Thursday, November 28, 2013

the regiment of ants

Bengala by Mary Theresa Vidal (1860)

The characters in the early parts of this book like to visit each other's houses and eat. They are always together. "A long discussion soon arose about shrubs and plants, which continued till they were summoned to luncheon." I felt such a longing for that pointlessly friendful existence, steady denseness and every moment filled, Vidal noticing that the discussion went on till they were summoned to another activity which would also have consumed them completely for another stretch of time, the author leaving no gaps in the chronology and elsewhere tracking the behaviour of each group, though some characters do vanish eventually without any explanation; mainly children.

The discussion was stopped by a summons from Mrs. Lang for all the ladies who wished to help in the custards. Mr. Fitz insisted that he should be very useful in beating up eggs, and made them laugh by tying on one of the little girls' pinafores and tucking up his sleeves. All went to the store but Isabel.

They explain themselves through their food. "Mr. Lang was ruffled, and found fault with the coffee and the toast." That null serenity could have lasted forever, for me; and if the rest of the book had consisted of people in this small middle-class bushland community coming around for coffee and toast, mutton, pumpkin pudding, custard, "biscuits and grapes, bread and butter, colonial wine, and lemon syrup" then it would have approximated my ideas about Der Nachsommer, by Adalbert Stifter, a book I haven't read, but which I imagine as a long period of static, sunny and finely-detailed peace and a self-hermiting. If Vidal could have written nothing but sentences like this for three hundred pages then I would have called her the greatest colonial author I had ever read:

He put his arm on Isabel's shoulder as he spoke, and so, talking and laughing, they all turned into the garden, where they strolled about it in a leisurely way; now plucking a grape or a bud -- now stopping to watch the regiment of ants, which in spite of gunpowder and tobacco and all the various war waged against them, persisted in destroying the gravel paths.

If absolutely nothing more consequential than that had happened then I would have been full of respect whenever I thought about her stubborn or thick adherence to minute occurrences (the kind that create barely more than a bubbling motion, which would eventually, by accumulation, seem to be full of subdued terror, or not terror but repressed meaning; the meaning would seem repressed because it would never be stated).

I wanted to reach the last page still waiting for an event to make a violent impression and stick up like the nail that gets hammered down, but instead I would be astounded when I found Mrs Lang talking about custard. "'Pray, Mr. Lang, don't talk about custards; I dare say Mrs. Vesey is not very much interested in custards,' said Mrs. Lang."

I would have been baffled and suspended on such an intensity of impenetrable lightness. It would have been a triumph for her, who died in 1873. "I want to write that book," I think, "that's the only way it will ever exist," even though I know that the action of creating the book would also be the action of removing the ignorance or innocence that I would need before I could start to read it.


  1. Wow. Mr. Amateur is very interested in custards, and is much like Mr. Fitz in what he insists.

    What a find, even if the result is an imaginary book of sorts.

    Speaking of which, your Stifter description is very close.

  2. The custard is a mini-plot in itself. Mrs Vesey, who is sweet and mean, decides that everything in the colonies is delightfully primitive, including the custard, so the family who is inviting her to whatever meal they're eating at that point in the book must show her how they make their own custards -- it will be such fun. (Unspoken by Mrs Vesey: making custard is a servant's job and you're doing it yourself?) The family can't take offense to her without sounding ridiculous (rude woman, how dare you ask us to show you how to make custard) so they all have a small emotional war around custard-making.

    "Mr. Fitz, too, said be should certainly come and be initiated in the art of custard-making; it would be capital fun to beat eggs. ‘Don't you think, Miss Lang (turning to Kate), it is a beautiful sight to see the froth rising and rising?'"

    This is the Bengala version of wildly erotic sleaze; Mr Fitz goes on to ruin a servant girl and drive her boyfriend mad.

    I've been wanting to read Stifter for a long time (it was a review of Heiner Goebbels' Stifter's Dinge that really focussed my attention) but it wasn't until I was writing this post that I realised I'd be able to get hold of him through an inter-library loan. So if that works out then I should have him in my hands within a few weeks.