Thursday, September 22, 2011

the fastidious blocked cleric

Ideas about trapping and being trapped were still in my head when I opened Kathryn Hughes' 1999 biography of George Eliot and saw from a sentence at the start of the Acknowledgments that she had been trapped too, in the book in fact, for, "Several times," she says, "during the writing of this book I feared that I had turned into Edward Casaubon, the fastidious blocked cleric from Middlemarch who has been working for far too long on the 'Key to all Mythologies.'"

Casaubon is the patron saint of all trapped writers, he huddles fussing over notes, he frets, he is stymied, he refuses help, he ruins his life, he dies before his work is finished, and even if it had been finished it would have been worthless. He married himself to his book, Hughes married herself to George Eliot, and the woman in Kate Jennings' book (the one I was reading in the last post) married a farmer, but after a while all of them realised that their decision was a confinement and they did not know when their confinement would end -- they were closed in, the job was endless, the marriage was going on and on, and why was this happening, bafflement, anguish: what's at the root of this suffering?

You are, says a voice (I am imagining this voice), and the sufferer responds -- Me? The voice reminds them that they entered the confinement freely, they walked in unrestrained, they said silently, "Yes," to the book or the marriage, and maybe they added out loud, "I know, I know, I understand that this is going to take some time out of my life, but I can handle it, I don't mind doing work, in fact I'm looking forward to the job," and the spirit of Writing or Marriage leapt through them, offering to drive them forward like a bullet, keen and concentrated, and they were beautifully glad, huge, and rapt, not thinking clearly, because the thousand impressions and memories that made up this impulse were flowing through them, as if the words Marriage or Book were a switch, and, click, they came on.

But somehow they've been deserted, the bullet has cracked, the clarity is gone, the world is a mist of fiddling details, and which detail needs your attention first, which one is the Key, not to all Mythologies, but to freedom and an answer? This isn't what I agreed to, says the sufferer, looking around. Oh, says the voice, it is. I said yes to a different set of circumstances. I was heading for work and purpose. Oh no no no, says the voice. Oh no. What made you think you knew how to get there? You'd never been to that point in the future before.

There is no prescience, there is no guarantee, and when they pictured themselves studying fruitfully -- and in that spirit said, "Yes, I want the job" -- they were not agreeing to future circumstances but to present delusions, which they didn't recognise at the time but now they do, now that it is too late, and oh, they say, I have learnt something, I suppose, I have learnt the route to the place where I am, and, looking back with their minds, they see the map lying crookedly behind them, a path passing through a hundred tiny decisions and circumstances until it runs to a temporary halt at the backs of their heels -- but it is moving again, and the next step has already been taken.

Forward, forward, says the world to the sufferer, persevere with the mist or else run away into a new mist, as Jennings' wife does, and Casaubon runs away too, accidentally, by dying on a bench under a tree, and his soul, once freed, begins to release his own wife, Dorothea, from her version of this trapping confinement, the marriage that she went into eagerly, gratefully, thinking that she would spend the rest of her life accepting wisdom from a wise and thoughtful man, "the fellowship in high knowledge which was to make life worthier," but she learns her most relevant lesson in less than a year, Dorothea, you are capable of mistaking a pedant for a sage.

"I do," she said at the altar, and not to this but yet to this. Her wise man does not exist, or maybe he does somewhere else but not in her husband, who houses a different spirit to the one she imagined -- a cold, extinguished spirit; and he houses it so fully that he becomes something very rare, a totemic figure, the name Casaubon representing a particular kind of failure, a writer's failure, the failure of misconceived grand projects,* especially of projects that want to be definitive -- but these are projects that need energy, and courage, and elderly Casaubon has no energy left, down, down he goes, he sees death ahead of him, and fearfully he grows even more stiff, hurt, and frozen, feeling challenged by his eager wife, who, he thinks, "sees vaguely a great many fine ends, and has not the least notion what it costs to reach them." He is angry. "For the first time since Dorothea had known him, Mr. Casaubon's face had a quick angry flush upon it." What has she done? She has asked him when he is going to finish his book.

"My love," he said, with irritation reined in by propriety, "you may rely upon me for knowing the times and the seasons, adapted to the different stages of a work which is not to be measured by the facile conjectures of ignorant onlookers."

He shows more passion when he's defending his failure than he does when he's writing the book. The prospect of living with a pedant has replaced the prospect of living with a wise man and Dorothea sees that she will live out this prospect now second by second until her married life ends.

Her predicament is like a punishment, but a punishment for what? What would convince the authorities to let her go? The problem would be solved if she could go back in time and choose again with a different and wiser understanding, -- "Now that I know, I won't marry him," she might say, standing there in the past with her head full of the future, which is now, for her, also the past, because she is remembering it -- she is recalling the horror of the marriage that she will never have.

Instead the author pushes her forward and makes her suffer in linear time like a living person, which feels inevitable but it isn't, not in a book. Eliot could demolish the marriage in a minute if it suited her. She could have planted the crucial piece of knowledge in Dorothea's head before the wedding, and killed the union before it began. She's the author, she can reach in and change anything she likes. She doesn't have to mimic realism. Dickens gave Oliver Twist perfect diction.

But there is a lesson in Middlemarch, and the substance of the lesson is not unique to Eliot: "Nothing ever becomes real till we have experienced it," Keats had written in a letter to a friend fifty years earlier. "Even a Proverb is no proverb to you till your life has illustrated it." Eliot wants her character to learn. Didn't the other characters warn her about Casaubon before she married him? They did, but Dorothea had to see for herself before she saw. Months had to pass before she learnt. By the time her husband asks her to swear that she will devote herself to his hopeless book she has achieved wariness, she restrains impetuosity, she sees another trap approaching, and she won't say yes or no: "I think it is not right," she answers, "to make a promise when I am ignorant what it will bind me to." ("Then," he might say, "you will never promise anything. We are all ignorant.")

Linear time is not only a convention of the novel here, it is a teaching tool in the book's interior world. Eliot makes the substance of Middlemarch into a demonstration of a principle, and, since the book is a thick thing that takes a while to read, Dorothea isn't the only one heading into a prolonged experience, we are too, and of course the experience was even more prolonged for the author, who may have been teaching herself as she wrote -- in fact it seems impossible not to imagine that she was, because where else does this drive of hers come from but discovery -- not from duty to the readers but from duty to herself, her own urges -- she creates time for Dorothea so that she can waste it for her own benefit -- (torture, stated Victor Hugo once, teaches us how to make our statues seem alive) -- and once that thought is established then the reading public starts to seem incidental to the whole project, which becomes the spectacle of Eliot presenting, to herself, an experience she'd never had -- unhappy marriage -- an unhappiness that she did not suffer with George Henry Lewes, a man, says Kathryn Hughes, who looked like an orangutan or a dog, but with whom the writer lived on "mutually sustaining" terms; he was an author himself, and one of his books was titled, The Principles of Success in Literature.

* Read the comments at the end of this post if you want to see his reputation in action. "I think dissertation-writing makes most people feel a bit Casaubon-y. Heaps of scattered notes and still more to read ..."

Hughes' biography is called George Eliot: the Last Victorian. A few days after I made this post she published an article about Bleak House in the Guardian. "I think it's Dickens's best book," she says. Victor Hugo mentions torture and statues in L'Homme qui rit, which is usually translated as The Man Who Laughs, but the version I found it in was called The Laughing Man.

They knew how to produce things in those days which are not produced now; they had talents which we lack, and it is not without reason that some good folk cry out that the decline has come. We no longer know how to sculpture living human flesh; this is consequent on the loss of the art of torture. Men were once virtuosi in that respect, but are so no longer; the art has become so simplified that it will soon disappear altogether. In cutting the limbs of living men, in opening their bellies and in dragging out their entrails, phenomena were grasped on the moment and discoveries made. We are obliged to renounce these experiments now, and are thus deprived of the progress which surgery made by aid of the executioner.

Friday, September 16, 2011

there was no other amusement but to look

There's a five-floor building near here, walls in three directions made almost completely out of glass, with solid struts and sections, but mainly glass -- and a storm swept across the valley toward this building last Sunday as I was sitting on the fourth floor reading Tim Robinson's Connemara, which is a record of everything around the coastal area of Ireland where he lives -- and it's a rainy place, Ireland, he suggested, as a vertical sheet of water moved across the Strip and ate the golden casinos as it came, everything vanishing; the pink mountains disappeared behind this curtain and came back later blue with cold.

There was a stand of trees outside the window of the building, and, as the rain closed in, the distance from the building to the trees became the visible world for me, each leaf turned brilliant, outlined in a darker green and standing out staring like an asparagus tip, or monumental graven image. Robinson in my hand was quoting Thackeray, who was caught in Connemara rain about one hundred and seventy years ago and found shelter with a family by a lake. "When the gentlemen had finished their repast, the boatmen and the family set to work upon the ton of potatoes, a number of the remaining fish, and a store of other good things; then we all sat round the turf-fire in the dark cottage, the rain coming down steadily outside and veiling everything except the shrubs and verdure immediately about the cottage."

And "there was no other amusement but to look at the rain," wrote Thackeray, but the lit place ahead of me was full of detail and I was transfixed, see, the flag on its pole blew one way and then turned and blew the other way, kicking up against the rain, a woman ran across a carpark with papers under her arm, and the flower bushes below whipped their heads not quite in unison but differently, depending on their constitution, lightness, and structure -- meanwhile others too, came away from their desks to watch the rain.

Thackeray had objects to look at inside the cottage and he noted them, the "herd, the herd's wife, and a nondescript female friend, two healthy young herdsmen in corduroy rags, the herdsman's daughter paddling about with bare feet, a stout black-eyed wench with her gown over her head and a red petticoat not quite so good as new, the two boatmen, a badger just killed and turned inside out, the gentlemen, some hens cackling and flapping about among the rafters, a calf in a corner cropping green meat and occasionally visited by the cow her mamma." Yet he was bored, but show me a badger inside out and I will be interested in it, I think.* And Xavier de Maistre would have found something more to do with those objects than just put them in a list, this man whose Journey Round My Room I'd read in the same building only a day earlier, when the sky was still regular, and the clouds were white and clean. De Maistre was confined to his room for six weeks, house arrest after an illegal duel in approximately 1790, and he wrote this shorter Tristram Shandyish book about it, a whole book of diversions, taking the features of his room for starting points and flowing off from there, so that the sight of his manservant bringing him breakfast leads to thoughts on the character of the manservant, and a layer of dust on a portrait of his mistress leads him to thoughts about loving her, and the feel of his bed leads to thoughts about the nature of a bed, "the ever-changing theatre where the human species enacts, by turns, engaging dramas, ridiculous farces, and horrible tragedies," and those thoughts lead to other thoughts, until his prison is a fountain of thought.

After Journey I read Kate Jennings' Snake, in which one of the characters is trapped on a farm by her marriage to a farmer, and when I set this against de Maistre's book I wondered if you could say that a definite period of confinement from which someone else will free you is better for the human brain than an indefinite period of confinement from which you have to work out how to free yourself, if you're going to be free -- because de Maistre's tone is happy and confiding, like Sterne's in Shandy, while Jennings' character is distracted and miserable, fretful, isolated, and spiky, but, I said to myself, I can't draw a conclusion from only two books. The idea feels right, but that isn't enough; history tells me that it isn't enough; the idea that the earth was flat felt right once too, and Sir Thomas Browne in the 1600s is in despair over people who believe that a root vegetable has a personality like a human being because it can split and grow in tines and look as if it has legs, "a bifurcation or division of the Root into two parts, which some are content to call Thighs" -- as if the parsnip is another race of human being, or else a sub-group of mythical creature, a botanical fairy. "Many mola's," he writes, "and false conceptions there are of Mandrakes, the first from great Antiquity, conceiveth the Root thereof resembleth the shape of Man; which is a conceit not to be made out by ordinary inspection, or any other eyes, then such as regarding the Clouds, behold them in shapes conformable to pre-apprehensions." (The clouds coming across the Strip had disintegrated into Waterfall. The World was Cloud.)

Later I opened a book of essays onto a poem about another farmer's wife, one who feels trapped even more firmly then the wife in Jennings -- her husband comes in and finds her sitting at the piano, not playing the instrument but sitting like a fern. Then a cow eats too much sweet clover and the farmer punctures it with an ice pick, and we can see parallels between the woman and the cow; the man is not cruel, not stupid, but he deflates her life through the natural processes of his animal husbandry. Jennings' woman makes a break for it but the fern-wife never does, her imprisonment is perpetual, de Maistre runs past her and away to Russia where he is wounded in the Caucasus and marries a Mrs Zagriatsky who is related to the Tsars. Later he comes back to the room in Turin where he was imprisoned and discovers that everything has changed, years have passed, the room is transformed. If Kate Jennings' woman had ever come back to the farm she would have discovered a change as well: her husband went out (feeling miserable and desperate now too, but a different misery to hers) and bought a herd of pigs, and the pigs ate her garden, the hydrangeas, gone, geraniums gone, all the green bystanders, vegetable creatures that did nothing, offended nobody without help, simple as the Mandrake ...

On his return de Maistre tries to tour the room for a second time in Nocturnal Expedition Around My Room, but the new book starts off flatly, weakly, struggling, the old fluid tone gone rusty and slow like Sam's when he returns from Malaya, and for a while I thought de Maistre was going to fail -- he was an author trying to imitate another author who was the author he used to be; he was trying to write himself back into himself, but this is impossible, as Proust in the future would have reminded him, the same water won't come twice out of the well (or put it this way: he wants the power his old self had, which was the power of fluid writing, he wants to ambush his old self and take it back), and he finally starts to have success when he abandons the room and hangs out of the window. The moon is up, the stars are out -- he gives us his theory of the universe, which takes an entire chapter that runs for three lines, and then there is a longer chapter explaining that he doesn't know what the theory means but he's proud of its brevity and "the indulgent reader will also note that it was composed, in its entirety, atop a ladder." After that he tries to both look and not-look at a woman on a different floor who is putting her foot in a slipper, and the old tone is back; he had to get away from his old self to write like himself again.

He can't recreate the pleasure of his entrapment but nonentrapment turns out to be a new pleasure. The author has a problem, a creaky start, he seems to detect it, he searches for a solution to his problem, he perseveres, he abandons the strictly interior environment of his first book, he goes to a fresh place, the windowsill -- and his problem is solved.

And me here in Las Vegas, I was trapped by the summer heat, then the rain came, and when I went outside it was cool, it was fresh, and I thought that I could walk a mile now without sweating, and everything seemed solved -- I experienced freedom as a temperature.

* or not bored but once he's put those phenomena in a list he's finished with them. A spirit of purity fills him, he turns away from the plural world, and watches the rain.

Both of de Maistre's books were translated by Stephen Sartarelli. Robinson was quoting from Thackeray's Irish Sketch-book and the Browne quote comes from Pseudodoxia Epidemica or Vulgar Errors.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

of the world rather than imitation

If sleep disintegrates us then the waking human being is a magnet that flings the particles back together. We must be magnets. Proust thought about us going down into sleep, becoming something that was not our dayish selves, being disintegrated, metaphorical, and yet coming up every morning as us again, and not a stranger, not someone else, the fragments reassembling themselves: a "great mystery of annihilation and resurrection," translated Moncrieff. "Habit is the ballast that chains a dog to his vomit," Samuel Beckett wrote.*

All fragments, fragments: the sorting-out of daytime observations at night, the open-eyed hoovering-up of detail during the day, an automatic sunlit occupation, widespread and massive; and so I felt uneasy while I was watching my first 3D movie because the backgrounds blurred out when the 3D objects came forward, and it was as if the filmmaker had told me that that now I had to watch the story through a telescope, with everything obliterated outside a little piercing focussed circle. The eye was not supposed to roam. But eyes want to roam, and the senses fly like eagles, picking up details -- in The Man Who Loved Children we have the peaceful dip of an oar and the cry of a bird going on while the fighting parents pause to catch their breaths: "Exquisite were those moments," even though Sam is "biting his lip in stern scorn" and preparing to shout at his wife who hates him. Still, the bird is crying, and a stranger is rowing unobtrusively down the river, on what mission who knows?

The eye of the author roams outwards, it points to the Pollits but it nests in the trees and rivers, and this fighting, it might say, is part of nature, as water is, as is the kingfisher, and this balance of angry and relaxed forces is "exquisite." Here is a jungle of possible viewpoints. The rower might be able to hear the shouting faintly from the boat, they might be having thoughts about it. The bird might have paid attention briefly, just long enough to work out that these alien noises aren't connected to any other edible or dangerous animal, so never mind, thinks the bird; this ra-ra-ra is irrelevant, and other sounds crowd into its attention, the hum of a beetle, the plash of a fish.

All of this is detail.

So: at the outdoor Maryland Parkway Music Festival last weekend I looked over the shoulder of one of the guitarists, who was chopping at his instrument, and there, crossing the intersection behind him, I noticed the figure of a woman, pale, remote, removed, carrying a shopping bag, moving at a pace of her own, which was the interested pace of a woman who wanted to a buy a carton of milk, and not the pace of the man over whose shoulder she flew now like a distant evangelical spirit.

What did we look like to her? What did she look like to someone walking behind her? (This is one of the good things about living in a reasonably safe place; I don't have to narrow my answer down to, "probably they see a victim," or "probably they see a rich person they want to rob." Maybe they do see those things but I can imagine others.)

The lead singer for the Neo-Kalashnikovs was wearing purple shoes, and the lead singer of the band that came afterwards was wearing purple shoes as well, but hers were dark leather-looking snub-toed shoes like plums with heels, and his were canvas sneakers in a lighter colour, and what do I make out of that? Nothing, it's a fact, and there it sits, and I don't see any evangelical spirits in it, I can't force them in there, but it's a fact, as surely as the woman over the guitarist's shoulder was a fact ...

But the brain tries, I think, automatically, the brain wants to draw together and connect and make conclusions, even incongruous ones, for example: I was reading an essay about J.S. Powers in James Wood's The Irresponsible Self: Laughter and the Novel, when I came across this part of a sentence, "love of the world rather than imitation of Christ"and without hesitation my mind showed me a picture of M.'s Level 85 Troll Priest in World of Warcraft. It was brilliant and sharp, not a vague picture, no pauses -- it appeared. I thought that was wonderful until I read on and saw that the word "priest" was on the next line under "than" and then there were the words, "a conscientious objector in the Second World War," and I realised that I must have pulled out the words "priest" "world" and "war" without consciously seeing them, and my mind had concluded, priest, world of warcraft, and given me a picture.

But I was not confused, and not for one instant did I think that the essay had switched topics to World of Warcraft. I was sure that the subject was still J.S. Powers. Yet when the picture appeared it did not seem immediately weird that I was seeing this troll, it seemed natural and normal, as these strange contrasts do in dreams, oh yes, American novelists, troll priests, everything sane here, but then I began to wonder what was going on.

My eyes must have scanned ahead, taking in a block of words rather than just the ones it was passing over, the ones I was consciously reading -- my eyes must have been rolling around like balls in a bathtub, taking in the lines below, and understanding them just enough to prepare me for the operation of reading them, taking a tour of the future on their own, without me, covertly, in a sneaky but businesslike way, when this idea struck them, and they threw up the picture in a spasm of insight, a brainwave, mimicking a genius.

* in his essay on Proust.

Monday, September 5, 2011

we approached unto those monsters fleet

Every night as Louie is going to sleep in The Man Who Loves Children she hears a horseman riding along the road outside, ker-porrop, ker-porrop, but after she has slept and woken and slept and woken and days and weeks have passed in the book she realises that these hoofbeats are really the blood throbbing in her head as she lies there in the dark.

Now she knows what the horseman is but she doesn't lose him, she doesn't dismiss him, "she still thought of him riding, though he was now only a phantom," and this is one of the signs Stead gives us that the girl is assimilating the forces around her -- her father's faith in the science of biology, and her mother's faith in magic and superstition -- forging those two influences into the steady selfish spar that will defend her against both of her parents. I've never read an idea like this anywhere else, this subtle and organic use of the confused borderland of sleep, a scene so strange and so natural, so natural because so strange (truth being stranger than fiction, this seems strange enough to be truth) -- so absurd and so likely -- that I think of Ruskin in Modern Painters, announcing that all of the valuable artists are the ones who feel compelled to chase after things they can see, or have seen, either in actuality or vividly in their imaginations, that their most characteristic and brilliant touches are "involving pieces of sudden familiarity and close specific painting which never would have been admitted or even thought of, had not the painter drawn either from bodily life or from the life of faith. For instance, Dante's centaur Chiron, dividing his beard with his arrow before he can speak, is a thing that no mortal would ever have thought of, if he had not seen the centaur do it. They might have composed handsome bodies of men and horses in all possible ways, through a whole life of pseudo-idealism, and yet never dreamed of any such thing.

But the real living centaur actually trotted across Dante's brain and he saw him do it."

After reading that it's natural to imagine that Louie lay in Christina Stead's brain hearing the horseman, possibly as no character ever before had heard the horseman, and Stead saw her do it. Because her mind was working she caught her in the act. Ruskin loves the idea of seeing; he values it so much that he gets agitated in his diary when, travelling in Italy, he believes he is not seeing well."I, with every faculty cultivated and directed to receive the impression of beauty, with every sensation and feeling raised ... was in a state of actual severe mental pain, because I could perceive materials of the highest mental pleasure about me, and could not receive it [ie, pleasure, happiness] from them."

(This is Proust territory, as are the sentences a line or two later: "I was tormented with vague desires of possessing all the beauty that I saw, of keeping every outline and colour in my mind, and pained at the knowledge that I must forget it all; that in a year or two I shall have no more of that landscape left about me than a confused impression of cupola and pine. The present glory is of no use to me; it hurts me from my fear of leaving it and losing it, and yet I know that were I to stay here it would soon cease to be beauty to me -- that it has ceased, already, to produce the impression and the delight. I believe the only part of a journey really enjoyable to be the first six weeks, when every feeling is fresh, and the dread of losing what we love is lost in the delirium of its possession." From The Diaries of John Ruskin 1835 - 1847.)

Chiron puts the arrow in his beard at this moment in the Inferno. Canto twelve:

Near we approached unto those monsters fleet;
  Chiron an arrow took, and with the notch
  Backward upon his jaws he put his beard.

After he had uncovered his great mouth,
  He said to his companions: "Are you ware
  That he behind moveth whate'er he touches?

Thus are not wont to do the feet of dead men."

(translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)

This faith-in-observation over rhetoric and established literary protocol is Proust's strength too, I think, when he describes his narrator's dream about his grandmother, the natural dream-strangeness of that conversation he has with his dream-father, and, just as an aside, although Stead didn't like "dull Proust," I notice that she has Louie go down into sleep in the same way that the narrator comes up out of it, disintegrating into a string of words: "it was a horseman," Louie thinks, awake, "riding up and down and -- wampum, purple strings of shells, fimbriate horsemane shell and the ctenidium deep deep down in this dusty -- red --"

Saturday, September 3, 2011

a formless and black mass which all of a sudden passed from the depth of night into a blaze

When you left me at the end of the last post I was preparing to fall asleep, so I'll pick up there again and say that if Macbeth doth murder sleep then he's only doing what we should all want to do, because sleep murders us, it disintegrates us utterly for hours every day, and if a person came along and did the same thing then they would be our enemy, and we would do anything to stop them, and the government would wheel out its guns and the private householder would stay up all night with a pitchfork, but sleep, evil sleep!, sleep weasels its way into our lives when we're young, and so we think it's as natural as a parent, that's how early it arrives -- and we have no idea how much it hates us, and it's easy to deduce that it hates us, I mean, if I came into your house and knocked you unconscious for hours you wouldn't think I liked you.

What value do we have when we're asleep, I wonder, as I put down my Claire Tomalin; what am I about to do, going under like this in an irresistible submarine, and why not stay awake and find out more about Nellie Ternan, knowledge that might be useful one day, you never know -- a quiz -- ten million dollars -- some detail of Nell Ternan's life, and I whip it out and behold, I am rich, and then I contact Powell's and ask if they still have that copy of Holbrook Jackson's Anatomy of Bibliomania with the blue hardback cover and the margin notes. I move to Tasmania and never see a desert again. Standing on Flamingo today, where it joins the Strip, I looked away down the road to the west and saw the bare scraped mountains with their drawn combed thighs standing up in the distance with the brooding silent meaningful stare of the Victorian Houses of Parliament at the top of Bourke Street, when you're standing in the arcade, by the Myer windows, right in the path of a tram, which is when you move, before they ding at you, and then run you over, and you lose a leg; you are not that toddler who fell under a lawnmower in Maryknoll a few days ago, there are no parents to comfort you -- you are an adult -- so now you lie there in the middle of Bourke Street ruining the view for others with your screaming and your pools of blood.

Proust wrote about sleep but how rare that is; books usually inhabit the waking part of life as though it is the only life we have, the only life the author has; they are not authors but waking authors and so perhaps somewhere there are sleeping authors who write the books we will never read. Ivan Goncharov pretends that he is dedicating a chapter to "Oblomov's Dream" but this only an author's dodge, no, Oblomov does not dream, he appears to fall asleep, "Sleep had cut off the slow, leisurely flow of his thoughts and carried him off in an instant," translates Stephen Pearl, but he is really awake in the past, remembering himself in childhood, his family home, his parents, his schooling, everything factual and blissful and sane. This is not a dream, it is a time machine, it is an author's manoeuvre. We know that the description we are reading is not a description of a dream because no dream is that long and that neat. Not even life is that neat. It only becomes that neat if memory and wishful thinking collaborate to neaten it.

Doctor Prunesquallor, at one point in Gormenghast, dreams about the other characters with such mysterious insight that we can guess he has merged partly with his creator and achieved a unique and godly perspective on the book that he himself inhabits. Otherwise he has merged with us, he looks back over the book with our eyes, and understands the experience of reading in a confused dream-way, in scraps, as we do when we sleep, and any book might seem like this to one of the characters if they dreamed back on it afterwards, just gestures and scenes, compressed and vivid, not necessarily connected; and in this dream the villain running across the earth is accompanied by a shadow made of rats. The rats never appeared in real life but they are a summary.

Some authors give their characters prophetic dreams, and Iris Murdoch makes a joke out of that idea in The Italian Girl when she has one character come in near the start of one chapter and then another chapter and then another, describing almost the same dream, which stars, I think, a ringing telephone. The normal reader, who recognises a trope when they see one, will probably decide at first that the author is foreshadowing, and maybe they will even take it seriously the second time, but by the third time it's starting to feel ridiculous, and by the forth time we are in the position of readers who are being asked to decide if these dreams are foreshadows as well as running gags, or if they are only running gags. So the dreams have become mysterious to us, but not in the way that a dream in a novel is usually, predictably mysterious. The mystery is usually, What Will This Prophecy Look Like When I See It Realised Concretely In The Plot? Cassandra comes on, the other characters fleer and scorn and the audience thinks wisely, "No, you should listen to her, you should pay attention" -- then the story continues, events occur, and the audience says, "I was right, fantastic, brownie points for me."

But once the serious atmosphere of prophecy has been destabilised by humour we've been pushed closer to the role of the other characters in the play, who feel, uneasily, that this is something too crazy to believe, and then what are we?

Proust is strong on the subject of dreams because he doesn't treat them like toys, like hammers for banging in plot-nails, as Goncharov does, or like jokes, although the dreams in Temps Perdu are both useful to the book, and also funny. He respects the strangeness of a dream and he can give you an idea of it in prose. There's a good example in Cities of the Plain, when the narrator dreams about his dead grandmother, and the grandmother in the dream is dead and alive at once, as she is to his brain, to his consciousness; he is used to thinking of her as a living being because she has been alive all his life but at the same time he knows she's dead, and these two pieces of information wrestle together as he sleeps.

In the dream he has decided that he is going to visit her but but his father tells him that he shouldn't try, "she is quite lifeless now," and yet, he adds, this person with no life would somehow suffer from headaches if her grandson asked her to think too hard -- therefore he mustn't go. She exists somewhere -- his father even offers him the address -- then he says, "I don’t suppose the nurse will allow you to see her." The son pleads. "You know quite well I shall always stay beside her," he says, "dear, deer, deer, Francis Jammes, fork," as he wakes, surfacing, the cloth of the dream coming apart and snagging up things here and there.

The argument between the father and the son is bizarre, it doesn't make external waking sense, but it makes total emotional-sense and dream-sense. His grandmother, exists, in emotion and memory, she is present in every dimension of his life except one -- but he can't reach her, thanks to this thing called death, which acts like an invisible wall or a series of magical excuses keeping them apart. His father has intercepted his desires before (we learnt in Swann's Way that he prefers not to let the narrator kiss his mother goodnight) so let him represent this standing-in-the-way being called Death. It is mad and it is absolute expressive sanity. It is the epitome of poetry, it is metaphorical.

Proust follows the narrator up out of the dream and describes him going through that migration, emerging from sleep like a man stepping off a plane in a foreign country and remembering the airport where he got on.

But already I had retraced the dark meanderings of the stream, had ascended to the surface where the world of living people opens, so that if I still repeated: “Francis Jammes, deer, deer,” the sequence of these words no longer offered me the limpid meaning and logic which they had expressed to me so naturally an instant earlier and which I could not now recall. I could not even understand why the word ‘Aias’ which my father had just said to me, had immediately signified: “Take care you don’t catch cold,” without any possible doubt.

He observes, and he has the patience to describe his observations, and translate them into the language of fiction (he must have adapted the tenor of his own dreams, and re-understood them into his character) and draw conclusions and even make the sad situation droll; he brings science and philosophy into his book, and the whole work is a kind of compendium or hybrid, with its false-memoir, myth, analysis, theory, and philosophical deduction, its mixture of cartoon character-tags with deep character-depth, and also here a nod to his friend Francis Jammes, who was the poet he was visiting on that night in World War I when he came home in the dark with bomb-smashed spears of glass stuck to his hat. Céleste was frightened for him but he told her it was wonderful, his eyes were stars, and the sight of aeroplanes flying over Paris appeared later in Time Regained. "The city seemed a formless and black mass which all of a sudden passed from the depth of night into a blaze of light, and in the sky, where one after another, the aviators rose amidst the shrieking wail of the sirens while, with a slower movement, more insidious and therefore more alarming, for it made one think they were seeking an object still invisible but perhaps close to us, the searchlights swept unceasingly, scenting the enemy, encircling him with their beams until the instant when the pointed planes flashed like arrows in his wake. And in squadron after squadron the aviators darted from the city into the sky like Walkyries."

Strange thing. Hours after I'd posted this I was reading André Gide's North African Journals when one of Gide's friends appeared in Biskra, and it was Francis Jammes. "I was waiting for Jammes with delicious impatience."

Jammes gives me his cane. It is made of ironwood and comes from the "Islands." It delights the children here because the handle is a greyhound's head: it is polished like jade, and yet so crude that it seems to be whittled. I've never seen anything so odd. Down the shaft, there are verses in capital letters, including these:

A squirrel had a
rose in its teeth, a donkey
called him crazy.

And these, which he used to put at the top of all his letters:

A bee sleeps
in the thickets of my heart.

(translated by Richard Howard)