Thursday, August 29, 2013

it was often tinged

A character can be "cowardly" (Cambridge's word) and still become her uncondemned protagonist; she would like to say that people are not admirable all of the time, and an author who respects the flesh of humankind will go along with it. It is as if she makes her people the protagonists and only finds their weaknesses afterwards; it is as though she has met them in the street and continued holding conversations with this good-enough person until one day they do something and she thinks, Oh, this one's cowardly.

It is not ideal, for the protagonist, for all of us, it would be better for the character's life if she could have been some other way but the character was not that other way, she was this way, as people are sometimes this way. "And she had, as has been already indicated, that fault which, of all faults, perhaps, is most common to girls, whether nice or otherwise -- that amiable weakness that is more disastrous in its consequences than many a downright vice -- she was, if not quite a coward, cowardly."

If Catherine Martin describes the body then she will do it in detail, once, ("The complexion was very fair and clear, and when she talked it was often tinged with swift delicate rose-pink ..." An Australian Girl, chapter one), then leave it almost alone with only small bits of existence to remind it that it is there ("said Esther, a smile hovering round her lips"), but the cowardly woman in Ada Cambridge falls in love two hundred pages into the book and her body is still wholly there to throb: "Rachel, feeling all her body like one great beating heart, moved away to the door." Nobody in all of Catherine Martin manifests the same level of ordinary flesh-awareness as this character in an early work of Ada Cambridge. Martin takes pleasure in her describing-duty but she limits her pleasure; it is temporary, Cambridge's pleasure goes on.

They are so different but their dates are so close, Martin 1848 – 1937, Cambridge 1844 – 1926. They have different kinds of self-respect.

There is this careful grand style of Catherine Martin, this self-consciousness, the austerity of the Mallee is in her description of Burke and Wills, the men's reserve, their upright behaviour, even the monotone that she would find later in the scrub she finds in them or around them,

His pallid cheek more pallid grows.
In vain he strives to speak a last farewell
In quiet and measured words: his low tones fell
And trembled, and at last he looked away;
But all around was strangely blurred and grey.

and it is in the priggishness of Stella the Australian Girl, her interest in an German academician is presented to the reader like a Girl Scout badge for worthiness: a sinner expecting to be mistaken for a goodness and I am not God.

I'm your reader Stella, not your mother. Go to the bloody races if you like.

You have my full support I assure you.

Doris in the scrubland dreams and hallucinates, even the Arunta women trekking across the desert in The Incredible Journey are affected by smoke and magic, the rigidity in every case "was strangely blurred and grey," there is an element that resists your grasp, and even the brightest sunlight, the desert sunlight, can't abolish manifestations that seem uncanny; it cannot make things clear.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

the infrequent and delightful gun

Cambridge's prose muddles mental states together ordinarily, in the cocktail sense. Such is the normal condition of her people.

It is a subtle effect and understated-complex but I think her books are easy to dismiss because she sounds so cuddly (most of the literature-overviews I've read either ignore her or give her a pat on the head); her language is friendly but the events are often terrifying (which makes her even happier; she's entertained when she's narrating a railway accident in A Marriage Ceremony, "most of them screamed horribly"), and at the end of Sisters I see how, with only a slight change of tone, she'd sound nihilistic.

She loves to set people up as if they're going to be around for the rest of the book and then knock them off like Hitchcock. She spends a chapter describing a woman meeting her fiancé, marrying him, having a baby, "with the bloom of that most beautifying convalescence like a halo about her," looking forward to her new life in a fresh house, getting in a boat for the first trip to the new house, everything innocent with anticipation, "her contented eyes shining like stars," and then there is a long period of pausing in which you know someone is dead or about to die, and it is her. A Humble Enterprise has to start by killing a deaf man with a train.

Joseph Liddon was deaf, and one day, when he was having a holiday in the country, he crossed a curving railway line, and a train, sweeping round the corner when he was looking another way, swept him out of existence. On his shoulder he was carrying the infrequent and delightful gun -- reminiscent of happy days in English coverts and stubble fields -- and in his hand he held a dangling hare, about the cooking of which he was dreaming pleasantly, wondering whether his wife would have it jugged or baked. When they stopped the train and gathered him up, he was as dead as the hare, dissolved into mere formless tatters, and his women-folk were not allowed to see him afterwards.

Such gaity in "mere formless tatters," such a light and happy sound. Mere! formless! tatters! "Mere" goes out when the mouth stretches into a smile on the e, and "tatters" jiggles around on tt-tt-rr. She mixes cocktails even in the language like this: the most terrible things are reported as if they are maybe a bit normally unfortunate though also admittedly terminal. The thoughts she is having about the mutilated human are defiant of death and stillness; they are energetic thoughts, and she is not ignorant of the equilibrium that has been formed between the man and the hare. The difference between them (formerly so striking, "he held a dangling hare" and the mechanism of death to him is "delightful") has been removed with the aid of an as: "as dead as the hare." The hare died recently, now the man who killed it is dead, and death will extend over the entire earth; the driver of the train will die eventually, and so will the womenfolk until they're all as one another, death coming with a smooth swish-swish ("sweeping," "swept") and the formalities of the living going on after they have passed into darkness, all the laws, and officialments and paternalistic decision-making still puttering on in a mechanical way with their predictable manners -- "not allowed to see him afterwards" -- all the physical laws of the universe trundling ruthlessly, the train that killed you still needing to stop before the people on board can come down to pick up your corpse.

Question: what is her subject matter? What does she come back to? Answer: the intractability of the material universe. That's why she has to keep muddling things together. Not as if conscious and planning, but as if brought to it.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

she might begin to enjoy herself

I read in An Australian Girl about Ted the clot who brands himself (the author thinks (as if I wouldn't know she's planned it)) by attending horse races and then I read A Mere Chance (1882), an early book by Ada Cambridge, whose heroine goes to a horse race in the bush and is "very glad to have seen it," which was like a breath released in me; and when the horse race is compared to an opera it is like blasphemy after Martin's book, but I like to tell myself that this is something you'd have to experience; that it is not totally possible to explain (without going through the books yourself, through the period of time it would take to read them, and the accumulation of impressions), the high-minded tight contraction of one book and the baby-birdness of the other one, that feeds on everything indiscriminately. "She was inclined to think that -- for once in a way -- it was even better than going to the opera."

The clamour rose, and lulled, and rose again, as for the second time the green circle was traversed and the horses came in sight -- some lagging far behind, some labouring along under the whip, two keeping to the front almost neck and neck, whose names were flung wildly into the air from a hundred mouths.

And then Mr. Thornley, standing quietly with his eye upon the little slip of wood before him, said, "Bluebeard and Jessica -- half a head." And it was over.

Rachel drew a long breath. She was not sorry that it was over, though she was very glad to have seen it. She shook herself, as if to get rid of a painful spell, and felt that she might begin to enjoy herself again.

So that I see Ada Cambridge has had an idea that Catherine Martin did not have, or did not believe in for her books: that the inner state is not dependent on the refined world's beliefs about the outer state, that sensuous excitement is an emotion that can be respected, and that the borderland between this instinctive flesh-excitement and the mindful summarising of those excitements, is a contradictory flux, and those contradictions can be something an author may recognise and acknowledge: the inexpressible inner ecstasy being accessorised with trim measuring language, "felt that she might begin to enjoy herself again," and the different parts muddled together like a cocktail, not divided into pure conditions, simply "brave, fearless, true," like Burke in Martin's Explorers, not even bad or good, but something that becomes necessary after it is stated.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

being a barren waste

"[A]s Stella became more intimate with the Mallee Scrub, its nameless attractions grew on her," writes Catherine Martin, noticing the "white immortelles -- those snowy blossoms of the desert," and their "coronals of silky petals round their deep-gold hearts, on brownish dry stalks, with a few slender leaflets" until she finds two good words for them, "pensive radiance." She sees this delicacy; she runs naturally to the idea of destroying it. Farmers should come to the Mallee, she says, they should sink wells for the groundwater and they should cover the earth with fruit trees. "Nature waits to be governed by obedience to her conditions. Dig, and ye shall find; water, and ye shall reap. If the principle that anyone who makes wasteland productive became its owner were enforced, the Mallee Scrub, instead of being a barren waste, even in appearance, might soon become a great granary of fruit and corn."

But won't the flowers die, I wondered, "brilliant little orchids; scarlet and yellow pea-like flowers; the pale lemon blossom of the native clematis; the small purple geraniums,' obviously they would be eradicated if their parched habitat was replaced by shadowing wet fruit trees, oh surely this is clear, but it doesn't occur to her that this is so, and nor does she realise that this idea of hers goes against a set of qualities that she admires in her heroine: a refined aesthetic delicacy, a subtle appreciation of nature, a resistance to mainstream coarse things, all of which should say, Keep the Mallee that has nothing to befool your soul.

There is this impulse to crush in us, I think, a natural impulse; we would build on the sky if we could; we would hoon on the moon.

By the end of the book you have realised that Catherine Martin has a plan for Australia. She would like to see it covered in small farms with a cow and a cottage. She sees the urban poor revitalised. They can come from England, they will have the opportunity to become prosperous at last on their farms. They will have to stop being urban as well as poor. She was not the only one in the 1800s who looked at Australia and saw a cleansing bath for the destitute. So Mr Micawber becomes a magistrate and Mrs Gummidge cheers up. Prostitutes marry into birdlife. Vance Palmer wrote in 1954: "There is no doubt that during the latter half of the last century the Australian people were acutely aware of their isolation, and were determined to turn to account the freedom it gave them by building up something like an earthly paradise for the common man" (The Legend of the Nineties, Melbourne University Press).

Catherine Martin is in the strange position of being able to see the scrubland and not see it. Or not strange: it must have been affecting a lot of people. So it is only commonly strange. She can write about the landscape as if she is enraptured and she can also hold the contradicting theoretical view that it will be better in the future if people destroy it. The Mallee is worth describing carefully with paragraphs of words, it is precious, and then another set of words arrives, and she uses the word "waste" to dismiss the scrub, though "desolation" just a short way before was not dismissive, it was used with respect because the austerity of the desolation had made her calm and stricken.

Now a new set of words has arrived from somewhere else, a different compartment of the brain, however you'd divide it, or conceive of it -- this set of cuckoo-baby words that comes into the nest of the other words, mimics them and wants to kick them out, not because the cuckoos are vindictive but because it is their nature to behave like thugs. The force of tooth and claw is at work in the ink world. The shapes of nature repeating themselves, repeat themselves, and the behaviour that it detectably living presents itself in the unalive object.

The tenor of her mind alters; the alteration is in the language. The observed landscape that depends on colours and objects and enumerations (it is only a "few" leaflets and they are "slender," and the hearts of the immortelles are not gold but "deep-gold") and also on the longer vowel sounds ("snowy," "deep") is displaced by a swift appeal to tradition ("Dig and ye shall find ..." with its "-ig" "-ind," "-eap") -- the businesslike tone of someone addressing a known quantity -- a quote, a book, a commercial enterprise, the peopling and the tenor of a nation, which had been on everybody's minds since the mass of gold-hunters had arrived in the 1850s to displace the pastoralists from their role as Australia's nouveau riche.

She is not searching and finding, as she was doing in the sentences about "the pale lemon blossom of the native clematis; the small purple geraniums", locating and observing each flower. She is pre-empting and deciding.

Geographically her prose is infected by two different areas, one, the area of the Mallee where the writer observes and is uplifted and humble, and, two, the interior of parliament or another room where people in power construct their abstract decisions of government, and where humility is not an asset.

She is trying to provoke the reader's agreement with a tone that is the opposite of her previous relaxed exactitude of fact.

(They did farm the Mallee eventually but the land does not produce the "fruit and corn" she wanted, instead the farms grow primarily wheat, barley, canola, lentils, chickpeas, vetch -- dryland crops -- with some sheep and cattle.)

Thursday, August 15, 2013

through the sombre mass

Doris is drawn into a dry landscape, Catherine Martin is drawn also to these landscapes; her first publication was a book of poetry with a meditation on Burke and Wills who died in bleak countryside (this meditation shaped by the Lusiads, "its descriptive power and 'juxtaposition of contrasted episodes,'" states Kevin Gidding); her last book was the story of two Arunta woman crossing spinifex and rocks to find a son who'd been abducted; the protagonist of An Australian Girl (1890) goes to the Mallee. Her name is Stella and here she will relax severely and clear her mind. (Restraint is a theme throughout Martin's work. Her two Arunta women can be grossly summarised as "the restrained one" and "the impulsive one.") "These vast parched domains, lying in all their nakedness under a sunless sky, have nothing to befool the soul."

During winter in the early mornings the sky is often one unbroken mass of gray clouds. As the sullen red in the east that proclaims sunrise dies away, there is no tint or suggestion of colour anywhere visible in heaven or earth. All around, without break or alloy, are the uniform monotonous tones of sand and gray-green bushes; above is the more sombre gray of clouds, in which the eye vainly loses itself, seeking for a lighter tinge. They are so austere and thickly piled -- those clouds that promise rain, but pass away oftentimes week after week without a shower. They hide the blue of heaven, and the sunshine, and rigidly shroud the horizons, as if to make the picture more ineffaceable -- an arid, formless mass above a sombre, colourless desolation. It is as though one came upon the rigid skeleton of a spent world, or upon a living presentment of primeval chaos, when the earth was without form and void.

I notice the line about rigidity making the picture more ineffaceable because Martin behaves towards her characters as if she believes that this is true not only for the Mallee landscape but true for them as well: she treats them rigidly, she tries to sharpen them in monotone.

No wakening breeze swept through the sombre mass
Of foliage, which on the hueless grass,
Cast but a blurred uncertain shade

-- in the Burke and Wills poem, The Explorers (1874).

In An Australian Girl she singles each character out almost straight away with a set of signals and after that she does not renovate extensively. When a man likes horse racing then it is a sign that he is not intelligent, when he says he doesn't read poetry it is another sign, but a woman who wants to listen to a German academic will be respectable in the eyes of the prose; these facts of character remove the people into separate boxes, where they stay: the woman who wants to know about poetry is worthy, the man who reads nothing but the newspaper is not meant to be celebrated, and in this respect he is the cousin of people with tidy brickwork houses in Patrick White, or the poor bogan woman who watches television in The Long Prospect by Elizabeth Harrower.

I react badly to this assumption of theirs, that I should want to be invited to their club of judgment, this is always annoying to me and even an affront -- to be delegated so starkly to that role -- their expectation that I will submit to their personal ethos of placement, as the characters are forced to do.

By accepting that bargain I accept myself as the author's character: no.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

think of another, because mamma is no longer here

Molloy's mother is absent and unattainable although she isn't: he tells us about their time together, he remembers himself kissing her and naming her Mag, so she's there for us but not for the character, who is not with her and must go to her -- we don't have to of course, as I've said, we've already got her -- we've reached her in the way that readers of books reach the characters, that is, we read about them; and we're as close to her as we are to him.

The author degrades both sides of parenthood, Moran the father as well as Mag the mother, the father from the inside point of view, the mother from the outside, "And I called her Mag because for me, without knowing why, the letter g abolished the syllable Ma and as it were spat on it, better than any other syllable would have done," a name that removes her by one letter from a reasonable and harmless utterance, Meg, or even from the name of Samuel Beckett's own mother, May. A g is so close to a y when you look at it. And her own name is in his, she was May Barclay before she married, he was Samuel Barclay Beckett.

So the character's "Mag" is only slightly wrong, or in other words painfully teasingly wrong, and perhaps excruciating. She is so close to being right. I remember now that Moran is one letter away from Moron. May died in 1950, Molloy was published in 1951, ”I am what her savage loving has made me” (in a letter, October 1937), he goes travelling through a manuscript, giving the names Turd and Balls to the fictional representation of his birthplace Ireland, his mother's burial place, her remains reposed in some exact spot; Doris in The Silent Sea by Catherine Martin goes through her salt brush on a cart and dies because her mother is dead, abolishing the gift of life her mother gave her, destroying with her absence the garden where they lived together -- Doris and her fatal crisis of accurate self-foreshadowment, the garden never visited again after her death, the book ending quickly -- "If you had your choice, would you not sooner be back with your mother?" she hints to her friend Victor, and, "‘I would never have left my mother, never—never," she says when she learns that he has remained in Australia while his mother travels overseas.

‘How strange it would be,’ continued Doris, ‘if one of us two died like that little --’

‘Oh, don't, Doris -- don't speak or think of anything so dreadful!’ said Victor, in an imploring voice.

She was silent for a little time, and then said softly: 'But, Victor, you must think of it one day. Even if we lived here a hundred years, what a tiny speck of time it is compared to the thousands and thousands that have come and gone. Everything and everyone goes away after a little time. That is why I try so often to think what the other world can be like.’

‘But, my own Doris, is not this world enough for you just now? Why think of any other?’

‘I must think of another, because mamma is no longer here,’ she answered, fixing her eyes, wide opened, on his face.

Later she engages in that strange almost-passive wandering in the cart in the brush, the plot guiding her there and herself trailing along with it, not resisting, having asked it to take her there with all these suggestions, Martin's books are much about suggestions, with this result: that the endings puzzle me sometimes because she appears to have aimed for a point, but what is that point? The weight of cumulative hinting events seems too heavy for the small light piece of news with which the narrative finally terminates. There is a twist but it is not dramatic enough to justify everything; it drifts onto the page and the book ends on a descending muffled note or dud fade.

And I come away from her books with the idea that she herself does not see her stories clearly enough to describe them and guide them or that she feels shy when they seem to be confronting her with their concrete existences, and so she withdraws from their society, or goes through them dazed, with vague understated ideas, behaving in some respects like Doris, and believing that if she drops enough hints then she will arrive finally at her destination by nearly unconscious default; that the universe will have pity and take her there, a craftless mystery, I say to myself, but Beckett's mystery is crafted, what are the clues, I say to myself: how did I know, how do I think I detect the author's plans through the page?

Thursday, August 8, 2013

despair is to lack infinitude

He isn't going to find any perfect words and he'll keep the ones he has, relentlessly he goes on, and there are those well-known phrases from the end of The Unnamable: "you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on," which may describe or hint at the despair of discovering that you can't stop, you can't get to a void: you sense or imagine the void beyond yourself, which you might reach if you stopped talking or engaging in this struggle to reach some sort of void of nonexistence or stoppage that can't happen though it can be imagined, but as long as the character is speaking then they are only imagining it, only when they stop forever have they reached the point of not being able to go on, which means that they won't be able to assert their state: the person who has struggled successfully towards the point of not being able to go on, is silent, is no longer the narrator: does not exist.

Silence is the material of which the universe is made, states Moran at some point though he cannot reach it himself, being compelled to write and not stop speaking like this through the pen. A sick joke. The fact that all these narrators' voices have to stop eventually in their forward motion (stories not infinite) is a contradictory situation built into the books, with their people who insist they can't stop, and the idea of voices entering and exiting their existence is on the author's mind because he builds the story like a pretzel or a fog: Moran is aimed at Molloy and Molloy at Moran, they don't go forward and then stop in the imagination, they go into one another, they commit their similar murders so that each murder is a reference to the other. The white space takes over from their voices on the page but if the reader contemplates the memory of them then their actions will go on relaying back and forth within a closed loop.

So nonsegue but also segue, an untouching segue, a movement at one another, not an utter merging, but an intermisting of mutual atoms. I could say that several different ways.

Myself thinking now of Kierkegard writing for one heading, "Infinitude's despair is to lack finitude," and for the next heading, "Finitude's despair is to lack infinitude" (The Sickness Unto Death, translated by Alastair Hannay).

Maybe it is better to be able to identify your despair, Kierkegard suggests. Maybe it is better to be able to look at it.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

abandoned erect motion

Write about Voice in Molloy, wrote Kevin Neilson. All right, I said. Voice in Molloy, top layer: there are two narrators in Molloy, one is Molloy and one is Moran. Beckett wrote both but he is not writing them now. He has left them there like Escher-fish worked into one another. Moran at the end of his story becomes aware that the act of writing is falsifying him, perhaps. He is overwriting himself. He is contradicting. The more he writes from this point on, the more he will overwrite himself. (He stops writing or the publisher stops printing.)

Molloy has trouble with words (but not enough trouble with words; his trouble is that they come to him readily and he doesn't trust them); he is conscious of them, he will say a word and it will not be the right word, then he picks another one, but they both seem arbitrary; it seems that he could go on for an indefinite period of time, choosing words that sort of fit something like the thing he wants to indicate but he leaves it at two or three. Any other word he picked would be just as inaccurate, so these corrections terminate with an implied despair. Then there is the fabricated formality of the phrases he finds, which, once he has discovered them, will be used to outline a degrading circumstance. "But leaves or no leaves I would have abandoned erect motion, that of man. And I still remember the day when, flat on my face by way of rest, in defiance of the rules, I suddenly cried, striking my brow, Christ, there's crawling, I never thought of that."

The library of human phrases will not keep him out of the mud; he can speak formally, he can say "that of man" and "striking my brow," and still he will have to crawl, they will not lift him up, they will not save him, he'd be better off with a forked raggy stick for a crutch, and yet his range of language removes his voice from monotony; it defies his circumstances and betrays them. I mean the possible registers, one minute poshly, "that of man," one minute down at the pub, "Christ, I never thought of that," elsewhere Latin, elsewhere the Flemish philosopher Arnold Geulincx referred to very casually as if he is a normal part of any conversation, and so the voice might be capable of any sentence in English, with this flow at its disposal.

It changes octaves; he talks like a deprived aristocrat and self-consciously he says, "And every time I say, I said this, or I said that, or speak of a voice saying, far away inside me, Molloy, and then a fine phrase more or less clear and simple, or find myself compelled to attribute to others intelligible words, or hear my own voice uttering to others more or less articulate sounds, I am merely complying with the convention that demands you either lie or hold your peace."

"I might doubtless have expressed otherwise and better if I had gone to the trouble. And so I shall perhaps some day when I have less horror of trouble than today. But I think not."

Thursday, August 1, 2013

a place to lie and a little food

Long after Molloy's cows, later, in the Moran section of Molloy, the sheep are also pastoral, not only located in pasturage but so promising in their tantalising quiet and poetical-pastoral atmosphere that Moran is stricken or awed. "I looked around me again incapable of speech." He wants to say that he is willing to remain by the shepherd. "I longed to say, Take me with you I will serve you faithfully, just for a place to lie and a little food." He senses a paradise, then he is expelled. He leaves and goes on, perhaps into hell. The bees, when he reaches his home, are dead.

But then he is not in hell. First there is winter, then summer. Either real or imagined. He is more like Persephone. "They were the longest, loveliest days of all the year. I lived in the garden." He has been released or freed or permitted into some state or another. I think it is unusual in this book to have two long-sounding relaxed words like that next to one another, "longest, loveliest." I have not double-checked but I believe is not a normal Beckett habit, that relaxed extension of sound. Moran has mentioned "living in the garden" several times now in different tenses. Who knows where he is? Now he is paying more attention to "a voice" that tells him to act, and as he is trying "to understand what it wanted" he refers to himself in the third person: "It did not use the words that Moran had been taught when he was little." Then the I is restored. "I understood it, all wrong perhaps. That is not what matters. It told me to write." But when he goes inside, the act of writing detaches him from himself again. "Then I went back into the house and wrote, It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining." Which I read like this: It was not midnight at the time that I was writing, "It is midnight."

I read it as though his ability to unselfconsciously have a memory is being loosened from him perhaps, as he writes now, reflecting on the start of his body of work here, which the reader has just spent however-long addressing with their minds and eyes. I was in a different state as I was writing, he says. I was not myself. I was torn away from myself. The voice that urges me to write is the voice that forces me into the third person. Though he is still writing as he says it. If he is speaking then he is also writing.

This is not like those books that wind around in a circle comfortably and unite with themselves when they tell you in the final paragraph, and then I began to write this story, the same story you've been reading ... The start of Moran has been disturbed, not reinforced. Molloy is not similar to The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, which also ends with the narrator writing the first line: "When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house --" or even like In Search of Things Past, whose narrator has discovered the nature of the book he was meant to write. Moran has discovered the book he was meant to write but it is not a relief.

The act of writing has taken him away from the long lovely summer days to midnight and rain: it is a dark act, it has interrupted the image of the summer garden and the crucial songs of the birds whose voices are inexplicable. In 1930 Beckett wrote a monograph on Proust. "Habit is the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit," he wrote, and "The creation of the world did not take place once and for all time, but takes place every day." (Every moment is the moment to escape from sin, says Kierkegard in Sickness Unto Death, tranalated by Alastair Hannay: it is sin to remain in despair, for despair is sin.)