Sunday, February 3, 2013

withouten any compaignye

At the beginning of Lilith the world is not discovered yet, we need to break into the world or wake up to it, George MacDonald serious with religious joy, and so there is the Everyman Mr Vane going through the mirror for us all, therefore hope, the book ends with a hopeful tone from the author, but in The Sundial by Shirley Jackson (which I read a short time afterwards -- hence the mention -- the primary heart's-blood connection between books on this blog is not country of origin or sex of author but the fact that I have read them -- in the zoo they make their cries to one another --) in Jackson's book there is all surface and no hope; nobody breaks through into anything even though the world is due to end, there will be fire, the wind will scatter branches, the windows will need to be sealed with the backs of wardrobes. But Jackson has the desperate attitude of Mikhail Zoshchenko who gives his people nothing to be aside from selfish and petty. These people in the Jackson are not materially poor like Zoshchenko's people but they don't have any other model to follow and so they are all selfish because this is how the author (you assume) feels that people are, incurably and forever: the story extrapolates that forever.

Jackson is somewhat like the characters herself but not quite, she pays attention to them but her attention is cool and covert and she is not sympathetic even towards Aunt Fanny, sad and brittle, who is bullied by the rest of the cast.

Nobody listens to Aunt Fanny until one day when her dead father appears and tells her how to save them from Armageddon. The characters are only a short distance from stereotypes (so they are distanced from any illusion of being real people, you cannot feel that you are touching them); you could sum them up quickly as the arch young man or the domineering matriarch or the vapid wife -- they are ideas about people -- the arch young man's dialogue is typically arch, and the domineering matriarch domineers and the vapid wife mulls through the book eating chocolate and talking about the last movie she saw, which was the story of a doctor saving a tribe in a jungle. She spends days talking to different people about the acting and the romance but she never realises that her own tribe is sick in a different way, and so she can't do anything to heal them, she can't say, "We are sick." That the people are lonely and sick like this is Jackson's main point I think.

Aunt Fanny's dead father is preceded by warmth, warm marble arms and human statues; she panics, the living are not this warm. There is a confusion of warmth and fear. The arch young man in a roundabout way lets the domineering matriarch know that he loves her or likes her; she is thinking about her house. Shirley Jackson writes a huge house, as usual, overlooking a village, as usual, and people in the house, then the sundial on the lawn with "What is this world?" written across the disc, which is Chaucer, The Knight's Tale:

What is this world? What asketh men to have?
Now with his love, now in his cold grave,
Allone, withouten any compaignye.

Allone is the book's key word, the word that opens the rest, all lone, all one, the characters are a collection of ones, and even after Armageddon when they are going to live in a beautiful garden, the domineering older woman is going to ensure that she is allone: she orders a crown and a gold dress to make sure that nobody in Eden mistakes her for anyone else. Shirley Jackson believes that they will not change even after the world has ended, nothing will convert them, for, "you," says a little girl on page one hundred and thirty-two, "all want the whole world to be changed so you will be different. But I don't suppose people get changed any by just a new world." They will accept the end of the world, they will not accept the ends of themselves, their selfish selves, they will not sprout into new selves, they will not change. The tone of the book is dread but what are they dreading? The same state they ensure, which is loneliness. Or the contact that would end it. O prevailing chill of stasis. This chill the same chill I've felt in all of the Jackson books I've read, this bitter ice that clenches itself around the characters and stops them ever moving too far in mind or limb. She writes about houses and her characters do not move.

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