Wednesday, December 30, 2009

as mad as ever

Jubilate Agno by Christopher Smart.

Thanks to Ray Davis, the blogger at Pseudopodium, we have an online publication of the Jubilate Agno fragments, an eighteenth-century poem that usually never sees the light of day unless an anthology decides to publish an excerpt. When they do it's always the same excerpt. Sometimes they call this excerpt My Cat Jeoffrey - you know -

For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffry

For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him

For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.

For is this done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.

- and "spraggle upon wraggle," and so on. Jeoffrey can be found at the end of Fragment B, part 4 of the Agno, if you're curious. Smart wrote the poem between 1757 and 1763 after he had suffered a breakdown and been confined to a lunatic asylum. The nature of this breakdown is not exactly known, but it seems to have manifested itself in excessive public praying. "My poor friend Smart shewed the disturbance of his mind, by falling upon his knees, and saying his prayers in the street, or in any other unusual place," said Samuel Johnson. In an extensive biography and evaluation of Smart's work at the Poetry Foundation website, Karin Williamson points out that this account is supported by lines in the poem itself:

For I blessed God in St James's Park till I routed all the company.

For the officers of the peace are at variance with me, and the watchman smites me with his staff.

Williamson writes:

Jubilate Agno, even in its fragmentary form, is Smart's "prophetic book": a doxology, evangelical and philosophical manifesto, personal diary, and commonplace book all in one, as well as a remarkable experiment in poetic form. On internal evidence, it appears to have been written over a period of four to five years, from 1758-1759 to 1763. The manuscript, whose existence was not publicly known until 1939, consists of two sets of loose papers, each set containing closely written series of verses all beginning with the same word--Let and For, respectively.

There's a long article about his confinement at Wikipedia, along with a Smart biography, which is supplemented with links to other articles about his georgic The Hop-Garden, mock-epic The Hilliad, and other works. Williamson, in her piece, takes a look at the other major poem he wrote during his incarceration, A Song to David. "I have seen his Song to David and from thence conclude him as mad as ever," remarked one of his friends to another, although anyone who puts Agno next to the more conventional rhyming David is likely to wonder what he was getting excited about. If "The spotted ounce and playsome cubs / Run rustling ’mong the flowering shrubs" was enough to make this friend conclude that he was mad then Smart should be glad he never got to Agno's depilated Sodomites, or the "Sea-Horse, who shoud have been to Tychicus the father of Yorkshiremen" or

Let Demetrius rejoice with Peloris, who is greatest of Shell-Fishes.

Let Antipas rejoice with Pentadactylus -- A papist hath no sentiment God bless CHURCHILL.

Looking at Agno next to the rest of his output reminds me of the time I came across Milton unexpectedly in John Hayward's anthology of seventeenth century poetry and saw - for the first time, because till then I'd only seen him among other poets considered Great, where his presence was ordinary and expected - how vividly he ripped through his contemporaries, how, in the middle of a field of Phyllisses and perishing roses he seared like a lightning bolt. The Agno is not Milton, but it is marvellous and unusual.

Then there's a short piece about the Jeoffrey excerpt at Slate, by Robert Pinsky, and a Smart essay available by someone - a university student? - named Ross King, Insolent Women and Crest-fallen Men: Christopher Smart, The Midwife, and Literary Travestism. Parts of The Midwife magazine (one of several that he wrote for during his lifetime) can be read at Google books.

Let Jether, the son of Gideon, rejoice with Ecchetae which are musical grashoppers.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

the varieties of polluted fog

Following on from the Dickens post I made on the 22nd, I'm going to post a link to this article by Adam Thirlwell. Dickens, Thirlwell nicely argues, with references to Walter Benjamin, was "London's greatest describer," an artist of the junk world. "His life was spent observing how much a life became a collection of useless, loved objects."

London was managed by a majority of minority trades, all in the business of garbage: bone-pickers, rag-gatherers, pure-finders, dredgermen, toshers. And London’s greatest describer, who converted the ghostly industrial city into a new world of words, was a novelist who could taxonomically and poetically enumerate, say, the varieties of polluted fog.

Monday, December 28, 2009

a simple and comprehensive programme

I am about to give away several plot points from Middlemarch. Beware.


"Why, yes," said the Rector, taking up the newspaper. "Here is the Trumpet accusing you of lagging behind - did you see?"

A while ago, maybe it was last year, a publishing house decided to release a range of abridged classics, at which, I remember, several newspaper journalists published online articles, laughing, "Who reads all of Middlemarch anyway? Who would read Middlemarch for fun? Is abridging really heresy?" I was mystified. I'd read Middlemarch years before and liked it so much I used to hold the book in one hand and go on with whatever I was doing with the other (my parents owned a palm-sized onionskin copy with a dark cover, deep navy blue). When it seemed that everyone had begun agreeing that it was boring I wondered if I'd been wrong, or somehow read it wrongly, or if I was misrepresenting it to myself in retrospect: really, reading it had not been a happy experience, I had suffered, I had dragged myself through it, it had been a chore.

Re-reading the book two weeks ago (two-dollar secondhand Penguin, orange spine), I realised that I had enjoyed it, and I still do, and I was mystified all over again. Why didn't these journalists want to finish it? Why did they think no one else would want to finish it? How could they have written those articles with such confidence? (I remember the tone being confident, a little scornful.) How could their experience of Middlemarch be other than mine? I was being Sir James, who struggles with the idea that other people can have notions that are not also his.

Sir James paused. He did not usually find it easy to give his reasons: it seemed to him strange that people should not know them without being told, since he only felt what was reasonable.

"For," the author writes, "the egoism which enters into our theories does not affect their sincerity; rather, the more our egoism is satisfied, the more robust is our belief." I thought Middlemarch was an enjoyable book, how could anyone else not think it was an enjoyable book?

"I do wish people would behave like gentlemen," said the good baronet, feeling that this was a simple and comprehensive programme for social well-being.

There are several ideas running through Eliot's book, and this notion of an unbridgeable gap between one human brain and another is one of them. She approaches it prolifically. There is the case of Sir James, who decides to be a friend to Dorothea even after he has realised that he doesn't understand her (in the scheme of the book he is a good man and this is one of his good qualities: he senses the gap and does not recoil - not a perfect human being, "Sir James Chettam's mind was not fruitful in devices," but not a coward, not mean, therefore good); and there is rich Peter Featherstone who tells his maid to burn a document and is stymied when he discovers that her obedience is conditional after all; and there is the younger man, Lydgate the aspirational doctor, who marries Rosamond assuming that she will dote on him for his brain - and it's a fine brain, but she doesn't, because this is his idea of a quality he deserves to be admired for, not hers. The course of his life is altered, not by this mistake alone, but by dozens of other assumptions coming around it. The townspeople get the wrong idea about him, then, thanks to this, he finds himself in financial trouble (at first they employed him, he incurred a debt expecting them to go on employing him, they do not), then an action of his is misinterpreted; his reputation receives a coup de grâce, and his career veers off-course.

And let it not be supposed that opinion at the Tankard in Slaughter Lane was unimportant to the medical profession …

Sometimes the clash takes place between two people, sometimes between one person and a crowd, or one person and the public opinion, or one arm of society and another, or one person comes up against the thrust of history. Complacency can be buttressed by something as temporary as physical satisfaction.

"But what was that other thing you meant?" said Lygate, who was nursing his leg as comfortably as possible and feeling in no great need of advice.

She goes at it like War and Peace, pulling focus from that knee up to a mob scene, pressing her point home by showing it now here, now there: it becomes the dominant force in the universe, her universe. Mr Brooke is complacent too, but his complacency is attached to money and status - he's a landlord, he feels his tenant farmers must like him - not that he talks to them all that much - he sort of just - assumes -

"This looks well, eh?" said Mr Brooke as the crowd gathered. "I shall have a good audience, at any rate. I like this, now - this kind of public made up of one's own neighbours, you know."

The weavers and tanners of Middlemarch ... had never thought of Mr Brooke as a neighbour, and were not more attached to him than if he had been sent in a box from London.

Over and over, Eliot's characters discover that what they imagined were immutable laws of the universe, laws they had grasped and could control, are mutable after all, and, in fact, depend on the wills of other people. Over and over they are taken by surprise. It shouldn't surprise them at all, for in Middlemarch this happens everywhere, all the time, to everyone - and yet, without fail, every character is shocked, embittered, dismayed, shaken, made pensive. Like death, disappointment is assumed to happen, but it is not supposed to happen to me. The author is compassionate. "I feel sorry for him," she says of Mr Casaubon. Mr Casaubon is unbearable. But we bear him. She bears him. Look, she says, and through paragraphs she leads us into his mind, see, how all of this unbearable behaviour makes sense from his point of view, see how human it is? And yet - she brings us outside him again and we look at his unhappy wife - Mr Casaubon remains unbearable. This is part of the book's cleverness. Compassion, it says: we should have - not love, necessarily, but compassion. We're making these mistakes too, without knowing it.

So too, myself and the abridged-classics journalists. I imagined that everyone liked Middlemarch - they expected that everyone didn't. They expected the reader to agree with them, or perhaps to react in some interesting and controversial way; I didn't agree with them,and my reaction was not controversial or interesting. We could have been worked into Middlemarch somewhere, something very minor (I'm visiting the neighbourhood as a friend of somebody - I'm the fiancé of a friend of Fred Vincey - and I have been given a slight name, like Jane Hayward, that will not draw attention away from the principals, and the journalists are Tipkin, Tupkin, and Bounder), but we would have served as part of the general instructive example.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

pockets peculiar

Following a link from Whispering Gums to Tony's Book World, I came across this question: Does Dickens have any other novellas besides A Christmas Carol? The blogger wanted to read some short Dickens. "The other Christmas books," I thought, and then I thought: "Even shorter, Sketches by Boz." Not the book, but the sketches themselves, each sketch being a little under ten pages long in the edition I've got here, which is undated, American, a grey elephant colour, and so hardcovered that it sounds like a door when I tap on it. So, answering the question at Tony's, I opened my Boz to write down examples of the sketches' headings, and then I typed out part of the Thoughts About People sketch on page two hundred and sixty-eight, and after that I kept reading

I hadn't read Dickens for years, and it wasn't until I looked at this Boz that I remembered the vitality of him - I mean, I'd remembered the fact or existence of it, but it wasn't until I began to read that I remembered the details, the huge, effervescent life of him, just constantly bubbling, now with gusto, now with melodrama, now glittering brilliantly at the thought of a disaster - how he loves, loves disasters -

The walls were ornamented with three or four old coloured prints in black frames, each print representing a naval engagement, with a couple of men-of-war banging away at each other most vigorously, while another vessel or two were blowing up in the distance, and the foreground presented a miscellaneous collection of broken masts and blue legs sticking up out of the water.

The glee of him - the joy he takes in his Quilps - the whole world alive, moving, thinking in his books, inanimate objects especially:

The ancient appearance of the room … would have carried us back a hundred years at least, and we should have gone dreaming on, until the pewter pot on the table, or the little beer-chiller on the fire, had started into life, and addressed to us a long story of days gone by.

He'll sometimes split one object into several parts and play them off against one another, like this:

There were four of them [wearing] coats for which the English language has yet no name - a kind of cross between a great-coat and a surtout, with the collar of the one, the skirts of the other, and pockets peculiar to themselves.

A technique Mervyn Peake uses too, in a slower, heavier way, accumulating details gradually and firmly, like bricks in a wall (whereas Dickens, in Boz, at least, sparkles them at us - that last quote from him ends with the different parts of the coats pinged at the reader, one, two, three, while this quote from Peake calms things down with its frequent adjective-noun combinations: great hurry, mutual advantage, ruthless disregard).

It was a wedge … in which the features had been forced to stake their claims, and it appeared that they had done so in a great hurry and with no attempt to form any kind of symmetrical pattern for their mutual advantage. The nose had evidently been the first upon the scene and had spread itself down the entire length of the wedge … spreading on both sides with a ruthless disregard for the eyes and mouth …

The playing-off in Dickens goes on almost constantly in major and minor keys, giving the sentences a kind of ping-pong vitality:

Mr. Thomas Potter and Mr. Robert Smithers drank small glasses of brandy, and large glasses of soda, until they began to have a very confused idea, either of things in general, or of anything in particular; and, when they had done treating themselves they began to treat everybody else; and the rest of the entertainment was a confused mixture of heads and heels, black eyes and blue uniforms, mud and gas-lights, thick doors, and stone paving.

Such pleasure in this multitudinous life, swarm, abundance, chaos organised for our enjoyment by the author, a thousand atomies dancing on a pinhead. Peake also borrows Dickens' habit of spinning off into comparisons that seem to have just occurred to him, something incredible and apt, tacking this seething universe together: Peake gives us Swelter's bellybutton first as the "pivot for a draughtsman's eye," then as an eggcup, Dickens gives us a letter sealed with "a large red wafer, which, with the addition of divers ink-stains, bore a marvellous resemblance to a black beetle trodden upon" and a landlady who appears on the stairs "like the ghost of Queen Anne in the tent-scene in Richard."

He notices things, and names them, even down to their particular names - when a young man in Miss Evans and the Eagle buys his girlfriend a biscuit it isn't merely a biscuit, it's a "sweet carraway-seed" biscuit - and when "a scapegrace of a cousin" in A Christmas Dinner drinks ale, it isn't just ale, it's "Burton ale."

… and a young scapegrace of a cousin, who has been in some disgrace with the old people, for certain heinous sins of omission and commission - neglecting to call, and persisting in drinking Burton ale -

The gratuitous precision of the censure pushes it towards abstraction. Objecting to someone drinking too much alcohol is normal; objecting to them drinking only one kind begins to verge on surrealism or obsession, and this suggestion of madness (fighting against, and ultimately defeated by, the neatness of the structure around it, the status quo threatened then resurrected - like a tickle, this is the form of an attack that turns out to be harmless) is enough to make the sentence funnier than it would have been if the author had written nothing but "ale." This particular detailing of objects is something Gabriel Garcia Marquez advocated when they tackled him for his Paris Review interview:

That's a journalistic trick that you can also apply to literature. For example, if you say that there are elephants flying in the sky, people are not going to believe you. But if you say that there are four hundred and twenty-five elephants flying in the sky, people will probably believe you. One Hundred Years of Solitude is full of that sort of thing.

Dickens is a master of this, of noticing things - this is what he does, this is his great power, he notices, and notices and notices - and there must have seemed no end to his noticing until the year when he lay down on a couch in his dining room and died at the age of fifty-eight, exhausted, and no wonder, he'd talked and worked and noticed himself to death. "One of the consolations of literature," wrote Richard Holloway in Between the Monster and the Saint, "is the way it transmutes the tragic comedy of life by noticing it."

But it was none of these things that made me decide to keep reading. It was the fact that I laughed when I reached the word apoplexy:

These are generally old fellows with white heads and red faces, addicted to port wine and Hessian boots, who from some cause, real or imaginary—generally the former, the excellent reason being that they are rich, and their relations poor—grow suspicious of everybody, and do the misanthropical in chambers, taking great delight in thinking themselves unhappy, and making everybody they come near, miserable. You may see such men as these, anywhere; you will know them at coffee-houses by their discontented exclamations and the luxury of their dinners; at theatres, by their always sitting in the same place and looking with a jaundiced eye on all the young people near them; at church, by the pomposity with which they enter, and the loud tone in which they repeat the responses; at parties, by their getting cross at whist and hating music. An old fellow of this kind will have his chambers splendidly furnished, and collect books, plate, and pictures about him in profusion; not so much for his own gratification, as to be superior to those who have the desire, but not the means, to compete with him. He belongs to two or three clubs, and is envied, and flattered, and hated by the members of them all. Sometimes he will be appealed to by a poor relation—a married nephew perhaps—for some little assistance: and then he will declaim with honest indignation on the improvidence of young married people, the worthlessness of a wife, the insolence of having a family, the atrocity of getting into debt with a hundred and twenty-five pounds a year, and other unpardonable crimes; winding up his exhortations with a complacent review of his own conduct, and a delicate allusion to parochial relief. He dies, some day after dinner, of apoplexy, having bequeathed his property to a Public Society, and the Institution erects a tablet to his memory, expressive of their admiration of his Christian conduct in this world, and their comfortable conviction of his happiness in the next.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

here a foie-gras roll, there a chocolate éclair

Everyone at the moment is making end-of-year lists, so this morning I sat down and made an end-of-year list. Here are fifteen extracts from books I've read this year. They're not ranked, but they're some of my favourites. I've left out Proust because there's too much of him that's quotable, and I haven't repeated anything I've already posted on this blog (this wasn't done on purpose, my mind skipped past those quotes with the hazy idea that they'd "Already been dealt with" - I see this in retrospect), so there's no sign of ER Eddison's monstrous sentence, and nothing from Christina Stead, although if I'd thought of it I might have included the pity speech from The Puzzleheaded Girl, or the storm-sentence from The People With the Dogs.

The last one gives away the ending of Gustav Flaubert's juvenile novel November. Consider yourself warned there.



I have seen the end of all this, clearly, in my imagination: the earth transfigured and the gods walking upon it in their bodies' light … It is the earth as we have made it, clearing, grafting, transplanting, carrying from one place to another, following no plan that we could enunciate, but allowing our bellies to lead us, and some other, deeper hunger, till the landscape we have made reveals to us the creature we long for and must become.


History was like that - a negative of which one was the print, the positive.


Expect a little, confer future and times past with the present, see the event and comfort thyself with it. It is as well to be discerned in commonwealths, cities, families, as in private men's estates. Italy was once lord of the world, Rome the queen of cities, vaunted herself of two myriads of inhabitants; now that all-commanding country is possessed by petty princes, Rome a small village in respect. Greece of old the seat of civility, mother of sciences and humanity, now forlorn, the nurse of barbarians, a den of thieves. Germany then, saith Tacitus, was incult and horrid, now full of magnificent cities: Athens, Corinth, Carthage, how flourishing cities! now buried in their own ruins: corrorum ferarum, aprorum et bestiarum lustra, like so many wildernesses, a receptacle of wild beasts. Venice, a poor fisher-town, Paris, London, small cottages in Ceasar's time, now most notable emporiums.


… at this period in his life he had been writing a a particularly prolific amount about the Slavonic Question, emphasizing the God-given role of the Russian people whose vocation it was to free the rest of Europe, the basis of this chosen destiny being, in his opinion, the special, unique nature of the Russian national mentality and character which, amongst other things, was demonstrated in the use of unprintable words pronounced in various ways and with various shades of meaning, which were employed by the common people not, of course, to insult others or abuse them, but to express the subtle, profound and even saintly feelings buried in the soul of every genuine Russian.


It was the old dilemma: how was one to be known?


It is the ultimate in being homeless when you understand you have no way of cooking a potato.


They must cook very gently indeed, the liquid not even simmering but merely shuddering.


"Any cup?" asked Reggie, questing like a prawn over the groaning board, seizing here a foie-gras roll, there a chocolate éclair.


The Master said, "What the gentleman seeks in himself, the small man seeks in others."


BOSWELL: "But I wonder, sir, you have not more pleasure in writing than in not writing." JOHNSON: "Sir you may wonder."

He talked of making verses, and observed, "The great difficulty is, to know when you have made good ones."


Because a thing is difficult for you, do not therefore suppose it to be beyond mortal power. On the contrary, if anything is possible and proper for man to do, assume that it must fall within your own capacity.


Those who strive to account for a man's deeds are never more bewildered than when they try to knit them into one whole and to show them under one light, since they commonly contradict each other in so odd a fashion that it seems impossible that they should all come out of the same shop. Young Marius now acts like a son of Mars, now as a son of Venus.


Once I read autobiography as what the writer thought about her or his life. Now I think, "That is what they thought at that time." An interim report - that is what an autobiography is. Would Cellini, would Casanova, would even Rousseau, later have agreed with what they said about themselves in those books that we assume is the fixed truth about what they thought?


Sir James paused. He did not usually find it easy to give his reasons: it seemed to him strange that people should not know them without being told, since he only felt what was reasonable.


At length, last December, he died, but slowly, little by little, solely by the force of thought, without any organic malady, as one who dies of sorrow - which may seem incredible to those who have greatly suffered, but must be tolerated in a novel, for the sake of our love of the marvellous.

David Malouf: An Imaginary Life, Lawrence Durrell: The Avignon Quintet, Robert Burton: The Anatomy of Melancholy, Leonid Tsypkin: Summer in Baden-Baden, translated by Roger Keys, Anita Brookner: Strangers, Elizabeth Jolley: Lovesong, Elizabeth David: French Provincial Cooking, Rosamond Lehmann, Invitation to the Waltz, Confucius: The Analects, translated by Raymond Dawson, James Boswell: Life of Johnson, Marcus Aurelius: Meditations, translated by Maxwell Stanforth, Michel de Montaigne, Selected Essays, translated by M. Screech, Doris Lessing, Time Bites, from the essay Writing Autobiography, George Eliot: Middlemarch, Gustav Flaubert: November, translated by Francis Steegmuller.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

various accessories of furnishing

This is a short dictionary of furniture and various accessories of furnishing made and used in England since AD 1100 and in North America since the mid-17th century. It is not a concise glossary or a comprehensive encyclopaedia. I have tried to make a book of reference that is more than a barren list of terms … and inevitably there are omissions. Like architecture, furniture is a visible record of social history. The most authoritative work on the subject is The Dictionary of English Furniture, in three superbly illustrated volumes, revised and enlarged by Mr Ralph Edwards

My copy of John Gloag's Short Dictionary of Furniture is nearly eight hundred pages long, a large orange ex-library book twenty-four centimetres by sixteen, with a kind of limp heaviness, similar to the weight of a water balloon. Life in a library has left it with tan-coloured marks in a few places along the edges of the pages, as if someone in the past tried to read the book while they had gravy on their fingers. There are small tears here and there, but it's sharper than Groote Eyland Stories, bought in the same library sale and looking as if the previous owner stored it in grey dirt.

It's one of those compendium-books, like the Oxford Book of Food and Drink, or Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project (with its hints of universes), or even Nicholas Barker's Human Smoke (Goebbels was a bad judge of character), one of those books that seems (before I open it) to promise that it will contain everything I'd ever want to know, or at least this is the unreasonable hope I feel as I approach it, because it seems so neat, and so large, and once I know everything I can forget about it and go away and do something else, although what something else might be at eleven o'clock at night on a Tuesday (when I'm writing this) I don't know: eat potato chips, I think (there's an open packet of them in the kitchen).

As I come to the end of the book I wish that it could be somehow lengthened. I'm flipping from one page to another, trying to hunt down any article that I haven't read. The expanding universe I saw when I opened Furniture for the first time - all this! It'll take forever! - has shrunk and become little and familiar - I've read that (I think, flipping), I've read that (flipping more), no, I know what a tester is now, pillow beer, no, I've read that too, and hnh, it's that drawing of a bath again. Pinchbeck? I haven't read that, and so I fall on it, even though pinchbeck is only three lines long and not nearly a match for all the longer articles I've already trawled through: rocking chair, for example, or cast iron furniture and decoration, the ones I used to indulge myself with when most of the book was still unexplored veldt. Now it's shrunk down to the little back-garden-sized pinchbeck, tiny, tiny, tiny, it shrinks like life.

Pinchbeck. An alloy of copper and zinc, resembling gold in colour and ductility. Invented in 1732 by Christopher Pinchbeck, a London clock and watch maker. (See also Prince's Metal.)

But I'm writing this because these books aren't meant to have climaxes, they're all-over books, plotless, of course, and yet, reading the timeline at the end of the Short Dictionary, a timeline that sketches out various changes furniture went through in Britain between 1100 and 1950, I felt a climax here -

16th century (1500-1558)

All the articles in use in the Medieval period, but with many improvements in design.

- as if I'd reached the high point of a novel. It was the summary of ideas just there that did it, I think: after the fog of examples in the main body of the book, the storms of chairs, and floods of cupboards, the histories of ornamentation, the rivalries between London cabinet-makers, the quotes from Chaucer ("And in his owne chamber hen made a bed / With sheets and with chalons faire y-spred," is quoted under bed), the candle-beam evolving over centuries into the Chippendale chandelier, sprouting from there into the gasolier (for gas jets) and electrolier ("A hideous word," writes James Gloag, who is a man unafraid of his own opinions), and just odd-sounding words, for example, fustic, thermed foot, langsettle, everything is finally crystallised in this, and other sentences like it, modest and spare. I wanted to applaud the human race for being so clear and so rational and at the same time so large and so particular, one inside the other.

Monday, December 14, 2009

it is not polite to type

Last week I participated in a Christmas card Kris Kringle. We each had a card, each wrote on our card, all put our cards in a pile, and then each took a card. We were asked to write a poem, a story, something like that, and I wrote this:

"It is not polite to type a Christmas card," Christina Stead wrote in a Christmas card to the poet Rosemary Dobson and her husband Alec - she was typing - and three months later she was dead at the age of eighty, "the same age as her father," notes her biographer, Hazel Rowley. "This is the happy season," Stead wrote, "the days of celebration, love, closeness, friendship." Just before this part of the card she described the room into which she was planning to move a few weeks later: there was an en suite but the bricks were damp and the walls was being repainted. The room was in a friend's house. Stead's money was running low, she couldn't afford to keep the accommodation she was living in. At the end of March this friend, whose name was Heather Stewart, bought an Easter egg for her while she lay in hospital; she never lived to see it.

Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 11, 2009

some kind of vividness

I've come to the end of Christina Stead's books and thanks are in order. Thanks, first, to Lisa Hill, who suggested the idea of looking at the openings in the first place, and thanks to everyone who has tackled Stead in the past, particularly Hazel Rowley, biographer, and R.G. Geering, her literary executor. Geering seems to be the kind of literary executor every writer might hope for: dedicated, discriminating, and willing to wade through mounds of scratchy typing and spare bits of paper. Thanks to everyone who wrote introductions for the reissued books. I didn't reread all of those introductions, but Angela Carter's essay was formidable. If I ever wrote anything half as neat as that I'd be smug as Henny thinks Pollits are, for weeks. Diana Brydon's idea of Jonathan Crow as a femme fatale in reverse still tickles me.

After that last post I put the books in a row and took a photograph. They look like this:

From left to right, with the reprint details of these editions:

The Salzburg Tales (Angus & Robertson, 1989)
Seven Poor Men of Sydney (Angus & Robertson, 1976)
The Beauties and Furies (Virago, 1982)
House of All Nations (Angus & Robertson, 1974)
The Man Who Loved Children (Penguin, 1979)
For Love Alone (Angus & Robertson, 1979)
Letty Fox: Her Luck (Angus & Robertson, 1974)
A Little Tea, A Little Chat (Virago, 1984)
The People with the Dogs (Virago, 1981)
Cotters' England (Angus & Robertson, 1989)
The Puzzleheaded Girl (Virago, 1984)
The Little Hotel (Angus & Robertson, 1983)
Miss Herbert (the Suburban Wife) (Random House, 1976)
I'm Dying Laughing (Virago, 1986)

Thank you of course to all the people who republished these books and thanks, most of all, to Christina Stead for writing them. There's a lot I haven't looked at. She's a great, visceral chronicler of money, a subject I think I've barely mentioned, and her dialogue is not like anyone else's, it's eccentric yet exact - look at the children speaking in The Man Who Loved Children. The way she adjusts her tone is another thing. It's not only the story that seems picaresque in Letty Fox, there's also an archaic inflection in the phrasing. Letty's directness is the directness of Moll Flanders, whose rapid turnover of husbands is echoed in the other character's rapid turnover of boyfriends.

[I had] a friendly smile for all lewd gestures which was so successful an act that I had many boy friends.

E.M. Forster's assessment of Defoe's book is true here too: "Attractive as she is, the heroine always keeps to the rules of her game, and never tries to capture our sympathy." Stead draws on the literature of the past in order to give the present resonance, liveliness, and force; this connection between Moll and Letty is one example of that, as are the parallels she draws between her Salzburg tourists and the storytellers of the Decameron. She gives her characters their due, so that even her monsters have their good moments, even Sam, even the Miss Herbert she disliked so much, even I'm Dying Laughing's Emily, whose real life counterpart irritated her so profoundly that she spent one Christmas alone at home rather than go to her party. She had too much writerly energy not to see people, life, really, in the round, or some sort of round, anyway, some kind of vividness, with complications, ironies, surprises. She was widely-read, prejudiced in places, but who isn’t? In the end, a humanist. As Dickens liked to say of himself: inimitable.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

calling and waving

The last cable was off, the green lane between ship and deck widened. Emily kept calling and waving to the three below, Ben, a press photographer, her brother Arnold and his wife Betty. Arnold was twenty-three, two years younger than herself, Betty was twenty-four. Arnold was a dark fleshy man, sensual, self-confident, he fooled around, had never finished high school. From Seattle he came to New York after her and she had helped him out for a while. He was now working on a relief project for the WPA and earning about a hundred dollars a month.

I'm Dying Laughing was pieced together by Stead's literary executor Ron Geering and published in 1986 after she died. She started writing the story around 1950, finished it, then went back and rewrote for a long time before finally putting the manuscript aside in 1969, abandoned, "a large albatross."* Geering describes in the preface:

What I inherited, in fact, was a huge mass of typescript ranging in finish from rough to polished and in length from page bits to different versions of whole chapters, along with piles of basic and supplementary material … The greatest difficulties occurred in what now stands as Part One of the novel. The opening chapter ('UNO 1945') of the 1966 version here becomes Chapter 4, since much of the re-working of the early manuscript was designed to provide an additional three chapters more information about the early years of Emily and Stephen …

So the opening lines above are not the opening lines the author planned for the novel. Chapter 4, her opening, starts like this:

Emily and Stephen had been free-lancing in Hollywood four months when they sold their second script. The morning they heard, on the telephone, from their agent Charlie Goldhammer, that it was sold, they telephoned a house agent to find them a house in a better district of Hollywood.

This beginning seems typical of Stead's later work: the briskness of that first sentence suits the briskness of, "Dr. Linda Mack had brought the five girls down to her Devon cottage in the car: it was June and the weather was fair," and, "It was Saturday, a fine March morning. Two women and a man were in the basement front room." Geering's opening sentence is happy, adventurous, while Stead's delivers the reader into a business atmosphere. Literature versus commerce is one of her themes in this book, one that surfaces again in the manuscript she published after I'm Dying Laughing was abandoned, Miss Herbert (the Suburban Wife). Her opening gives us the theme immediately and we're set to watch the couple struggle over it for the rest of the story. Miss Herbert is the more cynical work. Emily and Stephen are, at least, writing the light commercial pieces they despise, but Eleanor in Miss Herbert is employed by an editor to read manuscripts and slash out anything excessive. She's not even a debased artist, she's only an ignorant destructive force, and after the book was published Stead said that she felt nothing for Miss Eleanor Herbert Brent but dislike.

Geering's opening harks back to an idea that was prominent in her earlier work, to the moment when Louisa heads off on her "walk round the world" or Teresa sails to England expecting to find love. This is travel as an open-ended escape, a bold, good risk. Worthwhile - the author tells the reader, celebrating the departure - and necessary. Life needs risk. (It's easy to remember at these moments that she loved Nietzsche as a teenager.) In Miss Herbert she uses the idea again but this time she's turned it around and Eleanor is setting off on an inconsequential holiday, expecting to come back and marry her boyfriend. "She's not a risk-taker," the author lets the reader know behind her hand. "She keeps herself safe. She doesn't love him. No passion for her." Nellie Cotter fails this litmus test too, she travels abroad and comes home early, complaining because she can't find tea in Rome and the Italians don't speak English.

In I'm Dying Laughing, Emily is escaping a USA still suffering from the Depression. We can see that in her brother's WPA work. "[H]e came to New York after her and she had helped him out for a while" suggests he's a leech and this is quickly confirmed. Within the first page he's tried to talk her into buying him a ticket and she's refused. So she's getting away from something unpleasant, she's putting distance between her and it, and the question now is, where is she going to go from here? She might be a second Teresa, she might turn into another Eleanor. We wait, we see, we find out.


*In a letter to Clem Christesen, quoted in Rowley's biography.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

a slope that ran steeply

Dr. Linda Mack had brought the five girls down to her Devon cottage in the car: it was June and the weather was fair. The cottage lay under the fields and between two wooded spurs on a slope that ran steeply to the hidden sea. It was a stone cottage with a barn, the trees were very old; above, the high Atlantic sky streamed west.

In the short essay she wrote to introduce The Puzzleheaded Girl, Angela Carter suggests that as Stead's career went on she began to "hew her material [ie, language] more and more roughly," that "more and more she shears away the excess." Cotters' England is the example she gives, but when I try to think of Stead at her plainest, her most shorn, this is the book that comes to mind: Miss Herbert (the Suburban Wife). Actually the impression I had when I read it was not, "How shorn this is," but, "How tired this sounds, it feels as if she's running out of patience with words." I knew that this was the last book she finished before she died, and I wondered if the shortwindedness was the effect of age, exhaustion, or impatience. She'd been travelling from one place to another for a long time, she was not well off. She had good reasons to sound tired.

But this is all guesswork: the salient point here is that Miss Herbert is written in a plain tone, or plain when you compare it to the baroque inventions of the early books, or to The People With the Dogs. Everything that was extravagant, "… vapors rising in the heat, from hollows and clefts, tall, slowly forming and moving, spirits, savage men, with weapons, daggers, things habited like the Rabbi, question marks especially, and puffs of smoke," and so on, has been smoothed down to, "the high Atlantic sky streamed west," or "the weather was fair."

Reading the opening lines you might expect another Christina Stead ensemble melee, the story of Dr. Linda Mack and her girls, but after a little while the story fixes its eyes on only one of them, Eleanor Brent. The rest fade into the background. Brent needs self-awareness and lacks it; she is a "nobly built beauty" who makes gestures toward an adventurous life but ends up stumbling around in bewildered respectibility. "She is not," writes R.G. Geering in Christina Stead: A Study,

"just a hypocrite set up to be knocked down, but she is such a mass of contradictions, so given to evasion and rationalization, that it is hard not to be irritated by her."

She shies away from experiences that might shake her. At one point her control breaks, she becomes so angry that she writes an "endless letter" to a man who has betrayed her, "Great formless feelings rushed healthily through her mind giving her release and power, but she did not know what these feelings were because she had never had them before in connection with Henry," but feels suddenly "tired" and decides to write him a "cool, calm" letter instead. In front of her is the prospect of "a slope that ran steeply to the hidden sea," flowering sex, anger, truth, openness, the condition that Stead characters of the past, Teresa, Louisa, are willing to risk, but she never follows it. An existentialist would say she is acting in bad faith.

Monday, December 7, 2009

not a day passes but something happens

If you knew what happens in the hotel every day! Not a day passes but something happens. Yesterday afternoon a woman rang me up from Geneva and told me her daughter-in-law died. The woman stayed here twice. We became very friendly, though I always felt there was something she was keeping to herself. I never knew whether she was divorced, widowed or separated.

The Little Hotel begins and ends in the first person. Madame Bonnard is chatting to an unnamed "you," telling you about the hotel she runs in Switzerland, about her guests, her servants, the peculiarities of everybody, their financial situations, their love affairs, and so on: different people confide in her (as here) and so she becomes a kind of overseeing eye. Casually the first person becomes third person, quietly it shifts back again for the finale. Stead, argues R.G. Geering, can't sustain the first person because her cast in this book is too large and too independent.

But before long the first person account proves inadequate for a casual narrative which shuttles between so many characters and incidents ... Counting hotel staff as well as lodgers the number of characters present is closer to thirty than twenty (the novel is less than two hundred small pages long) and there are others, such as the relatives of Mrs Trollope and Mr Wilkins, who are important in analysis of the main figures

Madame Bonnard sits above it all, or at the centre but she's not, however, omnipotent - there are mysteries, there are facts hidden, even from her. "I never knew whether she was divorced, widowed or separated." Some of the more fateful events of the book crystallise around marriages and not-marriages. The story is set just after World War II and all of these characters, European and American (and the one from Java), are paranoid and jumpy, touchy, easily upset, not knowing which way is safe, not knowing what history will do to them next. They're racist, bigoted, anti-communist: many of them have come to the independent opinion that money is the one safe thing - they must get money. Even Madame Bonnard's friendliness has its roots in money. She's a naturally friendly woman (she treats us like a friend) but she pays attention to these people in particular because it's her job. A character trait has been honed into a practical asset. Everything "has its cunning," said George Paul in The Puzzleheaded Girl. "Irregularities are a nuisance with the staff," Madame Bonnard remarks, "but they matter hardly at all with the guests, who are here merely to amuse themselves and spend money." The staff are poor. The guests are not. Stead's communism-trained awareness of what you might call a financial class structure gives The Little Hotel a dimension that sets it apart from the chamber-piece genre of small, mainly British, books set in continental hotels, works like Anita Brookner's Hotel du Lac, written around people who find themselves in pensions, discovering love or the meaning of life, or withering away in genteel misery, or whatever. Those books tend to focus on a few guests. This one roves over a larger terrain. The mood of The Little Hotel is rapid, lively, reverberating with the warfare that everybody in this post-war place seems to be remembering and reacting to, even when it's not the subject under discussion.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

a track turns right and down

Debrett liked his job in the old-style German Bank in Broad Street, but he soon saw that the partners' sons were coming into the firm and he could not rise far; so he joined three friends of his, Arthur Good, Tom Zero and Saul Scott, who had just founded the Farmers' Utilities Corporation. They were all in their early twenties.


The balcony of Lydia's room in the green and white boulevard hotel looked over the treetops. The hotel was at the top of a long rise from the Seine, in Montparnasse. The sun beat into the carpeted, curtained room so strongly in the mornings that the shutters were kept tightly shut till after midday. Lydia got in late every night, slept restlessly.


The road rises steeply from Lambertville on the Delaware, into hill country, bared for planting and grazing, with small old white villages in trees and unpainted farmhouses high on the ridges. The road follows the uplands. Several miles along, entering Newbold Township, a track turns right and down by Will Newbold's red barn, a landmark.


George Paul came to see the Deans, man and wife, soon after dinner. Tall, ample muscular, blue eyes in a red, boyish face, thick bronze hair in a brush, he was fifty years old, but walking like a young man from the exercises he did to keep fit; and energetic, a restless worker. He looked tired and anxious.

The Puzzleheaded Girl, a book made up of four novellas, is an anomaly in Stead's oeuvre. The Salzburg Tales, with its multiple stories, feels as if it should be Girl's natural partner and yet it isn't: the connecting thread of that book is absent in this one, and the four stories are alike in only one way: in each one there is a different young woman who can't find a place for herself in society, or doesn't want to, and who doesn't know what to do.

In the title story, the first one, this character is a teenager who lives in New York, and she's so self-contained that it amounts to a kind of social retardation.

She would listen in silence, as if not quite in agreement; but when he made social comments or deductions, she would lower her eyes or look out of the window.

The opening lines set up a group of men who will act throughout the story as her opposites, normal members of society who are everything she isn't: she doesn't strive for position, she's deliberately disinterested in money-making, she'll never club together with other people, and she won't look out for her own self-interest. "She's a little astray mentally," said Stead in a 1973 interview.* "And this makes her always try to solve it with her own solutions." The 'it' here is life. She's "uncaught" the author tells us - "uncaught" in the way that Lilian in Kate Grenville's Lilian's Story twenty years later, will be "uncaught", treating jobs and marriages and even an art career, as traps. But what can you replace them with? Outside society, what is there? Her "inner freedom" states Angela Carter, in the good introduction that comes with the Virago edition of the book, is "acquired … at the cost of almost everything else."

In the second story, The Dianas, the woman is an American in Paris, trying, like Letty Fox, to find a man who will marry her. Her heart isn't in it - she's doing it because it's what she's expected to do - but Stead has already shown us, in the first story, what can happen to a young woman who doesn't follow an expected path. Perhaps - if Lydia had an idea of something else she might pursue? She doesn't. As in Letty Fox, there are sub-stories to suggest that marriage is not the solution she thinks it is, but she doesn't see the lesson. "Slept restlessly" is the key phrase in this opening. Lydia is sleeping through her life, always restless, always moving and talking, both attracted and repelled by sex, virginity (mythological Diana in the title), confused by the feeling that she should be doing something else but not knowing what.

The lost-woman-figure doesn't appear personally in The Rightangled Creek: A Sort of Ghost Story but other characters talk about her. Here she's the daughter of a couple who own a house in the countryside of those opening lines. The opening is a piece of scene-setting, making the backdrop solid so that the uncanny happenings later on will have something to play against. Such rosy countryside! Such solid landmarks! Of course the city people want to stay in the old farmhouse by the rightangled creek, where the stairs creak at night, the plants are hyperactively fecund, and the neighbouring farmer hangs over the place like the old retainer in a haunted house. What could go wrong? Ho ho.

George Paul in the opening paragraph of The Girl From the Beach is the other side of The Dianas' coin, a man who partners young confused women. Behind the "boyish face" there is a boyish brain; he marries his infatuations. Again the author gives us the word "restless." He's fifty and he hasn't worked out the it of life; the Puzzleheaded Girl of the first story ages during the tale but she never does it either. His old-young appearance is telling. All of this becomes apparent later in the story. Soon after we meet him he says something that could have been Stead herself, talking about her approach to character:

"Every defect, every flaw and every weakness has its cunning. You know that?" he said violently. "We say the handsome use their looks. The ugly use their looks; and the sick use their sickness; and old age uses its age. Don't pity anyone."


* I found this interview in Christina Stead: Selected Fiction and Non-Fiction, edited by R.G. Geering and A. Segerberg: UQP, 1994.

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 ...