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.

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