to enable them to escape when Catholics in England were persecuted.

Mick Jackson, The Underground Man coverThe duke employs engineers to build a larger network of such tunnels, wide and high enough to allow him to ride in his carriage along them. They serve no practical purpose, but amuse him enormously. This self-indulgent childishness is offset by the genuine care and fondness he shows for his estate workers and their families.

The problem is, that’s the plot. The 261 pages are filled with the minutiae of his daily existence, which is rarely more than mildly interesting. The chief interest of the novel is its depiction of a troubled soul and mind slowly deteriorating into a kind of paranoia.

The fragmentary structure doesn’t add to the coherence of the narrative, though the multiple voices that complement the main diary entries of the duke do provide occasional insights into the responses of those around him to the duke’s increasingly bizarre behaviour and erratic obsessions.

My other main holiday read was slightly more engaging: Nancy Mitford’s Don’t Tell Alfred. 

I took it to Spain with me not realising it’s a sequel to The Pursuit of Love, published in 1945, which I read a while back but never posted about here. I don’t find much to say about either novel, except they’re very funny in parts, moderately amusing much of the time, but frothy and ultimately insubstantial. I know it’s shallow of me but I find it hard to care much about characters like Fanny, the protagonist, when they’re given to saying things like this about a luncheon date with her errant son in London:

Never possessing a London house of my own I have always found the Ritz useful when up for the day or a couple of nights; a place where one could meet people, leave parcels, write letters, or run into out of the rain.

Linda’s mother is known as the Bolter, because of her fondness for running off with new partners when married to others. Here’s a sample of the arch humour that the novel is shot through with; eccentric, irascible but supposedly loveable Uncle Matthew, now an old man, is discussing her mother with Fanny:

‘How many husbands has the Bolter had now?’

‘The papers said six –‘

‘Yes, but that’s absurd. They left out the African ones – it’s eight or nine at least. Davey [Fanny’s uncle, another extreme hypochondriac] and I were trying to count up. Your father and his best man and the best man’s friend, three. That takes us to Kenya and all the hot stuff there – the horsewhipping and the aeroplane and the Frenchman who won her in a lottery. Davey’s not sure she ever married him, but give her the benefit of the doubt: four. Rawl and Plugge five and six, Gewan [Spaniard Juan who was introduced in The Pursuit – Matthew has no time for foreigners and wilfully mispronounces the name] seven…[etc.]

 

OK, that kind of thing is pretty funny at times, but some of the jokes and slang are just plain silly. The plot is full of abrupt reversals and revelations, and there’s a large cast of eccentric, mostly louche, lazy and rich characters (most of them have titles or don’t really need to work for a living) who are selfish or stupid or both. Some are said to be very clever or astute. Many of them have a stylishly epigrammatic turn of phrase – one of the pleasures the novel offers.

The approach of the ‘swinging sixties’ is surprisingly prominent in that one of Fanny’s less appealing sons (the other is a tiresome beatnik-bearded, parasitic fake Buddhist) Basil has become a dodgy tourist agent, mercilessly ripping off package holidaymakers. He speaks in a weird hybrid of Cockney, ‘beatnik’ and upper class toff jargon, dismissing his hapless clients as ignorant, bovine victims. Americans’ fondness for psychotherapy (here of a very dubious nature) is wickedly sent up. The other harbinger of the emerging teen/pop era is a rock n roll star with the unlikely name of Yanky Fonzy.

Nancy Mitford, Don't Tell Alfred coverI don’t think Nancy M really ‘gets’ pop culture, the hoi-polloi, or the nascent sixties – or wants to.

The Alfred of the title is Fanny’s Oxford don husband, who accepts a prestigious diplomatic post early on, thus sparking off the novel’s numerous divagations and complications, some of which are quite entertaining, but many are duds.

No doubt I should be more charitable, and accept that it’s all tongue-in-cheek and ironic and not to be taken too seriously. But I found the snobbery and occasional casual racism distasteful – though the novel in its best moments is very funny, and there’s a surprisingly racy sexiness about it.

Being and nothingness: Graham Greene, A Burnt-out Case

Graham Greene, A Burnt-Out Case. Vintage Classics 2004. First published 1960

The cabin-passenger wrote in his diary a parody of Descartes: ‘I feel discomfort, therefore I am alive’.

Graham Greene’s novel opens with a reference to two themes that will dominate this novel: a character has lost his capacity to feel anything but the most basic physical discomfort. And he’s writing about it.

The passenger, who is the protagonist, Querry, is at the end of his spiritual and vocational tether. Like the masterless samurai who entrusts his choice of route to the fates by spinning his sword in the air and taking the fork in the road down which it points when it falls, Querry has boarded a plane going to the most random and remote destination on the departure board: central Africa.

This is why he is chugging up a tributary of the Congo on a battered paddle-steamer that recalls the one in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ – in fact Giles Foden, in an interesting Introduction to this Vintage Classics edition, points out a number of links with this and other post-colonial Conrad novels.

Another parallel, in terms of Querry’s existential angst, is Camus. There’s a lot of Meursault in Querry. Unfortunately Querry is a much less interesting character, and his angst fails to engage my sympathy. Unlike Meursault, Querry is a lapsed Catholic who unconsciously strives for a kind of salvation. Not necessarily in the Christian sense. He’s more a nihilist or apatheist than an existentialist.

Words or phrases signifying ‘nothing(ness)’ or an ‘end’ are frequently employed; here’s the first, on p. 8; the Superior, who’s also the ferry captain, has talked about not suffering from prickly heat, and Querry finds himself unable to remain uncommunicative any longer, and says

‘Nor I. I suffer from nothing. I no longer know what suffering is. I have come to an end of all that, too.’

‘Too?’

‘Like all the rest. To the end of everything.’

The Superior turned away from him without curiosity. He said, ‘Oh well, you know, suffering is something which will always be provided when it is required.’

He’s even taken this ferry trip to the last stop on its route: it goes no further.

But in this exchange what should be an intriguing opportunity to explore and portray Querry’s tortured soul, I feel instead we get a peevish gripe and a complacent priestly aphorism in reply. This sets the tone for the whole novel.

Cover of G. Greene, A Burnt-out CaseMaybe I shouldn’t have read this novel over Christmas. I found it depressing (the main setting is a leproserie, and many of the secondary characters are mutilated lepers or their doctors and priests) and turgid, and the theological soul-searching and debates, like that small fragment I just quoted, which Greene indulges frequently and at length, largely specious.

Querry’s disillusionment with worldly things is largely ascribed in the narrative to his coming to an end with sex. He’s decided his serial affairs with married women, whom he always leaves before any commitment might be required, ends inevitably with the last in the sequence killing herself. But his flight is not, our narrative insists, due to guilt. It’s all about Querry and his emptied masculine soul, his atrophied, once-noble emotions. If anything her death is an affront to him, in some obscure way.

‘I thought you said you had no interest in anything,’ says the Superior to Querry at a later point. He replies: ‘I haven’t. I’ve come through to the other side, to nothing. All the same, I don’t like looking back.’ No, that would require a conscience. And the last letter from his final mistress, now dead, rustles accusingly in his pocket, her words ‘toute à toi’ ringing in his mind; briefly he’d just reflected that ‘one could still feel the reflection of another’s pain when one had ceased to feel one’s own.’ But he keeps the letter in his pocket in a way that a hermit or a monk wears a painful, searing belt or garment to mortify the flesh. This is guilt transformed into self-aggrandisement, distorted by his egotism into just another station of his own route to his cross. The woman’s fate or state is ultimately of less concern than his own desire to end a pain I just called conscience, but which he continues to deny exists any more for him. A nihilist, misanthrope, misogynist. The cosmic scale is all illusion, his own narrative.

Doctor Colin, a rather more engaging character, had ‘long ago, before he had come to this continent of misery and heat, lost faith in any god that a priest would have recognised.’ His spiritual aridity and void seems a product of his close acquaintance with the human suffering and pain of others; Querry’s is largely a result of his own sense of the innate malevolence of the universe towards him personally. He dislikes people, like the ones who enter and admire the buildings, or who worship vacuously in the churches, he’d designed: ‘I wasn’t concerned with the people who occupied my space – only with the space’, Querry declares proudly, unconscious or careless of the arrogance and misanthropy.

It’s Colin who diagnoses Querry as a ‘burnt-out case’ – the rather callous term for lepers whose disease has run its course and they’d lost all the digits and body parts that it was fated to take from them. Their ‘cure’ is a terrible one. That it becomes a running metaphor for Querry’s condition I find bordering on the distasteful and disrespectful.

In his dedication to the novel before the narrative opens Greene explains that it’s not a roman à clef,

…but an attempt to give dramatic expression to various types of belief, half-belief, and non-belief, in the kind of setting, removed from world-politics and household-preoccupations, where such differences are felt acutely and find expression. This Congo is a region of the mind…

And that’s where my problem with the novel starts. There’s very little of a dramatic nature in the novel until the signposted ending. The alternative types of belief the novel acknowledges are largely dismissed lightly, like the fetishes and spirit-worship of the natives.

The claim that Luc, the nearest town to the leproserie, is ‘removed’ from politics is contradicted in the narrative, let alone in common sense. There are references to riots and disturbances in the capital; Sharpville and other shameful post-colonial atrocities are mentioned in passing – inconsequential to these self-obsessed characters, perhaps, but not to the indigenous inhabitants. The very presence of Belgian Catholic priests and entrepreneurs in this part of Africa, who represent to cast of characters of this politically anaesthetised novel, is a salutary reminder of Europe’s shameful role in the former colonies.

This ‘removal’ of Querry’s spiritual dilemma to a kind of socio-political vacuum is to tip the scales of the artistic-moral balance (to paraphrase an essay by DH Lawrence) in the worst way.

As the dedication goes on, his dedicatee, Dr Lechat,

…will know how far I have failed in what I attempted. A doctor is not immune from ‘the long despair of doing nothing well’, the cafard [cockroach?] that hangs round a writer’s life.’

That ‘unworthiness topos’ beloved of the medieval Christian writers is glaringly, ironically apposite here. I think Greene has failed. And I’m not too sure what he’s attempted in terms of novel-writing. It would perhaps have been better as a theological paper.

I’ve gone on too long, and written too hurriedly and imprecisely. I’d have liked to consider the unsuccessful, spurious metafictional touches that draw further attention to the novel’s shortcomings. ‘You’re not a writer, are you? There’s no room for a writer here’ (Colin addressing Querry when they first meet); ‘A writer doesn’t write for his readers, does he? Yet he has to take elementary precautions all the same to make them comfortable…The subject of a novel is not the plot.’ And explained more clearly my objections to Querry’s spurious dilemma.

I don’t think Greene is guilty of not making his reader ‘comfortable’; it’s of making this one feel a mix of ennui and annoyance.