‘The evil in the air was corrupting everybody’: Gamel Woolsey, ‘Death’s Other Kingdom’

When I was studying Spanish at school back in the late 60s, my teacher, who then seemed to me an old man, but who was probably younger than I am now, used to beguile us all with his misty-eyed reminiscences of his youthful days in 30s Spain, which seemed to be spent bathing in icy mountain pools and eating delicious peasant food in country inns. Gamel Woolsey’s autobiographical account of her experiences of the outbreak of Civil War in Andalucía in 1936, and in particular the beginning of the attacks on Malaga, belongs to that same era, when the pastoral tranquillity of the country was shattered irrevocably.

My copy is in the Virago Travellers series

My copy is in the Virago Travellers series

Published in 1939, Death’s Other Kingdom is a lyrical and deeply personal record of her feelings and perceptions as the rugged but idyllic village life she shared in Churriana, just outside Malaga (now absorbed into its post-tourist-resort urban sprawl) with her husband, the Hispanist author Gerald Brenan, turned into a nightmare the morning she woke to the news of Malaga burning ‘under a pall of smoke’.

The opening chapter beautifully evokes that pre-war idyll:

It was the most beautiful day of the summer…The sky at dawn was cloudless and the ‘pink band’ of the tropics, the band of rosy light which ascends the sky from the horizon at twilight, rose to the zenith and faded into the growing light. Then the sun rose suddenly with a leap into the air: the long hot southern day had begun.

 It’s a world of placid serenity, when the Brenans did little more, in the summer heat, than ‘bask in the day like lizards, in the shade of the high white garden wall’ which surrounded their big old house with its walls ‘four feet thick’, and its huge garden, ‘gay with bright flowers, immaculate and cool in any weather.’

She describes the place with sensual, poetic fervor:

I always loved waking in Spain. The sun fell in stripes from the slatted shutters on the red and white diamonded tiles of the floor. Noises from the street below floated up; the pattering feet of the milk goats sounded like rain drops…

 More sounds rise up: the ‘melancholy call’ of the fish sellers ‘their hampers full of fresh fish just coming up from the sea on their lean donkeys’ — Sardinas and boqueronis – ‘the food of the poor, the cheapest of fishes.’ Then come the cries of the vendors of ‘grapes fresh and plump’, tomatoes and ‘pimientos gordos’, ‘melons, lettuces and plums, squashes, peaches and pumpkins were passing, a perfect harvest festival going by on donkeys.’

This is the dominant tone of the book: Woolsey’s profound sympathy for village life and the desperately poor rural inhabitants of these remote mountain and coastal pueblos. There are affectionately vivid portraits throughout the book of the Brenans’ domestic staff: Enrique, ‘a gentle, charming young man’, their passionate gardener, and his mother María the ‘severe’ and crotchety but ‘devoted’ cook-housekeeper and her daughter, a ‘melancholy widow’ called Pilar, whose brief experience of romance is cruelly and violently ended, leaving her in sad solitude again.

Woolsey evokes a now largely vanished rural Andalucia:

For a village in Spain is a unity; its inhabitants are like members of a clan, they have a close and indissoluble bond. ‘My village’ is constantly in the mouth of a Spanish countryman. It is more than ‘my country’.

 The villagers view with deep suspicion anyone from a different village, no matter how close; as for the nearby town of Malaga – it’s seen as the abode of evil people.

But when Malaga is set on fire and the air-raids begin, the peace is shattered. Lorries thunder by constantly:

The young men wave their pistols and throw up their clenched fists in a gesture of triumph.

 All is confusion. The ‘Revolution from the Right’ is countered by a ‘Revolution of the Left’. Rumours fly rapidly. Everyone is fearful, most especially of ‘El Tercio’ – the seasoned Foreign Legion ‘worthy of Lucifer’, and its most feared contingent, the Moors, the expectation of whose arrival ‘ran like a cold wave of horror through the countryside’. Patrols enter the house and the countryside looking for enemies. Arrests and imprisonments are commonplace, and summary executions and brutal reprisals from both sides terrify the people. Former friends become mistrustful enemies. Irreparable fissions form in the village’s life. The Brenans are protected from the worst atrocities by their foreignness – Gerald flies a Union Jack over the house and this acts like a lucky charm. But many of their neighbours and friends are less fortunate.

There are vivid descriptions of their visits to Malaga to see for themselves the terrible destruction wrought by the newly erupted Civil War. There are rueful touches of humour: they meet an Englishman in Malaga who regales them with tales of the night the houses around him were torched:

But I suppose it seems worse for British subjects to lose their luggage than lesser races their lives.

 

Most of the narrative relates with grim impartiality the catastrophic impact of the war on the people. A kind of madness grips the civilians, who indulge their ‘uglier instincts’ and take malicious pleasure in spreading stories of atrocities. It’s the ‘pornography of violence’ as she memorably puts it. ‘Hate is the other side of fear’, she suggests, ‘and it was horrible to see and feel this hate-fear rising around us like a menacing sea.’ The people are gripped by the ‘suspicion and bitterness’ that ‘thrive on fear’; ‘the distrust of Spaniards for other Spaniards is bottomless’.

The strangest section of the book is devoted to the Brenans’ providing refuge in their house to the aristocratic family from whom they’d bought it. Well-known supporters of the Falangists, they were in mortal danger if they stayed on in their own estate near the airport, so they accept the offer of a hiding place for their entire family and retinue. It’s an extraordinarily dangerous gesture of generosity, and would have cost the Brenans their lives, foreigners or not, if their guests had been found by the vengeful workers who searched for them and any other Franco supporters. Our sympathies are hardly engaged when Don Carlos, the head of the family, dances with glee on the Brenans’ rooftop as he watches Malaga burn in a fascist air-raid.

Gamel Woolsey (1895-1968) was an interesting character. Born Elizabeth Gammell (her mother’s maiden name; she later shortened it to Gamel and dropped her first name) Woolsey to a wealthy South Carolina plantation owning family, she was brought up with a sense of morality and virtue that are so apparent in this memoir. Her aunt was the author of the Katy books, Susan Coolidge, whose real name was Sarah Chauncey Woolsey.

She had an affair with a member of the literary Powys family, Llewelyn, whom she followed  to England in 1929, settling in Dorset to be near him. There she met Brenan (1894-1987), and left for Spain with him where they settled as man and wife. He had been a member of the Bloomsbury group, and had been romantically involved with Dora Carrington; Gamel was pursued by the philosopher Bertrand Russell. Leftist in politics, Brenan had served as one of the youngest British officers in WWI. His terrible experiences there explain some of his responses to the brutal behaviour of some of their Spanish neighbours when the Civil War broke out, and his determination to help the oppressed, whatever their politics or religion.

In Spain they were visited by a stream of eminent artists, including Virginia Woolf, the Partridges (Frances wrote the Introduction to my Virago edition of DOK), Hemingway and V.S. Pritchett.

The book’s title is taken from T.S. Eliot’s Dante-influenced poem ‘The Hollow Men’ (1925):

Those who have crossed

With direct eyes, to death’s other kingdom

Remember us – if at all – not as lost

Violent souls, but only

As the hollow men

The stuffed men…

 ‘Death’s other kingdom’ is one of three of death’s kingdoms in the poem, and it relates to that heavenly zone entered by those who have left behind a state of spiritual nothingness (in hell or purgatory) and entered into an enlightened state of knowledge where they are capable of seeing the inner truth. The hollow men are those who fail to reach such heights. Eliot was one of Gamel’s favourite poets (she was primarily a poet herself, though she published very little verse or prose in her lifetime), and the line’s significance for her memoir is apt: it could signify the higher truth to which she felt those who experienced war should aspire, rather than the hypocrisy, lies and deception that so many around her (the hollow men) wallowed in when hostilities broke out, who lost sight of their morals and values.

 

Alfred Hayes, Salinger and Bananafish

Work has been all-consuming so far this term, so although I’ve found time to do some reading – most recently and notably Alfred Hayes’ taut, harsh little novel of 1958, My Face for the World to See, published in their usual handsome covers by those splendid folk at NYRB (I can’t write about it here because I impulsively lent it to someone, and would want to quote from Hayes’ style: he can write). I’ve just started Kate Atkinson’s sequel to Life After Life (2013), A God in Ruins, but doubt I’ll write about it here as I didn’t much care for the first one, interesting as it was in parts; I found it what I think film buffs call too ‘high concept’ in structure and content. Why read it? It was lent to me, so would be churlish not to. The sequel is more of the same thing, if the first 70 pages that I’ve read are anything to go by. Entertaining enough, though.

I just listened to the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘A Good Read’ – which I included in Pt 3 of my list of recommended podcast-programmes back in the summer and enjoyed the discussion by Julia Blackburn, whose choice this book was (good taste), and David Morrissey, of JD Salinger’s short story collection For Esmé — With Love and Squalor. (Link to the programme HERE.) I posted about this book in the early days of my blog, so thought it wouldn’t be amiss if I recycled part of it here now, in the hope that, if you missed it first time round, you might feel inspired to give this early Salinger a try. It’s sublime. Here’s an extract:

Most of the stories in this collection concern war and its effects on individuals, and the traumatised memories of post-war Americans.  Even when its presence isn’t directly felt, the war has created in the characters in the stories a damaged, questing quality; as we saw in Franny and Zooey, most of them seek solace in oriental mysticism.

Some (usually children) find enlightenment; others are thwarted.  The opening epigraph to the book is the famous Zen koan – what is the sound of one hand clapping?  This serves as the theme of the collection: how to transcend or deal with mundane reality when in contact with the dulling, deadening effect of what Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye and members of the Glass family in other stories call ‘phoniness’.

The opening story, ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’ sets the tone with the story of Seymour Glass’s suicide in 1948 while on holiday at a Florida beach hotel with his shallow bourgeoise wife Muriel.  In the opening section there’s Salinger’s usual technique on show: Muriel chats distractedly on the phone with her mother – there’s minimal authorial intrusion or commentary.  This is typical of Salinger’s fiction: characters talking.  In this way he shows us their foibles, weaknesses and strengths without having to tell us what’s going on.

In the story’s second section we see Seymour, about whose mental health Muriel’s mother had been expressing (not very sympathetically) concern to her daughter, chatting on the beach with a small girl called Sybil.  Unlike the women’s selfish talk, Seymour shows himself as sensitive and charmed by Sybil’s innocent prattle.  He teases her gently about the fictitious titular fish, telling her they eat so much they get too bloated to escape from the holes they enter on the seabed, causing their own deaths.  The shocking denouement echoes this jolly, innocent narrative, told to amuse and entertain the girl, in a chilling, existentially tortured way.

The whole post can be read by clicking HERE, and there are links there to the other Salinger titles I’ve posted about. Do read him if you haven’t already.

 

Giacomo Leopardi, ‘Zibaldone’, Kerouac and Jackson Pollock

 

Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone

My copy

My copy

One of the 19C’s most radical and challenging thinkers and poets (his Canti and moral works influenced Walter Benjamin and Beckett), Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) for most of his writing career kept adding entries to an immense notebook, whose Italian title translates as ‘hodgepodge’, miscellany or commonplace book – in previous posts I’ve considered similar ‘Florilegia’ and Chrestomathies (by the likes of Chamfort). Here he recorded his thoughts, impressions, philosophical musings and aphoristic responses to his reading (not just in Italian, but Latin, Greek, Hebrew and other European languages) initially in his isolated house in a village in the Marche, and subsequently elsewhere in Italy. There’s an excellent Introduction by the editors, which provides an illuminating account of his life and work, and the social-political-cultural world in which he operated. It’s also placed in the context of the ars excerpendi: the 16-17C techniques of ‘filing and rationally organising knowledge in catalogues and indexes.’ The Arcades Project by Walter Benjamin, with its ‘convolutes’, is a similar enterprise.

Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone: The Notebooks of Leopardi, edited by Michael Caesar and Franco D’Intino. Translated by Kathleen Baldwin, Richard Dixon et al.  Penguin Books, hardback (2013)

1900 Florence edition

In this Introduction there’s a fascinating account of how the MS, hidden away until the turn of the 19-20C, came to light and began to appear in Italian editions, but failed to make much of an impression, so extraordinary and original was its content, so wide-ranging in subject-matter – which tended towards a rejection of high-Romantic idealism and optimism in favour of a more nihilistic world view.

Filling more than 4,500 pp in MS, and 2,502 in this handsome Penguin edition (it’s printed on ultra-thin paper), its focus is the 16-year period 1817-1832, although much of it was completed by 1823, when Leopardi was just 25. It’s the product of his egregious erudition and polymath mind, which was enabled to develop in his aristocratic father’s extensive library, and later in the literary-philosophical Italy of his day.

It would be virtually impossible to ‘review’ this enormous repository of random allusions and dialogues with other texts. Here I shall mention just one entry that recently took my fancy. It’s a book to be dipped into, rather than read in a linear way. One could imagine it lending itself to bibliomancy. I may well revisit it in this way another time (and perhaps the Benjamin text, too, another favourite of mine).

The section that caught my attention appears on p. 88 of this edition, numbered 94-95 by the editors. Here Leopardi is discussing the advantages of being polyglot: it ‘affords some greater facility and clarity on the way we formulate our thoughts, for it is through language that we think’:

Now, perhaps no language has enough words and phrases to correspond to and express all the infinite subtleties of thought. The knowledge of several languages and the ability, therefore, to express in one language what cannot be said in another…makes it easier for us to articulate our thoughts and to understand ourselves, and to apply the word to the idea, which, without that application, would remain confused in our mind.

This is a sentiment of profound good sense, though many would disagree. He goes on to say he has experienced this phenomenon frequently:

…and it can be seen in these same thoughts, written with the flow of the pen, where I have fixed my ideas with Greek, French, Latin words, according to how for me they responded more precisely to the thing, and came most quickly to mind.

Leopardi,_Giacomo_(1798-1837)_-_ritr._A_Ferrazzi,_Recanati,_casa_LeopardiThe editors’ note to this section (the emphasis is mine) points out that Leopardi makes clear here that he writes his diary a penna corrente – ‘with the flow of the pen’, or senza studio. I find these expressions particularly felicitous – and perfect examples of what he said earlier about the ability of one language to fix an idea more concisely and expressively than another: ‘a penne corrente’ is so much more satisfying a concept than the prosaic English translation ‘quickly’; ‘senza studio’ more mellifluous than ‘unreflectingly’.

It is in this spirit that I’ve written some of my blog posts, including this one (and the previous post on Fred Titmus and Liz Taylor), whereas I usually draft them – though it probably doesn’t seem that way to readers – with great care.

I recently attended an academic conference at Birkbeck College, University of London, on the subject of ‘action writing’: the improvised free-form style favoured by Jack Kerouac and others of his generation, pioneered in music by the jazz musicians of the preceding years, and by Jackson Pollock’s ‘action painting’. How intriguing to find in the Zibaldone an advocate of this Zen attitude to artistic creation…

Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone: The Notebooks of Leopardi, edited by Michael Caesar and Franco D’Intino. Translated by Kathleen Baldwin, Richard Dixon et al.

Penguin Books, hardback (2013)

 

Vision animates: John Harvey, ‘The Poetics of Sight’

John Harvey, The Poetics of Sight. Peter Lang, Bern, 2015. Paperback, 309pp. (Cultural Interactions: Studies in the Relationship between the Arts, 25)

I have recently written here about the excellent literary-cultural studies by John Harvey of the colour black and here about clothes. Last year I included several pieces on his novel about Ruskin, Millais and Effie Gray, The Subject of a Portrait.

Harvey Poetics bk cover Lang siteThe Poetics of Sight is ‘an intermittent history of culture’s “visual turn” through the last four hundred years’, during which time the subject of sight itself has become, until quite recent years, of primary literary and artistic concern. This book is mostly about the visual life of poetry and prose fiction and ‘about the poetic life of pictures’. Writing within the tradition of comparing pictures with poetry – ‘Ut pictura poesis’ – that stretches ‘from Horace to Hagstrum’, Dr Harvey focuses on the hitherto relatively neglected ‘human sense of sight’ in this debate, and in particular on the concept of the ‘visual metaphor’.

 

In his Introduction he mentions how memories (like dream images) are often ‘momentary and fragmentary’ – the Proustian epiphanies of memory evoked initially by that novelist’s famous childhood madeleines, but then more revealingly by paintings and visual representations in the sequence of novels.

Neuroscientists point out, Dr Harvey explains, how our way of seeing isn’t static but ‘saccadic’: our eyes dart here and there over what we perceive in order to create and maintain an understanding of what it is: this enables us to identify what we see. This is a consequence of evolution – it’s of great advantage to a predator (or predator’s target) to be able to distinguish quickly and accurately what’s dangerous from what’s edible.

In a short review I can’t possibly do justice to the detailed and scrupulous consideration Harvey gives to a wide range of visual and literary artefacts; his analysis, to give just one example, of Titian’s paintings of Venus – two of the nine colour plates in the book; there are 36 monochrome illustrations — is inspiring – though I’d recommend accessing the images online: it’s helpful to be able to zoom in on the details he assesses.

He begins with a chapter on Shakespeare’s ‘visual imaginings’ and the pictures by artists inspired by the plays. Then he turns to the uneven art of Blake, with its ‘element of wilful deprivation’ which is ‘a challenge to taste at any time’ as he strove to ‘keep his vision pure and Eternal’– but which is, at its best, sublime, like Blake’s best poetry.

Here we encounter one of the most interesting recurring themes in the book: the role of the metaphor in art. It is part of Blake’s extraordinary and eccentric genius that he ‘makes the poetic part of visual art stronger and easier to see.’

In his next chapter Harvey carefully examines the ‘migrations of satire’s scurrilous muse [wonderful phrase!] back and forth between visual and verbal art’, with attention to such figures as Gillray and Cruikshank, Pope and Dryden. Here too the ‘slow historic change’ involved the ‘visual or the pictorial “turn”’ that satire took over the centuries, in line with the growing fashion for the ‘picturesque’. When the fashion for satiric verse died out, it re-emerged in the novel, and subsequently in film.

For me the most interesting sections of the book are those which deal with the novel (and there’s a superbly perceptive chapter on ‘metaphor and modernism’, and the ‘double metaphor’ of visual representation in the flat two-dimensional plane of a painting or photo).

The early novelists ‘saw no reason to tarry over a sight unless it was remarkable, and in reading them one’s auditory imagination is at least as busy as one’s visual imagination.’

It’s only in the early nineteenth century that the novel ‘opens its eyes and aspires to a continuous visualization.’ Harvey shows how Austen pays little attention to the visual compared with Dickens, Thackeray and the high Victorian novelists, about whom he writes with subtlety, authority and insight: he moves from fictional landscapes in words to the importance of portraits on the walls of fictional characters’ houses – initially those of the aristocracy, then increasingly in those of the bourgeoisie. The wealthy figure in the portrait intimidated its viewer with its complacently land-owning gaze.

Dr Harvey has published extensively on the illustrations in Victorian literary works, and it is not surprising that he is particularly strong on this topic here – Dickens’s illustrators’ achievements, for example, are explored for their symbiotic relationship with the narrative. But it’s not an academic study for its own sake: he is able to show how they reflect the growing interest of novelists in the concept of watching and seeing, and of related themes like clairvoyance and blindness, light and dark (literal and metaphorical):

Because Dickens’s feeling is more laden his visual details work as emotional metaphors.

George Eliot, we see, is acutely sensitive to the ‘the physique’ and the body of her characters, a visual awareness he calls ‘the classic optics of the novel.’

The modernists became uneasy with this highly realist visual approach, both in painting and its sister art, literature. The move from impressionism through to abstract expressionism is traced alongside the novel’s development, which began to show more affinities with the metonymy of photography and film than with painting (‘I am a camera’), with movement, a ‘visual dynamic’ found, for example, in Harvey’s analysis of Virginia Woolf’s work, where the ‘point of view’

dances from consciousness to consciousness in an almost cinematic way, swooping and zooming, tracking one person till they pass another when all the individuals are themselves in motion, while also slipping rapidly between outward sight and inner picturings.

As I did with his other non-fiction works, I particularly liked Harvey’s ability to argue his case in lucid, elegant prose, as I hope the extracts I have briefly quoted so far indicate. Notice his wittily revealing (nuanced, not ostentatious) use of visual metaphors in his exposition (the novel ‘opens its eyes’; POV ‘dances’; Dickens’s ‘laden’ feeling), for example. And there’s his usual mastery of prose rhythm and the well-turned sentence to express his argument with considered authority.  His scholarship is judiciously deployed.

He’s especially good at showing how writers ‘examine the nature of memory and time’; this resulted in the most recent generations of writers favouring the present tense. Given our tendency in real life to look with ‘fugitive, almost subliminal glimpses’ at the world around us, in literature this results in ‘durable, examinable’ public forms. The Poetics of Sight doesn’t explore the short stories of Raymond Carver, but I find this American writer is a master of the narrative of glimpses, the sideways look or oblique point of view, what in this book is called ‘fiction’s long tradition of indirect visualization.’

I’d be interested to see a lengthier account by Dr Harvey of Henry James’s place in this discussion of art and literature: there are a few tantalising glimpses that whet the appetite for more.

For now, I commend this book to you: it’ll change the way you read.

 

Mine was a review copy sent by the publishers, from whose website the image of the book’s cover is taken.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Calumnies and persecutions’: Denis Diderot, ‘The Nun’

‘The cloistered life is that of a fanatic or a hypocrite.’

I’ve reached that happy time of year when my teaching commitments are almost over and I have some space in which to read and write. Having posted already this week on John Harvey’s social-cultural-philosophical study Clothes I felt inspired to join that doughty band of bloggers (like Kaggsysbookishramblings – her excellent blog is HERE) who post more prolifically than I can manage, yet are able to maintain admirably high standards of entertaining, well-written posts on their scarily voracious reading (where do they find the time?!) – don’t know if I can reach their level, but here goes with a second post this week.

thumb_IMG_2796_1024Denis Diderot’s (sort of) epistolary novel La Religieuse was first published in 1796, but started as early as 1760 (more on that later) which I read in the Penguin Classics version The Nun, translated by Leonard Tancock. I seem to recall buying it after reading Malcolm Bradbury’s final novel, To the Hermitage, published shortly before he died (too young at just 68) – a delightfully irreverent but highly intelligent response to the life and work of Diderot, and in particular of his sojourn at the St Petersburg court of tsarina Catherine II, who had invited him to curate her library and art works at what is now the Hermitage museum. There’s a review here from the online journal Études Anglaises. I enjoyed it when I read it over ten years ago. In the light of the TBR20 movement started by Eva Stalker I resolved finally to pick up The Nun and remove it from my pile of unread books (the TBR pile as it’s called on the Interweb).

The main difficulty was, I didn’t really enjoy the novel that much.

It began as a hoax. Diderot (1713-84) was the archetypal Enlightenment philosophe, a

First edition of Encyclopédie, 1751

First edition of Encyclopédie, 1751

scientific materialist and polymath humanist with strongly anti-Catholic views, which are apparent throughout this novel. He was most famous as the main editor of the Encyclopédie – a vast ‘dictionnaire raisonné’ of all human knowledge at the time, which began to appear in 1751.

 

One of his circle of Paris friends of eminent thinkers and writers was the Marquis de Croismare, who had recently retired from the capital to his country estate in Normandy. Diderot missed his affable company, so in order to lure him back to the city he made use of a scandalously notorious incident of 1758; a nun had petitioned the Marquis to intervene on her behalf in her attempt to revoke her religious vows and leave the convent (to which she’d been condemned against her will by her parents) for the outside world.

Diderot started writing to the Marquis a sequence of letters in the name of another such desperate nun, Suzanne Simonin. Adopting this fictitious persona he constructed a scenario in which she’d escaped from the miserable cruelty of her convent, to which she too had been condemned by her parents.

The plan went wrong. Instead of the desired outcome – the return of the Marquis to Paris to facilitate Suzanne’s liberation – he offered her asylum and a job on his country estate, and stayed put. Eventually Diderot had to send letters to the Marquis telling him ‘Suzanne’ had died. Later, over a period of years, he worked the original material into a full-length novel, but it wasn’t published in its final form until after his death in 1796, and of course after the Revolution which some of his works had contributed towards fermenting.

The Nun takes the form of a curious hybrid: letters addressed to the Marquis petitioning his support (paid employment and asylum), but also a sort of autobiography or memoir in which Suzanne describes her cruel banishment to cloistered incarceration by her heartless parents, followed by her experiences in the religious houses to which she was confined.

It’s not all gothic gloom; at first she is treated with loving kindness by a saintly Mother Superior. When she dies, it all goes horribly wrong. The new Superior is jealously tyrannical in her persecution of her predecessor’s former favourites. Convents are portrayed here as unholy hotbeds of hypocrisy, corruption and persecution, with an unhealthy atmosphere that generates madness, idolatry (or fear) of superiors, bullying, calumnies and febrile sexual depravity. Just look at the cover image above…

Suzanne takes her vows in a weird sort of fugue trance – a characteristically unconvincing scene. Her later attempts to renounce the veil are met with cruel vengefulness: she’s systematically exposed to mental and physical torture, solitary confinement and ostracism. She often contemplates suicide.

Unfortunately I found the prose indigestible. I’m sure the translator did a good job, but 18C French can be pretty stodgy. And the relentlessly victimised Suzanne has a voice that generally comes across as inconsistent and implausibly literary. Here she is on the opening page, explaining her purpose in writing:

…I have made up my mind to overcome my pride and reluctance and embark on these recollections in which I shall describe part of my misfortunes without talent or artifice, with the ingenuousness of a girl of my age and with my natural candour.

 

Like so many gothic narratives of swooning female victims in menacing cloistered environments (there’s a touch of Clarissa’s influence there, too, perhaps; Richardson’s novel was published in 1748), there’s an unsavoury prurience apparent. The narrator’s constant reminders of her youth, innocence and natural piety become tiresomely strident, and the mistreatment she endures with either stoical submissiveness or passive resistance becomes a catalogue of sado-masochism verging on torture porn that the underlying socio-political message fails to justify.

After one particularly vicious campaign against her, for example, Suzanne reveals her wounds to her superiors; she then melodramatically addresses her putative aristocratic reader –

I can hear you, Sir, and most of those who read these memoirs, saying: ‘So many horrors, so varied and so continuous! A series of such calculated atrocities in religious souls! It defies all probability!’

 

Quite so. And just who are we meant to understand constitute her readers? Not just the Marquis, then, but ‘memoir’ readers. It doesn’t add up.

I have a similar problem with the sexual aspects of Suzanne’s revelations. At one stage she’s accused of what is clearly signalled as masturbation and lesbianism, but her coyly euphemistic account overbalances into unintentional humour:

I was credited with intentions I dare not mention, and unnatural desires to which they attributed the obvious disarray of the young nun [who had just fled screaming from her]. Of course I am not a man, and I don’t know what can be imagined about one woman and another, still less about one woman alone, but as my bed had no curtains, and people came in and out of my room at all hours, what can I say, Sir? For all their circumspect behaviour, their modest eyes and the chastity of their talk, these women must be very corrupt at heart – anyway they know that you can commit indecent acts alone, which I don’t know, and so I have never quite understood what they accused me of…

 Really? You either know or you don’t. This is equivocation that begins to resemble the genre of a bawdy Carry On film.

Credibility is strained even more when her last Superior engages in a series of intimate

Portrait of Diderot by Greuze, 1767. Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Diderot by Greuze, 1767. Wikimedia Commons

Sapphic trysts with her that culminate in what is clearly orgasm – which again Suzanne claims she doesn’t understand (‘I jumped up, thinking she had fainted…’) She thinks her Superior was simply taken ill!

This novel has a certain amount of interest as a blast from the Age of Reason against clerical hypocrisy, but as a novel it fails to satisfy.

Next time – before too long, I hope – I intend to return to the topic of the TBR pile. This attempt wasn’t entirely rewarding.

 

 

Our appearance is our reality: John Harvey, ‘Clothes’

I wrote recently HERE about John Harvey’s two fascinating studies of the colour black, and HERE about his novel The Subject of a Portrait, about the love triangle involving John Ruskin, Effie Gray and the artist Millais. Clothes is part of a series of philosophical studies by Acumen Publishing ‘on matters of life and death’, and in particular on the question: ‘How should we live?’ Other titles include ‘Death’, ‘Sex’ and ‘Work’.

 

Harvey ClothesIn this characteristically energetic, accessible and entertaining short study, Dr Harvey deploys his considerable scholarship and intelligence on a topic that concerns us all – no matter what our attitude to what we wear. Whether we choose designer labels, functional casual or work wear, or power suits, our clothing is ‘an outer envelope’ that we can ‘select and manipulate’ to make a statement about how rebellious, conservative or ‘on trend’ we are. It indicates – even more than our naked skin can – ‘many allegiances, sensitivies and foibles.’

 

Clothes can even be a matter of life and death, as the introductory chapter indicates: two young goths were beaten to death in a Lancashire park, simply because of their outlandishly distinctive look. Military uniforms enabled soldiers to identify who to kill or not, who to salute or not.

Our clothes represent a metaphor for ‘misrepresentation’ – they ‘can be treacherous companions’, his argument begins, because ‘they touch us closely, because they touch our skin.’ Our ‘recurring mistrust’ of them has recurred throughout history, and has exercised philosophers since the time when Socrates deprecated “women’s adornment” and advocated extreme simplicity in garb. In Christian thinking, nakedness and the need to cover it to hide our shame is a theme introduced in the Genesis story of Adam and Eve.

Drawing upon his scholarly research into visual art and its relationship to our literature and broader culture, Dr Harvey explores works as diverse as Titian’s ‘Sacred and Profane Love’ and literary texts; Shakespeare was much concerned with dress and its physical and metaphorical power. George Eliot and Dickens are also cited for their treatment of characters’ dress.

We are ambivalent about clothes, he argues, for they are ‘dangerous things’, often a ‘metaphor for hypocrisy’; what other people wear can take us in, deceive us, until we discover what they are like under this second skin, this body mask or disguise. Clothes are part of our perpetual performance in the world. We dress for ourselves and for others: the ‘sense of an audience’ is important.

Apart from material he’s discussed in a slightly different context in his books on the colour black, such as the contrast between puritanical plainness in costume in some periods of western history and foppish dandyism in others, there’s much that’s new here. There is, for example, the Liz Hurley of the 20s, Rita Lygid, who designed and wore the first backless dress and caused a scandalous success.

What I particularly like about Dr Harvey’s studies is the way he communicates his formidable range of literary and artistic knowledge with an intelligently readable, often witty prose style. For example, he has a way with metaphor:

When we put on clothes we sheathe ourselves in a social shadow: an ethos, an ethic, that guides and limits.

 I also liked this on a design by couturier Jean-Paul Gautier, expressed as wittily as the garment it describes:

When he is not clowning, still there is wit, as when he lets a tight-waisted dress of aluminium-ish silk flare out extravagantly over a froth of flounced chiffon petticoat with a little the look of a washing machine exploding.

He has a good ear for sound patterns, rhythms and linguistic symmetries, as those extracts I hope show; but he also has a subtly prompting, guiding voice. He has that rare gift: the ability to make the familiar strange and new. But I never felt he was lapsing into academic-speak. On the ‘issue of shoulders’, to take an example of his cheerfully discursive tone, he points out that men’s fashions have tended to bulk them out and cover them up, whereas for women’s fashion this is an equally ‘sensitive issue’ for different reasons: John Singer Sargent’s famous portrait of ‘Madame X’ caused a ‘furore’ when it John_Singer_Sargent_(1856–1925)_Madame_X_(Madame_Pierre_Gautreau),_1883–84was first exhibited around 1900 because ‘one slender strap’ was ‘hanging down off the shoulder’:

The strap was scarcely more than a thread, but loosening it was a step too far, and Sargent was required to mend the portrait, and replace the strap. Only later still could shoulders be wholly naked.

There’s much more detail in this book than I can hope to summarise here. Briefly, he looks at the the history, materials, functions and aesthetics of clothes, and the way we use them to ‘be ourselves’ or ‘be someone else’ in order to avoid exposing our ‘private self’ to the public gaze while revealing different “sides” of ourselves ‘deliberately or quite unconsciously’, as he suggests in another elegantly balanced aphorism:

clothes may help us to possess our soul, and we may place our soul within the clothes.

Clothes enable us to innovate or conversely to follow the herd, by conforming to fashions of the day or team to which we belong (I notice most of my teenage female students now favour a torn gash across both knees of their jeans).

As in his other books Harvey explores the differences between the relatively uncovered or exposed, colourful and extravagant look of women’s fashion compared with the more sober, suited, buttoned-up (in every sense) male costume. Young fashions versus old, politicians, soldiers (especially the ruthlessly fearsome black-clad SS) all present various degrees of individuality and uniformity, power and powerlessness.

Politically and socially, then, clothes tend to be mass-produced (often by sweat-shop exploited labour) and enable us to express our individuality but also to group ourselves. They can exhibit modesty, and ‘protect us from temptation as they protect us from the cold’, constituting a ‘moral fence, enclosing our sinfulness and frustrating the desires of others’. Of course, they can also, paradoxically, enflame them, and play a key part in our search for a sexual partner.

As the text on the book’s cover says, by being aware of the role clothes play in our lives, we can come to know and better understand who we are.

John Harvey, Clothes. Acumen Publishing, Stocksfield. 2008. Paperback, 134 pp. Copy supplied by the author.

Apart from the piece on this blog about John Harvey’s studies of the colour black cited above, there are these two pieces from last year: this one, in which the author of the novel The Subject of a Portrait discusses in a guest post the ways in which he treated his historical theme, and its relationship with the film scripted by Emma Thompson which came out shortly after his novel’s publication. There’s also this piece by guest writer Michael Flay, proprietor of the independent imprint Polar Books, which published the novel.

Photo of book jacket my own; ‘Madame X’ in public domain via WikiCommons.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Henry James, “Louisa Pallant” revisited

When my piece on Henry James’s 1888 story ‘Louisa Pallant’ first appeared on the Mookse and Gripes site on May 14 (and again here on this site), it inspired several interesting comments and queries. I’ll answer them briefly there, but thought I’d take the opportunity here on my own site to expand a little on some of the thoughts they produced in my mind.

First there’s the odd, repeated use of religious terminology by Louisa about her daughter Linda (of whom she had said to the narrator, her former lover, that ‘she’s a bad, hard girl, who would poison any good man’s life!) – a query raised in a Mooke and Gripes comment by Betsy Pelz:

‘You make my reparation – my expiation – difficult!’

When the narrator, the uncle of the young man (Archer Pringle) who Louisa fears her daughter has ‘marked’ as a suitably eligible (ie wealthy) target for marriage, repeats these expressions a little later, she adds:

‘She’s my punishment and she’s my stigma!’

She goes on:

‘She’s cased in steel; she has a heart of marble. It’s true – it’s true. She appals me!’

I believe this startling condemnation fits with the portrayal of Louisa throughout the story. In its second section the narrator reflects on her ‘improved and degenerate’ nature; she was, he feels, ‘spiritually speaking, vulgarised’, sceptical. She strikes him as ‘having seen more of the evil of the world than of the good’, and

her devotion to her daughter had been a kind of religion.

In training and educating Linda to ‘reach a high point’ she had made of her daughter ‘the star of her mother’s heaven’, the ‘source of the only light’ on her path: she ‘stood her in stead of every other religion.’ Linda’s role, as taught by Louisa, is that of ‘an educated angel.’

This spiritual-religious imagery is clear and sustained. Soon after the ‘reparation/expiation’ references Louisa’s language develops the theme:

‘It’s a satisfaction to my own conscience – for I have one, little as you think I have a right to speak of it. I have been punished by my sin itself. I have been hideously worldly…and I have taught her to be so…’

 

She goes on to describe Linda’s ruthless ambition to ‘climb up to the top and be splendid and envied there – to do it at any cost or by any meanness and cruelty, is the only thing she has a heart for. She would lie for it, she would steal for it, she would kill for it!’

There could be an allusion here to Christ’s temptation in the wilderness, where Satan takes him to a high point and offers him all he can see. The narrator feels that Louisa has been suffering from this ‘knowledge’ about Linda:

It relieved her to warn and denounce and expose. ‘God has let me see it in time, in his mercy,’ she continued; ‘but his ways are strange, that he has let me see it in my daughter. It is myself that he has let me see, myself as I was for years. But she’s worse…than I ever intended or dreamed’ […Louisa] looked up at the faint stars with religious perversity.

 

James is intent, then, on portraying Louisa in this ambiguous, paradoxical way: her desire to save Archie from Linda’s clutches has a quasi-religious fervour and she adopts a tone at times like this almost of an evangelical preacher; but he is at pains to show, ironically, that this sits badly with her own previous moral lassitude and history of instructing Linda in the wiles of sexual deception in order to satisfy her worldly desires through her attractive appearance and demeanour (a devilish strategy which had worked for Louisa, ten years earlier, when she attracted then jilted the narrator).

It seems to me that James mixes this type of language and imagery with that of another famously scheming, worldly and cynical, sexually perverse couple in Laclos’ Dangerous Liaisons; this becomes particularly apparent in Louisa’s very next words; she sees that the narrator believes that she is ‘acting a part’ by warning him so pointedly about Linda’s evil nature:

‘Your suspicion is perfectly natural: how can anyone tell, with people like us?’

 

Interesting to see she includes the narrator in this perception, and he doesn’t demur; on the contrary, ‘these last words brought tears to my eyes’, he says. Later she links her morality and calm hypocrisy with Linda’s: she points out again that everything between them is ‘implied’, and ‘nothing expressed’; there is ‘our perpetual worldiness, our always looking out for chances’. Such things must be withheld from spoken discourse between ‘persons who like to keep up forms.’ This of course reminds us that we can’t fully trust anything Louisa says – including her account of Linda’s viciousness (although in the final paragraph of the story the narrator confides that he is ‘convinced that [Linda’s] mother was sincere.’ But he is, by his own admission, hardly the most perceptive of narrators – a Jamesian hallmark.)

On two separate occasions the ‘comedy’ of worldly deception being played out by Linda with Archie is referred to, first when the narrator is suspiciously considering whether Louisa’s hostility towards her daughter was just ‘a deeper artifice’ (the devil is the great artificer), a ‘plan of her own for making sure of my young man’, seen by her as ‘a great catch…might she not have arranged this little comedy, in their personal interest, with the girl?’

Later, Louisa herself refers to the way Linda contrived to have Archie take her out for a romantic rowing trip on the lake as ‘a part of all the comedy!’ Like Valmont and de Merteuil, the narrator and Louisa are ex-lovers; like them, Louisa is skilled in the use of sexual seduction as a weapon or tool with which to achieve her selfish ends; she too has made men her victims (our narrator in particular) with her cruel games and manipulative skills. Like dramatists (or purveyors of fiction?) Laclos’s two ancien régime aristocrats stage-manage their perverse sexual dramas for their own gratification. Louisa claims to have undergone a kind of conversion followed by repentance and desire to atone – this religious terminology therefore serves brilliantly to highlight the dramatic nature of that putative reversal; both she (to all appearances) and the narrator as a consequence experience a moral, almost spiritual epiphany which causes them, in their own ways, to forgive (the emotionally wounded narrator) and atone for previous cruelty (Louisa).

Another literary parallel that occurs to me is that Louisa’s ‘making’ her child into what she calls a ‘monster’ of cruelty resembles Mary Shelley’s protagonist in Frankenstein, who also creates a monstrously destructive, vengeful and vindictive creature who turns in jealous fury on the ‘parent’ he feels has wronged him in creating him.

As Louisa tells the narrator, she will have ‘done [her] duty’ if she succeeds in saving Archie from Linda. ‘It isn’t for you that I do it; it’s for myself’, she tells him. His response is to acknowledge bemusedly that he can’t ‘penetrate’ her reasons. Elsewhere she suggests ‘if I hadn’t thrown you over I couldn’t do this for you’. But as I indicated in the previous post on this story, James leaves us wondering whether Louisa’s motives in warning off Archie are as selflessly expiatory as she leads the narrator (and readers) to believe; it could simply be that she thinks a richer target than Archie might be found.

Finally: in earlier posts on the stories of Henry James I have made reference to the significance of the Point of View of narrators and characters. In this story, too, there is explicit use made of this term; Louisa tells the narrator that Linda hasn’t discussed her devious schemes with her mother:

‘Lord! for what do you take us? We don’t talk over things to-day. We know each other’s point of view and we only have to act. We can take reasons, which are awkward things, for granted.’

‘But in this case she certainly doesn’t know your point of view, poor thing.’

‘No – that’s because I haven’t played fair. Of course she couldn’t expect I would cheat. There ought to be honour among thieves. But it was open to her to do the same.’ [She goes on to explain: Linda could have ‘fallen in love with a poor man; then I should have been done.’]

 

The ambiguity in this story and the shifting ‘points of view’ of its characters are typical of James’s narrative skill and artistic genius. Once again I commend the story to you. Even minor Henry James stories like ‘Louisa Pallant’ have much to offer.

Henry James, ‘Louisa Pallant’: a little masterpiece of concision

A version of this post appeared at the Mookse and Gripes site on May 14.

Written during Henry James’s residence in Florence in 1887, ‘Louisa Pallant’ was first published in Harper’s magazine in 1888. Like most of his short stories, it has a first person narrator who plays a significant, and far from omniscient part, in the action.

James summarised the outline of the story in his Florence notebooks:

The idea of a worldly mother and a worldly daughter, the latter of whom has been trained up so perfectly by the former that she excels and surpasses her, and the mother, who has some principle of goodness still left in her composition, is appalled at her own work. She sees the daughter, so hard, so cruelly ambitious, so bent on making a great marriage and a great success at any price, that she is almost afraid of her. She repents of what she has done – she is ashamed.

 

This tentative outline goes on to suggest that the narrator should be ‘an elderly American’, the uncle of the naïve young man whose wealth the daughter fixes her sights on; in the finished story, however, much of this changed. ‘I don’t see why’, James ended this notebook entry, ‘this shouldn’t be a little masterpiece of concision.’ It is.

James was beginning to tire of his customary ‘international theme’: stories about the cultural clash between Americans and Europeans, often involving the quest for a ‘great marriage’ to suit the ambitions of a scheming young person. His attitude to marriage as represented in his fiction was ambivalent: it was often depicted as something to be avoided, a danger to the freedom or integrity of those involved – yet the pursuit of freedom and personal fulfilment was a central theme of most of his stories.

James was also beginning to lose his belief that Americans had a finer moral nature and a more innocent, unblemished character than decadent Europeans. By 1888 he was beginning to think that there was, in his biographer Leon Edel’s words, ‘a claustrophobic ignorance’ within that innocence.

The opening line of ‘Louisa Pallant’ is one of James’s finest:

Never say you know the last word about any human heart.

William Boyd used the last three words of that striking sentence as the title of his 2002 novel, in which he, like James, portrays his characters as possessing multiple possibilities and selves.

James’s unnamed American narrator first sees Louisa Pallant on the terrace of the fashionable Kursaal in Homburg, where he is languidly awaiting the arrival of his twenty-year-old nephew, Archer (a recurring and significant name in James’s fiction) Pringle, who is also enjoying a leisurely tour through Europe. His mother has entrusted his welfare to her brother, the young man’s uncle. We learn that the uncle had been in love with Louisa ten years earlier, but she had thrown him over in order to marry money. Ironically, her husband had lost his fortune and died, leaving her a destitute wanderer, living (like some of the characters in ‘The Pension Beaurepas’, about which I wrote recently HERE) in cheap pensions while seeking a rich, preferably titled husband for her ‘remarkably pretty’ 22-year-old daughter, Linda.

Although the handsome mother and daughter ‘were very quiet and decorous’ our narrator perceives something in their demeanour that shows they were accustomed to attracting admiring attention, but he also sees something about them that is ‘not altogether honourable’ – he hints that the mother is, as it were, displaying Linda to ‘the public stare’, while apparently ‘ashamed to exhibit her own face’ (she’s wearing a veil). His first thought is that he needs to protect his young ward from such people ‘and the relations he should form.’ He suspects Archer knows little about life and this makes him feel ‘uneasy’ about his responsibilities.

As the story progresses it is hardly a surprise that Archer should indeed succumb to the beautiful Linda’s charms. At first the uncle is unable to see any contrivance in her behaviour: she seems so ‘fresh and fair and charming and gentle and sufficiently shy…She was simpler than her mother…A girl who had such a lovely way of showing her teeth could never pass for heartless’ is his rather naïve initial perception. It is Louisa who assures him otherwise.

The strongest aspect of this rather slight short story is the portrait of the narrator and his flawed interpretation of the intrigues he finds himself caught up in: ‘She had not treated me well and we had never really made it up’, he reflects on this first encounter. Louisa’s ‘heartless behaviour’ in dumping him causes him to conclude that he had ‘forgiven her’ but that it had been a lucky escape not to have married ‘a girl who had it in her to take back her given word and break a fellow’s heart, for mere flesh-pots.’ That Louisa had given out the message at the time that he had driven her off with his ‘insane jealousy’ before she met Pallant is the narrator’s not entirely reliable account of her cynical tactics; we are never able to tell for sure how accurate his point of view is. And of course, as my previous pieces about these stories by James have indicated, he is the master of the narrative exploration of the point of view.

This narrative ambiguity is seen constantly. At the end of this first conversation with his former sweetheart the narrator reveals that Louisa shows a worldly awareness of the wealthy match his sister had made by marrying into the New York Pringle family; she remembered that they were a ‘disgustingly rich lot’, but this is relayed to us while the narrator tells her about the imminent arrival of his nephew. Instead of suspecting her motives – that she sees Archer as a likely target for Linda – he is instead deflected into a wounded self-pity when Louisa suggests he should have had children, and would have made a good father:

She could make an allusion like that – to all that might have been and had not been – without a gleam of guilt in her eye; and I foresaw that before I left the place I should have confided to her that though I detested her and was very glad we had fallen out, yet our old relations had left me no heart for marrying another woman. If I was a maundering old bachelor to-day it was no one’s fault but hers.

 His pain and confusion here are narrated through this internal indirect discourse with a rich blend of pathos and revelatory ironic humour. The more he insists he hates Louisa the less we believe him.

This opening section ends with Louisa apparently questioning the uncle about his nephew’s financial prospects; she concludes that his responsibility for Archer must weigh heavily on his conscience:

 

“Well, we won’t kill him, shall we, Linda?” Mrs Pallant went on, with a laugh.

“I don’t know – perhaps we shall!” said the girl, smiling.

 The stage is set for an intriguing and artfully realised dénouement. I commend the rest of this story to you: can Louisa be believed or trusted when she warns the uncle to remove his nephew from Linda’s dangerously alluring influence – he later sees the girl as ‘the result of a process of calculation’, an ‘educated angel’ – or is this mother, with her history of duplicitous selfishness, simply playing her part in a devious plan? Because we rely on the narrator’s imperfect point of view we can never really ‘know the last word’ about these human hearts. It is characteristic of Henry James’s artistic genius that he refrains from spelling these things out.

Endnote: I hesitate when categorising these tales: although he became a British citizen, James was American born and never truly lost his American sensibility, no matter how Europeanised he became. Hence the category ‘Literature’ – neither English nor American!

Chloe Aridjis, ‘Asunder’

Chloe Aridjis, Asunder. Chatto & Windus, London, 2013. Hardback, 192 pp.

This is Chloe Aridjis’ second novel; I reviewed the first, Book of Clouds, here. Both are ethereal narratives that are light on plot but enriched with poetic images and fragments of beautiful prose. I enjoyed this one as much as I did the first.

Aridjis, AsunderThere are several good reviews in the mainstream broadsheets, so I’ll deal rapidly with an outline then try to give an indication of this novel’s tenor. I read it quickly in two sessions, but found when I returned to it to write this post that I was effectively rereading, and finding delights on almost every page.

The protagonist is Marie, a 33-year-old who works at the National Gallery in London as a gallery assistant: ‘We are watchmen, sentinels’, she says. She guards priceless artworks, is ‘finely skilled at it’, and has done this for nine years, a role her great-grandfather Ted had fulfilled for over 40 years. His most compelling experience in that time was when, on the eve of the First World War, he failed to prevent the suffragette Mary Richardson’s attack with a cleaver on the Velázquez painting known as the Rokeby Venus – a famously sensual nude portrait.

This startling attack on the female form in art probably accounts for the cover illustration of the hardback edition: a detail of a portrait of Maria Godsal by John Opie, a Cornishman born just down the road from where I write this. Quite what this particular portrait has to do with the narrative isn’t clear, but it bears slash-marks across the face as if it’s been attacked by another militant feminist.

Marie is lonely. Most of the novel relates her fitful meetings with her platonic best friend, Daniel. When she spends a fortnight in Paris with him she fails to respond to his timorous sexual approach one night after they’d gone to their separate bedrooms:

 …to summon him would be too much of a risk…my best friend had tried, for whatever reason, to step over the silent and invisible boundary we had drawn long ago…Together we had composed our hymn to distance, that magical distance that held the best of life in place…I didn’t want to risk it…[and] began to worry about a new imbalance, the kind that might arise from a small shift, when a tiny peg is removed from one hole and inserted in another.

 

See what I mean about the poetic style? Like Prufrock, she doesn’t dare disturb the placid universe she prefers to inhabit. She’s a lover of boundaries and distances, equilibrium and stasis; she’s squarely pegged in her comfort zone.

She’s also a loner, ‘content to carry out life at low volume’ – which is obliquely reflected in the frequent references to artworks depicting hermit ascetics, in particular Dürer’s St Jerome in the Wilderness. On the reverse of this painting is a fiery star, perhaps a comet, and this is one of the other puzzling central images: another comet features in the picture of Pegwell Bay, which intrigues her so much she makes it into one of her growing collection of dioramas fashioned in the symbolically miniature confines of an eggshell.

Marie is transfixed by this astral body, ‘like a fiery ice-cold sword rising up and away from the canvas’. Marie’s fascinated disquiet is expressed soon after:

‘No matter how greatly you shine,’ I later said to Daniel in the pub, ‘it’s all over before you know it. And what’s left? A white brushstroke, only visible if you really look.’

 She feels the events of that winter were somehow ‘harnessed to its tail, as if my glimpsing it that day were a tiny, punctual omen of its own.’

I’m not entirely sure what all of these images mean, but they’re rather lovely to behold.

Although she’s a custodian of the gallery rooms, she harbours barely-suppressed violent impulses towards the artefacts:

 How not to occasionally envision the Gallery as a great locus of violent acts, a potential arena of destruction at both the paint layer and the human?

 

Rokeby VenusHere we see one of the central images in the novel: the Gallery as representation of humanity as envisioned in paint. The main concern is with the human gaze, especially the ‘male gaze’ on the female form – hence the significance of the attack on the Rokeby Venus, and the iconic role this painting plays in the text. At the end of the story Marie sees her own face in the mirror held in front of the face of Venus in the painting. Daniel has a book of photos of female inmates of a Parisian asylum (probably Charcot’s); madness and the mad appear several times in the cracked surface of this intriguing novel.

Still lifes are another unsettling set of motifs in the narrative. The tiny, timeless landscapes Marie fashions in eggshells have their ‘geological memory handed to them all at once.’ They remind me of outsider art, or the boxes of Joseph Cornell. They contain ‘No human figures. Only moths.’

I added these stilled lives to my still lifes, and liked the results. Let them die for something.

 She composes her inert scenes inhabited only by decomposing moths. Decomposition. This use of the moths is ‘simply part of the ecosystem within the flat,’ Marie laconically suggests. She moves ‘from one collection to another’ – the Gallery to her moths. For her it’s a ‘nuclear centre into which everything fed back’ – but when she examines the detail with a magnifying glass to see if ‘some secret message had surfaced’ she ‘never found anything’, and ‘of course, magnification tends to dent fantasy rather than enlarge it.’

I find echoes here of the creepy protagonist in John Fowles’s The Collector. She’s obsessive about composing these eggscapes of lifelessness in what seems a doomed quest to find some kind of truth; she’s an aficionado of ‘tranquillity’ – a key word in the text. Daniel too has his ‘collection’ – the poems he composes but never publishes, and the ‘almost compulsive correspondence with poets from around the world’, all, like him, we sense, solitary and ‘immensely shy’. It’s easy to see what draws Marie to him: he too is borderline sociopathic, preternaturally reluctant to cross the invisible lines and borders between himself and other people. His (de)compositions are his poems and letters. Words that separate people – they don’t unite them.

Marie too observes life, without participating fully in it. Not susceptible to the ‘acedia’ of a gallery guard’s duties, she keeps boredom at bay by discriminating between the different sounds made by the visitors’ footsteps. She also scrutinises their reflections in the polished floor. She reflects a lot, and prefers reflections to the human forms they mirror. She sees violence in angles; also disruption.

She’s interested in fissures and cracks: the craquelure on paintings’ surfaces, the geological strata and faultlines in cliffs or in people’s faces, and so on, which are another poetic representation of the cracks in her own life, psyche and relationships.

A final example (it’s hard to narrow them down!) of a lovely image: Marie ponders how the Gallery would have looked in her great-grandfather’s time:

Outside, horses would stand hitched to carriages for hours like thaumatropes at rest. All these details never ceased to have a hold on Ted and as they had a hold on Ted they had a hold on me.

 A thaumatrope was a popular 19C toy which utilised the principle of ‘persistence of vision’ to create the illusion of movement, or at least of superimposition of two separate images on either side of a spinning disc (like a horse and rider) so that they appeared to blend into one. It’s a fittingly deceptive image for this novel.

I recommend Asunder: it has a quirky, haunting charm that kept me engaged throughout. It’s a risky move, to attempt a novel about such a passive protagonist, but Aridjis succeeds, for the most part, with aplomb.

Henry James, ‘The Point of View’

A version of this piece was posted at the Mookse and Gripes website on 9 April.

Henry James wrote two stories in epistolary form: the first was ‘A Bundle of Letters’, published in the expat magazine The Parisian in 1879; the second was ‘The Point of View’, which appeared in 1882. James takes full of advantage in both tales of the scope for ironic presentation of the letter-writers’ antithetical impressions of travelling American and European characters, of the nations through which they pass, and of the people they encounter. He mischievously counterpoints their disparaging or effusive viewpoints with those of the characters they profile.

Several of the characters in these stories appear in both tales, as well as in ‘The Pension Beaurepas’, about which I wrote here (on the Mookse and Gripes site, and at this blog here). The three stories tended to be published together, along with ‘An International Episode’ (about which I wrote here and here), representing as they did the ‘international theme’ that dominated James’s fiction for so long.

I shall focus on Aurora Church, who was chafing under the controlling grip of her mother in ‘The Pension Beaurepas’. Mrs Church anticipated this sequel by saying in the earlier story, when explaining to the young narrator why she preferred Europe to America, for herself and her daughter:

 ‘And I wish,’ she continued…’that I could give you our point of view. Don’t you wish, Aurora, that we could give him our point of view?’

‘Yes, mamma,’ said Aurora.

‘We consider ourselves very fortunate in our point of view…’

 

At the Pension Beaurepas in Geneva Aurora befriended her compatriot, the spendthrift Sophie Ruck. She found the hierarchical society and customs of Europe – that her mother so admired – cloying, and despaired of the maternal plan to find her an aristocratic European husband.

‘The Point of View’ consists of eight letters dated 1880. The first and last are by Aurora. In the opening letter she writes to another young American woman expat (in Paris) about her arrival at New York City on a transatlantic liner. Here we see the approach James took in both these epistolary tales: she presents her correspondent with her intimate, vivid impressions of the places she visits and the people she meets. She explains that she has finally persuaded her sceptical mother to allow her to come to America and has just three months in which to find a suitable (i.e. rich) husband.

Aurora is acrid about her mamma’s oppressive regime: she was ‘dreadfully severe’ on the voyage out to Europe when she was only five, and ‘is severe to this day; only I have become indifferent; I have been so pinched and pushed – morally speaking.’

Aurora in Europe craved and envied the freedom of ‘the American girl’. Now she has her chance. As her name suggests, she is at the dawn of a new life, or so she hopes.

Not surprisingly she is delighted to find herself delivered from the stifling confinements of Europe: ‘I have never had so much liberty in my life,’ she says. Mamma, equally unsurprisingly, is less sanguine, as Aurora explains with her customary blend of levity and asperity:

 She is not in a hurry to arrive; she says that great disillusions await us. I didn’t know that she had any illusions – she’s so stern, so philosophic. She is very serious.

 

Mamma had realised that the dowerless Aurora ‘should never marry in Europe’. We can see in such extracts the dry ironic humour of which these stories are full. The characters unwittingly reveal their weaknesses and partialities, their selfishness and prejudices.

In passing Aurora lets slip that ‘the poor little Rucks’ – including her erstwhile friend Sophie – ‘are bankrupt’. We never hear their fate, but must assume the worst. Aurora, who had only nurtured the friendship for her own ends, seems callously unperturbed.

She goes on to describe some of the other passengers, whose own ‘points of view’ we shall be privy to in subsequent letters. The Europeans largely find America brash, vulgar and over-indulgent towards its young people; the Americans’ views we shall see. As in the earlier ‘A Bundle of Letters’ there is much sardonic humour to enjoy as we see the writers’ contrasting or conflicting views of each other exposed in the acerbic confessional manner that a letter to an intimate friend or relative allows. James’s evident pleasure in matching the correspondents’ style to their character is infectious.

The main romantic interest in this story is embodied in Aurora’s suitors on the ship: the aesthete Louis Leverett (who also features in ‘A Bundle of Letters’, where once again he is attracted to an interestingly picturesque young woman, a flirtation which he languidly tires of) and the ‘roaring Yankee’, Marcellus Cockerell. (Their names are aptly chosen.) Each of these young men expresses in his letters the extreme opposite views of all things American and European, and as Aurora approvingly suggests to her friend, ‘They have a particular aversion to each other, and they are ready to fight about poor little me.’ But despite this coquettish pride, she’s also realistic:

 I am not crazy about either of them. They are very well for the deck of a ship, but I shouldn’t care about them in a salon; they are not at all distinguished. They think they are, but they are not…I should get dreadfully tired of passing my life with either…au fond they don’t quite believe in me.

 

This viewpoint is presented without comment, of course, given the epistolary nature of the story, and this is its distinctive feature. Aurora displays here the kind of incisive analytical detachment of the author himself, but he causes her to express herself so clinically (and accurately) that I find her attractively intelligent and percipient, but also (understandably) a little vain.

Still there is the usual Jamesian interest in the travails of a young woman engaged in the necessary pursuit of a husband capable of satisfying her own intelligence as well as the demands of a pressing social system in which she lacks autonomy. James has an extraordinary understanding of the contradictory innocence and dogmatism, exacting standards (her mother says Aurora is insistent she would marry no foreigner who was not ‘one of the first of the first’) and indulgent lassitude of such a vivacious young woman as Aurora, with her native American sensibilities influenced by the atrophied Europe in which she has been raised. She knows mamma expects her to marry no American whose ‘pecuniary situation’ fails to meet her expectations.

Leverett is a Jamesian Europhile. He detests being back in crudely democratic America, where all is monotonously plain, tepid and mediocre; Europe for him has exciting extremes of beauty and ugliness. James has him write in a louche, affected style to highlight his self-consciously aesthetic pose:

 I feel so undraped, so uncurtained, so uncushioned…A terrible crude glare is over everything; the earth looks peeled and excoriated; the raw heavens seem to bleed with the quick, hard light.

 

He would agree with Mrs Church’s dismissal of America as ‘the country of the many’; she adds in her letter –

 In this country the people have rights, but the person has none.

 

The American citizen, she complains to Mme Galopin, ‘is recognized as a voter, but he is not recognized as a gentleman – still less as a lady.’

 

But it’s James’s sly revelations about the intentions of Aurora’s two admirers that are so engaging in this story. Leverett is shown in his letter to be self-absorbed, and interested in Aurora mostly because she has the good taste (as he sees it) to listen to him attentively. He ungallantly concludes, as he decides to drop her, that she ‘almost understood’ him!

 

Cockerel, on the other hand, derides the very places and people of Europe that the Europhile correspondents admire. It’s this witty symmetry that is one of the main strengths of this admittedly rather slight story. Although he finds Aurora a ‘rather interesting girl’, his attentions are insincere – he knows he could never marry such an impoverished young woman; besides, as he confides to his sister in his letter, ‘She has been spoiled by Europe’ – a taint he would never be able to ignore.

 

Mrs Church confides in her letter that Aurora accuses her of giving her a ‘false education’ in Europe so that she is not considered marriage material: ‘No American will marry her, because she is too much a foreigner, and no foreigner will marry her, because she is too much of an American.’

 

James is careful to balance his characters’ barbed accounts, however. Cockerel, rudely dismissed by Leverett as a ‘strident savage’, sums up his homeland’s superiority to Europe:

 

We are more analytic, more discriminating, more familiar with realities. As for manners, there are bad manners everywhere, but an aristocracy is bad manners organized.

 

Read this story for these opinionated, stylized, often Wildean outpourings of epigrammatic bigotry and insight. In this group of related stories he strove to show nuanced gradations of viewpoint in his representatives of each nation. This didn’t prevent the first reviewers from finding this story distastefully unpatriotic towards America.

 

Read it too for Aurora’s final letter, which rounds off beautifully all that’s gone before. Here we see a glimpse of the profound sympathy James demonstrates for his young female characters. He had recently completed The Portrait of a Lady, which began to be serialized in 1880. That full-length novel is the masterpiece of his early period, a fully developed account of the ‘engaging young [American] woman’ whose choices are misguided, yet she persists in ‘affronting her destiny’. James’s concern is with the ways in which Isabel Archer continues the attempt, in a naughty world, to make her own choices and learn to live with the consequences, always striving for a kind of liberty.

 

There is much to admire also, however, in these thematically similar miniatures: Aurora is in some ways Isabel Archer without the windfall fortune. See what you make of Aurora’s apparent destiny at the end of ‘The Point of View’.