Friday, 2 November 2012

Ellen Terhune by Edmund Wilson (from Memoirs of Hecate County)

I always felt, when I went to the Terhune house, that I was getting back into the past – or rather, perhaps, that an atmosphere which had first been established at the beginning of the eighties, when the house in which she lived had been built, had been preserved there as a vital medium down into the nineteen twenties.

Pay close attention to that opening sentence for in it is established the house as time machine or the projective vehicle of its chatelaine Ellen Terhune who is subject to strange absences. The story in its way is an exploration of that puzzle beloved of time travel theorists, the grandfather paradox. In this case the target is more the mother paradox. Go back to that stage to halt her marriage and thus the pregnancy which issued in Ellen. The time traveller is the narrator of the tale and as he goes back his modern clothes are noted much as he notes the retro styles of the 'persons' that he encounters. To cross into this imaginal domain he has to physically enter the Terhune place and be transported by Ellen who is one of her spells. (Hecate how are you) She tells us:

I've always been a little bit scared by these states that I was telling you about, and I thought it might be a good thing to take hold of them and deliberately exploit them – to try and put them outside myself.

Her intention is to alter her own past definitively so that she no longer exists in an unacceptable present in which she is creatively stuck. She is a composer and Wilson describes her impasse through the rendering of a sonata that is working on.

At the end, the ghost of a second theme limped off and dropped away in irremediable speciousness and impotence, and we were back with the same confounded phrase, which was never satisfactorily resolved, but simply repeated eight times at precisely the same loudness and tempo.

As I mentioned in a previous postgrail cup one can be in one of those imaginal realms and not know it so the narrator does not get spooked by the change in the appearance of the house. There is no immediate confrontation with another plane that is known to be such. To me the element of changing the future by altering the past is the predominant feature of the tale so I would put it into the category of time travel fiction.

To alter a phrase; yes I know, one that was never uttered, Beam me up Scot, there are little notes which put us in mind of the man for whom he was the conscience.

I turned away my mind, I confess, with a certain complacent relief to a big party I looked forward to that evening; one of those gathering where great quantities of tan-backed girls and scarlet-faced men, with highballs fizzing in their hands, lift laughing and strident voices among glass-topped cocktail tables and lamps that give indirect lighting.

There's that jaded lost generation note, the seed of Carraway so to speak:

I would feel suddenly after lunch or dinner that living in the country was hopeless, that I had no communication with other people, and that nothing I was doing meant anything; yet on the other hand I could not see any hope in living in the city or travelling: I knew what other human beings were – they might be more or less picturesque in their various environments and climates, and to the young this was a source of excitement; but to me, on the verge of thirty, it was desolatingly, incontrovertibly evident that people under any conditions, were the same wry pathetic freaks, and why should I go to the trouble of moving about among them in order to observe the shapes which their defects and distortions could take?

That's shown as one long sentence though there might be a misprint of a colon for a full stop after 'travelling'. Still he can't be faulted for his mastery of the archetectonic of narrative balance. He moves along very smoothly in a manner that is old-fashioned in the best way.

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