Monday, June 18, 2007

Memories of malevolence

(Photo by rocketlass)

Saturday night, Stacey and I had Marc, our old friend from my bookselling days (whom long ago became a minister in the Universal Life Church via the Internet so that he could perform our wedding ceremony), over for dinner to belatedly celebrate his and my birthdays.

As always, it was a great night full all sorts of talk--but always circling back to books. Late in the evening, I asked Marc if he'd ever read Laura Riding:

Marc Only her short stories. They're intense--incredibly oppressive. She could describe a tea party and you'd feel like she was in the teapot. In her way, she's as intense as Dickens.

Me But whereas Dickens is standing over your shoulder manically pointing things out because he thinks they're fascinating and he really wants to make sure you aren't going to miss them, she's directing your attention because she wants to make sure you're looking where she wants you to?

Marc Exactly. Those stories are scary. They'll set your chest hair on fire.

I asked Marc about Riding because all I really know of her is through her longtime association with Robert Graves, which I've mentioned in passing before. As Michael Dirda explains:
[Riding was] a hauntingly strange writer--the young Auden called her the "only living philosophical poet" and acknowledged her influence. . . . Graves admired her poems and started a correspondence that eventually led to Riding's being offered a job as his secretary. As anyone might guess, this was a bad idea. Before long, the two poets were lovers, though [Gates's wife] Nancy didn't seem to mind much. A rocky marriage slowly turned into a steady menage a trois.

From all accounts Riding possessed a charismatic, forceful personality, a superb mind, and a psychological acumen that permitted her to bend almost anyone to her will. . . . Robert once remarked, "You have no idea of Laura's holiness."
Having found what he perhaps had needed all his life, Graves really did seem to essentially worship Riding, but that didn't make their lives together any easier. There followed dual suicide attempts, a move to Mallorca, and, on Riding's part, a temporary (but lengthy) renunciation of sex. Later, the couple spent an extremely stormy, destructive, and mysterious summer in an old stone farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania. As Dirda explains, "No one likes to talk about the weeks that followed."

But someone eventually did. Those weeks form the malefic heart of Once As It Was (2002), a memoir by former New Directions president Griselda Jackson Ohannessian, who with her parents lived down the hill from the Graves-Riding farmhouse. Though the first two-thirds of the book are a remarkably charming, affectless, even naive account of a Depression childhood--one that calls to mind Flora Thompson's Lark Rise to Candleford--the story darkens with the arrival of Graves and Riding in 1939, the summer of Griselda's twelfth year. Of Riding, she says:
I thought Miss Riding a curious sight. She was wearing clothes that seemed to me more like a costume than everyday wear. Maria remembers a sort of elaborate hunting jacket, bright red. She was wearing dangling jewelry and I think she was carrying a parasol or fan. She noticeably had on makeup; one could see the layer of powder on her face. Her looks were intriguing. One didn't usually see ordinary people wearing ankle-length skirts or putting on makeup in the daytime back then. One minute she would seem almost ugly; another, she would look like a regal personage, maybe Egyptian, from long ago. She had very blue deep-set eyes and brown, bushy, wiry hair held back with a headband or a ribbon. Her voice seemed rather odd. She had a bit of a nasal twang and behind her English accent lurked a more plebeian American-city one.
(Graves, meanwhile, "was large and burly and looked as if he had bad breath, as indeed he did.")

Graves and Riding become fixtures at Griselda's parents' house, and it's not long before she begins to notice her parents and their friends falling meekly into line behind Riding:
I did not like the way the other grownups treated her. "Yes, Laura." "Of course, Laura." "You're right, Laura." I did not like Laura's acceptance of their deference. I wasn't comfortable in the heavy atmosphere--all the hustle and bustle, all the talk. Once, when crossing the front lawn, I passed them all sitting in a circle, no one speaking. Then Robert said something and Laura snapped at him. "Be quiet." And he was. I did not like the way either of them had behaved--he subservient, she dictatorial.
The tension builds in the family as Riding extends her control--though she's never able to extend that power to Griselda, which openly angers her. In the manner of Henry James or Richard Hughes, Ohannessian presents the scene through the surprising perceptiveness native to children: though the adults seem to be forcing themselves to deny it, Griselda clearly sees that the situation, suffused with secrecy and malevolence, is becoming untenable. Then one night at dinner Griselda's mother makes her stand:
The meal was almost over. It had not been a pleasant one. Suddenly Ma stood up and announced,
"I am taking the children for a walk."

"Robert will go with you," Laura said.

"No he will not," Ma replied.

"Not now, Katharine," Laura commanded.

"They are my children," Ma replied, "and if I want to take them on a walk, I will do so."

Did Laura say "You will not"? It was at the very least implied. Ma pushed back her chair, got up, and turned toward the door. I had a feeling that I had to stand up to Laura. I stood up, my troops stood too, and we followed Ma.
In the gathering dusk, they walk--and on the way Griselda's mother has an absolutely bloodcurdling breakdown, followed soon after by the first in what would become a decades-long series of institutionalizations.

Griselda, meanwhile, is left with her father and Graves, both completely in thrall to Laura; her confrontation with Riding a few nights later reads like something out of the creepiest of psychological horror novels:
I was stopped in my tracks by a great wave of fear. I was dizzy, there was a buzzing in my ears, I could hardly breathe, I was losing myself, I was going off my rocker. . . . Then I heard the click-clack--Laura's footsteps were always resounding. I knew without a trace of doubt that she was coming and she was coming quickly and I, having moved my bed catty-corner to the door, was trapped. There was no place to hide, no exit. I was cornered and she was coming and I knew she knew the condition I was in. She was going to push me over an edge--that's what I believed and still do.
At the last second, Riding is stopped in her tracks through the inexplicable intervention of what Griselda at the time--and, apparently, for the rest of her life--took to be some sort of higher power. Laura's uncanny power--at least where Griselda is concerned--is broken. At Bookexpo, I mentioned the creepiness of that scene to a woman working in the New Directions booth, and she assured me that Griselda retained that belief in the invisible but palpable workings of good and evil in the world to this day.

Years ago, I remember arguing with a girlfriend about the value of biography as an element of how we understand and judge writers. Back then, young and certain, I took a purist's position, scoffing at the notion that biography could provide any insight into a stand-alone work of art. Now, as evidenced by my love of Javier Marias's Written Lives, I find myself interested in writers' lives not only for what they might teach me about their work, but also, I'm not ashamed to say, on a much baser, near-prurient level as well. The Graves-Riding story is so complicated and fascinating, so shocking, that at this distance, the principals long dead, it has become a sort of work itself--odd and unpleasant, but damned hard to turn away from.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying, anyone read Riding? Is Marc right? Will her stories set my chest hair on fire? And, knowing all this, how can I not give her a try?

1 comment:

  1. I haven't read Riding, but want to; I know Harry Mathews is a fan (there's a piece in his nonfiction collection)...

    Also her books have appeared in my dream (albeit as Laura "Rider" Jackson):