Glory and littleness: Robert Walser’s ‘Jakob von Gunten’

On all these paths Walser has been my constant companion…the unmistakeable figure of the solitary walker just pausing to take in the surroundings. W. G. Sebald, A Place in the Country (2013), reviewed by me here.

Here is a section from my post on Sebald’s posthumously published collection of essays that dealt with Walser:

The essay on the isolated ‘outsider’ Walser is a poignant mini-masterpiece.  This ‘most unattached of all solitary poets’ is portrayed with delicate, loving sensitivity; we see the ‘precariousness’ of Walser’s existence, his loneliness and ‘virginal innocence’.  At the core of this ‘ragged soul’ was an ‘absence’ that was the source of his ‘unique strangeness’.   Although he was always ‘beset by shadows’, his writings are ‘illumined…with the most genial light’, striving towards ‘weightless[ness]’ in an attempt to ‘obliterate himself’.  He ‘almost always wrote the same thing and yet never repeated himself’, he was ‘a clairvoyant of the small’, his thoughts were ‘honed on the tiniest details’ but they became increasingly incomprehensible as his sanity faded, and he tended to ‘get lost in the clouds’ and dissolve into the ‘ephemeral’, into ‘thin air’, heading for the darkness of insanity and a solitary death in the snow one Christmas Day.

 

Robert Walser (1878-1956) grew up in the Swiss border town of Biel. His work was admired by Kafka, Musil, Hesse and Walter Benjamin – a group of artists who no doubt found similar themes to their own in his existentially anguished ‘outsider’ narratives, concealed under a deceptively slight, charming and eccentrically naïve exterior.

Jakob v G Walser cover Jakob von Gunten (first published in German in 1909, translated in 1969 and with an introduction by Christopher Middleton, reissued by NYRB Classics in 1999) seems inspired by Walser’s own experience. It tells the story of a seventeen-year-old boy who runs away from what he feels is a stifling bourgeois home to join a training academy in Berlin for aspiring servants, the Benjamenta Institute, named after its principal, Herr Benjamenta. Walser had attended a similar school in Berlin in 1905, followed by a period of employment as a butler in a castle in Silesia.

The teaching is mostly conducted by the principal’s sister, Lisa. There’s only one class, and the teaching consists largely of rote-learning from a tract called ‘How Should a Boy Behave’; ‘we are not taught anything’, Jakob explains with bland transparency. There appear to be other teaching staff, but they are either absent or asleep – a typically enigmatic situation: it’s difficult to tell throughout this hazy narrative how much is fantasy, dream or some kind of intuited reality as perceived by the eponymous first-person narrator; he writes in an early journal entry:

Sometimes my whole stay here seems like an incomprehensible dream

There’s little in the way of plot. The novel is constructed as a journal, with short, disconnected entries in which Jakob puts down his thoughts, dreams, reflections on the mundane events of the day with his classmates, several of whom recur in different situations. He forms intensely close and bizarrely fluctuating relationships with them (and with everyone else), at times speaking of them as if they were adored intimates, at others with arrogant disdain. Paradoxically, Jakob claims to admire the compliance of the other boys with this unconventional school regime, while at the same time exhibiting tendencies of rebellion and feelings of scornful superiority. By the end, however, he expresses gratitude to the school for transforming him into ‘an ordinary person’, happy to become ‘lost and forgotten somewhere else in life’, a cipher: ‘I don’t want to think of anything.’ Later he says: ‘You’ve no idea what bliss, what grandeur there is in yearning, in waiting.’

He develops a schoolboy crush on Fräulein Lisa, which doesn’t end well, while her brother the principal appears to fall heavily for Jakob. The school’s pupils gradually leave, and there is a sense of inevitable closure by the end of the novel, and we’re left unsure whether the protagonist is set to embark on a life-enhancing adventure with his partner. Or else it’s like Don Quixote riding off into the Mancha with Sancho Panza, a deluded escape from a crushingly banal life of servitude – or a flight into madness.

This is a strange and challenging novel. It can become so superficially inconsequential that I was tempted to put it aside, and then something arresting and strange happens (often inside Jakob’s head, as far as I can tell), and I carried on reading. It gets under the skin despite the apparently inconsequential surface. As Christopher Middleton says poetically in his introduction:

The stylistic invention ranges between maximum abruptness and beautifully timed arabesque dottiness.

With his obsessive narrative accumulations of fantastic mingled with quotidian minuscule details, Walser as a writer resembles the ‘primitive’ style of that other psychically troubled artist, Richard Dadd, rather more than Douanier Rousseau, with whom he is more usually compared. ‘Is this a morgue, or is it a celestial house of joy?’, Jakob muses at one point, in a typically polar opposition.

I’ll finish with an extract to try to illustrate the novel’s unique quality. It will have to be quite long in order to demonstrate these curious qualities in the prose:

What singular oddities we are. Our hair is always neatly and smoothly combed and brushed, and everyone has to cut his own parting up there in the world on his head…That’s how it should be. Partings are also in the rule-book. And because we all look so charmingly barbered and parted, we all look alike, which would be a huge joke for any writer, for example, if he came on a visit to study us in our glory and littleness. This writer had better stay at home. Writers are just windbags who only want to study, make pictures and observations. To live is what matters, then the observation happens of its own accord. Our Fräulein Benjamenta would in any case let fly at such a wandering writer, blown in upon us by rain or snow, with such force that he would fall to the floor at the unfriendliness of the welcome. Then the instructress, who loves to be an autocrat, would say to us, perhaps, “Boys, help the gentleman to pick himself up.” And then we pupils of the Benjamenta Institute would show the uninvited guest the whereabouts of the door. And the morsel of inquisitive authordom would disappear again. No, these are just imaginings. Our visitors are gentlemen who want to engage us boys in their service, not people with quills behind their ears.

Robert Walser

Walser in 1890 (via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1929 Walser had some kind of mental breakdown (he attempted suicide maybe more than once) and entered the first of the psychiatric clinics in which he was to spend the rest of his life. When he was placed in the Herisau sanatorium in 1933, he stopped writing and spent most of his time on solitary walks.

 

Barbara Comyns, ‘Our Spoons Came from Woolworths’

Barbara Comyns’ novel Our Spoons Came from Woolworths (first published in 1950) has attracted considerable critical attention recently, much of it a consequence of reissues by various publishing houses of several Comyns novels – notably NYRB Classics in autumn 2015. Because it’s so easy to find online reviews with plot summaries, I’ll simply discuss here some features of the novel that seemed to me so remarkable.

Inevitably I need to say a little about the plot. Sophia is an engagingly bright, ingenuous, unworldly woman of 20 who marries Charles when they are just 21. Most of the novel relates the hellish experiences she undergoes in this marriage to a selfish, probably talentless struggling artist. He insists that he needs his freedom to work on his art: this means Sophia has to do all the paid work and domestic chores. He loftily assumes that this is her sphere and responsibility – an attitude that even today hasn’t entirely disappeared.

The Virago Modern Classics cover of my edition

The Virago Modern Classics cover of my edition

Maggie O’Farrell describes this situation perfectly in her introduction to my VMC edition as the ‘erosion of a woman’s spirit through her husband’s vain and casual cruelty’.

It’s not a spoiler to say that Sophia finds happiness in the end after a gruelling sequence of horrible events. The key to the story’s being told at all is given to us in its arresting opening sentence:

I told Helen my story and she went home and cried.

In the final chapter we learn that Helen is a close friend of Sophia’s. The narration takes place eight years after the grinding Dickensian poverty and misogyny Sophia experienced during her first marriage in London. When she’s finally freed from the parasitic Charles she finds true love and a happy marriage. This colours the way she tells the story: it’s a testament of the indomitable young woman’s spirit that enabled her to endure appalling events and emotional abuse: even as she tells, in the final chapter, of her new-found happiness, she fears it won’t last:

At first, because I wasn’t used to happiness and freedom from worry, I would be terrified that disaster was coming round the corner at any minute.

It’s much more than a sort of fictitious misery memoir, then; despite all the ordeals that Sophia endures it’s strangely uplifting and often very funny (misery is subverted by lines like ‘even the cat had run away’ when there’s no food for the young family to eat). It’s the mode of narration and the narrative voice that are so interesting. Like Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, she’s compelled to tell her story in a bleakly matter-of-fact voice to her incredulous, horrified friend; it’s a kind of therapy, but she keeps the full emotional horror at bay by either ignoring it or minimising it (those flashes of humour in the face of adversity are one such device).

The narrative at first seems charmingly eccentric, humorous and more than a little twee (for example Sophia has a bizarre taste in pets; her favourite is a newt), as the young couple scrape together enough to set up home (hence those cheap spoons); here’s a typical example of her capacity for seemingly inadvertent insight (she’s talking about a man who thinks he can cook):

Men are often like that. They say they can cook and it turns out to be an omelette, scrambled egg or sausages. They never can cook jam or Christmas pudding and proper things like that (I don’t, of course, include chefs when I say this, I mean real men).

The lightly humorous parenthesis is a smokescreen; Sophia in such moments of lucidity is perfectly aware of the gender inequalities that beset her; incapable of fighting them, inexperienced as she is, she makes fun of them instead. It’s a charmingly pointed, poignant weapon.

The tone darkens perceptibly, though, as money runs out and Charles refuses to work gainfully; the Bohemian idyll turns into a nightmare. Sophia’s voice throughout alternates, as her vicissitudes multiply, between a sort of jauntily optimistic cheerfulness and grimly stoical acceptance.

Here resides most of the novel’s power, for me: the reader is required to fill in the unstated social, moral and emotional message. Sophia isn’t lacking in perception as she tells her story: she’s protecting herself from its full traumatic impact. We have to reconstruct this ourselves, and thus feel its force indirectly, in the near-absence of emotionally explicit comment or analysis from Sophia’s point of view – what she does state is obliquely offered, and she’s usually reluctant to judge or lapse into self-pity. Here’s a typical example, indicative of her fatal inexperience, as she relates her response to starting an affair with a married man who appears to care for her:

I had had one and a half children, but had been a kind of virgin the whole time. I wondered if there were other women like this, but I knew so few women intimately it was difficult to tell.

Her second baby, a daughter called Fanny, dies of scarlet fever (from which Sophia almost dies also) after they spend a night on the bitterly cold streets, having been turned away by that treacherous lover Peregrine, Fanny’s father. ‘Her life had been wasted because of stupidity and poverty’, muses Sophia. This heartbreaking summary is not innocent or naive: she is perfectly aware of the injustice of her fate, but is powerless to change it. She lacks agency in a patriarchal society – it’s significant that although she’s an artist herself, the only way she can make money is by exploiting her beauty through posing as a model for male artists – whose gaze is usually more sexually than aesthetically inspired. But Comyns is too subtle a writer to hector her reader with feminist polemic; this adds to the novel’s powerful emotional impact.

These brief extracts above give an indication of her extraordinary voice. It’s often somewhat misleadingly described as naïve and simple – there are recurring, dated, gushing colloquialisms, like ‘I was frit’. ‘I wish I knew more about words’, she admits in chapter 9, where she stoically but pointedly remarks that ‘this will never be a real book that businessmen in trains will read’. (Jane Eyre might have said something similarly self-deprecating but mordant.) I agree with Trevor Berrett in his short but perceptive piece in a Nov. 2015 ‘Mookse and Gripes’ review of the NYRB Classics reissue here, when he says: ‘There’s no doubt that the protagonist in Our Spoons Came from Woolworths lacks polish and sophistication, but Comyns’ rendering and style — which to me is more like Hemingway than like a child — is complex and darkly psychological.’

It’s tempting, as some reviewers have said, to feel frustrated with this aspect of Sophia: she seems too passive and accepting of all the troubles life (and society) throws at her, too inclined to feel sympathy for the appalling Charles when she is the one suffering – but there is an element of toughness in her:

Charles was getting desperate. I felt dreadfully sorry for him, but angry, too.

She doesn’t seem fully to recognise how guiltless she is, how feckless the men in her life are, and how stacked against her are the social and cultural attitudes towards women in the 30s, where this novel is set. In the Paris Review article (taken from her introduction to the NYRB Classics reissue) here Emily Gould writes about the ‘class and sex limbo’ in which Sophia finds herself, horrifically and frankly portrayed in the three chapters devoted to her labour and childbirth as a charity case in a bleak public pre-NHS hospital – she’s too poor to give birth, as most middle class women would have done in the 1930s, at home, so endures brutal and humiliating treatment from the maternity unit staff. She feels ‘shame, helplessness and terror.’

I don’t think the happy ending is too like a fairytale’s. It’s in keeping with the tone and voice of the narrative, as I’ve tried to show here, that Sophia is shown ultimately as a survivor, and her integrity is justly rewarded. But it’s hard not to feel disgruntled that this has to come in the form of the love of a good – and very wealthy – man.

A little colder, a little lonelier

Alfred Hayes’ 1958 novel My Face for the World to See was reissued in 2013 by the always reliable NYRB imprint.

Only 130 pages long, it packs a punch way above its weight. As Nicholas Lezard said in this review, its content suggests it might be a ‘grim read’ but it isn’t: it’s ‘unsettling’ but the ‘beauty of its precision is what carries you through.’

The unnamed narrator, a writer of film screenplays, watches from a plush beach-house balcony (he’s at a tediously boozy Hollywood party, seeking to escape the ‘smiles which pinned you against the piano’) as a long-legged pretty girl in ‘a jaunty cap’ woozily enters the ocean, martini glass in hand. When she gets into difficulty (under ‘the indifferent sky’ – a Camus allusion perhaps, certainly one of Hayes’ frequent nods to European existential bleakness) he intervenes and rescues her.

Intrigued and troubled by this event he later phones her and they start an affair – he’s married, but his wife is on the other side of the continent in New York, and their marriage is in an unhealthy state – but then his whole life is. His work disgusts him. This affair is also toxic, and reveals some ugly things about the girl and the narrator.

That’s it as far as plot goes. It’s the measured, cautious narrative voice that is the most compelling feature of the novel, though. Apart from the bleakly anonymous, smoke-filled Californian bars, restaurants and parties that so weary him, the narrator’s ennui and self-disgust are redolent in almost every line; here’s a random example, from the opening of ch. 4:

I took a hot shower and went to bed. Occasionally, a car went by in the street; occasionally, there was the sound of a bird in a tree. I did not feel, in the darkness, lost or in despair or even unhappy. My throat burned a little, but that was because I smoked too much: it seemed somewhat ironic to have only that as a concern lying there in the darkness. I’d been coming here now, to this place, off and on for about five years. I’d work for a few months at one of the studios and then I’d go back to New York. It was not a disadvantageous arrangement. I did not feel, or at least I did not think I felt, superior to the things which concerned these people here.

 I’ve quoted at length to demonstrate the meticulous style. There’s a surface simplicity and lucidity reminiscent of Hemingway (that fondness for ‘and/’and then’ structures, the monosyllabic vocabulary), but this is counterpointed by a disturbing and contrasting complexity. Hayes carefully fragments his syntax with those awkward incidental details (the fronted, repeated adverb ‘occasionally’, ‘in the darkness’ and ‘to this place, off and on’).

The simpler elements (the opening sentences of that extract) create a rhythmic fluency, enhanced by the symmetrical repetitions (he’s fond of tripled structures); but look again at their negativity: ‘I did not feel’ when repeated suggests our narrator is being less than candid with himself. He acknowledges this when he goes on to concede that ‘at least’ he did not think he felt these things. Even the birds are denied agency: they don’t sing in the tree, there’s just their sound, passively registered by this fretful insomniac, lying there in indifferent ‘darkness’ (also tellingly repeated), who is, surely, despite his denials, irredeemably ‘lost’, ‘in despair’ and ‘unhappy’.

The denials are hollow, hence that unconvincing double negative in ‘not disadvantageous’ – this lapse into the kind of clichéd structure deplored by language purists like Orwell is deliberately fatuous and discordant in comparison with the mellifluous, fastidious syntax the narrator usually deploys. The emptiness of his soul is conveyed with deeper resonance here because of the hollowness of this note.

Alfred Hayes, My Face for the World to SeeThis is a narrator who’s in existential crisis. Like a bird caught in a hunter’s net, the more he struggles to free himself, the more entangled he becomes. All he can do is to explore these futile attempts and try to survive them. That’s why, when asked later by the girl about his work, he says sardonically that he’s not writing but ‘writhing’.

The narrator’s portrayal of the girl tends to be superficial and callous. We never know much about her except that she has a pretty face – that’s what caused her doomed decision to try to make her fortune in the ‘rhinestone’ fakeness of Hollywood and become a star (the town at night is marvellously described as ‘looking as hell might with a good electrician’). She’s failed, and she knows it, and measures out her lonely, dwindling days in a ‘bleak apartment’. The narrator says this about her at the start of ch. 9:

I found she struck the nerve of pathos, somehow; there was an air about her of a somewhat touching injury. It was possibly accentuated by the fact that she was pretty.

Here again is Hayes’ characteristic hedging: ‘somehow’, ‘somewhat’, ‘possibly’. Every thought or experience is held up and examined as potential mitigating evidence in his defence. For although he can’t admit or confront it, that’s what this narrative is: he’s on trial for the betrayal or abandonment of his moral, spiritual and emotional integrity. He knows his conduct is indefensible; this is, in a way, his confession. Probably that’s why the girl’s role is so tenuous: he’s responsible for his own actions, including his cowardly behaviour towards her, and his own tenuous grip on reality. The superficiality of the narrative towards her is part of his indictment of himself. That’s why we get passages like this a few sentences later, as he scrutinises the evidence:

Looking at her, it struck me that among the things wrong with her was that she had neither humor nor, really, charm. The eyes were fine and quite beautiful, and she was undeniably a very pretty girl, but there was no charm in that somewhat rigid face, in the manner so constantly tensed. She hadn’t all evening said anything I could recall as either charming or witty. What she did have, apparently, was a sort of desperateness, which compelled another, and different sort, of appeal.

 The stuttering style accentuates the narrator’s disingenuousness; if there’s so much ‘wrong with her’ and she’s so humourless, desperate and ‘rigid’ why is he pursuing her? If her beauty is just superficially there in her ‘face for the world to see’, why is he attracted to her? The answer isn’t ‘apparent’ to him, because he’s rejecting the possibility that what he sees in her is a mirror image. He’s attracted to a kindred spirit whose damage is more overt and ‘apparent’ than his own. He can’t acknowledge this without condemning himself, but the language here reveals the true cause of her ‘appeal’ to him, perhaps. He can’t spell it out any more clearly (as always the prose if full of hedges and evasions like ‘somewhat’ – again – and that awkwardly positioned ‘really’) than to say it’s of a ‘different sort’. Later, thinking he’d even prefer not to be with the girl, he admits there’s nothing else ‘out there’ without her: it’s ‘a little colder, a little lonelier’ out there:

…at least here, together, even unhappily together, there was a semblance of warmth, there was a kind of light, there was a habitation of a sort.

That ‘habitation’ is just right in its unexpectedness, pointed up by the habitual use of tripling in ‘a semblance’, ‘a kind’, ‘of a sort’. But now I’m straying into cod psychology, and had better stop. Without giving too much away, I’d warn that things don’t turn out too well in the end. From what I’ve shown so far this should come as no surprise.

Why are intelligent men like this drawn to equally damaged, wilfully destructive women? Why are such women attracted by emotionally evasive men like him? Like all the best literature, this novel doesn’t try to answer such questions — but it asks them in fascinating, beautifully written ways.

 

 

 

The tenacity of disreputable avenues

The New York Stories of Elizabeth Hardwick (NYRB Classics, paperback, 2010)

It’s a new academic term and I’m teaching several new courses. They all need researching and preparation, so my time for blogging is even more constrained than usual. My posts will probably be sporadic for a while. But I’d like to keep some sort of record going of highlights of what I’ve been reading and doing now that autumn is here.

I mentioned recently that I’d not enjoyed Patrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter as much as other things of his that I’ve read. Then I had a negative experience with William Gerhardie’s Of Mortal Love.

Since then I’ve whizzed rapidly through the new William Boyd novel, Sweet Caress, but considered it, like the Gale, too plot-centred and episodic. Like Any Human Heart it traces the whole life experience of its central character – a photographer named Amory Clay, but unlike the story of Logan Mountstuart (who is said to have been based on Gerhardie) this novel failed to engage me. The reviewer in the Guardian was much more impressed: link here.

E Hardwick NY StoriesNext I read The New York Stories of Elizabeth Hardwick, a typically handsome edition by the reliable NYRB Classics people. In Feb. last year I wrote about her autobiographical novel, Sleepless Nights, a fragmentary, structurally audacious work that was both challenging and rewarding (they reminded me of Renata Adler’s Speedboat, published just three years earlier). These stories are also well written: the quality and style is varied, but on the whole I enjoyed them immensely.

There’s an informative and interesting Introduction by Darryl Pinckney, who points out that Hardwick (1916-2007) struggled to produce long forms of fiction, and published very few shorter works – partly because of her obsessive perfectionism in her language (the Flaubertian insistence on the ‘mot juste’), and a tendency to feel that she was better suited to non-fiction. The stories originally appeared in prestigious publications like The New Yorker and Partisan Review.

The earliest stories, dating from 1946-56, reflect the themes of exile and flight from her small-town Kentucky youth from which she came to feel alienated (she writes of ‘the family demons’ and the brutal ‘hostilities’ of the familial in the story ‘Evenings At Home’), and of escape to the big city – where I sense she also never felt fully at ease or at home. Nevertheless she is intrigued by the buzz and dynamic energy of metropolitan life, and portrays it in shrewdly observant, often sensuously textured prose that is poetic in its cadences, but tends towards a detachment that can sometimes chill.

Later stories begin to show the avant-garde style and narrative fluidity that I posted about in my piece on Sleepless Nights. They often concern women whose lives’ central concerns were the men with whom they became romantically involved, and who generally disappointed them or caused as much emotional turmoil as fulfilment. Maybe this is at least partially a consequence of her turbulent marriage (1949-72) to the mercurial Robert Lowell. There’s this wonderfully witty aphorism in the story ‘Yes And No’:

Nothing so easily unbalances the sense of proportion in a woman of artistic ambitions as the dazed love and respect of an ordinary man.

At the story’s end she reflects caustically on the man who is eternally ‘not quite good enough’.

Later pieces become more impressionistic and start to adopt a skewed first-person narrative voice, offering verbal portraits of people in the urban setting that she inhabits and shares with them, but which she anatomises at times with clinical scrupulousness and curiosity, but with with an artist’s perception. There are frequent flashes of deceptively unflashy wit and weird obliqueness that are reminiscent of some of Robert Walser’s work (like his sketches in Berlin Stories, also published by NYRB).

Let me try to give a flavour of Hardwick through some quotations from across the collection: I’d be interested to hear what your thoughts were if you’ve read it.

There are some deftly Jamesian touches, for example, in ‘The Classless Society’: the character called Dodo had hunted for an aristocratic English husband in Florence, where she’d lived ‘in an inexpensive pensione’ for several years without finding a suitable candidate, or even ‘an attractive, penniless Italian of noble birth.’ As the literary-academic characters around her vie with each other to appear witty and intellectual, Dodo struggles:

“Who are you?” Dodo suddenly said to [Clarence]. “Are you terribly brilliant, and all that?”

 “Yes, I must confess I am,” Clarence replied, with an elaborate flourish of self-mockery. “I am very frightening with my great brilliance.”

 Dodo did not laugh. She was as free of irony as a doll. A mind like that, Clarence thought giddily, lives by sheer superstition.

 I like the subtle shifts of register and viewpoint here: it’s a technique (focalization) handled almost as skilfully here as anything in Austen. There’s the omniscient narrator’s presentation for us of the slightly dim, ingenuous Dodo, but it’s the cruel arrogance of Clarence that Hardwick is more interested in, hence the shift to free indirect thought, but all is tempered by the narrator’s deft insertion of the stiletto-like adverb ‘giddily’.

That passage also has a characteristically acerbic simile that reveals and dissects the character; here are two more – one slightly cliched, the other working harder, in ‘The Purchase’: Frazier is a young Turk ‘action’ painter, trying to goad an older, more conservative but also more established artist called Palmer, whose star is fading, into buying one of his canvases.

“So?” Thomas Frazier said, with a negligent, burly composure that neither assented nor disagreed. A profound and bullying impudence emanated from Frazier, like steam escaping from a hot valve…Whatever the merit of the two men’s work, they faced each other in a condition of tribal hostility, like the appropriate antagonism of the Army and Navy teams on the football field.

These extracts so far indicate the largely conventional narrative technique in Hardwick’s stories. Here are some examples of the later, more innovative style.

This, from ‘The Bookseller’, is what I’d call transitional – the first person narrator shows an inclination to veer off into omniscient mode, and stranger imagery:

Roger does not drink, but he eats quite a lot of apples, pizzas, and hamburgers, and makes many cups of coffee in his electric pot…He is one of those brought up by well-to-do parents sent to good schools, to France for a summer – who, on their own, show no more memory of physical comforts than a prairie dog.

Soon after there’s this about Roger the bookseller:

No matter – the patrician in him is not entirely erased and lingers on in an amiable displacement, remaining in his contentment to keep pace with just where he is…

Shades again, perhaps, of mid-to-late period Henry James (as well, perhaps, as a hint once more of Austen’s ironically percipient narrators; ‘an amiable displacement’ is perfect).

‘Back Issues’ is one of the later, more impressionistic pieces; here’s a delightful and typically multifaceted passage from it (which loses much of its impact by being detached from the equally well crafted sentences that precede and follow it):

And the cafeterias with chopped liver, tuna fish and egg salad brought in at dawn from some sinister kitchen? Yes, the tenacity of disreputable avenues; and yet all is possible and the necessary conditions may arrive and bottles and pencils, hats and condoms will go to their grave.

 Here can be seen Hardwick’s audacious, polyphonic blending of ostensibly mundane lists of concrete things which are transformed into something transcendent by that mysterious interrogative punctuation and gear-shift from concrete noun monosyllables to polysyllabic abstraction. Like jazz improvisation, it startles and delights with those jarring juxtapositions and contrasts of register (‘the tenacity of disreputable avenues’ is beautifully highlighted by the brash banality of the inventory either side of it). That rising, confident, poetic tone of finality and stately certainty is brilliantly counterpointed by the expression of the theme of mutability (the bathetic ‘hats and condoms’) at the close. This is prose as densely packed and meticulously modulated as an Imagist or pre-1923 TS Eliot poem (what exactly might those ‘necessary conditions’ be, and why is there uncertainty about their ‘arrival’?)

And there I’d better stop.

 

 

Sir Thomas Browne: ‘Religio Medici’ and ‘Urne-Buriall’.

Image from the NYRB Classics website

Image from the NYRB Classics website

Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medici and Urne-Buriall. Edited by Stephen Greenblatt and Ramie Targoff. NYRB Classics. New York, NY, 2012

In their detailed and entertaining Introduction the editors describe the ‘idiosyncratic and often surprising ways of thinking’ of Sir Thomas Browne. Coleridge praised him for his ‘brain with a twist’. The eclectic and somewhat eccentric list of topics covered in his works includes a study of the quincunx in gardening, and an encyclopaedic exploration and refutation of ‘credulity and supinity’ and ‘false opinions’ (the Pseudodoxia Epedemica, or Enquiry into Very Many Received Tenents and Commonly Presumed Truths, first published in 1646, and subsequently much revised and augmented): here he considers such beliefs as ‘Glasse is poyson’ (in a chapter on Minerals and ‘vegetable bodies’); ‘Of the pissing of Toads, of the stone in their head, and of the generation of Frogs’ (in a marvellous chapter on animals, which includes the notion ‘That all Animals in the land are in their kinde in the Sea’, which I cited in a recent post on Marvell’s poem ‘The Garden’), or that children, without instruction, would naturally grow up speaking Hebrew.

Born in London in 1605 and educated at Oxford and then in the field of medicine in Italy, France and Holland, he was a typically polymathic, Baconian enquirer into all phenomena and esoterica in the natural and metaphysical worlds. His erudition was profound and extensive, but untrammeled by the scientific methods of his contemporaries: he was, as the editors put it so admirably, a ‘connoisseur of uncertainty’ who ‘delighted in circuitous methods and ambiguous conclusions’.

He settled in Norwich to practise medicine in 1637 and lived there until his death in 1682.

Like Shakespeare he was an aficionado of neologisms: the OED ranks him at no. 70 of the most prolifically cited sources (above Shelley, George Eliot and Ruskin [about whom I posted several times recently ]), and in the list of sources responsible for the first evidence of a word he ranks among the great, at an impressive no. 25, with 788, including the nouns ‘electricity’, ‘hallucination’ and ‘suicide’, and adjectives such as ‘medical’, ‘ferocious’ and ‘ascetic’. He was particularly fond of Latinate vocabulary, so for example snails are not ‘boneless’, they are exosseous; he writes not of birds’ flight but of their volitation; earwigs aren’t wingless but impennious; there’s a highly entertaining article on his contribution to English vocabulary on the Oxford Words blog here.

Title page of 'Religio Medici', 1642 edition

Title page of ‘Religio Medici’, 1642 edition; Wellcome Trust via Wikimedia Commons

The title of his first published work, Religio Medici, is intentionally paradoxical and controversial. It alludes to a contemporary proverb that two out of three doctors are atheists and sceptics, as the opening sentence shows:

For my religion, though there be severall circumstances that might perswade the world I have none at all, as the generall scandal of my profession, the naturall course of my studies, the indifferency of my behaviour, and discourse in matters of Religion, neither violently defending one, nor with the common ardour of contention opposing another; yet in despight hereof I dare, without usurpation, assume the honourable stile of a Christian…

Here he’s also referring to his medical education at three famously free-thinking European universities, where the pursuit of science was demarcated from the usual theological approach, and where the practice of anatomical dissection, which was considered a blasphemous transgression in other institutions, was an essential part of the curriculum. In this same sentence he alludes also to his refusal to be caught up in the doctrinal disputes that had grown increasingly virulent in the 1620s and 1630s, and which were threatening to ‘tear England apart’, and led to the Civil War of 1642-51 (Greenblatt and Targoff). His unorthodox examination of his religious faith in the light of his medical profession proved highly controversial, and like many Protestant works it was (in 1645, three years after its first unauthorised publication, to which Browne responded by bringing out an expurgated edition a year later) placed on the Vatican’s Index expurgartorius – the notorious Index of prohibited books.

Browne’s self-exposure in the Religio was unusual but not unprecedented: Montaigne’s Essays, first published in 1580 (and translated into English by John Florio in 1603) were a similar attempt to explore the questing motions of its author’s mind, and of his learning and beliefs.

Like Montaigne, Browne is addicted to digressions in his labyrinthine pursuit of his mind’s movements, and the text lacks discernible method. As you will have seen in my quotation of his opening sentence, his style is ornate, eloquent and sonorous, full of literary and theological allusions, subordinate clauses and rhetorical flourishes, with parallelisms and mellifluous symmetries; it also has an elegance, ruggedness and verbosity that verges on the obscure and pedantic. His writings were gruffly praised by Samuel Johnson, and admired by the Romantics. More recently WG Sebald wrote with fascination (in The Rings of Saturn, first published in German in 1995 and in English in 1998) about Browne’s ‘Musaeum Clausum or Bibliotheca Abscondita’ –  a playfully imaginative catalogue of his imaginary collection of rarities ‘never seen by any man now living’ (it’s discussed in my blog post here).

The craze for such cabinets of curiosities and wonders in the seventeenth century became the basis for some of the great scientific museums that were founded about this time, like the Ashmolean in Oxford, or the collection of Sir Hans Sloane, parts of which were bequeathed to the nation and formed the heart of the British Museum. But unlike the rational spirit of classification and organisation that underpinned these Baconian enterprises, Browne’s was a mind that delighted in paradox and contradiction, and occult mysteries, and he wasn’t averse to the dangerous voicing of doubts about accepted religious tenets and implausible Bible stories. He sums up his thinking as being dominated by ‘an unhappy curiosity’.

Hydriotaphia, or Urne-Buriall, first published in 1658, was Browne’s prose meditation on the discovery in a field near the village of Great Walsingham in Norfolk of between forty and fifty urns containing human ashes, bone fragments and funerary objects. He reflects upon the different funeral practices of people from earlier cultures, and how they thought about the afterlife. He mistakenly believed the urns contained the remains of Romanised Britons; subsequent scholarship has shown they were probably Anglo-Saxon, dating from around the year 500. But he was far more disposed to link them with the sophisticated Romans, and not the pagan savages (as he saw them) of their successors in Britain’s history.

 

Portrait after a miniature by FH van Hove, now in the Wellcome Trust

Portrait after a miniature by FH van Hove, now in the Wellcome Trust, via Wikimedia Commons

He speculates on the practice of funerary cremation, but is effectively conducting a ‘diagnosis of the human condition’ – principally our hopes and fears about the afterlife:

To be gnaw’d out of our graves, to have our sculls made drinking-bowls, and our bones turned into Pipes, to delight and sport our Enemies, are Tragicall abominations, escaped in burning Burials./Urnall enterrments, and burnt Reliques lye not in fear of worms, or to be an heritage for Serpents.

In a typically elegant but uncharacteristically emotional section he ponders the apparent evidence that some of the urns contained the remains of more than one person, which leads him to consider the origins of the impulse for couples to indulge in the practice of joint burial:

The ashes of Domitian were mingled with those of Julia, of Achilles with those of Patroclus: All Urnes contained not single Ashes; Without confused burnings they affectionately compounded their bones; passionately endeavouring to continue their living Unions. And when distance of death denied such conjunctions, unsatisfied affections conceived some satisfaction to be neighbours in the grave, to lye Urne by Urne, and touch but in their names.

He ultimately finds little consolation, however, in this desire to find solace in the hope that death is not the end of life; ‘Vain ashes’, he concludes, ‘which in the oblivion of names, persons, times, and sexes, have found unto themselves a fruitless continuation, and only arise unto late posterity, as Emblemes of mortall vanities.’ Earthly commemoration is as futile as the hope for posthumous life – but we can’t help pursuing this magnificent endeavour.

I’ll finish with perhaps the most famous lines in the text:

What Song the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzzling Questions are not beyond all conjecture. What time the persons of these Ossuaries entred the famous Nations of the dead, and slept with Princes and Counsellours, might admit a wide solution.

NYRB Classics has yet again done us a service in publishing this pair of texts in such a handsome edition, and I congratulate them and their editors for retaining the original spellings and orthographical practices: this is not just antiquarian quaintness – it enables the modern reader to appreciate the richness of the prose. The ample notes are learned and helpful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Dangerous salvations’: Elizabeth Hardwick, ‘Sleepless Nights’ considered.

This will have to be a hastily written post – I have a plane to catch.

I just finished reading Elizabeth Hardwick’s 1979 novel, Sleepless Nights, reissued in their usual handsome designs by NYRB classics in 2001, and still in print.

I enjoyed this book in parts, rather like I do a fruit salad with prunes in it (I hate prunes).  There are phrases, clauses, sentences and paragraphs that are beautiful, lyrical, poetic and haunting:

I like to remember the patience of old spinsters, some that looked like sea captains with their clear blue eyes, hair of soft, snowy whiteness, dazzling cheerfulness.  Solitary music teachers, themselves bred on toil, leading the young by way of pain and discipline to their own honorable impasse, teaching in that way the scales of disappointment.

The rhythms, imagery and sounds of that paragraph are delightful.  But I feel a bit like Caliban on his island, hearing these enchanting noises, but unsure if they signify anything, whether they just disarm and waylay.

She’s good on cities: ‘This is New York, with its graves next to its banks.’ Elsewhere, equally good on the inhabitants:

How pleasant the rooms were, how comforting the distresses of New Yorkers, their insomnias filled with words, their patient exegesis of surprising terrors.

This is prose with a capacity to surprise and reward; she constantly yokes unlikely adjectives with nouns (‘the violent perfume’, ‘dangerous salvations’).  But she can also write powerfully lucid, poignant reportage:

A woman’s city, New York.  The bag ladies sit in their rags, hugging their load of rubbish so closely it forms a part of their own bodies.  Head, wrapped in an old piece of flannel, peers out from the rubbish of a spotted melon.  Pitiful, swollen sores drip red next to the bag of tomatoes.

Even here the opening minor sentence (Hardwick is perhaps excessively fond of these) resonates strangely (tough irony) with what follows.  And there’s that strange definite article: why ‘the’ bag of tomatoes?  It makes for a disconcerting precision in the portrait.

As with Renata Adler’s Speedboat, which I posted about here a while ago, this is a fragmentary, plotless novel.  More coherent than Speedboat, Sleepless Nights is nevertheless a collage of loosely connected or disconnected vignettes.  There are sections that build contiguously for a page or two, and we follow a character through those pages, but they then usually disappear, never to return.  There’s a touching section about Billy Holliday.

Hardwick 001 There’s no linear, chronological sequence, and occasionally there’s an interpolated date, as in a diary entry (but cryptic, usually just a year: ‘1950’), but again with no apparent sequence.  There are pieces set out as letters, addressed to characters whose identity remains a mystery.

The narrator is a woman who shares the author’s name, looking back at her life: the ‘parade of people, the shifting background of place’ as the dustjacket blurb has it.  She writes apparently autobiographically about friends and family in New York City, childhood in Kentucky and subsequent visits there, and many other places Hardwick lived in real life, including Canada, Boston, Maine and a year spent in Amsterdam.

We know that Hardwick (1916-2007) had a tempestuous married life between 1949 and 1972 with her serially unfaithful husband Robert Lowell, but whether he is the ‘Michael’, or other men identified in the narrative only by their initials, is unclear.  She does touch intermittently on the themes of marriage, solitude and separation.  As Geoffrey O’Brien says in his Introduction to this edition, however, Hardwick said in an interview at the time of this book’s first publication that much of it is ‘made up’.

I probably need to read this again to do it more justice.  In parts this novel is wonderful, but I frequently found myself having to re-read pages, and still the words failed to abide.  Now I feel in need of a novel with a plot, connected characters and less self-consciously poetic style.  I’m taking Wyndham Lewis’s Tarr on my trip up-country (have to fly: trains to England cut off by storm damage to the rail tracks) – not sure this is a sensible follow-up.

Somebody Ate Her Gerbil: Renata Adler, ‘Speedboat’

Somebody Ate Her Gerbil: Speedboat, by Renata Adler (This review was first published in Open Letters Monthly on 1st October, 2013)

Speedboat, Renata Adler’s first novel, was originally published in 1976; along with her second from 1983, Pitch Dark, it has been reissued this year by NYRB Classics.  I found it a stimulating and bravely ambitious but not consistently successful entity.

This is partly because of the structure: there’s no linear plot, just a fragmented collection of vignettes and eclectic, reported snatches of conversation.  As the reader tries to make sense of the apparently random fragments a unifying consciousness almost comes into focus and just about holds the novel together and prevents frustration from setting in: Jen Fain is a hard-drinking, dysfunctional journalist and teacher (she’s ‘never been any good at interviews’, she confesses).

NYRB Classics cover

NYRB Classics cover

Speedboat ‘s tone is witty but can be slightly irritating in its jerky sequences of arch non sequiturs: ‘I know someone who is trying to get rid of a myna bird – I mean, find a loving owner’.  Then we’re told about a man who offloads an unwanted cat.  Next door lives a kid who wants to give away her rabbit, but is concerned that the ‘wrong kind of person’ might take it in ‘bad faith’ and eat it:

She thinks somebody ate her gerbil.  No one eats gerbils.  It is strange to think that most of the children under six whom one knows and loves, gives presents to, whatever, are not going to remember most emotional events of those first years, on the couch, or in jail, or in a bank, wherever they may find themselves when they are twenty-five.

A boyfriend’s brother takes her on a surprise treat, which turns out to be a five-hour performance of Parsifal – she’s not impressed.  She ponders its absurd plot, and her thoughts express something of Speedboat’s narrative structure:

The whole magic of plot requires that somebody be impeded from getting something over with.  Yet there one is, with an emotional body English almost, wishing that pole-vaulter over his bar, wanting something to happen or not to happen, wishing somebody well.

I began to find I was not wishing Jen well, while admiring the skill with which the fragments were assembled.   Jen’s an observer, piling them up and recording them, but the pieces drift off into the unexpected and surreal, then fade out with a gnomic generalisation that’s funny or provocative, but frequently insubstantial (as with the gerbil story) .

The disconnected nature of the narrative, perhaps, is Adler’s way of showing Jen’s flawed attempts to make sense of a fragmented world.  She’s almost defying herself and us to make connections and find coherence as she tries to shore up her life against its ruin.  She’s vulnerable, self-absorbed, damaged, questing, with a perceptive intelligence – she’s examining herself in this out-of-joint Cold War America as if she were a pinned specimen:

I am a fanatic myself, although not a woman of temperament. I get nervous at scenes. I stole a washcloth once from a motel in Angkor Wat. The bellboy was incensed. I had to give it back.

Her insecurity and sensitivity are represented throughout the short episodes she strings together like charms on a bracelet: she’s based in New York City or Washington, D.C., with frequent flashbacks abroad – Paris as a student, or exotic locations as a reporter or tourist.  Full of intensities and contradictions, she’s seemingly involved with a series of men about whom we learn very little.  These peripheral guys seem to bore her – they are mentioned sporadically among the dozens of other characters with airy insouciance on Jen’s part.  She appears lonely yet longing for attachment, toying with the idea of maternity.  She says, three pages from the end, ‘Anyway, I seem to be about to have Jim’s child; at least, I think I will’.  Prior to this there’s a scene in a maternity ward, where Jen may be a patient or there for a termination.   Earlier, in Venice with a boyfriend called Aldo (after many ‘separations’), she vomits after a heavy drinking session:

So I was in despair because six fat women of Venice I would never see again thought I was pregnant by a man who did not want to marry me.

This then is the central, noble theme: Jen trying to sort out what her life might mean, what she might want from it all in a world that’s largely absurd, hostile or indifferent.

As if to anesthetize herself she attends all kinds of social functions (the food is always awful, she says) but with an ironic, anguished detachment:

I go to parties almost whenever I am asked. I think a high tone of moral indignation, used too often, is an ugly thing. I get up at eight. Quite often now I have a drink before eleven. In some ways, I have overshot my mark in life in spades.

Sometimes she is surely testing our credulity with her creations:

I once met a polo-playing Argentine existential psychiatrist, who had lived for months in a London commune…

I used to live with a graduate student of political science, a kind of Calvinist in reverse; that is, he was uncompromisingly bohemian. His mother was a dancer. His father was a judge. Our mattress was on the floor.

I appreciate that these abrupt shifts and accretions of information represent Jen as constantly picking over such items as a therapeutic narrative act.  But it’s simultaneously ironic, earthy and bathetic – that unglamorous student mattress on the floor, ruefully, rawly remembered:

Being neurotic seemed to be a kind of wild card, an all-purpose explanation.  Other ways, of course, are straighter.  I don’t know.

Near the novel’s end she reflects: ‘It is possible that we are really a group of invalids, hypochondriacs, and misfits. I don’t know.’  Jen says ‘I don’t know’ or ‘whatever’ quite often.

It’s not just Jen’s personal life that’s presented as eclectic – there’s a cultural, existential disjunction in her world reflected in these atomized narrative fragments and ephemera: ‘Down the block a woman shouts: “You are nothing, nothing, nothing”’.   She understands herself and her world incompletely or sporadically, so is vigilantly watchful of everything around her, but most particularly of herself in this world of disorder, doubtful integrity and disintegrating morals, politics and beliefs.   Is the world going mad, or Jen?   The image of America is shown as tainted: there’s a scene set in Paris in 1961 where people are demonstrating against US policy on Cuba.  Jen had gone abroad as a student with the ‘usual American smile’, and is disconcerted to find that she’s not universally welcomed.  This is the 1976 of insecurity – nothing it seems can be relied on: ‘And so, class,’ her schoolteacher used to say at the end of each year’s American History Week, after her discourse on the ‘treachery of Roosevelt’ who got them into war to ‘save his Russian friends’ and the ‘sinister effects’ of those Russians: ‘Don’t say you have not been warned.’   Jen and her classmates ‘never said it.  Nobody I ever met who grew up in the fifties…would have said it.’

Also towards the end Jen thinks this about the ‘solid enthusiasms’ of the coterie of ‘educated women’ in the age group to which she belongs:

Our ambitions were, nonetheless, what those of any sensible group of women at that time, perhaps at any modern time, ought to have been: to become safe and successful; to marry someone safe and successful; to have for our children some sort of worldly safety and success. From time to time, however, there is something, I don’t know, wistful, about how it has turned out.

This time her ‘I don’t know’ is poignant and moving.  ‘We are thirty-five’, she says elsewhere. ‘Some of us are gray.’

Reflexive incomprehension seems to be the social norm. Only the watchful eye and hypersensitive consciousness of Jen remain a narrative constant; we make our inferences about what everything means on the frame she creates – and this surely only half makes sense to her. She and one of her boyfriends charter a boat from three deracinated Swiss people who are baffled by the behaviour of their clients:

 They thought of selling their boat again and returning to Geneva. The jet, the telephone, the boat, the train, the television.  Dislocations.

 

This list of apparently unconnected objects, concluding with the abstraction of ‘dislocations’ embodies what Adler is maybe trying to achieve in Speedboat through Jen’s pondering the way things pile up, people, events.  The lack of verbs in so many such sentences, the lack of agency in others, the adjective-free descriptions, point up the fragile dislocations of Jen’s cluttered, urban life.

Renata Adler

Renata Adler

Although the narrative is largely engaging, then, and I admire Adler’s brilliant attempt to render an intelligent person’s struggle to make sense of things, it’s not always possible to find this novel completely satisfactory.  The accumulated details and pronouncements can seem inconsequential or contrived.   ‘The radical intelligence in the moderate position is the only place where the centre holds.  Or so it seems’, Jen muses, alluding to Yeats presumably;  what’s presented as an aphoristic, poetic truth is surely just muddled thinking presented as if debatable (that apparently uncertain final tag), but it’s dogmatically asserted.

A sub-plot about her murdered landlord is taken up and dropped, but not before this enigmatic reflection of Jen’s:

It is possible that I know who killed our landlord. So many things point in one direction. But too strong a case, I find, is often lost. It incurs doubts, suspicions. Perhaps I do not know. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. I think it does, though. When I wonder what it is that we are doing – in this brownstone, on this block, with this paper – the truth is probably that we are fighting for our lives.

I felt, by the end of Speedboat, that perhaps this novel itself, witty and daring, dazzling in parts, really ‘doesn’t matter’; like the image Adler uses when Jen is thinking about stories and plots, it’s like a ‘game of solitaire or canasta’, the narrative is shuffled and dealt, but doesn’t ultimately ‘come out’.  But it’s much to Adler’s credit that she puts up such a spirited fight in playing this game of Jen’s life.

Photos as they appeared in the Open Letters Monthly review.