Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Wolf Solent by John Cowper Powys

I was going to go on to read some Joyce Cary bringing in more of the Anglo-Irish literature side of things but having started Wolf Solent by John Cowper Powys (1929) Internet Archive have lots of his work:
Wolf Solent
I'll continue with it. I feel the need to nourish my soul at that fount of oddness and really for precipitate alteration of focus that is yet somehow right he has no equal. Don't look for a pattern, that's what a tornado does. Yes, of course, but if you go out far enough out and squint according to a theory you will see it. Rely on it, Powys will be there before you in earnest colloquy with the myrmidons of his kingdom - Selena Gault and Darnley Otter. But no one is left unnoticed.

He gave up his ticket to an elderly station master whose air, at once fussily inquisitive and mildly deferential suggested the manner of a cathedral verger.

The technique of creative absence which Wolf practises he calls 'sinking into his soul'.

This 'sinking into his soul' - this sensation which he called 'mythology' - consisted of a certain summoning up to the surface of his mind, of a subconscious magnetic power which from those very early Weymouth days, as he watched the glitter of sun and moon upon the waters from that bow window, had seemed to answer such a summons.

This secret practice was always accompanied by an arrogant mental idea - the idea, namely, that he was taking part in some occult cosmic struggle -- some struggle between what he liked to think of as 'good' and what he like to think of as 'evil' in those remote depths.

I'm going down the universe, I may be gone for some time.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Palladian by Elizabeth Taylor

Palladian was Taylor's second novel (1946) and it is a playful homage to some of the themes which have concerned the great English women writers. The heroine is Cassandra Dashwood aged 20. She is to be a governess to Marion Vanbrugh's child Sophy. He,Marion by the way is pronounced Merrion, is the owner of a mouldering demesne and a residence with a Palladian applied front. Marion is still grieving over the death of his wife at the birth of Sophy who is now about 11. He reads Greek verse in the original and has a fin-de-siècle aestheticism which marks him as vaguely effeminate. His household is composed of Tom his cousin, drunkard, artist specialising in surreal anatomical sketches, failed medical student, handsome and dissolute. Also there is Tom's sister Margaret, a medical doctor, residing for the duration of her pregnancy and Tom's mother who is the housekeeper and an ancient Nanny. Clearly the big house regiment has fallen in strength but it still has representative members from all ranks.

The amusing thing about this book is that the ancient women retainers and staff are used as a hag's chorus gibbering by the range in the kitchen sustained by stewed tea and grievance, sinking betimes into the unity of weird sisterhood and then bethinking themselves to grovel or assert distinctions. The sister Margaret is a monster of tactless confrontation and sublime greed. Being pregnant she has to eat for four and her sorties against a gooseberry pie and a latticed jam tart in the larder together with her inept covering of tracks in the matter of assaults on bread and dripping are depicted with transgressive fascination. Being a lady she massacres the bread.

How far can you take homage before it turns into pastiche? Any writer but Elizabeth Taylor would have gone into that area and succumbed to it. She is able to manage it by an ironic subversion. Marion is no brute Rochester, Tom is no Heathcliffe howling on the moor but the lover of Mrs.Veal the Landlady of the Blacksmith's Arms. She is first met on the train in the compartment with Cassandra:
She had a way of settling her blue fox across her breast and smiling down with pleasure and approval - it might equally have been pleasure at the fur or the bosom, since both were magnificent. A dusky, pleasant perfume came from her as she stirred, and the little charms hanging from her bracelet jingled softly.

The other Elizabeth Taylor. Quite!

Cassandra, a bookish girl whose recently deceased father was a schoolmaster with a personal library of 2000 volumes, is well prepared to adhere to the template and fall in love with her employer particularly when he turns out to be a scholarly man. He is haunted by the death in childbirth of his wife Violet who he claims read Homer in the original at the age of 8. Will their love be crossed? Now there's an expression that Taylor would never permit herself.

She (Cassandra) had come a long way from the life of yesterday, of the day before that - the shabby home, the traffic, the bush full of tram tickets, the crowds on the pavements, clotting, thinning out, pressing forward; travelling across time, Marion had called it, but they were really going to work, or going home from work, or shopping, or wooing one another. 'Quite separate', she thought. 'Each quite separate. That is the only safe way of looking at it. And we can never be safe unless we believe we are great and that human life is abiding and the sun constant and that we matter. Once broken, that fragile illusion would disclose the secret panic, the vacuity within us. Life then would not be tolerable.'

This is a short novel of 191 pages with plenty of white. It's quite good. The Virago edition I borrowed from the library has an Introduction by Paul Bailey that is littered with spoilers. Taylor has written better novels, Angel and Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont in my opinion, but her good is very very good and she's never horrid.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

House Arrest in Paris

Having finished The House in Paris and not wishing to spoil your reading of it; if you haven't already read it, I will reserve my remarks to generalities.  In the crime novel of the puzzle sort everything is explained in the library at the end by the Poirot like figure who shows you that everything you needed to discover the killer was given to you in the plot.  There is no knowledge that is his alone.   Realistic fiction is different, like life itself motivation 'unknown' to the reader/observer can sometimes lead to strange and uncanny twists.   People do the unexpected and swerve without signalling.  The great writers can depict that without leading us by the nose, others place finger-posts so that we don't get too much of a shock.  That sort of writing need not concern us here.   How did Bowen manage in that test of writers justification?  Very well I think, but it is a fact that you have to sink into the characters and below the surface fabric of the novel to feel the greater archetypal tides.  Mme Fisher as malign anima  is how 'unknown' earns its quotes.  She is one of those spiders in Baudelaire's 'Spleen'
And the dumb throngs of infamous spiders spin
Their meshes in the caverns of the brain,
But she herself is webbed down by illness and can only marshal her minion, Miss Fisher, by rapping on the ceiling, like a communication from beyond that does not lack authority.
Mrs. Michaelis, Karen's mother is also of the sort who manages by creating default avenues of permission, that channels the lives around her into patterns that she considers appropriate. She eliminates from consideration that of which she does not approve:
On Sunday night, when - '
Mrs. Michaelis put a hand to her face. 'You know I never ask you to tell me everything, Karen.'
'On Sunday night when I came in, I really did see Ray's letter. I left it where it was because I felt bad, because I am not going to marry him.'
'I think you will want to, Karen.' said her mother

Karen's aunt Violet, her mother's sister has kept from Karen's parents the fact that she is very ill and is to undergo an operation that she may well die from. They live in Ireland and when at the start of the Past section Karen visits them her uncle Colonel Bill blurts it out but his wife says nothing. The complex pattern of secrets is another way of webbing down.

Mme. Fisher tells Leopold much more than he needs to know as a form of post-mortem oppression. But now I'm telling and here I am re-reading it already.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen

The Anglo in Anglo-Irish is very different from the Anglo in Anglo-Indian. The latter is a racial mixture, the former is a marked racial aloofness that when mingled with the native Irish loses caste as definitively as a Brahmin who has touched a plough. The Vikings and the Normans went bush early and became more Irish than the Irish themselves the only trace being their towns and castles and of course that strange uvular r that lingers round some areas. Brendan Behan, puer Borstalus for his Republican sins, referred to the Anglo Irish as a protestant on a horse. Yeats tried to identify with 'hard riding country gentlemen' whereas his stock was of the clerical protestant, professional adjuncts to the land owing class. Perhaps it is that wariness and otherness, that aloof noting of the correct distance that brings out the writer in a group that discovers when they go to their putative mother-country that they really are not English at all. They need to be in Ireland to feel that they are after all English.

I've been reading Joyce Cary and Elizabeth Bowen recently and though it may seem that their connection with Ireland is exiguous, their writing has a specific gravity, a weighting that is Irish and a glancing off the surface that is unmistakable. I'm reading The House in Paris from 1935 at the moment. It is achieved in the sense that it creates precisely those harmonics between Past and Present which form the structure of the book. The Present is represented by the young of the Past and the interplay between the 11 year old girl and the 9 year old boy has some of the fatality of replication.

She thought, young girls like the excess of any quality. Without knowing, they want to suffer, to suffer they must exaggerate; they like to have loud chords struck on them. Loving art better than life they need men to be actors; only an actor moves them, with his telling smile, undomestic, out of touch with the everyday that they dread. They love to enjoy love as a system of doubts and shocks.
(Karen from The Past section)

It is a subtle book requiring a vigilant meditativeness to enjoy.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Spots of Time

There's a steroscopic aspect to realisation. What gives depth and fullness to experience is an an ability to immerse ourselves in it in a non-dual way. The object of experience is set against the subject of experience but at the same time what makes experiencing possible is the underlying ontological unity. The object can come to be in the subject. Clearly this non-dual realisation is a rare event in the lives of most of us but as Wordsworth has said in his 'spots of time' passage they are vital.

There are in our existence spots of time,
Which with distinct pre-eminence retain
A vivifying Virtue, whence, depress'd
By false opinion and contentious thought,
Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight
In trivial occupations, and the round
Of ordinary intercourse, our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repair'd,
A virtue by which pleasure is enhanced
That penetrates, enables us to mount
When high, more high, and lift us up when fallen.
This efficacious spirit chiefly lurks
Among those passages of life in which
We have deepest feeling that the mind
Is lord and master, and that outward sense
Is but the obedient servant of her will.
Such moments worthy of all gratitude,
Are scattered everywhere, taking their date
From our first childhood: in our childhood even
Perhaps are most conspicuous.
(Bk.XI. ln.258 foll.)

There is no claim in this passage that such epiphanies are the domain of elite adepts. We all can visit and experience recreation and renewal yet there are what the Buddhists call 'upaya' or skillful means. Alienation and banishment from the garden is always a possibility. I shall have to look at the later poems in the era after the great decade to find if there is a clue to Wordsworth's decline in them.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Prelude to Reality

The challenge of realism is to show that we experience reality even if this experience has limitations. There is always the possibility of error and there is always more to know. Contrasted with this is idealism which is never naive perhaps because it is all naive. Idealism turns our conviction that we are experiencing reality into an experience of experience and the perception of perception and reduces 'common' sense into a complete mystery which arose we know not why from we know not where. Obviously there is an 'internal' side to experience, neuronal traffic and the like, and there is an 'external' side, the conceptual, the common. Wittgenstein ought to have put paid to the excessive weight that idealism puts on the internal beam of the scales with his beetle in the box but like a powerful virus it is a cunning adversary that mutates. However I don't think that it is the business of philosophy to deal with every manifestation of ontological error however solidly empirical it seems. Don't panic, it's perfectly safe to remain in your armchairs.

There is that perennial conundrum – if you can pose the question, can you not by that very fact resolve the question? Yes I would reply if you accept realisation as a comprehension. The aporia of how there can be a non-numerical identity between the experience and the reality is resolved by the fact of poetry.

Nor should this, perchance,
Pass unrecorded, that I still lov'd
That exercise and produce of a toil
Than analytic industry to me
More pleasing, and whose character I deem
Is more poetic as resembling more
Creative agency. I mean to speak
Of that interminable building rear'd
By observation of affinities
In objects where no brotherhood exists
To common minds.
To unorganic natures I transferr'd
My own enjoyments, or, the power of truth
Coming in revelation, I convers'd
With things that really are, I, at this time
Saw blessings spread round me like a sea.
(The Prelude Book II. 396 foll.)

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

The Prelude by William Wordsworth

I am reading The Prelude by Wordsworth regularly and consecutively. The bathos that attends excessive solemnity like an awkward acolyte is there but for me it humanises the lofty and impassioned passages that are normally anthologised. "Keep her going Liamie, don't stall the digger", I cry from the pit.

Nor will it seem to thee, my Friend! so prompt
In sympathy, that I have lengthen'd out,
With fond and feeble tongue, a tedious tale.

Not so Dear William inveterate companion of my earlier years,
A form glimpsed in the tumbling cataract of Glencar,
hanging in the mist, its own moment,
given, complete and no presage of future states.

Wordsworth often asks, was I being led on, was this part of an unfolding initiation? In the monist philosophy which he informally espoused everything already is whatever it's going to be. 'Become who you are' said Kierkegaard somewhere. The end or final cause, the telos of Aristotle is not an objective to be attained but what is the case now. Everything is to the point.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Meet the Bensons

I mentioned recently the work of Robert Hugh Benson. The Bensons were an extraordinarily gifted family. Of the four surviving members of the family of six the 3 boys were writers and the daughter Maggie an amateur Egyptologist of note. It was a complex family and I would say that if 7 shrinks with 7 couches worked for 15 years I do not think at the end of it they would get it all quite clear. The Dodgson/Carroll nod will be clear from the link below. Robert's brother Arthur writing in one of his essays of which there are 70 volumes has this to say about his family and particularly about his father the late Archbishop of Canterbury Edward White Benson:

Let me speak, then, plainly of what that life has been, and tell what my point of view is. I was brought up on ordinary English lines. My father, in a busy life, held a series of what may be called high official positions. He was an idealist, who owing to a vigorous power of practical organisation and a mastery of detail was essentially a man of affairs.

Read this
and you will be aware of the level of heroic denial the foregoing entailed.

As well as writing novels, ghost stories and essays Arthur prepared for publication the letters of Queen Victoria and 'arranged' the papers of his brother Robert ka Hugh, and his sister Maggie. The other brother Edward ka Fred was also a prolific writer of novels and ghost stories and a personal friend of Queen Victoria. I pass over with a sniff the opportunity for cheap ribaldry here. Actually this brother may have been the best writer of the three. His Mapp and Lucia novels are quite readable and amusing. I'm reading Queen Lucia (Gutenberg Project) which seems to be the start of the series. They were made into a miniseries by Channel 4 back in the 80's which I haven't seen. The eponymous Lucia is the apotheosis of 'twee'.

In the garden behind the house there was no attempt to construct a Shakespearean plot for as she so rightly observed Shakespeare who loved flowers so well would wish her to enjoy every conceivable horticultural treasure. But furniture played a prominent part in the place and there were statues and sundials and stone-seats scattered about with almost too profuse a hand. Mottoes were also in great evidence, and while a sundial reminded you that "Tempus Fugit" an enticing resting place somewhat bewilderingly bade you to "Bide a Wee". But then again the rustic seat in the pleached alley of laburnums had carved on the back, "Much have I travelled in the realms of gold" so that meditating on Keats you could bide a wee with an clear conscience.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Dracula by Bram Stoker

First, let's be clear, Stoker was not moving about the lay figures of Marxist/Feminist/Freudian criticism when he wrote Dracula, he was working straight out of 'the foul rag and bone-shop of the heart'. The mind of a civil servant is a strange and hideous place, a lair of filth, corruption and latterly, brown envelopes. I never, ever read the introductions to novels in the fancy academic editions lest the wearisome lucubrations of the scholastic infect me with its turbid literalness: but having read Dracula for the nth. time I invited Maud, Daughter of Richard, Ellmann into the clean well-lighted place that is my mind. Alas! I think a first reading at least should be a naive one - in which our reader encounters this novel for the first time. Besides the critic may be careless of spoilers.

"Welcome to my house! Enter freely and of your own free will". He made no motion of stepping to meet me but stood like a statue, as though his gesture of welcome had fixed him into stone. The moment however that I had stepped over the threshold, he moved impulsively forward and holding out his hand grasped mine with a strength which made me wince, an effect which was not lessened by the fact that it seemed cold as ice, more like the hand of a dead than a living man. Again he said
"Welcome to my house! Enter freely. Go safely and leave something of the happiness you bring."

Ah yes, was ever a more prophetic invitation made. Note the quiet old-world dignity of the formula and the implication that all motions of the soul are fundamentally free. Can there be such a thing as a willing victim? When you join the ranks of the Undead you do so by invitation. He invites you to a mockery of eternity, you accept. As Dr. Van Helsing makes clear later in the case of Lucy she must first have let the Count in.

The conventions that create the illusion of verisimilitude are freely used in this novel. The Bradshaw Railway timetable both English and Continental is plied freely, we can be certain that the indefatigable Van Helsing can do those journeys to fetch his kit in the time that is allotted to him. In a sort of a way the normal narration of a novel is subverted and real history with its profusion and methodology of documentation is aped. Even the phonograph, the latest killer app of the day is pressed into use. Nobody knows what anybody else is thinking unless they are told and we do not know unless that is recorded by one or other of the participants. There is an inevitable muting of character development using this sort of narration but the point of Dracula is the play of forces.

It is the nineteenth century up-to-date with a vengeance. And yet unless my senses deceive me, the old centuries had, and have, powers of their own which 'modernity' cannot kill.

However it is Mina Harker nee Murray using all modern methods who collates the evidence in 'a mass of typewriting' that allows each to know of the adventures of the other. Only Van Helsing of Amsterdam, Dr. Sewards old professor, appears in the annals of the rest having none of his own if I rightly remember.

It is surprising how many people think that Dracula is an ill written farrago or pulp and just don't bother with it taking the movie with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee as the fons et origo. That is a mistake. There is much excellent stuff in it. Here is the passage where Jonathan Harker discovers that his host dispenses with stairs:

What I saw was the Count's head coming out from the window. I did not see the face but I knew the man by the neck and the movement of his back and arms. In any case I could not mistake the hands which I had some many opportunities of studying. I was at first interested and somewhat amused, for it is wonderful how small a matter will interest and amuse a man when he is a prisoner. But my very feelings changed to repulsion and terror when I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window and begin to crawl down the castle wall over the dreadful abyss, face down with his cloak spreading out around him like great wings.......

There is some humour also, perhaps unconscious, but I think not. In Dr. Seward's Diary we are told of the first meeting with Mina Murray of the mad zoophagite Renfield who is in clairvoyant contact with the Count :

She came into the room with an easy gracefulness which would at once command the respect of any lunatic for easiness is one of the qualities mad people most respect.

Extract from Ombhurbhuva's journal:
I have finished Dracula today, and now I see that it is the Day of the Dead. Of course I observed the usual precautions and only read it during the hours of daylight. I am comforted by the wild rose in the hedge and an abundant supply of garlic in the kitchen. As ever I was relieved that Kukri and Bowie knife accomplished their grim task giving peace at last to the Count who in his day, we must not forget, was a great patriot.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

A Mirror of Shalott by Robert Hugh Benson

This is the season of the pooka, a good time for stories of the supernatural. In a paperback anthology I found a slight tale by Robert Hugh Benson benson excerpted from a book called A Mirror of Shalott. This is available on Internet Archive. IA The suite of stories are told by a group of Catholic clerics meeting in a house in Rome I'm not sure that everyone would consider them real chillers, there are no fat boys like the one in Pickwick that will make your blood run cold, with a recitation of the blood drinkers burial in character but in an understated way that sharpens your sense of both the supernatural and the infranatural, they have a power.

Benson was a priest himself so the material plane was merely a diaphane that could be backlit on occasion. My sense is that these tales are more or less the true stories that he had heard from his colleagues in the ministry. It is the near irruptions into the everyday of other worlds where you can't be quite sure whether it was imagination or not that are the most effective. One story of a dream told by Father Stein :

He was slow of speech and thought and movement, and had that distressing grasp of the obvious that is characteristic of the German mind.

However the story that he tells of an archetypal dream is worthy of the best of Carl Jung.

Another story involves the concept of mystical substitution which a man proposes to the priest who is recounting it, a practical man not well up on the idea.

Well, I didn't understand him at first, but we talked a little, and at last I found that the idea of mystical substitution had seized on his mind. He was persuaded that he must make an offering of himself to God and as to be allowed to bear the temptation instead of his brother. Of course, we know that that is one of the claims of the Contemplative but to tell the truth, I had never come across it before in my own experience.

Not a good idea as it turned out. This man had previously gone for the priesthood and we are told:

The man's health simply could not stand it. But he led a most mortified and interior life with his wife in his London house, with a servant of two to look after them and was present daily at mass at the church that I served then.

Diverting and edifying. Quite!

Monday, 7 November 2011

The Sin of Father Amaro by Eca De Queiroz

The Amateur Reader (Tom) at Wuthering ExpectationsARin his exploration of Portuguese literature mentioned Eca De Queiroz favourably and I spotted his famous novel The Sin of Father Amaro in a tottering pile on the floor of the second-hand book shop (€5). In the later translation I note that it is called The Crime of Father Amaro which seems an odd variant as sin and crime are readily distinguished from each other.

The Sin of Father Amaro is a swingeing attack on the clergy of Portugal in the 19th.C. both individual members and institution. They are what their Lord and Master Jesus Christ would have called whited sepulchers using the Church as a cover for their sordid plotting, lusts and avarice. The ‘beatas’, that band of addled women oppressed by scruples and in thrall to the priests that batten on them in a spiritual vampirism meet at the house of a lady who is the the mistress of the Canon. This individual is also the mentor of a young priest who has been appointed to the local cathedral. De Queiroz’s description of the old ladies and the leech priests are like illustrations from Lombroso’s people to avoid supplement.

Dona Josepha, the canon’s sister, was also there. She was nick-named the Peeled Chestnut. She was a little withered creature, crookedly formed, with shrivelled, cider-coloured skin and a hissing voice; she lived in a state of perpetual irritation, her small eyes always alight, her nervous system eternally contracted, her whole attitude full of spleen. She was dreaded by all. The malignant Doctor Godhino called her the Central Station of the intrigues of Leiria.

In the woman’s house in which Fr. Amaro is staying is the 22 year old daughter; beautiful, fresh, virginal and prone to sentimental religiosity. Clearly in liturgical terms, a ‘suitable victim’.

Amaro is at first given charitable indulgence by the author; he has been, after all, press ganged into the clergy by a sponsor in the nobility who reared him and his sister. He is a fine vigourous handsome fellow whose health has markedly improved since his curacy in the mountains. The chief element of his cure was wrought by a facilitating shepherdess.

The leniency of the author becomes strained as he delineates beautifully the insidious seduction by the paroche of Amelia. From this point in our history we know how cult leaders can prey on the impressionable and devout. It is true that there are clergy who use the office to cloak their abuse but the author seems a misanthrope who finds no good in anyone, lay or clerical. This is perhaps a weakness in a purported realist. All the characters without exception are hypocrites, fools and knaves, the priests in particular combining all those traits in an odious melange. The progress towards tragedy is inevitable and the ebb and flow of the tide of guilt and ecstasy is closely observed.

First published in 1875, my translation by Nan Flanagan is from 1962. In 2002 Dedalus Books presented a new translation by Margaret Jull Costa. They have issued more of her translations of Eca De Queiroz which I shall be looking out for.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Broad and Low

Anton Rubenstein's lush opera on the same subject was also banned by censors who deemed it sacrilegious and stupid.
I read this in a Wikipedia article on Lermontov whose A Hero of Our Time I am starting to read in the translation by Wisdom & Murray(from Gutenberg Project). It made me laugh, out loud even, in an unironic fashion. But why? Do we need not access to the stupid as a matter of free speech. It ought not to be kept from us. I demand the right to be baffled.
Speaking of free speech one recalls that it was our President-elect Michael D. Higgins that abolished Section 31 which kept Sinn Fein off the airwaves in Ireland. How karmically appropriate that it was Martin McGuinness in a television debate that delivered the election to Michael D. when he sunk the front runner ,by all polls, Sean Gallagher. As with all Sinn Fein truth it was larded with lies but precisely timed to be too late in the campaign to counter.
Michael D. will be fine. I met him a couple of times at funerals. We had a chat and a laugh. I was recalling to him the previous funeral. Because Pat's woman was away in Europe at the time his sisters took charge of the laying out of his body and had entwined his hands in sturdy rosary beads. Pat affected to believe in fairies and paid out good money for an advanced course in TM; spiritually eclectic would be a fair description of his religious views. Many and wandering paths. Probably not Marian. I said to Michael D that Irish funerals had a tendency to fall into low comedy. We laughed and then we talked of his efforts to secure the release of Kenneth Bigley who was a hostage in Iraq. In the end Bigley was beheaded but I think that contacts and middlemen from Gaza that Michael D would have known were used to try to reach Abu Musab al-Zarqawi the leader of the group.

Somehow Pat's teeth were lost and his jaws had a Schopenhaurian chapfallen visage that gave him a peevish look as of one who had just noticed a dog pissing on his shoe. I liked Pat, God rest him, and I think that he would have enjoyed the broad and low element.