Rose Tremain, The Gustav Sonata

Rose Tremain, The Gustav Sonata. Vintage Books, 2017. First published 2016

Switzerland remained neutral through both world wars of the 20C. Precariously, given that it bordered the countries engaged in invasive, destructive warfare, and was sought as a haven by refugees fleeing the Nazis’ murderous persecution of the Jewish people in particular from the 1930s on.

Rose Tremain The Gustav Sonata coverRose Tremain excels in making the ‘historical’ part of her fiction come to life – the formidable research behind the narrative is never intrusive. Her protagonist in The Gustav Sonata is introduced in the first part of the novel, set in the years shortly after WWII, as a small, sensitive boy being brought up in a sleepy Swiss town by the mother he adores, but who treats him with cold and bitter disdain. Her husband, a policeman, had lost his job in disgrace after falsifying documents to allow a handful of Jewish refugees to find asylum in his country, soon after Switzerland had closed its borders to them. The official line was that it was full and couldn’t handle any more (an all too familiar claim in many places today); more pragmatically, the Swiss authorities were terrified of provoking the Nazis into punitive tactics, even invasion.

Soon after being sacked, a crisis occurs in his marriage and he becomes estranged from his wife and dies – before his son was old enough to remember his father.

The novel is set in a sort of prose form of a musical sonata in three sections. Part one shows how Gustav aged five befriends Anton at kindergarten – he’s instinctively drawn to another vulnerable child. Anton’s Jewish father had moved to the provinces from his city bank after a breakdown caused by another family crisis.

Anton is a gifted pianist – but suffers from terrible stage fright, and this stops his becoming a concert performer.

Tremain traces the development of these two young boys through to late middle age as they struggle to overcome the trauma they have experienced and the deficiencies in their ability to form lasting relationships.

It’s a beautifully told story, with central characters ill equipped to deal with the times they live through, but Tremain confidently shows, without lapsing into sentimentality, the power of love to prevail over all setbacks.

I enjoyed it a lot.

 

 

Edmund Gosse, Father and Son

Edmund Gosse (1849-1928), Father and Son. Penguin Modern Classics, 1970; first published 1907

The subtitle of Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son is ‘A Study of Two Temperaments’. But it’s not really a study of anything, let alone the temperaments of these two characters. It’s a sort of spiritual autobiography, as it tells of the author’s experience to the age of seventeen of being brought up by parents who were members of the strict, extremely austere religious sect the Plymouth Brethren. Both his father and his mother were biblical literalists and evangelical puritans, who considered fictional books sinful.

Edmund Gosse Father and Son cover

The cover shows a detail from ‘Self Portrait as a Young Man’ by G.F. Watts

Edmund was subjected from his earliest childhood to the interminable sermons and services in which his father led the small group of brethren. Reading the bible and the more serious hymns were the main diversions of Edmund’s childhood – though he did manage to smuggle in a little Strumpelpeter. The book describes his struggle to liberate himself from this stultifying education, and the development of his imaginative sensibility against these fearsome odds.

F & S is also partly a biography of his father, Philip, but not really that, either. Edmund had published a more conventional biographical account of the father in 1890, in which it seems a less monstrous portrait was given than the one in this book.

It shares more of the characteristics of a novel; scholars have pointed out numerous details that are simply invented – like the back story of his much-loved mother. His claim in the Preface to be ‘scrupulously true’ is hedged by ‘as far as the punctilious attention of the writer has been able to keep it so’. This is an early indication of the leaden prose style that I’ll come back to later.

In this respect (ie deviations from ‘truth’) it’s a bit like James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, serialised in 1914-15 by Ezra Pound in the modernist literary magazine The Egoist; it began life as the autobiographical novel Stephen Hero in 1904, but this was abandoned and refashioned by Joyce. Both books relate the growth of the protagonist’s artistic character – but F and S could hardly be more different in style and tone.

Edmund’s upbringing was much harsher and narrower than Stephen’s in Joyce’s novel, although they both have to summon the strength to reject the dominant religious regime of their environments.

His mother died when he was young, and he was sent to a boarding school where he never settled in. Although his father, an eminent biological scientist, was clearly a loving father in some ways, his ruthless, bigoted insistence on his religious rectitude was chilling and traumatic for the sensitive boy.

It should have been a gripping read – and at times it is. His abandonment in Ch. 12 of biblical hermeneutics for another, literary interpretative system, is dramatically portrayed. His father’s crazed attempts to explain away the growing proof of Darwinist evolutionary theory are a source of embarrassment to his son – and the scientific community to which Philip belonged; these sections are fascinating and chilling at the same time.

But the prose style is the turgid Victorian type, and it makes for a mostly plodding narrative. There are some welcome lighter moments – as when young Edmund decides to forgo trying to proselytize his schoolmates, concluding he’ll ‘let sleeping dogmas lie’. He also tries some delightfully naïve strategies to test the power of his father’s jealous god, which lead him to deduce that this god isn’t all he’s cracked out to be. This is a classic account of a Victorian crisis of faith – although it seems Gosse never entirely abandoned his Christian faith; he simply rejected his parents’ extremist version of it.

The narrative ends when Edmund’s father, with the help of the Christian writer Charles Kingsley, gets his son (aged seventeen) a lowly post as a clerk at the British Museum reading room. There he was under the supervision of William Ralston, who was, as Edmund was to become, an advocate and translator of Scandinavian literature – especially of Ibsen.

Ralston, who was also a champion of Russian literature, introduced Turgenev to the London aesthetic scene. Gosse met the Russian novelist in 1871 at Ford Madox Brown’s salon, which was frequented by the likes of Pre-Raphaelite artists, and writers including Swinburne and William Morris. I wonder if Gosse would have read Turgenev’s novel about a young man’s rebellion against a father whose values he can’t share; even the title – Fathers and Sons (in most English translations) – is similar. Constance Garnett’s version, titled Fathers and Children, was published in England in 1895, and it’s difficult to imagine Gosse wouldn’t have read it. The basic stories are very different, but the father-son dynamic is equally problematic.

Constance Garnett was married in 1889 to the son of Richard, the keeper of printed materials at the British Museum where Gosse initially worked – another link in this literary chain.

Henry James was a friend of Edmund Gosse’s during his time in London in the 1880s. At first just casual, the relationship became more intimate over time – James thought Gosse amiable, ‘an endlessly amusing companion’, but ‘second-rate’, as Leon Edel has it in his Life of HJ. Edel sees Gosse as a flatterer, and describes it as ‘one of the most literary-gossipy friendships in Victorian annals.’ James is said to have quipped that Gosse had ‘a genius for inaccuracy’ – presumably referring to his literary biographies and criticism, but the point could also apply to F & S.

It’s a pity Gosse chose not to add a second volume to his account of his youth; it would have been interesting to hear his redacted, rosy-tinted story about how he became a middle-ranking man of letters who loved to hobnob with writers with genuine literary talent.

 See the excellent, informative post on F & S by Bookish Beck at her blog HERE

 

Elizabeth Jane Howard, Mr Wrong

Elizabeth Jane Howard, Mr Wrong. Picador Books, 2015. Stories originally published in the 1950s and 1970s, I think

 I’ve read one Elizabeth Jane Howard novel, After Julius (link to my post HERE) – a rather melodramatic tale of tangled, thwarted love. I also know of her as the author of the four much-praised Cazalet novels, about the lives of middle-class characters, with the focus on the women (from what I’ve read about them). I was not expecting the hair-raising ghoulishness of two of the stories in this collection, therefore.

Elizabeth Jane Howard Mr Wrong coverThe title story, ‘Mr Wrong’ is about a car bought second-hand by a nervous, lonely young woman called Meg; it turns out to be haunted by a gruesome murderer and his victim – who starts to come after the callow, vulnerable new owner. The narrative and the story’s  title subvert with grim relish the trite social assumption that all a reserved young woman like Meg wants or needs from life is ‘Mr Right’.

‘Three Miles Up’ is like a nightmare version of those cosy tv programmes in which minor celebrities chug along picturesque canals in narrowboats. The two men in a boat invite a mysterious young woman to join them – they find her apparently asleep by a tree on the canal bank. Things then take a decidedly spooky and sinister turn as they decide to explore an overgrown branch canal that’s not on any of their maps.

After a bit of searching online I discovered that EJH had worked as a secretary for the Inland Waterways Association. This was a charity devoted to the conservation and promotion of Britain’s canals and waterways that was co-founded by Robert Aickman, the writer of supernatural ‘strange stories’, and with whom she had an affair. This liaison also led to her contributing these two stories and one other to the collection We Are for the Dark (1951), to which Aickman himself added another three. Interesting that she should create such vastly different genres of fiction.

Although none of the other seven stories in Mr Wrong have a supernatural element, several are quite acrid in their depiction of disastrous marriages and other relationships. Spouses have affairs and fight with their partners; parents neglect their children. ‘The Whip Hand’ has a monstrous controlling mother of a child performer who shows signs at the end of becoming nastier than her mother.

In ‘Child’s Play’ a spoilt 18-year-old newlywed returns home after a row with her husband to seek solace from her doting father, who turns out to be a serial philanderer. Father and daughter treat the mother, Kate, with contempt.

This story has a nice vignette of the family’s appropriately sociopathic cat bringing a mouse into the kitchen, and ‘forcing’ Kate ‘to meet her glassy, insolent gaze’. It then ‘began to crunch it up like a club sandwich’:

She liked Kate, in a limited way, to share in her triumphs. In ten seconds the mouse was gone, she had drunk a saucer of milk, and was polishing her spotless paws. She kept herself in a gleaming state of perpetual readiness – like a fire engine.

Even the cat has an agenda in this twisted family drama.

Only one story, ‘Summer Picnic’, has a gentler tone, and it provides a welcome respite from this sequence of stories about edgy, tainted lives and loves.

I found some of the perceptions of and assumptions about sexual relations in After Julius disturbing, and these misgivings recurred in reading some of the stories in Mr Wrong. In ‘Toutes Directions’, set in the south of France, there’s a sex scene in which the reader seems to be expected to find the young woman’s submission to a man she’s just met as a kind of epiphanic liberation. Maybe I’m misreading, but I thought it not far removed from rape.

Although the stories are technically quite good, I didn’t much care for the author’s attitudes to her characters and their world of tension. The amorality and caustic misanthropy are depressing and borderline morbid.

First magnolias of springI’ll lighten the mood with a picture taken the other day in a local park – the first magnolias there this spring. My tree is still in bud.

Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle – and recent walks

Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle. Vintage Books, 2004. First published in the USA, 1948

Not many novels make me laugh, but this one did, many times. Its narrative form is a sequence of entries in increasingly expensive notebook diaries written by its precocious 17-year-old protagonist, Cassandra Mortmain. They are quirky, intimate and ‘consciously naïve’ (as she’s piqued to overhear herself described as by one of the potential suitors who come on the scene).

Dodie Smith I Capture the Castle coverThe plot is a sort of mash-up of romantic-Gothic-silly aspects of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre and Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharp – all of which are name-checked. The Mortmains are penniless, barely subsisting in their crumbling castle. The sisters’ negligent blocked novelist father spends his time shut in his room reading trashy detective stories; their stepmother is a flaky, impractical bohemian/It Girl (the novel seems to be set in the thirties).

Cassandra is shrewd and decent enough to despair of her pretty older sister Rose’s over-obvious flirting with the eligible rich American boys who take over the big house (and also become her family’s landlords – though they never pay rent). As gold-digging Rose admits early on, she’d ‘marry the Devil himself if he had some money’. But Cassandra is young, romantic and coquettish enough to fall for one of the young men herself.

These contrived entanglements are perhaps strung out too long, but it’s worth sticking with the novel for its constant stream of the ingenuous Cassandra’s humorous observations arising from bizarre situations in and around their crumbling castle. Some of these scenes try too hard (as when Rose is mistaken for a bear), but usually they work. Here are some tasters:

[Cassandra at the start of the novel is pondering what she and sister Rose are to do for money] Surely there is enough intelligence among us to earn some, or marry some – Rose, that is; for I would approach matrimony as cheerfully as I would the tomb and I cannot feel that I should give satisfaction.  

[The sisters have met the wealthy young Americans, and Rose has caught the eye of one them; her mercenary hopes are raised, and they decide to pray in earnest, as they go to bed one night, that Rose will genuinely fall in love with him so that she won’t be a miserable rich wife. Cassandra finishes her prayers, but Rose carries on longer] ‘That’ll do, Rose,’ I told her at last. ‘It’s enough just to mention things, you know. Long prayers are like nagging.’


Some good news for once: Mrs TD and I had our Pfizer vaccinations yesterday – no ill effects or discomfort so far, and all was well organised at our local doctors’ surgery. It’s the first thing the British government has managed well since the pandemic started – though the success of the rollout of vaccines is largely down to the energy and dedication and professionalism of the NHS staff and the volunteers who’ve assisted with the practicalities.

Mrs TD has applied to be one of those volunteers. She was very excited this morning when her high-viz tabard arrived in the mail. She intends to wear it everywhere, even though she hasn’t yet been called to help with the vaccination programme.

I’ll close with some remarks about recent walks. One cold day last week, while Mrs TD had her Zoom yoga class, I went out alone. On a remote lane, high on a hill where the wind was bitter, a well-wrapped-up man passed me: ‘Fresh this morning,’ he said.

This lingered with me for some time. One of those expressions that’s so context-bound. It could have been said by a fishmonger or greengrocer, extolling the qualities of their wares to a potential customer.

Indignant peacockAnother day, another walk, the two of us this time. We passed the smallholding where the group (flock?) of peacocks live; I’ve posted about them several times since our lockdown exercise walks became routine. Mrs TD took this picture of one of the birds perched on the sill of one of the house’s upstairs windows. It was peering in, indignant but also a bit desperate.

I often pass these stones. They lie in a field by the footpath – sheep are grazing there at the moment. They look a little forlorn, like a small, derelict Stonehenge. The sun that day cast shadows that made the scene even more desolate than usual.

Stones

The destruction of the human soul: Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time

Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time. Vintage Books, 2017. First published 2016

Julian Barnes Noise of Time cover Can artists work without compromising themselves when living under a brutal dictator with a highly prescriptive set of strictures about what constitutes “acceptable” or proletarian art? That’s the dilemma faced by the protagonist of Julian Barnes’ fictional account of Dmitri Shostakovich under Stalin-era Soviet rule.

Barnes conveys particularly well the absurdity behind this autocratic ‘Power’: Stalin and his successors employ fanatical apparatchiks to enforce their doctrine, and any perceived deviation from it is dealt with savagely. During the opening section of the novel, Shostakovich stands outside his Leningrad apartment by the lift, waiting for its doors to open and emit the men from the ‘Big House’ who will take him away to the fate he knows has befallen so many of his friends (and countless strangers) – interrogation, the camps, or more likely a bullet to the back of the head.

His crime: to write an opera that Stalin considered bourgeois, cacophonous, and suspiciously like the odious capitalist western jazz.

He stands there night after night, hour after hour, to spare his wife the sight of his being hauled from his bed by these agents of terror.

Most of the novel consists of a highly plausible account of his inner conflict during his decades of fluctuating favour with Power. He sees himself as a coward when he kowtows to it. He signs his name to articles he hasn’t written, admissions of ‘crimes’ he knows he’s innocent of.

Even worse is the apparently softer regime under Stalin’s successors, when he finds himself having to make even more humiliating concessions and public shows of feigned allegiance to a system that’s still repressive and narrow-minded:

And when faced with criticism of his own work, his response was: look, I have a multiplicity of styles, just tell me which you would prefer me to use. He was proud of his facility – but that was not what was being asked of him. They didn’t want you to fake adherence to their banal taste and meaningless critical slogans – they wanted you to actually believe in them. They wanted your complicity, your compliance, your corruption.

The novel is well written, full of intriguing insights into this conflicted man’s anguish and dilemma. His genius is marred by certain human frailties and flaws – this is no hagiography.

I just didn’t find it as compelling as I thought I would. Maybe it’s just the lacklustre mood of these constrained times – it hinders my capacity to enter into these fictional worlds. Another time I’d have probably enjoyed this novel much more – but this exploration of ‘the destruction of the human soul’ is not what I need at present. And as another autocratic, narcissistic leader heads for the Florida golf courses, maybe life will take a turn for the better in this turbulent world.

Snowdrop

The first snowdrop of the year appeared in our garden last week

Meanwhile Mrs TD and I continue our daily walks. The other day as we turned from our street into the main road we were confronted by two power company vans and a group of workmen in high vis vests, standing around a large hole they’d just dug in the road, peering into its depths. Is there a problem? Mrs TD asked. “No, just a gas leak,” one of the workmen cheerily replied…

 

Elizabeth Taylor, A View of the Harbour – and some recent walks

Elizabeth Taylor, A View of the Harbour. Virago Modern Classic, 2018. First published 1947

As its title suggests, this is a painterly novel. There’s an ensemble of characters who live in the picturesque houses, shops, pub and cottages clustered around a fading harbour in the south of England just after the war. Among them is the visitor Bertram Hemingway, a retired naval officer, who likes the idea of painting seascapes and a view of this harbour, but he lacks the talent or application to produce anything of note. He’s a sort of catalyst: his arrival sets off a chain of reactions in the other characters in this enclosed community that will change some of their lives.

Elizabeth Taylor A View of the Harbour coverHe’s curious about other people; some would say he’s nosy. He has ‘a passion for turning stones’ to see what lives underneath. He’s less keen on taking responsibility for the disruption this curiosity causes.

The novel reveals the frictions, frustrations, infidelities, betrayals and imperilled friendships that go on in the harbourside’s fractious families and isolated individuals. Everyone watches everyone else: there’s a good deal of curtain-twitching as lonely individuals keep an eye on the comings and goings around the once-busy, now dying harbour.

Taylor’s usual sharp eye for telling detail is apparent. She describes the world of nature as if it were a living chorus, or reflection of the human drama onshore: the sea is sometimes ‘queasy’; ‘waves exploded and crashed’ as a young couple walk the coastal path, anticipating love; the fish being caught far out at sea ‘fought and slithered in the nets, floundering and entangled.’

She seems most at home with the middle-class characters, but she writes with acuity about the working classes, too – without romanticising or evading harsh realities.

If you haven’t yet tried Elizabeth Taylor’s fiction, this would be a good place to start: not her most subtle work, but I’m sure you’ll not regret exploring her fiction (the short stories are excellent, too – list of links to my posts at the end).

HeronRecent walks: a few days ago with Mrs TD I crossed town and did the circuit of a park beside which runs a tidal river. There we saw this elegant grey heron, poised like a dancer as it fished in the muddy shallows – the tide was low.

Another day I had to step into the shelter of a rural gateway to let a car pass in the narrow lane. As I looked across the huge garden of this country house I saw a large grey and white goat standing on the roof of a shed. His back was towards me, but he must have sensed my presence, because he obligingly turned to face me as I zoomed in with my phone camera to take his picture. He was too far away to include the photo here – he’s just a blur.

I looked online but couldn’t figure what breed he was. The nearest I could get was an Icelandic goat. What’s he doing in Cornwall?

Mossy wall

Yesterday I took one of our favourite local routes, and I had to take this picture of a lovely old Cornish hedge. Maybe not as authentic as those in the open country; this one is the outer wall of a house on the edge of town in a small development of fairly modern properties. Even so, it’s got a lovely downy coat of moss.

 

The River Kenwyn flows in the valley     River Kenwynjust below our house. This view is from the road bridge just as the river enters the outskirts of the city. All looks very monochrome and bare in December, but buds are bursting on the tree branches. Do the fish have trouble swimming against the strong currents in the swollen waters after recent heavy rain? How do they see where they’re going when it’s so muddied by the run-off from the steeply sloping fields upstream?

Saw two dippers splashing around in one of the other rivers that enters the built-up area across town the other day. I think they’re the only British birds that can swim underwater.

Also finally caught a good view of one of the tawny owls that haunt our valley: we hear their screeches, hoots and whistle most nights, but so far I’ve never managed to see one. This one was only about thirty feet away, perched on a branch just beyond our garden fence. He blinked at me nonchalantly in the beam of my torch, swivelled his head in that owly way they have, then took off.

CrocusFinally, the first winter flowers appeared in our garden yesterday: a crocus in a pot and a snowdrop by the bird feeder. The delinquent squirrel, who ate all the crocus bulbs last year, has spared most of them this winter, but I did see this morning the shredded remains of a crocus flower – as if he’d left a sinister message for me. You thought I’d given up, didn’t you?

That’s why, as I watched him in the owl’s tree this morning, he arrogantly turned his back and flounced his tail at me. Like a French archer at Agincourt. Pesky little rodent.

Links to all my Elizabeth Taylor posts (five novels and the complete short stories) HERE.

 

Camellias, pheasants and Tess of the D’Urbervilles

This was going to be a post about Salvation City, the second Sigrid Nunez novel I’ve read recently (I posted on The Friend in September, HERE). I find that my Covid-era lethargy persists, however, and its setting in a near-future flu pandemic also puts me off for now. I’ll return to it another time.

As I returned from my daily walk yesterday I was passing the house and garden at the bottom of my road. There’s a large camellia that forms part of the garden border, hanging over the footpath next to it. This camellia produces beautiful pink flowers every December, and this year is no exception.

As I paused to admire them, one of them dropped off and fell with a soft thud onto the damp pavement at my feet. It looked perfectly healthy: it hadn’t blown or turned brown. I suppose it just gave up on blooming.

What happened next quite disturbed me. I recalled vividly the troublesome scene with the dying pheasants in Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

It takes place when Tess has fled from the sinister, unwanted sexual attentions of Alec, found love with Angel, and then disaster strikes again when, soon after marrying him, he learns about her…dalliance with Alec. In a fit of moral outrage he rejects her and takes off to sulk in Brazil, leaving her penniless and vulnerable to the renewed sexual predation of Alec.

As she wanders the country, trying to figure out how to subsist, she turns aside to spend the night in a tree plantation. She sleeps fitfully in her ‘nest’ of leaves, under the branches, and is often disturbed by ‘strange noises’. She feels ‘wretched’ and that she’s wasted her life: ‘All was, alas, worse than vanity–injustice, punishment, exaction, death.’ She wishes she were dead. (It’s not the most cheerful of novels…) Here’s what follows  – extract from Phase the Fifth: The Woman Pays, ch. 41 (available at The Literature Page website – this is described there as the 1891 text):

In the midst of these whimsical fancies she heard a new strange sound among the leaves. It might be the wind; yet there was scarcely any wind. Sometimes it was a palpitation, sometimes a flutter; sometimes it was a sort of gasp or gurgle. Soon she was certain that the noises came from wild creatures of some kind, the more so when, originating in the boughs overhead, they were followed by the fall of a heavy body upon the ground. Had she been ensconced here under other and more pleasant conditions she would have become alarmed; but, outside humanity, she had at present no fear.

Day at length broke in the sky. When it had been day aloft for some little while it became day in the wood.

Directly the assuring and prosaic light of the world’s active hours had grown strong she crept from under her hillock of leaves, and looked around boldly. Then she perceived what had been going on to disturb her. The plantation wherein she had taken shelter ran down at this spot into a peak, which ended it hitherward, outside the hedge being arable ground. Under the trees several pheasants lay about, their rich plumage dabbled with blood; some were dead, some feebly twitching a wing, some staring up at the sky, some pulsating quickly, some contorted, some stretched out–all of them writhing in agony, except the fortunate ones whose tortures had ended during the night by the inability of nature to bear more.

Tess guessed at once the meaning of this. The birds had been driven down into this corner the day before by some shooting-party; and while those that had dropped dead under the shot, or had died before nightfall, had been searched for and carried off, many badly wounded birds had escaped and hidden themselves away, or risen among the thick boughs, where they had maintained their position till they grew weaker with loss of blood in the night-time, when they had fallen one by one as she had heard them.

Tess in the plantation

Tess in the plantation

Her response to this gruesome experience is interesting. She pities the maimed and dying birds that survived being shot, and ‘tenderly’ wrings their necks to end their suffering, tears running down her cheeks. The plight of these unfortunate pheasants causes her to snap out of her self-pity: their misery was far more severe than her own:

‘”I be not mangled, and I be not bleeding, and I have two hands to feed and clothe me.”‘ She was ashamed of herself for her gloom of the night, based on nothing more tangible than a sense of condemnation under an arbitrary law of society which had no foundation in Nature.

You can see, I hope, why the fall of the camellia and the flashing into my mind of this melodramatic scene in a novel not noted for its emotional restraint caused me such disturbance.

The camellia tree

I stopped to take these pictures of the lovely blooms that still flourish on the tree: maybe I should emulate Tess and refrain from gloomy thoughts.

Although Christmas for most of us this year will be different from what we might have hoped, Tess’s response reminds us that nature always has the capacity to restore and renew.

[Illustration of Tess in the plantation is by Joseph Syddall – plate 22 from the monthly serialisation of Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. Originally published in monthly parts (with censored text) in the London Graphic magazine, 1891, in three volumes in book form the same year, and in one volume in 1892. Image from The Victorian Web site HERE]Camellia flower

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.

 

 

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.)

 

Barbara Pym’s letters, notebooks and diaries

A Very Private Eye: the diaries, letters and notebooks of Barbara Pym, edited by Hazel Holt and Hilary Pym. Panther paperback, 1985. First published 1984

I posted recently about friends who live nearby and have a lovely secret garden; one lent me some books on my last visit there with Mrs TD. Last month I posted about two of these: the twenty years spent at St Hilary church, Cornwall by the genial and charming Fr Bernard Walke (link HERE), and The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal (link HERE).

Barbara Pym A Very Private Eye coverIn the garden, presided over by the sphinx-like cats, we discussed the novels of Barbara Pym. My loan of Some Tame Gazelle (link to my post HERE) wasn’t entirely successful, but we all agreed we enjoyed her fiction. In return I was lent A Very Private Eye: the diaries, letters and notebooks of Barbara Pym, edited by Hazel Holt (a friend and long-time colleague of hers at the International African (anthropological) Institute, and BP’s younger sister, Hilary Pym.

It’s a highly entertaining, often very funny insight into the mind and thoughts of this novelist. It starts with her early life then Oxford, where she began her undergraduate  studies in 1932. She seems to have spent much of this university period in a spin of dizzy romances and social engagements, alternating with assiduous academic work. I admit I skimmed much of this.

Much more interesting are the later sections: her war years (she served as a Wren – the women’s royal naval service – with duties including postal censorship) in London and Naples, then her long career at the International African Institute, where she edited anthropological papers.

I was surprised by the number of times her heart was broken when love affairs ended badly. Less surprising was the originality, passion and grit she showed in her literary work – she began to write at the age of twenty-two.

After six fairly successful novels and minor celebrity as an author, she famously fell out of favour at the start of the swinging sixties. Publishers lost their nerve, and rejected everything she sent them, saying it wouldn’t sell. She was devastated.

A long, increasingly friendly and encouraging correspondence with Philip Larkin, who admired her work, boosted her confidence. Eventually they met in person and enjoyed some very Pym-esque teas together. In January 1977 the TLS published a list, chosen by eminent literary figures, of the most under-rated writers of the century. BP was the only living writer to be chosen by two contributors: Larkin and David Cecil – another long-time admirer of her novels. Because of this publicity, and the changing mood of the times, her fiction came into demand again.

She was rediscovered. She was delighted to find herself more famous and successful than she’d ever been. Especially when she discovered that her fiction was being taught in American universities.

It’s gratifying to see revealed so intimately in her letters, diaries and notebooks, the deep pleasure and spirited pride she felt in her final years when she finally received proper recognition of her literary merit, after those dismal years of disappointment and humiliation.

She lived from 1946 in affectionate harmony with her younger sister, Hilary, and some very dubious cats, at first in London, then in the countryside. They ended up in a village which she described in a letter as straight out of Some Tame Gazelle, published many years earlier. She was thrilled to find that village life hadn’t changed that much, even though London had.

The title of this anthology of her non-fiction reflects what a private person she was. It’s thanks to the judicious editing and selection of the two editors who knew her so well that we can dip into this charming book and enjoy seeing the vivacity, wit and humanity of this excellent woman from a slightly different perspective from the one gained from reading her novels.

Helford river shore

View of the shore from where we swam: those are our bags

I’ll append here some pictures taken on Saturday’s seven-mile walk around parts of Helford River and the fields above it. Our new walk app describes the route and places of note on the way. We stopped for a swim at the bottom of the hill, in the salty tidal river, in the refreshingly cool water. I thought the house martins had all migrated south, but there were still a few about that day.

Helford river from above

The river and open sea from further on in our walk.

Helford River

This is the view from that beach where our bags were, out over the tidal creek