Monday, September 24, 2012

Rebecca West on The Fountain Overflows

At the suggestion of Will Schofield of Fifty Watts, I've recently been dipping into Rebecca West's letters. West was a fierce writer of strong opinions, and the letters are full of unforgettable (and often troubling) scenes from her life, a life vexed by difficult relationships with family and friends. But the letters are also full of great lines and fascinating scenes, like this wonderfully ridiculous account of a drunk Irish playwright at a party, sent to George Bernard Shaw in late 1917:
“To this [party] entered Frank Harris, in a very new dress suit, which one felt was part of an outfit which he had procured from some spinster by fraudulent representations, and delivered a lecture on Style. I admit it was plucky of him, for he was very drunk, His manner was foully offensive: a barking arrogance with oily declensions at the points where he was moved to speak of the necessity of the artist to feel pity and love—awful passages as though the Sermon on the Mount had kittened and there were its progeny. But the thing that really horrified me was that his lecture considered entirely of a criticism of an incident in Madame Bovary which that book does not contain.
I laughed out loud at the "kittening" of the Sermon on the Mount; that's a Wodehouse-level word choice.

What is of most interest to me in the book--and the place I first turned in the index (after Powell, Anthony, an entry that sadly doesn't appear)--is anything she has to say about my favorite of her books, the autobiographical novel The Fountain Overflows. Her most in-depth treatment of the book comes in a letter to TLS editor Arthur Crook of December 24, 1973, in which she took to task for a bad review of the novel. One point in particular that she argued against was Crook'scontention that the mature conversation of the children was unbelievable. West wrote,
As for The Fountain Overflows, you are quite wrong. When my sister Winifred and I were young, we were full of such ideas about childhood, which was a subject constantly discussed, as serfs might discuss serfdom while fond of their masters, and I can assure you that the book understates the musical preoccupations of thehousehold. I don't think a single line of the children's conversation could not have taken place, and many of them did take place.
From the specific familial evidence she proceeds to her larger point:
But nobody else has written about such people. You are penalising me for keeping an unconventional eye. It seems to me now a source for pride that all my books are different. I was looking at something fresh each time. I don't think I should be judged as failing because what I saw was not the same as people without my experience do not recognise as familiar. But again I am not with my age.
Later in the letter she addresses a similar theme from a slightly different angle:
By the way, in your mention of The Fountain Overflows, you accept a modern canon which I think quite inacceptable: that one should not write about exceptionally gifted people. I see no sense in that at all. Scientists do not refrain from investigating the habits of the dolphin because it is the most intelligent of the big-brained sea beasts.
West's example feels weak, but the point is a good one--and one I remember a writing teacher making years ago when I was an undergrad: it's relatively easy to write about people with less knowledge, understanding, and apprehension than ourselves. It can be interesting and useful to do so, but it also can too easily settle reader and writer into an unpleasantly self-congratulatory compact, presenting people and situations where we know oh so much more about what's going on than the characters do. The writer who always comes to mind for me when I think of that is Raymond Carver: it's in some sense an unfair criticism, as he was by all accounts writing about a people and a life that he knew intimately even as he'd transcended it in some ways, but I still find his stories uncomfortable on those grounds. (And never more so than when Robert Altman reshaped them--Short Cuts is on the surface a very good movie, but on longer acquaintance its misanthropy is hard to ignore.) What's harder--and potentially, I think, more interesting--is to write about people who are smarter, quicker, more talented than ourselves. How can we convey the nimbleness and quality of their minds, their dedication, their willpower, in ways that will be comprehensible to us and our readers who have less of all those qualities?

West couldn't chose a more suitable example than The Fountain Overflows to make her case, as the novel is above all convincing. I wrote a brief review of it years ago, on spec, but it was never published--looking it over now, I find I still think it strikes the right note and gets at what's so remarkable about the book:
The Fountain Overflows, Rebecca West’s largely autobiographical novel, set in early twentieth-century London, is narrated by a twelve-year-old girl who, along with her twin sister, is a piano prodigy. It’s a dense, enveloping story of growing up in a financially precarious household headed by a brilliant father whose political pamphlets make Cabinet ministers tremble, but whose undependability and heedlessness are so deeply ingrained as to make every new disaster seem almost intentional. At one particularly difficult point, the girls’ mother--eccentric in her own way and the true heart of both novel and family--mutters, “How can I compete with death and disgrace, which is what he really desires?” Much of the dialogue is that way: thoughtful, considered, tracing and retracing the outlines of ideas, conversation that seems apt for this insular, talented family.

A major theme of the book is the difference between real and false art, the consolations available in the former that cannot be supplied by the latter, and the way such abstract ideas can thread through family life as seen by a perceptive child. The twins have an older sister who plays the violin with polish and emptiness; they and their mother are astonished that she doesn’t herself realize her playing is essentially artless and false. The characters that sweep through the family’s life--including a violin teacher, a cousin, a murderess, and the father’s erstwhile boss--vary in their degrees of understanding of art and people, but the progress of the novel shows that genius does not prevent cruelty, while a lack of understanding does not preclude instinctive kindness.

The circumscribed world of the family is so absorbing, convincing, and hypnotic that even the appearance of poltergeists, invisible bunnies, and imaginary horses comes to seem a natural outgrowth of the several personalities. The novel--and especially the character of the harried, deeply caring mother--is suffused with a rare combination of clear-eyed judgment and inquiring magnanimity, as if the greatest desire of the narrator and her relations is to learn about people, to remind themselves that considered attention to others, even those initially disliked, can lead to the sympathy and caring that are essential to all family--and all human--relations.
We firmly believe in these characters, their thoughts and their lives--to the point that their casual revelations of encounters with the spirit world don't even cause us to raise an eyebrow. This, we feel, is what happens when a family of very smart, very talented people is forced by poverty and failure to be more tightly knit than is probably healthy.

West, in her letter to Crook, sounds more resigned (if combative) than upset about the review. "I was also handicapped because you are right," she writes, "I do care above all for reality. What chance did that give me in a world dominated by Eliot, who did not care for reality, who only cared to give out passes that certified the holder to be respectful to reality." West's desire to present the world and its people as she saw them shines through The Fountain Overflows; a dozen years after I first read it, I still find myself thinking about it all the time.


  1. This post did what a good post ought to do--sent me seeking more of the subject. I have not read West in a long time and shall rectify that!

  2. This makes me so happy -- TFO is a book I've read five or six times and am always urging on people, so reading your take on it is like discovering someone who knows my secret handshake!