VS Pritchett: The Complete Essays

V.S. Pritchett, The Complete Essays, Chatto and Windus, London was published in 1991 when the English author was 91 (he died in 1997), and is now out of print.

It was brought to my attention by an appreciation of it last month in The Paris Review by Morten Høi Jensen, to whom it had been recommended by James Wood. Jensen expresses well the strength of this collection:

In a single paragraph, without analyzing or interpreting or even commenting on the novels, Pritchett had somehow managed to capture their essence. And he did it not with the skeptical distance of a scholar but with the messy proximity of the fellow practitioner.

Pritchett Essays coverIt has 1300 pages and is, as he suggests, ‘heavy as a cast iron skillet’. The 203 essays, originally mostly book reviews, cover hundreds of writers from Europe, Asia and the Americas– an idiosyncratic, eclectic but loving and perceptive history of western literature. They were highly esteemed by the likes of Edmund Wilson, Elizabeth Hardwick, Anthony Burgess and Susan Sontag.

Pritchett discusses earlier writers such as Cervantes, Sterne, Smollett (who I’ve still to read) and Fielding; a large body from 19 and 20C – most of the canonical English novelists, and the less canonical like Gissing, the Grossmiths, Samuel Butler and Jerome K. Jerome; then Conrad, Woolf and co. to Orwell and Rushdie; as Jensen says, VSP was ‘generously receptive to younger talent’.

He assesses Americans from Benjamin Franklin, Whitman and Crane to Updike. Poe and Twain are delineated with characteristically controversial broad but telling strokes within the distinctive Puritan tradition of their country.

There’s an affectionate essay on the ‘sayings’ of his close friend, the hispanophile Gerald Brenan. It ends with typical acuity:

Be careful: if he is drawing his portrait he may be drawing yours.

Pritchett admires Brenan’s dislike of ‘critics of poetry who insist on “explicating”’. Maybe because he’s the same; Jensen quotes his biographer describing Pritchett’s quality of ‘undoctrinaire discrimination’ – that fine and sadly now underused term so dear to the great Leavisite tradition of critics (well, maybe not the ‘undoctrinaire’ part) -and the ‘sympathetic and respectful curiosity’ with which he approached characters in literature and in life.

He has the ability to get to the essence of a writer’s nature and work and portray it with elegance, wit and intelligence. I’m not sure I always agree with some of his larger generalisations, but I enjoy the stimulating, cheerful conviction with which he makes them and the polished, convivial style in which he expresses them.

Mostly he deals with prose fiction (and some non-fiction and figures from other artistic disciplines, like Cruikshank and Ruskin). Here’s a typically pleasing and pithy conclusion to the essay on the historian of the fall of the Roman empire:

Gibbon has a taste for the truth that is melancholy, for seeing life as a series of epitaphs.

This isn’t just thrown in as a witty epigram: it’s a logical conclusion arising from the intricate argument that preceded it.

The piece on the eccentric Thomas Day – its title ‘The Crank’ is apt – is brilliant. Day was the shabby enlightenment rationalist – ‘the modest and entrancing crank of the century’ – who was so convinced of the ‘sufficiency’ of men and the ‘insufficiency of women’ as Pritchett puts it, that he set about to ‘construct his own wife from blue prints in advance’. I’ve written here before about this deluded disciple of Rousseau and his notorious experiment to mould a suitable wife for himself from a child plucked from an orphanage, but this essay says to much more and so much better than I was able to in my post on the ‘Lives of the Obscure’ in Virginia Woolf’s first volume of The Common Reader.

There’s a particularly strong representation of major (and lesser) French writers — he almost convinces me to give Anatole France another try.

I’ve borrowed this massive book from the library, and must return it soon. I’ll have to buy a copy to read on, one I can annotate. I’ve only had time to read a few of the essays that appealed most, so I’d commend this review by Jensen to get a fuller picture of Pritchett’s tastes and achievements in these essays and in his short stories – which I intend to read now I’ve sampled this collection.

I found I had to dip in and read in small bursts, slowly. Every sentence and paragraph is so carefully constructed, the arguments and perceptions so cadenced and measured in expression, that every essay needs careful appraisal and rereading. They are to be sipped and savoured, not gulped.

Jensen sums up what I’ve noticed in the essays I’ve read so far:

they sparkle with impression, metaphor, and aphorism.

He goes on to suggest that maybe Pritchett has made less critical impact than Virginia Woolf, another who excelled in fiction and critical essay-writing, because he lacked her ‘fierceness’, her ‘polemical strain’. He was disdainful of what might be called the approach of the professional (ie academic) critics. I suppose he’s what’s usually dismissively categorised as a passionate amateur and aesthete. Nothing wrong with that.

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James Wright’s hammock with chicken hawk

I’ve not had time to post for quite a while, such have been the pressures of work. But just now I read the always stimulating Rohan Maitzen‘s post about what she’d doing in her classes, and I felt inspired to emulate her in my own way, by noting here what has roused my interest in my own teaching this week.

I came across the poetry of James Wright, and this poem; the links take you to the Poetry Foundation site, which has useful biographical/background information, and the text of this and other works by him.

Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota By James Wright (1927-80); CGI reading of it here

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,   

Asleep on the black trunk,

Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.   

Down the ravine behind the empty house,   

The cowbells follow one another   

Into the distances of the afternoon.   

To my right,

In a field of sunlight between two pines,   

The droppings of last year’s horses   

Blaze up into golden stones.

I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.   

A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.

I have wasted my life.

[from Above the River: The Complete Poems and Selected Prose (1990); first published in The Paris Review, 1961; see this article about it there from 2015 by Dan Piepenbring]

He focuses, as surely most of us do when we first experience the shock, on that extraordinary last line, that explodes everything that’s gone before; is a lament, a joke, a kind of boast, or ‘a religious statement’ (Wright’s own view) he wonders? He provides useful links to other speculations about and interpretations of it. I’m still not sure what I make of it.

He also provides links to a piece about it by David Mitchell at the Atlantic, a provocative article on ‘the popular disdain for poems’ by Ben Lerner, and a list of other critical responses at Modern American Poetry’s site. Well worth exploring. He also considers some of those responses, including those of Robert Bly and Thom Gunn.

I notice, as I try to process that final line and how it arises out of the previous ones, how he makes interesting use of the definite article for most of the concrete nouns he itemises in his sweep of his gaze around the view from the hammock: ‘THE bronze butterfly’, ‘THE black trunk’, and so on.

But it’s ‘A chicken hawk’ (whatever that is; we don’t have them in Cornwall. We do have buzzards, so I’ll picture it like that.) Why so unspecific about this one raptor? And why is it looking for home (its own, or any old home? Is it lost? Is that what provokes that apparent non sequitur of a closing line?)

Odd, too, how it’s the cow BELLS that ‘follow one another’, not the cows…Bovine synecdoche (a rhetorical term that came up in today’s class on Hard Times – ‘the Hands’).

All the best writing raises more questions of this kind than it answers. And that goes for that enigmatic, explosive last line. Most of us, I’d have thought, would find the curious, engaged sweep of gaze across this rural scene very much the most rewarding kind of spending one’s life – far less wasteful than commuting through dank January streets to work.

Maybe that’s one aspect of its startling impact; if he thinks he’s wasted his life by observing the life around him from that relaxing hammock, what does that make mine (i.e. my life) worth?

You might like to try ‘Outside Fargo, North Dakota’ (1968), or other links at Poetry Foundation site, source of most of these materials.

Finally, I recommend Rohan Maitzen’s site,  the one I mentioned at the start, ‘Novel Readings‘, where she regularly includes a ‘This week in my classes’ item. There’s also plenty of other intelligent, thoughtful material on all things literary and academic.

Just looked up Chicken Hawk at Wikimedia Commons. Here it is:

By Maynard, Lucy (Warner), 1852-1936. [from old catalog] – from Birds of Washington and vicinity, 1902 (& Library of Congress). Seems it’s the popular name for several kinds of raptor, including Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks. Sharp-shinned?

 

Now back to Dickens.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spam lit revisited again, chastened

Another departure this time. Usually I draft quite carefully (though this may not be apparent to readers who’ve been here before) what I post. This one is coming out on a Friday night after my first full week back teaching, and a bottle of wine shared over dinner. Undrafted. (The post, not the wine.)

Since posting my last piece about spam lit I’ve realised I recently read this piece in the Paris Review by Dan Piepenbring on the very same topic: the potential for ‘automated comments’ generated by spammers’ algorithms to try to circumvent blogsite spam filters to be transformed into literary texts. I just looked back through my email inbox and saw the link: how can it be that I could write a whole post, having forgotten this article read only a few days before? Worrying.

Dan P calls such texts mostly ‘nauseous goulash’ at worst. He calls what I said previously about intervening with the original spam text to create something new ‘curating’ the spam. I like that.

He likens them also to high modernism: William Gaddis, William Carlos Williams: texts that look somehow…jumbled, incoherent, lacking in the usual semantic connections associated with everyday discourse. They have more in common with the tangential, illogical or contiguous associations of dreams or streams of consciousness. Let’s face it, as we move through our days perceiving the outer world, an inner monologue persists, collaging fragments from all over the place, splicing them with others to create a continuous multifarious, multistranded… this metaphor is becoming too mixed, but I hope the point is being made. We don’t usually move through our days with a single-thread thought-stream. As we talk we think of something else.

As we listen to someone talk, we think of something else: what to have for tea, did I walk the dog, should I grout the bathroom, am I happy…NLP is big on this.

George Eliot said that if we took into account all the data accessible to us at any one moment we’d be deafened by the squirrel’s heartbeat; so we partially filter out incoming data, and censor what comes out of our mouths or pens (or keyboards).

So spam lit can be a way of tapping into the fortuitous and pleasing combinations of language in a manner that isn’t possible through normal discourse channels.

I leave you today then with the chastened realisation that Dan P wrote far more cogently on the topic of spam lit than I did. Cheers.

 

Mme Bovary of Kansas City: Evan S. Connell, ‘Mrs Bridge’.

Evan S. Connell (1924-2013), Mrs Bridge. Penguin Modern Classics, 2012. US first published 1959, UK 1983.

Reviews of Murakami’s new novel Colorless Tsukuru have commented on the dangers of making the protagonist a dull character: this can lead to a fitful narrative. As I was reading Mrs Bridge, Connell’s debut novel, first published in the US in 1959 (but which began life as a short story published in The Paris Review in 1955), I wondered whether he was avoiding a similar fate.

He does. Largely as a result of the novel’s inventive form, style and structure, and the brilliant use of language.

It consists of 117 short chapters, each with a title, often enigmatically tangential to the content; for example, ch. 102 is called ‘Joseph Conrad’, but the novel Mrs Bridge reads in this 2-paragraph segment is never identified. It’s highly significant that she becomes absorbed by this novel, and she broods over a particularly pertinent passage, which states that

some people go skimming over the years of existence to sink gently into a placid grave, ignorant of life to the last, without ever having been made to see all it may contain.

She ‘brooded’ over this and thought deeply about it; then someone called her, she put it down, and never picked it up again. This is the story of her life in a sentence. I don’t recognise this passage: perhaps someone can identify it in Conrad’s work? It sounds more like Joyce to me (Gabriel’s internal monologue at the end of ‘The Dead’).

This oblique, deeply suggestive and sophisticated approach to the subject of the eponymous upper-middle-class matron’s colourless, quietly despondent life in Kansas City (where Connell was born) in the decades leading up to the start of World War II is idiosyncratic and engaging.

In a review written at the Asylum blog in 2010 the always astute John Self considers the novel as accomplished as anything by Richard Yates or William Trevor. Revolutionary Road, published just two years after Mrs Bridge, relates the frustrations and yearnings of a suburban couple in America in the fifties. But Mrs Bridge is a far quieter novel: neither partner has an affair, or yearns to write a great novel in Paris. It’s closer in theme to Ira Levin’s 1972 satire The Stepford Wives in its depiction of stultified, unreflecting conformity to the American bourgeois way of life and obsession with keeping up appearances unquestioningly:

She brought up her children very much as she herself had been brought up, and she hoped that when they were spoken of it would be in connection with their nice manners, their pleasant dispositions, and their cleanliness, for these were qualities she valued above all others. (p.3)

Mrs Bridge said that she judged people by their shoes and by their manners at the table. (p. 13)

That her children rebel against her and drift away from her in their various ways is another of her life’s puzzling catastrophes; the irony of her name is that she is unable to bridge the gap that opens up between her and her family’s members. She is desperately lonely and bored, as the children grow up, become independent, and the maid runs the house:

She spent a great deal of time staring into space, oppressed by the sense that she was waiting. But waiting for what? She did not know…Nothing intense, nothing desperate, ever happened. Time did not move…So it was that her thoughts now and then turned deviously deeper, spiraling down and down in search of the final recess, of life more immutable than the life she had bequeathed in the birth of her children. (p. 74)

This is from a chapter called The Clock (time seems often to stand still for Mrs Bridge, while as we shall see it also races past). It ends with her bovine husband asking if the clock had struck; in fact there had been a symbolic flash of lightning – which illuminated something inderminate for her – and when she answers that it hadn’t, he resumes reading his paper:

She never forgot this moment when she had almost apprehended the very meaning of life, and of the stars and planets, yes, and the flight of the earth.

This rare lyrical flight captures the essence of this sad, bemused, unfulfilled woman’s life: she ‘almost’ apprehends its meaning, but ultimately doesn’t. (That free indirect thought, ‘yes’ is reminiscent again of Joyce: Molly Bloom this time.) Yet she is aware there is or could be something else to it. She often asks herself ‘What should she do…?’ How fill her day? She shops for useless items, plays bridge, gossips, avoids conflict or expressing opinions with conviction, picks up then drops faddish hobbies and atrophies spiritually.

Mrs Bridge coverThe protagonist has more in common with Emma Bovary than with April Wheeler in Revolutionary Road. But unlike Mme Bovary, Mrs Bridge never acts on her desires for something to happen in her life. Hers is a stunted life, and she lives in perpetual dread of acting or even thinking in an unconventional way, but gradually becomes dissatisfied with the rapidity and sterility with which it passes away in time; this is from as early as p. 4:

All seemed well. The days passed, and the weeks, and the months, more swiftly than in childhood, and she felt no trepidation, except for certain moments in the depth of the night, when, as she and her new husband lay drowsily clutching each other for reassurance, anticipating the dawn, the day, and another night which might prove them both immortal, Mrs Bridge found herself wide awake. During these moments, resting in her husband’s arms, she would stare at the ceiling, or at his face, which sleep robbed of strength, with an uneasy expression, as though she saw or heard some intimation of the great years ahead.

That paragraph sums up the novel. Like Mme Bovary, she feels ‘intimations’ that there must be something else, something better; ironically ‘the great years’ never come.  Compare this near the novel’s end, ch. 109:

The snow fell all night. It fell without a sound and covered the frozen ground, and the dead leaves beneath the maple tree, and bowed the limbs of the evergreens…Mrs Bridge was awakened by the immense silence and she lay in her bed listening…She had a feeling that all was not well and she waited in deep expectancy for some further intimation, listening intently, but all she heard before falling asleep was the familiar chiming of the clock.

This is typical of Connell’s beautifully modulated, understated prose. There’s a touch of the ending of Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ (again) there; indeed, Connell makes constant reference to the mid-western weather to reflect the emptiness or discomfort of Mrs Bridge’s existence. Every adjective here falls like a blow: ‘frozen’, ‘dead’, ‘immense’; the temporal significance of the ‘familiar’, relentlessly ticking and chiming clock is a motif through the novel, as we’ve seen; the nouns are equally telling: ‘silence’, ‘expectancy’, ‘intimation’ (again, but strikingly, heartbreakingly different from the vague optimism recorded at the start of the narrative and quoted just now). Mrs Bridge often seems on the brink of an epiphany, about to experience some revelation that will free her from her unexamined despair – but always she falls short of realising it: she falls asleep, redeemed by oblivion, or puts the book aside, or fails to pick up the phone to complain about the bizarre, possibly perverted junior school teacher who calls upon the children in her class – including Mrs Bridge’s young daughter – to comb her lank, greasy hair.

Joshua Ferris, in a spirited introduction to the PMC edition, likens her to iconic existential anti-heroes like Meursault, Molloy and Dr Rieulx. That Connell is able to invite such comparisons, which are valid, attests to the stature of this novel and the brilliance of his achievement.

It would be easy to dismiss the novel because of the unpleasant nature of the central married couple. They are bigoted, racist, and show little interest in culture or politics (Mrs Bridge flirts with the exciting idea of choosing her own candidate to vote for in an election, inspired by her rebellious friend, but as always she chickens out at the last minute and votes Republican as her husband tells her to).

In fact Mrs Bridge has always obeyed her husband. When a tornado approaches the Country Club where they are dining, he insists on remaining stoically (and stolidly) at table to finish his steak, despite the pleas of staff to join the other diners in the safety of the basement:

She wished he would not be so obstinate; she wished he would behave like everyone else, but she was not particularly frightened. For nearly a quarter of a century she had done as he had told her, and what he had said would happen had indeed come to pass, and what he had said would not occur had not occurred. Why, then, should she not believe him now?…The tornado, whether impressed by his intransigence or touched by her devotion, had drawn itself up into the sky and was never seen or heard of again.

There’s a pleasing symmetry in the syntax here: the clauses are elegantly balanced, but the point of view is clearly that of the unreflecting Mrs Bridge. The quiet, subversive humour is something of which she would be completely unaware, and it is this ironic gap between her own state of constant bewilderment and confusion and that of the more knowing reader that provides much of the substance and reward of the narrative. I particularly like the weird personification of the tornado at the end of that extract.

But Connell refrains from judging or mocking his characters or their shortcomings; like Cheever he trusts his reader to find a way of accommodating to them. They are rarely likeable, but entirely credible.

Ferris highlights the humour in the novel, which often ‘swerves’ into absurdity or non sequiturs. A random example: the Bridges throw a party, not because they want to, but because it’s time for them to ‘retaliate’.

The humour is contrapuntal to the darkness, angst and despair that Mrs Bridge catches increasingly frequent, semi-comprehending glimpses of as the novel progresses. One of the most interesting secondary characters is the startlingly unconventional Grace Barron, a prototype hippy or beatnik of later decades, who dresses like a boy, plays ball in the street, espouses socialism and picks political fights at cocktails parties when she’s drunk – and is more miserably unhappy than Mrs Bridge. She startles, even frightens Mrs Bridge by talking about profound matters with passion, while commenting on the bleakness of their fate as bourgeois women. This is poignantly, elliptically conveyed when they see in a shop some ‘tiny bells’ that revolved around a candlestick:

‘I feel like those bells’, said Grace. ‘Why are they turning around, India? Why? Because the candle has been lighted. What I want to say is – oh, I don’t know. It’s just that the orbit is so small.’

There chapter 19 ends, but we know that Mrs Bridge will be both puzzled and disturbed by this fractured but more articulate metaphorical insight than any she is capable of – yet she will feel a shock of recognition.

One of the the most frequently quoted passages in the novel comes when Grace desperately asks her friend if she ever feels ‘hollowed out’ in the back like the characters in the Grimm tale; soon after that she commits suicide – an act which Mrs Bridge is never seen to contemplate, but she never convinces that she has no reason to refrain from doing so.

There’s so much more to say about this novel, but there I’d better stop. I’ve said nothing about Mrs Bridge’s three very different children from whom she becomes estranged as they grow up, or her dull lawyer workaholic husband (ten years on Connell wrote a sequel from his point of view: Mr Bridge. The two novels formed the basis for a 1990 film starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, ‘Mr and Mrs Bridge’. I must read this to see if we gain more insight into his character; here he’s a cipher). I must just mention ch. 6, a typically strange vignette – this is far from a conventional narrative structure or style — just one paragraph long, in which Mrs Bridge encounters her son Douglas, as a little boy, standing contemplating the dressmaker’s dummy of her ‘figure’. Her smile fades, and she subsequently stows the dummy away out of sight. This is like a beautifully compressed novel in itself. One could write a whole blog piece just on its haunting, unsettling significance.

I don’t think Mr Ferris exaggerated when he said in a BBC interview in 2012 (which also featured what must have been one of the last interviews broadcast with Connell himself) that this novel is an ‘enduring masterpiece’.