Sunday, February 10, 2013

primarily a politician

When I think of the crowdedness of The Sundial, and the overstocking of characters I wonder if it is a sign that Shirley Jackson did not know what to do to feed the plot so she threw more people in to keep the meat-grinder going with introductions and minor permutations, but very minor; Arabella, Julia, Gloria and Maryjane could have been merged somehow I ween or reckon, a nudge and one could have taken on the plot-functions of another, the other could have been dismissed, the initial one could have been written to explain the new behaviour. What if Julia had been eliminated and Maryjane had run away instead? Is Captain Scarabombardon essential? Why did she bring in this mob, why didn't she stop where she began; she began with a small group of well-delineated people in a closed space, a house, the setting for a closet drama, tensions there, etc, but then she draws more people to the house, a woman and her daughters, then another man, then introduces the reader to the people who live in the village outside the grounds of this mansion, and then diverts away into the story of a murder among the townspeople decades ago; everyone who was involved is dead, including the acquitted woman who might have been the murderer and this, although the readers at the time didn't know it and possibly not even Shirley Jackson herself when she inserted the murder-story in the book, was going to be the seed of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, published four later in 1962, with two women living in the house instead of one, sisters, one of them accused of the murder, and the townspeople whispering about them as they do in the story Jackson has inserted into The Sundial.

So one book has fed on the other; the Sundial has this first draft in it and so many things about it feel like the first sketch of a story, the jotted flattened characters, the dialogue of the arch young man that could have been lifted from a stock character in a movie, say one of those 1940s comedies with quick to and fro. But then the way he keeps tapping or scratching on his love's defenses without any apparent hope of actually getting in, like a dog with its door nailed shut, this habit that acts like a nail, nailing him into my memory, poor arch young man (whose name is Essex, the sad bastard), stuck with his love and his stereotypical lines, until the stereotypical lines feel like the well-worn social thing he resorts to because appeals for affection do not work.* A sign, not of lack of imagination in the author but of deprivation in the character. So my imagination works on him, I concoct a character for the man, and I had a similar reaction when I had to read L.P. Hartley's The Go-Between in Year 12 English and over the course of six months became fixated on the extremely minor character Denys, the lead woman's brother, who does virtually nothing except offer to play tennis and I resented the young lead woman, the protagonist-boy, and the annoying lover, who were taking valuable page-room away from forgotten Denys and depriving him of any chance to display the personality I had invented for him in private.

I disliked the boy-protagonist even more after I had seen the movie by Joseph Losey, whose scriptwriter Harold Pinter (though I like his Proust adaptation) had parenthesised the plot with future scenes in which the adulted boy-protagonist visits the now-elderly lead woman and engages with her sadly because the thing he saw in that garden shed thanks to her scarred him for life, her betrayal made him frigid forever, moped this mournful stoic as I sat there throwing objects mentally at the screen and invisibly shouting unsympathetic mottoes I had learned from my time in the world, eg, "Build a bridge," though my feelings I believe were more complicated than those phrases suggested, a mixture of my psychological depths which I evidently preferred not to recognise, signalling this absence of recognition with brief abuses.

*If you have read the book and you want to argue that Essex is only being diplomatic not genuinely affectionate ("Essex is primarily a politician," the older woman says) then I agree with you to and I can see all the evidence for it.


  1. I want to read that Denys book hidden within the excessively dull The Go-Between. The idea of your year 12 self scouring the text for more of Denys's offers of tennis has made me laugh so much.

    1. The tennis thing appears in my brain because I can remember him turning up in the film for about ten seconds with a tennis racket. "Anyone want a game of tennis," he says (or something like that) and the rest of the cast replies, "Push off Denys," (or something like that) and "Righto chaps," he responds, and pounces off, stage right. I don't know for sure if that happens or not but that's what I remember.

      "Excessively dull" -- I wanted to be fair to him so much that I went away and read The Hireling as well, in my free time, and a number of short stories. I am an idiot.

    2. I think you are a good and devoted reader, whereas I am a lazy, impatient, unmeditative one. So you have a much better soul (improved even more by the addition of not only The Hireling but those noble highly improving extra helpings of short story). ISpeaking of short stories, I assume (of course you have - why am I even asking) that you've read The Lottery by S Jackson?

    3. Stubborn is the word. He thought he'd beaten me with the Go-Between. I was not going to be beaten. I would suck his sweet juices. In retrospect I see that he should not have been sucked. But sucked he was.

      I've read The Lottery, but if I've tried any of her other short stories then I don't remember them. I read her whenever I come across her. She's one of those writers (William Hope Hodgson is the other one I'm thinking of) whose ability to write doesn't come up to the huge bleakness of their ideas, and they sort of grope or batter at them as if they can't help saying this terrible thing -- even if they can't get it across, even if the effort of creating characters just annoys them, so they chuck stereotypes in there instead -- they have to try.

    4. 'whose ability to write doesn't come up to the huge bleakness of their ideas' - that is sheer brilliance.
      The thing I really blame LP Hartley for is getting Ian McEwan into the fiction game - see this from an article by McEwan in the New Republic (I caress a memory of myself as a child is how the uncensored-by-pretend-modesty version of this would read, as evidenced by the author's use of the adjective 'inspired' later on to describe one of his own actions:

      I have a memory of myself as a child, caressing a detail in a novel. Recalling the moment is another way of restoring faith in fiction. The experience was hypnotic, with lifelong consequences, for it showed me how the worlds of fact and fiction can interpenetrate. I was 13 years old, alone in the school library, spellbound by L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between. Its hero, Leo, from a poor background, spends the summer of 1900 holidaying with a school friend whose family owns a grand country house. The focus, of course, is Leo’s role as a messenger in an illicit love affair. But what drew me was the July heat wave, and the little boy’s fascination with the greenhouse thermometer and whether it would reach 100 degrees. That week’s copy of the satirical magazine Punch arrives at the house and, inside, a drawing shows “Mr. Punch under an umbrella, mopping his brow, while Dog Toby, with his tongue hanging out, wilted behind him.”

      My memory is of putting the book aside and, in an inspired move, crossing the library to where the ancient bound copies of Punch were shelved, lifting down the volume for 1900 and turning to July. And there they were, the overheated dog, the umbrella, and Mr. Punch pressing a handkerchief to his forehead! It was true. I was captivated, elated by the power of something both imagined and real. And briefly, I felt an unfamiliar sadness, nostalgia for a world I was excluded from. For a moment, I had been Leo, seeing what he saw, and then it was 1962 again and I was at boarding school, with no lovers to run between, no heat wave, and only this remnant in a yellowing magazine.

    5. As long as he was spellbound by the thermometer and not by the story I can side with him. The thermometer was absolutely more interesting. In general though, any thirteen-year-old mesmerised by The Go-Between should be sent away for therapy or, if that is unaffordable, drowned.

      (Incompetence or semi-competence or indigenous clumsiness is a seriously undervalued virtue in many writers. Balzac! Victor Hugo! Even Stead.)