Monday, April 30, 2012

Who's the hero here?

The most arresting scene in Our Mutual Friend comes just after the 1/3 mark, when schoolmaster Bradley Headstone and his pupil, Charley Hexam, confront the idle, casually ironic young lawyer Eugene Wrayburn about the attention he's been paying Charley's sister, Lizzie.

I wrote on Friday about Wrayburn's detachment, which at times verges on accidie; it is, from what I remember, something new in Dickens--a dissatisfaction with the world that results neither in action to change society nor in amoral abuse of it. In this scene, however, we see more clearly both the class basis of Wrayburn's cool and the real risks it represents to his character and the lives of those around him. With his friend Mortimer Lightwood at his side, he faces his two angry visitors:
"In some respect, Mr Eugene Wrayburn," said Bradley, answering him with pale and quivering lips, "the natural feelings of my pupils are stronger than my teaching."

"In most respects, I dare say," replied Eugeene, enjoying his cigar, "thought whether high or low is of no importance. You have my name very correctly. Pray what is yours?"

"It cannot concern you much to know, but--"

"True," interposed Eugene, striking sharply and cutting him short at his mistake, "it does not concern me at all to know. I can say Schoolmaster, which is a most respectable title. You are right, Schoholmaster."

It was not the dullest part of this goad in its galling of Bradley Headstone, that he had made it himeslf in a moment of incautious anger. He tried to set his lips so as to prevent their quivering, but they quivered fast.

"Mr Eugene Wrayburn," said the boy, "I want a word with you. I have wanted it so much, that we have looked out your address in the book, and we have been to your office, and we have come from your office here."

"You have given yourself much trouble, Schoolmaster," observed Eugene, blowing the feathery ash from his cigar. "I hope it may prove remunerative."

"And I am glad to speak," pursued the boy, "in presence of Mr Lightwood, because it was through Mr Lightwood that you ever saw my sister."

For a mere moment, Wrayburn turned his eyes aside from the schoolmaster to note the effect of the last word on Mortimer, who, standing on the opposite side of the fire, as soon as the word was spoken, turned his face towards the fire and looked down into it.

"Simlarly, it was through Mr Lightwood that you ever saw her again, for you were with him on the night when my father was found, and so I found you with her on the next day. Since then, you have seen my sister often. You have seen my sister oftener and oftener. And I want to know why?"

"Was this worth while, Schoolmaster," murmured Eugene, with the air of a disinterested adviser. "So much trouble for nothing? You should know best, but I think not."

"I don't know, Mr Wrayburn," answered Bradley, with his passion rising, "why you address me--"

"Don't you?" said Eugene. "Then I won't."

He said it so tauntingly in his perfect placidity, that the respectable right-hand clutching the respectable hair-guard of the respectable watch could have wound it round his throat and strangled him with it. Not another word did Eugene deem it worth while to utter, but stood leaning his head upon his hand, smoking, and looking imperturbably at the chafing Bradley Headstone with his clutching right-hand, until Braldey was wellnigh mad.
When Charley has said his piece, throughout which Wrayburn affects complete boredom, Headstone sends him out and addresses Wrayburn himself:
"You think me of no more value than the dirt under your feet," said Bradley to Eugene, speaking in a carefully weighed and measured tone, or he could not have spoken at all.

"I assure you, Schoolmaster," replied Eugene, "I don't think about you."

"That's not true," returned the other; "you know better."

"That's coarse," Eugene retorted; "but you don't know better."
Leaving aside the equivocal position of Headstone, who is in love with the girl he's claiming to try to protect, and Charley Hexam, whose sole interest in his sister is that she not impede his class-climbing, the cruelty displayed by Wrayburn is breathtaking. I can't think of another scene in all of Dickens--except, perhaps, a few between Pip and Estella--that carries this kind of power. In Dickens: The Major Novels, John Lucas writes that
The sheer malignity of the gentleman's assumption of inherent superiority is never more convincingly demonstrated than in Dickens's handling of Eugene.
Moreover, Lucas finds in this scene a key to the low critical opinion of this novel:
Most of the critics, whether working within the academy or as men of letters, who claimed to find Dickens vulgar were from class circumstances close to Eugene's. Many of them, I can report from my own experience, behaved and sounded like Eugene. No wonder they didn't--and don't--like what Dickens shows them.
That's twisting the knife a bit.

What's more interesting about the scene is the difficulty we have, reading it, in finding a place for our sympathies. Wrayburn up to this point has been silly rather than cruel, disaffected rather than superior, but in this scene, confronted with hot emotion, he steps instantly in the shelter offered by his class privilege, and he uses the weapons he finds there without a hint of compunction. He is bloodless and cruel to an excruciating degree. Yet at the same time, his antagonists offer us little to like. Charley Hexam, it is clear, will sacrifice anything to his desire to escape his roots; though he tells his sister earlier, "I don't want, as I raise myself, to shake you off, Liz. I want to carry you up with me," neither we nor his sister believe him. Headstone, meanwhile, ought to have our sympathy: he is a self-made man up against a thoughtless child of privilege. There are hints of Dickens the poor boy shuddering at the memory of the blacking factory in the curses he spits at Wrayburn at the close of the scene:
I scorn your shifty evasions, and I scorn you. . . . In the meanness of your nature you revile me with the meanness of my birth. I hold you in contempt for it.
A reasonable reader, knowing nothing of the arc of the story to come, would likely come out of this scene feeling that Headstone, though defeated, had been in the right--and just might be beginning to emerge as the hero of this strangely uncentered novel. But even they, I think, would maintain some reservations, for there is that in Headstone's barely repressed passion that hints of unhealthiness.

This is the sort of complexity that makes Our Mutual Friend stand out in Dickens's corpus, and that makes up for the relatively static, even forced quality of some of its other scenes. In Dickens, surprise usually comes from plotting, disguise, or simple misapprehension--not from actual ambiguities of character--but in this scene he draws two fully realized characters who have multiple, widely differing paths to choose among.

Friday, April 27, 2012

All the sad young Victorian men

One of the ways in which Our Mutual Friend represents growth or innovation for Dickens is that for the first time--if my memories of the other novels, some of them admittedly fifteen years old now, are accurate--that he allows any character to exist in ironic relation to the world. Dickens of course deployed irony in his narrative voice regularly (and often heavy-handedly): it's the basic mode of his social satire. But in general Dickens's characters, the heroes aside, are either blandly good (nearly all the heroines and love interests), bad (Sikes, Squeers), damaged and callous (Estella, Mr. Dombey), or monomoniacally certain of the world and their place in it (a host of secondary characters, such as Sairey Gamp). They're all fundamentally earnest.

In Our Mutual Friend, however, we are introduced to two dissatisfied young lawyers, Mortimer Lightwood and Eugene Wrayburn, who sound a note of ennui and detachment that is wholly new to Dickens--and that feels remarkably modern for 1865. Here's Lightwood telling Wrayburn about his Most Respected Father and his plans for his children:
"You know M. R. F., but not as well as I do. If you knew him as well as I do, he would amuse you."

"Filially spoken, Eugene!"

"Perfectly so, believe me; and with every sentiment of affectionate deference towards M. R. F. But if he amuses me, I can't help it. When my eldest brother was born, of course the rest of us knew (I mean the rest of us would have known, if we had been in existence) that he was heir to the Family Embarrassments--we call it before the company the Family Estate. But when my second brother was going to be born by-and-by, 'this,' says M. R. F., 'is a little pillar of the church.' Was born, and became a pillar of the church; a very shaky one. My third brother appeared, considerably in advance of his engagement to my mother; but M. R. F., not at all put out by surprise, instantly declared him a Circumnavigator. Was pitch-forked into the Navy, but has not circumnavigated. I announced myself, and was disposed of with the highly satisfactory results embodied before you. When my younger brother was half an hour old, it was settled by M. R. F. that he should have a mechanical genius. And so on. Therefore I say that M. R. F. amuses me."
More telling is this exchange between the two on that same night:
"The wind sounds up here," quoth Eugene, stirring the fire, "as if we were keeping a lighthouse. I wish we were."

"Don't you think it would bore us?" Lightwood asked.

"Not more than any other place. And there would be no Circuit to go. But that's a selfish consideration, personal to me."

"If we were on an isolated rock in a stormy sea," said Eugene, smoking with his eyes on the fire, "Lady Tippins couldn't put off to visit us, or, better still, might put off and get swamped. People couldn't ask one to wedding breakfasts. There would be no Precedents to hammer at, except the plain-sailing Precedent of keeping the light up. It would be exciting to look out for wrecks."

"But otherwise," suggested Lightwood, "there might be a degree of sameness in the life."

"I have thought of that also," said Eugene, as if he really had been considering the subject in its various bearings with an eye to the business, "but it would be a defined and limited monotony. It would not extend beyond two people. Now, it's a question with me, Mortimer, whether a monotony defined with that precision and limited to that extent, might not be more endurable than the unlimited monotony of one's fellow-creatures."
Where else in Dickens do we find thoughts and conversation let run in idle play like this? The novels are full of passing nonsense, but it tends to take the form of the verbal tics of secondary characters--and for those characters, those tics nearly always represent some deep-seated fixation or self-definition. Here, instead, we have two young men simply enjoying the play of words as a way to stave off larger questions about the world in which they must make their way. They are bored with the society in which they're expected to play a part, and feel detached from it--but it's a detachment born not from feeling superior to the world, like, for example, Steerforth's amorality, but from being disappointed in it. Lightwood and Wrayburn are the youthful embodiment of the bitter tone that runs through Our Mutual Friend, of Dickens's disappointment with the middle class's failure of promise, its grasping and grubbing and pretension. They're the coming generation having the good sense to look askance at what their parents have wrought.

Ironic detachment can curdle, or, through engagement, it can be cured. By introducing these characters, and giving them the freedom--a dangerous freedom for an author whose own narrative voice and point of view are so strong and so important to his books--to see the world and analyze their own relation to it, Dickens introduces the possibility of both choice and change, of characters who really might, by the end be something more than what they are when we first encounter them.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Our Mutual Friend

Since I first read it in 1996, Our Mutual Friend (1865) has been my favorite Dickens novel. Others, I'll acknowledge, are closer to perfection--on each re-reading, Great Expectations seems more impressive--but what I remember from my first encounter with Our Mutual Friend, which came at the end of a few months of intense reading of Dickens, is that it felt like a simultaneous broadening and deepening of Dickens's vision. The comedy was still there, and it still lay side-by-side with social critique, but a new note of seriousness of character and emotion also seemed to make itself heard. More impressive, the vast divide between primary and secondary characters that had characterized all of Dickens's work, which saw secondary characters reduced to caricature, change unavailable to them, was beginning to erode. At its best, Our Mutual Friend is a novel that makes you wish that Dickens had lived longer, had been healthier, had been able to follow it up with something more than that fragment of Drood. There was more to be found in Dickens's gift, it reveals, and the cruelty of that revelation is nigh infinite.

I'm now 200 pages into a re-read of Our Mutual Friend, the first time I've returned to it in any form other than recollection since that first encounter. And thus far I've been pleased to find my memories of its quality confirmed. If anything, I'm more impressed--I'm more attentive to the extravagant joys of Dickens's animistic vision of the world. Here, for example, is a description of a celebratory dinner that Dickens renders vital and absurd:
This was a neat and happy turn in the Wilfer household, where a monotonous appearance of Dutch-cheese at ten o'clock in the evening had been rather frequently commented on by the dimpled shoulders of Miss Bella. Indeed, the modest Dutchman himself seemed conscious of his want of variety, and generally came before the family in a state of apologetic perspiration. After some discussion on the relative merits of veal-cutlet, sweetbread, and lobster, a decision was pronounced in favour of veal-cutlet. Mrs Wilfer then solemnly divested herself of her handkerchief and gloves, as a preliminary sacrifice to preparing the frying-pan, and R. W. himself went out to purchase the viand. He soon returned breading the same in a fresh cabbage-leaf, where it coyly embraced a rasher of ham. Melodious sounds were not long in rising from the frying-pan on the fire, or in seeming, as the firelight danced in the mellow halls of a couple of full bottles on the table, to play appropriate dance-music.
Or take this account of a Thames-side pub:
The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters, already mentioned as a tavern of a dropsical appearance, had long settled down in to a state of hale infirmity. In its whole constitution it had not a straight floor, and hardly a straight line, but it had outlasted, and clearly would yet outlast, many a batter-trimmed building, many a sprucer public-house. Externally, it was a narrow lopsided wooden jumble of corpulent windows heaped une upon another as you might heap as many toppling oranges, with a crazy wooden verandah impending over the water; indeed the whole house inclusive of the complaining flag-staff on the roof, impended over the water, but seemed to have got into the condition of a faint-hearted diver who has paused so long on the brink that he will never go in at all.
The joy of these descriptions comes from their complete dispensability: these are a throwaway passages, but Dickens invests them, and the inanimate objects they describe, with so much life that we can't help but smile. "Inclusive of the complaining flag-staff on the roof"!

I'm not far enough into the novel this time to properly test my memory of the blurring of primary and secondary characters, but the opening, which with each new chapter introduces a new group of characters in a new location, with very little in the way of overtly explained connections among them, makes me think it's accurate. Franco Moretti, in Atlas of the European Novel, 1800-1900 (1998), a book I've consulted regularly for years now, draws fascinating maps of the locations of the first eight installments--approximately 200 pages--of Our Mutual Friend. Pointing to the maps, Moretti writes,
Look at the rhythm of this narrative pattern: with every new installment, always one or two new spaces; and then, unlike Lost Illusions, a plot that doesn't move in an orderly way from one space to the next, but jumps--and then jumps again: from the Thames to the West End, to Limehouse, to Holloway, to Wegg's lonely street corner . . . Fantastic idea: the city--the generalized spatial proximity unique to the city--as a genuine enigma: a "mosaic of worlds," yes, but whose tiles have been randomly scattered.
In Our Mutual Friend, Dickens brought to new heights his intuitive understanding of the city as a place of unexpected connections--and in doing so he changed the topography of his novelistic imagination as well, shaking up our (and his) casual separation of his characters into foreground and background, heroes and comic relief. It's an impressive growth in both sensibility and capability, and if memory serves, it's enough to make up for--and even to some extent to justify--the book's relatively creaky plot.

There's plenty more to write and think about Our Mutual Friend--such as the fact that it was poorly received by critics at the time, including Henry James, who, in an utterly fascinating review for the Nation called it "poor with the poverty not of momentary embarrassment, but of permanent exhaustion"--and I expect that's where this blog will spend the next several days. I'm on page 225--catch up and join me!

Friday, April 20, 2012

Behold the Naked Singularity!

It's here. The official publication date for Sergio De La Pava's A Naked Singularity is May 1, but if there's a good bookstore near you, they've probably got a stack up front right now, dizzying their patrons.

I've written about the book before,and you are welcome of course to take all my praise for it with a shaker of salt, since I'm also the book's publicist over in my day job. But you don't have to take my word for it that this is a novel worth seeking out. Try Scott Bryan Wilson's praise at the Quarterly Conversation, or Steve Donoghue's at Open Letters Monthly. Or Miles Klee, at Flavorwire, where he names it one of "Ten Malicious Masterpieces," putting it in company with Thomas Bernhard, Martin Amis, and Christina Stead. If those don't convince you, just keep your eyes peeled: the coming weeks should see lots of new readers and critics weighing in on the book.

In the meantime, since presumably you're sitting at your desk right now avoiding work anyway, go check out a venture into nonfiction that Sergio made last year, an essay for Triple Canopy on, of all things, Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse and boxing. If you like the voice, pell-mell language, and bone-deep empathy you find there, then I expect it'll be worth your stopping off at your local bookstore on the way home tonight and picking up A Naked Singularity. The weekend is ahead of you--hours and hours to spend getting sucked into a strange, compelling, funny, ridiculous, moving account of life, the law, and justice in New York and America today.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Adding to the store of anecdotes

As I read P. Y. Betts's People Who Say Goodbye: Memories of Childhood, I was pleased to find this brief second-hand anecdote about poet and fiction writer Walter de la Mare:
According to my mother, as a girl she had had many admirers. She had known a family called de la Mare and had been pursued to the mistletoe by one of the sons who was called Bert. There had been another son called Walter. As my interests widened, I asked her once what Walter had been like.

"Walter? Can't say he made much impression . . . oh, yes, I do remember once at supper at the Bedbrooks, he chased one of the girls round the table with the bread knife. He was upset about something or other, I forget what it was."
Every time I find one of these anecdotes buried in a little-known book, I feel grateful yet again for John Gross, who ferreted out so many of them for his indispensable New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes. Gross died just over a year ago, and the Guardian obituary, which praises him as a classic man of letters, points out that one of the merits of his anthologies was their originality:
John Mullan pointed out in the Guardian that, unlike many anthologists, Gross came up with the unfamiliar--less than 10% of his material had previously appeared in other Oxford anthologies.
The obituary also quotes John Carey, on the Anecdotes volume's unsuitability for the usual role of anthologies as bedside books. That book, said Carey,
should on no account be allowed in the bedroom, or you will find yourself awake in the cold, small hours, still turning the pages.
The New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes doesn't include any of stories de la Mare--a mark, perhaps, of its only flaw, that, rather than 1,000 pages it's not quite 400--which makes me feel that I'm doing something useful by extracting and posting the story of this minor incident.

You won't, I expect, be surprised to learn that while de la Mare is absent from Gross's anthology, knives do make some appearances. Nora Joyce wields one in this account, taken from Portraits of the Artist in Exile:
Nora Joyce, who had listened to him intently, now suddenly jumped up, and, while Joyce continued his calm, interested analysis of Hitler's personality from the point of view of its immense force and drive, she grabbed her knife, which she had just then been using on a poulet de bresse, rushed toward him and shouted, "Jim, another calm word about that devil and I will murder you!" Her response had a strange mixture of genuine anger and burlesque acting.
Then there's this chilling account of Jonathan Swift's final, mentally disordered years, taken from Irvin Ehrenpreis's The Personality of Jonathan Swift:
One day in mid-March 1744, as Swift sat in his chair, he reached towards a knife, but Mrs Ridgeway [his housekeeper] moved it away from him. He shrugged his shoulders, rocked himself, and said, "I am what I am, I am what I am"; some minutes later he repeated the same thing two or three times.
If there is an afterlife, I like to imagine that it includes, well, probably not a Hall of Anthologists, but perhaps instead a musty, book-lined Nook of Anthologists, or a quiet, out-of-date, slightly down-at-heel-looking Bar of Anthologists. Elbowed on that bar would be John Gross and D. J. Enright, trading drink and tales late into the celestial night.

Monday, April 16, 2012

"Not fit to be put in a servant's bedroom!"

P. Y. Betts's charming memoir of a just-post-Edwardian childhood, People Who Say Goodbye (1989)--which is available in a lovely hardcover from Slightly Foxed Editions, whose glorious publishing niche is the charming minor memoir of childhood--included a couple of passages that seemed worth pointing out in light of my recent post about English servants. Betts grew up in a modest middle-class home, which at that time meant that her mother was able to employ a single servant (to help with things like washday, which began at 4 A.M. in order to be finished within the day), and Betts's account of the servant in residence when she first came to consciousness, while loving, gave me pause:
Clara had been my newly married parents' first little maid-servant, a fourteen-year-old up from Somerset.
A century later, it's hard to even begin to fathom what that must have been like, for Clara or the family. I realize that fourteen in 1910 was an age of work--the some of Clara's contemporaries were going down the mines--but to be confronted with it in that was makes it seem even more stark: a newlywed couple sets up house . . . with a teenager. A teenager who is there to clean up after them. Betts's mother, though harsh in many ways, seems to have been kind and understanding with servants--many of whom returned for visits over the years--but even so, only centuries-old rigidity of class boundaries could make such a situation anything but bizarre and uncomfortable for all concerned, no?

Betts and her parents, however, were light years beyond her mother's family, which lived, parents and her two older sisters, in an ostentatiously large house that declared that they had arrived among the upper classes. Betts has little good to say about her maternal grandparents; at one point, aged about ten, she says to her father, "I hate Grandpa, don't you?", receiving in reply the equivocal, "I might like him better if I saw less of him, but as it is I see the old so-and-so every day." They appear in their least pleasant aspect at Christmas, which they managed to turn into a stultifying obligation:
We would walk round the room saying, "Happy Christmas and thank you," to each seated figure in turn, and planting a kiss upon each cool or whiskered cheek. We would not be so much as glanced at except by Grandma, who would give us a warm kiss before slipping away to see to things, such as a bone for Paddy. As we kissed, so we would bestow, easing our botched-up parcelled offering into limp hands. We would be thanked in a toneless parroty way, as if the form had been memorised from an English phrasebook for foreigners. Our parcels were not opened. Soon the gong would go for Christmas dinner . . . and by the time we returned to the drawing-room after the meal, the presents we had given would have disappeared. We heard no more of them. They might have been shredded and engulfed by a waste disposal unit, had such refinements existed then, for all the news we had of them.
Ah, but a bad present would be found out. One year Betts made notebook for her grandfather by hand:
I heard no more about it, but my mother was summoned by her father to account for the peculiar wretchedness of this present, at once valueless and badly made. As I heard much later, my mother let fly at her parent with both barrels of a righteous anger, not scrupling to draw the comparison between the image of the great and good benefactor he was careful to present to the children at the temperance orphanage and the cold, joyless old nit-picker his own grandchildren knew him to be.
One year, when she seems to have been about ten years old, Betts simply refused to participate in this ill-judged gift economy:
Evidently nothing pleased them, for whatever was given to them very likely went straight into the dustbin. It was disheartening.

"Here is three-and-six," I said to my mother. "Buy something with that if you must, but don't ask me to think about it."

My mother, starved of co-operation, ended up by buying a china dog which I never even saw.

This purchase, so uncharacteristic of my mother's normal shopping instincts, must have been undertaken in a moment when she was "not herself," torn apart in a consumer's schizoid panic between warring loyalties. I understood that the china dog, which I disdained to look at, was repellent to a degree. . . .

Barring the homemade notebook, this was the one present we ever heard mentioned again.

". . . and she gave me a china dog," exclaimed Aunt Ada in bitterness to my mother. ". . . a china dog not fit to put in a servant's bedroom!"
"Not fit to be put in a servant's bedroom" became, Betts gleefully tells us, a catchphrase in the family (aunts and grandparents excepted, of course):
Anything disliked or rejected, be it a pair of scuffed tennis shoes, a note sung flat, or a lump of unchewable gristle, was thereafter described as "not fit to put in a servant's bedroom."
The picture of nuclear family solidarity is winning, and the joke a good one--but it's hard not to wonder what the actual servant, overhearing, must have thought.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Damned for the wrong sin, or, I come not to praise Bulwer-Lytton

Edward Bulwer-Lytton is known these days, if at all, for a single sentence, the one with which he opened his 1830 novel Paul Clifford:
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
A cursory online search is disappointingly unhelpful in determining when that opening phrase became a cliche. Google's Ngram viewer suggests that a lot of writers thought it worth copying in the first thirty years or so after Paul Clifford was published, with steadily fewer finding it useful in the following century.

The NGram viewer, however, doesn't register the many times when Snoopy enthusiastically typed it out, or any other of its non-bound-book comic appearances. The uptick registered after 1980 can be attributed solely to the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, which, since 1982, has kept Bulwer-Lytton's name alive, if infamous, by awarding an annual prize--currently $250, described technically in the rules as "a pittance"--for the worst opening sentence to an imaginary novel submitted to them.

Like nearly everyone alive today, I've not read Bulwer-Lytton. I've long thought, however, that he didn't deserve his infamy--at least not if the sole piece of evidence against him is, as it usually seems to be, the above sentence. Oh, it's not a good sentence. Yes, it would likely have made Nabokov or Updike shudder. But is it really that bad? If we can pretend briefly that the opening phrase hasn't yet become a cliche, then the ground for complaint are two:

1 The unnecessary, interpolated elaboration of the gusts of wind
2 The poorly positioned parenthetical that locates the book in London.

Both are clumsy and could easily have been improved by the casting over them of even a weak editorial eye--but is the sentence as it now stands all that bad? Worse than what our best-selling, low-grade thriller writers turn out on page after page? Worse than James Frey's Hemingway-cum-Fight Club masochismo? I just don't see it.

Perhaps my instinct to be generous to Bulwer-Lytton is part-and-parcel of my tendency to question opening lines generally regarded as great. "Call me Ishmael" and "I am an American, Chicago-born" I'll accept, but I'm on record as questioning the quality of "All happy families are alike," and to that I'm ready to add "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen." (Think about it: what propagandistic, controlling work would altering clocks to use thirteen hours have? I'm guessing little, as it's never mentioned again. And even if we want to grant Orwell some license to shock at the start of the novel, then he should at least have made it the more rhythmically satisfying "all the clocks were striking thirteen," no?)

The reason I started thinking again about Bulwer-Lytton's infamy is that after reading the entry on him in John Sutherland's Lives of the Novelists--finally available Stateside, from Yale University Press--I became convinced that he's infamous for the wrong reasons. Rather than being awarded for the worst sentence, the Bulwer-Lytton pittance should be given for the worst husband and father--for good god, was Bulwer-Lytton a bad one. Here is Sutherland's account, pulled from various points in the Bulwer-Lytton entry:
On a trip to Italy in 1834 . . relations between him and Rosina broke down. It did not help that, as gossip reported, Bulwer was accompanied by his mistress. There were, by now, two children. A legal separation was enacted in April 1836 and two years later Rosina's children were forcibly removed from her on the grounds of maternal neglect. It was untrue, but Edward wanted custody of his son, the eventual heir to Knebworth. . . . Rosina felt he could quite well make do with his three illegitimate children. . . . By mid-century Lytton . . . had put his public life back together again. His private life was something else. He had callously abandoned his daughter Emily to die of typhus fever in a London lodging house. Her body was brought back to the magnificent family house a Knebworth and it was given out to the world that she had expired there, by her loving father's side. It is the most despicable of Lytton's actions--unless one credits Rosina's allegation that he once hired an assassin to poison her. She had not even been informed her daughter was ill, a fact she furiously publicised. . . . [Rosina's] harassments climaxed at Herford, in June 1858, where Edward was publicly canvassing. She heckled and was cheered on by the crowd who found the row more interesting than government policy. Lytton, driven to desperate remedies, had her abducted and incarcerated for a month in a private lunatic asylum. Tame doctors provided the necessary certification. The Telegraph . . . took up her cause and she was released.
That last episode may be familiar, as it provided Wilkie Collins with plot ideas for The Woman in White--for which, Sutherland tells us, Rosina wrote to thank him.

Seriously, though: even in the annals of writerly familial brutality and self-seeking, surely this stands out more than, relative to the oceans of bad prose, "It was a dark and stormy night" ever could? Surely we're lodging Bulwer-Lytton in the wrong circle of literary hell?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The story, the forest, the chain of transmission

{Photo by rocketlass.}

In a post this week on his blog, The Book Report, Andrew Piper used the occasion of a question posed by his daughter during Easter service (How did those a man in the choir know all the words to the service?) to reflect on the long history of cultural transmission via the written word:
I said that was a long story. But the short answer was: books. Not in the sense of reading and memorizing, but in the sense of, How do we all know this story 2,000 years after it happened? I’m one of those people who is consistently enthralled by the fact that stories persist.
That thought came to mind this morning as I read Francis Spufford's The Child That Books Built: A Life in Reading (2002), a wide-ranging biographical exploration of the role of fiction in Spufford's childhood and mental and emotional development. Early on, he writes, of children's insistence that every word of a familiar story be the same every time,
The invariability of a story is what give it a secure existence. It adds it to the expanding sphere of what is known for sure; and therefore to the dependable world, which is made up at the deepest level, for a small child, of patterns on which it is safe to rely.
In one sense, that's the role that a church service (or an origin story, or a particular history, etc.) plays, even for adults: it locks the world in amber, unchanging, so that we can find ways to cope with its actual, ever-changing reality. Part of what makes Tolkien's books (which Spufford discusses as childhood favorites) so affecting is that the real threat to the Shire, to the simple life that Sam so wistfully recalls and Frodo is simultaneously excited and anxious about leaving, is not the evil of Sauron, per se, but the simple arrival of change. The Middle Ages, which we nowadays know on our earth were far from as static as once thought, are in Middle-Earth being forcibly propelled into the modern; even if Frodo and Aragorn and the Fellowship can stave off the worst of the consequences, change, having entered, will accrete. The golden summer is over, passing inexorably into story.

Elsewhere in that chapter is another passage that resonates with Piper's themes. In the process of both telling about a forest near his childhood home and establishing a metaphorical structure for his investigation of stories, Spufford writes about the primeval forest that used to cover Britain:
The botanist Oliver Rackham* called it the "wildwood" as a technical term, after Kenneth Grahame's Wild Wood. I sit in the ghost of the wildwood's Lime Province, a wonderful name, the title for a polity of trees alone. It stretched from sea to sea. Painted people slipped through its shadows, among the other animal species of the wildwood, indistinct in the slatted light. They left no permanent trails. They hunted and gathered, they retreated to basketwork houses where lakes had opened the land for them. Undoubtedly they told stories about the unending thicket whose signs they forever tried to read.
The forest was long believed to have stood, nearly unbroken, until well into the Middle Ages--but in recent decades botany and archaeology have placed its clearance much, much farther back. Half of it, Spufford reports, is thought have been cleared by 500 BC. "The significance of these dates," Spufford writes,
is that they put the death of the British wildwood before recorded memory. Memory in the forms of history or chronicle we could be without, and still inherit the shadow of the trees. But the death of the wildwood precedes story too; it happened before the oldest legends that now survive were first told. It is out of legend's reach. For stories to descend from then till now, there has to be a chain of peoples passing along mythology. They garble it. . . . Still, a signal arrives. Stories do not lapse easily into time's white noise because they are not passed on passively. There's a counterchaotic imperative at work. Whenever static threatens to overwhelm them, whenever too much detail becomes meaningless, a teller will reform them in the act of transmission so that once more they make (a kind of contemporary) sense. But the wildwood predates the earliest, obscurest functioning link in the chain. It sends us no signal at all. It was just too long ago. We tell no stories of the great wood from memory in England.
Instead, Spufford argues, stories of the primeval forest are the result of the deeper language of myth--they are the dark, wild, unknown places that are necessary to explain chaos and set off order.

Spufford is surely right: the forest, after all, was never--still isn't--wholly gone; it is a concept that is easily extrapolated. But part of me nonetheless resists the idea that nothing of the old stories filtered through, that no trace, however corrupted, lingered through the generations and the conquests and the losses. Again: I expect he has the evidence on his side--mine is a response from the gut, not the mind--but my wish to believe in the enduring chain of story is powerful.

Later in his post--which is well worth clicking through to read in its entirety--Andrew Piper wonders about the future of stories:
Every time I’m in a setting where something has been repeated for so many years I can’t resist running the thought experiment of whether electronic media will make such durability harder. It’s an old cliché (books stable, electronics volatile), but the point is not that it’s true, but what if it were true, what if we could make it happen? What would it be like to live in a world without such absurdly durable social practices? What would it be like to inhabit a culture where forms and practices only lasted a generation or two? Would it be liberating or incredibly sad? Can there be belief without time?
And that brings to mind a set of stories that matter as much to me as any in the world, stories whose language is not set--no perfect repetitions--but whose meaning has been clear for years: the stories my family tells when we are together. My brother and sister and parents and I spin out tales of childhood, to always-fresh laughter, every summer on vacation, and we've been doing it long enough now that my nieces and nephews know some of the stories and their characters. But these stories will not last past them, if they even hold up that long. They're inherently short-lived, narrow-compassed, and no less powerful for that. Mentioning them is at best an oblique response to Piper's question, though I think it probably leads to the answer he'd be likely to arrive at: it's unquestionably sad when the things we care about fade out, the quicker the sadder. It's the nature of things, and I don't pretend to expect anything else. Sticking with the personal: it's not as if my nieces and nephews have any kind of duty to pass on our stories to their children. They'll have stories of their own. But it's sad nonetheless, and to imagine it on the level of a whole culture brings on a vertiginous feeling of fundamental loss.

Since this whole post has been operating with, at best, my usual dilettante's obliqueness, I'll end by turning to a passage from Alain-Fournier's Le Grand Meaulnes (1912):
Between two white posts, at the corner of the wood, Meaulnes found the entrance to an avenue and started down it. After a few steps, he paused, astonished, overcome by a feeling that he could not explain. Though he had been walking with the same tired legs and the icy wind was freezing his lips, at times taking his breath away, none the less an extraordinary feeling of contentment raised his spirits, a feeling of perfect, almost intoxicating tranquillity: the certainty that he had reached his goal and that henceforth only happiness awaited him. This was how, in earlier times, he had felt on the eve of the great summer festivals, when at nightfall fir trees were being set up in the village streets and the window of his bedroom was obscured by their branches.
In that passage we bring together our themes: the forest, discovery, story, adventure, memory--and, loss, because Le Grand Meaulnes is shot through with it, glimpsed here only in that vision of the boyhood bedroom window. (I remember, remember--June nights, abed before dark, listening to the cicadas announce that the darkness was slowly slipping amongst the trees, establishing dominion. Day is done.) This is what connects us. This is what keeps us going. This is the mortar of the loving friendship of my brother and sister and my parents and me.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Traveling companions

Last Thursday, in anticipation of some weekend travel, I stopped at my local bookstore, 57th Street Books, to pick up two of my favorite traveling companions: Rex Stout and P. G. Wodehouse. What better comforts to ease the irritations of contemporary travel and wash away the frustrations of a draining workweek than these two authors who offer seemingly infinite minor variations of infinitely lovable formulas?

The travel, alas, has left me too behindhand for proper blogging tonight, so instead I'll just share a couple of favorite passages from the pair. First, from Rex Stout's And Be a Villain (1948), an act of resistance from Nero Wolfe--who is irritated by the name of one of the corporations that is to be paying his fees for a case--generates an equal and opposite reaction from Archie:
"No. I will not." He was emphatic. "I will not draft or sign an agreement one of the parties to which is that Sweeties."

I knew perfectly well that was reasonable and even noble. But what pinched me was that I had sacrificed principle without hesitation, and here he was refusing to. I glared at him:

"Very well." I stood up. "I resign as of now. You are simply too conceited, too eccentric, and too fat to work for."

"Archie. Sit down."


"Yes. I am no fatter than I was five years ago. I am considerably more conceited, but so are you, and why the devil shouldn't we be? Some day there will be a crisis. Either you'll get insufferable and I'll fire you, or I'll get insufferable and you'll quit. But this isn't the day and you know it."
Archie can do nothing but agree.

From Wodehouse's Nothing Serious (1950), two passages. First, from "Rodney Has a Relapse," this ordinary, yet no less admirable moment from the career of the Oldest Member:
The Oldest Member, who had been in a reverie, came out of it abruptly and began to speak with the practised ease of a raconteur who does not require a cue to start him off on a story.
And, because I can't ever resist Lord Emsworth, the opening of "Birth of a Salesman":
The day was so fair, the breeze so gentle, the sky so blue and the sun so sunny, that Lord Emsworth, that vague and woollen-headed peer who liked fine weather, should have been gay and carefree, especially as he was looking at flowers, a thing which always gave him pleasure. But on his face, as he poked it over the hedge beyond which the flowers lay, a close observer would have noted a peevish frown. He was thinking of his younger son Freddie.

Coming to America to attend the wedding of one of his nieces to a local millionaire of the name of Tipton Plimsoll, Lord Emsworth had found himself, in the matter of board and logdging, confronted with a diffcult choice. The British Government, notoriously slow men with a dollar, having refused to allow him to take out of England a sum sufficient to enable him to live in a New York hotel, he could become the guest of the bridgeroom's aunt, who was acting as M.C. of the nuptials, or he could dig in with Freddie in the Long Island suburb where the latter had made his home. Warned by his spies that Miss Plimsoll maintained in her establishment no fewer than six Pekinese dogs, a breed of animal which always made straight for his ankles, he had decided on Freddie and was conscious now of having done the wrong thing. Pekes chew the body, but Freddie seared the soul.
You see why mine was a carefree trip?

Wednesday, April 04, 2012


One of the most interesting characters in Elizabeth Bowen's The Death of the Heart (1938) is Matchett, the head servant who works for Anna and Thomas, in whose house Thomas's half-sister, Portia, lives (and, through her inability to recognize a cad when she meets one, begins to wreak havoc). Matchett is simultaneously a comforting mothering confessor figure for young Portia and a forbidding, judgmental watcher. She sees all and claims not to judge, but exchanges tend to move along lines like the following, which comes when Portia has just returned from a spring holiday at the seaside:
"You know, Matchett, I did enjoy myself."

Matchett gave another sideways look at the clock, as though admoninishing time to hurry for its own sake. Her air became more non-committal than ever; she appeared to be hypnotised by the speed of her knitting, and, at the same time, for her own private pleasure, to be humming an inaudible tune. After about a minute, she receipted Portia's remark with an upward jerk of the chin. But the remark had, by that time, already wilted in the below stairs dusk of this room--like, on the mantelpiece, the bunch of wild daffodils, some friend's present, thrust so sternly into a glass jar. These, too, must have been a gift that Matchett no more than suffered.

"You're glad, aren't you?" Portia more faintly said.

"The things you do ask. . . . "
Matchett's mix of passive aggression and raised eyebrows called to mind one of Virginia Woolf's pungent comments about servants, which I encountered in Alison Light's amazing Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury (2008):
Having one's affairs inspected by servants, Virginia wrote, was like "frying in greasy pans."
For anyone who wants to try to understand what it was like to be or to employ a servant, Light's book is indispensable. Her research is amazing, conjuring up the lives of people who, though they played crucial parts in the lives of the Woolfs, left few overt traces in the countless histories of the couple and their circle. In addition, she enables us to both see Woolf's blindness to the human actuality of her servants and to understand why she saw them, and understood her relationship with them, that way. The servants were not really to be thought about--fretted over, perhaps, with their snooping and stealing and moodiness--but not thought about. They were just there. The best servant, Light explains, "was a kind of absent presence." Bowen tells us, of Matchett,
No one knew that she slept, that she went to bed: at nights she just disappeared.
In the introduction to Mrs. Woolf and the Servants, Light writes,
Like other upper-middle-class girls, Virginia Stephen lived a cosseted existence, cared for by the servants. She'd been kept clean, fed and watered by them ever since the nursery. She woke to find the curtains drawn and jugs of water placed beside her wash-basin; her clothes--mended, laundered, brushed--were laid out for her; there was help on hand for buttoning boots or putting up her hair with the wretched pins. Of course no one in her circle shopped for food, let alone cooked an egg, or picked up their own clothes from the floor. For young ladies like Miss Stephen, servants were largely unremarkable, simply the backdrop to the greater and more interesting drama of growing up.
Even more telling--even jaw-dropping--is a moment Light describes from 1929:
By three o'clock the Woolfs were alone--a complete and utter novelty. It is worth emphasizing. They had never been alone before in their own home.
The Woolfs had at that point been married for seventeen years.

Which isn't to say that there wasn't pleasure (and power) in the servants' part as well. Bowen is convincing when she depicts Matchett's pride, masochistic though it may be, in her spring cleaning:
She had had her way like a fury. Tensed on the knitting needles (for she could not even relax without some expense of energy) her fingers were bleached and their skin puckered, like the skin of old apples, from unremitting immersion in hot water, soda, soap. Her nails were pallid, fibrous, their tips split. Light crept down the sooty rockery, through the bars of the window, to find no colour in Matchett: her dark blue dress blotted the light up. She looked built back into the half darkness behind her apron's harsh gaze. In her helmet of stern hair, a few new white threads shone--but behind the opaqueness of her features control permitted no sag of tiredness. There was more than control here: she wore the look of someone who has augustly fulfilled herself. Floor by floor over the basement towered her speckless house, and a reckoning consciousness of it showed like eyes through the eyelids she lowered over her knitting.
The amount of work that went into making that satisfaction, however, while Matchett's employers were blithely on holiday, is staggering:
The spring cleaning had been thorough. Each washed and polished object stood roundly in the unseeing air. The marbles glittered like white sugar; the ivory paint was smoother than ivory. Blue spirit had removed the winter film from the mirrors; now their jet-sharp reflections hurt the eye; they seemed to contain reality. The veneers of cabinets blazed with chestnut light. Upstairs and downstairs, everything smelt of polish; a clean soapy smell came out from behind books. And crisp from the laundry, the inner net curtains stirred over windows reluctantly left open to let in the April air with its faint surcharge of soot. Yes, already, with every breath that passed through the house, pollution was beginning.
That sooty pollution, as Judith Flanders explains in Inside the Victorian Home (2003), was inescapable:
Coal residue was omnipresent, both as dust as coal was carried to each fireplace, and then, after the fires were lit, as soot thrown out by the fire, blackening whatever it touched.
So every day the battle was waged anew. The spring cleaning may have been an extraordinary undertaking, but the everyday household routine itself is astonishing. Here, also from Flanders's fascinating book, is a passage from the 1860 diary of Hannah Cullwick, a maid of all work:
Opened the shutters & lighted the kitchen fire. Shook my sooty things in the dusthole & emptied the soot there. Swept & dusted the rooms & the hall. Laid the hearth & got breakfast up. Clean'd 2 pairs of boots. Made the beds & emptied the slops. Clean'd & wash'd the breakfast things up. Clean'd the plate; clean'd the knives & got the dinner things up. Clean'd away. Clean'd the kitchen up; unpac'd a hamper.
And on and on. Little of which, it seems, was appreciated. Flanders cites some of the then-standard guides to managing servants:
All this was regarded as normal, and not too much for one person. Indeed, Mrs. Beeton thought that "a bustling and active girl will always find time to do a little needlework for herself, if she lives with consistent and reasonable people. In the summer evenings she should manage to sit down for two or three hours, and for a short time in the afternoon in leisure days." Mrs. Warren agreed, adding that in her daily tasks, not too much equipment should be given to the maid-of-all-work, as any girl, no matter how much work she had to get through, "Should find time to wash three cloths in a day," for constant reuse. "Cre-fydd," the pseudonymous author of a housekeeping manual, conflated effort and result when she said that if every room was thoroughly turned out once a week, including washing the paintwork, beating the carpets, cleaning the windows, and brushing the walls and curtains, "the house is always clean, and with very little labour."
Simple as that! . . . until the next day, when it all had to begin again. "Now, you get off my table, there's a good girl," says Matchett to Portia,
"while I plug in the iron: I've got some pressing to do."

Portia said, in a hardly alive voice: "I thought you said you had finished everything."

"Finished? You show me one thing that is ever finished, let alone everything. No, I'll stop when they've got me screwed into my coffin, but that won't be because I've got anything finished."
An old girlfriend once explained that she liked washing dishes because they were "finite objects in an infinite task." I feel the same way as I stand at the sink--but there's a difference in doing it for yourself rather than for your masters, and in not having to go from the sink to the rugs to the floors to the fireplace . . . We can never be sure who or how we would have been had we lived in the past, what cruel blind spots we likely would have had. Trying to sympathetically imagine the world of Victorian and Edwardian servants makes me grateful for my small sink of few dishes, and glad that changes in culture, class relations, and technology have enabled me to be able to--and to expect to--do for myself in those areas.

Monday, April 02, 2012

That pavilion in the rain

I've written before about jazz writer and lyricist Gene Lees, on the occasion of his death almost two years ago, but as I sat at the piano tonight, celebrating the strides--minor, but satisfying--I've made in the year I've been taking piano lessons as an adult--he came to mind. From the stack of fakebook pages I've accumulated over the past year I'd plucked "Early Autumn"--Johnny Mercer lyrics over music by Ralph Burns and Woody Herman--with its line about the "dance pavilion in the rain," and it brought to mind Lees's unforgettable essay of the same name name.

I quoted from that essay in my obituary post, but its sharply defined nostalgia, which it unquestionably earns, through serious analysis of all the elements that went into the big band world whose loss it's lamenting, seems worth sharing again:
On warm summer nights in that epoch between the wars and before air conditioning, the doors and wide wooden shutters would be open, and the music would drift out of the pavilion over the converging crowds of excited young people, through the parking lot glistening with cars, through the trees, and over the lake—or the river, or the sea. Sometimes Japanese lanterns hung in the trees, like moons caught in the branches, and sometimes little boys too hung there, observing the general excitement and sharing the sense of an event. And the visit of one of the big bands was indeed an event.
Which leads me back to Mercer's lyrics. By 1949, when Mercer wrote "Early Autumn," the big band era was over, even if many bands remained on the road and, presumably, told themselves that they were just struggling through a minor slump. The dance pavilions were, if not "all shuttered down," as Mercer has it, at least headed that way. Mercer's lyrics are written as a plaint from a lover looking back on what he's lost, and pleading for a future--"Darling, if you care, / please let me know. / I'll meet you anywhere. / I miss you so."--but the song overall can be read as an elegy for an era. "A town grown lonely," as streetcars give way to private cars, and nights out give way to nights in, warmed by television and cooled by air conditioning.

In this strange spring of 2012--which feels, today, like nothing so much as a gentle early autumn--we're living in the apotheosis of the era that the postwar boom was ushering in, with me sitting in my house and typing these words to all of you in your houses. It's a good thing, what we have, if we use it well, but so was what was being lost as Mercer was writing, a loss that he, with his tendency to melancholy, saw earlier than most. "I'll meet you anywhere," his speaker vows, but we don't ever learn what the answer was, or if there was ever any answer but silence, broken only by the sound of the rain.

In reality, the "anywhere" we'll meet is bound to be the future, and while it can't make good the losses of the past, perhaps its offerings will at least mitigate them. Noel Coward offers an antidote of sorts to the melancholy of "Early Autumn"--while no less aware of loss--in "Sail Away," from 1961:
A different sky,
New worlds to gaze upon,
The strange enchantment of an unfamiliar shore,
One more goodbye,
One more illusion gone,
Just cut your losses,
And begin once more.
If you're prone to nostalgia--especially for eras you weren't here to live through--I recommend you get a piano. If you're prone to nostalgia--especially for eras you weren't here to live through--I recommend you stay far away from pianos. I trust that you all are smart enough to take your pick.