The secret of delight. J.R. Ackerley, We Think the World of You

J.R. Ackerley, We Think the World of You. NYRB Classics, 2000. First published 1960

I came close to disliking Frank, and therefore this novel in which he’s the selfish and biased first-person narrator. His dashingly handsome but clueless ex-sailor lover, Johnny, jailed for a year for his inefficient housebreaking, is as careless and dilatory with his correspondence as are his family with their conveying of messages between Frank and Johnny. His snobbery towards these ‘ordinary’ (read working-class) people becomes irksome: he confides in us his derision at their unhygienic lifestyle and inarticulate ways of talking and writing letters, especially their clichéd catchphrase that gives the novel its title. He’s like the pompously irascible and perpetually grumpy hack writer Ed Reardon in the Radio 4 comedy, and like him expects us, his readers – presumably he thinks we’re of the same literate, educated class as himself – to share his patronising disdain for such people.

Ackerley WTTWOY coverBut that’s not his only trait. He seems genuinely fond of Johnny’s good-hearted mother, Millie. They have a real ‘bond’, he feels – though it isn’t often evident in their scenes together, and is largely due to the unaccountable devotion to the feckless Johnny that Frank also feels.

His scorn is aimed largely at Millie’s idle, brutal fourth husband, Tom, and at Johnny’s slatternly, fertile wife Megan. Why does he so hate them? It’s clear to us, though not at first to Frank, that he’s as jealous of them because of their close relationship with Johnny as they are of him.

Frank is a professional man with a flat in the smart London area of Barnes; he has a river view, so he’s clearly well off. In fact he frequently lavishes his money on these people he so despises in a misguided attempt to buy the favours with Johnny that he so longs for. And that’s his problem: he doesn’t understand how contemptible this makes him in their eyes – and in those of his readers. He sometimes glimpses this harsh reality – that he uses money to help ‘bind’ Johnny to him: ‘Happiness had to be paid for.’ When Johnny is released and visits him, bringing with him his beautiful German shepherd bitch Evie, Frank watches from his balcony, willing him to look up expectantly –

…but he did not look up, and I recollected then that he never looked back at parting either; it was as though I existed for him only at the point of contact.

But Evie remembers the place Frank had shown her a taste of freedom and love; ‘She remembers.’

What redeems the novel is the love he learns to feel for Evie (the name is as symbolic as her role in the novel), whose unhappiness at being cooped up in the back yard of Millie and Tom’s grim house while Johnny is incarcerated touches his otherwise cold heart. He comes to acknowledge that by paying to help keep Johnny and his family, he’s shamelessly exploiting their poverty and powerlessness. He also comes to realise that his cash handouts are purely self-serving.

Frank finally sees, after that long-desired first prison visit with Johnny, that

Say what one might against these people, their foolish frames could not bear the weight of iniquity I had piled upon them; they were, in fact, perfectly ordinary people behaving in a perfectly ordinary way, and practically all the information about themselves and each other had been true, had been real, and not romance, or prevarication, or the senseless antics of some incomprehensible insect, which were the alternating lights in which, since it had not happened to suit me, I had preferred to regard it…Their problems…had been real problems, and the worlds they so frequently said they thought of each other apparently seemed less flimsy to them than they had appeared to me when I tried to sweep them all away. It was difficult to escape the conclusion, indeed, that, on the whole, I had been a tiresome and troublesome fellow who, for one reason or another, had acted in a manner so intemperate that he might truly be said to have lost his head…

The fastidious syntax and vocabulary of this extract is telling, for this apparently contrite, confession continues:

…but if this sober reflection had upon me any effect at all, it produced no feeling that could remotely be called repentance, but only a kind of listlessness as though some prop that had supported me hitherto had been withdrawn.

Not quite an epiphany after all, then. But when he explores Johnny’s true nature for the first time:

Beneath such a general smear of mild good nature, I asked myself, could any true values survive? Where everything mattered nothing mattered, and I recollected that it had passed through my mind while I spoke to him that if the eyes that looked into mine took me in at all, they seemed to take me for granted.

Even at this moment of apparent revelation there’s a powerful undercurrent of self-pity.

It’s the scenes with Evie that for me prevent the novel from becoming a tedious fictional autobiography of a selfish curmudgeon. I don’t see much of the ‘wonderfully funny’ or ‘hilarious’ moments that some reviewers perceived, but there’s a refreshing warmth in Frank’s evident love for this pretty dog, whose own jealousy ends up more destructive  than Johnny’s or his family’s. Here’s a typical scene: Frank has finally managed to spring Evie from the prison conditions in which Millie and Tom keep her in their stuffy, confined East End house, and has taken her out for her first ever extended free run outdoors (this was the visit Evie remembered in the extract above):

The daylight hours we spent mostly in the open air. Evie saw to that. And it was borne in upon me that, without perceiving it, I had grown old and dull, I had forgotten that life itself was an adventure. She corrected this. She held the key to what I had lost, the secret of delight.

The plainness of the language now has none of that mandarin fussiness noted in Frank’s near-revelation above. Here the lucidity and openness of the style indicates that this is Frank’s true epiphany, and it’s Evie who brings it about in a way no human is capable of:

[Delight] was a word I often used, but what did I know of the quality itself, I thought, as I watched her inextinguishable high spirits, her insatiable appetite, not for food, in which she seemed scarcely interested, but for fun, the way she welcomed life like a lover?…She was childish, she was charming, and to me it seemed both strange and touching that anyone should find the world so wonderful.

The many passages like this make the novel ultimately life-affirming.




TS Eliot on the Metaphysical poets

The first extract in bold below was the title of one of my first essays as an undergraduate: imagine, I’d never read the metaphysicals, and there I was, having to grapple with Eliot’s modernist, post-symbolist take on the subject. The second is a central topic in literary thinking about poetry. Here’s the extract from Eliot’s piece; he retrieves Donne and the rest from the dustbin they’d been confined to by Johnson and the Victorians, but in a backhanded way. Was he right?

From T. S. Eliot, review of Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century: Donne to Butler. Selected and edited, with an Essay, by Herbert J. C. Grierson (Oxford: Clarendon Press. London; Milford) in the Times Literary Supplement, October 1921.

…The difference is not a simple difference of degree between poets. It is something which had happened to the mind of England between the time of Donne or Lord Herbert of Cherbury and the time of Tennyson and Browning; it is the difference between the intellectual poet and the reflective poet. Tennyson and Browning are poets, and they think; but they do not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose. A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility. When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.

John Donne:

John Donne: via Wikimedia Commons

We may express the difference by the following theory: The poets of the seventeenth century, the successors of the dramatists of the sixteenth, possessed a mechanism of sensibility which could devour any kind of experience. They are simple, artificial, difficult, or fantastic, as their predecessors were; no less nor more than Dante, Guido Cavalcanti, Guinizelli, or Cino. In the seventeenth century a dissociation of sensibility set in, from which we have never recovered; and this dissociation, as is natural, was aggravated by the influence of the two most powerful poets of the century, Milton and Dryden. Each of these men performed certain poetic functions so magnificently well that the magnitude of the effect concealed the absence of others. The language went on and in some respects improved; the best verse of Collins, Gray, Johnson, and even Goldsmith satisfies some of our fastidious demands better than that of Donne or Marvell or King. But while the language became more refined, the feeling became more crude. The feeling, the sensibility, expressed in the Country Churchyard (to say nothing of Tennyson and Browning) is cruder than that in the Coy Mistress.

After this brief exposition of a theory–too brief, perhaps, to carry conviction–we may ask, what would have been the fate of the “metaphysical” had the current of poetry descended in a direct line from them, as it descended in a direct line to them? They would not, certainly, be classified as metaphysical. The possible interests of a poet are unlimited; the more intelligent he is the better; the more intelligent he is the more likely that he will have interests: our only condition is that he turn them into poetry, and not merely meditate on them poetically. A philosophical theory which has entered into poetry is established, for its truth or falsity in one sense ceases to matter, and its truth in another sense is proved. The poets in question have, like other poets, various faults. But they were, at best, engaged in the task of trying to find the verbal equivalent for states of mind and feeling. And this means both that they are more mature, and that they wear better, than later poets of certainly not less literary ability.

Robert Louis Stevenson Day

13 November is the birthday of Robert Louis Stevenson, I learned from a post today by Karen at Kaggsysbookishramblings. He was born in Edinburgh in 1850 and died in the Samoan Islands, where he has gone for the sake of his ailing health, in 1894.

Portrait of Stevenson

Photo c. 1880 of RLS from the ‘Knox series’ via Wikimedia Commons

At Karen’s suggestion I’d like to celebrate this fine author’s work with an extract from one of the first of his books I read (some years ago): Travels in the Cevennes with a Donkey. It was one of his first works of literature, an account of his 12-day journey in 1878 over some 200 km in this region of south-central rural France. It was published the following year.

This extract is from the chapter ‘In the valley of the Tarn’. He’s been hiking and camping most days – a practice which baffles the local peasants – sleeping without a tent in an early, rather heavy, cumbersome sleeping bag which requires a recalcitrant and headstrong donkey named Modestine to carry it:

Sleep for a long time fled my eyelids; and just as I was beginning to feel quiet stealing over my limbs, and settling densely on my mind, a noise at my head startled me broad awake again, and, I will frankly confess it, brought my heart into my mouth.

It was such a noise as a person would make scratching loudly with a finger-nail; it came from under the knapsack which served me for a pillow, and it was thrice repeated before I had time to sit up and turn about. Nothing was to be seen, nothing more was to be heard, but a few of these mysterious rustlings far and near, and the ceaseless accompaniment of the river and the frogs. I learned next day that the chestnut gardens are infested by rats; rustling, chirping, and scraping were probably all due to these; but the puzzle, for the moment, was insoluble, and I had to compose myself for sleep, as best I could, in wondering uncertainty about my neighbours.

I was wakened in the grey of the morning (Monday, 30th September) by the sound of foot-steps not far off upon the stones, and opening my eyes, I beheld a peasant going by among the chestnuts by a footpath that I had not hitherto observed. He turned his head neither to the right nor to the left, and disappeared in a few strides among the foliage. Here was an escape! But it was plainly more than time to be moving. The peasantry were abroad; scarce less terrible to me in my nondescript position than the soldiers of Captain Poul to an undaunted Camisard. I fed Modestine with what haste I could; but as I was returning to my sack, I saw a man and a boy come down the hillside in a direction crossing mine. They unintelligibly hailed me, and I replied with inarticulate but cheerful sounds, and hurried forward to get into my gaiters.

OWC edition of Travels with a Donkey

My Oxford World’s Classics edition, ed. and Introduction by Emma Letley (1992)

The Camisards were 18C Protestants who rebelled against the French government; even after their revolt was crushed, the tradition of Protestantism remained strong in the region. Stevenson was fascinated by them, for they reminded him of the Scots Covenanters from the previous century. The reference to Captain Poul concerns a ‘soldier of fortune’ who, Stevenson had written a few pages earlier, captured and killed a renowned Camisard named Séguier (I’m indebted to the notes and Introduction of my OWC edition for these details).