Saturday, June 27, 2015
Putting down the Judge I opened one of Virginia Woolf's posthumous essay collections, Death of the Moth, and asked myself a question: why am I pleased by Woolf when she moves from her description of the landscape into a meditation on living energy, when I'm irritated by West when she goes from "little strawberries" into potatoes and then, in Ellen's mind, to the memory of "a potato-field she and her mother had seen one day when they went to Cramond. Thousands and thousands of white flowers running up to a skyline in ruler-drawn lines"?
The answer I came up with was this, and it's virtually the same as the thoughts I had in the last post, but as I've said before, I repeat myself -- Woolf invites the landscape to attack her privacy and disturb her equilibrium while West's description has the opposite effect: it restores equilibrium, it serves the plot, it reasserts themes and brings them back into line. "The skies intervened to patch it up between them, for presently there broke out a huge windy conflagration of a sunset –"
Also: West's lyricisms are like musical interludes: the atmosphere relaxes. We are not asked to do anything. We can listen to the author lilt. "[T]he dark glassy water, which slid over small frequent weirs, the tents of green fire which the sun made of the overarching branches, the patches of moss that grew so symmetrically between the tree-trunks on the steep river-banks above the path that they might have been the dedicatory tablets of rustic altars …"
But Woolf's countryside involves her in contradictions and us as well … it does not solve anything ... it does not exist so that Mrs Yaverland will look picturesque against a spooky cliff ... "when there was nobody to care or to know, this gigantic effort on the part of an insignificant little moth, against a power of such magnitude, to retain what no one else valued or desired to keep, moved one strangely" … ruminating like that as I was reading the other essays in Moth I was in the mood to recognise my own ideas when they were formulated by someone else & so I quivered when I saw the writer critique the authored landscapes of her contemporary George Moore, with these words: "nature [...] lifts him up and enhances his mood without destroying it." This is a negative criticism: the writer should allow their mood to be affected by the sight of trees and birds, even ruined, believes Woolf. I don't think it would be outrageous to assume that the Moth essay was written by the light of that thought. A little later I became alert again when I read this phrase in John Ashbery's translation of Rimbaud's Illuminations: "In the wood there is a bird, his song stops you and makes you blush."
Monday, June 22, 2015
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)
Monday, June 15, 2015
The experience that I am circling around as I go over The Glass Canoe is a remote irreducible tickling, the idea that that Ireland senses the possibility of a calm stillness and believes that the things of this world are either taking us towards that point or away from it, whereas Crowley by contrast perceives a net, without that poised, central, gladelike place.
No, you say, that's not a tickling, it's bloody obvious: look at the Meatman when he thinks about the scenery at the golf club. But I believe that the concentration of the still place in those clear and physical phenomena, the sunshine and the grass, and the mowing, is not that place itself, it is too outwards, too specific, and it's doing double duty, it is telling us that the Meatman is a sensitive person – it is sketching and dumping it in very crudely.
He likes dew! – well – there must be more to him than drinking at the pub – the book insists.
It's a defensive blow against the reader who wants to call him a yob.
The pub is a parody of that calm place or another species of it, a deformed species; the men are not calm so much as paralysed, and the fights are like spasms against the restraint of that paralysis.
The calm place exists somewhere outside the prose, and outside anything that is in the prose, and the noise of writing in this book exists in order to highlight a particular silence.
Sunday, June 7, 2015
Having, now, The Glass Canoe next to Little, Big in my mind I wonder about the different ways in which the two authors find a character or structure for the Unknown in their books, Crowley building a kind of horizontal (rather than hierarchical) maze in which a revelation in one story will lead you sideways to another story – not a clarity through the unknown but a passageway into another room of it. Mrs Underhill says "Wear this," as she sticks a magic leaf on Lilac's forehead but the enlargement is only in a certain direction, "and you'll see what I say you'll see." By implication, what I don't say you won't see, and who knows what size that is. The dream that seems to be taking Grandfather Trout into a memory of his original human self turns, instead, towards the story of (maybe) the Frog Prince, disenchanted, leaping from the water, "legs flailing and royal robes drenched," then to the Fish-Footman from the first Alice, a "bewigged fish in a high-collared coat, a huge letter under his arm" – till the trout wakes, in shock, back to his own edition of the tale. *
Irrevocable revelation in the Glass Canoe, however, is not only achievable, it is horribly forced on you, and you will be catapaulted into the misery of knowledge against your will when you point out the anthropomorphic mystery of the record player to your girlfriend and she easily shows you the knob that explains the technology.
The Meatman, who loved not knowing, is troubled by the new absence of his pet ignorance, and the information is not an addition to his mental landscape, it is a loss forever. He laments.
Binarily he shifts over into that knowledge as if through a door that shuts behind him. And there are other such doors in the book, but he avoids them: he won't look in the sealed barrel, and he won't draw the obvious conclusion when he sees his girlfriend in the window with several men. The knowledge is being offered so starkly; Crowley's people should envy him. But it would mean sadness if he took it (we know that from the record player episode), and sadness with no compensation that the reader is ever allowed to see. He is wiser than Victor Frankenstein; instinctively he has resisted (or shied away from, take your pick) temptation, he is aligned with those books and authors who have worried about the effect that technical knowingness, ie science, will have on the state of knowledge-less anticipation that is described with words like wonderment. Lord Dunsany wrote with a feather pen in the age of biros.
When I think that we, as a species, have only just become aware of the lymph vessels that run up into our brains, and that this discovery is not the end of anything (as the discovery of the lymph system itself was not the end of anything, and the mapping of it, falsely wholly, over a century ago, was not the end of mapping it or knowing it), I want to believe that, out of the two of them, Crowley's formulation of the Unknown as story beyond story is closer to what is …
*After I posted this I went over and read, for the first time, the post from June 4th at Wuthering Expectations, which also mentions the Alice Footman. Coincidence.
Alice never knows whether she is looking at a fish or a man: "she considered him to be a footman because he was in livery: otherwise, judging by his face only, she would have called him a fish." Carroll's illustrators are always sure that he is a fish-headed person but this is more than you can say for the author, who only ever refers to a resemblance in the face. And the way he has packed man into footman is very strange: if the person had been naked, without the livery, but still running up to a door with a letter under his arm, then what would Alice call him?
Monday, June 1, 2015
Doors, doors, as Tom says. The characteristic of a door is that it is neither in nor out but both. Edgewood is a door name (not in the wood, not out of it, "Daily Alice lay in a pool in a medieval forest") and there are the character names that are inside and outside humanity, George inside and Mouse outside, or Alice inside and Daily outside, or Smoky Barnable, which is swinging always towards the word barnacle without ever reaching it. The Wind in the Willows has a man in a car who is also Toad.
Why don't Crowley's unhumanning names belong, in my mental categorisation, with the names in the David Ireland books I've read, also unhumanning, "The Meatman," for instance, from The Glass Canoe, or "Far Away Places" in The Unknown Industrial Prisoner? All of them are named like this: the Sandpiper, the Humdinger, Land of Smiles, the Two Pot Screamer, etc. Why do I think of Ireland's names as nicknames and Crowley's as proper names, even though Ireland doesn't tell you the other name that the nickname has replaced?
(I start to suck my teeth and consider the "the" that prefaces so many of the Ireland names while Crowley's are "the"-less. And want to say that this prevalence of "the" is a sign that we should consider the names as if they are titles attached distantly to the people, in the way that a man who is a modest Dan might be "the king" or "the colonel" when people point at him. That emphasis on the name coming from the outside and not growing from within, as Crowley's names appear to have grown: as though they have come to the characters to express the fluttering intrinsic fairy unhumanity of which they are not necessarily aware.
But Ireland's characters have their humanity displaced or disregarded or narrowed by the name in spite of themselves; it is not the truth of them, says Ireland implicitly when he shows you the Meatman daydreaming over the grass at the golf course. If the Meatman had been named for himself, he would be Lawn.
Also the satirical hostility of Ireland and the gentleness of Crowley.)