Monday, 27 February 2012

Our Spoons came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns

This was Comyns's second novel, published in 1950, and it appears to be based on the outlines of her life as far as I can gather from Wikipedia and elsewhere.
The Virago edition that I read has an introduction by Ursula Holden which is useful and non-spoiling because it really gives you the impression that the faux-naivete that some characterise her voice as; most of her novels are told in the first person, may not be faux. Sophia protagonist and narrator is an innocent at large essentially good though terminally heedless. Though she knows who is for and who is against her she seems unable to resist their bullying.

Ursala Holden writes:"She was one of a large family, brought up in the country by a river. Her mother led an invalid life and became deaf at an early age which meant that Barbara and the children had to learn sign language. This handicap may well have contributed towards her starting to write as a compensation. The family mixed with few other children. They spent long hours in boats, fishing and playing and were educated mainly by governesses."

When the novel opens, in the 30's she tells us that events of the novel are behind her as she has been explaining to Helen her confidante. She is much happier now and though it is a relief to tell her tale at the same time she half regrets doing so.

I wish I hadn't told Helen so much; it's brought everything back in a vivid flash. I can see Charles's white pointed face, and hear his husky nervous voice. I keep remembering things all the time.

Now she tells us the story that she has just told Helen but with the information that we have that everything turned out all right we will be able to cope with the misadventures of Sophia trying to keep her family from falling into severe destitution during the great depression. The Charles is the 21 year old artist that she has married, the same age as herself. Both their families are appalled. His mother who is a perfect portrait of self absorption regards her as the wrecker of the artistic future of her son but in fact Sophia supports them both with her work in a colouring studio whatever that is. Precise practical details are not given. It's probably colouring photos.

After two months of marriage living in the flat which they decorated themselves:

We redecorated the flat ourselves. Because the room was rather dark we painted the walls a kind of stippled yellow, lots of black hairs from the brush got mixed up with the paint, but they looked as if they were meant to be there almost.

she discovers that she is pregnant, the thinking very hard about not being pregnant not really being a form of birth control as she thought. Charles who shares the monstrous egotism of his family is irritated and in every possible way is no support whatsoever.

This is prior to the National Health Service so a charity hospital maternity case is treated with the casual contempt for the indigent of that era. Much as Esther Waters had to do she must get a reference to attend a hospital when her time comes. She gets this and lets them know at work:

I told my boss I was expecting a baby, and he said I had better leave at Christmas. I did not like to tell him how much we depended on the money I was earning or he would have thought Charles wasn't a good artist, but it was rather a blow to know I was leaving at Christmas. I had hoped they would let me stay till the baby came and perhaps let me come back after and leave it in a pram by the railings while I was working.

Through all of this she remains loyal to Charles modelling for other artists and scraping along. The lying in hospital, such an antique name seems appropriate, is a vile institution. When baby comes along, a boy, what shall it be called. Charles suggests Pablo. Not suitable in the England of the day. Sandro or Augustus then. Eventually she had him registered as Sandro Thomas Hardy Fairclough.

I added Thomas Hardy because he was my favourite author at the time. I was not sure if Charles expected Botticelli after Sandro or not, but left it out because of spelling difficulties.

Thomas Hardy is appropriate as the sadism which he inflicts on his protagonists is mirrored in this tale of la vie bohéme.

It's difficult to communicate the beyond quirkiness aspect of Comyns's narrator. Does anybody here remember self-assertiveness and self-assertiveness classes? It's that blue layer in Devonian self-help. She has none. Everyone imposes on her and her self abnegation brings out the bullies in battalions.
Horror accumulates:

Charles seemed pleased to be with me but he kept looking at the baby with disgust. He said the thing that made him dislike it most was the resemblance to himself.

When we arrived home the first thing I noticed as we came up the stairs was the frightful smell of fish, and when we reached the living-room I saw the reason. Charles was in the middle of painting a picture of some herrings on a newspaper, and they had gone most high. He said they must not be thrown away until he had finished the painting. Already they had changed colour considerably, so we had to sit in the bedroom, and you could still smell them there.

But it all works out in the end even if like a old rubber ball she latterly begins to lose her bounce. An excellent tragi-comedy. I am now looking forward to reading The Vet's Daughter when I get hold of it.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Bergson goes to Burnt Norton and visits T.S. Eliot

I've always felt that Eliot's Four Quartets was one of the great religious poems. It expresses an ecstatic sobriety and an abandon always reined in by a sense of unworthiness. The Bergsonian reflections on the nature of time in Burnt Norton are beautiful and I will consider just a few of them.

Section I:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

Relate this to Bergson's remarks on duration:

Granted that inner duration, perceived by consciousness, is nothing else but the melting of states of consciousness into one another, and the gradual growth of the ego, it will be said, notwithstanding, that the time which the astronomer introduces into his formulae, the time which our clocks divide into equal portions, this time, at least, is something different : it must be a measurable and therefore homogeneous magnitude.-It is nothing of the sort, however, and a close examination will dispel this last illusion. When I follow with my eyes on the dial of a Time, as dealt with by the astronomer and the physicist, does indeed seem to be measurable and therefore homogeneous (108) clock the movement of the hand which corresponds to the oscillations of the pendulum, I do not measure duration, as seems to be thought ; I merely count simultaneities, which is very different. Outside of me, in space, there is never more than a single position of the hand and the pendulum, for nothing is left of the past positions. Within myself a process of organization or interpenetration of conscious states is going on, which constitutes true duration.
pg.50 ereader. Time and Free Will

End of Section II.:

Time past and time future
Allow but a little consciousness.
To be conscious is not to be in time
But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,
The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,
The moment in the draughty church at smokefall
Be remembered; involved with past and future.
Only through time time is conquered.

Compare the thought behind this to Bergson's almost presentist consideration of the apparent pointlessness of having a consciousness which is constantly being drawn away from the present where it really is. Eliot's critique of time is based on the concept of duration which has no extension. Time whose essential reality is duration becomes derealised by being spatialised. It is taken to be an extended quanitative thing.

But it might be asked whether pleasure and pain, instead of expressing only what has just occurred, or what is actually occurring, in the organism, as is usually believed, could not also point out what is going to, or what is tending to take place. It seems indeed somewhat improbable that nature, so profoundly utilitarian, should have here assigned to consciousness the merely scientific task of informing us about the past or the present, which no longer depend upon us.
page 16 ereader Time and Free Will

From the beginning of Section V:

Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.
Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,
Not that only, but the co-existence,
Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Bergson on the novelist/ own presence.

Ktismatics and I were discussing world makingworldmaking from the point of view of the writer of fiction. This extract from Time and Free Will by Henri Bergson is germane. Bergson is a difficult thinker but one I think that should be approached directly by diving into the primary texts and avoiding the myrmidons Deleuze, et al. If I may further mix the metaphor they are like whales, very like whales, in that they strain out what is food for them. They might have left this after them or promoted the strange idea that Bergson requires naturalising.

Now, if some bold novelist tearing aside the cleverly woven curtain of our conventional ego, shows us under this appearance of logic a fundamental absurdity, under this juxtaposition of simple states and infinite permeation of a thousand different impressions which have already ceased to exist the instant they are named, we commend him for having known us better than we knew ourselves. This is not the case however and the very fact that he spreads out our feeling in a homogeneous time, and expresses its elements by words, shows that he in his turn is only offering us its shadow but he has arranged this shadow in such a way as to make us suspect the extraordinary and illogical nature of the object which projects it; he has made us reflect by giving outward expression to something of that contradiction that interpenetration, which is the very essence of the elements expressed. Encouraged by him, we have put aside for an instant the veil which we interposed between our consciousness and ourselves. He has brought us back into our own presence.
(from Time and Free Will pg.62 ereader search on own presence.

Friday, 17 February 2012

A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor

Looking at the map of your inner England, to remark to your companion 'I think we're in the Home Counties Darling' would be true by GPS but false if one expects rood screens and 'where did I leave my cycle clips'. No, Elizabeth Taylor's Dramatis Personae have a more complex anguish than ever disrupted a garden fete. The novel opens at the shabby Victorian house of Hugo and Caroline over whose children the 18 year old Harriet has a supervisory role she combines with typing. The relationships between all the parties in this novel are complex and god forgive me, inter-generational.
Vesey's aunt, the mother of Joseph and Deirdre was Harriet's mother's closest friend. As young women (a smudged photograph recorded this) they had once been hustled, gripped above the elbows by policemen, up the steps of a police-station. In the background, shop-windows showed great holes like black stars. Harriet, not able to bear this picture nor to ignore it, heedless of former sacrifice, as history makes all of us, saw only that her mother had exposed herself to mockery and ridicule, that she looked ugly, wild, a little mad, her mouth a little open, her had sideways. And Vesey's Aunt Caroline the same.
Vesey is Harriet's 'cycling fish' if you will. He is also 18 and has been parked with his aunt for the summer. Harriet falls in love with him but he then leaves and doesn't write. All during her subsequent marriage with Charles who is a much older man, she holds him in her heart. Harriet has to regularly wring out her hanky. This sounds I know like the elocution sentences that she might have had to repeat in school. ‘Vowels gels’. Harriet is a weeper and at a critical moment with her husband as she begins to overflow he thinks in an uncharacteristic moment of disloyalty that she is a terrible whiney woman. About Charles:
Charles was much respected in the little town where he worked. Solid, serious, astute, he was a strange son for his mother to have borne, people felt. That she was an embarrassment to him, they could easily understand: that there was war between them few realised - war which, stimulated Julia and bore her up; but which had effects of prolonged nervous strain upon her son.
Julia was an actress at the top of her profession. She cannot leave off her actressy ways and Taylor has fun with these. Her son looks out the window and sees her coming up the garden path.
His mother came up the path with a red and silvery cabbage in one hand, a knife in the other. She held the cabbage away from her, as if it were some loathed thing. It might have been John the Baptist's head so dramatically did she carry it.
Vesey who has receded from view in the novel is the worm at the heart of Charles's marriage. He is that great invisible planet that perturbs. After 16 years he turns up and and it looks as though the un may be subtracted from the unrequited. That is the second half of the novel. A passing reference is made to the film Brief Encounter. This novel is very fine, in its observation, precise and she's also kind to men.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Esther Waters by George Moore part II

If there was ever a novelist with the background knowledge of the world of horse racing it was George Augustus Moore. The Moore's of Moore Hall were horse mad like the Barfield's of his best selling Esther Waters and there is a little tribute to his Uncle, Arthur Augustus Moore, who was killed riding in the Aintree Grand National of 1845 on a horse Mickey Free. Mrs. Barfield is worried about her son Mr. Arthur aka Ginger, who is a famous gentleman rider and is relieved that he came through but only placed fourth. From the Irish National point of view the greater fame attaches to George's father George Henry who won the Chester Gold Cup with Coranna in 1846. His prize money was augmented by £17,000 from on course bets. This he used for Famine Relief on his estate and the purchase of a cow for each of his tenants. No one was evicted from the Moore place in hard times and this is remembered to this day. The incendiarybosthoons that burnt down the house in 1922 have commemorated this with a plaque. That's nice!

So then George Augustus Moore came from fine stock and he supplied the literary credentials to a family that was prominent in sporting and political life. His family must have resigned themselves to a hiatus with the poor specimen that he presented and the lack of confidence in his own powers is evinced by the surprise that he got with the success of Esther Waters. Receiving the first bound copy from the printers he writes:

...turning the pages, seeing all my dreams frozen into the little space of print, I had thrown the book aside and had sat like one overcome until the solitude of King's Bench Walk became unendurable, and forced me to seek distraction in St. James's Theatre, for I did not think that anyone had yet read the book and was genuinely surprised when an acquaintance stopped me in the lobby and began to thank me for the pleasure my story had given him. But I could not believe that he was not mocking me, and escaped from him, feeling more miserable than ever
(from Ave first vol. of Hail and Farewell.

This was Moore's 16th. book and 9th. novel and it was published in 1894. It was a massive success perhaps helped by its banning by that guardian of public morals, Mudie's Circulating Library. As an author Moore had arrived and in his way of retreating to the absurd poles of his personality, moi the whoremaster extraordinaire or the sad clown mocked and despised; claimed that it was the ruination of his access to the common people. He had come to know well one of the charladies of the King's Bench apartments. From her came all the inside dope about life in service during the Old Queen's reign. This would all end with success and in his Rousseauist way he relates how he forgot to answer the letter requesting aid from his char's son in her poor old age.

Esther Waters is pure realism with its mixture of sun and shade that even the most wretched life has. Moore describes the evils of baby farming and the connection between it, infanticide and the 'wet nursing' of the offspring of fine ladies that do not wish to spoil their figures. Esther is a battler with that degree of natural irascibility that will help her deal with obstacles while being part of why she faces them in the first place. Her sullenness and sulking drives William her lover away from her before she knows that she is pregnant by him. The enabling and disabling elements of character are well described. The people that she meets as she struggles to maintain a grip on life and rear her boy to manhood are a mixture of the good, the bad and the ugly. The wheedling baby farmer who offers to snuff her baby for £5 is a portrait of evil shocking because utterly normalised. Moore affected to believe that his novel was the inspiration behind the outlawing of the baby farming parlour industry.

This is a novel that is well worth reading and not just for historical reasons or Eng.Lit. requirements. It's a classic. Find the American edition on Internet Archive.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban

Is Riddley Walker a story of a likely post-nuclear dystopia? I don't think it is. If some people survived then it is likely that knowledge enough to preserve the shape of the language and pre-modern technology would survive with them. Maybe I'm not getting into the spirit of the story but sometimes when we are unwilling to suspend our disbelief traction is lacking. A story needs a possible world and this doesn't seem like one. When we look at the language which has degenerated to a restricted code that still has the shape of the original although presented in phonetic West Country we can wonder about the nature of the transmission. How is writing passed on but not spelling. Are there no books anywhere?

Is this a failure of my imagination or his? Doesn’t the form of a story create certain demands and allowances. In Magic Realism we accept talking chickens but not in a book of Zoology.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Esther Waters by George Moore

George Moore loved to revise but when faced with two versions of his classic Esther Waters one from Internet Archive on my ereader and the other a Dent Everyman paperback in an edition first published in 1936 and reprinted in 1976, I couldn't decide which was the later revised version. My preference was for the ereader version and I hoped that my assessment coincided with that of Moore but you never know. They say that Yeats's father, who was a portrait painter, did excellent work but you had to find out how many more sittings it would take to finish it. When he said 2, at that point you should insist on taking it with you.

A little more research and I found out that the British and Irish editions are based on the earlier work and the American is the revised. Very gratifying to discover ones taste coincides with that of a modern master. The initial opening of the book puts a lot of information into the mouth of a station porter who becomes that creaky expository device, the bystander explainer.

'So they do,' he answered, 'near Shoreham yonder,' and he pointed to a belt of trees,'they be too fine folk for the town. Shoreham, you see, isn't what it was in days gone by with shipyards about the harbour, and ships from all parts dropping their sails as they come within the breakwaters. Not much doing in the way of building down this way- a three ton boat or two on the stocks, not much more.'

MRV: (the porter is shunted)
That was the way to Woodview, right up the lane. She could not miss it. She would find the lodge gate in that clump of trees. The man lingered, for she was an attractive girl, but the station-master called him away to remove some baggage.

Moore in the Impressionist manner composes the landscape:
It was a barren country. Once the sea had crawled at high tide half way up the sloping sides of these downs. It would do the same now were it not for the shingle bank which its surging had thrown up along the coast. Between the shingle bank and the shore a weedy river flowed and the little town stood clamped together, its feet in the water's edge. There were decaying shipyards about the harbour, and wooden breakwaters stretched long thin arms seawards for ships that did not come. On the other side of the railway apple blossoms showed above a white washed wall,, some market gardening was done in the low lying fields whence the down rose in gradual ascents. On the first slope there was a fringe of trees. That was Woodview.

Two Versions A and B
It opened into a handsome avenue, and the gatekeeper told her to keep straight on, and to turn to the left when she got to the top. She had never seen anything like it before, and stopped to admire the uncouth arms of elms, like rafters above the roadway; pink clouds showed through, and the monotonous dove seemed the very heart of the silence.

He told her to keep straight on and to be sure to turn to the left when she got to the top; and having never seen an avenue before, she stopped to admire the rough branches of elms, like rafters above the roadway, and to hear the monotonous dove.

I am just a little way along the avenue that is Esther Waters myself and likewise stopping to admire the view. She is a chapel girl of the Plymouth Brethern sect, and is to find herself a kitchen maid in a gambling mad establishment. This won't end well. More anon.