Thursday, November 7, 2013

you continue to look in front of you as far as may be

(Only one today.)

In the Mist of the Mountains by Ethel Turner (1908)

Books on Project Gutenberg don't always come with covers or blurbs and I didn't know what this one was about until page four. First you have this description:

There is nothing to see, absolutely nothing at all. You know that there are trees on either hand of you, and that the undergrowth is bursting into the stars and delicate bells of its springtime bloom. But your knowledge of this is merely one of the services your memory does for you, for the mist has covered it all away from sight.

You look behind you and your world is blotted out.

You look in front of you, -- nay, you cannot look in front of you, for the mist lies as a veil, actually on your face.

“I breathed up a whole cloud this morning,” Lynn remarked once.

“I eated one -- and it was nasty,” said Max.

Still you continue to look in front of you as far as may be.

And the next moment the veil lifts, -- clean up over your head perhaps, and you see it rolling away on the wind to one side of you, yards and yards of flying white gossamer, its ragged edges catching in the trees.

And now your gaze leaps and lingers, and lingers and leaps for miles in front of you. You look downward and the ball of the earth has split at your feet and the huge fissure has widened and widened till a limitless valley lies there. You look down hundreds of feet and see like sprouting seedlings the tops of gum trees, --gum trees two hundred feet high.

So it starts with a system of feeling and motion through the intimate "you" which is a word that storytellers use, and these two voices coming to you as if you know them -- first you are told that you are having the sensation of the mountain, even though you are actually at home or wherever you are reading the book, and not on the mountain (probably not on the mountain, maybe you are on the mountain), still, you are told to imagine it, and then the voices, a lesson she could have learned from Dickens (Great Expectations launching you against the present when Pip weeps, the lesson is the sudden focussing power of a voice) and then you are told that you know these children, who are fictional, or that the author is a voice that knows them. Either way they have existed for a while because Lynn made her remark not now but "once."

They are adding this bit of narrative past to the mist and interrupting the author, who is telling you about the mist "actually in your face" "Still you continue to look ..." -- two sentences that could have come after one another with no children, and yet here are the children, two dumb or innocent ghosts whose experiences are apparently valid, and who reassure you silently, "Don't worry, dear impatient reader, there are going to be people soon: it isn't all description."

Next Ethel Turner describes a town on the mountain, she lists a population ("two photographers, two shoe-menders, two house agents, two visiting doctors"), and it feels as if she is moving to a point of solidity. The mist passes but the humans are coagulating. Anticipating a story soon. The children speak again and I decide that this book is going to have a consolidated personality because all of the books I have read have had personalities eventually (I am complacent, I do not assume that this is going to be the first book in the world that doesn't have a personality) but what is that personality? (I could be wrong; The Mist of the Mountains could be the first indescribable or miraculous book.)

The personality is a mystery. Is it an interesting mystery? Ethel Turner wrote Seven Little Australians but I do not feel strongly about Seven Little Australians. I am happy because I recognise the gum trees "two hundred feet high" and the fresh brutality of the mist against the springtime bells. It might be a book about paradoxes. (Sue at Whispering Gums has been discussing Christina Stead's paradoxical phrases like "chaste and impure," this language of hers that has the degenerate dark energy of corruption.) They might be trapped on this mountain. Seven Little Australians tells you what it is going to be in the second sentence. "If you imagine you are going to read of model children, with perhaps; a naughtily inclined one to point a moral, you had better lay down the book immediately and betake yourself to 'Sandford and Merton' or similar standard juvenile works." Mist does not tell you. Indirectness seems adult because indirectness believes that you can wait. But the primary characters by the end of chapter one are still the children. I believe the author wants me to be tickled by baby-talk. She trusts me to be excited by a cast of nonthreatening cutes. A little strange to realise that she is making that assumption. We have never met. She died in 1958. All right then.

(It's a romantic farce.)

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