Monday, June 28, 2010

the perceptible form in which the cause of a movement was draped

Weeks before Wednesday (when it was screening) I circled a Todd Browning triple-bill on the calendar, intending to finally see Freaks -- a film I'd heard much about -- and two Lon Chaneys as well, and all in black-and-white, which I love. Why love? Because that colourless world seems stranger and more secretive, more self-contained and isolated, than the coloured one. Coming out of a colour film I walk on into a coloured world, and so there is continuity there, but the boundary between the black and white world and the everyday one is more rigidly drawn -- it ends where the screen ends, it is limited, endangered, and therefore to me it seems precious. There's the shameless bare melodrama of the actors too. The betrayed father in Metropolis grabs at the air and staggers around in anguish while everyone else treats this as an absolutely normal way to behave under the circumstances. Nobody moues and says, "Knock it off, you old ham." They have such a sweet tolerance for this madness. "Camp is a tender feeling," writes Susan Sontag.

There can be beauty in restraint and deprivation (colour-deprivation), as Proust points out in The Guermantes Way, writing about the experience of a sick man who has become deaf:

And for this totally deaf man, since the loss of a sense adds as much beauty to the world as its acquisition, it is with ecstasy that he walks now upon an earth grown almost an Eden, in which sound has not yet been created. The highest waterfalls unfold for his eyes alone their ribbons of crystal, stiller than the glassy sea, like the cascades of Paradise. As sound was for him before his deafness the perceptible form in which the cause of a movement was draped, objects moved without sound seemed to be being moved also without cause; deprived of all resonant quality, they show a spontaneous activity, seem to be alive. They move, halt, become alight of their own accord. Of their own accord they vanish in the air like the winged monsters of prehistoric days. In the solitary and unneighboured home of the deaf man the service which, before his infirmity was complete, was already showing an increased discretion, was being carried on in silence, is now assured him with a sort of surreptitious deftness, by mutes, as at the court of a fairy-tale king. And, as upon the stage, the building on which the deaf man looks from his window -- be it barracks, church, or town hall -- is only so much scenery. If one day it should fall to the ground, it may emit a cloud of dust and leave visible ruins; but, less material even than a palace on the stage, though it has not the same exiguity, it will subside in the magic universe without letting the fall of its heavy blocks of stone tarnish, with anything so vulgar as sound, the chastity of the prevailing silence.

"This's why I like silent films," I thought, reading the book: "All of the people in them seem to have invented a more magical and efficient means of communicating." It wasn't an idea I'd been able to articulate before -- if someone had asked me I might have said, "Well, because it's funny to watch them make mute fish-mouths with their lips like that, it's hilarious watching that old man grab the air." Proust suggests that art can be a conduit, a window, to deeper understanding, or different understanding. The Narrator disregards the value of ordinary scenery until he sees it transformed in the work of Elstir the painter. So, as I read about this "totally deaf man," it occurred me that my ideas about silent films could be crystallised, and that they were perhaps more remarkable than I thought, and the vague itch I felt behind my own simplistic description, "It's funny to watch their lips flap," could be extended and resolved. Books help me to scratch.

But something else. On Wednesday I felt bad-tempered and agitated from morning to evening, these feelings accumulating around the idea of seeing the Todd Browning triple-bill. I don't know if I want to see it, I told M. -- and this felt like a terrible confession, because I'd already let him know that Todd Browning was something I'd been looking forward to. "False advertising," I thought. "I am a false advertisement." So gloomy, gloomy, and fishing around in my mind for an explanation, I lit on Proust again. "Berma -- it is like the Narrator seeing Berma for the first time, anticipating the event that is Berma, and afterwards realising that he spent so much time planning his own reaction to Berma that he didn't really see her at all. I thought I would feel a certain way about ..." Then, "No," I thought, "that doesn't fit" -- and I rattled this around in my head for a while, trying to get my experience to go into this Proust-shaped hole, until M. said that he understood. It's like me and The Dark Knight. He had planned to see Dark Knight for weeks and never got around to it, feeling reluctant every time the opportunity came up, and yet it had seemed like the sort of movie he would want to see, and he appeared to be the kind of person who would see it, in fact they were such a natural fit that his friends kept assuming that he'd already watched the film. What they asked do you think of The Dark Knight? So there are times when every exterior sign and signal can say, Do this, and yet something surfaces and surprises you by saying, No.

And (although I haven't worked it out very much beyond that) he brought me a moment of peace, and I thought, "I wonder if you could have another Lost Time, in which the role played, in Proust's book, by art, would be played by friendship instead, a transformative and clarifying thing?"

Friday, June 25, 2010

flattered, unquestionably,

Our local paper has not been this happy since the last time the refinery caught fire, although --

The lieutenant-colonel played the piano beautifully; the senior medical officer’s wife sang like a Conservatoire medallist. This latter couple, as well as the lieutenant-colonel and his wife, used to dine every week with M. de Borodino. They were flattered, unquestionably, knowing that when the Prince went to Paris on leave he dined with Mme. de Pourtalès, and the Murats, and people like that. “But,” they said to themselves, “he’s just a captain, after all; he’s only too glad to get us to come. Still, he’s a real friend, you know.” But when M. de Borodino, who had long been pulling every possible wire to secure an appointment for himself nearer Paris, was posted to Beauvais, he packed up and went, and forgot as completely the two musical couples as he forgot the Doncières theatre and the little restaurant to which he used often to send out for his luncheon, and, to their great indignation, neither the lieutenant-colonel nor the senior medical officer, who had so often sat at his table, ever had so much as a single word from him for the rest of their lives.

Marcel Proust, The Guermantes Way, translated by Moncrieff.

Monday, June 21, 2010

like the thawing of a glacier

"In 1813," writes Mérimée (translated by Leys), "Beyle unwittingly witnessed the rout of an entire brigade, which had been suddenly attacked by a charge of five hundred Cossacks.

Beyle saw some two thousand men -- including five generals with their embroidered hats -- all running for their lives. He ran too, though clumsily, for he was wearing only one boot and carried the other in his hand. On the French side, only two heroes stood their ground against the Cossacks: a gendarme named Menneval, and a conscript, who, trying to shoot at the Cossacks, succeeded only in killing the gendarme's horse. Beyle had to report this episode of panic to the Emperor, who listened in mute fury ..."

Masterful bit of deadpan detail, that "embroidered hats," the embroidery making the hats a little too decorated, the moment of precision -- the conscript, with all the world to fire a gun in and five hundred Cossacks to hit, manages to get his bullet precisely into the gendarme's horse -- against the flood of rout. In The Charterhouse of Parma, which I'd quote from if it hadn't gone back to the library months ago, Stendhal, working from the kind of biographical experience that, years later, gave his friend the material for that part of his memorial tribute, writes a battle that makes other battles in literature seem ridiculous. From memory then: his idealistic hero, hoping to serve under Napoleon, stumbles into the Battle of Waterloo and wanders around the battlefield, filled with innocent hope and a desire to help out in some way, searching for some solid encounter that he can identify as the battle itself. Instead he finds a weird confusion, lone men in uniform running to and fro, shooting coming from somewhere-or-another, horses going who-knows-where, and unexpected light copses of trees that get in the way. The battle, as an object, does not exist.

Other authors describe armies meeting, clashing -- Stendhal makes those descriptions seem simplistic. Victor Hugo tries to describe this degenerating aspect of Waterloo in Les Misérables (as translated by Norman Denny), "A disintegrating army is like the thawing of a glacier, a mindless, jostling commotion, total disruption," but he can't resist the urge to tidy things up: "One who is Unanswerable had taken the matter in hand, and thus the panic of so many heroes is explained." This compulsive tidying turns the rout into a monument. It becomes the work of the Unanswerable, deliberate and huge. In Stendhal's book it is something incongruous, multiple, and slippery, confetti, or jelly.

Hugo goes on to explain that morally the French won the battle, and that the only reason they didn't win it in any other way was that God ("One who is Unanswerable") didn't want them to. This piece of face-saving chutzpah seems unlikely to convince anyone who is not already French, although he's able to turn it into a capstone for his theme, the majesty of insignificant people, by sticking General Cambronne's "Merde!" on top of it all like an angel on a Christmas tree. Le mot de Cambronne was an event so memorable that Proust's characters were able to allude to it in conversation six decades after the general died in 1842 and everyone still knew what they meant.*

Simon Leys won several awards in the early 1990s for his Death of Napoleon, a book that Peter Craven praised during an Age review of the Mérimée/Stendhal translation. If Misérables elevates the ordinary human being then Napoleon de-elevates the exceptional one. Napoleon, in this book, escapes from Saint Helena, leaving a double in his place, and spends the rest of the story trying to regain his position -- trying to become Napoleon. He visits the Waterloo battlesite (the one where Cambronne shouted, or didn't shout, merde!, and where Stendhal's Fabrice received his single wound at the hand of the army he had come to help) only to find that it has been turned into an entertainment for English tourists. A sign on a farmhouse invites him to VISIT NAPOLEON'S BEDROOM explaining that THE EMPEROR SLEPT HERE THE NIGHT BEFORE THE BATTLE. He goes in, hoping to reinvigorate his memories.

Suddenly he feels faint. The vague malaise that has been upon him all morning ... abruptly gives way to an overwhelming certainty: he realizes with horror that HE HAS NEVER BEEN IN THIS PLACE BEFORE!

A little while later he sees another venue advertising the same experience. His past has been appropriated, pulled apart, and packaged by tour guides. (And reading this you might go on to wonder about the effects of Disneylandification elsewhere: the Ballarat goldfield experience, the Mito Komon TV show.) Thwarted everywhere by accidents, half-saved then lost, afflicted with ulcers, he, like Nigel Hawthorne in Alan Bennet's Madness of King George, has lost the ability to seem. (Ian Holm, who plays the doctor who restores the king's seeming in George, takes the role of Napoleon in the movie based on Leys' book.) Waterloo evades these people: it evades Stendhal's Fabrice, it evades Leys' Napoleon, it slides around Hugo's grip as he fight to pin it down, define it, have the final word. "To form a clear idea of the Battle of Waterloo we only have to draw a capital A."

Long after the fact, Edmond Goncourt decided that none of it mattered.

Monday 6 May 1889
... I thought about the fine article there would have been to write on the greatness of present-day France, if only there had not been that revolution in '89 and Napoleon I's victories and Napoleon III's revolutionary policy. True, France would probably be under the rule of an imbecile Bourbon ... but would that rule be very different from that of a Carnot, chosen as everyone knows for his nonexistent personality?

(A few years later President Carnot was stabbed to death in public by an anarchist.)

* In a joke.

"But surely these Cambremers have a rather startling name. It ends just in time, but it ends badly!" she said with a laugh.

"Yes; that double abbreviation!"

The footnotes to the Kilmartin translation explain: "This rather forced joke on the name Cambremer conceives of it being made up of abbreviations of Cambronne and merde." Lydia Davis' footnote says the same in slightly different words. It comes up again in The Guermantes Way when a character delivers her opinion of Zola: "His is the epic dungheap. He is the Homer of the sewers! He has not enough capitals to print Cambronne’s word."

The merde is probably apocryphal. A reader named Richard Edgecombe wrote to the Times in 1932:

In 1850, when I was about seven years of age, I was taken by my father to visit General Hugh Halkett, who then commanded the King's Army at Hanover. The old general seemed to have taken a fancy to me, and often allowed me to accompany him on his morning walks through the groves and avenues of Kingly Herrenhausen. As I knew that this fine old gentleman had served in the German Legion at Waterloo, that great subject often cropped up, and he told me many things which I have long forgotten. But I well remember his telling me that he alone took Cambronne prisoner. He said that this gallant French officer, who was reconnoitering on foot at some distance from and ahead of his troops, was taken completely by surprise when Halkett, who was mounted on a spirited Irish horse, galloped close up to the French lines, seized him by his aiguillette, and dragged him breathless into the British lines. "If you are an officer," said the unfortunate commander when he had recovered a little from the exertions he had undergone, "if you are an officer, here is my sword." Cambronne was taken to England as a prisoner of war, and there died; but he certainly did not ride off triumphant with one of the immortal slogans of history.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

the true face of Mount Lu

An urge, yesterday, to find out what Victor Hugo thought of Stendhal. Why? Simon Leys compares them, or their effect, in an introduction to his translation of Prosper Mérimée's Stendhal tribute, Henri Beyle. The critic Albert Thibaudet, says Leys,

drew an interesting distinction between writers who "have a position" (think of Victor Hugo, for instance) and writers who "have a presence" (here the example of Stendhal immediately comes to mind).

He goes on.

We feel captivated, inspired, overwhelmed when we read Les Misérables, without necessarily experiencing a particular urge to explore Hugo's life; or, should we do this, the exercise would probably not significantly increase our appreciation of his masterpiece ... With Stendhal, the reverse is true.

He points out as an aside that Stendhal's admirers call themselves Beylists while "admirers of Hugo do not call themselves Hugolians;" he could also have pointed out how happy it is that the followers of a man who spent his life finding new pseudonyms for himself (Mérimée lists two of them, César Bombet, Cotonet -- Leys adds more: Cornichon, Pardessus, Tonneau, Le Chinois, the last of which must have been of special interest to the translator, who was a professional Sinologist until his retirement) now hide in plain sight by calling themselves after his real name. Leys himself uses a nom de plume: his name is Pierre Ryckmans. As for Hugo, he thought Stendhal's The Red and the Black was a "misformed thing." I found that in Graham Robb's Hugo biography.

They played cards until ten o'clock, while Hugo aired his views ... Stendhal's Le Rouge et le Noir was a "misformed thing" written in dialect. "The only works which have a chance of traversing centuries are those which are properly written," which was why "Balzac's hour to sink into oblivion will come much sooner than he thought."*

Balzac liked Beyle, and the critic Sainte-Beuve took him to task for it: "It is obvious how far I am from sharing M. de Balzac's enthusiasm about Beyle's Le Chartreuse." George Sand decided that Beyle's "style was original and true but he wrote badly." (Beyle on Sand: "If the Charterhouse [of Parma] were translated into French by Mme Sand, it would be a success, but would require two or three volumes to express what it now does in two.") The devout literary gossip Edmond Goncourt mentioned him only to wonder at his "strange preoccupation with women." Mérimée seems not to have thought very much of his friend's books, although he praises him for taking criticism well. "I never met any man who could accept criticism of his literary works with more equanimity. His friends always used the bluntest language with him: quite often, he sent me manuscripts that he had previously submitted to Victor Jacquemont: they would contain scribbled comments such as: "Detestable -- written by a concierge!" and so on. When he published his book De l'Amour, they all laughed." Sylvia Townsend Warner, translating Sainte-Beuve's remarks on Beyle, comes up with the same word that Leys' translation gives to Jacquemont: "I have been re-reading, or trying to re-read Stendhal's novels; frankly, they are detestable."

Proust records Sainte-Beuve's boast, that he arrived at his opinion of Beyle's writing only after talking to the dead man's friends (Mérimée was one of those friends), and makes an angry response, which could also be also be a riposte to the Beylist admirers Leys talks about at the start of his introduction, the ones who feel "a particular urge" to explore the author's private life. "In what way does being a friend of Stendhal's make one better fitted to judge him? For those friends, the self which produced the novels was eclipsed by the other, which may have been inferior to the outer selves of many other people."

And this passage from Within a Budding Grove chastens both Saint-Beuve and Hugo.

The reason for which a work of genius is not easily admired from the first is that the man who has created it is extraordinary, that few other men resemble him. It was Beethoven’s Quartets themselves (the Twelfth, Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth) that devoted half a century to forming, fashioning and enlarging a public for Beethoven’s Quartets, marking in this way, like every great work of art, an advance if not in artistic merit at least in intellectual society, largely composed to-day of what was not to be found when the work first appeared, that is to say of persons capable of enjoying it. What artists call posterity is the posterity of the work of art. It is essential that the work (leaving out of account, for brevity’s sake, the contingency that several men of genius may at the same time be working along parallel lines to create a more instructed public in the future, a public from which other men of genius shall reap the benefit) shall create its own posterity. For if the work were held in reserve, were revealed only to posterity, that audience, for that particular work, would be not posterity but a group of contemporaries who were merely living half-a-century later in time. And so it is essential that the artist ... if he wishes his work to be free to follow its own course, shall launch it, wherever he may find sufficient depth, confidently outward bound towards the future.

Beyle critiqued his works, writes Mérimée, "as if discussing the works of an author who had died many centuries ago."

Shortly before the passage about genius that I've quoted there, Proust writes:

So that the man of genius, to shelter himself from the ignorant contempt of the world, may say to himself that, since one’s contemporaries are incapable of the necessary detachment, works written for posterity should be read by posterity alone, like certain pictures which one cannot appreciate when one stands too close to them.

Which Leys echoes, apparently unconsciously, at the end of his introduction to Henri Beyle:

[Mérimée] only missed the essential thing: Stendhal's genius. But it would be naïve and unfair to blame him for such a failure, which probably reflects a sort of natural law. A thousand years ago, a great Chinese poet had an intuition of this, as he was passing through the mountain range that surrounds the sublime Mount Lu:

I never saw the true face of Mount Lu
For the simple reason that I was in the very midst of it.

*"Nothing odd will do long," etc.

The Henri Beyle translation takes up more than half of Leys' little brown and black With Stendhal -- lent to me through the mail by Lisa at ANZLitLovers. (Her review here.) George Sand was also translated by Leys. Goncourt was translated by Robert Baldick. Stendhal-on-Sand was translated by Francis Steegmuller. Budding Grove is Moncrieff.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

a bustle and a little chearful song

Thinking about the Great Australian Loneliness -- and mourning a chance lost -- if only Ernestine Hill hadn't been a journalist, if only she'd, somehow, been able to merge (across the centuries) with Dorothy Wordsworth (died demented), who decided that she was not interested in publication, and therefore wrote freely, without the kind of journalistic latchhook that Hill feels obliged to insert. Then Hill could have concentrated on the appearances of things, and the contrasts that tickle her --

Under the baton of a Cingalese conductor, the strains of 'Dixie' are wafted across the Straits, none the less sweetly in that the ancestors of Solomon Salt, the big bass drummer, blew the conch and sounded the hide drums for the cannibal orgies of less than a century ago, and that the grandmothers of the smartly dressed audience were content with the green frilled skirt of a banana palm and a necklace of shark's teeth.

-- and there'd be no need for the propaganda parts, the lectures about half-castes, the exhortation urging city-women to travel to the outback and marry lonely men in the bush, an exhortation she sabotages in other parts of the book when she retails gruesome anecdotes of people out there suffering, dehydrating, dying, vanishing, going insane, and ending up in forgotten graves:

... many a lonely grave was by the track. Alas for man's mortality, the only one remembered was the post-and-horse-shoe monument of the engine-driver's dog, killed on the line.

She loves these stories. Here I realise, again, the intelligence of Christina Stead, who felt this excitement too, in the seething variety of human life, but, unsatisfied with the surface of her fictional earth, she dug for the core as well. Hill, too easily satisfied, or too happily engaged in her adventures, remains near the surface, pleased.

(It was only after I'd posted this that I re-read Randall Jarrell's foreword to The Man Who Loved Children and noticed: "Christina Stead can perfectly imitate the surface of existence -- and, what is harder, recognize and reproduce some of the structures underneath that surface.")

Wordsworth, in her journals, goes smoothly cleanly deep (not so much Stead's gung-ho delve), and touches -- just touches -- not hugging something as if to keep it, but touching and then releasing. She "was the very wildest ... person," said Thomas de Quincy, "the quickest and readiest in her sympathy," and the forces she writes about are wild, they move, they shift. She, in the cottage she shared with her brother William, is a steady lighthouse from which I see every aspect of the world stir and change. The moon waxes, wanes, falls behind clouds, the wind attacks a tree ("It bent to the breezes as if for the love of its own delightful motions"), and then there is rain, or a rainbow, or a storm. "The trees almost roared, and the ground seemed in motion with the multitudes of dancing leaves ..." She has a knack for the accurate word and the poetic shortcut: for example: noticing the similarity between the tails of swallows and those of fish.

They twitter and make a bustle and a little chearful song hanging against the panes of glass, with their white bellies close to the glass and their forked fish-like tails. They swim round and round and again they come.

In the first few pages of the Alfoxden Journal she sees sheep "glittering" in the sun. The sharpness of this word goes against the nature of literary sheep: usually fluffy, woolly, softly white, or, if lambs, playfully gambolling. But it is correctly evocative. Wordsworth is not unusual for the sake of being unusual, she is unusual for the sake of being right. She has her own kind of digging.

Romance got hold of Ernestine Hill, this bad habit of valuing things for the sake of the dramatic effect they cause, and she plants those effects solidly on the page, not moving them forward lightly as Wordsworth does. Hill likes to make declarations. "A hundred miles south-west of Darwin, the Daly River runs into the sea." "Honesty, humour, kindliness and discretion have made T.B. an outstanding character." "You will not find Jiggalong on any map." "The journey had a fatal precedent." "It is surprising what they fit in on Thursday." She talks about the "fires of romance" but underneath the hot language this style has a cold and uninflamed heart. Words are being used to manacle ideas in place and keep them still. Peake does this too, and part of Gormenghast castle's atmosphere of stillness comes naturally from this cold and fixed style, which he manipulates adroitly. It sympathises with his subject as naturally as Sterne's dashes suit the tangent-theme of Tristram Shandy. (Sterne's narrator, like the swallows, is always darting off. He swims round and round and again he comes.) Romantic style blockades Peake into a rare moment of ugliness when Titus reacts to the death of the Thing with a burst of egotistical and unempathetic joy. But Titus is less cold than his creator, who raised the Thing in order to kill her. And neither of them is as heartless as Ernestine Hill, who is willing to tell her unprepared urban reader that she should travel into the outback to marry a man who, if the rest of her stories can be trusted, is likely to be shy, reclusive, or mad. "No longer do they need the companionship of their fellows."

Thursday, June 10, 2010

a discovery has been made

I know that at least one of you is reading Pykk via RSS feed, and therefore can't see the links in the bar off to the side, so I'll put this here as well -- Jonathan Franzen is doing a Randall Jarrell in the New York Times. This is not the first time he's spruiked Stead in public, but never before has the spruiking been more prominent. And now, typing 'christina stead franzen' and 'franzen man who loved children' into Google, I come across pages here and there where people are saying, I remember that book, The Man Who Loved Children; I think I heard the title mentioned once, long ago, along with, Can anyone tell me about this Christina Stead person because God knows I've never heard of her. At the Abebooks blog they're telling us that sales of Man jumped after the article went up.

I'm pleased by this because I hope the interest will flow on to her other books, and then someone might reprint The People With the Dogs and House of All Nations, the harder-to-find ones. There's also a kind of smugness in being ahead of (or part of, because I'm easily thrilled, not immune to crowds) an idea that has suddenly sprung into the public eye. "Why yes," you say, "I've read the Man Who Loved Children. I've been reading it for years. And all of her other books. And the collected letters. And the biography. No, not just the Rowley one. Everybody's read the Rowley one. The other one. And the book that argues she was a closeted lesbian. Why, hasn't everyone? No? You haven't? Well, huh!" Here you flaunt off like Medea in a chariot pulled by minor characters whose names your interlocutor does not know. Your hair is immaculate.

Franzen isn't the first Pulitzer Prize-winner to champion Man, but he's the most persistent, and the loudest. Anne Tyler has mentioned it too:

What books would you recommend reading groups add to their lists?

Books that cause fiercely passionate arguments, pro and con, seem to me the best candidates for reading groups. For instance, I would recommend Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children. No one is ever neutral about that book.

Saul Bellow liked her as well.

Which contemporary writers do you admire?

Well, Marquez is a wonderful writer ... Then there is the Australian novelist Christina Stead, who is really marvelous. She gropes here, she gropes there, she introduces this subject and that subject, seems to talk to no purpose -- and talk and talk! Then, suddenly, with a wild outburst, she understands something. A discovery has been made.

So does Doris Lessing.

HB: Still, it seems you're invisible in some way.

DL: I am, yes.

HB: Maybe because you're so hard to classify.

DL: It's also partly because there are good women writers who are invisible. One is Christina Stead. Have you ever read her? She's a marvelous writer. But she's invisible. In fact, Saul Bellow said, when he got the Nobel Prize, that it should have gone to Christina Stead. Try The Man Who Loved Children. There's a great treat in store for you.

Same goes for Marguerite Young, Lillian Hellman, Angela Carter (another persistent and vocal supporter, while she was alive), Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Lowell, Patrick White, and so on, and so forth, along with (of course) less-famous people: bloggers, Amazon reviewers, students, and essayists. While I was searching for responses to the Franzen article I stumbled across this good essay by Susan Sheridan, who examines possible causes for Stead's fallow period. I recommend it to anyone who finds themselves lying awake at 2 a.m. thinking, "So was it communism or what?"

Monday, June 7, 2010

a fast launch in a costume

His latest job is diving after turtle from the deck of a fast launch in a costume that consists of Japanese boots. Most people prefer to wait until the mother comes up on the beaches to lay her eggs in the sand in summer, and then turn her over. Gregson is the first white man to emulate the black in an unfailing all-the-year-round method. To him, riding a turtle down into five fathoms is every bit as exhilarating as picking up your handkerchief in your teeth in a flying gallop across the Steppes.

I've been reading Ernestine Hill's The Great Australian Loneliness, a book that isn't as stark or as critical as the title and the cover photograph (two sepia people wary by a tent) let me expect. Her version of the Loneliness ("a magnificent empty land") is well-populated. Give her a huge desert with a single man in it and she'll write a sentence about the desert and half a page about the man. Hill was a journalist, an adventurer, and Loneliness was put together out of articles she wrote for "the Australian National Travel magazine, Walkabout," along with a collection of state newspapers, Herald, Argus, Courier-Mail, West Australian, all of which she thanks in the credits, "For [their] co-operation and most kindly consideration."

It was in July, 1930, that I first set out, a wandering 'copy-boy' with swag and typewriter, to find out what lay beyond the railway lines. Across the painted deserts and the pearling seas, by aeroplane and camel and coastal-ship, by track and lugger and packhorse team and private yacht, the trail has led me across five years and 50, 000 miles, a trail of infinite surprises.

She is patriotic --

Australia is like its own unique and glorious jewel, the opal. A great jagged square of colourless crystal, you must hold it up to the light to catch the flashing fires of romance.

-- and she punches up this patriotism with a combination of drama and journalistic phrasemaking, those "flashing fires of romance" (oh the ongoing determination of Australian writers, in that earlier time, to make their country interesting, and by extension themselves: well, why not: great thirsts there, and only human) that "flying gallop across the Steppes," or, imagining a man dying of thirst,

Horribly he licks his own salt sweat, and bites his lips for the blood

or, when she writes about the blackbirding of inland men to serve the Western Australian pearling trade, "With a clumsy cross the natives signed their death warrants." Occasionally she uses "nigger" to mean "Aboriginal," not in a deliberately cruel way, but usually in idioms, or, if dismissively, giving it to somebody else ("To some of the first white colonists, particularly the multitude of the gold rush, they were just niggers, the boys shot at sight, the women used brutally"), but, herself, casually, cheerfully, conversationally, not expecting anyone to take offence --

Bare as a nigger and nearly as black, Gregson has lived magazine-cover adventure since childhood, when he ran away from a merchant service training ship ...

I had a vision of 1930s Australia, a time in which popular magazines would blithely publish racial slurs, over and over again, for years and years and years. ("The true character or spirit of an age," wrote J. Huizinga in The Waning of the Middle Ages, "is better revealed in its mode of regarding and expressing trivial and commonplace things than in the high manifestations of philosophy and science"* --: or, what seems ordinary to its contemporaries is evidence to the eye of the future -- or: we look at the past like bush trackers) This bare Gregson is the same man whose job it is to dive after turtles in his Japanese boots. He lives in a fading West Australian sea-port town named Cossack and works for an English soup company. Once dead, the greenback turtles are "butchered of their calipash and calipee, and boiled, shell and all, in steam-jacket broilers with distilled water, a few secrets from London chefs, and a liberal allowance of sherry -- three days from the sea to the soup-plate." Hill is delighted.

Showing their equestrian prowess of turtle-back down under, and battling against difficulties of water-shortage and isolation, the Cossacks of Cossack are so far winning through, and with an encouraging success beginning to realise the wealth of these tropic seas, and to introduce Australia's epicurean delicacies to the dinner-tables of the world.

Today, more than three decades after Hill died in 1972, the greenback is classified Endangered by the IUCN, and the dugong, which she suggests "may be 'floated' into a company," in other words, slaughtered and marketed for its skin, meat, and oil, is doing only slightly better at Vulnerable. I once worked in the same office as a woman who had a sideline in sea turtle conservation. This woman pinned turtle pictures to the wall in her cubicle, and kept statistics on hand in case you wanted to know how many eggs had been stolen, or how many turtle-mothers saved. She would have regarded Hill in something of the same way that Hill, in other parts of the book, regards Aboriginal Australians -- a primitive, a mental child, someone whose comprehension of complicated matters was inadequate, feeble, ruinous -- although my co-worker would have chucked these words at her with anger, with fury, probably shouting into the other woman's face, while Hill describes her fellow Australians as "children" with a kind of romantic pity. "A wild creature of the woodland, civilisation is his doom."

This romance is one of her weaknesses, I think. As long as a thing is dramatic and accords with the expectations of her audience, or her beliefs about those expectations (bushmen are lone gentlemen, pioneer woman are hardy angels, and the offspring of white and black parents are drawn, irresistibly, tragically, by their genes, to the primitive) then she will treat it as though it were true. Excited by the various surfaces and existences of things, she is less interested in their roots and causes. She is so indefatigably romantic that it flattens everything out. Triumphs and deaths are described with the same relish. Everything is overheated and sometimes it is crowded. Bruce Chatwin, cool, classical, and pointed, could have done a lot with some of the anecdotes that she scatters.

In one benighted gully I came upon a white man in a thatched log hut cobbling his boots with raw-hide. He did not arise when we drew up, he seemed too broken in spirit. In front of him a ragged little hen, crazed with heat, turned over and over in vertigo.

"It won't die," he assured me. "I wish to God that it would."

* I found Huizinga quoted in William Least Heat-Moon's PrairyErth, a book that makes an interesting contrast with this one. Heat-Moon travels too, but across one small area of Kansas, for six hundred pages. Give him a desert and a man and he'd write a chapter about each of them. He calls his book a "deep history."