Monday, February 21, 2011

dark lanterns swinging from the trees, and these lanterns are the light

I haven't read many books lately. Instead I've been trying to finish a long manuscript, and so I say to myself, "You will not read a book that someone else has written, you will read your own manuscript instead, and you will take note of the places where you have left out a space between the words, and those places where things do not make sense. You will not distract yourself with Margaret Laurence, or with Simone de Beauvoir's The Coming of Age, or with Methods and Materials of Painting Vols. One and Two by Sir Charles Lock Eastlake, One Time President of the Royal Academy, who believes that the silence of Pliny on the subject of pictures, when speaking of resins and drying oils, is not conclusive against the antiquity of oil varnish, quote, unquote, and who dedicates this observation among others to The Right Honourable Sir Robert Peel, Bart." In this mood I have read Rose Macaulay's Towers of Trebizond, and Thomas Bernhard's Gargoyles translated by Richard and Clara Winston, and only four or five other authors, so the vow of abstinance has had an effect.

Reading Gargoyles I began to think about monomania, as a literary virtue, a virtue you can see in Proust, and in Samuel Beckett, this obsessive hammering and tunnelling, as if the author can't quite believe that things really are like this, and so they look again, and again, and every time it is the same, and they are not startled exactly, but the recurrance on its own is surprising, like that scene at the beginning of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, the two actors flipping coins, and the coins always coming up heads. Bernhard's coin always comes up heads, and Heads is Misery. His narrator's father is "the only doctor within a large and "difficult" district" whose other doctor has fled to Graz "where he had accepted a teaching post at the university."

"The chance of a replacement," said my father, "is practically nil. A man would be mad to want to start a practice here." For his own part, he said, he was used to sacrificing himself to a sick populace given to violence as well as insanity.

This Austrian doctor takes his narrator-son with him on his rounds and they meet various patients, a bartender who has been knocked unconscious by a drunk, a musical lunatic. The father reflects on the bitter fate of the local schoolteachers. "Most of them lapsed fairly soon into an apathy that might at any moment turn to madness." A boy has fallen into a vat of boiling water, a woman is dying, her only living relative is a depressed thug, the millers' sons and a mute Turk are strangling parrots, and the prince on the battlements is mad.

The violence and insanity are so pervasive that it seems that if the other doctor has freed himself then he must have shifted not to Graz but to an alternative universe, or else Mars. The narrator's father is like a small god, moving from one soul to another and listening to their problems. And they wait for him; he is the only one who moves, the only connection, the only one who is truly mobile, but he is helpless too, his daughter is sinking into misery, and his patients perish.

No touch of exoticism (the Turk, the prince) can stave off despair; the Turk is an economic migrant, scared and sad, and the prince's son prefers London to Austria. "We are without parents," says the prince. "We are orphans." He gives a speech, starting with the characters of some people he met that morning, and then going on for a hundred pages, spinning farther and farther out, "all education is always utterly wrong," his son will betray him and destroy his home and the farms he has developed, the crops, the food, his life's only useful work will be ruined, he cannot talk, he cannot explain himself, books are no help -- he goes to read one to his sisters and instead reads the newspaper. Bernhard the writer mocks reading. Authority is fickle, culture is ash, ideas about freedom are nonsense. "If I am alone I feel like being with people; and if I am with people then I feel like being alone."

He is convinced that his son despises him and is dangerous, still the prince thinks about the young man and longs for him, wishing they could find some common ground. "The one and only thing we have in common is our fondness for the newspapers." In the last line of the book he asks the doctor to buy him a newspaper, which means that he is still hoping; even after the long speech, he still hopes; it is idiotic, but (Bernhard tells us, and as the author of a book he should know) it is human nature to go forward in this ridiculous state. Life makes us clownish (as if we ever had any hope of not being clownish -- but then again we do have that hope of not being clownish; and this is one of the clownish things about us) and we end up dead.

Even the doctor, experienced as he is, educated as he is, hearing this despair all day, persists ridiculously, believing in the importance of his son's education. "He's making wonderful progress -- he's better than all the others," he exclaims, which, in the context of this ghastly wasteland, sounds feeble, frail, deluded -- connections to other people in this book are vehicles for hope, and hope is ridiculous -- and then he immerses the youth in the spectacle of these sick patients as though he's trying to create an original Buddha, the rebel who needs to find himself a spirit-life before he can discover purity, as it is not available on earth, Bernhard recovering the distress of the young Gautama.

Macaulay's narrator despairs as well, but her despair has a more specific focus: she is High Church Anglican by nature, but she has somehow become agnostic.

But most of us know that nothing can be as true as all that, and that no faith can be delivered once for all without change, for new things are being discovered all the time, and old things dropped, like the whole Bible being true, and we have to grope our way through a mist that keeps being lit by shafts of light, so that exploration tends to be patchy, and we can never sit back and say, we have the Truth, this is it, for discovering the truth, if it is ever discovered, means a long journey through a difficult jungle, with clearings every now and then, and paths that have to be hacked out as one walks, and dark lanterns swinging from the trees, and these lanterns are the light that has lighted every man, which can only come through the dark lanterns of our minds.

Macaulay specialises in a British form of comedy, the sane muddle. Both books are very funny.

Monday, February 14, 2011

and John Knatchbull was the half brother

Living in the US I've become more alert to Australians, not live ones -- there are no other live ones around here -- but their books, those toenail-clippings of the brain -- and it's always elation when I spot one, followed by other emotions: pleasure when it's Jolley's Sugar Mother, (WITHDRAWN from the East Mesa Branch Library, according to the stamp inside, and now for sale in Coolidge's Cellar of Books) and less pleasure when it's a fat and shallow romance called Australia with an orange Opera House on the front. (At this moment the word gaudy comes to mind because I caught Scarface on TCM a few weeks ago. "Kinda gaudy, isn't it," says an aloof bombshell to Paul Muni, looking at the gilt and plush in his new apartment, and Muni replies proudly, "Ain't it though!" as if he has personally invented sunshine.) "His arms wrapped around her and Jean knew that her years of loneliness were gone forever," burbles the last page of Australia, which is the sort of line you wish would be followed by, "and then she discovered he was a serial killer," or something else to wash away the taste of sugar-gum. Instead it gets even more gruesome, and "I love you," he whispers at last, although you could fantasise that the line after that, "and the peace wrapped around them both," is a hopeful sign that carbon monoxide has flooded the room and both nitwits have perished.

TCM is a stunner of a channel. In the last few months I've seen movies I'd often heard of but never met, not only Scarface, but also Little Caesar, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, and The Woman in the Dunes. In one evening I saw three films, all featuring sulphur-crested cockatoos, none of them set in Australia, and Black Narcissus even threw in a bonus bamboo swamp infested with invisible kookaburras. "Nuns on a cliff!" I said to M., regarding Black Narcissus, but he wouldn't watch it. "Himalayan sex nuns!" Michael Powell showed you shots of the cliff until you waited for someone to fall off. Then last Friday Robert Mitchum was an Australian in the morning and an Irish schoolteacher in the evening. Irish, he removed his shirt, yet even shirtless he was not more beautiful than the west coast of his native adopted country, more lovely than the day and covered with cottage and beach. An Englishman with the mouth of a Pre-Raphaelite maiden appeared and all the soldiers in the seaside fort fell about with lust, as well they ought. Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight delivered a performance that should have been camp, yet wasn't. Weeping she collapsed onto chairs, knuckling forehead and losing her knicknacks. Not lost, though, Charles Boyer had hidden them. Angela Lansbury materialised, ten feet tall and aged eighteen, with skin smooth as an egg. It was revealed that Peter O'Toole was young once too, and also that he was King Henry the Second. "Who is that?" I wondered, watching the King fling himself on Richard Burton's bed, "and why does his behaviour remind me of Robert Downey Junior?" Burton pensively seated himself on a pillow.

None of the other American TV channels come up to the same standard. IFC might be bearable if it ditched the ads. There's no point trying to watch a horror movie if they interrupt it every fifteen minutes with fast cars and peanut butter. The horror movie was The Grudge, and it made me nostalgic for Japan. O Japan, I thought sadly as a little boy mewed like a cat and murdered people. O nostalgia! I wish I lived in that house. The house began to murder people too. A dead woman crawled down the stairs and I was reminded of a kabuki play I'd watched, a ghost-woman walking through a wall and terrifying her ex. Nothing in The Grudge asked you to suspend disbelief as thoroughly as the stout middle-aged Japanese man I'd once seen take the role of a beautiful noh fairy, although I've also seen, on film, Pavarotti take the role of a starving artist, and so fat was he that it seemed they must have invented paint brushes just to allow people like him to reach the canvas over a full tun of belly, so this kind of casting is hardly a Japanese thing.

We went into Phoenix and discovered that the Friends of the Phoenix Library had their own shop with window displays and glossy brochures and a copy of Patrick White's Flaws in the Glass for a dollar, which I nabbed. The Friends I used to be a member of in Australia had a tiny stale back room and a foyer like a corridor to hold the sales in, carrying books out of the room in boxes and staggering through the stacks with the tables one Saturday per month, ricking their backs and giving M. a permanent scar. The Phoenix Friends have their own warehouse, if you fucking please, and likely pens of tame and willing eunuchs to tote the boxes to and fro and fan the members with palm leaves, though these go unmentioned in the official literature.

But the most unexpected book so far, re. Aus.Lit., has probably been Jane Austen & Crime, discovered on a table at the annual secondhand book sale of the Rotary Club of Florence, Arizona, and written by Susannah Fullerton, who was, and is, the President of JASA, or the Jane Austen Society of Australia. It begins by introducing the reader to John Knatchbull, executed in Sydney, son of "a respectable Kentish family," known to the Austens, "and John Knatchbull was the half brother of the man who later married Jane's favourite niece, Fanny Austen Knight." Jane's aunt was arrested for shoplifting and released, writes Fullerton, and Austen herself once visited a gaol in Canterbury -- why? "My initial idea to develop a one-hour talk grew very rapidly into a book."

Sunday, February 6, 2011

save the raven

Turning over a book next to the washing machine I discover Stephen R. Lawhead's In the Hall of the Dragon King. It opens like this:

The new snow lay deep and undisturbed beneath the silver light of a dawning sky. Overhead, a raven surveyed a silent landscape as its black wings feathered the thin, cold air. The bird's rasping call was the only sound to be heard for miles, breaking the frozen solitude in irregular staccato. All around, the land lay asleep in the depths of winter.

Every bear, every fox, hare, and squirrel was warm in its rustic nest. Cattle and horses stood contentedly in their stalls, heads drooping in slumber, or quietly munching the first of the day's provender … The village, clustered close about the mighty walls of Askelon Castle, slept in pristine splendor, a princess safe in the arms of her protector.

All though the land nothing moved, nothing stirred, save the raven wheeling slowly overhead.

A tic, I noticed once, while I was convening a writers' group, a habit in some writers, to reassure the reader with diminutive and kindly words -- such an author will go out of their way to tell us that everything is small, tidy, quiet, warm, peaceful -- little is the word they like to use -- as if the audience might be frightened by anything large, rowdy, noisy -- and as if an author's duty is to issue comfort, to coddle -- and perhaps this is shyness, self-consciousness, panic, uncertainty,* a push and a pull between a writer's desire for exposure and a desire to stay silent and private -- fearing a reaction -- as if, sweetly, earnestly, they believe their words are so electrifying that they can't write about cattle in a stall without the reader rearing backwards, shocked -- "Cattle! Cattle! In a stall! Never!" -- "Yes, well," says the author, curling up and retreating with modest blushes, "they're not very exciting cattle and they won't hurt you -- look -- they're lovely and contented -- nice and warm -- and the nest of neighbour fox is pleasantly rustic; it's all very scenic, and the village is the cleanest village you've ever seen, pristine, you see, very swept and germless -- don't take this too seriously … it's not as frightening as you think … very tame very friendly cattle … they eat sugar."

A different book sees the houses clustering around the hips of Askelon Castle and retorts:

Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls. They sprawled over the sloping earth, each one half way over its neighbour until, held back by the castle ramparts, the innermost of those hovels laid hold of the great walls, clamping themselves thereto like limpets to a rock.

(The writing starting at a single point, a seed, the castle, the word itself, "Gormenghast," from which the whole book grows, beginning there and groping outward, growing branches, details of twigs and rootlets, the progress of an organism; and the castle itself, the object, has an organic rather than sharply architectural shape.) Lawhead has a narrative motive for his contenteds and pristines, of course: he is pitting his sleepy landscape against the raven, foreboding and doomful, "breaking" everything, and making the world messy and disordered, "irregular," rather than actually dangerous, a domesticated view of evil as a breed of mucky puppy; and the medieval fantasy village sounds more like a tidy family room than anything else. But I enjoy descriptive preambles. They're the decompression chambers of novels; they let the air out of your mind and fill it with new air, this unknotting of self-consciousness a storyteller's device, a way of trying to detatch the reader from the critical mindset that might say, "This is only fiction, this is invented, this is trivial, this means nothing." Here is the gossipy start of the story, but slow, slower than gossip, soothing, serious, cajoling, saying, "See this, the importance of this thing we are about to do together is that I make you look …" and behind the hand, mutely, "but I will be your eyes, your only eyes, and as you read this preamble I will substitute my eyes for yours -- and I, who can never read this book, because I was the one who wrote it, and the relationship between the two of us, book and author, is not the relationship of a reader to a printed page -- I will try to become you, I wish I could be you, I wrote this book in order to be you, who is visiting it ignorantly for the first time -- O reader! --" an attempt that is never successful.

* or a battle against propriety. "I was brought up to believe that it was wrong to push one's ideas on other people," frets the author. "But isn't that what I'm doing, writing like this? Telling them to believe in snow and castles, is this rude? Will they hate me? I should dial it down a bit."

My favourite preambles, off the top of my head: Radcliffe's Udolpho, Stead's The People With the Dogs, Manzoni's The Betrothed, and John Crowley's Little, Big, which starts like this:

On a certain day in June, 19--, a young man was making his way on foot northward from the great City to a town or place called Edgewood, that he had been told of but never visited. His name was Smoky Barnable, and he was going to Edgewood to get married; the fact that he walked and didn't ride was one of the conditions placed on his coming there at all.

ZMKC in the comments suggests the first chapter of Thomas Hardy's Return of the Native, which I will link to now, because it's terrific.

The time seems near, if it has not actually arrived, when the chastened sublimity of a moor, a sea, or a mountain will be all of nature that is absolutely in keeping with the moods of the more thinking among mankind. And ultimately, to the commonest tourist, spots like Iceland may become what the vineyards and myrtle gardens of South Europe are to him now; and Heidelberg and Baden be passed unheeded as he hastens from the Alps to the sand dunes of Scheveningen.

The most thoroughgoing ascetic could feel that he had a natural right to wander on Egdon--he was keeping within the line of legitimate indulgence when he laid himself open to influences such as these. Colours and beauties so far subdued were, at least, the birthright of all. Only in summer days of highest feather did its mood touch the level of gaiety. Intensity was more usually reached by way of the solemn than by way of the brilliant, and such a sort of intensity was often arrived at during winter darkness, tempests, and mists. Then Egdon was aroused to reciprocity; for the storm was its lover, and the wind its friend. Then it became the home of strange phantoms; and it was found to be the hitherto unrecognized original of those wild regions of obscurity which are vaguely felt to be compassing us about in midnight dreams of flight and disaster, and are never thought of after the dream till revived by scenes like this.

It was at present a place perfectly accordant with man's nature--neither ghastly, hateful, nor ugly; neither commonplace, unmeaning, nor tame; but, like man, slighted and enduring; and withal singularly colossal and mysterious in its swarthy monotony. As with some persons who have long lived apart, solitude seemed to look out of its countenance. It had a lonely face, suggesting tragical possibilities ...