Thursday, March 29, 2012

to observe her there in her pale green blouse

St Patrick's Day on the Strip: I walked there past the hotels and the rosemary bushes. Half of everybody was wearing green t-shirts and the other half was wearing green hats, an overlap wore both; there were also green shorts, green socks, green bow ties, green straight ties, green wigs, green coats, green headbands with green globes on them or top hats on them or shamrocks on them, everything shone green, everything fluttered green, green face-paint, green necklaces, green tattoos, green capes, a single pair of green soft sequinned gloves waving above a crowd of hats, fur hats with frog eyes, white shirts with green slogans that read Kiss Me I'm Irish, other slogans that read Check Out These Shamrocks (with a shamrock on either side of the chest; no man wore them), green ribbons, green beads, skin-tight bodysuits striped like Irish flags -- and one man dressed in Catholic robes and being Saint Patrick with a mitre on his hair -- the Nine Fine Irishmen pub at the New York New York had a band playing I'll Tell My Ma when I walked past, and the casino had coloured its moat as green as jelly; at night the Venetian and the Palazzo made their white signs ripple green, people were drinking green beer out of foot-long green plastic mugs shaped like simple trumpets, the MacDonalds had a Shamrock Shake, the Rock House was serving five-dollar Car Bombs outside the Imperial Palace or Eye Pea as it's known; the pavement there was so wet that people were skating on it and a man fell over. Outside Margaritaville the tiles were so sticky that my soles wouldn't move without going Platch. Platch plotch I went toward O'Shea's, where they were holding a swansong St Patrick's Day block party before the establishment, with its plaque by the bar remembering a dead patron named Joey Burr "whose favorite Vegas casino was O'Shea's," is shunted away and replaced with a shopping plaza and a ferris wheel. At twelve o'clock the regional manager of Caesars Entertainment played beer pong with a leprechaun.

The Irish pub at Caesars' Palace put corned beef and cabbage on the menu; the British pub at the back of the Crystal modified its patriotic allegiance. A woman came through the crowd holding a swivelling pint in each hand with her elbows out, saying, "I'm sorry, they only had Guinness." Three days later I saw Alexander Waugh, great-grandson of his obvious forebear, and he told us a funny story about a "lunatic" from Ireland who had phoned one morning and invited himself to Alexander Waugh's house because, said the lunatic, my family lived in your house some two or three hundred years ago and I want to look at it. You don't know me but I'll be on the railway platform at half past four wearing a white suit with a small bag in my hand.

Once I was home after the talk I realised that Alexander Waugh's lunatic was Desmond Guinness, son of the brewery. He has written books about old houses and possibly that's how he made his way to the house of Alexander Waugh.

Is there any relationship between St Patrick's day on the Strip and the events in Amy's Children by Olga Masters, an Australian book published in 1987? There is not. There is no relationship. Amy, who lives in the 1920s and '30s, wishes she could afford a blue hair ribbon and finally after some struggle she affords this new hair ribbon, and it meant so much to her when she was first aspiring, that the author bothers to point out that she is wearing it, to let us know that she has climbed and conquered a certain mountain in her life. But the acquired ribbon is mentioned only briefly and perhaps (the reader thinks, or at least I did) it doesn't mean so much to her now, she is moving on, she has moved to Sydney, she has her eyes on larger treasures, for example, a dressing table made of cane.

The human mind absorbs its former self, the old nourishment is not enough, it goes and goes and the acquisition of a hair ribbon or hair band, which was at one time an active living desire that had an area to itself in the conscious thoughts of its host (and it is still there: turn back X pages and read a sentence and there it is, though now the reader's intelligence has moved on into a later phase of Amy's life, and this sentence will perhaps look like a theoretical fact, no longer a felt one, the timeline of the character's life also tied to ours -- I may be wrong here --) is a nod now to an acquaintance the person briefly knew and doesn't regret leaving -- cruel person, thinks Old Amy about New Amy, I don't shrug off my friends like that, and Toddler Amy's craving for whole meals of ice cream goes unfulfilled forever.

A blue hair ribbon would not invigorate the heart of the St Patrick's Day crowd, this thing so tiny, so simple, so cheap, a scrap you could throw away tomorrow and never remember that you had it, lost to you physically and memorably; the ethos of the crowd was waste; the green plastic balls as fat as skulls will be in the bin by next week, the Irish flag suits might have been purchased just for that afternoon because when else would you wear an Irish flag, and they were not meant to be used frequently or every day. Meanwhile the people in Amy's Children need to make the most of everything, they are housed and they have clothes and so they are not totally poor, but the idea of buying a bodysuit just for one event or even a pair of green plastic eyeglasses would be beyond them; it would seem incredible. When we were in a rented small house once, an old house by the sea, we found in the kitchen a 1930s cookbook that told us how to saw a calf's head in half, but today where would I find the head of a calf detached from the calf? They were richer in calf's heads back then. Now we are richer in plastic sunglasses and also Irish flag costumes. Goods come in cycles, one thing is in great supply, another thing is in small supply, then the one thing goes out of fashion and the condition for the other thing become right and it rises, automatically, naturally, goods swim like salmon, goods signal flux, the community breathes in and out, tallow candles are invented in Europe and for once even the middle class can afford light, Rembrandt taking advantage of this, and other painters as well, so we have first tallow candles and then The Night Watch.

Miss MacIntosh in Marguerite Young's Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, argues against electric light because it encourages people to look at one another at bedtime when decency should be in darkness; and in former ages, she says, men married men and women married women and none of them knew because they couldn't see the other person undress. One of the secrets of Young's style is this: go to the point of reasonable logic and then add the touch that goes past reasonable logic. Never don't go too far. There is no too. She, like the St Patrick's Day crowd, is alien to the spirit of Olga Masters' people, who, in their brink-of-poverty state, worry that even the reasonable limit is too far and a small set of furniture will summon, like a talisman, bankruptcy.

Loss in Olga Masters is ferrety and desperate, loss in Marguerite Young is a grandiose wash and roar but how can this be any other way when her characters raft around on such a massive pad of words? They lose their wigs or their homes and words pour out of the loss, masses of words, it's impossible to be poor in Miss MacIntosh because you're always rich in prose. But Olga Masters is not lush,* she doesn't give her people much to live on, she gives them a poverty of words to eat and they react by feasting on the spectacle of caneware bedroom furniture. The revellers are out on the Strip while these people scrimp. As I was reading Masters it was difficult or impossible not to be aware that other books were proceeding in a more extravagant fashion.

* She's shortwinded, she likes to collapse a physical description of a character into someone else's thoughts about the character, and she often uses the psychologies of the characters to tie them irresistibly to some action that helps her shift the descriptions along, for example, the "compelled," here: "Her uneasy feeling about Amy increased minute by minute, compelled as she was to observe her there in her pale green blouse, cream jumper and navy skirt. She knew the jumper was one from Lincolns and began to think Lance might have allowed her to take it without paying."

She was a journalist for decades before she began to publish fiction. I wonder if she picked up that shortwindedness from her journalism.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

undo the belts that tie mind and matter

And it's interesting, as well, to see that Hudson's ideas were absorbed into Théophile Gautier's short story Avatar, and allowed to play out into the world through the character of the Doctor, whose name is Balthazar Cherbonneau, and who is tied to the other book in several detectable ways, for instance, his journey through exotic foreign jungles, avoiding dangerous animals, to find an old man, who is "propped against the wall of a cavern" -- the significant cave again, for the third time, and the jungle or woodland, the animals, all recurring, and the mystery in the jungle, which, in this case, is a piece of magical knowledge that will let Cherbonneau "undo the belts that tie mind and matter" which, obviously, can be understood as a reference to Rima's dual existence, flying through the trees like a supernatural creature one minute, and the next minute walking tamely on the ground with her hair tied back and speaking Spanish to her adoptive father, so thoroughly earthed that the hero of Hudson's book has to stare closely to convince himself that this is the same woman, and thus the spirit, in Avatar, flies out of a human carcass and back in, abducting the person from themselves, until Count Labinski's wife looks at her husband suspiciously and doesn't think it's him. The body is right, the voice is right, but something else is wrong. The old man propped against the wall of the cavern passes on his secret to Cherbonneau and then dies, making the doctor the last repository of this unique treasure, as Rima is the last repository of her people's language, likewise kept alive by an old man, her adoptive father. The doctor's magic-science needs electricity to work, "swift as a lightning flash a bluish spark passed before my eyes" -- of course this is our lightning from Hudson's storms again; the lightning in Mansions has penetrated two other stories more fruitfully than it penetrated its original home. When the doctor says he "scaled the heavens to rob them of fire" he is evidently thinking of Rima falling from her tree "into the sea of flames below" and he is performing the same operation in reverse, he will ascend, he will take the fire, he will not be killed, instead he will live on at the end of the story, supernaturally, thanks to his esoteric spells. Doctor, Octave says to him, what do you mean? I dare not fathom the awful profundities of your thought.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

in strength compared to the impulse

A focus is a vehicle, focus puts you in itself and steers you around. I wouldn't have read Green Mansions last Wednesday if I hadn't heard that the character called the Thing in Peake's Gormenghast was inspired by Rima, the "wild girl" who runs through Hudson's South American woodland. The Thing's parents die, and she runs away from the Bright Carvers and raises herself in Gormenghast Forest, meanwhile, in Mansions, Rima's parents die, and she grows up leaping through the trees, hated by a nearby clan of indigenous Indians ("savages" writes Hudson; the book was published in 1904), who believe that she has mysterious cursed powers, and the equivalents of the savages in Gormenghast believe that the Thing, too, has some kind of cursed power or supernatural vindictiveness, anyway, they stay away from her and abuse her from a distance, which is how the Indians treat Rima.

Rima's parents are dead, and so are the parents of the Thing, and both of these teenage women make an incomprehensible sound when they want to talk, although Rima, who has been adopted by an old man, can also carry out conversations in a form of Spanish, which, since the book is written in English, is English. The Thing hasn't been adopted by anybody and she can't speak to Titus in any language; nor does she love him, as Rima loves Hudson's hero Abel. "But the shame was as nothing in strength compared to the impulse I felt to clasp her beautiful body in my arms and cover her face with kisses," Abel tells the reader, and Titus tries to carry out the same operation with the Thing, ("he longed savagely and fearfully to clasp it") but the Thing with her egg-shaped head and habit of eating fledgelings (and Rima is compared frequently to birds) is frightened and escapes from him, fleeing out of the cave where they have been sheltering from a brutal thunderstorm; and then a bolt of lightning comes down and burns her to death, obliterating her body: "out of the heart of the storm that searing flash of flame broke loose."

The weather in Green Mansions is frequently stormy, and the storms are full of lightning. This lightning had to wait until it got to Gormenghast before it could kill anybody, it's harmless in Hudson's book, but, still, Rima dies as the Thing dies, by burning. The Indians, noticing her high in the branches of a tree, set the trunk on fire. She perishes in "the sea of flames." Her body disintegrates into ash and bone fragments. Abel locates the tree later, lone and dead in a bare area of the forest -- the Thing spends one chapter of Gormenghast up a lone dead tree herself, isolated in a bare area -- Abel scrapes up as many of these fragments as he can find and then he does something that is very strange in this pragmatic adventure book, but it's very Peakean: he becomes an artist. He makes a clay vessel for the bone fragments, he decorates it "with a pattern of thorny stems, and a trailing creeper with curving leaf and twining tendril, and pendent bud and blossom," and then he invents dyes. "I gave it colour."

Strange, strange, because Hudson is a practical author, he usually doesn't include an idea unless he can make it useful, and yet Abel's vase isn't practical, not to him nor to the story, and he has to throw it away a few pages later because it's too heavy and he wants to move freely through the jungle. That's the end of the vase. But the author spent half a page describing it. That's unprecedented in Green Mansions. It's as though W.H. Hudson in 1904 was inspired by Mervyn Peake, who would not be born until 1911. The current of a similar culture ran through both, you say, they had their culture in common, but there are other currents Hudson could have chosen to follow and why this one?

Imagine for a moment that he knew he had to plant that detail there to fix the unborn future author's mind to the book, for surely this is an idea that would attract the artist-romantic Mervyn Peake, this hero Abel who rears up into artistic productivity, kicked by emotion, so that Peake would be compelled to think over Green Mansions and accumulate the ideas he needed for aspects of Gormenghast, the wildness of the wild girl, the hostility of the savages, the storms (rain plays a huge role at the end of his book, and in Mansions Rima reveals herself to Abel when she comes out to save him from the rain), the lightning, which in Hudson's book seems to exist only so that it can magnify the fury of the South American weather, but is in reality waiting for a chance to fry a character in a story that won't be written until the 1940s, the cave where Rima shelters with Abel (and where Titus shelters with the Thing), the notion of death by burning, the disintegrated corpse, an exultation of emotion following the death, and perhaps Peake, who wrote about a landscape of stones, would even be struck by the other author's description of Abel's emotions as he makes the vase -- "dwelling alone on a vast stony plain ... all things, even trees, ferns, and grasses, were stone" -- and -- to balance out the murder of one character, Hudson gives him the tool he needs to save another, namely Steerpike, who becomes uneasy in Gormenghast when he sees the Twins in front of him, staring into his face so directly that he is reflected in all four of their eyes. You should look into my eyes, says Abel to Rima: you would see yourself reflected there. Oh I know what I should see there, she says. "There is a little black ball in the middle of your eye; I should see myself in it no bigger than that," and she marks off about an eighth of her finger nail. "There is a pool in the wood, and I look down and see myself there. That is better. Just as large as I am -- not small and black like a small, small fly." The Twins have set a trap, Steerpike realises, and he looks up in time to avoid the axe that comes down from a spiderweb of strings and wires, up in the shadows, waiting to be triggered, and the axe buries its edge in the floor at the place where he would have been standing if he hadn't seen himself reflected in their pupils like a small, small fly, drawn in fine glowing lines, as though some artist had used the proboscis of a bee for a paintbrush.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

blood of any sort

You can commit suicide for a sentence, I discovered when the Jehovah's Witnesses left me a small yellow-covered book about their beliefs -- I talked to two of them more than a month ago and they still come round on Sunday afternoons at about one o'clock to poke tracts through the gap around the door. Witnesses turn down blood transfusions, because, at some point in the past, one or more of them began to pay attention to this sentence in the Book of Genesis: "Only flesh with its soul -- its blood -- you must not eat." And Leviticus supports Genesis. "You must not eat the blood of any sort of flesh." Putting sentence by sentence they believe they have divined the intentions of the author, God, even though blood transfusions are never mentioned -- still, they have read behind the words, they are like Lavinia d'Aufideni in Théophile Gautier's short story Spirite, who believes that she can discover the true character of the man she loves (she has never spoken to him, he barely knows she exists) by reading the articles he writes for magazines.

"What an author says must not be taken too literally," she decides, "one should take into account literary style, affectations that happen to be in the fashion, a certain reticence which must perforce be practiced, the unconscious imitation of some favourite writer, and all that may tend to modify the outer expression of ideas. But under all disguises the real qualities of heart and mind are certain to be revealed to him who knows how to read; the true thought is often hidden between the lines, and the secret of the poet, which he does not always want to divulge to the vulgar crowd, is finally discovered; one after another the veils fall, and the solutions to the enigma are guessed." So the Witnesses have put one sentence in one circle and the other sentence in another circle, and when a Venn diagram overlap appears between the two circles they see that it says, No Blood Transfusions. A third sentence in Acts presents itself as reinforcement: "The holy spirits and ourselves have favoured adding no further burden to you, except these necessary things, to keep abstaining from things sacrificed to idols and from blood ..."

And this is not a belief in the power of the Bible in toto, I know, when I see that the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron and told them that people must not eat the flesh of pigs, yet nowhere does the Jehovah book forbid pork; and in fact one of the Witnesses I spoke to said that she liked bacon. So I don't call this a triumph of religion but a triumph of attentive literary focus, human focus, the focus that helped Breton see possibilities in the mask he found on the bric-a-brac table when he was out with Giacometti. How many people passed that mask and never saw the surrealistic associations that surrounded it as soon as the sculptor and the writer appeared? So too the biblical sentences about blood. Only to a Jehovah's Witness did those sentences say, Blood Transfusion, and said it so profoundly that a Jehovah's Witness can be hit by a car and refuse a blood transfusion, and then die, anticipating a future time when all the good and god-fearing people who have ever lived will rise again and walk the face of the earth, greeting one another and existing in harmony. The housing shortage will be amazing. This is more optimistic than the prediction I heard from a basketball-playing unicyclist who saw sunflares on the news and told me that this was how the world would end: the atmosphere would shrivel, the trees and all the vegetation would evaporate in flames, and we would starve in accordance with Matthew 24:7: "... and there shall be famines ..." Everybody I meet here wants to tell me about the end of the world, I complained to M. Why are Americans so fascinated by biblical cataclysms? He said they were thinking of the Mayans, whose calendar is due to complete a cycle on December the twelfth.

(The yellow book lays out the logic of the blood transfusion question like this: "Does the command to "abstain from blood" include blood transfusions? Yes. To illustrate: suppose a doctor were to tell you to abstain from alcoholic beverages. Would that simply mean that you should not drink alcohol but that you could have it injected into your veins? Of course not!")

I don't know who translated the Gautier. This book doesn't say.

Monday, March 12, 2012

none other than our old friend, the tripod

The graves in that last post, the ones I saw near the fish pool, were the graves of children, or else they weren't graves but statues of Jizo, who takes care of dead children in the underworld. When I try to remember what they were, I can only see the grey bottoms of them, which is not a clue. At first I wrote, "jizo statues," then deleted that and wrote, "graves of children" then left that for while, then came back, then tried to rephrase it in a way that didn't sound so pitiable, then deleted it back to the word graves and left it there, abducting the children from their own burial spots and leaving the ground open to any passing corpse, age optional. They had been children's graves in life but that was no reason why they had to be children's graves in the sentence. By this time I'd decided that they might as well definitely be graves and so much for Jizo, because "graves" explains itself and "children's graves" explains itself but "Jizo" needs explanation, and any kind of explanation there -- I didn't want it, I said to myself, and my mind kicked back at the suggestion as if someone else had made it: not there. Was that good judgment or bad, I ask myself, as I'm tappeting the keyboard; and why do I have to have these doubts about words, which (the doubts) draw attention to the words themselves, items that can be be taken in or out, and then the entire exercise is in jeopardy, because why not leave all of them out and go away and do something else, blow my nose, which I will do now, and phlegm, phlegm half the night, then sleep, then wake again at three when the people across the way had the police knocking on their door, and the police have an unusually loud knock. It sounded as if they were using something metal, such as a spoon. Everybody in Las Vegas has a cold at the moment, even Celine Dion, even the homeless schizophrenics down the streets; it's like Bleak House. And Marguerite Young used one word as the womb for another, her own method of generation, or so it seems to me as I read, "these current events, these current months, these currents in streams, these air currents, this passing or flowing onward," guessing that without "these current events" she would never have reached, "passing or flowing onward," the words at the end of the sentence turning their eyes back to the words earlier and calling them Mother. And this Tribute to Freud I've been reading, by the American poet H.D., is a book made up of two manuscripts, one of them the journal she kept while she was being psychoanalysed by Freud in Vienna, the other a piece she wrote for public consumption ten years later. The polished piece comes first, the book ends with the journal.

Reading the polished part, I discovered that her father owned a stuffed white owl which he kept in a bell jar on a shelf in his study, but not until I came to the journal did I learn that the stuffed owl had emerged from her originally inside an anecdote, and that she, as she refined her manuscript, had stripped away the anecdote and left the owl, in the polished draft, as a suggestive presence that entered the book every now and then, ringing like a bell -- or that was the idea, I think: the image, recurring, chimes on the memory of the reader, the reader understands that it is significant -- it must be, why else is it being repeated in that deliberate way? -- but the significance is not explained, and so the mystery is left to sit in the mind and, ideally, reverberate, as though a question has been asked, suggesting that the writer is working consciously around an idea that Frank Kermode discusses in an essay on Wuthering Heights: "It is in the nature of works of art to be open in so far as they are 'good'; though it is in the nature of authors, and of readers, to close them." And the owl is like Kermode's tick in his Sense of an Ending, without the completion that is tock. (The clock in this room with me doesn't go tick or tock, it says tchach, tchach, tchach, in a mechanical munching way, snapping its teeth.)

The owl is totemic, it stands for -- something -- and at other times she makes a detail ring in another way -- she associates it with Ancient Greece. "For the three-legged lamp-stand in the miscellaneous clutter on the wash-stand is none other than our old friend, the tripod of classic Delphi." So that some of her details ring back on themselves, the stuffed owl for instance, and others ring back to specific points of reference, myth, or sometimes her childhood, relevant to the psychoanalytical theme. She believes in the mystic powers of threes, and André Breton, as I recall from Mad Love, liked the power of twos, the liberating power of twos, believing that the presence of another person will make you pay a sharper attention to the unexpected conjunction between yourself and the found object that has appeared in front of you. "I would be tempted to say that the two people walking near each other constitute a single influencing body, primed. The found object seems to me suddenly to balance the two levels of very different reflection, like those sudden atmospheric condensations which make conductors of regions that were not before, producing flashes of lightning." There is a convulsion of recognition, and a hiss of new life, like the hiss of foam on a beach after a wave has come up. He goes for a walk in a flea market with Giocometti and the artist finds a strange mask: the event makes them vigorous. So there is a triangle, and H.D. and Freud were two points in a triangle, the mythical totemic and untouchable world being the third, perhaps, and triangles are important: they're just unstable enough to make something happen, they're two points of view looking at another point, which might feel entitled to stare back or throw a shoe at them, persecuted dually as it is. To be startled into life, says Heidegger, is important, though barely possible, if possible, and Dickens brings about a transformation with three ghosts. Go, says Scrooge to a passing boy, go and buy me the fattest turkey from that shop around the corner, and send it to my clerk, to which the boy responds with an utterance which, like H.D.'s Hermes Trismegistus, or the mask Breton lit on when he was out with Giocometti, has become detached, in contemporary times, from the world in which it had its primary meaning -- "WALK-er!" says the kid in slang -- which can be translated into modern English as, "Yeah, right: bullshit" -- and which Scrooge (who still inhabits that old world, not like the reader) interprets without a problem, replying with language that the reader can understand even today, and yet the boy's response is the normal response of an ordinary passing boy to a request that seems absurd, and Scrooge's reply is abnormal for a Scrooge, so that the everyday cloaks itself with an enigma and the enigma of the transformed Scrooge expresses itself with absolutely plain words that don't appeal to any mysterious third meaning, myth, or lightning-flash, only to the mystery of his renovated character: "No, no, I am in earnest." I have been repeating a few words here.

Breton was translated by Mary Ann Caws.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

like wild pigs against the dark sky

There are books that have been pegged to my memory by a detail, while the rest of the book is a general shape and feeling (a fog of characters, plot, the what-happens, etc) and the one detail stands on its own, not part of this mist impression but another separate summary, one point that contains the book, or is another book, a unit, Elizabeth Hunter in Eye of the Storm opening her eye a little and revealing some world of spirit -- her eye-glint is what I mean by my detail -- and I intuit a book inside or within the detail or behind the detail: inside the detail, ready to unroll, a quiescent spring, the rolled-up tip of a fern, the corgi rolled like a cashew in Anne Tyler's Accidental Tourist, which they gave us to read in high school, a "high, rat-colored car" in Flannery O'Connor -- in which story? I don't recall, but if you say to me, "Flannery O'Connor" then I see this car standing in a sunlit bare street -- I picture it hunchbacked -- Dorothy Wordsworth noticing in her journal that the swallows outside her window had the tails of fish -- and then on fish, I think of the rotting carp that I saw in a Japanese pool, alive but harrowed with mould, ripe haze in their eye sockets, myself watching them while adults nearby were earthing toy pinwheels over graves. Where was that? Dorothy's brother William consulted her diaries when he wanted to remember a detail for his poems and she wrote about the meeting with the leech-gatherer. If she had chosen other details, would he have written other poems? If Christina Stead hadn't been in love with a man who was Jewish, if she hadn't become interested in Judaism via him, would the stormclouds coming over the mountains in The People With the Dogs have been habited like the rabbi? Her lover appears disguised like a cloud, or mist-hat as the Middle English had it, and the details in those old English poems are guided into life by the sounds they make -- it's poetry, Geoffrey Hill said in his Oxford lectures, forcing us into patterns we might not find if we were not writing poetry; and Greer Gilman, imitating the Middle English alliteration, finds details like that too, for Moonwise. Marguerite Young in Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, describes a set of mountains with the word "razorback". I imagine her thinking of the shape of the peaks before she wrote razorback, and it wasn't until she had the word running through her that she remembered -- the word reminded her -- razorback pigs -- because she goes on like this, "snouting like wild pigs against the dark sky."

"His hair had grown three inches since he left Persia at sunset, just when the sun was setting over the empty box factory, over the bare razorback hills snouting like wild pigs against the dark sky, over the trees naked of flowers, the leafless bushes, the foundry that had no bricks and no fires and the bell-tower that had no bells and the flour mill where the flour was black as coal dust," she writes, with one item leading to another, the trees bare of flowers conjuring up the bushes that are bare but can't also be bare of flowers, so it has to be something that sits on a branch like a flower -- leaves, obviously -- and then we already know (I mean, if we're reading the book then we've worked out) that this man has come from a town named Persia so we need buildings as well as plants, and those buildings will be like the plants, in that they're without their natural attributes. So the foundry has no fire, the bell-tower has to have no bells, the flour has to be without the quality that makes it most obvious to the human eye: its whiteness. "Coal dust" because flour too is dust: we've kept the shape and changed the colour. We could have written "the flour mill that has no flour" but this way we stay with the meaning of the passage without being repetitious; we did the same centuries ago when we wrote, "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun; / Coral is far more red than her lips' red; / If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun." Loss is tedious but not literature; let's strike a balance. The more the MacIntosh world loses, the richer we are in words. The blackness of the flour might also be the "dark sky" earlier, and the absence of firelight in the foundry.

Young's language adds and then subtracts, it draws, then erases, then draws again, or draws and erases at the same time, by which I mean that she will name a thing in order to say that it is not in fact there: "No tires, no spare tire, no instruments, no instrument board ... no lights, no rear view mirror, no side mirrors, no tongs, no bellows, no fire, nobody ever pregnant, no star ever born." She writes a word and then overwrites it: "Mr. Spitzer had attended Mr. Spitzer's funeral, and that was why he was so hopelessly benumbed, why he knew so little of all these current events, these current months, these currents in streams, these air currents, this passing or flowing onward." The characters imitate the prose as well as they can within the obvious limitation of being imitation people, the American man from Persia has decided not to cut his hair until the Democratic president is out of office and yet he's never signed up to vote, Miss MacIntosh opposes all British institutions down to the King James Bible but she only wears British shoes, the protagonist's surname is a tumbling action, Cartwheel -- Vera Cartwheel -- veritably she turns around and around, never knowing if she's head or foot -- she grows up next to that shuddering thing called the sea, and her author loves to mention those unstable-looking things, stars, and that middle-colour, purple. Instability! says the book, although it can't say any of it without being stable itself, a block in two volumes.

Charles Dickens prophesised Miss MacIntosh when he renovated a solid object into an abstract. "Miss Slowboy insinuated herself into a spencer of a fashion so surprising and ingenious, that it had no connection with herself, or anything else in the universe, but was a shrunken, dog’s-eared, independent fact, pursuing its lonely course without the least regard to anybody." Which has to be one of the strangest descriptions of anything ever written.

Monday, March 5, 2012

ornamented with a hole

I want to say that I can remember a meat pie in one of Stead's books, but I've tried, I can't.* Food, though, food in general, plenty of times. The Cotter family in Cotters' England gets hold of a chicken and miscooks it into a mangy wan disaster, which confuses them; they can't judge the dazzling badness of this meal, because things around them are so bad and have been so bad for so long, that they don't know how a well-cooked chicken could ever be extorted from the universe, and what would it resemble? Each family member goes through their own private set of events in the book, and they arrive at different ends, but the sum of these characters, collectively, is that they're baffled by any act of creation, the effect they have is that of mould or rot, they can't cook food without spoiling it, they can't make friends with a woman without wrecking her, they are distorted versions of the human being, a making animal, they are the antithesis of civilisation; they are destruction. They're not only financially poor, they're poverty itself -- poverty has made them into poverty -- they are the two children under Christmas Present's robe in A Christmas Carol, Ignorance and Want, and their meal from that chicken is the hellish version of the Cratchits making robust glory out of a cheap goose.

In another part of Dickens, Flora Finching is buying a meat pie for Little Dorrit.

When the 'three kidney ones,' which were to be a blind to the conversation, were set before them on three little tin platters, each kidney one ornamented with a hole at the top, into which the civil man poured hot gravy out of a spouted can as if he were feeding three lamps, Flora took out her pocket-handkerchief.

I haven't read Little Dorrit for months but that detail stayed with me, "poured hot gravy out of a spouted can as if he were feeding three lamps" and so I remember it now, and it comes into my head when I think of Dickens and pies together. How did these things occur to him, I wonder, why embellish the pouring gravy and not the tin platters or the pocket-handkerchief? Why this and not that, why that and not this? In his last Christmas story The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain, why does his imagination leap into gear whenever he gets to the Tetterbys, why does it die whenever he has to write about the lead character Redlaw, who goes through the book like a press-button melodrama robot, being depressed whenever the plot needs him to be depressed, being repentant when the plot needs him to be repentant, exhausted by the weight of the same story that sits so lightly on young Johnny Tetterby, a boy who staggers around with his little sister over one shoulder? He has a baby to carry, Redlaw has a plot, and the plot is heavier.

The plot of the Christmas Carol doesn't need Dickens to tell us that Marley was dead four times on the opening page and digress onto the subject of Hamlet's father. That extrapolation doesn't do anything for the A to B of the story but it is essential if the book wants to be what it is. Evidently each book has a spirit, or what you'd call a soul, not bone, not flesh, but somehow existent. Here's a proposition: that spirit may have originated precisely in those moments when the mind decides that this is the detail that will be written and not another and it will be described this way and not that way, the moment when gravy turns to lamp oil. These are moments illuminated, these are points in time picked out and made to elongate artificially, the writer nails them to that technology called prose but the nail goes utterly through, even the head, and you're left with one wooden board not two together; the prose stays but not the instant. "I myself for instance have written down memoranda of many skies," said Ruskin in his Fors, "but have forgotten the skies themselves." If you extracted all the details from Dickens' books and gathered them together you would have a biography with the characteristics of a constellation.

* But they exist. "I've got to have nourishment," says a man named Fulke in Seven Poor Men of Sydney, chapter five, page one hundred and thirty-four in the Sirius Quality Paperback Edition, and then: "Downstairs Fulke ate steak and kidney pie and Catherine had a bun and a glass of water. When they came out Fulke was glowing with a happy digestion." They walk to the Domain and get rained on.