Thursday 21 April 2016

Three books, Henry James, my primer, and April

I am truly a poor book reviewer.

Yesterday, I sat down to write about three books I read some time ago now and of which I have not yet talked: "English Passengers" by Matthew Kneale, "Author, Author" by David Lodge, and "The Master" by Colm Toibin. 

All were rereads; these days, because of lack of money for "luxuries" for me, I find myself happily engaged in the To Be Read stacks and the Reread stacks. It is a very efficient way to see said stacks going down and being demolished one after the other although there is the creation of "To be Reread later" new pile growing! As the prospect of the arrival of a team of cleaners who will take charge of the overhaul of the house from basement to attic under the supervision of The Shopping-cum-Cleaning Lady, becomes imminent, I have to hurry labelling my stacks and putting them into cardboard boxes.

Meandering again, I am sorry.

So. I wanted to talk about those three books because I read them in close succession and was quite satisfied by this choice. The two later ones (Lodge and Toibin) are about Henry James, as is well known; the first (Kneale) and the last one ones (Toibin) have a real stylistic effort in common. They have already been extensively reviewed as they are far from new. Paid reviewers and critics in magazines and newspapers, as well as bloggers and freelance reviewers on platforms such as Goodreads and Amazon, all have had their say. What could I add but only perceptions and feelings of my own? I sat before my laptop and found relief in the number of interruptions that punctuated the afternoon, from The Shopping Lady, The Boiler Man, The Girls, The English Friends coming to a tea party on Thursday, tea time, and other trivial contingencies.

Nevertheless I will plod on today but do not fear: it will not be the only topic of this post.

*   *   *

I have always been dazzled and puzzled by Henry James. He is a master; this is for sure, but so convoluted, disquieting, difficult, dissecting, frightening. He is even more so when one reads his biography. He seems to draw so much from his life, to distort events, feelings and elements and adapt them to his literary needs. He is a master because, as Virginia Woolf a little later, he lives for his art, his writing. They are monsters, these novelists who ruthlessly, although more or less consciously, make use of their lives and of the lives of their family and friends to twist them into their oeuvre. This is where the "gothic" element rests, at the inner core of the interwoven life and output of the artist - in this case, the writers. James has famously written "gothic" stories and novellas - who does not know "The Turn of the Screw"? - but his life is gothic in itself. 

This is shown by the two novels by Lodge and Toibin: the decided and voluntary retreat from any sort of deeply emotional life - no homosexual or heterosexual love self-allowed - in order to devote and channel all energy towards his writing. Both authors make the appeal and downfall of the theatre, the scene, a pivotal moment with the booing of "Guy Domville" as the crux of the matter. The technique is different, though. 

Lodge mentions it at the beginning in the same breath as the death of the Master, then uses flashbacks and goes back to the play, and the fateful moment where James is brought to bow to the cries "Author! Author", which are ambiguously complimentary from his friends and derogatory from the rest of the audience; then, goes again to James's death. Much is made of his friendship with George Du Maurier, the irony of the success of the latter with "Trilby" as a novel, a play, and a mania (Trilby shoes, Trilby hat, and so on) - "Trilby" that Du Maurier first offered as a subject to James who did not use it on the grounds that he did not know enough about music - while James soldiers on with plays, critics, reviews, and short stories that do not encounter much success and keep him worried as to his finances and way of life. It is a mock biography and a mock novel. Lodge's voice is heard throughout the novel; it stitches pieces together and it seemed more apparent because I had read Toibin first.

I was enchanted by Toibin’s prose - enchanted in the original meaning of the word: under a spell. It took me some time to enter into the novel that covers the period 1895-1899 only, but goes into flashbacks into the childhood, youth and middle age of "The Master". The book is almost - I say "almost" - the same as Lodge's. It is a mock biography of Henry James but it is a novel by itself. The technique is as good as in the other volume although different. But the prose! The writing is sinuous, rich, growing into flowers, into gardens, into parks, into whole tapestries and landscapes. The writing is music, haunting, resonant, echoing in oneself, sometimes full orchestra, sometimes solos, mostly largo, sometimes andante. With some ferocity, remorse, self-search, efforts to understand, a whole palette where all colours are blended to find the exact hue that is required to express the exact feeling. This book reconciled me with James's books: I went in search of "The Europeans""Washington Square""The Portrait of a Lady”, “What Maisie Knew" that were close on the shelves. Not only was I pleased with what I read but I also understood shades that had passed by me unnoticed when I first went through the novels.

Why add Matthew Kneale to Lodge and Toibin? Perhaps because after a period of intellectual numbness, nay, torpidity, "English Passengers" led me to the two others for want of something more sustained and meaty than the "neglected women writers" that are my usual fare,; perhaps because I was entrapped in the technique again - I was always one to be entrapped by some literary tour de force. This is an even older book than the two others but it was a joyful reread: I am slow, perhaps not that clever, and with time elapsing, I understand things better. I can read and reread almost indefinitely Balzac and Zola and Aragon and Molière, Racine, Corneille, Voltaire, et al., I shall find always something new. 

Old Tasmanian Map

Kneale writes from various points of view about the journey of an English clergyman in search of the Garden of Eden, a nineteenth century scientist with dubious theories, and what seems a lazy nonentity, aboard a ship owned and manned by Manxmen who carry and want to sell contraband goods to Tasmania. The clergyman is absolutely sure, and wants it proved that the Garden of Eden is situated in Tasmania. Meanwhile, we go back a little earlier in the 19th century to follow through the eyes of the settlers, the British administration and the natives, the birth and development of colonisation by the British Crown. This mostly deals with the fate of the natives: they must comply with the British rules by force or God's love (both are shown repellent), or die. They will die, of course. If they comply, and some do, they are still treated as an inferior race, and die all the same. They cannot adapt themselves to the life the British show as the only one possible. Nevertheless, this is no black and white (no pun intended) image. Natives are also shown under various lights and are not the bon sauvage imagined by Rousseau during the 18th century. It is a cruel novel. Each protagonist meets his fate and his end in a dramatic way.

However, I was glad it had been written by a British denizen and not by a foreigner. It says unpleasant truths about Britain and its rule over the world that would (and I hope, did at the time of its first publishing) shake some complacency. I am not certain The English Friends coming for a tea party tomorrow would enjoy it but, had I a second copy, I would gladly give it to them.

*   *   *

Instead of writing one good blog about these three books yesterday, I went back to my former post, written earlier this week about April: gardens and books, books and gardens:
A friend had written to tell me that she would come to the post again to savour the poem. I looked at it and thought then that she would probably not find much to savour. Here it is again.

Ma sœur la Pluie,
La belle et tiède pluie d’été,
Doucement vole, doucement fuit,
À travers les airs mouillés.

Tout son collier de blanches perles
Dans le ciel bleu s’est délié.
Chantez les merles,
Dansez les pies !
Parmi les branches qu’elle plie,
Dansez les fleurs, chantez les nids ;
Tout ce qui vient du ciel est béni.

De ma bouche elle approche
Ses lèvres humides de fraises des bois ;
Rit, et me touche,
Partout à la fois,
De ses milliers de petits doigts.

Sur des tapis de fleurs sonores,
De l’aurore jusqu’au soir,
Et du soir jusqu’à l’aurore,
Elle pleut et pleut encore,
Autant qu’elle peut pleuvoir.

Puis, vient le soleil qui essuie,
De ses cheveux d’or,
Les pieds de la Pluie.

(Charles Van Lerberghe)

Roughly translated into English, it would run:

My sister Rain,
The pretty and warm summer rain
Softly flies, softly flees,
Throughout the wet breezes.

Her whole necklace of white snowy pearls
In the blue skies has grown untied.
Blackbirds, sing,
Magpies, dance!
Amidst the branches she doth bend
Flowers, do dance, nests, do sing;
All that comes from the skies is blessèd.

To my mouth she doth near
Her wet wild strawberry lips;
Laughs, and doth touch me
With her thousand small fingers.

Upon carpets of resonant flowers,
From dawn to sunset,
And from sunset to dawn,
She rains and rains again,
As much as she may rain;

Then comes the sun who dries,
With his golden hair,
The feet of the Rain.

(non authorised translation - as it is mine)

Is it a good poem? It is mentioned as one of the classics of Belgian literature. Being recognised as such is no warranty of being a "good" poem. Yet, it captured my attention as a child and I can still say it by heart. But I remember the illustration as well: it was a lady chastely swathed in grey drapes of gauzy material, erect on a mossy mound, among brightly coloured flowers, grass and moss all dewy, with a rainbow behind her. "Sister Rain" for a little Roman Catholic girl meant Francis of Assisi (Brother Sun, Sister Moon, etc.). There was something weepy about her that I associated with the grey drapes and the drops to tears. But there was also something of Maria Magdalena drying perfume on the feet of Christ with her hair in the last stanza: "Then comes the sun who dries / With his golden hair, / The feet of the Rain." Confusing, as it was the lady who had her feet dried!

And there was the magnificent penultimate stanza: "Sur des tapis de fleurs sonores, / De l'aurore jusqu'au soir / Et du soir jusqu'à l'aurore / Elle pleut et pleut encore / Autant qu'elle peut pleuvoir.".

In French as in English, the rain is neutral: it rains (il pleut). Suddenly, this "Sister Rain" was not only a sister of atmospheric nature but a real lady: she rains (elle pleut). For a little girl, it was something well out of her world. It was different to SEE a lady as the rain (after all, the word was full of statues showing ladies and men pretending they were something else, gods, goddesses, nymphs, etc.). But the Rain was DOING something: she rained. That was a complete new meaning of the world. 

And there were the sounds of the words: sonoresauroreencore - these are open sounds in French, a bit like "door" or "more", but more open, trumpet sounding. While, soir and pleuvoir are like the oboe, softer, slightly husky, half hidden in haze.

You may listen to it as recorded in French, using this link:

Then, think of the clash of words: "Sur des tapis de fleurs sonores" ("Upon carpets of sonorous flowers"). I had never thought of flowers as carpets - at best as patterns in a carpet but no more - and certainly never, never imagined the wedding of "sonorous" and "flowers". 

My first poem to learn was the revelation of an entirely new world  made of sounds and images but all created with words. Words could, were able to make new things. They were instruments like Mother's piano, Father's mandolin, Uncle Paul's flute, Isabel's violin. But they were colours and drawings as well: no need for me to go on with those tiresome drawing lessons: I could use another medium. Of course, I did go on with the piano and the drawing lessons, but I understood rather confusedly that I had been given a treasure that was mine to use.

Therefore, is there something to savour about this poem? 

Objectively, I still do not know. Subjectively, there is something FOR ME to savour. Had I not been lucky to have it in my primer, would I have loved poetry and words as much as I do today? I do not know. Would I have learnt English and other languages with such pleasure? I do not know. Would I have appreciated sarcasm in Kneale's, technique in Lodge's, and the sinuous prose in Toibin’s, books? I do not know. 

Words, fiction, essays, poetry, non-fiction have greatly helped me through life, be it in memorizing, in reading, in writing. I hear and I see the words. They are music and paintings to me. In that, I am indebted to my primer and to Charles Van Lerberghe. 

And I don't care a fig if this is a great poem and, he a great poet or not. They have given me life!

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