Tuesday, October 27, 2015

to selves

Am thinking now vaguely about swarms, "the immense, quivering mass" with "incessant ebb and flow;" the pressure of a person-swarm in Sarraute, the swarm of history in Ouologuem's Bound to Violence, the pessimism inherent in those swarms (the pressure never offering to stop: the swarm continues infinitely). A swarm of figures dies in the Iliad, somewhat (only somewhat because there are so many) sorted and named. The poet is dumb before the majority of the dead. Alice Oswald extracts the names and deaths for her book Memorial, an argument for the dignity of lists. The characters in Woolf's Waves are named too, marching, advancing, not swarming, even though they are conceived in a mass. Reading Dorothy Richardson's Selected Letters (ed. Gloria G. Fromm) I see the writer defending the word "personality" and refusing to use "individual," an utterance that is, to her, so remotely scientific that it does not have the wherewithal to indicate a person. She says she can't let go of aristocrats because at least they are not part of the mass: they are people. "Richardson's fundamental commitment was to neither sexes or genders but to selves," writes Fromm. "[I]t is a story of success that Richardson tells in Pilgrimage, a story of victory over great odds, a bid for selfhood." Her character Miriam navigates crowds and gatherings of people in London; in the mountains of Switzerland she wants to walk among the snowed trees "into their strange close fellowship that left each one a perfect thing apart." (Oberland.) What about Louis Marlow (really Wilkinson) who sorted the Powys sisters into his own Linnean categories?

In the sisters, inheritance of Powys physical characteristics is on the whole rather less strongly marked than it is in the brothers. Philippa, however, is as much a Powys in appearance and in herself as any of them. She is very like Bertie, though she has not quite the same emphatic resemblance to their father as he has. Bertie's elder daughter is thoroughly Powys, and his younger daughter, by his second marriage, is is very like the Powys sister who died in childhood: her little twin-brother astonishingly, and sometimes ludicrously, resembles his father's father. No Powys could be cuckolded without certain detection if the the cuckoldry resulted in the birth of a boy.

A strange construction of individualisms.

Monday, October 19, 2015

suddenly through the gap

Mudpuddle points me back to Sarraute's Age of Suspicion: Essays on the Novel, a book that I have come to realise describes Sarraute's own habits as well as those of the other authors she discusses. Over the course of her career her fiction grew more and more closely into the frame of pursuit she ascribes to Dostoevsky, "these attractions, these feigned withdrawals, these pursuits and flights, these flirtings and rubbings, these clashes, caresses, bites and embraces, to excite, disturb, bring up to the surface and allow to spread, the immense, quivering mass, whose incessant ebb and flow, whose scarcely perceptible vibration, are the very pulse of life."

"This is common for an author," I say to myself, "they see their own reflections," remembering the moment between four and five o'clock on Saturday afternoon when I looked at the preface to a 1951 Oxford edition of Sterne's Sentimental Journey, and noticed that the last owner of the book had written, "herself" in the margin with a pen next to one of the paragraphs. I turned to the end of the essay and the author was Virginia Woolf. "We hardly know what jest, what jibe, what flash of poetry is not going to glance suddenly through the gap which this astonishingly agile pen has cut in the thick-set hedge of English prose," she had written, the other person then beginning their pen-mark at "glance" but "glance" in this book is at the start of a line and I think this is the only reason why they have begun there; really they were reacting to "agile pen." They believe that Woolf had such a pen, and that it cut a gap "in the thick-set hedge of English prose." Later I saw a mark in the same ink next to a place where Woolf quotes Sterne, "I think I can see the precise and distinguishing marks of national characters more in these nonsensical minutiae, than in the most important matters of state," -- but the ink mark leaves out the end of the quotation, "where great men of all nations talk and stalk so much alike, that I would not give nine-pence to chuse amongst them," which may mean that they did not think Woolf had the same opinion of great men that Sterne did, or that it was not germane to their point. Next to it they have written, "All imp. to V.W." On another page there is a squiggled line next to, "It is thus that Sterne transfers our interest from the outer to the inner. It is no use going to the guide-book; we must consult our own minds." This time the person has not written the name of Virginia Woolf or put any note but I believe they are still thinking of her. She is in their minds so much that they have stopped using her name. She is implicit. At the end of the essay they have circled the word "must" in "but enough of must; it is not a word that Sterne was fond of using" and given it a long tail that runs into the margin where they have added, "yes thank heavens." This could mean that they think Woolf is too demanding or it may mean that they want to remind themselves of the thing she has done here in her essay.

If they are getting so comfortable with her that they are leaving out her name then they might have been at the stage where they want to talk back to her as well; stop deviating from my comforts, Woolf. The end of the preface is about to meet us both, I see it coming, I will tell you to shut up now, knowing that you will do it: nice: obey -- and she does. "Both the gentleman and the lady are trying to control the novelist’s perspective so that it shall resemble and reinforce their own," she wrote once, in her essay on Robinson Crusoe. The person who wrote "Asshole" against one of the villains in my copy of Radcliffe's The Italian knew that they and the author were in cahoots.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

one single move to disengage myself

The narrator in The Aspern Papers brings flowers to the women he is trying to game and the people in the Ullman story take flowers away from lunch. That conjunction of flowers reminded me of the ritual idea that I had been toying with, re. the Ullman story – "they approach the lunch," I had been thinking, "as if they were going to a mass" – and so the approach to Miss Tita became, also, "sacrifice and ritual," as the movement of flowers from the garden into the Venetian palazzo became, in my mind, a continuation of the motion of the flowers away from the house in the Swiss village. "By flowers I would make my way."

As I typed out "sacrifice and ritual" I was also remembering that I had decided to avoid the placement of one book next to another when I thought about them and instead talk about one book at a time which I had not d … I can find dodges for myself and is it all right (I wheedle) if I have comparisons that don't lead to conclusions; for example, after reading Sarraute's Martereau I moved to Flaubert's Sentimental Education, which was being discussed at Wuthering Expectations, and when Frédéric leant a large sum of money to another character without getting a receipt I put the book upside-down on a chair with the pages open because the narrator in Martereau had given away money like that as well; and the ending of Martereau was coming back to me, the narrator's knowledge of, and complicity with, the disgust that he is sure the other characters feel for him; from their direction it is subtly expressed but he witnesses it at the scale that the book sees: "I won't budge, I'm too afraid … one single move to disengage myself, to repel him, one single a bit too brusque move, and something atrocious, something unbearable would happen, an explosion, a frightful conflagration, our clothes torn from us, noxious, deadly emanations, all his distress, his forlornness on me" (tr. Maria Jolas). The "him," who is the character Martereau, asks the narrator to respond and move. There the book ends.

This young narrator is physically weak and sick, he can't undertake heavy professions, and so he lives with his uncle's family instead of making his way in the world, but there is not enough rest in the universe for him. There is no rest; there is no place where he can rest. Even when they are sitting and fishing he can be unsettled by one question about a knot. "Is my knot well tied? A fisherman's knot, you must have learnt it when you were a boy scout." With that, and for the millionth weary time, he is asked to consider himself, his being, his knowledge, the context it has when he puts it next to the expectations of other people, their own abilities, their accomplishments, the "tentacles" that they probe him with; and this is hell.

Martereau is Gothic without needing the mountains, banditti, or such large decorations; the scenery has adjusted itself to a river bank by a house and the imprisonment of the narrator doesn't take place in a castle, but the moods of suspicion, dread, the sublime, suffocation, etc, are shared; the medium for that dread in Sarraute is the intrusion of questions and presences; the Gothic is a genre of intrusions and presences – things coming at you – I say to myself, repeating the words – they come mysteriously at and around, they circle – you can't defend -- and there is the distress of elimination waiting for you --

Now if I finish at "putting the book down" there is no intelligent comparison between Sarraute and Flaubert. So, stop.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

well disposed

There is a moment in Nathalie Sarraute's Do You Hear Them? (1972) when the father returns to a phrase that he ended, earlier, with an ellipsis, and provides the information that the ellipsis concealed. The story that he tells is interesting to himself but it is not an unspeakable secret; his coy and shy withholding is at least a little pathetic, and it a sign of the anxiety that eventually instructs the other characters to despise him. Here it occurs to me that the mood of sickened dread that I fall into whenever I read Sarraute is close to the feeling I have when I find a true crime website and run through the stories of murders. Consider murder as an activity by which people are made absent. When Louis Marlow, in his memoir of the Powys brothers (Welsh Ambassadors (1936)), decides to explain his friend John Cowper's reasons for eliminating his mother from his autobiography he interprets it as part of the other man's masochism, an aspect of the same self-abasement that made Powys enjoy bad striptease theatre. I was horrified when Marlow introduced the erased mother into the memoir as if she had been a normal person -- it seemed indecent and shameful; he should be ashamed, ashamed, to reveal her shockingly with these ordinary words -- "Mrs. Powys was friendly to me, well disposed; even, in her reserved way, affectionate: chiefly, I thought, because she saw me as shy and subdued."

Mrs. Powys hated success. She hated, with secret intensity, well-constituted people, or even people whose health was too good. When Llewelyn developed consumption and was determined not to die of it, she was far from friendly to his insistent will. She did not like his going to Switzerland, she did not like him having so many windows open. "These young men," she said, "seem to want to live forever."

I reflect that the unspoken gaps in Henry James' fiction seem playful by comparison, lighthearted, clever, even in Turn of the Screw, which, if Sarraute is like true crime, is like a fairytale instead, the characters standing phenomenally like symbols or metaphors inside one of the enclosures that James liked to establish: witness his palazzi, his country houses, the rooms that close in around Isabel Archer, the home that frames Miss Tita when she is transfigured, her beatitude the hidden thing to be witnessed in that story, the true core or whatever, accessible through sacrifice and ritual. "When I look at it my chagrin at the loss of the letters becomes almost intolerable."