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.


  1. The Towers of Trebizond is one of my favourite books - and she certainly caught me by surprise in the last bit. It would be quite interesting to think of a list of books with similar kinds of punch-you-in-the-stomach endings - AS Byatt does a brilliant one in a book called, I think, Still Life. Thomas Bernhardt is very, very good and very, very hard to bear - he has a good translator too, it seems to me.

  2. Trebizond seemed so well suited to you that I almost put a recommendation in the post. The only similar punch I can think of, off the top of my head, appears in Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate, and it occurs about three-quarters of the way through, not an ending at all, but it hits one part of the story with seismic force. And in The Tale of Genji, perhaps, just before the last part. Anita Brookner (now I'm trying to think) has written a number of surprise endings, but they're tweaks rather than punches. H'm.

  3. If you haven't read the AS Byatt (I have a vague idea you might not like her[?], it is the punch ending to end all punch endings, I think. You probably have to be pretty brave to actually finish off a book that way, now I think about it.

  4. I've read a few of her books. Not that one, I think, although I have some vague memory of a book-cover with a vase of flowers on it and the title 'Still Life' above the flowers so maybe ... Anyway, I enjoy her, but if I ever make a Desert Island List she won't be on it. I like: I don't love.

    If I had to pick one of the endings from the Byatts I have read, it would be Angels and Insects, and the white bloated figure in the bed.

  5. An article about Georges Perec in the Australian has just reminded me of another killer ending -- Perec's W or the Memory of Childhood.