Friday, July 29, 2016

they had no reason to be dissatisfied with what they heard

The surprise of the hand interrupts the completeness of the surveillance that attempts to constitute the book, letters being written and characters showing their letters to other characters, and those characters then copying the letters into their own letters, till the story can occur for the reader with a more or less (but not completely) chronological distinctness, details filled in and characters saying words that seem mysterious but then we see a piece of information, an anecdote, that explains it: there is a network of sense that we will get to eventually, that is more or less one promise implicit in the History of Sir Charles Grandison: if we keep watching and explaining one another – if we read -- and so on, we will discover why things are said or done, and the quality of a character’s nature will be exposed, tested, and given additional verity; people will comment and others will reinforce their comments, the decency of Charles Grandison will be mentioned by everyone, his enemies will be converted to admirers (vol. 2, ch. 4), his sisters when they meet him after a long separation become his advocates (vol. 2), the parents of a young woman in vol. 3, ch. 20, will eavesdrop outside a room so that we can learn that they appreciate the respectability of his conversation, “they had no reason to be dissatisfied with what they heard me say to their daughter;” all of this as if the reader is a judge or interested enquirer who requires proof of some conjecture, or an answer to some question. Or not an answer to the question but a response. We won’t “get to it eventually,” there is no “it,” there is rather an increasing cluster of actions around a few core ideas, which seem to be represented in Grandison’s character and his unusually handsome appearance: his complexion, his hair, his fine mouth, all of which are mentioned, and praised. Clarissa Harlowe was beautiful too. Richardson is conscious of beauty. But you notice that he develops a more ostentatiously enthusiastic imagination when a character is ugly, with Emily's bad mother having a "complexion, sallowish, streaked with red [that] makes her face (which is not so plump as it once has been) look like a withering John-apple that never ripened kindly," (vol. 3, ch 5) and a corrupted clergyman entering the room behind "a nose now that hid half of [his pimply face], when he looked on one side, and he seldom looked fore-right when I saw him" (vol. 1, ch. 30).

Greville’s behaviour appears opaque against the dense mass of clarity around him.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

not to be too serious upon it

Writing suffer because in Moon Lake everything that might be like a digression is preemptively overruled or ruled, that is, dominated, by the plot. It does not allow itself to recognise the plants as an impediment, and it blends them in and ends them and goes on as if everything had a reasonable purpose. If I had to define “middlebrow” in the pejorative sense then that would be one consideration. And some things that get qualified as Middlebrow would be disqualified by that qualifier; they are not middle by my calculations, they are only mild, not blind. When I read Wallace Fowlie’s translations of Rimbaud next to John Ashbery’s then I see that Fowlie has decreased the poet’s hysteria by changing his punctuation. And there is a moment in vol. I, letter 20, of The History of Sir Charles Grandison, Samuel Richardson, 1753, that comes like a flash into the story. Up to this point, the men and women in the book have been speaking to one another regularly in civilised rooms, the epistolary sometimes-narrator, Harriet Byron, being wooed by the men and telling them straightly that their requests are hopeless because she is not in love with them. “I have never yet seen the man who is to be my husband,” she says. They have been using the phrase “your hand” in its symbolic matrimonial sense, when the tense decorum is shocked by one of the suitors taking Byron’s actual hand and pressing his teeth into it. The word “hand” acquires a retrospective build-up of pressure which can only be recognised by that release.

Why, Mr. Greville, I do most sincerely declare to you, as to a neighbour and well-wisher, that I never, yet, have seen the man to whom I can think of giving my hand.

Yes, you have! By heaven you have (snatching my hand): You shall give it to me!—And the strange wretch pressed it so hard to his mouth, that he made prints upon it with his teeth.

Oh! cried I, withdrawing my hand, surprized, and my face, as I could feel, all in a glow.

And oh! said he, mimicking (and snatching my other hand, as I would have run from him) and patting it, speaking thro' his closed teeth, You may be glad you have a hand left. By my soul, I could eat you.


I rushed into the company in the next room. He followed me with an air altogether unconcerned, and begged to look at my hand; whispering to Mrs. Reeves; by Jupiter, said he, I had like to have eaten up your lovely cousin. I was beginning with her hand.

I was more offended with this instance of his assurance and unconcern, than with the freedom itself; because that had the appearance of his usual gaiety with it. I thought it best, however, not to be too serious upon it.

Then there is this strange sentence.

But the next time he gets me by himself, he shall eat up both my hands.

In what sense is she saying that? Is she reporting Greville’s lines again, or is this her? What does she mean by “hand” in that sentence and what does she mean by “eat”? Why does it come after the assurance that she is not going to “get too serious upon” his behaviour? Richardson allows her to say it in any sense you choose to understand: it has come out weirdly and the weirdness is allowed to stand without being softened.

Monday, July 18, 2016


The End of the World, Filmed by the Angel of Notre Dame, Blaise Cendrars, 1919
Three Fantasies, John Cowper Powys, 1985
Vathek, William Beckford, 1786
The Sundial, Shirley Jackson, 1958
Something by Nathalie Seurat
The Lost Ones, Samuel Beckett, 1971
Topology of a Phantom City, Alain Robbe-Grillet, 1977

Topology of a Phantom City, Alain Robbe-Grille, 1977
Justine, the Marquis de Sade, 1791
Bound to Violence, Yambo Ouologuem, 1971
The Lives of Cleopatra and Octavia, Sarah Fielding, 1757
Clarissa, Samuel Richardson, 1748
The Making of Americans, Gertrude Stein, 1925

The Making of Americans, Gertrude Stein, 1925
Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, Marguerite Young, 1965
Rhode Island Notebook, Gabriel Gudding, 2007

Rhode Island Notebook, Gabriel Gudding, 2007
Speech! Speech!, Geoffrey Hill, 2000
Miss Herbert (the Suburban Wife), Christina Stead, 1976

Miss Herbert (the Suburban Wife), Christina Stead, 1976
Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, 1726

A Season in Hell, Arthur Rimbaud, 1873. [suggested by Scott GF Bailey]

Thursday, July 14, 2016

those whose shoots grow

When you look at the post about book lists at Babbling Books again you are in despair because in the interim you have seen the Feminista's 100 Great 20th Century English-language Works of Fiction by Women, and noticed To Kill a Mockingbird, which, as you know, is only there because everyone had to read it under duress in high school, so that this is one of the few books by women, or in fact by anybody, that anyone who voted for this list has ever known or can remember. You think of lists as bad records of failures. Why did Giorgio Bassani say that Francesca Duranti’s 1984 book The House on Moon Lake, tr. Stephen Sartarelli, reminded him of “the same beloved, familiar, infallible fictional pathways discovered by Henry James”? He must have remembered that stories in James tend to consist of people haunting one another, The Turn of the Screw making it overt by introducing the notion of ghosts, which foregrounds, by default, the author’s usual implied verb. At the end of Moon Lake Duranti has inserted a supernatural woman who promises to sell the lead male a collection of letters and then retains him inside her house by means of some enigmatic power. So the constellation of ideas, woman, house, man, mystery, letters, haunting might make you think of The Aspern Papers. But the intention is different; the presentation is blunt, the book does not seem convinced of its own paranoia, the haunting is deserved in a way that appears clear (the lead male does not want to spend his time with real women so he gets an unreal one), and honestly the most weird mystery in the entire Moon Lake appears at the end of chapter fourteen, when this man is trying to work his way through a stumbling block in a book that he is writing and the thought of the word voluble sends the text off on botany, a subject it has never been interested in before. “Voluble. The word’s ambiguity entranced him. Botanists define voluble plants as those whose shoots grow upward in a twining spiral – each species in its own way, the dextrorse twining only in a clockwise direction, the sinistrorse always in a counterclockwise direction; they are plants that …“ etc. These plants enter the book more or less of their own volition. Once they have appeared then the man considers birds and following this he realises that he is going to create a female character with the qualities of owls and lilies. It is as if Duranti has tried to think of the least likely source of inspiration that a book-writing human being could possibly have but she does not enjoy her imagination’s own convoluted strangeness: it is a functional object that she now drops. If Bruno Schulz had written this, I thought, he would know what he had done. He would allow the book to suffer fully from its bewitchment.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

wide the arms

Two lines in Mary Oliver that bother me particularly are “when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse | to buy me, and snaps the purse shut,” from When Death Comes, which I found in the New Poems 1991-1992 section of her New and Selected Poems: Volume One, 1992. The second line does not need to exist because the act of purchasing is already implied by the removal of the coins from the purse, and the notion that dying can be represented by the textual description of an open object such as door, coffin, or tomb being closed, has been used so often that by now it is contained inside the word “death” as a matter of course. When Geoffrey Hill uses ‘signal’ twice, close together, in Holbein, 2007, the second usage both echoes the first and also expands it beyond the figure who is “spreading | wide the arms as a signal.” That figure takes on an additional identity: he is dissolved into motions that are universal to the point of being inhuman. The scene is an execution; he is also being removed by the language. A certain power of choice has been abstracted from his behaviour and he is communised. The words “In fact it’s” in the lines “In fact it’s all | signals” are the language of someone who is making an assertion that may be baseless: “in fact” is what can be used in place of an explanation and the contracted “it’s” suggests that this is being said quickly, perhaps even carelessly or with a sudden, unstudied ease, enlightenment, or despair. So this “In fact” is the poet signalling a flavour of possible insincerity, surprise, or laziness in the voice that is not or not quite his.

The voice has also been produced in isolation from any suggestion of human flesh, which differentiates it from the crowd-voice that Dickens mimics or echoes (& plucks up & drops) in Epsom. Everyone that Dickens ever heard speak, you say, is dead. When Oliver Lawson Dick edited John Aubrey for a 1949 edition of Brief Lives he rearranged the details of Edward Herbert’s entry chronologically so that Herbert’s death was positioned at the end of the section, and the description of his home, Castle Montgomery, near the beginning. When an edition is not so reshaped then the castle is at the end of the entry, not participating in the movement of narrative through Herbert’s life, leaving the reader to make out of it whatever they can, and the entry begins with the man almost dead: start: dying. Aubrey repeats gossip, as everyone points out.