Saturday, March 27, 2010

so quaint and mouthy

It's a funny thing, reading Don Juan after hundreds of pages of Lowes' calling Coleridge a genius. Byron scorns Coleridge, scorns Wordsworth, scorns the contemporary Poet Laureate Robert Southey even more, and thinks that everyone associated with the Lake Poets is a waste of his time.

Thou shalt believe in Milton, Dryden, Pope;
Thou shalt not set up Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey;
Because the first is crazed beyond all hope,
The second drunk, the third so quaint and mouthy

I found Don Juan at a new branch of our local library system, walking there last Saturday -- I think it opened on Thursday. The book was on a set of shelves labelled Classics. "I see you've found the Classics section," said the librarian when I took my books to the counter. He went on to say that he thought the books in Classics might have been donated by the publisher, which would explain why they were almost all black-spined Penguins, and perhaps also why no one had thought to buy the first two parts of Dante. (I should write them an email. Dear Sir and or Madame. Your library is lovely. Stocking the last part of a trilogy is cruel. Would you treat Tolkien this way? Yours, etc. (A fact sheet about librarians on the wall of our local branch suggests that most of them are High Fantasy enthusiasts. One likes Patrick White's The Tree of Man, which, as I once said on Whispering Gums' blog, is the White for people who don't read White. I believe this in the way that I believe Tale of Two Cities is the Dickens for people who don't read Dickens. Tale is a parched, dead Dickens, compared to the splurge that he wrings out of himself when he's at his most noticing. Some readers object to the splurge -- he writes too much, they say --

he has very very long and boring sentences that keep going on and on

-- complains a poster at LibraryThing. But that splurge is Dickens, it's the bubble that rises in his genius-alembic. And Tree is White coming as close as he ever did to a nice, normal Australian novelist.))

They had three or four shelves of brand-new Lonely Planets, probably donated too. I waved my hands around and yammered at the desk librarian about their new Les Murray Collected Poems. I've been wondering if you would buy this! I said, or something like that. You've had another Murray collection for ages --

Ah -- he named one.

No, I said, a different one, a little Selected, years old, with a white cover --

So. This new Classics section has given me The Diary of Samuel Pepys: a Selection as well as a few other things. And in Poetry they had Seamus Heaney's Beowulf translation, and a collected Phillip Larkin. "I am most pleased," as Pepys says. I decanted myself from the library "leaving all things there very gallant and joyful" and stuck my nose into a car boot sale on the way home.

Pepys keeps up a running commentary on the subjects of profit and food, which prompted me to think of Christina Stead, who brings the same two topics into her fiction with the same naturalness. This is one of the things that makes her work seem so lifelike, this realisation that people are interested in money and food, and interested in them in an ongoing and passionate way -- I mean, as if they were the stuff of life, which, in both writers, they very much are. "I'd fight for money to my last drop of blood," says the Man Who Loved Children's Henny to Old Ellen. "Can you live on air?" In 1664 Pepys looks through old papers and discovers "a romance which (under the title of Love a Cheate) I begun ten years ago at Cambridge" but when he's writing for himself he's less interested in romantic Love than in barrels of oysters and bottles of wine and whether his kidney stones have come back or not, and his profit margin. "I bless God with great joy to me; not only from my having made so good a year of profit, as having spent 420l and laid up 540l and upward. But I bless God, I have never been in so good a plight as to my health." This comes before the praise for his "pretty and loving quiet family," which is not storybook love, or Love a Cheate, but closer to steady pleasure, assurance, and comfort.

There are no adventures in the Diary, not in the sense that characters in romance novels have adventures (the ghost in the castle, the battle, the rescued lover) but things happen, things are constantly happening, and the whole book mutters like thick liquid boiling over heat, always moving, not in the sharp forward direction of the romance-adventure, but with an all-over engagement: events appearing, submerging, then coming back again. Pepys is told that his brother is ill, then he is more ill -- this goes on for a little, along with other concerns, then the brother dies, and what, in a planned novel, might be known as the sick brother plotline becomes so important that it takes up nearly all of the diarist's attention. Then there are inheritance problems, some family feuding, and Pepys discovers that his brother had an illegitimate child, who has been sent away to live with another family under a different name. In the planned novel (the one in which this is the sick brother plotline) the discovery of this child would likely lead to the illegitimate daughter plotline -- something would be made of her. Here she vanishes quickly, she is only another fact of life, dealt with, and less interesting than the oysters. And even this sickness and death is tied up with money. After discussing his dying brother's finances with his uncle, who believes the brother "owes a great deal of money," Pepys concludes

And what with that and what he owes my father and me, I doubt he is in a very sad condition; that if he lives he will not be able to show his head -- which will be a very great shame to me.

In the foreground we have Pepys, always, and his concerns, his food, his money, his family, while in the middle ground there are those things a little further away from him, his ties to his Lord, the enmity of a colleague, mentioned a little less often, but always present behind the first lot of things. Beyond that there are those things that history notices, the Restoration of Charles II, which occurred in the first year of the diary, 1660, a war between England and Holland, the Great Fire of London, and the Plague. Pepys in his thoroughness inhabits all of them. His description of London on fire takes in a large view in longshot --

... we saw the fire as only one entire arch of fire from this to the other side the bridge, and in a bow up the hill for an arch of above a mile long

-- the historical spectacle of it (with the inclusion of that "about half a mile long" it's Marquez's numbered elephants again) -- and the very close details --

And among other things, the poor pigeons, I perceive, were loth to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconys till they were, some of them burned, their wings, and fell down.

His intimate life, his life at work, and the greater life of the city and the court, are always with us in the Diary, and here I am going to wind this back to Stead again because The Man Who Loved Children has those same layers in play: the intimate life of the family, the middle ground of Sam's work and Louie's school, and somewhere beyond that, the wider society that keeps women married to husbands who won't let them escape, and the fairyland of Sam's ambitions, his radio show, his tribe of multi-ethnic children, the President he trusts, the whole strange outer foreign world, which is represented by Malaya. Both books bubble.

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