Tuesday 29 December 2015

On the fifth day of Christmas

On the fifth day of Christmas,
my true love gave me
Five Gold Rings
Four Calling Birds
Three French Hens
Two Turtle Doves
A Partridge in a Pear Tree

According to a tradition linked with the Tudor era, the Five Gold Rings, for the Faithfuls, were the name for the Five first Books of the Ancient Testament or Pentateuch - the Torah.

As the year draws in, I wanted to talk about the other great pattern and cause of this blog - other than reminiscences -, books and their place in my life. They are more than simple reads. First of all because lots of them are re-reads that become inbred or take roots within me and grow out of me as lessons for life. I shall take two examples: two novels that are not among the great classics.

Some time ago, I exchanged one or two comments with another purely book blogger who had set herself the challenge to read the complete Forsyte Saga (by John Galsworthy) during this year. It is a trilogy: three periods of the life of a family, each period divided in three books, which makes nine books, but to which one has to add "Interludes" or three brief novellas or long short stor ies, one of which - at the end of the first three books - is of poignant beauty. The whole sequence is therefore of twelve "book" and that was perfect for this blogger's challenge: one book a month.

I was waiting for this with some trepidation. You may have clearly understood by now that I hate challenges, readalongs, and other more or less forced reading and writing, even if the participants feel they are free in choosing the "challenge". I do not read for challenge. I read for pleasure and for learning. The idea of "challenge" associated with reading makes me feel that competition has truly entered the worlds of study, learning and pleasure. Moreover, I do not always agree with book bloggers. In fact, I mostly disagree. But this is the salt of  the talk - when there is one - and this gives some spice to life.

I sailed through the report of the first two trilogies without a comment. But in the middle book of the last trilogy, I knew we would have to disagree. (Nota: the last trilogy comprises "Maid in Waiting", "Flowering Wilderness" and "One More River").

The time is the inter-war, between 1920 and 1936 / 38. We have gone from the Forsyte family per se, to a secondary branch of the family tree, the Cherrells, and one of the daughters is playing lead. We are on the fringes of the upper-class - let's say upper-middle-class or lower-upper-class, but still with members of Parliament, vicars, army officers, lawyers, gentlemen farmers, senior civil servants - with one Sir xxx and Lady yyyy here and there but no Lord and Lady Grantham that you would recognise if you are addicted to Downtown Abbey.

Some of the characters are living in Town and others in the country. Most alternate with at least a pied-à-terre in London and a house in the country but some with a house in London and a real country house.

Dinny, the young lady who takes the lead, is in love with a British gentleman, or so we think, but he has a secret. He has recanted his faith in the Midde-East and espoused the Mahometan faith under threat of death. When this secret is known in London, he is thought no more a gentleman, the clubs and houses close before him, society turns its back, and Dinny has almost no choice but to break the officious engagement they had. However, the man is still gentleman enough to go before she has to do it. He takes the fault all on himself and disappears to live the destiny of a pariah under all skies.

The blogger said something like "the British fuss" about the situation and being a gentleman or not, which in a nutshell meant that she thought it was "much ado about nothing" that prevented his life in Britain and the wedding bells to ring.

I disagreed.

We agreed that birth, education and culture moulded each person and his/her feelings and attitudes towards life as well as beginning to give him/her a set of values that might change during life. Such was the case for each of us: we had each our own set of values.

We agreed that on this particular point our sets of values disagreed.

In fact, we were very polite and courteous and are still writing and commenting each other's blog in the most civilized way.

And I still disagree.

I disagree because I have been moulded by a certain birth, education and culture that have given me a certain set of values - duties more than rights. Duties towards my faith, my family, my friends, the people I know, the people I do not know, society at large, my country, others in general - and myself. Some of these values belong to the past and seem ridiculous. Some ARE ridiculous. Fortunately, I have been given education and instruction, which help me both to question these values and to write today that some ARE ridiculous. Or wrong. Or belong to another age. 

I do not say that it was not being a gentleman to recant under threat of death. Nowadays it is seen differently. But we cannot and we must not pass judgement upon facts that happened when values and rules were different. Then, it was not "much ado about nothing" or "a British fuss".

The main issue of this being or not being a gentleman is mentioned a little later in the novel when Dinny comes home in the country where her family lives. They have not a grand castle (nothing like Downtown Abbey again) but a mansion, hall, manor - a large house. And people to help, farms with tenants, and older folks who are still inhabiting cottages on the land. There is no Providence State, no NHS, but the landlord, being a gentleman, has the duty to take care of them until their deaths. And "to take care" includes to visit, to feed, if necessary, to provide for their health be they ill, to consider them as part of the family. This is what Dinny does, what her mother does, and why her father worries. 

Dinny then wonders about the role of her family and she concludes a rather long meditation by thinking they have been the backbone of Britain - all these long lines of civil servants, clerics, military and Navy men, lawyers, farmers, Parliamentary men - not grandees but educated and instructed men and women who worked for the State and the people of  Britain. This made them gentlemen and ladies and to fail in one duty or not to respect one rule was raising the doubt as the possibilty to fail in all duties. The sanction was exclusion.

I expect I do not speak too much for my fellow blogger and does not put too much into her words. Of course, there is now the Providence State, the NHS, equal rights for all (and equal duties) and this kind of remnant of fealty does not exist anymore. Are people more happy? Are duties really equal and equally discharged? Are their discharged with care and love?

Don't think me a fool. I know that my family's Christmas visits belonged to this past social order, past sets of rules, past duties. We lived both in the dire present and in the dire past. Those quasi-codified visits to Great-Grand-Mother and Mother's Nanny were things that almost nobody observed anymore. Anyway, there was no paternalism but true care for real people. I would not say the same about the visits made by social workers paid for that today.

I do not say either that all that is passed was good and has to be kept alive or ressuscitated. And I shall take as example another book that is a gem: Ulverton by Adam Thorpe. His first novel.

I shall let the author speak for his book himself:

Ulverton opens in 1650 when a returning veteran of Cromwell's army is murdered by his wife and the man she married while he was away. In 1989, the victim's skeleton is unearthed by a descendant of the murderers constructing a development that will help spoil what remains of old Ulverton. In the ten intervening episodes, we encounter a sin-obsessed clergyman, a farmer obsessed with improving fertilizer while his wife goes insane and he carries on an affair with a servant, an adulterous aristocratic wife, an illiterate mother whose son awaits hanging for supposedly stealing a hat, an elderly carpenter cadging drinks by recounting how he fooled his tyrannical master, a group of rebellious agricultural workers on trial in 1830 for smashing farm machinery, a woman photographer in 1859, a ploughman reminiscing about village life, the excavation of a prehistoric barrow during the beginning of World War I, and the diary of a frustrated secretary during the death of George VI and coronation of Elizabeth II, in whose honour ancient wagons and farm tools are to be burned in a bonfire. "Why can't folk leave the past alone?" asks the secretary. At the end, the village within earshot of a roaring motorway, houses computer firms, and seems destined for inevitable urbanization.
Ulverton not only re-creates "the rich and complex pages of our ancient country", but is a reflection on language, time and change.
This continues to be the novel most people know me by, which is frustrating. I remember the precise moment of inspiration, while crossing a ploughed field up on the Berkshire Downs on a cold clear February day. The whole thing mapped itself out in my head, and I felt an extraordinary pull from the chalky earth.

In fact, as at least three critics noticed, as can be read in the following excerpts, it is a way of telling social English history through the means of literature.

Sunday Independent 
Hilary Mantel: May 10 1992 
ON THE cover of Adam Thorpe's novel there is a detail from The Haywain - a little rustic figure, almost formless, who seems to rise out of the water and mud. This is Thorpe's subject matter: the landscape of England and the half-noticed people who live against it. His chosen ground is a downland village in west Berkshire; his book is a series of interlinked narratives, each one fed by its predecessor, each one informing what follows. 
1650: A shepherd who has left his pastures to join Cromwell's army, and who has seen service on the Irish killing-fields, returns to reclaim his bit of land; in his pockets are rings (cut from dead fingers?) and a tangle of dusty ribbons for his wife's hair. Only one person, the shepherd-narrator, sees him arrive; then he vanishes. Gone away again, or dead? The narrator knows the answer, but conceals it. His simple, strong language reveals gradually the depth of his loneliness and sexual need; his stoicism cracks, and he trades truth for comfort. And a local legend is born: the shepherd who consorted with a witch. 
The next century brings ''improvements'': a farmer keeps his mind on Mr Tull's seed drill and on the qualities of hog's dung to avoid thinking of his dead child, who appears to him at night. 
1742: a woman sits in her room at the great house, writing letters to London to a lover who will never come back. 
The 1830s bring riots, machine-breaking, ''Captain Swing''. 
Each story creates its own world; Adam Thorpe writes beautifully, balancing each sentence as if it were poetry; he gives a voice to his often inarticulate characters without ever patronising them, and his idiom is always appropriate, always evolving. The stories work by accretion, so that as the book progresses it takes on more and more power. Images and motifs recur, and are more potent because they seem to arise naturally out of the consciousness of his characters; the inner metaphors by which they live are drawn from their observation of the world about them. 
By the middle of the nineteenth century, with the coming of photography, a different quality of attention is turned on the village. 
As the First World War breaks out, the squire is excavating a barrow above Ulverton, prospecting for the bones of early Britons while sending the present generation to be dug into the Flanders mud.  
In 1953, when the villagers are burying a ''time capsule'', they are still under the sway of local legends, garbled and amplified. A bradawl thrown into the river in 1803 comes to light 150 years later, and is mistaken for a Saxon dagger. 
And in 1988, Ulverton is the setting for a TV film: a year in the life of a property developer. At this point the author himself speaks: Adam Thorpe, expert on local ghosts and local curses, is blamed when the ''Westminster'' - five beds, ''Victorian'' conservatory - fails to sell. Whatever the future - light industrial units, low-cost starter homes - the past is inviolable. A skeleton which appears to be that of a Cromwellian soldier comes to light in the property developer's field. 


Andrew St George: May 14, 1992 

''IT MAY be,'' wrote John Moore in the 1944 Brensham Trilogy, ''that the country towns and villages will be for a period the repositories (like the monasteries in the Dark Ages) of a certain way of life, a certain sort of culture.'' Adam Thorpe's bold and fascinating first novel, Ulverton, proves him right. Thorpe has written an anatomy of a Berkshire village from the Civil War to the present, a fictional repository of accreted history held in lives, voices and landscapes. 

Ulverton holds together curiously. The first chapter resurfaces in the last. The book opens in 1650, as a Roundhead returns home to find his wife has remarried; he disappears, murdered, and the centuries wash over him until in the final chapter a property developer is thwarted by the discovery of a soldier's skeleton beneath a 1988 building site. 

The 10 chapters in between are peopled with vanished forms of rural life. Three apprentices mimic a hellfire sermon just after the Glorious Revolution. 

Then in 1712 an agrarian revolutionary, excited by talk of muskings, spewey loam and Mr Tull's seed drill, tells of his mad wife's death and his weakness for the milkmaid. 

Then follows an eighteenth-century epistolary love affair as a woman writes to the father of her illegitimate baby, dreaming of raspberries and mutton and correcting his feeble poems. 

The year 1803 brings a monologue from a wheelwright, proud and knowledgeable: ''Thy work goes on till the article be broke up, which if thy work be carried out proper won't be till long after thee be dead an' buried.'' 

Thirty years on, Thorpe offers the diary of a tubercular circuit judge in Sessions during the turmoil of the machine-breaking riots. All the while, Ulverton persists by changing. Its fields take on new names; a dotty squire has a chalk horse etched out of the hillside. 

A photographer's handbook from 1859 finds mellow certainties in the tamed landscape: a wooden bridge, soon to be replaced, over an ''oft-flooded ford''; or the village schoolmaster and the rectory tea, all recorded, all perfectly fitted to the surroundings. The photographer even manages a typically Victorian expedition to an Egyptian excavation, merely an extension of home. 

The best chapter comes from 1914, and tells of an amateur archaeologist digging at Ulverton. News of the Great War comes piecemeal, but a pall of foreboding hangs over the proceedings. The local squire exhorts a recruitment meeting with his own history: '' 'My grandfather . . . bore this sword at Waterloo' . . . The Squire swung it through the evening air, and its high hiss was the civilised thrum of the great Empire, quietly valiant, subduing only the bloody places of the world, erecting Industry in its stead.'' 

Then follows 1953, bringing radio, gramophone records and tape-recording. 

Lastly, in 1988, history becomes something fought over, as the developer builds ''Balmorals'', ''Westminsters'' and ''Windsors''. Thorpe finds a pattern of timely moments that deliver England then and now, resonating backward and forward.  

Ulverton amounts to a rural version of Simon Schama's fine Dead Certainties, putting the fictive spin on historical events. Its strengths come from its breadth of vision, its wide sympathies and from Thorpe's powers as a creator of historical dialogue: he has used glossaries, unmodernised spellings and books of husbandry to produce a credible context.
The weaknesses lie in the book's resolute diffuseness, and in the obtuse connections between the chapters. However, Thorpe knows that among the sifting processes of history, where facts harden, persist and reappear in new forms, historians are forever hailing someone who has just gone around the corner out of earshot. Connections have to be earned. As time thins the density of attachment with the past, his book charts the double sadness of waning understanding and growing ignorance about the environment. Modern life, scabrous and disconnected, can only look back to better times, since it has no past image of itself by which to create a present. This makes the book a passionate appeal for rural continuity and gradual change, for a world in which it makes a difference where one lives. 

John Fowles: May 28, 1992
Outwardly the story of a Wessex downland village (I suspect not too far from Richard Jefferies' heartland, near Swindon), it is told in a dozen very varied accounts (starting in Cromwellian England and ending in the 1980s). What I found remarkable in this long fictional sequence (from very different periods and social milieux) of episodes from our rural and agricultural past was their skill and vividness. One , is not introduced so often for nothing: Thorpe's characters and events constantly intertwine, snake their way through the generations. This interconnectedness is partly what gives the book its rich and dense texture; and gives it its sense of crossing rhythms - the slowness of time and its ephemeral transience. It should also shame all urban groaners fearing themselves back in Cold Comfort Farm. It really isn't one of those. 
We aren't used to the many deep matters Thorpe evokes or touches on, nor to such a thorough grasp of the complex nature of our national rural past, and through it, of all existence itself. He lives in France and some of that country's literary expertise in getting close to the imaginative reality of the past haunts his work, with an added skill in uncovering the endless English ways (perfide Albion!) we have found to mask and conceal our paradoxical nature. 
He seems equally at home with dialect, farming language and (most importantly) the "sound" of period. He has a truly great skill with different tones of voice - perhaps the hardest thing for any novelist to acquire. For this doesn't just require a vocal skill at mimicry, but the knack of conveying it in print. The last episode in this novel (dated 1988) is a mock script for a documentary on the village. It is sour-funny, as a hideous Thatcherite developer moves in and tries to ride rough-shod through the usual bureaucracy (strangled by their own lamentable jargon) and kerfuffling local opposition. Most of the modern village, on every side, express themselves in a language so tired and debased that it explains in itself why England these days so often seems self-torpedoed. If you are losing your language, you are in grave danger of losing yourself. 
One of the amusingly incoherent opponents to this 20th century rape of the village called Ulverton is a man called Adam Thorpe; but as the novelist, he neatly traces the blood of the appalling developer of 1988 to that of the sullen murderer in the novel's first episode three centuries earlier. I suspect he is as au fait with contemporary literary theory as he is with obsolete agricultural naming.

Hilary Mantel does describe the material tenor of the book in its ten sequences or chapters with a little crticism. I do not agree with Andrew St George's critic "The weaknesses lie in the book's resolute diffuseness, and in the obtuse connections between the chapters". These are not weaknesses but the way memory works. Past history is sometimes forgotten in one or two generations, sometimes changed in details, and the amount of changes becomes such that a new history is entirely created. "Resolute diffuseness" and "obtuse connections between the chapters" are the essence of what John Fowles calls the "frequent symbol, the wild clematis ".
The novel is about communal memory. Of course, there are individual lives and individual memories that shape each character, who is cearly drawn and speaks in his own voice through his own medium: diary, letters, story telling, rambling, writing of a "common book" to refer to during one's life, even with a scenario for TV. Each is adapted to the period to which the character belongs, with his own vocabulary and the vocabulary of his time and station in life. This defines him in a more complex context. And as each character refers of time past, it inserts himself in the larger history of the village: the village itself talks and takes the quality of a character in itself. It goes further still as the reader realises that each village of this country has its voice and personality. The book thus becomes an essay of social history of - at least - the Downs and Hardy's Wessex.

Part of this history is forgotten, part of it is distorted, part of it is created anew with memories gone wrong. It is still the history of a village and of a community. But as time passes and new comers arrive, memory goes thin and the fabric of the community shows more and more holes. This when disconnection arises and new past is needed to make roots. Strong, solid, firm present needs to be rooted in some past.

As the three critics I have chosen to cite at great length emphasize, there is a delicious irony in the fact that the "lead" or main character in the last chapter is in fact a direct descendant of one of the main protagonists of the first chapter without knowing it - without the smallest inkling of knowledge. And what played an important part in the village history turns against him and his projects of changing the history of the village.

Nevertheless, I would not call Ulverton nostalgic or reactionary. Life as it is told by the various characters from 1650 to 1988 is never idyllic or as sugary as a "chocolate box lid": it is tough, harsh, hard, sharp and killing, This is not the life of "ye merrie England" or of the "good old time". It does not exalt either the return to the past or to the rural life as seen by glamorous magazines. Inexorably, Ulverton will have to leave its insularity and to join the national and interational life of telephones, internet, news and speed - as Margaret and Helen Schlegel as well as Ruth Wilcox had to adapt to the new ruthless life of the Wilcoxes in Howards End ("Only connect") - as the Cherrels in the last trilogy of the Forsyte Saga will have to do either with the advent of WWII and the new Providence State.

As my family has done and as I must do to survive. 

But I still wonder. Perhaps because I have this lost sense of "continuity and gradual change". Perhaps because I have read too much of Proust and have tried not only to see time flowing forth toward the present but also have tried to trace it back to the far past. Perhaps because the word "progress" does not have only positive meanings for me but also negative ones of loss. 

So, I wonder: are people more happy? Are duties really equal and equally discharged? Are they discharged with care and love? Are rights really the same for all? Under its new bright, colourful, and sometimes gaudy and garish clothes, have society and humanity change that much now that we have Welfare State as the backbone of our countries?

This is a long post, even more rambling than usual, about village life and country life, and Country/State life. These lives which are mine today. Uppermost, it is the life I have thanks to books, inherent part of myself, ingrained, deep-rooted within me. It is not "a life in books"; it is "books in life". Not the five Books of the Pentateuch, but books. And it is well as it is since today:

On the fifth day of Christmas,
my true love gave me
Five Gold Rings
Four Calling Birds
Three French Hens
Two Turtle Doves
A Partridge in a Pear Tree

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