Monday, May 21, 2012

by the fall of the walls

After I had finished Melmoth I opened William Hazlitt's Table Talk and voilà, he was making quotes as well, in the same slang way as Maturin, and the identical for Ann Radcliffe in The Romance of the Forest, which is flattened out right now on the chair beside me with the word Asshole written by the last owner in blue pen under one of La Motte's speeches to Adeline. "Your father may ere this have commenced these measures, and the effects of his vengeance may now be hanging over my head," says La Motte. "My regard for you, Adeline, has exposed me to this; had I resigned you to his will, I would have remained secure," and the top of the exclamation mark after the e in Asshole is almost touching the bottom prong of the r in secure. People insult fictional characters; sometimes they insult real ones through fictions, example, racist insults directed at groups of people you've never met; or they praise them too, through fictional names.

All three of those authors were alive at the same time, they crossed the bridge between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: deduction: quotes were a fashion in fiction back then: and when did they die out? On the first page of Chapter II Radcliffe makes a description of a ruined abbey longer by borrowing a sentence from the Songs of Ossian, by the Scotsman James Macpherson, which was published in 1765, when she was one year old, the same age that a child was when it died in Las Vegas a short while ago, bitten in the head by the family dog, and it was also the age of another Las Vegas child who flew two storeys into the arms of the crowd during a fire a day later, and survived, although, as if the disaster had happened in a mirror, the same fire killed a dog.

"The lofty battlements," Radcliffe says, "thickly enwreathed with ivy, were half demolished, and become the residence of birds of prey. Huge fragments of the eastern tower, which was almost demolished, lay scattered amid the high grass, that waved slowly to the breeze. 'The thistle shook its lonely head; the moss whistled to the wind.'"

The original author of the thistle shook its lonely, etc, is describing a ruined building too, so here, between Macpherson and Radcliffe, is the thematic connection that I couldn't see in Maturin's Bible quotes. "The stream of Clutha," writes Macpherson, "was removed from its place by the fall of the walls. The thistle shook there its lonely head: the moss whistled to the wind. The fox looked out from the windows, the rank grass of the wall waved round its head. Desolate is the dwelling of Moina, silence is in the house of her fathers."

And if I were following this theme of ancient ruined buildings for my own pleasure I would go now to the Anglo-Saxon Exeter Book of the late 900s, where a ruined building is the end of the world. "[T]hroughout this middle-earth walls are standing wind-blown, rime-covered, the ramparts are crumbling, the rulers are lying dead, deprived of pleasure, the whole proud company has fallen near the wall; some war snatched away and carried of along the onward road; one a bird bore away over the deep ocean; one a sad-faced man buried in a grave in the earth. Thus the Creator of men laid waste this earthly abode until, bereft of the sounds of the citizens' revelry, the ancient gigantic structures stood desolate." (Translated by S.A.J. Bradley.)

The priest in the Mishima novel burns down a building, the loss of a building starts the descent of the Pollitt family in The Man Who Loved Children, and all of the worthwhile people in the world will live in new buildings after Ragnorok, according to the Wise Woman in the Poetic Eddas. The most loving and generous character in Melmoth the Wanderer is the only person in the book who doesn't have to worry about buildings, for she lives on an island without them, off the coast of India. There are the crumbled remains of a temple but she ignores the bricks and prefers to live "amid the leafy colonnades of the banyan tree." And her serenity is explicable when you see how buildings treat people in this novel, constantly looming over them, trapping them, hugging them in cells, locking them up, trying to kill them in fires, and shoving them down underground tunnels in company with parricides who sing licentious songs and lose patience with you totally when you faint. Buildings in Maturin are bad news. If I'm ever in a Gothic novel I will avoid anything with walls.


  1. The writer who provokes a reader to scrawl 'Asshole' about one of his imagined characters has succeeded, on one level at least. I love the idea of a world full of malevolent buildings, plotting, plotting, ready to hurl bricks and tiles and flames the moment your back is turned

  2. "Asshole" is a triumph for the character too. It's the first, last, and only time that the other reader (whoever they were) makes an objective comment about anything in the book. (They're not wrong either. He really is being an arse.) The rest of the time they just underline thematic sentences. For a class, is my guess.