Kathleen Jamie, Findings

Kathleen Jamie, Findings. Sort Of Books, 2003

Another book loan from my friends the owners of those imperious cats, Igor and Phoebe.

Kathleen Jamie Findings coverKathleen Jamie is a Scots poet. This book of short essays ranges in topic from birds and other wildlife, archaeological sites in Scotland and the Hebrides, to her husband’s grave illness after pneumonia, the view of Edinburgh’s lofty steeples and weathervanes, and its medical museum.

To call her a nature writer is to oversimplify. In an essay called ‘Markings’ she traces the cup-rings – circular carved shapes – scraped into the rock by Neolithic settlers thousands of years earlier, then visits the abandoned shielings – the high summer pastures for cattle, and the shelters their owners lived in while they grazed there long ago. As often in these essays it’s evident that Jamie studied philosophy. These aren’t so much ‘nature writings’ as meditations arising from her experience in nature and with people. Her poet’s sensitivity to place and language is revealed on every page.

Here for example she ponders describing places like this as ‘natural’ or ‘wild’, even ‘wilderness’ – but concludes that this ‘seems an affront to those many generations who took their living on that land.’ Whatever caused them to abandon their shielings, they left subtle marks. ‘What’s natural?’ she asks herself. We’re having to ‘replant the forests we cleared, there’s even talk of reintroducing that natural predator, the wolf.’

Most of her sentences are like that: lucid, colloquial, unforced – natural, perhaps. Not overtly ‘poetic’ or florid.

She’s alert to the sounds and sense of every word she uses, and deploys them with unobtrusive precision. It would be good to hear these pieces read aloud. Many of her words are of Scots origin, wild and natural as the things they signify: those shielings; machair – from an old Gaelic word for Hebridean grassy plains; creels – wicker baskets or lobster pots; sheep or cattle fanks – holding pens.

She imagines the shieling women eating bannocks  and whey – flatbreads cooked on skillets.

She uses metaphor and simile sparingly, but when she does they’re just right. Some examples I savoured: in the title essay she sails with a group of naturalists to the Sound of Shillay (from the Gaelic for ‘seal island’); she describes walking on the beach and sometimes flushing a flock of feeding shore birds:

I loved the moment when, after they’d all risen together, they all banked at once, like when you pull the string in a Venetian blind.

The title of the essay ‘Crex-crex’ is taken from the Latin name for corncrake. This shy brown quail-like bird is now very rare, having been hunted to extinction on the mainland. She stays on an island in the Outer Hebrides, one of its few surviving haunts. Her bird warden guide Sarah locates some and invites her to listen to their rasping call:

What does it sound like? Like someone grating a nutmeg, perhaps. Or a prisoner working toward his escape with a nailfile.

Now and again Sarah stops and tilts her head, all attention: ‘when she stops to listen she reminds me of a thrush on a lawn.’

Sometimes she relishes the opportunity to subvert over-used images, as when she enters a Neolithic burial chamber, a ‘dim stone vault’ (she’s fond of punchy, evocative monosyllables):

There is a thick soundlessness, like a recording studio, or a strongroom.

Not ‘silent as a tomb’. This is ‘a place of artifice, of skill’, you feel the ‘self-assurance’ of the artificers who built this place, perfectly orientated to face the setting midwinter sun, whose rays would hit the tomb’s back wall in ‘a complicit kiss’.

She delights in the findings on another island: a gannet’s skull, sawn off from the body with her knife. Part of an aeroplane’s wing, of all things. Everything intrigues her – and hence, her reader.

She doesn’t single out and describe these findings as curiosities worthy of exhibition in a museum. She muses and makes connections that probably result from her training in philosophy. In ‘Darkness and Light’, for example, she ponders the semantic force of these words and our human reactions to them.

Peregrine falcon, from John Gerrard Keulemans – Catalogue of the birds in the British Museum. Volume 1, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11058956

One of the best pieces relates her delight and anxiety in watching a pair of nesting peregrine falcons (and later, ospreys and an exotic crane in flight). She manages, without forcing the juxtaposition, to liken the precipitous ‘stoop’ of the peregrine on her prey – by diving down on it from above so it never knows what hit it – to the screaming Tornado jets that pass overhead, back from the war in Iraq. Later, her son asked her if they were going to be bombed. “No,” I said. “We will not be bombed.”

She hangs out of her window in her nightclothes one morning, scanning the sky for her peregrines with her binoculars. Her children demand their breakfast. This is a naturalist who feels guilty about making them wait, hungry, as she yearns to see where the female raptor will head.

Even cobwebs, observed by her door, glinting in the morning light, lead her to meditate on life and death as her husband fights for breath in hospital, his lungs infected.

 

 

 

 

The intoxication of transformation: Stefan Zweig, The Post Office Girl

Stefan Zweig (1881-1942), The Post Office Girl. Translated from the German by William Deresiewicz. Sort Of Books paperback, 2009. First published in German, 1982

Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity (1938) – my post about it is HERE – relates how a principled but naïve young officer learns painful truths about himself and others as ‘an emotional abyss’ opens in front of him after a humbling social gaffe. Christine Hoflehner, the eponymous protagonist of The Post Office Girl, undergoes a similarly life-changing transformation as the result of a momentous experience. (Btw, what is it with referring to grown women – Christine is 28 when the novel opens – as ‘girls’ in novel titles?)

Zweig PO Girl coverThis novel was found among Austrian author Zweig’s literary remains after his suicide, but wasn’t published until 1982, with a title that translates as ‘The Intoxication of Transformation’. The MS was in considerable disarray, and had been tinkered with by Zweig over a number of years, raising the question whether he intended it to be published at all. The ending is abrupt, and leaves Christine facing a momentous decision that could transform her life even more dramatically than the first time. I quite like that the story is left open-ended – a firm resolution would have been too mechanical and neat.

The possibly unfinished nature of the novel is also reflected in its uneven quality and structure. Nevertheless, in Part One Zweig brilliantly portrays the stultifying, soul-destroying tedium of Christine’s job in a squalid, rural backwater village post office – and the translator does a pretty good job of rendering it all into English (although I found some of the Americanisms a little intrusive). This tone is achieved from the opening paragraph, which describes these village post offices:

… their sad look of administrative stinginess is the same everywhere…they stubbornly retain that unmistakeable odor of old Austrian officialdom, a smell of stale tobacco and dusty files.

That post-WWI bureaucracy (the novel is set in 1926), the narrative indicates, is what cripples Austria and prevents it from progressing into modernity and vitality: ‘Orderly and by the book – that’s the official way of doing things.’ In Christine’s microcosm of this bureaucratic fossil world ‘the eternal law of growth and decline is suspended at the barrier of officialdom’. Nothing ever changes, and her dreary, soul-destroying routine is governed inexorably by the unforgiving clock on the wall, and the clamour of her morning alarm-clock.

Her status as ‘civil servant’ consigns Christine to ‘a lower census class’, exacerbated by her being a woman. She’s a nobody, with no future, trapped in a world where there’s no hope of escape; everything will remain, for years to come, ‘the same, the same, the same.’ Her life is a kind of ‘waking paralysis’ in ‘a sleeping world.’ The similarities to fairy tales like Cinderella and The Sleeping Beauty become increasingly apparent when the transforming event changes her life: an invitation from her wealthy aunt Claire to come and have a holiday with her in a posh Swiss hotel.

This aunt has a guilty secret that indirectly causes Christine’s brief glimpse of glamour and opulence to come to a shattering end. When she arrived at the hotel, Christine was dowdy and nervous, ashamed of her poverty and shabby appearance. Claire facilitates the transformation by lending her expensive, fashionable clothes, sending her to a smart hairdresser and beautician, so that the ugly duckling becomes a glittering, beautiful social swan.

This first part of the novel mercilessly exposes the shallowness and hypocrisy at the heart of this bourgeois, privileged world Christine has entered. She charms the smart young set with her ingenuous excitement and spontaneity, but this also brings about her downfall, when a jealous girlfriend takes revenge on Christine for turning the boyfriend’s head. The response of the hotel guests, previously so friendly to this innocent, unaffected young woman, is a reflection of its cruelty and moral corruption. Only a kind English general, a much older widower whose grieving heart is kindled into life by Christine’s naturalness, recognises her as what Henry James would call ‘the real thing’, and he gallantly stands up for her.

But the damage is done, and Christine is sent unceremoniously packing back to her former life of squalor and drudgery. The problem is now that she’s not just spiritually paralysed: she’s angry. She now knows what an alternative life looks like. Everything around her now fills her with ‘helpless hatred’:

Because suddenly she hates everyone and everything, herself and everyone else, wealth and poverty, everything about this hard, unendurable, incomprehensible life.

I was unsure where Zweig would take her from there. That quotation comes at the end of Part One of the novel, when there are another hundred pages of Part Two to come.

I found this second part overlong, but horribly powerful. Christine’s hatred seems to find a restorative outlet, and a glimmer of hope, recognition and romance appears – but that open ending leaves the outcome unsure.

The Post Office Girl has much of the bleak, existential angst of Eliot’s The Waste Land, with its setting of a war-blasted Europe in which some have prospered but many have become destitute and without hope, lost souls, hollow men. Inequality was fixed in the social system, and the indulgence and idleness of the privileged few was flaunted in the faces of the mass who had nothing, yet toiled hopelessly to enable the status quo to be maintained.

The anger that Zweig must have felt as a member of a Jewish family that was a victim of the persecution that followed in the wake of the post-war grief and social unrest is concentrated and unleashed in the form of Christine – a kind of working-class Emma Bovary with a much more justifiable motive to feel angry and unfulfilled.

That’s maybe where the weakness of the novel lies, too. It tends to preach. It’s a lesson that needs to be propagated, but it’s not done with much subtlety. But then, why should it be? Anger is rarely subtle. Injustice and inequality won’t be transformed as a result of polite debate; the forces that reject Christine from their elite world guard their exclusivity fiercely.