Miklós Bánffy, The Transylvanian Trilogy: post 2, in which I look at vol. 1, ‘They Were Counted’

 

FR Leavis says of Anna Karenina, quoting Matthew Arnold, that Tolstoy’s novel has ‘many characters…too many’ – but dismisses this as a misreading. He does the same with James’s contention that this novel lacks ‘composition’ and is ‘defiant of economy and architecture’. Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy has an elegantly composed structure (more on that later), but perhaps falls short of the kind of greatness Leavis argues is found in Anna Karenina. This is largely because of its defiance of economy and ‘composition’ – it is too long, has too many superfluous characters (I mentioned last time my need to keep a record of names to try to reduce the confusion caused by the huge cast; I counted 23 different names in just two pages of Pt 1 ch. 2), too many digressions and superfluous descriptive passages.

Banffy cover

My two Everyman’s Library volumes of the Trilogy

The Trilogy is, nevertheless, almost a great sequence of novels. It’s difficult in the space of this second post on it here to substantiate such a claim, and to give a sense of its overall quality, its (mostly) coherent and subtly controlled narrative – or the defects noted above.

In this post I shall concentrate on vol. 1 of the Trilogy. In the previous post I gave an outline and introduction.

Balint Abady is the protagonist, heir to a vast estate of forests and farmland in Transylvania, in 1904 when the Trilogy opens a region of Hungary (but since the Treaty of Trianon of 1920 part of Romania). The region had a long history of fierce ‘national consciousness’ (Hugh Thomas, quoting Banffy in his Introduction to vol. 1), showing hostility to the Habsburgs and Germany, and, in this Trilogy, towards the Hungarians (an animosity I witnessed in the 1970s when I visited Ceauşescu’s communist state; I even stayed in Cluj, which is the nearest city to the Abady castle of Denestornya at Kolozsvar).

This causes the dissent and arrogantly parochial factionalism that the scenes set in the Hungarian parliament so witheringly portray; the politicians wrangle and orate, oblivious while the empire around them implodes. Abady is Bánffy’s mouthpiece and alter ego, frequently shown despairing at their ‘narrow-minded, prejudiced, dogmatic talk’, which ‘got on his nerves’ (Pt 1 ch. 2), their politically myopic stupidity, their over-fondness for histrionic gestures and violence in the parliamentary chamber, and for their ‘usual rabble-rousing speeches full of slogans’ (Pt 3 ch. 1). He’s shown to be ‘disgusted by the insincerity and triviality of it all’ (Pt 4, ch. 3). A page later there’s this impassioned narrative comment on such divisive, xenophobic scenes:

Such was the general political naivety…that they at once assumed that they were the victims of a conspiracy. They saw enemies everywhere, not realizing that all nations were governed by their own interests and that the skill with which these were grasped and developed was the true basis of a nation’s peace and prosperity. From this distrust of anyone who did not agree with them sprang the divisions within their own ranks…

Coat of arms of the Austro-Hungarian Empire

Coat of arms of the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1915: public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The ethnic and regional factions in this parliament preclude any kind of rational debate or consensus politics of the kind Abady advocates, and the ‘kaiserliche und königliche’ dual monarchy is simply despised and dismissed, rather than understood and dealt with diplomatically – Bánffy the politician-diplomat, like Abady, tried and failed to hold these factions together while striving to save his doomed, beloved homeland.

Abady is an interestingly flawed character, however; he’s too innocent and politically naïve to succeed in such a quest. He can’t even manage a rapprochement between the Romanian ethnic peasants of his own estates and villages with their Hungarian overlords. Instead he’s distrusted or exploited by them, and even by the Romanian lawyer Timisan, with whom Abady forms a kind of friendship, but who proves as unreliable in aiding his quest for compromise and progress as the rest.

He’s also not immune from the corruption of this state. He’s elected then re-elected to his constituency of Lelbanya through the habitual use of bribes of the small electorate; he suspects the election was rigged, but acquiesces. He’s only too easily duped by the wily Azbej, the steward of his mother’s estates, and the others whose equally self-interested duplicity is more than a match for his callow rectitude.

His flaws are a feature of his tortured love life, too. He falls deeply in love with Adrienne, who’s married to a sadistic madman who enjoys toying with them. One of my main problems with this Trilogy is with Banffy’s portrayal of women and sex. Abady has had numerous mistresses and conquests in his younger days, most recently with a pretty married aristocrat on a neighbouring estate. The women desired by the men in the trilogy are always beautiful and more or less sensual; we get little sense of their characters or emotional complexity.

Adrienne is more fully rounded in her portrayal than the others, but we know little about her beyond her role in Abady’s relentless campaign to have sex with her. He’s vaguely aware that her reluctance is caused by her being raped by her brutal husband, which has understandably traumatised her, but this doesn’t prevent him from trying initially to use poetic language about the purity of ‘animal nature’ to win her over. She’s too smart to fall for this transparent approach, calling the mating instinct he’s invoked a ‘baited trap, a swindle.’ Instead of showing empathy for her vulnerable state (she’d married Uzdy to get away from a cloying home, only to find herself a different and worse kind of captive, despised by him and his cruel family) and understanding the causes of her sexual prurience, and helping her overcome them with tenderness and emotional maturity, he instead is shown concluding ‘he must feel his way carefully’. She’s his prey, like the animals and birds these male aristocrats love slaughtering in the name of sport.

For weeks and months Abady tries to exercise decency and constraint, despite the voices in him that laugh at his ‘scruples and self-searching’, and which accuse him of behaving ‘more like a timid schoolboy than a grown man of the world.’ So one day when he and Adrienne are lying on cushions on the floor, embracing and kissing, and she speaks of the right of women to have freedom to do with their bodies and thoughts what they liked, despite what society considered moral, he sees this as ‘the moment for which he had been waiting’, when he should ‘press for more.’

He starts his ‘attack’ and tries to force her into having sex, but she springs free, appalled and accusatory. His response is very like that of the abject schoolboy he’d admonished himself as being earlier, but his humility comes too late, his apology is disingenuous and his integrity, to my mind, shattered.

As vol. 1 progresses Adrienne finally overcomes her aversion to sex and they become lovers, but this nasty scene taints the otherwise conventional and romantic-erotic scenes between them that follow.

There’s something too lascivious in the male gaze of the two main romantic heroes, Abady and his cousin Laszlo Gyeroffy (as when Laszlo looks at the ‘voluptuous’ Fanny Beredy, the ‘curves of her body’ barely hidden by her clinging gown – Pt 2 ch. 3), among other sexually predatory men in the Trilogy. Descriptions of men are far more varied and less stereotypically sexual. There’s a scene in which Adrienne is shown ice-skating, and Abady watches her, unseen, transfixed. At first the description is lyrical and rather beautiful, but it becomes more troublesome. Adrienne is compared, in Abady’s focalisation, to ‘a young maenad caught in a magic wintery bacchanalia, a prey to every madness and abandon, drunk with unrestrained desire and ready for whatever the night might bring’. This says more about his lust than her true self. Yes, she’s abandoned to the sensual pleasure of the skating, but the desire is surely all his; she’s objectified. And doesn’t know he’s watching her; it’s voyeurism.

Other women characters are also too often commodified like this and likened to panthers or goddesses or their bodies rhapsodically described, especially when they wear revealing ball gowns. I don’t want to overstate this tendency in the novel; Bánffy is careful to show Abady coming to realise that his attempted assault on Adrienne is no better than her husband’s habitual treatment of her. The way in which the lovely Fanny Beredy – the women are always implausibly sexy and beautiful – uses her sexual allure to distract the heartbroken Laszlo into a passionate affair with her is done more convincingly and subtly than the heavy-handed and chauvinistic campaigns of Abady and most of the other menfolk in these pages. There are also some sympathetically drawn strong and spirited women in the novel, like the independent Sara Bogdan Lazar – but even she falls for the dubiously Byronic and doomed Laszlo.

At one point Laszlo witnesses a distrurbing scene where a butler is about to rape a terrified housemaid; her subsequent pregnancy and disgrace indicate Bánffy’s moral sense, but even so his treatment of these two central male characters and their sexual attitudes isn’t entirely satisfactory.

Already I’ve said too much for one post, and have barely touched the surface of this flawed novel. I’m also aware I’ve been largely critical. The final section of vol. 1 does much to mitigate the unsavoury features I’ve noted above. I’d like to consider the more positive virtues of the Trilogy when I turn to the final two volumes. And I haven’t said enough about some of the fine writing, especially the descriptions of landscapes, and nature in vol. 1; I hope to rectify all this next time.

 

 

The days of the Arpad kings: Miklós Bánffy, The Transylvanian Trilogy post 1

Miklós Bánffy (1873-1950), The Transylvanian Trilogy. Vol. 1: They Were Counted (624 pp.) Vol. 2: They Were Found Wanting; They Were Divided (830 pp). Everyman’s Library, 2013. Translated by Patrick Thursfield and Katalin Bánffy-Jelen (the author’s daughter), winners of the Weidenfeld Translation Prize for vol. 3 in 2002. The trilogy first appeared in Hungarian in 1933 (vol. 1), 1937 (vol. 2) and 1940 (vol. 3). The English translations date from 1999-2002.

Banffy coverLast December I enjoyed a post by Emma at Book Around the Corner on vol. 1 of the Transylvanian Trilogy by Miklós Bánffy. I commented that I’d had the Everyman two-volume English translation on my shelves for some time and must get round to reading it. Why not do a readalong? she challenged. Fellow blogger Meredith at Dolce Belleza was also tempted, but in the end we both had to duck out because of other commitments.

 

I did press ahead with reading the trilogy, however.

It fills some 1500 pages so it’s impossible to boil down all my thoughts about this great work in a short post. I’ll begin, then, with an introductory piece to provide some literary and historical-political context. For the action of the novels begins in 1904 with numerous tumultuous scenes in the Budapest parliament alternating with more frequent scenes at sumptuous balls, hunting parties and salons, and ends as the young men set off cheerfully for a war in Europe in 1914 which they believe with heartbreaking optimism and romantic naiveté will be over by Christmas.

The novels are set against the labyrinthine complexity of politics in the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg Empire and the Balkans in their dying days leading up to the disaster of WWI, ‘when European civilization committed suicide’, as the eminent historian Hugh Thomas puts it in his informative introduction to my edition. As a consequence there’s a bitterly elegiac tone to the trilogy.

Bánffy came from one of the ancient Hungarian aristocratic families that had ruled Hungary for a thousand years. His wealth derived from the family’s vast forest estates in Transylvania (the trilogy’s protagonist, Bálint Abady, spends much of his time, when not engaged in romantic pursuits or parliamentary debates, trying to modernise his badly-run family forest estates).  That troubled province was handed over to the new state of Romania at the Treaty of Trianon in 1920. Like parts of lowland northern Europe, this was a region at the crossroads of clashing ethnic and other groups, which as a result was a site of fierce conflict for centuries.

Today we know Transylvania best, perhaps, through the sensational-melodramatic Gothic novel of 1897 by the Irish hack writer and theatre impresario Bram Stoker, who somehow created one of the most significant works of fiction and character archetypes of the modern European age, given that he was a second-rate writer. His half-digested library research into the folklore surrounding Transylvanian Count Vlad the Impaler was conflated with the high camp Gothic-horror stories about vampires that Byron’s physician Polidori had revived in 1816 when Mary Shelley produced the first draft of Frankenstein as her contribution to that famous ghost story competition with which they wiled away the long dark days and nights of the ‘year without a summer’ by Lake Geneva (see my posts on this recently). Stoker’s Dracula has coloured our view of Transylvania ever since as a dark, exotic land of wolf-haunted forests, sinister castles and long-nailed, hissing undead predatory Counts with harems of sexy bloodsucking brides.

Bánffy’s trilogy has no time for this entertainingly lurid stuff. His is the world of ballroom gossip, aristocratic adultery and political intrigue, factional plotting and treachery. As foreign minister for Hungary from 1921-22 he was involved in the attempts by his countrymen to mitigate the punitive land divisions that ensued from the post-war convention at Trianon to carve up the empire that had been lost after the catastrophic war and defeat of the Germans in 1918. He succeeded in leading Hungary into the League of Nations in 1922, but was denounced by Right-wing nationalist Hungarians who saw him as having sold them out to Yugoslavia. He then lived to see the rise of Fascism and invasion of his homeland by the Nazis, followed by the Russians who ousted and replaced them with an almost equally repressive Communist regime. When he died in 1950 he was living in exile from his ruined home near Cluj-Napoca.

Bonczhida Castle

Bonczhida Castle, ancestral home of the Bánffy family, devastated during WWII and now undergoing restoration. Image in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons

He’d been brought up to hope and believe that his beloved country would one day break free from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and resume its independence as a monarchy, restoring its status before the catastrophic defeat to the Turks at Mohács in 1526. Much of the tragedy of the political element of the trilogy results from that naive and romantic dream which blinded Hungarian politicians to the otherwise  obvious signs of the approaching disaster of 1914.

Most of the characters in the trilogy have very long race memories, and still wrangle bitterly about ancient battles and ensuing humiliations, while oblivious of nearing disaster. In Vol. 2, for example, Count Antal Szent-Gyorgyi will only invite guests to his famous shooting parties if they fulfil his decidedly choosy criteria. Not only did he rule out ‘bad shots’ and the ‘bad-mannered’; he also excluded anyone with ‘decided political opinions’ for he ‘loathed politics – and politicians’. With his ‘rich knowledge of history and genealogies’ he would also rule out anyone ‘if he thought their ancestry ignoble or unworthy’, considering princes and near-royalty as less estimable than ‘some simple country nobleman whose ancestors had been ‘nice people’ since time immemorial’:

For Count Antal, anyone who was able to trace his descent from the days of the Arpad kings…took precedence over all others.

People of Czech extraction were also excluded, possibly because his ancestors’ lands had been overrun by ‘the army of Giskra’, or else because of his hatred of the pan-Slav movement – which meant pro-Russian and therefore anti-Habsburg. His loyalties were even more eccentrically refined; he barred anyone who had any connection to ‘the Heir, the Archduke Franz-Ferdinand’, for his allegiance was to ‘the old Emperor, and the Heir’s supporters were clearly anxiously awaiting the Emperor’s demise, showing themselves ‘greedy, unacceptable opportunists’.

This brief background gives some indication of the strengths and weaknesses of the trilogy. It’s an immensely ambitious, highly addictive and readable attempt to set a tragic romantic drama against the even more tragic backdrop of the most momentous upheaval in world history since the days of Napoleon. This places it in the company of similarly wide-ranging and portentous epics like War and Peace, and, in a different way, Proust’s A la Recherche

But the very complexity of Balkan/Austro-Hungarian history and politics often slows down the narrative and causes the reader to long for an index of characters. I drew up my own in the end. And those Hungarian and Transylvanian names are so polysyllabic and tongue-twistingly multi-consonantal, they don’t reside memorably in this ageing reader’s memory. I had constantly to resort to my notebook summary of each chapter, as minor characters reappeared in a more important role some hundreds of pages since their last appearance. And every one of the huge aristocratic cast of characters seems to be related to everyone else.

Next time, maybe in more than one post, I’ll take a look at the plot and try to set it in the context I’ve started sketching here.

Vol. 1 has a detailed introduction (as mentioned above) by the historian Hugh Thomas, a genealogical family tree of the Bánffy dynasty, a chronology of historical and family events, and both volumes contain maps of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1913 and of Transylvania.

 

Nicole Krauss, Man Walks Into a Room

Nicole Krauss, Man Walks Into a Room: first published in 2002. I read the Anchor Books paperback, published 2003.

This was Nicole Krauss’s debut; as such it’s impressively confident and accomplished – if a little over-dependant on its high-concept central plot feature. Samson Greene, an English professor in his thirties at Columbia University, New York, is found one day wandering dazed and confused in the Nevada desert. A brain tumour has impaired his cognitive functions. It’s successfully removed, but he’s left with no memory after the age of twelve. What happened in the ensuing twenty-four years is a blank.

The narrative focuses on how this impacts upon his sense of self, his identity. In particular, he finds himself married to a beautiful woman, Anna, but with no emotional or historical connection with her. He’s devastated by the frequent ‘discoveries’ about his past, such as the death of his mother five years earlier.

He finds some kind of companionship and solace with a freewheeling student of his, who’s so laid-back she simply accepts that he has no recollection of who she is. A romantic liaison seems imminent, but comes to nothing.

Then the plot veers off into speculative territory that seriously threatens the credibility of the already so-so plot. Out of the blue Samson receives a call from a scientist who wants him to participate in what turns out to be a highly dodgy project in a sinister desert facility involving memory: how to capture people’s memories from a sort of brain photocopier and transfer them into someone else. As Samson’s brain is more or less a tabula rasa, he’s the ideal guinea-pig as a memory-receiver.

Not surprisingly all doesn’t go well. His fellow volunteer at the facility, a man who becomes his friend, has a memory captured and transferred to Samson’s brain that is so traumatic he freaks out and sets off on a quixotic quest – effectively to in some way find himself and tie up the loose ends of his past – those few that he can remember from his childhood, and the rest that he’d been told about.

Krauss Man Bar coverIt was a good read while I was recovering from illness in bed. Any other time I’d have probably not finished it, for the reasons I think I’ve hinted at above. I’ve maybe been a little over-critical; Krauss writes well, and when she’s inside Samson’s damaged consciousness has some interesting ways of exploring how his brain trauma manifests itself in terms of his behaviour, feelings and fractured, fragmented relationships.

There’s a good portrayal of his dog, Frank, too, who sadly drops out of the story when it lurches off into sub-sci fi territory. Frank accepts Samson for how he is, memory or not, for dogs don’t really care about memory. Here’s a typical canine aside, after Samson has been reaching out to his student friend on the phone, but failing to connect with her:

In the far corner of the room the dog moved his feet in his sleep, as if he were treading water.

There’s a touching moment when Samson is trying to explain to Anna what it’s like to be him with his adult memory gone: “Like an astronaut”, he says. They agree he should move out. He’s packed and about to leave:

“Isn’t there something else?” she asked, the dog crouched between them like a small country…[He says No, then catches sight of a camera on a shelf] Anna took it down and handed it to him. “Take it.” He lifted it to his eye and found her through the lens. She stood patiently, like someone whose face is being felt by the blind, but when he pressed the shutter she flinched. “To remember me by,” she said, and smiled grimly. The dog rolled over as if he were dead.

The first half of this novel has some good images and poised writing of that kind. It lost its way, in my view, when it rode off into the desert on a horse with no name.

A woman of no interest: Barbara Pym, Quartet in Autumn

Rohan Maitzen, an academic at Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, who specialises in Victorian literature, wrote in her entertaining personal blog yesterday a piece about what she’s doing when ‘posting’ about rather than ‘reviewing’ books in her blog:

Here, in contrast, I can write whatever I want, no matter how inadequate my understanding might be. My blog posts are narratives of my own reading experience, and so I’m answerable only for being honest and thoughtful about that.

I feel much the same. Most of my posts about books are musings or personal responses rather than reviews.

Of late, when I’ve been obliged to spend quite a bit of time in bed trying to recover from a recurring heavy cold/cough, I’ve got through quite a few books, so today’s post will be a quick response to Barbara Pym’s 1977 novel Quartet in Autumn (links to my previous posts on BP at the end of this piece). A thoughtful introduction at the sadly now defunct Open Letters Monthly (one of Ms Maitzen’s former haunts) by Michael Adams in 2011 is a good place to start if you’re new to Pym’s quietly stated but profoundly moving fiction; he cites admirers such as those who rediscovered her in the 70s when she’d become neglected and unpublished, Larkin and Lord David Cecil, then slightly later advocates like John Updike and Shirley Hazard.

Pym Quartet cover

Cover of my Picador Classic edition (2015)

For several thoughtful, academic essays on this novel (and many other matters Pymian) I’d recommend the Barbara Pym Society website, which introduces Quartet as follows:

Quartet in Autumn, shortlisted for the Booker Prize when it was published in 1977, is one of Barbara Pym’s most unsentimental books, about four English office workers who face aging in different ways. Edwin, Letty, Marcia and Norman have little in common except that they have worked in the same office for many years.  They are each eccentric and difficult in their own way, and resist connections with each other. Letty is a spinster who doesn’t know why life seems to have passed her by. Marcia is an anti-social eccentric, whose quirks and paranoia are becoming more pronounced since her mastectomy. Edwin is a widower obsessed with church-going. And Norman is a ‘strange little man’ with a sarcastic sense of humor and more than a touch of misanthropy.
   In typical Pym fashion, these four characters dance around each other, unable to commit to truly knowing one another. They know each other’s habits and eccentricities, but they don’t really know each other. And when one of them goes into a decline, the other three notice, and try to move into action, but ultimately can do little to help.  This may not be an uplifting book, but it is certainly sharply funny, observant, sad and true. I always enjoy Pym’s clear-eyed observations about her fellow humans – while she shows her characters with warts and all, she does not judge them. They are real people, worthy of her respect. [Link here]

The link to the Society’s conference monograph papers includes several fascinating pieces on Quartet – and on her other novels and related topics. Well worth exploring. I’d recommend this essay by Tim Burnett on the social background to the novel: it very much reflects the dying world of shabby genteel gentlewomen about which Pym had previously written, but which by 1977 was changing rapidly – there are timely references to the welfare state, particularly the NHS (Marcia’s mastectomy – an operation that Pym herself underwent, would have been free at the point of service, the basic principle of Britain’s health service – but then, as even more so now, under severe financial strain), immigration (some slightly uncomplimentary references to a Nigerian landlord, racist anti-Asian graffiti, etc.) and other signs that the post-war world in which she’d grown up was transforming out of recognition. Even the ‘churchy’ elements that dominated her previous novels is much reduced; only Edwin, with his mania for attending obscure saints’ day ceremonies at a range of his favourite churches, and tendency to look up new priests’ details in Crockford’s directory in the public library (another aspect of the welfare state that’s so prominent in the novel), maintains that tradition.

Burnett also considers the theme of nutrition in this novel: Marcia hoards tinned food (among other things – milk bottles, plastic bags), and we are often told what the office quartet are having for lunch or supper – usually as an index of their social status and mental state (Marcia slips quietly into a kind of anorexia, subsisting largely on tea and the occasional biscuit).

The other Pym Society essay I found informative is this one by Raina Lipsitz on the characters’ varying degrees of ‘failure to connect’. Poor Letty, for example, perhaps the most sympathetically portrayed, and who we see most of, is shown resisting the overtures of a fellow diner at the cheap restaurant she lunches at – yet there’s a part of her that yearns for the human contact she instinctively, paradoxically, shies away from.

The writing shows Pym’s superb ability to convey depth and nuance in apparently effortless, transparent prose. Here she is early on, describing the quartet’s (separate, not collective) visits to the local library:

Of the four only Letty used the library for her own pleasure and possible edification. She had always been an unashamed reader of novels, but if she hoped to find one which reflected her own sort of life she had come to realize that the position of an unmarried, unattached, ageing woman is of no interest whatever to the writer of modern fiction.

This is a deeply felt, poignant novel about that process of nearing and reaching retirement age in a world where you’re not noticed; when Marcia and Letty are given a low-key retirement send-off at their office, it’s done at lunchtime to keep the costs down, and no one in charge is clear exactly what any of these four colleagues actually do. They won’t be replaced – for they have no value to the organisation (which significantly is never identified, neither is the work they do: filing and clerical, it’s hinted, but they don’t often seem to do much work) – or, by implication, to society.

Pym’s is the voice of the vulnerable, marginalised, atrophied remnants of a bygone, dying era. As with Willie Loman, attention should be paid to them, no matter how unattractive or superficially flawed or redundant they seem.

Previous posts on Barbara Pym novels:

Excellent Women

No Fond Return of Love

Crampton Hodnett

Jane and Prudence

A Glass of Blessings

Some perfection that you missed: May Sinclair, The Life and Death of Harriett Frean

May Sinclair, The Life and Death of Harriett Frean VMC 2009; first published 1922

Sinclair Frean cover

May Sinclair was born in 1863, and as the introduction to this VMC edition points out (the title page attributes it to Jean Radford, but DJ Taylor’s name appears afterwards on p. xi), she published her first novel in the reign of Victoria, and her final collection of stories ‘a few years short of George V’s Silver Jubilee’. That would be The Intercessor, and other stories (1931; the Jubilee was 1935). The point is that she has an impressive range of subjects and themes across her writing career, reflecting her experience of the socio-cultural and historical shifts in that span of time, from the height of British imperialism (she was an active suffragist on the home front) through WWI and its aftermath.

May Sinclair is perhaps best known as an early Modernist writer, the one who is said to have coined the term ‘stream of consciousness’ to describe the narrative technique of Dorothy Richardson when reviewing the first volumes of her Pilgrimage sequence of novels in 1918. I see traces of that style in this novel, though for the most part it’s a fairly conventional narrative voice – just the odd moment signals her slightly more modernist tendencies. I’ll try to quote below to illustrate this.

In this impressive short novel, not much more than 100 pp of text, she manages to compress the significant aspects of the long life of the titular protagonist. Hatty Frean is born into a bourgeois household, but her father (like Sinclair’s own) lost everything as a result of his reckless monetary speculations; we’re alerted to this erratic element in his character early on, in a passage that also shows why Hatty develops such a passionate attachment to her much-loved, more dependable (in her eyes) mother:

Her mother had some secret: some happy sense of God that she gave to you and you took from her as you took food and clothing, but not quite knowing what it was, feeling that there was something more in it, some hidden gladness, some perfection that you missed.

Her father had his secret too. She felt that it was harder, somehow, darker and dangerous. He read dangerous books: Darwin, and Huxley, and Herbert Spencer. Sometimes he talked about them.

The voice here (like James Joyce’s in the early pages of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) takes on some of the naïve tones of the young Hatty, as she considers her parents with the partially formed, excessively admiring appraisal that cause her to over-invest in the Victorian moral certainties of both parents, while failing to discern the defects and underlying hypocrisy. It’s a subtle technique, for her narrating perception here is unreliable; yes, the father does ruin the family with his reckless gambling on the markets, but a few paragraphs later Hatty concludes that ‘His thinking was just a dangerous game he played.’ Events prove her sadly wrong. Although her blind faith in her father is shaken, she never stops thinking of him as a paragon, or to remind her friends that she is Hilton Frean’s daughter, as if this in some way endorses her arrogant air of superiority. She never stops to consider that other people’s lack of respect for such assertions has anything to do with the faults in her family – or in her own perception.

The tragedy of this sad figure, then, is that she accepts unquestioningly the values of selflessness and self-effacement that she was taught to esteem. As the years pass she becomes ever less able to understand why she’s so unfulfilled or fails to inspire the respect and devotion in others that she feels for her parents, and for their ‘idea of moral beauty’. By denying herself, as they have taught her, the happiness that comes her way, she condemns herself to a life of loneliness and increasing despair.

It’s not a depressing read, however. Sinclair’s mastery of that style I mentioned ensures that Hatty is shown feeling dim traces of the terrible fate those parents have consigned her to, but is too far gone to amend her behaviour, as this random example shows: ‘I was brought up not to think of myself before other people’, she proudly tells a person who’s just suggested her course of self-sacrifice has ‘made three people miserable just for that’, and that she insulted the woman she thought she was elevating above herself:

Harriet sat a long time, her hands folded on her lap, her eyes staring into the room, trying to see the truth…Was it true that this idea had been all wrong?…’I I don’t care. If it was to be done again to-morrow I’d do it.’

But the beauty of that unique act no longer appeared to her as it once was, uplifting, consoling, incorruptible.

For that’s the point, isn’t it? Her belief that she’s ‘not thinking of herself before other people’ is in reality an act of pride and arrogance, a sin against the laws of nature.

There’s a May Sinclair Society whose site is worth a look.

I owe this literary find to Dr Oliver Tearle, who warmly recommended Harriett Frean at his always entertaining site Interesting Literature back in January.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Penzance, Egypt, Denis Johnson and Gandhi

Mrs TD and I stayed Saturday night after our visit to Tate St Ives in Penzance, seven or eight miles away across the ancient granite-boulder-studded West Penwith moors (see my posts on DH Lawrence and this part of Cornwall), just a few doors down from one of the most extraordinary buildings in the southwest, if not in England: the Egyptian House, Chapel Street –

Egyptian House Penzance

The façade

Early C19 stucco Egyptian extravagance. 3 storeys. 3 windows Battered half round corded pilasters, windows and glazing bars. Lotus bud columns flanking entrance. Coved cornices above windows. 2 obelisk caryatids. A coat of arms crowned by an eagle. Heavy coved crowning cornice. [Historic England website description (it has Grade I Listed status – for its ‘special architectural or historic interest’)]

 

It was built ca 1835 in the Egyptian Revival style – which became popular after the Napoleonic campaigns in Egypt, and his defeat by Nelson at the Battle of the Nile in 1798, bringing the culture of ancient Egypt into the European consciousness. Napoleon had taken a scientific investigative team with him on his campaign, and they began publishing the results of their studies into the sites and artefacts of Egypt in 1809. But Egyptian style had been imitated in European architecture and design to a lesser degree ever since the Renaissance. Here’s a detail of that amazing façade:

Egyptian House Penzance

The main central façade

The Landmark Trust, which owns the building, rents out three apartments there as holiday accommodation. The house was built originally as a museum and geological repository. The Trust is a charity ‘that rescues important buildings that would otherwise be lost’ (their website).

Egyptian House portico

The portico

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We stayed at Artist Residence hotel, ‘a slice of eccentric charm’ as it describes itself, 22 rooms designed in eclectic taste, full of quirky features like a cobbler’s last acting as toilet roll holder in the en suite bathroom, or ‘distressed’ ancient French-style wooden window shutters which serve as the wardrobe doors. There are several hotels in this group across England; the first was started in Brighton, and was named because the young owner couldn’t afford to renovate the place, so invited the thriving local artistic community to come and decorate in return for board. This principle is what gives each location its own individual, innovative and engagingly idiosyncratic identity.

It was a delightful place to relax in after the rigours and excitement of the Virginia Woolf exhibition at the Tate St Ives during the day on Saturday, about which I wrote here yesterday.

I took with me to read Denis Johnson’s last book, a collection of short stories published in 2018 posthumously (he died last year). I’m about halfway through, and the style and subject matter are very like the gritty realism of Jesus’ Son, his 1992 collection whose title from the Velvet Underground song ‘Heroin’ says it all.

Denis Johnson, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden

Denis Johnson, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden

I wrote an elegiac piece for him here a week after his death, with a brief note on the four of his works I’d read at that time.

This new collection has his usual lyrical and hypnotic style and strung-out characters. I hope to post about it fairly soon, once I clear the backlog of posts on books already finished: there’s a May Sinclair and the Miklós Bánffy Transylvanian Trilogy.

Just to finish, I’d like to illustrate the lovely bookmark Mrs TD brought me back from her recent trip with her sister to India. She bought it at the Mahatma Gandhi museum in Delhi; it’s a delicate filigree representation of the great man in his loincloth, walking with his long stick.

Gandhi bookmark

It’s a humbling and inspiring way to mark my progress through my books.

 

A visit to the Tate St Ives

Mrs TD and I treated ourselves to a short break this weekend, going to the Tate St Ives yesterday, and driving on to stay at the quirky and charming Artist’s Residence hotel in Penzance. I was going to write briefly about both aspects of this trip here, but on researching the first part of it (as always happens) I got sidetracked, so shall focus here just on the Tate part; more on Penzance next time.

We wanted to take a look at the recently opened extension to the beautiful gallery, dramatically located overlooking the even more beautiful Porthmeor beach.

Porthmeor Beach

Porthmeor Beach seen from the ace café on the top floor of the Tate – hence the slight reflection in the glass. Arguably better than Miami Beach when the sun shines like this!

I wanted to visit an exhibition being held there: Virginia Woolf: An Exhibition inspired by her writings, Tate St Ives (until 7 April) – link is to the Tate’s page on the exhibition, with some lovely images from it (of course Woolf’s long association with St Ives is well known). My colleagues and I are going there again next week with our students, so I was keen to get a preview.

Do take a look at those images at the Tate site; it’s a fascinating set of exhibits – not just the variety of artworks reflecting aspects of Woolf’s life and work, but also letters and other interesting pieces. Dora Carrington, for example, was clearly a terrible speller, and had very large, dramatic handwriting (there are some of her works on display, even more dramatic).

Another artist (and writer) well represented in the exhibition, one I’ve been intending investigating further for some time, partly because of her writings about Cornwall, is Ithell Colquhoun. I hadn’t realised how yonic her art was…

But the one work that particularly drew my attention was this: Louise Jopling’s (1843-1933) Self Portrait, 1877:

Jopling, Self Portrait

Jopling, Louise; Self Portrait; Manchester Art Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/self-portrait-205303; public domain Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND

She was born in Manchester, studied art in Paris for a time – she exhibited at the Salon there – and her work featured in shows at the Royal Academy from the late 186Os or certainly by 1870 (depending which source one consults). She worked vigorously on behalf of women artists and of the Suffragists. She struggled all her life against the restraints imposed by Victorian and later societies on women and women artists, and succeeded in forging a professional career and reputation that few of her women contemporaries achieved. She campaigned for the right of women artists to work with live models without the prudish constraints of the Academy that such models be ‘carefully draped’ – which surely ruined the whole point of life drawing!

Like the portrait by Ingres I wrote about seeing at the National Gallery last month, this one drew my gaze with its forthright, full on contemplation of the onlooker: poised and self assured, intelligent, slightly amused perhaps – look at her right eyebrow. And that hat is at such a rakish angle. It’s a remarkable image.

When I looked her up online, I discovered there’s a Louise Jopling research project website, University of Glasgow (started 2005):

 The project aims to document her career as a leading female artist and her close-knit artistic, literary and theatrical world of late 19th century London and Paris. It also seeks to understand better the climate in which women then practised as artists and, more generally, the climate for women’s growing participation in the workplace and in public life.

[There follows a list of ‘core aspects of the project’, such as compiling catalogues raisonnées and databases of all her artistic and written works, transcripts of her correspondence, and the online edition of her autobiography, Twenty Years of My Life, 1867-1887 (1925).

The project also cites Louise JoplingA Biographical and Cultural Study of the Modern Woman Artist in Victorian Britain, by Patricia de Montfort (Routledge-Ashgate, 2016).

There are links at this site to a brief biography, with photos, a catalogue of works with links to the galleries holding them, and a bibliography. Well worth a look.

It’s interesting to compare the handsome portrait 1879 at the NPG of Mrs Jopling (link only, for copyright reasons) by family friend John Everett Millais; a lengthy account of how it came to be painted, with extracts from the writings of artist and subject, is at the NPG site here

Whistler’s portrait ‘Harmony in Flesh Colour and Black: Mrs Louise Jopling’, at the Hunterian Gallery, University of Glasgow, reflects the fashionable social and cultural life this remarkable woman led, mixing with these artists who painted her, Oscar Wilde, and other notables of the time. She deserves wider recognition.

It’s possible to see an image and account of Jopling’s Self Portrait at the Manchester Gallery site. While there I noticed this: John William Waterhouse’s famous (and rather twee) painting Hylas and the Nymphs (1896) was removed from Manchester Art Gallery last month on the grounds of its sexist objectification of the semi-naked female forms depicted, as widely reported in the media; the Gallery’s website gives a strikingly different account:

The painting – part of the gallery’s highly prized collection of Pre-Raphaelite works – was temporarily removed from display as part of a project the gallery is working on with the artist Sonia Boyce, in the build-up to a solo exhibition of her work at the gallery opening on 23 March 2018. Boyce’s work is all about bringing people together in different situations to see what happens. The painting’s short term removal from public view was the result of a ‘take-over’ of some of the gallery’s public spaces by a wide range of gallery users and artists on Friday January 26th.

The event was conceived by Boyce to bring different meanings and interpretations of paintings from the gallery’s collection into focus, and into life…In its place, notices were put up inviting responses to this action that would inform how the painting would be shown and contextualized when it was rehung.

 

I suppose this is what would have been called Fake News in some quarters…

Seagull

Outside the Gallery

Snow, lobster, Lothar

This week Cornwall experienced its first serious snowfall in some years. Siberian winds blew in fiercely from the east, caused by atmospheric shifts over the Arctic (nothing to do with global warming, I’m sure). Later in the week storm Emma moved up from the south, full of dampness, and more snow ensued.

This was the blizzard-like scene on Wednesday:

Truro snow

Normally i can see Truro Cathedral from this back door; now screened by the icy blast

Truro snow

Birds struggled to keep warm and sustained; my feeders in the back garden were thronged right through the storms

I know there are plenty of countries where much harsher winter conditions are common; I once visited my late friend Mike in Finland and the sea was frozen!

But here, where the prevailing winds come mild and damp from the southwest, across the Atlantic, and our Cornish coasts are kept temperate by the warm Gulf Stream, we rarely see this kind of weather.

It looked beautiful, though of course it caused all kinds of problems for people who needed to travel or try to get to work. Our staff and students were sent home to keep safe. So a couple of bonus days of reading…

By Saturday the snow had gone and the temperature returned to normal.  was able to go into town with Mrs TD. At the wonderful Fal Catch unit in the covered market we bought fish and prawns for our Keralan curry that night.

 

Truro snow

This was the scene down the road on Thursday: no cars, just families out sledging

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the tanks were several live lobster – all fairly normal in size. I asked the proprietor about the monster crustacean they’d had in the same tank before Christmas: he was huge. Had they sold him? He told me the lobster must have been 60 years old, and no, they hadn’t sold him by Christmas Eve. So he and his partner took him with them to the pub, had a pint, then drove home and released the lucky chap into the sea off Pendennis Point. I just hope he’s learned his lesson and evades the traps in future.

Lobster

Image via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today in town I did a few chores and browsed a couple of charity bookshops. In one I came across this: an author new to me, but I so liked the cover and the summary of the text that I had to buy it. Anyone reading this know it? He was born in Brünn, now Brno in the Czech Republic in 1890 and died in Vienna in 1974. He was a writer, theatre director and producer. Here’s the cover:

Lothar Vienna Melody cover

A handsome Europa Editions cover

A portable abyss: John Cheever, Bullet Park

John Cheever (1912-82), Bullet Park. First published 1967. Vintage paperback 2010.

This is a startlingly strange book, full of narrative elisions and unsettling shifts, a linguistically pyrotechnic display of insidious intent.

Its subject is that old American existential dilemma, from Hawthorne and Melville to Updike and Stephen King: the paradoxically simultaneous impulse towards the untamed forest of Sabbats, ocean as pratum spirituale, and the ironically deadening pull of the suburbs.

Bullet Park coverBullet Park is a ‘precinct of disinfected acoustics’, where everyone knows the price of everyone else’s property, where men paint their houses obsessively then go out into the garden and shoot themselves, unable to ‘stand it any longer’. These people numb their neuroses with cocktail parties and pills, gossip, mowing the lawn or taking the chainsaw to a diseased elm or soul.

In a typically weird and lyrical outburst early on the narrator imagines ‘some zealous and vengeful adolescent’ who might rail like Lear in the storm against such a deadening place, with its

legion of wife-swapping, Jew-baiting, booze-fighting spiritual bankrupts. Oh, damn them all…Damn their hypocrisy, damn their cant, damn their credit cards, damn their discounting the wilderness of the human spirit, damn their immaculateness, damn their lechery and damn them above all for having leached from life that strength, malodorousness, color and zeal that give it meaning. Howl, howl, howl.

Tony Nailles is such an adolescent, but his resistance takes the form of neurosis: he takes to his bed and, like Oblomov or Bartleby the Scrivener, prefers to stay there. His father, the uxorious Eliot, a chemist who helps make a mouthwash called Spang and hates himself for his bourgeois uselessness, has to drug himself to endure the daily commute by train into the city of New York, for a cold shower

had no calming effect on his image of the 7:46 as a portable abyss.

Part I ends with a mysterious Caribbean swami curing Tony with a mix of magic and prayer. Then it all gets much weirder.

Paul Hammer, who with his bitchy wife Marietta has just moved into Bullet Park at the start of the novel (shown his new home by a realtor named Hazzard), takes over the narrative; his monomaniacal first-person voice gives us his lengthy dysfunctional back-story. It’s hardly surprising he’s so deranged; from his exiled mother, crazy as a badger herself, he picks up the idea of crucifying a denizen of suburban respectability and excellence: the collocational congruence of names and pure chance (hazard) of contiguity provide the perfect candidate: Nailles. Or even better, his angsty teenage son.

The purpose of this symbolic crucifixion is ‘to awaken the world’, Hammer believes, with the certitude of the terminally lost. Nailles represents ‘a good example of a life lived without any genuine emotion or value’, he decides – this from Hammer, a man who falls in love with a woman because of a white thread on her shoulder, and who kills because of a piece of string or a much-coveted yellow room.

Nailles’s excellence is shown by such gestures as dutifully to turn on his windshield wipers, whatever the weather he’s driving through, to convey the ‘nomadic signals’ of his church’s somnolent belief in ‘the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.’ In their white-painted house (like all the other Bullet Park houses) the Nailles family ‘seemed to have less dimension than a comic strip.’ It’s the Dick van Dyke show scripted by Mephistopheles: this is hell, nor am I out of it.

I’ve written here before about Cheever’s deftly crafted short stories; this novel in some ways is a loosely linked collection of such units. This weakens the flow a little, but interest is sustained by that barely-contained sense of mayhem in the lawned pacific real estate, and by the dazzling language that often reaches levels of poetic delirium that’s akin to a spell. An example: Tony has a spat with his astrologically obsessed, seriously neurotic French teacher, blessed with the lewdly inappropriate name Miss Hoe:

She lived alone, of course, but we will grant her enough privacy not to pry into the clinical facts of her virginity…As a lonely and defenseless spinster she was prey to the legitimate anxieties of her condition…She had read somewhere that anxiety was a manifestation of sexual guilt and she could see, sensibly, that her aloneness and her virginity would expose her to guilt and repression. However, the burden of guilt must, she felt, be somewise divided between her destiny and the news in the evening paper.

‘Sensibly’ is just so well placed in that wicked profile.

How Nailles is impelled to thwart Hammer’s demented plan to immolate Tony in the chancel of the local church is the nearest this strange novel gets to a regular plot. It works, just about, as a sequence of disturbingly ironic, magical-surreal vignettes of a civilisation whose barbarity and existential vacuity is barely concealed, or tolerated. In one such scene Nailles wakes his wife by blazing away with his shotgun on his lawn in his underpants at a century-old snapper turtle that’s emerged from the local bog:

In this pure and subtle light the undressed man and the prehistoric turtle seemed engaged in some primordial and comical battle.

That battle takes many forms in this extraordinary novel, where one feels it’s turtles all the way down in an infinite regress to nothingness.

The Portrait of Two Ladies

My previous post was about my trip to London last week. I didn’t want to cram the piece with too many space-greedy photos, so omitted the ones of pictures I liked in the National Gallery. Several of you were kind enough to suggest you’d like to see them, so having got ahead of myself preparing Tennyson for next week’s classes (and C. Rossetti, looking further ahead), here they are. Just two of them.

First is this one; it seemed easiest to just post the caption on the wall of the gallery for information about it:

Morisot, Girl on a Divan

Berthe Morisot, Girl on a Divan

 

 

Morisot, Girl on a Divan caption

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Morisot first exhibited at the Salon at the age of 23 in 1864, and continued to do so most years for the next six, after which her work was included in the ‘rejected’ alternative salon of Impressionists – among all the now household names. She was married to Manet’s brother. I think her famous painting The Cradle (1872) was the one that first brought her to my attention many years ago; it’s a tender image of (presumably) a mother beside her baby’s ornate crib. There’s a striking portrait of her by Manet, done the same year, dramatically dressed in black (she was in mourning for her father), gazing out at the viewer with large, challenging, slightly amused eyes, yet they seem more guarded than those of the girl in the divan. That’s what interests me about her: she was denied access to the seamier parts of urban/social life beloved of the male impressionists – the brothels, low dives and clubs, and so on; but she could gain access to and gain the trust of the women who wouldn’t necessarily have interested her fellow (male) artists, or posed in the same way.

It seems that she influenced Manet considerably, encouraging him, for example, to taking up painting in the open air, not just in the studio. According to Wikipedia, where you can see the paintings I’ve mentioned, and several more, she was described by some art critics as being the best of the group.

Like most women artists (most women?) she found it hard to be taken seriously in her world. So here she is.

Next:

Ingres Mme Moitessier

This is by the Neo-Classical artist, Ingres (1856), a portrait of Mme Moitessier. She was the wife of a wealthy banker, shown here wearing a costly and fashionable Lyon silk gown. It was the detail and colour of this that has always drawn my eye – this little image can’t do it justice.

Ingres apparently laboured over the work for 12 years, constantly striving to perfect that colour and detail. It’s quite stunningly beautiful. It may be my imagination but the sitter’s facial expression seems far less comfortable under the artist’s male gaze than the girl in the divan above – though her body language seems quite relaxed. But it has more in common with a fashion plate than an intimate portrait, it seems to me. She and her husband no doubt wanted the artist to show off their prosperity.

Hope you didn’t mind this little detour away from my more usual literary territory. Apologies to any art specialists for any solecisms in my Google-derived information in this post. Obviously these are just snaps from my phone; I’d recommend taking a look online at the professionally photographed images of these artists’ work.