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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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

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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Saturday, 17 January 2015

The strange and brilliant fiction of Hilary Mantel

So the novel begins: “When Mrs Axon found out about her daughter’s condition, she was more surprised than sorry; which did not mean that she was not very sorry indeed.” Mysteriously, Evelyn Axon’s daughter Muriel is pregnant, and “Her face wore an expression of daft beatitude.” Something is wrong with Muriel, but before we can work out what a visitor arrives, in dim autumnal light, at the Axons’ house in a suburban avenue of an English town. It is Mrs Sidney, who wishes to contact her dead husband. Evelyn, who is evidently a medium, offers her orange squash and the heat of a two-bar electric fire. Invited to talk about her husband, Mrs Sidney becomes distressed: “the scarlet line of lipstick above her top lip contorted independently of the mouth”. Evelyn contemplates her growing symptoms of distress. “There is, Evelyn reflected, a custom known as Suttee; to judge by their behaviour, many seemed to think its suppression an unhealthy development.”

This is the opening of Hilary Mantel’s first published novel, Every Day Is Mother’s Day. Those who know any of Mantel’s backlist will recognise some of her hallmarks: the mix of banality and weirdness; the pitiless black humour (suttee, of course being the ritual of a widow immolating herself on her husband’s funeral pyre); the sardonic use of language. You cannot think of another writer who would put “daft” and “beatitude” together – the northern colloquialism and that religiously tinged word for being blessed. And then there is the supernatural. Evelyn believes her home to be haunted by malign spirits and the narrative adopts her mad certainties. Whole areas of her house have been abandoned because the spirits have taken them over. They leave semi-literate notes and mysterious tokens – a new can-opener in the middle of a room – as assurances of their malignity. She shares her fearful knowledge only with unheeding Muriel, whom we slowly realise is cannier than anyone knows and has something mischievous to do with the signs of haunting. The representatives of social services who visit the Axons occasionally, and see a truculent pensioner and her helplessly dependent daughter, may write long reports but naturally know nothing about why these women behave as they do.
Now that Mantel is Dame Hilary Mantel, and Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies have brought her fame, it is easy to spot the assurance and utter idiosyncrasy of this debut novel. It was not much noticed when it appeared but is now back in print in the slipstream of her two Man Booker wins. After years of relative obscurity, Mantel has box office appeal, confirmed first by the stage version of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies that ran for eight months in Stratford and London before making for Broadway, and now by a TV dramatisation of the two novels that begins on 21 January on BBC2. For many admirers of these later books, the territory of her earlier fiction remains unexplored. Yet Mantel is a novelist who has been honing her narrative skills for more than three decades and whose oeuvre is as rich and strange as that of any living British novelist.
TV is tapping into the enthusiasm of the common reader. Though there are critical non-believers, Wolf Hall and its sequel have found a huge readership, endorsing the judgment of the Booker judges (I am parti pris, as I was one of those judges in 2009). It is difficult now to think your way back to before the prizes and the acclaim. Wolf Hall was Mantel’s 10th novel, published when she was 57; not one of her previous nine novels had appeared on a Booker shortlist. Each had been a critical success; her stylistic brilliance was a secret to be shared by knowing reviewers and confessed by other novelists. She had fans, but a distinctly select readership. In 2005, when Private Eye lambasted the Booker judges once more, the absence from the shortlist of Beyond Black, the novel that Mantel completed before embarking on Wolf Hall, was given as proof of their obtuseness.
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Thursday, 15 January 2015

Mrs. Woolf, Uncommon Reader

Among the foremost stylists of the present day, Virginia Woolf is also among those whose words are more than ordinarily worth one's while to listen to. A keenly discerning critic of books and men, as proved by her first "Common Reader," her deserved reputation is enhanced by the second of these collections. "I rejoice to concur with the common reader," wrote Dr. Johnson. The common reader again has the opportunity to rejoice with Mrs. Woolf - and over Dr. Johnson, among others.

Not all of the papers in the collection at hand are new, and some of then first appeared in American periodicals. None has to do with any living author. The paper on Thomas Hardy cones nearest to the present day. Mrs. Woolf writes of Donne, Swift, Defoe, Sterne, Dorothy Wordsworth and Hazlitt among the ancients. There are some twenty or more papers within the covers of the volume, the last one of which bears the questioning title, "How Should One Read a Book?" The interrogation, it is pointed out, is to emphasize the fact that in the main one must answer the question for one's self. Granting which, there may be added a few words.

Most commonly wee come to books (writes Virginia Woolf) with blurred and divided minds. If we could banish all preconceptions, when we read, that would be an admirable beginning. Do not dictate to your author. Be his fellow-worker and accomplice.

And attempting to be her fellow-worker and accomplice is the one certain way to obtain the greatest amount of enjoyment from this "Common Reader," for if there is anything that stands out from Virginia Woolf's pages more than another, it is that the author experienced enjoyment with every line she wrote. Everywhere is evident her affection for words and sentences; paragraphs are put together and pages builded with a warmth of interest in the process which is rarely found. One is carried back to Sir Philip Sidney among the Elizabethans and to Sir Thomas Browne. Within living memory Stevenson was the last to display the same thing markedly. Yet frequently Stevenson carried it a bit too far; he was prone to err on the other side; his writing became, often, precieuse. Mrs. Woolf's style is controlled: warmth is a conspicuous feature, but it is tempered warmth.

It makes little difference at what point on the surface Jack Horner sticks in his thumb, he cannot avoid smacking his lips over the delectable fruit he is certain to draw forth. Take this:

The pressure of a tremendous faith circles and clamps together these little songs. Perhaps they owe to it their solidity. Certainly the owe to it their sadness - your God was a harsh God, your heavenly crown was a crown of thorns - Death, oblivion and rest lap round your little songs with their dark wave. And then, incongruously, a sound of scurrying and laughter is heard. There is the patter of animals' feet and the old guttural notes of rooks and the snufflings of obuse furry animals grunting and nosing.

Of whose songs is Virginia Woolf speaking? Who is it she is addressing in these lines? None could it be of course, but Christina Rossetti - unless, except for the animal reference and the rocks, it might have been Emily Dickinson. But what felicity of phrasing! What absolute exactness in discovering and characterizing the distinguishing note! One recalls the famous advice of Flaubert to his pupil Maupassant - so to describe the cab-horse, that it was instantly discernible how it differed from the next. And this, as a principle of fiction, is equally a fundamental principle of criticism. It is the first business of the critic to discover what it is in an author which distinguishes him from all other authors. Much of our criticism today falls of its usefulness because of the neglect of this principle. Not so Mrs. Woolf.

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Monday, 12 January 2015

The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen

London in the blitz influenced the creative lives of many important English writers, from Graham Greene to Rose Macaulay. But none captured wartime London as memorably as Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973), an Anglo-Irish writer who first attracted critical attention with a collection of short-stories in 1923.
Like The Death of the Heart, her prewar masterpiece, The Heat of the Day opens in Regent’s Park, on “the first Sunday of September 1942”, with the sinister figure of Harrison, a counterespionage agent posing as an airman, chatting up a woman at an open-air concert. He’s killing time till his evening “date” with Stella Rodney, the novel’s protagonist, an attractive, independent woman “on happy sensuous terms with life” who works for a government agency called XYD and is described as a “camper in rooms of draughty dismantled houses”.
Stella is dispossessed, but she has in her lover Robert, a Dunkirk survivor, someone with whom she can share mutual passion and “the continuous narrative of love”. But even this is in jeopardy. Harrison, who has been watching Robert, advises Stella that her lover is suspected of passing information to the enemy. He offers Stella a bargain: his silence about Robert’s treachery for an impossible price – herself. Once Robert confesses, his love will be doomed.
Trapped between spy and spycatcher, Stella struggles to keep her life in balance while recognising she’s adrift in dark times. Occasional passages of great beauty capture the atmosphere of the nightly bombing of London: “Out of mists of morning charred by the smoke from ruins each day rose to a height of unmisty glitter; between the last of sunset and first note of the siren the darkening glassy tenseness of evening was drawn fine.”
Like many writers who come to the novel through the short story, Bowen’s fiction is highly symbolic and tightly wound with acres of meaning crowded into the disjunctions and silences of everyday conversation. Harold Pinter was a natural for the screenplay of the 1989 TV version of the novel. The Heat of the Day is both of its time and timeless. A spy story and a haunting love story. Bowen catches the provisional, precarious atmosphere of a society facing the threat of imminent destruction. More than just a great writer of the blitz, she is the supreme mid-century anatomist of the heart, with a unique sensitivity to the lives of ordinary English men and women in extremis.
The best account of this subject, in addition to Victoria Glendinning’s important biography of Bowen, is Lara Feigel’s The Love Charm of Bombs, an exploration of the blitz as a metropolitan trauma. Feigel’s absorbing and well-researched group portrait of five prominent writers caught up in the nightly routine of sirens and barrage includes Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, Rose Macaulay, Hilde Spiel (an Austrian writer trapped in wartime Wimbledon) and Henry Yorke (better known as the novelist Henry Green). Nevertheless, the blitz remains a comparatively under-explored literary terrain. Sarah Waters’s 2006 novel The Night Watch is a rare example of a serious attempt to make popular literature out of this crucial episode from the second world war.
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Sunday, 11 January 2015

Edgar Lee Masters: Silence

I have known the silence of the stars and of the sea, 
And the silence of the city when it pauses, 
And the silence of a man and a maid, 
And the silence of the sick 
When their eyes roam about the room. 
And I ask: For the depths, 
Of what use is language? 
A beast of the field moans a few times 
When death takes its young. 
And we are voiceless in the presence of realities -- 
We cannot speak. 

A curious boy asks an old soldier 
Sitting in front of the grocery store, 
"How did you lose your leg?" 
And the old soldier is struck with silence, 
Or his mind flies away 
Because he cannot concentrate it on Gettysburg. 
It comes back jocosely 
And he says, "A bear bit it off." 
And the boy wonders, while the old soldier 
Dumbly, feebly lives over 
The flashes of guns, the thunder of cannon, 
The shrieks of the slain, 
And himself lying on the ground, 
And the hospital surgeons, the knives, 
And the long days in bed. 
But if he could describe it all 
He would be an artist. 
But if he were an artist there would be deeper wounds 
Which he could not describe. 

There is the silence of a great hatred, 
And the silence of a great love, 
And the silence of an embittered friendship. 
There is the silence of a spiritual crisis, 
Through which your soul, exquisitely tortured, 
Comes with visions not to be uttered 
Into a realm of higher life. 
There is the silence of defeat. 
There is the silence of those unjustly punished; 
And the silence of the dying whose hand 
Suddenly grips yours. 
There is the silence between father and son, 
When the father cannot explain his life, 
Even though he be misunderstood for it. 

There is the silence that comes between husband and wife. 
There is the silence of those who have failed; 
And the vast silence that covers 
Broken nations and vanquished leaders. 
There is the silence of Lincoln, 
Thinking of the poverty of his youth. 
And the silence of Napoleon 
After Waterloo. 
And the silence of Jeanne d'Arc 
Saying amid the flames, "Blessed Jesus" -- 
Revealing in two words all sorrows, all hope. 
And there is the silence of age, 
Too full of wisdom for the tongue to utter it 
In words intelligible to those who have not lived 
The great range of life. 

And there is the silence of the dead. 
If we who are in life cannot speak 
Of profound experiences, 
Why do you marvel that the dead 
Do not tell you of death? 
Their silence shall be interpreted 
As we approach them. 

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Rainer Maria Rilke: Letters To A Young Poet, No1

February 17, 1903

Dear Sir,

     Your letter arrived just a few days ago. I want to thank you for the great confidence you have placed in me. That is all I can do. I cannot discuss your verses; for any attempt at criticism would be foreign to me. Nothing touches a work of art so little as words of criticism: they always result in more or less fortunate misunderstandings. Things aren't all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered, and more unsay able than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existences, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life.

     With this note as a preface, may I just tell you that your verses have no style of their own, although they do have silent and hidden beginnings of something personal. I feel this most clearly in the last poem, "My Soul." There, some thing of your own is trying to become word and melody. And in the lovely poem "To Leopardi" a kind of kinship with that great, solitary figure does perhaps appear. Nevertheless, the poems are not yet anything in themselves, not yet any thing independent, even the last one and the one to Leopardi. Your kind letter, which accompanied them managed to make clear to me various faults that I felt in reading your verses, though I am not able to name them specifically.

     You ask whether your verses are any good. You ask me. You have asked others before this. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are upset when certain editors reject your work. Now (since you have said you want my advice) I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you - no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple "I must", then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse. Then come close to Nature. Then, as if no one had ever tried before, try to say what you see and feel and love and lose. Don't write love poems; avoid those forms that are too facile and ordinary: they are the hardest to work with, and it takes a great, fully ripened power to create something individual where good, even glorious, traditions exist in abundance. So rescue yourself from these general themes and write about what your everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty Describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and, when you express yourself, use the Things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that you remember. If your everyday life seems poor, don't blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is no poverty and no poor, indifferent place. And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world's sound - wouldn't you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories? Turn your attention to it. Try to raise up the sunken feelings of this enormous past; your personality will grow stronger, your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance. And if out of , this turning within, out of this immersion in your own world, poems come, then you will not think of asking anyone whether they are good or not. Nor will you try to interest magazines in these works: for you will see them as your dear natural possession, a piece of your life, a voice from it. A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity. That is the only way one can judge it. So, dear Sir, I can't give you any advice but this: to go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows; at its source you will find the answer to, the question of whether you must create. Accept that answer, just as it is given to you, without trying to interpret it. Perhaps you will discover that you are called to be an artist. Then take that destiny upon yourself, and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what reward might come from outside. For the creator must be a world for himself and must find everything in himself and in Nature, to whom his whole life is devoted.

     But after this descent into yourself and into your solitude, perhaps you will have to renounce becoming a poet (if, as I have said, one feels one could live without writing, then one shouldn't write at all). Nevertheless, even then, this self searching that I ask of you will not have been for nothing. Your life will still find its own paths from there, and that they may be good, rich, and wide is what I wish for you, more than I can say.

     What else can I tell you? It seems to me that everything has its proper emphasis; and finally I want to add just one more bit of advice: to keep growing, silently and earnestly, through your whole development; you couldn't disturb it any more violently than by looking outside and waiting for outside answers to questions that only your innermost feeling, in your quietest hour, can perhaps answer.

     It was a pleasure for me to find in your letter the name of Professor Horacek; I have great reverence for that kind, learned man, and a gratitude that has lasted through the years. Will you please tell him how I feel; it is very good of him to still think of me, and I appreciate it.

     The poem that you entrusted me with, I am sending back to you. And I thank you once more for your questions and sincere trust, of which, by answering as honestly as I can, I have tried to make myself a little worthier than I, as a stranger, really am.

Yours very truly,
Rainer Maria Rilke

It Can Be Embarrassing to Love Dorothea

Dorothea Brooke and Will Ladislaw
George Eliot’s Middlemarch has been my favorite novel ever since one summer nearly thirty years ago, when I read it on the recommendation of a Victorian literature–obsessed college friend. I’ve read it twice since then, which might not seem like a lot for a favorite book, but it is nine hundred pages long, and its richness holds me for many years at a time.

I love Middlemarch, published in 1872, for many reasons. I love Eliot’s gently intrusive narrator, her aphoristic habit of mind, her asides on medical research and philanthropy and manners. She can be extremely funny at times, a fact often overlooked by impatient readers. But Eliot’s wonderful narrator appears in her other great books as well—Daniel Deronda and Mill on the Floss and Silas Marner—so why is Middlemarch my best beloved?

Perhaps it has to do with the fact that this particular novel, more even than Eliot’s others, is all about people trying to be good—out of religious belief or a desire to improve the lot of the common man or the love of a woman or in expiation of past badness. The attempt is portrayed as difficult, almost killing at times, and many of the characters fail at it spectacularly. The novel is set against the backdrop of political do-gooding: the great British reforms of the late 1820s and early 1830s, which greatly expanded the number of Englishmen (not women, of course) who could vote. It was a time when the concept of the good itself was beginning to have a more democratic and less aristocratic connotation.

At the center of the many story lines in Middlemarch (marriages, deaths, legacies, falls from grace) is Dorothea Brooke, a nineteen-year-old orphan with a decent inheritance who has dreams of doing some great work in the world. At first she wants to improve the cottages of the tenant farmers who work on her uncle’s estate. Her plans are not met with much enthusiasm; those around her are the sort who think things are fine just the way they are. Courted by a local landowner who is considered a very good catch, she instead decides to marry a much older scholar whom she imagines to be some sort of genius. She will be his helpmeet; she’ll learn Greek and Latin so that she can help him guide his magnum opus into the world. Unfortunately her new husband, Casaubon, turns out to be a dry and humorless pedant who over time crushes Dorothea’s every impulse toward joy and intimacy. She, knowing she is bound to him legally, and feeling bound to him morally, fights against her resentment and loneliness, and although she no longer believes in his talent or his project, gives over her days to providing the lowly secretarial aid he demands.

I am very moved by the sections on Dorothea’s painful marriage, and by her fierce determination to take the high road, to express only kindness and patience toward her husband, who is not an evil man but merely extremely narrow and self-absorbed after decades of solitary living. But many readers today, especially women, are exasperated by Dorothea’s high-mindedness. When a college acquaintance saw me reading the novel that first time, she told me that she’d “always wanted to wring Dorothea’s neck.” She had a British accent, which seemed to give her comment more weight. I was obscurely hurt, as if someone I’d just developed a crush on had been exposed as vaguely ridiculous.

It can be embarrassing to love Dorothea in this day and age. It’s like loving Saint Theresa, the gruesomely self-mortifying sixteenth-century saint to whom Dorothea is compared in the novel’s introduction and conclusion, or Patient Griselda. We don’t find stories of female masochism terribly attractive anymore. But if Dorothea were truly a masochist, she would not have engaged my imagination so strongly over the years. Eliot makes it clear that Dorothea is no saint but rather a morally immature young woman. Her self-denials have roots in in youthful arrogance and impetuousness. Remarking on how much Dorothea loves riding (a love which clearly reveals her physically passionate side), Eliot slyly adds that her heroine “always looked forward to renouncing it.” When Dorothea’s younger sister Celia wants to look over the jewelry their dead mother has left them, Dorothea first behaves as if it would be vulgar to wear any of the pieces, then ostentatiously gives the best one to Celia. Celia urges her to at least accept a necklace with a simple cross, but Dorothea replies that she would never wear a religious symbol as “a trinket.” (Celia rebelliously if silently objects that “I trust the wearing of a necklace will not interfere with my prayers.”)

Of course, Dorothea doesn’t recognize her bossiness and grandiosity. Her ideals of Christian humility and simplicity and service are genuine. But she is very young.
I see so much of my earliest, childhood self in Dorothea. When I was six years old, I regularly drew up lists of all the good and bad things I had done that day. I used to game the list quite a bit, splitting one good act into several sub-acts, to make sure the final results proved my virtue. At ten, I made excursions to pick up trash on the streets near the apartment building my family lived in, “to help the environment.” I was pious, and hoped that God noticed. I cried over the suffering of strangers but bossed my friends and my younger brother mercilessly. I wrote florid letters, letters that almost seem to me now like love letters, to my best friend. I had a temper. Like Dorothea, I possessed high ideals and no great understanding that high ideals and genuine decency are two different things.
But Dorothea learns. And if her behavior in marriage is initially dutiful and injured, eventually it becomes something larger—something generous and large-minded. In a moment of crisis, she comes very near to releasing her built-up outrage toward her husband, but her anger slowly turns to pity for his inadequacies, and the next time she sees him she notices his haggard, defeated face—his health is poor, he has realized his lifetime of work has come to nothing—and is surprised when he speaks to her with gentleness. “When the kind quiet melancholy of that speech fell on Dorothea’s ears,” writes Eliot, “she felt something like the thankfulness that might well up in us if we had narrowly escaped hurting a lamed creature.”

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