Sunday, August 29, 2010

elevated into the marvellous

After my last post I was still thinking about the way Dickens notices people's particularities when I came across this sentence in one of his Reprinted Pieces: "In the Courts of Justice, the materials of thousands of such stories as we have narrated - often elevated into the marvellous and romantic, by the circumstances of the case - are dryly compressed into the set phrase, 'in consequence of information I received, I did so and so.'"

With that it occurred to me that he was also alert to the habits people use to mask or reduce complication (particularity being one of those habits, a way of turning the large grey world into black and white, a purpose that religion or politics serves for some people, so that a particularity such as that of Miss Monflathers becomes a little secular religion of her own. Hence her bravery when she sees it questioned), and that this pinpoint-reduction, this moment of focus (everything "dryly compressed into the set phrase"), becomes another kind of advertisement, by which we may know them. And then I remembered that E.M. Foster had called Dickens' characters one-dimensional, and I wondered at the way we (this is a general we and may not mean you) think of fictional characters as autonomous beings -- imaginary autonomous beings, of course, and artificially created by authors, but still realistic imitations of people, with life histories and internal motivations -- thinking of them as realistic imaginary extrusions of their realistic imaginary pasts, whereas a character like Mr Micawber or Mrs Gamp is perhaps an extrusion of the world itself, as if this fictional environment is a kind of deep-sea fish, putting out a light at the end of its forehead-prong, and that light is a character. The light is the spectacle, but the mass propelling that light is the fish.

Which reminds me in turn of an idea I'm probably remembering wrongly from Plato; that there is a pure essence, and that the things around us remind us of that essence. A tree is a reminder of the perfect essence of trees. And so Mrs Gamp is not a person, even an imaginary person, but a reminder of the perfect essence of Gampness, which we must have intuited, once upon a time.

Monday, August 23, 2010

or, as I heard it called by street-patterers, "sing-song"

I sat down at the computer on Saturday evening, thinking that I was going to write about Dune, but then I made the mistake of checking twitter for news of the election, and for hours after that I was a lab rat with a lever. Press, press, press, I went. Pellets? No pellets. In place of pellets I got the news that Steve Fielding was out of a job, Adam Bandt was in one, and the seat of Longman in Queensland had fallen to Draco Malfoy, ho, ho, and ha.* Wyatt Roy jokes went on for hours, and then eventually came jokes about hung parliaments, and the news that a Family First representative named Daniel Emmerson had called the Greens "filth," and then gloating over the removal of Wilson Tuckey, who has been -- had been -- in politics for more years than I've been alive. Someone compared him to a couch.

aplund RT @madeinmelbourne: Sky News "Wilson Tuckey is a part of the furniture of parliament". Yeah, unfortunately we need a representative member, not a weird couch. 1 minute ago via Seesmic

Who came up with that? Who started it? The social media moved at such speed that not only the hung parliament jokes but the backlash against the hung parliament jokes was in place before midnight.

djlukeleal I think it's time to call a moratorium on the hung parliament jokes. #fb 4 minutes ago via Twitter for iPhone

By Sunday morning the diversity had more or less settled down (evolving and refining itself and discarding the unhandy freaks and sports, as nature is assumed to do in search of perfect finches) to a single example that was still being retweeted hours later on Sunday night.

Johan_Vonshag RT @tynanbryant: RT @oldspice Hello Australia. Look at your Parliament, now back at me. Sadly, it isn't me, but it is hung like me. #ausvotes 2 minutes ago via TweetDeck

Kiel RT @calebo: Hello Australia. Look at your Parliament, now back at me. Sadly, it isn't me, but it is hung like me. #oldspice #ausvotes 1 minute ago via Itsy!

danjohnwatson RT @_mesmeri: RT @oldspice Hello Australia. Look at your Parliament, now back at me. Sadly, it isn't me, but it is hung like me. #ausvotes 4 minutes ago via web

And so on. "Our brains must love tools," I thought as I was turning that trend over in my mind, "and they will make a tool out of anything. The Old Spice commercial is ... it's a modern version of the sticks and stones that people used to sharpen and shape so that they could be used as weapons, or to dig -- to attack the world, in fact, or to alter it, or to speak to it, however you want to word the idea -- this everlasting and perpetual search for intermediaries, this unexhausted search, going on and on -- what energy we have. What fantastic energy." Dickens, who was so famous for energy that he killed himself with exercise, had an eye for these magpie borrowings and cross-pollinations. He was a borrower himself, and he noticed other people borrowing. When Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop realises with horror that the shadow she sees creep into her room at night has the form of her grandfather and he is there to rob her, the author echoes Macbeth's reaction to the apparition of Banquo at the banquet: "The time had been / That when the brains were out, the man would die / And there an end."

She sat and listened. Hark! A footstep on the stairs, and now the door was slowly opening. It was but imagination, yet imagination had all the terrors of reality; nay, it was worse, for the reality would have come and gone, and there an end, but in imagination it was always coming and never went away.

There's nothing obtrusive about this, and nothing studied. It looks as if his brain, once it lit on the subject it was dealing with, quickly surrounded it, observed it from all angles, perceived the correlation with the play, and swept it up, absorbed it, and made it a natural part of the sentence. He incorporates Biblical phrases as well, and pieces of ballads, and proverbs, and of course one of the Old Curiosity Shop's characters is a magpie of a speaker. This is Dick Swiveller, who makes his conversation ornamental by patching it up with lines from popular songs, like a sort of human bower bird searching the forest for decorations. He advertises the songs, and the songs advertise him. It's a symbiotic relationship. Mrs Jarley, who runs a travelling wax-works, draws her promotional material from the same pool of songs, adapting the lyrics to suit her purpose.

... she brought forth specimens of the lesser fry in the shape of hand-bills, some of which were couched in the form of parodies on popular melodies, as 'Believe me if all Jarley's wax-works so rare ' -- 'I saw thy show in youthful prime' -- 'Over the water to Jarley;' while, to consult all tastes, others were composed with a view to the lighter and more facetious spirits, as a parody on the favourite air of 'If I had a donkey'

Dickens delights in this; he writes like a man who loves Mrs Jarley's inventiveness. The popular songs themselves, in unJarlified form, were treated like merchandise by London's street-sellers, and sold in three-yard lengths, as Henry Mayhew recorded.

The paper songs, as they fluttered from a pole, looked at a little distance like huge much-soiled white ribbons, used as streamers to celebrate some auspicious news. The cry of one man, in a sort of recitative, or, as I heard it called by street-patterers, "sing-song," was, "Three yards a penny! Three yards a penny! Beautiful songs! Newest songs! Popular Songs! Three yards a penny! Song, song, songs!"

The traders could be particular, noticed Mayhew. They had standards, or said they did. "Indecent songs are not sold by the pinners-up. One man of whom I made inquiries was quite indignant that I should even think it necessary to ask such questions." This is something I've noticed in Dickens as well, the people who distinguish themselves by insisting on some slight thing that marks them out, and who cling to this difference. It is their bit of power, such small self-appointed power (the author often sounds amused when he records it), although a character who has some other kind of power as well can use their particularity cruelly. Particularity itself is a tool. It costs nothing. Anybody can wield it. A few pages on from Mrs Jarley and her ballads, I come across the bullying headmistress Miss Monflathers who uses the common property of popular recitation not to open her wares to people, as the wax-work woman does, but to enforce her power by setting up conditions under which the recitations may or may not be used. "'The little busy bee," she says, referring to Dr Watts' morality poem, "is applicable only to genteel children." Then she goes on to outline the poetry that should be applied to non-genteel children such as Nell, who is unlucky enough to be standing nearby. Mrs Jarley used her tool to draw people in, Miss Monflathers uses it to keep them out. Advertising becomes an expression of generosity.

* This ho ho and ha was inspired by the bus driver whose bus replaced the train I wanted to catch on Saturday morning. Two teenagers in the front seats were talking to him and he said, "It's going to be on again tomorra." [meaning buses replacing trains] "So remember that. OH SIGH."

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

felt the earth tremble

Following on from the previous post.

Krook died of spontaneous combustion and George Henry Lewes laughed. Everything I draw on is real, Dickens insisted angrily. My facts are verifiable and true.

We may therefore conclude that none of Captain Franklin's men ate one another, in spite of the evidence given to John Rae by the Inuit, and in spite of the analysis of three scientists, who, at the end of the twentieth century, wrote a formal report detailing the marks of metal knives on the recovered bones.

The cut marks, which ranged in length from 2 to 27 mm, were easily distinguished from animal tooth marks by their sharper borders, narrower width, and wider spacing ... In contrast to cuts made by stone tools, the observed cuts, examined under a scanning electron microscope, exhibited features characteristic of cuts made by metal blades, namely straight edges


The location of the cut marks is also consistent with defleshing

This may have been true at the time the Inuit spoke to John Rae, and it may have been true at the end of the twentieth century, but it was not true when Dickens wrote his article for Household Words. These things change over time, they change in response to written opinion, and they change from one moment to the next. In Dombey and Son, one character is killed by the monstrous apparition of a train.

He heard a shout—another—saw the face change from its vindictive passion to a faint sickness and terror—felt the earth tremble—knew in a moment that the rush was come — uttered a shriek—looked round—saw the red eyes, bleared and dim, in the daylight, close upon him—was beaten down, caught up, and whirled away upon a jagged mill, that spun him round and round, and struck him limb from limb, and licked his stream of life up with its fiery heat, and cast his mutilated fragments in the air.

In Dickens, Peter Ackroyd notes that trains at that early stage of rail travel would not have been moving at more than twenty-five miles per hour, or about forty kilometres. This is the speed Australians are advised to slow down to when we drive past schools, so that children, when we hit them, will be more likely to survive, bouncing softly off our bonnets rather than flying across the road and having their heads shattered against the passing buses.

So human beings in the past were excessively fragmentable. Today they are more resilient. The speed that would not kill a child today would, in the past, have struck an adult man limb from limb. We may furthermore speculate that over time, if literature permits, human beings will become progressively less fragile, until, at some currently unforeseeable stage, they become completely impervious to harm. We will look to fiction for proof. Is not Superman both "The Man of Steel" and "The Man of Tomorrow"? Did we not conclude last week that Agnes Wickfield, a character who never ages or undergoes physical change, belongs in a science fiction novel? It does not seem unreasonable to assume that she, a woman of science-fiction imperviousness, a woman "of Tomorrow," shares the qualities of Superman. In short, Agnes comes from Krypton.

And we may pity Carker, as he gets struck limb from limb, for the answer to his problem lies only a small, small way into the future, in the very next book in fact.* Superman is more powerful than a locomotive. Agnes likewise must be more powerful than a locomotive. She could have saved Carker armed with nothing more than her own bare hands. His tragedy is that Dickens wrote her a few years too late.

*Anyone who doubts the ability of Dickens characters to travel independently outside their books should consider the case of Miss Julia Mills, who was so badly wounded by "a misplaced affection" in David Copperfield that she moved to the seaside town where Dickens took his holidays and read the entire romance section of the library.

(See the Reprinted Pieces for proof.)

Sunday, August 15, 2010

the story / stops, everything

In her essay My Odd Shelf, Anne Fadiman writes about the collection of books she owns on the subject of polar exploration: "sixty-four books ... so charged with sentiment that they might as well be smudged with seal blubber and soaked with spray from the Weddell Sea." Her favourite explorers are the ones who failed. "Not coincidentally, they were also all British." In 1854, the Scotsman John Rae, who had been in the Arctic, searching for evidence that would reveal the fate of Captain John Franklin's efforts to uncover a passageway through the ice (the Captain's ships set off in 1845 and from that frozen whale-road never returned), sent a report back to Britain, saying that he had held conversations with the local people, who told him that the dying members of the expedition had resorted to cannibalism.

Charles Dickens was so livid at the news that he wrote an article about it for the journal that he was then editing, Household Words. In his Dickens biography, Peter Ackroyd calls this "one of his stranger essays of the period ... It is so strange an article, in fact, that it throws more light upon his own excitable and anxious state of mind than upon the ostensible subject of his concern." First Dickens says that Rae's Inuit were lying ("the wild tales of a herd of savages"), then he says that they probably killed the explorers themselves, then he insists that it is impossible, utterly impossible, that handpicked British gentlemen would eat one another, even in extremity.

Also, and as the citadel of the position, that the better educated the man, the better disciplined the habits, more reflective and religious the tone of thought, the more gigantically improbable the "last resource" becomes.

To prove his point, he describes real life accounts of shipwrecked men who resisted cannibalism, he discusses the hero of Byron's Don Juan, who refused even to eat a dead spaniel, and he draws the reader's attention to Sinbad the Sailor of the Arabian Nights. The Arabian Nights stories had been favourites of his since childhood.

Even for SINBAD the Sailor, buried alive, the story-teller found it easier to provide some natural sustenance, in the shape of so many loaves of bread and so much water, let down into the pit with each of the other people buried alive after him (whom he killed with a bone, for he was not nice), than to invent this dismal expedient.

It was not in his childhood reading, it went against his childhood reading, it went against goodness, it was unthinkable, he could not, and would not, think it.

Because they ARE dead. therefore we care about this ... Because no Franklin can come back, to write the honest story of their woes and resignation ... Because they lie scattered on those wastes of snow, and are as defenceless against the remembrance of coming generations, as against the elements into which they are resolving, and the winter winds that alone can waft them home, now, impalpable air; therefore cherish them gently, even in the breasts of children.

Throughout the length of the biography Ackroyd draws attention to the automatic sympathy Dickens felt for lost children and forlorn people. His fiction is full of orphaned or unprotected figures, Little Nell, Oliver Twist, Paul Dombey, David Copperfield, Pip. He left a trail of them like breadcrumbs (and a trail of breadcrumbs leads, but where?). He showed sympathy, says Ackroyd, for people who had failed at that Victorian thing, "the Battle of Life." The failure and lostness of the explorers was very large, and it does not seem surprising that he should want to protect them once he perceives that they are "defenceless." They are as dead as Nell. Dead explorers answer something in Fadiman too, a yearning for spectacles of noble failure. And they answer something in the poet Elizabeth Bradfield, who wrote a book of poems about polar explorations, called Approaching Ice. "Who else," she asks one of the explorers rhetorically, "has breathed air this clear, crystals of it / hardening briefly in your lungs?" "[I]f only the unsullied / could be discovered," she adds in a different poem. Here there is a longing for purity, or magic nullity, and for an extreme, and for a kind of collaboration with that extreme.

... if only, once found,
it could speak its own nobility and let us

The writers wanted the polar landscape so profoundly that it seems reasonable to assume that it was, in fact, their creation, and that the explorers who thought they were walking or sailing into an iced-over part of the world were instead walking into the brains of writers. Of course Dickens was conspiring with Fadiman and Bradfield without knowing it, and all three of them were conspiring with other writers who have summoned up the same idea. Jules Verne, for example, wrote a book about an explorer who went to the North Pole and discovered a volcano, and a book about another explorer who went to the South Pole and discovered a sphinx. The Canadian poet David Solway published a book called Franklin's Passage which contains the lines, "when the story / stops, everything / stops." Wilkie Collins, the author of The Woman in White, collaborated with Dickens on a play called The Frozen Deep. Dickens appeared in the play himself, filling the role of Richard Wardour, an explorer who is rescued just in time to perish in the arms of his sweetheart, Clara Burnham. By the end of the run Clara was being played by a woman named Ellen Ternan, with whom Dickens fell in love. She was the passion of his later life, a dramatic catalyst, who, much younger than he, never ruined herself for him by aging as the other women he had loved had aged. He never treated her as he treated unhappy Maria Beadnell in Little Dorrit. "Here was the young and pretty actress who somehow provoked in Dickens all the longings he had once attached to to others like Christina Weller," wrote Peter Ackroyd. So the ice gave him the virgin he had pursued in his fiction. Their long affair was likely unconsummated, Ackroyd suggests. "[I]f only the unsullied / could be discovered." Ternan's real tears dripped into the beard of the dying Richard Wardour, transmitting ideas to Dickens: " ... new ideas for a story have come into my head as I lay on the ground, with surprising force and brilliancy." "And he has died," finished Collins when he turned the play into a novel, "in the moment of victory. Not one of us here but may live to envy his glorious death."

For the Dickens family it was a disaster, and his wife Catherine, scattered on interior wastes of snow, wept as if soaked with spray from the Weddell Sea.

Dickens' article was called The Lost Arctic Voyagers and you can read most of it at The Victorian Web. Don Juan is here. Look to the Second Canto for the shipwreck. Actually he eats half of one of the spaniel's forepaws, but he eats it reluctantly. The point is that he doesn't eat a human.

'T was not to be expected that he should,
Even in extremity of their disaster,
Dine with them on his pastor and his master.

Elizabeth Bradfield? Here. Jules Verne's volcano book was called Voyages et aventures du capitaine Hatteras, and his sphinx book, Le Sphinx des glaces. Then there was a third book about a group of Americans who wanted to buy the North Pole so that they could mine it for coal. That book was called Sans dessus dessous. The text of Wilkie Collins' novel is available at Project Gutenberg.

Crayford's voice was heard in the silence.

"The loss is ours," he said. "The gain is his. He has won the greatest of all conquests—the conquest of himself. And he has died in the moment of victory. Not one of us here but may live to envy his glorious death."

The distant report of a gun came from the ship in the offing, and signaled the return to England and to home.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

dimly she conceived herself

(A warning: I am about to give away parts of George Eliot's Daniel Deronda and one little bit of Dickens' David Copperfield)

Reading one of the Gwendolyn chapters in Daniel Deronda I came across this description of that young middle-class woman's state of mind after her family's fortunes have suddenly dipped: "dimly she conceived herself getting amongst vulgar people who would treat her with rude familiarity -- odious men whose grins and smirks would not be seen through the strong grating of polite society." In other words, she thinks she is going to turn into Henny Pollit, who is the creation of Christina Stead. She is going to swap creators, she will exchange gods, she will be described in new language. "But for Henny there was a wonderful particular world ... this inferno."

... in the streetcar was 'a dirty shrimp of a man with a fishy expression who purposely leaned over me and pressed my bust, and a common vulgar woman beside him, an ogress, big as a hippopotamus, with her bottom sticking out, who grinned like a shark and tried to give him the eye,' and how this wonderful adventure went on for hours, always with new characters of new horror ... all these wonderful creatures, who swarmed in the streets, stores, and restaurants of Washington, ogling, leering, pulling, pushing, stinking, over-scented, screaming and boasting, turning pale at a black look from Henny, ducking and diving, dodging and returning, were the only creatures that Henny ever saw.

The young Henny was daintily kept, like the young Gwendolyn, but then she married Samuel Pollit and became bitter and endlessly theatrical, every movement a piece of theatre, even the ordinary act of closing and opening her eyes or of leaning on a table, "a commonplace habit which looked very theatrical in Henny." Unmarried Gwendolyn takes part in amateur theatrical tableaux, dressing in a sheet and pretending to be the statue of Hermione at the end of A Winter's Tale, but when you regard her as a performer you see that her real talent lies in drawing attention to herself in social settings.

Going on a little I discovered that it was not Gwendolyn's fear of odious men that was the foretaste of the future but her performance as the statue. After the family calamity she marries an aristocrat named Grandcourt who imposes his will upon her; he wants her to be calm and controlled, unchanging and supremely ornamental. There is no leering, pushing pulling, stinking, in Grandcourt's world, nothing is over-scented, no one screams or boasts, everything is mild and decorous -- it is a hell for her, but the opposite of the one she imagined. Grandcourt is so fond of continuity that he withstands his own death on page seven hundred and fifty-eight and strides forward through time to install himself in a different book under the name of Gilbert Osmond. He is American now, but it is him, it is his revenant. He finds another Gwendolyn, who, like the first one, does not recognise him for what he is. He recognises her, even though she is now Isabel Archer. It is possible that before Gwendolyn he had another woman in another century and that both of their roles are perpetual.

There is another figure of stasis in Deronda besides Grandcourt. Her name is Mirah, a young Jewish woman who is in the book because Eliot wanted to convince her Victorian-era readers that not all Jews were, as the stereotype had it, vulgar, greedy, cunning, and venal. Some of them were far less interesting than that, and Mirah is one of the uninteresting ones. She is a Victorian Heroine. Her hair is beautiful and her profile is beautiful and and her eyes are beautiful and her singing is beautiful and her playing of the piano is beautiful, and everyone loves her and the hero loves her and the hero's friend loves her and her brother loves her and she loves all of them and so full of love is she that she wishes her horrible father would come back into her life so that she could love him too, which he does, and talks her out of everything she's got in about five minutes, which is wonderful and endearing of him although the author expects you to disapprove.

A saintly character like Mirah never changes. Only her circumstances change. All she can do to alter herself is die. She is made out of some adamantine material; she is not the iron that Ruskin admired because it was capable of rusting but the steel he hated because it would not breathe. (And yet he wanted to marry a woman like her.) Never worn down or worn in, she can only be destroyed. Writers who place the roots of modern science fiction in the 1800s will mention Frankenstein and Jules Verne, but as far as I know they have never addressed the most public of all Victorian science-fiction constructions, the perpetual woman. "O Agnes," says David Copperfield, to his own particular example, "O my soul, so may thy face be by me when I close my life indeed; so may I, when realities are melting from me, like the shadows which I now dismiss, still find thee near me, pointing upward!" In Woman and the Demon: the Life of a Victorian Myth, Nina Auerbach makes Agnes into a talisman. "Agnes is to David as he is to his own novel. Her right to orchestrate his death comes from her magical role as maker and shaper of his life" And I think of Fiorinda in E.R. Eddison's A Fish Dinner in Memison, who causes the whole terrestrial globe to be built and then pops it with a hair-pin, finishing the book. "With a nearly noiseless puff it burst." So the Victorian era of Deronda turned into the Edwardian and exploded against World War I.

Managed by a slightly different author, Agnes Wickfield could have been terrifying. From the first time I read the book I've thought that Uriah Heep had a lucky escape.

'What I am, you have made me, Agnes. You should know best.'

'I made you, Trotwood?'

'Yes! Agnes, my dear girl!' I said, bending over her. 'I tried to tell you, when we met today, something that has been in my thoughts since Dora died. You remember, when you came down to me in our little room - pointing upward, Agnes?'

'Oh, Trotwood!' she returned, her eyes filled with tears. 'So loving, so confiding, and so young! Can I ever forget?'

'As you were then, my sister, I have often thought since, you have ever been to me. Ever pointing upward, Agnes; ever leading me to something better; ever directing me to higher things!'

"[A]s magic objects," writes Auerbach, such heroines "exude a power beyond the human."

Monday, August 2, 2010

what I see

Over at ANZ LitLovers, the playwright Darryl Emmerson has posted a link to details of a Christina Stead stage play due to run in October.

The website for the production is here.

The details are these:

I Write What I See: Christina Stead Speaks

Venue: Old Council Chambers, Trades Hall, 54 Victoria Street, Carlton, Victoria, Australia.
Season: October 13 - 31, 2010
Times: Wed to Sat 8pm, Sun 6pm
Duration: 70 minutes

Adult: $32
Concessions: Seniors, Unwaged, Carers, Industry: $25
Students under 25: $19
Group: (6 or more) $27

"[W]e should do the tirades of [Henny] against her husband," said John Waters on the radio not long ago, and now I wonder if he's going to (not that he will be here to see it) get his wish.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

the sequence of the three epithets assumed

As M. said, once you start to think of a thing you see it everywhere. Familiarity launches you into plenitude. The day after I'd been reading excerpts from Ruskin's Modern Painters I opened a book in a secondhand shop and discovered a selection of articles from the Cornhill Magazine, among them parts two and three of Unto This Last. The book seemed illuminated by that inclusion; I still remember the colour of the spine. I remember too, a drawing of two men in curled wigs outside a gate. Then I was reading Mira Sethi's article about Henry James when I came across a quote from What Maisie Knew -- framed like so:

He replies, suspiciously flippant, that he hasn't seen "the tip of her nose." And Maisie has "the faintest purest coldest conviction that he wasn't telling the truth." The sentence, authentically hyperbolic and unimpeded by commas, articulates Maisie's rapid and unassailable conviction that the adult is lying to her.

At the sight of the three adjectives, I thought. "Proust's letter writer, who wrote the three words in diminishing order, which character was she?" My mind longed for the identity of that woman (so much that I had a vision of her hair). She eventually revealed herself as Mme. de Cambremer.

It was the time when well-bred people observed the rule of affability and what was called the rule of the three adjectives. Mme. de Cambremer combined the two rules in one. A laudatory adjective was not enough for her, she followed it (after a little stroke of the pen) with a second, then (after another stroke), with a third. But, what was peculiar to herself was that, in defiance of the literary and social object at which she aimed, the sequence of the three epithets assumed in Mme. de Cambremer’s notes the aspect not of a progression but of a diminuendo. Mme. de Cambremer told me in this first letter that she had seen Saint-Loup and had appreciated more than ever his ‘unique — rare — real’ qualities, that he was coming to them again with one of his friends (the one who was in love with her daughter-in-law), and that if I cared to come, with or without them, to dine at Féterne she would be ‘delighted — happy — pleased.’

Three is a pregnant number in Europe. Sisters and brothers in folk tales come in threes, and Shakespeare had his three weird witches. Proust's narrator had three trees and three steeples. A natural birth needs two bodies but a magical birth wants three. We were talking about folk tales the other day, M. and me, after we'd helped a woman a few blocks over by the railway line catch her cat. Large, ragged, somehow mentally disabled, with a downy dark beard,* she walks the cat up and down the streets on a leash. What we did was kindness to her and probably cruel to the cat, which, back in her arms, flagged its tail and stared at the air with eyes like maddened lemon slices, as if it saw into the abyss where Tennyson's Kraken is battening on seaworms. I pointed out to M. that if we were in a folk tale, this would have been the point where the old woman who asked the third son to help her gather wood in the forest now uncases herself of her disguise and becomes a fairy queen. As you were the one who stopped and helped me catch my cat, I grant you three wishes, she says, and makes a gesture with her wand.

The third coincidence -- because now that I'm talking about threes it occurs to me that the recent coincidences I was thinking of when I opened this post arrived one after another in a set of three -- which reinforces M.'s point, I suppose -- the third one turned up while I was looking at John Allison's Scary-Go-Round forum. I lurk there briefly after I've read his daily strip, Bad Machinery, which is a story of three girls and three boys. One of the posters had this for her signature: War is an art and as such is not susceptible of explanation by fixed formula. I thought. "That's Saint-Loup's opinion."

"There was a side of the war he was beginning to perceive," I said, "which is that it is human, that it is lived like a love or a hatred, can be recounted like a romance, and consequently if people keep on repeating that strategy is a science, it does not help them to understand it because it is not strategic. The enemy no more knows our plans than we know the motive of a woman we love, and perhaps we do not know ours either."

Then I looked it up and it was a quote from the American general George Patton, who startled people when he slapped a malarial soldier inside a tent, as Proust's Narrator was startled when Saint-Loup slapped a journalist outside a theatre. I was pleased that I'd made this connection between the quote and Saint-Loup, and it wasn't until later that I thought, "If I'd known that it was Patton then I wouldn't have thought of Proust, and why was I so pleased when what I'd really discovered was that I was half-ignorant?"

* The witches had these too.


How far is't call'd to Forres? What are these
So wither'd and so wild in their attire,
That look not like the inhabitants o' the earth,
And yet are on't? Live you? or are you aught
That man may question? You seem to understand me,
By each at once her chappy finger laying
Upon her skinny lips: you should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so.