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.

 

 

 

 

Using illusion to depict truth: Stefan Hertmans, War and Turpentine

Stefan Hertmans, War and Turpentine. Translated from the Dutch by David McKay. Vintage paperback, 2017. First published in the Netherlands, 2013. Long listed for the Man Booker International Prize in 2017

It was the two excellent translations from the Dutch by David McKay that I read earlier this year that inspired me to take up this Flemish novel: they were Max Havelaar by Multatuli, and Adrift in the Middle Kingdom by J. Slauerhoff.

The subject matter could hardly be more different across the three novels. War and Turpentine is an interesting, largely successful blend of autofiction and the highly traditional device of using a ‘found MS’ as the basis of the narrative.

The Flemish poet and novelist Stefan Hertmans writes that he was given a set of handwritten notebooks by his much-loved, deeply devout Catholic maternal grandfather, Urbain Martien, shortly before the old man’s death in 1981 at the age of ninety. He’d started writing them in 1963 when he was seventy-two, and spent the next seventeen years on them.

But it’s not that simple. We learn that his marriage had not been idyllic, and that there was a ‘personal tragedy’ during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1919, after which his handwriting – like his life – became ‘deformed’. The first notebook is full of ‘copious detail’ about the ‘humiliating poverty’ of his childhood, with ‘too many personal anecdotes’. The reader is likely to disagree with this harsh personal criticism.

Stefan Hertmans, War and Turpentine cover We learn about the hunger, deprivation and squalor in which Urbain and his siblings grew up in Ghent. Franciscus was a ‘lowly’ painter of religious frescoes and murals in churches and chapels. Urbain’s mother, Céline, is in some ways the true heroine of the novel. There’s a stirring scene when she walks for days to intercept Urbain’s army unit and browbeats his commander into letting her spend some time with her son; even the bullies of officers grudgingly respect her bravery and devotion.

Born into a wealthy bourgeois family, she married the penniless artist in defiance of her family’s disapproval. It was a true love match, and the marriage gave Urbain a model of marital harmony and contentment that he was sadly unable to replicate.

Urbain learned from his father Franciscus a love of art, painting and copying. He was ‘staunchly traditional’ in his approach, and deprecated modern ‘daubers’ like Van Gogh and Ensor. It’s notable that he specialised in copying the old masters; his own original work was accomplished, but of limited scope and ability.

This diffidence about creating something original out of others’ handiwork is seen also in the author’s metafictional approach to producing this novel. How far should he adapt Urbain’s error-strewn blend of ‘old-fashioned grace and awkwardness and authenticity without falling into mannerism?’ Adapting ‘his long-winded narrative into modern idiom’ was like ‘betraying him.’ He has to ‘rediscover’ the ‘authentic story’ in his own way: the basis of any ‘literary work.’

Like Franciscus with his fresco restorations, or the less talented Urbain copying the Rokeby Venus.

The novel is full of vivid set piece anecdotes that would work very well as film. There’s a gut-wrenching, infernal scene where Urbain is taken to see a gelatine factory at work. Also memorable are Urbain’s painful experiences as a lad working in another hellish location: an iron foundry. He sees some terrible things, and is physically scarred by the boiling hot molten iron.

But these scenes are eclipsed by his searing account of combat in Flanders. In the second notebook Urbain set out to:

write only about the war, truly and sincerely, not to glorify it. So help me God. Only my experiences. My horror. [Author’s emphasis]

This included his ‘traumatic scenes on the Yser’, how he was wounded three times and sent to convalesce in France and England. In Liverpool there’s one of the most transcendent and moving scenes in the novel, when he finally discovers the murals that his father had been commissioned to paint in a chapel there. Urbain recognises in the faces of some of the religious figures members of the artist’s family; Franciscus evidently felt able to indulge this loving impulse, believing that no-one who knew him would ever see them.

Later, the Hertmans-narrator has a similar, equally poignant epiphany when he recognises a familiar face in one of his grandfather’s meticulous copies of an old master’s famous painting.

There are the terrible descriptions we’ve become too familiar with from other accounts of WWI. The squalor, rats, filth, disease, slaughter, and constant fear of sudden death, witnessing the ‘torn-up limbs’ and desecrated corpses of comrades who’d moments earlier had been vibrantly alive.

There’s an astonishing scene when Urbain is startled by the sight of countless terrified wild animals swimming across a body of water in the polder to flee the carnage in their habitat. (Hertmans throughout the narrative has a poet’s and artist’s eye for nature, like the skeins of wild geese that fly overhead at several key moments.)

What distinguishes this long middle wartime section of the novel from most other accounts of WWI combat is that Urbain is recounting the decimation and defeat of a culturally/ethnically divided Belgian army fighting to defend its homeland. The rank and file like Urbain are Flemish-speakers; the Walloon officer class are francophone, who treat their men – these ‘cons de flamands’ says one commander – with patronising disdain.

Instilled with the values of the 19C, the soldiers are trained in outmoded military techniques like fencing. Knowing he’d spent four years in the military before the war, Urbain’s commanders exploit his combat skill and ingrained sense of discipline to send him on suicidal missions the others shrink from – this is what gets him wounded. Yet his restrained response to his incompetent, scornful officers’ incompetent commands is to salute and say, in the language they arrogantly insist on, “à vos ordres.”

They are outnumbered by a vastly better equipped, ruthless 20C enemy that uses the latest, most deadly machine-guns, heavy artillery and tactics, without ‘moral scruples’. They employ dirty psychological tricks and hideous new technology, like mustard gas. The Belgians are doomed from the start.

There’s a Sebaldian quality in Hertmans’ approach: the focus on history haunting the present day. He even incorporates, like Sebald, grainy monochrome photographs of characters, scenes and paintings featured in the narrative.

Near the end is one of many ecphrastic accounts of a painting by Hertmans’ grandfather, but the old man ‘couldn’t expel the soldier from his first self-portrait, and thus failed to do himself justice’. Hertmans goes on with another such account, about one of Urbain’s copies – of a Rembrandt portrait of a helmeted soldier (also reproduced on the page). There’s another epiphany-recognition by the narrator about the distracted, wistful expression in the eyes of this soldier. This expressive substitution enabled his grandfather to achieve ‘an extraordinary victory of the painter over the soldier’. The conclusion the narrator draws has a Sebaldian resonance:

The truth in life often lies buried in places we do not associate with authenticity. Life is more subtle, in this respect, than linear human morality. It goes to work like a painter-copyist, using illusion to depict the truth.

It’s a powerful, original and affecting novel, less richly nuanced and psychologically complex than Sebald’s fiction – but that’s true of most other novels.

There’s an interesting pair of essays by David McKay at his own website, Open Book Translation, on his methods and problems in translating this novel; he discusses how he struggled to reproduce authentically, for example, the Edwardian and military slang of the characters without traducing the original. Another layer of metafictional commentary on the literary arts of copying, verisimilitude and originality.

 

Disciplined even in death. Erwin Mortier, While the Gods Were Sleeping

Erwin Mortier, While the Gods Were Sleeping. Translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent. Pushkin Press, 2015. First published in Dutch, 2008. It forms the first part of a trilogy; the second has already appeared in Dutch.

Despite some initial misgivings, I was not immune to the poetic and emotional power of this novel. It comprises the vivid, fragmented memories of Helena, a very old lady of French-Belgian origin, from her life before, during and after WWI, in which she lost the people she loved most. But like some of those whose reviews I give links to at the end I also found the ornate, image-laden style a little too dense and indigestible at times. The translator, Paul Vincent, has done a good job with what must have been a difficult task.

Mortier While the Gods coverI find as I flick through its pages again, reminding myself of its textures and resonances, that the novel is not so much a story about recollections of things past as a congeries of stories, memories and images that swirl through the narrator’s mind as her body fails her and she lives increasingly in her head.

The prose therefore works better when dipped into and savoured. Mortier, the Belgian author of several other novels, is also a poet. This novel reads like a prose poem, a non-linear anthology, in which chronology is regularly telescoped, focused back and forth, time’s strata exposed and disclosed by Helena’s mining memory.

Take for example the second paragraph on the opening page. Helena is setting out her approach – writing down in notebooks the recollections of her lengthy past as they crop up irregularly in her mind, and breaking off occasionally to apostrophise her kind Moroccan carer, Rachida:

I’d give a lot to be able to descend into the subterranean heart of our stories, to be lowered on ropes into their dark shafts and see stratum after stratum glide by in the lamplight. Everything the earth has salvaged: foundations, fence rails, tree roots, soup plates, soldiers’ helmets, the skeletons of animals and people in hushed chaos, the maelstrom congealed to a terrestrial crust that has swallowed us up.

Wow. That’s a hefty accumulation of the kinds of images and objects that form the ‘heart of our stories’. It fuses mighty abstractions with highly visual, painterly details: the detritus of time’s encounter with human warfare. It’s the verbal equivalent of the scattered contents of an occupied wartime trench after being hit by a shell; the narrator comes by afterwards and inspects, like an archaeologist poet, or a photographer-artists, the fragments out of which we’ve ‘salvaged’ our savage ruins.

I came to this novel shortly after the very different, much more conventional Not So Quiet…by Helen Zenna Smith. That fictional autobiography of a woman ambulance driver’s traumatic experiences in the same war is more direct, consciously unpoetic, and thus more immediately accessible. After my initial struggle to come to terms with the slow-burning, meditative approach of Mortier I’m finding While the Gods is more moving in many ways.

Like Smith, Mortier is good at conveying the horrific experiences of women who lived through WWI. Although, unlike Helen in Smith’s novel, Belgian Helena lived behind the front line, ostensibly away from the action, many of her memories involve the sense-impressions of that war of attrition: she could see the flashes of the huge guns in the distance, hear the thunderous booms they made, and feel in her very entrails the vibrations they made. She tells how a little village girl was killed by a random shard of shrapnel as she ran to play. There was no front line when artillery shells could travel miles.

She also gives vivid descriptions of journeys to the front with her English lover, Matthew, a photo-journalist. These sections indicate that she too has the sensibility and artistic eye of an artist-photographer. One of the most powerful sections in the novel is her description of her snapshot of her lover, taken from behind as he inspected the site of trench years after the war, and as the photographic plate looms into focus with the action of the chemicals on the plate, she starts to see details that had eluded her vision at the time: the jagged, scattered limbs of long-dead soldiers reaching out of the frozen mud, like images from Picasso’s Guernica.

Similar scenes recur, indelibly printed (or congealed) on her memory. For example when Matthew takes her to other such battle-scarred sites long after the war’s end, when he:

meticulously documented what I call the congealing, the great levelling, in all respects after the ravages and the euphoria of peace. The smoothing-over of the tormented earth.

She’s appalled by the ‘cemeteries where the fallen were gradually put in straighter and straighter ranks, disciplined even in death’. She bitterly reflects on the ‘wry euphemism’ of these ‘charming cemeteries’ that cover up cosmetically with ‘solemn temples, carved mourning statues, lit eternal flames…the bones and the corpses and the countless shattered lives’ in ‘an arcadia stretched out.’

She also evokes with heart-breaking pathos the ways that the women in her world, excluded from the infernal horrors of front-line action, had to bear a terrible burden of their own: it’s also the women who ‘take the blows’. Another memorable vignette from this montage of such images is that of her otherwise bohemian uncle, who’s taken on the responsibility of travelling from house to house in his small town, conveying the dreaded news of the latest casualties at the front. More women with lost sons, brothers, husbands, lovers. Lives smashed and frozen as graphically as those exposed limbs in Helena’s photo.

This novel was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2015, the year it was won by Jenny Erpenbeck for her novel The End of Days. I agree with Tony: it would have made a worthy winner itself.

But it takes perseverance, and perhaps a second reading to reveal, like the images in Helena’s stark photo, the shards of war that penetrate and wound a person’s memory like shrapnel.

Other bloggers who have posted on this novel find echoes in its themes and style, quite justifiably, of Proust and Sebald, among others. Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong also portrays vividly and poetically the connections between passion, love, loss and death in that terrible war:

Rough Ghosts

Dolce Belleza

David’s Book World

Tony’s Reading List

The Book Binder’s Daughter

 

I become savage at the futility: Helen Zenna Smith, Not So Quiet…

Helen Zenna Smith, Not So Quiet…Stepdaughters of War. The Feminist Press, New York, 1989; first published 1930

Helen Smith, the protagonist of this novel, is a prim, callow woman of 21, daughter of a jam manufacturer who considers himself solidly middle-class. She’s sufficiently bourgeoise to be considered suitable as a volunteer ambulance driver in France in World War I. Only girls from the upper classes were accepted, partly because they could pay for the privilege of volunteering, and also, as Helen cynically muses at one point, because they came from that ‘stiff upper lip’ class that would keep quiet about the truth of the horrors and carnage of trench attritional warfare.

Women ambulance drivers WWI

Female motor ambulance drivers with their vehicles, Étaples, France, 27 June 1917, during World War I. (Source: Flickr Commons project, 2015 and Imperial War Museums website: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205078785)

Hers is one of the grimmest, unflinching accounts of that war that I’ve read. What makes it more harrowing, in many ways, is that it’s not the usual male-camaraderie viewpoint of fighting in the front line. Although not a combatant, Helen gets to see the worst of the aftermath of modern warfare. Here’s a typically hard-hitting sample, one of countless descriptions of the horrors she witnessed:

We hate and dread the days following on the guns when they boom without interval. Trainloads of broken human beings: half-mad men pleading to be put out of their misery; torn and bleeding and crazed men pitifully obeying orders like a herd of senseless cattle, dumbly, pitifully straggling in the wrong direction, as senseless as a flock of senseless sheep obeying a senseless leader, herded back into line by the orderly, the kind sheep-dog…men with faces bleeding through their hasty bandages; men with vacant eyes and mouths hanging foolishly apart dropping saliva and slime; men with minds mercifully gone; men only too sane, eyes horror-filled with blood and pain…

It seems churlish to take issue with what some readers might consider the overwrought style here, the thumping rhetorical repetitions and parallel structure; for the awfulness of the scenes described surely justifies such verbal excess. It’s the language of anger and despair. Even the echoes of Wilfred Owen resonate and chill. Smith has the same anti-war sentiment; she too uses the word ‘futility’ to sum up the scenes through which Helen is required to drive her wounded, dying men – it makes her feel ‘savage’.

The senselessness is heightened by the contrasting levity of Helen’s letters home to her jingoistic ‘flag-crazy’ parents: “It is such fun out here, and of course I’m loving every minute of it; it’s so splendid to be really in it”, she gushes deceitfully. It’s ‘the only kind of letter home they expect, the only kind they want’. They don’t want to hear the truth: that she hated and feared it, is ‘terror-stricken’, and has lost all ‘ideals and beliefs’:

You don’t believe in God or them or the infallibility of England or anything but bloody war and wounds and foul smells and smutty stories and smoke and bombs and lice and filth and noise, noise, noise – that you live in a world of cold, sick fear, a dirty world of darkness and despair – that you want to crawl ignominiously home away from these painful writhing things that once were men, these shattered, tortured faces that dumbly demand what it’s all about in Christ’s name…

No, all the parents want to do is boast to their smart friends, competing to exceed the patriotism of their rivals and to recruit more innocent young men (including Helen’s own teenage brother) to go to their slaughter, brag that their daughters are ‘doing their bit’, examples of ‘England’s Splendid Daughters’. They don’t want to hear that she’s been ‘pitch-forked into hell’. ‘Nobody cares because I’m going mad, mad, mad’, has ‘no guts’ and is ‘white-livered’, a ‘rank coward.’ There’s no heroism or nobility in the abject, often terrifying routine she endures: vile, dysentery-inducing food, sleep deprivation, a sadistic, megalomaniac female commandant known unaffectionately by the girls as ‘Mrs Bitch’, who delights in meting out ‘punishment’ duties on the already exhausted, starved and freezing drivers (their ambulances have open cabs and they have to drive the shell-pocked roads at night without lights; the winter winds cut through them until their lips bleed) on top of the disgusting menial cleaning tasks they already do as part of their daily routine. Descriptions of the daily cleansing of their filthy vehicles of every kind of human effluent and effusion are stomach-churning.

HZ Smith Not So Quiet coverIt’s not a misery memoir, however. In her Afterword , academic Jane Marcus gives useful literary-historical, political and socio-cultural context for this novel (and provides an interesting explanation for its strange subtitle). Smith was the pen-name of Australian-born Evadne Price (1896? – 1985), an unusual woman who began adult life as an actor, turned to journalism, then became a prolific author of romantic pulp fiction and children’s stories; she was even house horoscope writer for women’s magazines. Marcus suggests these less than right-on credentials have caused her to be unjustly neglected by feminist literary historians and critics.

I learned a lot from her essay (though it has some strange flights of fancy, such as war’s frenzied blood-letting being ‘menstruation envy’ from men). She places this novel in the context of canonical war literature by men (Hemingway, Ford, Graves, etc.) – but also by less canonical women (about whom I only began to learn recently when I read and researched Edith Wharton’s WWI novel about life on the home front in Paris, A Son at the Front). She has some interesting, fairly convincing theories about masculinized women and feminized men, female ‘potence’ and male impotency.

Not So Quiet…, as its title suggests, was commissioned as a spoof riposte, from the woman’s point of view, to Remarque’s best-selling novel about the German experience of the war, All Quiet on the Western Front, first published in 1929; it was first published the following year. Not having witnessed the trench war at first hand, Smith used an unpublished diary by a real-life woman ambulance driver called Winifred Young for source details. The narrative certainly rings horribly true. There were four sequels, tracing Helen’s decline in post-war, depressed Britain.

Smith was keen to depict the gender confusions arising from the women who served behind the lines, in the ‘Forbidden Zone’, in support roles to the fighting men. Unlike the more traditionally caring role of nurse (who ‘domesticates devastation’, says Marcus memorably), often the only women portrayed in this literature, these well-bred young women driving ambulances in danger zones challenged the gender stereotypes. Back home it would have been considered unthinkable, unladylike for them to drive solo, let alone with a load of shell-shocked, gangrenous wounded men, unchaperoned. Just as these girls risked being jeered at as ‘she-men’, unfeminine (Helen worries about losing her ‘womanliness’ if she cut her hair short like her braver colleague, to reduce the torments caused by lice), so the men in novels like All Quiet tended to be considered unmanly, cowardly, if they showed fear or lack of bellicose aggression towards ‘the enemy’. (There’s a powerful passage in Not So Quiet…in which Helen reflects with bitter passion on the real enemies: the politicians and armchair elderly who start wars but don’t participate themselves).

Marcus’s literary analysis is also interesting when she considers Smith’s fragmented, modernist prose style, with its breathless present tense narrative and prevailing use of free indirect discourse in multiple voices. Smith’s anti-imperialist and socialist-realist, feminist depiction of the class elements in the war are also well covered (Helen pointedly rejects class privilege towards the novel’s end – to the horror of her friends and family – when, disillusioned and shattered she leaves the ambulance convoys and re-enlists as a lowly cook’s orderly, working alongside working-class girls from the urban slums).

As Lissa Evans showed in Old Baggage, the women who’d learned to organise themselves and fight the patriarchy in the suffragist movement reacted in many different ways to the challenges to their struggle posed by the war, and the transitions they had to consider. The Pankhursts famously handed out white feathers to conscientious objectors and enthusiastically joined in the jingoism of the likes of Helen’s blinkered parents. Some made use of their new-found discipline and taste for rebellious direct action to become proto-fascists, as Evans shows in her novel.

There’s one aspect of this novel that took me a while to figure out, but Marcus spells it out with withering clarity: Smith was partly engaged in a PC counterblast to the prevalence of lesbianism among women ambulance drivers in Radclyffe Hall’s wartime sequences in The Well of Loneliness (1928). A sub-plot involves the unedifying persecution and ultimate banishment home of a couple of women in Helen’s group who are lesbians. Smith dutifully narrates this sequence, but turns it into a harsh critique of the crazed values of wartime Britain: a woman was forced to see out her driving duties no matter what crime she committed, or how cowardly or inept was her performance; only show ‘immorality’, however, and she was kicked out with alacrity.

I find, once more, I’ve gone on too long. This is an indication of what a fascinating, powerful text this is. It may not be the best written (anti-)war novel, but it’s probably one of the most memorable and unusual, and it packs a terrific punch.

 

 

Penelope Fitzgerald, Gate of Angels

Penelope Fitzgerald, Gate of Angels. First published 1990. Everyman’s Library 3-vol. edition including The Bookshop and The Blue Flower, 2003

In my previous post about the first novel in this collection I suggested that Fitzgerald’s skill in evoking sense of place and time in her novels is extraordinary.

In Gate of Angels she presents the cloistered, all-male world of a Cambridge college in 1912. The action is therefore overshadowed by the reader’s knowledge that most of the young men who appear in these pages will be doomed to the slaughter of the trenches, so that the light romantic comedy that’s enacted in the narrative is clouded by this awareness.

Fitzgerald 3 novels coverTiny St Angelicus is a celibate, quasi-monastic college full of Fitzgerald’s usual collection of eccentrics. The plot is a slight affair of the romance that develops between Fred Fairly, a young Fellow, a rational scientist, and the street-wise, penniless orphaned London girl Daisy.

There are some witty glimpses of the exciting and momentous work being conducted by the likes of (future Nobel prizewinner) Rutherford on nuclear fission at the famous Cavendish lab (he became its professor in 1919). There are heady exchanges among the academics about nascent theories in atomic physics and psychology, and the competing attractions of theology and ontology. Fitzgerald has great fun satirising the antiquated beliefs of the more conservative academic scientists as ‘pernicious notions of mass’, ‘substance’, ‘the elementary particle’ and quantum physics develop around them. They refuse to believe in ‘unobservables’. ‘Scientists should not indulge themselves on quite this scale,’ declares Fred’s distressed Professor Flowerdew.

Fred is the son of a rural rector, and in one of the best scenes he returns home to try to break the difficult news to his father that he’s lost his Christian faith (as an uncle of Fitzgerald’s had done with his bishop father; he went on to be a code-breaker who worked on deciphering Enigma at Bletchley Park. Fitzgerald had a colourful family, and their unconventional talents infuse her fiction).

As always with Fitzgerald, things don’t turn out as one might expect. When Fred introduces his family to his Cockney sparrow girlfriend the clash of cultures and backgrounds unfolds with the wit and delicacy of touch characteristic of this clever and sensitive novelist. The scenes in which Daisy struggles with authority figures to become a nurse and raise herself out of grim poverty in London’s slums are vividly and sympathetically done. She’s one of Fitzgerald’s most spirited, unconventional heroines. Her refusal to conform and obey rules tends to get her into trouble – but she wouldn’t be a Fitzgerald heroine if she behaved otherwise.

There’s always a sense that the author is working at a level superior to the light comedy being played out on the pages. The plot is a vehicle for something more serious, elevated and elusive.

I’m not quite sure what it is. Apart from the science/art/philosophy debate noted above, it might be something to do with that Flanders slaughter, that puts into perspective the main characters’ struggles for fulfilment, and the petty squabbles and claret-soaked donnish banter of the college scenes. A seedy journalist gloomily predicts to Daisy that in ten years’ time he’ll be dead – a casualty of the inevitable war that will ensue from the ‘quarrel’ between the King and his ‘German cousin’. Daisy’s skills as a nurse would no doubt soon come in useful. The crazed consultant at her training hospital also runs a hospital near Cambridge for patients with mental illnesses; it’s possible to imagine the place becoming another Craiglockhart soon after the war started.

Several of the older women characters are engaged in another struggle: they’re suffragists. One of them – the intelligent wife of a crusty, unreconstructed don, who’d been a Cambridge student and prominent in the WSPU (like Matty in Lissa Evans’ Old Baggage), but is now a housewife – confronts the bleakness of a life of domestic tedium – all a woman of her class and education could aspire to at the time. Big changes were coming.

Fitzgerald writes novels that fulfil the requirements of the well-wrought plot, peopled by characters with semblances of flawed humanity. Some of the minor players are Waugh-like caricatures, but Gate of Angels is better than The Bookshop. It’s one of her lesser achievements – which means it’s superior to much supposedly popular fiction.

There’s a very good pastiche of an MR James ghost story, narrated by a crusty medievalist don who’s clearly modelled on him. That same uncle of Fitzgerald’s whose father was a bishop was a student at King’s College, Cambridge when James was provost there.

Some supernatural elements in the narrative remind me that Fitzgerald likes a bit of spookiness in her novels (like the antisocial poltergeist in The Bookshop).

Thankfully there’s no film version (as far as I know) of this engaging romantic comedy to spoil the immediacy of Fitzgerald’s narrative deftness.

Miklós Bánffy, The Transylvanian Trilogy: final post

Miklós Bánffy’s The Transylvanian Trilogy gets better in vols. 2 and 3. In my previous two posts I suggested that vol. 1 was over-populated with minor characters who clogged the narrative, contributing little except unmemorable names and attributes. The next two volumes introduce quite a few new characters, but the cast-list stabilises a little, and the players become more identifiable and their significance clearer.

Banffy cover

My two Everyman’s Library volumes of the Trilogy

I said last time I’d try to be more positive in this final post on the trilogy. The plot certainly gathers momentum, and I found myself racing through the last volume as the thwarted affair between Abady and Adrienne becomes ever more passionate but meets more and more obstacles. I don’t intend spoiling what happens, but would urge you to persevere to the end to find out – it’s a powerful dénouement for these lovers and for Transylvanian society.

I also said I’d say more about the secondary central male character in this rather too androcentric trilogy, Laszlo Gyeroffy. His erotic-romantic progress is more disastrous than Abady’s, largely as a consequence of the grudge he bears against the Hungarian aristocratic social world he was born into but from which he’s been ostracised. After the scandalous breakup of his parents’ marriage when his mother ran off with another man, his father reacted badly and killed himself and his mother disappeared. Society considers him tainted, and he’s treated like a pariah.

Vol. 1 ended with his descent into addiction: gambling and alcohol (there’s a titanic amount of drinking and drunkenness in the trilogy). This leads to his losing Klara, the love of his life. He’d spiralled deeper into a decline after this, and despite the attempts of the beautiful Fanny Beredy, one of the few resourceful and spirited independent women we meet in the story, to redeem him, he’s so full of loathing for life and himself and his largely self-induced exile from society that he spurns not just her but several subsequent (beautiful of course) young women who try to raise him from the gutter.

He’s sold his estate and most of the family heirlooms he’d managed to retain far too cheaply, having lost interest in everything. He also spurns the attempts of his family, including Abady’s, to rescue him from his descent into hell. His decline is sad to witness, and not entirely his fault; he’s a victim of that ‘dramatist Fate’ mentioned in vol. 1 as much as he is of his own self-destructive nature. This theme is raised more overtly with the decline of another young aristocrat, Gazsi, whose sad end causes Abady to ponder (without much philosophical profundity or originality) whether it’s human nature or lived experience that influences our fates.

The rather disturbingly sexist presentation of women I noted as present at times in vol. 1 is less apparent in the remaining volumes, but it’s still there. In the final volume, for example, a shopkeeper’s young daughter, just thirteen or so, secretly ministers to Laszlo’s obsessive need for alcohol in defiance of her father’s beatings, seeing in this shadow of a man the ‘fairy prince’ he seems to her when he tells her stories of his dazzling former life at the peak of Budapest social life. For a couple more years her love for him grows. There’s never any suggestion of a sexual relationship, for Laszlo is too far gone in self-pity to notice her; but this doesn’t alter the element of exploitation in his treatment of the besotted girl.

There’s more, too, of the over-sexualised presentation of women. Several scenes stand out in which Adrienne is involved. I pointed out the furtive gaze on her of Abady in vol. 1 when she’d abandoned herself to the physical thrill of ice skating; in these later volumes there are even more sexually explicit scenes in which her voluptuous sensuality is lingered over in a manner that can only be described as soft porn. One is when she arrives at a ‘bal des têtes’ dressed in a shimmering gold dress with ‘the lowest possible décolletage’; she looks ‘like some legendary goddess’. When she and Abady have sex later he’s seen literally bowing down in reverence to her beauty as if she were a Hindu goddess.

It’s not the sumptuous moment of erotically charged mutual worship that maybe I’ve made it sound like: the other men at the ball are shown drooling over her with ‘red-hot desire’, while Abady congratulates himself on his good luck. Far from showing an empowered Adrienne, this simply reinforces the secondary role women are forced to play in this society: her only ‘armour’, as the narrator describes Adrienne’s metallic gown in this scene, and her manner when she’s flirting at another time to disguise her true feelings for Abady, is her sexual attractiveness. She might as well have no intelligence or other qualities – and Bánffy only hints at their existence. His interest resides in Abady.

Meanwhile the political disaster of WWI looms ever nearer, while the Hungarian politicians in their ‘shifting political groups’, changing like a weather-vane in the wind, continue to look only inwards to the petty feuds and squabbles in their own country. Near the end, when the Archduke Ferdinand is assassinated and war seems ever more inevitable, there’s a moment when the narrator muses that with ‘skilful diplomacy’ it could still have been averted – but of course the reckless Hungarians indulge in quite the opposite, and carnage follows. Their lemming-like charge into it is referred to in the narrative as a ‘curse that had fallen on Hungary’.

The ‘cold cynicism’ of politicians like Slawata, who tries to lure Abady into his schemes, is reflected in the hopeless addiction of this doomed generation of Austro-Hungarian aristocrats for an antiquated and destructively perverse form of ‘code of honour’, which I touched on in the first of these posts. Its most extreme manifestation is in duels, several of which take place in the final two volumes, and all of them absurd, or ‘stupid, stupid’, as Abady puts it when he too is involved after a ludicrous exchange with a drunken, corrupt lawyer-politician. (I’m reminded of Conrad’s more acerbic view of this theme in ‘The Duel’ [in A Set of Six, 1908], in which the participants engage in decades of vicious duelling, of ‘homicidal austerity’, for reasons neither of them can remember.)

I had to skip many of the lengthy political scenes in this trilogy, which went into far too much detail, involving arcane aspects of Habsburg, Balkan and other european political chicanery, than I could endure. But the elegiac treatment of this fatally doomed world of aristocratic misfits, scoundrels and smouldering Byronic heroes is compellingly done, for the most part, and the constant, looming awareness of the slaughter that will change that world forever is handled with chilling aplomb by Bánffy.

 

 

 

 

 

Rebecca West, The Return of the Soldier

The Return of the Soldier was Rebecca West’s first novel, published in 1918 when she was 24. It’s very different from the Aubrey trilogy, which I’ve written about recently here.

The plot of the novel is simple: Chris returns from the trenches suffering from shell-shock. Its main effect is that he has forgotten everything that happened for the past 15 years – which includes getting married to Kitty, and losing their baby son.

He does remember his youthful love for a lower-class publican’s daughter, Margaret. It’s to her that he writes when he recovers physical health, and he turns to her for comfort and healing when he’s back in his former home – to the grief and consternation of Kitty and his cousin, Jenny.

It’s a short novel – just 140 pages – but carries enormous emotional weight. The tension that builds towards the terrible conclusion is almost unbearable.

It’s not as polished in style as the later novels by Rebecca West, and in places it’s overwritten and cumbersome; but it’s still a poised and subtle work of fiction.

I’ll have to be brief, as I’m going elsewhere soon, so I’ll focus on just one scene. It’s the moment when Margaret arrives at Kitty and Jenny’s beautiful country house to tell the women that Chris has been wounded in action. The gulf in class difference is palpable, and here it’s through clothes that the narrator (the voice is Jenny’s, who is surely in love with Chris herself, hence her animosity towards this woman) conveys her sense of social superiority and disdain:

Just beneath us, in one of Kitty’s prettiest chintz arm-chairs, sat a middle-aged woman. She wore a yellowish raincoat and a black hat with plumes whose sticky straw had but lately been renovated by something out of a little bottle bought at the chemist’s. [How could Jenny possibly know that?!] She had rolled her black thread gloves into a ball on her lap, so that she could turn her grey alpaca skirt well above her muddy boots and adjust its brush braid with a seamed red hand which looked even more horrible when she raised it to touch the glistening flowers of the pink azalea that stood on a table beside her. Kitty shivered and muttered, ‘Let’s get this over,’ and ran down the stairs.

The Return of the Soldier: Virago Modern Classics. Afterword by Sadie Jones

The magic fades: DH Lawrence’s response to Cornwall, pt 3

DH Lawrence’s response to Cornwall, continued: the idyll fades, disillusion and desertion sets in. Extracts from the Collected Letters, ed. Harry T. Moore, Heinemann, London, 1970, vol. 1

[To Barbara Low, from Higher Tregerthen, nr Zennor (all the following letters were written from there), 1 May 1916] It is very lovely here, with the gorse all gone yellow and the sea a misty, periwinkle blue, and the flowers coming out on the common. The sense of jeopardy spoils it all – the feeling that one may be flung out into the cess-pool of a world, the danger of being dragged into the foul conglomerate mess, the utter disgust and nausea one feels for humanity, people smelling like bugs, endless masses of them, and no relief: it is so difficult to bear.

[As my last set of extracts showed, the military and other state authorities had started to show an unsettling interest in this ménage of the Lawrences: Frieda striding around W. Cornwall in brightly coloured mismatched stockings, speaking English in her heavy German accent, their cottage curtains similarly mismatched. Locals suspected this suspiciously unconventional couple were signalling to the enemy submarines which patrolled the waters off the peninsula. Nevertheless, DHL’s outbursts in letters of this time are disquieting, Nietzschean in their contempt – even if it’s understandable he’s so upset.]

Ottoline Morrell

Lady Ottoline Morrell, society and literary hostess, by Baron Adolf de Meyer, platinum print, 1912. Wikimedia Commons

[To Ottoline Morrell, ?4 May 1916] The country is very beautiful, with tangles of blackthorn and solid mounds of gorse blossom, and bluebells beneath, and myriads of violets, and so many ferns unrolling finely and delicately. I have begun a new novel [this would become Women in Love]

[To OM, 24 May] The country is simply wonderful, blue, graceful little companies of bluebells everywhere on the moors, the gorse in flame, and on the cliffs and by the sea, a host of primroses, like settling butterflies, and sea-pinks like a hover of pink bees, near the water.

[To Catherine Carswell, 19 June] I have nearly done my new novel. It has come rushing out, and I feel very triumphant in it.
The Murrys have gone over to the south side, about thirty miles away. The north side was too rugged for them. And Murry and I are not really associates. How I deceive myself. I am a liar to myself, about people. I was angry when you ran over a a list of my ‘friends’ – whom you did not think much of. But it is true, they are not much, any of them.
I give up having intimate friends at all. It is a self-deception. [He goes on to invite the Carswells to stay in the Murrys’ vacated rooms next door!]
It is very fine here, foxgloves now everywhere between the rocks and ferns. There is some magic in the country. It gives me a strange satisfaction.

[Lack of money – L calls it ‘penuriousness’ – is still a problem, and he smarts at the sense of living off the charity of others – but at least he has been exempted from military service.]

[To Barbara Low, 8 July] I should have died if they had made me a soldier… It is the most terrible madness. And the worst of it all is, that it is a madness of righteousness. These Cornish are most, most unwarlike, soft, peaceable, ancient. No men could suffer more than they, at being conscripted…they believe in their duty to their fellow man. And what duty is this, which makes us forfeit everything, because Germany invaded Belgium? Is there nothing beyond my fellow man? If not, there is nothing beyond myself…because I am the fellow-man of all the world, my neighbour is but myself in a mirror. So we toil in a circle of pure egoism…I know that, for me, the war is wrong…To fight for possessions, goods, is what my soul will not do…All this war, this talk of nationality, to me is false. I feel no nationality, not fundamentally…one fights too hard already, for the real integrity of one’s being.

[L is forced to type up the MS of his new novel, and revisions of The Rainbow, himself; he has only £6 in the world, he writes on 12 July. Next day he writes to thank J.B. Pinker for the cheque for £50 he’d received from him.]

[To K. Mansfield, 16 July; she has returned to Mylor, nr Falmouth, on the ‘soft’ north coast. L is benign and adopts a cheerful tone, gossiping about visitors and repairs and improvements being made to the leaking, damp house she and Middleton Murry had so precipitously abandoned. L generously hides his disappointment at this perceived desertion.] The corn is very high, the hay is out…the Tremeada [nearby farm] corn full of the most beautiful corn-marigolds…The foxgloves are really wonderful…full like honeycombs, with purple wells.
[Then his tone shifts:] Really, one should find a place one can live in, and stay there. Geographical change doesn’t help one much. And people go from bad to worse. I think I shall be staring out from Higher Tregerthen when I am a nice old man of seventy.
[He doesn’t try to disguise the rebuke.]

DH Lawrence in Cornwall, pt 2: I feel fundamentally happy and free

So, Lawrence has established himself in his ‘Promised Land’ of Cornwall. He’s aware it’s not Florida, where he’d hoped to establish his Utopian ‘colony’ of artist-philosophers, Rananim, with disciple-friends like John Middleton Murry and Katherine Mansfield (‘truly blood kin’, he calls them in a letter to them of 11 March 1916), but it might be just as good. His longing for a peaceful life is almost palpable. [The name Rananim is taken from his Ukrainian-Russian friend the literary patron and translator Samuel Koteliansky’s Hebrew songs.]

He’s found the cheap rented cottage he was looking for: in Higher Tregerthen, a cluster of houses near Zennor, on the coast between St Ives and Penzance. Temporarily he and Frieda stay in the village inn, The Tinner’s Arms – its name reflects the mining heritage that was the subject of my recent posts on the Man Engine in Cornwall.

His flow of almost daily letters continues. Here’s a further selection; I’ve picked out his revealing descriptions to the local scene, which tell as much about his own state of mind, his hopes and feelings, as they do in evoking the sense of place…

Fields near Zennor:

Fields near Zennor

 [5 March 1916, from Tinner’s Arms, Zennor, to Middleton Murry and K. Mansfield] We have been here nearly a week now. It is a most beautiful place: a tiny granite village nestling under high, shaggy moor-hills, and a big sweep of lovely sea beyond, such a lovely sea, lovelier even than the Mediterranean… To Penzance one goes over the moors, high, then down into Mount’s Bay, looking at St Michael’s Mount, like a dark little jewel. It is all gorse now, flickering with flower: and then it will be heather; and then, hundreds of foxgloves. It is the best place I have been in, I think.
…The place is rather splendid. It is just under the moors, on the edge of the few rough stony fields that go to the sea. It is quite alone, as a little colony.

[He goes on to plead with this letter’s recipients to rent the adjoining house to his, ‘the long house with the tower’, establishing two more friends with them, Heseltine and someone else, it will be like ‘a little monastery’. He even tells them who will occupy which rooms. ‘It would be so splendid if it could but come off: such a lovely place: our Rananim.’ There they could ‘strike some sort of root’ because ‘we must buckle to work.’ There must be no more ‘follies and removals and uneasinesses.’ I find his words here redolent of ‘uneasiness’. He concludes:]
…This country is pale grey granite, and gorse: there is something uralt and clean about it.
[His cottage, he proudly confides, ‘is only £5 a year.’ The larger house next door has a rent of £16 p.a. – chickenfeed, even then. Subsequent letters reveal why they were so cheap.]

[11 March? 1916, Tinner’s Arms, to JMM and KM] I told you all about the house: the great grey granite boulders, you will love them, the rough primeval hill behind us, the sea beyond the few hills, that have great boulders half submerged in the grass, and stone grey walls. There are many lambs under your house. They are quite tame. They stand and cock their heads at one, then skip into the air like little explosions…I’m sure we shall live on at Tregerthen a long while, years, a tiny settlement to ourselves. And the war will end before next summer…
[Yeah, right. More wishful thinking all round here. Even the lambs he later revises his opinion about, as we shall see.]

[Letters at this time relate how he’s been making furniture, cupboards, shelves, etc. He loved throwing himself into physical, manual labour; later he helped his farmer neighbours with harvesting and other farm work. This is all about the ‘freedom’ he seeks, not scenery per se. The first letter L. writes from the two-room cottage at Higher Tregerthen is dated 7 April, to Ottoline Morrell, when he says the JMMs have moved in, too, and they were busy decorating and putting things in order. ‘The Murrys like it also’, he claims – prematurely as it turned out.]

Lower Tregerthen farm, their neighbours

Lower Tregerthen farm, their neighbours

[16 April 1916, Higher Tregerthen, to Catherine Carswell] Here, doing one’s own things, in this queer outlandish Celtic country, I feel fundamentally happy and free, beyond.

[Letters now refer to the ominous wartime threats to this Cornish idyll; JMM is arrested by the police for evading conscription; he’s released when he shows rejection certificate. But General Conscription seems increasingly likely; L ruefully suggests he’d be used as a clerk, and often vents his spleen on jingoists and ‘patriotism’]

[18 April 1916, Higher Tregerthen, to O. Morrell] But one is impotent, and there is nothing left but to curse. Only, how one hates one’s King and Country: what a sickening false monster it is! How one feels nauseated with the bloody life, one stodge of lies, and falsehood. I don’t care a straw what the Germans do. Everything that is done nationally, in any sense, is now vile and stinking, whether it is England or Germany. One wants only to be left alone, only that…I hate the whole concern of the nation. Bloody false fools, I don’t care what they do, so long as I can avoid them, the mass of my countrymen: or any other countrymen.
I feel the war must end this year. But in one form or another war will never end now…It is very beautiful, all the gorse coming out on the hillsides. But one feels behind it all the dirty great paw of authority grasping nearer and nearer of jeopardy…the unspoken question all the time is how long do we hold out.