Monday, 26 January 2015

Alice Munro’s Magic

The stories selected in Family Furnishings, a fine and timely follow-up to Alice Munro’s winning of the 2013 Nobel Prize, date (it says on the cover) from 1995 to 2014, thus making a sequel to the Selected Stories of 1996, which drew on the previous thirty years of Munro’s writing. But there is one exception to this dating in the new selection, the magnificent story “Home.” “Home” was first published in a collection of Canadian stories in 1974, so it was written when Munro was in her early forties. She then went on working on it for thirty years, revising, correcting, and changing its shape, and it was republished in much-altered form in 2006: so it appears here as a “late” story. That process of revisiting is fundamental to Munro’s methods. She constantly revises her work; she reuses her subject matter with the utmost concentration and attention; and her characters, like her (and often they are like her), compulsively return to their pasts.
“Home” tells of a visit, in the first person, to the farmhouse she grew up in between the 1930s and the 1950s. All Munro readers know this place, and know that it is a farm in Morris Township, Huron County, Western Ontario, near the town of Wingham, though it often isn’t named in the stories, or is called something else. She is visiting her father and her stepmother, with whom she has an edgy relationship. She is remembering her mother; she is recalling her childhood; she is witnessing, though she doesn’t yet know it, her father’s final illness.
And she is deciding, as Munro’s characters often have to decide, what “home” means, and what to do with it when you have left it:
Time and place can close in on me, it can so easily seem as if I have never got away, that I have stayed here my whole life. As if my life as an adult was some kind of dream that never took hold of me.
Her long journey home begins with three bus rides, the first fast and air-conditioned, traveling along the highway, the second a town bus, the third an old school bus making stops out into the country: as if, stage by stage, she is traveling into a slower close-up of her past life. In the last bus, it is difficult to see out of the windows:
I find this irritating, because the countryside here is what I most want to see—the reddening fall woods and the dry fields of stubble and the cows crowding the barn porches. Such unremarkable scenes, in this part of the country, are what I have always thought would be the last thing I would care to see in my life.
Something very similar happens in a story called “The Beggar Maid,” in Who Do You Think You Are? (1978), anthologized in the earlier Selected Stories, where a scholarship girl at university from a poor rural family has to deal with her rich, clever boyfriend’s snobbery. His condescension to her uneducated family and “unremarkable” surroundings, which she herself at this point can’t wait to get away from, brings her confusion and misery:
Nevertheless her loyalty was starting. Now that she was sure of getting away, a layer of loyalty and protectiveness was hardening around every memory she had, around the store and the town, the flat, somewhat scrubby, unremarkable countryside.
“Loyalty” might seem an odd word to pick out as the key to a writer who famously betrays her home, her family, and her tribe in order to make stories out of them, and who exposes with ruthless energy and a cold eye the shameful secrets of the long-ago past. In the stories, she often reproaches herself for these betrayals—she knows that she has “escaped things by such use”—and is reproached for it by those she has left behind and then made use of.
“Use” is a loaded, uneasy word in Munro: when she goes back to her hometown she sometimes feels that she has “written about it and used it up.” She knows the shifty, blurring lines between “using,” “using up,” and “making use of.” But she is committed to the principle of using everything up, just like her Scottish Presbyterian Laidlaw ancestors, whose immigrant history she reconstructs in one of her most lavishly staged, large-scale, and well-known stories, “The View from Castle Rock.” That “rock” of Puritan principle appeared at once, when she first started drawing on her family life. In “The Peace of Utrecht” (1960), a young woman returning to her family home after her mother’s death visits her aunts, who, to her horror, have saved her mother’s clothes for her, which she rejects:
They stared back at me with grave accusing Protestant faces, for I had run up against the simple unprepossessing materialism which was the rock of their lives. Things must be used; everything must be used up, saved and mended and made into something else and used again.
Wanting to shed the family stuff, yet needing to use it and make it “into something else”: the theme is echoed in the title phrase of this new selection. It’s spoken by a character called Alfrida, a cousin of the narrator’s father, once an object of fascination to the girl, now a burdensome reminder of the past. Alfrida’s house is stuffed full of furniture. “‘I know I’ve got far too much stuff in here,’ she said. ‘But it’s my parents’ stuff. It’s family furnishings, and I couldn’t let them go.’” The Munro-ish girl in the story, busily trying to shed her “family furnishings” as fast as she can, will also find, by the time she becomes the writer of this story, that she “couldn’t let them go.”
In spite of herself, the writer has remained loyal. She is loyal to place and the past, faithfully and perpetually reconstructing it, so that no one, having read her, would ever again say, “What’s so interesting about small-town rural Canada?” She is loyal to truth, getting the detail precisely right in every phrase and word, so that people, habits, objects, scenes, and places that are lost and gone in the real world remain alive on her pages. (“It was more than concern she felt, it was horror, to think of the way things could be lost….”) She is loyal, also, to her chosen form, masterfully working and reworking it all her life, so that no one in the world now would say, “Why didn’t Alice Munro ever write a novel?” or “Why would a short-story writer win the Nobel Prize for Literature?”
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Sunday, 25 January 2015

Virginia Woolf

In her childhood Virginia Woolf was a keen hunter of butterflies and moths. With her brothers and sister she would smear tree trunks with treacle to attract and capture the insects, and then pin their lifelike corpses to cork boards, their wings outspread. It was an interest that persisted into her adult life, and when she discovered that I too was a bug hunter, she insisted that we go hunting together in the fields around Long Barn, our house in Kent, two miles from Knole, my mother's birthplace. I was nine years old.

    One summer's afternoon when we were sweeping the tall grass with our nets and catching nothing, she suddenly paused, leaning on her bamboo cane as a savage might lean on his assegai, and said to me: "What's it like to be a child?" I, taken aback, replied, "Well, Virginia, you know what it's like. You've been a child yourself. I don't know what it's like to be you, because I've never been grownup." It was the only occasion when I got the better of her, dialectically.

    I believe that her motive was to gather copy for her portrait of James in To the Lighthouse, which she was writing at the time, and James was about my own age. She told me that it was not much use thinking back into her own childhood, because little girls are different from little boys. "But were you happy as a child?" I asked.

    I forget what she replied, but now I think I know the answer, since her childhood and youth have been more amply recorded than almost any other. It was not so much unhappy as troubled. Her mother died when she was thirteen, and her half sister when she was fifteen. At twenty-two she lost her father, and two years later her brother Thoby. Another half sister was mentally deranged. Virginia herself, while still quite young, suffered from periods of acute depression and even insanity. She was sexually abused by her half brothers when she was too young to understand what was happening. It was a string of calamities that could have resulted in a youth that was deeply disturbed. But she was courageous, resilient and enterprising. As her early letters and diaries reveal more convincingly than her later recollections, she developed normally enough, and although she was indifferent to social success, she had a gift for friendship, and very early in her life, an impulse to turn every experience into words. It was on the same occasion as our butterfly hunt that she said to me, "Nothing has really happened until it has been described. So you must write many letters to your family and friends, and keep a diary." Pain was relieved, and pleasure doubled, by recording it.

    Virginia was born in London on January 25, 1882, the third child of Leslie and Julia Stephen. For both her parents it was a second marriage, and each partner inherited, from the other, children born of the first. It is simpler to describe their complex genealogy by a diagram, to which I have added in brackets their ages in 1895, the year when Julia died:

    Laura was the mentally unbalanced child, who was treated by her father with scant affection, and after Julia's death was placed by him in a mental home where she lived until she died at the age of seventy-five. Leslie's first wife, a daughter of William Thackeray, the novelist, and Julia's first husband, Herbert Duckworth, a handsome barrister, can have meant little to Virginia apart from the tragedy of their early deaths and the progeny of cousins, chiefly Fishers and Vaughans, which they generated. It was a large family group, from which different members entered Virginia's life with varying degrees of intimacy and persistence. Emma and Madge Vaughan (the original of Sally in Mrs. Dalloway) were among her earliest friends, but they were not to last long in her affections.

    The people who mattered most in her childhood were her parents, her sister Vanessa and her elder brother Thoby. Julia was the daughter of John Jackson, who spent much of his career as a doctor in Calcutta, and Maria Pattle. Like her mother, Julia was one of the most beautiful women of her age.

    In her youth she posed for Watts, Burne-Jones, and her aunt Julia Margaret Cameron, the photographer, who has left an image of her that is distinctly pre-Raphaelite, often tragic in countenance, and like Virginia, always beautiful but never pretty. What strikes one most about these portraits is the serenity of her gaze, as if life was a constant test of character which she would survive triumphantly, but this impression may be due to the immobility needed for early photography: one cannot hold a smile longer than an instant without it appearing false. In To the Lighthouse, where Mrs. Ramsay is a close portrait of Julia, Virginia shows us another side of her mother's character—swift, decisive, impatient of stupidity, quick-tempered but incapable of unkindness. In a memoir dated 1907 she wrote of her parents, "Beautiful often, even to our eyes, were their gestures, their glances of pure and unutterable delight in each other." Leslie revered Julia, and she controlled him by her submissiveness. In a sense she was the stronger character of the two, quietly dominating. But Leslie was no weakling. Born the son of Sir James Stephen, a senior civil servant and then a professor of history, he developed from a shy boy into a man who could be formidable, and as a mountaineer, tough. He was ordained a clergyman in his youth but lost his faith and left Cambridge for London, where he earned his living as a literary and political journalist, and became a leading intellectual, the originator and first editor of The Dictionary of National Biography, a friend of Meredith, Henry James, Tennyson, Matthew Arnold and George Eliot. Virginia's childhood was therefore comfortably upper middle class and intellectually stimulating. They lived in a respectable Kensington cul-de-sac, 22 Hyde Park Gate, where seven servants ran the house under Julia's direction. The weekly journal Hyde Park Gate News that Virginia and Vanessa began in 1891 and sustained for four years portrays a lively, talented, funny family, in which tensions were cushioned by mutual affection. The older members supported the younger, and the younger amused their elders. Virginia's talent for fiction developed early. When she was only six or seven, she wrote to her mother (the letter first surfaced in Joanne Trautmann Banks's Congenial Spirits):

Mrs Prinsep says that she will only go in a slow train cos she says all the fast trains have accidents and she told us about an old man of 70 who got his legs caute in the weels of the train and the train began to go on and the old gentleman was draged along till the train caute fire and he called out for somebody to cut off his legs but nobody came he was burnt up. Goodbye. Your loving Virginia.

    The legend that Leslie was cantankerous and indifferent to his children is not confirmed by the many references to them in his letters to Julia, now in the Berg Collection, New York Public Library. He called them his ragamice, and Virginia was Ginia: "Kiss my ragamice and Ginia. There will be no more of that breed." "Little Ginia is already an accomplished flirt. I said today that I must go down to my work. She nestled herself down on the sofa by me, squeezed her little self tightly up against me, and then gazed up with her bright eyes through her shock of hair and said, `Don't go, papa.' She looked full of mischief all the time. I never saw such a little rogue." "My sweet little Ginia. I shall be glad to have her back." "My love to all my pets, specially my Ginia. I have been thinking of her all day." "Ginia tells me a story every night." And then this, when Virginia was eleven: "Yesterday I discussed George III with her. She takes in a great deal, and will really be an author in time."
  
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Saturday, 24 January 2015

The real Clarissa Dalloway

“What a lark! What a plunge.” Clarissa Dalloway’s words on leaving her house to buy flowers for her party that evening might have been those of Virginia Woolf, her creator, when in 1907 she had set up home with her brother Adrian at 29 Fitzroy Square – an event which proved seminal in the creation of the Bloomsbury Group.

Woolf’s model for Mrs Dalloway was her childhood friend Kitty Maxse, née Lushington. “Almost Kitty verbatim”, Virginia wrote to her sister Vanessa concerning Mrs Dalloway; “what would happen if she guessed”. (In a letter to her sister Susan, Kitty summed up their childhood days with “What a lark it all was”.) Exactly how much Clarissa mirrored Kitty has been the subject of much speculation, however. The Lushington and the Stephen families had been friends for many years and Woolf later recalled how, at her childhood home, 22 Hyde Park Gate, “The tea-table however was also fertilized by a ravishing stream of female beauty – the three Miss Lushingtons, the three Miss Stillmans, and the three Miss Montgomeries – all triplets, all ravishing, but of the nine the paragon for wit, grace and distinction was undoubtedly the lovely Kitty Lushington”.

Kitty was the eldest of the three daughters of Vernon Lushington and his wife Jane. Vernon, a lawyer, had first met Virginia’s mother, Julia Prinsep, when he was on the Northern Circuit in Liverpool. Julia married Lushington’s fellow lawyer and university friend Herbert Duckworth; in a letter dated August 16, 1867, Lushington described Julia as “a sweet amiable girl . . . prettily dressed last night in white – how I can’t say exactly, but she had a gold band around her waist, such as sometimes the striped gold dress my own [i.e. Jane] used to wear. She sang in the evening but it was not much”. After Duckworth’s death in 1870, Julia married Leslie Stephen.

When Jane Lushington died suddenly in 1884, Julia assumed maternal supervision of the Lushington girls and later encouraged the courtship of Kitty and the newspaper editor Leopold Maxse. Their engagement took place at the Stephen family’s summer residence, Talland House in Cornwall – the setting on which Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse would be based. Looking back, Virginia recalled this event as her first introduction to “the passion of love”, and Kitty and Leo appear in the novel thinly disguised as Paul Rayley and Minta Doyle. A newly discovered archive of Lushington family correspondence and diaries includes a number of letters written from Talland House by Jane Lushington which shed fresh light on life at the Stephen family’s holiday home. (On more than one occasion Jane tells her husband that the Stephens have discussed the possibility that “Tomorrow they might go” – not to the Lighthouse but to Land’s End.)

Kitty Lushington was particularly close to Stella Duckworth, Julia Stephen’s daughter from her first marriage, who was closer to her in age than the others. But when Julia died in 1895, it was Kitty’s turn to take a motherly interest in all the Stephen and Duckworth children, just as Julia had taken her mother’s part some ten years before. This may have been in Virginia Woolf’s subconscious when Clarissa Dalloway made her first brief appearance in The Voyage Out (1915), Woolf’s first novel, taking a maternal interest in Rachel Vinrace, the protagonist.

In addition to the correspondence from Talland House, other letters in the Lushington family archive offer new insights into both early Bloomsbury relationships and Kitty’s character. After the death of Leslie Stephen in 1904, Virginia, her sister Vanessa, and brothers Thoby and Adrian moved to Gordon Square, Bloomsbury. In December 1904, Vernon Lushington wrote to his daughter Susan: “So glad also that you have seen Vanessa & Virginia, & find their new home pretty”. Two years later, after returning from a visit to Greece and Turkey, Thoby died, leaving the sisters alone with Adrian. Although Virginia wrote, “Kitty already screams against Bloomsbury”, a newly discovered letter from Kitty to her sister Susan, dated December 1, 1906, reveals that it was Kitty who encouraged Virginia and Adrian to make a new life for themselves:
“Adrian came to dinner last night and was so nice. I really think he is charming. I can’t tell you how he is looking forward to Kingsley [Kingsley, Hampshire was then the home of Susan Lushington] – he laughed a great deal over it beforehand, which may shock you, and he is counting the hours till he goes. I am so desperately anxious that he and Virginia should set up some sort of nice interesting life for themselves together – I really think she is quite inclined to be sociable. She is going to hand me over her clothes to do, which is great fun. She has been so wonderfully good all these times – of course everything falls on her, seeing people, letters, etc., etc., – we know it all. Adrian’s very amusing and Leo is delighted with him. ”
(The “nice interesting life” Kitty wished for Virginia and Adrian was realized within just a few months when brother and sister set up home together in Fitzroy Square. It was there that the Thursday evenings which their late brother Thoby had initiated at Gordon Square were resurrected.) A few days later, Kitty wrote again to Susan: “I had such a satisfactory sight of Virginia – who says Adrian is delightful to be with & so unselfish . . . & I had quite a long talk over their new existence. I want it far away from Bell & quite an entirely fresh start – new friends, situation & all – she has been so unhappy over Thoby”.

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Self-Made Man - Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton’s ‘background’ – the word is her own – has always seemed improbable for a future novelist. Persistent rumours that she was not the daughter of George Frederic Jones but the illegitimate offspring of a Scottish peer or an English tutor clearly attest to a sense that there was something otherwise inexplicable about this ambitious daughter of Old New York. Her autobiography, A Backward Glance (1934), says nothing about these rumours, but it is easy to see how her own accounts of the past would have fuelled them. Despite the fact that she recalled ‘making up’ stories from her first conscious moment, both her memoirs and her fiction represent the world of her childhood as pretty much impervious to the imagination. ‘In the well-regulated well-fed Summers world,’ her heroine recalls in The Reef (1912), ‘the unusual was regarded as either immoral or ill-bred, and people with emotions were not visited.’ Anna Leath’s memory of Old New York is scarcely distinguishable from her creator’s. ‘In a community composed entirely of people like her parents and her parents’ friends she did not see how the magnificent things one read about could ever have happened.’
Asked what she wished to be when she grew up, Lucretia Jones’s small daughter dutifully replied (as she later recorded it): ‘The best-dressed woman in New York.’ This is not the sort of ambition James Wood had in mind when he recently suggested in the LRB (4 January) that we owe half of English literature to the aspirant mother. Of course, those sensitive and ambitious women are usually the mothers of lower-class males; and in Wharton’s case, as in that of other 19th-century women writers, identifying with a father might have been more to the point. But while she speaks more fondly of her father than of her ‘beautifully dressed mother’, the most she can manage for his literary influence is a wistful fantasy of a ‘rather rudimentary love of verse’ – predictably stifled, as she imagines it, by his wife’s ‘matter-of-factness’ – and an immense debt of gratitude for his ‘gentleman’s library’.
That library is the scene of the child’s most formative experiences and the occasion for her warmest recollections of the past. Even her mother’s prohibition of novel-reading proves ironically fruitful, as it prevents her ‘wasting … time over ephemeral rubbish’ and throws her back instead to ‘the great classics’. Both the impressive range of Wharton’s later reading and her lifelong habits of self-education evidently had their origins here. Characteristically, the arrangement of domestic architecture doubles in her telling as an architecture of the self: ‘there was in me a secret retreat where I wished no one to intrude.’
Books offered a way out of Old New York; and by the time she published her autobiography, Wharton’s own library contained some four thousand of them, divided between her two houses in France. Yet in Wharton’s retrospective account of herself, the small child’s imaginative resistance to her environment precedes even the ability to decipher print. Edith had not yet learned to read when she first engaged in that ecstatic and solitary ritual she called ‘making up’: though she always required a book as a prop, the very unintelligibility of the pages with which she gestured permitted her to evoke whatever her fancy chose. Even before she was a reader, in other words, she was a storyteller; and the stories she was busy telling were of alternative worlds and alternative selves.
If there is some myth-making in this portrait of the artist, that myth is itself one of her many creations. Though the mature novelist would express great scorn for the American belief in perpetual self-improvement, the construction of Edith Wharton, as Hermione Lee’s biography demonstrates, was a lifelong activity. The absence of Wharton’s important women friends from A Backward Glance, Lee suggests, intensifies the impression that the achievement was the author’s alone. With formidable energy, she turned herself into an interior decorator, a writer, a charitable organiser, a war correspondent, an honorary Frenchwoman, a gardener; and at the height of her earning power, the proceeds from her books far exceeded the income she had inherited. Despite the substantial comfort into which she was born – or because of it – there is considerable truth in a friend’s joke that both Teddy Roosevelt and Edith Wharton were ‘self-made men’.
‘Atrophy,’ Lee notes, was one of Wharton’s key words; and ‘paralysis in America … what she most feared’. Though the spare New England setting of Ethan Frome (1911) is far removed from the well-stuffed interiors of Wharton’s childhood, the relentless plot of that novel, in which dreams of suicidal escape end in literal paralysis and the protagonist’s hated wife is nightmarishly doubled by his immobilised lover, grimly dramatises its author’s terror. Closer to home, and to the immobility against which the young Edith chafed, is the ‘static force’ of Lily Bart’s aunt in The House of Mirth(1905): ‘To attempt to bring her into active relation with life was like tugging at a piece of furniture which has been screwed to the floor.’ Long after Wharton herself had escaped first into writing and then to Europe, her narratives enter the cul-de-sac in which Lily passively colludes in her own destruction. But tugging at that furniture also gave her energy – so much so that she gleefully screwed it to the floor again and again. The satirical vehemence with which Wharton represents her parents’ world can make it easy to forget that the obdurate environment of Old New York is at least partly her creation too.
Furniture was more than a metaphor for Wharton. ‘You don’t know her till you have seen her as builder and restorer, designer, decorator, gardener,’ Henry James wrote to another impassioned interior decorator, their mutual friend Mary Hunter, in 1913. At the time, Wharton was contemplating the purchase of a substantial estate near where Hunter lived in Essex; but while this came to nothing, the novelist’s relations with domestic property loom almost as large in her history as her relations with books. An often repeated anecdote in A Backward Glance tells of her first attempt at novel-writing being summarily quashed by her literal-minded mother, who responded to the 11-year-old’s opening lines – ‘“Oh, how do you do, Mrs Brown?” said Mrs Tompkins. “If only I had known you were going to call I should have tidied up the drawing-room”’ – by icily observing: ‘Drawing-rooms are always tidy.’ That put a stop to fiction for a time. But Lucretia Jones’s capacity to freeze up her daughter’s energies should not obscure the premonitory significance of the exchange. From Wharton’s first published book, The Decoration of Houses, written with Ogden Codman in 1897, to the extravagant gardens at her French property in Hyères whose design she oversaw in her sixties, her imagination was deeply invested in the arrangement of domestic space. Though Mrs Edward (Teddy) Wharton began her married life in a ‘cottage’ on her mother’s Newport estate, a substantial legacy from a millionaire cousin in the late 1880s assured that none of her future drawing-rooms would belong to her mother. Codman worked with Wharton on houses for the couple in Newport and New York: Land’s End, an $80,000 mansion overlooking the Atlantic that she later described as ‘incurably’ ugly, and ‘a little shanty in Park Avenue’ that she and Teddy called the smallest house in New York. These were followed by her most famous residence in the US – the 35-room mansion known as The Mount in Lenox, Massachusetts – and eventually by apartments in Paris, an 18th-century villa near Fontainebleau, and the Provençal house that she named Ste-Claire-le-Château, built on the site of a 17th-century convent in the old part of Hyères. Only The Mount was constructed from scratch, but all bore the unmistakeable imprint of Wharton’s design.
A sophisticated gardener as well as interior decorator, whose Italian Villas and Their Gardens (1904) is still cited by writers on garden history, Wharton threw herself into the arrangement of plants and flowers with the same passion and eye for detail that she devoted to her books. Reconstructing gardens in print is not easy, but Lee makes a convincing case for the theatrical flair and colour of Wharton’s. Towards the end of her life, Wharton herself told a friend that she thought her gardens were ‘better than her books’. However that may be, they were clearly more ephemeral: one of the most poignant episodes in Lee’s biography concerns Wharton’s devastation when a catastrophic frost in the winter of 1928-29 wiped out virtually everything she had planted at Hyères. ‘How dangerous to care too much,’ she noted in her diary, ‘even for a garden!’
Wharton’s zeal for home-making had little to do with her feelings for her husband. Long before she divorced him in 1913, her publicly acknowledged affections attached themselves more to place than to family. ‘I feel as if I were going to get married – to the right man at last,’ she joked to a friend in anticipation of the move to Hyères in 1922. Though her marriage endured for 28 years, she and Teddy seem to have had scarcely anything in common apart from a zest for travel, a love of motor cars and a fondness for little dogs; and the increasing evidence of his mental illness – what we would now call bipolar disorder or manic depression – meant that most observers seem to have sympathised with the wife. ‘A divorce is always a good thing to have: you never can tell when you may want it,’ a friend advises the superbly vulgar heroine of The Custom of the Country (1913), the fierce satire of contemporary American mores that was appearing in serial form even as Wharton filed for divorce in a Paris court. Lee contends that previous biographers have unduly emphasised the ladylike reluctance with which Wharton took that step: once it had become clear that Teddy was impossible to live with, she argues, Wharton proceeded to free herself with grim determination. The heroine of The Custom of the Country is emphatically not her author; but neither the appetite nor the ambition of Undine Spragg (‘US’, in short) was altogether alien to her. Attacking the very ease with which the thrice-divorced Undine sheds inconvenient partners would have helped to drive home the difference.
At the age of 20, Edith Jones had been briefly engaged to a wealthy young man called Harry Stevens; but according to Town Topics, the sort of gossip rag she would send up in The House of Mirth, ‘an alleged preponderance of intellectuality on the part of the intended bride’ caused the engagement to be broken off. She first became acquainted with the lawyer and future diplomat Walter Berry in the aftermath of that engagement; in later years, many who knew them assumed that she and Berry were lovers. But the truth about this long-lived intimacy, as about much of Wharton’s private life, is elusive. Though she could make high comedy out of her mother’s habits of censorship, her own powers of concealment rivaled Lucretia’s. Berry’s death in 1927 may have left Wharton ‘utterly rudderless’, as she wrote to Bernard Berenson; but she still managed to get into his Paris apartment and to burn almost all the letters she had ever written to him. ‘No words can say, because such things are unsayable, how the influence of his thought, his character, his deepest personality, were interwoven with mine,’ she declared in A Backward Glance; but this is far from the only aspect of her history, as Lee makes clear, that is treated as ‘unsayable’. In that book Teddy himself puts in only the most minimal appearance, while he disappears entirely from the published records of their travels in Italy and France. Wharton’s mother once instructed her to ‘look out of the other window’ when the notorious mistress of a New York banker was passing in her carriage; and A Backward Glance sedulously looks elsewhere when it comes to the passionate affair the still-married author herself conducted with the journalist Morton Fullerton in her forties.
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Thursday, 22 January 2015

Superchild - Virginia Woolf

To read Virginia Woolf when young is, or was, to have the feeling of entering a new world, to realise with sudden ecstasy that this was true being, where words and consciousness and the solitary self melted into one. ‘She gave me eyes, she gave me ears,’ wrote Wordsworth of his sister Dorothy. Virginia Woolf gave more than that: she gave, or seemed to give, the pure Private Life, quite separate from the contingent miseries, anxieties and rivalries of adolescence, a free-floating poetic awareness, an otherness wholly and excitingly up-to-date. Such at least was the experience of many young persons in the years following her death; and such still seems to be the experience of young readers who discover her today.
But there is something wrong, very wrong, somewhere: there is contradiction at the heart of it all. Her Diary shows what it is. For its appeal is quite different; to a different audience, a different expectation, a different sensibility. In very few writers does there seem such a gap between the sensibility projected by the art and the atmosphere generated by the personality. The style is the woman, because the woman needed the style, needed to make words for everything and to turn everything into words. All writers do that, and need to do it, and very often their readers who follow them do too. But Virginia Woolf’s relationship with words is particularly direct, like a child’s relation to things. It is this which captures the young and releases them into a whole consciousness of words, words they seem to be writing even as they read them. And yet the writing has nothing behind it – sometimes worse than nothing – and the Diaryshows it. Superchild could also be a nasty child.
The paradox is certainly an odd one. Her art releases us, as it were, from school, and from all its banal miseries, anxieties and rivalries. But her Diary reveals that she was herself their source and embodiment. It appeals to just the kind of people and situations from which her art delivered us. She is revealed as the toady and confederate of such people, their semblable and anxious hanger-on, having no nature but the communal one of those on whom she sharpened her malice and whose good opinion she sought. Typical of the kind of school atmosphere Bloomsbury discloses that the two activities were really the same: its boys and girls proved their solidarity, their unified self-approval, by being nasty about each other.
There is, however, pathos in the wretched sense of all this which the Diary too reveals. Her awareness of her own lack of being, except in words, and at the same time her own utter determination to become one of the great ones of the school community and excel in its social and sporting activities – this is what caused Virginia Woolf to feel herself condemned ‘to dance like a cat on hot bricks till I die’. The feeling of depression the Diary arouses is not that of the spectacle of madness, which seems almost peripheral, and certainly not causative of its general atmosphere, but rather that of a sensibility in an impossible situation, unable to achieve any proper self-confidence of its own. It is the sensibility the first novel, The Voyage Out, turned triumphantly into art with the character of Rachel. But this Rachel does not die, as at the end of the novel. Losing that selfhood, she drags on interminably and unchangingly through all five volumes of the Diary.
There is the gossip; the unending need to impress, the unending contempt for those who fail to do so. Rachel Vinrace (significant name), the heroine with whom all we outsiders identify, turns out to have been Head Girl all along. She compiles secret reports, sees that standards are kept up, throws herself into all the school activities. Diffident, defeated, dead she might be in the novel, but the real Rachel Vinrace was determined to succeed in life. The Diary records how she did so, and how she revenged herself on any who doubted her abilities and status as a writer. Katherine Mansfield is both rival and despised friend, a member of the same set, almost alter ego. The compulsion of words united them, and Mansfield’s Journals, like Woolf’s Diary, are a way of practising that compulsion and keeping it in constant exercise. In some degree it is a matter of period and the idea of a feminine style: Gertrude Stein was also laying down words compulsively, and rearranging them like patience cards. More important, it is a matter of trying to make the words add up to somebody. Katherine Mansfield writes in her journal what Virginia Woolf’s Diary continually implies: ‘I must not forget that.’ She must not forget the way the hens looked, and how the rain soaked her thin shoes. A few days before her death Virginia Woolf recorded the haddock and sausage meat. ‘I think it is true that one gains a certain hold on sausage and haddock by writing them down.’
And the reader also gains a hold. That is or should be the virtue of the business, as if the reader were helping – co-operating – in keeping the thing going, the writers existent. The reader is flattered to be participating, but he also gloats: his own share continues, whereas theirs is over. They have been abandoned by the words with which they gained a hold over the haddock and the sausage. The reader is of course also proud to be in at a death. He knows how all this word business is going to end, and the diarists who needed the words so much did not.
Readers will look in any case in the last volume of Virginia Woolf’s Diary for signs of disintegration and madness, the words spinning out of control. They will not find them. Words had always helped Virginia Woolf to keep a hold on the haddock and the sausage meat, and they continued to do so till the end. She uses them in her usual way on the sights of Brighton, in the month she died, March 1941, and then considers what for her was obviously a totally strange idea: introspection. What is the point of it? Her words are only there for her to see herself as she sees others.
Observe perpetually. Observe the oncome of age. Observe greed. Observe my own despondency. By that means it becomes serviceable. Or so I hope. I insist on spending this time to the best advantage. I will go down with my colours flying. This I see verges on introspection, but doesn’t quite fall in. Suppose, I bought a ticket at the museum; biked in daily, and read history. Suppose I selected one dominant figure in every age and wrote round and about. Occupation is essential.
Occupation had always been her standby as it had been that of her father, Leslie Stephen. And words provided it. But if the words of the Diary prove one thing it is that, for a creative artist, they were no substitute for introspection. Turning back a volume or two we come to the dinner party in January 1930 with the Harrises. Bogey Harris was apparently quite a character. In her account, unerring as it clearly is, he ceases to be one, as do his womenfolk and the Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, ‘an unimpressive man; eyes disappointing; rather heavy; middle-class; sunk; grumpy; self-important; wore a black waistcoat’.
They all called each other Van, Bogey, Ramsay, Eadie, across the table; engaged in governing England ... Bogey has the glazed stuffed look of the well fed bachelor. Is evidently one of those elderly comfortable men of taste and leisure who make a profession of society; a perfectly instinctive snob. Knows everyone; lunches with Lord Lascelles; has taken the measure of it all exactly; nothing to say; proficient; surly; adept; an unattractive type, with all his talk of Lords and Ladies, his belief in great houses; something of a gorged look, which connoisseurs have; as if he had always just swallowed a bargain.
 This is much the same kind of person who is met with in The Years, the idea of which was beginning to form in her mind at the time. The novel shows little difference in method from the principle of observation in the Diary itself, and this may have been deliberate policy on her part. She would write as she observed, and in the first plan forThe Years, to be called ‘The Pargiters’, she envisaged something ‘leading naturally on to the next stage, the essay-novel’. That is what all her novels are in some sense, evenThe Waves, and it was in the air from Gide’s synchronisations of the journal with the novel form. After doing a draft of ‘The Pargiters’ Virginia Woolf professed to find, as she put it, that the genius of fiction and of the essay were not compatible, and yet all her writing is essentially of the same kind, the kind suggested so well in her very touching entry on the last day of December 1932.

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Byron: When We Two Parted

When we two parted
In silence and tears,
Half broken —hearted
To sever for years,
Pale grew thy cheek and cold,
Colder thy kiss;
Truly that hour foretold
Sorrow to this.
The dew of the morning
Sunk chill on my brow—
It felt like the warning
Of what I feel now.
Thy vows are all broken,
And light is thy fame;
I hear thy name spoken,
And share in its shame.
They name thee before me,
A knell to mine ear;
A shudder comes o’er me—
Why wert thou so dear?
They know not I knew thee,
Who knew thee too well—
Long, long I shall rue thee,
Too deeply to tell.
In secret we met—
In silence I grieve,
That thy heart could forget,
Thy spirit deceive.
If I should meet thee
After long years,
How should I greet thee?
With silence and tears.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Van Gogh: The Courage & the Cunning

“Don’t be cross with me that I’ve come all of a sudden,” Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother. He instructed Theo to meet him under the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. It was late February 1886. Vincent was about to turn thirty-three. He arrived in Paris to complete an artistic education that had so far yielded no financial returns for his long-suffering sibling paymaster; nor did 
Vincent’s career promise the slightest profit in future. Now Theo, a dealer at the art gallery Goupil & Cie, was expected to put him up.
As Julian Bell reminds us in a splendid new biography, Vincent had dabbled as a self-appointed preacher in the grimy coalfields and pit villages of the Belgian Borinage. He had mostly taught himself art on the margins of Antwerp, Brussels, and The Hague. Now he was just catching up with the Impressionists in Paris when the movement was nearly exhausted.
Mostly unimpressed, van Gogh saw the future of modernism in figures like Adolphe Monticelli, a mediocrity in multiple genres whose work he came across at a gallery run by a friend of Theo’s. Along with Seurat and Signac, Hiroshige and Hokusai, Monet and Toulouse-Lautrec, Monticelli would help point Vincent away from potato eaters and gray, wintry landscapes toward sunshine and the south. It turned out that Vincent’s obstinacy and sheer otherness, much as they pained friends and family and alienated strangers, bought him the perspective he needed to reach this juncture, where he could pick and choose his sources and stake out a path for himself.
He was, in his daily routine, no less self-destructive than he had been before, drinking, smoking up a storm, making himself ill; and he had still not yet shed the evangelical side of his early art, beating up old shoes he bought at a Paris flea market so that he could paint yet more metaphors of poverty and struggle. Still, Paris became a chrysalis.
Bell has written what he describes, rightly, as an “unmystified” and compassionate biography. It follows the encyclopedic biography by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, published in 2011, a painstaking, brilliant, almost ceaselessly downbeat account of the life that nonetheless left room for a compact, personal take like this one, by a painter-writer about a painter-writer. Bell’s sympathy for his subject abides; his prose is angelic. He outlines the life without melodrama and with just enough exasperation at Vincent’s loutish, morose, and egocentric shenanigans. The book really comes alive when Bell describes specific pictures and their mechanics. Paintings by Lautrec, he writes, are
woven together out of fine strands of color scribbled, dabbed or hatched onto a warm neutral ground—with an end result in which the weave stayed naked to the eye, so that complementary pairings such as oranges and blues electrically vibrated.
This sort of description can bring to mind how van Gogh talked about his own work. To Émile Bernard, for instance, he wrote near the end of his life about a canvas he painted at the asylum in St.-Rémy, The Garden of Saint-Paul Hospital. “You’ll understand,” he told Bernard,
that this combination of red ochre, of green saddened with grey, of black lines that define the outlines, this gives rise a little to the feeling of anxiety from which some of my companions in misfortune often suffer.
Countless freeloaders, lost teenagers, parents of lost teenagers, and disappointed artists have found consolation in Vincent’s misfortune. His story is the ultimate “I told you so”: a troubled, not obviously talented oddball, who through determination and sheer chutzpah is finally, albeit mostly posthumously, recognized as a genius. Van Gogh is today the most popular artist in the world for the stupendous works he made during the last troubled years of his life—a great secular saint of modernism, whose suffering and sacrifice produced pictures of such idiosyncrasy and luminosity that even Kirk Douglas and obscene sales records and Starry Night shower curtains have done nothing to trivialize the ravishment of seeing the art in the flesh. That his mental instability fueled leaps of creative imagination has only made him seem more noble, in the Romantic vein—albeit, as Bell cautions, “insofar as Van Gogh the painter communicates to us, with an oeuvre that viewers for over a century have found uniquely thrilling and sustaining, it is not our business to call him mad.”
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