Ardour and shyness: Virginia Woolf’s essays on women in The Common Reader vol. 2

Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader vol. 2: cover

My Vintage Books paperback edition of 2003

When she turns her attention to female writers in The Common Reader vol. 2, Virginia Woolf’s tone become more fervent than in those essays that discuss male figures. More indignant, too. Not surprising, really, as this collection was published just three years after A Room of One’s Own.

Here she is, in her essay on the Letters of Dorothy Osborne, (1627-95), most of them written in the years of clandestine courtship to the man she married in 1654, Sir William Temple. ‘Material conditions’ that made it difficult for non-aristocratic men to become writers at that time were worse for women:

the woman was impeded also by her belief that writing was an act unbefitting her sex.

The odd ‘great lady’ might write and print her writings and be grudgingly tolerated, protected by her rank: ‘But the act was offensive to a woman of lower rank.’ Dorothy wrote as much herself when the Duchess of Newcastle published one of her books, exclaiming that she could never stoop to such unbecoming lack of decorum.

Yet she was a woman with a ‘great literary gift’, Woolf adds. Had she born 200 years later she’d have been a fine novelist. As it was, the only form of expression open to her was letters – and these allow us a rare example of the voice of men and women ‘talking together over the fire.’ Despite the stylistic (and social-domestic) constraints of the time for women of her station, Lady Temple took pains over her compositions, and produced a literature of her own,

a record of life, gravely yet playfully, formally and yet with intimacy, to a public of one, but to a fastidious public, as the novelist can never give it, or the historian either.

Jonathan Swift secured a position in the late 1680s as secretary to Sir William. ‘Mild Dorothea, peaceful, wise and great,’ is his description of her in her final years. He failed to perceive the passionate, spirited woman who is glimpsed in those letters to her forbidden lover, and whose voice has otherwise been muted or ignored, along with most of the other women who lived in those days, and for many years afterwards.

The sketch of Mary Wollstonecraft also glows with suppressed empathetic anger. Mary’s violent father’s profligacy forced her into that hated role of so many women of her class, governess: ‘she had never known what happiness was.’ All she knew was ‘the sordid misery of real human life’ – and yet she forged an identity and a philosophy all her own:

The staple of her doctrine was that nothing mattered save independence…not grace or charm, but energy and courage and the power to put her will into effect, were the necessary qualities.

Revolution was in her blood:

She had been in revolt all her life – against tyranny, against law, against convention. The reformer’s love of humanity, which has so much of hatred in it as well as love, fermented within her.

Only rarely does this fiery tone emerge in Woolf’s essays on male writers.

She’s more sober in the piece on the quiet, unassuming devotion of Dorothy Wordsworth to her brother, as revealed in her journals and letters. But even she is allowed some force and fervour, as here in an account of her writing about a waterfall:

She searched out all its character, she noted its resemblances, she defined its differences, with all the ardour of a discoverer, with all the exactness of a naturalist, with all the rapture of a lover.

Woolf notes how Dorothy effectively created the conditions in which her ‘beloved’ William could become a poet, not just domestically, but emotionally, artistically, even linguistically:

It was a strange love, profound, almost dumb, as if brother and sister had grown together and shared not the speech but the mood, so that they hardly knew which felt, which spoke, which saw the daffodils or the sleeping city; only Dorothy stored the mood in prose, and later William came and bathed in it and made it into poetry. But one could not act without the other.

A more sober account, then, but the language, imagery and style of that passage show the emotion tempered by intellect of the Metaphysicals, the graceful expressive symmetry of the Augustans. The brother ‘bathes’ in the life-giving spring waters of his sister’s self-effacing generosity and art.

Dorothy may have lacked the fiercely passionate nature and agency of Mary Wollstonecraft, but Woolf convinces us that Dorothy’s role in English literary history is just as significant – not just in acting as midwife to much of her illustrious brother’s work, but in her own surviving written work. There was a different type of passionate blood flowing in her veins, a different order of self-expression, and Virginia Woolf has the clear-eyed sympathy to perceive them, as she sums up a typical journal entry by Dorothy:

Her pen sometimes stammers with the intensity of the emotion that she controlled, as De Quincey said that her tongue stammered with the conflict between her ardour and her shyness as she spoke.

Yet ‘still she must control’ her impulsive nature, ‘still she must repress, or she would fail in her task – she would cease to see.’

As Nora says in A Doll’s House when her controlling, patronising husband talks about a man’s pride: millions of women have to swallow theirs, every day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader, vol. 2: pt 2

Virginia Woolf isn’t just a brilliant stylist, she can be very witty. She has an excellent eye for offbeat humour and mordant observation in the writers she discusses in these essays (all but four of which started out as book reviews, and were subsequently ‘refurbished’ by her for this collection). In ‘Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to his Son’ there’s this on the ‘training’ that helped the aristocrat compose his salutary correspondence (far too sophisticated for its schoolboy recipient!) that was also an outlet for his creativity:

The little papers have the precision and formality of some old-fashioned minuet…’Some succeeded, and others burst’ he says of George the First’s mistresses: the king liked them fat. Again, ‘He was fixed in the house of lords, that hospital of incurables.’ He smiles: he does not laugh.

What an excellent image to convey the poised, restrained style of her subject – and its velvety Augustan formal stateliness; that final dig at the lords is perfect. And Woolf has already established Chesterfield’s personal constraint: he considered laughter to be vulgar.

Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader vol. 2: cover

Woolf is capable of fine imagery herself. In ‘Four Figures’ pt 1: ‘Cowper and Lady Austen’ she sums up the poet’s literary qualities with typical clarity and precision; after describing his pride in his ‘gentle birth’ and the ‘standards of gentility’ he strove for at Olney, from the elegant snuff-box to the silver shoe buckles and fashionable hat, she goes on:

His letters preserve this serenity, this good sense, this sidelong, arch humour embalmed in page after page of beautiful clear prose.

So much is conveyed by that use of ‘embalmed’. And then she shows how his new friend Ann Austen began to feel ‘something stronger than friendship rise within her’:

That strain of intense and perhaps inhuman passion which rested with tremulous ecstasy like that of a hawk-moth over a flower…

I tend to think of VW as a particularly urban woman; I’ve attended a conference in her former home in Gordon Square. But of course the bohemian, urban Bloomsbury set were keen gardeners and countryside-dwellers. Her family had the famous summer house down the road from me at St Ives, opposite the more-famous Godrevy lighthouse. She and Leonard initially rented in rural Sussex, where her sister Vanessa also lived with her complicated domestic set-up, and then moved there to a house of their own. Her novels are as likely to be set in the country as in London. Hence that striking hawk-moth image – though I wonder if she really means the humming-bird moth, which emulates the grace of the bird it resembles when hovering over verbena, sipping at nectar.

I mentioned in my previous post that VW is particularly good on Hardy. Here’s a sample of why I say that. Here she’s writing about his first novel, Desperate Remedies, published in 1871 when he was 31, before he became ‘an assured craftsman’:

The imagination of the writer is powerful and sardonic; he is book-learned in a home-made way; he can create characters but he cannot control them; he is obviously hampered by the difficulties of his technique, and, what is more singular, he is driven by some sense that human beings are the sport of forces outside themselves, to make an extreme and even melodramatic use of coincidence.

There’s the literary acumen here of a fellow professional writer, the literary-critical perception of a careful reader. This is an example, also, of her tendency to slip into a rather pompous, mannered writing style – all those semi-colons, the clumping anaphora.

But is there also perhaps a hint of snobbery? What exactly does she mean by ‘home-made’? Not Cambridge educated, as her brothers were? (She of course was one of the first women to be permitted to study at King’s College, London, denied the expensive education of young men at the time, as she so ruefully pointed out in A Room of One’s Own.)

She goes on more generously, less prissily, to show Hardy’s brilliance in conveying in his writing the ‘larger sense of Nature as a force.’ His characters are no mere puppets:

In short, nobody can deny Hardy’s power – the true novelist’s power – to make us believe that his characters are fellow-beings driven by their own passions and idiosyncracies, while they have – and this is the poet’s gift – something symbolical about them which is common to us all.

There’s still a bit of the mannered Victorian/Edwardian in the style there – those parentheses – but it reads as more heartfelt and natural, less crabbed and cerebral than the earlier quotation.

I intended writing about what are perhaps the most interesting essays in the collection: the ones about women. Maybe next time.

 

 

Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader, vol. 2

The second volume of Virginia Woolf’s collection of her own essays, The Common Reader, was published by the Hogarth Press in 1932, some seven years after vol. 1 – about which I wrote here, here and here

Again the range is wide; there are essays on Donne, novels of Hardy, Gissing and Meredith, prose writings from the ‘strange Elizabethans’ to Swift, Lord Chesterfield, De Quincey, Hazlitt and more. These include such forms as letters, diaries, autobiography and biography. There are less prestigious literary subjects too, from obscure 18C diarist parsons to rumbustious sporting gents. And Beau Brummell – his sad decline from lionised society dandy to shabby, smelly, neglected, lonely old exile in Calais.

Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader vol. 2: cover

My Vintage Classics paperback edition of 2003

Woolf’s reading was eclectic and formidable; the notes appended show that for each essay she’d consult a daunting set of sources. For the piece on Donne, for example, her reading included, apart from the two-volume edition of poems of 1896 by Chambers and another in two volumes by Grierson (1912), Sir Edmund Gosse’s two-volume Life and LettersLady Anne Clifford…Her life, Letters and Work by GC Williamson, and The Diary of Lady Anne Clifford.

In another post I hope to consider the essays on some of the women writers Woolf discusses. For now I’ll just note a few high points.

In ‘The Strange Elizabethans’ she notes:

Elizabethan prose, for all its beauty and bounty, was a very imperfect medium. It was almost incapable of fulfilling one of the offices of prose which is to make people talk, simply and naturally, about ordinary things.

But when it descends to down-to-earth matters, it’s filled with ‘awkwardness’ – as when Lady Sidney (d. 1586) finds herself cold at night when staying at court, and writes a letter soliciting the Lord Chamberlain for a better room that could have been put ‘more simply and with greater force’ by a housemaid of the same age.

She traces three main phases in the writing career of John Donne. The ‘imperious lover’ is followed by the ‘servile and obsequious’ figure writing eulogies for wealthy patrons, and all the ‘psychological intensity and complexity’ that characterised the satires and love poems changes. From feeling an affinity with the ‘contrasts’ in those earlier works, ‘he leaves us in the lurch’, and becomes ‘more remote, inaccessible, and obsolete than any of the Elizabethans.’

Here is the quality that shines through most of these essays. Woolf has the capacity to get to the essence of a writer’s or a period’s defining qualities and express her insights in often colloquial, unadorned language, to achieve what that first quotation demonstrates the Elizabethans found impossible. There’s a strong sense of a powerful reading intelligence conversing undogmatically with her reader (she’s particularly good on Hardy) – a critical approach that she delineates at length in the final essay in the collection, ‘How Should One Read a Book?’

There she begins:

The only advice, indeed, that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions.

It’s an approach I tend towards in this blog. I can then, as she does, ‘put forward a few ideas and suggestions because you will not allow them to fetter that independence’ which is the essential quality of a reader. Outside of of the ‘heavily furred and gowned’ authorities in the academy, there are no clear laws or rules for readers.

Readers experience ‘a thousand conflicting impressions’ when reading, which we try to order. Then we turn to Defoe, Austen or Hardy ‘better able to appreciate their mastery.’ All this miscellaneous, eclectic, voracious reading served Woolf – and, by extension, all readers – ‘not to throw light on literature, not to become familiar with famous people [biographies, autobiographies, etc.], but to refresh and exercise our own creative powers.’

It’s sometimes asserted that literary critical writing – even in the form of a humble blog, provided it’s done thoughtfully – is a kind of creative writing. In my experience in writing this blog there’s a truth in that final remark of Woolf’s. When we talk about literature we ‘remain readers’. But even readers, as distinguished from ‘critics’, have ‘responsibilities’:

The standards we raise and the judgements we pass steal into the air and become part of the atmosphere [blogosphere?] which writers breathe as they work.

What we readers aver about our reading must be ‘well instructed, vigorous and individual and sincere’ if it is to have any value. We must judge ‘with great sympathy and yet with great severity’: this she hopes will enrich the world in some way.

These are exacting standards to read and write by. Being a Woolfian ‘common reader’ requires uncommon commitment, but ultimately one has to be able to say, in Woolf’s resounding words that close this entertaining collection:

They have loved reading.

Patricia Highsmith, A Suspension of Mercy

Patricia Highsmith, A Suspension of Mercy. VMC. First published 1965

I’m not usually keen on suspense thrillers, as I find they generally lack suspense and don’t thrill. A Suspension of Mercy did little to change my mind. I found it contrived and far-fetched.

The central character Sydney is an American thriller writer who fantasises about murdering his posh English wife Alicia, and gets a kick out of giving his neighbours and friends the impression that he’s indulged that fantasy, offering an implausible-sounding (but true) explanation that they’re having a trial separation – it’s difficult to see why Alicia put up with his abusive, selfish behaviour for as long as a year.

Highsmith Suspension coverIt’s set in rural Suffolk, and mirrors many key aspects of Highsmith’s own life at the time. But even the post-modern metafictional aspects failed to engage me: they too seemed self-indulgent. It seemed to me that PH was having far more fun writing this novel than I was in reading it. Like she’d set herself a challenge to write a murder mystery without a murder – an exercise in plotting. Her characters as a consequence have all the vitality of chess pieces.

Sydney’s slightly deranged flirting with danger in posing as a wife-killer, even though he was innocent, is portrayed with chilling detachment, and this is perhaps the most skilled part of the plotting and characterisation: the doubling and subversion of reliable narrative voice that are among PH’s trademarks work pretty well here.

What’s less successful is the highly unlikely actions of the married pair as their situation spirals out of control. People do die, one more or less of natural causes, though Sydney is again under suspicion, one who is murdered; but neither of the married pair behaves in a convincing manner. They behave in order to keep the plot ticking over, and cease to convince as well-rounded characters.

The secondary characters are also bloodless and serve to move the plot along or keep it tangled, little else – though I quite liked the treacherous turn Sydney’s writing partner Alex takes. People can be horrible like that.

This novel was disappointing. I thought the two others by PH that I’ve read and posted on – Carol and Edith’s Diary – were well written, tautly plotted and psychologically interesting and highly original. A Suspension of Mercy is inferior to them in every respect.

 

 

 

 

Iván Repila, The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse

Iván Repila, The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse. Pushkin Press, 2015. Translated by Sophie Hughes. First published in Spanish 2013.

Iván Repila, cover of The Boy who Stole Attila's HorseTwo young boys, brothers known only as Big and Small, are trapped (or were they thrown?) in a pyramid-shaped well in the heart of a forest. They cling desperately to life, become feral, crazed. This short novella – just over 100 pages on small-format, high quality paper (with French flaps to the cover, which I find inordinately pleasing) – is a surreal…what? Allegory (but for what? The instinct to survive? Political injustice? In ch. 11 we hear ‘the land seems to be governed by a mechanism of suffering that works against every one of nature’s decreees’.) Kafkaesque fable? (about human inhumanity? – in Ch. 23 Big gives Small a lecture on how to kill. Maybe the boys’ mother put them, like the pussy in the rhyme, in the well). Dark fairytale with more monsters than fairies – a Freudian lesson in the unheimlich? A descent into the circles of the human mind and its capacity for insanity and hallucination, a counterpart to Dante’s circles of hell? A variation on Aesop’s fable of the fox in the well and the unsympathetic wolf looking down on him?

I turned to some reviews to seek clarity or confirmation.

Veronica Scott Esposito recommended it at Conversational Readings: cf Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes – I posted on it here – another fantasy/allegory about a person trapped down a hole or pit, exploited, frightened, reverting to an animalistic state.

John Self, Asylum – ‘unpleasant’; allegory of some sort, many possible interpretations, from environmental fable to perils and exigencies of growing up; most probably socio-political (see the epigraphs by Thatcher on free market forces and the rich/poor divide, and Brecht on uprising and revolt) – inequality in social hierarchy. Packs a punch way above its weight.

I also found it unpleasant, though I admired the visceral punch it packs, and the language (brilliantly rendered by Sophie Hughes) is often breathtakingly good. Its depiction of human corporeality, of human corruption (as in bodily putrefaction as well as morally), of the narrow divide between civilised behaviour and bestiality, is very hard to take in anything but short doses.

The boys love and support each other, most of the time. They also harbour unspoken thoughts about cannibalism. Big rations their meagre food in such a way that he gets a much higher proportion, which he justifies by insisting that he’s the one whose superior physique will ultimately lead to their escape. Survival of the fittest. Though he also shows capacity for self-sacrifice.

John Self points out a feature I hadn’t registered: the chapters aren’t numbered sequentially, but as increasing prime numbers (none of them even, of course). He suggests, plausibly, that they correspond to the number of days the brothers spend in the well (the final chapter is 97). Not surprisingly their bodies have wasted almost to nothing in that time.

Descriptions of this process are unstinting, often grimly humorous in their verbal ingenuity, like this one of Small in ch. 59. First, he has named himself Inventor and devised ‘cultural activities’ for his brother, ‘although really he does it because he cannot stop imagining.’ He’s also ‘perfected’ a bizarre ‘osteo-vegetal music’ created by ‘hitting certain bones with dry roots’. He’s frustrated with the childish percussive potential of ‘knees, hips, torso and collarbone’, and would really love to somehow ‘rotate his head and arms and rock out on his spine…’

His extreme boniness makes him look like a misshapen neighbourhood made up entirely of street corners, and this affords him an inordinate range of obscure, high-pitched sounds which come together as a tune when he strums his tendons and thumps his stomach and chest.

The title? In Ch. 31 Small announces his fantasy that he’d stolen Attila’s horse to make shoes out of its hooves; ‘they smelled like the shell of a dragon’s egg or like the skull of an idol’, he explains with unsettlingly calm clarity. When he wore them he killed whatever grew underfoot – he graduated from grass to a camp of sleeping people, where he played a grim game of ‘bouncy hopscotch’. The sleepers woke up screaming and died in agony:

Their bodies turned brown and red. It looked like a poor man’s rainbow: lustreless, born out of a candle and a puddle of urine. I felt important, like a painter.

John Self suggests that last image, narrated with such deadpan lack of affect, can be interpreted as a fable of the artist’s cruelty. Maybe. Or perhaps it’s part of this disturbing, twisted tale’s dark, surreal logic: creativity arising from suffering, like honey-sweetness from  a corpse, the lion and bees image and slogan on Lyle’s syrup tins (at one point the boys wait for a dead bird’s body to decompose so they can feast on the maggots in its corpse).

I don’t know, writing this has made me feel better disposed towards this powerful, highly original, weird little novella.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lucia Berlin, A Manual for Cleaning Women

Lucia Berlin, A Manual for Cleaning Women. Picador paperback 2016. First published 2015.

Lucia Berlin had an eventful life. Born in Alaska in 1936, she travelled extensively in the USA in her youth because of her mining engineer father’s work; eventually they moved to Chile. She married three times and had four sons, continuing her peripatetic existence, living mostly in the American southwest, California and in Mexico, with spells in New York City, working at menial jobs (many stories like the title one give rueful insight into how a spirited, intelligent woman survived the hardship) to support her family and her drinking. An alcoholic until the early 90s, she then began a new career in teaching creative writing. She died in 2004; her literary reputation only took off with the first publication of this collection.

This motley life is reflected in this collection, which in some ways reads as an embellished auto-fiction. Her female protagonists are usually called some variant of Lucia, or Carlotta, and their experiences mirror Berlin’s own. But she makes something richly strange out of them.

Lucia Berlin, cover of my edition of A Manual for Cleaning WomenHer subject matter is often bleak, and in that respect resembles the addiction stories of Denis Johnson. Like him she doesn’t idealise or condemn her drunks (herself included) or addicts (often the men she loved and was treated badly by). She presents the events of life – ‘fraught with peril’ as she ironically recalls her mother’s favourite phrase.

Oh yes, her mother. Her stories depict a childhood in which her mother, also alcoholic, treated Lucia coldly, even contemptuously, and her grandfather abused her and others in the household. Many of the stories tell how she and her younger sister Sally became close in later life, when their mother had died and Sally was dying of cancer. They argued and fought a lot at this time – friction that proved to them, with characteristic humour, that they must have become ‘real sisters’.

It’s that humanity and lack of bitterness that lifts these stories out of the misery memoir category. They celebrate life in all its harshness: she finds beauty in ugly places (but doesn’t disguise the surface ugliness). And she’s very funny and witty, usually in the most unexpected places and ways.

It’s never easy to convey the experience of reading a short story collection (there are 43 in this volume, some are brilliant flash fiction, just a few paragraphs long, most of them published in small magazines from the 60s onwards; some thirty more have just been published), and this one is so varied in tone and range that all I feel I can do is to give some more or less randomly chosen passages in the hope that some of the uniqueness of this gifted writer comes across.

The voice full of oblique humour is one of the first qualities  I’d commend to you. She has that capacity to buttonhole you and keep you attentive as if she were sitting beside you, chatting, reminiscing, probably smoking, a glass of Jim Beam in her hand: ‘Wait. Let me explain…’ begins one early story. Here’s the beginning of another:

Got into Albuquerque from Baton Rouge. It was about two in the morning. Whipping wind. That’s what the wind does in Albuquerque. I hung out at the Greyhound station until a cabdriver showed up who had so many prison tattoos I figured I could score and he’d tell me where to stay.

Economy of style is an overused phrase for writers’ technique, but look how much she packs into those few lines. The omission of a subject in the opening sentence, of a finite verb in the third, the brevity and clipped syntax, as if she’s thinking faster than she can write. Those resonant place names. But these are clearly crafted sentences with cadences and sonorities all her own – it’s such a distinctive voice, right down to that rueful reference to being pleased her cabdriver is an ex-con because he’ll know where to score drugs and flop out afterwards.

In the next paragraph this colloquial voice continues:

All this happened many years ago or I couldn’t even be talking about it.

And then she ends up in a grim desert detox unit.

Humour: this is her account of one of her clients in the title story – she breaks her own rule and cleans the house of friends:

I don’t make much money with them because I don’t charge by the hour, no carfare. No lunch for sure. I really work hard. But I sit around a lot, stay very late. I smoke and read The New York Times, porno books, How to Build a Patio Roof.

Such random lists, contradictions and non sequiturs abound, delightfully. Grimness and suffering are always lightened by these bizarre detail which seem to say, That happened, but then so did this.

This is from ‘Teenage Punk’: recently divorced, she’s living in a New Mexico house with ‘leaky roof’ and ‘burned-out pump’, but, with typical delight in the natural world, takes her kids and their eponymous drifter friend to watch the arrival of beautiful cranes that come to feed nearby:

We crossed the log above the slow dark irrigation ditch, over to the clear ditch where we lay on our stomachs, silent as guerrillas. I know, I romanticize everything.

The following description of the birds is radiant and graceful.

Endings of her stories are as vivid as the openings. One of her detox stories, ‘Step’, closes with an account of a boxing match the inmates are watching on TV. The defeated fighter sinks, one knee to the canvas:

Briefly, like a Catholic leaving a pew. The slightest deference that meant the fight was over; he had lost. Carlotta whispered,

“God, please help me.”

 

I could quote like this from pretty much every story, but will end with ‘A Love Affair’, which is about her job as a doctor’s assistant. One of her tasks was to assist with gynaecological examinations and tests conducted by the doctor. She was to get the patient in the right (highly undignified) position in the stirrups and then was ‘supposed to get the women to relax’. She was surely good at this: ‘That was easy, the chatting part.’

The doctor would arrive, a ‘painfully shy man with a serious tremor of his hands that occasionally manifested itself.’ He’d switch on his headlamp, take his swab (which he waved with cheerful incongruity from the narrator ‘like a baton’):

At last his head emerged with the stick, now a dizzy metronome aimed at my waiting slide. I still drank in those days, so my hand, holding the slide, shook visibly as it tried to meet his. But in a nervous up-and-down tremble. His was back and forth. Slap, at last.

Surely a male writer couldn’t make such a scene so hilarious and yet sympathetic to the women involved: their world is so absurdly skewed against them. That’s Lucia Berlin – those last three words.

 

 

 

Lost souls: William Trevor, The Boarding-House

William Trevor (1928-2016), The Boarding-House. Penguin, 1968. (fp 1965)

In John, 2:18 Jesus said: Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. He’s predicting his death and resurrection; as such, the words represent a promise, not a threat. In William Trevor’s wickedly funny subversion of the biblical message in his 1965 novel, the proprietor of the eponymous boarding-house, Mr Bird, is more of a satanic than messianic figure, he’s a lord of misrule:

Before he died, an hour or so before the end, Mr Bird had visualized the boarding-house as it would be after his time. He saw a well-run house in the care of his two chosen champions, with all its inmates intact and present, a monument to himself. [He dozed, then woke, imagining the house was dying too] He thought that someone asked him a question, seeking an explanation for his motives and his planning. He heard himself laughing in reply…and he said aloud: ‘I built that I might destroy’. Nurse Clock had looked up from her magazine and told him to take it easy. [My emphasis]

William Trevor, cover of The Boarding-House

My battered, ex-library copy was published in 1968 and it shows

This passage shows the insidious humour of this darkly funny novel. The narrative voice is corrosively, brilliantly ironic. Bird has deliberately chosen as his heirs to the property – a ‘place of my own invention’ as he boasts to a potential inmate – two characters whose mutual hatred and twisted, selfish natures are guaranteed to bring about its dissolution – as he well knows.

Nurse Clock, who was watching over Bird’s deathbed with such bored heartlessness, is a charmless, bitter dragon who terrifies her unfortunate patients and anyone else who meets her. Even the irrepressible Bird, in one of the ‘Notes on residents’ that punctuate the narrative – he keeps a dossier on his residents that reveal his true, disdainful feelings towards them and the sinister reason why he selected them to live in his ark for desperate, lonely outsiders – says this of her:

Nurse Clock has morbid interests. She is a woman I would fear were it not for my superior position.

His other chosen heir is Studdy, a mean-spirited Irish blackmailer, petty thief and trickster, foul-mouthed, crude and vulgar, a lover of lacerating innuendo – the most misanthropic of this group of lost, superfluous souls.

Bird’s legacy then is the engine of the plot. Each of his desolate residents – selected by him because they resemble him in having ‘neither family nor personal ties’ – is shown with all their foibles and weaknesses.

Bird bragged to one resident, with chilling, smug, calculating detachment, that

he had studied the condition of loneliness, looking at people who were solitary for one reason or another as though examining a thing or an insect beneath a microscope.

Yet Trevor never loses sight of the residents’ faltering humanity and consistent vulnerability. Their faults, frailty and touching desperation in a world they don’t fit in with are exacerbated not just by Bird’s nefarious schemes, succeeded by those of Studdy and Clock (who plan to evict all the residents to turn the house into a home for the elderly – these will be easier to bully and fleece), but because the world was changing:

Boarding-houses were becoming a thing of the past; bed-sitters and shared flats were the mid-century rage in London.

This dingy, decaying house, decorated throughout in the depressing colour of rich gravy, is then a ship of fools, but also a microcosm of the state of the nation at the time. Only Mr Obd, the exiled Nigerian whose faithful love is spurned, finally realises as his sanity disintegrates that Bird’s gathering together of these misfits into his house was a ‘cruel action’. He remembers Bird’s words to him on the day he arrived there; he’d said that

the solitary man is a bitter man, and that bitterness begets cruelty.

Like Barbara Pym, to whose novels this one has been likened, Trevor anatomises the marginalised, solitary souls who’ve lost connection in the modern world. Their God is a deus absconditus – or worse, if bitter, cruel Mr Bird is his incarnation. His name might imply the Holy Ghost, but he’s no Mr Weston dispensing good wine. He deals in something more vitriolic and destructive.

Trevor’s cross-section of a part of English life is darker, more surreal and less genteel than Pym’s (maybe more like Elizabeth Taylor’s darker work). These eccentrics are secretariies, clerks and district nurses, vindictive petty criminals, or a phony ex-Army ‘officers’ who frequents sleazy strip-joints, can’t hold his drink, and specialises in ‘dumb insolence’. Pathetic Miss Clerricot has spent decades waiting to be propositioned but when it appears to happen to her it’s as disastrous and farcical as the rest of her timid life.

The prose style and narrative technique owe more to Beckett and Joyce than Pym. There’s more than a touch of Sterne as well in the bizarre eccentricities of the characters and their actions, and the flitting, shifting nature of the narrative.

I hope I haven’t made the novel sound too dour; it’s outrageously, twistedly funny, but it’s the humour of Beckett’s godless tramps beneath a gallows.

 

 

 

A Pure Woman. Lloyd Jones, Hand Me Down World

Lloyd Jones, Hand Me Down World. John Murray, 2011. First published in New Zealand in 2010.

This is a love story and a ghost story.

Jones HMDWorld coverIt tells, in differing, often conflicting versions and recensions – as in the Akutagawa story on which the Kurosawa film ‘Rashomon’ was based – how a young African woman has no real identity, no substance in the eyes of Europeans she meets; even her name used later in the novel is the one she stole from a woman she encounters in Italy, with tragic consequences: Ines, one form of the name Agnes – which significantly derives from the Greek for ‘pure’ or ‘holy’. Ines, like Tess, is a Pure Woman.

The first sections of this gripping novel by the New Zealander Lloyd Jones (who was shortlisted for the Booker for Mister Pip in 2007) consist of the multiple accounts from those who knew her at the start of her quest to reach Berlin. The first is a co-worker at a swanky tourist hotel on the Arabian Sea patronised mostly by white Europeans, where it was a prerequisite for the staff that they shed all vestiges of past or identity: as human beings they were as substanceless as ghosts. Even this colleague/friend who knew her for some years never learned her name, where she came from in Africa, or even her birthday:

When we spoke of home we spoke of somewhere in the past. We might be from different countries but the world we came into contained the same clutter and dazzling light. All the same traps were set for us.

Here the language conveys some of the register of a non-native speaker of English, shot through with the poetic sensibility of Lloyd the artificer who filters these forensic, mediated voices of testimony through his own artist’s sensibility to present them to us. It’s an astonishingly accomplished act of multiple ventriloquism and narrative dexterity and ingenuity. In this quotation he conveys how, for women like these, the tourist resort and its hotel is a playground for the privileged guests, but dangerous for them if they forget their place, to be invisible:

You have to leave your past in order to become hotel staff…you had to be like the palms and the sea, pleasing to the eye. We must not take up space but be there whenever a guest needed us.

Lloyd’s is the heartbreakingly familiar one to those of us in affluent Europe of the desperate people risking their lives in unseaworthy boats to make the dangerous crossing to southern Italy from north Africa. Even if the boats survive the trip, unscrupulous traffickers, for whom the people they convey are just ‘merchandise’ or cargo, are likely, as they do to Ines, to throw them overboard miles from the shore and leave them to drown. Most can’t swim; fortunately, Ines can, and she makes it to land, there to continue her quest.

For unlike the other boat people, she isn’t trying to escape from economic hardship or political turmoil; she is searching for what has been stolen from her and taken to Europe, to Berlin – that city of ghosts, bullet-scarred memorials, squares haunted by the book-burning Nazis, and secret photos of atrocities committed by Berliners in their shameful past.

These early polyvocal fragments take on new significance in the second part of the novel when the perspective shifts and we learn why these narrators are testifying to Ines’ progress towards her goal. Then we realise how partial, unreliable, redacted or just downright untrue they were. Only near the end do we hear Ines’ own voice; like many women (see my recent post on The Silence of the Girls) and migrants, she is for most people both invisible and mute.

Many of those she encounters on her journey and in Berlin show her kindness and sympathy; others exploit her and fail to see beyond the colour of her skin or her gender. When she encounters a group of Italian hunters in the border mountains, for example, it’s notable that it’s the American among them who alone resists giving her money to help her on her way; back home, he says, she’d be seen as ‘an illegal, an alien’. The Italian narrator of this section is clearly horrified at this lack of humanity. This is 2010, pre-Trump.

In Ch. 9 a pastor ‘of the Ibo order’ who works at a refuge for African migrants gives his testimony to the ‘inspector’ who is gathering these witness statements about Ines. He laughs at the officer because

you come here to Berlin to ask a pastor, a black man, about ghosts. Presumably you mean white ghosts…For example, there are ghosts we do not see, the spooky ghosts, the ghosts of the American imagination…These are the ones small children worry are lying beneath their beds at night.

The other kind, the ‘real ones’, he says, ‘are simply the ones whom we choose not to see.’ African migrants like Ines fall into this category of the unseen. At first they have names. Then they don’t: ‘Soon they will turn into ghosts.’ Many are sent back to Libya to a hellish ‘detention centre’ where they ‘turn into ghosts’ and go mad or wander into the desert to die.

As tens of thousands of African migrants blow like sand across the sea, ‘fortress Europe’ nails down the shutters, says the pastor:

It pretends. It pretends like the child afraid of the ghost under the bed.

Lloyd is too astute an artist, however, to turn his compelling love story/quest into a diatribe or message-heavy polemic; this is the only place where the narrative preaches, and it’s because the speaker is a preacher who has good cause to do so. But his message lingers through the rest of the story like fading bells of city churches as one passes through a cemetery on the way to Alexanderplatz.

Lisa Hill at her blog recommended Lloyd’s most recent novel, but suggested I start with this one. She has excellent taste: it’s a terrific novel, and one I feel sure will haunt whoever reads it as it does me. Her post of 2010 examines another theme in the novel: the duality or multiplicity of possibilities or perspectives in interpreting alternative truths and their ‘dual capacities’ – hence the prominence in the narrative of discussions of amphibious lungfish, hermaphrodite snails, people of mixed ethnicity, etc. It’s possible to discern conflicting or opposing ‘truths’ in events or entities that seem irreconcilable, but which can be held simultaneously. It’s a subtle reading that I can’t do justice to in a few words here, for I’ve already gone on too long…I commend her post to you, as I do this remarkable novel. Thanks for the recommendation, Lisa.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vita Sackville-West, No Signposts in the Sea

Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962), No Signposts in the Sea. VMC 1992; first published 1961

Vita Sackville-West gathered much of the material for this novella on some of the sea-cruises she took annually with her husband Harold Nicholson (they married in 1913) for the last six years of her life. The narrative consists of the journal entries of eminent political journalist Edmund Carr as he embarks on the first ocean cruise – and love – of his life.

He observes and records the foibles and relationships of his fellow travellers, from the bridge parties and factions and friendships that spring up on board, to his ventures onshore when the ship docks at exotic locations. In that sense it can be read partly as a travelogue, with vivid descriptions of the ports and islands they visit and pass by, the migrants, crew and social butterflies on board ship, and the ‘natives’ who are sometimes referred to (as are some other ethnic and social groups) in the offensive terms that were still sadly prevalent in people of the author’s class at the time.

VSW Signposts cover

The painting on the cover of my VMC edition is by my namesake, Sir John Lavery – don’t think we’re related, but both our families come originally from Ireland, so who knows?!

It’s clear from early on that Edmund has a terminal illness, and has left his newspaper to follow Laura, the woman with whom he’s falling deeply in love. The narrative relates the toxic effects of jealousy to which he’s subject, building with increasing tension to a foreseeable but still powerful conclusion. Along the way there are philosophical and poetical reflections on life (and mutability), death and love.

By allowing himself for the first time in his life to go with the flow of existence – he’s all at sea in every sense – because he knows his days are numbered, he discovers in himself depths of romantic sensitivity and an ambivalent attitude towards his often abrasive contacts with the mundane that represent the first stage of self-realisation and fulfilment.

The main cause of his jealousy concerning Laura is the handsome and suave Colonel Dalrymple. As the narrative is conveyed from the partial viewpoint of Edmund himself, we initially see this rival as charming and attractive, but as time goes on the Colonel’s attentiveness to Laura causes him great pain. Considering Edmund is fifty and Laura forty, the novella gives a reassuring indication for those of us who are no longer youthful that passion and the pangs of love and jealousy are not the sole province of the young.

Victoria Glendinning, who wrote the Introduction to this edition, finds Edmund’s working-class origins unconvincingly done. But I found this an important aspect of his self-delusion. He’s painfully aware that he isn’t one of the ‘well-bred’ cruising class like the Colonel, the quintessential English gentleman – or Laura. He can’t help but feel inadequate in their company, and by comparing himself unfavourably with them, heightens his sense of worthlessness. Otherwise his bitter jealousy would seem less plausible.

For example, Edmund records in his journal with a self-directed sneer that he’s ‘a man of the people’, a ‘rough terrier beside a greyhound’. Yet Laura often reveals to us that she admires his poetic nature and enjoys his company far beyond the level of a sympathetic fleeting on-board friendship. It’s the fate of the class-conscious jealous man to misinterpret the very narrative he’s in the process of writing.

Laura expresses some interestingly racy views on relationships and marriage that appear to reflect some of Vita’s and Harold’s complicated arrangements. She insists that in a marriage she would treasure her independence, sleeping in a separate bedroom and living an unsubmissive life.

Because of the fragmentary journal structure the narrative flows rapidly and rarely flags. There are some memorable and luminous scenes, like the electric storm at sea or the green flash that Edmund and Laura look out for most evenings as the sun dips beyond the ocean’s horizon (this feature reminded me of Eric Rohmer’s 1986 film ‘The Green Ray’ – ‘Le Rayon vert’). I found the depiction of the almost adolescent but scorching angst and torment of Edmund compensated for the slightly clunky plotting. At only 156 pages it’s a pleasant and entertaining way to pass a grey day of hail and rain in a Cornish November.

Other Vita Sackville-West novels discussed at Tredynas Days are:

All Passion Spent (1931)

The Edwardians (1930)

There’s a good review of Signposts at HeavenAli’s blog

 

Hilary Mantel, Beyond Black

Hilary Mantel, Beyond Black. Harper Perennial paperback, 2005.

Travelling: the dank oily days after Christmas. The motorway, its wastes looping London: the margin’s scrub-grass flaring orange in the lights, and the leaves of the poisoned shrubs striped yellow-green like a cantaloupe melon. Four o’clock: light sinking over the orbital road. Teatime in Enfield, night falling in Potter’s Bar.

Hilary Mantel, Beyond Black coverThe opening paragraph of this curious novel sounds like Iain Sinclair’s psychogeographical descriptions of the grubby margins of urban life. Not just because of the subject matter – the orbital motorway with its seedy squalor alongside – but the hallucinatory style and tone. The bizarre imagery resembles his, too – or maybe it strays into Angela Carter territory, especially in the sections of seedy occult showmanship.

Neither of these tendencies is a bad thing. But I found that 451 pages of grand guignol was a bit hard to stomach. The team at the Backlisted podcast on their Halloween show called this the longest ghost story in English literature . Maybe it is – but it’s too long.

The plot, however, is minimal. Alison is an obese medium whose spirit ‘guide’ Morris is a hideous, malevolent ex-circus dwarf. He’s often accompanied by a sickening group of lascivious, vicious thugs who seem to have haunted Alison since her childhood. They slip between the world ‘beyond black’, referred to as ‘spirit world’ by the ‘sensitives’ like Alison, and squat like cut-price demons in the back yards and under the carpets of the living.

Much of the narrative consists of nauseous flashbacks to the squalid house she lived in as a child with her mother. Emmie was a prostitute who had tried to abort Alison, and neglected her when her crude attempts failed and the girl starts to grow up. She makes no attempt to care for the child, and sells her on to these vile, vicious creatures without compunction.

Alison has constant nightmarish flashbacks to the violence and degradation she was subjected to by this troupe of horrors. These are heightened by being contrasted with the humdrum suburban tedium she inhabits in the ‘real’ world.

She acquires a manager/live-in companion. Colette is skinny and spiritually sparse – the reverse of Alison in every way. Their relationship deteriorates as Colette finally has enough of Alison’s bizarrely horrible conversations with people she can’t see.

There are flashes of dark humour, and Mantel has great fun sending up the boringly conventional suburbanites who are the two women’s neighbours.

In the PS section of material at the end of the book Hilary Mantel says that she researched the world of stagey mediums and found their ‘demonstrations’ ‘threatening, unlikely, and slightly repulsive’ – and it shows in this novel.

I think what prevented me from giving up on this rather nasty story was the conviction with which the author portrays Alison’s haunted world. Alison never seriously tries to convince the sceptical Colette that she really does see dead people, and is no charlatan. Her stage act could easily be a mix of shrewd psychology and suggestion – the punters are mostly credulous and naïve. But the narrative suggests that the nightmare Alison appears to live in is real to her, and her attempts to find out who she is, who her father was, what her true history is (not contaminated memories) is strangely gripping.