About Simon Lavery

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Charlotte Wood, The Weekend

Charlotte Wood, The Weekend. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2020. First published in Australia by Allen & Unwin, 2019

An aged man is but a paltry thing,/A tattered coat upon a stick… WB Yeats, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’

During this pandemic it’s become apparent that there aren’t many terms for people in the final years of their lives that don’t sound patronising or demeaning: the elderly (like the infirm: a category of useless outsiders, surplus to societal requirements). Older people. Older than normal people, is the implication.

Older women in fiction are even scarcer than the men. They often serve as slightly comical or absurd, often acidic commentators on the antics of the more interesting younger people around them – like the battleaxe in Downton Abbey whose name I forget, or the dowagers in Victorian novels who view the perceived shortcomings of the ‘girls’ of marriageable age in their social circles with disapproval.

Fiction writers tend to be more interested in younger people – those who are still useful to society, of breeding age or raising their young, holding down jobs and contributing to the economy – or, if they’re not, finding ways of dealing with this. They have agency.

There are notable exceptions to this tendency. Elizabeth Taylor, more recently, Elizabeth Strout. I’m sure you can think of many more. Devon-based blogger Caroline focuses (among other subjects) on older women in fiction in her Bookword blog (link HERE), and is doing her bit to shift the balance in our perception of this demographic.

Charlotte Wood, The Weekend front coverI was inspired to read Australian author Charlotte Wood’s recent novel The Weekend by a review at Lisa Hill’s ANZ Litlovers blog last December (link HERE) and a follow-up post in May 2020, about the Yarra Yarra writers festival (link HERE). Like a less sentimental Golden Girls, it deals with the bonds and tensions between three women in their early seventies. She does this with frankness, insight and quite a bit of humour. She doesn’t idealise these women: they’re all flawed in their own ways. But they’re all interesting, vulnerable and utterly convincing as characters.

Every Christmas they would gather at the beach house of Sylvie and her partner Gail. This year it’s different – Sylvie has died earlier that year, and Gail has cleared out their city house and gone to Ireland, and invited Jude, Adele and Wendy to do the same for the beach house, taking anything they want to keep for themselves. Sylvie’s death prompts intimations of mortality and decline in all of them.

Fissures in the three women’s friendship appear right from the start. Even though they’ve been close for decades and know each other better than their own siblings, ‘strange caverns of distance between them’ are revealed.

Jude, an elegant ex-restauranteur, is judgemental, bossy and spiky. She’s been conducting an affair with a married man for forty years, and there’s little sign he’ll ever commit to her.

Adele is an actor noted for her glamour rather than her talent, and the acting parts have dried up along with her looks. She’s become desperate to revive her career, and begins to humiliate herself as the weekend proceeds. Some of these scenes are almost painful to read.

Wendy is an intellectual, a published feminist. She’s also adrift, having lost her much-loved husband, and her direction and purpose in life. Much to the annoyance of Jude, she’s brought along her incontinent, bewildered old dog Finn, whose dementia foreshadows perhaps the fate of these women. Jude insists he stays outside the house, convinced he’ll soil the expensive white sofa she’d given to Sylvie, and is intolerant of his senility.

This hostility reflects the occasional attitude of much of wider society towards older people in the community. They’re an embarrassment, and best kept out of sight. The kindest thing, Jude believes, would be to put the old dog out of his misery. Why don’t we do this for people, is the inference she’d probably not acknowledge.

There’s not much in the way of plot, although it’s not surprising that startling secrets spill out that threaten the fragile equilibrium of this friendship. It’s unclear until the end whether life-affirming connections that hold the women together will prevail against the rifts that open up between them, or whether their weekend will end in acrimony and disaster.

I realise I may have made The Weekend sound a bit depressing – it isn’t. There’s some cracking dialogue and wit in the narrative, and the prose is unfussy and sprightly. Right at the start, when Jude is thinking about her lover’s unsuccessful attempt to elicit her sympathy for a relative of his who’s died (she feels more inclined to spit on the floor than to hug him), she admonishes herself not to be so ‘hard on people’. Then:

Jude hated other candles being lit next to the one she secretly thought of as Sylvie’s, in the cathedral she had stolen into once or twice. Sometimes she blew the other candles out.

I like the way Wood has Jude ‘steal’ into the cathedral, and vindictively blow out the other candles – she doesn’t even seem to have lit one for Sylvie herself! Her acerbity conceals an almost-lost capacity for affection.

Later, Adele reflects painfully on the way that Jude would never praise her acting performances or the plays she appeared in. Instead she ‘demolished the various elements’ of the production, because:

Jude was like a reverse Midas, walking through your life pointing at the things you cherished, one, two, three, and at her touch each one turned to shit.

It was said of Jude she ‘didn’t have friends, she had subordinates.’ But that was when she was younger, Jude has begun to realise. Now she has nothing except her part-time, absent lover.

None of this is spelt out; my extracts indicate how Wood carefully presents the minds of her characters in turn through free indirect thought, with all their evasions and elisions, as they contemplate the actions of others and their own inconsistencies.

Wood’s capacity to splice barbed revelation with humour is one of the highlights of this novel. Like the moment where Wendy looks at Sylvie’s (probably unread) copy of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. She recalls how they all liked talking about death when they were younger, especially Jude:

Back then Jude talked about her image of death; a white, curved place of stillness and a kind of holy silence. She made it sound like the damned Guggenheim.

Wendy goes on to think of her unsympathetic daughter’s friend, who’d set herself up as ‘an end-of-life doula’:

What’s that, Wendy had said, palliative care without the qualifications?

Hadn’t this woman heard of feminism, she wonders. She can be spiky too.  And of course she’s also pondering the way her own feminist career has run its course – she’s becoming another ‘paltry thing’. But all of these women are finding ways for their souls to ‘clap hands and sing’ – and refuse to slouch into senility.

 

 

Lockdown diary

I’m still finding it difficult to summon the energy to read much, let alone post, so today I thought I’d do another account of recent events.

My first cake

My first cake

Before lockdown ended last Wednesday I thought it was time I baked my first ever cake. With some supervision from Mrs TD – an excellent cook and baker – I produced this beauty: a Victoria sponge, with raspberry jam in the middle. It was delicious.

Next day the weather finally improved, so we went for a walk on the north Cornwall coast. The beach at Crantock was our dog’s favourite place, and is still one of ours.

Polly Joke

Polly Joke

We love the walk along the coastal path to the next bay: Polly Joke. I’ve posted here earlier this year with pictures of the beautiful display of poppies there in the summer. My picture shows the aftermath of the stormy weather during the preceding week.

When lockdown ended we found ourselves in Tier 1 – one of only a few areas in the country not to face tighter restrictions because of the recent surge in Covid cases here in the UK. On another fine sunny day we went to the south coast.

St Austell Bay

St Austell Bay

We took a picnic: Mrs TD’s home-made roast tomato and red pepper soup and a sandwich, which we ate on a bench overlooking St Austell Bay. My picture shows the sea as flat as a lake, gleaming like polished metal in the low winter sunshine.

On Monday I walked alone locally while Mrs TD had her Zoom yoga class at home. There were angry-looking dark clouds being buffeted across the sky by a blustery wind, but in between the sun was bright and the sky blue.

Pig lane view

This is the view from a lane that runs along the valley cut by the river Allen. There used to be a huge pig that wallowed in the mud beside the river below the farm, so we call this the Pig Lane – even though she’s long since gone for bacon.

Yesterday for another walk around Feock and the creekside paths (very muddy after all the recent rain) to Penpol and back.

I’ve posted before about the lovely little church in Feock, and the saint after whom the village is named. I finally traced the location of the holy well named after him: websites gave conflicting information.

Steps leading to St Feock's Well

Steps leading to St Feock’s Well

It’s a fairly modern-looking brick structure at the bottom of a slope, reached by a set of rough steps. Iron bars – like a prison cell’s – are the only way of seeing inside, so it’s very dark. Murky water the colour of milky tea looks uninviting. I can’t imagine this water having very curative powers – rather the contrary.St Feock's well

 

 

 

 

 

Since the lockdown ended the town has become very busy again. Everyone seems intent on making up for lost time, doing their Christmas shopping. I prefer to avoid the crowds and stick to my rural walks. As always we feel so fortunate to live in such a lovely place. The scenery always lifts our spirits.

So do the plants and wildlife. My bird feeder is regularly visited by a handsome nuthatch. The bullfinches that were regular visitors earlier in the year are also starting to return after the summer hiatus. Mrs TD insists that the birds fend for themselves during the summer. She says naturally foraged food is bountiful at that time, and they’ll become lazy and probably delinquent if we carry on feeding them through those months.

She’s not usually so tough.

Cairngorm pilgrim: Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain

Nan Shepherd (1893-1981), The Living Mountain. Canongate, 2014 (The Canons series)

‘One never quite knows the mountain, nor oneself in relation to it.’

Nan Shepherd wrote this homage to the Cairngorm mountains mostly towards the end of the second world war, but was advised by a well-meaning correspondent that it would never find a publisher. She put the MS in a drawer where it remained until it was published ‘quietly’ (as Robert Macfarlane puts it in his introduction to this edition) in 1977.

I find it as difficult to describe as he does:

A celebratory prose-poem? A geo-poetic quest? A place-paean? A philosophical enquiry into the nature of knowledge? A metaphysical mash-up of Presbyterianism and the Tao?

Mountains have long inspired powerful emotions in those who contemplate them. Edmund Burke, in his examination (1757) of all things ‘sublime’, such as mountain ranges, believed that ‘terror’ was its ‘ruling principle’. Until the time of the early Romantics, wild nature in all its forms, especially mountains, were viewed with similar misgivings, although there was always a concession that mighty vistas inspired feelings of awe. Rude nature was seen as something of an imperfection, a visual proof of the fall of humankind from grace. It was chaos – the antithesis of human reason and logic.

I came across a fine example of this wary attitude to nature’s wildness when listening to a podcast recently of the Radio 4 programme The Verb (dated 29.6.18), an episode called ‘Northern Rocks’ – about the craggy hills of the north of England. One contributor cited the English author and rent collector in Scotland, Edward Burt (died 1755; he was also a surveyor for the making of General Wade’s military roads there after the 1715 Jacobite rebellion). Burt wrote in 1727-28 about Scottish mountains in a grumpy letter to a friend (published 1754):

I shall soon conclude this description of the outward appearance of the mountains, which I am already tired of, as a disagreeable subject. . . . There is not much variety, but gloomy spaces, different rocks, heath, and high and low, . . . the whole of a dismal gloomy brown drawing upon a dirty purple; and most of all disagreeable when the heath is in bloom. But of all the views, I think the most horrid is, to look at the hills from east to west, or vice versa; for then the eye penetrates far among them, and sees more particularly their stupendous bulk, frightful irregularity, and horrid gloom, made yet more sombrous by the shades and faint reflections they communicate one to another.Letters from a Gentleman in the North of Scotland to his Friend in London. Fifth edit., vol. i. p. 285. (Link to this quotation online HERE).

Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain front coverWordsworth was to use the term ‘sublime’ about his beloved Lakeland mountain region in a more transcendendent sense, and he was influential in changing the largely negative attitudes to wild nature prevalent until his time (though there was a fashion in the decades before him for admiring the ‘picturesque’ – sanitised tableaux of natural scenes to be admired in urban drawing-rooms). Shepherd favours this Wordsworthian attitude, with a dose of sensuality, metaphysics and Zen thrown in. She’s also a sort of rural psychogeographer or flâneuse, if it’s possible to be one outside of an urban setting:

Yet often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination, when I reach nowhere in particular, but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend with no intention but to be with them…

She has no truck with the (mostly male) climbers who seek simply to chalk up another peak to their tally of conquests. Mountains are not there to be vanquished. Her approach is more selfless, spiritual and poetic.

The dustjacket of this book carries a quotation from the Guardian newspaper: ‘The finest book ever written on nature and landscape in Britain’. I wasn’t convinced of this until the final three chapters. The poetic prose and lofty transcendentalism was a bit heady for my taste – though there were some lovely descriptions of the flora and fauna as well as the topography of the mountains. Then I must have become attuned to the style and approach.

There are some memorable moments, like the description of her waking from a sleep outside her tent (in the summer, of course) to find an owl perched on her tent-pole. She writes beautifully about the ‘swiftness’ of many of the creatures that live on the mountain: the eagle, peregrine falcon, red deer and mountain hare. But this isn’t sentiment or gush: as a sensible naturalist she recognises that being speedy is ‘severely practical’ –

…food is so scarce up there that only those who can move swiftly over vast stretches of ground may hope to survive. The speed, the whorls and torrents of movement, are in plain fact the mountain’s own necessity. But their grace is not necessity. … Beauty is not adventitious but essential.

This represents the best and worst of Shepherd’s prose style. That second sentence is, well, sublime, but I omitted a long sentence in that extract, which would to my mind have benefitted from some editing.

I don’t want to end on a negative note. Here’s the final paragraph, that conveys this book’s essence:

I believe that I now understand in some small measure why the Buddhist goes on pilgrimage to a mountain. The journey is itself part of the technique by which god is sought. It is a journey into Being; for as I penetrate more deeply into a mountain’s life, I penetrate also into my own. For an hour I am beyond desire. It is not ecstasy, that leap out of the self that makes man like a god. I am not out of myself, but in myself. I am. To know Being, this is the final grace accorded from the mountain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let us alone: Polly Samson, A Theatre for Dreamers

Polly Samson, A Theatre for Dreamers. Bloomsbury Circus, 2020

This was passed on to me by Mrs TD via her sister, who read it first.

I disliked it.

I thought a novel based on the sybaritic lives of artists, writers and poets – including a youthful Leonard Cohen – on the island of Hydra, off the mainland of Greece, in the early sixties, would be fascinating. It wasn’t.

What was wrong with it? Well, it’s overwritten. Although Samson portrays the exotic scenery and Aegean seascapes with some vivid descriptions, they become intrusive, and sometimes strive too hard for poetic effect.

It’s repetitive: the narrative consists largely of tedious, self-absorbed proto-hippies skinny-dipping, or lurching through drunken or drug-hazed parties, well, orgies. Fine if you’d been there, I suppose, but after the first couple of booze-ups I lost what little interest remained. Lotos-eaters are fascinating only to each other; here are Tennyson’s:

In the hollow Lotos-land to live and lie reclined/On the hills like Gods together, careless of mankind. 

Dozens of interchangeable, shadowy characters appear whose identities we seem to be expected to remember from earlier in the book, but who lack any kind of distinguishing or interesting characteristics. Are these the sex-mad Scandinavian painters, or the sex-mad American drifters? Ultimately it makes little difference. None of them has any substance or depth – nothing like gods, but certainly careless.

The locals fare no better: grizzled, unreconstructed Hydriot fishermen and downtrodden, unliberated women are caricatures seen in a hundred second-rate films. Indeed, Sophia Loren’s role in ‘The Boy with the Dolphin’, filmed partly in Hydra, is name-checked several times. I’ve not seen it, but from what I read about it online it sounds no more authentic than Polly Samson’s Hydriot ciphers.

The expat characters are almost all unpleasant, narcissistic egotists who spend most of their time (when not getting drunk or high in those parties) bitching or gossiping maliciously and hypocritically about the others in their circle. As they’re all sleeping with each other’s partners, there’s plenty to be vicious about.

Leonard Cohen is a shadowy figure who’s given some toe-curlingly awful pronouncements that are supposed I presume to sound gnomic and profound, but simply come across as pompous or affected.

There’s his famous affair with Marianne, the married, ethereal Norwegian beauty whose husband Axel runs off with the latest in his string of girlfriends. This cad is so despicable it’s a mystery why anyone would ever pass the time of day with him. Oh, and he takes off just after his wife has given birth to their child. Cohen turns out as faithless as the odious Axel.

The central character, Erica, is a naïve eighteen-year old, escaping an abusive father after the death of her mother. Samson contrives a half-hearted mystery about the relationship of her much-loved mother with their ex-neighbour Charmian Clift, the Australian author who now lives as a sort of expat queen bee in Hydra with her ghastly alcoholic husband, also a writer. This storyline limps along for over 300 pages and is hastily resolved in a sort of post-it note final section told from the perspective of Erica decades later. This Australian couple come nearest to fully-fleshed, authentic characters – but they’re increasingly horrible to each other and most of their hedonistic circle of hangers-on. Even Charmian’s occasional softening towards Erica is overshadowed by her drunken rejections of the young woman’s desperate overtures to her to be a mother substitute.

Erica’s brother Bobby is vile to her, while her feckless boyfriend disappears abruptly from the narrative, with barely a gesture at explanation, as Bobby does later. Neither of them is missed by the reader. Erica is too inexperienced in love to know better than to break her heart over their joint betrayal and desertion of her. Not to worry, she’s soon hopping into bed with a few more young men whose identities didn’t register with me enough to recall anything about them, except that I think one was a local potter.

DonkeyI don’t enjoy being negative about the books I post about here, so here’s a nice picture of a doleful donkey I spotted through a hedge on my walk in the country the other day.

 

 

Kathleen Jamie, Findings

Kathleen Jamie, Findings. Sort Of Books, 2003

Another book loan from my friends the owners of those imperious cats, Igor and Phoebe.

Kathleen Jamie Findings coverKathleen Jamie is a Scots poet. This book of short essays ranges in topic from birds and other wildlife, archaeological sites in Scotland and the Hebrides, to her husband’s grave illness after pneumonia, the view of Edinburgh’s lofty steeples and weathervanes, and its medical museum.

To call her a nature writer is to oversimplify. In an essay called ‘Markings’ she traces the cup-rings – circular carved shapes – scraped into the rock by Neolithic settlers thousands of years earlier, then visits the abandoned shielings – the high summer pastures for cattle, and the shelters their owners lived in while they grazed there long ago. As often in these essays it’s evident that Jamie studied philosophy. These aren’t so much ‘nature writings’ as meditations arising from her experience in nature and with people. Her poet’s sensitivity to place and language is revealed on every page.

Here for example she ponders describing places like this as ‘natural’ or ‘wild’, even ‘wilderness’ – but concludes that this ‘seems an affront to those many generations who took their living on that land.’ Whatever caused them to abandon their shielings, they left subtle marks. ‘What’s natural?’ she asks herself. We’re having to ‘replant the forests we cleared, there’s even talk of reintroducing that natural predator, the wolf.’

Most of her sentences are like that: lucid, colloquial, unforced – natural, perhaps. Not overtly ‘poetic’ or florid.

She’s alert to the sounds and sense of every word she uses, and deploys them with unobtrusive precision. It would be good to hear these pieces read aloud. Many of her words are of Scots origin, wild and natural as the things they signify: those shielings; machair – from an old Gaelic word for Hebridean grassy plains; creels – wicker baskets or lobster pots; sheep or cattle fanks – holding pens.

She imagines the shieling women eating bannocks  and whey – flatbreads cooked on skillets.

She uses metaphor and simile sparingly, but when she does they’re just right. Some examples I savoured: in the title essay she sails with a group of naturalists to the Sound of Shillay (from the Gaelic for ‘seal island’); she describes walking on the beach and sometimes flushing a flock of feeding shore birds:

I loved the moment when, after they’d all risen together, they all banked at once, like when you pull the string in a Venetian blind.

The title of the essay ‘Crex-crex’ is taken from the Latin name for corncrake. This shy brown quail-like bird is now very rare, having been hunted to extinction on the mainland. She stays on an island in the Outer Hebrides, one of its few surviving haunts. Her bird warden guide Sarah locates some and invites her to listen to their rasping call:

What does it sound like? Like someone grating a nutmeg, perhaps. Or a prisoner working toward his escape with a nailfile.

Now and again Sarah stops and tilts her head, all attention: ‘when she stops to listen she reminds me of a thrush on a lawn.’

Sometimes she relishes the opportunity to subvert over-used images, as when she enters a Neolithic burial chamber, a ‘dim stone vault’ (she’s fond of punchy, evocative monosyllables):

There is a thick soundlessness, like a recording studio, or a strongroom.

Not ‘silent as a tomb’. This is ‘a place of artifice, of skill’, you feel the ‘self-assurance’ of the artificers who built this place, perfectly orientated to face the setting midwinter sun, whose rays would hit the tomb’s back wall in ‘a complicit kiss’.

She delights in the findings on another island: a gannet’s skull, sawn off from the body with her knife. Part of an aeroplane’s wing, of all things. Everything intrigues her – and hence, her reader.

She doesn’t single out and describe these findings as curiosities worthy of exhibition in a museum. She muses and makes connections that probably result from her training in philosophy. In ‘Darkness and Light’, for example, she ponders the semantic force of these words and our human reactions to them.

Peregrine falcon, from John Gerrard Keulemans – Catalogue of the birds in the British Museum. Volume 1, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11058956

One of the best pieces relates her delight and anxiety in watching a pair of nesting peregrine falcons (and later, ospreys and an exotic crane in flight). She manages, without forcing the juxtaposition, to liken the precipitous ‘stoop’ of the peregrine on her prey – by diving down on it from above so it never knows what hit it – to the screaming Tornado jets that pass overhead, back from the war in Iraq. Later, her son asked her if they were going to be bombed. “No,” I said. “We will not be bombed.”

She hangs out of her window in her nightclothes one morning, scanning the sky for her peregrines with her binoculars. Her children demand their breakfast. This is a naturalist who feels guilty about making them wait, hungry, as she yearns to see where the female raptor will head.

Even cobwebs, observed by her door, glinting in the morning light, lead her to meditate on life and death as her husband fights for breath in hospital, his lungs infected.

 

 

 

 

William Maxwell, They Came Like Swallows

William Maxwell, They Came Like Swallows. Vintage Classics, London, 2008. First published 1937

Bunny (nickname of Peter) is a timid boy aged eight, who cries easily, is bullied by the local lads, and is wary of his bossy big brother, Robert, who’s thirteen. He’s sent on an errand to the local shop:

Mrs Lolly was middle-aged and sagging, like her porch. She kept a yellow pencil in the knot at the back of her hair…[She] added up figures on a paper bag. When she stopped and looked at him blindly, Bunny saw that her eyes were full of arithmetic.

William Maxwell, cover of They Came Like SwallowsMaxwell’s short novel is all written as well as that. This first section is narrated from Bunny’s point of view, reflecting his devotion to his mother, love-hate relationship with Robert (an age gap of five years is a lot at that age), and his father’s severe aloofness.

It’s set in Illinois in 1918, and the post-war Spanish flu is spreading. Bunny falls seriously ill with it. As the novel progresses, with a second section narrated from his big brother’s viewpoint, and a final section focusing on the father, others fall sick, and the serenity of the family is shattered.

It’s a beautifully observed, deeply moving account of the dynamics of this small family. The other significant member is the beautiful aunt Irene, bohemian and exotic, adored by Bunny. Her marriage is on the rocks, and she’s torn between letting her feckless husband have another chance, and doing the sensible thing.

This is the third Maxwell novel I’ve read; two of them brilliantly portray the inner lives of boys – this one and So Long, See You Tomorrow – link to my post HERE. The other, The Château (link HERE) was less compelling: I found it a little over-written. Maxwell is at his best when he keeps the prose low-key, as he does in Swallows, while developing scenes with some unbearably powerful emotion in play.

The title is from Yeats’s poem ‘Coole Park, 1929’, a stanza of which serves as the novel’s epigraph. One line describes ‘a woman’s powerful character’ – Bunny and Robert’s mother, the keystone of this fraught family, would fit that description.

 

Being a mother: Elizabeth Strout, Amy & Isabelle

Elizabeth Strout, Amy & Isabelle. Scribner/Simon & Schuster, 2016. First published in the USA, 1998

Elizabeth Strout’s first novel, Amy & Isabelle, anticipates relationships and themes she was to revisit in the two later novels of hers that I’ve posted on here (links at the end). She presents parent – child relations in particular as sclerotic.

Elizabeth Strout, Amy & Isabelle coverShirley Falls is a dull town, dominated by the mill on the filthy river. Isabelle is PA to one of its office managers – a dull, bald and overweitht married man with whom she’s secretly half in love, and who hardly notices her.

Isabelle is a snob. Although she never graduated from college, she’s created an image of herself as a cultivated, sophisticated woman who’s superior to the other women in the office. She disdains their petty bickering and factions and discourages intimacy. She’s like Strout’s later protagonists, Olive and Lucy: lonely, distressed and unhappy, longing for love and too acerbic and aloof to invite it.

Mother-daughter relationships and their tribulations feature centrally in Strout’s fiction. Part of Isabelle’s false persona results from a deeply shameful secret that she only reveals late in the novel. By then it’s too late to repair the damage she’s caused to her teenage daughter Amy’s view of her.

I’ve known mothers and daughters like this (and fathers and sons). They long for the other to love them, yet behave so hurtfully they become bitter and estranged.

It’s a more sprawling, less tightly structured novel than Olive or Lucy, but it has much of their pungency and raw emotion. Women can be supportive and loving towards each other, but it’s often adversity (usually caused by their menfolks’ unreliability and errancy) that brings out the best in them.

Isabelle had been emotionally scarred by events in her youth, and the ensuing emotional rigidity, shame and guilt led her to recreate herself in a way that prevents others, including Amy, from establishing intimacy and trust with her.

This changes a little towards the end and Isabelle finds that confronting and telling the truth can be therapeutic. But for Amy it’s maybe too late for that.

Strout’s prose shows signs of the precision and incisiveness that developed so well in the later novels. Here’s a random example. The crisis that has damaged Amy’s relationship with her mother has happened, and its fragility has not stood up to the stress:

[Isabelle is watching through her window as Amy approaches the house] The sight of her pained Isabelle. It pained her terribly to see her, but why?

Because she looked unhappy, her shoulders slumped like that, her neck thrust forward, walking slowly, just about dragging her feet. This was Isabelle’s daughter; this was Isabelle’s fault. She hadn’t done it right, being a mother, and this youthful desolation walking up the driveway was exactly proof of that.

The free indirect style gives us insight into the turmoil and guilt in Isabelle’s mind. She has a flash of perception, realising she has turned her daughter into a version of her own unhappy, unfulfilled self. But then the paragraph shifts gear:

But then Amy straightened up, glancing toward the house with a wary squint, and she seemed transformed to Isabelle, suddenly a presence to be reckoned with. Her limbs were long and even, her breasts beneath her T-shirt seemed round and right, neither large or small, only part of some pleasing symmetry; her face looked intelligent and shrewd. Isabelle, sitting motionless in her chair, felt intimidated.

This is so well done. The narrative subtly reveals that Isabelle has misread the signs – Amy’s ‘wary squint’ sets off this new line of thought and tone.

It introduces the duplicity of Isabelle’s sadness and sense of failure; when Amy ‘straightens up’ – the image is also carefully chosen – Isabelle has a painful epiphany. Amy has transcended the neediness her mother has instilled in her. She has the confidence – sexual and personal – that Isabelle had suppressed. And she envies it – envies her daughter’s intelligence and shrewdness, her confident independence. No wonder she feels ‘intimidated’.

Isabelle isn’t a monster. Parents are supposed to want their children to outgrow their need for them – to rejoice when they fledge and leave the nest. But Strout has the honesty to show that they also harbour a selfish desire for their offspring to keep on needing them. Their independence makes the mother redundant, and reinforces her sense of her own shortcomings – her futility. The lessons and painful growth take place on both sides; the difference is that Amy will continue to grow.

This might sound a bit gloomy – Strout is too astute to leave it there. She gives signs that Isabelle is also learning about herself, and is maybe capable of an honesty with herself that she’d hitherto smothered – and it was this dishonesty that had kept her from living fully.

It takes a writer of great maturity and sensitivity to succeed in conveying all this without coming across as preaching or apportioning blame.

My previous Elizabeth Strout posts: Olive Kitteridge HERE

My Name is Lucy Barton HERE

 

More October rambles – and a naval execution

I’ll be posting on Elizabeth Strout soon, but first wanted to share some more sights and thoughts from some October walks with Mrs TD.

Argal reservoir

Argal reservoir seen from the dam walkway

Last week we went to visit her sister and BIL, who’s recovering from a knee replacement operation. He’s unable to join us on our country rambles, so when we left them the two of us did the circuit of Argal reservoir. This is one of several in the mid-Cornwall area, run by SW Water and SW Lakes Trust.

It’s a popular spot for walkers and those who like fishing. A notice board informed us that the fish that live there include ‘carp, pike, bream, roach and rudd’.

Argal dam walkway

Argal dam walkway

What great names: all monosyllables and harsh, guttural vowels and consonants – redolent of the fish themselves, perhaps. I hope they throw the fish back in once they’ve been caught – I don’t think you can even eat pike, can you?

There’s a functional curved dam at one end, with a walkway across the top, from where there are lovely views of the reservoir. Overhead a couple of buzzards wheeled and mewed their curiously effete cries.

Portscatho bay

Portscatho bay

Also last week another walk from Portscatho. This time we went further than usual, using our walks in Cornwall app – always good at sending us down remote paths and into secret places we’d never otherwise have found.

At one point where the coastal path crossed a field there were dozens of huge mushrooms. We weren’t sure if they were edible – but even if they were, it would have been a shame to remove them.

Mushroom

This mushroom must have been nearly a foot high

Yesterday to a creek and riverside walk just a few miles from home. Another remote spot we’d never been to before, so thanks again to the app for suggesting it.

The tide was out, so the creeks were less picturesque than when they’re full of clear water.

Rudely woken swan

Rudely woken swan

Swans dabbled in the mud, including this handsome adult who was snoozing right in our path. When he woke at our approach he looked first disgruntled, then cross. Mrs TD was not impressed.

 

Halfway round is the tiny Victorian church of Old Kea, with its ruined 15C tower standing much taller beside it. This little church was rebuilt when the original (dating back to 13C) fell into ruin (I’m not sure why the tower was left to crumble and become ivy-shrouded). Inside it’s more like a wayside chapel than a church – perhaps because it was originally a poor-house before being rebuilt as a church. There are some handsome modern stained glass windows.

External view of Old Kea church

External view of Old Kea church

Old Kea church tower

Old Kea church tower

 

 

 

 

 

 

Old Kea church interior

Old Kea church interior

The path took us high up over the confluence of the rivers Fal and Truro. Even at low tide these still look gleaming and splendid. Traditional red-sailed boats (formerly crabbers and other types of fishing boat) still glide past among the modern, sleeker but less attractive modern craft. Shellfish are still gathered in these parts, but I doubt if the traditional Falmouth oyster festival will happen this autumn, given the current situation.

The final stretch of our circular walk was mostly along ancient sunken tracks, also known by their medieval name: hollow ways. They’re much lower than the surrounding terrain. Our app explains that this is sometimes because of erosion caused by horses, carts and rainwater over the centuries. Some of these roads were ditches formed between banks as a boundary between estates, and were then adopted as a convenient location for travel or droving animals.

Much of this route falls within the enormous Tregothnan Estate, owned by the Boscawen family, viscounts Falmouth. Their mansion sits on a high spot with sweeping views towards the rivers and Carrick Roads.

 

Old Kea church tower

One of the most famous members of this family was the Admiral who signed the death warrant of the unfortunate Admiral Byng, sentenced to execution by firing squad for allegedly failing to do his utmost to engage or destroy the French enemy fleet during an ill-fated battle off the island of Menorca in 1756.

This infamous act of judicial murder was satirised in Voltaire’s Candide, when his hero witnessed such a firing squad execution, leading to his famous quip that in this country it’s considered good to kill an admiral from time to time ‘pour encourager les autres’.

 

Admiral Boscawen was MP for Truro from 1742 until his death in 1761. He can’t have been a great constituency member (though few were in those days), since he spent most of that time at sea. His estate is enormous – at just under 26,000 acres it’s even bigger than Prince Charles’s Duchy estate.

River viewWhat was so uplifting about this walk was that the only sounds to be heard were the plaintive calls of curlews and other water birds, and the occasional rumbling farm vehicle. It’s a delightfully peaceful area – tidal waters, trees and fields roamed by lugubrious cows – yet just a short hop from the busy city centre.

Nervous romanticism: Robert Musil, Young Törless

Robert Musil, Young Törless. Translated from the German by Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser, ed. Burton Pike. Part 1 of Selected Writings in the series The German Library, vol. 72 (The Continuum Publishing Co., New York, 1995).

 Robert Musil was born in Austria in 1880 and died in Switzerland in 1942. He’d been living in Germany, but left with his Jewish wife to escape the monstrosities of the Nazis and their dictators. There are ominous foreshadowings of this regime in his novel Young Törless.

Musil began working on it when he was in his early twenties. There is a plot of sorts – an adolescent boy is caught stealing from his fellow pupils at a swanky, stuffy military academy for boys (the setting is evidently based on Musil’s own unhappy education). A small group of them begin a campaign of sadistic, increasingly sexual torment and bullying of their victim, Basini.

Robert Musil, Young Törless coverTörless has become a member of this group, but he’s always something of an outsider. He joins in with some of the homoerotic torture and sexual violence, but finds himself curiously aroused but simultaneously repelled by his reactions – and those of the other boys involved.

This is where the prediction of what arose in post-war Germany emerges. Two of the boys who persecute Basini anticipate the lust for power of the Nazis, and their contempt for those they consider lesser beings. One of them, Beineberg, says to Törless, when he’d shown half-hearted signs of concern about their cruel treatment of Basini:

People like Basini…signify nothing – they are empty, accidental forms. True human beings are only those who can penetrate into themselves.

A page or two later (there are some very long conversations in this narrative) he goes on:

The very fact that I find it hard to torture Basini – I mean to humiliate him, debase him, and cast him away from me – is good. It requires a sacrifice. It will have a purifying effect. I owe it to myself to learn daily, with him as my material, that merely being human means nothing – it’s a mockery, a mere external semblance.

Along with a whiff of Nietzshe’s ubermensch here, there’s also the vaguely oriental Buddhism which Beineberg learned from his father. His pose of strutting, heartless supremacy is validated by his spurious, self-justifying mysticism. So much for the master race.

Törless is sensitive and intelligent enough to see through this egomaniacal tosh. His quest for enlightenment takes him in the direction of metaphysics and science, and, in particular, mathematics (and its sister, philosophy). In a scene of bathetic comic brilliance he’s disillusioned by his lacklustre, intellectually limited maths teacher. Infinity and ‘imaginary numbers’ remain another unsolved mystery.

The novel has been translated in some editions as The Confusions of Young Törless; this sums up quite well its theme. The protagonist is a searcher, looking for some kind of cosmic solution to the problems of the soul and the world.

So far he’s not so different from most precocious, intelligent young men. What’s fascinating about this strange, unsettling novel is that he’s not quite smart or mature enough to recognise his own shortcomings. He tries reading Kant, and gives up. His ‘confusions’ torment him, he feels, more than his friends torment the hapless Basini. But he’s too callow and complacent to make the effort required to transcend them.

There’s something of the aesthete and decadent about him. He tends to wallow in his darkling state. Time and again our narrator, with a touch perhaps of irony, describes the existential void into which Törless gazes, like a post-Romantic poet on opium: he feels ‘the horror of emptiness’ on confronting ‘some insoluble enigma and some inexplicable kinship for which he could never quite produce any evidence.’

His uneasiness resides ultimately in the failure of language: ‘words meant nothing.’ He recalls marvelling as a child at a landscape and exclaiming to his father how beautiful it was, then being overcome with embarrassment at his emotional outburst:

It was the failure of language that caused him anguish, a half-awareness that the words were merely accidental, mere evasions, and never the feeling itself.

‘Anguish’ is a word that is often used of Törless in these musings. His confusions might begin to seem ‘tangibly comprehensible’, but he could never  entirely

resolve them into words and ideas. Between events and himself, indeed between his own feelings and some inmost self that craved understanding of them, there always remained a dividing-line, which receded before his desire, like a horizon, the closer he tried to come to it.

Young Törless is no embryonic TS Eliot. I don’t know if the translators deliberately alluded to ‘The Hollow Men’ in this passage. Whatever, our young decadent is clearly relishing his spiritual dilemma like a connoisseur. He dabbles in morality and ethics, but there’s always something of the dilettante about these dabblings.

I’m not sure how far Musil wanted us to side with his young intellectual aesthete. My own feeling is that he’s intrigued by him, shares much of his philosophical ‘anguish’, but also sees the pretentiousness.

I haven’t yet read what’s said to be Musil’s masterpiece, The Man Without Qualities; a fellow blogger recommended I start with Young Törless. I presume because it contains in embryo what I’ve read about it… whatever it is, that huge, unfinished expressionist-modernist novel. Törless struggles and ultimately fails to connect feelings and actions to his ultra-sharp intellect. The narrator hints that he succeeded later in life, when he’d outgrown these immature indulgences.

Meanwhile he wallows in the pleasure derived from dismissing values, moral and ethical constraints as irrelevant for someone as exquisitely sensitive as him.

Herman Bahr, writing about the literary-artistic scene in Vienna in 1891, declared the ‘bondage’ and ‘pain’ of reality had to be escaped, that ‘the supremacy of naturalism is over…its spell is broken’. He summed up classicism and its view of humanity as ‘reason and feeling’; romanticism was ‘passion and the senses’; out of these emerged modernism, which is nerves. Young Törless is a prototype of what Bahr called ‘nervous romanticism.’ Or is it nervous mysticism? When ‘nervousness’ becomes completely liberated, humans, especially artists, become ‘subordinate to the nerves, without regard for the rational and sensuous’, and then ‘the lost joy will return to art.’ Törless would surely endorse that strange view, which sounds a bit hysterical.

‘Nervioso’ in Spanish doesn’t really mean ‘nervous’ – it’s edgier than that. I presume it’s the same in German. Not so hysterical.

Herman Bahr, ‘The overcoming of naturalism’ HERE

Melissa at Bookbinder’s Daughter blog May 2019 HERE

Volker Schlöndorff directed a film of the novel in 1966.

DH Lawrence in Zennor – again. Guest post by Helen Boyles

Helen recently commented on my posts (from four years ago) about DH Lawrence’s stay in Cornwall during WWI. She gave permission for me to post her poem on the topic. First a short introduction by her about the provenance of the poem:

Introduction

I was inspired to write this poem after a visit to the little ancient Cornish settlement of Zennor which we reached after a long day’s walking along the mist-swathed Cornish Coast path. I had been keen to spend a night here after learning of D.H. Lawrence’s association with the place. I’d studied and long been interested in the writer and his keen emotional response to place in general and this in particular. When in Zennor, we also learnt more about Lawrence from the current publican of the Tinner’s Arms, where Lawrence had stayed for a while when he first came to the place to consider establishing a small writing community of friends there. That it didn’t work out was probably inevitable in a traditional working community during this sensitive period of the first World War with Lawrence’s strong anti-war sentiments and rather flamboyant German wife. I thought it would be fun to try and convey Lawrence’s initial idealism and eventual disappointment in his imagined thoughts and words.

Here’s the poem (WordPress insists on line spaces between lines – hope this doesn’t detract from the effect too much):

Lawrence in Zennor

Yes, this should suit us well, far from the fret and heave of human life,

a space of peace.

Such a fine, wild landscape – the finest I have seen in all my travellings.

A kind of paradise – I could be happy here.

The mind can breathe – we can settle to our work,

with like minds forge a new way.

Six rough stone-walled fields from my window

is the sea, I feel I hear its breathing out there

through the day, its hush and rush. It takes us out, away.

I feel the words and lines come crowding in, worlds

building from the passions of our lives and loves.

 

Yes, so I thought, thought I could escape smallness here

with these grand shapes, the jutting profile

of the Head, the stony tumble of the fields.

And surely there was space

for all of us, Katherine, Murray, Frieda, me,

to be – and grow, but no; the littleness, the fear

came creeping in to shrink and darken us.

Banal complaints: the place too large, too small,

the damp, the inconvenience,

the awkward shape and pace of things,

the surly silence of the working neighbourhood.

How they diminish us, betray our better selves.

 

And what we do to each other – the stupidity of that –

the grief. How we feed the innocent the lies of honour, duty,

serve them the myth of nationhood. What does that mean?

I see the stoic faces quietly accept this myth

of honour, duty, nationhood, turn from the land

to follow that hollow call.

I want to shout at them: Don’t listen to those lies!

But they regard me warily.

Old Celtic stock, the folk are quiet and plain with us,

are rooted in their own truth, in myth memory

that tunnels underneath the bright turf

where they delve within the roar of waves.

Some may be lost in that roar, the blindness it brings.

Well, they may see a light and read it as the enemy

or a signal to such, I’m told.

 

And Frieda moves to the sea’s pulse; sometimes calm and lazy,

sometimes dancing, sometimes turbulent.

We move to each others’ moods, the flux and turn

of moon drawn tides.

I have loved her boldness, reckless energy,

but here it spills to carelessness –Volklieder

in the lanes does not sit well with this community, not now,

she should see that. So now we’re trapped in gossip,

warped in the mirror of suspicious minds.

 

A brave community this could have been,

and this place carved from granite and the light,

it could have been a paradise.

In its sounding of the ancient ways it brought new possibility:

it brought a hope and we have wasted it.

I thank Helen for this fine response to DHL and his experience of West Penwith. There follow some links to my original posts here about his initial euphoria on moving to Zennor, and the ensuing disillusionment and exile. Helen captures very well in her poem this movement in DHL’s spirit from elation and hope to despondency:

  1. The Promised Land
  2. I feel fundamentally happy and free
  3. The magic fades
  4. Now I am glad and free
  5. ‘The sensuous Celtic type: DHL’s short story ‘Samson & Delilah’
  6. (Two years ago I posted THIS PIECE on the sale of the idyllic cottage in which he and Frieda had lived, and where he’d hoped to establish the utopian community ‘Rananim’ with Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry; they disappointed him by moving to Mylor, near Falmouth, in what he called the ‘softer’ part of the county, to escape the cottage they considered too basic and uncomfortable.)