Sunday, December 29, 2013

by the magic of her voice, she had carried each man back

That's the difference between the two authors in a nutshell, there, Praed's characters looking for a stable and idealised place which in her books is obtainable or at least you can graze it (Anne, a singer whose voice enchants the people that the author keeps describing as savages, "in truth ... seemed like some goddess of their own race, suddenly descended incarnate among them"), the plot points arrive like proper plotted plot points (which is radiantly ideal) and so on, while Cambridge does not have those ideas, the opposite of stability is what occurs to her though she likes good butter and I think she'd get along well with the people in Bengala, loving food as she does, as long as she doesn't get started on sex and touching, two things they're not so good at. They stay luxuriously and undangerously in food. "The rest of the party passed in, impatient for tea."

The characters in Cambridge's Humble Enterprise are skilled at food. "Not a pot of ill-made tea nor a defective scone was ever placed before a customer by those conscientious tradeswomen."

The protagonist in Fugitive Anne doesn't descend to the construction of a scone, the food is left up to a designated servant like the food in Pride and Prejudice, and instead the heroic Praeds (divorced from food and elevated) tend to be good at opera or speaking Mayan, or other acknowledged exotica: she depends I think on the acknowledgement of the social, networked or interlaced world, and on the expectation that this world will have trained her readers to think that a character who has a hypersensitive soul (Countess Adrian: "the young lady's soul might well be likened, as in Dryden's metaphor, to a rare and well-tempered blade fretting in its too delicate scabbard") or whose singing can drive the audience into "awe-stricken silence" is automatically interesting.

(Whereas Cambridge will ask the reader to consider the difficulties that they themselves have encountered in their kitchens when they have tried to make perfect scones: this talent exists on the same plane as the reader while opera singing exists on a plane above, as though the character is on a permanent theatrical stage or pedestal inside the book -- I recall the emphasis, in Praed, on the act of looking, which is also an act of presentation, the author occupying both sides of the equation -- showing Anne a dead body and inhabiting her reaction as well. "She understood now. God of mercy! That this thing should be!")

A set of words like "awe-stricken silence" will fill in the gaps for the reader of Praed, they will be entranced -- so that the backbone of the bushland adventure narrative is the existence of urban standards, or, to put it another way, the endurance of a certain subspecies of memory, tradition and love -- or, to put it yet another way, not that at all but something else -- the fear of appearing ignorant because you do not recognise a worthwhile object when you see it -- and in the real world the reader (theoretically) would be entertained by the opera-singing person and respectful of their respectable gifts, so in the book they will respect them too, and pay attention, and decide that they are worthy, though the person on the page is never going to entertain them with even a half a second of actual noise, still the characters who can hear it are clamouring for it.

They had none of them believed in her voice, till one Sunday, when the Captain held service, she had poured out her glorious contralto in a hymn. Afterwards, they gave her no peace till every evening she sang to Eric Hansen's accompaniment on the old cracked piano in the saloon. Then, by the magic of her voice, she had carried each man back to scenes on shore--to opera-nights in Sydney and Melbourne, as she had sung airs from Verdi and Rossini and Bellini ...

(Faced with this not-even-spectral scene the readers will live up to the nonexistent not-even-ghostly standards of the ship's passengers and give the singer their attention, or I believe that's the idea, anyway. Perhaps they will begin to daydream they are her, and perhaps the author is already dreaming the same.)

Thursday, December 26, 2013

subtracted from language

Ducking away from Praed and Cambridge for one day, I post my annual mash-up of some authors I've read this year. Thank you to everyone who read Pykk in 2013, thanks to everyone who commented. You have my gratitude.

Most significantly, what Merleau-Ponty and Bergson share is an ontology of shoes. Don't they look sweet," he answered with a sudden DREAM OF JOY developing his bust as far as possible towards the east and these vapour-ghosts vanished from before him with grand hoods of light around their faces, top and sides; but country-folks despised the firmament of forms. More significant is the "transcendence" of Aesop, my dog, that I afterwards shot, then the jingling of a buckle against the stones gave a little laugh of satisfaction off the island for two nights and days, with a sudden epilepsy of planet-struck fury. Even the term "alleged deception" caught the physically weak Schulz and held him to the extent of evading the adoption of a style, self-possessed as he may seem. That being qua being is subtracted from language is like the poisonous fangs of the serpent, unless extracted from its burning crypt of chastisement by the lack of resemblance in Rembrandt's portraits. What must resemblances resemble?

(Elizabeth Grosz: Architecture from the Outside; Mary Gaunt: Kirkham's Find; Garnet Walch: Australia Felix, or Harlequin Laughing Jackass and the Magic Bat; Samuel Beckett: Watt; John Cowper Powys: Weymouth Sands; Ada Cambridge: Thirty Years in Australia; Lars Gustafsson, tr John Irons: All Crazy Small Objects from his book A Time in Xanadu; Maurice Blanchot, tr Ann Smock: The Writing of the Disaster; Knut Hamsun, tr W.W. Worster: Pan; Louisa Atkinson : Gertrude, the Emigrant Girl: A Tale of Colonial Life; Caroline Leakey: The Broad Arrow; Charlotte Barton: A Mother's Offering to her Children: By a Lady, Long Resident in New South Wales; The Posthumous Works of Thomas De Quincey; Geoffrey Hill: Collected Critical Writings; Catherine Martin: An Australian Girl; Jerzy Ficowski, tr. Theodosia Robertson: Regions of the Great Heresy: Bruno Schulz, a Biography: Nick Land: The Thirst for Annihilation: Georges Bataille and Virulent Nihilism; Alain Badiou, tr Nina Power and Alberto Toscano: Badiou on Beckett; Amanda McKittrick Ros: Irene Iddesleigh; Hélène Cixous, various translators: Stigmata: Escaping Texts.)

Sunday, December 22, 2013

in her cabin

I wrote that last post because I was still thinking of the opposite situation in Rosa Praed, an author who doesn't care particularly whether her characters touch or not, or whether a thing breaks and decays like the Ormuz or whether it neither breaks nor decays; and instead she thinks through her stories in a series of staging-areas where ideas and scenes execute themselves, a character presenting themselves on that stage with a set of attributes or happiness or sadness and the other characters observing them and reacting to that state, whatever it is.

Her ship in Fugitive Anne is too steady to ever throw anybody out like a ball from a bucket (as in Cambridge); it is a stable location where all of the significant characters have been brought together in a group so that they can be introduced to the reader. Once they are on shore they disperse. The author follows one group and leaves the rest. They come together again at the end of Volume One and again more fully at the end of Volume Two, when the story resolves itself and everyone is famous except for the dead ones and the Ancient Mayans who worship a tortoise.

If the Cambridge ship is an open ship with people in danger on deck then the Praed ship is an enclosure where people are supposed to be in their cabins. Anne has disappeared from her cabin. Everybody gets around to talk about it. "'Come,' said the Captain, 'it's nonsense to take it for granted that Mrs Bedo must have thrown herself overboard, because she isn't in her cabin.'" In Praed's Countess Adrian a character retreats from the deck to her cabin because she is "feeling shivery" even though the weather is "very fine," putting, with this one action, a long distance between her and Cambridge's characters who like to expose themselves to storms.

Praed tells you that her characters are noble, defiant, daring, bold, steady in the face of danger, and so on ("Brave and lighthearted as she was, Anne Bedo knew well enough to what dangers a woman might be exposed in the Bush," "he could well believe that she came of some grand old race, and that there ran in her veins the blood of heroes") -- she gives you these words -- but whenever the characters act or think you know that they'd rather be away in a respectable building somewhere, doing something civilised and fashionable with people admiring them ("it was to be fully expected that the young explorer -- himself a fascinating personality -- should form a centre of attraction for the representatives of fashion, science, and culture, who crowded the Albert Hall last evening"), and that everything else for them is a matter of going through the motions: they do not enjoy their adventures, they put up with them -- cleaning themselves as soon as possible when they find themselves dirty ("I'm dreadfully dirty. I want to bathe") -- so that the reader is like a guest at a party with another guest who wants to leave all the time, and the author is the host who keeps saying, "Just five more minutes," which was the situation at a Christmas party I went to a little while ago, with the guest of honour muttering, "There are only two more hours of daylight. I have no life."

Thursday, December 19, 2013

the earth is her habitation

But Ada Cambridge does not behave as if she is agonised, the way butoh dancers often do (or as they are known for doing, with their whitened faces, hands turned back, lips quivering, etc); she writes as if harm is always about to arrive and yet like the storm it invigorates her. "Bee—a—utiful!" In her first autobiography she wants to touch a wrecked ship: "When the Ormuz had that accident in the Rip she so tightly filled the dock that her skeleton bow was almost within my touch. No more do I wonder at what ships can go through, having seen how that giant frame was put together. I went down to the bottom of the dock and held up the great hull in the palms of my hands. It was a strange sensation." Noticing here that she remembers "almost" touching it as well as touching it, and that she had to move to complete the touch. "I went down ..."

So her characters like to touch as well and important moment in her book are sometimes marked by touching, one character hands another character a tray in A Humble Enterprise and their worlds change: the tray travels, a ship travels in Uncle Piper, the circumstances are altered, the first character goes from poor to rich like the ones in the Tasma book. It takes longer than just the tray-pass, but the tray-pass is the crucial moment. "The world became a changed place to Jenny Liddon from the moment when Anthony Churchill stood up to take her tray." Then she goes to the sea to think about it. "It was absolutely necessary to have the sea to commune with, under the circumstances -- darkness and the sea." She goes to a genuine place, St Kilda pier, or in other words a place that the author could herself touch and probably had touched.

Afterwards, when she has decided to marry Anthony Churchill, she is still invigorated by the weather on the pier at night: "nightly taking her down to St Kilda for that blow on the pier which still refreshed her more than anything."

The touch of a train half-orphaning her in the opening paragraph, and the launch that throws the couple overboard in the opening of Sisters destroying the book that had been building until then and transforming it into another book.

Thinking now of Leopardi in his Zibaldone saying that a state of nature is the happiest state, because it allows for "illusions" whereas reason does not allow for illusions and therefore makes a soul unhappy: the people of his day were unhappy because they had decided to rely on reason instead of nature, they were developing farther from nature with every year, he said, and as I remember him I wonder if he would believe as I think I do, that Cambridge is obliquely in sympathy with that point of view, or not even obliquely when she refers to "the dictum of nature, who is the mother of all wisdom" -- nature in this case advising everybody to get married -- A Humble Enterprise is a book that wants you to marry, which I suppose means that Ada Cambridge, the author of that book, is mistaking herself for nature and that the dictum of nature is in fact the dictum of Cambridge. Nature wants you to marry someone because it will make you enjoy touch: "the husband necessarily makes his wife feel that the earth is her habitation and the clouds of heaven many miles away."

Sunday, December 15, 2013

the length of the ship through the spindrift of the gale

Fugitive Anne: a Romance of the Unexplored Bush, by Rosa Praed

This book begins on a ship, as does The Soul of Countess Adrian by the same author, and ships are not rare in the Australian Colonial and just-Federated fiction I've read so far (I want to write so far because the more I read in this area the more I realise how little I've read: the boundaries are slightly more clearly delineated and they are far away).

Examples: everything changes in The Broad Arrow after the characters have crossed the sea in their ship, even the author's approach to her own story (which is not her own story I realise, when that happens, but a contentious collaboration between herself and the activity of writing), and the Rev. Mr Lydiat in Uncle Piper of Piper's Hill can't get on a ship without splitting into two personalities who are so separate that the author can imagine them talking to one another: "That celebrated appeal from Philip drunk to Philip sober might have been made with almost equal effect from the Rev. Mr. Lydiat on board ship to the Rev. Mr. Lydiat on land." The characters land in Australia, the rich uncle picks them up, and they have travelled from poverty to luxury.

The people in Ada Cambridge always love ships; their author goes on loving ships after ships have drowned them, and the love of ships and boats in her books is tied to the presence of danger. "I believe," says the narrator in Materfamilias, "we were somewhere in the neighbourhood of the Cape when the most noteworthy of our experiences befell us. We were struggling with the chronic "dirty" weather -- absurd adjective for a thing so majestic and inspiring! -- and I was on deck, firmly tied to my chair, and my chair to the mast, dry under oilskins, and only my face exposed to wind and spray, which threatened to take the skin off. I could hardly see the length of the ship through the spindrift of the gale, and the way it shrieked in the rigging was like fiends let loose. Bee -- a -- utiful!" -- which is something like a fictionalisation of George Santanyana's description of the sublime in The Sense of Beauty:

The suggestion of terror makes us withdraw into ourselves: there with the supervening consciousness of safety or indifference comes a rebound, and we have that emotion of detachment and liberation in which the sublime really consists.

Any water vessel in Cambridge is going to behave like an independent animal or an unstable mass of particles jumbling together in a mixture: "a sudden wave struck the launch, and nearly turned her over, and the young wife and husband, holding to nothing but one another, and simply sitting upon an unprotected plank, were tipped out as easily as balls from a capsized basket" (Sisters).

Cambridge is closer to the practice of literary butoh than any of the other authors I've been reading in this -- series I suppose, call it a series -- because her language is so extremely reactive to the sensual world that she imagines. "Listen to the god of weight," wrote Michizo Noiguchi in the 1970s, referring to physical movement, but Cambridge writes as though this physical movement was always taking place within a world that is inside her own prose.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

suppose -- that I hate and rebel

Bengala ventriloquises between two voices; it drops away from one style when the insane woman has died (we have lost the convicts and workers) and picks up another one when a Catholic priest named Dr. Mornay falls in love with Isabel, surprising all the readers, who never saw that coming. Soon he is writhing and flagellating himself. "Scourge -- fasting -- torture -- where are ye? What am I?" he exclaims and then his hat falls off.

If I had not been reading Miriam Burstein at The Little Professor and from her discovering that anti-Catholicism in Victorian novels was persistent and even a regular theme or sub-genre then I would wonder where he had found the resources to come on so strong so quickly: why is there not more development before the writhing, I would ask myself? Why does he suddenly writhe?

He is a sign that the book is dwelling and living in the world of its own contemporary literature where those actions have been befriended so extensively by other Catholic priests that he can adopt them from his peers. In this respect he is behaving like a fleshy being with a mind and eyes that can see what is expected of him, and understand it, and copy it.

The Austen characters do not recognise his category in spite of all the hints he gives them. "Curious! I wonder if he meant himself all the time!" muses Isabel after he has given her a speech about "a man" who decides to devote himself to an ideal and "awakes to find himself burning with thirst, craving just that one -- one drop of living water which has been put from him." If they had known who his peers were they could have spotted it immediately and given him a useful response. They are not his peers: he has just moved into their book and made use of them for a while. "Yet suppose -- I say suppose -- that I hate and rebel . . . O, Isabel!" he says.

He came from the outside of this book; he knocked on the door of it and entered; he entered almost without knocking. He does his thing and goes away, and Austen takes over again until the end. The lunch-eating Bengala has been violated and reshaped by the actual physical conditions that appeared around the setting of the book, the presence of convicts and the financial crash that brought Isabel closely into contact with Dr. Mornay. They have refused to let it stay static. They have infected its mode. (My imaginary Stifter has resisted everything that would come from the exterior of the book like that: he has built a book like a dam.)

By the end of Bengala it has been revealed that the Austen-characters can't cope with characters from other modes of book: everybody else dies: the body of Vidal's book is fundamentally hostile to everyone except Austens.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

and so I am

The absence of adaptive flexibility here fascinates me: once the subject matter changes then the style has to change as well, into a different mode that must have felt right (felt Vidal) for the non-Austeny classes; that mode is high physical shouting drama, raving misery, characters going mad, and the "melancholy cry" of the curlew.

But she awoke, and had quite an access of delirium, screaming and talking, knowing no one, but always insisting that she was going on some weary journey, among trees, with nothing to eat, and a very high wind; and that Jack was free, and was expecting her. Then she looked at her stained arms and hands and shuddered, exclaiming at her horror of blood.

The lead characters among the convicts are ordinarily desperate and either frantic or cruel in ways that do not have any correlation among the Austen people, who, when they suffer, do it without madness or visions of blood. The Austens have probably read Shakespeare and the non-Austens haven't, but it is the dying non-Austen whose literary bodily self gets miscegenated with Ophelia, with Lady Macbeth, and with repetitive mad-person lines that have been written for spoken-acting voices. "Yes, yes; I'm ill, am I? Well, and so I am. That's odd," she says. (Repetitions in Shakespeare: "No more o' | that, my lord, no more o' that," "It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul," "Now, now, now, now:" all tether-ended people gone frantic, closing in on death.)

And her Jack is driven into a cul de sac that seems doomed and fated, which is not a state that afflicts the Austens, but it does affect people in Shakespeare as well as the Ancient Greeks and Romans who were at the mercy of their spiteful gods who came down and shot your tootling sons with arrows because you had insulted them. In the same Ancient vein, one of the characters in a Vidal short story from Tales for the Bush discovers (when the author gives him the words to say so) that his wife has died from a lingering illness because he did not go to church. The convicts and workers in Bengala are closer to Vidal's early people than to these later Austenesques; they are closer to plays and poetry and the Austens are closer to prose.

So the characters, like two sets of alien species who have landed at the same time on an identical planet, live in at least two different behavioural worlds. Those worlds can touch one another: the people from the Austen world can put the young woman from the drama world to bed and try to cure her ("Miss Terry gave her some nourishing drink") but she is true to the world of poetry and she dies calling for Jack and her mother.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

besides, you are Ticket and I'm not

"Austenesque realism" (at the end of the last post) is not a stretch, and I reckon that anyone who reads Bengala is going to assume (almost without reflective thought, it seems so obvious) that Mary Theresa Vidal is paying a debt to Austen in this book, with the comedies of manners moving shiftily between the people as they eat their lunches and Isabel Lang channelling Emma from Emma as she goes around matchmaking while the level-headed older man hovers over her like the one played by Alan Rickman in the movie, and maybe even the part about the custard owes something to a scent of Austen-atmosphere or floating memory, since (I remembered when I was writing this out in the comments to Tom) it begins with Mrs Vesey insulting the Lang family by asking them to show her how they make their custard, insinuating in this way: Rich people such as myself have servants to do these jobs for them.

Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice: "The dinner too in its turn was highly admired; and he begged to know to which of his fair cousins the excellency of its cooking was owing. But he was set right there by Mrs. Bennet, who assured him with some asperity that they were very well able to keep a good cook, and that her daughters had nothing to do in the kitchen."

The presence of convict workers does the following thing: it makes the Austen style warp a little when it touches them. The comedies of manners leave the story; that area of sensitivity is gone. (The sensitivity becomes a sensitivity to the characters' suffering, which is a form of pity and therefore different to the sensitivity that flavours the Austen-parts, which is not pity.)

I know that people have criticised Austen for the absence of servants' personalities in her books, and my impression is that this criticism has been more of a twentieth-century phenomenon than a nineteenth-century one, but Vidal made that same point in 1860, not by actually stating it or even by giving any sign that she thought it consciously as she probably did not, but by changing her tone from Austen to melodrama every time the convict servant-workers become the focus of the book, which they do periodically because there is a sub-plot about a prisoner who can't rescue a young woman from her vicious guardians because Mr Lang won't let him have his ticket of leave.

Vidal knew it in her bones or with a reader's inarticulate intuition, that absence in Austen.

(A ticket of leave, which Caroline Leakey in The Broad Arrow abbreviated down to T.L. or just "ticket," sometimes with a capital letter if somebody was using it as a personal description, "Oh, Bob, I couldn't! you'll do it beautiful, you says everything so clever and nice; besides, you are Ticket and I'm not," was a way of allowing a convict some independence before their sentence was up.)

On the social level Mr Lang is a good-hearted man who gives his friends toast but he's unintentionally malicious when it comes to the field of convict management. In this role of a good man with a careless flaw he is something like Mr Bennet, who only has his family to wound but Mr Lang has a large bush-isolated property inhabited by worker-prisoners who are in his power and who may, if they are feeling desperate, run off and become bushrangers at any moment, sentencing themselves to death since they know they will be hung if they are caught.

This is a version of blindness with which Austen was not conversant and so (Harry Haseltine touching on it in the introduction) the book finds another model for the convict parts. It is as if the Austen-style itself has said, "I will not describe this, I can't, I don't have the words, you have to find something else." The style has a personality; it speaks.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

tinged with pale gold

Bengala was published in 1860 but it is set about twenty years in the past, before the gold rush changed the nature of the Australian colony from a gentle accumulation of people and farms into a site of hectic immigration; the general view of history lessons today is brutality followed by gold, but, reading books set in that period, I see a different point of view, a soft progress with guilty tussles to and fro about the abuse of the indigenous people and the use of convicts who were, for the length of their sentences, as good as enslaved to their farmer-masters -- this arrangement was corrupted or interrupted forever by the interior penetration of outside longings: rapid township diggings going up, the phasing-out of free land for retired military, the phasing out of transportation as well -- a free trip to Australia was not a punishment any more -- a blindsiding eruption of other manners, like the skin of a bubble being pierced, though that upper-middle life did not vanish and it's there in Martin Boyd's Langton Quartet which was published between 1952 and 1962, and the people in his books (with their picnics, their parties, their enjoyment of life) are recenter versions of the ones in Vidal but bohemian and Melburnian whereas Vidal's people are living in country New South Wales.

They are the same species, which is the lunch-eating species.

It all seemed very remote to her, as she sat with Wolfie at lunch on the verandah, while the winter sunlight gleamed on the hock bottle and tinged with pale gold the far purple forests of Gippsland.

(Martin Boyd, Outbreak of Love)

Patrick White goes to that class for characters as well, looking at the extreme uppers and extreme lowers, the people living in manors and the people living in shacks (The Riders in the Chariot), and food has a regular integrated walk-on part in all of his books though slimy when he writes about it (wet caramels pushed into mouths: The Vivisector): still: food: grossness, lowness, farts, and then the elevation of a character having an insight, the Vivisector son struggling for transcendent paintings, or Miss Hare in the Chariot.

Vidal never makes a fart, nor does she make an ecstasy.

However she does have agony and madness.

Harry Heseltine describes the milieu of Vidal's book like this in the introduction: "Bengala does not sit easily within the conventions of Austenesque realism, colonial romance nor melodrama, though it has elements of all three; and it links contemporary English literary, moral and religious debates with social life in Australia during the short period when hopes were entertained for the creation of a colony fit for English ladies and gentlemen."

So there was a phantom nation in the collective mind, and this country may remain forever in the future, which is the place where we are not and have never been.