Thursday, December 3, 2009

as if it could hurt nothing

Writing about The People With the Dogs a few days ago made me think of ER Eddison, the author, most famously, of The Worm Ouroboros, and, less famously, of Mistress of Mistresses and A Fish Dinner in Memison and an unfinished fourth book, The Mezentian Gate. Dead in 1945, he was writing epic fantasy before Tolkien, and the two men, although they had similar interests (Icelandic legends, old languages: Eddison also published translations of both Egil's Saga and Styrbjörn the Strong), were not sympathetic. Tolkein visited the older author and came away distressed by his tolerance of "arrogance and cruelty."* Eddison, who went to Eton, like Captain Hook, adored Great Men and despised democracy because it was the government of little people who would not (in a nutshell) let a Great Man take over and do whatever he liked. "Writers like Tolkien take you to the edge of the Abyss and point out the excellent tea-garden at the bottom," wrote Michael Moorcock scornfully in Wizardry and Wild Magic, but Eddison does a different thing: he celebrates aristocratic brutality and trampling willpower, he likes the Viking idea that heaven is a place where you can wage war forever. He likes sex too. "When I kiss you it is as if a lioness sucked my tongue," says one of his characters to another. He would likely have found Tolkien's hobbits and their tea-garden Shire contemptible.

It was Stead's language that made me think of him: that, and a recent Theodore Dalrymple article about Le Corbusier, which I found linked to Arts & Letters Daily. "Le Corbusier," Dalrymple wrote, "extolled this kind of destructiveness [ie, knocking down old cities, replacing them with reinforced concrete buildings] as imagination and boldness, in contrast with the conventionality and timidity of which he accused all contemporaries who did not fall to their knees before him." I thought: it's Eddison's Great Man as an architect. In 1935 Corbusier praised "strong ideas," in 1935 Mistress of Mistresses was published. A bad time to be revelling in strong men, Dalrymple suggests. Six years later, when Fish Dinner came out, was an even worse time, and this is the book in which the worship becomes obtrusive.

It wasn't Stead, though, that reminded me, and it wasn't Eddison as a whole, it was the long sentence in the opening of Dogs and a long sentence in Mistresses. She didn't remind me of him, those two long sentences reminded me of one another. Eddison's style is a pastiche of older English styles, going back, like William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites, to a less modern Britain, and at first glance it looks like the standard Ye Olde that makes people roll their eyes and say, "Fantasy authors!" (Although the yearning itself was in the air at the time, and not always a fantasy yearning: Brideshead Revisited came out in 1945, and T.S. Eliot in 1923 was "all for empires" and emperors.**) But Eddison is strict with himself, he knows the effect he wants, and he knows his languages well enough to control them, even if his characters do come out with some unintended funny lines: "Come hither, my mopsy!" "O hold your clack!" By Fish Dinner he's honed himself down, indulging less in descriptions of samite and ivory (this new cleanness made the Great Manism even more of a betrayal: it was as horrifying as Lawrence Durrell poisoning The Avignon Quintet with schoolboy sneers at greengrocers and the Cockney accent, referring to one of his characters as "a lower class ferret", as if ferretry and the British lower classes were inextricable - and compare this to generous Dickens' treatment of his own "lower class ferret", Uriah Heep, his great moment of dignity at the end when he snatches the steering wheel of the book out of David Copperfield's hands and for a few triumphant moments the other man's biography is allowed to become his -). The introduction of Queen Antiope in Mistresses has a sweetness that transcends the potential heaviness of Ye Olde, alchemising the calcified into the epheremeral and making the Lady seem witty, intelligent, and potentially pitiless - but why should she feel pity for idiots when she is not one herself, Eddison would like to know? At moments like this the author's snobbery seems vindicated: it's snobbery made radiant.

There is no flexibility in his people, only in his prose: emotionally the characters are immobile noble objects, like chairs or tables, for his language to play across. Eddison's characters are really Beauty and Nobility, and a futile ache for something that never was, except in fiction, and not a soft nostalgic ache, but a stern Vikingish one, armed with semi-colons and commas that break the sentences into segments, like this -

Lessingham was in his shirt, tennis-racket in hand; he smote her with the racket, across the fore-leg as she sprang: this stopped her; she gave way, yowling and limping.

- so that each action is surrounded by a little clear space, not like Stead's charge-ahead style in that Dogs sentence, and yet it gives him the piling-up effect that Stead's sentence also has. I wonder if he kept the rhythm of the sagas in his head when he wrote.

Then Bur's sons lifted | the level land,
Mithgarth the mighty | there they made;
The sun from the south | warmed the stones of earth,
And green was the ground | with growing leeks.

(an extract from the Eddas, translated by Henry Adams Bellows)

Substitute breaks for commas:

Lessingham was in his shirt | tennis-racket in hand
He smote her with the racket | across the fore-leg

Why did he write prose at all, I wonder, when he already had a form here that would have suited him? The long sentence from Mistresses comes along at a point near the end of the book when civil war is starting to rage, everything is uncertain, the characters are in danger, everyone is fretting, roaring, and slaughtering, then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, this sentence steps onto the stage like a ballerina and rolls off into pirouettes (a comparison that came to me yesterday, so it was startling to come across an online Eddison biography this morning and discover that he had "interests in … music, ballet, the theatre"). This is that moment in a ballet when the lead spins around the stage for ages and the audience waits for her to fall down. When she doesn't, they cheer. In conclusion she sinks to the floor and bends her hands over her ankles.

And her eyes that had been green seemed grey now, like far sea horizons. Lessingham felt the peace of her mind enfold him like the peace of great flats of tidal bird-haunted marsh-land in a June morning looked on with the sun behind the looker: no shadows: the sky grey of the dove's breast toning to soft blues with faint clouds blurred and indefinite: the landscape all greens and warm greys as if it held within it a twilight which, under the growing splendour of the sun, dilutes that splendour and tames it to its own gentleness : here and there a slice of blue where the water in the creeks between wide mud-banks mirrors the sky: mirrors also boats, which, corn-yellow, white, chocolate-brown, show (and their masts) clear against the sky in those reflections but less clear, against land, in nature,: so, and all the air filled, as with delicate thoughts, with the voices of larks and the brilliant black and white of martins skimming and white butterflies: drifts of horses and sheep and cattle, littler and littler in the distance, peopling the richer pastures on the right where buttercups turn the green to gold: all in a brooding loveliness, as if it could hurt nothing, and as if it scarce dared breathe for fear of waking something that sleeps and should be left to sleep because it is kind and good and deserves to be left so.

I think this is the only place in the book where kindness and goodness are described as virtues, or, perhaps, mentioned at all. It's not obvious here, on the screen, but part of this line's power, when I came across it, lay in the placement: Eddison lets the reader think that they're about to embark on a rush to the finale, all war and swords, when this long object comes out from behind its rock and fixes itself on you like a moray eel, not letting you go, and ending with that note of gentleness, such an odd note to strike before the final battle, so strange, so unpredictable, and so right. This is a kind of writerly genius, when the author is so deeply into the work that they can do something like this, that looks so utterly unplanned and unplannable, that shouldn't work and yet does, in fact in retrospect seems to be the most correct thing they could possibly do.


* "Arrogance and cruelty" is borrowed from one of Tolkien's letters, cited in a footnote on this page. My point about Eddison despising hobbits is theirs too.

** From Michael Wood's review of Eliot's published letters:

I’m prepared to believe the editors of the letters when they say Eliot was being ‘jocular’ when he said he was ‘anxious to see the Hapsburgs restored’. But when (in 1923) he claims he is ‘all for empires, especially the Austro-Hungarian empire’, you begin to think he is just hankering for the old days and another life ...


  1. Hi Deane
    This is a test comment, in repsonse to a request from Sue at Whispering Gums.

  2. Re the test comment: the problem Sue and other would-be commenters have is because of the crazy BlogSpot anti-spam set-up for comments. When the screen opens and you type in the words of wisdom, the commenter has to choose a profile. If you then press post comment, it doesn't work. You have to click on preview first, and that brings up the screen with the anti-spam word which you fill in, and then when you press comment all will be ok. Why they don't have an instruction that tells you to do this, I do not know, and why it's necessary if you have an online identity anyway is a mystery to me.

  3. So they want you to do something that they're not telling you you need to do? Thanks for finding that out, and I'll say the obvious: that's just silly.

  4. Test, because I thought I had done what Lisa said...but maybe I didn't quite do it in that order.

  5. Ah, mine was different ... it wasn't just happy with my URl, it wanted a full name as well...I gave it, Whispering Gums and it was happy!

  6. I've changed it so that it accepts anonymous comments. My blog is now promiscuous. I'll leave it this way for now & switch it back if it gets spammed.

  7. Now, next question is, can we subscribe to a post so that we get emails when comments are made? Some blogs seem to have this option and some don't. I can't see one here.

  8. Anyhow, here is the comment I tried to make way back when I first tried to comment on your blog:

    I like the way you post about opening lines. My reading rule of thumb is that when I finish a book I go straight back to the opening paras because they can often add immeasurably to your understanding of the book. A good writer - as you are clearly noting - lays so much bare in their openings don't they?

  9. 1. There's a 'subscribe' link to the right of the Preview button when I post. As long as you've got that, you should be able to keep track of the comments. (If not, perhaps they restrict it to Blogger IDs?)

    2. Well (I'm going to pause here to qualify a good writer as, "Someone who seems alive throughout the book, someone who always appears to be thinking," or something like that), yes, the opening lines of a book can be like the opening bars of a song: they prime the reader, and the rest of the book feeds off them. In retrospect they feed off the rest of the book too, and every part feeds off every other part. Everything is a fingerprint, or - what is it that's made up of miniature replicas of itself? I can't remember. One of those. The opening begins to teach you how to read the book, and the rest of the book shows you how you could have read the opening. Going back to the first paragraph of Miss Herbert (the Suburban Wife) last night, I realised, for the first time, that the "slope that ran steeply to the hidden sea" could be seen to summarise Miss Herbert's life throughout the book - she's always standing on that kind of internal slope, that is, it's always possible that she might break away from the bind she's put herself in, and run down to expose the "hidden sea" that keeps being offered to her, yet she never does, and that's the problem with her, as the author sees it.