Monday, June 22, 2015

the different delicate textures of the nuts of meat

Wrongness – I thought: wrongness somehow: there are thoughts in this book that are not – they are not ... what are they not? -- I was trying Rebecca West's second novel, The Judge (1922), the story of a young secretary who meets a charismatic man and his mother, of whom: "everything about her threatened that her performances would be too strange."

Philip E. Ray has argued* that readers would be less likely to misdiagnose the Judge if they stopped thinking of it as exaggerated naturalism and began to look at it instead as a piece of self-consciously Gothic literature, with its isolated house, piratical seducer ("terrifying strength and immensity"), and the naive heroine Ellen Melville who is coaxed out of her home and away into danger after her parent dies, like Emily St. Aubert in The Mysteries of Udolpho.

Ellen doesn't suffer from Emily's "intensity of anguish," not even after her fiance commits a crime at the end of the book; she "broke into sobs" but that's nothing compared to Emily's struggle against dissolution, which she loses and wins and loses and wins over hundreds of pages.

Emily checked the tears, that trembled in her eyes. [...] Her tears were concealed, but St. Aubert heard her convulsive sobs. [...] Emily dried her tears and attempted to speak. [...] Emily, having turned away to hide her tears, quitted the room to indulge them. [...] Emily felt tears swell into her eyes, and then resentment checked them. [...] Valancourt ... learned from the flood of tears, which she could no longer repress, the fatal truth.

Emily is like Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, so fine-tuned that she needs to liquidate herself.

She resurrects, however. "Emily checked her tears, and followed her father to the parlour."

West's heroine cuts her sobbing short when the author wants style and reason to reassert itself: the tears do not stop Ellen speaking, she immediately offers an explanation for her fiance's behaviour, and soon she is thinking in Poetry: "But surely this was far too much to ask of her, who had learned what life was; who knew that, though life at its beginning was lovely as a corn of wheat, it was ground down to flour that must make bitter bread between two human tendencies." West reverts to Style: a tic: she retreats into it: a farce.

"I do mean to commit suicide, though I am getting my tea!" she snapped. [...] It was only because of all the things there are to eat this was a dreadful world to leave. She thought reluctantly of food; the different delicate textures of the nuts of meat that, lying in such snug unity within the crisp brown skin, make up a saddle of mutton; yellow country cream, whipped no more than makes it bland as forgiveness; little strawberries, red and moist as a pretty mouth; Scotch bun, dark and rich and romantic like the plays of Victor Hugo; all sorts of things nice to eat, and points of departure for the fancy.

Dorothy Richardson warned us against literature like this: charming, attractive, assertive, assured of the reader's complicity.

* The Judge Reexamined: Rebecca West's Underrated Gothic Romance (1988)

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