Tuesday, October 13, 2015

one single move to disengage myself

The narrator in The Aspern Papers brings flowers to the women he is trying to game and the people in the Ullman story take flowers away from lunch. That conjunction of flowers reminded me of the ritual idea that I had been toying with, re. the Ullman story – "they approach the lunch," I had been thinking, "as if they were going to a mass" – and so the approach to Miss Tita became, also, "sacrifice and ritual," as the movement of flowers from the garden into the Venetian palazzo became, in my mind, a continuation of the motion of the flowers away from the house in the Swiss village. "By flowers I would make my way."

As I typed out "sacrifice and ritual" I was also remembering that I had decided to avoid the placement of one book next to another when I thought about them and instead talk about one book at a time which I had not d … I can find dodges for myself and is it all right (I wheedle) if I have comparisons that don't lead to conclusions; for example, after reading Sarraute's Martereau I moved to Flaubert's Sentimental Education, which was being discussed at Wuthering Expectations, and when Frédéric leant a large sum of money to another character without getting a receipt I put the book upside-down on a chair with the pages open because the narrator in Martereau had given away money like that as well; and the ending of Martereau was coming back to me, the narrator's knowledge of, and complicity with, the disgust that he is sure the other characters feel for him; from their direction it is subtly expressed but he witnesses it at the scale that the book sees: "I won't budge, I'm too afraid … one single move to disengage myself, to repel him, one single a bit too brusque move, and something atrocious, something unbearable would happen, an explosion, a frightful conflagration, our clothes torn from us, noxious, deadly emanations, all his distress, his forlornness on me" (tr. Maria Jolas). The "him," who is the character Martereau, asks the narrator to respond and move. There the book ends.

This young narrator is physically weak and sick, he can't undertake heavy professions, and so he lives with his uncle's family instead of making his way in the world, but there is not enough rest in the universe for him. There is no rest; there is no place where he can rest. Even when they are sitting and fishing he can be unsettled by one question about a knot. "Is my knot well tied? A fisherman's knot, you must have learnt it when you were a boy scout." The question is irradiated with horror. Martereau is Gothic without needing the mountains, banditti, or such large decorations; the scenery has adjusted itself to a river bank by a house and the imprisonment of the narrator doesn't take place in a castle, but the moods of suspicion, dread, the sublime, suffocation, etc, are shared; the medium for that dread in Sarraute is the intrusion of questions and presences; the Gothic is a genre of intrusions and presences – things coming at you – I say to myself, repeating the words – they come mysteriously at and around, they circle – you can't defend -- and there is the distress of elimination waiting for you --

Now if I finish at "putting the book down" there is no intelligent comparison between Sarraute and Flaubert. So, stop.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

well disposed

There is a moment in Nathalie Sarraute's Do You Hear Them? (1972) when the father returns to a phrase that he ended, earlier, with an ellipsis, and provides the information that the ellipsis concealed. The story that he tells is interesting to himself but it is not an unspeakable secret; his coy and shy withholding is at least a little pathetic, and it a sign of the anxiety that eventually instructs the other characters to despise him. Here it occurs to me that the mood of sickened dread that I fall into whenever I read Sarraute is close to the feeling I have when I find a true crime website and run through the stories of murders. Consider murder as an activity by which people are made absent. When Louis Marlow, in his memoir of the Powys brothers (Welsh Ambassadors (1936)), decides to explain his friend John Cowper's reasons for eliminating his mother from his autobiography he interprets it as part of the other man's masochism, an aspect of the same self-abasement that made Powys enjoy bad striptease theatre. I was horrified when Marlow introduced the erased mother into the memoir as if she had been a normal person -- it seemed indecent and shameful; he should be ashamed, ashamed, to reveal her shockingly with these ordinary words -- "Mrs. Powys was friendly to me, well disposed; even, in her reserved way, affectionate: chiefly, I thought, because she saw me as shy and subdued."

Mrs. Powys hated success. She hated, with secret intensity, well-constituted people, or even people whose health was too good. When Llewelyn developed consumption and was determined not to die of it, she was far from friendly to his insistent will. She did not like his going to Switzerland, she did not like him having so many windows open. "These young men," she said, "seem to want to live forever."

I reflect that the unspoken gaps in Henry James' fiction seem playful by comparison, lighthearted, clever, even in Turn of the Screw, which, if Sarraute is like true crime, is like a fairytale instead, the characters standing phenomenally like symbols or metaphors inside one of the enclosures that James liked to establish: witness his palazzi, his country houses, the rooms that close in around Isabel Archer, the home that frames Miss Tita when she is transfigured, her beatitude the hidden thing to be witnessed in that story, the true core or whatever, accessible through sacrifice and ritual. "When I look at it my chagrin at the loss of the letters becomes almost intolerable."

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

as innocent as a doctor's thesis

Words under pressure can appear sinister, they begin to diffuse a secretion of unreasonable excitement throughout the story (the hysterical and contextually correct "joy" in Ullman's "attentive joy"), and now it is not Ullman I'm thinking of, it is Nathalie Sarraute at the start of "fools say" (1976), interrogating the phrase, "She is sweet;" now I remember her in Between Life and Death (1968) as she wrings out the word "héros." That true core of the bundt cake in Ullman is the momentary solidness of an interrogative chamber atmosphere (boundaried by the overt happiness of these people, arriving with joy and then accepting their flowers at the end), which is, also, the atmosphere of Sarraute's fiction, a fiction that is haunted by a "they," a collection of sportspeople or hunters who are searching for a score, a nasty wound, a little nourishing hit --

There's no use in shutting yourself up in your room to read, simply, or to work at anything as innocent as a doctor's thesis, they won't be taken in. Without showing it they possess – certain of them – an extraordinarily sharp instinct. Signs that, like ostriches, he believes to be invisible are perfectly clear to them.

(tr. Maria Jolas)

– but the hit is always brief and the movement of the books as a whole is the slipping action of a fluid that streams out from under them as they try to put their hands on it; the author's subtlety is a long report on the subject of their trapping or sniffing actions – her characters are sensitive to an invisible pressure that can be or could be forced or persuaded, or detected – "All he needed was for them to let him see that they sensed, as he did, this presence, that it is there for them too … something that exists very strongly, which it is not possible to disregard, which resembles nothing else … if they will just acknowledge that." (Ellipses hers.) Nothing is uttered unconsciously (this is in Ullman as well, and in Walser), and if the character is somehow unconscious of it then the author is not and nor is the reader, ever – so that a conversation in Sarraute's books (which are almost entirely conversation with nearly no description) is like water probing downhill and finding the most sure route but always via people, slippery people, never that solidness in things, never a bundt cake. This is a train of thought that Mudpuddle has put me onto by mentioning "the poetry of chinese taoist hermits" –

Drinking Alone with the Moon

From a pot of wine among the flowers 
I drank alone. There was no one with me -- 
Till, raising my cup, I asked the bright moon 
To bring me my shadow and make us three. 
Alas, the moon was unable to drink 
And my shadow tagged me vacantly; 
But still for a while I had these friends 
To cheer me through the end of spring.... 
I sang. The moon encouraged me. 
I danced. My shadow tumbled after. 
As long as I knew, we were boon companions. 
And then I was drunk, and we lost one another. 
...Shall goodwill ever be secure? 

(tr. unknown)

– wrote Li Po/Li Bai (701 – 762), who was sensitive to the pressure exerted by non-human objects as well as human ones, but in Sarraute the presence is always human and hostile, without a reason for that hostility; without a landscape setting where it might be taking place.

Monday, September 21, 2015

hidden, like the fragrance of the flowers

How was the "real core" of that bundt cake so delicately and accurately detectable to Regina Ullman and also to the characters, who could sense its "candid truth" in the light of several signs that were handed out by the author who had created it and likewise created them, and so let us say that the cake is at liberty to understand them just as profoundly as they understand it. If they can see that "the knife stuck fast in [the cake] couldn't find its way in or out," then this cake, which has the same status as them, a noun in a book, must be able to watch them experience their "attentive joy that people feel for one another at these moments" as they arrive at the house where food is going to be cut apart and eaten.

Throughout the story you have this attentiveness; the fine-tuned social senses of these people are at the forefront: "each person had his own sense of proportion, and could sense that the others did as well: still their petty eyes kept searching for something else." Searching, that's what they're doing; they are looking and feeling through the minute signals of the social and transcendent weft. "They have the thoughtful, expectant look of the man who has done everything and is prepared for what is to come." This is as they are moving towards the house where they are going to have lunch and a cake. They are like people who are living in a village where a volcano is about to erupt but the volcano is only a comestible and after they have eaten it they each accept the gift of a flower before they leave the house.

The young girl came to the table with a little basket on her arm, bringing each of the guests one of the little roses or buds that grew in the garden. Her smile was hidden, like the fragrance of the flowers.

The horror seeps into the world very obliquely and the aftermath is expressed gently and obliquely too as they put the flowers in their hats or buttonholes "or held it by the very end of its stem, as if it could easily wilt." How are the flowers hiding their fragrances? Why does the bundt cake try to conceal the knife?

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

the how and what, the this and that

– in order to know "whether John Clare was less influenced by Charlotte Smith as he aged" I think I would have to read everything Clare had written. Then re-read Smith's Elegiac Sonnets. Next, get myself a yardstick. Easiest would be to count the number of times they both (independently of one another) use the word 'the' and compare his number to her number and see if they grow farther apart but other writers have used 'the' as well so no go. Find some other pinpoint to free myself from the appearance of futility or farce, two characteristics that infested other writers I have been reading, Regina Ullman and Robert Walser, so that one of the questions that hangs around them both might be what is futility? "All stories bear resemblance to an elegant skirt that wants to cling tightly and becomingly to to a shape, that is, to something concrete: in other words they have to be told in such a way that the sum total of words forms a skirt that fits the body loosely but with a certain conciseness – fits, that is, the how and what, the this and that, to be reported." (Walser: All those who like to laugh while crying …, tr Susan Bernofsky) A hero named Westermann enters his Goddess of Poetry, and the composure of those sentences, the ones that describe this hero, irritates the author. "This intruder Westermann is getting on my nerves. How does he plan on reimbursing me for the attention I'm paying him, for seeing he comes out of it favourably?" God what are those characters doing? Finishing lunch and leaving. "I wish they'd stick fast to the table; then I'd be rid of them." Coleridge: "A nation, to be great, ought to be compressed in its increment by nations more civilized than itself—as Greece by Persia; and Rome by Etruria, the Italian states, and Carthage." (Table Talk.) Walser asks: who compresses a story into its increment? He keeps returning to the river that runs through the town even when it is far away from the action; his mind will wonder ah dear. One Ullman story becomes solemn around the presence of a cake. "But then, like a small, curled dragon, the lie came crawling out of the cake. It had been purchased at the last minute from the baker, and from the outside it looked just like every other bundt cake in the world. As for the astonishment it produced you would simply accept it in silence, just as she had done, but you could not simply accept the candid truth that was its real core." (Retold, tr Kurt Beals.) And Theo. Dreyer in Joan of Arc spends so much time looking at the contours of Joan's head next to the wet humps of her gleaming eyes, and it is one of the great films of world cinema say the critics: what do I make of that? Now springing out of context into my implied mouth come the eyes like "gaping well-heads" from Peake.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

wreathing round the thorn

As I was reading Mudpuddle's last comment I realised that if I wanted to say for sure whether John Clare was less influenced by Charlotte Smith as he aged, or more  –

(– or influenced by the romantic style she represented, not only by her specifically, for who is influenced by anyone specifically? Like any Romantic he was moved by the thought of Chatterton's suicide. "Coleridge's monody on Chatterton is beautiful." He tried to compose at least one poem about the other poet's death. A publisher "said he wanted to print [it] in a penny book to sell to hawkers but I was doubtful of its merits and not covetous of such fame so I declined it." (Autobiographical Fragments.) "[L]ookd in to the Poems of Chatterton to see what he says about flowers," he wrote on the "3rd Day of Sep: 1824," and as he read he re-discovered a "favourite" line, which he copied into his diary in this form: "The king cups brasted with the morning dew."

In Chatterton:
Dacya's sonnes, whose hayres of bloude redde hue
Lyche kynge-cuppes brastynge wythe the morning due,
Arraung'd ynne dreare arraie,
Upponne the lethale daie,
Spredde farre and wyde onne Watchets shore

(from the Songe to Aella, Lorde of the Castel of Brystowe Ynne Daies of Yore in the Poems supposed to have been written at Bristol by Thomas Rowley and others, in the Fifteenth Century, 1777)

If Chatterton meant "bursting" when he wrote "brastynge," as the author of the 1789 Life of Chatterton assumes that he did ("that delicious line, so full of the freshness and fragrance and vigorous youth of a spring morning"), then why did Clare write "brasted" instead of "brasting" when he doesn't use (I don't think) the equivalent, "bursted," in his own poetry, to denote anything except the past tense? What did he understand it to mean? There is "Wheat spindles bursted into ear | And browning faintly – grasses sere | In swathy seed pods dryd by heat | Rustling when brushd by passing feet," from A Sunday with Shepherds and Herdboys (pub. 1835 in The Rural Muse), and "The weaver […] couldnt draw | His breath but stampt his happy foot | & bursted, 'haw haw haw'" from a draft fragment that was published in John Clare: Poems of the Middle Period, 1822-1837 but the bursting in Clare is already done and over, whereas the bursting in the Chatterton imagery is happening now ...

It may be that if Clare had written Aella then the king cups would have already burst with morning dew; he would be comparing the heads of Dacya's sons to the flowers after they were already too full of the dew to burst any further, or this dew-filling would naturally have been a memory in him ("who sees the taller buttercup carpeting the closes in golden fringe without a remembrance of Chatterton's beautiful mention of it if he knows it" he wrote once (pub. in The Natural History Prose Writings of John Clare) – the line is a settled conjuration inside his brain) and therefore he recalls the word brastynge as it would have been in himself, but: shut up: here's an answer in The Rural Muse –  burnished? –

I see the wild flowers, in their summer morn
Of beauty, feeding on joy's luscious hours;
The gay convolvulus, wreathing round the thorn,
Agape for honey showers;
And slender kingcup, burnished with the dew
Of morning's early hours,
Like gold yminted new.

And mark by rustic bridge, o'er shallow stream,
Cow-tending boy, to toil unreconciled,
Absorbed as in some vagrant summer dream;
Who now, in gestures wild,
Starts dancing to his shadow on the wall,
Feeling self-gratified,
Nor fearing human thrall.

(Summer Images [my italics])

In D.H. Lawrence:

The common flaunts bravely; but below, from the rushes
Crowds of glittering king-cups surge to challenge the blossoming bushes

(from The Wild Common,(1921) –)

The next lines in Chatterton:

Than dyddst thou furiouse stande,
And bie thie valyante hande
Beesprengedd all the mees wythe gore

The king cup is also known as caltha palustris or marsh-marigold.)

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

o'er my soul short rays of reason fly

I mentioned this in the comments but I will say, again, here, in the open, that I feel disappointed whenever I realise that those two facts can't be mated closely together – I mean that one can't be turned into the consequence of the other – 1. the fact that John Clare read Charlotte Smith's phrase, "mossy nest," and 2. the fact that he wrote about a mossy nest. I do not have the satisfaction of John Livingston Lowes who notices that when Dorothy Wordsworth walks at night with Coleridge "the moon which she sees is the Mariner's moon" because in her journal entry for that day it is "horned," when everywhere else it is "crescent;" and from that Lowes deduces that her friend has recited

The hornèd Moon, with one bright star
Almost atween the tips

I see my desire reflected in Fromm, who is so tempted by the proximity of upheaval in Dorothy Richardson's life to the upheaval of the Second World War that she shoves them together: "yet just as England was to withstand the terrible blitz, Dorothy Richardson's strength of character would pass the supreme test: the failure of an edition that Richard Church had represented to her as 'the final bid for fame.'" (The Selected letters of Dorothy Richardson.)

In Fromm's phrase the importance of Dorothy Richardson is being asked to reside not in herself and her private reaction but in her synonymity with an international event: the biographer is longing to see Richardson's fortitude mount grandly outwards, and I think of a related longing in Smith, several times, in her sonnets, when she decides that a human being's emotion or fate is as the landscape is.

But the wind rises, and the turf receives
        The glittering web:--So, evanescent, fade
Bright views that Youth with sanguine heart, believes:
        So vanish schemes of bliss …

(from Sonnet LXIII)

Or in the turbid water, rude and dark,
        O'er whose wild stream the gust of Winter raves,
Thy trembling light with pleasure still I mark,
        Gleam in faint radiance on the foaming waves!
So o'er my soul short rays of reason fly,
Then fade …

(from Sonnet XXIII)

Some of this romantic "mellancholly" in Clare's first published book of poems too (whereas in the later work a more precisely nostalgic sadness, if I'm right). "I began to write Sonnets at first from seeing two very pretty ones in an old news paper I think they were by charlotte Smith [sic]" he says in Autobiographical Fragment A32. The first were begun when he was fourteen or fifteen.