Monday, August 29, 2011

founded on the celebrated papers

As I was writing about personal book lists in the last post I thought of Philip Pullman, who put a list of his own together for the British book chain Waterstones -- they've had a couple of them but Pullman's was the one I remembered because he had Anatomy of Melancholy on there, and I'd been thinking about the Anatomy of Melancholy, as you know if you've read back a bit, which perhaps you haven't and instead you've been swimming, like Tim Winton, or working as the people up the road do, collecting cans and crushing them into sacks, repetitive work, but I'd rather crush cans with them than be one of the homeless men who sit in car parks with scavenged clothes and other goods set out on trestle tables; and no one envies these men because the heat out there is somewhere over forty degrees Celsius and has been at that approximate temperature for days.

They must be stiff with sweat these men, first sweating and then the sweat drying, and then sweating again over the dried sweat, and then sweating again, living in their geographical layers like those Elizabethans who never took more than one bath a year, and so we see them out there in the carparks, these men who live like Queen Elizabeth the First, though she did not have to deal with forty degree heat -- their problems are foreign to her, and yet there's no reason why they would not write poetry as she did.

O Fortune! how thy restless wavering State
     Hath fraught with Cares my troubled Wit!
Witness this present Prison whither Fate
     Hath borne me, and the Joys I quit.
Thou causedest the Guilty to be loosed
From Bands, wherewith are Innocents inclosed;
     Causing the Guiltless to be strait reserved,
     And freeing those that Death had well deserved:
But by her Envy can be nothing wrought,
So God send to my Foes all they have thought.

She wrote that verse in 1554 while she was kept prisoner in the Gatehouse at Woodstock Manor, and also three lines on a window --

Much suspected by me,
Nothing proved can be,
Quoth ELIZABETH prisoner.

-- engraving them into the glass with a diamond because ordinary writing materials were taken from her, but the homeless have no diamonds, nor do they have windows, and so you see how people are muffled by their poverty, yet she was ingenious to use a diamond and so why not they with other objects? She was not using a diamond, she was using a tool. Yesterday I passed a man who was selling a plastic candy jar three-quarters full of things that looked like doorknobs. There's something she never had. Modern life is a panorama of opportunities, and, as is often observed, the average First World individual lives more comfortably than those who used to call themselves queens and princes.

A Dickens would look at them and go away to write something like his description of the Monmouth Street secondhand clothes-dealers in Sketches by Boz (but adapting the place-names): "We have always entertained a particular attachment towards Monmouth-street [the local carpark], as the only true and real emporium for second-hand wearing apparel ... Through every alteration and every change, the local carpark has still remained the burial-place of the fashions; and such, to judge from all present appearances, it will remain until there are no more fashions to bury.

We love to walk among these extensive groves of the illustrious dead, and to indulge in the speculations to which they give rise; now fitting a deceased coat, then a dead pair of trousers, and anon the mortal remains of a gaudy waistcoat, upon some being of our own conjuring up, and endeavouring, from the shape and fashion of the garment itself, to bring its former owner before our mind’s eye. We have gone on speculating in this way, until whole rows of coats have started from their pegs, and buttoned up, of their own accord, round the waists of imaginary wearers; lines of trousers have jumped down to meet them; waistcoats have almost burst with anxiety to put themselves on; and half an acre of shoes have suddenly found feet to fit them, and gone stumping down the street with a noise which has fairly awakened us from our pleasant reverie, and driven us slowly away, with a bewildered stare, an object of astonishment to the good people of the local carpark, and of no slight suspicion to the policemen at the opposite street corner.

Then every reader would see animation pent up in those limp clothes and they would respect the homeless zookeepers who guard them, baking there for hours next to their scavenged radios, watching the denim that waits on the tables like hyaenas, preparing to inflate itself with ghostly flesh and race away snarling as soon as it can -- coats growing teeth and tusks, and jeans with dried salt across the backs of the thighs in layers like a million dead seas, those seabeds dropping fossils as they run .... or Elizabeth Jolley might write about these men but she would try to enclose them in a building first, because her people, though homeless and wandering in spirit, have usually been shut into some piece of property, an old age home, or a boarding house, or even their own farms, "running," writes Helen Garner, through all her books "is the strong connecting tissue of land, land, land: the obsession with the ownership of land, the toiling and the self-denial and the saving for it."

Which comes down to the bare problem of being in a body, because all bodies need to be somewhere, either farm or carpark, and the logistics of manoeuvering this thing around are a problem for us all: poor flesh.

But to get back to my point, I was reminded that the personal book-canon can be a lot of things, it can be a piece of advertising, and not only advertising for yourself but for other objects as well. In the case of Pullman and Waterstones it was advertising both a man and a book shop, with the author offered the chance to advertise his loves and the shop advertising its wares, which happen to be also his loves.

Advertising will grasp anything, it will take art movements, revolutions, jokes, dictatorships, calender dates, and events that have nothing to do with the objects being sold; but the brain of advertising has tentacles everywhere and sees a straight line where others see curves; it can't see surrealism but there's a reason for that. In the mailbox this morning I found a piece of junk mail from a supermarket, and "Back to School Savings" was printed on the front, black over yellow, with a row of pencils lined up on each side of the phrase, but because it was a supermarket the goods being sold on special were incongruous onions and cuts of meat: chuck steak, cantaloupes, chicken drumsticks, and bread -- melón chino, piernitas de pollo, pan de barra said this bilingual sheet -- and what is the kid going to do with a cantaloupe at school I wonder, what are they going to do with a bag of raw chicken drumsticks -- here they come into the classroom smeared with blood, making works in pink watercolour on the door handles -- and how can one thing be associated with another so strangely like that, bread with school, oh, simple (says advertising) I put the word here, "school" and then I put a photograph of bread next to it, and like this the magic is done.

Which is why advertising can't see surrealism.

Last night as I was reading Claire Tomalin's biography of Nelly Ternan, the actress who was the love of Dickens' later life, I came across the playbills she'd had reproduced for the book, whole posters advertising goods even more transient than cantaloupe and chicken drumsticks -- they advertised one single night of theatrical sketches each.

These performance came and went in a few hours, faster than the lives of mayflies.

One of them was "an entirely original, ironical Burletta of Man and Manners, in two acts (founded on the celebrated papers by "Boz,") called / NICHOLAS NICKLEBY;" / Or, Doings at Do-the-Boys Hall," which was due to be carried out "This evening, TUESDAY, Dec. 18. 1838" and never in that way again. (Somewhere in the past people are sitting in a splintery hall, waiting for Mr G. TAYLOR as Ralph Nickleby and Miss RICHARDS in "her first appearance here" as Kate Nickleby, they lean forward, they eat an apple, I can see it all. A thought: theatres do not have windows. Is this the picture that was going through the heads of the people who decided that North American schools should be windowless? The classroom is a theatre or opera house, and the teacher is a jealous performer who does not want to share the stage with the outside world. A poster for the first day of school: "The Science Teacher, Miss BIDDELL (her first appearance here) / After which A PAS DE DEUX by The HEADMASTER and A STUDENT")

Tomalin points out that Dickens hadn't finished writing Nickleby yet on Tuesday, Dec. 18. 1838, but never mind; the actors made up an ending. I came to the page where the Ternan sisters meet the man himself during the production of his stage collaboration with Wilkie Collins, The Frozen Deep, and then I put the book down and fell asleep, because sleep at that moment was more tempting than books. Today I'll resume the book but I won't resume sleep until later, I will fall asleep at a point in time no earlier than ten o'clock at night and probably far afterwards, and do we go back into sleep as if it is a book, I wonder, is that the experience we might feel if we were aware of it, picking up at the paragraph of sleep where we put it down?


  1. The work of Dickens is itself, as far as I'm concerned, like a wonderful garment that you can climb back into and be comfortable and warm in. If I had to give up all other novels and just keep Dickens, I'd not be too sad - and I know he is sentimental et cetera et cetera.
    I do especially love this bit of this post: 'here they come into the classroom smeared with blood, making works in pink watercolour on the door handles'

  2. It's his energy that I love, the absolute restless spendthriftness of him, and the way I look at it is: I'd rather have the vividness with the sentimentality than no sentimentality and no vividness. It's not the Deaths Of Little Nells that bother me in Dickens, it's those moments when he goes flat and you can feel the blood rush out of him, and he tries to be solemn and good. The character of Nicholas Nickleby, for instance, the dull straight man who strikes stage poses while Wackford Squeers runs rings around him, energy-wise.

  3. Great post DKS though it ranged so widely I hardly know where to start. dickens, Jolley, Garner, Proust ... How do you do it? Oh, and not to forget Elizabeth I. The Tomalin bio sounds interesting. Dickens is such an enigma - or not I suppose. Even enlightened men were of their times in the end.

  4. It was definitely a good bio. I was sceptical when I took it off the shelf in the library -- I wondered how this could be anything more exciting than a scrappy little undernourished adjunct to the Main Event Himself -- but the tight focus means that she can go into a kind of detail that I hadn't seen in the more wide-ranging birth-to-death Dickens biographies, and so the reader gets a more thorough investigation of his behaviour toward his mistress, and what it meant for Nellie herself, and for her family, a group of middling-successful stage actors who were finding themselves intimately involved with the richest and most famous man they'd ever met. Tomalin sketches out the dilemma that he put them in. On one hand, the older sister who had wanted to study singing now had a benefactor who could afford to send her away to a singing instructor. For the first time they had their own home. On the other hand Nellie was stuck in limbo: she couldn't marry anyone else, she couldn't walk around in public with her lover, she had to go here and there and waste days waiting for Dickens to visit her. She had a miserable time.

    When Dickens died and she finally married she concealed everything and never spoke about him, So her son, her poor respectable mild-mannered upright adult son, got the shock of his life when writers who were looking for information about Dickens' life began to turn up insights about this Nellie Ternan person (deceased by then, so he discovered all of this when it was too late to talk to her about it). He was shattered, says Tomalin. He fell into depression and never got over it. (This part of the book starts to feel like the kind of Victorian stage play that his mother might have once appeared in -- a melodrama called The Sins Of The Mother, with a moral coda on the end telling all the women in the audience not to become the mistresses of powerful men, otherwise your children will live in shame.)

  5. (Not that Tomalin puts that kind of moral spin on it, but when you think about those pulp novels that were built around mysterious family secrets, concealed infants, dead sweethearts, and general Black Sheep and Skeletons In Cupboards, it's not hard to imagine one of those old authors grabbing the facts here and going to town on them. We open with the son in the graveyard, clutching his hands over his mother's tombstone -- "O!" he says "Mother! Why --" but avaunt, a stranger approaches! The son flees. The stranger is drawn into the mystery. That man -- so distracted -- such an expression -- wild -- uncanny! But a military man, or ex-military, we can tell by his bearing and clothes. What could unnerve him so? Etc.)

  6. Thanks for the compliment, by the way. As for enigmas, I think the interesting thing about Dickens' eviction of his wife, was the obvious gap it opened between the behaviour he praised in his work, and the behaviour he found himself actually exhibiting. It meant that he had to dodge around, and misrepresent himself, and keep secrets more profoundly than he'd ever kept them before. And his last two complete books, written afterwards, lean on ambiguity (Great Expectations) and secrets (Mutual Friend). And the last, unfinished one, is a mystery that will never stop being a mystery.

  7. Exactly -- re the gap I mean. Do as I say, not as I do, eh?

    Tomalin's biography of Jane Austen is well regarded among the many bios of her, so I'm not surprised that this one is good too.

    As for pulp novels, I am currently reading Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto. The first pulp? Anyhow, it's such a hoot! Just right for my days of hospital visiting.

  8. Yuppo. He came to his own testing-point, and, by the morals of his earlier books, he failed it. The readers were the ones who benefitted from the whole thing, and I feel like a ghoul, now, looking at Great Expectations (which I like a lot), knowing that the new complexity of the hero is built on the bones of one very unhappy, wronged, and innocent women.

    Her Pepys is supposed to be good too, and I wouldn't mind hunting down her Mary Wollstonecraft.

    I can't hate any book that starts off by killing a bridegroom with a haunted helmet. There's something so totally cheerful about it. "Reader, I smooshed him."