Thursday, April 29, 2010

half-blind, twin-boxed

Wondering if there is someone reading this tonight who is in or near Melbourne, I'll say again that City Basement Books is closing at the end of the month, in other words: tomorrow, at six o'clock. Is it six? I believe it's six. They've priced the remains of their stock down to a dollar a book. I bought a bag of them today and my right arm is aching. Now every time I look around the room I see a title that I never expected to see outside that shop, and I feel a fresh surprise. Benito Pérez Galdós' Doña Perfecta has startled me at least three times now. Am I the first person to have bought Henry Treece's book about Dylan Thomas because it had Treece's name on the front and not Thomas'? "That stinking book," Thomas called it after it was published. Victor Paananen believes that the poet was offended because Treece dismissed his socialist credentials.

Professor William York Tindall of Columbia University, offered an important report that has been ignored by Thomas’s biographers. "Thomas told me (in 1952) that he was a Communist. My disbelief was shaken, however, at a party a few days later. Here Thomas suddenly arose, kicked the cat which turned and bit me and, to the embarrassment of our hostess, called a distinguished and once radical American novelist, who was also a guest, both ‘renegade’ and ‘prick’."

"One must regret," continues Paananen, "the unfortunate outcome that Thomas’s explosion had for the cat, but the incident does point to convictions passionately held by Thomas. No doubt Thomas had, as so often, been drinking, but in vino veritas."

Skimming through Treece's book I've come up with another theory: Thomas might not have been utterly flattered when his friend (they were friends) told the world that he was a "scallywag" with "the glutinous smile of a young boy."

We let society hamstring us in a hundred ways ... But Dylan just remained himself, his honest scallywag self, and was inevitably destroyed, like all other perpetual boys -- the beachcombers, the divers for pennies, the lion tamers, the test pilots, the climbers of mountains ...

The tone here is similar to Mervyn Peake's somewhere in the Gormenghast books. Where have I seen him making a list like this? I'll try to remember to look it up later. Thomas knew Peake, too. One day the poet turned up at the door, ill, and Peake put him to bed and called a doctor. Later Thomas borrowed his clothes.

Not long after [writes Mervyn's wife Maeve] a note was pushed through the door.

Mervyn, dear Maeve

Will you please lend me coat and trousers for a day. Any coat and trousers as long as they aren't my own. I am supposed to speak at a public platform tomorrow, Sunday, just after lunch. May I call early morning --

Love, Dylan.

On the other side, with a scribbled drawing:

I must unfortunately call for coat and trousers -- doesn't matter that M is taller than D before 11. Say 10.30.

My copy of Dylan Thomas is a green hardback, the same shade of green as the Bodley Head book of essays covering Treece, Beatrix Potter, and C.S. Lewis. But the publisher is different and the book a little shorter. At the back there are lists of the compound words Thomas used in his poems. They've been arranged under headings, so you have

Number Compounds
two-gunned, four-stringed, twelve-winded, one-sided, half-blind, twin-boxed, three-coloured …

for example, and

Eye- Compounds
Mothers-eyed, tallow-eyed, red-eyed, scythe-eyed, womb-eyed, salt-eyed, bull's-eye, eye-teeth, penny-eyed …

and so on. The last group of words is the largest one.

Other Compounds
clayfellow, winding-sheets, year-hedged, hang-nail, Christward, planet-ducted, skull-foot, goblin-sucker, marrow-ladle, breast-deep, bread-sided, close-up, arc-lamped, sheath-decked, black-tongued, deadweed, bible-leaved, wind-turned, bell-voiced …

So it runs on down the page. Treece has compiled another list too, one that puts Thomas' compound words next to compound words used by Gerard Manly Hopkins.

Class: Alliterative
Hopkins: May-mess
Thomas: sky-scraping, fair-formed

Class: Triple-compounds
Hopkins: day-labouring-out
Thomas: hero-in-tomorrow

Coincidentally, one of today's other books was a compendium of Gerard Manly Hopkins.


For Lent. No puddings on Sundays. No tea except if to keep me awake and then without sugar. Meat only once a day. No verses in Passion week or on Fridays. Not to sit in armchair except can work in no other way. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday bread and water.

He would have been twenty-two.

Monday, April 26, 2010

if you are

Since I'm on the subject of Christina Stead, let me throw in a line from Dearest Munx: the Letters of Christina Stead and William Blake, a book that comes to a close, as some novels do, with a silence, in which your imagination works, the silence being the ending.

From her final letter, dated 11 January 1968, to him as he lay in hospital.

Electricity bill came which I will pay if you are long delayed. 3/16/5 sterling.

After that, nothing.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

an intellectual model where Right and Truth conquered all

"Is it going to be easy to find books about Christina Stead secondhand in North America," I wondered to myself, and, "No," I said back, looking at myself fairly, "probably not," (because I tempt myself with dread, sometimes, and the prospective ends of things, probably unnecessarily, or possibly not, incorporating them into whatever thoughts I'm having, which seems, perhaps, damaging, or something else), so when I saw that City Basement Books was holding a half-price sale in order to shed as much stock as possible before the landlord ousted them, desiring (as he apparently does) to do something with the building that doesn't admit a secondhand bookshop in the basement, I flew there (wings on ankles) and bought two books I knew they had on their shelves, Christina Stead: a Life of Letters, by Chris Williams, and The Enigmatic Christina Stead: a Provocative Re-Reading, by Teresa Petersen. There were a few other books too, but I mentioned my last Stead book so I thought I'd mention these two as well, for the love of continuity.

Williams' biography came out in 1989, four years before Hazel Rowley's Christina Stead: A Biography. In 1988 the Age mentioned both authors in an article called "The Race To Tell Christina Stead's Story." There was a third prospective biographer too, Kate Llewellyn, whose book was never published. The University of NSW is still storing her notes, as you can see at their website:

Guide to the Papers of Kate Llewellyn

9.3, Christina Stead, 1979-1993

This subseries comprises notes, manuscript and typescript drafts, contract and cuttings relating to critical biographies on Christina Stead written by Llewellyn. Llewellyn was commissioned by Thomas Nelson Australia to write a biography of Stead, which was never published.

Folder 1
Annotated typescript drafts and newspaper cutting of a biographical criticism by Llewellyn entitled 'The woman who loved men', 1993

Folder 2-4
Material regarding 'Christina Stead : a biography', by Kate Llewellyn, 1988-1989

Including contract, correspondence, cuttings, interview notes and articles regarding Stead

"Her three biographers," remarks the article in the Age, "are all very different people, who are expected to produce very different books. Williams is doing "the life"; Melbourne academic Rowley is doing a more critical study of "the work"; while Sydney poet and author Kate Llewellyn appears to be doing a more imaginative study of both life and work." Llewellyn, it says, "has a close association with a member of the family," a line that illuminates this entry on her archive page:

Folder 44
Correspondence from Robert Stead, 1986-1990

My first impression of the Williams book is that this is a more businesslike biography than the later one, less speculative, more shortwinded, fixing itself around statements that can be verified by documents -- it's something like a long, coolheaded article from a magazine. Williams takes quotes from Stead at face value; her language is plain.

David Stead wanted the world to conform to an intellectual model where Right and Truth conquered all. So unbending was David, he was prepared to suffer financially and emotionally rather than yield to the realities of a morally imperfect world.

David Stead told his daughter Christina a lot about himself …

An outline of Williams' credentials on the first page of the book tells us that she trained "as a journalist with ABC News," and went on to work in other television and radio positions afterwards; and it's not hard to imagine this clear, simple, almost-uninflected prose being read aloud while the viewer watches pictures of Stead and her father and her various homes, her husband, her books, etc, rise up on the screen. Here is a reproduction of a page of notes for The Man Who Loved Children; here is part of an illustrated letter she sent to her cousin Gwen; here is the transcript of a passage from a radio interview she gave in 1980. The voice-over is not often excited or unexcited, it's there at your service, it's here to help, to introduce Stead to you as neatly and fully as possible, without too many opinions of its own -- which makes this Christina Stead the farthest thing in the world from a biography like Graham Robb's Victor Hugo, throughout which the author goes into periodic spasms of rage at Hugo's other biographers, and scolds them, and shakes his fist. (Reviewing a volume about Proust for the New York Review of Books, he took time out to name the original English title of Proust's work "weak" and "passive"; this is his opinionated style, and it's stimulating.) Williams comes closest to shaking a fist when she's reporting on the anti-Communist investigation of Stead and Blake during the 1950s, but even there she displaces the opinion onto an outside body. "History," she writes, not I.

History will undoubtedly take the view that the investigation was an expensive international exercise in covert harassment and indirect but effective censorship.

Petersen's book is the opposite, all theory, all opinion, I suggest and I contend. She believes that Stead was a repressed lesbian. This theory is supported by a "close reading" -- she repeats the phrase "close reading" in every chapter, I think, contrasting it with "naive reading" until it ends up seeming boastful; and she falls in love with other phrases as well: "homosexual signifier" and "heteronormative paradigm," and so on. Eventually she comes up with "rhizomatic writing" and adds that to the pile. Repetitive jargon is one of her problems,* and the other is this: you can see her picking her way through Stead's work and life and throwing aside anything that doesn't agree with her predetermined ideas. The People with the Dogs is dismissed almost entirely, because, she says, it is "a fairytale", yet the ghost story from The Puzzleheaded Girl is magically admissible, and so is Beauties and Furies' Marpurgo, whose "grotesque appearance is congruent with the gothic genre" -- he is an outsize fairytale figure, a mean genie. So let me perform a "close reading" Petersen-style upon Petersen's protestation. I contend that her excuse is flimsy, fluffy, false. I suggest that the fairytale aspect of Dogs doesn't bother her a scrap. If it did, she would ignore Marpurgo and the ghost story for the same reason. In fact she wouldn't be reading Stead at all. Stead is steeped in folk tales and Arabian Nights. No. She wants to rid herself of Dogs because Dogs, if she took it seriously, would damage her theory. Dogs ends with a happy wedding, and elsewhere she argues that all male-female pairings in Stead's work are calamitous. Dogs is her Other, and she Others it out of her way so that she can get on with the more important job of assuming that parts of For Love Alone are echoing The Well of Loneliness. Petersen would be more convincing if she didn't fight so hard to sound watertight. No speculation on the hidden sexual imaginings of a dead women is ever going to be watertight. The Enigmatic Christina Stead is an imaginative work, not a factual one. This should have been accepted, not fought.

As a work of the imagination, The Enigmatic Christina Stead deserved to have been brightened by all of its best qualities, fecundity and honesty and play.

* The largest problem. John Livingston Lowes in The Road to Xanadu leaps to conclusions as well, but that book is a compendium of rapt love, fabulous devotion, written by an author who is excited by English -- an author who would never write "paradigm" ten times, or "signifier" on every third page, or repeat "rhizomatic writing" over and over, until this idea, which seemed so marvellous when Petersen introduced it, turns stale. No one, academic or otherwise, should feel compelled to do this. We are human beings, not daleks. Xanadu is the kind of book Enigmatic Christina Stead could have been: in fact the lesbian theory would have been a magnificent starting point for a galaxy of references, a dazzling star-system, with this glowing point of imagination at the core. At the start of chapter one we would have been scoffing; by the end we would be laughing, amused, thrilled by this alternative Stead, this figure standing next to the figure we know. "See!" we would have shouted, "how much thought and wonder has gone into the concoction of her! O brave new world, that has such people in it!" Instead I'm stuck here nitpicking about the word fairytale.

Petersen borrowed the idea of rhizomatic writing from Diana Brydon, who brought it into her discussion of the prolific and engulfing vine that surrounds the Massine house in Dogs. Just by chance I've come across it again, in this interview with the poet Pierre Joris, which was drawn to my attention by ReadySteadyBook.

Joris says:

From the beginning on it was important to me to keep the form open, and after the first rather traditional lyrics of self-discovery, I started exploring poem-sequences, mixed genres (prose / journal / poetry) and open-field poetries. In my work the logic of articulation is no longer that of a Poundian or a French Surrealist collage aesthetics. Both are beholden to classic European ideas of light vs. dark, and all that entails in terms of hierarchy. The non-hierarchical, free-moving and at times randomly articulated language units (that could be found in the street or in a philosophical text, overheard on the subway or well up from one’s psychic chora) could or should not be subjected to some single overriding aesthetic or even ethical pre-determined aim. Each one needed to be able to articulate itself with any other one, and create a vast proliferation, open on all sides for ever further egalitarian dérives. As The Beatles had it: Strawberry Fields Forever. And strawberries are of course rhizomes.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

a statue in each corner

Reading Ruskin's Seven Lamps of Architecture last night, I came across a sentence that made me think, "Oh Proust," and "Oh, E.R. Eddison," and finally, "Oh, Anne Radcliffe." The sentence was this:

The rolling heap of the thunder-cloud, divided by rents, and multiplied by wreaths, yet gathering them all into its broad, torrid, and towering zone, and its midnight darkness opposite; the scarcely less majestic heave of the mountain side, all torn and traversed by depth of defile and ridge of rock, yet never losing the unity of its illumined swell and shadowy decline ; and the head of every mighty tree, rich with tracery of leaf and bough, yet terminated against the sky by a true line, and rounded by a green horizon, which, multiplied in the distant forest, makes it look bossy from above; all these mark, for a great and honoured law, that diffusion of light for which the Byzantine ornaments were designed; and show us that those builders had truer sympathy with what God made majestic, than the self-contemplating and self-contented Greek.

I'll add the next three sentences as well, because they're beautiful together:

I know that they are barbaric in comparison; but there is a power in their barbarism of sterner tone, a power not sophistic nor penetrative, but embracing and mysterious; a power faithful more than thoughtful, which conceived and felt more than it created; a power that neither comprehended nor ruled itself, but worked and wandered as it listed, like mountain streams and winds; and which could not rest in the expression or seizure of finite form. It could not bury itself in acanthus leaves. Its imagery was taken from the shadows of the storms and hills, and had fellowship with the night and day of the earth itself.

The Radcliffe connection was the easiest to work out. Ruskin's rolling heap had reminded me of the clouds at the beginning of Udolpho.

To the south, the view was bounded by the majestic Pyrenees, whose summits, veiled in clouds, or exhibiting awful forms, seen, and lost again, as the partial vapours rolled along, were sometimes barren, and gleamed through the blue tinge of air, and sometimes frowned with forests of gloomy pine, that swept downward to their base. These tremendous precipices were contrasted by the soft green of the pastures and woods that hung upon their skirts; among whose flocks, and herds, and simple cottages, the eye, after having scaled the cliffs above, delighted to repose.

As for Eddison -- I'd finished his Worm Ouroboros a few days before, with its Ruskinian way of tying the personal and moral qualities of an object to its appearance, and its Ruskinian enthusiasm for things that are beautiful and noble, and its sentences that are sometimes long and always grand.

Day was fading as they stood above the cliff. All the forest land was blue with shades of approaching night: the river was dull silver: the wooded heights afar mingled their outlines with the towers and banks of turbulent deep blue vapour that hurtled in ceaseless passage through the upper air. Suddenly a window opened in the clouds to a space of clean wan wind-swept sky high above the shaggy hills. Surely Juss caught his breath in that moment, to see those deathless ones where they shone pavilioned in the pellucid air, far, vast, and lonely, most like to creatures of unascended heaven, of wind and of fire all compact, too pure to have aught of the gross elements of earth or water. It was as if the rose-red light of sundown had been frozen to crystal and these hewn from it to abide to everlasting, strong and unchangeable amid the welter of earthborn mists below and tumultuous sky above them. The rift ran wider, eastward and westward, opening on more peaks and sunset-kindled snows. And a rainbow leaning to the south was like a sword of glory across the vision.

In order to reach the "deathless ones", which are mountains, Juss and his friends have to work their way through a forest inhabited by tigers, dormice, ravens, unicorns, lemurs, and wombats. "It is very pleasant," says Lord Brandoch Daha. Seven pages later he is smacked off a cliff by a manticore. Juss fights the manticore to a terrific end. The comparisons to everyday lemons and wasps give the animal a wonderful actual meatiness. Eddison's philosophy of life is inhumane, but there is no denying the man's manticores.

So when that noisome vermin fell forward on him roaring like a thousand lions, Juss grappled with it, running in beneath its body and clasping it and thrusting his arms into its inward parts, to rip out its vitals if so he might. So close he grappled it that it might not reach him with its murthering teeth, but its claws sliced off the flesh from his left knee down ward to the ankle bone, and it fell on him and crushed him on the rock, breaking in the bones of his breast. And Juss, for all his bitter pain and torment, and for all he was well nigh stifled by the sore stink of the creature's breath and the stink of its blood and puddings blubbering about his face and breast, yet by his great strength wrastled with that fell and filthy man-eater. And ever he thrust his right hand, armed with the hilt and stump of his broken sword, yet deeper into its belly until he searched out its heart and did his will upon it, slicing the heart asunder like a lemon and severing and tearing all the great vessels about the heart until the blood gushed about him like a spring. And like a caterpillar the beast curled up and straightened out in its death spasms, and it rolled and fell from that ledge, a great fall, and lay by Brandoch Daha, the foulest beside the fairest of all earthly beings, reddening the pure snow with its blood. And the spines that grew on the hinder parts of the beast went out and in like the sting of a new-dead wasp that goes out and in continually.

Proust, of course, loved Ruskin, and translated Ruskin, and, according to Wikipedia, which footnotes this fact back to a book called Proust as Interpreter of Ruskin: the Seven Lamps of Translation, by Cynthia J. Gamble, he knew The Seven Lamps of Architecture by heart. When I looked for Proust as Interpreter I found parts of it at Google Books. Gamble dedicates a page to the question of cathedrals* --

Luc Fraisse and Richard Bales both stress the importance of cathedrals in Proust's attraction for Ruskin. Fraisse suggests that Proust had a pre-existing, keen interest in cathedrals in 1895, which his encounter with Ruskin reinforced: "his interest in Ruskin had its roots in his study of cathedrals." However this contradicts Maurois, who believed that Proust discovered cathedrals because of Ruskin: "It was as a result of his love for Ruskin that he discovered the treasures of our Cathedrals."

-- which sent me off to Monsieur Proust, a reconstruction, by the French journalist Georges Belmont, of an interview with Céleste Albaret, the woman who served as Proust's confidant-housekeeper for the last ten years of his life. Barbara Bray translates.

One night he said to me: "You know, Céleste, I want my work to be a sort of cathedral in literature. That is why it is never finished. Even when the construction is completed there is always some decoration to add, or a stained, glass window or a capital or another chapel to be opened up, with a statue in each corner."

Monsieur Proust is a loving book, a fact that sends me back to Gamble again, and a letter that she quotes. Proust wrote to Georges Goyau about his Ruskin translation:

You know how I love Ruskin. And since I believe that each of us has a responsibility for the souls he particularly loves, a responsibility to make them known and loved, to protect them from the wounds of misunderstanding and darkness, the obscurity as we say, of oblivion, you know with what scrupulous hands ... I handled that particular soul.

Love is one of the reasons why I blog.

* Later in the book Gamble provides us with a passage from The Lamp of Memory, an excerpt from the Seven Lamps of Architecture. This excerpt, she says, was Proust's "first catalyst … for translating Ruskin." It catches my eye because Ruskin is surveying mountains at sunset, just like Lord Juss. Any moment now they'll be off together into the forest of tigers and wombats.

The quote she gives us in the book is a shorter version of this:

Among the hours of his life to which the writer looks back with peculiar gratitude … is one passed, now some years ago, near time of sunset, among the broken masses of pine forest which skirt the course of the Ain, above the village of Champagnole, in the Jura. It is a spot which has all the solemnity, with none of the savageness, of the Alps ; where there is a sense of a great power beginning to be manifested in the earth, and of a deep and majestic concord in the rise of the long low lines of piny hills ; the first utterance of those mighty mountain symphonies, soon to be more loudly lifted and wildly broken along the battlements of the Alps. But their strength is as yet restrained ; and the far reaching ridges of pastoral mountain succeed each other, like the long and sighing swell which moves over quiet waters from some far off stormy sea. And there is a deep tenderness pervading that vast monotony. The destructive forces and the stern expression of the central ranges are alike withdrawn. No frost-ploughed, dust-encumbered paths of ancient glacier fret the soft Jura pastures ; no splintered heaps of ruin break the fair ranks of her forest ; no pale, defiled, or furious rivers send their rude and changeful ways among her rocks. Patiently, eddy by eddy, the clear green streams wind along their well-known beds ; and under the dark quietness of the undisturbed pines, there spring up, year by year, such company of joyful flowers as I know not the like of among all the blessings of the earth. It was spring time, too ; and all were coming forth in clusters crowded for very love ; there was room enough for all, but they crushed their leaves into all manner of strange shapes only to be nearer each other. There was the wood anemone, star after star, closing every now and then into nebulae ; and there was the oxalis, troop by troop, like virginal precessions of the Mois de Marie, the dark vertical clefts in the limestone choked up with them as with heavy snow, and touched with ivy on the edges ivy as light and loyely as the vine ; and, ever and anon, a blue gush of violets, and cowslip bells in sunny places ; and in the more open ground, the vetch, and comfrey, and mezereon, and the small sapphire buds of the Polygala Alpina, and the wild strawberry, just a blossom or two, all showered amidst the golden softness of deep, warm, amber-coloured moss. I came out presently on the edge of the ravine : the solemn murmur of its waters rose suddenly from beneath, mixed with the singing of the thrushes among the pine boughs ; and, on the opposite side of the valley, walled all along as it was by grey cliffs of limestone, there was a hawk sailing slowly off their brow, touching them nearly with his wings, and with the shadows of the pines flickering upon his plumage from above ; but with the fall of a hundred fathoms under his breast, and the curling pools of the green river gliding and glittering dizzily beneath him, their foam globes moving with him as he flew. It would be difficult to conceive a scene less dependent upon any other interest than that of its own secluded and serious beauty ; but the writer well remembers the sudden blankness and chill which were cast upon it when he endeavoured, in order more strictly to arrive at the sources of its impressiveness, to imagine it, for a moment, a scene in some aboriginal forest of the New Continent. The flowers in an instant lost their light, the river its music ; the hills became oppressively desolate ; a heaviness in the boughs of the darkened forest showed how much of their former power had been dependent upon a life which was not theirs, how much of the glory of the imperishable, or continually renewed, creation is reflected from things more precious in their memories than it, in its renewing. Those ever springing flowers and ever flowing streams had been dyed by the deep colours of human endurance, valour, and virtue ; and the crests of the sable hills that rose against the evening sky received a deeper worship, because their far shadows fell eastward over the iron wall of Joux, and the four-square keep of Granson.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

her work was, therefore

Delight today. Lisa Hill mentioned the Brotherhood Book site on LitLovers months ago, but it wasn't until last week that I found a book there that made me think, "I do want that." The book was R.G. Geering's study of Christina Stead. I mentioned it to M., and he bought it. Good man. I'd let him read it if he wanted to. I like it when you write about yourself on the blog, he says, not books I haven't read.

The Brotherhood site had it down as the original 1969 Christina Stead, but the book that arrived in the mail today was the expanded 1979 edition, which I'd rather have had anyway. The drawing of Stead on the front cover is ugly, as all drawings of her are ugly, a thing that makes me wince, because it's no secret that she was hurt by her father calling her plain when she was a teenager -- "a lazy fat lump," says Hazel Rowley's biography, quoting the memory of Christina's brother David -- and it would be kind if at least one artist could make her look slightly less foul than her photographs; instead they make her look worse. Here the left eye is drifting up diagonally into her skull. Artists, show her some pity. Stop making me wince.

As for the contents, I've only skimmed them. Geering asserts his Australian perspective from the start and carries it through to the end. Seven Poor Men of Sydney excites him -- "a most unusual novel to appear on the Australian literary scene in 1934." The Beauties and Furies "is her poorest book, but significant in a number of ways." "The color and richness of the prose in the early books has given way" in A Little Tea, a Little Chat "to a spare and chill monochrome." The critic predicts that The Puzzleheaded Girl "could become one of Christina Stead's most popular books," but so far (three decades after this revised edition was published) the prediction hasn't panned out. Someone would have to reprint it before it would stand a chance of becoming popular. In the last chapter he insists that she was not a neglected novelist in 1965, no matter what Randall Jarrell thought. I haven't seen a point of view like this argued so indignantly anywhere else.

Overseas critics who still persist in the 1965 discovery-theory should be told that her early books were being reprinted in Australia at the same time -- Seven Poor Men of Sydney in 1965 and The Salzburg Tales in paperback in 1966. For Love Alone was reissued here in 1966 and in paperback in 1969; Seven Poor Men of Sydney appeared in paperback in 1971 … Perhaps the neglect so often talked about occurred overseas rather than in Australia.

Then he relents.

It is a fact, of course, that Christina Stead's books were out of print for more than two decades and that Australians who read in their histories of the literary importance of her work were for too long unable to read it for themselves. Until the 1960s her work was, therefore, not as widely, let alone deeply, known as it deserved to be and it is rather, in this sense, that we may talk of its neglect.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

pressing details of actual experience

As a coda to my last two posts, here's a quote from Felix Holt, the Radical.

He had had to do many things in law and in daily life which, in the abstract, he would have condemned; and indeed he had never been tempted by them in the abstract. Here, in fact, was the inconvenience; he had sinned for the sake of particular concrete things, and particular concrete consequences were likely to follow.

George Eliot, like Helen Garner, reminds the reader of the difference between ideas as they are conceived in the head and ideas as they are carried out in the world. If the people behind Alice in Wonderland, Tim Burton, and the scripwriter Linda Woolverton, saw the way I wrote about them in the last post, they could use Eliot's quote as an argument in their favour. "Your accusation of cowardice is an abstract judgement," they might say. "Do you really think we sat around saying, "We're afraid of the audience, let's make this film as stupid as possible"? Do you think we said, "Well, we could act like hypocrites or not-hypocrites, let's pick hypocrites"? It's not that simple. Read the interviews! Don't you see we wanted to make a coming of age story? Didn't you see the interview on the Disney website? Here," says my imaginary Tim Burton, "read me here --

What I liked about this take on the story is Alice is at an age where you're between a kid and an adult, when you're crossing over as a person. A lot of young people with old souls aren't so popular in their own culture and their own time. Alice is somebody who doesn't quite fit into that Victorian structure and society. She's more internal.

See? So this teenage Alice has to go to Wonderland and fight a dragon to develop some adult self-confidence. What's cowardly or hypocritical about that? If only you'd been there, you'd know that we thought about it very carefully."

And this is how Felix Holt measures both of us:

But these things [ie, cowardice, dishonourable behaviour] which are easy to discern when they are painted for us on the large canvass of poetic story [or, I'd add, in a newspaper report, or any outside analysis], become confused and obscure even for well-read gentlemen when their affection for themselves is alarmed by pressing details of actual experience. If their comparison of instances is active at such times, it is chiefly in showing them that their own case has subtle distinction from all other cases, which should free them from unmitigated condemnation.

The idea that "things, which are easy to discern when they are painted for us on the large canvass of poetic story, become confused and obscure … by pressing details of actual experience" is present in Garner as well. What does it mean to judge? What assumptions do we make when we judge? How do we see ourselves in relation to the judged person?

Thursday, April 8, 2010

it is the play of itself

We saw Alice in Wonderland with friends a few nights ago. Tim Burton, who has never shown the tiniest desire to attempt Carroll's logical extremism in any other film, doesn't attempt it here. Helena Bonham Carter's Red Queen was so much like Miranda Richardson in the second series of Blackadder that even M., who was unfamiliar with the show until he migrated, picked up on it. Anne Hathaway floated through the role of the White Queen with gestures that M. (who adored them) described as "camp," holding her elbows cocked and her fingers wafting, like a woman waiting for nail polish to dry.

Hamish, the glossy young lord who proposes to adult Alice in the real world before she goes down the rabbit hole, was played beautifully by someone I'd never seen before. Leo Bill? He filled his minor role with the pantomime roundedness that Alan Rickman brought to the Sheriff of Nottingham, and the alertness and glee of this, the private fun he was having, made him seem awake while everyone else on screen was sleeping upright, tucking his jaw down chinlessly, and pootering on about his digestive tract. The other real-world actors played it straight, which was a mistake, because 'it,' that is, the script they were given, did them no favours. Clump, thud, plop, went the script, both story and dialogue dull.

So. And writing like this reminds me of Pepys criticising performances of Shakespeare, which he does several times in the Diary. The Tempest, he says, has "no great wit; but [is] yet good, above ordinary plays." At the Opera he "saw Romeo and Juliet, the first time it was ever acted [after the theatres were re-opened following the fall of Oliver Cromwell's Puritan government].

But it is the play of itself the worst that ever I saw in my life, and the worst acted that ever I saw these people do"

At the King's Theatre he watched A Midsummer Night's Dream

which I have never seen before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life.

The decision to turn Alice into a fantasy adventure seems to have been born of cowardice and nothing else; the script makes modest gestures at a kind of rote feminism -- Alice is sometimes forthright and sometimes not, to suit the plot, and she doesn't want to wear a corset -- but there is no other justification for it, other than the fear that audiences might be bored by Lewis Carroll. So, given that they've eviscerated the Nonsense and turned the Jabberwock into a standard fantasy movie dragon it's funny to hear the characters pop out lines about the importance of the imagination and the majesty of doing something new. In fact I'll go further: it's hypocrisy.

I've never loved the Alice books, or hated them either, but I remember, when I think back to reading them at the age of somewhere-under-ten, believing that Wonderland was a chilly and oppressive place. Alice goes to a world where everyone is smarter than she is, or, at least, more powerful, more knowing, more commanding, and these other people understand the way society works while she doesn't -- which is what life is like for a little child overall, if you think about it. You're ruled by adults who lay down laws in accordance with a logic that you are not privy to, logic which goes mostly unexplained, or explained in words that seem beside the point. "You have to go to bed now," they say, and, "No I don't," you reply, and "If you don't you'll be tired tomorrow," they tell you, but how, how, is that relevant to now? "No I won't be tired," you explain, and you're sure that this is true; why shouldn't it be true, and why should their guess about the future be more accurate than yours? How could they know? There is some mechanism back there, some knowledge, that they seem absolutely sure about. There's nothing you can do to penetrate their certainty. You will be tired tomorrow, they tell you. They're certain of it. When you're six this might as well be Nonsense-logic.

Monday, April 5, 2010

as far as I know

I strain and fail to see it only in abstract terms. I don't want to keep going 'like, like, like'. But I can't stop myself.

If we take abstract here to mean that the thing is contained, unassailable, removed, so complete that it can't be described with "like" because it is like nothing but itself, then I wonder if Helen Garner's sensibility could be investigated in the light of the clash she is describing, which lies between that which is self-contained, on one hand, and the complications of human habit and human sprawl, which can't be kept out, on the other. Her books begin with ideas that can be stated quite neatly. You are a good woman. Your friend is dying. What do you do? You help her and keep her comfortable. Or. A man has died, apparently murdered. What should happen? The law should discover the person who did it. And then? Punish them. Or. A female student says that a male professor, sexually suggestive, has frightened her. What should happen? We should find out if she is telling the truth or not and judge both parties accordingly. And so on.

But once these ideas come off the page and enter the world, what happens to them? This is her question. In her non-fiction books she inserts herself in the situation to find out. (In The Children's Bach, a photograph of a nuclear family won't stay stuck to the wall.) She reports on it; she reports that is, on the world as she finds it -- and she is careful, with regular use of I think and I feel, to point out that these things are happening to her alone, in other words, they are experiences confined to herself, they are not universal. She writes about the gap between intention and action. I want to be a good friend. Very nice. How? I don't know. Let me see. She is an anecdotal journalist; anecdotes for her are a way of perpetually putting the idea of human fallibility in front of us. The narrator of these essays is the most fallible one of all. She undercuts herself. Humblest of writerly voices, at times she is too easily impressed. Her colleague is not the literary essayist but the video documentarian with her hand-held camera.

Here's an example, not untypical. In "Das Bettelein", one of the essays in The Feel of Steel, she remembers a holiday she took in 1980 with a group of gay male friends. Garner recalls her opinion of them, and the recollection is unflattering -- unflattering to herself, not to the young men: she is making herself look severe, unfriendly, and two-faced.

Privately I disapproved of their obsession with fun, with youthful beauty and clothes and sex … in my heart I thought of them as moral lightweights.

An anecdote follows. She commits a small social cruelty, and they, shocked, tell her to set things right. Then the kicker, the sentence that bounces back against the word lightweights.

Twenty years later, as far as I know, only two of them are still alive.

The fact that they told her to set things right does not cancel out her earlier judgment -- it's not as if moral lightweights don't judge people too -- and nor does the fact that two of the men are dead, but it places them all closer together, she is not above them, they are all on a similar moral plane, able to judge and be judged; they are all human, and humans, as she has reminded us, are never perfect. It's not the judgment she is calling into question -- the thing that pretends to be abstract -- but the high ground she thought she was standing on when she made it. If they, with their character flaws, really were moral lightweights then what was she? There is no answer. She ends the essay reminding herself to study a piece of music; obliquely the lesson is: life is always more complicated than we think; there is always more to learn. But, oh, oblique. Rarely does she end a piece of writing with a firm conclusion. She's more likely to propose a number of scenes and let the larger matter pause there, unresolved, suggestive, "because," she seems to silently say, "resolution is impossible, but -- suggestive -- everything is suggestive: the world is suggestive." The tangle is too great, and things go on and on, infinitely complicated, one thing leading to another, all connected by unpredictable circumstance as unaccountably as with like, like, like.

Weeks after I'd made this post I came across a review of a memoir written by a doctor who'd worked in various Aboriginal communities around Australia -- Garner helped him. The reviewer wrote:

I was puzzled by the staunchly episodic feel of the book, the continental meandering that brought [Howard] Goldenberg no closer to a resolution--a moral, if you will--that he could construct out of these many experiences. As I relaxed my expectations a bit, I began to appreciate the matter-of-factness of his retelling of these lives he has encountered in the course of his work. If this is not exactly a vehicle for Aboriginal people to tell their own stories, Raft at least provides something very like an objective portrait of the people he encounters. I began to respect the author for the simplicity of his reporting and to be grateful to him for his refusal to embellish.

In the acknowledgments that close the book, Goldenberg offers the briefest of explanations for this tone, noting that among his advisors in style was Helen Garner, who urged him "strenuously to publish the pieces she liked and to incinerate those sections -- 'posturing and rhetorical' -- that she did not. It is precisely that lack of an attempt at fiery moralizing that distinguishes Raft from many otherwise similar memoirs of encounters with remote Australia.

It sounds like the kind of advice she probably gives herself when she writes. Avoid posturing. Beware fiery moralizing. Do not embellish.

Friday, April 2, 2010

like, like, like

In Helen Garner's essay, "Regions of Thick-Ribbed Ice", she sees her first chunk of Antarctic ice floating in the sea, and writes,

At once I'm seized by an urge to to compare it with something -- with anything: it's the size of a loosely flexed hand, palm up, like a Disney coronet with knobbed points; as hollow as a rotten tooth. For some reason I am irritated by this urge and make an effort to control it.

Other people on the tour ship begin to make comparisons of their own.

Then someone likens the iceberg to a face. "It's got a sad eye. See its nose?" On and on people go: it's like a sphinx, a Peke's face, an Indian head with its mouth open. Again I am secretly enraged by this, and by my own urgent desire to do the same.

The word "like" annoys her.

I strain and fail to see it only in abstract terms. I don't want to keep going 'like, like, like'. But I can't stop myself.

I thought of Gerrit de Veer, ship's carpenter, quoted in John Livingston Lowes' Road to Xanadu, who, in 1597, compared icebergs to swans without being either enraged or irritated.

The fifth, wee saw the first Ice, which we wondered at, at the first, thinking that it had beene white Swannes, for one of our men walking in the Fore-decke, on a sudden began to cry out with a loud voice, and said: that hee saw white Swannes: which wee that were under Hatches hearing, presently came up, and perceived that it was Ice that came driving from the great heape, showing like Swannes

There is grandeur in this, in the idea of these men sailing through freezing seas at the end of the world when without warning comes a flotilla of giant serene swans (this is how I see them, necks curved, still as silhouettes and stylised as plastic toys or novelty soaps, pure white, and the man on deck standing there in the role of a witness, and even though we've been told they're Ice, I still see swans). Lowes is so pleased by descriptions like de Veer's that he gives us pages of examples to prove that the "persistent association of of strange with familiar things" is "one of the voyagers' most alluring traits." (These "voyagers" are the old sailors whose travellers' tales, Lowes believes, rounded out the descriptions in Coleridge's Ancient Mariner.)

Garner wishes for "abstract" impressions; Lowes doesn't seem to have considered the idea that an abstract impression might be desirable -- it doesn't occur to him -- he is for the concrete, the shaped, the romantic comparison, the colour at the centre of the iceberg "of a pale green colour like vitriol", and, "as green as an Emerald"* -- or romantic absolutes -- so that the ice was also "the fairest blew that can be," or "of a perfect Azure colour and like to the skies," as de Veer had it, both blue and green -- which Garner, hundreds of years later, saw too.

Each one is fissured, flawed with a wandering seam of unnatural cellophane blue-green, almost dayglo: older ice, someone explains, more densely compressed. A lump of ice needs to be only the size of, say, a small washing machine, for this faery green to be present in it, like a flaw in an opal.

As I read over this I realise that the objects she's comparing the ice to would have been as strange to de Veer as the ice itself, cellophane, a washing machine, and the opal, rare stone, which was assumed, in his day, to be cursed or magical. (And, writing this, I think: if I hadn't read Lowes' book with those quotes in it, would Garner's essay have reminded me of something else, or of nothing at all? Garner wishes a thing could be that thing, self-contained, itself only, otherwise abstract. Lowes wishes that it could be everything, many things, outward-expanding, and seep into the rest of the earth: the Ice as Swanne, as vitriol, as Emerald, everything, onward and outward. As if Garner is saying, "I am a fallible human being, how can I judge? I judge against my will. I resist, I fail," and Lowes' travellers are saying, "We shall judge, it is our duty as writers to judge, in other words, to describe, thereby to value, and the ice has this value, x, the value of a swan." As if suggesting two different mysteries, the unknowable (complete in itself), and the indescribable (partaking of so many other things that it is none of them: if the iceberg is Ice and Swanne then it is neither of them, and falls somewhere between, not an iceberg, not a swan, but a thing-in-between, and also it is both, which leaves it open to be like other things as well: like a Swanne and "a sphinx," and "a Peke's face."

Otherwise you go the Gertrude Stein route, and say, The ice is the ice is the ice. And that is that.))

* Two of Lowes' sources describe the interior colour of the icebergs as "emerald," and so, he points out, in their wake, did Coleridge.

And now there came both mist and snow,
And it grew wondrous cold :
And ice, mast-high, came floating by,
As green as emerald.