Thursday, August 24, 2017

let one's gaze slide

I read three books by Brigid Brophy, first Flesh, 1962, then The Finishing Touch, 1963, then In Transit, 1969. The first and second books were so different that I thought they must have been written years apart, but then I checked the dates and no.

The difference came down to the distribution of the atmosphere. In Finishing Touch all of the ideas are described by an archness that works as a kind of muting or gesture. You learn fairly quickly that

1. The two women you are reading about are teachers at an exclusive all-girls finishing school

2. They desire, and are sometimes desired by, their students

But the text is not direct. A group of girls passes by the teacher Antonia and it notes that

A butterfly sought the lavender grove.

A network of butterflies, flowers, and dresses is penetrated by the camp sharpness of the teachers' conversations and playful feints at toughness. Antonia bypasses the intoxicating nature of her madeira to describe fortified as "one of the strongest, most vibrant, almost bracing, of words" – (the author will not blatantly explain that madeira is fortified wine).

Brophy's sentences are broken up by ellipses, over and over again, by parentheses, by dashes, by side matters, by words in other languages – there is always some other issue that they want to talk about; there is always this gap that is filled invisibly.

She looked presidingly: from the indifferent face of Madame President's daughter (Antonia was sure, now, such girls were cold) to the baffled face of royalty, staring straight ahead as though air rather than the text could help her understanding, to the cross face of Eugénie Plash – Look away quickly (Heaven grant I am not to suffer a headache today), look back to the text, look down at … and thus, naturally, to let one's gaze slide off the text, slide off one's lap (pleasing though that was to look at), to alight …

The potential for betrayal by a student is so present and inevitable you feel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, 1961, hanging over everything – also unsaid. Sebastian Groes in British Fiction of the Sixties: the Making of the Swinging Decade, 2016, believes he has found a buried Brodie reference in Flesh, but he may be taking it too far.

But Brophy is not fascinated by Spark's doom of humankind, more interested in the potential for a vibration between saying something and not saying it, or making woman-signs and man-signs about yourself at the same time, sitting in a pretty garden and waxing over strong, fortified features, or teaching 'finishing' when all you really want is to start something.

The conclusion of The Finishing Touch, like the conclusions of Flesh and In Transit, is not the cold, rooted convulsion it is in a Spark; it seems to be something Brophy only does because books have to end at some point: such is the nature of books, and she has to go along with it, but, personally, she would rather not do anything so pointed and forceful as make a finish. Let her go on vibrating; that's what she wants.Or let the vibration vanish in a way that makes the world happy without (somehow without) actually being anything like a halt.

The vibration is there in Flesh but it only exists as individual points that the author makes for you to identify one by one and subsequently connect. You hear that Marcus loves Rubens' women, and then, later, when he has become plump, pleased, and sensuous, he looks at his body and says, "I've become a Rubens woman." So he is both of these points; the thing that looks and the thing it looks at. But his Rubens is not in the manners of the language that creates him and nor is his sensuality or his fat. Flesh is reasoning its vibration instead of feeling it while Finishing Touch is both thinking and feeling. That was what gave me the initial impression that Brophy had finally found out what she was saying. On reflection I don't believe this is true. But I think she knew more about what she was saying. She might have been using Jean Brodie as a guide, to focus herself.

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