Monday, April 23, 2018

something of no apparent importance

Why should anyone like Phyllis for being a lump of rudeness that presents itself as a thing you can’t solve at a level where everything else is being solved instantly? I don't know why; it is as if she is sticking up for herself, "Like TISM," I think, "but their songs are all about their own irritated shame, or tall poppyism if you want to put it another way” --- “but it is preferable to the opposite”? (“Is her surname Tine?” joked someone this morning when I told them I had been reading a book with a Phyllis.) Chateaubriand’s little vase sticks up from the scene without an explanation when he could have said, for example, "it must have been the sound of some cavity in the ship filling with water." Why does Glanville want to bite the letter-writer’s hand in Charles Grandison? Where does Grandison come from? Where does Clarissa come from? She is a little vase, filling up. From another angle she is Phyllis. In the final part of the Temps Perdu, Proust tells you he has spent seven volumes interrogating a sensation that Chateaubriand remembers twice.

What profoundly modifies the course of their thought is rather something of no apparent importance which overthrows the order of time and makes them live in another period of their lives. The song of a bird in the Park of Montboissier, or a breeze laden with the scent of mignonette, are obviously matters of less importance than the great events of the Revolution and of the Empire; nevertheless they inspired in Chateaubriand's Mémoires d'outre tombe pages of infinitely greater value. (tr. Stephen Hudson)

He mentions Nerval and Baudelaire.

I was seeking to recall those of Baudelaire's verses which are based upon the transposition of such sensations, so that I might place myself in so noble a company and thus obtain confirmation that the work I no longer had any hesitation in undertaking, merited the effort I intended to consecrate to it …

A thought says, “If those sensations are of “infinitely greater value” than the rest, then what if you made the entire book out of them?” What if there was a treasure box with no gaps between the treasures? But then Volker Schlöndorff reads your treasure box and the primary lesson he remembers is that he wants to make Swann into a movie and his costume designer takes Robert de Montesquiou’s grey suit out of the portrait by Giovanni Boldini and puts it on Jeremy Irons and you are back to the old drawing board, as the cartoon alien says

Saturday, April 14, 2018

the multiplication of his failure all over the world

About two months ago (I haven’t checked) I told Twitter I would say something about Eleanor Dark's The Little Company. Everyone already knows that Dark wrote The Timeless Land, 1941. Little Company is different, not set historically but at the beginning of the 1940s, only a few years before it came out in 1945. It was set when Land was published. None of the Company characters bought the other book, however. They didn't hear about it.

Setting? Sydney, Outside Sydney, and the Blue Mountains: bushland, house, and waterfall.

People? Debating their positions on current events. What does it mean, World War II? What about Marxism? How should Australian society evolve? They fight overseas and water the lettuces. "A democracy without faith [in itself] is just a machine without power," thinks the novelist Gilbert Massey. The mental disturbance that stands in the way of his next book is a symptom of radiant global trauma.

He would not allow himself the easy mistake of seeing it of seeing it merely as a personal problem; of setting it aside; of saying, "How small a thing, how trivial in the face of a crumbling civilization!" He knew very well that the immobilisation of the creative mind was one symptom of that crumbling, and that the multiplication of his failure all over the world was no small and unimportant matter.

Dark was in one of those Leftist intellectual groups that gave a grounding to the Sydney Push; in Gilbert Massey you have a feeling for how they might have seen themselves or fantasised themselves: reasonable, serious, flawed, flawed but trying not to be in denial about their flaws, thinking about them instead. He is her Charles Grandison, her good man. (Saying this, you realise that Samuel Richardson was an alien.) Gilbert is self-reflective; he builds a fire so that he can think about his past for five pages (p. 15 – 20). His habits are useful to the author, that mercenary parasite. Gilbert's wife, Phyllis, whom no one can stand, never does anything like that; she is not one of the pre-Push people. She is resentful, petty, selfish, emotionally obtuse, frustrated, miserable, inattentive, intellectually stupid, vacantly respectable, provocatively dependent, passive-aggressively submissive, horrible, and an orphan. For her, Dark has put together a set of qualities that no author's lead characters will ever want to like. Alice Notley would not put her in a poem, even though she is obdurate.* Dorothy Richardson's Miriam would tell herself consciously not to be like Phyllis.

Whenever I think of the book I think of Phyllis. I like Phyllis. She is so anti-.

You would grit your teeth at Phyllis. Phyllis would be in torment because you were gritting your teeth. There would be an unbreakable sense of pain everywhere. Phyllis wants to break and she cannot break. Only other unbearable, insensitive people would like Phyllis. But there are so few of them in the book. Leaping off a suicidal waterfall she lands on a close jut instead of dying. "She had bungled it," thinks Gilbert. "Poor Phyllis." Phyllis is a kind of excess in life: she is not needed, she is a failure, she is the one really insoluble flaw, no Pushes can cure her. "The stem of the vessel cut through the thick mass of waves with a hideous crash, and, at the helm, torrents of water flowed away eddying as from the mouth of a sluice. Amid all this uproar, nothing was so alarming as a certain dull, murmuring sound, like that of a vase filling." (Chateaubriand, Memoirs from Beyond the Grave, 1849 – 50, tr. Alexander Teixeira de Mattos)

*I'm thinking of Medea in The Songs and Stories of the Ghouls and the desert woman in Culture of One (both 2011).