Sunday, January 22, 2012

a faithfull mate

If Swann has a right to envy Bill Sykes, then those characters who fight for their emotional specifics in a prose universe of vague "odds" and "infinites" have a right to envy the characters in Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene, because Spenser wants his people to fit their world so well that he names most of them after their personalities, which are also their employments and their actions and their roles. In other words they're allegories. The universe doesn't tug at them, it cleaves to them. They're sometimes evil but they're never lost. (Characters in the other book are always lost and never evil.) The one who devotes her life to impatience is named Impatience, the glorious queen is named Gloriana, the "fierce reuenging" one who rides a lion is named Wrath, and Care (toil-and-care, the poet means, not friendly caring) is a blacksmith

That neither day nor night from working spared,
But to small purpose yron wedges made;
Those be vnquiet thoughts, that carefull minds inuade.

The landscape in the poem isn't infinite or puzzling, instead it fits them perfectly, growing new antechambers when they need a place to go, and shrinking back to scale when they're done. The world is synonymous with their adventures. A lady loses her knight, she decides to travel in search of him, and so the poet hands her an appropriate wilderness. "In wildernesse and wastfull deserts strayd, / To seeke her knight." Then she's tired and wants to lie down, so he gives her a sward. "One day nigh wearie of the yrkesome way, / From her vnhastie beast she did alight, / And on the grasse her daintie limbes did lay." She is unprotected; he sends a lion to assist.

The Lyon would not leaue her desolate,
   But with her went along, as a strong gard
   Of her chast person, and a faithfull mate
   Of her sad troubles and misfortunes hard

Spenser's approach to landscape is a jazz approach. He bulks it out with a riff and sinks back when the solo is over. The characters finish with a forest, they turn their backs, away it goes like a used serviette, and a new one pops out of the box in front of them. The stuff of their world is neverending and absolutely malleable. A knight needs to be rescued from a dragon and so the poet shoves him over backwards into a magically consecrated swamp, explaining that the swamp is a gift from God, but this is even more blatant than the Norse saga-tellers who squirrelled invisibility rings onto their heroes' fingers through the hands of convenient dwarves. Last week in the library, coming across Ivy Compton-Burnett, I found a god in her books too, and the god was her. There she was (and me standing by the shelf with the book in front) writing Chapter Two of Masters and Pastors, and a woman-character says words to a group of men in a room, then half a page goes by, and then the woman does something completely strange -- stranger than any of Spenser's monsters, even the one with the exploding cannibal babies -- she walks into the room. We never saw her leave. There is a line there that the author never wrote: and then she got up and walked out of the room. The rest of the page tells you that this line should exist, it needs to exist; it doesn't exist. It is prominently absent.

I can redact at any time, says Ivy Compton-Burnett. I can redact anything. Or I can add. Every line of dialogue in Chapter One comes with a physical description of the speaker, more elaborate than it needs to be, straightfaced, and casual: a running gag that, through sheer stubborn weirdness, ends up pulling attention away from the element of the scene that, normally, would be the most important -- the dialogue -- and putting it on the incidental grimaces of imaginary faces. To act is to betray yourself -- Proust describes it, Compton-Burnett makes it a feature of her prose for a few pages, then stops. It wasn't important after all. Nothing is more important than the exercise of power. Nathalie Sarraute called her Great. Ha ha ha, says Ivy Compton-Burnett, in this paper world I am Gloriana, I am power, I am queene.

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