Friday, July 29, 2011

A Friday night story

{Photo by rocketlass.}

I suspect that Friday night is the best time to read the title story of Harvey Swados's Nights in the Gardens of Brookyln. An adult Friday night, that is, spent in, not out; at home, perhaps alone, or, if with your spouse, quietly. For it is about remembering, with nostalgia but realism, the city of one's youth, half real and half the product of your hopes of the time. The opening sets the scene:
There was a time when New York was everything to me: my mother, my mistress, my Mecca, when I could no more have wanted to live any place else than I could have conceived of myself as a daddy, disciplining my boy and dandling my daughter. I was young, the war (the one that ended in 1945, the only one that will ever be "the war" for people my age) was just over, and I was free.
It's about being young and in love--with a city and with a person--and having friends who are in the same situation, and of feeling like the city is a stage for your explorations and adventures. Even those of us who are homebodies by nature remember those days.

But it's also about how a city is a perpetual reminder than you can't stop change: you can't hold a city still or make it be or stay what you want any more than you can do that with your friends. So that even a scene like this, of recalled mornings of pleasure, contains the implied sting of loss:
It started with late breakfast at our place on Remsen Street; then around noon we'd meander over the little Penny Bridge at the foot of Montague Street and on through the broken-down bars and vague-eyed derelicts of Myrtle Avenue and Sands Street (all gone now, replaced by handsome characterless courthouses and office buildings), on to the great bridge. So there are pictures of Barney and me cavorting, of Deelie and Pauline strolling like models on the promenade, of us all lined up before the struts with the marvelous skyline and the springtime sun behind us, our faces half in shadow but leaning forward to the camera's eye in hope and expectation.
In "hope and expectation": what Swados does in just forty pages is remind us of what that felt like and map out the difference between those who, as the years pile up, trade expectation, profitably, for contentment, and those who keep looking, sometimes to their detriment. In its ability to distinguish emotionally between youth and age it's as good as anything I can think of outside of a favorite passage from William Maxwell's Ancestors, which I quoted in this post a couple of years ago.

Are the compromises worth it? Should we lament the passing of youthful expectations? The beauty of Swados's story is that he shows us their allure without luring us, shows us their poisons without preaching, and leaves us--as we sit at home on this Friday night with our piano, the ballgame on quietly in the background--for tonight, at least feeling as if the trade-off was a good one.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Short, round, tall, short, or, "Now that was a silly business."

1 Charles Portis's wonderfully cracked Norwood (1966) has provided me another citation for my running file of comparisons to Sydney Greenstreet!
The man with the funny voice was a midget of inestimable age. He was sitting on the end of the bowling machine runway with his legs crossed. On his face there was a Sydney Greenstreet look of weary petulance.
Weary petulance--that's the best way to describe Greenstreet's best, and most typical, look. The only other look I can imagine competing with it would be his look of rapidly eroding patience.

I'll take this occasion to repeat my plea: all you novelists out there, I want more Sydney Greenstreet comparisons! Even after Donald Westlake's honorable efforts, the field remains relatively unploughed, ready for your best efforts! In an earlier post on this topic, I even wrote some that you're welcome to use to get started:
"The next morning the sun announcing my hangover was like Sydney Greenstreet in Casablanca: huge, round, smug, and disasteful."

"She was built like Sydney Greenstreet, and even had his laugh, but you couldn't take your eyes off her--which, come to think of it, made her even more like Greenstreet."

"Give it up, man--you couldn't keep a lid on this story if you put it in a steamer trunk and plopped Sydney Greenstreet on the top."
Get to it, writers of America!

2 Since I started with a classic fat man, it seems right to turn to one of the strangest bits of information in Robert K. Massie's Peter the Great (1980), which I also read last week: his account of Frederick William I of Prussia's obsession with giants:
The King's most famous obsession was his collection of giants, for which he was renowned throughout Europe. Known as the Blue Prussians or the Giants of Potsdam, there were over 1,200 of them, organized into two battalions of 600 men each. None was under six feet tall, and some, in the special Red Unit of the First Battalion, were almost seven feet tall. The King dressed them in blue jackets with gold trim and scarlet lapels, scarlet trousers, white stockings, black shoes and tall red hats. He gave them muskets, white bandoleers and small daggers, and he played with them as a child would with enormous living toys. No expense was too great for this hobby, and Frederick William spent millions to recruit and equip his giant grenadiers. They were hired or bought all over Europe; especially desirable specimens, refusing the offer of the King's recruiting agents, were simply kidnapped. Eventually, recruiting in this way became too expensive--one seven-foot-two-inch Irishman cost over 6,000 pounds--and Frederick William tried to breed giants. Every tall man in his realm was forced to marry a tall woman. The drawback was that the King had to wait twenty years for the products of these unions to mature, and often as not a boy or girl of normal height resulted. The easiest method of obtaining giants was to receive them as gifts. Foreign ambassadors advised their masters that the way to find favor with the King of Prussia was to send him giants. Peter especially appreciated his fellow sovereign's interest in nature's curios, and Russia supplied the Prussian King with fifty new giants every year. (Once, when Peter recalled some of the giants lent to Frederick William and replaced them with men who were a trifle shorter, the King was so upset that he could not discuss business with the Russian ambassador; the wound in his heart, he said, was still too raw.)
As I typed that passage, I kept thinking that it was getting too long and I should cut it off. But where could I have stopped? Would you have wanted to continue in life not knowing about Peter's annual fifty-giant gift? Or Frederick's despondence when he took some back? Each sentence piles on yet another amazing detail. The past is a foreign country indeed--they do things insanely differently there.

3 Or maybe not so much, depending on whether you're hanging out in the American South in a Charles Portis novel. Back to Norwood, and a conversation with the earlier "midget of inestimable age," who introduces himself to Norwood as Edmund B. Ratner, the world's smallest perfect man:
"My father sold me when I was just a pup."

"Sold you?"


"I don't believe that."

"It's true, yes. He sold me to a man named Curly Hill. Those were dreadful times! My father, Solomon Ratner, was not an uneducated man but he was only a junior railway clerk and there were so many mouths to feed. And imagine, a midget in the house! Well, Curly came to town with his animal show--he toured all the fairs. He saw me at the station and asked me how I would like to wear a cowboy suit and ride an Irish wolfhound. He had a chimp named Bob doing it at the time. I directed him to my father and they came to terms. I never learned the price though I expect it was around twenty pounds, perhaps more. Now understand, I don't brood on it. Curly was like a second father to me, a very decent, humorous man. He came from good people. His mother was the oldest practical nurse in the United Kingdom. I saw her once, she looked like a mummy, poor thing. The pound was worth five dollars at that time."

"Are you with a circus here?"

"No, no, I thought I told you, I left circus work. Now that was a silly business. I let my appetite run away with me. I can't account for it, it came and it went. Pizzas, thick pastramis, chili dogs--nothing was too gross and I simply could not get enough. Some gland acting up. I grew four inches and gained almost two stone. Well, the upshot was, they took away my billing as the World's Smallest Perfect Man and gave it to a little goon who calls himself Bumblebee Billy. I ask you! Bumblebee Billy! All his fingers are like toes. Needless to say, I was furious and I said some regrettable little things to the boss. The long and short is, I was sacked altogether. "

"Them are regular little hands you got."

"Of course they are."

"If you were out somewhere without anything else around, like a desert, and I was to start walking toward you I would walk right into you because I would think you were further off than what you were."

"I've never heard it put quite that way."
Doesn't that make you want to, first, thank the gods that the world has someone as strange as Charles Portis in it, and, second, run out and buy, not a midget or giant, for that would be wrong, but the first Portis novel you find?

In Search of Lost Nuance, or, Twitter and Proust

I quoted the following line from Francisco Goldman's moving, awkwardly intimate memoir Say Her Name (2011) on my Twitter feed today:
Show me the Proust of forgetting, and I'll read him tomorrow.
Stephen Mitchelmore, a blogger and critic I enjoy reading both for his perceptiveness and for his well defined taste and point of view, replied
What do you mean? Proust is as much about forgetting as remembering; habit and the sudden ending of habit.
Realizing I'd been quoting, he wrote that he presumed Goldman hadn't read In Search of Lost Time. I explained that I'd quoted the line because I liked the idea of an author who was as identified with forgetting as Proust is with remembering, but Mitchelmore wasn't convinced, writing:
I think it's awful; it's based on what's at best a misrepresentation, at worst a philistine refusal to understand.
It's nothing new to point out that Twitter's 140-character limit can kill nuance, but I do think this question deserves a bit more delving. First off, Mitchelmore is unquestionably right; in fact, what most surprised me about reading In Search of Lost Time for the first time fourteen years ago was that it was at least as much about losing the past, losing those things and people that we for so long in our lives take for granted as perpetual, as it was about retention. The famous memory-laden madeleine, which for the general literary public has essentially become a synecdoche for the whole sprawling novel, is itself as much a token of forgetting and neglect as it is of memory: it brings the past to life precisely because the mind has let it languish, unthought of. As Proust explains later in the second volume, Within a Budding Grove,
Now the memories of love are no exception to the general laws of memory, which in turn are governed by the still more general laws of Habit. And as Habit weakens everything, what best reminds us of a person is precisely what we have forgotten (because it was of no importance, and we therefore left it in full possession of its strength). That is why the better part of our memories exists outside of us, in the smell of an unaired room or of the first crackling brushwood fire in a cold grate: wherever, in short, we happen upon what our mind, having no use for it, had rejected, the last treasure that the past has in store, the richest, that which, when all our flow of tears seems to have dried at the source, can make us weep again. Outside us? Within us, rather, but hidden from our eyes in an oblivion more or less prolonged. It is thanks to this oblivion alone that we can from time to time recover the person that we were, place ourself in relation to things as he was placed, suffer anew because we are no longer ourselves but he, and because he loved what now leaves us indifferent. In the broad daylight of our habitual memory the images of the past turn gradually pale and fade out of sight, nothing remains of them, we shall never recapture it. Or rather we should never recapture it had not a few words . . . been carefully locked away in oblivion, just as an author deposits in the National Library a copy of a book which might otherwise become unattainable.
Funes the Memorious aside, it simply isn't possible to retain everything--much less to retain everything with its full emotional valence. Proust recognized that, and he explained and even dramatized it, along with the concomitant bursts of overwhelming recall that such selective memory enables, better than anyone.

Yet Proust is known as the writer of retention, of holding tight to memory. That's his public, madeleine-soaked image. Mitchelmore is right that such a thumbnail description is a misapprehension or misrepresentation, but I don't think those of us who have read, and loved, Proust have any chance of actually changing that perception now. The madeleine is Proust is the madeleine is Proust. Maybe Mitchelmore would disagree, or say that it's our duty to try nonetheless, but I tend to think, rather, that all we can do is encourage people to actually read Proust, engage with his prose and his mind, and be surprised by what they find.

And that's why I like Goldman's line, wrong as it is: given that we aren't likely to make the public acknowledge a more nuanced Proust, I like imagining a writer whose public persona, wanted or unwanted, is as closely tied to forgetting as Proust's is to remembering. What pleasures such a writer could offer! What nuances of the relationship between remembering and forgetting could he or she explore--informed, we would hope, by Proust's--and what mixed melancholy and joy such a writer could evoke!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Old favorites

In Iris Murdoch's Under the Net, the narrator, on picking up a book of philosophy he'd written years before and then essentially banished from his mind, thinks,
It's always a strange experience to read one's own writings again after an interval. They so rarely fail to impress.
I certainly wouldn't say that's true of my own writing--cringing is surely my response at least as often--but when you've written more than 1,000 blog posts, you're bound to occasionally come across something you'd forgotten writing and are glad to rediscover.

Such was the case with this post from 2007 about, among other things, Sei Shonagon, Iris Murdoch, and Achilles, which ended with a topic I thought was well worth revisiting today: prompted by Murdoch's nomination of Achilles as one of her two favorite characters, I put together an off-the-top-of-my-head list of my favorites. Here's how I described my thinking then:
Unlike her, I think if I put together a list it won't consist of characters with whom I particularly identify; rather--like Odysseus--they'd be characters who I can't stop thinking about, who seem forever capable of revealing new surprises.
And, after Odysseus, here's who I came up with:
Bjartur from Independent People

Tess from Tess of the D'Urbervilles

Lieutenant Amanda Turck from James Gould Cozzens's Guard of Honor

Bartleby the Scrivener

Jayber Crow, from Wendell Berry's books about the Port William Membership

King David

Barnby, Uncle Giles, and Tuffy Weedon from A Dance to the Music of Time

First Sergeant Milt Warden from From Here to Eternity

Lyra from the His Dark Materials trilogy

Sir Lancelot

Stepan Arkadyevitch Oblonsky from Anna Karenina

Huckleberry Finn

Philip Marlowe

Mrs. Aubrey from Rebecca West's The Fountain Overflows

Rose Ryder from John Crowley's Aegypt series
Nearly four years on, who would I add? Again, off the top of my head:
Niccolo, Dr. Tobie, and Katelijne Sersanders from Dorothy Dunnett's House of Niccolo series

Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer

Roberto Bolano's Arturo Belano

David Gately from Infinite Jest

Trollope's Madame Max Goesler
And you?

{An administrative note to close: Work and travel have finally caught me out, and I'm taking next week off from blogging, which I don't think I've done in . . . three years? The annex will still be active, though, and you can follow that either through Tumblr itself or through your Google Reader. See you all in a week.}

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

On the road

{Photos by rocketlass.}

I've spent the past few days on the road--in fiction, that is. And they couldn't have been two more different American roads: the contemporary Southern blacktops traveled by the ex-con Sailor Ripley and his love, Lula Pace Fortune, in Barry Gifford's Wild at Heart (1991), a celebration of all that is broke-down, displaced, casual, passionate, dead-end, and makeshift in American culture; and the still largely virgin motorways, all potholes and cow crossings, of the wide-open American West of the early automobile era, in Sinclair Lewis's Free Air (1919).

I'll have more to say about Sailor and Lula's road, and Gifford's word-drunk, hyper-charged vernacular depiction of it, sometime later. Right now I'm hampered by the fact that the 600-page Sailor and Lula: The Complete Novels is the sort of book that as you read it you know you absolutely have to lend to a friend--and, if that someone is another writer for whom you know you've found a crucial book . . . well, sometimes you have to lend it when you've still got 400 pages to go.

So I'll stick to Lewis, which, coincidentally, was put into my hands by a friend, and also shares with Gifford an infectious joy in unusual language and over-the-top slang. The book, which tells of a young woman's cross-country drive and the freedom from social mustiness she finds there, is full of everything from Minnesota pidgin German to slang phrases that snap like (and make as little sense as) Damon Runyon or Ring Lardner. The language reaches its apotheosis in this bit of venting by Bill, a Minnesota country boy surprised at the high-class company an old friend is keeping in his new home in Seattle:
Aw, how d'you get that way? Rats, you don't want to go tagging after them Willy boys. Damn dirty snobs. And the girls are worse. I tell you, Milt, these hoop-te-doodle society Janes may look all right to hicks like us, but on the side they raise more hell than any milliner's trimmer from Chi that ever vamped a rube burg.
That linguistic verve carries through the whole scene, which turns into the novel's most comic:
He wandered for an hour and came back to find that, in a "dry" city which he had never seen before, the crafty Bill had obtained a quart of bourbon, and was in a state of unsteady beatitude. He wanted, he announced, to dance.

Milt got him into the community bathtub, and soused him under, but Bill's wet body was slippery, and Bill's merry soul was all for frolicsome gamboling, and he slid out of Milt's grasp, he sloshed around in the tub, he sprinkled Milt's sacred good suit with soapy water, and escaped, and in the costume of Adam he danced orientally in Milt's room, till he was seized with sleepiness and cosmic grief, and retired to Milt's bed in tears and nothing else.
Is there a word in that passage that's not perfectly chosen? Nearly all seem to do treble duty: they describe the scene, they cast its events in terms just outsized and unexpected enough to render it grand (if not Biblical), and they mesh sonically so that we trip merrily along, laughing all the way. Even the simplest line, "He wanted, he announced, to dance," conveys exactly the right rhythm for its pronouncement: we can see Bill's face, flattened carefully into drunken seriousness, as he raises a solemn finger and takes his first step to a beat that only he can hear.

And that's ultimately what pleased me most about Free Air: it's a fun book more than anything else. Lewis is always a satirist, but here the satire is gentle, humane, even loving--there's none of the scorched-earth bleakness that makes the laughs in Babbitt, great though they are, so damned hopeless. It's a bon-bon of a book, perfect for summer; take it on the road in your flivver.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Under the Net

Spending time with the young Iris Murdoch last week--in the form of her letters--sent me back to her first novel, long a favorite, Under the Net (1954). It had been years since I'd read the book, and I remembered it as having a freshness, a fundamental lightness of spirit that, for all the comedy that her later books would retain, she never came close to replicating.

What I discovered on reacquaintance is that, if anything, I underestimated Under the Net's lightness. Its protagonist, Jake Donaghue, a translator and would-be writer who is primarily a layabout and sponge, is like nothing so much as a penniless Bertie Wooster, and his feckless, solipsistic bobbing through postwar London gives the whole novel a Wodehousian verve. There's a ridiculous dog-napping (temporarily interrupted for a spot of whiskey), a socialist riot on a film set of ancient Rome, and a drunken revel to rival any of Bertie and Catsmeat's Race Night escapades. That particular incident ends with a drunken swim in the Thames:
A moment later we were climbing the wall.

"Watch out for police," said Lefty. "They'll think we're going to rob a warehouse. If you see one, pretend to be drunk,"

This was rather superfluous advice.
I also really enjoyed this silly rumination, which gives a good sense of the not-always sensible way that Donaghue's mind works:
There are some parts of London which are necessary and some parts which are contingent. Everywhere west of Earl's Court is contingent, except for a few places along the river. I hate contingency. I want everything in my life to have a sufficient reason.
What I find particularly interesting about that passage is that Murdoch's husband, John Bayley, talking with her in an interview I've cited before, specifically praised its air of contingency:
Curiously I think Under the Net is the only one of your novels where you can feel that the novelist doesn't know how it's going to end, if you see what I mean. . . . I may be quite wrong about Under the Net; you probably did know how it was going to end, but it has a kind of freshness that is very mysterious, and that we strangely associate with something that is not planned.
If anything, Under the Net goes too far in that direction; at time it verges on being a picaresque. But its comic joy and its gentle handling of themes (responsibility, self-deception, illusion, and the transformative magic of erotic and romantic love) that would obsess Murdoch for the next forty-plus years, make it a remarkable, charming novel, and a great way for a reader new to Murdoch to make her acquaintance.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

If we were to limit checkouts to a single book . . . which Invisible title would you choose?

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Earlier this week Laura Miller, author of an excellent book on growing up with (and to some extent growing out of) Narnia, The Magician's Book, and book columnist for Salon, wrote about invisible books--and the Invisible Library that Ed Park and I have been curating, with a certain appropriate vagueness of effort, since 2008. Fans of the Library should go read the whole article, but there are two bits that I think are well worth pointing out here.

First, there's this, which includes a fact that, as a committed Dickens fan, I can't believe I didn't know:
The pseudonymous Dr. Beachcomber would like to expand the Invisible Library to include fake books -- that is, titles that don't even exist in a fictional universe. They appear only on the spines of sham bookshelves used to disguise secret doors in exceptionally interesting houses. Charles Dickens had just such a door installed in his own study in London, with fake titles of his own devising, including "Socrates on Wedlock."
To which I can only reply: of course he did. If you look up "fecund" in the dictionary, alongside stipple pictures of soybeans germinating you'll find an image of Dickens stroking his beard in satisfaction.

In Tearing Haste, the recent volume of letters between Patrick Leigh Fermor and Deborah Mitford included a list of that sort of book--unquestionably not truly Invisible Library titles, despite Dr. Beachcomber's stance--requested by Deborah for a door in her house. To a one they were, as Ed put it when I sent them to him, "horrible"--pun-riddled and silly, though at least acknowledged to be so. (And there was at least one clever and slightly sassy title: Bondage, by Anne Fleming, a play on an apparently poorly kept secret about the sexual proclivities of their friends Ian and Anne.)

Then there's this question, the crux, really, of Miller's article, and not a question that had yet occurred to me:
Which raises an intriguing question: If allowed to choose only one, which volume in the Invisible Library would you most want to read?
If you're the sort to dive into the scrum that is a comments section, what better invitation do you need? Hie thee to Salon and plump for your favorite!

No one who's read this blog for long can be in any doubt about my choice: any one of the novels or memoirs written by Nicholas Jenkins, narrator of A Dance to the Music of Time. Like all fans of Dance, I suspect they'd be much like Anthony Powell's non-Dance novels; like nearly all fans of Dance, that would bring me great, great joy.

{Though if I were to get a second choice . . . who would turn down the chance to read Orbius Tertius?}

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

In honor of Independence Day

I may be a few days late, but love of country knoweth no season, abideth by no clock, is reck'd not by the sun nor the moon, surely?

So here, in honor of the 4th of July, which in my neighborhood didn't really end until at least 4 AM on the 5th--at least, that's when I remember hearing the last explosion--a brief passage from Adam Goodheart's wonderful look at the incidentals, interstices, and forgotten elements of the first year of America's Civil War, 1861: The Civil War Awakening:
Like later generations, the men of the 1850s and 1860s expressed their ideals of masculinity through their physical appearance. Most noticeable, and revealing, was the astonishing profusion of facial hair that sprouted forth during those years, including on the previously smooth faces of [James] Garfield and his friends. For a century and a half, American men (and most Europeans) had, nearly without exception, gone clean-shaven: it was a sign of gentility, civility, and restraint. (In the late eighteenth century, one Philadelphia woman considered it a matter of note that she had seen "an elephant and two bearded men" in the street that day.) This changed very suddenly. Most American historians, when they have considered the topic at all, have assumed it had to do with Civil War soldiers avoiding the inconvenience of shaving while in the field.

In fact, the phenomenon predated the war by a number of years--and was the subject of a great deal of contemporary comment and debate. As early as 1844, one physician began inveighing against "woman faced men" with their habit of "emasculating [the] face with a razor," even suggesting that shaving caused diseases of the throat. At the time, this was still an eccentric opinion. By the following decade, however, talk of a "beard movement" was sweeping the nation. In 1857, a conscientious journalist took a stroll through Boston's streets and conducted a statistical survey: of the 543 men he encountered, no fewer than 338 had full, bushy beards, "as God meant to have them," while nearly all the rest sported lesser facial hair of various sorts. Only four were "men of the old school, smooth shaven, with the exception of slight tufted promontories jutting down from either ear, as if designed as a compromise measure between the good old doctrine and modern radicalism."
Good to know that trend stories have been with us nearly as long as newspapers (though this one does seem a bit more grounded than today's "Let's go see what six hipsters in Brooklyn are doing!" variety).

No post on the history of American facial hair would be complete without a photo of Union general Ambrose Burnside, who, though no great shakes as a general, remains a familiar figure to even casual Civil War buffs for the twin redans of his facial hair.

Happy birthday, America!

Friday, July 01, 2011

A young Iris Murdoch

Caught by the pleasures (illicit?) of reading other people's mail, I went straight last week from the new book of William Maxwell and Eudora Welty's letters to the first selection of what I hope will be many volumes of Iris Murdoch's, A Writer at War: Letters and Diaries, 1939-1945. The letters are to two of her simultaneous paramours, the ill-fated Frank Thompson, who was to be executed in Bulgaria during the war, and David Hicks, to whom she was briefly engaged; it's hard to imagine any fan of Murdoch not falling for these letters, which are absolutely sizzling with youthful energy, passion, and intellectual archness. The exchange in which she confesses to Thompson that she's lost her virginity, and he responds, are a stunningly perfect example of the way that, when young, we want to seem sophisticated, imperturbable, and intellectual--even as we also more than anything else want to know how the other person feels, really feels, and how much we can influence that feeling by our actions. Both say exactly, in clinical terms, what they're thinking and feeling; neither one says anything of the truth about what they're thinking and feeling.

But the moments that really struck me--and perhaps it's just an early days of summer thing, the return, fifteen years too late, of the feeling that school ought to be out now--as embodying the things I remember about being young come in the diary portion of the book, which covers a tour Murdoch made of the West Country in 1939, when she was twenty, with a troupe of fellow actors from Oxford who visited towns and country manors to put on a musical revue, even as Europe was sliding into war. Seventy years later, the diary still carries the distinct air of youth, the fierce engagement with the immediate that sits side-by-side with ignorance, even dismissal, of the larger world. There are simple, self-consciously silly passages like this:
Am sharing room with Joan, which is excellent. We are luxurious compared to others, in that we have a private room, complete with dressing table, washstand, and Improving Textes. One bed is a Goosefeather Bed. My romantic spirit forthwith inclined me to sleep therein in spite of Joan's warnings--now I understand why the lady in the song preferred a cold open field. That was the hottest night of my life. That bed was as hot as flaming cinders on the flagstones of hell. I slept toward dawn--and then was wakened by cocks crowing. Realised this is the first time that I have lived on a genuine farm. Thought poetically about the Bird of Dawning--then 5 o/c struck & confirmed the cocks. (I never really believed it till now.) Then the cows passed under the window--giving tongue. Lay and laughed silently , hoping I wouldn't wake Joan. All sorts of strange birds sing. I sleep, & get up at 7:45 to accompaniment of more cows.
There's madcap adventure:
VIctor's car was an incredible sight. The hobby horses & banner stuck thro' the roof, placards bedecked the sides, & Hugh's haversack was strapped to the spare wheel, all but obscuring the number plate. In front were Victor & Tom--Tom as often as not opening the roof & standing up to view the countryside--while in the back were Charley & Joan & Hugh & me, woven in and out of each other like a half-inch twill, as Charley put it. Hugh & I sat in the middle, & the other two lay diagonally across us with their feet out of the windows. It was a splendid sight, & drew shouts of mirth & glee from all beholders. After an hour or so Hugh nobly got out & rode dangerously on the running board--at least it wouldn't have been so dangerous if he hadn't insisted on doing Cossack tricks all the way. Then it began to rain & we packed Hugh in again & I sat on his knee.
And there's what young actors always end up with, love:
After the show Hugh & I wandered down to the Cherwell which flows thro' meadows below the house, & sat & watched the moon rise. A group of white swans sailed silently past. It was a most magical evening. Hugh lay down beside me with his head touching my side, & I sat & looked across the river. Then gradually we gave expression to what had been tacit between us for several days. There is something incredibly tender & gentle about Hugh, for all his terrific strength & bluffness.
But the moment that most clearly brings back age twenty, with all its unrealized blindness and perpetual change, is this simple one, from relatively early in the trip:
I have revised my ideas of Cecil. Strange how quickly one can change estimations of character. He is not the lofty conceited & utterly snobbish young swine I thought he was at all. He is very keen on the drama, & he is humble enough to want to be liked. Ruth observed that "he didn't seem quite at home here," and I think she's right. I watched him & Hugh fencing with considerable interest. Hugh had it every time of course, but was kind to his opponent. Cecil eventually retired into a rather awkward silence. I thought of the last time I had seen him, at John Russell's sherry party, & wondered at the contrast.
That age when we're not sure yet who we are, much less who anyone else is--for 70 pages, Murdoch's diary brings it back in force, and the added knowledge that, because of the war, adulthood was about to demand brutal sacrifices of the members of the troupe makes the whole positively wrenching.