Friday, March 25, 2011

with all my heart, I shall begin to think I have talent

(This post looked so long to me after I'd written it that I decided to split it in half. First part follows. Second part will go up later.)

Writing about Ibaraki and Mito I remembered the Dai Nihon Shi, whose title has been translated into English as the Great History of Japan, and then, because I was reading the Selected Letters of Marcel Proust (volumes one and two, translated by Ralph Manheim and Terence Kilmartin, respectively), I toyed with ideas about the way that things begin, and how that might be traced; and the impossibility of doing that tracing, and where a book might stand in the long thread that represents the progress of an idea -- how it starts somewhere, how different notions draw together, then coalesce in the book, then exit, diverge, and go on, not ending or dying but passing along, transformed after their passage through the alimentary canal of words, words, words, which Eliza Doolittle was so sick of that she sang about them -- I think I was wondering what a true biography would seem like, if we could ever make one, which, it seems, we can't, whatever it is.

Reading the two volumes of the Letters one can see that Proust wanted, from a point quite early in his life, to write something, without knowing what. By the end of the second volume he's finally started on the rough drafts that will turn into Swann's Way. But throughout most of the two volumes he is despairing or self-deprecating about his writing; he mentions his ambition to his friends, he mourns, he shrugs, he calls himself hopeless, spent force, a soul who might have done something with his life if he had ever found the strength to stop procrastinating, and he praises the work of the writers he knows, calling them majestic, wonderful, far above him.

"Your verses," he writes to Robert de Montesquiou, who, in in the middle of 1893, has sent him a copy of his latest poetry collection, "are the mysterious honey that is sweet as the sunlight … If one of these days I send you a magazine with something of mine in it, do not dwell on the absurdity of it following so closely on your gift of Le Chef de odeurs suaves -- an absurdity for which I should have to take responsibility if I had harboured the ridiculous thought that this earthworm could be regarded as an exchange for your starry firmament."

On another occasion, when Montesquiou includes a piece of his writing in a book he is publishing, and writes a complimentary introduction to his "young friend," Proust gives thanks to "that voluntary benevolence and to that involuntary power which causes whatever you write to be, as you say, 'tainted with immortality,' I am now immortal like the work as a whole, a matter for investigation for future scholars, who will wonder who this unknown called your 'friend' can have been. I thank you with all my heart, I shall begin to think I have talent and become insufferable." (23rd June 1897)

The irony of this is so painful that, reading the two books with twenty-first century hindsight, we have to conclude that these letters were written with perfect foresight -- the work of a clever author establishing an underdog character who will take flight at the last moment, like Dumbo, finally opening his ears and winning the Prix Goncourt.

Over the course of the letters the author shows us this character assembling material for a book without knowing it; skilfully he drops hints to make us aware that the character is developing a fascination with Ruskin, and he makes him start a correspondence with the Englishwoman Nordlinger, who will help him write his Ruskin translations. We know that this character will come up with a Narrator who, like Ruskin, will go to Venice and admire church architecture. He will have a transcendent theory of art. And there are thoughts in the letters that will be repeated and expanded in the book. "I invoke your axiom: 'A remark repeated at second hand is rarely true,'" the letter-writer tells Montesquiou in 1895, and more than two decades later the Baron de Charlus will repeat it in the Guermantes Way.*

The letters give us some ghostly idea of Lost Time's forelife, and we have some idea of the afterlife, at least as it exists up to this point, that is, the book is read, it is translated, and retranslated, it has been made into films and a stage play, Monty Python wrote a sketch about it, and a blogger publishing a recipe for gluten-free honey-spice madeleines can start her post with, "All of Proust’s remembrances began with one bite of a madeleines," although she "could never make it past the first sixty pages," due, her friend tells her, to a translation problem.

In other words, people will take his work, and its ideas, even ones it didn't knowingly have, but which they find in it, or which it triggers (its readers going on to write books that reviewers will call "Proustian," Joseph O'Neill and Netherland, for instance), and go on and on, the ideas picked out, or deduced, and someone writes How Proust Can Change Your Life, or Proust Was A Neuroscientist, or they start a website listing all the church buildings in Lost Time, so that the material that was drawn into a tight contraction by the book itself is freed, now that it has been written, writing not being an entrapment of ideas but a concentration of them -- not trapped any more than the sun is trapped when you focus it through a magnifying glass, the contraction drawing peoples' attention to the ideas, and turning them into sort of a solid, maybe let's say a bag, with a handle that can be grabbed and grasped, and so people grab this handle, and rummage inside the bag, and distribute whatever they find inside, and if they're critics they poke their fingers in the linings too, and come up with misplaced coins, shining or rusty.

But behind that, behind the letters, what unexplained beginnings, inside Proust, down there, in his unreadable brain? Why the love of Ruskin, why the thoughts in the letters that reassert themselves in the book, and why not different thoughts, and what labyrinths did everything move through before it surfaced like a whale and spouted in a letter, and why can no one ever know, and what would the information look like if we did? Where is most of everything? And what would we need to do to find it, hold onto Time, and stop it and examine it, as Lost Time would like to do although it can't, it knows it can't, and so it doesn't so much stop it as run around it in rings, linking and linking it to art or to the present, touching it, and assuring itself of time's presence?

* Moncrieff translates it like this:

Then in a gentle, affectionate, melancholy voice, as in those symphonies which are played without any break between the different movements, in which a graceful scherzo, amiable and idyllic, follows the thunder-peals of the opening pages: "It is quite possible," he told me. "Generally speaking, a remark repeated at second hand is rarely true."

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

tossed upside down

The day after I made my last post, the New York Times ran an article that mentioned Mito, Oarai, and Kairakuen. Before that they interviewed a woman at Nakaminato, on the coastline east of the city, near the mouth of the Naka River, which runs through Mito to Hitachinaka, the site of one of those whirlpools. Another Times article says that

In Oarai, a port about 150 miles south of hard-hit Sendai, fishing boats, truck and cars lay 100 yards back from the water’s edge, deposited in a jagged line like seashells left behind by the farthest reach of powerful waves. Some fishing boats had capsized; those swept into town by the tsunami teetered on their sides, or were tossed upside down.

Mito was struck by the earthquake and its aftershocks. Pavements cracked and sank, walls fell down, some houses collapsed. Lines have formed in the streets for food and water. The railways have stopped running out of the city to the north but when the Joban line train arrives from Tokyo the same recorded female voice still warns you to stand clear of the doors in case you hurt yourself. The bus service to Narita Airport has been suspended. Art Tower Mito has been mentioned on twitter. I don't know how the building is faring but everyone who worked there is fine. People stranded at a hotel received woollen blankets and two onigiri rice balls each. The weather is cold. The area is periodically affected by rolling blackouts, organised by the government to save electricity. The nearby Tokai reactor was in trouble yesterday but it has been successfully cooled. A tsunami swell moved up the Naka River. On the first day of the disaster the English-language online papers kept showing us a photograph of a damaged road, the Joban expressway, which runs out of the city. The caption is always vague: "somewhere near Mito." There was also a photograph of a retaining wall that had unrestrained itself on top of a row of parked cars. Japanese-language sources say that the Tokiwa highway has been closed. The Mito Hollyhock team will not be participating in J-League soccer events for a while and the J-League itself has come to a halt until further notice. Somewhere in the city a pet lovebird is photographed looking calm.

Anyway, enough.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

the houses tottered, and were tumbled

When I was in Japan I lived and worked a short train ride away from the coast, and sometimes on my days off I would travel east to the Pacific where I would walk along one of those beaches that are now underwater or else covered in debris, and if photographs are to be believed then two of the places I remember, one where I read Candide* on a rock on a breakwater, have managed to acquire vast, seething, and seductive offshore whirlpools; they are Charybdis, they drink down ships. I do not think that this part of the coastline, although it is good for shipping, has ever been internationally famous for anything until now, and I wanted to give out some picture of it as it was before this happened, because it was small and calm and modest and now it is not.

So this is how it was at this time of year: a greyish sky, milky-coloured, the sea a lint-blue calm and furry savannah, the two colours lying alongside one another in bars, one on top, one below, individual but related, as in a Rothko painting, sometimes melting together, sometimes distinguished, cool but not cold, everything mild in fact, not noisy, but quiet, a slight wind, and nothing in a hurry, not even the waves or the clouds; the town behind the beach all small houses, with small streets and a few people out, going into a small shop with their bags. It's a summer town off-season (is this memory taking place near Oarai?) with that beachside atmosphere of commerce waiting until the tourists come back with the heat, a sort of pausing desertedness and isolation, as if everyone who matters has stepped out like Lawrence Oates from his Antarctic shelter, and the rest of us are waiting for him to get back, but we know he'll make it and we're not worried. It's not a hostile or resentful isolation, and perhaps the town is not even that kind of town, but it has that kind of atmosphere. The children are still in school.

A little way inland the houses are larger, they become suburbs in the Japanese style, pale walls and still air, tiny gardens or none, architecture in straight vertical lines, not like the more relaxed and elderly houses right by the beach, brown and wooden. All of the footpaths are narrow. There is a railway station where you can buy the usual drinks in vending machines, beer, coffee, Pocari Sweat, and so on, and read the usual advertisements for phone companies and English schools. There is a line painted on the side of the platform, and when the train pulls up the doors will open exactly in alignment with this line. If the train is late then you assume a salaryman has gone bankrupt and thrown himself onto the tracks; you reflect that if you were going to commit suicide in this way then at least you'd hie off south and hold up the Yamanote Line. There is a certain familiarity in this cynicism; you feel you belong with all the other cynics, who are behind you buying the canned coffee.

Now if you go out into the countryside you will see rice fields, neat and brilliant green, and rows of firs and other tidy dark trees, with copses here and there, birds, herons, and tiny villages and occasional graveyards, rows of grey Jizō statues, some of them quite old, with the divine one's features worn to bumps and the cloth bibs around his necks blown to tatters. In the underworld on the bank of the Sanzu River he is letting the dead children crawl into his sleeves to protect them from demons.

If you want to go to a more populated area you will come to Mito City, the capital of Ibaraki Prefecture. People in Mito will apologise to you because their city is not as exciting as Tokyo, which is hours to the south-west. "Mito is boring." But Mito has a contemporary art museum, Art Tower Mito, the tower itself twisted like a DNA spiral, and it has other cultural centres; it has department stores and shrines, temples, historic buildings; and people come from out of town every year in late February to walk through Kairakuen Park while the plum trees are in blossom. The petals fall and the wind blows them out of the park and among the buildings where they form a pink mash in the gutters, and the breezes in the traffic intersections turn them into willy-willies.

You walk over a bridge, a turtle swims past, and if it is late on Friday afternoon then the salarymen will be coming home arm in arm, tipsy at the end of the week; the sun gets rosier as it goes down until it is the colour of a strawberry, then the sky is dark, the DVD store down the road is renting porn and Studio Ghibli films, a woman wearing high boots is walking a Pomeranian, the attendant behind the counter in the 7-11 is calling, "Irasshaimase," to a customer, the customer picks up the boxed plastic figure of a yokai, one of a series, thinking that he will add it to his collection, and there is a light moment of joyful song cut short when a lone salaryman walking past in sober suit takes out a mobile phone decorated with luminous danglers, and puts it to his ear -- "Moshi moshi."

* Which contains an earthquake. "Scarcely had they ceased to lament the loss of their benefactor and set foot in the city, when they perceived that the earth trembled under their feet, and the sea, swelling and foaming in the harbor, was dashing in pieces the vessels that were riding at anchor. Large sheets of flames and cinders covered the streets and public places; the houses tottered, and were tumbled topsy-turvy even to their foundations, which were themselves destroyed …" Translated by William Fleming.

Monday, March 14, 2011

in her hair

A comment from Whispering Gums after my last post reminded me of Teresa Petersen's Christina Stead: a Provocative Rereading, a book that hasn't been entirely out of my mind since I finished it more than half a year ago -- a tantalising book -- like the beginning of an idea, a seed or egg, but trapped at this embryonic stage, frozen there forever, or until someone else picks it up and goes on with it, incorporating it into a book of their own, bringing it in as a reference, a footnote, one item in the index of another, vaster work.

Petersen's rereading is provocative because she is searching through Stead's oeuvre for clues that will suggest the author was a closeted lesbian. The book has two problems. One is that it is written in repetitive and dogmatic academic jargon and the other is that Petersen is so eager to shore up her theory that she will ignore or gainsay evidence that threatens to interfere with the presentation of her proofs. The existence of a joyful wedding in The People With the Dogs makes it more difficult for her to argue that Stead's opinion of marriage was strongly negative, so Rereading kicks the troublesome novel away quickly, telling the reader that it is not worth discussing; it is minor.*

But both of those qualities, the jargon and the shoring-up, can be explained if I stop thinking of the book as an examination and start regarding it as a defensive manoeuvre. Following this line of comprehension I wonder if the work seems pinched and egg-bound because it is walling itself in; it resists the expansion that comes from growth because growth (in this case, the admission of heartfelt doubt, a willingness to consider parts of the oeuvre that contradict Petersen's ideas, etc), might disturb its equilibrium.

(Stead herself was not a writer who looked for equilibrium; she was an ungainly ambiguous writer, and this makes it difficult to fix down any wide-reaching theory about her; every helpful ideology you try to posit comes with an attendant but. A writer trying to argue against Petersen, saying that Stead was utterly heterosexual, with no lesbianism in her at all, would come across buts and problems of their own. You could argue that she was a feminist; you could also argue that she preferred men to women; there's evidence for both points of view, and both could be easily refuted.)

Is it outrageous of me to believe that the thing Rereading is defending -- this state of belief it wants to maintain, motionless and shockproof -- is a moment of insight that must have felt very similar to the one I had after The Years, when I believed that Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Jolley were almost identically musical? At that instant everything seemed united, simplified, and streamlined, as though all I had to do was concentrate a little longer and the rest of the evidence would rise up inside me and then fall into place with almost no effort. Opposition to the idea vanished, it didn't exist yet, I couldn't conceive it, I was blind to it, and when the doubts began to come in I regretted them and I wished they would go away. I would have liked to be able to eliminate them from my mind as swiftly as A Provocative Rereading eliminates The People With the Dogs. You want to bat them away -- and Petersen makes exactly that movement: she bats them away.

Was there a moment when this idea sprang into her head, That Christina Stead writes like a closeted lesbian, and she was moved by its beauty, and reluctant to destroy it: the lovely, rounded spectacle of everything in Stead's work uniting under that one idea? When she says that Dogs is too minor to bother about, she means that it is minor to a person who wants to persuade you that Stead was critical of heterosexual pairings. Other kinds of minorness don't bother her; we see that later when she spends time taking apart a few pages in a haunted house story called The Right-Angled Creek. Wider critical opinion is no more interested in Creek than it is in Dogs, but the difference is that Creek can be made to support her theory -- so it swells in importance like the very tiny phrase my brain picked out of Woolf, "something shining in her hair."

"I feel it but I can't quite explain it," as Whispering Gums writes. My experience was like that; the knowledge was there, it was on the tip of my tongue, but where were the words, where was the proof, the footnotes, the quotes, the comparisons between books, that would make other people say, "Yes, of course, you're right, unmistakable, it's obvious"? It's not difficult to see Petersen's frequent reiteration of umbrella jargon words, "paradigm," "heteronormative," as gestures in the direction of that ineffable feeling. Repetition, and the vagueness of the phrases themselves (you could point to a thousand things in almost any book and call them "heteronormative") blur over the individual features that would set her examples apart. They merge together in a mist of agreement, vague, impenetrable, but with the sound or veneer of something that has been considered and definitely named, like that hunch that can't quite be explained but feels so sure of itself: that static instant in which everything is perfect, like an undamaged childhood

* I should point out that the book is packed away, and I haven't been able to get to it in months; it's likely that I'm misremembering parts of it, and possibly the whole tone as well, also, I don't know Teresa Petersen, and I've never seen her interviewed about any aspect of her work, Provocative Rereading, or anything else she's done, and for all I know the idea for the book came to her at a university seminar, or during the course of lunch with friends, happening slowly and not in a flash at all, although if you asked me to pick a moment when such an idea would occur, I'd say that it might happen as someone was reading about the interview Stead gave at the end of her life, during which she said that she loved men, loved them, and how strangely vehement she sounds, really, and why so vehement, wonders the reader: why?

Monday, March 7, 2011

a statuesque look for a moment, as if they were carved

Reaching the end of The Years today (Woolf) I thought of Elizabeth Jolley -- why? -- for her musicality, which, at that moment, seemed a lot like Woolf's -- where? -- in the phrase "something shining in her hair" which Woolf applies twice to Lady Lasswade. The character doesn't start off with it, but after a while, in the chapter called 1910, she picks it up and starts to come in with it, as Prokofiev's Grandfather comes in with the bassoon or Homer's people come in with their attributes in tow, desperate Thetis in The Iliad followed around by her hair and feet, "silver-footed Thetis," "Goddess of the silver feet," "Thetis bright-haired," "azure hair'd" "radiant-hair'd" in Cowper's translation.

Two times is not much, but it was enough to leave me with the feeling that I had been set up to receive, and that I had received, a cue, or that I had been tapped with a tuning fork, and ringing around me was the note that meant Lady Lasswade.

Very briefly the whole importance of The Years seemed to reside in "something shining in her hair," or not the phrase itself but the repetition of the phrase, because it was that repetition that linked it to Jolley, and her own repetitions, the aunt in Lovesong eating the éclair over and over again, or the teenagers in one of her '80s novels (is it Mr Scobie's Riddle? All of my Jolleys are lying in a Melbourne storage unit, further away than Ferdinand's father at the bottom of the ocean) who keep coming into the book singing the lyrics to pop songs, and all of those lyrics are more or less the same, something like hep hey baby baby love baby hey love hep.

(I imagine these attributes, like interchangeable units, interchanged, and the teenagers coming in silver-footed, and Thetis singing hey baby hep hep hey baby hey. What stops them? The rest of the book.)

And then (my mind, primed to find another connection, expanded it) there are those moments in their books when the prose takes on the behaviour of a visual art, theatre, or cinema, the scene at the end of Years, with most of the primary characters standing in evening dress near a window, freezing in position, and other characters looking at them to emphasise the freeze -- and the protagonist of Lovesong watching a boy caught in a panel of light -- and, even more, Jolley's pacing, which resembles the quick and enigmatic edits of a film, as I've said before, in particular David Lynch -- and the way Woolf's frozen characters, like actors who have paused to give the audience a deliberate impression, break at the end of that evening dress tableau, as if the curtain has gone down and everybody can finally run away to the dressing rooms now and do practical things, remove makeup, put the costumes back on their hangers, then go home.

And there against the window, gathered in a group, were the old brothers and sisters.

"Look Maggie," she whispered, turning to her sister, "Look!"

The group in the window, the men in their black-and-white evening dress, the women in their crimsons, golds and silvers, wore a statuesque look for a moment, as if they were carved in stone. Their dresses fell in sculpted folds. Then they moved; they changed their attitudes; they began to talk.

"Can't I give you a lift back, Nell?" Kitty Lasswade was saying. "I've got a car waiting."

So Woolf solves the problem of an ending in a book that doesn't have a straightforward plot to bring to a climax; the freeze is the climax and for the next two or so pages the author strikes little notes, cooling, cooling, diminuendo, introducing lesser complications ("Morris brushed the crumbs off his waistcoat," "In the stillness they could hear the branches rustle"), and then throwing open the aftermath of the freeze until it seems infinite ("'And now?' she asked, holding out her hands to him"). Then perhaps a suggestion of death, the final line, ascent: "The sun had risen, and the sky above the houses wore an air of extraordinary beauty, simplicity, and peace."

With that the world of this tangled book is eased and simplified, the details of separation and life, which have singled the characters out from one end of the story to the other, giving one a damaged roof, another a set of tapering asparagus fingers, all of that is gone; there is nothing left to bother the reader, no details to arrest us, only peace, which is an absence of details that stand out. The mind is not caught any more. It is released, it rests, it sinks back, the hard pinpoint of the attention softens and goes from solid into liquid, the brain can stop concentrating, the book dies, and the reader of this book dies, and becomes the reader of no-book, with the possibility of becoming, in the future, the reader of a different book.

If you're me you think of Elizabeth Jolley and spend several minutes finding similarities between the author of The Years and the author of Lovesong, but then the fit fades, the differences begin to occur to you, the inspiration goes down like a punctured balloon, and you wind up watching an Underworld* marathon on one of those US cable television stations with the ads.

* Kate Beckinsale is a vampire in a rubber corset and everything takes place in grey-blue darkness as per the interior of a hussar's pocket.

An article in The Independent tells me that The Years in draft form was "far more explicit about both queer relationships and politics" than the published item.

Snaith agrees, suggesting that in the manuscript of The Years, Woolf is far more explicit about both queer relationships and politics. It's received little attention before, partly because it's so long: 1,000 pages of difficult handwriting. "There's definitely a mutually homoerotic relationship between a pupil and tutor. You can see Woolf's scoring out and re-writing this part; you can see her anxiety about it." There's also a scene which is apparently more clearly a masturbation fantasy in the manuscript than in the final novel. Snaith explains that these – and more explicit references to the political hot potatoes of the era in which the novel is set, such as Irish Home Rule and the Suffragettes – would have been edited not only to get the book down to a more manageable size, but because of Woolf's "absolute fear of propaganda, a fear of being dogmatic".

Thursday, March 3, 2011

must be counted

I'm horrified to see that Hazel Rowley has died -- author of Christina Stead: a Biography, which was published in 1993 and is surely the most well-known book about Stead, pipping Chris Williams' 1989 Christina Stead: a Life in Letters and various other works of essay and theory, books by Anne Pender and Teresa Peterson, books by Diana Brydon, and by that devout knight and champion, R.G. Geering.

The Age website, usually not a great source for literary news, had, initially, the most useful obituary, followed by The Australian, with the ABC trailing far away in the rear. The Bendigo Weekly was short but sweet. John Scheckter was shorter and sweeter: "I met her only once, but she impressed me as someone who was intensely and completely happy." Lisa at ANZLitLovers said Vale and linked to the writer's Wikipedia article. Angela Meyer at LiteraryMinded was sad. Adrian Leeds remembered her. The Salonniere told us she was "a friend of mine ... brilliant, blunt, generous and fearless." Another friend, John Trumpbour, said that "She became fascinated with biography after reading Jane Eyre." Russell Blackford used to know her. Chandlee Bryan lived next door. Radio National talked about her.*

Victoria's Central Highlands Regional Library reckoned we should read her articles. Helen R. Gunnarsson directed us to one particular article "on French publishing law and how it affected the publication of her biography of Sartre and Beauvoir in France." Bookseller and Publisher quoted Louise Adler, the editor of Melbourne University Press: "Rowley's great talent has been to celebrate the life of the mind." Perth Now had a small article and a large picture. The International Business Times borrowed everything from the Australian.

The Washington Post praised her books and the L.A. Times pointed out that her latest biography had "reached No. 18 on the L.A. Times bestseller list." The New York Times said that she had "a taste for the singular."

The Sydney Morning Herald cooled its heels for seven days and then unleashed a longer obituary than any of 'm. She had courage, says Peter Craven.

She always went her own way, against the grain. It was fortunate, though, that the comparative approach had allowed the woman with languages to get her teeth into Christina Stead.

Doris Lessing praised the fineness and balance of the Stead biography and Helen Garner described it as ''a marvellous book, a grand portrait''. When I reviewed it for The Age in 1993 I said that it was ''biography of the highest order, as finely organised as anything by Ellmann'' (the great biographer of James Joyce and Oscar Wilde) and with a ''command of tempo'' that made it ''one of the finest biographies ever written about an Australian''.

I can still remember the excitement when Joan Kirner launched Rowley's Christina Stead at Mietta's restaurant

On February 28th Stephen Romei reported that she was "gravely ill." "It is understood that Rowley, 55, suffered a massive stroke at the weekend." By the time of her death on March 1st she had aged four years and was 59. (This was March 1st US time. She had been living in New York. The news hit Australia's newspapers on the 3rd, Australian time. She died in the evening.) She had a website.

The Village Voice Bookshop in Paris is planning a memorial: "The date is to be confirmed soon. If you wish to express your recollections of Hazel, you may send an e-mail to the usual address which shall be read during the memorial."

* The memorial runs for ten minutes and most of it is taken up with two old interviews. In the first interview Ramona Koval starts off talking to Rowley about her childhood, then they segue into Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, the subjects of Rowley's Tête-à-Tête, then it's on to Richard Wright and, briefly, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Rowley's Richard Wright: the Life and Times came out in 2001, and she was about to embark on promotional tour for Franklin and Eleanor when she died.

The second interview is all Christina Stead and The Man Who Loved Children.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

he remembered now to have heard afterwards

My abstinence continues; last week I finished only books by Henry James.

At the moment I am dealing with one of his shorts, The Siege of London, and he is being dry about Nancy Headway. "He remembered now to have heard afterwards that she was getting a divorce. She got divorces very easily, she was so taking in court … She had gone in mainly for editors -- she esteemed the journalistic profession." The setting is a theatre foyer, and one man has asked another for news of the "indescribable" woman he saw in the audience during the first half of the play. That woman is Nancy. The second man begins to give information hesitantly, thoughtfully, not telling the eager first man everything he knows, and so, like this, James is inviting the reader (ignorant, like the first man, and therefore in his position if in anyone's) to become a gossip, a person who wants scandals and specifics (gossip thrives on context and detail) and then he rewards them with vagueness, evasive and with that glittering Jamesian priss, dodging, always dodging. James' dryness is never really dry. It sparkles too much. There is no life in his books, said Borges, but it's not true, there is life, of a crystalline kind, peeping out constantly from under the rocks it sets there for itself to crawl under -- the books moving so quickly between constant repression and constant violation of that repression that the prose sends up a camouflage shimmer.

James is teasing about his character's divorces, and for his time and for his adopted society* it is possible that he was being perversely cheerful, and almost French, but I don't know for sure, I am ignorant, and everywhere I turn my ignorance irritates me, in all directions and on the topic of everything, although I have opinions (and when did ignorance ever stop anyone having an opinion) about the Renaissance Faire we went to last weekend -- my first -- and all of the entertainers, aside from the Bird Man, who juggled flaming torches on top of a giant rubber ball, were telling fuck jokes, which disheartened me.

Their technique was sometimes direct and sometimes innuendo, and, in the case of Zilch the Torysteller, Spoonerisms. The husband in his Rapunzel didn't pick the witch's plants, he licked her pants. Away, around, on a different stage, a ventriloquist's doll in a plumed aristocratic hat pointed to a man standing near a woman and told everyone that the man had a stack of quarters in the crotch of his trousers, then, later, a pirate pretended that he was pressing his face between a pair of invisible breasts and went wbb wbb wbb. Was it only the proximity of Gargoyles that made me think of Bernhard? The Elizabethan dresses in the shops were pricey, good garb isn't cheap, and the entertainers had spent years on their acts (eleven years, said one of the Sisters in Hey Nunnie Nunnie, they'd been performing at this particular Faire for eleven years), and various audience members were dressed in velvet and capes, artful peasant tunics, there was a monk, a number of brigands, some Lord of the Rings-looking individuals, swords, helms, beautiful masks, and so on -- so here we were in our satins and silks and other extravagances to listen to people talk about cock.

And a generalised mist of Bernhard went through my head: those characters of his reading books, becoming cultured, raising children, and all of it being useless, empty, hollow, and ending in nothing but madness, illness, and death, which are at the bottom of all things in the Bernhard universe. And here was the Renaissance Faire like a crude and lumpy version of that, saying, you can wear all the courtier velvet you like, and carry a knightish shield, but in the end you'll be sitting in front of something like a live version of Funniest Home Videos as surely as if you'd stayed at home in your undies. All your long struggle in search of a specialness for yourself, and a unique style of dress, will be undone by a landscape of lumpen punchlines and nudity, which is your fate.

You've come looking for fun, said the Renaissance Faire, and here is the fun you can have, this is what is provided, in a single flavour -- but then there was our single outlier, the Bird Man, who squawked rather than spoke, covered his face and body in tatty Skeksis leather, seemed sinister, and preserved a kind of mystery, a visitor from another world, at a festival where the rest of the entertainment was dedicated to simplicity and the erasure of mystery: an erection is a single thing, a joke, and a pair of breasts is a single thing too, it is a joke, and all of this is easy to understand, this parade of single things, which anyone can grasp and then dismiss, and go on to the next joke, which will be one of the Tortuga Twins promising to show you his own intimate parts, and the other Twins recoiling with imitations of horror, because it would not be funny if we were not disgusted by it, or at least capable of pretending that we were.

The identification of a literary precedent made me, not happier exactly, but more content with it, as if we had reached a settled place, and the tension between the two states had been not abolished but resolved -- through a team effort, myself and the book, both interior, working together silently -- or me working on it -- in the darkness, invisible -- and vague feelings toward Proust too, and ideas about art informing life, or framing it, and providing a kind of rejuvenating connective tissue -- which was perhaps the nature of the joke as well, the single joke, for someone else: a connective tissue, and, look, here is the joke again, and told again, and so life appears to make sense, a continuity, a symmetrical beauty, a measure, a comfort.

* The Siege of London was published in 1883 and James was in England.

"Indescribable" comes in this passage:

Waterville was still in the stage of surprise; he suddenly expressed the emotion. "By Jove!" exclaimed; "I beg your pardon -- I beg her pardon -- there is, after all, a woman that may be called" -- he paused a little, inspecting her -- "a kind of beauty!"

"What kind?" Littlemore asked vaguely.

"An unusual kind -- an indescribable kind."

At this point the two men are still inside the auditorium, and Waterville, an American new to Paris, is scanning the audience with "a dainty but remarkably powerful glass." Littlemore, to whom Paris is a familiar city, is unexcited, but Waterville is still willing to be astonished by whatever the city can give him. This is why he is "still in the stage of surprise." He scans -- and you can compare this scanning to the action of the reader, who is searching through this mat of prose for an interesting moment, the point at which the story will catch the attention -- he scans, and then Nancy appears, and focusses all of his astonishment (and for the reader too. What gossip doesn't want to hear more about an indescribable person, so arresting that she stands out in a crowded audience? Beauty is one thing, but beauty that cannot be described is more than Beauty, it is Mystery.)

"A dainty but remarkably powerful glass" is typical James, circuitous, noting a quality and then noting a quality buried beneath the first quality, the second quality unguessable without closer acquaintance -- any onlooker can see that the glass is dainty, but no one who has not handled it would know that it is powerful -- also the judgment and remote arch tone of "remarkably," all culminating in the impression that the last thing this author would ever do is describe an object with its brand name -- as Stephen King does, for instance, being a writer who will root, say, a packet of cigarettes, in a certain time and place, and offer you the class status of the character carrying the packet, by telling you the brand. James is an unrooter. (In The Ambassadors he becomes so superbly fastidious that he won't even tell you what a specific object is, only that it is small and vulgar.)