Wednesday, June 28, 2017

a bower about a dozen yards off

Wondering if this dependable house phenomenon in British literature, after thriving quietly for many years in the service of other things, was seized, expanded, and decorated by Dickens, for Mr Wemmick in particular, but for others as well, e.g., Marley becoming a doorknob, Krook characterising the front of his shop with bottles, Dick Swiveller referring to "his single chamber" in the plural "as his rooms, his lodgings, or his chambers, conveying to his hearers a notion of indefinite space, and leaving their imaginations to wander through long suites of lofty halls, at pleasure."

Jaggers is so secure in his personal cunning and viability that he never locks his house; he never needs to, for no one will rob him. “You know where I live; now, no bolt is ever drawn there; why don’t you do a stroke of business with me? Come; can’t I tempt you?” he says to the best burglars, according to Mr Wemmick. Wemmick, meanwhile, has his moat, his drawbridge, his happy pantomime of security and wealth. Jaggers, as mentioned, is his own security. His protection does not need a look. They both derive pleasure from their different securities. Each one is integral to the state of his own house. The house is about well-being. Wemmick talks about himself being fantastically "besieged" in the future and holding out with his cucumber frame.

Then, he conducted me to a bower about a dozen yards off, but which was approached by such ingenious twists of path that it took quite a long time to get at.

The device of the secure house might lead (if you could trace it) to the hidden house, Badger's den in Willows, 1908 - this personal ownership of the mysterious grotto, hideaway, or prison cell, of a Gothic novel, the ruins of a Roman settlement holding up his ceilings, too, ruins domesticated – and it also might lead to the sight of the Twins on their tree, spotted but invulnerable in Titus Groan, 1946. And did the commercial wealth of the Victorians contribute to it; the Great House, the Secret Garden?

(Is the dependable fictional house more particular to this nationality than to others? I am not going to hazard a guess, though now there's Beowulf, their ancient chronicle, the story of a double home invasion, or one home invasion answered with another – the action taking place in Denmark, although the manuscript we have was made elsewhere, English, indoors; and Beowulf himself was no doubt a direct inspiration for Aunty Jack centuries later threatening to Come Round To Your House And Rip Your Bloody Arms Off if you didn't tune in to the show again next week. Observe, if you will, this merging of the hero Beowulf and the villain, Grendel's Mother, standing, in the persona of Aunty Jack, upon a rock, her hand in a boxing glove, grunting at you; how well you can imagine her seizing a foe and wrestling in the dark hall of Hrothgar, or living in a swamp, being of massive nature as she evidently is. That old hall, maybe, developing, coming within the reach of more people, not strictly kings and thanes; Wemmick inhabiting his Heorot.)

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

he did you

As I was about three-quarters of the way through the end of Anna Moschovakis' 2011 book of poetry, You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake, I thought of Charlotte Dacre again, remembering that the sources for various bits of her story would only occur to me after I had read a little way into them; so that I might go a whole page into the episode between Victoria's brother and the wife of his friend before I realised I was reading the tale of Joseph and the Potiphar household. Her contemporaries must have felt that pair of stories existing at the same time too; this sense of seeing two things at once, one of them familiar, the other one new but somehow already visible to the end. And the comparisons between Milton's Satan and Dacre's Zofloya were not made immediately. Eventually they were strong and you were convinced. These inspirations were abducted into the book and now they served its purposes even though they stayed unsubmerged. According to the plot, this Joseph-brother needs to be traumatised and thrown out by the friend so that he can flee to the Alps and become the banditti leader whose face is forever masked. Then his sister will not recognise him when Zofloya flies her there magically to escape the servants who have found her husband's poisoned body inside a trunk and the husband's friend Henriquez's sword-transfixed corpse on the floor of his bedroom in a welter of blood while the scandalously young orphan fiancé is first chained up in a cave with a leopard skin and then thrown into an abyss ("because he loved me more than he did you!" she points out to Victoria). And there is the story that will do the work for you, Joseph and Potiphar. It is Biblical but your book is good, fine, it has a moral, it fits.

Then here was Moschovakis, forthrightly telling you that she was about to refer to a chatbot named Anna, and then referring to it, discussing it, describing its conversations with lists, writing letters to it, putting its words into her poems, borrowing its identity, playing with it, etc, without any pretense of unconsciousness toward the source; also without the assumption that you would know that source automatically, as Dacre might have assumed that everyone knew Milton well enough to make the illustration of explicit directive arrows drawn in his direction seem unnecessary or redundant. When Proust writes about the milk boiling over during a metaphorical passage in The Guermantes Way then the description is so long and detailed (I am checking this in the Moncrieff/Kilmartin version, which is all I have on me at the moment) that I think he is writing about something that happened to him recently, possibly even on the day when the passage was written. It is like a diary entry, though he abstracts it away from himself by framing it as if it is a situation that happens to us all, and can be therefore used as a fruitful example of a common problem. It is only his description that makes it familiar, though. It was unfamiliar before he began. To return to Zofloya, the book's modern editor Kim Ian Michiasiw ends his introduction by pointing out that the name itself – "Zofloya" - has no precedent that his research could discover, that it had never existed before, no possible inspiration had been uncovered, and nobody knows why Dacre thought of it.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

a self-formed bower

Zofloya, like – all, I think: all? – the other British books I've read from the same period, regards each house as if it is a solidly established and perpetual fact of life no matter what role it plays in the story. It might function as a prison, a nice home, a place of refuge, whatever; but there they are, these immobile and effective containment objects with the human pellets flying to or from their confines. The house is empirical yet unconscious and the pellets struggle with their own agency. Richardson's Clarissa is the story of people changing houses. Charlotte Dacre's Victoria, escaping from an emprisoning house, seeks a city. Being "firm-minded" she is able to spend one night in the woods when she finds a room-substitute, "a self-formed bower," growing from a wall-substitute, a hedge. I notice this because the Oliver house in Hamsun's Pump is affected by whims. There is the question of whether it might be taken away from the family at any moment if Lawyer Fredriksen feels like it. Oliver is inspired to blackmail the lawyer, which makes him feel pleased. He has found a practical use for his own cuckolding; it is smart. Any small opportunity to exercise his independence can bolster him. The smallness or perverseness of the opportunity is discovered by Hamsun here as elsewhere; it takes almost nothing to make someone proud or angry, nothing; the forces in the spiritual, emotional, or invisible world and the physical world do not match in his book; and they cannot measure one another. 

This is an idea the author tests again and again throughout his oeuvre: yes, it's true here, yes it's true there as well, and now it's true again: it's outrageous, Hamsun never gets over it – look at this, he says, peeking at you to see if you get it. (I mean that he will tell you about Oliver's triumph as if with a straight face, while you think … yes: as Hamsun must know you do … but you won't catch me saying so, he tells you by implication, sharing the same kind of stupid cunning as his characters -- their pointless evasiveness …)

He wrote endlessly about smallness; he enlarged himself on smallness. Hunger is literally nothing. 

Nowhere do you see the house-uncertainty better than in two of the doors, which are only in Oliver's possession because he is relying on the real door-owner to feel too ashamed to demand his property back from a one-legged man. Oliver sells the doors to someone else; he's called out, he gets them back; he sulks over them; these doors keep flying in and out of the structure.

If you have plans to change yourself, as Fredriksen does, then someone else viewing it from their own angle will observe an opportunity for their cunning. That is what your plans look like to them. (In this respect, a Norwegian Balzacian.)

Thursday, June 8, 2017

help us to take off

There's one minor character in The Women at the Pump who is like someone from the early Hamsun books coming into this one; he is poor, he has set himself a task that compels him to suffer, and he will not do anything to accomplish it. "He never comes home, no he's a real oddity; he's taken it into his head that he won't come home until he's made a lot of money and can built onto the house and help us to take off," says his father. The son has never made money. He travels on foot around the countryside and plays the mouth organ for his own enjoyment, something he was good at as a child. His parents want to see him again but "he wouldn't come home until he'd become a capitalist." Of course he will never become a capitalist. Oliver, the book's lead character, tries not to become a capitalist by refusing to sell the fish he catches but he cracks eventually. It is from enjoyment that he fishes, though, he says: he does not need to fish. Meanwhile his mother is doing everything she can think of to save the household from starvation. But he does not need to fish; he does not want people to think that he does anything because he has to. And this other son, the harmonica musician, he has stated a need for himself and does not do it; he states that it must be done so that it will not be done; and he has created the thing that he has to do so that he can refuse to make it real. And so reality can be kept out; he is protecting everyone, let's say, from one version of unhappiness.

Charlotte Dacre, in Zofloya, or, the Moor, 1790, says that Victoria has fallen in love – in lust; she seduces him - with her husband's brother Henriquez, but as the Oxford University Press editor Kim Ian Michasiw points out in his introduction to the 1997 republication of the book (and this is true, easily observable, blatant, and strange), the physicality of Henriquez is not described from her perspective nearly as often as that of his servant, Zofloya, who is "of superior height," handsome, "elegant," "graceful," "noble and majestic," well-dressed, and compelling. Victoria's mental reaction to him is detailed more extensively than her thoughts about Henriquez: "Scarcely had her head reclined upon the pillow, ere the image of Zofloya swam in her sight; she slumbered, and he haunted her dreams; sometimes she wandered with him over beds of flowers, sometimes over craggy rocks, sometimes in the fields of brightest verdure, sometimes over burning sands, tottering on the brink of some huge precipice, while angry waters waved in the abyss below."

The Henriquez thoughts are sketches compared to this: "he employed her fancy by night; his form presented itself if she awoke," but there're no paragraphs of specific wandering over beds of flowers, craggy rocks, etc; nor does he have "eyes, brilliant and large" that "sparkled with inexpressible fire."

At some point it strikes even the least subtle reader that Zafloya is starting to remind them of Satan in Paradise Lost.

The love for Henriquez is something that is not happening even while someone is saying to you, "It is real, it is happening," still, your senses (as a reader, your other-than-literal understandings) tell you that it is not occurring, it will not occur, it is not really there – I found this an unsettling position.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017


The man at the helm in Knut Hamsun's Women at the Pump, 1920, tr. Oliver and Gunnvor Stallybrass, is like and unlike the much earlier men in Hunger, 1890, Pan, 1894, etc, the solitary figure who dedicates himself to stubbornness so publicly that he becomes a mystery to all the other characters. This man's covert fantasy is to be the only person in the world who can act. Everyone else should be capable of nothing but reactions. He can't manage the universal equilibrium, though; he jumps in the sea. On the day that one of my work colleagues graduated university two weeks ago his flatmate slit his wrists and walked around the house for a period of time sprinkling blood over the walls and floor in every room – his girlfriend had left him – spraying everything so thoroughly that my colleague and the flatmate's mother spent the rest of the week struggling to clean the carpet. M. saw the colleague yesterday, still wiping down the railings on the patio where the flatmate was found by the police, alive and sitting in a chair. He was discharged from the hospital within hours. As far as I know he has never helped with the cleaning. Anyway, the man in Women at the Pump is more settled than his counterparts in the earlier books, enjoying a wife, a house, jobs, children, and a recognised role in the town. He is relatively satisfied with himself when you compare him to the others. After the third child is born with blue eyes he begins to stalk his wife because he's afraid she is having an affair but then he stops worrying and doesn't stalk her. They produce more children. There is a rumour that he has fathered the illegitimate son of an elderly servant and this pleases him more than anything else.

Near the end of the book you discover that his genitals fell victim to a shipboard accident when he was a teenager so none of his wife's children could have been the result of married intercourse anyway. When this fact appears in the book it is almost as if the recalcitrance of the earlier characters has been given a shape, a point, or even an answer, as though the author is saying, after years of mystification, that things deserve to happen for prosaic and sensible reasons after all, but when you look again then the mystery of the man whose knowledge is produced by his own performance of that knowledge is still there. "One is saddled with the world one creates, as all creators are," says the author. When the man declines to repeat his jealous stalking while his wife is obviously having sex with the powerful lawyer Fredericksen then you see how skillfully he has learned to play his own trick against himself for his own benefit. Now I might think of Stevie Smith in the poem Egocentric, 1966, ending a line with the word "baboon" when all she had to do was to find a rhyme for "Star."

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

prams are pushed along

Wingfield’s innate and unconscious faith in authority and ennoblement is strangest in Beat Drum, Beat Heart, 1946, a book-length poem that spends its first half discussing the suffering of British men during and after World War I without ever suggesting that anyone was responsible for the war or that the soldiers might be annoyed at them. Instead a first-person man-voice wishes that some inhuman power would “Find me a cause | Or a catastrophe” to rouse him out of his postwar ennui, even if it kills him. Alex Davis in The Cambridge Companion to Contemporary Irish Poetry, 2003 says that Drum “counterpoints male brutality with an exploration of the ferocity that subtends female desire” but the distance between a man on a battlefield getting a bullet in the head and a woman trying to pin down her soulmate is so wide that it’s hard to take the counterpoint as seriously as the poet wants; the man-violence and the woman-violence are operating in different worlds, though Wingfield tries to bring them together by giving the woman-half of the poem language like this:

Each fibre through my frame is used, with enough
Force and guile to split apart an empire,
Or exhaust the world with strategies.

There is no corresponding reaching-out in the language of the man-part, which mirrors, apparently unintentionally, the motion that Wingfield depicts in men and women: the women grasping for the men and the men grasping for something intangible. The language around women in the man-half of Drum is casually scornful: “And tramps unwrap things from a newspaper | And women mince, and prams are pushed along”, “But now, as salesmen moving through half-lights | We might be women traipsing | The rainy suburbs, on uneven heels, | In ugliness, unkindness and in waste”. But Wingfield believes that the right man will bring a woman to a mystic point of cohesion and this will perform the same service for her as “a cause or a catastrophe” would for him.

Opening Practicalities: Marguerite Duras speaks to Jérôme Beaujour, 1987, tr. Barbara Bray, just now I found myself reading similar ideas coming out of a different writer. It would be interesting to run Wingfield’s poem through the beliefs that Duras outlines in this chapter called Men.

About writing, Duras says:

The image of a black box in the middle of the world isn't far out.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Another List

Sheila Wingfield: Collected Poems 1938 – 1983, 1983
Kathleen Raine’s poem Night Thought, from The Hollow Hill, 1964
C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, 1950
Enid Blyton, Hollow Tree House, 1945
Arthur Machen, The White People, 1904
Georges Bataille, Story of the Eye, 1928

(N.b. an inclusion in the list should not be read as an endorsement of the book. I decided to add this caveat when I was thinking of putting John Masefield in there.)