Monday, October 17, 2016

this terrible Inundation

Richardson’s contemporary and friend Ann Lennox wrote a book called The Female Quixote, 1752, a satire against – against? - women who loved Madeleine de Scudéry’s Grand Cyrus, 1649 – 53, Cleopatra, 1648, by Gauthier de Costes, Roger Boyle’s Parthenissa, 1676, and other serialised romantic stories. The character Glanville begins trembling in vol. one (“began to tremble”) when he sees “the Girl return, sinking under the Weight of these voluminous Romances.” Courting Arabella the Quixote, he has promised to read her favourite books. “Glanville sat wrapt in Admiration at the Sight of so many huge Folio’s, written, as he conceived, upon the most trifling subjects imaginable.” Imbalance, the underlying subject of Lennox’s humour, lies, in this moment, with the idea that a huge Folio should pay the reader off with plenty of intelligent meat. If the subject matter is light then the size of the book is ludicrous, and Glanville is right to start trembling in the face of an assault. He should not be expected to … he is right to inhabit the same mindset that produces Infinite Jest, a well-packed, bursting big beef flesh parcel … so should we all …

De Quincey in the Opium Eater, 1821, proposing that “the deaths of those whom we love” have more impact in summer because the clouds are a different shape, is, I think, making a more complicated use of the instinct for ludicrosity that Lennox draws on when she wants to make you sympathise with Glanville; the romantic stubbornness and potential vulnerability in the face of possible disgust that also comes into play at the end of this sentence from de Scudéry’s Clelia, 1654 – 1661. De Scudéry is the most daring of them all: she is serious.

This pleasing anxiety proceeding from an amorous Impatience, did nothing discompose his usual temper sometimes clouded by most strange Distractions of his Spirit, which perswaded him some doleful accident might intervene whereby his happiness might be retarded as formerly it had been; for e're this he had Espoused his Mistress had not the River on whose Banks was situated a stately House wherein Clelius resolv'd to consummate his Daughters Nuptials, with such a sudden violence exceeded its prefixed limits that 'twas impossible to solemnize any Feast there during this terrible Inundation, the Waters continually encreas'd for the space of twelve hours, the Wind, Lightning, Thunder, and a dreadful Shower of Rain so multiplying the horrour of this fatal Deluge, that there was generally fear'd a total ruine and desolation: the water of the River seem'd to reach the Skies, and conjoyn'd, with that the Heavens pour'd down, agitated by those impetuous Tempests, roar'd as the swelling Billows of an angry Sea, or the falling of the most rapid Torrents: this violent eruption of the River, much disordered this Region of delight; for it demolish'd Buildings both publick and private, rooted up Trees, covered the Fields with Sand and Stones, levell'd Hills, furrowed the Plains, and changed the whole face of this little Country, but when it had wholly spent its fury, 'twas evidently seen that this inundation had in some places, unburied the ruines of divers Tombs, whose Inscriptions were half effaced, and in others it had discovered great Columns of Marble, with many other precious Materials; so that this place in stead of being deprived of its former beauty, received a more additional lustre from those new acquired Ornaments.

Translated by John Davies and George Havers.

Friday, October 7, 2016

crossed the bar, hove to

On page ninety-two of Wyndham Lewis’ Tarr last week (it was the 1990 Black Sparrow Press edition, subtitled The 1918 Version because the book was published three times during Lewis’ life with changed edits) I had the feeling that I was reading a sentence that had been written to be quoted. Once I went back to it I didn’t know why I would have mechanically (unconsciously, as if in a reader’s adaptation of Surrealism’s automatic writing) picked it out: “People feel with the ‘lonely’ man that he is going about with some eccentric companion, that is himself.” The afterword by the editor Paul O’Keeffe argues against the idea that the character Tarr is the Dostoevsky-Double figure Lewis planned for Kreisler (he wrote Soltyk in that role, O’Keeffe says. “[I]t is surely no coincidence that Soltyk’s original name was ‘Partikoff’”), but when David Trotter reviewed O’Keeffe’s biography Some Sort of Genius: A Life of Wyndham Lewis in 2001 he recalled that Lewis had referred to someone’s veil as “apoplectic gristle” in paragraph two of the short story Bestre, from Wild Bodies, 1927. When you read that, you know that no matter how many intelligent essays Trotter ever comes across, Lewis will always be his gristle author. Likewise I noticed last night in Saint-John Perse, how this poet of huge landscapes, deserts, wind, and seas, is never able to keep focus without drawing down now and then to a small object: “And the ships taller than Ilion under the white peacock of the sky, having crossed the bar, hove to | in this deadwater where floats a dead ass.” From section IV of Anabasis, 1924, tr. T.S. Eliot, 1938. Also, bees, birds’ eggs.

Lewis doesn’t have a Dostoevskian personality, as an author. His version of the desperate underground man doesn’t strut helplessly. And the writer seems to believe that strutting is justified (at some level other than the Dostoevskian 'soul'), rather than wretched, that Kreisler’s defiance is seriously recognised, not ludicrous.

The most memorable thing about Lewis in Tarr is not that he is reflecting Dostoevsky but that he is brusque. He can write. As always there is Dorothy Richardson talking about sentences that are written to show you that an author is clever, to advertise – sentences that take the place of persuasive branding for the writer. I wondered about an ethics of sentences, and whether there should be a penalty for quotable lines. Would writers take the penalty voluntarily; would that in itself become advertising? The Bulldogs skipper Robert Murphy is trying to get a kind of poetry around himself I think, in the article I read after the Dogs won on Saturday, when he ends an extended use of the word “loch” with the line, “[M]y lot this year means I won't get to lead my boys out in front of the Bulldog clan. That's my little loch that I shall keep locked.” He can expect his readers to know that he is talking about the acl injury that wrecked the upward trajectory of his life in April (removing him from the field) but “my little loch” is rhythm, singing, and not dictionary-meaning, since you can’t lock a lake, but it indicates a space where meaning somehow by suggestion, distinct from words, is.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

say yes today

Speaking of Jelinek reminded me of Eric’s comment on Lust, here. (“Think of what a strange work of art she has produced.” True.) Lust (more than Wonderful Wonderful) exists at angles to, or in defiance of, all books that progress through a series of events and end in a logical culmination of those events – it does not progress and not-progressing is one of its points (here’s life: repetition then death) – instead it establishes a set of more or less static situations and repeats them: the son is needy, first one way, then another; the man and the woman have sex and then they have it again, and sometimes it happens in the bath, another time in the kitchen, and each time Jelinek explains it with some different cohesion of context (“Blindly the woman cashes in her security from the man’s spitting dispenser,” “It wants to dwell within thy hallowed halls,” “His rain comes pouring from the cloudburst”) but the act itself occurs potentially endlessly, with the inevitably of genre, since in genre certain things are always going to happen. The nature of the individual genre establishes the type of thing that will happen but genre itself is the presence of them happening. Richardson’s Clarissa is noteworthy because it has both the forward progress and also the repetition with intensities.

The woman in Lust breaks from her home, finds another man, goes through sex with him and cycles back again to her husband. Breaking away does not make anything fundamentally different. Here the possibility of the progress that other books love, is teased. Sex is a pleasure for her husband and she wants a repetition of one pleasure with the other man. “She wants to hear that young man say yes today, having heard him yesterday.” (“Yes/today” and “yesterday” must be the translator Michael Hulse giving you a lick of Jelinek’s musical-clotted style.) But the young man is brutal and contemptuous. The woman does not have pleasure, she has a brief mastery of difference in repetition. The escape and discovery are like a parody of the idea of a quest. The treasure is supposed to transform things. This is pathetic.

The woman causes a rupture that ends the book but she has not attacked the repetition of sex. She has not removed herself, she has not deleted her husband. Even if she had, we have been told that Austria is full of the same mentality: erasing two people would not dissolve it. When Pausanius (c. AD 110 – c. 180) describes the oracle of Trophonius in his Description of Greece, he outlines a series of ritual acts that the petitioner has to undergo before their request is fulfilled, when they are allowed to descend into the rock and come out disoriented, with a revelation if they are lucky. (Sensory deprivation or exposure to volcanic gas, theory says: one or the other.) That visit to the cave is the end of their personal repetitions but the next person will have to undergo them too: the repetitions continue to exist. You could make a strip of patterned wallpaper long enough to wrap around the globe and it would still be exactly the same pattern at the beginning and end, without entropy, a piece of artificiality or art, not biological, although biology is present in the commission of the acts or marks themselves. (Genre is also resistance against entropy.) So the end of Lust has to be an explosion, which is the only way to calm down for a moment and have a straight line without patterns. “But now rest a while.”

Monday, September 19, 2016

she has followed her instructions to the letter

Near the end of Shirley Jackson’s Hangsaman, 1951, the character Natalie follows her friend into a dark forest where she realises that this good companion has been employed all along by a presence that somehow wants to abduct her. “She has done as she was told then, Natalie thought; she has brought me here with friendship and without force, she has followed her instructions to the letter and will probably be commended.” What is the presence? Earlier on the bus the two friends guessed that the other passengers might be agents of “them,” but the conversation is so ambiguous that it’s possible for the reader to understand “them” as something fairly routine: a power of convention that wants to repress an imaginative high school student; that sort of they. Now, though, when Natalie anticipates the presence in the woods, it is as if she is expecting a murderer. It is not the powers of society, it is a phenomenal force that draws her specifically away from society in order to approach her. Its strength does not seem to be located anywhere outside her belief in it: not in any institution or animal physicality.

Hangsaman is always discussed as if that event is a manifestation of the trauma that was repressed after a sexual assault in chapter one. Why is it necessary for trauma be shaped like a magical serial killer? This seems like a key question in Jackson and the answer must lie unanswerably outside the books as well as inside them. If you can say why Natalie’s family ignores the evidence of the assault then you might know why Eleanor in the Haunting of Hill House, 1959, has to steal a car, drive away, and be mentally possessed by an unfamiliar structure, why it is necessary for the structure to seem (supernaturally) familiar to her; why, in other words, the exposition of her character has to happen there, and not in the home where she has spent eleven years caring for her dying mother. All of Hill House can be read as a return to the last fifty pages of the earlier book.

(I think that by publishing Hangsaman Jackson found the other story.)

When I started writing this post I was wondering how Jackson might have changed her work if she had been able to read Elfriede Jelinek. Specifically I wondered if she might have lost the magazine archness veneering her sarcasm, if she might have looked at Otto, Gretl, and the twins in Wonderful Wonderful Times / Die Ausgesperrten, 1980 and recognised her own cynicism towards families, the conviction of Natalie’s father that his desires are best and that his disdain for his wife is justified, the wretchedly obedient self-hatred of the wife herself which Jackson makes as unpitiable as possible, for both authors will prickle at benevolence. I was disturbed by what I interpreted as the author’s voluntary or habitual defanging of herself. In Jelinek’s translated sentences play and anger are the same thing: the sentences are negatively energised, the play is jeering, whereas Jackson’s play is play apart, in a place where people have time to sit comfortably every now and then, writing calm, wry statements about the little things in life: a leisure place, and as such it exists apart from the anger or panic or disgust that supply the sentences with their meanings. But there is always something theoretical to appeal to in Jelinek when the characters act on that sarcasm: there are patriarchal mores or the denialism of postwar Austria; there is no ghost they. Jackson is unsealed, more careless, she hides (Jelinek exposes); she is (idea) not writing Hangsaman to reveal a fictionalised sexual assault but to conceal one, as if some wound, not necessarily sexual, has already happened and now it needs obfuscation to hide it away.

Monday, September 12, 2016

come to hear a little more

Society is the unit of enclosure in Richardson; also the space of letters. The books are their own enclosures in a way that a fiction with nature descriptions is not, since the material of a book is never nature and it can’t mimic nature; cannot be like a twig or rock; a book can’t come from nature; so every detail in a Richardson book is a reinforcement of enclosure in its own implied matter. (This should be qualified by a reminder of the Alps in Grandison, vol. 4 ch. 39.) Richardson, as an author of fiction books, was born from a volume of model letters that his friends Charles Rivington and John Osbourne convinced him to write for them, “a little book (which, they said, they were often asked after) of familiar letters on the useful concerns of common life; and, at last, I yielded to their importunity” (letter to Aaron Hill, 1 Feb., 1741). He owned a printing business and they were his colleagues in the trade. You assume that they didn’t feel like writing the model letter book themselves; maybe not trusting their own abilities, or else they didn’t have time, or it seemed easier to bug their friend, who had never written a work of fiction before, though he had edited some of the books that came through his presses, and had once composed a pamphlet of advice for apprentices, The Apprentice’s Vade Mecum, 1733. Something in what he was (what was it: what was he?) encouraged them to ask him several times to write this Familiar Letters, which was composed in 1739 and published eventually in 1741. “While I was writing the two volumes, my worthy-hearted wife, and the young lady who is with us, when I had read them some part of the story, which I had begun without their knowing it, used to come into my closet every night with – ‘Have you any more of Pamela, Mr. R.? We are come to hear a little more of Pamela’ &c. This encouraged me to prosecute it.” They did not have to ask him directly, according to him (their asking-him asked him, not they) – he flew into it “so diligently, through all my other business, that, by a memorandum on my copy, I began it Nov. 10, 1739, and finished it Jan. 10, 1739-40.” The epistolary formula stimulated him to invent it, the never-alone to and fro motion, which he combines with the direct me-to-you of instruction (the idea of vade mecum never left him). These two actions at once. He is always with people.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016


Reading the sentence, “How a middle-aged business man came so thoroughly to understand a little servant girl is the usual mystery of creation,” in Eaves and Kimpel’s Samuel Richardson: a Biography, 1971, p. 105, re Pamela, 1740, I made the following notes:

Richardson believed that he was shy; now say that shyness is a form of captivity.

See for evidence, his letter to Samuel Lobb, Jan 31st, 1754, sampled like this: “When I was young, I was very sheepish; (so I am indeed now that I am old: I have not had Confidence enough to try to overcome a Defect so natural to me, tho’ I have been a great Loser by it),” going on through the strategies he invented so that he could raise his voice in public: “this was my Rule to get Courage … : I let them all speak round before I open’d my Lips, after the first Introductions: Then I weigh’d, whether I had been to speak on the same Occasions, that each Person spoke upon, I should have been able to deliver myself as well as they had done ...” etc.

His women are under the wills of others, even in their homes, this is the form of his world.

Sir Charles Grandison, who is the best possible man in Richardson’s mind, is not shy.

Richardson doesn’t heroise inactive men (compare Burney).

Grandison lectures his inactive uncle. The uncle becomes subordinate.

An inactive, speechless woman in Richardson has a vocabulary of goodness around her: she is humble, modest, obedient, kind, and respectful; lots of praiseworthy things can be read into her silence; especially young women.

Kind, self-sufficient men are active in R.

Kind, self-sufficient women do not have to be active.

His “Rule” was to wait until the rest had spoken before he decided to join or stay silent: all depended on them. “I let them all speak round before I open’d my Lips … Then I weigh’d … And if I found I should have rather chosen to be silent, than to say some things they said, I preserv'd my Silence and was pleased. And if I could have spoken as well as others, I was the less scrupulous: While those who were above my Match, I admir'd, endeavour'd to cultivate their Acquaintance, by making myself agreeable to them by my Modesty, if I could not by my Merit; and to imitate them, as nearly as my Abilities and Situation would permit ...”

Friday, August 26, 2016

to have recourse

Harriet asking to delay her wedding, Clementina wanting to repel marriage and become a nun, this is another mirroring that I can’t parse, the two women parallel, both struggling against a vise (vol. 6, many ch.). The tenor of the book runs a) with the desires of the vises, but also b) with the feelings of the women since it will not criticise their unreason except through a questionable polyphony. Unreason here is as the vises perceive it. The value of this secret unreason is preached by the book, but hopelessly, the book forming the parallel as a kind of protest, like an extended, begging hand. It is sympathetic to Harriet, showing her dread, and Harriet says that Clementina should be allowed to follow her inspiration, though she is not speaking to the other woman’s face, never having met her. Harriet believes the longing, as a longing, should be heeded. And the reader might recall the aspiring rapist Pollexfen ignoring Harriet's own distress long ago in vol. 1, ch. 33: “he now and then made apologies for the cruelty, to which, he said, he was compelled by my invincible obstinacy, to have recourse.” Now the Pollexfen situation is replicated insidiously by people the author has more or less labelled good. Here is a high point of Richardson’s ambiguity.

Here is one undertone in him: women are always in captivity.